Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Blogtour: Me & Writing

I should have known the second he walked into my office - he was trouble. Tim Maytom, legs made for dancing and a collection of Los Campesinos! t-shirts that just wouldn't quit. 

"Mr Spencer," he cooed, twirling one lock of that beautiful dark hair. "I've got something you might be interested in. 

"I'm taking part in a 'Blogtour', a kind of chain-letter of blogging, where you pass on the format of the blogpost to a couple of writers you follow, and so on - basically talking about their writing process and what they're currently working on."

It sounded like a perfect chance to talk about myself. Almost too perfect. Looking into those big bubblegum eyes of his, how could I say no?

Tim had real projects to talk about. He's putting together something called a 'role-playing-game'. Me? I just sit here in my pants and blog. What the hell do I have to talk about?

Like I said - Tim was trouble.

What Am I Working On?

As my life becomes increasingly crammed, my main project is writing about even a fraction of the things that tickle my brain - a particularly fine chorus, the story being drummed out on a pub table with two fistfuls of Netrunner cards, the way London on a foggy day reminds me of mid-00s games with the draw distance turned way down so my computer stood a chance at running them.

Most of the time, that's this blog, which was always intended as a way of trying things out, a release valve where I don't have to worry about money or readers. Or, if I want to worry about those things, through my day job at Mobile Marketing Magazine - which, in spite of its b2b focus and incredibly specific name, occasionally hands me an incredibly wide remit - or through freelance work, which I'm constantly vowing to carve out more time for.

I have actually got a little something in the back pocket, which I'm still trying to work out the whats and hows of. I can't really talk about that yet, at least on here. Ask me about it in a pub, and you'll get so many details and questions and stray thoughts you'll regret ever asking.

How Does My Work Differ From Others In My Genre?

The idea that all criticism is autobiography is hardly a new one.

But looking back over my last dozen or so posts, it's the overwhelming theme. Sometimes I'll reminisce about how I consumed something - listening to The Juan Maclean in a drained bathtub or my first and only foray into Nidhogg multiplayer, crowded around a laptop at 3am - and hope it gives some context about how 

Other times, that aspect will only really be clear in hindsight. As much 'I' as there was in my post about trying to play GTA V without killing anyone, I didn't realise until afterwards how much it's about me trying to work out what it means to say I'm a pacifist, while being in love with violent art. My post on Rogue Legacy was actually a fairly straight review, but I remember giving it a final polish while visiting my parents and thinking, oh, this is about me and them.

Occasionally, I'll just drop all pretence and just outright talk about me. To explain how much I enjoyed Hearthstone, I had to talk about all the baggage that came with it, and that ends up with me telling stories about being ashamed of certain aspects of my personality.

All that might not make be particularly unique, but it keeps me as honest as I can be, and it's why I... oh, hang on.

Why Do I Write What I Do?

Because it's unavoidable?

If I read/play/watch/listen to/think about something that really grabs me, shortly afterwards, these chunks of phrases will start to appear in my mind, unsummoned. The words float there, editing themselves, until I do something about it. By writing them down, I'm able to think of this as a gift, rather than a mental illness.

In that Hearthstone post, I wrote about running around in my grandparents' garden as a kid after gobbling down a few dozen pages of fantasy. I had to act out battles with a line prop and hold conversations with myself and jump the hell around because the fiction I was interacting with was too big in my brain just to let it sit there.

Also: that's a realisation I came to because I wrote about it. As I alluded to in the last answer, doing this is the nearest thing to therapy I can afford. Writing is catharsis, obviously, and that's as true for how much I dig this comic/game/film/record/whatever as it is for the big stuff.

How Does Your Writing Process Work?

By pulling together a lot of notes.

When those chunks of paragraphs appear in my head, I try to get them tethered down into a Word doc as quickly as possible.

(Sometimes I'll lose one of them, and it hurts. This weekend, out of nowhere, my brain started rewriting the final two paragraphs of my recent blog on Hearthstone, which I thought ended a little messily. This was a revelation. Suddenly I knew how to tie together all those ideas and memories in a way that made total sense, was more true to the game and what I was trying to say. But I was on holiday in Leeds, without access to a keyboard, and frankly I spent a lot of the time drinking heavily. It's not there anymore, but I can feel the phantom of it.)

