Sherlock: The Abominable Pride

Sherlock was great when it was first launched – a cleverly written, modern and well-acted adaption of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation. The first series in particular did a brilliant job of transporting the ever-popular characters to the present day, while the second lost its way at times but was still generally a cut above the majority of dramas shown on television. The problem was that at some point between the second and third series (or perhaps during the second), the programme – at least in the minds of those involved with creating it – ceased to be a Sherlock Holmes adaption and became simply Sherlock, something which stood alone. Instead of mining Conan Doyle’s material, they mined their own. Each episode of series three turned into a tortuous exercise in self-reference, with weak and often nonsensical plots based increasingly around in-jokes that assumed a deeply-felt connection to characters who had, after all, only appeared on our screens a mere six times to that point. It had become a show that felt deliberately aimed not at a general audience, but at the superfans who run Tumblr sites devoted to Sherlock’s quirkiest facial expressions, or write fan-fiction in which he pilots the TARDIS alongside Matt Smith.

Despite my varied and major frustrations with the third series, there was still no question that I would watch this year’s Christmas special episode, titled The Abominable Bride. The fast-paced dialogue and standard of the two leads remained good, I reasoned, and I drew hope that the much publicised setting of the story in the Victorian age of the originals would make it more true to them and remove some of the temptation for self-indulgence. What transpired over the next half an hour was an unintentionally accurate representation of the arc described in the previous paragraph. It started strongly – I liked the 19th Century setting, the introduction of the two protagonists was done quickly but effectively and the on-screen chemistry between Cumberbatch and Freeman remains fundamentally enjoyable. They even quickly settled into what felt a potentially interesting mystery for the sleuth to solve. There were one or two references to the present day series that grated a bit, but I could deal with that as the fundamentals of it seemed a lot better than they had been. And then around the halfway point it started to unravel. Let’s start with the solution to the case mentioned in the title (the fact this became a secondary issue to the end of the programme is a problem in itself): the murders in question were carried out by an underground sisterhood of women; those forgotten, maligned, disenfranchised members of Victorian society. I’m all for pointing out that women had it bad (and indeed still do, particularly on TV): that’s a sentiment I’m on board with, as is the idea of people fighting against this. However, this conclusion felt so contrived, so forced, it was impossible not to treat it with a groan and an eye-roll. I mean really, is that the only way you felt you could make this point? With all the deftness and subtlety of somebody attempting to eat their lunch with a sledgehammer and a chainsaw? A damning indictment. And, of course, Moriarty showed up.

Ah yes, Moriarty. Comfortably the worst thing about the excellent first series; and who continued to be singularly irritating as the antagonist in the finale of the second. I like programmes that invest in giving characters depth, which show that morality is not always definitive, that the shades of grey between good and bad are frequently explored by people viewed as being on opposite sides of that divide. But you know what? Sometimes it’s still okay for a bad guy to just be a bad guy. Not every evil-doer has to be a pantomime villain acting out clear psychological conditions (my temptation is to blame Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight for starting this trend, but it may go back further). A lot of this is obviously subjective – I know people who enjoy Andrew Scott’s portrayal of Moriarty – but the fact is he just annoys me. The Moriarty of Conan Doyle’s work is the spider in the middle of an immense web, the genius silently directing crime traffic whilst hidden beyond protection – not a lunatic constantly laughing and shouting and forcing himself into the foreground. I can only hope kicking him into a dream waterfall proves more effective as a means of his disposal than him shooting himself in the head was.

A dream waterfall, of course, because the big reveal of The Abominable Bride, after about an hour, was that the whole Victorian experience was a drug induced dream. Yes, one of the BBC’s flagship original dramas decided that, in 2015, “it was all a dream” was a suitably stunning plot-twist. Why? Perhaps to link the special to the series (an understandable, but entirely unnecessary requirement, after all it was a ‘special’; the clue is in the name). Yet if this was simply the case, then Sherlock could have woken up right at the end of the episode, rather than with about half an hour left. No, it was done because the present day series is what it is of most importance, it’s what we all care so much about – that must be the case, because the show itself keeps telling us that it is. The smug self-indulgence strikes again, leaving a trail of exasperation in its wake. Sherlock is not about solving complex crimes; it is not about Holmes and Watson’s partnership; it is not about modernising Conan Doyle’s creation; it is not even about Sherlock Holmes himself. The programme could explore any or all of these things to great effect. However, its writers seem convinced that the true purpose of Sherlock, as they understand it, is to constantly remind everyone how great Sherlock is and how much they love it. The problem is, writing things solely for yourselves will quickly leave you with a pretty small audience.

Gove, 1914 and War

As with many of his utterances, it was hard to read Michael Gove’s comments regarding historians’ treatment of the First World War and not come to the conclusion that he is an idiot. Let’s be unambiguous here: he is. However tempting it may be, though, reaching this conclusion and leaving it at that is not sufficient because this particular idiot is an influential one: education secretary no less. Much like Boris Johnson – who has perfected the art of misdirection via the public portrayal of a blundering cartoon character – the fact that most of what Gove says cannot be taken seriously by anyone with any knowledge of the topics discussed does not mean that what he is able to do should not be taken seriously. Regarding history teaching, Gove’s stated aim to return to a linear format focussed on learning dates, studying monarchs, glorifying Britain and dispensing with any ideas of narratives, debates or the histories of normal people does far more to create myths than the scholarship he regularly criticises. More generally, his policies are doing their best to set education back decades, with A Level changes from modular courses to those based entirely on exams being an illustrative example. This change will not only reduce that quality and depth of work students produce, it unfairly favours pupils proficient at exams rather than necessarily those who have a true understanding of the subject. It will also greatly exacerbate the pressure on teachers to simply coach pupils for exams rather than actually ‘teaching’ them about their subjects and, of course, these sorts of emphases will further favour those schools with smaller classes, i.e. private ones. This all feeds in to the message to working class pupils from the coalition government, exhibited best by their raising of University tuition fees and abolition (in England) of EMA payments: education is not for the likes of you.

