Game #23: Thomas Was Alone (2010-12)

Commentarycreator: Mike Bithell
language: English
length: 100 levels
played on: 3 June 2013

This is yet another indie platformer that I played through the most recent Humble Bundle. In this one you play a little red rectangle called Thomas. At first he’s alone, jumping around platformer worlds into an exit, then later he’s joined by other playable characters, all of whom are also little rectangles – but they all have different abilities in terms of how fast they move and how high they jump, or another few special abilities like floating on water, or acting as a springboard.

The story is narrated in the style of Douglas Adams (which is perhaps why I found it clichéd, to be honest) by Danny Wallace, whose name I’m certain I’ve seen before, although I didn’t recognise his voice. In this sense it became almost like an audiobook and it was an effective way of telling the story of these little blocks of pixels. It was the way in which the game became actually interesting – and it gives you a look into the inner workings of all the characters’ minds.

The game is split into ten parts, of ten levels each, and each part introduces a new character. The story starts to take off around the 5th chapter, when the little rectangles start to be threatened by a mysterious ghostly thing – the computer simulation trying to shut them down. Other hints are given to the nature of what’s going on, in the form of news reports and biographies of the characters, and it essentially implies that they’re the Singularity (and at one point it mentions civil rights campaigners for robots, at which point I just thought “nope”). The main character, Thomas, manages to access the outer internet, at which point the game made the references (primarily cat pictures, Nathan Fillion and “the cake is a lie”) which are ultimately going to make it age badly – they are already at least three years out of date. This makes sense given that the original draft of the game was made in 2010, but the final game was released in 2012, and it could have perhaps been given more up-to-date references.

In terms of gameplay, it was quite good overall, although switching between characters could get annoying and confusing, especially because they would be listed in a different order on every level. Also, every character had to be individually moved to their own exit, which was annoying on levels on which every character had to make the same journey across the level because to some extent you can repeat yourself easily, or you get the problem where you scout ahead with a character who can jump high but have to bring them back again to provide “steps” for a character who can’t jump high – the characters can jump on each others’ heads no problem, but the manoeuvres could get very complex.

Anyway, it was engaging, but like the other games I’ve been playing recently, the graphics were overly simplistic, the game was too easy, and the overall length was too short – even though I stayed up way later than I should have, I also completed this game in one sitting. This game has 100 levels – I guess I’m spoiled by old games like Lemmings, but I think I sort of expect the difficulty of 100-level platformers to sharply curve upwards about a third of the way through the game, and with many of these recent games, that hasn’t happened. This game gets more interesting and inventive but not really that much more difficult.

For me, it’s not brilliant, but it was fun and interesting. Unfortunately, by the looks of it it’s the only game in HB8 that’s actually worth playing. But I suppose even if I only play one of five games I’m still getting a bargain.

Book #33: Boy Meets Boy (2003)

boy-meets-boyauthor: David Levithan
language: English
length: 185 pages
finished reading on: 31 May 2013

I think I’ve been feeling a dearth of gayness in my life recently, and I wanted to read something with gay characters in it, and this was a young adult book that kept cropping up. So I ordered it to deliver. It’s not very long, less than 200 pages, and it was very easy to read – I had to stop myself from reading it all at once, actually.

It’s about a gay teenager who falls in love with another boy at his school, basically. The story itself is not particularly interesting, as it follows the standard story arc of basically all fiction ever, which is to have things go wrong to introduce conflict into the story and then all work out in the end. Its strength lies in the characters, who are colourful and varied. They live in a kind of hyperreal world where there’s virtually no homophobia, such that they have characters like the star quarterback who’s also a drag queen, and the school’s bookkeeper becomes interested in the main character and which boy he’ll end up with. As such, it feels like an American teen movie – the high school setting is almost similar to what I grew up with, but with significant enough differences that it’s also fundamentally unfamiliar.

The main character is a bit of a dick at times, and he seems to be very impulsive, which is essentially how a lot of the conflict in the story happens. Because it’s narrated in first person, it’s fun to look inside his thoughts as they go all over the place.

One of the best things is that it’s not a story about “coming out”, although it is about coming of age. All the characters are aware of their sexuality already. One side character has homophobic parents and lives in the next town over, and he uses his friends as an excuse to get away from them for a while and live in a different world for a day, but his story is not about coming out either. It’s also not an “issue” book, for example it doesn’t focus on AIDS, and pretty much unambiguously places gay relationships in a positive light, which is distressingly rare in literature. The author of this book was one of the first to deliberately set out to do that. Like in the world of gay cinema, books can be readily found, but sifting through the crud is an amplified experience because it’s a niche genre.

