Monthly Archives: January 2011

Vaguely Life Leaks Away

Eyes open. There is … soft? Fog. A morass of fuzz. A pillow, so inviting. There is … “I”. Me. I am. I am … awake.

Dawn is breaking; it is my day off. Should I get up? What hour is this? Do people exist yet? Surely not.

I find my phone within a tangle of bed sheets. I wrestle it open, stare at the alien symbols until they form into familiar numbers. It’s midday.

Shit. Days off aren’t for wasting. Days off are precious and waiting to be filled with video games and music and John Updike novels; with guitars and bacon and above all writing, so much writing. Seize the day. Seize the moment. Seize the … seize … the … pillow.

Eyes open. There is … cloud? Haze. I am. Am I? What is … what is “I”? Pillow. I am pillow. So soft.

I find my phone within a tangle of bed sheets. 2:15 in the afternoon.

Shit. I wrench myself up from the quagmire and stumble to the bathroom. I stand under the shower and go “Nnuuurg” until the lichen clogging my mind begins to come loose. Just five or nine black coffees now, and I’ll be back on speaking terms with reality.

One day. One short day, a quarter used up, to get a post onto my blog. Too many empty dates, too little content. Letting my hopes ebb away, vaguely, inexorably. I’m not going to become a games journalist. I’ll be serving bad Australian lagers to media students my whole life.

What to do? I have no ideas for articles. No stories. I’ve not been playing enough games; discs everywhere and Steam library overflowing and no time to play. I need a new post on the blog tonight. I have nothing to say. Shitting shit.

I eat some cereal and calm down. Things are always better after cereal.

I decide to play Crysis. I’ve already done the Gaming Education for it, but I want it completed, I figure seeing it off will close a loop and give me a sense of accomplishment to steady my nerves.

Not long to go. I’ve escaped the island the whole game has been set on and reached a US aircraft carrier. But the aliens are after us. There’s a mega beast chewing up our ship, giving us hell. Ten minutes, I predict, and I’ll be leaping in slow motion onto a drop ship piloted by my burly squad-mate as the aircraft carrier goes down in a ball of flames. It’s been that sort of game.

Urg, except my save file won’t load. I plod around on Google, browse forums, and eventually figure out my file is corrupted. I rummage in the Crysis folder, find the offending file, and delete it. Now the game will load, but I have to start from a checkpoint further back, and kill all the Matrix-esque aliens I’d already killed. PC gaming, eh?

Chick-boom goes my shotgun, over and over, and I’m back at the mega beast. Not to ruin the surprising denouement, but I shoot a tactical nuke up its woopsie, it crashes onto the aircraft carrier, and I leap to freedom, in slow motion, onto my burly squad-mate’s drop ship. Flames lick out at us as we escape.

Someone should tell developers to stop ending their games like this.

The day is getting on. I still don’t have an article to write. I open a blank document and stare at the dark screen. I type “I don’t know what to write”, to see what happens. Nothing much happens. I start typing out my thoughts as they come to my head, then get depressed how stupid my thoughts are, and delete them. Pretending it’s just to create a mood advantageous to writing, I alt+tab away from the word processor and open Spotify. I listen to Daniel Johnston sing beautiful songs, lyrics full of hope yet so fragile you fear they’ll be wrenched apart, like spiders on the breeze. It isn’t advantageous to writing.

I listen to more songs, then watch videos for songs on Youtube, then scroll up and down my Facebook feed aimlessly. My head feels heavy and dull, like a swinging ham. Frank Turner comes on Spotify and sings about how you shouldn’t waste your life away. Shut up Frank Turner, I think.

I start watching a developer video for upcoming jock-shooter Bulletstorm, all smash cuts and obnoxious swearing and producers calling their characters the “premier badasses of motherfuck town”. It flushes me with embarrassment that this is the image of our industry we’re presenting to the world. Non-gamers don’t get to see Dinner Date and Digital: A Love Story and The Dream Machine. They just see brash videos for games containing “sweet badassery” and the ability to rip aliens’ assholes out of their bodies.

