More Music to Write By

A continuation of my previous blog for the Surrey New Writers Festival…

Surrey New Writers Festival

For my last blog I highlighted (for many of us) the importance of background music when writing or undertaking creative pursuits. And not just any kind of music – Music To Write By.

For me, this always means the same thing: classical scores, soft piano music and film soundtracks. Essentially, anything without vocals which creates atmosphere and unlocks the imagination.

But there is another form of this music which must not be overlooked – game soundtracks. Games have changed and evolved a staggering amount considering the industry is still, to a certain extent, in its infancy. Home consoles and gaming PCs truly took off in the 1990s, which is still just over 30 years ago. It is a small dip in human history – but during that time we have seen games evolve from low-res graphics and bleeps, to mega-budget titles complete with symphonic soundtracks and complex soundscapes.

As a…

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Music to Write by

My latest blog for the team at Surrey New Writers Festival on the importance of background music while writing.

Surrey New Writers Festival

Each writer-in-the-making has their own method to spark creativity or break through procrastination, lack of motivation and writer’s block. Several bloggers from the Surrey New Writers Festival team have already written some great advice on this subject, so I thought I would explore my own take on this — the importance of background music.

“Music has healing power. It has the ability to take people out of themselves for a few hours.”

Elton John

I have finally found time to write. I have cleaned my desk, turned off my phone, put aside distractions, filled my water bottle. There are no more excuses. So, before I put pen to paper – or more accurately, keystroke to screen – there is only one thing left to do. This is to select the music that will inspire my words for the next few hours.

Some writers cannot work to background noise. But for…

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New Year, Past Inspirations

My latest blog post for the team at Surrey New Writers Festival – with the January blues upon us, I could not resist an excuse to escape into the grand, epic world of Tolstoy’s Russia…

Surrey New Writers Festival

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“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

– Leo Tolstoy.

January is a curious month. December – perennially busy with the festive hype and excitement of Christmas – has faded away, leaving many with a mixture of feelings. There are those who revel in the fresh start, the first to embrace New Year’s resolutions and an energetic start to the year, while many feel a sense of anti-climax and uncertainty about the months ahead.

One constant, for me, is that January tends to be a quiet month. The year often takes time to click into gear, be it a slow start at work, or enjoying time off before the next term at school or university. It is a month of quiet, cold, grey days, filled with thought and reflection, before Spring, the season of rebirth and renewal, finally arrives. Most of my friends can…

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A Slight Re-write…

Hi all, just a quick update to let you know about a few changes to the blog.

Originally, this was set up as Prog.Gaming, exploring my favorite subgenre in the gaming world. However, as many of you know, I also hold ambitions of becoming a published (or self-published) author one day and that my first installment in a fantasy series is nearing completion.

I have therefore decided to re-vamp the site into http://www.AJComley.co.uk with a focus on having an official website that covers all my writing pursuits. Take a look and see what you think! As you can see, the Prog.Gaming section remains unchanged on its own page , however the blog section itself will now encompass a wide range of topics, from literature, to music, to my own thoughts and excerpts.

Thank you for remaining subscribed to the blog and I hope you will continue to support me in the years ahead as I attempt to forge a career in one of the most challenging arenas known to humankind…

‘Tis The Season to Be Haunted

You may have noticed that things have been rather quiet over here at Prog.Gaming. That is because I recently started a one year MA in Creative Writing at the University of Surrey.

It has been a very intense term which has sadly left less time for writing blogs. I have, however, started working with the Surrey New Writers Festival, leading up to their festival in May.

You can see my first blog published with them below: an exploration of haunting tales for Christmas. See you in the new year!

Surrey New Writers Festival

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There is something inherently Christmassy about settling down to enjoy a good ghost story at this time of year.

On the surface, this may seem strange when you consider that so much of the Christmas spirit is based around happiness, joy, colour, energy, and childish wonder. Nevertheless, the season can be exhausting for these very reasons, and it often feels cathartic to find a quiet moment to finally sit back on the sofa and lose one’s self in a haunting tale.

Picture the scene as you turn off the overhead lights and let the warm glow of the Christmas tree illuminate the room. The fireplace crackles away as you read, warming your soul as you pour yourself a glass of port and fetch a mince pie. Or if, like most of us, you do not have a real fire, the Netflix fireplace video will do.

