Games, Journalism, Other, and Books

Games, Journalism, Other, and Books

That's all of life's bases covered, right?

I’m changing the way I game

Not my pile of shame. Just searched Google for 'pile of shame'. Shameful, no?

Not my pile of shame. Just searched Google for ‘pile of shame’. Shameful, no?

Despite enjoying many of the benefits and responsibilities of being (apparently) an adult, I do sorely miss the days when I could pour hours of my week into the latest video games. In the golden years of 2008 to 2011, I was able to complete the Portal 2 co-op campaign in a single sitting, enjoy an uninterrupted 12-hour Star Wars experience in The Force Unleashed, and dedicate dozens of hours to the Mass Effect Trilogy.

Now? Not so much.

Life is different. I’m no longer that single, semi-unsociable, definitely-irresponsible, early 20s lad who could throw himself down onto a couch at the end of the day and not move until I realise all my housemates are asleep and it’s 4am. Now, I’m a responsible 30-year-old father-to-be, with three podcasts to cram into what little spare time I have and a long-neglected aspiration to become a published author.

So games will have to go. Well, not go, but I need to be pickier with what I play. While the 2008 me still lurks inside somewhere, chomping at the bit for a new Mass Effect, the 2016 me has to remind him that there’s no time to replay the trilogy before it arrives.

This post is a declaration of intent. Something to hold myself accountable to. Something to curb my enthusiasm and ensure I’m getting the most out of my increasingly limited gaming time.

Here are the new rules:

Nothing too long

If a game is boasting ‘hundreds of hours of content’, it’s an automatic no-no for me. If the word ‘epic’ is used in relation to the story or length, it’s gone. As of now, I will be entrusting the handy howlongtobeat.com to gauge how much of my life a new release demands. Anything under 20 hours should be doable. Ten hours or less is gold!

(There will, of course, be exceptions to this – mostly anything by Rockstar, Bethesda or BioWare)

Nothing too old

There are countless classic titles that I missed as I grew up, primarily because I was a Nintendo-only gamer until 2007 – and even then I missed out on most of the iconic SNES and NES games. That actually extends to games as recent as the previous generation, with Uncharted and The Last of Us perhaps the most embarrassing entries on my pile of shame. Unless I have a desperate need to go back to these unplayed gems – or it’s a title I’m playing for Rare Replayed – I need to accept that I will never play them. By extension…

Leave them unfinished

It happens to all of us. You get really excited by a new game, get a third or maybe halfway through – then get distracted by a shiny new release. I’m particularly stubborn and refuse to trade those games in, convincing myself that one day I’ll go back and finish them. And yet they remain unfinished. I’m implementing a two-year limit: if I haven’t finished it within two years, give up. Sadly, this probably means saying goodbye to Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.

Best played online

Probably not for me then. While the idea of online play appeals to me – particularly with connected worlds like Destiny and Tom Clancy’s The Division – I lack the skill level to enjoy these at their fullest. Taking Destiny as an example, I spent less than an hour in the Crucible as I found I was just fodder for superior players (i.e. all of them). Also, online games tend to be based purely around a seemingly endless journey of progression, levelling up your character and acquiring better loot – something that inevitably requires weeks of ‘grinding’ (See: ‘Nothing too long’)

Best played online with friends

Definitely not for me then. I have friends (honest) but the chances of them being online at the same time is me is minimal – it certainly hasn’t occurred more than once or twice in the past few years. Yes, I could arrange a time with them to meet in whatever online arena we choose, but the arrival of a child will probably rob me of the flexibility needed for this. I certainly won’t be able to duck out of parenting for a two-hour Destiny raid.

Ignore the zeitgeist

I’ve long since given up on playing the latest games as everyone’s playing them. I’m only halfway through Fallout 4, six months after release. I’m already behind on Quantum Break. I missed Firewatch. I’m just going to have to accept that while everyone is discussing the latest and greatest our industry has come up with, I won’t be able to contribute until weeks/months/years later. Apologies in advance if this annoys you.

Ignore the extra padding

Almost an extension of the ‘Nothing too long’ point. I don’t have time to be collecting all those Assassin’s Creed Unity cocades, crafting all the Sunset Overdrive amps, unlocking all the Lego Marvel Super Heroes gold/red bricks, earning every Batman: Arkham Knight Riddler trophy, building settlements in Fallout 4, completing side quests in… er… anything. I’m in it for the main campaign. Once I’ve reached Happily Ever After, I’m done.

Take it Easy

If I don’t have time for any of that extra gumpf, I really don’t have time to be playing the same sections of the game over and over again because it’s too difficult for me. So I’ll do what I have been for a while: playing on Easy. Or Novice. Or You Suck. Yes, this won’t help improve my gaming abilities. Yes, in some rare cases, I’ll be getting a watered down experience, and the achievement might not be as palpable. But at lease I’ll able to finish the damn thing.

***

I’ll no doubt make exceptions to these rules. I might drop some, I might adopt others, but by and large this is my new Gaming Manifesto. This is how I will game going forward. The hobby is meant to be enjoyable, so I’m going to enjoy it at my own pace. And for everything I’m missing out on? Well, there’s always YouTube.

