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.

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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.