Feb 12 2010

Meathooks, Andy Warhol, And The End Of Spaceflight

I sat down with the intention of writing about all the things that are going on in my working life right now, and then immediately realised that half of them are Top Secret and not for publication on the internet. That’s a shame because they’re really rather interesting. What I can say a little bit about is the new book, which I’ve now started working on in earnest, thanks to the labours of a splendid literary agent.

I’m aiming to expand on a few of the more interesting themes that I touched on in This Gaming Life, particularly those related to the social and psychological uses of gaming, and the role of boredom. For a while there I thought I was going to write a book on boredom, which itself is a fascinating topic. The word first turns up in print in 1852, in Dickens’ Bleak House, and then proliferates through English. What’s interesting is that similar words appeared in a number of European languages about that time, and etymological investigation shows that it is, linguistically at least, a fairly new concept. There are words for idleness, isolation, and derivations of disliking or hating something that go right back into Latin, but the specificity of boredom seems new. It’s as if it has evolved to fill a particular need, and as if modern life demanded it. We took boredom to peculiar heights in the 20th century, with some people even making an artform out of it (Warhol) or predicting that it was the whole of our future (Ballard), while the general public used it with increasing frequency to describe their experiences, or their state of mind. Boredom, punctuated by moments of extreme horror, is the Grim Meathook Future. Interestingly, the word “interesting” has also seen a correlating increase in its use.

Anyway, as I looked into boredom I realised that it’s the reactions to the condition that really what’s worth investigating. In This Gaming Life I basically posited that videogames are part of a complex response to boredom, but it’s worth taking that a little further, since videogames represent only one of a number of ways we might deal with boredom, or avoid it altogether. I’ve realised that I’m one of those people who is seldom bored when left to my own devices, and that’s because my behaviour is always to read, research, or play with something. When I’m trapped and unable to do these things is when boredom strikes, and how horrible it can be. The next book, then, explores wider, into realms of imaginative activity other than videogames, and gets to work on the rich tapestry of entertainments and distractions that we’ve created for ourselves. This week I’ve been constructing a piece that examines how a book, a film, and a videogame might all deal with the same topic, and how the technological differences between these formats changes both the experience as well as the subject that is being explored. Beyond that I’ve got some plans to look at how books, the moving image, and the interactive experience are all connected, and how the 20th century coughed them up to give us the culture we have today.

To take some samples from the text, it seems that book two will include such topics as: hippies and computers, the dream machine developed by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, the weather behind Frankenstein, the all-time total number of novels published, why I am jealous of the protagonist of The Truman Show, why a space programme could be replaced with an inner-space programme, and what World Of Warcraft players and cyborgs have in common. And more!

Anyway, more news on those secret projects soon, and maybe even some extracts from the book-in-progress.


Jan 19 2010

Blade Runner, Butcher Bill, And Multiplicity

I recently found myself chatting to PD Smith about Ridley Scott’s 1982 film, Blade Runner. Smith, who is writing a book about cities, had presumably been looking at it in research for his project. It would make sense, of course, because Blade Runner, of all the cinematic visions of the city, is one of the most powerful and compelling. It’s a fantastically complete vision of future Los Angeles. Consequently it’s so influential that I once read about an article about North American city planners in which a majority of planners admitted they took inspiration from the film – also admitting that they ultimately wanted Los Angeles to look like the vision presented by Scott’s designers and cinematographers.

I recall the film having quite a similar influence on me. Blade Runner was profoundly formative for me as a child/adolescent, partly because of the theme of mortality being so starkly laid out for an immature mind, but also because of the weird beauty in the city design. I can actually pinpoint the moment in which I fell in love with the idea of imaginary cities: where you see a canyon vista of the city from Deckard’s apartment, a green-tinted slice of the metropolis beyond. I desperately wanted to explore that. I wanted the videogames I played to actualise it, and set me free down there. They’re still working on that, I guess.

