Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Writing Wround-up: March/April/May

It's been a while since I've done one of these, but as the impending wedding and honeymoon means all non-speech writing is basically going on hiatus for a few weeks, it seemed like a good time to share some of my favourite pieces from the last few months.

Let's start at the beginning, with the end of ComicsAlliance. One of my favourite sites closed down on 1 April – see this Twitter thread for a taste of what reading, and latterly writing for, CA meant to me – but I was at least able to contribute to its final days.

As well as contributing to the final article, teaming up with my ComicsAllies to discuss why we love comics, I wrote two 'Costume Drama' pieces in March. Those covered some of my favourite bits of superhero design: Iron Fist, and Ms America Chavez. Not to spoil it, but that second article ends thusly:
“It holds together the comic, which moves at a breakneck pace. As much as I’m buying the next issue to follow the continuing story of one of my favourite characters, the question that will really keep me coming back is: What is America wearing this month?
Oh, that and: Which fascist will America be delivering a fistful of justice to this month? I can’t wait to find out.”
It felt like a pretty appropriate way to wrap up my time at ComicsAlliance.

Starting the month as a comics criticism rōnin, I turned to the one venue I still had for writing about the ol' funnybooks: Tim + Alex Get TWATD, the Wicked + Divine blog I co-run with Tim "a Baal in the streets, a Sahkmet in the sheets" Maytom.

Given that the blog has been running for nearly three years, it's way past time we put the focus on Matt Wilson's brilliant (in the literal sense) colours. So that's what I did.
“There are gods whose powers are specifically tied to a colour combination, like Baal’s white and purple lightning, or palette, like Dionysus’ rave neons and fluorescents. But whoever’s doing it, when shits gets supernatural – whether on stage or in battle – Wilson brings the fireworks.
As a colourist, Wilson is the best I’ve ever seen at making something look blindingly bright. It works well enough in print, but on a backlit screen – especially at the brightness level I keep my tablet turned up to, battery life be damned – a page turn can leave me blinking like I’ve just emerged into the midday sun.”
This is from my overview of Wilson's work on WicDiv, as well as Marvel's Mighty Thor, looking at some of the things that make his colouring exceptional. I followed it up with a smaller blog about the scene that first inspired me to write about Wilson – Woden's descent into hell in issue #25.

Away from comics, I spent most of February and March working on a relaunch of Mobile Marketing Magazine. One of the parts I'm most happy with is the launch of Viewpoint, a rotating weekly column that passes writing duties between myself, the aforementioned Tim Maytom, and our founder/editor/all-round boss David Murphy.

The project has produced some of the best writing I think we've ever had on the site. For me personally, it's been a chance to flex muscles that I rarely get to at Mobile Marketing: being opinionated, telling anecdotes, pulling out all the tricks I normally save for blogging. It's been great fun. 

“Google reviews have the user’s profile attached. Which meant the shop – still in possession of her wedding dress – was able to identify which customer had left this rating. Which led to a member of staff ringing the mobile number she’d left with the shop, to demand an explanation for this three-star rating.
With her dress essentially being held hostage, my fiancée decided the best course of action was to deny all knowledge, and claim it must have been an errant thumb on her touchscreen.
“Fine”, said the man on the phone. “Change the rating to five stars then.””

And, finally, back to comics.

One of the few good things about ComicsAlliance closing has been seeing other websites open their doors, and its writers find homes elsewhere. Including – to be predictably self-serving – me!

