Wednesday, 21 October 2009

A rock and a hard pace

The rock of Gibraltar stands tall and proud, keeping a watchful gaze over the Straits of Gibraltar, the gateway to the Mediterranean. Situated at the far south point of the Spanish mainland, Gibraltar’s distinct formation is instantly recognisable to mariners the world over. With Spain to the North and Morocco to the South, the independent British overseas territory is at a strategic choke point as well as an attractive sightseeing spot for tourists. It has been in British hands since it was captured in 1704 by a combined British and Dutch Naval force of marines and sailors who bombarded the town and later invaded during the War of Spanish Succession. Despite many attempts to regain the territory, the Spanish have been unsuccessful. The rock itself is awe-inspiring. The peaks and sheer faces are rugged, coated with vegetation and home to the celebrities of the territory, Gibraltar’s Barbary Macaques Apes (or Rock Apes), who serve to delight visitors shortly before stealing and trying to eat their cameras.

After arriving here recently (hence the lack of posts lately) I decided to join a couple of friends in a ritual known as “The Rock Run”. For the uninitiated the Rock run can be described simply as running from sea level up to the two peaks of the Rock (1,390 feet high). Whilst it may sound insane I can assure you it is well worth the substantial effort. On Sunday morning, at 8am, 30 minutes before sunrise, my friends and I started jogging from an area close to the port. Following the winding roads up the ever-increasing inclines of the mountain we passed the waking town and left its white-washed buildings behind as we continued our ascent. The sun rose in the east but we were in the shadow of the rock and, although it was light, we could not yet see the new day beginning.

The light spilled over the Western Mediterranean and highlighted Spain the West and the dusty mountains of Morocco to the South. A steady stream of commercial shipping was silently slipping out of the Atlantic and into the Med, and vice-versa. Every now and again we would hear the high-pitched yelp of one of the rock’s furry inhabitants and occasionally we would see an ape lazing in the morning heat. As we puffed and panted our way to the top we were overtaken by a stream of mini-vans and taxis ferrying tourists less inclined to run up to the rock’s peaks.

After 42 minutes of hard work we reached our goal of the second peak and rested, admiring the panorama of the bright, warm October morning. A group of tourists came up to us looking puzzled. We had obviously been running; we were out of breath, dressed in sports kit and sweating profusely. One man asked what we had been doing and I answered, plainly “we ran up here.” He looked shocked and asked where from so I pointed out the harbour in the distance below and he looked back again and asked me why. I didn’t have an answer for him. Perhaps we did it to challenge ourselves, perhaps because we had enjoyed the exercise, but looking back now I believe my answer would be “Because we could.” What I mean by that is that despite the effort, the hard breathing and the now painful calf muscles, I wouldn’t have changed that Sunday morning for anything. The idyllic scenery at the top of the rock coupled with the great feeling of achievement having made it up there, as well as the camaraderie of doing it with your friends, combined to make a wonderful, if exhausting, morning, and one I won’t soon forget.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

In the beginning there was the word… and the word was AMIGA

On the cold morning of 25th of December 1991, my twelve year-old self bounded down-stairs at what I now consider the ungodly hour of 6 am, shoving my little brother out of the way in keeping with the seasonal spirit. We had been awake for some time before, but our parents had a strict “not until 6” policy that we were to adhere to on Christmas morning. My sister was approaching her second birthday and was not as exited about Christmas as my brother (who was 10) and I.

When we finally burst through the door of our front room and ran directly to the small pile of wrapped gifts strewn on the floor around the Christmas tree our focus was entirely on what our “Big present” would be. My brother and I always had a “Big present”, the one that was the centrepiece of our holiday. Most of the other gifts would be what my parents referred to as wrap-ups, books, videotapes, games etc. We would always have an orange and some hazel nuts in our stockings, as it was traditional in our house. We tore at the wrapping, which my mother had spent hours perfecting without regard for her labour, and revelled in joy at the gifts it hid. But something was up. My brother and I kept looking at one another after opening the larger presents and finding board games and books, socks and other things that Aunties think 12 year-olds would like, unable to recognise what was different.

Once all the gifts were unwrapped and there was, in-fact, no bike, pool table or such-like, my brother and I noticed our parents watching us with large smiles pasted across their faces. Behind them, on the dining table, which we had rushed past in our eagerness to get to the loot, was an Amiga 500, set up and switched on in all it’s 16-bit glory. Our parents were rightly amused and I look back on our behaviour that morning with a mild shame, but I was a child and knew no better at the time.

Despite our ordinary state of constant competitiveness my brother and I played for hours, and later days, weeks, months and a couple of years, together, fairly and with good humour. We played Lemmings, Rick Dangerous and Captain Planet to name but a few and there, on that cold Christmas morning, my real love affair with gaming began. I had computers before the Amiga. I’d had a Spectrum ZX, a Commodore 64 (with such ground breaking titles as Harrier Carrier and IK plus) and other, simple game machines, but they were slow to load and used cassette tapes. The Amiga 500 had a floppy disc drive and many, many games. I could never get bored with it and it only got better as time went on. Basic games made way for more and more complex games like Sensible Soccer and, eventually, mammoths of gaming experience such as Frontier: Elite 2. There was always something new and exciting coming out and that sense of limitless game-play and infinite possibilities is why I can trace my gaming career back to that Christmas day 18 years ago.

