Wednesday 31 December 2014

First Impressions – The Long Dark

First Impressions – The Long Dark

Written by Casey Douglass

Survival games have been the flavour of the month for...well, years it seems. I like this in a way as it means a departure from the infinite-spawn run-and-gun tripe that gamers seem to lap up like fizzy drink raining from heaven. Give me a game death that has consequences over one that can be erased with a few button presses any day.

The Long Dark Screenshot
The starting screen of the sandbox alpha.
The Long Dark is another so-called survival game. On first impressions, it’s very good indeed and is only in a very early stage of development. Created by Hinterland Studio Inc., The Long Dark places the player into a frozen wilderness after an apparent global geomagnetic disaster. The player must survive by scavenging food and supplies from cabins and huts, rummaging through the belongings of dead bodies, and hunting for food from nature’s larder. All of this while trying to stave off the deadly cold, hunger, thirst and illness. The crafting system will also keep you occupied.

The game has no story as yet but one is planned. The sandbox mode is where the fun is at the moment and it is this mode I have been playing for the last few days. The game offered me the choice among three difficulty modes. I opted for the easiest as it means that wolves etc. will not attack me (the forums abound with complaints of them being too aggressive). I just want to explore and survive.

I spawn near an icy lake and proceed to ransack the cabins around, picking up wood, matches and anything that is offered basically. I don’t run anywhere as there is no need and it is nice to have the illusion of walking in nature, however inhospitable. The first thing that got to me was the wind noise. I would guess that after around ten minutes, it began to seep into my mind and began to make me feel the virtual isolation. I gut a deer that has already been killed by wolves and make myself a meal of venison as the dark closes in.

The Long Dark Screenshot
I enjoy a lovely sunset as my bones freeze.

This is the start of the journey that impresses me the most. A game should give you stories to tell, moments of triumph or stupidity that stay with you and bubble up inside you urging you to tell other people. I walked through the night, using a flare as the darkness seemed to deepen all around me. I followed a rail track until it ended high on a hill. I frequently found myself about to step into an abyss below as I tried to walk down into the valley below, even the flare failing to spit its light further than a few paces. I knew that I could pass a hut or cabin and not even know it. I walked for around five minutes and decided to give up for the night and wait until morning. I found a rut in the landscape, made a fire, put all of my firewood on it in the hope it would stop me freezing to death in my sleep, and placed my sleeping roll nearby. I told the game to sleep for around five hours and crossed my fingers.

When I woke, the red smear of sunrise was painted across the horizon. I was relieved to be still alive but my character was complaining of being “So cold!” I checked my health bars and thirst and cold were at their most dangerous levels. I downed a can of soda to sort a little of my thirst and climbed out of the rut. I laughed. About 20ft away was a road, the other side of which was a collection of log cabins! I had almost died mere yards from safety! I liked this moment a great deal as it cemented in my mind what a harsh environment the game world is.

The Long Dark Screenshot
Searching through my supplies for something to eat.
I am unsure of the game’s replay value once the maps are known, but even if it is just a play-once and-move-on kind of game, it is a very cool experience. The wonderful art-style is like a graphic novel and the sound design deepens the feelings of really being there. As other things are added, like the story mode, it will be interesting to see how the game develops. If you fancy it now however, I think you will get your enjoyment from it whenever you decide to jump in.

The Long Dark is in Steam’s Early Access section and will grow and be patched over time. Only buy it if you are fully aware of this so that you don’t spit your dummy out if the game development changes drastically or even stops completely. Check it out here and visit the game’s official site here.

Tuesday 30 December 2014

Dark Review – Hidden

Hidden Review

Written By Casey Douglass

  Hidden album cover

I always enjoy finding dark ambient works that are a little different to what I’m used to listening to. Hidden by Sound Awakener, is one that departs from my ambient taste to quite a large degree, which intrigued and challenged me. Sound Awakener is a solo music project from Nhung Nguyen, a musician from Hanoi in Vietnam. She has been working on Sound Awakener since 2011 but has only now begun to release her work in 2014. In that time, she has developed her own techniques to bring about the sound that she has created, which tends to feature machinery, found sounds and other extreme sounds from musical instruments.

