All Star, but every word is ‘average’

Ever wondered what’s the most average song you’ve ever heard? Think of all the thousands upon thousands of songs on your hard drive, not to mention the thousands more you’ve forgotten about – and those are just the ones you like. Below your own threshold of quality there’s millions more which don’t pass muster.

Have a stab at naming your favourite song, like, right now. Can’t decide? That’s fair enough. You’d need to crack out the notepad and furrowed brow for a feverish scribbling session before you can even create a top five.

Even naming the worst song you’ve ever heard will take some effort – not only because of the internet’s (and pop culture nerds’ in particular) eagerness to dub things the worst _____ ever, without actually taking the time to subject themselves to any prolonged exposure to that pain.

But average? That’s way different. Out of all the songs you’ve ever heard? Tough one. What song is neither offensive enough nor inspired enough just to hit the very middle of your all-time music charts? What single song rises enough above mediocrity but sinks enough below inspiration?

One song hit me today in exactly that sweet spot. And before I over-analyse it with the power of nostalgia, I should probably just flat out tell you why this song strikes me as the most average three minutes of pop-rock averageness ever.

Today I heard a cover of Smash Mouth’s All Star by a band called Chunk! No, Captain Chunk! which, all artistic intention aside, was covered pretty much straight up. Apart from the whiny Americanised vocals, some sped-up drums and a bit of Busted-esque guitar upstrokes (and the mandatory pogoing seen in the video), there is absolutely no derivation from the original. Right down to the introductory keyboard flourishes and the whistling / record scratching in the breakdown, there is precious little in the way of experimentation on this cover. Recorded for a series of ‘Punk Goes…’ compilations, it’s possible that the attempt to play each song as straight as they can is all part of the mission statement.

But both the worst and best cover versions can be evaluated as such in their attempt to re-interpret the source material. Whether it’s a competently-performed yet ultimately ill-judged re-working or just a touched-up version of the original, you can always judge a cover song as successful or unsuccessful based on the combination of the song’s suitability for a re-work or the new artist’s interpretation – and ergo, how much that song ‘belongs’ to somebody.

Take (my tears and) Marilyn Manson’s stab at ‘Tainted Love’ for example. It’s crap, but you’ve got to hand it to him/them for trying to plunge a Northern Soul classic into the nu-metal mire. The crunching dirge of the MM effort completely eradicates the soul of the original vocal – and that of Marc Almond’s in the much more suitable (and more famous) version of the song. Manson took a song which was made more famous in the first place as a cover version, and tried to mangle its frustration into something reflecting how he himself saw the idea of tainted love.

Conversely, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor once spoke about the Johnny Cash version of his song ‘Hurt’, and how he felt like “that song isn’t mine anymore”. The idea that someone understood the pain and isolation of a situation more than the writer himself did, and that this was enough for the original artist to disown his very own particular piece of grief, makes it one of the most powerful and meaningful cover versions of all time.

So when a cover version does absolutely nothing in any way for the song it honours, what does it say about the original song’s quality and durability?

‘All Star’ was originally released in May 1999. Try and forget that I’ve just told you that, and give the song a proper listen. I’ll wait.

Okay, now pretend I didn’t tell you when the song came out. Judging by the lyrics, and the top three major-label rock production clichés you hear within it, when did this song come out?

  • Abundance of Pro Tools?
  • Soothing acoustic guitar-led breakdown and rapped rock vocal?
  • Record-scratching in a rock song?

If you guessed 1999, you’d be bang on. (If you guessed May 1999, you’d probably be cheating but be even more bang on.)

The point is, where there are the slivers of a crack in the melodies, or the rough edges of a pretty bog-standard tune, there’s the slick and shine of that late-90s did-it-on-a-Mac-but-christ-they-used-to-cost-loads production. It Polyfillas the cracks and Ronseals the surfaces to produce a completely inoffensive song – ironically enough, almost to the point of itself being offensive.

When All Star was released I was 14 years and three months old – the scientifically-proven age where your pop culture tastes are refined. (Also released in the first half of 1999: Moby’s Play, A Place in the Sun by Lit and Len’s “Steal My Sunshine”, not to mention the re-release of Bran Van 3000’s “Drinking in LA” – the latter two of which still feature on my ‘sunny day’ playlists.)

(Caution: You may find that the rest of my argument, more than tinged by my nostalgic propensity for a sunshiny tune, completely renders the rest of my findings invalid, but please do bear with me.)

Unlike those last two songs, which most would forgetfully and gladly lump into the same bargain bin as ‘All Star’, Smash Mouth’s biggest hit is drenched in the pop-rock polish liberally sprinkled into songs by everyone from Uncle Kracker to Sugar Ray – not to mention the video which tied into the Mystery Men film’s promotional campaign. Len and Bran Van 3000 were each more of a breakout act from respected songwriting/performance art roots in the Canadian underground, and so were more deserving of a listen to distract from the rest of the blandness being bandied around the airwaves.