I got the chance to write for comics juggernaut CBR for the first time, echoing my first piece for ComicsAlliance with a feature about the hallwayfight scenes in Netflix's Defenders shows.
“Before storming the Crispus Attucks complex, Luke Cage slips in a pair of ear buds, pulls up his hood, and starts blasting the Wu’s “Bring Da Ruckus.” This simple decision gives the scene a completely different flavor than its Daredevil predecessors. John Paesano’s score provides Daredevil’s fights with brilliant atmosphere but, frankly, who wouldn’t prefer to watch a bulletproof man cracking skulls to the sounds of a Ghostface Killah verse?”
An even bigger surprise, though, was getting to write for Polygon – best known as a games website, with one of the most thorough editorial policies in the biz. With DC's Batman and Flash comics revisiting Watchmen, I wrote about the nine-panel grid, one of the most interesting parts of that book's 30-year legacy.
“Every comics page is a succession of frozen instants, but they could be seconds or minutes apart. The density of a nine-panel grid allows for a consistent rhythm. The smallest movement, of Batman turning over the smiley badge in his hand, can be broken into parts, each like a frame of celluloid.
In Watchmen, this effect was equated with the ticking of a clock. In Batman #21, there is a literal timer in the corner of each panel, counting down one second at a time. This tick-tock rhythm is the heartbeat of Watchmen’s universe, as recognizable as the “Be My Baby” drum beat.”
Not only is Polygon a great website, but it's recently introduced Buzzfeed-style image swiping tools, which let you jump back and forth between the original pages and my annotated versions. Whoosh! It's the closest my writing has even come to having its own special effects. Go and check it out.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

The Short Game: Titanfall 2

A funny thing happened to me last year. After a lifelong habit of moving from game to game as soon as I felt I'd sucked the essential nutrients from them... I started finishing games. It helped that it was the year I got a PS4 and that, despite being awful in almost every other conceivable way, 2016 produced a bumper crop of great video games.

So I thought I'd write about some of them. Not great sweeping reviews, but just little nuggets of writing that might clue you into whether they're worth trying, or cause you to disagree violently if you've already played them yourself. Starting with...


Having never played its 2014 predecessor, the game that Titanfall 2 feels like a sequel to, as far as I'm concerned, is Halo. The game borrows a lot of incidental details from that series – the two-weapon system, the subtitles it throws up on screen to mark each new part of a level, the recharging energy-shield health system, the design of its lush alien locations and planet-destroying superweapons, that blue-green colour scheme...

Most of all, though, it's just in the way Titanfall 2 is constructed: big spectacle-laden setpieces connected by tiny five-minute sandboxes. Like the very best of Halo, the singleplayer campaign is full of these discrete situations that let the player choose how to approach them.

Do you want to clamber to the top of this enemy base and shower them with lead and plasma from above? Or turn on your cloak, and lodge yourself right in the middle of a pack of baddies, unleashing hell from an automatic shotgun just as you sputter back onto the visible spectrum? Or go full Matrix and spray the bastards with machine-gun fire as you parkour effortlessly between walls and over their heads, never slowing down enough for anyone to get a bead on you?
Carving the game up this way gives players a great chance to play with all the toys – and Titanfall 2 is absolutely packed with them. The weird weapons, the ability to keep shooting as you slide on your knees, and... oh, have I not even mentioned the Titans yet?

Your agile Pilot character is accompanied throughout the campaign by BT-7274, an artificially intelligent robot/mecha-suit combo known as a 'Titan'. When you're on foot, BT provides supporting fire (plus some great Threepio-esque chatter, which endeared him to me pretty much immediately). Climb inside BT's chassis, though, and you're put in full control of his joyously OP arsenal.

The genius of Titanfall 2, though, is that having a dirty great robot pal isn't your superpower. Every other bugger you encounter has one of those.
No, your superpower, the thing that marks you apart from the computer-controlled baddies, that makes you capable of demolishing an entire battalion of them, is flexibility.

BT is different from the Titans your enemies and allies call their own in that he can switch between loadouts. He can transform from sword-wielding teleporter to jetpack-jumping sniper to fire-spewing bastard. You'll face off against all of these archetypes across the course of the campaign, but only BT gets to try all of them. You can jump from loadout mid-fight, with no more than a second's delay, the same way your pilot can pick up a new weapon.

Speaking of: one of my favourite things about Titanfall is how, whenever you switch between weapons, the game drops a short description – 'automatic shotgun', 'long-range assault rifle' – straight onto the HUD. It allows you to can get murdering without too much trial and error, and constantly encourages you to try something new.
Hit a wall of seemingly unbeatable enemies? Just try something else. Grab a sniper rifle this time, and wall-run up to that isolated nest. Or what about that SMG? Ooh, and you've barely touched those fancy grenades that mess with the gravity...

Given that Titanfall 2's focus is nominally on multiplayer – its predecessor actually had no singleplayer component – this is a great way of giving you basic training before you ship out to the theatre of online war.

