Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Liberty Blues

Images taken from the glorious

Grand Theft Auto IV's Liberty City is, easily, my favourite videogame setting around. That may surprise you given my bias towards certain games and, indeed, their own locations, but Rockstar's faux-version of New York is king because it continues to surprise me each and every time I visit.

Every three months or so I fire up GTA IV simply to go for a walk or drive around Liberty City. I do this, I guess, because I want to relive my experiences of playing the game when it first came out, or when the Episodes proved that the city had many stories to tell. I also do it because its huge size, impressive design and sense of life is unparalleled in this medium, even three years after its release. You know something was incredible when even L.A. Noire's Los Angeles -- already impressive in its own way -- can't match Liberty City's scope or awe. It truly does feel like Liberty City exists whether you're visiting it or not, and this distinct difference elevates it above any other game setting as the best one I have ever had the luxury of visiting; of inhabiting.

Verisimilitude is wonderful and certainly something that has seen substantial progress within this current generation, but it means nothing if these wonderful worlds that get built for games like Mass Effect, Fallout 3 and Red Dead Redemption are under-utilised or, worse, forgotten about. Obviously that's a non-issue at the moment as these games and their amazing environments are absolutely relevant to us right now, but my fear is that as we continue to progress and continue to move forward with technology, new hardware and new, amazing intellectual property (IP), these places of wonder will exist only in memory and nothing more. This might have been acceptable (to a degree) in the past where the medium's evolution was such a significant force, but as we reach and surpass the uncanny valley and photo-realism, I don't think it will be right to forget about Venice in Assassin's Creed II, Empire Bay in Mafia II or, yes, Liberty City in GTA IV. So much effort, time and resources go into making these virtual masterpieces but, because of the always looking forward mentality (that I keep bringing up on this blog) and the perception that what has come before must be outdone, I'm seriously worried that these wonderful game settings, these amazing spaces, will be left behind. Whether they are or not remains to be seen, but if it does happen then losing the brilliance of Liberty City will be the biggest loss, I think.

Think about it for a second. The Episodes From Liberty City downloadable content bucked the trend of DLC by redefining the city through new, fresh perspectives, adding a different take on a place we had all become familiar with. Like, say, Minerva's Den (also fantastic) from BioShock 2, this content took what we knew about these worlds and showed us that this was only just a small part of their overall make-up, that our insight was just a small component of a much bigger, much more incredible picture. They made something old new again, and definitely enhanced our overall enjoyment (and perception) of Liberty City as a whole. But, now that those episodes have been and gone, where do we go from here? Towards the next instalment of GTA (whatever that happens to be), of course, leaving Liberty City as nothing more than a memory -- an amazing memory, sure, but still a memory.

This year's E3 is the perfect example of this situation: every single press conference that opened the show was met with gamers everywhere anticipating the announcement of the next Grand Theft Auto. Like Half Life Episode Three (or, indeed, Half Life 3) the announcement never came, but the point is that everyone is ready to move on and experience the next title in Rockstar's seminal franchise, and they can't wait to hear about even just confirmation that it is coming. These people have moved on, in other words, and while they can reflect upon their time in GTA IV's Liberty City and acknowledge how great it is, it's no longer relevant to their gaming habits because they're too busy awaiting the future. This is understandable, of course, and I don't begrudge anyone who is excited to see where the GTA franchise goes next (both literally, in terms of where it is set, and figuratively in terms of the impact it will have) -- I know I'm anxious to know as well -- but as such an immense fan of Liberty City, it's somewhat disheartening and definitely disappointing to know that no one cares about it like they used to.

I don't know -- I look at Liberty City and see a gigantic metropolis with so much to see, so much to do, and also get the impression that we know so little about this remarkable city. Sure, we may have it memorised (I certainly do, thanks photographic memory!) and may know where we can go to play darts or go bowling, but as a whole we are a very small element in the city's massive scale, and despite three adventures within it, we've made such a little impact on it overall. At the end of the day we're just one person roaming the streets, with thousands more like us clearly visible amongst Liberty City's hustle and bustle. We may be the protagonist and, like all games, the experience may be centered around us and us only, but as I suggested before Liberty City leaves me with a sense that it exists whether I am there or not, and that my presence won't affect its ability to be home to so many civilians. It is kind of like New York for me in real life -- I know it is there and I'd like to visit one day, but it means nothing to my life here in Australia unless I actively seek to change that by hopping on a plane and flying to America. My concern is that no one will make the effort to make the trip to Liberty City any more, and the reason for that will be because they are always more interested in visiting the places that the various videogames out there take us next.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, but Liberty City isn't exactly a disposable thing, either -- it is still the most stunning technical achievement and fascinating environment videogames have ever seen, but all of that will be forgotten once brand new games, perhaps even the next GTA, come along to wow us with their own amazing locations. New York will never be forgotten -- why does Liberty City have to be?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Outside The Life

Now that I have resumed my F1 2010 story (finally!), let me talk about my time with the game outside of that role-playing experience. Ever since finishing my first season for that narrative, I’ve been playing the game intermittently in things like its time trials, online and, recently, in the game’s career mode. I originally did this to mess around while I contemplated how I would approach my second season but as I realised it would be a while before that could commence, I did it to just enjoy the game for what it was: a racing game focused on Formula 1, and its 2010 season.

