A hardcore game developer’s favourite iPhone games

As a games developer, I have a rather high standard for games that entertain me. Staring at their inner workings for 8 hours a day has given me the keen ability to spot shallow game mechanics (not to mention lazy bugs) – and having played videogames for pretty much my whole life, I’ve been exposed to a good spread of genres, from twitchy platformers to thought-provoking RPGs.

I have a dilemma: there’s this awesome games machine I usually keep in my pocket – my iPhone (4S). It’s amazingly powerful given its size, yet the software on it is far too often lacklustre. I’ve trawled through The App Store for many an hour only to come away disappointed that there are no epic RPGs, no fantasy worlds in which I can wonder, and no fascinating characters with whom I can interact.

At least, there aren’t many.

Now there are plenty of very polished quick and fun games – Angry Birds, Where’s My Water, Cut the Rope… Games that require no explanation because you finish a level in one swipe and you’re immediately rewarded with glowing stars and growing, throbbing arrows.  I can’t fault them in terms of either presentation or rapid gratification, but they’re never really satisfying on the same level as, say, The Witcher or XCom.

If I was a world-famous chocolatier, these things would be the equivalent of an advent calendar.

Do you find yourself wanting more? Here’s my top 10 list of deep iOS games. It might not scratch the surface of a fully-fledged immersion into PC gaming, but this is the best I can recommend!

10. Words with Friends

The first desynchronised multiplayer game that I remember playing, I chuckled with glee at the thought of sending off my wicked combinations of letters to my fellow players.  It’s basically Scrabble by mail, with a slightly ‘Toys R Us’ feel to the user interface.  Totally compelling if you like word games.

Words with Friends

9. The Lost City

I never really played Myst, but I imagine it’s like this: visually sumptuous views of a forgotten world, and a tiny thread of story which is expounded upon by the clues you discover throughout your adventure.

The Lost City has been lovingly put together and it’s a pleasure to explore and interact with its environment.  Tap on the edges of the screen to move in that direction, or tap and drag on the various puzzles to uncover the next secret.

The Lost City WorldThe Lost City Notebook

8. Geared

An underrated little puzzler, Geared has you slotting, um, gears into place to connect a starting and ending, uh, gear.  They come in different sizes (and later on, with different properties) and you must slide them together and avoid the deadly gearlock.

It looks simple at first but the compulsion to build a machine is quite irresistible, and there’s definitely a wonderful sense of achievement when you slot everything together and the gears turn away.  One level in particular got me stuck for ages and I couldn’t rest until I’d solved it.

Geared

7. Spaceteam

Aka ‘Spadetram’ amongst my friends after a cursory typo, Spaceteam requires you to work together with 1-3 other iOS-tronauts, and bark commands at each other.  You’re given a set of controls and must interpret the bizarre words yelled in your direction as you interleave your own requests that appear near the top of the screen.  Above that, your tiny spaceship wings its way through space as you collectively shake your phone to avoid wormholes, and turn it upside down to dodge asteroids.

The tension and excitement that comes with real collaborative gameplay is unique in this game; too many times I’ve nearly missed my stop on the tube because I was too busy refreshing the biotic flange converters.  And when you finally make it to sector 12, you will want to high-five like never before – as a Spaceteam.

 

Spaceteam

6. Crimson Steam Pirates

A tongue-in-cheek story of both male and female pirates stirring up rivalries and disorder with the mighty Queen Victoria, Crimson has you steering your pirate ships around and issuing orders in a Frozen Synapse-style turn-based adventure.  Set up your orders and special attacks at the start of the turn, then see them play out as the cannons fire.

The developers obviously had a lot of fun creating the missions, and as you are dragged through its preposterous and entertaining story, pictures of what appear to be the team and their friends dressed up as pirates do battle and emote towards the screen in stylised vignettes.

This polished and fun adventure might lead you by the nose a little at times, but it’s so much fun dragging your little ships around, ordering them to full steam ahead then lambaste your rival pirates with double powder cannons, you won’t mind in the slightest.

