Sunday, 19 June 2011

Becoming Ares

This is another of those character sketches I did about the Gladiator I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. The next couple of weekend might be a bit like this, I’m incredibly busy at the moment, so I may not have time to write anything too long, of at all. I hope you enjoy this though. Let me know what you think.

The doors swung open and Anitecus stepped out into the arena of death. The crowd screamed, chanted and booed. He walked slowly out into the middle of the arena, out of the shadow cast over a third of the fighting area by the high walls. He looked around, taking in the crowd. Although he had been fighting for just over two years now, the buzz the crowd gave him was the same.

His heart raced, his senses sharpened, he could feel the blood pumping though his veins, he could feel the air around him, he could smell the city, the sweat from all the unwashed bodies, the tang of blood, the smell of garlic from the food being sold in the stands. He felt alive. He looked up to the heavens and smiled under his helmet. He felt like no one could defeat him. He revelled in the glory of the arena, he was worshiped by some, loathed by others, but he was respected by all; he was one of the best, and they all knew it.

He did not know who, or what he was facing. It did not matter to Anicetus. He knew that he could face and beat whatever the event organisers threw at him. He had gained a reputation in the past two years and when you had a reputation; people took it as a challenge to try to beat you. He had faced exotic animals, multiple enemies, men on horseback and had beaten them all. With each victory the crowd had grown to love him or, for those who had lost money betting against him, hate him. Now he stood, awaiting the next challenge.

Un-oiled hinges squealed and the door opened. A dull rumbling, punctuated with more squealing emerged from the open door. Anicetus spun on his heels just brought his shield up to deflect the arrow the skimmed off the leather and buried itself in the sand. The evasive action took him wildly off balance and he fell backwards, rolling over his shield. A mass of wood, metal and flesh powered past him. He sprang to his feet and brought his shield up in time to deflect the next arrow over his head and into the stand behind him, killing a spectator. The crowd fell silent, before erupting, even louder than before. The contest had begun.

The vicious blades on the wheels glinted in the sun as the chariot turned and began to circle the arena, horses pulling in tandem, straining as they powered around the edge of the circle of sand. The next arrow imbedded itself in his shield as Anicetus turned, watching the chariot over the corner of his shield. Arrows continued to fly towards him, some deflecting off his shield, others flying harmlessly past his head.

The chariot turned and began gathering speed, the horses powering towards him, pulling the mass of wood. Anicetus threw himself to the side and rolled over his shield, and arrow deflected off his iron cuirass and flew over the top of the stadium. Standing, he spun quickly, trying to find the chariot again, the beating hooves and rumble of the chariot wheels reverberated around the arena, almost drowned out by the excited roar of the crowd. He felt a jolt as another arrow thudded into his shield. He spun again, following the chariot at it raced around the arena again.

The chariot turned again and charged towards him. Again he dived out of the way, arrows zipping all around him. Again and again the process repeated, the chariot circled round him, occasionally turning to charge, firing arrows at him all the time. The crowd cheered and roared with every turn, getting more and more excited with every near miss. The more he dodged and dived in his heavy armour and ungainly shield, the slower he became and the closer the razor sharp scythes came to cutting his back to ribbons, or slicing his limbs off, the closer the arrows came to piercing his armour and finding his flesh. The crowd, sensing his exhaustion, rose in anticipation. Some bayed for his blood, others encouraged him, but all Anicetus heard was a load roar drowning out the rumble of the chariot.

On the next turn the chariot thundered straight for him again, but this time Anitecus sprinted as fast as the fatigue and heavy armour would allow him at the charging platform of death. The crowd fell silent as the gladiator charged at the huge and deadly chariot. With the straining mass of muscles, bone and wood almost upon him, he dived forward and to the right, jamming the wicker bound shield into the spinning blade and used the leverage to swing round to the back of the chariot. Ignoring the pain that ripped his arm apart, he reversed his sword and plunged it between the neck and collar bone of the archer, putting it deep into his rib cage, puncturing his heart, ensuring that Hades would take him.