Then, I wait until I've got about double the sensible wordcount, and start chipping away at it. As I expand the fragments into whole segments, I'll liberally deploy "???" placeholders where I can't think of the exact right phrase yet. Once the whole thing is in rough sentences, I'll copy-and-paste bits around until a shape starts to present itself.

These days, this last stage (what most people would actually call the writing) happens a lot sporadically than I'd like, because I have to squeeze it into lunch hours and early mornings on weekends. Sometimes, this means by the time a piece is ready for human consumption, the original thrill has gone and I'm just writing in the character of the guy who wrote these excited notes. This is the main thing I'd like to fix about my writing, since you haven't asked, and is why I've tried to keep it as low-concept as possible with my blogging this year.

Coming Next...

I was meant to pass the Blogtour along to two others, who'd answer these same questions about their processes and what exactly's wrong with their brain. But I'm far too polite to try and force it on anyone, so I asked very meekly for volunteers. I'd be rubbish in a pyramid scheme, or HYDRA. 

Two people were stupid enough to volunteer themselves.

Michael Eckett
To me, Michael is a comics bro. But to the world of creativity, he is a playwright.

Michael writes, directs, produces and makes props for plays which skip across comedy, drama and, on occasion, edutainment with an enviable lightness. Also, in the interludes he plays music, and sometimes it's Prince because I'm in the audience.

He's written about comics for this very site, and blogs at letsgetcomical.blogspot.co.uk, which used to have a regular feature called 'Sandwich of the Month'. Sadly missed. Nowadays, it's mainly used to document Michael's attempt to watch a new film and reading a book every week of the year. I have shamelessly copied this idea for 2014, except not with books because I'm borderline illiterate.

I've got this far without writing about his hair? Goddamn, that hair. It's like Aslan was cast in an advert for silky soft conditioner.

Reece Lipman
By day, Reece works for Chocolate Films, making videos, running workshops and lugging heavy camera equipment across Europe.

By night, he is the Shimmer-Man, skimming across London on his Shimmer-Bike, dancing the Shimmertusi at feminist nightclubs, and running Shimmer-Man Productions.

In the middle bit, which isn't quite day or night, he writes about films for Cult Hub

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

What I'm Playing: HEARTHSTONE

And so we return to my ongoing attempt to write about every game I play this year, a project which became quickly complicated by the realisation that I don't play one game at a time. 

If I've recently mouthed off to you in a pub about something I'm playing and you fancied reading about it, fear not - there are another five or so half-written blogs just looking for a spare moment to polish and push out the door.

For now, though, let's talk about my great obsession of 2014 so far, the game that has made me thankful for sick days and waking up obscenely early at weekends. The game known, slightly awkwardly, as...

Hearthstone_Screenshot_4.7.2014.22.36.35

A free-to-play collectible card game for PC, translating Magic: The Gathering from cardboard to silicon and populating it with the dwarves, orcs and anthropomorphic pandas of Blizzard's Warcraft games, all relying on virtual packs of random cards bought with real money as its business model.

Except for that bit about the pandas, Hearthstone sounds absolutely awful, doesn't it? I mean, just look at this screenshot:

Hearthstone

I'm right there with you. Most of my teenage years were spent running away from the awkward flabby kid I was when they began, and from all the interests I'd built up. At age 15, I'd renounce fantasy as a genre to anyone who would listen. I'd cringe at any mention of Games Workshop. I'd hide the fact that I was reading comics or worse, insist that people called them 'graphic novels'. At the time, I thought this was putting away childish things.

But as I get older, and as my gut grows back to the size it was before I spent a summer replacing meals with milkshakes, I've come to terms with the nerd inside. After a few drinks, I'll tell anyone who'll listen about the latest goings-on in the Marvel Universe, or about my latest board game purchase that we've just got to try out. If I understood the message of The Lego Movie correctly, I think this self-acceptance is an important part of growing up.

Honestly, though, fantasy is still something of a sticking point for me. The naff painted art, names like 'Malfurion Stormrage', every card faintly marked with the odour of sweat-starched band t-shirts, sporadic facial hair and dice with more than the usual number of faces. Hearthstone's fantasy trappings are more than a little off-putting.

But actually playing it, I've been reminded that the defence mechanisms I spent those years building up are horrifically shallow, because the game underneath is excellent.

