Garwulf’s Corner #15: Through a Glass, Demonically


Through a Glass, Demonically

In August 2000 I received the most challenging writing assignment of my life. In fact, I don’t really think I will ever write anything more difficult. Even so, I got to fulfill a couple of dreams, and have the time of my life.

For those who haven’t worked out what I’m talking about, it’s my e-book, Diablo: Demonsbane.

It has honestly been one of my proudest achievements, and, at the same time, one of those things that had me shaking my head in bewilderment at the results.

Sounds rather contradictory, doesn’t it? Well, my dear readers, I’m going to take you through the looking glass on this one. I’m going to tell you the story of Demonsbane.

To tell you the truth, I was utterly shocked when Marco, my editor at Pocket Books, called me up and asked me to make a pitch for an e-book to Christopher Metzen. I had telephoned him, talked to him, been told that there were no slots for Diablo novels open, and sent him a couple of short stories. Two days after this, he called me, and asked if I could make a pitch on Friday.

(Later, he told me that I had REALLY impressed him with the short stories.)

So here I was, this basically untried, unpublished fantasy writer, frantically brainstorming for a telephone conference with the creative head of a company that had become a giant in the field. Story ideas filled my head, half of them getting shot down because they were too clich?d, another half being removed as I realized that they just wouldn’t work in the Diablo setting.

It took two meetings, but I got the contract. Granted, the story that was chosen had been a left-field idea originally tabled by Marco, and later developed into a storyline by yours truly, but the assignment was mine. I was the author who would lead the Diablo games into literature, and I could make certain it was done RIGHT! I may have been given a limit of 30,000 words (about a hundred to a hundred and fifty pages), but I could work with that…

(Hey, I was still in ego-boost mode. Trust me, I came down afterwards.)

It was around this time that the implications of the publication date, which I had been told when I was first asked to make the pitch, set in.

You see, I got to start writing in August. The e-book would hit the shelves on Halloween. This meant I had approximately a month and a half to write, edit, turn it in, and make whatever corrections were necessary. You’d better believe I was praying that neither Chris Metzen nor Marco would ask for a re-write (it’s one thing to know you are close to up the creek; it’s another to have somebody take away your paddle).

Now, I am not a fast writer; the sort of fiction I write comes out very poorly if it’s done at warp speed (in fact, I have it on good authority that there is an ancient tortoise somewhere in the Galapagos Islands who is writing circles around me with a rusty typewriter). When I really get going, I can put out 10,000 words (fifty pages) in a week, but that’s usually after the story has been gestating for around a half a year or so. And that is rough draft work; for every day I spend writing, I get to spend another day editing. So, something like Demonsbane would usually have taken me around three to four months to put out. As I said, I had a month
and a half.

Now, I’m going to segue off into some of the things that made it even harder. Diablo is, when you boil it down, a computer game. Demonsbane is a piece of literature. Combining the two is a hazardous task, fraught with danger, in which it is very easy to misstep and end up writing sheer crap.

I had decided, from day one, that I was going to write serious fantasy. No bubble-gum fantasy, the sort where you just have the hero, the villain, and the quest. Instead, there would be historical references, literary references, mythological images, philosophy and theology. A proverbial umpteen-decker sandwich of a book that will allow a reader to notice something new every time.

This meant that the first thing I had to do was toss the game out the window. The background was fine, but nothing else was. The character classes were all superheroes, perhaps vulnerable to kryptonite, but nothing less. The magical items were randomly generated weapons and armor that would make any book they appeared in the Plan Nine >From Outer Space of fantasy novels. The monsters could be killed by a hero of sufficient size spitting on them. Healing potions, mana potions, they all had to go. They were fine for the game, but they simply wouldn’t do for a book.

So, I grabbed a corner of the world that the writer’s bible hadn’t touched, and re-designed it. I created an Entsteigian society based on the early Medieval Anglo-Saxon and Germanic cultures, with a few Viking skalds thrown in for good measure. All that was left was to let my characters wander around and explore this nifty new part of Sanctuary that I had created.

And thus Siggard the reluctant hero, Sarnakyle the confused wizard, and Assur the evil Archdemon developed and grew. I also took the opportunity to flesh out Tyrael, and add a bit of my own touch to the conflict underlying the story. Hey, as I said, I had the time of my life.

And now back to length. If I had been writing a full-length novel, 30,000 words would have given me just enough time to introduce the characters and send them on their way, with a brief warning not to feed the monsters. Instead, I had to tell the entire story within that length, while still keeping the characters and world
interesting, and the subtext intact. Not an easy job at all, but I did it. I spewed words from my computer at breakneck speed, and finished the first draft in two weeks. It was a simple story, with no sub-plots whatsoever, but I managed to bring it in at 25,000 words.

And then a dream came true. Dennis McKiernan, a man whom I had considered a friend, became my mentor as well. I have a lot to thank him for; he’s the one who made Demonsbane publishable. He gave me a thorough edit, and taught me more about writing in a week and a half than I had learned in the previous year.

And then came the moment of truth. I handed it in, praying like a madman that Blizzard would actually like it, that they would not glare at me and say, “Who did you think you were, writing this drivel?”

Let’s just say that I was a bit relieved when Chris Metzen commented: “I f*cking love it!”

(Okay, I was more than a bit relieved. I had an orgasm on the spot from sheer relief. Happy?)

Demonsbane made it out on time, with relatively few hassles. Oh, there was that little argument about the name, and there was the typesetter who decided to play with punctuation and see if any of us noticed, but that was all cleared up quickly and easily. So, I sat back and, against everybody’s advice, waited for reader reviews to come in on the websites. After all, they might give me some ideas of how to become a better author.

At this point, I got flabbergasted, and learned WHY I shouldn’t pay attention to the reader reviews. It’s not that people who read it missed the point; indeed, I have gotten several emails from people I’ve never heard of telling me what a good story they thought it was. It was just the quality of the reviews.

At least one half of the reviews had been penned by people who had not actually bothered to read the book before writing. My first chapter, excerpted for all to see, must have become the most reviewed chapter in history. Of the other group, who had actually bothered to read it before they commented, at least half missed the point in some of the most vocal manners possible.

One person complained that there were no game quests. Another (who actually declared himself on the website to be “a best-selling author;” when I looked up his name, it turned out that he wrote video game guides), completely ignoring the length, protested the lack of subplots and the simplicity of the storyline.

I am not making these up. They’re real; you can find them on the Barnes & Noble and the Simon & Schuster websites. And while I will say that these people are entitled to express their opinions of my work, I did not find a single helpful reader comment.

I guess part of being a successful writer is to be willing to do your own thing, and not really care what the public thinks. It is physically impossible to please everybody, and, quite frankly, going out of your way to try is a good way to bring on insanity.

But, the people who count the most in my life (my editor, my mentor, and a few choice others who are close to me) liked what they saw. After all, I wrote what I thought would make a good Diablo book, the sort of fiction that I would enjoy reading myself. And quite frankly, albeit in my slightly biased opinion, it is a book I am proud of.

Disclaimer: Garwulf’s Corner is written by Robert B. Marks and hosted by Diii.net. The views expressed in this column are those of the author, and are not necessarily the opinions of Diii.net.

Garwulf’s Corner #14: More Emails from the Edge


More Emails from the Edge

Well, it’s that time again…time for me to write my favorite part of the column.

You see, one of the reasons that I write Garwulf’s Corner (currently the only writing I do that I’m not paid for), is the reader mail. Not only do I get a lot of it, but it is usually exceptionally well-written and intelligent. It really does make me feel privileged to be writing for you.

So, while I simply get too much mail to be able to share all of it, here are some of the shining stars that have landed in my email box…

Column #8 (I am NOT Harlan Ellison) managed to bring in a couple of interesting letters. Mike Ferry wrote:

“As far as the Diablo-killers angle on the reviews go, these guys have an axe to grind with D2 and are eagerly waiting for something to come along and kill it off. My pet theory is they still haven’t gotten over 640×480. Wasn’t it CGW who put BG2 at #1 and kept D2 off the list entirely? They can not deny that D2 is outselling these other games by far, and they can’t get past their own Black Isle slant.”

Regarding my difficulty with the New York Times quote on the recent Robert Jordan book, Ragnar Ehrenroth kindly sent me a letter saying: “They probably mean that Tolkien was the one who began to reveal the world of epic fantasy, and Jordan is now the one who dominates that genre.” That’s got to be the best explanation for the quote that I’ve heard so far…

Garwulf’s #9 (Staring at the Top Rung), managed to stir up a bit of controversy, and for every reader that agreed with me, another didn’t. Brian Cripps, falling on one side of the spectrum, wrote:

“I’ve never seen the point of having ladders in Diablo II. We the solo players (People who play to have fun and enjoy the game) stand no chance of getting on it. You have to ruin the fun of the game and create an, as you said, “Uber-character” to get on the ladder.”

Nathan Page, from Brussels, wrote a long and eloquent letter to me entitled “The joys of being a ladder player.” While I can’t print all of it (it’s simply too long), there are some highlights that I would like to share…

“For most people, once they have reached the point where there is nothing new left to see or do in the game, it is time to move on to a new game (or something more constructive). However, there are a few people like me who won’t do that. The only challenge left, then, is not just to play Diablo II but to excel at it. For some people, this involves creating the best dueling character they can. For others, it involves trying harder versions of the game (Hardcore, Iron Man, Naked) to prove their mettle. For a few people, it’s the ladder.”

And, in a later paragraph:

“If I went through life without trying to achieve anything, I would be living purely for the moment. Either doing only that which gave me immediate satisfaction/enjoyment, or only those things which I needed to survive. I think this would be a miserable experience. Achieving a top ranking in Diablo allows me to “feel good” about myself; I have done something which very few other people have done, and I have proven (to myself and others) that I have the determination and ability to do it. Will people remember me in a few years time? No. Will I remember what I have achieved? For sure. I can add this to my list of ‘the things I have done,’ and be proud of it.”

I think Nathan has put his finger on a very important point, one that cannot be stressed enough. Personal fulfillment comes from the things that make one proud of one’s self, regardless of if it is writing, painting, or ladder playing. Other people’s opinions are just that, and for the most part, they do not matter. I just hope that the other ladder players have the same sense of pride in their characters as Nathan does.

The controversy from installment number nine was nothing compared to Garwulf #10 (Cutting Through the Dung-Pile). And, some of it caused me to re-think my position on the issue. In particular, the economic standing of younger teenagers. As Jared Gee writes:

“I am one of those teenagers who own a computer game rated ‘M’ called Diablo II, although not 13, but 15. My parents didn’t do the buying for me, I worked long hours farming to make enough money for that (actually, for a computer, but that was an added bonus).”

