Monday, 28 February 2011

100 Word Review - Broken Sword 4

Since it manages to pack in all the worst and best elements of the point & click genre, it's hard to summise my feelings for BS4. The plot is engaging Templarballs, George and Nico make a lovable pair of hapless protagonists (particularly George, who always reacts to danger with good-natured joshing), the controls are intuitive and many of the puzzles are tough-but-satisfying. But progression is frequently blocked by a poorly thought out events tree that has you scouring walkthroughs to find out, for example, how to correctly sign a photograph. Also, too many minor characters are idiots.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

My Life as a Crap Artist, part 2

Not long after my last post on this subject, someone got in touch with me about this project - 220 artists living in 30 countries doing a self-portrait every day for three months, all leading up to 2018, when Maastricht in the Netherlands will be European city of culture. If there's one thing I can confidently draw every day for 90 days it's my own face, being as I know it pretty well, so I agreed to take on this challenge and have been spending between 15 and 30 minutes each day, usually just before midnight, sketching and inking them into a book. The idea is that it also function as a sort of mood diary, so there are quite a few long expressions. I've also been using it as an opportunity to practice drawing hands and hair - two things I find endlessly difficult.

Here are some of my favourites so far. If I was ten years younger and just about to go into art college, I'd be off to a pretty good start.

End of February General Update!

Those of you who read January's 2011 plotorama entry might be getting a little concerned. January was supposed to see the release of Birdbook and February the release of Fuselit: Contraption. The former has been delayed by a manic hunt for the right printer - the large number of images meant that our usual printers, reliable and efficient though they are, didn't have the right kind of paper, so we've had to do think carefully about where to head next, bearing in mind our limited budget. The good news is that we think we've settled on one and will be taking them the files this week.

Fuselit: Contraption, as well as being pushed back by the extra work needed on Birdbook, is in equal need of care and attention, since this time we're attempting to properly coordinate and balance an online edition with the printer version. We're at the advanced stages of both, but still wrestling with such things as embedding audio tracks, sourcing containers (the print edition will come in either a box or some kind of wallet) and Kirsty's vitally useful laptop suffering cosmetic damage.

In short, we hope to have both out in the next month. The plans for everything afterwards have been somewhat tossed about by recent revelations about how to save costs on printing, but I'll save posting on that for when we have these two beasts ready to go.

But why does it take you guys so long?

That's the question I'd be asking if I was on the outside looking in, and in many respects it's the question I ask myself anyway, watching the days fly past while I fight the limitations of technology and my own competence. Two simple answers, which I'm sure I've hinted at before:

1) Both Kirsty and I have full-time jobs. We're both working on plans that will allow us to devote more time to literary projects while still paying for bread, board and internet connection, but these plans are long-term and difficult to orchestrate. If anyone were to invest a couple of thousand pounds a month in us and our mission, why, that would undoubtedly speed up matters.

2) Producing a lit journal and books is effectively doing the work of a much larger team of people, each with specialist skills. I started off very gung-ho about the whole affair, but the more I go on, the more respect I gain for disciplines such as copy-editing, copy-writing, illustration, graphic design, web management and web design. These are all areas I could merrily spend all day attending to and still fall short of the general standard. The best I can hope for in each area is to fool non-experts. Undoubtedly the pro graphic designer would find my graphic design sloppy, the pro web designer would stare in bafflement at my rickety html, and so on. But that's what you get for following your dreams. Just ask Justin Bieber.

