Sunday, 19 September 2010

A Summer Without Games

Written on holiday in Spain, typed/remixed in the early hours of the very last day of my summer holiday; an attempted explanation of why I've barely done any writing about games recently, even as I begin to try my luck applying for games journalism work.
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It wasn't meant to happen. I didn't plan it this way, honest. But things went the way they did and I'm left with a summer in which I have bought precisely two videogames and played (thoroughly) one. One lousy game. One lousy brilliant game.

The reasons are as numerous as they are boring. Multiple holidays; nomadic lifestyle; dead 360; little access to surviving consoles; having a life; no* good games for the Wii...

Let's grab 'having a life', again. There's a lot of talk at the moment of where the medium's headed, whether games are going to make it in the canon of mainstream art forms. The common comparison is comic books, that other artform not for anyone with a life. But I don't mean it in that sense, the ugh it's for geeks sense of comics. We're past that now, surely.

I mean: have games got no place in a busy life?

This might be why they're looked down on. When you're in, you're in hard. Half-day sessions, looking up from the controller and suddenly it's light outside. Long term commitment in a single fixed place (I'm ignoring, for the sake of this argument, handhelds likes the DS, as well as the world of casual games) without the saving graces of those mainstream media. Films require sitting in one place, but for a relatively short period of time. Books require lengthy investment, but are portable, with value as a potential status symbol/signifier. TV is long-term commitment split over an extended period of time, in small bursts. Music, arguably the most pervasive medium of all, is both portable and short-burst/disposable, if you so wish.

Even comic books have got many of these virtues. They're held back by an image problem, both from the public and from within.

We're just different. That's our problem. I'm not saying the interactive nature of the beast isn't a roadblock to new users. I'm just pointing out that even to someone within the fold - a connoisseur/addict, like me - the very nature of games requires effort to be kept up with. And what's less cool than effort?

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Number One, #6

And so it’s X Factor season once more. And by some grand, certainly-not-orchestrated coincidence, the children of X Factor are back.

TWO WEEKS AGO

#1 Olly Murs - Please Don't Let Me Go

To this day, I haven’t heard this song on the radio or seen it on any music channels. I would, of course, skip straight past it. But, still, I haven’t been given the chance. Which raises the question how exactly it became #1.

The actual content of the song is probably the answer: Take That piano/straining-vocals opening. Easy cheery singalong bit. The usual wet earnest pop-boy sentiment.
Familiar music; Lyrics you’re sure you’ve heard before; that bit, isn’t that..? – and then your brain gives up from sheer boredom.

I'm being unfair. A bit. I'd pre-decided my opinion on this, pretty much. X Factor is the one thing that can harm my modern-day poptimistic outlook on music, especially when it means . I was actually pro-Rage last Christmas. It brings out the angry teen in me.

Being fair: the opening, at least on this video, is actually a bit interesting. It's all degraded, old record texture; unfortunately, then the song proper kicks in and it's bland, it's non-threatening, it's ... I'm sorry, being fair is hard. Another disinterested sigh of a #1, readers.

ONE WEEK AGO

#1 Alexandra Burke - Start Without You

This is much more silly.

Which is possibly X-Factor-output's highest calling. I've noticed some strong reactions to this from various pop-inclined friends and relatives. Ugh, turn it off, can't stand it. But I quite like it.

It probably helps that I first saw this on breakfast-time TV (see? This one actually gets played), with Alexandra Burke in her underwear and similarly ridiculously-dressed muscled sailor men. I was groggy, it was strange, I went back to bed.

Seaside souvenir shop tacky chorus. Multiple Boom!s. "I'm like a beast". Garbled cyber-goblin voices.

Again, I admit the role bias plays. A lot of the stuff in here, if it had caught me a different way, would be listed with the usual pop-crimes: not least its continuation of the recent theme of pointless dancefloor setting. It is a bit rubbish (see: the rap) but its heart seems to be in the right place. (And it actually has one, which is hardly guaranteed with X-Factor stuff). I reckon it deserved a #1, just about. File alongside Green Light. I won't listen to it again, no guarantee I won’t turn the radio over, even. But it tickles something in me.

And as I put the finishing touches to this, 'today' clicks around. A new Top Forty, a new #1. Will it be good? Will I write about it in the actual week it comes out? Find out in the next installment of ... NUMBER ONE.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Forever After

Shrek pile-on
Being honest, I didn't really want to like Shrek Forever After, or Shrek The Final Chapter, or whatever the hell it's calling itself. I'd heard bad things; I automatically mistrust franchises that stretch beyond trilogies, and I oppose Dreamworks' animated films on principle.

