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Stealing Time

pocketwatch_smEvery now and again, a game comes along which will sink its teeth into my very soul, biting down with such ferocity that I spend my working day glancing at the ever-slowing clock on the bottom right of my Windows toolbar wondering why what felt like “the last hour” has, in actual fact, been no more than ten minutes.  Granted, there haven’t been very many… but enough for me to realise that my only wish for that day was to replace my business head with the gaming head and immerse myself in a world the likes of which I could only have dreamed.

For me, a passion is an “all or nothing” thing.  I sacrifice so much of my time to the business that, when I am finally able to shake off the rusted chains of Google-shy clients and those who are incapable of reading very clear instructions, I want to lose myself in whatever I do to remind myself that I am still human.  In the past, it was my love for movies which pushed me forward… looking forward to the next wave of releases… and this, coupled with my love for technology, meant that I was always dipping my experimental toes into the waters of virgin technologies.

CD-iWhen Philips released the CD-i format, I was on board immediately and I vividly remember watching The Hunt For Red October with my face almost pressed against the television screen, marvelling at how superior the picture quality was to typical VHS transfers.  Until this point, such “high definition” imagery was only ever possible in science fiction movies and yet, here it was… in my own bedroom.  I had never made the leap to Laserdisc as the 12″ discs really never appealed to me and, although I enjoyed watching them at my friend’s house, I couldn’t see past the fact his movie collection had spines you could barely read… and so I waited for the rumoured format which was said to be the ultimate in viewing quality… DVD!

In 1996, Toshiba released their pivotal SD-3000 DVD player and my eyes lit up.  Sadly, it was a couple of years before I was able to take that first step into the world of DVD when I bought my Pioneer DV-515 and took a trip into Tower Records in Glasgow which was, at that point, the only place that you could buy DVD movies… and their entire display was a table top affair of with four rows and five columns… with most of the titles repeated several times as there simply weren’t enough to fill the whole display!  I grabbed Amadeus, Contact, Life, Nightmare Before Christmas and Practical Magic and figured that’d be enough to get me started.

Over the years my collection grew and I migrated from one player to the next, before eventually tiring of watching my beautiful DVDs on a standard 32″ television and so I ventured into new territory… the realm of home cinema projector.

Khajiit if you can!  Morrowind changed everything for me, in terms of immersive gaming and graphic appreciation.  Bethesda, you rock!

Khajiit if you can! Morrowind changed everything for me, in terms of immersive gaming and graphic appreciation. Bethesda, you rock!

This is where things started to change for me, because it was my first taste of “major” technology purchases where I really started to appreciate the clarity of the image and enjoyed the full DTS sound through my beloved AV Amp, but it was also the first time that I actually allowed myself to become immersed in a game and actually enjoy playing consoles.  The first game I ever played through my projector was Morrowind on the XBox 360 and I was immediately smitten with how I became almost encapsulated by the game and found myself physically moving my head around to see everything that was happening on front of me due to the sheer size of the display.  I was no longer booting up my XBox to play games… I WAS that Khajiit!

With the release of the XBox 360, a whole new problem arose.  Games were developed with the capability to display on high definition screens but my 800 x 600 resolution Panasonic projector just didn’t cut it anymore.  The graphics of the next gen games such as Oblivion and Gears Of War were undoubtedly second to none, but when you’ve stood with your tongue on the floor in GAME while some snot nosed kid in front of you hogs the machine on a glorious 1080p Samsung display you very quickly realise just how much is being missed by running this graphical beast through a standard definition display.  Oblivion was taking up so much of my time that it wasn’t feasible to have the 360 set up in the lounge through the projector, so it sat in the bedroom going through a 32″ CRT television and the on-screen text was almost unreadable in places.

A decision was made, and that decision was to upgrade the projector to one offering 720p HD resolution.  That projector was the incredible InFocus IN78 and with it came a whole new appreciation for home cinema projectors… blacker blacks, sharper images, accurate skin tones and an overall tonal quality that really can’t be put into words without sounding like some drooling uber geek… so I’ll stop there.  In terms of graphic representation, I could now read the text perfectly and was able to see detail in the surroundings and textures that I didn’t even know existed up until that point.  The InFocus IN78 changed me forever… I didn’t just look forward to gaming, I actually craved it.  Whenever time permitted, I would pull the curtains shut tight, close the door, turn off the lights, fire up the XBox, pull down the screen… and enter Cyrodiil as promptly as I possibly could, remaining there for as long as my eyes were able to stay open.

