Mar 04

Is it just me, or are trailers for video games nowadays getting a bit heavy on the music? I don’t know what first brought this to mind, but when I looked back at the trailer videos for a few games that had caught my eye recently I noticed that they all followed a similar pattern: lots of frenetic action, overlaid with a song. No (or very little) sound from the game, nothing to really set the mood, get interest in the story…just visuals and an (occasionally piss-poor) track playing along.

Take, for example, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations:

Or, the upcoming Aliens: Colonial Marines game, which I keep trying to tell my inner eight-year old self will be alright to play (he doesn’t believe me):

Gears of War 3 even managed two! First one:

Second one:

Even giant robots get into the swing of things, with the recent Fall of Cybertron trailer giving it the full “Merriman Weir” treatment:

All of which isn’t a massive problem – game makers can, of course, present their games however they like without referring them to a balding misanthrope in central Scotland for final approval on the marketing front. What strikes me as odd about the whole thing, though, is the fact that almost all games nowadays are far more involved than the relatively simple things that I believe most people think of when you say the words “video games”, where one pushes buttons to make a rotund Italian plumber jump up and down. They are stories, they build up narratives, they let the player make choices, become immersed in the world, familiar with the characters and, I would argue, the end result is that the player cares about the characters and situations they are playing through on screen. I can’t help but think that this process might be helped if the trailers let some of that come across, instead of bludgeoning us with some fairly intrusive music while allowing tiny little bits of sound from the game peep through in the background occasionally.

To defend my point, compare the Fall of Cybertron trailer above with the trailer for the first game – War for Cybertron – below:

Look at that. More importantly, listen to that. The two main characters in the game get dialogue. They set out, very quickly, the differences between the good guys and the bad guys. They set a tone, you get an interesting hook into the story, you see that underneath the whole giant-robots-fighting malarkey there might be the core of a decent sci-fi story in there, one that you might get to take part in if you hand over the ready cash*. It gives the voice artists a chance to shine, and builds a far more complete picture of what sort of game you might be buying in a few weeks / months. Compare that to the trailer for the second game – what do you get from that? The yellow thing looks hurt because its eyes look a bit flickery, and the sudden urge to buy some real ale. That’s about it.

I’m not saying that music shouldn’t play a part in game trailers – it should – but to me the trailer for a game should make me want to buy the game instead of making me want to nip onto Google and find out what was the name of that track playing all through the bloody thing.

 

* Plus, one of the characters BACKHANDS A MISSILE. Even for a giant robot, that’s fucking hardcore and should function as a selling point for anyone.

Feb 14

Xbox 360 controller

Too many times I think a conversation like this one happens when people are developing computer games:

Person 1: “Right, so as they go from level to level, things get gradually tougher. Harder puzzles, stronger enemies, that kind of thing. Right?”

Person 2: “Right. Except for this point right here, where we’re just going to jack it right up to ‘impossible’ and see what happens.”

Person 1: “What, with no warning? No gradient? Just a sudden leap from manageable to impossible? What do you call that?”

Person 2: “Ah, you see, we call that a challenge. The users will love it.”

Now it would be very easy to assume that this is sour grapes because I am playing a video game and can’t get past a particular section* but I have played enough games, and experienced this phenomenon enough times, to think that such a conversation might well take place during the game development process. A game builds up an enjoyable level of challenge, gets gradually tougher to match your increasing level of comfort, and then BOOM – unkillable enemy / neverending swarm of enemies / puzzle that fucking Einstein would have to have looked up on YouTube to get a walkthrough. Or, even worse, a game that is unbeatable at level 10 if you make the wrong decision on level 7. Didn’t save at the right point? Upgraded the wrong thing? Didn’t buy that ammo / map / health pack when you had the chance? Well that’s you bucko, might as well go back to the start.

Or, even worse, a maze. I always think that a maze is a game developer’s way of telling the player that he/she would much rather get to the pub and have a drink. Need to extend the game a bit? Whack in a maze. Because nothing makes dropping 40 quid on a game feel worth it than wandering around a fucking maze. If I wanted to do that, do you know what I would do? PUT OFF THE CONSOLE AND GO TO A MAZE. Then there’s the selective agility issue – I’ve lost count of how many times in a game I have controlled a character who has beaten up bad guys, leapt from roofs, pulled off all sorts of superhuman stunts and then can’t climb a waist-high wall to get to an objective. Why? Because the game developer wants you to go over there and fight a bad guy. Never mind that the thing you are looking for is two feet away over a garden fence and your character has so many muscles on him that from a distance he would just look like a particularly threatening penis, you can’t get it. Go do what you’re told.

