Gerry Anderson – Learning to be Northern Irish

August 31, 2014 1 comment

Two men who had a lot of influence on the Northern Ireland I grew up in died last week. One was the taoiseach who first brought ceasefire talks with the IRA to the highest levels of government, beginning the process that led to the Good Friday Agreement and a halt to three decades of slaughter. The other was a radio DJ who, through those years, provided a wry, human voice for those trying to live a normal life.

I don’t think it’s any insult to the memory of Albert Reynolds to say that for me, Gerry Anderson was by far the more important of the two.

Let me clarify that. One of my very earliest recurring memories is of travelling in the family car with one or both of my parents. The school my sister and I went to (and where my parents taught, and where my two brothers would later go) was several miles away from where we lived. So in the morning and the evening, we’d be driven there and back. Whenever that happened, and indeed whenever we were driven anywhere else, the radio was usually on, tuned to one of Northern Ireland’s local radio stations.

This was the 1980s, when the Troubles in Northern Ireland were more than a decade old and had become soul-grindingly mundane. I would be much older before I learned that being stopped in the middle of the night by soldiers in full camouflage, wielding automatic rifles; that cycling past police stations that looked more like fortresses; that listening to the news and hearing the tally of the latest bombings, shootings and burnings wasn’t something that everyone else in the western world had to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

The radio shows, which mostly mixed music with phone-in segments, were a means of holding together the majority of the population who didn’t support the lunatics on either side and didn’t care for living in a militarised zone. They maintained the thread of normality, of entertainment, good humour and common experience that frayed every time another bullet was fired or car bomb exploded. You could listen to them on the way to Belfast, arrive and have to deal with a city centre that had been fortified, then return and listen to them on the way home, restoring some sense of balance and sanity to your world.

Gerry Anderson was my favourite and still embodies much of what I think of as the best of Northern Ireland. For me, his dry humour, the way he dealt with the myriad strangenesses of daily life in the North, and his insistence that all those things were, in their own way, more important than the blood and thunder of the lunatics, is quintessentially Northern Irish. Famously, he was the man who cut through the Gordian knot of the Derry/Londonderry debate by renaming the city Stroke City. A Northern Irish solution to a Northern Irish problem if ever there was one.

Twenty years ago, the IRA ceasefire began, marking yet another step in the peace process, which has now taken firm, if occasionally painful hold on Northern Ireland. As bad as the Troubles were, those of us who lived through them were, in a way, lucky. We had the space to hold on to normal lives in the midst of it all, with the help of Gerry Anderson and many others. It’s hard not to look at the Middle East today and the chaos swirling around Syria and Iraq and wonder just how many people there won’t have as much of a chance. How much of their way of life is being destroyed. I hope that when the sound of the guns and the bombs fades away, there might be the sound of a radio somewhere, and of a dry-witted host engaging with everyday concerns before reaching for another record.

No More Internet Until You Learn to Behave

August 27, 2014 Leave a comment

Be warned – there’s a lot of unpleasant imagery in the above video.

John Oliver’s rants on Last Week Tonight are becoming destination television for me. Or at least destination YouTube-ery. For his new show, the former Daily Show correspondent has replaced that show’s hit-and-miss interview segment with an extended single-topic rant, delivered as only a pissed-off English gentleman can and filled with truth bombs. The World Cup/Fifa rant is a classic already, but the more recent diatribe on the Ferguson affair had a particularly perfect closing line.

“If (the police) can make it through a whole month without killing a single unarmed black man, then, and only then, can they get their f**king toys back.”

Infantilising your opponents is no way to engage in a debate. But it’s so bloody hard to resist when they’re insistent on acting like three-year-olds throwing a tantrum. Take the response to Anita Sarkeesian’s latest Tropes vs. Women video, in which she dissects the often extremely unpleasant treatment that video games have doled out to women over the years. I don’t agree with everything that Sarkeesian is saying, but I’d love to do is have the chance to talk to someone about it and debate the issues she raises. Unfortunately, the people who have responded by hurling abuse and issuing threats of murder and rape are not interested in anything other than silencing a voice that annoys them.

