David Bowie

In one of his books (I think it was The God Delusion), Richard Dawkins suggests that some human quirks stem from the fact that the bulk of our evolution happened in small, localised groups hunting across a relatively small area. This is how our brains evolved, and in order to process anything larger – say, 510 million square kilometres of land or seven billion people – we have to do some odd mental tricks to allow us to even vaguely comprehend the scale of the world around us. While Dawkins used this to illustrate another point, I feel that it’s probably the explanation for another phenomenon.

Specifically, it’s why thousands of people woke up this morning to find out that they’d lost someone they felt genuinely close to.

It’s an odd feeling. I’m well aware that I never met David Bowie, and that the man himself wasn’t even aware of my existence. We never shared anything meaningful or developed any kind of actual connection, but when I loaded up the news app on my phone this morning and read David Bowie dies at 69 my heart sank like I was reading about the death of a close friend.

David Bowie has been on my mind a lot recently. I was excited for the release of his 25th studio album, and for some reason his 1974 album Diamond Dogs had been striking a chord with me for weeks an I’d been listening to it non-stop. How could a man who seemed so alive only yesterday when I listened to Blackstar possibly have died?

The answer, simply, is that cancer is a shit.

I loved Bowie for his ability to make full, lush worlds filled with bizarre and vibrant characters in the space of a five minute song. I can’t think of another artist who could create a world as lush as the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Diamond Dogs in just six minutes and then have the legacy of that world last over forty years.

It wasn’t just his worldbuilding and storytelling I loved, it was how safe and comfortable he made me feel with my sexuality. As a gay teenager, it felt like strong queer role models and idols were few and far between, but Bowie’s androgynous gender-bending and the public acceptance of his eccentricities felt like a caring hand on my shoulder and a reassurance that things would turn out fine.

There will always be a debate as to whether or not Bowie’s bisexuality was real, a curiousity, or just a fuck you of rebellion during the 70s that he later regretted. His interviews paint a conflicted and even contradictory account, but I’m not sure it even really matters. Bowie appealed to disillusioned gay and transgender kids and made them feel like things will be okay. That’s important. That’s really fucking important.

The public’s deep and unrequited connection to Bowie stems mostly from how much of himself he put into his albums. Even some of his most fantastic or bizarre characters and songs could be seen has having some metaphorical connection to aspects of David Bowie’s life story, and the opinion is quickly emerging that Blackstar was his goodbye, a knowing acknowledgement of his impending death and a characteristically cryptic and eccentric final message to the world.

Never has the interpretation of an album changed so drastically overnight as it has with Blackstar. It was an odd album to begin with, moody and discordant, seven tracks long and recycling two of those tracks from bonus tracks off his last album, The Next Day. But when viewed as the final chapter in Bowie’s musical autobiography, it’s immediately takes on a different, far more human meaning. It was one final metaphor, so deeply shrouded in the man’s typical mystery that it could only be unlocked once the artist himself had died.

I listened to it again today, and had to choke back tears  as the final track, I Can’t Give Everything Away, played. I wonder if he wrote it as a symbol of the one final, essential piece of himself that would disappear upon his death. That spark that we’ll never see again.

I’ll always see David Bowie as proof that you can be whatever you want to be. It doesn’t matter if that’s rebellious, conforming, male, female, gay, straight, bisexual, homo-superior, Martian, or a one-legged post-apocalyptic hipster. If you don’t like your reality, you can change it. Even if it means changing everyone else’s perception of reality in the process.

001 – Sonic The Hedgehog (Master System)

Over the course of the next year, I’m going to try to write about 100 games. There’s no great selection criteria here: They won’t be in any kind of order, they won’t all be significant, and they probably won’t even all be good games. But they will be 100 games that I’ve played, and that in some small way or another contributed to my appreciation of gaming as a whole.

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 19.49.19So, where better to start than the first game I played? Okay, so this part is actually pretty fuzzy. I don’t remember what age I was when my parents bought me a Master System II (or even why they bought it), but a bit of guesswork based on me remembering Sonic 2 being released makes me 5 or 6 years old when I got it. The model of Master System I owned came with Alex Kidd in Miracle World built in, so it’s possible that game holds the distinction of being the first I played. But what I do remember vividly to this day is this sitting on the floor of my parent’s pink wallpapered bedroom all day playing the Master System’s Sonic the Hedgehog.

This version of Sonic the Hedgehog is probably better known as the version that was released as Sonic the Hedgehog on the Game Gear, subsequently re-released on Nintendo’s Virtual Console service and as bonus content in Sonic Mega Collection and Sonic Adventure DX. Rather than being produced by Sega itself, development of the game was handed to Ancient, a Japanese developer that nowadays almost exclusively makes games based on the Reborn! Shōnen Jump manga.

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 19.36.49It’s impressive how well the game holds up after all this time. The 8-bit Master System version of Sonic the Hedgehog is much more than a downgraded port of its 16-bit daddy, it’s a full, unique game in its own right. Despite being limited by a much less powerful machine, Ancient were able to successfully strip back the feel of the 16-bit game, only loosely basing it on the parent title but retaining the sense of speed platforming that eventually became Sonic’s signature. Most of the key gameplay elements are present – fast running, rolling through enemies, jumping over spike traps, collecting rings – with only a few compromises. These small concessions include being unable to collect lost rings once lost (something they managed to make work in a limited sense for the 8-bit Sonic 2) and some fairly basic boss battles, but in exchange they added some neat small touches, such as a world map (pictured left) that showed the location of the level in relation to the wider South Island.

