Monday, 30 March 2009

The Scariest Game I Have Ever Played

I am here to talk to you today about 2008’s finest Apocalypse Simulator. One that didn’t get much mention in the Best Of lists, one that eclipses the most impressively real panic attack-inducing situation Left 4 Dead can throw at you. I am talking, of course, about Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise.

On the surface, it seemed simple enough: a cuddly, family-friendly kind of game, where you run a garden of sweet animals with pun-heavy names. A lovely present from a caring girlfriend. Imagine my horror to find that this was, in fact, all a façade for the true nature of the game.

It’s a prep-kit designed to teach you how to deal with the death of everything you ever loved.

My time with the game had been happy enough: a proud roster of beloved pets with in-jokey names, a tidy if unremarkable little patch of land to call my own. Then I hit Level 21. Amidst a flurry of upgrades and rewards, a modest cutscene introduces me to my nemesis, Professor Pester. He seems harmless enough, bumbling around, until I realise he is invulnerable to smacks from my trusty spade, and he’s out to kill every last one of my beloved Piñatas.

Meanwhile, the garden is invaded by his minions, the Sours- evil versions of the Piñatas. Until now, they’d hardly been a problem: coming into my garden unbidden, eating the odd flower, causing general mischief. Distracted by the misdeeds of the Professor, I spade one to death- just two quick taps. I move on to some other task.

Out of sight, the Sour splits open and spills two red seeds out onto the green papery grass. Seeds that will grow, quickly and inevitably, into weeds.

A burst of noises, and suddenly I look up from micromanagement of my vegetable patch.

It’s an outbreak. Nearly a quarter of my garden is engulfed in chaos: red ugly plants climb up, choking and trapping my Piñatas. They spit fire and poisonous gas. And, most deadly of all: sweets. Bunnycombs flee, their papery fur burning. Lickitoads and Sweetles collapse, green, onto their backs. My beloved Zorro-esque Pretztail, El Foxxo, munches down on a poisoned candy.

Before I can do a thing, half my Piñatas are dying and as I summon the Doctor to save them, yet more fall ill to the growing forest of red. Gardening Sim becomes Survival Horror as I try to quell two epidemics at once, illness and weeds, and fight with the controls, which suddenly seem purposefully slow and clumsy. So slow.

Eventually, the Piñatas themselves become your enemies. Their bodies choke paths for the Doctor and block your attack on the weeds. The panic of the situation has turned a few of them animalistic, and I find pairs of Piñatas locked in mortal combat, tearing each other limb-from-sweet-little-limb. You’re cursing the stupidity that means they’re eating the same sweets that made them sick twice already. But there’s no way you’re going to let one die.

And then one does. Dastardos, the game’s Death figure, appears. He is endlessly creepy, floating just above the ground, all twisted anatomy and red Picasso fixed-express mask. To give you an idea of just how scary he is, here is a description from the Viva Piñata wiki, pinataisland.info.

“Dastardos … puts sick piñatas out of their misery with a big stick. When things go badly for an animal, they get sick. Dastardos has invented a cheerful song to help him through the day and make piñatas calm while he 'fixes' them.”

So sure enough, Dastardos goes about ‘fixing’ a sick Piñata, then another, and another, drifting between the fallen animals, singing his song. These Piñatas are mine- were mine- and they’re never coming back, not the same as they were. In terms of gameplay, it’s just the simple loss of a name and any clothing you might have bought that Piñata (you see the cracked-open body fly into the sky and plant neatly down, fixed again, outside of your garden) but, effectively, it’s the loss of a personality. It hurts more than any fallen comrade-in-arms, the cutscene death of a key character. It hurts more, even, than a corrupted save game or a dead, scratched disc; hours of precious playtime gone.

Tired from the endless death and futility, a solution occurs- just kill the 360. I can always fire it up again with an older save. So I shut it down.

No luck. Still knee-deep in the apocalypse, just a little earlier, and soon too many animals have fallen. This time it seems worse: the bottom of my screen won’t stay still, new alerts of sickness and death popping up every second.