But, most importantly, it's just great campaign design. It makes for an interesting contrast to the Half-Life 2 school of shooterism, which slowly grows your arsenal, giving you time to learn and – frankly – get bored of each weapon in turn. In Titanfall, the majority of the weapons are there from the start, positively screaming from their spot on the levels' plentiful gun racks to give them a try. To be flexible.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Thought Bubble 2016

This might be a farewell to comic conventions, at least for a little while. Let’s write it and find out.

I’ve never felt very comfortable on the show floors at cons. For anybody who’s never been to one, imagine an aircraft hangar stuffed with rows of tables. At these tables are a mix of creators – some you’ve never heard of, some so beloved you can’t believe you’re in the same room – and people selling comics and comics-adjacent merchandise – t-shirts, prints, hand-knitted toys, Back to the Future-themed vinyls.

So, in theory, you can go up to the person who wrote or drew or coloured that one comic that broke your heart last summer, and tell them how it helped you grow as a person while they put their signature on the front of it. In practice – at least for someone who is: a) a bit socially anxious and b) reads pretty much all of their comics digitally – you end up awkwardly standing over their table going ‘hey... um... I think you’re cool?’ and then running away Zoidberg-style.

Which is how I met Jamie McKelvie and Kieron Gillen at a Birmingham Comics Festival, enough years ago that I don’t want to actually check the date lest my body erode with sheer age and blow away in the wind.

I followed them from event to event for a while, until I realised the whole comic-con thing might not be for me. I remember being at Bristol Comics Expo, dropping by their table for the fifth time that day and over-sharing (as usual) that, if I felt out of place even in at a comics convention, where the hell would I ever fit in? So I gave up on comics events.
Me and my boo.
Until, a few years later, Tim and I started talking online and, having heard the early legends, decided maybe we should meet up in person for the first time at this ‘Thought Bubble’ comics festival in Leeds.

It was a revelation, not only because it forged one of the most important friendships in my life, or even because Tim that weekend introduced me to beef brisket, an eating experience I would chase for many years afterwards. But because, for the first time in my life, I unreservedly enjoyed a comic con.

Let’s be clear: Thought Bubble uses the same basic format of tables in a hangar. And I still feel just as awkward at the tables of people whose work I love, stammering that fact in their faces down at waist-level. But it also has a dancefloor.
This year’s dancefloor, courtesy of Reece Lipman. The file name informs me it wasn’t even midnight yet.
The mid-con party is built around half-hour DJ sets from various comics creators, with the four core pillars being Kieron, Jamie, Al Ewing and Antony Johnston.

I might not be the world’s most comfortable talker, but drinking and dancing? That is somewhere I feel right at home, especially when said dancing is to the likes of Kenickie (thx KG). I’ve been to the past six Thought Bubbles, and that dancefloor is a large part of it. I have a pleasant enough day, mumbling praise at my favourite creators and sitting in some excellent and occasionally enlightening panels, but the whole time I am like J-Lo. Waiting for tonight.

 That lack of inhibitions, especially with Tim as my drift-compatible dance partner, means we’ve been first to the ‘floor a few times over the years, and felt a small warming nugget of responsibility when it eventually catches light.
Early doors on this year’s dancefloor.
Over the past six years, Thought Bubble has snowballed. As an event, slowly consuming more and more of the Royal Armories venue and moving, but personally too.

Our group has swollen, from that initial two into something more closely resembling Blazin’ Squad. I have friends I know entirely through Thought Bubble, faces and names I know solely from previous years’ parties. Every year the number grows – not least thanks to Boy King of ThoBubs Adlai McCook, seen in the below picture receiving his rightful worship.
Picture nicked off’f Al Kennedy’s Twitter. Sorry Al 

And every year we’ve picked up more traditions and running jokes and legends. That time we went to the party in full ThoBubs make-up. Chvrches. Red’s True BBQ. That time Alex tried to snog Kieron for some reason and ended up kissing Al Ewing instead. Cosplay bingo. Tim’s dancing. Alex & Tim’s dancing. That time DMC from Run DMC came and dropped a few verses at the party. “Try not to die.” Total Eclipse of The Heart. The Venga Bus. The eternal search for the 24-hour Greggs. Al opening his DJ set with War of The Worlds. Shirts coming off. Shirts always coming off.

