Sunday, 14 December 2008

This is a rant about why I stopped enjoying going to the cinema

Yesterday, we went to the cinema to see the remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still. It was, predictably, awful.

I like blockbuster films. I also like smaller budget films, and contrary to popular belief I even occasionally enjoy art house and indie films. But the price of going to the cinema has risen high enough for me now that I’ve had to limit my visits to see films that meet one very specific criteria:

Will watching this film on a big screen with large speakers improve it or not?

I don’t just pay to see a film with money. I now have to pay in time and brain space.

When a film starts at, say, 21:25, I now know it’ll be nearly ten o’clock before the opening credits roll past me. Film trailers I can deal with; they at least relate to the activity I’m participating in. But TV ads? I didn’t come here to sit through twenty minutes of car and DFS advertising. I don’t have to sit through that much advertising in one go at, where my TV is shown more or less for free.

Then the film starts, and I’m barraged with blatant spots for McDonalds and Windows Vista. This is nothing new; we’re used to this now. Iron Man went crazy on product placement, and still managed to be a worthwhile film. But it smarts when the rest of the film feels lazily put together. I, Robot is another classic example of this.

And the films do feel lazily put together. The climax of The Day The Earth Stood Still involves robot flies. Tanks get thrown around. Things explode. Problem is, I’ve already seen this in a million other films. It’s boring.

What is it about Hollywood that enables its inhabitants to take the recipe for cinema gold and turn it into lead? The Day The Earth Stood Still, based on the 1951 B-movie, has a reasonably chilling plot that was rather deftly updated to move it away from the original ‘50s nuclear paranoia into the more topical environmental theme prevalent today. The lead star – a typically deadpan Keanu Reeves – is perfectly cast as the alien protagonist. So what went wrong?

Well, a number of things, as it turns out. Surprisingly in a film that also involves Kathy Bates and the bland-but-talented Jennifer Connolly, Keanu Reeves out-acts the entirety of the rest of the cast by doing nothing more than staring into the middle distance and speaking monosyllabically*. Bates is particularly appalling as the secretary of defence. Uncertain whether to commit to being a sinister politician or a human bureaucrat, her character swings wildly from one perspective to the other.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily Bates’ fault. The director and screenwriter share much of the blame. The editing of the film is as staccato as the dialogue, which fails entirely to create any interesting or sympathetic characters. It even has a 'cute' child in it, who spends three quarters of the story being a little shit and who we are then expected to sympathise with towards the end. I wanted him to get eaten by the robot flies, the horrifying little snot.

The story – which, as I mention above, could have been easily converted into a great piece of modern science fiction – falls apart every time a character opens their mouth. Plot-holes abound like ring donuts in a police station, and it veers – like Bates’ character – between an indictment of corporate greed, a twee sub-par family drama and a quasi-religious morality tale, stopping occasionally to show us yet another shot of another city in peril from frightened looters.

Ah, yes: the montage of international locations. It’s how Hollywood lets us know they’re interested in the money of people from other countries: set the film in New York or Los Angeles, and then show landmarks from other cities that Americans will recognise as being from International and that people from International will be able to get excited about during the marketing campaign.

Because that’s how we make science fiction, isn’t it? If you find yourself with some free time, count how many times Big Ben has been featured in an American film since Independence Day. We’ve got to be in double figures by now. It’s an obviously British landmark that requires no effort for the scriptwriter.

These landmarks are now an intrinsic part of the sci-fi blockbuster formula, but they are by no means the worst part of that formula. No: that claim belongs to aforementioned marketing promotions and product placement that I have to sit through during my cinema experience. I sat through this film without even a flicker of enjoyment.

I mentioned Iron Man, another film that blew things up. The last third notwithstanding, Iron Man is exciting and witty and fun. The Day The Earth Stood Still is none of these things. Instead, it is a tragic disappointment: a good idea done bad. Worse than that, it’s an example of how cynical Hollywood is towards the consumers. We’re plagued by these films now; idiotic visions of alien attacks that we will defeat by being good and brave and American and by – most importantly – owning Audis.

* Interestingly, during a scene in which Reeves talks in Mandarin to an alien in a Chinese body, my Chinese-native girlfriend was able to understand Reeve’s (heavily accented) speech, but needed the English subtitles to understand his Chinese counterpart’s lines.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

My english is declining at very much rate of rapid

I've written enough this month already, so I'll say this with an image:

Word count = 50,151

In other news, Carnival issue #1 is nearing completion. I have eight out of eight pages, and am waiting only on a cover and a website. Watch this space.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Luke, I am your… wait, what?

I won’t go into details about how I found this out, but apparently the word ‘Vader’ comes from the Dutch word for ‘father’.

George Lucas has been telling us for years that he had all six films in mind when he was making the original Star Wars, but there are two further repercussions of such a fact:

1) Emperor Palpatine names Darth Vader in Revenge of the Sith. What were the other options? “I name you… Darth Third-Cousin. No, wait, Sister. Mother. Brother. God damn it, Daddy-O.”

2) Dutch viewers knew the big twist in Empire Strikes Back all along. And they said nothing. The grand reveal must have been a huge let-down for them.

Also, ‘Darth’ probably means ‘dark’.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Falling far from the tree: the story of a switcher

MacBook Pro

I dislike Apple. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I hated Apple – ‘hate’ is a very strong word – but as a company they have always struck me as arrogant and anthropomorphically stuck up their own collective arse. A bit like the Guardian newspaper, with the downside that Apple products cost more and the upside that Polly Toynbee doesn’t come free with every purchase.

That said, they do make fine laptops.

Judging by the lingo used on Mac forums, I am a ‘switcher’: a convert from the perceived evil of Microsoft Windows to the greater good of OS X. There is a traditional route that ‘switchers’ take, which largely involves trying to make their Mac work like a PC, and then realising how wrong they were and letting the Leopard do its own thing. In fact, what I think happens is that ‘switchers’ just give up trying to get OS X to work like Windows.

Part 1: I own a Mac

Specifically, I was given an Apple MacBook Pro 2.33 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 2 GB of internal RAM, a 15-inch screen and OS X Tiger. For the non-geeks out there, this is the laptop equivalent of an African famine victim being given a locked box full of doughnuts: it’s fucking awesome, as long as they can figure out how to get inside.

