Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

Crystal Amazed

20160518-crystalmaze

“Will you start the fans please!”

The catchphrase from the final challenge in esoteric 1990s gameshow The Crystal Maze might refer to blowing around golden tokens in a dome, but recently it proved more apt as a call to arms for fans of the show. Attempting to rebuild an entire TV show from scratch two decades later was an audacious task but fans’ enthusiasm for idea was evident as soon as the crowdfunding Indiegogo campaign launched, nearly doubling its £500,000 target. Outside of a YouTube trailer, the production has clamped down on photographs inside the maze and rightly so. This is primarily a nostalgia trip and, whilst I will summarise our whirlwind race through the maze, I will avoid spoiling as much as possible. Via Ravi we had funded at a level allowing us to book out an entire session, with 32 of us filling four teams of eight. I would recommend gathering a team of eight before booking, as knowing one another helps considerably with communication and assigning challenges.

Clad in Crystal Maze branded orange bomber jackets, the group took my jokingly suggested team name more seriously than intended and we became Team Satsuma. Before long, the fearsome chant of “Sat-su-ma! Sat-su-ma!” would be heard echoing around the chambers of the maze. Fearsome if you are esperidoeidiphobic, anyway. After a short introductory video, we met our Maze Master. There are several of these esoteric characters, each guiding a different team. Whilst others were taken under the wing of a cowboy or a glam rocker, our Maze Master was essentially a P.E. Teacher, where the “P.E.” stands for Particularly Energetic. He was enthusiastic without being pushy, and befriending your guide can lead to helpful hints during the challenges. After quickly familiarising us with the format (Irina proving impressively knowledgeable despite never seen the show in Ukraine, as she had recently been subjected to a YouTube cultural re-education programme) he led us through to the sand-covered Aztec zone.

Philly J seemed like the unnatural choice for team leader, so we went with him. He performed fantastically. Well, very nearly fantastically. He panicked slightly when asked to assign the first challenge and, because I was nearest, selected me and proposed a physical challenge. Not, we can probably agree, the strongest opening gambit. We were stymied primarily by the fact it took us a little while to work out what we were doing in a room that required clambering around the walls and over an unstable, rolling walkway. With time waning, and lulled into a false sense of security by a swift first run, I lost my footing and fell from the walkway, resulting in an automatic lock-in. Although we had no crystals, amended rules provided me with a riddle to earn my freedom, which naturally meant a swift escape.

The set design was exquisite.  The attention to detail in each of the zones (Aztec, Industrial, Futuristic and Medieval in the order we tackled them) is one of the highlights of the experience. Just moving around between challenges feels like being on the set of the show, making it easy to forget that you are actually wandering around a London warehouse (unless you are Andy preoccupied with whether you once took accountancy exams in the same building). The futuristic zone is particularly bizarre, since it is like stepping into a 90s vision of the future which now feels hopelessly dated. Here the sealed design of the challenge rooms caused some difficulties, both in terms of peering inside through reflective glass, and in muted sound making communication problematic. The crowning moments, and the biggest nostalgia rush, are traversing between zones — always at a run, propelled by the swelling theme music.

Rather than a fixed number of challenge rooms, the faster you progress the more you are able to experience (and the more crystals you can earn). Expect to attempt between two and three challenges each. And yes, I did redeem myself by winning two crystals later. You’ll learn surprising things about your friends’ skills too, be it Dunni’s lithe traversal of a laser grid or the focused efficiency of Pete’s crab-like shimmy in a giant barrel.

“To the Crystal Dome!”

It all culminates in the Crystal Dome which is actually, through no fault of the producers, the least impressive part of the event. There is certainly a level of team bonding being enclosed within the dome frantically gathering golden tokens (they have done away with the silver ones, since catching them is hard enough as it is) but a little over a minute is scant time to experience it, making it much less enjoyable than the games which come before. It is an issue with the original format rather than anything else, and the dome is an essential component of the nostalgia rush that makes this such a worthwhile activity. My only minor gripe is that, after all that fun, a souvenir crystal isn’t included in the hefty ticket price. Those who competed on the show had one to take away and it’s a testament to the experience that I want to be reminded of my time there in a similar way.

