All entries for January 2008

January 17, 2008

Violence in Games – Lets ban it

Writing about web page http://news.cnet.co.uk/gamesgear/0,39029682,49295095,00.htm

So Gordon Brown wants to ban knives in video games

Lets put aside for a second the idiocy of the statement (shall we ban rocket launchers too as thier illiegal in real life as well) and the free-speech implications. I realised something.

I’d really like a ban on violent games.

Not a permanent one, but maybe for three to five years? I’m not worried about corrupting the kids or anything, I just really want to know what it’d be like if developers were forced to make non violent games. What new modes of expressions and concepts we’d come up with.

Because right now, 90% of games are based around violence. Every single First Person shooter is. Most 3rd-person action-adventures are. Beat’em’ups speak for themselves. Real-time-stratagy games offer violence on a massive scale. Even Mario involves jumping on the heads of people to ‘kill’ them.

The only exceptions seem to be sports games, and simulators (flight, boat, train etc) along with the odd non-violent god-game like Viva Pinata or Sim City.

For 90% of games, the core mechanic is killing. In no other story-telling medium do we get this level of violence, except maybe comics. Imagine if 90% of movies were action films, or 90% of novels were about war. It’s ridiculous. And it’s not like other genres don’t suit games. Sure, romance might be harder to do as we can’t quite replicate the intricacies of human emotion yet, but why, WHY has there not been a brilliantly done who-dunnit game where you play a detective, going around picking up clues and trying to solve a crime. Sure there have been one or two (Ripper, from the 1990s was one of the few good ‘interactive movies’ but ruined when you discover that actual perpertrator is randomised each game and most of the clues are red herrings) but this is a genre that should be massive.

Therre’s so much potential, and I’m sure greater minds than I could dream up far more and better ideas, but frankly it is a disturbing reflection on our society that, when presented with the opportunity to allow people to do anything in a game, we just keep pumping our murder simulators.

It’s not necessary to ban violence in games, but the medium would sure as hell be a lot more interesting if we did.


January 14, 2008

Review of the Year Part 3: Comedy

Edinburgh was sort of weird this year. The overall quality of shows seemed to be up, but the flip side was that less really stood out as brilliant. There were a couple of shows that were particulary good though.

Runner Up: Stewart Lee: 41st Best Stand Up Ever
Some comics improvise a lot of stuff on stage (Ross Noble), others keep the same topics and stories but move words, delivery and such around every night (Robin Ince), while others go to great extents to carefully script a set so it sounds completely improvised (Billy Connolly).
Stewart Lee ignores all that. While they’re technically stand-up, Lee’s shows tend to veer very close to being one-man theatre pieces. He has a script, in which every word was carefully picked to get just the right response, every pause expertly timed to the half-second. In doing this he’s able to play with the form to a crazy degree, weaning massive amounts of laughs from cleverly done repetition and other techniques that you know would just be a disaster delivered by anyone less conscientious about their writing than Lee.
The show touches on what might be considered fairly hack topics such as reality TV but it’s done so differently you don’t care. The only reason this isn’t the winner is that it re-uses a lot of techniques, though not material, from his previous show. He’s since said that he considers this, 90s Comedian and Stand-Up Comedian a trilogy of sorts, so it will be interesting to see where he goes next.

Winner: Brendon Burns: So I Suppose This Is Offensive Now?
Burns is always a somewhat misunderstood comic. You’ll often find him headlining rowdy comedy nights at big clubs in the weekend, playing the part of the offensive asshole to a tee, being that stereotypical shouty Australian saying bad things. It’s an act that pays the bills, but Burns’ Edinburgh shows have always offered something more. While they feature plenty of shouting, it’s done in a smarter way and the shows often have a point to them that justifies it all.
The show takes Burns’ point-making to an extreme, with the first two-thirds offering Burn’s standard intelligent but somewhat skewed views on the issues of life, but then the ending turning everything on his head. It many ways it’s almost an attack on the easy-led braying weekend comedy crowds Burns is used to playing to, but it also highlights the inherent mob mentality and the sort of casual right-winged-ness exhibited by many self-proclaimed liberal comedy fans. Of course, to give away the ending would spoil it and hopefully it will get a London run like Burns’ previous shows, and is defiantly worth seeing.
Well deserving of the Perrier award, though I worry slightly that this is the second year in a row a show that’s about ‘making a point’ (albeit Phil Nichol’s show did it in a very different way) that has won. I’ve felt both have deserved the recognition for some time now, but I worry about this year’s Edinburgh having too many people spotting the trend and attempting to shoe-horn badly thought out ‘messages’ into their comedy shows.

