Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Culinary Lifestyle: Bubble Tea

I'm (partially) quoted in an article on The Yorker. My full entry is below.

I suppose what I dig about bubble tea is the uniqueness of it. To us, it's a weird and new thing, but it's like the cultural equivalent of getting a frappuchino. I first tried bubble tea at a place called the Candy Café, a tiny upstairs restaurant in London's Chinatown (I know that sounds incredibly hipster, but it's true, I swear). What stood out was the huge range of flavours they had (mostly fruit juices), with your choice of green or black tea as a base.

While some of the combinations are incredibly sweet (a chocolate milk tea will taste as saccharine as you'd expect), Cooling off in the summer with a lemon & green tea combo was refreshing, and arguably healthier than a large coke. A few of my friends I recommended the drink to were weirded out by the tapioca balls, but they have a neutral taste, so it doesn't spoil the flavour of the drink, and the chewiness reminds me of bubble gum or marshmallows.

While I wouldn't be craving one during the winter (and the unusual ethnicity of it would probably put off York locals); I definitely wouldn't mind having one around once summer rolls around.

Men's Lifestyle: Surviving Christmas Shopping

This article can also be found at The Yorker.

So it's December and the customary need to buy gifts for others has arrived. While going shopping isn't something alien to you (or at least, it shouldn't be), the idea of having to deal with increased crowds and the fear that you're going to be judged and scrutinised by your family and friends for not knowing anything about their interests is a scary thought.

But it's okay, you've been told by your friends that you're not expected to like or be good at shopping. After all, you're male and us lads don't know how to shop, right? Ha ha ha.

Congratulations, you have lazy and poisonous friends.

I don't think I'm a particularly special case when I say I get a kick out of going shopping. Maybe it's because I'm an urbanite, and I take pleasure from being part of the hustle and bustle; maybe it's because being the neurotic, task-driven sort, I get a warm sense of accomplishment from finding what I set out for, and getting a good bargain; or maybe I'm just a consumerist bourgeoisie pig - but the bottom line is that I have some solid hints for getting over your stumbling blocks when it comes to shopping - male or not. If you absolutely must bring up gender stereotypes, men are supposed to be good at getting a plan together - so let's all be Modern Men here, and scheme our way to an easier shopping experience.

Actually Know About Who You're Buying For
This seems obvious, but it's something that needs saying. If you're going to be parting with your hard-earned cash (or Student Finance's hard-earned cash) to buy presents for people you could arguably have bought for them at any other time of the year; then it stands to reason that you actually like them, and know something about 'em. By knowing some basic questions (something my experience in retail at GAME has made me start dubbing as 'Invite' questions), you can start to form a pretty good idea of what they'd like. These are questions like:
  • Do they have any hobbies? (This question makes nerds incredibly easy to buy for)
  • What colours do they normally wear? (Clothes shopping has now become much simpler)
  • Is there an author/artist/genre they follow? (They like Tim Burton movies? That's a huge clue... Defriend them.)
  • Are they in need of specialist tools? (Cooking, sports goods, audio equipment...)
If you can't actually answer these questions, then you probably don't know them well enough for you to be buying them gifts. Awkward if that's a family member or your significant other, but don't let a holiday custom force you to spend money.

Research, Research, Research
Even if you don't intend to do your shopping on the internet, it's more valuable than just access to Facebook. Almost every magazine-site and blog that cover some form of merchandise are putting out Christmas lists of suggested purchases; you're spoilt for ideas. Amazon and similar sites have customer reviews, so you can get a rough idea if that pair of headphones you're getting will crumble into pieces in under a month.

Furthermore, if you're going clothes shopping, checking out the website of the brand is going to save you a lot of wandering around to see if they have a blouse with the correct colour and neckline your housemate wanted. Knowing what you want and where you can get it will save you the embarrassing moments where you stand stock-still looking confused and scared. The other customers will judge you if you do that - goodness knows you don't want the ire of people you will never meet.

When To Put Your Plan in Motion
Ideally, as far away from Christmas as possible, but you already knew that. Your most sensible bet would be when you know the shops you visit receive new stock; it lowers the odds of your target gift being sold-out.

If crowds aren't your thing, you're going to have to go shopping at either the very start or very end of the shopping day. People don't get the idea of getting up early for Retail Therapy until January Sales, so you'll be relatively safe. If you're lucky enough to be in York this December, the high road shops will be open until 8pm every Thursday up until Christmas.

And of course, if you really hate crowds, shop online. Don't be a hero.

Other Hints and Tips
  • Accessory/Lingerie Shopping isn't Mandatory! - One concern/complaint I've heard regards dudes who are terrified and lost when it comes to buying certain items for their ladyfriends. I can sympathise with that, La Senza, Claires, and their ilk are some of the very few places where catering to men aren't at the top of their list. But think for a minute - were you expressly asked to get someone earrings or underwear? Mightn't they have some other interest that you can cater to without sticking out like a sore thumb? Getting a thong for your girlfriend might not go so well; and getting a thong for someone who isn't your partner definitely isn't going to go well.
  • Don't be afraid to just ask what people want - Let's face it; for a lot of the people on your Christmas list, you wouldn't be spending money on them at any other time of the year; let's not have illusions of undue benevolence. Asking about what they want sounds taboo; but giving someone something they don't want will bruise that ego of yours far more. If they are also under the illusion of benevolence, they may even say "I don't want anything", at which point you've got it made.

Film Review: Weekend

This review can also be found at The Yorker.

The majority of my experience with romance-type movies has been rooted firmly in the sappy, feel-good realm. And I can't goddamn stand them. Boy meets girl in a chance encounter - potentially a rather strange one; their stark personality differences make it seem like they're never going to make a deeper connection; they argue, but in the end see how badly they need each other and get together again in a sequence scientifically tested to produce the largest "Awwww" from its audience.
Weekend does check all those boxes, but at the same time it throws all those boxes out of the window, and calls you stupid for bringing up such a formulaic romance plot. Weekend tries to offer something much more real and bittersweet; and starts off by centering the entire thing around a gay romance. Which, for me, definitely puts it in 'real and bittersweet' territory, but more on that later.

Russell (Tom Cullen) is stuck in emotional limbo. While he's incredibly close to his friends, he's also really closed-off when it comes to talking about himself. On a whim he visits a gay bar, meets Glen (Chris New), and ends up having hazy, drunken sex. All he knows is that Glen is an artist, outgoing and agressively open with his sexuality; and over the period of a weekend, they find that meeting each other has become one of the best and one of the worst things that has happened to them.

This is where the Realness Factor comes in. Everything from the setting to the key events of the narrative are subdued and coated in that thick, matte grey that covers England's inner-city urban living. It feels so familiar - I understand and recognise the motorways, the glum rides on public transport, and the shitty and cramped nightclubs. However, that's not to say that Weekend entirely forgoes more traditional film techniques, or is entirely moody and grim. The tone switches from melancholic to funny to sexy (I'm way too prudish to talk about the sex scenes in any real detail but it manages to be both steamy and tasteful with little effort) at a regular rate without stumbling in pacing.

However, Weekend is a movie with a message - and a rather self-defeating one at that. Glen's openness about his sexuality is augmented with intense ire for a society that's so heterocentric and prudish, which Russell occasionally gets the brunt of. This means that every so often Glen will have a rant about his favourite topic, and the scene stops just short of flashing "HERE'S THE MORAL" on-screen. That's not to say that message imparted is wrong, quite the opposite (if asked I would wholeheartedly rave about how social stigma gives LGBT issues the short end of the stick), but no one likes being beaten over the head with a message - even if making it that obvious could be argued as necessary.

Building on this idea, at one point Glen discusses an art installation he's planning regarding gay sexual experiences, but admits that (and forgive me for not having the exact quote) gay people wouldn't go without the promise of nudity, and straight people wouldn't go because homosexuality is still considered a weird and taboo topic for many. You could hear a number of nervous laughs in the audience at that line.

That theme struck a personal chord with me - while inwardly I could agree with most of Glen's viewpoint, on every other level I embody Russell's emotionally-distant awkwardness. It made the romance between the two leads - the small silences, the confiding of secrets, the holding of hands - both heart-wrenchingly cute and depressingly unobtainable. The film's resolution, while not dancing to the rhythm of how a prototypical romance should go, instead sticks closely to the conclusion the general tone of the film implies.

