Wednesday 27 May 2020

Dark Ambient Review: Shortwave Ruins

Dark Ambient Review: Shortwave Ruins

Review by Casey Douglass

Shortwave Ruins

On first thought, the squelch and crackle of radio communication might not suggest itself as a candidate for a chilled, relaxing listening experience. When it’s married to hypnotic rainfall and gentle drones, by someone who knows what they are doing, you’d best bash that “first thought” over the head and bury it where you hide your other hasty ponderings. Shortwave Ruins is Mount Shrine’s latest Cryo Chamber release:
Album Description: Mount Shrine presents us an album filled with radio chatter and warm drones layered on cold textures. Your shortwave radio crackles with life as it rests on your heavy backpack. It follows your every step across the rough terrain as you narrow your search for the abandoned station. It is up here, far from civilization that the answers linger, lost for years as the stations self sustainability has kept it alive. Recommended for fans of sedative ambient and for drifting into a place of comfort.

The radio chatter is a common theme that links the tracks together. It varies in prominence from track to track. Opening track: Reach None, features it very strongly at first, the repetitive nature lulling the listener into a state in which it kind of feels monotonous, but also kind of nice. It is absorbed by the other sounds as the track continues, and then you find that you might even miss it. Other tracks might contain two people chatting back and forth in a muted, distant way; accompanied by the squeal and hum of radio frequencies trickling through the electronics. It all felt quite cosy and warm to me, like how hearing the rumble of a distant crowd can be lulling to the mind.

Another element that makes Shortwave Ruins relaxing, as a whole, is the rain. If you are at all familiar with Mount Shrine, you’ll know what Cesar can do with rain, the way he somehow makes it even more relaxing. There are moments in Shortwave Ruins where it sounds like rain falling on tent or hood fabric, which is relaxing enough, but when you add in the way that Cesar tinkers with the sound, making it softer, distorted, or more muted, it’s like the best kind of lullaby. That being said, he can also do the opposite. On some of the tracks, such as Earthbridge, the rain almost takes on the mantle of logs crackling in a fire.

When you merge the aforementioned rain and radio with the drones and other tones on the album, you get something that is supremely relaxing. Each track also gives the listener different feelings about what kind of mental space they are in. The first track, with its prominent chatter, made me feel like I was high up looking down on a grey, mist-filled landscape. Later tracks hinted at being in a tent, or even hearing raindrops splashing onto trees or rocks. I didn’t really get a sense of a narrative, beyond maybe flying, landing and journeying on foot, but I didn’t need it. It could have been a lonely experience though, if not for the voices on the radio.

Shortwave Ruins is a safe way to feel alone, yet not feel too far from others. People who live alone often like to have a TV or radio on for company. During this Corona Virus pandemic and lock-down, these devices often just fill the four walls with useless conjecture and speculation, and maybe, if you are really lucky, some actual information. If you want to get a million miles away from it all but don’t want to feel the pang of actual isolation, drop into the misty, rain-covered world of Shortwave Ruins and listen to the voices on the radio. The people hinted at in the album description might be ghosts now, but even ghosts can provide comfort.

Visit Shortwave Ruins on Bandcamp for more information and check out “Earthbridge” below. You can also find out a little bit about how Cesar creates his music in my interview with him last year.

I was given a review copy of this album.

Album Title: Shortwave Ruins
Album Artist: Mount Shrine
Label: Cryo Chamber
Released: March 17, 2020

Thursday 21 May 2020

Book Review: Blister

Book Review: Blister

Review by Casey Douglass


As humans, we often place a lot of emphasis on what we see. A snap judgement can make all the difference between surviving a terrible attack, or laying in a hospital bed wondering why you didn’t run sooner. We also tend to like stuff that “looks nice”. Jeff Strand’s Blister is a horror novel that plays with the notion of beauty, horror and survival, weaving them together to make the reader question how they might react in a similar situation. I bought it on the Kindle store a short while ago and this is my review.

The story opens with the line: “I’m a liar, but this is the truth.” In my opinion, a great opening line. We find out that the events of Blister happened during the mid 1980's and that Jason Tray, a cartoonist, is the one telling us the tale. In an attempt to scare some kids who are terrorizing his dog, Jason goes a little bit overboard, making great use of a fake chainsaw in the process. The fallout from this is that he has to lay low in a Georgian cabin, waiting for the tension back home to ease.

Jason meets some locals and enjoys a drunken evening playing pool, but this soon leads to his being invited to come and see something interesting. He finds himself peering through the window of a strange house, setting eyes on the deformed Blister for the first time. He’s horrified and what’s worse, she knows he looked inside. The next morning, he feels ashamed and decides to revisit the house to apologise. This is where he gets to know the real Blister, and this sows the seeds of his quiet getaway turning into chaos.