I turn off the 360 again, and take some deep breaths. I call Rare and Professor Pester some very unsavoury things to my girlfriend, who bought me this game as a release from all that muddy grey violence. I scour the internet for help, of which I find little, and fire up the game again, now resigned to my fate.

I quarantine the area, excavating the biggest pool I can manage. No seed will take root in the water. I hire two weeders, dispatch them to battle the growing tide of choking plants… Not quick enough. Death comes still. 360 goes off, I catch my breath.

Eventually, three tries later, I manage it, but at a cost. I watch death take a Lickitoad, a Piñata I was never too close to, and take toll of the other casualties. My beloved Bunnycomb population is wiped out, but for one survivor.

I take a breath and marvel at my garden that was, for a terrifying half-hour, a battleground. I mourn the Piñatas I lost, and start to rebuild. The survivors gobble up the sweets spilt from broken-open Piñata, and life goes on. In a bittersweet twist, the fire had evolved one of my Tafflies into a hidden form, a Reddhott, and I go about exploring this new discovery, recreating and breeding my new colourful friends. But I take my attention away from a corner of the garden and Dastardos is back amongst them, breaking open two fragile bodies. I can never rest. These Piñatas are my responsibility.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

I AM THE EDITOR.

Spent the last couple of days working on a Creative Writing project for Uni, where I took some poems by First Year Students, that I kinda-liked-but-weren't-that-great, and tried to make them sing a little better. I was reasonably happy with the results, and I loose them upon you, the unsuspecting public.

An Honest Confession
An overgrown beard
Foreign skin
A cotton kufi
And, then your
Rucksack.

The sudden tension in my muscles
Isn’t my fault-
Blame The Sun,
The Telegraph and The Mail.
They taught me
(Media Special Ops)
Your face, your look
Your colour.
Symbols on the red-bannered Flag of Terrorism.

I’m sure you’re a decent bloke
We probably have a lot in common
Maybe you’re a Blues fan too.
Why are you reaching for your pocket?
Those headlines flash through my head:
‘Train Terrorist Leaves None Alive’.
Should I jump on you? Stop you? How?

You pop a Polo into your mouth, then sigh.

The Spider
Craning over the cliff-edge
Of a high chair,
I stare into the empty sink,
Except for the spider in its depths.
Climbing up the edge, then slipping.

(I don’t get to play, anymore.
They hide away in their room,
Clutching secrets close.)

Run water into the sink,
The spider dances
Just to stay still.
Trails of legs scribbling-
Mum says my writing’s like a spider’s.
His legs trickle out across the page.

Over the rush of water
I can hear the sounds.
Elastic bands snapping,
Over sore, red hands.
The crackle of Mum’s voice, Daddy shouting-
He never shouts at me.

(Mum’ll come to the sink soon,
With her eyes like shampoo’s been rubbed in and
She’ll dab at the rivers running down her face.)

I make the tap a river
Over the stupid spider in the sink.
Anyway I think it’s probably better
Down the plughole.

(And again, I feel: why don't I put up any poems that are properly my own, that I'm really proud of? Because, A, I'm not writing any at the moment and, B, I feel like doing that means I can't submit them to magazines and such. Which I should really get on...)

Monday, 23 March 2009

It's Britney, Bitch.

Back on the first show (that I was actually around for) of my wonderful, now-over-but-possibly-available-on-zShare radio show The Hour, we tried to introduce a feature called 'Alex Defends...'. The first candidate for this was Britney Spears, who I muttered fairly incoherently about as I tried to express exactly why I love her the way I do, something my good friend and co-host Sam Willet disapproves of.

We didn't do it again, but it's something that's bounced around my brain a lot since. The main point we got out in that conversation was that there's no irony in the way I feel about Britney. Admittedly, there's a certain pleasure in loving something so far into the mainstream it becomes almost niche again (I think this is a traditionally indie-kid pleasure, tending towards the most obscure or the hidden-in-plain-sight joys of music.)

