Sunday, 17 November 2013

Pray tell me how you come to find me in this place.

OK, so this blog post is not going to be much of a post, but I wanted to put something up linking together all of my various things I'm doing on the internet at present. Obviously there's this blog, which I am going to continue doing things with (trying to stick to making at least one post a week, though I've struggled a bit with that, technically this is last week's post), but I've also been making more use of my youtube channel:
Posting vlogs on assorted subjects. Trying to stick to one of those each week as well. Maybe I'll say something interesting at some point.

I also created a second youtube channel:
...Pocketwatch, WatchPocket... get my terrible pun? Good, because it's in the intro to all my videos thus far... Anyway. This is for gaming videos, and is getting uupdated somewhat more than once a week, simply because I play video games quite a bit, and so all I have to do is record and talk while so doing and voila! Videos. Again, maybe I'll say interesting things once in a while. Maybe people will actually watch them, but if they don't, again, I don't lose a lot by making them so I may as well do it.

And, twitter:
To be honest, I'm mostly using it to follow interesting people and tweeting whenever I put up a new video (on either channel) or blog post, but I might say other thigns from time to time as well. Anyway, it's there, regardless, and it will be a means of tracking my other stuff.

So, yeah. There we go. That is my internet presence as a content creator (Obviously I'm also a person on forums and facebook, but that's an entirely different kettle of fish).
I will now return you to your semi-regularly scheduled programming of me talkign at great length about whatever's been on my mind recently.

Friday, 1 November 2013

A Madman in a Box

Doctor Who. It began in November 1963 as a pseudo-educational show starring a crotchety old man and two teachers, and evolved in leaps and bounds into much more of an escapist science fiction/fantasy adventure show starring a madman in a box on a romp through time and space with a string of faithful companions. Though sometimes he still acts a bit like a crotchety old man. It has also, of course, become one of those iconic and quintessential elements of British culture. People used to watch the Queen's Speech on Christmas Day, now probably more of them watch the Doctor Who Christmas Special. It's the darling of the country, and while certainly not everyone will like it, probably everyone will have some opinion about it, because it is that pervasive.

And in just under a month, it celebrates its 50th anniversary, so I figured now was a good time to make this post (Which is one of those ones I've been meaning to make for a long time, it's probably been on the list for as long as I've had a list, which is over two years).

Of course, the show has changed and varied a lot since its inception, the most marked changes of course being between the classic series and the revival, but a few things remain the same and so I suppose they're the best place to start in talking about it. The three most essential, nay quintessential elements of Doctor Who to my mind are the Doctor himself, the TARDIS, and the companions. So.

The Doctor - While of course the Doctor has varied quite a bit in personality through his eleven different incarnations thus far, certain aspects never really go away - he's always an explorer, with a great joy in the wonders of the universe, a bit of a time travelling sightseer, I suppose. As a renegade Time Lord, he's always a little out of place wherever he goes, always a little bit alien (And sometimes a bigger bit than others), regardless of the fact he appears human. He's always one of the cleverest if not the cleverest person wherever he is, and can't resist showing off his intellect. And he's always inclined to be a bit heroic, though his particular brand of heroism is not always typical, and in some cases and particular incarnations it can be very idiosyncratic in a variety of ways. Regardless of the manner or the reasons, he can't resist meddling with things. "We do not walk away."

The TARDIS - Time And Relative Dimension In Space. "Names are funny." The TARDIS is basically the vehicle for the plot. By means of the TARDIS, the Doctor and his companions arrive in whatever place and time they're about to have an adventure in, which probably wasn't where they intended to go. While she may not feature quite so much as a character (though more than you might expect), the TARDIS is essential to the whole premise of the show.

The Companions - "The Doctor likes to travel with an entourage. Sometimes they're human. Sometimes they're alien. And sometimes they're metal dogs." The primary roles of the companion have traditionally been to receive exposition and to be rescued, which doesn't particularly impressive, I'll grant you, but there's more to it. The exposition point is a fairly constant one - the Doctor is hugely knowledgable, but we the audience are not, and so in order for us to understand what's going on (even if only in a rudimentary technobabble sort of way), the Doctor needs to have someone onscreen for him to explain everything to. The being rescued aspect is not so great, and was of course particularly prevalent in female companions. I certainly can't absolve Who of sexism, particularly in its earlier years, but it should be noted that it was rare a companion was the absolute one dimensional  'scream, get rescued' character stereotypes might have you believe. They did other things as well. And of course in some ways that is more of a particular symptom of a more general narrative purpose of the companion - to be what the Doctor is not. In some cases where the Doctor is less inclined towards violence, or physical activity in general, that can mean being more of the action hero where required. Where the Doctor is more cerebral, it can mean being more down-to-Earth (or down-to-insert-relevant-planet-here, as applicable). Where the Doctor is more callous, apathetic, unemotional, or calculating, it can mean being more sympathetic and caring. In general, where the Doctor is more alien, the companion is more human, and indeed has something of a humanising influence on the Doctor.

So much for the constants, now for the differences, in particular between Classic Who and Nu Who, as they are typical known on the internet. When the show was originally created, because of the premise of it being educational, they used to switch between serials with aliens, for science, and serials in historical settings, for history. I don't know how long the idea of the show being educational actually lasted, but I think even when it was gone they continued with something like that for a while, however the historical serials may have become rarer. Certainly in the revival, historical episodes are quite rare, and when they do happen, the problem is still aliens, just aliens in the past. I feel having a purely historical episode at some point could be a decent idea, personally. Of course a further issue one can potentially bring up with the revival is that it has far too great a focus on contemporary Earth, and particularly contemporary London (though the London one at least it's shaken somewhat since the RTD-Moffat changeover). Not enough history, not enough spaceships and alien planets, even though now they have the special effects budget to do such things without just going to all the planets that happen to look like endless gravel quarries...
On a related note to the contemporary Earth focus, companions. The revival companions are a) almost all from contemporary Earth, b) almost all female, and more significantly c) almost all single companions. In the classic series it was fairly normal for the Doctor to have two companions, and sometimes more. And he got them from everywhere and everywhen he went on adventures. People from the past and from the future, the odd alien here and there possibly? And a robot dog for a while. The fact most Nu Who companions are female is reasonable in the name of gender balance but that's working under the premise that the Doctor only has one companion, which really shouldn't be as absolute as it has been. As for the contemporariness (Definitely a real word), it's taking a point too far. The companion is the audience's gateway into the Whoniverse, so they have to be relatable. But on several occasions the point has been made, implicitly and explicitly, that humans are still basically humans in any time period, and as such a companion from the past or the future could be just as relatable without implying the Doctor puts more significant emphasis on the specific time period which happens to coincide with the time the show is being made IRL for no apparent good reason.
Oh, also romance with companions. It was kind of interesting as an idea, but they've waaaaay overdone it. And besides, we all know the Doctor's only true love is his TARDIS.

And then in tone. Classic Who, with its more limited resources, but greater time in the form of multi-episode serials, was more cerebral and took more time over the pacing in general and developing characters in particular. Whereas Nu Who, with its fancy-pants special effects budget, focuses somewhat more on grand spectacle. There's merit in both, and flaws in both.
Classic was sometimes a bit slow, with a lot of time devoted to sequences with no real significance, the fact they'd always end each episode of the multi-episode serials on a cliffhanger meant some of said cliffhangers were rather lacklustre ("Oh no, I'm trapped!" *next episode* "Or I could just run over here."), and of course the special effects required a certain amount of suspension of disbelief. But on the other hand, more time in general, and more of a focus on the cerebral and social elements of the story made for some interesting plot points which don't fit so well into Nu Who episodes, and allowed for some better developed background characters giving more of a sense of verisimilitude to whatever world the TARDIS crew found themselves in each week.
Whereas Nu sometimes goes too fast, with important emotions or interesting plot points not having time to properly sink in because you're always dashing forwards to the next scene which is completely different in tone/subject, taking more of the already more limited time for the action sequences means the background world and characters are often not fully realised; and the big one, the focus on grand spectacle leads at times to a trend of "Everything must be bigger and better and MORE AMAZING!!!" Sometimes this is even somewhat expressed in-episode, or in supplemental materials (trailers and such) in a manner which makes me grimace, because it's obviously done for the audience rather than actually making proper sense in-universe and it just comes across as kind of a "Look at this! Isn't this amazing! Isn't this a really clever bit of writing that I did! Aren't you loving watching this!" Which, well. Amazingness, awesomeness, whateverness, quality of storytelling, they should speak for themselves, without having attention drawn to them. Because if we disagree, then drawing attention to how awesome you think it is just seems pathetic, in an "I did this! Am I cool yet?" Sort of way. And if we do agree that it was a good bit of story, that kind of attention-drawing reeks of smugness which lessens the enjoyment of the thing itself, in my eyes, because it's a poor presentation of it.
Wow, that was a long paragraph. I do still really like Nu Who in general, honest! The other hand here is that the better technology allows for more impressive spectacle and so on and the action sequences can be rather good, along with the fact the faster pacing means the episodes tend to be action-packed, without lengthy and pointless sequences of watching characters running along hallways for ten minutes (I think I'm exaggerating, though I'm not 100% certain). And while I have complained about the over-focus on contemporary Earth, particularly in regard to companions, I'll nevertheless allow that it is rather interesting to see that a companion's former life doesn't just vanish because they got in the TARDIS. And I'm sure there have been other interesting perspectives brought up in the revival which wouldn't have arisen in the classic series because of the values of the time, in terms of society and in terms of storytelling and TV as a medium for so doing.