Crimson Steam Pirates

5. Carcassonne

After the somewhat inaccessible Xbox version, I was skeptical to see how this might play on iPhone.  But sticking to a classic 2D approach, the developers nailed the deliciously pure puzzle gameplay of the board game and put in a few graphical tweaks (such as an ‘X’ which appears when tiles can no longer be connected) to boot.  Also boasting stable desynchronised multiplayer, Carcassonne makes it easy to have multiple games on the go with your tile-laying friends.

Carcassonne 1 Carcassonne 2 Carcassonne Multiplayer

4. Ghost Trick

One of the first things you’ll notice when you start playing Ghost Trick is that its animations are super fluid, and the entire game oozes style – its polished NDS original shows through here as the experienced hands of AAA game developers have clearly been at work before it made an appearance on iPhone.

You can’t fault it for an original concept – the game starts, and you’re already dead.  By using your ‘powers of the dead’, you can influence the real world, and even travel back in time in small chunks in order to protect the other protagonists, and hopefully recover some of your memories.

The transition to iOS has worked nicely as you swipe to jump between different objects in the world, then interact with them to make your ghoulish intentions known.

Ghost Trick Story Ghost Trick Summary Ghost Trick Jumping

3. Swords and Sworcery

The game itself encourages you to find a comfortable space, relax, and seal yourself into your earphones as you embark on this cheerfully pixel-heavy quest.  The art style works perfectly with its retro-flavoured graphics to pull you into its environment and the characters and you will find yourself quite swept up in its fairytale world.

In what is essentially a side-on 2D adventure/exploration/battling/puzzle/wonder game, you will tap on the screen to move your nondescript character around the world and battle mysterious dark forces.  The rain clunks down beautifully and the combat, although being somewhat of a rarity, offers up some scintillating interactions as you feverishly tap and rotate your way to victory.  The juxtaposition of the epic setting, stylish presentation, and informal descriptions gel together to make something delightfully unique.

This adventure deserves to have been a top 10 stalwart, and not just a top 40 visitor.

Sword and Sworcery Title ScreenSword and Sworcery LakeSword and Sworcery Cave

2. Rimelands: Hammer of Thor

I was so pleased to find Rimelands on The App Store; finally, a turn-based strategy game with real 3D graphics, and an actual story!  Rogue Planet had almost won me over, but the cool setting couldn’t carry its rather mundane combat.  Rimelands’ stat-based battles, spread of abilities and intriguing loot kept me dungeon crawling whenever I could find a spare 10 minutes.

In this adventure you guide Rose, a punky and quick-witted adventurer, through several fantasy lands in search of the titular Hammer of Thor.  The dialogue is hammy and churlish in places, but does serve to move on the story, and some of the characters (such as Rose’s grandma) are quite endearing.

The game clearly services some D&D roots as virtual dice roll across the screen during combat, which I found very well-balanced and entertaining.  I’m still waiting for a sequel, Crescent Moon Games!

Rimelands CutsceneRimelands Navigation Rimelands Combat

1. Civilization Revolution

It’s rare that I get so hooked on a game I count down the minutes until I can play it again, or feverishly check the clock to see how many remain until I have to stop.  CivRev did this to me however, and provided a wonderful gaming panacea while I was travelling across The States and enduring some rather long coach journeys.

It captures much of the satisfying feeling of growth from its PC heritage, from the tense beginnings as you poke around with a few warriors, to amassing tanks outside a city ready for a climactic clash.  The tech tree, advisors, and cloak-and-dagger negotiations with other leaders is all there, ready to be plucked from your pocket and enjoyed on the move.

CivRev Map CivRev Leaders CivRev Technology Tree

 

So where is Ravensword, Chaos Rings, or Zenonia?  The first of the three could be a good contender for a decent and ‘deep’ RPG on iPhone, I look forward to playing it when I get the chance.  The latter two, though, I have tried and just didn’t find any fun at all.

Do you agree?  Disagree?  Have I forgotten anything?  Do you desperately want to paste a link to where I can buy Viagra online??  Comment below!

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Neglected Sexism – Wreck-it Ralph’s Ruin

This is no doubt in my mind that Wreck-it Ralph is a good film.  I laughed, I liked the characters and wanted them to succeed, and went away feeling entertained.  It managed to walk a fine line between not confusing casual viewers who know very little about computer games and catering to dorky obsessive nerds looking out for every tiny reference to game culture.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!  If you haven’t seen the film yet, you might want to come back and read this after you have.

