Children and Video Game Certification

(Film clips not suitable for under 18's and this is an opinion discussion piece)

As a teacher and a renown gamer (at least in my school) I occasionally get parents coming up to me asking for my advice about video games and whether specific titles are appropriate are suitable for their children.
I normally tell the parents that they should look at the game cover as there is an age certification there. This way I cover myself by making sure I follow the school policy but also ensure that the parents are following the video game certification system, of which they may be unaware.

This got me thinking about when I was a kid and the media I consumed which was often way too mature for me. My father would get VHS's of Jaws, Rambo, Robocop, Predator and many other 80's action films which featured high body counts and blood but it doesn't seem to have desensitised me or warped me in any way, well not that I can tell anyways!

However I do remember once going to a friends house when I was 8 years old and him excitedly telling me that he had a copy of the latest Freddie Krueger film. I proceeded to watch Nightmare on Elm Street 3 as Freddie invaded a young girls dream, turned into a giant worm in her dolls house and proceeded to swallowed her. I had nightmares for months afterwards and this scene was seared into my mind.

I'm guessing that my father was aware of the film age ratings and content but he allowed me to consume the media from an educated position, he never brought home psychological horror films but blood and guts were fine.
Every year without fail I see queues on parents with their young children buying the latest Call of Duty or Halo game and usually I find myself tutting to myself, thinking that the parents are ill-informed or not taking the responsibility of parenthood seriously, and this may be true for some but recently I've been thinking in this day and age of easy information and research maybe the parents have looked into the video game that their child wants and made an informed decision. Speaking to a few of the children at school on the matter some interesting points were made on the issue of age rating, a few children said that their parents allowed them to play Halo as they were killing aliens and there was no red blood, only goo coming out. Others said that they played the more violent games with their parents only and were not allowed to play it alone. Yet others said that their parents didn't mind the violence but it was the swearing and more adult material that they were protected from.

I have a daughter who is 23 months old at the time of writing and I am very conscious of what media I consume around her. I never play any video games around her but I hope that when I do I'll make sure her screen time is minimal as I know from friends that once you introduce electronics to kids that's it, they'll be very hard to focus on physical real-world activities. I'm not sure if I'm doing it right but I hope by making informed decisions I can help my daughter develop and consume media healthily and raise her to make her own decisions on what she knows works for her and what doesn't. There are no easy answers and in this day and ages when everything is available online I'd like to hope that she make informed decisions based on her knowledge of herself and her character, like my parents did for me.

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer - Comic Review

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer is an interesting mix of comic and meticulously researched notes.

The comic starts off as a pretty straightforward account of the working relationship between Victorian geniuses Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. The book looks at the creation of the never-to-be-completed Analytical Engine, the first programmable mechanical computer. However the story ends sadly with Lovelace dying at the age of 36 with cancer and Babbage never completing his masterwork and becoming a bitter and twisted older gentleman. So rather than stopping the book 28 pages in Padua creates a fictional story which takes place in an alternate 'Pocket Universe,' where the Analytical Engine is complete and Babbage and Lovelace are agents for Queen and country. The pair fight crime, battle economic chaos which threatens to destabilise the worldand also meet many Victorian peers like Wellington, Brunel, Dickens and 'George Eliot,' actually a lady called Marian Evans as Eliot was a pen-name.  The aesthetic is suitably steampunk and the whole work is marvelously illustrated and footnoted heavily for your clarification needs,  if that is your wont.

The footnotes deserve special mention as they are detailed and meticulous, fleshing out what is happening in the story and what happened in real life. Sometimes the research explains the jokes and at other times it provides insights into Victorian life and provides context such as when famous poet Coleridge is writing Kubla Khan but is disturbed by Lovelace! The evidence is convincingly presented but there is one detail which argues against the fact, Lovelace was born 18 years after the fact. This is just one example of the humour (love) laced throughout the comic.... sorry, I'll get me coat!

Apart from the initial 28 page biography there are a few other stories which take part in the Pokcet Universe. My favourite story is when Marian 'George Eliot' Evans has her book destroyed by the Analytical Engine but the visit by George Boole, innovator of mathematical logic, comes in a close second.

Overall the comic is a work of wonder and if you are interested in the Analytical Engine, Babbage or Lovelace then this is a must-read. I'm now planning my next visit to the Science Museum, London, to see the completed Analytical Engine which was finished from Babbage's diagrams in 2000. Reading this comic I feel more prepared to take in it's majesty and over 100 year journey to a fitiing conclusion.

Whimsical Moomin Exhibition at the Southbank Centre

The Southbank Centre is currently hosting a Moomins exhibition as a part of its wider Nordic Matters season. The exhibition brings the well-loved characters to life by focusing on the characters and the life of their creator Tove Jansson

For those not in the know the Moomins are hippo-like creatures who exist in a weird and wonderful world and have many adventures and philosophise about the human condition, the world around them and the meaning of life but through beguilingly innocent stories. The characters include Moominpappa, Moominmamma, Moomintroll, Snork Maiden, Little My but many others exist in Moominvalley, a fantastical wondrous place.

The characters found popularity outside Finland in the Fifties when the stories were printed as comic strips in newspapers. In the late 70s/ early 80s there was a stop-motion animation series which scared the heck out of me, and a popular 90s animated TV show that brought the characters worldwide acclaim, and even led to the creation of a theme park in Finland, which my wife, daughter and I will be visiting in the summer.

