Posts Tagged ‘ Halo ’

The Fan Fiction Investigation: Part One.

Fan-fiction is often something we laugh at, even deride openly as a pathetic attempt to get to grips more with a medium we think we’ll never be able to write for, professionally. However, there are some (me included) that occasionally have the pleasure of reading fan-fiction that deserves to be published just as much as the novels sitting on the shelves in Waterstones and Games Workshop.

I wanted to delve into the idea of videogames and their relationship with tie-in fiction, not to mention other types of games as well, from roleplaying to tabletop strategy. So I caught up with two writers that I consider extremely special people in my history as an enthusiast of tie-in material; Graham McNeill – he who wrote the wonderful Starcraft novels, not to mention his wealth of novels for Games Workshop’s Black Library imprint – and Eric Nylund, the very special gentleman who wrote The Fall of Reach as a prequel to the famous Halo: Combat Evolved.

Let me give you a little background on my literature-centralised relationship with these two authors, first. Eric was my sounding board for the Halo franchise. At first, it wasn’t my thing, outside of four-player Blood Gulch with some friends when I was only just emerging into my teenage years. The single-player campaign didn’t interest me much, as I was never a fan of first-person-shooters as a kid. I’d like to think Nylund’s The Fall of Reach helped me into the Halo universe. He knew Master Chief inside out, and helped to portray his journey from John-117 into the suited and booted badass mother we know him as now.

I caught up with him via email – obviously, he’s a really busy man, as his involvement with Master Chief’s super-accelerated pubescent years have turned him into the ideal fellow for the job when it comes to helping sculpt a certain game not out yet that I can’t mention out of respect to Eric, but I’m sure anyone into his work can guess what it might be about. I assumed he must be a fan of the games, to want to write so passionately about covenant and assault rifles for hundreds of pages, but I was curious – when writing tie in fiction, was this a disadvantage?

“I think any writer needs a certain degree of fondness for their subject matter,” he said, “or they’re not going to have any enthusiasm in their writing. At the same time being TOO fond of the subject matter can cloud your objectivity. That’s a problem with any writing – getting [an] objective view of your work and knowing when to edit it.”

He’s not wrong. I think the main problem with fan fiction tends to lie in the fact that we’re all to keen to have Master Chief and the Arbiter participate in the ultimate chilli cook-off, and when we have to edit it out to make room for the big fight against the Flood at the end of our EPIC Halo 3 novelisation, we get grumpy. Writers are always going to suffer when rewriting their drafts before submission – if you’re not willing to cut your leg off, you’re going to remain trapped under that boulder for a long, long time. It may hurt like all hell, but at least you’re going somewhere (hopefully to the police/hospital, in this bizarre metaphorical example).

That being said, there’s nothing wrong with being too familiar with your subject matter, says Eric. “In fact, what usually happens is you do a heck of a lot of research, world building and character planning… and only use a tiny fraction of that stuff.” There’s nothing wrong with building an entire wiki simply for use with your upcoming tie-in bestseller, and this goes for amateur science fiction as well. If you’re willing to make the effort to really delve into the subject matter, the other loyal fans who’re likely to sift through your fan-piece are going to appreciate you more for it. It’s easier to rise through the ranks as a respected enthusiast than a cash-in artist.

When I asked him if HE ever wrote any fan-fiction prior to going pro, he responded in the negative. “I was one of those rare creatures who came late in life to writing, started actually in graduate school and before that took the absolute minimum of English classes. I found I loved writing!” His love paid off, as he sold his first novel, Pawn’s Dream, way back in 1995, and has been writing ever since.

If there’s any message this sends, it’s not to worry about starting to write fiction past the age of twenty, or thirty, or forty… if you’re lacking in passion, starting at the age of twelve is still not going to get you anywhere. Skill at writing is, of course, a natural talent to a degree, but that doesn’t mean successful authors didn’t sometimes get to where they were simply by overcoming that handicap with a lot of practise and perseverance.

Eric does wonder about the legal side to fan fiction, however. “It’s a sticky legal subject, that’s for sure… As an author who represents a franchise, even commenting on fan fiction can be construed or misconstrued as tacit approval of fan fiction , and thereby erode its protective copyrights. This  hasn’t happened with Halo, or any of my works, but it has happened to a fair number of authors.”

