Month: May 2017

Year of the Console, May Review. Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag

Welcome back to the TLYW Year of Console Gaming. It’s the end of Month 5 already. I’ve been quite busy this month, what with all the romance and going on holiday and I feel like I’ve barely spent enough time with this month’s game, Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag. I had to be quite dedicated about playing it last weekend to log enough hours to get a feel for the game (I managed to play 9% of Black Flag before running out of time). On the plus side, the fact that I feel like I haven’t spent enough time with it is a good thing, and a sign that I want more. We’ve now played 5 of 14 games and this is my second favourite game so far, after Ark: Survival Evolved (February).

As you know, we are following an historical trajectory throughout the year. This month was the 18th century. AC 4: Black Flag takes place in the Bahamas and Cuba and the Caribbean sea in between. Pirates plunder each other’s ships, attack the British Navy and run around Nassau and Havana, assassinating local bosses and recruiting more pirates. I was hoping for sunshine, glittering blue seas and to sail my own ship, and all this was granted. Here are some screenshots.

Assassin's Creed® IV Black Flag_20170528235950

Black Flag takes a while to get moving, as these games often do. The USP of the game is that you will spend as much time at sea as on land, but this only becomes true when you’re about seven per cent of the way through the game, by which time you’ve spent quite a few hours on dry land, running around Havana and trying to assassinate the military. This is a little bit frustrating when you bought the game because you wanted some seafaring action but the game design does a pretty good job of ensuring that you know how to climb buildings and rigging with the agility of a monkey, and fight competently with swords and pistols before you are allowed out on the sea firing cannons at other ships, which you will then have to loot.

Once you are finally seaborne, you feel the open-ended aspects of the game. Yes, there’s a prescriptive sequence of quests that you still have to follow, but around that structure there’s a lot of opportunity to pick and choose various naval combat, assassination and other types of missions, sail around, plunder mats and gradually do up your own ship. It was quite thrilling when I managed to get behind the wheel of my own ship for the first time, sail around the sea and start attacking things.

The NPCs are well animated and well acted. The dialogue isn’t too painful. The story is engaging without being overbearing. This month’s psychopathic hero, Edward Kenway, is a lot easier to like than last month’s Geralt of Witcher 3. Geralt was a horrible man who would rob the homes of dying families and step over their children on his way out of the door with pockets full of stolen loot. Edward has better morals. Yes, he kills a lot of people, often for not very good reasons, but he restricts himself to the Navy and other legitimate enemies. He doesn’t kill civilians, esp not kids. When he was practising with his pistol and shot a chicken, he felt bad about it because it was some kind of domestic pet. So as you can see, as psychopathic killers go, Edward is a lot nicer. This really helps with immersion and emotional engagement; so important for satisfying game play.

Combat is not very difficult, esp on land, which is good, as you don’t want to be wasting your time there. At sea, it’s just difficult enough to be challenging without becoming frustrating. The controls are somewhat automated, quite intuitive and well sign-posted, making gameplay easier because you’re not effortfully trying to remember what combination of buttons to use.

The scenery is gorgeous and everything I’d hoped for. The weather is fantastic. It occasionally rains but never for very long. Mostly it’s blue skies, white sandy beaches, lush green foliage, glittering sea, brilliant sunshine, birds, tropical flowers, the white sails of ships and the architecture of 18th century Cuba, expressed as little churches, courtyards and inns. Glorious. So nice to have gameplay in a pleasant environment. Steering a boat is masses of fun and I want to spend more time on the sea, exploring and going to different islands. It looks like a large map so there should be plenty to do. I will definitely come back to this game; after finally getting my own ship and taking to the sea, I’m a happy customer.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Ubisoft (2013), PS4. A single-player, third-person, action-adventure game set in the 18th-century Caribbean.

Plot and setting: Pirate Edward Kenway sails a ship around the islands of the Caribbean, firing cannons, plundering other ships and carrying out assassination quests around Nassau and Havana.

General remarks: A happy and cheerful game. There are no depressed mediaeval villages that are being terrorised by ghouls. Rather, there are bright and lively cities where the sun shines all the time, people sing and dance and drink rum and pirates cheerfully plan their next outing.

