Star Trek: The Next Generation – What to Watch

UK Netflix recently added every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (and the other series, maybe I’ll do those later) and it turns out a fair few people I know on twitter have never watched it properly. Since attempting to watch all of TNG from the start is a terrible mistake, I’ve put together a watch/skip guide for anyone attempting the feat today. You can skip straight to the list by clicking here, or you can enjoy my musings on the series first.

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Thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I think if you had explained the plot of Star Wars: The Force Awakens to me I would have rolled my eyes. As a bullet point list it is fanservice to the point of obnoxiousness, repeating an absurd amount of classic Star Wars beats. Several things happen that I had literally joked about beforehand “If they do this, I’ll walk out”.

And yet I didn’t. Somehow, those nostalgic call backs are downplayed, delayed or slathered in enough good humour to stop them from being intrusive. There’s never a ‘dun dun dun!’ followed by ‘I am your father’. It’s all just a little bit classier than that.

This isn’t to say there aren’t clumsy moments. I found the fact that the film tells us there’s a New Republic, but never actually shows it in order to preserve the image of our heroes as a scrappy resistance pretty silly. But then there’s also moments of genuine cleverness, like the First Order.

The First Order are essentially the cargo cult version of The Empire, much like those that sprung up after the fall of Rome. They dress like the Empire, act like the Empire and collect imperial memorabilia. A handful of throwaway lines even reveals that they number their Stormtroopers in train them much like the Clone Troopers of old.

It’s a very clever idea, because it takes what could be criticisms of the First Order being a bad Imperial knock off and puts them the text. When Rey shouts “You’re terrified you’ll never be as good as Darth Vader” at Kylo Ren, you can almost believe the screenwriters are talking to themselves.

Ren is the focus point for a lot of this meta-commentary. Throughout he is presented as a guy who is trying a little bit too hard to be a cool Star Wars villain. Darth Vader wore a mask because he was horribly injured in Revenge of the Sith, Kylo Ren wears a mask because he thinks Sith Lords are supposed to wear scary looking masks. And yet what could’ve been a criticism of the script becomes instead a criticism of the character. It fits perfectly with Ren’s insecurity and conscious aping of the Empire. He isn’t a malevolent villain, he’s just a whiny adolescent cosplaying as Darth Vader.

Again this might seem like a bad thing, but it isn’t. Ren being incredibly insecure is an explicit part of his character, one which gives him far more depth as a villain than Vader or Palpatine ever had. The Force Awakens’ depiction of the Dark Side is more nuanced too. I always hated the Dark Side as evil energy that flips people to 100% pantomime villain the moment they make a mistake (I’m looking at you, Revenge of the Sith). A villain who struggles with guilt and believes he cannot be forgiven for what he’s done is far more interesting. He might not be better than Darth Vader, but he’s definitely better than Anakin Skywalker.

Interesting though he is, Kylo Ren is essentially a new spin on a traditional Star Wars role. The same could be said of Poe and Rey, the same could be said of a lot of the film. In many ways The Force Awakens plays it as safe as it possibly can with the Star Wars legacy, but there’s one exception to that: Finn.

There isn’t really another character like Finn in the Star Wars canon (although I’m sure there were plenty in the expanded universe). He’s just an ordinary guy, a literal faceless enemy drone who one day and decides to do the right thing and changes the course of history as a result. None this film happens if Finn doesn’t have doubts. The entire narrative hinges on the First Order’s inability to crush his humanity.

For much of the film Finn’s motives are presented as shallow. He’s either fleeing in fear or acting out of a naïve infatuation with Rey, the first person to ever treat him like a human being. Yet I still find him heroic, he’s the one guy at the Nazi rally who says “hang on guys, this isn’t right”, and that takes tremendous strength of character, even if your response is to run away rather than turn and fight.

I really hope the subsequent films don’t make Finn a secret Jedi or Lando’s son or something terrible like that. Finn shouldn’t ever be special, Star Wars is full of special people with the right lineage, Finn is the nobody who changed the world.

