Category Archives: New Stuff

Badland is All Kinds of Awesome

Badlands-1

You seldom come across something so inspired to haunt you day in, day out. Badland is one of such things. An iOS game that manages to combine a great deal of gaming tropes into a package that is at the same time hauntingly familiar and completely original.

In Badland, you guide a bizarre afro hairdo (or an owl?) through a selection of weird landscapes loaded with circular saws, explosives, strange sticky goo and other dangers that you must steer your protagonist clear of. The gameplay is simple: by tapping the screen you can make your little ball of fur fly or roll through surfaces. That’s about it. The game is loaded with various hazards and power-ups, the favorite of mine being the squaring teleports that somehow remind me of a classic Carl Barks Donald Duck tale.

The game combines, by intention or not, elements from such awesome predecessors as Contre Jour, World of Goo and Portal, managing to create at least as enchanting a gaming experience, if not even better. You feel for your little afro hairdo just as you do for your little balls of goo. The design aesthetic is reminiscent not only of Portal, but also somehow of other Valve titles such as the first Half-Life. And the squishy poison bushes, as well as the black-and-whitish color scheme bring to mind the outstanding moodiness of Contre Jour.

But while influences can be singled out, the game plays out as something completely original. A cross between a platformer and an infinite runner, the gameplay is fluid and enticing, yet challenging enough to keep things interesting. Some of the puzzles are really troublesome at first, but then produce that delightful heureka insight once you figure out some new element in the environment to tap into. In fact, I think Badland is flow-wise the best balanced game I have played since Psychonauts.

Badland is a game that I would recommend to anybody keen on the titles referenced above; to anybody tapping into tablet gaming for the first time; to anybody looking for moody, deep and challenging casual gaming (almost a paradox, yes, but they nailed it here); I guess to anybody, period.

This is a truly inspired game that has the feel of being produced by a big studio, and yet is the work of a Finnish duo, augmented with an outstanding sound designer. The international media has been wondering what they feed the Finnish game-makers to produce such outstanding titles. I am starting to wonder too.

Check out the game here.

Why It’s Great to Be a Nerd

Sheldon_Cooper_dressed_as_Spock

If you have spent any time with this blog, you can probably pick it up pretty quickly that I am a nerd. I love science fiction, comic books, mathematics, board games, computers, electronics and synthesizer music. But I did not always feel good about it.

In fact, when I was younger, I found it so difficult to enjoy what I truly loved due to the usual social constraints that I tried hard to learn to be less of a nerd. I hid my Jarre albums and stopped talking about Star Trek. Instead, I started working on listening to cool indie bands and watching sitcoms.

As a consequence, I spent a great while of my life with things that I did not truly love, but that I thought would earn me street credibility or the respect of my peers. In other words, I spent a tremendous amount of effort to be cool. I learned to talk cool. I learned to wear cool clothes. I taught myself to listen to cool music and to watch cool movies.

But cool, unless it’s Fonzie-cool, is not necessarily good for you. Cool can be numbing. It can be indifferent and disconnected. Sometimes cool is what people have to go back to because they don’t have a clue what they really want from their lives.

To this end it is so bizarre that those of us who have had the gift to know what we loved early on – the nerds – have so often such a hard time in the early years in our society. Just because we don’t always know the right jokes or watch the right TV shows.

But if you are a nerd, trust yourself: you are are truly privileged. It is still a tremendously rare thing to see a human being who truly loves what he does, and who truly knows who he is.

And nerds often do.

Because if you dare to love science fiction or computer code in a world packed full of Big Brother and tabloids, it can hurt to love. But sometimes hurt is good. It shows you what’s worth fighting for.

When I was fourteen, people would tell me that I thought too much; that listening to Jarre and Vangelis was just wrong; that Star Trek and Babylon 5 were ridiculous; that maths was not cool to like; that reading lots of books was scary.

But it’s not.

It may not be what the other guys are doing. But if you love what you do, keep at it. No matter what the others think.

The nerd can be the ultimate outsider, because being a nerd you have something new going for yourself. And being social is, after all, often not about new things. It’s about nodding at what the other guy says. It’s about laughing at jokes even if they are bad. It’s about going to a party because everybody else is going. And ultimately, it’s about doing whatever everybody else is doing because that’s what you are supposed to do.

But the nerd won’t do it.

If the other guy says something stupid, the nerd will argue back. If the joke is bad, the nerd will analyze it and point out where it could work better. If the party is not really interesting, the nerd will not go, but rather solders a circuit board. And if everybody else is doing something that is not interesting, the nerd will do something that is.

The problem is that if you live like this, you will also sometimes snort at jokes, you will make arguments in a language like Klingon that nobody else can understand (the question is: taH pagh taH be), you will miss chances to interact with people, and some of the things many people do might never make any sense to you.

