Brown River Queen cover art

Sunday, September 1, 2013

BioShock Infinite, and Other Necessities

Oops. Guess I should have warned some of you I'd be opening with a close-up of a spider. Sorry about that!

This is Emily, the big yellow spider who took up residence in our flowerbed. She keeps a tidy web and never plays her stereo too loud. Okay, sure, she dines by liquifying the internal organs of her prey and sucking out the resulting goo, but don't we all have one neighbor like that?

Here's another view of Emily, because I think she's pretty.

I took these images with my trusty Fuji Finepix, which I held about 4 inches from Emily before snapping the picture and then running away screaming like a leetle gurl. 

I'd never heard a spider snicker before.


Markhat's fate, like that of Schrodinger's Cat, awaits the collapse of the quantum probability waveform. In one world, the new Markhat book sells and I indulge in jubilant celebration. In another, the publisher says no, and I bury myself in wet leaves and sulk until late November.

Never idle, though, I am hard at work on the new Meralda and Mug book, which is the sequel to All the Paths of Shadow.

I'm taking a slightly different approach to the writing of this book. I've often decried the use of outlines, because as soon as I outline a book I begin to lose interest in it, because I already know what happens and I have the attention span of a crack-crazed crow.

But this book needs structure. I can't just wing it and expect this one to work -- so I've stumbled upon a compromise.

This new book will consist of ten scenes. Not chapters -- a scene can easily encompass two or more chapters. No, a scene is a distinct piece of the story arc, designed to move the tale from here to there while accomplishing this, that, and the other thing along the way.

The great thing about working with scenes is that each scene can be summed up in a few sentences of very broad narrative brushstrokes. I don't go into much detail in the scene descriptions. It's very much a bare-bones affair, just hitting the high points and hinting at the rest.

The advantage to this method, at least for me, is that I don't get bored with it.

Here's an example (I'm not using any real ones from the book because I don't want to spoil any surprises).

Here: Tirlin
There: Halfway across the Great Sea

Meralda promises Mug she will not be aboard the airship Intrepid when it sets out for Hang across the vast Great Sea. Two months later, she is indeed aboard the Intrepid, a fuming Mug at her side. The Intrepid leaves the Realms behind, only to be beset by mishaps that look like sabotage. The crippled airship encounters a storm and falls, out of control, toward the storm-wracked sea far below.

This: Meralda resolves to resign her position as Mage as soon as the voyage is done, convinced she will never be allowed to complete any of what she considers her real work while matters of Court intrude.
That: Meralda's relationship with Donchen is strained, as he is not part of the voyage.
The Other Thing: Separated from the Royal Laboratory and its contents, show Meralda improvising with what few magical items she has on the Intrepid.

The loose structure lets me fill in the details as I write, which by the way is the only way I can write.

Why ten scenes? Why not twelve, or eight, or twenty-two?

Okay, you've got me there. And it might wind up being nine scenes, or eleven. Ten is just a nice round number, probably influenced by the books I've loved.

Did I mention I make all this stuff up as I go along?

Well, I do. If anyone out there has other ideas I would love to hear them.


I feel compelled to share this with you, my treasured readers (both of you guys, c'mere, here's a hug).

You know how a good book draws you in, makes you a part of its world, tricks you into cheering for the good guys and getting mad at the villains?

That's a unique experience. Up until now I'd probably have put music and movies and a very few TV shows in the same category of emotional experience sources, and my list pretty much stopped there.

But now I've found a game that plays just like a good book reads. Hard to believe?

Believe it.

I give you <drumroll please> Bioshock Infinite.

Set in a 1912 that never happened, the game puts you in the role of Booker DeWitt, a disgraced Pinkerton detective with a gambling problem, a tortured conscience, and a deft hand with a shotgun. As Booker, you are told your debts will be erased once you do a job for your nameless employers.

You are given a box containing a pistol and a photograph. The serious and unforgiving nature of your employers in punctuated by the dead man seated before you, who bears a sign reading DO NOT DISAPPOINT US around his bloody neck.

You are then whisked away to Columbia, a city held aloft my massive dirigibles.

Yes. A flying city, in 1912. Columbia, you see, was built for the World's Fair, as an example of American scientific and industrial prowess. And Columbia is a wonder -- buildings move, docking at certain places at certain times. Neighborhoods are connected by skylines, which look like the fever-dream of a roller-coaster designer brought to life up in the clouds. Airships great and small sail past, fans glittering in the high-altitude sun.

Even so, Columbia looks and feels like small-town America circa 1920. The kids wear knee-britches and chase rolling steel hoops. Brass bands tootle and hoot from red, white, and blue bandstands. You can buy popcorn and cotton candy from street-cart vendors while carnival barkers exhort you to sample their wares.

Despite all the wholesome Americana, Columbia is rotten to its technologically-advanced heart. The place is now run by a bearded religious fanatic who preaches a mixture of hellfire-and-brimstone rabid nationalism that rings eerily familiar today. It's as if Michele Bachmann and Rush Limbaugh sat down with Glenn Beck to design the ideal culture while slugging back Mason jars filled with whisky, mescaline, and LSD. Columbia split ties with the US soon after going airborne, and its whereabouts have been a mystery -- until you find yourself wandering its tidy brick streets.