 All this means expectations, and expectations can be dashed. There’s the fear that traditions can ossify into a mandated ticklist.

So I went into this year’s Thought Bubble having decided it would be my last, at least for a little while. Coincidentally, but also not entirely coincidentally, Jamie and Kieron (and Al, it turns out) had declared it also would be their last time DJing.

So my heart was especially big this year, and ThoBubs filled it. The feels runneth over.
Picture feat., and nicked from, the Whatnot Tree collective
Picture feat., and nicked from, the Whatnot Tree collective
The show itself was great. There’s a special energy to nudging your way past Judge Dredd to browse through Mondo’s latest prints, or to spotting a tiny Stan Lee clinging onto his mum’s hand while you queue for a talk. Thought Bubble goes out of its way to be kid-friendly, and that leads to a lot of these heart-warming moments. Here’s another: a kid dressed as the Flash battling a group of grown-ups dressed as his rogues’ gallery.

Then, on the other end of the spectrum, you have Speed Cock.

 The culmination of the Silence to Astonish panel – a sort of surrealist comics chat show hosted by a man in a homemade Galactus helmet and a rubbery-faced werewolf – Speed Cock is the ancient competition of drawing as many penises on a whiteboard within one minute as possible.

With its own theme tune. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

The panel in question, this year starring ‘temporary Ryan North’ Adlai McCook
But yeah, let’s be clear, it was all about the Saturday night. The venue – a food court on the second storey of a shopping centre – was unusual and not always ideal – the sound system scraped the bottom level of bass off every song, the audio cut out a few times, they kept turning on the lights in an attempt to kick us out.

Then again, when else are you going to get the opportunity to dance through a tangle of tables, a tray of ribs in hand, knowing that if the next song is a major banger you’re going to have to drop the food to the floor and sprint to the 'floor?

Besides, the audio problems also led to one of the night’s most magical moments. Faced with a minute of technical-difficulties silence, Kieron cast around for a song people might be able to sing without any accompaniment. 

“...Every now and then I get a little bit nervous, that the best of all the years have gone by.”
“Every now and then I get a little bit terrified, and then I see the look in your eyes.”
“Every now and then I fall apart!” 

The ThoBubs dancefloor in full effect.
And you look around the dancefloor, and you think about all the horror that’s been going on in comics of late, horror that like, much of 2016, you can summarise as cishet white men being awful to everyone else. And you look at the faces, as many women as men, everyone letting their freak flag fly, screaming the lyrics to a Bonnie Tyler song no of them can hear, and you think: No, this is comics

And then you step back from the dancefloor, partly because this song isn’t one you’ve got the moves for but mostly because the last run of Robyn/CRJ/Taylor Swift has left you with no shake remaining in your ass. And you put your arm around Adlai, and the two of you get a bit teary over what’s unfolding in front of you, and that this might never happen again. 

And then Modern Love comes on and you rush back to the dancefloor, and the circle of friends you left three songs ago is still there only it’s somehow grown even bigger, and you dance and you shout the words and know that there is some corner of Leeds that will be forever dancing, forever the very best of geekdom, forever ThoBubs.


Friday, 2 September 2016

Alex's Adventures in Internetland: June/July/August

Hey there, stranger!

The blog's a bit quiet these days, simply because I've been doing a lot of work for other sites. Work which includes some of the articles I'm most proud of, like, ever.

For example, this feature on in-game photography, for tech website Alphr.com.
"A carelessly-tossed Molotov has set Kyrat's foliage ablaze. Mixed in amongst the crackle of flames are gun shots, getting louder and more frequent, but I'm paying them no attention. Two elephants have just sauntered out of the trees ahead. So, naturally, I'm crouched looking down the lens of Far Cry 4's in-game camera, waiting for the perfect moment to squeeze the screenshot button.
As the light hits the exquisite rough texture of the elephants' hides, a tiger emerges from the treeline and, like a game of golf ruining a good walk, proceeds to tear me to shreds. But it doesn't matter. I got the shot."
It's probably the single prettiest thing I've ever had published online, thanks to their lovely clean layout and especially to the pics from interviewees Gary Dooton and Dead End Thrills.