Well, I can honestly say I was wrong on that one. I was thinking back to my days as a teenager, when there was a rather serious recession going on, the Ontario government was being ineptly run (which, come to think of it, hasn’t actually changed), and jobs were rarer than gold. It made me wish I had never given up my paper route (after all, a pittance is better than nothing). Well, I am justly chastised; that’s what I get for living in the past.

A couple of people were annoyed at my classification of teenagers as “not mature.” Shawn Gerger writes:

“I’m 14, and I did buy Diablo 2 with my own money… I currently have $400.00 in the bank from my job. And I do watch R rated movies my parents rent for me, but I think I am mature enough to watch them without thinking about shooting up my school tomorrow. And, I do realize all the consequences for violence and do realize that games are just games.”

Maturity is a sticky issue. There are many teenagers who can be considered mature for their age: for example, I personally know a 14-year old who has the maturity of a first-year university student. Are they truly grown up, though? For the most part, I would have to say no. Part of growing up is getting out there and living on your own, a process that forces you to change in ways you didn’t even think possible. But, maturity is not a black-and-white issue; you aren’t either mature or immature. Instead, it has infinite shades of gray.

After Garwulf #11 (Changing the Guard) was posted, several people wrote to inform me that I had missed somebody in my list of great authors who had passed beyond. I think Matthew Flader said it best:

“Thank you for your article- it really made me pause and reflect on some of the great works of fiction and the people who created them, and how those bright lights have been forever extinguished. I only wish that you had mentioned Roger Zelazny as well.”

Well, it is a bit belated, but Roger Zelazny was a bright light, and one that we will all miss. I just hope that I won’t have to write too many more obituary installments of Garwulf’s Corner in the future. There are still several star authors out there, all of whom have years to go before they have said all they are going to say…

Garwulf’s #12 (The Devil in the Details) proved to be a rather controversial one. It turns out, among other things, that there are several different views of modern Satanism, many of which conflicted with my own interpretation. As Patrick Cauthen writes:

“No, not really. The place you visited must have been a variant or some kind of very mild satanic/new age mix. Satanism tries to get one to care about oneself, not one’s neighbors. It’s all about satisfying one’s wants regardless of the cost. Anton La Vey, founder of the Church of Satan and author of the Satanic Bible wrote:

“‘Satanism is a blatantly selfish, brutal religion. It is based on the belief that man is inherently a selfish, violent creature… that the earth will be ruled by those who fight to win.’

“Any other pretenses are false. And yes, animal sacrifices are done.”

Paul Darling, in a very eloquent letter, told me why some fundamentalists actually find games such as Diablo Satanic. I don’t have enough room to quote both reasons, but I will print what I thought was the more interesting one:

“The Bible is very clear that people should avoid things like the occult, astrology, and witchcraft as these are all controlled by Lucifer and his flunkies. Since many of the powers given to the characters are ‘spell based,’ they are clearly in violation of these items pointed out in the bible (sorry, but there is no such thing as ‘white witchcraft’ regardless of what some people claim).”

I got one other letter I would really like to share from this issue. Although I really hate to say it, I thought the incident related was extremely amusing. As Ed Ma recalls:

“I just wanted to congratulate you on making the right argument. This is the exact same thing I said to a friend, [Deleted] in grade 8 when the original first came out. His mother (Spanish) came in his room and saw a borrowed copy of the game… Her reaction: grabbed the CD, case and all and crushed it down its diameter with her right hand. Later that week she had a priest come in to expel any lingering demons…

“So I told him to tell her mother it’s about killing the devil—she didn’t buy it. [Deleted] is still grounded to this very day… that’s three years and counting.”

The controversy continued with Garwulf’s #13 (Hackers at the Gates). Some people thought I was off my rocker in some way, others that I was dead-on accurate. One thing that many people disagreed with was my comparison of the hacker attacks to Palestinian bombers. Geoff Shakespeare stated it most eloquently:

“Not only do I find the comparison of hacking (which although damaging usually causes little permanent damage) to the loss of human life misguided at best and obscene at worst, but I also was upset with your singling out of Palestinians in your example of terrorists. I don’t believe that you meant to paint all Palestinians with the same brush or had any intention other than creating a metaphor, but I still think that your metaphor was poorly chosen. Perhaps in the future you might consider refraining from comparing a ongoing human tragedy to what is ultimately an extremely trivial thing.”

Admittedly, the metaphor was a bit extreme, and requires some explanation. You see, when I wrote that installment, the violence in Israel had only just started up again (thanks to a stupid Israeli Prime Minister who shoved his foot into his mouth in front of the entire country). Every day, when I woke up to the CBC radio news, I would hear about another bombing, or a shooting, and it all seemed utterly pointless…just like the hacker attacks on Blizzard. Unfortunately, instead of things quieting down as cooler heads prevailed, the situation in Israel became far worse, and, as I write, now appears to be escalating into a full-scale civil war. Had I known that events in Israel were going to play out this way, I would have used a different metaphor.

While several people suggested that it might be corporate espionage, Eric McCann saw the hacker attacks in a bit of a different light than I did. Instead of sheer information terrorism, he suggested that it might actually be a prank of some sort:

“Why is Blizzard targeted? You may be right about the motivation, but what other game allows someone to anonymously attack like that? Nox, yes, on a free server – but how big is Nox now, even with Noxquest? Not very. It just doesn’t have the replay value. EQ? You have to provide your name and a credit card – you’re not anonymous, so you can get caught. Blizzard’s got a popular enough game in D2 and a free server – that’s the combination that’s attracting these jerks.”

The idea has merit. Unfortunately, until one of these hackers is caught and tells us all why they did what they did, I fear we’ll never truly know the reason for these vicious attacks.

I want to close by lamenting that I don’t have the space to print even a fraction of the letters I have received; every installment brings in tons of interesting feedback, and I really wish I could share it all. So, until the next feedback issue, my dear readers, keep reading and keep writing!

Disclaimer: Garwulf’s Corner is written by Robert B. Marks and hosted by Diii.net. The views expressed in this column are those of the author, and are not necessarily the opinions of Diii.net.

Garwulf’s Corner #13: Hackers at the Gates


Hackers at the Gates

I am now longing for the days when hackers weren’t a problem on Battle.net.

Oh, they were a problem, but just not a problem. Sure, you got player killed by some hacker invoking an act of God (usually around some strange magic item, just to torment you). Occasionally somebody would walk in and drop so many non-legit magical items that you couldn’t take a step without tripping over a Godly Plate of the Whale. But those were just nuisances. Those you could laugh off, write philosophical columns about, blame on Barney the Purple Dinosaur, and then avoid once the Realms Servers were available.

Now it’s an honest-to-God problem.

I think soon Battle.net will have seen it all. First, at the beginning of the year, there was a mass murder of hardcore characters. Hackers broke into the Realms, killed off these intrepid adventurers who actually disdain the ultimate life insurance, and left without a trace.

Then, once Blizzard had fixed the bug that had allowed these hackers in, they attacked again, striking against the Realms and the website. Now the police on at least two continents are involved, and the Hackers have once again vanished without a trace.

(At least, that is the state of affairs as I write this in early March; remember, there is a time lag on this column.)

It boggles the mind. These are not innocent game hacks, or people trying to create an uber-character in under thirty seconds. These are terrorist attacks, almost as vicious in their own way as the Palestinian bombers. There is no playfulness in them whatsoever; they are trying to ruin Blizzard by destroying its reputation for quality.

The question that has my head spinning is: “Why?”

It can’t possibly be for recognition. After all, as soon as the hackers responsible raise their heads, they’ll be beset upon by the police, Blizzard’s cadre of lawyers, and probably one or two major demons who are annoyed that they haven’t had adventurers to feast on during the attacks (monsters do get cranky if you don’t feed them regularly, after all).

One might wonder if there is a political statement here, but even that is obscure at best. What could Blizzard possibly represent that some fanatic feels it needs to be destroyed? Let’s face it, they make computer games. Great computer games. How this could possibly annoy somebody is beyond me.

That leaves only one possibility left in my mind: Iconoclasm.

The word itself comes from the mists of time, when the Byzantine Empire was at the height of its power. People who disliked the order of the Empire would go into churches and destroy the gold-leafed paintings, known as Icons, in protest. Since then, the word has referred to people who destroy things just because they are established.

And Blizzard is established. It may not be Microsoft, but it has become a giant in the computer game industry. No other game has managed to sell as many copies as Diablo II, and I have no doubt that the upcoming expansion and Warcraft III will be just as spectacular.

And so, a bunch of modern Iconoclasts have decided to try and knock it down. The fact that hundreds of thousands of players would much rather see Blizzard succeed does not worry this fanatical minority. They’ve found the biggest, most popular target they could, and gone after it.

What a waste.

There are so many causes out there that could use people with some degree of fanaticism. Protecting authors from having their books pirated on the Internet, for example. Helping musicians who have been screwed over by the record labels (the music industry has to be the only market I know of where an artist can sell a million records and fail to see a profit). Peace in the Middle East, the abolishment of the Star Wars program, finding environmentally safe sources of power…

Needless to say, the list goes on for quite a while. Causes worthy of fanaticism are not difficult to find. But these are long, complicated issues that will take far more time and energy to solve than harassing Blizzard would.

I guess there is an inherent laziness involved. Attacking Blizzard anonymously is something a hacker can do quickly, and then move on from within days. The time and dedication involved in actually trying to accomplish something worthwhile is beyond these people.

Sad, really. Hacking into Blizzard takes skill, but the act itself is a waste of talent. Just imagine what these hackers could accomplish if they’d just grow up and try to do something helpful. It truly boggles the mind.

Disclaimer: Garwulf’s Corner is written by Robert B. Marks and hosted by Diii.net. The views expressed in this column are those of the author, and are not necessarily the opinions of Diii.net.

Garwulf’s Corner #12: The Devil in the Details


Garwulf’s #12: The Devil in the Details

So it’s early February, and I’m sitting around the house with nothing to do. Having just seen The Ninth Gate for the umpteenth time, I decide to wander onto the Internet and look at its official website. It’s a nice site, and there were some fairly interesting links that I followed, just to see what they were.

I’m telling you this so that you’ll understand exactly how I ended up spending an hour zipping through the website of the Church of Satan.

(Don’t worry; I’m not in any danger of becoming a Satanist; I’m too busy being an infidel for that.)

Yes, my dear readers, there actually is a recognized Church of Satan. It is a fringe religion, and after reading its credo, I have to wonder if it isn’t the single most misnamed faith on the continent.