Doing so was interesting for a variety of reasons. First of all, playing it online was insightful because of what that actually entailed, as well as observing how people respond to that. Being a simulation game centered on a real life sport, it is easy to assume that those who are playing it would understand the need to actually use the brakes on their cars, or to pit when their tires are degrading and they are losing grip. Being a racing game, however, it’s also easy to assume that its players would ignore such rules and just focus on going as fast as possible, no matter what. Intriguingly, both ended up being true. Those playing F1 2010 online did brake for corners, allowed for a loss of grip or damage on their cars and, for the most part, raced as you would expect them to in such an environment, but they also used the people in front as aid in their braking (causing collisions) and, if they weren’t winning or if it was clear that they weren’t going to be able to, they quit the race, just like in any other game. As someone who wanted to play a game about Formula 1 against (or perhaps with) people with a like-minded interest, this latter behaviour was frustrating -- particularly as I did have some level of expectation that things would be different with F1 2010, given the game’s context. But as someone who is passionate about the medium overall and thus, how players approach their games and the responses they can have to them, I found it fascinating that they weren’t just engaging with the actual rules of the game (or sport), but they were trying to use them to enjoy themselves as well… until they realised they weren’t going to win and it was time to quit. Such behaviour is, I’d say, different to how players approach a multiplayer FPS or even other racing games, and was definitely something I pondered after every race I did (and do) successfully manage to have. The online multiplayer space in general is still an ambiguous, mysterious place that definitely needs more exploration and certainly doesn’t get anywhere near as much critical attention as it should, so considering that alongside the circumstances I would find myself in with F1 2010 online was absolutely an enlightening experience. I’d be lying, however, if I didn’t say that I wish people could just race properly for a change and actually embrace a game’s full breadth of rules, rather than just the ones that please them. I can dream, I guess.

Secondly, playing F1 2010 as a player (rather than fulfilling the role I inhabit during my story) has been interesting because it means that I can think about it in the context of it being a racing game, rather than a Formula 1 game. What that means is that, like the various other games I cover with my Behind The Wheel series, I can approach F1 2010 with a more analytical eye and think about it in a critical context, as opposed to just an entertainment one. The results of this are incoming, but in the meantime I have found it interesting because, as I alluded to back when I was anticipating it, it’s the first Formula 1 game I have played in a long time. Comparing it to my previous experiences with really old F1 games has been interesting but also, perhaps, a little unfair given the length of time between them. That has made it somewhat hard to approach because there’s no benchmark or fair comparison to hold it up against -- aside from other racing sims such as Forza or Gran Turismo, which deal with different subject matter -- but even so it has been insightful trying to understand what F1 2010 is, and what it brings to the table. There’s no denying that I was pretty enamoured (and still am) with the game when I offered my brief impressions of it, and while I consider it to be a separate entity, my Living The Life story would also imply to anyone who reads it that the game is something that I am very fond of. Discovering precisely why that is has been good fun, and I look forward to elaborating on and explaining it to you in the near future.

Lastly, I have found it fascinating seeing how I have approached things like races in the career mode, outside of the context of my story. When I’m role-playing for that, I’m acting as a proper F1 driver and conveying what that reveals in a story format. Playing it as a player, on the other hand, has revealed that regardless of context, I still approach it as -- yep, you guessed it -- a driver. In other words, I’m still thinking about nailing every single corner, using every single inch of a circuit and driving to the utmost of my ability even though it’s all somewhat unnecessary, because I’m not doing it for a specific purpose. I’m not trying to create a compelling story or to achieve something like a fast lap time (not always, at least, on that last point) while playing as a player, so why do I still treat it like I’m a driver rather than someone who is pressing buttons on a controller? Pondering that question has been extremely interesting given my history with the racing genre, my passion for racing in general (games or real life) and, indeed, the different ways in which I approach the different games I play. But while I don’t know the answer to it just yet, I can say that it is absolutely not surprising that I act in this way. When I’m playing a simulation game, where real tracks are involved and, in F1 2010’s case, real drivers and real life rules play a significant part, I engage that experience through my understanding of it and what it does (or should) entail given its subject matter. I know that the infamous hairpin at Monaco or Eau Rouge at Spa are real corners, that require real consideration (in terms of how to take them, speeds that they allow, how a car should behave whilst driving through them, etc.) and, as a result, my inclination is to treat them as such rather than the virtual reproductions they actually are. As a result, getting them right and doing so consistently is crucial, to me, and when I’m not doing that or at the very least trying to, then I’m not -- in my eyes -- playing the game(s) properly and therefore not having what I deem to be the intended experience. Recognising this because of playing F1 2010 for fun has been wonderful, and I’m glad that the game has been able to open my eyes up, yet again, to something that I was oblivious to previously.

It sounds strange: F1 2010 has given me so much and allowed me to understand far more about the genre, myself and what racing games can provide, and yet for the majority of people who play it they would only see a game that’s focused on Formula 1. Like other sports games or, indeed, other titles that focus their attention on one thing, F1 2010 to most people wouldn’t be anything more than enjoying that particular subject should it interest them, but to me it has been a great learning experience; a fantastic racing game; and an opportunity to celebrate and revel in some of the things that I absolutely love. What I have discussed above is just a small example of the impact it has had on me and my thoughts; what I’m yet to communicate might just be, perhaps, even more interesting. Stay tuned to see if I’m right.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Living The Life: Turkey #2

[Part of a series of posts in which I detail the events that occur during my first championship season in Codemasters' F1 2010. These will be written in a diary-esque form describing my thoughts and reactions as I participate in each event. Today, the continuation of my Turkish Grand Prix.]

Saturday Afternoon, Qualifying, Slightly Overcast

The team informed me just after lunch that they had redesigned the car’s footplate, as part of another upgrade for the season. I have no idea what a footplate is but I wasn’t going to object to new parts if it meant better car performance, that’s for sure. They also reminded me that they would be pleased with a 20th or higher qualifying position this weekend, a realistic goal given our recent poor rounds but still one that implies some level of optimism, too. The team know we can do better than what most people probably think we are capable of, and I know that too, so it’s just a matter of finding that performance, running with it and having it result in positions higher up the field. Given the relatively decent weekend we’ve had so far, there’s no reason why that isn’t possible starting here, now, in Turkey rather than some round in the future. Assuming the car and team do the job on their end, all I have to do really is do my own job and things should (and hopefully will) go from there.


I had a great, if mixed, qualifying session but before I talk about the (extremely) positive result, allow me to elaborate on how the entire qualifying hour fared. Q1 was okay, as I elected to go out on Primes for my first run to try and save Options for later in the session, and just for general grip purposes. This didn’t work out, however, as traffic hampered my ability to get a decent time in and I had to switch to Options for my second run, to ensure I got through to the next part of qualifying. It was through turn 8, once again, where traffic posed a problem, the one-line flow through the quadruple-apex corner impeding any lap even when slower cars made the effort to move out of the way. It wasn’t anything drastic, by any means, but it definitely changed the plans I had for the session by forcing my hand, so to speak, to switch to the much quicker Option tires. Speaking of which, the run on those was better with at least two of my four laps yielding in decent times. Good enough for 9th and advancement to Q2, at least. For the record the time was a 1:29.208.