Over the course of the hour long guided tour I was transported to snowy woods in the night with a full moon and the stars providing the only light whilst we looked for the Groke. I sat in a dark gloomy cave to escape the devastation of the comet. We sat in a tent around a campfire and listened to the crackling of the logs. The guide had said we needed to bring out the inner child and I readily complied. Being a guided tour there were only 12 people including 3 children and this intimacy made the whole experience rather special.
Walking through the various locales you could understand the influence that living in such wondrous landscapes would have had upon the author. The books frequently talk about how the best things in life are free and how a beautiful world benefits everyone.

The exhibition had more than 40 original drawings by Jansson, her paintbrushes and the first Moomin dolls, which were all wonderful to see up so close but the absolute highlight for me was the recreation of the studio in Finland where Tove Jansson wrote and illustrated her comics.

I've been to many exhibitions and shows and this was one of the best in that it was interactive, immersive and presented the subject matter in a fun and relaxed way.

So overall, was the exhibition worth it? For the hour long tour and guided talk into this singular creator- yes it was. The exhibition runs until 23rd April so please do give it a look if its your kind of thing.

Robots Exhibition at the Science Museum Astonishes

The Science Museum is running a Robots Exhibition from February 8 to September 3. The exhibition explores 500 years of robotics and based on pre-released material promised to have one of the most comprehensive collection of robots in the world. As a teacher, Future Technology lead at my school and early adopter of most new technology this appealed to me and so off I went to see the exhibition for myself.

It kicked off well with a creepy wall of skulls and as you walked by they tracked you. The three layers of the robotic skull showed the complex wiring and was an unnerving introduction to the exhibition.

This creepy wall of skulls track you as you walk by- it is unnerving.

The exhibition proper was organised into 5 areas encapsulating different times and places; marvel, obey,  dream, build and imagine.

As you walked into the first section, marvel, your eyes had to adjust to the low neon purple lights, and is it did so you made out an animatronic baby attached to a tessellated square plastic wall. The baby was surrounded by a glowing halo of light and the provenance stated that this robotic baby was like the ones used in movies. Going around the baby you could see the wiring involved, it reminded me of an umbilical cord but this one went into the spine instead of the stomach. As the first exhibit you see it was quite jarring and unsettling but it laid out the foundations of what was to come well; the fear people have of humanoid looking machines.
The rest of this part of the exhibition was primarily concerned with automatons and the religious and spiritual quandaries it raised at the time. There were various Jesus and religious figure automatons from hundreds of years ago, including a creepy looking monk from over a 400 hundred years ago. For me the highlight of this area was the silver swan automaton. It wasn't moving but there was a video showing it in motion and it looked intricate and stunning. As a primer I was intrigued and pleased with this first section.

The next section, Obey, looked at the industrial revolution and on show was a single shuttle loom.

Section three, Dream, discussed the march of robots into our pop culture consciousness with many classic robots on show including the robot Maria from Fritz Lang's masterpiece Metropolis, the T-800 from Terminator and the humanoid robot George, the UK's first humanoid robot made in 1949 from scrap aluminium. The full size Maria was marvelous and beautifully showcased, deservedly so for a landmark film.

Build looked at the rise of intelligent machines and on show was the Honda P2, the first robot in the world to walk up stairs in 1996, although this drained its hefty battery life in 15 minutes. There were other impressive examples of robots on show and it showed clearly how people have evolved the robotics technology forward, building on what has gone before.

Imagine was the busiest area with many robots on show and most were working. On show was Asimo, famous for the Honda advert but also intriguing was the iCub, robot toddlers that learn through experience. The provenance behind each of the robots was amazing and it shows how different organisations have been using robotics in their work space.

Overall the exhibition was very impressive and it was wonderful to see the evolution of robots all under one roof. The exhibition is a must-see for technology and robot enthusiasts.

Using the PSVR in School

I've spoken recently about how at my school we recently purchased a Playstation 4 and a VR headset. The PSVR headset arrived a couple of weeks ago and there was a sense of excitement amongst the pupils and teachers, although for many of the teachers there was also a sense of trepidation of another thing to learn, another potential 'hot new thing' that would be gone soon. To try to get the teaching staff on board I organised an after-school demo session where they had a chance to experience the technology for themselves. The results were extremely positive and many of the teachers were converted, seeing the possibilities such technology could bring into the classroom to excite and engage the pupils.

I have used the headset with my own class, connecting it up to the interactive white board with relative ease. This way the whole class could see what the individual could see within the VR headset and they could also be part of the experience. VR is here to stay I believe and to get on board it needn't be prohibitively expensive. The PS4 and PSVR cost just under 600 pounds in total and with time I'm sure it will get cheaper, which may make it one of the best ways to immerse children in an interactive and immersive digital world.

A few of the Digital Leaders, children inspired by and advocates of the use of new technologies, researched what software was available and carried out inquiries on how they could be used to be a art of the curriculum. I will be sharing their research and lesson plans here at a later date but what they did find was very intriguing, they saw possibilities of its application in software I hadn't even considered.

Personally I have used the platform to play Resident Evil VII (out of school time obviously and not with any children present) and the game is unnerving and immersive. The experience was unlike any other I have had in VR and has sold me on the possibilities of its use in gaming.

Phenomena- Cult Film Review

Dario Argento is an Italian director who is most known for his work in the horror genre, specifically the giallo 'slasher' films. Phenomena is one of his lesser known works, often forgotten behind his other films like Susperia and Tenebrae. I have watched his other films but came across this one on Amazon Prime so decided to give it a watch and these are my thoughts.

