Leonard Cohen (2)

“I heard there was a secret chord/That David played, and it pleased the Lord/But you don’t really care for music, do you?”

I wrote this for the Guardian family section many moons ago. I’m not such a big fan of mining my history for material like this – but here we are. And now both Leonard Cohens are together, in that eternal night.

“I heard there was a secret chord/That David played, and it pleased the Lord/But you don’t really care for music, do you?”

I don’t remember my grandpa Lenny much. He died when I was three, and the single memory I do have – running hand-in-hand with him the wrong way up the escalators at Manchester airport – has the air of fiction about it, a moment so early that it’s more a remembering of a remembering than the memory itself.

I wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t for my grandfather. Not in the glib sense of genetic inheritance, but because of his name. My dad and mum met in a pub in Manchester – my dad got the thunderbolt, love at first sight. She was intrigued by the mad Welsh-Greek with the colonial accent, so she gave him her number. Which he, typically, lost.

He also forgot her name. Nice one, Dad. But he did remember her father’s name – Leonard Cohen. Obviously, not the Leonard Cohen, one-time rabbi, poet and singer. No, Lenny Cohen, a market trader done good, who invented the Pakamac and made a fortune selling it to the USSR, a man who skipped enlistment in the second world war by fleeing to Argentina (he finally enlisted at the end of the war to get a free flight back to Blighty), and who had a joke for every occasion (bought from a central Manchester joke shop). My dad found Leonard’s number in the Manchester phone book and managed to get back in touch with my mum. The rest is biology.

Lenny Cohen died in 1982. I didn’t listen to much music as a kid – Holst’s Planets, Monty Python Sings and West Side Story were the only LPs we had – so I didn’t experience any of his doppelganger Leonard’s songs until university, where I got far too into Jeff Buckley’s rendition of Hallelujah. And where I saw my grandad’s name as the composer.

Deathbed Recommendations

I had to go to the hospital a few weeks ago, so a doctor could put a camera up my urethra. There was a very small chance that what he found was going to be the death of me…

This was written in December, 2013, the month before Ari was conceived. I found it in a pile of drafts. It’s worth noting, since this, that I’ve had several more hospital experiences that threatened to be fatal. Luckily, none have.

I don’t know if this is just me.

I was getting morbid. I had to go to the hospital a few weeks ago, so a doctor could put a camera up my urethra. There was a very small chance that what he found was going to be the death of me. So, I went a bit Luzhin in the shower before the event, and started following consequence chains as far as I could.

I thought about freezing some sperm, because it’s likely that if the Docs find something bad, the remedy will remove my ability to reproduce. Then I thought about not getting to see any resulting children grow up. And thought about recording messages to them, and then a yearly message, so (like DeTamble in the Time Traveller’s Wife) I’d be with them, fresh, for each year of their life.

Then I got to thinking about how I’d do it. Genial, wise monologues straight to camera is hackneyed but works. And then I thought about what I’d say. I’d recommend my favourite philosophy, my favourite fiction, the strange old books I’ve happened across which will give that otherworldly edge: Lacfadio Hearn, Kipling, Laurence Sterne, Mikhail Bulgakov, Erskine Childers, Olaf Stapledon and so on. An education by proxy, skipping me, back to the formative years of each medium. I even thought about a few movies I’d recommend: The Princess Bride, Duck Soup, Groundhog Day, Fight Club, Yojimbo, and so on. Light themes but with rich philosophy behind it.

A Book, Spoiled
Yet. I couldn’t think of any games I could honestly say a child of mine should spend time on. Time that would be educative, entertaining and efficient. That irks me a bit. Spelunky? No, too wasteful of time. DOTA? Ditto and too repetitive. A shooting game? Hell, no. Planescape Torment? Good, but the interface is awful – you’re probably better off reading Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, the Ur-text for witty rogue worlds. Deus Ex? No, disappointing linearity – read SnowCrash. Mario? Repetitive, brand oriented… no.

(One thing positive I can say of many great games is that they teach you how to learn an imperfect ruleset rapidly. I think of the Reiner Knizia design ethos, which seems to consist of attempting to maximin incompatible-but-overlaid number sets, and I think that’s something valuable for realworld. But that’s something from these games in general, not from any individual game.)

What was wrong with all these games? Not one of them could I point to and say, unreservedly, that is a clean, good, efficient experience which also offers the open edges of a book. Risk of Rain is a perfect action-shooter, with the random drops comboing neatly to force different play styles on you – but I can’t say that I value the compulsion loop of an unlock-based game, especially not for a child, nor can I say that it’s improved me as a human being.

Moving Closer
Is there a game that combines the combined-toolset gameplay of Spelunky with a top-notch scripted experience that still allows the world to have the fuzzy edges a growing imagination needs? I suppose the nearest are Morrowind, Ultima 7, King of Dragon Pass.

An alternative is the Inform and Twine games, the old text adventures, like Violet and Slouching Towards Bedlam. These are near-to-perfection but they waste the player’s time with endless failstates and replays (something the otherwise-light Fable 2 is notable for avoiding). Unless they’re enjoying and learning anew from each failstate, you’re wasting their time. Horse Master is better, in that you carry on to an enjoyably strange ending, no matter what. But a bad text adventure is a short story, spoiled.

