Uncategorized

An Interview: Connor Sherlock

One of my favourite video-game related memories is of wandering the desert outside of the citadel in Naughty Dog’s Jak 3.
If my memory serves me well , so long as you exited the hub world without a (spiky, PG Mad Max) car, you could just wander and wander and wander around without being bothered for as long as you liked. I loved being able to just walk and walk and walk across an awe-inspiring (to me, anyway) alien landscape. Sure, I enjoyed the jumping and the racing and the shooting and the story-ing as well, but honestly, my most positive memories of Jak 3 are those where I just walked.
(I suppose that means I hate video games, right? To be honest, I probably do.)
It’s not the only game I remember in such a way. And at least it let you do it. Unlike some games. Like when I just wanted to swim in the river and visit the islands and houses in Dishonoured, and the game delivered damage unto me until I went back and played it properly (not to knock that game too much; I value both it and Mr. Harvey Smith a great deal). Or like when I wanted to drive off-road in Insert Driving Game Here, and was blocked by unbreakable barriers. Or like recent video games, like those made by Ubisoft, which offer this great space to explore, but just dump so much stuff in it to the point where you can’t breathe. There’s no real time for contemplation when there’s an unrealistically vicious tiger running towards you
(Note to self: have that last sentence carved into my tombstone).             
Sometimes the best moments in games are the moments that just let you walk. That just let you explore the beautifully-constructed interactive space presented to you, not shoot your way out of it.
Often those optional moments, moments that the game doesn’t want you to focus on and sometimes even left in by accident, are the best parts of the whole game, the parts that stay with you long after the gunplay has faded from memory. As Connor Sherlock notes below: “I thought the Mako sections in Mass Effect were great!” Heck, the wonderful Mr. JP LeBreton set up his ‘Game Tourism’ project precisely so you could just walk without having your head blown off.
But what about those games that are expressly designed for you just to walk within the interactive space they offer? Those so-called ‘walking simulators’?
Games of that type have received what this writer believes to be a horrendously, almost comically disproportionate level of vitriol from many; the kind of vitriol often reserved only for when a female celebrity dares to look like a normal person in public, or for when Netflix’s servers are down. Walking simulators are seen by some as an out-an-out threat to the sanctity of video games with others just dismissing them out of hand.
Connor Sherlock is a self-avowed developer of ‘walking simulators’; he’s made a fair few in his time, his style constantly developing and maturing in genuinely artistically exciting ways. He even runs a Patreon – his ‘walking simulator a month club’ – wherein, in return for a small donation (one USD), one can have a small, completely new interactive space to walk through delivered straight to their inbox every month.
Pretty cool.
More recently, he’s announced plans to fully remake his hour-long B.P (before Patreon) horror piece Marginalia (the original having been made over the course of one month in 2014) with the help of Cameron Kunzelman (writer, developer, academic, clever person); just last month, a self-described “spooky Halloween teaser” to the project, The Disappearance of Eileen Kestler, a fascinating curtain-raiser that promises an equally fascinating concerto to come sometime in 2017.
Really, the best way to describe his approach as a game developer is using one of his own games as an example; Grave Apologies (made as part of his self-described Patreon “experiment”). On its itch.io page, Sherlock said this: “Inspired by walks with my partner through Forest Lawn Cemetery by Frank Olmstead”; that one sentence manages to say so much about Sherlock’s approach as an artist. His fascination with the tangible yet surreal spaces that exist in our memories; how memory and our interpretations therein both abstract the space in our heads; his fascination with architecture and the way he incorporates the structures and the spaces that exist in the real world into an interactive exploratory space in a way that feels natural, effortless even; and the way he uses other people’s works as a jumping-off point, textually (utilising Lovecraft extracts verbatim in TRIHAYWBFRFYH), musically, and spatially.
Just as Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn of Tale of Tales were able to reappropriate the term ‘notgame’ and turn it into a positive statement of intent, so too has Connor taken the term ‘walking simulator’ (used essentially as a slur word these days) and done the same. After all, who doesn’t like walking? Especially through weird, beautiful, haunting alien landscapes that linger in the mind, or Scottish islands possibly constructed by the mind, or hand-drawn Hamlets that explore the past of probably one of Scotland’s greatest artists, or sun-dappled American vistas tinged with mystery, or the creations of a possibly-real possibly-fictional possibly-both game developer that tell the story of a person struggling to deal with something they do not understand?
I could go on, but then I’d be moving too far away from our subject for today.
“At the end of the day”, Sherlock noted in a recent article on the subject by Killscreen, “I don’t care what we call them if it will get people playing them.”
Enjoy some wonderful, erudite, and insightful answers to some mediocre questions from a pretty brilliant developer (or, in the words of one of those online video game magazines, the “master of the quote-unquote walking sim”), who’s turning a negative term into beautiful, positive art.

