Super Hexagon (or, Curse You, Kieron Gillen)

Curse you, Kieron Gillen.

It’s not enough for you to be a brilliant comics writer and games journalist. It wasn’t enough for you to pull off one of the most impressive final issues of a mainstream superhero comics run that I’ve ever read – the wonderful, meta-textual Journey Into Mystery, starring a teenage reincarnation of Thor villain and trickster god Loki. It wasn’t enough for you to instill in me an intense desire to play the boardgame Risk Legacy, despite the fact that I’m very good at buying boardgames and then never playing them.

Oh, no. You also had to get me addicted to Super Hexagon.

There I was, casually reading through your excellent review of the gaming year over on Rock Paper Shotgun, and I read about the game Super Hexagon. It was probably the retro-looking graphics that appealed, and I was looking for something new and exciting to play on my iPad (having found that while indulging in my nostalgia for GTA: Vice City on the iPad was kinda fun, the iPad control system turns any car chase into virtual suicide). I looked on the App Store, and lo and behold – it was even on special offer. Only 69p. So I clicked ‘Buy’.

And that was pretty much it.

Super Hexagon is INSANE. It’s an incredibly simple game, and the look of it brings back memories of vector-graphic classic Tempest, except that your task as player is to steer a tiny triangle past the various obstacles that are speeding towards the centre of the screen. Hit one of them, and you’re dead. Simple, eh?

Er, no.

You see, Super Hexagon is fast. Seriously, headspinningly fast, and scored with a pulsing electro-dance beat just so you’re in no doubt exactly how fast it is. And it’s absurdly tricky. I’ve been playing it every day for a week, and I’ve finally got to a point where I can pretty regularly last for over 30 seconds per game – and this is on the easiest possible setting. The game begins with a notice saying ‘Headphones Recommended’, and I’m pretty sure this is so that if you’re playing it within earshot of anyone, they don’t end up driven mad by the cool female American voice intoning “Game Over” every five seconds. Because trust me – when you start playing, that’ll be about as long as you last.

It’s dizzying and thrilling in equal measure, relying on pattern recognition and very fast reflexes – you have to watch the entire screen as you play, and there are certain structures which still send me into a fatal tailspin the moment they appear. It’s the kind of game where even the slightest error will instantly kill you, but the sheer challenge of weaving through this adrenalised, perspective-shifting hailstorm of geometric shapes will keep you going. I’ve managed to last up to 45 seconds (on the very easiest setting), and I’m counting that as a major acheivement. There are other, harder levels – ‘Hexagoner’ and ‘Hexagonest’ – as well ones that you have to unlock which, frankly, I don’t even want to *think* about right now.

I’m sure I’ll recover from my addiction from this supercharged sugar rush at some point. I may even get to conquer one (or more) of the jaw-droppingly tricky levels of the game. But for now, the Super Hexagon icon sitting there on my iPad, daring me to ignore it, knowing that I’m going to fail.

Curse you, Kieron Gillen!

(I’m still gettting Young Avengers, though…)

Comics Review – Phonogram : Rue Britannia

Writer: Kieron Gillen ~ Art: Jamie McKelvie ~ Publisher: Image ~ Year: 2006

Phonogram - Rue Britannia Cover - Jamie McKelvie

[xrr rating=4/5]

The Low-Down: A low-key but surprisingly engaging urban fantasy that blends mythology with the NME, this characterful comics miniseries takes a wonderfully left-field look at pop music and what it does to us.

The Backstory: Everybody knows about Phonomancy, right? The way you can use music to do magic? One of the simplest tricks in the books. Used correctly, music can do anything, touch on any emotions and unlock all kinds of doors…

What’s it About?: It’s 2006 and David Kohl, Phonomancer and egotist, is having a bad day. A one-night stand has come back to haunt him, and now he’s got a mystery to unravel. Someone is interfering with Britannia – the spiritual godhead of Britpop, dead these past ten years – and both his memory and reality itself are starting to alter and unravel…

The Story: Comics can do anything. You want proof? Look at Phonogram, a brilliantly oddball exploration of music and myth that dances along the edge between fantasy and music journalism without ever quite toppling either way. It’s the kind of work that’d feel too slight or too laboured in any other medium, but sits perfectly in comics, taking you on a quiet and characterful fantasy journey through Britpop. One of the best things about it is simply the way it plays the magic and fantasy as completely matter-of-fact and ordinary – because of course it isn’t about the magic, it’s about pop music, memory, and the way nostalgia can be both a comfort and your worst enemy. The word ‘urban’ springs to mind, and Phonogram is a genuinely urban fantasy that, even four years after being first published, does something fresh and inventive with a sub-genre that’s still mired in werewolf-shagging and winsome vampires.

Phonogram - Internal Art - Jamie McKelviePhonogram is something else altogether – a world of memory kingdoms and rituals, where ghosts are still mourning the absence of Manic Street Preachers guitarist Richey Edwards and whole lives can be defined by the music people listen to. Comparisons have been made to the long-running Vertigo series Hellblazer (starring breathlessly cynical magician/bastard John Constantine), and there are definite echoes in the landscape and atmosphere of the comic – but Phonogram has a weirdness and a sense of playfulness all of its own. The whole thing was a labour of love for writer Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie (Gillen has already said in interviews that thanks to making so little money on Phonogram, the chances of any return visits after the brilliant second volume The Singles Club is unlikely), and making a comic-book voyage through the mythic landscape of Britpop is certainly one of those endeavours that qualifies as heroic. Like all the best music journalism, Phonogram flirts occasionally with pretension and isn’t afraid of wearing its heart on its sleeve. It’s also not afraid of throwing in references or unexpectedly mythic cameos that its audience might not get (there’s a detailed four-page glossary in the back of the book for anyone who didn’t live through the Britpop years), and certainly doesn’t go for attention-grabbing tactics of action, sex or gore. This is a late-night wander of a graphic novel, the kind of story that’ll strike a chord with anyone who’s ever lost themselves in a song or experienced that one grand pop passion that somehow sums up a period of your life.

Phonogram art - Jamie McKelvieIt’s also wickedly funny, with the entertainingly cynical Kohl acting as a brilliantly engaging (and occasionally foul-mouthed) protagonist. Gillen’s characterisation here is top notch, creating a rich cast of characters, especially the ascerbic and spiky Phonomancer Emily Aster, and delivering a whole series of finely crafted one-liners. A comic series that knows it isn’t for everyone (and isn’t trying to be), Rue Britannia is a little rough around the edges, but like all good pop, it’s the flaws and imperfections that make the moments of brilliance worthwhile.

The Art: Printed in black-and-white, Jamie McKelvie’s art style here is deceptively simple – he’s got a very clean-lined approach that’s almost the exact opposite of modern-day superhero comic art. Take a single panel, and it might look a little too simple – but place it in context, and you get a gorgeously easy visual ride that guides you through the story. He’s also brilliant at capturing characters – not many artists can handle making lengthy conversations visually interesting – and gives the whole series an off-beat, expressive and unique atmosphere.

The Verdict: Weird. Wonderful. Verging on essential. An excellent example of the kind of strange and unusual territory comics can explore – and the follow-up, The Singles Club, is even better.

[amtap book:isbn=1582406944]