Regardless of the flaws, I feel Doctor Who is at least potentially one of the best TV shows you could have. It appeals to all age groups (and that's not just a matter of adults being nostalgic for it because they watched it as children, because the period it was off the air coincided very neatly with my childhood and I love it anyway), and you can do pretty much literally anything with it. The Doctor as a Time Lord and any alien race that could even hold a candle to them basically have the level of technological advancement which is indistinguishable from magic, and the premise of the show involves time travel and alien races. So, any setting and pretty much any occurrence you want in a story can probably be fitted into Doctor Who. Not literally any, I'll grant you, at some points credulity will be strained too far (e.g. one probably couldn't incorporate the Discworld into the Whoniverse, that's going a bit too far into the magic end of things), and of course you still need explanations which can be accepted as credible (A point on which Nu Who has failed somewhat in my personal opinion in certain episodes where technological safeguards and consistency as regards the established capabilities of things don't matter because character x is clever), but in general there's massive scope for pretty much any sort of story you want to tell to fit under the Doctor Who umbrella, and so as a result, a great many very good such stories have been produced.

As I'm finding increasingly writing this blog post, it's very difficult to just sum up all my thoughts on Doctor Who like this, and so I think I'll stop trying, and simply allow for future posts about Doctor Who where I'll talk about specific episodes/serials or series or different Doctors and companions in more detail, because things like this always make much more sense in context with examples. I'll make it an on-going project. Consider this a grounding in my views on Who, the context in which to consider my views on specific bits of it.

Oh, also, there are Doctor Who threads on the Giant in the Playground forums in which I post fairly regularly - a significant amount of this post was just rephrasing and condensing things I've already said there. Also some people do reviews and stuff (I guess I should update the opening post which links to said reviews also... I'll do that shortly).
Doctor Who thread IV: "Would you like a jelly baby?" [SPOILERS]

Sunday, 20 October 2013

"Except that bit. I don't want that bit."

So, I'm a fan of Doctor Who (Blog post about that probably coming soon, since it's just over a month to the anniversary). The Doctor is currently on his eleventh incarnation. And one will quite often come across other fans who love the show, but there will be one of the eleven Doctors that they just don't like. Not consistently though, a different one for each fan, I'm pretty sure I've come across One, Two, Six, Eight, Nine, Ten or Eleven as the one Doctor a person doesn't like.
I'm also very much into Gilbert & Sullivan (as someone once put it to me, a "Gilbert and Sullifan"). And to a perhaps even more pronounced extent I find that many serious G&S enthusiasts dislike one specific show, out of the thirteen surviving Savoy Operas written by the illustrious pair. But again it varies. For some it's Pinafore, for some it's Patience, or Ida, or Yeomen, or Utopia, or Grand Duke, but there almost always seems to be one.
I'm sure there are other similar examples.
Me? I like them all, in both cases. I have preferences, of course, though I might find it hard to pin them all down definitively; there may be aspects of some which don't appeal to me, which I have issues with. But there isn't one which I dislike as a whole.

And I can't really understand this sort of attitude. I mean, one thought which I've had before in the G&S context is "If you dislike it, why are you doing it?" It's less of a point with Doctor Who, although one does sometimes come across people who seem to watch the show only so they can then criticise it on internet forums (On the other hand, if they want to do that, it's a valid if unusual pastime). But I've had cases of doing a G&S show and hearing someone backstage talking about how the show is rubbish, at which point I just think "Well, why are you here then?" With Doctor Who, there's always a chance that things will change and go back to something you appreciate more. With Gilbert & Sullivan societies, you're a member, you'll find out what the next show is by email or whatever, so if the society's doing the one show you don't like, why not just take a few months/year off?

Back to my not understanding. What's the reason for this? Is that one instance really so different to the others that it warrants a completely opposite reaction to the rest? Because I'm not talking about people who just kind of like most but then dislike one. I'm talking about people who really love most of them, and then seem to possibly even hate that one in particular. And while there are obvious variations, I would think that the similarities were still enough that a real polar opposite reaction would be highly unlikely. So what is it?
In a lot of cases, I suspect it's just that they overstate it. That they pick out a couple of issues they have and then blow them out of proportion; possibly with the help of others who place extra significance on them criticising any element of it given their usual all-consuming love for the works. And then also if those are their issues and the rest is just OK, then they're unlikely to bring up that the rest is OK, but will talk much more about the things which stand out by dint of being less good (in their opinion). Or, in some cases, they may suffer from the terrible problem of judging relative to their expectations rather than objectively. That is, because they love all the others, they tick all the right boxes and are amazing etc, that is their standard for the works, and so when they find one instance which ticks one or two less boxes, they treat it as seriously sub-par, awful, terrible drek, etc, when in fact it appeals to them less than the others but still considerably more than the majority of similar genre works out there.

The other thing I don't get though, is why it seems fairly consistently to be just one. As I said, I have issues with various if not all of the Doctors and the G&S shows, despite loving all of them. There are always aspects I can pick out as perhaps not being quite as I would prefer it. So I find it strange that in a lot of cases of people who otherwise seem to feel similarly to me, their issues are only enough to mount up to a dislike in one instance, while the others remain in the domain of "Fantastic with a couple of minor problems."
It just feels very much like an arbitrary decision, and reminds me more than a little of about the first 15 seconds of this video:

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Posthumous but not post-humorous

For want of a better title, have a terrible pun.

So something which has always struck me in a lot of media is the difficulty of dealing with the deaths of characters. Finding the balance between what is narratively satisfying and what is starkly real and shocking.
To explain more precisely, if a character dies, you kind of want them to finish their character arc first, and then live long enough to say something very characteristically them so you feel a sense of resolution. On the other hand, sometimes a character death is there partly to be a shock out of nowhere, and indeed, in real life people don't necessarily die at the optimum time in terms of their personal narrative, so you may wish to portray that sudden-ness and pull out that shock value on an unsuspecting audience.
A possibly related point to this (though I won't know for sure until I've finished talking about it) is that of course in some cases characters who do get the sudden unexpected deaths are just bit parts and background characters, which gets you your sudden-ness and shock without throwing up potential issues in your general narrative because those characters aren't the focus of it, but on the other hand this can be criticised for that very reason - that these characters are denied their own stories to be turned into sudden death fodder (Such as the ever ubiquitous example of the Star Trek redshirts).

I've been moving towards a point, ever so slowly.
The point, which prompted me to make this blog post, was that I realised an instance where these issues are somewhat sidestepped, in a book series of which I am inordinately fond - Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. In Discworld books, of course, characters do often die suddenly, and sometimes without getting much time on the page to establish themselves as characters. But then, in a large number of cases, they are allowed a certain amount of easing of the passing, a certain amount of resolution, posthumously, because Death turns up to collect them, and we are allowed to read this posthumous conversation.

This means that the sudden deaths are still there, and they still have the same potential impact on the other characters in the story, but we as the readers get the more hopeful feeling that everything is basically alright, because we see that it's not all over for them, and that their concerns in life are not necessarily their concerns after death, so resolution of all those concerns feels less necessary.
And then of course another theme fairly common in Discworld in general is various means by which ones illusions are stripped away and you see things clearly. Dying is one of the more common instances of this, and this makes for interesting reading as we can compare the reactions of different characters as they experience this newfound clarity.
Contrary to my title, often these scenes are not actually humorous. In fact they can in many cases be wuite touching. But I wanted to make a terrible pun.

The particular case I was noting this in is Small Gods. So I'm going to talk more specifics, ergo there will be spoilers.
If you have not read Small Gods, please do so. And any other Discworld books you can get your hands on, in a sensible order (You may find this helpful). You can come back and read the rest of this blog post later.

