Casual Contributor

A little over a year ago, I travelled to Hertford for four days work experience at Intent Media. At long last, my persistence and hunger to break into the industry have finally been rewarded.

Last month, I received a call right out of the blue from Michael French, editor-in-chief of MCV, Develop and He offered the opportunity to freelance for as their new contributing editor. Naturally, I jumped at the chance!

CasualGaming covers everything from Wii, DS and PSP stuff right up to free-to-play, Flash and mobile games. Emerging platforms, like the social game space, are its focus. It’s a trade publication too, so its audience isn’t necessary looking for reviews or ‘definitive verdicts’ on the latest games. That suits me just fine, though. It’s a start and I welcome it. I’ve actually been given free rein to more or less produce whatever content I like for the site. From features on start-up studios to interviews and personality slots, this is a whole new ball game.

For the past four weeks, I’ve been making contacts, compiling ideas and working frenetically to reorganise my life in the wake of this new regular freelance role. I’m actually writing this post in advance, and have a huge list of tasks to complete and stories to prepare for the week that this message is posted – here’s hoping I can get it through it all. My first assignment has already stepped up the level of expectations I face.

So what does this mean for everything else, Platform, university, my friends? Well, since my workload is increasing yet again, I’ll have to make some sacrifices. After all my efforts and what the magazine has done for me, I can’t turn my back on Platform. However, I will have less time to provide reviews and perform other time-consuming roles for the gaming section. Instead, I will focus on getting more students involved and writing for a variety of Platform’s sections – as an editor-at-large if you like. I’m hoping to hand over the reins to a friend at the end of next year, so my mentor process will have to begin now.

As I have a dissertation and five whole modules, each with their own set of essays, to complete this year, demands from uni may force me to change my plans too. This is what I’m most anxious about.

This is going to be a year of immense change. I’ll have to let go of Platform, and take up new responsibilities for CasualGaming. It’s going to be a shock to the system and I’m sure my time management skills will be pushed harder than ever before. But I also want to make sure I have plenty of time to see friends, relax and party this year. I can’t have it all, but better to do my best and look back fondly in future.

So, yep, I’m now officially freelancing. What’s next?

All set for more Northern Adventures

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Like a jubilant comet on route to Earth, I’m back from outer space. Outer London too, if you wish. Summer is over and Nottingham has welcomed me back will surprising vigour.

My new abode is in a converted mill 10 minutes from the city centre. When I first arrived I was in Clifton, then West Bridgford and now I’m in the city itself. That’s good news for shopping trips, spending time at the Platform office and clubbing, because I’m now much closer to all the hotspots. Of course, it doesn’t solve the huge hole that paying for the bus to Clifton five days a week will leave in my wallet, but you can’t win them all.

Last year things became a nightmare living with one of my housemates in particular – mostly because he was incredibly inconsiderate and blasted Muse and heavy metal out of his speakers at all hours of the night. This year will be different. I’ve followed my nose, and some friends from my course invited me to live at their flat. We’re on the same wavelength with a lot of things: games, music, cleanliness. Like me, they can appreciate the social enjoyment of watching someone else play a game and assisting or discussing it with them. They take responsibility for things. I’m feeling far more at ease all ready.

Things are gravy as far as Platform business goes. I’ve meet a bunch of the new editorial team – the music editor in Asda of all place, plans are continuing for Freshers week and we’re seeing a lot more support from students and external people, like local bands. I am getting an uncomfortable feeling though that my patch has been ‘invaded’. I’ve been getting to know Mary a little better, however, we’ve already disagreed over how much money should be spent on promotional material, like flyers and t-shirts. At the moment, it looks to me like she’s focusing her efforts on Freshers week alone, instead of looking ahead to the future. We still don’t have any basic A6 (or even business card-sized) leaflets with up-to-date contact details, which to me is a frustrating dilemma that should have been solved long ago.