20160518-crystaldome

Fleeting Film

Long time readers will know that I’m a sucker for good short films, particularly the distilled exploration of a single idea and the experimental creativity they a free to express in just a few minutes. Recently I spent an afternoon binging on short films and, since it has been a long while since I shared any, here is a selection of my favourites from the past few years. If you have any recommendations that I’ve missed, be sure to let me know!

The Answers

If the point of death gives you complete perspective over your life, and grants the answers to all your questions, what would you want to know? Which questions are really the important ones, and what difference does it make to know at the end?

Amy

Girls’ Alex Karpovsky runs into his ex on the street and they spend a spontaneous afternoon together. The film explores that lingering desire and resentment between ex-lovers, the way in which people hurt each other and the need to understand how someone could do that to you.

The Boy with a Camera for a Face

The longest film here by some margin at 14 minutes, it is also one of the best produced. It may have a title like a Mitchell & Webb parody of an exploitative Channel 5 documentary, but this narrated story actually has more in common with Edward Scissorhands, as an unusual outsider seeks connections with other people. The second half of the film shifts into an attack on the hypnotic allure of reality TV and the associated price of fame.

Voice Over

Three layered, seemingly disparate, stories woven together by a gravelly French narration that culminate in the most French ending possible.

The Maker

The level of detail in this stop-motion creation is astounding, and its allegorical tale becomes more profound by the conclusion than it initially appears.

Stanley Pickle

Notable more for its creative visual style than it’s content, this prime use of pixilation, whereby still cameras are used to shoot individual frames of live actors like stop-motion puppets. Its cheerful vibrancy is a pleasant contrast to the typically dark quality of most short films.

Magic Diner

More of a mood piece, this Vogue short gets a mention primarily for Alicia Vikander’s involvement, both starring and working on the script. Based on the Twilight Zone episode Nick of Time, a girl sits alone at a table, feeding quarters into a machine that dispenses fortunes in response to her questions, gradually wearing down her cynicism.

The Present

A cute animated film about a child who is unimpressed with his new puppy, it did not particularly win me over until the payoff at the end.

Well that’s a wrap for now, but I will endeavour to share recommendations more frequently.

Unplayer One: That Dragon, Cancer

In the past I have written sporadic game-related posts intended for non-gamers, highlighting new interactive experiences that push the medium forward beyond what most non-gamers consider it to be. Unplayer One will be a new recurring feature exploring games in way that should appeal to those who enjoy art irrespective of the medium.  Unlike other review posts, these are likely to contain major spoilers so, if you have any intention of playing the game in question, please do so before reading.

That Dragon, Cancer

That Dragon, Cancer was always going to be an emotional experience. The game was developed by a couple as part of their grieving process after losing their son to cancer at age five, following a long battle with cancer. The game received strong support through crowdfunding (notwithstanding some ill-conceived accusations that the designers were exploiting the loss of their son), with many backers having their own experiences losing children or those close to them. Told through a series of vignettes, That Dragon is as much about life – albeit life with a terminally ill child – as it is about loss. We share intimate family moments as well as difficult hospital trips. Grief is complex and the game will mean different things to different people: some will recognise familiar painful experiences but hopefully find solace in the shared experience; others will find it a way to explore one of the most harrowing positions in which a parent can find themselves. Although the proximity may vary, loss to cancer is a universal experience, more poignant at the start of this year with the deaths of David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Lemmy. In any case, I always find an increase in shared understanding to be positive result.

