Christmas 2015

Merry Christmas dear readers, is the turkey sitting nicely in your gut (or vegan equivalent? So as not to discriminate). I hope this year finds you all doing well and of course, wishing you the best for the year to come. As is becoming of yearly traditions, I am here to fill you in on my Christmas and a recap of the lead up to it, from my perspective, because that is what you are here to read. I am not a newspaper nor a company, merely a man with a blog that you all seem to take some interest in, however slight or strong it may be.

I will admit I have not looked forward to Christmas – unemployment, tight finances, dwindling social life and a constant stream of happiness from the world around me seemingly for everyone bar me has had me greet festivity with bitterness in my heart. As I write this, that bitterness begins to come forth once again, as it often does in an evening. I made my efforts though, I am not one to let my personal woes ruin the joy of others and so I participated in gift-giving, jumper-wearing and cheer-spreading, albeit with a somewhat pained grimace where a smile should have been. Today in itself consisted of the usual gift-unwrapping followed by films, Doctor Who, dinner and then everyone toddles off again to do their own thing, my thing being returning to my little cell of a bedroom to brood and contemplate on doing something creative until it is suddenly 2:34AM and all I have achieved is removing my trousers and staring at the utter lack of notifications I have to attend to on my Facebook.

Christmas, in a sense, has yet to actually come for me because whilst I have received cash from the folks and a new shirt from one of my brothers, the bulk of my gifts are coming from friends I have not had the chance to see yet and perhaps on those occasions I will feel more cheery. As it stands, home life is not cheery, tensions are high here and there has been far too much aggression in the air to call this a holly jolly holiday. Interesting, when one considers this might be my last Christmas like this – though I feel perhaps that was considered by everyone present and some perhaps greeted that thought with the silent response of “Thank goodness”, there has been no attempt to bury hatchets here and hostilities are either laid plain or knives are sharpened behind backs. Indeed, perhaps even this blog is my knife, though whom it would cut remains to be seen as my work is met with the most trifling interest by my family.

I apologise, I am a downer on a day of joy, such is my lot. I wish I had stories of charity and cheer to tell and whilst this season has not been an endless suffering on my part, indeed one party was attended and unexpected gifts have been assured to be coming my way yet as it stands, at this time on this day, I feel a black mist grip my soul and drag it back down like always. I look forward to the new year, if only because I have ambitions to drive me and feasible means of achieving some of them and the prospect of being in work again is seemingly more apparent – two employers have expressed great interest in me and once the world of work is back in order then they will hurry to usher me in and get me sorted out as either their new team player or latest addition to the rejection bin.

I have no right to complain, I spent Christmas in a warm home with turkey on my plate, no job to tear me away from my family and there was no actual family tragedy today, just muttered words and a general consensus of “Let’s do this for as long as it is bearable”, with some of us giving up an hour in and some sticking through to dinner before departing. Families do that I suppose, the Christmas card image of a family gathered and united in love is appealing but fairly untrue, especially in homes on the breadline like mine. Ultimately, you must think me a terrible whine, to speak of how poor I find myself and woe is me but you are not obliged to read on, this is merely a personal filling in and as it stands, this is the truth of it – a modest Christmas with a family divided and I am little more than a misery.

I do not know what 2016 will bring. I hope it will be the year that changes everything and intend to work hard to make it so and yet, I have said that much for each year of my life since I left school and here I am. On the upside, with a gym contract I’m obliged to for twelve months, at £9.99 a month, I can at least be depressed and fucking jacked up like a beefcake, I’m too much of a tight git with money to let the best part of £10 vanish from my bank account each month and not turn up at the gym – I’m lazy enough, I don’t intend to charge myself £10 a month to be so.

Still, Christmas is a time to be thankful so let me end on the lighter note as to what I am thankful for. I am thankful to my family for providing me a home and for the efforts they have made for me all year round, to my Dad for being willing to invest in me and help me take my first steps towards revolutionising my work by buying me the equipment. I am thankful to my friends for their steadfast loyalty, especially at this time and whilst the run-up to Christmas would provide many of them valid reason to make less effort, some have made more effort than ever to check that I am okay and provide me with some reason to smile or laugh. Lastly, let me give thanks to the unexpected friends I have found this year, old grudges washed away and casual acquaintances have made new strides to know me better, it is always something that can make me smile.

