Solium Infernum

ALEX’s Best Of 2010: A Pee-Pee Soaked Heckhole

[You have selected: Alex Spencer] Looking back at the end of a year, it’s always music that takes the lion’s share of attention. That’s because it’s easy to look back on a period soundtracked by a single album; it’s easy to hear a single so much it’s driven deep into your brain. (More or less the same way that books monopolise places: that beach where I finally read The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier & Klay. Train journeys and road trips easily become monuments to favourite reads, and re-reads… But that’s a story for another time.)Point is: Films, and especially games, don’t get the same treatment. That’s a lot to do with their inherent nature (similar to my conclusions after a Summer With No Games). They are, respectively, a quick burst/an extended period of sitting in a dark room. There’s not much to hold onto, memory-wise. Except: Solium Infernum was the soundtrack to my spring. For a good three months, it permeated the majority of my thoughts as I slipped off to sleep. It dominated living-room conversation (and so, like the album your neighbour constantly turns up to obnoxious volume, probably seeped into defining that period for the annoyed non-players in my house too). There are a lot of reasons for this. To help explain them, I should probably lay out exactly what Solium Infernum is. A multiplayer board game, except with computers and mice instead of dice and sunshine-faded cardboard. To look over someone’s shoulder, the game appears completely harmless. Just some pieces, dragged across a map, and a lot of numbers. Except that it’s a game about politics and in-fighting, which makes it even more fitting for the time it defines, probably. It’s a game set in Hell. Solium Infernum gives you very little story. It gives you a beginning, one familiar to any player versed in our cultural past, from Milton’s Paradise Lost to Dante’s L’Inferno; Gaiman’s Sandman to… er, Sandler’s Little Nicky. Over in Hell, Satan got bored, decided he was about due a holiday, and abdicated the throne. You’re cast as one of the many demon lords who’ve decided they’d like a piece of this pie for themselves.From there, you have to make it up yourself. Which you do in turns, slowly gathering resources, moving units, and threatening your fellow demons in an attempt to gather as much prestige as possible. So you advance across empty wastelands, take fortresses and monuments by force and carve up the Unholy Land between yourselves.It’s an incredibly slow game, especially when played with others. It relies on email, meaning the progress of a Solium Infernum game can be agonising. On a good day, you’ll get to play twenty evenly-spaced three-minute turns, in which you can perform two actions. More realistically, on a day where at least one player actually has a social life, it’s more like one turn the moment you wake up, fifty impatient checks of your email, and one in the early hours when the last player finally gets in and thinks to check their inbox. This can be absolutely agonising. It’s also the defining feature of the game. Because it undermines the rules of what a game is, in terms of time. Those twenty three-minute bursts replace one two-hour session. This moves it closer to the territory of pop music, the repetition that gets the listener hooked. And Solium Infernum is all hooks.Because, ultimately, the game relies on one universally appealing thing: the opportunity to screw your friends over in increasingly torturous way. Everything is carefully placed so you have to be – at best – mean, or – more likely – incredibly sneaky to win. This isn’t a game about battles: to get into a scrap with your neighbour, you have to initiate a Vendetta, either by provoking them with insults, or forcing them to provoke you by refusing your perfectly reasonable requests for half their resources. Which sounds very complex, and to certain extent it is. But quickly the desire to succeed drives you into the rhythm of covert diplomacy, dodgy deals, and mind-games. Not success as in winning, but as in scoring another hit. The moment that, in the game, you pull out of a deal, leave your ‘ally’ suddenly alone with four other rivals, and run off with all the equipment they lent you. The moment that, at your computer, you laugh maniacally until you catch yourself and think, am I actually evil? Which is unique, as far as I can tell: Milton might have used the epic form to create sympathy for the devil, but Solium Infernum borrows from the tradition of Theme Hospital to really force you into that pantomime-villain role. I’ve never been one for role-playing games: it all feels too much like silly play-acting, whether you’ve got a controller in your hand or are sitting round a table in a cloak. Solium Infernum pushes role-playing into your life. The game doesn’t really exist in those three-minute bursts. The game lives in the moments between: the scheming emails and texts, guessing at plans over a drink and, best of all, seeing the friend that you completely irreversibly screwed over last night weeping into his breakfast cereal.It’s not unreasonable to say that Solium Infernum made me a worse person for those three months. I’d suggest it gave me a harmless medium to enact my cruel pranks and be really hilariously mean to my friends. But, then again, that would imply Solium Infernum is totally harmless, wouldn’t it? About the author: Alex Spencer isn’t evil. Honest. Just ask his mom.He may have punted a kitten off a bridge that once,but there were mitigating circumstances. He bears thebadge of being the least cool person writing for thiswebsite right now not as a burden, but with pride.…Ooh, shiny badge!