The plot focuses on a young girl Jennifer Corvino, played wonderfully by Jennifer Connelly, who attends a remote boarding school in Switzerland who discovers she has psychic powers that allow her to communicate with insects. She also discovers that there is a serial killer nearby who has been murdering and beheading young girls in and around the school and she must use her powers to stop him. She is assisted by Forensic Entomologist John McGregor, played wonderfully over the top by Donald Pleasence and his assistant the chimpanzee Inga.

As you can probably surmise from the brief blurb this is a pretty strange film but the whole thing is beautiful filmed and the location shots and Georgio Armani costumes are stunning. The plot moves at a good place and the climax is truly gruesome and gory... just what you expect from the Italian horror master. 

The version of the filmrestores some of the footage from the severely cut 'Creepers,' which was what the American release of the film was called after it was edited and cut to pieces. Most of the gore and missing scenes are returned but there is a weird disconnect when the film lunges from English to Italian to English again. You can make out what is happening and it all adds to the surreal dream-like quality of the film but it is a little jarring.

Special mention must be made about the soundtrack which features Argento regulars Goblin, but surprisingly it also features rock legends Iron Maiden... not bad at all!

So is this film worth watching. I'd say if you are a horror film aficionado with a penchant for the weird and surreal then yes but for your more mainstream horror fan this might be a bit too weird, stick to your Final Destinations.

Using PSVR as a Writing Stimulus

At school we recently purchased a Playstation 4 and a VR headset. The PSVR headset just arrived today, after meeting the huge backlog in demand and Christmas rush, but we hope to use it as a contextual hub for learning. I've spoken many times before about how video games can be used as an instrument to hang learning on but with VR you can BE there, in the world.
I have been using the past few weeks since the PS4 purchase to play and record a few games which I feel can be used as a writing stimulus and will be working alongside my colleagues in creating exciting and fun lesson plans based on these soon. Today, with the arrival of the PSVR I played the demo disc, which contained several experiences of varying quality, and again hope to be using these to assist in developing the English curriculum.

VR could be an integral part of education and PSVR seems to be one of the most affordable commercial ways to get in on the ground level. Whether the potential is realised is to be seen but at my school we'll be giving it a good shot!

The PSVR does require a lot of wires.

The headset itself is extremely comfortable and adjustable, even for a glasses wearer like me.

The Last Guardian - Video Game Review

It's been over 11 years since video game auteur Fumito Ueda released his last game, Shadow of the Colossus and so after a protracted development period, which saw a whole console generation go by with no release, to say that I was ready to devour The Last Guardian whole in big gaming chunks on release is an understatement. As a huge fan of both Ico and SOTC I, like most of the gaming world, was excited to see what Ueda had been working so hard and long on but instead of playing it from start to finish I decided to savour it like a nice glass of Shloer and I'm glad I did.

The game itself is a slow, meditative game centred around the interactions between the boy and a bird, chicken gryphon-type creature called Trico. Their relationship is beautifully realised and the trust that builds between them feels well-earnt over time. Unlike other AI in other game I have played Trico feels like a real being with his own thoughts and feelings. As a former cat owner the love Trico gives you when you stroke, talk and pull out the spears from his flanks feels wonderful and has a truthiness to it .

There are times in the game where I have wanted to stay in the moment with Trico and not move forward, because I am afraid of what might happen to him. I know that Ueda creates wonderful narratives but they always end in a powerful downbeat way and I don't want that for these characters, maybe that's why I'm playing this game so slowly and cautiously. Instead I'm enjoying seeing Trico run through the fields after struggling through tight corridors, and I'm loving seeing him roll in a huge puddle and shaking himself dry.

Ueda is a world builder but he does it all through symbolism. In this mystical, silent world less is more but it feels like there is a whole mythos and backstory there if you look hard enough for it.

The music is beautifully subtle and complements the game, emerging at key moments and there is no onscreen HUD, except for controller hints which I wish I could turn off, and so the beauty of the world is there for you to enjoy.

The game has its faults and does feel unpolished which is surprising for a game which has been in development for over 10 years. The camera and controls can be clunky, some gameplay elements and transition scenes aren't smooth or clear and it's not always clear which route to take but all this didn't ruin the game for me. Ueda has created something, which like the rest of his back catalogue is timeless, it isn't perfect and many will gripe at it's shortcomings but for those willing to look beyond these it has been well worth the journey. I've enjoyed it so far.

Video Gaming Bucket List

One of the perks of being old, and there are only a few that balance out the failing health, mortgage payments, the 'man' getting you down etc, is to be able to look back and recall fondly on what has gone before. No I don't mean in the 'Only 80's Kids Will Remember This' type of thing but rather really recall things.
I have had the privilege of living through the most exciting time in computing history. I was there when the British microcomputers emerged, thrived, then gave way to the Nintendo and Sega 8 and 16-bit console wars. I was there when the future seemed to be in FMV gaming (Hi Night Trap, I'm looking at you) and I was there when disc based gaming blew open the possibilities of what games could look and sound like.

Night Trap looked to be bring a new maturity to gaming- it didn't do very well.

When choosing an aesthetic for TheDeadPixels, which I started 4 years ago, I selected a predominately 8 and 16 bit look as these was the most formative years of my gaming when I was aged between 8 to 15.