It’s tough, being at the top. Many tie-in authors often get bombarded with requests asking them to read someone’s four hundred-thousand word manuscript about a Grunt and a Jackal embroiled in a passionate affair only to be discovered by Master Chief as he rolls past their reclusive spot in a fully-armed Warthog, and the ensuing events. As hilarious as it sounds, professional writers do have to keep their distance when it comes to endorsing a medium that – to be honest – takes business away from them and their franchise, and edorses moving away from the canon material. Not that everyone wouldn’t read that book, anyway. I would.

Most people write fan fiction simply for enjoyment. However, a few do it with the express purpose of graduating from that level to the ranks of professional – and most importantly, paid – tie-in authors. I asked Eric to suggest a few tips to those aiming to make it to the big leagues. “Getting published certainly helps. I was approached to write the first Halo novel because people in the franchise division of Microsoft were familiar with my novels. And as far as getting involved with game narrative — one of the things that probably got me in the door at Microsoft Game Studios 10 years ago was a writing sample that consisted of my fifth hardback novel, Signal to Noise.”

However, he does end up wondering if fan fiction writers may simply be far happier creating their own worlds, when I asked him about what he thought of fan-fiction relating to HIS novels. “What I would do instead is encourage fledgling writers to explore their own worlds and write their own short stories and novels based on intellectual properties of their own devising.  It’s intoxicating and addictive!”

Eric is currently about to release his latest novel, titled All That Lives Must Die. You can find his blog and ton of information (and even writing advice – treasure this, it’s a rare online resource) at his website.

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Like a Peon with a Pen

"...and once you're done, turn it into paper and give me two hundred words on Midway Entertainment."

"...and once you're done, turn it into paper and give me two hundred words on Midway Entertainment."

My apologies for the lack of a Friday post, I was working and gaming like crazy to finish a Halo Wars review, which you can now find your way to over in the “Previous Work” section of this blog site. I’ve also just finished working on a three-day diary, also over on GamerNode with the review, focusing on my experiences with the new Mythic Map Pack for Halo 3.

Writing is tiring. Especially writing about videogames. The thing with film criticism that makes me envy it so much, nowadays, is the fact that you can watch a film and review it in the space of a few hours. Hell, if you’ve got a week to do the review you could watch it more than twice. Do you think you get that kind of luxury with titles like Mass Effect? That’s a fifty-hour game if you’re only aiming to hit top level and unlock all the content, let alone get every achievement, weapon, character and plotline explored, completed, listened to and exhausted.

Exhausted is a good word. Last weekend, it was Halo Wars. I sat from around six in the evening to five in the morning exhausting every possible aspect of the campaign, then sat down on Saturday and played for another load of hours, before writing and uploading that night. It’s a knock-out, this job. You lose a lot of sleep, and keeping up with every single little development in the industry becomes a bit of a nightmare sometimes.

The problem with being a freelance games journalist is you very rarely have a chance to get review code. You’re usually not in possession of any debug consoles whatsoever, so any reviews you do are going up on release day or later, by which time the majority of people aren’t too interested. I traded in six titles for Halo Wars,  and having that and the Mythic Map Pack to write about was worth the sacrifice of shoddy games like Army of Two and Sonic Unleashed.

Finding a full time staff writing job is another task I would imagine not many people envy. It’s the worst time in the last five to ten years to want to be anything bar a programmer or designer in this industry. All the publications are not only cutting back on full-time staff, but part-time and freelance staff as well. Getting work is hard if you’re not willing to volunteer all the time. Then again, I write for GamerNode several times a week for the grand total of nothing, and I actually think it would be less rewarding if I was paid.

The thing with sites as wonderfully open-minded and courageous as GamerNode, is that you can write about whatever you want, and people will read it. These are people just like you, who want to write and read new, fresh things about the gaming industry, who want to see their review scores go up on MetaCritic, and who absolutely adore the feeling of watching their content go live. I am one of those people, and paid or unpaid, a CV containing hundreds of written articles in the space of a year is impressive. I wrote a grand total of around ten articles in 2008. Ten.

