Otherworlds: Visions of our Solar System

The London Natural History Museum is unusually crowded, even for a Saturday afternoon. Children charge in every direction towards the skeletons of dinosaurs or volcanic rocks. Parents fret and try to keep up, or at least not lose their children in the throngs of people. There are tourists with confused expressions, who stop in the middle of a corridor without warning. Teenagers are taking selfies with the statue of Charles Darwin and middle aged men are looking at butterflies with furrowed brows. This bustle of human activity is the most important thing in the universe right now.

I step out of the crowd and into the quiet space of the Natural History Museum’s latest exhibition, ‘Otherworlds: Visions of Our Solar System’. The inside of the exhibition is the opposite of the rest of the museum. It is a quiet place in which to regard large static pictures of the planets in our solar system, while contemplating humanity’s place in the universe. Soothing ambient music from Brian Eno plays throughout, an original commission for this exhibition.

The exhibition consists of thousands of photos of the solar system - taken by NASA, ESA, probes and rovers - assembled into large images of Earth’s neighbours by the artist Michael Benson. It begins with Earth and the moon, before moving out to Mars, Mercury and Venus, and then travels all the way to the most distant planets. Each picture appears to show a world that is stranger and more alien than the one before it.

As I walked around the quiet space filled with enormous images of distant worlds, I was reminded that the universe is cold, dangerous and indifferent to everything we care about. Mercury’s atmosphere is pushed away from the surface by solar light and trails behind the planet like a comet’s tale. Venus’s atmosphere is toxic, heavy and superheated; completely inhospitable to human life. Mars is a dry desert. The rest of the solar system is cold and airless. Confronted with the stark hostility of the universe, I forgot all about the hive of activity outside the exhibition. It all seemed so pointless and brief compared to the surface of other worlds that have remained unchanged for millions of years.

It was scary to realise how insignificant we are, but I was also able to see also that the universe has great beauty as well as dangerous environments. Saturn looks sublime with its perfect rings. The cobalt blue of Uranus looks tranquil against the perfectly black sky. The cracked icy surface of Europa (a moon of Jupiter) is beautiful as well as protecting the sea beneath, which is kept liquid by the pull of Jupiter's gravity despite the extreme cold of being so far from the sun. Even in the harshest of environments, nature still holds wonders. The grand vistas of the Martian desert are stunning to behold. The universe is beautiful as well as dangerous.

This beauty is timeless and eternal. It is entirely unaffected by anything humanity has done - aside from the odd discarded rover on Mars or probe flying out into deep space. We are so vanishingly small when compared to the rest of our solar system. There are cloud storms in Jupiter's atmosphere that are larger than our whole world. The impact of humanity cannot even be seen on pictures of Earth, a reminder that it is not the world we are trying to save but ourselves. We cannot fathom how small and insignificant we are next to the vastness of the universe.

The universe is very beautiful, but utterly indifferent to everything we care about. The ice on Europa will still be there after everything we have ever cared about has turned to dust. A billion years after we are all dead, Saturn’s rings will still be spinning, unaffected by our lives and everything we hold dear. I was left feeling very small and pointless.

I emerged from Otherworlds into the hall of mammals at the Natural History Museum. The shouts of the rest of humanity disturbed my Brian Eno-created calm, but the scene was a welcome reminder of the fact that we do matter. Life maybe fragile, small and brief when compared to the planets in the sky, but the vibrancy and diversity of life on Earth is stunning to behold and every bit as beautiful as the surface of dead worlds. Humanity and the petty things we care about are more unusual than anything that exists on any other world we know about, and might perhaps be unique in the entire universe. I felt that I had travelled to the edge of the solar system to be reminded of truth about the people all around me: we maybe be small but we are still important.

Otherworlds: Visions of Our Solar System is on at the London Natural History Museum until the 15th of May 2016.

Cosmonauts at the London Science Museum

When Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon in 1969, it was broadcast around the world. For someone of my generation, it is hard to imagine a time when space breakthroughs were on the front cover of newspapers. Today, space exploration is confined to the science section of most news websites. Is that because we are not pushing back boundaries in the same way that we were in the 60s, or are people less interested in the exploits of private space companies when the benefits of their breakthroughs will not help all of humanity? Maybe we have all become cynical about space exploration because dreams of living on the moon by the end of the last century did not come true, or maybe we have simply stopped believing that the future can be different from today.

Despite America being the first to land a human on the moon, the 1950s and 1960s were dominated by Russian space breakthroughs. The first satellite in space, first animal in space, first man in space, first woman in space and first group in space were all Russian. Now a new exhibition at the London Science Museum called ‘Cosmonauts’ looks at the history of the Soviet space program and its accomplishments.

The exhibition tells the detailed story of the Russian exploration of space, through objects from the period, models, videos, photographs, audio and written accounts. The exhibition reveals the background to the Soviet space program that many people will not know in detail. For example, I did not know that Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, worked in a textile-factory before going into space.

