I’m leaving Future Publishing this week. I’ve worked there for just over six years, and written for its magazines for nearer ten. I am sad to go, though much of what I’ll miss about the company left before I did. Naturally I wanted to write something wry and important to sum up the things I’ve learned and my conflicted feelings at this goodbye, but that was too hard so I did this wan overcooked dear diary nonsense instead. As ever, I am sorry.
I first joined Future as a staff writer on Official PlayStation 2 Magazine in the summer of 2004. We moved down from Sheffield and I found the magazine packed inside a tumbling, turning office building in the centre of Bath, busy and full of funny and creative people it seemed I could never keep up with. I remember a summer party with bumper cars and cocktails. I remember learning a great deal. I made good friends, and I remember being sad to leave when I went back to Sheffield for more post-graduate study.
Three years later the relationship between me and my never-finished PhD became problematic, which is to say that I hated everything I’d ever written and thought. I called Tim Clark and asked for a job. He said yes, and I came back in 2007 as reviews editor of the new Official PlayStation Magazine, launched alongside the PS3. Odd to realise while typing that my tenure has lasted almost exactly as long as the machine itself.
I was 26, which now seems very young, and the magazine had a strong, talented staff that barely changed for the next two years. We were confident and the magazine was good. We all knew print was in decline, but I was starting a career – it seemed so obvious to me, to us, that what we were writing and thinking was better than almost anyone else, better than the vast majority of barely-written and overly-read American sites. At some point, it seemed inevitable, someone would notice, or come up with a new website or magazine that would allow us to show just how good we were.
26 is very young.
Now I’m leaving I’m conscious of how much growing up (or, more less romantically, “aging”) I’ve done in the last six years. That’s why it’s probably a good thing for reasons I still can’t quite grasp that FirstPlay, the video project that grew from Official PlayStation Magazine in 2009, was a grinding horror that ended in failure. It was weekly and made weeks in advance, and it gradually become clear that it was, if not impossible to make, then impossible to make good. I learned a lot about video production, and working late, and, probably most importantly, about what happens when self-belief crashes into a solid wall of immovable Fuck You.
For the last two years I’ve been the editor of PlayStation Access, and these have been the best times – I’ve been lucky enough to work with excellent people, and I’ve also been able to tell them to do things that I don’t want to do. Although I’m leaving Future, we’ll still be making Access for Sony.
It will be strange to live in Bath and not ride into the office in the morning. Living here has always been synonymous with working there. Bath is a wonderful, small, stupidly perfect place to live and raise children, and there’s not been a morning, even during the worst times, that I have woken up with the dread stomach of facing work. I remind myself of this as often as I can. We gripe, and complain, and feel undervalued. But we live here, and we do this job, and we do it together.
So, that summing up. Even through the hotel-and-taxi blur of work travel, I’ve seen more of the world than I suspected I would. I’ve glimpsed Tokyo, New York, Montreal, Prague and many others, and I got to discover first hand how much I hate the lurid emptiness of Las Vegas. I’ve met scores of brilliant people and almost certainly didn’t make the most of them being forced to talk to me. I’ve gained a small understanding of a business and a craft that is finally attracting the kind of attention and study it deserves.
Thanks to Rich Keith for giving me a job. Thanks to Tim Clark for teaching me how to do it. Thanks to Helen Woodey, Ben Wilson, Leon Hurley, Rachel Weber, Mark Wynne and Paul Fitzpatrick for being the best. Thanks to James Jarvis for being the hardest working, hardest-to-work-with person I know. Thanks to David Boddington for being a gentleman in a more ordinary age. Thanks to Matt Elliott for fuck all, as usual. Thanks to Kim Richards, Ade Ruiz-Langan and Becky Preston for coming back for Access, and thanks to Dave Jackson and Robert Pearson for coming with me.
I’ll leave you with one of my most treasured memories of working at Future – that time I was reviewing Kane & Lynch 2 and realised there were two naked old men sliced to pieces with razors on my telly and I took pictures of it and sent them to everyone.
It’s been a long console generation, and I am tired.
I decided to write a thing about my favourite games of the generation, mostly because I realised I didn’t know what they were and partly to remind myself I had some. Then I had a little trouble deciding the exact qualification for “generation”, though I think I’ve landed on a formulation that will annoy almost everybody: I’ve excluded handheld games, for reasons, and also Wii games, because they exist on an entirely different track to the PS3 and Xbox 360 titles I spend the bulk of my time playing. This is arbitrary and almost certainly short-sighted, and I’m doing it anyway.
Choice number one – Mirror’s Edge
It’s depressing how long ago Mirror’s Edge was, and how at the time it already seemed a searing white riposte to overbrown shooter fatigue. I am so fatigued, and browned. The things I love about it include but are not limited to the rare appearance of a female protagonist, landscapes that felt designed for beauty rather than realism, and the striking notion that running away from guns might be more interesting than running around holding one like a metal comforter.
Secondarily I loved the game’s use of motion and space, which made movement and agility its own pleasure rather than, as is usually the case with first-person scenarios, a grudging necessity. Sliding, rolling and wall-jumping through Mirror’s Edge oriented me in a virtual space in a way nothing has done – or even tried to do – since, probably because Mirror’s Edge sold four copies, which is the fault of everyone I called a baby at the time for reviewing it badly because it was sometimes a bit hard. You BABIES.
Choice number two – Dead Space
Dead Space arrived in the same year as Mirror’s Edge during a halcyon time when it seemed as though investing in new IP, rather than iterating Call Of Duty at the precise speed it takes a nation of 14 year-old boys to save up another £40, might be the key to winning the games industry. This was never a realistic hope, but the upside is that Dead Space is an excellent game that I again want to describe as “striking”. I think striking might be one of my favourite words. Striking.
Dead Space is the grizzly end of sci-fi as learned from the blue-collar crew of Alien’s Nostromo. The future, it says, will be a place where replacing washers and making sure we can all breathe in trans-galactic flight will trump having a name like Dex Forearm and regenerating health. Our hero Isaac fixes things – trams, lifts, shuttles, navigation modules – and wears a rusty brown suit.
