Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A guide I wrote for O week at uni, It's pretty silly, but is collected here regardless.

(A brief note on managing your time and money at uni)

Face it kid, you're obsessed. You're an addict. And that's all well and good - noble profession, addiction. However, a new problem arises - you're at uni. You have other demands on your time. All those lessons and tutorials, those workshops and labs, and worse yet - you actually have to do a lot of the work under your own aegis. ZOUNDS. So I guess it becomes a matter of priorities - I mean, obviously you can't put aside your addiction for the sake of your academic career. Let's not waste time with the ridiculous. You have an obsessive tendency - you are damn well going to make time for that.

So what are you options? Well obviously a big part of managing your time is going to be related to cost - I mean, whatever your obsessive interest is, it ought to be something you can afford (or learn to afford). I'm going to make an assumption that your funds aren't limitless - I mean, unless your obsession is horse rearing or your collection of solid gold cars, in which case your problems are beyond the scope of this article to address (also, I hate you). So let's just assume you're working part time, or living off your student allowance (or whatever scraps of cash your parents want to throw your way). Obviously, living costs are important (remember, you need to be alive to indulge your obsession), and when you factor in rent, transport, food etc you're probably not going to have a lot left over. So what do? I mean, if your obsession is something like chewing paper that's probably easy to squeeze into a budget, but if you have a more pedestrian interest like, say, books, films, or video games, even minor expenses can pile up. For this kind of thing I'd suggest buying everything online - there are numerous stores that give great deals on these products. Also don't be afraid to buy second hand. Fairly obvious. Also I'm pretty sure you're going to pirate stuff. Fine. Whatever. You can work on your karma later.

One advantage about uni is that, unless your obsession is something like, say, only eating the eggs of the Komodo dragon, it's very very likely you're going to find other people on campus who share your obsession, allowing you to make very superficial connections with all sorts of people! Put up posters, create a club, just talk loudly about whatever it is you like in class, and eventually you'll probably bump into a like-minded person. This is also useful because they may give you access to your stuff, and open doors for you that you had never considered before, feeding your sick habit. You'll start to feel more like a normal citizen, and less like a freak with an unhealthy attachment. This is an illusion - you are still a freak with an unhealthy attachment, but that's okay, because now your feelings are normalized for you.

A clever person will actually partition their time, sensibly dividing their attention between their work and their hobby. You're probably not that clever. However - and this is something you may not want to hear - there may be long stretches of time where you simply cannot justify your indulgence. This is actually probably beneficial long term - you'll learn to corral that tendency, maybe even make it work for you as an incentive (if I finish this fifth essay I'll finally allow myself 30 minutes to watch the first quarter of the latest David Fincher film! Hooray!). Know your mind, understand its workings, and push yourself into a state of hyper anxiety because you feel guilty even looking at your dog-eared copy of Storm of Swords.

Of course, even if you can balance this work/obsession to a degree where you are actually able to give the appearance of being a functional human being, be aware that this will probably go out the window when/if you end up hooking up with a partner. At that point your only option is to start to let go of your tight grip on the hobby that has kept you warm on those long, lonely nights at sea. Or perhaps convert your significant other. Personally I always preferred the way of the hermit, but I'm a bitter old crank, so if you don't want to end up like that, perhaps work on being a well-rounded human being who actually can deal with having uni, a life, and a secret, focused shame. Or make some other interests. Try train spotting, it's pretty low stress. I guess what I mean is - despite my opening paragraph, your priorities are probably going to shift. And that's okay. There's a little piece of your heart that will be forever obsessed with Pokemon slash fiction - you'll just fill it with other things, too.

This article first appeared in Empire Times magazine

Assassin's Creed Liberation

Assassin's Creed Liberation

Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed 4 is the AC game getting the most attention right now, and rightly so. However, also available now is a port of a year old PlayStation Vita game, that's had a bucket of HD paint sloshed over it, getting all the visuals slick and gooey. Some of that stickiness is also squishing some frayed bits of code together, fixing a lot of old bugs. They've also added some new missions and items, but nothing too major. POINT IS - this is probably the biggest, best looking version of the title we're likely to see. But does that make it good?

