Tech. Music. Games.

Below Zero: 013

Oompa Loompa

I watched the inauguration yesterday. Not something I’d normally bother with, but somehow it seemed important not to miss this one. The first thing that hit me was how much religious guff there is around the whole thing. No surprise, America’s founded on religion, but it grates to see the nation that sent a man to the moon pray to magical space fairies for strength and wisdom. Although, I guess if you’re gonna pray, the start of the Trump presidency is as good a time as any…

The second thing that hit me was how empty the bleachers and viewing areas were. Lol. Etc.

For some reason I’m beginning to feel that the US will be ok. There are a lot of very bright people there, and I have hope that they’ll become motivated once this clown gets going. In the long run, it could actually improve their democracy. A strong and motivated left could do a lot to safe guard the country from complete muppets taking it over in the future. The real question now is, how long will it take to remove Trump and his fascist regime, and how many people will suffer - or worse, die - while the white supremacist 1% are fucking everything up?

4k Gaming

!Guild Wars 2 at 4k

I decided to buy a 4k monitor “for work” - honest, Next Game is targeting 4k - so I’ve been having a lot of fun pushing my Steam library through it. The Nvidia GTX1080 is utterly fucking amazing. I can basically run every game I own, at 4k, at 60fps. And most of the time on Ultra settings.

I can’t recommend this setup enough, and the fact 8k is around the corner has me salivating. If you’re even remotely considering upping your rig for 4k, just do it. It looks stunning.

Click the image for a quick shot of Guild Wars 2 at 4k. That does 60 on my rig <3

The big question now is whether to sit out the 4k upgrade on the TV and wait for 8k to roll around. My AV AMP only handles 1080p, and it was pricey, so any TV upgrade means replacing that, as well.

More reasons that I’m glad I jump to PC gaming…

Below Zero 012

One of the Rat Pack...


We woke up on Xmas Eve morning to find this little fella had collapsed. Vets don’t do much for rodents, and we were even more helpless. All we could do was try and give him some pain killers and hope the end would come quickly. It did and it didn’t, which was heartbreaking. He fought for every breath over the hour and a bit we spent with him, and had no intention of going.

He was a cheeky little thing, and I’ll miss his head poking around the corner every time I’m making a cuppa, and him chancing his arm for a bit of grub whenever I cooked.

And I’ll never forget how he clung on in his last minutes.

We gave him a little burial at my in-laws pet-cemetary.

RIP little man.


Mags The venerable Micro Mart - a UK based magazine that’s been running for 30 odd years - passes on, this month. The final issue in its monumental run comes out in a couple of weeks. This makes me sad, not because I was an avid reader, but because it’s yet another nail in the coffin of a scene I really miss.

I think my first introduction to home computing was my friend’s ZX Spectrum, back in ‘84 or ‘85. I wouldn’t own my own computer for over a year, but I was able to sate my appetite - a little - by reading the magazines that popped up to support each platform. This was a weird time. Computers were a little exotic, and computer users were looked at in an odd way. I have vivid memories of staying late from school to “sneak” into computer club, to play a little Repton, Frak and maybe (not really) try and learn some programming. And I mean sneak. I didn’t want anyone to see me. Playing with computers was “nerdy”, and that was enough of a stigma to get you ostracised. A fate worse than death in little school… But I always had Your Sinclair tucked in my bag, and later, Amstrad Action, Zzap64, Crash and even Sinclair User (when I was bored).

Magazines interviewed the magical gods that knew how to program, who made the games that I loved. They were written by a group of people that loved the same things I did, who thought the same stuff was cool, and they played games all day long! I would have given a nut to have been a game reviewer in the 80s, or both nuts to actually make my own game. But at 11 years old I never really managed any of that, but I was happy to know that I wasn’t alone, that there were loads of people that were into this stuff beyond the rag-tag collection of us sneakily using those boxey BBC Bs.

Magazines had very distinct personalities back then, and as a reader, there was an odd sense of community that you felt by being a regular. Not ‘community’ in the sense we think of it in online terms, but just by being part of the joke. Propping up the bar while one of the locals went off on one. Understanding the lingo, Peculiar Pets, T’Zer’s, ffnar, oo-er (that’s enough of that! Ed.) was membership, and that had a bit of meaning when the majority of people didn’t see that this little plastic boxes held some magic. Games were a long way away from Playstation branded roaches.

