Monday, 31 May 2010

The Haircut

The Haircut
(click to enlarge to an actually readable version.)

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The Amazing Geoffrey

As a birthday present of sorts for my good friend Mr Geoffrey Maillard (not available in any conveniently-linkable corner of the internet, unusually) and as a stretch of the old artistic muscles, I made a one-page comic outlining how exactly we celebrated that most illustrious of event: Geoff's 22nd birthday.
Geoff's 22nd Birthday Celebratory Comic
(click to enlarge.)

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Halo: (Climb Every Mountain High and) Reach

Hello. We stand right now at the very brink of the Halo: Reach beta, just about to end and, though, this was conceived originally as a lament, let's shake off those funerary greys and paint our Mk. V armour celebratory pink!

For Halo: Reach has been a success. A mixture of tweaks to the Halo formula and those big, bold additions make this the most worthwhile successor to Halo: Combat Evolved since ... the elitist* in me wants to say Combat Evolved but as usual with elitism, that's pure snobbery. The most worthwhile successor since Halo 2.
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And, though those exciting tech-porn power-ups, the Armour Abilities have been grabbing the headlines, and for good reason (okay, quickly: the shield is my favourite because it turns the game, for moments, into slowed-down strategy; the jetpack is second because it turns the game into a big old playground), I'm here today to talk about Halo: Reach's quiet revolution: Invasion.

It's barely tangible, being a game-mode rather than a new weapon or a shiny jetpack, but it fundamentally changes Halo and is the component, the one small cog, that absolutely makes the game. It combines everything great about Halo - both multiplayer and singleplayer - and has been destroying for productivity for a week now. And how does it do all this?

By getting rid of the numbers. At its lowest ebb, Halo can feel a bit... pointless. It's easy to lose hours into a few rounds of deathmatch, but sometimes, just watching those figures tick up, there's no sense of achievement**, drama or tension to the game: all the stuff that marks Halo as a notch above all the other shooters it's exactly like, for me.

(It's probably worth stopping here to note that, in games as in life, I basically consider numbers to be the enemy. They're the gateway drug by which people are hooked onto lifeless MMOs, or Farmville. The levelling-up system so prevalent in Halo: Reach's multiplayer does nothing for me. It repulses me. It is Rorscharch's dog-brains-splatter to my psyche. But ... I'm a Grade I Sergeant, what are you?)
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Instead of those horrid, horrid numbers, there's a simple narrative arc set up for you. The aliens are trying to get our McGuffin, stop them! (Or, alternatively, the humans took our McGuffin! Get it back!) What this means, though, is that every kill, or death, or whatever, has some worth in a tangible way: it either helps or hinders getting to your goal against a ticking timer.

This encourages small, perfectly-formed moments: the last-second rush being the most obvious, both sides gritting their teeth. But the one that comes to mind is my team of four (two allies having quit. Boo them) defending against six aliens just desperate for our lucky charms. Not expecting much, we hole up in the bunker that holds the McGuffin and wait...

Plasma-sword-wielding Elites crash against us in waves but (to get nerdy) with a vertical formation of snipers and close-ranger shotgunners, we hold off until, in the dying seconds, one gets up in the rafters, takes our last sniper out. We're chipped down to one man, me, standing over the McGuffin with a rapidly-emptying shotgun as the final second is counted. VICTORY.

And so Invasion is. It's simple, it's hardly the first time it's been done, but it gives all those plasma grenades and assault rifles a purpose. We kept the McGuffin!
Reach1
*Note: small 'e', as opposed to Elitist, the group of people who will choose, at all costs, the hulking alien monsters over our brave boys in red and blue.

**Again, small 'a'. As opposed to Achievement, those - depending on who you ask - absolutely necessary cornerstones of modern gaming or disease-spreading arbiters*** of gaming's end-time.

***And that's small 'a' as ... ehhh, I think this joke might be done.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

v2.0

That innocuous gray-and-green friend you've had for a year now? It's hungry. Spotify v2.0 is here*, and it wants to make the rest of your computer obsolete.
Spotify2.0 illustration
So I thought I'd examine it. I broke it in with Wuthering Heights, as seemed only proper, and asked 'what exactly are these new features?' And nuSpotify, it turns out, is a bit of a power-grab. It's spelt out right there, in the new menus.

'Import iTunes/Windows Media Player Library'. So you do, and all your real, legal-or-otherwise, mp3s join the vast Spotify library, integrated seamlessly. If not for old-fashioned technical allegiance, there's really no reason to use your old media player ever again. Spotify's always succeeded on being a tightly-designed piece of software that can quickly navigate the limitless music held within. It efficiently kneecaps the old boys, and leaves them bleeding into the snow...

