Archive for the ‘Gaming’ Category

 

Fancy a listen? Click for the Tomb Raider soundtrack or composer Nathan McCree’s Soundcloud

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I’ve waited two decades to hear the original Tomb Raider score played by an orchestra. Imagine my disappointment when it didn’t feature on the Anniversary remake (a game I still loved but nobody bought) or when the soundtrack to the 2001 movie adaptation consisted of Bono shouting about a mole living in a hole. Did Tomb Raider: Live in concert deliver on twenty years’ worth of high hopes? Yes – it was everything I’d dreamed, and more.

 

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Nathan McCree

The soundtrack to 1996’s Tomb Raider is nothing short of a masterpiece. Composed by Nathan McCree, the score is evocative of forgotten worlds and the journey of an intrepid explorer as she gazes upon the lost landscapes. Hearing it immediately whisks us away to the Peruvian mountains, Greek temples and Egyptian tombs. The elegance and beauty of the main theme perfectly embodies our heroine Lara Croft as she uncovers the mysteries of the ancients. The score also comes loaded with moments of heart-pounding terror as Lara narrowly escapes the jaws of death. Remember looking down from St Francis’ Folly, leaping over spike traps and running from the T-Rex? Of course you do!

 

Let’s not forget the second and third instalments in the Tomb Raider series, which were also composed by McCree. These games took Lara across the globe to exotic new locations, so naturally her adventures needed the soundtracks to match. Some stand-out musical moments included the skidoo chase across the Tibetan foothills, the sitar-infused trek through the jungles of India and the Vivaldi-esque Venice theme – perfect for crashing through gondolas while riding a speedboat. Presented together as the ‘Tomb Raider Suite’, McCree’s work is ambitious in scope with many clever variations of its own classic themes.

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Shelley Blond

At the Eventim Appollo Hammersmith, I finally got to hear my favourite game music played live by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra and conducted by Robert Zeigler while images and footage were displayed on a giant screen. But the event had more than a few surprises in store. Our host was none other than Shelley Blond, the original voice actress of Lara Croft. As well as hearing the official world premiere of the ‘Tomb Raider Suite’, we were also treated to a brand new Nathan McCree composition inspired by the original Tomb Raider trilogy titled ‘In The Blood’. The concert also featured Nathan himself discussing his work onstage, a compilation of clips from Geeketiquette’s thoroughly entertaining Tomb Raider playthrough and a familiar old butler who tottered on at the end of the first half. Presumably someone had to lock him back in the freezer before the show could continue.

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It’s okay – we all did this at some point!

 

Tomb Raider raised the bar not just in game mechanics but aesthetics, which the music was a huge part of. Those unforgettable first four notes have been forever etched into the hearts of gamers worldwide. To hear it done justice after years of listening to the synth versions (as anyone who ever popped the game disc into a CD player would have done) was truly phenomenal. It was the perfect way to celebrate 20 years of Lara Croft.

Few things will get me through a dull day quite like a good game soundtrack. It’s the perfect antidote to the crippling banality of office small talk.

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Office Space is class by the way

I thought I’d share a few of my favourite soundtracks here, starting with my current weapon of choice – an FMV horror/puzzle fest known as The 7th Guest.

(Click here for 7th Guest soundtrack via YouTube link. Or just look it up yourself – it’s all good)

 

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Philips CDi: Terrible Zelda games not included

This game came into my life via ‘The Sleepover’ – a different kind of game that you might have played yourself. It was set in a friend’s house and the sole object was to stay up all night (technically it was a local multiplayer strategy played in real time.) You’d need three things: 1 – Jammies (obviously) 2 – An obscenely large quantity of junk food and 3 – Entertainment, preferably videos or any available games console. My friend Kirsty had a Philips CDi – a curious gadget that played games and movies on compact discs. In those days, this was considered ‘witchcraft’.

 

 

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Bottom right: BBFC ’15’ age classification. Yes, we truly stuck it to “The Man”.