Besides the old bard’s grind, I’ve also been picking up essentials for my flat. There’s a fixed wardrobe right next to my desk, which casts a shadow across it in the evening. To solve this I had to order a desk lamp from Argos – and order one because other returning students had left all the desk lamps sold out. Much to my surprise, the lamp didn’t come with a light bulb, so it was fortunate I’d picked up a set on collecting it. As if being deprived one essential part by the bane of ‘sold separately’ products was enough, later I bought some door hooks, to hang my coat up, and these came without screws. What is this? Thatcher’s Britain 2.0?

I managed to pass my two referrals and I’ve enrolled for my third and final year at Trent. The time has gone way, way too quickly. Seems like only yesterday I was arriving, nervous and alone, at Peverell. My timetables not even through, and I’ve already been dragging myself out of bed after a few late nights. I’ve got stuff to organise for Platform, stories to write for CasualGaming and on top of all this I’m Fresher repping – a week of volunteering which requires me to be up at 6am to get across to Clifton, help out where needed, and get Freshers to clubs safely in the evening. Plus, I’m writing short diary posts for the university’s Welcome Week blog. Man, I must be out of my mind. I’ve already heard this said twice today, once by a tutor older and wiser than me: life is too short. Heck, I’m back in Nottingham, with new threads, new moves and a new groove! And I’m damn well going to enjoy myself.

Note: I had planned to post this Sunday night, but didn’t get round to it till Wednesday, Sep 22. Lots more to talk about, fortunately.

You’ve Got a Friend in Me

If the Toy Story 3 game isn’t like the first three minutes of the film, I don’t want to play it. The film perfectly encapsulated what playing with toys looks like through the eyes of a child. I remember when my brother and I used to play with our Lego Bionicle sets. From the highest point of Mata Nui (which happened be our staircase landing), to the lowest depths, everyday was a new adventure, and it all came to life in our imaginations.
The feeling of playing with toys with my brother when I was young was just one warm emotion that Toy Story 3 brought forth within me. I caught the film yesterday evening with my brother at an Enfield cinema we used to visit a lot as a family. Beyond a few brief glimpses, all I knew about the film was that Woody and company are back and Andy is all grown up. And this is all I wanted to know. I’d heard people mention they had a powerful reaction to the film and I didn’t want anything to lessen my own experience of it.
Toy Story 3 was an acutely personal and supremely poignant film for me. It had me welling up with tears, and that’s something that no other film has done to me in months, possibly years. As Randy Newman’s synonymous track ‘You Got a Friend in Me’ picked up during the early montage of Andy growing up, I could feel myself drifting back to 1996. My memory of the CG characters trigged a swirl of nostalgic emotions, framed by a reflection on how far I’ve come since then and where I am today.
There was plenty of laughs and action of course, and Buzz’s impressive Prince of Persia-like acrobatics made me wish to applaud loudly – I would of were it not for the viewers around us who seemed to be without a pulse, so I just clapped discreetly a couple times. I laughed at the call-backs and running jokes. I felt nervous excitement as the toys found themselves in deepening peril. And I swooned as Andy and Bonnie played together, visualising my thoughts and feeling about growing up.

I knew it would be powerful, but I never expected it to be wiping at my puffy eye lids as 14 years of memories washed over me – it was the same for my brother, who surprised me by insisting we remain right through the credits. Seeing Andy’s mum give her son a hug and tell him how much she loves him touched me, and I know it touched many others who have grown up and are now studying away from home. Pixar truly are masters of their art. Toy Story 3 pulled my heartstrings like nothing else has this year. I grow up with Woody and Buzz, and they’ve grown up to bid my childhood a fond farewell. May our friendship never die.