Before, I had one big problem with Spotify: it was too easy to lose track of what you'd been listening to and what you liked. As I downsize my music collection to one manageable, entirely-legal chunk, I had Media Player as the home of stuff I'd want to listen to repeatedly, and Spotify for exploration. Then they added the Star system.

It's like the starring system that most media players have, rate a track out of one. Except, it's better in a single, obvious way. One star: give, or don't give. That is all. Click a simple (star-shaped, strangely enough) icon and it'll mark any song or album to be returned to any time, throwing all your starred items into a manageable playlist.
Spotify omnomnom
Pictured: An Artist's Illustration of The Spotify Business Plan, Circa 2010

Combined with the flipside of this - the 'Buy' button that sits next to each track - Spotify has begun to offer a real alternative in adding to your library. I haven't done it yet, but you can imagine the smoothness: you buy an album, go to the 'Local Files' tab to find it sitting next to its already-purchased brothers. And so the young my.flow is taken outside and a bullet put promptly to its brainpan. Blam.

Having had its arm round Last.fm's shoulder and smiling in a buddy-buddy way for a while now - yes, of course we'll let people Scrobble - Spotify's lips finally part, to reveal razor-sharp teeth. Adding a optional 'People' sidebar, you can see what your friends are listening to, what playlists they've cobbled together, and what they've starred (see how everything ties together?) You can peek at your own top-listened (here I am, by the way). It's not complete, yet: limited to the Top 5 artists and songs, and not much more in the way of statistics, and is a bit twisted by, I think, having only just started counting. But, Last.fm: that friendly hand round your shoulder? It's holding a knife.

This is all swiftly handed through Facebook integration. Every day a new familar face pops up on the right-hand side of my screen, picture and profile already in place. It's incredibly smooth. Spotify's intentions to the titan of social-internet are unclear as yet, but they're sure to be dark. Currently, it's inside Facebook and scouting the territory, like one of those parasitic fish that can swim up your urethra...
UrethraFish
It's not perfect, yet. The importing of music files doesn't seem to auto-update as you gain new music, but you can sense the potential that lies beneath. Take note, useless-Facebook-upgrades. This is a complete retooling that makes Spotify more useful and accessible, not less. Take note, elderly software. Your days are numbered. Spotify is coming for you. And it is fully armed.

*After a idiosyncratically counter-intuitive process: you have to install an undifferentiated Spotify on top of what you already have, and it can take a few goes to actually stick. It's oddly rusty, given nuSpotify's ambition elsewhere.**
**...Or not, apparently. It's upgrading people. It just might take a while to get round to everyone.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Boom, Boom, POW! - Blur, Split/Second and Sonic & Sega All-Stars

I've been sitting on this one for a couple of days while the dust from 30 Days of Music settles down, but I wrote an article for Gamersyndrome under my Moneyless Gamer alias on the influx of 360 demos in the cars-with-guns genre. In it I say things like:
Blur is basically Mario Kart rendered in Microsoft’s ‘gritty realism’ house style. The way S&SAS Racing just steals the weapons and the concept, Blur takes the ideas behind that, rubs its chin, and reinvents them as sci-fi tech for its shiny real-cars world. And it doesn’t look like it or function quite the same, but the same gameplay ideas are at work. So, say, the red shell becomes a huge glowing orb, that homes but can’t take corners, creating a sub-game of ‘dodge the orb’ or ’save the orb for the long straight stretch’.
Read on, to see me push the limits of italics as a device to stress that this is really flippin' awesome, and indeed humour, as far as they will go.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

30 Days of Music is Over! feat. Sam Cowley

Sam Cowley is a rude, rude man. And far too cool for this being-on-the-internet business.
Sam Cowley, by Sam Cowley
Mr. Spencer has asked for my services in this navel-gazing, 30 days of pretentiousness... I joke, I love it really. How could I not? So my favourite song, eh? I will have to go for Roots Manuva’s Witness. For several reasons which I will elaborate on...



...Right now. I love a lot about this song. But I warn you, it may get a little Sociology.

First off, it is from without doubt the best British hip hop album of all time (Run Come Save Me). I would say there are all sorts of of amazing British hip hop artists, mixtapes etc, but this is one of the few albums which works as a whole.

Second, I think the bassline is ridiculously iconic. All it takes is for a DJ to drop the first half-second of the beat over the end of another song to get me outrageously aroused. Bloody cockteases. Seriously, see it live if you can... jizztastic. It is so different; robot diarrhea if ever I heard it.

