Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

Year: 2011 (page 2 of 4)

Video Ex Machina

A bunch of videos will make up this post because my free time is going to be spent in the cyberpunk renaissance world of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. When over a decade later a true successor is released to one of my favourite games of all time, I’m not about to make excuses.

Portal: No Escape, I discovered after watching, was directed by Dan Trachtenberg of The Totally Rad Show fame. I knew he directed here and there but this is the first I’d actually seen. And it’s stunning. The live-action short suggests that, if only they were helmed by people who really understand the source material, perhaps game-to-film projects would not be doomed to failure.

Continuing the Portal theme, this is perhaps my new favourite geeky proposal, in which our favourite passive-aggressive AI, GLaDOS, pops the question. “You can say no. I’m sure he’ll get over it. Eventually.” she intones. Interestingly, Valve helped out by recording his scripted dialogue in a session already booked with GLaDOS voice-actress Ellen McLain. What could the voice of Half-Life 2’s Overwatch have been doing there…

And on that note, Escape From City 17 – Part 2 has finally arrived, continuing from the visually impressive, virtually-no-budget original.

Finally, the creative advertising campaign for the Muppets continues its tradition of giving away virtually nothing about the actual film. The latest is a music video with OK Go covering The Muppets Show Theme, while riffing on their own inventive music videos. You may wish to ignore the somewhat tedious ending.

Ruth and Jonny’s Wedding

This may be the first time a group of Londoners have fled the City to Belfast and felt significantly safer. The reason for this jaunt — my first to “Norn Iron” — was Ruth and Jonny’s wedding. Angie, Rav and I decided to make a long weekend of it, and arranged to meet up with Dave and Chima while out here too. While Angie’s mother is away we have the run of her house (predominantly for sleeping and watching episodes of the massively un-PC Archer late at night).

A damp Friday and Saturday morning fortunately gave way to great weather for the ceremony and reception, the intermittent drizzling being remarkably well-behaved. The very traditional service was conducted in a pretty, rural parish Church a little way outside Lisburn. It was great to see Oli, Paul and Dan cravatted and all looking unusually dapper, as well as a strong contingent of Cambridge friends who made it over.

Following the ceremony we adjourned to the Tap Room at the Hilden Brewery, a beautiful cosy venue in a working brewery with a fantastic restaurant. Al fresco canapés were served while the weather held, before retiring upstairs for the wedding breakfast. The speeches resulted in rapidly accelerating inebriation as our table imposed unfortunate drinking rules that included both the bride and groom’s names, the word “beautiful” and the inevitable joke about Jonny succeeding in arranging a piss-up in a brewery…

So far the remainder of the trip has been spent on the typical excursions to the Bushmills distillery and the Giant’s Causeway, and generally taking in the gorgeous countryside around here. A full set of photos from both the wedding and trip in general will, of course, follow soon.

London Riots

I think the riots have provoked such a reaction from Londoners because destroying one’s own community displays a logical disconnect that offends the British sensibility. Violence during the G20 protests was at least targeted around financial institutions and the Square Mile. This morning Londoners behaved in an entirely British way, shaking their heads at the damage and going to work as normal, while others engaged in communal clean-up efforts that go a long way in restoring faith in society. While it sounds like more is yet to come, I’ll share some words on last night and images from this morning.

Perhaps fortunately, looters hit Walworth Road early yesterday. The police response was to close off the road, my bus announcing its diversion as it reached Elephant & Castle. Hopping out I headed down and found a police line guarding virtually nothing. From that end the road looked deserted and calm, belying the violence occurring (and ostensibly being allowed to occur) further along. I called Anna and suggested she head back via Kennington instead.

The mainstream media may spin Twitter as being the tool used by rioters to organise their movements, but in truth Londoners were using Twitter primarily to ascertain which areas of the city should be avoided and which remained safe. It became clear that, while it was not going up in flames, Kennington was not free from trouble either, so I threw on a pair of jeans, donned an old hoodie as camouflage (a good reason to keep hold of nondescript uni stash!) and headed out towards the station to find Anna and ensure she made it home safely.

The roads were eerily quiet, punctuated by bursts of noise, most rioters presumably having headed further south. Two cars swerved around the corner of a building across the road. Dark figures jumped out of the cars, one asking “which way did they go?”. Whether they were referring to pursuers or prey remained unclear. I checked on a few young guys at a bus stop, one of whom was compressing his friend’s head wound. Blood pooled on the floor at his feet, but he remained lucid and coherent. An ambulance had been called and they were waiting for its arrival. I wondered momentarily why the third in their group was topless: ah, that would be his shirt being pressed against his friend’s head. He paced, shivering slightly in chill night air.

