Joe Abercrombie's Blog
December 31, 2016
New Year’s Eve, people, and you know what that means. Yes, indeed, I am 42 years old today. Can it really be a year since I reviewed last year? Apparently it can.
2016, then. Bloody hell. It’s been quite the year for deaths and political upheavals. The blog continues to be in a fairly moribund state – indeed this is my first post in, what, four months or more? Sad! Still, I’ve been doing this a while now, and I think it’s better that I use it when I’ve got something substantial to announce or discuss than just trying to dream up content to fill the space. So posting will continue to be light around here, I shouldn’t wonder. Probably you’d all rather have more fiction anyway, if given the choice…
A YEAR IN BOOKSELLING – With the publication of my collection of Short Stories, Sharp Ends, I now have ten books in print, would you believe. The Blade Itself came out in May 2006, so it’s rather neatly ten books in ten years, although the distribution’s been pretty lumpy and, since I actually started writing The Blade Itself in 2001, if I remember correctly, I haven’t actually written anywhere near as fast as a book a year. Sharp Ends made I think number 8 on the Times Hardcover list, which is a pretty strong showing for short stories, and everything else continues to tick over nicely. Georgia was the first new translation deal in a while, making somewhere between 25 and 30 total. After an awful lot of travelling last year I’ve toured a fair bit less, though I was out and about in the UK for Sharp Ends and visited Spain and the US a couple of times.
A YEAR IN BOOK WRITING – Another slightly piecemeal year interrupted by some side projects and bits and pieces, but I got going in earnest on the new book in the second half and I’m now not far off a reasonable first draft. In case anyone’s unaware what the current project is, I’m working on another trilogy in the First Law world, taking place about fifteen years after Red Country, but my ideal plan is to draft the whole trilogy before publishing the first book, so I can see exactly what I’ve got and where I’m going before going back to revise and fine-tune that first book. There are good reasons why they say the start of a book should be the last thing you write, and I think ideally that applies to series too, where the realities of publishing make it a possibility. The advantage is hopefully a more coherent and polished series plus a rapid and well-planned publication schedule, the disadvantage is a long wait for the first book. I can’t really see a scenario in which you get a new book from me before the end of 2018, and maybe later. But we’ll see…
TV and FILM – We live in a golden age of TV, no doubt. There’s just a steady splurge of quality, boundary-pushing stuff coming out of Netflix, which for me this year has included Narcos, Stranger Things, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Better Call Saul, Bloodline, Daredevil, Luke Cage, among others. Game of Thrones had in some respects its best series yet – certainly the most exciting and pay-off heavy, though for me I thought you could tell in the details that they’d run out of book to draw on. Enjoyed the first season of The Expanse a lot – just the right mix of the familiar and the original. Amazon’s Man in the High Castle was a triumph of setting and design but the jury’s still somewhat out on whether they can knit a convincing narrative out of it. Black Sails continued to deliver in its third season. Gotham season two was a little patchy, but strong at its best and for me still the pick of the recent crop of superhero stuff – it’s dark enough but still has a cartoony, comic-book sensibility. Second season of Italian crime drama Gomorrah was as brilliant as the first – hugely recommended. I even watched a couple of things on olde-style terrestrial TV. I must admit The Night Manager underwhelmed me a bit – it was good, but it failed to ever really catch fire. Planet Earth II was just astonishing, though. I was blown away by David Attenborough’s natural history as a kid and I’m still watching it now with my kids. Superb film-making on every level.
Cinema continues to be a much more minor interest, really. I probably go to the cinema more to watch kids films than adult ones. I always love a western, but The Revenant I found a little disappointing – beautiful but uninvoving. The Hateful Eight I quite liked but maybe because I was expecting less. For me Tarantino’s best since Pulp Fiction but then that’s not a high bar. Indeed Hateful Eight and the Revenant had about the right amount of dialogue for two films but just very badly distributed between them… You had to love Deadpool, so boldly and cleverly put together around a great central performance, and the time was just right for an irreverent adult take on the superhero movie, not that the Marvel steamroller looks like stopping anytime soon. Rogue One was good, not without issues and patchiness, but good, though digital Peter Cushing seemed to prove that live actors have a bright future for some time to come. Arrival touched the numinous at times but in the end offered up one of those mysteries that’s a lot less exciting once it’s solved. Which leaves La La Land as my film of the year by some margin – an original and brilliantly made musical which managed to be joyful and intimate without being soft-centred.