Third, I think it typifies everything Britishness should be. Forget* Griffin and the rest, with their archaic nursery-rhyme idea of national identity. Apart from the mix of cultural references (cheese on toast, jerk fish, pints of bitter) there is just the spirit of the thing, glorying in a diversity of origins, boastful in the most understated way. Even the opting for low key language only adds more power
We don't give a frigg** about what them fools think
Frigg your network, our debt work will speak for itself.
It makes me proud to come from this bloody bloody country. And as a typical Sociology type, I think that says a lot.
*Oh, Mr. Cowley, with your politicised swears! Tut tut. I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen, I warned you he was rude.
**Oh, Sam, why can't you be more like your Mr Manuva, with his polite non-swears?

30 Days of Music is Over! feat. Imogen Dale

Imogen Dale is the lovely girlfriend, and having her first taste of the blogosphere. It is sweet, like strawberries.
Imogen Dale & Alex Spencer
The best kinds of songs are those that evoke an emotion, any emotion, in the listener. There are the happy exciting ones that make you smile and dance around, then there are the opposing songs that can make you completely relax and even cry. Konstantine by Something Corporate. This is my crying song. And also my favourite song. I always come away from a listen feeling extremely satisfied, the 9 minutes and 36 seconds are enough for me to roller-coaster around my emotions and come out of the experience with a positive outlook on life. I feel inspired.

I have memories of this song, of trying to write all the lyrics down during end of year 10 exam revision procrastination in the school hall, of putting it on a CD for my best friend to cheer her up (which, male readers, for a girl does often involve having a good cry) after a break up, doing the exact same thing for myself mere weeks later, I even went through, albeit only briefly, a phase of not being able to get to sleep without it. I especially love to listen on my iPod while sunbathing: I would thoroughly recommend this situation.

I drift apart from my song, but we always come back together and then I feel terrible guilt that I'd neglected her. For me, she's a timeless song, my love affair with Something Corporate has definitely ended but this song was always detached from the band.

Other reasons I love this song: for once, I can sing along. I love to put my little heart and soul into a singing session (on my own, as I have been told I'm not allowed to sing in public, even on karaoke) and my poor memory doesn't permit me to memorise very many songs, but that's okay, because it makes those that I do more of a treasure. Also, the music is played by a piano rather than a band, and I love the piano.

She's quite simply a lovely song, a beautiful tune with enjoyable lyrics.

Thank you for reading :o)

30 Days of Music is Over! feat. Sam Lewis

Sam Lewis is the tender heart of The July Days and an all-round very polite boy.
Sam Lewis, by Alex Spencer
One thing that has struck me most about Mr. Spencer's blogathon over the last 30 days has been the honesty in choices of songs. For many of them I smirked at his choices for being a bit, well, poppy and stupid (see Britney Spears, Tenacious D).

Yes, I'm fully aware that this is a very elitist attitude, but this is why I've enjoyed reading these blogs over the last month. These songs aren't bad at all and have actually made me rethink about why I tend to have this blinkered prejudiced attitude to pop music. If I've learnt anything (and I like to think I have) there is such a thing as good pop music and that it is okay to like it whoever its done by.

Which brings me to my choice of favourite song: Ex-Factor by Lauryn Hill.

Lets make this clear: this isn't my favourite song of all time. However, it definitely is up there in the list. I can vividly remember hearing this in the car on the way to school at the age of 10. I used to hate everything that got played because I wasn't that interested in music and so nothing really grabbed me, but this song was different; I didn't actually mind it. I then heard it randomly a couple of times throughout school, and it got to the point where I used to like it but could never admit it because Blink 182 was 'the thing' and carrying a skateboard meant that this sort of music was off limits. Being an insecure teenager, music taste meant everything and any signs of weakness would be exploited (not much change there mind...)

Fast forward to university and, once again, this song popped up on a long car journey back to the Shire. This time it was different; I could be open about liking it without embarrassment. I actually bought this album from a charity shop for a quid the other day and this song has been pretty much on repeat ever since. I can finally be open about my unashamed love for it, and my gosh does it feel good.

I guess that's one of the reasons its one of my favourite songs; it's the only song that's stuck with me for 12 years and the one of the very few songs I have liked throughout my youth. If that's not testament to a personal favourite song, I don't know what is. So, like those old school tales of suppressed love like a García Márquez story, I can finally stand tall and proud and say I love this song. Without being accused of brown-nosing too much*, I'd like to think that Mr. Spencer's blog for helping me recognise this and reminding me that sometimes, pop music can be fun and that you can like anything (within reason) and not feel the hot pangs of worry and anxiety that many know me for. Cheers Alex.

*He is, but that's alright. We love you too Sam!