*

What was it that attracted you making notgames (as coined by Michaël Samyn)?
The first creative things I put on the internet were Let’s Plays that I started making in 2011 on a whim. They weren’t great, but it was fun to learn video editing, and create bizarre new narratives out of the games I played. I started using a lot of copyrighted songs and movie footage which YouTube eventually stamped down on, and instead of going back to playing them straight, I decided to try my hand at actually making a game instead of chopping up footage of somebody else’s and replacing the soundtrack. King of the Wood and Slender are the two that stood out the most and inspired me to start making short story or vignettes-style games in unity, both of which I found through LPers [that stands for ‘Let’s Players’, or ‘players of games on the internet’ for those not in the know].
At about the same time Merritt Kopas, who I was good friends with growing up, was doing great work with LIM and championing the game-mechanic-as-artistic-statement. Even though my own ‘statement’ ended up as having as little traditional game mechanics as possible, knowing somebody in ~real life~ who was doing important, interesting stuff in games definitely gave me the courage boost I needed to put weird stuff out into the wild.

What do you think it is about exploratory works like yours that means that they’re so disparaged by so many? Why is it that they’re labelled “walking simulators”, viewed with contempt, and seen as unfit to stand alongside “real” games? In other words, what the hell is their problem?
Videogames are products that become more complex visually and mechanically to justify always being sold at a premium price. Walking Simulators are purposefully simple mechanically, and often visually since they’re usually made by amateurs or small teams. They are “bad” videogames, and generally only get away with it by being free/cheap. They are also bad Art, since they don’t lend themselves well to galleries or live performances, and are infinitely reproducible. They’re maybe coming close to making good folk art now that the tools to make them are getting easier to access and use, but that is getting swallowed up by “user-created content” in closed ecosystems like Mario Maker. I think Walking Simulators do make great lower-case ‘a’ art though. It’s just that videogames have never much cared about expressing anything personal or political or real, and I would argue still don’t. Our little art-game movement is very small and very insular and very isolated. For most people (often me included), “Indie” still means mindlessly shooting aliens for Points, and not much besides that.

Your “walking simulator a month club” is a decidedly novel usage of Patreon, and an idea I firmly advocate and endorse (I mean, I am a member, after all). However: do you at any point intend to work on a longer form project? And if you do/are already, surely the pressure of having to deliver an operational interactive experience on a monthly basis for sixty people distracts from the creative process?
Thanks for being part of the experiment! Switching on the Patreon page was admitting to myself that I didn’t have the time/money/resources/expertise to make a shelf-ready product. For nearly a year I was trying to cobble together something that I could eventually sell on steam, or pitch as a Kickstarter, but the level of polish I was going after was paralyzing me, and I had nothing to show for my hand-wringing. I probably should have spent that year doing nothing but programming courses, but at the end of the day I’d have just learned a different set of lessons. After going about trying to learn all the various sub-jobs that being a one man band entailed, I realized I was less interested in mechanical elegance and flow, or traditional/cinematic narrative structures, which guts most of what people expect from “games”. The bits of games I’d been trying to emulate – standing on roads between towns in Morrowind gawking at the skybox, or the long, quiet slogs between Nav[igation] points in Mechwarrior 2 – are completely incidental, almost throwaway parts of the whole they’re a part of.
Ditching all that stuff means it’s hard to sell what I’m making as games, and if I can’t sell it, I’ll never be able to do it full time. With Patreon, it feels acceptable to be working on whatever I felt like at the time, without having to worry about title screens and options menus, or worry about whether what I was making fit into accepted notions of videogames or art. It’s nowhere near full-time employment, but it’s holding steady as a weekend gig, and with a bit of luck will keep growing.
The pressure to make something digestible and worthwhile every month is definitely there (I knew that going in, reading about it from other people, but ooooh man the pressure), but it’s good for me! I’ve learned the hard way how to get a good workflow going and how to do creative work when the motivation or inspiration is not necessarily apparent or freewheeling, which is important if this is to ever become a full time job. I’m getting way better way faster than I would loafing about on my own terms, at least at the level design part… the nature of the projects means my programming skills haven’t grown as fast.
As for longer term and more traditionally ‘gamey’ projects, I definitely have a few that I’m dying to make happen, but at the moment I just can’t seem to find the time. I’m happy right now with working to maintain a good life/work/walking simulator balance, and any extra found time at the moment gets absorbed into the walking sims. The pipe dream at the moment is the work and walking simulators become the same thing, then longer form projects can become the hobby.

1077925615495371976

Sherlock’s Patreon experiment has yielded fascinating results like As the Fog Burns (pictured above). The ‘walking simulators’ Sherlock delivers to your inbox remain in constant realtime; uninterrupted by action, they are they for you to explore at your leisure. They work for someone who just want five minutes in some alien landscape, or for someone else who wants to spend hours exploring every nook and cranny of the developer’s deceptively simple worlds.

