Year: 2012

It’s the End of the Year as We Know It: TIM’S PERSON OF 2012

Between his blog, his mix CDs, and his all-round lovableness, Tim ‘Trivia Lad’ Maytom is my pick for Person of the Year, every year. Fortunately for you, he’s too modest to write a thousand words on himself, and always seems to have his own opinion on the matter anyway. His Person of the Year has been a fixture on this site for three years now, and in past years has talked up Amy Poehler and Donald Glover… But who will it be this time?  Let’s find out. Once again, my choice for Person of the Year revolves around someone from the world of comedy, but as this year’s choice would say, comedy is a ministry, and it can have a tremendous impact on how we view the world. Pete Holmes is an American stand-up comedian, and a very funny one at that. His album, Impregnated with Wonder, is filled with brilliant observations and manages to combine a whimsical sense of fun with real human honesty. He’s appeared on various talk shows and Comedy Central specials, and this year recorded some pilot episodes of a talk show that would follow Conan O’Brien’s show on TBS (this hasn’t aired yet, and is still waiting for confirmation over whether it’s been picked up, but is still an impressive achievement), but the real reason he’s my Person of the Year is for his podcast on the Nerdist network, You Made It Weird. “I’m thinking about getting off of Facebook and Twitter, all of that, and just signing up for a service that every 30 minutes texts me the phrase ‘You’re Not Alone’.” You Made It Weird started out with a very loose interview format that revolved around “weird things” Holmes knew about the guests, who tended to be other comedians from the LA comedy scene, but evolved very quickly into a more wide-ranging discussion that tended to focus on three areas: comedy, sex and God. The guests interviewed Holmes as much as he interviewed them and his honesty about various aspects of his life, from his youth as an evangelical Christian to his experiments with becoming a “[physical intimacy] person”, via his divorce from his wife, is both rare and infectious. We live in an age when everything we do is shared on the internet, which creates an odd mix of openness and image management in most people. Holmes bypasses this by moving beyond the 140-character limit and getting into deeper conversations that last long enough to find recurring themes and patterns in people’s lives (the average episode length is about 90 minutes and longer episodes get up to two-and-a-half hours). He is remarkably unguarded in how he presents his thoughts, and this in turn encourages his guests to be the same. “This is a weird little part of your life, isn’t it? Feels like we’re snowed in together. There’s only one bathroom and there’s so many of us! ‘What do we do? Put on a show! Beats getting to know each other, right?’ It sure does.” Holmes’ approach to religion and spirituality follows the same approach as his discussions of his personal life – honest and infinitely curious. His guests span from the strongly atheist to the deeply spiritual (his talk with Duncan Trussell gets into some truly esoteric areas) and Holmes himself claims that he can believe everything from a godless universe to one where every action has meaning and purpose. There’s a very open-minded, non-judgemental approach to talking about faith, and a profound acceptance that not really knowing the truth is inevitable, but thinking about these ideas is important. The ultimate strength of the podcast, and by extension Holmes’ comedy, is that you are listening to someone smart who has accepted that he doesn’t have all the answers about faith, relationships and life explore these issues with equally smart people, all of whom happen to be hilarious. I listen to a great number of podcasts at work and You Made It Weird is the one that gets me the most funny looks for suddenly bursting into giggles. The weightiest subjects are always going to be the most fertile ground for comedy, and Holmes isn’t afraid to dig into the most profound questions there are. He has a child-like glee and enthusiasm for the strangeness that reveals itself when people start opening up about what really drives them and what’s important to them, and it results in some achingly funny but deeply thoughtful conversations.