His momentum flung him off the back of the chariot and onto the sandy floor, carrying the dead body of the archer with him. There was a rattle as the bow skittered to the floor a few meters away from Aniticus. As he tried to pick himself up, pain stabbed up his left arm. He saw blood soaking the sand and knew it was his. He could feel that his hard had been ripped to shreds by the scythes of the chariot. He shoved the pain to the back of his mind and focused on the chariot again.

It wheeled round, heading towards him. Anicetus dived out of the way, crying at the pain that jolted up his arm as he landed on it. He gritted his teeth and ignored it. Fumbling on the ground, his hand clasped the shaft of the bow that he had landed on. The pain burned in his arm and he lifted the bow and grabbed an arrow from the floor. Putting it to the bow, he lifted his eyes to the chariot. Blood, sand and sweat made his vision blur, but he blinked them away, ignoring the way his eyes stung like a thousand bees were all stinging his eyeballs at once.

The chariot wheeled round again, charging him, looking to finish off the injured warrior who was crouching in the sand. He pulled the bowstring back to his cheek, blocked out the noise of the crowd, blocked out the pain in his arm, blocked out all distractions. He had to be able to shoot under any pressure; this was that pressure. In his mind there was only him and the target. He took a deep breath and loosed, the arrow flew true, the horse screamed as the arrow pierced its windpipe, its legs fell from beneath it and the whole chariot exploded into a thousand pieces of wood and metal. The charioteer was hurled forward in the destructive collision of forces and landed head first in the sand a foot in front of Anitecus. The force of the impact snapped his neck. Splinters flew like arrows towards Anitecus, who only just brought his shield up in time to protect himself, he screamed in pain as they thudded into the open wound in his arm.

Trying to ignore the agonising pain, Anitecus stood and walked to the centre of the arena, now half bathed in light, half darkened by shadow. He stood on the edge of that shadow. The crowed roared in adoration. He lifted his sword in appreciation and let out his own roar. The pain in his arm was nothing, the stinging in his eyes didn’t matter, the exhaustion in his legs was a sign that he was alive.

Anitecus’ shadow fell so that it looked as though a giant warrior stood on the top of the arena, watching the games. He stood on the cusp between light and dark, between day and night, between life and death. He decided who would live and die in the arena; he was the god of battle. He was Ares.

Friday, 10 June 2011

The Wii U and the future of electronic devices

This week LA has been alive with nerds as thousands of gamers, games journalists and developers flocked to the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). E3 is traditionally the place where Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo show off new consoles or new accessories to consoles. Two years ago Microsoft and Sony both announced their answers to the Nintendo Wii, for example. This year, yet again ahead of the pack, Nintendo announced its successor to the Wii, the Wii U, featuring a completely new type of controller.

The controller takes its cue from the Nintendo DS by having a touch screen as well as conventional buttons. The controller also has a front facing camera. Not only will the touch screen be able to interact with the console on the TV screen, but with a press of a button, the screen will be able act just like a TV screen, turning the controller into a handheld console, although with none of the manoeuvrability, as contact with the actual console needs to be maintained.

Nintendo has managed, yet again, to stay ahead of the curve and way ahead of its rivals, who are still floundering with motion control (which seems to have been abandoned by Nintendo, thankfully) and 3D, which also seems to be something of a blind alley. Time will tell whether the Wii U will be more indicative of the future of gaming, as opposed to a temporary distraction, as motion control seems to have been.

The Wii U certainly opens the way for some interesting gameplay. Touch screen has done wonders for the hand-held market, initially for the Nintendo DS, but more recently for the Smart Phone and Tablet market. I have little doubt that the future of hand-held games lies firmly in the touch screen world, and probably as part of a single, portable device that also works as a phone and an MP3 player. However this possibility has not been explored much in terms of larger devices, such as the Wii U. Touch screen should offer the player more versatility in what they can control with a lot more simplicity than a PC affords. Until now, the appeal of the standard controller has been simplicity and economy of buttons at the expense of versatility. The PC, meanwhile, has afforded this versatility, but at the expense of simplicity. A touch screen allows a wealth of versatility, without the complexity of a keyboard and mouse. This opens up certain markets to consoles, which have otherwise been largely the domain of the PC gamer.