The exhibition is arranged roughly chronologically from the early inspiration that Russian science fiction writers had on the space program, through to the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 and then Yuri Gagarin's first trip into space in 1961. The exhibits tell the story in a powerful and emotional way, bringing in the personal stories of the people involved. ‘Cosmonauts’ also shows how the USSR's achievements in space inspired the ordinary Russian people.

As the exhibition develops, we are shown how fiercely Russia competed with America during the Cold War space race. Driven by early successes, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev put pressure on the space program for more and more firsts. The USSR's achievements were supposed to keep them one step ahead of the USA, which they were until NASA landed the first person on the moon.

‘Cosmonauts’ does not shy away from the fact that Cold War hostility drove Russia's expanse into space. The exhibition shows how military technology, mainly rocketry, was adapted for the Soviet space program and how America was alarmed by Russia's progress. Successfully putting satellites into orbit confirmed to the Americans that the Soviets had rockets capable of delivering nuclear weapons to the USA. These advancements in space travel where not "in peace for all mankind", as Armstrong claimed when he stepped down into the moon.

‘Cosmonauts’ also walks the fine line of acknowledging the political repression in the USSR at the time, whilst not being too hostile to the Soviet government. This is primarily an exhibition about scientific and technological accomplishments, and not political history. ‘Cosmonauts’ is not a critique of Communism but a look at the scientific history of the 1950s and 1960s space program.

I am interested in both science and political history, and so I found ‘Cosmonauts’ fascinating. Beyond the history, I found it interesting because of my interest in modernism. Like a lot of the modernist period, the space race was a time when it seemed like the future was happening right now. People were not always optimistic about the future – the chance of the world being annihilated in a nuclear war seemed high – but people knew that the future would be radically different from the present. It is this dream, more than anything else, that we have lost. It is telling that ‘Cosmonauts’ ends at the end of the 1960s, when the modernist age was also ending.

I found that ‘Cosmonauts’ was accessible to people without much technical knowledge of space travel or rocketry. Despite reading The Martian recently, I cannot tell my Apollos from my Soyuzs. The technical information in ‘Cosmonauts’ was pitched at the right level: not too much to be confusing, but detailed enough so that I learned without feeling talked down to.

As a side note, I would certainly recommend picking up the audio guide for this exhibition. Partly because it is narrated by Helen Sharman, the first British person in space, but also because it gives the listener information about the exhibits without the need to crowd around the display signs, which will be busy on a weekend.

I would recommend ‘Cosmonauts’ at the London Science Museum to anyone interested in the early years of space travel. Even if you know nothing about – or are not particularly interested in – Soviet Russia, this is a fascinating exploration of a (mainly) peaceful competition that once captivated the entire world. Hopefully it can inspire us to look upwards once again. The exhibition closes with the words of of Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky: "Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever".


The Large Hadron Collider frequently appears in the news but how much do we really know about it? We know it is a particle accelerator built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN for short) which was instrumental in the discovery of the Higgs Boson, but what do those scientists really do in that 27km long circular tunnel?

For those who have always wanted to know more, Collider, an exhibition at the London Science Museum, aims to make the strange world CERN, the Large Hadron Collider and particle physics accessible to all.

The exhibition begins with a short introduction video, which briefly explains what CERN and the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) are. The video features several scientists of different ages, nationalities and backgrounds and focuses on the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012. This establishes the overriding theme of the exhibition clearly in the audience’s mind.

Collider focuses primarily on the collaborative nature of modern physics research. CERN has 20 member nations (19 from Europe and Israel) as well as 7 observer nations (including the US, Russia, Japan and India) which check their findings. Collider talks in detail about the challenges and advantage of having people of different languages and cultures working together on the mammoth LHC. Through videos we get to meet various members of the LHC team and we can see how diverse they are in terms of age, gender and race.

As well as talking about international collaboration, Collider also attempts to dispel the view of scientific breakthroughs as one man’s eureka moment.  The theory of the Higgs-Boson was originally proposed by five different physicists through three different scientific papers and it is near impossible for one person to claim the discovery as their own.  Even Professor Peter Higgs, after whom the elusive subatomic particle is named, has openly said that his work is part of an ongoing collaborative process. 10,000 people work on the LHC and the exhibition makes the point that scientific breakthroughs are the product of many people’s hard work.

Experimental particle physics is not the most accessible of fields and the Science Museum attempts to cater for visitors of all ages and levels of scientific understanding. A lot of effort is made to make sure Collider does not go over the heads of younger visitors whilst still remaining interesting to grown ups and those with an active interest in physics.As the visitors travel through the exhibition they observe white boards with illustrations of the processes which go on inside the LHC. These are simple enough to be understandable to pre-teen visitors but also provide a summary for older visitors.

Adjacent to these white boards are cross section diagrams of the components of the LHC, which go into much more detail of how the machine operates. Collider is certainly accessible to people from a non-scientific background, however I felt a lot of the ground of the exhibition had already been covered. The LHC and the Higgs Boson are frequently discussed in articles in mainstream media outlets, such as BBC News and the Guardian. As a reader of the science section of these publications, I felt I already knew a lot of what was in the exhibition. I can imagine that people who read the popular scientific press (New Scientist, etc) would find there was not much new to learn from Collider.