People often ask me if I still play retro games and my honest answer is yes, not as often as Id like to as being a father and running a house takes up a lot of my time, but whenever I'm between modern games I often go back to revisit old classics, often to fill myself with the glow of nostalgia or to beat games I didn't have a chance to in my youth, either due to not being good enough or simply by not owning it.

Recently I've been working through my gaming bucket list, a list of video game achievements I'd like to fulfill before I die. This list is due in part due to my tendency to be a completist or to feel like I really have enjoyed all the best that the medium has to offer.

I went to PLAY Expo Margate and fulfilled a couple of my dreams by playing Tempest 2000 on the Jaguar and Musha on the Megadrive 3. This got me thinking as to what else I'd like to achieve in my time on this mortal plain and this list is what followed:

  • Complete Rainbow Islands on the Amstrad CPC 464- I got near the end when I was 11 in 1992 but never finished it.

This game is very hard to complete, even though it looks all cutesy and sweet it has a rock hard heart!

  • Finish a Dragon Quest game as they are a big deal in Japan.
  • Play Final Fantasy 5 and complete IX. I have completed FFIV, VI, VII and VIII and own IX but haven't completed it. I haven't ever seen a FF V cart in the wild and I'll be darned if I play the iOS version!
  • Play any Football Manager. I feel that as a Brit I'm letting the side down by not getting on this most British of institutions.
  • Complete Majora's Mask. I completed Ocarina of Time and it is my favourite game of all time but I only played Majora's Mask briefly (I own the cart), moving onto the PS 1 at the time.
  • Complete Monkey Island 1 and 2 as they are a big deal. On iOS I recently completed other classic point and click adventure games such as Beneath a Steel Sky, Broken Sword 1, 2 and 5 but having bought the first two Monkey Islands on iOS I haven't got around to finishing them.
  • Complete Persona 3 and 4. I own both and have poured about 30 hours into them but this is Persona and over 100 hours are needed for each game. Who has time for that?
  • Play Skyrim. I bought it years ago and just never got around to it. I find I'd rather play games with a finite amount and feel like I'm making progress.
  • Complete Fallout 3. I bought this a few weeks after it came out and after 5 hours gave up, the pace is deliberately slow and world building but I want progress darn it!
  • Play the Zelda Philips CDi games even though they are supposed to be terrible!

The Zelda CDi games are supposed to be terrible but I'd like to play them!

  • Complete all the Metal Gear Solid games. I've played a bit of 1 and Peacewalker but that's about it. I really should rectify this tout-suite!
  • Complete Super Mario World. I have it and was working through it recently but with the housing renovations being done I had to move out and left my RetroN5 at home. It still awaits my return!
  • Complete Streets of Rage 3. I've finished 1 and 2 plenty of times but played 3 briefly at a retro games centre as I never owned it due to it being really expensive at the time and it coming out right at the end of the Megadrives life span.
  • Complete any original Megaman game and Megaman X. I didn't own a Super Nintendo as a kid so never played X but I did play the first two Megaman games around a mates house and 9 on the Wii when it came out a few years ago. They were brutal but I'd like to revisit and complete them.
  • Play Thunderforce 5 as I completed 3 and 4 on the Megadrive and thought they were brilliant.
  • Complete Okami-den. I loved Okami on the PS2 and completed it. I also purchased it for the Wii as I though the motion controls would enhance the game further. Okamu-den was a rare DS game and I only managed to buy it recently at the London Retro Gaming Expo. It's the game I'm currently working through.
  • Complete Zelda on the SNES. I completed Links Awakening and Oracles of Ages and Seasons as I had a Gameboy and whilst I have played up to the forth dungeon in ALTTP I haven't completed the game.
  • Complete Castlevania: SOTN and Super Metroid. I love both these series and have complete Metroid Prime 1 and 3 (I didn't taken to 2 with the Dark World mechanic) and I have completed Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and Super Castlevania but I haven't played what is widely considered the high watermarks of the Metroidvania genre.
  • Complete Wonderboy IV. I loved the Wonderboy game in the arcades and on my Amstrad but the high point was Wonderboy 3: The Dragons Trap. It was the jewel in the Master System crown and I felt a huge sense of accomplishment when I completed it. I bough the Monster World pack via Xbox Marketplace but haven't put much hours into 4, I feel I need to do this as its supposed to be amazing and was unavailable for a long time in England.

I'm not even sure that this was released in the UK but boy does it look wonderful.

  • Complete Mario 64. I played it lots but never got all the secret stars.
  • Play Panzer Dragoon Saga. I loved Orta on the Xbox but heard that this was much better.

Panzer Dragoon Saga fetches a pretty penny nowadays.

That's pretty much my bucket list. As I work through these I'll highlight these in red and date when they were accomplished. As well as playing current games, being a father and doing my day job this is a pretty comprehensive list of things I'd like to achieve in my life. Let's see how many I can do Give me your gaming bucket list in the comments section below

Top Chiptune Soundtracks You Don't Know

Soundtracks nowadays are similar in style and vein to movie scores, full of cinematic scope and bombast, which is great as it leads to fantastic scores like the ones for Journey, Thomas Was Alone or DMC. However there was a simpler time where space was limited and the sound files had to be compressed and optimised to fit on a cartridge with 8 or 16 megs. This economy of scale led to thoughtful and creative masterpieces that are still iconic even today.