No wonder we’re not taken seriously.

I get glum. I’ve no idea what to write about for my article. I can see the word processor icon staring at me from the taskbar. I imagine it with glasses, looking over them at me, its head cocked, like a disapproving teacher.

I let out a deep sigh, muster my reserves and do the only sensible thing: I go downstairs and make crumpets.

Twenty buttery minutes later, I’m sat on my sofa absorbed in Super Mario Galaxy 2. I’ve not played it enough for a Gaming Education, so it won’t help me write my article, but the general effervescence is curing my mean reds. It’s loony and madcap and inspired, and even after Crysis it looks gorgeous. The objects have a real solidity to them, and they’re brimming with character and humour — the way the trees wiggle when you climb them, the soft grass coating the asteroids, the lo-fi beauty of the water. Crysis was lifelike, sure, but this is goddamn dreamlike.

And yet, as with the first game, it never quite makes me thump. Thing is, Mario games have had two arcs. The first arc reached its zenith with Super Mario World (or perhaps Bros. 3, with a plateau to World) — the challenge, the pacing, the level design perfected in those few years. Jumping from one platform to the next was raised to a religious experience.

But then along came Mario 64, and the rules changed. Although ostensibly you still played to overcome obstacles, beat challenges, receive rewards, there was something deeper at work. It was the first game I played — and perhaps the most significant barring Ocarina of Time — where the main draw was the fundamental experience of existing in a virtual world. Sure, I still wanted all 120 power stars, but more than that I desired to run around, to swim in the water, to climb the hills and jump about. The time limit was gone, the march from left to right had been abandoned; you were no longer a shark who moved forwards or died, but rather a stranger in a strange land — free to explore the mountains and valleys of a digital realm.

Mario 64 was the moment I stopped seeing games as electronic tests of skill, and instead understood their potential as waking dreams.

So, however imaginative Mario Galaxy and its sequel are, I can’t help but miss the sense of exploration Mario 64 gave me. The reigned-in nuggets of challenge the Galaxies provide are terrific, but they aren’t as tight as those in World or Bros. 3. How could they be, with that clumsy third dimension added? 2D means accuracy, 3D means adventure; and to my mind you play to your strengths. I enjoy what the Galaxy games give, but I can’t help gazing out into their star-flecked firmaments and wishing for more.

All of which is interesting, but doesn’t give me an article. The day is almost over. I have a heap of scattered thoughts and opinions, but nothing strong enough to lead a post on its own. If only there was a way to lash the thoughts together, some structure I could use to drape the day’s potterings across.

I stare at my PC screen. I listen to a Rock, Paper, Shotgun podcast. I drink gin and tonic. The earth continues its celestial pirouetting around the sun, and darkness falls.

I give up. I don’t have the answer. Not all battles can be won. I climb into bed — the pillows plump, inviting — and set my alarm for work tomorrow. My brain not quite ready for sleep, still clinging to this reality, I put a DVD in the player. Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman.

What will I post to my blog? I don’t know. I just need a spark, anything. Adaptation plays on.

I get tired. Maybe I’ll think of something in the morning.

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A Gaming Education: Crysis

What’s totally clear is that Crysis is about cock. You buy it to prove how powerful your gaming PC is, you overclock your graphics card to prove you can run it on maxed-out settings, and Crytek made the damn thing to prove their engine could crunch more polygons than anyone else’s.

Cock, cock, cock. It’s one humungus cock measuring competition.

What’s equally clear is that, as someone who reads the Guardian and drinks green tea and worries about the environment, I am impervious to such nonsense.

A game is a game, and what matters is the emotional journey the player is taken on, how much the experience moves them, and what they take away from their time spent playing. Aesthetics, as a measure of beauty, obviously ties into this, and producing beguiling visuals is an important factor in engendering such tonal resonance, but HDR lighting does not a good game make.

Building ever more faithful recreations of reality is a job for autistic model-makers, not artists. The future of our industry lies in dreams, not reality.