At the time of buying the InFocus IN78 the 1080p price tags were far too cost prohibitive to even contemplate, with the Sony VLP range coming in at over £15,000 and a bulk that would require several Icelandic strongmen to mount it to the ceiling.  My desire for a 1080p projector could not be quantified other than “I want it this much” with the obligatory outstretched arms, but it wasn’t something I’d be able to savour until the prices plummeted considerably.

The InFocus IN83... stunning beyond words.  Has to be seen to be believed!

The InFocus IN83... stunning beyond words. Has to be seen to be believed!

Thankfully, in July of this year, I was fortunate enough to find a listing on eBay for the InFocus IN83 complete with a luxurious black velvet seven foot motorised screen but the seller had misspelled it as “Inofcus Projecter”, so it hadn’t had any viewers and had only hours left before the auction closed.  I opened a line of communication with the seller and took a chance by offering him less than the starting price.  It wasn’t something that I’d normally do, but the starting price he’d set was still more than I could easily afford… in fact, even the price I’d offered him was outwith my means but I had to take the chance to try and pick up this gem if I could.  The auction ended with no bids, and the seller eventually accepted my offer which meant I would be paying less than a third of the retail cost of the projector itself and had the added bonus of the motorised screen as the icing on this rather expensive cake.

Due to the throw ratio of the IN83 compared to the IN78, I was giving away around eleven inches of screen size as a trade off so my actual diagonal display width dropped from 97 inches to 84 inches… but it was worth every single sacrificed inch, with a whole new level of gameplay immersion that is truly hard to describe.  Games such as Fallout 3 have you believing that you are about to be attacked by a rampaging Death Claw, and Burnout Paradise has you leaning back as much as possible at the end of the Ski Jump on Big Surf Island just to give you that extra bit of air and distance… it is THAT immersive, and more.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if you want technology, however, you need to be able to pay for it.

I dunno who this is, but he has a goatee and is wearing the EXACT same outfit as I am at the moment (seriously, it's spooky!) and this will give you an idea of why projectors kick absolute arse!

I dunno who this is, but he has a goatee and is wearing the EXACT same outfit as I am at the moment (seriously, it's spooky!) and this will give you an idea of why projectors kick absolute arse!

I’m paying for my technology in two completely different ways.  The first is obvious… cold hard cash.  Even at a third of the price, the projector cost more than I realistically wanted to spend and the cost of having everything sent up by courier itself was £114.  Then we have the cabling to make everything happen, the AV Amp to ensure the highest possible audio quality at all times and the replacement projector lamps every 2000 or so hours.  These costs mount up and, although it really is worth every single penny, there is another cost associated with all of this which isn’t quite as affordable.

In order to pay for such luxuries, I find myself working more than most people would every week.  Where most people are sacrificing 35 or 40 hours every week in exchange for their salary, I tend to hover around the 85 hour week mark.  This translates as an average of ten hours per day at weekends, plus a 9am until 6pm working day throughout the week as well as a typical 8pm until midnight additional shift that I’ve found necessary to catch up with actual work as most of my day is spent dealing with clients on the ‘phone or by email.  Those hours are irreplaceable and so they have to come out of my evening, or they’ll be lost forever.

This means that, under normal circumstances, weeks may disappear without even a single minute on the XBox.  I boot it up a few days ago (October 20th) to try the Brutal Legend demo and was shocked to see that I hadn’t actually played since September 22nd… almost a month, thanks to a ridiculous work schedule.

For all my cravings, for all my expenditure to ensure that I’m giving myself the best possible gaming experience… I leave myself in the position whereby I’m no longer able to game unless I steal the time from the additional hours that I endlessly gift to the business.  The irony of this situation is that, by claiming this time back as my own, I’d lose my ability to pay for those luxuries and have to again struggle to read text on a 32″ CRT in standard definition when my eyesight is already at the stage where I’m only able to see clearly for around 3ft in front of my face.