The most well-known Christmas ghost…

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Return to the MYSTsterious island – part two

Myst (2021 remake)

Continuing on from my previous blog, I can now give my thoughts on the recent Myst remake, following a (mostly) enjoyable playthrough. I completed the game over several days, sat at my trusty computer desk while occasionally gazing out at the rainy weather. A perfect setting for such a game.

Myst is billed as the new definitive edition, built from the ground up with new visuals, sound and interactions. The quality throughout cannot be denied – the only issue is that we have been told this before. Firstly, with Myst: Masterpiece Edition in 2000, realMyst in the same year, and realMyst: Masterpiece Edition in 2014. Each time I have happily revisited my favourite island, never once thinking – if I am honest – that it needed to be remade every five years or so.

2014’s realMyst: Masterpiece Edition is still fresh in the mind for me, with wonderful visuals true to the original game, a handy help guide, and the option to switch between the fixed ‘slideshow’ screen positions of the original game and free movement. Sadly, this year’s version of the game no longer features the fixed node option or many of the other features of the 2014 edition, which feels like a backwards step.

If I had been overseeing the project, I may have gone one step further and created the new game to have only the fixed nodes option. This would have then been a true and faithful remake of the original, with ideally rendered, high-quality scenes, without the usual graphical drawbacks of motion blur, juddering sprites, and everything else associated with moving around in a game. The trouble with 3D graphics is that they usually become dated very quickly, much like CGI in films. With fixed rendered images – much like films shot on analogue cameras without added CGI – there is a timeless quality that lasts. Now, one has to wonder how many years it will be before another Myst remake is announced to upgrade the current version, in an endless loop.

Another huge issue soon becomes apparent when I enter the library and ‘fire up’ the red and blue books. I expected to see the reassuringly suave Sirrus and insane Achenar attempting (very badly) to convince me of their innocence and wrongful imprisonment on the forgotten island. Instead, I am met with awful CGI recreations that looked like they belong to a mid-2000s game. This is unforgivable. Apparently the DEVS said it was not possible to use the old QuickTime videos with the new VR technology, however within an hour of release, someone on Steam had already provided simple instructions on how to restore these with ease.

Very strange. I understand that these low-res videos are problematic the longer time passes, however they worked perfectly in the 2014 edition, with a few scenes of Atrus being shot again to tidy matters up. The key difference being that everything still felt real. Actors have been a staple throughout the series and one of the most immersive elements of the story. Why take that away? The game also removes the changing weather and the bonus age at the end, first brought in for realMyst. This is another backwards step.

Ah, that’s better. I thought they had turned you into some kind of CGI monster for a minute there, Achenar!

But does the game have any redeeming features? Of course! There are many. Most obvious of all is the visuals. What can I say, other than that Myst island and it’s hidden ages have never looked this beautiful. As someone who knows the puzzles backwards (even with the new puzzle randomisation option), I could have completed the game in an hour or so, however I chose to play for over six hours, most of which was spent exploring and gazing at the incredible detail throughout. I thoroughly recommend taking a moment to enjoy the sun setting over the Stoneship age, or marveling at the Channelwood age’s bubbling swamp and the leaves on the trees. The sound and music were also as atmospheric as always. From the wind buffeting your face on the shores of Myst island, to the hum of Jules Vernian technology below the ground in the Selenitic age, there can be no denying the care and attention taken.

Sunset over Stoneship…

So, should you play the game? Absolutely, for both new and returning players, this is the best-looking version yet. However, returning the original FMV files to the game is essential. Do a quick search on google once you have downloaded the game and follow the instructions, you will not regret it. For me, all the new visuals in the world cannot make up for the lack of the original characters. If they had not tinkered with these, I could have stretched to a 7.2/10 on my rating. Sadly, I must review the game as it is, with the CGI monstrosities included.

I could stare at these leaves forever! In fact, I did.

But before we close, there is another question that burns unavoidably in my mind. Once I have completed the game yet again; once the sea has grown still on the shores and all is as it should be in the ages of Myst; once all the puzzles are solved and the books are whole once more, there is a simple question that cannot be avoided any longer:

WHERE IS THE RIVEN REMAKE?

