Monday, 20 June 2016

London Second City Improv Class: My Review

The rather wonderful Angel Comedy Club in London, and the comedy blog, Comedy Blogedy, reached out to the legendary Second City improv troupe/training school and set up two week's worth of classes in May 2016. I attended the first week's "Improv for Beginners (Level A)" and kept a diary of my thoughts after each day.

Here they are:

Day One

The class began with two simple tasks. The first was introducing yourself by telling the class something they didn't know about you, and the second was inventing a silly alliterative action to go along with your name.

I was so petrified that I was unable to even think of something beginning with the letter "J"... I ending up with "jingling", and I still don't really know what I meant.

Jumping, jolly, jovial, jammy, jaded, jokey, jittery... Hmm. It's much easier when there's not the pressure of 20 strangers in the room.

As the games continued, our excellent teacher slowly chipped away at everyone's hesitance and self-consciousness, encouraging us to trust our instincts. The cardinal rule being that there was never a "wrong answer", there was only ever something you brought to the game.

We were admonished for acting like we'd made a mistake and beating ourselves up, or reacting to our scene partner's input as if it was wrong. We were encouraged to allow ourselves to do what we liked, and take any suggestions that came our way as a gift. We were a team, and our job was to enthusiastically embrace whatever came our way, and make our partner look good.

Our teacher successfully managed to create a safe environment. By the end of the class we'd all loosened up and were having fun with each other.

I've already learned a lot about myself and what I need to improve. For example, during the "create a story a word at a time" game, I noticed I was always playing it safe with pronouns  - and even my game partner commented on it. He was absolutely right. When I decided to offer something more interesting, it got a huge laugh from the group.

Likewise, [in another game] when we were mimicking each other's moves, I found it hard to build on what people had just done, and take it to new heights [like we were supposed to]. It nearly always ended up with attempting to do it louder, which was a shame because there were so many ways it could have gone. I could have really had fun with it, and it never would have been wrong.

Let's see what day two holds!

Day Two

Today we actually slipped into some scene work without too much fuss. It wasn't blown up into something big, it was just expected of us... and we did it. Even me.

It was scary but good. I even got a few genuine laughs of my own... a very generous audience.

Halfway through the day I actually felt, for the first time, comfortable. I just relaxed and stopped worrying so much. It's tiring bring worried, and part of me just gave up and let go. It was a good feeling.

[Of course, I was still a tad anxious the next morning going in.]

I learned a bit more about Angel Comedy and I'm seriously impressed with their founder (Barry Fern) and what they've achieved. It seems like a home for comedy without ego, driven by the pure fun of it. It feels so genuine that the energy is infectious.

I backed their Kickstarter (something in the bar will permanently have a plaque named for me) and hope they do well. Maybe I could volunteer my services to improve their website. Dull, but it's something I can offer and do well.

Onto Day Three...

Day Three

Today was the most emotional day so far, which was fitting as we were focusing on doing emotional work in class. Today marked the point we were over halfway through, as well as the first time we socialised after class as a group.

I discovered my class is filled with interesting and ambitious people. (Where were they all when I was single and unemployed and desperately lonely, looking for direction?) Being with them is very inspiring, in the sense that they make their achievements (eg. performing stand-up, and all the struggles that go with that) seem... everyday.

Talking about doing a stand-up gig around these people doesn't feel like a life-breaking, brain-shattering, earth-shaking experience. It feels like a difficult, trying, anxiety-inducing... but normal experience.

In class I learned that people enjoy seeing a thread of behaviour grow to its logical, heightened conclusion. A small taste of behaviour before moving on to something else is unsatisfying for the audience. They want a narrative to follow, and changing tack breaks that narrative.

The key seems to be to make an interesting choice and stick to it until you've drained it.

The saddest part of the day was realising how genuinely upset I'm going to be when the course ends.

Only two days to go...

Day Four

The worst thing about today is knowing that tomorrow is the last day. It's been a hell of a roller-coaster, and I'm going to miss it when it's gone. I've learned so much.