The Age of Spoilers

[This is a somewhat ironic choice of image. I've done my best to avoid any spoilers in this post]

[This is a somewhat ironic choice of image. I've done my best to avoid any spoilers in this post]

 

We have robbed ourselves of something wonderful: the joys of experiencing major entertainment events without prior knowledge of them.

The biggest twists, the best surprises and even some of the subtler things added to movies and TV just to please fans are laid bare on the internet for all to know before the film/programme is even available. It means we’re increasingly unlikely to ever experience a moment with as much impact as “No, I am your father” ever again.

I use the Star Wars example because that has largely what has prompted this rant (yep, another one). We’re just days away from the release of Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens – which is shaping up to be a more promising prospect than any previous cash-grabbing unnecessary Hollywood sequel/reboot – and while I still know very little about the plot, some crucial details seem to be falling through the cracks.

I shan’t spoil for you what has potentially been spoiled for me, but let’s just say there’s a lot of speculation around a major detail/plot twist concerning one of the main characters. Headlines have declared this twist in a way that reading the article has not been necessary – I’m now going into The Force Awakens with an expectation/pre-conception about this character. Initially, I could attempt to dismiss this as just gossip and fan theories but when a headline then declares “Rumours confirmed by new Star Wars TV spot”, it’s the final nail in the coffin of what should have been an absolutely incredible experience for me.

“Well,” I hear you scoff, “you shouldn’t be reading those articles.”
I’m not. The headlines alone have been enough to spoil things.
“Then just don’t go on those websites.”
I haven’t.

In the age of social media, you know longer have to seek out such news. It’s forced upon you by friends, family and random followers through your Facebook and Twitter feeds. In fact, I’ve seen so many of these spoiler-stuffed headlines, I can no longer tell you where I was originally exposed to the revelation.

“Then just come off Facebook/Twitter for a while,” some have suggested.
A while? Speculation about Star Wars has been running all year. It’s impossible to know when or where spoilers will strike. And in the meantime, I would be missing out on social media’s original intended purpose – keeping people in touch. Even if I took the last few months away from Facebook, I would have missed news of births, engagements, marriages, house moves, milestone birthdays and other life events for people with whom I can only stay in touch via social media.

I once got in an argument with a friend on Facebook because they had spoiled a show I hadn’t had time to watch within minutes of the episode airing. Their argument was they were at perfect liberty to post whatever they wanted on social media without having to think about every possible sensitivity their dozens of friends may have – and perhaps that’s a fair point. But they still ruined something for me.

Perhaps some sort of customisable spoiler filter would help, but there’s no way to prevent spoilers all together. Even if I blocked all posts with the words ‘Star Wars’, ‘Force Awakens’ and ‘Episode VII’, something would get through – plus I’d then miss out on other articles I’m genuinely interested in, such as updates on Star Wars Battlefront.

The problem is not with the platforms or the people sharing these spoilers – it’s with the source. And no, I don’t mean the press reporting such info.

We have developed an insatiable and often unnecessary need to know everything as soon as possible. Or at least, that’s what we think we want. Take Game of Thrones, for example. The end of the previous season saw a major character seemingly killed. It comes as a shock, and there is a compulsion to find out if said character is okay, but there was a time when people would have to wait until the following series to find out. Now, there’s speculation on Facebook, Twitter, forums and more about “Is Character X really dead?” – within hours of the episode even airing.

We won’t find out until the series returns in April (or perhaps even later than that), but that prominent public hunger for answers compels the press to run articles based on speculation and tidbits of interviews, trying to eke every possible nugget of information out of the show’s creators when the fate of this character is now just four months away.

Have we really become that impatient? Was JK Rowling picked apart this much in the run-up to the later Harry Potter books? No, because we waited – and the books were all the sweeter for it.

Let’s use another Star Wars example: remember when Han got carted off in Carbonite at the end of Empire? The only way to find out what happened was to wait years for Return of the Jedi.

Anticipation is fuelled by ignorance, not by an in-depth knowledge of what you’re about to experience. I admit I spoiled the full experience of the latest James Bond film by myself by actively reading some of the Bond fansites, and watching every trailer. Official marketing can be just as big a spoiler as press coverage. Even then, the biggest spoiler about the film’s villain came via social media – although I can’t quite remember where. It meant that the film I’ve been longing for since the end of Casino Royale, let alone in the three years since Skyfall, became a checklist experience for me: I knew Bond would start in Location A, then move to B, then C, then D and a finale in E.

I don’t have a solution to this, obviously, but think about your own experiences. What was the biggest surprise for you in a film, TV show, book or game? I imagine it was before spoilers swarmed the internet, before marketing thrust every major event of an upcoming product at us through every possible platform.

I want the experience of the new and unknown back. I want producers of this entertainment to trust that I’ll enjoy it without spelling everything out for me months ahead of release. I want the press to think more carefully about their headlines; not just in terms of what will gain clicks and grab attention, but in terms of what will ruin things for unsuspecting browsers. I want people to think a little harder before they share spoilers.

And most of all, I want Star Wars to surprise me.

James December 9, 2015 Leave A Comment Permalink

Constantly on the defensive: Life as a gamer

ignored

Let me preface this by saying two things: 1) This is a rant. Nothing more, nothing less. 2) I’m all too aware there are far more important, more heinous things happening in the world. File this under ‘#firstworldproblems’.

