Wednesday 28 December 2016

Mini-Reviews #6: Too Much TV

I’m sure it’s not just me that’s noticed there’s been a bonkers amount of high quality shows around recently! Since we now seem to be in a world where original programming via services like Netflix regularly kicks the movie industry’s arse, I’ve decided to do this new instalment of mini-reviews exclusively on new TV shows I’ve watched in the last 3 to 4 months. Still, it’s not all glowing...

Minor spoilers ahoy!

Westworld: Season 1 Let’s get all the gushing out of the way first. As TV shows continue to get more ambitious I do wonder if we're reaching a critical point where scripts start falling apart and actors give way to special effects. But as much as that often happens in movie blockbusters these days, it hasn’t happened to Westworld - a show that looks more expensive and polished than just about anything else this year (on the small or big screens), and yet has a rollickingly clever story and brilliant turns from extremely likeable actors (major props to Anthony Hopkins and Thandie Newton). I don’t want to talk too much about the show for fear of spoiling things - I will say that it pulls off multiple, satisfying, layered twists that reward audiences without alienating them, and production values that are simply off the charts. There’s a worry that its reliance on major revelations won’t keep working in future seasons, but I feel like the writers are smarter than me, so I’ll shut up now. Go watch it.

The Walking Dead Season 7A

While anticipation going into this new season was strong, I feel like the show ended up delivering one of its weakest runs of episodes ever, and I know I’m not alone feeling this way. So what went wrong? Well, for starters there's the overly repetitive presence of Negan... An uneven tone, caused perhaps by a misplaced adherence to the source material... Segregation of the core cast (I count five separate communities now, often with just one getting the focus of an entire episode) and an overall depressing, cyclical feel to the story. We know Rick will fight back eventually - we’ve seen it happen time and time again with each new threat he’s faced. Here’s hoping for a faster, more surprising, more action packed second half next year.
PS: Steven Ogg is awesome by the way. More of him please.

Ash vs Evil Dead: Season 2
Sticking with shows tackling the undead for just a sec, I really want to shine a light on what has quietly become one of the most consistent shows around. Not consistently amazing, mind, but that’s not what Ash vs Evil Dead is trying to be. This show is silly, it’s not clever, and it’s not even that funny most of the time - it’s a real ‘turn your brain off, sit back, relax, and just go with it’ sort of show. That in itself puts it in a real sweet spot as far as I’m concerned. Despite a somewhat weak antagonist this season, the character of Ash is always reliably entertaining, the nods to the (superior) original movies are always welcome, and it does feature the absolute most vile, disgusting, twisted scene I’ve ever seen in a broadcast medium. You have been warned.

South Park: Season 20
Member when South Park did a different story every week? Oh yeah I member. For the uninitiated, South Park took a fairly unprecedented approach this season by telling a totally self-contained, singular story arc about internet trolls and the destructive power of nostalgia across 10 whole episodes. The feeling by the end is that it didn’t really work, and I think Matt and Trey are aware of this (as even the title of the final episode would suggest). South Park has always been built on a rolling weekly basis; it’s perhaps clear in hindsight that hashing out the ultimate goal of this season’s narrative wasn’t going to be easy - particularly when so much hinged on a US election that didn’t go the way anyone expected. Still, I can’t blame them for trying. And we did get the member berries, the funniest thing to come out of South Park since the aftermath of Randy Marsh’s groin irradiation.

Luke Cage: Season 1
I don’t have too much to say about Luke Cage. I didn’t love it. I didn’t hate it. For what it’s worth, it’s another Marvel TV series that shares many of the same strengths and weaknesses as those that came before it - strong atmosphere and characterisation, poor and repetitive pacing. The blaxploitation approach is certainly an interesting angle for a mainstream series like this, and one which perhaps I struggled to get to grips with at first. It’s all very low key and understated, except for when it remembers it's a superhero show and finds excuses for fight scenes. It all feels rather mundane for a man with indestructable skin. Nevertheless, the writers do their damndest to come up with mcguffins to try to create the illusion of threat. I wouldn’t go into this one looking for thrills, but maybe go in looking for feels. Not emotional feels, just feels. There’s a lot of smooth jazz, bro.

Black Mirror: Season 3
The jump onto the Netflix bandwagon seems to have done Black Mirror a world of good. It feels bigger than before, it’s literally twice as long as before (6 episodes instead of 3) and writer Charlie Brooker is still finding new ways to tell dystopic, believable stories about the future of a technological society - it’s becoming scarily close to the real deal now. Since the episodes are so different, here are some super mini reviews of each one:
1: Nosedive: Or as I like to call it, ‘Instagrapocalypse,’ a very polished and darkly funny metaphor for social networking as a status symbol.
2: Playtest: As someone who recently wrote about VR, this was a fun one to watch. Takes things to quite an extreme. Coulda done without the cheeky BioShock line, Charlie.
3: Shut Up and Dance: Bloody hell. This one’s just brutal. ‘Nuff said.
4: San Junipero: The most optimistic and touching Black Mirror has ever been. Probably a lot of people’s favourite for that exact reason.
5: Men Against Fire: Bit of a weak link I think - I guessed the twist right away and it’s basically the same plot as Haze, which isn’t exactly a great reference point.
6: Hated in the Nation: It’s too long, and it’s got a concept that some people might find a bit too wacky, but it’s a meaty satire that certainly sticks in the mind. Ahem.

