Wednesday, 10 April 2013

First Guardian Piece: Running and Nerds

I'm pretty pleased to say that my first piece for The Guardian is now live and doing the social media rounds. It comes complete with an interesting choice of picture that I can't decide whether I'd like to claim credit for. But I can't, so hey-ho. Here's a slice from the middle:
There are a couple of ways you can slice this seemingly odd collision of running and nerd culture. One is that if two million or so people in the UK run, then presumably some of them are going to be a bit nerdy. I don't have hard statistical evidence with which to carve up the demographics, but if something is popular, then there's no reason it can't be popular with the geekier cross-sections of our society. But I've heard that football is pretty popular too, and experience tells me that the number of regular, active footballers in my geekier circles is comparatively minuscule.
The rest is, of course, through the link.  

Monday, 18 March 2013

Review: LEGO City Undercover

You'd be forgiven for expecting less of LEGO City Undercover than it delivers. Or, I'd forgive you, anyway. I was expecting something pleasant and forgettable, but Traveller's Tales has gone a fair way beyond 'pleasant and forgettable' and into the territory of 'meaty and impressive'.
The game stars Chase McCain, a cop returning to LEGO City after leaving under a dark cloud. Chase's former foe, Rex Fury, is on the loose and causing mayhem and LEGO City's police commissioner isn't prepared to admit there's a problem. So, of course, it's down to Chase to deal with the problem.
Without a big license on board I was expecting a return to the more linear action/adventure style of earlier Travellers Tales LEGO games rather than the more open world of LEGO Batman 2, but I quickly discovered I was thoroughly wrong. LEGO City Undercover is basically Grand Theft Auto for kids.
And it ends like... well, like this.

Friday, 1 March 2013

March of the Eagles: Grand Stategy Vs a N00b

I wrote a piece for SPOnG on trying to find your way into a Grand Strategy game from a standing start:

So, I've been trying to invade the Netherlands since yesterday. And it shouldn't be that difficult. I mean, the Netherlands, right? Flat. Windmills. Clogs. Relaxed sex and drug laws. And it's 1805 and I'm in charge of Great Britain. Great Britain!!! In 1805 we were so hard that we were still (just barely) turning up in other peoples' countries and just nicking their blokes because it was cheaper and easier than just paying people a decent wage. Plus, I have 490,000 men, and the Netherlands has, like, 9,000. So, yeah! Rule Britannia and all that.

Except, I'm kind of struggling to get my guys into boats. I mean, I have boats, but it seems like for some reason you can only put soldiers on some of them. Official transports are what I need, apparently. And it seems some of my armies are too heavy for the boats. I thought about just starving them for a little bit so they'd lighten up, but that doesn't seem to be an option. It's possible I can separate them, but I haven't figured out how to do that yet. Bureaucracy, innit. This is the exact kind of red tape that brings Imperial ambition to a sluggish crawl.

More through here.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Doing it Like Emo Vonnegut


There was a bundle of atoms that happened to be arranged into molecules.

These molecules, in turn, happened to be arranged into tiny machines called cells.

The cells did things like consume resources and make copies of themselves.

The cells were arranged into a more complicated machine called a human.

The human did some things that were like the things the cells did. It consumed resources and tried to make more things like itself.

It did other things, too. It destroyed other arrangements of cells in order to consume their resources.

Using complex arrangements of chemicals, cells and electricity, it did a thing called thinking.

Thinking is a way of working out how to do things, like acquire more resources or putting parts of the human in other humans to copy itself.

None of the humans were quite sure why the molecules had first arranged themselves into cells, although some of them pretended they were.

Humans had used thinking to create something called language, which is a way of one human making other humans think the same things as them.

Thinking also allows humans to do other things, but it is unclear among humans why they do the other things. One of them is have emotions.

Emotions are complex arrangements of chemicals that have effects on what some humans call ‘the self’.

Some emotions are arranged into categories that are dubbed ‘positive’ and ‘negative’.

This particular bundle of atoms was arranged into a human that had more mass than many other bundles of atoms.

