Posts Tagged With: video games

Hello Docklands

Out Run.

That’s how it started. The ZX Spectrum port of Out Run. When you grow up with an eight-bit home computer you learn to make concessions, particularly where racing games are concerned. In the arcades, Out Run was a slick, fast-paced (and, it must be said, somewhat repetitive) racing experience, all sun-kissed beaches, billowing palm trees and beautiful girls. It was the American coast bursting onto a CRT in all its glory, and for a young boy living in suburban Reading this was as glamorous and exotic as it gets.

The Spectrum port, on the other hand, is like driving through treacle.

(And that’s the 128 version. Some of us didn’t even have in-game music.)

As if to concede the crushing sense of disappointment that would-be racers must have felt upon getting to that wretched bridge sequence and then having to pause the tape again so the multi-load could find the right block, the distributors saw fit to include a cassette of the soundtrack for your listening pleasure: extracts from ‘Passing Breeze’, ‘Splash Wave’ and ‘Magical Sound Shower’. Original versions and mods and remixes are all over YouTube and I will not link to them here: if you’ve played them, you will right now be humming your favourites. Those of us with a particularly glossy setup could cue a separate tape player next to our TV and arrange to have the music playing in the background, determinedly fast-forwarding to your particular favourites when you get to stage three. I couldn’t work out how they got the sounds, whether that guitar was real (it wasn’t) and why the constant ocean samples didn’t annoy me, but thus it was that my love affair with digital music was born.

Fast forward two years: it’s 1989 and I’m watching Black Box perform ‘Ride on Time’ on Top of the Pops. ‘Perform’ may be stretching it a bit. A more accurate description is that Davoli, Limoni and Semplici are gyrating awkwardly round their keyboards, bashing out something that almost syncs to the backing track, even if they’re jumping up and down octaves like Fry and Laurie performing ‘Hey Jude’, while Katrin Quinol is waving her arms and trying to make it look like her vocal track was actually recorded rather than heavily stitched. The cut-and-paste job is one I will grow to admire, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that my eleven-year-old self is thoroughly oblivious to it. My eyes are on the Roland that’s being used to bash out that famous piano riff. “Do you wish you could play the keyboard like that, James?” my mother asks. One day I will, although I will never play Black Box.

Fast forward. It’s December 1989. I’m listening to a cassette that Sinclair User gave away with their November issue. It contains music from Silkworm, Gemini Wing, Continental Circus, Double Dragon II, Shinobi and Ninja Warriors. I am thrilled beyond belief as I go to press tonight to find this on YouTube. I remember listening to the cassette that evening and having a furious argument with my mother halfway through the Double Dragon theme about why I’m not listening to it on my Walkman, which leads to accusations that the Walkman is missing. It is not, but she refuses to believe me. These days, shortly after my eldest has lost his mobile and will not admit it, I understand why she was so angry. Next time (and every time) I listen to the tape, I skip Double Dragon.

Fast forward. It’s 1990. I wander into the music department one lunchtime – my not-quite friend Ewan is playing ‘Magical Sound Shower’ on a Casio and HE DOESN’T HAVE MUSIC. He’s playing it brilliantly and he has a samba rhythm going and HE DOESN’T HAVE MUSIC. I make a vow that I will learn to play it in the same way. I annoy him by doing this remarkably quickly. It turns out that picking things up by ear is one of the few things I can do really well. Ewan is cross with me and then we get along. It’s the start of a friendship that spans over twenty years.

Fast forward. It’s 1991. Ewan has got me listening to a synthesizer outfit called Project D. My favourite songs on there are the Jarre ones, and also one called ‘Autobahn’. Years later I will listen to the original and wonder at how stripped down it is in comparison, but eventually learn to appreciate it. I hear songs for the first time that I will eventually discover in their inceptive forms, which is what happens to everyone when they are growing up, and I do not judge them for it.

Fast forward. It’s 1991 and as far as we are concerned, KLF is the biggest thing on the planet. Ewan has me listening to American hip hop and Californian rock and to Jean-Michel Jarre. I am taken aback by the orchestrations in ‘Rendezvous II’ and bored stiff by ‘Waiting For Cousteau’: I am an impatient thirteen-year-old yet to discover Brian Eno. Revolutions is my favourite album, with its industrial clanking and bleeping and general eclecticism.

Fast forward. It’s later in 1991 and War of the Worlds is my latest discovery. Ewan has the idea of writing a sequel. We team up with a few others and vow to keep it a secret until it’s done. I spill the beans to some of my friends. Ewan does not speak to me for days.