Why do we as gamers always have to be on the defensive?

“£42 for the new Star Wars game?!” a friend exclaims. “Why are games so expensive?”
“Only the new and biggest ones are that expensive,” I said. “There was a time when they’d cost £60-£70.”
“Why? They’re not exactly worth that money.”

To you, perhaps not. But to others, who find dozens perhaps hundreds of hours of pleasure and entertainment in such products, that’s £42 well spent compared to the equivalent three or four trips to the cinema, each time to a two- to three-hour film.

“Well, that’s a lot of money that could be spent on better things?”
Like what? Are we supposed to be instead investing in The Complete Works of Shelley and Keats? Buying outfits we’ll only wear once? Throwing money away as we throw shots and cocktails down our gullets, all for a few hours’ fleeting buzz and a lingering hangonver?

“£300 for a console?!” a similar argument begins. “And you only end up having to replace it in five years – and then your games won’t work on it.”
Again, this is true and for some gamers just as frustrating, but no one bends your arm and forces you to buy the next console. And even if you do upgrade, how is this different to those who need to upgrade their family computer or laptop every four to five years, or trade in their car for a newer model?

“Games just train people to be murderers,” another friend says. “Do they have to be so violent?”
Perhaps some titles take gore effects to extremes, but how do they differ from Quentin Tarantino’s works or the Saw films? Should we all be watching that completely non-violent entertainment platform known as TV? Has nothing violent ever occurred in books? Are all song lyrics completely without aggression? Even Marvel and DC comics – appealing to the same age ranges as video games – show some remarkably graphic scenes of people being beaten to a bloody pulp.

“The difference is they’re interactive. It’s encouraging people – [or, more often than not in such arguments, children] – to do those things in real life.”
Of course. Because handling a traditional gamepad is perfect training for anyone who wants to wield an assault rifle. Thanks to the hours I’ve put into Batman: Arkham Knight, I’m now fully confident I could take down forty-plus heavily built thugs then glide to safety by jumping off a roof.

I was recently fortunate enough to be invited onto BBC World News to discuss Activision’s acquisition of King, creators of Candy Crush. In the break before being brought into the studio, the newsreader asked: “Has anyone actually played this Candy Crush thing?”. My written words will never fully express the contempt in his voice. Surprisingly, not a single person on the ten-person team had played Candy Crush, prompting the newsreader to add: “Thought not. Last thing I played was that one with the circle that eats dots and ghosts.”

Pac-Man? You’re seriously telling me you have never encountered any form of video game since Pac-Man?

At the end of my interview, the newsreader turned to the camera and told BBC viewers: “We’ll be back in a few minutes, where we have more stories to talk about – not gaming, of course!”

I realise I am not alone in my frustration, but I am so sick and tired of this utter bullshit.

No, video games aren’t for everyone. No, they’re not perfect. Yes, they might have adverse side effects on certain people, and yes maybe sometimes they’re not quite worth the money we invest in them.

But why should we have to spend our lives justifying our hobby? Do music lovers, film goers, avid bookworms, sports fans, artists or any amount of other normal people have to defend the way they choose to spend their free time? Shouldn’t gaming be closer to these pastimes in terms of cultural acceptance than to fox hunting and porn?

Why have we been dispelling the same myths for decades now? How many times do we need to point dramatically at the headline “No link between video games and violence”, or point out the hundreds of thousands of games that explore deeper stories, raise awareness of other real-world horrors such as cancer in a way that no other entertainment form can?

Why can’t we, when asked why video games are so violent, just answer: “Because after the shit day I’ve had, I really need to blow something up.”

We expect this crap from scaremongering mainstream newspapers, preying on the ignorance and fears of older generations. But from the other ordinary people in our lives? And particularly from people that are themselves, in a way, gamers? They might not think of themselves as fans of video games because they can’t stand the idea of playing Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, Grand Theft Auto or any of the other chart-toppers. But if you have spent more than a few hours playing Mario Kart, Pokemon, NintendoLand, Guitar Hero, Singstar, Dance Dance Revolution, the LEGO games, Crash Bandicoot, The Sims – not to mention Flappy Bird and the plethora of other casual titles on smartphones – then I have some shocking news for you: you’re a gamer. Maybe not in the same sense, but you game. You’re a gamer.

I know, I know – “It’s a generational thing. These views will die out”. No, they won’t. Not while people in our own generation share them. And yes, they’re perfectly entitled to their views, but you know what? So are we. We’re entitled to view video games as the harmless entertainment and escapism they are. We’re entitled to enjoy engaging in activities we’d never even dream of outside the virtual realm.

And, yes, I know that yet another blog post bemoaning the state of Video Games Players vs The Rest Of The World isn’t going to change anything. But that, quite frankly, sucks.

James November 22, 2015 Leave A Comment Permalink

The end is nigh. Ish.

dragon age inq

 

The problem with open-world games can be just that: they’re open. Freedom’s a wonderful thing, but it can taint everything else the game is attempting to accomplish, particularly if you’re trying to inject some urgency into the game.