Merry Christmas everyone, I will provide a 2015 retrospective later this year and in it, I will look back on my year and my plans for 2016, for those who take interest in such matters

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Little Big Pleasures

Yesterday’s article was kinda fun, barely a soul gave a toss but you know I can write a post on here just for the sake of writing it, that’s what blogs were for before they became a way to launch a promising career in writing… which I’m still waiting for. Anyway, that in mind, a conversation with a friend has got me in the mood for writing another fun fluff piece about video games and the astute ones among you can probably guess which game came to mind for me, Little Big Planet 3, the latest in a trilogy of platforming games that is fun for all ages.

As series go, some I can buy games from hit and miss, I can chip into a series late and go back, go from the start and watch it evolve or I can just try it and leave it. For example, I only own Sega All Stars Racing, not the Transformed version that came out later, the first didn’t excite me enough to merit paying money for me, my favourite game series Dynasty Warriors, I didn’t buy the games in order – starting with 3, than a crossover game, then 5, 4, expansion packs, 6 and so on. Thankfully there isn’t a continuity in Dynasty Warriors, it’s the same game made over and over again with better graphics, gameplay mechanics and expanded character rosters. Point being, Little Big Planet, I watched it grow. I played the first game at a friend’s house and fell in love and I made sure to acquire each game since. So why do I like the series so much? Well, this is not a rant today, today I’m here to rave, to sing praise, to review with a positive attitude so allow me to fill you in on why Little Big Planet might just be one of the finest series of games going.

Okay, for those who have never owned a PS3/PS4 and never played the game at any point, Little Big Planet is a platformer game in which you customise a cutesy knitted character with costumes of all varieties and run through themed levels to rescue a world of imagination from some big baddy, be it an owl driving a death robot, an evil space snake or Hugh Laurie in a bowler hat. You run, jump, swing, fly and glide through levels that take inspiration from just about anything – Medieval Europe, the Renaissance, Outer Space, 50s Style Diners, Giant Libraries – you name it, someone has made a LBP level about it. The game is artistically stunning, it has a style that makes it all look like it is essentially an enchanted art project, adding to this idea it is an imaginary world, a world consisting of doodles and craft sessions come to life and your main enemy is always some selfish, unimaginative monster who wants to stomp all over your creativity. With that explained, here’s why this series is so good:

Diversity and Suitability

You could easily make this the first game your kids play, their first real video game series and it would not corrupt them. Far from it, I would think it enriching. Across the series, the levels opt out of falling into the templates of Snow World, Lava World and Desert World, instead opting for culturally themed worlds – New York World, Japan World, England World – not in such obvious titles but you can see the inspiration. The costumes add to this, it’s not all armour and silly hats, though there a few, but there are costumes based on Chinese Traditional Wear, Japanese Robes, Ponchos, Tuxedos, Saris and Turbans, come Little Big Planet 4 or 5, or enough DLC, and this series will touch on every major world culture at least once. In this sense, the game is inoffensive. Granted, I’m a white hetero cis male, it’s hard to offend my demographic unless you question my masculinity, but with a game that so celebrates diversity and avoids violence (You defeat monsters by jumping on their weak spots and they turn into clouds of smoke, hardly that gruesome), this is a game that is either a light spot of fun for a twenty something like me, a tool for enjoyment and education for children or a game you could possibly talk Mum and Dad into trying. Parents, seize this game, fast, when you see kids playing it, introduce them to the cultures and histories that have inspired the artistic styles and level designs to make your children students of the world!

