Sunday 20 January 2013

Dark Pondering - Counting Xenomorphs

Dark Pondering Image

Counting Xenomorphs

By Casey Douglass

Is this gonna be a standup fight, sir, or another bughunt?” The immortal words of the world weary Hudson, pondering the likely events of the next few days of his life. Whatever is thought of the later Alien films, it seems to be accepted that Alien and Aliens are the two best ones in the series. I always felt that the claustrophobic air vents and lack of weapons in Alien make it seem the far more dangerous film. When it comes to recent video games however, the action infused Aliens is the broad mould from which the latest games are formed.

Before first person shooters loomed into view, early Alien games manifested in different styles. The earliest that I personally played was Alien3 on the Amiga, a side scrolling platformer in which you took control of a shaven headed Ripley stranded on Fiorina 'Fury' 161 as she fights her way through the penal colony, with weapons that she didn’t have access to during the film. It was a decent blast, and nailed one of the things that really makes an Alien game: the guns. It was extremely satisfying to fire an under-slung grenade at a charging Xenomorph, or to listen to one sizzle at the end of a flame thrower.

However in 1999, the Alien Versus Predator game was released, drawing together the two creatures that would ruin any colonial marine’s day. It was first person, fast paced and scary, whether in multi-player or playing alone. I had the good fortune to play it at a LAN party and was amazed at the immersion I felt. The game was mostly shadows, the sound effects ratcheting up the tension with the usual motion tracker blip-blipping, the hisses of unseen aliens and the battle cry of the predator. It was a truly fun experience, the dynamic lighting and dark corners all adding to that feeling of claustrophobia and danger. It received an HD remake in 2010 but it was largely more of the same, although under the added layers of gloss and grit, it was missing something. It just wasn’t that scary.

It is now 2013 and Alien fans are waiting for the emergence of the next marine based Alien game to emerge from its cocoon, and the only thing that is scary is that it looks like it might miss the mark once more. I have been following the previews and news that has slowly filtered out about Aliens: Colonial Marines, and while it sounds like it could be a bit of fun, a competent game with a few more game play mechanisms to add some freshness to the formula, it just sounds like another remake; albeit one with a new plot written for it that interleaves with the films. I think whichever studio ends up making the next game might do well to look at the diversity of the earlier games, and also to some of the creepiest games that have come out in recent years, such as Amnesia and Dead Space.

What I am getting at is that I think a game based more on the style of the first Alien film might hold more scares and more interest rather than another pulse rifle infused acid fest. Imagine a game taking place on the Nostromo or even the Sulaco (after the events of the second film have played out). It could still be a first person game, but you take control of Ripley and it is only you, and one Xenomorph on board. You cannot kill it, you don’t have the weapons or tools. All you have are some flares and a map of the ship. There then ensues a game of cat and mouse, in which you try to move around the ship to gather your arsenal, access the ships systems and find where the alien has set up its nest, all of the while trying to avoid said alien until you are better prepared to deal with it. All that would be needed to add more tension would be the knowledge that the ship is slowly heading back to Earth, and you can’t afford to let it get there with this thing on board. Is it just me or does that sound scarier? It does sound doable as well. With only one Xenomorph to pit against you, all of the AI programming could be focussed on that single enemy, making it cunning, random and deadly. If an element of randomisation could be added to where it nests, what ship systems are working etc. for each game playthrough, the re-playability would be excellent as well. If that wasn’t possible, a more scripted game that played out the same way each time (in the vein of Dead Space) could still be well worth playing.

Aliens: Colonial Marines does look good, and I will no doubt buy it at some point, even with my misgivings. I can understand why the gung-ho marines are always the focus, it is fun to enjoy that aspect of the story. I just feel that game makers are missing a trick and still overlooking the possibility of making a game that could ape the style of the first film and truly be a tense horror encounter, rather than a “Come on! Come on! Come and get it, baby! Come on! I don't got all day! Come on! Come on! Come on you bastard! Come on, you too! Oh, you want some of this? Fuck you!” blaster. Ah Hudson, you glorious sweary bastard.

