Vegetarians

I’ve never met a militant vegan or vegetarian. Not once. I hear about them a lot, I see them parodied on television, but I’ve never met one.

Isn’t that funny? Everyone reading this is familiar with the character of which I speak. The angry animal lover who feels it is their duty to criticise the eating choices of those around them. “Oh my god, how can you eat that?” they wail as an innocent carnivore tucks into a juicy steak. “I think I’m going to be sick.”

And we hate that smug vegetarian, don’t we? We hate how they think they’re better than us, how they believe it’s their right to criticise us. We hate how they feel they are morally obliged to take our cheeseburgers away. Damn them. Damn their whiny malnourished faces.

But when was the last time a vegetarian had a go at you? It’s certainly never happened to me. Maybe I’m just lucky, but the only arguments about eating meat I’ve ever witnessed were started by meat eaters. They heard someone was a vegetarian and bulled on over, desperate to highlight the flaws in the vegetarian creed, deficient as it is in consistency and reason. And the eating of delicious meat.

I’m not so sure the vegetarian view is as irrational as we often complain it is. If you spend more than five minutes thinking about it, there are all sorts of unsettling inconsistencies in the eating of animal flesh. Do animals have ‘souls’? If not, why is it okay to eat cows but not dogs? If human beings are simply very clever animals, why is it wrong to eat human flesh? If we recognise the superiority of man over beast, is it not our duty, as the only creatures on earth capable of free will, to prevent natural suffering? Wouldn’t the giving up of sausage rolls be a small price to pay for doing the noble thing? Is it possible that our modern practices in the rearing and consumption of meat isn’t the behaviour of a responsible human race?  Is the freedom to eat as much meat as we want really a justification for the shocking amount of violence we inflict on billions of living animals every single day?

I don’t know. But I do know that a vegetarian has never lambasted my choice to meat, and I often wonder if the argumentative carnivore is simply insecure. Most of society eats meat, and a couple of people choosing to restrict their diet is not a threat to that. When a meat eater starts a fight with an unassuming vegetarian, I can’t help but suspect they’re really arguing with themselves.

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Voice Acting

Have I ever told you I’ve always wanted to be a voice actor?

I’ve always wanted to be a voice actor.

Voice acting, like animation, comic books and getting out of bed, is one of those things for which I have great appreciation but very little practical understanding. I can read that bit in The Sandman where there’s that shot of Dream after he says “No, I could not” and Death says “No, you couldn’t, could you?” and it all totally falls into place. I’ll think “wow, that’s amazing, what a brilliant piece of work”. But I don’t know how to draw or write a comic book. I haven’t suffered defeat after attempting to scale those heights. I used to wonder how anyone could adequately express what was so great about a piece of music if they weren’t a musician. How could you really, I mean really appreciate what’s going on here?

Maybe you can’t. Maybe it’s impossible for me to truly appreciate that bit in The Sandman if I don’t write or draw comics for ten years, and maybe it’s impossible for non-musicians to truly appreciate the measured ease with which Bill Callahan creates a universe within a perfectly-paced guitar riff. I don’t know, but I do now understand why people get really geeky about crafts they’ve never attempted. I respect the hell out of voice actors, but I’m not one myself.

Voice acting might be the least-respected form of acting. Film actors are the most famous, and television actors are forever associated with characters we grow to cherish over many seasons. Theatre actors command the greatest respect, and even musical actors command their own little cults. Seriously. Did you know Les Miserables fans have arguments about who was the best Javert?

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Not this guy.

Voice actors, not so much. Maybe it’s because you never see their faces. Or you see their faces and they look nothing like the character. There’s a great part in Wayne’s World 2 when Wayne and Garth turn up for a radio interview. The show is run by ‘Handsome Dan’, a DJ with a smooth, rich voice. A tall hunk steps out. “Are you Handsome Dan?” they ask. “No,” he replies in a whiny, nasal voice. Turns out Handsome Dan is played by Harry Shearer – a legendary voice actor himself, but not exactly a tall hunk. It’s a great scene which captures the lack of association people have with the actors behind the voices we know so well. It’s understandable, but no less a pity for that. Voice actors are as responsible for the creation of a character as the writers and animators. What would Mr Burns be without the aforementioned Harry Shearer’s performance? He manages to sound frail yet powerful at once, which I’m sure you’ll agree is where much of the humour of the character comes from.

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Strolling through the gas.

Yet the indifference toward voice actors is not confined to the public. Major studios have largely ignored the wealth of talent available in favour of big-name Hollywood stars. In my casual and unresearched opinion, this began in 1993 with Disney’s Aladdin and the casting of Robin Williams as the Genie. Prior to Aladdin, the only film actors providing voices in major animated films – that I can think of, at least – were Angela Lansbury as Mrs Potts in Beauty and the Beast, and Dom DeLuise as Tiger in An American Tail. Though now that I think of it, Jimmy Stewart played Wiley Burp in Fievel Goes West and Orson Welles played Unicron in Transformers.

