Eyes Peeled

20140614-115901-43141613.jpg

The latest addition to my teeny tiny comic collection is Eyes Peeled by Grace Wilson.

EP is a 2013-2014 series of observational comics and drawings which span two continents and three cities – Edinburgh, London and Stockholm – with a couple of other exotic excursions in between.

To say that this is a comic overflowing with ideas and details would be a huge understatement: every page is crammed with illustrations. Beautiful, disgusting, surprising, familiar illustrations of real life and real people. Candid little snapshots of the daily lives of a fascinating cast of characters just being themselves in their familiar haunts.

I suppose that’s what’s most engaging about this kind of social commentary. It’s a very immediate and personal transcription of events as they happened or felt at the time without much in the way of a filter.

From the youth spewing his guts up on the train, to the Scotsman relieving himself against a wall, chips discarded on the pavement, to the judgmental air hostess – the author makes no apology and allows many of the drawings to simply speak for themselves; take away what you will.

I found it interesting to discover characters I’ve come across in my own travels, transplanted and quite at home in a far off land like Sweden. Small world. Or the situations I’ve found myself in, and places I’ve been, proudly put on display here, warts and all, with unashamed honesty.

As the author hops around we rediscover a London ailing from the recession yet still building out and upwards (much to the inconvenience of everyone else). We’re taken to familiar places like Brick Lane where the curry houses are over-eager to welcome you in to their establishments, and corner shops that won’t take Scottish notes. In Edinburgh the awful tourist shops with their useless tat don’t miss out on a mention, nor does the referendum on Scottish independence, and I was amused to see Wetherspoons described exactly as I know it.

I loved that about Eyes Peeled – it’s not trying to pull the wool over our eyes with the typical romanticised take on tourist hotspots, instead it’s down in the nitty gritty of daily life. The odd little scenarios we’ve all come across. Little nods here and there that locals will instantly recognise. I have the benefit of having resettled in London after growing up in Edinburgh and having done my fair share of travelling in between so I could relate to Eyes Peeled a lot.

What I’ve failed to mention and cannot hope to do justice to here is the humor of Eyes Peeled. Sprinkled throughout lies a running commentary by the author (and several cameo appearances in the comics themselves) with witty insights and little anecdotes. It’s also seamlessly bilingual with Swedish throughout but without ever leaving you guessing. I found these parts the most interesting because of the cultural differences and similarities. I’m also very fond of enjoying works in their original language so was happy to try wrapping my mouth around the strange words here.

As someone who loves animation but has yet to properly scratch the surface of comics, I found Eyes Peeled readily accessible. It’s a proper adult narrative delivered in a wonderfully crafted, engaging art style which I think would appeal to people of all ages.

You can pick up a copy of Eyes Peeled from Grace Wilson’s online shop. You can also follow her on Tumblr and Twitter.

The Hunger Games

HungerGamesPoster 195x300 The Hunger Games

Liz dragged me along to The Hunger Games this afternoon. You know, that movie that everyone is talking about. I was more than a littleresistant. Admittedly I didn’t know anything about The Hunger Games – Liz has been raving about how good the books are – but I was expecting a Westernised Battle Royale with a healthy dose of Hollywood cheese.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the Battle Royale films. I absolutely love them for all their gruesome hack and slash delights. But there seems to be this need in Hollywood to remake foreign films for Western audiences. They did it with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (“Män som hatar kvinnor” 2009) when they released the American version in 2011 starring Daniel Craig. Why?! The original is fantastic – and harrowing – with a stellar performance by Noomi Rapace. They did it again with Let the Right One In (“Låt den rätte komma in” 2008) re-imagined as Let Me In (2010). I don’t know why there seems to be this Western aversion to foreign films. In many ways they’re head and shoulders above the airbrushed sugar we get from Hollywood. They’re quirky and unique in their own way.

So was The Hunger Games a re-imagined Battle Royale sell-out? Actually, not at all! I take it all back: i’m converted; I loved the film. I enjoyed it enough to read the books as soon as I finish the last Harry Potter. To be honest, I probably would have been happy with it even if it was like Battle Royale, but this is a film that takes the “set a bunch of kids in an arena to kill each other” scenario and makes its own mark on it. For one thing, the actual fighting doesn’t happen until much later in the film. Instead the film spends a long time establishing the key characters, their relationships, and the political structure of the Panem nation with its rich Capitol, and 12 surrounding districts.