I decided to do some background reading. Turns out that, as far as MacBooks go, mine is pretty good. I wanted to see what it could do.


Part 2: Apple lies – Macs are not for pleasure

Tommy Tallerico, at the recent Video Games Live concert in London, got the crowd to hold up mobile phones, PSPs and DSs instead of lighters. One person held up a laptop, and Tommy asked what type of laptop it was.

“It’s a Mac,” came the reply.

“Good choice,” Tommy yelled back, “You ain’t playing any games on that.”

For a product that markets itself on being able to do cool things like make pictures and music and whatnot, Macs are curiously game-less. Sure, games exist, but they’re not exactly in abundance. For £40, you can buy a port of Civilization IV – an excellent game, but you can buy it on PC for £10 with both expansion packs.

Spore, my most recent purchase for my old laptop, plays on both a Mac and PC. However, it won’t work on OS X Tiger. It wants Leopard, the relatively new operating system.

So I visited the Apple store.

Part 3: The plastic population

The Apple store on Regent Street, London, is huge. Spread over two floors, it sells basically everything Apple makes, plus everything – pretty much – that’ll run on a Mac. Despite this, the average Game store, which you could fit into the lecture stand at the back, probably holds more stock.

No one looks happy in an Apple store. They stare at the merchandise like mechanised zombies while orange T-shirted youths with less hair than the average leukaemia ward slouch about looking superior. These are the people that are so eco-friendly that when they lose a family member they phone the council to have the corpse recycled.

On the plus side, a copy of OS X costs £85: less than a legal home edition of Windows XP. Not that anyone has ever actually bought a copy of XP. Ever.

OS X LeopardPart 4: Fuck me, did that actually work?

I don’t remember installing Leopard. I don’t remember installing much on the Mac. I’m not telling you this to get out of explaining the process. I’m telling you this because there is no process. Generally, you click an icon, then drag it to the appropriate Applications folder. Sometimes it’ll ask you a few questions. In the case of Leopard, I think it took 30 minutes and then restarted the Mac.

By way of contrast, the average PC program – games in particular – require you to submit to a Mensa-worthy intelligence test, figuring out drivers and graphics or sound options and whatnot. They try to install themselves into obscure places on your hard disk. Frequently, they don’t work until the second install.

So the first time I installed something on the Mac, it was so fast that I thought it hadn’t worked. It took me half an hour to realise that my program – ironically, Microsoft Word for Mac – worked just dandy.

Spore worked once Leopard was installed. For some reason, I still had to meddle with the graphics settings. It was the first – and so far only – Mac program that didn’t everything automatically.

Part 5: Big cats

Leopard is a neat piece of work. For a start, the default background is a space scene. I liked it so much that I nearly kept it on my desktop. In the end, via a brief stint with the eye of HAL 9000, I settled on a view of the Earth from space. Basically, Leopard’s first impression was a good one.

Two things in particular impress me about OS X. One: the search function – called Spotlight – is incredible. No one uses the search functionality of Windows, because it invariably takes ages and finds nothing. Spotlight goes through every hard disk plugged into the laptop – reads every document, the works – and gives you every result in less than five seconds.

Time Machine

Two: the back up system in Leopard, called Time Machine, is beautiful. It’s functional too, in that it backs up your hard disk every hour and doesn’t require you to stop working at the same time, but it just looks gorgeous. It swoops onto your desktop like a pterodactyl catching a fish. Honestly, it’s more fun than some games I’ve played.

Part 6: Back through the looking glass

Leopard was wonderful for many reasons, but it lacks a certain level of functionality that I absolutely need from a computer. Firstly, the games – as I’ve already said – are rare at best. Secondly, Creative – the company who built my MP3 player – are so shit-scared of competing with iPods that they won’t release any software to make their products work on a Mac.

I needed Windows. Thankfully, Leopard comes with a program called Bootcamp, which divides your hard disk in two and lets you install Windows on one half. This process is more difficult than it sounds. Bootcamp is easy enough – just make sure that you read the instructions and don’t have any programs open when you run it – but try and find a copy of Windows XP (a program no longer supported by Microsoft) for less than £100. Even an only-technically-legal OEM copy costs £40 on eBay.

Thankfully, my dad is anally-retentive enough to keep every CD that comes his way, and had no less than three copies of XP. One of them worked fine, and the Leopard CD is smart enough to install all of the relevant drivers to the Mac. So I installed the Creative software and Dawn of War and…

Part 7: I made a PC out of an Apple MacBook Pro

…wait. I got a Mac and installed Windows? Yeah, but you have to if you ever want to play more than a handful of games. It’s sad, because the Mac is a good-looking, well-built machine with more horsepower than it knows what to do with. Spore proves that it will run games, and run them well. But no one seems to want to play them enough for the games developers to take any notice.

Part of this, I suspect, is the price of the average Mac. My MacBook Pro, when new, was worth in the region of £1,300. I would never have been able to buy one on my own; hell, you could buy four games-worthy PC laptops for that money. I would guess most people who can afford this exorbitant price either don’t have the time for games or don’t want to turn their purchase into a games machine, which is a pity because you can have a games machine that does practical things as well. The irony is, of course, that entertainment devices such as the iPod (and its DRM-happy backend, iTunes) have done more to sell Macs than any Mac-specific tools.

That said, I like the Mac. It’s quick, and its reluctance to let me play around at the back end of some of the more technical jobs is made up by the fact everything tends to work first time. I may still hate the company Jobs built, but I will confess that I like the things they make.

The human potential for laughing inappropriately at exactly the right moment

After the earthquakes a few months ago in Chengdu, a group of Russians were working with local Chinese emergency services as volunteers to dig for survivors. One survivor, when he was found, saw the green eyes of his rescuer and reportedly said:

"Ta ma de, zhe dizhen zhen xiong, ba wo zhen dao wai guo lai le!"

Apropos of very little, but it made me smile. Thanks to Yu for the story. 

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Breaking the faces of friends

Lei and Xiaoyu

I am a Tekken god. 

Seriously, challenge me. I dare you. I would put money on most people not being able to beat me at the game. Give me Devil Jin, Lee or Baek, and you're only laying a single punch on me before I floor you. Let me choose Xiaoyu, and you won't even get that punch. 

