Translating Video Games into Text

I have three great loves in life: video games, pro wrestling, and reading.  When it comes to pro wrestling, a keen eye can pick up not just typical story arcs but stories that take place within matches–really, a good match is little different in structure than a book.

But that being said, in my world books and video games have a symbiotic relationship.  Both carry me on dragon wings into fantasy realms that otherwise exist only in my dreams.  And my dreams are filled with ideas from the two mediums.

Even so, each format has its own idiosyncrasies.  In trying to adapt some of my video game experiences and inspirations into written stories, I’ve realized just how different the pacing can be.  Some games are taut narratives, but the best video game epics like The Elder Scrolls series are sprawling, oftentimes meandering experiences.  While numerous distractions would make a book bloated and unfocused, in video games, where you are the protagonist, exploration becomes its own reward.

Dolphin 2017-09-18 00-56-07-56How would you write a story that captures the spirit of a game like Skies of Arcadia?  SoA is all about exploration, about looking in nooks and crannies to find treasure and experiences unrelated to the storyline.  Similary, Suikoden is about searching far and wide to find 108 different characters: when translated literally into book form, it would be like an alphabet soup of names, swirling around the reader and mostly unimportant.  Yet it’s the heart of the Suikoden series.

Having a hero pause to inspect every little nondescript, unimportant cave probably won’t work well in text form.  Yet their essences can be distilled down to general ideas and concepts.  Skies is all about a sense of adventure in a free, open world.  Suikoden is about bringing together a wide range of discrete personalities to unite for a common good.

Find the spirit of a video game inspiration, and go from there!


Prydain: A Place Somewhere Between Narnia and Middle Earth

A few months ago, my dad and I were talking about our favorite books.  At one point he said, “I wish there was something between Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.”  We talked a bit about that, about how dense J.R.R. Tolkien’s LotR is, and how brisk C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia are; how Narnia is a great way to interest young minds in fantasy while Tolkien is for the seasoned veterans.

Both are favorites of ours and highly recommended, but they are the extreme ends of the fantasy spectrum.  One series is made to be accessible for children in a series of shorter, easier reads, and the other is a hefty tome that amounts to an undertaking even for experienced adult readers.

I decided that the middle ground had to exist somewhere, and in the back of my mind I recalled reading–and enjoying–the first book in Lloyd Alexander’s The Prydain Chronicles.  That seemed like a good starting place, and I started with Prydain’s first book, The Book of Three.IMG_1584

Standing on its own, The Prydain Chronicles was a wonderful experience.  But more striking to me is just how well it sits somewhere between Lewis and Tolkien’s fantasy epics.

On the surface, the middle ground is surprisingly literal.  Narnia sports seven books, Prydain five, and The Lord of the Rings three (okay, LotR’s is debatable, but you get the point).  The word counts show a similar connection: Narnia checks in at 238,080, Prydain at 351,540, and the LotR at 481,103, putting Prydain close to the middle.

That word count becomes apparent in the writing styles of the three series.  Narnia is low on detail and accessible to all ages.  Prydain delivers more grown-up writing that aims more for preteens and young teens.  And LotR, of course, is a detailed volume that sits amongst fantasy’s heaviest hitters.


Going a little deeper, Prydain checks of all the “fantasy genre” marks just like the other two.  Evil forces are threatening the world, and unexpected, naive heroes are called upon to be more than they ever thought.  The usual tropes are there: fantastic beings, magic, ancient artifacts, demonic enemies bent on destruction.

Like LotR, Prydain follows more-or-less the same cast through its multiple volumes.  But like Narnia, each Prydain book is its own self-contained adventure (with some references and connections to the others).  Prydain, both in terms of cast and storyline, is a little more consistently-comical than LotR but takes more serious turns than Narnia typically does.

Analyzing all three sets of protagonists, it’s almost as if each author tackles the challenges belonging to the next stage of growing up.  Lewis’s young heroes are curious and brave, wary and scared.  Alexander’s protagonists are teenagers who dream of adventure, excitement, and glorious battles; of becoming respected, responsible adults.  Tolkien’s are adults who understand just what responsibility means and the cost of glory, but still strive to do what must be done.

Of course, nothing is ever a perfect middle ground.  Prydain doesn’t quite reach for that deeper spirituality of Lewis and Tolkien.  To be fair, that was never Alexander’s intent: Prydain sprang from clearly-passionate love and desire to play within Welsh mythology.