It's not perfect, but this Rock Paper Shotgun article about Hitman's Elusive Target mode was a fun challenge, pitching and writing something and having it published within 36 hours of me having the initial controller-in-hands experience. (I wrote about Hitman on the blog already. In any other year, it would probably be my hands-down Game of 2016, but we've been blessed with an anomalously good crop of the ol' electronic entertainments this year.)

If you're talking about games in 2016, though, there's a single title that is so hard to ignore that frankly even I'm surprised we've gotten this far without mentioning it. Summer 2016 will forever be remembered as 'the Pokémon Go era', especially when it comes to stuff I wrote.

There was a solid month where every third story on Mobile Marketing had a Pikachu pun in it, the best of which was probably this look at how pubs and shops were piggybacking onto the game's enormous success. I've got a couple of other Poké-themed articles coming out soon, which sadly just narrowly missed the August window, but the best thing I'll probably ever write on the topic is already out there.

That's this Kotaku article, where I talk about how inaccessible and tricksy and weird the game is, for such a big successful mobile title.
"It's aggressively light on tutorial, leaving you to work everything out for yourself. What does the colour of this circle mean, and why is it growing and shrinking like that? Do the rustling leaves mean a Pokémon will spawn in that spot? What the hell do I do with this egg? Confused, alone, you’re in the same state that you were when you took those first steps out of Pallet Town and into the long grass of Route 1.
By the conventional rules of apps – in terms of onboarding and UX and all the other jargony things that developers concern themselves with – this is disastrous. But it can actually be made to work in an app's favour. People have drawn the comparison with Snapchat, which was apparently designed specifically to be confusing in a way that repels old people like me."
If I wanted to get wanky about it – and when have I ever missed and opportunity for that – it's secretly an article about not being sure if I'm old or still a child, and the transience of any new experience, and trying to reconcile all that through a constant that has been in my life for nearly 20 years. Y'know, like Songs of Innocence & Experience, but with more Snorlax.

My column over at ComicsAlliance, The Issue, is currently going strong. I've been playing around with the form as seems appropriate, doing a review of Locke & Key's month-spanning "February" in 29 installments and even a choose-your-own article which can be read a dozen different ways to match an Adventure Time issue with the same gimmick.

Probably the best example, though, is considerably less flashy. In June ComicsAlliance ran a Pride Week, with an incredible breadth of articles and viewpoints. I was fortunate enough to get to contribute a piece on Generation Hope's "Better", which uses mutants to talk about some pretty harrowing real-world events:
"In late 2010, four young gay men in the US committed suicide within a single month. The most widely reported was the story of Tyler Clementi, an 18 year-old student in New Jersey who killed himself a few days after being secretly recorded kissing another man. “Better” puts those events through the filter of the X-Men, but it doesn’t work hard to disguise them. The story focuses on a student, Zeeshan, whose mutant powers manifest in front of two friends who choose to record the transformation and post it online.
It’s an imperfect analogue, as mutants always are. Using a group who are defined by their frequently world-threatening powers as a stand-in for an oppressed minority or community is troubling because it casts them as a threat. There certainly are people who see the LGBTQ community that way, but it’s not a worldview you want to ally yourself with. And, as recent events have brutally reminded us, it’s pretty much the exact opposite of how it actually works in the real world."
No gimmick, no experimentation, just me just writing my little heart out. It was uncomfortable and difficult to write, and I just hope that translates into something positive when you read it.

Also during Pride Week, I reviewed Si Spurrier and Jeff Stokely's The Spire, and tried to pick apart how the comic deals with queer issues. I'm not sure I did the whole thing justice, but it's one of my favourite comics of the year.

One final bit of ComicsAlliance stuff. I generally shy away from interviews, and Q&As especially, but that's exactly what I did after Comixology launched their Netflix-y 'Unlimited' service. I spoke to CEO David Steinberger about creator remuneration, ownership and what 'unlimited' really means. I was really happy with the result, and it laid the groundwork for another bigger piece I have coming out in the next week or so.

Finally, Tim + Alex Get TWATD – a side project that started out life on this very blog – has improbably reached its second anniversary. Now on Tumblr, TWATD is a way of forcing myself (and Tim, unfortunately for him) to find as many ways as possible to write about a single comic, namely The Wicked + The Divine.