As soon as I drove out of the garage to commence my first run in Q2, I regretted my decision. The predicted rain began to fall as I left pit lane and this, obviously, made me contemplate my approach and whether we needed to respond. Since the track wasn’t too slippery during my out-lap, however, I chose to go for it anyway and that paid off with two decent laps achieved relatively easily -- these uncertain conditions, and the transition from dry to wet, definitely seem to suit my driving style. My third lap had to be cautious and slow, however, due to the tarmac being too wet and, being on slicks (Options), I just had no grip whatsoever. Naturally, I came in for Intermediates but couldn’t improve my time on the second run due to the conditions being rather tricky, and because even if I could put a good lap together it wouldn’t have meant much due to dry times always being quicker than wet ones. That’s okay, the time I achieved in the first run was good enough for 6th position and progress into the final part of qualifying, the second time this season that I have managed to do that. That time, once again for the record, was a 1:31.976.


I had an incredible Q3 thanks, in part, to the fact that the track was quiet wherever I happened to be on it, allowing me to focus and put a decent time in. The track was also drying quite quickly after Q2’s showers, so a fresh set of Options also assisted in my final, awesome time. I had to abort my first lap, however, due to a small lock up heading into the first turn, as well as venturing too wide during turn 7. Apart from that, my laps were practically perfect, though the one that I set my ultimate time on could have been better as I missed the apex slightly in turn 12, meaning that I had to pause before getting back onto the throttle to head out onto the back straight. The fact the time was still amazing, however, soon made me forget about that little blight on an otherwise brilliant lap. So what was the time? A 1.29.041 which was not only just one-one-hundredth of a second behind my P1 time, but also good enough for fifth place! FIFTH PLACE! That is the highest I have ever been in any session this year let alone Quali, so I’m absolutely elated with that result even though my 5-spot grid penalty drops me down to tenth for the race tomorrow. I’m kind of kicking myself, in hindsight, for getting that penalty as it would have been fantastic to have literally started from fifth, but at the same time I don’t care as the strong performance far outweighs any impact that such a penalty could have on my weekend. Even if the race doesn’t go too well, reaching fifth place so early in the season -- and in a car that no one would ever expect to be so high -- is wonderful, and definitely the highlight of my very short career in Formula 1 so far. It more than makes up for the previous two rounds, too, so that’s nice after all the misery that those two caused. A post-qualifying interview asked if my car will be as strong in the race as it was in that session, how I’m coping with the pressure of qualifying this season and how well is the team supporting me. I answered by saying that the car should remain, mostly, the same; that if today’s result is anything to go by, I’m handling pressure superbly and far better than I expected to before the season commenced; and that Virgin have their full support behind me, especially given some of the small but amazing highs we’ve had. Sure, there have been lows too, but generally speaking we are moving in the right direction, and quickly -- a good thing for such a young team, and perhaps even better for a rookie driver like me.

Overall it’s great knowing how well that session went, and how easily I managed to exceed both my own and Virgin’s expectations. They wanted 20th, I wanted 15th; we ended up 5th but will drop to 10th for the actual race. Such a strange way to punch above our weight, then, but certainly one I will embrace if such positivity continues tomorrow. Also, as I discovered in P1 yesterday, Turkey really does seem to suit my driving style -- interesting considering my other two decent weekends, Malaysia and China, were also designed by Hermann Tilke. Wonder if that has any significance, or is just a coincidence?

Sunday, Race Day, Slightly Overcast

The team is maintaining their realistic goals for today’s race despite the excitement of yesterday’s qualifying session. They expect me to place in 18th or higher, and to just have a generally consistent race. I believe that’s absolutely possible, both because of how well this weekend has gone thus far, and because I feel comfortable with the Turkey circuit and feel like I can be consistent throughout the entirety of the race. Especially since, despite the start up at the front of the field, I plan on just doing my own thing today and don’t have any silly aspirations to finish high. However starts and finding a rhythm early are areas that I still struggle with, so I guess the dynamic of my race depends on how I fare with those today. Time will tell.


Hm, if I were to sum up that race I’d say it was an enjoyable and consistent one, where the result doesn’t necessarily reflect my feelings towards how I fared. But I will get to that in a moment. First of all: I got a cracking start! After average ones in each of the rounds I’ve been to so far, it was fantastic to finally get a great start with minimal wheel-spin and even a pass heading into turn 1. Going up a position when the race had barely even started felt wonderful and certainly made for a nice change from the usual dropping back routine I’ve had in other races given the sheer acceleration of other cars when compared to my Virgin.