Sharing the experience many have echoed, aside from the initial cordon at the quiet end of Walworth Road an hour earlier, I did not see a single police officer. The centre of Kennington appeared to remain relatively safe (perhaps due to the paucity of lootable shops) but I understand sirens continued throughout the night as it became the best route for police to move between the north and south.

Stepping out onto the balcony after midnight, the lights of the London Eye gazed back at me in impassive silence. The flickering of television sets emanated from most flats, all tuned to the news, viewers glued to the violence occurring elsewhere. People seemed uncomfortable sleeping, unsure of where the violence may move through the city. The sense I had was that a caged beast had broken loose of its shackles and was determined to express its newfound freedom, knowing it was temporary, but roaring just to hear its own voice.

Tragic Divisions

Tragedies bring people together but they can also be divisive. While sad and absolutely a tragic waste of talent, Amy Winehouse’s untimely demise must have been one of the least unexpected young deaths. Those expressing deep shock display at best a severe lack of imagination. And for the media outlets who hounded her for years now disingenuously to oversell this loss is only as surprising as her death. However, others are more concerned, and in some cases angered, by the fact her death has garnered such a deluge of emotion on social networks when the horrific events in Oslo, the violent murder of nearly 100 people, did not. This, to me, seems entirely natural. There is no doubt that gunning down 80 youths on an island constitutes a larger and more serious event, one that has left a country in shock and mourning, but it is also largely impersonal. A sole figure, even one who has seemed broken for many years, but to whom people relate on a personal level, will always evoke greater sympathy. Perhaps Stalin’s wisest observation was, “One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.” A hundred may not be merely a statistic, even on Stalin’s terms, but humanity will always find one death more tragic.

In less serious news, the first trailers have emerged for next year’s Batman and Spider-Man films. The Dark Knight Rises is the third and final Nolan-helmed outing and after the last I think it’s fair to say everyone is already incredibly excited. It is disappointing then, to find a trailer almost solely rehashing old footage, which serves only to dampen that excitement. All we discover is that Nolan’s fascination with architecture, immediately evident in Inception, remains alive and well. Personally I wish they’d waited until they had something to show us.

Meanwhile The Amazing Spider-Man reboot brings the wonderful Andrew Garfield to the role, while thrusting Peter back into his school days origin. Marc Webb (yes, the Spider-Man reboot was given to a director named “Webb”) takes the franchise in a direction more grounded in the real-world. With limited dialogue I think the teaser hits the right notes and ends with an unusual first-person sequence exploring the city as Spider-Man sees it; the CGI impresses though arguably it feels a little too much like videogame footage. Two ideas emerged:

  1. Tom at Theater Hopper pointed out that a much cooler trailer might have been as the first-person sequence alone, leaving the viewer slightly confused as to what they were watching until that familiar reflection comes into view on the side of a skyscraper.
  2. How awesome would it be if someone gave the Mirror’s Edge devs the Spider-Man licence?

Tom and Lydia’s Wedding

I have been inexcusably slow in sorting out photos from Tom and Lydia’s wedding at the end of April, which meant, by extension, that I did not get round to mentioning it here. Seeing them both last weekend at Annabel‘s birthday dinner party (now firmly established as an annual event since several of her friends have now become strictly Once-a-Year Acquaintances of mine, following last year’s Wonderland-themed affair) motivated me to sort them out. As a result I am now pleased to present a gallery of wedding photos, including a range of square portraits of guests which is a new experiment.

Like Andy and Irina’s wedding last year, the ceremony itself was in the Downing College chapel. This was fitting not just because the pair met at Downing, but as choristers they both spent a significant amount of time rehearsing and singing together in that chapel. Sunlight filtered through beautifully throughout, while most of us struggled to decide on which side we ought to be seated. In the end James and I opted for Tom’s side largely on the basis Lydia appeared to have more family in tow. And it gave him a better view of Lucia who was looking rather stunning while performing her official duties (if more questionable when off-duty).

