How a Video Game Changed my Life

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You knew it would be this game, didn’t you?

 

A few years ago, Marty and I decided to buy ourselves an XBox 360 as a joint Christmas present. We were both casual gaming fans, and it seemed like time to step into the world of frighteningly-clever-next-generation consoles. Marty’s sister asked if she could buy us a game to go with it, and we worked it down to a couple of choices that we sort of liked the look of. I can’t for the life of me remember what the other game was, but one of them I vouched for because it had a dragon on the cover that appeared to be made of blood, and really, how could I resist a game like that?

The game was Dragon Age: Origins, and it was that game that Karen, Marty’s sister, ended up sending us for Christmas. I vividly remember loading it up on Christmas morning (Marty played it first) and thinking, “Wow, this looks complicated. I’ve going to have read maps and stuff.”

I was bamboozled at first. I’d never played a game this complex, and as I played, I seemed to uncover more and more layers to it – you had to be nice to your companion characters, otherwise they would get the arse with you and that could cause problems, except you had to be nice to them in different ways, because each one was a complex character with a back-story and secrets to discover. There were actual choices to be made that would affect the world of the game in ways you couldn’t predict, and you could make mistakes – more than once a choice backfired in a way that had me sulking for hours (and let’s be honest, loading up an earlier save and attempting to fiddle it).

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Alastair (my favourite) smacking an ogre in the nuts

 

Over time, I found myself getting up early to play the game before work. I found myself planning how I would play the game again on a second play-through. It ate up hours and hours of my life, and I adored it. Anyone who knows me reasonably well knows my mildly unhealthy relationship with Dragon Age. And, you know, it legitimately changed my life.*

Firstly, it changed how I felt about video games. I’ve always been a fan, but this was the first time I realised that a video game could be as immersive as a book, and that a video game could drag you through a whole range of emotions. I fell in love with all the NPCs, I was swept up in the epic storyline, and I got utterly lost in it. Secondly, and more importantly, it reignited my love for a certain sort of Fantasy. You know the sort. The type with dragons and elves and adventure and secrets hidden in the deep. I’ve always loved that particular type of Fantasy, but I’d drifted away from it, perhaps feeling like it was too po-faced for grown-up me. Dragon Age showed me I was wrong about that – traditional fantasy could be funny, traditional fantasy could be thrilling, and traditional fantasy could still surprise me.

Morrigan

Morrigan is voiced by Claudia Black, which should tell you how awesome this game is…

 

And Dragon Age was really funny. The complexities of your companion characters meant that sometimes they got on with each other, and more often they didn’t, and there was a lot of snippy banter between them all. Dragon Age loved the genre, but it wasn’t afraid to have its little references and jokes that fans would pick up on (I still love the Superman meteor sequence, or how so many Star Trek actors turned up as voice actors) while at the same time smacking you in the face with a story that was as epic as any seven book fantasy series (I still get chills at the Battle of Ostagar).

Here’s the thing: if I hadn’t played Dragon Age, and fallen in love with Fantasy again, I probably wouldn’t have written The Copper Promise, and I might not have a book deal now. If I hadn’t picked out that particular video game because of the cool dragon on the front, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here now with a proof copy of my actual book on the sofa next to me, because Dragon Age taught me that Fantasy could be funny, sharp, and full of characters who felt real. I should have known this already, of course, but perhaps sometimes it takes a continually pissed-up dwarf with a nug fixation and a sardonic witch to really get the message across. I had been writing Fantasy books for a while, but I had always steered away from the sort with leather and dragons and mead, despite how much I loved them, because I didn’t feel like I could do anything interesting with it. Thanks to Dragon Age, I fell in love with the genre again and had a ridiculous amount of fun writing a book that eventually got picked up by a publisher. Partly because of Dragon Age, a dream of mine came true.

So, you know, thank you, Bioware. If you ever need help moving house or re-grouting the bathroom, then I reckon I owe you one.

