LA Noire

I’m playing LA Noire at the moment, and it’s just starting to grow on me. As usual with me — particularly in a game with a lot of controls to remember, like this one — the main barrier to my enjoying it is that I’m still getting use to which button does what, which means that, even though I’ve been promoted from uniformed cop to traffic to homicide (“This is the big time, Phelps!”), I’m still a danger to the good citizens of LA while simply driving at low speeds from location to location (and a lot of this game involves covering the eight square miles of 1940’s LA streets that makes for its backdrop), let alone when giving high-speed chase. And when faced with a genuine armed perp, I’m as likely to jump out from behind cover and start frantically re-loading my fully loaded gun as I am to actually shoot the guy. (So far, all the gun-wielding perps have been guys, but there have been some pretty shady dames…) The thing is, there’s always a few controls you get used to more quickly than others — moving around, picking up objects to examine them for their clue-potential — while others, usually the more emergency-oriented ones, like taking cover when being fired at, or blocking a punch, or applying the brakes in a moving vehicle(!), you only need to use in situations of dire emergency, so you don’t get used to them till you really need them. But that’s just me. I’ve never been a power gamer and never will be. As I’ve said before, what I play games for are immersive stories.

LA Noire‘s big selling point is its “revolutionary new facial animation technology”, by which actors’ expressions have been used to program the reactions of suspects to the questions you fire at them, and you then have to use their body language (alongside the evidence you’ve gathered) to judge whether they’re telling the truth. So far it’s not been too difficult. If, after answering a question, the suspect looks you in the eye with a relatively placid expression, they’re telling the truth, but if they immediately start looking at anything but you, they’re lying. (Though I did upset a female clerk in a shoe shop by calling her a liar when she was probably just upset her boss was lying in a bloody pool on the pavement outside.) The thing is, they keep doing their reaction while the game waits for you to make your choice of truth, doubt, or lie, so it’s not like you’re checking for telltale micro-expressions. What this aspect of the game hangs on is the realism of the faces, and I’m happy to say that I find the faces believable enough to react to as faces, rather than the weird things you found looking back at you in games from only a few years ago (those starey bubble eyes in Oblivion always made me a bit uncomfortable).

So far, LA Noire has been pretty forgiving of my kack-handed way with the controls. I haven’t been kicked off the force for the not inconsiderable amount of injuries to pedestrians and car prangs I’ve caused while heading to the next location. Also, if you fail an action sequence (such as a chase, car-tail or shoot-out) three times, you’re given the option to skip it at no game-cost. So far, I’ve only skipped one, and that was accidental because, the first time I was given the option to skip it, I didn’t read the message properly. (One annoying thing about all these lush new immersive games coming out at the moment is they really need you to have a big, preferably HD, TV. On my old CRT one, the tiny text is often near-indecipherable. I’m beginning to feel a bit technologically outmoded.)

It’s got me thinking about interactive stories, though. There are two ways interactivity can add to your enjoyment of a story. One is that, through your actions, you can change the outcome, and that’s usually seen as the holy grail of interactive storytelling. The other is that, because you get the chance to explore and examine the environment at your own pace and in your own way, you really feel as though you’ve stepped into the game world, and so feel much more involved in whatever story you’re being guided through. And really, it’s the latter I prefer. As far as the former is concerned, I think a story has a pretty fixed structure, otherwise it just doesn’t work. Influencing the outcome is okay for minor changes, but usually there’s one correct way through a story, and you either hit that or you fail. I’ve never really been fussed by that sort of game, anyway. (Perhaps because I’m not much of a re-player.)

LA Noire — so far at least — has been pretty well structured in terms of its stories. After all, these are crimes that have been committed and there’s only one correct way to see them through, which is to arrest (or kill) the criminal responsible. (I’m not sure at this early stage if it’s possible to arrest the wrong person, yet. But certainly there are a few shady characters who don’t get arrested, even if you feel they should.) It would be nice if the investigations themselves were a bit more free-form — at the moment, you’re pretty much guided to each succeeding location or suspect till you’ve gathered all the necessary evidence, but I’ve a feeling things will be getting more complicated as the game progresses. (Hopefully, I’ll have figured out the difference between the punch and drop-your-guard buttons by then.)

And, of course, it’s the setting which is a big part of the fun of playing LA Noire. LA in full, sunny colour isn’t really a very noire-ish place (you can play the game in black and white if you want, but what you really need are stark shadows and shady personalities, and they’ll come through equally well in colour or mono), but the cynicism is certainly there. It’s an immersive world of forties slang, seen-it-all-before detectives, glamorous broads and drunk no-hopers, sleazy bars and cheap hotels, fading starlets, dodgy vice squad officers, drugs, blood (a lot of blood), corpses, fast-talking wise guys, strong-arm dumb gangsters, dodgy psychiatrists and an awful, awful lot of waiting at goddamned never-changing red traffic lights.

Trouble is, I’m just too honest a cop to use my siren except when it’s a real emergency. But as soon as I do, you get to see mailboxes, street lamps, and even innocent pedestrians fly!