All of which tells me that it’s time to get out a book and read for a while. Feel free to laugh and point.

* Easy, perhaps, because that’s pretty close to what it is. I never claimed to be a saint. But I will say this: FUCK YOU, DEAD SPACE 2. FUCK YOU.

Feb 09

Huw Edwards

Okay, just had a frightening moment watching the 10 ‘o clock news on BBC 1. There’s Huw Edwards, introducing a piece on whether the Conservatives understand the British public* and if they can win the coming General Election**. He says something along the lines of “To win, the Conservatives will need to win in seats that the Labour Party have held since…” *noticeable pause, look at monitor* “…1997.”

Proud moment there, Huw old boy, proud moment. Yes, 1997. Not like you had a chance to rehearse that or anything.

* They don’t.

** Worryingly, they could. Get your fucking finger out, Brown.

Jan 05

Right at the back of my local Tesco, up the moving walkway that does that scary locking thing with the wheels on the trolleys, sits a large bank of televisions that just happen to annoy the hell out of me whenever I happen to go there. Before I go on I know that the most obvious solution to this particular conundrum is just to ignore them and not go to that particular section of the store, but they’re right next to the section that sells DVDs and video games. I am, for those of you who either might not know or have forgotten, a huge couch potato and geek that is easily annoyed at stupidly minor things. So it’s a perfect storm, really, and not one of my making.

What is it that annoys me so much? Well, it’s the whole setup that Tesco have trying to sell the HD experience. They have all these TVs with a split-screen, showing what a movie or show looks like in HD and what Tesco want you to think it looks like on a normal TV. It looks something like this *:

On the left, normal, on the right, HD?Above: see, you need to buy HD! Look at that old shite your TV puts out! Buy HD now! DON’T THINK ABOUT IT! DO IT NOW! **

Except of course that it doesn’t look like that at all, does it? *** I’ve got a normal TV, and it doesn’t look like someone smeared Vaseline all over the screen after punching me in both eyes and stealing my specs. HD TV might well be the best thing ever, but every time I see those televisions in Tesco I always get annoyed at the underhanded way they seem to be selling the experience. They even did it once with Iron Man, and when that white line passed over him Robert Downey Jr. became Robert Indistinct Blob Jr. I’ve got no problem with them selling something, but they should at least try to do it honestly. And yes, I know that sounds daft but I thought I might as well start 2010 as I mean to go on.

* That is, by the way, an image from one of the films that they actually use in Tesco. I had to go and do research to find out what film this was, and get a screenshot. I put in the effort for this, I really do. I don’t even like Keira Knightley all that much.

** Sponsored by Tesco. Every little helps.

*** Of course the possibility always exists that I just happen to have a very specific type of stroke that affects the vision in one eye whenever I happen to step into Tesco. Mind you, I would need to recover from this episode every time I leave the shop but I suppose it’s not impossible. ****

**** Yeah, I suppose it is. Sorry.

Dec 31

I am still shouting this. A lot.

Right, here are some things I learned today:

  1. When you’re upgrading a WordPress installation and it tells you time and time again to make a backup of your database, it really really means it.
  2. If you’re nervous because you never upgraded a WordPress installation before and you think you have backed up the database, do make sure that you actually have backed it up before you do anything that involves deleting and replacing stuff.
  3. No, seriously, make sure. Make really sure. Go and check again.

I mention all of this because if, for example, it turns out that you didn’t backup the database after all, have lost everything and need to start from scratch, then you’re left sitting at a laptop feeling like a complete tit with an overwhelming urge to shout obscenties at the reflection staring out at you from the screen.

All of which leaves you with an expression like this:

Angry face

Above: What do you mean, you deleted the database?

So from me, and my safe pair of hands, I bid you goodnight.

Dec 20

If there is one thing that is guaranteed to put me off going to see a film*, it’s hype. I understand that talking up your latest movie is just a part of the business and I accept that, but when the talk and the praise and the hype all goes OTT it actually starts to put me off the film entirely. I don’t know why I have such a reaction, but there it is. When I think about it, I still haven’t seen Moulin Rouge because so many people I know said “You MUST go and see Moulin Rouge!” when it came out**.

