Category Archives: A Word On

A Word On… FIFA Ultimate Team

I’m not sure there’s a single game in existence that can make me as angry as FIFA can. Football is random enough as it is when tiny dirigibles can become key tactical elements, but FIFA takes it to another level on the uncontrollable bullshit spectrum; players will do things you didn’t tell them to, decide to tackle the air beside the ball they’re dribbling with instead of taking a shot, or be suddenly incapable of hitting the ball with their foot in a straight line, something which is ostensibly their profession. On several occasions I’ve found my defenders hanging out next to the other teams corner flag, presumably for a cup of tea and a chinwag. The FIFA subreddit is basically a support group for abuse victims at this point, summed up by a recent post which said bluntly, and fantastically, that ‘FIFA is shit’. He’s a happy bunny, that one.

james-gameplay

This probably ends in a ball boy scoring an own goal or something equally daft.

So if FIFA is shit, as was so eloquently put, why is it so popular? Well there’s the obvious reason that it’s football, one of if not the most popular sport in the world where teenagers who can’t spell the word ‘offside’ suddenly get access to the hottest of cars and the fastest of women for approximately six months before their lives spiral into a terrifying storm drain of money, tattoos, and shit punditry. Every child aspires to be Phil Neville, I can assure you.

The other reason is it’s by EA, and they have the official FIFA license so you don’t have to play as Blatan Dimbrasandwiches for Redchester Unite-reds, unless someone happens to take cocaine. It’s basically popular by default at this point, and every September the new FIFA cycle judders into view, proudly displaying its new set of over-hyped non-features like a peacock with used cars for a tail. This year’s instalment had a story mode called ‘The Journey’ where Definitely-Not Marcus Rashford gets to play a year of football while his dickhole friend acts like a dickhole and Harry Kane mumbles some verbal pies into your ear. It’s a glorified tutorial mode, and for some reason exists alongside the previous Be A Pro mode, which is functionally identical if you ignore the crucial fact that the latter has more features and customisation. The Journey does have the vocal wizardry of Kane though, so there’s that.

hunter-rashford

B…brother?

The final and most important reason for its current popularity, though, is Ultimate Team, a morbidly evil combination of football, casinos, stock markets, and the promise of building the titular ‘ultimate team’. That last part is what draws players in, being a natural extension of typical manager modes where you build a team from nothing to win the top prize. The other parts are where EA makes their money – you can buy packs with either real money or an earned in-game currency, which when opened gives you a random selection of players and other items based on how much dosh you threw at them. The standard pay-to-win format is in here, where you don’t earn enough in-game money for it to ever be worth spending on hopeless crapshoots, so you just buy points and get endless amounts of players instead. Somewhere in the swarm, you’ll find Messi. This is clearly the best way to play the game, because why would you ever want to experience steady personal gains when you can just buy your neighbours fucking yacht instead.

But then what are you going to do with these millions of human beings, who are for some reason inexplicably attached to trading cards, panicking, screaming eternally from inside their virtual cardboard hell prisons? Well, Frank, you sell them on the virtual trading market. Obviously. It’s not slavery, it’s business.

This is where human players can make loads of in-game currency through normal stock market ideas of buying low and selling high, amongst other sneaky tactics such as the bizarrely named ‘sniping’ method of buying something for cheap as soon as it’s put on the market. This phrase has probably spawned from children playing CoD, since I don’t think American Sniper was a film about the trauma of excellent fiscal investment choices.

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“I think this business card presentation might be a bit overkill, Mr Reus”

Each games platform has a different market with different organically shifting prices, meaning that the oft forgotten PC version (the one I’m bloody playing on) has prices that can easily be double what you’d get on a console. Handily, match earnings are exactly the same. This means that not only does the PC have a massively smaller player base, leaving online play feeling a bit like a ghost town with a couple of randomly jabbering Austrians in the corner, it’s a lot more difficult to actually make your ‘ultimate team’. I’m fairly sure I’ll never get my glorious Gareth Bale card, simply because the game will have died before I’ve even had the chance.

Anyway, once you’ve sniped your way through the marketplace (not like that) and come away with a hatful of virtual coins, what do you do with them? Well common sense would dictate that you then use that money in the virtual market to buy the players you want to play with. Unfortunately, YouTube claims otherwise.

It turns out there’s a staggeringly massive market for FIFA YouTubers, with most not even bothering to play the actual football game they’ve bought. Instead, they spend their days reacting hilariously to random chance that’s happening in front of them by screaming at the top of their lungs at pack openings, jumping around the room, dressing up, making stupid faces, screaming again, and generally being normal functioning adults. Hopefully they blow out their vocal chords at some point when they pull a spikey horned satanic version of Ashley Williams or whatever the hell EA are doing this month.

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Four perfectly normal, natural, sensible, reserved, adult reactions. This image was saved as ‘twats.jpg’ by the way.

Some more sober channels feature variously aged children giving mildly obvious tips about how to make money in the marketplace, which can be helpful at times; I’ve seen a few give hints about players that are cheap now but may be worth a lot in the future. Fairly standard investment stuff, but still useful.