Where the exhibition really excels in its use of media; video, audio, projections, photographs and graphics are all interwoven throughout Collider to make a complete portrait of LHC. The photographs of the LHC are especially beautiful, full of amazing details. This was an exhibition that put a lot of effort into using all the mediums available to great effect.

It is too simplistic to imagine that the Higgs-Boson research is the only piece of important work that goes on at the LHC.  Collider does focus very heavily on this better known discovery, particularly on the moment it was announced.  As important as the Higgs-Boson is, there is a wide range of research done by the LHC which Collider overlooked.

At the end of the exhibition there are sections focusing on the other mysteries being investigated by CERN such as dark matter, dark energy and gravity’s relative weakness as a force. This was a well-chosen note to end on. One mystery is solved but more pop up, yet CERN, the LHC and their massive team of scientists from all over the world are still working hard to probe the enigmas of the universe.

I left the exhibition feeling stimulated and uplifted. Overall, Collider is very positive in mood. It also works hard to display the stereotype of physicist as old white men, pondering strange mathematical problems. Collider shows how accessible science can be, and how diverse it is; I hope it inspires visitors from all around the world that anyone can make a contribution to science.

Retro Gaming Events

A teenager is wearing a down vest and washing the bonnet of a DeLorean DMC-12. Sadly this model is not fitted with a flux capacitor and I haven’t travelled back in time to the mid-80s. It’s simply a retro gaming event in my home town of Leicester.

This sort of sight is common at many retro culture events. The young man in question charges visitors for a picture wearing his puffed-up red vest and sitting in the iconic car – all proceeds go to research into Parkinson’s disease, which Michael J. Fox suffers from. By itself, the vehicle would be of little interest outside car enthusiasts’ circles, but when combined with an event centred on entertainment from the 80s and 90s, it is a huge hit. These events are popular across the world. Retro is in, from music to fashion to gaming. We are in an age of culture which looks to the past more than ever before. The 1960s wanted to throw off the mistakes of the past whereas the 21st century wants to embrace them. We can see it in sequels to long-dead film franchises (Rambo, Die Hard, Bill and Ted), and the return of the down vest and fedora to high street fashion. We can see it in the return to popularity of lost arts, from burlesque to board games.

Our modern culture is not so much informed by the past as borrowed from it. The old expression that the classics never go out of style has never been truer. For my generation, retro culture is more than nostalgia for the music and TV shows of our childhoods. It’s a rejection of bland modernity and a desire to live in a different age where big ideas and grand narratives were still fashionable, and careful craftsmanship was put into creating culture, rather than relying on spectacle and mass production. This image of the past has a lot more to say about how we view modernity than what the past was actually like but it is still a powerful idea that has many followers. The above-mentioned event in Leicester was just an example of the disaffected cast-offs of modern culture coming together to yearn for a different time. This yearning is expressed by watching Back to the Future and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, eating retro sweets that are not sold in shops anymore and playing classics gaming titles on N64s and Dreamcasts.

Gaming is one of my main interests and gaming is very much a part of this cultural discourse, however for gamers, these retro events are even more important. Aside from the nostalgia and the feeling of being born out of time, retro gaming events are where gamers go to escape the omnipresent generic triple-A titles that dominate the popular spheres of gaming. There is a feeling that what once was a vibrant, original art form has faltered as budgets ballooned to point where only large entertainment conglomerates, focused on the bottom line, can afford to make mainstream games. This has constrained freedom of expression and the art form’s ability to innovate, and has led to formulaic products. Gamers are angry at this, and they flock to retro events to express their dissatisfaction. Beyond making a comment on the state of the art, retro gaming events also perform a conservation function in that they archive, maintain and exhibit the history of the medium. This is where new generations of developers go to find out how the bold steps of the past were taken. It is also where they can see what might have been, the roads not taken and the evolutionary dead ends.

The collective learning of 40 years of game development can be sampled in a few hours at a retro gaming event. Games are an interactive art form and as such in these retro gaming events fans can grab hold of the pass and explore under their own direction. As a gamer, I want developers to bring back what games used to have. Golden Eye on the N64 is clunky to play, the interface is brutal and the interaction is severely limited but it remains immensely playable 16 years after it was released. At the Leicester event I spent a considerable amount of time playing the Golden Eye multiplayer. So ingrained is that game in my cultural education that every map, level weapon, every piece of body armour or hiding spot came back to me within a few minutes of playing the game. It takes something special to leave that deep a mark on a person. I question whether we still be playing GTA V, and remembering it this way, sixteen years after its release. Some of my favourite recent games have taken it on board; I can see the influence that retro games are having on the recent explosion of indie titles.