Alright, I assume everyone still reading has read Small Gods.
So, it's interesting noting, as I say, the different reactions of people who have their illusions stripped away upon death, particularly in the context of Small Gods and its attendant theme of religious morality and so on. Because on arriving in the desert, the illusions are gone, and it's all down to what they believe (I think it says as much at some point in the book). What they really believe, in their heart of hearts. And you compare that between theose who've been somewhat uncertain throughout their life, having to deal in practicalities which took them outside of the religious rules they were supposed to obey; and Vorbis, who had certainty you could smash rocks on as he lived by those rules. And Brutha, of course, who was somewhere in between.

I think it's particularly noticeable if you put the passages side by side.

General Fri'it:
"There were no lies here. All fancies fled away. That's what happened in all deserts. It was just you, and what you believed.
What have I always believed?
That on the whole, and by and large, if a man lived properly, not according to what any priests said, but according to what seemed decent and honest inside, then it would, at the end, more or less, turn out alright.
You couldn't get that on a banner. But the desert looked better already.
Fri'it set out."

Private Ichlos:
"Ichlos looked at the sands stretching away. He knew instinctively whathe had to do. He was far less sophisticated than General Fri'it, and took more notice of songs he'd learned in his childhood. Besides, he had an advantage. He'd had even less religion than the general.
... [snipping out some less relevant bits]...
Ichlos set out. On the whole, he thought, it could have been a lot worse.

In both cases, clearly, a fairly quick dose of clear introspection is enough for them to feel that they had nothing in particular to be ashamed of in going to be judged. They've done right by their own standards, and so carry on as they would have in life, setting striaght out on the important task at hand - to whit, crossing the desert.
By contrast...

"Now he had to cross the desert. What could there be to fear-
The desert was what you believed.
Vorbis looked inside himself.
And went on looking.
He sagged to his knees.
'Don't leave me! It's so empty!'
...[more snippage]...
'Yes. Yes, of course.'
Death nodded. IN TIME, he said, YOU WILL LEARN THAT IT IS WRONG."


"'Ah. There reall is a desert. Does everyone get this?' said Brutha.
'And what is at the end of the desert?'
Brutha considered this.
'Which end?'
Death grinned and stepped aside.
What Brutha had thought was a rock in the sand was a hunched figure, sitting clutching its knees. It looked paralysed with fear.
He stared.
'Vorbis?' he said.
He looked at Death.
'But Vorbis died a hundred years ago!'
'He's been here for a hundred years?'
'Ah. You mean a hundred years can pass like a few seconds?'

Obviously there's more to it if you read the scenes in full, such as the fact that in line with one of the things I said in my sort of preamble, Private Ichlos isn't a character until he dies, but is granted more of a narrative identity in his post-death scene ("Now he was more than just a soldier, an anonymous figure to chase and be killed and be no more than a shadowy bit-player in other people's lives. Now he was Dervi Ichlos, aged thirty-eight, comparatively blameless in the general scheme of things, and dead.") But I picked out the sections I felt were most relevant to simply comparing the four of them. Well, mostly the first two and Vorbis. The section of Brutha's was more for its inclusion of Vorbis, and for his very astute observation. At which end of the desert are you judged? The simple inference once you consider the question is of course that you are judged at the end of the desert at which you start, and the judge is you yourself, once you've had your illusions stripped away to give you that clarity (An idea which has been used elsewhere of course, including being revisited in a much later Discworld book, and also it happened on Red Dwarf).

Returning to my initial point about narrative satisfaction, anyway, the two soldiers and Vorbis are excellent examples of it. Fri'it was plucked out of the storyline somewhat abruptly. There's a certain amount of shock value to his death. But he has his chance to make his peace on-page after his death. Private Ichlos was a non-character, he was there purely to be shot and killed for trying to follow his orders as a soldier should and for no fault of his own, but posthumously he was granted some identity in the story. And then Vorbis, the villain of the piece, again died very suddenly, and his death was almost brushed over in the ensuing reascent of Om. It would be easy to feel that it was somewhat too good for him, and that he didn't really receive a proper comeuppance. But that's because his comeuppance was then in the posthumous scenes, in his sitting in despair in the desert for a hundred years that passed like infinity, to be eventually... I suppose almost granted absolution by Brutha, the book's protagonist, at the end. It highlights the difference between the two of them, as well.

Anyway. Small Gods is still a very good book, very interesting, I'm sure someone into philosophy and ethics and theology and whatnot could have a field day with analysing all the different atitudes and ideas expressed just by Vorbis, Brutha and Didactylos. But I'm more into narratives, and this was the thought which really jumped into my head as I was revisiting the story.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

The Expanding Steam Universe

So, Valve put three announcements out... last week? Two weeks ago? I dragged my heels a bit with regard to getting this blog post out, but whatever, I still have opinions. Of course the whole thing, as it says, is aimed at bringing the Steam experience to the living room, though I think some of it will probably have applications elsewhere as well. So onto the announcements.

Announcement 1 - Steam OS

Steam gets its own operating system. Makes sense - the typical living room gaming machines are consoles, and they also have their own fairly simplistic operating system designed to let you get at your games, update them, get more games, etc (I have very little personal experience with it as I'm part of the PC Gaming Master Race and the newest console I have is a PS2, which just goes straight into games from the discs). If one has a computer in the living room hooked up to the TV its presumably being used as if it was a console, so why not just make it entirely gaming dedicated?
That said, I wonder if there will be more to this SteamOS. I mean, it is apparently based on Linux, which is of course used as a standard operating system by a number of people, so I wonder if it would be possible for me to hypothetically just replace Windows with SteamOS once it's available. I mean, if it supports a word processor and a web browser, then along with gaming that accounts for about 90% of my computer use. And since the OS is designed around Steam and therefore around gaming, presumably I would have less issues with superfluous background processes using up the computer power which I could really use for making my games run smoother. Just random musings.
Actually, thinking about it, one of the things they say is "Users can alter or replace any part of the software or hardware they want." So I imagine that even if SteamOS as released doesn't work as a standard operating system for non-gaming purposes, I'm pretty sure within a week or so of its release some enterprising gaming enthusiast will have modded it so that it is. So, yeah. I'm quite interested in the possibility of getting a computer to run on SteamOS, given the claim that "In SteamOS, we have achieved significant performance increases in graphics processing, and we’re now targeting audio performance and reductions in input latency at the operating system level." i.e. hopefully it will make my games run better? As someone with a not-very-good computer which isn't really built for gaming, anything which gives me a performance increase sounds like a pretty good idea.

They also sneaked four smaller announcements into this big one. In-home streaming isn't really a big deal to me, though I can see how it could be handy for some people. The stuff about bringing media stuff online so they can be accessed with Steam and SteamOS could be interesting. It certainly does seem to lean somewhat towards supporting the idea that SteamOS could be or become a regular operating system with more functions than just letting you get at your games. And then, well, family options actually is kind of just an extra detail of family sharing, which they had already announced, but which is a very neat idea. The ability to lend your games to people could work out very nicely.

Additionally, of course I was following threads talking about this on forums I frequent. This was said by Kaneco on the forums:

"This is what stood out more for me... These will enable and even encourage all kinds of publishers from indie to AAA to develop and publish games to a new system that has no associated costs besides the development.

Xbox and PS charge very hefty fees iirc, often discouraging indie or smaller developers to publish their games.

This will result in one of 2 things, steamOS gets a huge catalogue of games from the start and lots of gamers start moving to steamOS as the home entertainment system, or the current existing systems (ps / xbox, etc) will have to change the way they do business to compete with steamOS and don't lose costumers to a far superior platform (at first glance). Either way its a win-win situation for us costumers."

Seems like a good point to me.

Announcement 2 - Steam Machines

a.k.a. the Steam Box. This had been talked about somewhat for a while before this announcement, but the new point brought in here which as far as I know had not been hitherto mentioned was the plurality of Steam machines - if you want an XBox or Playstation of whatever brand/number they're up to at the time of your purchase, that is your only option. The Steam Machines, by the sound of it, will basically be like gaming PCs, and just as customisable and variable, so you can get one which suits your own personal requirements with regards to quality and price. The only question is how they'll stack up pricewise - if they cost as much as a good gaming PC, then why not just get a gaming PC? In which case, they wouldn't really be able to compete with the console market, which is the obvious goal, so they'd just get the same PC gaming audience they already have. On the other hand, if they can offer a decent experience at a comparable pricepoint to the XBox One and PS4, then  they could make quite a splash.