Those games seem very basic now and it’s almost a mystery why such games should have seemed so advanced at the time. I wonder if in 18 years from now I’ll look back at the Xbox 360, fondly, and wonder how I was so engrossed by simple 3-D graphics, surround sound and real-world physics engines that powered such “basic” games as Assassin’s Creed, GTA 4 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

A very modern friendship (How networked gaming helps me keep in touch)

In my formative years I had a core group of 5 very good friends. Some of us had been friends since we were children and others were assimilated into our collective during our university years. We did everything together from procrastinating at one another’s homes when we should have been studying to nights out on the town and even holidays abroad. My time at university was special and the friendships cultivated there have lasted the decade since I left. My working career began in earnest shortly after graduation and my chosen profession has taken me away from my hometown and those wonderful people I call my closest friends. I am not the only one of our group to have moved on to new pastures and we are now spread out across the UK making the best of our lives.

We have, however, stayed close. We all reconvene, on occasion, back in our hometown and go to the pub to play catch-up. We often just go to someone’s house, sit on the sofa and have a drink and a chat or watch a movie, which we all talk over, and, more often than not, play some multiplayer video games which seem to get better the more inebriated we become. Sometimes we travel the length of the country to visit our respective new homes and adopted towns and cities. On these occasions the host will take great care to ensure that the others are entertained, fed and watered and above all that we can enjoy the rare and precious time we have together.

We are all big gaming fans and back in the days before wireless networks we used to go to incredible lengths to achieve some basic networked multiplayer gaming. I would often disassemble my PC, pack it into the back of my car, and drive down to my friend’s house where we would set up the computer next to his so that we could network the two via an Ethernet cable. This was all so that we could play a couple of precious hours of Soldier of Fortune or Star Wars in multiplayer. The idea of playing against another human, and your best friend to boot, in place of a mindless and, at the time, quite basic AI was worth the hassle.

Today I have Xbox LIVE. My friends also have Xbox LIVE. What this means for we merry band of brothers is that we can recreate those nights we used to spend together despite being geographically separated. With the use of an Xbox and a microphone headset we can spend a night chatting whilst playing against (or with) each other on the latest game that we all like. We can even play separate games but keep a chat room open so that we can still talk away the night while engaged in different activities. I find this to be amazing. What online gaming has done for me is to have brought me closer to the people I want to be around, but sadly can’t be. We have drifted apart because our lives have taken different paths but technology has matured to serve, for us, a purpose that I’m sure was not intended.

Xbox LIVE is a great link in our ongoing friendship and now, even though the majority of the group are married, getting married and/or have children, my close friends and I can still make time to join together in the fight against alien invasion, to rid the world of a zombie infestation, to battle Nazis in the streets of Berlin or to take on the guise of secret agents in a race against time to save the world. I get to do this with my best friends. Who says video games are antisocial?

Saturday, 3 October 2009

I fought the law and the…law lost! (A return to Liberty City and the ridiculousness of scaremongering)

In eager anticipation of the upcoming Grand Theft Auto 4 add-on game, the controversially named: The Ballad of Gay Tony, I decided to pay another visit to my old stomping ground in Liberty City. It has been a couple of months since I last played on GTA4, even on multiplayer, and I thought it was time to get myself re-acquainted with Nico Bellic, the game’s primary protagonist, and his friends, in order to aid a more seamless switch to the new episode on its release (due 29th October).

In 2008 GTA 4 quickly became the must-have game on Xbox 360, receiving high scores by most reviewers and selling out in shops the world over. Extra content in the form of a whole new episode, The Lost and The Damned, was released in February 2009 and was very well received, expanding the gaming experience by utilising the expertly mapped and coded Liberty City and weaving a whole new storyline into the main plot by following a sideline character from the main game, Johnny Kebitz. The sheer size of the game would have stood alone against other titles on the Xbox, but was shorter than the main game. Now, with the upcoming release of The Ballad of Gay Tony, the two episodic game add-ons are to be released in the shops as well as on Xbox Live Marketplace, grouped together in a stand-alone pack name Episodes from Liberty City.

The Ballad of Gay Tony will see the player taking up the role of Luis Lopez, an assistant to nightclub owner Tony Prince, or "Gay Tony" to his friends. As always Rockstar have set out to shock and offend as well entrance and entertain. There will, undoubtedly, be complaints and protests over the game’s content and the usual calls from ridiculous groups of busybodies to have it banned “for the sake of the children” and this got me thinking. There are always those who claim violent people are influence by movies, TV and games to commit violent acts. Pious politicians and people quick to grab headlines are forever banging the drum of fear, claiming games such as GTA4 are rotting the moral fiber of our society and are a bad influence on children. Such talk almost always angers me. To begin with the game is rated 18 in the UK. This means (and I’m talking to you, parents) that children shouldn’t have access to it in the first place.

On the second count, that such violent games cause violence in the real world, I believe there to be little that can be said for or against that except to describe my own experiences as an example of the ridiculousness of the argument. I have played violent and non-violent games most of my life. In the gaming world I have murdered, bludgeoned, stabbed and shot people, aliens, monsters and mutations. I have stolen cars and run-drugs. I have also piloted a space ship, fought in World War Two and survived in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of the distant future. I have never done, nor have I been tempted or in some cases able to do, any of the above. I have what most would consider a normal life: A job, a car, a home, a wife-to-be. I have been exposed to violent material all of my life and I am not a violent person.

I am also not a psychiatrist and am unable to argue about the mental state of someone who would cause violence to others in the real world and how images on TV and in games may influence their behavior. However, I would say this in closing; as I believe in freedom of speech and expression, I find any attempt to censor the public-in-general in order to prevent the violent or anti-social actions of individuals (that would probably occur by some other trigger anyway) predisposed to such activity in the first place to be misguided. So I am going back to Liberty City, to steal cars, deal drugs and shoot gangsters, and then later I will take my fiancé out for a pleasant afternoon at the waterfront, perhaps to a movie or for a sociable drink. For, you see, I can define the borders between, and keep separate the worlds of, reality and gaming/fiction. Have a safe day everyone.