5 years

After 5 years, Buffy the Vampire Slayer lay dead and buried, having made the ultimate sacrifice to save her sister, her friends and the world.
buffygrave

After 5 years, Harry Potter was devastated by the death of his godfather Sirius Black, and burdened with the knowledge of the prophecy concerning his and Voldermort’s fates.
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After 5 years, Sheridan and Delenn boarded the White Star to fly to the newly completed offices of the Interstellar Alliance, leaving Babylon 5 and its Next Generation crew behind.
b5

In each of the above cases, the fictional world would continue past this half-decade point, with varying levels of success. With great longevity comes great responsibility, especially in the world of cult fiction. Die-hard fans will cry bloody murder if a beloved character is slain, and yet without that sense that the stakes are getting higher and that all bets are off, your audience winds up crying tears of boredom instead of grief.

If you are finishing your series after 5 years/seasons, you need to convey a sense of absolute finality. Even if you are going to attempt a spinoff series. Or a couple of lame TV movies. Or after your ‘final’ episode you then air the end to the previous season because the network execs wouldn’t stop screwing around with your show. (Although Sleeping in Light packs more of an emotional wallop anyway – so that worked out ok!)

If you’re planning on carrying on Post-5, then you better have something pretty spectacular up your sleeve for your End of Year Arc. Which invariably means death. And not a red-shirt death either. You need a meaningful sacrifice, someone your audience loves, someone whose loss will dramatically alter the relationship dynamics between your other characters. You need to convey a sense that despite your show continuing, everything has changed. That it won’t just be more of the same.

You also need to be accept that however you plan things, there will always be those who will reckon you should have thrown in the towel then and there. Season 6 of BtVS is widely regarded as where it started to go off the rails. Harry Potter always had its detractors, and many of them honed in on the rather excruciating Ron/Lavender/Hermione love triangle in Half-blood Prince. Crusade only got a single series before being unceremoniously cancelled.

Nothing lasts forever. Sometimes things need to change. More often, things need to end.

All of which is a massively self-important analogy to the fact that after 5 years as an administrator at Science Learning Centre London I’m leaving to start a new job and a new life in Oxford.

At the tender age of 31, 5 years represents half my working life since graduating from UEA in September 2003. I’ve had some great experiences at SLCL, made some great friends, and learned a huge amount, but it’s time to move on.

A brief history of my life in computer games

As mentioned in a previous post, I decided to run a Barcamp Berkshire session on the computer games I had enjoyed throughout various times in my life. The below is a blog-version of my talk.

A short history of my life in computer games

As an only child I spent a fair amount of time at weekends and during school holidays playing on my Dad’s computer. The above game, Sleuth, was a text-based rip off of Cluedo, but with the addition of some incredibly basic graphics. As a detective you had to navigate your ‘avatar’ (if you can possibly call the small cluster of pixels an avatar) around the floorplan of a large mansion, interrogating murder suspects.

slightly later

As time went by, my Dad got a better computer with a better graphics card, which allowed me to play more sophisticated games like Commander Keen. (N.B. Dad – if you’re reading this and remember it differently, just go with it ok? No one ever expects accuracy to get in the way of the narrative.)

It was playing this game, frantically hammering on the keyboard to avoid the green, googly-eyed monsters, that I realised my motor skills left something to be desired. I needed a computer game that didn’t rely quite so heavily on precision key-strokes.

monkey

Enter my primary school friend Emma, her Dad’s rather better computer, and a wannabe pirate by the name of Guybrush Threepwood. The Secret of Monkey Island marked the start of a long and happy relationship with Scumm games. The point and click puzzle solving was fun, cerebrally challenging but required little in the way of hand eye coordination.

indy

A couple of years later I went to boarding school and took the prudent measure of befriending a chap named Alex who had the Scumm game Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis installed on his machine.

Doom2

As I grew older I learned that the best way to make friends with teenage geeks was to talk to them about gaming. There are those who swear mid 90s FPS games hit their apex with Duke Nukem or Wolfenstein, but for me and my mates it was all about Doom 2. Killing a Cacodemon with a chainsaw in God Mode was one of life’s purest pleasures.

terry

Learning the art of conversing with geeks was a skill which would stand me in good stead for going to university, where I would meet the love of my life, Terry.

tiberian

Terry moved in with me and my student housemates in 2002, and one of our first decisions as a cohabiting couple was to set up 2 computers in our respective rooms, with an ethernet cable running between them, taped to the ceiling. It was here that I discovered the world of the PC-based strategy game series Command and Conquer. We spent hours playing together, sometimes against each other, but more commonly in collaboration against a computer generated enemy. We started off with Tiberian Sun.

red alert 2

Graduated onto Red Alert 2

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And really hit our stride with Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds.

buffy

I was a huge Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan, and was wildly excited when Terry got me the Xbox game. This was my first proper introduction to console gaming. Since my days of button-mashing on a PC my manual dexterity had improved a bit, but not vastly. Jumping puzzles and boss fights would sometimes get the better of me, and Terry would on occasion have to help me out with the trickier bits.

