Sunday, 31 July 2011


No blog this week because I'm in Spain and you can think again if you think I'm going to blog while in holiday. I could fill this space with some filler, but frankly I don't think you're worth the effort. Also I have no filler and I cab't be bothered to write some.

I'll be back next week with something real. Until then, enjoy not reading my blog for a week!

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Bigger Is Not Better

This week I’ve been playing a lot of video games. I have some free time at the moment (because I don’t have a job) and the steam summer sale ended not long ago, so I have a few new games to play around with. The games I’ve been playing are Portal 2 and Assassin’s Creed 2. Both sequels to games on my top ten list, and both a whole ton of fun in their own right. I’d like to compare both games to the game which they follow, and look at the upcoming sequel to Batman: Arkham Asylum, Arkham City which is coming out very soon.

The thing I want to pick out about each of these three sequels is that they are all significantly longer than their originals. Portal 1 was only about three hours long, while Assassin’s Creed 1 and Arkham Asylum were about ten hours each. By contrast, Portal 2 is about six hours long and Assassin’s Creed 2 is fifteen hours and counting. From what I hear, Arkham City will be significantly longer than Arkham Asylum. I suspect that Assassin’s Creed 2 and Arkham City will be about twenty hours each, so let’s assume that a doubling of play time roughly a theme.

I don’t know whether other sequels fit this pattern, but it makes sense. Games cost money to make, the longer the game, the more money it takes, so an original game being given a relatively small budget by a studio because anything original is bound to be a bit of a gamble makes sense. With a relatively small budget, you can only make a relatively small game. If the game is a success, the sequel (and there will always be a sequel) is given a much bigger budget, so a much longer, more ambitious game is made.

The most startling example of this is Portal. Portal 1 was originally a very small project created by a team within Valve. It was thrown into the Orange Box along with Team Fortress 2 because Valve were a bit embarrassed that Half Life 2: Episode 2 took so bloody long. On the other hand, Portal 2 was a full scale project with the whole of Valve’s production team and budget behind it. It’s a full scale game, rather than just a little throwaway, experimental, indie game.

The reason for this, from Valve’s point of view, is very simple, they can make a hell of a lot of money selling Portal 2 as a game in its own right for the same price as any other game. Portal 1 was hugely successful and popular, so a sequel was always going to sell well. The reason behind making Assassin’s Creed 2 and Arkham City much longer is not so obvious. The thing that springs to mind immediately is that they think a longer game is going to be better. They can simply fit more stuff into a longer game and increase the variety of the gameplay experience. They can write a more interesting and complex plot, fully flesh out the characters and the setting. Most importantly though, you get players playing for longer, so they are going to be telling their friends about how much fun they’re having for longer, meaning that their friends are more likely to go and buy it as well.

Only the last of those is true. A longer game does not, by any stretch of the imagination, make for a better game. Just as a thousand page novel is not better than a three hundred page novel by virtue of being longer. It is perfectly possibly to tell a good story in a hundred pages, or three hours of play time, or an hour of screen time. There’s nothing wrong with telling one in a thousand pages, or twenty hours, or two and a half, but length bring about its own problems.

I’m currently re-reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time Series and thoroughly enjoying it, but as I make my way through the 9th book with no plot resolution in sight, it has being increasingly obvious that Jordan simple has too many characters and too much plot. It takes an incredibly skilful writer to deal with that much stuff happening without getting bogged down. Pacing gets harder and harder the longer and more complex your plot is.

The same is true for all mediums. A video game is just as likely, if not more so, to get bogged down in the detail when the plot starts stretching for twenty hours. Assassin’s Creed 2, thus far, has managed to get itself bogged down, partly by doing away with the very structured approach taken by Assassin’s Creed 1, and partly by simply having too complex a plot. You lose sight of the overall motivations of the characters, or those motivations simply stop meaning anything given the context of the action. This is partly down to poor writing, but the length of the game does not help at all.  I fear that the same might happen with Arkham City.

Of course, story is not as important as gameplay to most developers and most gamers. A longer game certainly meant that more gameplay can be put into the game, but then it also increases the potential for boredom. There are only so many time that one can stab an unsuspecting soldier in the back, or tie him upside-down from a gargoyle before it gets boring. Of course, after a few weeks or months break, it gets interesting again, but by that stage it’s easy to have forgotten why you were ever doing it.

Of course, a good sequel will always involve new gameplay aspects. Assassin’s Creed 2 has almost Prince of Persia type platforming sections (with all the same engine issues, but just as much fun anyway) and some really interesting vehicle sections. The latter are really well integrated into the story, whereas the former is not, so it feels a little bit pointless. That is actually indicative of Assassin’s Creed 2; there are lots of things to do above and beyond the plot, which makes it very easy to get lost and loose track of where you are in the plot. It also makes the game feel very flabby. The first game was very tight, because all the different sections of the game were tied (if a little tangentially) to the plot, whereas here, all the assassination submissions, platforming sections, rooftop races and punch ups having nothing to do with the task at hand, so they feel like they have been tacked on. This all helps to bog down an already convoluted plot, putting the pacing even further off.