The most important thing [I've learned] is trusting in myself and trusting in the process. Throwing yourself into a situation is OK. In fact it's better than OK, it works. You don't need a plan. You can purely rely on your brain's instincts to give you what you need. The only thing that stops that process is your fear.

And what's more, it's FUN to discover where you end up. You're discovering at the same time as everyone else, and it's enjoyable.

After tonight's show I went to a gig with a classmate where our teacher, Erica Elam, was performing. I felt self conscious for her, worried that she would be put off by our presence, but I needn't have.

Everything we've learned from the course was on full display, and then some. She's was fearless and present, and the comedy flowed naturally.

This course has been a life-changing experience.  From the people I've met, to the things I've learned. I feel personally changed for the better, and I hope beyond hope that I can continue to practice [improv].

Last Day

The last day was extremely emotional. After a physically and mentally exhausting five days, I feel a bit lost. Tomorrow I won't be pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I have no big scary thing to face... and I miss it already.

I can't think of anything that's pushed me quite as hard, or excited me quite as much. We've finished [Second City Improv] Level A, but there's no Level B waiting for us [like there is in the US]. We're on our own now... and that "we" has no leader, only the vaguest collective idea of how to move forward, and we will ultimately, inevitably dwindle.

It's a sad moment.

On the flip side I've learned a lot about what I'm capable of. I've got a solid foundation in the basics of improv, and I've achieved my goal: I'm more in touch with my instincts than ever before. Right now I trust in my ability to take a situation and find something funny it. I know my brain will fill in the gaps and make the connection, all I have to do is listen [and practise!].

The most difficult part of improv is learning to trust in your instincts. It's a personal battle for every new improviser, and I'm sure it's ongoing [even when you've mastered it]. As our teacher put it, it's a struggle against our societal conditioning. Kids are great at improvising, but as we get older we're taught to restrain ourselves, and improv is sort of fighting back against that pressure, getting in touch with our most creative part... without fear.

This week has been a major step toward that [for me].

Everything seems a little brighter today. Building seem bigger, colours seem more vibrant.

Now is a sad moment, but I'm happy that I was brave enough to give it to myself.

The Morning After

After spending the last five days feeling like I was being shot out of a canon (at ever increasing speeds), and last night's resulting free-fall once class was over, this morning was a painful crash-landing back into reality. But I've dusted myself off and what I'm noticing is that I'm different. The most obvious thing is that I'm less self-critical. I feel like I should be able to create more easily now, and with less self-awareness. This was my main goal when I decided to take the course, and I'm more than a little amazed that it's what I feel I'm taking away from the experience.

There's still a long way to go, but I'm definitely on the right path. I just have to keep walking down it, and not get waylaid.

Pushing myself out of my comfort zone for that week was immensely rewarding, and something I highly recommend. For those interested, here's how I felt I'd changed after one week with Second City:
  • I noticed my default reaction to everyday frustrations was altered. Instead of getting irritated and annoyed by little things that didn't go exactly how I expected/wished them to, I found myself reacting as you would in an improv scene: Accepting them as a gift and focusing on my reaction instead. (A much more desirable and productive response!)
  • I found myself less in my head, and more paying attention to what was going on around me - again as you would in an improv scene when you're listening.
As for improv itself, I now can see what the pros are doing more whenever I watch it. They really do make a pretty tricky process look effortless. 

As the saying goes, "Improv is getting up in the air and building the plane as you go". I now fully appreciate what that means. I've learned that taking a leap of faith is part of the process, and that it's not a problem if you don't know what you're going to say or do, because when you're doing it right, you're truly allowing yourself to be completely open and react in the moment (which I can imagine takes years to master).

For me it was a leap of faith, and it felt great when it worked. What I discovered is that, if you're brave enough to step out, your brain will make the connections for you. It's what it does all day anyway -- we're all improvising all of the time. The trick is to allow yourself to trust in that process.

It's jumping off the cliff and figuring it out on the way down, or as Keegan-Michael Key puts it, zooming out...

Thanks to our instructor, Erica Elam, and my classmates. If you're reading this wondering whether you should take a Second City improv course, my advice is YES! Be brave and go for it. You'll thank yourself later.