That Dragon, Cancer

The game uses stylised graphics and a mixture of the parents’ perspective and a floating camera that allows you to observe the family. The gameplay is limited, largely a point-and-click tour through a succession of scenes and narrated letters, but I want to highlight a few moments from the game that spoke to me in particular. When the news is broken that treatment has been unsuccessful, we are free to shift perspective between each of the parents and the medical staff, colouring the dialogue with their internal thoughts. The room, meanwhile, gradually fills with water, morphing into a flooded environment with a boat heading towards a lighthouse. The parents respond in very different ways, the mother relying on her faith as a vessel to carry her through, never giving up on a miracle, whilst the father, a realist slipping into despair,  is portrayed literally drowning beneath the surface. He can swim up but can’t drag himself out; the only way to proceed is by heading further into the deep.

That Dragon, Cancer

Simpler moments can be equally poignant, as reminders that life goes on for the family. As the children go to the hospital to spend time with their brother during treatment, one complains that he does not like missing school. The surprise revelation gives way to the realisation that what he really means is that he dislikes having to catch up after repeatedly missing classes. Many scenes comprise short sequences, repeatedly waking in a hospital room next to a bed, helping with small tasks, hours and days merging together. Whilst a game can offer only a fraction of the impact, there can be nothing as heartbreaking as having to experience one’s child in pain, crying incessantly but understandably, taking meagre comfort as sleep ceases their thrashing.

In one of these vignettes, I awoke in an empty hospital room with ten cards on surfaces around the room. Each could be read and held a short message to, or in memory of, a cancer victim. These were clearly messages from those who had helped fund the game. As I exited the room, my chest tightened as I saw looked out at the entire ward, completely filled with scores of these cards. Many were mundane, a few captured more poignant thoughts, but each was a real person, a real family left behind, a visual representation of a real loss. The gut punch came as I opened one card in which a parent had simply quoted a line from Puff the Magic Dragon, “Dragons live forever but not so little boys.”

That Dragon, Cancer

Christmas 2015

Christmas 2015

“To rise, first you must burn”

“To rise,
first you must burn.”

-Hiba Fatima Ahmad

Feathers

I have been fascinated by the mythology of the phoenix since I was a child — the idea of being able to discard and reinvent one’s self, to be reborn after being broken, to rise from the ashes, was so powerfully alluring that I adopted it as a handle when I ventured online. Three of my past personal websites referenced the name directly, and the websites themselves followed a similar path of destruction and rebirth every few years. That ceased with the last version of this site, launched in 2005, following which changes became gradual and iterative. It was actually something of a shock to realise that the site had existed in much the same form for a decade and, as Rob commented, it held up surprisingly well.

However, for several years I have been unhappy with much of the underlying code, since it was written before the rise of portable devices as web browsers. It was possible to view the site on mobiles and tablets, but it was far from a pleasant experience. I actually made two attempts to update the code over the last few years, with limited progress. When I posted about the future of the blog earlier this month, I had already conceded that it was once more time to embrace The Way of the Phoenix.

All the old code for the site has been thrown out, replaced by an entirely new responsive design that should make for a much more pleasant mobile experience whilst also scaling up with sharp images on high resolution modern screens. Virtually all of the content is still available and the site’s structure should remain familiar. Unfortunately the gallery software I have been using for many years is no longer supported, so I have opted to replace this entirely. I will be restoring old albums gradually, but this is a rather painstaking process and will take some time. I will also endeavour to ensure that most links in older posts continue to work, though some will invariably end up broken.

The new menu system will be obvious, allowing for much faster navigation, and also highlights that the Questions page has now been subsumed into the Fragments section (so feel free to submit new questions!). A big improvement for those who use feed readers is that a single feed will now provide updates across all sections of the site and the gallery, rather than only the blog. That alleviates the need for blog posts to draw attention to new content elsewhere.

Thanks to those who helped test the new design in its soft roll-out. Expect some visual tweaks to continue over the next couple of weeks, and do let me know what you think (especially if you find any bugs!).

For now, make yourself at home and take a look around.

This War of Mine

This War of Mine

Did a movie ever make your feel remorseful? You can feel compassion and sadness and lots of other emotions watching a movie, but some emotions can only come from inside.