Using intended clicks and distortion to create a hidden space. but not a shelter.

This short album description is certainly verified upon listening to Hidden, a seemingly violent and jarring trio of tracks, but to label it as such and then move on would be to do it a great disservice.

The Tracks:

Around starts with what sounds like a printing press thumping away. It isn’t long before the sound distorts and becomes rawkish with variations in distance and timing. It put me in mind of what a machine might sound like if it growled at me. The latter part of the track slips into a quieter frame, giving the ear respite and the sensation of travel. My own imaginings saw me flying along an optical cable into the bowels of the internet, rings of light dancing past my eyes.

Hidden put me in mind of someone hiding in a cupboard in a large abandoned room, the kind with rough exposed floorboards and cracked window panes. The track begins with shuffling sounds and movement, as if things outside the cupboard door are hunting for the hider. They sound insect-like but technological. Peeking through the crack in the door might reveal one shimmering with pixels. After a higher pitched sound, the multiple scuttlings are replaced by larger and more singular sounds, as if the brood mother has squeezed into the space and has taken up the search for you.

This track starts with an undulating sound wave with hints of guitar and other less easily recognised noises. I think the best way to sum up this track is to start with what it made me think of. I had visions of a kitchen, sunlight shining through the window but some of the room in gloom. Hanging over the open doorway is one of those bead curtains that people use to keep the flies out. This track seems to give sound to the motion of the beads rocking backwards and forwards after something large has pushed through them, with the exception that momentum is never lost and they never settle down. It sounds energetic and swaying, the rhythm very pleasing and strangely relaxing.


Hidden has to be one of the more challenging dark ambient albums that I’ve listened to. Someone unused to dark ambient or less eclectic in music tastes might have said “It’s just noise!” but it really isn’t. Whatever the noises and sounds presented to the listener, they create strange rhythms that draw the mind in and certainly create an effect. These rhythms are key to what makes Hidden something worth listening to.

I really enjoyed listening to Hidden and I’m interested in hearing more of Sound Awakener’s tracks. If I had to choose a favourite track, it would have to be Diary as it almost lulled me to sleep a few times and I kept repeating it as it almost got to the end each time.

I give Hidden 4.5/5. It’s not my usual brand of dark ambient but I am seriously thinking it should be.

Visit Sound Awakener on Bandcamp here for previews and purchasing options.

I was given a free copy of the album to review.

Album Title: Hidden
Artist: Sound Awakener
Released : 28th November 2014

Sunday 28 December 2014

Dark Review – The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman

Review written by Casey Douglass

Postmen and women are the unsung heroes of the Xmas period. Not only do they continue their regular duties in our worst weather, they also have to cope with being inundated with parcels and packages containing all manner of presents and festive goodies. It seems fitting that the book I am about to review focuses on the life of a Canadian postman as he struggles with the eternal conundrum of love in Denis Theriault’s The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman.

Secretly steaming open envelopes and reading the letters inside, Bilodo has found an escape from his lonely and routine life as a postman. When one day he comes across a mysterious letter containing only a single haiku, he finds himself avidly caught up in the relationship between a long-distance couple, who write to each other using only beautiful poetry. He feasts on their words, vicariously living a life for which he longs. But it will only be a matter of time before his world comes crashing down around him…

I will admit that the prying nature of Bilodo’s activity grabbed my interest but the mention of haiku and his desire to learn all he can about his mysterious woman Ségolène sealed the deal.

What I found in Theriault’s book was an interesting take on the way we build other people up in our minds and often prefer the excitement of fantasy, even when reality presents us with something “real” at the same time. Bilodo’s tale is one of escalation and obsession that sees him missing work and devoting days and weeks of his life to the intangibility of his mental relationship with Ségolène as the rest of his life begins to suffer.

The book had a quick pace to proceedings and was a very easy read, the manner and style of the author lending the story a simplicity that someone else might have scribbled out in favour of longer and more flowery words. The haikus add an extra dimension to the narrative and they undergo their own changes and evolve as much as Bilodo seems to. I’ll admit that I am far from knowledgeable about haikus, beyond their basic syllable structure and general traditional themes, but I did enjoy reading the ones in the book and seeing how the author and Bilodo dealt with them. Zen ideas infuse the second half of the book and things certainly take a turn for the strange near the end. To say any more would be to ruin the surprise however, so I will keep my mouth shut.