The first thing I really appreciated about Blister was that it revelled in the grey areas of motivation. Jason himself isn’t sure if he is acting out of guilt, pity or self-interest, and I found this to be an excellent way to engage the reader. As I read, I found I was questioning myself on how I might have reacted in certain of the situations that he and Blister found themselves in, with the result quite often being that I’d have run a mile. I found Blister herself to be a great character. She came across as someone both vulnerable and strong at the same time. She wasn’t simply a two-dimensional “freak”, but a rounded human being.

Another big element that I enjoyed was the setting of Blister, especially the “small town mentality” that permeated events. It’s the kind of town where news travels fast, secrets are buried and dealt with on the quiet, and outsiders, while not usually unwelcome, are none the less suspect. This setting also led to one of the best “non-barfights” I think I’ve ever read, one in which both men don’t really want to fight but a bored girlfriend just keeps stirring the tension. This is heightened by Jason’s awareness of what is going on and his bafflement at how ridiculous it all is. It made me chuckle.

The horror, when it comes, lives in the descriptions of what happened to Blister, showing why she is how she is. This echoes through Jason’s own involvement in the story, and leads to some sadistic torture-based scenes that were genuinely uncomfortable. I could feel myself in that situation and it was both horrible and riveting to read in equal measure. If anything, the way the story finishes feels slightly less riveting in comparison, the outcome of events satisfactory, but not really hitting those “oh shit!” feelings achieved by the midpoint. I was happy with the ending though, it made sense and for me, got the right mix of happy and sad.

Going into Blister, I was kind of under the preconceived notion that it would be a “murderous horror-freak” type tale, even though the blurb does hint that it’s not that simple. I wasn’t expecting a more nuanced story or one that would make me think so much, and that was a pleasant surprise. The horror and madness is strong in a number of scenes, but the rest is all about the consequences, so even if you are a bit squeamish, you might still like the story too. I really enjoyed it.

You can find Blister on Amazon and on the Sinister Grin Press website.

Book Title: Blister
Book Author: Jeff Strand
Publisher: Sinister Grin Press
Released: 2016
ISBN: 978-1944044190
Current Price: £2.06 (Kindle)

Saturday 16 May 2020

IndieDev Interview: Beard Envy

IndieDev Interview: Beard Envy

Beard Envy

When I was browsing the new releases on Steam a short while ago, my attention was drawn by a newly released puzzle game called Filament. The game itself looked intriguing, but seeing that you could buy the “Marmalade edition”, and reading that the developer is called Beard Envy... I just had to go to the developer website. Once there, I read about the plucky UK-based three-man team who make up the “Great Emanating Beard”, and had soon secured an interview with one whisker of said beard: Ben Webster. He tells us about the virtues of game jams, the challenges of creating a puzzle game, and also imparts a few of the lessons the team has learned along the way.

Casey: If someone looks at the Beard Envy website, they won’t fail to notice the humour and whimsy that the text contains. Even the circumstances of how the three of you came together to make Filament, your newly released game, also seem to fall under ‘whim’. How did two games artists and a visual effects artist come together to create Beard Envy, and what was the learning curve like as you all expanded your areas of expertise to accommodate the wider elements of game creation?

Ben: Injecting a little humour into the website was a bit of a crutch to motivate us to actually do it, web design isn't exactly our thing. Regarding coming together to form Beard Envy: we were already good friends and began doing weekend game jams in our free time. We enjoyed doing it and we liked our outcomes from the game jams, so decided to give making a full game a go. The learning curve was not only huge, but something that took a long time. Even now after Filament is done, we're still learning things from it. We have a giant list of things we did in Filament which we wish we had done differently, but that's hindsight, ey?

C: In 2017, you entered the Epic Megajam and had to create a game to suit the theme “However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.” This is where Filament was born. What was it like to create a game in seven days, which tools helped you to stream-line the process, and how valuable do you think game jams are, as a tool for creativity?

B: Creating a game in 7 days, at the time, was a luxury. Every other jam we'd done was a little over 48 hours (although now, nearly 3 years later, I can't imagine how we'd make a game in a week). During that jam, we actually had no idea what we were really making until around half way through, where we just stumbled across 'it'. So the biggest tool for us, once we reached that point, was the fear of not finishing in time and very little sleep. Honestly, we couldn't praise game jams any more highly. They are simply the best way to get some ideas that you would never normally come up with, and very quickly, get a feel for the game. We're planning our next project and we're doing our own jams for it. It’s so easy when starting a new project to get bogged down in details or to focus on the wrong parts. When you have such a small amount of time, you really focus on the bits that make the game feel right, and they're the most important.