The film opens on Reaping Day: a day of remembrance for the previous civil war which sees the 12 outlying districts offer up a young boy and girl as “tribute” to take part in The Hunger Games; a ritual fight to the death which leaves only one victor. We’re introduced to Katniss Everdene played by Jennifer Lawrence: a strong-willed young woman, handy with a bow and arrow, who will do anything to provide for her mother and young sister. When her sister is chosen to take part in The Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers in her stead, leaving behind the squalor of the Twelfth District for all the pomp and mockery of the Capitol. Together with a local boy, Peeta, she is whisked off into the media frenzy surrounding The Hunger Games, repackaged for the camera, and put through combat training with the other 22 contestants.

It’s all disgustingly ironic. While the twelve districts eke out a living from the land, the citizens of the Capitol live a life of luxury with food and warmth to spare, and the superiority complex to match. Katniss finds herself paraded around by her oppressors like a show dog, asked to perform for them while they cheer her on and congratulate her for taking part in their Game. And it is a game to the citizens of the Capitol. Whole industries are built around The Hunger Games with sponsorship deals and camera opportunities galore. Everything is arranged to maximise the performance and the public lap it up, strutting about in their extravagant hairdos, with their fake smiles.

Katniss herself takes everything in her stride. She is initially dazed by the media attention but later accepts that she must ‘play the game’ through gritted teeth to get sponsorship deals and increase her chances of surviving The Hunger Games. She helps Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) show his own strengths and, while initially distancing herself from him, grows closer to him over the course of the film. This was both touching and awkward like most teen romances and the glimses of their backstory throughout the film were very revealing.

Most of the other contestants however, while each having their own strengths, come across as a bit one-dimensional. Alexander Ludwig plays Cato, the typical ‘in it to win it’ kid with attitude. He never really gets a chance to become anything other than this unfortunately.

Throughout the games Jennifer Lawrence shows off Katniss’ hunting prowess and survival skills with gritty detail. We see her setting traps and finding safe places to spend the night, always staying one step ahead of the other contestants. While the film is only a 12A there are enough cuts and bruises to show the brutality of The Games without the violence being glamorised. Like The Truman Show everything is televised, however unlikely it is that there just so happens to be a camera pointing in that direction at that particular time. But the technology that makes it all possible thankfully takes a backseat to the characters themselves, allowing for many intimate moments amongst the action.

The other supporting characters in the film are played really well. As her mentor Haymitch, Woody Harrelson is the weak-willed ex-winner who finds comfort at the bottom of a bottle. He comes around later and is one of the few who offer Katniss helpful advice. Meanwhile her stylist Cinna, played by Lenny Kravitz, again sympathises with her situation, but frustratingly does little to help, while Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman epitomises the smarmy television star we all love to hate.

The evident injustice really makes your blood boil and by the end of the film you are rooting for the underdogs to upset the status quo. It’s an epic, emotionally charged, film that has you on the edge of your seat the whole way through, and it deliberately leaves many questions for the next film to explore. I for one can’t wait.

Entrapment

Screen Shot 2012 03 27 at 23.11.58 300x185 EntrapmentThe first of my reviews (finally) of the selection of games generously included in the AGS Bake Sale bundle and what an opening it is. Entrapment is a game by Stuart Lilford, aka Tenacious Stu, of Lightbulb Games created using Adventure Game Studio and first prototyped back in January 2011 when he was at University. The finished game sees the main character, Sam Drake, plagued by attempts to frame him for murder from an unknown stalker. Recently he has been waking up in hotel rooms with different women.. different dead women. Yeah..you thought you had problems?!

The first thing that really grabbed me is the music. The title screen fades in to moody, threatening chords, oozing with tension. Peircing notes lance through the chords, shortly resolving into a lighter, more positive swelling soundtrack, the likes of which you’d find in epic movie productions. The music was created by Brian Carnrike (aka Swordofkings128) and his unsettling scores punctuate the rest of game, heightening the tension. Some of the sound effects in the game, such as the ticking clock, complement the soundtrack, although I felt the game would have benefited from more sound effects. It cannot be understated how solid the game feels with a proper musical score though.

The game deals with very serious themes, [spoiler warning] namely murder, guilt, and split-personality disorders, [/spoiler warning] but these are made more palatable by a good dose of humor. The gravity of his situation isn’t lost on Sam, and he tells you so when you happen to forget! He also has a hard time convincing the other characters that the murders are even happening and his frustrated exchanges with the hotel receptionist work well as comic relief.