Fast forward. It’s 1995. Blur are huge. Oasis are even bigger. I start listening to stuff with guitars. Ewan is in Chichester but we still talk. I fall in love, out, in, out again. I discover jazz; Ewan is by and large disgusted. I discover Eels; he concedes they’re quite good.

Fast forward again. It’s 2002 and I’m re-listening to The Concerts in China. I am taken aback by the difference in tone between the muted applause of Beijing and the cheering in Shanghai. I ask Ewan about it. He says “They hadn’t had any western musician playing there in decades. That concert was all ageing politicians and rich businessmen. They didn’t know what to make of him. What the fuck did you expect?”

Fast forward. It’s 2011. For some reason or another, I stop speaking to Ewan.

Fast forward. It’s 2012. On a cold winter’s evening I listen to Autobahn. It leads to a surge of interest in Kraftwerk. I do a little downloading. In January 2013 I have the idea of mixing up ‘Showroom Dummies’ with ‘Rose’. It just about works.

Fast forward. It’s 2013. I extend a couple of half-hearted olive branches to Ewan. I get nowhere and concede that’s probably it.

Fast forward. It’s early 2016 and I find this.

Fast forward. It’s June. I am playing through Grand Theft Auto V. I am enjoying the soundtrack – unintrusive ambient electronic music with a distinctive eighties vibe, as befits the listening tastes of one of the game’s protagonists. I make a note to research Tangerine Dream. I discover their back catalogue consists of over a hundred albums. I decide not to swim in this particular pool at the moment.

Fast forward. It’s August this year. I’m at a festival in Northamptonshire. We are hanging around in the kids’ area; Lego spills out of the nearby tents, the nursery gazebo resembles a Little Tikes showroom, and junk modelling festoons the lawn. We’re early for the family talent show and they’re prepping the venue. The chap on the desk is doing his sound check: it’s the Revolutions album. I have not heard it in almost a decade. But today I hear Hank Marvin playing the guitar solo on ‘London Kid’ and I nearly burst into tears.

Fast forward. I come home. I rationalise that a marriage between ‘Revolution, Revolutions’ and Doctor Who will probably work quite well. I listen to it again and remember the fun I used to have with my friend, translating the lyrics into French: “SEX….PAS DE – PAS DE – PAS DE SEX!”. I go through twelve years of Who. And, eventually, I make the video you see at the top.

It’s for Ewan. And he’ll probably never know.

 

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Legopolis (part one)

There was a time when you could sort of get Doctor Who Lego, and it was rubbish.

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At least some of you had this, right? That cut-price, flimsy, second-rate Lego knock-off that wouldn’t stick together and wouldn’t stay together, with its wobbly platforms and barely-functioning mechanisms (and I ought to know, I spent an entire afternoon trying to build the bloody thing). The Dalek set was no better: poorly designed, tedious to put together, and filled with cheap-looking Daleks. I know that Lego have a patent on their particular brick design and that the plastic they use is generally higher quality, but really. Oh, I have stared into the abyss with you, Character Building, and I have found you wanting.

The figures themselves weren’t bad, of course: I bought a set of all eleven some years back, along with a few of those £2 mystery bags that theoretically contained one of seven or eight different figures but which almost invariably contained the Eleventh Doctor. The boys and I had great fun playing with them, but they occasionally came in useful for other things.

DD_Lego

TOTD_Lego

Didn’t we have a lovely time the day we went to Gallifrey? Despite the abundance of assorted fan creations all over the internet, this was – alas – the nearest we thought we’d get to actual official Lego Doctor Who. Until last year, when this happened.

We’ve been here before, of course. Lego Dimensions was an attempt to cash in on the success of Skylanders and Disney Infinity: collectible toys used to unlock new areas and abilities in an expansive open world video game. Even before launch, the tabloid outrage had started in earnest. It was easy to see why, if you did some elementary mathematics: a starter pack would set you back something between eighty and ninety pounds, while level and team packs cost another thirty. Even the fun packs (containing a single character and a gadget of some sort) were fifteen pounds each. “It’ll cost you £350 if you buy everything!” screamed various media outlets, neglecting to mention the fact that you don’t have to spend anywhere near that amount to get a heap of enjoyment from the game.