C: Do you guys make use of any particular brainstorming or creativity techniques when you are game jamming your way through an idea, or is it more a case of cups of tea, biscuits and bouncing ideas off each other?

B: We don't have any particular brainstorming techniques really. I should take this moment to shout-out some free software we use: Drawpile. It allows us to all draw on one big canvas together and we can pull images from the web. Perfect for coming up with ideas.

C: In an interview with PC Games N, you said that when you were all brainstorming visual ideas for Filament, you soon realised that it felt important that things were “cosy”. I’d imagine that’s not a word that gets spoken very often in game development. Why did this cosy feeling become so desirable, and was there an element of wanting to soothe the player as they grappled with the puzzles?

B: I'm not quite sure I can put into words why 'cosy' felt right. At the time we weren't really thinking about soothing the player too much (Filament was a little rough then, merely a shadow of its full self). I think we were still looking for the aesthetic but the feel of the rooms we were making, cluttered and lived-in, was exactly what we wanted, what we dubbed: cosy.

C: Filament allows the player to approach its puzzles, for the most part, in the order that the player decides. It’s not even required to complete all the puzzles to finish the story-line. Why was this approach adopted over the more unforgiving puzzle-game variety, and did weaving the puzzles and story together present any particular issues along the way?

B: We decided to, fairly often, have the puzzles be solvable in (more or less) any order. No one likes getting stuck on a puzzle game, but it's somewhat unavoidable, especially if you want your puzzles to be challenging. The best way to deal with this (and I feel like this is good advice for life in general) is to leave what's currently frustrating you and to come back with fresh eyes. We wanted to enable this behaviour within the game. If the player gets frustrated with a puzzle, they will hopefully find something else to do in game and then return to the puzzle later feeling better. This is why you can approach the puzzles in any order. There is also a story to investigate and uncover (we also just really wanted to write a story) and there are secrets to find and solve.


Weaving the story into the game was challenging and I still don't think we got it spot on, we had to make plenty of compromises. We know not everyone who plays Filament will care about the story, they might just want to go to town on the puzzles, so we did our best to have the story force very little on the player, but also to leave much more to dive into for the people that are in it for the story. It's for this same reason that you can complete the story without solving all of the puzzles, the game is hard and if the story is the player's reason for playing, we don't want to force them to solve every puzzle to see where the story goes. Like I said, it's impossible to please everyone, so we aimed for a balance that felt good for us.

C: Sadly we find ourselves currently grappling with the Corona Virus pandemic. Filament released on Steam exactly one month after the UK entered lock-down. What issues did the lock-down cause in the month before release, and how have you all managed to cope with the added stresses that have come into other areas of your lives? Was there any stockpiling of beard oil?

B: We have been affected by the lock-down but nowhere near the extent of others, I'm sure. We made Filament out of our living room so the lock-down didn't hugely affect our work schedule. We all cope in our own ways; I like to go for a bike ride. There wasn't any stockpiling of beard oil. Regarding facial hair, lock-down has been liberating; permission to let it get more unwieldy. I myself am currently rocking (citation needed) a moustache for the first time in my life.

C: If you had one tip or one lesson learned the hard way, to impart to someone who is thinking about creating a game, or who is even a short way into their new project, what would it be and why?

B: It's tricky to give just one lesson, I touched on one a bit earlier, do game jams, or more importantly, get the feel of your game down before you spend time on art (and other faff), your game will be better for it. Another important lesson that we're already applying on our next project is to set a reasonable scope for your project early on and stick to it. We kept adding more and more to Filament, and don't get me wrong we ended up with something we are incredibly proud of, but it took nearly three years and finishing it was really hard. Starting off smaller would have taught us most of the lessons we've learned but in a smaller amount of time, and would have just been far more manageable.


My thanks goes to Ben for kindly taking the time to answer my questions. You can visit the Filament page on Steam for more information about the game, and you can also find Beard Envy at their website and on social media.

Friday 8 May 2020

Book Review: Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It

Book Review: Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It

Review by Casey Douglass

Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It

If I hear a tasty quote or a short sentence that strikes a chord with how I’m feeling about life, I’ll nod my head, think about writing it down and then never get around to it. Daniel Klein is someone that did actually take the next step in that process and actually put pen to paper. As a young man, Daniel labelled a notebook “Pithies” and decided to record any philosophical gem that spoke to him. Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It was born when decades later, Daniel rediscovered this old notebook, and decided to study it to see what fresh insights might be gained.