Visually, the game is presented in a simple, almost cartoon style, however this works well with the difficult subject matter. The focus isn’t on the gory details – though they be presenting their bodily fluids to all who can bear to watch – instead it’s on Sam’s attempts to cope with his predicament. That’s not to suggest that the graphics were an afterthought. On the contrary, the backgrounds are full of nice touches like the light cast from lampshades and ruffles in the duvet covers of the hotel bed. Not to mention the blood trail leaking from the abdomen of the unfortunate young woman lying in the middle of the floor..

Some background animation would have breathed life into the otherwise static scenes – there were some flashing lights I recall – however Sam himself has been given some very nice animations. It has to be remembered that the game was finished to a tight deadline to make the Bake Sale and it’s easy to forget how much time it takes to create each animation, especially for a one man team. Of those that have been implemented, my favourite is the ‘wide-eyed’ horror that Sam expresses and the crawling animation.

I found the puzzles satisfying, not too difficult but not blatantly obvious either. I didn’t spend too long scratching my head although I would have liked to see more interaction with some of the hotspots in the rooms. Items that I thought were perfectly logical puzzle items turned out simply to be background scenery. The puzzle solutions made sense though and I especially liked the solution to the bathroom puzzle..because you would use a [insert item here], wouldn’t you?

The dialogue in the game was well written, although I found the intro sequence a bit over the top but it later feeds back into the story well and there’s a nice, related, touch in the main menu. I did find some of the monologue – particularly the reveal near the end – quite awkward. A splurge of explanation for everything that happened that was perhaps unnecessary.

It’s a short game which tries to cover a lot of ground and mostly succeeds. Some of the later dialogue introduces ideas which would have been nice to see earlier, to see how they would unfold, but the game presents a solid, well-rounded story that quickens your pace throughout. A nice feature are the two different endings with two extreme choices left up to the player and I felt compelled to try them both, and rewarded for doing so.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the game. It’s clear that a lot of love and time has been invested in the game and it succeeds in presenting an unsettling narrative. That such a powerfully emotional journey can be contained in such a small episode is testament to the author’s creativity and narrative technique. I’d be very interested in seeing a longer piece from Lightbulb Games, exploring psychological issues in more detail.

The Bake Sale is now finished so the game is no longer available for the moment, however you can see a trailer of the game here and some notes on its genesis on the Lightbulb Games blog.

A box to call home

In the long, drawn out embarrassment that is my attempt to finish a custom WordPress theme, one thing I keep coming back to is my choice of categories.

Up until now, and for the foreseeable future, this blog has been somewhat of a catch-all for all my interests – games, technology, software, the internet, robotics, sci-fi, fantasy, reading, writing, animation, 3D modelling -, the list goes on and on. An unfortunate side effect of this rabble, is the lack of a directed focus overall.
Continue reading

The Mac Returns

I mentioned in the last post that my Mac died on me. Well it was a slow and painful death. Oh how I wept!

Okay, it didn’t actually get to the ‘dead’ stage before I sent it off for reincarnation. Suffice to say I discovered my hard drive was on its way out when my latest backup failed due to an ‘invalid root node’ error. Cue much cursing and biting of nails as I tried in vain to fix it before discovering it was a hardware problem after all.
Continue reading

WordPress 3.0 is here!

I’ll review the new features in more detail soon, but it’s looking very nice indeed. I particularly like the new child themes method for creating themes (you can base themes on parent themes, only changing what’s needed), the custom menus, and the custom post types (really custom ‘content’ - see here for good examples). You can read all about the new changes on the WordPress blog.

This is just the jolt I need to finish my own cutom theme (i’m SO sick of the green now). It has actually been 95% done for ages now, but my final year at Uni has really taken precedence over my ‘projects.’ I recently started working on it again, but a recent hard-drive failure has meant i’ve had to put it on hold=( With the arrival of WP 3.0 though, I think i’ll start from scratch as soon as i’m able. I should be able to get something up soon.

Sorry, just a quick post today, but i’ll post again soon with what i’ve been up to.

Later.

The Dream Machine

Life is but a dream..

thedreammachine1 300x199 The Dream Machine

I’ve really been sinking my teeth into some great Indie games over the last couple of months. There’s some truly amazing things going on out there thanks to some really talented individuals. One of those little gems is The Dream Machine by Cockroach Incorporated, with its creators Erik Zaring and Anders Gustafsson at the helm.