My favourite work of yours is “The Rapture Is Here And You Will Be Forcibly Removed From Your Home” (not least because of its brilliant title). It’s bleak, compelling and impactful in all the best ways. How did the idea come to you, and what was the process of development like?
It being my first videogame and going in with no skills whatsoever, I forced myself to keep the game to as few moving parts as I could so that I wouldn’t over-scope. I felt comfortable making music, so it was going to revolve around a piece of music, and I felt comfortable with the terrain editor in unity, so it was going to take place in a field/forest. I was listening to a lot of post-rock and Brian Eno at the time, and wanted to embrace minimalism of the latter, and wanted a bad-ass, overly-long name that tends to go with the former. Until I recorded the music, I was using [the album] Evening Star by [Brian] Eno and [Robert] Fripp as a placeholder [not to be confused with the British communist newspaper of a similar name]. The title came to me out of the blue while walking down the street on the way to take the bus to work, but I immediately recognised it as something worth keeping. I ran with that and started building something around my father’s experience with religion as a kid, merging that with my own childhood experiences exploring Prince Edward Island alone during my family’s yearly summer vacation there.
The Lovecraft element was added later. I wasn’t confident enough in the game to release it without a spoken script, but on the flip side wasn’t confident in my own writing. I was reading Lovecraft and knew that his work was in the public domain, and I decided to use snippets of his as placeholders while testing out ideas. I didn’t expect it to fit very well, but I loved the odd juxtaposition of Lovecraft’s themes with the quasi-religious ones I had been working with. The abstract nature of the game lets people mix the two together as they see fit. The mechanics of the game, namely slowly revealing the otherworldly geometry as you go through the stories, naturally fell into place once I started choosing specific stories to cut up and include.
As I was making it, I tried to embrace the scrappy, freeware nature of the game whenever possible and use it to my advantage. The unity engine had a reputation for being ‘plastic-y’ at the time, and I tried to tie that into the timbre of the music with the moog sounds, and make the square geometry feel almost wet or organic at times.
Being a free to play game, I felt free to be malicious in ways that you couldn’t get away with if I were charging for the experience. The working title became “Evil Proteus”. I wanted the game-as-object to be as violent and unwelcoming as possible, while having the gameplay be smooth and serene. The basic walking around and swaying grass and glossy music was as AAA as I could make it, but everything else was harsh and mean and trashy. The trailer is just a still shot that occasionally jumps to bombast, with a full minute of nothing at the end. The description is just a jumble of letters and something about the world ending in 22 minutes to cause confusion, only to grow into vague alarm when it unfolds to “THE RAPTURE IS HERE AND YOU WILL BE FORCIBLY REMOVED FROM YOU HOME” when you open it.
I wanted the emotions felt in the game to bleed out into real life. I tried to keep the player somewhere between being fully lost in the experience of being in a field and accepting their death, and being reminded that this was videogame they were supposed to figure out and ‘win’ but never could. Nothing fades in or out smoothly, it’s constantly jerking the player through load screens, audio starts and stops jarringly, and geometry purposefully slams into existence in front of the player.  The music and terrain were the grounding elements, but trying to run away from the sky-object leads to obviously artificial walls that you can’t get across. Collecting the obvious collectibles only makes the world more sinister and inescapable. Your final moments aren’t a slow fade to black but blinding light and noise followed by being torn to another screen without warning.
I’m toying with releasing a HD remix of sorts for a few bucks on steam/itch (it’s why I haven’t released it on itch.io yet!) but don’t know if I can justify all these malicious and purposefully bad design decisions and feel good about charging money for it. I’m also torn on whether I want to ditch the abridged Lovecraft elements of the game and go back to the original plan of having being purely musical.

Leading on from the above question: would you say you have a specific design philosophy when developing your games or do you just go with the flow?
All of my games are pretty improvisational once I actually start working on them instead of mulling them around in my head. The music is always very free-form and improvised initially, then gone back over for later to editing and layer the short pieces I came up with into the correct length and tone. For the level geometry, I tend to start with a central vista or piece of architecture and work outwards from there, moving around it and adjusting things in a somewhat of a Cézannian fashion.
The exact design goals change from project to project, but I’m usually trying to build up a particular emotion, and let the player stew in it. I often do this by using a lot of dead or negative space, allowing the player’s mind to wander in the long slogs between goals/set pieces. I’ve heard a number of times that “good design” is giving the player something new to focus on or task to complete or corner to turn every 6 seconds, or they will lose interest in what they’re doing. That always sounded kind of desperate to me? I want my games to allow for self-reflection and personal thought in the same way looking at a painting or listening to a piece of instrumental music would, and it’s hard for that to happen naturally if you’re drip feeding distractions to centre a player’s attention.

What is it you’re hoping to accomplish with the upcoming remake of Marginalia that you didn’t accomplish the first time around?
Honestly, I’m still all fucked up about charging money for stuff, and giving it a nice paint job and some options menus will go a long way towards making me feel comfortable about it. I’m hoping to turn Marginalia from looking like an N64 game to as close to modern AAA as I can.
Cameron and I had been talking about making a thing together since the release of Catachresis and TRIHAYWBFRFYH, after he tweeted something to the tune of “hey if anybody need a writer for a game hit me up”. After almost a year of not getting anything off the ground (I kept on getting distracted by game jams), we decided to whip something up quickly for Halloween. While I’m happy with the end result, Marginalia was built off the cuff in a few weekends, with the old free version of unity that gated a lot of the fun graphical stuff. I decided last minute to charge money for it, just to dip my toes in the water – everything else I had made was free of charge. Submitting it to [Steam] Greenlight was the same. I figured if it got through it was worth revisiting, and giving it the love I wish I had time for originally. It took a while, but I’ve gotten a lot better at making spooky forests since then, so it’s worked out nicely.

house-on-fire-1

Made in collaboration with Cameron Kunzelman, The Disappearance of Eileen Kestler is, in its creators’ own words, “a short game where you walk through the forest”. With a burning house thrown in for good measure.