Because of this, the other bundles of atoms used language to make the first bundle of atoms have ‘negative’ emotions.

The other bundles of atoms’ use of language was effective, so the first bundle of atoms felt an emotion called ‘sadness’.


Friday, 10 February 2012

Souvenirs of Geekdom: Marvel Guess Who

No X-Men, pro-registration heroes only. Yes, I know. Tough.
Manchester. One February not too long ago. Me, Jared (runs OK Comics) and Michael Valentine McAndrew were at the airport, waiting on a plane to Toronto so some marriage could happen (not to each other). The plane was delayed by something like nine hours and the boredom ground Marvel Guess-Who into existence.

It's like the Guess Who? game you know and possibly love, but instead of a set of cards you have three nerds with an intricate knowledge of the Marvel Universe. Here's an easy one:

"I'm a Marvel superhero."
"Are you a mutant?"
"Do you have a secret identity?"
"Er... not really."
"Have you ever been, or are you currently, dead?"
"Are you Hawkeye?"
"But, I mean, was Hawkeye technically 'dead'?"
"F**k off."

Etc, etc...

Flash forward too many hours to around 6:00am the next day UK time. None of us had slept. Jared was now responsible for driving us down a quiet Canadian highway to Sarnia, a few hours South of Toronto, in the wee small hours. Apocalypticly-large snowflakes were falling, the only illumination came from the radio dial, telling us we were listening to some forgotten DJ slowly losing his mind on a country station*.

"I'm a Marvel supervillain."
"Do you typically operate outside of New York City."

Etc, etc...

And that, I am firmly convinced, is how Jared stayed awake and avoided driving us off the road to (tragic) early deaths.

I don't have to say that creating a game based on demonstrating superior knowledge of a science-fictional universe as a mechanism for survival is about as nerdy as it's possible for a human to be, do I? No. Good.

*I was half-delirious from lack of sleep by this point, so it's possible I've romanticised this a smidge. Sue me.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

The Darkness II: Reviewed to Hell and Back

I reviewed The Darkness II for the day job over at SPOnG. I said things like this:

I already used up my black phallus joke in my Darkness II preview. Where is there left to go after that? Deeper into the game, a place that angels fear to tread, is where!
...The Darkness II is a first-person shooter with heavy emphasis on the use of supernatural abilities and brawl-y gameplay. Jackie Estacado, our anti-hero, didn't have much of a 21st birthday. Most of us get pissed. He became the host of a demonic force from the before the universe spooged into existence. This demonic force wanted him to do all sorts of nasty stuff, but he settled for slaughtering his way to the top of the mob, with his best gal Jenny unfortunately murdered along the way.
Full review through here. You should definitely read it.

Art Porn! Amy Reeder's Batwoman

Wha-huh? Batwoman Art Porn that's not by J.H. Williams III? Well, yes. Look at it.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Souvenirs of Geekdom: Who Would Win in a Fight Between Iron Man and Batman's Robot Bastard?

Iron Man by Jamie McKelvie.
Or: The Conversation. Or even: The Conversation. (I would have totally called this blog post 'Souvenirs of Geekedom: The Conversation' if I didn't care about things like getting hits out of Google and giving people any kind of clue at all what they're reading.)

If you're bothering to read this, you've probably had The Conversation. Most likely, you've had it more than once. 'Who would win in a fight between the Hulk and Superman?*' 'Who would win in a fight between Yoda and Dumbledore?**' 'Who would win in a fight between Tony the Tiger and Tawky Tawny?!?!'***

There's a good chance you had The Conversation with a fair amount of gusto when you were a younger nerd (unless you're still a younger nerd, but I have a sneaking suspicion you're not), slapping irony on as an after-thought. Now, you're a bit older and The Conversation doesn't pop up so often. When it does, you go through the motions with a knowing, slightly sardonic tone.