The Dream Machine is a traditional point-and-click adventure game, hand-crafted using a combination of clay, 3D graphics, Photoshop wizardry and the all important creative flair. It follows the story of Victor Neff, a young man who’s just moved to a new city with his pregnant wife, Alicia. Awaking from a strange dream, the early part of the game sees Victor and Alicia settling in to their new apartment, surrounded by as yet unpacked moving boxes. It’s not long before you meet the other residents of the apartment building and discover a shocking secret that tugs at your curiosity in a way you can’t resist.

The game looks absolutely gorgeous. All the sets and the characters have been hand crafted from materials like clay and cardboard, giving the game a distinctive tactile feel. Everything in the game looks solid, like you can just reach out and touch it, instead of some digital 3D mirage. You can literally spend ages just poring over the incredible attention to detail. From the dust mites floating in the shafts of sunlight from the apartment windows, to the shadow of the fishes swimming around the island. Or from Victor’s Blade Runner-inspired shirt, to the peeling paint on the apartment’s radiators and the chipped tiles in the bathroom. The game is a joyous feast for the eyes. Watch closely and you will even see Victor blinking, such is the care and attention that has gone into creating this game.

Great visuals alone don’t make a game, and luckily no expense has been spared crafting the other elements of the game to a similarly high standard. The soundtrack to the game is outstanding. An elegant, understated score opens the game, suggesting both playfulness and intrigue in equal amounts, before giving way to only the sound of waves crashing on the beach of the deserted island where Victor starts the game. You can really feel the isolation. When Victor wakes up, you find yourself in the apartment where the soundtrack becomes darker, moody, foreboding, but not overly so. It encourages exploration while suggesting that you may not like what you find. The sound effects in the game are of a similarly professional quality, each distinctive and realistic, nothing feels out of place. My current studies have highlighted the importance of audio in bringing environments to life, and it shows here. Again, it’s all in the little details: Victor’s footsteps change depending on the surface he’s walking on, be it the soft thud of the floorboards in the bedroom, or the click-clack on the tiled kitchen floor. Cross the rug in the hallway and his footsteps become even more dulled. This is obsessive attention to detail, and the game really benefits. I should also mention that the developers have included a Hearing aid option for important sound effects, so this game is definitely deaf-friendly. There’s also a greyscale option to make the game more accessible to people with colour blindness.

I haven’t even described the gameplay yet, such is the lavish spectacle the environments alone place before you. As a relative newcomer to the adventure game genre, The Dream Machine is very newcomer friendly. The controls are standard point-and-click fare, with an unobtrusive inventory that pops down when you mouse near the top of the screen. You can drag and drop items from your inventory onto Victor or onto objects in the environment to interact with them. It’s simple but very intuitive. The early puzzles on show also make use of drag and drop, but again, whether it’s sorting through objects in a cardboard box, or piecing together a letter, the feeling is tactile and believable.

Where the gameplay really shines is the interaction with other characters. There’s a ton of dialogue options in the game if you want to explore them. You can race through conversations if you prefer, but the storyline in this game is one to be savoured. And it’s worth it:  The different personalities of the character’s really come across in the way they talk and draw you in. I could feel Victor’s uncertainty about their new life in the city, and I also learned a little of his hopes and dreams for the future. Similarly, conversations with Alicia were a joy rather than a necessity. The way she speaks to Victor – loving but at times like a mother entertaining a child –  is a recipe for comedy gold. Later on, when we find Alicia standing by the window in (what will be) the living room, you can tell she’s deep in thought, trying to understand her unsettling dream, and all before she utters a word. You soon meet other characters with their own stories to tell, and each is unique, memorable for their own little quirks. You really get a sense of being a part of the world of The Dream Machine.

Anders, one of the developers, was kind enough to invite me to take part in beta testing the game so i’ve seen a little more than is on show in the demo. The game has been in development for over a year already, but for a game still in beta, the production quality is very very high. Even parts of a game typically polished up late in the day, such as the main menu and splash screens, are really polished and work beautifully. I’m completely enraptured by this game, it’s easily one of my all time favourite games based solely on what i’ve seen so far. The first chapter has left me on a tantalising cliffhanger and I can’t wait to play the end result.

If this little preview has you tempted – I hope so! – you can play a demo of the game right now on the official website and sign up for the beta. The game runs in all web browsers supporting Flash 8 or later. You can also keep up with the game’s development on the blog where the developers have been more than forth-coming about their production process. I’ve already sent a few emails back and forth to Anders regarding the game and he really is a friendly and approachable guy so please pass on your thoughts. You can also join the Facebook group to keep up with current developments. They’ve recently been showing the game off at the Nordic Games Conference so expect more news soon.