If it were really needed, the substance to Gove’s argument regarding the First World War has been convincingly swatted aside by Richard Evans’ retort and if anyone does seriously entertain the idea that Britain was acting as a noble defender of democracy and self-determination I would point them first here, then here. There are whole modules of University courses devoted to discussing the origins of the First World War (I’ve done one), but the “because Britain loves freedom and is generally just great” argument is not one discussed at any great length. Although I should concede that perhaps all the academics I have ever come across are left-wingers colluding to avoid The Truth being revealed. My first reaction to hearing Gove’s comments, though, was that this was sure to be the first of many. With this year marking the centenary of the outbreak of war in 1914, the conflict will understandably garner a lot of attention and Gove’s is the first of what I fear will be many attempts to rewrite its history during the next 12 months.

It is now 4 and a half years since the death of the last surviving veteran of the trenches, Harry Patch, who described the war in which he fought as ‘legalised mass murder’ and Gove’s comments merely form part of the wider discussion of and attitude towards war from contemporary politicians. The emphasis on showing ‘respect’ is often really an emphasis on glorification, exhibited by the increasing zealotry surrounding the wearing of a poppy, ignoring the fact that the Haig Fund (as the Poppy Fund was originally known) was set up by and named after the butcher who ordered so many men over the top to their deaths during the Great War. Nor is the rewriting of history in this way limited to the First World War. In his response to the Daily Mail’s characteristically despicable attack on his father, Ed Miliband’s main line of defence was to emphasise how much his father loved Britain and produced his record of service during the Second World War as incontrovertible proof that this was the case.  This in itself set a dangerous precedent. I will not claim to know Ralph Miliband or his motivations better than his son (though I would tentatively suggest that his Marxist beliefs would provide a hint to his feelings on patriotism), but the implication that anyone from Britain fighting the Nazis did so due to their overriding patriotism is as best flawed and at worst a deliberate misrepresentation. Many of those involved in the Second World War, my grandfather amongst them, fought not because they followed Britain’s flag wherever it may lead them, but because they believed, regardless of nationality, that Fascism needed to be fought and defeated.

The constant implication from Gove and his fellows is that by questioning the motives and decrying the futility of the war, you are in some way denigrating the courage shown by those who fought and died in their hundreds and thousands. The reality, of course, is that if anyone is insulting their memories, it is those lying about the conflict for their own ideological ends. Acknowledging the truth – that these brave men and women lost their lives in an imperialist conflict, following the commands of significantly richer men safely ensconced miles behind the trenches – is to fight for the respect their lives were not shown by those ordering them to their deaths. This constant reinforcing of the idea that wars – and particularly Britain’s role in them – must be defended owes far more to political posturing than to genuine concern for those who fought in them and is impossible to detach from the context of Britain currently still having troops stationed overseas, fighting and dying in wars owing far more to imperialist financial gains than to any supposed defence of liberty and democracy (sound familiar?). If those in power constantly playing to the jingoistic chorus of ‘supporting our troops’ really supported them, they would stop risking these troops’ lives for the next oil contract and if Gove and others really sought to respect the memory of those who fought and died 100 years ago, they would not shamelessly lie about the conflict that caused their deaths.

Premier League Opening Day Haiku

 

Arsenal (L 1-3 Aston Villa)

August rain that pours

No centre back or Suarez

Why so glum, Arsene?

 

Aston Villa (W 3-1 Arsenal)

The Emirates stunned

Benteke sets the stage for

A Luna eclipse

 

Cardiff City (L 0-2 West Ham United)

Red Dragons whimper

Blowing smoke but no fire

The season looks long

 

Chelsea (W 2-0 Hull City)

Like he’d never left

Two goals scored then a game killed

Special can be dull

 

Crystal Palace (L 1-0 Tottenham Hotspur)

Eagles fall deaf to

Hollow Holloway complaints

An act wearing thin

 

Everton (D 2-2 Norwich City)

A new era starts

Loss turned to win before draw

Ross’s strike excites

 

Fulham (W 1-0 Sunderland)

How shit must you be?

The rarest of away wins

Big Brede stands tall

 

Hull City (L 2-0 Chelsea)

Bruce is satisfied

By damage limitation

Tigers with no roar

 

Liverpool (W 1-0 Stoke City)

Nearly déjà vu

Coutinho, Sturridge shine

Simon saves the day

 

Manchester City (W 4-0 Newcastle United)

Manuel serves a treat

Excited City hope for

A blue moon rising

 

Manchester United (W 4-1 Swansea City)

Some things do not change

Who needs a midfield when

You have RVP?

 

Newcastle United (L 0-4 Manchester City)

Bye bye to Cabaye?

JFK’s shadow looms large

As Taylor loses plot

 

Norwich City (D 2-2 Everton)

High hopes in the sun

And when August dreams seem lost

The new wolf pounces

 

Southampton (W 1-0 West Bromwich Albion)

After such a week

Rickie dreams a bit longer

But Shaw the real star

 

Stoke City (L 1-0 Liverpool)

A new manager

Pass-pass-pass-pass the mantra

Time for pen practice

 

Sunderland (L 1-0 Fulham)

It all seems brand new

But just like in ‘45

The fascist loses

 

Swansea City (L 4-1 Manchester United)

Shell-shocked swans regroup

Bested by the Champions

Bony provides hope

 

Tottenham Hotspur (W 1-0 Crystal Palace)

The new boys on show

Try to distract from Gareth

A first win should help

 

West Bromwich Albion (L 1-0 Soton)

A worrying start

Clarke’s second year looks tricky

They miss Romelu

 

West Ham (W 2-0 Cardiff)

A reborn Cole burns

Big Sam swats a meagre foe

As Kev’s chicken clucks

An Alternative Premier League Table

Much as Christmas is a time for getting presents, receiving gifts and finding out what other people have bought you, the end of the Premier League season sees everyone on the internet and their gif of a dog come up with a witty, totally original and different look at the racism, biting and self-delusion witnessed in the previous months. But there are blogs other than those devoted solely to Liverpool, and this is mine, where the Premier League’s 20 teams are ranked in the completely subjective order of how good a season I judged them to have (their actual positions are in brackets).

1. Swansea City (9)
Despite a change of manager, Swansea avoided the difficult second season many predicted by finishing comfortably inside the top 10. They evolved their distinctive style of play, had one of the season’s best players in Michu and again looked one of the more impressive sides in the league before understandably switching off after winning the club’s first ever major trophy. It’s hard to find any real fault despite the end-of-season lapse.