Astro Lounge

To that end, ‘All Star’ still does demonstrate high levels of competence and imagination – the likes of which you ought to expect from full-time musicians already well ensconced in ‘the biz’. Astro Lounge was Smash Mouth’s difficult second album, made all the more pressuring by the success of ‘Walkin’ On The Sun’, the lead single from the first. ‘All Star’ would go on to feature in about 57 different films that you’ve watched in passing, after reaching number four on the Billboard charts.

There’s still guitar and drums on the track, and a fair amount of keyboard, which does to me demonstrate more than the bare minimum. But it may be those standards which undo the song – that instant when you first hear a song and know it’s going to be successful the charts because it has been sanitised and refined for all it’s worth. For all that competence and experience, the artificial nature of the production demonstrates close to zero in the way of passion.

Passion or perfunctory?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been willing to try out any style of music where you can just tell the artist is trying as well. It’s more a sad indictment on the state of the pre-packaged, manufactured preferences of the music industry than anything else, but it does mean I get to enjoy a wider range of music than my baggy-shorted 14-year-old self would have permitted.

Of course you can’t write a hit song without some amount of allowance for the audience, some sort of sonic experimentation and knob-twiddling to ensure it has a broad enough appeal. But ‘All Star’s squeaky-clean production does nothing to disguise the fact that it appeared to have been magicked out of thin air onto someone’s Mac. For the maximum amount of compression, clean-up and polish that the song was given ready for its assault on the ears worldwide, I do still hear more than the absolute minimum in the way of a band choosing to put its heart, soul and sweat into their music. Going by this extremely delicate balance between soul and sanitisation, between heart and hard drive, we approach a tipping point.

‘All Star’ doesn’t possess enough of the passion of a song whose writers needed someone to hear their message – the way Johnny Cash could hear Trent Reznor’s pain and put his own beautiful soulful pain on top of it. But by the same token, it doesn’t contain enough of the robotic, soulless automation that plagues the rest of the pop field and reduces it to mindlessness motions.

I’ve heard cover versions of songs that are subjectively better or worse because the cover artist makes a good or bad choice. From hearing their take on ‘All Star’, my view is that Chunk! No, Captain Chunk! choose to play it right down the middle because the original gives them no inclination or indication to do anything but. I can’t think of a single song whose cover version caused me less consternation either way. I don’t know who that’s on.

Because of the original song’s indecision – not quite soulless enough to be flat-out bad, but too overproduced to be good, ‘All Star’ does more than approach the tipping point – it is the tipping point.

So the next time you hear a song and can’t decide if you like it or not, ask yourself – is it better or worse than ‘All Star’? Then you’ll know, because I now believe that ‘All Star’ is the most average song of all time.

Finished the first draft, now what?

I’ve done it. I’ve finished writing a first draft. But now I’m supposed to put it away for weeks and I just don’t want to, despite this advice:

…[W]rite the first draft as quickly as you can. Don’t worry about quality. Just get to ‘The End’.

Put the script in a drawer and forget about it for a few weeks. Work on something else in the meantime.

Once you return to the script, you’ll be reading it fresh. Like a stranger. You’ll immediately know what works and what doesn’t.

Writing a proud achievement

If forced to think of one at gunpoint, I’d tell you that my life’s ambition is to write for a TV programme or film.

Given that I’ve spent my entire life watching sitcoms – some of my earliest childhood memories are of watching The Simpsons and Red Dwarf with my dad – I like to think I’ve spent my entire life building up the courage and analytical eye I need to write one myself.

Along with that, the internet is an absolutely amazing tool to have at your disposal, for finding advice and guidance from the masters of the craft.

I’d definitely count Graham Linehan among these sage men and women – he’s contributed to some of the funniest things I’ve ever watched.

But there are parts of the advice he’s seen fit to dispense (above) which I myself have found impossible to follow. Partly through my own sense of OCD but also through my struggle to get something down on the page, it’s been a long path towards my very own finished first draft.

The Waiting Game

We’ll skip over the fact that it’s taken me nigh-on a year of false starts, false finishes and fevered re-imaginings of the basic setups, world-building and character counts to arrive at something approaching a first draft of this particular story.

But every time I’ve ever finished something else that I can call a first draft, I find it extremely difficult to put it away and forget about it.

Even without reading the script right now, I know there’s a line that needs fixing, or a joke that needs to land a bit cleaner. It’s annoying because I’ve been building these scenes in my head. I don’t know them off by heart but I do know the gist. What if I come back to the script, and it’s been built so differently in my head during the time away from it? What if it’s already different on paper after just one nail-biting night away? Maybe I should go take a look, just to make sure.

That’s the whole point, though – I need to wait; to try and forget what I wrote, so that in two weeks or so I can give it a thorough read through and immediately set about fixing it up.

waiting game

But…I just can’t do it. I can’t let go. I’m still just getting to know these people. I feel like they still have the ability to surprise me. I’ll think about my favourite scene and immediately try to imagine if it should be longer, or shorter, or have more or less people in it, or work out if I need another joke or two.

Not reading the script isn’t going to be enough, because I still have it in my head.

So…how to get it out?

Distraction pieces

Well, there’s the two games I bought on Steam today, for a start. And there’s the Mario speedruns on Twitch which me and the wife have recently got into watching. I would watch more CS:GO tournaments just for fun – but that’s another danger because I’ve been watching them for research. I might suddenly get an idea and need to go running back to my draft.