What aren’t useful, however, are the grotesquely misleading titles and thumbnails these things tend to have. One guy (who for some reason appears to want you to know he has a carrot, despite never appearing on screen with one) claims to be able to ‘double your coins!!!’ with a thumbnail of a Photoshopped picture of a large number doubling. I watched this video, and the doubling of coins is done by spending 500 to make 1000. The fake thumbnail has the number 50,000 doubling to 100,000. You will need to do this method 100 times without the market changing against you in order to do that. Good fucking luck with that.

Other bullshit includes telling you how to ‘100% make coins!’, which is an embarrassingly easy thing to do when those words are in that order, or being able to make ‘1k coins in 1 minute!!!’ in ‘the best trading method in FIFA 17!!!!’. This was done by buying a player then selling him for 1k profit within 60 seconds. Note that he does this once, and so has accurately made 1k coins in 1 minute. The implication, however, is that you can now do this for every minute, thereby making 60k an hour, or 1.44m a day. This is clearly absurd, but don’t let reality get in the way of manipulating kiddywinks for YouTube likes.

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I don’t know what’s worse, the dubious advertising or the glaringly obnoxious colour scheme.

So now you’ve got a hundred quadrazillion coins sitting in a fake virtual bank account that you can’t do anything with. You’ve bought 14 Ronaldos to use just in case three get injured all at the same time in a flexing competition. Your team is literally the best it will ever be. You now have nothing else to do but play the game.

Unfortunately, this brings me back to the start, where all of my hypocritically childish bitching began. FIFA attempts to be a solid competitive game, but it just isn’t. It can never be one. You can learn how to get better at a fighting game, for example, since it’s all very tightly controlled and doing the same thing twice will end with the same results. Scientifically speaking, it is repeatable.

No such luck in FIFA, as it’s a game based on chance and statistical probabilities. This is fine in something relatively simple like poker, but in FIFA there are 22 players on a pitch at once, each with about 50 individual statistics that have to be used to determine what happens. Then there’s positioning, how long you held down the power bar, which direction you’re facing, and so many more subtle complexities that makes it basically impossible to know exactly what’s going to happen when you press a button.

This isn’t helped by FIFA’s AI problems. Conspiracies abound about ‘scripting’, which is where the game basically decides who’s going to win the match by goalkeepers suddenly becoming octopuses or strikers developing severe allergies to running forwards. A less strict version of this is ‘momentum’, where teams supposedly swing back and forth in ability to make games more interesting. This would be fine in a spectator sport, but FIFA is a videogame. Randomly changing the numbers behind what you’re actually seeing so you don’t know if your team is prepared to play football or if they’ve rocked up for water polo instead would be immensely frustrating. Watching your monstrous defender with his 82 inch pythons muscled off the ball by what can be accurately described as a bearded baby is something that just shouldn’t happen, and, while it’s unlikely any of this maniacal overload scripting rubbish exists, when all the glitchy nonsense starts to pile on you often feel like you’re fighting against the game rather than controlling it.

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Case in point, there is no ‘applause’ button.

With all of this random bullshit, with all of this manipulative wankery, with the inevitability of a PC graveyard, you might be asking why I even play FIFA Ultimate Team. To be honest, and this might come as a surprise, most of the above is slightly exaggerated for comic effect. I know, who would have thought.

The game is, generally speaking, great. The above clip of Smalling crossing his wires and daydreaming a lovely performance of the Bach chorales is a one in a million instance that just happened to be caught on video and shared in the screaming echo chamber of Reddit, and while you’re well within your rights to hurl your TV out of the window when it happens to you, most of the time you’re going to lose because you’re in a bad mood and not concentrating. There’s a phenomenon in games called ’tilting’, where you start to perform badly and get annoyed, meaning you perform worse, which makes you more annoyed, and now you’re stuck in a suicidal one-more-go mentality where you won’t stop until you’ve finally won. This is not EA’s fault. Go for a walk, have a wank, do anything. Come back when you’re not being quite so shit.

It’s true that some matches do feel as if they’re fighting actively against you, but the little moments of satisfaction in a tight game you edge 1-0 make everything worthwhile. FIFA might kick you in the balls when Giovinco scores a backheel from the halfway line, but you’ll be back for the trading, you’ll be back for the atmosphere, and you’ll be back for the goals. As I alluded to when jabbering about Football Manager, it’s addictive not in spite of, but almost because it isn’t fair.

Now go pay for Messi, you bellend.

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I don’t know why one of the promo pictures was Marco Reus shitting out an egg, but there you go.

A Word On… Why I Watch Professional Wrestling

 (Originally published in Issue #5 of Cobalt Magazine at Warwick University, released in March 2016. Read that version here, on pages 36-39.)

Some things can be hard to explain – quantum physics, the offside rule, why some women go to the bathroom in small herds rather than, as one would reasonably expect, individually. Do they need moral support? Are there bodyguards? Is there some complicated hive mind thing going on where their minds automatically flip to BATHROOM mode like a weird urinary Roomba? Anyway.