GAMES – I’ve dialled back the gaming this year somewhat. Final Fantasy XV was a decent if not a vintage entry in the Japanese crazy hairstyles roleplaying series, a lot more fun and a lot less pompous than the last one I played, but also even more incomprehensible than usual from a plot standpoint and strangely dudebro-tastic. Uncharted 4 rather inexplicably failed to float my boat – I loved the first one and liked the other two, but this most recent one, despite the usual great looks, barnstorming set pieces and sparky personality, just really bored me. I put it down half way through, which almost never happens for me. Perhaps just a format that’s had its day. I played a big batch of Telltale games and largely enjoyed them all. The Wolf Among Us and Walking Dead Season 2 were both great, but the touch on the Game of Thrones adaptation was a little less sure. The more ‘painterly’ graphical style made things look more wooden not less, the story was a lot more distributed, and you just got the sense that nothing you did would actually make all that much difference. Some great shocks along the way, though. Just started Tales from the Borderlands, and that’s been great so far. Bursting with the wit and cartoonish visual flair that Game of Thrones lacked somewhat. That maybe leaves Dark Souls III as my game of a rather weak year, an entry that continued to fine-tune the system and perhaps make it a little more accessible, while retaining most of the sense of wonder and gruelling gameplay.
WHISKY – Decided to try and finish a few bottles off and cut down my burgeoning collection of dusty glassware, so I didn’t get much new this year. Mackmyra, Swedish distillery, was an interesting light tipple. Then I got a great cask strength Glenfarclas – an independent distillery I really like that specialises in the classic rich, sherried style. Oh, and an Old Pulteney 1989 – I’m not always a fan of that salty maritime business but this is great, complicated, rounded stuff.
THE YEAR AHEAD – There’s a lot up in the air as we go into 2017 both from a professional and personal standpoint. We’ll probably be moving in the new year and starting off another big building and renovation project which will no doubt suck up a lot of energy, and I’m waiting to hear whether a long-standing side project is finally going to bear fruit. I’ll be hitting my usual haunt in Aviles in spain in the summer, and probably Worldcon in Finland too, though that’s yet to be confirmed. Other than that, it’s going to be full steam ahead with the new trilogy, hopefully finishing a first draft of the first book in early feb, so I can then spend a couple of months going over it, refining the characters’ voices and arcs so I’ve got a good foundation for a more detailed plan of the other two books. The dream would be to get well into a draft of the second book by this time next year, but you know what they say about dreams…
Happy new year, readers!
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August 28, 2016
It occurs to me that I have been pretty goddamn remiss on the blogging front over recent times. Nothing lays that bare more than the realisation that my last of what were supposed to be regular bi-monthly progress reports was nearly a year ago. I have become that author I never wanted to be – you know, the one with the dusty old website last updated in 2012 with a post saying ‘I’m back!’, and a front page that proudly trumpets an early review for their last-book-but-three.
Still, I’ve just returned from a long holiday in Scandinavia with the kids (well, when I say holiday, I mean a constant refereeing of various family squabbles) and maybe I can get some regularity back into the posting and writing. Stranger things have happened…
A progress report, then. The last year’s been an odd one (maybe they all are in this business), with some non-book bits and pieces bubbling away in the background and taking up a fair bit of time and energy, of which more later, perhaps. Sharp Ends, my collection of stories in the First Law world, came out at the end of April, and book-wise I’ve been developing a new trilogy set in the First Law world since then. As I’ve probably said before, this is a set of books taking place maybe 25-30 years after the end of Last Argument of Kings, in a world moving rapidly forward into the turmoil of early industrialisation, set mainly in the Union (and the North), featuring some old friends in the background while focussing mostly on a new cast, and perhaps picking up some threads left over from the First Law trilogy a little more directly than the standalone books have.
The First Law was really stewing in my brain throughout my youth, gradually developing, and I spent years as a hobbyist writer, before being published, experimenting with the characters and style and thinking about the plot. The Shattered Sea, meanwhile, was a much more focussed set of three individual, linked stories, really, rather than a grand ambitious trilogy. So you could say I’ve never really taken on such a big project as a professional writer, and I want to make sure I take the time to get it as good as it can be. That means to some extent trying to replicate the situation with the first trilogy – to remove the pressure of imminent deadlines, to just live with the characters until I get comfortable with them and their voices distill down and become vivid and interesting (hopefully), in that effortless way that in fact takes an awful lot of effort to develop. For me, characters are always at the heart of a book (or books) – if the people aren’t interesting, no plot, however packed with shock and explosions, will ever make a mark, whereas if the characters are fascinating and the voices arresting you can watch them do nothing and still be captivated.