They could make an especially big splash because they're blurring some boundaries. Credit to gr8stalin on the forums for the insight, but this one I'm going to put into my own words.
So. There are a few reasons why the term 'PC Gaming Master Race' gets thrown around. There's the fact that mouse + keyboard is a superior control mechanism for certain types of game (more on that further down the post), and in any case nowadays you can use a controller with a PC, whereas you can't use mouse + keyboard on a console as far as I'm aware. Then there's the fact that PCs get used for so many other things as well as gaming, whereas cosnoles have fairly limited non-gaming functionality. But possibly the biggest point is just the variety of games available. There are a lot of games for PC which you can't get on console, and while there are games which you can only get on one brand of console but the other, a large proportion of those games will later be ported to PC (the ports vary in quality, but they happen). And the SteamBoxes/Steam Machines, despite being consoles, still act like PCs. Or possibly they act like consoles but are still PCs, either way.
The point is, on the console game market, Sony and Microsoft can force people to buy their console to play certain specific games, and cut out their competition. But if those games get ported to PC, the SteamBox can probably run them. If they want to cut out Valve they have to lose the PC market for these games entirely, whereas if they want to keep that PC market by having the games ported, then they enable the SteamBox to become a superior choice for variety of gaming, because it will be the one available console able to play (nearly) everything.

Announcement 3 - The Steam Controller

I've seen several people say the Steam Controller looks weird, or ugly, or like it'll never work. Most if not all of that I think is just down to a stick-in-the-mud mentality - they think it won't work because it doesn't work like the kind of controllers they're used to. People see buttons labelled A, B, X and Y and assume they have to be used regularly, when in fact on the Steam Controller it's expected that those controls will be used for things you want available but not so much in the heat of the moment. They see a controller without an analog stick or a d-pad and say "THEY CHANGED IT NOW IT SUCKS."

So here is my more measured opinion. One point - buttons on the back, so your third and fourth fingers on each hand can actually do something rather than just sitting there holding the controller. Personally I don't see why they don't have four buttons back there instead of two, but it's still handy. Now the big thing, of course, is the touchpads. This is the big potential stumbling block. If they work well, then the controller will be the best controller around in my opinion. If they don't then it won't. But I saw an article recently talking to some game developers who had a chance to use the controller and they were positive about them, so I'm inclined to be positive as well (Here's the article I read, you can find others if you just google game devs steam controller or something).

Let's look at this from the two opposing points of view - coming from a more standard controller and coming from keyboard + mouse. Controller first.
So, as I said, people are bothered by the lack of analog sticks or d-pad. But the thing is, both of those things can be easily replicated by the touchpads. Apparently the touchpads, in addition to just being touchpads, can be effectively divided into multiple buttons. Assuming there's suitable feedback so you can feel when you're pressing one of these imaginary buttons (which apparently you can, due to the haptic feedback which they apparently put a lot into for this reason), the touchpad is now a d-pad. But then when you need it to be a touchpad again, it can do that as well, which an actual d-pad cannot. Similarly for analog sticks. Then, buttons. There are six available to your fingers, and in a lot of games you'll only need one touchpad for movement, so the second can quite possibly be turned into more buttons. The big stumbling point I suspect would be fighting games, because they rely on some very precise button presses. So it's possible that even with the haptic feedback, a touchpad wouldn't be able to adequately replicate just having buttons for a fighting game. But any other genre of console game I don't see why the Steam controller shouldn't just be superior.
Now, coming from the opposite direction of mouse + keyboard. There are two main reasons why m+k is a superior control system for certain types of game. Firstly, hotkeys. If there are numerous actions you want to have fairly quick access to, without having to navigate through menus to find them, a keyboard is better because it has several times the number of buttons that any controller does. This is still the case with the Steam Controller, but they have substantially mitigated it with the addition of the back buttons, the touchscreen, and the ability to use the touchpads as multiple buttons as well as as touchpads. Secondly, the mouse is a much better precision tool. In many games you will use the keyboard to move and the mouse to aim or move the cursor (depending on the type of game). If you try to do this on a controller you use one analog stick for one and the other stick for the other. Now, the movement is alright. But the aiming simply doesn't have the same potential for a quick response. If it's, say, a turn-based strategy game, then yes, an analog stick can be used to move your cursor around just fine. But if you're operating in real time, then time is a factor. The amount of time you take to move your cursor or crosshair with an analog stick is based on the length of time you hold it in the relevant direction, whereas with a mouse it's dependent on the distance you move it, which allows much more precision at speed. Making a 180 degree turn in an FPS, say, may take several seconds with an analog stick, but with a mouse it can take a fraction of a second. Of course you probably could switch up the sensitivity such that you could turn that quickly with an analog stick, but that would then require inhuman levels of accuracy to hold the stick only for the very precise fraction of a second you wanted, lest you accidentally turn your back on an enemy who was only slightly to your right. Whereas with a mouse it's much easier to just move your hand more or less depending on the circumstances. So, with regards to the Steam Controller, there are trackpads. Now trackpads come as standard on laptop computers as a mouse substitute. They're not great, but they work, and apparently these ones are much better. They'll still be limited - the trackpads are significantly smaller than any mousemat, and that's a very small area in which to try and be precise with your movements, but it's a step in the more effective direction. I don't think the Steam Controller stands a chance of replacing keyboard + mouse as the most effective input method for games like first person shooters which require that level of high-speed precision and turning. But it'll be streets better than anything with analog sticks, and it should be just fine for anything where you need that precision in a smaller area.

All-in-all, I, who have never bothered to play any PC game with a controller (screw you, Super Meat Boy, I am offended by your messages telling me my keyboard is an inferior form of input for you), am considering that I may well want to get one of these once they're available, and I may well use it.

So, anyone reading this have any opinions they want to share? Anyone want to tell me I'm an idiot and clearly don't understand anything about the subject on which I'm speaking? Or agree with me? Leave comments if so.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013


No, not the excellent card game in which you do your best Dr. Frankenstein impression, my blog. My blog is alive. I bet you all thought that just because I hadn't posted anything in the last three or four months that I'd given up. Not so! In fact at several points in that period I started to write blog posts, it's just that I'm a bit rubbish at times and thus never finished them. I might revisit them at some point. Or not. Anyway.

Right now, I'm hoping to get back to  more regularly posting, along with more regularly doing various other more productive things. I went through an extensive phase of failing to do anything much, but I feel like I've found my work ethic again. Turns out it was behind the sofa this whole time! (I've wanted to make that joke for years, but I've never found my work ethic sufficiently to feel it was justified)
Hopefully this flurry of productivity (if such it can be called, because at the moment my progress has been more of the slow and steady variety) will last. I'll do my best to make sure it does, because I know I tend to feel better as a person when I'm actually doing things. A productive mindset leads to a good outlook and suchlike. I think I'm rambling, and I was sure I had some more actual substance to put into this post, but all that's coming to mind is basically a reprise of my post about how beginning is the hardest thing. I mean, the fact I was sure there was some substance to be put into it was the only reason I started writing it, 'cause I've always been fairly against the idea of making blog posts consisting of just "Haven't made a post in a while, will make more soon." I feel there should be something more to it.

So, my work ethic which I found down the back of the sofa (though not really). I really can't pinpoint when it went away, though I'm sure I used to have one, like, when I was in middle school. Of course some of it comes down to what feels compulsory and what doesn't. When I was in school, lessons felt compulsory, so they'd provoke me into forcing myself not to be lazy and to go to school. At uni, lectures never had the same feeling of being compulsory, so I had bad attendance. Or, well, actually I suppose it's down to making a commitment, that can also work. If I made a commitment to someone that I would do something, then I would do it, because I didn't want to let them down. Regardless of the difficulty I had getting out of bed for lectures, I would drag myself out excessively early to help out a friend. And I always go to rehearsals (sometimes I'm late, but that's an entirely separate point), because I've made a commitment about it. Other things, though... they're all kind of self-imposed. They're not compulsory and I haven't made a commitment to anyone other than myself, which doesn't carry the same weight with regards to changing my attitude and overcoming my lethargy. I could probably spin that into some self-aggrandising thing about how I'm really selfless and care more about other people's things that my own, but to be honest I think it's more that I don't want to face people's anger or disappointment or whatever. Whereas if it's just me then I don't have to explain myself, and whatever explanation and reasoning I come up with will be acceptable because it's mine and it's me giving it to myself.

So, yeah. Anyway. Hopefully I'll post more. Probably about video games for a few, because while I was failing to do anything productive I found them to be an excellent procrastinating tool. And also I'm hopefully going to keep working on other projects and stuff, including I plan on making videos of things regularly (hopefully, assuming I can keep thinking of things to talk about). That I've already started. In case anyone reads this who doesn't keep track of either my facebook or my posts on GitP, here is the video I made.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

On the merits of this opera you're at present in the dark

The show I did more recently was a double bill of Trial By Jury and The Zoo. The former is G&S, but the second is only Sullivan, with words by Bolton Rowe, whoever he was. Although The Zoo seems to be fairly well known about within G&S circles, because it's not Gilbert and only one act, it's not often performed. Trial similarly is only one act. Societies tend to want a full two act show to perform. If you want to do a one act show you need to do two, or do it as a short curtain-opener to something longer. It's always going to be more thought to figure out what you want to do, so one act shows tend to be less frequently done. Trial probably more than Zoo, since it's the famous duo, but still.