Friday, 25 February 2011

100 Word Review - Octodad (PC)

Really digging these shorter games at the moment – just the thing for when you're too busy for interactive pseudo-epic dark fantasy novels with polygons. Octodad takes about 20 minutes to complete and sees you playing an octopus trying to pass himself off as a suburban family man. The player controls each limb independently, trying to make him walk, tidy, wash up, run obstacle courses etc without looking too rubbery. The humour is pitched perfectly, as wife and children raise suspicious eyebrows and a maniacal sushi chef attempts to flush you out of hiding. The final challenge? Climb a stepladder.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

100 Word Review - Goldeneye 007 (wii)

I never liked the original, you know. The multiplayer seemed drab and sluggish compared to, say, Shadow Warrior on the PC, and the single player not a patch on MDK (or, in the year after, Unreal and Half-Life). This reimagined, Daniel-Craig-ified Goldeneye is still drab and sluggish but the refined controls make for an intense, often-hilarious deathmatch. To wit, if you don't press Z to peer intently through your sight when pulling the trigger, your gunfire sprays everywhere, meaning you have to be the cat in each cat-and-mouse confrontation or else dance around like an imbecile. Sniping is satisfying too.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Poetry Night and Charity Auction (Take II)!

Rescheduled from the snowed-off event late last year (huge apologies to those who didn't get the cancellation - this one is happening even if Godzilla drops by), a rather unique and important poetry event. Important because it's raising money for something that will make a big difference to someone's future. Unique because there'll be an auction of various items, many of which have yet to be announced, but already including a signed John Cage MS and a handwritten sonnet by Toby Litt. Here's the Facebook event and here are all the details you need:

Thursday 3 March 2011 · 7:30pm - 10.30pm
The Rugby Tavern
19 Great James St
London WC1N 3ES

A night of poetry, music and prose

To learn more, visit

Featuring poetry and storytelling from Richard Evans, Nick Hunt, Jon Stone and Kirsten Irving, and music from Tim Hoyte.

7.30 start, £6/£4 Concession


Including edited manuscripts, signed works and handwritten poems by
major writers!

Items kindly donated for the auction include:

***Blake Morrison, And When Did You Last See Your Father? /The Justification of Johann -Greenberg, signed first edition copies. (hardbacks)

***Daljit Nagra: Look We Have Coming to Dover, signed collection

***Jackie Kay: Red Dust Road, signed copy

***Lavinia Greenlaw: Night Photograph, handwritten poem from the title poem of first collection / The Importance of Music for Girls, signed first edition (hardback)

And loads more, so
come and play!

Monday, 21 February 2011

100 Word Review - The World Ends With You (DS)

Following the obsessive commercialist accumulation of Pokemon (“gotta catch'em all!”), The World Ends With You takes the CRPG to its logical conclusion and sets it in a cosmopolitan shopping district. You're one of many teenagers trapped in an parallel Shibuya, forced to play a mysterious game or be 'erased'. Might sound like watered down Battle Royale, but it's so packed with ideas I didn't care. When not engaged in its intense 'stride cross' battle mode, naturally you'll be shopping. My inventory could illustrate Marx's opening to Capital. Why buy so much? Because if you don't THE SHOPKEEPERS WON'T LIKE YOU.

100 Word Review - Façade (PC)

This five-year-old interactive one-act play was once hailed as “one of the most important games ever created, possibly the most important game of the last ten years”, chiefly because events in Façade play out with or without the player; you are there simply to nudge a bickering couple in the direction of reconciliation through minor actions. Alas, you need to play through so many times in order to learn how to do this (it makes no intuitive sense) that the experience becomes Groundhog-Day-ish – eternally trapped in dull conversation with a pair of infuriatingly fickle and self-obsessed American AIs.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Libraries as Refuge

Cuts to public services are everywhere you look, despite, as you've no doubt heard, huge corporations like Vodafone slinking out of paying their taxes. Many persuasive arguments have been put forward to save elements of our social infrastructure currently sat under the sword, most prominently, Phillip Pullman's much-read and much-lauded speech about saving libraries.

In the wake of numerous excellent polemics on why libraries are not a luxury or an unsustainable drain on resources, I thought I'd stick my oar in. Libraries are a refuge. You don't have to pay to sit in them, as in a cafe. You can stay till closing time, undisturbed. It's quiet, it's your own space and being in such a space, surrounded by possibility and interesting sources, allows people to set aside time to relax and improve their knowledge, use the internet or simply be entertained in a more interactive manner than just switching on TV repeats.

