April is the cruelest month.

I’ve always said a story can come from anywhere, that there are a million different ways to tell it. What started as a spontaneous afternoon jam session led to a brief discussion, and, eventually, my latest story—and probably the most unique way I’ve ever told one.

A Handful of Dust is an instrumental concept album. The basic idea was to try to tell a story using only music, with recurring themes, sounds, and titles representing various story elements.

It’s as open to interpretation as anything I do. Probably more so. But for those interested in my own thoughts, a series of poems and thought pieces will accompany each song on the album’s pages, and here on my site.

In all honesty, there are still some mistakes on here, a few takes I’m unhappy with, but I’m ready to move on. This was something I did for fun in the first place, and if it stopped being fun, I’d stop doing it. For that reason, I’m not charging anything for the album, it’ll be available to listen to for free. I might even go back and George Lucas some of the errors and inconsistencies out, but for the most part, right now I’m just wrapping up the major loose ends.

A Handful of Dust will be released this Friday, probably on Bandcamp and Soundcloud, and maybe this site. A few of the songs are available to listen to right now, and can be found at the links below. More will be added leading up to the full release on Friday.

Here’s the tracklisting:

1. Jump into the Sky
2. The Interloper
3. It Limps Through the Door with its Head on the Floor
4. World of Waste
5. You Will Walk
6. There is No One Else
7. A Glimpse of Kingdom Come
8. A Field of Broken Mirrors
9. Surrounded by Flies, She Carves Out Her Eyes
10. The 8th Day
11. I Can See Forever
12. In the Hollow of a Tree I Contemplate the Hollowness in Me
13. Run Down the Mountain
14. You Made Everything Better
15. Blinded by the Sun, He Loses Everyone
16. Hyacinths

Special thanks to my sister Tatyana for drawing up my band logo. You can find more of her work here: tythenaught.deviantart.com

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In the Year of Our Death and Zombiemandias – Available Now

In the Year of Our Death, the sequel to After the Bite and In the Lone and Level Sands is now available in print and eBook formats at various retailers, and should go live at several more over the next few hours.

In the Year of Our Death

It’s been two years since the zombies first appeared and changed the world forever. Keely and her friends escaped the hell of Seattle and settled down near an abandoned radio station. Bailey finds herself caught up with a ravenous group of survivors. Georgie has set up a courier system to move mail across the remains of America. Will and his friends—all of them orphans now—are out of water and have to leave their quiet suburb for the first time in their lives. Nelson, the engineer charged with running Hoover Dam and powering the American Southwest, breaks his glasses and must wander the wasteland nearly blind looking for a replacement.

Adam, however, knows the truth about the zombies: They aren’t monsters, they’re angels, sent by God to cleanse the world of the survivors, and Adam and his Church of Lesser Humans were put here to help them do it. Armed only with faith, a bus, and the steadfast rule to never allow harm to come to the zombies, Adam knows Judgment Day is coming, and will stop at nothing to herald its arrival.

You can read a sample chapter here as well as download samples from the retailer of your choice.

Store Links (more will be added as they become available):

Amazon • Google Play • iTunes • Barnes & Noble • SmashwordsKobo • Paperback (CreateSpace store) • Hardcover

The paperback edition should be available through Amazon’s website and Barnes & Noble’s website soon.

Also available is the collected edition, Zombiemandias: In the Zombie Apocalypse Collection, an eBook that includes After the Bite, In the Lone and Level Sands, and In the Year of Our Death.

Zombiemandias: In the Zombie Apocalypse Collection

Amazon • Google Play • iTunes • Barnes & Noble • SmashwordsKobo

Thanks to everyone who makes what I do possible. This includes you, the reader, without whom I’m just sitting here shouting random nonsense into a void. Thank you.

In the Year of Our Death

Things have been exciting lately! I published my first game, Hinterland, and while it was a little bit glitchier than I thought, it’s been mostly smooth. I’ve had a lot of fun with it, and a lot of fun watching people play it on YouTube.

