The Amazing BWNN #2

Page 1 took me rather a long time. No doubt, that’s due in large part to the fact that I had no idea how to start, but even so, it seemed like a lot of effort for a page which looks ok at best. Muse for page 2 found me when I was feeling significantly more lazy, so seated on the settee with a cuppa and my tablet, I simply began sketching. Hand-written place-holders for the text and a few pencil lines game me a layout. Then I set about populating it in a very simple, straightforward…and for want of a less wanky term…”organic” manner. I think it’s resulted in images that better fit the layout of the page and a less stilted overall flow.

I am aware, still, that I am struggling to distinguish the ‘now’ from action images from those which exist as flashback illustration for the text narration. There’s definitely room for more texture in the backgrounds too; a job which is difficult to do with the limited layer sets and tools available on my tablet.

 

While I’m about it, the tablet I use is a Samsung Note 10.1; a full sized tablet that is shipped with a fully integrated Wacom tablet stylus with excellent pressure sensitivity. Unlike other tablets, this allows a fairly natural art interface – rather like a small Cintiq – and I’ve found that I now do most of my layout, basic, or simple work directly on the tablet. No doubt the results could be bettered on a full Photoshop rig, but the convenience and ease of using the Note is unmatched. I expected it to be good and useful when I bought it, but it has massively surpassed my expectations and become amongst the most important pieces of art equipment I use.

 

Anyway; page 2…as always, comment and criticism heartily welcome!

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TINaGB: Prototype loving

Three games share a shelf in the jumbled, arbitrary cataloguing system of my brain. Crackdown, inFamous and Prototype. There are obvious parallels; all present large, open-world cities through which you guide a super-powered hero, stomping, zapping, or slicing through whatever has the temerity to stand in your way. Each has produced two titles (barring inFamous’s downloadable Halloween bash).

Every once in a while I realise that I want to play one of these and when I do, only the right one will do. If what I want is some electrical goodness with Cole in inFamous, then Prototype won’t do. If I want some Crackdown, then invariably I end up wishing that I still had #1, because #2 just doesn’t quite cut it for me.

 

Each game has its merits and problems, but today I am going to drool about Prototype*.

 

Let’s get this out of the way; it’s not a happy game. Next to the cell-shaded, pastel tongue-in-cheekery of Crackdown’s Pacific City, or the flashy light-show and chewy city of inFamous, it gets rather lost in the noise. You’re in New-York and it’s a bad day; an apocalyptic infection is spreading through the population and a shadowy military organisation is doing its best to contain the threat, turn it into weapons tech and kill everyone who might let the cat out of the bag. In game 1 you play the man who released the plague, who becomes the main antagonist for game 2. The city is uniformly dark, mist-shrouded and crumbling, filled with screaming, terrified citizenry and the ravening horde of bloodthirsty creatures into which the plague is transforming the populace. Bestriding it all, the player is a viral super-soldier; their body replaced by the microscopic nasty; mutable, plastic, strong and hungry.

It’s dark, it’s oppressive and its brutal, but…it’s also a massive amount of fun. It’s one of those games that you could never defend to the moral majority; you will kill as many innocents as bad-guys in your quest; unthinkingly, whimsically, just because you need the extra sliver of health-bar that they will afford you. The closest thing to a decent motivation is the desire to save your daughter in game 2, but that doesn’t stack against the litany of horror that you will unleash. It’s a guilty pleasure, there’s no denying that. However, I have never played a game that imbued the player with such a sense of power.

By the end-game, you will be jumping from the street up to the roof of an apartment building, gliding off that to the nearby skyscraper, the side of which you will then run up vertically before launching yourself from the peak and riding the wind half-way across the city. You will be throwing RPGs back at the soldiers who fired them before slicing a dozen guys into gory strips with a single swipe of your tendril. You will tear the turret off tanks and beat the rest of the machine to death with it. You will have so much military ire thrown at you that this power is not more than you need. Then, at the height of it all, you will slip around a corner and assume the guise of one of the soldiers you just ate and let the raging military machine wash past you as it loses you in the city. In that guise you will sneak through military bases, walk right past their commanders and strike direct at their heart.