He’s likeably functional, and the game is impressively focused around him. His weapons are tools – cutters, saws, flamethrowers – and his enemies require precision dismemberment rather than undirected aggression. He is the artful shed-dad on an Autumn afternoon of videogame protagonists, and he lives in a satisfyingly unglamorous future of realistic moving parts. It’s a design of brilliant cohesion and visual strength, and I’m extraordinarily attached to it.
Choice number three – Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
This is really difficult to leave out. A feature of this generation has been the perfection of the ten-hour focused single-player campaign, and – without saying “striking” over and over again – this is the best one. It had moments of technically astounding action, a leading character capable of carrying an unheard of tonal range (tension, comedy, tragedy – where most comparable blockbusters do anger as one long machinegun burst) and it embraced an idea of storytelling and entertainment that brought everything together very successfully.
What makes Uncharted 2 remarkable is that I remember the people I met while playing it as brightly as I remember all the things I blew up inside it. And I really like blowing things up – just not as much as I love Tenzin the non-English-speaking Sherpa, who took me back to his village in the Himalayas (and then helped me blow up a tank). In that Himalyan village, while injured hero Drake walks peacefully through Tenzin’s people, the button for melee attack becomes the button to shake hands, and for just a few moments a square-jawed hero is capable of interacting with his surroundings by reaching out and making connections rather than swinging fists and breaking faces.
This is a mark of Uncharted 2’s accomplished storytelling and all-round polish, rather than a suggestion that humanitarian positivism is the bedrock of acing the third-person shooter. I’m not going to attempt to reconcile the contradiction of this being my favourite moment in a game about killing hundreds of pirates – I don’t have to, because this is my list, and I’m about to say something far more ridiculous.
Choice number four – Halo 3
This choice is especially exciting because I can’t remember much of what happened in the single-player side of Halo 3 except me getting quite cross and wishing Bungie had read more Robert McKee. Its inclusion is based entirely on the strengths of its multiplayer, which is the best online console shooter there has been, and which has been washed away by the pervasive influence of Call Of Duty, a tragedy on a par with the disappearance of Native American wisdom from the Great Plains or, more likely, the fact we don’t see so many red squirrels about these days.
The system is balanced and level in a way which encourages skill and strategy. Starting weapons are standardised, more powerful alternatives are to be fought over on the map – a game of territory and tactics. There are no geography-defeating power-ups of flight or speed, making knowledge of and fleet-footed navigation around the maps crucial. And there’s skill-based matchmaking to ensure a mostly steady curve of challenging opponent.
With Reach and Halo 4 the series’ points of differentiation were worn down to nothingness. CoD-inspired loadouts, perks and killstreak drops threw chaos into a system that thrived on even-handed stability, and made it faster and stupider.
Halo 3 is an elegant bare box. Learning its depths takes time, and there is no stat-tracked record of your progression. Halo 4 is a barking arcade of head-pats and ADD reinforcement. We’ve lost something intangible that used to happen between four men starting with BRs and grenades on Guardian with a count to 25, the swinging sense of paralysis and power, of gridlock and frenzy, that no game with a fucking jetpack will ever come close to.
Choice number five – Bioshock Infinite
This currently squeezes in ahead of The Last Of Us, which is a surprise not least to me as I’d half-written the entry for Naughty Dog’s game. The switch comes down to the fact that The Last Of Us is a brilliantly controlled depiction of a world I’ve seen in various forms before, while Bioshock Infinite’s great strength is its ability to conjure stop-and-stare moments of symbolism and spectacle from a place beyond my imagination.
It’s easy to say “games should do this” without thinking about how boring it would be if they all really did, or how hard it must be to construct engaging combat-heavy gameplay around a stars and stripes theme – but games really should do this. Fighting a metaphor of fallen idealism among the clouds feels transportive in a way that scoping the slightly big bugs of this season’s apocalypse will never be again. There were perhaps a dozen moments during the steady wonder of Infinite that I paused to enjoy an audacious idea or image – Booker’s opening baptism, the sad-faced Handymen, the incredible use of music.
The music! I’m in love with Bioshock Infinite as a culturally erudite game that has the technical prowess (and development resources) to play meaningfully with ideas and themes coherently within a sophisticated fictional environment. Its use of music just drives me crazy. Booker’s journey is peppered with period covers of popular hits from across the twentieth century. The titles and lyrics add meaning to the scenarios in which they’re found, like ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ playing as a newly-freed Elizabeth dances through a fair (‘Some guys take a beautiful girl and hide her away from the rest of the world… Oh daddy please you know you’re still number one…’) and sometimes their original context layers extra meaning on top (counter-culture anthem ‘Fortunate Son’ plays during a worker’s revolution).
I recently played some of my old Mega Drive games for something else I’m writing, including the Simpsons tie-in Krusty’s Fun House, the soundtrack to which is basically atonal farting set to a backing track designed to unreel your mind. The idea that a game like Bioshock Infinite can exist and that there can still be any handwringing as to the legitimacy of games is an idea ridiculous enough to make me so angry I’m going to stop.
Choices I did not make
In no order, things that came close and on another day could conceivably be on this list are Portal 2 for being the funniest game I’ve played, Batman Arkham City for the noise of punching men as Batman, GTA IV for the first time I saw the city at night listening to Philip Glass, Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare for getting SAS men so right, Journey for the best sand, Burnout Paradise for the 100 hours I spent playing it online, FIFA 09 for being the first really new football game we’ve had for years before or since, Bulletstorm for being fun, Dishonored for being a lot like Thief, and The Last Of Us for everything.
The Oscars are happening! These days the Academy nominate loads of films for Best Picture instead of just five, an inflatory move presumably intended to boost revenue by increasing the number of DVD boxes parading awards contention stickers. More immediately, though, it makes writing posts like this a pain in the ass, especially considering a prerequisite of being nominated is your film lasts for two and half fucking hours.