Imagine a group of Wiccans (nature worshipers with a Druidic background) who have decided they just can’t live without an inverted pentagram somewhere. So, having changed the lord of darkness into a strange sort of nature deity, they now have an excuse not only to use a pentagram, but also to occasionally cast a nasty spell at somebody who has annoyed them (something Wiccans aren’t allowed to do).

There you have it: the Church of Satan (at least, what I perceive them to be from their literature). No animal or human sacrifice, no harming somebody unless they’ve come after you first, no being generally nasty to thy neighbor. If the devil actually did come up from Hell and saw this group, he’d scratch his head and wonder who they were actually worshiping.

(Mind you, I say this with a grudging respect; any religion that considers “stupidity” to be its worst possible sin becomes instantly okay in my book.)

However, no matter what the Church of Satan tries to make out of the devil, the actual mythology behind the lord of darkness still manages to strike fear into the hearts of millions. Lucifer is a fallen angel, cast out from Heaven after he tried to usurp God himself. A figure of temptation and evil, he is the opposite of Jesus and the saints, a force of infinite darkness struggling against a messiah of goodness and love.

As it turns out, real Satanism (meaning devil-worship based on Christian mythology) is probably itself just a myth. After all, considering that the payoff in the end is some temporal power, then being burned at the stake and roasting in hell for all eternity, somehow real Satanism doesn’t seem very attractive to anybody with any degree of sanity whatsoever.

Is it any surprise that symbols of the devil manage to disturb and terrify many fundamentalist Christians? And what happens when they see these symbols on a computer game?

Back when Diablo.org was still alive (sadly, it has been dead for a few months now), a rather interesting question was posted on the forum: is Diablo Satanic? The discussion immediately became intense and heated.

One person related a story about a mother in the Bible Belt who caught her son playing Diablo on his computer. She took the CD, poured holy water on it, wrapped it in some sort of leaf, and placed it on the mantle. Apparently, it rests there to this day.

However, extreme reactions aside, the question remains. When one wanders through the Diablo world, there are inverted pentagrams, grisly remains of sacrifices on alters, and monsters from some sort of demonic nightmare. Diablo himself has a name meaning “devil” in Spanish, and while he may look like a cross between a T-Rex and a porcupine, he also looks very much like one would imagine Satan to be.

(Okay, Satan in a mad rage, after taking over and crossing the bodies of a T-Rex and a porcupine. Are you happy now?)

And yet, with all of this imagery, I don’t think Diablo is Satanic. Not at all. In truth, it is exactly the opposite.

It isn’t the fact that the imagery is there, but rather how it is used. The hero isn’t wandering around congratulating the demons on a job well done, but is slaughtering them left, right, and center instead.

Is Diablo Satanic? Absolutely not. In fact, I would call it the ultimate in Christian wish-fulfillment.

Just think: you play a mortal hero (albeit with superpowers that can put some comic-book characters to shame) who actually can go down into the depths of the underworld and kill the Devil. It’s not just saving the world, it’s saving the world from the source of evil itself. It’s freeing damned souls, crushing demons, and taking back all the loot they took from good, hard working people (most of whom do not work as Hollywood studio heads).

As I said, the greatest Christian wish fulfillment of all time. It really is sad, though, watching the reactions of the fundamentalists, who would probably enjoy the game once they realized what it truly is. They are missing out on a great deal. However, that doesn’t mean we have to.

Let’s fulfill a dream. Let’s go kill the Devil. Who knows? Perhaps somewhere there’s an evil Devil-worshiper pouring unholy water on a Diablo CD…

Disclaimer: Garwulf’s Corner is written by Robert B. Marks and hosted by Diii.net. The views expressed in this column are those of the author, and are not necessarily the opinions of Diii.net.

Garwulf’s Corner #11: Changing the Guard


Garwulf’s #11: Changing the Guard

Well, as I write this, it is the day after Ad Astra, and I’m still processing some of what has happened.

Let me just say that I had a wonderful time; I got to meet some of you, and I got to spend time with some of the better authors in the industry. Whether it was wandering around towards the end with Robert J. Sawyer while wondering what to do, having lunch with Hal Clement (an author who started in the golden age of science fiction, and is still writing; perhaps his best known work is Mission of Gravity), meeting Guy Gavriel Kay during a party, or sitting around during a signing and chatting with Ed Greenwood (the man who created the Forgotten Realms setting for TSR), it was an incredible convention; I will remember it for a long time.

Well, there is another reason that I will remember Ad Astra 2001, and it gave the entire event a twinge of sadness for me. It was during this convention that I learned that one of the longest shining stars of the fantasy genre had passed into the night.

(I’m sorry, my dear readers, but this won’t be a terribly funny one; the subject matter is too serious for that.)

L. Sprague de Camp died on November 6, 2000, just a few days before his 93rd birthday.

He was a remarkable figure; most people my age aren’t terribly familiar with his work, although we cannot imagine the genre without him. Although his stories covered everything from historical fiction to time travel, he is perhaps best known for The Compleat Enchanter, co-written with Fletcher Pratt, but that isn’t in general print right now.

This was a man who had been writing for longer than most people have been alive. Regardless of his original fiction, he managed to preserve the memory of some of the great authors of the 1930s, namely Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft. It’s because of Sprague that we still remember them, because of him that when you watch a Conan movie on the television set, they haven’t butchered the world beyond belief. Regardless of if it is Conan or Kull, watch the closing credits: you’ll find him there.

L. Sprague de Camp might not have been an overt presence in fantasy in his remaining years, but he had certainly left his mark. I, for one, cannot imagine fantastic fiction without him. The fact that he is now gone has left a hole in the genre, one that will not easily be filled again.

As Ed Greenwood says, “Most of all, he was a gentleman. Really. A kind, polite, dignified friend to everyone, who liked to befriend the lost and lonely at cons in years past and make them feel welcome.”

Before I segue off, I would like to ask everybody to just take a moment in honor of Sprague. Pay tribute to this remarkable man who managed to preserve so much of the heritage of the genre. It’s the very least he deserves.

All right, back to the column. Shortly after I learned of L. Sprague de Camp’s passing on, I had the pleasure of eating lunch with Hal Clement. As I mentioned earlier, Hal was an author who had come up during the golden age of science fiction, and he told me several stories about some of the great authors and what they were like. As we parted to go to our various events (for Hal, a speech; for me, a book signing), I said that I hoped to see him again next year, and Hal joked that he hoped he would be there next year. It got me thinking.

So many of the old guard of fantasy and science fiction are gone. L. Ron Hubbard, who started a religion to bring in some extra cash, but kept putting out some rather good SF while he was doing it, passed away in 1986. Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Fletcher Pratt, Frank Herbert, L. Sprague de Camp, they’re all gone. Even Gordon R. Dickson died on January 31 of this year. Poul Anderson has terminal cancer, and may not be with us for much longer. Those who remain, such as Harlan Ellison and Andre Norton, are getting on in years. David Eddings is in poor health, and even my friend and mentor, Dennis L. McKiernan, will not be around forever.

I think that the next decade or so will be the changing of the guard. Sprague may be gone, but Tad Williams, Ed Greenwood, and George R.R. Martin are still here, and will be writing for decades to come. And even as they are scribing their prose, promising new talent such as Jo Walton, David Farland, and (hopefully) myself are being lined up to take our place when the time comes.

Speaking as a writer, it is intimidating; I wait in dread for the next obituary, praying that it won’t be a bright star like Ray Bradbury or Harlan Ellison. Fantasy does have a legacy, and it is one that includes Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, J.R.R. Tolkien, and L. Sprague de Camp, among its most illustrious. They are the ones who made it possible for the rest of us to keep writing and forge ahead, and we can only hope that one day our own names will be as bright in memory as the masters who went before. It is their legacy that we authors will inherit, and it will be a very difficult one to live up to. But at least we will have the chance.

In the end, there is hope: one bright and long lived star has winked out, but who knows how many new ones have blazed into existence, just waiting to be discovered so that they can shine with their own light? The genre will survive, the changing of the guard will take place, and so long as we remember and cherish those trailblazers who went before, the speculative fiction genre will continue to flourish, and be a good place for those whose minds delve into the fantastic.

(I would like to thank Dennis McKiernan and Ed Greenwood for reading the rough draft and making certain that I was doing the subject matter justice.)

 

Disclaimer: Garwulf’s Corner is written by Robert B. Marks and hosted by Diii.net. The views expressed in this column are those of the author, and are not necessarily the opinions of Diii.net.

Garwulf’s Corner #10: Cutting Through the Dung-Pile


Cutting Through the Dung-Pile

It isn’t easy coming up with topics sometimes. In fact, it can be really difficult.

You see, I have this philosophy about Garwulf’s Corner: I believe that you, my dear readers, are intelligent human beings who want to read about something just a bit more important and insightful than another strategy guide. So, I delve deep into the issues, looking for that little bright gem in the dung-pile that I can hold up in the air and declare: “This is worth talking about! What do you mean I smell bad?”

So, I began thinking that I would take the computer game magazines to task; after all, the last time I had been a regular reader, they had been of relatively little substance. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

But then GameSpot, which is run by Computer Gaming World, went and did a very interesting article about the effects of removing children from violent media, and shot that idea right out from under me.

I thought of perhaps doing one about the walking dead, but having already written two about those creatures already, a third might be going a bit far (no doubt there are one or two walking dead people just waiting for me to show myself so that they can do something nasty to me, such as force me to read a Robert Jordan series from start to finish with no sleep allowed).

Besides, once I start re-using column ideas on a regular basis, I’ll become a bit dead inside myself. And if there’s something I can’t stand, it’s hypocrisy.

Back to that GameSpot article: it was a very interesting piece. You see, some researchers took one group of children and removed them from violent or violence-inducing media (Schwartzenegger movies, Quake-style games, Barney the Purple Dinosaur, etc.), and then compared that group to a control group that had gone along as merry as can be, nothing changed in their life except for strange people occasionally asking them bizarre questions.

The group that had been removed from violent media became less aggressive in the classroom than the control group. The research team declared that it would continue their studies to see if there was any further correlation. The computer game industry, in light of these findings, decided to take further steps to ensure that game ratings are enforced.

Now, while this was interesting, what was even more interesting was the replies the GameSpot article got. Most of them tried to debunk the article entirely, while some of them blamed the gaming industry for all of life’s ills. Few, if any, actually got the point of the article.

As I said: hypocrisy. I can’t stand it.

For crying out loud, there is going to be a correlation between violent media and real-life violence. A child may understand that what they see in Star Wars is fake, but it still exposes them to the violence. The lessons that these sorts of media teach is that violence is often a better way of dealing with a problem than a non-violence means.