The Man in the High Castle: Season 2
You know, this show has a lot going for it. It has a compelling premise - an alternate history that actually feels fleshed out and believable. There’s political intrigue, complex and morally ambiguous characters, a bit of supernatural mystery… but I can’t kid myself that the execution is really that great. It’s just generally… dull? The pacing is almost uniformly awful, the disparate elements of the plot never quite gel and for every subplot and character motivation that clicks, there’s something happening elsewhere that has me rolling my eyes. It’s a shame as I think this show still has the potential to really come into its own - the last two episodes in particular definitely made me perk up. It’s just… lose the tedium, please.

The Grand Tour (Initial Impressions)
It feels like Clarkson has become a little bit too smug. I know this was always his shtick, but there has to be a limit somewhere, surely? Gone are the budget and PC-friendly constraints of the BBC, and in its place we’ve got a show with more forced and scripted comedy than ever before. If that’s your cup of tea then great, but to me it just feels a little bit hollow and stuck up itself. Give us more natural, unscripted banter. Failing that, at least give us something that feels like it could have actually happened. We all know the Top Gear antics were scripted, but it wasn’t on the level of… pretending to shoot terrorists and dying repeatedly in a parody of Edge of Tomorrow. I mean, what? Still, it’s better than the recent Top Gear turned out. I think that much goes without saying.

Friday 2 December 2016

Is VR gaming a mainstream concept? Impressions and ideas from someone with no authority on the topic

"Is VR gaming a mainstream concept now?" I asked myself, cringing as the sub-par candidates from the latest series of BBC's The Apprentice flailed around with their Vive headsets talking about imaginary space badgers. It certainly doesn’t seem very long ago that the words ‘virtual reality’ were either an overused sci-fi trope or a stock phrase used to refer to video games themselves, usually by the press in another mis-informed rant about violence in the media.

Above: What people used to mean by 'virtual reality'

But VR games certainly have made a splash this year, with the ‘big three’ headsets all launching with a plethora of developer support and prices so alarming it makes you wonder what all the fuss is about. It’s certainly something new to come out of the games industry for once. I’m generalising - there are plenty of new things coming out of the games industry all the time, but to the general public it’s all a bunch of pixels, buttons and nonsense. But with VR, we now have people literally strapping goggles onto their faces in order to play games. It’s not hard to imagine the curiosity around this ‘hip new thing.’ It’s quite clear Lord Sugar and the Apprentice producers are all into ‘hip new things’, even if they couldn’t give a toss about VR or video games in general.
Lord Sugar totally gets VR. This is an actual still from the latest episode of The Apprentice.

Oh, I could certainly harp on about how misguided the entire episode of The Apprentice was - how games don’t get conceptualised, built and then demoed to industry professionals in a day (props to the devs for turning them around so quickly), how the player’s interactions should be the priority of VR development, not the look of the imaginary badger… Anyway, my point is - what was once a fleeting, ‘look what John Carmack’s got cooking up in his basement’ affair for the nichest of the niche tech enthusiasts, seems to have branched out into something the general public is very much aware of, much like the motion controller fad of a few years ago.

Except this time nobody can afford it.

I can’t give much of an informed opinion on VR because I haven’t bought any of this tech. A lot of people have, clearly, but as mainstream as the concept of VR may have become, it certainly hasn’t been adopted by the mainstream. Part of this may well be due to the lack of truly essential software - we all know that software sells hardware. Part of this may also just be down to an overall level of skepticism on the gamer’s side. ‘Why do I need this?’ they’ll ask. ‘It’s early tech, I’ll wait for them to iron out the kinks.’ Or perhaps more damningly, ‘I don’t want to play games with half a hockey mask strapped to my head.’ And fair enough. VR is a fundamentally different way of playing games and it’s never going to appeal to everyone. And it’s expensive. Did I mention that it’s expensive? We’re living in turbulent times. Who is really going to want to spend the best part of a grand on first generation peripheral hardware, with wires trailing all over the place? Seriously, it's gotten so ludicrous people are trying to find ways to tie the cables to the ceiling.

If you’re curious about what VR has to offer I still think the best option is to seek out a demo unit somewhere and try it for yourself. I’ve been lucky enough to try out all of the big three (HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR - I’m discounting the cheaper mobile offerings) at events over the last few months and these are my impressions after just a few minutes* of gameplay:  
*(i.e. don’t trust anything I’m about to write)

HTC Vive: Price before Brexit: £689 Price after Brexit: £759 (Ouch!) By definition, absolutely the most impressive VR experience around. It is room-scale after all, which means a fair amount of standing, ducking and dodging. I was actually most impressed by the motion controllers, which are extremely precise and do create an almost perfect illusion that you are holding real objects. The funny thing I observed is that because the controllers are so light, I felt like the guns and weapons I’d pick up were cheap Fisher-Price toys, not real killing machines. I do wonder if that’s going to require a real suspension of disbelief in some games, as you impale evil warlords with a spear that your brain thinks is made of foam.
I played two games - a robot shooter called Space Pirate Trainer and a zombie shooter that could have been any of the thousands of zombie games on Steam. These were simple wave based survival experiences with limited depth. I appreciated how fresh it felt playing in such a different way - and particularly liked mechanics like the shield in Space Pirate Trainer which you can actually hide behind then lean out to shoot.

