Review – A Head Full of Dreams

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Well, everyone, this it it. After fifteen years since ‘Yellow’ graced our presence, and gave us one of the most equally loved and hated four piece rock groups since Nickelback, Coldplay are back with what we’re to believe is their final album: A Head Full of Dreams (AHFOD), hard on the heels of last year’s melancholic Ghost Stories.

If this really is the band’s swansong, is this the return of the “old Coldplay” die-hard fans have been craving for since X&Y? Or is it their final nail in the coffin to the notion that “all their music sounds the same”?

Those questions remain to be answered as opener ‘A Head Full of Dreams’ begins. Whilst it’s not the strongest title track they’ve written, it does set a good tone for what’s to come, with positive messages like “you can see the change you want to be when you get a head full of dreams” giving the song a strong, feel-good character. Couple that with Chris Martin’s airy yet powerful vocals, supported by a boisterous sound, and you have a good indication that the band are set on making a happy record, which Martin himself has confessed they have yet to create.

The title track’s positivity could be taken as a cause for concern that this record is simply a Mylo Xyloto Mark II; however, as it continues, Coldplay quickly defy expectations.

‘Birds’ gives the band a much-needed dose of indie rock to their repertoire, with Will Champion driving the song through a steady percussion beat, and a simple but memorable riff shared between guitarist Jonny Buckland and Guy Berryman on bass. Meanwhile, ‘Hymn for the Weekend’ situates the band in an unfamiliar R&B territory with a ‘Turn Down For What’-style club song, featuring none other than Queen Bey herself. The first of many collaborations on AHFOD, it’s undeniably a conscious effort to cement Coldplay’s place on the dance floor as last year’s ‘A Sky Full of Stars’ attempted to. Beyoncé and Martin form a fitting duo, with their “drink for me, drink for me”s standing their own against a bellowing chorus of trumpets. This sound doesn’t come as a surprise, considering the album’s production team Stargate are behind the likes of Rihanna’s ‘Rude Boy’ and other R&B hits. And then there’s AHFOD’s lead single, ‘Adventure of a Lifetime’ – undoubtedly one of the catchiest songs on the album, with its pop-like structure and rip-roaring electric guitar reminiscent of the strong cultural influence on the album.

What you have in these tracks is an attempt by Coldplay to ‘push the boundaries’ musically, arguably what they were known for in the Viva era, making some memorable pieces in the process, and possibly the “happy” songs Martin was looking for. However, as is the band’s standard, they’ve also acted as fitting disguises for a number of love stories. At other times in the album, Coldplay tears down this veil and exposes them in plain sight.

Everglow, written by none other than Martin’s ex-wife Gwyneth Paltrow, and the cited inspiration behind last year’s Ghost Stories, is a tale of a once-was relationship that’s left its mark in the form of a soaring ballad. Whilst the concept of an ‘everglow’ is difficult to grasp at first, stripping the song down musically allows it to become on of the more lyrically poignant songs on the album. The same can be said for Amazing Day, with its simple and dreamlike melody giving way for the story of two lovers sat on a roof, naming the stars and confessing their love for one another. Whilst it may be a bit of a standard love scenario, it doesn’t feel contrived, and is a good display of a band striving to be cool and different in some places, and not being afraid of who they are at their core in others.

Although that’s a blessing to listeners, it can also come across as a bit of a struggle in songs where they’re trying to expand themselves both musically and lyrically. Hidden track X Marks the Spot, whilst striving to be a contender to Daft Punk’s recent Random Access Memories, falls a bit flat with its sluggish beat, and attempts to divert from the usual lyrics of heartbeats and miracles with equally commonplace lines like “I just put my hands up to the sky, feeling like I’ve got a rocketship that I want to ride”. The album works when Coldplay make efforts to go beyond the musical style they’re used to, but not when they channel their efforts into doing this lyrically too.