Thumbs up: Easy to learn and play. Glorious scenery. Naval combat really offers something new and it’s super fun being at sea in a decent-sized ship that can go fast, take on big waves, and defend itself.

Thumbs down: The seafaring action took a while to get started but once you are past the first few quests and out at sea in your own boat at last, it’s no longer a problem.

Return to?  Yes, definitely. The mood, like the weather, is sunny and the chance to be at sea in a ship is different and appealing.

Let’s have a tune. I quite loved this game. I didn’t love it as much as Ark: Survival Evolved because Ark doesn’t have any quests at all to constrain the player and also because I felt a huge amount of ownership of the flimsy little houses that I’d managed to build. In contrast, I wasn’t quite as emotionally invested in my ship, the Jackdaw. But this might change with a bit more gameplay, as the ship is gradually upgraded. Now let’s sing along with this traditional sea shanty by Cypress Hill.

Cypress Hill: When The Ship Goes Down

Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of Year of the Console as we move on to a new game and a new era of history, starting on 1 June.

Starry Skies, Chapter 6: Chockney

I returned from Paris feeling satiated. All my romantic and physical needs had been taken care of by Alain. Maxime had been dismissed and Fyodor was far away in Russia because that’s where he lives. This left only Harry, based in London, who I was looking forward to dating as soon as he’d finished some crucial maths exams. I had no need for anything else in the meantime and I wanted to get back to work. Then people started reminding me that I promised I would come out and meet them, arrangements that I made several weeks ago when I was in another mood. I managed to deter a couple of people at least temporarily but felt I should fulfil a date for Monday evening, in fact, last night, because it had taken a while to set up. Gah. I just wanted to stay indoors and play video games or do something useful, but no, I had to put on a dress and go out.

As if my love life needed further complications, just when I’d straightened everything out, the guy turned out be really nice. So inconvenient. He is a Cockney, with a proper Cockney accent, and he is an artist, in fact, a painter, so we are calling him David Chockney, ha ha, I slay myself. He used to be a builder and then he found out he could paint and people noticed and now he’s famous. That’s the short story.

He’s my age. He’s 51. I know absolutely nothing about this age group. All my dating experience is with people in their 20s; they look attractive and they are fun and spontaneous. No-one is looking for a committed relationship and despite my romantic banter with Maxime, I’m not even sure I still know what one involves. Chockney is fit and very good looking for his age, I bet he was stunning at 25. He’s surprisingly self-effacing and softly-spoken. I would be really full of myself if I were a well-known artist. He was interesting, he knows a lot about art, even though he says he knows nothing, and he likes me. He said that he would prefer to be in a relationship. He said ‘I’ve been on my own for a long time, too long really’. These are terms that I don’t fully understand any more. I don’t know what ‘on my own’ means or how that’s different from just being alive and going about your normal, everyday business. I asked him why he wanted to be in a relationship. He said ‘Honestly, it will be better for developing my painting’ and I thought that was a good answer, if there is one. Better than some shit about being afraid to be old and alone.

Anyway. I tried to put him off as much as possible by smoking while on the date, saying ‘fuck’ and talking about my extensive experience of dating models who are half my age but he was undeterred and it seems like we’re on for a second date.

I finally get to see Harry (24) on Thursday. We’ve waited so long and so much has happened since we first met. We are going to the opera on Thursday and then we’ll see what happens. And that, readers, is the point where you are finally all caught up with Starry Skies. What an epically romantic time it has been. From this point, you know as much as I do. We will all have to wait and see what happens in upcoming episodes as Harry and Chockney become love rivals.

British Holidaymaker Drinks, Gets Tattoo

A little more Paris, just to fill you in on the remaining events. As I mentioned, after I left Alain in Paris I had a spare morning – really, most of the day – which I intended to use. So I started by going out to lunch, naturellement, and drank wine with the intention of going to the Pompidou Centre to look at some photography by Walker Evans. Most art is much more enjoyable after a couple of glasses of wine, and I say that as someone who is almost teetotal. I ambled off to the Pompidou Centre and was outraged to discover that it is closed on Tuesdays. Gah! Now what? I am in the middle of Paris in the middle of the day, I am slightly tipsy and the art I wanted to see is Not There. I walked down the street, in somewhat of a huff, and I found myself passing a shop selling art, albeit of a different kind. It was, in fact, a tattoo parlour.