Nevertheless, I have a new PC, and want to put it through its paces. It’s also, I feel, my journalistic responsibility to wade into this murky spunk-pool of one-up-manship, and report on the sticky truths I find there.

So I boot up the game, and it transpires I am playing the role of a gruff cybernetically-enhanced marine of the future, being dropped behind enemy lines on a mission of some importance, for a distress signal has been intercepted that hints at a dark alien presence to have been awoken from beneath …

I sigh. On the shelf behind my monitor sits Nausea by Jean-Paul Satre. I could literally be reading Satre right now.

I land on a beach at night. I’m grasping an enormous, and-it-has-to-be-said, utterly phallic combat rifle, and wearing a suit that grants me special powers and makes the muscles in my arms look oh-so-bulging.

It becomes apparent my job is to shoot people and also sometimes blow people up. What complicates proceedings is that these people are simultaneously trying to shoot and blow me up as well. Talk about yer existential angst! To be fair, these chaps probably subscribe to Dr Johnson’s notion that he who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man. And why not? Hell, it’s hard to feel dread about the nature of self when Korean soldiers are trying to set you on fire.

A while later I use the cloaking ability of my cyber-suit to creep up on two guards. I grab one by the throat and throw him against the other, and they both go skidding down a hill. This alerts more enemies to my position, so I switch to speed mode and close the distance between us in seconds. Face-to-face, I activate maximum strength mode, and punch the men half-way across the valley.

Very much about cock, that still felt pretty cool.

Later, I shoot my phallic rifle at a tree. The trunk splinters, and snaps, and the whole thing comes crashing down into the foliage, rays from the sun piercing its canopy as it falls. The ocean laps gently upon the sand, in which I can pick out individual grains, and birds fly overhead, distinct when I raise my laser scope to them, blurred and hazy on the edges of my vision. Plants sway in the breeze, yielding as I brush through them.

I’m not sure how that relates to cock.

Later, I’m racing down river in a patrol boat. A helicopter is chasing me, spitting bullets into the water all around. Just as my boat is about to explode I dive out and frantically engage my cloak, which gets me undetected to one of the forested shores before losing power. I cower in the dark as my suit recharges. The helicopter is circling and I can hear Korean voices all around.

Suddenly the torchlight from a soldier’s rifle comes bouncing over the ridge towards me, illuminating the forest in real-time. My suit isn’t fully charged yet, but I cloak up anyway. As long as I don’t move it should hold out.

The soldier passes feet from my position. I can see the expression on his face, the fabric of his jacket. My heart is thumping.

The soldier disappears from view as my suit power dies. The cloak splutters off and I turn — into the sights of the helicopter. I had forgotten about the helicopter!

The shriek of its mounted cannon tears through the night, and all around me smaller muzzle flashes take up the call. I am surrounded.

I dive away from the fire and noise, deeper into the undergrowth. I hit the dirt. My suit’s been chewed up, power is off, warnings flashing all over the display. Luckily it’s quite a piece of kit, and in the seconds it takes the soldiers to follow me it gets itself back online and recharges enough for another brief cloaking.

I take stock. Not enough rockets to destroy the helicopter. Two grenades. A few clips for my rifle.

Scanning with my binoculars I spot another boat moored on the opposite shore. But there are guards all over the dock, and more converging on my position, and the malevolent presence of that helicopter above. My suit has a few more seconds of cloak left …

I’m not playing a game by this point. I really am in the jungle, frantically forming plans, fighting for my life.

And it turns out, though Crysis is very much about the cock, that isn’t such a bad thing. After all, it’s not the size of the game engine or how fast it runs, but what you do with it that counts. Crysis’s fiction may be as hoary as it comes, but it sure provides one hell of a ride. Just don’t expect it to hold you and tell you it loves you after the excitement is over.

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A Gaming Education: VVVVVV

I’m playing gravity-flipping platformer VVVVVV, and I’m — START-DEATH.

Ahem, sorry. I’m playing gravity-flipping platfo– START-DEATH.

Grrr. I’m playing — START-DEATH.

