Sunday, September 25, 2016

Moments of Catalysis

I remember when parkour wasn't called 'parkour' but 'mucking about', or 'aggravated trespass'.

I remember the late nineties, spending night after night locked in battle with the Maria Doria level of Tomb Raider II, once reaching the ledge at the top of a climb and quite by accident performing a slow and graceful handstand, full of envy for Lara Croft's ability to traverse. It was something lost in the later games, that spatial puzzling, replaced by combat and QTEs and prequelific angst - the lonely joy of getting from one place to another with just the limited toolset of climbs, grabs and jumps, and nobody to rescue you or find your body, was what defined Tomb Raider, and it was perhaps inevitable after the movie came out that this simple joy would be smothered by developers' desperate need to Hollywoodise their games.

Croft was a cipher, and rightly too. The player had to inhabit this avatar, after all: backstory and motivation are a distraction from what every game should be about - the moment. The solving of the puzzle. Hitman went the same way (although may be pulling back again with the recent switch to episodic), GTA did too - games aren't movies, and they don't have to be in order to be respectable.

I wonder what the Assassin's Creed movie is going to be like. I like Fassbender - he can bring gravitas to a papier mache head or a purple-clad mutant, so I doubt he'll come up short - and the sheer weight of lore behind the franchise already rather prevents the movie taking over, but then AC is already halfway between a movie and a soap opera as it is. I haven't played an AC game since Unity, which I sank less than an hour into before I got bored with being tugged along by scripted events, just wanting to start the game already. I hear Syndicate was better, and will try it soon enough.

I remember Mirror's Edge, the flawed but wonderfully brave attempt to bring parkour to the gamer in a way that felt truly immersive, to take that same spatial puzzling that made TR so great and, er, go faster. It was brilliant, but hamstrung by unnecessary combat and unnecessary plot. I didn't get halfway through it, but I enjoyed the moment-by-moment sensation of it enough only to stop when a compulsory fight made it too much hassle.

I was surprised they made another. The moment is so rarely enough to bring a publisher back to put right past mistakes: more usually they think a narrative or a world is compelling and have to fix a flawed implementation (AC1 springs to mind), not the other way round. Mirror's Edge: Catalyst was an anomaly, and while I sincerely doubt they'll make a third I really hope they do.

I picked up ME:C, tried it, hated it and traded it in. Compulsory combat sections, too much plot - it was all the same mistakes all over again. But something made me buy it again a week later and persevere. Once the game stopped dragging me through other people's plots (which even the character of Faith, or at least her voice actor, seemed to resent) and gave me an open world to play with, I found that I could have as many moments as I wished.

It was that same feeling of traversal, the negotiation of space with tools. Run, jump, grab, vault, climb, drop, roll. The same feeling Tomb Raider used to give, the same moment.

Quite against my will, the stringing together of moments became an engagement with the main questline and a week ago I finished it. I'm still mopping up the last couple of sidequests but mostly I'm just enjoying the freedom. The plotline is pretty inoffensive, with good actors making the best of a hackneyed story and thinly-sketched characters. If, as is rumoured, a Mirror's Edge TV series comes to be I shall be very intrigued to see it.

I remember envying Lara, but I never envied Faith her physical abilities: they're more practical than graceful, and something about the first-person perspective makes them seem that bit more achievable. I took up parkour in real life about halfway through the game, and I'm slowly getting the hang of it: mostly it's bruises and blisters and humiliating failure but every now and then you get something right and there's that moment again.

Lara was a cipher, as any good videogame character should be, in order that we may inhabit her without having to be somebody else. With Faith the door swung both ways. Games are not movies and should not try to be, but if the measure of a fictional character is their absorbability, their propensity to cross the membrane of their medium and infiltrate us, Mirror's Edge: Catalyst is up there with some of the greatest novels I have read. I've always felt that games are art, when done right: perhaps this is a new measurement of that.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

England/Britain/the Internet Expects

Watching the Olympics - usually, pleasingly, while I'm lifting weights or pounding the stationary bike - has been more satisfying than usual this time round. London 2012 was marvellous simply because of the familiar scenery (although way too expensive for the likes of me to actually attend in person): Rio has been a messy affair, what with money problems and Zika and apparently frequent armed robberies and booing and green pools and bad-tempered doping accusations, but the sheer sport has shone through brighter than ever this time, perhaps because of the muck around it, rather than in spite.