But there was something else going on in my response to that film. For a piece about the finitude of life it had an odd effect on my way of thinking. Repeated viewing made me realise that I – somehow – wanted to live lots of different lives, rather than one long life. “The light that burns twice as bright burns for half as long,” indeed, but if I have to be a light, then think I want to be one of those fibre-optic plants, where the one light is channelled down a thousand different, parallel routes. Blade Runner didn’t make me want immortality, it made me want multiplicity. For me the story didn’t so much emphasize the brief intensity of the Replicant lives, as emphasize how they had lived other exciting events, off-screen, out there in the wider universe. It made clear how all the Replicants had experiences that would be inaccessible to all the others, because they’d never have time to sit down and write their memoirs.

This “what the fuck is going on off-screen” effect seems to occur a great number of films. Take Gangs Of New York, for example. The fight at the start of that film seems like the culmination of a story far more interesting than the one that the movie actually follows. I want to be able to hit a red button and get the story of the gang war between the preacher and Butcher Bill. The film that never was. (That’s one of the most appealing things about reading about history via Wikipedia. Whatever event or battle you end up reading about, you can explore back – and forward – through the related network of links.)

I also wonder if this desire for multiplicity – as deemed more attainable than immortality by my tiny brain – is one of the reasons I am so comfortable in my escapism today. I don’t think twice about sinking half my life into in the heaps of books I plough through, and in the TV, games and film that I devour. What other placebos for immortality are there? And how else am I going to get a glimpse of all those different lives I want to be living? Not by idling in Second Life, that’s for sure.


Dec 12 2009

This Gaming Life, Paperback Now Available In Europe/UK

The paperback edition of This Gaming Life has been out in North America for a while, but it hits the warehouses of the UK and Europe next week.

TGL is a book about gamers and the games they play. It’s about the value of videogames, and about the stories I collected from three very different gaming cities: London, Reykjavik and Seoul.

Raph Koster, game designer and author of A Theory of Fun for Game Design, said: “This Gaming Life is a fascinating and eye-opening look into the real human impact of gaming culture. Traveling the globe and drawing anecdotes from many walks of life, Rossignol takes us beyond the media hype and into the lives of real people whose lives have been changed by gaming. The results may surprise you.”

Lots of other smart people said nice things about it too.


Nov 5 2009

Aftershocks

We were travelling to Exeter in Alex’s Ford Dilemma when it happened.

It was a sum that added his lack of attention to the treachery of a dark country road, and then multiplied the jeopardy with another car coming the other way, too fast to negotiate. At that last instant before the collision Alex stopped talking and we swerved in strange silence. It was time for goodbyes, but we just gawped at the inevitable. The car jolted a vast single noise of impact and we spun through cool air. The scything motion of the car came to an abrupt, black end.

Then, without a moment to compose myself, I was pushed forward, stumbling through a galvanised door into a brightly lit corporate foyer. I stood, askew with surprise, in a wide open glass chamber with a shiny marble floor. There were many more chambders to my left and to my right, each with desks at the head. And there were other people through there, in these parallel foyers, suggesting we were all trying to gain access to the vast administrative building beyond.

On the floor in front of me was a huge white enamel arrow, slightly scuffed at the edges, that had evidently been repaired a couple of times over the years. Looking around I could see that every parallel foyer had an arrow of its own. In each case the arrow led to a desk where two clerks were waiting. Two by two, across the foyers, as far as I could see, this was the situation. Behind me, beyond the glass door, was blackness. Night. I retreated, pulling at the door handle. It wouldn’t budge.

As I looked about I saw more people stumbling through doors in the endless procession of glass corridors either side of me. Some keenly approached the desks ahead of them. Others stood, seemingly stunned. Some of the desks hosted customers who gesticulated wildly or stood, silent and thoughtful as the clerks explained something to them. I craned my neck. Was that Alex? I thought I could make out his awkward posture, off in the misty multi-paned distance.

I approached my desk. The clerks ignored me until I got up close to them. They were both dressed quite elegantly in stylish 1950’s-cut suits. Narrow ties. Pinstripe. The right-hand clerk was talking: ‘…herded by mutually inclusive momentary individualities,’ he explained to his colleague. The conversation trailed off as they turned to regard me with flickering eyes.

‘Rossignol?’

‘Yes?’