I also tried to establish that Britney works because she's a Goddess-like figure of legend, for me. This is probably a case of history:
I remember waiting in the car for my mom, age 10, a kid who didn't really like music, tapping the dashboard along to ...Baby One More Time.
I remember doing some quiz in high school, aged maybe 13, and everyone turning to me when they asked which video had Britney in that red PVC catsuit (Oops! ...I Did It Again, obv.)
My first year of Uni will forever be crystallised within Gimme More (the song that brought me back into the Britney fold after losing interest, around Toxic.)

Britney's persona is key, too. It's shifted over the years, and isn't entirely consistent: but that's myth for you. Obviously, the nature of pop music is such that none of the songs Britney sings are her own but, given her unique status, people will write songs about her, for her, this can become a positive.

When I listened to the Circus album, I started to realise how self-aware Britney's stuff is. Kill The Lights introduces her as "our pop princess, now Queen of Pop." Which is pretty obvious: it's something the media have been talking about for years now. But in Unusual You, which would otherwise be a fairly weak track, Britney addresses the way she's presented herself over the years. Wedged among songs about the usual misadventures in love she asks her man,
Didn't anyone tell you, you're supposed to break my heart? She expects him to.

And it hits me. Through the years Britney's played a number of key parts, some of them contradictory, most of them cyclical- she's the Victim of Unrequited Love, she's the Accidental Cocktease, the Devoted Girl In Love. She's Girl, as processed by Pop; then, as that identity takes form as Britney, she becomes Britney, as processed by Pop, giving us the Victim of Fame, the Good Girl Looking To Escape Her Reputation.In the SavageCritic(s) post I linked to in the Scott Pilgrim brain'splosion down the page, Abhay mentions Susan Douglas' book, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media and how Douglas talks about the way
"the success of the girl bands of the 1960's can be attributed to how they allowed girls of that generation to 'try on' different sexual identities, whether the troubling thrills of dating the bad boy of Leader of the Pack or the hopeful uncertainty of the Shirelle's Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"
Whether Britney, taking on this role in a post-sexual-liberation age, is surplus to social requirements is debateable. But, as a Boy growing up with the Mass Media portrayal of women, Britney helped lay out some templates of what girls might be like. Maybe they were a little warped in parts, but I'm still in love with the Girl Britney provided.

Plus, if you can stop yourself singing, dancing and/or miming throughout all of My Prerogative, you're either a better man than me, or dead inside.

My name's Alex and I'm a Scottaholic.

(If you're not, ask to borrow it. Instead of reading this. I'll wait for you to come back addicted...)

It was the shiny cover that did it.

I waited ages for my copy of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The Universe (aka SP5), and when it finally came, I tore open the package to discover a land of shininess and awesome design. It promised so much, after the pure joy of Gets It Together (that's SP4). Nothing had warned me about the cover, which was already bringing back the joy of discovering an all-new shiny in your Pokemon card booster pack. I admit that I hoped a little that it was only mine that had it, as a special gift for being so patient and awesome. I was ready to revel in all that freshly-discovered love as it accelerated towards some infinite joysphere.
On the other side of the book, I am in a world of emptiness. When I reread the series to prepare for SP5, I began to place it in Comics History- the current movement, led by Morrison and Fraction, that seems to be moving away from the early '00s tendency towards what Morrison called "a showcase ...that they can actually write convincing TV and movie scripts". And embracing the colourful Pop Insanity comics do so well. (Or, as he puts it: "the raw and the primitive and the 'who gives a fuck, this is the shit!' element", in a surprisingly good IGN interview.)

Scott Pilgrim is a character defined by the fact that things do work out for him. He exists, pretty much, in his own world, but the world he's placed in works for him too. He gets all sorts of stuff thrown at him but, like Kim says: C'mon, it's Scott Pilgrim. And maybe it's a fantasy, but the same rules, generally, seem to exert themselves on my life. The morning before I got down to reading SP5, a friend reminded of my ability to luck out on stuff.