Oculus Rift: Price: £549 In terms of visual fidelity and sense of space, I’d say this is almost on par with the considerably more expensive Vive. I was disappointed in the headset itself though. Things weren’t off to a good start when I was told to take off my glasses and place them carefully inside the headset before putting it over my head. I didn’t have to do this with the other two. Then once I’d put the headset on, I was advised to spend a minute or two playing with straps (that I couldn’t even find) and get it all perfectly adjusted. Then after all that - I don’t know if this was my own incompetence or not - I could still see a gap at the bottom of the headset. All in all, pretty cumbersome. The game itself? Red Bull Air Race. And blimey. I’d read about reports of VR sickness before, but to experience it for the first time was… interesting. Yes, armed with just a regular Xbox pad I was doing all manner of loop the loops and flips and… yeah, it was kind of nausea inducing, and I dunno about you but I don’t play video games for induced nausea. Still - if you can handle it - and some people clearly can - I don’t doubt that it’s impressive fun.

PlayStation VR: Price: £349 (plus £100 or so for camera / PS Move) First impressions were that the resolution is pretty awful. To be fair, this is a problem on any VR set and it’s not that much more pronounced here. Actually, the reason why this was my first impression is because the actual act of putting on the headset and adjusting it is amazingly quick for PS VR. Both Vive and Rift take a large amount of faffing just to get the damn thing on, but PS VR fits amazingly well, even for glasses wearers like myself. Now, PS VR obviously works with the PS4 and most games play with just the standard DualShock 4. There are motion controls with the old PlayStation Move but apparently that’s a bit naff. I couldn’t tell you how well either of those work because my only demo was of ‘The Deep,’ an on-rails ride in the ocean you can’t even interact with. Still, I can’t praise enough how convenient and comfortable this headset is - it’s also by far the cheapest and most user friendly, so it’ll be my pick if I ever go impulse-buy crazy.

So, what are my takeways from all this VR dabbling? Well, most of all, I’m just really interested to see where VR goes from here. I love that it’s such a new, massively flawed thing that’s forcing developers to rethink how games should work. To me, that in itself is a good thing. Some may disagree, claiming that VR games are and will continue to be messy and mechanically basic. I like big, complex experiences as much as anyone, but I’m still enthusiastic about something genuinely new.

I tried to come up with a few VR game ideas myself:

  • Flip the zombie survival concept: Look I get the whole horror thing, but let’s flip it round so that you are the zombie. Why not? I’d love to flail around in first person with motion controlled limbs awkwardly grabbing survivors, leaning in for the bite. The more awkward it is the better (Note: could work just as well with any awkwardly moving monster creature - Godzilla?)

  • Hallway duelling in bullet-time: So Vive has you standing around and… not really walking anywhere, so why not have a pistol duelling game about outwitting your opponent with weird dodge moves. With really slow moving bullets. You know, Matrix style.

  • Grapple Man: Ok, so a lot of standing VR games resort to a teleport feature so that you can move around without your character having to walk and without your brain feeling too disconnected. So, instead of that, let’s design a character who can’t walk, but does have a great big grappling hook to pull things towards him - pieces of the environment, enemies… I love the idea of pulling someone in with one hand and thwacking him with a great big (Fisher Price) fist in the other.

  • Ant-Man the game: Well Batman got a game already, I was thinking about what other superheroes should follow suit and I settled on… Ant-Man? Really? Well think about it. The sense of scale going from regular to ant size. Thinking ‘gee whizz those are some nicely rendered floorboards.’ Riding ants during an on-rail shooter round someone’s garden. Who needs X-Wings? I’m not even kidding.

  • Trolley Simulator 2017: So it has been established that VR games with vehicles work pretty well thanks to the constant frame of reference - so... I’m bending the rules a tad but let’s go with trolleys. Imagine you’re pushing a trolley around, steering it around a shop, having to balance items in front of you. I just think it would be a lot of fun in VR. I promise this is unrelated to the game my friend’s working on.

There, you see Apprentice candidates, it isn’t so hard! Ok, ok, I’m joking. These clearly aren’t the best ideas ever. VR is a tricky thing to get right. It’s not easy for anyone.

To go back to my original point on VR games being a mainstream concept… The concept may well be mainstream, but that doesn’t mean the product is ready to be mainstream. I don’t know if VR will ever truly take off. It feels inherently restrictive, anti-social and cumbersome by its very nature. But put it this way, in 10 years from now, we’re going to look back at these feeble early attempts and laugh. Oh, those poor punters with their massive wallets, buying into unfinished tech. If only they knew what the gaming landscape would be like now. Read into that what you will...