Still, you need a plot and a setting and all that other stuff too, and my experience has been that you don’t always know what you need a character to be until you get to the end of a book. Character and plot grow up together and inform each other, in other words. You’ve got to plan carefully, but at the same time you’ve got to experience how the writing comes out – what the characters feel like on the page before you really know where you’re going. So my hugely ambitious and probably in the end completely unworkable plan with these books is to plunge through a rough draft of all three as fast as I can, then see where I stand, and revise the first one thoroughly for publication. That, of course, will mean a pretty considerable wait for the first book but, hopefully, a regular publication schedule thereafter and, again hopefully, the best and most coherent end product.
Anyway, long story short, this is planned to be a trilogy of nine parts – three books each of three parts – and I’ve drafted the first and am tackling the second – so getting towards half way through a really rough first draft of the first book. Feeling pretty pleased with it so far, though experience has taught me that I’ll generally hate books at this stage and suffer many and frequent crises of confidence, so I try not to have high hopes for my feelings while a project is underway. Making progress is enough, actually liking what you’re doing is way too much to ask at this stage. Hoping to put in some concerted chair time in the run up to Christmas and make some epic progress. But then I’m always hoping for that…
And there is your progress report for August.
July 12, 2016
A few appearances coming up over the next few months.
19th July, 19.00 – Espacio Fundación Telefónica, Madrid – I’m going to be talking about my books and stuff with Spanish author Juan Gomez-Jurado. I’ve been told to expect some other hijinks but my Spanish is nowhere near good enough to decipher the further details which are to be found here.
20th-23rd July – Celsius232 Festival, Aviles, Spain – yes, after a year’s absence, I’m going to be back at my regular haunt in spain, the Celsius festival in Aviles, where I’ll be talking about books, signing books, writing books, maybe even reading the bastards.
17th-18th September – Gollanczfest, London – Once again my UK publisher Gollancz will be bringing some of the finest writers in sci-fi and fantasy together with the finest readers in a cornucopia of panels, talks, workshops, signings, and etc. Further details here.
23rd October – Harrogate History Festival – Once again talking about my books and stuff and perhaps even signing them. Details here. I believe there may be a panel about Game of Thrones in which I am involved as well, but no details right now on that one…
May 13, 2016
After the gruelling Lovecraftian gothic horror stylings of Bloodborne, From Software have returned to the gruelling medieval fantasy where they made their name. Once more you are a nameless undead in a ruined world where hope fades, once more you must face withering difficulty and monstrous bosses as you negotiate mighty fortresses, rotting villages, toxic swamps and crumbling catacombs in a quest you scarcely understand, once more you will die a lot.
In many ways this is the best of the series – the impossible castles are bigger than ever, the monsters more varied, the action slicker, and the unique atmosphere of mysterious brooding doom is still present and correct. Graphics are much improved, with interiors far more detailed and varied and the vistas of mad ruins more gobsmacking than ever. The delicate touch with the information is still there – the story delivered in tantalising fragments of dialogue and item descriptions that allow the careful player to piece together their own idea of what’s going on. The sense of a surprisingly interconnected world which was maybe lost a bit in Dark Souls 2 seemed to be back in this instalment too, with some amazing reveals, haunting perspectives and crazy architecture.
Maybe I’ve just got used to what’s expected, but it felt as if, along with a slightly slicker interface, the difficulty has been softened again. You still need your wits about you at all times and, yeah, sure, you’re gonna die a lot, but it rarely feels positively unfair in the way that previous games sometimes could, doesn’t force you to push through the same section and fight the same monsters as often as in the past, and with sufficient determination the progress is steady. That’s both a good and a bad thing, I think – the frustration is less, but the corresponding feeling of achievement is less too. This iteration felt just that little bit more routine for some sections, more of a reliable pattern of: open up new area, figure out its monsters, probe for the path forward while picking up loot, then open up new area. There was less fear, less shock, less of the sweaty palms that have come with this series’ best moments.