2. Manchester United (1)
Ultimately for Man United, winning the league isn’t performing hugely above expectations, but as the cliché goes you can only beat what’s put in front of you. United convincingly did this, albeit against very disappointing challenges. For a team that still doesn’t always seem that good, they’ve racked up a very impressive points-total, too. Easily the best team in the division.

3. West Bromwich Albion (8)
Pre-season, it was commonly predicted that Steve Clarke’s first managerial job wouldn’t last beyond Christmas. Instead, the first third of the season saw an unlikely Champions’ League push as the Baggies reaped the benefits of being one of the few solid, competent teams around. Despite tailing off, ending the season in the top half and never being remotely near relegation counts as an excellent season at the Hawthorns.

4. West Ham United (10)
West Ham being placed so highly in this table perhaps displays the paucity of teams actually having good years, but nevertheless easily surviving without ever really being in danger is an excellent accomplishment for a team promoted via the play-offs (albeit one unusually well-prepared for the Premier League). Allardyce has done what he can be relied upon to do; the Mourinho-less Bernabeu surely beckons…

5. Tottenham Hotspur (5)
Despite narrowly missing out on the Champions League once more, this was an impressive season from Spurs. Adjusting quickly to a new manager and making light of losing their best and most important player of the last few seasons – Modric’s move often seems to have been strangely underplayed – Spurs achieved their highest ever Premier League points total. If the brilliant Bale stays and a striker matching the quality of the rest of their spine is signed, next season should see further improvement.

6. Everton (6)
A season which while very impressive was not outstanding and lacked a crowning achievement (as well as a prolific striker). A perfect summary of Moyes’ tenure, then.

7. Southampton (14)
A bit of a strange season: the controversial but bold decision to replace the hardly disappointing Nigel Adkins with Mauricio Pochettino seemed justified by superb performances against some of the division’s top sides, but failure to replicate this against weaker teams is a cause for concern. Despite that, comfortable survival in their first season back in the top flight is an excellent start for a club that seem to be intent on continuing their rapid rise.

8. Chelsea (3)
Around February, the season looked on the verge of descending into a chaotic disaster, but the ever-popular Rafa Benitez led Chelsea to what, after what preceded it, was a very satisfactory conclusion. Not only does 3rd place represent ‘no harm done’ in terms of maintaining vital Champions League participation, it’s also a considerable improvement on last season’s oft-forgotten 6th place finish. Another European trophy never hurts, either.

9. Arsenal (4)
Roughly two-thirds of a season performing under expectations combining with a final third whose results were above them saw Arsenal finish roughly around where they would have expected. The same old positives and negatives persist and though it is still hard to shake the feeling of a club on the decline compared to those around them, their relentless late run of form to take 4th deserves credit.

10. Liverpool (7)
9 points and 1 place better than last season, yet 2 finals and 1 trophy poorer – legitimate arguments can be made that Liverpool have improved, worsened or are simply treading water. What’s harder to argue is that this season represented either dramatic over or under achievement: with the possible exception of Everton, Liverpool’s squad is worse than all those who finished above them and better than those of all the teams below. Rodgers will be under pressure to deliver more next season.

11. Reading (19)
Perhaps surprisingly high for a team who were relegated early and inhabited the relegation zone for most of the season, but this reflects that Reading performed exactly to expectations. I expected them to look a Championship team out of their depth and be relegated; and they were, so I find it hard to be too critical of their season.

12. Norwich City (11)
A strange balance needs to be found when assessing Norwich: on the face of it, consolidating their Premier League status with an 11th place finish, avoiding a second season relegation after the departure of their inspirational manager is a fundamentally good achievement. This analysis must be tempered though, by remembering that they did come perilously close to slipping into the relegation mire due to a run of 2 wins in 19 games and the lack of any real threat up front. The addition of van Wolfswinkel should help, but Norwich were one of many teams fortunate that the bottom half of the table was so poor this season.

13. Aston Villa (15)
Though Villa’s extremely exciting late surge to safety served to vindicate Paul Lambert’s faith in his young players and points to a more comfortable future, it also somewhat papers over the cracks what at times was a truly abysmal season. When losing to Bradford in the Carling Cup semi-final, Villa looked a club in desperate need of relegation to sort themselves out and though it’s to their great credit that they turned it around, it’s still difficult to view their season in its entirety as a big success.

14. Wigan Athletic (18)
This positioning is based on the fact that for a club like Wigan, I think winning the FA Cup is better than staying up. Great Escapes are very enjoyable, but circling the plughole every year gets a bit repetitive and however lucrative staying in the top flight may be, it cannot compare to winning a cup final at Wembley as massive underdogs. Limited resources and truly horrendous luck with injuries also serve as influential mitigating circumstances in their relegation.

15. Fulham (12)
Another humdrum season for possibly the Premier League’s most humdrum team. Berbatov was fun when he could be bothered, the team as a whole occasionally flirted with, without ever really falling into, a relegation battle, and mid-table security was fine once more. On the pitch, it’s hard to argue that Fulham are progressing much one way or another, but in their defence it’s also difficult to see how they can really push on from their current position, barring something miraculous (and/or a very unlikely big takeover).

16. Manchester City (2)
It says a lot about how far Man City have come in the last few years that a 2nd place finish in League and Cup is marked so harshly, but it is more the manner of the season than its ultimate conclusion that is damning. On the field, City served up a dispiritingly limp title-defence from start to finish; while off it infighting throughout the club all season culminated in the rather undignified sacking of a manager not without his faults, but understandably loved by the fans. A far cry from this time last year.

17. Stoke City (13)
It seems like a hell of a long time ago that we were being told that Stoke’s defence was statistically the best in Europe. After an initial bright start, Stoke’s dire performances for much of the campaign have seen many suggest that Pulis’ ideological zealotry (you’d say it about Pep Guardiola – it applies equally as much to the Welshman) was holding them back. Lacking the width that was once their trademark, the Potters seem to need an injection of new ideas from somewhere – and Pulis’ departure suggests that those in charge in the Potteries think so, too.