When we weren’t sliding down stairs in sleeping bags or attempting to get through a few seconds worth of Dragon’s Lair 2 (borderline impossible, especially with the CDi’s weird remote control device), we’d be pulling an all-nighter on The 7th Guest. And oh, how that game intrigued us! It gave us a pre-rendered 3D haunted house to explore, real humans acting out dramatic scenes (albeit terribly) and – best of all – a ‘15’ certificate on the box, which meant there HAD to be something rude in there if we looked hard enough.

 

 

 

The game turned out to be a bit of a let down in the smut department (I’m sure anyone who played Night Trap experienced similar disappointment) but it still had plenty on offer for a trio of excitable youngsters high on sugary snacks. We got a cool story about a creepy toymaker called Mr Stauf (geddit? It’s an anagram of Faust), the thrill of unlocking and exploring new rooms and numerous bits that were simultaneously unsettling and hilarious. Red Balloon man, we salute you!

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I’ve often wondered what this guy has been up to since. Sod all, according to IMDB

 

Here’s where I finally get around to discussing the soundtrack, which was supposed to be the point of this post anyway. This was the very first game score I heard on CD, which allowed for ‘proper’ songs with lyrics and singers and shit. The fact that the soundtrack came on its own separate disc meant something else too – people wanted to listen to the music, even when they weren’t playing the game. As a kid who’d already put several game soundtracks on tape using a portable cassette recorder, I felt validated. Apparently there were people out there who were as weird as me.

 

 

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Fun fact: I once baked a replica of this cake puzzle. Because that’s how I roll.

The CD starts with a classic gothic horror overture complete with pipe organs, bells and the foreboding tones of a Latin choir (at least I think it’s Latin. I don’t speak Latin so I’m not sure.) The rest is bookended by two full songs, both enjoyable in their own ways. The first is “The Game”, which has a wonderful brooding/grungy feel to it. Would you believe this was made in 1993? The lyrics retell the in-game story while conveying the mood, almost like a precursor to the channel Miracle of Sound (highly recommended). “The Game” uses a melody that’s heard in various forms throughout The 7th Guest, most memorably in a Simon-style mini-game (a.k.a. “That Bloody Piano”). There was no margin for error during this 18 sequence-long puzzle – screw up once and it was straight back to the start with you. Curse you, Mr Stauf!

 

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That Bloody Piano

 

The closing number is “Skeletons In My Closet”, which played over the end credits (or so we believed – try as we might, we never actually got that far). It’s a camp, jazzy little ditty that fits nicely with the 1930s/40s setting in which the action takes place. Actually, that should be “took place” – the actors appear as ghosts reliving moments from the night they died while the players controls a disembodied spirit trying to make sense of the events. Cool, huh? Dig those backing vocals too – they don’t make ‘em like that anymore!

 

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90s FMV acting at its finest. Imagine Tommy Wiseau directed video games.

 

The in-game music does a fantastic job creating an air of suspense, mystery and spooky goings-on. I think it’s a real testament to the game’s score that it managed to keep us going through the puzzle sequences because, trust me, some of those took an age to solve. The CD soundtrack provides a nice sample of each track peppered with a few dramatic music stings and (oh joy!) voice clips. Fans of bad FMV acting are in for a treat. You can practically taste the ham.

 

Maybe it’s the nostalgia bug or maybe it’s my undying love of cheesy horror but The 7th Guest soundtrack is one I’m glad I revisited. It was composed by George “The Fat Man” Sanger, whose other credits include Wing Commander, Zombies Ate My Neighbours and… what’s this? A sequel to The 7th Guest called The 11th Hour? I might just have to check that out…

… and a fan-made third game in the works called The 13th Doll? My cup runneth over!

The Quarian & the Geth

“Does this unit have a soul?”

Tali1Legion1The backstories and development of these two races are intrinsically linked, so it only makes sense to review them together. The Quarian machinist Tali’Zorah nar Rayya joins the Normandy as part of her pilgrimage. Geth are the most frequently encountered enemy in Mass Effect. Together their unfolding story serves as a microcosm for the theme of Organic versus Synthetic lifeforms that runs through the series.