That’s where I am with Avatar, the latest James Cameron film. Between people I know talking about it, mentions on Twitter and various reviews I have seen the words “revolutionary”, “awesome”, “spectacular”, “fantastic” and “gamechanger” tossed around like so many tossed salad leaves at a tosser’s convention. I’ve even seen one celebrity be a bit of a prick about it on Twitter when someone dared to even question the greatness of the film in the smallest degree. As the hype continues to build up I can’t help but think if this film were a person, he or she would be glowing white and floating six inches off the ground as lepers and cripples begged to be touched and cured.

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m actually quite keen to go and see the film, because I’m a geeky fan of all things science fiction and it looks like a passable enough way to pass an hour or so. But – and I say this with all due respect and in as mild a way as I possibly can – IT’S JUST A FUCKING FILM. Now, you want to talk about revolutionary ideas and “gamechangers” that’s fine. Democracy? Gamechanger. Polio vaccine? Gamechanger. Telephone? Gamechanger. Those scientists who mapped out the entire genetic code of cancer? Gamechanger. CGI-stuffed story with blue aliens, spaceships and action sequences that will be out on DVD and Blu-Ray within the year? THAT WOULD BE A FILM.

* And if you want to put me off reading a book, make a film of it and then print a copy of the book that uses the movie poster (or a scene from the movie) as the cover image. What, we won’t buy a book unless it has someone famous on the cover? What is this, the Heat magazine approach to literature? I saw a copy of “A Christmas Carol” in Tesco last week and in addition to the movie poster being the cover, there was text all along the top that said “Now a major motion picture”. You know, because being a classic bit of literature wasn’t enough.

Christmas Carol book cover

Above: If only Dickens had thought of blue aliens first.

** Is this cutting off my nose to spite my face? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. I just don’t like the glassy-eyed zeal that gets into people’s eyes when they are absolutely convinced that you would love something and that you should go and see it right away. I like apples and salt and vinegar crisps, but I don’t go all shiny-eyed cult leader on people and try to convert them to Granny Smith’s Golden Wonder Church of Walkers. Plus, Nicole Kidman pisses me off. An entire video singing with Robbie Williams and she doesn’t slap him silly once. Wasted opportunity.

Dec 02

So my mum wants to buy one of my brothers a laptop for his Christmas. Being the geeky one in the family, I’m the person that parents, aunts, cousins etc come to with computer enquiries* ranging from “This isn’t working!” to “What’s my WiFi password?” to “This thing is running slowly…fix it!” with all sorts of things in between. In this case, it was “Can you find me a good laptop at a reasonable price?”. I didn’t mind helping out, so I started to look around for a decent deal. The requirements were simple – a general laptop for basic use, nothing too fancy that needs to play games or anything like that, as the boy in question has a games console for that kind of thing. Fair enough, says I, getting to work.

As it turns out, it was the wife who found a laptop that fitted the bill nicely. It was in John Lewis, looked good, decent spec, and came to a price that suited my mum. Cracking, I thought. Done and dusted. Except that when Saturday rolled around and I went up to mum’s to show her the thing, it was out of stock on John Lewis’ website. Undeterred, we had a quick look at Amazon.co.uk. Out of stock there too. Now starting to feel a bit foolish, I checked Play.com and with no small amount of relief, saw something very much like the following:

When they say this...

In stock. Two words that don’t often raise a smile, but let me tell you, they did on Saturday. Without any further hesitation we put in the order and boom, that’s Christmas sorted for one boy. Except that it wasn’t. I mean, come on, you’re not stupid. You’re sitting here reading something called “Screw you, Play.com” so it doesn’t take the biggest feat of logical deduction to come to the conclusion that something is about to go wrong.

Monday rolls around, and I notice that the cost of the laptop hasn’t come off my bank balance. I phone Play.com’s customer service, and this is where several things happen:

  1. I almost make myself late for an important meeting.
  2. I get a headache. Seriously, I really did. One of those “pounding behind one eye” kind, the sort that makes you really nauseous.
  3. I come to realise that I am not getting this laptop.
  4. I find out how many times someone on the other end of the phone can repeat the same line to different questions.
  5. I consider going onto Google Maps to see how long it would take me to get to Play.com headquarters and swing for someone.

It turns out that between my clicking “Buy” on Saturday and the order going through, they ran out of stock. Or had run out of stock already, they weren’t too clear on that. Turns out that Play.com’s massive website, on which the entire company is based, isn’t updated on weekends but rather is updated on Mondays. The laptops were dished out on a first come, first served basis and despite my having ordered it in good faith with the whole “In stock” thing, what I could actually do was either piss off and buy a different laptop, or piss off and wait for them to restock. Which takes 28 days, according to their rep. So a perhaps more accurate Play.com would probably look like this:

They mean something a little more like this.