This year has seen a few games that have got closer, mingling that Inform experience with production values. Gone Home? Linear, but we’re getting there with the atmosphere, storyline and lack of failstate. Papers Please? Good – linearity concealed behind a clever, shifting toolset and political nous. The problem with these two, like Dear Esther, is that they’re just not all that much fun. The protean joy of the Stanley Parable might be the only modern game I could recommend.

I don’t think I’ve fallen out of love with games. I’ve just recognised that the other media are still superior in what I’d want my kid to input, especially for a peak quality experience.

The Itch


I keep getting diseases that are tortures.

Not real tortures, not like ending up in a Turkish prison and having all that shit happening to you, whilst your president whistles the tune of the ECHR and shows the press your grave-to-be. Not that kind of torture.

Just mild psychological torture.

I got an infection, a couple of years ago. Nothing serious, it was trapped in a closed system, where it couldn’t get out and do any serious damage. Y’know, the urinary tract. What a blessed God we have, who sealed that tract up so nicely.

But boy, did that infection drive me mad. It went on for a year. On bad days, it felt like I was urinating all day long. Literally, it felt like while I was standing there and talking to you, staring deep into your wise but empathetic eyes, that I was pissing my pants.

I’d be out with friends, playing boardgames, or walking, and I’d be almost crying inside. I couldn’t focus on what people were saying, just being constantly aware that I really should be running to the toilet because it felt like was pissing then and there. And when I did go, it wouldn’t come out. Infuriating.

Weirdly, beer was one of the few things to calm it – after a few pints, the numbing effect would wash through and I’d have temporary relief. For a time. But alcohol is never a good solution (except, yes as an actual solution.)

The only thing that actually killed it was a long, long course of antibiotics, and then another one. That killed it stone dead. They stuck up a camera up my urethra to show me how pristine the inside of my bladder was. That camera hurt a damn too, but it was quick.

Ironically, my current ailment is a product of antibiotics. I have a terrible cough, which won’t go away, so they gave me some antibiotics to blast it out.

Didn’t work. Cough’s still there. But what has happened is that my whole body has come up in hives. Y’know, red itchy lumps. Reminds me of having eczema as a kid.

The worst part is on my hands though. My hands, wherein lies all my work because dictation software thinks my soft southern Mancunian drawl is actually a Ouija board babbling nonsense, are itchy inside. Deep beneath the skin.

They’ve been like this before. When Ari first went to nursery, she caught hand, foot and mouth, mildly. It’s a disease where sores appear all over your body. We nursed her back to health, though she never complained, but then I got it. It’s not so kind to adults.

By ‘eck, it stung. I lost all the skin on my nose and under my beard, and – let’s not talk about where else… worse, though, on my hands, it couldn’t make it through the type-toughened skin. So it just contented itself with burning away under there, itching like my brother’s bottom when I put ground rosehips down his pants. (Homemade itching powder to those not in the know. Yes, I was a cruel sibling, and yes, you can read this as karma, if you must.)

This is like that again. But I have to work, because I have work to do. So I must type. And there’s nothing to get you typing fast like itchy, itchy ITCHY hands. Ahhhh. It only doesn’t itch when I type….! So type type type type type…

Motion sickness and double glazing: the challenges of developing a game for VR | TechRadar

These early applications could be paralleled with the Lumières’ The Arrival of the Mail Train, utterly impressive when shown in the late 1800s (the audience reportedly panicked with the large train coming towards them on the screen), yet where the media creators are still testing the basics of their techniques for presentation and communication. Like all VR developers, The Assembly team are still working out how these machines work, step by mistep. One thing is certain; a VR simulation today is going to be unrecognisably primitive compared to one in half a decade’s time.

Source: Motion sickness and double glazing: the challenges of developing a game for VR | TechRadar

In Good Company: Sol Trader | SMTG

Kickstarter isn’t what it was. Back in 2013, the pitch “Dungeon Keeper in space” garnered Maia £140,000. Skip ahead three years and another charming pitch – “Dwarf Fortress meets Elite” – barely scraped £10,000. That’s absolutely no reflection of the quality of the product. After all, despite being a one-man game, Sol Trader is well on course to hit its release window of June 2016 as a stable, intriguing game. It’s just a reflection on the changed times for indies; today, the determinant of success seems to be a tightening social web of ‘in’ indie developers and press, and its creator Chris Parsons isn’t part of that web.

Source: In Good Company: Sol Trader | SMTG

Why The Hell Is No-One Playing: The Count Lucanor?! | SMTG

Video games don’t often do subtle or literate. Games like Gears of War and Call of Duty succeed with no philosophical hinterland or characters worth talking about. Cutesy games are sickeningly so, shooting heroes speak in single syllables, and sincere indie games beat you over the head with how much everyone is suffering. Few seem to learn from the thousand years of fiction at our fingertips. And then there’s The Count Lucanor, which might be the purest distillation of the Gothic novel as a game.

Source: Why The Hell Is No-One Playing: The Count Lucanor?! | SMTG

 

Hitman preview: a thousand ways to kill Viktor Novikov | TechRadar

As I stab him with a hidden screwdriver for the umpteenth time, dump his body in a convenient chest freezer, and saunter away dressed as a makeup artist, I absentmindedly think that perhaps he would have appreciated this – to go out on a high, his career at a peak in both professions. To die at the right time is a blessing, surely? I set the fireworks show off early, in his honour.

Source: Hitman preview: a thousand ways to kill Viktor Novikov | TechRadar