CameosPersonally I would have liked a few more said references, my eyes and ears were finely attuned to spotting characters and locales I’ve already spent many hours playing through.  Q-Bert and Zangief were welcome additions but sadly after the first 30 minutes the movie settled into its original characters and one main location – and a rather childish one at that, full of chocolate and sweets.  I feel like Disney missed a trick – where was the Monsters Inc-like scene at the end, with them dashing through different doors (games), pursuing the antagonist and being forced to adapt to different game types?  I wanted to see Ralph forced to play Halo one minute, Metal Gear Solid the next, then Puzzle Bobble…  But of course just smashing his way through to the horror of the respective in-game characters.

Ralph (hand) and VanellopeTo the film’s credit, there was one scene which touched me on a totally unexpected emotional level.  Just when you feel like Ralph is making progress, he is forced into a situation where he must destroy something he has just created.  Just as the ray of light is cast, it must be extinguished with his efficient form of destruction.  He does it in a classic case of utilitarianism, and you know it’s the right thing to do, but just when he doesn’t want to wreck anything any more, he must: both the physical and the psychological.  And he does it with consummate efficiency.

If this was the end of my review, Wreck-It Ralph might be somewhat forgettable; an enjoyable but shallow romp around videogames culture, but it also touched on a subject upon which I feel passionately.  It almost excelled, but also totally blundered with its gender archetypes and equality.

You might be thinking, “Don’t be such a dashingly attractive idiot, Dave!  There were several strong female characters in the movie, including a space marine and the racing girl.”  You have a point, but they’re also overshadowed by their male counterparts at every turn.  Oh, just incidentally, do you know their names?  …  But you remember Felix and Ralph, right?

Felix and CalhounSergeant Calhoun is an excellent example of a writer trying to make strides to satisfy feminists like me around the world, and while I’m definitely glad the film wasn’t filled with Princess Peaches (who would inevitably be kidnapped at the drop of a hat), she had to be propped up by the Fix-It Felix character.  She was essentially unstable, and while she did at least prove that she was physically strong, she was the only female marine.  Couldn’t we have had some others dotted into the squad?  On top of this she still had to become the love interest – as if we needed reminding that women are for impressing with our skills (or dorky admiration), and then should be married immediately.

And in an uncomfortable moment of classic sexism-overcompensation, there is a scene where Calhoun repeatedly punches Felix in the face.  Ok – there was a contrived reason for this to happen (and the plucky handyman could ‘fix’ his own face with his hammer instantly), but my test for whether a situation should be acceptable or not (with gender, race, or any quality you like), is: does it still feel ok if the roles are reversed?  If a burly male space marine was punching a small girl in the face, there would be outcry.  We mustn’t try to ‘make up’ for decades/centuries/millennia of sexual oppression by going in the other direction.  It just breeds more resentment.  Now is the time for equalism.

Does it still feel ok if the roles are reversed?  If a burly male space marine was punching a small girl in the face, there would be outcry.

Vanellope was shown to have racing skills, but was ultimately useless on her own.  She couldn’t do anything to un-do the ‘hack’ that King Candy had performed on her (and her world).  It wasn’t until Ralph appeared that she was able to do anything, thus cementing the idea that the women are incapable without a man’s help.  She does come to Ralph’s rescue near the end of the film, but it’s done in such a flashy and unfeasible way I felt a little nauseous watching the scene play out.

Ralph and Felix

I wonder how Wreck-It Ralph may have turned out if it had been a Pixar project.  Perhaps they could have managed some of these issues with a little more grace, and ramped up the film in the areas I found lacking such as the cliche ‘action-movie’ ending.

Don’t get me wrong!  I still recommend seeing it.  It is a fantastically well-crafted story in a cheekily created universe…  It meets my needs as a geek – I just wish they had rounded off the edges to please me as a liberal, too.

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Digital Whimsy: The death of subscription gaming

I’ve started playing Star Wars: The Old Republic, Bioware’s hefty stab at capturing the MMO market, and I’m really enjoying it.  It has a rich story that I’ve come to expect from their elite calibre of RPGs, and has me contendly suckling on their upgrade path teet from humble padawan to master jedi.