BioShock 1 & 2

I play one or two video games a year, partly because I don’t spend many hours per week playing them, and partly because my tastes (and gaming abilities) seem to be different enough from the marketplace in general that I can’t find many I know I’m going to enjoy. (And also, of course, because they’re expensive, which puts me off too much experimentation.) I like, above all, games which tell stories — and I don’t just mean those which have a cutscene or two to explain why we’re moving from level one to level two, but games with some sort of genuine emotional content. Failing that, games which allow me to explore an atmospheric environment. Among the former, I’d place the Myst series (particularly Myst III), Final Fantasy VIII, and Ico; among the latter, the early Tomb Raider games. (I haven’t finished any of the more recent Tomb Raider offerings, but the first five are among the few I’ve played twice, all the way through.)

BioShock 2, which I finished recently, sits sort of halfway between.

The BioShock games take place in the city of Rapture, built in the 1950s by plutocrat Andrew Ryan, whose idea was to create a place in which people could live without government interference — specifically, without the government placing any limits on what profit-hungry businessmen and knowledge-hungry scientists could get up to. And as the only place to build such a city is the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, that’s where he builds it: a magnificent Art Deco temple to consumerism, leisure, and wild genetic experimentation. In its later, semi-ruined state, it makes a wonderfully weird game environment.

Ryan’s ideals are based on those of the writer Ayn Rand. What little I know about Rand comes from my one attempt at reading her brick of a book, Atlas Shrugged, which seemed to be mostly about self-indulgent industrialists moaning at how labour laws interfere with their profit margins. Rand believed governments shouldn’t get in the way of business tycoons by imposing such things as minimum wages and worker’s rights. Life, for Rand, was meant to be a fight for survival in which the strong impose their will on the weak as much as their strength allows. Rapture was conceived of as the living example of her ideals, but it quickly descends into chaos, and by the time you visit it as an outsider in the first BioShock game, it’s nothing but a once-beautiful ruin populated by deranged, feral “gene splicers”, and a handful of holed-in entrepreneurs clinging to their failed ideals.

But the core story of BioShock is about rescuing innocence. Fifties America, from which the games get so much of their look and feel, was one of the last modern eras to have a culturally-accepted idea of innocence. It was an era that allowed itself to believe in simple ideals. This tends to be seen, nowadays, as a veneer over the decade’s intolerance and repression — as typified by the image of the housewife going quietly insane trying to live up to advertisers’ ideals of perfection, or the awful race riots in the country at the time — and anyway it was all put paid to by a combination of Senator McCarthy’s paranoia, the fear of atomic war, the disaster of Vietnam, and the assassination of JFK, among other things. By the sixties, the belief in innocence was relegated to the hippie counterculture, and then was pretty much laughed out of court. Since then, cynicism has become the cultural norm, to the point that it’s often referred to as realism.

The ruined Art Deco beauty of the city of Rapture is ruined innocence in concrete, glass and formica. But it’s the figures of the Little Sisters who are the real focal point. The Little Sisters are little girls, dressed to the girliest in Alice bows and petticoated dresses, but who have evilly glowing eyes and go around draining corpses of the gene-modifying substance known as “Adam” with monstrous syringes. In this, they’re accompanied by their protectors, the Big Daddies — dumb, lumbering giants looking like old-fashioned deep sea divers, who tramp obediently after their charges and attack anyone who gets too near. But the Little Sisters are in fact real little girls — orphans, as if the screw needed a further turn — who’ve been genetically altered by Rapture’s scientists to harvest Adam. The story of both BioShock 1 & 2 is ultimately about freeing these little girls from the tyranny of Rapture, and returning them to being innocent children once more.

BioShock allows its players to make a few moral choices. You need to capture Little Sisters to get supplies of Adam, for instance, but having captured them, you can choose to rescue them, or harvest them (which gets you more Adam, but kills the girl). I, being an awful softie, just couldn’t harvest them, even to find out how it alters the game’s outcome.

Other than that, BioShock is basically a shoot-em-up. The story part progresses mostly through taped journals from a variety of characters you find throughout the game, but the gameplay generally consists of collecting a wide variety of ammo and blasting the hell out of gene-splicers and Big Daddies.

Which was fun.

As a game, I found both BioShock 1 and 2 to be wonderfully playable, and though the story never quite reached the heights of the games that really involved me in their characters (Final Fantasy VIII, Myst III), it at least had some thought-provoking ideas behind it. Games achieve their effects in a different way from films and books; the major factor is the time you spend in the game’s world, doing the same sort of action (exploring, puzzle-solving, fighting) over and over again. It’s in this area that the real meaning of a game comes out, not in the cut-scenes. And it’s in this area — the gameplay — that BioShock works best.

Nice to know there’s a bit of artistry as well as mere commercialism in games, still.

The Doctor Who Adventure Game – City of the Daleks

How long have I waited for this? A Doctor Who adventure game? At least since my own (entirely unauthorised) efforts many years back, in which all I managed to do was get a 2-character-high Dalek to chase a 2-character-high TARDIS (why the TARDIS was moving, I don’t know) across my TV screen, zapping it as it went, with smooth sprite scrolling (feat enough, for me, in them days), all thanks to an overheated ZX Spectrum.