Public library cuts are in the news a great deal, but not so much the cuts to school libraries. This is horrendous for a number of reasons; I just want to address one. For anyone who has ever been bullied in school, who has constantly eaten lunch alone, who has struggled to find privacy, afraid of seeing a group of their tormentors round the corner in front of them, libraries represent a sanctuary where they can spend time without interruption, reading, checking emails or just thinking. Instead of hiding, they can sit in a warm, inviting place, secure in the knowledge that this time is theirs and nobody can hurt them here.

I'm not saying this is a solution to bullying - there is no easy solution - but with the rate of victimisation among school-age children ( tells us that in the UK at least 16 children kill themselves each year because they are being bullied at school and no-one in authority is doing anything about it), hard times in your teens can feel like they're going to go on forever, and are insurmountable. US-based charity It Gets Better, which addresses teen suicide, particularly among young LGBT people, bases its campaigns on the idea of hanging in there, reinforcing the idea that there's a wider world outside the savage ecosystem of secondary school and a place for everyone in it. A really important sentiment, but sometimes a little help is needed to hang in there when it all gets a bit relentless.

Libraries can do a little bit towards this goal, providing respite and helping kids - nerdy, awkward, different, lonely, or just picked on for the sake of it - get through what can be one of the most challenging times of their lives.

Friday, 18 February 2011

100 Word Review - Sonic Colours (wii)

I don't know why everyone is calling this a return to form; Sonic has been going strong as a 2D platformer on the Gameboy Advance and DS for years. If this game represents his non-portable console comeback, however, then colour (arf!) me impressed. It takes a little getting used to, but as there's an emphasis on repeating levels for bigger scores a la Angry Birds, we can forgive the learning curve. As spectacle, it's ravishing and full of life – particularly the Japanese-themed aquatic levels and zany power-ups. No worthwhile two-player though, and rather too much lip from Sonic himself.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Days of Roses anthology launch

Days of Roses has made its mark as one of the most varied, constantly surprising and entertaining poetry nights on the London circuit. Co-hosted by Declan Ryan and Chris Horton, each night features a generous helping of poetry, storytelling and music, and while there are definitely house favourites, DoR introduces the audience to lots of fantastic new writers and musicians.

Dec and fellow poet Malene Engelund have now edited and put together an anthology to celebrate the acts who have played Days of Roses so far, and are going to be launching this rocket of delight on Wednesday 23 February at the Three Blind Mice, London, EC2A 4QW (lots of buses or nearest tubes Liverpool Street, Old Street or Shoreditch High Street). Just look for a big number 5 - it's a bit hard to spot at first but worth discovering!

The launch will feature readings from Jo Shapcott, Chris Horton,
Dec Ryan, Dominic McLoughlin, Gareth Jones, Liz Berry, Lydia Macpherson, Malene Engelund, Marianne Burton, Maximilian Hildebrand, Robert Selby and William Searle, as well as music from Fiona Bevan and Mr Dupret Factory and friends.

Copies will be available on the night with 15 different signed and numbered covers created by Ross McNicol and Amelia Newton Whitelaw.

Facebook event page here!

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

100 Word Review - Cork Shoes

Since high street shoes tend to be ethically suspicious, I thought it worth investing in some vegetarian shoes, made in Portugal and sold in Brighton. I chose the Ariel Mk 2, made from cork, fake suede and 'Vegetan bucky', and I've been wearing them since last October. I hesitate to say they're more durable than cheap shoes – I'm not having issues with the sole peeling away, but the layer of cork is flaking noticeably on the inside. Aesthetically, they can't quite carry off the 'scruffy trainer' look; they genuinely seem to need more care than I've been giving them.