One thing that’s often been the trickiest to explain, however, is the appeal of professional wrestling. While still a big deal on TV and in pop culture, it’s never quite managed to shake some of the stigma associated with it over the years. It’s a combat sport without the competition, some decry. It’s stupid, gross, and fake, others calumniate. Where’s my sandwich, asks Bob. To these diverse and varyingly valid arguments, however, I say this: that’s the point. Professional wrestling is not supposed to be a sport; it’s a wildly varied circus stunt show dressed up as the already ludicrous world of professional boxing mixed with car crash American TV, and your sandwich is in your lunchbox Bob. Where else would it be.

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The worlds most outrageous hug.

Because it’s a pre-determined ‘sport’, wrestling shows are a unique kind of TV, where they can essentially tell any story they want as long as it ends in two people throwing each other over their heads and into tables. Wrestling characters are by and large fairly simple, denoted as either a heel (bad guy) or babyface (good guy) with a few marketable character quirks around it to get over with (get a reaction from) the crowd. These ‘gimmicks’ as they’re known include the red and yellow ‘Hulkamania’ of Hulk Hogan, Kurt Angle the Olympic gold medallist, and literally every part of John Cena’s clothing, vocabulary and anatomy.

This way, it becomes fairly easy to get people to care about two people having a fight – the heel does something horrible to the babyface/his friends/his family/his gerbil or whatever, the babyface wants revenge, you tease them fighting for a month or so then have a big blowoff match where you get to make a load of money and roll around in it like Scrooge McDuck in the Federal Reserve.

Some great angles have revolved around relationships, such as the time a very real backstage affair was made public in the form of Matt Hardy and Edge feuding over Lita, or the famous breakup of the Mega Powers where Randy Savage became paranoid about Hulk Hogan’s blossoming relationship with Savage’s valet Elizabeth, subsequently turning heel on his tag partner. Shawn Michaels v Chris Jericho  began due to a simple dispute over match tactics, and Hogan v Andre the Giant was just because Andre wanted to beat up a sweaty clay-man with a ridiculous moustache. These feuds are all fondly remembered, and feature motives no more confusing  than “I think you’re a bit of a twat, mate”.

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Pictured: a twat, mate.

This is all a rather simple way of writing storylines and is proven to work, but given wrestling companies tend to be run by billionaire carnies with the emotional intelligence of a satsuma, the people in charge can sometimes get bored of normalcy and instead do something bugger nuts ballistic. For instance, there was that time a giant turkey thing hatched out of an egg halfway through the same show an undead wizard/zombie/gravedigger man made his debut. This ‘undertaker’, as some called him, would go on to become one of the biggest ever stars in professional wrestling and a pop culture icon, despite having a midlife crisis where he fell madly in love with motorbikes and started wearing leather vests and bandanas. Thankfully, the turkey didn’t last the month.

This is where the car crash nature of wrestling comes in – wrestling ability is certainly a large factor, but fan interest in a feud will only really ignite because of the storytelling. While a good story can make for amazing programming, a bad story becomes amazing for completely different reasons.

Some infamously awful examples: two Mexican best friends beating each other up with ladders to decide who got custody of a small child; a man climbing into a casket to shag a mannequin before holding up some goo and saying ‘I screwed her brains out’; the current WWE power couple initially getting together by one drugging, kidnapping and marrying the other without their consent; a Viagra on a Pole match; a tag match where one of the participants is God; an old woman giving birth to a hand; a man being buried in a desert in Nevada for several months; the male tag team champions at one point consisting of a wrestler and his mother; a tournament where more points were awarded for kidnapping an audience member than winning a match; a character called Mr Ass who’s gimmick is exactly what you think it is; a Hog Pen match wherein the winner is the first to throw his opponent into a pig pen filled with mud and shit; and a reverse battle royal, where everyone started outside the ring and raced to get in it. How that match managed to last more than 3 seconds I have no idea.

wtf_vince

Here’s an unrelated picture of Donald Trump shaving Vince McMahon’s head. Ignore the nearly naked black man with creamy hands, he’s not important.

While this sort of writing can be entertaining in retrospect,  viewing it live makes it crystal clear that nobody has any idea what they’re doing. This combined with incredibly stubborn management that seems to actively enjoy doing precisely the opposite of what fans want can be frustrating and often boring, such as the current attempt to push (make fans warm to) Roman Reigns as the next big hero character despite looking like a greasy Expendables villain and being the least talented of a very well regarded trio.

Roman’s push has been going on for about 18 months by now and has never even begun to look like working; he has the charisma of a large plank of wood with a drawing of The Rocks face glued on it upside down, has about three moves of which one is called the god damn Superman Punch, and he gets to wear bulletproof armour in his matches for some reason. This last part is a rather apt metaphor for how management is treating him at the moment, and the fans have just about had enough and started booing the piss out of him. Management has responded by muting the crowd. Genius.

roman

Someone once had a sign saying ‘Roman is a wank pheasant’. Can’t argue, really.

Due to the clashing styles of PG TV and management not being able to evolve their ideas beyond things done twenty years ago when you could show boobs and poop on screen and nobody cared, the WWE is currently in a lean period of too much empty predictable nothingness happening on their shows. Luckily, it’s not the only game in town – promotions like Ring of Honor, New Japan and Lucha Underground have had room to breathe away from mainstream attention and corporate sponsors, and have turned out much the better for it.