I can’t think of many fictional worlds I like enough to want to play in a game, but which wouldn’t be ruined by being made into a game. Mythago Wood the adventure game? No! A Fafhrd & Grey Mouser hack’n’slay? No! An Earthsea rpg? Definitely not! Alien, perhaps — I remember being terrified by an Alien patch for DOOM!, something that didn’t quite translate when I got some friends to play it. And Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, definitely, but although it has been adapted into several games, none of them so far has got anywhere near recreating the atmosphere of the stories. But Doctor Who’s format is perfect for gaming. And what’s more, the BBC have released the thing for free! (Or for the price of the license fee, of course.) And for the Mac! And when I’ve got a week off work! How could Heaven and Earth get any closer? (Well, for me, it would be to play a Doctor Who game with Tom Baker as the Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith as the companion, and Robert Holmes as the scriptwriter, but I’m pretty sure I’ll have to wait for the Rapture for that particular beatitude.)

City of the Daleks is the first episode of the Doctor Who Adventure Game. It starts with a trip to 1960s Earth, only to find Trafalgar Square in ruins, and the last surviving member of the human race battling it out against a host of Daleks. From there, we move, in Act Two (the episode has three acts) to Skaro to find out what’s gone wrong with the timestream that has allowed the Daleks to wipe out the human race before Amy has even been born.

I think it’s crucial that any game adaptation sticks to the feel of the original, and the Doctor Who Adventure Game certainly does that. For a start — thankfully — the Doctor isn’t equipped with a Dalek-busting BFG9000, but has to defeat his age-old enemies with only his wits and his trusty, do-anything sonic screwdriver. (And, in keeping with the feel of the current series, a total disregard for narrative believability. It may seem narrow-minded to accuse a show that’s based on the premise of a centuries-old, ten-times regenerated man time-travelling around the universe in a battered old police box of lacking believability, but I think once you’ve believed that many impossible things before breakfast, it helps for the actual plot to be a bit more down-to-earth. Not that I’m saying the Tom Baker era never sinned in this direction — destroying a Rutan spaceship with an improvised laser made with a lighthouse and a ruby isn’t exactly convincing either. But the best stories — Genesis of the Daleks, for instance — got their power from the plot not hanging on the Doctor improvising himself out of some impossible situation, but by having a bloody good story to start with. Now, back to the main programme.)

So, a lot of the action is just the sort I like in a game — sneaking round Daleks (who are all thankfully short-sighted and deaf), solving mini-puzzles (such as Tetris-like code-cracking in the Dalek city), finding objects and putting them together to make other objects, and making decisions. And the controls are very simple, too, which is always a bonus, particularly in a short game like this. (I’m also, at this moment, playing DragonAge: Origins, on the XBox. I’ve been playing it for about three weeks now, and still flounder around manically whenever I enter combat.) And there’s only one time-limited sequence, so while I did do some panicky running right into the path of a Dalek gun, I at least didn’t do it all the way through the game.

This is one thing I’ll say was definitely good about the game — it was well-paced, building up in tension as it moved towards the end. The puzzles got slightly more difficult, and the action slightly more intense as the game went on — not too much, so that cack-handed Sunday gamers like me don’t feel out of their depth, but not too little, either, so it felt like I’d accomplished something in finishing the game.

Also, the game was quite short. It’d probably take a game-savvy player about the same length of time to play as it would to watch one of the current series’ episodes. Me, I took a bit longer, not just because of running into the path of shooting Daleks, but because the damn thing crashed — just hung, in fact — four times, meaning I had to restart my computer to keep playing. More than a little annoying, but fortunately the game’s frequent auto-save meant I was never too far from where I’d left off. (There was one other annoyance, when a video that was supposed to show on a Dalek console just came up as a white band. The Doctor and Amy’s comments were enough to let me know I should have been seeing a wave of Daleks arriving on the planet; all I saw was fuzz.)

But overall, it was fun, and it did the main thing, which was let me feel I was participating in the Doctor Who universe for a little while. I’m certainly going to play the next episode, which looks like it’s going to feature Cybermen.

I wonder how long it’ll be before someone comes up with a Tom Baker patch?

Brighton Shock! World Horror Convention 2010

This is a bit of a long post, but as it’s my record of WHC2010, I didn’t want to leave anything out. So here goes:

Thursday

Once I’d booked into my room, I registered and, as well as a name badge (actually, a big hang-round-your-neck name pouch, with two useful little zipped sections), I got a goodie bag. And what a goodie bag! It was almost worth the price of admission alone, with some pretty heavy duty books in there, including a PS Publishing hardback (Harsh Oases by Paul di Filippo), a jumbo Mammoth Book of Zombie Comics, and, right at the bottom, a copy of Fantasy Tales magazine from 1986! (It certainly made up for the size of the room, which might best be described as a single bed + breathing space.)

The first panel I went to was the obligatory introduction to conventions. This, in the tradition of all convention panels, quickly skewed off purpose, and turned into a panel on how to set up and run a con, which I wasn’t really interested in. (Though I did learn that SF/Horror conventions are second only to Labour Party conventions in their need for a well-stocked bar.) The main thing I learnt is that the WHC is not as much a “fan” convention as SF cons are — you won’t find people walking round dressed up as Dracula; also, it’s more specifically a literary convention, so no t-shirts or toys for sale in the dealers’ room.

