Saturday, August 24, 2013

Bad At Games V - Follow the Master Chief, he'll know what to do...

I purchased Halo for the original XBox second hand and loaded it up. I knew I was rubbish at first-person shooters, but there was something about Halo that was different. I don’t know whether it was the ease of the controls, the intuitive design or just how cool the whole darn thing looked, but I loved every moment of it… except maybe the driving at the end, which was frustrating as hell.

The best thing about Halo was the two-player split-screen. It meant that the wife and I could play through the campaign co-operatively and experience the game as never before. I’d drive the warhog while she blasted the crap out of the grunts. We were a team of awesome.

Halo had become such a phenomenon that everyone we knew seemed to play it. People we were at work with (this was back when the wife and I worked together at the same bookstore) knew of the game, and some were avid players – it was just a matter of time before some of our work colleagues were invited back to our humble abode for a little four-player split-screen action.

There was something addictive about it, and Halo night became an almost weekly affair. And it grew on occasion, where we’d invite many people around and we’d experiment with ethernet cables and network multiple XBoxes together to grow to 8, 12 and even 16 player battles. These LAN parties were not as frequent, as they’d involve the transportation of television sets and XBoxes, and placing them around the house in multiple rooms.

But it was fun. We enjoyed ourselves. The neighbours may not have enjoyed it quite so much – this was before we had headsets to communicate and “teams” would end up shouting at each other tauntingly from one room of the house to the other. And we discovered that our XBoxes had names (strangely, ours was called “Goat”).

There were a couple of players who were particularly good at Halo, who dominated the playing field, but that was okay. We had fun, despite reaffirming my belief that I was inherently bad at games.

We instantly snapped up Halo 2 upon release, and the Halo night continued. Our favourite game (“Rockets on Prisoner”) was replaced by a variant of Crazy King of the Hill on Coagulation we called “Arg! It Moved!” (as the place you needed to stand to gain points and win would move every 30 seconds, usually just as you were about to stand there).
How I usually looked online in Halo3

And then something stupid happened. We gained broadband internet access, and I hooked up the XBox. The trial month of XBox Live was activated, and I sampled the world of Halo 2 online.

While the regular players who visited would repeatedly and frustratingly kick my ass at Halo, it wasn’t until I had access to online gameplay that I really sampled the nerve-wracking bloodbath of my continual fragging.

We still loved Halo, and the games we played were still fun, but when we found out that Halo 3 would be on the newly launched XBox360, we upgraded and were introduced to a far harsher sport online. The abuse would flow - the taunts and the colourful language - until it became necessary to plug the headset in for game-chat, turn the volume right down and leave the headset on the sofa next to you.

Halo night continued weekly, sometimes with a simple 2x 360 LAN or just meeting up online and connecting with private channels to team up against the constant onslaught of “Pro Gamers”. We had our moments of glory, but I was just too bad a player and I was obviously bringing everyone down. The frustration was starting to set in, and that seed of being bored by shooters had been planted.

Sure, there were other games out there that I loved – GTAIV and Red Dead Redemption to name a couple, but it was getting to the pitch where my interest in video gaming was dwindling, mostly due to being generally rubbish at it. I’d have given up right there and then if it wasn’t for one game. A game I’d initially discounted because it just looked silly. A game called Rock Band.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Put Your Cards On The Table

Tarot has always been a bit of an odd one for me. It has always fascinated me, even though I have very little belief in any "mystical" connections to it, I do feel that the symbolism used in the cards is incredibly clever. Not only does this mean that almost anyone can see themselves and their current situations in the cards, but this ability to relate to the cards can produce some incredible insight and help people who had previously become "stuck" in their situations.