Reviewers took on a larger than life role because of this (and because of my age). I’d read what they wrote, cover to cover, a couple of times between issues. Gary Penn, Snouty, Marcus Berkmann, Duncan Macdonald, Jazz Rignall, Rich Pelly, Bob Wade - I can go on - became ‘friends’. They shared similar tastes to me. A positive review from one of them would be all I needed to save up my pocket money and buy something, and I was rarely let down. I’d start to trust them, and love it when they were irked at some particularly shoddy release. You’d hear their factoids regurgitated in the playground. It was tribal, like everything around computers was back then.

Mags were also surprisingly educational, looking back on it. Hacking Away, Simon Cooke’s columns, Type-Ins, Amiga Format’s tutorials, each would lead me deeper, from being barely able to print my own name in Basic, to some really shoddy 68k asm. As I grew, so did they, and so did the machines.

I still hold that side of the industry in high regard. Lumo’s in Famitsu? Edge? PC Gamer? Achievement unlocked… Who’s the muppet that goes to shake Rich Pelley’s hand at the Goldie Looking Chain gig? Yeah, that’d be me.

We’ve lost something in the march away from periodicals to minute by minute news-dumps. But it is what it is. Back then a mag could review every game that came out, which is impossible now. There’d be a whole month to drool over those Robocop screenshots. Now I can just watch a full playthrough the day after release. I no longer really care what other people think, I can make my own mind up. Is that better? Probably, but the comments section’s not a tribe that I ever want to feel a part of.

I think what I miss is the personality/ies. The irreverence. The willingness to have opinions and to say them. And I think Edge is partly at fault for this slowly disappearing, it’s single voice / nameless writers may have made sense when the industry wanted to spruce up and look more professional, but we’re past that now, and its tone was copied far too much. Eurogamer, RPS, VG247 and PC Gamer are about the only things I read because they still have a willingness to do what British reviewers have always done, take the piss a bit, and maybe stick their necks out, even under the weight of the latest AAA marketing campaign. Contrast this to IGN or the fucking Game Awards, both of which make me want to fall asleep.

I kinda thought for a while that some of the You Tube channels would bring this back - in particular, was doing well - but they’re seemingly falling apart as quickly as most games blogs.

So, goodbye Micro Mart. It’s a shame to see you go, but it is what it is. I miss all those old mags, but I do at least have them all scanned, safe-and-sound on my NAS, within easy reach
when I’m taking a shit.

I read a very good article about how to find infinite lives in Spectrum games the other day. You never know when that’ll come in handy.

Investigatory Powers Act 2016

Unsurprisingly the UK Parliament quietly passed the Investigatory Powers Act, or “1984” to you and me, with barely a debate or opposition. It’s incredible. Have a quick look at some of the agencies that now have permission to track your “Internet Record”.

Highlights for me:

  • Department of Health
  • NHS Trusts
  • Deptartment of Work and Pensions
  • Food Standards Agency

Basically, every government department you can think of, including a bunch that may make life or death decisions on your behalf.

If you’re not aware, this is China-level stuff, authorising the bulk interception and collection of data (which was already happening), and the requirement for ISPs to record the top-level domains (the urls, not the pages) you frequent for a period of 12months.

I know the “nothing to hide, nothing to worry about” argument, but frankly it’s bollocks, although bully for you and your non-deviant views and/or sexuality.

Let me put it another way, we’ve just given the worlds most powerful search, snoop, and identification tools to a right-wing orange lunatic. When the world descends into madness and people’s backs are against the wall this is the shit that’s going to make German efficiency look laughable.

There’s a sliver of hope in the civil legal challenges that are underway, but either way, the fun’s over. Remember, the internet never forgets.

It won’t do much good against the state, but wrap yourselves in a VPN and give your ISPs an excuse not to help this madness. I use NordVPN and Tunnel Bear, both are cheap, both of them could be faster, but it’s a start.

Below Zero 011

Internet Killed the Radio Star

I'm with stupid

So, Brexit and now Trump. For a brief couple of weeks I thought the sexual assault charges would be enough to swing the polls. Obviously not. The exit data makes for interesting reading…

I could probably write all day about how this latest result concerns me, but there’s one thing in common between Brexit and the US election that really needs sorting, and that’s the media.

Growing up in the UK I’m maybe a little more inured to the fact that newspapers and TV are little more than propaganda arms for their owners and/or some political entity. My first exposure to this was through the rave/free party scene, and my own place within it as a white-gloved, whistle owning, card-carrying partier. The nights I went to - full of smiling, warm and friendly strangers, chewing their way through MDMA highs - were nothing like the drug-addled dropouts terrorising the front pages of the Sun. The uproar that people - free citizens - should be allowed to terrorise upper middle-class countryside for a weekend of love and dancing was an eye-opener. As was the Criminal Justice Act and constantly getting stopped and searched for wearing a “Nice And Safe Attitude” jacket, or “World Dance” record bag.