Now we could rattle off the famous game soundtracks that usually fit into many of the 'greatest Megadrive / SNES / NES soundtrack compilations' which you can find on YouTube but I want to choose a few pieces that time has forgotten. This is away from the usual Castlevania, Sonic, Megaman and Mario soundtrack scores as everyone knows them and loves them. I'm talking about the rarely heard soundtracks of yore. Here are a few of my favourites, maybe you could tell me yours!

This music plays during the Underwater levels from the Disney game World Of Illusion. It also plays during Mickey's Coral Reef section.

Music from R-Type 1987 by Irem- this level could be described as looking like the contents of a stomach, possibly after eating genetically modified food.

Thunder Force 3 - Stage 5: Ellis. This music was so upbeat and rocking that I loved leaving it to last!

The Offworld Collection - Book Review

I started this website in 2013 for a couple of reason, to show my passion for video games and share my thought but also to move the conversation forward on gaming culture. I found that often there was a culture of insularity among many gaming sites, often only covering the big titles. I wanted to cover the weird, quirky, strange and fringe games from the view of an educationalist, a teacher, as I think some games can be a contextual hub for learning. There are a few sites I have found along the way that I feel move the conversation forward and allow the marginalised and non-mainstream to share their views but the most prominent for me was Offworld -BoingBoing, curated by Leigh Alexander and Laura Hudson.

The goal of the website was to focus on the writing and game design work of women, people of color and other marginalised people.

In the words of Site Editor Alexander:

"Offworld is a place for curious and playful grown-ups... there will be an unequivocal and uncompromising home for women and minorities, whose voices will comprise most of the work published here," reads the site's initial statement. "We're looking forward to loving games again".

Over the course of a year the website published diverse, personal and insightful writing about video games from the perspective of an often underrepresented audience. I found the articles spoke to me and the pieces made me think about games and gaming culture at a higher level. I knew of Leigh Alexander through her work at another excellent website, Gamasutra and her articles in Edge magazine and had been following her work for many years. I find that she is often a champion for the underrepresented and marginalised and so when the Kickstarter for the release of the Offworld Collection book started I supported it as I felt that it was important to back something I felt so strongly about. Also the book looked pretty kickass; highlights from the website in luxury hardback format, sign me up! So, after a very long preamble, what of the book?

Well, the book is handsomely presented in an embossed hardcover with quality heavy paper within. The anthology starts with a foreword by Alexander which discusses her motivations for the work she did on the website.
The book proper is split into 58 essays, each covering a wide range of topics that should suit everyone's tastes. I won't go into detail about all of the essays here but will choose a few of the pieces I particularly liked.

The books starts off with Gita Jackson's 'We Are Not Colonist' which is like a call to arms: it states proudly that minority voices are now being heard, they did not just appear out of thin air, they were always there but were not always being heard.

'Should You Kill Monsters, Or Try To Save Them?' by Laura Hudson looks at the intricacies of Undertale, discussing the choices that the player is given, the simplicity of the sword or the path of compassion. The essay considers how even the smallest, silliest decisions have repercussions within the game and how the story stays with you for a long time.

'I Love My Virtual Untouchable Body' by Aevee Bee, which is written from the point of view of a transitioned individual, looks at character design and how it can be empowering to design an avatar and be who-ever you want to be.

'Video Games Without People of Colour Are Not Neutral' by Sidney Fussell, considers how the heroes of fantasy worlds are often white heroes who exist in white worlds. Defenders of racially homogeneous period fantasy say this destroys the illusion and quote quasi-historical sources to support their claims. This is a strange argument but for some non-white characters in fantasy games are less ''realistic'' than dragons.

Games can deliver ethically sophisticated social and political commentary, many game makers are acutely aware of this and in these increasingly complex times I am glad that there exist forums, website and in this case, a book that provokes critical and reflexive thinking. Engaging with things we don’t know about or understand has the power to open a new world to us, to introduce us to new ideas, cultures and experiences that we would maybe never otherwise encountered.

The Offworld Collection is required reading for anyone who wants to have a deeper and more meaningful understanding on what video games can mean. It is a fine anthology book and the variety and depth of essays is remarkable.

What Comics Have Taught Me

Comics are amazing as they can open our minds to a whole world of imagination. There are many comics and graphic novels which are based on real life and tell us about a wide variety of historical and biographical events but I have also enjoyed comics which talk about the human condition and humanity but may not be based on real life. It is these that I want to share with you here.

Video Game Soundtrack Desert Island Discs

Desert Island Discs is a British Institution. The format is simple: a guest is invited by the host to choose the eight records they would take with them to a desert island. Since it was created in 1942 the show has had hundreds of guests including such illustrious people such as Tom Hanks, Lily Allan and Bill Gates.

However rather than just doing a list of 8 songs I thought I'd do the 8 video game soundtracks I'd take on the desert island with me instead. Many gaming music composers were anonymous and they didn't realise until recently that their music had a profound effect on millions of people across the world. For many of us it was the soundtrack of our childhoods. These are tracks that have scored my life.

Shadow of the Colossus - By Kou Otani - 01 Prologue.

This is one of the greatest soundtracks of the Playstation 2 era. The soundtrack is orchestrated wonderfully and works well to create some very emotional sounding pieces of music that echo the lead character's determination to save his loved one, as well as the loneliness of his quest and the land that it's set in.

This track is used right at the beginning of the game and introduces the protagonist through an epic cut-scene which sets the mood wonderfully.