That, ultimately, is what cripples the album in the end. Final track Up and Up, whilst it creates a good contender to Oasis’ Champagne Supernova, thanks in part to Noel Gallagher himself creating an appropriately grand guitar riff, the lyrics don’t do the large chorus sound and inspirational “we’re going to get it, get it together” message of the song justice. Coldplay have never been the strongest lyrical bands around, but that’s allowed for more attention to be focused on the good sound they create. Silly lyrics like “trying to empty out the ocean with a spoon” don’t, undermining the song in this case.
Overall, A Head Full of Dreams is littered with gems that demonstrate Coldplay’s willingness to experiment musically, and their ability to create simple but emotive pieces when they remain true to who they are lyrically, even if that isn’t the strongest. However, in places where they attempt to diverge from this, it weakens what they try to achieve musically, as was the case with Mylo Xyloto. If this is to be the band’s last album, it certainly isn’t their strongest, but it’s a fine example of how Coldplay perform best, and the fruitful results that can happen when they do.

Steve Ince – Interview

The man of the hour (or at least the twenty minutes we spoke for)

Steve Ince is one of the most prolific names in the videogames industry, having worked as a freelance writer and consultant game designer in a career spanning over twenty years.

Steve is renowned for his writing on the Broken Sword series, which he worked on at York-based company Revolutionary Software (originally based in Hull), and has written for a number of popular titles including The Witcher series and the So Blonde adventure titles.

You’re well known for your work as a writer in the industry. Was that where you started out?

“It’s funny because I kind of gave up the idea of writing years before joining the industry as the art side took over. I took my portfolio of work along to my first job and was asked to do a trial period an old 286 PC, which I’d not had much experience working on, and converting to Amiga graphics, too.

“I had to grapple with a lot of complex software during my early days, which was crazy but it was great fun. It taught me so much about the subtleties of animation, which I used to work on the background animation of Beneath a Steel Sky.”

Background painting in Beneath a Steel Sky: just some of the fruits of Steve's artistic labours
Background painting in Beneath a Steel Sky: just some of the fruits of Steve’s artistic labours

Storytelling has lived on through the rise and fall of a number of technologies. Do you think the writing process for games has changed because of these technologies?

“Writing is about telling stories about characters and trying to find that human connection. People have been telling stories for thousands of years, and the core way that we tell stories hasn’t changed, just how we present these stories to the player.

“We’ve had a proliferation of platforms, all of which have given players different ways of connecting to a game and changed the way we interact with players, but the fundamentals of storytelling are still more or less the same.”

Virtual reality: a step forward for interactivity in games, a step back in trying to not look like a dunce

Some of the stories told in games could also be told in a different medium. What is it that makes yourself or others writers write these stories for video games?

“Different media have different approaches to storytelling and the way that they engage with their audience. I’ve written stories for comics, games and novels, and when you come up with an idea, you know where the best fit is.

“Of course, it’s never made up of just one thing. You’ve got a mixture of character and plot ideas, location concepts, and the basic storytelling components, so it’s about deciding where all of those would be best placed.”

Steve, thank you for donating this gem of a story series to video games.
I speak for many in saying that I’m glad this ‘mixture of ideas’ was born and lived on as a video game

Recently there’s been a big rise in interactive narratives, like those of Telltale Games, where player choice is important to changing the story. How much should changing the story be left in the hands of the player compared to those of the developer?

“Sometimes you have a very specific story that you want to tell, and so you might choose to give the player some agency for making decisions during the game and creating their own path, but ultimately there’s a goal that needs to be achieved when it comes to the story.

“The real strength of video games is that we have this potential to deliver stories that nobody else is doing, because there’s there’s no one way of doing it. Everything is different, and we should allow everything to be different.”

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Telltale has made its mark telling rich stories, and providing many ‘dem feelz’ moments like this

A lot of games allow players to customise their own character, for example, but these characters might have a pre-set backstory. How do you cope as a writer when faced with challenges such as this?