I’m currently playing Dragon Age: Inquisition, my first foray into BioWare’s Tolkien-esque fantasy world since the original came out way back in 2009. I’m not far in (I’ve only just reached Skyhold), and despite the ominous green rift in the sky, Inquisition feels like it lacks that same gravitas that Origins had – despite trying hard to imply imminent and certain doom.

While your war council and party will regularly remind you that the world is essentially ending, there’s nothing to stop you wasting hours of time picking up shards, harvesting random crafting materials, completing unrelated side quests and generally dossing around in the game’s open environments.

Dragon Age isn’t the only game to suffer from this. Mass Effect 3 also spun a tale of imminent extinction for all organic life in the entire galaxy, but still allowed you time to potter around with the miscellany that serves as padding around the main quest. The ‘shopping list’ gameplay, if you will.

I understand it’s a difficult balance to strike. Developers want to tell grand stories with high stakes, to compel players into action that – if not taken – spells devastation for all. But when it contradicts the actual mechanics and structure of your game, the drama can be the most jarring element.

There are plenty of games that, in my opinion, manage to balance the burden of the player’s primary goal with their desire to explore the world. Bethesda’s games, particularly Fallout 3, are great for offering a main questline where each mission ends with a lead that will point you towards the next destination, but won’t narratively apply pressure or a time limit. Your father has escaped the vault and headed towards Washington, but you can pick up his trail later – time to hunt some supermutants!

Skyrim is set during an ongoing civil war. If you don’t want to continue that questline, camps and skirmishes between the factions remind you that it’s still happening, waiting for you to participate – but never forces you to do so.

Rockstar Games is also skilled at this, as shown in Grand Theft Auto V. That title has a ridiculous amount of content spread across its fictional city and county, but missions are structured so that they grab your full attention and do not return your freedom until it’s safe for the protagonists to go back to their daily lives. Each one ends with the drive home, or a getaway that is only deemed successful when the heat is off. There are even some sections where there is so much heat on certain characters that for a while you won’t be able to access them, because it would make no sense for them to head out for a burger while they’re meant to be laying low.

Ubisoft, arguably, takes this too far with the Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed games. Sometimes the story rips players away from that open world and won’t return them until they’ve completed a certain mission. That’s fine on occasion, but done too often and it feels as much a punishment as it does a restriction, and players rush through these forced missions in order to get back to that world they were so avidly exploring.

The bottom line is, if you’re going to base your game on a premise of ‘the world is ending’, think carefully about the level of freedom you give players in that world. Not everything needs to be able preventing complete and utter destruction. The Witcher III is being praised across the board, and the premise of the plot is the search for a specific person. The world continues around you, regardless of whether or not you’re progressing with your main quest, which means it doesn’t break the story if you stray from the path.

Frustratingly – to go back to the Dragon Age example – both the developer and the franchise have accomplished this before. Dragon Age: Origins was the tale of a blight, an army of darkness threatening to wipe out all life, but there was never an implied sense of imminence. As a result, you could travel the world, invoking the Grey Wardens’ treaties at a pace that made sense. Once each quest in the main story was completed, a cutscene updated you on the enemy machinations, reminding you that the drama is escalating in your absence.

BioWare has said that Dragon Age: Inquisition represents the blueprint for all, if not many, of the studio’s future releases. I really hope they address this crucial issue before Mass Effect: Andromeda.

The urge to create

gjob book

I’ve just written a novel. In fact, I’ve not just written it, I’ve proofed it, edited it (as best I could) and self-published it online.

(And before you all rush to Amazon, it’s not actually available for sale. I published it so I could redeem a code for two free printed copies. Those will be given to alpha readers, who can then tell me why the book sucks and I can fix it before sending it to a proper publisher)

The novel took me the best part of eight months, the first of which was spent writing intensively almost every day as part of NaNoWriMo. With 50,000 words under my belt, I relaxed a little and put the next 100,000 together over the course of five months.

While I may not have been writing as frantically as I did in November, finishing the book still took a lot (if not, most) of my spare time. I’ve had a number of personal commitments to deal with since the year began – not the least of which was getting married! – which meant writing was largely relegated to lunchbreaks and as many weekday evenings as I could muster.

Throughout the last two months, as I edged closer and closer to those wonderful words – “The End” – and read through my work to see what needed to be tweaked and fixed before printing, I was conscious that I was putting off other things: namely, leisure. I cut down on the number of games I played, books I read, shows I watched, all the while thinking I could indulge in these pleasures as soon as the book was finished.

The book was finished on Sunday. And yet throughout the week, a nagging question has been burning in the back of my brain: what can I create next?

I had been so looking forward, particularly over the last few weeks, to just enjoying my spare time again. To losing myself into the video games I’ve been dying to play, to resume my love of reading. Great writers read, I’m constantly reminded, and they can’t do that if they’re always writing. If you don’t read, you don’t learn anything that can help with your own stories.

But what should I create next? Perhaps it’s just because the last eight months have been largely focused on this novel, and I just haven’t adjusted yet. But there’s an urge to create, and it’s one that a lot of people suffer from.

I’ve spent the week at Unite Europe, a conference for games developers that use the popular Unity engine and it’s wonderful to see so many people whose entire lives – or the majority of them – are dedicated to creating things they enjoy. It’s inspiring, bordering on infectious. I’ve found myself tempted to download Unity and attempt game creation for myself. At the very least, I’m leaning towards dabbling in Twine, the interactive fiction tool.