I appreciate Linehan’s advice for what it is – but in this relatively early stage of my mission I can’t help but wonder if there’s some quick fix I can apply to my script that would make me feel much better about leaving my characters and plots to their own devices for a couple of weeks. I’ll still be sure to write down any brand new ideas for later development, but I’m getting itchy just sitting here writing this. I’ve done it in the vain hope of diversion, but writing about how desperate I am to revisit a script barely a day after writing it, is just making me want to read it more.

If I still smoked proper cigarettes, I would’ve definitely been out on my stoop at 1.30am last night, celebrating the completion of my first story. But less than a day later and I’m already itching to get back in there.

Maybe I will just take a peek. A quick one. And then I’ll mark the day on my calendar.

The new Netflix rating system gets a thumbs-down

For the love of god, do you see what I did there?

We’re all busy people. That’s why I’ve spent the last two hours in the sun reading a book about the Revolutions of 1989 – god knows it’s been a non-stop afternoon.

Knowing what a bunch of busy so-and-sos we are, Netflix has helpfully decided to overhaul its ranking and recommendations systems – to help us decide what to watch when we’re pushed for time during our next entire evening in front of the sofa.

But by changing their star ratings system to a simple thumbs-up, thumbs-down interface, I feel like they’ve rather muddied the waters.

Five-star nuances

The old idea of ratings was simple enough; you rate something from one to five stars, and Netflix uses your input to recommend other programmes and films.

Narrowing these down to a thumbs-up, thumbs-down system rather removes much of the nuances of rating and reviewing films.

Because people’s tastes can be so fluid and subjective – imagine Nicolas Cage in Face/Off…Now imagine him in Left Behind – it makes things more difficult when it comes to making some Netflix picks.

cage

Good thing they don’t have Vampire’s Kiss available in the UK – it would completely mess with the ratings system. Is it good? Is it bad? Who knows?

Example: at the moment me and the wife are watching seven seasons of Archer right from the very beginning. Between episodes we’re recommended something called Pacific Blue. I have no idea what this is, and from the prone position on the sofa that streaming services seem to enjoy imagining their subscribers from, there’s nothing much they think we can do other than to give it a try.

But again, with our time being so precious (I’m taking a break from the sun to write this and listen to the Leeds match), I don’t know that I’m willing and able to spend any amount of time blindly giving something a go.

But because streaming services’ goal is just to get you to keep watching, it’s probably better to risk giving the viewer more impetus to need to discover the things they’ll like.

And besides, considering Netflix judges what we’re watching rather than rating to make its big business decisions, it won’t work out too badly for them.

Innovation in programming

It’s a fairly well-known example but still pretty brilliant for us data nerds. The whole reason Netflix decided to create a new version of House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey wasn’t a matter of throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. With an eye on their customers’ viewing habits, they noticed that people who watched the original BBC version also watched a lot of Kevin Spacey films, and vice versa.

Having the ability to interpret that hard, single-channel data gives Netflix, Amazon Prime et al the confidence to invest in licensing TV rights packages, as well as creating new viewing pleasures – like the mini-Marvel universe we see through the eyes of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. This gives streaming services a real foot up on cable and satellite TV. And having cancelled Sky TV myself a month ago, I’m really not missing it when I’m paying a lot less money per month for a lot more choice of what I want to watch, instead of what happens to be on.

Happy as I am though to wade into the wide world of online TV and film services to find something new whenever I open up the apps, I was a bit alarmed to open Netflix this morning to be presented with its other new feature – some sort of online dating service offering me a percentage match on their range of titles.

(And let’s not get into that too much. Some of the most fascinating-looking documentaries I’ve stumbled across today gave me matches in the sixty-percent range, while some actual dreadful BBC sitcoms ranked in the nineties.)

This clashes somewhat with another of the ways they recommend programmes and films to me – the ‘Because You Watched…’ ribbon.

Because you watched…

Right now I’m looking at two Julia Roberts films, J-Lo and Jennifer Aniston – “because you watched Serendipity”.

netflixrecs

No thanks!

While I can’t argue that this is a thing that happened, it’s only because I personally enjoy the work of John Cusack. Given the apparent distinct lack of hitmen and record shop owners in the films I’ve been shown here, I can’t say I’m likely ever to give them a go.

The same goes for Trailer Park Boys, which I watched the first episode of and decided not to any more – again, time being precious, I’m not saying it was downright terrible but I’m just not inclined to watch any more.

I didn’t apply a star rating for Trailer Park Boys, but if I’d given the show one star it wouldn’t show up again. However, now that there’s no better way to communicate this than a thumbs-down, I might not be shown anything similar again, even if it’s something I would otherwise check out.

This is the rub – to see more of what I think I’d like, and less of what I wouldn’t, I need to go thumb-crazy over all these menus, instead of spending the time actually watching things and finding out. It needs the sort of time that perhaps Netflix assumes we’ve got – seeing as we’re wasting away on our couches receiving constant prompts to see if we’re still watching.

That assumption isn’t really appreciated – not to sound snobby, but I’ve got better stuff to do. Like complain about it, apparently.

