Monday, 27 December 2010

Play Love, Not War

The look of Love
Quite a while ago, when I was a wee lad learning to bend the English language to my whim - master of the lexical fields that I am - my teacher placed this upon my mind: "If you want to write better books, read better books".

The idea is easy enough to rebuff, but there's some truth there. You won't aim to write like Milton unless you've read Milton. His themes, turns of phrase and whatnot, simply won't be accessible to you. You will lack the inspiration of Milton and the aspiration to be Milton (or better). As you can probably tell: I've never read Milton - and so my use of language is not touched by his apparent genius.

In someways the rule is incomplete. In a great article on Visual Vocabulary, Aaron Diaz explored the notion that you must push yourself to draw new shapes and forms, so that when brainstorming new ideas they'll be accessible to your imagination.

Perhaps the rule should be: "If you want to write better books, read better books, and then become proficient with their style". This isn't a call for creatives to become shadows of the greats, but a notion that by experiencing and regurgetating someone else's work to a reasonable standard, you absorb some of their tools and ideas to use for your own alien purposes.

To stand on the shoulders of giants, you must first eat their flesh! In fact there was a fascinating article on game design which inspired this post: Against Dilettantism by Jack Monahan. The section that interests me most is the story of Richard Garriott:

Like virtually everyone operating in some aspect of the fantasy realm, he was enamored of J.R.R. Tolkien.

The difference between Garriott and most other authors or designers in love with the Lord of the Rings is that Garriott didn't just read Tolkien in order to understand what Tolkien did, Garriott researched all the things that Tolkien researched. 

This dodges that fatal generation loss that comes from making your own copy of a good thing--which is that it is worse for being an imperfect copy, a copy of a copy ... Garriott followed his idol correctly. If you want to be like Tolkien, immerse yourself in the primary sources he used to create his definitive fantasy world and synthesize your own influences as well; simply reading Tolkien and changes place names or plot points won't cut it.

In order to create the ultimate Tolkienesque experience, Garriott ensured that he stood on the same shoulders as Tolkien.

Now Garriott, it seems, aimed to be like Tolkien, but imagine if he wanted to be Tolkien plus Mark Twain? By consuming both one can aspire to be that sum of the products.

I wish more people were like Garriott, if you're going to copy, copy well. Put your back into it! However do more than that! Don't just read cheap Sci-Fi, don't just draw fantasy, don't just copy Call of Duty!

If you want to make better games, read better books, draw better pictures, play Love not war!

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Dear Diary...

I've started trying to keep tabs on the wines and spirits that I drink. Not because I worry I've a problem, but because I can never remember what I like.

You want the red
When presented with the vast armies of wines that I haven't tried, grapes that I'm ignorant of and wine producing nations I didn't know existed (I mean where on earth is Côtes du Rhône? Near France?), I traditionally select a bottle from the shelf using this patented approach:

  1. Ignore everything that isn't Italian. Don't ask why, just do it! Hey presto and volia! (as the Italians say) You've suddenly reduced your pool of potential purchases down from all the wines produced in the world, to just those made in Italy. France? Shaddap your face!
  2. Disregard all whites. That's not a racial statement, but the simple recognition that white wines are delicate little darlings, volatile little violets, that are not worth investing in. If you've gone to a wine store, you really want something you can club your dinner guests to death with, which a good red will most happily do. Unless you're serving fish.
  3. Look at the labels. Do they make you laugh? Do they look expensive? Do they make you want to be the kind of person who would buy the kind of bottle with the kind of label which you just so happen to be looking at? Really at this stage, it's purely subjective, but if the label or any other aspect of wine's presentation offends your deeply held sense of aesthetics - discard it like a useless lover.
  4. Pick your price. Excuse my hypocrisy here, but I am terrible at this. Decide that you want a wine between £5-£10 and don't budge! I used to go in for £5 bottles and come out with £10 bottles. Now I go in for £10 bottles and come out with £15 ones.
You are welcome to adapt this technique to suit your own vanities and vendors. 

You'll have noticed that while it is a largely scientific process - repeatable across infinite sets of wine - it has no sense of history. That is unless you have a good memory - you might wind up repeatedly buying the same terrible white which step 2 should have eliminated anyway so why don't you pay attention for once in your life or do I write these words for purely my own amusement? 

