Thursday 31 August 2017

Dark Game Review – Maize

Dark Game Review – Maize

Review by Casey Douglass

Maize is a PC game that I’d never heard of until it came as part of a Humble Monthly Bundle a while ago. It looked interesting, but it took a period of “not knowing what I fancied playing” to eventually get to it. I finished it yesterday and I’m very glad that I gave it a chance.

How corny!
Maize is a first-person puzzle game set in and around a farm that just happens to grow corn. I know! The difference between this corn and the more usual variety however, is that it talks and moves around. Sciency shenanigans have been afoot, and you, the silent player character, get to run around solving everyone else’s problems, as is often the case in this kind of game.

You will do a lot of walking, but I have to admit that it only became monotonous during a few moments of backtracking. The environment is quirky and strange enough that even when you find yourself lost in the maze of maize created by the cornfields, you probably won’t mind too much. The game has a strange humour that seems to follow you everywhere you go, making you feel a little like you are in some retro 80’s comedy horror or sci-fi film.

A nice little helicopter!
The humour itself did make me chuckle on a good few occasions, but some of it did fall a little flat. I’m a hard audience to please though, I didn’t find Deadpool particularly funny. I know, I’m a freak apparently. Once you’ve met your bad-tempered teddy-bear companion Vladdy though, things improve a little. He has a single tall grappling claw-arm thing that pokes out of his backpack. One of the sentient corn people calls him “A nice little helicopter!” or words to that affect. I don’t know why but that tickled me, especially as the bear is always calling everything and everyone idiotic and stupid.

Some of the non-usable items are funny too.
The puzzles are relatively straightforward, just a case of hoovering up all the objects you find that happen to be collectable (a fact that Vladdy mocks you about on more than one occasion: “Oh more trash!”). Early on, you need to unlock a large metal door. Part of this involves getting a hand print. You find a severed hand but it’s in a protective glove, so you have to put a plug in a sink and use oil you found elsewhere to fill it. You pop the severed glove-hand into this and the hand comes free. Simple. There are also puzzles where you have to make things from a collection of items. This is done by putting them in set spaces on tables or benches. It’s all very clear and straightforward if you have all the objects needed.

Is Hitch-cornian a word?
The game didn’t seem to have a map, so when something referenced going to a certain place, I
couldn’t always think of where it might be. Thankfully the game blocks off some paths at different times, quite aggressively so later on, but makes light of the fact. The game doesn’t take itself very seriously, as you might have guessed by now.

The visuals are fine. They won’t have your jaw dropping in awe but they do create the sense of a strange world, a world of golden maize, morbid discoveries and underground secrets. The audio is just about the same level, although I must admit that the voice acting is very good and should be highlighted as a strong point.

The Queen of the Corn with Little Helicopter.
Maize is a gem of a game that I remembered I owned at just the right moment. I’d been bouncing off other games and generally struggling with depression more than usual. Maize proved to be perfect for me at that time, but even without these other elements, I’m sure it’s a game I’d have enjoyed whenever I played it. It took around three hours to complete, and I found the non-threatening flow of events perfect. There is nothing that can hurt the player, it is literally a story-puzzle game.

Maize was created by Finish Line Games and is currently available on Steam for £14.99. I’m not sure I can recommend it at full price, but if you see it on a decent sale it’s well worth up to a fiver, in my opinion.

Saturday 26 August 2017

Dark Game Review – Stories Untold

Stories Untold is a PC adventure horror game from developer No Code. It’s a game that channels the spirit of the text-adventures of old, but mixes in a dose of the “bigger picture” in its execution. A simpler way of saying it is that, not only does your character interact with the computer in a given scene, but also the equipment and the environment around it.

The game is split into four short episodes, each taking place in a different location and situation. In one, you might be playing a text-based adventure game in a suitably 80's bedroom. In the next, you might be decoding morse code or following an experimental protocol. Stories Untold is a game that very much enjoys giving the player instructions, but also the help needed to carry them out.

I can’t say too much as some of the reveals and twists in Stories Untold are best enjoyed as the narrative unfolds. All I will say is that there is more going on than meets the eye, and it all comes together quite beautifully by the time you’ve finished it. It is a short game, taking me around two hours to complete, but those two hours proved to be structured and paced so well, I am fine with the short playtime. I try not to judge games by how much play time they might offer, but when money is tight, it does become one of my considerations. Stories Untold sells for £6.99 when not on sale, but when it is on offer, you can get it for around half that, which is spot on in my humble opinion.