There’s a certain sense of moral hand-wringing at work here. How dare you – we seem to be saying – how dare you, Lego, a capitalist venture, try and make money out of us by selling us things we don’t have to buy? Never mind the fact that you’re not the first to go down this road. We thought you were different. We thought you were on our side, rather than the exploiting, money-grabbing bastards at Disney. We thought you were all about the creativity, which is presumably why you’ve been re-releasing the same set of bricks all these years and never making new ones. You see? When you put it like that, the whole argument is ridiculous. The real problem here is peer pressure, and if you’re succumbing to that, you’re just not parenting properly.

In this case, the peer pressure came from me. Our kids have too much screen time and know too many swearwords (all of which they learned in the playground, rather than the house) but we’ve done one thing right: by and large, they don’t whine for stuff. Keeping commercial television at a minimum helps – any exposure to the minefield that is CITV is tempered by the running commentary I keep up through the advertising breaks, pointing out misleading product claims or gender stereotyping, until we got to the point that I didn’t have to do it anymore because the boys were doing it for me. So when it came to actually investing in this, they were all reasonably interested, but I was the one that pushed for it. “Because it’s Lego,” I said, “and because it’s Doctor Who Lego.”

It meant upgrading the Xbox. It was due, anyway – that 360 isn’t going to last forever, and if we were going to invest in the Dimensions set then some sort of futureproofing was in order. I wanted a PS4 (I still do) but the boys’ friends seem to have gone the Microsoft route, and it’s only a matter of time before they start doing online gaming, so the parent in me won out over the gamer.

You wonder why you bother, sometimes. Minecraft was tremendous fun for everyone until Thomas discovered the concept of griefing. Last year I set them off on Lego Star Wars, thinking that it might be a good way to introduce them to the series before we eventually moved on to Dimensions, but had forgotten that this early instalment does not have a split screen co-op mode, which led to great frustration when the experienced player was trapped at the edge of the play area as the camera zoomed ever outwards, waiting for the younger player to catch up. So I installed Viva Pinata instead, thinking that a multiplayer gardening game couldn’t possibly do any harm, only to find that they were far more interested in bashing the in-game A.I. assistant with a shovel.

Pinata

Split screen issues aside, the main problem with the Lego video games – as anyone who has followed the series will tell you – is that they’ve become increasingly complicated. This isn’t an issue if you’re a gaming veteran who’s used to upgrades and abilities and an increasing number of collectible items. Lego Indiana Jones 2 was the first to feature a large, fully interactive hub that made you actually hunt for the next level. Harry Potter featured an obscene number of items to collect, as well as game-breaking bugs that prevented you from doing just that. (Even after all these years, things have sadly not improved.) Lord of the Rings actively splits the gameplay so that in some levels, one character is teleported to an entirely different location and forced to do various things while someone else is having their own story, which rather spoils the effect of co-op.

It’s a far cry from Lego Star Wars – which, eleven years later, still holds up beautifully, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it is surprisingly minimalist. There are ten canisters per level, all used to build different vehicles that sit nicely in the cantina outside the hub. There are seven character types for accessing inaccessible areas (Lego Dimensions has 31). Characters you don’t unlock automatically may be purchased for a reasonable number of studs. There is one secret level, accessible when the main game has been completed, in which you get to stomp all over Princess Leia’s consular ship as Darth Vader. There are no gold or red bricks. Purple studs have yet to make an appearance. There’s not even any building, for heaven’s sake. There is just hours of unadulterated entertainment as you run through swamps and starships, hitting things and occasionally using the Force to move stuff.

Lego_StarWars

Lego Dimensions – as you’ll know if you’ve played it – features gold and red bricks, upgradable vehicles, hidden characters in need of rescuing, stuff to buy, stuff to renovate, minikit canisters, and…I stopped looking. I can’t keep up. The much-coveted 100% goal has eluded me since that second Indiana Jones game and I’m not inclined to try and reach it now. It is the proverbial bunch of grapes dangling tantalisingly out of reach of the hungry wolf’s mouth, and I am inclined to find it sour. There’s just too much: an absolute wealth of Easter Eggs, secret levels and other hidden delights. It’s information overload. The between-levels hub, at least, is pleasantly minimalist, consisting of a single, multi-floored area with a computer that takes you in and out of the different game levels. Shame it’s all so…blue.