If you don’t mind me saying, you’re one hell of a musician, but most of the work you release is scores for your games. Would you consider dedicating yourself to a musical project for music’s sake?
Thanks! I occasionally get the urge to get a band together (though no desire to do live shows, stage fright is the worst), or do a Perturbator-esque concept album, but the budget for these ideas get really bloated really quick. I’d need to buy new instruments, real synths, proper mics, etc. for me to feel ‘legit’. Whether I actually ever get around to making an album is up in the air though, it’s competing with wanting to start brewing and pickling, and making Warhammer 40,000 terrain buildings out of concrete to sell on Etsy.

Who would you say are the best, most groundbreaking developers currently active at the moment, and why?
You didn’t say game developers, so I’m going to say Leaf Corcoran and the team behind itch.io, and Cross and company at Gamejolt. They are the roomy pots full of earthy soil that are letting indie games grow heathy and large.

What would you say are the most important games ever made, and why?
This question is mean! I’ve been completely unable to come up with an answer that I find in any way acceptable. My joke answer is Ecco the Dolphin [there is nothing funny about Ecco the Dolphin, slayer of the Vortex Queen, Connor; you should know this].

What was the last videogame you played, and did you enjoy/appreciate the experience?
During the Steam Summer Sale I bought Horizons, the expansion to Elite: Dangerous that lets you land on atmosphere-less planets. I finally fired it up, and they pulled off the generated terrain flawlessly, and it looks gorgeous from orbit to being on the ground.  It gets the magnificent desolation right. It’s the infinite-Mako-experience I was hoping it would be – unlike everybody else, I thought the Mako sections in [the first] Mass Effect were great! They made the galaxy feel like a real, explorable place instead of a series of set pieces. Unlike Mass Effect, Elite actually does have a huge universe, but it felt a little disconnected from itself not being able to visit any of the places you see, save space stations. This goes a long way towards fixing that problem. Now all I want to get out of my ship and hang out in the space station bars.

Leading on from the above question, what would you say are your favourite games you’ve played this year are, and why? (They don’t necessarily need to have been released this year, if that helps)
The Long Dark! Holy moly have I lost a lot of time to this game. It transitions wonderfully from a tense fight for your life against the elements, pillaging the remains of civilization into a serene hunter-gatherer existence built on routine and preparation. I’ve also taken a lot of inspiration from their use of the unity engine and its terrain system, and how they design large levels in general.
Metal Gear Solid V! It’s somehow a wondrous remix of my two favourite Ubisoft Clint Hocking games: Far Cry 2 and Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. I like that your wolf friend can’t kill people until you buy it a knife.
I’ve also been finally making my way through Dark Souls, after dropping it for nearly a year after hitting Blighttown. I am a cleric with a +9 Divine Claymore in Lost Izaleth named Odrade and having a blast. I’m in it for all the interconnected levels and twisty architecture and it is not disappointing.

Have a non-game-related question: is the biggest problem facing the world right now, and what can we do about it (if anything)?
Tightening borders and isolationism. Vote against it, I guess… [Judging by recent events in both my country and beyond, it would appear that people DIDN’T GET THE MEMO]

To conclude: you are to be stranded on a desolate rock in the middle of the Atlantic by a bunch of way-not-cool pirates. For some reason known only to themselves they’ve allowed you to one film, one book, one album, one video game and one other item along with you. Which of each do you bring, and why?
MovieBrazil. I’d feel happier about being deserted and alone.
BookThomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding. Or the Dark Tower series [by the relatively obscure Mr. Stephen King] because I’d want something I haven’t read before.
Album“Heroes” by David Bowie: probably the best album by probably the best musician of the 20th century. Side A is great pop songs, side B is great ambient tunes.
GameCrusader Kings II: tons of replayability with emergent medieval soap opera dramas
Item – Maybe a telescope? A good ones so I could see planets. Being able to set fires and look for passing ships is a bonus.

*

You can download Connor’s wonderful interactive pieces HERE
And follow him on Twitter HERE
You can also join his Walking Simulator a Month Club HERE, to support the continued production of his “propaganda pretending to be art”.
You can also follow me on Twitter HERE, though to be perfectly honest I don’t know why you’d want to. Not because I’m not an excellent tweeter (which I’m not, but that’s beside the point), but rather because Twitter is an angry fascist garbage fire run by people who don’t seem to know what a block button does.  Still, follow Connor though.
Thanks for reading; do please check out Connor’s work, any other articles on this website that might interest you, and lastly, have a lovely day!

Cooking, For Lovers: A Brief Discussion

Game name? Cooking, For Lovers. Game Developer(s)? Increpare
Note: The below text contains spoilers for Cooking, For Lovers, a game impossible to talk about without spoiling. I would recommend you play the game first. It’s only three minutes long. I can wait. LINK: http://www.increpare.com/2014/11/cooking-for-lovers/