Graphically, the game does pretty much everything right: the locations and technology all looks suitably analogue, the objects and lighting all realised in an almost tactile way. The only real criticism I have is the cross-shaped pointer that is sometimes easy to lose track of, and that the clickable zones around some of the buttons and dials you need to interact with aren't always easy manipulate without clicking the wrong thing. This didn’t happen often though, so I don’t want to overstate that aspect.

The soundscape of the game is another element that is very well done, and for the most part, provides the most interesting moments of horror. Thumps and other noises hint at the world beyond the walls that your character can see, the voices of other characters and the suitably retro-soundtrack all creating a fuzzy grainy sense of place. Nothing made me jump, but there is a lovely sinister aspect to the things you will see and hear in Stories Untold, like when you crack open an old VHS video box and smell the air of yesteryear tickling your nostril hairs.

Stories Untold is a tremendous game and one that I am very happy to have experienced. When I got to the end, all I could think about was how great another tale, done in the same way, would be. I was also a little unnerved by how enjoyable I found following the various instructions in the game world. On a basic level, you had to do things in a set way to get through the story, but on a mental level, I found the way I interacted with the game world very satisfying indeed. If you enjoy a good 80’s style horror, I think you owe it to yourself to check out Stories Untold.

Review by Casey Douglass

Friday 25 August 2017

Wednesday 23 August 2017

Blue Words Under Autumn Skies

Blue Words Under Autumn Skies

Reflective musings by Casey Douglass

Before I say anything else, yes, I wrote “Autumn Skies” even though it’s still August. Autumn feels very much like it is wafting this way, and I’ll defend my right to say so via fisticuffs at the venue of your choosing if you disagree. Hazar!

The blue words element of the title refers to swears, curses and language that would generally get you a telling off from your mum if you said it in her presence. During the last few days, there have been a couple of occasions where I have heard such language, and both times was tickled by some element of the context. If you don’t like bad language, turn back now.

The first incident was while in town. A homeless man was sat near a wall, people dropping spare change into the hat on the ground in front of him. It’s a scene that is sadly all too common, no-one should have to be homeless, not in a country as wealthy as ours. It was then that I heard someone calling him a cunt, which moved my focus somewhat.

A man was pacing backwards and forwards looking agitated and annoyed. He was sputtering and muttering to the people he was with, saying things like “That cunt gets more money than we do!” and “In my day, we didn’t beg, we had the dignity to just die!”. Okay, not that last one, but you get the sentiment I’m sure. What amused me was that this was all seemingly said just out of earshot of the “millionaire” with his little cardboard sign and blanket, because, god forbid the person might hear him saying such bollocks. I’d imagine this was just the kind of guy that goes home and calls people “faggots” when playing online video games. Take away his keyboard and put him face to face with someone and, well, let's just hope his underwear has a good water-tight seal.

The other event happened a day or so later, when I was watering my friend’s garden. I had already found my groove with regards to the order in which to water things: when to use the watering-can, when to use the hose or move it to another tap, stuff like that. I will add that my knowledge of plants is very low. I can spot a pansy at ten yards, but the elements of most plants fall into three categories for me: petals, leaves and stalks/stems. Basically, I was watering a pot of green things that happened to have splashes of colour attached when I heard “For fuck sake!” shouted in the church car-park nearby.

I sniggered. There are few places more inappropriate for swearing than church ground. About the worst I can think of would be an audience member watching a snooker match, and as the ball slowly makes its way up the table towards the pocket, jumps to their feet and shouts “Get in you cunt!”. That would be worse. This was just shy of that benchmark. The expletives continued, something got called a cunt. It was glorious. I think the free-range language belonged to a builder, a van was parked there with names on the side. It wasn’t the A-team at least, their van is noticeably different, and I doubt Hannibal would go for the phrase "I love it when a plan fucking comes together!"