Strategy games suddenly become possible, where before a strategy game built for a console was always going to come under huge strain from the limits of the controller. Now a whole new range of possibilities are alive in this genre. Likewise MMORPGs have generally been the reserve of the PC, but can now begin to emerge into the console market.

The Wii U has all kinds of potential with regard to the interface of the game onscreen. If much of the information currently held in the corners of the game screen could be moved to the controller, the game would look much more immersive. The clutter of obstructive interfaces could be dramatically reduced.

The touch screen itself provides all kinds of interesting gameplay mechanics, many of which were explored in the DS. The ability to literally draw on the screen with a stylus creates all kinds of interesting potential, from simple puzzle games to much more complex strategic or adventure games. This would essentially provide much of the functionality of a mouse.

Here is where the problems also emerge with the Wii U. Juggling two screens, a stylus and a multitude of buttons may well prove pretty challenging for the average gamer. Even with the Nindendo DS, this proved a challenge, but then the two screens were right next to each other. Having one screen at your hands and one on the TV screen across the room is going to make it hard to look at both at the same time, unless you hold your hands up so that both screens are next to each other, which creates problems of it’s own. Of course this won’t be an issue if you can work the stylus with the touch screen based on watching the main screen. This will require one-to-one interaction between the two screens. Whether or not that kind of functionality will exist remains to be seen.

This issue is most obvious with regards to the placing of stats and other information, usually put in the interface, on the touch screen. The benefits of clearing the screen of clutter may be outweighed by the problems of having to look at your hands to work out how much health or ammo you have left. That information is put in the interface for a reason – so it is easy to refer to it in game without distracting yourself.

In terms of gameplay, the main purpose of a controller is to convey information from the player to the game as easily and as simply as possible. The less the player has to think about what he is doing, the better. If the thought process moves beyond ‘what button to press?’ to simply ‘what action to take?’, making the corresponding button pressing automatic, then immersion has been achieved. A well controlled game does this perfectly well with what we have. I’m sure everyone who plays games seriously has achieved the almost Zen experience of simply pressing buttons automatically, controlling the on-screen character without actually thinking about the mechanics of it. It’s a simple enough experience to have, even with unsophisticated games like Tetris.

This is where the Wii, and were motion control in general, has failed. The controller felt like a barrier to gameplay; it always felt like you were having to actively control the game, rather than doing it automatically. The interaction wasn’t one-to-one, the control never really became instinctive.

I hope that the Wii U’s controller can do what motion control never did; become as natural and instinctive to use as conventional controllers. Hopefully players will be able to use the stylus on the hand-held screen while looking at the TV screen. If that does happen, if the new controller becomes a gateway to more interesting gameplay, rather than a functionality barrier to existing gameplay, then touch screens corresponding to larger screens may well be the future of gaming.

Even if it’s not, I think some really interesting innovation will come about because of the Wii U. I’m sure, even now, developers are busy plotting new and wonderful ways to exploit this technology. If done right, the Wii U could make for some fascinating gameplay developments and some really interesting games.

The other interesting thing that the Wii U represents is another step in the direction of the living room entertainment singularity. Consoles have been able to access the internet and play DVDs for a while now, but the Wii U comes with a camera that allows for video chatting, much like FaceTime for the Iphone. Now, we can watch movies, play games, makes video calls and access the internet, all with one device. The problem with the latter is that nothing beats a keyboard for typing, so the computer is not absolute yet. However, remote keyboards are not hard to come by, indeed I could see an Ipad app being developed that makes your Ipad into a remote keyboard for your Mac. The tablet you keep in your living room could easily double as a keyboard for your console.