Tekken is a visceral game. It's so violent that it's poetic in form; a brutal and elegant shit-storm of a fighter that – to me – faceplants its competition into the mud and then puts in a final boot. I hate the choppiness of Street Fighter 2; it's easier to learn an actual martial art than play Virtua Fighter; Soul Caliber is just too serious about itself; Dead Or Alive and Mortal Kombat are frankly jokes. 

I first played Tekken during its second incarnation, back in 1998 – ten years ago. It was on a flatmate's PlayStation, and I was awful. I only played a couple of games, and then went back to Zelda on the N64. The following year, however, I started hanging out with a guy called Chris.

Chris was good at Tekken 3. Unlike me, he owned a PlayStation and had been playing the game since number two, and knew what the buttons did. Being a bit of a gamer, and having an aptitude for fighters, he had become something of an expert, and pummelled me into the distance. Which, with the infinitely big stages of Tekken 3, was a long, long way away. 

Ordinarily, that would have been it. Normally, I get bored with things I'm obviously bad at very quickly, which just makes it all the more surprising that I've stuck with my current job. However, with Chris, I had a conundrum. I was spending a lot of time at his flat, and we were both video game fans, and we needed a game to play together. 

After watching him play Final Fantasy VIII, action was needed. I went and bought a PlayStation of my own, and – unbeknownst to Chris – picked up a copy of Tekken 3. Then, after a few late nights learning a quick, tricksy little Chinese fighter called Xiaoyu, I went and whomped him. 

Whomped him. 

I remember Chris being speechless. Never in the ten years that I've known him have I seen him so incapable of uttering a single word. We fought a number of times that day, and he barely laid a finger on me. I was on fire. 

Not literally, obviously.

Of course, the next time we met, the battlefield had been levelled. He picked his own character to play with: Lei, a Jackie Chan-a-like. We both knew how to play the other characters, but we always came back to Xiaoyu versus Lei. Eventually, we had to turn off the game timer, as rounds could go on for four or five minutes at a time. 'Epic' wasn't the word. Half the time, neither of us would even try to hit the other for the first minute. We knew each other so well, we could actually predict each other's opening gambits. When we finally figured out reversals, we could win a fight without throwing a single punch. 

These days, we don't play Tekken very often. Sometimes, one of us will be in a room with other friends, and sometimes we'll play Tekken against them. We play and talk, only one eye on the TV. We'll usually win, but there's something missing against other people. 

Yet, every so often, when the moon is right and the mermaids are swimming, we'll break out the latest version of the game. At those times, nothing can tear our eyes off the telly. At those moments, Tekken is more than a game, it's a conversation carrying more information than mere words. It's a bond between two friends who – through the game – know each others' mood and state of mind. People watching us have accused us of taking the game too seriously, but we have to be, because the moment we let our guards down the other will break through and win. 

Chris and I have often joked that we're friends only because we've got so much blackmail material on each other that we could never be enemies. We've known each other for ten years this month, and for nine of those years we've had Tekken to translate our Big Conversations into a secret language. Happy anniversary to us. 

Postscript: Chris and I played Tekken 5 tonight, which was the impetus for this article. I beat him 8-6, but it was a close call. Even without any practice, we fucking rule. 

Monday, 25 August 2008

Question answered: why I like superheroes

Iron ManI took Yu to see Iron Man tonight, which marks the third time I have been to see the film at the cinema. The BFI are running a superhero season, which is a brilliant idea. I’ve never been to the BFI at Southbank before, although I have been to the IMAX down the road (I saw 300 there – never was a film more suited to an IMAX screen).

When I first revealed to Yu my liking of superheroes, she asked me to write down my reasons. She wanted to know why a twenty-eight-year-old man of reasonable education would enjoy what boils down to little more than men in tights hitting each other with magic powers. It’s a fair question, and one that isn’t entirely easy to answer.

The obvious response is that superheroes represent escapism. However, that’s not a good enough answer. In fact, in this world of a thousand fictions, it’s a bit of a copout. There are literally hundreds of alternative genres to escape into. I have no particular desire to have superpowers; like most guys I have pondered which superpower I would prefer, but that doesn’t mean I dream of having one. *

Any film you watch, any book you read, any game you play, represents escapism to some degree or other. Escapism, in short, doesn’t cover why I prefer superhero fiction to, say, romance novels or crime stories.

Part of the reason, I suspect, is to do with my love of graphic novels and comics. When I was a child, my parents took out subscriptions to Transformers (the UK comic, as opposed to the at-the-time substandard US version) and the Real Ghostbusters. Not strictly superhero comics, they were a marked difference to comics such as the Beano, which in the UK was pretty much the only alternative to a boy too young to really understand 2000AD.

I stopped reading comics when I went to boarding school, and only picked them up again when I was bored while studying for my Masters Degree. I’d recently been to see the first Spider-Man film at the cinema, and wanted to read the origin story in comic form. Completely by accident, I missed the original version and picked up the trade paperback of Ultimate Spider-Man.

Now there was an eye-opener.

Ultimate Spider-ManIf you’ve never read it, Ultimate Spider-Man is a reimagining of the character, set in more modern times. It was – and still is – written by Brian Michael Bendis, and represents every reason I love superheroes. I still have it on subscription.

Bendis’ Peter Parker walks and talks like a real teenager. He has problems like I had at school. He has a girlfriend, with all the highs and lows that brings. He argues with his aunt and uncle. He is irrational, occasionally stupid, and frequently bullied. The only difference between him and any other teenager is the fact he has superpowers and a secret identity.

Bendis isn’t writing a superhero story, though. Primarily, he’s writing a soap opera. Every character, no matter how minor, is fully developed and beautifully written. Seriously, I studied novels during my degree with worse characterisation. So, as an introduction to comics, Ultimate Spider-Man was a good’un.

I’ve read a lot of comics now. Most of them were superhero comics. The thing that people tend to get confused with, however, is the fact that ‘comic’ is not a genre: it’s a medium. Comics can be any genre. I’ve read some wonderful Westerns (Loveless, for example), good crime stories (Criminal), some seriously top-notch fantasies (Sandman being top of a very long list) and more comedies than you can shake a stick at (Invincible, The Boys, or – for lack of any better genre to put it in – Girls). On top of that, titles such as Maus, Local, DMZ and Glamorpuss demonstrate the sheer breath of comic genres. Pick any one of those four titles: they are decidedly not for kids.