Getting back to the church, on one level, it’s nice that god helps the local economy by getting mortals to fix his churches. I’m sure he could so easily wave a hand and have it self-repair. Another thought occurred to me, related to the swearing once more. What if the vicar was having tea and biscuits with a group of elderly women, a group that had been horrified at the new graffiti on the community center wall. They didn’t even know what a “twat” was until that day. I imagined him calming them, saying it likely wouldn’t happen again, just as the word “cunt!” is shouted through the stained-glass window, much to the ladies’ horror. This is the kind of thought that keeps me warm at night, and the kind that nestles comfortably in my mind, amongst the pornographic fantasies, TV plot-lines and dark spaces that fill out the edges.

Thank you for fucking reading. 

Oh shit, it's contagious!

Saturday 12 August 2017

Dark Music Review – Alpine Respire

Dark Music Review – Alpine Respire

Review Written By Casey Douglass

Alpine Respire Cover Art

ProtoU (Ukraine) and Hilyard (Maine, US) group up in this field recording heavy collaboration. Alpine Respire immerses you in field recordings from two continents. Warm drone contrasts raindrops and the call of animals in the wild. This damp album invites you to explore the unreachable corners of the Earth. From the harshest mountains to the darkest forests. Recommended for fans of Field Recording and slowly progressing drone.

I do enjoy it when sounds that might normally be calming and relaxing, such as rain, when put into a certain context, sound off and a little sinister. I’m probably weird that way but I can live with that. Alpine Respire is a dark ambient album that sees ProtoU and Hilyard working their magic on a bountiful selection of field recording heavy tracks, tracks that mainly serve up enough calm threat to keep the bleakest amongst us happy.

Wind and rain make a number of appearances on the album, but the most intriguing for me was on the track Boreal Distillate. It begins with a kind of electro-transformer hum but soon opens out into a lovely expansive soundscape in which rain seems to blanket and surround the listener, a chant-like drone and “plinking” echoes are a few of the other sounds that you can expect to hear too. While it might fly in the face of my first paragraph, this track was pure relaxation for me. I’m a bit of a rain slut.

As mentioned in the album description, there are other field recordings beyond wind and rain. Animal and bird calls often appear, from the wolf-like tones on title track Alpine Respire (I say wolf-like as I wasn't sure if they were recordings or electronic notes that took on the aspect of wolves), to the moments of birdsong in Blood Grass Sojourn, they all seem to pierce the soundscapes in different ways, sometimes providing comfort, sometimes threatening to tear open a darker soundscape beneath.

A track that I particularly enjoyed for its level of menace was Cave Lights on the Bay of Bengal. This track starts with a sustained tone that just goes on and on, the other sounds in the soundscape: birdsong, piano notes and a strange “snuffling” sound, to name just a few, all having to compete with the strong thread of this tone’s sound. There are muffled rumblings too, which add some deeper sounds to the composition. Everything about the sustained tone and the sounds around it seemed to me, to suggest a scene in which something is about to happen, and then begins to. A little like looking at a peaceful lakeside view, everything looking normal save for a sound that permeates and taints everything else. I felt it was a very intriguing track, and I would say probably one of my favourites.

The other track that I would mention as a favourite is Final Refugium. It’s another track that makes great use of rain, but this time marries the sound with a melancholy funereal aesthetic. It suggested to me someone wounded or dying, and after days of travel, finding somewhere to finally hole up and await their death. A bit like a bleaker version of Robert the Bruce’s legend, where, instead of watching a spider in a cave and gaining confidence from its pluckiness, the cave dweller settles into a calm acceptance of the inevitable and gives themselves over to peace.

Alpine Respire is a windy dose of wet nature wrapped up in notes and tones that both invigorates and subdues the listener. If you, like me, enjoy your dark ambient with a higher ratio of field-recording than might be usual, you will find plenty of “the real world” to enjoy here. And as I said above, if you like things to sound a little malevolent, or at the very least for them to sit in an uncertain space of safety or threat, again, you will probably enjoy Alpine Respire.

Visit the Alpine Respire page on Bandcamp here for more information, and be sure to check out Cave Lights on the Bay of Bengal below:

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

Album Title: Alpine Respire
Artists: ProtoU & Hilyard
Label: Cryo Chamber
Released: July 25, 2017

Tuesday 8 August 2017

Rockers Sanguine Release Sun-kissed Video for Breathe

Sheep skull appropriators and venue rockers Sanguine have just released a video for Breathe, a song from their album Black Sheep.