Disappointments
Mark Watson’s 24-hour show
I’ve talked at length before about how brilliant Mark Watson’s 36 hour show in 2006 was so I was very much looking forward to this. Alas, it was a bit rubbish, and I ended up leaving halfway through, having only managed 12 of the 24 hours. So here’s some speculation on why it wasn’t as good:

Venue: I’m aware there were some venue problems and one of them was a last minute cancellation, but the venues were a real problem this time around. The first half of the show was held at The Stand. Now don’t get me wrong, I love The Stand. It’s a great little venue, that’s a comedy club all year round, and the acts that play there get to actually make money, they do wonderful stuff for the acts, they’re pleasant lovely and helpful and they’re great. But The Stand is in the city centre near the high street. This is a million miles (not actually) from The Pleasance, The Underbelly, The Dome, The Gilded Balloon and all those venues. And the reason that this was a problem was the show ended up being very isolated. In past years, it was held at the Pleasance Dome, right in the middle of things, so various acts would pop in and help out and banter with Mark and co. throughout the night as various late shows finished and so on. But you can’t ‘pop in’ to The Stand, so other than acts making a definite effort to be there (and the contortionist, I don’t think we’ll ever forget the contortionist) it was mostly just Mark. Even his regular sidekicks Alex Horne and Tim Key weren’t around for much of the show this year, placing far too big a burden on Watson’s shoulders. For the second part of the show it moved to a more central venue, but again it was one of the new C-Venues and not exactly somewhere on the beaten track, and from what I hear the level of guests and so on really only picked up in the last 3-4 hours of the show. One man can’t be funny and entertaining for 24-hours on his own, he needs people to bounce of and that was sorely missing this year, and I think the main factor in the show being not as good as before.

Timings: A short show at 24 hours this year, it ran midnight-midnight. I can understand the point of this, as it gets those awkward 3am-9am hours out of the way while people still have some energy, but on the other hand it prevents any setting up of anything in the previous day to pay off in the following one.

Theme: I don’t object to saving the environment or anything, but the problem with this theme was that it didn’t have a temporal aspect to it. Previous shows have involved a minute for every year in history, or an around-the-world trip with timings planned so that Watson could check our current ‘position’ at any point. That meant that there was always something to fall back on. Having a more general theme meant there was no ‘safety net’ to speak of.

Running around: There was too much moving about and emphasis on pre-planned events that not only felt artificial but also after you’ve been up for so long you don’t really feel like trudging down to Princess Street for Mark’s book launch. Also my personal circumstances may figure in to it. Last time around I was doing a rolling review of the show for Chortle, which meant not only did I have something to focus on, but I had a laptop for power and an internet connection so if I did get a bit tired or bored I could always have a quick MSN chat or check some websites. Whereas without that there was only Watson.

Dawkins: Sometime early in the show, when discussing what celebrities we could convince to come along, Mark got into his head the idea of getting Richard Dawkins. Problem was, from what I could gather no-one was even sure if he was in Edinburgh. He was doing a book signing, but that was about a week away. So much of the show was spent obsessing over how to get Dawkins, and it got old quite quickly. And it was also somewhat ridiculous when someone actually gave Mark his phone number early on, but he was reluctant to call him, so a million and one other ideas were bandied around, none of which actually worked. It was an awesome idea in principle, it just sucked up far too much of the show and for the twelve hours I was there we never seemed to get away from it.

Ah well, I only write all this as I felt the 2006 show was so brilliant and if this year’s one is to be the last long show I want it to be better.

Other Stuff
In non-Edinburgh news this year I have spent lots of time listening to piano-based comic Tim Minchin, hearing him with a band for the first time on his Radio 2 Christmas show was a revelation, and I’ve since tracked down his first album, which features him and a band and is more ‘music’ than ‘comedy’, even if it does blur the lines. It’s awesome. I want, nay demand, a Tim Minchin and band UK tour this year. Preferably with Chris T-T supporting. Thanks.