Hearthstone

Hearthstone is remarkably simple to play. Your objective is to chip down the heath of your opponent's hero from 30 to 0, using the cards in your hand, before they do the same to you. You get three cards to start, and draw one each turn, and they split roughly into two types:

Minions come with their own health and attack points, and can do damage to other minions or direct to the other player.

Spells, meanwhile, might pluck a card from your opponent's hand, or transform the fearsomely-statted minion who's about to bite a huge chunk out of your health into a harmless sheep, or just freeze them on the spot for a turn.

There are other types of cards, too, but minions and spells are your bread and butter: a handful of attacks, blocks and counters which mesh in all sorts of surprising ways.

Hearthstone

All the best minions have special abilities of their own. One of most common is Taunt, which means every non-spell attack has to be targeted at them – effectively blocking your opponent from causing damage where they really want to. Plenty have buffing abilities of some kind, healing their fellow minions, or boosting their attack value, or even granting them special abilities of their own. Put a healing-ability minion next to another with a respectable pool of hitpoints and Taunt, for example, and you've got a sponge that will mop up a few turn's worth of damage.

That's just the beginning. Playing my first couple of dozen games online, and getting consistently annihilated, practically every new match saw some new combination that stopped me in my tracks, made me laugh at its audacity or mutter swearily to myself over its elegant bastardry.

I remember the first time I saw an opponent throw an attack spell at one of their own minions. It was a Gurubashi Berserker, which gains three attack points every time it takes damage. By chipping away at the Berserker's health one point at a time, then healing it back to full health, they were able to win the game in two brutal turns.

Hearthstone

Thing is, I'd forgotten how exciting it is to learn by mistakes. That moment where you realise you've made a small but vital error, that if only you'd played that second card before the first then victory would be yours, is almost as thrilling as successfully pulling off the perfect three-card combo.

Hearthstone features unlockables, daily quests and all that lizard-brain stuff, but it doesn't rely on them to get its hooks into you. There's a tangible sense of getting better at the game, and even better, the rare feeling of 'what if I tried...?'.

I've hardly touched the deckbuilding, and my initial efforts have turned out to be nigh-unplayable, but I still find myself bombarded by ideas for how a card might work. Not just while I'm playing, either; I'll be struck by inspiration on the tube, or in the shower, or sat on the loo. Eureka!

It takes me back to when I started playing Spelunky, where perma-death meant every slip was a tiny, lethal lesson. Similarly, just by virtue of it being a multiplayer game, every decision you make in Hearthstone is irreversible.
Hearthstone

Luckily, each move is picked out with such clear lines – a little history of moves running down the left side of the screen, arrows to show what's affecting what, skull icons to show when an attack will prove fatal – that it's easy to spot when you've made one of these mistakes, and mentally rewind a turn or two while you watch the disastrous results play out.

The game also goes to great lengths to highlight everything your opponent is doing. You get to see them drawing those arrows then changing their mind. You can see them fiddle with a card, hesitate, then make the exact move you were hoping they would – or, more likely, the one you were praying they'd miss.

The game only lets you communicate with your opponent using six pre-canned phrases, which cuts out some of the usual horrors that come with playing against strangers online. It's also surprisingly satisfying, especially when you encounter someone who greets you at the start of a match and compliments you on a well-played turn.

Together with the neatly illustrated decision process, this means you can get a read on your opponent's personality almost as much as you would sat across a table from each other. It's just one of the ways that Hearthstone skilfully adapts the pleasures of an analogue boardgame.

Hearthstone_Screenshot_4.7.2014.22.37.18

The menu screen is an ornate wooden box, every skeuomorphic sub-menu stashed away in a drawer or behind a hinged panel. During play, you can see the grain of the table beneath the elaborate board. Even the loading bars say things like 'wiping off table' and 'glaring at innkeeper'.

The game never tries to convince you it's simulating a real battle. Instead, it's set firmly as a game within the Warcraft universe, played in the pub between adventures. You're an orc, playing with cards with trolls and wizards and draculas on them, rather than an orc leading a ragtag army which for some reason enter the battlefield one at a time.

All that high-fantasy silliness is just set dressing, which is lucky because the game doesn't really work as a representation of anything. It works as a game. The cards don't signify much in particular, aren't telling any story. They're just a set of tightly-honed mechanics which interlock satisfyingly.

Hearthstone

Working so hard to emulate the feel of a non-existent card game in a digital medium is a peculiar decision, but Hearthstone manages to pull it off, because it makes a virtue of being virtual.