It is often a conversation that's had in the first flushes of nerdishness. After months or maybe even years of nerding it up alone, you'll finally be face to face with someone else who knows the difference between Swamp Thing and Man-Thing, and out pops the question: 'Who would win in a fight - Han Solo or Indiana Jones?'****

What I'm edging towards here is the fact that The Conversation is often the result of a nerdling first joining geek society - it's the first flush of enthusiasm for a newfound sense of community. It's a kind of a debutante ball for nerds, if debutante balls just comprised of a bit of banter in shops. It's also, I think, what people think nerds are supposed to talk about. I have a sneaking suspicion that something like Mallrats has lodged The Conversation in our collective unconscious, but if that is actually the case, the exact source eludes me.

The Conversation can, of course, be a lot of fun. As newer fans, one of the first things we think of when we're suddenly taken by the spectacle of Thor smashing Ego the Living Planet in his massive planet-sized face is, 'what if Thor went up against Unicron?!?' It's about cracking open the fiction we love and poking around inside it. It's about wrestling with it and probing its limits. It also speaks to a quiet desire for a world without copyright, where fans actually own the creations they love and can mash them together at will. It comes from the same impulse that gives us fan fiction. It's this kind of questioning that turns fans into creators. It's important.

Just for the record, it's Batman's Robot Bastard. Tony Stark might be cool now, but: Batman's DNA tangled up in a robot? Hello?

***Tawky Tawny, the surprise breakout character of Final Crisis

Friday, 3 February 2012

Souvenirs of Geekdom: Comic Shops and Standing Orders

OK Comics, my local and sometime-workplace.
If you read comics regularly, maybe you have a standing order (or a pull list, if you're reading this from the Americas) at your local comic shop. Maybe you don't. Either way, comics nerds' relationships to their standing order or non-standing non-order are often a bit weird and a bit fascinating.

(Catch-up! A standing order is a list of comics that you give to your local comics retailer so that they can put those titles aside for you every month, ensuring that you don't miss an issue.)

For a long time the weekly trip to pick up a standing order was, for a lot of nerds, their one and only connection to the wider world of geekdom. This has lessened somewhat thanks to our ability to debate whether Squirrel Girl's a minor (and whether Wolverine consequently committed statutory rape when he screwed her) through forums, Twitter and, to a lesser degree, Facebook. Lest we forget, though, not everyone spends as much time using the Internet as thee and me. Even for those that do, the trip to pick up a standing order is still, for many, the only chance they'll get all week to discuss the merits of Before Watchmen in three dimensions with a human they can see. Through my time working at OK Comics I know a surprising number of nerds (frequently of the older generation) who aren't Out to their friends and families, so for whom their standing order really is a lifeline connecting them the nerdosphere.

The standing order betrays the obsessive nature of many peoples' comics habits. It's relatively easy to drop a series if you don't have it on a standing order. It's often happened by accident for me. A few months will pass and I'll suddenly think, 'didn't I used to buy Frankencastle?' Discovering that I've not missed it I'll shrug and move on with my life. Once a title's written on a tatty piece of paper in a ring-binder in the back cupboard of a comic shop somewhere, however, it's a whole different kettle of fish. You've made a Committment. You've taken your tie to that comic from dating to 'in a relationship'. I knew one guy who spent upwards of £50 a week on comics but was several years behind on his reading. A very conservative estimate puts that at 2,500 comics and £7,500 worth of expenditure just sat in bags, untouched. He's stopped buying now, but he'll have years of reading to go at. Please just take a moment to consider that man's level of commitment to his Collection, though.



For some, the standing order becomes a source of anxiety. Their financial situation changes for whatever reason and they can't afford to get as many titles as they used to, or perhaps they don't want any at all. Rather than contacting their shop to notify the staff, though, they'll often put off doing anything about it. Maybe they think things will change and they'll go pick up their backlog next month. Maybe they fear a wrathful shop manager wreaking bloody vengeance on them. But, for whatever reason, they'll treat it like a missed credit card payment, getting a knotted stomach every time their phone rings or their inbox gets a new message until they either finally have what turns out to be an amicable chat with a shop worker or the order gets pulled and put back on the shelves.