Friday 11 January 2013

Dark Fiction - Cacophony

Dark Fiction Image


By Casey Douglass

for #fridayflash

A low groan brought his consciousness back, the sound pitiful and gut wrenching. Opening his eyes, he struggled to see anything in the gloom around him. He tried to lift his hand to rub his eyes but found that his arms were pinned tightly with some metal contrivance.
‘Lilly!’ he shouted.
‘Shhhh!’ came the reply from his left. The quiet male voice whispered, ‘Keep it down or it will go badly for all of us!’
He tried to turn his head to look at the speaker but found a sharp cold piece of metal near both cheeks, making any movement nearly impossible. As awareness flowed back to the rest of his body, his limbs began to send back messages detailing his current position. He felt like he was upright, but his arms were cruelly pulled behind his back and clamped into something. His legs were folded under him, his behind resting on his heals. A metal collar held him firmly around the neck, his skin felt hot and itchy against it. All he could see ahead were the metal bars of his cage, framing the darkness ahead.
‘Oh my God where are we? Where is my wife?’
‘Quieter for goodness sake, they’ll hear you! There are some women here. How large is your wife?’
‘How large?’
‘A little shorter than me and much slimmer.’
‘She’ll be at the other end then.’
‘The other end?’
‘Hush. It’s about to start. The first time is the hardest but it gets easier. You and your wife will be okay, trust me. I’ve been here two years now. If you don’t misbehave, they treat you well. If you do misbehave...’
‘Who’s they?’
‘You’ll see in a minute. Listen.’
He listened. Faint music was playing somewhere not too far away, the sound of chairs moving and instruments being tuned and wrestled with.
‘Why can’t I move?’
‘You are in the machine.’
A dazzling light came on above them making his eyes sting. The metal around him began to rattle and squeak as he felt the structure move. He heard the odd whimper from various points around him, followed by much shushing and pleading.
He whispered, ‘We’ve been kidnapped! We went to bed as normal last night and now we wake up here!’
‘That’s usually the way.’
A large velvet curtain loomed into view now, whatever contraption contained him pushed fully up to the material. It smelt dusty and damp, like a drape in a run down church. The vibrating metal around him settled to a standstill. He panted quickly, his heart making his chest feel like it wouldn’t contain it for much longer.
A few chords from a violin sounded from somewhere. With a sudden rustling, the curtains jerked open, rapidly vanishing from the edges of his vision. The sight before him made him open his mouth in utter horror yet no sound escaped his lips. A massive space yawned ahead of him, the columns supporting the ceiling dark and mottled with ivy, the ceiling itself some dark abyss that his eyes could not penetrate. It was not the room that held so much terror for him. It was the occupants. Row upon row of chairs climbed away from him, his location seeming to be a stage of some kind. In each and every chair, a large human proportioned cat sat upright, pupils large and black, nose wet, whiskers quivering, ears pricked forward as when enjoying the thrill of the hunt. Some turned to the others next to them and meowed and purred, furry heads nodding or shaking as they conversed in their inhuman language. They were all wearing evening wear, some wore hats or scarves. If not for their faces, it could be any run-down theatre in the world, but the many cats!
A shadow fell across him as a large cat walking upright on its hind legs strode past, its back to him as it bowed to the audience, its black suit and trousers immaculate and with not a crease to be seen. It disappeared from sight behind him and there shortly followed the sound of mechanical levers clunking into life. A violin sputtered a few notes somewhere to the side, other instruments joining the maudlin music. He mustered himself to scream when somebody beat him to it. It was female and sounded off to the right of him.
‘Lilly!’ he cried.
A wooden stick pelted the metal bars in front of his face, the impact making his ears ring. A low warning growl gusted fishy breath into his face making his neck muscles strain fruitlessly to pull back from the whiskered silhouette in front of him. The shape moved to the side and away once more.
‘Keep quiet you bloody fool! What did I tell you!’
Another scream sounded nearer to him, and another. Each one mere moments after the previous.
‘I don’t know what’s happening!’ he whispered.
‘You will soon, just-’
The whispered voice changed tone into a shrieking scream that lasted for some seconds.
‘Are you okay?’
There was silence.
‘Answer m-’ his whispered voice became shrill as the metal either side of his face pressed tightly into his cheeks. Pain flared across the inside of his mouth, a warm metallic tasting liquid dripping down over his teeth. The blood dribbled from the side of his mouth as the metal plates relaxed and then tightened once more. He screamed again, his voice joined by others near and far on either side of him. Male, female and child, their cries merged into a cacophonous sound that threatened the sanity of any who might hear it.
A final whimpering scream sounded far to his right and the violin music ended. The strange audience stood in a rush, a flurry of furry paws making muffled claps, tongues licking noses, meows and growls ululating into the dark space above them.
The velvet curtain swished closed in front of him once more, the metal frame around him jostling and jiggling around as it was dragged back, the light finally going out once more.
Silence closed in around him like a warm blanket, the darkness in front of him giving his mind a rest from the sights that had so disturbed it. The momentary calm was soon punctuated with sobs and quiet cries for help but there was no movement, no comforting hand nor shoulder to cry on. The whispering man to his left coughed thickly and spat before speaking. ‘It gets easier, really it does.’