Switching back to Nintendo

My mate Matt Allen kindly agreed to voice his excitement for the upcoming Nintendo Switch console in the form of before and after posts. Here’s part one.

The Nintendo Switch launches March 3rd, and I could not be more excited.

I have been watching the unveiling, promotion and rumours since back before we even knew it was called the Switch. That’s when I used to spend about an hour every day on the NX Reddit page, poring over product patents and rumours. Instead of keeping up with my favourite TV shows, I now just watch YouTube videos about the Switch, breaking down the hardware, talking about the launch line up and discussing all the things that could be possibly coming in the future. I have stopped listening to true crime podcasts and now I just listen to video games podcasts. In a nutshell, I am obsessed.

(I’d recommend Filthy Casuals, Infendo, Nintendo Sushi, Nintendo Week and Radio Free Nintendo. I would be lying if I said I didn’t listen to around 10 more a week on top of these.)

There’s nothing wrong with getting excited about a product launch, or excited about a game coming out – but I am worried I’ve been completely swept up aboard the Nintendo Switch hype train, and I may go crashing off a cliff if the console doesn’t match my expectations.

nintendo hype train

A Nintendo hype train, yesterday.

I haven’t always been a huge Nintendo fan(boy). I didn’t buy the Wii U until late 2015, and play the vast majority of my games on my Xbox One and PS4. Growing up in England, I played a lot more Sega as a kid than I did Nintendo – as did all my friends and relatives. Most tellingly, I haven’t had the opportunity to play on a Switch. I am not a reviewer; I am not in the media; I am just a guy with a bit of an unhealthy obsession with a new console.

So what is it that has got me so excited, and why should I be worried? In true internet list style, here are my Three Pros and Cons for the Nintendo Switch.

nintendoswitchlogo-svg

Pros of wanting a Nintendo Switch

Pro Controller and Joy Cons – The versatility of the controllers for the Switch is great. The Joy Cons can be detached, so right out of the box you’ve got a console that two can play. Including a Share button has great hope for the future when it comes to streaming and sharing games footage. It also has something called HD Rumble; these controllers have a lot of tech packed into them. The pro controller has analogue stick positions like the Xbox, which is by far my favourite games controller.

In addition, I can tap my Amiibo on an NFC chip on the Joy Con without having to get off my butt and go to the console when it is docked – this will make it extremely easy for me to stay lazy and overweight, especially considering the controllers’ healthy battery life (20 hours on the Joy Cons, 40 on the Pro Controller). And yes, I have over 100 Amiibo, so it will be pretty great to actually get to use them for something.

The Line Up – Although the Switch’s launch line-up seems a bit thin on the ground Nintendo games are some of my all-time favourites. Within a year of launch I will be playing a new Zelda game, a new Super Mario game, a new Splatoon game and Mario Kart 8. Since this is the first hub world Mario game since Sunshine I personally can’t wait – throw in the 60+ indie games coming in 2017, along with new Sonic games and Skyrim that I can play on my daily commute, and it’s clear the console will offer a lot of game time in the first 12 months alone.

It’s a Hybrid – If for some reason you have read this far and didn’t know, this console is both a home console and a handheld. Drop it in a dock and it connects to your TV, pick it up and walk away, and you are playing on the go. This is perfect for me as I slide further into my 30s and don’t have as much time for console gaming as I’d like to.

Nintendo Switch

Cons of buying a Nintendo Switch

Joy Cons – Yes – I know I had this as a Pro, and no – this isn’t just here so I could make a Pros and Cons pun. With the added focus on motion control seen in the launch title 1 2 Switch, Nintendo seems keen to look back on the success of the Wii rather than take a bold step forward from the Wii U. Games like Ultra Street Fighter II: The Final Challengers comes with extra motion control modes that, frankly, look terrible.

Am I worried about motion control? No. I think it’ll have some clever uses and there will be some fun to be had, but it’s just not the image I hoped we’d get with this generation. I think the marketing focus should be on Nintendo Switch being a home console that can be taken with you. If the message of what this console is and who it is for gets even slightly muddled it may not sell well, which would be a shame as I don’t want another Wii U.

The Line Up – Although there are a bunch of great Nintendo games coming in 2017, I am actually a bit worried about what impression these give out to someone who isn’t following the news as obsessively as I am. Yes, Zelda: Breath of the Wild is coming at launch – but if you don’t like Zelda, you don’t have much to choose from. I’m excited by the idea of over 60 indie titles releasing this year, but a lot of them have already aired on other consoles or on PC. A portable Elder Scrolls title is amazing – but Skyrim has already been out for six years, not to mention its mod-friendly next-gen update last year.

Hopefully the games will keep coming, but if sales don’t look promising then developers won’t be as inclined to keep making the games. It feels like a missed opportunity for Nintendo – they had the chance to come out with a splash at the start, or at least to have all the dates for games in the future locked down.  Maybe another month or two of development would have helped. I feel like maybe it needed to come out this financial year more than they feel ready to launch it right now.