I find RPGs often have a ‘sweet spot’. A time half way through when the world feels huge, the plot feels driving, the scope for development of character and gear vast. Then will come a moment as you close in on the end where suddenly you realise there’s not much left to do and the illusion of there being all that much point to all the levelling up and collecting of stuff starts to crumble. For me that happened earlier than I was expecting with Dark Souls 3 – certainly than it had with other games in the series – and towards the end I felt I was going through the motions a bit. Didn’t help that the very end felt a bit underdeveloped – a slightly bland boss fight then a one minute cut scene? I thought they could’ve done better.
I don’t mean to sound down on it because it’s still a great game. In every measurable way you’d have to say it was a solid step on but, I dunno, after four games of this (including the prototype of sorts, Demons Souls) there was a bit of a sense of having seen it all before: Bonfires, hollows, elaborate shortcuts, invading spirits, various knights, elusive shreds of story, about six corrupted cathedrals. It’s a fine line between ingeniously referencing your previous successes and just chugging away at your greatest hits, and at times it felt as though Dark Souls 3 was teetering towards the latter. It’s a shame, in a way, as dark fantasy is obviously close to my heart, and Dark Souls 3 was still a great game, but in the end I think Bloodborne was the more memorable, more exciting development of the core concept.
May 4, 2016
Hard to believe, I know, but The Blade Itself was first published in the UK on May 4th 2006, ten years ago today.
To put it in context, (and a context I have some trouble getting my head around) The Blade Itself has now been out as long as A Game of Thrones had been out when The Blade Itself first came out. Ten years. Makes one reflect on all that has happened since…
For a debut, it certainly did well out of the gate, but at the time it felt pretty unspectacular compared to my hopes of sweeping down a marble staircase with a dirty martini to instant rapturous approval from the public. Casting my mind back, I wasn’t prepared for the way that, after the first little flurry of generally pretty good reviews and attention, once the book was published it seemed to drop into a pit of silence. I’d scour the internet hourly back then, hoovering up every mention, revelling in every kind word, obsessing over every criticism. But the series built steadily, particularly once it found a US publisher a year after coming out in the UK, and each new book drove interest in the first. It’s only just coming out now in some territories – I think Simplified Chinese may have been the most recent, and these days The First Law is published in close to 30 languages.
I guess you could say I’ve been a published author for 10 years, although honestly I’m only just getting comfortable with describing myself as a ‘writer’, and ‘author’ still feels somehow presumptuous. In fact you could probably say that I’ve been a writer since 2001, as that was when I started experimenting with the book that would become The Blade Itself, and a professional writer since 2005, as that was when I signed my first deal with Gollancz. Still, though it meant I could take my writing much more seriously than I had been doing, my first advance was far from life-changing, and I was still working as a TV editor when I wrote Before They are Hanged, Last Argument of Kings, and even Best Served Cold. It wasn’t until maybe 2010 I could reasonably describe myself as a full-time writer, and I was still doing the odd editing job for a year or two after that.
In the 10 years, I’ve published 10 books (if we’re counting a collection of short stories which just creeps into the period by a week or two), though I’ve actually written a bit slower than a book a year. The fastest were the Shattered Sea books at maybe 10 months a piece, the slowest Red Country and Best Served Cold which took maybe 20 months each. Evened out over the whole period – the average pushed down considerably by the time I’ve spent planning, revising and editing and therefore not writing new words – it seems I write about 10,000 words a month.
I’ve sold, in all territories and all formats – and you’ll have to forgive the inaccuracy because you’d be amazed how difficult it is to get hard data on these things – somewhere in the region of 3-4 million books. Most of those are in English, and I probably sell very roughly the same amount of books in the UK market as the US. UK numbers include Australia and a lot of English editions sold across Europe, but the US market is still considerably bigger, so perhaps unsurprisingly that makes me much more successful at home than across the pond. My last five hardcovers have made the UK top five, only one has troubled the US bestseller list, and that crept on to the extended list somewhere around no. 25.
It’s been quite a ten years to be in publishing – the landscape of the industry has transformed since 2006, probably more than in any other decade since the printing press came in. It seems hard to believe now, but when Pyr bought US rights in the First Law in 2007 they actually weren’t interested in the e-book rights. These days e-book is half the game, at least in some territories and for some types of fiction, and audiobook has become vastly more important too. When I signed my first deal with Gollancz, self-publishing – with the necessity to print and warehouse your own copies and somehow rep them to individual bookstores – was close to unthinkable. These days it’s an increasingly popular and effective route to market. When I was first involved in discussions about sales the great fear was that the terrifying colossus of Waterstones – which had just gobbled up Ottakars in the UK – would come to monopolise bookselling, and publishers were doing all they could to help out plucky little niche sellers like Amazon. Now Amazon are challenging not just brick and mortar bookstores but the whole paradigm of traditional publishing.