Well, anyway, it only really took off after Robin Williams did such a good job as the Genie. Disney’s next movie, The Lion King, starred James Earl Jones as Mufasa and Matthew Broderick as Simba. Pocahontas starred Mel Gibson, Billy Connolly and Christian Bale. I believe the studios began to see the potential of having big names on the posters for some extra marketing oomph, regardless of the actor’s ability to, you know, actually voice act. The soundtracks to animated films began to be written by people like Elton John, Phil Collins and Sting. However, if there was a jump-the-shark moment, it has to be Shrek in 2001, which starred Mike Myers, Jon Lithgow, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz. Don’t get me wrong, they all did fine jobs… but they’re not really voice actors.

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Or “Actors Pick Up a Paycheque So You Can Keep Your Kids Quiet for 2 Hours”

Compare a film like The Little Mermaid – and I bet you can’t think of a single actor in it, or who wrote the soundtrack – to 2013’s Despicable Me 2. Despicable Me 2 starred Steve Carell, Benjamin Bratt, Kristen Wiig, Miranda Cosgrove, Russell Brand and Ken Jeong, while the soundtrack was produced by Pharrell Williams. Or Megamind in 2010, with Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, David Cross and Brad Pitt. Is Despicable Me 2 a superior movie for securing film and television actors to do a voice actor’s job? I don’t want to be too harsh to recent films, but I can’t help wondering what kind of fantastic animated films we might be seeing if studios bothered to hire people who do this kind of thing for a living instead of who’s the most famous.

I might not be a voice actor, and only dream of it, but I’d like to think I appreciate these artists for the hard work they do. Next time you’re watching a film with voice acting, spare a thought for the men and women who work to bring these characters to life. And maybe don’t bother seeing Despicable Me 3 or Shrek 12. Best not to encourage cynical behaviour.


Five Things I Learned About Working on a Goal (From Super Hexagon)

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Note: for everyone who’s rolling their eyes, this isn’t really a post about video games, it’s about getting better at things, the challenges you face and how to deal with them. Super Hexagon was just a game that helped me understand a lot of this.

There are a lot of people who get really defensive when someone dares to suggest that video games might be a waste of time. “No!” they cry. “Video games improve reflexes, quick thinking, spatial reasoning and problem solving!” To hear them tell it, video games will also make you breakfast, help you fit into that dress you’ve had your eye on or make you look like Liam Hemsworth (super hot). Others might take a more philosophical view, claiming that any time spent having fun is time not wasted, which is a contender for “Argument Most Likely To Have Been Made by a Teenager.” I should know, I used to say it myself.

It all comes across as so much justification to me. If you spend 8 hours a day pouring effort and energy into self-gratification, of course you’re going to react angrily if someone calls you out on on the triviality of the exercise, because deep down you know they’re not entirely wrong. As a medium, video games have spectacular potential to make people reflect on themselves and their actions, but the majority of them at this point are frivolous fluff, fancy toys for the digital age.

However, like any task you set yourself, even the bare-bones, arcade-style high-score games can teach you things about yourself depending on how you deal with the challenge. Super Hexagon by Terry Cavanagh, my Game of the Year 2012, was one such game. You have to guide a triangle through an ever-shifting maze. If you hit an object, you have to start over, and the goal of the game is to see how long you can last before you become overwhelmed. It’s extremely difficult, and absolutely merciless. It’s the act of improving a skill distilled into its purest form, and as my times slowly lengthened, I began to reflect on how I was coping with it. Here are five things I learned about working on a goal from Super Hexagon.

1.  You’ve got to be humble.

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The worst thing you can say to yourself when trying to get better at something is “I SHOULD be able to do this!” We’ve all been there, it’s only natural to get frustrated with a lack of progress, but all you’re doing is holding yourself to standards you haven’t yet reached, and having a go at yourself. That’s not helpful, it’s just empty self-flagellation. Who cares if you think you should be able to do it? You’re not able to do it right now. That’s why you’re practicing, right? So you’re able to do it in the future.

In Super Hexagon, you might have played a level hundreds of times, memorised the patterns and you’ll still fail within seconds. “My high score is 0:54! Why am I still crashing at 0:09? Aren’t I past this? Haven’t I improved enough?”

This really hit home when I was trying to learn fingerpicking. I’d come across a song I wanted to play, look over the tablature, and before I knew it my fingers were tripping over themselves. Other times I’d try to play at faster speeds and give up when I realised it sounded stilted, coarse and uneven. I thought I SHOULD be able to do it because I’d had success in similar areas, but the cosmos (and your body) doesn’t care about your personal sense of justice.

You’ve got to be humble, recognise that you’re not going to meet with success instantly even if you’ve had previous success, and just get to work.