Lucha Underground especially isn’t really a wrestling show. It’s headed by Robert Rodriguez of all people and portrays a strange noir Aztec meta-show (it’s a TV show about a wrestling show, for all extents and purposes), played relatively straight but with a knowing Grindhouse-esque mentality about how ridiculous the whole thing is. There’s a phoenix, a dragon, the living embodiment of death itself, and a man called Prince Puma who’s spirit animal is the jaguar. It’s oddly brilliant, and something completely different to the often flavourless corporate wallpaper paste of WWE.

lucha_underground

Warning: may contain traces of very silly trousers.

You may have noticed I’ve barely mentioned the act of physically wrestling in this article. Put simply, most modern wrestlers are fantastic. While the overall shift from “do things that don’t hurt but look like they do” to “hurt yourself immensely but pretend you’re fine” is generally a bad thing, both for wrestlers health and the minds of the audience, wrestling nowadays is a much more athletic venture than in the 80s and 90s. People like Chris Jericho, Daniel Bryan and CM Punk helped to shift the tide away from immobile giants like King Kong Bundy and The Great Khali, with a new emphasis on mat moves and technical grappling. It’s almost as if you should be good at wrestling to be a professional wrestler, and not just be really really really tall.

The best wrestlers need more than just moves, however; legends like Shawn Michaels, Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart, Ric Flair and The Undertaker know it’s a constant performance from the moment you enter the arena to the moment you leave, and all the little things such as facial expressions, body language, and selling moves to make them look more dangerous than they are make you forget it’s all pre-determined and they’re not actually trying to hurt each other. Watching a match often requires significant suspension of disbelief, especially when a lot of moves are set up by one wrestler not being able to stop running, but when you’re invested in a match it can be exhilarating.

bret_hart_sharpshooter

This probably hurts, but to be honest I can’t really tell what’s happening. Are those legs?

So back to the title; why do I watch professional wrestling? Well, I watch it to see impressive physical feats of strength and endurance. I watch it to be engrossed in storylines, both wacky and serious. I watch it to see what’s coming next for my favourite wrestlers. I watch it because it’s a pantomime, a comic book, a soap opera with powerslams, almost a parody of sports in general. It often gets looked down upon, sometimes with extremely good reason. But I watch it, basically, because it’s fun.

Oh and Brock Lesnar’s fucking massive.

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He’s like a bear made out of gammon steaks. It’s terrifying.

A Word On… Modern Visual Media and Why They Suck

 (Originally published in Issue #4 of Cobalt Magazine at Warwick University, released in November 2015. Read that version here, on pages 12-15.)

Why does everything have to be a movie? Don’t get me wrong I like movies, but whenever a book, game or even TV show becomes a hit there’s instantly talk of when the movie version’s coming out. It’s indicative of the steaming pile of sequel factory bullshit the blockbuster movie industry has found itself in, and videogames aren’t far behind either.

For starters there are books that have absolutely no right to become movies, like the unbearable Fifty Shades of Grey. Like any film based on sex, it would have either had to be Pornhub: Extended Cut or two pasty personality sieves gawping at a dildo for two hours in various vaguely hospitable settings. However, the critical issue with Fifty Shades is that the book is absolute putrified garbage, written as fan fiction to fucking Twilight of all things before they changed some character names around and fed it to sex hungry mums whose husbands were too busy eating mud and kicking themselves in the testicles to notice they were married. If a book is lacking in plot, characters, material that can actually be released in a cinema, or general noticeable quality, then it has no purpose being a film. It’d be like trying to make an action thriller based on the contents of my shower drain.

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If it’s not just a shit adaptation of shit material then it’s movie execs wringing as much money out of a franchise as they can. Endless sequels, prequels and duringquels effectively split one story into eleventy billion parts for maximum dollar and minimum customer satisfaction. Harry Potter started the trend and sort of got away with it since the book was legitimately too big, but since then films have been all too happy to stall for time like lawyers at a strippers wedding. The second Hunger Games film was the movie equivalent of a fat moggy getting stuck in its own catflap, Twilight existed for about 8 films longer than it should have, the Marvel cinematic universe is currently making movies just because it needs to keep existing, and The Hobbit padded a fairly short book with mine cart races and stoner wizards. Modern movie franchises are like public bus services; short journeys, loads of stops, irritatingly expensive, and a decent chance of finding a homeless man masturbating with a paper bag in the back row.

But while book-to-film adaptations are getting progressively stupid and pointless like when a dear relative passes into their ninth decade, videogames have a much more chronic problem; they’re beginning to think they are movies. Little Jimmy Ubisoft likes to dress in Momma Paramount’s dresses on occasion and is slowly hatching a plan to kill her off in a freak golfing accident so he can replace her in society, even though he’s about 8 and smells of Wotsits and fear.