So, let's talk about these shows. I'm going to take them in reverse order, because I was only chorus in Zoo whereas I was a principal in Trial, and also I prefer Trial.

The Zoo

Rapid plot summary: the members of the British public arrive at the London Zoological Gardens to find that Aesculapius Carboy (a modest chemist, tenor) is about to hang himself because Mr. Grinder (a retired grocer, baritone) won't let him marry Laetitia (his daughter, soprano), also he thinks he's accidentally given her a blister, which was intended to be his revenge on her father. But it turns out she's fine. The romance between Tom Brown (alias the Duke of Islington in disguise, baritone) and Eliza Smith (in charge of the refreshments stall, mezzo I think) leads to Tom Brown trying to prove his devotion by eating an excessive amount of food from Eliza's refreshments stall. Tom Brown faints from eating too much. After a bit of an argument, Eliza goes off with a prescription from Carboy to get him some medicine. Then Carboy, in loosening some of Tom Brown's clothes to make him more comfortable, discovers the order of the Garter concealed in his jacket and realises he's a peer in disguise. After much kneeling and awkwardly telling them not to kneel, and a highly unclear speech, he agrees with the chorus that he should propose as soon as he's got his full Ducal regalia on. Grinder turns up and refuses Carboy his consent again, so Carboy goes back to the suicide plan and lowers himself into the bear pit. Tom Brown returns as the Duke, proposes to Eliza and gives her the zoo as a wedding gift. Carboy emerges unharmed from the bearpit, because the bears had been moved, and Tom Brown resolves that point as well by giving Grinder a lot of money. The two couples can get married and everyone is happy! Hooray!

Some productions, ours included, have a narrator to explain what's going on. Despite which it can still be somewhat confusing in places. The Zoo definitely makes you appreciate Gilbert more. Gilbert may make everything weird and topsy-turvy, but you can generally follow the weirdness well enough.
I'm not sure exactly  what it is about The Zoo that doesn't appeal to me as much. Maybeone could say Sullivan didn't quite bring his A game to it, but it's still good, and there are certainly a few decent songs in there (Well, I suppose one thing I didn't like so much was that the tunes got stuck in my head and just kept looping and annoying me). There aren't many gaps in the plot (There's one thing which isn't really explained involving the switching of labels on medicines and consequent placing of blisters). It's all ridiculously overblown, granting an excessive amount of emphasis to things which don't really matter that much, but then the same can be said of some stuff Gilbert wrote. I suppose Gilbert's often had the added depth of satirising something. Maybe it's just that I don't think prescriptions are interesting enough to warrant singing about them. Or... hm. Maybe a bit of a mis-matching of styles of the words and music? I don't know.
The Zoo was apparently originally intended as 'a light-hearted tilt at the conventions of grand opera', so maybe my issue is that I'm not sufficiently experiences in those conventions to recognise what it's poking fun at.

Regardless of this, I enjoyed doing it. I loved the way we did it - everything ridiculously over the top. Actually, that might be the key to my issue with the show - I kind of feel like at least some of it doesn't really work without making it ridiculously over the top to make the most of the ridiculousness of the situation, but at the same time I feel like it may not have been intended that way. There are bits of it where it seems to me like Rowe may have wanted them played out a bit more seriously, but if they were I think they'd just come across to me as stupid.

Whatever the reason, despite enjoying doing the show, my favourite bit of it is still "And if the noble breast could speak, what would it say?" Which is not an actual line from the show, but a hilarious misreading on the part of our MD, which I struggled not to actually sing in rehearsals and performances.
OK, now that I've got all that aside, I guess the way I'd describe it is something along the lines of "not a great show, but a fun show with the right group/director." Certainly there are bits of it which really stick in my mind as great fun regardless, like Mr. Grinder's bits of angry singing (That is, all of his singing); Thomas Brown trying to stop everyone kneeling to him and failing to give a speech; some other nice songs as well. But there are other bits which I just don't think I would have enjoyed if they'd been directed more traditionally and less playfully.

Oh, one point on a joke we put in which I was shocked and dismayed to find not everyone understood - at a mention of an armadillo, there was produced a packet of Dime bars (Yes, they changed the spelling to 'Daim', but I think that's stupid). This is why.

Trial By Jury

Rapid summary - Angelina/the Plaintiff (Soprano) is suing Edwin/the Defendant (Tenor) for breach of promise of marriage. The Usher (Baritone) struggles to keep the court in order and silence. Edwin explains he doesn't want to marry Angelina because he's fallen in love with somebody else, gets no sympathy. The Judge (Comic baritone) explains how he became a judge - currying favour with a rich attorney by courting his elderly, ugly daughter, then leaving her as soon as he was rich and successful. The Plaintiff arrives and everyone male instantly falls in love with her. The Counsel for the Plaintiff (Traditionally high baritone but often turned into a mezzo nowadays, including in our production) lays out the details of how the Defendant is a deceitful scumbag. The Defendant, after trying to explain himself further, offers as a compromise to marry Angelina today and marry his new lover tomorrow, but according to the Counsel, "To marry two at once is burglaree!" A nice dilemma. Angelina plays up her feelings for Edwin, making more of her loss so she'll get more money in damages; Edwin counters by explaining he's not that much of a loss as he's a terrible person and would probably beat her when he got drunk. Surprisingly enough, no-one really likes the Judge's suggestion that they get him drunk and find out. Finally, tired of the  proceedings, the Judge simply declares that he will marry her himself!

Our Trial was updated to modern times and had some characterisations played about with a bit. Edwin, rather than being the dastardly cad he usually is, was instead a nice young man easily flustered and overwhelmed, leading to him saying stupid things (Like "I'll marry both of them!" and "I'd probably get drunk and hit her or something!") In contrast Angelina didn't care about him at all, but was just playing it up to get money from him. The Counsel and the Usher were both idiots, of different sorts, and... well, I suppose the Judge being generally bored with the proceedings is traditional enough, but I think we made more of it, and of him not really paying attention to what was going on, than most productions you would likely come across.

The downside of Trial as a show is it's hard not to make it rather static. I mean, it all takes place in a courtroom, people don't generally jump up and start dancing around during a trial. Certainly our jury, between the opening chorus and the finale, basically just sat there, occasionally standing up in respect or anger, and kneeling at one point to be sworn in. And in general, even the characters who do get up to do things will most likely have directions along the lines of "Move to here. Act. Now move to here and act some more. Now sit down for ten minutes getting bored, and fall asleep." (Obviously that's not verbatim - no-one actually timed how long I was sitting there before falling asleep...)

I suppose in contrast to above I should try to figure out what it is about Trial that makes me like it more than Zoo. The music's more complicated and interesting - while I did get bits of it stuck in my head from time to time, it didn't generally annoy me. I like the humour of it more. I guess I think it's cleverer. Depends less on ridiculously over the top melodrama and more on typical Gilbertian topsy-turviness and hypocrisy (The Usher saying "From bias free of every kind, this trial must be tried," meanwhile displaying an obvious bias towards Angelina over Edwin; the Judge basically explaining over the course of his entrance that he is guilty of exactly the same crime that Edwin is accused of, etc). To be honest, on my hypothetical ranking of G&S shows, Trial probably falls near the bottom, though that may just be because it's shorter than the others and has no lib. Given that it has no lib, I suppose the fact the music is so good is pretty important.

...I'm running out of things to say so I'm just going to throw some photos in here:


Monday, 13 May 2013

Toffee in rehearsals, toffee backstage, toffee at the after-show!

To have it supposed that you care for nothing but toffee... I can't be bothered to keep going with the quote, but I was recently in a production of Patience.
...I've actually taken long enough writing this show post that I've been in another show since. In my defence, there were only two weeks between the two shows, and one of the reasons this post took so long to write is that I had to keep rushing out to rehearsals. Anyway. Patience.

Patience, or Bunthorne's Bride, was originally planned to be about two rival curates, but Gilbert after a while turned them into poets and the opera became a satire on the craze for the aesthetic movement. It's probably one of the shows directors are most fond of updating, because the aesthetic craze can be easily analogised to a more modern craze. Replace the poets with popstars or something.
Of course, I've mentioned Patience on this blog before, when I talked about a production I went to see, in which for some unknown reason they decided to backdate it instead of updating it... it didn't really work for me. The production I was in left it in the original setting, and was much better.

Dramatis Personae

Colonel Calverley - Baritone. Fairly standard gruff army officer. Leads the chorus of dragoons.

Major Murgatroyd - Baritone. Basically just a lesser version of the Colonel.