And, in most cases, there is nothing wrong with this on the studio end. Granted, this excludes the recent stink of those studio heads who were marketing R-rated movies to 10 year-olds, for which I think the studio heads should be shot, but let’s look at this objectively. The studios make the films and TV shows. They do not force people to watch them. For the most part, the only crime the studios are guilty of is that of creating stupid movies for the lowest common denominator (but that is for another column).

Turn that to computer games. As I look at the Diablo II box, I see a warning sticker: the game is rated “M,” and is for mature gamers only. The same with Demonsbane, my e-book. Demonsbane is incredibly graphic, to the point that it gives Braveheart a run for its money. And, on the cover, it clearly states that it is for mature audiences, a move I fully support.

Imagine my shock and horror when a thirteen year-old kid declared on the Pocket Books website that they intended to buy it. And, I have no doubt that his parents gave him their credit card number so that he could do it.

I’ve got an even better one for you: how in the name of God did a thirteen year-old kid find out enough about Diablo to know about Demonsbane in the first place? Both games were rated “M” for their graphic content.

I’ll tell you how: parents. There is no such thing as a thirteen year-old who has the financial resources to afford a game like Diablo II when it comes out (for that matter, there are some adults who don’t have those resources, myself included at times). And there is no such thing as a young kid with a legitimate credit card.

Back to the GameSpot article again. Here are those same parents, the ones who let little Johnny play an M-rated game because it’s “just a game,” vigorously arguing that violent media have nothing to do with real-life violence.

To a degree, they are right. When a teenager goes and shoots up a school, s/he is set off by something. However, if they are at the point where they COULD go and start killing people in real-life, then they are not well-adjusted in the first place. If Quake doesn’t set them off, then something else will; it is just a matter of time.

Those disasters, those tragic deaths that could have been prevented if a parent or authority figure had actually been paying attention and noticed that there was something wrong with little Tommy, are not the fault of violent media. Violence or neglect in the home bear far more blame.

As I said, to a degree the article’s detractors are right. But only to a degree. A person’s personality is informed by their experiences. If they come from a loving home where they were exposed to non-violent media more often than the ultra-violent movie, they will be well-adjusted members of society. If, on the other hand, they are constantly watching R-rated films and playing Quake, a higher degree of aggression can be expected. They probably won’t go and shoot ten people at school, but they might try to fight their way out of a tricky situation rather than talk it through.

What gets me is that this vocal group of parents (and whether they are the minority or majority, I do not know) vigorously denied that violence begets violence. No doubt, when they receive a call from the school telling them that little Johnny is in the principal’s office for fighting, they’ll blame the computer game.

As I said: hypocrisy.

The computer game is NOT to blame. It is a thing, a toy, and one that is clearly marked for an appropriate age group. The idiot father or mother who bought the game for their 12 year-old, blithely unaware that the nice little warning label might just be there for a reason, bears the blame. All of the after-effects, the greater aggression, could be avoided if the parents would spend time with their kids, rather than letting the computer do it for them. They are the ones that put the game into underage hands, and they are the ones who bear the responsibility of any ill effects.

You know, I think that if there was more responsibility and less hypocrisy, the world would actually be a better place.

Next issue:  “Changing the Guard”, in which the author contemplates the loss of one of Fantasy’s finest.

Disclaimer: Garwulf’s Corner was written by Robert B. Marks and hosted by Diii.net. The views expressed in this column are those of the author, and are not necessarily the opinions of Diii.net.

Garwulf’s Corner #9: Staring at the Top Rung


Staring at the Top Rung

Finally able to discover the wonders of Battle.net with my USWest barbarian, aptly named Garwulf, I ventured online during a snowy New Year’s Day to stretch my character’s legs and have a look at the new ladder rankings.

Ever since I first began playing Diablo II on Battle.net, I have paid attention to the ladder. Although I wondered at what cost the dedication to maintain a character on through level 90 came to a player’s personal life, I still looked at the rankings with some awe; after all, just think of the many months those ladder players worked on creating their uber-characters! It is a dedication and effort that is beyond me, and therefore worthy of respect.

(My energies are more often dedicated to my writing work-in-progress, aka “the novel that is eating my life.” What do you expect? I’m a writer…I write…)

Flashback: the date is January 1, 2001. The city of Toronto has been buried by eighty feet of snow, and those who aren’t still recovering from their New Year’s parties have nothing better to do after they shovel their driveways (well, there is collapsing from exhaustion, but I mean OTHER than that). It is around 11 hours after the ladders have been reset. The valiant author logs on, a copy of Children of Dune at his side (I am still uncertain of whether I am playing Diablo II in my free time to divert myself from reading, or vice versa). Upon entering his favorite channel, Strategy Forum, he checks the new ladders, expecting to see a bunch of characters in their low teens and early twenties.

The top character…is…level…72.

Five minutes later, having recovered from the combination heart-attack and stroke caused by this revelation, I looked again, certain that there must have been a mistake. Who knows? Perhaps one of my friends, knowing that I would be on Battle.net the next day, had written the number “72” on my glasses, exactly where it would need to be to fool me into seeing this incredible number.

No mistake. Indeed, somebody had managed the improbable feat of bringing a character up to level 72 in under 12 hours. Looking down the ladder, I saw more characters, a couple in the sixties, an enormous number in the fifties, and even more in the forties. Not only had one person apparently been playing ten games of Diablo II at once with one character, but several were close behind.

It boggles the mind. I’ve put around 20 hours into Garwulf, and he is (at the moment of writing this column), a comfortable level 23. I didn’t think it was possible to finish the game in half a day (although I’m told that it can be done if you play really hard), much less often enough to beat Hell difficulty.

I think I’ve found a new version of the walking dead.

Remember Garwulf’s Corner #6, that lovely little piece about people who are dead inside and how wonderful life is when you actually take time to live it? Consider this a follow-up.

It took me a while to work out how one could get up to level 72 in that period of time. At first, I thought it isn’t something one person can do. In theory, if you got around twenty people to help you, you could zip through the first difficulty level in a couple of hours, with seven other players opening waypoints for you and knocking off monsters and quests. Then, once you’ve got that done, you could divide the players up into teams. Each team goes into their own game, clears out the underworld in a great imitation of a paramilitary operation, leaving only Diablo himself alive. Then, you go in, dispatch Diablo, and move on to the next game, leaving the team to create a new game, and clear out Hell again.

After a bit of information gathering (okay, my editor dropped the information in my lap and threatened to make me read a never-ending fantasy series if I didn’t revise…but it really is better to think of it as “information gathering”), I discovered that it can be done on one’s own, but it involves pre-planning and gathering equipment for around six months beforehand, and then playing solely in 8-player games where you can level up at a fantastic rate (while teaching the monsters never to bring a sword to a gunfight).

Repeat the process for Nightmare and Hell difficulties, and it can work. So there you have it: Garwulf’s theories as to how this variant of walking dead operates.

Think I’m being cruel here? I don’t. If I could meet one of these ladder players, there is one question I would ask above all others: “Are you actually having FUN?” Granted, it was interesting and enjoyable to watch GerBARB and RussBARB vie for the top place on the European Realm, but that was only two teams. It was reasonable. Two HUNDRED teams of ultra-competitive players is just ridiculous.

After all, the point of the game is to have fun. Furthermore, those good people at Blizzard North have made Diablo II a labor of love, and it shows. Not only does the game have an epic storyline involving a conflict between Heaven and Hell, but it works on a very mythological level. The struggle is a fundamental one between good and evil, and the souls of all of the human race are in peril.

The heroes wander across the globe, from the western lands of Khanduras to the gates of Hell itself. From a demon-infested pass that once held a Monastery of the Sightless Eye, the heroes travel into the desert. The lands of Aranoch are filled with the desolate remains of ancient civilizations, giant Assyrian monuments buried in the shifting sands. And yet, within these sands, there is an ancient evil, and the heroes must explore secluded temples and long-forgotten tombs.

Across the sea they travel, coming to the lands of Kehjistan. Here the heroes find themselves in the overgrown ruins of Kurast, fighting to survive in the deadly jungles. There, amongst ancient temples that reach into the sky, they must destroy one of the Prime Evils.

From Kurast, they venture into Hell itself, past the lost souls trapped in their horrifying torments, through cities of the damned, to confront the greatest evil in the world.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? And this is not something I’m taking from the world bible handed to me for Demonsbane, or some prosaic fantasy I am weaving for your enjoyment. This is all in the game, there for everybody to see. Yes, the gameplay may revolve around killing monsters and leveling up, but it is merely the tip of the iceberg.

The real fun comes from losing one’s self in this incredible world, and not wanting to come out again. I can’t count the number of screenshots I have, primarily of incredible bits of the landscape that brought Sanctuary to life before my eyes. But, in order to do this, one must take one’s time, actually explore and SEE what is out there.

How can one do this when one is on the ladder? In the all-consuming rush to reach that magic number of 99, the wondrous enchantment of Diablo II is lost. A game that should be a glorious and fun diversion, an adventure into darkness itself for the sake of light, is transformed into a mere contest of numbers.

And what do these ladder players get once they reach the magic number? Their name on a board, for all to see. And then, in a year, or perhaps even less, the board will be cleared, and their accomplishment forgotten. They’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that they did it, but that is all.

One of my proudest moments was the day that I held the final galleys of Demonsbane in my hands. I looked at the stack of paper, and repeated to myself: “I wrote that.” That accolade will stay with me for years, and I will always have the galleys of my little Blizzard e-book to remind me of this. I worked my tail off for weeks, and I created something that gave other people joy. THAT is an accomplishment to remember.

But when I play Diablo II, it doesn’t matter where I play it. I always enjoy the wonderful world of Sanctuary, where I can lose myself for a couple of hours, only actually coming out for that pesky need for food and sleep. And if that means that I will never have my character recognized on a ladder, well, so be it. I won’t be missing out on anything, and I’ll be having lots of fun.

Which is, of course, the point of the game, and the point of life in general. Harlan Ellison once told the readers of his column An Edge In My Voice to “stay angry.” I’ve got a better idea; I’ll see you next installment, my dear readers. Until then, stay ALIVE.

Next issue: Cutting through the dung-pile, in which your valiant author deals with some of the real issues behind computer-game violence.

Disclaimer: Garwulf’s Corner was written by Robert B. Marks and hosted by Diii.net. The views expressed in this column are those of the author, and are not necessarily the opinions of Diii.net.

Garwulf’s Corner #8: I am NOT Harlan Ellison


I Am NOT Harlan Ellison

“I am NOT Harlan Ellison”

It was on a strangely warm day in January, while coming home from picking up a new volume of Ellison stories (which I will no doubt use to induce insomnia, regardless of my best intentions), that I came up with the subject and hook for this issue’s column.