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I looked at the designs on display outside the shop (very run of the mill, actually, just what you’d expect). Because I was a bit intoxicated, I briefly contemplated getting a tattoo. Then I remembered I already had one! It is 32 years old! It was once a tiny butterfly with brightly-coloured wings but over time it faded a lot and almost became indistinguishable. I went inside and asked to talk to a tattooist.

He was an extremely nice man but he spoke no English whatsoever. My French may accommodate romance but does not extend to tattoo-purchasing situations. It was like the worst possible conversation you could have with a tattooist. I was a bit drunk and neither of us could understand a word the other person was saying. Eventually we secured a contract by means of my pointing at my tattoo and making expansive gestures with my hands to signify “make it brighter”. So he did.

Before

After

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And that’s how I finally returned to London with both sunburn (Spain) and a leaky new tattoo to look after, and thus resembled every British holidaymaker ever.

The Walker Evans exhibition is on at the Pompidou Centre in Paris until 14 August. Closed on Tuesdays.

Starry Skies, Chapter 5: Alain

Let us begin with Maxime. He seemed to be holding out a romantic fantasy of a spontaneous marriage. I suspected that I am far more reckless and up for romantic adventure than he is, so I thought it would be fun to start testing. I started picking out wedding packages in the Bahamas (I so want one of those), sent him links to long, dreary pre-marital counselling courses in London and asked him if he’d told his parents he was engaged. Ha ha, it was great. He tried to keep up but became uncomfortable. He said his parents wouldn’t care who he married (I think this unlikely) but he’d sent a message to his best friend to announce that he had found The One. I was just on the point of suggesting that we go ring shopping and consider waiting to have sex until after the wedding, when he cracked under the pressure and started getting to the point, which was that he did want sex after all and in fact had a shopping list of racy activities that he regarded as achievements and wanted to accomplish, this being the actual point of his messages to me. I knew it. I knew it all along. I mocked him and he stopped texting me. Job done. A pity, he was really good looking.

And now, a few more photos of Paris, and we will come to news of Alain in due course.

Paris was great. I was only there for three nights but several exciting things happened. I did some excellent business in Paris, finished one work project and secured a new contract for another. I took up drinking. I no longer drink, in my everyday life in London. I am more sensitive to alcohol than I used to be and only a small amount can give me an appalling hangover. To my surprise, I find that this doesn’t apply in other countries. I don’t know why. I can go to France or Chile or somewhere and sit in the blazing sun in the middle of the day, drink half a bottle of wine with lunch and think nothing of it. It was great. While in Paris, I drank a lot of Bordeaux. When I wasn’t eating out, I lived on Camembert, white peaches and strawberries. I did very little sight-seeing. I spent a lot of time in this utterly charming little room that I rented and this was because, unlike Chile, you can’t make love in the park. You have to stay indoors for that.

french window

You will notice that so far, in the epic romance known as Starry Skies, I have had absolutely no sex. There was one kiss at the tube station after I had dinner with Harry and that was it. It was time to remedy that. I received a visit from Alain, in fact he came every day, for three days.

Alain fell in love with me in London in 2015 and we had not seen each other since then. We kept in touch in between for business reasons and because I cannot fail to be interested in a man who is in love with me. I told him I was coming to Paris. He said he would like to have dinner with me. Plans evolved from there. Eventually the result was that he appeared in my tiny French room, in the evening. We sat at the table, in front of that window, and talked about business and generally caught up. Then we stood up, to go out for some reason, probably to get coffee or wine. We stood facing each other. He’s young. He’s slim. He’s wearing his bag over his shoulder, ready to go out. He’s staring at me very intently and we are exactly the same height, so we are eye to eye. Time stops. Both of us lean in, about one millimetre each. Then we kiss. Then, without saying anything, we take off our clothes and lie down on the bed, where we spend much of the next couple of days.

