Resolution

Resolution

I unapologetically love New Year’s Resolutions. The new year is a great (albeit arbitrary) time to take stock of your life, evaluate how things are going, and decide where you want to be a year from now. Resolutions are the perfect way to focus your efforts into clear goals, but often people come up with woolly wishes instead. I asked a friend if he had made any and he said “Get fit. The end.”

But how do you go about getting fit? What you really want are SMART objectives: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. A better, SMART-er resolution than “get fit” would be “I want to be able to run five kilometres in thirty minutes by the end of the year”, and that’s what I suggested to my friend. Read more →

The Desk

The Desk

This desk is where thoughts begin. It’s an old, heavy thing in my mum’s house, surrounded by the clutter of all my yesterdays: piles of VHS cassettes and PC Gamer demo discs, Sonic the Hedgehog and X Files posters on the walls. The desk is on rollers, but it hasn’t moved for over a decade. I suspect it cannot move any more because of all the detritus.

The desk is a challenging place to write because of all that clutter. Perhaps ‘clutter’ isn’t the right word: it’s emotional baggage. My mum has a tendency to hoard things. You can tunnel through the junk in any direction and find something from my childhood.  It’s the antipode of my desk at home, which is a deliberately blank slate for projecting my thoughts. Here, I must feel the urge to write through the memories. The words must be bursting out of my brain. This is the place where of my half of Escape to Na Pali was planned – and of course, the place where I played Unreal back in 1998.

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Part of me can’t wait to see the back of 2014, but it’s easy to confuse getting rid with forgetting it entirely. 2014 was a year of self-improvement for me: a new job meant I had to learn how to Get Things Done and drastically improve my presentation skills. I travelled to Canada in the summer and turned ‘internet friends’ into real ones. (If I learned anything this year, it’s that my Facebook and Twitter friends are genuine friends, and I truly value those friendships.) I published an honest-to-God printed book. Who would want to take that back?

In spite of it all, I don’t want to kick 2014 into the sun. Instead, I want to kick 2015 up the ass, to take all of those feelings and experiences – good and bad – and learn from them next year. Writing is born of emotion and experience: my short story Supercollider was about the feeling of isolation on a London Underground train one weekend, while Escape to Na Pali is a deep dive into childhood examined through the eyes of an adult. If you didn’t have the odd sad feeling or bad experience, what the hell would you write about? How would you stoke that fire inside?

Today I am sitting at the desk again, writing, thinking, because this is the place where thoughts begin.

Alan’s Favourite Music of 2014

Alan’s Favourite Music of 2014

2014 was a great year for my terrible tastes in music, so it’s fitting that this is my first official roundup of the best albums of the year. Of course, this is Split Screen, and so it’s not a list of the objectively best albums of the year: these are my unashamed favourites, the most interesting, the ones I think you should listen to. So sit back, relax, and enter the pop-free zone… Read more →

Seven Pods a Casting

Seven Pods a Casting

‘Tis the season to be casting! Over the next couple of weeks, you’ll be able to enjoy the following podcasts and recorded talks:

Unlimited Hyperbole Christmas Special – it was a real pleasure to be included on Joe Martin’s outstanding Unlimited Hyperbole. This special episode’s topic is: “If you could change one thing about your involvement with games, what would it be?” We’re hosting a mirror of the podcast on Split Screen to show our appreciation.

My Favourite Game: Sonic 3 and Knuckles – Johnny Cullen invited me to talk about my favourite game, and what else could I choose but Sonic 3 and Knuckles? This was a great opportunity to revisit a classic game, and have a lot of fun while doing it. Subscribe to the series on iTunes or listen to individual episodes here.

Critical Distance Year in Review 2014 – my third appearance on the annual Critical Distance roundup. We run through the year’s events with the usual combination of silly jokes (me) and astute commentary (everyone else). Tune in and find out how much I drank this year!

VideoBrains: A Christmas NiGHTS Carol – I gave a talk at VideoBrains on Christmas NiGHTS and the curse of nostalgia. It went really well, and the video will be available soon for those who didn’t get to attend the event. In the meantime, check out the full VideoBrains archive on YouTube and watch my previous talk on Escape to Na Pali. Coming soon…

The Indie MEGACAST: The Talos Principle – Christopher Floyd kindly invited me onto this podcast to talk about Croteam’s The Talos Principle with Rob Manuel, Patrick Lindsey, Ryan Burrell and Will O’Neill. Christopher and I recorded our segment in my mum’s living room. Really interesting discussion about a cool indie game! Subscribe to the Indie MEGACAST on iTunes.