Let’s be clear: there is no excuse for this. Anyone who did this in person, in a newspaper, on television, or in any other media would be shunned, shut down and perhaps even arrested. So why does it happen so regularly on the Internet, and why does it seem to happen particularly often with regard to video games? As for the Internet, the obvious answer is the anonymity that being online provides. The less obvious answer is that this anonymity facilitates communities of like-minded souls, just as the white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan allowed their activities to proceed in the not-so-distant past.

Why video games though? That’s harder to unpick. The industry, both producers and consumers, has been predominantly male for most of its history. This has served to enable attitudes to women that are proving very hard to shake. Anita Sarkeesian’s videos may depict only some of the symptoms of this problem, but she has a huge amount of material to work with. To truly dig into the gender issues in video games (which are just an outcropping of the issues in society as a whole) will take a lot more than a series of videos on YouTube.

I wonder, though, if there isn’t something to video games themselves that encourages this mindset. When Valve’s Half-Life 2 debuted its physics engine, giving us the ability to play with physical objects, it was just a more sophisticated version of what games had been allowing players to do for years: play with every interactive object in their arsenal. And in games, there’s no real difference between people and things. Both can be shot, thrown, punched and manipulated if the game designer allows it.

As games moved into the multiplayer era, this mindset didn’t change. The ranting, foul-mouthed Halo player, often teenage or younger, is something of a cliché. I’ve yelled at single-player games when things have gone badly for me, in a way I wouldn’t dream of doing to another human being. But if you’ve been trained to see your opponents as no more than sophisticated versions of computer-generated enemies rather than human beings, what’s to stop you from screaming abuse at them too?

One article on this topic nailed it for me: “There’s a fundamental lack of empathy or understanding for other human beings at play here.” I consider myself lucky to have played (and preferred) games where face-to-face contact with other human beings was a necessary part of the experience—roleplaying games and board games. How many of those who hurl the vilest kind of abuse at Anita Sarkeesian and anyone who dares to stand up for her make it a habit to engage with people who might challenge their point of view?

It’s a pointless argument to say that not all men are like this, not all gamers are like this, not all game creators are like this. In any community, from the global to the local, there are always those who take the opportunity to disrupt and destroy where they can. Every community has to figure out how to deal with this element. On the Internet, the goal of freedom of expression is colliding painfully with the notion that everyone ought to be free to make use of this new medium. In the corner devoted to video games, the howling mob is doing its best to ensure that the common space is shaped according to its preferences. I can’t imagine that it will win in the long term, but how much pain is going to be inflicted before humanity prevails?

Hitman GO and the Pit of F2P

August 25, 2014 Leave a comment

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On my way to make a killing…

I’ve been looking for a new smartphone game recently. It’s a fraught process these days. The goal is to secure a source of entertainment. The dilemma you face is this: do you go free or do you pay? I’ve done both, and I’ve returned from the wilderness of the App Store with dusty wisdom.

Free-to-play (F2P), or freemium (ugh), games have flooded App Stores in recent years. After all, with so much competition, it’s all about about ensuring that as many people as possible sample your wares. Free entry means that there’s no barrier, so the potential audience is everyone who has a device capable of playing your game. With such a large audience, only a small percentage have to make “in-app purchases” for a game to be profitable.

The problem is that F2P games are a balancing act. On the bright side, they can offer you plenty of enjoyment at no cost, with the option of throwing in some cash for more of the same, or faster progression. On the dark side, the reminders to spend money can be relentless, multiplayer games can fall into “pay-to-win” scenarios, and progression can become a terrible grind for those unwilling to fork over their money.

My first attempts at finding a new game headed in the direction of golf games. (Blame Rory McIlroy’s recent success for that.) I’ve an old copy of EA’s Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2012, but it’s creaky and buggy now. EA’s King of the Golf Course seemed like a sensible replacement, and its core mechanic was beautifully smooth, but the game structure of a linear set of challenges devolved into a slow grind after a couple of days. Com2uS USA Inc.’s Golf Star was even worse: old-fashioned mechanics stuffed into an overly ornate game that never missed a chance to encourage you to spend money. Both were highly rated on the App Store. Both are no longer on my phone.