While most first think of Brokeback Mountain as the must-see film with gay themes, for me Weekend is set to have much more social significance. That said, I am still waiting for a film where a homosexual protagonist doesn't have his (or her) own sexuality as the main conflict.

Mario Kart 7 - Glidin' & Divin'

This review can also be found at The Yorker.

Nintendo are pretty smart businessmen. They're very confident in their intellectual property - on any given Nintendo console, you'd be had pressed to not find a Mario, Zelda, or Pokémon title. And yet, these releases aren't yearly. In a market where Call of Duty, Need for Speed and Tiger Woods titles see a yearly incarnation to remain relevant, many Nintendo titles are released incredibly infrequently, but still rake in the sales.
Mario Kart is the best example of this avoidance of over-saturation. Mario Kart games are released not once per year, but once per console; and the titles will sell consistently through the hardware lifespan. Mario Kart DS came out in 2005, and new copies are still being manufactured and bought!

With that kind consumer success, Mario Kart 7 - 3DS' bite at the apple - had some lofty expectations. Many complained about how Mario Kart Wii was 'imbalanced' from a competitive point of view, and lately Nintendo have had to go to lengths to get more 'dedicated' gamers on board the Nintendo franchise - most likely in preparation for the WiiU. In that light, Mario Kart 7 had a clear niche to fill.

Mario Kart 7 is 'balanced'. It has in no way shifted from the established formula set down by its predecessors - people flagging behind get better items, you can drift around corners to get speed boosts, and that little trick where you can get a boost from the start line are all intact. These notions that were once 'hints' are now codified laws written into the fabric of Mario Kart (excuse the pretentious phrasing).

Yet at the same time, it feels a lot more... technical. Don't worry, I can't make any comparisons to realistic racers like Gran Tursimo with a straight face - but you can now choose the chassis and wheels of your vehicle to fine-tune how you want your car to handle. The new courses featured have co-ordinated drifting in mind, and the trick from Mario Kart Wii where hopping off of jumps to get a free speed boost returns here.

To compare it directly to other games in the series, gameplay-wise this puts MK7 somewhere between Mario Kart DS and Wii; but at the same time it lacks key features from both that made those titles more well-rounded. Beyond the Grand Prix, Time Trials and some forgettable battle modes, there are no additional challenges, while MKDS had a Mission Mode. Even with all the different kart combinations, they all still function the same - the inclusion of Motorbikes in MKWii was very refreshing in that regard.

That said, I don't want to accentuate the negative, here. The nature of games like these mean that they lend easily to be compared to past editions, but that doesn't mean in any way that MK7 doesn't hold up on its own. The karts are satisfying to drive, the new tracks are either fun to burn around or interesting technical challenges. As with games preceding it, 16 of the 32 tracks available are remixed courses from previous titles, but whether that's a good or bad thing is incredibly subjective.

With the limited single player, the meat of the entertainment is to be gained from the multiplayer and online options. And like with the online modes of other games, its worth is valued entirely by how much you enjoy competing with people you can't physically interact with. For me, part of the Mario Kart Experience is having others in the room with you; to taunt when you win, and to punch in the shoulder when you lose. Mario Kart 7 does have local multiplayer - and the ability for other 3DS owners to play, even if they don't have their own copy of the game, but that relies heavily on knowing multiple friends that live close-by who have also bought a 3DS. At the moment, the odds of that being the case are somewhat slim.

The online functionality does have one neat trick, though. Daily, your 3DS will download new 'ghosts' for you to race against. These are the times achieved by other Mario Kart players, and competing against them is satisfying in a different way from normal multiplayer. With no bananas or shells to lob at opponents, it comes to finding the best racing lines and getting the best use out of the 3 speed-boost mushrooms given to you. With no pressure of being called rubbish by your friends, you ease yourself into actually learning how to play the game better - and knowing what you're doing will improve the enjoyment of any video game.

Lastly, I should mention the gliding and underwater sections. While they featured heavily in the promotion of MK7, they don't have too much of a serious impact on the game. On almost all of the tracks feature a body of water to plough through or a long jump to glide over (courses taken from older games have been retrofitted with these). These sections handle a little differently from normal driving, but they don't require too much finesse to work through. Though honestly, maybe they don't need to - the first time you glide over a gap or submerge yourself is fun, and repeated visits aren't too intrusive.

Nintendo have played very safe with their newest Mario Kart, which - although annoyingly bare-bones - is made with the high-quality the series is known for, and will definitely go towards supporting the presently flagging 3DS system. Just make sure your friends buy it too.

Have You Played: SSX Tricky

This article was done as part of The Yorker's Advent Calendar.

I don't like sport much. Or at all, really. Blame it on the cliché of being bad at football in primary school, getting stick for it, and the ensuing negative feedback loop resulting in me rather staying indoors reading, or maybe, shoving hot needles into my eyes, than running around on a muddy field.

That blind, irrational dislike of physical past times is reflected in my video game habits, too. I won't give FIFA the time of day, I still don't understand how we've managed to shift so many copies of Rugby World Cup 2011 at the GAME I part-time at, and the NBA has only ever been interesting if it precedes the word 'Street'.

But snowboarding? Snowboarding was cool Maybe it was the exotic factor, maybe it was the pictures and videos of people essentially flying through the air, or maybe it was just the cool reflective goggles that everyone wore, but I was totally into the idea of shredding and powder in junior school. I had Snowboard Kids for the N64, and although it was a great multiplayer title (that I may well gush about some other time), it wasn't capturing that level of sick air and kickin' rad attitude that I wanted. Then in 2001, my best friend had a copy of SSX Tricky for Playstation 2.

And swearing on the deity of your choice, it was awesome.

Aesthetically, the title oozed cool. The player characters were realistically proportioned, but the attention paid to how real life works stopped there. Every inch of every mountain slope in the game was designed to give you the biggest airtime, the fastest grinds, and the most ridiculous setpieces. The very first jump you encounter in the game is a massive free-fall off a cliff that would turn any mere mortal into a fine paste - but in SSX Tricky, you're controlling a snowboarding GOD.

Speaking of the people you're controlling, EA Sports BIG took the time to make them all solidly distinct. True, there's the designated eye-candy female lead, and a hyper-excitable Japanese girl, but taking on the slopes as the disco-obsessed Eddie, or chronically chill faux-hippy Brodi (my personal favourite) were far more interesting. As you played the game, you formed friendships and rivalries with the other racers, who trash-talk before and after matches to give way more character depth.

The sound design was also something special. While many of the songs were taken wholesale from the prequel, SSX, the game had a clever trick of fading the audio levels in and out as you went off jumps, leaving only the bass behind as you aimed for the stratosphere. Audio cues were synced up to the beat, so doing enough tricks to fill up your boost bar all the way layered in a riff from It's Tricky (SSX Tricky's theme song, natch) in a perfectly natural manner, signifying it was time to let loose an Uber Trick.

The Uber Trick is what elevates Tricky over its predecessor - the ability to let fly super stylish and entirely impossible stunts. Each character had five Uber Tricks at their disposal, along with a signature move unique to them. Working up to performing one of these, landing it, and watching all the points pile in was the game's main joy.

Though, that's not to say such payoffs were easily handed out. SSX Tricky was a hard game to master. The surreal architecture of the courses meant that you needed to know the levels well - very well - to have optimum routes for speed or score. Shortcuts were everywhere, surrounded by pits and hazards for a palpable risk/reward factor. Aside from that, knowing when you have the height and the time to land the bigger moves took practice and precision, which honestly, I'm still not very good at.

The imposing level design and somewhat complicated controls mean that SSX Tricky may be a mite too technical for some, and frustrating for people who want to be able to do the biggest and best stunts right from the get-go. But there were few games at the time that made you feel the thrill of the spectacle in every aspect of its design.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Singling-Out, Simplifying, and Why They're Both Stupid

Note: I wrote this back in October for a potential e-book by another games journalist, Nathan Hardisty. The e-book no longer requires my segment, so I'm no longer withholding it.