I finished off Thursday with a run of four panels (which is more than a bit bum-numbing). First off was “From Aickman to Zelazny”. The aim was for a panel of hardened book-collectors to put together an A-Z, one book per letter, “essential horror” collection. It started off with a general discussion on book collecting, which I could have quite happily listened to for the whole hour. There was a general agreement on the highs (bargains and surprise discoveries) and lows (artificial overpricing due to the internet) of collecting in this day and age. The subsequent romp through the alphabet only got as far as S, and was quirky to say the least. For instance, Agatha Christie was decided on as the ‘C’ entry, on the strength of (if I remember rightly) one horror book, which meant no Ramsey Campbell! But I guess four serious book collectors weren’t going to come out with anything too obvious. Anyway, the A-Z format showed its limitations when we got to S, and they had to decide whether to include Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, or Robert Louis Stephenson — three classics, all of which are required in any truly essential horror collection.

After this came a panel called “Who Cares What You Think?”, about the rise of online reviewing and blogging. “There’s a word for people who do things for free,” said Kim Newman in his opening statement: “scab.” Which I thought was a bit harsh, particularly as reviewing things for free isn’t just an internet phenomena, but has been around as long as fanzines. But the point I most agreed with, also made by Newman, was that more and more he was interested not in reviews as such, but criticism — i.e., the stuff you read after you’ve seen the movie, or read the book.

After that (with me starting to feel a bit sleepy) was “We Are Not Worthy: Recognising the Masters”, about literary influence. This was interesting, because it revealed some different ways writers can be influenced by other writers. Ray Russell, for instance, spoke about how he was, for a long time, dissatisfied with his writing because it didn’t reflect the authors he most admired; but when he wrote some stories under a pseudonym, and so was freed from trying to be the sort of writer he felt he ought to be, he not only found it easier to write, but found the results reflected a quite different set of influences. Talk then turned to pastiche, the most literal form of influence. Barbara Roden, moderating the panel, made the point that excessive pastiche can actually tarnish the pastiched writer’s reputation. Apparently, Arthur Conan Doyle’s niece (I think it was his niece) banned the writing of Sherlock Holmes pastiches after a while because she was so fed up of them all being so bad; she ended up believing that only established writers should be allowed to use other writers’ characters. Mark Samuels, though, made the point that it doesn’t have to be taken so seriously — it can be fun to try writing in another writer’s voice.

Finally, with me way past my bedtime by now, and holding on through sheer will, Ramsey Campbell came in and read not one but two new stories. The first (can’t remember the title) was about a man going to a hotel he’d stayed in as a child. This time, however, he’s there for a funeral. Things quickly enter that Campbellian netherworld on the border between reality, dream, nightmare and psychosis; lots of puns and veiled references to death and dying, plus those inestimable embarrassing social scrapes Campbell handles so neatly. The second story was “The Rounds”, set on the Liverpool underground and involving a curiously persistent item of abandoned luggage. Thematically, the two were, as Campbell said, “companion pieces”, and made an excellent way to round off my first day at the con.

Friday

Friday started with a “warm up” panel about memories of horror movies past. Though it never got down to answering the question of whether horror movies were better back in Them Days, it did make a convincing case on some points. Les Edwards, for instance, said that for him the most terrifying moment from a movie is the unmasking scene from Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera, in which the camera deliberately goes out of focus — but this is something, Kim Newman pointed out, that wouldn’t be allowed today, as you’d have the special effects guy (and, no doubt, the people who paid for the special effects) complaining that people weren’t getting to appreciate the fullness of his artistry (or the extent of his budget).

Next up was the Tanith Lee interview, hosted by Chelsea Quinn Yarboro. I haven’t read much Tanith Lee (apart from the odd short story), so the main interest for me was writing tips. Lee said she lets her characters guide the story; problems with a story almost always turn out to be points where she (as writer) thinks the story should go one way, but the character insists it should go another. In every case, she said, the character’s right.

Third panel of the morning was “Size Matters”, about small publishing. No surprise to learn that the main difficulty with being a small publisher is distribution; the main advantage is producing the sort of books you want to read. Either way, expect it to eat up all your spare time and bring in little by way of financial rewards!

Then a quick bum-denumbing walk along the seafront, with some tasteless chips and actually quite tasty veggie sausages for lunch. Very windy. (That’s the seafront, not me after the sausages.)

After lunch, “From Bad to Verse”, the inevitable punning title to what I thought was one of the most enjoyable panels of the weekend, about genre poetry. I knew I was amongst the right crowd when Jo Fletcher held up a copy of The Faerie Queene and asked how many of the audience had read some of it, and almost everyone put up their hand. I think it was also Jo Fletcher who made the point that genre themes are present in so much of poetry anyway, it’s one of the few areas in the literary world where the fantastic and horrific are not seen as immediately relegating a work to the dungeons of pulpdom. Many people have read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, for instance, without thinking of it as a fantasy or horror poem. Joel Lane made the point that the way a good poem works, and the way a good weird story works, are pretty much the same — you’re carried along by your interest in the language, or your focus on the character and the immediate situation, then when it reaches the end you suddenly realise the implications, and it all comes together as a shiver down the spine.

The next panel I went to was “Digital Cthulhu”, about horror in video games. This turned out to be more from an academic perspective than the sort of pop-culture ramble I was expecting, but it was interesting to hear about the survival horror genre (of which I’ve only played a few examples) from the point of view of people who study it. Apparently the complicated, hard-to-use controls in some of these games can be considered an aspect of the overall horror effect, in the way they make the player feel helpless. Most game-players just find such things annoying, and don’t perhaps fully appreciate the aesthetic effect!