(please enjoy video of drunken dwarf ranting)

*I know that some people are still a bit sniffy about video games, and that admitting that one informed my writing will cause some people to titter into their handkerchiefs, but I don’t see how this is any different from talking about how D&D brought you to the genre, or how the Fighting Fantasy books fed your love for adventure. Also, I suspect they just need to find the right video game. The big sillies.

My Pretend Workspace and the Desk of Doom

Thanks to a recent twitter conversation, there has been a small flurry of blog posts from writers talking about their writing spaces. So far Lou Morgan, Laura Lam, Andrew Reid and Stephen Aryan have shown us around the rather lovely places where they do the bulk of their writing work – I recommend going and having a look. There is something infinitely pleasing about a creative space, and the things they choose to fill it with.

The truth about my writing space is, I don’t have one. Or, more accurately, I take it with me. I have a (slightly battered) netbook and a (less than sane) number of notebooks, and they all get shoved in my enormous laptop backpack and dragged to a variety of cafes, libraries, and the sorts of pubs that open at 9am. I find it difficult to concentrate at home, you see. I prefer to be in an anonymous space, where the cat/the washing up/the xbox aren’t staring at me in attention-seeking tones of mute accusation (there are things living in the tea cups, Jennifer, and when are you going to finish that eighth playthrough of Mass Effect?). I like being out and about anyway, because strangers can be dead interesting. Anyone who follows my twitter feed knows that you get some fascinating characters in pubs at 9.30 in the morning.

But I do have a writing desk at home, in the tiny yellow room we call the Box Room, and I have written at it – mostly at weekends, when I’m feeling virtuous. Mainly though, it serves as a place of totems and charms, a place that I can exist in and think about stuff. It’s a tip most of the time, as are most places that are connected to me, but I have taken a few pictures of the main features for the curious, and will attempt to explain some of the mess.

nano certificate

 

Pictures are quite important to me. I use a lot of blu-tac. Here you can see my first ever Nanowrimo certificate for the book Bird and Tower, which was back in, I want to say, 2008? Bird and Tower was a children’s fantasy book, a sort of gender-reversed Rapunzel with some genetic engineering thrown in there. My other Nanowrimo certificates are above this one (for Ink for Thieves, Dead Zoo Shuffle and The Snake House I think) and I like to have them up there as a reminder that I am utterly capable of writing 50,000 words in a month. Sometimes you really need reminders like that. Below the certificate you can also see a postcard from my final year at art college – the project was about depicting weird memories from early childhood, and this one was about a boy who remembered feeding a giant slug in his back garden. To the right of that are some postcards from Spirited Away, one of my favourite films ever, and a quote I printed out from George R.R Martin about Fantasy being written in the language of dreams. You know the one.

the boys

I like action figures. And video games. These guys are some of my favourite characters, and when I’m struggling with something I like to ask, “What would Marcus Fenix do?” Well, blow the fucking shit out of everything, obviously. From left to right we have Thane from Mass Effect 2, Duncan from Dragon Age, Garrus from Mass Effect, Marcus Fenix from Gears of War, an armoured alligator with a sword, and down in front, The Chamberlain from The Dark Crystal. Beyond the D20’s you can also see one of my dad’s belt buckles, a shiny green eagle’s head.

fafhrd

This is probably one of the most important pictures in my writing space. It’s a portrait of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser from Mike Mignola’s comic, and I love it. There is so much I love about Fantasy in this picture – the darkness of it, the various belts and weapons, the overly confident poses. I always look at this and wonder what a version with Wydrin and Sebastian would look like. They would stand exactly the same way I think, only Wydrin would be smirking and Sebastian would probably look faintly long-suffering. The Copper Promise is a love letter to Fritz Leiber’s kind of sword and sorcery, and looking at this picture always reconnects me to that.