I want to be very clear on this: I am NOT Harlan Ellison.

That’s right…some of you might have noticed that Harlan Ellison has had a great influence on my non-fiction; indeed, Garwulf’s Corner frequently bears a superficial resemblance to Ellison’s column “An Edge in my Voice.” However, what I take from Ellison’s work I use because it is an overall good idea, not because I am a shameless imitator.

But that won’t stop some people. I have no doubt that somewhere there is a moronic Internet critic who has been reading my column, and has remarked to his companions and readers that I am a successor to Harlan Ellison. If I ever find this person, it will take him weeks to die.

Honestly, it seems that the critical world has lost a great deal. I can’t count the number of authors who are toted as “Tolkien’s successor,” despite the fact that their work bears absolutely no similarity to anything the Grandmaster ever wrote. A recent issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction had an ad for Winter’s Heart, by Robert Jordan, with a quote from the New York Times that read: “Jordan has come to dominate the world Tolkien began to reveal.” Besides being meaningless (if you can work out what it means, you’re doing better than I am), it’s just plain WRONG. I’ve read some of Robert Jordan’s work; he bears no resemblance to Tolkien.

But, for some strange reason, people don’t want to allow Robert Jordan to just be Robert Jordan. I may not be one of his fans (gigantic all-consuming series with volumes the size of small countries simply aren’t my thing), but I will certainly acknowledge that he is unique, and telling a story using his own style.

It really is quite annoying. My favorite author, Dennis McKiernan, has also been called a Tolkien successor. His work is excellent, but it is much different than Tolkien. Dennis may use Elves, but if his Elves and Tolkien’s Elves ever met, they would wonder if they were the same species. Again, I pose the question: why can’t Dennis L. McKiernan just be Dennis L. McKiernan. Why can’t these critics, who seem to have nothing better to do with their time than compare new fantasies to old ones, actually acknowledge that there might be something unique?

Let’s get angry, shall we? And now let’s turn to something a bit more electronic in nature: “Diablo-killers.”

(Note to editor: You see? There really is something relevant in this column. So, you can put the shotgun down now. Really.)

Diablo II is an exceptional game, just like its predecessor. Instead of using the usual formula, Blizzard went out and did something new. And, because it was first off the mark, the critics have acknowledged that it is unique.

Having done that, there were a host of imitators. Rather than saying that they were “inspired by Diablo,” they are quaintly named “Diablo-killers.” God forbid that these new games should actually try to do something different! No matter what, regardless of if it is Darkstone or Nox, the label is the same. It’s almost as if Diablo, having been successful, has committed some sort of strange crime, and all of these games have to go and destroy it by being a better Diablo than Diablo. At least, that is the way the critics seem to see it.

It’s sickening. It really is. To make matters worse, just when it seems that some innovation in the market is about to be recognized, that game designers are going to be praised for taking something like real-time role playing and doing something unique, some bored critic with the imagination of an grapefruit comes along and labels it, forever casting it into the shadows of a game bearing it only the most superficial resemblance.

To those critics I say this: Let Nox be Nox. Let Darkstone be Darkstone. Rather than calling them “Diablo-killers,” call them something that actually gives them credit. Describe them in their own terms, rather than in relation to some other game. Do them credit for a change, rather than falling back on your own limited imagination and memory.

But, just as I know that my work will eventually be compared to Harlan Ellison, Dennis McKiernan, and J.R.R. Tolkien, no matter how hard I try to be unique, I also know that any new real-time role playing game will still be compared to Diablo, even if it is set in the future and features space aliens. I guess I can only keep up my own private battle, forever vigilant to make certain that one fact is clear for all time:

I am NOT Harlan Ellison, Dennis McKiernan, or J.R.R. Tolkien. I am Robert B. Marks; nothing more, nothing less.

Next issue: Staring at the Ladder, where your author gets whiplash watching the action after the ladder reset.

Disclaimer: Garwulf’s Corner was written by Robert B. Marks and hosted by Diii.net. The views expressed in this column are those of the author, and are not necessarily the opinions of Diii.net.

Garwulf’s Corner #7: Emails from the Edge, Part I


Emails from the Edge

Right before I begin, I have a bit of administrivia for you. For those who would like to meet me in person, I will be a panelist at the Ad Astra convention in Toronto, February 23-25. This is a literary convention, and promises to have quite a few rather good fantasy and science fiction authors present. The website is www.ad-astra.org; if you’re going to go, I suggest pre-registering now.

And now, as promised, dear readers, here is the feedback issue. Since I started this column, I have received a steady stream of letters, from congratulations on a good column, to lengthy discussions of the issue in question.

And, before I start displaying some of them, I just want to take a moment and compliment you. The letters I have received, with very few exceptions, have all been intelligent and insightful, the sort of things that make me proud to have you as readers.

(There are two exceptions worth mentioning, and I will not give names here. The first was the young man who wanted me to email him a copy of Demonsbane and anything like it. For future reference, when it comes to fiction, I am a professional, and we pros don’t do stuff like that. The second was somebody who sent me a story of his own to edit; for future note, I will NOT read unsolicited stories and give opinions. Nothing against you (I have no doubt that all of your stories are wonderful), but there are legal reasons. So, if you want a comment on your story, go to a writer’s circle or bother your best friend; sending it me to will simply mean that I have to wait a while for it to download and then immediately delete it.)

I wish I could answer all the mail I get in this column, but as I seem to be averaging between 15-35 letters per column, that is difficult. So, here is my best shot, with the best letters I have on-hand…

Column number two, “The Royal Circlet and the Hacker,” generated some letters, every one of them positive. It seems that I was right in my assessment on that one, or at least that is what the audience thought. The stories about how people got around their cheating habits were truly heartwarming.

One caution, however: while it is alright to push cheaters towards playing legitimately, I have seen stories on other forums about people who found cheaters, and then went out and stole all of their belongings when they were left in town. This is neither funny nor fair; converting cheaters is one thing, but harassing them in this way is simply wrong. As a rule, the gentle touch is always the better one.

Column number three, “Revelations from the Exorcist,” received some very interesting feedback, a veritable flood of email, in fact. Rick Bebbington, an interactive artist, wrote:

It is unfortunate that people nowadays have, as you put it, ‘the attention span of an avocado,’ but it may not be for that reason alone. People are under more and more pressure to maximize what they get pout of every second of their lives, always running around, getting as much done as possible. People don’t seem to think they have the time anymore to play a game that requires play sessions of more than 10 minutes. I, for one, enjoy games that are slowly rewarding, and have the pace of evolution. The sales of Diablo show that it is perfect for those that just want to play for an hour, or for 6.

A consideration, Starcraft, which was on the top 10 list for at least 2 years, requires not only a long attention span, but a high amount of attention paid to every detail of the battle. Perhaps I’m wrong.

Actually, Rick is absolutely right. Real-Time Strategy Games, such as Starcraft and, my personal favorite, Warcraft, require a fairly long attention span. I remember hours of fun with a friend of mine at university as we would team up against a group of computers (sadly, we would usually lose; I said Warcraft was my favorite, I didn’t say I was GOOD at it…).

Another letter, which was a joy to read, came from Nate Smith:

Hi Robert, I recently read Revelations from The Exorcist on Diabloii.net, and I must say that I overwhelmingly, however respectfully, disagree with you.

If ever there were a game that required a significant attention span, it is Diablo II. Hundreds of hours of gameplay have been invested in characters by people across the world, none of which have yet reached the magic level 99. This is a fact that is also compiled by the numerous skill tree developments, and infinite item possibilities. I started playing towards the end of September and despite developing four characters over level fifty, eight or ten more between levels thirty and forty, and virtually ending my class/study schedule, I find I am still hopelessly addicted to Diablo II.

Nate has some very good points, and it is true that Diablo II has more to offer than Diablo I did as far as long-term achievements. However, and I say this as a fellow Diablo II addict, the core of the game is not the skill tree, but the quests and the monster-killing. There is more to offer, but the basic game is still based on the same premise.

Column number four, “Films for the Diablo Fan,” brought in relatively few letters, all of them with film suggestions. As they were all rather good movies, here is the compiled list: “Braveheart,” “Dragonslayer,” “Willow,” “Clash of the Titans,” “Jason and the Argonauts,” and the infamous “Army of Darkness.” Special thanks here to Mark Devries, who suggested most of them.

(One more film to add to the list; not quite a Diablo-style movie, but worth watching none the less. It is a little film from New Zealand titled “The Navigator.” A group of Medieval peasants, searching for an escape from the Black Death, follow the visions of a young boy through a cave into a modern-day metropolis. A bit off the beaten track, but better than most.)

Column number five, “Millennial Thoughts,” brought in some very interesting letters. Zach Dickinson had a very good question he sent me:

You mentioned a great many fantasy writers of present times in your latest installment of Garwulf’s Corner, Feist, Norton, etc… These are wonderful writers to be sure, I’ve read a few here and there. However, I also noticed that you mentioned no writers from Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms. This is not the first time I’ve seen this. Other websites, books, magazines never mention a Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms writer when speaking of great fantasy writers.

My question is, Why?

Well, to be honest, there is a stigma against authors who specialize in licensed worlds (such as Forgotten Realms, or Diablo). When an author deals with a licensed world, she or he must play using somebody else’s rules. And, speaking as an author, I can tell you all with great authority (and, as usual, an even greater ego), that you can do more and say more when working with original material. That’s one reason why the next book you see from me (once my agent sells it) will be set in my own fantasy world.

Eamonn O’Brien wrote to me regarding my fond recollections of Roar:

You mention the serious Roar as being the best of the Xena/Hercules stories. I just wanted to mention that it took poetic licence with Irish myths and legends to the same extent and with the same total disregard for authenticity as the Xena and Hercules series do to the Greek and Roman myths. I am Irish myself and perhaps hypocritically I kind of liked Xena and Hercules even though they were terribly unauthentic and riddled with anachronisms. However both series happily passed themselves off as a bit of harmless fun. Roar on the other hand tried a veil of authenticity which made its slaying of the Irish myths very annoying to me.

Granted, Roar did take poetic license, as Eamonn states. However, I personally found series such as Xena more offensive, not necessarily because of what they did with mythology (some amount of bastardization always occurs with Hollywood; they can’t even plagiarize properly), but because they routinely insult the viewer’s intelligence. One thing I very fondly remember about Roar is that it always told intelligent stories.