The Oscars, everybody! Have you seen all the best picture nominees? Probably not, some of them look super worthy and one of them is about slowly dying. I have, and here’s a look at them all and a little about what their Academy attention might mean.
Amour is nothing short of the undoing of a person onscreen, and in Riva it’s an alert and still-beautiful person (let’s not be crude, but if we all look like her when we’re 85 octenagerian banging is going to take off in a big way). Comparisons have been made to the life montage of square-headed miseraberk Carl in Pixar’s Up, but that’s allusive and warm and has a sad balloon as a metaphor for mortality, where Amour has a sparkling soul who shits and monosyllable-ises her dignity to nothingness while her husband tends and suffers. Of course, Up should blink tidily from hospital bedside to empty wake, because otherwise I could have stayed at home with the children to google gunshot wounds for two hours and saved £30. But equally Amour’s whole purpose is to dig into the distressing space in between – the slow loss of self, the small touches that comfort flintily, the inevitable triumph of decline.
Oh, fucking hell. If for any reason you want to accentuate the film’s cliff-face bleakness by all means remind yourself of the glamourous new wave peak of its leads – Riva a glaring feast of cheekbone in Hiroshima Mon Amour and Jean-Louis Trintignant wearing a high collar for all of fucking France in The Conformist, which is one of the Best Films. Alternatively you could read some @Michael_Haneke tweets to subvert the whole gazing into the human abyss heaviness. Good luck with that.
Ben Affleck’s true story spy thriller has all the characteristics of the career he’s trying to forge – it’s a bit political, a bit serious, and the period setting allows for his continuing tribute to ‘70s New Hollywood to extend to accurate swirl-bowl haircuts and plastic everything.
The problem is that it’s clearly the worst of the three films Affleck has so far directed, a small kernel of fascinating truth spread thin over flailing xenophobia (a lazy grab at tension from a filmmaker who’s smarter than this shows) and a final act that wrings idiot suspense from an airport escape using a shameful bag of manipulative clichés. As such I’d have trouble recommending Argo despite the fact Alan Arkin says “fuck” perhaps as many as fifteen times, which is excellent.
Beasts of The Southern Wild
Beasts Of The Southern Wild was made for a piece of string and three hammers using a cast of people who needed several months of training to become non-professional, and it’s still 68 times better than John Carter, the movie responsible for the Great Depression.
There are three reasons I love Beasts Of The Southern Wild even more than I love being sarcastic about the indie credentials of art films: because it projects a compelling image of a not-quite-sci-fi America divided along the lines of class and poverty shamefully exposed by Katrina, because the music is a soaring fairytale of hope that lifts a sodden nightmare, and because it includes the line “I hope you die, and when you die I’ll go to your grave and eat birthday cake by myself.”
The music bit is important – like David Simon’s HBO series Treme, Beasts looks at what makes communities strong even after their abandonment by the establishment and decides it’s probably getting drunk and dancing. It’s vital and defiant, and I expect it’s also too small and unspectacular to win – not when there are self-importantly staged musicals and presidential dramas in competition. Still, if 2012 featured a big-screen joy purer than watching Hush Puppy run through the Bathtub with sparklers held in each hand then I blinked and missed it.
In which we learn: That Tarantino can still pick his collaborators, even if none of them happen to be a strong-armed editor or anyone with balls enough to say “Hey, Quentin, maybe don’t be in this scene as the least convincing Australian ever. The Bonnie Situation was a long fucking time ago and this is pretty embarrassing for everybody”. Which is another way of saying that it’s Christoph Waltz, rather than the film around him, that makes Django Unchained feel fresh and arresting, and whenever he’s not onscreen the self-indulgence and lack of focus weigh heavily.
Problems include the apparent belief that obstinately protracted scenes accrue significance proportional to their length, that Taratino’s script over-pronounces its racist insults like a schoolkid trying out his first swear words, and that Samuel L Jackson has come dressed as a jar of Uncle Ben’s sauce. It’s a big pile for fine casting to overcome, which is why it doesn’t.
In which we learn: That Oscar voters love a musical, even when it’s shot like a sixth form vision poem.
More importantly we also learn that the songs in Les Misérables are really good, and that Hugh Jackman hasn’t forgotten his classical stage training despite ten years of doing press-ups and building a body that looks like the flank of a horse. Russell Crowe is both ridiculous as scowling man-of-law Javert and the least wretched he’s been for years – his pompous “I’m doing acting” furrow happens to be an exact match for Javert’s dickishness, and it’s tough to dislike a man who’s throwing his all into singing and is still a bit rubbish.
It’s okay to admit to having a small cry while Anne Hathaway sang I Dreamed A Dream – or at least it had better be because I’m doing it here – and also to acknowledge the success of the film’s technically ambitious decision to record all the vocal performances on set, which is largely what gives Hathaway’s steady, single-shot showcase its saddening whack. Plus points, too, for being filmed partially at Chatham’s Historic Dockyard, where I once gave guided tours of various maritime attractions, something which enabled me to make what’s likely to stay my least-heralded joke of 2013 in a one-line review of the film: It’s a bit ropery.
BECAUSE THERE IS A ROPERY IN THE DOCKYARD WHERE THEY MAKE ROPES .
Life Of Pi
Full marks anyway to the tiger, who eats a goat and a zebra, is called Richard Parker, and is my second favourite pretend tiger only after the one who came to tea because he drank all the water in the tap. Next to that drifting across the ocean on a transcendent journey of self-discovery and creaking analogy really is a piece of saved-in-a-bag-until-we’re-dying-of-thirst piss.
Life Of Pi is technically superb in a self-negating way whereby incredible effects work is a minimum requirement of making the story simply occur onscreen. Years of human endeavour sink the creature animation invisibly into the film’s reality, the crowning touch of this remarkable achievement being to give the audience an unobstructed view of the Booker-winning story which, it turns out, is really boring.