Games publishers talk bullshit. When a game claims it’s ‘cinematic’ it means it has expensive graphics. When a game claims it’s ’emotional’ it means it has an over-complicated, under-acted story. When a game claims it’s ‘immersive’, it means it’s paranoid about being shit and praising itself for doing its job. Listen: if your game is not immersive then your game is bad. Immersion is broken by inconsistencies, so if the players are noticing physics glitches and graphical weirdness or it controls like a crab at the helm of a 747 it’s going to pull you out of the experience no matter what the experience was to begin with. If you advertise a visual media as ‘immersive’ you may as well advertise the fact that it makes pictures appear on a screen.

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‘Cinematic’ is even worse. It means nothing and screams of the desperation of marketing departments trying to ride the coattails of a medium they passed by in profitability somewhere in 2009. More worryingly, however, it implies that marketers or developers or whoever think that visuals are the only important part of a film. If this was the case every film would just be a procession of flashy lights, tits, and fireworks. I can’t be certain, but other than some experimental student art films I highly doubt there has ever been a movie that hasn’t at least tried to tell a story of some kind, no matter if it was good or not. A film can look decent while still being absolute shit, such as every single thing Michael Bay has ever done in his entire career, but the best films have more than that: an excellent plot, clever use of music and set design, good dialogue etc. When a game claims  it’s ‘cinematic’ it’s often artistically good at a level of shallowness not offered by most tea-trays. Controls and gameplay don’t matter since people don’t need to play it, only sit entranced by a giant noisy screen while their body fat slowly fuses to their seat.

Then there’s the insanity of transferring a videogame franchise into a film, which boggles the mind. Videogames aren’t particularly known for their excellent storytelling, and if one is it’s often at the expense of gameplay complexities, like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons or The Walking Dead series. If a game has an excellent story in its own right then a film spin-off is pointless, as the story has already been told in a visual medium so all you’d be doing is removing any user interaction and throwing Ryan Reynolds in for Nolan North. On the other hand, if it hasn’t told a good story then you’re removing the pop-ups from a pop-up book and leaving behind a story nobody cared about in the first place. Films that tell a different story but set in the same universe are fine and have the potential to be interesting provided they don’t magic up a story out of thin air using a franchise name, of which Battleship is the logical stupidity black hole. If all you’re going to do though is regurgitate the same Mass Effect story with no customisation or moral choice then at least one of the creative teams involved has wasted literally years of their life.

Even ignoring all of that, why is cinema the bastion of quality anyway? There’s nothing intrinsically better about films than games or books, and the industry is now as bloated and overconfident as Jabba the Hutt. The critically ‘best’ films aren’t the most successful and the most successful are normally pretty crap. Transformers 4 grossed over a billion worldwide but is so absolutely atrocious in almost every possible way I wouldn’t be surprised if  Michael Bay was just seeing what he could get away with without being fired. The reason Marvel has taken over the box office isn’t because their films are universally amazing must-sees, it’s because they deliver a solid, consistent 6.5 out of 10 every time, with the occasional 8 sneaking in there to make up for the hopeless gibberish that was Iron Man 3. Marvel has made a TV series in the cinema, so people want to come back and watch more of their favourite characters get into hijinks in their armoured pyjamas. Unfortunately now every studio wants to do this, and it’s absolutely not going to work.

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To sum up – pretentiousness runs through the industry like a clogged artery through an obese dog stuck in a McFlurry machine, the majority of content is trash of the highest degree and the good stuff is either lost in the crowd or swiftly dogpiled by the higher ups for sequels if they made any chunk of money at all. While that may very well be a description of modern Hollywood, it’s also a perfect example of the giants of the videogame industry. Two of the biggest media industries on the planet are circling each other down the drain with blinkers bigger than Quentin Tarantino’s ego, caring little if at all for customer satisfaction or end quality. If that’s not a terrifying thought, then… well, go and watch Pan’s Labyrinth or something. I heard it was scary.

Read more of Cobalt magazine here, and check out their blog here.

A Word On… Football Manager

 (Originally published in Issue #3 of Cobalt Magazine at Warwick University, released in March 2015. Read that version here, on pages 42-44.)

Menus. Hundreds upon hundreds of menus, spiralling out from each other like Russian Doll spreadsheets. Even the statistics you find when using the menus have menus. That’s all Football Manager is, menus, statistics and mildly confused frustration. This is football for stock brokers with a habit.

As someone who has never particularly enjoyed strategy or management games, going blind into an online Football Manager game was always going to be difficult, and as expected it was as daunting as organising a schizophrenic serial killers noticeboard. After skipping the tutorials that were so boring I felt myself visibly age after just one line of text, I inevitably found myself facing of a wall of information set out like Rain Mans receipt collection. This was more like HSBCs filing cabinet than it was football.

It didn’t really help that the options were irritatingly opaque; for example there’s no Settings menu. Instead there’s a menu bafflingly called Preferences that’s buried inside other menus with sub menus of its own. Either the developers were actively laughing at new players like they’re a blindfolded cat in a maze made of lino or they see the world purely through the medium of Microsoft Excel and don’t know what rational thought is anymore.