To solve the aforementioned issue of my limited memory (and your limited attention span) I bring to you The Wine Diary! Unfortunately not the wine dairy, which is still subject to that age old GM debate.

The notion is that upon finishing a bottle, you peel/rip the label off the bottle, stick it to something you can write on - like your monitor - and note down what you thought of it. That way you can learn that white wines are not worth buying and that actually you want the far more bolshy red wines with a hint of violence hidden beneath the tannins, by looking at your own notes.

In fact we can start right now! Copy this down 30 times: "I do not like white wine, I never have and all memories of enjoying white wine are purely delusions. I only like good strong red wine. I should see someone about those delusions"

Monday, 13 December 2010

Open up! This is raid...

I am a huge fan of Wilco's Wilco (The Album). I'm not sure what their other stuff is like, but tracks like Wilco (The Song) and I'll Fight are everything I want from a steel stringed rock song. It all sounds soft and real. It's the kind of music that fits a scene. You're drinking strong coffee in a dinner as you stare out across the overcast skies that press heavily on the plains before you. It's music for the lull in the journey.

Mavis Staples We'll Never Turn Back was all about the journey on the other hand. About the journey from being locked up by "southern racists cops" to seeing Hurricane Katrina expose the old divides and cry out: "99 and a half won't do".
Now whereas that album was produced by Ry Cooder, along comes Mavis's latest produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy: You're Not Alone. The title track alone is worth the price of admission. To me it's about a frustrated cry: "Open up this is a raid, I wanna get it through to you, you're not alone". Open up! 

What's refreshing too is that Mavis has moved from the civil rights themes of We'll Never Turn Back to strong gospel themes. It's familiar, but different. It's nice to see an artist develop, rather than pump "what worked last time" for another cache of gold.

Songs such as In Christ There Is No East Or West or Don't Knock are wonderfully spiritual and intimate. Intimate's a word that's bandied about a lot, but whereas so many Gospel efforts seem to focus on huge numbers of voices and gun for the scale - Tweedy keeps things simple and warm. Listening to the former track now, it feels like she could be performing in the lounge with me. There's a lovely feel about the album - it's like homemade jam. You feel people could make this with you and you could join in.

It's a great album and, while it's not had the plays for me to know for sure, I think it'll be one I'll keep coming back to.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Realm of the Mad Dog

I'm not really sure if I can recommend Realm of the Mad Dog. By every metric it provides, I've failed.

I've failed to reach level 20 with a mage. I've failed to reach level 20 with a warrior. I've failed to reach level 20 with a rogue. I came close with an archer, but failed.
Has a history of failure

In fact the game itself has has a mean streak: it nearly gave me RSI because it didn't deign to commend the autofire toggle to me during the tutorial; 2000 clicks later and my wrist was fused to the trackpad. And what do you get for 2000 clicks? Ample recognition that you clicked 2000 times and failed.

Perhaps I am not worthy to recommend it.

Realm of the Mad God, as it's rightly known (and ROMG as it'll be referred to hence forward) shares a lot in common with arcade favourite Gauntlet.

In Gauntlet you could gang up with whatever friends you could scrounge together (max 4) to try to beat the game. As in ROMG, you never really knew what you were doing; clearly you were throwing swords at monsters, but what's your motivation? As in ROMG, you needed other players for safety, yet the gits kept making off with the food and items you so clearly coveted. As in ROMG, death featured quite heavily (though Gauntlet takes the biscuite for making him an adversary).

Awarded Most-Like-ROMG award
Unlike Gauntlet's cramped rooms, ROMG's world is a pretty sizeable, monster infested Realm. While it's too structured to be the creation of the titular Mad God, the vast monster population does point to some issues which which will need to be adressed through therapy. Unlike Gauntlet's puny 4 player limit, ROMG opens up the doors, in a slightly Mad way, to a full 80 players at any one time.

That's 79 potential thieves! 79 buggers actively trying to make off with the armour you so desperately need.

Other players are thieves
Given the sizeable number of monsters, it's advisable to swarm the world in packs. ROMG actively encourages this by generously handing out experience points (XP) to anyone in the vicinity of a monster's death. Live vicariously, and grow too! You want XP because it makes you more powerful: it pushes your character from the puny level 1 mage he started out as, towards the utopian level 20 mage you desire [pervert].