Monday, 14 February 2011

100 Word Review - Muramasa: The Demon Blade (wii)

The only major let-down in this supremely beautiful Muromachi/Edo-era Japan-themed slash'em up is the lack of a two-player mode. You get two characters – amnesiac samurai Kisuke and demon-possessed princess Momohime – but their stories are played through separately, only interweaving in the hot mountain springs where they briefly meet. Other than that, it's boldly, brilliantly animated sword combat with obakemono, ninja, monks and samurai set in rolling meadows, rivers, towns, mountains and bamboo jungles, interspersed with levelling up, forging more powerful blades and, most charmingly, cooking and eating delicious-looking food a piece at a time, replete with curling steam.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Sidekick Books Artist Profile: Lois Cordelia

Continuing our artist profile series, today I'm talking to the fantastic Lois Cordelia, whose magical scalpel-cut silhouettes dance across the cover, and between the pages, of the forthcoming Birdbook I.

Born 1982 in Ipswich, Lois is a self-taught artist. Since graduating from Edinburgh University in 2006 with an honours degree in Arabic, she has renewed her focus on the visual arts through exhibiting in a series of solo and joint shows in the UK and Germany. Her work spans a diverse range of media and styles: silhouette paper-cuts, portraits in acrylics and pastels, wildlife art, still-lifes, Arabic calligraphic compositions, and sculpture. Her latest exhibition, Black Gold, has been extended till 10 March 2011 at the Open The Gate Cafe, Dalston.

Sidekick Books: Who or what would you say influences your work?

Lois Cordelia:
Ideally, artwork is an endlessly dynamic process of flow, in which everything influences and is influenced by everything else. I welcome positive influences from every source, whether visual, musical, poetical or mystical. Beauty inspires and speaks to me wherever I find it.

The creative process is a birthing process: a process of conception, gestation and bringing to birth. I am influenced and inspired by things I see or hear around me. These are the seeds that are sown in my imagination. The embryo grows, develops and evolves organically and takes on a life of its own, nourished by daily experience of sights, sounds and ideas. Only at the final stage (the 'birth') does the artwork manifest in physical form, though even during birth it continues to evolve.

As the poet Kahlil Gibran wrote: “Work is love made visible.” I avoid creating anything at all if I am not in a loving, positive, open frame of mind, because the resulting artwork will inevitably be affected by my emotional state. The flow of creativity often gives me a feeling of a natural 'high', and so my emotional response gathers its own momentum towards something approaching ecstasy that carries me through the tremendous struggle of 'birth'.

A couple of quotations by other artists that I particularly relate to are the following:

“I find in all the artists that I admire most a disturbing element, a distortion, giving evidence of a struggle. ... In great art, this conflict is hidden, it is unresolved. All that is bursting with energy is disturbing – not perfect.”

(Henry Moore)

“My goal in life is to give to the world what I was lucky to receive: the ecstasy of divine union through my music and my dance.”
(Michael Jackson)

SKB: Does the subject matter you use vary wildly, or do you find yourself returning to certain motifs and ideas?

LC: I strive constantly to reach beyond the mundane surface of things. Seeing a person, an animal, or a tree, for example, I try to capture something of the soul or consciousness that animates it. My inspiration comes from anything that evokes dance, movement and metamorphosis: nature, human figures, animals, trees, running water, the seasons, dance, music, rhythm, poetry, light and dark, and so my subject matter varies widely.

From intricate paper silhouettes, painstakingly cut by hand using a surgical scalpel, to fast and furiously painted portraits and landscapes in brilliant, dramatic colours, my artwork also spans a vast spectrum between precision and free-flowing energy, which has often caused visitors to my exhibitions to remark that the works they see could have been created by several different artists.

I tend always towards fluidity, allowing forms to evolve and metamorphose, one into another. Spirit is eternally changing and shape-shifting, and requires form to be flexible; if form is too rigid, it fossilizes and breaks. I particularly like to explore the expressive potential of Arabic and other cursive scripts to evoke this same principle, allowing the words to evoke further layers of poetic symbolism.

