Archives for February 2013

In Praise of Good Old Games

It all started a few years back when I bought a new notebook computer, one without a disk drive, as is becoming more and more the fashion these days. I had a sudden hankering to play Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic, my favourite ever turn-based computer strategy game. I did not fancy carrying around an external disk drive just so I could play a very old game that used its disk as a security measure. (You could not play at all without the CD in your computer’s drive.)

I can’t remember how I found myself at Good Old Games but I found a copy of AoW: SM there for download and at a very reasonable price. The basic idea of the site was a bit like Steam, except without the DRM and mostly concentrating on good, old fashioned games. (I know — the name is a bit of a giveaway, isn’t it?) Essentially you buy a game on the site and you can download it to any computer you own, back it up to disk or USB stick, whatever you like. There are no restrictions.

It was great. Age of Wonders downloaded just fine and my armies were soon dispatched in search of Shadow Demons to slay. And that was it for me and for a few years. I had got what I wanted at a fair price and I was on my way. I was mainly a Mac user at the time and I kind of had the idea that I would download some older games and run them on Parallels Desktop because their system requirements were low enough to run even on a Windows virtual machine. I never got round it.

The year before last my son Daniel, knowing how much I liked the first Witcher game, got me Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings for Xmas. I was  busy, what with the new baby and all, so it took me a few months to get round to installing it. When I did, it was an utter disaster. The game needed a massive amount of patching and simply refused to install the required patches. Nothing I did seemed to solve the problem.

Going online in search of a solution I came across an interesting item. CD Projekt, the makers of The Witcher were also the owners of Good Old Games. They had made available an online backup of Witcher 2 at the site. All you needed to do was type in your game code and you could download away. It seemed too good to be true but off I went. Lo and behold not only was it true, but the version of the game on the site was the latest iteration with all the patches preinstalled. In keeping with Good Old Games philosophy it had no DRM either.

Let me repeat that. It had no DRM. This was a top tier big budget game and it was available for download without any form of copy protection to anyone who had paid for it. In a day and age where big game developers seem to be tripping over each other to load new forms of DRM onto their work, here was a studio who seemed to value the convenience of their customers. A little Googling revealed that CD Projekt had a history of troubles with DRM and had just decided to abandon it altogether on their site. God bless them.

I was impressed by this. I was impressed by the site as well this time around. It was a real nostalgia fest. There were games dating back to Septerra Core—a PC based Japanese RPG clone from the 90s that I had fond memories of—to Heroes of Might and Magic. There were all the Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale games I never got to play the first time around all without DRM and modified to run on modern machines.

There were games I owned such as Neverwinter Nights. I bought it to play on my DVD driveless machines. There were hundreds of games, many of them classics. Their graphics may not be  ninja-tastic but their game play is great. A lot of them are in styles that have gone out of fashion but which I enjoy (turn-based strategy games for example).  During some of GOG’s many sales they can be had for next to nothing. I found myself buying up more than a few and playing them. The value for money is immense.

Nowadays a few indie developers are making their work available on GOG. Some of the games such as Driftmoon are in genres I really like. Anyway, I have rambled on here, when all I really meant to say was that if you have any interest in good, old-fashioned games you should take a look at the site.

Author’s Notes: Weaver of Shadow

Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilisation is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.

That quote, as you probably well know, comes from Robert E. Howard. More specifically it comes from his 1935 story Beyond the Black River, one of my two all-time favourite Conan tales. (It’s a toss up with Red Nails. I can’t choose between them.)

Beyond the Black River illustrates Howard’s theme all too well. It’s a tale of violence along the border between the civilised land of Aquilonia and the Pictish Wilderness. It was written late in Howard’s short life at a time when his always dark vision had turned particularly bleak. In it events spiral out of control as war erupts between Aquilonian and Pict, and the best even the mighty Conan can do is emerge alive from the maelstrom of violence.

It is not a tale of triumphant adventure. It is shocking excursion into a nightmare world where the primeval forest provides the setting for a conflict between civilised men turning savage and absolutely primordial barbarians. The ending is resolutely downbeat. I read it at a very impressionable age and it imprinted itself indelibly on my imagination.

It was a story that was very much on my mind when I came to write the third book about Kormak, my monster hunting hero, although I did not realise it at first. I did not consciously set out to emulate Beyond the Black River at all. I originally had something very different in mind: The Hobbit! 

I have talked about how when I started I wanted to explore Kormak’s world through a series of short stories. I eventually dropped that plan as impractical but when, in a fit of wild enthusiasm, I sat down to write Book Three a variant of it came to me. I would explore different facets of Kormak’s world in each book. This was going to be a book about elves.

Even the most cursory examination of my output will tell you I like to write about elves. When I was a developer at GW I worked on the original High Elf army book. My Terrarch books are set in a world ruled by corrupt and sinister elves, and of course my recent Tyrion and Teclis books have concerned themselves with both High and Dark Elves in their various manifestations.

So I sat down to take a long hard look at elves, and I went back to their roots (sorry!) at least as far as modern fantasy fiction is concerned, which is to say to Tolkien. I was thinking about the elves of Mirkwood, and how oddly sinister they seemed to me when I was young and first reading The Hobbit. For all that Tolkien intended them to be the heroes of Middle Earth, those elves always seemed needlessly cruel to me. Fey and strange and random too.

Of course, when you think about elves, you think of woods. I took that as a starting point and thus Kormak Book Three came to be dominated by forests, and not just any forest but the Elvenwood, a sentient wilderness that had once covered an entire continent. That’s when Beyond the Black River snuck in. When I think of forests in fantasy worlds Howard’s tale of the dark, monster-haunted Pictish Wilderness is never far from my mind. It immediately set the tone. More to the point, it provided an excellent template for a mighty central conflict, the struggle between man and elf for control along the great forest’s edge.