Monday 24 October 2016

Sofa Space Preview: Chapters 1 & 2

Below are the opening two chapters of my upcoming novel Sofa Space. As the complete novel is yet to be released, note that there may still be changes made to the below text. With that in mind, here we go:

Imagine the worst hangover of all time. You know when it feels like your head’s on fire? Take all of that pain and double it. Now combine it with the sensation that you’ve been locked in a prison cell for a couple of decades. You’ve lost all sense of self; forgotten what it feels like to be alive. You have no concept of who, where, what, why or how, but you know for certain that something must have gone incredibly wrong at some point to end up in such a sorry state.
This was going to be one of those days. I’d woken up. Where? I wasn’t entirely sure. Having fumbled around for a non-existent alarm clock, I realised that waving my arms in the air was a rather fruitless exercise, so I let my arms go limp, and… ah… that’s strange. My arms made contact with rounded metal accompanied by a comically audible ‘thump,’ and instantly I knew that this wasn’t my bed. Hell, this didn’t feel like any bed I’d laid in before. I let my arms slide along the surface, the metal curving cylindrically either side. Was this some kind of medical device? Hard to tell; my arms were extremely numb and hardly even in sync with my thoughts. From what little sensory input I had, I was able to deduce that whatever I was lying in was extremely narrow, and probably not all too comfortable for the downstairs region.
Had I been in some kind of accident? What was that burning pain? After spending a few moments clarifying that my head was not actually on fire, I tried to move my legs but my lower body hadn’t woken up. Give it a minute, I thought. I tried to open my eyes… big mistake. The resultant flash of light penetrated my poor unsuspecting retinas. In its wake, a lingering afterimage danced, mockingly, across my eyelids, continuing long after the instinctual reaction to shut both eyes as quickly as humanly possible.
Minutes passed and I began to suspect that whatever had caused the piercingly bright light was, in fact, nothing out of the ordinary; that I’d just been out of it for so long my eyes had forgotten to adjust. Just a bit of sunlight creeping through the window, surely? Slowly I eased my eyes into a narrow gaze, locked into an odd position of perpetual squinting until I could finally make out something vaguely resembling a ceiling. What colour was that, grey? Definitely grey, I thought. That or my eyesight had deteriorated to the point of rendering everything in monochrome.
Slowly but surely my other senses returned to me. There was a faint whirring sound that seemed to be reverberating all around the room. The cool air smelled of a certain freshness that was probably supposed to be welcoming but… hang on, was that coffee? Delighted that I had apparently recovered my senses enough in order to correctly identify the scent of coffee, I began floundering my limbs around like an idiot, trying to find a way to force my body up and out of whatever I was in. Yes, time to get up, lazy boy. Can’t lie here forever. A few seconds later my head had introduced itself to the floor and I immediately regretted that train of thought.
“Damn that coffee!” I swore aloud, although my lack of muscular control reduced those words to meaningless grunts. It may have seemed odd to blame the coffee for my current predicament, but I couldn’t think of anything else to use as a scapegoat. I’m not sure how long I stayed face-down on the floor, but it was long enough to induce a whole new set of aches and pains by the time I rolled over.
Finally I was able to stand. That coffee again… it was still there; the scent was much stronger now. The deliciously caffeinated aura filled my nostrils, guiding me forwards. I was nowhere near balanced, stumbling around like an intoxicated fool. I found myself slamming into pipes and walls and pieces of equipment I couldn’t identify. Everything was just an indistinct haze at this point - the coffee was the only thing I could focus on. My whole brain was preoccupied by the goal of reaching it; I wasn’t even paying attention to where I was. I followed my nose and limped through some sort of corridor until I could start to hear voices. Voices! That should have been cause for me to forget about my blind-sighted objective, but it wasn’t. I tripped through a doorway vaguely aware of four agape faces staring back at me. I took a few more steps in the general direction of the coffee until my legs gave way. I suppose I passed out a few moments later. Oh well, it was worth a shot.
“That’s why I thought he was dead!” was the first sentence I caught as I returned to consciousness.
“Thought who was dead?” I yawned, groggily. As I rubbed my eyes I got the impression that several people had quickly backed away from me, alarmed at my sudden awakening. I sure as hell hoped they hadn’t been trying to revive me through some form of close bodily contact.
“You, obviously!” came the first voice again. I turned my head towards the source, spending a few moments trying to determine if I knew who it was. I quickly realised that was too much effort, and focused on just examining features. Facing me was a slightly overweight man, probably in his early 30s, wearing a baggy shirt and jeans. He was leaning on a burgundy-coloured sofa at a slightly awkward angle. His ginger hair was long and looked pretty unkempt, curling off in random directions. He also had a silly looking goatee; still ginger, but with a mismatched hue compared to the rest of his hair. Instantly I could tell that he was in a bad mood.
“Well, no. I’m clearly not dead,” I said. The ginger man turned away, as if trying to think of some clever remark to bark back with.