Photo credit: Dan Sturgess
When I reviewed Black Sheep last year, I noted the split between the rawkish heavier tracks and the quieter, calmer offerings. Breathe falls into the latter category, and certainly showcases frontwoman Tarin Kerrey’s vocal abilities. The video shows Tarin walking abandoned sun-kissed streets, shedding both mental and physical attachments as she goes. The music itself sees Sanguine teaming up with Ex in Flames guitarist Jesper Strömblad to create a delicate and spacious backing to Tarin’s vocals, a bit like laying a clean, crisp table cloth underneath a nice meal.

I saw Sanguine when they came to Norwich as support for Mushroom Head, but since then they’ve landed (deservedly too) more great spots alongside the likes of Fear Factory, Skindred and HellYeah. On a personal note, I do prefer Sanguine’s heavier numbers, particularly because Tarin has a tortured screech that would unnerve even the calmest of vicars, but I certainly appreciated their more tranquil numbers when I reviewed Black Sheep. I guess it’s a bit like being beaten up by someone, but instead of them running away, your attacker hangs around and insists on holding ice to your bruises afterwards.

Below is their new video, but click the Watch on YouTube button so that you can give it a decent look. If you haven’t checked out Sanguine yet, you can find more about them on their website at this link. You can also find my review of Black Sheep at this link.

Monday 7 August 2017

Dark Game Review - PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds

If being airdropped onto an island with 99 other people against which you need to slowly outwit and fight your way to supreme victory sounds appealing, check out my review of the Battle Royale styled PC game PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds. You can find it on Geek Syndicate at this link.

Rummy Granddad and the Glistening Nipple

Rummy Granddad and the Glistening Nipple

By Casey Douglass

Picture used freely from the excellent Gratisography site. It is likely "a" granddad though, not "the" granddad mentioned below.
I went into Norwich yesterday, struggling against the aches, pain and fatigue that follow me everywhere like some kind of lice-infestation. There was a charity run or bike-ride happening which meant lots of glistening crowd barriers and road closed signs glinting in the sunlight. It appeared to be over by the time I was in the area, but there were still plenty of short-wearing sweaty people walking around looking happy. Well done and all that, I thought, but you’ll all be extra hungry and flock to the various eateries now. So I ate an early lunch in an attempt to have some peace and quiet.

After eating and having a browse, I found myself nursing a large 99 flake ice cream. I say nursing in the sense of it needed protection from the hot sun, and I happened to have a safe place close at hand, if only I could get it in there. I was preoccupied with ice cream dynamics when I realised I was walking behind a drunk. He wasn’t someone that “looked” like a drunk though. He looked like someone's granddad who, while out shopping, just thought he’d have a couple of drinks before heading home. It wasn’t until he leaned his left shoulder against the wall, stopped walking for a few moments, then pushed away again that he drew my attention. That, and the sudden bout of singing. Him, not me.

I overtook the rummy granddad, still anxious enough about my ice cream to not want to risk any complications that might arise from being near a swaying old gentleman. I left the narrow road and crossed a footpath. A big dollop of ice cream splattered down my front. “Bollocks!” I hissed. My outburst had all the elements of a shout of rage, except the volume. A curse-word shot through a gun with a silencer on the end. It was then that I saw the glistening nipple. It wasn’t mine. I’m not in the habit of walking around topless in public. It looked like it belonged to a bald woman, a woman standing rigid next to a doorway. It wasn’t until I noticed the lack of arms and eerie lack of movement, that I realised it was an old shop dummy for sale outside an antiques shop. It looked suitably sullied, either from years of being dressed and undressed, or a hard life living with a pervert, I couldn’t tell. All I saw was the price of £48 quid. A bargain for someone I suppose, but I was soon past it and heading down the lane. I had an ice cream to finish after all.

Thursday 3 August 2017

One Tiny Action

One Tiny Action

Written by Casey Douglass

Yesterday was fairly decent. Well, the couple of rest-punctuated hours in the morning in which I finished a review and wrote another post for my blog. I won’t talk about the rest of the day as it went downhill from there in a whirl of overeating, despondency and sleep. As far as sleep, I slept like a bag of shit last night (do bags of shit sleep?). I feel like I’m pushing through thick water today, barely breathing, barely awake.