The clerk scanned something behind the desk, out of sight. ‘Hah! He’s the son of that other Rossignol,’ he said to the second clerk. Then to me he said: ‘Did you know your father died just an hour before you did? What a coincidence! Isn’t life full of them?’

I shrugged, having no good opinion on coincidences, or fathers. The clerk scanned me with as he spoke, as if checking for something. The second man behind the desk turned to rifle through a filing cabinet, mouthing something as he did so, something for the benefit of his partner, but hidden from me. He was oddly hunched. Perhaps there was something under his suit… across the shoulder-blades?

‘Mr J M Rossignol… yes. You’re an atheist! It says here you insisted on the non-existence of God just last week.’

‘That’s right,’ I said.

He seemed smug; evidently he enjoyed pointing this out to the non-believers. I was too stunned to be frightened or nauseous. This wasn’t how I’d wanted to go. I felt like I should be panicking, but my Englishness buried the horror that was balling up in my chest. At this point, of course, there was something more fundamental hatching behind my eyes: my carefully-crafted personal philosophies were collapsing. The afterlife was not a comforting fiction.

‘Well,’ said the first clerk. ‘You haven’t done anything that really defines your rest, so I’ll have to recommend you’re briefed by Mr Wilson.’

At this point I was directed to the second, more sneering, clerk, who indicated for me to follow him through a sliding door at the back of the room. I did so, noticing as I went that there were dead flies in the neon-strip light-cover overhead.

In the room beyond there were a table and two chairs. I wished there had also been a water-cooler, since I was really very thirsty. But there was not and it seemed rude to make any demands at this stage. We sat down. Mr Wilson did not smile.

‘Mr Rossignol, you’ve not done anything genuinely damnable, but you’re also one of these rather selfish creative types… and an atheist. This means we’ve a number of options for you. Management does pride itself on providing choice for our newly-dead. And the non-religious get to try out some of His more experimental afterlives.’

‘Right.’

‘So, here’s the list of the afterlives my colleague has selected as appropriate for you. I’m sure you’d like to read it for yourself.’

Mr Wilson pushed a few sheets of A4 paper towards me. I picked them up and read:

1. Ambient Male #4 – Fly and/or walk through a beautiful land of ambient imagery derived from your own subconscious. Ambient Male #4 is a solitary afterlife that caters for the hermitic tendencies found prevalent in your material existence. It has a low bliss-factor but is likely to cater to intellectual needs with its own space-station library hub.

A list of perplexing statistics followed.

I turned the page.

2. Robotus! – One of our new afterlives where you can live out a fantasy of becoming an automaton. The ever-changing technological environment allows you to experience a vast array of artificial existences, including battle and robotic copulation. Modular play and the possibility for technological hybridisation will allow you to experiment with your automated systems in the safety of our fully furnished hyperlab.

More strange numbers and factoids.

3. Socratic Party – Exist in intellectual and chemical delirium in an ever-changing existence of philosophical celebration. You will exist to party hard with all the personally interesting (to your psychological makeup) people from the last two thousand years. We have selected Socrates, Horace and a number of your favourite fictional philosophers and cosmologists to join you in this after-life. Additional thinkers can be summoned on demand, each with their own repertoire of soul-pleasing epigrams.

I leaned back in my chair, glazing over the facts while my brain looked for a joke that would dismiss the situation. I looked around, waiting for a prankster to explode forward with manic grin and camera crew.

Mr Wilson tapped his fingers on the table. I skipped a page or two.

7. Romantic Liaison Hyper-Intensity #1048520 – Pursue endless romantic gratification with a sublimely attractive (tattooed) female scientist. Your coupling will be given hyper-intensity status by your being forever pursued across a mesmeric landscape by a giant red crab. (As per dream 17,928, from your dream profile. [Available on request.])

8. Intoxication Fantasy Beach Scenario #4564 – Enjoy the company of exotic animals and a race of witty amphibious sea-people while wandering in a garden of exotic fruits and narcotics, designed to allow an infinite matrix of psychedelic indulgence…

9. The Conversation Scenario #6 – The endless joy of the perfect conversation, unravelling for all time…

10. Champion #1924 – lead the people of Earth to perpetual victory over monstrous alien armies while collecting a harem of extra-terrestrial brides…

I looked back at Mr Wilson. ‘How many of these are there?’