In spite of the upheavals, though, I feel optimistic. Upheaval can mean vibrancy, and innovation, and new opportunity. It seems as if paper books are finding an equilibrium with e-books that leaves room for both, and my own feeling is that traditional and self-publishing will do the same, keeping publishers on their toes and opening up new options for writers. In the end, whatever the medium and method of publication, there’ll always be a hunger for good writing. Writers will always need the guidance and support of good editors and agents, as well as art, design, marketing, publicity, and all the processes that connect a reader to a book they enjoy. Writing can be a solitary business, but no one can do everything themselves. If there’s one thing I’m thankful for over the last ten years it’s the people I’ve worked with, especially the editors who’ve championed and improved my books: Lou Anders at Pyr, Devi Pillai at Orbit, Tricia Narwani at Del Rey, Jane Johnson, Nick Lake and Natasha Bardon at Harper Collins, and lastly but by no means leastly, Gillian Redfearn, who bought The Blade Itself as an assistant editor at Gollancz, has been my partner in crimes against fantasy fiction for the whole ten years, and now runs the imprint.
Anyway, this is starting to feel more like an obituary than a celebration. With luck and a fair wind I’ll be exasperating editors, disappointing readers, and poisoning the genre for decades to come. Happy Birthday to The Blade Itself. Many happy returns, say I…
March 14, 2016
I’m going to be doing a quick 5 day tour in the UK in April for the release of Sharp Ends. We shall be visiting London, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Bristol and Bath.
Daytime events tend to be just the quick meet and greet, shake of hands, sign the book. Evening events come with reading and Q&A as well. Unless time is really tight (which it usually isn’t) I’ll try to sign anything of mine you bring, though it would only be good manners to buy something from the store who are hosting the event, and I know you all have impeccable manners.
Full schedule in the attached picture. By all means get in touch with the stores for tickets and further information, and hopefully I’ll see some of you out there…
For those I won’t be visiting – apologies, I go where my publicist directs me, and she works out a schedule based on the logistics of travel, the stores that she knows have a good track record with events, and the stores that make a particular enthusiastic pitch for an event with me personally. There’s a certain beaten track of bigger stores in bigger cities that you can move between relatively easily, and who are used to hosting events and therefore have a pool of customers who are used to coming to events. On the one hand you’d love to travel more widely and visit some places rarely visited, but on the other hand that puts pressure on the travelling and can lead to some really badly attended events, which are no fun for me or for those folks who turn up. So it’s a bit of a self-reinforcing cycle of visiting the same stores…
January 12, 2016
Tor.com have put a brand new never before published story by me, Two’s Company. You can read it right now, over there, for free.
This is one of five stories from my forthcoming collection Sharp Ends that feature my female Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser style thief and warrior odd couple, Shevedieh and Javre, and that form a kind of spine to the whole thing around which the other stories are arranged.
So read it, don’t read it, enjoy it, don’t enjoy it, maybe even preorder the collection. The choice is yours. What a time to be alive!
December 31, 2015
New Year’s Eve, and you know what that means? Happy birthday to me. Yes, indeed, I am 41 years old today and this is my 7th yearly review post. Time marches only one way, my friends…
I’ve been hugely blog-lazy this year. There are still many authors blogging very effectively, but it’s not quite the standard tool of authorial public relations that it was at one time. A lot of my day to day activity has now moved to twitter, I’ve gone over the various stages of the publishing process in the past and have little to add, and I’m less inclined to vomit my opinions at length onto the internet, having done so enough in the past and been surprised and outraged not to see the world change too much as a result. I still follow the various controversies that spring up but when it comes to contributing, I dunno, it seems like there are better things to do with my time. I’ll certainly keep the blogging going for significant announcements and the occasional review, but it’ll probably only bubble away for the foreseeable future. We’ll see…
A YEAR IN BOOKSELLING – The First Law and its sequels roll inexorably on, it would appear, and I’m told the 6 books have now sold over 3 million copies in all languages and formats, though hard data is always surprisingly hard to come by. Meanwhile I released not 1 but 2 books in a year for the first (and probably last) time, and both Half the World and Half a War made the top 5 on the Sunday Times Bestseller list. I did a load of travelling, touring and events, including visits to Australia, America, Russia, Germany, Spain, Poland, Italy, and a week’s touring in the UK. Some was great, some probably less worthwhile, and I’ll definitely be scaling the events back next year in a bid to get more work done. I actually won some awards this year, would you believe – A Locus award for Best YA Novel for Half a King, and another for best Novelette for Tough Times All Over, as well as the Schwabischer Lindwyrm for, well, showing up, I guess. That one comes with a very comely 5 kg bronze statuette, though it did trigger a security alert at Stuttgart Airport.