I guess it’s a shame, then, that I’m basically not the target audience anymore. If I’d been able to read this ten years ago, maybe I’d have been affected by it much more strongly? I’ll never know, of course, but even though I really enjoyed reading this, I did definitely feel too old for it. I reviewed “The Outs” recently, and I basically noted with that that it’s aimed at my age group, twenty-somethings, and it’s very similar to how I think my life is, or how I want my life to be. I’d like a book like that. That’d be nice. It is actually a problem though because I find good books harder to come by than films. I did also start listening to the audiobook of “Tales of the City”, which is sort of like that (in fact, I suspect that “Boy Meets Boy” is paying homage to Tales by giving its chapters titles but no numbers). Recommendations for further perusal will be welcomed!

Game #22: NightSky (2011)

nightgame_1294360785creator: Nicklas Nygren
length: 130 levels
finished on: 28 May 2013

Yet another Humble Bundle game, because that’s basically the source of all that I ever play. This game is actually from a bundle that was released early last year, but I couldn’t play it at the time because my computer was too slow even for the shitty-graphics version. Now my computer can handle the HD version, so I set about playing it recently.

It’s a very graphically simple game: all the foreground objects are silhouettes (until the final set of levels), and you control a marble that has to negotiate the various terrains. The marble can go faster or slower by pressing S or A. Except that sometimes completely different things happen when you press the controls. In some levels you can’t slow down and/or speed up; in others, you may actually control a vehicle or a pair of pinball flippers with your left-right controls. In others you can’t move the ball at all except to press S to invert gravity.

The pace of the game is nice and relaxed. It’s divided up into about ten sections, with a total of 130 levels, and each level consists of three screens, so it feels very consistent across the levels. It doesn’t pressure you to do time trials or anything like that, and while at first I was a little dismayed when I realised that to fully complete the game you have to collect 12 hidden gold stars, the process of actually doing this was very painless – the game tells you if there’s a hidden star in the level, and it’s usually pretty easy to find a small opening in the level somewhere to climb into, although some of the tricks you have to pull to get the stars are a bit nifty.

The music’s nice, too. I liked the game in general. I just wanted to continue – this wasn’t enough!

Book #32: The Golem’s Eye (2004)

golemauthor: Jonathan Stroud
language: English
length: 562 pages
finished reading on: 23 May 2013

The second of the Bartimaeus trilogy that I started reading basically as soon as I finished the last one (downloaded to kindle). The kindle presented a new challenge, for as I mentioned in the review of “The Amulet of Samarkand”, Bartimaeus loves footnotes, and these are a royal pain on a kindle, especially my old-style one without a touchscreen, where you have to select each one with a cursor individually and follow it as a link. I actually got around this problem by using the iPhone app in tandem to look at the footnotes. It’d be fine if it was one or two, but every chapter narrated by the character has about ten.

Anyway, the book is still good, funny, and has these flawed characters that we can still identify with. This adds in the story of Kitty, a “commoner” (muggle) part of the Resistance, a ragtag bunch of mostly children led by an old man and a man who is an inside contact in the government, who all have some kind of magical talent or genetic resistance. Kitty’s backstory is told before getting to the main story, but I got confused at this point, because I thought I caught a reference to the master having disappeared or died, and thus thought that some incidents that were happening in parallel were actually still part of the backstory. She meets the other main characters towards the end of the book.

The title refers to golems that have been released to cause destruction around London, so Stroud relishes in describing the destruction of famous places like the British Museum. A lot more of the mythology of his universe is revealed in the story and it’s very engrossing.

The other main character, Nathaniel, is given a lot more development in this story. Again, he’s a bit of a fantasy-fulfillment prodigy – at 14 he’s already procured a relatively high-ranking job in government – yet is jealous and nervous for most of the story. His appearance is almost never described appealingly, even by himself but especially not by his sarcastic demon – since the last story he’s apparently grown his hair long into something like curtains, and wears pretentious dinner suits to try and engender favour with high-ups. Of course, he also develops an interest in girls, at which point I honestly don’t give a shit. One of my long-standing gripes with Harry Potter was that I stopped really caring or identifying with him as soon as he develops an interest in girls and is only interested in kissing Cho Chang, and exactly the same applies here. It’s not such a strong point in the plot, though, and it’s implied that a magical charm was involved, so I can forgive it there.

