Sunday, 26 June 2016

Monthly Soundtrack Reviews: Uncharted 4 - A Thief's End

Soundtrack: Uncharted 4 - A Thief's End
Album Art Source
Year: 2016
Composer: Henry Jackman, Alex Belcher (with a few hints of Greg Edmonson's scores peeking through) 
Stand Out Track: For Better or Worse
Works Well With: Big adventures,  relationship drama.

This review is spoiler free!

For the record, I am still sad that Greg Edmonson, for whatever reason, didn't return to score this game. The Uncharted 3 soundtrack is one of my all time favourites. But Henry Jackman isn't slacking here. The music for Uncharted 4 is fantastic. Well, okay, I'll be honest, it grew on me. A lot of music needs a few plays to be really appreciated. It's alright to not like something the first time. 

So, a couple of things hit me the first time I heard this score in game:

1) I love the arrangement of Nate's Theme (called A Thief's End this time around). The use of strings and drums added weight to an already brilliant piece of music. It was nearly my stand out track, but I wanted to go with something Jackman composed himself.
2) It does, at times, sound too much like Jackman's score to Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It's the brass/drum/string combination in tracks like Meet Me In Paradise that really sound similar. I'd say that's Jackman's musical signature. It does sound intense for sure!
3) The mellower pieces really capture the game's quieter, more thoughtful mood.
4) It sounds a bit generic action movieish at times.

So, first impressions were good but not as memorable as previous soundtracks in the series. When I bought the album and proceeded to listen to it several times without gunfire/talking/sound effects running over it, I definitely gained more appreciation for it. There's a distinct lack of musical diversity that I really love in the previous soundtracks, hence my feeling that it was a tad generic. There's no attempt to fit the music to the location like in the other games. Personally, I think it's because the story being told is less about where Nate's going, and more about what's happening in his own life. The music definitely reflects a personal journey. The Brothers Drake is full of promise, like adventure is just around the corner. I really love that quieter feel. For me, the soundtrack's strength is in its calmer pieces, and in the build up to the big battles - One Last Time is a great example of that. You can sense the journey Nathan Drake has been on - and not just in the game but over the course of his whole life. And my stand out track, For Better or Worse, captures his and Elena's relationship in such a thoughtful way. There's an ache to it, which I really can't go into without epic spoilers. But if you've got characters who love each other dearly, you have to listen to it. When I first played the game, this is the piece of music that really stood out to me. It's just so effortlessly beautiful. I really love it.

The ominous undertones of Avery's Descent work so well, too. There's an undercurrent of noise, a hum and a buzz the melody can't escape from. It's from one of my favourite sections of the game, and the music really captures the sinister atmosphere. Again, I don't want to spoil anything, so I won't say more.

When this soundtrack does get louder, it is every bit as bombastic as you'd expect an Uncharted score to be. Give Cut to the Chase a listen. It thumps with excitement and action. Perfect if you're writing a chase or a fight. Nearer the end of the album, you've got the brilliant No Escape. For me, it certainly inspires a feeling that maybe these characters aren't going to make it. Perfect for when you need to add tension.

If you like your videogame scores to sound like they'd slot right into a film, A Thief's End is absolutely perfect for you. And if you like Jackman's other work, this is a fantastic album to buy. For Uncharted fans, this is absolutely what the end of this series needed. It might not be as varied as the albums from the previous games in terms of instruments and styles, but it is exactly what the game's story needed.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Dark Souls is Kinda Like Querying

Or - if you ever want to explain to a non-writer what querying is like, give them a copy of Dark Souls.

I was driving home from work the other day, planning how I was going to approach my recent return to the game, when its mechanical similarity to the act of querying hit me.

For those of you who don't know, Dark Souls is a game in which you die constantly. Over and over and over and OHMIGAWD I JUST LOST THOUSANDS OF SOULS NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!


*deep breath*

Why do I keep dying in Dark Souls? Mostly because my gameplay style of whacking it until it dies really doesn't work. This is a game that requires all kinds of strategy and planning and...

RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH JUST DIIIIIIIIIIIIE!

(I am the reason I die in Dark Souls so much. Me and my total lack of patience. And the fact that my PS3 controller is kinda broken and my character just walked off a bloody cliff of her own volition ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff)

But the part of this game that is like querying is the fact that every damn time you die, you come back to life and do it all again.

And again.

Aaaaand again.

I started playing this game last December. I've put it aside more than once, but I keep coming back to it because, goddammit, I am going to beat it.

