Issue 3, Page 1 (+ Bonus Ranting!)

July 25, 2013

BranchISSUE3page1jWell, here’s to a solid start for Issue 3 but then why wouldn’t it be after so bleeding long?

Seriously; I know I’m terrible for making excuses but this has not been a good month for me. Right from the start I’d decided to force out regular releases no matter what and give my working process the nitro-boost it oh so desperately needs. For a plethora of reasons, that simply never happened. I feel like I owe answers as to why this is being held up so much, but I really don’t want to degenerate into self-indulgent ‘why me?’ whining either; plenty of people I know do comics as an aside from their day job and still manage to keep up a decent production rate, so that excuse really won’t fly.

Still, I like to be honest about my thoughts and feelings so getting to the point I have to admit I’ve been in something of a dark place lately. There have been plenty of commitments and set backs along the way, but it’s my motivation that’s really taken a beating these past few weeks.

Indulgent as it may sound I draw as an outlet first and foremost, there isn’t a huge amount I can claim to love about my life but creating comics, breathing life into a story that I can claim is truly mine gives me a glow inside that almost nothing else can. Whether what I create is any good is up for debate and perhaps on some level this will all sound pretty damn selfish, but considering how submissively I live the rest of my life, how often I get shoehorned into things I don’t want to do, am told I can’t do things or am told I’ve failed or missed the mark it seems a small thing to ask.

It’s maddening that I keep missing my own deadlines, but that may well be the root of the problem; they are my deadlines and mine alone. When a work related e-mail lands in my inbox, when someone asks me a favour, when an argument kicks off the pad closes, the pens go away, the file is shut and another day’s delay is slotted onto my release schedule.

It hurts not just because I want to finish what I start and see the story through to the end, but also because this is the only way I feel I can express myself without compromise. Something that is entirely me and not what someone else wants me to be, wants me to do, or wants to hear.

Sure, I want people to like what I make – I doubt many people can claim otherwise – I welcome constructive criticism and hopefully by meeting my own standards I can meet some of my readers’. Regardless the top of the agenda remains the same; I just need to get more done in less time. Maybe I need to say ‘no’ to more things, perhaps I need to reign in my OCD tendencies some, one way or another I know it can be done. A page a week, at least.

I need to make it happen and I need to make it happen soon.


Replay Value?

January 15, 2013

Catastrophes are usually by their very nature irreversible and today’s was no different. There I was sat in Kings Cross at noon, enjoying a ham and tomato sandwich before a job interview; suited up, portfolio in tow, preparation fresh in mind and lots of time to spare – everything was fine.

What happened next is probably best likened to a Hollywood actioner. Know that scene? Where the ‘buddy’ character takes a hit, laughs it off as “a scratch” only to collapse ten minutes later revealing the mortal wound in their chest? It was a little like that only with tomato splurge; I shrugged off the splatter on my leather jacket, unaware of the real damage. It’s got to be said, tomato tie-dye on a white shirt is hard to miss.

Upon discovering this disaster I thought three things in quick succession:

I’m an idiot.

How am I going to fix this?

I wish reality had quick-saves.

But it doesn’t. Neither do films, TV series, books or comics; excluding the odd bizarre exception (damn you adventure game books!) only videogames possess any kind of check-pointing/replay system where the outcome can be so drastically changed. ‘Catastrophes’ in their most literal form barely enter the equation.

It’s something I hardly gave any thought to growing up, being altogether too busy shooting monsters in the face to really consider what the medium did differently to its peers. In recent years though as the form has risen to cultural prominence the method of delivery and nature of interaction has begun to interest me as much as the content itself; it’s not just about shooting a monster in the face, it’s about how the monster was shot, what comes next and perhaps most importantly why in the face at all?

'Fight evil' they said. 'It'll be fun!' they said...

Both these fellows probably have heart wrenching backstories you’ll never know…

Through the 1990’s and early 2000’s I gleefully engaged in simulated mass murder; through Doom, Quake, Rainbow Six, Hitman, Timesplitters and countless others I unquestionably accepted murderous do or die objectives as freeform interaction. The violence never bothered me because it wasn’t real while impermanence of death was simply a non issue: of course I want to retry! Why on earth wouldn’t I?    

It couldn’t last.

Gradually something began to gnaw at the back of my mind. As Call of Duty mania began to manifest full tilt I found myself questioning the simplicity of these shooting galleries. I’d played soldier plenty of times before without a problem but as the internet overflowed with chatter about ‘killstreaks’, headshots and weapon upgrades I realised how tired I was of the old formula: here’s a gun, these men are bad, go kill them.