Still, as an adaptation of an award-winning novel which has made a giant pile of cash at the box-office, this is a smart shout for Best Picture, even though I secretly enjoyed fellow fiasco-magnet Cloud Atlas more as a movie less inclined to strike me in the face with its hammer-blow attempt at profundity.
While explaining his 2013 ballot card to The Hollywood Reporter, an anonymous academy voter recently said that “Spielberg deserves an Oscar every 10 years or so out of respect for what he does for the industry.” What he does for the industry in this case being to make a long-ass film about caucuses and securing the immediate financial future of Hollywood’s fake beard craftsmen.
Oh fine, Lincoln better than that – it’s also an engaging if heavyweight political drama dealing with issues of race and presidential legacy. The film was timely and serious, and we should thank it for showing by contrast the pop-culture shallowness of Django Unchained’s treatment of the same themes, even if it was also like an episode of the Old West Wing without Bradley Whitford
A special word for Daniel Day Lewis, who is here a model of tempered passion and thoughtfulness, and who delivers the kind of subdued intensity you’d expect from a president whose reward for bearing the weight of a civil war and successfully abolishing slavery was to be shot in the fucking head.
Silver Linings Playbook
Silver Linings Playbook has the haphazard profundity of As Good As It Gets, an apparently straightforward emotional drama given extra flight and poignancy by excellent performances and an interest in the awkward imperfection of human contact.
What it’s doing on the list is anyone’s guess – it’s enjoyable, but bar De Niro stripping back the irony and for once laying it on the line, this is good rather than great, a smart romance that embraces weird and shows Bradley Cooper can do more than glow from his teeth while wearing perfect tanned abs.
Zero Dark Thirty
While fellow-favourite Lincoln is celebrated as a recreation of a president’s historical decisiveness, Zero Dark Thirty is notable for not featuring Barack Obama or his nod to proceed with the assassination of Osama Bin Laden and being pilloried by various logic-illiterate sections of the media for it anyway, an idiot’s circus that only gave way to an equally tedious discussion about whether the film promotes or condemns the use of torture during interrogation.
All of which is to miss the point that Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t give an improvised fucking device about political gamesmanship or the eye of history – it’s a film about process and precision, about the front end of conflict, which in a modern context involves being Jessica Chastain and doing a serious face, and it’s told with a spareness and neutrality that borders on disinterest.
Still, it’s interesting that in a presidential election year the Academy’s best picture nominees are or less split between heavyweight politicising and searching for the meaning of life, with Django Unchained happier to pop a collar and think about how cool it is, the answer to which if you haven’t been paying attention is: nowhere near as fucking cool as Trintignant in The Conformist.
Here once again is a review of the year in film which is limited to the things I’ve been able to see in between having a job that doesn’t require me to watch films, raising two children and drinking enough coffee to fill the warmest, scariest lake in the world.
So, January, which had the benefit of being Oscar hangover month for the UK which caught up on the awards-angling pair of The Descendants, a family drama by Alexander Payne which was good even though the most exciting thing that happens is George Clooney running in loafers, and Shame, which was much more than its “pean to a penis” tag suggested and not too far off an internet pornography-age Taxi Driver. There was also The War Horse, which I didn’t watch because. In less gilded quarters The Darkest Hour was an alien invasion movie interesting for being set in Moscow and boring for every other reason including the fact its aliens were invisible, while Haywire was a spy story in which Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender and Channing Tatum made a deal with Gina Carano where they did all the acting and she punched them all in the face. Finally there was The Grey, in which Liam Neeson was supposed to elbow drop a pack of wolves for an hour and a half to amuse sniffy critics but instead snarled, survived and meditated on death in a way which was meaningful if you can swallow great snowy mouthfuls of received Hemingway.
The bitterly cynical Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close was a pretended cry of innocent profundity, a glib, mawkish fuck of a film that, if it were a man, would deserve death at the corner of a brick. Thankfully the rest of February was less awful: Freud and Jung drama A Dangerous Method was a David Cronenberg pilgrimage to the monocled font of all his knob-based neuroses and sex wounds, while Chronicle was a lo-fi superhero story strong on character and blissfully weak on capes, super-sized budgets and things that may or may not be CAAAAARRRs. The Woman In Black was a coming together of two great British institutions – Hammer Films and Harry Potter – which put enough fog and Ciaran Hinds on the screen to obscure the fact that Daniel Radcliffe isn’t ever going to be very good at acting. Conversely Woody Harrelson was a perfect James Ellroy hero in Rampart – a difficult mix of domestic fascism and obdurate intelligence – though the movie couldn’t keep pace with his performance, and there was no pace at all in Man On A Ledge, a film notable for being the moment we all realised Sam Worthington is the most boring man ever to accidentally become a Hollywood star. The film I enjoyed best all month was The Muppets, which was not only a joyous and skillful resurrection of past stars, but a brilliant film about the past (Eighties robot, Amy Adams and Jason Segel’s out-of-time couple, this glorious bit of dialogue) that pulled off the not inconsiderable trick of conjuring nostalgia without succumbing to it.
March cheered me up with John Carter, not because it was good, but because the way in which it was nearly good but also ridiculous, self-defeating and full of sand reminded me of David Lynch’s Dune, which is always an excellent thing. There were genuine disasters too – Wrath Of The Titans vied for least distinctive sequel of forever, earning a reprieve from oblivion thanks to the few seconds during which Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes beat the godly shit out of everything, and Act Of Valor might have had good intentions but also might as well have been a 90 minute shot of an erect penis wearing a marine special forces hat. Like this one. Drab smuggling thriller Contraband was further, tediously plotted proof that Mark Wahlberg is a better comedian than he is action star, something that fellow meat-lump Channing Tatum seemed to figure out for himself in the remake of ‘80s TV show 21 Jump Street, which had no business being as good as it was. Victim of an even bigger miscasting was the ever-intense Tom Hardy, who didn’t so much look uncomfortable in romantic comedy This Means War as like he wanted to tear the skin from the faces of everyone else in the film with his teeth, which lent the bantering courtship scenes an odd rhythm. I enjoyed that The Hunger Games was a movie aimed at the post-Twilight teenage market that had a capable female lead instead of a simpering leaf, but weirdly didn’t enjoy all the bits where kids killed each other, although I did enjoy the thrill of Aardman in full flow in The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! even though the speed and imagination were compensating for a plot as messily constructed as that rubbish title. Lastly, Project X was basically Risky Business with a found-footage gimmick and a steady conviction that throwing up is funny, and on that basis couldn’t provide more of a contrast with This Is Not A Film, a poignant documentary from banned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi that touches on the frustration of his forced retirement, but also on the magic of collaboration and hope for the country’s future.