It’s the End of the Year as We Know It: THE MUSIC OF 2012

[Now with a handy Spotify playlist] If you have spent any time drinking with me in the latter half of this year, I’ve probably bemoaned that 2012 and I haven’t clicked musically. And not for lack of trying – apart from clawing at friend’s sleeves and demanding recommendations, the workday mix of Spotify, This is My Jam, and finally discovering BBC 6Music should’ve given me plenty of chances to dig up stuff I’d dig.There’s been plenty I liked, but not much I fell in love with. With some notable exceptions, of course. Notable exceptions Looking back at the year, two pop singles stand out – Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe, and Taylor Swift’s We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. They’re sleek colossi of purest pop. Songs for dancing, for pretending you’re in a pop video to. They are, of course, filled with some of the most perfect Moments of 2012. We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together is absolutely overstuffed with them – extra yeahs, switched intonations, the spoken asides. “Like, ever.” The way Taylor inserts a series of full stops in “Said. You. Needed. Space” and immediately follows it up with a fourth wall-breaking “what?”. The last bit is a raised eyebrow to her audience – can you believe this guy? – and though the song’s “you” is the (ex-ex-ex)boyfriend, you get the impression she’s talking to her mates here. The eye-rolling sneer of “some indie record that’s much cooler than mine”, and the layered-over laugh that follows.  It’s all put together to ensure you never get bored of its simple repeating chorus, that constant machine-gun punchline. The song itself comes off as slightly insecure, trying to convince the listener, which is just perfectly right given what it’s about. There are moments when another Taylor breaks in, impatient to hammer the point home. The song is constantly rushing forward, desperate to get to the second listen, the third, so much so that it forgets that the rest of the time it’s trying to convince you this is live, individual and performed just to you, because that’ll get you on side, right? True to her country music past (which, just FYI, I am actually very fond of) Taylor’s voice breaks and cracks, with occasional moments of show-offery. At the song’s end, the music drops out a second early, so Taylor’s voice can plant its flag one last time – a live outro if ever I heard one. By comparison, Call Me Maybe is much more controlled. It’s confident it knows how to push the right buttons, and it does. For its Moments, it mostly goes to stuff built into the structure of the song – the slow build of its opening, into the glitter-confetti explosion of the first chorus. The mid-song verse tumble of words, rushing past with no time for breath or line breaks, especially next to the sharp punctuation of each line of the chorus – that violiny stab, which is a Moment in itself. Turning up the drumbeat for the final couple of choruses. Every single time the volume peaks. And if we’re talking about outros, listen to the way the song’s close just melts out of existence, a trick last played on Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me a River. It knows it’s a pop record, and wants to remind you of that fact, but it’s also a big ‘Game Over’ screen. PLAY AGAIN? That’s pure confidence (of course you will), and just like the slight self-doubt of We Are Never…‘s delivery, it fits the subject. Jepsen makes it clear she knows all the other boys want her, so why wouldn’t this one?  It’s interesting because the pop archetype it’s tapping into – the fancying from afar song, so often the unrequited love song – is often the preserve of the boy looking nervously at his shoes.  Here, the consummation isn’t a foregone conclusion, but the power is undeniably in Jepsen’s hands. She’s a force of sexy nature. Honestly, it could be creepy with the gender roles reversed. Instead it’s an excellent bit of female gaze (see also: the video’s ripped abs moment). While most chart-bothering songs seek for new ways to tell a girl her tits look nice, her ass is perter than average, Jepsen delights in little thrilling details – those ripped jeans, skin was showing – which feel more like the marks of real human sexuality. And healthy sexuality too: there’s no shame here, no debasement. Ultimately, I think it’s telling that there’s no question mark at the end of the song’s title. There’s only question to ask, of both the listener and seducee: WHERE D’YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING, BABY? Dancing like a mutha I used to dislike dancing, at least in public, and not without reason: my body is clumsy, all elbows, and has little sense of rhythm. But as I get older, and have less and less opportunities to dance, it’s just another embarrassment I’ve learned to slough off. The most formative musical experiences I’ve had this year have all involved dancing – Grimes’ Oblivion pulling me into a warehouse in Ljubljana and setting off a night of furious dancing and repeatedly losing my friends. Atta Girl in Birmingham back in March, scribbled requests on my hands and being held aloft to Heaven is a Place on Earth. Various points throughout Sam Lewis’ wedding. But most of all, despite it being a comics event (and the best one in the UK), Thought Bubble in Leeds. At the mid-con party, I was the first one on the dancefloor, along with Dance-Comrade Tim Maytom, and we stuck there until it had filled, and they’d played Call Me Maybe twice, and it was triumphant. But being quiet means DJs can take the opportunity to play songs you’d never heard before, or only in the confines of your bedroom, and getting to test them on a live dancefloor. Especially, I’m thinking of Lies by Chvrches – which, it turns out, kicks and stomps in all […]