“As a writer, you need to write in a way that delivers the best and adapt accordingly. More emphasis might be placed in areas where the creative team has more control, such as world-building in RPGs, which explains the shallowness of characters in these types of games.

“Of course, this can go completely the other way, where too much emphasis is placed on discovering the backstory, something which is all too common in some recent games.”

Great world, shallow characters... yup, sounds about right!
Great world, shallow characters… yup, sounds about right!

How do you want the industry to respond to these and similar challenges, and where do you want to see the writer at the end of that?

“I think that we need to see more stories that don’t require violence. The violent games might have very engaging gameplay, but there are other ways to have engaging gameplay without rehashing some of the characteristics that have come in games before, particularly in the 90s.

“It’s a difficult position when you’re not getting millions in publisher funds, but you can easily explore stories on a budget of £100,000 and get real-world emotion and acting, like games such as Her Story have done with filmed footage.”

Are writers alone enough to change this from being the 'industry norm'?
The main culprit at question – can the industry change old habits?

Project ‘IGN Freelance’ – Take Two

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So earlier this year, I wrote a little something on my blog called ‘Project ‘IGN Freelance’, where I submitted three samples to the titan entertainment website that is IGN in the hope of becoming a budding freelancer.

To put it bluntly, my project failed, as my samples weren’t accepted. But before you form a virtual angry mob on my behalf (I can dream, can’t I?), the project now returns from the depths of January 2014, as IGN have put out another advert for the job.

Are my creative juices enough to secure me the position? Will these three samples be the key to unlocking my freelancing future? Need I be so overdramatic?

Stay tuned to find out!

Gaming – A Poor Man’s Holiday

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Having spent my Sunday morning binge-watching ‘Honest Trailers’, refusing to step outside into the buzzkill that is ‘the tail-end of Hurricane Bertha’, I think to myself, ‘God, I could do with a holiday’. Sadly, working part time and spending most of your wages on bus fair doesn’t exactly put you in the best position to pay for one.

So, how can a poor wanderluster like myself get a free holiday, without performing twenty four acts of fellatio (any at all, preferably) in a Magaluf night club? It’s simple – gaming.

Back in the day, gaming used to be the very reason I went on holiday. Like the sad little youth I was (arguably, I still am), I’d spend most of my time playing on Wario Land 3 until a) my Mum booted me off b) I booted myself off at risk of popping an eyeball.

A holiday was a form of escapism from gaming, a chance to see a ‘new world’ instead of the lackluster 2D one I experienced every single day. And now, it seems, the tables have turned – for gaming is my escapism from the holiday.

With the incredible developments that gaming has undergone in the last decade, it’s now become the poor man’s holiday. The main culprit for that, I’d say, is the open world game.

For a maximum of £40, you can travel the Caribbean on a pirate ship, searching for gold and adventure wherever it may be. Or, you can travel across The Milky Way in a space cruiser, fighting exotic alien races and exploring new depths of the galaxy. You can’t find that in a Thomas Cook catalogue now, can you?

Let’s face it – as we grow up, the family holiday becomes nothing more than a distant memory. Reality checks in, and trying to find a nice destination to go to that isn’t just for the sake of going on holiday can be pretty expensive. The short term solution, therefore, is gaming.

By all means, I’m not suggesting that gaming becomes the substitute to a holiday. After all, you don’t want to become one of those ‘basement dwellers’ who retches at the sight of natural light and the thought of social interaction. Instead, think of it as a supplement until the real thing arrives, like those free samples you get at ASDA.

But until it does, go grab that Dualshock controller and get lost in that cheap-as-chips virtual world. Heck, stick your feet out of the patio door whilst you play, you may even get that tan you wanted to go away for.

My Bike Story – ‘Blood Dragon’

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We all have our bike stories to tell. Whether it’s that trip to Centre Parks with the family, or just that you can sing Queen’s ‘Bicycle Race’ without a lyrics sheet. Well, folks, here’s my bike story – I call it ‘Blood Dragon’.