The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker - Koji Kondo et al - Dragon Roost Island

I love the Zelda score and all the games have an amazing soundtrack but this track is just wonderful. It has a light breezy mariachi band feel which is punctuated with staccato castanets under the floaty panpipes. Whenever I listen to this track it reminds me of my time sailing around the world.


Beyond Good and Evil - Christophe Heral - Redemption

BGE is an underappreciated gem that didn't get the recognition I feel that it truly deserved. As well as having a wonderful female character and brilliant gameplay the soundtrack was astonishing. There are moments of real beauty contained and it was hard to choose but this track near the end of the game perfectly captures the essence of the game.


Thunder Force III - Toshiharu Yamanishi - Ellis: Take a Chance

Thunder Force III is one the the best shmups ever and has very fitting upbeat music. Each stage and boss has a unique sound set specifically for it. While the usual mechanical sound of the Sega audio chips is present, it's not very distracting since the game is meant to be futuristic. Ellis is the ice world and the track for this level is pretty awesome. Whenever I hear the music it has me hyped!


Thomas Was Alone - David Housden - A Time For Change

Sometimes a game comes along and surprises you. It may be for any number of reasons but for me Thomas Was Alone is the game that most surprised me. It made me feel things... for a bunch of quadrilaterals. Yup, a bunch of squares and rectangles had me feeling things, emotional things. The game is a simple puzzler but the witty heartfelt writing and majestic score raised the stakes on the emotion front higher. This track is wonderful and I still listen to it most days, especially when I'm in one of my soul-searching moods.


Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze - David Wise et al. - Seashore War

The Donkey Kong soundtracks are all amazing, especially when the great David Wise composed them. Out of all the great soundtracks that stick with me the most recent game, Tropical Freeze has the track that still send shivers down my spine. Seashore War is majestic and sweeps along beuatifully. The track appears near the end of the game. After a long, tough battle to get close to the finishing post this track seems like a balm giving you hope and motivating you to beat the game. A true gem that I listen to daily whilst marking my pupils' work.


Journey - Austin Wintory - Nascence

There are few games that you know you will remember for the rest of your life. For me Journey is one of those games. It is a short experience but within that limited time you questions the meaning of life, universe, everything. The game is gloriously scored by Austin Wintory and his wonderful orchestration touches the heart. A profound yet beautiful score which will stick with me forever.


Sonic the Hedgehog 3 - Michael Jackson (?), Brad Buxer, Cirocco Jones - Marble Gardens Act 2

This is a bit of a weird one I know but I love it. The original 4 Sonic games had some amazing soundtracks but this one stuck with me for some reason. I just loved Sonic 3 and even though Marble Gardens is not a good level by any means the soundtrack was amazing and even now I still hum the tracks occasionally.

So these are my 8 video game Desert Island Discs. I'm sure a lot of you are thinking 'what the heck, you missed blah blah blah' but this isn't an official top 8, just my personal favourites. So what are your favourite tracks and why? I'd like to know and if doing 8 is too much just give me your one favourite in the comments below.

Virginia - Video Game Review

Virginia is an interesting new piece of work by 505 Games. The story places you as a young female FBI Agent, a new recruit who is partnered with Agent Halperin to solve a missing persons case in the beautiful and sleepy town of Kingdom, Virginia. The story is deeply involving as your agent is tasked with monitoring her partner as well as dealing with the missing persons case.

As a video game this premise is an intriguing one and the game itself is difficult to categorise, as it is a walking simulator but not in a way that many gamers see as negative, it creates a compelling narrative without a word being uttered and moves at a cracking pace. There isn't the usual traipsing from place to place slowly, don't get me wrong there is a lot of walking but the game designers were intelligent enough to edit the work so that quick cuts happen often and are cinematic and effective, thus you may find yourself walking down a flight of stairs one moment and in the next you are in a car on the way to Kingdom. As a result the game comes off more as a fast-paced police procedural as you try to figure out what just happened.

Over the course of the two or so hours you follow clues and enter mysterious red doors which act almost like portals to another place, a place out of time. It would be lazy to mention Twin Peaks but the fact is that it is an obvious influence, as is The X Files and many modern cop shows with fast edits and quick pacing.
The game is visually beautiful and the art style is evocative of Thirty Flights of Loving by Brendon Chung of Blendo Games, who the creators of Virginia cite as an influence. There are moments of stark beauty and emotive moments that are scored wonderfully by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. For a piece of work with no words said there are moments that will stay with you for a long time.

The visual style and the lack of dialogue make for a really surreal and unsettling atmosphere. I was legitimately enthralled and surprised by the story and once the game was over I sat for a while contemplating what it all meant. The Writers Guild of Great Britain has announced the nominations for its annual Writers' Guild Awards, and one of the three games nominated with a chance of winning an award for Best Writing in a Video Game in Virginia. This is high praise indeed and hopefully will propel Virginia into the limelight so it gets the attention it so deserves. Do yourself a favour and play it... you won't regret it!

Teaching Civil Liberties in Volatile Times

We live in an interesting time where surveillance paranoia and Orwellian dystopian nightmares seem to be coming true.
Edward Snowden informed the general populace of the extent to which governments spy on their citizens, often through 'special relationships' which create legal loopholes around the principle of a right to privacy. The mass sharing of intimate and private celebrity videos and photos through 4chan, Gawker and other sites, Theresa May's Investigatory Powers Bill,   the sharing of the Panama Papers, drone warfare and the Internet of Things show how relentless the march of technology has been but at great cost to our liberties.