Since then I’ve never bought a paper, never believed any news source other than the Beeb, and made an effort to fact-check what I do start buying into. That makes me weird, I know. Talking to some friends who voted Brexit, it turns out only one did any sort of fact-checking of his own, but came to a different conclusion to me. That’s a pretty piss-poor effort for such a decision. I’ve ended up knowing more about the UK and Euro constitutions and legal frameworks than I ever wanted to. (But there’s an argument against referendums…)

I didn’t see much of the Brexit coverage, living in Finland, but I did watch quite a bit of Question Time, Newsnight, and had my ear to Radio 4. What was immediately obvious from what I did see and hear is that the Beeb, as debate moderator, played a piss poor role. It’s not balance to put a domain expert next to someone who knows next to nothing. It’s also not balance to allow for “post fact” political statements to go unchallenged by the chair. No one would give a flat-earther the same airtime as Buzz Aldrin in a debate about space, because, dur, the earth is demonstrably, measurably, not fucking flat. Sure, they can be part of the debate, but they have an opinion, and it should be categorised as such. Not to do so is a case of false equivalance. 350million painted on a bus was levels of bullshit even a child could Google. As was every statement Farage ever muttered.

In many ways the US election took this much further, Trump acted as a demagogue and the media let this go unchecked for far too long. The Brexit Bunch merely tested the water.

The internet has killed writing, and with it journalism. Regardless of the political leanings of newspapers, in most countries there was a legal and moral obligation to fact-check and research investigative reporting that is now wholly missing from the majority of discourse. Facebook, Twitter et al are echo chambers.

I’m actually incredibly guilty of this. A few elections ago I removed all but a few Tory voters from my Facebook feed, cos honestly, fuck them. I regularly block anyone that posts Catholic or Christian religious content. I purge who I follow on Twitter quite regularly for any minor infraction. Most of the drive to do this is because I’m all too aware of how depressing the world is, so when I’m idly scrolling through my feeds I just want to see cats, or crudely drawn nob jokes. I don’t want to feel angry about what someone’s said, or get dragged into drawn out debates while I’m on the train. But there’s a flip-side to this coin that was clear as day yesterday: there wasn’t a single Trump supporter in any of my feeds.

Obviously I’m happy about that, but it goes to show how much I’ve pruned anything I perceive as intellectual dissent from some of the bubbles I frequent. I’d wager most people are the same, which given the climate could lead to dangerous confirmation bias. What I have to be conscious of is that, by being lazy, I’m also unlikely to ever have an opposing viewpoint eruditely put to me. On certain subjects, that’s fine, climate change, LGBT / human rights etc aren’t exactly topics for debate, but that’s not true of everything. There’s plenty of nuance in the world.

Twitter does a better job in one sense, tweets are often shared and fact-checks attached, but that’s not true of a Google search or Facebook. In a “post factual” political climate, it behoves us as a species to ensure what sources of realtime news we do have access to operate under some sort of journalistic framework of integrity. That probably means regulating the UK news papers. It probably also means Silicon Valley pulling its head out of its arse.

Unfortunately I don’t see that happening. People are lazy. I am lazy. And nothing ever changes, unless it’s to be deregulated or sold off to the highest bidder. I’m am considering supporting the Grauniad online, given it’s only 50quid a year, and I think this may end up becoming the norm. Journalism will end up surviving under a patronage, rather than as a commercial endeavour.

Minter, you C*NT!

Jeff Minter is a fucking legend. He’s also one of my game development heroes.

My first encounter with the hirsute hacker was in Zzap64. His “Daily Llama” diary - about the development of Iridis Alpha - was one of my first insights into what it was like to make games. I barely understood a word of it. Sprites, Interrupts, Scroll Routines, just a set of magic incantations to a 10 year old. But it stuck and I started devouring anything I could find that’d help explain the magic.

It wasn’t until the Amiga that I’d really bump into his work, joystick in hand - CPC6128 represent, yo - but when I did, holy shit, here was a guy making batshit crazy arcade games that drilled through my eyeballs and embedded directly into my stoner brain. By the Amiga era Jeff was already part of the ‘establishment’, but Tempest 2000 on the Jaguar would cement it, rightly elevating him to level of all time greats.