‘Fifty three,’ Wilson nodded. ‘Each one derived from His direct access to your stream of consciousness.’

‘And these–‘

‘–aren’t your only options, no. You can choose any of our traditional afterlives, or from our top twenty young-male fates. You’re not quite old enough to experience the eternal family-man afterlife, and I don’t think it would suit you.’

‘So what would you recommend?’

‘Nothing on this list struck you as tempting?’

‘One of them, certainly.’

‘But you still want my advice?’

‘Please.’

‘Well, Mr Rossignol, I think you should opt for having your consciousness permanently extinguished. There are a number of reasons for this: your possible restlessness in the afterlife, which might have some ugly psychic side-effects, but primarily the fact that by accepting His will, you are denying the humanist precepts which you preached with such fervour. You would, in effect, be crossing out your life and the moral structure you built for yourself.’

‘So I should give up eternal life because I drunkenly argued against the tenets of religion with Bible-bashing friends?’

Wilson eyed me coldly. ‘They say the English are the most natural hypocrites,’ he observed.

I considered the list once again. I took my time. I imagined those fates. I wondered how God had managed to formulate these scenarios from what he’d glimpsed of my imagination and dreams. Did know how often I thought about… Yes. The evidence was right here.

I held my breath for a moment and then let it out, very slowly.

‘Hmm. Okay,’ I said, leaning forward across the desk.

‘You’ve made a choice? If you don’t one will be made for you.’

‘Yes. And I choose…’


Sep 23 2009

An Unconscious Review Of Grand Theft Auto 5

I’ve been having vivid dreams recently, and one of them was a review of GTA5. I woke up and wrote down the fragments I could remember to type up later. Here it is.

GTA5 was on a screen, a videogame trailer. It might even had had a YouTube frame. The game was once again set in the parallel New York city of GTA4, Liberty City. (A game I’ve been playing a great deal recently.) GTA5 was, said a spokesman on the evening news, the best example of a city yet seen in a videogame, and so RockStar chose to build on that, rather than create something entirely new. It would feature new interactions, and your actual mobile phone, somehow. Did the game ring you up in real life to give you missions? Maybe.

While my dream told me that what I was seeing was my own review of GTA5, it was also a news analysis show. It had that classic dream logic, whereby I was able to identify all the discussion and ideas as my own, but Kieron Gillen and Alan Yentob were saying the lines, as they sat in leather armchairs in a TV studio to discuss the game.

GTA5 would, I/they explained, feature apartments across the city into which your character could walk, and rather than entering the living cutscenes of the previous games, he’d face a kind of dynamic soap opera, which would resolve in a mission. Each of the apartments contained the characters of popular sitcom, Friends, but these were placeholders, so as not to spoil the game for viewers.

Crucially, said Alan Yentob, the game was “a mindbomb of satire”. While GTA4 might have piled on the vicious mocking and black humour, this was a crafted, calculated assault on American culture that would remap the gamers who played it. Kieron agreed, sipping white wine as he explained how the United States was already on the precipice of a revolution, and would now be pushed over by a videogame that had pinpointed and exploded every hypocrisy and falsity in its culture.

“The game is so excruciating,” said Alan Yentob, “that no-one could ignore this shit any longer.”

Here’s hoping, eh?


Aug 19 2009

Artificial Intelligence, Bandwidth, And Generative Game Design

PC Gamer UK’s latest issue will be on the shelves on the 27th, and should arrive before then for subscribers. You might be interested in the Napoleon Total War cover feature, but there’s also a little feature by me. It looks like this:

And that clicks up to a larger size.

Beyond that dashing first spread is a beautifully arranged feature in which I talk about the futurism of Ray Kurzweil, the science fiction of Charles Stross, and the forward-thinking technical wizardry of Eskil Steenberg. All these people have something to say about the possible future of videogames, and I’ve tried to extract their most interesting implications.

