Friday, 19 February 2010

Reading Instead Of Video Gaming

So with video games off the menu until the end of Lent, I just finished reading Northern Lights, the first book in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Yes, yes, I know I'm way behind the times, but better late than never, eh?

My verdict on the first book? Loved it. After years of editing other people's manuscripts I can't quite turn the internal critic off, but even with my scouring for loopholes and duff lines, I was gripped and I really enjoyed it. It's nice to feel like sometimes a book is really popular because it's very good. The book deals in lots of very standard Fantasy tropes, like the false, decadent king challenged by the valiant true heir, the airships and steampunky accoutrements of Science Romance, and the whole many-worlds portal-linked multiverse thing, which is so common as to often be almost assumed as existing in many SF worlds, but it executes all of these familiar elements really, really well. It confirms my growing feeling - influenced in part by my interviews with the author Steve Aylett and with Helen Corner of manuscript consultancy agency Cornerstones, in my book We Can't All Be Astronauts (have you read it yet? Probably - but if not, hey, you can buy it here) - that originality is an overrated quality that readers (and people in general) aren't that bothered by. Readers want a pacy, thumping good read that they can understand, with characters they care about and situations that excite them and make them think.

I'm currently doing some research and assembling with ideas for, gulp, another novel. I think it might be not rubbish this time. It definitely won't be a tale of dysfunctional middle-class relationships. It will be the same colourful, weird nonsense I always do. I don't know why people wouldn't want to write about that kind of thing. Sure, I enjoy books that don't have magic and fireballs and time travel and robots and airships and zombies and portals and spaceships and scrambler-riding dinosaurs, but not as much as books that do. SORRY, MAJORITY OF THE WESTERN LITERARY CANON

Speaking of books set squarely in our drab, everyday reality, there's an interview with me over here about We Can't All Be Astronauts and my being a writer. Oh, and, despite being a memoir Astronauts has a bit where I suplex a T-Rex through the Acropolis. I put it in after the final proofread, because, y'know - wouldn't you want something that rad in your memoir? EXCEPT YOU DON'T HAVE ONE OH SNAP

Tuesday, 16 February 2010


So yeah, Pancake Day is upon us, like, well, a pancake, that has finally unpeeled itself from the ceiling and dropped, moist and lukewarm onto our upturned faces. I love pancakes. They are the best food. I always do my best to celebrate pancake day by gorging myself in a hurried and unselfconscious manner.

But I've never given anything up for Lent before. This is partly cos I en't religious, but mainly because quitting something for a month isn't quite so fun as cramming multiple frisbees of soft, sweet batter into my slavering dogma-hole. So, I thought to meself... what can I give up?

I thought of booze, chocolate, crisps, Diet Coke - DC was the biggie, actually. I know I drink too much of the fizzy black sugar water, and I don't much enjoy knowing I'm giving money to the ethically-dubious Coca Cola Company, but still I choose to guzzle quite a lot of it. Still, last time I quit for a week, I got a withdrawal hangover on the first day that lasted for 24 hours, complete with pounding head, runny nose, and chronic tiredness. My main reason for not choosing any of those things was that giving them up didn't seem to have much of an interesting narrative behind it.

So, I tried to think of something I do every day, something I've done for a long time, something I can scarcely imagine life without. And, I've decided...

For Lent, I'm going to give up video games.

It will be the longest I've been without them since Primary School. Yikes.

I love video games. They make me genuinely delighted and happy. I love them like I love books, like I love movies. For over two decades, they have sparked my imagination, and given me hours and hours of fun. But with the advent of game clocks and my progression into the higher echelons of adulthood, I've also had some tricky realisations. After 12 months of play on Pokémon Diamond, I checked the game clock and discovered I'd notched up 660 hours. That's the equivalent of 27 and a half days, without sleep. That's like playing non-stop for the whole of this month. Assuming an 8-hour working day, 5-days a week, that's like working a full time job for nearly 4 months. That's sick.