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Our plan was to have each of us, four partially capable humans of various Football Manager experience, manage a different Championship team and see who could become the most successful before we all inevitably got bored and went to do something else. I blindly selected my team, which turned out to be a bad choice given the others had actually chosen theirs for solid reasons. I just knew Blackburn had a good striker and went from there, ignoring the defence whose best player is an angry sociopathic Scotsman. He got sent off three minutes into the first game I played. This soon became a theme.

Having made this incredibly well informed choice, I tried to find something to cling on to in this barely legible gibberish, presented in a language that would make sense to Alan Hansen and nobody else. At this point the only menu that made sense to my addled brain was Transfers, so I tried my luck with that. Unfortunately I found that the muppets running my club had given me tuppence and a stick of gum to spend on new players, whereas everyone else had roughly half the national income of Japan.

I made do with what I had, scrabbling for loan players like a hobo looking for milk bottle tops in the gutter, pleading with agents to let the fading pensioner join my team for a weekend just in case my other pensioners fell over too much and disintegrated like a breadstick in the washing machine.

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If you have a desk job, then role-playing someone who reads a hundred million emails every week might not be your idea of a rest.

Before I started a match, I was told by the constant Steam chat I should try and work out what was going on in the Tactics menu. Here you edit formation, lineups, substitutes and general instructions to give your team whenever they play. Obviously there are ridiculous levels of complexity to this as well, like contrasting instructions that would only confuse your players if you told them to try and play both wide and narrow at the same time, and multiple subtly different roles a player can have within the same position.

Again, the negatives of any of these options aren’t exactly explicit; when I set an instruction to Hassle Opponents, I assumed it would mean an appropriate defensive or midfield player would close down the opposition and prevent passes with a modicum of intelligence. What I discovered was that almost all of my players would charge at the guy with the ball like it was the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, leaving a gaping chasm for the other team to pass into, completely bypassing the cavalry of overpaid morons.

You have to experiment and find out what is actually useful rather than it being given to you, which sounds like good game design but it really isn’t. It’s the equivalent of being given a choice of seventeen identical looking sticks then getting a thwack on the head and a branch up the arse because you chose the wrong one. Good luck getting it right on your first attempt, and your arse might not appreciate you giving it another shot.

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After making a couple of distinctly average signings and creating a new formation suitably dubbed The Penis (make up your own reasons), I suited up and went into battle. Which I lost, because my setup was crap. After waiting half an hour for the others to fiddle their menus some more, I tried again. And lost, because I scored a fluke own goal despite dominating in every statistic the game would throw at me.

This is where the addictive, social life threatening part of Football Manager comes in; nothing you do actually matters. Not in any tangible, definite way. Since you’re not actively controlling what happens on the pitch, all you’re doing is essentially making your own odds more favourable without determining anything – a random number generator where you can nudge the machine a few times if it’s fucked you over a cliff recently. No matter what you do nothing is ever certain, and so the game never becomes truly satisfying. Yes that’s football, but footballs not perfect anyway.

Since it’s essentially a strategy game with random elements there’s always this horrible one more go factor, where you want to try your formation again and hope your full back doesn’t headbutt himself and start humping the post when defending a corner. It’s a case of proving yourself against a bunch of sceptical numbers hidden behind shitty 3D visuals with physics from a particularly glitchy Asteroids clone. It’s like the Matrix if it was set in Upton Park.

Eventually, more and more of the ridiculous user interface began to make sense. I found out I could train individual players in an attempt to improve their stats. Match reports allowed me to prepare better for the next game, such as which areas of the pitch the opposition was weakest. Scouting allowed me to try and pick up promising young players on the cheap, although with my budget management being overseen by a sparrow on LSD this was essentially impossible. Almost anything you could want to do in football exists in Football Manager, unless you want to actually kick the fucking ball.

stats

LOOKIT ALL DEM STATISTICS HUERUEHGUHLHKHLREK

Slowly all of these options started to come together into something more cohesive; my team was well drilled and my defenders had stopped leaking goals like a colander in the Atlantic. I began to move up the league with a catastrophically unpredictable run of form for all concerned, culminating in a final day race for automatic promotion with only goal difference separating me from a fellow human. I won a close game against 7th place while he was dismantled by an already relegated 23rd. As usual, pissing off your friends is rather entertaining.

Football Manager is hard. Newcomers won’t get why so much of what they try doesn’t work, and an at least average knowledge of football is required to get to the meat of it (what the hell is the difference between an Enganche and a Trequartista). It’s similar to the Candy Crush mentality; an illusion of skill where success just boils down to luck of the draw, like being graded on Blackjack. It has an awful lot more layers of illusion between skill and luck than Candy Crush however, and doesn’t get you to pay to keep playing, so it’s at least not evil. Still, it’s football on a roulette wheel, an endless bag of cookies being guarded by Two-Face dressed as a linesman. It’s not exactly fair, but then neither is heroin.

[The version played was Football Manager 2014, but it doesn’t really matter since this wasn’t a review. If it helps I thought 2014 was great, played it for 800 hours, and thought 2015 was comparatively terrible. Those are the only Football Manager games I’ve ever played]

Read more of Cobalt magazine here, and check out their blog here.

A Word On… Batman

(Originally published in Issue #2 of Cobalt Magazine at Warwick University, released in November 2014. Read that version here, on pages 38-40.)

