Story in Penumbra

I don’t usually post two story announcements in a row. At least, not unless I’m slacking on my posting and haven’t written a content post inbetween. But this time, I have two things out within days of each other, so I have an excuse.

I have a story out in the dream issue of Penumbra eMag (by Musa Publishing). “The Road to the Beach” was one of the stories I wrote during last year’s NaNoWriMo and the first to make it out into the world. It’s also the featured story for this issue. Yay!

Penumbra is a subscription magazine, so this one’s not free to read.

Link: Penumbra, Volume 1 Issue 2, August 2012 (Dreams)

The Secret World Review

Last Thursday, a day before the headstart for preorderers for The Secret World, someone brought me a preorder and lifetime subscription. Up until then, I’d avoided learning too much about it, as I can’t afford new MMOs. So the night before the headstart, it was time to cram. Here are the results of my early gameplay, with pictures (click for larger versions).

Setting and Story

Secret World is a near future horror/urban fantasy game, where all the legends are true and the end of the world is approaching. Three secret societies – the Templars (based in Europe), the Illuminati (based in North America) and the Dragon (based in East Asia) look to investigate what’s going on and try to stop it. In the process of getting a bit of power for themselves, of course.

After an incident where a glowing bee flies into your mouth while sleeping, stuff happens that varies on what secret society you’ve chosen. As a Templar, a woman visited me and sent me to see a puppet man in the park. At this point the stories converge, as everyone goes to the combat tutorial – a flashback to an incident in Tokoyo, where a member of each secret socity is working together to control an evilmutantzombiething outbreak in a subway station.

Once all that’s done, I visited the head of the Templars* (the man in the foreground – I’m in the background) and picked up my first abilities.

A man in a suit speaks as my character looks on

Meeting the boss

There’s a lot of story thrown at you in the introduction, so it’s worth making sure all the graphics options are set before you create your first character. Also switch on subtitles if you need it (the game has voice acting for most dialogue). I didn’t, so didn’t get subtitles for the first parts of the intro.

After all the introduction is done, Kingsmouth is the main area where everyone goes. Zombies have invaded and the town is hiding all sorts of dark things from their past. Kingsmouth is where the depth of the storytelling really comes out. There are numerous plotlines coming together here. More than enough to keep the game going for some time.

A woman armed with pistols in a misty forest

Kingsmouth forest

The game world is beautiful to look at (in a rotting zombie sort of way) and the storylines of the missions are polished. There are a few missions that break when everyone’s trying to do them, but overall the number of bugged missions is down on other game releases. Though some missions are simple (like killing certain numbers of something), it’s hard to progress without thinking. Some require puzzles to be solved** or instructions to be followed (rather than clicking every interactable object… you have to click the right one). The focus of the game is on enjoying the story and solving puzzles, rather than trying to powergame to some form of endgame content.

This is the strongest area of the game…

Characters

… and the player character creation is the biggest weakness of the release. There are very few body options. No body sliders, so you can’t change height and weight. There are a few face options, but no way to make the faces older or younger. Colour choices for skin, hair and eyes are limited (though there are options allowing you to create different races). All hair styles have straight hair (not an issue for my character, but it will be for some).

A character creation screen showing head options

Character creation

After creation, you can buy clothes for your character, though again, the selection is limited and a lot of the colours don’t match. I ended up using the leather Templar jacket I got as a perk, with a mixture of leather items in reds and browns.

Names will become an increasing issue in the future. All characters have to have a unique nickname*** (unique across the whole game). Their first and last name do not need to be unique. Already, a lot of names are random letters that sound like words. It’s difficult to get a name that means something.

These limits aren’t placed on the NPCs, who come in a variety of sizes, ages, hairstyles and clothings. I also heard beta had more options available for players. My understanding is they’re working on it, but it is a clear weakness in the game at release. Being able to adequately customise characters is important.

Game Mechanics

This isn’t a level based game. Characters earn skill and ability points, which can be spent freely. There’s no limit to this, so the longer you play, the more skills you’ll pick up. That means no need to delete and recreate characters if you don’t like your skills. Just replay a few easier missions and you’ll soon have the points to train some different skills.

On that note, most missions can be replayed, so no one will be stuck killing random monsters to progress. There’s a timeout before you can do the mission again, but by the time you’ve gone through the missions in an area, plenty of them will be repeatable.

For those like me who are completionist about missions, the ones you’ve done are marked with a tick, so you can see at-a-glance if it’s new or not.

Portryal Thoughts

Women

My first impressions of the website brought to mind the discussions on urban fantasy covers. The issue in urban fantasy is women tend to be hyper-sexualised on covers. They’re always wearing revealing outfits, whether the character in the book does or not. They stand in poses that’d give most people back ache, if they can pull the poses at all.