It was buoyed by some fantastic racing, too, a battle with Rosberg in particular standing out for me personally. He initially got by me on lap 5 in turn 7 but due to a slower series of corners between turn 8 and 11, I was able to get the run on him and got back past in turns 12 and 13. Dragging all the way down the back straight was good fun and while he got passed due to his quicker Mercedes, putting me back in my starting position of 10th, I thoroughly enjoyed the battle. I almost had déjà vu not too long after that, too, as Michael Schumacher passed me on lap 10, again in turn 7, and a similar fight ensued. Unlike my racing with Rosberg, I couldn’t get a run to get back past but even so though the tussle was great as I felt like it demonstrated that I can handle the pressure of racing with the big names of the sport -- it was Michael Schumacher, after all. Sitting in 11th place, I continued on and managed to hold that position right up until my pit-stop on lap 20. Vitaly Petrov got close a few times but I held my nerve and stayed in front, even with worn Options (because I started on them after reaching Q3) making it tricky to keep up the pace. With a successful pit stop and a new set of Primes fitted to my car, I came out in 12th and got back into another clean, consistent rhythm immediately. I also noticed that it was getting darker, suggesting weather was possibly imminent but it didn’t eventuate. Petrov passed me at -- yep, you guessed it -- turn 7 (seemingly my only sticking point today) on lap 33, dropping me to 13th in the process. On lap 35 Rosberg lapped me, so clearly his pace picked up after our little tussle earlier in the race. On lap 40 Liuzzi overtook me after I went a little wide in turn 5, hurting my exit out of turn 6. Now 14th, I had an annoying moment on lap 49, losing two positions after having to react to and catch wheel-spin in turn 13 heading onto the back straight. I did catch it but by then it was too late, and I was annoyed as I definitely felt as if the moment was unnecessary. This put me into 16th where I stayed until the end of the race. I had a series of slow laps as I let some of the frontrunners through, allowing Barrichello to catch up (which kind of sucked) but I kept my position and finished what I thought was a pretty enjoyable race. It had some moments that I’m not proud of, to be sure, and the result, 16th, implies a race that went backwards as it progressed, but overall I’m extremely satisfied with my performance. I had some great fights early on and, perhaps more importantly, drove consistently throughout the entire thing, executing on the personal goal I had going into the race and suggesting that things might be turning around after the two negative weekends we had prior to this one. It’s not the highest I have finished this year -- China still holds that achievement -- but I actually believe that Turkey was better because I feel like I stepped up, that I made progress, and that I proved through my racing today that I belong in Formula 1. The race was clean with very few mistakes, our pit stop went well, and my pace was consistent the entire time unless I had to let faster cars through. In some respects you could say it was inevitable I’d go backwards anyway, as I am in a Virgin which is supposed to be a backmarker team, but I think that I showed that despite this I was able to hold my own and even race with the personalities of the sport.

My whole weekend was great, then, even with that penalty, and puts us in good stead for the next round in Canada. Hamilton won the race, Webber came in 2nd and Alonso followed for 3rd. Interestingly, no one retired which meant that my teammate Lucas Di Grassi also finished, continuing the positive weekend for the team even if his final placing was 23rd. I’m currently 21st in the drivers’ standings and Virgin, unfortunately, remain last in the constructors’, despite a better round. It’s nice to know that I beat the team’s desired result comfortably and while I didn’t beat my own (I was aiming for 15th -- a result I probably would have achieved had I not had the mistake in turn 13), I can still reflect on my round in Turkey as being a positive one, and hopefully as a sign of things to come, too. My boss, engineer and agent all congratulated me on my weekend afterwards, and we went on to discuss how it progressed as well as how quickly things change in this sport. Now I set my sights on the Canadian Grand Prix, both because it is a track I have always loved to watch and because it’s in a country I have always wanted to visit. I seriously cannot wait.


So that’s the Turkish Grand Prix done and dusted, finally, after months of unfortunate (and somewhat unnecessary) delay. It feels good knowing that I have published it, at last, and more importantly that I have resumed the story as a whole. It wasn’t easy, of course -- finding pictures is still a difficult process, sadly -- but it wasn’t a chore like some of the previous rounds have been, in part because I think Turkey was the round where I began to take better notes, and also because I was probably more motivated to get it done. I look forward to publishing the Canada round in the near future but, in the meantime, how did you feel about the separation into two parts? I did it because, obviously, I had to address why this story went quiet, but I’m curious to know if you preferred this method or liked the old way in which I just posted the entire thing in one (very long) post? Ideally I would split it into the various sessions so it really did come across in the diary format that I’m trying to approach it as, but I don’t want that to clog up my blog and then affect my ability to post other content, too, so let me know which format you prefer going forward and I’ll adopt it for future installments.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Living The Life: Turkey #1

[Part of a series of posts in which I detail the events that occur during my first championship season in Codemasters' F1 2010. These will be written in a diary-esque form describing my thoughts and reactions as I participate in each event. If you want an explanation for the series' silence, read the full thing, otherwise skip to just above the map to find the latest installment: the Turkish Grand Prix.]

Author’s Note: It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Despite emphasizing my commitment to it and suggesting that it would exist on a more consistent schedule, my F1 2010 Living The Life story has gone quiet in recent months, much to my dismay. The reasons for this are many and varied and don’t bear mentioning here, mostly, but the silence does need explaining so here I am.

The first reason -- and the one that increased as time went on -- is the effort that it takes to write up a round of my story for the blog. Because I cover all three practice sessions, qualifying and the race itself, writing up everything that transpired with each round is a lengthy, time-consuming process that can be -- if I’m to be honest -- somewhat of a chore. Considering the story is still relatively early on in the season where the game was still new to me and I was making a lot of silly mistakes, there’s a lot of notes that I have taken down in the early rounds that cover everything from spins to pit-stops, and relaying all those details, coherently, in a story post is a lot of hard work. When, for example, you’re struggling for motivation to write about anything let alone a project as large as this, it’s only natural that such effort can be off-putting and overwhelming, and it’s absolutely one of the reasons why my story has been so quiet, for so long. Put simply, the pressure I had on getting one round up turned into pressure to resume the series full stop, increasing the stress I had over it and resulting in nothing getting done because of that pressure, as well as my desire to write about and do other things.

That’s somewhat of an excuse, though, and I did say (and mean!) that I was committed to writing up this story and seeing this project through to its end, wherever that end may be. What that means is that despite the added pressure (that, admittedly, was put on by myself) I still had a desire to resume my story and tell it to you guys, both because of my commitment and because I honestly believe that the ups and downs that I experienced throughout it (yes, I finished the first season months ago…) are worth sharing. So what stopped me? Well, another example and one that’s quite recent is the unfortunate passing of my Nan. Late last month she died after a few weeks of being in hospital, and as I’m sure anyone who has experienced a death in the family would know, the things that need to be done and taken care of after someone has passed away is extensive and ongoing. This, combined with the fact that my Grandfather is also in hospital, has ensured that the past month or two has been insanely busy and, as you’d expect, I have had little time to think about the return of my F1 2010 story or, indeed, any of the other posts that I have wanted to make. That doesn’t explain the months prior to this unfortunate time for me and my family, I know, but it does explain the most recent reason for why I haven’t been able to resume Living The Life, and I think you would agree that it’s quite the valid one. As recent posting would suggest, however, I appear to be getting back on my feet so I figured that now would be as good a time as any to get motivated and get my story back under way.