Endless Creativity

In terms of games that allow you to be truly creative, this is up there with Mario Maker, easily being worshipped as the new user-friendly creativity tool of the decade, a title it deserves – past the “Nyahahaha this is so hard!” levels, Mario Maker offers the chance for potential game designers to use assets they fully understand to create unique gaming experiences. Little Big Planet, by the same token, allows players to use any of the materials, monsters and power-ups they have encountered in game to create whole new worlds, stickers can be found to personalise existing levels and both your home screen and character are fully customisable. LBP DLC is endless, the blank canvas hero allowing so many possibilities – Baymax, Kermit the Frog, Solid Snake, Dr Eggman – You can be any of those guys, the DLC exists and the in-game content allows you to try out so many variations with costumes ranging from ogre outfits to jeans and shirts. The series includes a Create Mode, a Pod (your home screen) for you to decorate, essentially anything and everything can be personalised and because of this there is a wealth of user-created levels, some of which make me think the designer should be paid for making this stuff up. If games rot the imagination, LBP gives you a healthy dose of it again, it offers you so much chance to be creative, it is almost overwhelming!

Simplicity

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for games being complex, a good strong plot in a video game is a major selling point for me but as a gamer with non-gamer friends I love hanging out with, getting them into games I’m passionate about is hard. They get names wrong, they laugh at things that aren’t supposed to be funny, they simplify the plot to the level of a child’s understanding and I don’t mind, they’re not fans, they’re not invested, but games that you can pick up, play once and understand are great. Pac-Man, Mario, Ghosts and Goblins, Little Big Planet – you have an objective, you have basic controls, away you go, that’s that, jump in and out at any point in the story and it still makes sense. For this reason, LBP is the most popular game on game night with my friendship circle, it’s good clean fun you don’t have to be a gamer to understand but it’s not insultingly easy to the point of being boring, the difficulty curve is perfect in every game (Well, LBP3 is actually more challenging for me than the last two, I think they’re trying to stop loyal fans from getting bored). A game you can share is a game you can love even more, nothing is as satisfying for a gamer as making someone else love the franchise you love, LBP is so easy to get into that you find yourself never short of friends willing to be Player 2. Try that with Dynasty Warriors, I get a lot of “I’m gonna be… Uhh… This big red guy with the pike. Is he good? What do I do? Oh I died… This game is hard, let’s do something else”. Worst. Damn. Thing.

It Evolves

If you make a sequel to a game, you have to change things up from the game before, that’s just a rule, you have to give the player something they can’t get from the previous game. Sonic 2 brought Tails and more levels, Sonic 3 had the option to save progress, Sonic 3 and Knuckles had a new character and a game twice as long as the games before, for those reasons those games got progressively more and more popular. Little Big Planet One is good, it plays very simply and it is very easy, a sort of introduction to the game series with nice tight level design and precious few variations on the run and jump format. Little Big Planet 2 took that and added to it, it added power-ups like a grappling hook, a fire-extinguisher hat, super strength gloves – the game had whole new realms of depth and more creative options to explore. LBP2 even had better mini-games added in, competitive ones, shooting galleries and giant dodgem car levels, this was a franchise that just got better. How do you top that? Try LBP3 – Create Mode and Play Mode now blend together in some levels, requiring you to fill blanks in a level’s design to advance (Hmm. No bridge? I better build one out of those cubes stacked on the cliff edge), the game operates on several layers with the standard far layer, near layer and in between now swapped for very very far, very far, far etc. and the game added whole new characters of different shapes and sizes with their own powers (shapeshifting, flying, running on walls and more). LBP could easily just get away with new levels and costumes and a new big baddy but it does so much more that each game is a distinct improvement on the one before. I just love it, I really do.

In conclusion, Little Big Planet as a series probably isn’t the best game series either but it’s a damn good candidate, in three games it has made more keen and loyal a fan than some game series have done in ten. I could play it with pretty much anyone and have a blast, I could play a level of any theme I could imagine or design it myself and my hero is whoever I want them to be, be it a dragon, a luchador or a green cat in a mankini (No joke, there is a mankini in this game). If you have a PS3 or PS4 and no LBP in your game library, try it, there’s something for everyone and that is pretty darn impressive.

The ‘Spirit’ of The Season

With Christmas now quickly falling into the cosy pit of our memories and our attention now focused on the promise of a new year of technology and film, I felt now was a good time to express my opinion on the festive season so as not to spoil any moods on Christmas day. You will not be too surprised to hear that I think Christmas is blown out of proportion whenever it comes around and I’m here to play the classic Scrooge you no doubt imagine me being when you think of me at this time of year.

