Bandcamp find: Matthew S. Burns

Like most of my interests, my enthusiasm in programming ebbs and flows, usually in pretty lengthy periods of time. In my most recent flow I’ve been looking into a growing category of games that either have some programming aspect to it, or even entirely focused on it. One game company that has taken this type of game and run with it is Zachtronics. They have released multiple games, including Infinifactory, Shenzhen I/O, and the upcoming Exapunks. While looking into these games I found a Bandcamp link for the composer of these games, Matthew S. Burns. While I initially started listening because of Exapunks, his soundtrack for Shenzhen I/O has actually grown the most on me, and it’s a wonderful ambient electronic album to play when working on coding, writing, or just relaxing and taking a moment to forget everything.

SOMA

Note: spoilers ahead!

Introduction

Originally this was a game I didn’t play myself; my wife and I watched the Markiplier playthrough of SOMA, twice now. However it was on sale in the last GOG Halloween sale, so I finally gave in and plunged myself into this game and world.

Compared to Frictional’s previous game, Amnesia, SOMA is quite different, and not just in genre. There’s still some traces of horror, mainly when navigating areas with a roaming creature, but the overall tone is somber, reflective, and philosophical, and with a near-future setting it brings in aspects of technology, cyberpunk, trans-humanism, and more.

The Beginning

SOMA begins at a very interesting point in the main character’s life; Simon Jarrett is suffering the after-effects of a car crash that killed his fiancee and left him brain-damaged. After futile attempts at self-medication, he has finally agreed to work with David Munshi, a graduate student, to have his brain scanned for a possible treatment. He arrives at the facility and sits down in a special chair, and the scanning device is lowered around his head.

After the scan is complete, the contraption raises, but Simon realizes that something happened. David has disappeared and the surroundings, as well as Simon himself, are not the same. What happened, and how did it happen in the apparent blink of an eye? At first Simon thinks he’s been transported to the future. He doesn’t question this nor can imagine any other alternative, but as events unfold and he begins talking with Catherine Chun, he realizes that it was only his brainwave that survived, not his physical body.

It’s the End of the World As We Know It

Simon wakes up in a similar scanning chair, but immediately notices it’s not the same place. Before too long he discovers it’s not even the present, but rather about 100 years in the future. There’s no-one else around, and there are just terminals and glitching robots. As he begins to explore it’s pretty obvious something bad has happened, as there are broken machines, mutilated cybernetic creatures, machine tendrils, and black goop everywhere.

There is apparently no-one else around. A few voices come from robotic forms in various states of decay and corruption. After reaching a radio and restoring power, he finally makes contact with someone who seems to be at least as cognizant as him: Catherine. She tells him to make his way to the shuttles and meet her at Lambda.

So What Am I?

Upon finding Lambda and looking for Catherine, Simon has another disappointing moment: she’s not human either, but another surviving brainscan. Catherine tries to help him come to terms, both for what she is as well as Simon’s own existence.

As Simon goes through the game, talking with Catherine as well as interacting with the environment, can he actually come to terms with his present self, what happened to his past self/body, and what will actually survive beyond this planet?

Humanity’s Last Chance

Simon must deliver the Ark to the Omega Space Gun to complete Catherine’s mission to save what is left of humanity’s accomplishments/etc.

The initial plan is to get to Delta and fire up the DUNBAT, a deep-sea exploration vehicle that will be capable of taking the Ark into the depths where the space gun is. Unfortunately when Simon finally is able to power up the DUNBAT it is already infected with the WAU and is unusable.

I Just Can’t Get It Through My Head

While Simon wrestles with his own predicament throughout the game, his first major hurdle comes when he has to find a diving suit that can handle the depths of the ocean to make it to Site Tau with the Ark. At first he still thinks he can just take off his current “suit” and put on the new one, but Catherine has to hammer it into his head that he won’t be moving to another suit, but rather copied, yet again.