A YEAR IN BOOK WRITING – What with the releases and the touring it’s been a slightly strange, piecemeal year on the writing front. Jan and Feb were spent finishing off Half a War, which needed a lot of editing (much of it done on the road in Australia). Then I had a lot of trips and travelling around the two book releases, in between which I was writing the last four or five stories to complete my collection Sharp Ends. Then, over the last few months, I’ve been working up ideas for a new trilogy in the world of the First Law, and starting to experiment with the first few chapters, which is showing some promise in between my traditional and entirely predictable slumps into pessimistic despondency. It’s a strange thing – no matter how many books you write you never really feel fully equipped for the one you’re writing.
TV and FILM – Once again I’ve watched a metric shed-load of TV, most of it good to some degree. I think this year has been notable for my personal method of consumption shifting from part DVD to almost exclusively streaming via Netflix and Amazon Prime, with quite a lot of what I’ve watched being Netflix or Amazon originals. The landscape shifts, indeed it does. An eclectic set of personal favourites have included The Walking Dead, Hell on Wheels, Black Sails, Vikings, Sense8, Peaky Blinders, Attack on Titan, The Bridge (original obvs), The Good Wife, Suits, Fargo, Narcos, Gomorrah, Gotham.
What with the kids and everything the cinema doesn’t happen too often. I felt The Force Awakens walked a very fine line between all kinds of conflicting demands to deliver a hugely entertaining film that actually felt like Star Wars again even if, at times, it perhaps felt a little too much like Star Wars. But my film of the year had to be the gobsmacking Mad Max: Fury Road, a tour de force of action and design which somehow managed to be edge-of-the-seat involving without really having a plot, performances or even a script. Very much looking forward to the Hateful Eight and the Revenant in the new year, though. I’ve always loved me a good western…
GAMES – Blog laziness has meant that I’ve failed to review much of what I’ve played, but it’s been a decent year, particularly strong in the open-world roleplaying department. I actually thought the game version of Mad Max, though a little repetitive and Assassin’s Creed-y, was a nice effort with some great visuals and atmosphere . Also Assassin’s Creed-y was Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, the first Assassin’s Creed I’ve played since the rather horrible Assassin’s Creed 3. They really do make too many of these, but Syndicate was a big improvement – a nice imagining of Victorian London and a choice of more interesting central characters (including, gasp, a woman) giving it a bit more zip, even if the framing story still seems more of a lame-ing story and the use of historical characters like crime-fighting Darwin and investigative reporting Dickens rather set the teeth on edge. There was plenty to like about Metal Gear Solid V, the latest from famous maverick video game auteur Hideo Kojima – with some awesome visuals by ace Hideo Kojima, genuinely rewarding and varied tactical espionage action worked out by genius Hideo Kojima, and several of expert Hideo Kojima’s best ultra-dramatic set piece dramatic sequences that you don’t play but just watch, mostly. Unfortunately Kojima’s incomprehensible plotting, Kojima’s intensely tiresome adolescent focus on sweaty boobs, and Kojima’s endless trumpeting of his own name dampened my enthusiasm considerably. My third best of the year has got to be Bloodborne, which successfully took the ultra-challenging Dark Souls formula into cosmic horror territory with some tweaks that improved playability and atmosphere without losing the ultra-difficulty and sense of crushing darkness we all so enjoy. My second best would be Fallout 4, a cynical post-apocalyptic setting I’ve always loved and Bethesda’s most detailed world yet. Bags of content and hugely enjoyable in the early and middle games, it was somewhat let down by a lacklustre and limited central plot and an endgame that rather artlessly revealed its own total lack of choices. Which leaves, as you may well already have guessed, drum roll please, The Witcher 3 as my game of the year. I didn’t even review it at the time I was so busy with other stuff, and I played it too long ago to have a huge amount to say now, but I think it may be the best effort I’ve ever seen at combining open world and free will for the player with convincing characters and central narrative. I found the actual gameplay a little limited, after a while it became way too easy, but those criticisms aside it was flipping brilliant. A truly vast world but packed with detail, and with the kind of meaningful coherence you rarely see in a video game (maybe as a result of it being a literary world adapted, rather than a world devised purely for a game). It also featured some amazing, expressive character designs and some clever plotting with real moments of high drama. You also have to admire the developer’s cottage industry ethos and fan-friendly attitude. Two thumbs up.