At the moment, my only craving is to enjoy life a little more and make the endless working hours worth it.  There should be a balance, before my passion for gaming in high definition suffocates my ability to do so.

Absolute Power

If I had a sword, there are times when my PC would definitely end up looking like this... except black and shiny, of course.

If I had a sword, there are times when my PC would definitely end up looking like this... except black and shiny, of course.

I find it rather odd to be writing this on the same day that my better half published a blog about PC gaming, so I apologise in advance to all those who will see this as plagiarism but, the reality is… this has been bugging me for some time, and it only recently came to a head.

I am referring to the need for power when it comes to PC gaming. As a geek of the highest order who constantly demands more realism from a graphics card than is even possible with the human eye, I should probably understand that boundaries are made to be broken. In fact, if I have to be completely honest with myself then I’d say that there are no boundaries and shouldn’t be, we should take every step as a confident move towards a bigger and better environment… and yet, I am still faced with this contradictory quandary when it comes to gaming. The questions always arise when I’m booting up my PC to play a game which, I must admit, is not very often these days… and the reasons for the infrequency of my PC gaming are those self same questions.

i) Why must it take so long for even a bare bones PC to boot up when a console, which is effectively a PC these days, can be fully functional immediately?

ii) Why are we able to play the same games on a console that we can’t actually play on a PC, yet the PC is one year old (and already out of date in terms of graphic performance) while the console is four years old and still going strong?

iii) Why are PC games not released with the same empathy afforded to console games whereby they are not reliant on the newest, shiniest, fastest components?

My current graphics/gaming PC.  It may not look like much on the outside, but on the inside this was built to perform... yet two years on, it doesn't.

My current graphics/gaming PC. It may not look like much on the outside, but on the inside this was built to perform... yet two years on, it doesn't.

I am blessed with two beastly PCs, one of which is geared specifically towards music production and the other is a graphics workhorse. Both machines were built to my exact spec, and both machines were at the top of their league when they were commissioned. The music machine will never be used for anything other than music, as it would pollute the speed of the hard drive too much and would render it more or less useless for music production, but the graphics PC is used for design work throughout the day and was supposed to be able to handle my gaming in the evenings.

Crysis.. a wet dream for graphics whores everywhere... as long as your PC was actually capable of any decent fps!

Crysis.. a wet dream for graphics whores everywhere... as long as your PC was actually capable of any decent fps!

At only one week old, I subjected the graphics PC to the glorious Crysis… I’d heard about the realism, the physics engine, the fact that the cut scenes would work from whatever vantage point the player found itself at, so there was a seamless interaction between gameplay and cut scene. Incredibly intense, and notoriously difficult in terms of finding machines powerful enough to render the graphics at 1920 x 1200 resolution with the highest texture and shadow details… but I had a MONSTER of a machine, so it would be no problem for me. After all, if you can’t play Crysis on a machine with 2 x Nvidia 8800 GTX cards then you wouldn’t be able to play it on anything… right?

Wrong.

With the game fully installed, I plug in my XBox controller to the USB port (never been one for keyboard gaming) and fumble my way through the settings to make sure everything is on full resolution so I can sit back and enjoy this reputedly beautiful game in all it’s stunning glory… and that’s when it hit me, or rather didn’t. My frame rate was around 2fps, and I am not exaggerating. I immediately assumed my PC had hung or some intrusive virus software had picked this precise moment to perform a full scan on my various drives. This, however, wasn’t the case. I entered the settings menu again, left the resolution at 1920 x 1200 and reduced the quality of the textures and shadows to medium and the game played fine.

The Nvidia 8800 GTX card... one would assume that TWO of these beasts in a powerful PC would be unstoppable.  Nope.

The Nvidia 8800 GTX card... one would assume that TWO of these beasts in a powerful PC would be unstoppable. Nope.

I loved the game, but throughout every hour that I donated to the cause… all I could think about was how beautiful those few frames looked at the highest texture quality and I wanted to bathe in that beauty for myself.