It is a Hybrid –  I can walk away with the likes of Zelda and Skyrim in my hand, and play it on the bus (or toilet) – that’s going to be great. However, there is a reason that games this big haven’t made it to tablet – they would kill the battery. And kill the battery the Switch probably will – it only has a battery life of between 2.5 and six hours. Six hours is not conducive to a session in Skyrim, I would guess.

Although you can get a larger replacement battery for the Wii U, there’s no such luck with the Switch. As a hybrid console, it’s got to be different things for different uses – possibly too many things. This console can’t be all things for all people, and is already delivering a mixed message on marketing. Is it a successor to the Wii U and Nintendo 3DS? The fact that it is portable and both handheld and console development teams have been merged would seem to suggest so, but that’s not the word we are getting from Nintendo, who understandably has to keep investors happy.

All aboard?

So where does this leave me? I have three things that excite me about this console – the same three things that I also am worried about. It leaves me at a Day One purchase. It leaves me pre-ordering the Pro Controller just in case I hate the small buttons on the Joy Con. It leaves me excited.

I have so many hopes for the console and have already heard exciting things, the launch line up has been beefed up on the last few days with some special E-Shop titles, but my hopes for a full Virtual Console on Launch Day are definitely not going to be met.

We will just have to see how it goes in March. I for one will be off Reddit and YouTube for the day and fully invested in Breath of the Wild, even when on the toilet if I so fancy it.

Matt Allen is a gamer and games collector who loves all consoles. He once accidentally ran a Pokémon Go event for 1000 people, after he invited a few friends to meet up and didn’t set the Facebook event to Private. He loves retro games and has an obsession with Fallout.

My inner child loves No Man’s Sky – but do I?

God knows I’ve put the hours in, but am I actually enjoying playing No Man’s Sky, or is it all a grip of nostalgia?

Over the course of my time with No Man’s Sky on the PS4, I’ve broken a fair few barriers. Not only am I referring to breaking the speed of light in order to warp between its seemingly infinite number of star systems, but also because I broke my Golden Rule of Outlandish Purchase Decisions: no games above £40.

So when I saw a brand new copy of No Man’s Sky on the shelves for just £25 today, I had pause to consider whether I was still getting any value out of my near-twice-the-price purchase – or even if I ever had.

nms1

In the run-up to its release last August, the No Man’s Sky hype was overwhelming. I’ve never been one to let myself get sucked into that sort of thing – it’s why I’m always so behind on the latest and greatest hits of pop culture – but the game had to really be something special to meet those expectations. And when it turned out in the eyes of so many to be so much less than stellar, the hype turned swiftly into massive backlash aimed squarely at the poor sods at Hello Games.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I first fired the game up myself, but suffice it to say I wasn’t underwhelmed…or overwhelmed even…merely…whelmed? With my hitherto unrealised need to have an update of Frontier: Elite II in my life, I was happy enough to play Pioneer here and there.

Sure, No Man’s Sky remains stunning to look at – I’m a sucker for an alien landscape – but outside of the artefact discovery and the annoying grinning creatures greeting me at every space station, there just wasn’t a whole lot to do besides the same old, same old.

So just as Hello Games realised they needed to put a hell of a lot more game into their game, I abandoned No Man’s Sky in favour of a second playthrough of Fallout 4.

November saw the release of NMS’ Foundation Update, with new modes of gameplay and just a little bit more to do during your visits to the stars beyond. I’ve only just made my way onto this update, and I think I’ve made a bit of an unsettling discovery.

nms2

After loading an old save file and debating whether or not to carry on in search of the Atlas Stones which I’d been gifted by some weird dome thing, I decided to start afresh – I needed to get to grips with the controls again, and wondered if there was anything I’d missed the first time.

I decided to start from scratch and try a different path – that of the two rebel explorers, Nada and Polo. This seems to be going well enough – and could have even started to lead somewhere but for the fact that it’s already feeling a bit repetitive.

So as I landed on yet another, albeit beautiful, life-filled planet and set off mining some Iron to boost my Pulse Drive and Deflector Shields, I realised that I don’t think I’m actually enjoying this much. But a small part of me would not admit it – my curious, sci-fi obsessed inner child.

It’s clear to me (and hopefully to even the most frothy-mouthed of its critics) that Hello Games has put together something very special from a design perspective. As the wide-eyed kid who couldn’t control his ship properly in Frontier, and the misty-eyed twentysomething reliving those same memories in Pioneer so many years later, I can honestly say that what I feel for No Man’s Sky now is something approaching a realisation of those childhood space-age fantasies.

Just as I used to ‘book’ my wrestling figures by filling notepads with fight cards, attendance figures and unimaginative, all-too-regular tournament brackets, I wanted my Action Force figures to visit strange new plants, record data on the atmosphere and encounter the planet’s thriving flora and fauna. My lack of knowledge when it came to the ‘science’ part of ‘science fiction’ didn’t stop me from imagining these epic missions into the depths of outer space – from cautious landing to desperate escape.

In a way, this beautiful but flawed game is everything my ten-year-old self would have killed to play. I can recreate that same feeling of discovery and adventure, and get official statistics to boot, thanks to the game’s recording of player progress. But just as you tend to lose 99% of your childhood passion for ice cream when you’re old enough to have it whenever, I’m no longer enthralled by the idea of giving up so much of my valuable free time to something that just doesn’t grab me the way it once did.