According to Mass Effect lore, the Geth were the invention of the Quarian. Originally built for manual labour, the robotic Geth were given a series of upgrades to enhance their intelligence for complex tasks. As an unexpected result, they became self-aware and began questioning their existence, purpose and the presence (or otherwise) of their souls. Horrified by the implications and suddenly fearing their creations, quarians began shutting down the units – a move that resulted in a full Geth uprising in which the Quarian were defeated. Driven from their homeworld Rannoch and denied amnesty due to their irresponsible actions, the Quarian became a nomadic race forced to live aboard their own ships. This story can be read as a space opera interpretation of the Prometheus myth or a large scale version of its most famous derivative work, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

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What’s interesting about the artistic development process is that the Geth were designed first and Bioware artists then worked backwards to conceptualise the “creator race”. Geth are fully synthetic, constructed from durable metals and artificial muscle tissue. This grants them formidable strength and agility, particularly the “hopper” units. When damaged, they leak a white fluid that gives the impression of bleeding. Similarities were made in the Quarian design to reinforce the connection with the Geth. They share physical attributes with their slender builds, strong hips and bowed back legs. The two races also demonstrate a resourceful nature in their outward appearances. Salvaged materials are used by both, as seen in the variety of textures and patterns in the Quarian environmental suits and by the Geth unit Legion using a fragment of Shepard’s armour to “patch a hole.” Both races, it would appear, share a resourceful nature.

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One possibly symbolic parallel is that Quarian and Geth are both effectively “faceless.” A Geth’s “head” is substituted by a lamp light while the Quarian wear opaque, featureless masks. There are several ways we can read into these design choices. From a gameplay stance, a Geth’s “face” provides dramatic lighting when battling in dark quarters, plus it gives the player a shooting target. From a storytelling point of view, perhaps the Geth were built this way in an attempt to dehumanise (or dequarianise) the workforce and avoid facing the contentious issue of slave labour.

It’s thanks to the quarians’ subsequent actions that they were forced into wearing masks. By the time the events of Mass Effect are in motion, the Quarian have inherited a seriously weakened immune system – a result of generations spent living in isolation aboard ships – and must wear body suits with protective masks that obscure all but the faintest hint of a face. Losing their faces symbolises a loss of status – their fall from the image of gifted and respected inventors to social pariahs. It could also be a sign of their abandoned ethics and lost humanity in the act of creating a sentient race (labelled “True A.I.” in the game’s universe) only to enslave it and then attempt to destroy it.

Tali2Traditional science fiction uses aliens to convey themes of the Other in society and in Mass Effect the Quarian evoke a number of social, racial and religious groups that have been targets of Western prejudice. Since being denied amnesty, the Quarian have become reviled in galactic society and are dismissed as beggars and thieves. In the games, they fall victim to false accusations of theft and abusive slurs such as “suit rat”. Parallels might be drawn with real-life Gypsy and Traveller communities. Additionally the Quarian speak with a distinctly Eastern-European accent, possibly harking back to the Red Scare, and their veils and facial coverings might even be compared to the niqab or burka. It’s not a direct metaphor – a quarian’s mask and suit are worn for medical rather than religious purposes – yet the distrust and discrimination they experience feels rooted in real life.

As for the Geth, they are aware that their species is feared by organic races, many of whom don’t consider synthetics to be a species at all. Even the colourfully diverse crew of the Normandy have trouble adjusting to the presence of a Geth unit on board and the player is actually given the option to sell Legion to Cerberus for research purposes. Needless to say, this is a pretty hardcore Renegade option.

Eventually the conflict between the Geth and Quarian escalates into full blown war, the outcome of which is entirely down to the player. Shepard might take sides with either race, attempt to secure peace between them or decide that neither are to be trusted and simply use them as assets wherever it’s considered useful. I’ll admit… I messed this up horribly on my first playthrough and the consequences plagued me right through to the end. I had no idea a game could cause so much heartbreak and feelings of guilt – in fact, it’s one of the most powerful emotional responses I’ve experienced through any work of fiction.

