About toconnell88

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Poem: A Stroll in Strange Times

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Predawn,

the gentle hour.

A walk in stillness

through misted streets,

breath frozen on the air.

 

Funnelled by streetlight

down shadowed alleys,

under rustling canopies,

a full thermos

and a clear mind.

 

Descend wooden steps,

alive with fear;

a stream

trickles

from somewhere in the darkness.

 

The inevitability of daybreak.

Dappled light

hits the path.

Navigate puddles and snaking trails,

a fox watching from afar.

 

Emerge at a clearing,

a sumptuous vista.

The sunlight,

a kiss of vitality

on an icy morn.

 

Noticing small things:

the timbre of distant barking,

seasons evidenced in

leaves crunching underfoot,

industry peeking through a forested skyline.

 

Joggers abound,

new routines birthed by circumstance.

Weimaraners and collies

frolic in soggy fields;

their owners, together but apart.

When Life Denies You Lemons

Following my fruit-related inspiration.

 

I’ve had the distinct displeasure of moving house five times in the last ten years. When I moved into my current place I was most excited about finally having a backyard (in Melbourne, that’s how you know you’ve made it). I fantasised about all the things I’d plant, the barbecues I’d host and the afternoons I’d wile away reading in the sun. (In reality, my lawn is eternally overgrown and I’ve killed more plants than I care to admit, but that’s beside the point…)

I was particularly taken with the lemon tree in the corner of my new yard. It was wild, unkempt and towered over everything, a burst of life against drab bricks. It also held the unspoken promise of unlimited lemon wedges for my summertime Coronas. You’ve got to think big, y’know?

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Though the tree bore no fruit, I figured it might with the next change of season. But one day, while forcing my Amish-style push mower through the tangle of weeds that constitutes my lawn, I made an unwelcome discovery. The tree, it turned out, was very unhealthy: its branches swollen and full of unsightly callouses. It had been commandeered by no-good pirates wasps, the assholes of the insect family. This was upsetting. I didn’t want this amazing tree suffering in silence.

Following some internet research and a quick consultation with my parents, I determined that gall wasps were the culprit. These Australian natives implant their eggs into the stems of citrus trees. Over time, the branches grow bulbous in response to the feeding larvae. (They’re effectively Xenomorphs from Alien. Where’s the nearest blowtorch?) The mature wasps make their French exit, leaving the tree irreversibly damaged and unable to bear fruit. What a shitty fate.

The best thing for the tree – and its only shot at producing fruit again – is to cut away the infected stems and start over. So, with that in mind, I bought a hacksaw and file and got to work. This was a big job, made bearable only by the pleasant citrus aroma. It was physically hard work; the tree was covered in ants (as was I, by extension); I had to contort myself into some uncomfortable positions to reach particular branches; and I’m also low-key terrified of bees and wasps, so being right up in their business was not ideal. Furthermore, the tree itself was covered in razor-sharp spikes. You better believe I cut and impaled myself on those bad boys multiple times. All for the cause.

When all was said and done the tree stood stark and skeletal, a naked amputee. It dawned on me that I hadn’t thought to obtain the real estate’s permission before mutilating a tree that technically didn’t belong to me. With no guarantee it would grow back, I started worrying I’d made the wrong call. To ensure its best chance at survival, I bought a special citrus fertiliser and watered it religiously.

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Well, hope springs eternal as new growth eventually appeared. It was really gratifying to see the young buds unfurl and take shape (I see the appeal now, gardeners!). Over time, the tree grew back healthier and more vibrant than before. My property manager was sceptical at first but praised my initiative before long. I think she was just glad she didn’t have to lift a finger.

And what of my Corona Dream (not to be confused with the current “Corona” Nightmare)? For awhile, I resigned to the possibility the tree might never bear fruit again. However, I’m pleased to report that earlier this year, roughly eighteen months after I first brutalised him for love, Señor Citrus delivered his first lemon! The possums got to it first, of course, but I’m confident more will follow. I’ll take any victory I can get.

When life gives you lemons

Poem: I Haven’t Been Home in Awhile

snowfall

 

I haven’t been home in awhile.

The walls are painted black and

the dog doesn’t recognise me.

The creaking floorboards portend disaster.

Did they always?