6.2/10

Final Score

Return to the MYSTsterious island – part one

Myst

This weekend sees the release of MYST, a from-the-ground-up remake of the original, iconic game released for early PC and Mac on September 24, 1993. As a die-hard fan of not only Myst – but the arguably superior Riven, along with its many sequels and thrilling tie-in novelizations – I am only too happy to have an excuse to talk about this extraordinary game on this week’s blog. After all, this is the phenomenon that quite literally started it all for me. In this two-parter, I will be revisiting and discussing the original game, followed by my review of the recent release next time around.

1993. A time before Windows 95, the modern-day iMac, and the later operating systems we all know. A time when the PlayStation had just only just been announced; a time before Tomb Raider, FIFA, Warcraft, online gaming, and 3D graphics to dazzle the eye. This was the golden era of 16-bit consoles, with titles such as Super Mario, Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat providing an action-oriented thrill.

Not as clumsy or random as an action title. Elegant games, for a more… civilized age.

Then along came Myst. For myself, I did not stumble on the game until around 1995/96, when my dad finally relented to buy our first ever home computer. I had hoped for a Windows, dreaming of playing space-flight games such as Fury III, with a classic Sidewinder joystick. What we got was a grey box called a ‘Macintosh’, which whirred and groaned into slow action on a daily basis, like an old man trying to climb out of bed. Little did I realise how fortunate this turn of events had been – the Macintosh had been purchased second-hand, complete with a wallet full of CD-ROMs. Most of these were dull pieces of software… but there were also some games. Among these were strangely charming titles such as ‘Inbred with Rednex,’ where you escape from a canyon town by completing puzzles for members of the pseudo-cowboy band Rednex (yes, really), along with similar point-and-click learning adventures, such as Dorling Kindersley’s ‘Leonardo the Inventor’, ‘Ancient Lands’ and ‘Castle Explorer’.

Nestled somewhere in the middle of the wallet, was a visually striking blue CD titled: ‘Myst – the surrealistic adventure that will become your world’, with an illustration of a man falling through the sky towards an island. When I booted up the game, I had the unique experience of knowing nothing about the game or its story, having not even received the original box or jewel case. This was also a time before we even had dial-up internet in our home, while smartphones were a dream of the future. Upon my first arrival on Myst island, I was alone, with no method of solving the mysteries that lay ahead except for the limited intelligence of my six-year-old mind. I also had to rely on an old-school pencil and notepad, as I regularly jotted down notes and theories, my imagination running wild.

I will never forget the first time I heard the haunting music in the introductory video, followed by the narration of the man falling through the sky, leaving me even more confused as to what was going on. Then, in the darkness, a book appears. The pages are blank, save for a single panel, showing a visual fly-by of the island while the evocative main theme plays in a sombre, synth-like symphony.

The rest, as they say, is history. Myst masterfully places you alone on the shores of a dock, with no further instructions. You are tasked with exploring the empty buildings and interacting with hidden devices, complex contraptions, crumbling documents, and half-burned books to reveal your next steps. Throughout the game, the increasing sense of loneliness and unease pervades, as you explore silent, ruined worlds. It may seem ridiculous, but at the age of six, I often expected someone to run out from behind a tree or leap from a shadowy corridor to attack me. The spooky ambience of the ages of Myst is one of the strongest early memories of gaming that I have.

My room if I won the lottery…

A first-time player in the modern age will find little which they have not experienced before from walking simulator/indie/puzzle games. Myst, however, is the Citizen Kane of this genre; a classic title which introduced many familiar styles and tropes before everything that came after it. Viewed through the lens of today, the original version of the game appears dated (hence the number of re-releases over the years). It was essentially built as a slideshow of high-quality images, cleverly compressed to a much lower quality while retaining their color and visual appeal. Added to this were moving elements utilizing QuickTime video, such as birds in the sky, along with one of the game’s most intelligent inclusions – characters portrayed by real actors, seamlessly imposed over the digital environments.

Throughout production, the Rand brothers (co-founders of Cyan and creators of Myst) faced many challenges, such as slow CD ROM drives and computer memory, along with other technical limitations of the time. Despite this, they managed to produce a final product which pushed forward the potential of gaming, as well as popularizing the fledgling CD ROM drive system. I would strongly recommend that you take the time to watch ‘The Making of Myst’, a short video included on the original game CD, in which the brothers talk about the production in detail. It is fascinating to see how ground-breaking this all was at the time.