It doesn’t have to be this way for F2P games. NimbleBit’s NimbleQuest is an addictive arcade game that is fun to play even as you’re grinding, and their Pocket Trains trades a little immediate fun for a lot more strategy. Plain Vanilla Corp.’s QuizUp is still one of the best multiplayer experiences on the iPhone for trivia geeks. Gameloft’s Rival Knights devolved into excessive grinding by the end but was fun until then. PopCap’s Plants vs. Zombies 2 took a F2P approach to a superlatively fun paid game and only suffered because it made the game more complex, a different kind of entry barrier.

The fact is though, I’ve found that the best results are to be had when you’re willing to pay for a game that isn’t going to nag you or slow your progress. You’re rarely going to be paying more than the price of a pint or two for an iPhone or iPad game, and for that price, ten or more hours of entertainment is a small price to pay.

Paid games seem particularly suited to more story-based titles, games with a finite span. Capybara Games’ Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery is an absorbing adventure, beautifully presented. Bossa Studios Thomas Was Alone is a similarly absorbing recreation of an atmospheric online puzzle game. Lastly, usTwo’s Monument Valley is a perspective-based puzzle game, perfectly suited to touch screens. I paid for all three and don’t regret it, even if Monument Valley is a little light on content.

There’s plenty of space for both models in the App Store economy. F2P games when you want to sample, browse and check things out. Paid games when you know what you want. Well, I tried out the browsing side of things, but if was paying that got me what I wanted.

Square Enix’s Hitman GO, (pictured above) is a genuinely strange mobile adaptation of a first-person assassinate-em-up. Rather than try to recreate the shooting segments of the game that inspired it, the mobile version focuses on the tactical thought behind it, locking the player into a turn-based board game as they make their way through a multitude of levels, setting numerous targets along the way.

The board-game aesthetic is beautifully realised and feels only a little cramped on a phone screen. The rules of the game are rigid enough to allow the player to plan, and the occasionally mutually exclusive achievements encourage replay. There are a massive number of levels too, with the option of paying for more if you want to. (The line between F2P and paid is blurry in places.) At some point in the future, I may exhaust its appeal, but by then I’ll have long since got my money’s worth.

Three Writers, One Reader

August 23, 2014 Leave a comment

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Not pictured: Bloody huge and expensive collected editions.

So today I managed to make it to the comics shop, for a rather expensive visit. I only bought three actual comics, but the majority of the expense came from two omnibus editions that I’d been waiting on. More about those anon, but the three single-issue comics I picked up make for an interesting compare-and-contrast, so that’s what I’m going to do. Three writers, all British, of differing eras and evoking rather different responses.

First up on the critical chopping block is Grant Morrison with Multiversity #1. Morrison was an early arrival to American comics, part of the first wave of British writers who invaded in the wake of Alan Moore’s work on Swamp Thing and Watchmen. That makes him a contemporary of Neil Gaiman, but whereas Gaiman is a master storyteller, Morrison is more interested in the intersection between stories and the real world. With Morrison’s work, the storyteller’s mind is almost always visible, and while that can create intellectually challenging work, it also leaves the writer in danger of disappearing up his own fundament.*

With Multiversity, Morrison continues his role as the mad genius of DC Comics. In this role, he’s been responsible for some fascinating comics (Batman Inc., Seven Soldiers of Victory), some messy disasters (Final Crisis), and at least one work of genius (All-Star Superman). Multiversity is very much more in the mode of Final Crisis—a massive crossover “event” title, but whereas for that Morrison was seen as an architect of DC strategy, with all the associated editorial fetters that brings, here he’s been given multiple alternative universes to play with, outside of DC’s mainstream output. The result is a title that’s fascinating to read but not exactly easy to understand.

Multiversity is very much a comic about comics, addressing itself directly to the reader on the first page. It’s illustrated in classic heroic style by Ivan Reis, but as always with Morrison, there’s little assistance for the initiated. The tendency of characters to declaim rather than talk, the inspection of all the strange corners of superhero comics, the combination of playfulness with epic themes: there’s plenty of meat here for Morrison fans and superhero scholars, but if you’re not one or the other, or possibly both, you’re likely to be left cold.