oathbreaker

Here you can just about see the hilt of my larping sword. I named it Oathkeeper, although when labelling the photo I called it Oathbreaker, so I think it has a bit of a dual personality. When I’m writing lots of action scenes it’s pleasant to be able to pick up a sword and swing it about a bit. It’s not as heavy as a real sword, obviously, and I’m in no danger of decapitating anyone, but it gets me in the mood anyway. Also on the wreckage of my desk, not pictured, is a real dagger (pointy, but not sharpened) called Frostling, after one of Wydrin’s claws. It is very cool.

pinboard

Just to demonstrate that some actual work does happen in this room, here is my pin board, currently covered in bits and pieces about the sequel to The Copper Promise. It isn’t attached to the wall because I like to carry it around the flat sometimes, so I can do planning in the living room or the bedroom (the Box Room is bloody freezing in the winter).

And finally, the cat. She normally hangs around in the Box Room until she decides that the things on my desk all look better on the floor, at which point she is hurriedly booted out the door with a few well aimed swear words. She does look quite cute in this picture though.

pyra

 

So what about you? Do you have a space where you work, and it is filled with lovely things? Blog it and tag me and let’s all be nosy. Oh, and infinite cookies of win to anyone who can name any of the unnamed toys and pictures…

Fantasy Characters I Would Like to get Drunk With

I was talking to the lovely Ren Warom the other day about the potential mead-soaked mess that would be a night out with Wydrin – of all the characters I’ve written, she is the one I would most like a night on the town with. It would be dangerous, that’s for certain, and everyone would likely come home with a certain amount of memory loss, a pounding headache and several more tattoos than they had at the beginning of the evening, but it would be fun. So that got me thinking: which fantasy characters would I most like to share a tasty beverage with?

 

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Tyrion Lannister

 

Charming, witty, and the cleverest character in a book series full of clever characters, Tyrion would be an excellent dinner companion (and it would have to be dinner as well – I could hardly resist the chance to try out one of the endless medieval banquets continually happening in A Song of Ice and Fire); not only is he funny and shrewd, he’d happily talk books all evening, and you know the wine would be the finest vintage imaginable. Just don’t mention his sister.

 

Nanny

Nanny Ogg

 

Really, who wouldn’t want a drink with Nanny Ogg? (apart from her many daughters-in-law, perhaps). A woman of rude wisdom and deep earthy intelligence, you would certainly go home knowing a few more things than you did previously – mainly about who is doing what to whom, and whether her husband knows about it yet. I imagine drinking scrumpy with Nanny by the fireside, slowly getting sozzled and learning the words to various rude songs, before passing out in a rocking chair just before the sun comes up. A perfect evening.

Oghren

Oghren

 

If you haven’t played Dragon Age: Origins you probably won’t be familiar with Oghren, which, believe me, is a shame. Think of him as a cross between Yosemite Sam, Gimli, and a vat of ale. When you first meet Oghren he is wandering Orzammar as an occasional angry drunk, although once convinced to join your quest and seek out darkspawn to destroy, he fully commits to the cause of drinking and shouting, and quickly becomes one of the more amusing companions to spend time with. In one memorable scene, you can talk to Oghren at the camp site while he apparently ingests alcohol through his skin until he finally shouts “ASSLESS CHAPS!” at you and falls over. I love him.

           

So tell me what characters you would most like to share an ale with? All genres welcome.

 

Dragon Age 2: The Demo

I played the Dragon Age 2 demo last night. Woah, nelly.

 

If you know me reasonably well, or had to put up with my continual tweets about it at the beginning of last year, you will know that I was pretty much obsessed with Dragon Age: Origins. We’d only just got one of these fancy console things, and it was the first game I totally loved; I loved the story, the gameplay, the voice acting, the characters… In fact I liked most of the companion characters so much I was devastated to see them go at the end of the game- I desperately wanted a scene like at the end of Labyrinth where all the jolly people you met during your adventures pop by for a bit of a dance about in your bedroom.

 

I played it through three times. I got up early to play it before work. I obsessively scanned the wiki pages to make sure I hadn’t missed any of the swords with really cool names. I bought t-shirts, I considered getting a tattoo. In short, I am a big fan.