“You stopped breathing,” came a woman’s voice. “Are you sure you feel alright?”
How my declaration of not being dead had somehow implied that I was feeling alright, I did not know. I turned to the woman planning to make some sarcastic remark, but her face seemed to show genuine concern, so instead I was honest.
“I’ve got a hell of a migraine. What’s going on?”
The ginger man did a fake-sounding chuckle, as if that was a naive question. The woman looked down, dark hair flowing across her face, which she brushed out of the way in slow-motion, giving herself time to think. She was pretty, I suppose, or perhaps the unkempt ginger man had been such an eyesore that I was ready to accept almost anyone else. The stripy, charity shop-esque jumper she was wearing wasn’t doing her any favours, that’s for sure.
“We don’t know what’s going on either, but we’ve been awake for a little longer than you have. We think…” she paused. “We think we’re on a spaceship.”
“What?” I gasped, suddenly taking in my surroundings. It didn’t look much like I’d expect a spaceship to look; there were a few pipes and odd metallic bits and pieces, but from what I could tell we were in an ordinary-ish 21st century living room. There was the sofa the ginger man was leaning on alongside a coffee table, a couple of empty bookshelves and a large monitor that I naively assumed was a TV.
“Are you pulling my leg?” I asked. “Is this some kind of practical joke? Because it’s not a very good one. You haven’t exactly gone to town on the set design...”
There was an awkward pause. I tried again.
“Seriously? Come on, I’m not that daft.”
“Well...” came a different woman’s voice. She was wearing glasses and a smart black dress. Arms folded, she had a sort of authoritative confidence I couldn’t see in the others. “This is just the common room. Probably supposed to look like Earth, to make us feel at home.”
“Yeah, feels real homely don’t it…” came the ginger man’s sarcastic tone.
“Okay, fine, how did I get here?” I asked, smirking in disbelief.
“You came in through that doorway and collapsed. Started muttering something about coffee…” replied the ginger man.
“I mean how did I end up on a bloody spaceship?” I asked, getting frustrated. I knew it wasn’t really a spaceship but I thought we’d get to the point quicker if I played along. Being reminded of that damn coffee didn’t help.
“Um…” came a new voice, which startled me because I’d forgotten there was another person in the room. I turned around to see an older, timid looking man, probably in his 60s, with greying hair and a tattered white shirt. He had a somewhat awkward demeanour. “There’s… c..cryo pods…” he mumbled, stammering slightly.
I followed the others through a slightly more convincingly spaceship-like corridor back to the room where I’d first woken up. The older man was right, this was a room filled with cryogenic pods. By which I mean, things that looked like cryogenic pods, but couldn’t possibly be cryogenic pods because that’s just stupid. Still, I couldn’t knock the authenticity of the design. Anyone who’s ever seen a science fiction film before would have understood what the cylinders were from just a quick glance. They were human-sized; enormous chambers with glass windows coated in a thick layer of condensation, connected to some sort of large vat reinforced with steel.
“But… this doesn’t explain anything.” I said, still going along with this prank. “Who put me in there? Why can’t I remember?”
“We’ve all got this amnesia,” said the confident girl. “It must be a side effect from being frozen for so long.”
“So long? What do you mean, so long?” I asked, ignoring what the words ‘cryogenically frozen’ implied. The confident girl pointed towards a small numerical dial on the top of one of the pods.
“25 years, every single one of them,” she said, bitterly. “We’ve been asleep for a quarter of a century.”
That was a funny old premise. Let’s think about this for a moment. 25 years. What would it mean to skip through such a long amount of time? All the important stuff I would have missed back home… What about my parents? What was the last thing I said to my wife? My kids? Would they even be alive? Wait a second, did I even have a wife? Hang on a minute. There’s something really wrong here… That’s when I realised.
“I don’t remember my family…” I whimpered. “I… I don’t remember my name.” It was true, and the fact that I had only just realised was petrifying. I was straining myself to remember these basic details but the only picture I could paint was blank. This prank was getting more and more sinister by the second. “What the hell did you guys do to me? Have I been drugged? Tell me what’s going on!” Before I knew it I had an arm round me. It was the dark haired girl.
“I’m sorry…”
“No, it doesn’t make any sense!” I yelled. It wasn’t like I’d had my memory completely wiped, because surely I’d have woken up having forgotten how to speak and spent all morning crying and rolling around on the floor like a newborn child. On second thoughts that wasn’t far from the truth, but that’s besides the point. I couldn’t remember who I was, or what I did for a living, yet somehow I knew in my heart that I’d lived a productive life. I must have done. The Beatles, Jackie Chan, Super Mario. Every now and then a pop culture reference would flicker annoyingly into my head, and hell, I recognised the smell of coffee, so clearly not everything had been wiped.
“Alright, that’s enough…” I said calmly. “The joke’s getting tired now, guys, this isn’t funny.”
“Now now, let’s not start thinking irrationally,” said the confident girl. “Nobody drugged you. It’s just a bit of cryogenic amnesia, we’ve all got it. Something must have gone wrong with the process. None of us can remember our families or our names at the moment…”