For a while, now, we have been approaching two different singularities. I alluded to the hand-held singularity before. The other is the living room singularity; a device that will play games, access the internet, play movies, record live TV, play music, word process; essentially all the functionality of a PC, a games console and a DVD player. The new controller is simple indicative of the remote aspect moving another step in that direction. A game controller can already act as a TV remote, now it is even starting to perform the complex roles of a mouse or laptop touch pad.

It won’t happen immediately, or even in a few years, but gradually, step by step, both these singularities will happen. The effect that will have on other technology is debatable, but I think the days of the desktop PC are numbered. More and more power is being crammed into laptops these days and consoles are rapidly catching up with the computer in terms of power and versatility.

One day, you will need one hand-held device, one laptop, one box hooked up to the television and possibly a tablet that doubles as a keyboard and a controller, to do everything you want, wherever you want.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Entering the Arena

This is a bit of a character sketch for a gladiator who I first envisioned a number of years ago. I really like the character and would love to return to him at some point. He's very fun to write. I have some other stuff I've written about him that I might touch up and put up here.

Anicetus sat on the bench, head in hands; he could hear the roar of the crowd above him, the never-ending buzz, rising and falling as the duel raged. It drowned out all noise as he sat, waiting for his turn to enter that theatre of death. He had sat all afternoon as, one by one, the men and women he had trained with for six years walked out of the door and the end of the long, undecorated and ill-lit room and up the ramp to dance with death for the first time. He did not know how many had lived and how many had died in that fierce pit in which one either gained fame and adoration, or a passage down to the dead. He was the last. The last battle of the afternoon, the climax of the day’s bloody entertainment would be his to fight.
He was last because he was the best. Everyone in the school knew that he was the greatest fighter to do battle today. His strength, speed and skill were unmatched. He was expected to become a gladiatorial legend, one of the greatest fighters ever to walk the sands of the arena, hallowed in blood. Today was the day that he would graduate from the sadistic school that he had hated and grown to love since the age of twelve. He had been trained and prepared for the arena and today was the day that he entered it and became a gladiator; became a man in the eyes of the trainers he hated and respected. It did not matter who he fought, so long has he spilled the blood of another in the sand he would complete his education. He would be baptized in the blood of another, or another would be baptized in his blood.
His heart was pumping; he could feel his body shaking. He breathed deep as fear and excitement battled for dominance. He stared at the dull, stone wall of his cell, anticipation made the battle raging above him last forever. The cries of the crowed still filled his ears. He fingered the coarse horsehair plume on the large iron helmet that sat next to him. Beside it was a short sword, flat and straight along one edge, but undulating along the razor sharp edge. It had been laboriously sharpened until it could cut through flesh and slice through armour. Leaning on the bench beside him was a large shield, made of interwoven wicker and covered with hard leather.
 An extra large cheer went up above him as another warrior fell in battle. His heart beat doubled; he knew he was the next to enter the dance. He rose to his full height and drew in a deep breath. Bending, he grabbed the leather belt buckle, on which his sword was sheathed, and fastened it around his waist. He donned his all encompassing helmet, the great iron mass covered his ears and cheeks, stretching down to protect his neck. The helmet caused illusions in his hearing, creating a sound much like that of the sea washing up on the shore, reminding him of home. He could no longer hear the crowd. He picked up the large shield, slung it over his shoulder and put his arms through the loops in the middle.
He walked slowly to the end of the room, his heavy breathing extenuated by the confining helmet. The sound of the sea battled with the roar of the crowd. He turned and looked up the ramp at the sun beating down at him. He had not seen the sun all afternoon. He paused, blinked a couple of times, and started walking slowly up the ramp, emerging from the underworld beneath the Area onto the living sand of the theatre in which he would give his first performance, and maybe his last. He walked into light and life and the possibility of glory, or the end of life and a return to that gloomy underworld for all eternity.
