Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Game Review: Discworld Noir

Time for a geek post. I've held it in long enough.

Despite having booked flights to Alexandria, read Caitlin Moran's How to be a Woman and survived the carnage of an N-Dubz gig for the third time in a row whilst out of my metaphorical tree and resembling a mud-drenched bag lady at Guilfest, I still consider this last week's greatest achievement to have been the completion of Discworld Noir, one of my favourite games of all time. I remember being glued to this as a 10-year-old, unashamedly relaying instructions from a walkthrough while my best friend clicked away, until eventually the computer packed up and we lost it all. Now, as a 19-year-old, it's all over... the loss of slow-burning anticipation for both this and Harry Potter in the same week makes everything feel oddly empty. But worth it.

If you are not already familiar - or, indeed, just not familiar enough - with the works of Terry Pratchett the best site to visit is http://www.lspace.org/. Personally I have not read all of them. Not even close. Having played the games first, I picked up the books in a completely random order and have now given myself a year to get through them all... would be a little intimidated by the though if it wasn't akin to, say, spending a year eating a packet of Rowntree's Randoms a day, or spending each night in a ballpond, while expanding your vocabulary and wrestling with pertinent philosophical puzzles. It's going to be a joy, as the game has already proved.

Getting Discworld Noir to work proved to be a bit of a challenge in itself. Designed for Windows 98, I'd never successfully got it working on any version of XP (the title screen would open, you'd get a glimpse of the square-jawed main character and then the whole thing would crash) and so hopes for Windows 7 hadn't been high. Nevertheless this Easter I resolved to give it a go. After trawling nerd forums for what felt like days I managed to install a patch that, while a little jittery at the beginning, allowed you to play the game with virtually no problems at all. This alone was enough for me to bounce around in a self-congratulatory bubble for the following week.

The game, with its dystopian night-time setting and narrator who communicates almost entirely through hard-boiled monologue, is an excellent parody of the film noir genre - the Wikipedia page details a few of the not-so-subtle references. Having also been an avid Tomb Raider fan back when Pierre and Larson were the only humanoid baddies and Lara's breasts were still bigger than her head, I cackled at the appearance of 'Laredo Cronk - Tomb Evacuator' in the Guild of Archaeologists. 

In addition, as with the older games, a number of the characters and locations from the books appear in the game: Vimes and Nobby from the watch (again - the latter's put-upon Northernish accent seems to have changed since the older games), Death, the Patrician and Leonard da Quirm. The somewhat chunky graphics still managed to convey their distinct, slightly grotesque facial features but if I'd already had an image of what they should look like, it was far from ruined, as their in-game representations were spot on anyway. Everything about the settings was also perfect - the backing music, object design, the continual darkness and drizzle that characterise the game.

However, even if you haven't read a single Discworld it makes very little difference. When you're chasing a serial killer, searching for lost trolls, climbing walls, finding golden swords, blagging your way into wizard universities, turning undead (oops, spoiler.), gambling, clambering into sewers and saving the world, frankly whether or not your surroundings are familiar makes little difference. Interactions between characters, scripted by Pratchett himself, are fairly lengthy and so playing the game becomes less of an immersive, first-person experiece and more like reading a short story, at your own pace and to some extent in your own order. I very stupidly did not gather quotes as I was going, but the dialogue is as witty as the novels. You will laugh. Trust me.  

In conclusion: buy this game. Buy it now. And then with your grappling hook secure and your protective runes carefully drawn, and maybe some rubber gloves too, plunge into the world of internet geekdom and get hold of a game patch. You will not regret it.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Birthday traditions - my favourites

In India it is considered bad luck to receive a present wrapped in black and white, ruling out the possibility of some cheapskate using newspaper.

Argentinians tug on the earlobes of the birthday boy or girl, one pull for each year; the older you get, the longer you have to endure this potential awkwardness.

People in Bulgaria (as well as several other countries) fortunate enough to have a historic or biblical name get two birthdays! - one on the actual day and then a much bigger one on their 'name day'.

In China and Japan it is considered that everyone grows a year older on New Year,regardless of the actual date they were born.

Many Russians do not receive birthday cakes but birthday pies. Nuff said. Apparently it is also customary if you are still at school for your teacher to give you a present!

Somewhat depressingly Koreans hold a small celebration 100 days after a child is born to celebrate their having survived this far. But the first proper birthday is also an important affair, and often the child's fortune is told (by surrounding them with objects and seeing which ones they pick up).

In Denmark a flag is flown outside the house to indicate someone inside is having a birthday.