I remember my first exposure to Tarot was through my love of James Bond. I mentioned in an earlier post that I was introduced to James Bond at an early age through my parents taking me to see The Man With The Golden Gun. From then, I was hooked and I have fond memories of keeping the blueprints and diagrams of the stunts from Live and Let Die that were printed in the TVTimes when the movie first screened on British TV. And it was from Live and Let Die that I first saw Tarot, in the hands of the lovely Solitaire.
Solitaire (Live and Let Die)

I hadn't seen Tarot before, so I was confused as to why the cards looked different to playing cards, and it was then that I discovered my father's passing fascination with the Tarot, and he let me see his deck. I don't think he'd ever used it - just bought it and filed it away. It was an old Tarot of Marseilles set that came with a book. A set I still have today.

Of course, when I started roleplaying, the interest started again when I started running the James Bond roleplaying game for the group, with SPECTRE replaced by TAROT.

The years passed, and I didn't do a lot with Tarot until the time I came to apply to do my degree at art college. As part of the interview process for that particular college (now university) they asked each applicant to produce a self portrait to bring along to the interview which would not only show off their artistic skills, but maybe also give the tutors an insight into the way their prospective students saw themselves.

For my self portrait I produced a set of Tarot cards. Just the 22 cards of the Major Arcana, but I used photos (some shot especially) and got creative, covering the images in paint, illustration and weirdness, interpreting the meaning behind each card to show an aspect of my life at that time. It was all very horribly angsty and personal, and I don't think many people have seen them outside of the interview. Luckily, they did the trick and I was accepted on the course.

Thanks to relocating for art college, and getting back into reading comics, I became a fan of the the weirder DC titles such as Sandman and especially Shade: The Changing Man. When these became part of that first wave of Vertigo titles, and they announced a special Tarot set illustrated by Dave McKean, I placed my order straight away.

Vertigo Tarot - 0:The Fool
The Vertigo Tarot was a lovely set, and the book was incredibly easy to use. I was inspired for the first time to actually use the set for the intended purpose, and after a few readings, the various friends I'd done readings for said that the results had been strangely accurate. It was odd, because I wasn't really reading anything special into the spreads. I didn't know the cards very well to begin with so most of the readings involved looking at the cards, and looking things up in books, and writing an interpretation for the querant. Maybe this was what produced the "accuracy" as it allowed the querant to interpret the results themselves, projecting elements of their own life - maybe elements they didn't realise were there - onto the results the cards had produced. It was odd, but it seemed to work, and the people I read for seemed to be inspired, motivated, and above all happy with the results.

I'd rediscovered gaming again after relocating for art college, and after playing Vampire: The Masquerade, we moved on to playing Mage: The Ascension. When they produced a set of Tarot cards, inspired by the cover image of the corebook, we had to invest. I never used them for the game, or for traditional Tarot readings, but it did sow the seeds of inspiration that the names and images on the cards could be tweaked to fit a specific setting - or in this case, to suit a roleplaying game.

Something that has obviously stayed with me over the years - for when I started to write WILD a couple of years ago, when I considered an interesting element for the RPG I immediately thought of the Tarot.

Initially, I wanted a set of random cards that could represent the 100 most common dreams. The traditional things like being late for an exam or test, being naked in public, descending into a dingy cellar, flying or floating around a room, losing your teeth... that sort of thing. Then I realised that these dream images also inspired Archetypes, and the more I researched, the more I discovered the connection between the Tarot, and Jungian Archetypes and dream imagery.

Very rough version of XIV
So I set to making another deck of Tarot cards. I took index cards and wrote the divinatory meanings of each on them, and took the 100 or so most common dreams and wrote them on post-it notes. Then it was a case of laying the cards out on the floor and matching the dream to the card it best suited.

But things started evolving as the game was being written. It was taking on a life of its own. The four suits seemed to fit the four Attributes of the game, so it was a logical choice to change out Coins, Cups, Swords and Wands to become Control, Focus and Vision. The court cards, if you took the Ace into account, also fit the five "Skills" of the game, so it worked if you took out King, Queen and Page and replaced them with the Skills, such as Deceiver, Creator and Operator.

As the NaNoWriMo novel took shape, and the background of the game was formed, detailing the events that would lead up to the creation of dreamshare technology and the dreams of the inventor's daughter, the more the imagery of the novel would inspire the cards, especially the Major Arcana.