And no, I haven’t talked about the “Tali’s face” controversy from Mass Effect 3. Let’s just pretend that lazy Photoshop effort never existed, okay?

Thanks for reading! If you’ve enjoyed this series and want more Mass Effect musing (because who doesn’t?) then check out Five Out of Ten magazine, issue 14. Two of my articles are featured; “The Dirty Dozen” where I talk about the squad of Mass Effect 2 and “The Unnatural Evolution of Pokemon”, which was written to tie in with the theme of Nature.

Please support them if you can – they publish some fantastic, thought-provoking gaming articles and they really helped me improve my writing, plus the art design makes it look feckin’ awesome!

The Krogan are a hulking reptilian species; warriors born and bred who revel in their own aggression. They once threatened to conquer the galaxy but were thwarted when a biological weapon crippled their birth-rate. Through the Krogan battlemaster Urdnot Wrex and his clan, Shepard may discover that there is more to this race than first meets the eye.

kroganbatfaceStanding seven feet tall and weighing a tonne in armour, Krogan are by far the largest and strongest species in Shepard’s crew. Ideas came from several members of the animal kingdom, particularly rhinos (hence their charging attack) and ancient reptiles. Faces were inspired by line drawings of bats. Early concept sketches were of primitive beings with long, ape-like arms, later changed to avoid animation problems. Each Krogan’s solid headplate is formed by the fusion of small, supple bones like a newborn’s skull. This plate often comes in handy as their debates are typically resolved with a headbutt to the face.

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Besides brutishness, Krogan biology suggests survival. Thick hides protect their bodies and humps preserve nourishment due to scare food and water supplies, not unlike a desert camel. Flat teeth imply they were originally herbivores, even if they are shown cooking rats on their barren homeworld. The placement of their eyes is indicative of a prey species rather than a predator. A better field of vision would help Krogan spot attackers; practical, given that Tuchanka is home to dangerous fauna including thresher maws. Their short gestation period – unusual for large beings of long lifespan – also indicates heavy predation during evolution. Or in Wrex’s words “You haven’t seen how fast we can pop them out.”

Grunt: Rockin' the Citadel!

Grunt: Rockin’ the Citadel. This is why we love him!

To many, the Krogan are thugs who must be suppressed for the safety of others; understandable given the Krogan Rebellions and the fact that they do enjoy violence. However, this need not be the last word on their race. Wrex is level headed with a hearty sense of humour (the only subject that provokes his wrath is the Genophage virus, which threatens to drive his people to extinction.) Grunt will “act out” in Mass Effect 2 yet he’s tempered when he gains a sense of purpose and belonging. Finally in Mass Effect 3, “Eve” tells of the quiet suffering and suicidal tendencies of the infertile females – a stark contrast to the furious chest-beating of the males. Ultimately, the true nature and fate of the Krogan is decided by the player.

Note: Personally, I love the Krogan! Wrex was my bro in the first game and I promised myself I’d do anything I could to cure the Genophage. As an extra, here’s an artist’s impression of a krogan baby.

Altogether now - D'awww!

Altogether now – D’awww!

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The Asari

Asari are a mono gendered species resembling human females with blue skin. They are credited as superior intellects, possessors of natural telekinetic (or “biotic”) abilities and the first living race to discover interstellar travel. Shepard’s trusted ally, the Asari scientist and archaeologist Dr Liara T’Soni, sheds light on the past in the hope of preserving the future.

asaricommandoThe Asari are the closest species to humans physically as the race was fashioned with a potential love interest in mind. They can wear human armour and possess the most homo sapien faces (Liara’s particular features were based on the model Jillian Murray). However their relatability is balanced with their otherworldliness. In place of hair, Asari have tentacles. Skin tones range from teal to purple and emit a subtle glow. Facial markings create distinctions between individuals as can minor traits of that particular asari’s “father”, who may belong to any alien species.