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The sequel Buffy game: Chaos Bleeds was more my speed, incorporating more puzzle solving than its predecessor. Additionally I loved that you got to play as different characters, in particular the welcome return of Sid the Dummy.

link

In 2005 I decided to do a 3 year part-time MA in Philosophy through the Open University. Although it’s still one of the best things I ever did, it was incredibly hard going. One unexpected challenge I faced was what to do with my diminished leisure time. Reading no longer held any pleasure for me and watching TV & films felt too passive. To this day I am convinced that playing The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess kept me (just about) sane. The game looked gorgeous, the puzzles were challenging enough to keep me interested but not so tough I gave up. Best of all, the new, intuitive, style of gaming introduced by the Wii meant that rather than having to press lots of fiddly buttons, fighting with a sword entailed swinging a Wiimote. Suddenly I had a console game where I wasn’t unduly punished for having poor motor skills.

links

So absorbing was this new world of Hyrule that I happily played a couple of older Zelda games from the Game Cube days, although button mashing on a Wavebird was definitely a step down from the Wiimote swinging. I was delighted by Windwaker, even though the bright primary colours and youth of its protagonist made it felt a little babyish compared to the sombre tones of Twilight Princess. When it came out, Skyward Sword became my favourite Zelda experience to date. Delving further in the Nintendo back catalogue, Ocarina of Time felt pretty blocky and clunky next to the later games, but I still enjoyed playing through it. Mostly…

jumping

That bloody jumping puzzle!

auto

This dude is trying to kill me with six swords. Six!

tears

Oh the tears! Oh the swearing!

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Last summer I mentioned I rage quit Ocarina of Time for 3 and a half years. This was due to my failure to execute the above jumping puzzle (or if not that exact one, a very similar one.) On occasions my frustration at my own ineptitude can get the better of me. It’s generally not pretty.

legosw

Although I loved Zelda, I needed a new kind of game which punished user error less severely. The Lego franchise hits this nail on the head. Aimed squarely at the family market, the game brilliantly realises the Star Wars universe in Lego bricks. The other main draw was the drop-in, drop-out collaborative play which carried through to similar TT games.

bat

Such as Batman

indy2

And Indiana Jones. The games weren’t flawless, but losing a few points each time you ‘died’ as opposed to getting the dreaded Game Over screen was a welcome change of pace.

hotd

Several years ago Terry wrote a post about our quest for games which supported collaborative play. Friends suggested we tried the House of the Dead series. As one commented “Beating off a swarm of zombies together is a great experience!” How right he was! Additionally, House of the Dead: Overkill had (in 2009) the dubious honour of having the most swear words of any computer game to date.

boom

While I’m not adverse to adult content by any stretch, I do seem to have more affinity for the more child-friendly games. Although quite how the title ‘Boom Blox: Bash Party’ made it past the censors I don’t know.

fit

As the first decade of the 21st Century drew to a close I faced up to the fact that years of a rather sedentary lifestyle had left me significantly, if not severely, overweight. Having had less than successful encounters with gyms in the past I decided to see what gaming could do for my BMI. The Wii Fit pack proved a sound investment and over the course of about 6 months I lost a stone in weight, predominantly doing the cycling courses.

portal

At last year’s Barcamp several people mentioned how awesome Portal was, so much so that we bought the game and I duly blogged about it last year.

shield

The past few months have been a bit rubbish. Work hasn’t been going so well, and I’ve been feeling pretty strung out. I decided to replay Skyward Sword, and in so doing managed to finally win the Hylian Sheild on the Boss Fight Rush Challenge, a feat I failed to accomplish the last time I played. For every game I play there is usually a part where I eventually give up because it’s too hard. But then there are the occasions that I get over my rage quit, I try again and I succeed! And that feels pretty damn good!

3ds

My original talk finished with this slide, designed to prompt a bit of discussion for the rest of the slot. However as I mentioned in my previous post, part way through my delivery I realised that I was using an old version of this presentation. I ended up not discussing these types of games I have never properly tried. Instead at the end of my talk I went back into drop box, found the right version and went over the parts I’d missed out. So I never got to hear from anyone as to whether I should try out a handheld console like the Nintendo 3DS.

