Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Doctor Spawned a Monster

I had intended to write a lengthy and insightful post about Doctor Who spin-off, Torchwood and how it could be used as conclusive proof that while talent borrows and genius steals, some people just make themselves look a bit silly by highlighting the fact they've choreyed* from something much better than their own work. But why bother - lets' just leave it at saying 'Torchwood' and 'Buffy/Angel' and then trying to imagine a sentence featuring the two phrases which doesn't feature the words 'is a poor man's imitation of' between the former and the latter.

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Friday, October 20, 2006

The Greatest Games Computer Ever: 1 - Grim Fandango

As a starting point, imagine David Lynch is Mexican.

Now think of any David Lynch movie which isn't The Straight Story. More specifically, imagine Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with me. But filmed in Mexico with Mexican movie stars.

Now mutate Mexican Lynch into American John Huston fresh from directing Key Largo.

And then ensure every actor in the movie is dead.

You're now roughly in the area inhabited by the greatest game of all time - Grim Fandango from Lucas Interactive.

Written by Tim Schafer, the talent behind the stellar! Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango inhabited, on the face of it, standard enough point and click adventure game territory, as popularised by the Monkey Island series from the same company. But that's just the jumping off point for Grim Fandango and within five minutes of playing the game you'll understand that it amounts to much more than that.

For instance, where Monkey Island and other adventure games tended to be populated by similarly styled cartoon people (see Alone in the Dark, for example) and the survival-horror genre which in some ways replaced them feature almost entirely characterless protagonists*, designed to look as much like a Hollywood action hero as graphical technology allows, everyone in GF is a proper, almost filmic individual.

Take the hero of the game, ! Manny Calavero. He's a travel agent/reaper in the Land o! f the De ad which - in proper Film Noir fashion - reeks of decadence and corruption. His job is to gather newly dead souls and then sell them a travel package to enable them to make their 4 year journey to the Ninth Underworld, all souls' final destination. It's a dead-end job which he doesn't enjoy and it's made no better by his bullying boss and over-achieving colleague. When Manny talks he's always just a little world-weary, a tiny bit cynical and, as a result, he comes across as an individual, rather than a generic hero.

It helps he has a long thin skull for a head in this respect, obviously.

The skulls are one of the best things about the game actually. To be more precise, the look of the characters is another element designed to highlight the fact that thought has gone into every aspect of development. It's the Land of the Dead so, logically, everyone in the game is deceased. In most gam! es this would be the cue for hordes of zombies and armies of the shuffling undead, but in GF it's a damn fine reason for modelling everyone on the work of José Guadalupe Posada (and not Lawrence Miles' Faction Paradox, as you might think).

The backgrounds and settings too are something outwith the norm. Only The Petrified Forest fits into the general template for spooky afterlife settings, but even this is nicely atmospheric. Other settings, howver, include a bright and breezy 30s New York style city (revisited at the end of the game as a dank and dangerous version of itself), a city at the literal edge of the world (like Discworld, the Land of the Dead ends in a giant waterfall, over which the City protrudes), a section unde! rwater and, best of all, Rubacava, featuring an homage to Rick! 's cafe from Casablanca, seedy docks and a grimy tattoo parlour. There's a very stylised thirties feel to it all with giant airships and massive bridges, but again with a leavening of Film Noir shadows and fog. If Myst had been a game you could play for pleasure rather than a game you looked at and went 'wow!' it might have resembled Grim Fandango.

And lets' not forget the dialogue - all 7000 lines of it, and every line souding as though it had been written by some McCarthy period blacklistee working under a pseudonym to avoid joining the Hollywood Ten in jail.

Even before you get to the gameplay it sounds great, doesn't it?

But it gets progressively better as you get deeper into the game and no description can ever do justice t! o the atmosphere of the Land of the Dead. With genuinely funny lines and situations wherever you go, puzzles which fall just on the right side of too bloody hard and a quite wonderful soundtrack, Grim Fandango is untouched in the history of gaming.

Sadly, only about 17 people actually bought it so the rumoured sequel never appeared (although Schafer went on to write the really quite good Psychonauts), but if you see a copy buy it, install it and prepare to immerse yourself in the Greatest Game Ever.


* Go on, name the hero of the first Resident Evil.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Selling Tynecastle by the Pound

I hate Vladimir Romanov. I really do. I can't abide his smug
self-satisfaction, his borderline insane ranting and his misplaced arrogance
(for those readers not fans of football and not from Edinburgh - which is
probably all of you - this post is largely me getting things off my chest,
so just ignore it and go and read the Perry Bible Fellowship instead).