At Least One Split Screen Podcast, Maybe Two – I’m off to Edinburgh for the New Year and will be reuniting with Craig for a couple of Split Screen podcasts. Maybe we’ll even bring a friend along. Coming soon…

 

Alan’s Mince Pie Review Roundup

Alan’s Mince Pie Review Roundup

As you may have guessed from the title, I am quite fond of mince pies. I got bored and decided to review them for my own amusement. That’s all this is, and I make no apology.

I’ve scored each of these sweet treats on the ten-point ‘Kipling scale’, as detailed below. I’ll update this roundup with more reviews as I eat my way to victory! Also, if you bake your own mince pies and think they’d be a lot better than the ones I am eating, I’ve got two words for you: challenge accepted.

Updated 2014-12-20: I tackle the dreaded Tesco iced mince pies, and there’s a surprise contender for the throne…

Tesco puff pastry, via the in-store bakery: Flattened discs of sadness. Filling is actually quite tasty, if you can find it. Verging on obscene. 3/10

mincepie-ms-classic Marks and Spencer ‘classic’: Now we’re talking! Buttery but not greasy pastry, generous helpings of a filling that is rich but either doesn’t contain alcohol or doesn’t overdo it. I would happily eat three of these in a row without shame. Again. 8/10 – recommended

Mr Kipling’s: Mr Kipling’s are a mince pie baseline. Anything better is pretty decent, anything less tasty is approaching the level of sweetened dog food. The pastry tastes like it would survive a nuclear apocalypse; the filling is both shallow and unmemorable. The most depressing thing of all is that I’ll probably eat two hundred of these over the holidays. 5/10

Waitrose: These would be almost as good as the M&S classics if it wasn’t for the excessive alcohol in the filling. If you’re already filled with excessive amounts of alcohol yourself, that’s fine, but they’re a bit much for your wee granny to have with her cup of tea. 7/10

Morrison’s Luxury Cake Shop: These mini-mincies were surprisingly excellent. They tasted fresh, like something you’d pick up in a local bakery (if those still existed, rather than me eating my way through boxes of mass-produced supermarket pies, each one pumped through the same mechanical sphincter). Perhaps a little stingy on the filling, but because they’re small, you can fit two in your mouth at once. Not that I checked, of course. 8/10

College mince pies: had these homemade pies at a college following a work Christmas dinner. By the time I found them, I was quite drunk and it was amazing I could taste them at all. Great pastry, but a bit too much icing sugar on the top. 7/10

mincepie-spiced-pear Tesco’s Spiced Pear Pies: yeah, I know, these aren’t mince pies, but someone is going to offer them on a tray with mince pies and you don’t want to get surprised by the viscous filling and choke to death. They don’t taste much differently to apple pies (aside from the obvious caveat of “they’re filled with pears”) and they’re not spicy enough. Not disgusting, just not right. And they’re not mince pies. 4/10
mincepie-cookie-bagmincepie-cookie Tesco’s Mince Pie Cookies: Spotted these in the local Tesco and I couldn’t help myself. They’re actually not crap! These cookies have a crunchy, treaclesque exterior protecting the precious mincemeat inside. They’re a little on the small side – I like larger cookies, so you can pretend you’re an Olympic hero chomping through a delicious baked discus – but not a bad choice. At least you’re not eating Tesco’s turkey and stuffing flavoured ‘weirdoughs’. 6/10
2014-12-13 18.02.22 Talia’s homemade mince pies: My friend made these for her Christmas party. Great pastry almost dominated by supremely tasty mincemeat: juicy raisins, slight hint of booze. (Maybe the booze is coming from me, though). Restrained myself and only ate two out of consideration to other party guests. Every subsequent mince pie has been ruined.
9/10 – the best, but good luck getting them
sainsburys-mini Sainsburys in-store bakery, mini: Apparently ‘deep filled’, but the fill was no deeper than a standard mince pie (how can you tell the difference, anyway? It’s either filled or not!) Dominated by crunchy, greasy pastry. I can still feel the grease on my lips and my fingers smell like congealed butter. Not the best. 5/10
Taylors of Oxford – I ran sixteen kilometres to eat this mince pie. Well, I mean, it was in my house the whole time – this wasn’t some epic quest for pie or anything – but suffice to say, I was ready. Taylors mincemeat has a real citrus tang, bursting with orange peel flavour. Absolutely fucking delicious, but I can’t get another until next Christmas. What am I going to do until then? 9/10 – outstanding
Tesco iced mince pies: so here we are, back at mum’s house for Christmas and she’s bought the iced mince pies again. My brother likes them, but I think they’re just dreadful. The pastry crimping exploded all over the carpet when I tried to lift the pie from the foil sheath, but I managed to extrude it by squeezing the case from below like a toothpaste tube. It’s a mouthful of icing. Luckily mum bought some real mince pies as well, because these are shite. 3/10
Restoring an iPad or iPhone without internet access