…the future of games is one in which software will have to find solutions for the enormous problems that following the curve of increasing hardware sophistication has presented us with. “The examples of how things that used to be simple have now become hard are numerous. Dwarf Fortress and similar games give a hint to where games would be, if graphics and sounds didn’t stand in our way,” says Steenberg.

It is a futurist’s gaming feature, and something of a blue-sky gaming feature, detached from the normal constraints of worrying about contemporary gaming. It’s the kind of subject I’d love to extrapolate upwards into a book: “the next thirty years of gaming”. Until I do, you should go out and buy the magazine.

In this instance I only look at three future-invoking people, and cover a few subjects related to them: the effect of wireless bandwidth on gaming, the effect of AI on our experience of gaming, and the possibilities for AI and generative systems in the creation of games. There’s a fair bit to be said about that, of course, but it leads elsewhere – off into the strange realms of ubiquitous gaming that tantalises the imagination. A world where games are the dominant form of culture, and the dominant mode of expression. A medium in which human and artificial intelligences meet and play.

I’m rather pleased with how it all came together. And now I realise the subject is due another 50,000 words and a dozen more interviews. Oh, won’t someone commission me?

Sigh.


Aug 9 2009

Keep It Happy

A comment within this Infrastructurist review of Christopher Steiner’s $20 Per Gallon got me thinking.

…we have to say that we kept imagining a conversation involving some combination of the agent, editor and publisher prior to the book being written that really stressed how important it was to make this a positive book–after all, everybody is sick of downers like Jim Kunstler talking about oil crashes. And since negative scary arguments apparently just make people retreat deeper into their cocoons of denial where their only sustenance is crime dramas and celebrity blogs, it’s important to keep. it. happy. We’re serious: HAPPY! Thus sentences like this one in the introduction: “The future will be exhilarating.”

The review of the book is an interesting one – discussing the road to $20 per gallon of fuel, and what changes that will bring in – and the topics covered link to my recent post here – but it was the reviewer’s comments about the positivity of the book that I want to briefly talk about.

I do rather feel that we’re juggling doom with optimism right now, and we keep dropping the optimism: it’s fucking slippery stuff. With proclamations like this one from the Ecological Society Of America, giving us fifteen years at best, we’re facing a huge spectrum of Grim Meathook Future downers. Hell, read through Jared Diamond’s Collapse and you’ll be hoarding tinned food and building a Mad Max battle-wagon in your garage. Look at any of these prediction sets closely, and anxiety will ignite. I even have friends who aren’t planning for the future, and honestly don’t believe the human race will manage another hundred years. You can see why.

But that’s cowardly. It’s almost contemptible. The enforced editorial HAPPY that the Infrastructurist posits is actually much braver, whether or not it’s tied to sales, and whether or not it is, ultimately, cynical. It’s not retreating into denial, or shrugging toward inevitability, it’s saying: there is a future, for better or worse, let’s look at how it might work without predicting apocalypse. Being realistic doesn’t mean being a harbinger of darkness.

And the next few decades are going to bring in massive changes, and we need to grasp that change positively, optimistically, and energetically, or we’ll allow the horrors that usually take hold when people are in a bad place to come to pass. Gritting our teeth, swallowing our fear, side-stepping the emotional man-traps that tell us that the end of our own lives might as well coincide with the end of the world, and then coming up with a plan, is the only way forward. I’d rather be holding an optimists guide to the end of the world, when the time comes, than one written by someone who just assumes we’ll be screwed.

People like Steiner, who are quite pragmatically saying that ecologist-scaring tech like nuclear power *must* be allowed to flourish, might just be people who end up saving the planet. If that’s down to some upward editing on the part of their publishers, then, hey, I’m all for it.

Perhaps the tide is turning. All the metrics of our doom are in, and now it’s down to people to start making the adjustments required to sort out our ecologically damaged, expensive, food-shortaged future of over-population and consumerist collapse. The fact that people are getting on with it, in whatever format, can only be a good thing.