Yet while Lewis’s aims with Narnia are clear, Tolkien did not set out to write a Christian work with The Lord of the Rings, nor did he claim an intended allegory: it sprang naturally from Tolkien’s own Catholic background.  Similarly, Alexander acknowledges his own Christianity flowing necessarily into Prydain, both unconsciously and even consciously through some overt Biblical references.  It’s no surprise then that the characters and the overarching morality are no less admirable than Lewis and Tolkien’s.

And if you’re a fan of Lewis or Tolkien and need any further push toward Prydain, Alexander openly acknowledged his debt to both authors:

“Like his fellow genius, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis has redefined the nature of fantasy, adding richness beauty, and dimension… In our times, every fantasy realm must be measured in comparison with Narnia.”

It’s through that understanding and acknowledgement that Prydain is manages bits and pieces of both Narnia and Middle Earth, yet is solidly its own, unique adventure.  If you’re hoping for something between Lewis and Tolkien, or just looking for some classic fantasy, Prydain is an excellent choice.


Fantasy Adventures Volume 1: Five Short Stories of Humor, Love, and War is out now for 99¢!


The Eyes of God Review

I just finished up John Marco’s The Eyes of God.  Sadly, I made a tactical error and ordered the sequel (The Devil’s Armor) later than I should have, meaning a few painful days of waiting for the postman before I can continue the adventure.  But on the plus side, that’s a few days to digest all that’s happened in the previous 800 pages.

With that, a short review!  Spoilers are limited to a few names, with very little said story-wise beyond the initial set-up.  And it might be worth noting that The Eyes of God is my first experience with Marco, noting his previous Tyrants and Kings trilogy received rave reviews.


To set the story up with a nod to The Lego Movie: everything is awesome.  The new king of Liiria, King Akeela, is off to make peace with longtime enemies in the land of Reec.  Akeela is accompanied by Lukien, the Bronze Knight and the leader of Liiria’s invincible Chargers.  The two are close, almost brothers.


Reec is more than receptive to the idea of peace, but a princess, magical amulets, and a wide variety of characters from all over the land threaten to ruin everything that Lukien and Akeela have worked for.

The short review: it’s not perfect, but I quite enjoyed it.  It’s a wide-reaching epic fantasy that starts off a with a bunch of common tropes and clichés, but introduces some likable characters and takes us down some interesting paths.

Some of those paths feel like only a few steps in a longer journey, and in that regard, The Eyes of God suffers a bit from being “Book One of the Bronze Knight Series”.  The characters themselves come and go, with some interesting figures appearing only briefly (presumably, they’ll be bigger players in the sequels–I immediately fell in love with Meriel, and will be sorely disappointed if her role doesn’t expand!).  As well, there is a fairly significant amount of world building that’s done throughout the book, especially in the earlier parts.

That being said, the characters are well-written, likable but realistically flawed.  The heroes struggle with their own weaknesses and emotions.  The villains motivations and reasons, some even sympathetic.  Nobody makes the right decisions at all times–as it should be.

Yet thankfully, the bad guys remain the bad guys and the good guys the good: The Eyes of God‘s cast isn’t merely drab shades of gray, leaving the reader with a foggy cast and no heroes to cheer on.  Even with some insight into the antagonists’ minds, the idea is never conveyed that their actions are somehow in the right.

As for the actual storyline: characters come and go, time passes, alliances and kingdoms form, grow, and wither.  Adventures start in Liiria and then cross more than a half-dozen kingdoms, and Marco does a solid job of illustrating their varying cultures and inhabitants.  There’s action, romance, tension, and drama; magic, swords, and mythical beasts.  The Eyes of God hits all the right notes that epic fantasy demands!

There are a handful of small issues.  The pacing is a bit slow, and I think it might have benefited from being trimmed down just a bit from its nearly-800 pages.  Characters’ moods sometimes fluctuate rather quickly (such as going from despondent to cheerfully making jokes within a few lines).  Sometimes some of the nuance gets a little twisted: at one point Lukien noted he wouldn’t be surprised if a certain bit of news had reached his destination ahead of him, then, less than a page later, he’s surprised to find it has!

But those are all quibbles within the wider scope of The Eyes of God.  Marco has crafted a strong first entry in a wider epic fantasy tale, and I’m eager to rejoin Lukien (and, I hope, Meriel!).


Fantasy Adventures Volume 1: Five Short Stories of Humor, Love, and War is out now for 99¢!