More exasperating though was the apparent ease of survival thanks to the underlying mechanics. Getting shot? No problem your health regenerates. Dead? Look you just respawned, try again. For all the tension and excitement enemy rocket barrages, ambushes and slow-mo encounters might suggest on screen I felt increasingly deflated by the sense of assured safety. There are pitfalls sure, but you know there will always be checkpoint trampoline at the bottom ready to bounce you right back.

“Hey wait a minute, that’s not a water pistol! Guys! He’s breaking the rules!”

“Hey wait a minute, that’s not a water pistol! Guys! He’s breaking the rules!”

I’m not suggesting these criticisms are anything new – there are doubtlessly thousands of flame wars taking place right now on similar topics in forums distant and deep – nor would I like this to be misconstrued as outright condemnation or ‘ban this sick filth’ propaganda, I’ve played these kind of games plenty and to a degree I still do.

Ultimately it’s the desire to see better that I wish to highlight; the possibilities of interactive simulation are so immense and yet I feel like we’re still only scratching the surface; as much as I love them videogames are still lacking a crucial something.

It was a flash game One Chance that really sparked the idea for Replay Value. Visually it’s a modest effort which only lasts about 15 minutes at the most but it has a unique feature – you only get one try. Oh yes, you can wipe your cookies and replay anyway but the concept tapped into something wholly untouched within me; a genuine sense of weight to decisions made and a sense of truly sombre finality. Honestly, I don’t want to try it again because I know it will never capture the same feeling in me, that’s the whole point.

Happy ending DENIED.

Happy ending DENIED.

With Replay Value I really wanted to hammer home the sense of weary repetition at the heart of most popular games by taking the viewpoint of two supposedly soulless enemy AI’s and giving them a sense of humanity at odds with a merciless player who has the game tipped invariably in his favour.

It struck me as an amusing concept, exploring a kind of gaming hell that also doubles as a story about working stiffs in a dead end job. I wanted to highlight what games have yet to and indeed may never truly master; a sense of the finite and the genuinely unpredictable. Win or lose both sides will be resurrected within the space of a loading screen, while it doesn’t look like faceless enemies in balaclavas will be disappearing anytime soon.

It would be unfair to say there’s been no attempt to push the medium forward and push the boundaries of interaction and involvement: the Portal games managed to sustain interest and humour through an FPS with no conventional shooting, Bioshock directly questioned the contradictory illusion of choice at the heart of gaming while the Mass Effect series had a serious go at creating a sense of widespread consequence to your actions. Still, the rusty old mechanics of videogames past continue to permeate all, simultaneously nostalgic and maddening.

Perversely, on another level I’ll continue love bright red exploding barrels, improbably ordinance stashes, absurd power ups, high scores and all the other clichés – like old friends dropping by to chat about the good old days. I’ll also no doubt continue to quick save every 30 seconds for many years to come but so long as that sense of peril, fragility and irreversible consequence remains out of reach so too will any deeper emotional connection with the form.

As for my shirt stain? I did up my suit and no one was any the wiser ;)

It’s All in the Struggle

September 30, 2012

It seems fair to say that when I can recall the exact circumstances under which I initially saw a film it’s made a strong impression.

My sister sticking on a wonky VHS recording of Leon in our living room, a friend discovering I hadn’t seen Dark City and immediately retrieving the DVD without explanation or catching the last twenty minutes of Terminator 2 on TV in my teens; creatively speaking these were formative experiences which I treasure as dearly as the films themselves.

Don’t. Look. Down.

Amusingly, I ended up seeing Blade Runner off the back of Ghost in the Shell having brought it over to a classmate’s house, his immediate response following viewing being “Wow, that was pretty cool… Makes me want to watch Blade Runner again.” Taking this as my cue to inform him I’d never seen it, one thing naturally led to another and a video copy of the 1993 director’s cut dutifully found its way into the player.

I realise the influence of the film dominates SF and cyberpunk these days, with it being a well established favourite in the genre but I had seen virtually nothing of it up to that point. For a head-in-the-clouds teenager such as myself it was frankly mind blowing; the atmosphere, the subtle intelligence and depth of the story line, the immersive sense of reality present in its world. It was an overwhelming encounter which played a large role in defining my long-term sci-fi obsession.