I liked it, anyway. I now need to read the last one in the trilogy (although apparently there’s a fourth one too which is not properly part of the trilogy? I don’t really get it!), and I’ve decided to do so with an audiobook – at least that way I don’t have to worry about footnotes…

Game #21: Offspring Fling (2012)

screen08creator: Kyle Pulver
length: 100 levels
finished on: 22 May 2013

This was a kinda cute platformer. I played it via the Humble Bundle. It was alright but I finished it in one sitting. It only got difficult in the last few levels, when there are suddenly some extreme tests of reflexes.

I don’t know what the main character is, but she’s the mother of children that she has to save by throwing or carrying across the level. You’re given new mechanics at a reasonable pace throughout the game, so it’s never difficult, and sometimes you’re given the opportunity to work out your own limitations, which was good.

The graphics suffer because they are pixelly (retro?), and the music was upbeat but repetitive (all the tracks seem to be variations on the same base, and sound a bit like a Disney soundtrack).

The final boss was annoying, because there’s a cutscene you can’t skip that you have to play every time you die, but he’s a matter of muscle memory because he always does the same thing.

The game tries to add replay value with time trials, but I hate time trials. Sometimes if I get a few golds early on I’m spurred on to keep trying, but that didn’t happen here, and golds are very difficult to get. It is nice, though, that it saves your personal best as a replay “ghost” to follow, but then it also has the dev team’s best that seems to move faster than is possible, so I don’t know what’s happening there.

So, it’s fine, but not long enough for me.

TV: How I Met Your Mother, season 8 (2012-13)

how-i-met-your-mother-8x011creators: Carter Bays & Craig Thomas
language: English with smatterings of Italian, French, Cantonese
length: 24 episodes of about 22 minutes each
finished watching on: 16 May 2013

I watched this last month after hearing that the mother’s face had finally been revealed (although spoiler alert, it’s only in the closing moments of the season!). Because I’d been promised something, I think that meant that I watched it far too quickly – I think only two days from start to finish. I wouldn’t recommend doing that, in general – after it finished I found myself just wanting more!

Anyway, it’s getting to be more of the same with this show. We see the main character Ted getting into a variety of relationships but we basically know that they’re going nowhere because we know they’re not the mother of his kids. We see the other characters doing standard hijinks. So at least at the end of the season it’s good to see that they’re moving to draw the thing to its conclusion.

One thing I hadn’t noticed as much the last time I watched this (a year ago now) was the amount of times they unironically use the term “bro”. I’ve kind of had enough of that and wanted them to shut the hell up after not very long.

Another annoying thing is that the show is now building to a rather large climax, with the promise of a wedding in the very near future – in fact, the characters are all packing up to go off to this wedding in the final episode, and I was fully expecting the wedding to occur in the final episodes of the season, so when I found that I’d reached the last episode I was a little disappointed. That also may mean that the next season consists entirely of the few days leading up to said wedding. I don’t know, to be honest. I just don’t like the prospect of having to wait another year to find out (perhaps it would be healthier for me to start watching it in October along with everyone else, rather than waiting till May next year to marathon the series, which is becoming a bad habit).

Music: Sigur Rós

sigurros2013v2-640x378watched on: 14 May 2013
at: Nippon Budokan (this photo isn’t mine, though!)

I bought the tickets to go to this back in November. It’s the first time I’ve seen Sigur Rós performing live (although I did see Jónsi a couple of years ago when he was doing a solo tour). The concert was held in the massive Budokan (martial arts hall) in central Tokyo, and I think there must have been about 10,000 people there. As a side note, it resembles the Central Hall of my university, so I almost felt like I was going in for an exam!

The music was very good, as always, and I got to hear some of their newest songs (I am now waiting for the album to be delivered – but from the UK, because I had an Amazon voucher) ahead of time. And hearing some of the songs, particularly the finale with “Popplagið”, was very exciting for me. They played a lot of their older stuff as well as their standard crowdpleasers. So, fine.

But the venue was kinda horrible. I was so far away that I could only see tiny little figures playing on stage. It was very hot inside (thankfully it wasn’t full-on summer yet), and I didn’t have a proper chair, so I started getting backache quickly. I feel like I’ve been permanently priced out of getting the decent seats at venues like this – the ticket was quite expensive as is! Afterwards I tried to buy merchandise but the T-shirts all seemed too small for me, and then trying to leave was a nightmare because there were so many people squeezing through a very thin gate to get out of the area.