There’s been nothing tougher than spending my first year at University as an off-campus student. Living in the not-so-fancy Tang Hall area, I had to walk for half an hour to get to uni, there and back, every single day. Some days, I’d stay at my girlfriend’s place just to avoid leaving campus (and, because I wanted to, of course).

Then, one day, I heard there was a bike sale of re-cycled bikes on-campus. Initially, I had my fears, but there was no harm in at least popping along. When I arrived, there was a range of slightly-rusted bikes, ranging both in colour and price. After much scanning, I found my needle in the haystack – a steed for £50, with all kit included. Bingo. My luck hadn’t run out after all! However, there was one small catch:

The bike was bright pink with neon green handlebars.

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Sadly, it doesn’t come with the drain pipe!

Yikes. I stood there assuring myself, with sentences such as “Ady, it’s fine, it has that vintage, California beach look about it!” and “It’s salmon, dammit, salmon!”. I knew that I’d live to regret this, forever mocked by my immediate family and passer-by chavs. But, being the cheapskate that I am, I couldn’t ignore how cheap it was, how proud my Mum would be for buying a bike £30 cheaper than my brother.

And so, after handing over my money and receiving a ‘That’s a unique choice, mate!’ from the seller, I have something that can get me to and fro rather quickly, is the brightest bike on campus and beyond and gives me an excuse to sing ‘Bicycle Race’.

So why call this story Blood Dragon? Well, for any gamers and popular-culture-enthusiasts out there, it relates to Far Cry 3’s standalone adventure, ‘Blood Dragon’. For those who aren’t either of the above, the game showcases killer cyborgs, laser dinosaurs and more bright pinks and neon greens than an exercise video from the 80s!

Sgt. Rex Power Colt - my bike's inspiration
Sgt. Rex Power Colt – my bike’s inspiration

Sadly, I am sad enough to name my bike ‘Blood Dragon’… all judgmental comments are welcome.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – Film Review

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When I first saw The Amazing Spider-Man, as both a cinemagoer and an avid Marvel fanboy, I had but one question on my mind: ‘Didn’t I see this movie ten years ago?’. Poor Webb. When Sony approaches you to reboot Marvel’s greatest superhero that already had a perfectly suitable origin story, a memorable cast and a charismatic Asian lady playing his theme tune, it was inevitable that some toes were going to be trodden on.

Now, two years later, our toes are somewhat healed and ready for Andrew Garfield’s second entry as our friendly neighbourhood hero. Does his charisma hold together this web of ideas? Or does director Mark Webb swing in too many directions? Can I possibly make any more spider puns?

The sequel opens up in a rather dramatic fashion. A continuation of the flashbacks in the first film sees Peter Parker’s parents, Richard (Campbell Scot) and Mary (Embeth Davidtz), leaving the child with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). The nature of Richard’s work with Oscorp puts him in danger, leading to the couple’s inevitable death and the laying of the shady corporation’s foundations into place.

Years on, the incident, the death of Gwen’s father and the continuing responsibilities of Spider-Man put Peter, and those he loves, at risk. Can the superstar of New York possibly keep up the pace with love interest Gwen (Emma Stone), the return of old friend Harry (Dane DeHaan) and the rise of misunderstood villain, Electro (Jamie Foxx)?

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Old Friends, New Challenges

As you can see from my somewhat long-winded description, there is a lot going on here. Mark Webb, this time around, is a bit of a visionary. With plans to extend Spidey’s universe into two more films, as well as two spinoff films, The Amazing Spider Man 2 oozes continuity rumours, sub plots and the ticking of the right Spider-Man boxes.

Whilst it may feel over-stuffed with ideas, the film does right to relate it all (albeit, with some tedious links) to the film’s plot. It’s admirable, considering the franchise doesn’t have any other Marvel films to bounce off of like the rest of its cinematic universe. Taking the film in its own right, as a sequel to the first film and a middle-finger to the Sam Raimi films of old, it’s a successor in almost every single way.