18. Sunderland (17)
Slip towards relegation. Change managers. Finish between 13th and 17th. Initial improvement lasting between 6 and 12 months. Spend lots of money. Slip towards relegation. Change managers. Finish between 13th and 17th. Initial improvement lasting between 6 and 12 months. Spend lots of money. Slip towards relegation. At least Sunderland added something new to the mix this season by replacing a manager stuck tactically in the 1990s with one stuck politically in the 1930s.

19. Newcastle United (16)
Alan Pardew leads a team to a much-trumpeted successful first full season before avoiding equivalent criticism during his disappointing second campaign. Who could possibly have seen this coming? Apart from fans of any of the other teams he’s managed, I mean. After punching well above their weight last season, The Toon underperformed woefully for much of this one. A very disappointing campaign.

20. QPR (20)
Has relegation ever been more richly deserved? Compounded an idiotic transfer policy by launching 4 idiotic transfer policies in consecutive transfer windows; exorbitant amounts spent on wages; two expensive managers making excuse after excuse; and yet somehow, somehow still managing to find a place in the first eleven for Clint Hill. Who was their captain. Hilarious.

10 Favourite Console Games Ever: 5-1

5 – Assassin’s Creed (Playstation 3)

I’ve heard it said that loving something makes you oblivious to its flaws. I disagree though – I think loving something often gives you a heightened and exaggerated awareness its failings, the key is that your emotions continue despite them. I love Assassin’s Creed, but I can’t help feeling that I’m the one in this relationship being taken for granted: however many times it lets me down, I’ll give it another chance, even if logic tells me not to. I devote hours of my life to it, I tend to its every need, work really hard to make things better and how am I repaid? With Assassin’s Creed 3. Like your partner celebrating your birthday by giving you a cheap card with a fiver in it; somehow worse than nothing. This post is the equivalent of me sitting down on the sofa with a tub of ice cream and looking through old photo albums, desperately trying to remind myself what makes it all worth the pain.

For those that stuck with that paragraph, it may have been clear that I think the Assassin’s Creed series has been growing progressively worse, game by game. This is, however, a backhanded way of saying that the first two games are great, particularly the original; hence its inclusion here. For those unfamiliar with the premise of the franchise: Desmond Miles, a 21st Century American, is plugged into a machine called the Animus, which taps into his ancestor’s memories stored in his DNA (if you think this is too far-fetched, be thankful I’m ignoring the utterly insane superbeing bullshit introduced in the second game onwards). Controlling these memories, Desmond learns of the ever-present battle for supremacy in the shadows of society between Assassins and Templars – a conflict present-day Desmond is himself embroiled in. The first game sees you take control of Altair, an Assassin in the crusade-era Middle-East. The missions themselves have been criticised for their repetitiveness: your boss gives you a name; you gather information on that person by way of eavesdropping, stealing, intimidation etc; before killing the target (preferably without being detected, mostly whilst being chased by roughly half of the crusader army).

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Ubisoft’s trump card, as seen in Prince of Persia, is its platforming. What makes Assassin’s Creed fun to play is the creation of incredibly big environments and having the character running, jumping, climbing and stabbing his way through them at breakneck speed. The simple sense of achievement gained in scaling a viewpoint, peering around then launching yourself into a nearby hay bale is as addictive as a PS3-administered dose of super-lovely heroin. It’s worth pointing out additionally that the scenery and environments produced in these games are staggering in their detail (possibly too much so). Running around medieval Jerusalem or (in later games) Renaissance Italy is a thrilling experience and a visual feast (this is what made the choice of revolutionary USA such a disappointing setting for AC3). The first game in the series is also by far the best when it comes to the assassinations themselves. You can meticulously plan, carefully manoeuvre and strike so effectively you’re often in awe of your own stealth (massaging the player’s ego never does a game any harm), yet in later games this is cut down, with the feeling that the assassinations have slipped in the creators’ list of priorities.

Though it is now a commercial juggernaut, impossible to stop, for me the Assassin’s Creed franchise has been fatally undermined by bad decisions regarding the speed of releasing games (annual releases have left games feeling somewhat rushed – see ‘Brotherhood’ and ‘Revelations’); locations (again, AC3’s choice of revolutionary Boston and New York is awful); and the staggeringly overblown ridiculousness of the apocalyptic present-day plot that I can’t even bring myself to describe. My bitterness about this is clear, and what makes me so critical of the failings in later games (which are still fun to play) is that I loved the first one so much.

I’ve never gotten over you Assassin’s Creed, and I don’t want to, I just wish we could go back to the way things were.

4 – Heavy Rain (Playstation 3)

This is the addition to the list that I played for the first time most recently and the post with which I am most worried about length, as it feels as if I could write a dissertation about Heavy Rain practically without breaking sweat. Amongst the games I have played it is unique; and frankly I am in awe of it. Without wishing to sound as pretentious as I know I am capable of, Heavy Rain is a completely different interpretation of what a computer game can be. It’s something to rub in the faces of those who snobbishly view games as for children (even if sometimes they may have a point – what they fail to realise is that’s no bad thing anyway). Most plot-driven games essentially take the form of the player starting from ‘A’ and working their way through levels and/or challenges to reach ‘B’. Some more adventurous titles throw in additional options, maybe even choices: instead of ‘B’, the player could perhaps reach ‘C’, or having the option of reaching ‘B’ by going via ‘C’ or ‘D’, depending on their preference. Playing Heavy Rain though, is like being dropped in King’s Cross train station with an unlimited ticket allowing you to go wherever you like. You could end up in Cardiff, Edinburgh, Tunbridge Wells or Paris – depending on which route you take – and it is all entirely up to you. Oh, and this process is repeated for 4 different characters.

The game begins with you mundanely controlling Ethan, making him get up, brush his teeth etc then play with his adorable kids, all happy families. However, one of these children is soon killed off in a traffic accident, fast-forwarding you to a bleak, perpetually raining future in which a miserable Ethan struggles to rebuild a relationship with his remaining son. This son is then taken by the Origami Killer, a serial murderer, who kidnaps children before drowning them in rainwater. The killer’s signature method is what lends the game its title, as the player has until 6 inches of precipitation has fallen to save Ethan’s son. Ethan is given challenges by the killer, which if completed will yield clues to his son’s location. The player also controls a likeable Private Investigator, a young female journalist and an FBI agent drafted in from out of town, all of whom are caught up in attempting to find the identity of the murderer. The gameplay itself is fairly simple: mainly based on moving around and carrying out options that flash up on screen, and often dependent on quick time events – which usually annoy me but work a lot better when used consistently throughout a game rather than thrown in at one or two random points.