Maybe my next creation is an interactive novel/story played through browsers. Maybe it’s a feeble attempt at a video game, perhaps based on my fiction. Maybe it’s one of the novels I have left unfinished, or a sequel to this one. The ink has barely dried and yet I’m keen to dive into that world again.

But then what happens to those games and books that have been waiting for me to finish my recent project? What happens when in another eight months I realise I still haven’t been relaxing (writing a novel, while fun, is NOT relaxing). You can’t force yourself to relax, but should you at least try?

If you think there’s a point to this post, you would be wrong. Perhaps the urge to create is so strong, so intense that I just needed to write something while I wait for my flight home. Who knows? The point is (ah, maybe I do have one) I think creation in all its forms can be wonderfully addictive and I urge everyone to try it. Just be aware that there may be no turning back.

‘Shopping list’ gameplay: the ‘litter’ of open world games

progression_wheel

I spent four solid hours playing Dragon Age: Inquisition on Saturday, with the vast majority of that time spent in the Hinterlands: the first major open world area of BioWare’s latest epic.

Despite having read several opinion pieces and tips guides stressing that I shouldn’t dally too long in this region, I found myself exploring every nook and cranny of the Hinterlands – partly because that’s all that was available in the trial version (yes, I’ve yet to buy the game. It’s on my list!), and partly because I was genuinely enjoying most of the quests. Most, mind you.

As I opened more and more areas of the Hinterlands, I found that Dragon Age – a series I’m quite fond of – has become the most recent victim of a particular bugbear of mine: a game design I call ‘shopping list’ gameplay.

The term refers to my experience of MMOs such as The Lord of the Rings Online, Star Wars Galaxies, Star Wars: The Old Republic and (to a considerably lesser extent) World of Warcraft. After just a few hours of wandering the low-level areas, I would find my journal cluttered with a myriad of sidequests along the lines of ‘Collect 20 of Y’, ‘Kill 10 of X’.

I like to take the role-playing element of games quite seriously, immersing myself in the narrative of the world, but in the case of LOTRO, for example, I actually lost all context of what I was meant to be doing, my overall goal blurred by this shopping list of bland objectives, a checklist of things to defeat, gather or reach.

Now, I’m all too aware that this is a trope of the MMO – a template that has barely changed since WoW’s arrival in 2004 – but now this mindset has found its way into console games with the abundance of open world games and it’s tainting my enjoyment of franchises I once loved.

Almost every game I have played on Xbox One so far – Dragon Age, Watch Dogs, Destiny and two Assassin’s Creeds – have littered their open worlds with meaningless collectibles and soulless fetch quests. Destiny less so, I grant you, but the random missions on planetary patrols basically boil down to ‘[Verb] X of Y’, even with the instantly forgettable audio babble of the faction leaders.

The Creeds have been guilty of this for years, but it’s still disheartening to be reminded of Animus crystals, sea shanties and semi-hidden chests you have yet to find. Closing in on ten hours’ gameplay, and Watch Dogs’ progression wheel makes me want to weep. Who has time to achieve even half of that? Catching 20 criminals is doable, but checking in at 100 city hotspots?!

I realise that all of this collectible nonsense is optional, that I can just get one with the main storyline, but when it is signposted so regularly, you can’t help but feel the game is judging you for ignoring the wealth of content the developers have clearly gone to great lengths to include.

I adore exploring the worlds of Bethesda’s games – especially the Elder Scrolls universe – but I don’t recall Skyrim constantly updating me that I had found three vampire lairs out of fifty seven. It simply added an icon to the world map, and changed the colour if I cleared that area. Simple.

Similarly, I can forgive the Creed games, particularly Unity, because filtering the mini-map removes unnecessary clutter such as the chests. And Watch Dogs, I am simply ignoring the branches of the Progression Wheel that are of no interest to me.

But I’m finding it a little difficult to forgive BioWare for succumbing to this trend. Hiding 20+ shards in the Hinterlands smacks of Assassin’s Creed’s collectible feathers, and I still genuinely don’t see the point of ‘claiming’ landmarks with a bland pole and an overly dramatic jumping animation.

For me, the key to differentiating your side quests from ‘shopping list gameplay’ boils down to two things: context and reward. In the case of Dragon Age, the vast majority of side quests give you Power and Influence that will help your overall war effort, and some are in keeping with the Inquisitor’s goals.

Setting up the various campsite, for example, is something I actively want to do since it sets up fast travel points. Closing the rifts – well, that’s the point of the game, isn’t it? To close the breaches between Thedas and the fade. And anything that yields weapons, supplies, followers and agents for the Inquisition is definitely something I’m willing to spent time on.

Whereas Watch Dogs’ city hotspots, Assassin’s Creed Unity’s cockades, and various other examples seem to offer you nothing more than a counter to fill, potentially a weapon or item that is in no way essential, and a distraction from much, much better content within the same world.

I realise that populating open worlds with side quests and collectibles is the best way to extend a game’s playtime and replayability, but with so many franchises turning to this formula on the new generation of consoles, I urge developers to think more carefully about how they design and present such content.