“And I’m supposed to believe that, am I?” I responded.
“Look, take all the time you need, but please just trust me. We’ll all on the same page here,” she replied.
“It’s true. I don’t know who I am, either,” the other girl said despondently. The tone of her voice was genuine.
If that was supposed to make me feel better, it wasn’t very effective. The ginger man sensed this, and decided to make the most of this opportunity to wind everyone up.
“My name’s Dom, I’ve got a wife and family in Texas. I’m 33 years old and I drive trucks for a living,” he stated, grinning idiotically. It was obviously complete bullshit, and not just because his accent was clearly British.
“You’re l… lying,” stammered the old man, eyes down at the floor.
“No shit of course I’m l...lying. I don’t r...remember anything either!” yelled the ginger man, his imitation of the old man’s stammer causing a ripple effect of disapproval amongst the others. “Not only that, I didn’t even remember which gender I was this morning until I looked down and was like, woah, dude, what’s that dangling between my legs? It’s huge! I mean we’re talking about morning wood 25 years in the making right here…”
Stunned silence.
“Oh come on!” he continued. “You don’t honestly believe this horse shit do you? 25 years, my arse. Look, guys, we can cry all we want, but whatever’s happened to us, someone’s obviously responsible. Let’s not jump to bullshit sci-fi conclusions.” Finally someone was starting to talk some sense.
“Ginger guy has a point…” I said. Ginger guy seemed to take offense.
“Really? Ginger guy? Wow, okay. We’re gonna resort to adjectives now? Male pattern baldness…”
I nervously started feeling around for my hairline.
“We can’t just sit around here for days waiting to remember who we bloody are,” he continued. “We’re gonna have to come up with actual names for ourselves.”
The confident girl started pacing up and down, trying to gauge the right moment to say something.
“I hate to say it…” she started. “But he’s right. We don’t know how long this amnesia will last. We have to find some way to identify each other.” The old man glanced up, finally, as if he was about to say something, but chose not to. The confident girl continued. “Feels like we’ve gotten off to a bad start. I think we should all have some time alone… Choose a name, and we’ll meet back later on to introduce ourselves, yeah?”
Nobody was in the mood to question her logic. We walked back through the corridor and stood in separate corners of the common room. There was a distinct lack of furniture to actually sit on other than the sofa that nobody seemed brave enough to try out. What followed was an increasingly tense hour or so of complete silence, during which everyone tried to avoid making eye contact with everyone else. Well, everyone except the ginger man, who took great pleasure in walking around being as deliberately distracting as possible without actually saying anything.
Eventually the tension was too much to bear so I chose a doorway at random and started walking. From what I gathered, the actual living space of this “spaceship” we were on was rather small indeed, consisting mainly of the central common room with multiple exits and a single corridor that wrapped around in a sort of horseshoe shape. There were doors to the ‘cryo room’, a couple of smaller, featureless rooms that I assumed were supposed to be bedrooms (minus the beds), a bathroom and a door that wouldn’t open, not that I was trying very hard to open it. Despite the ever-twisting pipes and railings in the corridor, nothing on this ‘spaceship’ looked very sophisticated to me. The doors were all on hinges and had physical handles, and not even the clean, modern sort. I’m talking tacky, half-rusted brass handles that were so stiff you could hardly turn them. Certainly not the sort of thing Captain Kirk ever had to put up with. There’s another reference for you. I’d have congratulated myself on the ability to recall another element of popular culture, but the thought of William Shatner being one of the only faces left in my memory was demoralising, so I let it pass.
Before long, I found myself in the bathroom, transfixed by my own reflection in the mirror. I felt a certain sense of recognition, but not a clear one. The ginger man was right, my hairline was receding. Well, that’s great, I thought, unsure whether I should laugh or cry. I went for the latter, because it seemed to be the normal reaction to being told you’ve been frozen for 25 years with no memories of your former life. No, that’s still stupid, I thought. I wasn’t ready to start believing that crazy story just yet.
Before long I found myself daydreaming, trying to invent my own past history in order to justify the ridiculous setting I found myself in. I started to figure that if everything the others were saying was true, as ridiculous as it may seem, maybe there was some logic behind it. Maybe we were all astronauts on some experimental mission to explore the deepest regions of space, and like the confident girl had surmised, something went wrong with the freezing process resulting in us losing our memories. No, that does sounds bonkers. Space astronauts? Cryogenic freezing? How could any of it be true? And further still, would I really commit to a career like that? I didn’t fancy myself as much of a spaceman. Maybe a banker or accountant or something really boring like that. But what did I know? I could have been a convicted criminal. Maybe this was some kind of mental asylum. I shuddered with the thoughts of things I could have done in my earlier life to deserve this.
I still had to choose a name. Jack? Sam? Paul? Mark? I glanced up at my pathetic tear stained face. Guess I was just your average…