I didn’t mention the toy pad and its circular, geometrically intricate hub, which took almost an hour for the kids to build and approximately thirty-five seconds for their two-year-old brother to destroy. The pad serves as an extra layer of gameplay: dropping minifigures on different sections takes them in and out of the world and allows access to new abilities and previously unavailable platforms and rooms, thanks to the puzzle design. If you have extra figures that can access hidden areas, dropping them onto the pad will bring them into the game (and if you haven’t bought them, you can purchase their abilities for thirty seconds at a time using studs you’ve collected). Keeping minifigures attached to the plastic base that functions as an identity chip therefore becomes absolutely vital if you don’t want to become hopelessly confused (although swapping them over is a great way to prank your children). It also necessitates storing them in a safe place, which has only failed to happen once. I wouldn’t mind if we ever got to play the bloody thing, but Traveller’s Tales have an annoying habit of doing this whenever I turn on the Xbox.

Xbox Update

I appreciate that they want to update things (although I’d appreciate it more if said updates actually fixed the bugs that made us play through that ridiculous Back to the Future Level again) but seriously, can’t they give us a choice? And yes, I’m aware that the always-on setting would allow an automatic update, but our carbon footprint is already through the roof and I’m not inclined to raise it any further. On the plus side, this made me all nostalgic for the days when I’d visit a friend’s house and he’d put the Chase HQ tape in his Spectrum cassette player, and then we’d go off downstairs and get a snack or something while it took ten minutes to load. Of course, these days it only takes two hours.

Lego Dimensions levels vary in quality. There’s the very good (Portal, Scooby Doo, Doctor Who), the good (Ghostbusters, which is curiously satisfying despite a general lack of atmosphere), the passable (The Simpsons) the irritating (Midway Arcade, which emulates Gauntlet very nicely but insists on splitting the screen when there’s more than enough room for two players at once) and the utterly dire (BTTF). The designers’ attempts to vary artistic style are largely successful – the land of Oz hums in glorious Technicolor, while the cel-shading in Scooby Doo is top notch.

And what of the Doctor Who level? Well, those of you who know your video games will be aware that there are two of them: a standalone level pack, ‘The Dalek Extermination of Earth’ – which I’ll write about when I’ve actually got round to playing it – and ‘A Dalektable Adventure’, the Who-themed level in the game’s central campaign. In the latter, Gandalf, Wyldstyle and Batman encounter Cybermen, Daleks and Weeping Angels. ‘Bad Wolf’ is scribbled on the walls, and overhead TV monitors replay the oh-god-it’s-coming-out-of-the-screen moment from ‘The Time of Angels’. The Doctor’s role is brief, although those of you who have played the rest of the campaign will be aware that he takes a much bigger role in the finale.

Lego_Doc

Some of the best moments in Lego Dimensions are the little moments where you open up a tear in reality in order to pull through an object of use from another dimension (something they shamelessly nicked from Bioshock, although I’m not complaining). It leads to moments like the scene in the Portal level where you clear obstacles with the help of a screaming Homer Simpson, clinging to a wrecking ball. But the game speaks to anyone who has mashed up universes in creative play. In his bedroom, I’ve watched Daniel bash up Uruk-hai with Ninja Turtles and Spider-Man: in Lego Dimensions, GlaDOS has a conversation with HAL from 2001, the Joker stomps all over Springfield, and General Zod appears on the roof of the Ghostbusters’ firehouse. It’s a fanboy’s wet dream, but it’s more than that: it’s a testament to the power of creative thought. It’s also a cynical marketing stunt, of course – Lego have spent years shrugging off criticism that their current sets are too rigid and unimaginative, and eventually decided to fight fire with fire. It started with The Lego Movie, which embraced the concept of hybrid, non-linear thinking, and Lego Dimensions (despite the cataclysm that results when Lord Vortech starts fusing worlds) is a natural extension of that.

None of this would count for zip, of course, if the game wasn’t any good, but thankfully it is, despite the bugs. It encourages teamwork, perseverance and a certain degree of lateral thinking. Em and I enjoyed it very much. And of course, when the boys started playing it, they fought like tigers on heat. I had to referee. And then I had to supervise their sessions, ostensibly to lend a hand when they got stuck and were too busy arguing to work out the solution, although this only made things worse.

Oh, that’s another thing. I didn’t mention this, did I?

It’s brilliant. I always wondered how you’d handle the Angels in a third-person game, and the intermittent power failures fit the bill nicely. What this video doesn’t show you is what happens when you allow them to get too close, which leads to a bunch of close-up shots with gaping mouths, vicious-looking fangs and those soulless white eyes. It would have terrified Daniel, but he was already watching the thing from outside the room anyway, leaving the others to manage without him: not easy when you have to move the figures around the toy pad while you’re trying to move Gandalf around a disintegrating platform.