If Multerversity tends towards the opaque, Warren Ellis’s Supreme: Blue Rose #2 is wilfully obscure. Ellis is of the generation after Morrison, arriving in American comics with Marvel before proceeding to redefine the breadth of the superhero genre with The Authority and its depth with Planetary, then kicking it in the balls with the genuinely hilarious Nextwave. Ellis’s comics output has been sketchy in recent years for various reasons, not least of which is his own curiosity. He jumps from theme to theme and technique to technique in a manner that’s probably a little frustrating to his fans (such as myself), but the result is a body of work that’s probably the most diverse in mainstream comics today.

With Supreme: Blue Rose, Ellis is doing an unusual thing for him and walking in already-trodden ground. The character of Supreme was created by Rob Liefeld as a modern Superman clone and reinvented by Alan Moore as a vehicle for investigating and celebrating the strangeness of Golden Age superhero comics. Ellis’s take on the character is hard to define as yet (two issues in and there’s no sign of anyone called Supreme) but he’s definitely found something in the idea that he thinks is worth mining, as the central character of Diana Dane begins to explore a universe seemingly gone awry and existing as one of many possible realities.

So far, it’s hard to tell where Ellis is going with all of this. That’s not to say that the feeling of being confused is an unpleasant one. Ellis likes to experiment with the comics form, occasionally paring it back to the bare essentials, but on his game he’s as good a storyteller as anyone, and here he’s aided and abetted by the painterly beauty of Tula Lotay’s artwork, all sketchwork and pastel colours. Supreme: Blue Rose may eventually take its place among Ellis’s finest works, or it may falter and prove to be a flawed experiment. Either way, on current evidence, it’s fascinating and worth your time.

Rounding out the British trio is Kieron Gillen, with The Wicked + the Divine #3. Gillen is a recent arrival on the American comics scene, having enjoyed critical and fan acclaim for his runs on Journey into Mystery and Iron Man. Here he’s working again with his most notable artistic partner, Jamie McKelvie, with whom he’s already created Phonogram and Young Avengers. I’ve only recently started picking up his work, but he started by reading the same sort of comics as me**, and I’ve been reading his writing since his time as a writer for PC Gamer magazine.

With The Wicked + the Divine, as with Phonogram, Gillen is riffing on his love of music. A tale of mortals reborn as gods, living two years of glory before inevitable death, it’s laden down with as many fascinating resonances and sources as the work of Ellis and Morrison but presented in a much more approachable fashion. Perhaps a little too approachable—the first two issues had introduced the world and its main characters in sure-footed fashion, but #3 not only brings in a tricky character in the form of the triple-goddess Morrigan but also lays out the murder mystery that’s driving the series’ opening arc. It does so in a playful fashion, but it’s creaking a little at the seams, never more so than on the third page, which is painfully reminiscent of Ellis’ work on Transmetropolitan.***

However, when the worst you can say about a comic is that it creaks a little in presenting its backstory, and the only actual misstep takes up no more than a single page, then you’re talking about something special. McKelvie’s art is clear and attractive, fitted perfectly to Gillen’s tale of modern-day gods of the music world, and this is just the first act of a series that’s aiming to be another long-form novel in graphic form, akin to Sandman and Transmetropolitan. Gillen’s fondness for twists in the narrative is already much in evidence, and for myself I wouldn’t be surprised if his reader-substitute, point-of-view character Laura is hiding a few dark secrets of her own. Whether you prefer single issues or collected editions, The Wicked + the Divine is something you might want to sample to see if it fits your frame of mind.

Oh, and as for those omnibuses? Well, one of them was the second half of Gillen’s run on Journey into Mystery, wherein his mastery of building a twist narrative and his equal mastery of screwing with the emotions of his Tumblr followers first came into public view. The other was the fourth and penultimate volume of Mike Carey’s Lucifer, the real successor to Neil Gaiman’s legendary Sandman. Carey is a writer who deserves a post all of his own, given my love of his work, and I hope to get around to writing that eventually.

*One of Morrison’s best works, to my mind, is We3, in which he restrains his metatextual tendencies.

**During his Iron Man run, Gillen managed to secure my everlasting affection by bringing back one of my favourite characters, Death’s Head, in a pitch-perfect cameo role.