I remember many fine Christmases, if that’s the word for it, in which I received glorious gifts that made my little eyes sparkle and my inner child run around screaming in my head. I remember getting a PlayStation One and quickly ushering Dad towards the TV to get him to set it up so I could play Rayman. I also remember getting a big transforming space shuttle that opened up to reveal it was a sci-fi space base on the moon and it came with astronauts and aliens, as well as a handful of space age vehicles to have them pretend to battle it out in space. Yes, my Christmases were humble occasions and our family never had much money to splash out on celebrating but my Dad did his best to make sure each Christmas made a lasting memory, despite the fact for a great deal of his life this holiday made him sick to the stomach with money worries. I understand the point of Christmas and I have enjoyed the holiday on many different occasions so I’m not exactly the man with the coal-black heart but as I’ve become older, wiser and a lot more jaded, I’ve started to see why my Dad thinks Christmas is highly overrated.

Yes, I know what you’re going to say – “Oh Jacob is going to tug at our heart strings with talk of capitalist nonsense and ludicrous spending that only fuels the corporate machine that is currently killing the common man  in a slow and sinister fashion”. If you did say that, fair play, that’s a pretty concise yet loaded statement about commercialisation. You all know this argument, that Christmas has become a joke, a poor chance every December 25th to pick a man’s pockets (Points if you get the reference) but though it is a common opinion held by my fellow cynics, I sometimes feel it is overlooked by many people who laugh merrily and come back at us with “Oh cheer up, it’s Christmas!”. I ask of you, what is Christmas? A Christian holiday to celebrate the birth of Jesus two months later than he was actually born so as to overshadow the Pagan winter festival? A reminder of why you’ll never want a job involved with health or hospitality because you’ll no doubt find yourself working on said day whilst your family misses you at the table? Well we are told that Christmas is a time of togetherness, a time to gather the family around a turkey with party hats upon every head and crackers in hand as we all prepare to laugh and love together. I would like to think that is true and that this spirit was present in your own celebrations but then what is Christmas without gifts right? The promise of fine food and thoughtful presents from relatives you barely ever see is what tickled your fancy because otherwise it’s not all that common nowadays that families naturally come together around the table just because. However, I’m sure you don’t feel this is true right? You enjoy Christmas purely because it is a time of love and merriment yes? Well, Christmas has been built up to you all your life and so who knows what you truly feel about the holiday, perhaps you do honestly enjoy the family togetherness, or perhaps you have been instructed to do so by Nanny Television since you were a child.

In my honest opinion, Christmas is not the problem but the hype surrounding it is. In case you do not understand what I mean, allow me to explain myself using Halloween as my comparison. I am sure you probably only start planning ahead for Halloween in September, August if you’re a real nutter for the clutter of plastic skeletons, but generally people don’t give the occasion much thought before October and I’ve never met someone who gets too excited over it year by year. Halloween, of course, is another western perversion of an ancient festival and is now an excuse to demand food from strangers whilst expressing your interest for characters from TV shows or whatever or your total lack of care for the occasion by just turning up on doorsteps wrapped in toilet paper and calling yourself a Mummy. I’m not a huge fan of Halloween, it’s an American thing that the British now want to emulate because Britain secretly wishes it was America, and even then it is just a massive plastic crap on the traditions of old. However, we all know that, nobody harps on about the spirit of the season or the Halloween spirit, we all know it is a tacky parade of costumes and candy but we take part because god damn it, we bought that Batman costume and we need an excuse to wear it! Halloween is naff, let’s face it, but we take part for shits, giggles and free food. However, whereas we are all aware that Halloween is not a momentous occasion and not really a celebration any more, Christmas has become very much the same thing and we don’t seem to want to notice.