Following the ceremony we adjourned to Anstey Hall, a nearby location that is apparently a popular Cambridge wedding venue. The weather was glorious for the boldly early April date, and bright sunshine poured over the guests sipping champagne in the gardens. The wedding breakfast was served in a large marquee which was later cleared out into a large dancing area. While the bride and groom’s first dance was a traditional and well-executed ballroom number, this was followed by a céilidh in suitably Cantabrigian fashion (by Cambridge Ball standards, anyway). Traditionally something I would sit out, I was dragged up by a pleasantly inebriated Helen and enjoyed getting confused by organised dances more than I would readily admit. It was around this time that Dave, in a fit of missing us all too much, impulse-bought his plane tickets for the following weekend to attend Keggfest. Sadly, since I was not staying the night in Cambridge, I had to disappear before the festivities ended else my last train would have turned into a pumpkin.

All in all, a fantastic day and it was wonderful to see another pair of uni friends off on the road to marital bliss. As Matt D put it a few days ago, “a wedding is like a wake for two single people who cease to exist”. Only in a good way.

Social Circles: Google+

First, allow me briefly to gloat over the failure of News Corp’s BSkyB takeover, and highlight unsubtly exactly what they have lost (be sure to check the source code). For all my cynicism — and while I lent my support to the 38 Degrees campaign, I did not believe success was likely — clearly there are times when democracy works.

I’ve spent a couple of days exploring Google’s latest venture into the social networking space with Google+ and that’s enough to share some preliminary impressions. The universal first impression seems to be its stark cleanliness, coupled with a sense of emptiness because the invite-only system means the majority of your friends are yet to arrive. I described it as being like your first visit to Singapore; perhaps a better description, via Tom E from whom I obtained my invitation, was: “You know when you re-install windows and it’s all clean and fresh and empty? That’s what Google+ feels like.” It is easy to underplay the importance of a clean UI, but let us not forget that the fall of MySpace and the mass exodus to Facebook was in no small part due to the increasingly cluttered UI of the former in comparison to the latter’s (then) minimalism.

Google+ is a much more successful, and arguably more mature, implementation than their previous attempts with Wave and Buzz. Unlike these endeavours Google is neither trying to reinvent the wheel nor merely replicate a service found elsewhere. This is a direct, brazen even, competitor to Facebook but one that pares the social experience down to its essence of dialogue and sharing content, but also brings some new ideas to the social party. The clearest is the use of “circles” to organise your contacts. Rather than treating everyone equally, Google+ aims to replicate the way real world friendship groups operate by allowing you to create a range of different “circles” and every piece of content you share can be made available only to specific circles. That simple solution bridges the divide many keep between their “friends only” Facebook profile and “work only” LinkedIn account. It was a key issue I hoped Diaspora would address, and now with Google to compete with those kids have their work cut out.

Realtime communication is far superior, incorporating Gchat instant messaging, which has always been superior to Facebook chat, not least through its automatic creation of searchable chat logs. Videochat, however, has the potential to draw in a far larger audience. Choosing to “hang out” allows you to create a video chatroom with one or several friends. Straight from the browser (after installing a plugin) it is convenient but hardly earth-shattering. The inclusion of YouTube integration, however, is a major departure. Clicking the buttons launches a shared YouTube window which streams to all participants, muting their microphones in favour of a push-to-talk system to avoid unnecessary distraction. I can certainly see this becoming a feature I regularly use — something as seemingly inconsequential as watching a friend’s reaction while showing them a video remotely is not to be underestimated.

Cross-platform integration in general is Google’s strength, being able to share directly from its search engine or share pictures through the advanced Picasa service. Further integration is undoubtedly on the cards, such as Google’s calendar service since a robust event organising infrastructure is notably missing at present. I have yet to experience the Google Docs integration but one certainly suspects there are elements of the abandoned Google Wave code at work beneath the surface of Google+. One assumes notifications will eventually be available while in every Google service and crucially the drop down allows you to see a great deal of info, including viewing posts and leaving comments, without navigating away from the current page.

I am happy to provide Google+ invites to those who want them: simply provide me with an email address. For those already using it, IGN have some useful tips.

Automobiles Two

Cars has long been considered “the runt of the Pixar litter”, the weakest of their generally stratospherically soaring output. There was little doubt that kids loved it, but adults treated it with contempt, myself included. My view softened only when watching it with Clark and seeing how effectively it tapped into his own imagination, a shift that also seems to be shared by many young parents. When a sequel was announced my initial reaction was simply, “who decided that what we really need is Cars 2?” The answer was actually pretty obvious: the accountants. Whatever people may have thought of the film, Cars provided Pixar with its most easily exploitable and most profitable merchandising opportunities to date, pulling in an estimated $5 billion. In those terms it certainly makes a sequel a financially appealing prospect, and such voices clearly won through.