Cooking, for Lovers is a game about making a Pot Noodle. That’s it. That’s the core (and in fact the only) gameplay in summed up neatly and concisely in one sentence. It’s not long either. At most it’ll take you around three minutes to complete; at least it’ll take around fifty seconds.
You play a person, gender never specified. You have a paper bag. Inside said paper bag is a Pot Noodle (or some variant thereof). You put water in the kettle, boil the water, pour the hot water into the Pot Noodle, and then go grab a fork. After that, you sit down on the floor, and nothing else happens. There’s no game over screen, no credits, no cut to black, no fade to black, no cut to white, no fade to white. The game ends when you want it to end and not before.
Oh, did I also forget to mention that it’s utterly fantastic? Yeah, I think that might have slipped my mind. Sorry.
Cooking, for Lovers struck a chord with me I can’t quite describe. It succeeds because it tells the player nothing; it’s all about personal interpretation. You can take as much or as little out of it as you want. You can take it at face value, or you can dig deeper.
Let’s take it at face value: it’s about a person who comes home and makes themselves a pot noodle. THE END.
Now let’s can look deeper. First, the title. The title is painfully ironic. It implies the act of cooking for a couple, a pair of people who love each other dearly, when it’s clear that the player character is most certainly eating alone.
The kitchen you are in is drab and functional. It feels lifeless, cold and impersonal. It’s cramped and I felt claustrophobic as I moved in it. The character moves in such a floaty way and jumps so high, but the environment you are in doesn’t reward those traits. You feel fenced in, trapped even, with next to no freedom. The game allows you to do nothing else but make the damned pot noodle. You can’t leave the room, and you can’t perform any other tasks, not that there are any other tasks worth performing anyhow. This, combined with the grayscale look and minor-key soundtrack helps to create a game with an almost oppressively melancholic feel and one that practically oozes a sense of loneliness and quiet despair. The game rewards (and deserves) multiple replays, and each one proves more rewarding than the last. All of the above is what I got out of the experience, but you could get something completely different out of it, and that’s the real beauty of it.
Cooking, For Lovers is a practically perfect experience. It joins the small group of games like Dinner Date, The Graveyard and Glitchhikers that aim to capture the feeling of a single moment and a single emotion; Dinner Date the anxiety and despair that surfaces after being stood up, The Graveyard the sensation of walking among the dead, Glitchhikers the act of driving along the road alone at night and the thoughts that follow, and Cooking, For Lovers the feeling of preparing a meal for one and only one. And honestly, I think Cooking, For Lovers is the best of the pack. And I mean that. If the thought of seeing a “Christmas Meal for One” at a local supermarket fills you with the same kind of sadness as it does me, you’re bound to make a connection with Cooking, For Lovers. It’s a wonderful, lyrical, beautiful and emotional experience, and one I heartily recommend.

(Postscript: thanks to Cara Ellison for bringing this wonderful thing to widespread attention in her Ten Best Games of 2014 list last year)

Rocks That Bleed: A short film review (CONTAINS SPOILERS)