Just like how I keep getting back up after every rejection and send out the next batch because I believe in my books and I know there's an agent out there who'll believe in me, too. So I take the rejections, because every now and then I get a partial or a full request, or an agent takes the time to give me some feedback. Just like how defeating each boss in Dark Souls is a mini triumph before the next cycle of constant dying begins, each moment of promise while querying is absolutely worth celebrating and being proud of.

So, yes, the next time someone says "what does querying feel like?" give them this game. 

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Miss Cole's Tea Time - Darjeeling Second Flush from Eteaket


Thanks again to my eldest brother for treating me to a tea subscription for my 30th last year. I never would've discovered this delicious Darjeeling without it.

I am very new to "neat" Darjeeling. In fact, I can pinpoint the day I first drank it - May 26th 2016 in a hotel in Switzerland. I've had it in so many blends, I knew I had to like it, and I did. So when I came home and saw that my latest tea delivery was, in fact, Darjeeling, I was pretty excited.

And this is a delicious Darjeeling. Strong, yes, but if brewed just right, you get a really refreshing sweet, floral taste. It's completely different to any of the other black teas I've had. You'd think, with the flowery notes, it'd have more in common with a Ceylon, but the heft of it nudges it closer in taste to an Assam. It's a great breakfast tea, and it's been keeping me company while I work at my desk. I drink it with and without milk. I don't have a particular preference, but if you are simply used to tea with milk, don't be afraid to pour some in.

Aaah, it's always so exciting to find a new tea to drink.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Taking Stock of Your Ideas

Back in the dark days when I worked in retail, the dullest thing in the world was auditing and stock taking. Climbing up shelves, making sure what was there lined up with the computer systems... uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuugh.

...But as a writer, taking stock of things can be a pretty good idea, especially if you're not sure what to write next. I've finished  a project I started in April, and I'm currently mulling over what to do next. I tend to find this "between books" phase a blend of excitement (oooh, what about this idea?), and total frustration (uuuuugh, that'll never work).


I love writing, but sometimes I don't have enough of an idea to carry out into an entire novel. So I like to take stock of these ideas. I've talked before about my "I Want To Write..." book, but you're just as likely to find me staring out into space daydreaming about the fragments I have and what I could do with them.

Music, as you all know, is an essential part of my writing routine. When I'm taking stock of ideas, I love to just listen to music and let it take me on a journey. Sometimes it takes me back to ideas I had years ago, back when I used to take the bus to school or university every day and daydream the journey away.

I think lacking a solid idea to write for any writer is a frustrating time. Sure, I have more free time right now to channel into videogames (Dark Souls, you and I have such a love/hate relationship) and reading, but what I really want to find is my next idea. And an idea I can successfully divorce from the whole "THIS MUST BE GOOD ENOUGH FOR AGENTS AND PUBLICATION!" which is definitely one of the hardest things any non-agented/unpublished/rejected but REFUSING TO QUIT writer has to wrestle with. Taking stock of what scraps and hints you do have can keep you from going completely barmy.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Framing


So here's something I never consciously think of but probably should when writing - framing. What do I mean by that? Well, it's how you tell the story.

Oh, wow, that clears it up. Good job, me.

Okay, okay. Let's use an example. Let's say my main character is a murderer. I could frame the story in a way that shows the reader my character is an awful terrible despicable human being and by the end of the book she gets what's coming to her. OR I could frame it in a way that humanises her and shows that she had to kill someone to save her best friend from a fate worse than death. The way you frame a character like that can completely change the kind of story you tell. 

Whether you're ever consciously weighing up the options or not, a book is framed from its initial concept. There's an idea buzzing around my head right now that, framed one way, would make it YA, or, framed another, would tip it into adult thriller territory. Not even sure if I'll ever write it, but it's fun to pull it apart and have alternate versions floating around.

I've only really recently stopped to think about framing. I suppose it's so innate to the story when you first come up with the idea it's not something you sit back and think about. But if your story or your character aren't totally nailed down, it can be fun to consider it. You never know where framing will take your story...

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Miss Cole's Tea Time - East Frisian Broken Blend from Tin Roof Teas


Today's tea comes from North Carolina's Tin Roof Teas. It's another good, strong tea. I personally wouldn't drink it with cream, as I feel that would weigh the taste down too much. I like to taste the malt and the tartness. It's a really satisfying tea to kick start your working and writing day with. And yes, I have a new Tea Traveler! I had to replace my old one with the green lid as it had seen so much use the poor thing was cracking. I picked it up at Tin Roof, too, after failing to find a similar product here in the UK. I love using a teapot, but sometimes a single cup brewer like this is exactly what I need at my desk. Plus it's so easy to get the leaves out and clean it.