 

Now, from what we’ve been told it seems the sequel is reasonably different from Origins. You’re not a Grey Warden anymore (sob!), you can only be a human, the storyline of the game takes place over an entire decade of history, and they’ve made a number of tweaks to the technical levelling up stuff, which I don’t really understand but I’m sure is dreadfully important. So, all these changes… am I concerned?

 

Well, no. I was happy with how the original game ended (how could I not be? I was the gorram Queen of Ferelden!) and I don’t think that story needs to be continued. What’s important to me is that we see more of that world and hear more of its stories, and DA2 certainly appears to be doing that, with a massive 10 years of history to play through. Having played the first five minutes of the game now, I can happily report that all the slicey dicey carnage and spell casting action is there- in fact, the gameplay has moved up several notches, so that instead of your Rogue sort of fading when you evade an attack, she now back flips away from the enemy. Excellent. And now backstab means that your Rogue vanishes (in an actual puff of smoke) and reappears behind the slathering Darkspawn to deliver a vicious doublebladed stab-a-thon. All the characters move fluidly and launch powerful attacks that look amazingly cool and will have you grinning like a loon (or if you’re me, shouting, “Yeah! Take it, bitch! You darkspawn bitch! In the face!!”).

 

My favourite thing about DA:Origins though was the interaction between characters. How well you did depended an awful lot on how you handled your companions; they could hate you, fall in love with you, betray you or even walk off in a huff if you weren’t careful. They bickered amongst themselves, made snide comments when you did something stupid, and had their own little stories and quests to complete. When you find yourself traipsing across the map to seek out a long lost girlfriend for the drunken lout of a dwarf who keeps shouting “assless chaps!” at you in camp, you know you’re deeply involved in a game. I hope that DA:2 keeps the characters as complex, funny and affecting as they are in Origins. If they do that, and give me plenty of Ogres to explode, then I will be a very happy gamer indeed. Bring on the 11th of March!

Nanowrimo & the Small Plastic Dragon

So we are ten days into Nanowrimo. I’m glad to report that it has been proceeding reasonably well, and Dead Zoo Shuffle is 15,000 words in at Chapter 5- amazingly enough, exactly where I am supposed to be. The first five days were relatively easy, given that I was on holiday and had the rather lovely landscape of Cornwall to look at (which is always fabulous, even in November- possibly especially in November, with all the mists and autumn trees and fierce waves. If anything I was vaguely disappointed I wasn’t writing an epic fantasy of the sort that starts out in grassy hills and ends in perilous mountains…). I did my writing on the train, at the dinner table and in small country pubs, and had no trouble reaching the daily word count.

Writing while also having to go to work is a little bit trickier, but luckily I have formulated a routine over the last few months where I sneak into libraries and coffee shops and get it all done before I even have to think about the day job. This has set me in good stead for Nanowrimo, although that’s not to say it isn’t a struggle; the pace and the pressure are somewhat more extreme, after all, and I can’t give myself the night off just because I’m feeling sleepy.

The book itself is both hugely fun to write and incredibly challenging. I’ve written in the First Person before for short stories but keeping it going for an entire novel throws up all sorts of difficulties, not to mention the complications of writing about a human character on an alien world- and at its heart this is more a crime novel than a science-fiction story. But I’m loving Dirk Marshall and Zootsi, even Fredo and his dubious personal hygiene, and the dialogue in this story feels more natural than I’ve managed before.

So in celebration of my wobbly progress, I offer up some things I have learnt over the last few years of Nanowrimo that seem to have helped me:

Tell everyone you know that you’re doing it. I found this awkward and embarrassing the first year, as trying to explain why you’re writing an entire book in a month isn’t easy (“Yes, 50,000 words… Yes, I have to write them all myself… No, you don’t get a prize or any money at the end of it… well, it’s more about having, you know, written an entire book…”) but if everyone is expecting you to be flourishing 50,000 words worth of manuscript at the end of the month you’re less like to give up when you’re feeling a bit tired.