Here’s hoping the Gotham City of Batman: Arkham Knight doesn’t become another shopping list…

Ian Fleming was lazy – and I want to be just like him

Fleming

Whenever I sit down to write a blog post about fiction writing, I question what I even have a right to say. I’d love to give advice on how to write, or share what I’m working on and how I do it, but the truth is I’m just like everyone else in the group: still learning.

So instead, I’ve turned to one of the masters, the creator of one of my favourite series, so I can shamefully steal his knowledge and share it with you.

The author in question is, of course, Ian Fleming – the father of James Bond. In May 1963, just a year before he died, Fleming wrote an essay for the Books and Bookmen periodical published by Hansom Books in which he discussed how he came to write the acclaimed 007 saga.

After paragraphs referencing the well-known factoid that he based some of Bond’s adventures on his own experiences, he comes to the actual process of writing. And here’s some of his thoughts that I found particularly useful and inspiring:

“I too, am lazy. My heart sinks when I contemplate the two or three hundred virgin sheets of foolscap I have to besmirch with more or less well chosen words in order to produce a 60,000 word book.

“One of the essentials is to create a vacuum in my life which can only be satisfactorily filled by some form of creative work – whether it be writing, painting, sculpting, composing or just building a boat – I was about to get married – a prospect which filled me with terror and mental fidget. To give my hands something to do, and as an antibody to my qualms about the marriage state after 43 years as a bachelor, I decided one day to damned well sit down and write a book.

“The therapy was successful. And while I still do a certain amount of writing in the midst of my London Life, it is on my annual visits to Jamaica that all my books have been written.

“But, failing a hideaway such as I possess, I can recommend hotel bedrooms as far removed from your usual “life” as possible. Your anonymity in these drab surroundings and your lack of friends and distractions will create a vacuum which should force you into a writing mood and, if your pocket is shallow, into a mood which will also make you write fast and with application. I do it all on the typewriter, using six fingers. The act of typing is far less exhausting than the act of writing, and you end up with a more or less clean manuscript The next essential is to keep strictly to a routine.

“I write for about three hours in the morning – from about 9:30 till 12:30 and I do another hour’s work between six and seven in the evening. At the end of this I reward myself by numbering the pages and putting them away in a spring-back folder. The whole of this four hours of daily work is devoted to writing narrative.

“I never correct anything and I never go back to what I have written, except to the foot of the last page to see where I have got to. If you once look back, you are lost. How could you have written this drivel? How could you have used “terrible” six times on one page? And so forth. If you interrupt the writing of fast narrative with too much introspection and self-criticism, you will be lucky if you write 500 words a day and you will be disgusted with them into the bargain. By following my formula, you write 2,000 words a day and you aren’t disgusted with them until the book is finished, which will be in about six weeks.

“I don’t even pause from writing to choose the right word or to verify spelling or a fact. All this can be done when your book is finished.”

So much of Fleming’s advice applies to my own discipline (or lack thereof) when it comes to writing. As much as I was already aware of my problems – looking back at past text, correcting as I go – hearing it from a man who suffered in the same way, but still became one of the most iconic authors of the last century, is beyond inspiring. Now to pour myself a Martini and get started.

James February 5, 2015 Leave A Comment Permalink

…Actually, it’s about self-perception based on our media choices

Goldfinger

For the last few months, I have struggled to understand why the consumers behind GamerGate are so upset.

Despite the fact that tensions around this ‘discussion’ (and I use that term broadly), it’s become nigh on impossible to take a neutral stance on this. Given that I am a journalist in the games industry (though not on the consumer-facing side, I should stress), my own perspective leans towards that of the media accused of corruption that – in my experience – simply isn’t there.

I’m not going to get into the discussion about ethics in journalism. Instead, I want to look at another side that until today I had been largely dismissive of.

My understanding is that some (that’s, I stress again, SOME) of the GamerGaters began this campaign because they believe feminists plan to ‘ruin video games’. That criticism by the likes of Anita Sarkeesian about the way women are depicted in titles like Saints Row and Grand Theft Auto will somehow prevent such games from ever being made again.

Initially, I scoffed at this. What I have seen of Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs Women  in Video Games series so far has all seemed reasonable to me. Even if there was something I disagreed with, she had formed her argument coherently enough that I could see her point of view. But the truth is, even if Sarkeesian was trying to destroy such games, she is one voice against the millions that buy every iteration of these triple-A blockbusters.

Yes, there have been more games targeting consumers outside the traditional 16 to 34-year-old male demographic in the past few years, many with political agendas or heavy-handed points to make. But the best-selling games every year for the past decade have invariably been: FIFA, Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed. They are in no danger.

And with those titles in no danger, I couldn’t understand why some gamers were getting so upset, so outraged, so defensive. Now perhaps I do.

This morning, I was listening to the Goldfinger episode of Nerdist.com’s excellent James Bonding podcast. If you’re a fan of Ian Fleming’s iconic secret agent, you owe it to yourself to give them a listen.

I have been a fan of James Bond from a very young age. My enthusiasm for his adventures is probably as old as my love of games. I am the ultimate James Bond apologist – I still maintain Die Another Day has its good moments (albeit very few of them). Bond and me: it’s true love.

