Wednesday, 29 October 2014

"Day" is a vestigial mode of time measurement based on solar cycles. It's not applicable. I didn't get you anything.

Recently I achieved Level 26 in this mysterious Role-Playing Game (sans D20 but with plenty of diabolical skill checks sprinkled around) known as Life. Don't know how much XP I've gained, if I've got pluses to any of the relevant stats like Wisdom, Charisma or Intelligence so can't train up any skills. However, I did receive some goodies. Financial donations to my Seattle fund (sometime next year I intend to be inflicting my particular brand of madness upon America's Pacific Northwest) and a couple of video games that I feel I want to babble about for a minute or five.

To begin, there is a game called Evil Genius. I'll admit, I haven't played much of this yet and I'm still figuring my head around the mechanics. However, I'm sure once I get to it, it will prove to be great fun. For the basic premise. You are an evil madman bent on world domination. You start on your private island, where you must build and maintain your lair, shield it from prying eyes and defend it from infiltrators. All the while, deploying minions across the world, performing "Acts of Infamy" and generally stealing wealth from the various regions of the world. Once I have figured out the mechanics I will have a lot more to report...

However, it is the other game I received for my Level Up Day (credit to my friend Mako for first introducing me to this concept) that is consuming my life. It is called Sunless Sea and is from the independent game studio Failbetter Games. And in a bizarre way, true to the studio's name, I do fail a lot better at this game than any other.


First off, the premise. Sunless Sea is set in Failbetter's Fallen London Universe, a steampunk gothic fantasy universe. In this universe, during the reign of Queen Victoria, London was taken underground in a deal to spare the life of Prince Albert. Now underground, there is a vast ocean (called the Unterzee) that exists next to Fallen London. It is this great expanse of subterranean water that serves as the setting for Sunless Sea. Through various circumstances, the player becomes the captain of steamboat on the Unterzee. From this starting point, you ply your trade across the Unterzee, going from port to port, gather information, delivering cargo...the choices go on and on.

Now of course there are complications. You have to make sure, before leaving port, that you have adequate supplies of fuel and food. Run out of food and your crew starve to death, one by one...and in a grim turn of events, you can opt to eat them. Run out of fuel and you must abandon ship. When things turn dire - either running out of fuel or being sunk by pirates (or any of the many creatures that lurk in the Unterzee) - you are presented with three choices. Preserving a skill, an officer or your chart. At first I preserved a skill and took it on to my next captain, but I have found that preserving the chart is better. Either way, I have lost three captains to the perils of the Unterzee. But as I prefaced this before, failing at this game (or at least failing at the easy starting point I'm at now with a basic ship and not a lot of stuff gathered from voyages) is not that bad. With the preserve a skill, officer or chart choice, you get to take something away from dying horribly. A silver lining which makes it not that stressful. I imagine once I've bought myself a nice ship, modified it with some pretty decent engines and some bad-ass guns that I will become VERY upset at losing it, but right now, I'm pretty Zen about the whole experience.

Sunless Sea is in the Early Access stage on Steam, with Failbetter promising more stuff as the days weary on. I for one am looking quite forward to more stuff. And if this proves to be a successful endeavour for me, I might see what Failbetter's original offering, Fallen London, is all about.

Making a massive diversion now (I think we sighted a kraken off the port bow and I have a really big squeamishness about tentacles) into the realm of television and away from steampunk gothic fantasy, it's back to the real world and an Australian drama called The Code.

Six episodes long and just finished airing on BBC Four, The Code tells the story of the mysterious death of an Aboriginal teenager in the outback, mixed with a little political intrigue and some investigative journalism. The main character is Ned Banks (Dan Spielman), political reporter for tabloid website Password. Through his ex-girlfriend, the Australian Prime Minister's Director of Communications, Sophie Walsh (Chelsie Preston Crayford) he is given information on the infidelities of a cabinet minister who is being unceremoniously fed to the wolves to distract media attention. In amongst the information is a slip of paper with a single word that leads Ned to the outback and a car accident involving two Aboriginal teenagers - one who died and one survived. Befriending the teenagers' teacher Alex Wisham (none other than Lucy Lawless), Ned delves deeper. Inadvertently involving his brother Jesse (Ashley Zukerman), a hacker diagnosed with Asperger's, Ned comes closer and closer to a dangerous secret that some are prepared to kill to keep.