 

I fumble in darkness

through rooms once mapped to mind,

recalling our last embrace:

self-conscious and

cobwebbed in bitterness.

 

Snow is falling,

the warmth a passing

memory, but the mark on the stove remains

from the time I tried (and failed)

to ignite your world.

 

Spiders crawl the walls.

A fly in limbo, I am

battered by circumstance,

a breath trapped in the breast,

flung from haloed innocence.

 

A feeling:

the house doesn’t want me here,

but it’s where I belong.

Maybe I’ll stay awhile.

Maybe I’m already gone.

Games I Finished in 2019 – Part Two

Click here to read Part One.

July

Rivals of Aether

Rivals of Aether

I remember this episode of Street Sharks!

Growing up, I loved Super Smash Bros. Melee on the GameCube and always missed the series after migrating to Xbox (though Brawl and Smash 4 are pretty mediocre in my opinion; haven’t played Ultimate). I gave the free-to-play Brawlhalla a shot, but it didn’t gel with me. Rivals of Aether, however, is exactly my jam.

It’s ostensibly an indie version of Smash Bros. with pixel art and some wild original characters that feel like they were plucked from some Nineties Saturday morning cartoon. While not as feature rich as the series it imitates, Rivals is far better than you might think. The characters’ movesets a lot more complex and interesting than what’s offered in Smash. Some Rivals characters are insanely technical and mastering their mechanics is truly rewarding.

The controls are highly responsive, though the high skill ceiling makes it less accessible than Nintendo’s brawler. It seems to be aimed more at the esports crowd than casual audiences. That said, I still had a lot of casual fun with it. I just wish the Xbox version had a bigger online community.

Continue reading

Games I Finished in 2019 – Part One

It’s time for my annual-until-I-get-sick-of-doing-it retrospective on the games I completed in the previous year. This time it’s in two parts because I like to waffle.

January

Far Cry 3

Far Cry 3

Ah, the outside world. From the Before Times.

I’ve been curious about Far Cry 3 since playing through the fourth entry years ago on my brother’s recommendation. The tropical setting looked like a great place to spend 30 hours and I’d heard positive things about the charismatic villain, Vaas.

Far Cry 3 was a genuinely great time. The gameplay was super engaging, even coming at it some seven years after release. It’s basically a big, dumb action movie set in an inviting locale with hilarious physics and a fun array of vehicles and weapons to play with.

To my surprise, the story really grabbed me. In the beginning, protagonist Jason Brody is an entitled frat boy looking to partake in some consequence-free debauchery with his douchey friends (no doubt a commentary on how westerners treat South-East Asia like their personal playground). However, he soon discovers this lawless island has been seized by pirates and a drug-peddling militia. The pirate leader, Vaas, kidnaps his friends with the intent to extort ransom money. Jason narrowly escapes, aided by suspicious natives, and begins the insurmountable task of rescuing his friends.

Initially, Jason is driven to kill out of necessity, as it’s the only way for him to achieve his goal. However, he comes to realises he is naturally gifted at it and, over time, even develops a taste for it. When the gang eventually reunites, Jason’s friends are horrified by his disturbing new behaviour and attitude.

It’s not an especially deep story, but I loved Jason’s gradual descent into savagery. It’s a modern-day Heart of Darkness and I appreciated that the violence had thematic context. Like Vaas before him, Jason slowly surrenders his soul to the island. His transformation from selfish fratboy to ruthless killer suggests we all have an innate savagery waiting to be drawn out by the right circumstances. Pretty chilling stuff.

 

Star Wars Battlefront II

SW Battlefront 2

“Rad Leader standing by.”

Even after all the controversy I was determined to go into this blind and give it a fair shake. I genuinely think EA and Activision are a cancer on the industry with their cookie-cutter game design and egregious monetisation tactics. Star Wars Battlefront II looked to exemplify these flaws with early reports suggesting it would take a whopping 40 hours of grinding to unlock iconic Star Wars characters like Darth Vader. The idea here was to incentivise players to circumvent the grind (which the developers themselves had created) by encouraging them to buy in-game credits with real-world currency. Gross!

However, following an unprecedented internet shitstorm, ‘Good Guy’ EA rolled back this absurd monetisation model to ensure no facet of the game was ‘Pay to Win’. Two years later, the game has seen a lot of dev support and has virtually turned its abysmal reputation around.

