Game Over

The new video game sensation is ‘The Last of Us’, and for the Guardian’s Stuart Heritage, it’s bringing to clear focus just how hopeless he is playing them.

And you know what, Stuart, me too.

As a child of the 80s and 90s, my game memories begin with the beige box of dreams that was the Commodore64, cassette tapes and all. And whilst “New Zealand Story” and “Paddington’s Garden Game” passed off without incident, and the most basic of basic racing games attracted my borderline autistic tendencies, anything beyond “point, click, shoot” made my heart sink.

Upgrading to the Mastersystem and latterly SNES didn’t help. I could do Mario, I loved Mario, and Prince of Persia, all 2-D scrolling platforms and minor difficulty curves. Sometime between the SNES and not having anything at all, I had a brief relationship with the original PlayStation, though only for the aerial-shot “Grand Theft Auto”. And then…nothing. For about 20 years, give or take.

As expected, the subsequent years without anything more taxing than matching coloured shapes to each other to pass the time has not been without moments of computer game awkwardness. I’m the trainee judge, the clueless grandfather, the nervous first-date, politely taking a controller only to have it taken off me with barely hidden pity. Football classics such as “ProEvo” become lessons in advance mathematics, my eyes forever focused on a player unable to move, or unwilling to join his teammates, or just more interested in dancing around the touchline than touching the ball. “That one, that one to shoot!”, “SHORT! Just needs to be SHORT!” and all other manner of spirited instructions come my way for no great benefit.

A few months ago a friend asked if I wanted to join in as a third player in some crazy looking multiplayer first-person shooter effort. It soon came to an end; he and another player ran ahead shooting, killing, jumping, crouching, attacking. I was stuck. “Is that the sky?” I asked. “Yes, Liam, press that to run, run over here, we’ll wait.”

Oh, “We’ll wait”, how often I heard that. They would clear a room of enemies whilst I banged into doors, walls, or had my lower half cut to shreds by an unseen assailant. “We’ll wait ahead,” he’d say, watching me spinning around confused. Sometimes literally.

People I know are left bemused. Me, of all people, should be up to my elbows in computer games, eager to throw myself into words of warcraft and such. No, alas, not. I lose all my concentration, understanding of basic functions and sense of normality. Heat rises, confusion reigns, sense drips away like a badly coded Health Bar. I watch others play, say, “Red Dead Redemption” and think it would be possible to learn that sort of thing pretty easily. Then I have a go, and there’s more “dead” than “redemption”. Whoops, there goes my guns/horse/legs. Oh dear, I’m face to face with a leopard and all I can do is scroll through music options or pause-restart-pause-restart like a jumpy teenager worried about an XTube video has woken his parents.

Now games are growing more complex and complicated, not to mention components of multitudes of add-ons, downloads and the like, I’m left on the casual gamer island watching the Good Ship Video Game sailing off into the horizon. Where once I worried my mum with my inability to leave the Commodore 64 loading screen, I’m now sat at the back of the living room whilst everybody else crowds round the flat screen. I’m a regular visitor to ZeroPunctuation, only for the laughs rather than first hand knowledge of the latest installments of Shooter-Season 2011 or whatever the trend is at the moment.

Whether I like it or not, I have to accept that video games fell from my grasp at the first sign of advancing into what they are now today, leaving me with regular psychological check-ups for addiction to WordsWithFriends. Maybe “The Last of Us” truly is the newest high-point in a good few years in gaming, I really wouldn’t know. I’d spend too long fathoming out how to stand up straight before crashing into a wall. And then maybe I’d try to turn the game on….

MSN Messenger RIP

And lo, another piece of the “old internet” is said to be coming to a close on March 15

In a part of the distant far-aways which seems almost unthinkable to us now, the use of MSN Messenger to keep in touch with people was ubiquitous. Amongst one of the first clients of its kind, MSN grew in size and popularity as one of the first ‘hits’ of the Internet, in an age where the predominate ways to meet and greet people were not examples of ‘social media’.