It’s the End of the Year as We Know It: THE COMICS OF 2012

Our round-up of 2012’s best pop culture continues to run off the rails of the originally planned schedule. But fear not, the final piece, on the year’s best music, will be with you in time to change your NYE playlist accordingly. In 2012, I read more comics than in any other year of my life, thanks to Comixology’s endless stream of sales and the truly excellent Canada Water library. I developed such an addiction to comics podcasts (between the industry analysis of House to Astonish, the close reading of Kieron Gillen’s Decompressed, iFanboy‘s chatty quickfire reviews, and Mindless One’s SILENCE!, in many ways its scrappy British cousin) that I’ve recently had to cut back. Moving to London meant I saw what my girlfriend describes as my ‘comics friends’ far more, hitting up the ever-wonderful Thought Bubble and owning its dancefloor with them.I’m more immersed in comics culture than I’ve ever been. …And yet, coming to write this, I find myself with a rather thin list of actual comics which came out in 2012.Buying cut-price digital issues on Comixology – plus monthly splurges on Amazon – has forced me into reading older material and collections. It means I’ve finally got past the first trades of The Invisibles, Sandman, and a wealth of other stuff I’m embarrassed to admit I hadn’t read before, but I’ve also dropped off buying monthly issues almost entirely. If I wasn’t a tradewaiter (non-comics people translation: someone who doesn’t read their comics monthly, in issue format, but waits for the bi-annual-ish ‘trade paperback’ collections) before, I certainly am now. However, it also means I haven’t read any further into Journey into Mystery, my favourite comic of last year, than I had at the time. It’s very nearly all available in trade, though, so I’ve got a wonderfully condensed period of high adventure, deep thinking and, if the internet is anything to go by, big emotions ahead of me. And it’s not all bad: regular trips to the library have furnished me with handsome editions of the first five Locke & Key volumes. It’s a story about the Locke family and their ancestral home, Keyhouse, beginning with a father’s murder and blossoming out from there. The titular keys (and nominal locks) each come with their own magical power, and a matching metaphor.In truth, despite being written by Stephen King’s son, Locke & Key‘s nearest relative is probably Buffy. It transitions deftly between tense thriller/well-drawn ensemble drama/experimental formalism/pure horror throughout, but the draw is always the characters. The series’ scope has widened, drawing in more of the family’s history and pushing towards the fantastical, as it reaches its climax but it stays anchored to the human stories of Tyler, Kinsey and Bode Locke. It all concludes next year (five more issues, or one more collection) – catching up is highly recommended. Meanwhile, the Comixology model has produced Double Barrel. Playing with the format rather than the form, the Brothers Cannon have developed a monthly digital comics magazine, centred around an ongoing story from each, but also drawing in essays, mini-comics, and how-to’s. Both stories are solid, with Kevin Cannon bringing smoother art to the Arctic pirate space adventure story Crater XV and Zander Cannon delivering my favourite story in Heck, a modern slice-of-life riff on Dante’s Inferno.Without the constraints of print, each chapter can be as long or short as it needs to be, but for just $2 (and dropping below $1 after a month) Double Barrel is the most interesting bargain in the modern comics landscape. I think overall, I’ve settled into the reading rhythm that’s best for me, grabbing #1s digitally (year’s best? Hawkeye, which promised a modern blueprint for superhero comics) and then using them to decide what I’ll pick up six months later.It gives series more room to breathe. For example, the first couple of issues of Saga – the much-anticipated return of Brian K Vaughan, a writer who must shoulder a large part of the blame for my comics habit – were good, but failed to blow me away. But returning to it in trade form, I found it rich, complex and … worth writing about in depth, basically. Living up to what people had been saying about it in the first half of the year, the first volume of Prophet made for an intoxicating read. The art shifts as constantly as the world, with little touchstones serving to link up the style of each artist: The dense alien landscapes intended to be pored over. The inventory panels stolen straight out of a videogame. The tactile gnarliness of it all.Meanwhile the story, which jumps between a number of John Prophet clones I never quite learned to tell apart, is either some higher-level narrative magic, or nonsensical. But really it’s all just an excuse to join Prophet (the one with the tail, or the one with the mohawk, or the one that’s dead inside his robot bodyguard) as he journeys through a mad, inventive, beautifully rendered world.Some of the experiences you, the cosmic tourist, can expect to enjoy – falling from the sky in the pink womb of a protective star skin; sharing a post-coital cigarette with your vagina-faced alien lover; watching the stars from the shoulder of a curled-up fetus planet. Morrison’s Batman run has been a regular feature on these end of year round-ups since I started doing them, and Batman Incorporated is shaping up to be a fitting end to his extraordinary run. The story has embraced Batman’s entire history, even the bits fans normally wince at, but it’s now been running for long enough that it can mine its own past. All the pieces are being brought together. Dozens of Batmen of all nations, and as many interweaving subplots, all battling the forces of evil in the form of Leviathan.The shadowy organisation’s even shadowier leader was revealed to be Talia Al Ghul, Batman’s onetime lover and father of his son, presently Robin and potential Devilbatman of the future. With that, the whole epic saga has […]