My God it never ends. A new poster has slated a Bananaman movie for a 2015 release [this never happened, the filthy liars]. Yes, the Man of Peel (their pun, not mine) is making a return, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg; Marvel’s current box office domination has extended into the amazing sink unblocking powers of Ant-Man, a scientist who can shrink himself down to any size provided it’s plot relevant, and Rocket Raccoon, a small furry Jack Bauer. But behind the faux-science shenanigans and random costumes of the modern superhero movie industry stands Batman, the big broody grandfather of it all. He’s practically part of the furniture at this point.

Batman films have been going for some time now, starting with the incredibly camp 1960s Adam West flick which was adapted from the TV show from the same time, featuring a snout nosed Batman who always seemed to be busting for a piss. After being put through the ridiculously successful NolanFilterTM of confused non-messages and Hans Zimmer brass explosions that seem to follow the director like a Doberman with a foghorn for a face, the character is due to be portrayed by Ben Affleck, a man who simultaneously looks like a confused baby and the sharp side of a cliff. Hopefully he’ll be as terrible as he was in Daredevil just so we can get rid of Batman for a while. The guy’s spent too much of his time working out his anger on drunk tramps in his pyjamas for the average billionaire, and not enough of it dedicated to buying out the world’s media or whatever it is they spend their weekends doing.

Now don’t get me wrong, I like Batman. I mean you can hang hats on his ears after all. It’s just that the character himself is simply not as interesting as his villains, probably due to having the personality of a frowny filing cabinet stuffed with money and with no concept of personal space. How many people remember the original Burton film primarily for Batman, and not Jack Nicholson as the Joker? The Dark Knight was similarly dominated by Two-Face and the Joker, probably since the plot was primarily about a sad businessman in armour playing a long angsty game of Blues Clues with a GCSE Biology diagram and Margaret Thatcher in drag. Even the incredibly atrocious (or atrociously incredible, your choice) Batman and Robin is mostly remembered for the Governators total lack of shits to give about the script, hamming it up so much it could be cut and sold at a butchers. Oh, and the Bat Credit Card. Fucking what.

batman-freeze

No, despite being as interesting as a tub of lard with marital issues, Batman is now so popular he dominates huge sections of pop culture. He’s so integral in fact that he’s basically the modern day action character archetype, i.e. an angry bloke who says very little, punches people repeatedly and talks in shrouded half-metaphors. This is of course a far cry from the 80s action character archetype of an angry bloke who says very little, punches people repeatedly and talks in amazingly bad one-liners, but the point remains. Garrett from the recent Thief game is really just a skinny Batman, a man who says he steals things because ‘it’s what I do’. Thanks for that Garrett, but I doubt the jury will empathize with your suffering.

In my opinion, Batman just needs to go away for a while. Film, comics, TV shows, musicals, charity calendars, everything. There’s been a new cartoon with the chinned wonder almost every year since the excellent Batman: The Animated Series kicked things off back in the 90s. Man of Steel was essentially marketed as being Batman the alien, and he’s now being farmed out for the Justice-League-in-disguise film Batman vs Superman, which is a fight that should realistically last as long as a hamster in a jet turbine. Take a well deserved break from the self discovery and face breaking, put your Bat Boots in the Bat Wardrobe and go to the Maldives for a bit. You deserve it, you big mopey bastard.

When the public can actually get excited for a new Batman film, there should be some changes for old whiney Wayne. Stop trying to be Watchmen, and try a few ridiculously camp 60s throwbacks. It’s happened recently on TV, where Brave and the Bold freshened things up by pitting Bats against idiot villains like Clock King, Crazy Quilt and the amazingly named Animal Vegetable Mineral Man. My favourite Batman scene is in the 60s film where he’s running frantically along a holiday pier desperately trying to get rid of a giant bomb. Exasperated at insurmountable obstacles like a no smoking sign, some nuns and five ducks, he runs towards the screen, whereupon water and metal pipes go everywhere and the bomb is defused, somehow. It’s weirdly like the ending to Dark Knight Rises, on reflection. Anyway, Batman needs more of that brilliant nonsense and less bullshit hero statements based on the difference between the meaning of ‘deserves’ and ‘needs’.

batman-bomb

In fact, just remake Batman and Robin. It was so ridiculously over the top that you can somehow manage to enjoy it, like Birdemic, The Room or Troll 2. Remake that stupid film with the clear intention that it’s going to be nothing like Dark Knight Rises (more Bane in flasher trench coats, less Bane struggling to be heard through a cyberpunk facehugger), develop a dumb side story that ties the goddamn Bat Credit Card in to the plot, and I’ll watch the hell out of that. I’ll probably be the only one that does, but who cares about brand strength when you’re Batman. You can just Batman the problem away by jumping on its face in your underwear.

Read more of Cobalt magazine here, and check out their blog here.

A Word On… Trilogies

(Originally published in Issue #1 of Cobalt Magazine at Warwick University, released in May 2014. Read that version here, on pages 69-71.)