Star Wars - The Old RepublicAnd it’s totally free.  The decision to make the game free-to-play, while still offering a subscription was a bold one, and no doubt has attracted many new players who were curious but feeling too cynical after other disappointing massively multiplayer games.  There is also a one-off purchase system where you can buy ‘Cartel Coins’ to buy in-game items.

I have considered subscribing, but not for any attractive in-game item they’ve offered me, or even to make up for some of the exclusive items available to preferred players, or, for that matter, to avoid the XP drain suffered by free-to-play leeches like myself.  I wouldn’t give them money for any of the reasons they’ve attempted to coerce me.

I’d give them money because I pity them.

It’s ludicrous – they are a multi-million dollar company and I am a lone, quite unlucrative dude.  But I see this huge product which cost 200 million dollars to make, and I feel the need to reward someone, to pat them on the back.  And even though my money is mere pennies down the back of the sofa, I feel like it’ll somehow register in someone’s financial karma books, and a tick will be put next to the things I approve.

You see, the general subscription model is fundamentally flawed on the psychological level: it’s human nature to enjoy the things we know are in limited supply – as we crave those extra 5 minutes in bed in the morning – but in abundance any activity becomes mundane, boring, with the alternatives popping into mind and threatening to steal our attention.  Subscribing works for the things we need indefinitely like electricity, water, rent…  And extends to the entertainment we see needing forever, like internet service or specialist TV channels.  Spotify have just managed to make music an indefinite desired service – but only because their system is very convenient, and relatively cheap.

it’s human nature to enjoy the things we know are in limited supply…  but in abundance any activity becomes mundane, boring…

So when you combine a form of entertainment with a responsibility to play it (else be labelled promiscuous with your money), it creates a kernel of resentment which will probably grow as your players sink more and more time into that game.  This can be seen in the reaction videos of World of Warcraft players as they delete all their characters.  I’ve never played a WoW character to level 70, but I’m fully aware of the amount of time that must have been harvested here – and the cathartic digital self-harm that the video represents.

Penny Arcade WoW comic

This is why the World of Warcraft subscriber base is waning – because people realise that they should be able to have their cake, or eat it, but they shouldn’t have to buy a new cake every month.

Star Wars: The Old Republic Cartel Market

Bioware have mitigated this with the ‘Cartel Coins’ system, a method by which they can still earn money from non-subcribers – but this still fosters a slight form of resentment, as you start playing a game on the basis of it being free, then discover that you have to insert your credit card number in order to unlock inventory slots, or learn more skills, or earn experience at the same rate as ‘loyal’ players.  It’s not a large amount of money you need to hand over – you can correct most of these things for a one-off payment of £5 or £10, but it’s too late – they’ve already spoilt the sense of wonder, escapism and immersion by linking game features to your wallet.  And it is, once again, harder to enjoy an experience when you forget you’re a jedi in a wondrous forest, and reminded that you’re a software engineer sitting at a computer.

It was obviously a very tough decision for them to migrate from subscriber-only to preferred-player and free-to-play, but it might not be enough.  To really see their player base boom, Bioware need to make it free in all the ways that matter, so that players enjoy their experience from start to finish, and if they pay any money, it’s a long-forgotten experience when they come to playing the game.

Guild Wars 2

This is no great prediction, but more an observation of the current state of the games industry in early 2013 – as entirely free-to-play games like Guild Wars 2 begin to shift into acute focus.  And many more games such as Clash of Clans are free to download and free to play after that.  You can still purchase items on the freemium model, but its impact on gameplay is not as vital.  And we see games like Age of Empires Online or League of Legends, where you may purchase items but they will only ever have an aesthetic effect – you can’t unfairly boost your character’s stats with real-world cash.  We welcome these games with open arms and they are also being churned out worldwide – perhaps the only limiting factor being the combination of words we can fit into the “X of Y” naming scheme.

So what will happen next?  No doubt freemium will live on as subscription services are reserved for only the highest-budget games we can reluctantly agree to pay for – but perhaps we will eventually move to another system altogether: micropayments.  In fact returning to the prescribed payment method for the first ever paid MMOs, we may see ourselves agreeing to pay per hour of gameplay the same way we rent movies online through Xbox Live or the Playstation Store.  We’ll hand over our money at the start of every session, and go about our business free of any sense of commitment.