The End


My inspiration for this story came from a macabre instrument that appears in a number of historical stories. The ‘cats’piano’. Various cats would be put into cages and the ‘musician’ would then play a keyboard that jabbed a nail into their tails to make them ‘sing.’
Descriptions have popped up a few times, so it is unclear who refined what with the design. In 2010 a version of the instrument was recreated by Henry Dagg, utilising squeaky toys instead of live animals, and was played at a garden party attended by Prince Charles. I thought it might be nice if the cats got some revenge.

Friday 4 January 2013

Dark Fiction - Desire

Dark Fiction Image


By Casey Douglass

for #fridayflash

Project Heaven 17– Day 1:

Ramsey managed to find a suitable test subject last night, thank goodness! Who would have thought that a city with such a large population would soon be milked of its homeless transients. He said that he found him asleep behind the warehouse on sixth street, although he almost missed him as he was almost totally covered in broken cardboard boxes. The poor guy jumped at the chance Ramsey presented and no sooner was he through our door, he’d signed the wavers and was causing serious damage to a large buffet table while we readied the room. In all seriousness, I wasn’t sure if the food was reaching his mouth or if his beard was being fed like some strange creature.

This morning, after a much needed bath and spruce up, our subject was escorted to the room and told to do what he wanted. The first few minutes were spent with him pacing around staring at the white walls, probably not really believing what he had been told. Ramsey, ever the patient one, soon had his finger pressed tightly on the microphone talk button. “Just try something simple, it doesn’t have to be anything fancy!”
The subject looked at his hands and after a short pause, there was a small pop. A box of southern fried chicken appeared, which he promptly dropped in alarm. The whites of his eyes scanned the room, the poor fool obviously suspecting some kind of trickery.
“That’s it!” cried Ramsey. “Keep going!”
He did. That first day, we saw millions of pounds of luxury goods appear, cars, jewellery and fancy chocolates. In fact it was only at this point that we thought to show him how to get rid of things or the unfortunate soul would have drowned under a mountain of metal and plastic. Around eight hours in, the subject complained of a headache and said that he felt extremely tired, so we called it a day. Tomorrow we will introduce the concept of landscapes.

Project Heaven 17 – Day 2:

The subject fed himself this morning with a manifested breakfast of fried eggs, hash browns, chips and chocolate cake. He was most eager for the days experiments. As were we.
“Try to produce a scene,” Ramsey urged. “Something you remember maybe.”
With that, the vista in the small white room changed almost instantly. Sparkling sand covered the floor and golden rays of sunlight bathed the subject in a warm glow. We could only see part of the scene as the subject walked, the Movement Inhibitors doing an admirable job of making him think that we was really moving. Moments later his feet were splashing through white flecked seawater, a giddy smile on his still unshaven face.
Shortly afterwards we were treated to varying scenes, ranging from a barren monastery in Tibet to rush hour in the middle of London, all the his smile stretching from ear to ear.
Once more the subject became fatigued after a number of hours so we broke for the day. Tomorrow it’s people.

Project Heaven 17 - Day 3:

It is the end of day three and there is little that I can write that would not be censored. Ramsey raised the topic of manifesting people, although he made it very clear that anything would just be a copy, not THE person. We have since been treated to fourteen hours of sex and depravity, with film stars, singers and random other females that were obviously known to the subject. I can’t say that I blame him, it’s a natural impulse and I admit that I might do the same if I had the power to. Soon, we may all have the power to.

Project Heaven 17 – Day 4:

No practice today. We had scheduled it as a rest day, but it happens that the universe conspired to make it a certainty. The Dampener field malfunctioned last night while maintenance and calibration was being performed. The whole room had to be dissolved and re-substantiated, which took our ageing Quanta PC the best part of six hours. I dread to think what that will do to our electricity bills.

Project Heaven 17 – Day 5:

Today, we have given our subject free reign, he can do as much or as little as he wants. The experiment now starts in earnest.

Project Heaven 17 – Day 23:

I apologise for the apparent jump from five to twenty three. I have taken the decision to summarise as the apparent changes on any given day were very small, but taken as a whole, they make more sense. Anyone wishing to read the full version of the report is more than welcome to request it at the usual place.

The subject continued the pattern of the first few days for around a week, manifesting everything that he had ever wanted, visiting the places that he had always dreamed of; some imaginary, others based on the real places. Around day ten, his creations became more mundane, and focussed a great deal on apparent childhood events, people and places. His mother featured many times, often to put an arm around his shoulders. It was very touching, even Ramsey looked to be stifling the odd sniffle.

Approximately day seventeen, the subject’s dalliances twisted into something more sinister. Violence began to feature heavily in them, firstly inflicted by him onto others, and later, by others onto him. A number of mythical creatures began to appear regularly, werewolves, vampires and some kind of living gargoyle. During this time, the subject seemed to be unable to control his sobbing and often shuffled around, his eyes always focussed on something in the distance.