April was good but also included Battleship. I’m generally forgiving of Hollywood’s moneymaking foibles, but there’s a biting emptiness here – even Transformers has a glued-on storyline about bad robots, but licensing Battleship, an archetypal game of chance based upon the existence of war rather than any specific instance of it, is no more narratively meaningful than adapting a roll of dice. Things improved marginally with Guy Pearce doing a Liam Neeson in sci-fi prison thumper Lockout, which must have been OK because all I can remember of it is the lopsided smile Pearce did every time he was punched in the face, then got actually good with Headhunters, an authentically Hitchockian manhunt grounded by practical set-piece panic but also stretched to dramatic extremes. The Cabin In The Woods was the kind of wry meta-take on the teen slasher genre you’d expect from writer/producer Joss Whedon, though the film’s best moment was Bradley Whitford being allowed to say “Oh COME ON” as sarcastically as possible. A mainline of Whedon arrived with The Avengers which it’s difficult to credit as anything but a triumph – a stable of stars and super-characters marshalled with unifying self-deprecation, a deftly managed set of character interactions and a fine way with pomp-nixing one-liners (“There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that”). The month was rounded off wonderfully, as things often are, by Audrey Tautou in La Délicatesse, which I enjoyed as an “after the fairy tale” follow-up to Amelie in which her Kassovitz-esque soul-mate dies suddenly and she’s cast into a world of imperfect second choices. It revels in the clumsy and the unappealing, and at least tries to get at the truth of caring for people.
For my birthday in May I got a Wes Anderson film I didn’t love very much in the shape of Moonrise Kingdom. Seeing as everyone is currently complaining about Brad Pitt’s ubiquitous perfume ad here’s an example of him selling something gloriously, the point being this kind of meticulously controlled joy explosion is what Anderson’s capable of at his best and nowhere to be seen in Moonrise Kingdom which reminded me of Max Fischer’s high school plays in Rushmore, a drama pretended by kids and at one ironic move from anything heartfelt (also Pitt should maybe do a Tati film). It was loads better than The Dictator, though, which without the outrage and explosive potential of unwitting collaborators felt overly scripted and trite. Getting worse before we get better, Piranha 3DD wasn’t so much a film as a flock of tits being dragged underwater in the company of David Hasselhoff, and American Pie: Reunion was a failure to let go which, even as someone who went to university the year American Pie was released, bored me to bastard tears and I only saw it because the stupid digital print of The Cabin In The Woods wouldn’t work at the local Odeon. Men In Black 3 didn’t need a smart plot or script because it had Josh Brolin doing a sinew-perfect Tommy Lee Jones impersonation and Will Smith, who is the most natural film star currently barely working. Romanian prison drama If I Want To Whistle, I Whistle… was controlled and angry, but the month’s best film was the breathless invention of The Raid, which turned a story about a policeman who’s good at kicking and walks up a tower block into a ballet of snapped shins and horrid landings.
Things slowed down a little in June. George Lucas showed why it was a good thing he’d sell LucasFilm to Disney at the end of the year with World War Two drama Red Tails, which proved once and for all that despite the vast technical resources at his disposal he’d become SOMEHOW INCAPABLE OF MAKING FILMS, while Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter wasn’t half as awful as everyone complained, sadly leaving it plenty of room for still being quite awful. Friends With Kids was a modern-day When Harry Met Sally blessed with a splendid cast (mostly, the cast of Bridesmaids) led by Jennifer Westfeldt, who also wrote and directed the film and probably smells really nice too, while Rock Of Ages drew a frankly unnecessarily good turn from Tom Cruise as a slow-moving Axl Rose-shaped monument to excess and was quite good fun, though this might be because I’m increasingly sure Don’t Stop Believing is the pinnacle of Western civilisation. Even this version. William Friedkin’s southern gothic Killer Joe was greasy and sickening like eating a bucket of cold chicken wings, and finally, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus arrived, and was almost a delicately constructed bridge between the rich universes of his past classics Alien and Blade Runner, but then, for reasons I’ve sworn about at length, wasn’t.
In July I found the world of Dr Seuss adaptation The Lorax generically right-on and a little threadbare, and then the month was given over to two giant superhero vehicles. The Amazing Spider-Man did a perfectly fine job of retelling the Peter Parker origin story, the more interesting thing being how soon it did so after Sam Raimi’s mostly-good series had stumbled, which says something about audience appetites for consuming the same superhero tales dressed in new costumes and the genre’s similarities to old Western cycles, but not nearly enough about how awesome Emma Stone is in this and everything else. Then there was The Dark Knight Rises, the biggest and somehow also smallest of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Nolan might be the only filmmaker working in superhero films to think of them consciously as myth, which makes his Batman movies rewardingly elaborate and serious but also tips them towards pretension, by which I mean the film was good but let’s all agree Bane’s voice wasn’t an example of the Emperor’s new clothes so much as the Emperor nakedly crotch-chopping his way down the high street (it’s also more or less unwatchable after you’ve seen this dead-eyed parody).