Games like Papers Please are a small step backwards graphically but a huge step forwards in terms of narrative and interaction. With indie games you do not need a huge budget, expensive graphics or support for Kinect, you just need a good idea, which is the appeal of a lot of retro games. Streets of Rage was just fun to play and did not take itself as seriously as Halo does. Sim City taught us that everyday problems can be the basis of a game, Civilization showed us how we could create our own eon-spanning narratives.

For gamers, retro gaming events are more than a way of embracing retro culture; they are an artistic movement in themselves and I feel they hold the key to the future of gaming. We could wish for a DeLorean with a flux capacitor to travel back to 1985 and do things differently. Or – while other art forms are looking to retro culture only to remember how great things used to be – we could use the collective wisdom of past gamers to change the future.

Top Ten Spaceships

From the Star-Destroyer flying overhead at the beginning of Star Wars to Klaatu’s flying saucer descending in the original Day The Earth Stood Still, the idea of a spaceship goes hand-in-hand with what we expect from sci-fi. Where would science fiction be without space ships? It would certainly have lost a significant proportion of its iconography. To celebrate this I have chosen ten ships which stand out to me as great icons of the genre. This list is by no means definitive (neither ships mentioned above is included) but these ten vessels are essential to the narratives of their stories, and they’re fiction design classics as well.

10. The Lying Bastard – Ringworld

This one takes some explaining: built by Pierson’s Puppeteers – a cowardly two-headed alien race from Larry Niven’s Known Space series – the Lying Bastard is technically advanced and packs a few nifty tricks.

Though the Puppeteers detest violence, this personal vessel (large enough to carry four in cramped conditions) is filled with tools which could easily be used as weapons – a disintegration ray supposed to be used for digging, a flash-light with a beam so powerful it can cut someone in half. Hence our protagonist, Louis Wu’s affectionate nickname for the ship.

The Lying Bastard is also protected by the Puppeteers’ impervious hull, which comes in handy when the ship collides with the Ringworld and the novel gets interesting.

9. Serenity – Firefly & Serenity

Serenity, a second-hand Firefly-class ship and the setting for Joss Whedon’s short-lived Firefly, has as wonderfully iconic design. To me it’s like a duck, odd-shaped and bulky on the ground but surprisingly graceful in the air.

Serenity may be small compared to the settings of some stories but it has enough secret hidey-holes filled with stolen goods and the occasional fugitive to keep the audience interested. More than anything, the crew of Serenity are a family and no family is complete without a home. Whedon lovingly brings it to life for this cult season of TV and the subsequent film.

8. Red Dwarf – Red Dwarf

In the future, there will still be shit jobs; this unavoidable truth is the essence of Red Dwarf, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor’s sci-fi/comedy show. Huge, lumbering and most of it serving no visible purpose, Red Dwarf is a place where the downtrodden of the future toil away for little money.

It has an AI with an IQ of 6,000 (or the same IQ as 6,000 PE teachers), a surviving crew of four (one human, one hologram, one cat and one android) and is vast enough to contain any number of comedy capers. One piece of advice: make sure you know one of their garbage pods when you see it.

7. Luke’s X-wing – Star Wars

No, not the Millennium Falcon; the real hero among Star Wars’ ships is Luke’s dependable X-wing. The star of sci-fi’s greatest David and Goliath scene, Luke must pilot this fast but well-armed single person star-fighter down the equatorial trench of the Death Star to deliver a photo-torpedo to the enormous battle station’s only weak spot.

The Millennium Falcon plays only a supporting role in this, one of cinema’s most dramatic scenes. It’s Luke in his plucky X-wing we root for, breath held as he presses the fire key and launches those missiles down an unshielded ventilation port. It helps if you have the force on your side at the final hurdle but you need an X-wing to get you there first.

6. Planet Express ship – Futurama

In the year 3000 you wanted some soft toys delivered to the moon, Planet Express would be your first call. Another great example of blue-collar jobs in the far future, the staff of this delivery company frequently ends up in trouble on simple delivery jobs, always relying on their trusty nameless vessel.

The ship has been everywhere with its human, robot and lobster crew, from the University of Mars, to Roswell in 1947. The only thing they won’t deliver is presents for Santa.

5. Nostromo – Alien

Continuing on from Red Dwarf, it seems to me the worst job you could get in the future would be working on the intergalactic mining vessel Nostromo. Made almost entirely out of tiny ducts, pipes and small spaces for nasty things to hide in, the ship is managed by what looks like a computer from the late 1970s.

Its crew is so obsessed with getting their bonuses that they barely have time to investigate a mysterious signal they pick up on their travels. When they do, they discover science fiction’s most vicious predator and spend the rest of their short lives running or being attacked in the ship’s escape pods. All in all, not a great ship on which to be a crew member.

4. The Truck – Galaxy Truckers

Galaxy Truckers is a brilliant board game in which you assemble your space truck out of tiles picturing spare parts and then send it on a run around the stars to get the stuffing knocked out of it. Bits fall off, crew members get spaced, the guns never point in the right direction and usually the whole thing is lopsided. We love this game, because no matter how well you build your ship at the start of each round, it always ends up in port hobbling along on its last engine, with a large hole in the side.

