You’re all heroes.

Looking back, as my graduation ceremony rapidly approaches, I think about the ridiculous amounts of work there is to do, the long nights and longer essays, and how things are only getting worse. Let me share a few personal opinions with you, and say you’re all fucking soldiers for doing the following:

  • Putting up with teachers who mark you down when you disagree with an opinion.
  • Reading and writing more in a year than the people who’re telling you to do so and failing to set the example.
  • Managing to finish your degree, and if not, even the year, to get qualifications that, due to career overcrowding and university entrance requirements getting consistently lower, no longer matter as much as they did five years ago.
  • Putting a brave face on and paying attention in lectures when you’ve been in and out of them for eight hours, with no lunch.
  • Paying fees that have risen by almost 25% in the last three years.
  • Making the most of accommodation that, for the most part, encourages depression, isolation and financial hardship due to outrageous rental charges.
  • Managing to read even one out of the four 500-page novels you’re given every week with little regard for your health or spare time.
  • (This goes double for subjective topics) Putting up with parents who don’t understand why 75 out of a possible 100 is an excellent grade and should be celebrated.
  • Making the most out of a university system that fails to encourage anyone to aim high due to the failure to use the top 20% of the grade table.
  • Shelling out for public transport when it’s free for those who are having an easier time, academically, than you are.
  • Even considering paying back a student loan that you should have never had to take out in the first place (Scotland? Free uni, and they’re not bankrupt yet).
  • (To those who do, I understand and identify if not) Working part-time jobs to pay for books and equipment that had been provided for free earlier in life because education to that level is made to feel far more valued.
  • Not complaining when a teacher cancels a lesson after a three-hour commute, knowing full well that not rescheduling prior to the following lesson has just cost you several hundred pounds.
  • And finally (lots more, but I’ve got to cap it somewhere), starting university in the first place, full of hope and deliberately ignoring all the moaning and doubts of those of us who’ve seen the dark side to the experience.

Everyone who goes to university, be it for three days or three years, should be damn proud of themselves. The system in England is horrendous and completely unforgiving, and encourages a country crippled by debt to become even more so. I hope you all get the grades you deserve, and to those who are upset that this hasn’t been the case (hell, I started off getting firsts), bear in mind that your peers will one day be at the top of the food chain, like yourselves, and you’ll be able to give graduates a better chance than they have at present.

Keep reading, keep writing, keep pushing forwards. From economics to physics, biochemistry to art history; we are the future, and the supporting structure of the next fifty years of human civilised evolution. Nothing can take away your achievement, of making it through eighteen years of complete academic bullshit and coming out sane the other side.

This is by no means a subtle reference to myself, as I’ve experienced most of the problems listed, but not all. I simply wish someone had said all of this to me when I was a freshman, as it would have made all those 59’s and 69’s, late nights and punishing exams that little bit easier. The best of luck to you all.

Semper Lugeo.

Today, I sit and think about grief.

It’s been just over three years since my grandfather died, and posts like this one really do make you think about why, exactly, you’re so deep into electronic escapism until you find someone who can support you. Think of this post as a rite of passage for me, and a response to something Sinan wrote on his blog that touched me deeply. In eight days time I’ll be standing on a stage, receiving my diploma, in a kilt. This was something I promised my grandfather, silently, the day after he died.

The night he passed away was during my going away party. I had around twenty friends round, and we were all laughing and celebrating my last night in north London before I moved to Greenwich for university. I remember they were all gawping as I’d recently shaved my head after letting my hair grow for a good couple of years. It was a nice night, and when my mother took me aside and told me he’d finally moved on to pastures anew, I didn’t really respond at first. I simply walked out of the garden, and down my driveway. At the end of my driveway stands a pair of pillars; flat at the top, and wide enough to sit on. I’d spent a lot of my childhood sitting on those pillars, and now I returned, years later, to sit on my favourite, the one on the right.

I sighed, and wondered what everyone was doing inside the house. We’d known it was coming for some time; I’d visited him in the summer, travelling up to Glasgow to visit a man who spent an hour talking to me before I realised he thought I was my father in the ’70s. I went back inside, and came face to face with twenty of my dearest companions in the process of cleaning up the house, in preparation to leave. I stopped them from leaving, and we finished the evening, for the sake of my mental health.