But I still keep coming back to superheroes. Why? Well, they’ve been around a while. Some of them – not all, but some – have been around long enough to mature into really good stories. Want proof? Read Ultimate Spider-Man, The Ultimates, Invincible, Watchmen, certain Batman comics, or Mark Miller’s new Kick-Ass series. They may all wear tights, but not at the expense of good stories or dialogue.

CarnivalI mentioned again in my last post my current writing project. To give a few more details away… It’s a comic, being drawn by Chris Ralls. It’s about a man called Carnival. He’s not a superhero, but he’s not a normal man either. The comic – hopefully – will straddle the fantasy and detective genres. And writing a good comic script, in all seriousness, is the hardest style of writing I have ever engaged in.

I’m writing this with a glass of Southern Comfort (I know, I know) next to me, and I am fully aware that I’ve avoided the original question. The answer, I guess, is that I don’t intrinsically like superhero fiction any more than other genres. Instead, I’ve been lucky enough to find some fantastic comic stories – some of which are, by chance, about superheroes.

* For the record – and discounting the rather cheap and easy “I’d be Superman” answer – I’ve have either the powers of the Hulk or Captain America. Even better, though, would be to forego superpowers entirely and be able to fly the Iron Man suit around.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008


CarnivalThere will be another blog post up soon - got a hankering to write about my trip to Berlin, from which I have just returned.

First up, though, I want to put up a quick update to this post. Not only is there finally and definitely An Artist Attached To This Project in the rather rugged and handsome form of Chris Ralls, but I've got the first five pages sitting on my hard drive.

And they are fucking awesome.

More soon. I may even put in some details next time.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

World of Weirdness: Part One

The first – and last – time I played World of Warcraft, I played as a ginger Paladin and promptly got annoyed at the number of kiddies offering to fight or fornicate with me. My character ended up hitting things with a shovel, and then got consigned to the recycle bin after two hours.

This happened about a year ago, and I've never been tempted to come back. Today, however, I was off sick from work and in need of some entertainment. In the interest of science, I decided to put my newfound internet connection to good use and install the Trial version of WoW.

The WoW Trial is so easy to download and install, a cynic might assume that the game was made for idiots. Indeed, a couple of hours in the game only reinforced this view; there is nothing that cries “lowest common denominator” louder than the sight of a giant axe-wielding bovine called “Halojunkie” bouncing across the horizon before leaping to its doom off a cliff. Of course, you can’t scoff too much at this: it’s the ease of use that sucks you in faster than a Thai hooker.

Having spent an intense eight and a half minutes conducting research on the various races and classes in the game, I created a Welsh cow, which the game calls a Tauren druid. After some initial naming disappointments – I wasn’t allowed to call my cow ‘Minty’, for some reason – I selected the old standby of ‘Notwelshman’ and entered the world of Azeroth.

Considering that Blizzard routinely touts a number in the region of eight million when asked how many people play WoW, Azeroth seemed awfully quiet. Peaceful, even. I supposed it was lunchtime, but where were all the Cheetos-scoffing students? Where were the unemployed addicts? The gold farmers? Someone tried to sell me a level 60 character, so I politely wandered off and found a quest.

WoW isn’t known as online crack for nothing. In a manner reminiscent of how nicotine hits you hard and fast to draw you in, the first few level ups are practically thrown at you, and in no time at all I was beating on piglets in a an area that reminded me of the Elephants’ Graveyard from The Lion King. Which is where I was challenged to a duel.

Having checked my opponent’s level, I accepted. With a bit of faffing around with my spellcasting – the reason I chose a druid for a character was for the ability to both hit things and heal myself – I managed to win. Then the same guy challenged me again.

The fourth time he challenged me, having been beaten three times already, I accidentally manoeuvred the fight into the path of some wandering pig-beasts, which promptly leapt to my aid and actually killed my opponent – usually, a duel ends with one player down to a few health points. This gave me a chance to wander off, as the challenger would have to run all the way back from the respawn point to find his corpse. Which he did, and then he challenged me again.

At this point, I checked the clock. It was four in the afternoon, and I realised that this person had evidently come online somewhere around the time the schools finished for the day. I was trouncing a twelve year old.

Anyway, as I finished today, my cow druid was at level seven, and had his very own stick to hit things with. I’m going to come back to WoW soon, and I’m going to blog about it a bit. If anyone wishes to join me online, I’m on the Blade’s Edge server, and you’ll need to pick a Horde race. Otherwise I’ll have to come and moo at you.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

I cooked Bang Bang Chicken. This is not a joke.

There are many reasons I hate cooking. Firstly, I’m very bad at it. Secondly, it’s boring. Really, really boring. Thirdly, every time I spend an hour making something by hand, I remember that I can go and pay someone else a quarter of the price and they’ll make me something that actually tastes like food. Fourthly, it’s boring. Fifthly…

I could go on, but I won’t – except to reiterate how boring I find cooking to be. Today, however, I made a meal of my own volition.

I promised Yu that I would cook her a meal, and in typical female style she went ahead and remembered. Now, I can cook a very limited number of meals: chicken fajitas being the main one, as long as I have a Old El Paso packet mix to hand. I can do an alright steak and a mean fry-up, but that’s the limit of my abilities. Today, on the other hand, I cooked Bang Bang Chicken, a Chinese dish.

Obviously, I used a recipe. Instead of using a book, which I can’t stand, or the internet, which annoys me, I bought a copy of Cooking Guide: Can’t Decide What To Eat? for the Nintendo DS.

Cooking Guide is an odd program. For a start, it’s not a game, though it pretends to be one. It has 245 recipes on it, from various countries round the world. The idea is that you buy the ingredients and then it talks you through the process of actually cooking a tasty meal.

It talks you through well enough, breaking down complicated bits (like slicing cucumbers properly) into simple nuggets, but the problem with the program arises when you have to talk back. In order to stop the DS getting covered in greasy food-alike, the program can be worked through using simple voice commands: “Continue”, “Go Back”, “Repeat” and so on. Which would be great if the voice recognition software wasn’t always in a pissy mood.

Yes, I stood and yelled “Continue” into the microphone twenty times, only for it to interpret the sound of me picking up the knife as “Go Back”. It’s like being in the kitchen with an actual chef: he’s a moron and won’t listen to a bloody word you say.