Aug 2 2009

Black Forest Disco: Gas

I’ve spent a large part of this week listening to Gas, an ambient-techno project by German electronic music producer, Wolfgang Voigt. I’ll come to the music in a moment, but I wanted to just point out something from Voight’s wikipedia entry, which is the range of aliases he has worked under when creating music. Here they are:

All, Auftrieb, Brom, C.K. Decker, Centrifugal Force, Crocker, Dextro NRG, Dieter Gorny, Digital, Dom, Doppel, Filter, Freiland, Fuchsbau, Gelb, Grungerman, Love Inc., M:I:5, Mike Ink, Mint, Panthel, Popacid, Riss, RX7, Split Inc., Strass, Studio 1, Tal, Vinyl Countdown, W.V., Wassermann, and X-Lvis.

That seems like an extraordinarily long list. It’s almost as if he were some science fiction universe spy, operating under internet-handle aliases, rather than those of real-world names. And so if you’ve listened to any of these acts, then you have listened to Voight. Gas, meanwhile, is this:

This wash of drones is one of the best Gas tracks, it is not typical. Most of his stuff rolls along on a repeated bass beat, which structures the ambient surge with a machinelike undertone. I couldn’t find a good example of it on YouTube, but you can get a better idea from this excerpt on wikimedia.

The friend who bought me the Gas collection, Nah Und Fern, observed that it was “really easy to imagine people not liking it,” and I think he’s right. Repetitive beat lovers would like be put off by the broad synth drones, which make it relatively boring by the standards of most electronic music. The ambient crowd meanwhile might feel uneasy with the monotony and frequency of the heavy kick drum that runs through it. Perhaps people generally just like particular tracks – which might explain why the beatless ambient turns up more online.

I have to admit that although I like Voight’s citation of LSD and northern European forests for the genesis of this music, I don’t think it’s any less urban than other electronic music. It’s interesting to me that so much ambient seems to have a kind of pastoral inspiration (Aphex Twin on a farm, Brian Eno on a beach), and yet nevertheless seems to fit perfectly into an urban space.

Crucially, however, I think what’s interesting about Gas for me personally, particularly the Zauberberg tracks, is that it makes a near-ideal soundtrack for writing. It’s intense, without being intrusive. It’s instrumental, droning, which seems to allow some degree of beat hypnosis, but doesn’t become soporific, so that I can remain awake and alert.

I’ve said some of this before on here when talking about acts such as Belong – lyrical music seems to distract me from work. Human voices leak into what I’m doing too much, to the point were lyrics end up on the page all the time. And they’re not my words, or even necessarily what I want to say. Further, I want to roll with the upbeat singers, and croon in melancholy with the downbeat. They’re too engaging, too attention-seeking. Music with words works well for relaxation and research, but it always slows production. Gas albums, and similar kinds of electronic music, seem detached from that kind of musical engagement. They allow experience to compile differently, and seem to let my brain to take the lead.

In a music-as-drug-experience way, it reminds me of those rare times when a drug seems to enable focus, attention, and motivation, while enhancing the experience, rather than disorientating, distracting, or otherwise filling my consciousness with noise.

(There needs to be a legal kind of psychedelic caffeine developed, which increases the pleasure of experience and focuses attention, without fogging intellect. Where are all the designer drugs we were promised in the 90s?)


Jul 23 2009

Bronson

“I make no bones about it, I really was… a horrible, violent, nasty man. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it either… See you at the Oscars.”

I rather envy those people who have been able to reinvent themselves from the name up. Charles Bronson, born Michael Gordon Peterson, is a brutal, British example of the self-mythologising creature. A haywire prototype that exists outside the normal channels, and a brilliant example of what an errant personality can achieve, even under heavy constraint.

Whilst most tall-story personalities are at least given the kind of life we all share as a stage, Charles Bronson has had solitary confinement, and the rooftops of British prisons. He’s managed to become a tea-drinking muscle-monster of British legend (2,500 press-ups a day), while barely spending any time outside the walls of our gaols.

He has also never killed anyone.

That fact appears in the very middle of the recent film, Bronson, for a fleeting moment. I felt as if it wasn’t stressed enough: for all the craziness, the hostage-taking, the riots and fisticuffs, Bronson has never taken a life, which seems to set his myth apart from the other nightmarish denizens of our deepest pits. It’s a vital aspect of the context of Bronson’s thirty-four years of incarceration: that he is violent within self-set boundaries. The working-class gentleman lunatic, with his moustaches, his gladiatorial strength, and his principles.