Thus far I have only seen the first four episodes, though I intend to rectify that this evening and watch the last two. However, I can say quite confidently that The Code is an intriguing and brilliant show. Not only does it have a great cast (including David Wenham of Faramir fame as a pretty shady government heavyweight) but a unique visual style, particularly when depicting Jesse's hacking activities. It has a engrossing plot, great dialogue and is all just...packaged very neatly, tension and intrigue abounding throughout. Also, some pretty damn good filming locations - including the exterior of Parliament House in Canberra. I'll admit, I'm mildly jealous that the Houses of Parliament don't look that cool.

Altogether, I'd give a great big thumbs up and recommendation to The Code. If hadn't guessed that part already. Whilst doing some fact-checking for this post, I discovered that all six episodes are apparently still on iPlayer. I would get on watching them all. Right now. Ish. Maybe read to the end first.

Which mercifully is coming about right now. This is the end for the third week of productive blog writing in a row. Let's see what happens if we make it to week four...

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

You are, after all, a Slaves. You’re all the television, you young people nowadays.

Here we are. A week later. So far so good. Today will likely be a day for retrospective discussions of all the things I haven't been talking about for last...I don't actually want to calculate how long I had held my silence. Anyway. It's quite a good thing that I have a plethora of antiquated topics to discuss, it's been one of those slow news weeks here.

There is, however, one small matter of "current" events - Gotham. Last time I spoke about my disappointment with the pilot episode. This time I get to speak a little more positively. Episode two shows a lot more promise - now that they've done their whistle-stop tour of all the future villains we need to watch out for, the writers have settled into the business of establishing the show as a crime drama set inside the DC Universe. There are, of course, the mandatory "let's establish the storylines from the comics" plot threads, but they're pretty brief. It feels a little like they're trying to justify casting the roles of Bruce Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth. It's a tricky position which could easily go wrong, but from what I saw of Gotham, they did okay.

Mandatory plot threads aside, let's get back to the actual episode, vague on some details to avoid spoilers. Naturally, they have to find a way to sneak in the characters in the main cast and tonight they chose to shine a flashlight on the teenage Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), with a story revolving around homeless kids being abducted in mysterious circumstances. The villains of the piece are particularly amusing and creepy, walking the neat line between overly camp villains of the Adam West era (not that this should be taken as a slight against the 1960s Batman series, it is a classic in its own right) and seriously disturbed bad guys that are becoming increasingly popular in viewers' apparent obsession with "gritty" remakes and original dramas. This last assumption based on the simple prevalence of such movies and television series emerging on our screens.

I've been incredibly vague and cryptic and have really failed to deliver a balanced review/critique here. Really all I want to say about Gotham is that it seems to be shaping up well. I was pleased with this latest offering - plenty of humour and action, the over-arching plotline of the series is shaping up nicely and it looks like there's some hope of Gotham being a decently enjoyable show. Still all to play for though, so here's hoping for next week, eh?

Oh, one more thing - John Doman continues to excel as Carmine Falcone. Seriously. Best casting choice of the series. People who have not seen The Wire and his portrayal of Baltimore Police Department senior officer William Rawls really need to invest in that show. His performance is brilliant. The whole show is brilliant. Though I've mentioned that once or twice before I think, so let's move on.

While I say move on, I want to expand on a point I made about Gotham last time - my feeling that the pilot should have been a two-parter. It prompted me to think about the last time I'd encountered a feature-length pilot for a TV show. At first I believed it had been a long time - looking at some of the shows offered up in recent years, there's been a disappointing lack of two-parter openings. It hadn't struck me before because they hadn't tried to overload our brains with character introductions the way Gotham did. However, on closer examination, I realised that one show I recently indulged in, Defiance, opened with a quite satisfying two-parter. So all hope is not lost.

For a moment though, let's examine what a two-parter allows. Not just as a pilot, but as a general trend in TV shows. A brilliant example would be season three of Heroes. I won't deny it, I loved that show. The first season was outstanding, two and three woefully disappointing with its final season being a little more hopeful but just moving too fast to really live up to all that season one had achieved. And while I just lumped season three with the verdict of woefully disappointing, there was one beacon of hope in amongst the darkness - the two-parter "Eclipse".