Now it’s time for me to shift my focus to my other big October project. This one is a book announcement.

In 2012 I published After the Bite, a collection of short stories I wrote with my friend Seth Thomas, set during a zombie apocalypse. This was a companion book to a novel we released a year later called In the Lone and Level Sands. Now, I couldn’t be happier to announce the sequel to both: In the Year of Our Death.

In the Year of Our Death

In the Year of Our Death picks up roughly two years after the end of In the Lone and Level Sands. Like the previous book, it follows different groups of characters across the zombie-ravaged country. Returning from In the Lone and Level Sands, Keely and her friends live in a motel near a radio station in a small, quiet part of Los Angeles they’ve barricaded off from the zombies and the outside world. Young Will and his group of orphaned teens have been waiting out the apocalypse in a peaceful suburb, but have run out of food and water and have to leave to find a new home. Ruffian Bailey found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time and has been running with a bad crowd ever since, until she decides to flee them and try to do some good in the world. Slow but well-meaning Georgie, who could outrun the devil himself on his bicycle, has set up a courier system to shuttle packages and information across the United States. Engineer Stephen Nelson has set himself up at Hoover Dam, where he keeps power running to the Southwest—until he breaks his glasses and has to head blindly into the wasteland to replace them.

At the heart of it all is Adam. Suffering from nightmares of a church fire he survived at the onset of the apocalypse, Adam believes the zombies to be a higher form of enlightenment, and now commits his life to protecting them. His most important mission is to find the man on the radio who feeds daily advice on how to kill what Adam calls the “greater humans” and silence him for good.

After the Bite told the small tales of a zombie apocalypse, while In the Lone and Level Sands serves as a record of survivors at its onset. In the Year of Our Death finds the survivors—and zombies—struggling to survive in a world that changed forever two years ago. Every day now is a war, and this year will claim its fair share of casualties.

You can read a sample chapter here: Chapter 16

So this is how I find myself sitting on a series of finished books. I have to say I like how it feels. On that front, I’m also announcing an eBook collection of all three books:

Zombiemandias: In the Zombie Apocalypse Collection

Buying the three of them together will end up being a little cheaper than buying them separately, but fair warning: This is going to be quite a long eBook.

Both books release on October 20th, 2015. Pre-orders will be live soon, I’ll update with links as they’re available. Also, in celebration, the eBook version of In the Lone and Level Sands will be available for free and/or at a deep discount at most retailers through the month of October.

So that’s that. Stay tuned here for release info, teasers, and other goodies.

Thanks always for reading.

Hinterland – Now Available for Download

I’ve posted about my RPG Maker game Hinterland before, but today I’m excited to announce it’s now available as a free download here: http://gamejolt.com/games/hinterland/94720

Special thanks to everyone in the RPG Maker community and at rpgmaker.net, rpgmakerweb, guelstie, freesound, pixabay, /r/rpgmaker, and wikimedia commons.

And, of course, anyone who plays it.

Find any glitches? Report them in the comments here or on the game’s Gamejolt page, and I’ll be sure to fix them as soon as I can.

Free resource pack coming soon. Thanks again, and have a happy October!

Hinterland

I’ve spoken a lot about my RPG Maker project Let the Moonlight Give You Wings. It’s a big project and it’s going to take a while to finish, so I’ve also been working on other projects on the side. Some of these exist only to learn new things about the program, others exist to be their own games.

Hinterland is one of these.

Last October I set out to make a creepy exploration game, in the same vein as games like P.T., Dear Esther, and Amnesia. I was having a lot of fun seeing what tricks I could pull with RPG Maker, but it was pretty obvious the game wasn’t going to be done before Halloween, so I set it aside for a few months.

Now, Hinterland is almost finished. I’m hoping to release it sometime in September or October, before Halloween, just so people have another unsettling little adventure to go through to get them in the mood for the month of horror. The build-up to Halloween is one of my favorite times of year, and I’m glad to be contributing, for once.