So when the female guests on this Goldfinger podcasts began attacking the franchise from a feminist point of view within minutes of the episode starting, I couldn’t help but feel defensive.

It was the strangest sensation. I knew perfectly well that none of these comments are directed at me, or anyone who likes James Bond. I knew, in fact, that these women were absolutely right: Bond is a misogynistic arsehole. I’ve been watching through the films with my other half, and I become quite uncomfortable with how badly he (Connery, in particular) treats women. And yet I still felt defensive, almost hurt by some of the things said against the film, the franchise and the character. The words “No, because…” or “Yeah, but…” threatened to burst from my mouth on more than one occasion.

The only reason I can think of that would cause me to react in such an absurdly defensive manner is this: I’m too emotionally invested in the James Bond franchise.

I dread to think how many hours I’ve spent watching and rewatching these films, discussing them with friends or on podcasts, reading the books, playing the games – invest that amount of time into anything, and it’s understandable that it soon feels like a part of you. By extension, any attacks against that media feel like an attack on you, and human instinct dictates that we defend ourselves.

Perhaps this is what ran through the heads and hearts of so many GamerGaters when this whole fiasco began. The hours that many of these people pour into games is probably tenfold the amount of time I’ve spent enjoying James Bond. It’s natural that they will feel a little defensive when something they’ve chosen to invest so much time on seemingly comes under attack (if that is how they perceive it).

I am, of course, not condoning any of the abuse that has come out of this hashtag movement. Such behaviour is absolutely inexcusable under any circumstances. But perhaps now I can understand, on some level, the spark that led to such anger.

James December 12, 2014 Leave A Comment Permalink

Should 24 live another day?

24 lad

I should probably disclaim the following from the off: I’m more than a 24 fan. I’m a 24 apologist.

To me, it is perfectly believable that a man who has his heart stopped can still be revived and have enough energy to single-handedly bring down a corporate conspiracy, take out multiple commandos with a sniper rifle, and snap a man’s neck with the only side effects being the occasional need to clutch his chest and say ‘ow’. Why? Because it’s damn good entertainment.

Jack Bauer is TV’s James Bond. It doesn’t matter how diabolical the plot he foils is; I’m just happy to be along for the ride. So I was overjoyed when the show’s producers gave up trying to fund this movie that is clearly never going to happen and brought us the mini-series 24: Live Another Day.

And with the series now out on Blu-ray and DVD, I find myself thinking back on this new adventure for my favourite shoot-first, shout-dammit-later TV hero and wondering whether I want more.

The fact that I’m wondering this at all is not a good sign. Every previous series (yes, even the meandering confusion of Day Six) has left me eagerly anticipating Bauer’s return. As much as I knew that the ambiguous open end of Day Eight was constructed solely to allow more series to be produced – and purely for commercial, not narrative reasons – I wanted more.

Live Another Day has – SPOILER ALERT – just as open an ending, but I can honestly say I’ll not lose sleep if the 24 clock never ticks again. Even an irrepressible fan such as I can recognise when things have run their course.

Given the hype that surrounded Live Another Day, I doubt this is the last we’ll see of Jack Bauer (it’s Kiefer Sutherland’s biggest earner – the man’s got to eat, after all) but have they even left themselves anywhere to go?

As it stands at the end of Day Nine, Jack Bauer – MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT – has been taken away by the Russians to pay for all the people he killed in Day Eight. Chloe O’Brian is free to find a new direction for her life, having learned that the last few years of anger towards the Government for the death of her husband and son were completely unjustified.  President James Heller is suffering from the slow decline of Alzheimer’s. All other characters of note, that could have any importance on the series’ future storylines are dead.

24’s character kill count is both a triumph and a burden. From the heart-breaking death of Teri at the end of Day One – if you’re still reading, it’s safe to say spoiler alerts are redundant by this point – to Bill’s sacrifice in Day Seven, the writers have masterfully made us care about the deaths of these on-screen heroes.

But with such a body count now behind them, there’s no one left to kill. in fact, we’re now so accustomed to losing the ficitional people we love that the faked death of Heller and very real death of Audrey had no impact – which is criminal, given how well developed the storyline between her and Jack has been since she debuted in Day Four. Her declaration of hatred towards Bauer when he inadvertently causes the death of her ex-husband still upsets me on later viewings today, and yet her death did nothing.

Similarly, Jack’s rampage through the Chinese ship at the news of her death was nowhere near as dramatic as it should have been, because we’ve already seen him hell-bent on revenge in the final hours of Day Eight.

Herein lies 24’s biggest problem: it’s a victim of its own success. From the very first season, the show has broken new ground, changed the rules, presented plot twists and set pieces that had never been on TV before. The result is that there is very little it can do to shock us anymore. In breaking the formula for TV thrillers, it has formed its own and thus become formulaic.

Don’t get me wrong, the premise for this series was great: 12 episodes, spread across four hours. Jack’s on the run from the whole damn world for murdering half the Russian government in a murderous rage. Much missed characters James Heller and Audrey Boudreau (née Raines) are back. And it’s set in London. Many boxes ticked here, particularly for the most devoted of fans.