I won't go into precise plot details, but "Eclipse" allowed the writers of Heroes to take their time for once. In the previous episodes of season three they had been scrambling from storyline to storyline, mostly wrapping them up within a single episode. I remember watching one of those companion shows on the BBC, Heroes Unmasked I believe it was called. I remember watching one of the showrunners, possibly Tim Kring himself, admitting that they wanted to tell as many stories as they could - thus they were cramming as much into every episode as they could. Far from providing quick and easy audience satisfaction and keeping people entertained, I found it frustrating. I wanted them to slow down, take their time and develop these characters and their stories. Which is what I loved about "Eclipse" and generally what I love about two-part episodes in general. Writers take their time, they flesh out the drama and the action and get to set everything up for a great show-down in the second part. Another sterling example of two-parters comes from Star Trek: The Next Generation, the season two finale/season three premiere two-parter, "The Best of Both Worlds". An insidious (yet brilliant) trick that Stargate SG-1 was fond of using in the first few seasons, they ended season two on a gut-wrenching cliffhanger, having fleshed-out one half of the story and then made you wait and speculate for months until the incredibly satisfying conclusion.

Continuing on the subject of television, it's time to delve back a fair few months, to late spring/early summer time and a delightful offering on Sky Atlantic - Penny Dreadful. Set in Victorian England, Penny Dreadful (so named for the cheap, pulp horror publications of the late 1800s) is a Gothic horror series revolving around famous works of Gothic literature. The leader of the ensemble cast, Timothy Dalton, plays Sir Malcolm Murray - father of Mina Murray, of Dracula fame. It is Sir Malcolm's search for his missing daughter and the connection to the world of vampires and the supernatural that is the core of the show's first series and launch pad into the Gothic horror world. Other famous characters who come out to play are Doctor Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and the mysterious Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney). Rounding out the cast are the not-so-familiar original creations, Josh Hartnett's Ethan Chandler and Eva Green's Vanessa Ives.

The show is, naturally, brooding of a sort and gloriously dark. Something one would really hope to find from a show drawing together famous works of Gothic literature and weaving them into a single narrative thread. A feat Penny Dreadful achieves quite nicely. The cast is quite superb, even with the addition of Billie Piper in the second episode - in spite of my approval of her performance as Rose Tyler in Doctor Who, I maintain some scepticism until I actually see what she brings to a show. Although her character's Irish accent can be a tiny bit laughable at times, it doesn't detract from the show or its inherent brilliance. Penny Dreadful has been renewed for a second series, which will air in 2015, so I would highly recommend A) tracking down season one and watch it before then and B) keeping an eye out in 2015 for the second season.

Finally, there is the matter of Defiance. In my last post before my prolonged silence, I mentioned having watched only three episodes. Earlier, I mentioned the satisfying feature-length pilot. So how about we talk in a little more depth about the show?

It is set in 2046 and Earth is a vastly changed place. Some decades before, a mysterious fleet of alien ships appeared in orbit. The alien races, collectively known as the Votans, seek refuge on Earth after the destruction of their home star system. Skipping to the end of the political intrigue and delicate negotiations that saw some limited Votan colonisation of Brazil, there was a big bust-up called the Pale Wars before the Votan Ark fleet in orbit mysteriously blew up. Earth was showered in Votan bio-forming technology, transforming the once recognisable eco-system of the planet into a strange, alien biosphere.

It is in this strange and wonderful new world that the characters play, specifically around the independent city-state of Defiance, built over what was once St Louis, Missouri. The city of Defiance is caught between the political machinations of the Votanis Collective in Brazil and the Earth Republic based in New York City, as well as the internal intrigue of its own mixture of human and Votan citizens. At the head of Defiance is Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz), the Mayor, with prominent Votan Datak Tarr (Tony Curran), a ruthless Castithan business owner (and pretty much mobster) nipping at her heels. Caught between all of this are Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler), a drifting "Ark Hunter" (a glorified scavanger, lootings pieces of Votan Arks that still haphazardly fall from orbit) and his adopted daughter, an Irathient named Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas) who find themselves pressganged into becoming Defiance's law enforcement (Nolan's job title becoming "Lawkeeper").