What convinced you to take part in the Sidekick Books projects?

I've worked at intervals over the last decade with the Polish artist and illustrator of children's books Jan Pienkowski (co-author of the 'Meg and Mog' series, pioneer of the pop-up book genre, via Haunted House and other titles, and creator of many beautiful volumes of silhouette illustrations). Beyond this natural affinity and link with book illustration, I freely confess that I was persuaded to take part in the Sidekick Books project by the personal charisma and charm of our good friend the eminent alchemist Dr Fulminare...

Do you prefer to work alone or collaborate, and why? If the latter, what would your dream collaboration involve?

The artistic profession can be an intensely lonely one. Being fiercely independent by nature, I generally prefer to work alone in the privacy of my room, immersing myself in my favourite music or poetry recordings, chosen to fit with whatever theme I am currently exploring.

Conversely, I would be the first to acknowledge my eternal debt to Jan Pienkowski (as mentioned above), from whom I have learned most about the organic process and philosophy of creativity and whom I will always consider my 'guru'. Whenever possible, I also love to perform live art demonstrations, painting portraits and landscapes or creating paper-cut works in public, as the dynamics of a live audience add an invaluable layer of zest and spontaneity.

What would you say is the most common misconception about art that you've encountered?

The most clichéd misconception I've encountered is that professional artists (whether painters, poets or musicians) are naive and blissful "thinkers of beautiful thoughts", untroubled by reality. Frequently I am asked by people: So when are you going to get a real job? It is not a path for the faint-hearted. Yet it is consoling and humbling to find oneself in the company of some of the greatest artists in history, who have all too often worked themselves to pieces and burned themselves out at a relatively young age, in passionate pursuit of their vision, only to be “discovered”, recognised and appreciated a century after they died!


See more of Lois and her splendid scalpel at

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Save The Tropical Zoo!

Last weekend we went to The Tropical Zoo for Siân's birthday. If you've not been, it's based out in Brentford, which is pretty easy to get to from London, and it's amazing.

When we walked in, the first two things we saw, just past the ticket desk, were one cat, sleeping in the gift shop, and one enormous tortoise, padding freely around! We would go on to encounter three types of monkey, noisy macaws, huge fish, an alligator, exotic frogs, spiders, chickens, and this was just the ones we didn't hold!

At four, we went to see the staff talk about some of the animals, and got to hold a cockroach, a giant millipede, a king snake, a python, two dragons (Jon is up top with the lovely Ben) and a gorgeous leopard gecko. You simply can't do this at ZSL, which, much though I love it, costs double the entry fee and doesn't allow you to get quite as close. Children are more than welcome and are all given an opportunity to hold and stroke the animals (most were way braver than their parents).

As we were about to leave, we saw a crowd in the reception area and looked up to see a stunning sloth hanging from the ceiling. Her name was Cynthia and one of the members of staff had green beans for her to eat (sloths may be slow but they're no fools). We were allowed to offer her beans and that feeling of her huge claws brushing my fingers was just incredible, as she deftly transferred the goodies to her mouth. Mind-blowing.

Unfortunately for the Tropical Zoo, the lease is not being renewed, and the zoo and its residents have to move. This will cost £1.2 million, according to the website, and the target needed for now is £350,000. All of the animals here are rescued, from piranhas to marmosets, and the zoo is a sanctuary for them. If the money for the move cannot be raised by September, their future is not certain.

A bargainous £6.50 maximum (concessions available) gets you access to this incredible place, and guarantees you a fantastic day out. Please support this friendly and educational walk on the wild side.

ANOMIE: a game for four or more players

'Anomie' is an experimental card game I’ve developed as part of my project examining jokes as disruptive agents in social relations. It looks at what happens when you incorporate a zone outside of the rules of the game into the rules of the game itself. I’ve tried it with three groups so far, and so I’m throwing it out into the internet ether in the hope people might give it a go and let me knows what happens!