How would we really react if the world was about to end? Somehow I doubt we’d saddle up and steal a plane, because what would be the point? What could we do? What good would any of it do? Chances are, we’d sit and wait, and try to pretend it wasn’t happening. That’s what people do. We ignore the inevitable at the cost of not being prepared for it when it comes. Rocks That Bleed, the new film from Bertie Gilbert and Sammy Paul (co-director of the utterly fantastic The Fleeting Little Life of Peter Wright), explores that grim reality. It defies action movie clichés, and even though it’s set during the end of the world, it never feels like an end of the world film. It instead feels much more like a character study that just so happens to be set as the world is saying its final goodbyes.
Rocks that bleed (a title which is either shown in all-caps or all lowercase so I’m never sure which words to capitalise, ta for that Gilbert) is technically an apocalypse film, but the end of the world mostly sticks to the sidelines. What is causing the final end of humanity is only hinted at by excessive heat and the presence of “Here Comes the Sun” at the end. The main focus of the film is instead on its two main characters, Joe and Sidney; they’re brothers, but they’ve not seen each other for a year and a half, Sidney having ignored his brother’s calls and never meeting up with him. Joe comes to Sidney’s house, to spend a final day with him before the Earth’s final day comes around. The two hold awkward and brief conversations, seemingly unable to find the right words to say. They reminisce about Sidney’s seventeenth and eighteenth birthdays, and how much their relationship seemingly changed in the course of one year.
Jack Howard as Joe is a revelation, and I don’t think it would be possible for anyone to act more against type. He’s tired, he’s awkward, and he’s sad-eyed; in other words, the polar opposite to the Jack Howard of the real world. It’s almost as if he’s trying to make himself as un-photogenic as is humanly possible, to do something completely different, and he pulls it off wonderfully. His performance is one of subtleties; he’s a man who has always tried to put a face on things, but now he can’t muster up the strength to do so. He’s broken, and even though he’s with his brother he feels desperately alone. Also, Gilbert’s performance might be the best he’s ever personally done, playing Sidney as a conflicted and insecure individual who hides his emotions behind a seemingly emotionless face.
Some of the themes that the film explores have been explored by some of Gilbert’s prior work, and the biggest similarity in terms of subject matter and tone to me is the very short short film Cosmic Divide, a film that detailed someone waiting and perhaps even dreading their brother’s return after a huge amount of time. Something that the two films definitely share is the amount of audience interpretation they both invite.
Rocks That Bleed is deliberately ambiguous, only providing slight hints about what Sid did in the year and a half he was apart from his family and working with his fellow “arty f*cking pricks”. Chris Kendall appears briefly in Sid’s only flashback for all of one minute and twenty-three seconds (that’s right, I counted) as a figure from Sid’s past, not mentioned before or again. It’s up to the audience to figure out who he is. Joe is a much more open character; his past is much plainer to see, his emotions easier to read. Sidney is a closed book, almost emotionless in tone and in behaviour, and only occasionally does his mask slip and do we see the tortured individual inside.
Something the film touches upon (and something I wish it could have perhaps explored with more depth) is the idea that ultimately Joe and Sidney’s problems don’t matter anymore. The world is ending, and very soon they will vanish without a trace. Their arguments will have been rendered meaningless, their past never to be known by anyone else. They will be gone, and their lives will have gone as well.
The film’s score, composed by Tom Rosenthal (not to be confused with the guy off Friday Night Dinner) is pitch perfect, complimenting each scene brilliantly and always fitting the tone just so. It’s used copiously in the first half, and (in a clever move) is almost completely absent from the second, replaced for the most part with an unsettling ambient roar that reminds the audience that the end is indeed nigh, and that there’s something so much bigger happening outside. A final flourish is an emotional piano-led cover of The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun, providing a darkly comic and deeply tragic tone to the film’s final moments (although I would have also accepted Talking Heads’ Burning Down the House). This is one of the few films where I feel like I need to buy the soundtrack, and I hope it becomes available soon; it’s fantastic in its own right, not just as a backdrop. At some points it almost seems like a third character in the film.
Technically it’s pretty much faultless, with the seemingly omnipresent Ciaran O’Brien outdoing himself once again, juggling both cinematography and colouring and doing both exceptionally well, with the oppressive colour of red dominating the frame in latter portions of the film; not only reflected the chaos outside, but also the chaos inside. Ironically, the rose-tinted flashbacks haven’t got a hint of red in them. The camerawork is assured and Howard’s editing is too.
The film is not always an easy watch. It’s an incredibly sad film, but one with some wonderful moments of both light and dark comedy, and one with wonderfully drawn characters, with Howard’s Joe lightening the mood.
Ultimately though, it almost seems like Joe has lost hope in the last moments of the film. He stares out in space, barely registering what his brother is saying to him. Has he given up? Has he finally realised what is to happen to him? That ultimately, everything that came before him means nothing now, and that there will be no trace of his past for anyone to see? Perhaps. Or perhaps it’s him remembering his wife, who has died a year beforehand; maybe he wishes he can die with her. And there’s Sidney, finally maskless, desperately trying to make up for lost time, desperately trying to find out how his brother is feeling. But it’s too late.
As with anything, there are a few problems here and there. I personally felt that the film’s references to other things felt quite jarring and out of place. While a joke about Joe not getting Spider-Man was funny, it pulled me out of the experience. I didn’t see Joe anymore, I saw Jack Howard, and while a Dean Dobbs cameo was amusing, it had the same effect on me, and I didn’t really see a point. But those are truly the nitpickiest of nitpicks, and honestly I’m at a loss to find any more faults.
Ultimately, Rocks That Bleed is brilliant. There’s really no way of putting it. It looks great, sounds great, and underneath the beautiful presentation is an earnest, heartfelt and deeply moving story of two brothers desperately wishing to go back to the way things used to be as oblivion approaches. While I can’t say that it’s my favourite film by either Gilbert (Grey Area holds that spot on the metaphorical podium) or Paul (the aforementioned Peter Wright holds that place in my cold, icy heart), it’s still a work of art, and a pretty amazing work of art at that, which explores both familiar and uncharted territory for both the directors, and it’s a film that deserves to have its praises sung from the (figurative, or literally if you can be bothered) rooftops. At the time of writing it hasn’t even reached 100,000 views, and considering the sheer amount of time and effort and presentation that went into it, that’s a crime, you hear? A crime that must be rectified. If you haven’t watched it, do so. Like, right now.

ROCKS THAT BLEED is a short film written and directed by Bertie Gilbert and Sammy Paul.
Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PtUUvQtChNc
Follow its directors on twitter: @ICOEPR and @bertieglbrt
Also watch THE FLEETING LITTLE LIFE OF PETER WRIGHT, a brave short film about depression by Sammy Paul and TimH that quite frankly deserves everyone’s attention: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIO4j4ze8Nc

About the writer:
Charlie McIlwain is a teenage “writer” who clamours for recognition that he really doesn’t deserve. Follow him on Twitter: @ComedicPerson

Journal: A Discussion

Warning: this article contains plot spoilers.