It’s the End of the Year as We Know It: THE GAMES OF 2012

Sorry, the running order has already slipped, due to yesterday being a lovely day of family, friends, and boardgames, but here’s today’s scheduled Games article. Comics should be with you tomorrow. It’s been a big year for games, in about every conceivable way. Between the rise of Kickstarter, and the continuing flood of Humble Bundles and its ilk, it’s not hard to look at 2012 as a year that awealth of alternative approaches opened up to game developers.But looking at the industry – which also spent a lot of the year showing its ugly side – isn’t really my forté, or that interesting. It’s not about the machine, it’s about what it produces. On to the games! Probably the most ‘important’ game of the year is Thirty Flights of Loving, which introduced a bit of fresh vocabulary to the medium in its hard cuts and hypercompression. Over the 20 minutes it lasts, the game jumps around non-linearly, squeezing in enough story, world and character for your average blockbuster. It’s not a game I fell in love with, but it is a useful game, the kind you can expect to see name-dropped endlessly in articles about game narrative from now on.Dishonored‘s narrative is much more traditional, telling Dunwall’s story with a mix of cutscenes, overheard conversations and level design (graffiti, audiologs, books, bodies, etc). The real story, of course, is in how you played it – leaping rooftop to rooftop, freezing time and possessing rats; switching cups of poison and hiding under tables to watch the outcome; silently dispatching roomfuls of men and leaving their unconscious bodies on top of chandeliers.It’s not quite the machine for memorable anecdotes I’d hoped for, but partly that’s down to how I played, strictly sticking to a set of rules I’d assigned myself – never get spotted, never kill (with the exception of those who framed me for the murder of the Empress). It meant I found myself restarting at the slightest provocation, getting into sticky situations becoming a nuisance rather than a chance to improvise with the excellent toolbox the game grants you.It made me realise how much I love games which force me to live with my actions and mistakes – more on that later.Halo 4. Now there’s a game I didn’t expect to see on this list.I’ve played every game in the Halo series, now six installments deep (not including last year’s remake). Together, I’ve probably devoted more time to it than any other series in videogaming (and therefore probably more than any other hobby full stop).The game picks up, two games later, where Halo 3 left off back in 2007, with Bungie handing over the reigns to first-time developer 343. It wasn’t too promising, especially once I heard about the CODification of the multiplayer, introducing levels and points and perks, abandoning Halo’s trademark simplicity.And then the chatter came through the wire. Twitter suddenly blossomed with praise, throwing around phrases like “ballet” and “finely tuned” and expressing their surprise at just how good it was.On paper, Halo 4 shouldn’t be as good as it is. There’s nothing particularly original on offer – the opening of the singleplayer campaign, at least, is so structurally similar to the 2001 original it could be a remake. It even trims off some of my favourite features – multiplayer minus my beloved Invasion mode, and the rather-good Firefight has been replaced. But most damningly, there’s not even a good control setting, or even a customisable one.And yet everything somehow feels fresh and elegant. Both the visuals and handling are satisfyingly chunky, delivering on the promise of Halo at its best. Maybe it’s just down to streamlining the experience and turning all the dials to 11 – in multiplayer especially, where respawn time is erased completely, and weapons and vehicles are thrown into each level with careless abandon.I don’t know, it’s just an utter joy, and I need to play more. Now.One of the great pleasures of having spent so much time with a game’s predecessors is being able to really appreciate the various tiny changes – in the case of Halo 4, take the way the singleplayer campaigns provides with much more limited ammo. You can see why it was changed – it forces you to constantly switch around your arsenal – and it’s a satisfying process of discovery, even if you disagree with some of the changes.It’s a similar story with Spelunky, an Xbox Arcade remake of possibly my favourite PC game ever (and the other contender for the game I’ve spent most time spent playing). I love that there’s no ‘restart’ button, encouraging you to live with the consequences of getting stung by a scorpion in the first 10 seconds of a game, which really focuses the point of the game. The in-game encyclopaedia, as much it offends my inner Spelunky purist, is rather smart, and I love the way the Tunnel Man asks for items rather than/as well as cash to dig his shortcuts, which adds a sprinkle variety and narrative to your encounters with him.Mostly, though, I can feel how the distribution of monsters, damsels-in-despair, and traps has changed. They’re laid out more densely, which upsets my play style a little – and means letting a boulder loose can get you in a lot of unintended trouble as it steamrollers shops, shrines, and damsels – but ensures levels never get boring, especially with the addition of all the new monsters and secrets.The removal of end-of-level scoreboard is the change that hurts most. It always helped lend a sense of progression to a session of bashing your head against Spelunky‘s unforgiving world, and was tied neatly into the game’s physical levels.But, really, Spelunky is such a complete, rounded concept to start with that it doesn’t really matter, and the port is responsive and pretty. Plus, one of the changes is the ability to switch out all the Damsels for pugs, which eliminates pretty much any criticisms I could raise.FTL picked up many of the same […]