It doesn't hurt that Team GB have done amazingly, historically well, and unpredictably so. It's been dramatic in the purest sense of the word - dead certs suddenly collapsing medalless, rank outsiders making insane dreams come true - with the records that fell being the long-term ones, the double-doubles and first successful defences.

It's been those records, the ones outside the mere be-fastest-ever stuff, that fascinate me. The goals of the athletes have been more varied and disparate than ever, and more personal. Contrast Lutalo Muhammad, positively distraught after 'only' winning silver in the taekwondo, with Amy Tinkler, over the moon with her bronze for floor gymnastics. As I write Callum Hawkins has taken 9th in the marathon - well outside the medals but still generally regarded as an excellent run. Mo Farah's golds, partly a cementing of his legacy but primarily a set of gifts for his kids.

I love that. I love that these men and women at the very top of their professions, with leads and records unassailable, still keep setting new goals for themselves; I love that the up-and-comers don't just give up when a gold is out of reach, but set an interim target and define their own flavour of success. They are true self-starters, not needing anyone else to set their goals for them.

I've been playing No Man's Sky today, unable to drive to Army due to a minor yoga-related neck injury (yep, that can happen), which is a game about which everyone seems to be angry. Some are angry because they expected features seen in an E3 demo that didn't make the cut; some are angry because they weren't explicitly told that said features wouldn't appear; many are angry that there isn't much to do in the game except explore a universe of 18 quintillion detailed planets.

I never saw the E3 demo. I never read previews, take no interest in a game until reviews of complete code are available. Everything is hot air until the discs are burned. It's not fair or nice, but there is literally no advertised product that is not like this, and advertising only works because a handful of people choose to believe the hot air. This isn't a particular cancer of game development, it's everywhere. Ask anyone who voted for (or against) Brexit.

I love the game, for the same reason I always love an open world: because I can set my own priorities, my own targets, my own goals. The game doesn't stop me, or override my choices with an intrusive questline: the devs are working on adding base-building to the game, which pretty much defies the supposedly intended cycle of explore-warp-explore. Having my own little home on a backwater planet where I can potter around cataloguing the wildlife is pretty much my dream, so I can't wait: I'm already scouting out suitable worlds.

There is a (much-maligned, I think unfairly, in the comments section) piece at Eurogamer about games like these - 'adjective games' as opposed to 'verb games', a useful shorthand distinction I think - that perhaps sheds light on the kind of people who play these games. Adjective games appeal to people who enjoy the sensation of being there, who are prepared to make their own goals and stories: I suspect that this is also what distinguishes athletes from gymgoers.

Gymgoers go to the gym because they read somewhere (or were told by a doctor) that they're supposed to, to lose weight or look better or mitigate their heart murmur or whatever: they follow programmes they found online or in Men's Health, depend on a PT to motivate them, hate the work but accept it as a Thing They Have To Do. Athletes love being there, enjoy the sensation of a hard session, of good work completed: it's not an external compulsion, but an internal one. They set their own goals, their own agenda. Their coach or their nutritionist is not there to impose external goals, but to support their own.

I've moved, slowly, from gymgoer to athlete over the course of the last half a decade. I enjoy my runs like never before, feel restless and weirdly unjustified if I'm unable to work out for a day. I'll never contest the Olympics, of course, but I don't have to, because I set my own goals. Perhaps that's why I can be happy with No Man's Sky.

For all the victories and defeats and memorable moments, there is one in particular that I will forever associate with Rio 2016. It was Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D'Agostino's collision and fall during their 5,000m, where they both helped each other to get up and finish, running through what must have been terrible pain. It brought tears to my eyes: this is why sport is different to war, and better - in sport you can be kind, if you are strong enough.

Monday, August 01, 2016

A Hard-Won Banana Equilibrium

I used to hate bananas, then forced myself to eat them regularly until I got to like them, then came to resent them, and eventually stopped having feelings about bananas altogether. Like air and sleep the yellow not-really-a-fruit is simply a necessity now, something forgotten once inhaled. Not everything in life can be assimilated like that, but at least bananas can.