It came to a head one Sunday afternoon, the boys stuck in the first half of the Doctor Who level. “No, no,” I said. “No, you need to use the earth element on that. Josh, put him on green. No, GREEN. No, hang on, you’ve – Thomas, why did you deactivate the switch?”
“I didn’t!”
“Well, it was on, and now it’s off, and you were standing by it! Turn it on. That’s – no, look, you only need to press it once. Once! Now do it again. Daniel, what are you doing?”
“I’m bashing up the Batmobile.”
“You need the Batmobile to get over that ramp. That’s it. Reverse. Rever- no, look, just turn round. That’s it. Right round. Further! Now, go for- no, you need to slow down or you’re going to – see, you’ve gone over the edge.”
“I can’t do it.”
“You can do it, you just need to aim properly. No, right, right, RIGHT! Oh, look, give me the controller. There. Now, just drive straight over it. Thomas, have you turned the switch back on?”
“No.”
“Look, if you don’t turn the switch on you won’t be able to clear that swamp and we’re never going to be off this level. Right. Now, aim down at the – NO, NOT AT HIM! NOT AT HIM! LEFT! LEFT!”

From the dining table, Emily looked up from her painting. “You know who you sound like?” she said. “One of those soccer dads.”

I left the room, saturated with self-loathing. She was right, dammit.

But there are times – rare, shining moments – that they work together. Having discovered Clara Oswald stuck in a glass case, it was decided that they should spend fifty thousand of their hard-earned studs in order to hire the hero they needed to rescue her. This is a high-profile and important mission, so the task of actually breaking open the case within the thirty second time limit was entrusted to me, because the likelihood of me screwing it up was minimal.

So I freed Clara. There was much whooping and rejoicing. Then they spent the next five minutes chasing her round the base, kicking the crap out of her.

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You can’t trust the Sword of a Thousand Truths to a noob

ClaraRespawn

…is what I’ll say today.

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Doctor Who – the SNES version

Oh, this is an absolute joy.

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Does this pole still work?

When I was not quite ten years old, back in early 1988, we bought our first video recorder.

It was a revelation. No more the slaves of the clock. No more did I have to wait until Christmas to watch Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz. The VHS collection sat on the top shelf of the cabinet (when we eventually got the cabinet; those first few weeks the recorder sat on the floor) and the chunky plastic boxes were pulled in and out at least twice a day as we explored wildlife documentaries and Gerry Anderson creations and sitcom compilations. My younger brother filled up a three-hour tape with Thomas the Tank Engine episodes and wept for an hour when my mother, in order to punish him for some misdemeanour or other, refused to sanction the recording of the Christmas special, rendering his season two collection incomplete.

Access to a video recorder filled up the hours, but it also aided my sense of recall. I would wake early on Saturday mornings and sit down in front of the television, having already calculated the time I would need to start watching Superman in order to finish before I had to leave for the weekly swimming lesson. Terence Stamp’s beautifully performed monologue permeated my consciousness until I could recall every pause and every cadence of his delivery. I watched the TV edit of Back to the Future so many times I memorised it in its entirety, and took the toned-down language of the kid-friendly version to be gospel until many years later, when I heard Doc Brown swear for the first time. I can’t remember most of what I learned in school, but I can still recite the radio announcer’s Toyota commercial in the opening scene.

But it was Ghostbusters that held a special place, because it was the first tape we bought and I more or less wore it out over the years. My friends at school were crazy about it, and it was a bandwagon I couldn’t wait to ride. I can still recall the sense of disappointment when the technician who installed the VHS (yes, we needed such electrical specialists in our house) told us that we would have to leave it to settle for three or four hours before we could use it, to allow time for the machine’s moving parts to adjust to room temperature. Instead we went out, but I spent most of the time looking at my watch.

My family didn’t do Halloween, and trick-or-treaters were politely but firmly turned away. At no point did I feel deprived or embarrassed by my parents’ religious stance (save once, but that’s for another day) because they were happy about us watching Ghostbusters until the cows came home. They would even watch it with us. My mother would always chuckle when Bill Murray – ever the master of understatement, even then – reacted to the sight of a hundred-foot marshmallow man tearing up Fifth Avenue with the words “Well, there’s something you don’t see every day”. Meanwhile, my father howled with laughter every time Rick Moranis emerged from the wreckage of the destroyed penthouse, gazing at the smouldering rubble around him, before remarking “Boy, the superintendent’s gonna be pissed!”.