After completing Oblivion on the XBox several times, I installed it to my PC and was again blown away by how beautiful it looked through my NVidia cards yet I had to turn the volume up to drown out the noise of my 1000w power supply sending massive amounts of power to my various fans to keep the processor and graphics cards cool. On more than one occasion I was subjected to the PC coming to a complete standstill with a non-responsive mouse and I would be forced to reboot. Again, my super computer wasn’t capable of playing games which really should have been a breeze.

In contrast, I can boot up my XBox in a second and within another 2-3 seconds I’m already at the menu screen of whatever game has tickled my fancy. I know that it will give me a decent frame rate with no drag, know that all the textures will look as detailed as possible, and know that I won’t need to go trawling the net for patches or new video drivers just so I can get it to work. I also know that, when I tire of playing the game for that night, I can quickly save and shut the XBox down in a matter of seconds. I won’t need to quit out the game to go back into my operating system, then shut the machine down and wait for all the temp files to be removed, everything cleaned up, my settings saved (why is this necessary every time??) and finally, after perhaps 2-3 minutes, shut the PC off at the wall.

Released back in 1994, yet it was capable of much more (relatively speaking for it's time) than my current PC is today

Released back in 1994, yet it was capable of much more (relatively speaking for it's time) than my current PC is today

My first real PC was an AST Advantage P100 with 16mb RAM, a 1.2Gb hard drive and 8mb of video memory. I recorded my first solo demos on that PC and it never struggled once. I was able to play all the latest games without worrying about compatibility problems and the system served me fine from 1994 until I upgraded to a Pentium III in 1999 and, in all that time, I never had to complain about anything not working.

What seems to have happened along the way, is that we reached a pinnacle… not a pinnacle of technology, but a pinnacle of greed whereby whatever we had now wouldn’t be good enough tomorrow. If the processor released today was capable of running at 1.4Ghz then how can we push it to 1.5Ghz tomorrow, and make sure that there’s software out there which is so hungry for power, so thirsty for progress, that it NEEDS the processor to be more powerful.

This is apparently the setup you're going to need to play the latest "hd" version of Pong.

This is apparently the setup you're going to need to play the latest "hd" version of Pong.

Somewhere along the way we stopped developing games that could run the gamut in terms of processor and graphics power and we turned instead to developing games that forced gamers to upgrade their equipment at an alarming rate. The games are becoming more realistic, the gameplay more immersive, and the escapism is so much more rewarding… but if we weren’t being forced to spend so much on our gaming equipment, would we have such an intrinsic NEED to escape?

If you need me, I’ll be pulling together a spec for my new gaming system.

Saving Grace

If, as Mrs Gump once suggested in that unforgettable drawl, life IS like a box of chocolates… I’m sure we’d find far too many coffee creams for our liking. On the whole, life can be difficult at times although “difficult” is clearly a very subjective term. What may be difficult to one person may be only be achievable in dreams for another, and vice versa.

For as long as mankind has been creative, we have been faced with the very simple principle of “art reflecting life”. Even looking back as far as the primitive cave paintings (primitive, and yet still so much more appealing than a flickering light bulb or an unkempt bed) we are presented with an art form representing a snapshot of time or a period in one person’s history. Whether it was Caveman #1 squaring up against a sabre toothed tiger or Caveman #2 telling stories around his brand new campfire with his friends (no doubt showing off at being the first in the block to have fire, much like the “Joneses” of today with their 100 inch plasma), the ultimate goal was achieved… communication through timeless expression.

In modern times, this genetic aspiration to translate real life into an art form has culminated in games that are more realistic than ever before. The back stories are more immersive, the attention to detail in terms of texture mapping and object meshing has pushed us to the point whereby we question that which we see before us. Our teachings tell us that the image can’t possibly be real because such creatures do not yet roam our plane of existence, and yet the brain is still tricked by the realism and so we are pulled in deeper still.