My view of Toy Story 3 was not nearly as positive as most for what I felt it symbolised in terms of stagnating creativity within Pixar (it was a great film, but most of you will know I consider it roundly bested by How To Train Your Dragon that year). Nevertheless I was content not to begrudge them that sequel in returning to their landmark roots one more time to round things out. The Cars franchise lacks that storied history or shared nostalgia and I think this is why its sequel resonated so poorly with critics who likely take a similar view in terms of stagnation but responded with an overzealous attack on the film to voice their displeasure. It is not an isolated occurrence. On the one hand this may filter through to Pixar; on the other it is almost certainly unfair to what appears to be an entirely competent children’s film. No, I doubt I’ll be seeing it in the cinema, but that is less to do with reviews and more my own rather lacklustre reaction to Up (other than the first ten minutes) and the original Cars. More than ever, though, I find myself wishing the studio split I (wrongly) foresaw after Wall-E had come to pass, with a second Pixar team working on adult-orientated animated features. It is not — as many critics would now have you believe — that Pixar are putting out bad films; it is simply that they are not creating the ones in which I am interested and of which their career highlights (that would be Monsters, Inc, Wall-E and The Incredibles) demonstrate they are eminently capable.

Meanwhile the Disney side of the equation is even starker: an in-house Cars spin-off called Planes. Seriously. I actually thought it might be a joke at first (given its recent string of entertaining parody trailers for the Muppet Movie). Of course we almost expect this from Disney as the behemoth it is, while that corporate outlook seemed not to have seeped through to Pixar culture in the past. I suspect Planes will be used by many as further evidence of Pixar’s downfall. Yet the weirdest thing about the Planes trailer is actually the soundtrack: White Zombie in a Disney flick!?

Shorts

There will be some substantive posts soon, but in the meantime here are a few short films for your procrastinatory delectation. They’re not necessarily new, but I’ve only recently come across them via Gordon from Multiplex (a webcomic all cinema fans ought to enjoy).

Alma is a beautifully creepy slice of animation from Rodrigo Blaas, formerly of Pixar. Apparently a full-length feature is to be co-directed by Blaas and Guillermo del Toro, the latter suggesting that its eerie vibe should remain intact.

I Met The Walrus is an animated distillation of a much longer interview with John Lennon, conducted by 14-year-old Jerry Levitan in 1969 after managing to get into Lennon’s hotel suite. The short was nominated for an Oscar.

Synesthesia (a word gamers will be hearing a lot in relation to the newly released Child of Eden) is a condition whereby stimulation of one sense causes an involuntary experience in another sensory or cognitive pathway. This short doesn’t shoot for realism but the result is arresting.

Wolverine vs The Hand explains how the entirely unknown Gary Shore ended up on the shortlist to direct the next Wolverine film (The Wolverine, apparently). It’s basically a motion-comic fight sequence but the effect is really rather cool and would be a neat style to adapt for a comicbook film.

Salesman Pete is just surreal fun, in a sort of Invader Zim way. Also, how good was Invader Zim?*

*SPOILER: So good.

Shades of Grey

Now is a good time to be an adult gamer, with two fantastic new mature releases in totally different genres. The first and most high-profile, with adverts coating tube stations, is L.A. Noire. Published by Rockstar (of Grand Theft Auto fame) but developed primarily by the Australian Team Bondi, it is nominally an open world game but in reality nothing like previous Rockstar offerings. Instead the narrative-driven game following the rise of straight-as-an-arrow Detective Phelps draws its inspiration from police procedurals and, naturally, film noir’s atmosphere and aesthetics.

The big draw is the highly impressive MotionScan technology, a substantial leap forward in facial animation, if at times straddling the uncanny valley. Actors’ faces were recorded with an array of 32 cameras so that, when interviewing witnesses, the player must watch for reactions like nervous twitches or shifting eyes to ascertain lies. The fine line between doubting a suspect and confronting them on a lie feels clunky at first but soon becomes natural as you learn how to use the evidence in your notebook. I suspect it was an error instantly to inform the player at the end of an interview how many questions they dealt with “correctly”, since it sparks an intrinsic desire to retry the sequence. Cases are arguably more interesting with an occasionally fumbled interview but ultimately enough evidence to nail the culprit. And earning a five-star rating at the end of an investigation (which doesn’t require 100% success) is always rewarding. However gamers are taught to treat success as being black and white at every stage, and in generally are not wired to accept any level of “failure” as acceptable if the game highlights it as such. While it may be a helpful gauge early in the game, this is a case where providing too much immediate feedback arguably damages the experience.