Prototype gives you the tools to instigate incredible carnage without it ever being beyond your control to get away from it. If you have your head on and the controls down, you can summon up the hordes of hell, dump them on a tank factory, stir it with your spoon of violence and jump right in to the middle, laying about yourself in a surprisingly well controlled and easy to manipulate whirl of blades and splattery, Thing-like explosions of viral flesh and body-parts. Your options are manifold; at any time you might elect to steal that tank, rather than pull it apart. You might jump onto the helicopter and steal its rocket pods to fire at the building-sized monster you’re all fighting. You might steal the face of a soldier and pick up a rifle to help take down the bad-guys incognito. You could go hand to hand…well, no, more like giant-metal-flesh blades of slicing to huge, malformed, bony cudgel with a mutated monster, or just spend your saved-up energy on exploding in a giant sphere of tendrily, gooey spears that will kill – or severely main – everyone in sight. The choice is yours. And whatever you chose, it’s awesome.

Never will you find yourself with a thirty-second climb up the side of a building like in inFamous. Never will you make a bad jump and land in a hail of bullets that will cut you down in moments like Crackdown. Never will you be able to tell your therapist about the things you have enjoyed doing in the guise of Alex Mercer of James Heller – or the things that they become.

 

So; it’s not as pretty as inFamous, or as cheerful as Crackdown and it seems to fall outside many people’s recognition, perhaps because of that dark, disturbed nature…but I would argue that for pure escapism, for the representation of unimaginable power and enough carnage to stretch the legs of the god you will portray, there’s no substitute.

 

*: assume I mean Prototype 2, unless indicated otherwise. They are very similar, although #2 is larger, prettier and has a more refined control scheme, the effect of both games is much the same.

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I’m sorry, Connor, but we need to talk.

There comes a point in every gamers life when they have to ask themselves a serious question.

“Am I ever going to bother to finish Assassin’s Creed 3?”

Yes, it’s a biggie, but I make no apologies for tackling such subjects in this open forum. It’s not intended to shock or upset anyone, but…well…there you go.

 

I think we can all agree that the misleadingly entitled fifth instalment of the Assassin’s Creed line was a stumbling, overwrought, pompous disappointment. Apparently developed in parallel to the third and fourth games – the final two of what I will call the Ezio cycle – it eschewed all the mechanical refinements of those games in favour of a clumsily envisioned ‘simplification’ of the original control scheme. This simplification, while requiring fewer button-presses than the original, cunningly allowed the player to feel almost totally unable to command the finder points of the lead character’s perambulation. Being required correctly to time a button press in order NOT to run up a wall – a button press which seemed only to register, perhaps, 50% of the time – was a master stroke of auto-pediatric-marksmanship.

Then there is a litany of graphical errors and glitches. I played for a long time and was always impressed at how the game managed to display new and interesting ways to look shoddy every time I played. It became something of an emergent game mechanic to spot the newest cock-up. There were plenty of NPC-stuck-in-scenery-during-cutscene moments, but I think they pail next to the occasion when the main character’s hair simply failed to render for the entire length of a scene. And the way that, if you chose to change the colour of your outfit, it always reverted to the default white for the cutscenes – a particularly special mistake as it means the game had to maintain two texture sets where it should have needed just one. Bravo.

How about the fact that every one of the huge trees I found in the wilderness, from the tops of which I might gain valuable information on the lay of the land, were identical. Every. Single. One. Exactly the same, from branch structure to leaf coverage. All of them.

I could go on. Believe me. These are merely the stand-out examples that still haunt me many months after I last played.

 

NB: I should add that I can’t be sure such issues didn’t plague the Ezio cycle, but I can be certain that I never noticed them. They never stuck out like a sore thumb, front and centre, in the middle – literally – of the screen.