So here it is, the next round of my Living The Life series, this time featuring the Istanbul circuit in Turkey. If you need to be reminded of what has occurred in the season thus far then my ‘Season So Far’ post will refresh your memory for the first five rounds, and then there’s the Monaco round which was the last I published. Because I’ve addressed the silence above, I will be splitting the Turkey round into two parts. Expect the second part tomorrow.


The team was feeling a little letdown, understandably, after our woeful round at Monaco. The mood heading into Turkey wasn’t pleasant, and the disappointment was evident everywhere as everyone’s enthusiasm was muted, and their general demeanor was relatively subdued. Like myself, they understand the importance of the Monaco round and to have a poor show there was definitely a significant blow to the progress of our season. I’m lucky in that they understand just how notorious and challenging that street circuit is, though, and that it was my first visit there so it was only natural that I’d struggle with such a tricky track. Even so, their somber mood is proving to be quite inspirational as I contemplate the weekend ahead and, with any luck, I hope to use it to my full advantage as I try to get a good result here in Turkey.

Friday Morning, Practice One, Sunny

As usual I began the first practice session on Prime tires and was cautious as I came to grips with the new circuit. Also as usual, I had a few run offs and went wide a couple of times during my first run, but that’s to be expected when everything is as new as they were for me. It was mostly because Turkey’s corners sneak up on you, particularly if they are atop a crest and therefore blind. Turn 3 and the infamous quadruple-apex corner of turn 8 are fine examples, their relatively fast speed making it especially difficult if you’re not familiar with their approach. I took the opportunity to run some decent laps during this session, particularly whilst everyone was in their garages -- my fellow rookies always seem to neglect the chance to learn a track when it’s relatively quiet, a strange choice on their behalf, in my opinion. During my second run the team wanted to do some more components testing, expecting me to achieve a time of 1:53.872 which was, as always, an easy time. By the time I had done it I was already well into the 1’32s, so once again the requirements were easy and I was able to get on with the job of learning Turkey and preparing myself for the weekend to come. Some slight understeer meant that I went out with a different setup for my third run, with lower downforce and higher top speed. Aside from a small powerslide exiting turn 6, the run itself was uneventful and the change of setup proved to be the right choice. I also noticed that it was slightly overcast, the sun’s rays piercing through every now and then and leaving a strong glare over the track in certain areas, making it particularly hard to see at times. A few run offs and a half spin in the next run (fourth) slowed progress a little as it broke any sense of rhythm I had gained earlier and affected me mentally, momentarily, as I knew that they were silly and unnecessary mistakes. I recovered quickly, however, and the next run was fine if a little slow. It’s not that I wasn’t trying hard enough or whatever, I just couldn’t put together a lap that was better than the ones I had done earlier and it also felt as if the car was a little sluggish too, but it was nothing that I couldn’t handle. The same thing occurred on the following run (my sixth), which I found amusing, though some better times did come late on my fourth and fifth laps. For my final run I elected to give the Options a go, to see how they fared around Turkey and also because my Primes were quite worn. It took a couple of laps to readjust to the new tires (and subsequent extra grip) but once I got used to it, my times improved as they always do with these tires and, much to my surprise, they were good enough for, wait for it… Sixth place! That’s the highest I have ever been in a session this season and the result was a great way to move on from and forget about the dramas that I had in Monaco, so naturally I was ecstatic when I got back to the garage and saw my name so high up on the timing monitor. The funny thing was that I also felt like there was more to be had, which left me feeling remarkably optimistic about the remainder of the weekend. The time I set to achieve sixth place was a 1:29.031 which was less than a second off Sebastian Vettel who was 1st on a 1:28.576. Webber followed for second, and Jenson Button ended up third for the session. In total, I did about 26 laps not including in- or out-laps.

The positive result also reflected, somewhat, my general feeling towards the Istanbul venue as a whole, too. Designed by Hermann Tilke -- the architect behind the Sepang (Malaysia) and China circuits -- it is a fast, technical circuit with some interesting undulations and an exhilarating and utterly unique corner in turn 8, the aforementioned quadruple-apex one. Approaching that corner is tricky, absolutely, due to the crest that precedes it and because each apex is blind until you’re directly on top of them. Combine that with the reasonably fast speed with which you go through there, and you have a thrilling corner to drive if you get it right, and an immensely difficult one to learn and overcome if you don’t. The Istanbul circuit reminds me a lot of Bahrain, actually, in that it feels like you’re on a small adventure with each lap and it features some tight corners as well as some long, sweeping ones. It’s nowhere near as dusty as that track was, however, and much more in line with the flow of Malaysia and China, which is nice as it seemingly suits my driving style like those circuits did earlier in the season. Even if the rest of the weekend sucks, I can safely say that I like driving around the Turkey track.