WHISKY – Been a bit of a year for blends, with Taketsuru 12, Hibiki 12 and 17, and Ballantine’s 21 all scratching that smooth, light, easy-drinking itch while still retaining plenty of character. Ardbeg always works for me though this year’s Perpetuum wasn’t a patch on previous special releases like Supernova or Ardbog. Bruichladdich Black Art also hit the spot in a big way for a big, complicated, relatively lightly peated Islay.
THE YEAR AHEAD – 2016 looks like a different sort of year again, with much preparation, exploration and experimentation. Sharp Ends was finished a while back and is due out in the US and UK at the end of April. Probably there’ll be a few UK events for that, and it looks like I’ll be returning to my familiar haunt of Aviles for Celsius Festival in July, but otherwise I’m trying to keep the overseas events to a minimum so I can concentrate on getting my new trilogy up and running. I’ve already got some relatively solid ideas together for that, and have written an experimental first few chapters to try the characters on for size. Rather than planning exhaustively right away I’m aiming at an approach more similar to what I did with the First Law – work up some ideas, experiment with some scenes, revise and refine the character’s voices, work up some more ideas, refine some more, live with it and see how I feel. In an ideal world I’d like to roughly draft all three books before fine-tuning, revising and editing each for publication, as I think that’ll give me the best chance at the most complete and coherent trilogy, as well as a controlled and timely publication schedule, but I expect that’ll depend on how fast I can get this first book written, and it may be that other mysterious projects which have long been bubbling away in the background will boil over and require a certain amount of attention. Either way, there’s going to be a fair gap between Sharp Ends and my next book, but hopefully that’ll be offset by faster publication later. I shall keep you informed…
Happy new year, readers!
December 16, 2015
I’ve been playing video games a while (*cough* 35 years or so *cough*), so I actually fondly remember the ol’ isometric turn-based first Fallout, which in the late 90s presented one of the most original and interesting game worlds I’d ever experienced, a strange mix of retro and post-apocalypse with bags of atmosphere, wit, and moral ambiguity.
Fallout 3 was an absolute corker, revitalising an old niche property in 3d for a new console-using generation in much the same way Grand Theft Auto 3 did, really tapping into the rich atmosphere and humour of the original, and even maintaining some of the turn-based roleplaying vibe within what had essentially become a first-person shooter. You can even read my old review of it from (the horror) 7 years ago.
The next instalment, New Vegas, was still good but – with the benefit of hindsight – a little disappointing, perhaps a little rushed out after its predecessor. It was a slightly clunky and bug-prone game that drifted away from that winning retro 50s McCarthy vibe towards less atmospheric wild-west stylings, tried to summon up a less desperate and more civilised wasteland without really convincing on the factional politics, and sidelined Fallout staples like Vault-Tec and the Brotherhood of Steel in favour of the less interesting or convincing Legion and Californian Republic.
It’s taken five years for Fallout 4 to appear, but it’s been well worth the wait. There’s a cracking opening – classic Fallout both expanded on and condensed – in which you witness the fall of civilisation, are put into deep-freeze as part of one of Vault-Tec’s sinister experiments, and wake to a strange, new, and horrible future in the post-nuclear wasteland. The action this time around moves to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and though with Minutemen, Lexington and Bunker Hill there are shades of revolutionary stylings the focus mostly returns to Fallout staples like vault suits, raiders, super mutants and the Brotherhood of Steel, and is stronger for it.
The game system has been overhauled, making character development much simpler but no less deep, there’s a much improved crafting system which allows you to throughly trick out every weapon and brings a convincing scavenging value to every screw, tin can and roll of pre-war duct tape, and there’s a powerful if cumbersome base-building tool that allows you to attract settlers and construct a host of interconnected living, breathing settlements (sort of), even if, from a gameplay point of view, there’s not all that much point. Still, who can resist spending three days building a giant shack that looks like a dong?