When I moved into university, I had nothing. A tiny box room and an iMac, with no allowances on the uni internet service save for World of Warcraft. I had been playing on and off for a year at that point, but it was then I became deeply engrossed. I did it to escape, to move away from an environment that to me, was a stark reminder of loss, and of pain. New friends, places and experiences helped me to settle into a world away from home, only finally leaving it when I met someone who was capable of supporting me emotionally to the point where I didn’t need to raid four nights a week just to forget all the bullshit that occurred in my life outside the screen.

The thing with games and using them to escape from grief or hardship is, fundamentally, that it doesn’t work. As Sinan said, eventually, instead of moving you away from the memories that cause you so much pain, they start to remind you of it. My three years at university constantly reminded me of my grandfather. I’ve not even passed the denial stage with that, yet, and that’s something that I’ll deal with in time. But videogames are an odd beast; there for you when needed, but never quite strong enough to blot out the thing that’s really digging deep into your chest.

A lot of people will claim their guildmates were a great source of compassion and understanding, and I’d be the first to agree with them. But the loophole here is that you’re never playing games when you’re talking to the people you met whilst playing a Tauren warrior; you’re talking to them in real life. These are real people, with real problems and feelings, and you’re subverting the idea of the MMO, turning the endless grind-raid-repeat into something deeper, something more real.

When you shed tears at Dom’s wife passing on, or Aeris being fatally impaled by Sephiroth’s blade, are you grieving for the character, or what the character represents? Fundamentally, everything reminds us of something, and death reminds us of the worst kinds of pain. When we’re playing games, we never take a moment for those who pass away in front of our endless spray of bullets, but we take a moment to consider grief in substance when the protagonist, ergo the player, loses a close friend, love interest, or relative. We spend hours identifying with our avatars when they kill, maul, maim and feel joy at victory, so why not when they feel loss, or sorrow?

To lose someone is to take stock of what you do have, and focus on it relentlessly, lest you lose yourself to grief that becomes overwhelming so quickly you fear you’ll suffocate. When faced with grief, people tend to enter denial in different ways. Some get drunk, some break things, and some insist they’ll deal with the funeral details after this next Halo match. Games are a valuable source of escapism, but they are still games, and meant for enjoyment. Enjoy them, really enjoy them, and if what you need to get through the next twenty-four hours is to spend eighteen of them grinding elemental Earth in Outland, and we’ve all been there give or take the game in question, then do so. But eventually, we’ve got to turn it off and face up to reality, and that’s where your peers come in, be they on Ventrilo, a forum or IRC. But they’re there, and they don’t cost forty pounds.

Thanks, Kev.

When I was fifteen, a friend of mine who comments here introduced me to two characters by the names of Jay and Silent Bob. Fast forward six years and I have mountains of the silent protagonist’s work, be it written, on screen or even simply just audio. I quote from his films, and I’ve been calling everyone “sir” for quite a while, now. Kevin Smith is one of the most talented people on the planet, and it’s simply because he writes, speaks and directs from the heart. Whether he’s talking, acting or blogging, he comes across as geniune, polite (sometimes) and always sweet.

I had the utmost pleasure of meeting the gentleman in question today, and it was without a doubt a day I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I was first in the queue, and as a result was allowed to speak to him for longer than the norm. We spoke about the Stash, and the irony that I’d just sent my LA-bound father off on a quest to a store to find him, when he was sitting in front of me. I also thanked him for his blog work, as it inspired me to both start mine up and keep it going. He was touched, and that meant a lot to me, as someone who would love the recognition he recieves, though I’ll be the first to admit (and he’d be the last) that he’s far more talented.

He signed a little film called Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, my first Smith film, and Threevening, along with a copy of his new book. Simply, the man was lovely and is utterly devoted to his fans, taking the time out from his day to take photos and have conversations with every single person in the queue, whether they were at the back or the front, and it’s not often you see that happening at a high-profile celebrity signing. Hopefully at some point I’ll see him again, successful or otherwise; either way I’ll still always want his ink on the various bits of his work that I own.

I count myself as very lucky, to have met the two writers that have inspired me to write myself, and I thank Smith and Pratchett for their tireless devotion to their work and their fans. Smith, thank you for giving me and a friend a good reason to run around like lunatics with a dictaphone every lunchtime, and thank you for helping a lot of fans with their own insecurities through discussion of your own.

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Halo 3: ODST – Thoughts.