I kind of admire the guys (that's a gender-neutral 'guys', although if we're being honest a majority of them are, in fact, guys) who have just a couple of comics on their standing order. They're not massive comics nerds - they just know what they like and they're practical about it. They don't want to miss an issue, and why should they?

On the other end of that scale are the guys that you see in the shop every single Saturday, week-in/week-out, who spend a fortune but just won't sign up for a standing order. They often find themselves resorting to eBay because a title they wanted took the shop owner by surprise and sold out by Friday morning, but there's no WAY they're going to set up an order. They're afraid of commitment. Commitment to the comic? Commitment to the shop? Who knows. Members of the opposite sex should, however, be wary.

I've known a couple of guys who had standing orders but didn't even realise it, thanks to a diligent retailer recognising their buying habits and deciding he wasn't going to let these guys down.

That said, there are various reasons for the avid comics reader to not get a standing order. Maybe he can get to his local comic shop on a Wednesday and get everything he needs without any problems. Maybe he worries about missing out on the pleasures of browsing. Maybe he's not quite realised or admitted to himself that he's a proper comics nerd.

Any way you screw your face up and look at it, though, I would be sorry to see the standing order sacrificed on the digital alter. Good Comic Shops of the world, I salute you!

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Souvenirs of Geekdom: Swords and Star Wars -The Lightsaber

The lightsaber may well be the greatest piece of science fiction design work ever to sear its way into our collective consciousness.

While the success of Star Wars relied on a cocktail of factors, the use of a sword-like weapon that pre-empted rave culture by about a decade surely played a massive part.

It marries, with startling effectiveness, the sci-fi and fantasy traditions. It does so without being hokey or creating incongruity or, worst of all, being a bit silly. There's something visceral, dirty and personal about a sword fight that a gun fight - particularly one with lasers - can't quite match. Particularly one that was filmed 30+ years ago, before we could do fancy-pants slow motion and bullet time. You've seen a phaser fight in Star Trek, right? *Yawn*.

With lightsabers, the Star Wars production team brought the drama of the sword fight to an sf (or whatever the abbreviation for 'science fantasy' is, if you want to be fussy about it) setting without having to resort to characters carrying around shonky metal weapons. Weapons, it needs to be noted, that are unarguably centuries out of date by the time other folk are dueling with laser pistols. While other players on the Star Wars stage might view the lightsaber as archaic, with its ability to swat away laser fire and cut through pretty much anything it clearly has a place in its wielder's arsenal.

Combined with the Jedi and Sith traditions, though, the lightsaber does more than allow medieval combat into a science fictional setting - it evokes the romance of high fantasy and knighthood. Wielders of lightsabers are more than just utilitarian warriors - they're linked to a long and noble tradition. It's a visual reminder that the Jedi are more than simple soldiers. They partake in a greater destiny than that.

And, man, when someone pulls out a lightsaber you hear that hum... That sound was created by sound designer Ben Burtt. It's a combination idle interlock motors from ancient movie projectors and the effect a television has on an unshielded microphone. In the minds of millions of nerds worldwide, ancient AV tech as the sound of science-fictional warfare. There's something weird and a little haunting about that.

But wow, that drawing of the lightsaber - watching the blade flare up. It's the same effect as a gunfighter drawing his pistol. It has that immediacy. It's that same call to action. The moment it's drawn, a situation is irrevocably changed. It becomes, very very suddenly, dangerous. When a lightsaber's drawn, something big is going to happen, and it's not going to have anything to do with words or thought. It's going to happen through action and violence. On a more primal level there's something very appealing* about that sudden move to action - especially to a generation and a subculture largely defined by passive, cerebral pursuits. Perhaps, too, to a generation that feels it lacks the power to effect change.

The lightsaber is a brilliant coalescence of science and magic and nobility and violence that digs into a whole great knot of things going on in the nerd's subconscious.

It should also not be forgotten that glowing things flashing around in the dark look really cool.

*The Space Between Panels does not endorse the solving of problems through the medium of lightsaber duels. Lightsaber duels should only be entered into after all diplomatic avenues have been explored and under the supervision of a responsible adult.