Years later it is still my favourite line, and I wonder how much of this is a judgement of quality and how much of it is raw nostalgia. Because when I think about it, Ghostbusters united us as a family in a way that no other film before or since – with the possible exception of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves – has managed to do. We watched and experienced it together and in a strange sort of way it brought us closer together. And when I think about it now, that oh-so-laborious afternoon that I had to spend before I got to open up the video case for the first time wasn’t so much about seeing the film again as it was about introducing it to my brother, who was yet to experience it. The ability to watch it took second place to the newfound ability to discuss it and play games that were centred around it, and I can still recall the thrill of seeing his face light up the first time he saw Murray get slimed by the onion ghost.

Lately, I’ve wondered how much of this I may have transferred onto my own children. Because Halloween in our house began early – on Saturday evening, to be precise, when Emily had gone out and I elected to begin our celebrations now. We don’t trick-or-treat, but we have a pumpkin and I allow the boys to watch a (reasonably) scary film. Joshua has been asking about Ghostbusters for years, and until this year I’ve denied him, simply because sometimes the gift of a particular film or book isn’t appreciated before you reach a certain age, but lately I’ve felt he was ready. It was supposed to be just the two of us, but an insomniac Thomas wandered in towards the end of the first act and sat with us for the rest of it, as silent and receptive as he is at his best. Joshua, meanwhile, burst into fits of laughter every time a ghost was seen eating or Murray did something funny.

The next day, without any encouragement or help from me, he was busy. Here’s his Ecto-1.

Here’s a rendition of the onion ghost.

And finally, here’s a Lego self-portrait, wearing a Ghostbusters t-shirt.

It also gave me an excuse to play through this again.

I’ve experienced it before – a couple of years back – but it’s better with company. And on this occasion I had Josh sitting with me, watching as we blasted and slammed our way through the Sedgewick and Times Square, drawing in his breath at the fisherman ghost, and then giggling whenever a stray beam touched one of the other players. And, of course, he’s blissfully unaware that – like the film we’ve just watched – this is just an extension of my childhood, a time when I was not much older than he is now, and all those Saturday afternoons round a friend’s house playing the first Ghostbusters game on his Amstrad. It became an excuse for not doing other things, much like many of my gaming habits now. In my bedroom we had a Spectrum, rather than an Amstrad, and the game looked dreadful, but we loved it, and we played it to death.

Times have changed, but I basically haven’t.

 

 

 

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Flight of the Navigator: Portal 2 / Wheatley Edition

Let’s get this out of the way: Flight of the Navigator is mostly crap.

I don’t mean to urinate all over your eighties memories. Truly I don’t. I’m not one for nostalgia existing for its own sake but I recognise that certain things that have dated badly were very much products of their time, rendering their mockery superfluous. There is no merit in sneering at the apparent sexism in the works of Enid Blyton, for example, simply because (right or wrong) it was how most people thought back then. The same goes for Tintin and The Congo, a work that’s come in for its fair share of controversy over the last few years because it’s a still-very-famous example of the casually accepted racism of its time. Dumping on cultural attitudes or stylistic idiosyncrasies gets you lots of recommends over at the Guardian, but it’s not big or clever. That such attitudes are no longer as widely held ought to be enough without making all sorts of left-wing comments about language too far out from our times to be politically correct.

No, if you’re going to mock Blyton, mock her for her derivative and formulaic storytelling – as Joyce Grenfell memorably did – and look at the content, rather than the style. Because as far as style is concerned, Flight of the Navigator mostly holds up. The CG / stop motion effects used to portray the ship were quite astonishing in their day and still don’t look too bad some twenty-six years later. The puppet aliens are fun and convincing. And Alan Silvestri’s Synclavier-created score is frankly one of the best things he’s ever written, and still gets played in my car from time to time.

But the film itself? Gaah. It’s a third-rate mashup of serious and ‘fun’, where the tense, conspiracy theory first half degenerates into farce once David steps on board the ship. Structurally it’s about as robust as a play centre built by the Challenge Anneka team. There’s far too much preamble, and then once the ship actually takes off, there’s a lot of arguing, heaps of eighties slang (which is fine, really, it’s a product of its time), and dancing to the Beach Boys. That’s not to mention the dialogue – which sounds like it was written by a first-year undergrad on a Film Studies course – along with the frankly woeful performance of Joey Cramer. Paul Reubens does his best, hamming up the performance of Max the Robot with the silliness that the script deserves, but even the presence of Veronica Cartwright couldn’t save this turkey.