"Bishop G, they told me I should come down cousin, but I flatly refuse I ain't dumb down nothing."
- Lupe Fiasco, (Dumb it Down)

I'm not the kind of person to define games as art. I am however, an ardent believer of video-games as an incredible entertainment medium – one that will one day soon outstrip other media in unadulterated joy and satisfaction deliverance. And yet, there is a clear and ever-present divide between people who play and enjoy games, and those who don't (or maybe have never even considered them). This kind of salient split doesn't occur for music or films and there are people who profess to not being readers; but I don't think that's an issue of books not being advertised as valid entertainment.

A possible explanation as to why public interest in games is fragmented would be how they're discussed. This shouldn't be especially surprising, but for niche interests and hobbies - in a mixture of creating an easy shorthand for discussion and to create an identifiable group of individuals 'in the know' - terminology is invented.

This is incredibly prevalent when considering video-games, and doubly-prevalent when discussing nerd culture as an entity. To people who regularly play and discuss video-games (and I'm going to assume here that you, the reader is one of them), "RPG", "Kill:Death Ratio", "DPS", and "Metroidvania" all have an easily understood meaning and context, which appear in all forms of writing about video-games; from blog posts, to Instant Messages, to published reviews. But consider, for a moment, individuals who are not part of a community that understand such terminology.

It's not as if other entertainment mediums don't have their own jargon – my understanding of musical theory is limited, along with my knowledge of the technical side to music production. While I am entirely capable of discussing why I enjoy Portishead or what I thought of an Erykah Badu concert, if I was to read about legatos or impedance in an enthusiasts' magazine or was talked at by someone who did have that knowledge; I know I'd be utterly lost and somewhat turned off - especially if the terminology went unexplained.

Games journalism already has an audience (a large and lucrative one, at that), but I feel it could do better at appealing to those who don't already know how much fun video-games can be. Ignoring, or worse, ostracising that group is something that will keep the public opinion of games as entertainment (or more than entertainment) stunted even if the industry itself keeps growing.

While the gaming/non-gaming audiences are separated to a degree (in practice, people obviously don't fall into such stark dichotomies), methods for catering to these audiences - and why it's important – is a lengthy topic and not one I can claim actual authority over. This piece is essentially a summary of the effect of jargon in games writing, how a few existing publications have handled the topic, and a few of my own experiences.

The prevalence of jargon when talking about video-games serves a potentially necessary use of shorthand. Like abbreviations in general, they're used to get a point across to save time and effort. When actually playing video-games, speedy communication is vital – when playing a game like World of Warcraft, spending the time to type out “I've run out of mana” is frivolous when “OOM” will get the point across. But in literature, such time constraints aren't present, in neither writing nor reading. What jargon does instead is re-enforce what is called in linguistics as a Community of Practice.

Communities of Practice (CoPs) are groups of people who are connected by a common interest, regardless of where the individuals are socially or geographically. If this made you think of message boards, Facebook 'Like' pages, and university societies, you're on the right track. Naturally, these CoPs have a structure and a rough hierarchy – the society chairperson, the message board founder, or even long-standing members will hold 'Core' positions within a CoP; and that gives them power – linguistic power.

People at the Core of a community can have their ways of speaking (essentially their use of slang and jargon) filter outwards to the less involved - Peripheral – members, because it re-enforces a sense of belonging. The individuals know they're part of a community because they can use and understand language in a similar fashion. Apply that to video-game jargon, and the result is exactly that, and on multiple levels. The terms gamers know identify them as:
  • A gamer.
  • A fan of a specific genre (If you know what 'OTG' means*, you're a serious Fighting game fan, etc.).
  • Even not a fan of a specific gaming group.
The concept that I'm getting at here is that jargon has the effect of saying “I'm talking to people of a specific group – if you're not part of that group, then too bad”; something that can be consciously or subconsciously enforced. The power of that in writing is like putting a barbed wire fence around your work. Not everyone has the means to process what's discussed – not because they're stupid, but because it's being obfuscated - it's not as if they don't understand video-games, or don't want to be entertained and I feel that's a misconception a lot of people subscribe to.

In addition, games journalism is something pretty close to being part of the Core for gaming's Community of Practice. Games writing is filled with (mostly) talented, (mostly) knowledgeable writers, and their opinion is valued by the gaming community. There are issues with review scores and 'churnalism' (disguising advertisement as journalism) marring that but I won't divulge into that here. How journalists talk about games and try to appeal to an audience is taken on by the readership, and consequently reflected in how they talk about games themselves. If part of that method is using jargon to isolate an audience then there's a problem.

So how do publications talk about games? As entertainment mediums grow more popular and accessible, more people become interested in discussing them, both in publications and to each other. Whether the publication (or speaker) is specifically devoted to that type of entertainment is mattering less. At the time of writing, recent news about a high-definition re-release of PS2 titles Ico and Shadow of the Colossus appeared not only on dedicated gaming blogs and magazines, but also in widely-read newspapers like the Guardian, and lifestyle magazines that have only a fraction of technological interest, such as GT.

While these pieces all cover the same topic; the approach is obviously different - when not aimed at gaming enthusiasts, the amount of information imparted can be a hell of a lot lighter, and simplified. This in turn makes the enthusiasts scoff, as if they are discussing video-games incorrectly. This has varying levels of truth. Going back to the examples of the Guardian and GT writing about Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection, the Guardian does a good job in focusing on talking about the game's stylistic merit – something the readership can appreciate:

"Two videogame legends arrive in new HD versions on the same disc. Ico tells the story of an outcast boy and the lost girl he befriends in a vast castle. Almost without words and featuring nothing as crude as scores or on-screen instructions, you're left with the interplay of light and shade and the lugubrious howl of the wind as you tackle its beautifully designed puzzles and intruding smoke monsters. Shadow Of The Colossus, meanwhile, has you stalking, clambering on to and killing a series of giant, silent colossi in order to win back the soul of your dead girlfriend; their eventual deaths providing bittersweet moments of victory tinged with sadness. Both are remarkable and singular experiences." [1]

Do note that this is the review published within the newspaper, limited in length, and forced to share space with other releases of the week. The Guardian website itself has a far more in-depth look at the game – they're fortunate enough to have the scope to be able to appeal to both types of reader needs. The GT article is different in its approach:

"Two of the best games ever made (and among the few to be deservedly regarded as art) these Playstation 2 classics have been spruced up with silky smooth HD graphics (yay!) a 3D mode (woo!) and trophy support (meh). Released back in 2001, ICO is an ethereally beautiful puzzler in which you lead a ghostly girl through an endless castle. ICO's 2005 sequel Shadow of the Colossus, ups the action – you must battle a series of roaming giants – but the bleak landscape and haunting score gives it a unique, melancholy feel. If you haven't played 'em, you're in for a treat." [2]

The length and information given of the two are similar, but GT's attempt has that creeping feeling of pandering and dumbing down. Unlike the previous quote, this one isn't part of a set of games articles, but a cornered footnote in a round-up of general media. There's no in-depth version online either.

It could be argued that comparing a globally recognised broadsheet to a monthly magazine aimed specifically at LGBT Londoners is incredibly unfair; but neither of them are solely dedicated to media/entertainment. They both have longer and more detailed sections for other media and if anyone claims that gay people would be categorically less interested in video-games (or need to have discussion about games and technology simplified), I will be more than happy to punch them in the face.

If games are to grow (and to be taken more seriously), these attempts at writing for outside the gaming community are very much important – even if the level of detail isn't as in-depth as some (or at least I) would like. There is, however, a problem in how much space in publications that video-games get compared to other entertainment media. It's all too common to have the entertainment section in a newspaper have a double-spread on the latest album releases, and only a fifth of a page about what video-games were released that week; which goes some way to explain the lack of detail.

It's a very telling reflection on what the UK press (I can't really speak for the world at large) thinks of video-games as something that may draw public interest. Maybe they're fully aware that there are dedicated gaming magazines out there and think it's a market not worth giving much notice - but the best way to get people interested and excited about something new is to make sure it's within their notice and is presented as something they can easily participate in. Dedicated magazines don’t fill the gap as such because it conflicts with their target market - EDGE's in-depth (and sometimes pretentious) discussions about the state of the industry and the finer points of game design would make a layman run for the hills - or fall asleep. As said before, I wouldn't blame them.

Conversely, in the simplified games reviews of the newspaper; you're not going to see discussion about the kind of quality of animation, music, or voice acting used; nor are you as likely to read about how the game made the reviewer feel, the raw emotions that a reader could relate to (again, I'm glad that the Guardian can be an exception to this) and I find that incredibly backwards in terms of getting people interested. Those who might not know much will perceive the games as basic or childish, and others will feel like they're being talked down to. This kind of scenario is total bullshit and while keeping two different audiences pleased is not immediately straightforward, it's a far cry from being impossible.