In return, Shrek (oh, let's dispense with the niceties...) 4 did its very best to make this easy for me: it wasn't funny; the story used unnecessary creaking machinations to get going; it was more hole than plot.

And, yet ... I got engrossed.

Shrek 4 starts with a genuinely clever Groundhog Day-esque use of the full premise: both Shrek as a comfortable middle-age husband, and the fantasy world. It's a nice use of magical metaphor for the midlife crisis, and it sets up the idea of the film very neatly.
Shrek in bed
It's then quickly abandoned and forgotten about for the duration of the film in a way that suggests the screenplay needed an extra 15 minutes adding on. And so the aforementioned creaking plot machinations begin, to push on the big sweeping story. It's just bad craft. In a summer where the competition is Toy Story 3, that's inexcusable.

And, yet ...

I just couldn't help myself. I'd suspect it's nostalgia for familiar characters, but I've never really liked the Shrek films all that much. It actually succeeds in toning down the pop-culture, elbow-in-the-ribs jokes-for-the-parents and slapstick-and-silly-songs-for-the-kids approach to humour that the first Shrek was noted for. The approach that was extracted and exaggerated for the subsequent sequels and the other Dreamworks animated films, and that I find so tacky.

Which leaves room for the emotional hooks. It didn't compare with Toy Story's constant crescendos in your chest, but not being funny was actually helpful. They were never good at mixing emotion and jokes the effortless way Pixar do. The attempts at humour don't get too intrusive, leaving room to get caught up in the relationships and the ticking countdown at the heart of the film.
Shrek Rumpelstiltskin
Maybe, the lesson here is that I just can't immunise myself against that particular scored, animated-character sentiment. Or maybe Shrek 4 is actually, finally, a little grown-up.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Scott Pilgrimfest, Vol 2: vs The Film

LIVES: ONE
ScottPilgrim 1Up
So. They got this 'Scott Pilgrim' in cinemas now, huh?

First, the pull-quote: Edgar Wright crafts a lavishly faithful adaptation and tribute to O'Malley's seminal comics series, with a beautifully original graphic style. Okay. Stick that on your poster and smoke it.

The thing is, what I think Wright actually made was a tribute to his Scott Pilgrim. Which is not necessarily your Scott Pilgrim and, relevantly, isn't my Scott Pilgrim.

What's so great about Scott Pilgrim, the six-piece comic, is that it's a multi-faceted work, with different hooks and points of entry for pretty much everyone. It's a comedy, it's a heartwrenching romance, it's a study of the modern hipster-slacker lifestyle, it's a formal experiment. It's all about Scott & Ramona. It's all about Young Neil. It's all about Kim Pine. (Oh, it's definitely all about Kim Pine.)
scott pilgrim crew
Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim is certainly not all about Kim Pine. In the necessary shuffling around and condensation, she gets pushed aside and barely features. None of which hurts the story, and it's just the entitled fanboy in me expecting a carbon copy of everything I love.

Except it changes the point.

By pushing out Kim and Envy, the reflection of Scott's exes with Ramona's (and the question of who exactly is the evil ex in a relationship) is lost. The story as a meditation on dealing with your past and with your partner's doesn't exist. Instead, the film draws a thematic line between the the Knives/Scott/Ramona/Gideon relationships. It focuses instead on the idea of power structures in relationships, and hierarchies of who gets to treat who like crap.

Maybe because it suits a single, under-two-hours version of the story better; maybe because that's what the story is about about for Edgar Wright. Whatever. I'm honestly not sure if, ignore my own baggage of expectations and bias, if it stands alone better.
Girl, looks like this
It's a valid version of the story, definitely, but I'd argue it renders the other six evil exes more or less pointless, except as flashy misdirection. And the film kind of seems to agree, speeding through everything between the two relationships. That's at the cost of the lethargic, organic pace of the comics, where their serialised nature allows for the weird stuff to just wash over you and happen.
Scenes chop into one another, mid-conversation

And suddenly you're in a desert but that doesn't really make much sense except because it has to happen
Because that's what happens. There are chapter breaks which look lovely (as does pretty much the entire film - if nothing else, SPvTW is a stylistic triumph) but don't really serve any purpose. Stuff gets thrown in as a tribute, or because it's funny, but without explanation within the film itself.