While for the moment I’m happy enough to continue my journey across the stars, in search of long-forgotten extra-terrestrial wisdom and the chance to fetch something or other back to my home base (a good, if not entirely absorbing addition from the Foundation Update, only because it’s a lame version of the tried-and-trite ‘fetch quests’ that RPGers have quite rightly had their fill of), I feel the time will soon come to end my latest run with No Man’s Sky. I’m rather fearful that my nostalgia for all things space travel will turn ugly when it dawns on me that there’s not a whole lot to actually keep me here, as my more grown-up sensibility for storytelling starts to take me away from the muddling, aimless wander among the stars.

Too much choice makes me unhappy and tired

At the risk of sounding like decadent, capitalist Westerner scum for the next 700 words or so, the one downside to having extensive free time away from work is having to decide what to do with it.

With family responsibilities fulfilled and a fairly hefty haul of wonderful Christmas presents to show for it, I’ve spent the last day or so at home with some time on my hands…and a little bit of anxiety that it’s difficult to choose what to do with it.

My New Year’s Resolution for 2016 worked like a charm. When I’ve wanted to create, I have created. And when I haven’t wanted to, I haven’t made myself feel bad about it. So the solution appeared to be…stop creating. My SoundCloud page has prospered, but my blog has suffered tremendously for it – but I’m really okay with that because it seemed that I wasn’t up for being so wordy after all.

I’ve read almost 20 books in 2016 – more than I have for many, many years. Two weeks swinging from a honeymoon hammock will do that for you. And when I look back on the sheer disaster of a year that was 2016 in all other aspects of life, I’ll look back on it with some considerable happiness myself, having done a marry in July.

But when my wife departs for a shift at work shortly, I’ll have an entire afternoon stretching ahead of me, and feel paralysed by choice.

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I know, I know. Decadent Westerner, with no dependents and a Netflix subscription – not to mention social network feeds full of smiling kids, whose parents I see at work or on a much-needed night out, who would kill me for that password and/or two hours to themselves to watch something.

But the struggle is real.

The paradox of choice

Paradoxically, it’s precisely because we’ve never had it so good, us decadent capitalist scum, that we sometimes feel ‘spoilt for choice’. Try this when you’re deciding what to spend your Christmas gift vouchers on: just choose something. You can’t, can you?

As a kid it was much easier, because the gifts I got for Christmas were usually something I’d had my eye on since May. And the vouchers were much more quickly spent – and followed with many a round of ‘are you sures’ from Mam and Dad – because it will often have been the first thing I seized upon in the shop.

Barry Schwartz calls it ‘the paradox of choice’, and finds that you can have too much of a good thing. Faced with a sample table of either six jams or 24, 30% of those given only six to try would go on to buy one of them, compared to 3% given a choice of 24.

It can be so bad that you’ll defer from any decision at all just to stay away from the overwhelming feeling of choice paralysis. Whatever it is you’re sitting watching, even if you don’t like it, turning off the TV entirely doesn’t seem like an option when there’s no clear-cut alternative to spending your time.

As a kid, my choice is blinkered; this shiny thing or that one? As a grown-ass man (who doesn’t feel anything like one at the best of times), the blinkers are off and I’m left wondering how best to spend the commodity I’ve got all too much of today: time.

I thought that maybe just describing my feelings and checking that such a thing exists would be enough. But Schwartz has given me more food for thought: setting a goal.

Set your goals

Find out what it is you want, and what the easiest way to achieve that is. I wanted to moan about something, and my wife’s gone out. Short of calling a friend and talking their ear off (one who isn’t back at work), blogging about it seems to have done the trick.

But when I close my laptop and stand up, what next? My goal for the day is: be entertained. Well, my PS4 just blinked. I could go back and put another ungodly amount of hours into Stardew Valley as I did yesterday. And then there’s that book about Bowie I got for Christmas oh god it’s happening again.

Setting a goal, analysing the simplest route towards it, the one that will expend the least amount of time, energy and stress, and working towards it. That’s a start. Polishing off the rest of my selection box? Aye, why not.

Game retail stores are charging for Playstation VR demos

We all know how I feel about the chain of video game shops known simply as Game. (In case you don’t, here’s a quick refresher.) But their latest attempt to bring virtual reality to the masses is sort of taking the piss a bit.

Game shops Call of Duty

Per the Retail Gazette, branches of Game are offering customers the chance to try out the brand new Playstation VR suite; a pretty impressive bit of kit by all accounts. Even I’m intrigued after my own brush with the future at my friend’s stag go last year.

So what do you do in order to sample some Sony VR action? Simple: pay Game a fiver for ten minutes’ play.

Woah, hold up. They’re charging for this?

Yep. Five quid. Ten minutes. And probably some impatient taps on your shoulder, or else just the system shutting down before you’ve really had a chance to get cracking with some sweet tech.

VR in demand

Okay, I get it. This stuff is in demand, and at a hefty £350 (plus Playstation Camera, sold separately) there’s not a lot of people can expect to wake up with this in their stocking come Christmas Day (oh god, I said it). And with all their financial troubles of the past, you can see why Game themselves would be hesitant to back up the VR delivery lorry without some indicator of how many they’ll sell.