I’d also like to plug GoFasterStripe.com a husband and wife outfit who film good comedy shows and sell them on DVD for ten pounds. Legally and stuff. There’s so much good stuff out there that just won’t get a DVD release through the regular channels, but needs to be archived somewhere as it’s just too important not to. I heartily recommend their first release: Stewart Lee’s 90’s Comedian which I personally consider to be the best stand-up show ever written, and anyone who cares about comedy should buy it right now.
Also, and this is a more subtle point: they film all the shows at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff. It’s a small venue and holds just a hundred or so people. The reason I point this out is if you buy any stand-up DVD from Woolworths it’ll inevitably have been filmed at the biggest theatre (or sometimes stadium) the producers could find. Whereas comedy is at it’s best in smaller rooms, and these DVDs go some way towards capturing this, picking up some of that intimate performer-audience connection that doesn’t exist in the massive cavernous theatres most shows are filmed in.


January 10, 2008

Review of the Year Part 2: Video Games

Another fairly typical year for gaming, as there’s a glut of quality releases at the start of the year and then nothing else until November.

Still, the fight for the best game of the year was very very close, but first an honourable mention to:

Honourable Mention: World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade
I spend far too much time on World of Warcraft, but I’ve criticised it in the past for moveing too far away from being a fun game in a desire to just be really really long to keep people paying the monthly fee. But this expansion pack, well it didn’t fix all that as going from level 1-60 is the same as before, but the gameplay and quests involved in levels 61-70 are mostly interesting, varied, and not of the “Kill 30 of creature X” style that drive you mental. If all of WoW was as well designed as the areas in the expansion it’d be a much better game, but this is clearly a case of the developers learning from their mistakes in the early levels, but not actually going back to fix them, as much of their audience have already seen it, and so they look only forwards. It’s a shame, but I guess it’s also a necessity.

Runner Up: Portal
I bought Portal very early on and was just expecting a fun puzzle game that made my mind do funny things. Portal is this. For those that don’t know the basic concept is you have a gun, hit the left mouse button, you fire a blue portal, the right button fires an orange one. Step through one and you come out of the other. Oh, and momentum is conserved, so if you jump off a platform into a portal on the ground, you’ll come flying out of the other one like some human cannonball. If that sounds confusing, don’t worry. The game introduces the concepts involved slowly so they never overwhelm, but by the end of the game you’re doing crazy acrobatics you never thought possible. If this was all there was to it, it’d be a great game. Working your way through a series of puzzle rooms, figuring out all the clever things that portals allow you do to. All the game hype was claiming that you had to learn to “think with portals” but it’s actually true. You really do have to bend your mind in a very strange way in order to get your head around how it all works, especially if you’re a regular gamer and the conventions of first-person-shooter games are ingrained in your soul, while this game comes along and pulls them all apart.
But it’s not just that. If you use the internet you probably haven’t been able to avoid references to “the cake is a lie” and “the people who are still alive”, the game has spawned it’s own catchphrases due to the fact it tells a wonderfully funny and well written story in addition to all these unique mechanics. It’s a short game, only 3-5 hours, and as such it feels like play through an Asimov short story, as this female artificial intelligence taunts, mocks and encourages you while explaining how the game works. Until around two-thirds of the way in when the whole thing gets turned on it’s head and you at it/her become rivals. And the whole thing ends in a song. The story won’t win awards, there’s not much in terms of twists or striking character moments, but like TV shows such as Boston Legal and the West Wing, it’s great because of the dialogue. Which is amazing given that your character doesn’t speak and there’s only one other in the entire game. There truly haven’t been this many one-liners in a game since the last good Monkey Island. And that was a long long time ago.
The only downside is after finishing the game I went to look at the ‘Advanced Rooms’, expecting more clever puzzles but they are in fact just more complicated versions of existing levels which generally just need quicker reactions rather than any extra thinking. But I guess you can always ignore them entirely.

Winner: Super Mario Galaxy
I primarily play games for the stories these days. Having been playing them since I was about 6 I feel like I’ve seen everything in terms of mechanics (so the occasional exception like Portal is awesome) so my primary interest lies in games as an interactive story-telling medium. It’s a fascinating field as games can really give you a sense of space and make you a willing or unwilling participant in the story, in a way that TV, Film and other mediums simply can’t.
So my game of the year is one with one of the naffest stories ever. If you’ve played any Mario game you’ll know it: Bowser kidnaps Princess, Mario gets her back by collecting stars. The fact that I can be taken with any game that lacks a story so badly is saying something, but Mario Galaxy just draws you in and you can’t help but love it. Sure, the basic 3D platforming we’ve seen before, but plenty of times but there’s so many clever little ideas and concepts that the game plays with and then just discards that leave you thinking “I’d quite like a bit more of that”. It’s also a game that opts for a theme: gravity and runs lots of variations on it. Levels can have multiple gravity sources, so you can jump and fly from planet to planet, other levels allow you to manipulate gravity, etc. Despite all those claims that the Wii is just a souped up Gamecube, this is a game that truly couldn’t be done on the ‘Cube, not because of the graphics, but because of all the clever physics tricks. They do sometimes cause problems, occasionally you’re not sure if walking off the edge of something will let you walk right around and underneath, or kill you but these moments are few and far between.
It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a game as pure and unapologetic about being a game as Mario Galaxy is, and so it gets my game of the year award.