“Joe? That’s the best you’ve got?” asked the ginger man, doing his best to make me resent my newly chosen identity.
“Uh… yeah, there a problem with that?” I responded.
“No, no… just… never mind.”
“Why did you stick with the name Dom?”
“It’s easy to remember.”
“Well there you go.”
The dark haired girl had chosen the name Emma, while the confident girl was extremely confident that her name was Chloe and ‘couldn’t possibly be anything else’ no matter how much Dom pushed her. That left the old man, whom when pressured for a name couldn’t come up with anything so Dom gave him the name Travis. Because it made him laugh.
So, there in the common room we stood, five complete would-be strangers with fake identities introducing ourselves like a group of students on freshers’ week, discussing fake details of our fake lives as if any of us had a clue what we were talking about. None of us stopped to question what we were doing, because there was something oddly cathartic about being able to make up details of our past lives without feeling any guilt about lying. Before the end of our conversation I had become an engineer, Emma a teacher, Chloe an investment banker and Travis (after much prodding by Dom) an artist. Dom had changed his mind about himself and instead gave us an elaborately constructed tale of how he was apparently the ‘top dog’ of a world renowned ‘pimping agency,’ owned a whole chain of strip clubs and was ‘banging thirty hoes’ a week, because ‘wouldn’t that be awesome?’ ‘Dom the Schlong,’ he called himself. Suffice to say he really enjoyed fleshing out that story, while Chloe and Emma were horrified.
On the whole though, I began to warm to the group. Part of this was undoubtedly tactical, as in: ‘I don’t know how long I’ll be stuck with these folks so I better bloody get on with them.’ Part of it must have been genuine, however. None of the people were grating on me yet, not even Dom, whose cocky arrogance had somehow swung so far into the realms of tastelessness that it had almost become charming.
I’d zoned out. Dom was still going on about his pimping business and Chloe and Emma were having a jokey argument with him around the morals of prostitution. I groaned.
“What is it, Joe?” Emma asked.
“What are we doing?” I sighed. “Let’s look at the facts. We’re stuck on a spaceship.”
“Supposedly,” interjected Dom.
“We don’t know why we’re stuck on a spaceship-”
“And instead of trying to find out why we’re stuck on a spaceship-”
“We’re sitting around talking about 12 inch dildos.”
“Human nature,” Dom shrugged. Yeah, human nature, or had we already lost our marbles?
“How come…” I began, trying to come up with an observation as I spoke, “…we’re all wearing casual clothes? I mean shouldn’t we all be wearing space suits or something? If we’re really in space…”
“That’s right,” said Travis, who hadn’t said much throughout the whole conversation. “It’s kind of… o… odd, isn’t it?”
“Well we woke up in them, so who knows,” replied Emma. “Obviously doesn’t do any harm to the cryo pods.”
“That’s weird,” Chloe pondered. “Must be a new type of cryogenic-”
“Chloe, do you know something we don’t?” Dom snapped. “Because the last time I checked, cryogenic pods in space were the stuff of bleeding sci-fi!”
“When was the last time you checked?”
“It’s a figure of speech!”
“Well for your information, Dom the self-proclaimed pimp…”
“Dom the Schlong.” Dom corrected her.
“Right, Dom the Schlong, I think you’ll find they’ve been doing cryogenic freezing tests for years in labs and such,” Chloe paused. “I think.”
“Yeah but not in space,” Dom retorted. “God knows what year it is now, but I remember the turn of the millennium like it was yesterday. We’re from the early twenty-first century! This shit doesn’t exist!”
That nobody piped up after this comment implied that we were all indeed from the same time period, which as Dom stated, must have been some time in the early twenty first century. Maybe. Putting aside the amnesia for one moment, it was almost impossible to recall definitive dates after half an hour of irreverent strip club discussion.
“So let’s see here,” I began. “We’ve woken up with no memories wearing non-futuristic clothes and we’re in a non-futuristic looking room with a sofa and goddamn doors with brass handles. And that means we’re in space. Why?”
“Have you looked out the window yet, Joe?” Chloe said, as if I was being stupid.
“No,” I replied, dumbfounded. “What window?”
I followed Chloe’s eyes over to the large rectangular black object I had previously assumed was a TV. As I got closer, my jaw hung wide as it suddenly dawned on me that I’d missed something obvious. There were no stars - maybe one or two max, but somehow my brain knew instantly that I was looking out into deep space. The same way that when you look up at the night sky, even when there’s nothing visible, you get a sense of scale, of openness. Standing here, looking horizontally out at the great black nothingness I got a sense of vertigo. I suppose it’s a natural feeling. You’re used to seeing space as this thing above your head, not in front of it.
“Wow,” was the only thing I could say. I glanced towards the edges of the window and could just make out some of the exterior of the ship, a textured grey that appeared to extend outwards at perfectly straight angles. I got the impression that the ship was shaped like a box. A big grey box drifting alone in a much bigger black ocean. The exterior was casting some kind of light somehow; there certainly wasn’t a nearby sun shining our way. I wasn’t going to even begin to contemplate where all the power was coming from.
“Do you believe me now?” Chloe asked, wearing her best ‘I told you so’ face.
“Yeah, I think so,” I said, wanting to just keep staring out into the vast emptiness.
“Seriously?” Dom huffed. “You think they can build a spaceship with goddamn cryogenic freezing pods, but they can’t build, say, a 3D TV monitor with a bit of snappy head tracking? You know, like the stuff that already exists…”
“You seriously think someone would go out of their way to fake this?” Emma asked, joining in with the debate.
“It’s a lot more believable than some of the shit you guys are coming up with! Jesus, I thought you’d have gotten the hint after my pimping story. Everything here is bullshit. Someone’s playing us.”
“Playing us?”