So what did I make of it? Well, it’s beautiful to look at and authentically captures the spirit of Star Wars. Seriously, the production values are super-duper impressive and would’ve made my head explode if I’d played this as a kid. Instead of building off the previous generation of Star Wars Battlefront games, this one is basically a casualified sci-fi reskin of DICE’s other large-scale shooter property, Battlefield. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that.

The biggest and most-touted new addition here was the single-player campaign. This tells the supposedly canon story of a group of Empire remnants trying to rebuild following their defeat at the end of Return of the Jedi. You play as hardened Imperial commander Iden Versio and some forgettable supporting characters. Playing as the villains was an interesting twist. I enjoyed learning about Imperial culture and was particularly interested to find there is honour in their ranks. Most Imperial troops believe they are doing something noble by stamping out rebels. They genuinely believe the Empire’s reign stabilises the galaxy and brings prosperity (a similar idea was presented in The Mandalorian). It was refreshing to see they weren’t all blind megalomaniacs.

Unfortunately, our protagonists quickly learn the error of their ways when the militant new Imperial leader starts destroying loyal systems to strike fear and reinforce the Empire’s might. Iden and co. have their predictable “Wait! We were the bad guys all along!” moment of realisation and the story devolves into the usual heroism fluff. I would have preferred if the game had shown the rise of the First Order (y’know, since Episode VII couldn’t be bothered doing that). As it is, this story is fairly inconsequential.

Gameplay wise, this campaign is fucking dull as dishwater. It’s just a string of pretty-but-lifeless gallery shootouts against thoroughly brain-dead enemies. There are a few scripted set pieces that exist solely to teach you about characters’ abilities. The whole campaign is an overlong tutorial. It’s the embodiment of beige with some nice window-dressing.

The multiplayer suite is a lot better. There’s small-scale deathmatches, large-scale wars with dynamic objectives, space battles and the fan servicey Heroes vs Villains mode, where you can mess around as your favourite Star Wars badass. I find all this moderately entertaining, if a bit simple. I’d rather play Halo, which has better maps, a much more interesting weapon sandbox and a more satisfying gameplay loop, but Battlefront 2 is fun if you want to switch off most of your faculties. The gunplay feels incredibly imprecise and never really gelled for me. Same with the movement and general physics. With such large-scale battles it sometimes feels like your individual contributions don’t matter, but at least this reduces the pressure to perform well (that’s what she said!).

My least favourite thing about this game is the Star Card system. Clearly, this system was engineered to encourage real-world spending until the devs hastily rejigged it. Every character you play as, from infantry to Jedis, must be levelled up to unlock buffs and abilities. The grind to do this is painstakingly slow, but you gotta do it if you expect to get anywhere in matches. In the beginning, you’re frail and have few tactical options. This means a player who’s played the game longer and unlocked better Star Cards will curb stomp newer players, even if those newer players outplay them in raw combat. There’s just no way to compete when the enemy has double the health and outputs more damage. I hate this system as it effectively creates an artificial skillgap, with new players assuming the role of lambs to the slaughter.

I feel like I’ve already wasted too many words on this game. It generally induces apathy in me. I can’t wait until EA’s exclusivity deal with Disney ends. I can’t think of two worse companies to oversee Star Wars

Continue reading

Poem: ‘The Balustrade’

The world goes into stasis,

a riposte

to an unassailable loss.

 

A panicked populace grapples

with a future that lays

beneath a foreboding sky.

 

The streets are quiet.

The national flag

flutters defiantly in the breeze.

 

My brain is

a city that never sleeps

and all my friends are words,

this week.

 

I tend to the cabbages in my head

as day again becomes night,

and wait against the balustrade,

a pigeon poised for flight.

Just Give Me Moments: A Retrospective on Bloc Party

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Bloc Party’s music has soundtracked most of my adult life. At eighteen, my pre-clubbing ritual entailed a few drinks and a listen to Silent Alarm. At nineteen, I left home right as Bloc Party dropped A Weekend in the City, a concept album about city life. Intimacy was a candid deconstruction of an intense relationship, which I’ve had my share of, and the band’s latest release Hymns fittingly explores growing older and the search for inner peace.