Alternatively, we may see more adverts creeping into games.  And the same way we dive for the remote control in order to turn down the volume when the ITV advert breaks come on, we’ll wander off, or turn on the kettle as our gameplay is interrupted in order to shine shiny new products in our eyes.  Hopefully, though, the very original system will live on: we pay money once, and we take our goods, and then we enjoy them without interruption.  Let’s hope we can still play them when the internet goes down.

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Reboot

And… I’m back. And reminded of how we humans did not evolve and adapt to 29 hours of flight crossing the world, because I’m feeling physically tired from the flight, but also disorientated to be back in my home country, a place I should understand, and yet also a place that threatens to sweep my life away uncontrollably with a new job, new place to live, and new way of life. And it’s cooooold.

Although, I actually missed being cold. That feeling of being tucked up in a soft jumper, or of warm tea coursing through you, pushing out the chills, was one thing I welcome back.

Like any holiday, it feels like it went quickly, but I remember that we did so much, said and saw so much, and I filled my 64GB iPhone with pictures and video, so there’s even proof. But no matter how inexorably slowly time passes, when it creeps over a deadline it feels like it went in a flash.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my blog updates from our trip down the East coast of Australia, and it’s persuaded you to embark on that adventure if you’d been mulling it over for far too long.  The really scary thing isn’t the trip, or even the coming back, it’s that the time will creep up and fall away whether you plan something or not.

 

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Opera Win: Free

Whoops! Be caaaaareful when you add events to Google Calendar, and then change time zones. We had a right mix-up in our first two days in Sydney, because 11 hours time difference can make events move days!

Being a conscientious and proudly prepared nerd, I had added the Dr Who Symphonic Spectacular to my GCal, and even set the exact start and end time, so that I would have the information readily available when we were planning routes to and from hostels using public transport.

So imagine my dread when I look at the date on my phone, then my ticket stub, freshly printed, dated for yesterday. Something inside me drops as I realise I should have been there 24 hours ago, and the show went on without our bums in the seats, two perfectly empty holes in the audience where our bodies should have been.

Google had helpfully added 11 hours to my original time. Worst of all I knew it had that feature anyway – GCal assumes you’re using GMT in London, then happily converts it to local time when you tough down in Sydney. I’d seen it munge our flight times, too, but knew the dates too well to be fooled then. But that’s not how humans work – we like local times so that our brains don’t get upset when it looks like the middle of the night but our cutting edge electronic gadgets tell us it’s 1:30pm.

And so it’s with embarrassment, then delight, as I return to the box office with my vestigial stump and they exchange it for tickets for that night’s performance. In a world of no refunds and limited culpability, the Sydney Opera House were very understanding and accommodating.

The show itself was a mixture of camp self-aggrandisement and stunning orchestral flair, and while the video screen showing Dr Who clips certainly set the scene, it was easy to forget the music was being played live as it was so flawless.

And of course, every so often a dalek appeared to wave its plunger menacingly at the audience, or a cyberman stomped along in a shiny faux-metal exoskeleton.

I just wish I’d recognised more of the themes and plot from the series – I think for that special kind of Dr Who nerd, it was the perfect night out.

 

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Why pout?

Standing up on a surfboard is really not all that difficult – even when it’s on the water. I would suggest, however, that staying on it is the hard part.

Whilst in Byron Bay Laura and I wanted to take a surfing lesson (and even briefly considered the 5-day lesson tour which takes you down the coast as well), and we signed our lives away with ‘Soul Surf’ who did a combination package with kayaking (which apparently gave you the best view of dolphins). They, like many of Byron Bay’s inhabitants, were chilled out but dedicated hippies who had already mastered the art you have decided to fickly attempt.

Since the swell (i.e. the tide force, not a twee Americanism) was actually pretty rough, we all drove down to Lennox Head, and with about 10 other beginners, were shown how to lie on the board (it’s important to position your weight by using the length of your body for reference), and how to hop up – we were shown the quick way, and a more reliable 3-step method.

But no matter how much preparation you make on the beach, nothing prepares you for the wobbly experience of controlling a greased up sponge sliding over baby oil – all of your reference points are gone and most of your concentration wavers over to just trying to keep hold of the longboard beneath you.