 

But the story, oh the story…

 

I am, for want of a better phrase, NOT AN AMERICAN! I have no objection to playing a game based in and around the events of the war of independence, and more than I object to the shoe-horning of Assassin lore into any of the other historical scenes presented by the franchise. However, when every damned mission seems to be an excuse to present a painful and self-consciously hey-kids-watch-us-subvert-history take on some desperately romanticised version of colonial history I…well…I very quickly lose interest.

Not that I can necessarily say that they didn’t do the same with the Ezio cycle, but here’s the difference; Ezio swaggered his path through his own bastardisation of reality with a cocky grin and a gentle lechery that made him a joy to play. Even when the world around him was trying to fall apart, you could trust Ezio to ignore that in favour of the comely wench behind the bar. Connor lacked anything like the same easy charisma to distract from the pompous ridiculousness of his plot.

 

In the end, despite all the things that I was enjoying in the game, the sheer weight of annoyances – from petty through to incredible, via just…sheer…wow how did you get to go gold with THAT in there – stopped me from wanting to go back to it.

I get the impulse to play some A’s C and I honestly would rather go and play Revelations again before returning to #3. Hell, I’d prefer to go back to the deeply flawed original, I think.

 

So…will I ever finish Assassin’s Creed 3? I don’t know. I like to think so. I like to think that the genuinely charming or awesome features it does display might be enough to see me through the myriad flaws which, frankly, I still have trouble believing were really there, so numerous and blatant were they. I’m just not sure. I need a little more time.

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Jeux Sans Frontières

Way back when I was an idealistic, bright-eyed, energy-infused student, I ran a little LARP. It was designed to be able to run transparently in the day-to-day real-world. The idea was that, as we were all students, we would have time to arrange to have IC coffee every other day with other characters in our favourite cafes around the town, or to get together for secret meetings in the local pubs, all without set-dressing or broken immersion.

Now that I’ve had a little LARP-spark rekindled I find myself thinking of that old system and its benefits and it seems like it might be awesome for we working stiffs too. Little to no kit, little to no set dressing required and a wealth of interesting, highly unusual encounter opportunities that other systems can’t manage.

What I wrote was called Dark October (‘cause, y’know, I was a student and therefore pretentious). It was based in an ever less outlandish seeming world of corporate dominance and general indentured labour. Tech was always about 30-40 years behind real-world and espionage was everywhere. We had grand ideas of planting clues and plot in real libraries to be hunted for during opening hours, of running overlands that encompassed the whole breadth of the Yorkshire Moors. There were grand plans which became disarmingly simple in such a chameleon system.

It allowed email to exist in a limited capacity, but the characters couldn’t have IC mobile phones – actually, we did let one corporate agent have one, but he had to phys rep it with a brick in a suitcase as the battery – it seemed then – and still seem to me now – a rather ideal set of components for an easy-to-run, low cost and low overhead system which can run as much in downtime as at sanctioned events.

The only problem we had was that the characters were all too paranoid to speak to one another. Oh, and one bad ref call that meant a PC was able to remove the cannon from the front of a downed fighter jet using a Swiss Army Knife and engineering expertise. Good times.

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Hip, thigh and sanity workout

 

I have had a splendid weekend!

I used to LARP a lot. For those of you who don’t know what that means, it’s a grown-up version of playing cowboys and Indians. At university, a friend of mine once defined it as “Free-form, cross-country pantomime”. Settings range throughout the gamut of imagination, from classical, Tolkeinesque fantasy, through to Fallout inspired, post apocalyptic rust-punk.

Several years ago, however, I was suffering under rather a nasty bout of depression and the hobby fell by the way-side. I’m not sure how long it is since I played, but numbers like five to eight years are about the range I’m looking at.