At one point in Journal a character discusses writing a comic book. He’s got the idea in his head, he says, but just is never happy when its down on paper and never wants anyone to see his work until it is in a state he deems satisfactory. He’s been working on it for so long, he says. He’s got the idea in his head, but has no idea how to translate it to paper and has no idea what either the story or the characters will be like. Later on, the character says he’s given up caring about the end product and is just doing it. He doesn’t care if the end result is bad or if nobody likes it (including himself), he’s just gonna buck up and do it.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, let me explain. In the credits of this game, it is stated that Journal has been in development in one form or another for ten years, and only now has it seen the light of day. The credits also state that this game is dedicated to the memory of the father of Richard Perrin. The message is clear: Journal’s designer, programmer and co-writer Richard Perrin (best known for his wonderful solo effort Kairo) has had this concept in his head for years, but has never been able to turn it into a game he’s proud of. But with the death of his father, Perrin finally had a motivation to complete the game. He just wanted to translate his raw emotions, his raw grief and his raw sorrow into lines of code, into gameplay, no matter what the end result ultimately turned out to be. As Perrin himself said in an interview with Rock Paper Shotgun:
“Finishing Kairo at the time when all that was happening was very difficult for me. It’s a game about hope, and I didn’t have much. Kairo shipped the week after my father died. It was the worst period of my life. There was nothing good. Kairo was a situation where it came out and people were like, ‘Oh, you must be so relieved to have it finished!’ But no. It was just numb. This horrible feeling. I had a pretty rough time, and rather than writing angsty poetry or Livejournal posts, I’m trying to focus that into Journal. Trying to share that with an audience.”
Journal has the sense of a game that was made in a hurry, and that might sound like a criticism but in many ways it really isn’t. Perrin’s father died in April 2013, and Journal was released on the 17th of February 2014, and that says it all. Like the character in the game (named Trevor) says, he wanted to finish it as soon as possible just so people can experience it and share their thoughts about it. Polish and perfection took a back seat in favour of just getting it done, just getting those ideas down on paper, just sharing it with an audience. That was Perrin’s ultimate goal. With that one dialogue exchange in Journal that could easily be ignored and has no bearing on the plot’s progression, Perrin opens his heart to the audience, bares his feelings, reveals the truth, if you like. He admits that the game isn’t perfect, but do we ever write eulogies to be entertaining and palatable?
There are problems, some of them easily ignored, some of them not so much. An example of this is in some of the writing, in particular the exchanges between high schoolers. To bring up RPS again, in their review of Journal they compare these exchanges to the Mr Show sketch “No Adults Allowed”. For those who aren’t aware of the contents of that sketch, here’s the rundown: three adults dress up as kids for a “kids only” TV show and talk about how much they “love those damn video games” and think that homework sucks but they’ll realise its importance later on in life. And while this comparison is a little too cruel for my taste, I still most grudgingly admit that the reviewer has a point. Perrin gave this reason as to why he made the game’s protagonist a young girl rather than someone like him:
“The themes I’m trying to deal with – issues of loss and alienation of friends – are universal in life. But the thing about channeling it through a young girl is it allows me to do this progression of dealing with simple mundane things and then scaling upward into increasingly difficult things to deal with. Childhood innocence makes these issues even harder. You can sympathize, too. Seeing anyone struggling is tough, but seeing a child struggling is even harder.”
And that’s an understandable reason for his choice, and I applaud him for it. But at the same time there are downsides. Perrin and his co-writer Melissa Royall sadly don’t have much of a grasp of how teenagers act and talk in high school situations (and this is coming from a high schooler here), and this is made even worse by the fact that the game’s main character complains at one point how adults seem to forget what being a child was like once they grow up. It seems that although they were both once high schoolers, Perrin and Royall don’t really know how to write their conversations. The high school characters (with the exception of the excellently handled Trevor, the aforementioned comic book writer)  feel like caricatures rather than nuanced people, but the writers do try to invite nuance. One character is at the start the main character’s best friend and the game ends with the friendship being terminated, but this character ends up seeming unlikeable and cruel. They are angry at the main character because the main character blamed them for property damage, but the reason why the main character had been in denial has been made clear to her friend from the start. And yet, she ends the friendship. It just doesn’t seem like how a real person would act in that situation.
I may be coming across as overly cruel, and believe me, that is not and never was my intention. I don’t hold any of these flaws against the Locked Door Puzzle team because ultimately I get the feeling the team are aware of these flaws. As I said before, this game is a cry for help, an exercise in channeling one’s grief into an interactive experience. It’s not perfectly handled, it’s not polished and it’s not free of bugs and/or glitches in both sound and in movement. And yet, I can forgive all that because ultimately Journal wasn’t made to be a polished, balanced experience. It was made as a goodbye to the director’s father.
I’ve experienced the crushing feeling of loss before, both through the death of a loved one and through other means. I’ve treated friends and family badly. I’ve been through denial. I’ve said and done things I’m not proud of. Maybe that’s why Journal registered with me. Although throughout my playthrough I noticed flaws, I almost stopped caring as I was in the moment.
It would be very easy for me just to end this post with a simple verdict and a mark out of ten, but that would completely undermine this game for what it is. I don’t think I’d be able to pin a numerical score on this game, because it’s just not that type of game. I don’t care if this game has a 59 score on Metacritic because in my opinion, the number doesn’t matter. Journal isn’t perfect, it is at times trite, and the gameplay isn’t streamlined. But that doesn’t matter. If you want a verdict, here it is:
Journal is a thought-provoking, heartstring-tugging exploration of grief and denial, made even more saddening by its connections to real-life events. Richard Perrin has made a game that really made me pause for thought about life and death. It’s not perfect, but it never could be. Should it be a video game? Should it have been about a young girl? Should the moral choice system be in place? Are the characters too simplistic to make an impact? Perhaps. But I ultimately don’t care that much. You might care. Opinions are subjective, after all. Journal was to me thought provoking, I could see past its flaws. Others might not, though. Regardless, Richard Perrin has finally got this game off his chest, and with it hopefully his sadness will go too. I look forward to whatever Locked Door Puzzle makes in the future, be it a more gameplay-focused experience like Kairo, or a more introspective story-driven experience like Journal.