I was out in the evening with my father, celebrating some good university results, when we decided to go to Sainsbury’s and grab a few miscellaneous items on our way back to our neck of the woods. After cruising for ice cream, DVDs and frozen yoghurt (all to no avail, as apparently Sainsbury’s have discontinued all eight brands of the stuff, much to my father’s chagrin), we arrived at the checkout, and I left with a game I’ve been craving for the best part of a year: Halo 3: ODST.

I’m a massive fan of the official Halo fluff and its accompanying literature, and through this I’ve developed personal favourites in character types. My personal favourite, more than Spartans, Marines and Covenant, was definitely the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, alias “the Helljumpers.” Gritty, suicidally brave and taking absolutely no shit whatsoever, they were John’s constant companion throughout several of the books and proved their worth both there and later on in the Halo 3 campaign itself. Dark armour and dark senses of humour, they were standout troopers that really encouraged folks to pay attention to the moving shields in front of their hallowed protagonist.

When they first announced the game, naturally I wasn’t sceptical. They invented it, how could they mess it up? Health bars were making a comeback (finally, some sense out of people designing FPS combat), and we got silenced weapons and a unique “nightsight” addition int the form of the ODST trooper’s VISR mode. Ignoring the tempting criticism of game designer’s tendencies to take a perfectly normal word such as “visor” and turn it into “VISR” whilst at the same time making up a ridiculous sentence to go with the shiny acronym, the game appealed to me. Soon enough, preview time rolled around recently. I had an invite, but I ended up doing something else that day, which was an odd choice, but I realise why I’m glad I didn’t go.

I wanted to experience it in my own way.

With preview events, no matter how good the game you’re playing may actually be, you’re still engaging in virtual escapism surrounded by hundreds of journalists, noise, booth whores and people talking about how the prequel had better storyline and how that weapon, yes, that one, has been neglected and, god forbid, removed. This is not what I wanted. Thanks to the lack of a Firefight matchmaking system, that event would have been my only way to actually play that mode with other people, but nonetheless, I relented and waited for my own copy.

I sat down last night, and began to play the campaign at around ten at night. I chose to play on Heroic. Let me establish here and now that this was by no means me waving my proverbial gaming manhood around; I simply wanted to get a serious challenge out of the game. When you think about it, what’s more likely to make you think of stealth as a welcoming old friend; a grunt on Normal, or a hunter on Heroic? I booted it up, played, and finished at about five in the morning, which is the longest I’ve sat up playing something since Oblivion. I thought I’d grown out of that habit, but I suppose it was Malcolm Rey-sorry, Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin and co that suckered me into the plot.

Game designers, hear this, for god’s sake. If you want characters playing cocky bastard marines, please consider using people from programs like Farscape and Firefly. I was ecstatic, as a huge Firefly fan, to hear the voices of good old captain Mal and the grumpy but (sometimes) loyal Jayne engaging in witty rapport throughout the campaign. It made a nice change to the “three words per level” rule that John 117 had abided by for three games, and an even nicer change from Cortana (aka Navi: Remixed) and her constant droning and flirting with the man who’s spinal cord she’s currently hugging.

The weaponry frustrates me, though, and this is for one simple reason. When Bungie began talking about the silenced rifle, we were ld to believe this was essentially the Halo 3 battle rifle with a long tube on the end. Not so. There’s recoil, of course, as you’re no longer an eight foot behemoth with arms like steel cables. However, the main problem comes from how weak the weapon actually is. A headshot to a grunt, even on Legendary, is an instant kill. However, here you could go through an entire clip and still the little bastard is frolicking around like he’s watching Fantasia on LSD.

It does make for some interesting changes to strategy, however. And that’s what ODST is really all about; forcing you to reconsider the threat of the Covenant. With no shield, tiny health, and even tinier melee strength, this is no longer the “charge in, melee, spray bullets” game that we fondly play every weekend with one eye on the clock (sleep is valuable, sometimes) and another on the kill-tally. This is now a game where, if you choose to get cocky, you’ll simply die, over and over, regardless of whether you’re tackling Legendary gold-armour brutes, or simply easy grunts. Hunters in particular, were tough in Halo 3, but I never actually found them at all frightening. However, in ODST I was panicking to the point of verbal exclamation, and it took over ten attempts to find a tactic of killing them that worked (lots of grenades, health packs, and luck). Even brutes, a tough nut to crack for John, are now on par with playing people in multiplayer. It’s all about getting the drop on people, in the dark or the daylight. And that’s where being a Helljumper comes in bloody handy.