Attempting to write for two audiences is something that I've experienced first-hand. My journalistic experience started with writing for my university paper; and naturally I was writing about games. Games was only a single page in the arts section, no competition to the 4-page spread the music section had, so space was limited. The readership being uni students across a wide range of interests, my goal wasn't to write for enthusiasts exclusively, but to draw in the interest of newcomers. The problems lay in creating pieces that people who didn't know the jargon and the references could still understand, and the people who were well-versed wouldn't feel patronised.

Issues with jargon were solved simply by explaining acronyms used, and wasn't too difficult to summarise. Obscurity was a bigger issue. Only games of the current generation gain media exposure and are stocked in ordinary supermarkets and electronics stores (as opposed to say, DVDs, where you can get a movie from any time period on one format). As a result, unless you've been interested in games for a long time, it's very likely to have some blank spots in video-game history - even if those titles would be well known within the group of enthusiasts. This means a retrospective on anything from yesteryear (whether it's as well known as SSX Tricky or as big of an unknown as Gotcha Force) has a requirement in both generating nostalgic sighs from those who have heard of it, and enticing people who haven't heard of it to find out more.

As such, choosing a title to wax nostalgic about - but is almost impossible to get a hold of - isn't a great idea. With the age of digital distribution, obtaining old titles is now a lot easier: all current consoles offer a range of retro titles to download, and for the PC, the website Good Old Games makes sure that popular classics will function on more than just Windows '95 systems. Of course, it's not only old games that are obscure - there are many recent titles that don't make it to the EU nor the US shores, and as such, you'd be hard pressed to have many Western folk hear of them.

Talking about these games can be a little tricky; considering the main aim is to raise awareness and interest in something people might enjoy, talking in-depth about a game no one can get their hands on without the tribulations of importing doesn't sound like a very sensible idea. That said, I once wrote about the grizzly DS visual novel 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors; discussing how (when comparing it to the vast majority of video-games) its storytelling was incredibly impressive [3]. I got a couple of messages asking about how they could get the game themselves and it warmed my frosty heart.

What I found the most effective in appeasing both types of reader was going for a "And If You Like This" angle. While most games today are refined essences of a genre - learning lessons from the titles before them (at least in theory) - there's a lot of fun and experience to be gained from taking a look at the classics. It's a concept that works in other media - would the movie Source Code be as well-defined without The Matrix? - and I find it pays its dues here. While I might struggle to talk to a gaming neophyte about the arcade beat-em-up Cadillacs and Dinosaurs [4], if you lead in with the Scott Pilgrim beat-em-up spin-off; then talking about the kinds of games it was inspired by suddenly seems a lot less intimidating.

If they're really hooked, they might go on to look at other games in the genre - Streets of Rage, Final Fight - or maybe even discover the treasure trove that is arcade game emulation, at which point you've successfully given someone the gift of entertainment, the same kind of satisfaction from giving someone a book recommendation or a cool waistcoat you found in a vintage store.

I wouldn't say that I have the skill for wide-audience writing down pat – I still have a lot to learn, and journalists more practised that I would most likely find my present attempts hamfisted. That said, it's an attempt that any writer can try; paying more attention into intended audiences and considering how one's writing changes when addressing both the experienced and the new is a useful thought experiment. If anyone catches me being pandering or condescending in my writing then I give them full consent to track me down and give me a good hard kick in the shins.

* 'OTG' refers to attacks in fighting games that can hit knocked over opponents On The Ground. That this is a property so important that it needs an acronym boggles my mind.

Film Review: Dream House

Psychological thrillers are hard to do properly. Whether trying to appeal to a pretentious deep-seated metaphor, or just a set up for an M. Night Shaymalan-esque twist, attention absoltuely has to be paid to keeping the twist obscured, and orchestrated to pack the biggest emotional punch; what's colloquially known as the 'MindF**k'. What you can't go and do is give the twist at the end of the first act with next to no buildup.

It looks like Dream House didn't get the memo.

Okay, so the premise then. Daniel Craig is Will Atenton, a British man with an all-American family, moving into the house of his dreams. Problem is, the neighbours are freaked out by him, there are goths hanging out in his basement, and... oh yeah, five years ago the family living there were shot in cold blood. So not so dreamy then.

This could have devolved into a run-of-the-mill slasher film with the ghosts of the recently deceased causing havoc, but no, Dream House is clearly too smart for something so gauche. After finding out that the husband of the murdered family survived and was interred at the local mental hospital, Will goes to visit the facility, and then The Twist happens. I would feel bad for spelling it out (though the film's trailer blatantly spoils the twist...), but I'll just say that the reveal is laughably contrived, lacked build-up, and poor Daniel Craig did his best to act as if the revelation was tearing him apart.

With the twist out of the way so early into the film, the rest of the runtime is taken up with a one-sided murder mystery. Only Will Atenton seems particularly interested with the pursuit of the truth, neither the police nor the audience offer more than a shrug, and just leave him to get on with it.

That's not to say that Daniel and the rest of the cast are doing a bad job of working with the awful source material; they just can't do anything to save it. A fair amount of dialogue is required from the two daughters of the family in order to go for a sappy, heartstring-pulling angle (rendering them immediately annoying from the get-go), and the rest of the cast does a good job of keeping them in line, but the end result doesn't really work. It's pandering and tedious.

Dream House's thrilling conclusion goes down like the clichéd path it was predestined to roll towards. Villains are evil and hateful simply because they're evil and hateful, everything goes down in flames, and it all resolves with a happy ending like there was no gruesome murder in the first place. Yawn.

Dream House turned out to be a movie that thought it could survive on star power. Hopefully its failure will stand out as an example to other film projects as what not to do when putting a thriller together.

Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword - Zelda for the Modern Gentleman

The hype for the Wii's true Zelda game has been going on for a while; ever since the Electronic Entertainment Expo of last year. Twilight Princess, the Zelda title released at the start of the Wii's lifespan was actually a Gamecube title altered to work with the Wii's unique control scheme. Now we near the end of the Wii, with the WiiU on the horizon, and Nintendo has put all their knowledge of how to best use the format, steering Zelda in a direction away from its tried-and-tested staples.
And lo, Skyward Sword was born.
Okay, I'm being overly-dramatic here. Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a Zelda game for the current generation, taking design aspects from peers that themselves were based on older Zelda titles. It shrugs off some outmoded traditions and is all the better for it, but in doing so, some new bad habits have been acquired.

From the moment the game loads, Skyward Sword charms with its improved characterisation. Traditionally, Link is normally a blank slate in a green hat, and Zelda is normally a mysterious and distant damsel to be rescued. Here, they've been best of friends for years – Zelda is a lot more outspoken and pragmatic, Link is more boisterous and emotional - and they play off each other in a way that reminds me just a little of 90's high school sitcoms. It's a bit hackneyed, but comparatively refreshing. Giving you the time to actually care about a character before they're snatched away does so much more to make things personal for the player.

In another stark difference to previous Zelda titles, the game world is split up into isolated areas with a much smaller 'overworld'. It's an improvement - it never takes long to get where you need to go, and although the game flow follows the traditional pattern of finding and clearing a series of dungeons; the process of actually getting to the dungeon entrance is more involved - the game map itself is a set of puzzles and hurdles. It keeps the action constant, and feels a lot less claustrophobic than confining all the action to ancient tombs.

Link's movement abilities have also seen a change. A new stamina gauge means for a limited time Link can sprint, wall-run, and lift heavy objects. A lot of the game puzzles now revolve around using Link's stamina as an obstacle, rather than just physical barriers. It's a nice variation, but there are areas that overuse the idea, and risk tediousness.

Mechanically, the most outstanding element is the mandatory motion control. The Wii as a format has taken a lot of flack for introducing motion controls to gaming; and although the complaints have not always been justified - there's always the problem of having 'waggle' included just for the gimmick, which can often make a game imprecise and frustrating. Skyward Sword... largely avoids that problem.