Answer: eh, kinda? I mean, let's face it, Assassin's Creed is a series that, for me at least, is defined by disappointment. It never ever really shakes out the way you'd like - even this game's most interesting feature, the persona system (which, because of your protagonist's unique social situation of being the daughter of French merchant and and African slave allows her to assume the identity of either an Assassin, a Lady and a Slave) does not really translate into many interesting options as far as actual gameplay goes. And the core experience is still a bit shaky, but like a beloved arthritic family dog, it's a shaky thing we're rather familiar and somewhat comfortable with - go here, kill that, steal this, run away etc etc,. Side quests abound, of course (because what's AC without padding?), and if you're going for 100 per cent completion there's a decent amount of stuff to do. But at the end of the day, what we have is an AC title that's been stripped down - more confined, reduced scope, less options, but also less fat. A leaner, cheaper product. The core experience is the same as it ever was (with some ACIII trappings), so if that's your bag, you could probably do worse for the price.

This review first appeared in Empire Times Magazine

Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea

There'll Be No Accusations, Just Friendly Crustaceans

Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea

Last year's Bioshock Infinite was one of the most interesting story-driven titles of this generation. It had its problems, but the plot managed to hold most players attention as it careened towards a rather confusing (and seemingly definitive) conclusion. Burial at Sea seeks to continue this story, however, shifting things back to where the series began, in the underwater Objectivist utopia of Rapture.

Burial presents players with a two-part adventure staring the protagonists of the Infinte, Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth. Though the setting shift from cloud city to the underwater city is probably the biggest and most obvious difference to the main title, there are actually a few twists on the original's formula. Instead of only being able to carry two weapons, both characters can now carry around a small arsenal, with the trade off of having very limited ammunition and resources. This makes for the biggest change, as trying to go in all guns blazing as you would in the main title will quickly see you dead. You are now presented with a number of stealth options, and actively encouraged to use them. The problem with this, however, is that it seems clear that the engine wasn't really built around stealth mechanics, and so much of these segments feel a little stiff and awkward.

That said, if you've enjoyed the series thus far, Burial at Sea is packed with references to the previous games, giving the player a new insight on some events, as well as some background information. It's clear that it was written for the fans, and people already in love with the franchise may find the rougher edges of the the title easier to forgive. It really does bring the whole story full circle - you just have to decide if a bit of closure and fan service is worth the slightly awkward play style. 

This review originally appeared in Empire Times Magazine

Captain America: The WInter Soldier

Cold, Cold Heart

Captain America The Winter Soldier

Trying to review this film seems fruitless - not because this film in some way defies description, or because that nothing one review says is going to affect the film's no doubt spectacular financial success (though that part's definitely true); no, it's because this film essentially does everything it needs to. It's not a perfect film, not even a perfect action film, but it's absolutely a perfect product - it ticks every box, crosses every t, dots every i, and you'll almost certainly have a good time with it. What makes it frustrating is that there's little to really criticize about the film itself, and I have two hundred more words to fill out here. You'll pay for this, Captain America!

But regardless, a basic rundown: Captain America: The Winter Soldier picks up where The Avengers left off, following the recently unfrozen Steve Rogers in an espionage-themed adventure. The creators wisely realize that Rogers is a bit too simple and unconflicted a character to carry the whole story by himself, so he's accompanied by several allies with their own arcs, making it more of an ensemble piece than a Captain America film.

The action is clearly shot and fun to watch - you always know what's going on on screen, and there are some inventive sequences. The film moves away from most of the anachronistic mad Nazi science elements of the first film, and plays things in a (relatively) more grounded fashion. Really, there's not much more to say. The film is almost the living embodiment of 'solid', and as far as commercially produced super-hero action fare goes, you're unlikely to see better. Ideal popcorn entertainment, perhaps lacking a bit of imagination or emotion, but you'll probably have fun.

This review first appeared in Empire Times magazine

Edge of Tomorrow (Live. Die. Repeat)

 You Can (Not) Advance

The unfortunate fact about reviewing a film that stars Tom Cruise is that it stars Tom Cruise - his off-screen antics so overwhelm whatever credibility he has as a leading man that it gives both a reviewer and (I imagine) the general public an odd feeling when saying anything positive about him. And yet, Cruise does a reasonably solid job in the rather enjoyable science fiction action film Edge of Tomorrow, forcing myself into this uncomfortable situation. So thanks a bunch, Cruise - your ability to turn in a decent (if unchallenging) performance means I am left without the option to make fun of this film for the next five hundred words. Now what on earth am I supposed to talk about?