In Mexico - this.

In Lewis Carroll's world the concept of an un-birthday exists, allowing for 366 days of pure celebration.

And Wikipedia introduces the birthday paradox and birthday attack, which on clicking turn out to be two of the biggest letdowns ever.

I'm gonna go be 19 now.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Translation: El Canto del Loco - Besos

The first time I watched this on Youtube it came with a warning: this song is addictive! Extremely happy-making Spanishness even before you know (roughly) what the lyrics mean.

"Hey, listen, why
have you come out into the street, you, so cool
And tell me why
have you thrown away three hours in the mirror
making yourself attractive to ensnare,
out in the street and you don't think
that this means nothing.
That you're not going to impress anyone
that the best part, what's important, is in kisses.

And that's what I want, kisses.
Every morning I am woken up with them,
in the afternoon keep the kisses coming 
and later at night, give me kisses for dinner.

And tell me why
have you put a thousand creams on your body today
if no one can see them.
And I know your senses have left you.
You have to start afresh.
You have the things that remain external
and you hardly think of anything else
for better or for worse.
Metrosexual and lacking kisses.

And stop and see,
That those that love you don't see those things.
They just want to see that wink in your eye,

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Conspicuous consumption

I should stress before I begin that the inspiration for this post did not come from any weird repressed urges I have or have had, aside from the ones discussed below. Moreover it came from my lunch.

Happily munching on a cheese, Marmite and Tabasco roll, I considered my slightly weird food preferences. I take the lemon slice out of drinks in restaurants. This is relatively common. But I also love ketchup on my peas. I eat peanut butter by the spoonful. I once drunkenly made scrambled eggs in a wok and ate them with my £2.50 dirty Mexicano pizza, and it was delightful. As a child I liked nothing more than to be plonked in front of Mary Poppins - and yes it was always Mary Poppins - shovelling down endless bowlfuls of dry cereal until I either fell asleep or ran out of cornflakes. I considered these various eccentricities, failed to justify them, and then thought, well, at least I no longer eat paper.

Many people are aware of the delights of moderate paper-eating, and the times when it's actually worth doing - we're talking the curling, fawn-coloured corner of a musty copy of BOOK, not a shiny piece of A4. Many people grow out of it. But in the case of a few unfortunates, it's much more serious business. The absent-minded act of putting something in your mouth you instantly know you shouldn't have has become less of a furtive, quite rightly appalling act, more of a daily reality verging on addiction.

According to Wikipedia,

"Pica is a medical disorder characterized by an appetite for substances largely non-nutritive (e.g., metal, clay, coal, sand, dirt, soil, feces, chalk, pens and pencils, paper, batteries, spoons, toothbrushes, soap, mucus, ash, gum, lip balm, etc).
"The scant research that has been done on the causes of pica suggests that the disorder is a specific appetite caused by mineral deficiency... Often the substance eaten by someone with pica contains the mineral in which that individual is deficient."

But if the subject is especially interested in paper, which apparently they usually are, what are we to deduce from this? In this case does it cease to be merely about sustenance, more about, for want of a better phrase, intellectual nourishment?

"Did you enjoy War and Peace?"
"Why yes - I simply devoured it."

I wondered faintly if compulsive paper-eaters over a long period of time develop tastes. Aside from the quality of the paper and its vintage, does what is printed on it make a difference? Presumably more satisfaction could be gleaned from, say, Oscar Wilde than from 'bland' chick lit, or 'tasteless' dirty novels? Is there some kind of etiquette involved - do you eat from the outer edges in, or tactically, paragraph by paragraph? Is it polite to leave some of the narrative to show you're full?

A friend once told me about a man who ate a building.

I'm pretty sure this isn't true, and certainly couldn't find anything online to confirm it. But apparently he ground up the bricks and cement, bit by bit, and scattered them over meals, day by day - and in the end, I expect over the course of many years, had effectively consumed a house.

This method is intriguing and throws up a number of possibilities for those wishing to absorb more than simply nutrition from their daily bread (or whatever). Perhaps this is the logic behind cannibalism, or Keith Richards' allegedly snorting his father's ashes. My personal preference would be for a mummy - grated with generosity into my now relatively innocent-seeming sandwich, I would surely find myself charged with the power of the gods, or even get a glimpse into the afterlife - where, presumably, we can eat whatever we want, but which no doubt would have come a hell of a lot later if I hadn't just eaten Nesferenub's toe.