“Yes, Emma, playing us. I’m telling you, we’re being watched.” Dom started shifting his eyes around the room suspiciously. “You guys want to know my theory?”
Nobody said anything, but we let him continue.
“I think we’re on some kind of crazy reality TV show. Japanese, I’ll bet. They probably gave us some pills to make us forget everything, then they put us in those tacky pods and started rolling the cameras.” Dom started imitating a reality show announcer voice. “Five contestants wake up with no memories. They think they’re on a spaceship. Which one of them will lose their mind first? Find out on next week’s episode of Numpties in Space!”
Dom was really getting into his mad little piece of role play, as he started humming a silly made up theme tune and running around like a five year old impersonating an astronaut. The rest of us shook our heads.
“Dom, would you cut it out?” Chloe asked.
“Why should I? This is the stuff that brings in the ratings,” Dom smiled, “They’ll be lapping this up, the public. Ginger twat goes crazy and rumbles reality show on day one! Think of the headlines,” he started laughing maniacally. “BIG BROTHER! I’M A GINGER TWAT GET ME OUT OF HERE!”
Again, more pop culture references I didn’t particularly want to recall at this moment in time.
“THERE YOU GO! I’VE RUMBLED YOU! YOU CAN KICK ME OUT NOW! SHOW’S OVER!” Dom continued yelling with glee. Chloe and Emma both covered their ears.
“Must be a way out, it’s only a TV set after all…” Dom continued. He tapped on one of the walls. “Let’s see how well they built it.” Dom started banging on the wall, lightly at first, but gradually harder and harder until he was punching with all his strength.
“Dom, please stop punching the wall…” Chloe sighed.
“Right, okay, guess they did a pretty good job. YOU HEAR THAT, MR. PRODUCER? YOU BUILT A DAMN GOOD SET!” Dom stopped pounding on the wall and began nursing his hand. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d busted a few bones.
“Oh, look. There’s blood on the wall now…” Chloe said, very nonchalantly. This apparent physical injury didn’t look like it had fazed Dom much though. He was pacing around manically, combing the room for some kind of escape route. I glanced over to the spot on the wall Dom had been punching. Other than the small patch of blood, there wasn’t a mark in sight. Whatever these walls were made of, it would take something a lot stronger than Dom’s fist to make a dent in them.
For a short moment, we thought Dom had calmed down. Chloe and Emma sat down on the sofa, Travis resumed his default state of ‘looking at the floor,’ and I continued to gaze thoughtfully out of the window. Before long, however, it was clear Dom had other plans. He slowly turned his eyes in my direction, stared at the window and smiled triumphantly. Then he walked over to the coffee table and tried to pick it up. It wouldn’t budge.
“Huh… Seems to be fused to the floor. Okay then, I’ll have to use something else…” Dom looked up at Chloe and Emma. “Excuse me ladies,” he said calmly. It was clear that he wasn’t asking to sit down, as there was plenty of room. Instantly I clocked on to what he was planning to do.
“No… you can’t,” I warned.
“Shut up Joe! Ladies, would you mind?” He was gesturing for them to stand up. Emma moved right away, but Chloe remained seated.
“Chloe just stand up for one sec.”
“Chloe, please.”
By this point Dom was practically wrestling Chloe out of the sofa. Travis suddenly stepped into action.
“Stop it Dom! Let her s…sit!”
“I’m getting us out of here, Travis, if you people would… just… co-operate!” Dom finally managed to force Chloe out of her seat. She looked back at him, eyes filled with fury. Dom clearly didn’t care, as he was too busy trying to pick the sofa up.
“Dom, what the hell are you doing?” Emma asked, agitated.
“Getting… hnnnghh!!... out!” The huge sofa was clearly much heavier than Dom had predicted, but before long he had started to lift it. The floor underneath was surprisingly spotless.
“Dom! Oh my god!” Emma yelled, then placed her hands over her mouth in shock. Dom half-dragged the sofa over towards the window, and I rushed to the other end trying to push it back.
“Joe, would you please let me do this!” Dom shouted.
“If you smash that window, we’ll all die!” I yelled. “We’ll be sucked into the vacuum of space!”
“We’re not in fucking space!”
I looked to the others for help, but Emma was crying, Chloe was in a sort of hate-fuelled trance and Travis was cowering in the corner. Dom’s strength was unfortunately much greater than mine and I fell to the ground, hitting my head on the coffee table.
“It’s the only way!” Dom screamed, as he lifted the sofa as high as he could, and launched it towards the window with all his might.
In the few milliseconds before the impact, I somehow had enough time to mentally contemplate several potential scenarios. One, that the window would be strong enough to withstand a direct collision, the sofa rebounding and landing squarely on Dom, perhaps killing him or at least incapacitating him to the point where he would never try something so stupid again. Two, that the sofa would go flying straight through the window, thus creating a hole into space, immediately sucking all of us out with the pressure and killing us all. Three, that Dom was actually right, the window really was a fake all along and that after smashing through it we’d be greeted by a TV production crew wearing headphones, sitting around with video monitors and clipboards. I found myself greatly preferring scenario number one. Even though three would technically put an end to this nightmare, in the end of the day I just couldn’t stand to see Dom victorious.
Actually, all three of these scenarios were wrong. As the sofa collided with the window it smashed straight through, but before the vacuum of space began to take its toll, a blue flash of light appeared where the window once was and the glass magically repaired itself. No broken glass on the floor, no damage anywhere at all. The sofa, however, carried on its trajectory, very slowly rotating its way out into space. All five of us watched silently as it gradually span into the distance, slipping further and further away. We continued to watch it glide out of reach for what must have been several minutes. Finally, Chloe voiced what we were all thinking.
“Now we’ve got nowhere to sit, asshole!”

Continued in Chapter 3...