I — START-DEATH.

Goddammit. I’m trying to play Terry Cavanagh’s gravity-flipping platformer VVVVVV, but it’s not going well. I’m on the hardest section, the infamous vertical combination of rooms known as Veni, Vidi, Vici, and frustration finally has a name. I start … and I die. Over and over. Start … Death. Start, Death. START-DEATH.

VVVVVV is a game about solving puzzles by switching gravity. If there are spikes on the floor you switch gravity, fall to the ceiling and then drop down on the other side.

Of course this describes VVVVVV the way “Just a bunch of atoms having a boogie” describes the universe. The distilled concept may be simple, what emerges from it is not.

The Veni, Vidi, Vici section is the equivalent of atoms forming Manhattan Island, playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, gaining awareness of their essential oneness through the Buddha. It is the apotheosis.

There is a Shiny Thing, which you want very muchly. A small box blocks your path to it — but because there is no jump or climb button, your only option is to fall upwards through labyrinthine tunnels bristling with spikes, alighting seven screens up on a platform that disappears the moment you touch it, forcing you to reverse gravity to normal and fall back through the gauntlet again to finally land feet from where you started, on the other side of the box.

That’s the plan, anyway. I just START-DEATH.

I’ve been playing for twenty minutes now. Twenty minute-years, stretching from the inky depths of endlessness into a dark forever where time and space hold no meaning, a nether-zone into which Herculean effort is poured by the galaxy-load and nothing emerges save Misery and Tears.

My best effort I get to the third screen. Usually I die on the second. It would be funny but for the fact IT ISN’T FUNNY AT ALL.

I’m not good with failure. I go all Kevin-Costner-in-Tin-Cup, stubbornly repeating mistakes rather than letting the anger go and changing tactics. It becomes this ego thing, as if my whole sense of worth is being called into question, and my only choice is to bang my head against the wall until I break through — or knock myself out trying.

The rage builds. If there were any cracks in the game design, the merest hints of fracture in the control scheme, or unfairness in the logic, I would be ready to destroy worlds.

But VVVVVV is flawless. Veni, Vidi, Vici presents no faults. It is simply there, an ashen monolith gazing down upon me, willing me to try again.

So my fury turns inwards. VVVVVV is not wrong, I am wrong. I am worthless, lacking; I am … not … good … enough. If I can only complete this, get this Shiny Thing, everything will be okay. But it is too difficult.

The START-DEATHs pile up, hundreds of them, gnawing at my insides. What if I’m here forever? The thought chills me. In fifty years survivors from the Wiki Freedom Alliance, having defeated the armies of the sinister Fox Network, will emerge from the Below Ground to find me in the rubble hunched over my laptop, its screen long since dead, my fingers tapping morosely upon the arrow keys and a stream of arcane gibberish tumbling from my dry lips: hard right into Veni, arc back for Vidi, adjust centre for Vici …

But then, at my lowest ebb, a Strange Thing happens. I become oddly calm. The sheer quantity of START-DEATHs has broken through some wall in my consciousness and I’m drifting in a floaty crystalline no-man’s-land beyond.

It suddenly strikes me that VVVVVV is essentially military desensitisation training for failure, forcing my ego against the truth that lack of success in trivial situations does not equate to actual death.

It’s like stage fright for an actor — how the fear of social humiliation shunts the brain into that primal state evolved to deal with life-threatening situations. Body frozen to avoid detection by predators, brain wiped clear of higher thought to scan for danger, digestion and other non-essential systems slowed down, giving that dry throat and sicky feeling in the stomach.

All of which may be useful when being stalked by a bear, but doesn’t help to perform Death of a Salesman.

Likewise, all this rage in my head, all this blood pumping to my hands and face, the unused adrenalin coursing through my body — it simply isn’t advantageous to my current situation, which is sitting still trying to guide a pretend man around a little maze of pixels.