I suppose it's best to start with the premise: Edge of Tomorrow is a science fiction action/war movie, based on the Japanese light novel All You Need Is Kill, which I think we can all agree is a far superior title to the rather generic one we've ended up with. Bizarre tentacled aliens are invading Earth and threatening humanity with extinction, so it's up to an alliance of nations to come together engage in a conflict that looks oddly like World War 2, only with more powered exoskeletons and writhing wiggly things. Army PR-guy and smarmy coward Cage (Tom Cruise) is forced onto the front lies after a rather spectacular display of ill-advised arrogance, and after running around in a panic for a few minutes he is promptly (and rather gruesomely) killed. That's no real spoiler, however, as immediately afterwards Cage snaps awake, forced to relive the day of his death again. And again. And again. And so the interesting part of the film begins - a cross between Starship Troopers and Groundhog Day. where Cage must use whatever information he gains each time he time he dies in order to survive a little longer next time around. With the aide of bad-ass war hero Rite Vrataski (Emily Blunt), Cage must used the constant repeating time loops to figure out a way to stop the invasion and save the Earth.

What makes the film fum is the combination of character development mixed in with the Groundhog Day gimmick - though Cage's attempts to advance and improve his circumstances are constantly thwarted, he slowly but surely grows as a character - by harsh necessity he is forced to become more selfless, heroic, and competent as the loops continue. Given that his purgatorial situation is bought on by his own initial selfishness, it's somewhat fun to watch. Though not as much fun as his repeated, and almost slapstick array of deaths he suffers. Cruise's death-yelp made me chuckle a bit more than it probably should have. Rita's a fairly fun character as well - a complete badass, utterly resigned and world-weary, and Cage's superior in just about every way, but without the in-your-face arrogance that often comes with such characters. Also present is Bill Paxton as a loud mouthed Sergeant, which I mostly mention because I just like to know that the man's working.

However, despite some fun characterization, an intriguing premise and solid black humour, the film is not without flaws. The action scenes lack imagination, the supporting cast are largely a collection of accents masquerading as characters, the third act is much less interesting than the rest of the film and the ending feels like a total ass-pull. However, if you want a sci-fi action film that's a bit more narratively creative than your standard fare, I feel little hesitation in recommending Edge of Tomorrow

This review was first published in Empire Times Magazine


What the Hell did I Just Play?

Jazzpunk is a comedy adventure game produced by Canadian indie outfit Necrophone Games, and published by Adult Swim. That's about all I can say about this game with any sense of objectivity, as your enjoyment of this title, perhaps more than anything else I've played in recent years, is so incredibly dependent on very specific tastes. To be particular - it's a comedy driven title, so if you enjoy the humour, you'll have fun. If you don't, you won't. I was one of the people who didn't, but maybe there's an audience for this sort of thing who'll enjoy the whole experience a lot more than I.

The game is ostensibly set in a alternate Cold War 60's, populated by robots and other anachronistic technologies. You, as Agent Polyblank, are tasked with carrying out a series of vaguely-espionage themed missions aimed at... saving the world... I guess. Really, the premise is nothing more than a set up - a vehicle to place the gamer in front of as many computer-puns, surreal gags and pop culture references as possible. The actual interface and gameplay are very simple - you're given free reign to wonder around areas to solve your task, and there are a few skill and puzzle based sections, but nothing terribly taxing. Mostly you'll be moving through a world of whoopie cushions, spit-takes, vomiting seafood, robots falling over, and non-sequiters, before you eventually emerge at the end of the game, squinting in the sunlight, wondering what on earth just happened.

It's best described as taking the formula of Dear Esther and Gone Home and giving it an extremely surreal comedic twist. Fans of Family Guy and Archer might want to take note. Every one else might want to give it a miss.

This review was first published in Empire Times magazine.

Monday, September 24, 2012

YOU ARE ALL GOING TO LOVE ME - romance in video games.

So I played through To The Moon the other day. Bawled my eyes out, of course, but more to the point, it got me thinking; what, exactly, makes for a good romantic story in a video game? Is such a thing even possible given the technology we have? And is there, in fact, any way to tie a romance into a video game in any way beyond narrative function (and perhaps a stat boost)? Let's go through this bit by bit, then.