August threatened to be unbearable thanks to The Watch, a urban sci-fi comedy which relied on Richard Ayoade deadpanning about his balls for its only two laughs, and veteran action slog The Expendables 2, which felt like plugging electrodes into a dead muscle and watching it convulse uselessly. Mark Wahlberg was good in Ted, though the dry-humping cuddly bear concept become a friction burn all too soon, and Jeremy Renner was good in The Bourne Legacy, which was stripped, spare, and about the best anyone could have hoped for from a Matt Damon movie without Matt Damon. The best film of the month was Pixar’s Brave, which redrew Scotland as a paradise of lush green hills and tumbling red hair. I loved that it featured another crafty, self-assured female lead, and that the film was about a nuanced relationship with her mother and not drab daddy approval issues, but ever so slightly disappointed it didn’t come together as magically as it might.
September inadvertently offered a selection of films about masculinity. The Sweeney was a nasty film about men who breath frantically through their nose before headbutting something – impressive for £2 million, in the same was as making a bomb packed with shit in your kitchen is impressive – while Depression-era standoff Lawless was huskily acted but never coherent enough to be powerful, and Dredd was a purposeful science fiction success that dealt efficiently with all the big-city-in-the-future essentials in order to better spend its time beating the shit out of criminals. I enjoyed it so much I barely had time to think about how fascist it was. Elsewhere The Babymakers was a sub-Atapow life comedy about an infertile man stealing his own sperm from a fertility clinic that might have had a wry point to make if it wasn’t so focused on making wank gags instead. Fnally there were contrasting Joseph Gordon-Levitt films: Premium Rush, a shallow thriller about fixie-bike couriers in New York with some fairly unforgivable “Wow, X-Games!” moments, and Rian Johnson’s fantastic film about time-travel and hitmen, Looper, which is my favourite of the year thanks to its economically constructed near-and-further futures, and thanks to a dazzling set of ideas that contract to a cold kernel of truth: that the time we have is limited and this gives our choices meaning and weight.
October was somehow the most consistently enjoyable month of the year despite including Madagascar 3, a film which opted out of unbearably smug Dreamworks franchise building, hired Bryan Cranston, and did a nightmarish/brilliant remix of two of the worst songs of all time to somehow become my favourite animated film of the year. Ruby Sparks offered just enough unpleasantness in its cosy intellectual story of a trembling boy-genius writer and the perfect girl he accidentally invents, Skyfall explored the interesting things that can happen if you make Bond human again – in weakness he’s restored the half-century-old series to strength – but far and away the best film of the month was Beasts Of The Southern Wild, an out-of-time tale of American disenfranchisement that’s really about the joy of being alive, and holding close all those who get to share it with you. It’s a near-miracle of communal filmmaking and untrained performances, and you should see it without reading another word about it.
I’m a fan of Ben Affleck but Argo, which came out in November, isn’t his best film – it’s rich in the political buzz and New Hollywood style that make him so interesting, but over-amplifies its true story through manipulation and cliché when it’s strong enough to stand on its own. Happily the only other film I saw all month was End Of Watch, an escalating drama surrounding a pair of patrol cops in LA which derives all its strength from the touching, unforced friendship of Michael Peña and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Then, in December, I saw just one film – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Speaking as a man who grew up thrilled at glimpses of even the most stilted fantasy worlds on the big screen, this was a huge, belting version of one of our most important stories, and all those who say otherwise haven’t lived a life desperately convincing themselves the fucking Rankin/Bass animation was watchable, even though Gollum was a frog.
And that’s everything. The things I feel most ridiculous for not having seen yet are Berberian Sound Studio, The Master and Rust And Bone. The best films I’ve caught up on from previous years are Night Moves and A Matter Of Life And Death, and the best television series I watched were the BBC Tinker, Tailor and Smiley’s People (having caught up on the fine film version of last year, it still has nothing on Alec Guinness) and Breaking Bad, season three of which is probably the best television I’ve ever seen.
The things I like about Cologne include: the large number of bicycles ridden throughout the city, which features a positively continental proportion of curved cruiser handlebars, the clattering of loaded freight trains as they pass over the Rhine and into the night, and the thick, urgent downpour of rain which seems to hit the city every evening, and is gone again so quickly that it might be just a very efficient way of cleaning up.
In contrast the list of things I don’t like includes: the refusal of both my colleagues in this nightly game of “sit by a window and upload video files very slowly” to adopt my suggested German slang term “Michael” when talking about memory s(ch)ticks (not strictly Cologne’s fault) and our taxi driver from today, who invited us to stare at a girl in tight denim shorts before sliding with cliché-lubed grace into a remark about how many black people there are in England. I suspect he doesn’t ride a cruiser. I suspect he rides a flaming cross with “I am a shitwheel dickeating racist” written on it.
Talking of racism, today we interviewed Warren Spector, who’s at the show with Disney showcase Epic Mickey, and for a very brief period of time I considered asking him if he’d thought about making the crows from Dumbo into a swooping, taunting, white supremacist boss battle. He’d be able to do this on the grounds that Epic Mickey is a device through which to trawl the Disney archive – it features a world called the Wasteland filled with forgotten works and characters, a canonical fictionalisation of Disney’s industrial and creative evolution that I find fascinating. Of course he wouldn’t do it, because he’s not a lunatic.
Listening to Spector speak is a pleasure. He’s both affable and shrewd, making him one of those rare people that it’s quite nice to be patronised by. My second favourite thing that anyone said today was his reply when asked which Disney movie he enjoys the most. ”That’s an easy question to ask and a hard one to answer,” he said, which we totally deserved because half of Europe has already asked him the same thing, twice. It doesn’t beat my favourite thing said today, though, which was Beyond director David Cage explaining his philosophy of game design, emphatic French accent wrapping around each syllable for barely sustainable conceptual torque: “I care about what people are doing with their minds,” he said, tapping his temples,”not what they’re doing with their thumbs.”