There’s a fine art to building robust space trucks and no human seems to be able to master it.

3. Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints – Surface Detail (Culture Universe)

No list of spaceships would be complete without a mention of the late Iain M. Banks and his amazingly named Culture vessels – runners up for a position on this list included Serious Callers Only, Grey Matter and Funny, It Worked Last Time. However the prize must go to Surface Detail’s Fast Picket Ship Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints, a vessel which is basically a self contained war fleet, capable of breaking into a fleet of smaller, deadly warships. In one scene, the FOTNMC takes out an entire enemy armada in a few seconds, displaying the Culture’s vastly destructive military power which goes along with their utopian lack of laws, leaders and social structure.

The casual cruelty and moments of sudden viciousness of the FOTNMC show the dark side to the never ending sex and drugs free-for-all that is the Culture.

2. The Normandy – Mass Effect

If I were going to fly around a hostile galaxy and fight ancient killer machines, I would want a ship like the Normandy. Piloted by Seth Green’s Joker and crewed by a bizarre rag-tag group of aliens and humans, The Normandy is as versatile as its captain, Commander Shepard.

There is enormous fun to be had exploring each layer of the ship and talking to every crew member, finding out their backstory and getting their opinion on the last mission they went on. Like Serenity, The Normandy is a home and its crew members are a family. Throughout the Mass Effect series you get to know each personally and the Normandy is the perfect setting for this.

1. Discovery One – 2001: A Space Odyssey

Without 2001, there would be no Star Wars and without Star Wars there would be no sci-fi summer blockbusters or triple A games. It all began here in 1968 when Stanley Kubrick teamed up with Arthur C. Clarke to expand one of his short stories into a film. What resulted pioneered a lot of special effects that are now a staple of modern sci-fi.

The most intelligible part of the narrative takes place on Discovery One, a ship sent from Earth to investigate a mysterious black monolith that has appeared in space around Jupiter. The ship has an active crew of 2 and is run by its AI, HAL. Unfortunately, conflicting parameters in HAL’s programming drive him to become murderous. More than the terminator, HAL is logical, cold and unwavering in his killing of the crew of Discovery One, leading to some of science fiction’s most iconic scenes. The mission was a failure but 2001 was a huge success which changed science fiction forever.

Honourable mention: The TARDIS – Doctor Who

Technically not a spaceship, in that she rarely does any flying, but a special mention must go to the Doctor’s mind bending, bigger-on-the-inside space and time travelling device.

It’s huge, unknowable and full of surprises. Its ability to always go somewhere interesting is one of the greatest plot devices in TV fiction. A piece of trivia for anyone keeping track: since Doctor Who was brought back in 2005, all regenerations have taken place in the TARDIS console room, including the Master’s and the Doctor’s fake one during Journey’s End. If only those walls could talk.

C&C: Tiberian Dawn

From the first time I played the first mission of the original Command and Conquer (aka Tiberian Dawn) I was hooked. Frank Klepacki’s Act On Instinct blasted out at me as my pixelated mini-gunners stormed a beachhead and routed a Nod position. I became addicted to the satisfying boom each tank made when it exploded or the pitiful scream infantry let out as they are gunned down.

This is war sanitised and made acceptable for any teenager; enough science-fiction to reassure the player it’s pretend-carnage, and enough reality to make the game feel immersive and believable. This is a game that hooks young minds and takes them to a strange place where solider fantasy and resource management skills collide, where a glowing green substance grants victory and the villain might just be the world’s first murderer.

Tiberian Dawn was a milestone in strategy gaming and the perfect combination of reality and fantasy; it was a game made for the sort of player who read Tom Clancy and watched Dr Who. When the Command and Conquer series first burst onto our screens, it was quickly apparent that I did not want to be playing anything else.

From the second you load up the game, Command and Conquer: Tiberian Dawn grabs you and takes you into its world. In a short introductory sequence, an unseen character is channel-hopping, switching between over-the-top soap operas, bizarre children shows and news broadcasts. All seems very familiar, but through the snippets of news and documentaries, the player is introduced to the world of the Tiberian saga.

The mysterious plant-like substance known as Tiberium is spreading across the world, leeching minerals from the soil and bringing them to the surface in crystal form. This has made mining for raw materials much easier but also unleashed a new global conflict. New power bases are rising, battling to control as much Tiberium as possible. The militaries of the West have combined to form the Global Defence Initiative (GDI), while the Brotherhood of Nod, a shadowy terrorist organisation led by the enigmatic Kane, is spreading dissent and chaos throughout the Third World.

Tiberian Dawn’s story is the perfect cover for a simple resource management and tactical system, and couldn’t be better suited for the player to quickly and easily get to grips with the gameplay. Each mission is a condensed version of the global conflict; two armies clash over a limited bounty and ultimately whoever possesses the most Tiberium will be victorious. The events come across as plausible in spite of the futuristic premise, mainly because the rest of the game is grounded in reality.