Then a little while ago I sat in a meeting at work, doodling the Slenderman. I posted the doodle to Facebook and a friend and splendid fellow recommended that I should show it to some friends of his who “run some sort of Slenderman LARP thing”. I did so and soon became a sort of unofficial illustrator for their event. As thanks, I was invited along to the game…

Now, besides not having played in many years, I have also never played – and I’m not sure I’d ever want to play – a horror LARP. The games are tiring enough without adding the emotional load of being terrified all weekend. I was massively ambivalent about going, but my excellent wife told me that I WAS going to go and, so, I did. However, I cried off charactering in favour of monstering the event (that is, rather than really play the game, I help the organisers provide an interactive world for the players to inhabit – in most traditional games this means portraying whatever monsters the characters might face, hence the name).

Well, I am delighted that I went. What a splendid and lovely bunch of people, all of whom were quite happy to have paid for me to try to kill them all weekend. Posing as a local illustrator without any murderous intent, I spent quite some time sketching the players and characters from life; a thing that I have never tried to do before, but which went…ok. Armed with this success and the generous and delightful enthusiasm of my fellow gamers for the tawdry scribbles that I produced, I have returned full of beans and confidence that I might, actually, have some small talent for making marks on a page in such a way as to represent things.

Once more, a HUGE thanks to the monsters, players and refs of SlenderLARP who provided this old warhorse with a new lease of gaming life and a rather lovely ego massage into the bargain.

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The Amazing BWNN #1

Part of pulling my finger out and trying to do SOMETHING with my artwork has been to test my hand at doing a comic. I’ve had grand notions about keeping it all secret until I have a book to present, but it turns out, I have not that confidence.

So, I think for a while at least, I will be posting my efforts and, where I get the chance, wittering a few words at the keyboard about them. Importantly, though, I invite comment, criticism and contract offers.

 

I had…still have…no real idea of how one sets about creating a comic page. All I could find on the web amounted to “there’s no set standard”, so I just went with what seemed reasonable.

 

My first job was to decide what I was going to write. It’s always been in my mind that I would draw the Bear With No Name character and instead of writing something new, I though I’d adapt the BWNN posts that I’ve put up on this blog.

 

Page 1:

 

First off, I looked at the prose version and worked out a short paragraph that would work as a page, then cut the words down to be a little more manageable.

Then I sat with pencil and paper and tried to distribute the text around the page whilst leaving space for some illustration. With the pencil draft in hand, I moved to Illustrator to create a rough skeleton of the layout with text in place. I exported that page and set too, drafting and completing on my Note 10.1 tablet, before finally moving back into illustrator for a clean-up.

The clean up never finished, though, ‘cause I got bored and moved onto page 2. More on that in a later post.

Anyway; page one as it came off my tablet is below. I purposefully tried to keep the artwork simple without letting it become boring. One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in the past few months is that it doesn’t matter that my artwork doesn’t look like anyone else’s work. Looking at the page and moaning about how it doesn’t evoke Sandman is pointless. This is my work in my style and I don’t necessarily have to change that to make it function as a graphical tale.

It’s far from perfect, the text seems jumbled and…huge. I don’t like the font, or the dropped caps…many things…

I do, however, suspect that it works ok. To some extent I was drawing the storyboard to the film that plays in my head when I think through the story. It’s a dark film, desaturated, with plenty of silent montage behind the narration and I hope the panels reflect that.

Anyway, here it is.

 

First test page of BWNN comic

As I say, I really want comment and critique, from industry pros and consumers, viewers, friends and strangers.

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Not a Gaming Blog: Cindy Crawford’s Mole

“Good games are good because of all the stuff they get right, but it’s the flawed gems that you learn to love.” – A chap at my local GAME store.

…and ok, I paraphrase, but that was the jist of it.

It’s one of those sentiments that immediately feels right. It has the smell of vellum and magnificent beards about it. At the time we were discussing The Saboteur, Pandemic’s magnificent swan-song. I agreed with the sentiment at the time because it aligned with my sentiment and never gave it much more thought, but let’s examine it in a little more detail.