The crowd drowned out the sound of the sea now that he was out into the open. The cheer as the newest piece of fresh meat emerged from below was deafening even from within the iron cage of the helmet. He looked around the stands; the crowd was enormous, the entire stadium was full, they were all cheering and chanting and screaming. Hungry wolves, waiting to see blood spilled for the last time in the day. Drunk on the blood they had already seen and the beer that had flowed like water all day. The sun ducked behind the stand as he walked across the arena and he was bathed in the darkness of the shadows. The sand itself was awash with blood from the day’s entertainment. The sand soaked it up and thirsted for more.
The arena was empty but for a lone giant, standing in the middle of the sea of sand. He stood, bathed as Anicetus was, in shadow. He was naked from the waste up and wore no helmet; his greasy blond hair framed an ugly face. In his enormous hands he held a huge hammer, blunt and dangerous in the hands of one so huge.
The two stared at each other; cold blue eyes met cold blue eyes, unblinking and unemotional. They measured each other up, two lions readying to fight, challenging the other to make a move. The crowd screamed and bayed for blood, but the two warriors merely stood and stared at each other, unmoved. Sweat trickled down Anicetus’ face. Despite the fact that they stood in the shade the arena was still oven-like. All day the sun had beaten down and the sand was hot under his feet.
A steward approached them and explained the rules that they already knew. This was one of those battles where there were no rules; the winner would take the glory, the loser would die. The steward called for them to begin and raced from the arena. Anitecus ripped his sword from his hip and brought his shield up. The crowd rose in anticipation. He rose onto the balls of his feet and his muscled tensed. He watched his opponent over the rounded shoulder of his shield, his sword rested alongside its re-curved edge. His opponent did not change his stance, nor did he avert his gaze.
They circled one another, waiting for an opportunity to strike. The noise of the crown only grew more intense. He shut it from his mind and focused on his opponent, who watched him intently, dragging the hammer behind him, creating a circle in the sand around the two fighters. Sweat continued to trickle down his face and down his arms. He could see sweat covering his opponent’s face too.
Suddenly the giant charged at him, hefting the hammer and readying himself for a swing. Anitecus charged his opponent and raised his shield to block the hammer blow. At the last second his opponent shifted his swing, deftly handling the huge weapon. Anicetus only just managed to bring his shield down to block the blow, but the power of it sent him hurtling through the air.
Anitecus rolled as he hit the floor and brought his shield up just in time to deflect the next powerful hammer blow. This time it caught him full on in the centre of the shield. His vision exploded and he screamed in pain as the bones in his arm shattered. He cried in pain and flecks of fiery white pain danced in his eyes. He recovered he composure in time to roll away from the next blow, but pain shot up his arm and stunned him as he rolled onto the broken arm.
Scrambling to his feet, he readied to defend the next onslaught. Exhaustion and pain addled him and sweat made his eyes sting. Rage filled the giant’s eyes as he stomped towards him, preparing for another attack. He lifted the hammer up high and swung down with almighty power. Anitecus danced backwards then leaped up, onto the back of his opponent’s weapon which was half buried in the sand and used if for leverage. He reversed his sword in midair and plunged it down in-between the shoulder and collarbone to the left of the giant’s neck. The keen blade sliced down into the fleshy space inside the ribcage and pierced the man’s heart. The crowd erupted over the sound of the sea in his ears.
Anitecus landed in the sand behind the falling giant, who had gone to his knees, the life draining from him. With one step he cleared the small gulf between them and retrieved the sword still embedded in his heart. Blood fountained out of the wound, soaking his face with the blood of his dying opponent. The giant fell face down in the sand, all life gone from him; his lifeblood spilled onto the sand. It soaked into the sand as though the area were consuming it, gorging on the blood.
Anitecus smiled. Looking around at the cheering crowds he could no longer hear the sea in his ear. He unbuckled his helmet and threw it into the sand. For the first time he heard the crowd at full volume. It was deafening. He raised his sword into the air and forgot the pain in his shield arm. His roar was drowned out by the crowd as they acknowledged their new hero. He had killed for the first time; he had graduated. He had entered the arena; he had become a gladiator.