The plan right now is that the game will be free. It’s not going to be a long or complicated project, and so far there hasn’t been anything in it to warrant a price tag.

Without further babbling, here’s the gameplay teaser for Hinterland:

So there’s a little teaser of it. Hinterland puts you in a mysterious castle full of architecture that makes no sense, scarecrows that can talk, and a whole lot of darkness. There are things coming to get you, but there’s no dying here; if you get caught, you appear where you started, and the world around you will subtly change depending on how well you’re doing. Your job is to solve the mystery of this place and escape it.

The video mentions a demo, which is available now. You can find the download folder, complete with ReadMe and walkthrough, here:

https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0BzO8YJWnSng8fktzMjIzOEl4N0c5WjVLdW5KV3Nyejh4ajdhcWtKYVlCNTRyQmJTVDhKdkU&usp=sharing

Or simply click this link: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BzO8YJWnSng8Zi1pckx1MDBaQlE/view?usp=sharing

There are a few lighting and sound systems in place that might cause lag on older hardware. If you’re experiencing any lag, try this version, which has the footstep sounds removed: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BzO8YJWnSng8M2Mzd0Y1UzdZN28/view?usp=sharing

And keep in mind that this is a work-in-progress. Some of the graphics and sounds aren’t final; I’d like to make everything custom, either DLC or created from scratch or tweaked from the RTP (I think only the snow itself, some clutter, the outside graphics, and some of the sound effects are untouched in that regard). That said, if you find any bugs or have any general feedback, I’d love to hear it! You can drop me a comment on this post, or on the trailer’s YouTube page, or shoot me an email at justonesp00lturn (at) hotmail (dot) com. Any help is greatly appreciated, and if you find a bug or even just play the demo for fun and let me know, I’ll put whatever name you choose to go by in the credits as thanks.

Hinterland has a story to it. It’s one I could only tell through interactive experience, or else I probably wouldn’t make the game at all. But I like it, and I can’t wait to share it, and I hope you like it too.

nowPlaying: Alien: Isolation

Full disclosure: I’m a staff writer at Cubed3. The reviews I post here on my blog don’t reflect the opinions of Cubed3 and are written on my own time.

All pictures taken by me using the PS4’s share features.

The horror genre is very close to me, and nothing has ever scared me as deeply or profoundly as the titular creatures from the Alien franchise.

I couldn’t tell you when the first time I saw Alien was, but I know it was a long time ago. I’m sure I watched it with my parents, and most likely, my dad had me cover my eyes every time the alien appeared. (Looking back, I wonder if I imagined things far worse than what appears in the movie. More likely, this is the one series that I couldn’t.)

H. R. Giger’s iconic aliens have a beauty and an aesthetic that remains unmatched. No reboot or redesign has ever been needed (or, as far as I know, so much as wanted); the aliens are as ethereal and frightening today as they were when they were first brought to life by designer H. R. Giger, writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, director Ridley Scott, and actor Bolaji Badejo. Nothing has ever starred in more of my nightmares, and those are always the worst; I’ve had dreams where the creatures are only mentioned and they’ve caused me to wake up sweating and afraid.

As connected as I was to the films growing up, I never really played any of the games. As a big fan of Borderlands, I was excited to hear that Gearbox Software would be making a video game set in the Alien world: Aliens: Colonial Marines. Then the game actually came out, along with a firestorm of controversy, finger-pointing, and disappointed gamers.

I eventually rented the game after a few patches and updates had dropped, and it was more or less playable. While a few parts were fun in their own right, it wasn’t exactly the Alien experience I was hoping for.

Along came Alien: Isolation. Sega took a big risk in even planning another Alien game so soon after the disaster of Colonial Marines, but it’s one that paid off. Just by looking at the game, you can tell it’s something special.