They’re also tied to you around the ankle, so should you fall in, you might also get dragged along with the tide by your leg. The board was actually surprisingly easy to pull back, but once, while rattling around in the swell, it did pull me along somewhat unhelpfully as I bubbled around, trying to surface.

Laura and I both stood up; even at the same time, surfing in parallel. I can see it will take many hours before I could reliably paddle for waves, or look anything even approaching stylish.

We also saw a few dolphins swim by, their iconic fins rolling in and out of the water as they carved a route about 10m away from us.

I encourage anyone on the fence to give surfing a try; it was fun just throwing myself at waves, and if you have the aptitude you might end up looking professional, if somewhat fleetingly, after a few hours.

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Tubular

8 years old again, I’m shivering with excitement and fear – and more than a little cold – standing at the top of a monstrously tall flight of metal stairs, ready to throw myself down a mysterious dark tube that threatens to gobble me up forever.

Or at least this is the strongest memory that comes to me as I wait in the back of a small plane, in one of two rows of people ready to throw themselves out of a window at 14,000 feet. And it feels crazy to be there at all – when it would have been so easy to stay at ground level, but now that I am here, I know I could never forgive myself if I chickened out.

You might not think skydiving had much in common with the water slides at Coral Reef swimming pool in Berkshire, but they resonate with the same excitement and fear. And I know I’ll feel proud when it’s all over. But now that I’m 31 I’m very aware that this should be fun, and that’s it going to be exhilarating.

And, even if I do die, it’ll be over quickly. I’ll see the ground coming and then… Nothing. The universe stops.

Fortunately though, I don’t die. In fact my tandem skydiving partner is extremely experienced and the company with which I am jumping has a flawless safety record. So perhaps that’s what I needed when I was 8 – someone strapped to my back.

I’d heard a horror story about misplaced straps removing vital male body parts when they’re improperly placed – so to break the ice I admit this to my tandem buddy: “I’m mostly worried about my junk.” Perhaps he’s heard it before as he replies, “I’m not paid enough to worry about that.”

The wait is probably the most nerve wracking as the plane slowly climbs; slicing through clouds and building up more and more height. After a while the distance becomes surreal, fortunately, and any gain in height becomes somewhat inconsequential as it’s simply a different extraordinary view above Byron Bay.

Then my partner instructs me to put on the eyeshield, tightens the straps that connect us, and one of the crew-members at the front opens the sliding door revealing perilous views below. There isn’t much more of a wait as two, three pairs throw themselves out, and I see Laura tumble away… And then, on edge, we start edging towards the edge.

I was told that as the tandem front-partner, you hang out of the plane awkwardly before you both spin off, but that point seems to take no time at all, as we’re hanging out, then twirling into oblivion straight after.

There is a brief moment of serenity, the split-second after we separate from the plane, then my partner stops our spin and we face right towards the ground, and then the wall of air hits… And I yell out as I’m attacked by atmosphere, and experience free-fall as I plummet towards the Earth, but it doesn’t feel like I’m falling – just that the ground is growing gradually amongst the tumult.

This part is difficult to remember and feels like it lasted next to no time at all – but I’m told there’s approximately a minute of free-fall. It starts cold but then seems to warm up – am I being heated in the atmosphere, like a spacecraft returning to Earth? Before I can consider it for long a tap on my shoulder tells me we’ll open the parachute as my partner Adam pulls on the necessary levers – and a surprisingly gentle jolt yanks us backward to slow our descent, and brings complete serenity as the rush of air is quickly replaced by a calm flapping of blankets in the air.

It’s beautiful as we glide left and right – and observe the model world below us. It reminds me of a brief glider flight I had years ago, but now I’m in the open air as well. We practice me lifting up my knees as we come in to land, and the planet eventually comes to meet us in a similarly gentle landing. Adam lowers me onto my bottom and I hop up, giddy with excitement and adrenalin.

I look around and find Laura who is also regaining her bearings, and we share a smile as we’re both glad – not just to have survived, as we knew how many safety procedures would be in place – but happy to have not walked down the metal stairs, childish stares judging us, but to have thrown ourselves down the water slide with full gusto.