As it happens, the game itself tends to be pretty anarchic, partly because it is a bit complicated and very hard to tell what’s going on in the game, but also because of the powers given to the Joker card. It tends to get a little silly as well. I would recommend using a deck of card you wouldn’t mind, say, seeing physically destroyed.

The rules are below. The game is an experiment and is very much in development, so thoughts, feedback, ideas, feelings, experiences would be brilliant. Also let me know if anything is horribly ambiguous, then I will amend the below accordingly.

Set up
At the beginning of the game, the two jokers are removed from the deck, and each player draws a card. This card becomes their objective card. The jokers are then added back in, and all players then draw a further 3 cards.

Sequence of play
The game progresses by each player taking turns to lay cards face up into one of two piles - an IN pile and and OUT pile, and then taking another card from the main deck (which is face down). The aim of the game is to get as many cards with the same suit and rank in the IN pile, and as many cards of the opposite colour in the OUT pile. The composition of these piles determine the players score at the end.

The game ends when all cards have been played into either the IN or the OUT pile.

To make it a little easier, I've made a little print out game board which shows you where to place the cards. Completely non-essential, but might prevent initial confusion.

Special cards
If we left it at that, the game would proceed via mere luck. But all the picture cards (Jack, Queen, King, Ace and Joker) all have special powers as described below.

Jack: Allows you to take the top two cards from the opposite pile to which you've played it. So if you play a Jack into the IN pile, you can take the top two cards from the OUT pile and place them in the IN pile as well.

Queen: Make another player pick up 3 cards from the opposite pile. So if you play this in the OUT pile you can make another player pick up the top 3 cards from the IN pile. The player who picks up the cards carries on as normal, but won't pick up an additional card on their go until they are back to three cards.

King: Force any player to swap their objective card for another card. First they discard their objective card(s) into either the IN or OUT pile, face down. If there are cards left in the main deck (i.e. that haven't come into play yet) then they have to take the first card from the main deck. Otherwise, whoever played the King picks a card from their hand at random - this becomes their objective. (Note that you cannot make a player with no cards change their objective)

Ace: Force another player to discard their entire hand, face down, into either the IN or OUT pile at your discretion.

Joker: This is the fun one. This gives a complete free move. What does 'free' mean? Exactly what it says. You can do anything. You can seize another players hand, you can give yourself twenty objective cards, you can throw the IN pile out of the window, whatever you want. There are logical restrictions though: this is a free move, not a series of free moves. Whatever you do has to be defendable as a 'move'. And I guess really it shouldn’t result in the joker you've played ending up back in your hand (the other joker is fine however). Apart from that, you can do whatever you like.

Once the game is over, everyone shows their objectives. You then need to go through the IN and the OUT pile, and allocate points to player as follows (it helps to have a bit of paper to do this!)

The IN pile:
- for each card of the same suit as the player's objective: 1 point.
- for each card of the same rank as the player's objective: 3 point.

The OUT pile:
- for each card of the same colour as the player's objective: -1 point.
- for each card of the same rank as the player's objective: -3 points.

I’ve not tried most of these - really they are ways of getting you to mess with the games rules just to see what happens.
  • If you have a large group (6 or more) try having two decks in play.
  • For more tactical play, instead of placing cards into a single pile, lay the IN and OUT cards as you would in solitaire, allowing you to see the entire composition of each pile.
  • With the above variant, have it so the Jack and the Queen can take any continuous set of cards, and not the last two or three played.
  • Experiment with changing what you can do with the Joker - for instance, have it so you can do anything for 10 seconds rather than a single free move.
  • Try setting secret objectives other than getting the most points - e.g. (1) make all players including yourself end in negative points (2) make the player next to you get the least points (3) attempt to get at least two thirds of the other players to achieve their secret objective (4) be the only player in negative points and so on. I’m going to make a deck of these you can print at a later stage.

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