Friday Afternoon, Practice Two, Sunny

This session started with more R&D test requirements from Virgin, a time of 1:53.779 being my goal. As always I hit it immediately and got it out of the way, allowing the rest of the session to be focused on getting an even better handle on the Istanbul circuit. My first two runs were quite good as I used them to just ease into a rhythm and I wasn’t attempting to set the track on fire in order to achieve a particular time. Despite this, it was nice to hear that I had already hit the early 1’30s even though I wasn’t pushing and it certainly proved to be motivation for a little later in the session. The second run did feature another powerslide out of turn 6, however, so I cut it a bit short and came in early. The third run was a little off-putting due to Bruno Senna who was driving rather slowly on my out-lap -- so I passed him thinking he was on an in-lap -- but he then picked up the pace once he was behind me. This meant he was on my tail for three laps and the combination of my engine and his made for a slightly confusing few laps, and the odd short-shift or three throughout them. These tiny errors only affected my laps by a few tenths so it wasn’t an issue, but it was still a set-back that neither of us (I assume he had to deal with some of my turbulent air, so his laps were probably impeded slightly as well) really needed. He pitted on my fourth lap, though, so I pressed on and improved my time. It’s also possible, though I doubt it, that Senna was intentionally following me to get an idea of how I was attacking the Turkey circuit, but that’s something that I will obviously never know. The next two runs were clean, consistent and saw my lap time drop frequently (even if only marginally) which was nice. I had to abort my first lap in the next run (my sixth), however, as I went wide and on to the astroturf in turn 8. I also aborted the second lap due to Senna coming out of the pits and causing me to hesitate as it wasn’t clear if he was going to come onto the racing line instantly, or wait until I had passed. It didn’t mean much, however, as later on during the lap, on the final turn, I got a bad exit which sent me wide and onto the exiting curb more than usual, which was enough to induce wheel-spin and put me into the wall. I was able to slow the car down before impact so the damage was minimal but it was still enough to require a front wing change and, like any incident, it changed the dynamic of our progress for the session, even if temporarily. My seventh run proved this, somewhat, with a series of messy laps, a spin in turn 6 and a five-spot grid penalty rubbing salt in the wound. Unlike previous powerslides I was unable to catch some wheel-spin going through turn 6 because my tires were worn and, despite my best efforts, just weren’t going to cooperate as I tried to catch the car. Facing the wrong way, I did a flick spin to turn myself around which was deemed to be driving dangerously, probably because I had to go backwards (very) briefly in order to gas the car up properly for the flick spin. How else am I supposed to recover without wasting time putting the car in reverse, waiting until I’m completely off track and then slowly turning around like I might have in Monaco due to its tight corners and narrow walls? A flick spin seemed like the better solution -- not to mention quicker -- and so that’s why I did it, especially when I have seen others do it in the past and it’s been a common technique throughout my entire racing career. But, for whatever reason, the officials here in Turkey didn’t like it and as such I was consequently awarded that penalty, which put a damper on an otherwise remarkably positive weekend. Anyway my final run, now on Options like in P1, also featured a spin due to my (admittedly poor) choice to use the same set of Options from the session this morning. This occurred in turn 1 due to accelerating too early and then after that, traffic ruined any chance of an improved time on the following laps. That was okay, I still managed 10th for the session and a 1:29.612, done on the Primes earlier on. It was just frustrating knowing that there was more possible and, due to my own mistakes and some silly circumstances, I wasn’t able to unlock that potential. That’s alright, the weekend has been positive for the most part and I’m looking forward to P3 tomorrow to, hopefully, continue in that direction. Anyway Vettel, Webber and Hamilton topped the time sheets -- the usual suspects, then. Bit of a shame I have that penalty, too; guess I need a decent qualifying tomorrow to lessen the impact that it could have on our race.

Saturday Morning, Practice Three, Slightly Overcast

The session began with more tests but, interestingly, the team wanted a much more realistic lap time done this time around with a 1:39.753 being the target. It was still an easy enough time to manage but it was nice to see that it wasn’t some absurd time that was 20-30 seconds behind what we, the entire field, were all achieving with ease. A mixed couple of runs got the hour off to a start, an amusing (I thought, anyway) 1:30.000 lap happening sometime during my second run, whilst a few hiccups happened thanks to traffic, wheel-spin (it wasn’t anything serious, though) and a poor exit out of the final turn -- affecting two potentially good laps -- ensured that things weren't as smooth as I'd have liked. My third run was also a bit of a dud, traffic once again preventing me from improving my time when I was on target to. For whatever reason I always seemed to come up on slower cars as I was either preparing for a new lap, or ending a good one, and it definitely played with my momentum and rhythm. I also received a warning for cutting turn 1 accidentally, due to turning in a touch too early, which I felt was fair. Due to conserving fuel (thanks to the affected laps), I got a few more in than usual but couldn’t do anything with them, unfortunately. This trend continued for my fourth run with yet more traffic affecting my ability to progress, particularly in turn 8 and throughout the entirety of the final sector. I actually had another detour out in the astroturf of turn 8, too, thanks to Alguersuari who slowed during the middle of the four-apex corner, for some reason. I went off because I had to take avoiding action, basically, and while it wasn’t anything too dramatic it was quite annoying. My teammate Lucas Di Grassi also got in the way during this run, so after the session (and just before I wrote this) I spoke to him about it. My fifth and final run, on fresh Options, was better, though I had a strange moment with Chandok on my out lap. I came out ahead of him so I moved aside to let him through but then, for some reason, he slowed so I decided to pass him. As soon as I did he sped up again so I let him through, only for him to slow down again not long afterwards. I don’t know what he was playing at but I passed him again and, yes, he sped up again but this time I kept the power down and made sure that he wasn’t coming through. If he wants to play games then I’m happy to oblige, and quite frankly I don’t care if I ruined his lap in any way, not if he is going to act silly like that. I went on to improve my time which was a nice way to end a mixed, somewhat strange session, and finished with about 23 laps completed -- not as many as I had planned, but oh well. I managed a 1:29.390, which resulted in 9th for the session. Vettel was once again on top, and Hamilton and Webber followed close behind. An interview after the session asked about my general feelings about my qualifying performances this season, my thoughts on the testing ban and my life at Virgin so far. I responded saying that I thought my qualifying had been pretty good this season, that the ban isn’t affecting us at all and that life at Virgin is positive, even after the two abysmal rounds in Spain and Monaco, mostly because they’ve made sure to make me feel welcome. Overall I’m looking forward to Quali later in the afternoon, and depending on how that fares, a decent race tomorrow. Here’s hoping, anyway.


That’s the three practice sessions done, come back tomorrow for qualifying and, of course, the race.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Some Thoughts On Let's Plays

A familiar sight to anyone who has watched Shawn's Let's Play series.

For the past year or so, I’ve become a serious viewer of YouTube. No, I don’t sit there watching viral video after viral video or whatever else the service might be renowned for, I visit it regularly because of my Minecraft addiction. My fascination with that game has meant that I’ve been intrigued by design ideas, enlightened by tutorials and impressed, of course, with all of the amazing builds that continually get posted. But it also means that I’ve been interested in observing other people’s experiences with the game, too, and the best option for that is through Let’s Plays.