But there are so many missed opportunities. I thought the shorter format was to allow them to skip hours of travel that would have been boring to watch. Spend the first few hours in London, skip the hour or two it takes to get to Paris and have a few exciting episodes there. Europe is so closely connected that 24 could have delivered a thriller on a scale not seen before, but the cost of production and limits of what an on-location team can do means Live Another Day failed to live up to this potential. To call the ten-minute ’12 hours later’ epilogue disappointing would be an understatement.

Even the overall villain lacked something. The twist that Chang, the vengeful Chinese agent who harks back as far as Day Four, was the baddie would have been a great revelation… had he not been missing from the show for at least half a decade, and crammed into the last few episodes.

There was a lot 24: Live Another Day did right, and I’ll certainly be picking up the home entertainment release for later viewings, but I almost hope this is the last we see of Jack Bauer. Given all he has endured over Days One to Eight, the only satisfying ending would be one of two things: death, or retirement with Kim and his grandchild. The latter, sadly, is far too happy an ending for the show’s producers to even consider, and they have no way of making the former meaningful given that Jack has already died once, faked his death and been on his deathbed due to a biotoxin a few years later.

The only answer is to leave it, unless they can come up with the mother of all finales. Live Another Day was intended to give closure to fans, something it failed to do. I reckon they have one last chance, but they’d better be damn sure to make it a good one.

James October 8, 2014 Leave A Comment Permalink

The job I always dreamed of is all but gone

magazines

 

In my teenage years, the calendar wasn’t the only thing I used to judge how much of the year had gone: monthly releases of N64 Magazine also helped me gauge how much time was passing. The Spaceworld issue was already on shelves? That means it’s nearly Christmas.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life back then. Write novels, obviously, but given the drivel I was churning out in the middle of French lessons when the teacher’s back was turned, I knew that this was unlikely to sustain me financially when I was an adult. I toyed with the idea of teaching, perhaps teaching English in the hopes of inspiring the same enthusiasm I had for writing in future students.

Then there was a news story in the aforementioned publication: ‘Want to write for N64 Magazine’?

Everything clicked into place. When I wasn’t writing or reading (which was most of the time; I was an undisciplined teenager, after all), I was playing my Nintendo 64. Becoming James Bond in Goldeneye, saving fantasy lands in the Zelda games and mercilessly slaughtering Goombas in Super Mario 64. Why not write about these experiences and get paid to do so? It was perfect.

The article called for aspiring games journalists that were 18 or over – and sadly I was a couple of years short of the mark. But now I had a direction in my life. I chose GSCEs and A-levels that were relevant to a career in journalism. I searched universities for degrees in Journalism, particularly those with a focus on consumer magazines. And slowly but surely, I worked towards that dream job: playing my favourite games and writing about the experience.

Hindsight has naturally taught me that there’s a lot more to games journalism than I naively once thought. Stints of work experience on PC Gamer and Official PlayStation 2 Magazine dispelled the myths of grown men spending full days with a controller in hand, and simply writing with enthusiasm wasn’t enough. You had to write succintly, eloquently and above all, authoritatively. One PC Gamer team member wisely told me: “The readers will always know more than you. If you assume otherwise, you lose any respect they have for you.”

I took these lessons on board, and maintained my determined pursuit of a role on a consumer games journalism. But I took a slightly different path.

Through a fortunate coincidence involving a late library book (true story) that led to a long-term internship, I wound up in trade journalism: writing not for gamers, but for the games industry. It was not what I had intended, but I quickly grew to love it. In particular, my five years on MCV opened my eyes to how the industry really runs – something I wonder if I would have understood as deeply had I been on a consumer-facing title.

The fast pace and challenge of this weekly business magazine was more than satisfying enough to keep me coming into work every day, but I did occasionally glance at (and even apply for) other positions elsewhere. As much as I loved games trade journalism – and still do – there was a part of me that kept remembering the original job ad in N64 Magazine and wondering if I was ready or worthy of such a role. I waited, wanting to hone my skills, and only applying for one, maybe two jobs that particularly appealed to me.

Perhaps I waited too long. I became overqualified for the role I had originally wanted, back in the Nintendo 64 days, but this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I had grown, I had learned things about both magazine production and the games industry that opened new doors, new opportunities. But that direction, the sense that one day I would have my teenage self’s dream job began to fade.

And now with the closing of Official Nintendo Magazine, I question whether that job is even out there anymore. Magazines are declining rapidly, and games websites from large, established firms are fighting to avoid being drowned out by enthusiast sites, amateur blogs and, yes, those inexplicably popular YouTube channels. When I first envisaged becoming a games journalist, it was a market of limited outlets. Now the only thing limited is reader attention, spread thinly across more channels than the traditional games media could ever cope with. The job I defined my academic choices around, that I moulded my life to, has all but gone.

I make it clear now that I have no regrets. I may never intended to enter trade journalism, but had I known of its existence earlier, I certainly would have endeavoured to end up where I am today. I’m only a year into my role as editor of Develop, but I’m already hoping to be holding onto it for years to come. The fascinating look under the hood of games is far more interesting than commenting on whether or not the graphics, handling and content improve on those that have come before. It’s the job I didn’t know I wanted, and looking at the path I almost took, I’m lucky to be here.

 

James October 7, 2014 3 Comments Permalink