However ROMG is not so generous with its loot. This is not shared! You want the healing potion? Well so does Joe679 and he just got it before you! Better be on your toes next time!

Suddenly ROMG is full of players who are quite happy to hide in large groups, being blessed by undeserved XP from heaven, but - at the drop of a well padded bag of loot - they will charge past a pack Minotaurs to reach a sack of bronze helmets first. Such foolish actions will usually result in death.

One word about death: permanence. Your characters do stay dead, you'll have to start from level 1 all over again. Now stand back and let the daisies grow. There's something about sucking the air through your teeth and wondering to yourself: "Do I want to do that all over again", which is sort of refreshing.

Perhaps the truly crazy thing about the game is that you don't play it to defeat the Mad God. That can happen at pretty much the start of your game if you join a server near the end of the cycle. Instead your goal is to reach that pedestal of perfection: to climb to the mighty heights of level 20. I don't know what happens when you reach level 20. Does your character explode in a ball of light and instantly transcend the fabric of the realm? Do they escape to a nirvana populated by titans where they rule over the very forces of good and evil? Probably. I've never got there.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Of Dwarves and Gems

Go play Endeavour and come back to me once you've been a dark disciple!

What the difference a chin makes

Gather round! Roll up! Admire the new Lara croft. Younger! Less experienced! And many other things too!

I don't really want to talk about this new Lara. However I do want to talk about the fact that for some reason I far prefer the eyes to the face.

When I first saw this new Lara Croft announced, the only image used was that of the eyes. The first image. From that I then I unconsciously built up an idea of the face. I don't think I could describe it; I just know it's not the face that is presented in the second image.

It's had a weird effect on me. Despite Lara being very attractive, her face just looks wrong. It's like someone wearing someone else's eyes.

As a being of immense natural beauty myself, I'm curious about what makes someone attractive. Obviously there's symmetry, and that plays an important part, but we do also say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Could you define beauty for someone as such: if given a part or feature of someone's face, if they are beautiful to us, we can guess the rest?

Is beauty really just familiarity perfectly mirrored?

Risotto and Lies

I am calling Jamie Oliver out as a massive liar!

I've been using the rather wonderful Jamie's 20 Minute Meals app. It's great. I've learnt a lot of things. I've learnt how to cook some rather nice chicken. I've also learnt that you can not cook risotto in 20 minutes.

Given the darned thing's called 20 Minute Meals - either I'm crap or it's full of filthy foreign lies! I can't cook a risotto in 20 minutes, because it takes the rice 40 minutes to absorb the stock! No matter how fast I cook, the rice won't play ball! Even superman himself would be defeated by this conundrum. I'm not Dr. Who! The rice isn't Dr. Who! Nobody's Dr. Who!

Perhaps if I devised a massive press to physically force the water into the granules of rice, I might be able to cook risotto in 20 minutes. However I'm pretty sure that'd ruin the onions.

"Would I lie to you?"
At this stage I can either settle that Jamie Oliver is a filthy liar, that Waitrose risotto rice is crap for risottos or that somehow I'm so incompetent at cooking that the rice refuses to absorb moisture. I mean the stock dries up at the same rate at which the sea slugs are draining the sea! Carefully considering all things, I chose the to place all responsibility at the lap of a total stranger.

None the less, I do recommend the app. Cook books are so 2010. Make way for the iChef! Bam!

Admittedly Jamie's app isn't perfect. I am very happy to hear a tip read out to me when I first turn to a page of the recipe. In fact I think it's a rather cool feature.

I'm not so happy about it when I flick back to double check something. I'm even less happy when the dam tip chirps up again as I flick thorugh to where I was. I'm pretty miffed when the tip plays the next time I attempt the recipe.

Nigela's Quick Collection is also a beautiful little gem. It's got verve, it's got pizzaz, it's got voice control. You can tell the app to flick forwards or backwards just by speaking. Admittedly quite firmly, which will make you look like a freak to onlookers, but it means you don't need to risk smearing your lovely Steve Jobs job with raw egg.

Unlike Jamie's app though, it doesn't list the portions throughout the recipe. It's a big nuisance shouting "backwards", "backwards", "backwards" at the phone just because you forgot whether it was a teaspoon or tablespoon of salt.