The vehicles are based on familiar designs, slow moving heavily armoured tanks, fast machine gun armed jeeps and buggies, supply plains and jump jets all ripped from press coverage of any modern war. There are a few outlandish exceptions, the stealth tank, the ion cannon, the mammoth tank and the obelisk of light, but the near future setting and the prohibitive cost of these weapons within the game make it all seem very realistic.

Realism is also served in the between battle sequences. Tiberian Dawn was one of the first games, if not the first game, to use video footage in cut scenes. You are briefed by a real human sitting behind a desk in a manner you assume is similar to how actual commanders are briefed before battle. Receiving your mission from a person, rather than a blocky mass of pixels whose dialogue is printed across the bottom of the screen, helps the player to believe they are participating in a real world conflict. When the player engages in battle the control system is simple and effective. A menu on one side provides you with all your building options illuminating the need to click on different buildings to see what they offer. The ability to hoop many units at once (this was also an innovation first offered by Tiberian Dawn) makes directing large forces across the battlefield easy.

The game is huge amounts of fun to play and I always get a small thrill of excitement as soon as the new tank or jeep rolls out of my war factory. Similarly new missions are an opportunity to discover what new units have been unlocked and to see how they can be incorporated into your strategy.

The two warring factions are distinct and require different playing styles. GDI units are powerful, slow and expensive, like most western powers they rely on technological superiority and small effective fighting forces. Nod units are plentiful and fast, relying on hit and run tactics and the diversity in their armies. This makes their moves difficult to predict, like any well-known terrorist organisation/freedom fighters.

On both sides, the missions get very difficult as you progress through the campaign and the player gets a huge sense of satisfaction from victory. The game does not have several difficult settings, it has only one: very hard. The plot is slowly drip-fed to the player and has several intriguing twists and turns.

The game has been criticised for relying too much on tank rushes as an easy means to victory, but I would argue that it is impossible to tank rush without grabbing early control of Tiberium. It is in securing access to this scarce resource that the real skill lies.

EToo London: A new way to interact with E3

E3 can be a frustrating time for game fans. Sure, we get very excited about seeing the previews of this year’s upcoming titles and feeding off the media hype cloud for a few days. The previews can be disappointing or exceed our expectations but what is most frustrating about E3 is the exclusivity of it. Not only do you have to be invited but it takes place in Los Angeles, so the chances of a European fan actually attending a preview or press conference are slim to none.

There is little that can be done about the expo's location, but there are ways to engage with E3 whilst in the UK. Keith Stuart (games editor for the Guardian) and Georg Backer (of BAFTA games) have launched EToo (@etoolondon), and taken over the Loading Bar (@drinkrelaxplay) in Soho. They will be running workshops and events all week so that those of us in London can get a little of the E3 flavour. On top of that, they will be watching the E3 coverage and live streaming their reactions every evening, in a show called EToo After Dark. You can follow on Twitter and YouTube and if you are free in the day time I highly recommend you get yourself down to the Loading Bar to get involved. If you are not, then tune in online each evening to feel like you are part of the E3 experience. So what did EToo have to say about E3 itself?

Doubtless the biggest event so far has been Xbox One Microsoft’s Press Conference. It featured previews of a new Halo game, as well as Battlefield 4, Titianfall and others. Despite stunning in-game graphics and trailers packed with that Hollywood blockbuster reach-out-and-grab-you effect, these Triple A titles failed to generate much enthusiasm from the EToo team. There was criticism that some of the big titles would be available on other platforms and thus did not set the Xbox One apart as an original or special system. Its hefty price tag also drew attention; Xbox Ones will ship at $499 in the States and £429 in the UK.

Beyond that, the prevalent feeling was that the new generation of consoles were not innovating enough, undermined by an over-reliance on shooters and sequels. Nothing startling or original. The mood was overwhelming one of blockbuster fatigue - yes, the preview of Titianfall made it look like an octane-fuelled thrill-ride but game fans have controlled giant robots in battle before. Been there, done that. Other than better graphics and sound effects, what would Battlefield 4 accomplish that the first three instalments of the franchise did not?

gamestickThe energy levels picked up later on when the team behind Game Stick, the British Kickstarter sensation, came on the show to talk about their portable console launching next month. Game Stick is an Android-based console that is the size of a mobile phone and connects via a dongle to the HDMI socket in your TV. It's cheap, portable and an open platform, everything the new offerings from Sony and Microsoft are not. The launch of Game Stick is generating real buzz not only because it could open up the living room gaming market to smaller players, but also because it could widen the appeal of gaming.

This could be the device that draws in phone and console gamers alike. From their Etoo After Dark interviews, I also get the sense that the Game Stick team were young gamers, passionate about the art form and wanting to take it to new places. A stark contrast with the mock enthusiasm of Microsoft executives. One EToo panellist pointed out that, when the Battlefield 4 preview video malfunctioned, the startled executive was left on stage with nothing to say. Where is the desire for a studio to engage directly with its audience? Where is the passion for gaming, for this game in particular? Enthusiasm should ooze out of a speaker to convince us, the fans, that this game is worth our time and money.