As a kid I never actually beat the game, I still remember being unable to pass the Jungle Zone boss and progress further. I came back to the game in my teenage years, fuelled by nostalgia. It was an interesting feeling, akin to returning to your old stomping ground, and I still recall the feeling of surprise when I passed that boss on only my second attempt. I knew the first three zones inside-out as a child, but from that point on the game was uncharted territory. It was like returning home and finding an entire half of the house you never knew existed.

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 19.39.45Even going back to it today, for the purpose of writing this article, I was still impressed by how much fun the game is. There’s an obvious veil of nostalgia there, but it really feels like a lot of love went into making this game, as though Ancient set out determined to equal the Mega Drive title rather than settling for a cheap imitation on inferior hardware.

I took dozens of screenshots in preparation for this article, and it’s been hard to whittle it down to the three you see here because so much of the game is still dear to me. Small corners an insignificant details of the map were all sources of wonder for me as a child, from the hidden floors of the second level to the rolling logs in the third zone. Still, I’d like to finish on Sonic the Hedgehog’s recreation of the famous Green Hill ring jump, one of the few areas of the game directly influenced by the 16-bit game. It’s a short section, and pared down from its Mega Drive equivalent, but to probably-5-or-6-year-old me, it was one of the most fun things imaginable. That’s what got me started.

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Games of 2015: The Beginner’s Guide

Note – This article is heavy in spoilers for The Beginner’s Guide. If you’ve not played the game yet and there’s any chance you may want to do so in future, skip this one.

The Beginner’s Guide is the latest game from Davey Wreden, the guy who brought us the fascinating Stanley Parable. Following on from his previous’ games exploration of agency and the nature of choice in a video game narrative, Beginner’s Guide is essentially another experiment in storytelling, weaving a narrative through a collection of disjointed games supposedly created by a man named Coda.

Each of the games plays like a small prototype or proof of concept, rarely consisting of more than a few corridors or abstract areas that Davey narrates himself, tearing each minute detail of the world apart looking for deeper meaning in his mentor’s work.

Much of the game’s actual meaning is left open, with some subtle hints that there may not even be any deeper meaning to discover. It’s a minefield, and I’m yet to fully make up my mind what the greater meaning behind the game is, or if there’s even anything to be found. So instead, I’m going to focus on one chapter in particular that stood out.

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The chapter begins on a rocky hill at night time. On your left, at the very top of the slope, is a door. To your right a little way in is a modern-looking glass sided house. When you enter the house, the door shuts behind you and you meet an unnamed, stationary NPC who asks for your assistance in tidying up the house.

This proves to be an endless task, no sooner has the player run around the house straightening the rug, making the bed and cleaning the dishes, some unseen force has messed them all up again and the player is forced to go back and do things again. Periodically the action is broken up by stopping to muse with the host, who makes strange, disjointed and semi-deep small talk with you.

It’s a bit like Sunset, but without the underlying story. You just clean, and clean, and clean.

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But, at the start of the chapter you were outside. You had a choice. What about that door on the left?

The huge windows of the house leave the door almost always in view, inaccessible and just tantalisingly out of reach. As I busied myself running around the house, cleaning up for the box-headed NPC, I kept looking at the door and wondering where it led. Would things have been different if I’d gone to the door first? Would I be able to learn about it without starting the chapter over?

In the back of my mind I was always aware that the door would either lead nowhere, or be something mundane, but there’s something about been shown what you could have had that sends daggers into the heart of human nature. I liked the house, it felt warm and cosy, but what if I’d missed out on something else?

Screen Shot 2016-01-02 at 13.26.30The cleaning task abruptly stops during one section of dialogue, the glass walls are removed and the game leaves you free to exit the house and proceed to the door, which is now open. It’s an odd point of the chapter, strangely contrary to the theme of comfort and longing that pervaded the experience up until this point. The short-lived satisfaction of heading to the door was balanced

In a later narration, near the end of the game, you learn that Davey meddled with the games he received from Coda, adding endings, solutions and symbolism where none originally existed. The story goes that Coda and Davey argued over whether the games should be playable, or if they should just exist as they are. Specifically mentioned is the cleaning level, suggesting that you were originally intended to stay in the house forever, wondering about what could have been.

This kind of fascinated longing isn’t new in video games, though the biggest examples that spring to mind were unintentional. A similar feeling surrounds Pokèmon’s mysterious S.S. Anne truck, placed just out of view so that it can only be seen by glitching or otherwise sequence-breaking the game. There’s also the unobtainable underwater book in Super Mario Sunshine, hidden behind a secluded door, the hidden island in the Dam level of Goldeneye 007, the myriad of unused but mostly complete areas that existed within vanilla World of Warcraft.

There’s something beautiful about things simply being there in games, whether they be leftovers or Easter Eggs, that we never get to see. Something just beyond our reach that we can only speculate about. Perhaps the reason I find this so interesting is because it’s a device – storytelling or otherwise – that is completely unique to video games. Someone made the S.S. Anne truck, someone modelled the island in Goldeneye. Their mere existence hints at a real life story that we can only speculate upon, and that’s what The Beginner’s Guide is all about.

The meaning of the game as a whole has been deliberately left up to the player to interpret, so it’s possible that I’m reading tea leaves here – seeing experiments and meaning in something that was never intended to be more than a goofy vignette – but there’s a seductive feeling  that this was the chapter where I saw eye-to-eye with Davey and saw what he (or possibly Coda) was trying to achieve. That this chapter was where I saw the point in his pointless, unwinnable game.

I think Coda was right. The game was better when you never reached the door.