Saturday, 14 May 2016

MGSV: The Phantom Pain - S++ Solider Mod

Updated for MGSV: TPP v1.10.

Ever notice how you never retrieve S+ and S++ soldiers in the field while Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain? You may come across some Boasters that appear to have such high stats, but once you're back in motherbase they will always drop down to S Rank or below.

It turns out that, although the game was once supposed to give you those soldiers, they have been disabled from ever spawning in the single player game, forcing you to get involved in online gameplay (and so hopefully spend real money on "MB coins") if you want to see them.

In a practical sense, this unfortunately means that once you reach an average motherbase platform rank of 64, the quality of the soldiers you find in the game will suddenly grind to a near halt.

Consider the following:

With an average motherbase platform level of 58, you have a 15% chance of finding an S Rank soldier in the field. By the time you reach level 64, that's doubled to 30%. This is the sort of progression you see throughout the game with other ranks... but work hard and reach level 98, and you'll STILL have a 30% chance of finding an S Rank soldier in the field!

Once you reach level 64, around the time S+ and S++ should be introduced, soldier rank progression just stops...

Here's the game code in question, with my comments after them showing the average motherbase platform level, so you can see for yourself:

Key: g = E Rank, f = D Rank, e = C Rank, d = B Rank, c = A Rank, b = A+ Rank, a = A++, s = S Rank, sp = S+ Rank, spp = S++ Rank

When you plot the first 100 levels, it looks like this:

And, as had been stated already, you may have notice that S+ and S++ soldiers are never set to never appear...

But what if someone altered the code so that the appearance of S+ and S++ soldiers mimicked the appearance of the other solider ranks, slowly being integrated into the game at a pace that doesn't break the game progression. Maybe like so...

Wouldn't that be more fun?

Each level of soldier has a different AI, so rather than just make everyone S++ (which makes the game unbelievably dull, trust me) the patch ensures there's always a smattering of tactics you will face. This keeps the game challenging while rewarding you with S+ and S++ soldiers as you progress.

(Huge thanks to found-a-universe for helping test this mod. Their feedback is what helps make TPP remain fun after the mod.)

If you think this sounds like a good idea, here's the simple mod that puts the above code into your game, so you can enjoy the game progress as you reach later levels:

DOWNLOAD: MGSV: TPP S++ Solider Mod (v1.10)

Let me know if you like it!

Monday, 3 August 2015

Day of the Tentacle History Lesson: Part 2

Part two of my little guide to increasing your enjoyment of Tim Schafer's and Dave Grossman's seminal adventure game classic DAY OF THE TENTACLE. The game makes many a reference to a somewhat mythological version of American history, which is great if you're an American. But what if you're not?

Here's a bunch of completely true, and no way wrong, commonly held American historical myths that are referenced to in Day of the Tentacle. Ok, so maybe some of them aren't actually true (of course Benjamin Franklin didn't discover electricity), but that doesn't mean you shouldn't use this website as a reference to back up your next pub argument.

Part one is here!

Thanks to the awesome people at the Double Fine forums for helping out with this list!

Betsy Ross

...and the American Flag

Betsy Ross, a modest and self-reliant seamstress, is approached by the founding fathers to see if she could produce a national flag for the new country, based on their design patterns. She was apprehensive, but willing. "I do not know but I could try; I had never made one but if the pattern were shown to me, I do not doubt of my ability to do it." It took the founding fathers a few attempts to get their designs right, but Ross was successful, and so history was made.

Key takeaway: Betsy Ross made the United States national flag from the founding father's designs.

Benjamin Franklin

...and electricity

Benjamin Franklin did something with electricity with a kite that had a key attached. It's all very complicated and weird, and nobody really understands it, but basically by flying a kite in a storm, with a key attached, Franklin discovered electricity.

Ok, while that does appear to be the general understanding on this myth, here's a little more information that makes it make more sense: Franklin's experiment was actually an attempt to prove that lightning and electricity (which was still poorly understood at the time) were one and the same thing. To prove this, he sent a key up into the air on a kite during a storm. Eventually lightning struck the kite and Franklin brought the kite down to earth. If his argument was correct, the key would have a ton of static electricity stored in it, just waiting to zap the next person who decided to touch it, and lo, if he wasn't right.