There is a strong aquatic influence in the Asari design, most obvious in their blue colouring. In myth and folklore, water is a symbol of feminine energy, beauty and mystery as depicted in mermaids, sirens and water nymphs. The Asari scalp crest, which is shaped like a wave, was based on the image of a woman emerging from a pool with her hair slicked back. Up close fine, fish-like scales are visible on an asari’s skin. The motif extends beyond aesthetics as the fluidity and grace of their movement is also likened to water.

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The Asari are an abstract, almost idealised version of femininity. Though not technically female they use feminine pronouns, worship female deities and their life stages – maiden, matron and matriarch – echo the three phases of pagan womanhood. The inclusion of “blue space-babes” may sound cheap but it could be argued that Bioware were harking back to traditional iconography rather than conforming to cliché. Concept art shows the Asari in strong or contemplative poses, their allure coming from their inner power rather than their bodies. True, we see them dancing in seedier locales yet we’re just as likely to meet Asari diplomats, armoured commandos and, of course, Liara in her lab coat.

Liara T'Soni - "The doctor will pwn you now."

Liara T’Soni – “The doctor will pwn you now.”

The following was my contribution to a book on art in games. Unfortunately the project folded before it could be published.

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Mass Effect: Designing an Alien Race

After their success with the Star Wars based Knights of the Old Republic Bioware created Mass Effect – an original science fiction universe tailored to an action-RPG premise.

Set over a century into the future, the trilogy follows Commander Shepard’s mission to save organic life from the threat of the Reapers. The term “organic” applies to many advanced beings besides humans, each with their own history and culture. Members of these races join Shepard to become allies, friends and even romantic interests.

Alien designs were based on archetypes, visual metaphors and familiar forms. The majority were inspired by at least one real life species, for example the Salarian took cues from amphibians and the Hanar from jellyfish. Non-playable characters could take virtually any shape but game mechanics required the combatants to use firearms, have humanoid skeletal structures (symmetrical, bipedal etc) and no appendages that would obstruct movement. Shepard’s teammates needed to emote during conversations, which created the need for recognisable facial features. Even with these criteria in place and with so many real-world influences, the alien designs are still unique and varied. Additionally, there was a push to give each character an iconic silhouette for the Squad Selection screen.

In the first game, Shepard is joined aboard the Normandy by four aliens; a Turian, an Asari, a Krogan and a Quarian.

 

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The Turian

When designing a galaxy on the brink of war we must ask what its ultimate military power would be like. With the Turian, Mass Effect delivered a regimental society renowned for their forcefulness and discipline. Despite past conflicts and bad blood between their respective races, Shepard forms a close bond with the Turian agent Garrus Vakarian.

turian.conceptBirds of prey, particularly eagles, inspired the Turian appearance. The pointed chin and mouth mandibles form a beak shape while a cartilage-based “head fringe” resembles feathers. Most notable are the sharp, beady eyes. Their hands and talons are like avian feet but with opposable thumbs. Turian biology wasn’t solely inspired by birds however; the exoskeleton that provides their natural armour is typically found on insects and crustaceans. It succeeds in making them appear both tougher and more “alien”. As a finishing touch, the war paint on their faces reinforces their militant heritage.

The eagle is symbolic of pride, honour and patriotism, particularly in the United States. Likewise, the Turian are a proud race and duty-bound to their people, placing great importance on civic duty and the greater good. They operate on strict codes of honour, to the degree that it is rumoured they physically cannot lie. The phrase “eagle eyed” can be applied both literally and figuratively as no minor detail escapes a Turian’s attention.  History names them as the race that secured galactic peace and so they work tirelessly to maintain order, dedicating their talents to administrative duties.

GarrusHis race may be mired in bureaucracy, but Garrus shows us the deadly hunter the Turian was evolved to be. The monocular visor he wears shows an affinity with his weapon of choice – the sniper rifle – which channels his natural precision into a lethal art. He also exemplifies the ideals of the militia and the justice system, being wise and compassionate as well as a force to be reckoned with. Garrus abandons his career as a law enforcer to join Shepard but his goal of protecting the innocent remains the same. The difference is that his notion of the greater good extends far beyond his own race.