I'd be lying if I said I had writer's block, but I'd be lying if I said I'd done much writing lately too - the meniscus between real life and the fictional is a bit thin (at least for me. I understand this isn't the case for some writers, usually grizzled ex-Forces types whose novels have pointy aeroplanes on the jacket) and if my real-world equilibrium is disturbed the other one usually tips over.

That's not to say I haven't written at all: I have, and not badly either. But momentum is hard to come by, and my day job has recently become rather more bent towards authorly endeavour itself - technical documentation and training materials require a surprising amount of creative thinking and craft to do well, which is why so many of them are not done well. It's not a zero-sum game or anything, it's just... well, knackering.

Anyway, I have two weeks off work now and can switch that facet off for a bit. It is my habit to visit Eastbourne for a few days to enjoy the sea and the (comparative) quiet, but a part of me is tempted to stay home: there's something appealingly Spartan-slash-monkish about paring life back to naught but workouts, writing and prayerful meditation, and holiday eating is a bloody trial when you're trying to eat clean, hence bananas.

Clean eating is a meme (by the internet definition, of course) - it's another one of those too-good-to-be-true oversimplifications that pepper the world of popular nutrition (think about that phrase for a moment: popular nutrition. That's the world we live in now. No wonder terrorists want to kill us all) - but like all oversimplifications it is a simplification of something true, or at least indicated by peer-reviewed study. The inestimable Fritha Louise, in railing against this practice via the medium of YouTube, actually got me to try it through cunning reverse psychology/me being bloody-minded and it's been enormously helpful. I'm not a large chap - five-five in my socks, although I'm very rarely in socks, for reasons I hope are obvious - and cutting fat is a bloody trial when your BMR is in the 1400s. Clean eating lets me cut without having to starve and forces me to find ways to make avocado appetising, a challenge of near Dark-Souls-level daunt which I have, I'm happy to say, bested, through the application of lime juice and cayenne.

So, yeah. I'm losing weight and training harder than ever, and I'm not suffering for it as I have in the past. It's big news for me, anyway, and I've blogged for only the second time this year, so perhaps the emotional logjamb of recent months is clearing a bit. We'll see.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Squeezing The Middle

Every now and again I seek out something I have always disliked or missed the point of and endeavour to start afresh with it, to reset and retry on the offchance I might actually like it now. Occasionally this bears fruit: suet dumplings, custard and stilton, for instance, turned out to be far tastier in adulthood than as a pasty schoolboy (unmixed, I might add) - but more often than not I turn out to have been right the first time, which is oddly depressing.

I'm forty-two now, which is the same age as Bond and is likely the exact midpoint of my lifespan, since I neither smoke nor drink and my genes are good. I've had occasional midlife panics for the best part of a decade now, where I seek out something new and unprecedented to add to my being in an attempt to prove to myself I've still got the poorly-defined, elusive 'it'. I've always assumed that this was simple nostalgia for youth, when everything seemed new because it was, that this sense of discovery was what the midlife man tries to replicate.

I've never been convinced that it's really about trying to be young again. Men don't age that way: most of our role models are middle-aged, because getting to middle age is how they got to be role models, by gathering the wisdom of years and surviving the process. You can't really look up to someone who hasn't survived something. Talent isn't an accomplishment, application of talent is. Now I've been in the midrange of life for a while I think it's probably just about change.

We are supposed to resist change as we age, but we don't - we just resist the worsening of the world around us, which seems inevitable and perfectly sensible, really. When a man is trying new things in midlife he isn't striking out to recapture lost youth: he's trying to prove that losing youth isn't a drawback, that it doesn't make us any weaker or less than we were. Men are fine with growing up, we just want to use it for something. In a sense I have an advantage over most men my age in that I have no wife, kids or mortgage to drain my time and opportunities - on the other hand I have no money either, so I can't just take a month off plying the roulette tables of Monaco in search of new experiences.

As is so often the case, I have the refuge of writing. I occasionally resent the lack of performance in my field - you can't really demonstrate authorial creativity at parties, in the same way a saxophonist might blow or a singer warble - and I'd give anything to possess some kind of social artistic talent, like dancing. But for the habitual loner, which every man is at some point in his life, writing is perfect: you only need a pen, and you probably have one. When you invent worlds you're never short of new experiences.

