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.

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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.

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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 hangover?

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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.

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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?

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‘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.

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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:

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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