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Insane in the Brisbane

Taking the typical tourist route from Cairns to Sydney, you get a skewed impression of the inhabitants of Australia. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was filled purely with tour guides, tour representatives, and touring Europeans. I’ve met more Swedes in the last 2 weeks than the last 2 years in the UK, which has been only moderately infuriating for Laura as I practice my vocational language skills.

So it’s with great pleasure that I found myself in a trendy bar in the centre of Brisbane, flanked by Australians on all sides, thanks to a shortcut to the centre of a large social group: modern jive dancing.

I’ve been associated with Ceroc, a franchise of the dance, for about the last 3 years, and in the last 6 months got more involved to the point of helping out beginners as a ‘taxi dancer’, demoing on stage, and applying to teach. So when I was looking at Australia as a holiday destination, it seemed natural to investigate the dancing scene. And there’s a burgeoning outcrop of several branches, not just Ceroc but also ‘Le Step’, ‘Le Groove’ and ‘Nuroc’. It’s popular in the bigger cities like Sydney and Brisbane, and even though we were only due to stay 1 night, we found where a vaguely local class would run and decided to join in.

I’d heard odd reports of Australian dancers being much more stylish than our homegrown counterparts – but I just didn’t believe it. Any country is so full of such varied people that I tend to believe that all abilities are represented, and as a class or group gets bigger, the more alike they become. So I was surprised when we were shown some relatively difficult moves in the beginner’s class at Chermside, just North of Brisbane centre.

I was disheartened, however, to discover some slight difference in the timing and was thrown off when people started moving slightly too early – it seems like in Le Step (as oppose to Ceroc) you anticipate the move by stepping back on the last quaver of the bar, and not the first beat. At least: I think so. Having been to two classes I’m also starting to think it’s potentially interchangeable, or perhaps makes no difference to anything except your own footwork.

But trying to work through some discrepancies, and rationalise everything I have seen, I can say that there are still plenty of Australian beginners, but the moves that are taught have a definite slant towards flash. This resulted in a few more sloppy mis-steps but also a general haze of elegant twists, turns, drops, and even some (banned in Ceroc) aerials when viewing from the sideline.

It was very amusing to be singled out as British visitors – especially when Mick, the proprietor of Le Step, announced our presence at the start if the intermediate lesson. We found everyone was very friendly, interested in our backgrounds, and helpfully offered a lift home – which we gratefully accepted.

So we might not be special as the awkward British tourists trying surfing for the first time, or grinning inanely when holding a koala, but at our hobbyist club we were a gratifying mixture of fellow companion and quirky ex-pat.

We just had enough time to take a wander around Brisbane, and wonder if they’d styled it heavily while looking at London. Their ‘Southbank’ is eerily similar to our own – complete with stony museums and performing arts centres and a Ferris wheel offering views over the city.

Brisbane is yet another city we’d love to explore further but our aggressive schedule keeps us pushing on. But perhaps that air of the unexplored gives any location a mystique I would prefer not to demystify in this case.

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Just a Fraser we’re going through

I yearn for my shoes! Hot sand becomes unbearable in approximately 2.5 steps barefoot, and if your walking surface is too fine, sandles spoon through it and unhelpfully lift clumps as you trudge along. And on a ‘9/10’ walk, feeling a bit dehydrated and fragile, I curse my previous decision to bring my hoody instead of my laceless trainers.

Fraser Island! 122km long, 20km wide, and it’s all sand! You might think this would limit the local geography to dunes and dustbowls, but it’s surprisingly varied with lush rainforests and streams which run across the island, and several luscious freshwater lakes.

It’s easiest to transfer from Hervey Bay but you probably shouldn’t bother booking your stay there for long – even the shuttle bus driver admitted “there’s fuck all to do here.”

After a short ferry crossing we boarded the coach with our enigmatic guide Jon, who was friendly and helpful but had little tolerance for stupidity as he was not best pleased when we failed to locate the alternate exit from a particular attraction. I suppose he does this all the time and the route must be painfully obvious to him. But to Fraser virgins we had no idea there is a tiny forest entrance hidden behind a steep dune.

After a brief introductory walk we went to Lake McKenzie, a freshwater lake which is slightly acidic (apparently just enough to make your hair soft), which had beautiful clear and still water.