The more I looked at the cards, and how they would be used in the game as a way of influencing events in the dreamshare, the more I realised that I was putting a lot of work into these cards for a device that wouldn't be used all that often. I put the cards aside, and I went back to writing the game...

The first few VERY ROUGH prototype cards

I went back to writing the character creation chapter, and, frankly, got a bit stuck. Until I thought of the cards again. Now the cards have become an integral part of character creation, and also a bit about the relationship-mapping between the characters. I won't go into great detail, as I don't want to spoil it, but I'm quite excited by how its worked out. However, it needs testing. And in order to do that, I needed the cards - complete with the imagery that I wanted on them. A load of index cards with notes and scribbles wouldn't do.

So, on a recent trip to London, visiting the Atlantis Bookshop, I picked up a deck of blank Tarot cards. A whole deck, Tarot card shaped, with a patterned back, but a plain white front. The only problem is, the cards are very glossy and the only thing that'll really stay on the cards is working directly in permanent marker pen. No pencils, just scribbling straight onto the card in pen and hoping for the best.

Some of the cards have come out better than others, and, if the game makes it to production, the cards would be illustrated by someone with a LOT more skill than me. But, they serve the purpose.

As of yesterday, I've completed the Major Arcana. Now, about to start on the Suit of Control. As you can tell, WILD is still a way off yet, but it's evolving and changing with every new development, shaping itself in a fluid form like the dreams it takes its inspiration from.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Distraction, Displacement and Delusion

Today marks an anniversary, and not a very happy one at that. It was exactly a year ago today that my mum lost her fight, and we, in turn, lost her.

It's been a tough year to say the least.

This year also marked the tenth anniversary of losing my dad. When he passed away, I dealt with it in my usual way. I was a mess for a while, but the week before he died I'd signed the contracts with Eden to write the new edition of Conspiracy X, so I did possibly the most unhealthy thing you can do and I compartmentalised. I knuckled down and wrote, and edited, and wrote, and compiled, and managed to get those four core rulebooks beaten into shape. I worked through it... and when Conspiracy X was finished I stumbled onto another project, and another project. Anything to keep my brain busy and to stop the harsh reality from catching up with me.

It did, of course.

Last year, I didn't have any projects that needed to be done. Sure, I had WILD to write, but that was for me, it wasn't really commissioned or contracted. There was no distraction. So I actively went looking for it.

I volunteered to blog for SyFy, attending press screenings and even a celebrity premiere so that I could write reviews for the site.

I put together pitches for roleplaying games that would never happen.

I signed up for NaNoWriMo, writing a novel in a month that acts as the background setting for WILD, which not only helped to shape the game but also gave me a vent for fiction where I could pour all my crazy thoughts, my dreams and fears.

But when it came to writing WILD, I just struggled. I'd stare at the screen, and then find something else to do. The washing up. The vacuuming. Lego. Staring at the feed on Twitter. Anything.

Which is odd, because I've been working on it for a couple of years off and on, and it's still something I'm passionate about. It's a game where your dreams are your reality. Where anything can happen.

Maybe that's why I like Inception so much, as only two* people really die in the whole film. It's not the carnage of most Hollywood blockbusters (*Maurice Fischer and Mal - everyone else who gets shot in the movie never really existed to begin with).

I found my tastes had changed, I spend time in the cinema concerned for the people in the tower blocks that were getting smashed, or in the cars that were being totalled in the car chases. Just don't get me started on video gaming, we'll come to that in my "Bad At Games" posts...

It's only over the last couple of weeks that I've managed to gain some progress on the game - finally finishing the character generation chapter, and now drawing roughs of the cards that'll allow me to test the process.

But the anniversary has come again. And my thoughts are not my own, as they say. The hurt is still there. That weird feeling is still lingering that your childhood home is no longer there to return to.

All I can do is remember, and soldier on. To keep writing. To be there for those I care for. And to hopefully produce something that would make both my parents proud.