So what was it about To The Moon that worked so well? And was anything about the story something that was uniquely suited to the format? Well, I'm going to have to make a pretty clear call on this one: no, not really. With To The Moon, the player is largely regulated to the position of a passive observer - this is made even more clear as the viewpoint characters aren't really the protagonists of the story - they (along with their plot-device technology) are a vehicle to allow access to the stories' non-linear view of the plot's chronology - the story is most definitely a love story at its core, but what it does so well is to actually present this love story as a mystery. In hindsight, none of the plot revelations should come as a huge surprise - but what it does very well is to set up a huge number of events and objects, whose initial presentation is, at best, unclear (and at worst, quite sinister) - but as you learn more about the character's lives, all the pieces start to click together, until a particular scene pretty much snaps everything into place in a moment of wonderful catharsis. And again, whilst all this is lovely, it's hard to say that the video game format is something that really works in the story's favour - the gameplay mostly consists of wondering around. trying to find the next important thing to click on, and the rest of it is spent trying to solve extremely simple puzzles. I actually found the puzzle bits more of an impediment to my enjoyment of the title than anything, and I'd always try to get them over with as quickly and as cheaply as possible, just to get to the next plot section so I could dig a little deeper into the central mysteries of the story. Apart from the puzzle sections, nothing about this format could not work in the form of a film or novel. Perhaps, though, there could be something to be said for the player being able to resolve the mystery at the own pace making the narrative more involving, but it's a hard call to make - and also there is a certain amount of charm in the 16-bit rpg style visuals that would be hard to portray elsewhere without very careful visual direction.

Perhaps, though, one thing that makes the story of To The Moon something of a stand-out in the world of video games is that the relationships between the characters is the absolute core of the plot. Though there are some titles which have a romantic sub-plot (or sub-plots), for the vast majority of these titles they are, at best, window dressing to whatever the central conflict is (usually good vs evil, human vs nature, human vs technology or some derivative thereof). That's not to say that they are without their charms - certainly, the romance sub-plots in many Bioware titles can become oddly involving, but after you look at them past all the sweet confessions and awkward avoidance's, it becomes pretty clear that there isn't all that much substance to them.

Perhaps I should explain what I mean by a lack of substance, here. Love stories, at their heart, are the stories of people relating to each other, usually in a romantic context (there are love stories about other kinds of love, of course, but they tend not to be as numerous - most of the tropes carry across, anyway, so there's no real need to go through them individually). Thus, they are probably the most character driven stories imaginable - though it's quite possible (and, indeed common) to create some kind of external problem or threat to give meat to the story's character conflicts, the very best and most interesting kinds of conflicts are those born from the characters themselves - not the least of which because, with interpersonal conflicts, it's very difficult to simply kill the evil space-fortress and end the threat (even in a metaphorical sense). So the task becomes - how does one create believable (if not realistic) conflict resolution for these kinds of problems? Though perhaps this, in itself, is a bit misleading - perhaps it's not the conflict itself that needs resolving in these kinds of stories, but the conflict WITH the conflict - characters learning how to accept (or not accept) each other fully is often possibly the most honest resolution one can have to these kinds of conflicts. This kind of nuance is something that would be very difficult to portray in the video game format - it's been noted in several places that in games that have love interests, they tend to fall into one of two formats - either the object of romantic pursuit, or a piece of emotional impetus. I found it somewhat amusing in the Mass Effect series that, though you could carry romances across multiple titles, when each new title came out the writers had to think of a new way to keep the romance interesting. Take the first game, for instance - you're given a choice of two love interests per sex (one character being romancable by either sex). The romance in these titles follows the pretty standard video-game romance format (with the added bonus of the player having some direction of the course of the romances) - that is to say, they are all about the first state of the relationship - the pursuit. If your character is pursuing two characters at once, you are eventually forced to make a choice between them (or have the choice made for you). By the final act of the story, the object of your affections will eventually return them, with the standard kind of physical affection that's usually portrayed as the 'payoff' for these kinds of stories. So far, so standard. However, when we move onto the next game (complete with the feature to 'carry over' plotlines from the first game via an old save), we start to see the cracks form in this format. First of all, all your previous love interests are sidelined for the duration of the title, regulated to cameos and the like. You are also presented with a largely new cast of romance options - and in doing so, makes the limitations of these kinds of romantic storylines in video games clear.