That’s right. 28 days. Because it’s not like there’s something that happens in December that is less than 28 days away from the 30th of frigging November, is there?

I’ll give the customer support rep her due credit to some extent. She did say that if she had the laptop, she would send it out to me. She does lose points for consistently refusing to let me speak to anyone else at Play.com, for talking over me several times, for not answering any questions I put to her, for saying that if our situations were reversed she wouldn’t mind waiting 28 days for them to restock that laptop and for saying something at one point only to immediately deny ever having said such a thing in the very next sentence, but I will give her a little credit for being sympathetic. A very little credit.

So the upshot of it all is, I have to cancel the order and then find another laptop that fits the bill. Which I did, but what annoys me – beyond the crappy website that apparently operates on a two-day delay compared to the warehouse – is the fact that at no point did anyone at Play.com think it would be a good idea to contact me and say “See that laptop you ordered? Sorry old chum, it’s out of stock and you might want to think about ordering up another one.” No, they were content just to leave it as it was. The order page on their site didn’t even tell me the damn thing was out of stock, it just kept saying “order taken”.

December is a busy month and most of us have money coming out of our accounts left, right and centre as we buy presents. It’s not impossible that someone could have ordered that laptop and never got around to chasing it up until it was too late, especially as “order taken” doesn’t give the impression that it actually means “we have done piss all, and won’t until after Christmas, so I hope you’re not holding your breath for this laptop”. Not only would this have made me look a complete tit come December 25th, it would also have delivered a fairly solid kick in the knackers to a young boy’s Christmas. I’m no retail magnate but it seems fairly basic courtesy to tell someone that the thing they have ordered is out of stock. Basic courtesy, however, is not something that a company like Play.com has to indulge in at this time of year – they know that they have the consumers by the short and curlies because people need presents at this time of year, and with shops going under quicker than swimmers with lead boots on, online retailers are fast becoming the best place to go.

Anyway. Crappy experience, solution found, spleen vented and if I was ever on that Play.com rep’s Christmas card list I’m probably off it now. I’ll just wind this up by saying screw you, Play.com! Your time will come and when it does, I’m afraid that any sympathy I may have will be out of stock.

* Every family has one of these people in it. Every single one. They’re the one that usually has their job description shortened to “works with computers” by older members of the family. Oh, and if you’re sitting there thinking, “Well, my family doesn’t!” then guess what? IT’S YOU!

Oct 20

Fresh from a nice bit of twisting the knife about a young man’s death, the Daily Mail has seen fit to write an article about how the X-Factor is…now, you might want to sit down for this one, take a deep breath and prepare to be shocked…staged. Faked. Not actually a talent competition, but a polished, edited, made-up-in-advance product. I know, I know. When you’ve stopped crying and your ears have stopped ringing from the sound of your world collapsing around you, here’s the article itself. Be strong.

Thermians from Galaxy Quest

Above: What the Daily Mail thinks TV viewers look like.

Was there ever, in the entire history of human civilization, an article that needed to be written less than this one? Are we really so stunted, so stupid, so unable to see the plain facts in front of our noses that we need some journo from a sixth-rate rag to tell us that the X-Factor is fake? So you’re telling me that Leonard Nimoy has normal ears? What about that spherical robot on Terrahawks, did he steal Windsor Davies’ voicebox or not? Is Salma Hayek a vampire? It’s a world gone mad. Who knows what is real and what isn’t? Here’s a hint – generally, what you see on TV isn’t. It’s edited. It’s perfected. Usually, it’s scripted in advance so they have some idea of what they’re going to be broadcasting (I don’t think “Surprise TV” is going to be the next big thing – will it be an episode of Casualty, or someone reading Heat magazine for an hour?).

Honest to god, it annoys me that people can be so dumb. This is why we have adverts that have to stress that parts of what we are seeing IN AN ADVERT might be made up to make the product look good. Anyone who’s not a blithering halfwit knows that when you open a jar of face cream a cloud of particles don’t come flying out like hyperactive nanobots to be smoothly absorbed into your cheeks. You just get a slight smell of face cream that reminds you of your gran. In the adverts, though, we need to be told that bits have been dramatized, enhanced in post-production etc. Oh, really. Thanks.