Your VISR, when in the nightime New Mombasa (yay, I was worried I’d never hear that awesome South African accent again post-District 9) as the Rookie, is a fantastic tool for putting the fear of the UNSC into the Covenant. It feels stupid in a franchise that’s never once rewarded excessive stealth, but it works wonders. Lobbing a grenade as a distraction, I sprint across the plaza, darting from shadow to shadow, coming up behind the brute with the fuel rod gun that’s been making my life a misery. A quick switch to grenades of the plasma variety, and he’s running into his subordinates, before detonating. Ten Covenant down, and not a single bullet fired between either party.

The VISR makes this all possible, though it’s advisable never to use it in the daylight as it turns everything into bloom-light-messy confusion and a quick, embarassing death. It’s a shame, as outlining enemies two hundred metres away in red is the most useful tool I’ve seen in a Halo game. It’s just a shame it’s only useful in about 10% of the campaign. Sneaking around the city was an amazing, atmospheric experience, but I can’t help feeling the VISR has gone to waste save for the final few underground sections of the end levels.

The one thing I do look forward to in every game from Bungie, is the predictable “jump in a Warthog and drive like the Dickens” final section that involves at least twenty minutes of non-stop, skin-of-your-teeth driving and a lot of hope for the AI moron behind you firing the mounted weapon at anything vaguely purple. Interestingly it wasn’t the end of the campaign, which was a shock, but I suppose Bungie were already changing things up, so there’s no harm done.

I have but one major criticism, and that’s the lack of multiplayer save for Firefight. Imagine a VIP game where the VIP’s a Spartan, and you’re all Helljumpers. Sound fun? Of course it does. Will it happen? No. For all Bungie do fan-service-wise in terms of new maps, they’re shoddy when it comes to making major additions to gameplay. ODST could have been simply added on, and I’m insulted by the second disc containing only three new maps for those loyal enough to the franchise to have bought the other nine earlier in the game’s lifetime, especially considering the lengths we’ve gone to (Halo Wars: CE, anyone?).

It’s been an amazing journey into the mind of an ODST trooper, and I really do hope Halo: Reach isn’t a massive “let’s go back, ooh, shit, it’s different” farce, and actually is what it should be: John’s childhood, abduction, reprogramming and adolescence, along with all the memorable supporting characters that made The Fall of Reach such an engaging and breathtakingly immersive novel.

And it better not have any more “get four friends, and a vehicle there’s only two of, and do something, for armour no one cares about. Otherwise, you’ll never have your achievements maxed out.” Mainly because sadly, Bungie, if you’re going to take the multiplayer route with the most story-heavy game to date, you’ll find your prices better be prepared to drop, too.

One Saga Finishes, Another Begins

Tuesday was a very odd day in terms of moving on to the next stage in my life as a growing adult.

I was sat on the sofa, taking in both the background television and some good old Dan Abnett swashbuckling fiction. The phone rang, and I picked it up, the private number code signifying to me that it could only be one ex-directory person: my mother. The conversation was normal, at first, and I assumed she was simply checking in.

“By the way, I have your results.”

I stopped for a moment, knowing that for the last five months I had been on a knife edge between a 2.2 and a 2.1, the board’s decision of whether my grade average, a mere one point two percent below a 2.1 deciding whether or not I would attend graduation with my head held high or low. I swallowed, and steeled myself against the disappointed tone she had accosted me with.

“You got a 2.1.”

I stopped for a moment then, and after a few tears I realised that, in life, there are a few times you’re allowed to feel fairly good about yourself. Some of those times are small, grin-worthy moments, such as rejecting a doughnut, or winning a skateboard luge contest at thirteen. However, some are when you know you’ve achieved something magnificent by the goddamn skin of your teeth.

The thing with English as a degree, is it’s a pretty damn subjective thing to write about. I could have done any number of subjects where, for example, one plus one would always, without fail, equal two. However, I chose to do a subject where they’d give you just under a 2.1 simply because you weren’t fucking Dickensian and willing to worship at the altar of Jane Austen. Thankfully, in my third year I got my head down (thanks to a girlfriend who works hard and isn’t afraid to offer helpful criticism – I can be a right git when told I’ve written something incorrectly), and I succeeded. It’s not a first, but damn it, it’s great considering the subject, and I’m happy.

Another week, another post.

It’s been a week of mixed emotions and mixed events in and around London, but I’m now sitting comfortably in the living room, pondering my moves for the coming week. With not much work done on the current novel I’m a little frustrated with myself, but this week will be adequate time to catch up, as will the weeks leading up to my graduation ceremony in October, though my mood on said day will depend on whether or not I’m in the middle of an appeal for a 2.1.