Having uttered the most singularly David Cage-ish thing of all time Cage went on to prove he had a sense of humour by admitting that at this point Quantic Dreams probably has the technical resources to create a virtual porn film starring Ellen Page. Even more than wondering who would dub such a performance (I’ve passed David my card) what I was thinking during his presentation was the actually fairly obvious thought that productions like Beyond and The Last Of Us are finally answering the question raised implicitly by Dragon’s Lair and early 1990s Siliwood – “How can we make interactive films that aren’t a crock of shit?” And the answer is “By spending millions of dollars to painstakingly subsume human performers into a virtual world and even then we sometimes get the mouths wrong,” which probably wouldn’t be of much comfort to those early pioneers, though thinking about Ellen Page all nude and digital and speaking with my voice just might be.
Really the most remarkable thing about Gamescom day three is that it was the first day open to the public, which means the show floor became a sea of bodies apparently programmed to stop at random and look at their fucking shoes. The ludicrousness of the whole enterprise was summed up this morning as the doors were about to open for the first time, with our cameras trained on hundreds of visitors behind a barrier who were looking back at us with their own cameras, an empty note of imagined significance bouncing infinitely back and forth.
My usual distraught cynicism has mostly been tempered during Gamescom by how much I’ve enjoyed Cologne and my boundless enthusiasm for cruiser handlebars. But the agitated eagerness physically bubbling just under the surface of so many of the public attending the show makes me feel wretched. Today the first man through the doors following an anticlimactic countdown (chanted uproariously by the crowd, but followed by an orderly trickle of ones and twos through the show’s rigid turnstile gates) walked briskly past the first of the Kolnmesse’s giant exhibition halls, unable to stop himself breaking into a nervous run as he turned a corner onto the main concourse, and gathered pace until he was sprinting through the PlayStation area and finally to the huge white walls of the Assassin’s Creed III booth. He hurried up and down the swerving queue track and finally settled into place under a sign which read “60 minutes from this point,” behind a pack of trade visitors who’d snuck in early.
The worst thing was he didn’t look sad, he just pulled out his camera and started filming again. It might be because it’s half three in the morning and there’s still half a gig to upload and I’ve slept for seven hours out of the last 48, but it hit me with a thud and it might be the worst thing I’ve ever seen.
There is a noise in the bathroom of my otherwise very nice Cologne hotel room that sounds like a classroom of expertly hapless recorder players heaving a discordant red-faced hurricane somewhere in the distance. This morning I found it quite comforting, although for a few moments in the smallest hours of last night after I’d uploaded the last of the video files that we’re here to make I became irrationally concerned that I’d developed an intricate form of tinnitus, probably thanks to the savage and meaningless noise barked from wall to wall of EA’s conference yesterday. Then I realised it was just the pipes.
This was day two of Gamescom, the media day, during which several thousand select members of the press are given the opportunity to walk the vastness of the show floor and, if they’re anything like me, imagine they’re exploring an abandoned Forerunner structure that echoes with an awful quiet in some forgotten monument to bigness among the stars.
Really I have only daydreamed this once, and it was spoilt by a woman in electric blue hotpants asking me in German something about the racing game to which her hotpants were no doubt intrinsically related. Such are the perils of the games expo, although in keeping with the general theme of complaining less about Cologne than LA I actually spent a rather pleasant morning among the coloured beanbags and playground geometry of the PlayStation area on the show floor. If this makes it sound like a soft-cornered asylum for people no longer able to deal appropriately with the jagged realities of the world beyond Sackboy’s flap-tongued embrace, then fair enough – PS3 is rapidly being repositioned as a kids’ thing, gearing up for a final hardcore hurrah with the portentously-named Beyond and The Last Of Us before making itself a photoshop flyer and doing children’s parties at the weekends.
Or if not that, then at least giving itself over to the growing LittleBigEmpire and saving a seat in assembly for children-skewing peripherals like Move and Wonderbook (that’s skewing not skewering. I am not a monster). Add to that the all-but-confirmed new budget model (the PS3 SlimSlim, or Sliiiim, still wide enough to knock your Sky box off the TV stand) which has defied rumours by not making an appearance at Gamescom (unless it’s really slim) and the PS3’s regression to childhood is tough to deny.
And who’d want to? Last year I watched joylessly blank-faced teens queue for hours to bullet each other to heaven on a stand dominated by Uncharted 3 and The Heist. This year I watched the cutest child in all of Germany sit in a full-sized wooden boxcar racer to play LittleBigPlanet Karting for a full half an hour while his mum watched patiently (I would like to meet the guys who approved his press accreditation though).
There’s a joyousness about the eclectic creativity and dressing-up box aesthetics that characterise PS3’s infant strand – The Puppeteer and Tearaway are the latest examples – and I think PlayStation does these vibrant kids games as well as anyone else. So I’m excited about the next year, but I can also hear the minor chord playing hauntingly in the background reminding me that, strange beasts that they are, games consoles always look their youngest right before they die, and in that respect the PS3 getting another price cut will be a bit like a favourite dog developing an arthritic limp that makes you want to hug them more often and take them out for longer walks that they can’t really enjoy anymore anyway.
(My secret hope is that The Last Of Us, which I saw today as we interviewed the game’s endearingly enthusiastic leads Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, will be like the last big walk on which I took my own arthritic dog, Max, who shrugged off groaning hind leg stiffness for an afternoon of snapping at long grass and a puppyish playfight that made me cry. It is understandably a hope not conveyed in any of the magazine previews I’ve written so far).
Today’s entry seems to be dominated by daydreams and wandering memories, so it’s probably appropriate that the only game I actually played was Doom 3, which is being re-released along with Doom and Doom 2. I didn’t love what I played of Doom 3, partly because it lacks the fireball-sidestepping precision of its simpler predecessors, and partly because the 3D was so extreme that when I turned corners quickly it felt like the game was stapling each screen refresh directly onto my wet unblinking corneas, which even taking into account my 3D skepticism seems a high price to pay for things appearing to be slightly further away. I shall still play the first two, though, for sentimental reasons (anyone who at this point questions how I can call Doom’s spacebar-trigger carnage “sentimenal” following a eulogy to my dying dog probably has a very good fucking point).