Key takeaway: Benjamin Franklin "discovered" electricity with a key tied to a kite in a thunderstorm (leading to the kite being struck by lightning)

...and the National Bird

Benjamin Franklin was not convinced that the United States should be represented by a bald eagle, and believed the national bird should have been a turkey. He wrote that he found the bald eagle to be of "bad moral character", as it lazily poaches its food from other animals, and is a "rank coward" as it can be driven from an area by a bird no bigger than a sparrow (the kingbird).

He concluded from this that, "the bald eagle is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest America", and instead looked at the turkey more favourably: "The turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and additionally a true original Native of America, and a bird of courage."

Key takeaway: Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to be the United States national bird

The Pony Express

The Pony Express was the fastest mail service in the United States, and became legendary for the speed of its delivery across the country.

...and the red flag on the mailbox 

Don't forget, when the flag it up on a mailbox, it means that there's outgoing mail inside waiting to be picked up.

This I've missed something? Comment and let me know! And don't forget to read Part One!

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Day of the Tentacle History Lesson: Part 1

Fans of classic LucasArts adventure games will know that Tim Schafer's and Dave Grossman's seminal adventure game classic DAY OF THE TENTACLE (which is due for a Special Edition some point soon) makes references to a slightly-exaggerated (but still very popular) version of American history. These jokes are great if you're American, but what if you're not?

Here's a bunch of completely true, and not in anyway exaggerated or simplified, commonly held American historical facts that are referenced to in Day of the Tentacle for us non-Americans.

A little background: During your time playing Day of the Tentacle, you'll meet some founding fathers of the United States; George Washington (soon to become the first President, no less), Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Hancock. They've already declared Independence from Europe, but now they're trying to write a Constitution for their new country.

And don't forget: Part two!

Thanks to the awesome people at the Double Fine forums for helping out with this list!

George Washington 

...and the Cherry Tree

A six year old George Washington was given a hatchet to play with (hey, it was the 1700s, things were different back then), and it became one of his prized possessions. He would enthusiastically hack at just about anything he could get his hands on, but usually his mother's pea-sticks.

One morning, however, he got a little bit carried away with his hacking, and, while nobody was watching, chopped down a beautiful young English CHERRY TREE in his family's back garden.

As it turns out, the tree was a particular favourite of his Dad's, and he was extremely upset when he saw what had happened to it. He was trying to discover what had befallen his favourite source of free cherrys, when George wandered by with his hatchet in hand.

"George," said his father, "do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree in the garden?"

George realised he'd done something very but bad and was in serious trouble, but braced himself for punishment and told the truth: "I can't tell a lie, Pa ; you know I can't tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet!”

His Dad was so surprised and impressed with his son's honesty in the face of inevitable punishment that he immediately forgave him. "A son's honesty is worth more than a thousand trees!", he said, and gave him a big hug.

Key takeaway: George Washington likes cutting down cherry trees.

...and Valley Forge

Later in his career George Washington commander of the US Army, and things weren't looking good. The British had just taken control of Philadelphia, and were close to victory. Washington's troops were so close to collapse that he had no choice but to retreat to Valley Forge in the hope of getting them some much needed supplies and rest. Unfortunately they found anything but.

Congress had been unable to get supplies through, so his men suffered an incredibly harsh winter at Valley Forge without clothes, blankets, or appropriate food.

Washington refused to give up, however, and forced his men to stick together through the cold, hard winter, despite the terrible conditions. If he hadn't, it's considered that it might have been the end of the Revolutionary War.

Key takeaway: George Washington can handle a bit of cold weather

...and his wooden teeth

George Washington had false teeth... made from wood. Yes, really.

Thomas Jefferson

Hey, it's that guy from Nickel!

John Hancock

...and his massive signature

John Hanock's signature on the Declaration of Independence (and other documents) is always so damned big.

Remember: All of the information here is completely true and in no way a simplified or exaggerated version of history.

Read part two now!