I hope this is not what will happen with Arkham City, but I get the feeling that is will. From the little Rocksteady have told us, there will be plenty going on to distract from the main plotline. That sounds great, but the thing that really keeps players (or this player, anyway) playing a game is the story. I play games to drive the story forward and I find it very easy to get bored if my actions don’t seem to be doing that. The problem is that I also tend to do everything in games because I assume it’s all got something to do with the plot, so games which have loads of stuff going on above and beyond what is required for the plot tend to feel very flabby and unfocused to me. It’s the issue I have with RPGs a lot of the time.

I understand that I’m in the minority in that, but the point still stands; longer time does not necessarily make for better gameplay. New stuff has to be integrated into the plot, otherwise it feels tacked on, and more time simply means more time to get bored. After fifteen hours of Assassin’s Creed 2, I’m bored with stabbing people. I’m sure it will become interesting again in a few weeks or so, but for now I’m bored. I fear I will become equally bored after fifteen hours of Arkham City when it comes out.

Add to that the fact that a longer story is by no means a better one and you have a pretty decent argument against story driven games being longer than ten hours. In fact I think ten hours works really well for a game. It’s more than enough time to tell a really good story with interesting characters, Assassin’s Creed, Bioshock, Arkham Asylum, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and Psychonauts all show us, and funnily enough all of those gamed are on that top ten list I mentioned earlier. It’s not that Assassin’s Creed 2 is a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, neither is Portal 2, it’s just that they’re not as tight or neat as the originals. They’re almost trying too hard to be bigger and better than their predecessors, while forgetting that bigger does not, necessarily, mean better. In fact, bigger is actually an awful lot harder to pull off. I suppose the perfect example of this would be the big RPGs like Mass Effect and Fallout 3, which are consistently flabby and overburdened.

Of course, I am in the minority. Most people, it would seem, are happy to play games simply for the sake of playing them. I suppose I am too when it comes to the Total War franchise and other strategy games. Nevertheless, I would like to see more games driven by their story, constructed around their story and with the story at the heart, not the gameplay. I firmly believe that games are a fantastic storytelling medium that needs to be exploited more. And that can and should be done by games that need not ever exceed ten hours of gameplay, because that just makes it harder for everyone involved.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

News of the Screwed

Last weekend the long running British Newspaper, the News of the World (NoW), printed its last paper. I’m tempted to follow that with ‘and nothing of value was lost’ but that would be a little unfair. NoW did play its part in revealing various scandals and pieces of corruption, most notably of late, the spot fixing scandal that hit cricket nearly 12 months ago. However, NoW have always represented, in my mind, the worst kind of journalism; the kind of sensationalist, reactionary, unprincipled do-anything-for-a-story journalism that gives the trade such a bad name. Nothing displays this better than the reality which has become apparent over the last few weeks.

For those that don’t know, it has been revealed that NoW have been hacking into the phones of various celebrities, politicians and sports stars, on the hunt for exclusive stories, for a number of years. Obviously this is completely immoral, as it violates the privacy of the individuals being hacked. Most controversially, NoW allegedly hacked into the phones of murdered teenager Milly Dowler and the parents of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, as well as relatives of dead soldiers and 7/7 victims, which shows gross insensitivity, as well as a disregard for people’s privacy.

The upshot of all of this has been the closing of NoW and the resignation of several key figures in the scandal from New International (the owners of NoW), sever pressure on News Corporation (of which News International is a subsidiary) owner, Rupert Murdoch, to clean up his act. He has since released an apology, which is something, I suppose. The Prime Minister has announced a police investigation into both the phone hacking and into newspaper ethics in general.

This scandal is the tip of an iceberg, an iceberg that has also been something of an elephant in the room for a while (the tip of the elephant? Ok, enough with the clichés). Almost all newspapers, certainly all tabloid newspapers are guilty of this sort of misconduct. Celebrities are constantly and consistently harried, spied on, stalked and photographed by unscrupulous journalists on the lookout for a story. There’s little concern for the sheer unpleasantness of all of that unwanted attention for the celebrity in question, or the privacy of said celebrity. Although I’m not much of a fan of many celebrities who are famous for very little apparent reason, I do at least respect them as human being, rather than story generating devices for desperate journalists.

