Monday, 25 February 2008

Scientology Comes to Cambridge

It seemed fairly innocuous at first sight. A fairly hip band playing jive-style music in Market Square. Appealing, even - I felt a mild urge to join in with the scattering of uninhibited types jiving away in front of the stage. Then my ever-observant companion pointed out the sign above the stage. "Sponsored by the Church of Scientology." There were even people handing out leaflets.

I don't know if I was just being hopelessly naive, but I'd assumed these utter wackos/evil conspirators/alienz in your brainz just didn't exist in Britain. Not a particularly rational assumption, since I know they've popped up elsewhere in Europe, rather than being confined to the crackpot fringe of the States. Call it a hopeful one. And one that has sadly been quashed. By a jive band. Figures.

In other news, I've just wiped this laptop and started from factory settings in a last, desperate attempt to get it to play games without slowing to a crawl every few minutes. It used to, before a few months ago. Nothing else has seemed to help, so I've employed drastic measures and am living in hope.

Saturday, 23 February 2008


I've been audiosurfing. Nothing I can say about it that hasn't been written elsewhere. But I love it. Muchly. My top tip is Michael Nyman's "The Piano Concerto" (as in The Piano the film, not a concerto for piano - except it is), which translates into a wonderful ride. A lot of REM seems to work pretty well too.


Monday, 18 February 2008


There are several reasons why I haven't posted in a week or so. My girlfriend's been visiting. I've had an essay to do. I went bowling (and lost, miserably). All pale in comparison to my discovery of Football Manager.

Reams have been written on the addictive qualities of said game (and its Champ Man predecessors before the SI split). But I always just assumed it was because of the thrill of running your particular team, trying to outdo the real-life manager whose actions you continuously bemoan. And I was never that into football, so I gave it a miss.

Having awoken over the last year or so to the joys of the beautiful game (due in no small part to the recent upswing in Scotland's international fortunes) I figured it was about time I gave it a try. Not wanting to take on the mantle of Hibs manager without knowing what I was doing, I figured I'd get some experience with Peterhead, a lowly side in the Scottish second division, chosen entirely at random.

4 hours later, I pretty much had to be dragged away. We hadn't won a single match, out of about 10. We'd scored approximately 3 goals, and conceded what seemed like hundreds. And it's a testament to good game design that I really cared. And I wanted to improve. I was desperately swapping formations around, begging the board for more transfer money, haranguing my miserable strikers. It's almost invariably necessary in games to include a reasonable possibility of the player failing at tasks (otherwise there's no real success). And it's a real design challenge to prevent that being frustrating. Or at least to make it frustrating in the right way, so the player is left raring to try something else, to adapt and improve. Football Manager does it perfectly.

The next day, of course, I started again with Aston Villa. Challenge is all very well, but it's nice to have some chance.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008


Bollocks. I've done it again.

There's a reason I don't go into Fopp. Pretty much the same reason I try not to go into bookshops too often. But I always manage to convince myself that I'll do better this time. I'll exert some self-control. Grow up a bit.

No chance.

I went this afternoon with a clear goal. I was focused. Having discovered The Mountain Goats this morning, through the wonders of the interweb (thank you, John Walker), I decided, after careful consideration - not on an impulsive whim - that it would be worth buying one of their albums. One.

It all went wrong when Fopp, for the first time that I can remember, failed me. They didn't have a single Mountain Goats CD. Fine. Turn round, head for the door. Past a Cat Power album with a '£5' sticker. And suddenly I'm at the counter, handing over my card, acquiring not only this bargain, but the new (full-price) Cat Power one it was sitting next to. I'm the victim of a very simple, very straightforward marketing trick.

That would still have been fine (what's a couple of albums once in a while?), except for the fact that I was still focused. At no point had I given up on acquiring the Mountain Goats album. So I went straight home and bought it on itunes. And then bought another one.

It's all worth it, of course - the new Cat Power has an excellent version of Nick Cave's 'Breathless', and the Mountain Goats stuff is just wonderful. But my bank account hates me.

Juno + Cloverfield

Two absolutely excellent films this weekend. Juno is easily the better of the pair, despite the lack of comparability (it's a quirky teen-pregnancy comedy, whereas Cloverfield is pretty much the lovechild of the Blair Witch and Godzilla). It takes an unremarkable setup ('teenage girl gets pregnant, goes for adoption instead of abortion' is pretty much it), and makes it shine. This is largely down to the characters - Juno's father and stepmother, her best friend and especially the baby's father (a wonderfully understated turn from Michael Cera) are all wonderfully, lovably quirky without a hint of pretension. The real sell, though, is Juno herself. The thing about creating a self-possessed, down-to-earth 16 year old who isn't going to let misfortune get the best of her is that it's bloody hard to actually make her likable. Ellen Page pulls it off with style.

There's much more I could say, about the quickfire, occasionally bizarre dialogue (I'm dying to know if 'honest to blog' is a real expression somewhere, or just a masterpiece of invention), the way it embarrasses you slightly by playing with your expectations about the adoptive parents, the brilliant, touching soundtrack ... but I think you get the gist. Just go see it.


Cloverfield kind of got lost there. It's not brilliant in the same, slightly transcendent way, of course. But it is excellent fun and consistently entertaining. Also worth a punt.

Thursday, 7 February 2008


Ballroom dancing is surprisingly enjoyable. I attended my second class this evening, having gone along, pretty much on a whim, last week. And it's a blast. For one thing, it's not as dauntingly challenging as you might expect. That's not to say it's easy - it ain't, and I've been spending a fair amount of time tripping over my own feet or heading off in the wrong direction - but the basic movements the dances are built around don't require any great feats of dexterity. I'm not naturally talented at picking up movement patterns (my one, abortive attempt at rowing is testament to that) but even I gave a reasonable account of myself - my waltz is halfway decent, though my jive is unfortunately haphazard. And the feeling of satisfaction when you get it right is wonderful. It looks cool, it feels smooth, and you end up standing there with a silly grin on your face. Or at least I do. Good stuff.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Deja Vu

I've done this a million times.

The thought hits me as I step smartly round a tombstone and click on a Nazi's head, ducking quickly back again as a hail of bullets clatter against the stone in front of me. I'm playing Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (yes, I know it's 5 years old - I have a rather incompetent laptop to contend with). And what I'm doing is clicking on graphical representations of little men. Well, what I'm actually doing at this point is staring at the featureless grey expanse that's supposed to be a tombstone with a puzzled frown on my face, but you know what I mean. And I've spent hours of my life doing this.

Everyone knows that if you keep on repeating the same word long enough, you start to lose your grasp on its meaning, till it becomes an odd, featureless sound. That's what this was like. Suddenly, I wasn't battling through a French graveyard, bravely taking on hordes of murderous foes. I was just moving a mouse cursor around and clicking on things (ok, so technically the cursor stays still in the centre of the screen and you move the rest around, but that's how it feels). At that moment, I couldn't for the life of me articulate why I was doing it.

The feeling passed and I successfully cleared out the church, but it left me with a lingering feeling that what I spend a fair bit of my time doing is actually a pretty weird thing. I can reel off reasons why games are worth playing, and I'll happily defend the Half-Lifes, Civilizations, and Marios of this world as excellent ways to spend your time, but I can't quite shake the impression that all I'm doing is making a handful of meaningless, repetitive movements. It's decidedly odd.