Garfield is swarve, cocky and adorably awkward as both Peter Parker and Spider-Man. Whether it’s the choreographed web-swings, the humiliation of Russian mobster Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti) or his head-over-heels moments with Gwen, the man helms this entire universe, bringing a spark of life out of its characters. As great as Tobey Maguire was, Garfield (again) just leaves him out to dry as the Spider-Man of old. And yes, for those concerned, he is just as ripped.

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Your Friendly Neighbourhood Hero

In terms of the action, comedy and romance, Webb has turned the dial up to 11 on every aspect, making them complement one another perfectly. At times, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, with CGI boss-fights and wise-cracks galore to please the simpleton in all of us. Then, it wants to wrench your heart out in Garfield’s scenes with co-star Stone, as you remember that this superhero is just a teenager like many of us, with promises to keep and a life to lead. Particularly with Gwen’s valedictorian speech, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

Of course, a round of applause must go to Foxx and DeHaan for their strong depictions of some of the web-head’s greatest villains and the universe’s most intriguing characters. One can hope that they return in The Sinister Six movie, but they will not be missed as much as a character who meets their end in the film. Nudge nudge!

Overall, The Amazing Spider Man 2 acts as a successor movie to its prequel, as well as a building foundation to its further movies, which creates some building tensions within the movie. Still, you can’t ignore the film’s evident charm and mass-appeal to the cinemagoer and Marvel fanboy in all of us. You may leave slightly disappointed, but you’ll be guaranteed to be quoting it and practising your wise-cracks on the way home – or is that just me?

That’s No Moon, That’s a Book Review!

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Not too long ago, in this very galaxy, Verily, A New Hope brought two pieces of treasured history, Shakespeare and Star Wars, together. That literary geek’s dream now has a sequel: The Empire Striketh Back. If you need an excuse to brush up on your love for Shakespeare, your Star Wars fanatics or that ghastly impression of Yoda, Ian Doescher may have just found it.

From the moment you grasp the book, it hits you that you’re holding something brilliant. A centralised Yoda coated in Shakespearean quilt dominates the cover, surrounded by an exquisite scenery and classic Star Wars characters and vehicles. Together, they mock and complement one another in perfect harmony, with these illustrations continuing throughout the book.

As for the inside, a traditional Shakespeare story awaits you, only this time set in space. Once you begin to read the prologue, you see what Doescher is trying to do – translate The Empire Strikes Back’s dialogue into Shakespearean. Take Han Solo’s “Punch it!” line and you get “Anon, Chewbacca, lead us to our fate!”. The effect is simultaneously humorous and impressive in that it feels authentic for Star Wars and Shakespeare fans alike.

Like So!
Like so!

This isn’t just in Doescher’s dialogue, but in his presentation of each and every page. The book is divided into five Acts, each divided into Scenes, each Scene presented in the form of a traditional Shakespeare play. You have your characters and stage directions, the use of iambic pentameter and prose, and just about every Shakespearean device you could name. From reading the Afterword, you can tell that the man knows his stuff.

Don’t assume that he is simply a scribe – he has his own, literary imagination to toy with. Through his use of monologues, you gain an extended insight into the characters and themes of The Empire Strikes Back. Some of them are suitably hilarious (every now and again, Chewbacca and R2-D2 get their own, dramatic speeches), but the majority heighten the film to another level of ass-kicking sophistication.

A minor criticism is that, just like with the first two Harry Potter films, if you’ve experienced it before, you’ll get a strange sense of déjà vu. The plot almost entirely follows that of the film (save swapping a few scenes around), which becomes more obvious when you follow the book alongside the film like a script. That’s to be expected, as the surprises and changes are intended for the dialogue.

And so, once I finished this heroic tale and chuckled at its closing sonnet, all I could do was await The Jedi Doth Return. Shakespeare and Star Wars fans, with criticisms considered: this is the spoof you were looking for.