Biggest Disapointment: Bioshock
I mentioned earlier how I love games as a storytelling medium. Well Bioshock is a great example of this. There’s a moment 2/3rds of the way through which is two things: first it’s gaming’s first real ‘Usual Suspects’ moment, the first game that really pulls off the plot twist well. But secondly while that alone would be impressive it’s still an old cinematic trick. What it also does is offer a sort of meta-commentary on gaming itself: the twist only works because it leverages your expectations of a first person shooter against you, and in doing so forces you to question why you have those expectations. It’s sort of hard to explain without giving it away but there is no way I’m ruining it. Suffice to say it’s somewhat akin to a videogame version of Adaptation But there’s a reason it languishes down here as the biggest disapointment of the year.

You see, in the past I’ve criticised Half Life 2 for being nothing more than a generic shooter. A good one but nothing special. I realise now how wrong I was, as it’s clear it could have been so much worse: it could have played like Bioshock. While the plot and setting may be a work of pure brilliance the game is extremely dull. There are only around 5 or 6 different types of enemies, and you meet them all in the first few hours. You can get various ‘plasmids’ which give you special powers like fire and lightening which is fun, and these also get upgraded. But when you get an upgrade, they still look the same, oh and the enemies just get more health and hit harder the further in you get so basically both you and your opponents power up together, so you never feel anymore powerful than you did at the start, so the entire game plays out almost identically. One battle with splicers is much the same as the next. And there are a lot of them. But not as much as there is stuff to search. Yes, bad guys dropping all their ammo and stuff in a pile on the floor when they die is silly and having to stop and search the body instead of just running over it to pick it up makes sense. But then Bioshock also hides ammo and similar things in containers around the world, which also have to be searched. Which would be fine if there weren’t about 8 containers in every bleeding room! I swear I spent half the game clicking to search a container and clicking again to pick things up. And you’ll need that ammo as the game isn’t exactly generous with it, so it’s not just my obssesive compulsiveness making me search every damn thing. To add insult to injury, one of the power-ups you can get is a ‘scavenger’ one, which allows you to search objects twice. Oh the humanity.

Eventually I gave up. I wanted to see the story through, so I stuck it on easy then ran around hitting everyone with the wrench. It was probably worth it for that one clever bit but boy, was it really not-fun.

TV, Comedy and random stuff round-up coming soon!


January 02, 2008

Review of the Year Pt1: Music

In some ways it’s been a fairly quiet year in music for me, in fact I’ve only bought 4 of this year’s releases so let’s start with the two ‘best’ albums of the year:

Best

Runner Up Duke Special: Songs From a Deep Forest: I first saw him open for The Divine Comedy in late 2006 and enjoyed it but wasn’t quite taken in enough, but I started listening to them again this July in anticipation of Guilfest and them being one of the few bands I cared about that were on (I mostly go for the comedy and the tradition these days). I quickly found myself hooked: the rich sound with lots of weird instruments make him a fairly typical ‘me’ artist, and most of the tunes being piano lead doesn’t hurt either. There’s also something that feels somewhat retro about a lot of the songs to, they tend to evoke the atmosphere of a bygone era. It’s hard to choose stand-out songs but Freewheel is a personal favourite and Portrait features the two highlights of the entire album: the purposefully off-key line: “As you endure the sound of one more singer singing out of tune”, and that little bit that builds to a awesome little drum solo that you simply cannot listen to without playing air drums. Seriously, it took me 5 minutes to write that sentence as I had to keep stopping.
Also Our Love Goes Deeper Than This which isn’t on the album but does have Neil Hannon.