MSN launched in 1999,  a stand-alone programme which more often that not would pop-up or even automatically sign-in at start up. In its earliest days it was prone to some technical fubars – most infamously allowing people to look at other conversations to which they weren’t invited – and whilst it carried on using the same interface for its entire life, the rest of the ‘net began to run off to explore greater and more advanced services. Whilst the Internet started to lose interest in message-boards, chat rooms and the like, MSN Messenger was a slice of retro charm which began to struggle for relevance.

And it didn’t take long for the relevance issue to stomp its foot against the life support machine’s wires and tubes. It wasn’t just the launch of MySpace in 2003 or Facebook in 2004 which made the ‘real time chat’ elements of MSN seem unnecessary. It wasn’t just the availability of free texts on readily available, cheap mobile phones. The ‘core audience’ for MSN – and by Jove I was one of them- was not being replaced by enough younger people. Those who had grown up with the service, however were drifting off without being fought for by Microsoft or anybody else that matter. Those who liked to sit down to connect with friends (or indeed, back in the very, very early days, people picked up through the long-since killed off MSN Chat rooms, a/s/l and all) could see more than enough ways to stay in touch without having to converse through a small, squat pop-up box.

Attempts to keep dwindling users attracted inevitably meant using tie-ins to services which were killing it off, a sort of double-deal which would have made Shakespeare drool. Statuses could be linked to Facebook or Twitter, and dozens of colour-match games were added as well as links to Bing (!) related searches and showbiz stories. It had grown larger, but less useful, and on the Internet that’s no good at all.

The passing of MSN closes one of the oldest doors in the dusty annexe which is Web 1.0. It reminds us that we’re all getting older, the Internet is moving ever forward, and there’s never been as many options to sort out how to procrastinate. But it’s legacy does live on – Facebook chat uses the device “X is typing….”.


I understand social media, to a lesser or greater degree, enjoying the expansion/development of the Internet into a jamboree of tagging, poking, checking in and checking out.

All the same, there’s a block, a black mark across the mind, bubbled and scratched and defaced by white blobs, like a popcorn’d barcode. This is the QR Code, not “the humble” or “the dear old”, just the straight down the line, aren’t we all fans, let’s celebrate our cleverness QR Code.  It cannot be my age or lack of a decent scanner, it has to be plain old common sense, because I just do not understand the appeal. It’s the worst kind of technological clever-clever, not too dissimilar to using an in-joke at an interview, or eating English food with chopsticks.

The latest company to grind my particularly well oiled gears on this is Heineken. I don’t drink Heineken, preferring beer/ale which tastes of something, rather than fizzy water with a hint of battery acid, so their “Concert goers are all QR crazy” shtick weakens my disposition.

The transformation of a humble logistic company’s tracking device into a gig-goer’s name badge should, by all records of such things, be exactly the kind of development I would welcome with giddy abandon. “It’s the future!” as a wise man once said of garlic bread. But no, alas, I am not convinced. Not even curious – less so when faced with Heineken and their corporate video of doom. I’ve not been to any music festival, ever, so maybe I am wrong in cynically dismissing a QR Tent full of shoulder slapping, wide-grinned strangers as being contrived. Drugs can’t have that much of an impact on people. (“Wow, this stuff is amazing, I’m totally baked and I’ve just unlocked the Munchie Badge on 4squre”).

This is the future

QR codes on the sides of buses (no, really), shop windows, even pub menus (though to be honest, that was spotted whilst drinking a few doors down from Angel tube station so it’s probably considered normal there) – all combine to form a language marginally less useful than Esparanto. Or Canadian French. There’s an implied barrier of snobbery with companies who use them – more so when the box is not accompanied with any explanation to its meaning. Unfortunately I fear the ship has sailed around the world picking up passengers and hosting all day orgies because the dreaded box is not going away; film distributors offer extra long trailers for people who scan in the right code. It’s worth remembering the rule about long trailers mean terrible films.

I want to like the QR code in its new guise as hip and happening password to the future, it’s just impossible to do so. It’s an impersonal and impractical image of style which abandons pretence of function. The “concert friend hook up” wheeze is a desperate act akin to putting casters on a dead horse and pushing it around Ascot.