Catherine manages to get him back on track, at least enough to get through Site Tau and find the parts needed to get the diving suit working. This may not be all that realistic, but in a game you can’t have the main character whining about his existence for so long at a time without frustrating or at least boring the player.

Simon has quite the wake-up call and somber reflection on things when he encounters Sarah Lindwall. She is literally the last person alive, guarding the ARK, and she is sick and dying. Simon stays with her for her final moments, and upon her death he gets a final wake-up call for how important the ARK is and how critical it is to send it out into space.

The biggest hurdle of all is when Simon arrives at Site Phi and sits in the scanning chair next to the space gun so that he and Catherine can make it onto the Ark right before it’s launched up through the ocean and into outer space. Simon watches as the count-down finishes and the ARK is successfully launched, but then is immediately distraught when he realizes he’s still sitting in the scanning chair.

Simon can’t realize his copy/mind/memories survives, not his body or “self”. The question Catherine keeps asking him, and what the game asks us is, does that matter? If your physical self is left behind but you retain your mind/memories in the new copy, is that good enough? Are you less of a “person”?

A New Beginning or a Peaceful End?

The game ends with the third copy of Simon walking through the ARK’s simulated world, coming upon Catherine (presumably her second copy) standing at a precipice looking at a city in the distance. Right as she turns around the screen fades away, teasing us as to how Catherine would respond to seeing Simon “in person” and what might happen next. The game doesn’t hint much towards a romance between Simon and Catherine, and there’s an earlier hint from Catherine that she had either feelings for or even a relationship with another woman. We are left to ponder how we would react and go from that moment, whether it’s in a relationship (romantic or platonic) with Catherine or exploring the ARK’s virtual world on our own.

Conclusion

Both watching and then playing SOMA was a surreal, sometimes terrifying, somber, and even uplifting experience. That’s everything a great game, actually a great story (no matter in what medium) should do for the reader/viewer/player. I couldn’t help but reflect upon my own experiences and feelings, as well as those of us (the human race) in general and what will and may come in the future. I personally enjoyed this game far more than Amnesia, and I really look forward to what Frictional Games will bring us next!

Adrian Lyne

Introduction

I only discovered Adrian’s movies thanks to playing the Silent Hill video games. After playing them and wanting more of that atmosphere and story, I looked online at similar games, films, and books. One of the first and most common replies, as far as film went, was to watch Jacob’s Ladder. I eventually did, and my mind was blown away. Since then I’ve watched two more of Adrian’s films, and while he hasn’t done much lately he is undoubtedly one of my top directors of all-time.

Fatal Attraction

Quote from Sleepless in Seattle: “Well I saw it and it scared the shit out of me! It scared the shit out of every man in America!”

That quote should pretty much sum up this movie. Just as Sleeping With the Enemy was a look at a disturbed and abusive man, in Fatal Attraction we see the same in a woman, albeit in a different situation. This movie covers sexual urges and acting upon them, infidelity, honesty and communication, and much more.

Michael Douglas stars as a lawyer in New York, living the good life with a picture-perfect family. At a publisher’s book release party he encounters Alex Forrest; she quickly starts to flirt with him and he doesn’t exactly discourage it. As time goes on life at home doesn’t seem so perfect and he sees Alex a few more times, and inevitably he gives in to her advances.

Well, Alex is a tad cray-cray. Hence the term bunny-boiler. After Michael comes to his senses he stops the affair and assumes that’s that, but Alex doesn’t accept it’s over. After harassing him and his family, including spending the day alone with his daughter, Michael has no choice but to tell his wife about the affair. He is of course kicked out, but eventually they reconcile, and not too far from a dramatic conclusion to the movie.

As with Adrian’s other movies, what struck me the most was the framing and lighting of this movie, especially the contrast between¬†the lighter and comforting home life and the darker and increasingly-sinister affair. The pacing of the movie is excellent; little things here and there start to go wrong, not seem right, and then it continues to build all the way until the final confrontation in the house.