Restoring an iPad or iPhone without internet access

I know, not the most exciting post in Split Screen history. Believe it or not, it was a request!

An iPad without Wi-Fi is a useless slab of aluminium and glass, a lifeless husk. I found this out last week when the Wi-Fi module broke in my iPad Air. It wasn’t that the adapter couldn’t find a network – the iPad didn’t know it even had Wi-Fi. Nothing could fix it – not even turning it off and on again! After a long chat with the friendly folks at Apple, I had it swapped for a replacement. But in order to return an iPad to Apple, you need to erase its contents, and therein lies the problem.

In iOS 7, Apple introduced a new security measure: you can’t erase the contents of an iOS device without knowing the owner’s Apple ID credentials. If you steal my iPhone or iPad, they’re still tied to my ID and therefore have no real value except the constituent parts. So the question arises: if you legitimately need to erase your own device, how can you verify your Apple ID details and disable ‘Find my iPhone’ if you can’t establish an internet connection? I had to wipe seventy iPads in a day once – the joys of enterprise IT! – and even I was stumped. Luckily there is a solution:

  1. Log into iCloud.com through a web browser and choose ‘Find my iPhone’
  2. Select the device you want to erase. Find my iPhone will do its thing and be unable to locate the device. After a few minutes, ‘remove from account’ will show up – use this to deregister the device.
  3. Force the iOS device into Recovery Mode: hold the Home and Power buttons for five seconds, then continue to hold Home after it restarts. You should get a ‘Connect to iTunes’ message on screen.
  4. Connect the iPad to your computer. It will now restore, good as new.

And that’s it! If that tip isn’t worth staying up until 1am on a support website, I don’t know what is.

I’m Alive

I’m Alive

Image from my Flickr collection

A long time ago, I broke up with my high school sweetheart. We had dated for four years. Although we were no longer in a relationship, we lived in the same flat for five months. It was difficult, and I spent many evenings in my room alone, comforted by my favourite music and the solitude.

Deep in the warrens of my iTunes library, I came across Jackson Browne’s 1993 album ‘I’m Alive’. I’d listened to it on release – it was now 2008 – but this time, it really spoke to me. We’ve all encountered music that truly resonated with us, whether it was the teenage angst of Papa Roach’s ‘Last Resort’ or a twee pop song about partying at 3am in a nightclub, but this was different. The title track had everything I was thinking, compressed into five catchy minutes:

It’s been a long time since I watched these lights alone
I look around my life tonight and you are gone
I might have done something to keep you if I’d known
How unhappy you had become

Jackson Browne’s music is introspective and melancholy. He’s a precociously gifted songwriter – he wrote ‘These Days’ when he was sixteen, whereas I burned all my dreadful teenage poetry – but what I really love about his music is the honesty, the simple truth in the lyrics. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 1993, he said: “The whole reason I write songs is to confront what’s going on inside me. I just came in touch with the most fundamental reasons for writing a song, and that kept me going. To deal with these issues can be a way of processing them and, ultimately, a healing thing.”

The chorus to ‘I’m Alive’ has the line “but those dreams are dead – and I’m alive”, and I find that such a powerful, uplifting message. Things don’t work out the way you planned. People let you down through betrayal or ambivalence, plans go unrealised, your friends and family become estranged or even die. But that’s OK! You will go on and make new plans and new friends, and some of those will work! Don’t give up hope! You’re alive! Six years later, I am again watching these lights alone, Jackson Browne playing in the background, reminding myself that I’m Alive. Many more dreams are dead, although by virtue of you reading this, at least one of them is still intact.

