Monday, 31 January 2011

VR: Better than life?

There are a number of highly addictive games available online. Huge numbers of people love playing them daily, and sometimes they play them excessively so.

However, virtual reality may have an unexpectedly good use. A new 3D virtual reality, named SnowWorld and created by Professor Hunter Hoffman and Professor David Patterson, has been invented to try and help burns victims during rehabilitation.

I’ve only ever had a very small burn, but that’s all you need to realise that, unlike a small cut, the pain doesn’t disappear and it can hurt just as much hours later. Those who suffer extensive burns obviously have a hell of a time recovering.

That’s where SnowWorld comes in. Pain has a huge psychological component, and, as eyesight is the dominant sense for humans, by presenting an attention grabbing visual world a veil is drawn between the patients and their treatment. They also have noise-cancelling headphones to prevent sound interfering.

They don’t have to see needles and bandages and whatever else is needed for treatment, and this actually helps significantly.

SnowWorld is quite simple, with snowballs thrown at you by snowmen, and you can return the favour and similarly have a go at penguins and other creatures.

This sounds quite incredible, but it dramatically reduces the pain patients feel, basically by keeping their mind occupied and removing (both visually and audibly) them from their real world surroundings.

The treatment is part of a Horizon programme on BBC2 tonight at 9pm:

There have been a number of technological breakthroughs in recent years and decades in the medical sphere. This one’s pretty simple, as it just involves hooking up a basic VR world to someone during treatment, but sounds very effective.

The use of stem cells, genetic engineering and cloning also hold promise for the future (and some for the present).


Sunday, 30 January 2011

2011: A Year For Games?

I’ve played computer games for a long time. My first ‘system’ was an Amstrad with cassettes that took 30 minutes to load. Since then, I’ve had a Megadrive, Playstation, PS2 and PS3. That said, I’m a pretty casual gamer and don’t play (or buy) tons of games.

The recent(ish) sci-fi and fantasy games I’ve got for the PS3 include Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Dragon Age: Origins, Fallout 3 and God of War 3.

Anyway, I thought, as it’s January, it’d be a good time to look ahead and see what games are coming out this year and when. I try to look into games quite carefully before buying, particularly as I don’t get that many and loathe buying a game only to discover it’s about as much fun as accidentally eating a whole box of laxative chocolates.

After the natural deluge of games in the run up to Christmas, January’s a bit of a quiet month. However, it did see the release of Mass Effect 2 for the PS3 [no Mass Effect though]. The game is very highly rated, and features an initial comic strip whereby you make the decisions that would’ve occurred in Mass Effect and which affect ME2 [akin to Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2].

I’d be very tempted by ME2, were it not for the fact that I’m a big Dragon Age fan and DA2 is coming out in the first half of March. So, I’ve decided to buy that straight away, and if ME2 goes platinum I might come back for it.

DA2 takes place in the same world as its predecessor, but in a not-too-distant part. Instead of the nation-state of Ferelden, the action mostly happens in Kirkwall, a city in the Free Marches (think Greek city-states meets medieval England). There’s still character creation, but this time you must be a human (surnamed Hawke), though the class and gender options remain. Male Hawke (preset as Garrett) is voiced by the chap who did the splendidly evil Vaughn Kendalls, son of the Arl of Denerim, in DA:O. Lady Hawke’s VA is yet to be announced, but, sadly, I think the rumours of it being Brian Blessed are false.

The combat is a bit different (faster, basically) and skill trees look to have been improved and made more like a web rather than a linear set of paths. Game length is between Origins and Awakenings (an Origins expansion) and is perhaps 20-30 hours or so. I’m really rather looking forward to it, and will post a review when I can.

March also sees the releases of Knights Contract. The two central characters are a witch-slayer called Heinrich and Gretchen, the reincarnation of a witch he previously slew. The twist is that the witch cursed Heinrich with immortality, and he must protect Gretchen as she (and thus he) do battle with assorted vile monsters let loose upon the world by the main antagonist. It’s an adventure game, and it’s not yet clear whether you play only as Heinrich, or both, or if there’s a multiplayer option. Sounds quite good, though with the closeness of its release to DA2 it’s not one I’ll buy immediately.