Everything short of moving Link around requires some form of motion gesture - a great method of immersion. Waving your sword about and manipulating the many many tools at your disposal is satisfying for as long as the game wants to co-operate with you. It doesn't take much for the sensors to go slightly out of alignment, or to misinterpret what direction your sword swipes are in. It's not too much of an annoyance when you can take your time to solve a puzzle, but in the heat of battle the game is all too willing to punish you for not slashing in the (clearly shown) direction it asks of you. Seeing what you need to do laid out in front of you, but struggling to get Link to act it out is often jarring.

Also jarring is the game's hint system. Your sword has a guardian spirit named Fi, standing in for Navi or Midna from other Zelda games. In a contrast to the personality and characterisation of the rest of the cast, Fi has the literal personality of a computer program (her dialogue is filled with 'progress reports' and probability percentages). Not so terrible on paper, but in practice she bothers you frequently, often with information you already know about. If you're taking too much damage, or your remote batteries get too low, she'll notify you; and it's profoundly irritating. There is a difference between being able to ask for hints when you need them (which the game offers and does a very good job of pointing you in the right direction without solving puzzles for you), and stopping the game to tell you precisely what item you've just found on the ground.

While these setbacks are hard to ignore, they don't (or can't) ruin the great experiences that Skyward Sword has to offer. The characters are endearing, the locations are beautiful and distinct, and the game's villain, Ghirahim, has now become my favourite Zelda antagonist - he makes an incredibly cool first boss.

Nintendo have definitely shown that they can embrace modern game design sensibilities while still keeping the stylistic flair that makes them distinct. If Skyward Sword is a preview of the large-scale games Nintendo has in mind for the WiiU; consider me damn excited.

Sonic Generations - Gotta Follow My Rainbow

Back in the days of the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive, the idea of 'Mascot Platformers' were incredibly popular. Mario and Sonic were the kings of the genre, and their success introduced many imitators; most of them nowhere near as popular. Some may have heard of Sparkster or Pulseman, but you're an odd bird if you've heard of - let alone played - Awesome Possum (You're not missing anything if you haven't).
Moving on to the era of 3D games; Crash Bandicoot, Jak and Daxter and Banjo Kazooie had entered the scene, and Super Mario was still going strong. Sonic the Hedgehog on the other hand had changed greatly with his foray into the 3rd dimension with Sonic Adventure, a point which die-hard enthusiasts of the side-scrolling experiences claimed was the point that Sonic had gone downhill. Today mascot platformers have largely disappeared, with Mario, Kirby, and Ratchet and Clank series holding out as the last bastions. Sonic has persisted through the ages, but the general quality of his games haven't managed to quite keep up with his peers.

More recently Sonic Team have managed to pull the franchise out of its funk with the bright and charming Sonic Colours for the Wii last year, and this winter they've released Sonic Generations - an honest attempt at taking the best of what made the old and new Sonic games fun, stripping away the additional mechanics that didn't work out, and wrapping it all up in a package that will get knowing smiles from fans of any age.

The set up is a complete throwaway excuse. A purple eldrich abomination made of purple fog and gears - the Time Eater - has ripped through Sonic's timeline, turning levels from his past into grey husks. This abuse of the time-space continuum also lets the Sonic of the modern day meet his younger self; shorter, chubbier, and (maybe thankfully) mute. Together they run through select stages of all the main-series Sonic games in order to get things back to the status-quo.

What this means in gameplay terms is that the game is bifurcated - half of the game is a smoothed-out, high resolution rendition of the 2D Sega Mega Drive style; the other half a tweaked and refined engine taken from Sonic Colours. Both styles of play are all about reaching breakneck speeds and good reaction skills, but the Classic Sonic stages are a lot more straight-forward in terms of controls than the Modern variant.
While this made the Classic stages easier to complete, they also felt a little less involved to me than the Modern versions. Modern Stages add in the ability to do aerial tricks, wall-jumps, and other neat acrobatics that feel incredibly satisfying when done correctly. All stages in the game have a certain rhythm to them that aren't easy to notice when playing for the first time, but as I progressed and retried a few stages, the quality of the level design became more apparent. That's not to say that all of the levels are great - late game stages Crisis City (from Sonic 2006) and Planet Wisp (from Sonic Colours) cause many deaths due to the level pitting the game physics directly against you. Even with the rest of the game's quality, these moments will easily wear your patience thin.

Aesthetically, Sonic Generations is a real treat. Not competing to bring about super-realistic environments, the developers focused on bringing all the stages to the current generation with as much authenticity as possible - and they definitely succeed. Green Hill Zone will be familiar to many, but when I started up the City Escape stage from Sonic Adventure 2 (The first Sonic game I ever played!), seeing how they managed to capture the feel of the stage without just copying the level wholesale brought on waves of nostalgia, and the widest smile.

The boss fights against choice final bosses from the series and against Sonic's rivals are both energetic and done with more creativity than I was expecting. The final boss, however, is lengthy and rather boring; a weak way to tie up the game. Just beating the game will only take a few hours, but there are over 80 Challenge Stages split evenly between Classic and Modern Sonic. They feature some interesting variations, and many are honestly a real challenge to beat. Those who like to chase after the highest ranks and full completion will find Sonic Generation a lengthier and more complete experience. But they might see some hair loss when they come to the hardest ones.

Sonic Generations is available on Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and PC (360 version reviewed). Please note that the 3DS version of Sonic Generations is developed by a different team, and may differ wildly from this version.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Singles' Club: Review Compilation

These singles reviews are taken from assorted articles found at the Yorker. Reviews are ordered from earliest to most recent.

Lupe Fiasco – The Show Goes On
The recent fad of rappers (and wannabe rappers) producing club tunes to hit the top 40 has been really successful, but rather irritating. It's disappointing that Lupe Fiasco's stellar lyricism and less egoistic tone is wasted on the autotune-tinged chorus and "party all night" theme. The beat feels like it was made for T-Pain or Flo Rida instead of Lupe, but I can't hate the Modest Mouse sample and catchy brass.

Wiz Khalifa - Black and Yellow
Let it be known: catchy beats will always save mediocre rapping. 'Black and Yellow' isn't an exotic song; the beat's nothing especially creative, but the simple synth melody that's like an artillery of music boxes is somehow hummable, danceable, and easy to rap over all at once. Wiz Khalifa's rapping is inoffensive, but boils down to a kid showing off his shiny new car to girls. It's entirely forgettable - a remix featuring Snoop Dogg and (ugh) T-Pain replace Wiz with no detriment.

Far East Movement ft. Frankmusic - 'Do it in the AM'
Having already released songs about things that don't actually exist (there's no such thing as a 'G6'; the plane is called a 'G4'), Far East Movement prove that they don't even need logical metaphors. You would guess that what they're doing 'in the AM' is in a quick-and-dirty in a nightclub bathroom, but lyrics like 'Last one's in, first one's out / Baby we ain't the crowd' makes the implication... kinda sleazy. Frankmusic's beat-juggle at the end saves this one.

Big Sean feat. Kanye West & Roscoe Dash - Marvin & Chardonnay
The unknown that is Big Sean relies on Kanye West as a saving grace; though unless he's rapping about his personal life - Kanye's flow is... pretty awful. No, this is not "The F***in' Anthem" in any context. And as for the beat - we have a reasonable string intro before being dumped into what sounds like a tuba player jumping on a rusty trampoline. I'll take some actual Marvin Gaye over this, thanks.

Labrinth feat. Tinie Tempah – Earthquake
Listening to it sober, what comes across is just how... entirely acceptable it is. This is definitely the Average Party Anthem of cheap nightclubs for the season - but the beat is nowhere near aggressive enough for the smashing and moshing it asks of its listeners. However, the acapella for the bridge is cute in how out-of-place it is.

Listening to it drunk, though? Amazing tune, love it.

Beyoncé - Party
Her diva personality may grate on some, but I feel that Beyoncé's vocal quality far outstrips her attitude outside the music studio. 'Party' has a rubbery and easy-groovin' synth bassline with lyrics simple enough for me to sing along and annoy the housemates. André 3000 offers a rap verse of quality that the Waynes and Wests wish they could produce.

Side note: The music video version of 'Party' has a different guest rapper - J. Cole - who is... nowhere near as good. Why did they do that?