But that’s okay.

Because as a nerd, you can change the world. You cannot change the world by getting in line. But you can do so by figuring out what you really love to do, and by throwing yourself all in. As a nerd, you have nothing to lose. And that is what makes you the most powerful creature on Earth.

Being a nerd is amazing because being a nerd you can really tap into what you love to do, whether it is fixing old radios, tending to horses, playing larp, reading comics, writing computer code or making music with synthesizers. (And yes, you can be a nerd by playing ice hockey or driving race cars too, but it’s even tougher because people think it’s cool.)

Being a nerd is amazing because you can really be somebody who loves what they do and make the world a better place by doing it.

It’s not necessarily easy. But it *is* great.

So here’s to all the nerds out there – all of you amazing people who have made this world a better place –, people like Steve Wozniak, Nikola Tesla, Evangelos Papathanassiou, Christopher Franke, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Arthur C. Clarke, Orson Scott Card, Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg. And Sheldon Cooper. They might have a funny laugh, or snort at jokes. But they make waves.

Being a nerd takes courage. But trust me, if you’ve got it, it’s worth it.

Be proud of what you really are.

It’s great to be a nerd.

The Dune within a Dune within a Dune?

I just finished reading Frank Herbert’s seminal Dune trilogy. Hailed by many as the definitive piece of science fiction, the Lord of the Rings of sci fi, the trilogy certainly has its merits. The first book, Dune, is indeed one of the most amazing science fiction books I’ve ever read.

Dune is also, I think, one of the smartest books I’ve ever read, and that, I guess, is a lot to say, considering I have read through quite a few smart books before. Dune is also easily the most underlined fictitious book I have ever read. I simply cannot read non-fiction without a pen in my hand, but with fiction I usually only pick up a quote or two. With Dune, I underlined and marked the book like it would have been a cutting-edge study on the philosophy of the mind, or something.

The first book is laden with a depth of ideas and history that is quite impressive. Like in any great book, what is not been said here is as important as what has been. The reader is baffled about this world tens of thousands of years in the future, powered with middle-ageish intrigue and a strange substance called the spice melange. It is, as great sci fi should, outright alien – and yet hauntingly familiar. The first book offers a deep, philosophical and pondering story arc that is without a doubt one of the most significant pieces of science fiction ever written.

But.

Then the story goes on.

And what made Dune so intriguing and compelling is, all of a sudden, violently laid explicit right in front of your eyes. While with the first book, the nature of such concepts as the Guild Navigators or the Butlerian Jihad are only hinted at in the subtext, the subsequent two spare no punches. And here, I think, the Dune series pales in comparison to the Lord of the Rings. Reading the two sequels, I felt more like reading the Silmarillion than the Two Towers or the Return of the King: a mind-numbing exposition of a vast stunt of imagination, but with no human dimension to keep things interesting.

In Dune Messiah, the main character is given a hauntingly accurate prescient capability, to the extent of rendering any and all plot events completely vacant. If your main character knows already what is about to happen, what is there for the reader to get excited about? It’s like watching a film with a friend going “I told you so” every five or so minutes. Add to this the stony exposition and the wooden dialogue of the second book, it makes for a really heavy reading recommendable only to such people whose own imaginations fail to fill in the delicious blanks in the first book. As a cherry on top, while Herbert certainly had great vision, he is no Shakespeare. To this end, it is occasionally painful to see how much this second installment of the series aspires to be something like a classical Shakespearean king play.

The last book of the trilogy, Children of the Dune, certainly has its moments. The main characters, Leto II and Ghanima – little children with the history of the human kind in their heads – are quite interesting, and fortunately enough Herbert understood to steer clear of most of the prescience here. At moments, the third book does hold the promise of returning to the same kind of amazement as the first one. Certainly, here too there was much worth underlining. But here also, about half of the text could have easily been cut away.

Ernest Hemingway said that a great writer can leave much of what he wants to say unsaid. The magnificence of a great text is like an iceberg, where nine parts out of ten are submerged under water. In the first installment of the Dune series, the iceberg sails magnificently. In the second two, while still impressive, it has been lifted on deck to dry.

I think books are about imagination. And I think they are as much about the imagination of the reader as they are of the writer. If everything is laid down in plain sight, there is no much work left for the reader. In this sense, it is too bad that in his two sequels, Herbert failed to deliver what was one of the repeating motifs in his books: the feint within a feint within a feint. The first Dune was like a ballet or an elaborate fencing match, with hidden layers behind hidden layers. The two others were like a punch in the face.

But it is an interesting universe, nonetheless, what with all the intriguing aspects of technology being shunned in a space-faring culture; the logical mentats and the intuitive Bene Gesserits; the Shakespearean intrigue of the royal houses; the space-faring mercenaries who remained delightfully neutral to all the intrigue and the events that took place; and Dune itself: a hugely imaginative Saharan culture blown to planet-wide proportions where massive worms rule the sands and produce what is a combination of oil and cocaine for the future.