                You do not play the game for the gameplay though – it’s hardly like the thrill of Assassin’s Creed’s free-running. The attraction of this game is its unfathomably intricate narrative-building and the emotional investment it builds in the gamer. As mentioned above, it is you, the player, who decides what will happen and crucially, every single decision – no matter how small – feels important. Every play of this game will result in a different outcome: trying to work out the permutations – when taking into account every decision that is made across 4 characters – makes my head hurt. Each decision feels important and is completely up to you and just as crucially, come the end of the game you can see just how these choices led you to your particular finale. I’ve spoken to a number of people who’ve played Heavy Rain; all of us arrived at completely, radically different endings and yet I had no difficulty in understanding how each of these finales was reached, how each fork in the road can lead you down a totally different path. It’s also of vital importance to this set up that failure is an ever-present option. If you mess up, the character you’re controlling dies. And if they do, that’s it. You are not inevitably going to save Ethan’s son; he could die. Each character you control can be made a better person through your actions, or a far worse one. And sometimes it’s unclear what decision will lead to which outcome as well as whether being a better person will be a more effective way to reach your goals. A minor but fundamental part of this is how the game saves – it does so regularly and automatically; you cannot choose when, meaning you can’t just reboot and try again – you’re stuck with your decision.

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This constant feeling of pressure helps build the astonishing emotional immersion I found myself subject to when playing this game. I agonised over decisions: some relatively mundane ones like how soon to leave a place you’re visiting, others more important like whether or not to fight or succumb to the FBI agent’s drug habit while a number are truly harrowing. This, just like everything else in this masterpiece, is carefully constructed: scene by scene, line by line, meaning that by the end you care so much it becomes a little scary. I wouldn’t want every game to be like Heavy Rain, I don’t want to be that emotionally drained and mentally challenged by each time I turned on a console; I’d be a complete wreck, but it’s one of the most important I’ve played. If you have any interest in games, you need to play this, if you’re like me it will stand as a ‘before and after’, watershed moment in your console-orientated life. Computer games may or may not be considered art, that’s a (quite boring) debate for another time, another place. For me though, there is no argument that Heavy Rain is an artistic triumph, pushing boundaries and opening my eyes to what is possible. Awesome in the true sense of the word.

3 – Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven (Playstation 2)

                Unsurprisingly, moving into my top 3 brings us to the games I’ve played more often than any others. In the case of Tenchu, the majority of this worrying amount of time invested came during a year or two of my teenage years, when a friend and I could have been describe as having a borderline obsession with it (‘borderline’ being a generous term). Unlike the huge Ubisoft franchises mentioned above, this is not a selection to represent a series of games: I’ve played other Tenchu titles and did not particularly like them, so Wrath of Heaven stands alone, a shining lighthouse of brilliance within a sea of mediocrity.

The game contains two overlapping and intertwined storylines, depending on which character’s path you choose to play: Rikimaru’s or Ayame’s. Both ninjas, the plot(s) follows their attempts to find and defeat Tenrai, and evil wizard hell bent on world domination/destruction/the usual things evil wizards want. What this fairly simple set up allows for though is a vastly contrasting set of levels, with enemies varying from simply enemy ninjas and guards to shimmering spirits, wooden robots and the undead. There are also a number of differing locations for each level; from caves to graveyards to hidden fortresses, with some of these levels ending in a rather traditional fashion: a battle with a boss. Though the combat sections are well designed – cleverly so in terms of making it accessible to button-bashers but also containing more complex manoeuvres that can be picked up by more experienced players – the main feature of the game is the stealth kills. An ever-present stealth meter on screen shows both how close you are to an enemy and how aware they are of your presence, and attacking one before you are detected results in an impressive (and regularly gruesome) execution; changing depending on from which angle you approach. Collection of a certain number of these kills on a level also grants you access to a new ability or move which can be used alongside the vast array of items picked up and taken with you on levels, from rice cakes to boost your health to smoke bombs and grenades to throw at enemies.

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As with many great games, the initial simplicity of appeal is enough to get you hooked and from then on the game continues to introduce intricacies in both script and gameplay that will draw you further into its world. Criticisms could be made of its slightly repetitive nature, as well as the glorious stupidity of enemies, who – 10 seconds after having been attacked by a mysterious ninja – will go back to being completely unruffled and unaware if you hide out of sight around a corner or something (though you could argue this stupidity is necessary – a realistic response would make any stealth kills practically impossible after you’re first detected). I felt that Rikimaru and Ayame’s styles and storylines differ enough to maintain interest at all times, while the ratings awarded to players after every level appeal to the perfectionist in me, determined to achieve a “grand master” rating on each one (which I am both proud and embarrassed to admit that I’ve done in the past). The game also has some great unlockable features – look out for a very different additional character, complete with their own levels and plot as well as a bizarre and hilarious level transporting Rikimaru to late 20th Century USA (complete with cops talking about doughnuts). It’s also probably got my single favourite intro to a game, if only because one viewing leaves me unable to get the song out of my head for days.

This is a game that emphasises the personal nature of this list: of those of you who have played Tenchu, most will probably just have thought it was ok, nothing particularly special. Unlike Heavy Rain, it’s not a game I would insist someone had to play, something I would describe as objectively brilliant. For a raft of reasons, Tenchu feels like a personal and almost a secret treasure I’m risking sharing with you here, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

2 – Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellow (GameBoy/GameBoy Colour)

                Before you snort with derision and move on to the next post, at least hear me out and think this one through. If you’re of a similar age to me, there’s a pretty good chance you spent a worryingly high percentage of your childhood playing at least one of these games (and/or trading the cards and watching the TV show – I bet you still know the words to the theme song). Pokémon was a cultural phenomenon, ubiquitous for a number of years, with all of its gargantuan success stemming from these original games. We all know the basic premise: begin with one Pokémon, embark on an epic quest to defeat 8 Gym leaders and then the Elite Four (and your suitably hilariously named rival) whilst attempting to “catch ’em all”.