While the legality of this is questionable, it is extremely disturbing. The principles upon which the free press were founded centre of providing the public with a source of news that does not come from the government and so is able to offer a frank and (hopefully) truthful account of what is going on in the world, without any fear of it simply being government propaganda. Of course that does not prevent it from being someone else’s propaganda, but then what isn’t? This is, of course, a good thing. One of the cornerstones of a democratic and just state is the free press, because it provides voices for people outside the government. All through the 19th and 20th centuries, the free press has had an incredible influence on politics, and domestic and international affairs. It keeps the public informed and is a constant regulatory force on the government. However, the press is also incredibly powerful in its own right. After all, it is not the public who write the newspapers, it is the journalists, and what they say is largely dictated by the editor-in-chief. Newspapers don’t just inform opinion, they shape it as well. The editor of a major newspaper has a great deal of power.

So when we have newspapers who indulge in illegal and immoral invasions of privacy, newspapers that’s principles seem to lie on ever-shifting foundation, newspapers that always try to find the most outraged or outrageous positions on everything, no matter how much that might contradict last weeks sensationalism, we have reactionary journalism that helps to shape a reactionary public. NoW was such a paper and one can only hope that the unearthing of this scandal will help to show people that this sort of journalism is immoral and should have no place in a our media.

Of course, the problem is that people still buy it. NoW sold millions of copies a week, as do all the other tabloids. Tabloid newspapers far outsell traditional broadsheets. We can criticise unscrupulous journalists and unprincipled editors all we want (and I will continue to, because they hold some of the blame), but, as with anything in the free market, the consumers rule. If celebrity scandals and reactionary sensationalism sells, it will continue to be written.

There is, however, something that can be done by law makers. Yes, you are reading this, I am arguing in favour of regulation. Invasion of privacy is a violation of rights. Spying on people, hacking phones, photographing people in their private property and following people should be illegal and journalists who hound celebrities should be punished under the law. This wont stop journalists trying for exclusive news stories, but the courts need to show that they have back bone and are willing to stand up for people’s privacy and stop journalist from acting as they do. If this means fewer exclusive scoops on the private lives of our favourite celebrities, then that’s probably a plus. You might argue that this is a violation of the free press, but that is freedom to write what you want, not to do what you want when those actions are at odds with the rule of law. Newspapers might find themselves making less money, but that might encourage them to find better way of selling papers, like reporting on real news,

Newspapers themselves can and should act as their own regulator. Journalists have a bad reputation that can’t be good for the industry at all. By regulating themselves, papers might actually be able to get themselves a better reputation and hence lure some of the talent that is leaking away to online journalism back to the printed word. Then again I can’t see newspapers having the forethought to do that, especially if it means losing some revenue in the short term. It’s probably too much to ask for journalist and editor to allow principles to get in the way of selling copies, certainly for enough of them to do that to actually make any difference.

Even more unlikely is the possibility that the public might realise that, not only is news about celebrities thoroughly uninteresting, but the way in which that news is acquired is immoral, and refusing to buy tabloid newspapers any more, deciding instead to read better sources of news and thus becoming better informed. Pigs might fly. We can but hope that this scandal might have revealed just what lengths some journalists will go to in order to get news and put some people off, but I doubt it will make much of a dent in sales figures.

This scandal most certainly will not bring about a brave new world of journalistic and editorial standards. Very little will really change because journalists, editor, politicians and regulators are all deeply entrenched in an unhealthy, dependant relationship that profits all of them so long as the public doesn’t understand just how deep it all goes. When one slips up, they all look bad, there are red faces, apologies, a few meaningless changes of boarder and in a few months everything is back to normal. Some small changes for the better might come from this, but don’t expect much of a revolution from the old media.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

5 mini-reviews from a long-haul flight

You may remember that, about a year ago, I wrote a collection of mini-reviews of the movies I watch on my long-haul flight to Australia. Well, now my year is Aus is over, so I too another long-haul fight and watched more movies! This time there are only five of them, because I slept more this time around.

Sucker Punch

There are sections of this movie that are really cliché; a group of five Femme Fetale characters fight their way through a series of fairly well trodden fantasy and sci-fi scenarios, including a Medieval Japanese setting, a classic Epic Fantasy with dragons and orcs, a steam/cyber-punk WWII with zombies (yeah, seriously) and space opera. Sounds ridiculous, right? It does actually make sense in context, however. Sucker Punch is about the mental battles of young, mentally unstable girl who is sexually abused by one of the orderlies. Of course the she imagines herself and her friends as Femme Fetales, of course the setting her mind invents for her are fairly standard fantasy and sci-fi settings: she’s only a young girl who is slightly insane, there’s not likely to be a huge amount of subtlety or originality.

The sections that bind the bizarre action sequences together, themselves a fantasy where the main character is forced into a brothel and attempts to escape with her fellow prisoners, is really well done and holds the rather stranger parts of the plot together really well. Sucker Punch is a really well told story, set out in many ways like a video game and using the medium of film superbly to show what is happening, rather than telling it. There is almost no dialogue for the opening sequence, for example, as all is shown through the actions on screen. In addition, the soundtrack is absolutely incredible.