Filming and being tired filled the rest of the day. At one point during the hour-long actor panel for The Last Of Us I realised I was physically rehearsing a facial expression I wished our guest presenter had made for a piece to camera earlier, and tried to pass it off as a debilitating facial tic. Then on the walk back to the hotel Dave Jackson claimed that Germany was “equidistant from everywhere” which seemed for a soaring moment to be a possibility before the drab insistence of Newtonianism reasserted itself. The prick.
The progress bars are inching towards some early morning event horizon and the clock is plowing mercilessly onwards while I blink and switch memory sticks and worry about tomorrow. I am at another videogames expo.
Only this one is Gamescom, in Cologne, and although an oppressive workload and the need to find internet that doesn’t run backwards give it a tang of E3’s bitterness, the fact that Cologne is really very nice and has more soul in a single block of its brutal Gothic cathedral than LA has in all its endless miles of numbing Godless sprawl makes it significantly more bearable.
We arrived yesterday, greeted by a taxi driver who told us enthusiastically that Resident Evil 6 was a “beautiful game” as we passed a giant advertisement pinned to a hotel, which made me think he was either mad or confusing it with Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, which seemed unlikely.
Today the real business started, a day before the show itself opens in the mercilessly vast Koelnmesse, but still packed with conferences, previews and assorted bangdrumming. First was a Hitman Absolution event at an unassuming high street cinema called Residenz, which inside was an unexpectedly huge and glamorous theatre with rows of wide leather seats. Hitman isn’t my favourite game because I’m rubbish at it, and because before finally caving to demand for another one IO Interactive inflicted the lovehandled misery of Kane & Lynch upon the world, a kind of metabolic syndrome in game form. And they did it not once but twice, which proves it wasn’t an accident.
There was a new Hitman mode called Contracts which looks like a slick way to introduce customised mission design to an otherwise linear experience, but from my comfy chair in which I was unable to touch the row in front even when my seat was reclined I couldn’t shake the discomfort at the opening replay of Hitman’s “Hot Shower” trailer, a CG sequence cut to Lana Del Rey’s Video Games in which Agent 47 unalives a series of hapless bodyguards before entering a steamy bathroom where a woman presses a hand to the inside of a glass shower cubicle. What bothers me isn’t the clattering juxtaposition of soothing sound and impactful action (although Assassin’s Creed has already wanked that particular shaft to a raw straw already) but the charged intimacy of the final shot, which eroticises violence in way that I’m sure was deliberate but I’m still allowed not to like. I was also struck during the gameplay demonstration by the fact that Agent 47 looks significantly less sleek these days, one particular glance at his blanched marrow countenance suggesting no longer a razor dressed in a man-suit, Mortality by Armani, more divorcee physics teacher loses his shit, murders child with brick.
Outside the Residenz we stared at a banner hoarding for The Dark Knight Returns and I wondered how Bane would sound in German (like a man who belongs on a horse, I hoped) before a homeless guy asked if we were from Israel and told Dave he liked his glasses. After a moment’s reconsideration he came back to tell us he didn’t like them after all, but by then our thoughts had turned to the EA conference.
Initially it seemed the aim of the conference was to beat me insensible with sound, as the thunderous trailer to Army Of Two: The Devil’s Cartel was launched into the audience at a volume that at one point I felt certain I could chew. This is of course perfectly in-keeping with a series that’s basically about men dressed in pots and pans only taking a break from endless massacre to give each other a fist-bump, but I’m still going to give it a chance if only because it’s now being made by Visceral, who also made Dead Space and can therefore do pretty much whatever they want as far as I’m concerned.
Except make Dead Space 3, of course, which I’m furious about. Or at least I would be if I was the internet – instead I’m just quietly excited. The move towards bigger action and bigger Isaac’s face being on the screen does take the series away from the compressed diamond brilliance of the original, and I will miss the minimalist sci-fi hook that first drew me in. But that’s not a failing of Visceral, more a symptom of an industry and an audience that always demands more and louder with extra bits, and which would never let a series continue with perfectly judged smallness even if that’s what made it great in the first place.
On a less fun note I am pretty furious with EA’s approach to marketing Medal Of Honor: Warfighter. Executive producer Greg Goodrich told the audience today that it was more than just entertainment, and it would put gamers into the boots of real-life operatives. This drive to authenticity as a COD-trumping USP is turning Medal Of Honor into an unsettling celebration of war, conflating the real and the virtual and drawing children – who will regardless of rating be playing this game in the hundreds of thousands – into an unthinking glorification of the military. It’s even more worrying than the similar conflation in the US Navy-sanctioned film Act Of Valor, which used videogame imagery to draw in the Xbox crowd, because at least when you got down to it the film itself was dutifully earnest and dull. Medal Of Honor will have all of the cock-strumming fireworks and none of the clumsy drawbacks of real life. It is a bad idea.
So thank goodness for the Sony conference, which came straight after. There was a fair share of murder and other staples – Assassin’s Creed Liberation, Killzone Mercenary, Call Of Duty Black Ops: Declassified – but there were also new ideas that moved radically away from striking the life out of another human being as the focal point of digital entertainment. Tearaway is the new game from Media Molecule, the studio behind Little Big Planet, and it’s about interacting with a tactile pop-up world of craft and origami. You control a stack of folds called Iota, and your fingers can burst through the game like a paper bag if you push the back of the Vita, which is the best thing I’ve seen in a game since someone pointed out to me that by rapidly selecting and deselecting Donkey Kong on Mario Kart 64, “you can make it look like he’s wanking a great big cock on his head”.
The other standout was Rain, a downloadable game from Japan Studio about a boy in what looks like a lamplit early 20th Century street chasing a disappearing girl and discovering a world that’s invisible except when it rains. You guide the boy’s sodden silhouette, outlined through the downour, as he dodges watery monsters and tracks the girl. It looks sad like chasing an unrecoverable moment of happiness, which is why I’m sure I’m going to love it.