It’s the End of the Year as We Know It: THE FILMS OF 2012

I suspect that 2012 was a really exceptional year for film, if only because the list of films I regret missing in cinemas – The Raid, Skyfall, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Dredd, Sightseers, Silver Linings Playbook, Moonrise Kingdom, Life of Pi, Beasts of the Southern Wild – is far longer than the list below, and I was more than happy with the year of films as it was. For me, though, 2012 was all about Joss Whedon. Three out of the dozen times I made it to the cinema this year were down to Whedon, who released two films (of the three it looked like we might be getting at the start of the year, boo hiss Much Ado). One of them was the year’s biggest grossing; the other was my personal favourite experience in a cinema all year. We’ll get to the latter in another post, but (Marvel’s) Avengers (Assemble) was exciting because of the amount of influence and money it seems to be putting into the hands of one of my favourite directors – but also because it’s a truly great blockbuster, one which inspired me to write 3,000 words back in August. Six months on, what I remember about it most is: -Containing a whole bunch of moments which caused my jaw to drop – the helicarrier, Black Widow kicking guys in their heads, the vast majority of the final action scene. -Being a great and colourful introduction to a sprawling family I want to spend more time with – probably the way in which Avengers is truest to the (very best of) its source material. -Geoff being absolutely wrong about Hulk, something we fight over in pubs to this day. He argues Hulk is treated too lightly, with too much comic relief given over to this monstrous being. But of course, Mark Ruffalo is the best Hulk ever, including the pencil-and-ink one, and it’s a totally Whedon thing to get that the Id isn’t a completely bad thing. Denying a whole part of you – the funny bit, the sexy bit, the bit that likes to dance – is where the sickness really starts (for all people who haven’t taught The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde to an A-Level English class, now would be the time to go and reread it). There are maybe some continuity issues with the previous film, but for me these films are so much about stripping these characters back to their core metaphors and letting that interpretation run rampant for two hours that it doesn’t matter too much. Oh, and it of course absolutely stomped all over the highly misleadingly titled Amazing Spider-Man, which had thirty seconds of great fight scene and Emma Stone in high socks. How it compares to that Other Superhero Film of the Year, Dark Knight Rises, I sadly can’t answer, as I still haven’t seen it – something which owes a lot to the deflated reaction that followed its incredibly hyped release, and a conversation with Tim ‘Person of the Year‘ Maytom in a Camden pub in which he described trucks of cash being driven up to Chris Nolan’s front door in a borderline threatening manner. As seems to be the official line on it, Brave wasn’t Pixar’s best, but it was still a non-Cars Pixar film, and therefore pretty great. It took a standard-issue fantasy setting and set of tropes, along with a rather broad sense of humour, and made something beautiful (though it was out-prettied by the accompanying La Luna short) and engaging, with the rare achievement of fight scenes that had me rooting desperately for the good guys. Also, it was yet another reminder that the combination of sweeping scores and parental relations in a cinema can put a very big lump at the back of my throat. “THIS DECADE’S THE MATRIX,” the poster screamed. The chorus of early reviews roughly concurred. I went into Looper thinking it might be my film of the year, which is never a healthy expectation, and given that, it handled itself very well. Looper is a neat package – a smart concept, neatly executed, and full of neat moments I won’t spoil here. It’s set in just the right kind of sci-fi world, one that is rarely pushed in your face, but rather gives you the pleasure of hunting through the background details and piecing together a history of the future yourself. It toyed with other film’s visions of the future, but found its own identity in the wide open spaces that surrounded the futuristic city. There’s also a full essay on how cleverly it presents and contrasts Willis and Gordon-Levitt’s firearms, to characterise the differences between them and to help define the plot, and what we can all learn from that. But that’s a story for another time – and besides, what’s most important, more than how stylish and smart it was, is that how surprisingly emotionally involving Looper was. Watching it the week after Brave, its climax matched that film in the ‘nearly making Alex cry’ stakes. Beyond that, I’m finding myself having to score the release schedules to remember what I actually saw. Young Adult was a downbeat, volume-turned-down follow up to Juno from Cody/Reitman, swapping that film’s primary colours caricature for something more muted and aching. Something a bit more adult… but not quite grown up. It was great, and just the right level of tough, and deserves a spot on everyone’s DVD shelf. Cosmopolis left me cold despite taking the approach to sci-fi I described above, and despite the great line-up of talent involved. Seen on a whim, Red Lights was very pleasant, if unspectacular, company for two hours. American (Pie: The) Reunion left me wandering around Tesco’s feeling strangely desolate about growing up.

It’s the End of the Year as We Know It: THE PLAN

As we rapidly deplete what remains of 2012, people like me get the sudden itch to make lists like these. I’ve done it for the past four years on this very blog, and have tried to find an interesting format each time – whether it’s 100 one-sentence reviews, long-form essays, or imaginary mixtapes. This year, I’m too old and too tired to think of anything particularly original, so I’m going to use that most hackneyed of formalist devices: mirroring. From now until the New Year, I’ll be publishing a quick rundown of my year’s highlights in pop culture, starting today with film, and then start January with something more longform on a single example of the year’s best in each. On New Year’s Eve, as the centrepiece of this tomfoolery, we’ll have our annual Person of the Year piece from Tim Maytom (winner: Alex’s personal man of the year, 1997-present, and owner of a shiny new blog at Trivia-Lad.co.uk). There’s a full schedule below, if only so you can watch how quickly I veer off it. I’ll try and add links as I go. 27 Dec – Film 29 Dec – Games 30 Dec – Comics31 Dec – Music 31 Dec – Person of the Year 1 Jan – Games: ?????????? & ?????? 2 Jan – Music: ???????? 3 Jan – Comics: ???? 4 Jan – Film: ??? ????? ?? ??? ?????