Indeed L.A. Noire stumbles only when it attempts to fall back on traditional gameplay. The open world approach lets its 1940s Los Angeles feel alive, but the loose GTA-style driving mechanics feel at odds with the the rest of the game, often resulting in unintentional destruction. Similarly the generally violent side-missions are a great diversion but the body-count Phelps builds up seems both unrealistic and out of character (notwithstanding that he is a war veteran), much the same problem that plagues the Uncharted series. The short, disjointed tutorial cases may not give the best first impression but as soon as they open up into full-length investigations, L.A. Noire shines.

The second game, Polish RPG The Witcher 2, deals more overtly with moral ambiguity like its predecessor. Based upon the novels of Andrzej Sapkowski, the world inhabited by supernatural monster-hunter Geralt is a far cry from the typical good versus evil fantasy landscape. Political machinations and racial mistrust underlie much of the experience (more successfully than the other recent fantasy sequel, the rather rushed Dragon Age 2), and even those giving you quests may be lying to you. While Geralt is out to help people, he is also a mercenary with his own code of ethics; this duality between nobility and cynicism has led to comparisons with Raymond Chandler’s private eye Philip Marlow. So despite very different protagonists, these two games are loosely linked by their murky worlds.

Many gamers will find The Witcher 2 hard going, beyond its inexplicable refusal to teach you its own mechanics (without delving into the manual, which feels somewhat archaic these days), because its shades of grey feel inherently unfamiliar. They are too used to simplistic binary moral choices, even from games that boast of more complex morality. Some argue that videogame fantasy is escapism, and so a sharp delineation between “good” and “bad” actions is essential to the player’s enjoyment. Yet such a narrow view is like suggesting all cinema should conform to the simplicity of the summer blockbuster’s “good guys” and “bad guys”. Such escapism is fine, but cinematic gems tend to be rooted precisely in those shades of grey in between. The further games explore such spaces, the more the medium can evolve. And as developers’ skill in crafting such worlds improves, we may find their interactive nature makes videogames better equipped for the job.

“It’s a Matter of Degrees”

Saturday was a day of pomp, pageantry, overblown ceremony and eccentric costume. No, not the Eurovision Song Contest (which, I am given to understand, coincided). The Downing MA Ceremony. The event, ten terms after graduation, was treated by most primarily as a reunion, and it is the first large-scale one I have attended. Given the size of our year, inevitably there were some I would have loved to see who were unable to make it, along with a few I was happy either not to see or simply to avoid. Catching up with the remaining 95% was fantastic, though I do wish I had been able to speak more with various people — particularly several of the lawyers.

I found the ceremony itself far more enjoyable than my actual graduation. It was not, as the Master suggested, because I could not properly take in and remember it, though it is true I was far more relaxed this time around. Rather it is that, straight after third year exams, I was acutely aware of exactly what it had required and I was quite ready to escape the myopic pressures of Cambridge academic life for a while.

College put on a decent spread at lunchtime, and a fantastic dinner in the evening which instantly transported everyone back to any number of raucous formal dinners: pennying and all. The inebriated group moved en masse to the bar, which we seized (presumably to the irritation of the current students). Surprisingly I didn’t have to fend off suggestions that clubbing at Cindies was somehow a Good Idea (I had expected many would still be labouring under the misapprehension that, at some point in time, it was).

Amusingly today I discovered, during the traditional tea-making What I Did On My Weekend chat, that two other people from my department were also up in Cambridge over the weekend to attend MA ceremonies for family/partners at other colleges. The world is still shrinking.

Rules I (re)learned this weekend:

  • Do not drink and make speeches (no names).
  • Downing Gravel is always worse than you remember: do not bother polishing your shoes beforehand.
  • The lamb of the person sitting next to you will always be better cooked than yours, but it doesn’t matter because if you are correctly seated you will get to eat theirs as well anyway.
  • Be nice to nearby teetotallers: they have more wine to give away.
  • Do not drink and make speeches (okay, Ravi).
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