Just before I begin with the flood of letters that came in regarding Garwulf number six (“Walking with the Dead”), I have one question I am just dying to know the answer to:

WHAT IN GOD’S NAME DOES IT TAKE TO OFFEND YOU PEOPLE?!

I propositioned an entire city with a population of around four million, and barely anybody even batted an eyelid! Granted, it’s wonderful that everybody got the point behind that issue, but it would have been nice to hear a bit of moral outrage. I mean, come on! I can’t be allowed on a power trip every column!

Right…now that my rant is done…

It seems that I actually managed to change quite a few people’s lives; many of the letters I got from this column were very heartfelt, and I want to thank everybody for sending them to me. Quite literally, informing a writer that they’ve changed your life is the highest compliment you can pay to us authors.

Other letters had some astounding insights. Gary Wilkins, in the middle of a very touching letter, wrote: “I have a question for you – can you as easily recall your happiest, or most content moment?”

That is one of the best questions I have ever been asked. You see, it is so easy for us to remember the bad times, those horrible experiences that affect us, in some way or another, for life. But too often we forget those wonderful moments that bring the beauty of the world out and truly make life worth living.

As a matter of fact, I can remember several. Most clear in my mind are the day I received my Bachelor’s degree from Queen’s University (for those who aren’t Canucks, Queen’s is a school along the level of the Ivy League universities), and the day I received the final galleys for Diablo: Demonsbane. I remember going over them again and again, repeating the words “I wrote this.” There is one other really clear moment, but that one is private.

Matt Whitehead wrote a wonderful letter with some remarkable ideas, that I believe speaks for itself. Here it is (minus the preamble):

The Human Species is a species. Slightly more complicated, than say, the cockroach species, but it still has instincts.

The ‘dead’ people you were referring to are basically people who live by their instincts. They live that way because they know no other, and often showing it to them won’t help, because most refuse to see it.

But there’s an interesting fact. The ability to ‘live’ is actually genetic. It’s carried with base intelligence (different than knowledge, which you can read out of a book, or wisdom, which is insight you develop as your life unfolds) and the topic is covered loosely in the book ‘Dune.’ (Which you may be familiar with, being an author)

But the people you called ‘dead’ aren’t quite as dead as you’d think. How else would some of them be able to come ‘alive’ again?

And now for some general letters. Yuan Wang, after a very complimentary letter, asked me if I would tell him a bit about myself. No doubt he isn’t the only one interested, so here I go:

I’m in my mid-twenties, and currently living in the Toronto area (although quite possibly about to be driven off to Kingston by a ridiculously high cost of living). I have had an interest in Medieval Studies ever since an acquaintance put a seven hundred year-old broadsword in my hands at the Royal Ontario Museum. I now have a degree in Medieval Studies with a specialization in Beowulf. And, ever since the New Year, I have been a professional writer.

And, finally, to Patricia Cordiner, who wrote me what is easily the shortest reader letter I have ever received: you’re welcome.

And that’s it for this issue. Keep writing, my dear readers. I am listening.

Coming next installment: Staring at the Top Rung, in which your intrepid author pays attention to the ladder rankings…and gets whiplash.

 

Disclaimer: Garwulf’s Corner was written by Robert B. Marks and hosted by Diii.net. The views expressed in this column are those of the author, and are not necessarily the opinions of Diii.net.

Garwulf’s Corner #6: Walking with the Dead


Walking with the Dead

I see dead people. They wander around, pass me in shopping malls and on the street, not even aware of what they are. They may still have breath in their lungs, but they are dead.

There are two kinds of death: there is physical death, which can only be reversed by somebody with messianistic qualities, and then there is the other, more common death.

I became that way on Battle.net for a while. I still remember the last game of Diablo I that I played. It was one too many, in fact. Despite having good people to adventure with, there was no joy. I wasn’t playing because I actually wanted to have fun, but rather out of habit. For that brief moment, I was dead.

And, I finally realized what was happening. I took the CD out of my computer, set it aside, and haven’t touched it since. That was around the beginning of November. I currently have a Diablo II Realms character (his name is Garwulf, and he is on USWest) that I play occasionally, but I am finished with the first game.

Flashback: it is the middle of November. Demonsbane is on the PeanutPress bestseller list for the third week, about to be toppled by Terry Brooks and Stephen King. The American federal election has just become a farce, and Stockwell Day is helping the Canadian election campaign do a good imitation. I am one week away from my five-day long experiment in invoicing. Having nothing better to do, I find myself sitting in front of the television, watching American Beauty.

American Beauty is one of those incredibly profound and moving films that changes your life, or at least forces you to take a second glance at it. The story revolves around Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), an advertising writer who suddenly comes out of his routine-induced coma and restores himself to life. It drives almost everybody else around him, all walking dead, to distraction. At the very end, the film makes you realize that there is so much beauty in the world that it is overwhelming, if only you can wake up and see it.

After watching the film, I was deeply moved. I re-examined my life, and found that while some parts were wanting, it was only by a bit. My philosophy of life was re-affirmed.

I wonder how many people I pass on the street, or run into in chat rooms on Battle.net, are alive. How many of them are following their dreams, making their lives meaningful? And how many of them are dead, living through the computer game because the rest of their lives are by rote?

Flashback: the worst day in my life (so far). It is the second-last week of March, and my girlfriend has left me. It is not a situation where any blame can be assigned; sometimes there can be a lot of love on both sides, but an issue comes up and steamrollers both parties. Regardless, a year and a half of bliss had just come to a crashing halt.

I was a complete wreck. It would be two days before I could sleep again, and another week before I regained my appetite. My sanity was preserved by taking long walks and painting little fantasy miniatures (something I have become quite good at). It would be another two-and-a-half months before I could see her and not feel a pain in my heart. We remained friends; the breakup was not ugly, but it was exceedingly painful.

And yet…at the end, something profound happened. The pain passed, and I remained. The core of my being, my hopes and dreams, were still intact. I realized what it truly was to be ALIVE in that moment, able to live for the sake of life itself. It was not a matter of erroneously believing that I could live without love, but realizing that love was only part of a much greater whole. It was knowing that when the right person comes along, I will embrace her; until then, I will enjoy life to its fullest.

Flash forward: the modern day (in my case, the beginning of December; in your case, mid-January…remember, there is a time lag on these columns). American Beauty has just aired on the local movie channel, prompting me to write a column that bares my soul more than usual. And life is good.

I am not saying that life is not hard. My life is filled with challenges, from finding that perfect job (which I think I’ve managed to line up, but time will tell) to affording to go after my Master’s degree. But I am ALIVE. I am pursuing my dreams, living every moment to its utmost, and doing what I enjoy. And, if something new comes along, and I think it might be interesting, I am happy to try it out.

(I think most writers are like that. Some people might think that I write fiction for the money; not so. I write fiction for love of the craft. I just require payment so that I can pay my bills. It is a hard life at times, but it is FUN.)

So, my dear readers, I am going to pose the question to you: are you ALIVE? Are you making something of your life, so that you can look in the mirror with satisfaction, or are you in a routine that you’ve had for so long that you’ve forgotten what it is for?

I remember a couple who were shown on the news once. They had met on Ultima Online, courted on Ultima Online, and said their real-life wedding vows on Ultima Online. They would log in together, while living in the same house, so that they could spend time with each other online.

They were living through the game, but what kind of life is that? The fact that they found each other is beautiful, but by all appearances they did nothing with themselves. Like the millions of walking dead who lived through the castaways during Survivor, they did not see just how wondrous their own lives were.

It is time to play the game of life, my dear readers. As the author of this column that you have been reading, having no doubt entranced you by the message or enraged you beyond words, the obligation is mine to make the first move. So here it is, something new, daring, and possibly a bit risky: if you are female, single, between the ages of 19 and 27, and living in the Toronto Area, all you have to do is email me before the next column comes out, and I will go on a date with you. There is a condition, however: you have to do something new on the date, something you’ve never done before. You have to LIVE.

Your turn, gentle readers, many of whom are married or attached. It’s time to play the game. Turn to your spouse, your partner, the love of your life, or that special person you’ve been admiring from afar. Ask them out, and go do something new. Do that thing you’ve always meant to do, fulfill that dream. Reach out and become alive.

You see, the only people who are truly ordinary are the walking dead. They live their lives by rote, and never see the beauty that surrounds them. I am alive, and the beauty of the world is so overwhelming that it sometimes moves me to tears. I only hope that you can see it too.

Next issue: the column you’ve all been waiting for, Emails from the Edge, in which I answer some of the piles of letters that have come my way.

Disclaimer: Garwulf’s Corner was written by Robert B. Marks and hosted by Diii.net. The views expressed in this column are those of the author, and are not necessarily the opinions of Diii.net.

Garwulf’s Corner #5: Millennial Thoughts


Millennial Thoughts

What a remarkable year this has been. It is quite literally the last year in the millennium, and not only are we seeing the return of mythical fantasy to the screen (in the form of the recently released Dungeons and Dragons movie), but we can also gaze at the maturity of fantasy in the computer game market, with Icewind Dale, Baldur’s Gate II, and Diablo II.

(Note for the trivia buffs: yes, this is the last year of the millennium. 2000 was simply the year that all of our computers threatened to explode, and watched us run around like ants while laughing their electronic heads off. Computers, 1; human race, zilch.)

If there is a genre that epitomizes the twentieth century, it is fantasy. While science fiction began its maturity in the nineteenth century, with Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, fantasy only began to raise its head as a genre in and of itself in the 1920s and ‘30s. We owe a lot to those early pioneers from Weird Tales. Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian would have fit perfectly into the Diablo world, and the ancient monstrosities of H.P. Lovecraft still fill our nightmares. Come to think of it, Diablo II does remind me of a Robert E. Howard story…you don’t suppose Blizzard has some hidden, ancient files from the late ‘30s, do you?

(Okay, my dear readers, I have a recommendation for you. If you go to your local bookstore, you should be able to buy or order a book titled The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft, published by Del Rey. If you read nothing else in that collection, read “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath.” It will send you places you’ve never thought imaginable, and you’ll never think of dreams in the same way again.)

The man who brought fantasy to its fruition, however, is the man who remains the grand-master: a professor at Oxford named J.R.R. Tolkien. He didn’t just write a story when he spent a decade composing The Lord of the Rings, he wrote literature. He single handedly turned a literary curiosity into a genre. Naturally, the critics hated him for it; they couldn’t figure out what The Lord of the Rings was, much less what they were supposed to do with it (I could make a suggestion to them, but it would be too impolite for print; this is a family-rated column, after all).