I haven’t been well lately. I have felt a deep, lingering sadness: sometimes explicably, other times for no reason at all. It was like tinnitus inside my brain, a constant droning making it impossible to focus on work and leisure alike. I’d have trouble sleeping at night, waking after terrifying or merely absurd dreams. The constant tiredness made the sadness worse. I wanted to pack it all in – magazines, blogs, social media, everything – and just spend the day hiding in my bed, or perhaps racing into the sunset on my bicycle with the world at my back.

The world had lost its colour; I was suspended in greyscale jelly. Suspended with me was a nagging voice telling me that nothing really mattered, I was pretty worthless, and other things I’d rather not publish. At the risk of upsetting my friends and family, I offer a word of advice: if you find yourself having a meltdown in work and hiding in the bathroom crying, you’re not the only one who has had a day like that, and you should seek help from a doctor and speak to your friends. I did the latter, but not the former. Part of me didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, and the rest of me didn’t trust myself to determine what was or was not “a big deal”. But all of me realised that desperate measures were required.

So I took a break from Twitter, the internet’s coffee shop with sadness on a constant rolling boil. I cut out people who were a negative influence in my life and took time to connect with good friends, old friends. Every time someone asked “how are you doing?” I would answer “not great”, and we’d talk about it. The conversations were uncomfortable, but the honesty worked: everyone I spoke to was really kind and understanding, and I am very grateful for that. (It would take me forever to name names: if we spoke over the past couple of weeks, you helped, and even if we didn’t speak, you probably helped anyway.)

It is difficult to explain something to another person when you don’t understand it yourself. It is just so strange to be confronted with these feelings when you’re the one people come to with their problems, the levelheaded one, the strong one. I thought I was better than this, you know? You start to question whether you really know yourself, or if you were fooled by your own persona. It is all so confusing, and tedious. I am writing this to process my thoughts, to be “that healing thing” the way that Jackson Browne writes songs. I feel a little better now, but I’m honestly not sure if this is the light at the end of a tunnel or a lone light bulb in the middle of a much longer tunnel. That’s the scary part.

Things don’t always work out the way you planned. People let you down, but other people are there for you. You feel rotten inside and you want the Earth to swallow you whole, but that’s OK! Don’t give up hope! You can play through Bayonetta with a bottle of wine and a bag of cookies! You can write a blog and listen to your favourite music! You’re alive!

I will be watching Jackson Browne in concert at the Royal Albert Hall on Monday. I checked the set list, and in a happy coincidence, he will be playing ‘I’m Alive’.

Siren Charms

Siren Charms

Siren Charms is a moving exploration of the follies of love, recorded by one of Sweden’s most prominent melodic death metal bands. If the end of that sentence makes you wince, or reach for the little X at the top of the browser tab, relax! In Flames have mellowed since the release of The Jester Race in 1996,  a now-classic album in the ‘Gothenburg style’ of Scandinavian metal. They took the duelling guitar melodies of Iron Maiden and injected some Swedish folk influences, faster and heavier drumming, and the growls of death metal. It’s an acquired taste.

Once your palate adapts to spicier tastes, what previously seemed exciting becomes bland. Like many metal bands, In Flames have refined their more acerbic nuances in recent years and their later albums are much more accessible. There’s still a distinct Gothenburg sound – a noodly-oodly guitar solo begging to be mimicked with an air guitar at home, screamed vocals that convey extremes of emotion – but Siren Charms is probably their first album I could play in my dad’s car without (much) protest. That creates a natural backlash from ‘metalheads‘, second only to ‘gamers’ in their neverending quest to define themselves as the most ‘hardcore’ and socially outcasted. I remember going to an Opeth gig in Edinburgh a few years ago, when they toured in support of Heritage. Between songs, a disgruntled metalhead roared: “PLAY SOME FUCKIN’ METAL!”

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Some people just want to hear some fuckin’ metal, but bands who do not evolve their riffs are doomed to repeat them. While Opeth have gone full-prog (they always were quite proggy / jazz fusion), and Iron Maiden’s songs grow longer and more thoughtful with each release, Megadeth seem to re-record the same album in a less interesting way every couple of years. You could say the same of Bad Religion, one of my favourite bands, but as I said to my brother “all of their songs sound the same, but at least it’s a great song!” Your favourite old albums are not tarnished by new releases in a different style, and I’d rather enjoy Rust in Peace for a hundredth time instead of listening to a pale imitation by the same band.