I would give The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman 4/5. The book was pacey, well written and intriguing without overstaying its welcome. It was also a little voyeuristic and sad, and has I feel, plenty to say about the issue of identity and fantasy in the modern world. You only need transpose the letters Bilodo opens to texts and tweets and you could still have the same themes running through it, although I am sure, even faster paced and with more pictures of exposed genitalia.

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman is currently in Amazon’s Winter Sale so if you are quick you can pick it up for only 99p in the Kindle Store.

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman is written by Denis Theriault and published in the UK by Hesperus Press Ltd.

Monday 22 December 2014

Dark Review - Call of the North

Dark Review – Call of the North

Written By Casey Douglass

Call of the North

Well it’s almost Xmas again, and with that realisation comes the battle against the consumerist soul and the frigid cold. Ugasanie’s Call of the North is set somewhere even colder but with thankfully fewer people around. Could this be just the dark ambient album to listen to after being out with the masses staring at fake snow and shiny baubles? Read on to find out.

Ugasanie known for his freezing desolate soundscapes is back with a new album taking us even further north to explore the concept of the unusual and mysterious phenomenon known as Arctic hysteria (also known as menerik and the call of the North Star). It manifests itself only in the polar night, and only when the northern lights shine. Man, as if under hypnosis journeys north. In this state of trance he is almost impossible to stop, he becomes aggressive, sings a song, mumbles, experiences hallucinations and persistently continues towards the polar star. It is not uncommon that these people end up freezing or starving to death.

In track 5 the voice belongs to an old yakutish man. The recording was made during an attack of polar hysteria. This field recording was recorded in a Yakutia group of researchers led by Eduard Alekseev in the 60s.

I think the above has to be one of the most intriguing album blurbs I’ve ever read. Arctic hysteria sounds brutal and rings true with so much of H.P Lovecraft's Arctic based fiction, even if in those, the madness seems to be caused by horror or elder gods rather than the North Star. Let’s take a look at the tracks.

The Tracks:

Without the Sun
A low drone builds into a blustery rumbling soundscape with the tinkling of chimes mingling with an eerie horn calling or signalling some event or warning.

This track seeps into motion, its low drone punctuated by strange distant noises and movements that linger on the edge of your awareness as the main tone emerges and the background deepens. Haunting. Some strange undulating sounds towards the end sound human.

Light and dancing, this track meanders and undulates bringing to mind the shifting hues of the Aurora Borealis very nicely. Stray piano notes give the rumbling that then ensues a great contrast. This sounds sci-fi and majestic.

Call of the North
This is another seeming “sci-fi” track, it conjured images to me of a large spacecraft coming in to land or hover directly over my head, the lone siren/alarm noise hinting at danger and energy manipulations rending the air and blasting snow hundreds of feet up and away in a maelstrom of noise and vibration. The rest of the track made me feel like I was watching the landed craft and waiting for something to emerge.

Arctic Hysteria
This track is the one mentioned in the album description above, featuring the intonation of a Yakutish man. It is certainly a strange sound, even more so when the sound of dogs barking mingles with it. Is the man summoning something that the dogs do not like or fear? Or do they just sense his lapse into polar hysteria? The rest of the track feels like a response to his calls, movements and shiftings in the aether.

In the Waves of Light
Melancholy and sad, the stray notes fall into rushing movements that tinge everything with their own chiming seeking. Calls and vocals seem to sound from the midpoint of this track, answered by who knows what at the edge of consciousness.

A gentle clattering starts this track, like an old generator on its last legs heard through the muffling wall of a log cabin, the last flickering sputters plunging everything into darkness save for the dancing flames of the fireplace that seem to die inches from the hearth. An otherworldly horn sounds as the atmosphere thickens with ice particles and stasis. Even though not the last track, it feels like an ending has happened.