The film has a special kind of cinematic ugliness to it, and the lead actor, Tom Hardy, does well to fill out the eccentric profile of the man. He juggles both the grinning lunacy, the glee of violence, and the bruising of punishment with extreme care. Hardy, as Bronson, also narrates, via a series of fantasy-stage-set performances, which set the tone of the film as firmly within Bronson’s own bizarre worldview: celebrity-meets-thuggery-as-performance-art. The clown and the circus strongman warped by the invisible force-fields of fame.

The film captures some of the bizarre cruelty of Bronson’s life, his own unpredictability, and the difficulties of the system charged with containing him. Yet it does not seem to express what matters about the actual story of Bronson’s existence, which I would argue is far more interesting than the stylised prison theatre we get to see on screen.

I was waiting for something of Broadmoor and the rooftop protests from Bronson’s perspective, and treated to little more than a slideshow. (I suspect Bronson’s chimney toppling antics were the first time child-me had been notified of the existence of prisons, or of their inhabitants, and so I was awaiting some kind of extra loop of connection with those images.)

Some of Bronson’s more outlandish moments were neglected by this script, and his early life as a circus strongman and bare-knuckle boxer was remixed into a fictional reworking of the few weeks he did spend out of prison in the 1980s and early ’90s. It’s as if the film was mostly interested in its own caricature of Britain’s most violent prisoner – complete with scintillating soundtrack – and that the production had failed to realise what strange, bloody gold awaited them under the skin of the real man and his world.

There was no need for flights of cinematic fancy when the reality is so colourful and disturbing. The movie seems to avoid some of Bronson’s finest lines – such as his absurd demands in hostage situations – and to avoid any real insight into why he performed some of those bizarre acts of violence. Inevitable, I suppose, given that Bronson is the (unreliable?) narrator of its proceedings. This is the film of the “fighting name”, rather than the prisoner.

I’m sure Bronson really is proud of the film, because it is a broad extension to his personal reinvention. To be genuinely faithful to the man, rather than the alter-ego, would have meant creating a film that reflected the decades of solitude, and the astonishing loneliness that so many years must have wrought. Unimaginable boredom and silence punctuated by moments of incredible, outlandish violence. The first part of that, at least, is something film doesn’t articulate all that well: deliberately so in this case. And Bronson, the movie, is all the worse for it.


Jul 10 2009

Words For Print Vs Words For Web

Since working on a print magazine (PC Gamer) for a couple of weeks last month, I’ve been meaning to write something about the difference between writing for print and writing for the web. It’s a notion that’s been gnawing at me at least since I wrote the book, which I found infuriating because I’d become so familiar – even before I was blogging full time – with the scaffolding possibilities of electronic text.

As I wrote 80,000 words of text, I found myself polishing up my writing to explain precisely what I was talking about, where on the web I would have tied it up with a hyperlink*. Rather than writing for the specific audience I knew was going to sit at the other end of a blog, I was hoping anyone could pick up the book. Which rather seems the wrong way to go about things: surely the website is more democratic? But no, quite the opposite is true of how I’ve ended up using the two media. Writing on my own blog, I don’t give a damn who is reading, and writing on for Rock, Paper, Shotgun I have to assume it’s a certain calibre of gamer to have even found the place. As for a book, well, I wanted my mum to be able to get through that without a decade in online gaming.

But there was a more profound structural difference to the page: I couldn’t add links anywhere. I’ve always hated the distracting fussiness of footnotes, and my editor didn’t much like the either: clean text, and nothing else. So there was no way around having to encapsulate everything in the body text.

Towards the end of this process, having read the manuscript several times through, as well as knowing it via all the little revisions we’d done as the process went on, I began to see where all the imaginary hyperlinks went. I could go back into that document, I knew, and cross reference things with links online: explanatory Wikipedia links, comedy YouTube references, and even direct portals to the games I was talking about. Perhaps, when we finally get the Creative Commons version of the book online (which is actually only some paperwork away, come to think of it), we’ll find a way, and a time, for me to include all those links, and to create a version of the book that fixes and positions itself in the web by reaching out in a thousand directions, with a thousand links.