30 Days of Music is Over! feat. Helen Shepherd

Helen Shepherd has various Google-related superpowers. She can see you right now. That sudden download of all your search history? It came from inside the house.
Helen Shepherd, Stolen from Facebook by Alex Spencer
I don't know if you know, but Alex is actually quite a nice person*, when he isn't forgetting my birthday. So nice in fact that he asked me if I’d like to write a short guest entry for his fabulous blog, about my favourite song. I said yes without thinking of the consequences of my actions, as ever, and so here I am mulling over what my favourite song is.

This is the sort of question that usually makes me drop and roll, the horror of being judged as worthless and irrelevant is just too much to bear, and I never tend to impress when it comes to musical competitiveness. To work out what song I could suggest to be my favourite song, I turned to a process of elimination, walking through the forests of my youth to remember what once was.

I remember when I lived for Slipknot’s first album, swearing I’d never love anything more. Then, I went through puberty and realised most people could understand my pain, so that was abandoned.

I turned to my Last.fm, hoping for some answers, but there was not much to report. Yes, Turn Me On by Kevin Lyttle is perhaps my most adored, (second) most played song since 16th July 2009’s reset, but is it my number one definitive smash hit wonder? I’m not sure. Turn Me On has a specific context in my heart, and whilst I do love it, I think there is probably a song out there somewhere which has been intrinsic to my identity much longer.

I checked all over for answers, under my desk, in old playlists, when suddenly like a bright yellow guitar falling from the sky, I clocked the song I could say that, perhaps, could be, the song I might be able to name as my favourite.

I’ll give it a bit of context, that seems to be the gig in these sort of things: Diamonds and Pearls came out in 1991, when I had but two tender years to my name and, not that I remember this, but it was the album my brother got for Christmas that year and managed to appal my lovely, Catholic Nanny with (though retrospectively we realise she probably just found it hilarious).

In those between years, I remember sitting in the car shouting along to the lyrics I now realise are completely inappropriate for such a young thing to be shouting. This song recalls it all: the house parties I’d insist on playing my (mostly terrible mix) CDs at, the singalongs at the bus stops of my glory years, going to see Prince at the O2 the day before I started university (not that he performed it, man of faith he is now). I admit, even the video has something so me about it, begging the questions am I like this because I love the song, or do I love the song because I’m like this? So, the song I think I will choose is Gett Off, by Prince.

*Lies. All lies.

30 Days of Music is Over! feat. David Inkpen

David Inkpen is a polymath. A physicist, writer for Redbrick music, member of The July Days and infrequent blogger.
Alex & David Inkpen
Mr. Spencer has commissioned me to comment on my favourite song for his ever-pretentious 30 Days of Music fiasco. I did briefly consider doing the whole 30 days at the start of the month, perhaps with my own twist (I was thinking counting down all the non-prime numbers then the prime numbers: I’m a physicist so had to do something nerdy). Looking at the topics however such as “A song that makes you happy” and emotional things like that I passed as music does not seem to stir the same feelings in me as other people.*

I look as music as more of an analytical thing, appreciating good composing, performance and the like. Not to say I haven’t got a chill down my spine when listening to music. It happened once. I think it was cold day.

To that effect, I feel I should choose a “favourite” song based on compositional quality and not perhaps on how much I enjoy it. On the other hand, what does that portray me as? Some form of robotic musical scoring system which does not appreciate any human values attributed to songs? Perhaps. So no, I will not choose music on its musical nuances, nor the skill or subtlety of the artist in question, I will choose a song I like.

But what is my favourite song? This is an impossible question I feel. To say out of the whole of music - THE WHOLE CABOODLE - that Song X by Artist Y is the thing I’ve most enjoyed ever is somewhat of a crazy concept. Must it be by your favourite artist (which then poses the same question with relation to artist)? I think not. And to narrow down one song seems crazy and imposes too great a limit for one to actually choose a song. So I will answer this question with not my favourite song**, but with one I enjoy, have enjoyed for a while and think I will appreciate for a good while to come.

Smiling at Strangers on Trains by Million Dead is a song I’ve loved for a while and know very well as I have played it at acoustically at open mics probably too many times. With such fantastic similes as “you were a single red blood cell but I lost you in the knot of capillaries”, along with the original guitar lines that only Million Dead can provide. Frank Turner (of Frank Turner fame) delivers an ever passionate and angsty performance. I think his lyrics were perhaps the best and most poetic when he sang for Million Dead and it’s a real shame he grew up and became less serious.

Have a listen, I hope you enjoy it.


Mr. Inkpen adds: If it is a little too “heavy” for you people of a fragile demeanour then here is Mr. Turner doing a cover of himself, with only some swearing in the beginning.***
*Note: Mr Spencer had a similar discovery.
**This is a cop-out. Wuss.
***Those rockstars, eh?

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.