-Pawel Miechowski

In much the same way that important movies receive coverage directed at those not heavily invested in that medium, every year there are a handful of games that deserve attention even from those who may have zero intention of ever playing them. I actually played This War of Mine last year on PC, but it has just become considerably more accessible with new Android and iOS releases at a price of £4.99. It is a war game, but it is probably not what you imagine. Nor could it be more relevant in the midst of one of the worst refugee crises the world has experienced, marked by disheartening hostility and lack of empathy.

Typically one thinks of war games as a power fantasy, playing an army-of-one soldier charging into the fray with a hailstorm of bullets causing scant concern. Such games have their place as escapist entertainment, as do mindless action films. This War of Mine is, if anything, a disempowerment fantasy. As its tagline states: in war, not everyone is a soldier.

You are in charge of a group of civilians in an unidentified modern city under siege, tasked simply with survival. Sheltering in the husk of a house, you must leave this relative safety to forage for food and supplies. Survival is brutal: much of the time you will be hungry, sick, exhausted and depressed. And that’s before you set foot outside. With the right tools you can make your shelter more bearable, adding the creature comforts that strengthen the human psyche. But how far are you willing to go in order to achieve this?

This War of Mine

Looting abandoned stores is a relatively easy moral decision but others are likely to have beaten you there already. What about looting a house? An inhabited one? Does it make a difference if they clearly have more than they need? What if one of your friends is dying? What happens if you are confronted? The strength of the game’s morality comes not just from realism of these choices, but the fact the game doesn’t overtly mark out “good” and “bad” choices.

These are survival choices and, as much as anything, the question is what you can live with. Both characters and players may be haunted by their actions, discovering that their morality is more permeable than they might have believed. Ultimately, the game succeeds when it makes you feel bad about yourself, for a choice that seemed right in the moment. If I rationalise a theft on the basis that others robbed us last night, or that it was easy and otherwise it would just have been someone else, does it really make me less complicit if I take the medicine from the old man pressing me to leave?

This War of Mine

As lead writer Pawel Miechowski explained in a talk at GDC, that hollow feeling of regret is not something that can be conveyed by non-interactive media, where at best you can empathise with someone else’s sense of remorse. Although characters may become demoralised by actions they have taken, the judgment does not come from the game. “The only way for players to feel real remorse is if they judge themselves,” says Miechowski.

Why is a game like this crucial now? It’s less about countering the glorification of war, which might have been a greater concern a decade ago. Instead, it is fostering an appreciation that this is the reality from which millions of Syrian refugees have fled. When knee-jerk reactions result in snap judgments about middle class refugees or those with smartphones (which are not a sign of wealth), This War of Mine is a stark reminder that no one should have to live under the awful conditions imposed by war.

It’s not really fun. It probably won’t make you feel good about yourself. And I highly recommend it.

Out of the Wilderness

When I started blogging back in the early 2000s (on what I think was the fourth full website I had designed), I had no idea I would still be doing it over a decade later. In fact I still viewed “blog” as something of a dirty word at the time, since anyone could set up a LiveJournal and discuss the tedious minutiae of their lives without any knowledge of the Web or skill in design (early on we might have been somewhat snobbish about the democratisation of the Web), so for a long while I laboriously skirted around ever using the word to describe this section of the site. Back then it was the “earth” section of the four elements, though ever since the redesign a few years later, I have always thought “fragments” a particularly apt description, mirrored nicely by my recent foray into short fiction “shards“.

At different times this blog has served as a myriad of things: diary, notepad, travelogue, postcard, notice board, magazine column, scrapbook, product review, and more. It has grown and changed over the years as I have (which may be to say not discernibly). Intermittently it has felt as though it has served its purpose and, as writing time becomes increasingly scarce, perhaps something that ought to be retired. Last time I took a long break from blogging, upon returning I decided to attempt shorter entries, which made regular posting easier and less time-consuming. The problem is that this lent itself well to quick life updates but poorly to any deeper discourse.