Imagine having that on your CV…

I talk about Jeff’s games quite a lot during my design lectures, even through the blank stares of my students. Many people don’t realise quite how hard it is to engage a player so deeply that they lose their sense of time and space. Hit “the zone”, and live, for however briefly, in that magic place where instinct and reaction take over from conscious thought. It’s something players of a certain vintage understand deeply. To conquer, you have to let go a little. Unlearn what you have learned. See everything while focusing on nothing. It’s zen in the form of joystick waggling.

Jeff’s genius is that he can guide you to this place, and poke and prod at you while you’re there. Normally while flashing lights in your eyes. (As Consolevania aptly put it, “Don’t go into a trance boys”…)

It’s trivial for a game developer to produce something that kills the player. My students do it all the time. It’s incredibly difficult to build something that stretches the player, that gives them enough content to ease them in, to spike them and pressure them, but err on the side of fairness. To do this well, to invoke a sweat, to leave the player feeling that every mistake is their own, that’s fucking tricky. And Jeff’s a master at it.

He’s also been highly experimental. The sublime Space Giraffe takes his finely honed balance nous and flips it. Instead of relying on the normal levers of difficulty, he adds visuals as a gameplay element. How do you survive when the playfield is literally distorting and convoluting around you? It was woefully misunderstood by many, but it’s genius. By taking away one of the player’s senses he forces them to rely on the things seasoned space pilots in ‘The Zone’ - and anyone that’s ever dropped a tab - know only too well: Instinct. Audio. Reaction. Feeling it. It’s probably one of the most unique and special games ever made. (And at a very real risk of being lost to bit-rot, should the PC version ever stop working.)

So when - normally a group of lads - have a pop at making an arcade game I tell them to go to the source: Jeff Minter and Eugene Jarvis. I’m still trying to learn how they do what they do and I’ve been studying them for years. Every day’s a school day, but if you’re going to learn, learn from the best.

So yeah. News that Jeff’s making a new game is an event for me. I get excited.

I met Jeff in 2002, at Retrovision. He’s hard to miss, bowling about in his Llama jumper, so I did what most people do and stared at him for a while. Eventually I decided “fuck it”, and wandered over to ask him if I could buy him a pint. We ended up sharing a spliff in my car and chatting. Not long after - once I’d passed Rik’s initiation test - I’d find myself meeting up with Jeff quite regularly, heading down to his house in Wales to share a beer or 3, the odd disco biscuit, many a spliff, and get hands-on with what turned out to be Unity, the VLM 3 powered game Lionhead were funding on Gamecube.

Unity never made it - a story for another day - but those long hot weekends forged lifelong friendships between our little gang of missfits. And Jeff taught me a hell of a lot about how he goes about his work, as well as giving me a good shove to get into the industry.

Jeff’s a legend. One of my dev heroes. A mate. And a fucking c*unt. His games make me swear. At me, at him, at the fact I need to ring up Mayhem and ask him out on a date. He does work that I understand on a technical level, but am completely bowled over by from a design and finesse pov. It’s easy to dismiss his games as ‘just shooters’ but to do so overlooks the skill he has. He’s been at this dev lark for more than 30 years and is still as restless and excited about the new as he’s ever been. He’s pretty inspirational, in that sense, as I severely doubt I’d have the stamina for it - the games industry is a vicious mistress - and I’m fucking amazed the British industry hasn’t recognised him with more shiny baubles. Genius is still walking among us, ffs.

Anyway. Call it what you will, bias, friendship, fan-boi-ism, whatever. I care not. Jeff’s got a new fucking game out and I’m about as excited as you can be. It’s an arcade game, obviously, but just fucking look at it!

It’s coming soon on PS4/VR and then later on PC and I’m hyped. That’s ticked the BAGSY-TUNNEL-VLM3-crew box in a massive way. And then covered it in Space Harrier. With a side of Trailblazer garnished with Stun Runner. It’s like Jeff made a game for me, and yet again I’m feeling schooled. One day I’m going to make an arcade game. One day. Hopefully. Maybe.

Now I’ve got that off my chest I hope you can appreciate how fucking amazing it feels to be involved, even tangentially, in a Llamasoft game. I was incredibly lucky to get the chance to do some music for TxK with the other Llamasoft forumites. Many of them are far more musically talented than I will ever be. Obviously I wasn’t shy in putting forward another submission once Jeff put out the call for NEXT GAME. I’m not entirely pleased with it as it was a real struggle to make (I was in a mad panic trying to ship Lumo at the time), but having now seen it over the game, in a promo vid of all things, I’m chuffed to bits. Hopefully it works as well in-game.

Thank you Jeff! Polybius looks utterly bonkers-made-for-me-heaven. I hope it sells a million. :)