They’ve all been relevant to me, but Weekend felt especially vital. That album captured the exotic wonder of city life and tackled some of the more alienating aspects of modern culture. At the time, it felt like the lyrics were personally addressing me. ‘Song for Clay’ is an anthem for a disaffected youth. The narrator of ‘The Prayer’ yearns for confidence and acceptance. ‘Uniform’ critiques conformity and the commodification of youth culture. ‘On’ examines the futility of escaping with substances. ‘Sunday’ captures the sense of renewal in a hungover morning. ‘Kreuzberg’ is a yearning for personal connection and highlights the dangers of conflating sex with true intimacy, while ‘SRXT’ explores the depths of a devastating depression (“A battle that lasts a lifetime, a fight that never ends”).

There’s plenty of catharsis in Bloc Party’s catalogue. In fact, this band has tunes to cover the entire emotional spectrum. It’s why I’ve amassed every recording, know virtually every lyric, and have been to four of their shows. I love and respect how sonically adventurous they are, how they reinvent themselves with each album (even though their most vocal fans would prefer they stayed in a box).

So, since I like to doggedly avoid cohesion or consistency with my blog content, I wanted to post my analysis of a few Bloc Party songs. These aren’t necessarily my definitive favourites, but they’re songs that mean a lot to me for one reason or another.

Let’s get lost in a forest.

Continue reading

Poem: ‘Inertia’

Raindrops on a window pane at night

Photo by Alex_L on DepositPhotos.

Flowers wilt and

bloom again,

a child gestates

inside my friend.

But this sickness is the furniture.

 

From cosmic rivers

sunlight pours,

a lost cause.

This grief is

big for her age.

 

Ponder footprints

through a periscope,

a misplaced hope;

numbed

in the amber of now.

 

Every eye contact

an alternate reality,

a terrifying fantasy.

I dither about on a

comet hurtling towards devastation.

 

An infinite labyrinth

choked

with one-way exits.

Every choice

murders another.

 

Malaise, white hot,

in sets the rot;

these apathetic canyons

buffeted

by a raging nothing.

 

She is an anchor,

a lighthouse,

a tether to this world.

Yet at every crossroad

I take defeat lying down.

 

An ageing wastrel,

grown misshapen,

wading in the quagmire.

Thirty years peering

into the great maw.

Games I Finished in 2018

Gaming is one of my big passions, alongside writing, music and fitness. To reflect that, I thought I’d share my impressions of the games I completed in 2018.

 Gears of War 2

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Scratch one grub!

I’m a long-term Halo fanatic but have never made time for Xbox’s other flagship shooter series, Gears of War. In fact, my introduction to the series (which began in 2006) wasn’t until 2015 when I played the first game’s excellent remaster, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition. Gears: Ultimate had some cool ideas and memorable moments, but I wasn’t blown away. I thought the remastered graphics were incredible and that the cover-based shooting mechanics were solid (if a little stiff), but I really didn’t care about its generic action movie narrative. The saving grace, however, was the surprisingly nuanced relationships between the characters. These four neckless dudebros spent most of the game assaulting you with one-liners, but they also genuinely care for each other. Their brotherhood and affinity for shit-talking was endearing. I didn’t expect to warm to them the way I did.

In many ways Gears 2 is a typical action sequel. It iterates on everything that made the first entry enjoyable and generally offers more – more action, weapons, variety, and more bombastic set pieces. Surprisingly, the story was more affecting story this time around. There are a few surprise deaths and a real exploration of how these characters feel, and what they – and humanity at large – are fighting for. The set pieces are thrilling and varied, and the entire campaign is paced perfectly. You’re constantly thrown into new and exciting locations and combat scenarios. Something new lies around every corner and there’s no time for any of it to grow stale.

I thought the first Gears of War was just okay. But after blasting through its exhilarating sequel I’m can now see what all the fuss is about. A thoroughly enjoyable experience.

 

Oxenfree

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I really expected to like Oxenfree. It’s frequently compared to Dontnod’s 2015 title Life is Strange, a game that improved upon Telltale’s adventure game template by adding a memorable time travel mechanic. The similarities between Oxenfree and Life is Strange are obvious: they both star adolescent protagonists, feature time travel and offer branching dialogue options. But where Life is Strange felt sincere and intimate, Oxenfree feels strangely impersonal. Its dialogue was quippy and trite. Exploring was less enjoyable; I didn’t really care about the characters; and the mystery, which initially showed promise, devolved into an overwrought mess in the vein of Lost.