Even the performance wasn’t without fault: the music was fine, of course, but there was excessive strobe-lighting on some of the pieces, to the point where I had to just close my eyes and bear it. The other lighting design was mostly mellow, with candle-like lights glowing across the stage.

And I still don’t get why encores are a thing. Glad I went though!

Book #31: The Amulet of Samarkand (2003)

tumblr_m72iv1Gjnn1ra5wk1o1_400author: Jonathan Stroud
language: English
length: 492 pages
finished reading on: 10 May 2013

My friend gave me this to read a couple of months ago, so I got to it after finishing The Scar (but at the same time as listening to Railsea). It’s a fantasy story about a young boy who becomes a magician, and summons a demon to do his bidding, but all sorts of things start to go wrong after that. The subject matter is going to draw inevitable comparisons to Harry Potter, so I will do just that. I might describe it as what Harry Potter would be like if wizards weren’t in hiding and were out in the open and actually in control of the government. The book is very careful never to use the word “wizard”, in lieu of “magician”, perhaps to attempt to stifle such comparisons, but it’s obviously there. It’s also a lot more morally ambiguous than Harry Potter, which was very black-and-white. And there’s no Magic School.

I think the first thing I did when I opened it and read the first few pages was groan at the amount of footnotes. I realised quite quickly, and forgave the author somewhat, when I realised that this was to show that the chapter is being narrated in the first person by one of the main characters, Bartimaeus, who gives his name to a trilogy. Bartimaeus, as a character, isn’t a very good narrator and is constantly self-aggrandizing, so the excessive footnotes are just one way that the author shows this. They are interesting, to some extent, and they show the level of detail that Stroud has put into his fictional world. In contrast, the chapters about the other main character, Nathaniel, are told in a much more neutral third person, and are much easier to read. Stroud treads a fine line with his Bartimaeus chapters when he writes badly, between whether it is he or his character that is writing badly.

In this world, when young children demonstrate magical ability, they’re sent at the age of five to live permanently with a magician for an apprenticeship. They’re supposed to forget their birth name, as this is how you can be controlled magically. Of course, this doesn’t actually happen to our character and the kindly wife of the magician asks him his name early on to make him feel at home. At this point you can probably tell it’s going to end up in the wrong hands quite easily. Later they take a pseudonym at the age of 12, and our character ends up with the name “John Mandrake”.

Most of the plot is accidental, and stems from Nathaniel getting his own back for feeling wronged by another character, but he somehow manages in the process to thwart a major conspiracy involving the magical Amulet of the title, which absorbs any magical attack. The plot gets complicated but never confusing, and there are not too many characters to keep track of.

The blurb for the story describes it as set in “modern London”, and to some extent that is true, but the rest of the world is far from similar to our own. The previous superpower in this world was Prague, and Czech is a major international language which is required in order to read magical textbooks. America is still but a colony. No mention is made of the royal family, as the ruling class seems to be made up of magicians (the range of jobs open to them seems to be only something ministerial in parliament). Yet other things seem to have happened in parallel to the real world – things like cars and phones exist, for example. How things really fit together in this world is never fully established. I think we’re just supposed to run with it.

In this world demons are the source of magicians’ power (unlike Harry Potter, again), and there are a variety of types mentioned in terms of strength – djinni (because it looks better than “genie”?), imps, foliots, afrits. I don’t know how many of those words were made up, to be honest, because I haven’t heard some of them before. The demons in general are hard to control because they will follow your orders to the letter but will try and twist the wording to match their own desires. The main character Bartimaeus is thus presented as sarcastic and unwilling to actually follow orders, and eventually has to be tricked into doing things for the boy. Successful magicians are likewise presented as conniving and wily with words, and not to be trusted.

One of the book’s strengths is that it doesn’t present its main characters as heroes – indeed, they’re not really painted very positively. As I mentioned, Bartimaeus is self-aggrandizing but actually cowardly and sarcastic, while Nathaniel is petty and vengeful (at the age of only 12), but seems to believe in some form of Greater Good and swears allegiance to the head of government.

There are also strong hints about a sequel, with some plot strands left hanging, like the presence of a “Resistance” and a villain character who disappears at the end of the book. And because I enjoyed this book quite thoroughly, I just had to download the next book immediately, instead of waiting to borrow it. More people should read this.