Anyway, time on the magazine and find myself thinking the same thoughts: the inflexibility of the page! No CTRL-F to find that exact phrase in an instant, no click to punch through the page and into an entirely different magazine/website/game/video that we referenced.

But then there was the other side of the woodspace publishing process: the designers. Working on feature stuff – rather than the static grids of regular content – you suddenly find yourself in the best part of magazine design. Suddenly writing has an element of visual directing to it, creating themes for how to illustrate the stuff that can’t be explained with the screenshot and a splash of concept art: independent gaming, wi-fi, co-op, the future.

I remember wanting to do a series of articles where we attempt to tell a story through entire full-page spread images. I think we did it once with Planetside. First spread was the dropship, second spread was the drop, third spread was sniping at the base from the hill, the fourth spread was inside the base itself. Each page was part of the long zoom, the linear thread was the text, and each boxout a small zoom focus within the larger page: this element of the battlefield, that element of the interface. It ludicrously fine work by the designer, Mark Wynne. And it used the material at hand: an area paper with a fold.

This isn’t all that print does, because it can also juxtapose image and text much more concretely: the art of the captions, the boxout. These can be tricks and jokes in their own right. The latest PC Gamer redesign added in more variable graphics to its original mix: infographics, including web diagrams of the relationships between characters in Starcraft fiction, graphs showing the relative speed of the web now and then. The traditional picture-plus-text, but with more, which is something that magazines like Wired have been doing for a long time.

This month’s Wired UK does it too with an incredible illustrated explanation of the mechanics of the Somali piracy phenomenon. It managed to use the page to create a splendid fresh logic, one that used the page to convey packets of information in a flow-chart whole. Maps, equations, charts. Sure, it’s just a “boxout” sequence that you might be familiar with from any magazine over the years, but the delivery was an exquisite flow of discrete meetings of illustration, text, and numerical data.

There’s several pages of that (above), it’s totally awesome.

This can be done on the web, but it’s harder, and it can be expensive. Obviously what’s best about the web from the point of view publishers is that it’s super-cheap. You create a grid and drop images and words in, day after day, just as you do in the standing copy areas of the magazines. But there’s no paper.

It seems that even the publishers that did try to bridge that gap and try and designed magazine format on the web – I’m thinking early jpeg’d online mags or the first year or so of The Escapist – ended up binning the idea and heading back to the bloggy format columns of text, presumably for the sake of money, but perhaps also because the web browser demanded it.

It’s interesting to hear the different sides of the argument chime in on this: lots of magazine folks argue up the material nature of their product, the things you can do with a page, the tactile response of paper. Meanwhile a number of professional bloggers I know are veterans of the magazine industry and they see magazines as a dead man walking. It’s inflexible, expensive, and even wasteful, they say. There’s no way it can hope to hold up, and maybe they’re right. But if magazines die then perhaps the art won’t have to: maybe we can find a way for the same kind of melding of wordy editorial and page design to continue.

Could we end up with WYSIWYG editors so flexible and fast that we’ll be able to lay out vertical column magazines in an instant, merging infographics, text and images into the flowing whole that they’re able to become in print magazines? Will we see web designers becoming less technical and more like the page-designing guys that made my Korea feature so beautiful, or Kieron’s Zangband article so digestible? Isn’t the real issue the crudeness of web browsers and the horrible constraints of HTML as it currently exists?

Am I going to be able to print out a future blog of mine via an on-demand newspaper service and distributed it as a beautiful print object at future games conventions? Is this – columns of text, pop-up thumbnails and embedded video – really it for the visual logic of the web?

*The worst thing commercial blogs do is use self-referential links to game names, or subjects, when their tag or whatever does not explain the topic. Instead, take me to the official site, or the Wiki page! Useless basts.

Oh, also, I wrote a rollicking feature on the future of games for next month’s PC Gamer UK with contributions from Charles Stross and Eskil Steenberg. I’ll hype it again soon, but it’s worth picking up.