The game studios dedicate years, and entire teams, into developing new rendering engines capable of taking an idea and making it as photorealistic as possible… for the sole purpose of either pleasing the graphics whores (such as myself) or the hardcore gamers that want to be taken to worlds unknown for hours at a time, and to never be reminded that they are merely watching pixels dancing on a screen like sparks rising occasionally from burning embers. They employ writers to bring life to alternate realities in such a way that, if done properly, we are immediately taken to that time or that fantastical land and, for as long as we remain there, we think and feel like the residents. We live and breathe their past, present and future… knowing their politics, their customs, and understanding how we should be conducting ourselves. On the whole, gaming has become such a detailed arena that powering up a console or booting up a PC can be like taking a small vacation and leaving the problems and mundanity of reality behind for as long as we allow ourselves to wander their parallax planes.

There is one aspect of gaming, however that stands it apart from reality… but this flaw is not the fault of the games designers or the lack of innovation within the technical team, the problem itself lies within the realms of reality and not within the games themselves.

Decisions in the virtual world are overseen by an almighty beast, the likes of which we will never experience in reality. The save point. No matter what choice we are given in gaming, we never have to live with the consequences longer than is deemed appropriate by our own guilt or tolerance. Split second decisions are made within games, just as they are within our own existence and yet somehow we manage to escape consequence if we feel that the decision has brought about a change that we find unacceptable. Suddenly the in-game world changes after a character has been slain… your reputation swings from one social group to the next, and those who would extend a hand of friendship now turn away from you as you approach. All alone, you face the world with a fresh perspective and a new direction that was forced upon you by the decision that was made in that split second… just like in reality.

In reality, however, the decisions made and the consequences of our actions are carved in stone for all time. There is no CTRL+U available to us and we can’t quickly access the HUD and return order by using those three little words that mean so much in gaming terms yet mean so very little in our world of concrete and steel… “load saved game”. Would that we could, I’m sure the world would be a very different place than what we see before us. Whether it would be better is something we are never likely to find out but I, for one, am more than willing to take that chance should it ever arise.

After all… if the very act of using the save point created a whole new set of problems and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, we need only load the previous save to rectify it.

Persistence of Time

Where does the time go when it’s not around here?  Those words haunted me for years because it’s similar to something that I used to ask of the world around me.

As a child, it seemed like time was something we had in abundance.. like every precious minute would last an hour if we were having fun.  Within minutes of getting home from school I would cycle around to all my friends’ houses on my BMX and we would all travel down to the local track to practice our freestyle.

When we had exhausted ourselves of each trick… failing, falling, perfecting… we’d cycle the few miles back to our village and hang out on whichever street corner would have us that evening.  We’d sit there with our chips and Vimto, chatting for what seemed like a lifetime about how Eddie “The Flying Banana” Fiola and Bob Haro were breaking new ground every week on the Kellogg’s BMX Freestyle Championships.  Nothing else mattered… we wanted to be those guys, at all costs.

By the time we dispersed to our own homes, it was maybe 9pm… only five hours after we initially met up together, and yet we’d achieved so much and had so much fun together, as well as a hearty (if slightly unhealthy) meal.

At the time, those hours meant nothing – none of us wore a watch, none of us had a curfew to speak of and we only went home because we were satisfied that we’d achieved whatever we’d set out to do that evening.  Another hour in front of the TV with some toast and a cup of tea, and it was time for bed so we were refreshed in the morning for another day of school… and so they cycle continued.

What happened along the way?

Time alters as you get older, and precious minutes are stolen from every hour while you’re busy worrying about workloads or keeping up contact with your friends.  If you’re lucky, you’ll get to sit down to dinner around 6pm and by 7pm you’ll be busy doing whatever it is you plan on doing that night.  After what seems like only a few minutes, a quick glance to the clock jolts you as you realise it’s almost 10pm.  It can’t be. It was only 7pm when you last looked, and yet somehow those minutes disappeared forever and you’re already worrying about the next working day ahead.

Sometimes the mere thought of how the evening has vanished is enough to make me just want to go to sleep at that precise moment, in the hope that my dreams will be enough to convince my subconscious that I actually experienced something wonderful that day.   Most evenings I will simply rebel against time and my body’s impending defiance by forcing another three or four hours out of the day by placing myself in bed in front of the TV and watching whatever I can possibly find… anything… just as long as it takes up enough time to produce some semblance of a worthwhile passing of time.