I've been in the middle of things for a long time: in the middle of The Vagrant And The Snowflake, in the middle of some lifestyle alterations, in the middle of various disasters and accomplishments. I've made some changes, while some other changes have remade me, and right now I'm watching some of the mid-2000s dance movies I've always eschewed because, you know, what if I was wrong? I'm probably not, but it's as well to make sure.

It's chaos, midlife. It's a mess of past and present and future, of maintenance and progression, of wisdom hard-earned and glorious new ignorances discovered. But it's a chaos that we've earned, that we're comfortable with, that we're able and willing to handle and shape. It's only called a crisis because it looks like one from the outside.

Saturday, August 29, 2015


I journeyed far and found refuge abroad
Leagues away from where I lay my head.
Now I've returned, this place seems all but dead:
My home is not my home. This bed and board

Holds nothing for me now, and yet I'm trapped
By history, the knots tied in my life.
Knots can be cut loose - where is my knife?
Freedom calls me: history be scrapped!

But wait... must I escape, or change my mind?
Is the grass I seek no greener than
That on which I stand? A thirsting man
Beneath a waterfall would heaven find...

Wisdom needn't rush. For now, no haste.
I'll keep my knife at hand, though, just in case.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Horsey to Queen Bish Five

I've been trying to learn chess, again. I know the moveset, learned in childhood, but have never learned how to play it: like driving, playing chess is not merely the press of pedal and turn of wheel but the contextual application of those motions.

Chess is one of those things I want to like, because it seems to fit my personality. There are other things like this, cultural artefacts that need to be approached and addressed in order to benefit - opera, theatre, ballet, musicals, Tolstoy - and not merely absorbed. I like difficult movies because of the effort they require; I like modern art because it isn't easy. You have to think, you have to meet the artist halfway, involve yourself. I want to be involved in the art I enjoy.

This is probably why I favour open-world videogames too: a recent Eurogamer article (and the comments thread that followed it) shows starkly that the ratio of art-to-entertainment in this particular medium is much lower than, say, cinema - leaving it up to us to make up our own experiences in devised worlds, an exercise that requires a Skyrim or a Liberty City. You can't meet CoD halfway: you have to be the character they press you into, let go, let them take charge of you.

There's value in that, if you enjoy rollercoasters, which many do. Personally I can't stand them. Finding joy in having your control taken away is a bit BDSM for my taste. In videogames I just want a toolset and a world, and to be allowed to go off and make my own entertainment.

Hence, chess. I should love it, but I don't, still. Every five years I try to love it again. I suspect I just need to play it against someone who is equally crap, so that we can learn it together, but the only chess players I know are skilled, lethal.

What comforts me is that yesterday's easy is today's difficult. Opera was once pop culture, Dickens was once throwaway pulp fiction. Take this, written in 1528 about chess:
And what say you to the game at chestes? It is truely an honest kynde of enterteynmente and wittie, quoth Syr Friderick. But me think it hath a fault, whiche is, that a man may be to couning at it, for who ever will be excellent in the playe of chestes, I beleave he must beestowe much tyme about it, and applie it with so much study, that a man may assoone learne some noble scyence, or compase any other matter of importaunce, and yet in the ende in beestowing all that laboure, he knoweth no more but a game. Therfore in this I beleave there happeneth a very rare thing, namely, that the meane is more commendable, then the excellency.
 Yep, they had chess nerds back then. Basement-dwelling weirdos with Bishops Do It Diagonally t-shirts quaffing Mountain Dew at LAN parties. I find that reassuring, and I don't really know why.

Sunday, November 02, 2014


Right, I've finished mucking about now. My new novel Take It is now available for Kindle from Amazon and in paperback from Lulu: very soon the paperback will be on Amazon too.

But there's more: all of my previous fiction can now be had on Kindle! Only 99p each (even the new one) so, y'know, go fetch.

But there's more more: I've reformatted all of them as A-format paperbacks, a bit easier to carry around than the 6" x 9" trade paperbacks I did originally, and prettied up with new jackets:

They'll be on Amazon in due course but until then, snap them up from my store on Lulu.