But asking people to part with (for me) a completely unreasonable amount of money for only ten minutes’ trying out the Playstation VR is just a bit too much.

Firstly, Sony themselves have been trialling the hardware at venues all over the country, and haven’t tried charging anyone for the privilege.

Secondly, we’re talking about a company which is now accepting pre-orders on a game that isn’t out for another whole year. One whole year for you to give them your money, knowing full well that their line of credit is drying up faster than the craft beer tent at Burning Man, and they might not be around long enough to honour it.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

The age-old art of robbing Peter to pay Paul is something Game has excelled at in recent years, and having barely survived last Christmas is now back to the same old tricks. Other British retailers without the ability to get advance payments on product has seen the likes of Woolworths and Comet close their doors.

But being able to live through another trying Christmas period via something seemingly so socially acceptable as a video game pre-order is just a false economy. And again, it’s bad enough to be done months in advance, but Rockstar’s announcement of a ‘Fall 2017’ release means players are AT LEAST ten months away from seeing any return on their investment of right now.

game retail pre order red dead redemption 2 announcement

For their part, Game claims that charging players to sample Playstation VR is all part of keeping dedicated staff available and on hand to help you demo the gear. I’d liken it to taking a test drive at a car showroom; the guys are there to try and sell you the car in the first place, so why should you be saddled with the financial burden of taking it for a spin?

And while I admire Game members of staff for their tireless pursuit of a sale, I find it annoying enough to barely break the one-minute mark in a branch of the shop without being asked if I’m alright, and what do I play? (Unless I clearly don’t look to them as if I belong there, in which case they shouldn’t be making those assumptions anyway.)

But let’s not forget either that anyone who buys the Playstation VR following on from that demo will have the price knocked off. Thank god for that, my ludicrously-priced hardware will have a fiver knocked off!

Retail’s been going through some very tough times of late, and with the whole Brexit bollocks kicking off it looks like there’ll be even more to come. But with stunts like this, it’ll be harder for some than others once customers start voting with their wallets.

Five Halloween costumes for couples

So, obviously I’ve been sorely lacking in blog posts lately, please do forgive the gap but I’m going through a bit of a ‘writing different stuff / lacking decent ideas’ phase.

Upfront honesty: I’ve never been the biggest fan of this whole Americanisation of a good old pagan holiday. I probably haven’t actually cared about Halloween since my last disappointing neighbourhood trick or treat run as a child. But steadily over the years, seeing the excitement of grown-ass men and women getting dressed up as their favourite spooky characters for a night on the town has finally got me convinced that this year it might be worth a go.

Since I did a marry  I’ve been trying to think of the best way that me and my lady together could pull off a great Halloween couples’ costume idea. So here are five, completely off the top of my head and 80% not actual couples, but still great double acts all the same.

Super Mario Bros.

Super Mario Bros.

If you’re both sticklers for colour-coordination then this first choice should see you right. Celebrate one of the best video games of all time by dressing up as Italian plumbers – but not any old Italian plumbers, obviously. Also obviously, you will need at least one fake moustache.

Buffy & Angel

Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Angel

Looking to hit the town as a fictional power couple? Add some bite to the traditional night out by setting yourself up as the Slayer and her favourite squeeze. And for extra geek cred, bring along a ‘Smile Time’ puppet version of Angel! Alternatively, blond dudes may prefer to go for Spike – dodgy Cockney accent optional.

Mr Robot and Elliot

Mr Robot Christian Slater

I got the flash of inspiration for both this post and the Halloween costume for me and my wife when I bought a black hoody the other day. Mr Robot has been unmissable Thursday night viewing during this second season, and I think it would make a very good conversation piece – especially if either of you fancied talking to yourself during the course of the night without fear of social awkwardness.

Bill & Ted

Bill and Ted costumes

Inspired by watching Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey earlier tonight, I do think this would make a great Halloween costume for couple – if not one of the most difficult to nail down. Where exactly does one get their hands on a red and orange jacket with a yellow smiley face on the back, anyway?

Clowncore

It’s a pretty striking idea for a couples’ costume at Halloween, but even better in a social emergency. If you’ve always wanted to gather up eight mates and go to a party as the members of Slipknot, but two of you arrived as the Clown, it’s easily fixed – just tell everyone you’re Clowncore instead.

Are you thinking of teaming up for a super-effective Halloween couples’ costume? Let me know in the comments!

Creating for its own sake

I don’t really know where to start.

I’ll start with what someone else said while he was trying to come to terms with a big decision. (We’ll miss you, Murf:)

“I do not want to feel like every single activity or experience I do needs to be carefully screened in case I can extract a blog post out of it.”

Life vs stuff

Whenever I get deep enough into a new game (No Man’s Sky), or halfway through the book I’m reading (Fight Club 2), my mental focus shifts itself from consuming what it is I’m actually experiencing into how I’d explain those feelings in a blog post.

being creative

Basically before I’ve finished seeing, reading or hearing something, I’m already reviewing it in my head in case I can drag a good 500 words out of the experience. And because of this (albeit small) mental shift, I feel like maybe I’m missing out on enjoying something for its own sake.