Despite this, it’s a really good program. The recipes are uniformly attractive, although there are a few too many that involve oysters or clams. If an ingredient is difficult to find, it has suggestions for alternatives, which is useful. And my Bang Bang Chicken was very, very good.

I won’t go as far as to suggest that I enjoyed cooking my meal. I didn’t, even though the program gave me a little stamp and a sparkly display to mark the occasion. But I am seriously considering following the recipe for good ol’ fish and chips from the UK, because deep-frying things looks like it could be dangerous.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

The pick of the bunch

PataponTo go with my love letter to portable gaming, here are some of the better games to catch my eye over the past year or so:

Advance Wars: Dark Conflict (DS): A superior turn-based strategy affair, this game is an improvement over its predecessor simply by virtue of having characters you don’t want to drown.

Animal Crossing: Wild World (DS): Turn it on for half an hour a day and pay off your virtual mortgage while engaging furry convention rejects in inane conversations. It’s bizarrely addictive, and I had to forcibly give it up – the fact that I succeeded gives me hope in quitting smoking.

Beats (PSP): One of the few worthwhile downloadables on the UK website, Beats takes your saved music and converts them into levels – not unlike Vib Ribbon did so many years ago. Simplistic, but fun.

Crisis Core – Final Fantasy VII (PSP): A prequel to the original FFVII, Crisis Core is a simplistic semi-brawler that wouldn’t get away with its obvious design flaws if (a) it wasn’t Final Fantasy, (b) it was on a bigger screen or (c) it wasn’t so darn pretty. As it stands, it’s good fun.

Advance Wars (DS)Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions (PSP): An excellent port of the original PSX game, this is a stupidly complex and rewarding strategic role playing game. Prepare to sink in hours of preparation to get through a ten minute battle.

Final Fantasy VI (GBA / DS): A port of the old SNES classic, this game is one of the highlights of the whole series. The reduced screen size means that the old graphics still look gorgeous even to my jaded PlayStation eyes, and the story is heartbreakingly well told.

FlOw (PSP): It’s not a game, I think. I’m not sure what it is, but I lost a fair few hours of my life playing it.

God of War: Chains of Olympus (PSP): Everyone’s favourite Spartan kicks the shit out of more mythology. As brutal – and formulaic – as the PS2 releases, it has not lost its glossy prettiness in the translation.

Metal Gear SolidMetal Gear Solid Portable Ops (PSP): It’s Metal Gear Solid with comic book cutscenes and the ability to kidnap enemy soldiers. Stealthy goodness.

Patapon (PSP): Rhythm action battling. Save your Patapon nation by banging drums. Compulsively weird.

Platinum Sudoku (DS): I know, I know. It’s Sudoku. But there’s about 20 million of them on the cartridge, which means I’m never running out. FFVI aside, I’ve spent more time with this than with any other portable game.

Pokemon Diamond (DS): God, I wish I was joking. But underneath the kiddy graphics and plot, there really is a deep game with an incredible amount of stuff to collect and beat up.

Tekken Dark Resurrection (PSP): It’s Tekken 5, but smaller and with more stuff to do. It’s without a doubt the best fighting game available on a portable console, and perfect for a commute of any length.

Downsizing: how portable gaming has taken over from the big boys

It was a hard fight. Badly injured from the way through the mountains, I had to keep moving. Even armed with the famous Buster Sword, my opponent had the advantage – and my back was to a sheer drop. If he pushed me back…

We fought, I won. And then I got off the tube and went to work. It was eight thirty in the morning.

Portable gaming is nothing new. I owned one of the original Nintendo GameBoys – those of the ‘brick’ school of design. It saw a lot of use; mostly, I played Tetris, which was the game largely attributed to the success of the console. I had a couple of other good’uns: Probotector – the European version of Contra on the GameBoy – and BattleToads spring to mind, and I remember that one of the first games I ever actually completed was Terminator 2.

Around me, kids were starting to see consoles as something cool. Sega and Atari had their own portable entries at the time, with the GameGear and Lynx respectively. But these consoles were handicapped: the GameGear lasted about 20 minutes without a power cable, while no one ever found out how long the Lynx could be used for because no one could find any games for it.

The GameBoy wasn’t perfect; it could display four colours and had a sound system matched by the average household microwave. But it was fun, and its game library was arguably only ever matched by that of the PlayStation.

Later, I owned a GameBoy Advance. It was a mistake, in retrospect. I had no commute, and a PlayStation 2 at home, so it saw very little use. This is the problem with portable systems: portable systems are traditionally not as powerful as the beasts that lurk under our televisions, and up until recently, there has been no reason to use them if you didn’t travel anywhere.

Nintendo kicked me back into the portable market with their DS, which is backwards compatible with the GameBoy Advance. Its library of games is exactly what you’d expect from Nintendo: Mario, Zelda, StarFox, Metroid, and a million puzzle games populated by anthropomorphic animals. My problem with the games – cute factor aside – is that there is a curious number of them that seem to expect me to play them every day: Brain Age and Animal Crossing spring to mind.

Since then, I’ve picked up a Sony PSP. Only slightly less powerful than my PlayStation 2, it has all but taken over my gaming hours. Oddly, though, I am addicted to the PSP because I am being allowed to play the same games as I would at home; the difference is I don’t have to rush to finish if I want to go out.

It seems that Sony and Nintendo have finally learnt what we want out of portable gaming. It’s not such a hard list to figure, to be honest, and you have to wonder why it took them so long. We want a battery life of at least a couple of hours, otherwise what’s the point in the first place? We want good graphics, which is easy on a small screen: I played through the GBA version of Final Fantasy VI, which has the same graphics as it did on the SNES, and it looked glorious.

Most importantly, we want good games. Portable game design has gone up a notch since I last met it, mostly by directly emulating the full-sized console market. You now have the same standard of games, but with the option to switch off at any time thanks to the power-save options.

So, as I get older and my free time gets shorter, it seems portable gaming is becoming the way forward. I’ve become disillusioned with the new-gen consoles, as I still haven’t seen anything actually new. But portable gaming, previously so far behind, has now caught up, and is closer to the future than any other part of the market.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Why I generally dislike people - part 257

It's been a while since I posted about that day someone tried to burn me and fellow flatmates alive, so I figured I'd knock together a quick update. I'm not aiming for eloquence here, and it's a Friday morning, so there you go.