That SFX Columnist

On this mad journey to journalism, I’m increasingly spurred on when I read the experiences and history of other writers who’ve trodden this steep, tiring road long before me.
In SFX #200, I came across Nelson’s Column, written by the smiley Jayne Nelson. As it was SFX’s two hundredth issue, Nelson was discussing what the life of a sci-fi enthusiast was like back in the nineties, without communities or websites, and how she discovered SFX magazine. Covering everything from films and TV to comics and models, SFX offered something for Nelson that the “stolid and unfriendly” UK sci-fi magazines at the time didn’t. Tank Girl (created by my cartoonist hero Jamie Hewlett) and a bleach pink SFX logo (which launch editor Matt Bielby says stands for Science Fiction eXcitement) decorated the very first cover.
And what struck a chord with me was her description of the first issue she bought: “I read it cover to cover. I think I even read what we call the flannel panel, aka the list of contributors, without having a clue that one day I’d be on there.” It’s this truth that really warms my toes, because it’s exactly what I did when I first started reading the gaming magazines that inspired me to pursue journalism. Now, every time I pick up Edge, Games™, Wired, OPM and more, I glance at the flannel panels to see the writers I’ve meet – like Simon Parkin, Christian Donlan, David Crookes, Owain Bennallack and Margaret Robertson – and hope that, someday, my name will be amongst them.

Nelson wrote her column for sci-fi readers, but for an aspiring writer and journalist it also held a rare message that, in more ways than one, “I’m not alone.”

Magazine Celebrations and Endings

Circulation figures may be dropping, yet collectable magazine covers have probably never been more prominent. Last year, Future put out specials for Total Film, SFX and a whooping 200 covers for Edge #200. Following in the same paper pressings as their Bath-based competitor, Imagine Publishing have released 100 different covers of Games™ (reflecting the titles in its Greatest Games of All Time feature) to mark the release of the magazine’s one hundredth issue. Space Invaders, Beyond Good & Evil and Oblivion are among the inclusions – I picked up the Portal cover.

I’ve never been a regular reader of Games™. I find their design less appealing than Edge’s innovative page spreads and their cover features, often on popular games that have been covered a month earlier by single-format magazines, offer little in the way of a unique angle. It’s easily Edge’s closest competitor, and for those regular readers that buy the magazine for its writers and content, I’m sure they get their money’s worth. I do, however, admire their retro section (with contributions from the Retro Gamer writers), concept art spreads and commitment to providing mature and intelligent games coverage.

Their one hundredth issue is a celebratory parade of their 100 greatest games, interviews with Peter Molyneux, Clint Hocking, David Cage and others, and a look back at the years since Games™ arrived in newsagents. Nowadays, advertisers like to get in on the celebrations too, with adverts congratulating the magazine team. From trademark characters adorning a product-less show of support from Sega, to Deep Silver’s opportunistic marketing for their upcoming off-road motocross game (“Congratulations! Games™ You nail’d it”), magazine milestones have changed at lot since the nineties. And for all my niggles, I consider Games™ an important enough piece of gaming history to own the first 10 issues, so well done to Rick Porter and the team for marking issue #100 with style.

Now, from a gaming tome to a true piece of magazine history. The final issue of PC Zone was released on September 2, the last send off for 17 years of irreverent, community-focused PC coverage. The magazine began under Dennis Publishing in 1993, and Paul Lakin was launch editor. Future Publishing acquired the magazine in 2004 – just one of many they’ve picked up from Dennis and Highbury, like CVG and PSW, only to close them in the wake of falling readerships. PC Zone was seen as the poor cousin to the clean, professional feel of PC Gamer (Future’s main PC gaming magazine which launched the same year). Since turning from the path of PC gaming (sorry, Dungeon Keeper), PC Zone and other gaming-only PC magazines have been on the periphery of my radar. But the cheeky, frequently controversial, approach to PC culture that PC Zone delivered to its many loyal readers set it apart from the samey PC mags covering and graphic cards.

In its time, PC Zone has had contributions from a phonebook page’s worth of contributors, like Jon Blyth, Rihanna Pratchett, Alec Meer, Ali Wood, and, geek-turned-high-flying-cultural-commentator, Charlie Brooker. Their politically incorrect whimsy remained right through to the final issue, making PC Zone a snapshot of game magazines long gone. It feed its readers joystick innuendo, pixelated babes and plenty of colourful language to wash it all down. Informative, but with the crude naughtiness of FHM, PC Zone was the alternative magazine that spoke to its readers in much the same way as a best mate would at the pub. May they laugh all the way to magazine heaven.