First appearance – Tekken, 1994, Namco

Ah, the Williams Sisters… Cain and Abel in stilettos! This grudge match has lasted for decades and whenever they weren’t at each other’s throats it’s only because they’d been cryogenically frozen.

Nina and Anna

Why do they fight? Nobody knows – it’s just what sisters do. There’s no scratching or hair pulling either, only gut punching and bone breaking. Now THAT’S sisterhood, or at least it is in my experience. But as all sibling rivals know, there’s a fine line between love and hate. Families often fight because they’re so close and the Williams family is no exception.

Nina’s a Tekken veteran, having been in every game to date plus her origin story in Death By Degrees. Her career as an assassin keeps bringing her to the Iron Fist tournament as there’s always a juicy contract on at least one contender. Anna is her younger sister, primary antagonist and sub-boss. Often she finds herself recruited as bodyguard to Nina’s latest target. When she wins, she adds insult to injury with a celebratory bum waggle. Both are skilled in Aikido and Koppo (or “Bone”) martial arts. With the right button combinations they can trap opponents in a series of locks, breaking their limbs with enjoyable crunchy sound effects. They’re Irish according to the manuals, but after Namco introduced dialogue into the game I wasn’t so sure…

COULD YOU SPEAK UP THERE GIRLS? I CAN’T UNDERSTAND YOU WITH THOSE THICK OIRISH ACCENTS!

That’s a MINOR deviation compared to the Tekken movies. In the live action film, the sisters played Kazuya Mishima’s hit squad/concubines. Typical of most video game movie adaptations, they pretty much got the costumes right and nothing else. Earlier on, in the 1997 Tekken anime, Anna was killed by a dinosaur. No, I didn’t make that up.

Just like the game... except for the part where it's NOT.

Just like the game… except for the part where it isn’t.

Can one sister live without the other? The backstory to Tekken 3 tells me that they can’t. After failing to assassinate Kazuya, Nina is forced to become a test subject for Mishima cryogenic labs; hence she is the only recurring character who hasn’t aged physically. So, what becomes of Anna? Funnily enough, she actually volunteers for the same procedure.

Her reasons for doing this are a mystery. Maybe the threat of a rival who could awaken anytime – fit, healthy and murderous as ever – made her paranoid. The shallowest explanation is that she couldn’t stand the thought of ageing while her older sister remained fresh and youthful. Yes, Anna loves being glamorous but that’s one hell of a step to avoid wrinkles! For whatever reason, it seems that Nina’s absence would prove unbearable to Anna, to the point that she’d rather freeze herself than live without big sis.

I like to think that they care for each other deep down but just have a funny way of showing it. Both mourn their father, as evidenced by the graveside scenes where the occasional truce occurs. They have no living family (besides Nina’s biological son Steve Fox – even then, her maternal instincts only go as far as ‘not killing him’) so this loss is something that only they share. Maybe seeing each other reminds them of this pain. Maybe lashing out at one another is the only way they know how to deal. Or maybe once again I’m reading way too much into the backstories of fictional characters from old Beat ’em Up games… who can say?

(Quick sidenote: Nina’s theme in Tekken 3 has a totally sweet bassline and you should give it a listen. I’ll just leave it here.)

In any case, their feud never amounts to much. If it were simply a matter of bumping each other off, surely someone would’ve succeeded by now. There’s been a number of twist endings where one sister sneaks up on the other, only to play a silly prank. Plus Nina was defenceless in that cryochamber – if Anna truly wanted her dead, she only had to pull the plug. But she doesn’t – instead she joins her sister in cryosleep and they live to battle another day.

Besides, these women are warriors. Offing each other in anything short of a fair fight would be bad form. Not only that, it would deprive the victor of their only worthy adversary. Sibling rivalry is their driving force – it’s what they live for. Well, that and tasteful PS1 sideboob…

I don’t normally do this, but massive shout-out to my sister Jen – ace Nina-player and brilliant person altogether. Thanks for all the support and I’m glad we managed to get past all the childhood punch-ups!