Siren Charms deserves to be approached with an open mind. In fact, it demands it, since from the opening track “In Plain View” the intensity of the opening lick gives way to a more subtle riff, Anders Friden sounding more vulnerable than you’d expect:

A fire, my head’s a liar
in plain view, there’s nothing in the way

Friden has never been the best singer – understatement of the year – but he’s certainly among the most interesting lyricists in metal. Here’s “Embody the Invisible” off 1999’s Colony, which I also chose because it’s one of my all-time favourite opening tracks:

The difference with Colony is that you’ll need to look up the lyrics to extract meaning from the screams, while in Siren Charms Friden’s vocals are more intelligible. Even the more traditional vocal styles of “Everything’s Gone” or “When the World Explodes” occupy a middle ground between singing and shouting. It lacks the sheer oomph of earlier In Flames, but it’s not really better or worse. It’s interesting. It sounds more earnest, less posturing, which is probably a good thing when you’ve written a breakup album.

I tried to contact the band to talk about Siren Charms: I emailed their manager in Sweden, went through the fan club, even contacted the press team at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush (the photos accompanying this article were taken by me at the recent London gig). Song lyrics are often deliberately ambiguous, and you don’t want to read into them too much, but it doesn’t take a lovesick and introspective writer to figure out the meaning behind a song like “Paralyzed”. Even the title Siren Charms refers to the creatures of myth who lured sailors to their deaths: my trusty Apple dictionary says “a woman who is considered to be alluring or fascinating, but also dangerous in some way.” Putting thousands of years of sexism to one side, I think we can piece this together.

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The album presents an omnibus of emotions: that moment of clarity that cuts through the thick fog of insane infatuation (“In Plain View”, “With Eyes Wide Open”), the self-pitying and regret (“Through Oblivion”, “Siren Charms”), through to catharsis (“Rusted Nail”) and eventual optimism. (“Dead Eyes”). “Rusted Nail” is a highlight, the closest thing to a classic on the album: it punches hard from the outset, moving to troughs of gritty chugging into a noodle-oodly bridge that you want to mime with your air guitar and a chorus destined to strip vocal chords in stadiums. It’s a microcosm of the album as a whole: both recognisably In Flames and recognisably distinct as a progressive work as well, following the path taken by the underrated (and terribly named) Sounds of a Playground Fading.

Siren Charms is emotionally mature and intellectually honest. If you are neither of these things, you’ll probably hate it, and even if you are this isn’t a breakthrough album to convert the unconvinced. But it’s really good, often moving, and it’s definitely fuckin’ metal.

Photography: In Flames at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush, London – Alan Williamson

Learning

Learning

Dr John Long passed away last Sunday. He taught me German in high school, which sounds a little trivial, but his teaching had a big impact on my life.

As a naïve pupil, you dehumanise teachers a little. They become the prison officers of childhood as you wait for the euphoric release of the school bell. Dr Long wasn’t like that: he loved to teach, and I loved to learn. He was a reserved and humble man – I didn’t realise his full credentials until I read the notice on the school website, and they are impressive – but in the classroom, he fizzed with excitement. He’d put on accents when he read through Der Besuch and Andorra, go off on a tangent about Verfremdungseffekt and Brechtian theatre, agonise over what exactly Frikadellen were (he authoritatively described them as ‘rissoles’). He was often deep in thought: another former teacher described him as “by far the cleverest man that he had ever met”, and that sounds near enough the truth.

Although he displayed impressive levels of patience, like when someone in the GCSE German class asked what “die” meant, I remember one time he got really angry. A pupil asked if the day’s topic of discussion was going to be on the exam, and Dr Long was incandescent with rage: “you’re not here to pass an exam! You’re here to learn a language!” He was right, but more than that, in his classes you learned how to learn. Meaningful knowledge, that which we retain and cherish, comes from passion and understanding – it’s more than mere rote learning. Those German classes were a process of wisdom transference. Even a decade later, I can still read German and speak a little with colleagues, although my accent is pretty terrible. That’s not just mandatory state school training: that’s a gift.

I made two mistakes when I moved to Edinburgh: I ceased studying German, and I lost contact with the man who taught me. I’d bump into him every now and again when visiting Northern Ireland, but I should have kept in touch. I had always meant to write, as one always means to, until one day I received the news that he had suffered a stroke, and he never fully recovered from that. But this is not a mistake we need to learn for ourselves: just grab some crisp paper, your favourite pen, find a quiet place, and reach out to people. Reconnect with them before it’s too late. Letters are objects of surprising power.