2010: The First Quarter

After realising how easily I lose track of what I’ve actually listened to/watched/read/played over a year by the end, I came up with the notion of a more regular periodic journal of what I’ve listened to, loved, or been affected by. So, as we arrive at the end of March (and the beginning, apparently, of Spring), I give you more lists, and links (Spotify, unless unavailable or irrelevant).This isn’t the end of any discussion, it’s the start. Take this list and recommend stuff I should be immersing myself in. Please.x Also the source of my most commented-on t-shirt of 2010:Los Campesinos! – Romance is BoringI pre-emptively called this “almost definitely my favourite album of 2010” before even hearing it. Whether that will stand true remains to be seen – come on, 2010, if you think you’re hard enough. I said it immediately, expecting it to change with time, but it hasn’t and I don’t think it will: this isn’t my favourite LC! record. I wanted it push further in the direction The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future suggested, into full-on emo territory. But I’m damning with faint praise here. Romance is Boring isn’t boring. It certainly isn’t a disappointment, and it sparked my love affair with LC! again completely effortlessly. It just doesn’t strike me as a particularly good entry-point into the band, and so isn’t a terribly useful record to talk about. That doesn’t stop it being a stunning piece of work. Hairiest album:Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip – The Logic of ChanceAbout which I suspect I’d have slightly different things to say, had I not been to see them live yesterday. With the beats pushed to the fore (in full t-shirt-quivering bass-heavy glory), and Scroobius’ lyrics feeling slightly more organic in person, the new stuff makes more sense. But it hasn’t changed the fact that Dan Le Sac has grown hugely, and absolutely owns this record, while the words sometimes come off a bit contrived. As recently found in my (lovely) girlfriend’s fridge:Gil Scott-Heron – I’m New HereOne of those things that dropped into my life (thanks, Sam Cowley!) to immediate awe. It deserves more time than I’ve given it, and I don’t know enough about Mr Scott-Heron to comment properly (apparently it’s a more personal album than his usual political material, he hasn’t been around for decades, he was in prison) but that’s part of it. This is one of those albums that is bigger than you, that you just have to bow down to and accept. The ‘companion to reading’ album:The Knife – Tomorrow, In A YearI guess this is the most ‘challenging’ album I’ve spent time with this year (having rejected Joanna Newsom as not for me), being the mysterious Swedish duo’s foray into opera. It’s about Darwin and evolution, apparently. I’m proud to say my boy Sam Langtree beat Pitchfork to the idea that it works mimetically, evolving from a sparse nothingness into some top-quality, almost-traditional Knife material. You must, must, must listen to this through the best speakers you can possibly get access to. On a laptop, it sounds underwhelming but, through a nice soundsystem, it overwhelms. Whether it stands up past that experience, I’m still not sure, but it’s worth a go. It’s already been a strong year for albums which, being an over-analytical music-type, is reassuring. Last year was all singles, but we seem to be looking at a healthy long-form crop in 2010. But the singles are still important. When aren’t they? I can’t believe I didn’t drop a mention to Music Go Music’s Warm In The Shadows in my 2009 round-ups. On repeat, it helped me through 12,000 words of essay-writing in January, and while that’s made it kind of difficult to love the same way in a non-work context, it’s still beautiful and ethereal. Then there’s the Lady Gaga Telephone video, which is of course phenomenal and the pinnacle of everything the Lady’s been working toward – for now. It’s also retroactively increased my enjoyment of the song in general, which I’m always faintly suspicious of. On the other hand: cigarette sunglasses. Right now, my life is dominated by Rihanna’s Rude Boy. It’s one of of those delightful moments where a big pop star finally clicks for me, though I haven’t experimented with Rihanna’s backcatalogue to see if it does more for me post-Rude Boy. Just… the ultimate dominant/submissive, self-aware/silly, masculine/feminine, endlessly quotable/catchy sexy song. I mean, you’ve heard it, haven’t you? “Give it to me baby like boom boom boom”. My 2010 cinematic life has been more dictated by what I didn’t watch rather than what I watched. I haven’t seen Avatar, still, or The Hurt Locker. Ponyo fled from cinemas before I got a chance to see it, and I never got to rewatch Where The Wild Things Are, which I still think deserves better treatment than the melting-screen, broken sound version I saw. I have seen Alice in Wonderland which was okay but had a lack of ideas (always an issue when you’re doing an Alice story) and wasn’t all that stylistically impressive (crippling when you’ve got Tim Burton to direct an Alice film) and 3D is still a load of rubbish.* One game has pierced through all the (rather good, but still largely unexplored) Christmas games to unquestionably dominate my year so far. It’s also dominated the year of my housemates, as discussion of nefarious plans (and misfunctioning files, being a play-by-email game) becomes a standard between those involved in the game. That game is Solium Infernum, a very much turn-based strategy boardgame set in Hell. It’s as little of an Alex Spencer game as exists in this world, and I don’t have the vocabulary to fully capture its majesty, but it deserves your time (try the demo), and the time and annoyance of the people around you. In comics, it’s a bit harder to judge what’s (as they most certainly do not say in the business) hot […]