Anyway, back to the tea!

I gave this a minimum four minute brew, but given the size of the leaves and how much you get in a single scoop, I think you could probably get away with three. Thanks to the Assam, I definitely class this as a morning and afternoon tea if you're hard at work, or perhaps just morning if it's a lazy weekend. Unless you're working late, you'll probably want to switch to a lighter tea in the evening.

A great blend for all of my fellow black tea drinkers!

Friday, 10 June 2016

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End - A Miss Cole Videogame Review

 

Spoilers. There will be spoilers. All of them. Top to bottom spoilers. If you haven't played the game, do not read this post. I'm indulging ;)

But if you want my spoiler free verdict, here it is - This game lived up to all my expectations. All of them. And in some cases, it totally surpassed them.

Okay, incoming spoilers!

I still cannot get over how I went from being extremely ugh about the original game to "OMG FEELS!" through 100% of the third and fourth games. I maintain this series is a great way for any writer to play through brilliant character development. I talked about that in my character study, but A Thief's End takes it to another level. Instead of undoing all of Nate's character development over the previous three games and having him be the same idiot he's always been, we're instead given a character torn between his brother and the family he found along the way... Well, okay, he's still kind of an idiot, but maybe for the first time ever his heart was in the right place. In a sort of midlife crisis kinda way. Or perhaps in a "Oh, crap, I am a terrible person, I should probably not be" kind of way. Eh, your mileage may vary. Either way, if you ever find yourself wondering how to take a flat character and give them life, and how to work character development into a larger than life storyline, Uncharted is the franchise for you!

...There, I have fulfilled my blog's "this is about creative writing" obligation. Now, for the fangirling. WOO HOO!

So, for the record, I have currently only played my way through the game once.... and then spent hours sinking into internet reviews and Tumblr holes :P I wanted to spew out all of my feelings before going through it again. As it stands, the fourth game is my second favourite in the series, even if I am still blown away by the plot days later. There's just something about the third game I like that little bit more. Drake's Deception feels so tailored to me in a way A Thief's End doesn't quite achieve. I think it's the fourth game's lack of abandoned Victorian train stations :P

Anyway, back to A Thief's End. I barrelled my way through it in four days. I had moments when I desperately wanted to slow down, but I just needed to know what would happen! The game's main treasure hunting plot is fairly straight-forward - Nate and his older brother are seeking the lost fortune of pirate king Henry Avery. They had to take a fifteen year break because Nate believed his brother Sam had died. But Sam comes barrelling back into his younger brother's life a few years after the events of the third game, when Nate has given up the treasure hunting lifestyle. But when he finds out Sam will die without his help, Nate breaks his promise to his wife and returns to his thieving ways. This is the first time Nate admits that's precisely what he is, rather than claiming he's some kind of treasure hunter. It's another big step for his character development. He's able to look back and see the truth. He's no dashing hero; he's a thief and a murderer, and he isn't proud of the fact. It stands in huge contrast to the child we meet early on in the game, and it's definitely the game's quieter, character driven moments I love the most. There's early tension between Sam and Sully. Sam's clearly jealous of the older man. To Nate, Sully's family. To Sam, Sully is the guy who took Sam's place in Nate's life. Sam isn't just an older brother, he's a replacement father figure... at least until Sully came along. However, it's the relationship between Nate and Elena that takes centre stage in the game, a relationship Nate has put in terrible jeopardy because he can't be honest. Or maybe won't be honest. Hmmm...


Now, while I could talk about gameplay mechanics, what I always care about in a game is the story. Every now and then you get a game like the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot that balances an excellent story with superb combat mechanics, but what I look for in a game is engaging plot, and A Thief's End gave that to me. What makes this game something special is the time it takes to tell its story. The previous games in the series are pretty bombastic. They don't really give you time to catch your breath outside the cutscenes. You're always one turn away from some kind of disaster - usually Nate falling through a ceiling onto some bad guys. But A Thief's End knows its audience cares about these characters enough to stick with them when nothing's blowing up around them. You have the time to explore environments and characters like never before. My favourite section of the game is set in the past when little Nathan and his big brother are exploring an old woman's house. She's an aged explorer, and her house is full of wonders... but she is completely alone. As you explore her house, you find letters from her estranged husband and child. In the plot's wider context, she is a stark warning to Nate and his brother about what happens when your quest for adventure costs you the things that really matter. To me, she's also a nod to Lara Croft and I will fight anyone who says otherwise. FIGHT YOU, I SAY!!!!