Graphics can sometimes seem a bit workaday – certainly characters aren’t as detailed or expressive as in, say, the Witcher 3 and are a fair bit more glitch-prone, and the quality of dialogue and voice acting doesn’t come close to a Mass Effect or The Last of Us, but in a way that’s inevitable. There’ll always be something of a trade-off between a narrower, more ‘on rails’ experience that’s more lavish and detailed and something like Fallout or Skyrim which is perhaps rougher round the edges but provides that vast open world in which you’re free, to a degree, to find your own story. The sheer quantity and range of content here is mighty impressive and at times can add up to something really special – the vistas of post-nuclear Boston from the air or a high building can be breathtaking. I used to criticise Bethesda games for having hundreds of locations but all of them being the same. These days there’s far more personality and meaning to the settings. There are little nods, touches and telling details all over the place. Abandoned foundries, ruined banks, infested libraries, baseball stadiums turned into settlements – it all seems far more distinct and meaningful than it used to.
For such a vast and varied game – and I must have logged well over 100 hours – this is impressively stable too. Long load times, I guess, but very few out and out crashes or bugs, and the odds and ends of broken quests and inappropriate dialogue that can sometimes annoy in these sorts of games are few and far between. Impressive, given the vast amount of possible permutations they must have to juggle.
Some criticisms, though, now that the all-consuming joy of being sucked into such a great world has worn off and left me a little more objective. I guess Fallout 4 suffers from the same syndrome I tend to get with all open-world adventure games. There’ll be a thrilling first phase as I stand amazed by this vast new world to explore. A gripping mid-game as I build up my character and dig into the details, largely ignoring the central plot. But then, having done an exhaustive amount of side tasks, I’ll get a bit bored and overpowered, and rush through the last stages of the main plot, the climax very much lacking the punch of the opening. The structure of Fallout 4 doesn’t help with that – early on there’s so much freedom, you really can develop the type of character you want and play them the way you please. Towards the end there’s a great dramatic twist and reveal but, inevitably, thereafter, your options steadily thin out.
It’s very difficult to create the illusion of free will in a game. Ironically, I often find that offering the player choices – morally or otherwise – can break the spell more than putting them on rails, as it becomes clear just how limited and artificial the choices are. In Fallout 4 you’re obliged to throw in your lot with one of three very flawed factions, and no matter how I squirmed I couldn’t really find an option that seemed faithful to the way I’d set out to play. Everyone demanded I do things (mostly cold-blooded murder of one stripe or another) that seemed not only out of my character, but out of theirs. In the end I made my decision more out of a slightly bored and annoyed sense of let’s just get on with this then rather than as the result of a nerve-wracking moral quandary.
Some minor spoilers on my own experience follow…
First I was obliged to massacre the idealistic if ineffectual members of a freedom fighting cell who had for a while treated me like a saviour, and found myself rummaging through a heap of corpses for items of interest, trying on their technical expert’s absurd headgear like a ghastly trophy. Then I had no choice but to hunt down a long-term travelling companion and shoot him with a gun he gave me while he slept. Finally, when my old comrades in arms Paladin Danse and his team made a heroic last ditch effort to stop my murderous rampage, even showing up with sad, brave Paladin Brandis who I’d convinced to rejoin the Brotherhood long before, and I shot down their vertibird in a ball of fire then rained atomic hell on the helpless survivors, I realised I had in truth become the psychopathic villain of my own story. Which is interesting, in a way, but I wish I felt I’d chosen to do it, rather than just been given no appropriate dialogue option to avoid it.
Didn’t help that, by then, I was slaughtering whole divisions of power-armoured Brotherhood of Steel with utter impunity, even on very hard difficulty. Some weapons, armour, and perk combinations really did seem greatly overpowered…
So, in conclusion, a hugely impressive and enjoyable game and an enormous, atmospheric experience in one of the best game worlds ever designed. For truly open world adventures it sets new standards in many ways. But it does, perhaps, as far as telling a really driving and believable story within those worlds, also illustrate the limitations of the form…
December 11, 2015
Following last week’s release of the UK cover for my collection of short stories Sharp Ends, here’s the cover for the US edition, coming from Orbit on 26th April…
Daresay it will still feature a map internally not to mention, of course, just the same entirely wonderful 13 short stories from the world of the First Law. For blurb, full table of contents, and so forth, by all means look to the previous post…