Being digital means Hearthstone can handle a lot of the maths that is intrinsic to playing this kind of game - think of the little skulls I mentioned earlier - leaving your brain free to make decisions rather than crunch numbers.

There's a certain amount of ceremony to the whole thing that simply wouldn't be possible with a cardboard version - not least the amount of explosions. Opening a new pack of cards, whether bought or won, requires placing them onto a glowing altar. The pack bursts dramatically open, showering you with particle effects, and asks you to flip the five cards you've gained over, one by one. When you win a match, your opponent's avatar shatters into pieces, while tiny fireworks go off above the board.

Hearthstone

The ugly sneery bit of me is grateful Hearthstone is a PC game because it would never let me touch a card game which looked like this. If I did, I certainly wouldn't ask any of my friends to play it with me. But playing online, you can find an opponent at any time of day, and play a game lasting 10-15 minutes. In theory, it's a perfect game for filling small gaps of downtime. In practice, I've found myself arriving late to every social engagement for the last two months.

I haven't really warmed to the way Hearthstone sounds and looks. I'm not interested in the world it presents beyond the few square feet of table directly in front of me. But I love playing it.

As a kid, I used to read fantasy books and have to stop every dozen or so pages so I could run up and down my grandparents' back garden, my head full of talking animals and huge battles. These books weren't even necessarily stories - I'd consume maps and character guides and rulebooks for games I had no interest in playing.

I've since come to realise that it was never really the fiction I cared about. It was just fuel, a framework that I could use for play. It was the same thing as a desperate-to-be-cool teenager, adopting an interest in skateboarding that went no further than hours-long sessions of Tony Hawk's. It was about the chance to play, and videogames just provided a way of doing that without dressing up in a cloak or running around with a stick.

This was meant to be a quick review; it's ended up a small manifesto. The point of which, to be uncharacteristically brief, is: Games are meant to be played. The other stuff, whether it's wonderful or naff, is just set dressing. There are no guilty pleasures. Have fun.

Hearthstone is a good way of having fun.

Hearthstone

Other games I've been playing:
NIDHOGG

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

The Playlist: Q1 2014

There is a clubnight which exists only in the space between my headphones and spinal cord. Where people dance all night, even to the songs you can't really dance to. For the months of January, February and March 2014, this was that club's setlist.


Charli XCX – SuperLove
This passed me by first time around, until Sam 'Afternoon Delight' Willet chucked it my way on Facebook. And ka-clunk, it was the soundtrack to the next month of my life.

And look, I talk about the imaginary clubnight, but this was the one song that made me want to actually take my creaky, clumsy body out and find a dancefloor where it's playing. Every time I hear it, I want to grab the right friends just as it kicks in and shout the wrong words and debut the private macarena I've been practicing in bathroom mirrors.

And mouthing "I think your hair looks much better pushed over to one side/How do you feel about me?" to my reflection in a particularly shiny shop window, I've caught myself figuring out exactly how much work it would be to set up that clubnight for real.

Belle & Sebastian – Suicide Girl
I love when Belle & Sebastian talk dirty. 

Suicide Girl - which I first encountered on their rather uneven collection of B-sides and rarities The Third Eye Centre - takes the typical brittle indie-boy unrequited romance and reconfigures it into something more physical. The song asks the age-old question: Would you photograph your crush naked so the pictures could uploaded onto the internet for the enjoyment of strangers?

"Once she takes off her clothes, we'll never be the same again", the song concludes as it reaches an all-too-sudden climax, just two and a half minutes in. Well, quite.

Joanna Gruesome – Secret Surprise
A song that sounds like it could be taking place inside someone's chest cavity. Whether sweely whispering or all-out screaming or divebombing between the two, Alanna McArdle's vocals constantly draw attention to the breath each line is using up. The drum is a basic pounding heartbeat, building to a minor attack by the end of the track. Each stab of guitar is like a shudder running up your spine, the whole messy thing echoing off the inner walls of your ribcage.

Secret Surprise takes that all-too-familiar unrequited love subgenre and flips it so our protagonist is the object, rather than the subject. Or, maybe it's an entry in the fairly new suffocating-your-other-half-with-a-pillow-while-they-sleep subgenre.

Broken Bells – Holding On for Life/St. Vincent – Digital Witness
Two songs for which I have to thank the BBC Radio 6Music playlist.