Yet, in 2009, I’m on eighteen and counting and it’s only March. I’ve also written somewhere in the region of forty blog posts, at a total of around thirty thousand words so far. It’s great training, and it means I’m now not only able to knock up paid articles in the space of an hour without even thinking, it means I can tackle my academic work with that little bit more confidence than I usually would, and that fact alone rocks my socks. Even though my degree has naff-all impact on my chances of getting a job, experience does, and this is what it all comes down to; writing to the point where even people who barely know of your work can see a portfolio tens of thousands of words long and think “hmm, they’re definitely working hard”.

Fingers crossed, really. Best of luck to anyone else stuck in the same grind. It ‘aint pretty, but it’s worth it.

Halo Wars: First Impressions

Now, which looks better, Forge mode, or this? I'd say the one with playable Scarabs.

Now, which looks better, Forge mode, or this? I'd say the one with playable Scarabs.

Normally, when I boot up a demo, power my way through it then write it up on FTGG, I’m usually not majorly impressed, nor am I interested. However, when I saw Halo Wars up on the demo Marketplace, I giggled, then mashed the A button as fast as I could to start downloading. To combine three of my favourite things, those being the Halo universe, RTS games and amazing levels of units on screen at once, is a dream come true. Not to mention the fact that the heroic struggles in this title are probably fairly incomparable to the struggles Ensemble Studios faced trying to finish the damn game before Microsoft shut them down. Fear not, DLC is still indeed on the way, but as with Bungie before them, I think Ensemble will be better off out from under Bill Gates.

As with all demos, it comes with a tutorial to break you in on the controls and gameplay mechanics, and with a console-based strategy title, this is fairly necessary, as it’s no longer a simple point and click venture anymore. However, after playing this for a good solid while, I’d say I prefer this title without the mouse. Even though games as hectic as StarCraft and Dawn of War II require mice to keep up with the rapid selection, deployment, redeployment and organisation of troops, Halo Wars does it so swiftly it’s insulting to the other two titles. A click of the right bumper selects all units on screen at the present time, and the opposite button selects all units on the battlefield. Fantastic for convergence tactics, and if you’re after more specific groupings of your units, then bam, either hit A over one, or hold it down to drag-select.

Though I mourned the loss of the ability to set groups of units to the numbers one through nine on my keyboard for easy access in the heat of things, Halo Wars makes building everything a breeze, and the resource system couldn’t be more logical. I’ll run you through the last skirmish match I played to give you a better idea.

Stage One: I deploy my base, and with my one spare warthog, start collecting some supply crates, the only resource you’re ever going to need in the game.
Stage Two: I then slot some Supply buildings into two of the pre-allocated building areas around my base, to increase income, and begin working on some Power Plants to give me enough energy (one per plant) to upgrade my base to a fortress, aiming for a defense-based victory here.
Stage Three: Turrets are up next, and none too soon, as a Prophet of Truth and a few Elites make their way into my base and start smashing the lone warthog to bits before making tracks for my buildings and turrets, though they fall eventually to my defenses.
Stage Four: I then start with some Barracks building, before beginning to organise a production line of a few warthogs to keep my base defended. Upgrading them with a turret and then a grenadier marine in the passenger seat is two clicks of the A button away.
Stage Five: I am now on four Supply buildings, each simply upgraded to double their output, and I start amassing an army of Warthogs to crush the enemy, while ranking my turrets up.
Stage Six: I run my warthogs round a side route to the Covenant base, take out any unit production facilities to oppose any chance of Covenant reinforcements, and proceed to demolish everything they built. Who said the best defense was a good offense?
Stage Seven: I then slaughter the enemy units dotted around the map with the help of an Orbital MAC Cannon, two clicks of the gamepad away, and claim my victory.

This all took ten minutes. In ten minutes, I had eight warthogs gunning around the map, turrets taking out Ghosts from four hundred feet, and a battleship in orbit rearranging the geography of the Covenant base. Bearing in mind, no matter how many units were on screen at once, there was no slowdown, no lagging, and the enemy AI was seriously devious, even on Normal. They’ll flank you, retreat, attack in stages, waves, some will come in squadrons, some will use distraction tactics. It’s fantastic, like watching a match in Total War.