The title: Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It was born from a quote from American philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, and as you might imagine, the book itself consists of plenty of chapters, each beginning with the quote that inspired that particular chapter. In the prologue, Daniel explains the conundrum of how to best order the Pithies. He didn’t want to just arbitrarily write them chronologically, or try to categorise the pigeonhole spanning themes within. He settled on presenting them in a more natural, whimsical way, letting one idea lead him to another. I enjoyed this approach, as I felt it gave the book a more conversational flow, taking in the natural deviations that a friendly philosophical discussion might contain.

The opening sections of the book start with the topic of hedonism and such figures as Epicurus and Aristippus, but soon makes way for the pessimistic Arthur Schopenhauer and the often quite bleak Existentialists such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. This is what I referenced above, how talking about hedonism and finding pleasure in life soon diverts to the suffering it contains and notions of pain and suicide. That’s not even getting to the notion of free-will, what is our true-self and the benefits of friendship and humour. This is a book dense with ideas and I’ve only very loosely described the first third of it so far.

Don’t let the denseness put you off however, as Daniel does a fine job of making things interesting. The quote that starts each chapter is like an acorn he puts in your hand, and the humble number of pages that follow in said chapter describe the branch of the “philosophy tree” it came from. Certain of these leaves were also taken from Daniel’s own life, whether relating to what was going on at the time he recorded the Pithy, or his own views now looking back at that time. We also get to hear about his dog Snookers in some of his examples, which is something I think more philosophical discourse should include.

The topics in Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It cover quite a variety of things, and Daniel does a good job of explaining his opinions on these issues. I didn’t find myself disagreeing more than a couple of times. The only thing I felt a shake of my head towards was in the chapter about friendship and relationships. Daniel seemed dismissive of the idea of setting certain boundaries in your relationship with someone; how it goes against intimacy and the like. I can see his point and he made his case with a reasonable example, but I would say that boundaries are an important element of self-care for certain people, especially if you happen to live life as a chronic “people pleaser”.

Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It is a lovely book that provides much food for thought. I’d already read a decent number of the philosophers inside, but I also picked up a few names that I’d like to find out more about. The main discovery for me in this respect is David Pearce, a British philosopher who thinks that we must do whatever is possible to make happiness universal. Incorporated into his ideas are the use of technology, such as nanotechnology and designer drugs and how they might be used to bring this about. As someone who struggles with uncomfortable emotions like fear and anxiety on quite a painful level, this notion of what a world without certain emotions would be like is an interesting thing to ponder. I’ve yet to actually read anything of Pearce’s directly but I firmly intend to.

So for £1.99, I bought a book that took me on a philosophical tour of some of the most enrapturing ideas for the author, with the added bonus of finding some new avenues to follow along the way. I’ve spent more on crisps! If you enjoy philosophy that is presented in a calm, thoughtful way, head on over to Amazon or the publisher’s website to find out more.

Book Title: Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It
Book Author: Daniel Klein
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
Released: 2015
ISBN: 9781780749327
Current Price: £8.19 (Paperback) / £1.99 (Kindle)

Wednesday 6 May 2020

Splat some Bugs in Starship Troopers: Terran Command (PC)

Splat some Bugs in Starship Troopers: Terran Command (PC)

Starship Troopers: Terran Command

Last night while I was idly browsing Steam’s upcoming releases list, I got my first look at Slitherine’s Starship Troopers: Terran Command. It’s a real time strategy game that’s based on the first film in the series, letting the player take control of the Mobile Infantry as they battle against the Bugs. The game is being developed by Belgian developer The Aristocrats and has been in development for more than two years. It’s scheduled for release sometime in 2020, and sadly, after the game’s announcement last December, everything seems to have fallen silent. With the Corona Virus currently affecting pretty much everything, who’s to say if it will even release this year. Time will tell.

I really liked the first Starship Troopers film. The others, well, I barely remember them, but the first was a fun, gory, satirical look at how a space-age military might deal with an alien menace. If Starship Troopers: Terran Command manages to capture enough of the feel of the first film, and doesn’t make a mess of anything major, it could be the real time strategy game that actually draws me back to the genre after years of largely not being interested.

Starship Troopers: Terran Command

Starship Troopers: Terran Command

Iain McNeil, Development Director at Slitherine sums up the seemingly perfect fit of Starship Troopers as an RTS in the press release when he said: “If you take one of the most iconic movies from the 90s and shape it into a strategy game of survival, that mixes classic real-time mechanics, tower defense and tactical deployment of units then you have ‘Starship Troopers - Terran Command’ in a nutshell”.