In all seriousness, these quieter stretches are a big step for an Uncharted game. The character development that made me care about Nathan Drake in the third game pays off, because we spend time with him at various stages of his life - childhood, early twenties and present day - without having to mow down a battalion of enemies. It was incredibly refreshing.

Okay, big spoilers coming up! Last chance to back out.

At the game's midpoint, I should think all of my neighbours wondered what the hell I was shouting at. Nate, after his lies have been uncovered by his wife, discovers he's been lied to by the older brother he's idolised since childhood. Sam's life isn't being threatened at all, and he's actually working for the main villain. OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOH!!!!! And this twist works so well because you've spent the previous half of the game getting to know their relationship, and all the fallout it causes for Nate. Despite not being honest with Elena, Nate's having fun going back to that adventurous way of life. He knows it's wrong to lie, but he doesn't care. Not the way he should. He thinks he can have it both ways - save his brother and solve the mystery and his wife will never be any the wiser. It weighs on him, but not properly. Not until Elena finds him and reveals the extent of her devastation. After that, there's no joy left in any of it for Nate anymore. The whole treasure hunting thing doesn't compare to the happiness he has with her. And yet he can't stop because of the danger he believes his brother's in. It's part love for his brother, part guilt for leaving him in jail for fifteen years driving Nate. Lying to Elena isn't a decision he made lightly. He thinks he can get away with it, but he required some pretty heft motivation. So for him to find out Sam's been lying to him? Predictable, yes, but amazing.

So, we've got a family drama set against a treasure hunting expedition, and man did I love those little hints of what had happened to the pirates hundreds of years previously. The ghosts of the past hang over the current day action, and there are parts of the game that are genuinely creepy. The opening screen will give you a taste of that. Something about being left in a gibbet to die unnerved me. Actually, that's not strong enough. It really, deeply disturbed me, especially after I decided to read up on the practice after I'd finished the game. The gibbet cages certainly gave the game a great atmosphere which, with its quieter tone overall, worked really well.


So, after big brother's betrayal, Nate has to try and patch things up with his wife. This happens while you're playing. Nate will try and apologise to her, or thank her, or compliment her, and she's just not ready to hear it yet. Normally, these two break up off screen between games, so for us to play through Nate desperately trying to fix what he has broken is, again, another big step for the franchise. And it's only really at the very, very end of the game in the epilogue that we see they work through everything and stay together.

So yeah, about that epilogue...

Honestly, going into this game, I was convinced that Sully would die. I was prepared. I had tissues. And then, in the final gameplay section with Nate, I was convinced he would die. In fact, I was convinced he had died until, during the epilogue with his daughter, she talked about him in present tense. I cannot tell you how glad I am this franchise had an excellent, and very happy, ending. I suppose, with this game coming from the people who made The Last of Us, I was prepared for tragedy. When we didn't get it, it was the relief that made me weepy. Nate and Elena carry on with what they love, they have a child together who has grown up happy, and Sully's alive! Oh, and Sam, he's there, too, forgiven and reformed. It was perfect. And, again, the slow pace to it made it so much more fun. I can't wait to play through it again. And for me, that's the sign of a great game - a need to go back and replay the story immediately.

There were so many tiny details I loved in this game, too. One of my favourite additions was the more organic approach to Nate's journal - it's up to you find all the entries. They don't just appear there as needed like before. Nate will actually grab a pencil and sketch in-game. His brother even comments on it. I missed a few entries, which is another reason I have to play it again - more to do and see! I loved playing Crash Bandicoot again for the first time in nearly twenty (O_O) years... I think I was better at it as a kid :P I loved the banter between the characters (especially Elena and Nate's gibbet pronunciation debate ha-ha-ha, I see what you did there, Naughty Dog). I loved the fact that Sam was the only person to call Nate Nathan. I love that Sully is still Nate's voice of reason. I loved that Nate couldn't hold his own against Nadine. I loved how beautiful this game was, and how lifelike the animation is. There was one tiny moment - Nate's sitting next to Sully on a plane and he rubs his nose, and I forgot I was playing a game. Simple little things, tiny things, revealed such an amazing level of detail. It was phenomenal. Oh, and the soundtrack! Guess I'll have to give it a proper review another day ;)

So, yes, A Thief's End was brilliant. I got a far happier ending than I expected, and I loved how the story took a little extra time than before. And, having just replayed the original, it's fun to go back and see how Nathan Drake develops over time.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah. Happy fangirl.