We came to know each other very well over that weekend. He just wanted to make love, it was really that simple. People in London are a bit obsessed with sex. Like Maxime, they often have a list of achievements that they are trying to fulfil, or they’re tamely experimenting with some kind of kink, or they’re building up the world’s largest collection of sex toys. Alain could not have been more removed from this culture. It was not his opinion that sex with someone who you’ve loved for two years needs to be equivalent to sport. He just wanted to make love, in a completely straightforward, unspoiled way that focuses on engaging with your partner and not on some irrelevant checklist with accompanying hardware. It was amazing, he did me a lot of good, I felt like I’d been to a spa. It was very cleansing and refreshing. We did a lot of gazing into each other’s eyes, kissing, saying each other’s names, giving massages. I felt renewed.

Not surprisingly, after three days of that, we’d formed quite a bond and saying goodbye was  hard. I cried and we spoke a mixture of English and French (I know more French than I think I do, when the occasion demands). He said “I will remember this weekend for the rest of my life.” Then he went back to his life in France, as we planned, and I had one morning left in Paris and then I needed to go back to London to see Harry and get on with some work.

After I arrived home in London, Alain emailed me to say thank you. He said he’d found a new confidence because of being with me. I was touched.

Starry Skies, Chapter 4: Maxime

Maxime is a mature man of 30. He is one of London’s 20,000 French ex-pats. He looks very French and is really unusually handsome. I did not burst into tears or feel as though I were going blind but there was certainly a sharp intake of breath. His message to me said this:

Dear Madame, I have read your whole profile and I feel as though I will never recover. You are The One. I am totally and completely in love with you. Please have pity on me. You have torn my heart from my chest.

I was rather taken aback, as you might imagine, but of course I replied, because who’s not going to reply to a message like that, especially when it comes from someone with the face of a romantic hero who is in London and not in Russia. We moved the conversation to Whatsapp, as one does, and I logged out of the dating app. I assumed he just wanted sex, which would not be very difficult to get, with his unusually handsome appearance, especially in a city like London, with a population of 8 million people. As such, the conversation might predictably have focused on simple, practical matters such as getting me to come out to meet him. Instead, there was a long conversation, lasting all evening and again the next morning, in which he continued in a similar vein and said things like this:

I love you already.

Please, don’t text anyone. Say you will be only for me.

I’m totally in love with you. I’m really serious.

I can’t look at any other woman now I’ve seen you. Please come and be with me.

I hardly knew what to say. He wasn’t asking for sex. I wasn’t even in London – as most of this was unfolding, I was in Spain. I avoided saying anything that directly referred to this imaginary relationship between us, because what could I say, so I made general remarks about love. I thought he would become bored and quit. I was wrong. At the end of Day 3, he proposed.

Marry me. Be my wife. I cannot live without you and I cannot love you any more than I do.

‘Why do you love me?’ I asked. ‘Because I was born to love you’, he confidently replied. ‘When I saw your face and read all your beautiful words, it was like being struck by lightning, I was shocked. I knew that you were the one I was made for. You are tender. You are passionate. You are beautiful. You think like me. You talk like me. You were made to love and be loved. I am here now. Let me love you. I am your husband.’

He would not give up. He insisted that he was serious. He proposed again and again. He begged me to come home to London. I let him think that I continued to stay in Spain. In fact, sceptical of his extravagant claims and in no mood to be diverted from a path I had already set for myself, I returned to London for a matter of 48 hours, just long enough to take care of some business and pack my suitcase afresh, and then I went to Paris, where another French man was awaiting me, whom we shall call Alain, after Alain Delon.

Casanova

Chapter 4 of Starry Skies will be with you tomorrow. It gets more and more romantic and exciting, I promise you. In the meantime, I need to quickly capture this before I forget about it and the moment has passed.

Just before I ran off to Spain on holiday, I went to the ballet. I went to Sadler’s Wells theatre in London; it is a venue which is dedicated to dance.

sadlers ext

sadlers int

I sent photos and text messages to the Russian boy, of course, because who else would I talk to about ballet, of all my lovers.