As our relationship with technology has becomes more complex the likelihood of exploitation has grown greatly. As teachers we need to inform our children of the dangers that exist in the virtual world. A lot of us do this through e-safety lessons and embedding e-safety week into our curriculum but with emerging technologies we need to consider aspects that we haven't even thought of. For example the use of personal drones with recording facilities allows anyone with the kit to make recordings without the permission of the people, however more worrying is the systematic processes by which the government is taking information without our permission through the use of 'disruptive communication' (i.e. spying and media tapping). With the Investigatory Powers Bill, the British public may have just apathetically allowed their privacy, liberty and freedoms to slip away. In real terms we may just have condemned us all and our future generations to virtual psychological imprisonment and enslavement.
The right to exist freely is a human right but as governments challenge this by seeking to control and spy upon their citizens not only do we need to make our pupils aware of dangers from outsiders but also the more insidious dangers from within. We need to ensure that whilst they have a level of trust for those in authority they are prepared to question and think about the angles and perspectives which those in positions of authority may be pushing.

Technosoft Aqcuired by Sega

It is with great excitement that I bring the news that Technosoft games licenses have been bought by Sega. This may not seem particularly exciting but anyone in the know will be aware of the fact that Technosoft is most famed for its wonderful Thunder Force series which were highly praised and well-received shoot 'em ups on the Megadrive (Genesis) back when 16-bit consoles rules the world.
Thunderforce 3 and 4 were two of my favourite games on the Megadrive but I never got to play the later games in the series as it moved onto the Playstation and were rare or never released in England.

Technosoft had been acquired by Pachinko manufacturer Twenty One Company in the early noughts but the company didn't do much with the license at all so it's great news that Sega now has the license and may move the series forward. In Japan Sega will be releasing a compilation collection called Sega 3D Classics Collection 3: Final Stage on the 3DS, it will feature such heavyweight titles including Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Streets of Rage 2, Gunstar Heroes and Turbo Outrun.
Whilst this is a step in the right direction I would love to see Sega proactively use the license and resurrect this amazing series by creating some new games and getting the amazing composers back on the series. A new Thunderforce with retro style graphics and new Technosoft soundtrack... Yes please!

Adventures in Moominland Exhibition at the Southbank Centre

This winter the Southbank Centre, London will be hosting an immersive, interactive exhibition on the wonderful world of the Moomins. For the uninitiated the Moomins are whimsical hippo-like creatures who go through many adventures, philosophise and discuss the bigger questions in life. I enjoyed the Moomin cartoon in the 90's after being scared witless of the 80's stop-motion animation and have a deep love for Moominpappa, Moominmamma, Moomintroll, Snorkmaiden, Little My and their friends.

The Adventures in Moominland Exhibition is being called highly experiential as it will use archival objects from Finnish creator Tove Jansson's life to allow the audience to become closer to the artist and understand her motivation. Audio narrative will be supplied and by being led through seven immersive and interactive worlds people can understand the inspiration behind the many well-loved stories.

The exhibition will run from Friday 16 December 2016 to Sunday 23 April 2017 and time slots will need to be booked as it is a guided exhibition. I hope to be going very soon and will share my experiences here. 

Tetris: The Games People Play - Comic Review

Tetris is a video gaming phenomenon which known the world over and played by hundreds of millions of people on pretty much every device from smartphones to calculators. It was one of the first games that crossed generations and cultural boundaries, being one of the first computer games to be on permanent display at MOMA in America. In the 80's it allowed the world to glimpse what was behind the iron curtain at the height of the Cold War.

Tetris was created in 1984 by Russian programmer Alexey Pajitnov as a side project whilst he was working on artificial intelligence and voice recognition software. It was initially passed hand to hand by floppy disk before gaining worldwide acclaim and fame through very convoluted means.

Box Brown looks at the birth, rise and the behind the scene legal issues surrounding the game. The detailed legalese and business negotiations which make up most of the graphic novel may not appeal to everyone but Tetris’ story is full of surprising twists and turns so it is well worth exploring the issues about chip shortages, copyright infringement and the carve-up of markets in several different confusing contracts. As well as detailing all the players and the complexities that followed Brown provides a philosophical and anthropological view of humanity’s relationship to games and play, which appealed to me as I studied Anthropology in university.

Brown has a distinctive art style and whilst it may not appeal to everyone I thought the simple yellow, black and white palette was clear and uncluttered allowing me to focus on the complex legal maneuverings of the individuals; in this graphic novel narrative is king although the art style is distinctive.

Tetris: The Games People Play succeeds in being an informative documentary about the chequered history of the game but is less successful with the biographical aspects of Pajitnov's life,  apart from cursory drop-ins on his life we see little about his family or his personal circumstances. However for the uninitiated this graphic novel is engaging and informative without being too obtuse with the legal aspects. A solid graphic novel well worth a read but not as accessible as his other work Andre the Giant: Life and Legend which was a more straightforward biography.

LINK- Retronauts Podcast on Tetris

Dead Of Night- Cult TV Review

Back in 1970s the BBC invested a lot into its drama production and in this period there were numerous wonderful programmes created. I've already reviewed Supernatural, which was released in 1977, and now I'm here to review its other highly regarded anthology TV series called Dead of Night. The series ran from 5 November until 17 December 1972 with seven episodes, each of 50 minutes duration. However only three of the episodes have survived as the BBC purged its archives from 1967 to 1978, fortunately the British Film Institute have put the remaining episodes on DVD which is what I watched for the purpose of this review.