Alien: Isolation

The game looks like something right out of the movie. Just about everything aboard Sevastopol is faithfully recreated, from the clunky, 70’s-inspired vision of future technology to the oddly invasive manual input, like huge levers and parts of the ship that have to be physically cut away to gain access to certain areas.

The concept of the game is an immediate winner for me: Set on a space station called Sevastopol, Alien: Isolation ditches the more action-oriented concepts behind the previous game in favor of the more subtle horror the first film had.

I was so excited to get into this game, but playing in a dark room with headphones was almost too much. Here was the creature from my nightmares, presented to me in an interactive format like never before. At times I found myself hiding just to catch my breath, afraid to move like when I first played Outlast. In some ways, Alien: Isolation almost feels like an Alien mod for that game.

And, as much as I loved the game at first, things quickly went south. By the fifth mission, I was getting tired of rushing from locker to locker, wasting most of the game just hiding. It seemed like as soon as I lost the alien, it was right on my tail again, and I could spend an hour just traversing a hallway.

Alien: Isolation
Not to mention dying again and again. And again.

The game’s fifth mission almost sank the ship. Taking place in Sevastopol’s medical bay, which is a huge, multi-room area, it seemed absurd that the alien would follow me from chamber to chamber, hallway to hallway, supposedly unsure I was there but somehow miraculously always within a few yards of me. The motion tracker seemed like it was toying with me—at one point I watched the alien enter a room across from me, and I pulled it out only to see the thing tell me the alien was somewhere behind me. It was clear the game’s mechanics weren’t quite up to the task with its presentation. This culminated in nearly two hours of winding my way along this hall, only to have the alien come down from the vents overhead right as I was about to reach the door that led to the end of the mission. I quickly ducked under a table to wait for it to leave, and watched as the alien rounded a corner only to somehow spot me, despite absolutely no input on my part, and return from around the corner and kill me. And this was on easy mode!

At that point I swore I was done with the game, but I couldn’t keep myself away from it. It felt like I had come too far to just give up. It was personal now: That alien had to die. No way was it getting the best of me.

I went in with a new mindset. I decided the game was most likely not as logic-based as I was assuming, and it appears I was right. For example, the ambient noises aren’t always the alien, and even when they are, they aren’t often indicative of its position. A noise to the left doesn’t mean the alien is over there. The same was true for distant footsteps; as soon as the alien rounds a corner, there’s a good chance he’s not even there anymore. Assuming he’s prowling that same hallway is an exercise in futility, and a great invitation to spend the rest of Amanda Ripley’s life in a locker.

Alien: Isolation
Get used to this view.

 

I still died a time or two in the medical bay, but this new philosophy proved fruitful, and I made decent progress through the game. The cat-and-mouse bits still caused me anxiety, and sometimes were more annoying than they were frightening, but I was having fun again, and a lot of it.

The game changes pace once the player gets the flamethrower. No longer entirely defenseless, the alien still can’t be killed, but it can be scared off, so long as you see it before it sees you.

On the whole, this might be the most frightening video game I’ve ever played. I found myself dreading it, hoping each thing I had to do would be the last. There are very few ways for the alien to “get” you, only a few death animations, and while they’re very well done (and expertly touch on the franchise’s body horror elements) they also become repetitive. Still, I was constantly afraid of the alien, especially at times when my flamethrower ammunition was dwindling.

I had an odd determination to finish the game, akin to facing my fears. Alien: Isolation is well-crafted and gave me the perfect opportunity to do that. Xenomorphs have always been indestructible to me, especially in my nightmares, and I respect how much effort was put into this game to recreate that aspect of them.

Alien: Isolation
Oh dear.

Alien: Isolation has its flaws. Sometimes it seems like the writers had no idea where to take the story next, so they just borrowed scenarios straight from the films. I appreciate longer games, but this one has a very select few enemies and ways of dealing with them, so more diversity in mission objectives, enemies, or avoidance techniques would’ve done it justice. On the whole it was fun, terrifying, and gorgeous. Unfortunately, the ending seems like it looked great on paper, but passes by as a ten-second long cinema, and just looked weird and unfulfilling.