Let’s Plays aren’t new and are certainly not exclusive to Minecraft. They have been around for years and are as popular as live-streaming is on sites like Justin.TV, or achievement guides and general game walkthroughs are on YouTube. Practically every game has a person who is posting a Let’s Play series of their time with it, and the concept itself is a great idea -- particularly if you want to understand a game without playing it yourself. But the popularity of Let’s Plays has exploded in recent years and games like Minecraft are the reasons why: they owe themselves to the format remarkably well, and the result is the inevitable over-saturation that I’m now going to address.

Shawn Martin, a YouTuber whom I’ve been following for a few months now, recently posted a video discussing his disinterest in Let’s Plays, as well as questioning why they are so popular. In it he describes his disdain for the over-saturation of them, particularly in the context of Minecraft, and mentions that he can only find an LP interesting if the people behind them are interesting themselves. I had mixed feelings towards this video as I both agreed and disagreed with it, depending on context. I suggested as much in my response to his video, and now I’m elaborating on that here.

My stance with Let’s Plays is strange. On the one hand, I share Shawn’s view in that I find the majority of them disinteresting and would much prefer to do something else, preferably actually playing those games being shown when and where possible. But at the same time, I can understand their appeal: they provide the opportunity for people to experience games they might not otherwise get to, and they can also offer great insight into how different players approach different games, furthering an understanding of a particular title. While the subject can include all games, Shawn is mostly addressing the multitude of Minecraft LPs out there, so I’m going to stick to those as well. I’ve already documented how I got into Minecraft: curious as to what all the fuss was about, I randomly searched for the game on YouTube, found a couple of videos and, before I knew it, was completely enamoured with the game. The reason for this was simple: I found some compelling Let’s Plays that demonstrated the game to me more effectively than I had expected, answering why the game was becoming such a phenomenon, and as I continued to watch I realised that these adventures were actually fairly entertaining stories -- stories that I personally couldn’t experience, but was still able to participate in because these people were posting them up publically. The potential this idea provides is intriguing, I feel, and why I find Let’s Plays to be such a fascinating concept, but despite my enjoyment with these particular narratives, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that most LPs are, frankly, boring. As Shawn suggests, once you have seen one person build a wooden house in Minecraft, you have seen everyone build a wooden house in Minecraft. One of the reasons why I found his own Let’s Play series fun to watch is because he wasn’t playing the game in the same way that Coe or X did, so he was providing something different to see. Instead of focusing on adventure, survival or exploration, Shawn’s small series -- to me at least -- focused on what he could do with his world, as well as what kind of impact his guests could have on it too. I found the transition of his desert into an inhabited region with many unique buildings interesting (see above picture), and enjoyed seeing new ones pop up as new people featured on his LP. And because he wasn’t playing the game ‘normally’, I also appreciated seeing what designs he and his friends could come up with because he wasn’t restricted to obtaining all his materials legitimately and, therefore, had more creative freedom to construct something cool and unique. It was a different take on a familiar game and justified, in my opinion, the time I spent watching his series over yet another generic Let’s Play that did the same things as all the rest of them.

As Shawn said in his video, it’s the people with personalities or who strive to do something different that are the most entertaining and interesting to watch, and unfortunately too many people fail to offer that experience to their viewers. People like Shawn and Coe do, in my eyes, and that, alongside the narratives I’ve already mentioned, is why they are so fun to watch for me personally. Let’s Plays aren’t dependant on the games they involve or the events that may transpire; they depend on the people who make them, and when everyone and their dog does it the concept loses its appeal -- and potential -- because it’s the same thing over and over again. Originality is important, then, and as Shawn expressed there’s just nothing original about playing Minecraft, publically, anymore. That’s disappointing to know, especially when it was Let’s Plays that inspired my addiction to the game to begin with, but it’s not surprising, either. Perhaps the incoming Adventure update will rectify this unfortunate byproduct of the game's success.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

PC: Personal Conquest

Finally, a game like Crysis is actually available to me.

As some of you may know, I recently purchased a computer that is capable of playing games. This might not mean anything to the rest of you but, for me, it is a significant hurdle that I have finally overcome after years of being behind and years of being unable to experience what is a significant part of the medium I love.

Every time I buy a new console or handheld, it is always after it has become well established in the marketplace, and certainly after it has acquired a strong library of games. This means that, aside from being behind everyone else, I have a list of titles that are waiting to be played, and that I have a silly sense of excitement in anticipation of what those titles might offer. I say silly because, as someone well invested in the medium of videogames and who knows what a platform brings to the table, the games awaiting me aren’t exactly new and, in a lot of cases, I know precisely what they have to offer. But even so I can’t help but be eager to explore them, perhaps in some vain attempt to find something new in my gaming life, or perhaps just because it’s finally an area of my hobby that was previously unavailable to me. Whatever it is, it’s a strange little situation that I go through with every platform that I buy (see: my PS3 and Wii purchases for examples), and one that I absolutely enjoy with more enthusiasm than I perhaps should.

But why get into PC gaming now when, arguably, its facing its demise? Why acquire the funds necessary to buy a decent gaming rig -- with room for improvement -- and enable games like Crysis and The Witcher to finally become relevant to me when, for example, the industry’s attention is on consoles, and platforms like Facebook and the iPad are becoming seriously strong slices of the videogame pie? Why now? Well, because I love the medium and want access to all that it has to offer, for the selfish reason of me not wanting to miss any title that may pique my interest. And because, as suggested above, it’s an area of games that I’ve been unable to experience for so long -- for financial reasons, because it appeared too complex to bother with, etc. -- that to play PC games is to conquer a burden that has troubled me for too long. It’s also because there are some games, such as the Half Life series, that are considered to be some of the best games ever made and, consequently, they are titles that I believed to be blights on my gaming record.