To cut a long story short, my thoughts and feelings on Defiance are very positive. Visually stunning, well-cast and quite well written. Has good heart and good action, not to mention (though I have before and will, probably every time I talk about, do so again) the musical genius of Bear McCreary. It shows a lot of potential, delivers an enjoyable first series and look forward to seeing some of the second series which is currently airing (on about episode ten or so I believe) and forming more of an opinion on Defiance's current direction.

Anyway, I think that's enough errant babbling for one day. Until next time, check out Defiance and Penny Dreadful. They're pretty damn good shows. Oh and given today's television centric nature, the quotation title is brought to you by Rupert Giles, Buffy the Vampire Slayer season two, episode three "School Hard".

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

I love garlic bread, I could honestly eat it for every meal

It's a dull and dreary October day. After an unexpected extension of summer into late September, the United Kingdom's weather has finally returned to its status quo of unrelenting rain. On this particular October day, I was running through notifications on Twitter, a platform I rarely use except for when I actually get around to posting a blog update. I find a notification from about two years ago. I look at the drop-down list of blog entries and notice something that makes me want to hang my head in shame and almost makes me want to weep. 2012 - thirty-four blog posts. 2013 - eighteen blog posts. 2014 - five. Throughout this year I've evidently been pretty damn good at pushing things to the back of my mind and saying "Hey, I'll get around to that one day." And it makes me feel shame and want to weep for a simple reason - the decline from thirty-four, to eighteen and then the sudden rocks-fall-everyone-dies drop to five indicates a startling lack of writing discipline.

Today sees a vow to get back on the proverbial horse and smack some discipline into my writing life. I'm going to do that classic thing and set myself a goal of updating once a week. I was once good at that, back in university when I maintained a little blog for the purposes of scoring academic points (I don't think I scored that many). Suddenly, with deadlines and direction, it all falls mildly apart.


Wallowing in self-loathing, self-pity, one of the selfs, is not going to endear my writing to the ethereal Internet readership. Sitting my butt down and saying something interesting might. Though given the nebulous, subjective definition of interesting, this is something of a Hail Mary pass. Nonetheless, I shall soldier on.

I would like to say I've been up to a lot in the months of silence. But not really. I've watched a lot of TV, I've indulged in an addiction to a particular video game and I've been shockingly lax in my reading habits. About the only really productive things I've managed is slaving away at my place of gainful employment and proof-reading the first draft of my novel. I have successfully edited the first part now, but the rest of it is still sitting on my desk, waiting. Upon the completion of this post, I will be tackling that particular area in which I have lacked discipline.

As is tradition, I will talk about the things I've been watching and playing. Of course, given the months of silence, the back-dated list runs a little long so I'm going for the top highlights now with an option on further highlights in the coming weeks.

In my last blog entry, I mentioned being excited for a couple of movies. One of those been Guardians of the Galaxy. I was quietly sceptical in the back of my mind, not exactly sure what to expect but also quite hopeful after seeing the trailers and thinking "Hey, Chris Pratt might just be able to pull this off."

He did just that and more.

I ended up seeing Guardians in the cinema three times. Not a milestone by some movie-goers standards who will see a film ad nauseam (if I took a quick poll amongst my friends about how many times they saw The Lord of the Rings trilogy in cinemas I image the numbers would make mine cower in a corner in fear), but for me it's a big deal. Take Avengers. Until I saw Guardians, it was my favourite Marvel movie. Unfortunately, the words of Joss Whedon mildly betray him on this one - I quote from 2012's Firefly Reunion Panel at San Diego Comic Con: "I need spaceships or I get cranky." Avengers had the Helicarrier (which was awesome), but Guardians of the Galaxy had spaceships. And space. And Rocket Raccoon. And Groot. And Drax. And Star-Lord. And Gamora. And...well, it had the whole thing going for it. I fell in love. I have a Guardians of the Galaxy poster adorning my bedroom wall now. Only one of three movie posters I have and only one of two that I paid money for (the other one I paid for being Serenity, still my favourite movie of all time. Joss still wins there).