Sucker Punch is a fantastic film; dark depressing, with a very melancholy ending. It’s a fascinating study of the psychologically troubled and also really fun. Well worth seeing and possibly the best movie I review today.


I don’t usually get all that scared or disturbed by horror. Even Paranormal Activity didn’t set me on edge too badly, but after watching Insidious, I had to watch three episodes of the Simpsons to unfrey my nerves. Insidious does not do the standard horror trope of spattering the audience with gore and cheap frights. There are some things that jump out of the cupboard at us, but the real horror in Insidious is the subtle and the understated. It’s not quite as subtle as Paranormal Activity, but that is actually to its credit because it allows for some more visually interesting horror. There are some seriously creepy parts of this movie and it left me feeling really rather disturbed.

Horror, especially supernatural horror, is all about mystery. What we don’t know most certainly can hurt us and it terrifies us more when we don’t know what it is. Insidious falls down a little when it over-explains the phenomenon. It would have been creeper if there were no explanation, or at least a much less satisfactory explanation for the horror we are experiencing. Despite this, it leaves enough unexplained that there is some mystery towards the end and has enough mystery in the early part of the story that we are drawn in nicely. The very and in particular is extremely creepy, simply because we’re not told what happens after the end of the movie. Our imagination is left to run wild about what might happen. I hope any sequel will not follow directly from this story, because I actually don’t want to know what happens after the curtain closes.

If you like horror, especially subtle haunting horror (like Paranormal Activity), then you should probably check this one out, because it’s well worth seeing. Maybe switch off for the bit where they explain exact what is going on, because the movie is better without it.


I don’t usually review comedies because there’s never much to say. I really enjoyed Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead; the two other spoof films by Pegg and Frost, and find their style a lot better than the usual movie spoofs like Scary Movie and Epic Movie. They tend to be far less silly and a bit more subtle. That being said, I didn’t enjoy Paul as much as the others. Don’t get me wrong, it was pretty good, I enjoyed the humour and had some good laughs, but it didn’t seem to have as many memorable moments as the other two. I think the fact that it was set in America meant that it did not feel as quintessentially British as the other two movies. Both Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead play on some very English clichés, whereas Paul felt very much more American. It certainly aimed it’s satire in the direction of the deep south and the American intelligence agencies, which didn’t work quite as well as when Pegg and Frost aim their satire at their own country.

Pretty funny, entertaining, but not as good as Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead. Worth seeing, I suppose.

I am Number 4

Well I knew my run of quite a few films from long haul flights that were at least decent if not great was going to end eventually. This really was pretty terrible – a very standard set of characters, a predictable plot, and terrible bit of writing just at the end there. Very disappointing. As far as Sci-Fi goes, this was very unoriginal and used its tropes very unimaginatively.

Is noone in Hollywood sick to death of old teenagers arriving at a high school in which there is a hot, but unpopular girl, a nerd who gets bullied and some jocks who are popular despite being complete assholes, and befriending the underdogs before leading them on some weird mission in which they both display some unknown level of courage, while the jocks are either won over or given some unnecessary form of justice? There are literally hundreds of movies with that exact plot. Has noone thought to give that one a rest, or at least do something interesting with it? I’m also sick and tired of villains in speculative fiction being so blatantly characterised as evil, right down to their appearance. Surely the whole point of speculative fiction is that it raises questions and ambiguity, rather than making things so appallingly obvious that we are not forced to speculate at all.

I am Number 4 is, I am afraid to say, mostly a waste of your time. It’s entertaining enough for an hour or two, but it’s nothing special, nothing interesting, and nothing new.


I’d actually heard mostly good things about Tron, unfortunately these people clearly lied to me, or I got the wrong end of the stick. Or maybe they don’t realise I don’t give a flying fuck about visuals unless the story is actually any good. In Tron the story was pretty woeful and the writing was atrociously sloppy. It failed miserably to establish what on earth was going on and to establish why we should care, either about the characters or anything else. The pacing was really terrible, to the point where I was drifting off at the point where the plot should have been reaching climax, because it had actually slowed down after the rather excessively speedy start.

Ok, fine, it looked great. I mean really, really great. The kind of visuals that look good now and will still look good in 20 years, when technology has far surpassed what it is now. The sci-fi world in which most of the story took place looked fantastic and the action sequences were done superbly. It’s just a shame that there was nothing behind the visuals to actually make any of it matter or make sense.

Watch it if you like giving your eyes a treat, but switch off the brain, because you don’t even want to try to follow the plot.

And there you have it, not as entertaining a flight as last time, but not half bad.