The enduring legacy of Myst cannot be denied. Nevertheless, it is impossible to provide an honest review score from a modern-day perspective, especially for a game that often struggles to run on modern gaming platforms. For anyone interested in experiencing the original game, I would suggest nothing better than watching Dilandau3000’s excellent ‘Let’s Play’ video on YouTube. His narration is perfect, taking time to explain the logic behind solving each puzzle, punctuated with interesting facts and thoroughly researched backstory throughout.

Anyone who knows me is aware that this is probably my favorite game of all time. Therefore, I hope you will forgive me the indulgence, as I travel back in time and ask my six-year-old self to provide a final score, through the nostalgic lens of the early 90’s…

10/10

Final Score

“Let my armies be the rocks and the trees… and the birds in the sky.”

Vane

2019’s Vane, presented by Friend & Foe Games, is a short, artistically-driven adventure that takes clear influences from games such as Journey and Ico. Serving as a prologue, the player is plunged into a dramatic lightning storm, experienced through the main character of a young child as the world around him is smashed to pieces, giving clues as to the story beyond.

Following the chaotic introduction, the player takes the form of a bird, with the freedom to explore a large, sweeping desert vista complete with tall, red stone cliffs, valleys, and the occasional scattered oasis. It soon becomes clear that this dying landscape is all that remains of the civilization and buildings shown before. I found this section of the game to be the most visually stunning and fun to interact with. The experience of taking flight with a bird has successfully been done before (AER Memories of Old and Copoka spring to mind), however I found the visuals to be smooth and enchanting, and I spent longer than I should have soaring between rock formations and exploring the environment.

Fly, on your way, like an eagle…

Much like the titles mentioned above, Vane follows the trope of avoiding providing any text or voiceovers that explain the game’s goal any further, instead relying on silent characters and actions throughout to give hints as to the overall narrative. The puzzles are also fairly linear, relying on trial and error as you react to the environment or call out to other creatures for assistance.

The first major puzzle involves interacting with a crumbling windmill (hence the title, Vane) following which the main character is restored to the form of a human child, with the clever ability to transform between the two in order to solve future dilemmas. Following an atmospheric section underground – which stylistically reminded me of the inner workings of The Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit film franchise – you will encounter similar ‘bird children’ along with a giant, portable device with the ability to rebuild ruined structures in the vicinity.

Sadly, going into the final few acts, I began to struggle. Firstly, the game grew increasingly unclear where you were meant to go, with hard to navigate dark areas and interactive objects which were all but camouflaged. Secondly, the game suffered from bad camera angles, heightened in the last quarter. Nearing the end of the journey, despite only playing for 3 hours, I felt ready for the game to end. There was little else I needed to see once the story became clear.

Nevertheless, Vane deserves credit for attempting to continue the visual style and feel of games like Journey, in a world polluted with standard action titles. In terms of the soundtrack, the game curiously chose to embrace the Synthwave genre, which I admit to being a personal fan of. Another negative, however, is the price. £14.99 (Steam) is extortionate for a 3-hour game – I would say that the £6 mark would be fairer if you can catch it on sale…

5.9/10

Final Score

And Now My (Fire)Watch Begins

Firewatch

Every once in a while, a game comes along that feels special – a game that manages, almost by accident, to transcend the genre and stumble upon the elusive achievement of being a milestone in popular culture.

I believe that Campo Santo’s 2016 release Firewatch is one such game. No words or description can prepare you for the masterclass of musical and soundscape atmosphere, combined with an emotionally-engaging story driven along by several simple, yet highly intelligent mechanics designed to involve and engage the player throughout. With the weather being predictably wet and anticlimactic for summer (at least here in England) now is the ideal time to pick up this gem for an afternoon in.

I often find myself easily distracted when playing a new game. However, from the moment Firewatch began, with a haunting acoustic theme laid down by composer Chris Remo, I found myself hooked. Your journey begins with a few simple, minimalist passages of text. We establish the main character, Henry, who after suffering heart-breaking loss, has willingly retreated from the world to take on a new job as fire lookout in the Wyoming wilderness. His simple home is a wooden tower, surrounded on all sides by lonely forests, lakes and mountains.