Image: PC Zone #225, RaNDOM

Sushi and the British Museum

Last week I visited the British Museum for the first time in five years or more. Seeing the great triangular pediment, its cravings of academics and artisans, held aloft by the 14 metre tall ionic columns was not the only thing I hadn’t seen in a while that day. My old friend, Katie Howey, had invited me along for a day trip to Central London.

We spent a good few hours exploring each of the galleries, observing the many antiquities, artefacts and relics that made up the museum’s grand collection. The images here are just a few I took in the Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece and Rome and European galleries. Our two other companions were less absorbed than Katie, who’s a keen photographer, and I, and that meant any such leisurely appreciation of the galleries was dulled by their incessant haste to whizz round. For all their haste, a quote I saw printed overhead in one of the galleries said out loud the thought of savouring my summer holidays: “Follow your heart while you’re alive. Put perfume on your head, Clothe yourself in fine linen… Make holiday and don’t tire of it!” (Harpist’s song, about 1400 BC)

Heightened by the very fact that admittance to the museum was free and photography is allowed in more or less every gallery, this was a very economical trip and it reminded me of just what I’ve been missing. I’ve not been to the Science or Natural History Museums in years, so next time perhaps I’ll skip the cinema and go there with some friends instead.

Ancient objects weren’t the only stop on my short London tour that day. Camden Town – an old haunt for my then group of friends – was to be our first port of call. With its knock-off goods, dodgy market sellers and drug-smoking denizens, Camden has developed a reputation for being on the wrong side of the tracks, and liking it. But it’s also a hub for live entertainment, a magnet for some of London’s quirkiest characters and a haven for vinyl lovers like me to make rare finds. Camden is also one of the most multi-cultural parts of London, and delis touting Chinese, Indian, Japanese food and more can be found.

It was in Camden Stable Market, now an open-air marketplace of emporiums and eateries of every description, that we had lunch. Well, I say ‘we’, but actually I mean Katie and I watched the other two consume one of the most revolting takeaways I’ve seen in recent memory. With penguins cooing and pecking all around, Katie and I sat down at one of the many discoloured wooden tables and waited for the others to return with their ‘meals’. When they arrived, I couldn’t quite believe what they’d paid for or that they were seriously going to eat it. Each polystyrene plate was stacked tall with overly salted nachos that looked as dry as the faded wood they were now resting on. Coating most of the nachos in what looked like lumpy yellow and green paste was cheese and guacamole. Forget the warm, stringy texture of melted cheese on toast, this was more like runny custard, and the guacamole wasn’t much better. They didn’t finish their plates, but to my amazement both of them managed to scoop enough of the nachos and hybrid slime to satisfy their appetites.

After our visit to the museum, Katie, who also has a deep love for Japanese culture, suggested we get a bite to eat. This time I joined in and tried a mini sushi box from her choice of sushi and bento restaurant, Wasabi. This wasn’t the first time I’d tried sushi, but, as well as the smoked salmon delicately wrapped in seaweed, there were also large beans and wraps containing rice, celery and other ingredients. It was a tad strong for my liking as I doused a bit too much soy sauce on the food. What did make my eyes light up and fill my passageways with a strong aromatic taste was the fresh ginger. I’ve had ginger beer but never had I tasted the raw spice itself. If I was able, I think I’d substitute my usual packet of breath mints for a cylinder of freshly cut slivers of ginger. Yum. Food was a constant theme today with the ornaments and pots from across the ages in the British Museum and my experiences of delicacies from the capital.