Book #30: Railsea (2012)

00253511_mediumauthor: China Miéville
reader: Tom Lawrence
language: English
length: 719 minutes
finished reading listening on: 9 May 2013

A certain podcast that I listen to was offering a free Audible trial recently, so I managed somehow to snap it up even though I’d already gotten the free trial two or three years ago. So I got to listen to this for free, and then I managed to wrangle it down to half price for three months (by threatening to cancel) just to get to listen to more things. So I picked Railsea, which I think is the most recent of China Miéville’s books, and is in the “Young Adult” category – which I think just means there’s no swear words and the main character is a teenager. It took me around two months in total to finish it, part of which I attribute to listening “in tandem” with Miéville’s other book, The Scar. A lot of the listening was done on my bicycle on the way to work, a timeslot which is shared with podcasts, so some weeks I didn’t listen at all. But I’d be lying if I said it was as good as the other book. I should also note at this point that although I like listening to audiobooks, I often lose concentration, so sometimes I find it more difficult to keep up than I do with regular books. This might affect my perception of the novel, is all.

The concept of the Railsea wasn’t very well described by the synopsis, and it isn’t as easy to explain as the concept of some of Miéville’s other books. Essentially, the place that the main characters live doesn’t have a sea of water, but instead there is a mass of rails criss-crossing through a desert to the other island oases. In this desert there is a lot of wreckage and salvage, and people travel out to gather up old machinery and other interesting things. This isn’t a particularly easy concept to grasp, and unlike Miéville’s other books, he has to spend a lot of time explicitly explaining what’s what in his world – there are other oddities too, like the upper portion of the sky being poisonous and populated by dangerous birds, and the railsea itself being dangerous to walk across because of huge burrowing mole-rats and other delightful monsters (later I found out they’re actually illustrated in the print copy, so I sort of missed out on that). Some of it is never quite explained fully, though, such as how they manage to have water if there’s no ocean, because if there’s no ocean there’s no water cycle!

The main character, Sham, is a teenager who joins the crew of a moling train, basically a group of hunters. They travel around they find something so unusual that it turns their world upsidedown. When they travel, the book almost never uses language appropriate for train travel, and virtually always talks about the train as if it’s a ship, using nautical language. In some ways this was like a hindrance to my imagination, although there are some places where he’s obviously taking pains to make the train aspect obvious, talking about line switches and gauge separation. Because I was listening in tandem to reading “The Scar”, it felt almost easy to mix the two up, since The Scar actually is a story about seafaring. In any case, trains and ships seem to be a common theme with Miéville – they show up in Perdido Street Station a lot as well as The Scar, and Embassytown contains a lot of ship metaphors when talking about its version of space travel, too – and I think he sometimes uses them too simplistically as a metaphor for making a journey.

It becomes clear quite soon that the Railsea world is post-apocalyptic, and stems from overpollution of a certain region, and from train companies getting far too competitive with each other and oversaturating the land with railway lines. It’s not made clear to me whether this is supposed to be our own world after an apocalypse or not, because to me it seems like trains have been more and more replaced by cars, so the scenario doesn’t seem realistic. Miéville uses this constructed scenario to make a jab at capitalism.

For me, the book was OK, but it wasn’t the highlight of Miéville, and I had a lot of trouble visualising the world, just because the concept was so unusual. I think better things could have been done with the story, too. I wouldn’t recommend this as the first book to read by Miéville, but I think it was reasonable, and I also wouldn’t dismiss it entirely.

Film #86: Not Another Teen Movie (2001)

big10_musical4director: Joe Gallen
language: English
length: 89 minutes
watched on: 6 May 2013

As the final part of my spree I watched this. I remember this being hilariously funny, but I think that’s because when I watched it the first time I was around 16 – ie, the target audience. Now I find a lot of it overplayed and I don’t find most of the jokes funny (although I caught more of the references than I did the first time, because I’ve seen the movies they refer to since then, such as The Breakfast Club or American Beauty). But I still laughed, and it’s in a whole other league than things like Epic Movie.

Of course, don’t go in looking for something intelligent. The plot is lifted straight from “She’s All That” (although I haven’t seen that one so I don’t know how exactly), and successfully parodies the fact that all the heroine has to do to become “beautiful” is to take off her glasses and let her hair down. All the characters are stock characters (“the Jock”, “the Geek”, “the Cheerleader”, etc), and they get around this by having them explicitly point out their flaws. But beyond that there’s little substance.

Similarly, while most of it is straight parody making references and jokes, there was one gratuitous gross-out toilet humour scene that I could have done without. Overall, kind of funny but probably much better if you’re 17.