Bonus Single Review! Beyoncé - Countdown
Agressive brass in R&B and Hip-Hop is nothing revolutionary, but I enjoy it. It feels a little too busy here, especially compared to the straightforwardness of 'Party'. I'm not sure if I'm feelin' the staccato-filled chorus, either. At the very least, the music video looks great; Beyoncé's so cute in a turtleneck!

Batman: Arkham City - Skyscrapers and Shark Bait

 This article can also be found at the Yorker.
It's an easy sell to produce something 'for the fans'. More so than just milking a character or series within video games, games about other 'fandoms' brings in consumers who wouldn't otherwise be gaming enthusiasts. What better series to capitalise on that than Batman - a franchise existing since 1939 and with a dozen retellings and alternate universes.
Rocksteady's previous effort, Batman: Arkham Asylum was praised for making a title that paid honest attention to the source material - having new interpretations of Batman and his adversaries, while not going wildly off-base. The art style was suitably 'comic book' in nature, and there was a ton of trivia and minutiae to keep the hardcore nerds happy.

On the other hand, the play experience was repetitive, and although it took notes from Metroid and the modern Castlevanias (where progress is defined by finding new tools to unlock barricades seen earlier in the adventure), the implementations lacked charm. Arkham City, on the other hand, goes to lengths to fix the flaws of its predecessor, while still retaining the action and tone. For that goal, Arkham City definitely succeeds.

The main thing to notice is the change in setting - Batman is no longer limited to bouncing around a small prison complex - a whole section of Gotham City has been sectioned off to hold prison inmates and those from the asylum (justified in a lame and ultimately ignorable plot point - who cares why, you get to glide past skyscrapers dramatically). A handful of the main villains take the opportunity to start turf wars - taking in to account locations from the mythos that will mean little to anyone but die-hards.

Batman is initially imprisoned within the city as Bruce Wayne in a plot by Professor Strange to get rid of him for good. The narrative then flicks between Batman finding a way into Strange's headquarters, and dealing with the Joker in a sub-plot - genetics-altering steroids used by the Joker in the first game have taken their toll, and through a blood transfusion, forces Batman to find a cure before they both perish.

Mechanically, this means that the city acts as a 'hub world', connecting the buildings that Batman needs to visit to find items or beat up villains to progress the plot. It's within these buildings that the similarities to the first game are at their clearest, but as I played I became very strongly reminded of the Legend of Zelda games. Each building acts as a dungeon where Batman discovers a new item or skill, uses that new ability almost exclusively to finish the dungeon, with a boss fight at the end. To fit this formula, some of the tasks and boss fights become rather contrived, and ultimately don't seem to 'fit' in tone.

Indeed, while there are a lot of references to the Batman animated series I'd seen sporadically as a kid (many voice actors are the same, for a start), with some scrutiny, Arkham City felt more like the Nolan movies rather than the nostalgia they were hoping for. The way that Batman is entirely emotionless at all times (including in cutscenes, when being beaten up, and when being eaten by a shark); that the ridiculous and none-too-interesting plot is delivered entirely seriously; and the clinical, PDA-style interface made the whole package rather un-Batman to someone like me.

The main plotline is short - Roughly 25% of the game's completion count - and between (and during) dungeons there are a myriad of Riddler Trophies that unlock challenge missions, along with sidequests that are more demanding of your skills than the story, featuring and fleshing out villains that don't appear in the main plotline. I could live with the game being more linear if it meant that Riddler, Two-Face, and others could be directly worked into the story.
On top of that, there's additional content featuring Catwoman - her fighting style differs heavily to Batman's, but she gets very little play time. Then again, her presence is so skeezy (a character who's only dialogue consists of feline puns and innuendo is rather hard to put up with; saying nothing of how often the enemy dialogue gets... rape-y when you play as her), you won't mind seeing less of her.

The combat is where Arkham City improves the most over the prequel. Taking on the 'mash the attack and counter-attack buttons' system the first game had, Arkham City lets you use your gadgets during battle. Every item that you can use in the field has an effect in battle, an idea both actually Batman-esque and letting the battles become a bit more nuanced - later fights eventually force you to stop attacking blindly. A boss mid-way through the game (I won't spoil whom) revolves around using your arsenal and the scenery to get through the foe's defences, with no method working twice, and is by far the high-point of the game.

Arkham City achieves what it sets out to do - beat the pants off of its predecessor and gives the fans the callbacks and references they yearn for. If I was more of a Batman fan, my experience would be a lot more positive; but in my eyes Batman: Arkham City is a solidly built blockbuster title that's just a little too derivative and unfocused. I never though I could be not nerdy enough to appreciate something...
Batman: Arkham City is available on Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC (PS3 version reviewed)

Film Review - Bad Teacher

This review can also be found at the Yorker (where it was uploaded ages ago, and I forgot to mirror it here...)

I never go to the movies alone. The idea of sitting in a theatre - especially a near-empty theatre - with no company and everyone else wondering why you've shown up alone is incredibly creepy and sends shivers down my spine. When I mentioned to my friends that I was going to see Bad Teacher, and if any of them wanted to join me, they all looked at the floor and made polite excuses. That should have been my warning to ABORT ABORT ABORT.

It turns out that going alone to a movie that has nothing of content aside from Cameron Diaz painfully posturing definitely makes you look creepy.

To fill you in on what little plot there is; Elizabeth (Cameron Diaz) has recently divorced from an apparently week-long marriage, when the other half realises she's only with him for the money. Without a sugar daddy she's forced to work at a junior high school, where the teachers are uncool but well-meaning, and the students are... not really focused on. At the same time, she decides the best method to get back on track is to shell out for a pair of $9000 breasts - and 'wacky hi-jinks' follow.

Unenthusiastic? I don't blame you. The idea of an anti-hero protagonist working as an incompetent teacher is something we've definitely seen before, and much of the movie reminded me of School of Rock in all the wrong ways. You could even describe Bad Teacher as “School of Rock, with Jack Black now sporting breasts, bleached hair and being dry-humped by Justin Timberlake”. Oh great, now I feel physically ill.

While I can put up with a movie that exists for the sake of peddling "T 'n' A", or a premise that rides on the concept of other successful (though not necessarily good) releases, what gets me is how the story almost wilfully goes nowhere. In addition to the Quest for Fake Mammaries, Elizabeth is lucky enough to get a subplot where she competes with another - more competent, but rather anal - member of staff for substitute teacher Scott (played by the aforesaid Justin Timberlake). Both plot threads resolve; but they happen so close to the end, you almost don't notice. Indeed, you could potentially remove the film's finale and watch the second act over again, and the character and plot progression would still make sense. But I don't recommend anyone tries that.

"But Nathan!", I hear you cry. "Easy-to-watch films with puerile humour can be fun to watch, especially with friends. You just have no sense of humour!" What a hurtful thing to say! Bad Teacher offers little in the way of legitimate humour, even when trying to be risqué. It readily throws boobs and weed and the F-word at you, but it doesn't actually try and do anything witty with them, and definitely feels like it's refraining from offending anyone. The film vaguely hints at Scott having a character flaw in his 'white privilege' making him unintentionally racist; but they bury that quickly, and don't bring it up again. A missed opportunity for humour at his expense, but maybe them not elaborating on it is a bullet dodged.

If you want an easy 'n' cheesy American comedy, then I recommend you Green Hornet. It has all the perverted jokes you could ever want, backed up by some good actors and action sequences. If you want grown women being mean to each other, look no further than Desperate Housewives. Not a movie, but that just means it lasts longer.

Bad Teacher is a film about wasting $9k on cosmetic surgery. And I just wasted £5.50 watching it.

Film Review - Demons Never Die

This review can also be found at the Yorker.

I'm not particularly well-versed in horror films, but a lifetime of cultural osmosis has left me with a good understanding of how it's supposed to go. Morally bankrupt, personality-lacking, or otherwise Orange County everydude Americans are put somewhere dark and isolated through contrived circumstance, and are summarily killed - by a supernatural entity, a guy with a chainsaw, or just 'cause.

Aside from the killings, Demons Never Die entirely ignores this framework - and really it's worse off for it. While I doubt it's a full explanation for why this is the case, Demons is a British film, an oddity in a genre seemingly dominated by the US. Set in London, it has that same mixture of authenticity and self-parody that Attack the Block had with its council-estate setting. The soundtrack is Grime and D'n'B throughout, which I honestly quite liked.