Then, after all that talk about the digital world, I went for a dose of good old analogue, down in the art show. It’s great to see original artwork, complete with thick splotches of paint, or the varying shades of black ink on an illustration. It makes you that much more aware of the skill that goes into creating good artwork. Lovely to see the original to the cover of that first paperback edition of Salem’s Lot that got me reading Stephen King. The artist that most impressed me at the show was Edward Miller, though I couldn’t understand at first why he was mixed up with the Les Edwards paintings, when all the other artists had got their own separate sections. It was only when reading the Souvenir Book, later, that I learned Edward Miller is Les Edwards — it’s just a pseudonym he invented so as to produce paintings in a different style. The Miller style is wonderfully moody and evocative, more painterly than Edwards’ more realistic style, and I’d have loved to have bought a print or two, but sadly none were available. (And the originals, of course, were way out of my price range.)

Saturday

First panel of the day was “Look at Me”, about self-promotion for new authors. The advice basically came down to being personable and not too pushy while at the same time getting out there and using every means to get your name and writing known. So, use the internet, but not just to say, “Buy my books!” Treat each interaction as an interaction with another person, not just a potential sale. (It’s nice to know that, in the world of books, genuineness isn’t just respected, it’s expected; it makes me feel there’s some part of us that will always be proof against mere commercialism and advertising.) Other than that, no real surprises: do signings, go to conventions, and even give things away if no one’s buying.

Following this was something of a mega-panel, as a gathering of eleven (I think it was eleven) authors and artists who had been involved in the Pan Book of Horror spoke about their experiences of being part of that legendary series.

Next up was a bit of a surprise. A hoarse Stephen Jones announced that they had deliberately not put in the programme who was going to interview the convention’s Guest of Honour, James Herbert, because they’d been planning something special. Then in through the door comes Neil Gaiman! (I’d noticed Gaiman was listed in the Pocket Programme as appearing at the Stanza Press launch, but had assumed it was a mistake.) It turned out Gaiman had interviewed Herbert many years ago in his journalistic days, and the two were obviously old friends. Herbert proved to be an excellent interviewee, full of anecdotes and opinions. He provided a few teasers for the novel he’s working on at the moment, Ash, which is a couple of years overdue and still only half-finished, mainly because of the amount of research he’s had to do. Apparently, Ash somehow brings together a lot of mysteries about historical figures who have disappeared, from Jack the Ripper to Lord Lucan, and various shenanigans and mysteries surrounding the Royal Family. (I guess he’s not expecting a knighthood anytime soon.) At one point, Gaiman compared Herbert’s novels favourably to the imitators who appeared immediately afterwards, in whose number he included Guy N Smith “who you only read for laughs” (he said, or something similar); someone then pointed out that Guy N Smith was in the audience, whereupon Gaiman said that he’d nevertheless enjoyed reading Smith, and proved it by quoting a line from Crabs. Herbert seems to have come under a certain amount of flack in the past because many people assume he merely jumped on the Stephen King bandwagon, but he pointed out that he was published (and popular) in this country before King; and he’s not shy of praising his fellow writers, calling King a genius (“though perhaps he writes too much”), and also saying how much he enjoyed reading Ramsey Campbell and Clive Barker (“when he finally gets round to writing something new”).

Next up was the Stanza Press poetry imprint launch. I’d come to the con already intending to buy the three Weird Tales volumes (which reprint the poems Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E Howard published in that venerable magazine), but had been convinced by the previous day’s poetry panel to get the other two volumes as well, so I went to the launch and bought all five, then of course got them signed:

Following a quick lunch, I went back to the main lounge to see Ramsey Campbell interviewing David Case, who I have to admit I hadn’t heard of before the convention. In the end, though, enough was said to convince me to buy his new collection, also launched at the con from PS Publishing.

Following this, “Those Were The Days” was a panel of anthology editors, with tales of tracking down obscure Victorian stories and ploughing through slush piles. Mike Ashley revealed that he’d come to think himself cursed after a spate of elderly authors or their relatives dying soon after he wrote to them to get permission for a reprint. Hugh Lamb then told how one prospective author had rung him up and started reading his story submission down the phone!

The next slot was down as the Ingrid Pitt interview, but she wasn’t up to a full hour’s interview, so the second half was a brief Kim Newman/Neil Gaiman slot instead. Ingrid Pitt proved to be full of life though, particularly when talking about the male movie stars she’d known. John Wayne she was less than complimentary about (because he beat her at poker), while Clint Eastward was “the most — the most — the most man of any man!” A statement she backed up by cupping her hands in front of her in a way usually reserved for men describing women. Quite what she was indicating by those cupped hands we never learned!

Then came Neil Gaiman and Kim Newman, who started by recalling that the last time they’d been at a con in Brighton together, they’d had to sleep on the floor of a kitchen in a local clinic. Gaiman said he’d just come in from Russia, where previously poor translations of his work had just been updated. Apparently the previous translator had skipped passages whenever she got bored! He then spoke a bit about his upcoming Doctor Who episode, which it turns out has been put back to the new Doctor’s second season. It needed the character of the Doctor to be well-established, but also required quite a bit of CG effects, which meant it had to be moved onto the next season’s budget.