I also ha...well no, not hate...but get really annoyed with Hearts' fans who
think that a good answer to any criticism of Romanov is to say the single
word 'believe', as though being thick and not considering what's going on is
a positive thing and actual facts are something to be discarded if
they contradict established dogma. That's it actually - there's a new a
bloody religion in Gorgie nowadays, with Romanov as God and his 'Gareth from
the Office-a-like' son, Roman as a particularly awkward looking Christ.

Those who have faith, no matter what madness may pour from the mouth of the
new God, will be rewarded by cups and leagues, multi-million pound transfers
and 60,000 seater stadiums and, one day, the Paradise of a UEFA Champions
League triumph. Personally I suspect that, just like a real religion, the
really big rewards will only come after we're all dead and we can't check.

Also like certain real religions the articles of faith don't stand up under even
the most cursory of examinations. Let's have a look at a few of the main
tenets of the Church of Mindless Believing.

1. "Without Romanov we'd have had to leave Tynecastle"

Well maybe (although who's to say someone wouldn't have come in at the last
minute?). But so what? I love the place and it's a wonderful ground full
of memories, but we'd still be Hearts playing somewhere else. Places that
were important to me in my life have disappeared as I've grown older - the
first flat I remember living in was knocked down years ago, Goldbergs got
converted into some kind of derelict building in the 80s and the scruffy
little underground Virgin record shop in Prices Street full of racks of odd 12 inches and blue vinyl imports became a crap Megastore full of rubbish cds at about the same time. Things change, and you don't sell everything you have that's worth having for nostalgia's sake.

2. "He's written off £ 2 million pounds of the debt"

Two things here - (1) he bought the SMG debt at half-price reportedly,
thereby accounting for the £2 million straight-away and (2) the reported 2
mill was interest owed by Hearts (a company he owned 80% of at the time) to
UKIO Bankas (a company he owned a third of).

Simple economics suggests that writing off the money was a good deal for him.

3. "Romanov brought top quality players to the club"

Not in any meaningful way he hasn't. Lots of average to poor Lithuanians
who wouldn't have gotten a game under Levein, Jefferies or MacDonald, plus
some decentish players who we could have signed at any time. Not that we've
signed many of them since most of them are Kaunus signings loaned to Hearts
and therefore won't make us a penny if they get sold for a profit, but will
make Kaunus (with amore generous income tax regime I suspect) a pretty
penny. It's just a shame most of the incoming players have been rubbish.
The main exceptions have been Rudi Skacel (signed by George Burley and
walked out on the club due to Romanov), Julian Brellier (signed by George
Burley and constantly being dropped in spite of being better than Zaliukas,
the Lithuanian who currently has his post) and Jose Goncalves (admittedly
signed by Romanov, but only on loan from Kaunus anyway). There are a couple
of others who have been half way decent - Bednar, Popsisil, Fyssas - all
strangely enough signed by George Burley. Ranked against this handful of
realtive class, we have Romanov signings like Ibrahim Tall (ignored by three
successive managers because he was rubbish and only picked once Valdas
Ivanauskus, Romanov's manager on a leash, took over); Saulius Mikolaunus, a
player every Hearts fan can see is basically shit and with a petulant temper to
boot, but who is *never* dropped, and Zaliukas who couldn't look less like a
proper footballer if he wore a tutu on the pitch.

4. "We won the cup and got into the Champions League because of Romanov"

Well we did do both of those things but in spite of rather than because of
Romanov. We got second last year because George Burley got us off to a
blistering start before being sacked by the Great Egoist and because Rangers
were truly awful (and even so threw away a double figure lead over the Hun
to hold onto second by a single point). We won the cup because other teams
put out the Old Firm and because we had to play Gretna, who had fortuitously
avoided playing a single SPL side on the way to the final, at Hampden. And
even then we nearly didn't win.

I'd rather see us skint and playing out of Saughton Enclosure than continue
to see my club embarrassed by the actions of an arse like Romanov.
Yesterday's derby shame where we dropped good players to replace them with
useless Lithuanians just because the game was going live on Lithuanian TV
was another nail in the coffin (and yes, I know that one of the Lithuanians
scored our two goals but both were gifts from the Hibs goalie and the
goalscorer did sod all else all match).

I don't believe and I haven't done for a long time - and in the eyes of
many Hearts' supporters I suspect that makes me a heretic at best and an
atheist at worst, either way fit only for excommunication. I can't say I
care about that but I do wonder and worry if enough Hearts' fans will
recognise that Romanov is a false idol before it's too late.

That's a rhetorical question obviously - I know that it's already too late
and has been for a long time.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Greatest Games Computer Ever: 2 - Quicksilva Scramble

The peace loving scientists beavering industriously away in Pixel Town Labs
looke dup in alarm as they heard the sound they dreaded above all else -
complete, unnerving silence.

'Run for cover' they signalled frantically to one another, 'Hide yourself'.