Or I'd turn to crime. Over a long, long period of time, and not without minor stomach pains and possible death, I feel sure it would be possible to tunnel one's way into a bank or a casino vault and make off with the contents. Of course the problem there is that having developed such a taste for non-comestibles the prize itself might then become irresistible. Money = paper. Nom.

Certainly though, it's an avenue worth exploring, though not by me because I do not as far as I know suffer from pica. Though are they really sufferers? I leave you with some wise and now famous words from Johnny Depp:

 "If someone were to harm my family or a friend or somebody I love, I would eat them. I might end up in jail for 500 years, but I would eat them."

NB. Obviously none of the above is to be taken seriously. The idea that I should be considered someone who glorifies mental illness, cannibalism or any kind of heisty behaviour is so loathsome it makes me want to bite my nails. Ohshi -

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

YouTube link: Alvin Lau

"Love him. Love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters?"
 - Jacques, Giovanni's Room, James Baldwin (now finished!)

Apologies for the comparative shortness of the next few posts; between work experience and three birthdays I have less than an hour free a day in which to write these. In this hour I generally sink into the kind of sluggish, half-human state that would be ideal for watching The Only Way is Essex (I usually settle for Celebrity Come Dine With Me, even as a zombie I have standards), but suitable in reality for very little else.

Prompted by Eliot Boyd to write about the recent anti-proposition 8 victory in New York, but finding myself with very little to say on the matter*, I remembered this video. I remembered how despite not being especially eloquent, or lyrical, nor deliberately fragmented, nor skewed as though viewed from the bottom of a glass but instead as from the bottom of the heart, this poem by Alvin Lau gave me chills in a way that only Itch from the King Blues and maybe the voice of Tinky Winky from the Teletubbies have ever done before. Watch.

Thanks to my own sister for showing me this; she used it for a GCSE art piece based on the work of Grayson Perry.

*See the previous post for examples of how the human mind is mercifully capable of denying things too stupid to seem real, even if they clearly are: a mechanism no doubt in place to help us keep a grip on our own convictions, and by extension our sanity. Perhaps the reason I have never felt much of a strong desire to visit the US is my fear - my underlying knowledge - that attitudes even remotely contradicting this one still exist.

Happy midweek :)

Tuesday, 28 June 2011


So proclaims Wizard Fujimoto, voiced hilariously by Liam Neeson in a tone devoid of almost all emotion as he embarks on a search (dressed like a sort of extra-ginger Willy Wonka and armed with a watering can and a pump spraying sea water so he does not dry out on land, of course) for his daughter, a magic goldfish who loves ham. This is all apparently very, very bad.

Ponyo, the latest Studio Ghibli film released last year, is anything but. Like all of Miyazaki's creations it is moving, bizarre, and utterly adorable. Less complex than some of the previous films but no less profound, it follows the story of a young boy and a goldfish he rescues from the sea one day - when Ponyo's father returns her home, she escapes again, and in doing so causes a tsunami.

As with all such films we are invited to guess at the meaning, and in all likelihood choose it for ourselves - some viewers may wonder at the crushing power of the sea and perhaps by extension of nature, others at the way in which individuals (in this case Ponyo's sister) may group together and overwhelm opposing forces as one living, breathing organism. Personally I was touched by the ending; when asked if he can accept the fact that Ponyo lives two lives and 'moves between two worlds', the boy responds that he loves all aspects of her. Awhh. Well that and the bit when the old folks' home is the only place protected from the tsunami and all the old women gather on the balcony squawking about Las Vegas.

The 'magical' quality of these films, though, only makes the conspiracy theories that surround one or two of them more unsettling. When given the freedom to project our own beliefs even onto something as innocent and charming as a Ghibli film doubtless there will be one or two that, quite frankly, no one wants to hear.

The Totoro conspiracy is the most notorious; a number of sources have pointed out the theme of death that appears to be consistent throughout the film, have considered that Totoro and his companions are Shinigami (bringers of death), that the cat bus is the ferry to 'the other side'. Parallels have been drawn with the 1963 Sayama incident.

Elsewhere, Spirited Away has been linked with prostitution.

In agreement with one of the above bloggers, however, I found that reading these theories made little difference to how I felt when watching the films. The concepts of Totoro as huggable giant hamster and Totoro as angel of death remain entirely distinct; like with the existence of Smurf porn or the content of Zeitgeist, the new information becomes confined to a dusty corner of the brain, to be recalled in edgy conversation but otherwise too believable to be believed for fear they would ruin everything. The human mind is brilliant - to debunk a popular internet meme, what has been seen can be unseen.