It’s strange going from writing news daily in a hardworking office to simply not doing anything much from day to day in terms of journalism, but it’s allowed me to get my bearings. I have five (I know) job applications on the go, all of them interesting, and I’m seeing someone tomorrow that may result in a much-needed financial boost. I’m attempting to track down both ODST and Arkham Asylum over the coming week, and I’m excited to play them both. I’ll be writing a long entry on ODST after I’m done with the campaign and have experimented in FireFight a little.

Working my way through more science fiction; almost done with Fallen Angels, and about to launch myself into the Ravenor Omnibus by the extremely talented Dan Abnett. Little frustrated with Angels as it’s not gone as far with the plot as it should have in the space of 400 pages; it’s not a three-act story, and they’re stretching it out into a climax, whereas a far bigger plot event, such as the Space Wolves coming for Magnus and the Thousand Sons, will be over and done with in two novels. That being said, Graham’s indicated that the Thousand Sons book is ridiculously long, so perhaps the two will justify the gravity of their subjects in terms of length.

Had a great deal of fun seeing some old friends (decade, at least?) and found they had the most amazing habit going, collectively; playing the demo track of DiRT on the Xbox 360 on hard to see who could get the best time. At first, I was a little puzzled as to why one of them hadn’t simply purchased the game, and then I remembered how much fun I’ve had playing demo tracks over and over, especially in racing. The graphics are stunning, and it’s one of the few racing games that have piqued my interest, though that small number is increasing more and more, recently.

I also managed to borrow Grim Fandango off of one of them, as I’m missing my copy, so I’m ecstatic to be returning to the Land of the Dead in a couple of weeks when I get some spare time. As most people know, it’s my favorite game, actually introduced to me by the person who has just lent me a copy. Many fond memories of running up my phone bill asking him for a live walkthrough of the game. Many memories indeed.

I’ve also decided to put my Warhammer 40K dreams on hold for the time being, until I can get steady on my feet with a regular source of income. That said, I’ve got my eye on the shiny new MX laptop from Alienware, so the Black Templars 7th Company may have to wait a few months. Anyhoo, back to reading through seven years of Ctrl+Alt+Del, tara.

Freedom.

As of this weekend, I am no longer a reporter at Money Marketing as my internship has now finished. I got fourteen articles up on the web and a ton of stuff for their printed counterpart, so I’m happy with the workload. In my spare time between news-rushes, I completed 15% of my novel, which at a predicted total of 100,000 words is a fair amount to do in five-minute snatches.

Currently awaiting the results of three job applications, and crossing my fingers so hard I fear they’ll snap. I’m excited about all of them as all three have a lot of future in them and will help me develop as a writer, so I’m pleased if I even get an interview. In the meantime I’ll be working, seeing friends and, most importantly, spending some much-needed time with Lex. I enjoy working, but spending eight to ten hours away from someone you’re living and in love with is always difficult.

I’d also like to give a shout out to The Daily Scoundrel, a blog maintained by Lewis and a few of the Resolution boys that deals with film, music, TV and more, whilst still putting up interesting commentary on games. It’s also mostly work-safe (as in you can access it at work and your IT dept won’t shout “GAMES” at you and deny access, not as in it’s pornographic), so it’s great if you want to read something interesting in your lunch-break. I recently had a great debate about District 9 in their comments section.

They’ve worked damn hard, so go visit! They put up a fair bit of content every day, and it’s all very high-quality and in-depth as opposed to the majority of twitter-length bullshit posts you get on entertainment blogs these days.

Also looking into returning to Warhammer 40,000. I’m tempted to not spend tons on new figures, as Lex (quite astutely) pointed out that although a fair bit of it is broken (collapsing wardrobe, go figure), I’ve still got at least 1000 points of Orks and as many of Tyranids, so I can simply buy a few new paints and get started again without breaking the bank. I’ve had a (pdf-based, don’t shoot me, I’m broke and I’m buying it at Christmas anyway) look at the fifth edition rules and they’ve ironed out a lot of the ridiculously complex bullshit that made me more of a painter than a player.

I’m also in the process of looking at changing this blog’s domain name and exporting all the old posts to a new blog that simply has my name on it, as I think this fits the wider range of writing that I’m doing – that and forthegamergood.com doesn’t look so great when making serious applications to business publications.

Enjoy the weekend!