I don’t know if I’ll ever play this game again. I think once was enough. That weird ending did leave things wide open for a sequel, and I’m conflicted about that. I’d love to see this team expand on their ideas, but I’d prefer to see them do it with a new story instead of painfully dragging out the one they have. If nothing else, Alien: Isolation proves that there is a treasure trove of storytelling and scares to be had in this franchise, something that hasn’t been successfully tapped into in a very long time. In a lot of ways, this game is a true successor to the films, and is better than most of them. The last thing I want is for it to careen down the same path that brought us the likes of Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem and Colonial Marines.

NowPlaying: Outlast

All screenshots were taken by me from the Playstation 4 version of Outlast, and may contain graphic imagery.

I have a long history with the horror genre. Nearly all of the short stories I wrote as a teenager were horror stories. I loved horror films as well, and it’s no surprise that my fondness for the genre eventually extended to video games.

It started with Resident Evil, as it probably should have. I bought Resident Evil and Resident Evil Zero for the GameCube, in time to play through them before the then-impending release of Resident Evil 4 (which I still consider one of the greatest video games ever made). Eventually I’d move on to other genre classics like the Silent Hill series, Dead Space, Left 4 Dead, you name it.

I think the horror genre works particularly well in the world of video games. The added layer of interactivity video games provide gives you a sense of peril not possible in film or literature. It’s not impossible for a book to be frightening (I can easily refer you to House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski and the short story “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” by Ursula K. Le Guin) and you’re even more likely to find a frightening film, but video games have an innate ability to hit the fear sweet spot.

I grew up on survival horror video games, but the last few years have yielded a drought for the genre. Resident Evil is more about action now (and I liked Resident Evil 5 and I liked Resident Evil 6 even more, but the horror element is barely present). Silent Hill sees few releases these days, but the series has gone more or less the same way, and while Dead Space 3 tried to strike a balance between action and horror, it mostly abandons all attempts at fear after the first third of the game.

I must not be alone in my yearning for the survival horror classics of the past, because indie developers have stepped up to fill the void most major publishers seem to be ignoring. Games like Slender, Underhell, and Amnesia bring a lot to the table and prove survival horror is alive and well, but my favorite slice of this indie survival horror pie has to be Outlast.

Outlast

The Blair Witch Project didn’t invent the found footage genre, but it did propel it into the mainstream. A few attempts have been made to translate it into video games, but Outlast does it the best. You play as Miles Upshur, a reporter who receives an anonymous tip about atrocities being committed at Mount Massive Asylum. Armed only with his video camera, Miles breaks into the asylum. The video camera plays an integral role in Outlast, being Miles’s only ally within the walls of Mount Massive.

The anonymous tipster wasn’t joking, and Miles immediately becomes trapped in Mount Massive, wandering the dark and bloodied hallways, using the camera’s night vision mode to navigate dark corridors and sneak around pursuing enemies. Night vision isn’t unlimited, and Miles must keep a stock of batteries to power it as he tries to record the events unfolding in the asylum, or just find a way out.

A few survival horror games put you in the role of a defenseless protagonist, relying on stealth and running away rather than confronting enemies head-on. Outlast is interesting in that not everyone in the asylum is trying to kill you–some of the inmates will actually aid you, some will ignore you, and some will aid, ignore, or attack you depending on their mood.

Outlast Locker
Outlast features no playable combat, forcing you to rely on stealth and hiding to avoid enemies.

There are no ghosts or monsters in Mount Massive, only mentally disturbed people. While some have an inherent propensity for violence, others only mistake Miles for another “doctor” arriving to further torment them. This human aspect permeates the game, and even extends to Outlast’s primary antagonist, Chris Walker.