Tolkien’s legacy has been both a blessing and a curse. The fantasy genre exploded with activity, and most of it was crap. Let’s face it: Dungeons and Dragons is nice, but with the exception of some of the more recent stuff (such as Planescape), you could drop the characters and races into Middle-earth and nobody would notice a difference.

And yet…in the midst of the Tolkien imitators, who seemed to reproduce by fission, there were a few bright lights. People like Raymond E. Feist, Andre Norton, Dennis McKiernan, David Gemmell, Tad Williams, and most recently George R.R. Martin. Authors who were dedicated not only to telling a really good story, but using it to take them somewhere new in the genre. These are the authors with staying power, the visionaries who will help the genre survive into the next century and beyond.

I wish I could say the same for television and film. Unfortunately, I can’t. Where in literature the visionaries can control their content (even with Demonsbane I had near-complete creative control, and that is as media-tie-in as one gets), when it comes to Hollywood, the shots are called by bureaucrats, most of whom would not recognize good fantasy if it came up and decapitated them.

Want proof? Go to your local library and find a book titled The Essential Ellison; in it you will find a 1973 article on page 691 named “Somehow, I Don’t Think We’re In Kansas, Toto,” which describes in horrifying detail just how bad it is. Look at Independence Day, Virus, Conan the Adventurer, most of Xena: Warrior Princess (I make an exception for one or two episodes, which were actually good), and you’ll see that absolutely nothing has changed.

(Wistful remembrance: once upon a time, there was a series called Roar. It was based on Irish myth, featured Heath Ledger as the hero, and was one of the best fantasy series I had ever seen. It lasted all of one summer before the Hollywood moguls killed it. I would give my eye-teeth to bring it back.)

But, there is hope. Peter Jackson will be inaugurating the new millennium with The Lord of the Rings, featuring Sir Ian McKellan as Gandalf. In this case, there’s a good director with good source material; hopefully, it will do for film what the book did for literature.

Computer games, however, are a different story. For some strange reason, most fantasy games have actually managed to maintain a high level of story quality. Perhaps the corporations behind the games have executives who know what they are doing, or perhaps it is just a fluke. Who knows? It is a gift-horse, and if we look it in the mouth too many times, it might vanish.

Still, one can look at the Diablo II storyline, and be enthralled. The world is so well developed that it translates easily into literature (I can say this with authority, as I have a copy of the world bible), and the plot is exquisite. Finally, with Diablo II, the world of Sanctuary has become a living world, complete with wildlife.

I think that is what makes computer games special. With a computer game, you can truly bring a world to life. If you play Baldur’s Gate, for example, you get the sense that the characters you left in the town as you continued on your journey actually had lives to live. However, where a novel can describe a world and characters in more detail, a game allows the player to explore where s/he wants. It might not be literary depth, but it is depth, all the same. And depth, regardless of if it is literary, philosophical, or from a good design, is what makes for mature fantasy.

And thus I come full circle in my rambling thoughts. I would like close by welcoming all of you, my dear readers, into this third, and extremely promising, millennium. May it take you to new places beyond your imagination.

Next issue: Walking with the Dead, in which the author sees dead people.

Disclaimer: Garwulf’s Corner was written by Robert B. Marks and hosted by Diii.net. The views expressed in this column are those of the author, and are not necessarily the opinions of Diii.net.

Garwulf’s Corner #4: Films for the Diablo Fan


Films for the Diablo Fan

Right before I get to the meat of this installment, I’d like to harken back to Garwulf’s Corner #2 (The Royal Circlet and the Hacker). This particular column managed to generate a fair bit of reader response, most of which complimented me on the column and shared a story about how they were once cheaters and changed, or have been helping others to give up the cheating habit.

I want to thank everybody who wrote in; I know I didn’t answer many of them personally (I usually only answer those emails that ask a specific question), but I did read and enjoy them. And thus I come to a small side-issue.

(For those who are interested, these columns are written about a month in advance of being posted. Therefore, if you have written me a truly vitriolic hate letter regarding column #3, don’t worry, I’ll have a witty comeback ready for the next column. I’m also thinking of having column #8 dedicated to reader letters.)

It has come to my attention that a couple of people (who shall remain unnamed) have begun to design hacks for the Battle.net Realms Servers. Personally, I think this is worthy of comment: the Realms Servers were put up specifically to give legitimate players the ability to play without running into a cheater every five seconds, and anybody who uses a hack on a Realms Server has immediately ruined the experience for a great many others. If you’re going to cheat, please, do it on the open Battle.net; don’t destroy the Realms Servers for the real Diablo fans.

And now, on with the show…

Well, my dear readers (or what few of you remain after my last column), I have decided not to take on any great moral or social Diablo issues, or talk about the decline in humanity in general. Instead, I am going to write about one of my favorite subjects: movies.

So, for your reading (and hopefully soon viewing) pleasure, I present a Diablo-lover’s guide to some of the better movies out there. I am in a uniquely qualified position to do this, having not only graduated with a degree in Medieval Studies, but also having been a published film critic for around eight months (thus allowing me to inflate my ego to the point of eclipsing the sun).

It is certainly going to be an interesting couple of years for fantasy fans; not only is the new Dungeons and Dragons movie coming out on December 8th, promising space-opera style dragon dog-fights, but the next two years will feature a summer with the new Star Wars film and an installment of The Lord of the Rings every winter.

(I am rather pleased with the Dungeons and Dragons release date, as December 8th is my birthday. For those Garwulf’s Corner fanatics who insist on sending me a birthday present, I just want you to repeat these words: “DVD Player…”)

But, there are some cinematic treats for us to content ourselves with before the Dungeons and Dragons film comes to visit, pretty much all of which are accessible for anyone with a television and VCR (okay, those in the boonies of the world, surrounded by nothing but tumbleweeds and sand dunes, might have some difficulty…but the rest of you should be fine). Pretty much none of these are suitable for the younger ‘uns, so this is evening entertainment, folks…

To begin, I’ll start with the closest film I have seen to the spirit of Diablo: The 13th Warrior. This little gem, an adaptation of Michael Crichton’s rendition of Beowulf (a poem of which I am a fanatical devotee, and attempted to sell as an e-book idea before it was rejected in favor of the Demonsbane plot), features Antonio Banderas as an Arab emissary named Ahmed Ibn Fahlan, who is co-opted by a bunch of Vikings to help them fight a great evil (not that they actually need him, but the witch woman tells them that they have to take a foreigner along…too bad for Banderas). Ibn Fahlan then finds himself fight beast-like creatures in a grim, frightening battle for a small fort.

Not only is it worth seeing for the intense battle scenes, but Banderas manages a sterling performance, and the Vikings are almost right on the mark. Very close to the feel of Diablo I, too…all it needs is a giant cross between a T-Rex and a hedgehog, and it could be a game expansion.

Released around the same time is a Japanese film that, like The 13th Warrior, passed almost unnoticed. But, it is on video now, and anybody who wants can rent this wonder titled Princess Mononoke. In a rare turn, this film manages to outdo pretty much all of western fantasy at once: a young prince named A****aka finds himself cursed by a demon, and must travel west in search of a cure, which he can only find by “seeing with eyes unclouded by hate.”

What makes this movie special, I think, is the statement it makes about mankind and nature. There are no true bad guys in the film, only people trying to make the best of what they have. And, regardless of what the ideal is, they cannot live in harmony with nature. The struggle that occurs is necessary, and presented in such a way that it is extremely tragic, for no matter what happens, something beautiful and worthwhile must pass away. Add to this a sweeping score by Joe Hisaishi, and it makes for a truly winning combination.

And, finally, for a blast into the past: Conan the Barbarian. This is an incredible film, and possibly one of Arnie’s greatest performances (Schwarzenegger can act. Really.) His untamable Cimmerian must try to destroy an immortal cult leader and sorcerer named Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones, proving that not all of his evil voices are Darth Vader).

Conan is very operatic. The story is told almost entirely with actions and music; there is little or no dialogue. And, to my knowledge, Thulsa Doom never tells a lie throughout the entire film. There’s lots of flesh, lots of blood, and lots to think about.

(Don’t mistake this for the sequel, Conan the Destroyer, which is absolutely horrible. The only good thing that movie had going for it was the soundtrack.)

And so, while you wait for the new fantasy films to hit the theatres, and your computer has burnt out due to excessive Diablo-playing, these three films should keep you entertained through the long nights ahead.

Disclaimer: Garwulf’s Corner was written by Robert B. Marks and hosted by Diii.net. The views expressed in this column are those of the author, and are not necessarily the opinions of Diii.net.

Garwulf’s Corner #3: Revelations from The Exorcist


1
Revelations from The Exorcist

Although it will be an event that occurred a couple of months ago by the time you read this, recently I did something fairly stupid. You see, my little brother was in for a brief break from his incredibly exciting life at the University of Waterloo (a life that I am sure contains lots of fast cars, fast women, and machine guns, although he assures me that mostly he studies), and I decided to take him out to a movie. The Exorcist, to be exact. And, using every brain cell available at the time, I brought us to the theater to catch a late show.

Now, for those who haven’t seen this particular film, let me assure you: The Exorcist has very good claim to being the scariest movie ever made. Through a combination of eerie events, painful moments, and absolute shocks (Linda Blair’s spiderwalk down a flight of stairs is forever burned into my memory), the film manages to completely disturb and terrify the viewer. It is a movie that actually can spook somebody out for hours at a time, one of only two that have done it to me (the second is The Sixth Sense). As you can guess, catching a late show of this film is not the brightest idea.

Unfortunately, the experience for my brother was ruined. Not because of the movie itself, but because of the audience. The Exorcist begins slowly, starting with easily explainable events and building until the rational mind can no longer accept any other possibilities but the demonic. It is like being slowly immersed into scalding water: at first it seems bearable, but then it gets worse and worse and worse…

Unfortunately, this was not good enough for the audience. “Where’s the scary stuff?” the people behind us asked, pointing at a slightly eerie scene. “I thought this was supposed to be a horror movie.” They did this continually until the fear became overwhelming, at which point they finally shut up.

As a result, my brother could not get into it, and the immersion effect was lost. All because the people behind us had the attention span of an avocado.

(Now, at this point, you’re probably wondering, “What does this have to do with Diablo? Has the author finally gone nuts?”

(Don’t worry…I’m getting there.)

Put simply, frightening movies such as The Sixth Sense and The Exorcist, true horror films, not those gawdawful hack-and-slash monstrosities that fill the theaters these days, are not for people with short attention spans. In order to truly feel the fear, one has to get involved with the characters and environment, and that takes time. Even Alien, possibly one of the most suspenseful films ever made, starts slowly, carefully crafted with the skill of a true master.