I have many fond memories of Dr Long, from the way he’d edit your childish prose into a masterpiece of idiom (ein unvergessliches Erlebnis, as he would say); to the time he caught a friend and I smoking on the way to the bus station, smirked and said “Ich hab nichts gesehen”. Thank you for the knowledge, but thank you even more for the gift of learning. Not to be confused with the Gift of learning, German speakers.

One day I’ll finally visit Berlin, and I won’t need a phrase book. Ich freue mich schon darauf.

Frustration

Frustration

I am on a train to Sheffield, tapping away at my iPad daintily to avoid the RSI in my right wrist making a resurgence. I’m sitting at a table with a family: a father and two children playing a board game. The box calls it Click n Jump, but I remember it as Frustration when I played it with my brothers as a child.

The rules are simple. Like Ludo, the object is to move your four plastic tokens around the circumference of the board and into a safe zone. The die is encased in a plastic bubble that you press down on to roll, which makes a distinctive popping noise that is great fun for the kids and probably annoying most of the train carriage right now. The eponymous Frustration comes from two factors: you have to pop a six before you can move a piece, and if your piece lands on an opposing player’s, it sends their piece back to the start. It’s a game of false starts, setbacks, and of course, luck.

I used to love board games when I was young. My favourite was Mouse Trap: gradually setting the trap around the board, the anticipation of someone triggering it, the disappointment of the pieces not aligning properly and the Rube Goldberg machine collapsing as the green ball failed to launch the diver. As well as Mouse Trap, my brothers and I would play Monopoly, Cluedo, Connect 4, Game of Life, each ending prematurely as someone was accused of cheating or unfairly punishing another. One of us would storm away from the board, usually admonishing “you’re sly!” Nowadays, it’s called ragequitting. As it once said on the box of Trivial Pursuit, “what mighty contests arise over such trivial things”.

The greatest strength of board games is their meaninglessness. They don’t matter while you are playing, and they matter even less when you’re done. The only record of your play (apart from the lasting resentment of You’re sly!) is the faint outline of the last Yahtzee scores on a pad of paper. I miss the ephemerality of such games. It used to be the case with classic videogames as well: the Mega Drive lacked persistent memory except for battery backup in some cartridges, and every new game was a blank slate. Now, everything contributes to an endless ticker tape of statistics. I just finished replaying Bayonetta on the Wii U before tackling the sequel, and I missed all the weapons and techniques I had unlocked on the 360 version, the high scores. Yet the game was exactly the same! It was just as good, if not better without having the crutch of accessories. I deliberately wanted to experience Bayonetta afresh because my judgment was clouded by those fifty hours of accumulated play. (Spoiler: it is still amazing.)

We cannot escape our prejudices. Our minds absorb information, reviews, rumours. Even when we think they’re clear, they are more like the Yahtzee pad; as we write new memories the pencil lines warp in the indentations, almost imperceptibly altered. The mental mouse trap has been set, waiting for our prejudices to trigger it. Bayonetta 2 will feel like a masterpiece because Bayonetta is a masterpiece. Frustration is frustrating.

The children are still popping the die, swearing revenge against their father for the setbacks. The young boy says “I hate you!” to his dad, lovingly, for acts that will soon be forgotten. I imagine myself sitting with my brothers, flipping the board, screaming “You’re sly!”. But it is not they who were sly. It was my own mind. It has always been sly.

Welcome Back

Welcome Back

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Split Screen is four years old, but this is a new start for us. We could not have made this site in 2010: we’ve taken all we learned from four years of blogging, two years of Five out of Ten and more to create the site we’ve always wanted.

What’s New?

Focusing on what matters: the old Split Screen was a blog about games and technology. The new site is about all the things that matter to us: videogames of course, but also music, cinema, literature and life. Whatever we feel like, really! We’ve also incorporated Alan’s old ‘Critical Hits’ blog (as featured on the New Statesman) into Split Screen.

All-new design powered by WordPress: fully responsive for mobile, beautiful typography, cruft-free. There are neat new features like image galleries (try clicking the image in the Monument Valley review!) It might seem like a lick of paint, but the old Joomla site was a large barrier in the way of getting things published. Special thanks to Alexander Haslam for helping us develop the new site – if you need some WordPress development, he comes highly recommended. Also, thanks to Marko Jung (Five out of Ten’s web developer) for providing his usual technical expertise.