The plot follows a group of kids who form a suicide pact when a girl at their 6th Form College takes her own life. Most have the details as to why they want to die fleshed out, and some are surprisingly serious - the female lead Samantha (Emma Rigby) suffering from schizophrenia, and Ricky (Femi Oyeniran) being pressured by his homophobic father. Lead character Archie (Robert Sheehan) has some trappings of unhinged stalker to his personality, which is interesting in his interactions with Samantha, but after a while it's played as endearing. Odd.

As the story progresses, they eventually realise that an elaborate suicide is not the solution to their problems, and become all a bit more comfortable with themselves. The cast have had their share of movies prior (sharing a few names with Adulthood), and they manage to get some compelling character interaction going, and you find yourself rooting for them to find a solution. That's not how slasher films are supposed to go at all! All of the Final Destinations and the Halloweens out there have almost intentionally flat or dislikeable characters, so when the flesh-rending eventually occurs, we don't feel like awful human beings for finding it entertaining.

Speaking of flesh-rending, that aspect is the weakest part of Demons Never Die by far. At the same time as the suicide pact plot, we find that there is a masked killer picking off the kids one-by-one with a hunting knife. It's clear that the film was produced on a low budget - not being able to go all-out on the violence is understandable, but Demons employs some incredibly obvious cutaways, torn clothing and blood packs; and it feels cheap; especially since the death of the kids doesn't seem to drive the plot as much as you think it would.

Up until the third act where literally every named character ends up knifed (to no real emotional impact - even with all the effort they put into characterisation), nothing would be particularly lost if all the murder scenes were removed. In fact, with some editing, Demons Never Die would be better off as a one-shot BBC human drama.

Part of me wonders if when this film was initially pitched, they had to crowbar in a crazed killer to get it to fit into a Halloween season release; but that's just wishful thinking on my part. There's nothing wrong with having a different take on a genre, but Demons is too tame to be a horror, and too shallow to be a drama – a failed experiment.

Have You Played - Resonance of Fate

This article can also be found at the Yorker.

Japanese RPGs fall into some rather typical camps. There are the menu-heavy games like Pokémon and Final Fantasy VII, slow affairs where reaction speed isn't a focus; and action RPGs like Kingdom Hearts and Monster Hunter - where high-level play is all about putting your reactions to the test.
Resonance of Fate (End of Eternity in Japan) is... neither; and that's what makes it an interesting experience - it's a game all about stylish and acrobatic gunfights that the Wachowski Brothers would approve of, but strangely the focus is on tactics and planning ahead.

The game takes place on Basel - a city within a mechanical skyscraper. Like all good stories about dystopian industrial futures, there's a stark rich/poor divide, and crime is rampant. The player is in control of three mercenaries - Vashyron, Zephyr and Leanne - completing town requests so they can get from day to day.

Beyond the initial setting concept, the plot matters very little. Developers tri-Ace (Responsible for Infinite Undiscovery and the Star Ocean series) are known for putting together visually and mechanically stunning games - but their storytelling has a lot to be desired. I've you've ever watched much animé (Or hell, if you've played a story-driven JRPG in the last decade) the roles the protagonists play is something all-too-familiar. Vashyron is the strong, responsible adult with a streak of lechery; Zephyr is filled with teenage angst and a mysterious past; Leanne is naive, demure, and still not quite sure why she puts up with the other two idiots she spends her time with.

Fortunately, Resonance quickly puts the narrative on the back-burner in favour of the gunfights. Battles are, in a word, complex. Fights deal in two kinds of damage - Scratch Damage caused by machine guns, and Direct Damage caused by handguns. Winning fights revolves around wearing down the enemy with Scratch Damage, and then sealing the deal with a Direct attack. While not too difficult of a concept, it then introduces Attack Charges, Hero Actions, Critical Conditions... at which point I was very much lost, and was relieved to find a tutorial mode hidden away.

Resonance, therefore, is like the Anti-Chess - hard to learn, but much easier to master. Once the explanations are laid out in front of you, competence soon follows, which is a great feeling - the first time you successfully take out a room full of enemies by doing an impossible leap from one side of the room to the other by flinging about 20 grenades is an incredible thrill for yourself and anyone watching.

It then becomes a game of one-upmanship - Resonance will put you up against enemies that know how to hide their weaknesses and terrain that puts you at a disadvantage, and you'll think long and hard about a method of attack that leaves your team unscathed. The battles reward spectacle - properly executing the more stylish attacks lets you keep up the flashy moves, and saves you from damage.

That's not to say the game is easy, however. Executing a manoeuvre poorly may lead to having one of your party members surrounded - and consequently riddled with bullets. Like any RPG you can flee, gain a few levels and come back, but clever use of cover will save your hide way more often than having extra health.

A game that largely survives on spectacle is something that I could be scoffed at for recommending, but Resonance of Fate puts you in control of the action, supplying a feeling more tangible than a cutscene, and a bigger sense of satisfaction when you do well. Not everyone will have the patience to learn all the ins-and-outs of the combat, but those who like fighting games or strategy games will get a kick out of this.

Resonance of Fate is available on the PS3 and 360.

Summer Backlog: Kirby's Epic Yarn

Woah, I'm behind on keeping this updated. This article can also be found at the Yorker.

Kirby's Epic Yarn was something of an experimental title, letting Nintendo take some different steps in how they designed their platforming titles. The entire game revolves around the player character and the surroundings made from yarn, fabric and buttons - and it resulted in some interesting and visually-striking levels.
You might have remembered that I've covered this game before - and also that I mentioned that it was a title that took well to being completed 100%. After saying such I... moved on to other games before I'd reached total completion. Absolutely shameful.

With its 'no death, no failure' approach to gameplay, what made me put off finishing it was that it appeared too easy to be worth doing. Even for those who aren't the greatest at video games (and this would include myself), an element of danger and challenge is a good motivator. That challenge is present in Epic Yarn, but it's hidden under layers of fabric and fluff. The collectable items of the game are all items of furniture (or fabric patterns to decorate the walls and floor) to go in a virtual flat of your design. Furnishing your flat does nothing to affect the main platforming aspects of the game - and as such wasn't something I was prepared to bother with.

However, the interior design is actually a set up for bonus Challenge Stages. In addition to Kirby's hovel, there are five other apartments that each require a combination of furniture found in the main stages of the game - and even though I'd found the majority of them by besting the storyline, a few remained elusive. It was at this point that Epic Yarn had started to become a little more compelling. I was no longer just tasked with completing stages - something impossible to fail at - but a treasure hunt was added to the mix. It wasn't anything earth-shaking, but it made me look at some of the stages in a new way; taking time to explore the nooks and crannies.

With the requested furniture obtained, the challenge stages were open to me. These tasks take sections of the main stages and introduces alternate goals and restrictions. Find all the hidden characters in the stage. Destroy all enemies. Escort an item to the finish without losing it. Succeeding at these tasks unlocked additional wallpaper designs (joy), but they also added the factor of failure that the main stages lacked.
All of the challenges adhere to a time limit, sometimes a rather unforgiving one. Only a fraction of the challenges can easily be completed on the first try; and I found myself noticing just how slow Kirby moves. His relaxed gait was a direct conflict to the warning chime signifying I had less than 10 seconds to reach the finish line. Kirby's Epic Yarn had finally manage to become daunting!

However, while I was making steady progress with the challenge content - there was another factor that meant the play experience of Epic Yarn wasn't quite as excellent as when I had first played. When I made my first foray into the game, I was playing in 2 Player Co-Op. Having a partner deepened the experience considerably; not just in terms of gameplay - your ally doubles up as someone to help you get to hard-to reach areas, and handy ammunition to help you circumvent some puzzles - but also in having another human by your side, also experiencing and enjoying a game that may be short on spectacle, but abundant in whimsy and charm. Even in instances where your co-operation is less than stellar, the 'no failure' stance means relationships remain unsoured.

Taking on these bonus tasks solo was a smoother experience than playing with a friend, it was a lot less involved. While doing challenges, I was instinctively noticing how, if I were playing in Co-Op, I could circumvent a trap, or collect items twice as fast. Even with my successes, it felt a little hollow when the Player 2 character would show up on screen to do a happy little jig, but there was no equivalent sitting on my sofa.