Rewards! Yes, the book at the end is the true reward, ahem, but that’s not to say that you can’t treat yourself with cool stuff as well. Don’t save it all for reaching the end either; 20,000 words is especially sweet when you can finally eat that special bar of chocolate or buy that CD. This year I have a Duncan the Grey Warden action figure on order for my future glory (What? Toys are rewards. Toys are allowed).

Speaking of toys, see if you can find a writing space! They probably aren’t essential, and to be honest I have used mine exactly 3 times so far this month, but having a little nook that is dedicated to writing and your book can help you feel like you’re taking it seriously. My desk is surrounded by pictures of things that interest me, and covered in toys, or, uh, writing mascots. This year I am assisted by Charlie the My Little Pony (a Nano veteran), Tyrion the Small Plastic Dragon and a couple of gaming dice for the cat to push onto the floor to wake me up (hopefully, they will soon be joined by Fully Articulated Duncan).

And there you go, those are my three main tips for Nanowrimo success, or at least, Nanowrimo fun. And if you are doing it this year, tell me what you’re writing about- my favourite form of procrastination is reading other people’s synopsises…
Good luck!

Dragon Age:Origins owns my soul

I’ve actually put off writing about Dragon Age for a little while, unsure I’d be able to write about it without a) revealing lots of spoilers and b) sounding like a terrible fangirl. Now, I can’t promise I won’t go all gooey over it, but given that I’m halfway into my third play through I think I can now judge what is safe to reveal to the potential player.

We got Dragon Age:Origins at Christmas, the same time we got the xbox, and I can safely say I have barely stopped playing it since; what’s that, nearly four months? Blimey. So I’m writing this blog partly as a fangirlish squee-athon for the awesomeness that is Dragon Age, and partly to distract my friends from the intervention they are no doubt planning at this very moment.

Dragon Age is a cheerfully violent RPG from Bioware (who also brought us the extraordinary Mass Effect, as if you didn’t know) and I will admit immediately that I know very little about such things. Not that I’m a total video games noob you understand; I’ve been an enthusiastic gamer since I got my Gameboy back in, gawd, was it 1989? I had a SNES after that, and a Gamecube, inherited a Playstation and then borrowed a Playstation 2, but having now dipped my toe in the New Age of Gaming that is the Xbox 360 (and no doubt the Playstation 3) I know that my gaming education is somewhat lacking. Games these days are epic! *cough* Anyway, before I get carried away by how exciting video games are now, I’ll get back to my original point. Dragon Age: Origins is the best game I’ve ever played, and this is why…

Characters! A combination of top writing, excellent voice acting, appealing design and a system of approval/disapproval means that by the end of the game, you are likely to be as fond of your various companions as any characters you may have grown to love in any lengthy book. Relationships are complicated in DA, and this, I think, is the true genius of the game. You have to win your companions over, either by making decisions they approve of, or by giving them presents, but even that is not simple; one character will approve of your dodgy dealings with assassins, where another will get the proper hump with you. Pay too much attention to the dangerous elf with the amusing accent and the ridiculously cute ex-Templar will sulk. Appear to be taking things a little easy and the Qunari will lose his rag.

And they don’t just argue with you. Your companions bicker cheerfully in the background as you move from place to place, leading to some excellent dialogue that often had me laughing out loud. Eventually most of them will come to like and trust you as the great leader you are, and your attentions may even pay off in the form of some moodily lit sexy goings on. Score!