We’ve still got a few things to fix – if you click on an author’s name it won’t show all their posts, and we want a better way to categorise our existing features. We’re working on it!

No comments: you can read the comments on old articles. But let’s be honest, comments are 90% spam and 9% shit. You are very much encouraged to chat to us on Twitter or send us an email!

What’s Old?

Four years of writing, videos and podcasts: critically acclaimed series like Metacritique, Reality Check, Retrocity, features and reviews. We’ve chosen our favourites for old and new readers alike, but the new site was built for exploration and discovery. We’ve also taken Alan’s old features originally written for Nightmare Mode and brought them home.

The podcast returns: the 14th episode (or the first of a new era, if you like) is called ‘Phoenix’, and is coming very soon. It’s a double episode special about how games get remastered, remade and rebooted, followed by a bit of ‘inside baseball’ about what Split Screen is about. We’re changing up the podcast format and recording shorter, more frequent podcasts. You can listen right from the page or subscribe through your favourite podcast player.

Four years of old links and arcane video embeds: many of these are broken. Sorry! This is an unavoidable consequence of the move to WordPress. Please use the search bar to find older articles if they’re referenced in another.

No advertising: and we’ll always disclose if we receive any promotional or review material. Not that this is particularly likely.

Our mission: to write what we want, to make you laugh and think, to have the courage to make mistakes.

The Best Of Us

For a selection of our favourite things over the past four years, just choose ‘The Best of Us’ from the menu bar.

Existence

Existence

Does this deserve to exist?

That’s the first question I ask myself before I create anything. A book, a magazine, a song, a scribble on a page. “Does this thing I am making deserve to exist?” If you can’t define that, then chances are what you’ve made doesn’t deserve to exist, and your energy would be better spent elsewhere.

Earlier in the year, Split Screen’s aging content management system was hacked and the site defaced. It wasn’t a deliberate attack, just an opportunistic one on an unlucky site running an ancient version of Joomla. We’d been planning to upgrade the site to WordPress for years, but never got around to it, and this forced our hand. But it also forced the question: does this blog deserve to exist?

We’ve been running this site for four years. We met in Scotland, Craig moved to England, I moved to England, he moved back to Scotland. What we saw as a launchpad for writing careers became this irreverent, goofy, comfortable thing that took over our all our free time and contributed to the downfall of at least one of my relationships. I remember meeting Craig for dinner in London a couple of years ago and saying “this website is taking precedence over our friendship,” and I am really glad we had that conversation. We repaired our friendship, but the blog remained an albatross around our necks. We grew up. We launched a magazine.

I’ve been linking people to old Split Screen posts over the past nine months – the old site has always been there, hidden from view – but that’s not what justifies its existence to me. It’s the spark in the back of my mind; it’s the drive to write without limits. We started a blog about technology and videogames, but what about other things? Music? Friendship? Life? Why did I start a separate blog to write about marathons and how much I loved my brothers? What was a Split Screen post and what was not? We argued about whether we should include film reviews, man.

In an effort to focus on a specific type of writing, we lost sight of why we were writing in the first place: to connect with people. To shout into the void and hope to hear a voice besides our own. To move and be moved, laugh, love and learn. That is why this site exists. That is why I exist.

Stephen King wrote in On Writing that “the scariest moment is always before you start”. I know the feeling, and I feel like we are starting again today, but this time it’s not scary. It’s just exciting.

Whether you’re new here or an old friend, we hope you join us on the journey. Here’s to the next four years. Here’s to existence.

Monument Valley

Monument Valley

What should a mobile game be? Armed with a tablet containing more horsepower than an Xbox 360, a dedicated controller and a long train ride, you’ll still never play the same BioShock that I played in front of a giant TV, on my inflatable chair shaped like Genie from Aladdin, with a six pack of Carlsberg. (Perhaps no one should play BioShock that way.) Mobile games should be unique, not poor imitations of big screen experiences. This is part of the reason why the PSVita hasn’t taken off: it has all that power, and nothing to hit with it. Tearaway is the perfect Vita game because it makes the most of the platform; Killzone Mercenary is a decent game, but it pales in comparison to the spectacle of its console big brothers.