The addictive nature of these games is what made them so remarkable – you often grew genuinely attached to the members of your ‘team’ and the hours spent honing their skills, desperately fighting everyone and anyone to gain them a few more levels of experience, really did border on obsession. The game was clever in that while it offered a genuine challenge in terms of whether or not you could defeat the opponents set before you (in particular the Elite Four), it was never impossible – things were always within reach as long as you invested the requisite amount of time into the game. And players definitely did that. If you played these games, you probably still vividly remember the forensic detail with which you decided, ruthlessly, which of your charges were worthy of a place in your top 6, which combination offered the best balance in your attempt to be ready for everything and anything.

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In retrospect, the detail built into the games was staggering: the graphics may not have been particularly advanced but the extra details crammed into the games memory are astonishing: think of all the characters you come across, all the cities, trails, caves and seas, each containing different Pokémon of different levels and abilities. The Pokémon battles themselves were also never a disappointment: to draw a parallel with something else that at times dominates your life, sometimes on Football Manager you get so obsessed with which players you’re signing or will try to sign, playing the matches themselves became something of an afterthought. On Pokémon however, whether your main aim was to garner experience for the current beast under your tutelage or simply to defeat an enemy necessary for the game’s progress, the battles were never boring; requiring a combination of skill, knowledge of the ins and outs of types (fire being strong against grass etc; I’m sure you remember them) as well as the more basic advantage of battling using a higher level Pokémon than your opponent.

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The games were exceptionally crafted, with each hour put into them earning more reward and resulting in a colossal amount of time being spent walking through grass or navigating your way through a particularly complex route. The Red and Blue versions of the game even had that classic of older games: the well-known glitch/cheat, in this case the Missingno bug allowing you all sorts of impossibly levelled Pokémon, infinite items (which weren’t technically ‘infinite’ at all) and the like. It seems the majority of newer games have an unlockable ‘anti-gravity’ mode as standard and this unoriginality, as well as the fact it feels so designed, packaged and frankly handed to you on a plate rather than being a genuine mistake in the game to discover takes away a lot of the mischievous fun, for me at least. Unlike these games though, Pokémon was charming, engrossing, incredibly fun and the most addictive console game I’ve ever played. In fact, I feel like finding an old game boy and giving it a go right now…

1 – Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Sega Mega Drive)

So we finally reach the big reveal of my favourite ever game. I’m afraid it’s something of an anti-climax: this will not come as a shock to anyone who has (a) followed me on twitter; (b) ever spoken to me about video games or (c) noticed the picture heading this blog and realised what the title of this website is a reference to. As my near-constant sycophancy in previous entries displays, I adore the games listed above for a variety of contrasting and complimentary reasons, but there was never any doubt that this would be my number 1. It is my favourite game by far. Were it not for the fact it would have been (even more) boring and repetitive, I would have included the original Sonic game in this list, too – possibly as high as second. It is the sequel to that game which trumps all else for me, though.

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A number of times throughout this list, I have praised games for their simplicity, the ability for a game to be fun whilst stripped down to its most basic. Sonic 2 is the purest example of this: the only controls manipulating the blue hedgehog are the direction pad and pressing a button to jump (or spin). Similarly, the levels come from that most straightforward platforming concept – going from one end to another, defeating enemies along the way and with a boss (Dr Robotnik) at the end of each zone’s final stage. Yet the game as a whole and each level individually are so beautifully designed that they never feel remotely repetitive and are able to constantly throw different challenges your way. One area in which I feel the second game has a significant advantage over its (indisputably brilliant) predecessor is this level design and the way in which it always allows for the building of momentum throughout, picking up a breakneck speed (if the players chooses too). The game also features a staple of many Sega games – a wonderful soundtrack, with each level’s own music contributing hugely to its feel and superbly setting the atmosphere (much like the original Sonic, whose soundtrack was rumoured to have been contributed to by little-known American artist Michael Jackson, who also lent the hedgehog his distinctive red shoes).

The sumptuous visual design of these levels also remains striking, the flowing movement ever-present throughout not so much touching at perfection as grabbing it and giving it a bear hug it refuses to release. Every aspect of this game is marvellously judged – the levels retain the key gameplay features of speed and fluidity whilst noticeably becoming incrementally difficult, as do the bosses, culminating in the challenge of the final Death Egg Zone. Similarly, I think the two player capabilities of the game are hugely underrated. This is the first time Tails is introduced as a character in a game, and while the two player competitions are outrageously fun and at times hilariously frustrating, the optional use of him in the one player version of the game is genius. It allows a companion to dip in and out of the game to prevent them getting too bored watching, while also (if the second player is any good) making it easier to collect all of the chaos emeralds. The emeralds are an important feature of another aspect of the game – the extras built into it. These are often fairly small (hidden extra lives, for example) but whether it be desperately trying to collect rings on the special stages to obtain all the emeralds (take it from someone who’s done it – it’s worth it) or playing the slot games on Casino Night Zone, there is also something different ready to reach out and grab your attention. Even Sonic’s personality provides an extra edge – designed as a less bland competitor for Nintendo’s Mario, the little things like his obvious impatience should the player remain inactive, or the amusing attempts at keeping balance when perched near the edge of a surface are relatively minor, but nonetheless merely add to the game’s charm and character.

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As is probably clear, I could go on and on about this game, saying both everything and nothing. The best advice I can give is to just play it if you have the opportunity, either on the Sega itself of by playing one of the Sega collections now available on later consoles. It is my favourite game by an embarrassing distance and it is quite simply the best. Perfection.

10 Favourite Console Games Ever: 10-6

10 – Toejam and Earl (Sega Mega Drive)

I confess this initial selection is more than slightly influenced by my wish to reiterate my undying admiration for my first console love: the peerless Sega Mega Drive. The console I first played video games on in the early 1990s remains my favourite (a fact endorsed by being treated to one as a truly wonderful 21st birthday gift); a provider of games bringing simple but regularly unadulterated joy. The arcade brawling of Streets of Rage and Golden Axe, the Tetris-esque Columns for puzzlephiles and the shape-shifting, insanely difficult Altered Beast (seriously, I’ve gotten as far as Level 6 once or twice in my entire life) all hold a special pixel in my heart but I’ve given Toejam and Earl the nod here.