Which just meant the bad times hit more personally. Up till now the classic story's played on, boy meets girl, beats baddies (and has at least a couple of times in his lifetime) because that's just how he rolls. But 5 throws a whole batch of stuff at him, for a whole book- the title should've warned me: Scott vs the Universe, Ramona's face should have warned me. But I was too busy looking at the darned shininess of that cover.

As it stands, this is definitely the Empire Strikes Back episode of Spaced. Which makes me appreciate the serialised format. As a person, I tend towards discrete chunks of culture: I watch TV on DVD so I can just jump straight to the next episode, I don't like picking up comics I know will never end. I like albums. So maybe I'm a little spoilt. Film can throw all the misery it likes at you but, presuming there's a happy ending, it's never more than 2 hours away.
I finished the book and sat around, feeling a little empty, waiting for the next book to arrive and make it all better. Then remembered, it won't be in my life for a whole year at least. So, somewhere out there, Scott Pilgrim's stuck in a limbo of misery. And the only way I can rescue him is by reading the next book. COME ON SCOTT PILGRIM 6!

(The next thing I did, instead, to fill that hole, was read the awesome articles on it here, by Kieron Gillen and especially here, at Savage Critics. That also inspired another thought, which I might get round to today...)

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Bam, Pow. Etc.

In this post-Watchmen-film era, with a whole subculture finally able to exhale (and, possibly, roll their eyes) in unison, the usual mutterings in the common press have risen. What to read next, perhaps comics are acceptable, who Alan Moore is and why he's clever. I joined in, writing an article on music and comics for my beloved Redbrick. Wherein, I compare Alphabeat to Spider-man; kiss relevant, talented arses; say a few things I already regret (not proud of the phrase "mainstream dirge".)
But I digress: I really enjoyed doing the "research" on this one, ans am pretty proud of it, in general, though it's not as pretty online as it is on the page.
And, okay, I used the phrase "post-Watchmen" with deliberate pretention up there. I had a brief moment of reckless optimism the other day: this is getting comics into peoples' hands, and for a film that's not doing that extraordinarily well, it feels like Watchmen is a bit ubiquitous at the moment: in all the bookshops, especially. I don't think I'm one of those comics fans who is too bothered (anymore) about the medium having any kind of credibility, but I have to admit, the idea felt nice.
On reflection, I think I was just being silly, though.

Monday, 2 March 2009

I shall start with a poem...

Written as a lark, really (I was on a friend's radio show and decided to do a joke poetry slot), playing with a Burroughsesque Cut-Up method (with some editing/cheating/re-punctuating) from a copy of the Uni paper we had lying around. I thought it actually came out alright, if a bit bland. Anyway, this is how the stars (or pieces of paper) aligned...

"RED BRICK

One week after
Until the general election.
This period of economic
Slumber,
Even if you are stacking shelves
On the job market.

A little disjointed.
A coveted seat.
A bit of a hero.

Are young women more violent
And abusive than older women?

(The Russian Dream Book)
Like thousands of students in Britain."

...I wonder if I should put up some of the poetry I've written that I'm actually proud of up.
Probably not, I'd be too self-conscious.

I Am The Resurrection

Okay, after 6 months of abandonment, I have decided to return to the Blogging frontlines.
I have a huge backlog of stuff to put up on here, so expect a glut of new material.
Get excited.

In other news:
I've finally collapsed to the charms of Twitter. @Daffstastic for the micro-blogging fun.And I have an online radio show: The Hour, hosted with my housemate and all-round Superstar, Mr Samuel Willet. We have an hour slot (see what we did there?) every Saturday, 7-8pm. Find us at Burnfm, Birmingham's finest University radio station. There's a weekly theme (aka, I find an excuse to play Kenickie and Los Camps) and I play some kickass tunes related to it.

About Me

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London, United Kingdom
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.