Henry’s only human contact is in the form of Delilah, a fellow fire watcher in the next tower along, who can be contacted at any time by way of a handheld radio. And here lies one of the game’s cleverest devices – you will never meet Delilah in person and are unable to travel to her tower – yet throughout the game Henry will come to emotionally rely on her as various dangers and mysteries unfold. For every new area and puzzle discovered, your unseen companion is there with you every step of the way.

It is fair to say that most games hold your hand to a certain extent, with clear indicators of where to go and how to progress. Yet in Firewatch, the sense of vulnerability, fear and paranoia are key to the story. Navigating the Shoshone National Forest requires the use of a map, compass, and guidance from your radio companion. At times it could almost be a day out with the scouts, apart from the fact that when you are alone and unsure of what danger could be lurking in the trees, all sense of a jovial ramble falls by the wayside. Firewatch is not a horror game, yet the ever-present spookiness and sense of unease throughout is one of its great achievements.

I was fortunate to play the game for the first time with my trusty group of friends mentioned in the about section of this website, and I have rarely seen them so gripped. The unique visual design of the landscape, combined with perfectly written dialogue and characterization throughout, lend this game a quality that is almost film-like in elegance. Upon finally completing it, we were unsure what to do next. No one felt bored or frustrated that they had watched a game unfold without ever having a go on the controls – it was that enjoyable to witness as an observer.

I will not delve deeper in the plot, as I do not wish to spoil the game or the sense of mystery for anyone who has not had the pleasure of playing it. Yet if I could lock every gamer in a room and force them to play one game, this would certainly be a contender. For this and the various reasons mentioned above, Firewatch will be the first game reviewed on this blog to receive the prestigious Tubular Bell award. General consensus seems to share my enthusiasm, as the game picked up a host of award wins at the BAFTA, NAVGTR, Unity, Golden Joystick, and the British Academy Games Awards, among many others…

9.7/10

Final Score

The Days Have Gone Down… Into Shadow

Stela

This month our prog spotlight falls on Stela, a side-scrolling platformer released in March 2020 by SkyBox Labs.

Stela is a stunningly artistic game that combines the exploration of cinematic landscapes, scenes and situations with ever-present dangers and fiendish puzzles at every turn. Way back in 2010, a highly regarded indie game called Limbo (eventually followed up by the even more richly-developed Inside) coined the term ‘trial and death’ to describe its gameplay. Stela follows in a similar vein, with most puzzles requiring a certain skill in timing, trial and error and learning from repeated failures to solve.

More cynical reviewers have accused Stela of being a straight clone of Inside and Limbo. An understandable opinion: however, I personally believe on this occasion that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Stela easily stands on its own merits. Besides, it could be argued that this style of game hearkens even further back to the heady days of the PlayStation One, in particular the wonderfully imaginative Abe’s Odyssey, whose titular character was forced to navigate past gunslinging enemies and puzzles with nothing but speed and ingenuity. For all its fame, Limbo also owed much to its predecessors.

Stela begins in familiar style with an ever-silent protagonist awaking in a cave, with no indication of where they are or what to do. The female character appears dainty and lithe, touched with fatigue as their delicate dress flutters in the breeze. Fortunately, we will soon discover that they are more than capable of holding their own in the hostile world beyond.

Each of the game’s areas has its own distinctive style and colour palette, while the musical score that underpins your journey is perfectly immersive throughout. Before long, it becomes clear that you are witnessing the final days of a mysterious, ancient world, as per the game’s description. In true ‘prog’ style, you must piece together the story from vague narrative and visual clues, rather than relying on any narration or text.

One of the aspects I enjoyed most was the balance between exploring dramatic, atmospheric vistas, and stumbling into sudden danger. I will not spoil the game for those wishing to play it, but be warned that you are far from alone in this crumbling landscape. None of the puzzles are overly frustrating and I was able to complete the game in just under 3.5 hours.

Personally, I enjoyed this length. The days of sinking over 30 hours into a game as a teenager are sadly diminished, as time and energy is increasingly consumed by adult life. At this point in life, I find myself enjoying the luxury of experiencing a game from start to finish in one or two sittings. However, at the full asking price of £15.49, you might expect more. Perhaps £7.00 would have been a fairer price.

Nevertheless, I would rate Stela as a deeply enjoyable experience which ticks many boxes of the quintessential ‘prog’ gaming experience. If you are looking to immerse yourself in a mysterious world of splendid visual design one of these rainy afternoons, you need look no further…

6.7/10

Final Score
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