Jacob’s Ladder

As mentioned above, Jacob’s Ladder was undoubtedly one of the key influences on the Silent Hill video games, and not just because of the subway similarities. In a similar plot to Silent Hill 2, in Jacob’s Ladder a former Vietnam soldier starts to see things that don’t make sense, and through key events and meetings begins to suspect what the true meaning of things are.

Jacob is living with his girlfriend, who also works for the U.S. Postal Service. They share a small apartment, in stark contrast to the large townhome Jacob once shared with his wife and 3 kids. Gabe, the youngest, was killed before Jacob went to Vietnam, and of course it still haunts him after coming back. As time goes by more and more strange things happen to Jacob, and talking with his Army buddies it’s apparent he’s not alone. He sees more and more ghost and demons, and only with the guidance of his chiropractor can Jacob start to realize what the truth might be, as well as what he needs to do to truly move on.

Indecent Proposal

The last of the three movies I watched, I didn’t anticipate the emotion that this movie had, even more so than Adrian’s previous movies. As always beautifully lit and photographed, this movie also had the stellar performances of Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore; Robert Redford also gives a great performance of a confident and cocky rich man.

The premise for the movie, if you look at it on its own, is pretty ridiculous and out there. A rich man proposes to spend one night with a couple’s wife in exchange for a million dollars. While that’s a decent chunk of change, I can’t imagine any well-functioning couple would say yes. But of course this is a movie, and they agree. Harrelson regrets it as soon as Redford picks her up, while Moore is quite emotional but doesn’t show us that she doesn’t want to go along with it. Soon after it happens they fight and eventually separate. Moore does stay with Redford, at least until he slips up about the scheme. This is near the movie, and after leaving him Moore returns to where she and Harrelson met and fell in love, and we’re left with hope of reconciliation.

Somewhat unbelievable plot aside, it’s hard not to get sucked into this movie. Dynamic performances, beautiful lighting and photography, and a perfect music score all come together to make a very good movie.

5 Days, 5,440 words

For a long time I’ve loved the idea of writing, the notion of it. Sitting in front of a computer or typewriter, sipping on a beverage, and just letting the inspired ideas pour out on screen or paper. It was something creative and productive, proof of time well spent.

Since then I’ve gone through periods where I read about writing, and perhaps even attempt it, but then it quickly fades away, usually replaced with enthusiasm for something else like music.

Lately I began re-reading No Plot, No Problem, written by the founder of National Novel Writing Month Chris Baty. This was a very thoughtful and well-received gift from my brother, and in the past I had gotten excited for and even began a NaNoWriMo session or two, but it never really got far. My longest piece, simply titled Awesome Novel, is 40 pages and 6,800 words. I don’t remember it taking that long to write, but re-reading it shows that nothing really happens.

The biggest point the book makes so far (the later part of the book isn’t supposed to be read until getting into your month-long novel writing endeavor) is simply getting into the most important habit a writer can have: sit down and just write. This can seem like such an odd thing, especially when attempting a much larger body of work. Aren’t I supposed to spend all this time planning, outlining, refining? In actuality, no! Sure, it helps to have at least something in mind, a rough summary of a plot and/or one or more key characters. In his book Chris recommends taking at most a week before NaNoWriMo to do any planning, but no more. Anything further just lets anxiety, doubt, and over-working starts to ruin things. So many people seem to forget that the first draft not only doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t even have to be anywhere above the level of total dog shit (important note: that’s my take on it, not from Chris).

I had heard of several writers on /r/writing that had done just that, gotten into the habit of simply sitting down and writing. Some had done it for a few days, others a few weeks, and a few were approaching a year if not longer. Everyone pretty much agreed: almost everything written was fairly bad and/or embarrassing, but not as terrible as they had feared. And some of it was, surprise, not too bad. Almost usable as-is!