The first thing to mention is that the three episodes are all uniformly good in quality with high production costs evident and the acting is solid throughout. I will now share the individual stories and my opinions on them below.

 

The Exorcism

Synopsis: In a remote cottage in the country, four wealthy, middle-class friends gather for Christmas dinner only to find that their meal is ruined by strange occurrences in the house and the possession of one of the group by someone/ something with a grudge to bear; the house holds a tragic past and those present must mourn the past.

Out of all the stories in this collection this is the standout. There is a great central performance from Anna Cropper, who plays the possessed individual. It almost verges on over dramatic but just about reins it in to be deeply affecting with a great payoff at the end.

 

Return Flight

Synopsis:  An air pilot, who has recently become a widower, nearly has an air collision over Germany. However things take a strange turn when there are no signs that there was another plane in the area. As an investigation is carried out his role in WW II and his mental state is brought into question. Did the pilot avoid a mid-air collision with a mysterious plane or is he losing his mind?

This is the weakest story of the three as I found in meandered for the first 40 or so minutes but the final 15 minutes are tense and really draws you in. The conclusion provides closure about the state of mind of the pilot but as a whole the story is very slow and poorly paced in my opinion.

 

A Woman Sobbing

Synopsis: A married couple with two kids are living in a house in the country. Every night the wife can hear a woman sobbing in the attic however her husband cannot hear anything; so is she mad or is it that only she can connect with this spirit?

This is a great story with a shocking conclusion but there are slower moments which look into the married life of a wealthy middle/ upper class family which seem to drag. Anna Massey, who plays the bored and troubled housewife, puts in a powerhouse performance as she questions whether she is actually hearing the crying or whether she is going slowly hearing voices in her head. Her frenzied performance has a ring of authenticity.

The whole DVD package runs at around 150 minutes, and overall is well worth a watch. The classic ghost story is given a modern (at the time it was produced at least) makeover and whilst it won't scare you or shock you like many of the more modern horror films, it will stay with you for a while after you've watched it.

The Secret History of Twin Peaks- Book Review (No Spoilers)

Mark Frost, co-creator and executive producer (alongside David Lynch) of the legendary series Twin Peaks, has been teasing the book The Secret History of Twin Peaks for a while now. When it was first announced a few months ago I, like many Twin Peaks fans I'm sure, promptly per-ordered it to find out the fate of the characters and delve deeper into the world. Well I waited with bated breath to receive my copy and it was delivered a week ago. I read it between my other commitments and I finally finished reading it yesterday and these are my thoughts. I won't spoil it for you so please be aware that this is spoiler free territory.

First of all I should state that rather than a novel this is a beautifully produced dossier of faux historical documents, newspaper clippings and articles, revealing a series of historical events and conspiracies about the town of Twin Peaks and the Washington area over a period of over 200 years. For those expecting a more linear narrative this may prove to be disappointing as I know fans are looking for detailed account of what happened to the characters after the events of the cliffhanger in season 2. However what this dossier does provide is immersive and rich resources which are clearly designed to show how paranormal activity has been surrounding Twin Peaks for hundreds of years; this deepens and broadens the scope of the series and gives the events of the series much more context.

The book starts off with a letter from FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole, who was played by Lynch in the original TV series, asking an agent to go over the contents of a box found at a crime scene that “appears to have a relationship to an investigation conducted in northwest Washington State many moons ago.”

The mysterious Archivist, who produced the dossier contained inside the box, has been carrying out research on strange phenomena and the history of Twin Peaks. The dossier starts with the taking of the land that would become Twin Peaks from the indigenous Indians and moves over to prospector gold rush times to the rise of the logging mills at the turn of the 20th century. It then moves into X-Files territory with reports throughout concerning Roswell, UFOs, Nixon, the Freemasons, the Illuminati, Project Blue Book, the Majestic 12, Alistair Crowley, L. Ron Hubbard, Jack Parsons... and Jackie Gleeson (of Honeymooners fame). All pretty heavy stuff full of intrigue and mystery but probably not what fans of the series were expecting when they purchased this novel.

The dossier provides the history of a few of the prominent families and individuals and it does reveal the fates of a few of Twin Peaks character's from the cliffhanger in season 2 but the majority of this patchwork dossier focuses on the relatively obscure character of Mayor Milford's brother Douglas, who emerges as the closest thing to a 'lead'. This proves to be a little disorientating but I have found it incredibly enthralling and have been carrying out research on the prospectors of the time, D.B. Cooper and Project Blue Book. The last time a TV series made me do this was Lost or even Evangelion, so that is high praise indeed! The book is similar in style to House Of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, not in content or style but the feelings it evokes... A sense of mystery and unease, very much like the show itself.

The book doesn't initially seem to give too much away about the mysteries of Twin Peaks as I'm sure they're leaving that up to the upcoming season 3 but I think that the book merits repeat readings as I feel that throughout there were hidden meanings and secrets waiting to be discovered. The plethora of diagrams, photographs and sketches draw you in and make the whole dossier feel 'real'.

Overall I'd say the book was not what I expected but it took me on a journey that was both strange and wonderful. There are a lot of profound truths about the human condition contained within and there were moments of revelation that left me questioning our place in this world.

Well worth a read with a cup of coffee and a piece of cherry pie!

The Secret History of Twin Peaks is a beautifully presented book ©Macmillan/ Mark Frost