Reading as a Writer

My brother works in television.  One day he told me about how it’s hard for him to watch anything now without analyzing it, because he watches it with the eye of an insider, who knows how things do-and-don’t work, and why.  He can explain why certain scenes are more appealing than others, often in subtle ways we don’t consciously process.

I’m noticing a similar trend now that I have several short stories and a few novels (mostly unpublished!) under my belt.  I’m not speaking of technical issues related grammar or spelling (I know that one well: my own writing is riddled with them until someone else can read through it!).  Rather, I’m speaking of things like story arcs, characterization, and so forth.


One of the books I’m currently reading–John Marco’s The Eyes of God–is proving to be quite enjoyable, but dealing with a more critical eye on my part.  At times, character’s attitudes seem to swing quickly from one emotion to the next, going from zen-like calm to seething anger to mirth with only the smallest of provocations between them.  Personalities are, from time to time, a little inconsistent.  Certain words get re-used a little too regularly.  The pacing is a touch slow.

With some writing under my belt, though, I realize just how difficult all of that nuance really is.  I re-use words far to often within my own blogs and tweets.  My characters suffer from numerous instabilities.  “Cliché” is too generous a term for my storylines.  Managing a pace that is neither plodding nor dizzingly-fast is a massive challenge.

But I also noticed that, despite those criticisms, The Eyes of God isn’t any less enjoyable.  I’m quite liking my current read, and the occasional random, moody outburst from a character is a mere trifle within the sprawling, epic experience.  That Marco can craft such a detailed world and characters while keeping things fresh and intriguing is incredibly impressive (and far better than anything I’ve done!).

Having struggled for consistency and variety in 250-page tomes, it’s amazing that someone could put together something triple that size with far more success.  My butt gets kicked struggling with six cast members, while Mr. Marco has a roster three times that!

Yet it’s a rather heartening reminder of that Henry James quote: “Excellence does not require perfection.”  As a writer, you don’t need to be absolute perfection to create a grand adventure.  Even the best in a genre make mistakes, and that doesn’t make them any less exceptional.

(And if Mr. Marco ever reads this, I apologize for the criticism!  The Eyes of God simply happened to be my current read, and I was rather excited to blog about it!  I hope I adequately expressed my appreciation for your work, and there will certainly be more Bronze Knight-related blogs in the months to come.)


Fantasy Adventures Volume 1: Five Short Stories of Humor, Love, and War is out now for 99¢!

Realmz and Exile: My First PC RPGs

In the mid 90s, I was already well acquainted with the console RPG.  The original Dragon Warrior (er, Dragon Quest – Enix changed the name for the US release) might have been my first foray into that exciting world, but it was later games that really solidified my interest.  Final Fantasy IV is still one of my favorites, combining quality gameplay with a deep storyline, massive length, and tons of character development.  Lacking a Super Nintendo, I could only play FFIV occasionally at a friend’s house, so my love affair continued through GameBoy titles, like the original SaGa trilogy (Final Fantasy Legend 1-3 in the US–what was up with them changing names?) and Seiken Densetsu (Final Fantasy Adventure in the US.  Okay, that change makes sense!).

DarkQueenPC gaming wasn’t really a thing in our family.  Our first full-fledge computers were Macintoshes, wonderful computers but not exactly gaming-friendly.  At some point, Mom and Dad gifted me The Dark Queen of Krynn, but it was the third in a series and overwhelming for my 9-or-10-year-old brain.  (Looking at the cover, in hindsight I’m a little a surprised my parents bought it!)

Instead, Shareware filled my PC gaming fix.  I spent many hours with Wolfenstein 3D, but that’s a blog for another time.  While Windows gamers were playing the venerable Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall, those of us on the Mac side had 1994’s Realmz and 1996 cousin, Exile.


These games felt brutally difficult, but they were unlike anything I had played on console, home or handheld.  Characters were created from scratch with a plethora of stats to tweak and adjust, far more than even the SaGa games allowed.  The worlds were more-or-less open worlds, and you could wander anywhere, uninhibited by storyline restraints.  The quests were there, to be sure, but you weren’t limited to a relatively-linear path that led you from one storyline point to the next.

To be sure, the graphics are quite dated, but I can still hear that mystical musical tone of that accompanies the splash screen, followed by that little knock on the door.  I dreamed of a having the money to play the additional scenarios and sequels.  I was so inspired that I even attempted to create my own RPG with Apple’s old Hypercard: I figured that if I could not afford the games, I could create my own (it never quite worked out!).