None of this matters when you’re a kid, of course, and even if the movie has dated badly, I’ll freely admit that as a boy it was one of my favourites, at least for a while. After wearing out our VHS tape in the late 1980s, I switched off from Flight of the Navigator until 2004, when Emily and I watched it one evening under the influence of a 70cl bottle of gin, which rendered it absolutely hilarious. Then we promptly forgot about it again, along with most of the other things that supposedly happened that night. But it was in the opening quarter of this year, when I was playing through Portal 2 with Joshua, that Disney’s playful romp once more permeated my consciousness. Because it occurred to me, exploring the corridors and test chambers and dark underbelly of Aperture Science, that Wheatley – the imbecilic (but lovable) robot that accompanies you throughout the first part of the game before [WHOPPING GREAT SPOILER] is an absolute dead ringer for Max. Well, sort of.

It’s more convincing when Max is flashing blue instead of red, and to be fair, there are only so many ways you can do spherical robots with big eyes before they all start to look the same, but you get the point. As far as the script is concerned, the presentation and characterisation of Wheatley is arguably Portal 2‘s high spot (along with all those wonderful monologues from Cave Johnson, of course). The humour in the game is about as subtle as a house brick, but if you’re not giggling away at the mashy spike plate, there’s something seriously wrong with you. Anyway, at some point or another – probably while I was driving or eating, that’s usually when I get my ideas – I must have thought “Ooh, Flight of the Navigator would be really interesting with Max’s voice taken out and Wheatley’s put in”.

This was this year’s Darth Gene, in that it took me an entire summer in between weeks away here and there. The longest and most laborious job was sifting through Wheatley’s dialogue – there is a ton of it, and I spent over a week (on and off) listening to over eight hundred voice files. There was a lot of expository narrative that was unsuitable – anything that mentioned GlaDOS or the portal guns had to go – but I wound up with enough usable material to have probably created this from scratch using entirely different dialogue. Because it was all ripped directly from the game it was easy to place, and all I then had to worry about doing was stitching up the audio with various engine sounds and bits of the score, which I was fortunate enough to have on MP3.  So it was a long job, but it hangs together much better than many of my other more recent efforts.

Because you’re all busy people, I should probably let you see the highlights version as well – it’s half the length, and lacks narrative cohesion, but it’s a decent selection of the best bits (of course it is. It wouldn’t be called ‘highlights’ if it wasn’t). Still – the full-length cut embedded above, if you have the time, is the video I originally intended to make (unlike the aforementioned Darth Gene, which is arguably better in its trailer format). I suppose the creation of this was therapy, in a way, in that it enabled me to exorcise a few demons, with some success – sadly it’s still not effective enough to exorcise the ghost of Joey Cramer slumping onto his arse in a hideously-decorated 1980s riverside property wailing “Please…where’s my mom and dad?”. But hey, it’ll do.

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Beg, borrow or steal

I can’t remember the exact circumstances under which Gareth and I were talking about Ico. Our conversations tend to take these spirally twists and turns through one thing or another, by degrees of separation. For the most part we will steer clear of politics and personal stuff, concentrating on film and TV and gaming, or a mixture of all three. We both love anything by Tolkien, although he is far less keen on the cinematic incarnations than I am. He knows a ridiculous amount about Doctor Who. I, on the other hand, can quote extensive passages from A.A. Milne, whom he has never read, so it all balances out.

If you haven’t experienced Ico, by the way, I recommend you stop reading this right now and go and find a PS2 or 3 and play through it. The whole thing is ridiculously good. On its release it was described by Official Playstation Magazine as being “the gaming equivalent of a Ken Loach film” – elegiac, slow and calm. Trapped in a windswept castle on a cliff overlooking the ocean, your only means of escape is a delicate, timid young girl who can open locked doors, but who must be protected at various points from apparitions that will attack her, while seemingly ignoring you.

As you can see at 1:30, the creatures that pounce on Yorda take the form of smoke monsters, and it was this recollection that prompted me to theorise that J.J. Abrams looked to Ico as a source of inspiration when he was writing Lost. Smoke monsters are nothing new under the sun, of course, but we might as well cite the PlayStation as a source of inspiration, seeing as they seemed to be drawing as many different ideologies and themes as they possibly could during the show’s run. So I mentioned this possibility to Gareth, and we went from there:

Gareth:
I heard about Lost, and the premise sounded interesting at first. But then I decided that it was going to be a series with no actual planned conclusion, and which was going to wander drearily along until they threw some disappointing nonsense together, so didn’t bother watching it. (Did I turn out to be right?)