Inside Vogue

I knew the world of fashion was subjective, but I didn’t realise just how accepted this was until seeing The September Issue (More4, 24.08.10). As part of More4’s True Stories series, which premiers documentaries on social, cultural and ethical issues from across the globe, R.J. Cutler’s rare exposé on the making of Vogue magazine’s September 2007 issue was a real eye-opener.

The documentary follows iron lady and editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, and creative director and former model, Grace Coddington. Although I suspect they got to see even more juicy material that Vogue’s publisher, Condé Nast, probably forbid them from showing, the documentary provides an extraordinary view of fashion journalism in the 21st century and the relationship between Wintour and her production team.

Fashion magazines have always seemed nothing more than glorified catalogues in my mind, on account of them being chockfull of adverts. In the documentary, Wintour decides which new lines to feature, which upcoming designers will get her empress equivalent of influential approval, the photographer who will photograph their Hollywood star for the magazine cover and so on. Coddington conceptualises and completes a range of themed photo shoots that are scrutinised by Wintour – Vogue seems more about aggregating photo shoots than fact checking or copy editing text about fashion.

What this documentary did do is give me a newfound respect for people like Grace Coddington, who formulated the terrifically inventive image above. Fashion journalism is not a science, but, I’ll admit it, there is artistry to it.

Record to Interplanetary War

I have a lot of vivid memories of my dad’s record collection. The dusty and worn edges of the album covers protecting a lifetime of music genres. Barry White, Michael Jackson, The Doors and more. Most fascinating of all though was Jeff Wayne’s The World of the Worlds – a musical version of HG Wells’ 1898 sci-fi novel. The original 1978 record cover was a gatefold design filled with beautiful artwork by Peter Goodfellow, Geoff Taylor and Michael Trim, depicting diagrams of Martian technology and key moments from the story. You can see the immense silver shell lying in the Horsell Common while residents, sporting 70s sideburns, point and stare. You can see a towering tripod melting the ship Thunder Child out on the coast. And you can see the Martian war machines in various idle states while ravens pick at the pusing red goop beneath their circuitry.

If the art set the tone, the music most definitely completed the mood of this dark apocalyptic tale. Jeff Wayne, the New York-born composer, conductor, arranger and producer, wrote a thrilling score that’s synonymous with the literature for me. In the arrangement for the most famous piece, ‘The Eve of the War’, tense strings sound like an urgent call to arms, and the electric keyboard shrills like the threatening otherworldly creatures drawing ever nearer. The album is narrated by Richard Burton, and other characters crop up here and there along the journey. Unlike the film versions, Jeff Wayne’s musical adaptation does a grand job of taking your hand and leading you through the fire and despair of ruined Britain, emotional lows, gentle highs and conclusion that should leave you in no doubt as to how the Martians are defeated.

Another object that cemented my love of War of the Worlds was GT Interactive’s 1998 PC game. Like Command & Conquer, the video game adaptation of War of the Worlds was one of those early RTS gems that offered the chance to play from two different perspectives: Human or Martian. Playing as the Humans, you begin with the most land and resources on the war map. As the invaders, Scotland was your headquarters and your objective was to force back the residents until Britain, and its capital, were in your grasp. Somehow, directing forces to the frontline and planning ahead sufficiently to cover loses and progress up the tech tree was always beyond my skills as a point-and-click general. Whether as the courageous Humans or the blood-hungry Martians, I always found myself run out of Britain with my tail between my legs. The game also had a selection of remixed electro-style tracks of Jeff Wayne’s original score: ‘The Eve of the War’, ‘The Heat Ray’ and ‘The Red Weed’.

Though I haven’t listened to Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds as much as I’ve watched the original Star War trilogy or another old favourite like Forbidden Planet, it had a profound effect on my love of science fiction. Whenever Earth is being invaded, my mind often fills with the sound of foreboding strings. And in my old school notebooks you’ll find crudely drawn interpretation of the Martian tripods, their stilt-like legs and bug-eyed capsules staring back at you. Japan’s idea of urban apocalypse is Godzilla, for me it’s Martins.