I have to admit that I couldn't help but watch this film as an adaptation, though, and thus fall into a trap. A pit filled with deadly spikes.

LIVES: ZERO

...

CONTINUE?
ScottPilgrim title
...And like any good boss fight, the second time round, you know what’s coming.

Seeing it again in almost identical conditions*, with all the expectations out of the way, it was easier to see the truth of the film. Around 80% of it is spot-on in every single detail; 10% is stuff with a weird relationship to the comic – dropping, altering or inexplicably including something - and 10% is, honestly, just a bit off.

The complaints stand: it’s still not funny enough, really, to pull off the extremities of style and dialogue it attempts. The jokes that worked last time, though, are still funny, which I hadn’t expected; the jokes from the comics, mostly, still don’t. The pacing is a bit jumpy, and wasn’t just me thinking oh, this bit’s missing. The smooth fades of comic vocabulary don't translate into cinema. There's not really enough time to buy into the relationships: I couldn't help but warm more to Scott/Knives than Scott/Ramona.
Ramona Come Closer
The hits that it lands are truly triumphant, though. The thing that struck me most second time was the music. It’s brilliant, and brilliantly used, and Edgar Wright’s description of the film as a musical with punches rings really true.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a film that work bests – often, works perfectly – when it forgets it is a film about the Scott Pilgrim comics. With slightly reworked relationships, new ideas and a different message, it takes flight. There's a whole new focus on what it means to be the 'nice' one in a relationship means, and whether wanting something 'simple' is actually healthy in the film which I've never seen anywhere else, which is a fascinating intepretation of both Scott Pilgrim and an original use of the rom-com form.

It's like - to borrow the Scott Pilgrim worldview - one of Punch-Out!!'s opponent boxers: a strong fighter, with an unmistakably exaggerated character. Unfortunately, it also comes with a large, flashing weakpoint. Attack for massive damage...
7 evil exes
GAME OVER.

*Same cinema, similar time of day, rushing out of the cinema to catch a train South to the girlfriend, for those of you keeping count at home.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

The Gravity of The Situation: Mario Galaxy 2

If I was feeling a little more patient, this would be my 120th post and I would be smug with the fittingness of it all. But hey ho, sometimes reality gets in the way....
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‘What were they smoking when they thought that one up, eh?’ Don’t you just hate it when people say that? Any time there’s something a little bit original or strange thrown into your medium of choice, someone, somewhere, is bound to respond with this tired bit of ‘wisdom’. Have people always said that? Did peasants in the 1600s raise a knowing eyebrow to one another and say, “Well, that William Shakespeare, eh? What was he smoking?

If you do hate it, then a disclaimer is needed: if you play Super Mario Galaxy 2 in a shared living room, then expect to hear it a lot. We are, after all, talking about a game in which friendly bombs approach you to ask favours; in which fortresses transform into colossal fireball-firing tanks; in which you ride a dinosaur which eats grumpy mushrooms with its long tongue and craps out stars.
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Thing is, those kinds of things have always been in the Mario games. The recent Galaxy games just shine a light on it. It could be because of the shiny graphics, perhaps the contrast with the gray-and-brown state of modern games. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the constant emphasis on ideas. Lots and lots of ideas.

Nothing’s really new here: it’s the same set-up, worlds and game mechanics as every Mario ever. Princess gets captured, jump through hoops to save her, in the form of a series of quick-to-play objective-led one-shot levels. It couldn’t be a more traditional game. And yet it feels fresh.

Which is impressive, given that the first Galaxy game seemed to explore every part of the new gravity-orientated approach to platforming. There are tweaks, here and there, but never contains anything as outright mind-blowing as the first time you leapt from planet to planet, terra firma shifting under your feet.
imgSuper-Mario-Galaxy4
What it adds, instead, is a polished game of much greater length and complexity. Which is to say, difficulty. The brilliant bit is, all the particularly difficult stuff is essentially optional. You can blitz through and get 60 stars and beat Bowser fairly easily, dodging hard levels. But to get 120 stars, every levels has to be revisited, be mined for hidden Comet medals, played with a new twist.

Of which there are plenty. Every level has an alternative objective: sometimes just a speed-run, or collect-‘em-all, or adding Mario clones which follow his every step, meaning you can’t retrace your own steps. Occasionally, though, it’s something much more inventive, a full skewing of the concept the level is built on. The whole game is a series of twists; it is itself a beautiful extension of the first one. It’s not always something new, but it is something special.

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.