So Kormak’s quest took him to the borders of the Elvenwood, and there he found war brewing. He arrived at a moment when that struggle was about to become a raging inferno. Sniping between the two factions had escalated into raids and slave-taking and ritual sacrifice, spiralling quickly towards out and out war.

The elves themselves turned stranger and darker as the book progressed. The spirit of Beyond the Black River seemed to possess them. They were still semi-immortal pointy-eared woods dwellers but they became ever more like the Picts, feral, savage and deadly, armed with poisonous weapons, attacking from ambush. Their forest was in the grip of a Shadowblight, and the elves themselves had been changed for the worse by it.

The Shadowblight became a huge part of the story, an area of sorcerous corruption, eating the heart out of the old magical forest, and twisting and changing everything it encountered, turning natural creatures into monsters and driving normal people insane. To stay too long in it corrupts anything, even a Guardian like Kormak who is warded against such things.

Another aspect of Mirkwood has always haunted me, arachnophobe that I am, and that is the spiders. So the mad elves acquired allies, twisted sentient spiders, more than a little reminiscent of the Ultari in Death’s Angels. Hell, they even worshipped Uran Ultar, the infamous spider god of the Terrarch cycle. I’ve always wanted to build my own multiverse a la Michael Moorcock and Andre Norton and here was my chance to make a start. Weaver, the Prophet of the Spider God, became the chief adversary of the story. And, at the end of the line, Kormak has to face a creature even worse than Shelob.

I needed also to give the reader some idea of what the Elves were normally like when not corrupted by Shadow, so Kormak found an ally in Gilean, an elvish warrior and huntress sent to investigate the Shadowblight, and she in turn gave me a chance to explore more mainstream elvish culture and its relationship with the sentient forest.

The stage was set. On one hand we had feral, drug-addicted elves allied with giant sentient hunting spiders, emerging from their twisted forest to enslave and kill the humans who had stolen their lands. On the other, the humans became ever more like the embattled settlers of Howard’s masterpiece, foresters and woodsmen who had carved out their own little homeland beyond the feudal borders of the Sunlands and who were unwilling to give up their territory without a fight to the death.

Weaver of Shadow is a tale of raids, chases and ultimately war set beneath the eaves of a Shadow-haunted forest. It does not quite show the triumph of barbarism but it’s a close run thing. In the end it illustrates a somewhat different quote, from another of my favourite authors, George Orwell. Men can only be highly civilised while other men, inevitably less civilised, are there to guard and feed them.

Kormak is not very civilised but he is one of those stand guard while others sleep. He has his work cut out for him in this story.

The new Kormak book has been shipped out to,, B&N, Smashwords and all the usual suspects. Apple’s iBookstore is, as ever, a law unto itself and will let you have the book when it’s good and ready :).

Fun Atelier, Hong Kong

I meant to put this up a month ago but with my usual sloth-like speed I have somehow managed to delay doing so. After a couple of establishing shots of Hong Kong, specifically of the harbour as seen from the Star Ferry taken on my phone camera, these are pictures from my signing at Fun Atelier.

This is a great hobby store reached by its own elevator –how cool is that?– on Hong Kong Island. As you can see if you look closely I was sporting my wino beard but somehow this did not discourage numerous people from approaching me and engaging in pleasant conversation.

I would like to thank Edwin, Walter, William, Sam, Caspian, Guy and many, many others whose names now slip my mind for making it such a pleasant and memorable afternoon and for listening to my ramblings on the subjects of Elves, the 41st Millennium, how to write and many other subjects. I would like to thank Guy in particular for the gift of the fine painted figure of Macharius that you can see below! I’d also like to thank Edwin and Walter for taking the pictures and Walter for his diligence in sending them to me. My apologies for taking so long to put them up.

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My apologies — six weeks have passed without a post, which is my longest period of radio silence since I started this blog. In my defence I will say I have both been busy and on holiday. I was travelling in Asia– Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia to be specific. 

My original plan was to write about my trip as it happened. If you follow this blog you’ll have noticed how successful that was. I blame this on the fact that I was having a good time and to the fact that I quite frankly prefer wandering around interesting, exotic places than to blogging about them.

It’s a truism of keeping a travel diary that the days that are the least interesting are the days when you write most, and the days which are really exciting are the ones on which you write least. The reasons are obvious– when the days are full of incident and excitement you have less time to write them up. On the days that are dull, time hangs heavy on your hands, and you write up your notes to fill it up. The same thing apparently applies to blog posts. You can tell from the lack of blogging that I was having a good time. 

I’d like to give a shout out to Edwin Cheung and Walter Wu in Hong Kong, Francis Wolf in Kuala Lumpur, Rommel Farid and Patrick Ong in Penang and Damien Chua and Dongkye in Singapore. I’d just like to thank them all for their exceptional hospitality and for showing me around their home towns. Getting such an insiders view of things as a traveller is a gift beyond price. I’d also like to thank Black Library’s own Mal Green for putting me in touch with some of these excellent people in the first place. 

It wasn’t all swanning around in glamorous and exotic locales. I did actually do some work, which is how this travel gets funded. I polished the final draft of the second Macharius book, Fist of Demetrius. I wrote about 60% of the fourth Kormak book, City of Strife, and I revised the third Kormak book, Weaver of Shadow, which is with my editor now. I  also did some book signings in Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Hong Kong, where I got to chat with a lot of excellent people about Tyrion and Teclis and the Space Wolves among other things. I hope to be writing more about this and posting some pics in the not too distant future. 

And on that note, I will shut up. Hopefully it won’t be six weeks until my next post.