The storyline looks very creative, with a far more down-to-earth approach than Master-Chief’s superhuman antics would offer you, and I feel better for it. Though you can make Spartan soldiers, and they are seriously powerful in comparison to marines, don’t expect one of them to hijack a Scarab and take out the enemy force while chatting to a cyber-pal sitting in his suit interface. It’s raw, and you’ll lose a ton of troops, but backing them up with more though a linear reinforcement system devoid of any punishment for not saving enough resources makes it a lot easier on you, the player. Marines will actually organise themselves; lose enough of one squad, and the remaining marines will split up into existing ones to make managing them easier.

The game looks absolutely incredible, and if I can manage to slot myself into a review position anywhere, you’ll definitely hear a ton more about it from this particular journalist. It’s a shame Bungie aren’t doing any more Halo 3 DLC after the ODST expansion, but frankly, I’m more interested in pitting a Spartan against a Scarab and watching what happens. See how he likes it on Legendary.

Elitist Attitudes

Master Chief and friends on their "where are they now?" photoshoot.

Master Chief and friends on their "where are they now?" photoshoot.

ODST troops are, if the official fiction is anything to go by, complete and utter headcases. They all read like Cole from Gears on steroids, and love throwing themselves through the atmosphere into a hostile planet, with nothing but a thin shell of metal between them and the outside (often hot or airless) void. This instantly makes me want to play them more than Master Chief, but not for the classic “insecure male” reasons that most people take to Marcus Fenix, for example. It’s because they’ve got nothing to lose. They’re rank and file, small cog in a big machine kinda fellas, and it makes you take to them, or rather your specific one, more simply because they’re okay with failure, falling back and not demolishing everything inside before tebagging a brute while laughing over Xbox Live.

So as for why Bungie have gotten rid of Elites baffles, surprises and disappoints me a bit. Baffles, mainly because the Elite race are fantastically well designed, well spoken, indifferent to gender, and most of all, are the most imposing physically due to their two sets of jaws. I’m surprised because they’re a cornerstone of Halo, but then again, they are the only combat equivalent (or the Arbiter is, anyway) to a Spartan of the second generation, and as he’s not in this particular title, it makes sense that they’d either be redundant or overpowered. Disappointed, because brutes are really, really boring enemies. If you want to make my blood pound in my head, face me off against a cloaked team of Elite commando troops with energy swords, and have me as an ODST marine with only a silenced battle rifle and no shields. Brutes look like Donkey Kong first thing in the morning, and it’s just not intimidating. They’re stupid, and I know the only way you’re going to get a mere human past ten of them is to make them stupid, but this feels excessive. Oh, well. Halo Wars it is, then. Not that I won’t be playing ODST, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited.

Midway are gearing up for another Mortal Kombat title, which is shocking considering how close they are to really falling down the financial rabbit hole as it is. That said, their last title sold over a million units, it seems, and that’s good enough funding for another title regardless of risk. I remember interviewing Hans Lo, MK Vs. DC’s producer, and thinking about how nervous him and his coworkers seemed. They loved their franchise, that was clear, but if it failed to deliver they knew they weren’t going to bounce back. But if the new title lacks any innovation (once again, I’m talking game-changing innovation here), I think it’ll be both the finance and design departments thinking along the lines of Sub Zero figures.

I’m beginning to get depressed by the sheer volume of game industry layoffs this year so far. It’s not like fledgling writers, programmers and game designers don’t have it made difficult enough for them by it being one of the most popular and competitive industries in the world, but now almost entire staffs on websites, Windows Live and many, many developers are being laid off, in the name of what exactly I’m not sure. Microsoft just fired the head of Games for Windows Live. I can count the amount of titles in that category without running out of fingers and toes. This would seem, to me, to be a new business venture for the software/OS giant. So why damage it by firing your leading man? If he was doing that badly industry journalists would have picked up on it by now, me included. Oh well, it’s all contributing to the rise of indie companies regardless, and eventually, Braid II will be released and people will be able to go back in time and assassinate Bill Gates anyway. Not that you can kill an advanced holographic AI entity someone so important to the industry. Oops.