The other point Guardians of the Galaxy wins on is the soundtrack. There's a bit of a special place in my soul for music. While some of those I knew at university, fellow inhabitants of The Writerverse, shunned music and preferred to work in silence, I cannot abide working without music. Don't get me wrong, there are times when silence is a beautiful thing, where it can speak volumes louder than words ever could. But when I'm working, silence is an incredibly frustrating thing. I'm amazed I survived my exams in secondary school given the levels of enforced silence there.

Moving away from the tangent (and creating a new paragraph just to emphasise the point), the soundtrack to Guardians of the Galaxy is awesome. In my last post I mentioned the joyous addictive quality of Blue Swede's "Hooked on a Feeling". This is but one of the many brilliant tracks on Awesome Mix, Volume 1, the official soundtrack for Guardians. Top tracks from this album include Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love" (played during the credits sequence at the beginning of Guardians, a beautiful and hilarious sequence), David Bowie's "Moonage Daydream", Elvin Bishop's "Fooled Around and Fell in Love" (many daydreams about slow-dancing with that one girl induced by this song, it will have a lot to answer for) and finally, The Runaways' "Cherry Bomb". The whole album is awesome, but these tracks are the favourites.

So, amazing soundtrack (sorry, Alan Silvestri. The Avengers score was great, but you didn't have awesome 80s music to back it up), spaceships and one final, teeny little detail - the film begins in 1988, the year of my birth. It wins points for that, it just does.

Staying in the Marvel spectrum for a moment is a movie now crowned as my third favourite of the Marvel Cinematic Universe - Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Absolutely phenomenal film. Not on the same level of hijinks, action and rib-tickling-ness as Guardians, but then this film is definitely not supposed to be that. It plays as a kick-ass spy thriller/action movie combo and knocks the socks off its predecessor, The First Avenger and deals some pretty spectacular critical hits to its brethren in the MCU. The acting, the action, the whole thing is brilliant from start to finish. It remains in third simply due to my sentimentality and attachments to Avengers and Guardians. I guess I have a thing for the ensemble movies. Bring on Avengers 2.

Next up it's time to talk about television and I'll be staying in the superheroes theme (tenuously) by talking about the recent UK premier of Gotham, the TV show based around James Gordon's rise as a police officer in the brutally corrupt, crime ridden locale of Gotham City. Unfortunately, gushing praise is not forthcoming. I have a few issues with this TV show.

First, I want to preface these comments with the editorial note that I am not massively invested in the DC Comics universe. I enjoy the Batman movies, Christopher Nolan's trilogy being a masterpiece of all the Batman movies to date even if they could have been mercifully cut short by an hour. Man of Steel was okay, had the gritty edge but...well, Superman isn't really about the gritty edge. He's the clean-cut, All-American Hero. Well, if Captain America didn't upstage him at every turn on that particular criteria.

One final preface, I'm going to go into some detail in my critique thus there may be spoilers ahead. Best to turn back now or skip a couple of paragraphs to when I talk about something else. Fair warning has been given.

Anyway, to the critique of Gotham. My first and biggest point is that I wish they had slowed down. Or made it a two-part opening. Great, we were introduced to whole host of characters - The Penguin, identified as Oswald and despising the moniker Penguin. Edward Nygma, the infamous Riddler, is at the moment a forensic scientist with Gotham City Police Department with neatly-hinted at psychological issues. We also saw a teenage Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman) in the opening and at the end. There was also a nice hint towards Poison Ivy, with a young girl named Ivy who seems to be obsessed with tending to plants being introduced as the daughter of a man framed for the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. Oh yes, they opened Gotham with the murder of the Waynes and having James Gordon and Bruce Wayne meet. Don't get me wrong, nice dynamic opening, but again this could have been much better as a two-parter.

Now we come to the critique of cast. I was dubious at first about The OC's Ben McKenzie being cast as James Gordon, a role that I'm afraid Gary Oldman has nail-downed so perfectly that beating his performance is a challenge McKenzie isn't up to. He may prove me wrong yet, but thus far I remain unimpressed. Next up is Sean Pertwee. As an actor, I like him. I think he's cool and I was intrigued to see what he would do with Alfred Pennyworth. Maybe I was expecting the poise and dignity that Michael Gough and Michael Caine brought to the role, maybe I'm too set in that being Alfred's manner, but I found Pertwee's Alfred a bit too...colloquial. He addresses people as "mate", shouts "Oi, Master Bruce, get your bloody arse..." (I trail off this quotation as I can't remember exactly how it goes) and so on. I have more hope for Pertwee given his established talent and pedigree, so I will be watching with great interest.