Secret World’s site doesn’t do that. Most of the women are standing in practical poses that emphasise strength (something that only tends to happen for men on urban fantasy covers). One woman is in a sexualised pose, but it’s mildly so… it’s the sort of pose a woman might use, without needing to be a contortionist. She’s also wearing a lot more than the average urban fantasy heroine.

A woman in Templar uniform, with Dragon and Illuminati people behind her

Website art with strong poses

In the game itself, it’s interesting to see women cast in roles like the battle-hardened sheriff, protecting the last survivors.

All this is notable, because for previous titles, Funcom did have its moment of, “Woohoo, we’re making adult games! We can have naked women and make them fondle their own breasts!!!” So it’s good to see them improving on that score. This isn’t to say none of the portrayal of female characters have any problems, but there is an improvement. I live in hopes urban fantasy might make it too someday.

Race and culture

Unlike many Western games, it has acknowledged that the changes will be happening all over the world. It’s a positive sign that rather than a token mention of stuff happening elsewhere, players can go to those places and take part in what’s going on. How well those locations have been rendered isn’t something I can judge, as I’ve never been to Seoul or Tokyo for example.

So far, it looks like racial diversity matches the area. A lot of Dragons are East Asian (and I presume Seoul is mainly Korean people, given that it’s Seoul, but I’ve not been there in the game). London has a mixture of people, including the Templars being run by a Black British man. On the other side, Kingsmouth is very white, which doesn’t seem out of place for a small town of its sort.

My main complaint is the lack of this diversity in character creation. There should be some non-straight hairstyles, and more clothing that isn’t Northern European in origin. The NPCs have it, but the players don’t.

Other stuff

There are a mixture of ages and weights among NPCs, though it’s low on people with physical disabilities. Mental illness is interesting, as a lot of the infections spreading cause it. The survivors include many people who’d be labelled as eccentric, and may be considered to have pre-existing mental disabilities or illnesses. But in this context, it makes them more likely to survive strange compulsions to walk into the ocean and drown. It’s a logical extension of the idea, as if an attack is designed to work on a neurotypical brain, it may fail when someone is atypical.

Overview

Overall, I’m enjoying the game and the storyline. I like games where the gameplay is the content, rather than having to level doing nothing much until an endgame I have little interest in. However, the character customisation needs a lot of work.

For anyone interested in trying it out, it should be noted it is an adult game and does have adult scenes (my understanding is there’s some sexual content in the Dragon intro and some torture in the Illuminati intro… but I’ve not had time to try those yet). It is also a horror game, so expect blood, slime and people transforming into tentacle monsters. None of this is all-the-time. There are breaks from the horror and the adult content isn’t crammed into every cut scene. But it is there, and it might be triggering for some people.

* Though NPCs have voice narration, the player characters don’t. This means your character spends a good deal of time staring silently and intently at other people. No one seems to mind though. I suppose compared to a zombie, being a bit unnerving is fine.

** One puzzle that comes up a few times is figuring out computer passwords from the password hint. Fortunately for players, none of the characters in this game have any idea how to create secure passwords. The name of your wife? Really?

*** The name filter (which does filter against bad language, even though both players and NPCs can swear all they want in chat) rather humorously blocks unicorn and penumbra, but happily allowed someone to call their character Bollocks.

Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories – JoSelle Vanderhooft (editor)

Steam-Powered CoverSeries: Steam-Powered, #1
First Published: January, 2011
Genre: Steampunk / Short Story Anthology
Authors: Mike Allen; Rachel Manija Brown; Georgina Bruce; Amal El-Mohtar; Sara M. Harvey; Meredith Holmes; N.K. Jemisin; Mikki Kendall; Matthew Kressel; Shira Lipkin; D.L. MacInnes; Shweta Narayan; Tara Sommers; Beth Wodzinski; Teresa Wymore
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

There were a few stories I particularly liked. “To Follow The Waves” by Amal El-Mohtar was one, set in Syria with dream crafting technology. The post-apocalyptic Western “Suffer Water” by Beth Wodzinski was also a fun story. Overall though, a lot of the stories didn’t really hold my attention.

The Kindle edition has no formatting, making it harder to read. If you’re going to buy it, the print edition is probably a better bet.

Roses Story in Nature (Nature Futures)

My hard science fiction piece “War of the Roses” is in the current issue of Nature (Volume 467 (7316), 7 October 2010). At least, that’s what their website says and I’m going to believe them.

It looks like the story is available online at the moment, but I don’t know how long that’ll last as they’re not primarily an online market: War of the Roses

Back when I was studying for my ecology degree, Nature was one of those places trainee scientists wanted to get published in. Perhaps a paper about some amazing research into the sort of things ecologists research*. I probably wouldn’t have believed time-travelling future me if I said I’d get a piece of fiction published there.

At least fiction doesn’t need citations**.

* Usually stuff like measuring lichens and wading out into swamps to take insect samples. Ecologists are the hardy branch of biologists.

** Blake, Polenth, A Bunch of Random Stuff about Roses, Polenth’s Brain, 2010