Then silly me, what did I do? I browsed (a place where employers list jobs for freelancers) and saw job after job after job that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Actually, I would now I think about it, I hold grudges effortlessly. Once you rule-out the jobs that pay a dizzying few dollars for an hour’s work, the people advertising themselves rather than being an employer, and all the bollocky naughty jobs like being paid to write positive reviews (something I strongly feel should be punishable in a horrible way), there often isn’t a great deal left. A wave of tiredness crept up on me and I found myself looking for ways that I could find my own clients and pitch to them directly, avoiding sites like Freelancer altogether. If I found someone I wanted to pitch to. And decided on how I would put myself across. And if I finally come up with a tagline for my website that really tells what I do. And if I sort out my portfolio page to show only the pieces of work that I decide, rather than be exhaustive like it is now.

After all of that, I found a few suggestions for Facebook groups for writers. Many of them seemed self serving to the creator, “Join the group, buy my course” kind of thing, but one of the ones that wasn’t in that vein seemed promising. I clicked Join Group. That was my tiny action for the day. I won’t mention the group as it did kind of look only marginally better than the others, but if it turns out to be good, I’m always happy to spread the love by bigging up things I find useful. I’ve got to wait to be approved though, so time will tell. In a groggy haze I floated back to my bed and listened to what I’ve termed my “depression album”.

Bring Me The Horizon’s That’s The Spirit seems to be the one album (that isn’t dark ambient) that really hooks into my feelings of suffocation and worthlessness. They aren’t a metal band that I thought I would like but via Throne, I gradually grew into the other tracks too. I read awhile ago about how the lead singer Oli Sykes struggled with depression, so maybe that helped form some kind of connection too. So many of the tracks echo what I feel, I just get drawn to it (in a nice way) when I get low. I’ve linked Avalanche below, the lyrics “It's like an avalanche/ I feel myself go under/ 'Cause the weight of it's like hands around my neck/ I never stood a chance/ My heart is frozen over/ And I feel like I am treading on thin ice” really hit me in the feels.

That’s the thing with any kind of illness, sometimes the smallest of actions are the only thing you feel capable of doing. I know that after my music therapy I then went on to write this post, which is certainly a bigger thing than the tiny action that started this sequence of events, but at least it proves there can be wiggle room when everything seems stacked against you. 

Wednesday 2 August 2017

Don’t be an Expert, be a Skilled Professional

Don’t be an Expert, be a Skilled Professional

An irk released into the wild by Casey Douglass

Picture used freely from the excellent Gratisography site.

We live in a time where the meaning of certain words has been watered down, like a beer we might buy from some dodgy bar. Remember when broadband was advertised as “Unlimited”, but it turned out that it really wasn’t? Now we have to suffer extra words to be added like “Totally Unlimited”, just to get us back to within spitting distance of the original meaning.

Expert is another word that I personally throw into the devalued category. Apparently everyone is an expert now. I’m shooting at the subject more from the angle of how people present themselves online, but it still probably applies more broadly. Articles that talk about “finding your niche” and “becoming an expert” are usually only a few clicks away when trying to find advice about how to be more visible/successful/sexy online. Okay, not that last one, I’m just seeing if you’re still awake.

The problem lies in the way that so many people brand themselves an expert when they seem to be anything but. It’s the same kind of resume padding bollocks that you often see on someone's C.V, the kind of artistic license that would see a chronic nose picker describing themselves as skilled at deep mining excavation, because you’ve obviously got to spin it people. I know things are competitive out there but come on, fudging your way along in the way some people seem to is just silly.

On the flip side, even if you are an expert, the term can bring connotations of closed-mindedness and pig-headedness. How many times have you seen experts say something wouldn’t happen and then it does, yet they still get to walk around with their golden halo and appearance fee in tact? There is a lot to be said for the Zen notion of bringing “beginners mind” to all things, the state of mind where you are open to your present experience or task without closing down possibilities because you “know enough that that can’t happen!” I don't doubt that there some some truly amazing experts out there that fart rainbows and are every bit as amazing as the label might suggest, but as you can guess, this piece isn't really about those people.

I don’t recall ever describing myself as an expert in anything, and I don’t intend to start any time soon. I’d rather approach things as a skilled professional, a label that at least implies a willingness to learn and grow, and that doesn’t set up strange expectations. If you are in a position to hire someone and you are scoffing over your morning coffee, you are free to your opinion of course. I’m sure you’ll have no problem hiring some amazing person to fill your job opening, the world is full of experts for you to choose from after all.