EToo highlighted the ongoing conflict in the games industry; powerful graphics, huge maps and rich online experiences have taken Triple A studios to heights never before imagined, but now the industry is languishing under expanded budgets and a shortage of good ideas. Like Hollywood execs, game studio execs fall back on tried and tested formulas and franchises and something new is seriously needed to shake up the establishment.

I have found EToo an interesting way to engage with E3, much better than my usual second-hand following of events via Twitter and blog round ups. This felt like I was involved with something accessible. The games industry could learn a lot from EToo - success is not about huge budgets and spectacle, but in finding new ways to conenct with audiences who have become jaded with the way things are.

We’re seeing a change in the way E3 is being covered, how long before we see a change in what is being presented at E3?

The Most Dangerous Game

Richard Connell's short story The Most Dangerous Game famously describes people hunting other people for sport. However humans aren’t alone in gunning for our world’s top predator. To celebrate the release of After Earth, set on a planet where everything has evolved to hunt humans, this is my Top Ten Nastiest Creatures With A Taste For Homo-Sapiens.

10. Weeping Angels – Dr Who

Not the Doctor’s best-known enemy but certainly one of the scarier from his more recent adventures, the Weeping Angels are among the oldest creatures in the universe. Why they look like a statue from our recent past is never explained, but it is this every day disguise that I find especially scary. The minute you look away, that innocent statue over there will reveal the quantum monster within, and zap humans into the past to feast off of their potential energy. After watching an Angel episode of Dr Who, you will be convinced that every sculpture you see has moved while your back was turned. So just remember, whatever you do, don’t blink.

9. Velociraptor – Jurassic Park

For years Jurassic Park was my favourite film. A Spielberg on top form filled his audience with equal parts wonder and terror at the sight of living, breathing dinosaurs. Never had good and evil been so clearly defined than in the contrast between the reptiles who eat plants and the reptiles who eat you. The standout dino from this film is undoubtedly the raptor. Yes, T-Rex is a brute but Spielberg’s improved raptors are clever, they hunt in packs, can open doors and display almost human emotions. My favourite moment is the irony of our heroes almost being eaten in a kitchen. All fans of the film should read this Wikipedia article on what science tells us raptors were actually like.

8. Wraith – Stargate Universe

Stargate has many alien villains but none quite as scary as the Wraith. Using advanced technology to harvest humans as a food source and spread fear across the galaxy, this bizarre progeny of humans and a life-sucking spider feeds directly off human life force. What makes the Wraith interesting is the sad inevitability of their story. They need to kill humans to live, and despite their cruelty they are still people trying to survive. The Wraith exploit the tragedy most vampire stories overlook or over simplify, the fact that they simply don’t have a choice.

7. Genestealers – Space Hulk

No one wants to be trapped in a confined space with something dangerous – let along something that is mainly made out of claws and wants to rip you apart. This is the main premise of Space Hulk, a Warhammer 40K spin-off in which humans explore abandoned space ships and try and avoid Genestealer attacks. The Genestealers are perhaps 40K’s most iconic alien menace, and in Space Hulk they came into their own. This game cleverly subverted the open space aspect of the 40k tabletop battlefield with its tight and confined setting. As a game it borrows extensively from films to capture a claustrophobic mood. The Genestealers are alien predators distilled: vicious, tough, fast and driven by murderous urges.

6. Polymorph – Red Dwarf

What do you fear most? Snakes? A bad case of indigestion after a vindaloo? Or perhaps this giant, killer monster? The Polymorph is a well-known Red Dwarf creation capable of turning into whatever its prey fears or hates the most. It is dangerous in itself, as it also sucks emotions out of its victims’ heads, but it is the Polymorph’s ability to transform into other creatures to torment its targets that makes it really special. Red Dwarf makes use of its limited budget to create a villain that is memorable and leads its fans to ask themselves the dreaded question – if I met the Polymorph, what would it turn into?

5. The Thing – The Thing

Another creature capable of changing its shape to infiltrate human circles, The Thing first attacked Kurt Russell in 1982, making him question his closest friends. An alien who crashes near a human research post in Antarctica, The Thing then disguises itself as its victims to pick them off the one by one. This film is John Carpenter at his finest, being genuinely nasty. The sight of characters split apart into unnatural configurations of organs as the Thing changes from its human form into its alien body is so unsettling that it has left a permanent impression on me.

4. Reavers – Firefly

People hunting people will always be scary. From Scream to Duel, the idea of being hunted by another person touches a deep chord of fear within us all. What makes the Reavers even scarier is the mindlessness of their aggression. The primary antagonists of Joss Whedon’s Firefly and Serenity, they move quickly and kill without reason. The perfect illustration of how narrow the line between civilisation and savagery can be, the Reavers hunt, torture and kill for no other reason than perverse thrill.