Lieutenant the Duke of Dunstable - Tenor. Joined the regiment of dragoons because he was sick of people flattering him all the time because he feels he doesn't deserve it. This is the part I played, and my inspiration for the way I did it was part generic excessively posh simpering fop, and part Eeyore. He's sad about everything!

Reginald Bunthorne (A fleshly poet) - Comic Baritone. Secretly doesn't actually like poetry, just likes being adored by women. Gloomy, moody, fitful, uncertain in temper and selfish in disposition. Very egotistical. A bit like Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, actually.

Archibald Grosvenor (An idyllic poet) - Lyric Baritone. Rather self-absorbed and vain without realising it - so many people have told him he's perfectly beautiful that he believes it to be an objective fact. Doesn't actually like being adored by every woman he meets because he's in love with Patience, but sees it as his duty to make them happy in this way.

Mr. Bunthorne's Solicitor - Silent. Walks on in the act 1 finale to conduct a raffle with Bunthorne as the prize. Leaves once the plot moves on.

Ladies Angela, Saphir and Ella (Rapturous maidens) - Mezzo, Mezzo, Soprano. Dedicated followers of the fashion for aesthetic poetry, and therefore of Bunthorne, until Grosvenor arrives. As Patience observes, none of the women are particularly happy about being in love.

Lady Jane - Alto. The one maiden who doesn't abandon Bunthorne for Grosvenor. Clearly aware of and concerned about the decay of her personal charms with age. While the other maidens are more likely to gaze adoringly at their poet of choice, and maybe swoon elegantly, Jane tends to be more forceful.

Patience (A dairy maid) - Soprano. Simple, but not necessarily stupid, and may in fact have more common sense than most of the rest of the cast.

So. Plot. Dragoons love women. Women love poet. Poet loves milkmaid. Milkmaid (Patience) hasn't loved anyone since she was four years old. In fact, she doesn't even know what love is. On being told that love is "of all passions the most essential" and that it must be unselfish, she concludes that she has to fall in love as soon as possible. Unfortunately, though she does re-meet her childhood sweetheart (Grosvenor, another poet), she reasons that since he's so incredibly beautiful and everything, falling in love with him would be incredibly selfish, so to be unselfish she must instead fall in love with someone she doesn't actually like - Bunthorne (The first poet). Bunthorne and Patience are together, women with the exception of Lady Jane fall in love with Grosvenor, Bunthorne is annoyed, dragoons are still annoyed, Grosvenor's unhappy, end act 1.
Act 2, after much faffing on worrying about who's in love with who and who will marry which women given Grosvenor doesn't want any of them. Bunthorne, in an attempt to get the women to like him again instead of Grosvenor, forces Grosvenor to become a commonplace young man. Unfortunately it backfires, the women reasoning that if Grosvenor doesn't want to be aesthetic any more, they don't either. Since he's no longer a perfect beauty, Patience can love him without it being selfish. Finally, the Duke declares his intention to marry Jane in the spirit of fairness, since she's the only one of the women who isn't beautiful, thus leaving Bunthorne with no-one.

I've omitted some important details, like the three officers attempting to become aesthetic to win back the ladies,
 the fact that Bunthorne never had a mother, though he did have an aunt,

 magnets, eyeglasses in oculars, and so on. Thing is, they don't actually impact the plot particularly in the long run. They're just funny.
I was actually realising at some point during the rehearsal process that if I had to rank the G&S shows in order of preference, Patience would probably be somewhere towards the bottom of the list. Though of course it must be noted that this is all relative - I love all the shows rather a lot, unlike many other G&S enthusiasts I know who all seem to have one or two that they just don't. And then, this production in particular I thought there might have been some issues, maybe things would go wrong, etc. But then, pretty much in the week of the show, suddenly everything was amazing and it was some of the most fun I've ever had doing G&S.


OK, so an interesting thought I had about Patience, which wasn't so much a thing in this production, but if I were to direct it myself I might try to play with this idea - the most actually aesthetic person in the show is debatably the Duke. Bunthorne isn't aesthetic, he's just pretending to be to make women like him. The women aren't really aesthetic, they just pretend to be to make poets like them. Grosvenor... his poetry really isn't all that. I like to think that adoring women just assumed he was a poet because he's so beautiful, and he just believed them. On the other hand, the Duke's whole spiel about how he doesn't deserve all this adulation and too much toffee becomes so awful; to me, at least, this seems reminiscent of Bunthorne's spiel about how everything is hollow, except the Duke really believes it and doesn't realise it could be kind of poetic. The Duke was probably brought up too much thinking that poetry was wishy-washy and effeminate or whatever and so he wouldn't go for it but instead would try to do something more appropriately manly like joining a second-class cavalry regiment. I may have put a slightly excessive amount of thought into this, but it was interesting, and I had nothing in particular to do on a metro journey home after rehearsal.

I'm sure I had more things to say about this show... oh, a kind of interesting thing is that the last time I did this show, four years ago, I auditioned for the same 3 parts that I did this time (Bunthorne, Grosvenor, Duke). I think in most cases I've gotten more interested in other parts than I would've wanted back then when I was still fairly new to G&S. I don't know if there's anything particularly insightful about that, if it says anything about the show, it just suddenly struck me just now.
I'm trying to think if there's anything more about the show I can really talk about... I don't know if there is. I guess one of the reasons it would (as I said further up) probably be lowish on my list of favourites is because there's nothing that makes it particularly stand out - it's not long and in need of cutting, it's not viewed as problematic in subject matter at all, it's just your standard "this is a G&S". All you really need to do with it is decide on how to play things out. Bring out the comedy primarily, other emotions also, have fun with it.

Oh, though not certain, it's certainly plausible and fairly well speculated that Gilbert changed his mind about how he wanted the romances to play out partway through the show - it seems obvious that one should pair up all the major principals, so the Duke would have Ella and Bunthorne would have Jane, who never abandoned him. But instead the Duke chooses Jane and Ella is kind of forgotten about and marries the Solicitor. So one thinks, maybe Gilbert just partway through thought "Actually, wouldn't it be funnier if the Duke married Jane and left Bunthorne with nobody?" and changed it.
Of course, it's even a bit more problematic in amateur societies, when the women outnumber the men and yet somehow there still isn't anyone left for Bunthorne. As a sort of related sidenote, Patience is also one of the few shows with lyrics specifying the number of chorus members, throwing up similar issues since most societies can't actually find exactly twenty lovesick maidens to put on stage.

Oh, and one more thing: Bunthorne is not Oscar Wilde. This is a popular misconception, apparently. Wilde was certainly part of the aesthetic movement Patience was satirising, and indeed the most famous member of it now. And apparently D'Oyly Carte got him to do an American lecture tour to make sure the American audiences would understand it (Poor benighted yanks not understanding Gilbert's brilliance/British humour in general...) But Bunthorne is his own character, blah blah etc, Wilde may be an easy association but he's not the character.

Is there more stuff? Maybe tomorrow I'll remember loads of other things I wanted to say about Patience and be annoyed that I forgot them. Wait, wait. OK, I remembered the two paragraphs right above this bit and threw them in. Maybe I've still forgotten things, but if so it'll be less things now. Whatever, I have another show post to write already, and some not-show posts. Farewell, Patience! Patience, farewell!

Saturday, 20 April 2013

"There are two kinds of folks who sit around thinking about how to kill people: psychopaths and mystery writers."

He's the kind that pays better.
Castle was one of those TV series which I figured I'd get around to watching eventually, because it sounded  interesting and had an actor I knew in it (In this case, Nathan Fillion), so I figured it might be interesting. Eventually it came to a night when I felt like watching something, something I hadn't seen before, so why not try the first episode of Castle to see how I liked it. A few weeks later I'd watched every episode which had been broadcast up to that point, which was all of four seasons. So you don't need to be a master of deduction to realise I liked it. I also made sure to get the DVDs and to specifically show at least the first episode to a few people just so they'd understand if I started talking about the show.

Before I started watching, all I knew about Castle was something along the lines of "Millionaire novelist Richard Castle ends up working with (and aggravating) the NYPD when a serial killer starts staging murder scenes like ones from Castle's bestselling books." Which sounded interesting, but limited. I mean, how many times can it realistically happen? Fortunately, it turned out that's just how it starts, and the ensuing episodes involve non-Castle-themed murders (albeit rather strange ones), and Castle gets to stick around because, y'know, he's rich and has powerful friends.
The other surprise which comes out is that the show isn't exactly about the murder investigations. I mean, obviously, they make up the bulk of the events of each episode, but they're not exactly the focus. They're just the context. The setting. The background against which we witness the real story, which is about the people involved. Their various quirks, odd things going on in their lives, and most particularly the tension between Castle and Detective Kate Beckett.