I think that’s the “secret” of writing. Just like movies and TV, and fitness models and such, we always see the end results. It’s the same when we read a book. We’re viewing the final work, the last draft or edit, or the person at their peak physical prime. All things that took time, blood, and sweat to even begin creating, and that much more further down the line to refine, reshape, and even completely change if and when it wasn’t working.

The point is that we don’t need to worry about what others might or will think. When writing there is no obligation to show the text to anyone, either now or ever if we choose. We can take what’s been written and either continue building off of it, edit and re-arrange before continuing, or if it’s a complete dead end just close the file (no reason to delete, you never know one day…), start a new file, and try something else. Second, third, fourth, and further drafts are when to let the analytical reasoning half of the mind into the room to see what’s been going onto the screen or page.

(Holy shit my habit of writing more has seeped into this post). ANYWAYS, I decided at the beginning of this week to see if I could develop that same habit, simply sitting down in front of a blank screen and just take off. My first day’s writing was around 800 words, and for the rest I tried to get at least 1,000, usually coming in just above that mark, with the largest close to 1,200. On one day I didn’t get to do my writing until later in the day, and it was starting to get close to not even coming close to my daily number. The weird thing was even after just a few days I really wanted to keep my streak going, so after dinner and a little Netflix I made sure to get my laptop and start writing, and within 2 hours I had my 1,000 words.

The end results are the same as what was mentioned on that sub-reddit; most of it is pretty meh, but there are a few small portions that could be worth taking and trying to make something of it. That may be something I do later on, but for now I’m gonna keep writing new material during the week (taking the weekends off to relax and recharge). One thing I did notice is that so far the writing follows Awesome Novel in that nothing really happens. I think this week I need adopt a ¬†soap opera, melodramatic overkill mode, and just throw much more action and such at the reader. A novel can afford to take time to meander and delve into little things here and there, but for short writings I need to get going.

I don’t know how long I’ll keep doing it, but it will be at least for a few more weeks. I do want to eventually gain enough experience to eventually move onto what Ray Bradbury recommended doing, which is writing a short story a week. That would be pretty easy to do, word count-wise, as it would still be around 1,000 to 1,500 words a day for 5 days. The main difference is that I would need to have a little bit of prep going into it, at least a rough idea of the story I want to tell.

I think if I could get into that, and work in that mode for a few months, then I would finally be ready to possibly take on the writing of a novel. I don’t know about doing it within a single month, as my job and daily responsibilities simply can’t be compromised, but perhaps two months would be more than reasonable to devote free time on.

Catan

Formerly known as Settlers of Catan, Catan has become one of the most popular modern board games available. While it may look complicated at first glance, it’s actually pretty easy to learn the basics and start playing. There’s even an online (albeit older) introduction, as well as an iOS and Android assistant app. Both are nice options, but at first I think it’s fine to just go by the small rules booklet included with the game.

In Catan several settlers (i.e. 3-4 players; 2 are supported, while an expansion can handle up to 6) have discovered the island of Catan and begin to build and develop. The first step is to lay out the land tiles (the hexagonal pieces), which can be done in a fixed or random order. On top of these land tiles round number tiles are placed, also randomly.

These numbers are what coordinate with each dice roll; the number that comes up each roll is what resources are dolled out to each player that has a piece next to that hexagonal tile. The player that rolled can also spend resources that he or she has acquired to build roads, settlements, and cities. If he or she needs resource cards they don’t have, they can also trade with another player as well as the bank (at a higher 4-to-1 ratio).

The order of play continues in a clockwise order: each player rolling, resources handed out, and items constructed. One caveat is if a 7 is rolled; instead of resources produced, a robber on the island allows that player to steal a resource card from another player. Also, if anyone is holding more than 7 cards, he or she must discard half of their choice of cards, rounded down.

The first player to reach 10 victory points wins the game. This come from settlements, the longest road constructed, and having the largest army.