Realms Screenshot

Even without being able to buy the additional scenarios for Realmz, or register for the full versions of Exile and its sequels, their impact on my formative years was no less lasting.  It’s true that sometimes the magic wears off as we age, but at the same time, maturity can bring with it a deeper understanding and appreciation of what we held dear as a kid.

Maybe it’s time for me to pay those lands another visit.


All images taken from Wikipedia.


Fantasy Adventures Volume 1: Five Short Stories of Humor, Love, and War is out now for 99¢!

Thoughts on The Return of the King

I’m just not going to do The Return of the King justice in this little blog, so I thought I’d touch on a few major bits.  As usual, there are some spoilers, both for the books and for the movies!


The Battle of Pelennor Fields
The Battle of Pelennor Fields was, I think, much better handled in the book than in the movies.  As stated in my blog on The Two Towers, one of my chief complaints with the films is that Helm’s Deep feels like a turning point.  The forces of the West have routed Mordor’s forces once, and the tension never quite reaches that same level.

In the book, however, The Battle of Pelennor Fields feels like a much bigger deal.  Mordor’s forces have yet to be defeated in battle, and their threat has been built up over the course of two-plus books.  Gondor is frantically preparing their defenses, begging allies for assistance in what looks like certain death.

And that leads into another example of what the book does well: showing the gravity of the situation, and just how far-reaching the threat is.  Several nations and groups that were glossed over (or non-existent) in the movie arrive to help, the most prominent film omission being Imrahil, the prince of Dol Amroth.  Several other nations send troops and captains, and a race entirely absent from the film–the Pukel-men–even lend some minor aid.  It really feels like a world war, while the movies feel like “Mordor versus Gondor and a few elves.”


Sam and Frodo
In the movies, the epic battles and sweeping vistas overshadowed Samwise and Frodo to the point where I find myself a little disappointed when it switches from Helm’s Deep to the plodding adventures of the two little hobbits.

In the books, I found myself quite a bit more interested in their adventures.  Both characters, but Samwise in particular, are much stronger characters in writing.  To my surprise, I found myself looking forward to those segments, and books Four and Six were highly enjoyable.

While a picture is worth a thousand words, sometimes words can show us what pictures cannot.  In the books, the Ring feels heavier, and it’s easier to understand and live through Frodo’s suffering.  Similarly, Sam’s commitment to him comes off even stronger, as we can see deeper into their minds.  I went from liking them the least to possibly preferring them–although Aragorn still gives them stiff competition.

(I would argue that only Legolas and Gimli are weaker than their movie counterparts, although their friendship and personalities are still well-done!)


The Scouring of the Shire
Vying with Tom Bombadill for title of “Biggest Omission from the Movies”, The Scouring of the Shire!  I must admit, I actually liked this part quite a bit.  I feel like endings are often too short, and that if you’re going to err, err on the side of “too much”.  Stories often leave us without any indication of the afterward (sometimes setting up sequels, sometimes just leaving us to imagine).

In this case, maybe it was too much, but I quite enjoyed seeing the hobbits return to the Shire.  It was a chance to showcase their growth, and, in the case of Frodo, give us a better idea of the scars he’s now carrying.  It was also nice to see that hobbits in general, when roused, have quite a lot of spirit, beyond the occasional Baggins or Took.

All the same, I can see why it was removed from the movie.  Despite being an exciting, well-written adventure, doing it justice (along with the multiple chapters prior of good-byes) would have easily required another hour of screentime.  After a point, the practical realities do need to be considered, and it would have seriously messed with the pacing.  While the pacing works for a book, The Scouring of the Shire is almost a fresh adventure in itself, something of a mini-sequel/epilogue.

It would be like putting Peter S. Beagle’s Two Hearts at the end of a long, epic production of The Last Unicorn: while Two Hearts is a magnificent coda, it’s a story unto itself.  Jumping from one to the other, the audience is never quite given a chance to really process what came before it.

At the same time, I really quite enjoyed The Scouring, and I’m not sure I would want the book itself to drop it.  A quandary.


In Conclusion…
Do I prefer the books to the movies?  I’m not so sure, despite what the tone of these blogs might imply.  They’re favorite movies of mine, and that certainly won’t change regardless!

I found this blog a bit of a challenge, and so it’s fairly slapdash, and just hitting on the big points.  Neither this one nor the previous two really do The Lord of the Rings justice, and so I have at least one more planned that will focus on the overall experience of reading, and finishing, the book, as well as if I prefer it to the movies!