Trilogies are bullshit. How many major film or game series have you seen go down the same path – a breakout hit that gathers massive attention, a follow up that expands on the ideas of the first and a third that has nothing to add except a wet fart and an apology? Seemingly every brand that has a (theoretical) story ending is put into this mass marketable format nowadays. The recent Batman: Arkham Knight was released as the fourth game of a trilogy, J K Rowling is expanding her empire with three fan-fiction offshoot ‘megamovies’ which have as much to do with Harry Potter as my arse does with a chicken sandwich, and the latest 7-hour New Zealand Walking Tours advertisement is taken from a book that takes about two hours to read. Also Legolas is back, because why the hell not.

One fairly major issue with trilogies is that they are inherently predictable, borrowing heavily from the traditional three-act structure of your standard plot. Typically, the first act is used to set up the characters and plot, the second is normally where things start to go wrong and the villains plan is revealed, and the third is where they start indiscriminately destroying buildings, saving orphans and filming footage for the release trailer, only with a trilogy they take each of these acts as a separate film. There should be three separate stories to tell, otherwise you’re just retreading old material, and so you’ll have a total of nine acts to do things with, three acts within each act. It’s a padded fractal headache, and by the time you’re setting the characters up for the third time it starts to feel like Groundhog Day only with slightly less suicide attempts and more boredom.

trilogies-batman

Because of this there are two roads you can go down when structuring a multi-part story – you can do something akin to Mass Effect and Star Wars, where the main plot thread is lightly sprinkled throughout and only comes together for a climax at the end, or follow the Batman route and totally ignore everything that came previously in favour of hollowing out football stadiums.

The problem is that both of these are very hard to get right; the first comes with the obvious flaw of the tension-payoff scenario, where the ridiculously long plot thread has to be wrapped up well or face the wrath of a thousand angry nerds on IGN forums. Of the above examples Star Wars did it best, if only because Mass Effect’s drunken self-circumcision of an ending actively hurt to watch. Yes the ewoks were kind of dumb, and Vader did sort of look like a bootlegged Faberge egg, but the finale was exciting and more importantly made sense in its own universe, unlike literally everything in the last ten minutes of Mass Effect 3. Getting the balance right of story cohesion, fan service, payoff and everything else is a tricky task indeed.

The second approach forgoes this, of course, since the plots are about as related to each other as an episode of Scooby Doo is to a documentary about Jeffrey Dahmer, but this means it’s no longer a trilogy, it’s a series that just happens to have three parts. It could have seven for all we care.

Despite this, there are trilogies that worked, and the format isn’t worthless by any means. Lord of the Rings is one of the obvious choices, and other than the ‘Choose Your Explosion’ sequence at the end the Mass Effect series built tension well and had enough revelations spread across enough time to keep you invested. There have, however, been enough atrocities to make the overuse of trilogies questionable, such as Spiderman 3’s splurging emo confusion or The Matrix sequels generally being awful to the point where it becomes a bit concerning, like one of the Wachowskis must have had a stroke or something.

The problem almost always boils down to vision – do the creators have enough vision to see where the story is going, how it is going to end, and roughly what’s going to happen on the way? If not then there’s a large chance it’ll fall apart faster than your mum in the company of Cliff Richard. Star Wars and Lord of the Rings worked because the creators knew what they wanted to happen. George Lucas wrote three films at once but put enough closure into the first in case he couldn’t get funding for the sequels, suitably ending that story arc. Lord of the Rings was an adaptation of a classic work which already had a proper ending, and was well handled apart from some suspect bed jumping. The Matrix, on the other hand, seemed to be the result of a daydreaming office worker trying to avoid work without masturbating or Photoshopping Kanye West’s surprised face onto things, and somehow managed to get a budget for three films. The story blew its load halfway through the first film when Neo the naked mole rat wakes up in a H R Geiger birthing chamber, and the rest of that series is either a bunch of dirty, growly men shooting at robot squids or some overly pretentious shite that pretends to be much more than it is. For a series that devolved unnervingly quickly into nonsensical drivel, it quite appropriately ends with two men in sunglasses standing still, punching each other in a rainy sewer. Safe to say, it didn’t work.

trilogies-matrix

Surprisingly it turns out that the best stories are ones that end. If one doesn’t it’s either because it was cancelled and you will never know the resolution, or because it’s an ongoing story, which is, generally speaking, massively boring. Most American TV shows stretch their plotlines to breaking point so they can make more seasons with the same characters doing their iconic thing of standing around arguing for 85% of the show, then taking drugs/killing people/solving crimes/having sex for the other 15, delete as appropriate. Comic books have it the worst, having lost the shock value of killing off main characters by continuing to do it, and Jesusing them back to life a few weeks later is as lazy as that time that a whole season of Dallas was a dream because the previous storyline was as well received as a genital wart. Basically if you don’t know how to end the story, you’re going to lose track of what made your initial project good, or simply run out of ideas and go for the shark jumping world record.

Essentially, if you want to make a trilogy, you should try and know what bloody well happens in it. If not, don’t be surprised if you get dismantled by sarcastic pricks on the internet who write articles for student magazines. You have been warned.

 

Read more of Cobalt magazine here, and check out their blog here.