A bit of a disappointment. Maybe my preconceptions worked against me here.


Super Lucky’s Tale

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Want rad puns? This game’s got you, fam.

 

Super Lucky’s Tale is one of my personal gaming highlights of 2018. It’s a wholesome throwback to the colourful 3D platformers of the Nineties. It’s got it all: cute characters, fun dialogue and a banging OST. The controls are super responsive, the level design was solid and the DLC ramps up the difficulty to cap things off nicely.

This game exuded charm and was a much-needed palette cleanser after playing so many shooters. I even nabbed all the achievements for it, which took a bit of work.

 

Borderlands 2

borderlands2

Sigh.

Where to begin? I’m a huge fan of the original Borderlands (in my eyes it’s the definitive co-op experience, next to Left 4 Dead), so naturally expected a lot from its sequel. This game is regarded as one of the best games of last generation, but I found it a very mixed bag. Continue reading

Vignette: ‘Fist Bump for Germany’

A sentimental vignette that I wrote in 2014.


 

Fist Bump for Germany

 

‘I won’t tell you again,’ snaps Mr Kipfer. ‘Leave your dressing alone.

‘But girls like scars,’ says Wilhem, caressing his chin. ‘Hope I get some. Scars, I mean.’

They turn the corner in silence. The corridor outside the headmistress’s office is lined with plastic chairs. One of them is occupied.

The boys exchange a look. Max gapes at Wilhem’s butterfly-bandaged chin; Wilhem notes the nasty cut on Max’s lip.

‘Wait here,’ says Mr Kipfer. ‘Ms Nadia will call you in soon. Don’t kill each other.’ He raises a finger to punctuate his point then walks away.

When Kipfer is at a safe distance, Max finds his courage. ‘Don’t kill each other,’ he parrots.

A tiny laugh escapes Wilhem. He forces a frown.

Max grounds his chewing gum into a flat bar and tests its resistance against his tongue. ‘I told the nurse you started it.’

Wilhem turns his head. ‘What?’

‘She asked who started it. I think she just likes knowing everyone’s business.’

Wilhem smirks. ‘Probably they all say the other kid started it.’

Max laughs. ‘Yeah, probably.’

A comfortable silence follows. But Wilhem can’t enjoy it – it’s still bugging him.

‘Why’d you hit me?’

Max chews faster. His mouth makes wet, smacking sounds. ‘I don’t know. Cause you’re…’ He drops his gaze to the floor. ‘Cause you’re a Nazi, I guess.’

‘I’m not a Nazi,’ says Wilhem, his voice level.

‘Yeah, you are.’ Max’s words soar out with no regard for the reluctance of their speaker. ‘My pa says all Nazis are scum.’

Wilhem laughs. ‘Do you even know what a Nazi is?’

‘Yeah!’ Max declares. ‘Course I do!’ But his cheeks are hot and his voice has betrayed him. He mashes his wad of gum into the underside of the chair.

‘I’m from Germany,’ Wilhem explains, ‘but I’m not a Nazi. They’re different.’

Max shrugs, looks defiantly to the ceiling. After a moment of silence, he roots around in his pocket and pulls out a crushed carton of cigarettes. He presents it to Wilhem. ‘Want one? I swiped them from my mum.’

Wilhem looks at the door to Ms Nadia’s office. Then he looks down at Max’s hands, studying the distinct gold Benson & Hedges foil. He reaches for a cigarette.

They hear movement from behind the door.

Max thrusts the carton back into his pocket. The boys sit up straight and focus ahead.

Ms Nadia emerges from her office. She looks the two boys over. Her mouth sags with permanent disapproval.

‘Right,’ she says, gesturing to Max. ‘We’ll start with you.’

Max climbs to his feet and looks dejectedly ahead, as if bound for the gallows. On approach to the office, he discretely holds out a clenched fist and presents it to Wilhem.

Wilhem stares in confusion. Then the corners of his mouth curl into a smile. He raises his fist and returns the gesture.