The thing that has me the most excited comes in the description of campaign side of the game. The Steam description reads: “Remain obedient to the demands of Terran Command – no matter how costly or ruthless – to benefit from exclusive unit types and special abilities, or follow your own path to glory to become an irrefutable Hero of the Federation.” Now this might be a strange thing to get excited about, but the idea of being given a ridiculous order and having to decide if the sacrifice is worth it... that sounds fun to me.

If you think Starship Troopers: Terran Command sounds like it could be your kind of thing, head over to Steam and pop it on your wishlist. I’ve embedded the announcement trailer below if you want to see how things might look. To me, it looks a bit ropey in places, but then it’s an early glimpse of things to come, and this is to be expected. It does look fun though!

Monday 4 May 2020

Book Review: The Hematophages

Book Review: The Hematophages

Review by Casey Douglass

The Hematophages

The other day, I found myself wanting to read some space-based horror, something that might contain blood, ideally in rattling metal corridors and featuring a strange, twisted threat. I browsed through some of the horror presses I follow on Twitter and after a few clicks, Stephen Kozeniewski’s The Hematophages was sitting on my Kindle. The blurb told tale of a strange fleshworld, ghoulish skin-wrappers and depravity, which are three things that I didn’t know I was looking for, but on seeing them, made it an easy purchase.

The story follows Paige Ambroziak, a student who, in the opening pages, is going through a job interview. The job in question is a salvage mission to recover an old seed ship from a bizarre fleshworld, a bounty that various megacorps are salivating about claiming. Paige has spent most of her life on Yloft, a deep space outpost where she moved when she was young. This new job offers the prospect of adventure, fortune and excitement, and on landing it, her fate is sealed. She doesn’t believe this is just any seed ship however, but The Manifest Destiny, a ship that was launched when countries were powers in the world. The Manifest Destiny’s plight is even the subject of a movie that everyone seems to have grown up watching.

Paige’s journey to the fleshworld doesn’t go smoothly. Her new ship, the RV Borgwardt, crosses paths with gruesome pirates called skin-wrappers, a strange group of mummy-like creatures in which illness caused them to flay their flesh and live in zero-gravity. Beyond the threat of pirates, the fleshworld itself holds various dangers, its blood-like protoplasm the home of the Hematophages of the title: the blood drinkers. I enjoyed the fleshworld as a location. There is something quite gruesome about a planet with an ocean of blood, even the thought itself has a very strange weight to it, like dropping a stone down a wishing well and hearing something chilling echo back, rather than a “plop”.

The Hematophages themselves are a fun adversary, if fun is the right word. There is something about them that brings a lovely paranoia to the tale, and what the crew of the RV Borgwardt learn about their true nature evolves them from a simple adversary to one with a pleasing depth. Even though the Hematophages are the titular terror, I found the skin-wrappers just as engrossing. Just to get into the head-space of someone who is suffering from so much pain that they choose the life of a mummy, it’s a thought that makes you shudder.

The universe that The Hematophages plays out in is a bleak, high-tech and greedy one. The corporations rule all and fight amongst themselves. The technology allows for travelling vast distances into the “ink” while also allowing people to inject crank with the press of a button. The characters that populate the story all have their own personality, from Paige’s bunkmate Zanib who forever calls Paige “virgin” (for not having travelled before) to the intimidating Director Diane who seems to cling to protocol even when the shit hasn’t only hit the fan, but is fizzing in the electrical system too. Paige herself is a sometimes likeable, sometimes unlikeable character. She can be a bit of an arsehole but she is also capable of thinking of others. I liked her, and I appreciate the skill in writing a character that contains shades of grey.

I did get a little lost by the thread of the story on one occasion, a confusing encounter in the first half of the book left me wondering who was really dead and who wasn’t. There was a “reveal” involved which made sense, but it felt layered in a way that I still wasn’t sure about the detail of what happened, just the general big picture stuff. It’s the only thing that jumped out at me as something I had issue with, and that very well could have been on me and my concentration at the time. The story as a whole was a fun ride, and the horror elements were particularly eye-watering. If you read the book, you’ll fully understand my use of that phrase.

The Hematophages is a book that takes you on a dark journey through the “ink”. There seems little of beauty in the parts of the universe it touches upon, and what beauty is there, seems fleeting, needy and self-obsessed. There is a great mixture of fleshy horror and human greed, and it all plays out in those thrumming metal corridors that I always find add a lovely sense of claustrophobia to proceedings. The Hematophages was really fun. Enough said.

Book Title: The Hematophages
Book Author: Stephen Kozeniewski
Released: 1 April 2017
Price: £13.13 paperback / £2.32 Kindle (currently)
ISBN: 9781944044558