The irony in this posting is that it’s 10pm and I’ve been staring between all three monitors for the last three hours.  Every now and again my eyes will flick to the left monitor as a new email comes in and I’ll either file it away or junk it.  I’ll then move back over to the main screen where I’m randomly surfing the web and nipping back to Facebook to see if anyone else has managed to do anything with their time, all the while darting my eyes to the right hand monitor where I’ll randomly select another track to listen to from my playlists.  Ultimately, I have achieved nothing… attempted nothing, and allowed the seconds to become minutes and, eventually, hours.

This isn’t how it was supposed to be though, don’t get me wrong.  I had planned to spend a couple of hours drumming and recording, but time slipped away as usual.  Now I arrive at the realisation that I’ve spent my evening wondering what to do with my time, yet I’ve left myself with no time to actually do anything about it.  My thoughts of how time vanishes while we’re wondering what to do with it prompted me to write this blog… and so another hour of my life has disappeared, never to return.

If I had the ability to go back in time… would I travel back to when I was a child and the minutes would last days, or merely to 7pm this evening?

Antisocialite

The story goes that a funny thing happened on the way to the forum and, in my case, that’s certainly very true.  In 2003 I led a very solitary life but was a regular contributor to a forum which was set up to support and critique a paranormal TV show, and it was there that I met a girl who checked all of the boxes of my mental “Ms Right” criteria.  Being an extremely shy individual, it was difficult to lay those precious foundations which would later support a bridge from the online world into an offline personal meeting but, thankfully, my belief that you can’t let things slip past you got the better of me and enough courage was plucked to ask that girl to meet with me in London.

Plans were made to meet in Leicester Square, and I’d be very easy to spot as I’d be dressed entirely in black and trying to kick all the pigeons… way before the developers of GTA or Fable had even considered such cruelty towards our feathered friends.  We’d discussed having a lightsabre fight in Leicester Square, and bouncing along Thames Embankment on Space Hoppers but those delights never happened.

We DID meet though, on July 11th 2003… and we’re still together today.  Two very antisocial individuals with such hatred for mankind and pretty much everything that surrounds us, yet united in our unique outlook.

That same forum gave us both another great friend in Pete – a social butterfly who is rarely on his own and oft found darting from one social event to the next like a cross between Paris Hilton and the miniscule, yet powerful, hummingbird.  In social situations, Pete excels as his happy huggy nature radiates from him like he’d spent too many years holidaying in a very flimsy tent in Chernobyl.

Since then we’ve become very active in the gaming community – with Lorna participating on the Games TM forum, and both of us on the Ready Up forum.  My joining of the Ready Up forum coincided with my toe-dipping into the waters of Facebook, where I’d created an account perhaps a year before in order to write a module for our ecommerce software, but I’d never actually even gone so far as to create a profile or post any status feeds.  After several old friends tracked me down on Facebook and wanted to join my empty friends list, I figured I’d give it a go and actually announced myself to the world with a suitably bland and pointless status update.

Not long after, six of the Ready Up writers were going for a world record attempt for playing Burnout Paradise non stop over a 24 hour period.  The event was taking place in ESC, only a 30 minute train journey from us and, as Lorna is one of the writers and I’d followed the site for some time, we went along to watch the unfortunate six prop their eyelids open with Nintendo DS styluses (yes, I checked to make sure that was the correct word to pluralise stylus!) as they barrel rolled and flat spinned their way to success through the night until the following morning.

By the time they’d been awarded their plaques and had their photos taken, I had a bunch of Gamertags to add to my XBox Live friends list and a few new email addresses.  A few days later my Facebook friends list had gone from having five people, which is actually pretty impressive for someone like me, to a double figured count of ten and we’ve had the pleasure of Rook, Victor and Tiq staying with us on several occasions for weekends (or weeks) of gaming and general merriment.

Fast forward a few months to around July of this year, and several online sessions of Burnout Paradise over XBox Live not only increased the number of friends on my XBL friends list… or the number of friends on my Facebook account… but the spillage of virtual friends to offline friends also increased.  Mobile numbers and email addresses were exchanged and any breaks garnered throughout the day were spent sending messages of support, rants, or general chit chat to my new friends.