Obviously, I love Pokémon considerably more than the next man. If you're wondering whether I'm just lying, I'd point out that, since the battles are turn-based, Pokémon is ripe for being combined with other activities such as TV watching, and since it's on a handheld system, I played it pretty much every train journey I had - and I do a lot of train travel. Let's be clear - I'm not smack-talking Pokémon.

But that's not okay, is it? I mean, it's pretty awful. A little Pokémon, fair enough, but that's an actual bona fide binge. And it wasn't even the only game I played that year!

So look, here's what I'm going to do. You may have noticed I've done naff-all updates on this blog so far this year. Sorry about that. I've been busy. But we should reconnect more. So, I'm going to quit video games for Lent, try to rediscover some other pursuits, maybe procrastinate less, and I'm going to blog about it a bit. I reckon I will miss them, but I also think my life needs a little more balance, eh? I'd like to do one or two posts on games that really made a difference in my life, and also on non-video games. You know, like board games. My Dad has always been a pretty awesome advocate of board gaming, and I reckon it's his fault I'm hobbled with this dreadful craving for arbitrary simulated challenges. And I want to write about that.

Or maybe I'll just spend the time checking my Twitterfeed and reading obscure blogposts and I'll realise that video games are one of the most constructive uses of unstructured time available to us. Maybe I'll go mad. Maybe I'll renounce video games and never play them again. Who knows? All I know is that they're a really important part of my life, I kind of, not to be an idiot, but I kind of actually care about them, but for the next month me and them are going to have a trial separation.

And so, for now, I'm going to spend the rest of the evening binging on pancakes and games, in preparation for the long, stark fast before Spring.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Greatest Video Game Villains Of All Time: #2 Wolf O'Donnell

So, uh, yeah. Doesn't time fly? It's been a year to the day since I started the Cone O' Tragedy. Frankly, I'm surprised (and pleased) it's staggered on this long, like a plucky lil' zombie. So happy birthday, my blog. Well done! Like a drunk lost in an disused railway tunnel, you yell your barely coherent blather-koans into the echoing darkness, indifferent to the fact that no one hears, and that you've soiled yourself.

To mark the occasion, I thought I'd continue with what's shaping up to be an exciting annual series, following on from this rather optimistic post back when things began.

If you've not played Starfox 64/Lylat Wars on the N64, go do so. It is available to download for the Wii and I would rate it in my top 5 games of all time. It's a third-person space shoot 'em up that sees you as Fox McCloud, leading your intrepid team of Arwing pilots through battles that span an entire system. It's got the best dogfight sections of any game ever made, really cool set pieces, a great scoring system that keeps you coming back for more, and very fun radio chatter between you, your cohorts, and the enemies you face.

Some of the most fun parts of the game involve facing off against a rival team of mercenaries: Star Wolf, headed by your nemesis, Wolf O'Donnell. Depending on which route you take through the Lylat System, your first encounter with them may be on the planet of Fortuna (Star Wolf's bit starts at around 1:30 in the video):

Later - again, depending on how well you do and what course you plot through the system - you get to fight Star Wolf a second time, this time with revamped ships. I remember playing Lylat Wars a hell of a lot when I was younger, and unequivocally loving it. The dialogue is cartoony and silly, but it's great fun, and the bad guys' gloating taunts and bellowed orders to their underlings add a brilliant layer of hokey pantomime to proceedings. Just for the record, in my day, I was pretty awesome at the game - you get points for every kill you make, and bonuses for wiping out multiple enemies with a single shot, so on replays it takes a combination of tactical acumen and hairtrigger reflexes to maximise your score. Friends, I have both these qualities in spades.

Wolf O'Donnell is the classic hotshot baddy pilot archetype, whose sneaky self-servingness ends up being secondary to his desire to beat Fox McCloud and prove his superiority. There's a bit of the old grudging respect in there too - he's kind of a Moriarty of the skies. His gleeful opening line: 'Can't let you do that, Star Fox!' has become something of an internet meme, as wags insert punnage for mild lols. To be honest, I enjoyed them, because I love Lylat Wars, and I am an awful nerd.