We’d had an early start and no time for breakfast, and after attacking the island like a cat lunging on an unsuspecting mouse, I felt a familiar ache come over me, one of caffeine withdrawal and mild exercise. It reminds me just how far removed from military – or even mildly athletic – life I am, as I sense a headache that I know won’t go away without a cup of tea and 5 minutes in a darkened room.

And at lunch I fill myself with the reserves needed to go on. At least I know my own fenickity body, and with enough stew and tea ingested, the energy was there. Human bodies are able to perform near alchemy (some people live on just crisps after all) so mine just needed the persuasion to work on my stores and carry on. Damn it, I was going to make it work.

Aware of our upcoming walk across what sounded like a desert, I purchased a rather expensive hat. A red ‘Fraser Island’ cap.

And after a coating of factor 30 I’m ready to go – although I mistakenly leak out a bit of British cynicism as I grumbly give up my sandle-powered perambulation and go au naturelle with the footwear, favouring tenderised soles over a severely handicapped forward motion. I’m sure Jon hears a lot of complaining though.

Walking to Lake Wabby is worth it as you march through sub-tropical rainforest, emerge on sand dunes feeling like Lawrence of Arabia, then reach a clear fresh lake. The sand here is especially hot so you hurriedly hop to the shore to cool off in the water.

Someone later mentioned there are snakes in there. That may have affected my decision to submerge.

That night we stayed in the Eurong resort. Perhaps your travel buddies will be more enthusiastic but Laura and I found it considerably more fun to make animal shapes in front of the floodlights than get drunk in the beach hut.

The next morning we took a short flight and got to look over the entire island and marvel at how much water and tree grips onto this fragile world made from sand.

We climb Indian Head, a rocky outcrop on the East shore, and get some great views over the beaches and inland. It’s marked by a sombre history, though, as we are informed that the aboriginal police forced many aboriginals to jump off the cliff face decades ago.

I’m not sure whether it’s some kind of inherited guilt or just a sadness that sets when you think that the original inhabitants lived on K’gari for 8,000 years before foreigners slaughtered and forced them off, then renamed their island paradise.

To complete the tour we stopped at Eli Creek and we both wade through the water and try to take in more of the essence of the island as we look out to sea.

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Daydreaming

If you’ve ever played Bioshock, Far Cry, Dead Island, or any one of many adventure games where you start off on some ‘facility’ before disaster strikes, you might, like I did, feel a slight undercurrent of impending doom if you go to stay on an island resort.

It’s so beautiful. It’s a tropical paradise. You can sit by the beach, dip a toe in the refreshingly cool water, then drink a cocktail before mooching off to one of the island’s restaurants under a clear array of stars. And not just the big ones – the extended family is out to play and all the star cousins and in-laws can be seen like a glittering patchwork blanket hovering above you.

But when will the terrorist coup / nuclear deployment / viral outbreak strike?

I also didn’t bump into the island’s charismatic yet clearly deluded leader and narrowly avoid convincing them not to self-destruct the resort. In fact, it felt very odd to leave before I triggered any of this. Was there some logic bug in the gameplay script?

Laura and I primarily went to the island for its aquatic tours, after hearing that you could hold a shark and feed stingrays. These tours were great and we did that and more – we were handed a starfish and a sea cucumber (which is as flaccid and slimy as it sounds), we fed barramundi which snap up and grab the food out of your hands, and fed stingrays. These critters are like floating muscley pancakes which jostle each other for food, and will bump into your ankles affectionately before trying to hoover the food out of your hand. If you are of the ticklish disposition, like me, it’s difficult to stay still while a rubbery water dog is licking your foot via the medium of water pressure.

The island has some quaint but well stocked restaurants, and a novel outdoor cinema where we sat and watched Pirates! – the Aardman film. There are some water sports available and we also tried paddle boarding for free.

We paid a small fee to ride the banana boat, towed along by one of the crew on a jetski. I never realised Laura was so susceptible to g-forces, as she screamed for the duration of the ride… In fact I think every exhale was a yelp of some sort. This made the trip quite hilarious for me.

The island was stunning and very relaxing but did seem clouded in an inescapable ether of humidity. We craved the outside breeze as it was the best way to stay cool and dry.

If you’re in the Whitsundays I recommend staying the night on an island to feel like you really immerse yourself in them.

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