FTL: Misadventure Hero

FTL describes itself as a ‘a spaceship simulation real-time roguelike-like’. That’s kind of true, but not quite. It’s neither deep nor broad enough to be a spaceship simulator.Instead, it simulates a particular feeling, a particular moment – one you might be familiar with from sci-fi films and TV. Specifically, Star Trek. More specifically, the bit where Captain Kirk/Picard/Janeway is sat on the bridge, in their big comfy captain’s chair, as the crew buzzes around them desperately. More specifically, the bit where they shout “power down the shields, and put it all into the weapons” and the immortal response comes back: “Aye aye, captain”. Its closest kin in that respect is Football Manager or Champ Man or whatever it is the kids are playing these days. Both games let you live out a fantasy – you’re the manager of a football team, you’re the captain of a spaceship – and then picks and chooses the necessary elements to help your imagination get there. Just like all the best spaceships, FTL is cobbled together from disparate pieces. Its combat is a real-time strategy game with a very small canvas. Whenever it wants to give you something more complex, a moral decision or familiar sci-fi scenario, it becomes a simplified text adventure. Travelling between each point uses an interface taken straight from boardgames. From RPGs, it takes loot and an upgradeable, customisable ship. From roguelikes it nicks the randomised levels and heartbreaking perma-death. Despite all those moving parts, though, the result is something neatly simple. It doesn’t take long to learn how to control your three crew – just left-click to select, right-click to send them somewhere – or what the HUD means – typically eight or so different systems, from weapons to shields to oxygen, which you can put differing levels of power into, draining your reactor in the process. It’s all controlled from a top-down view of the ship, with each system getting its own room. Putting crew into rooms , and helps fix them if – when – they break down. Frankly, FTL isn’t very sexy – like Football Manager, the graphics are barely there, and the pausable action always stays a step removed – but that’s not important. Like all the best games, it’s a token, a tool, a lightning rod. Something your imagination can grab onto and start telling stories with. My favourite sci-fi TV series, predictably, is Firefly. More specifically, my favourite episode is Out of Gas – an episode split between flashbacks and a disastrous breakdown of the spaceship all the characters live on. More specifically, my favourite bit, my favourite moment, is the opening of that episode. The ship, floating adrift in space. Each of its room, stripped of their familiarity by the simple fact of being empty. Captain Malcolm Reynolds face down on the floor as the oxygen seeps out of the ship… Doomed. I said FTL is a simulator of the Star Trek bridge moment, but it’s a simulation of that moment too. Of making a bad decision, and condemning your whole crew to a drawn-out death – or an extremely quick one, depending on the size of guns your baddies are packing. Of being the last one alive, whispering apologies, as the fires spread and you can’t fix everything at once, and holding on futilely until the crack in your hull sucks out that last 1% of oxygen. FTL is mean, and that’s great. One of the tips, which are meted out sparsely, one per playthrough, just tells you ‘Dying is part of the fun’. And it is. As in fellow roguelike-like Spelunky, death is where most of the stories come from. And just like Spelunky, there’s the sense of a Rube Goldberg device that leads, inevitably, to your death. This then this – why didn’t I buy those missiles at the last store? – plus this – where’d the lights go? who’s behind that door? – leads to this –  why did I ever to help these poor, defenseless idiots? – and then you’re dead, a splat on the universe’s windscreen. And you take a moment to mourn the good ship Crushinator – and AJ Hager, your Engi who saved everyone’s asses that time – then flip on the wipers, clean off the mess, and start again. Or maybe you pull it back, praying you’ll make it to the next store and its valuable repair equipment, before you undergo another one of those misadventures. And you do, and suddenly your ship is all-powerful and it’s glorious, each new location handing you generous piles of scrap, the game’s currency, new weapons to bolt onto your hull, a new crew member of a species you’d never even encountered before… But more likely, you land in an electrical storm, next to the baddest pirate ship in the known universe, and it puts in those final hits to your hull. And, after you spent so long repairing everything, and healing your crew, and Captain Elnubnub just levelled up his repair ability, your ship falls back into those pieces its cobbled together from. That’s the nature of being randomised. Like the universe itself, it can be completely unfair. It took a dozen or so playthroughs (read: deaths) before I started to get the hang of the game. And then, just as I did, I got hit, again and again, with the same scenario – battling a rebel ship too close to a small sun, with solar flares . I must have died close to a dozen times, more or less consecutively playing that same scenario. A different ship maybe, but always getting torn apart by solar flares. And so I thought, well this is it, this is how it beats you. But I haven’t seen that scenario since. It’s just the way the deck gets shuffled, I suppose. Besides, if it all gets too much, you can switch over to Easy mode, which is more generous with scrap and combat’s a little more forgiving. It’s a good palette […]