I was there to see Casanova, a new ballet by Kenneth Tindall, performed by the Northern Ballet company. It’s about Casanova’s life.

casanova

The sets were incredible, I was enchanted by the glittering, golden chandeliers and pillars and the immense mirrors that appeared on the stage.

It’s a modern ballet, obviously, being new, so it was not constrained in form or content by the 19th century traditions that characterise the romantic, classical ballets that I grew up with. The choreography was innovative. Also, rather importantly, Casanova was depicted as having both male and female lovers and I can’t really think of another time when I’ve seen men dancing ballet together, romantically and erotically. It was nice. It made a nice change.

If one wanted to be critical of it, I would say that I didn’t really get a sense of how Casanova’s life hung together as a coherent narrative. It felt like a series of unrelated episodes, lacking a big picture. But this did not dent my enjoyment of a spectacular and very dramatic production. Here is the trailer.

And here is another sample, showing the beautiful golden scenery that I was telling you about.

Okay, that’s all for tonight. We will resume Starry Skies tomorrow.

Starry Skies, Chapter 3: Dinner With Harry

While all this was going on, I continued to exchange messages with Harry, who little realised that while I was conscientiously and respectfully staying out of his room, I was attending church in the room of his Russian competitor and business rival, and being educated in the life and psychology of the camwhore. Consequently, I was not very surprised when he expressed an interest in having dinner with me, with a view to dating each other, yet found himself too terrified to talk to me beforehand by picking up the phone. 

Despite my new knowledge, it nonetheless struck me as slightly remarkable when he confessed, a couple of hours before our date, that he was very afraid to see me in case there was a repulsive and horrifying discrepancy between his ‘carefully curated photos’, as he put it, and his real, three-dimensional self. I was kind and gentle. I explained to him that I was talking to him despite his good looks and not because of them. I explained that he was holding my attention because of his obvious intelligence, academic ability, courtesy and self-effacing manner. He was very touched by this and said “thank you for your kind words”. I did not mention that the reason I was not attaching a lot of value to his physical appearance was because I had been blinded by his Russian counterpart, and everything that was not this holy Russian saint was cut from the same, everyday cloth.

Thus reassured, the shy, retiring little British porn star came out to meet me at a very nice Swiss restaurant in Soho. I was already seated when he arrived, five minutes late and full of apologies. He was a polite, sensitive little sweetheart, just as he was in his text messages. I quickly complimented him on his appearance, told him “you are much more attractive in real life than in your photos”, which was true, and he visibly heaved a sigh of relief. This, from a boy who has been taking his clothes off, for hundreds of gay men, almost daily, for two or three years.

We ate dinner and talked. We talked about my work and about his, using coded language so as not to upset the other diners. He was clever, sweet, funny, engaging. At one point he broke eye contact and turned his face away, looking at the ground. “You saw my photos”, he said, small pink roses of shame blooming in his cheeks. I did see his photos, because he gave me the link to his Tumblr, and what’s more, I Google Image searched him. Doing this caused me to see certain things that I wish I could unsee, because no nice, precious, valuable young boy or girl should be on the internet doing the things I saw in those pictures. His poor mother would have died. I don’t think he can have Google Image searched himself, otherwise those pink roses of shame would have been scarlet.

Anyway, despite all this anxiety and blushing, he managed to have a lovely time in my company, as one would hope. He very much enjoyed himself and we struck up quite a rapport. By the end of the evening he was almost jubilant and we had made plans to go to the opera and even go on holiday together in due course. We kissed at the tube station – as a 24-year-old sex worker who sells himself to his most loyal fans in a range of ways that I am not going to ask about, he proved quite capable of being kissed – and it seemed that a Dating Relationship had been formed. And so it came to pass that I found myself on my favourite dating app, suspending my account. In that small window of time, in a space of perhaps two minutes, between coming online and disappearing from public view, I received a message. A message from a French man who was about to say shocking things to me, henceforth known as Maxime.

**To Be Continued**