I had to give a police statement the following day, which involved me going down to the station in Bromley and talking very slowly for two hours. I am not good at talking slowly; I dislike doing so for the same reason I hate training people at work. My patience eventually just snaps like old trouser elastic, and then I wake up to find myself surrounded by bodies.

Mister Police Man was very friendly, and told me:
  1. Dave had admitted to wilful destruction of property.
  2. Nothing at all about a possible assault charge on the landlady.
  3. That they probably would not attempt to press charges for arson, as they would be concentrating on point number 1 instead.
And then I heard nothing until yesterday, when I was told by the landlady's son - who, let us not forget, performed a service to humanity by punching Dave - had been arrested for assault.

Yes, you read that right: Dave, smoulderer of the innocent and a man willing to openly threaten his landlady, his girlfriend and his flatmates, is pressing charges against someone who actually hits back. On the bright side, I guess, all those people back at school who said that "bullies are really cowards" finally got vindicated.

If this sticks, I will not be happy.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

There is now... artist attached to this project.

That is all.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Review: Race for the Galaxy

Image credit: Board Game GeekI developed an interest in games – the non-video variety – last year, after reading the Joystiq ‘Off The Grid’ review of Chrononauts, a card game that is well worth picking up so long as you have at least one friend and enjoy watching Back to the Future. Since then, I have enjoyed Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne – both terrific gateway games – but the game that keeps calling me back is Race for the Galaxy, designed by Tom Lehmann and published by Rio Grande Games and Abacus Spiele.

RftG is a card game. Despite this, it comes in a box the size of a small moon, in a move apparently designed either to hold future expansions or simply to drive environmentalists crazy. Whatever the reason, the box contains 150 playing cards, a bunch of Victory Point chips of various denominations and more rules than an International Space Station toilet. RftG can be played by two to four people, and each game takes between half an hour and an hour.

Mike (my current gaming cohort) and I nearly gave up during our first play through. The rules are well written – and if you speak German, you get an extra set for free – as long as you already know how to play the game. Figuring the rules out for the first time is at best problematic, and at worst a fucking nightmare.

The premise of the game is simple enough: you are a galactic leader with a single planet under your control, and you must develop either the largest civilisation or the most powerful economy in the galaxy. Success is measured in Victory Points, which can be earned by colonising or conquering new worlds, developing a working production infrastructure, or simply by producing goods and selling them.

In order to do this, each player has a selection of action cards, with which they choose what they want to do in any given round. There are five different action phases – Explore, Develop, Settle, Trade / Consume and Produce – and each player has the opportunity to go through any phase selected by the other players.

This is where the game starts to get complicated: there may be only five types of action phase, but each player has access to seven different action cards. If you only have two players and are feeling brave, both of you get another four cards. That’s eleven action cards with which to select five possible action phases. And then a player has another hand for their developments and planets, which can contain up to ten cards.

Unfortunately, the booklet is missing an important page – a page so obvious that I can only surmise it was planned but left out by accident by the printers: a quick start page. A page that sets out not only what you have to do in each phase, but why you might want to in the first place.

Image credit: Board Game GeekTo further exacerbate matters, the game uses a system of symbols to define common card attributes. These symbols are explained in the rules – and, to be fair, they are for the most part logical once you get the hang of them – but they can take some time to figure out for new players.

Once you get past this initial deluge of cranial fluff – usually after two or three games – RftG becomes an arresting gaming experience. Lehmann delayed the initial release of the game several times for extensive playtesting, and this extra effort shows in the well-tuned game engine: RftG is immaculately balanced, favouring no single strategy over any other. Luck of the draw plays a factor, but so does planning and foresight, resulting in a game where no loss feels unfair and no triumph comes cheap.

Each card is a miniature masterpiece, with superb paintings depicting planets, alien technologies and galactic rebels. This creates a unique and consistent atmosphere: while it is unlikely that anyone but the insane will actually believe they are conquering outer space, Mike and I do find ourselves running to an ad-hoc plot as we play. Player interaction is limited, but it does exist: once you figure out an opponent’s strategy, you can rely on them to provide certain action phases while you select your own, essentially giving you more useful rounds.

The ending scenarios – twelve cards in your portfolio or all of the available Victory Points used up – come round quickly, which means that players need to make every card count. Every game becomes a tense race to the finish, as players try to end the game early to deny their opponents the chance to complete a card layout or make a final trade.

For anyone who doesn’t want to invest too much time into a game, RftG is a wasted purchase. The rules require active decryption, while the level of strategy within the game itself means that players should try to develop at least a basic familiarity with the individual cards in order to make the most of it. However, if you do have the inclination to learn and have at least one friend willing to put in the same effort, RftG is a deep, enjoyable diversion that is well worth the money.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Comic Collector: it seemed like a good idea at the time

Comic Collector main menuIt’s a commonly held – and almost entirely inaccurate – belief that I am somehow a technically apt person. I think this is because I wear glasses. Ever since school, I have often been mistaken for someone who knows about computers. I have even fooled my employers: somehow, I work for a company that builds internet and intranet sites.

Truthfully, however, I am never going to be properly computer literate, mostly because I need to take my socks off whenever I count above ten. I once tried to update Windows 98 on my PC, with the help of a friend. We ended up having to rebuild the computer from scratch. After that, Windows displayed error messages in Czech.

I still have no home internet connection. Even my grandparents have broadband.

A couple of years ago – almost to the day, in fact - I decided that I needed a database to hold information on my rapidly growing array of comics. I trawled the internet for a few weeks, but didn’t have much success: all of the programs I found were ugly or simplistic, or just did something in a fashion I found counterintuitive.

Then I split up with my girlfriend, in part because she didn’t want to be going out with the sort of person who catalogued his comic collection. I went home after the break-up, and while I was there my dad gave me a copy of Microsoft Access.

I learned to use Access at school, during my Computing A-Level. It’s a pointless skill to have, as no one in the entire world uses Access for anything. I built a database that organised magazine articles for my A-Level coursework. It was my dad’s idea; I couldn’t think of anything else to do. While I was home, I dug out my old project and decided to use it as a template for a new, home-grown comic database.