***Ellis is an acknowledged influence on Gillen’s work. Gillen has also taken to heart Ellis’s engagement with his online audience, focusing in particular on Tumblr, where he regularly dissects the thinking behind his own work.

The Highs and Lows of Bone Hunters

August 18, 2014 Leave a comment
For someone who's millions of years old, she's still got it...

Yes, it’s a selfie. One of the hazards of travelling solo is that you have to resort to them occasionally.

Somewhere in my parents’ house is a yellowing piece of paper, over thirty years old. It’s a newspaper clipping, of a brief article with an attached photograph. In the photo are myself and my sister, still in primary school, clutching a book about dinosaurs. We’d just won a competition about those terrible lizards, the prize of which was said book and a trip to the Ulster Museum’s then-new dinosaur exhibit.*

I wish I had a copy of that photo to use for the picture for this article. Instead, you’ll have to settle for a slightly more mature me and an even more appropriate female guest star. Lurking over my shoulder is Sue, the star exhibit of Chicago’s Field Museum, and now a movie star in her own right, with the release of the documentary Dinosaur 13.

I was a dinosaur nut as a kid, perhaps even more so than is usual. I read everything I could get my hands on, not just about the dinosaurs themselves but also about the history of their discovery. From Gideon Mantell’s reconstruction of the Iguanadon to the Bone Wars of Othniel Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, I loved it all. I even wanted to be a palaeontologist before a love of writing got in the way of scientific ambition.

So I wasn’t about to miss the opportunity to watch a documentary on the subject of dinosaurs and their discovery. I didn’t even know that Sue was the star turn of the movie until shortly after it began, but as it turns out, her story is far more interesting than the Field Museum was willing to admit.

Still the most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever found, Sue was uncovered in South Dakota in 1990. It took years for her to find her way to the main hall of the Field Museum, only after many court cases as the government sought to convict the bone collectors who’d struck the jackpot in uncovering Sue. Without going into too much detail, it’s a story that combines pride, joy, greed, bureaucracy and naiveté.

It’s not as heavy on the scientific or historical detail as I might prefer, but that’s a personal judgement. This is the story of those who love fossils and dinosaurs and thought that in finding Sue they would finally put their small town on the map. That they ended up facing fines, prison and the combination of government obfuscation and personal greed is something that might conspire to put some people off palaeontology as a career.

Which would be a damn shame. Any career that offers the opportunity of coming into physical contact with the long-vanished past is one that every child ought to at least consider. And thanks to those who seek out fossils such as Sue, millions of children each year now have a chance to come into contact with one of the most impressive creatures ever to walk the planet. As victories go, it may not be complete, but it’s worth the celebration of sentiment that underlines all the hardships that Dinosaur 13 depicts.

*My sister, a year older than I, was nowhere near the dinosaur nut that I was, and was more than a little apprehensive about getting dragged into my interest. Luckily, no one in the museum was interested in interrogating her on the subject.

A New Beginning

August 16, 2014 Leave a comment

It’s been way too long since I wrote in this blog. My writings have rarely been regular, but recent developments workwise have suppressed the writing impulse to the point where nothing has been appearing for several months. This is clearly unacceptable. So consider this a manifesto for getting back on track.

When I first set up this blog, it was as a receptacle for stray thoughts as I made my way eastwards around the world. (You can go all the way back and check it out if you like.) I also adorned it with some earlier blogging efforts and sprinkled a few of my more favoured attempts at fiction across the top. Further down the line, I began to throw a series of reviews at it, mostly books, cinema and games. Well, I’m still enjoying all of those, but the reviews have dwindled to nothing.

Along the way, there have also been moments of whimsy, political opinions and reflections on the current course of my life. All of this should provide plenty of material to keep the blog mill spinning. Which makes it all the more disappointing that it hasn’t. I still enjoy writing, it’s just that the moments where it previously fitted into my schedule have been shuffled around, and an attempt needs to be made to nail them down again.

There’s plenty to be said for commenting on the state of the world. Politics and the media are in no less surreal a state than they have been for the past few years. The Ferguson affair in the U.S. and the ISIS rearrangement of borders and peoples in the Middle East are raising hackles and some of the weirder excesses of both participants and commentators.