The instalment I'd point you towards is "Don't", which is basically a close reading of every action scene (or at least, every major act of violence) in the series so far. Fair warning, it's full of spoilers, but I think this excerpt is okay:
"I watched Die Hard for the thousandth time last weekend, and it got me thinking about the rules of action movies. In order to make the guy with the gun their hero, these films have to draw a line between ‘killing’ and ‘murder’. When John McClane empties a machine gun into Marco’s groin, he kills him. When Hans Gruber shoots Ellis in the head, he murders him.
‘Rising Action’ basically conforms to those rules. The Pantheon don’t actually kill one other, but when they crack each other’s skulls, that’s action. It’s all cool entrances and backflips and laser katanas. Despite them arguably playing the ‘bad guys’ this arc, that’s equally true of Ananke’s faction."
Unless you've never seen Die Hard, I guess. Sorry about that.

If you're looking for something a bit lighter, we're currently doing a 30 Day Challenge, where Tim and I both answer a set question about the series (favourite issue, least favourite character, some more esoteric fan stuff). That's still rolling, you can check it out here.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

PS4Play: Steamworld Dig (2014, Image & Form)

This weekend, I finished Steamworld Dig. That in and of itself is pretty remarkable. As much as I love games, these days I rarely finish them. Normally, I suck out all of a game's ideas and mechanics, like the marrow from its bone, or get stuck or just bored, and then move onto the next one.

In part, that's simply because Steamworld Dig is short. I polished it off in five and a half hours, though one of the achievements I browsed through after completing suggests you can do it in under three. By video game standards, that's positively skeletal.

The other part is the soothing rhythm of the game. Before I explain what I mean, I'd better lay out what Steamworld Dig actually is:
There's a robot. Rusty, his name is. Awful shiny feller. Into the two-horse, three-bot town of Tumbleton, Rusty comes a-strollin'. Tumbleton's a strange place, a mix of ol' Western tropes and steampunk science-fiction that the game shouldn't rightly be able to pull off, but does mainly thanks to its Saturday-morning-cartoon graphical stylings. Anyway, Rusty strolls into town clutching his uncle's will and a pickaxe, with a mind to digging down deep underground.

What follows is basically a two-dimensional adaption of the block-hitting action you've likely seen in Minecraft. The world beneath the world's crust is made up of a series of cubes, and by tapping the pickaxe button, you chip away at them to create a path and mine for precious minerals. As you dig down deeper and deeper, the blocks become harder to mine, but you earn new and upgraded tools that make you faster, stronger, harder and indeed better.

Steamworld Dig is not a game you'd accuse of being especially nutritious, but that simple loop – of encountering a tougher obstacle, and buying your way to an upgrade that lets you overcome it – is undeniably satisfying.

Playing Steamworld Dig, you're likely to catch yourself every now and then and realise, yup, these are empty calories. But occasionally a bit of mental junk food is exactly what you need from a gaming session. For example:

Waking up to the EU referendum result on Friday – after a few nights of limited sleep and travel – I found myself, to my own surprise, genuinely distraught. The idea of going outside or watching the news was unpalatable. Even music was too much, too likely to jangle my nerves, and all that made it incredibly difficult to work or even function properly.

Over lunch, though, I popped on a podcast (Jay & Miles X-Plain The X-Men recapping the '80s crossover event Inferno – no connection to real-world or even vaguely current events, no British accents) and Steamworld Dig on the PS4. It was an incredibly soothing experience. Not only did it take my mind off the chaos unfolding in the real world, Steamworld Dig offered a self-contained sense of order where, with a little effort, all problems were surmountable. I guess, to use a word I've always been uncomfortable with, it was empowering.
It's a game I find hard to actively recommend – it does what it sets out to do in slick rewarding fashion, and not much more – but that session of Steamworld Dig was magical.

It's worth adding that the magic held up beyond that, right until the end, those rewarding loops continuing to pull me deeper and deeper below the surface. I suspect half an hour more and the game would have outstayed its welcome, but that's the beauty of being short. I finished Steamworld Dig, and put it down happy, satisfied to never touch the game again.

Previously on PS4Play: Hitman, clockwork puzzles & Groundhog-Day syndrome

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.