Cold Wasteland
With the last impressions in mind, this track feels like a landscape without a viewer, or a conversation without people. Nature, forces and chaos in balance with eerie and light melodies that paint a picture of indifference to the listener.


Call of the North is another “smooth” dark ambient album, in so far as it’s not jarring as others can often be. This makes it ideal to chill-out to or to switch on when the snow is falling outside.

I enjoyed listening to it and felt that every track conjured up the feeling of cold and madness that was so ably described by its description. I particularly enjoyed the tracks that featured distant horns, and Arctic Hysteria which featured the man suffering from polar hysteria.

This album has come at an opportune time and meets the time of year with an icy handshake and a threat in its eye. If Xmas leaves you feeling bleak and exhausted, lower the lights and put Call of the North on as the wind molests the leaves outside.

I give Call of the North 4/5. Much like my Tomb of Empires review, I very much enjoyed it but my perfect dark ambient albums are less smooth and more sinister. Great none the less though.

Check out Cryo Chamber here to view more information and purchasing options.

I was given a free copy of the album to review.

Album Title: Call of the North
Artist: Ugasanie
Written, produced and performed: Pavel Malyshkin
Artwork and Mastering : Simon Heath
Label : Cryo Chamber
Released : 9th December 2014

Thursday 11 December 2014

Dark Feature - Why Alien: Isolation Gets It Right

Even though I use the Dark Review icon above, the link on this page actually goes to a feature. I'm a cad I know! Alien: Isolation has been my game of the year, game of recent years even and I just wanted to write something that expresses my pleasure at finally having a good alien game to play. It also helped that I predicted what would make a great alien game at the beginning of last year before Aliens: Colonial Marines came out. The less said about that game the better. Anyway, click the link here to read my Alien: Isolation feature on Geek Syndicate.

Alien: Isolation Screenshot

Wednesday 10 December 2014

Living In Others’ Heads

Living In Others’ Heads

By Casey Douglass

Writing requires the ability to get inside the head of a character, to see their thought processes and motivations unfolding, their synapses firing and their senses collating. What can be useful in character creation is far less useful in the real world, as it just boils down to guesswork. I’m not saying empathy can’t be useful of course, but itself is just using your own mind to try to understand another’s feelings/situation, hopefully based on some decent facts.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, thinking that we know what someone else is really thinking or why they have done a particular thing. Sure, we can guess, but the danger comes when we forget that we are guessing. How many times have we not asked the cutie out because we fill our mind with thoughts of “He/she isn’t interested” or “I bet they are in a relationship” or others that flow from ear to ear in a self-defeating loop of misery. At other times, we might think we know what unknown individuals will think about our latest creative endeavour: “Nobody will like it!” or “People just aren’t interested in what I create!” being two of my own personal favourites.

Viewing the world this way seems to avoid a dose of pain or uncertainty. If you never ask the person out or actually release your creation to the world, you avoid a whole host of possible unpleasantness: rejection, embarrassment, criticism and other uncomfortable states. It makes the world seem safer and more predictable, and also seems to give you the illusion of control, even though in actual fact you are losing some.

How so? By letting your fear of others’ opinions dictate what you do, you are handing over any control you might have to an external factor. If these thoughts stop you doing something that, when first thought of, delighted you, you have quenched your candle of inspiration with the gloopy mud of despair. Can you hear it sizzle? Before long, it might not kindle itself at all, I mean, why bother!

I think all we can do in this situation is to try to bring a measure of mindfulness to how we perceive others. If you at least know that you are stacking things against yourself in this manner, you are better placed to account for those feelings and thoughts without being blindly swept along by them. You might not be able to adjust your course straight away but repeated awareness will eventually help you see how predictable your own mind can be. Once it loses the power to effortlessly drag you down, you gain some of that power yourself.

I have struggled with this mindset for many many years and I can only imagine how things might be now if I was less in awe of my doubts and more “Let’s have a go!” in my actions. I try to push the envelope when I can, doing things that I feel are risky creatively or are outside my comfort zone socially, and just try to see the world for what it is: full of people with a variety of views and opinions, that I have no right to project my own thoughts onto as if they were theirs. Unless you are a character in one of my stories...if that is the case, you are all mine have enough to worry about already!