Later in the year, possibly June, comes Hunted: The Demon’s Forge. It’s a classic fantasy with the adrenaline-pumping action of a modern day shooter, with dungeon crawling featuring a foxy archeress and a predictably hulking swordsman (E’lara and Caddoc respectively). From the sounds of it, there will be co-op play, whether with an AI or other player (sounds similar to Uncharted or Red Alert 3) and you can switch between playing as either protagonist. An intriguing addition is The Crucible: a level editor with which you can create and share your own, er, levels. I think the last game I had with one of those was Tenchu III, and if it’s anything like as user-friendly and enjoyable to create and play it’ll be a fantastic extra.

November sees the release of a dead cert bestselling RPG, namely Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Its predecessor, Oblivion, had many good, and some bad, features and sold by the ton. I loved the free-roaming though the levelling system was not to my liking (Fallout 3’s was much better). There’s very little information out right now, save the title, which clearly suggests that it takes place in the land of the Nords, and a little teaser video which features a prophecy about dragons on the rampage. I look forward to finding out more about it, and suspect I’ll end up getting it.

Anyway, those are a few that stand out for me in the year ahead.


Saturday, 29 January 2011


When writing sci-fi or fantasy, at least a basic element of world-building is needed. ‘World’ can refer to a planet, or the entire galaxy, or a single city, and just means the immediate and general environment that the story takes place in.

In both sci-fi and fantasy the author can choose to incorporate the real world into their story (like in Harry Potter and Star Trek) or not. The advantage of a real world link is that you’ve already got a basic template, but then you may have to either do some historical research or conjure up a reason why nobody notices magic happening.

Personally, I tend to go for entirely fictional worlds. There’s more freedom, if a bit more work, and you can still take advantage of real world information (like adapting a feudal system or using medieval fashion to dress the people milling about in Fantasyland).

For those interested, there’s a brilliant link below which offers a lot more info about generating numbers for a medieval kingdom:

A bane or blessing with world-building is that the level of detail is entirely dependent upon how much work you’re willing and able to put in. There’s nothing wrong with having a basically 13th century English country, with pig farmers and yeomanry and longbows. But, you could introduce a new element. Different intelligent species, or the practice of necromancy, or flightless birds that can be ridden like horses (such as ostriches or chocobos).

As well as specific details, there is the general feel of a world to consider. Two common sci-fi types are the ideal world (such as in Star Trek where humanity is lovely and nobody dies of starvation) and dystopian (the bonkers Aussie series Farscape is a good example, where there’s a war between the evil, imperialist Peacekeepers and the even more evil, psychopathic Scarrans).

In fantasy, there’s been a distinct shift from the relatively straightforward good versus evil of Tolkien and Lewis to a greyer, more morally ambiguous worldview (excellent examples include Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy and George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire). Being a cynical sort, I generally prefer moral ambiguity.

One of the key differences between the two genres is that (typically) fantasy has magic and sci-fi has advanced technology, and these alter the way the world works. Crucial to sci-fi is faster than light travel, due to the enormous distances in space. But, this could be limited to a single organisation or species, or the fuel could be controlled by a cartel. Or the universe could be your oyster, with every man and his dog able to go faster than light.

Often, a more detailed and unusual world can really draw a reader in. It also helps develop the context of dramatic happenings and can flesh out characters and explain their vices and virtues.


Friday, 28 January 2011

The First Post

Welcome to Thaddeus the Sixth's blog, a new corner of the interweb written by myself, an aspiring author.

I'll be blogging about the delights and challenges of writing, sci-fi and fantasy and history and science. The blog will shortly be festooned with a variety of posts, including book, TV, film and videogame reviews, pieces about current events (when scientific/historical matters occur, anyway), and, the primary focus of the blog, writing and related topics.

In time, I hope to release an eBook through the blog. I'm presently nearly halfway through the first draft, so if all goes well it may ready this year (yes, that is trouser-explodingly exciting news, isn't it?).

I'm not going to have an arbitrary timetable of blogposts. So, expect it to be busy if the Doctor gets killed by the daleks, a complete copy of Polybius' works is unearthed in Istanbul and I get an obscenely generous publishing deal on the same day.

Anyway, that explains the blog and a little about me.