2. You’re training your brain to not be a complete dumbass.

Super Hexagon, and by extension all reflex and skill based games that involve repetitive patterns, has a way of revealing to the player what a complete dumbass their brain is. The mind is so quick at processing situations that before you’ve even done anything, it can see the mistake you’re about to make, think “Oh my God, I’m going to fail, why did I do that” and then make the mistake. All in the space of a few nanoseconds. And yet it’s powerless to, you know, actually stop you from making that mistake.

You become very familiar with this feeling. A pattern will appear in Super Hexagon, and you’ll think “Okay, I need to go left here but I can tell I’m going to go right and I’ll have to start all over” and then you’ll go right. In a game like Ikaruga, I’d often see one bullet out of hundreds flying towards my ship and think “I’m going to plough right into that” and then make a beeline for it. I couldn’t help myself.

Your brain is, by default, a complete dumbass. It’ll make mistakes over and over again, and the more you make those mistakes, the better you become at making them. Practice makes perfect, after all, for the good and the bad. The trick is to identify those mistakes, then train your brain to not make them. The only way to accomplish that is to repeat the action, always being aware of what you actually need to do, until your brain finally gets the idea and your successes begin outweighing your failures. It’s that simple.

3. You will eventually need outside help.

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If you’ve played Super Hexagon to the final level, you might have involuntarily shuddered at the above picture. It’s probably the most difficult pattern in the game, because it doesn’t resemble any other pattern, the route through it is not immediately clear, and the final level is so blisteringly fast that you don’t get a chance to take a look at it before you’ve already messed up. It caused me to give up on the game, 40 seconds from 100% completion. It was just too much hassle for me to figure out.

I believe the best way of learning is to teach yourself, make your own connections and re-examine your previous beliefs, but inevitably you have to seek the advice of others. Luckily, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of people who’ve been in the exact same situation you have and will tell you how they got through it. It’s not a personal failure, you’re not an idiot for seeking help. It’s just a way for you to keep moving forward which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is more important than any belief that you should be clever enough to figure it out by yourself (see #1).

After reading some guides written by others, I discovered that the route through the pattern is Right, Right, Left Left Left. It took an hour for me to train my brain (see #2) to adapt to that sequence of key presses, but I can get through the pattern now. Rad.

4. You get burned out after a series of successes; let it go

I actually first observed this when playing Super Meat Boy. Craig and I would pass the controller between us, trying to outdo each other’s times, shaving a few milliseconds off here and there. It was the best kind of competition: not for glory, but to push each other and see how good both of us could get. You can get so caught up in trying to succeed, however, that you become blind to what’s actually happening. Craig would set a series of particularly excellent times, and begin to falter. He began making rookie mistakes. He was convinced that if he played for long enough, he would recover, and I’d eventually have to force the controller out of his hands. Same thing happened to me with Super Hexagon. I’d get close to my record several times, feel like I was on a roll, begin to falter and continue – even though it was obvious I wasn’t achieving anything.

If you’ve done really well in one session and then begin to make silly mistakes, it’s time to take a break. You’re burning yourself out and training your brain to make those mistakes you’ve worked hard to avoid (see #3). This is the point where it’s easy to get caught in the trap of #1. You’re not doing yourself any favours by failing repeatedly at objectives you breezed past ten minutes ago because you think you’re bound to recover. You’ve done well, you’ve improved, now take a break and come back to it later. You’ll be a lot kinder to yourself if you do.

5. If you’re patient, the impossible does become possible.

This video is the final level of Super Hexagon. You don’t have to watch it for long, it’s just there to illustrate how quickly you’re forced to react. When I began that final level, I was convinced I was going to give up playing entirely before I managed to last more than 3 seconds.

When I say “making the impossible possible”, I don’t mean it in a trite, condescending way. I think most people think they’re capable of doing most things acceptably if they put the time in, they just can’t be bothered or have no interest. And I’m certainly not talking about things that are beyond the reach of 99.9% of the population, such as running a mile in under 4 minutes. I’m talking about those things you’re pretty sure you could do, and would like to, but give up on quickly because you’re not making the kind of progress you hoped for.

Patience is the key. You’ve just got to be patient. I truly believe that ‘determination’ is much more about allowing yourself the time to improve than it is about teeth-gritting willpower. Getting better at things takes time, and if you’re patient enough while you keep working, I guarantee that one day, sooner than you’d expect, you’ll look back on where you were six months previously and marvel at how far you’ve come. It’s inevitable. You’ve just got to stop worrying so much about how quickly you’re progressing and be content with simply progressing.

I’m not saying you should keep all of the above in mind at all times when you’re trying to improve in some area of your life. I’m certainly not saying you’ve failed if you forget one or all of the tips I’ve given. I barely remember what I was doing ten minutes ago. This advice isn’t in my head at all times, it just helps when I do manage to remember it. No-one’s perfect, and advice like this isn’t a cheat code to success. It’s an ideal to aspire to. The next time you’re frustrated with a lack of progress whether it be in art, music or even a video game, don’t immediately start berating yourself.  Take a breath and consider whether or not you’re falling into one of these traps.