Thoughts on The Two Towers

Like my post on The Fellowship of the Rings, spoilers abound for both the books and the movies!

Now that The Two Towers is in the bag, I have some more comments, comparing the movie (my favorite of the trilogy) with the book.


Helm’s Deep
In the books, Helm’s Deep, while intense, is a much shorter event, and is done within the first third of The Two Towers.  While enjoyable, it’s certainly not my favorite part of the two books I’ve read so far.

The movie’s depiction of the battle is far more exciting.  They did a wonderful job of creating tension, stretching out the battle to encompass much of the second film, and the battle is one of my favorite moments in any movie.   Theoden and the few remaining warriors charge forth to certain death, to die nobly and honorably just to buy their loved ones a few more precious minutes to escape.  Just before their blaze of glory is extinguished, when it looks like all is lost, Gandalf and the Rohirrim arrive, turning certain death into certain victory in a mater of moments.  Light pours over the battlefield, and suddenly dead men walking have new life.

But it comes with a downside: the movies does such a good job of making the situation feel dire that the rest of the trilogy never really compares.  After the Uruk-hai are defeated at Helm’s Deep, the tides have turned, and the peril is never quite so dire again.  The road is dangerous, but the momentum is in the heroes’ favor as the final third is entered.

Which brings us to my next point…


Sauron and Saruman’s Relationship
While a shorter event that’s over in the first their of the book, Helm’s Deep is such a turning point in the movies partly because The Two Towers makes it the focal point of the entire second story, and partly because Saruman is depicted as being a willing servant of Sauron, his forces a part of Sauron’s own army.  Therefore, the defeat at Helm’s Deep is a direct defeat for Sauron.  While a necessary change to justify the sustained focus on Helm’s Deep that finishes with the film’s climax, it does carry the flaw discussed above.

This is avoided in the books by giving them a tenuous alliance, with Saruman clearly portrayed as a scheming rival of Sauron.  It’s an alliance of convenience moreso than servitude, with both Saruman and Sauron willing to play nice with the other as long as they share enemies.  Saruman makes his own power plays, but they pale in comparison to the might of Mordor.

This negates the “tides turning” issue of the movie, because Sauron’s might is undamaged by the defeat at Helm’s Deep.  Meanwhile, Helm’s Deep is handled quickly and Isengard falls (relatively) easily, showing them to be much smaller threats than Mordor.  The chase outside of Rivendell was dangerous, the mines of Moria even moreso, and Isengard yet more dangerous still, but none come close to Sauron.

More succinctly, the book does a much better job of portraying the grave threat of Mordor.


“Gandalf the White” Means Something in the Books
After watching the films, I felt like the whole “Gandalf the White” thing was left hanging.  His big return brings with it a new name and title, but it seems to mean little more than a symbolic gesture implying that Saruman has lost his claim to the moniker.

Not only does the book explain what this means–that he is now the head of the Council, and more powerful than Saruman–but his character undergoes a clear change.  Merry accurately describes him as “kinder and more alarming, merrier and more solemn than before…”  Gandalf the White is a more intense Gandalf, something I felt was lost with the films.


Faramir is a stronger character than in the movies.  He feels every bit as notable as Boromir.  He’s strong, confident, and wise, whereas in the movie he suffers both from lacking confidence and some of the same rashness as his brother.

Your mileage may vary, but I prefer the book Faramir.


Frodo and Sam Feel Like the Main Attraction
Perhaps the biggest thing I’ve noticed yet again ties in with the movie’s focus on the battle of Helm’s Deep: in the book, Frodo and Sam are the real stars.  The movie’s focus on Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli makes them feel like the standout characters, with Helm’s Deep the standout storyline (with Frodo’s quest being set up as the focus of The Return of the King).

The book, however, puts them front and center.  Without the tense, exciting, high-stakes battle of Helm’s Deep constantly winning over my interest and focus as in the movie, I found myself far more engrossed with them and their adventure.  Never have I previously been so interested in them, having always preferred the rollicking adventures of Aragorn and company when watching the movie.

Is that better?  I suppose that depends on what you prefer, but it’s certainly more true to Tolkien’s intended purpose!


In Conclusion…
It might sound like I’m favoring the books thus far, but they do have their flaws, and I still have one last leg of the journey to go.  The Two Towers is my favorite of the movies, but perhaps not of the books.

I’m hopeful that I’ll be done with The Return of the King within the week.  The joys of vacation!