This exercise has taught me that I don’t really build programs so much as grow them, much like I do mould in tea cups – an attitude that is going to get me in trouble at work very soon. My database, which started off as two tables and a simple query, now contains seven tables, nine queries and a user interface that would confuse a submarine operator. Including the inputted data, it stands proud at over 220 megabytes in size. And it’s still growing.

I haven’t even finished inputting all of my comics. It’s been two years.

The problem with my organic approach is that, because I have no plan and because I tend to put the project down and leave it for months at a time, I keep forgetting how it works. For example, there is a nifty feature that displays a random comic cover on the main menu screen. All of the comic covers are scanned in, so when you open the program it will show one of them with the title and issue number. I programmed this feature, and am rightly proud of it. But I have no idea how it works. I checked recently, and my methodology makes no logical sense. For all I know, the database offers a prayer to the fire rabbits of Pluto, who tell it what cover to display.

Yet I still keep dreaming up and adding new features. This weekend, I figured it would be a good idea to be able to assign categories to the comics, so you could search for which ones you have on subscription, or for anything in the Marvel Ultimate Universe, or whatever. It didn’t take too long to add the categories, but I haven’t even started building the relevant searches yet: that’s the work of another weekend. Just adding the categories required me to break and fix the program no less than four times.

It feels like I’ve built the damn thing out of lard. Sooner or later, I’m going to add something slightly too heavy and the whole program will slop into a melted, useless lump. God forbid I try and remove anything. A year ago, in the name of testing, I built a backup table that isn’t connected to anything important. I tried to delete it yesterday, and the whole database crashed. I don’t understand why, and probably never will.

I’m catching up with the data entry; I now have 498 comics logged, out of maybe seven hundred. I have decided that, in order to count this project as ‘complete’, I need to input the rest of the comics, finish the category search and add the functionality to print search results. And then I need to rejig the user interface, simply on a cosmetic level.

This may take some time.

Just one of my queries!
A sample search result

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Up in flames: When real life burns out fiction

Image credit: http://www.sfgate.comThe most important hallmark of being a good writer isn’t necessarily being good with words. James Joyce proved that you don’t even have to be particularly good with grammar. If your story sucks, all the long words, run-on sentences and semi-colons in the world won’t save it. A good writer needs to be able to put together a top-notch plot.

Most good stories – even across genres such as sci-fi and fantasy – have strong roots in reality, which is why a good writer should be looking at real life for material. Real life mostly consists of the drudge of daily life, but it does throw up some gems if you search hard enough.

Take this, for example. True story.

A couple of nights ago, a guy – let’s call him Dave – had a bad day and got drunk. He had a few spliffs; not uncommon for him. He went home to his flat, where he lived with his girlfriend and a couple of others. One of these others – Dean – had been pretty loud over the last few weeks. Dave, in his drunken state, decided tonight was going to be the night when he pounded Dean into the ground. He had a theory that Dean was a crackhead, and who wants to live with a crackhead?

Of course, Dean wasn’t in. Dave, not to be put off, banged on Dean’s door. He then called up the landlady, accused her of forcing him to live with crackheads, and handed in his notice. He convinced his girlfriend to make the same call, and then continued pounding on Dean’s door. He accused everyone in the world of being a cunt, and threatened to beat anyone he saw. He wasn’t really angry with Dean; he just wanted a fight.

The landlady was somewhat surprised with the accusations of drug taking on Dean’s part, so called up her son and asked to be taken round to the flat. By the time she got there, Dave and his girlfriend were passed out in bed, and Dean’s door had a big hole in it.

It took ten minutes to wake Dave and his girlfriend. Instantly, Dave was throwing his weight around again, hurling insults at all and sundry. And then he took a swing at his seventy-five year old landlady.

Thankfully, the punch didn’t connect. The landlady’s son, a placid but big fella, stepped in the way and floored Dave.

There followed a few minutes of huffy, drunken walking around by Dave and his girlfriend, the latter being thoroughly pissed off by her hubby’s mood. The landlady and her son, feeling the situation was as resolved as it was going to get at half-midnight, started to drive home.

The peace didn’t last. Within ten minutes of being left alone, Dave started his ranting again. He threw things around, started on a second door – his girlfriend’s – and then decided that the only thing to do was set light to his mattress.

His girlfriend, giddy with fear, pleaded with him to stop. She tried to pour water over the mattress, but Dave wouldn’t let her. Instead, he took her by the neck and got her out of his room.

Meanwhile, the last housemate – the one who wasn’t Dean; the one who was in his room the whole time, and who had been on Dave's corncopia of people to beat, called the police. And then he smelled smoke, and called the fire brigade as well. He escaped the flat through his window, got help from upstairs, and went to find the girlfriend.

The girlfriend was on her own. Dave had skipped out, leaving her to douse the flames. The hall was full of smoke. The fire brigade turned up, dragged Dave’s still smouldering mattress and quilt out of the flat and turned on the hoses.

Dave wandered back while the firemen worked, and stood calmly to one side. Eventually, the police turned up and talked to everyone present, including the returned landlady and her son. Dave was duly arrested, and put in a cell overnight to detox.

Thus far, Dave has admitted causing wilful destruction of property. There’s every chance he’ll get done for trying to hit the landlady. He denies arson, claiming that he was drunk and just left a cigarette to burn by accident. The police do have a statement that the fire was deliberate, but it’s from the housemate who called the police. He heard everything, but didn’t see it.

So, yeah. Life chucks out some good old stories. The difference between real life and fiction, of course, is that the characters act differently. In a story, that last housemate would have rocketed out of his room and saved the day, doused the flames and brought Dave to some kind of justice. Frankly, though, I was fucking terrified.

Dean's door

Doused mattress

Friday, 29 February 2008

Buffy - an alternative take

Credit: Martin Rebas Thanks to a sick day yesterday, I have now finished watching Buffy. Fantastic show, as I've already said, with a great finale.

I think this essay goes too far, but it does make several valid points - especially with regards to the characters of Spike, Anya and Willow. The author, in her intro, acknowledges that she is a Spike fan, which clearly comes across in the essay. Definitely worth a read.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Wait... I do know you

Even Darker SparkleI now know who the author of Darker Sparkle is. I'd love to tell you that I tracked them down with my trademark cunning and detective abilities, but - hard though this may be to believe - I didn't. They read my blog post and enlightened me and called me a doughnut.