The acquisition of my PC enables me to do things that I couldn’t previously, and allows me to finally experience games that I was unable to in the past. This is exciting for what should be obvious reasons, but it’s important, to me at least, to have this ability because it means that I can now understand an area of my passion -- of videogames -- that I could only observe from the sidelines before. I have already started playing Portal 2, I’ve already fallen for the allure of things like Steam sales and Indie games (*cough Minecraft *cough), and I’ve also, finally, begun playing the Half Life series after years of wanting to. I’d say that’s a good start for a platform new to me; here’s hoping the future continues to be as enjoyable as the present currently is.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Beautiful Disaster

Destruction caused by war is fascinating, but what if Mother Nature caused it instead?

War. Death. Destruction. Turmoil.

These are all things that videogames are synonymous with, so much so that brown and grey textures, muddy environments and charred ruins are, perhaps brazenly, more common than colour itself. But most of the time this significant imagery -- the “Destroyed Beauty” of Gears Of War; the apocalyptic ruins of Washington D.C. in Fallout 3 -- is the result of war, the remnants of the past now nothing more than ruins. Why is this? Obviously war and combat are important from a gameplay point of view, justifying these settings, but what if there could be other causes behind the destruction? What if the perdition came not from humanity’s struggle or fight against an enemy but from something out of our control? What if Mother Nature was responsible instead?

This is something I have been considering for a while now and something that I’m reminded of every time another game with an environment impacted by disaster comes along or, this year, another tragedy in real life occurs. In fact, this year’s sheer quantity of natural disasters has been so significant that I have felt compelled to delay this post out of respect for those who have suffered from them or, worse, lost their lives. The floods and cyclone in Queensland; the Earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand; Tsunami (and subsequent nuclear disaster) in Japan; floods in Brazil; the Californian fires or, indeed, the recent tornadoes in America, including the recent one which wiped portions of the city of Joplin off the map -- all of these and more have been exceptionally serious, extremely unfortunate events that, when combined, make this year absolutely horrific and inherently depressing. I put off this post because I felt uncomfortable publishing it -- much like the creators behind those games that were either delayed or cancelled, I imagine -- when so many things were happening and where so many people were being affected. But I can’t put it off forever and, forgetting the tragic brutality we’ve seen so far this year, for a moment at least, I think that natural disasters in videogames could be something important and definitely an area worth exploring. Allow me to explain.

Videogame spaces, in this generation in particular, have come alive, with thematic settings, incredible atmosphere and multiple stories to tell. Discovery has been particularly strong, finding an abandoned shack in Fallout or a messy room in BioShock an intriguing affair, both because it gets us, as players, asking questions -- why is this room like this? What happened here? Where did the owners of this shack go? -- and because it adds weight and meaning to the environment we are exploring, the locations we get to inhabit. More than any other generation the combination of visuals, sound and atmosphere allow for videogames to take us anywhere, to places we can’t go. Mass Effect enables us to travel the galaxy and mingle with other species; L.A. Noire and Mafia II take us back to a time period long ago and incredibly different to our own today. Red Dead Redemption, finally, showed us what it was like to exist in a Western setting, enlightening us, indirectly, to how things were back then and how far humanity has come. But all of these settings, all of these locations that games allow us to visit -- both ‘real’ and fictional -- are static, mostly unchanging environments, only alive when our consoles are on and only existing to serve a story, mechanics or a particular intended experience. Rapture is, bless its soul, already in ruins when we get to see it, the levels built to convey the narrative and service the combat dynamics rather than to demonstrate how things can change, how characters and civilians alike can leave their mark or have an impact on the city or proceedings. If something changes it is because it was supposed to, a scripted moment to benefit or influence a particular facet of the overall experience. A good example of this is Mafia II’s transition from Winter to Spring: snow and blustery conditions give Empire Bay one kind of atmosphere (which, I might add, is quite charming) while the brighter, more positive aura of a warmer season gives the city another. What if this changed? What if Mother Nature’s ferocious but beautiful power -- if weather -- changed an environment or setting in a meaningful way? What if a tragedy in a virtual world could impact gameplay, the story, or the demeanor of a game’s characters in really interesting ways, changing our experience in the process and reinforcing our connection to that world and everything in it?

Just imagine if rain flooded Liberty City, and just what that could mean.

We’ve already seen how a thunderstorm in Red Dead Redemption or showers in Liberty City can change their respective games, even if it’s momentarily. It changes the atmosphere, makes driving (for example) harder because things are slippery, and breaks up the pace and alters the dynamics of our session. But what if Liberty City was flooded, its rivers overflowing and spilling onto the roads? What if the weather was so ubiquitous and ongoing that the streets were covered with water, buildings inundated and the result was a different city -- even if it did eventually recede -- than the one we’re already accustomed to? It would force us to reassess our approach to what we were doing or how we’d do it, and test our knowledge of the space we have inhabited for so long, making us find alternative routes or different means of travel. Furthermore, narratively, it could affect the people who we come to know, showing us sides of their personality we couldn’t see previously and how they would deal with such adversity. What if these quest-givers -- because, let’s face it, that’s all they really are -- couldn’t offer us things to do or tasks to perform because they simply had more important things to attend to? What if, god forbid, these characters -- some of whom we might actually have a connection to or relationship with -- died because they weren’t prepared for an excess of water to come and flood their houses, their home? What if, to go in a slightly different direction, Liberty City was hit by an earthquake, unexpectedly, because like the weather it was dynamic, unpredictable and unforeseen?

Such scenarios can pose many questions and, if done effectively, really impact upon a game world and the things inside it in meaningful ways. Part of the reason Heavy Rain resonated so much with me is because it used rain as a significant, serious part of its narrative -- something that hadn’t been done before. From a technical standpoint serious events and tragedies in games might be unrealistic to do, but surely there is incentive in trying if it can add weight to a world, make our connection to it as players more meaningful, and ultimately ensure that games as a whole can be as deep, emotional and affecting as products in other mediums? Mother Nature’s fury in real life is nothing more than a negative, unfortunate and unpredictable series of events, where loss is prevalent everywhere and the need to rebuild is essential. But in a virtual sense her wrath could be absolutely beautiful, especially if it engrosses us into our games more thoroughly than ever before. The result might not be pretty but it sure beats having yet another war be the justification for why all of our games are always... well, in ruins.