3. Predator – Predator franchise

Anything Arnold Schwarzenegger cannot kill is worthy of a place in this list. The nameless intergalactic skull-collectors first appeared in cinemas in 1987 and have since made the leap to comics and games. Unlike some other creatures on this list, the predators are made to look vaguely human and point of view shots throughout the film put the viewer inside their heads. However, their complete lack of remorse or restraint sets them apart. As space’s ultimate sportsmen, who hunt and kill for fun, they are a reflection of our own viciousness towards each other and other living things.

2. Slake Moth – Perdido Street Station

Giant dream-sucking moths from another dimension? It can only be a China Miéville novel. What I find scariest about the Slake Moths is how entirely unlike any other creature in the Bas-Lag universe they are. In a world populated by so many bizarre beings, it takes something truly aberrant and outlandish for Miéville to describe it as alien. The villains of Perdido Street Station start life as curios caterpillars but soon grow into huge vicious predators with indescribable limbs and hypnotic wings. The Slake Moths stalk the night in the city of New Crobuzon, feeding off the dreams of their prey. They hunt humans as a source of food but unfortunately for us, they have limitless appetites and their feeding drains their victims heads’ of all thought. Another genuinely terrifying aspect of the Slake Moths is the way that they eat your mind, but leave your body untouched.

1. Alien – Alien, Aliens, etc

A strong candidate for any scariest creature in science fiction award, the Alien has terrorised audiences in a number of media since it first exploded out of John Hurt’s chest in 1979. What begins as a routine planetary exploration trip for the crew of the Nostromo ends up with a monster chasing them through their own ship. The aggressive extraterrestrial of unknown origin boasts acid blood and two sets of razor sharp jaws, including one on the tip of its tongue. However, what makes it really scary is how unpredictable the alien is. It is clearly intelligent, but is so different from humans that we cannot communicate; leading to inevitable violence of the most basic and animal kind. Following the initial encounter, the Alien has appeared in a series of sequels, games, books and comics as well as several high profile crossovers with the Predators. The Alien is the original monster, delivering utmost terror with the tagline “in space no one can hear you scream.”

Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock is frequently held up as an example of games being a genuine art form and not simply populist entertainment. The 2007 original was a critical smash hit, beautifully designed with Art Deco architecture and lavish set pieces. The player experienced a strong sense of foreboding as they walked through the halls of Rapture, the sunken city of the first game’s setting. However, apart from the game's design, what players really remembered about Bioshock was the gripping storyline and strong characters. Rapture had mystery and shocking revelations. As the player explored the game's setting, so too did the narrative develop.

Bioshock was brilliant, but how do you follow on success? With more of the same - this prompted criticism that Bioshock 2 was just a carbon copy of the original. Now Irrational Games are back with a third instalment, Bioshock Infinite, and things are a little different. This game is set in 1912 in Columbia, a city floating in the sky. The player inhabits the role of DeWitt, a man with a mysterious past and the series staple special abilities. As before the player uses a series of historic weapons and super powers to fight through an usual and beautifully designed setting.

In some ways, the narrative techniques in Bioshock Infinite are the same as the previous titles. In all three games, you arrive in a setting where significant story events have already taken place. These events are filled in by recordings, which the player collects as they explore the environment. This allows for backstory and development of the supporting characters to be filled in around the main plot. Also like before, the game's principal villain is developed through booming addresses, as the player fights their way through hordes of minions.

The key difference between Bioshock Infinite and the previous titles in the series is Elizabeth, a woman who accompanies you throughout the game. Her character is partly built up through recordings hidden around Columbia, but also through dialogue scenes with the protagonist, which are some of the game's strongest moments. Elizabeth is a well-developed heroine with strong motivations and emotional responses to the player's actions. The first time the two of you experience combat together, Elizabeth is visibly repulsed by DeWitt's slaughter of NPCs.

The story unfolds similar to before. It is structured around a series of set pieces in confined spaces, where game challenges must be overcome to advance both plot and character. The player is guided between these set pieces by objectives that must be completed in each location. As before, the player is offered choices along the way which alter the outcome of the narrative. This gives the player the ability to shape the outcome according to what they feel DeWitt's personality is. Our understand of DeWitt as a protagonist is developed through flashbacks, dialogue with Elizabeth and recordings but ultimately the player gets to decide what sort of person he is and receive an ending which reflects this.

As before, the dialogue is well written, with period detail, and the voice actors do fantastic work bringing their parts to life. The recordings hidden throughout Columbia have especially strong dialogue, despite the fact some of these characters have limited screen time, their personalities are effectively built up through these short monologues.

Many of the strong storytelling elements from previous Bioshock games are present in Bioshock Infinite, but new features have also been added to develop the narrative and setting. Having two protagonists and dialogue between them allows for greater character development and a more complex story. The relationship between DeWitt and Elizabeth is more complex than Delta’s relationship with his daughter in Bioshock 2, and Jack’s relationships in the original. There is a lot here to delight fans of previous Bioshock stories, and a lot of new ideas which push the envelope further.