Pilot Season Sunday

TV is a bugger. People are always talking up the hot new thing, and when they turn to me, I am left slack of jaw and glassy of eye, nothing to contribute. ‘Um, have you ever heard of this programme called Buffy?’  That’s why myself and Imogen ‘Couch Innovator’ Dale decided to invent Pilot Season Sunday: watch the first episode of a load of TV shows our friends, colleagues and assorted internet tastemakers have been pushing for the last eternity, assign each a star rating, and then decide which are worth watching more of.  These are the shows we watched: Parks & Recreation Parks & Rec has been on the to-watch list for a while now. You like Community, people will say – try this, it’s even better. This normally comes with the caveat that you have to give it time, that it doesn’t hit its stride in the first few episodes, maybe even the first season. Both sides of this now make sense to me.  I liked its moxie – it seems like a cheery and optimistic version of The Office, in both of its transatlantic incarnations – but there wasn’t much meat on its bones. No hooks to bring me back, no big laughs. Maybe I’ll try the second season next time. Pushing Daisies It’s going to be a hard climb for any TV show which starts with a dog dying. But it turns out Pushing Daisies – which I knew basically nothing about, except that I want to watch all the programmes with allusions to death in their titles – is a Venn diagram of my favourite stuff from elsewhere in TV-land: Gilmore Girls‘ too-fast, too-snappy dialogue, served with a Whedon-style genre twist and the visual style of a brilliantly quirky cartoon, the bright primary-colour palette neatly offsetting the morbid concept. Combined, á la Veronica Mars, with a neat central mystery, it couldn’t be more My Bag if it tried. Plus, there were two (non-dead) dogs in this episode, one of which was a chow and one of which may be immortal. All is forgiven. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic The internet – by which I mostly mean Tim ‘Brony’ Maytom – has been going on about this for ages. I had to know why. The numerous pony puns (‘Canterlot’) are perfectly pitched, the soft-outlined art style is pretty, and it’s a rather charming package, but I’m still not sure I understand the fanaticism. Sorry, Tim. Wonderfalls A TV curse which I recommend never catching: watching the credits. It can ruin surprise guest appearances, and figuring out which are your favourite and least favourite writers and directors on staff can colour the way you watch an episode. In this case, it was spotting the name Bryan Fuller and thinking, isn’t that the guy off’f the Pushing Daisies credits? And then it was obvious. The dialogue’s a bit less quickfire, though no less sharp, and it’s less obviously quirky and twee – no mean feat for an episode boasting a menagerie of talking animal souvenirs – but in the long term, that could mean it doesn’t grate. That is, if it had a long term – apparently it was cancelled at episode 13. Oops. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia Which was a sitcom which gave me upwards of three belly laughs and a handful more chuckles. With eight seasons to consume, I can see this going into hard rotation as background watching in the flat. I think it’ll do just fine. Arrow Green Arrow has a great origin story, actually. Spoilt rich kid gets stranded on island for five years, becomes a mysterious hardened bad-ass, and returns to society to right his father’s wrongs. Its combination of Lost and Batman fits TV perfectly, and looks like it’ll lend Arrow a neat structural hook going forward. It’s a bit of a blunt instrument for something which takes an arrowhead as its symbol, but I’ll never get tired of watching a man weaponising his own life. Making connections to Batman, especially Nolan’s recent films, would be fish in a barrel, but it works. It’s a bit dumb (I’ll cheer if his British-accented vaguely-ethnic stepfather miraculously doesn’t turn out to be a villain) and the pilot was a bit reliant on nods and winks to the source material (Speedy, Diggle, Dinah, lol) but… hey, that’s superheroes, right? And that was Pilot Season Sunday. As a way of making snuggling into the sofa and watching a frankly unhealthy amount of TV seem like an Event, it’s highly recommended. Feel free to steal the format. Shows we didn’t get round to, which will no doubt make up the roster of future Pilot Season Sundays, include Girls, Misfits, Breaking Bad, Veep, and Six Feet Under. Any further suggestions are warmly welcomed.NB: These star ratings are the ones I originally gave each episode. Could’ve changed them if I was so inclined – as has been pointed out by Tom ‘Daylight‘ Huxley, Wonderfalls definitely deserved more stars than Arrow. But I opted for authenticity instead. 4 REAL, etc, etc.