Kirby's Epic Yarn may be a straightforward, and mostly unchallenging game, but it's taught me some interesting things about game design, stylistic direction, and most of all friendship. How appropriately saccharine.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Character Design: Weighing in on Women Protagonists

This article can be found at PixelxCore.

Like all media telling a story, characters in video games require detail and definition - especially player characters. It's not just the gameplay mechanics that make up your digital avatar; exploration into interesting costume design, back story, dialogue/voice acting and even animations go towards making your avatar identifiable and worthy of emotional investment. It's what puts Nathan Drake miles apart from Duke Nukem when mechanically they're just means to an artillery.

However, the range of backgrounds in video game protagonists is still rather limited, when compared to books or film. While there are all different kinds of 'noble hero' characters (often falling into the majority demographic of straight, white and male) - differing in body type and personality; minority protagonists are a lot more uncommon. A black player character is rather anomalous - and have fun thinking of 5 or more protagonists who aren't straight.

Having recently observed the problematic train wreck (link is NSFW) that was Duke Nukem Forever, and the recent decision to have the female version of Commander Shepard as the main face of Mass Effect 3, I feel a lot more aware of women in protagonist roles. While they're not uncommon (an RPG without any kind of woman party member would be incredibly strange); whether they're handled well and varied is another matter.

Samus is one of the most-cited examples of a well-handled woman protagonist in games - the game design video series Extra Credits loves to cite her as an example; but I don't necessarily feel her portrayal is so cut-and-dry. In her original appearances, the hints to Samus being female are few and far between (I remember a lot of people surprised at finding out Samus was a woman - including myself).

She's cool, capable, and her battle armour doesn't fall into the stereotypical design flaws of having 'boob-plate', or an exposed midriff. On the other hand, she comes across as incredibly personality-deprived. While the very early games get an excuse in a lack of scope in animation or dialogue, with the suit on, Samus may as well be a robot - though once the suit comes off, she is suddenly svelte and sassy.

The rendition of Samus in Metroid: Other M is much worse, though the approach is different. Samus is much more notably female in her animations without sacrificing her armour style or fighting prowess. On the other hand, the attempt at giving her dialogue ended up veering wildly from what minimal original characterisation she had - suddenly losing some of her 'lone wolf' attitude, and a ham-fisted attempt at creating character relations with her commander instead came across as supplicant to a fault. My personal favourite rendition of Samus would be her appearance in Super Smash Bros. Brawl. The game's story mode is without dialogue; meaning Samus' personality is portrayed entirely through her actions, and it's handled quite well for something arguably throw-away.

Beyond Good and Evil was a very interesting game with disproportionately little advertising and press; it tried a lot of things to make itself unique - stealth segments, hovercraft racing, photography, a well-rounded female lead... wait, what's this?

Jade stands out as my personal favourite example of a great woman protagonist. It manages to straddle a thin line of a character having markedly (though socially assumed) feminine traits, but those traits not being the driving force behind everything she is. She has a motherly trait in her taking care of orphans, she wears make-up, and she is by no means unshapely; but her practical fashion reflects the action-oriented work she does, she's a charismatic leader without relying on her figure, and she's sure of herself and her goals. Her partner characters are both male (one of whom ticks all the buttons for 'brave masculine protagonist'), but they both treat her with respect (though could you imagine what the gameplay would be like if they didn't?). What stops Jade from being perfectly well-rounded is her lack of flaws. Hyper-competence is almost always going to be a factor of a playable character; but Jade's actions and interaction are unwaveringly 'the right thing to do'; somewhat ironic, considering the game title.

BG&E reminds us that the key to great characterisation is not avoiding all tropes that are part of a stereotype; but using those aspects in conjunction with other, maybe even contrasting elements to bring about someone well-rounded and likeable. Just don't be afraid to add character flaws.

Bayonetta has been incredibly divisive as a character among critics. Some find her openness about sexuality and her determination to do things only on her own terms progressive; others notice the extreme pandering to the male gaze, and find the lethality of her sexuality to ring hollow. An interview with the director, Hideki Kamiya, clears up most of my suspicions - many aspects of Bayonetta's design have been brought forth from the turn-ons of some of the design team, and Hideki's creepy stance on women (to which Bayonetta would not be the first victim...).

Design-wise, this has lead to Bayonetta being very specifically designed as fetish-bait. As her clothes are made from her enchanted hair, whenever a Wicked Weave attack is performed (which will be often, if you're playing well), her clothing gets a lot skimpier. Her proportions are entirely inhuman - accentuating legs and waist with a tiny head - why would you need to be looking at her expression when you could be looking at her ass? Everything is delicate and feminine, from the lipstick-shaped lock-on reticule to the way the damage Bayonetta takes results in explosions of rose petals and butterflies. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that direction, but its inclusion feels condescending, like nothing else would suit a woman in an action role. (It's something that also has me worried about Lollipop Chainsaw...)

On the other hand, someone on the design team realised that the character would be dead in the water if she remained nothing but a long-legged sex doll; and the gameplay and story make a good attempt to keep the pandering to a less-pervasive level. During combat, the camera is barely focused on Bayonetta herself - the game takes its battles very seriously, and is designed so attention is drawn to incoming attacks and vulnerability animations, not gyrating witch-butt. The attacks and taunts designed for showing off are actually incredibly unsafe, and the game has no qualms about sending a swift death your way if you mess about. The storyline has surprisingly little dialogue-focus on Bayonetta's assets and attitude (the camera angles do the dirty work instead), and gives Bayonetta as a character the room to grow a little. By the end of the game her attitude of selfishness and hedonism has opened up into something more caring, without losing her independence.

It feels as if the character of Bayonetta in the game and Bayonetta in cut-scenes were designed by two different people. The silent sexy dancing of the credits and against other female rivals lie in stark conflict with the flippant foul-mouthed stance she takes almost everywhere else. There have been hints at a sequel from Platinum Studios - hopefully they'll find something more to do with Bayonetta's character beyond her sexuality and love of violence.

Dead Island turned out not to be a game where children are thrown out of windows in slow motion. It did turn out to be Borderlands meets Left 4 Dead, which is enough for some people. But to go up against Left 4 Dead, consideration needs to be paid to the playable characters. The protagonists of Dead Island are not all equal in their skills, so coming up with something compelling will be required to make someone who relies on a single weapon type an attractive choice. Purna gets the longer straw by being the firearms expert; but to justify that ability, they make her a hardened ex-cop. The entirety of her character is summed up in a 2-minute biography; and the set-up is interesting. They bring up some very hefty ideas, the role of women in police, the arrangement between social classes, and an especially unusual reference to how modern Australia can treat aborigines; a topic rarely brought up in general media, let alone video games.

However, it feels like they take those raw concepts, and come out with something a lot angrier. With a past like the one Purna was given, bitterness is bound to be expected, but here it's resulted in the polar opposite of the 'extra-feminine, demure and pure' stereotype - a 'cold, rage-fuelled uberfeminist' stereotype which, in practice, ends up being just as tasteless. It still boils down to an easily dismissed character, not because she's weak, but because she's too aggressive, her power being focused not on her self and in her own abilities, but in hating others, and particularly in hating men. The biography does not outright call her man-hating, but the game mechanics bear more information.

One of Purna's abilities is called "Gender Wars", which allows her to deal bonus damage to male targets. A little off-kilter, but the punchline comes in when, in the initial release of Dead Island on Steam, one purchaser decided to look at the game code, and found that the code named the ability as "Feminist Whore". Whoops. Developers Techland since altered the code in later releases, and put out a press release saying that the coder who wrote that part of the program would be reprimanded; but it makes me wonder how deeply the attitude of 'Purna the Feminist Whore' was entrenched in the design process for the character. Like with Bayonetta, the intents and attitudes of the creator are hard to separate from the finished product, even if alternate interpretations are less problematic.

The scope of character design is massive - the potential for protagonists in games is just as large as in novels or in films, but it will take a concentrated effort from games designers to acknowledge the potential for minority player characters in their work; and well-rounded characters in general. It's not impossible to form an empathy with a character who isn't the same gender, race or sexuality as you, so tailoring character design to demographic majority would be outdated and unnecessary. However, creating an identifiable player character in the first place can be a very demanding task, so the popularity of games where the looks of the protagonist are chosen by the player makes sense. Women are getting a wider and more balanced representation as the heroes of video games; though the number of them that end up in DD Breastplate and bikini-mail need to be worked on.