But it was too late, even for those who had managed to fit themselves
beneath the towering letters As which dotted the rugged mountain landscape.
Enemy fire was no respecter of mere capital letters and where the falling
rain of asterisk death failed to finish the job, a slow moving dash could
take out anyone in the higher, curiously monochrome, regions. The only hope
was to move in the gap between one deployment of the enemy's Shift-8
technology and the next, as each attacker could only fire one weapon at a
time and - perhaps uniquely in the history of war - was unable to launch a
second strike until the first had run its course. A design flaw, certainly,
but not one the peaceful scientists could ever hope to utilise in their
defence.

Quicksilva Scramble was just about as good as it got in 1981. A faithful
copy of the arcade game (at that point not yet a classic but a cutting edge
piece of arcade gaming) only available on tape for playing on your ZX81 in
black and white, with blocky non-pixel graphics and no sound other than your
own hollers and whoops as you carried out a particularly tricky manouvere
(using up, down, left and right only - no diagonals) or skipped blithely
past a soaring Capital A as it launched from the ground towards your little
black ship.

Scramble - and the tremendously literally named 'Adventure Game' - on the
ZX81 was the first computer game I ever played and for all that I'd never
want to play it again, it occupies a special 'first time' place in my heart,
alongside Regal Small cigarettes, McEwans' Export in a can and a rather lovely girl
called Fiona.

I met the guy who wrote QS Scramble a couple of years ago in the pub at a
head-wetting ceremony for a friend's new baby. I didn't have a mobile phone
at the time, but if I had and I'd taken a note of his number on that instead
of writing it on the back of a packet of fags with a bookie's pen, it would
probably have used up more memory than the whole of QS Scramble was written
in.

Really, admit it - how cool is that?

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Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Greatest Games Computer Ever: 3 - Elite

Prompted by some thing someone said online recently I was reminded of one of the best computer games of all time - Elite (on the BBC Micro, Commodore 64 and the like). So I went off and downloaded it with an emulator, chucked it on the PC...and then had absolutely no time to actually play it.

But people should play it because it was a thing of enormous grandeur and wonder. For those who've never come across it or, horror of horrors, think that things like Silent Hill or Halo are classic games, Elite was basically a souped up version of the text-based trading games so beloved of computer programming magazine adverts in the early 80s. In the usual versio, you merely land in one place, buy summat (grain was always popular IIRC), go somewhere else and sell it for more than you bought it (hopefully). This Thatcherian economic model (or JD Millerian Model as I and at least one reader of this blog can now privately think of it) was in truth more than a bit dull since it mainly relied on luck or some very basic PC generated foreknowledge.

What Elite on the BBC Micro - and even more on the glory which was the C64 - did was add (what I perceived as) reality to the process*.

Not only did it have 3d-esque graphics and a multitude of different ships you could shoot it out with but you hyperjumped to a spot millions of miles from the place you were going to (which could be a planet, a space station, an asteroid, whatever) and then had to make your way from the fringes of the system to your destination - with the Police looking for you smuggling (which you could do if you wanted), pirates trying to blow you up and steal your cargo and mysterious aliens called Thargoids just randomly aiming to destroy you. This game had SCALE - played in the dark of your bedroom with just a portable TV glowing in front of you and it felt like actual space travel. You could even read the paper in the various space ports you landed in and find hints as to what to buy and sell, what was illegal, what kind of government ruled the system (the communist ones were always a bit short of luxury goods and big on rice) and even take on jobs as a bounty hunter, assassin or smuggler.

Your hyperdrive could malfunction and send you in the totally wrong direction, leaving you with an entire hold full of expensively purchased spices and the only planet within landing distance being called 'Spice World' home of cheap spices. Or the malfunction could send you into deep space with no fuel to reach anywhere - so you died.

Like real space travel might be.

And if you were bored all you had to do was approach a space station in a lawful bit of space, wait for a ship to launch and then blow it up. Within seconds dozens of police ships would pour out and fight you to the death - more often than not your own. If you had a reputation as a bit of a bad 'un they would sometimes pour out just because you were hanging around looking dodgy, without you even having to do anything.

Most wonderfully (and almost certainly apocrophally) was the belief that somewhere, in a million to one random number generating section of the code, was the chance to find a derelict space ship TWO HUNDRED SCREENS LONG which it was only possible to locate if your hyperjump failed. How cool does that sound (possibly it only sounds cool to me, now that I think about it)?

Elite was epic and grand and wonderful, like no game before or since. If it was a book it would be Gateway by Fred Pohl, but minus all the psychoanalyst padding that the book had and with far more fascinatingly bizarre sample missions.

Maybe not the best game ever, but definitely in the Top 3.

* best version of all was an update/sequel called 'Frontier' on the Amiga - God Commodore could make computers

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