Honestly? If the stories are true, then humans are disgusting.

But if we've dreamt up the whole thing, then humans are disgusting.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Translation: Quim Monzo


"There are three words that refer to nothing: God, happiness, and love. Love is being horny... with a tie on."
 - Quim Monzó, in an interview for the PEN World Voices Festival, 2010

Quim Monzó is a Catalan writer and reporter, a storyteller, and an undisputed master of the short form. Such is his literary repute - so intensely has his work been scrutinised - that I feel a bit out of my depth even registering my appreciation, since there is every possibility that I don't properly understand it.

Monzó's collections of short stories have gained worldwide renown for the deadly irony that laces their quirky, often amusing and misleadingly simple exterior; beneath every tale lies a 'hidden' story, and what is truly remarkable about these works may be the subtlety with which Monzó suggests it is there, has been there all along. All we know is that, as Robert Coover (2010) notes,

"...for all the wit and comedy, there is something profoundly melancholic about his stories, as if being funny, in such a universe, were a way of being brave."

What makes the stories sad is left for us to decide; perhaps for this reason they become less of a comment on the state of humanity, more on the disposition of the individual reader.

A common theme in Monzó's work seems to be that of inconsistency; everything is in a perpetual state of flux, and in the end nothing and no one can be trusted. In his reworking of Kafka's Metamorphosis, Gregor, a young beetle wakes up to find himself transformed into a human child. Initially appalled at his condition, he wanders around his new home, first astonished by what he sees and then accepting as his mind too undergoes a swift and alarming transformation. The story ends abruptly with Gregor squashing his old family, not out of sadism but indifference, which is of course no less terrifying.

The fickleness of things and people in Monzó's world may be a metaphor for a number of aspects of real life, often hinted at in the stories themselves; perhaps the ever-changing state of politics (not least in Catalonia), perhaps the flimsy and inconsistent values of a consumer society, perhaps women, who seem capable of fooling even themselves in their quest for prescribed 'happiness'. It should also be noted that Monzó suffers from Tourette's syndrome and has a nervous tic that causes him to frequently screw up his face, a compulsion he has frequently joked about as his own face appears to be untrustworthy/have a dual personality!

Below is my own translation (from Spanish) of one of the short stories from his 1993 collection, The Why of Things.

Mid afternoon, and the man sits at his desk, takes a sheet of blank paper, puts it in the machine and begins to write. The first phrase comes in a moment. The second one too. Between the second and third, there are a few seconds of doubt.

He fills a page, draws the sheet from the guts of the machine and leaves it to one side, with the blank side facing upwards. To this first sheet he adds another, and then another. From time to time he reviews what he has written, crosses out words, changes the order of others within sentences, removes paragraphs, throws entire pages into the wastepaper bin. Suddenly he moves the machine, grabs the pile of written pages, shifts it to the right and with a pen scribbles out, alters, adds, deletes. He places the pile of corrected papers on the right, moves back over to the machine and re-writes the story from start to finish. Once he has finished, he corrects it again by hand, and rewrites it again by machine.
Late into the night, he re-reads it for the umpteenth time. It is a story. He likes it a lot. So much that he cries for joy. He is happy. It may be the best story he has ever written. It seems to him almost perfect. Almost, but it lacks a title. When he finds an adequate title it will be unsurpassable. He thinks about what title to give it. One comes to him. He writes it on a page, to see how it feels. It isn't quite working. In fact, it doesn't work at all. He crosses it out. He thinks of another. He crosses that out too.
All the titles that occur to him destroy the story: or they're obvious, or drag the story down in a surrealism that ruins its simplicity. Or else they are such nonsenses that they blow it completely. For a moment he considers calling it Untitled, but this spoils it even more. He also considers really not giving it a title, and leaving the space for it empty. But this solution is the worst of all: perhaps there does exist a story that doesn't need a title, but it's not this one; this needs a very precise one: the title that turns this almost-perfect story into a completely perfect story: the best he has even written.
At dawn he gives up: there is no title sufficiently perfect for a story so perfect that no title is good enough for it, making it impossible to be perfect at all. Resigned (and knowing that he cannot do anything else), he takes the pages where he has written the story, tears them in half and tears each of these halves in half; and so on, until they are in pieces.

Finally, below is my favourite quote from this fantastic writer, and one I believe may be applied to a number of areas of life (perhaps I've been reading too much and am applying double meanings to everything, though this may not necessarily be a bad thing):

"You cannot start a story knowing how it will finish or what will happen, because then you just don't write it"
 - Quim Monzó, 1998