But these films are few and far between these days. And, like a shortage of really good horror movies, I think the action genre of computer games is a symptom of a larger, more alarming ailment.

Set back the clock by a few months. Blizzard Entertainment puts out a message that Diablo II has gone gold at last. The game is released on the weekend, and promptly sells over a million copies, earning more money than Titanic did in its first weekend. And Diablo II, like its predecessor, is a game for people with short attention spans.

More and more, the multimedia entertainment industry is catering to those wishing instant gratification. Scream has no fewer than two brutal murders within the first five minutes; Urban Legend had only one, but substituted an attack on a nubile teenager to make up for lost time. And don’t even get me started on the horribly written and acted piece of dung that was I Know What You Did Last Summer…

Make no mistake, Diablo and its sequel have their place. I certainly enjoy building up Garwulf the Barbarian to the point that he can kill a hell knight using only bad breath, in the vain hope that one day I will be able to afford a new hard disk and play with him on Battle.net. But at the same time, I also play Civilization II, a game that requires an attention span long enough to notice continental drift.

I wonder, though, how many people play only Diablo-style games. The sort of games where if you’re not off killing something, you’re getting instructions on where to go to start maiming and slaying. The sort of games that not only require nothing more than the attention span of an avocado, but are sometimes lauded as the greatest games ever made, suggesting that any reasonable person doesn’t need anything other than instant gratification.

I am singling out Diablo in this instance because I am writing a Diablo column, and it makes my editors feel better when there is actually some Diablo content. The great monster-slaying game and its brethren were not the first on the scene, but like the multitude of first person shooters and third person actioners, they are designed for instant gratification.

Something I want to see in the expansion: a quest where not a single drop of blood is shed. A quest right in the middle of the act, where the characters must find some arcane object out in the middle of nowhere, something that will reveal the great secrets of the angels and demons, something where every step in the quest grants the character experience, and where s/he can rise two levels through the exploration alone.

Think about it; a quest like that would be incredibly rewarding, add to the sense of wonder in the game, and require a decent attention span.

I am not saying that this will solve the problem of expected instant gratification; it won’t. As I said earlier, the nature of the Diablo games and their incredible popularity are a symptom rather than a cause. But perhaps it will turn the tide a little. Perhaps it will make somebody think that some things are worth waiting for, and just because the scary bits don’t come until later, it doesn’t mean that the game or film is worthless.

Disclaimer: Garwulf’s Corner was written by Robert B. Marks and hosted by Diii.net. The views expressed in this column are those of the author, and are not necessarily the opinions of Diii.net.

Garwulf’s Corner #2: The Royal Circle and the Hacker


The Royal Circle and the Hacker

Sometimes, it’s enough to make me wonder why people are playing.

Perhaps I should explain. I was on Battle.net venturing through a Diablo I dungeon, when a player (who shall remain nameless) entered the game. He came down to the caves to join me, there was a moment of lag, and then he killed some monsters. He then tried to draw my attention to several magical items that just didn’t appear on my screen, and when I said I couldn’t see them, picked them up and town portaled away.

When I returned to that wonderfully rustic village of Tristram, I found myself facing a menagerie of unique and magical items literally carpeting the center of town. Enough to fill an inventory three times over. “They’re all legit,” he said. “I found them in the caves.”

Rather skeptical, I picked a Royal Circlet off the ground and examined it. It had a fancy graphic, and for all I knew, it looked like a real Royal Circlet. For a moment, I considered that perhaps this strange warrior was telling the truth, and due to a bug in the game, he really had found these things in the middle of the caves.

As I rolled the crown around in my hands, wondering if there was some bizarre quirk in the game that would make this possible, I received one last message from the mystery warrior. “I have a Bnet cheat code that lets me get the good items,” he declared proudly, and left the game.

I dropped the Royal Circlet in the dust and sighed.

Somehow, it doesn’t surprise me that he didn’t stay to kill any more monsters. Wandering through the caves in Hell difficulty, I might not be about to find that ultimate armor or weapon, but I am coming close to pumping my character up another level. It’s a goal that is fun and time-consuming, and at the end there is a fair bit of reward. And, if I should come across an item that is an absolute keeper, at least I have the satisfaction of having found it myself. For me, it is worthwhile to stick around and keep playing.

But for somebody like the mystery warrior, who has found a hacker’s code that gives him all the things he would actually have to work at finding, there is no challenge. Where is the joy in discovering that the unique greatsword you’ve just found is actually one of the best items in the game, when you can simply type in a code and have it appear?

Is it any surprise that he was in the game for less than twenty minutes?

It is really rather sad. The hackers and cheaters keep appearing, so proud of what they can do with the software they’ve downloaded from the internet, and log on to Battle.net. They create that ultimate item, start their god mode and kill some monsters, and then retire. In the process, they miss the point entirely. The reason I am so proud of my level 34 warrior is that I built him from scratch; he didn’t even venture onto Battle.net until he could adventure at Hell difficulty. These new players with their fancy cheat codes will never know the simple pleasure I get out of loading up Garwulf and taking him for romp in the dungeon, hoping to get that next level.

Unfortunately, it seems they don’t even try to play the game properly. And, since they are cheating, they figure that everybody else is to. And thus, in what should be a straightforward kill-the-monsters game, the town square becomes littered with hacked magical items. Not only do they litter the ground, making it difficult to walk without accidentally picking them up, but any legitimate player who comes into the game is immediately given cause to leave.

In the end, I pity the poor warrior with his cheat code. I really do. It was obvious that there was no longer a challenge for him, and that he had managed to ruin the game for himself. Perhaps, if he hadn’t activated the hack, he would have stayed longer, and actually had some fun. Maybe he will begin playing without cheating, and discover just how wonderful the Diablo games are; I can only hope.

Disclaimer: Garwulf’s Corner was written by Robert B. Marks and hosted by Diii.net. The views expressed in this column are those of the author, and are not necessarily the opinions of Diii.net.

Garwulf’s Corner #1: Harlan Ellison, Diablo, and Insomnia


Harlan Ellison, Diablo, and Insomnia

Someday I’ll learn: no more Harlan Ellison stories right before going to bed. It isn’t that they are poor stories; indeed, I wish I could write like Ellison. Unfortunately, they’re just too good. I read a story or essay by this wonder of modern SF, and my mind starts to go, spinning like some demonic Ferris wheel. Great for coming up with stories, but lousy if I actually have intentions of getting any sleep. And, as I toss and turn, telling my brain to shut up for crying out loud, my mind turns to Diablo.

Somehow, especially now that I’ve written Demonsbane, writing and Diablo have become linked in my mind. After waiting for almost three years to generate that magic acceptance letter from a publisher, how was I to know that my professional fiction career would start with some phone calls and an emailed short story? If somebody had told me three months ago that I would be writing Diablo professional fiction, I would have laughed them off of whatever street they traveled (although I would try not to laugh them into traffic).

Still, Diablo has been good to me, in more ways than one. It was through Diablo that I met one of my best friends, a fellow named Gordon Brown. Gord is a great friend, the sort of man you can count on to help you through that crushing real-life problem, or to stand by your side and actually share the gold as the party goes deeper into the dungeon, noticing for the first time that these goat men happen to be better armed than you are.

Ah, yes, those halcyon comic-book shop days of Diablo back in the summer of 1997. I remember them so well. From the start, I had linked the game and literature; my character was named Sigifrith, from the Stephen Grundy novel Rhinegold. Later, when I finally made my way onto Battle.net, Sigifrith became Garwulf, a character from the novel I’m currently working on.

(Note, for all those who have a love of meaningless trivia: Garwulf is a mythical character, properly known as “Garwulf the Slayer.” He’s the sort of warrior that makes Conan the Barbarian appear to be a weakling, a character capable of defeating an entire army using only a bread knife and a loaf of whole wheat. Hell, if you’re going to name a Diablo character after one of your own, you may as well be ambitious…)

Gord was Sarnakyle, a wizard with a knack for getting me out of those situations where I had heedlessly charged into a room filled with monsters, one of whom invariably had the Medieval equivalent of a machine gun. Sometimes, he even managed to do it without both of us dying as well. When we did die, though, we were assured of spending half an hour working out who owned what, as we picked up the arms and armor that had fallen in enough quantity to fill in a castle moat. We fought together, we died together. It was true comradery.

As we played, I learned, and stopped charging into rooms, attracting the attention of every single monster in the dungeon at once. We still occasionally ran into the Diablo equal of the bazooka and Gatling gun, but we stood a better chance of survival. By the time we took on the big, horn-studded demon of Hell himself, we were a well oiled team, and our arch-nemesis didn’t stand a change.

(Okay; we actually still bore a remarkable resemblance to thugs with swords, but deep down inside, we were a well-oiled team. Really.)

Still, nothing is forever, and eventually Diablo went the way of the wind. We waited for a while, spending our time painting miniatures and penning up our need to inflict acts of incredible and brutal violence on monsters. Finally, the new game came out, and we flocked to the comic shop to begin anew.

Garwulf rose again, this time as a terrifying barbarian, capable of sending monsters scrambling away in fear at the very sound of his voice (although Garwulf secretly believes that it might actually be his bad breath). Sarnakyle was transmuted into Sarnaka, a fetching sorceress with a knack for knocking demons about the head with a big stick (and who Gord insists is Sarnakyle’s daughter).

You know what? Diablo II was a better game than its predecessor. There was much more to do, and a better in-game story. We were able to save some time when one of us managed to attract the attention of every monster in the area (remember, we were now going through deserts and jungles, rather than caves and catacombs), as our rotting corpse would survive our demise. We would wander back to where the monsters had been screaming obscenities at our fallen forms, and having driven them off, Garwulf would stare at his body and remark, “So that explains the agonizing back pain a moment ago.”

And then, while Garwulf the Slayer from my yet-to-be-finished novel was living an active life slaughtering demons, came the contract offer from Pocket Books. Gord was kind enough to let me use Sarnakyle as a character in the novella, and our adventures in the jungles of the Diablo world continued unabated during what little free time I had as I worked day and night on my word processor.

Except now, the original Sigifrith-Sarnakyle team, due to a neat little inside joke in the book referring to the Norse Volsunga Saga, is enshrined for all eternity in that new, wondrous thing called “Diablo literature.” And thus the link is complete. Diablo and writing, all bundled up into one neat little package, specifically designed to keep me up at nights after reading yet another Harlan Ellison story.

There is a Mel Brooks film with the line: “It’s good to be the king.” The line is wrong; it’s even better to be an author.

Disclaimer: Garwulf’s Corner was written by Robert B. Marks and hosted by Diii.net. The views expressed in this column are those of the author, and are not necessarily the opinions of Diii.net.

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