Brummies, eh?

Interesting point to be made, though, about the ease of anonymonity on the internet. The person running the aforementioned blog is someone I lived with for six months, worked with for near two years, and with whom I still keep (sporadic) contact. There were subtle clues in her writing - her current location, for a start. But remove the pictures and change the name (Lily? Que?) and suddenly you have a complete stranger.

It's a well-trodden subject, so I shan't harp on about it. But this is relevant to my writing; one of my stories in the SINS Anthology touched on the idea of internet personalities, and it's very much a subject I'd like to return to at some point.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Why I hate vampires, and why I want to write about them

Buffy the Vampire SlayerI’ve been thinking recently about vampires.

As monsters go, I don’t consider vampires particularly scary. In fact, I tend to think of accepted vampire mythology as ridiculous: vampires are hampered in so many ways that it seems to be almost impossible for them to operate as effective killers – which is what most vampire fiction attempts to depict them as.

Of course, the word ‘vampire’ doesn’t always suggest the supernatural. We use it to mean a number of things: ‘parasitic’, ‘pale’, ‘bad’. It’s a lovely word; it has a richly evil sound, thanks to its Eastern European etymology. However, early vampire myths – particularly from Romania – stem from a fear of deviance from normality: people born with physical abnormalities (such as a caul or tail) or who were conceived out of wedlock were shunned as vampires.

I’ve been watching Buffy The Vampire Slayer again. Despite the fact that it’s a show from my school days, I didn’t see more than a couple of episodes until about two years ago, when I was lent a series at a time by a friend. Since New Year, I’ve been collecting the DVDs, and – more than a decade after it was first aired – the show is still fresh and modern when compared to some of the tat on the box today.

Mostly, it’s the writing. The dialogue is warm and genuinely funny, and the characters – insane and stupid though they often are – are believable despite the fantastical settings and stories. For me, however, the most interesting characters are not Buffy, Willow and Xander. I find the vampires much more interesting.

Spike and Angel are the obvious examples in this. But even discounting these two, you’ve still got the Master, Harmony, Willow’s alternate self, Drucilla and a ton of minor characters. Vampires in Buffy are more real to the audience than half the regular cast of good guys. Just look at Riley Finn.

Vampire fiction – Hollywood in particular – tends to miss the point. Okay, there are a few gems: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Interview With A Vampire and The Lost Boys: films that deliberately humanise the vampire characters. But for every one of these, you have twenty films where the vampires are boringly disposable. Underworld, From Dusk Till Dawn, I Am Legend, Blade. Even when they attempt to give their vampires character, they miss the humanity because they’re so focussed on making the vampires evil.

Vampires are not interesting when they want to eat people. They are interesting when they are different, when they survive and prosper despite their limitations.

Anyway, I’ve started writing some vampire fiction. I’m going for a mix of pop-culture and traditional fare, but the major difference is that my vampires will not be playing second-fiddle to a group of less-interesting ‘good guys’. My vampires, in fact, aren’t even going to be evil. I’m picking out what I feel is most interesting: the idea of vampires as social deviants.

They’ll be fucked-up, depressed, stupid and weak. In other words, they’ll be as human as the rest of us and – hopefully – all the more interesting for it.

Public Service Announcement

I think I was a little over-optimistic about how much TV I was going to watch when I started this blog. It wasn’t long after I wrote the first entry that I stopped watching the box entirely – again – which is going to make writing about it a little tricky.

So I’m changing the point of this site. TV will still play a part, but I’m expanding the remit to include some of my other interests.

You have been warned.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Darker Sparkle

While I'm aware of the internet's propensity for spam, I didn't get the impression that I was under attack by the makers of meat produce when I received an invitation to read a blog called Darker Sparkle.

It's invite only, so the link probably won't work. But I'll keep it on this post so that Lily (if that is indeed your name!) knows I'm talking about her.

Lily says:
You might have only met me once, fleetingly, you may know me really well, we might not even have met. You might realise straight away who invited you to read this, you might gradually work it out, you might never realise.

Of course, my point is that I don't know anyone called Lily. However, my memory is terrible at best, so it's very possible I met her once. From the quality of writing, I doubt very much it's my ex-girlfriend from my first year at university ten years ago. That's a compliment.

Anyway, I got an invite and enjoyed the ramblings and would love to leave a comment and can't because the comments have been turned off. Lily: if you read this, turn them back on or send me a message. Please.

Lies, damn lies and pot plants

In the last post, I suggested that I would be updating this blog fairly regularly.

Evidently, I lied.

I'm not known for being a liar. I've fibbed from time-to-time, mostly in order to get out of going something I really don't want to. The problem is that I'm a terrible actor - really, really bad - and you need a bit of the thespian to pull off a good lie. I don't have that.

Of course, I could be yanking your chain and talking bollocks. Wouldn't be the first time.

The point is, I haven't updated this blog. But I will, and soon.

That's not to say I haven't been writing. I have, in fact; fairly prolifically if you don't count the stuff I'm not paid for. Even if you do count personal wordage, I'm still not doing too badly.

Case in point:
Content Formula newsletter

The guy in the really cool hat? That would be me.

Inevitably, one of my friends accused me of David Brent-ing when I wrote the main article. I sent him an email back which - I think - said something along the lines of "Bollocks to you". This response, I feel, doesn't defend me well enough.

That article was written in that style for a good reason: someone paid me to do it. Now, you can get all uppity about the nature of money and selling out as a writer, and in some cases I might even agree with you. Fact is, I write for a living, and it's not a bad living as they go. It's better than reading newspapers on a Saturday night or making plastic boxes or picking up litter in High Wycombe or any of the other jobs I've had. So when someone tells me to write an article for a certain audience, I kinda have to.

I work for a company that builds intranet and internet sites. They wanted me to talk about intranets. The subject is - for me - interesting enough (certainly more interesting than some of the other articles I write on a weekly basis), but it's drier than a nun in the Gobi. You have to dress it up a bit to make it readable.

Not only that, but I work for a company that builds intranet and internet sites. This article was meant to reflect the style of that company, not necessarily my own. Like it or not, I'm currently a cog in someone else's machine.

Hence the pot plants. Yeah, I'm selling out, but I still get to put the word 'writer' on my CV. Which in three months or six months or a year or whatever might come in pretty handy.