After this, I went down to the dealers’ room, bought the David Case collection, and S T Joshi’s new Lovecraft-inspired anthology. Oh, I could have spent so much more!

Sunday

Overnight the clocks went forward, so it seemed I suddenly had less time to get out of my room than I’d thought. I wasn’t sure whether to just go for my train or stay for one more panel, but in the end I checked out early and parked myself in the lounge for one final hour of World Horror Con 2010. I’m so glad I did. That final panel was Kim Newman interviewing Dennis Etchison, and it was hilarious. Of course, I can’t remember any of it. There was something about a talking pig… Oh, and an anecdote about Ramsey Campbell, who had been given a brief, end-of-show slot on some US TV programme. After a bog-standard book promotion interview, the presenter realised there was a little bit more time to fill, so she said, “Tell me Ramsey, what’s your scariest story?” He answered. Then the presenter said something like, “Can you do a bit for us?” And apparently, Ramsey did, off the cuff!

WHC2010 went on till Sunday afternoon, but I had a train to catch. I’d like to have stayed to see the Les Edwards presentation (and perhaps to have won a Les Edwards original with my “magic raffle ticket”). Overall, there were only a couple of other panels I wish I’d been able to see — the Dave Carson interview, and a panel about horror film books which I walked in at the end of and realised I’d missed something interesting. More money to spend in the dealers’ room would have been nice, as would be the time to read everything I wanted to buy!

Anyway, that’s what I remember of WHC2010. I took my camera and used it far too little, and far too badly, as always. I have this knack of taking a photo the very moment people duck their heads or hide behind a microphone. I’ve put the few usable ones up as an album on Facebook, which you can find here.

Me & Horror: Lovecraft

The first horror author I read was H P Lovecraft. I’d heard about him because of Chaosium‘s Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, which I may have bought before reading any of Lovecraft’s fiction, I’m not sure. (I remember having a long and inconclusive conversation with my karate teacher about whether the Necronomicon actually existed, largely because of the serious scholarly tone of the appendix notes to the Call of Cthulhu rulebook.) The first Lovecraft story I actually read, thanks to an anthology in the school library, was “The Outsider”. I was blown away.

“The Outsider” has a bit of a reputation as a gimmick tale, as nothing more than a story with an obvious twist. (I have to say that, however old I was when I read “The Outsider”, I didn’t see the twist coming, which was perhaps why I was so blown away by it.) But I’d like to defend “The Outsider”. Rereading it recently, I found it an extraordinarily moving story about alienation and emotional isolation. The twist at the end, which on a rereading of course you know is coming, then takes on the feel of something the narrator must know about himself, but is fervently trying to deny, which makes his desperate attempts to end his loneliness all the more affecting. The next Lovecraft tale I recall reading was “The Horror in the Museum”, which also, at the time, blew me away. A rereading of that hasn’t been as kind.

I said in the first of these “Me & Horror” posts that I didn’t read any horror fiction till I was 16 or 17, but looking back on it, I realise I must have first read Lovecraft when I was about 11 or 12. The thing is, I just didn’t think of him as a horror writer. Perhaps because I’d approached him via the gaming route; perhaps because his stories were set in the 1920s, and in America, and that had enough of a distancing effect to muffle the horror (as is true of most classic ghost story writers — their tales take place in a world of carriages, housemaids, leisured gentlemen and weekend stays at country houses — all part of their charm, but also what makes their fictional worlds so resolutely fictional to me, though nonetheless effective); perhaps because his fiction was sufficiently similar to the Doctor Who books I’d spent so much time reading (alien monsters at work among us — very Doctor Who). Or it could just be that Lovecraft’s horror is more conceptual than sensational. I mean, in a Lovecraft story, the horror resides in the ideas, in the ultimate significance of what’s going on, rather than the evocation of a few chills through some creepily-described scenes. To Lovecraft, the appearance of a monster was an affront to reason and scientific law, and that was the true horror; but to me, reading as a kid, I just wanted to know what the monsters looked like — the philosophical subtleties didn’t register. To “The Colour Out of Space”, for instance, my first reaction would have been, “But where’s the monster?” Reading it now, it’s the bleakness of its sheer cosmic indifference to human life that’s horrific. And “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, which had monsters, took me years to start to appreciate. I at first thought it a bit too adventury, too much an “action” tale, to be satisfying on the level I expected of Lovecraft. Now, I think it’s Lovecraft’s fear of heredity madness that’s at the real root of the horror in that story. It’s become one of my favourite Lovecraft tales.

The one thing I do remember about my early encounters with Lovecraft was how they gained a tinge of excitement from just how difficult they were to find. (Odd, really, because Lovecraft was ubiquitous in the early 70s. I guess by the early 80s it was assumed everyone had read him.) Lovecraft’s writings seemed forbidden, Necronomicon-like, and it wasn’t till the big fat Granada paperbacks came out (around 1985, with those gory Tim White covers) that I actually managed to get a proper dose.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi and the Three-Dimensional Labyrinth

Surely the “Dungeons” part of Dungeons & Dragons owes a substantial debt to the fevered mind of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who stands as a sort of dark fountainhead of one obscure aspect of fantasy art — the multi-levelled subterranean labyrinth.