It's not all bad things to say about the casting though. Donal Logue's character, Detective Harvey Bullock, looks set to become quite a complicated character - at least I hope the writers go in that direction. And the casting directors made an inspired choice casting The Wire's John Doman as mob boss Carmine Falcone. So there is some small hope for Gotham, we'll see if it delivers in the coming weeks.

Moving forward on the subject of television, we hit the works of Aaron Sorkin. Part of the reason I can give for my long absence from this blog is having binge-watched all seven seasons of The West Wing and becoming addicted to quite possibly the most brilliant, hilarious and dramatic TV shows he's created - The Newsroom.

Alas, The Newsroom only has three seasons, two of which I have watched. It is the story of Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), news anchor for Atlantis Cable News, who doesn't ruffle anyone's feathers or do anything outrageous, until taking part in a Q&A session for journalism students at a university. His tirade about how America isn't the greatest country in the world (seen in The Newsroom's trailers) tears down his middle-of-the-fence image and with a new executive producer at the helm of his news show (Mackenzie McHale, his ex-girlfriend, played by Emily Mortimer) they re-vamp his image. It's a tale of cleaning up news, fighting the sensationalism and spectacle of modern journalism and returning to good old-fashioning reporting. Informing the public of what they need to be informed about.

And it is downright hilarious. There's tons of drama, tension and heart-wrenching moments, but in amongst all that is Sorkin's trademark brand of humour, seen throughout The West Wing and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The Newsroom was aired on HBO and I wager that the third season is either airing or about to soon. Go out there and watch it. It's a thing of brilliance and beauty.

To wrap up this muddling essay, it's time to talk about gaming. But first of all, I'm not going to tackle video gaming. I'm going to talk about tabletop gaming and my introduction in the world of Dungeons & Dragons. It was a strange world I'd heard about a lot during my formative years and a former housemate of mine post-university insisted that I should give it a try because I would love it. In the latter stages of last year/early stages of this year, I participated in my first ever tabletop roleplaying game, a zombie apocalypse game devised by a friend call-signed Jester. He and his girlfriend Harlequin are the ones who sucked me into this world and are respectively Dungeon Masters of their own campaigns. That's right, after an introduction to tabletop roleplaying with a zombie apocalypse game, I was brought into the world of Dungeons & Dragons and now I am involved in not one, but two separate campaigns. Well, I lie. Three. Another member of our party is DM for his own campaign, of which I appear to be a Baron. And essentially party leader. Which I find most curious as I tend to shrug off anything that resembles leadership and responsibility. It's a character flaw.

So there we have it. I have now entered the world of Dungeons & Dragons. On a strangely tangentially related note, my other videogame addiction: XCOM: Enemy Within.

I have previously touched upon the subject of XCOM without going into much detail. A squad-based, turn-based strategy game set around an alien invasion of Earth where you also have to manage the resources of your central base, assign research, etc., it has proved to be very addictive. Currently I have embarked upon my sixth playthrough and it would appear to have infinite replay value. Many of the missions are randomly generated, but there are some fixed missions. But within those, the enemies themselves are randomly generated. Thanks to this, even though I know the layout of 90% of the maps used in every mission, the random generation of enemies means I am always on my toes. Suffice it to say, I highly rate this game and would recommend it.

I feel that now is a logical time to wrap up for today. Next week I will babble again, about what I do not know, but I'm sure I can dig something up that will be worth talking about. Before I go, the time-honoured context for title has been left until last (because it wasn't until now that I came up with the title). It's very tenuous, but put simply I had garlic bread as part of my lunch. Thus I quoted Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Not very exciting as context goes, but there it is. Until next time, I leave you all with a favourite musical number (which I have posted before. But I'm going to do it again anyway, repetition be damned!)

(Song of the Mind: Battlestar Sonatica - Bear McCreary).