I mean, obviously, this sort of thing can't be unique to Castle. All shows have to have characters, many of them have well-written characters, but these are just the observations I kind of made while watching. I suppose one of the big lessons I got from watching it is... actually, come to think of it, it's something I've blogged about before, along the lines that regardless of extreme circumstances, people remain people, or something of the sort. I mean, obviously homicide detectives have to take their jobs seriously, but equally, they're still people, and people joke and laugh about things, so regardless of the tragedy around them, they do those things.
Actually, I'm going a bit out of sequence on what I meant to say. I initially thought it would be more that Castle brought the light-heartedness intot the mix, since he doesn't really seem to take anything seriously most of the time. And so it is, he's certainly more frivolous, but it's not like the detectives are a bunch of misery-gutses or anything. Because, particularly if death is an integral part of your day-to-day life, you can't just put things on hold and act solemn about everything. You'd probably go crazy or something. Or get really depressed, or just generally have a terrible life.

OK, so this leads me onto one of my other things - obviously, by the nature of the show, people die. Every episode (with occasional exceptions), there's been a different murder. It can get a little wearing at times, especially if you're watching lots of episodes back-to-back, as I was. I felt a little burned out at times, because regardless of the fact they do keep things a lot more light-hearted than you might imagine, nevertheless they don't shy away from periodically giving you that emotional kick in the gut, as it were, with victims' families and such. For which I definitely respect the writers.

The whole setup is interesting in that of course Castle provides a different perspective on things, though sometimes I think not enough is made of that point. Because while the others are police detectives, Castle is a writer. A storyteller. He's a clever man, he can make some fairly impressive deductions (He does his best Sherlock Holmes impression in the very first episode deducing Beckett's backstory), but he looks at it from the  point of view of telling a story and making it make sense. As if he was writing it. So there are cases of him saying things like "Obviously he didn't do it. He's the  red herring!" The place where this falls down, however, is that in a lot of stories you can watch and think "Surely it's obvious that this is dangerous/that guy can't be trusted/insert plot twist here?" And the counter to it is "Well, they don't know they're in a story. Experienced in first person, in real life, these things wouldn't be so obvious. Castle doesn't have that excuse, since he is supposed to be treating things as a story. And sometimes it seems like he should see some important things coming because of that.

The one other real criticism I can come up with is that they do like reusing some ideas. Such as "Castle gets a criminal to talk by claiming he's doing research for his new book and wants it to be authentic." Makes a certain amount of sense sometimes, but when he's literally getting them to explain specific details about the crime being investigated, whiel they're in a police station and when they already know Castle's working with the police... it seems like at least one of them would be smart enough to figure out it's a ruse. The other problematic reused idea comes in later on and it's a thing they do where the episode starts with a scene setting up some sort of a cliffhanger moment, and then rewinds and the action shows how they arrived at that moment. Now, the first time they do it it works well. Other times, less so, because the cliffhangers are less interesting, they didn't necessarily need to be previewed, they're not teased and played with at other points in the episode, sometimes they're not that far into the episode, and so they kind of fall flat. The episodes in question are still good, but they'd be just as good or better if we just saw everything in chronological order rather than previewing a snippet of one later scene at the beginning.

I think that's all the general stuff I can say. I suppose there's a bit of an ongoing plot, but other than a couple of backstory mysteries to be solved, it's all to do with the characters growing together, their interactions and relationships, or lack thereof. And I don't know if I really want to go through the characters here. Some of them I'd find hard to describe in a way which would get across how interesting they are. I really just would recommend that people watch it. I might be willilng to lend you the DVDs if you ask nicely, or watch it with you some time.
Secretly I'm just cutting this blog post short so I can get back to my DVDs. Shh, don't tell anyone.

Friday, 5 April 2013

The bigger they are, the harder we fall on them...

...was the motto of my brother's Blood Bowl team years ago which I came up with. Since I've had Blood Bowl on the brain for a while now (pretty much since starting watching youtube videos of the TGS Blood Bowl League), I figure I should write a blog post about it.

OK, so people may not be familiar with Blood Bowl, but I imagine they're more likely to have heard of Warhammer. Blood Bowl is basically a cross between Warhammer and American Football.
A tabletop representation of a fictional ball game which puts more or less equal emphasis on actually getting the ball and scoring touchdowns on the one hand, and beating up the enemy team on the other, set in a fantasy world which is incredibly similar to that of Warhammer, if not intended to be quite the same.

Blood Bowl, thinking about it, was actually one of my first ever regular gaming sessions, when I joined in a league with my brother and his friends. Though we house ruled some aspects of the game without (I think) realising we'd done so, which somewhat changed the dynamics of it, making it an interesting experience for me now coming back to it and observing how it works when you play it properly.

Of course, in considering my liking of Blood Bowl, I must inevitably compare it to that better known money-producing juggernaut Games Workshop game, Warhammer. But, leaving aside that I seem to recall there were some bits of Warhammer rules which simply didn't appeal to me, Blood Bowl is simpler and therefore both easier in some ways and more immediately strategic in others.
To explain, Blood Bowl obviously is easier than Warhammer in that you need less models, there's therefore less to keep track of (And pay for if you want the proper ones), the playing area is smaller, no need for terrain features, and so on. And then there aren't so many weird and wacky specific units with their own individual rules and restrictions - the basic stuff is simple. You can move, pick up the ball and throw it around, and hit the enemy team. There are more details, and there are some weird and wacky individual things, but you don't generally start with them. Oh, also to return to my comment on the expense, Warhammer is continually bringing out new versions of the rulebooks which you have to keep buying if you want to keep up. The Blood Bowl Living Rulebook has been updated a fair amount, but it's available for free on the internet.
As to the strategy comment, as I said, there's less to keep track of in Blood Bowl. Only 11 players on the pitch for each team. Because there is less to keep track of, it's easier to keep track of it, and you're generally free to move your players around to fit with whatever strategic considerations you feel are most important at the time. Now obviously I'm not saying Warhammer is too much to keep track of, or that you can't be strategic with it - obviously there's a lot of strategy there, in manoeuvring your units around the battlefield, trying to flank your opponent, pick your fights, etc. It's fairly complicated, which is my point really. Because it's more complicated, and seems to me to require more knowledge of the rules, I feel it must be harder to just jump into and have some idea of what to do, and I can't be bothered. Whereas Blood Bowl is easier to jump into, but does still have more to it, for someone looking for the learning curve and skill ceiling.
Oh, and you get to level up your players over time in an ongoing league. Much more interesting than picking units with fixed stats for each battle. So goes my personal preference.

I think I went a decent way there to explaining why I like the game. It seems to me sometimes that it shouldn't be too complicated, and I should be able to just figure everything out, but then it's never that simple in an actual game even without allowing for the ability of the dice to screw you over with bad luck. In the end, it all comes down to managing the risks you have to take, preferably forcing your opponent to take bigger ones, and quite crucially, doing things in the right order, because some things will end your turn prematurely if they go wrong (i.e. if the dice decide to screw you over).
Dice screwing you over is another important point I'm coming to consider now. I think when I was playing Blood Bowl regularly I took it too seriously and got too frustrated when I lost (Partly because of my aforementioned feeling that I should be able to just figure everything out). One shouldn't really be too serious and competitive and incredibly invested in a game where luck can make everything go wrong for you in so devastating a fashion. If you're less seriously invested, you can take it in your stride and laugh at the ridiculousness of it when the 1/46656 chance happens and your star Troll manages to kill himself trying to beat up a Halfling.

The game is clearly designed partly with the intention of being funny - in fact one of the more disappointing points about it is that there isn't scope in the rules to do some of the crazy stunts described in the fluff text - though obviously it would unbalance the game somewhat if it was possible to use explosives to blow up the opposing team's dugout with them in it, during half time... On the other hand, there are rules for fielding players with chainsaws, bribing the referee, hiring wizards to throw fireballs at your opponents, throwing your smaller team-mates around the pitch (Or in some cases, eating them, if you roll badly) and so on, so one can't complain too much on that count.

I'm not sure what else to say, since I'm not going to get into explaining the rules. Oh, of course the above-mentioned TGS Blood Bowl League which I've been watching is using the computer game version made by Cyanide Studio. I've never actually played it, and see little reason to, because I understand it's exactly the same as the board game, which I have in the house. I suppose it does have fancy animations, you get to see nice looking versions of the different players (Which is nice in some cases, since there aren't actually official Games Workshop models for some of them...) and one can play against the AI rather than having to find an opponent. So maybe I might get it if I have the money spare at some point. On the other hand, apparently it doesn't explain itself very well - not a problem for me because I already know the rules, but I understand it didn't try that hard to be easily accessible for new players. If you have a friend who plays the game (e.g. me), going for a tabletop game with them might be an easier way of learning it if interested.