[He did, of course, and I told him so.]

Gareth:
Something-doing-something-that-something-else-did reminds me. I recently listened to a Big Finish Who story from a couple of years ago. And it was one of the Lost Stories, in this case one of the Sylvester McCoy stories that would have happened in his next season, had it happened. In it, we had the Doctor being “taunted to death” by being told how he uses others to do his dirty work, doesn’t care about them, etc. Lots of phrases that were quite familiar from recent Who. And the same story had a sentient planet, and to communicate one of the humans gets taken over and acts as the mouthpiece. Only it needs to be a female, because … well, for exactly the reason in the recent Christmas Who.

Me:
I do remember reading The Writer’s Tale, in which Davies goes through the process for writing ‘Journey’s End’ (and particularly that excruciating beach scene). Nowhere at all does he mention BF as a source of inspiration. But you wonder; is he just looking at the stuff people are chatting about on the internet and writing about that? Look at it this way – at some point in our online group discussion, during the first season of Torchwood, someone (I forget who) said “What’s the betting on Jack turning out to be The Face of Boe?”. And while I know that’s not exactly concrete, a few months later – when ‘Last of the Time Lords’ was broadcast – we thought “Ooh, uncanny perception!”. But maybe it isn’t. Maybe other people were saying the same thing elsewhere and RTD and Moffat just nicked all the ideas.

Gareth:
There was some fuss with Babylon 5 and someone suggesting a plot idea that JMS was already planning, or so I vaguely recall. Being the US, he then shelved the plot for a while and went through legal wranglings with the poster so that he could use it without being sued. (Not that the poster would really have done so – but to cover themselves.)

[Later that evening….]

Gareth:
Spooky. Earlier, I was listening to a Now Show from 2007. (I have lots of News Quiz, Now Show, etc, and listen to them while falling asleep.)

Anyway, this one was talking about Tony Blair’s departure. They talked about his conversion to Catholicism, and explained it as him believing he would become a saint, describing various miracles he had performed. And they also mocked his “legacy” world tour, dragging his departure out for months as he went to visit everyone famous he’d ever known.

Then I thought, hang on – his replacement (not counting Gordon Brown) was someone disturbingly young, with a strangely spongy face and not enough eyebrows.

So, hmm, we were talking about where RTD gets his ideas from…

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The woods are lovely, dark and deep

For any of you who’ve not yet played Limbo, it really is quite wonderful. Sort of Ico-meets-Another World done in the style of German expressionism. (Wikipedia coined that definition, not me, but I can’t think of a better description.) It tells the story of a small boy who is searching a forest searching for his missing sister. The forest is presented in moody greyscale, our hero nothing more than a simple silhouette with an oversized head and two beaming eyes, like Peter MacNicol in Ghostbusters Two (as can be witnessed at 1:05 in this clip).

You die many, many times in what is basically a series of trial-and-error puzzles – the solution is never obscure but sometimes requires precise timing and character placement. Deaths are grisly and unpleasant and imaginative, and the sheer variety of the gameplay makes for a compulsive experience. But I’m not doing it justice here, because the best way to show you this is to – well, show you:

You get the idea. After a while the forest gives way to a grimy industrial landscape, full of switches, pipes billowing steam and gushing water, electrified rails and gargantuan gears and cogs. Here the game arguably becomes less interesting, if nonetheless compelling. As I go to press this morning I am trying to correctly operate a magnetic switch. I find myself playing in short segments, because the restart points are forgiving and aptly suited to third-rate casual gamers like me. And it’s just so gorgeous to look at.

But this isn’t a review site, and my reasons for posting this are simply that I’ve wondered for a while what the characters actually looked like behind the shadowy visages we see on-screen. Part of the joy of Limbo is that it really doesn’t tell you anything, and in the days of tedious exposition and unnecessary backstory (usually posted online in the form of irrelevant supplementary material aimed at fanboys only) it’s nice when developers actually leave the detail to your imagination – it helps with character empathy and a more rounded experience. At the same time, I did wonder whether I was controlling Dennis the Menace (the US version), or one of the characters from Charlie Brown, and equally I wondered about the spiders who were following me. Anyway, someone else has obviously had the same idea:

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