 

…oh, and a noto benne; I’m restricting myself to single player games, or the single player portions of games. MP is a different beast.

 

I really do love The Saboteur, even if I can never spell its title right the first time. I’ve played it as many times as any other game in my catalogue and it has an almost unmatched ability to make me smile. But let’s be clear, it is most certainly flawed. The graphics are far from spectacular, the writing is variable, the acting more so. The climbing is clunky and unpredictable and you’ll be doing a lot of it.

But I love it. I love the incredible bouts of obscenity spewed by the lead character, I love that there’s a button to have a cigarette. I adore the way he stomps around like a grumpy navvy, leering and complaining and generally being foul. I love executing an entire mission without raising an alarm, sneaking about in broad daylight in a stolen uniform and planting dozens of bombs, then sauntering away with my finger on the button. I love the music that plays over the radios and the way it fades from staticy realism to clean background as you drive away. I love the way the Parisian rooftops are a messy, impossible, un-navigable jumble of lean-tos and balconies and roof gardens. I love sitting on a rooftop in the glorious sunshine, sniping into the black-and-white, storm-cloud covered noir oppression of a Nazi held province. I love the whole black-and-white thing, in fact; great idea, well executed.

And whenever I play it, all the problems, all the annoyances and flaws, become subsumed in the welling of joy that it evokes in me. They become the flavours that make the game special to me, they make it feel like MY game, because so many people seem unable to look past the flaws to the delirious beauty below.

 

That’s all fine and well; that speaks to the love of flawed games, but what about the suggestion that a ‘perfect’ game can’t evoke the same fondness?

Well, that’s a little tricky; first off we’d have to identify something to represent our ‘perfect’ game. Let’s form a short list, at least…starting off with Gears Of War 3; a mighty and splendid culmination to a superb series. By #3 they had finally worked out most of the kinks and found the best ways to run a campaign. There’s a real feeling of scope and scale that was somewhat lacking in the previous attempts, the characters were fuller and interacted more likably, the environments were more varied and lush than ever before. The ebb and flow of the stop and pop combat was as immersive and entertaining as ever and the retro-lancer was brilliant. It even had a proper ending, which I adored. So many titles try for a sequel-begging ambiguity to their ‘resolutions’, but GoW put its foot down and said “here’s the end of the narrative”. It’s a great game; beautiful, generous, simple and slick.

But do I love it? I don’t think so. I am fond of it, certainly. I was genuinely a bit choked up when…well, if you’ve played it, you know when. I thoroughly enjoyed by stomp through the end of the war in the trousers of bio-Bender B. Rodriguez. I can’t in good conscience say that I love it, though. It’s very attractive and even the morning after, I have great respect for it. I wish it well in the future and hope that it has many healthy children. I hope we stay in touch…but it’s not MY game.

 

How about…Grand Theft Auto 4? What a piece of tech! First time I drove across a bridge at sunrise, into a thunderstorm, I fell head over heels for the engine. Sure, she’s showing her years now, but there’s still a beauty there. I also liked Nico; he felt like a grown-up, written for grown-ups. He was flawed and human, just trying to find a life for himself, always dragged back into his past; a proper tragic hero. Surrounded by a cast of pantomime palette, he stood out as…just this guy, you know? He wasn’t after power or revenge or money…just the opportunity to be a better man, to be left alone by a world populated with asshats and idiots.

I liked the steady flow of the gun-play, I liked the way the cars felt rather unsteady so that massive speeds were dangerous. I thought the magician at the Russian Bar was worth the price of the game alone. I love the fact that I still have no idea what Little Jacob was talking about most of the time. That bank-job mission feels SO much like the shootout in Heat, it’s brilliant.

…but again, I don’t think I love GTA IV. I’m not even sure why. There was no…joy, no surprise. There was endless competence and beauty, but it never turned around and dropped my jaw with some unexpected flight of genius, perfect for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It hit all the right marks, straight and true, but that means it never made the trick shot off the lamp-shade, knocking the elk head off the wall and pinning the barmaid’s false moustache to the bull’s eye.