Tablet games excel in breaking down the barriers to interaction. The worst are those that superimpose a virtual controller on-screen – the console ports and the wannabes, lacking tactility and responsiveness – but the best allow us to directly affect the world through pokes and prods. The large surface of a tablet provides a giant window into another world, where a mobile phone offers a mere porthole.

Monument Valley truly is another world, and it’s an impossible one too. It is formed of Escher-esque impossible objects that warp as your manipulate them with your fingers, warping your mind at the same time. As you twist objects, the isometric perspective allows for new paths and shapes to form. Fez did a similar thing with perspective shifting, but the similarities begin and end there. Where Fez delighted in the obtuse – codes etched in walls, secrets locked to all but the best-trained eye – Monument Valley has no time for that. It reveals its secrets with a mere poke and responds to the right movements with a reassuring chime. It looks impossible in a screenshot and makes immediate sense as soon as you touch it.

It wants to be appreciated, and it’s easy to appreciate. Every stage is so beautiful you could hang it on a wall. After you complete a puzzle, there’s time to pan into the environments and take screenshots complete with Instagram filters. The plot is predictably loose and open to interpretation: the developers describe it as “a song”, and that sounds about right. You guide a girl on an unknown quest, hindered by meandering crows, encountering the ghosts of a lost civilization and befriending a surprisingly loveable totem pole along the way. Monument Valley certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome and can be finished in an hour, but that brevity prevents the game from growing repetitive. The early stages are short and simple, but they become more intricate – although never frustrating – as you go further down the metaphorical set of Penrose stairs.

The simplicity means it’s difficult to get stuck, but don’t confuse the ability to hunt and poke for the ‘pixel-hunting’ days of old adventure games: it’s possibilities that are uncovered rather than outright solutions, and the satisfaction comes not from figuring out what to move, but how to move it. You’re also fighting your brain’s attempts to make sense of these two-dimensional illusions in a three-dimensional space. It’s stimulating rather than demanding.

A couple of weeks ago, I was on a train to collect my brother from Birmingham Airport. The train was twenty minutes late and his flight was on time. We only had a few minutes to get the train back to Oxford (such is the experience of the British rail network when you want a cheap ticket). I could have got stressed, but instead, I played Monument Valley for the first time. It was like walking through a gallery rather than ‘beating’ a videogame. It was just what I needed. The train arrived just in time, of course.

Mobile games are often designed for short bursts of repetition: Super Hexagon and Ridiculous Fishing are great examples of this, and that is a great use of the platform. But Monument Valley shows the potential for the mobile game as something to be savoured only once, ironically closer to the experience of cinema than Hollywood-apeing console games. While others may begrudge a lack of replay value or challenge, I am happy to just ignore my train and enjoy the ride.

VideoBrains: Escape to Na Pali

VideoBrains: Escape to Na Pali

videobrains

I gave a talk at the inaugural VideoBrains event, based on research for the book ‘Escape to Na Pali: A Journey to the Unreal‘ co-written with Kaitlin Tremblay. It’s about the uniquely alien world of the classic videogame Unreal, and you can watch it below! If you enjoy the talk, you’ll almost certainly love the book.

If you enjoy the talk, come along to the next VideoBrains event in London this November – tickets are free! I am planning to return in December and stuff my face with mince pies.

Five out of Ten

Five out of Ten

Five out of Ten is the magazine for people who love videogames and demand the best in independent writing, from the lovable folks who brought you Split Screen. We’ve been running it for almost two years with three principles:

Different

We only publish great, original features: writing that is insightful, bold, and timeless. Our features combine personal experience with critical investigation: the thoughts that go beyond mere play. We take a ‘slow journalism’ approach: our work is considered and meaningful.

Inclusive

We have a proud history of publishing a wide range of voices and experiences, and we are actively committed to continuing to do so. Five out of Ten is dedicated to diversity: this includes promoting marginalised voices and ensuring that our writers approve of what we publish. All Five out of Ten pieces are edited collaboratively between the writers and editorial team to ensure finished articles are reflective of the author’s views.

Fair Pay

We believe that good writing is worth paying for. Rather than paying a set fee for writing, we split the profits between an issue’s contributors. This means our writers share in the success of the magazine. We do not publish writing without financially compensating the author, and we don’t display external advertising or corporate sponsorship.

Our tenth issue is called ‘Heart’ and is out now. If you like what we’re doing on Split Screen, buy a copy of Five out of Ten – we get a little money and you get a lot of great writing. Everyone’s a winner!

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