That, I think, encapsulates my hopes for the new trilogy. Having delivered a film that was not terrible, I’d even call it ‘good’, I think it’s time to start taking a few more risks. The Force Awakens camouflages its nostalgia expertly, but if the next film is just a blow for blow repeat of The Empire Strikes all this goodwill will just be wasted.

Seriously though, if this all with Kylo Ren throwing that giant bald guy down an elevator shaft I will scream.

A list of games that are not my games of the year

Recently I tweeted that 2014 had been a pretty bad year for games. A few people were surprised at this, but honestly every time I looked at any list of best games of the year I felt decidedly underwhelmed.

So by way of explanation, here is a long list of games that I don’t consider games of the year, and why:
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Football Manager 2015 review

I reviewed the latest Football Manager for PC Gamer. It’s not an easy thing to review, being so iterative, you can fall back on a simple list of features. In the end I decided to centre my own approach to Football Manager, which is rooted in community. I also tried to critique the match engine itself, and the style of football it encourages.

Link

Ingress article

On Thursday I got a phone call from Keith Stuart of the Guardian, saying “Would you like to go down to London for the day for an Ingress event?” Thankfully I could make it, and spent a day wandering around London with this wonderful community. This one was a lot of fun.

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Game Chef entry – Za Vstrechu!

Za Vstrechu! (named after a traditional Russian toast) Is a game by myself and Matthew Ward. We created it for Game Chef, a nine day tabletop game jam. The theme of the jam was “There is no book” and we had to incorporate two of the following four ingredients “Glitter, Wild, Absorb and Sickle”.

We chose glitter and sickle and made a game about a masked ball on the eve of the Russian revolution. All the instructions are either on the invitation or on the masks themselves, hence the minimalist rules:
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Storium Article

I’ll take any excuse I can to bring my pen and paper RPG knowledge into videogames, which is why I pitched Rock Paper Shotgun an article on Storium, which exists somewhere between the two.

The opening paragraph contains a manifesto of sorts:

Computers suck at stories. We’ve been trying to create AIs that will make writers redundant for decades and it’s just not happening. Even clever, experimental systems like Storybricks are using sophisticated technology to create stories which amount to “There are bandits on the road.” If you want plot twists more complex than “And then I killed the guy”, you’re going to need a writer.

Link

2013 in stuff

2013 was a weird year for me. I spent the first half of it with no money, no prospects and no motivation, but by the end I had a steady income, a bunch of new friends and small cool writing in lots of different places. I can probably credit a lot of that to the Not a Game podcast. Recording something every week really helped me get out of my rut, so thanks for that guys.

I mention this because it probably explains a few things here. Like not going to the cinema or reading much and just binge watching TV instead. Basically it’s about how I suck, but I suck slightly less than I did ten years ago.

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Asylum Jam article

I try my best to love everywhere I write for equally, but there’s a special feeling to having an article on a website your Mum’s heard of. This week I got my first article up on The Guardian. It’s about Asylum Jam and the depiction of mental health in games, and I talk a lot about my time working in a secure mental health unit, and also my grandfather’s failing memory.

The day I stopped playing GTA

So Grand Theft Auto 5 is out and a lot of people are discussing the controversial torture scene. People like Eurogamer editor Tom Bramwell, who writes:

“GTA is a game full of violence, of course, but it is mostly slapstick, impersonal, cartoon violence – floppy-limbed pedestrians flying over your bonnet, cars flipping through intersections, or tanks and helicopters exploding. You’re always slightly zoomed out from the impact of your actions by the lack of close-ups and the way everything resets to normal a few minutes later. It’s very unusual to be hurting a single person in isolation over a prolonged period, which is why the torture scene is a different and unpleasant experience.”

With respect to Tom, I think he’s wrong to call this scene an exception. In fact his description of Trevor’s graphic torture reminded me very much of a small section in GTA 4 that put me off the series forever. The mission in question is called  ‘I’ll take her (Ransom)’. It’s short and remarkably simple, all you have to do is beat a defenseless woman and take a photo of her battered face.

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