It is difficult to point to favourite characters here, because genuinely there isn’t an unlikeable character amongst them, but yes, alright, I do love Alistair. But, I would point out, this isn’t really my fault. They clearly have some sort of evil genius at Bioware, creating a funny, angsty knight in shining armour who I am utterly unable to resist. Honestly, third play through and I still haven’t been able to unlock any other romance achievements…

Aside from Alistair (who also has some of the best dialogue) special mention should also go to Zevram, the Antivan Elf of dubious morals who resembles an infinitely more cheerful Legolas, with the voice of Puss in Boots from Shrek 2, and Morrigan, the sexy apostate mage voiced, in a stroke of geek genius, by Claudia Black. And then there’s Oghren, a sort of 18 certificate Yosemite Sam who spends most of the game drunk and will occasionally stand around shouting “ASS CHAPS!” and Sten, a sort of klingon but without the cheerful disposition, and saucy Leliana and Shale and…

Well, you get the point. There are many other factors that make DA such a joy. You are asked to make difficult decisions at every point in the game, giving you a real sense of responsibility and often changing the outcome of the story. The story itself is compelling, and full of surprises (the first time you play the battle at Ostagar is pretty stunning). Visually it looks fabulous, with dangerous forests and claustrophobia inducing dungeons, and even out of the way, no mark villages like Lothering are fully realized spaces with their own atmosphere.

The game is also, in my opinion, very aware of where it has come from. I was reminded strongly of A Song of Ice and Fire several times whilst playing, along with Lord of the Rings of course, and Marty had echoes of Dragonlance. The people who made this game both know and love the fantasy genre, and aren’t afraid to inject a little humour into it.

The conclusion I came to, in amazement and with no small joy, was that playing DA was like playing a book, only you were allowed to be the main character and make all the important decisions. You can live in another world and go on adventures and at the end, it’s your name in the codex. It’s the purest form of escapism. This does of course apply to many, many other video games and won’t be a surprise to most, but you’ll have to forgive me; I’m a little new to this.

Anyway, since I could happily talk about this all day, and this blog is already much too long, I promise I will shut up about this for a little while. Can’t promise I’ll ever stop playing, though.

FOR FERELDEN!

The Familiarity/Comedy Hypothesis

We have recently become converts to The Big Bang Theory (um, the tv show rather than the theory itself. Although we are fans of that, too).

I was initially wary of it as I had assumed it would mainly consist of geek-bashing. A little paranoid of me perhaps but, let’s face it, for the media in general geek-bashing is normally like shooting fish in a barrel, if rather more common. Did I really want to watch a show that was entirely about “Fnar fnar, geeks are losers, fnar fnar”?

As it turns out, TBBT is funny, well observed and well informed, and all mockery is done with affection. Perhaps non-geeks find it funny too, but I hope the majority of its audience are laughing because they recognise the references, and do indeed recognise that “Wednesday Night is Halo Night”. For me personally much of the humour comes from familiarity; we’ve had plenty of discussions concerning Superman down the pub for example, and Penny’s brief addiction to a dragons-and-sorcery type video game had me cringing with recognition ever so slightly too much (anyone who has tried to talk to me about anything other than Dragon Age: Origins for the last four months will know why).

It still has its wee problems for me- there are no female geeks present still (Leslie Winkle is a science geek, and I’m talkin’ about genre geeks, although it’s worth stating that I’m only halfway through series 2) and all the guys are depicted as being utterly useless with women*, which is a little unfair. I know geeks who are married, in long term relationships, or who date around a lot. But I’m just being whingy.

It doesn’t really matter. The relationships that are shown in TBBT are sweet and funny, and it has also given us a bit of a comedy legend in Dr Sheldon Cooper. Much of the humour is centred around his complete inability to interact with the human race, and his enormous superiority complex, but he remains likable. And worryingly, I find I understand his point of view more and more- not the super-genius side of it, obviously, but the general impatience for human beings and the unshakeable belief in how “right” he is… I sort of feel like that sometimes. Bit worrying. It’s my mum’s dvds we’ve borrowed, as she’s a huge fan; I hope that isn’t just because Sheldon reminds her of what a pain in the arse I was to live with…

*I sometimes wonder if it is in fact women who are useless with geeks. I usually think this when I hear a woman calling herself an “xbox widow” or complaining about having to go and watch the new Star Trek movie. What’s wrong with you?! But then, I have a slightly skewed perspective.