For those unaware, the eponymous game follows two inhabitants of the planet Funkotron who’ve crashed their space ship on Earth and the player’s duty is to help our two heroes retrieve the scattered pieces. Along the way you come across and attempt to avoid an array of hilarious and surreal enemies – from skipping mini-devils to shopping mothers with wailing babies – while aiding (or often slowing) your progress with gifts picked up en route, allowing you access to rubber rings, pogo shoes and various types of food, amongst other things. It harks back to a previous time where games were not under pressure to be so relentlessly polished you can barely see anything past the sheen. Toejam and Earl hasn’t got an awful lot to it, it doesn’t always make sense, and it isn’t especially immersive. What it is, is silly, funny, frequently bizarre and always able to implant a smile on your face. The fact that it’s probably more fun to play two-player with a friend/relative/captive says it all; it’s simple joy you’ll want to share. Oh, and if all that wasn’t enough, it’s underscored by a mind-bendingly brilliant soundtrack.

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9 – Uncharted (Playstation 3)

This is the first and probably most obvious of these selections that make it clear that I’m not particularly a connoisseur of highly-regarded games. It is also a choice that stresses this list comprises of personal favourites, rather than what I view as (as near as possible) objectively the best games. In many ways, Uncharted is Everything That’s Wrong With ModernTM Football Britain Life Games. Wisecracking American hero (with what appears to be an obsession with removing from the Earth all those unfortunate enough not to be born white and in the USA)? Check. Simplistic & unchanging plots ripped off from a Hollywood blockbuster to a frankly ludicrous degree? Check (which is why I’m including all three instalments in one here; they’re basically all the same game). Secondary characters with as many interesting character traits as Michael Owen? Check. Repetitive gameplay? Check. The constant feeling of desperately reaching for the cinematic before thinking of the plot? Check (see the utterly pointless sinking ship scene in the third game). Plot holes you could drive a hijacked armoured vehicle through? Check. In many ways, it’s the anti-Toejam and Earl.

And yet…I like it. It’s fun. It of course greatly helps that I’m a complete sucker for both the wisecracking, cardboard cut-out hero and a simplistic narrative but Uncharted always does enough to keep you interested. Though the larger fight scenes in each game are just ridiculously difficult – you die trying it about 15 times, work out a strategy, die another 15 times then fluke your way through – there is enough variation to stop it getting too monotonous, most of the time. No section is without its faults: the developers clearly feared that the puzzles section would lose their (apparently) moronic audience so essentially makes neon flashing signs appear in Drake’s notebook saying “DO THIS! NO, NOT LIKE THAT LIKE THIS! OH, JUST GIVE IT HERE!” and the climbing sections sometimes feel completely arbitrary (obviously, they are, the trick is not to feel it) in terms of which pointy-outy-looking bit of rock you can climb onto and which will leave you plummeting to a death that looks like an “arty” photo posted by a 14 year old on Instagram. It all comes together though and it’s definitely a satisfying play. Shooting people in the head, frankly, never gets old; the platforming works easily well enough to keep things moving at a decent pace and, whatever it may say about the makers’ priorities, the scenery produced in these games is staggering.

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Uncharted is unremitting in its search for blandness, following the recipe for box-office games by adding exactly the right amounts of “personality”, “peril” and “humour” into the mix (note the quotation marks: not to be confused with actual personality, peril or humour). What you get out is basically a mass-produced, oven cooked dessert. You don’t derive any true emotional satisfaction from it, you don’t feel you’ve been on any unique journey or made some huge discovery (gaming or culinary) but you know that 9 times out of 10 it’s going to be nice if you don’t do anything stupid. It’s enjoyable, fairly mindless fluff. Maybe it’s not so different to Toejam and Earl after all…

8 – Spyro 2: Gateway to Glimmer (Playstation)

My first instinct was that this was something of a nostalgic inclusion: as the console I played it on suggests, this was a game I first came across years ago. In fact, it was something of a quirk I got the game at all – it was initially rented, and I’ve no idea why I chose the second game in a series the first of which I had never played ahead of competitors like Croc, Crash Bandicoot et al. Suffice to say that for whatever the reason, I’m glad I did, as the young dragon’s quest to rid the land of Avalar of Ripto quickly engrossed me. The more I think about it though, the more I think this game is included on merit, too – it has stood the test of time (not to mention two, soon to be three, new generations of console) extremely well.

What is perhaps most impressive is that the game overcomes fairly obvious flaws. It’s a children’s game, and as such to say its plot is less than demanding would be an understatement. Similarly, the script is hardly cutting edge and the characters unlikely to take you on the proverbial “emotional rollercoaster” and leave you hugely invested. The set up is also simple and repetitive: in each of the three realms of Avalar (the Summer Forest, the Autumn Plains and the Winter Tundra) Ripto takes control of the Castle and it is up to Spyro defeat him. To do this, he journeys through to other worlds, in which he is greeted by inhabitants who inform him of whatever is blighting their otherwise happy lives. Upon defeating said bane, Spyro is granted that world’s Talisman as a reward. Completion of smaller challenges within each world results in Spyro being gifted orbs. Collection of the requisite number of orbs and talismans unlocks new areas and allows the player to progress (as does collection of gems; the game’s currency).

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The brilliance of this game lies in the creativity that makes this repetitiveness feel nothing of the sort – each world brings its own unique look and feel, making every level different. As previously suggested, the game also appeals to a basic instinct for lots of players – a borderline obsession with collectables. With the talismans, orbs and gems you are never short of something to be hunting down as well as being able to make very tangible progress in this regard and be rewarded accordingly. It is not a game that will leave you on the edge of your seat with nerves or tension; it is as genteel and threatening as Sunday night TV. Unlike Sunday night TV, it is a brilliant way to while away a few hours – and playing it, you’ll find these hours passing a hell of a lot quicker than you realise.