Veni, Vidi, Vici’s strength is that the sustained repetition of death works as a kind of cognitive therapy, showing me over and over again that this “failure” isn’t a thing to be fought. In fact death in VVVVVV carries such a minimal penalty — you’re yanked back up for another go in milliseconds — that it ceases to be Failure at all, and becomes only Trying.

START-DEATHs turn into START … … … DEATHs. With the jabber of my mind subsiding, the rest of my intelligence can do its work. My fingers dance their way across the keys, my brain maps the twisting tunnels into its memory, and my thoughts come and go, devoid of their usual urgency.

I experience this disconnect from … everything. Thoughts, desires, actions — they all happen, and it’s as if I am simply an emptiness watching them.

Meanwhile, in VVVVVV, Captain Viridian traces his merry path through the pixelated maze. I lose myself as my fingers do their thing. My fingers, connected to the arms, linked to the brain, breathing air through the lungs, from the atmosphere, warmed by our sun … the whole thing joined, entwined — a mad dance spiralling around this plucky astronaut falling inexorably toward the eternal Shiny Thing at the centre of our souls. The Shiny Thing coming closer, unstoppable, a brightness and a power that can mean only Death — but not the death of failure, rather the death of returning, a homecoming, a remembrance of things as they really are.

I complete the Veni, Vidi, Vici challenge two days later, when next I play. It’s fun, but doesn’t make me feel a better person or anything to have done it. The experience was the thing. As one wise old sage once put it: “A gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.”

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Concerning Chocolate

How long has it been? How long, dearies, how long?

Weeks? Practically a month! 27 days, I believe, since last I updated here (or something, how does that thirty-days-hath-thingummy rhyme go again? And what of maths? Can anyone count?).

I am terrible and lazy and also incorrigible, which I used to think meant “not to be encouraged”, but in fact doesn’t at all. Whatever it is, I am it, though.

I blame chocolate. Chocolate in the form of oranges, and caramel dainties, and wafer thin mints. And also cheesy biscuits. Not chocolate in the form of cheesy biscuits, you understand, but cheesy biscuits as well as chocolate, in all its myriad forms.

But the time for such decadence is over, and the time for not-at-all-pretentious (you scamps) games writeringness is returning.

The first post in the ethereal pipeline is about VVVVVV, which is a ridiculous name for a video game, especially when you have to type it literally tens of times for your article. It is a good game though, perhaps a splendid one, and earns the right to an absurd moniker through its fearless efforts to engender GOOD GAMEPLAY and CUTTING-EDGE GRAPHICS. Very excellent and I give it 95%.

That’s a joke, in a sense. Not in the sense of being funny, obviously, but perhaps in other deeper, more elusive senses that we as humans are not yet able to fathom.

Yes, there is proper discourse of VVVVVV coming. I’ve written words upon words, standing on the shoulders of other words, hoisting yet more words upon their spidery backs, about the game already. The problem, as could have been predicted, is THEY ARE NOT GOOD WORDS. Not only that, but I’m not sure they are even IN THE RIGHT ORDER.

Clearly, there is more work to be done.

On a more cheerful note, however, I won the Eurogamer Reader Review of the Month competition this month. My Mirror’s Edge kinda-review was officially Tom Bramwell’s favourite of December, which secures me “some sort of prize”, along with the obvious swooning girls and free cocaine that the title bestows.

I’m super happy, natch, and now possess the relevant enthusiasm and tempered self-loathing necessary to get on with some serious games writing — provided I can stop mumbling about word pile-ons and fucking cheesy biscuits for more than five minutes.

So I’ll crack on with the work, and you THREE READERS sit content in the knowledge you’ll be hearing from me shortly. Or longly, depending how many After Eights there are left in the box.

Oh, and just to confirm — that was Tom Bramwell editor of Eurogamer I was talking about, not Tom Bramwell I used to go to school with, who now takes pictures of trendy models wearing scarves in abandoned warehouses for his successful photography blog.

THERE ARE TWO TOM BRAMWELLS, PEOPLE! Seems like dark witchcraft, if you ask me.

Now, to words!

[Image of Meiji Chocolate Bar courtesy of Strapya World]

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