...I wasn't entirely sure when I started this blog post what the point of it was. I suppose it's ended up as kind of a review of the game? But not a very clearly directed one, with the result that I'm not really sure how to conclude the post. I guess I'll just have to go for it.
Oh. Damn.

I am stunned, and therefore unable to finish this blog post.

(Going for it is a thing you can do in Blood Bowl to move further but if you roll a 1 you fall over and can potentially injure yourself it is a hilarious joke)

Thursday, 28 March 2013

It is a truth universally acknowledged...

...that adaptations of books to another medium, stage or screen, tend to be littered with potential  pitfalls and are rather difficult to pull off.

One person who I'm afraid did not really succeed in getting his adaptation to work is Mr. Bernard J. Taylor, responsible for the musical adaptation of Pride & Prejudice which I saw performed last friday by the Bradford University Society of Operettas and Musicals.

I suppose I should make some comment on the quality of the production as well as the adaptation. For all that I didn't like the way the work had been adapted, I thought the company did a decent job with what they had. Some of it seemed a bit more static than I might have liked. I feel some of the actors could perhaps have given a bit more, and others maybe could have done a bit more with additional direction. And despite the fact the music was for the most part fairly simple, I definitely noticed some wrong notes here and there. I felt most of the cast were considerably better actors than singers. Oh, and the energy was a bit variable. It definitely took a little while to get going, and then the second half was also a bit lacking at some points early on.
Specific performances - Mr. Bingley was excellent, and I'm not just saying that because he's a good friend of mine. I believe he has a lot more acting and singing experience than the rest of the cast, and it shows - he knows what he's doing at all points. Caroline  Bingley also impressed - singing perhaps a bit shaky on her solo, but she had just the right manner in her acting. Mr. Darcy's superior acting was likewise superb, though I can't recall what I thought of his romantic acting later on. His voice seemed more suited to pop singing than what I would have expected, though in some cases that suited the music well enough (Whether I think it should have is another matter, but that's a quarrel with the adaptation again). Lydia was wodnerfully energetic as the character should be, and served as a nice antidote at times to the static nature of some of the scenes, which I've already mentioned. Lady Catherine's singing was very good  (allowing for the fact I didn't think so much of the music), though I felt her acting lacked somewhat of the authority she should have. Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins, though good, I felt could have been more over the top - Mr. Collins in particular suffered a little from the fact that the adaptation didn't include enough of the character's overblown sesquipedalian dialogue, and so I feel or more overblown perofrmance could have helped compensate for this.
...I realise I've come up with nothing to say for four of the main characters, and I'm struggling to come up with anything. I fear I must plead my tiredness on the day, and my patchy memory almost a week later, as my excuse. Certainly I thought they were good. I may have had some criticisms also. Though some of them might have been attributed to not being so well fitted to the (in my opinion) poorly written material they had to work with. Should the actors in question ever read this blog post, I apologise; but in any case I never really intended this to be a serious critical review - if I had, I would probably have tried to take notes during the performance, and certainly I would have written it sooner, while I still remembered what I was talking about.

Alright, so on to the bigger point - that of the adaptation itself.
One of the first negative points I noted while watching the performance was that the scene changes were taking up more time than I would've liked. Of course, one must consider that BUSOM are a student society, that their resources are limited, and that the theatre they use is not the best set up for such scene changes. But a more significant point is that I don't feel the show should have been written to have so many scene changes. Or if they had to be there (Which might have been the case for a few of them), things should have been shifted so the scene change could have been, say, partially covered by a song. Thinking about it now, this probably didn't help with the energy taking a little while to get going - constantly stopping and starting inevitably breaks the flow, making it more difficult for the cast to get into it as well as the audience, and the cast's performances may then be affected, making it still more difficult for the audience. Bernard J. Taylor seems to have made no allowance for the need to keep the show flowing in writing this adaptation. In fact, it strikes me it seems like it might have been written for TV or film, where one can easily cut between different scenes rather than having to halt the action to move scenery. I wonder what the flow was like at the first read-through of the script, where that wasn't an issue.
On this point of scenes, the decisions on what elements of the book to cut and what to keep seemed sometimes odd to me. Some things I would have thought more plot-relevant were cut out, while other moments were kept which, though amusing, were unnecessary. Nothing I would want cut, there were good character moments and humour in there, but given how much was cut out, I would prefer for the integrity of the story to have a bit more emphasis on the main plot. Make sure someone coming to see the show without knowing the plot in advance would still understand it. In the end, it is a rather lengthy plot, and thus difficult to fit into the length of a musical. For the first time, I'm a bit curious to see the more recent film version, since that will have been in a similar time-frame, and I wonder how well they managed it (Of course, one of the reasons I didn't want to see it when it was originally in cinemas was because I didn't think they could compress the story enough without damaging it)

Let's move on to the music. A point which must be noted is that in a musical or an opera, a lot of songs will do little to advance the plot, instead restating and expressing a character's emotions on an event which has already happened immediately before. And of course, when a work is of considerable length, such songs are things which may be more easily cut to make way for a bit more of the plot. Bernard J. Taylor's Pride and Prejudice has 30 songs in it (to start with, that's more than I would expect in a show full stop, though perhaps the shows I'm used to have longer songs), of which I think at least 10 serve no real purpose and could be cut without damaging the audience's understanding of the plot. This is not to say they should all have been cut, some of them I rather enjoyed, but some of them certainly could have been removed. And if they had been removed, there would have been more room in the show for additional dialogue, which given the intricacies of the plot of P&P, must be a good thing (especially in light of what I've already said above about chocie of scenes included or cut from the book).
My other point on the music is a stylistic one. I'll withhold criticism for the general lack of harmony or counterpoint, as I'm sure many other musicals wouldn't hold up to my tastes on that point either, and in the end it is a matter of personal taste. I will, however comment on the general style of the music - I mentioned above that Darcy's voice seemed more suited to pop songs that I might have expected, but that this fit some of the music fairly well. It's my personal feeling that this shouldn't be the case. Of course I must allow that my own stage experience comprises almost entirely of Gilbert & Sullivan, but other styles are equally valid, including what would be termed showtunes or more poppy, modern music. However, a story such as Pride & Prejudice, steeped as it is in 19th century values, should to my mind have music which would not sound out of place in the period in which the story takes place. As such I feel Mr. Taylor went severely wrong in some of his composing. I could probably come up with some more criticisms given a look at the sheet music, but such a thing is not feasible, and in any case I think that's enough.

Finally, the words. Starting with the words of the songs, to follow on from the music, and then we'll tackle the dialogue. The one point I really have to make about the lyrics is that in some cases I didn't think they expressed the intended ideas and emotions as well as they might, and in some cases they expressed ideas and emotions which were not present in the source material being adapted. Obviously in adapting a work you can take the opportunity to put your own stamp on it, but I was still mildly put off, and I would say in general that, particularly with a story as well known and popular as this one, it's best to change things a lot or hardly at all - a point to which I'll return in a minute.
And now the dialogue. Here is where my feeling of the stylistic dissonance really kicked in in a massive way. Because naturally, some of the dialogue was taken directly from the book, and this was all well and good. Other bits of the dialogue, however, were written by Bernard J. Taylor - in some cases specifically rewriting existing lines from the book - and in a distinct majority of cases which I noticed, he widely missed the mark of Victorian English, instead having the characters speak as if they might have been born... well, at about the time the actors playing them were born, in fact. Modern English in Jane Austen, mixed in with actual Jane Austen. A travesty if ever I heard one.
This is not to say that a modern take on Pride and Prejudice can't work of course. Such a thing already exists on the internet - I am exceedingly fond of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries. But this was not such a thing. Whereas the LBD are properly updated to the modern day and the story has been correspondingly adapted to fit in with modern sensibilities on the parts of the characters and so on, Bernard J. Taylor's adaptation was left in the original time period, and the characters simply speak as if they were in the modern day, some of the time. If it was all the time I might be able to let it pass. It would be odd, but allowing an anachronistic mode of speech in a story to put points in more accessible terms for the modern audience could be considered to make some sense. It would at least be consistent, and then my stylistic issues with the music would fall down as well, as the music would match the dialogue throughout. Such a thing would certainly not be without its problems, and perhaps would work better if played more for laughs in an over the top manner, but again I say, at least it would be consistent. As it is, the setting and the music clash, and the dialogue swings back and forth between them like the mutual best friend of two people who aren't speaking to one another, trying to adhere to both.

Overall,  as I said, I give my compliments to the performers, as they did fairly well with what they had (And I hope they pick a better show for next year), but not the writer/composer, for I fear anyone who had this show as their first ever exposure to Pride and Prejudice would be unlikely to move on and look into other versions. And that would be a great shame, because it's an excellent story. On which note, I'm now going to return to the book and/or the BBC TV version. Much better.