Video games, are, largely, goal-oriented excersizes. You are given (or you give yourself) a task to fulfill, and then - working within whatever boundaries the game prescribes - you attempt to complete it. You'd be hard pressed to find a video game which didn't strictly adhere to this premise - indeed, there could be an argument to be made that without some sort of goal to focus on, there isn't really a game at all. Thus - though many video game romances of the pursuit ilk can have layers of witty dialogue and decent characterization to give them some weight - in the end, once you've reach the 'end' of the romance, and have secured your paramour's affections - there are no more goals to be found, there. The 'spark' is gone - the chase is over, the conflict is resolved. There seems little more for the narrative to do - so, in Mass Effect's case, its solution is to move all the old love interests out of sight for a time, and present the player with a new set. The player may choose to stay faithful to their previous love interest in they wish - but there is very little in the way of on-screen interaction between them and the protagonist. When the third and final game in the trilogy came around, you are again given the option of carrying over the previous storylines, including your various romances - and several of the romances return in full story roles. However, even for the returning characters, the romance had to be 'reset' - especially true for the romances carried over from the first game. If you wish to continue that romance, you are required to 'win' them again. This, I think, amply demonstrates the problems with this kind of romance approach - by make the object of the protagonists affections an, - well, an objective, the narrative has pretty much no where to go once it's obtained.

As mentioned, the other way that games tend to use love interests is to have them killed off early in the story to provide character motivation. And again, no matter how well you write this character, if their only purpose in the story is to die, it's going to be very obvious (and feel pretty cheap) to even the most mildly savvy viewer.

There are few games which will even attempt to approach relationship dynamics in a different way - a notable exception is Catherine, a game I just completed recently. Though heavily stylized and containing many supernatural elements, the core conflict - that of comfort and stability vs freedom and passion - is something that most games will seldom even attempt to address, as these kinds of issues are something that only really begin to rear their hand in a ongoing relationship. The game's far from perfect in this approach (a lot of the choices come down to the same kind of simple binary morality that video games have been doing for years), but it deserves a bit of credit for at least attempting to address something which most games don't even want to think about.

Another game which had some fairly interesting romance options was Dragon Age 2 (another Bioware title) - though the characters themselves are all pretty much archetypes (though no less fun for that), it's the first time I've seen the standard 'warrior therapist' role that most rpg protagonists fall into being, in the instance, a complete failure. Over the game's 10-year time-span, you can become engaged in the lives of several deeply troubled characters - however, wherein most games, under your influence they would be able to 'solve' whatever's troubling them and come out better people, in Dragon Age 2, 3 out of 4 romancable character do no exhibit any improvements- one of them, in fact, becomes a lot worse. Though these characters can be encouraged to share their stories and emotions with the player, they actually have something of their own agency. Many people will find this off-putting - part of the reason many people play most video games is to fulfill particular fantasies, after all - to experience the freedom that comes with power, be it through strength, or charisma, or some other virtue. To have a game where your character is, in fact, powerless to influence the outcome of a particular narrative arc, to change the course of a character's life how you want it - this would fly in the face of many people's ideas about what they play games for.

However, the fact remains - as long as narratives are centered around goals and power, characters within these narratives will have to follow suit. In To The Moon's example, it largely removed these characteristics (goals remain, but they are simple to reach) - but by doing so it allows the narrative to move in directions that one seldom finds in this particular medium. It relies on strong engagement with the characters to keep the player interested, but sacrifices much in the way of interactivity. Is there a way out of this particular design trap? Or is the best we can hope for to be charming stock characters? I think, at the current level of technology, it might be impossible - and the constraints of design being focused creating characters the fulfill the player's fantasies will also limit developer's choices. Titles like To The Moon and Catherine are both interesting experiments that are perhaps best admired for the experimental natures than for the final product - though To The Moon presents a wonderful story, it would be very hard to recommend it to someone just as a game. If people were more willing to accept characters who have their own agency (or at least the illusion of agency), things might start to change, but as it is, we'll probably just have to settle for every eligible character in a given title falling over themselves to get the player's attention, before being quietly sent away or dramatically murdered in the sequel. In my view, writing a love story works a lot better without having to cater to the player's potential desires.