In terms of world-building, Herbert certainly compares to the likes of Tolkien or Asimov. In terms of story, it was a bumpy ride.

That being said, Dune itself was still one of the most amazing science fiction books I’ve ever read.

Floex: Zorya – Scandinavian-style Classy Electronica from the Czech Republic

I find the Czech one-man-band Floex, also known as Tomáš Dvorák, some of the most interesting music out there right now. While my favorite out of all of Dvorak’s productions is the hauntingly beautiful soundtrack for the excellent game Machinarium, his latest release, Zorya does not trail far behind.

Dvorak has an amazing scale of expression, ranging from very contemporary electornica gimmickry to traditional jazz to film music mainstays. The closest comparisons that come to mind are, for some weird reason, all Scandinavian: the Danish Trentemøller, the early releases of the Norwegian Röyksopp, and the Finnish (yes, Finnish) Roberto Rodriguez. Throw these three into blender in a perfect mix, and you would probably get something quite close to Floex. There are also flavors that remind me of more eccentric electronica such as Boards of Canada and Mouse on Mars. And, of course, the Mark Bell era of Björk.

All together, the Czech musical genius Dvorák has managed to create another haunting and beautiful masterpiece that will certainly last several listening-throughs. If you are into classy intelligent electronica, be sure to check it out here.

Music Only Comes Alive When Shared

Writing music just for oneself feels like an empty business. I do not quite clearly understand why, though.

I spent some ten years of my life working as a professional musician. I released several hundred tracks on albums, on television, in commercials and multimedia, to audiences ranging from a few hundred to several millions. For the last seven or so years, I have, however, focused most of my time on research. While I now write music as something like a well-developed hobby, why do I still bother to release it to the general audience?

I have wondered at this urge to share music for pretty much my entire adult life. When I was younger, I would drag all friends and family to listen to every new tune I wrote. In my professional career, I got the satisfaction from releasing music. And now, I have this blog. But why?

Despite the ideal of artistic independence, I believe when people write music, they don’t do it just for the kick they get out of it – even if that is, for most of us, the beginning of getting into music. It is, indeed, a very rare breed of musician that would never play her music to anybody else. Even those few who refuse to play their tracks usually turn out to be meek because they are scared of the chance of bad criticism. Can there really even exist a musician who would not want their music to be heard (and loved) by somebody else?

I wonder whether music is actually a form of communication, where the listener is just as important as the maker. Or whether music is a kind of a relationship between a listener and a maker that does not even come to existence before sharing. No, but really: I still do not have the faintest idea. Maybe you do?

It’s almost as if it’s easier to figure out how neurons communicate with one another, or how the unconscious mind works than to understand why music won’t let itself remain unheard. But whatever the reason, and whether or not I will ever discover it, I am pretty sure of one thing.

Music only comes alive when shared.

New Inspirations: Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Now if this is not an event in the world of graphic novels, I don’t know what is. Brian K. Vaughan of Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina fame has teamed up with Fiona Staples of Mystery Society. The two have produced something that is pretty close to a perfect beginning for a graphic novel: Saga.

Saga is a science fiction adventure set in a future intergalactic world. It has been compared both to the classic Star Wars movies and Game of Thrones. And with good reason. Only two issues down, the series has already been able to capture moments not unlike the banter of Han Solo in A New Hope, the awe of the first sight of the AT-AT walkers on Hoth, the intrigue of the Lannisters and even the idiosyncrasies of the Targaryens. When we see the gleaming eyes of the Horrors of Cleave for the first time, what springs to mind immediately are the Rat Creatures from Bone. And the android prince with a TV set for a head? Pure gold, that propels the mind to classics like Leiji Matsumoto’s Galaxy Express.

Set against a Shakespearean love story of a star-crossed couple on the run, the story is imaginative to a degree I have never seen, and yet in something of the same way the original Star Wars was: with some scrutiny, you can start to see the influences that have driven Vaughan and Staples. But as with all great art, wearing your influences on your sleeve is not a detriment, but rather only adds to the pleasure. Talent borrows, genius steals.

All together, the first two issues of Saga have opened up a world that is so vibrant, so imaginative and so alive that I am not quite sure I have ever encountered something like this before. If you are in the least interested in science fiction, comics, or good stories in general, be sure to check it out. If you go digital, you can get the first issue straight away from Comixology.

Right now, the only downside I can think of for this series is that the next issues surely have a great deal to live up to. But if Vaughan and Staples can keep up with this pace, not unlike Vaughan has already proven he can with the epic storylines of Y and Ex Machina, this is setting out to be the new standard against which the future works of science fiction in comics will be judged.