Something Old: Crackdown 2

Found this while digging around in the corners of my external hard drive – a short review from last year, of a game that was already old when I got my hands on it. Shared here as a curiosity/to keep the blog ticking over/because you really should play Crackdown 2, y’know. It’s well fun. Really, all open-world games are just playgrounds. They give you a safe space and just enough equipment for you to make your own fun. Individual games specialise, improving the playground itself – Red Faction’s destructible buildings – or the toys you’re given – Just Cause’s trademark grappling hook. Crackdown 2, however, gives you what every child swinging from the monkey bars really wants: super powers. You are a genetically-modified government agent in the mutant-infested Pacific City. Faster than a speeding bullet and all the rest, packing gadgets that would make Tony Stark jealous – including an SUV which can drive along walls. To get your hands on one of those beauties you’ve got to prove yourself, by gaining experience points in five areas – strength, agility, driving, guns, and explosives – by performing relevant actions. Punch someone off a roof to boost your strength, squash them beneath your tyres to access better cars. Chasing after Agility Orbs or jumping a car through stunt rings provide less violent alternatives. It’s a just-clever-enough system, encouraging a constantly varied play-style. Explosive skill lagging behind? Stop running everyone over and break out the grenades. As a sequel it’s not much of a step forward and the game only provides the barest bones of missions, but all that really matters is how genuinely powerful you feel, especially at the higher levels, as you leap between rooftops and fling cars at enemies. You are Superman. Or rather, you’re the kid jumping off the swings and shouting “up, up and away”.

An Epic of Epic Epicness?

Epic Mickey is probably the most fascinating game I’ve never bothered to play. I mean, the creator of legendary PC mix-‘em-up Deus Ex digs into the nooks and crannies of the Disney Universe? League of Extraordinary Gentlemen + House of Mouse? That is some Alex Spencer catnip, right there. But you can’t help feeling that there’s a lot of compromise mixed up in there. Compromise of a few different kinds – the necessary sacrifices of working with Disney, maybe, and the necessary sacrifices of making a game that can reach kids and adults, and of making a game for the Wii, and of making a mainstream game at all. That makes a sequel, which has the benefit of learning from all the mistakes its older brother already made, a very attractive prospect. Especially when you start throwing words like ‘co-op’ and ‘musical’ into that formula. So I found myself sitting in Disney’s London headquarters, listening to Warren Spector – aforementioned head of the Deus Ex family – chat up both games, and hoping… …and then, inevitably, being let down a little. Spector opened with a stream of marketing-research buzzwords – Mickey was ‘cool’ now, he said, he was ‘surprising’ – and a back-of-the-box bulletpoint list of improved features. The camera’s not broken any more, the characters can actually talk now, and there’s even more persistence. Which admittedly, are the kind of fixes that make this sequel sound like a good idea, but when you’ve got one of gaming’s most interesting brains up on stage, talking about a pretty great concept, it’s not exactly what you’re hoping for. But slowly, Spector moved off script a little, and the interesting stuff started to come out. The history of Oswald the Rabbit – who Walt Disney created, and had Simon&Schustered away from him, before Mickey was so much as a twinkle in his eye. What Disney said no to – notably, a series of rejected Tinkerbell designs he wanted to se as a gaggle of jealous sisters for the fairy. The way the games intertwine the real and fictional history of Disney – its theme parks, after all, being the kind of places which feature secret underground bars, and its studios being the kind of places which feature secret underground tunnels. Enemies which meld an animatronic outer shell with a inkblot doodle centre. The kind of stuff which makes the Epic Mickey concept deeply fascinating, essentially. Again and again, Spector kept coming back to that persistence thing – the importance of choices in how you play the game, and of their consequences later on. It’s the connecting thread through all of his career and output, and the thing which makes Warren Spector’s Epic Mickey a fascinating prospect. …and then I got to play the game a bit. Admittedly, it was more or less a tutorial level, and I was feeling the pressure of a dozen onlookers while I got stumped by a game designed for children, but my fifteen minutes of game didn’t bear out any of those virtues. There were no quirky characters or settings nicked cheekily from ancient Disney lore – the game is a thing of beauty, in a way that doesn’t come across in screen shots. It’s as fluid as a cartoon, and Mickey’s jump animation deserves poetry written about it. But it didn’t feel like a world cobbled together from the debris of eighty years of animation history. The brooms from Fantasia danced around the margins of the level I stumbled through, and looked absolutely lovely doing so, but what was at the centre felt a little generic. Nor did I get any sense of the Guaranteed 100% More Persistence we’d been promised. The narrator reliably informed me that it really did matter whether I chose to use the game’s paintbrush mechanic to paint or erase, create or destroy, but it didn’t seem to change the way the game played. There certainly weren’t any of Deus Ex’s trademark alternative routes or self-created puzzle solutions. There was nary a conveniently-placed ventilation shaft in sight. It was that feeling again, of the compromise necessary to gain access to the Disney universe and its fictions, of shackling a sharp and inventive mind to the dulling influence of something like the Disney corporation. So here I am again, sitting and hoping. This time, I will buy the game, will bother to play it. And hopefully at least some of that potential and some of those ideas and passion and weirdness will make it through into the final product. Let’s hope.