Christmas is the only day of the year that the majority of us prepare for months in advance and as autumn rolls in, you get people asking if you’re ready for Christmas. Ready for Christmas is a funny expression, as if Christmas is some sort of challenge to face but then again it is really. The TV bombards you with flashing reminders that you must empty your wallet immediately and buy people ‘the perfect gift’ otherwise you’re a worthless human being and will forever be shunned as a miserable bastard like myself. Incidentally, you’re welcome to join my League of Miserable Bastards, we don’t do subscription gifts but there’s tea and biscuits and you’ll never hear any painstakingly bad music on in the community room. You can count on the media to wait for Halloween to come and go and then it will attack you mercilessly, smacking you in your eyeballs with pictures of turkeys and knitted jumpers and singing snowmen as it screams “BUY BUY BUY!” like a demonic parrot trying to wish you farewell (Read it aloud, makes more sense). I think Christmas is less fair on children than it can be to adults because as a child you watch adverts of amazing toys and treats that you want so badly and so you write your letter to an imaginary fat man and if you’re lucky and your parents are flash with the cash, you get the gift and all is well. If this is you, stop reading this, you will not be able to relate. If all is not well, you don’t get the gift you want, you get the next best thing or something you didn’t even ask for. Your faith in Santa is shaken and you look at your parents with sad eyes but they can’t tell you they couldn’t afford that giant princess castle play set because then they’d have to tell you that your gift wasn’t made by elves, it was made by small Chinese children who get paid in pennies to work until they die, and that is a reality which will stomp on your childish heart. You start to resent Santa and your parents for letting you down, even if you were such a good boy or girl (which you were blackmailed into by your parents, who threatened you with socks full of coal) Christmas can spoil a child and make them selfish, no doubt, but even if they aren’t disappointed by what they received, the holiday itself falls short and allow me to explain using my own experiences as a child and some retrospective thinking.

Ok, so as a child Christmas consisted of the following routine: up at the crack of dawn to look in my stocking to see various small gifts that would keep me occupied for a few hours until my Dad and my Stepmother got up out of bed, as Dad gets up we all scurry downstairs to the sacks full of big gifts and then unwrap them with bright eyes to then enjoy them for a few hours until dinner time. Our Stepmother always made such massive banquets at Christmas and so cheaply too but we didn’t even know as we dined like kings and then after a family dessert, we’d maybe watch some films Dad had bought for us or just run back upstairs to continue playing until we got tired and went to bed. Boxing day rolls in and… uh… nothing special happens. You have your gifts, you keep playing but because you’re a child, your fancy toys end up boring and broken by the time January arrives. Sure, maybe I was ungrateful, but I’m a white child of the western world, they’re good at that. However, I think Christmas is just built up to too much for the kids – all this waiting and waiting and being good, not kicking the cat or putting gum in hair to then have ONE DAY of puddings and presents before it’s done. Christmas came, Christmas went. You might get to stay up late come New Year’s but then that’s it. Hanukkah has the right idea and sounds much more fair on children, a more constant stream of little gifts day by day to make you excited for each day coming rather than this promise of a bucket-load of presents for one day. Even worse, after all of this you eventually come to realise that Santa Claus is a lie made up to get you to behave in a more desirable fashion and so you start to challenge your parents a lot more but then this is what Terry Pratchett said in The Hogfather, that characters such as Santa are the lies we must believe in as children so that we can believe in bigger lies as adults such as justice and mercy. I know that a darker part of your soul is aware of the reality that this is all a cheap façade we’ve been buying into since we were kids and now you want to keep smiling because you don’t want to admit that darkness is there, you want to keep grinning and gift-giving and gift-receiving, year after year, until you’re the one telling these lies to other people and the cycle continues like taking a steaming great shit into a washing machine and then turning it on to watch it swirl.

December 25th should not be highlighted as the time to remember a sacred baby or the time to spend your money on gifts, or even the time to think of family. At the risk of sounding as cheesy as Christmas, you should aim to show your love for those who care about as often as possible without needing some special occasion to encourage you to be a decent human being. If the spirit of giving and caring truly exists inside you, keep it alive all year round. I could be bitter, I could be right. I mean, my brothers didn’t get me gifts despite me getting gifts for them but let’s gloss over that hmm? I hope what I’ve said today is not simply ignored as the ravings of a cold-hearted man, who is as solitary as an oyster and annoyed that Christmas this year for him consisted of being told he’s off JSA, a pudding he got ready for the occasion being sniffed at and binned and his spirit of giving and caring receiving little in reciprocation. Bah, humbug!