On a more personal level, my reading habit is finally getting back in gear after a few months (hell, call it a year and a bit) where it was hard to find time to fit reading into the rest of my life. Right now I’m rereading Julian May’s “Galactic Milieu” trilogy, having already raced through her “Saga of the Exiles.” May’s one of the best science fiction writers I’ve ever read, and the Saga of the Exiles would make a great TV miniseries in the mode of Game of Thrones. So add that to biweekly cinema excursions courtesy of a Meetup.com group and some PC and iOS game experiments (both good and bad), and there should be plenty of reviews emerging in the near future too.

Lastly, and most excitingly (for me at least), I’m finally planning to head off on a holiday lasting longer than a week. It’s been over two years at this stage, and it’s more than long overdue. The destination is Greece, as longstanding a travel goal as I have, and the itinerary is intended to take in as much beautiful scenery and sites of historical interest as the cradle of western civilisation has to offer.

So look for some brand new travel diaries coming towards the end of September. In the interim, I’ll try and keep the home fires burning by dropping the odd opinion, review and unusual fact into the hopper for general distribution. Possibly not tomorrow’s cinematic outing though. I’m not sure how much I’ll have to say about The Expendables 3.

Shiny Happy Knightly People

June 14, 2014 Leave a comment

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What does it take to make a game? Not all that much, it seems. Take a rhythm action section, consisting of eight taps on a screen, then add a few seconds of drag-to-target and voila! You have new free-to-play offering Rival Knights (Gameloft, iOS and Android).

Oh, all right, there’s a bit more to it than that. This game of jousting knights is deepened by an item (mail, helm, lance and steed) collecting element that improves your abilities, and it’s polished by some fine design, graphics, audio and physics. The latter element is particularly satisfying, as a successful strike sends your opponent ragdolling through the air.

Still, the core of the gameplay comes down to the joust itself, and given that each joust lasts around ten seconds or so and will be repeated many, many times by a player seeking to advance through the single- or multiplayer modes, it has to be refined to a high degree. Luckily, it is. While the mechanics can be made more difficult by the wrong equipment, they provide satisfying rewards for increasing expertise.

That equipment affects the three measures that decide who wins a joust. Armour is largely decided by mail and helm, though it, along with the other measures, can be boosted by a critical hit. Speed is based on your horse and modified through the rhythm-action segment. Attack Strength is based on your horse and modified by your accuracy in the targeting segment. Win two out of three and you win the lot.

Being a free-to-play game, players can spend some money to purchase in-game cash or the game’s premium currency: gems. Gems allow you to buy special equipment to get a head start in both game modes, though you can play with the standard items without feeling short-changed. You can also use gems to reset the timers that control how often you can play, though they fill quickly enough on their own. If you’re trying to hit the top of the daily leaderboards in the multiplayer mode, though, spending gems gained either in-game or through purchases might sound appealing.

So we have some simple, yet rewarding, game mechanics at play and a relatively nonintrusive payment system. What really sets Rival Knights apart is the amount of detail and polish Gameloft has lavished on it. The graphics are top-notch, and though there’s only one jousting field, differing times of day and weather conditions (none of which have any effect on the gameplay) boost variety.

Even more variety comes through the equally attractive equipment you can collect, which extends to designing your knight’s coat of arms. I’m getting into the third of five tiers of the single-player game and there are still plenty of opportunities to mix and match equipment to find a successful blend of armour, speed and attack strength. Even lower-tier equipment remains useful in the multiplayer mode.

Still, it’s not a terribly deep game, just a fun one. The multiplayer mode relies mostly on daily leaderboard challenges, with an asynchronous knock-out competition offering some secondary fun. It’s a bit loose and while it offers rewards to dedicated players, it’s not as big a draw as the single-player mode yet. Worse, the networking behind the multiplayer is pretty flaky at the moment. While this will probably be smoothed out soon, it’s annoying right now.

The only real worry I have with regard to the game is the impact of all that shiny graphical wonder on my iPhone’s battery. Sure, it looks beautiful on an iPhone 5S, but the way the phone heats up proves just how hard its graphics chip is being pushed. As a result, playing regularly through the day is going to burn through your charge. So while you might enjoy the life of a knight on the tourney circuit, it’s best not to stray too far from a plug socket while you do so.

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