While it annoys me that some people can be so dumb as to fall for this tripe, what really gets to me is the manufactured outrage when they do, and the pandering that’s done to avoid it happening again. Do I think the X-Factor is a genuine talent competition? No. I think it’s a very heavily edited show that’s about as realistic as an episode of Mork and Mindy. It’s entertaining, don’t get me wrong, but if you think it’s about talent then you’re…well, wrong is about the most diplomatic thing I can think to say. I also don’t think that women phone one another up and say “Hut?” once they’ve dropped the kids off at school, that Cheryl Cole’s hair is really worth it or that fitting a ninth blade to the Gilette Slashatron 2000 will give me a better shave than the razor I have now. Why is that? Because when you take into account all the autonomic functions my body needs to stay alive, I have at least one brain cell left over for thinking duties.

Jun 30

I’m a reasonably smart guy, so I know that when I read something on the news that makes me angry, it doesn’t really do me any good to let it rile me too much. News stories are inevitably written from an angle – sometimes to inform, sometimes to provoke, sometimes to mix the two – and you should always consider the angle a story is coming from when you read it. I know this – like I said, I’m a reasonably smart guy. Not “my god, the man’s a genius!” smart, but I get by ok.

Then there are times when I read something and just think, “the hell with it.”

It all started off innocently enough (and how many stories could we all start with that sentence?). There I was, reading the BBC News site and I come across this story – “Fat stars ‘make obesity normal’” I sit, I read it, and instead of shaking my head and filing it away, I let it get me angry.

Right off the top I’ll admit, I’m pretty damned overweight. Not through any huge intake of food, I hasten to add: I’m not shovelling down three chocolate cakes a night, I don’t fry everything, I very rarely eat any kind of meat and I am familiar with the business end of a salad. Given that my wife is vegetarian I have no problem cutting out meat and adopting a pretty mediterranean diet (if they ever come up with some research that says tomatoes are bad for us, I’m royally screwed). My problem is that my job involves me sitting at a desk for long periods of time and my main interests when I am at home involve me sitting for long periods of time. I did once try to go powerwalking while reading a book but after the ninth lamp-post I decided that the sore nose wasn’t worth it.

So the Professor that has provided the basis for the article believes that overweight stars on TV are making obesity normal. Putting aside for the moment that people shouldn’t be so damned stupid to look at someone on TV and use that as a benchmark to live their life, and putting aside for another moment the fact that there are worse things someone can do in this world than be overweight, I’d like to ask the Professor in the article, what is the next step? Do we ban overweight celebrities from the public eye? Do we have someone standing stage left with a scale and a BMI calculator, ready to pull anyone off that crosses over the red line? Why not go the whole hog and just disenfranchise the whole damned lot of them – take their votes away. After all, if you can’t be trusted to look after your own body, why should you be trusted with the body politic?

I don’t think that obesity is a good idea, or a sensible choice, but I don’t think that creating a culture of judgement and sneering obsession with a notional ideal average is a good idea either. Whatever happened to accepting people as they are? I know that as an overweight person, I am rolling a dice with my health in later years. That is the main reason why I watch what I eat and plan to up my exercise to start to get the weight off, but that is my choice to do that and I am not going to judge someone else for the choices they make. Whatever happened to compassion, to understanding, to not making people feel like they are abnormal just because they stand out from the crowd? What happened, when all is said and done, to basic humanity? Have we left that behind in this brave new world? Is it just a case of throwing in with a crowd and hoping to hell that you find some other group to kick the crap out of before it happens to you?

Then I read one of the related stories on the BBC site, that had this gem:

“The professor of emergency medicine at Dalhousie University in Canada will tell delegates that “obesity bias” was common among medics, including those specialising in obesity.

Other studies have shown that some doctors and health professionals have clearly associated the stereotypes of “lazy”, “stupid” and “worthless” with obese people.

Dr Croskerry said it was important that medical staff put their feelings on the issue aside.”

…?

I mean, seriously?

Health professionals have to be told to put aside their personal judgements about people that come to them for help? A doctor – someone entrusted with the sacred duty of saving life – has to be reminded not to look at a patient, a fellow human being coming to him/her for help, possibly terrified, and think “worthless”? Well, thank the spirit in the sky for Dr Croskerry reminding them of that!

Like I said, I’m a reasonably smart guy. I’d also like to think that I am a reasonably compassionate guy. Bottom line, I believe in a basic level of human decency that we are all entitled to. What I don’t like is the increasing sense, from stories like these, that we are changing as a society into something resembling the school playground of my youth – a place where it is imperative that you fit into the average, and savagely bring down anyone who dares to be even slightly different, slightly diverging from the norm. That doesn’t make us better people, or a better society. It makes us all nasty little swines. Cheap punks just looking for the next person to swing a punch at. That’s not the kind of world I think we deserve to live in, whatever size we happen to be.