On day twenty three, the experiment ended. The subject manifested an incredibly tall mountain, so tall that it made Everest look like an ant hill. He stood on the snow encrusted apex for around an hour before suddenly spreading his arms and hurling himself into the void. We watched as he fell, the wind ripping at his clothes and hair, twirling him around and around. His fall lasted around ten minutes, as I said, it was a monster of a mountain. He hit the ground with a sickening thump before vanishing from sight as his insides covered the cameras. The room is currently being sanitized and an appropriate container has been found to gather him up in.

Conclusions of Project Heaven 17:

We have observed nothing that has changed our previous hypothesis. While the methodology of the earlier experiments could be questioned, on the settings of the machine and various other factors such as psychological make-up of the subject and unintentional observer interference, we can conclude that the human mind cannot survive in an environment that gives in to its every need and desire. Without struggle and striving, the human creature creates its own problems to fret and worry over, eventually turning to the morose and the harmful. We will continue our line of research, and some fresh ideas involve limiting exposure to the room for pure recreation times of no more than an hour, but that phase of testing will not achieve endorsement before the new year.


Emett Hesky - Lead Researcher.
Ramsey Smith – Technician.
Subject number 17 – John Doe 17

The End

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Wednesday 2 January 2013

Pondering - Level Up Your Writing

Dark Pondering Image

Level Up Your Writing

A recent blog post by Chuck Wendig set my mind to work on this idea (25-writer-resolutions-for-2013), namely, item one: “Level up, Ding”. Chuck talks about levelling up the quality of your writing, and trying to "gain new weapons in our fight against Shitty Writing." Stripping this back to the raw basics, it could also be a useful way of goal setting and achievement logging.

I can also remember that some time ago, some overweight computer geek brought out a dieting book utilising his knowledge of video games and how he played them to get his weight under control.(teen-cuts-size-half-video-game-diet). It appears to be something that is continuing to seep into other non-gaming areas from time to time. 

I wondered what the same mode of thinking might achieve with writing. It would also be a chance to firmly get my nerd hat on and think about something in a way that I hadn't previously. What could possibly go wrong?

You would like to write a novel. You have an idea and a word count in mind, maybe 60,000 words. Maybe words could become the equivalent of XP (experience points for non-gamers), and levelling up could be a way to reward yourself for getting your work done. 

If we follow a typical game levelling system, we will be starting at level 1. The jump from level 1 to level 2 is always the quickest and so should be achievable in one sitting. For this example, writing 250 words of your story (whether at the start, middle or end, it doesn’t really matter). If you achieve this, enjoy your DING as you rank up to level 2! 

Most games don’t really give you much of a reward this early, so maybe you might just want to reward yourself with that chocolate bar you have fancied for a few days. If we continue to follow the usual gaming pattern, it will take twice as long to get to level two. You also might not like to give yourself rewards for absolutely every level, or you just might? Who knows, it's your choice. 

Thinking this through, below is an example rank list, or skill tree if you will.

Levels   -   Target   -   Unlock/Perk
Level 1-2 250 words - Tasty treat of your choice.
Level 2-3 500 words - Guilt free enjoyment of a non-productive hobby for 20 mins.
Level 3-4 1000 words - Treat yourself to a small gift like a cheap book or magazine.
Level 4-5 2000 words – Take half of a day off and spend it on a different project of your choice.
Level 5-6 4000 words – Treat yourself to something more costly, a film/game/book you wanted.
Level 6-7 8000 words – Flick through the writers and artists yearbook and dare to dream.
Level 7-8 16,000 words – Buy a nice new gadget like those headphone you’ve had your eye on.
Level 8-9 32,000 words – Take up to a week and do whatever the fuck you like with it, you earned it.
Level 9-10 Redraft – etc.

(Note – The word count from a previous level does not count towards your next level. It starts from 0 every time).

If you follow that route, by the time you are rank 9, you will have written 63,750 words and will at the least, have a very rough novel that you can then shape and tidy up. Whether this method of self-discipline appeals to you or not, I can see how it might be useful to some. Many people set goals and waypoints towards large projects, and if you are a gamer of any kind, taking ten minutes to create your own levelling system might just be the thing you need. You might even like to find a short sample of music that you can play as your ranking up tune, as so many games now do. If you are half way decent at coding, you could even write a simple app that will give you a more realistic "Ding" experience. 

I can see that there is a lot of scope in this and you could take it as far as you would like to. Of course, you shouldn’t spend too long on your preparations, as you may never get started on the actual important stuff, like writing.

I’m off now, as I just ranked up and have earned a cup of tea and the right to shout at passing cars for the next twenty minutes. I do not intend to waste that right. Good night.