I'll stop providing details now. But I will say this -- every other game I've played, no matter how much fun they were, were basically mere exercises in blowing off steam. I never really cared about my character in Oblivion, for instance. I just enjoyed sneaking up behind bad guys and putting arrows between their shoulder blades, because obviously I have a myriad of unresolved personal issues.

But BioShock Infinite is different. Like a good book, it punches you in the gut now and then. That's a first, at least for me, in the genre.

It shocked me.

Then it troubled me.

Now I'm angry, and ready to pour undiluted 100% pure weapons-grade murder over Columbia's smiling citizenry if that's what it takes to protect the object of my job.

I have no idea what I'm going to do next, but it appears I'll be disappointing the kind of people who don't endure disappointment in calmly-measured stride. But that's fine, because if Booker DeWitt is anything, he's a guy accustomed to dealing with disappointment, quite possibly with a shotgun blast.

The visuals are stunning. I've spent as much time as I could between gunfights just wandering around, soaking up the sights. And my companion's AI is pretty impressive. She doesn't just stand there, waiting for me to do something. No, she's off poking into things or wandering off or even wandering into view of the Columbia police, which adds a level of realism to the game I haven't seen before.

Is BioShock Infinite expensive? Yes. The retail version is around fifty bucks. I got my copy from Steam for $39.99. But be warned -- the Steam download is nearly 20 GB in size. Yes, twenty gigabytes, that's not a typo. And check the system requirements carefully too. This isn't going to run on a tablet or an old machine.

But man, is it worth the trouble.

If nothing else, watch this...

BioShock Infinite Trailer

Oh, and the song in the trailer? I looked it up -- it's  'Beast,' by Nico Vega. And yeah, I've got it now...


My home-made X-ray machine is coming along nicely! My hair should grow back any day now...


  1. What a fun blog post, Frank! I did start the blog totally grossed out with that spider, but you totally got me with the writing tips. I like how you're doing this "outline." This, that and another thing... how you're giving yourself leeway to change things up but it gives you some structure. Mostly, I like what you said about why you don't like outlines. How you'll know the story and get bored of it. I never outline. Maybe a slight "here's what's going to happen in the beginning, what I want to happen in the end and a few things should happen in the middle" but that's it. I wonder if that's been my problem, too. Great post. Hope you're hair grows back soon!

  2. Frank, I love your blog! Thanks for the laughs!

  3. Always love your blog posts!

    I'm intrigued by your description of Bioshock Infinite. The game sounds really compelling. I've not generally been a fan of FPSs, but I'm a sucker for any game with a compelling and complex story.

    Have you played The Witcher games? I finished the first one, The Witcher, a few weeks ago, and loved it. Really big, rich story, with difficult and inescapable ethical choices for the character to make throughout the game -- choices with substantive consequences. Choices that are not divided into clear-cut good guy/bad guy choices. It caused me to be far more engaged with the character than I generally am.

    Witcher 2 is out -- but won't play on my laptop. And Witcher 3 is due out next year. If you haven't tried them, you might check them out; they're cheap on Steam.

  4. Thanks, Elyse and Sam and Elizabeth!

    Elizabeth, I've played both Witchers and Oblivion, though not Skyrim.

    I would put BioShock Infinite above them all in terms of story and game mechanics. They were good, but Infinite is better.

  5. I'll trade you Emily for my neighbors in a second. She is beautiful and quiet. My neighbors are neither.

    Please let your publisher know that I will certainly buy at least one copy of the new Markhat story and possibly two if it will make a difference. ;)

    I discovered your stories about two weeks ago and within the week I purchased and read everything that I found on Amazon. I've really enjoyed your characters, worlds, and sense of humor. Thank you.

  6. Thanks Epiphyllums! Emily has a 5-meter-wide cousin in a nearby alternate universe. Shall I send her over to your noisy neighbors, and let her have a word with them about decorum?

  7. I completely agree with your assessment of Bioshock. I don't play many games, especially not shooters, but Bioshock is so visually (and audibly) lovely, I'm even replaying. Can't wait until you update with your experience of the end.

    And yes, you should put up a 'warning' or perhaps a spoiler alert before showing pictures of spiders.

  8. Okay, Frank, one writer to another. Stop with the outlines, get the butt in the seat and WRITE. I recognize that ploy as procrastination! Buying the cork board, installing it, pinning notes--ALL INSTEAD OF WRITING.

    Sit. Write. Gimme Book.

  9. Having started writing a bunch of novels (5782343285) but only finished a few (0) because I lose interest as soon as I know how it ends, I do believe I'm going to have to try this scenes idea!

    Also, I got hooked on Bioshock Infinite a few weeks ago. Sticking with the unfinished theme, I haven't had time to finish it yet, but it is all you say and more. I had to buy a new graphics card. I expect that I'll also have to buy Bioshock 1 and Bioshock 2 as soon as I finish this one.

  10. E House --

    Hope the scenes idea helps! Please keep us posted.

    I'm going to play Bioshock 1 and 2 myself, when I'm done with Infinite. Oh, and there's also some DLC available for Infinite! I haven't done more than glance at it but it looks good.

    Thanks for stopping by!