Born in 1720, Piranesi wanted nothing more than to be an architect, but despite publishing several books on the theory of architecture and architectural renovation (a hot topic in crumbling late-Renaissance Rome), during his lifetime he only received one actual commission that was actually put into effect — and that was a renovation, not a new building. Piranesi made his living in various ways, one of which was producing etchings. His most popular was a series of views of Rome to sell to tourists, but he also indulged in a set of “architectural fantasies” published under the title Carceri D’Invenzione — or, the Invented Prisons.

What a febrile, tortured imagination Piranesi had! This, looking like the nightmare child of Gary Gygax and M C Escher, is one of his more labyrinthine efforts, a three-dimensional maze of stairways and walkways, complete with gibbet-like struts, barred windows and darkly suggestive ropes. The figures, if you can spot them, are dwarfed by their surroundings:

piranesi_xiv_2

I’ve been collecting examples of the Piranesian influence as I find it popping up, so here are a few. The first is from one of my favourite films (and novels), The Name of the Rose (1986). Not a prison this time, but a monastery library, though this fact hardly makes it any less oppressive (here, forbidden books are imprisoned):

nameoftherose

And this, from Guillermo del Toro’s first Hellboy film (2004) — del Toro’s obsession with clockwork replacing Piranesi’s spiked wheels and shadowy torture devices:

Hellboy

Hayao Miyazaki provides this example, from the villain’s castle in Tales From Earthsea (2006), complete with Piranesian winch:

tales_from_earthsea

The latest addition to my collection is this panel from Starblazer #190, “The Power of the Warlocks” (1987), drawn by Ian Kennedy (not credited in the comic, but artist info courtesy of the Starblazer Issue Guide). More oppressive religious architecture, this time with appropriate minotaur figures as pillars (and is the one on the lower left flipping the bird?):

starblazer_190_p32

But my love of the dark, subterranean, multi-levelled maze began way before I came across Piranesi. It probably started around the time I came across this picture, in The Best of White Dwarf Articles III, drawn by (I think) Bob McWilliams (…or has it always been there, in dreams?):

wdaIII_35_bobmcwilliams

What would the world have been like had a Piranesi design actually been realised in stone? And what sort of demon patron would commission such a nightmare anyway? For the answer to that, see this story of mine, elsewhere on this site

Shadow of the Colossus

shadowofthecolossus_02Shadow of the Colossus is the second game to be released by Fumito Ueda and the rest of the design team behind Ico (see my previous blog entry on Ico), to which it forms a sort of prequel. The gameplay, though, is quite different. In that first game, the aim was to find your way out of a vast castle. Combat, though part of the game, was pretty much a distraction from the exploration, a sprinkling of action to keep the player’s pulse up. With Shadow of the Colossus, although there is an element of exploration (finding the lair of each colossus in a large landscape you cover mostly on horseback), combat is the main focus. But they’re not the sort of button-blasting fights you get in shoot-’em-up type games. In Shadow of the Colossus, combat is very much about puzzle-solving.

In Shadow, you control Wander, a lone warrior who has travelled to a distant, forbidden land with the aim of bringing a young woman, Mono, back to life. To do this, he must collect the life-force from sixteen colossi. This is a rather game-like excuse to go around killing them, really, but there you go. Unlike most combat-oriented games, the colossi are the only opponents you face; there are no minor hordes of mildly-distracting sword-fodder. And the colossi really are colossal. To defeat them, it’s not simply a matter of going up to them and swinging your sword till they fall over. You do have to find their weak-points and stab them till the poor things keel over, but in order to reach those weak points you have solve various problems. With the first colossus, for instance, it’s a case of getting close enough to jump up and grab the fur of his leg, then climb up and stab him in the right place. With later colossi it gets more complicated. Not all of the colossi walk on the ground, for instance — some fly, some swim, some burrow into the sand. Some have weak points covered by armour you have to work out how to break off before you can stab them. Most have weak points in hard-to-reach parts of their bodies (on the head of a creature twenty or thirty times your height, for instance), and while you’re trying to climb up to reach it, they’re trying to shake you off and smash you into mush. You have to look at the environment, or the way the colossus moves, to find clues as to how to approach each one.

shadowofthecolossus_01I said, above, that you have to “stab them till the poor things keel over”, and I really did feel sorry for these lumbering monsters, even while I was trying to kill them. Largely this was because of their eyes. The colossi are wonderful creations, made out of a combination of fur and rock, in the main — carefully designed so you can’t tell if they’re living creatures or automata — but their eyes are small, round, and rather dumb, which always made me feel they can’t really be evil, so why should I be murdering them? That didn’t stop me shaking my fist in triumph whenever I did finally blitz one, though, because they got more and more fiendishly difficult to kill, and each time I managed to do it, it was a huge relief. This was one of the best aspects of Shadow of the Colossus (and the worst) — it was so addictive. The early levels were quite easy, carefully graded so you learn new skills and methods of approaching the problem of colossus-killing. But suddenly, about halfway through, just when I was thinking this game would be easy enough to finish, the level of difficulty trebled, and kept going up at the same rate. But by that time I was hooked. So, whereas it took maybe 20 minutes to complete one of the earlier levels, it took me about a week’s worth of hour-long daily sessions (alright, sometimes more than that) to get past the incredibly tortuous final level, after which I sat in a daze while the ending played out. (This is another slightly criticism: compared to Ico, whose story was present right from the start, and kept progressing as you played, Shadow of the Colossus really doesn’t have much of a story till you’ve finished the game, when you get it all loaded into a big wodge of cut-scenes.) But, again, the worst criticism is, as with Ico, that the automatic camera angles so often work against what you’re trying to do, and can be quite frustrating — a minor point against an otherwise excellent game. I look forward to whatever Ueda and his team do next.