Epilogue

As mentioned above work hasn’t been going too well recently, and so when I wasn’t replaying Skyward Sword I was spending my time looking for new employment. As of the weekend when I went to Barcamp I’d already had one unsuccessful job interview, and had another scheduled for the following Thursday. Knowing how I struggle to occupy myself when waiting to hear the result, Terry bought me a shiny new Nintendo 3DS, so I could distract myself from the waiting and the possibility of rejection. He presented me with this toy on the Thursday evening after the interview, which was an incredibly sweet gesture. Except that by Thursday evening, I’d already been rung up and offered the new job! So it seems I’m not going to have much opportunity to play my new game, as I now have to move house, which is likely to take up a fair amount of time. But that is a post for another day!

Barcamp Berkshire 2013

It’s Sunday morning, June 16th, and I’m sitting in the main atrium of O2’s Slough offices, having spent the night camping in a small meeting room (and through judicious application of ear plugs, an eye mask and a sleeping pill actually got some sleep!) This is my second ever barcamp, and so far it’s been even better than last year.

I’m surrounded by geeks of every colour and flavour, some happily tapping away on their laptops like me, others engrossed in conversation. As is the prerogative of the ‘social introvert’ as barcamp stalwart Melinda Seckington puts it, I’m enjoying a moment of introspection, and am currently reflecting on how much I have changed since I was here a year ago.

Terry has been a face on the tech scene for the best part of the last decade, and has been to more barcamps, hack days, conferences, tech events & general geek get-togethers than one could shake the proverbial stick at! Last year he convinced me that I should give barcamp a go, and I went along feeling intrigued and excited, but also with some seriously trepidation. Sometimes I feel like I am a pretender in this world of developers, designers & coders. I barely have any skills or experience in programming – I find myself smiling and nodding along to conversations about the pitfalls with Ruby or Python, and I would struggle to sit through a talk about GitHub or the merits of BitCoin. On the other hand I can happily discuss sci fi and computer games, I work in STEM in an admin capacity and I over the years I have learned how to speak at least some techy language.

Last year, my blog was still in infancy, so after much deliberation I ran a discussion session on how I had a blog, but was not writing much for fear of seeming ill-informed and immature: I discussed how I sometimes get the urge to write to a particular item in the news, but then end up not really having the energy or time to research the thing properly, and become paralysed by wondering why anyone would care what I thought about something anyway. The session boosted my confidence enormously, not least because of the number of people who came up to me to say they felt exactly the same way.
I also got to see the other kinds of sessions which get run. While I think it’s fair to say that the majority of sessions are still heavily tech-oriented, I realised that I really could talk about anything which was of interest to me.

I also learned that the attendees of barcamps are an incredibly supportive, friendly bunch of people, and that a talk really doesn’t have to be polished to a gleaming, professional standard. This year I flung together a bunch of screenshots of computer games I have played throughout my 31 years of existence, and talked a roomful of people through A Brief History of My Life in Computer Games. I’d been tinkering around with the presentation during the week, and ended up projecting an older version of the final draft on the screen. Last year such a basic cock up would have sent me spiralling into a depression of self-doubt and recrimination. This year, I just shrugged it off, got to the end and then chatted to the attendees while I found the correct version on dropbox, and then quickly tacked on the extra material. It was far from slick, and it would have been better if it hadn’t happened, but no one seemed to mind, and more to the point, neither did I.

Later that day I remembered I had a topic in mind for another post which I haven’t got around to writing yet. I found a slot which was populated entirely with techy talks, found a free room, rounded up a few people who were hanging out not attending anything and held an impromptu discussion about female superheroes. Last year such confident, off-the-cuff self promotion would have been unthinkable. (The actual blog post, replete with the contributions of the people whose opinion I solicited, will be coming soon.)

Loads of great things have happened this year. In no particular order, highlights of the weekend were:

Rolling around on a tennis ball to force the back muscles to relax.
Listening to an 8 year old girl describe her IT lessons.
Riding the Virtual Reality rollercoaster “Occulus Rift” and not screaming out loud like the 3 blokes ahead of me!
Playing my first ever game of powerpoint karaoke, and crushing it! See the video here:

Barcamps rely heavily on the goodwill of the volunteers, so generous with their time and energy. By dint of working for O2, who hosted the event, Terry was automatically a member of the Crew. By dint of being married to Terry, and being driven to the office at the same time, I found myself getting stuck into the last-minute helping out too. Not be all self-aggrandizing or anything but I like to feel my substantial experience in crowd control, registering conference attendees and dealing with temperamental computer systems afforded me the necessary skills to be of use during a rather chaotic hour at the start of the weekend, and at various times thereafter. So for me the cherry on the fabulous barcamp cake was getting officially upgraded to Crew. Making a contribution to the whole weekend gave me a much needed boost of confidence, and I hope to go to many more!