Now those life updates are arguably best handled through the gallery, where a dozen photographs speak some (alleged) 12,000 words. It’s hard to argue with the sheer efficiency of numbers like that! I can also see the change in traffic sources, with most visitors now arriving through social media and, as a result, most of the discussion happens on those social media posts rather than here. That makes it less necessary to have a centralised “hub” blog post, on which people can comment, to direct people any new gallery that goes up.

Instead I find myself wanting to engage more comprehensively with fewer topics, so you should expect to see more long-form posts on whatever subjects happens to be on my mind. There is likely to remain a similarly varied mixture of content and style, from interestingly informative to thoughtfully provocative to irreverently satirical. In fact those variations may now become starker since each post will get to be Its Own Thing.

So I have returned from the wilderness. I cannot say whether I will still be blogging in another decade, but the future is ever unpredictable. Whatever comes, I do hope that you will still be reading.

The Wilderness

Trigger Warning

“And what we learn about ourselves in those moments, where the trigger has been squeezed, is this: the past is not dead.”

—Neil Gaiman, Trigger Warning

Ostensibly, this post is about a book I have not yet read, the latest collection of short stories from Neil Gaiman. He is not doing the usual book tour for this launch, but whilst in London he did an interview and Q&A session at the Apple Store on Regent Street (which means they should be releasing it as a podcast at some point). This post is really a series of loosely related musings resulting from comments he made.

Trigger WarningI first heard Neil speak many years ago, when he read from Stardust — a book I already loved — and I discovered that his voice, his cadence, his intonation perfectly suited his style of writing. Since then I have tended to read his work with his delivery in mind. It was a voice that made you feel safe even as he took you into strange and dark places.

I struggle to understand why short stories are so unpopular. They seem the perfect form for the attention-deficient modern world. A few years ago, when I began to read more for pleasure again, short stories featured heavily as they were easily compatible with commuting. Neil considers himself lucky that his are profitable enough that he has been able to publish three collections but, even so, the sales figures are only a third of those for his novels. He speculated that many people find short stories frustrating because these miniature worlds vanish just as they become invested. If that is true, those people must be infuriated but the shards I produce. I can offer my sympathy if not an apology…

This collection is titled Trigger Warning because the phrase, the use of which Gaiman approves in its online origins to warn of content that might trigger PTSD, has gradually expanded to cover anything that someone might find unsettling or merely offensive. Art that leaves us disquietened has an important role and to pre-empt it with a warning reduces the artistry, dampens its potency and robs us of a valuable experience. He noted in particular that children rarely require such warnings — they are excellent at self-censorship and deciding when they are comfortable with tackling issues and when they want to back away. Forcing them, he noted with an anecdote about his eldest daughter (she liked the Goosebumps series so he proudly gave her a copy of Carrie…), has less than ideal consequences.

Gaiman is known for exploring the macabre but he describes himself as squeamish. This apparently changes when he wears his writer’s hat. He described a long conversation with a doctor friend that went into graphic detail on autopsies because he needed the information for a story and so it became fascinating rather than disgusting. When I wrote Once Removed, Jenna did me one better as I was able to watch an autopsy performed, experiencing it first hand. But then I have never described myself as squeamish. I happily tear into rare steak whilst watching zombie movies.

When asked about his own fears, Neil explained that anything which scares his characters is really a manifestation of his own fear — that is the source from which he draws (although he notes that writing characters in embarrassing situations is actually what he finds most uncomfortable). It made me wonder about my general inability to write effective horror. Even when I draw overtly on horror tropes like vampires, the characters I produce tend to be relatable if not always sympathetically described. I find I can readily explore the emotional pain of isolation or disconnection, but there is not much that I fear. It gives me a desire to explore (inwardly at least) what undiscovered fears might be lurking below the surface, if that will expand my writing range.