Shadow‘s official site can be found here. (It does resize your browser window, though, which is rather annoying.)

Ico

icoI haven’t reviewed any games on this blog yet for two reasons. The first is that there are very few games I like enough to buy, let alone play all the way through; the second is that even once I find a game I like I’m pretty slow at playing it! But I’ve loved games ever since the days of Manic Miner on the ZX Spectrum (I never finished that one, but did spend a day of non-stop playing, with Garen and a friend of mine, Craig, after we found out a “poke” to get infinite lives.)

Games could well be the future of entertainment — being to the 21st Century what films were to the 20th — if they’re not already. The big problem for me is so many games are the same. They’re shoot-em-ups or racing games or platform games, all of which are basically about developing a skill with the game controls. I prefer games where the controls are secondary to what takes place in your imagination. Best of all are games which manage to tell a story, and though many attempt to do so by merely interspersing a few cut-scenes between otherwise identical levels, those that really manage it can have a much stronger effect on their audience, simply because that audience (the players) is actively involved in the story-world, rather than just passively observing it (as with film, for instance.)

So far my list of favourite games is quite short. I love the Tomb Raider series because I’m strange and love the idea of being left alone in some labyrinthine subterranean world so I can lose myself and explore. I love the Myst series. Myst III was the first game that really moved me emotionally, thanks partly to the acting of Brad Dourif (Wormtongue in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings), but also thanks to the fact that, near the game’s end, you get to make a non-black-or-white story decision (something that’s rare in a world of “no moral consequences” shoot-em-ups), which really requires you to feel as well as think your way through the final puzzle.

ico_yordaIco is another game I’m going to add to my list of favourites. Designed and directed by Japanese games-maker Fumito Ueda (also responsible for the recent Shadow of the Colossus, which is set in the same world as Ico), Ico is a puzzle-solving, exploratory game with some fighting elements, but with a unique twist that adds a very different feel to the game.

You control Ico, a young village boy born with horns. When children born with horns get to a certain age, they’re taken to a vast castle, entombed in tiny stone cells, and left there, presumably as some sort of propitiatory sacrifice. However, soon after this happens to Ico, there’s a fateful earthquake and his stone cell cracks open. Suddenly he’s free in this truly vast castle. Obviously, he wants to escape but, exploring, he finds a young girl trapped in a cage. The first problem in the game is freeing her. It turns out she doesn’t speak the same language as Ico. She is also rather weak, can’t climb, and is physically slower than Ico, but our hero immediately decides to rescue her as well as himself.

ico_icoFrom there on, the game basically consists of finding a way to lead this young woman, Princess Yorda, out of the castle. As Ico you explore ahead, experimenting with levers and doors to create a path for the physically inept Yorda, then rush back, grab her boyishly by the hand and drag her along after you in almost rag-doll fashion. If you get too far away from her, or leave her alone too long, dark creatures come along and try to drag her into shadow pools. If she’s dragged all the way in, you’ve lost the game. Fortunately, you have a stick (later a sword) to beat these shadow creatures off with.

The game play is simple, but Yorda’s presence changes it from being, say, a search for treasure, or the often rather meaningless quest to save the world. Having to take care of the helpless Yorda makes you feel protective of her, and gives the game’s objective an emotional slant that a mere finding-the-treasure ending doesn’t have.

Beyond that, there are a few further twists in the plot. For instance, you quite soon reach the castle’s main gates, only to have Yorda’s mother, the Dark Queen, suddenly appear and lock them, which means you have to delve back into the castle to find a way of unlocking them. There’s a further twist later on which I won’t reveal, as getting the full story is one of the rewards of playing (and perhaps can only be fully appreciated by playing, and getting involved in Ico‘s world.)

Another plus of the game is the sheer aesthetics of the world you’re in. The castle you have to find your way through isn’t just a series of strung-out puzzles, but a fully-realised place. You’ll see features in the background while playing one part of the game, then much later find yourself actually in that feature — be it a tower or a windmill or a cavern or whatever — and able to look back and see where you were earlier on. The locations, though obviously vast, don’t quite manage to conjure the awe I felt when I first stepped out onto the Sphinx’s head in Tomb Raider (whichever one it was — I or II?) even though the graphics are superior (but not up to the best of modern-day standards — Ico is a few years old, now). Another slight niggle is the automatic camera, which very occasionally gives you an awkward view of a puzzle you might solve a lot easier with a different angle. Aside from that, it’s one of the best games I’ve played in ages — and another of its virtues is it’s not monumentally long, meaning that (unlike some Japanese role-playing games, for instance — Final Fantasy VIII and IX excepted) it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and actually leaves you wanting to play it again. (Playing it for a second time, Princess Yorda’s peculiar twitterings are translated.)