7 – Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (Playstation 2)

From this point forward, definitively ordering these games became almost impossible; from 7 to 2 the list could really go in any order, changing depending on whatever mood I happen to be in at the time. Nevertheless, I had to decide eventually, so I’ve given this place to the game that started one of the Playstation 2’s most successful franchises. When it comes to the Sands of Time Trilogy, I feel this opening game pips the second (Warrior Within) but I should also point out how close I came to including the much-maligned 2008 reboot of the series on PS3, which I adore (seriously, Ubisoft, whenever you can be bothered to make a sequel for the cliff-hanger you left that on FIVE YEARS AGO, me and about 6 other people will be incredibly grateful). The success of the series was such that it spawned the strange/deeply rubbish (depending on how generous you’re feeling) Hollywood movie – as well as ‘The Forgotten Sands’, a game put together in about 10 minutes to capitalise on the movie and forgotten just as quickly.

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It was this game that the movie was broadly based on: a young Prince of Persia, helping to conquer foreign land called Azad, is tricked into releasing the Sands of Time from their hourglass. This turns everyone in the surrounding area into zombie-like sand creatures, apart from the Prince himself, Farah (a young Princess of Azad) and the man who tricked him into releasing the sands, the evil Vizier. The player’s subsequent goal is to make his way through the castle, solving numerous puzzles and killing these sand creatures with Dagger of Time (which he has picked up en route) so he can plunge the knife back into the hourglass, reversing his release of the sands. He basically spends more time stabbing sand than someone attempting to cross the Sahara on crutches. It is this dagger which provides the mechanism for perhaps the game’s best known feature – the ability to slow and rewind time (along with other abilities than are unlocked as the player collects more sand). Though it seems a bit cliché, this idea proves an ingenious one; preventing a huge number of deaths by replacing extra lives with the ability to reverse your latest cock-up (even when you run out of sand, your “death” is technically nothing of the sort as the vague outline is that the Prince is telling a story in the past tense, so any failure is written off as a mistake). The main reason this works so well is that it allows the game to showcase the superb platforming that allows for a fast-moving, slick and incredibly enjoyable experience for the player. The Prince’s wall-running, climbing and jumping have become almost as ubiquitous as his time-travelling escapades and it’s a format Ubisoft have really proven the masters of.

All this excellence explains the success and enjoyment of the franchise as a whole, but not my choice of this game in particular – after all, the platforming and graphics are arguably honed and improved in future games compared to the original. What sets this game apart from its peers, in my view, is the writing and characterisation behind it. The Prince begins the game as an arrogant, headstrong moron and throughout the tale (aided by him regularly talking to himself for the player’s benefit) you actually see him develop in a believable way into a far more mature, well-rounded individual. The game is also funny, with the interaction (and growing affection) between the Prince and Farah as amusing and well-developed as you’ll tend to find on video games. It also helps that the Prince is British rather than American (which for some reason magically changes when he goes Emo for Warrior Within) and the script-writers find the right balance so as to make him whiny without being too much so as well as (initially at least) arrogant and annoying without being irredeemable. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hardly Shakespeare, but by gaming standards (see #9 on this list), Sands of Time represents a very nicely-crafted experience as well as a hell of a lot of fun to play.

6 – Portal (from The Orange Box) and Portal 2 (Playstation 3)

There are two things which, for me, really stand out as by far the most disappointing aspects of these two games. One is that there are only two, the other is that it took me so long to get around to playing them (only in the last few months). They are – and I don’t use this term lightly – creations of absolute genius and I completely fell head over heels for them. I’ve also included both as I simply can’t choose between them. The first was essentially a mini-game, an extra chucked in on The Orange Box collection with no great expectations of success. The second was quite the opposite; a dedicated full game this time, coming out under huge pressure to match its cult phenomena predecessor. The original is beautifully compact and feels like a small gift-wrapped present specially designed for the player. The fact that Valve were then able to extrapolate this feel across an entire game and maintain the same extraordinary standards is to their immense credit and in my view make the sequel as much of a triumph as the opener (in itself a rare feat).

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Ultimately, the Portal games are incredibly basic. The premise is that the player completes tests in chambers for the satisfaction of a maniacal supercomputer, each solved test moving you to the next chamber. The settings are well designed and in some cases extremely visually impressive, particularly in the second game, and are always as perfectly judged as every aspect of the games, right down to the hilarious song sung over the credits. The key, of course, is the puzzles themselves, which are solved by use of the games’ crucial feature: the portal gun. This gun, when aimed at the requisite surface, can fire a blue and an orange portal, both of which open a hole on said surface-type. Pass through the blue portal and you exit through the orange one, and vice versa. The genius in its superficial simplicity. Add to this the fact that momentum can be carried through the portal and you begin to purposefully plummet down huge drops, to shoot a portal beneath your feet before landing and come zooming out at ridiculous speeds to cross huge gaps. It’s as exhilarating as being pushed on the swings as a toddler (I mean that in a positive sense). But that’s all 90% of these games are, that’s all they need to be. Even though the second game brings you to various locations, the idea is the same: solve the puzzle, move on. Valve’s management of difficulty is also wonderfully delicate: the puzzles becoming increasingly challenging (as well as introducing more props that can and need to be used) and some can be incredibly frustrating without ever being too difficult or making you give up – you know the answer is there, and the frustration is with yourself rather than the games, something that is always an important definition.

The originality of this premise is enough to make them fantastic games, what makes them truly superb however, is the script-writing. As mentioned previously “good script for a game” is damning with faint praise taken to a ridiculous degree, possibly even surpassing “good acting for a soap”, “funny for a BBC Three sitcom” and “intelligent for a footballer”. The writing behind Portal isn’t just good for a game. It’s absolutely aeons ahead of any other game I’ve played and will stand up well to anything from TV that you’d choose to put up against it. It’s indisputably funny and having games make you regularly laugh aloud is so rare it’s almost disconcerting (at least when it’s trying to make you laugh, rather than you laughing at its incompetence, which is far more regular). What’s even more striking about this is that it is done with only 3 main characters across two games – one of whom (Chel, the character controlled by the player) doesn’t say a word in either! The despotic madness of the supercomputer, GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System, since you asked), results in brilliantly childish insulting of the player, spending much of certain segments accusing Chel of being fat and adopted. I’m probably not doing this justice at all – it really is funny. To sum up both just how good the writing is and how highly I regard the games as a whole I’m going to describe the 3rd main character and its voice (introduced in the second game) by using a phrase I honestly never thought I’d use and still find hard to believe I’m going to type: I found Stephen Merchant funny.