WinBook Pro

My laptop, Daedalus, a stalwart of the old Dell XPS Studio line, has lasted well for nearly six years. That realisation came as a surprise since I generally expect a machine to last me only three to four. In the interim I built a new desktop, JARVIS, but found I now lack the necessary time to diagnose and repair a custom rig like that when things go wrong. As a result, for a while now I have wanted to streamline down just to a laptop with a docking solution that made it easy to use with a full desk setup for long work or photo editing sessions and indie/less powerful games (since I now prefer to play most mainstream games on a large TV in the comfort of my living room). The problem is that consumer docks are still unusual and no one was really making the laptop I wanted.

So Daedalus’ successor, Helios (Deus Ex fans will recognise the progressing AI namesakes), took careful selection. The result, as a Buzzfeed headline would no doubt claim, might surprise you. It transpired that the ideal Windows laptop for me is actually an Apple MacBook Pro. It hit each of my requirements:

  • WinBook Pro13″ for portability;
  • SSD for the OS and total storage of at least 500GB;
  • 8GB RAM;
  • Graphics capability for indie games;
  • Ultra hi-res screen;
  • Slide-in dock — the third-party henge dock.

Some of you might reasonably treat this as a weird hoax, but it is important to understand the reasoning behind my general distaste for Apple products. It is not fanboyism, but a desire for interoperability and freedom. That is, when making any technology purchasing decision, I want a device that will work happily with everything else I own and that will not restrict my choices when later upgrading, because I want to be free to select the best product for my use. In general this rules out the “walled garden” of Apple products and particularly iOS. However, since their decision to switch to Intel architecture, Macs are essentially just PC hardware running different software. The introduction of Boot Camp with appropriate drivers for the hardware means Windows can not only be installed but it can be made the default operating system.

Breaking OutI had not been into an Apple store for several years and was impressed by the experience. After asking a few questions I was handed over to someone more knowledgeable about running Windows on Apple hardware and they already had it set up on a demo machine. Purchasing was slick and easy, running the transaction on a portable terminal with the laptop being delivered down to us while we chatted about software and potential pitfalls.

The only tricky part of the Boot Camp setup process was preparing a bootable Windows installation on a USB stick, since the MacBook Pro lacks an optical drive. Within a couple of hours I had Windows loaded up and ready to take over as the default OS, with OSX relegated to a minimal partition on the drive. Whilst Apple provides Windows drivers, it has little incentive to optimise them. As a result, better results can be received from component manufacturers or even third parties like the Trackpad++ project, which reinstates a host of customisable multitouch gesture controls on the generous trackpad. Another quirk is that the high-res screen requires Windows’ full 150% scaling to be readable, but when connected to a standard resolution monitor that becomes unwieldy. The easiest solution is to have a separate user account for use in docked mode and that also allows me to tweak the applications that launch on startup.

Desktop ModeThe hardware is exceptional as one would expect from Apple. The machined unibody chassis is sleek and incredibly thin, yet is surprisingly good at heat dissipation given that it runs extremely quiet in general use. The screen is stellar and input is as comfortable as the competition. The Apple keyboard layout  differs from Windows but SharpKeys offers an easy way to remap them to something more familiar (like reinstating a dedicated “delete” key or reordering Alt and Command/Winkey).

The metal Henge Dock is a big improvement on the original plastic design and the finish looks as though it could have shipped with the MacBook. It ships with all the necessary cables other than the power adapter (so you really need a second one for travelling since one will be fixed to the dock). Connecting and disconnecting the laptop is as easy as slotting it in the right way round, and a rubber insert protects it from scratches whilst providing a snug fit. The result looks like a ridiculously slim mini tower sitting on the desk. Most of the body is exposed to air which limits overheating and the MacBook’s rear vent is specifically designed to be exposed whether the lid is open or closed, so I have little concern about running it in “clamshell mode”. It was this docking option that really sold me on the MacBook in the first place and I find myself surprised both by how well it works and how few non-business options there are from PC manufacturers.

Christmas 2014

Christmas 2014

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"Precautions must be taken because life is too sweet to lose."

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