When I first started playing and absolutely loving No Man’s Sky, I knew it would inspire me to write a post I could be proud of – but that’s still somewhat missing the point. If you’re playing the game yourself, or are still trying to decide whether or not it’s worth a purchase, you’ll already have that information in hand. Not saying my views will sway you either way – it’s possible they actually could because everyone sees things differently – but that would not be my chief aim.

But because Alpha Signal Five has become less about the life experiences, and more about the stuff experiences, I’ve always got an eye on the next published post rather than the next finished book or completed game. I never really noticed it until just recently and, truthfully, it slightly diminishes the return I get from consuming stuff in the first place. It isn’t my intention to tell anyone anything, more just to put the words out there for my own benefit.

Express yourself

For me, writing is a way to express myself because it’s too difficult to do out loud. When I used to do stand-up, I found writing the material was so much more satisfying than actually being onstage delivering it. More often than not I’d mess up a set-up or punchline because it looked much better on paper.

As long as I continue to have something to say, it makes things easier. But it feels less and less worthwhile to post reviews on what I play or read or watch. That’s nothing to do with the sheer amount of material online doing the exact same thing – I never minded that there’s a hundred thousand other bloggers pressing Publish on their NMS reviews right this second – but just of how little relief I’ve recently started to feel for pressing Publish myself. It used to be a means to an end; a way to wrap up all the feelings and thoughts I had about something, post it online and be done with it.

Because I want to be more creative, though, maybe that’s not the way to go about it. Maybe all those thoughts and feelings need to stay a bit more loose and flowing in my head, so I can try and fashion something out of them for my own more creative purposes.

Example: I’ve been trying to write a script about video gamers for a few months now. I’ve been watching as many documentaries and reading as many books on the subject as I can – from death by addiction to eSports players – in an attempt to shape something together. If I were just to review those programmes and books, then I’d feel like I was done with them when publishing each post, and I don’t want to be done with them.

“God, Kermode, your hands are MASSIVE”

Nor did I ever want to be a reviewer; I just wanted to see new things and use this site to squee about the best ones. But looking back it’s as clear as day, right down to the final paragraph where I’ll invariably sum up by saying whether or not I recommend it.

Outside of telling my friends “aww mate, you NEED to watch that” (Mr Robot), I don’t want to place myself anywhere near a spot which may or may not go towards making up your mind whether or not to do or buy something. It isn’t me.

I just need an outlet. I’ll always need an outlet. I’ve even started making music on my laptop. But I don’t know if that’s the right one either. So I suppose I’ll just keep trying to find the right one. I need to read and write for their own sake, and adjust my own expectations of creating.

Forgive the jumble. I kinda needed to get that off my chest.

Pokemon Go, by a filthy casual

No intro necessary – you know all about Pokemon Go by this point.

Pokemon Go review

But if there’s one thing I can say about Pokemon Go, it’s that the sheer dedication displayed by some of my fellow local players is both tremendously encouraging and horribly frustrating.

Encouraging because, wow, absolutely everybody is playing it; from the surly teenagers outside my nearest supermarket to the surly adults standing in the town centre between two lures.

Frustrating because, as a thirty-something with grown-up responsibilities and…well, things I’d actually rather be doing than playing Pokemon Go, it occurs to me that I’ll never get anywhere close to achieving anything in-game.

(I held a gym overnight last week, not long enough to gain any XP but still long enough to feel somewhat accomplished. Oh, and this gym was in Mexico – I was on my honeymoon; my wife was only annoyed that she got booted from it sooner than me.)

In-game annoyances

I won’t even bother to get into an overview of the game, mostly because if you’re reading this you’ve either got no wish to know, or you’ve just closed the app down yourself when you came home for the day. Suffice it to say, for me there’s still a few niggling issues to be worked out. I cannot reasonably allow it to murder my phone battery as much as it does, and my GPS is quite patchy – though I realise these are both potentially caused by my smartphone as much as the app itself.

No, the real annoyances come in the game. The memes have done the rounds, but the best jokes are funny because they’re true – I’m sick of the fucking sight of Pidgey. Even when I drop a bloody lure, they’re there in their droves.

Pokemon Go Pidgey

Seriously. I despise it. It can’t be healthy how much I wish harm upon it every time the useless fucker pops up on my screen, and how it manages to escape the trap so much considering how bloody many of them there are. Surely rarer Pokemon than this shouldn’t be easier to catch?

Another issue I have – definitely mine and not the game’s – is that I feel like an absolute hypocrite every time I take my phone out and don’t watch where I’m walking, because I FUCKING HATE those people. At least now there’s a good cause for it, but I have never understood the need to do that before. It’s just an awful habit.

I’ve got to say though, once you can get past these things, the concept itself is absolutely amazing. Catching Pokemon out in the real world? Seeing so many great stories online of making new friends and – in some cases – even taking those scary steps outside to play? It’s a beautiful thing, and while the world continues to fall apart around us with Brexit this and bombing that, having this one beautiful thing in our lives right now is actually pretty great.

But seriously though, fuck Pidgey.