 

Ah, well…I’m running out of lunch break now. Perhaps I have not presented an exhaustive argument, but perhaps its something to think about. I am leaning more heavily towards accepting the aphorism with which I began. I’d be interested to hear what any of you think on the matter…

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Old Not Gaming

I wrote this an age ago and found it recently. I’ve done an HD transfer and re-saturated the colours a bit, remastered the audio and removed some of the hiss…but this is still the theatrical original, so please allow for the time that has passed…

 

I have had reason to muse on the old “favourite computer game” question.

 

Tricky.

 

I came to gaming relatively late, at least compared to my nerd-peers. I had little (although not NOTHING) to do with gaming until after university, when I got hold of a celebratory PSX. Not much sticks with me from then, although the first Spyro game was brilliant and I still wish I’d given more time to Sentient. There was also Final Fantasy VII, of course. I think that was a requirement…it was a law, or something.

I would like to say that I then became a PC gamer…not sure why…probably because it seems like a more ‘serious’ answer, but I’m not. I would be unsatisfied with a gaming rig that wasn’t kept up-to-date and I simply never had the budget for that. I am a console gamer, by default. I have no interest in arguing the matter; play what you choose and enjoy it.

After the PSX, of course, came the PS2 and the original, big green Xbox. I LOVED my Xbox. Seriously, it blew the pants off PS2 in every way. Sure, the PS2 had The Mark of Kri, but Big Green had Fable.

When the next gen rattled along, there was no question that I wanted an Xbox 360 before a PS3. Since I am spoiled, I have eventually ended up with both and for a while there I also had a Wii – a brief and abortive chapter in my gaming life, but one which left enduring fond memories of BoomBlox with friends.

Only with the 360 did my gaming really flourish. I began reliably to finish games and to play them on more than just ‘easy’ difficulty. I got a taste for shooters that I had never known before…which brings us to today…

 

And the question of my favourite. Many people seem to cite something very early as their fondest gaming memory. Well, I never got into Mario while he was still relevant and these days I find him frustrating and unrewarding. Little from that era made any mark on me and I’d be lying if I claimed anything I really care about is from back then.

I am loathed to claim a favourite, though. Depending on whim and mood, the answer is fluid. So many games these days are of generally awesome quality that I greatly enjoy many of them. Some, however, stand out in my memory, for one reason or another. Perhaps those should be my favourites.

The Darkness: the first time a shooter had a real emotional effect on me. The first time I played through the orphanage…awesome. It still lingers with me and will always be an important memory.

The Saboteur: what a gem, albeit in the rough. There are plenty of sand-boxes in gaming and a great many of them look alike. The Saboteur looked and felt different. For all that it lacked a lot of polish (it was the swan-song of a dying developer) there was a great deal to love about the noir-black-and-white Paris, about the stupidly sweary Oirish lead character and about the way it treated you like a grown-up…alright – a childish grown-up, but that’s what I am. There was a thrill to wandering around a Nazi base setting explosives and strolling away as twenty carefully placed bombs go off in unison. Oh – and there was a ‘have a cigarette’ button. Gotta love that.

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PAW

Not that I’m faddy, you understand, but there’s this.
For the purists out there, rest assured that I have never drawn him without his helmet on.

image

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When shall we three nap again?

 

Julia pointed out to me this morning that we now live with a narrative perfection of kitten witches, or “wittens”.

Behold, nestled around their cauldron of butterfly wings and earthworms, the three; the bookish, serious, goth librarian Nyx and her twin sister, slim, exuberant, excitable and popular, but perhaps not too bright, the cheerleader Eris. Joining them is the shade, the Ancestor, the easy-going, effortlessly cool and kind, but shimmeringly dead Kali.

Tell me you couldn’t write a hit, hip drama about that! I should write to Jane Espenson.

 

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