Winner Gavin Osborn: In the Twee Small Hours
But as much as I loved the Duke Special album it loses out to this one. You’re probably now rolling your eyes at me picking something so willfully obscure as my album of the year and assuming I’m just trying to be far cooler than I actually am. But the truth is I’ve been waiting for this album for a long time. I first encountered Gavin opening for comedian Daniel Kitson on his tour way back in 2004 and really, really enjoyed it. But for three years all I had were four songs on his Myspace and the occasional track and live session on Kitson’s late night Resonance FM radio show. But finally, the end of the year bought us his first album, and somewhat fittingly it’s a live album, which by definition means a lack of heavy-handed production, and a very low-key sound which allows Osborn’s brilliant lyrics to shine. Many flirt with silliness to a degree and there’s a lot of wit within them but they never cross entirely into the murky realm of ‘comedy song’. I should mention The First Recorder Playing Rock ‘n’ Roll Star as it’s the only thing I can link to on YouTube, and is probably the funniest thing on the album.
The centerpiece the album is undoubtedly Left Side From My Right, a politically charged song that sits around two-thirds of the way in and has the potential to seem a little out of place, given the lack of any of Osborn’s many other political tracks on the disc (it does seem that “nobody writes any good red songs anymore”, or at least they tend to avoid putting them on albums) but it works well to really raise the mood of the album just where it’s needed and so it stands out in a good way.
My personal favourite is Platform Girl, almost a sister song to The Divine Comedy’s Commuter Love, dealing with how we fall in love with the people we know nothing about, because in our minds they are perfect.
The Greatest Thing There Is is that rare beast, a truly touching love song that doesn’t descend into cliche or cheese, and Soundtrack is a wonderful take on reminiscing on loves once lost.
I could go on and on talking about every song. I may well do at some point in the future, but for now go here to listen to some songs, here to listen to some more then here to buy the best album of the year.

Worst

Runner Up The Polyphonic Spree: The Fragile Army
This isn’t a bad album, by any means. Nor is it just more of the same, in fact there appears to be a conscious attempt to do something different and not just re-write the first two albums, and the whole thing is a lot more rocky. My problem is, as much as I love The Polyphonic Spree, those first two albums just never get boring, and frankly, they’re enough. I have enough Polyphonic Spree that when I want to listen to some Polyphonic Spree I’m sorted, for me this album was just unnecessary and I’ve never really felt compelled to return to it. That probably says more about me than the record, but there we go.

Winner James: Fresh As A Daisy
Of course, the biggest thing in 2007 musically for me was the reformation of my favourite band in the world ever and between those early, shoddy warm-up gigs in February, an amazing homecoming tour and two stunning ‘Work In Progress’ nights in London where they played nothing but entirely new songs from the forthcoming album, I’ve seen them live 9 times. They’ve all be wonderful gigs (though Birmingham Academy would have been nicer if the air conditioning was working and you could actually breath) and it’s been awesome to have them back again.
So why then, is this album my worst of 2007? Because it was a big missed opportunity. This is a good Best Of compilation, I recommend it to anyone that wants to get into the band, and to everyone else too. Except for the other devoted fans like myself. Sure, there’s some nice early stuff on here from the first two EPs that was previously only available on vinyl, so that’s nice to have. But… well first let me explain the conceit: the idea of the two disc set is it provides a chronological history of the band in singles. Which is a great idea but it doesn’t quite work out.

See, their most well-known track, Sit Down, was actually released twice, first in 1989 as a plonky, folky piano track, and then again in 1991 where it was remixed into the anthem we know today (the 1999 re-release is also missing, but that’s probably a good thing). The same happened with Come Home. Rather than include both versions, they’ve just included the latter ones. Forgivable, but they’ve also placed them on the disc in the original release position. So 1988’s YaHo jars into 1991’s Sit Down and Come Home, before we go back to 1990s How Was It For You and Lose Control. Which sort of defeats the point of putting everything in chronological order in the first place.

Then later on in the album we find that rather than use the rarer single versions of some tracks, they’ve just included the regular album versions. Again, not a major deal if there are only a few changes but since most of the big James fans already own all the previous albums, it’d been nice to have something slightly different, especially as this is meant to be a singles collection!

Of course, there was no reason to cater for the hardcore fans (although how much effort it takes to get the Born of Frustration single from the archives rather than the Laid album I don’t know) as they’d buy it anyways for the early tracks and the two new songs. But that doesn’t mean I can’t slate Mercury Records for another lazy lazy lazy James compilation disc (don’t even get me started on the collection) and so award it my ‘Worst album of the year award’.


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