Very recently, the pressure cooker of my friends lists finally exploded when almost everyone in question had the chance to meet up at a Ready Up forum get-together in the same venue that hosted the Guinness World Record challenge.  The basement of ESC was full of gamers, resplendent in their own excitement, some of whom I’d never spoken with before and many of whom I immediately recognised from their XBL cam shots or their profile pics.  What was supposed to have been a very simple weekend event with some relative strangers turned into much more than that… new friendships were formed and existing friendships became closer and stronger.  A rogue flu virus which appeared to incubate in the basement meant that Pete and Zoey had to stay on with us for another week until they fully recovered, which obviously wasn’t exactly very pleasant for them, but it was lovely to spend more time with them… albeit non-eventful time.

Now I find myself wondering when we’ll next have our friends come to stay and, as much as I love the peace and quiet of having the house to ourselves again, I do miss walking into the lounge to spend time with my friends.

So a funny thing happened on the way to the forum… I still sport the same disdain and resentment for mankind as a whole and, as much as I wish I had Vader’s power of being able to render someone unconscious (or worse) with nothing more than the power of my mind and a flick of a finger, somewhere along the way the reinforced steel walls came down and I’ve become one of those people who actually enjoys spending time with other people.  I’m an antisocial person with a penchant for spending time with my friends, I am a contradiction to my own term.

I am… an antisocialite

Competition Entry

Trials HDSomething happened recently.  Something that changed my world completely.  It wasn’t anything to do with global warming, the world economy, Jordan, or any of the other topics that seem to be sitting astride the tip of the average person’s tongue these days.  No, what happened was that competitiveness breached the reinforced defenses to my world and decided to squat for a while.

First of all, let me explain a little about me for the benefit of the uninitiated.  I’m not a competitive person, not at all.  I embrace those with more talent than I, because “the next person” should really have more talent than you, otherwise you have nothing to strive for.  Similarly, in a materialistic way, if you have everything that you could possibly want… there is no fun involved in getting through each day.  Sure, you could argue that the fun is getting through the day in order to USE those trinkets that you’ve surrounded yourself with… but if you already have everything then it would eventually become stagnant and devoid of any purpose.  It is, therefore, my belief that you should always be as good as you possibly can be… but try and improve upon yourself in order to perpetuate a reason to continue with improvement.  A vicious circle.

trials_01

It may look impossible, but this is one of the easier "hard" levels

I’ve always lived my life in that way, and my friend Pete once told me “your biggest competition is yourself” and he was right.  I’ve always been my biggest and fiercest competition.  If I manage to play a difficult song on the drums or the guitar one day, then I’ll hope to play it better the next and keep improving until there’s pretty much no further room for improvement.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that – it’s what makes us grow as people, what makes us different from that aforementioned “next person”.  It’s why we have entrepreneurs, why we have child prodigies (although I’m sure their parents have a lot to do with that, in most cases) and why we have pride as one of our built in senses.  Without self improvement, we merely exist.

Why then, do I find it so damning to have found a sense of competition outside of my own mind?

Several weeks ago I did the unthinkable… I paid out 1200 MS points for an XBox Live Arcade game, thanks to Tony from Ready Up enthusing about how great this game was.  I was sceptical, as I’m not big on “driving” games and haven’t ever considered that an XBLA game could actually be THAT good… but the demo was free, we had some friends over gaming at the time, so I figured it’d be worth a shot.  How right he was!!  Even with only the few demo tracks to play around with, I found myself immediately immersed into the world of Trials HD, and laughed at Victor’s typical competitive nature as he cried “COCK!!!” every time he messed up (followed by an instantaneous restart of the level, of course!) and cries of “NEXT!!!” every time he managed to get to the end with zero faults.  Victor is, perhaps, the single most competitive person I’ve ever met in terms of gaming… but it’s just one of the things that makes him a great guy, and I find it hilarious to watch because I’m the opposite.  I play games for enjoyment and no other reason… or at least I did.