Walker is an ex-marine committed to the asylum long before Miles’s arrival. Easily the largest inmate, Chris stalks the halls grunting about completing his mission, rattling his chains, breaking down doors, and occasionally ripping off people’s heads. He has a particular interest in Miles Upshur, and if he catches you with low enough health, it’s an immediate game over.

Chris Walker
Protagonist Miles Upshur tries in vain to defend himself against Chris Walker.

Other characters (like Father Martin, Doctor Trager, and the twins) give the game a sense of personality. They’re well-written, oddly charming, and create lingering presences that keep you on your toes throughout your stay at Mount Massive.

The story behind the events at the asylum unfold through documents and in-game dialogue and graffiti, all pointing Miles toward one thing: The Walrider. I won’t spoil what the Walrider is, other than it’s the one inhuman thing in Mount Massive, and Miles will eventually come face-to-face with it.

A lot of the game’s events are scripted, and the layout and level design are genius. While you’re rarely not in control of the protagonist, the building is designed to make sure you’re looking at the right places at the right times to see exactly what you need to to progress the story, or just to frighten you.

Outlast had me on the edge of my seat, but the game’s ending left a lot to be desired. My largest gripe with the horror genre is the way many works end. Often they’re predictable, ambiguously grim, and usually avoidable scenarios that feel more like the writing team checked out early than actually sat down to wrap up the story they created. Outlast was no exception to this rule. At least, not until Whistleblower.

Outlast: Whistleblower

Outlast: Whistleblower is a DLC prequel/interquel/sequel to the main game. In it you play as Waylon Park, the anonymous tipster who first alerted Miles Upshur to the events at Mount Massive. The two stories heavily intertwine, which is apparent from the beginning: Your first objective as Waylon Park is to send the email Miles Upshur receives in the main game.

While it starts earlier than Outlast, Whistleblower is meant to be played after. As Waylon Park, you’ll experience echoes of Miles Upshur’s actions throughout the game, which leads to several Easter eggs and clever encounters with old enemies and allies.

Waylon Park prepares to send an email that will change his life--and Miles Upshur's--forever.
Waylon Park prepares to send an email that will change his life—and Miles Upshur’s—forever.

Whistleblower doesn’t rely entirely on the old, however. The DLC introduces new characters equally as creative and frightening as the ones found in Outlast. Dennis, Frank Manera, and Eddie Gluskin almost make you wish you were being hunted by the twins or Doctor Trager again.

Outlast and Whisteblower touch on the “body horror” subgenre made popular by works such as Alien, The Thing, and Dead Space. As far as subgenres go, body horror is one of my favorites. When you can all but feel what’s happening on the screen, the horror becomes more visceral, more effective. Again, I don’t want to ruin the fun, but neither Miles Upshur nor Waylon Park will emerge from their time at Mount Massive entirely intact.

Outlast Operating Table
Inmate Eddie Gluskin’s operating table.

Whistleblower is a much shorter experience than Outlast (my first playthrough of the main game took almost seven hours, while Whistleblower hovered around two) but it remedies all of my qualms with the game’s ending.

Both Outlast and Whistleblower come with a layer of social commentary (the former on mental health and treatment of those suffering from disorders, the latter on the titular concept of whistleblowing) but it never gets in the way of the game’s main intention: Telling a story. A very disturbing, frightening, and totally fun story.

The team at Red Barrels consists mostly of former employees of Ubisoft and Naughty Dog, and proves that a game doesn’t need a huge budget or a large studio to be as good as the $60 discs you’ll find on store shelves. Outlast is a lot of fun and one of the best survival horror experiences I’m aware of. I’m excited to see what else the studio has to offer, not to mention any future entries they might have in the Outlast vein.

The halls of Mount Massive are difficult to escape, but I can't help but hope Red Barrels will one day let us back in.
The halls of Mount Massive are difficult to escape, but I can’t help but hope Red Barrels will one day let us back in.