Journal is available on Steam: http://store.steampowered.com/app/261680/
You can follow Charlie McIlwain on Twitter: @ComedicPerson
Have a lovely day!

Grey Area: A Short Short Film Review

For a while now, I’ve been a great fan of Bertie Gilbert’s filmography. Ever since I saw his first short Stray Dog, I’ve been fascinated by his singular style, and his never less than compelling narratives. I’ve watched and loved all of his recent output, and always been excited for the next one. Grey Area is the most recent film he’s released, and honestly? It’s Gilbert’s best film yet.
First and foremost, the film is completely different to any film he’s made before. Yes, on the surface it may share some similarities with Gilbert’s most recent film Tick Where It Hurts (both because of its more naturalistic nature and the presence of Miles Hall), but really, it’s a different beast.
One night, two best friends named Dexter (Hall) and Charlie (Gilbert) meet up to shoot Charlie’s media project. He pitches it as a film without a plot, apparently because he doesn’t have “the money” for that kind of detail, but as becomes swiftly apparent, it’s most probably because Charlie isn’t as good as he really believes himself to be. Dexter has recently broken up with his girlfriend, and is decidedly cagey about discussing the details of the breakup (even flat-out refusing to say the person’s name), and has come to help out because he believes it’ll help him take his mind off recent events. It doesn’t.
The moment in which I realised that this film was truly fantastic was a few minutes in. Dexter is sat, presumably about to be filmed by Charlie, and starts to talk into the camera. I assumed that this was the scene that he was acting in, before Charlie interrupts his monologue, revealing it to be only his inner thoughts. Not only did this swiftly introduce the film’s main source of exposition (Dexter’s inner discussions), it also showcases both Hall’s talent for acting and Gilbert’s talent for writing.
The film is also a lot funnier than I’d expected it to be (and I won’t ruin the funny bits). Charlie is the most self-deprecating character Gilbert has ever played, as well as the most against-type. The characters he has played in his previous films have all been similar: disillusioned, emotionally scarred loners. Charlie on the other hand is an overly confident, profane and blunt individual, and serves mostly as the film’s comic relief; for the first time, Gilbert is not centrestage. That spot is reserved for Hall instead.
And there’s no better way of putting this: he is brilliant in the part. Gilbert seems to have tailor made the role for him, and it shows. His monologues are deeply compelling, but apart from those, the source of most of the film’s dialogue is Charlie, with most of Hall’s performance being in gestures and facial expressions. If I’ve had one complaint with Gilbert’s films up to TWIH, it’s that Gilbert the director and actor have often overshadowed Gilbert the writer. TWIH showcased more of a balance between the three, and Grey Area carries this on. As a director he coaxes a fantastic performance out of Hall, as an actor he gives his best performance yet, and as a writer he is at his most assured.
The film is utterly brilliant. And I mean that. Does it have flaws? Yes, what film doesn’t? It’s a few minutes too long, and it sometimes feels more like a play than a film, but these are nitpicks. This film is Gilbert’s least derivative (looking at you, Fifty-Six Year Old Boy), and his most assured. It almost feels like all of his films have been leading up to this one.
In short, I really liked it. And you should watch it. Right here in fact:
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQyQcfR1YGc&list=UUZp5j0LWQCT5cO_vhkrW6kA

If my inconsequential ramblings perhaps entertained you, follow me on that there Twitters: @ComedicPerson
Have a nice day!

The Rapture Is Here And You Will Be Forcibly Removed From Your Home: A (Short) Review

The Rapture Is Here And You Will Be Forcibly Removed From Your Home (or the slightly less lengthy TRIHAYWBFRFYH for short) is described by its developer Connor Sherlock as an “open-world Dear Esther”, and an “evil Proteus”. It’s a game that’s equal parts creepy and strangely moving, part homage to the horror writers of old and part interactive art piece. It’s a game I find near impossible to describe, an audiovisual attack on the senses that gripped me from start to finish.
You are given twenty minutes to explore a desolate landscape. After that, the world will cease to exist. There lies in the sky a looming black disc that slowly expands, and if you stare directly at it it lets off an ear-splitting buzz that forces you to look away. Houses lie empty and deserted. Columns of coloured spheres dot the landscape, and if interacted with they play extracts from various novels such as H.P Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu”. The extracts should seem out of place, but they relate to the environment and the objects within it so well that if I wasn’t aware before I may have even thought they were written especially for the game. The voice acting for all these extracts is excellent as well, which is certainly a bonus.
Props must also be given to the haunting soundtrack by the developer that perfectly sets the mood and feel. The sound design consists only of crashes of thunder and the buzzing of the object, but that’s all the game needs. The simplicity is what works.
When I completed TRIHAYWBFRFYH, I felt a bizarre mixture of emotions. I felt confused, disturbed, moved and ultimately amazed. This odd little creation is one of the most curious experiences I’ve ever had with a game, and is something I demand that you try out. You may not like it, and I’ll understand. It’s very odd, and tailors only to the small audience that enjoys the type of gameplay it offers, and it won’t please everybody. And that’s just fine. But at least try it out. It’s free and only twenty minutes long, and who knows, maybe you’ll appreciate those twenty minutes as much as I did.

GAME LINK: http://gamejolt.com/games/other/trihaywbfrfyh/20342/