In years since I’ve watched it so many times that there came a point where I had to back off out of fear of spoiling it through over familiarity. It’s been a respectfully dormant presence on my shelf for some time now until another good friend – thanks Xellun! – kindly leant me his copy of the so called ‘Final Cut’ from 2007. I’ve been cautious of this new edit after being burned by one George Lucas under similar circumstances– some obscure films about war in the stars – however I was pleasantly surprised by how little had been changed; the corrections are for what were genuine mistakes and are so carefully integrated with the old material I needed an online breakdown to spot them.

Getting to the point though, besides re-watching what may well be the most pristine edit of the film to date the accompanying documentary Dangerous Days absolutely fascinated me.

Funny how the present is beginning to resemble this more and more…

I knew that Blade Runner was a troubled production but the honest accounts within of simply how much went wrong between conception and release makes it all the more remarkable that the film turned out so well. Budgetary problems, nagging producers, mutiny amongst the crew, improvised rewrites and a deeply frustrated Harrison Ford would all seem to suggest a catastrophic train wreck at the end of the line and yet – for my money at least – everything in the movie resonates together almost perfectly. Which got me thinking; what if it was this very struggle which ultimately made it so brilliant?

I recall a review I encountered a while ago referring to the idea of ‘art through adversity’ both criteria Blade Runner meets in abundance, so what if one follows the other? What if Harrison Ford’s perpetual dissatisfaction fed into Deckard’s apparent cynicism and misery or Ridley Scott’s running battles with his crew and impatient financiers attributed to the dark, angsty mood which dominates the picture? I genuinely find myself believing that had the production gone smoothly on a comfortable budget we would have ended up with an inferior version of Blade Runner.

This is no isolated example either, returning to George Lucas; I heard someone pitching a theory that the reason the new Star Wars trilogy was such a disappointment is because Lucas went completely unchallenged on every aspect of the story and production. When the original Star Wars was being made he would have been faced with an uphill battle, convincing producers and money-men to let him make something no one had ever seen before on the strength of concept art, a script and his own enthusiasm. As George “Omigod!” Lucas, creator of possibly the most successful cinema franchise of all time there seems little doubt that any adversity which may have presented itself would be quickly shovelled under the rug by his lackeys.

George Lucas – pre-darkside

To cite another somewhat more divisive favourite of mine; the anime series Evangelion has always struck me as a good illustration of a troubled production effectively contributing to the finished work. I know some folks hate if for the same reasons I love it – which is fine, I’ve been through this with Marmite too – but as an example of deconstruction at its purest I find it to be hypnotic.

Right from episode one there’s admittedly a bit of a dark side, however on the surface it appears to be just another wacky giant robot show from Japan; big colourful machines – naturally piloted by teens – fight aliens, encounter trouble, overcome it, end. A straight up cliché.

Then the money began to run out.

A now infamously noted habit of the director Hideaki Anno, Eva ran massively over budget thanks to its lavishly animated fight sequences and out of desperation they were forced to improvise. At first it’s an irritation as the pace slows and set pieces are replaced with moody introspection but I soon found myself absorbed by this in a way the earlier episodes never managed. The tone turns heavily psychological and increasingly abstract sequences become prominent as production falls apart.

Between dwindling finance and a TV station furious at the controversial nature of the material the series more or less collapses at the finale. Plot questions are left dangling and conventional animation all but disappears, it’s a mess in most regards and for many an infuriating copout but what resonated so strongly with me was the way the characters’ deconstruction and downfall mirrors and resonates with that of the production itself.

The literal aspects of plot ultimately didn’t matter to me because the series had managed to say something far more personal and sincere as it fell apart; a rising desperation on the part of its creators which is so palpable, affecting and undeniably human that it renders the train-wreck almost completely extraneous.          

Evangelion: starts out with giant purple-green robots mashing aliens in the face, ends as a pitch black psychodrama and all out attack on otaku culture. Go figure.

It’s all the more ironic then that in the wake of Evangelion’s unexpected success there have been a number of edits and film remakes attempting to correct the original’s failings and while they’re good to be sure I doubt they’ll ever spark the same empathy in me that the series provoked.

The bottom line and overarching point I wanted to make with these babblings is that hearing about these struggles can often be more inspiring to me than experiencing the thing itself. Every time I read about Alan Moore running afoul of constrictive publishers, hear that the studio stopped Guillermo del Toro from adapting At the Mountains of Madness, find out my favourite game developer is going under thanks to greedy publishers and dwindling sales or see fellow artists and writers struggling it sets a fire going inside me.

In any creative field we all struggle, we all suffer and not everyone makes it but most crucially we are not alone.