If playing through the levels isn't complicated enough, they even provide you with your own level builder... so you can frustrate the hell out of yourself with your OWN impossible levels!

If playing through the levels isn't complicated enough, they even provide you with your own level builder... so you can frustrate the hell out of yourself with your OWN impossible levels!

Buying the full version of Trials HD was a no brainer for me… it was fantastic from the start, and I knew I’d love playing it, so points were purchased and the full game was unlocked.  That was, as they say, the beginning of the end.

The first thing I had to do was to beat all of Victor’s times… just for fun!  There was no malice in my actions, and it wasn’t to be quicker than Victor, but I wanted to sit back and smile at the thought of Victor at home shouting “COCK!!!” at the telly while trying to improve on my times and rejoice with a hearty “NEXT!!!” after achieving that goal.

Beating Victor was just the beginning… and as I saw my times creeping up towards the top of my leaderboards I got a real sense of satisfaction.  To know that the person above me was only a fraction of a second faster than me made me strive to shave those few precious digits off my own time to put myself above them, and so it continued until eventually I was at the top of ALL my leaderboards.  In some cases, nobody could touch me… I’d be three or four WHOLE seconds faster than my friends on a track where 100th of a second was the difference between being on the leaderboard or being pushed out of sight.  I was happy, so very happy.  For the first time in all of my 27ish years of gaming I was actually GOOD at a skill game.  I wanted to remain at the top of the leaderboards at all costs, and any time I fired up the game and found someone else had beaten my time… it was war!  I found myself spending almost FIVE hours one night on one track, playing it over and over again until finally, at around 3am, I got back to the top of the leaderboard for that particular track.

For weeks I would check the leaderboards, and spend hours reclaiming my crown as “the best at Trials HD out of all your XBL friends who have that game” and it was GOOD.  My competitive edge was further honed with each new challenge.  This was a different side to my nature, and it surprised me to see that there even WAS a competitive side to my nature.

Where am I now?  After spending countless hours battling my way to the top of the leaderboards again I conceded.  I am no longer prepared to squander my evenings on the same 20 second track over and over again until I know every exact pixel point to adjust the rider’s position and ease off on the throttle.  I haven’t checked the leaderboards in almost an entire week, and when I drag myself back on XBL to play the game again this evening… I’ll be ignoring everyone that has managed to knock me off the top slot… and I’ll concentrate on completing the remaining levels at my own pace.

Competition is, as I recently discovered, a fantastic adrenalin rush.  It can make you feel on top of the world, knowing that you’re better than “the next man” at something.  It gives your friends something to strive for, knowing that they could knock you off that top spot once again and take great delight in bragging about it…

… and it can also swallow your life whole.

The Mourning After

Today I laid a good friend to rest.

When times were tough, I could rely on them to take my mind of the harsh mundanity of life and inspire me to forget all negativity for a while. They introduced me to some wonderful new locations, fresh ideals, and an entirely different lifestyle as well as a way of surviving that I never thought possible. Whenever money was tight I only ever had to immerse myself in their world for a brief moment to remind myself that, no matter how bad things seemed to me, it was luxury compared to what they’d gone through in the past and continued to struggle with as each new day dawned.

For a long time I spent my working hours looking forward to the point where I could finally put my duties behind me and spend my evenings with them in quiet comfort. Our relationship had a closeness whereby we didn’t need to speak to one another to communicate, and yet there were never any awkward silences. If anything, the silence between us merely reinforced the fact that we needed each other to continue our journey and that we’d be there for each other until the bitter end. In the past I had watched helplessly as they dropped to their knees in agony, longing for someone to take away their pain… and I was the only one capable of stepping up to the plate. Whenever they had to venture into new territory, I was there to watch their back and they repaid me by making my own life so much brighter.

It wasn’t until their journey finally came to an end today that I suddenly realised how they filled so many empty hours with joy, and yet I never knew their name. We may have walked the wastelands together in search of a bright new future, carried each other through dark times and dragged each other to better places, but in all that time we never took even a brief moment to exchange names.

Now that it is over I mourn my friend the Lone Wanderer, and hope they continue to work towards a better tomorrow while I embark on a new journey… to fill the void.