Remarkably, despite 6Music being my office's station of choice, meaning while they were playlisted I heard these tracks three or four times a day without any choice in the matter, neither has really worn out its welcome. It helps, I think, that they both sound slightly alien in their own way, whether it's Holding On for Life's pitch-shifted Beegees chorus or the bits of Digital Witness that sound like they're being played backwards.

Sophie – Bipp
The lyrical heart of Bipp, "I can make you feel better", is half a promise being made by the narrator to you, the lover, and half a contract the song is making with you, the listener.

A few dozen listens in, it's a guarantee Sophie is yet to break.

Johnny Foreigner - In Capitals
In Capitals has me reaching for the toolbox of music journalism clich├ęs.

It's an absolute Frankenstein of a song, pieced together from scraps of four or five other half-songs. It's a rollercoaster of a song, repeatedly climbing to a peak, sitting on the ledge just for a moment, then plunging down, slowing and starting over. It's a finely-tuned firework display of a song, a series of little explosions, big and small, working in perfect concert.

Just because I can't talk about it adequately doesn't mean the song isn't great, mind.

Ibibio Sound Machine - Let's Dance (Yak Inek Unek)
"1, 2, 3, 4. Let's dance." As far as I can tell, those are the only English words in the whole track. Frankly - and this would be the case even if the rest wasn't in Nigerian Ibibio - they're the only ones that matter.

I'm a sucker for songs that are this explicitly instructive, as long as they've got the beat to back it up. And this really, really does. 1. 2. 3. 4...

Chromatics - Lady
Listening to Lady, I sometimes feel like I can hear through the song itself to the instruments it's made out of, great fictional instruments which fill the sewer systems of entire cities, which were built at great human cost, entirely for the purpose of making an androgynous love song and giving me something to dance to when I'm in the flat on my own. I don't know about you, but I like that kind of arrogance in my synthpop.

Neneh Cherry feat Robyn - Out of the Black
Robyn's the reason I listened to Out of the Black enough to put it on this list (I just miss her, that's all), but she's not the star. Honestly, she might be the weak link. I love the way her voice braids with Neneh's on the chorus, but the way she delivers some lines ("I'm Robyn on the microphone, into the speaker") is actually quite ugly.

No, the star here is that beat, sneaking, oppressive, a shadow looming in your peripherals. Delicious.

Burial - Hiders
Having read some reviews of last year's Rival Dealer EP, Hiders seems to be consistently singled out for its accessible. Or, if it's that kind of publication, a bit too pop. A bit tacky. It's probably no coincidence, then, that's it the first Burial track to make any real impression on me.

There are moments throughout where Hiders constantly threatens to crystallise into a spectral pop song, before moving on, shedding the skin of the last hook to drop in a new voice, a new sample, some environmental sound tweaked just so.

By doing that, it manages to sound bigger than any one song ever could. Just flashes of radio from passing cars in the slightly darker, slightly cooler world where all Burial songs take place.

Twista feat Kanye West – Slow Jamz
You might have worked out by now that not all of these tracks are brand new. They're just songs that recently clicked with me. So, to make that absolutely clear, here's Slow Jamz, first released in 2004.

Just about my favourite thing I've done all year is setting up a sort of informal records club with Sam 'Aforementioned' Willet, Dom 'MVP' Parsons and Sam 'The Importance of Being Earnest' Lewis. Together, we've been digging through and discussing Kanye's back catalogue (in case you were wondering, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy YeezusCollege Dropout > 808s & Heartbreak > Late Registration > Graduation).

This is the track that stuck, a ode to that one playlist you keep in reserve, fully stocked with Gaye and Green and White, for when it's time to get busy.

The whole song pivots on this absolutely killer moment around the 1:30 mark. Kanye and Jamie Foxx ease us in, playing it so soft they practically melt into the Luther Vandross sample underneath. But then his companion chips in, pleading with 'Ye to pick up the pace, faster, faster.

"Damn, baby, I can't do it that fast," Kanye replies. "But I know somebody who can". And instantly Twista kicks in, syllables moving like the hands of a con man where each verse is one of those games with the pea and the shells.

The rest of the song is great, but for me really it's just a structure to support those few seconds, the punchline where Kanye hands the baton over to the guy whose name is on the cover, just for the duration of the song, before he takes the limelight for good.

The Spotify playlist is available for you to cut out and keep here.

About Me

My photo
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.