BG44 – The Shameful Joys of Deus Ex: Human Revolutions

Futurismic have my latest Blasphemous Geometries column devoted to Deus Ex: Human Revolutions.

A lot has been made of this game’s boss fights and the myriad niggles and irritations that conspire to make its game-play something of an uphill struggle. I will not deny, this game inspired more rage-quits than any game in recent memory. However, rather than seeing these irritations as products of genre-confusion and outdated game design, I decided to consider these problems as part of the game’s central aesthetic and sub-text. I conclude that, whereas the original Deus Ex games were all about empowering the player, Deus Ex: Human Revolutions is all about claustrophobia, prejudice and being forced into a position of willing servitude:

Taken together, these racial and economic narratives combine to create an almost intolerable atmosphere of disempowerment. Whereas Deus Ex sought to empower its players, Deus Ex: Human Revolution constantly reminds them of how worthless and incompetent they really are. Playing DXHR is like spending an afternoon with a depressed and alcoholic mother who is not only disappointed with what you have made of yourself, but also insistent on letting you know how she feels about your failure as an individual. However, as unpleasant as DXHR can be, it is an intensely enjoyable game. Indeed, the game’s real thematic power lies not in its narratives of disenfranchisement and oppression, but in the fact that it keeps us coming back for more in spite of them.

All too often, reviewers tend to assume that any mechanic that is not fun is broken. I simply could not disagree more, all mechanics tell a story… you just need to open your mind and play the story that the game wants to tell.

Ludwig II… Stripp’d

Boomtron have my latest column on You Higuri’s manga series about the life of Ludwig II of Bavaria.

Despite having a real fondness for GLBT film, manga and the occasional GLBT-infused anime series, Ludwig II was my first serious encounter with the genre known as Yaoi. Written mostly by women for other women, the yaoi genre tells melodramatic love stories involving ‘beautiful boys’, by which I mean young men with feminine physical characteristics. Ludwig II tells the story of the so-called ‘Mad King’ of Bavaria and his complex relationships with both an aide and reality as a whole. While Ludwig II is very much a melodramatic love-story in the romantic tradition, Higuri juxtaposes the demands of the yaoi genre with the demands placed on the historical Ludwig II as a means of exploring the concept of escapism. Indeed, Higuri presents Ludwig’s madness as an increasingly self-destructive desire to escape from reality into a world of imagination and beauty:

By highlighting both the heroic nature of a refusal to completely submit to the mundane and the devastating consequences of shifting one’s intellectual focus away from the problems of real life, Higuri speaks to our responsibilities as citizens of the world. Clearly, Ludwig was an intelligent and gifted enough politician that he could have done more to protect his subjects from the harshness of that world.  In one particularly heavy-handed moment, Higuri points out that Ludwig’s failure to defend Bavarian independence helped propel the German people along a path leading to the Death Camps.  Had Ludwig done more to check Prussian ambition then perhaps Germany might never have united and had Germany never united, then Hitler might never have gained a powerbase sufficiently strong to begin the Second World War.

Having recently worked my way through the six translated volumes of Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku: The Inner Chambers, I was delighted to discover in Ludwig II a similarly complex and compelling interweaving of traditional genre with historical fiction and romance. Ludwig II is one of the best things I have read this year, it cuts to the bone of why it is that we find ourselves attracted to escapist media.

Some Thought On… Kill List (2011)

A little while ago, I was lucky enough to attend a British film festival designed to find foreign distributors for British films. While only a few of the festival’s films showed any promise, what they all demonstrated was the relative ease with which British thrillers were able to secure funding. Jean-luc Goddard once said that all you needed to make a film is a girl and a gun and low-budget British filmmakers seemed to be proving exactly that. Over the last couple of years, this financial trend has blossomed into a full-scale British genre revival including such works of psychological tension as J Blakeson’s The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009), Matthew Hope’s The Veteran (2011) and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011). All of these films speak to the darkness of the human soul with a style and grace that elevate them above predictable exploitation narratives into something altogether more interesting.  Ben Wheatley’s Kill List is yet further proof of the intellectual vibrancy of the British thriller, it is one of the most effective films I have seen this year.

Wheatley began his feature-length directorial career with the micro-budgeted crime film Down Terrace (2009).  Grounded in dysfunctional human psychology, Down Terrace blurred the line between genre and traditional drama by embedding its narrative in a seemingly banal working-class environment. Wheatley’s desire to ground his films in the mundane details of everyday life continues with Kill List. Kill List opens by introducing us to Jay (Neil Maskell), a working-class man enjoying a comfortable middle-class life with his son and beautiful Swedish wife Shel (MyAnna Buring). Claiming to be suffering from back pain, Jay has not worked for eight months and the couple are now running in to the sorts of financial difficulties that put strains on even the most loving of marriages. Aware that Jay may not be completely ‘ready’ to go back to work, Shel invites Jay’s old partner Gal (Michael Smiley) over for dinner in the hope of luring her husband from retirement.

Having painted a scene of mundane domesticity in beautifully vibrant colour, Wheatley then sets about filling in the shadows. When Gal’s date for the evening pops to the loo, she turns the mirror over and carves a strange rune into the back of it.  Meanwhile, Gal and Jay chat about the old days in evasive terms until one of them pulls out an assault rifle.  Clearly, Jay and Gal’s mundane lower-middle class existence is supported thanks to a decidedly unusual career. The oddness of the boys’ day job is made all the more clear in an extraordinary sequence that transforms a mundane business meeting into an occult rite by having the boys sign their acceptance of the contract in blood. From there, the film becomes progressively more and more weird, and more and more disturbing.

As in Down Terrace, Wheatley breaks the action down into chapters by filling the screen with text.  Thus, the first hit on the kill list is ‘The Priest’ and then we move on to ‘The Librarian’ and ‘The M.P.’ before concluding with ‘The Hunchback’.  Ostensibly quite a crude piece of meta-narration, these inter-titles serve not only to anchor the narrative as the film’s narrative structures begin to fray, they also serve to heighten the sense of unreality surrounding Jay’s working life. What kind of professional to-do list features hunchbacks, priests and members of parliament? The further the film progresses, the more the fantastical encroaches upon the lives of the characters and the more the characters begin to crack under pressure with cinematography, sound-design and narrative working in unison to present a powerful and psychotropic voyage into the outer darkness.

Looking at the critical coverage this film has received, it is clear that critics have struggled to pin down the argument behind Kill List. Though beautifully realised and almost insanely tense, the film’s profligate use of familiar themes and images make interpreting it something of an uphill battle.  Is the film about Jay’s nervous breakdown (fore-shadowed by early trips to the supermarket and the doctor)? Is it a tale of morality set against an ink-black British underworld filled with mercurial figures?  Or is it simply a beautifully made thriller that borrows from the crime and horror genres to produce a cinematic experience that pushes all of the audience’s buttons at once? Obviously, Kill List is all of these things (and none) but my impression was of a film that ventures onto the same territory as the work of Thomas Ligotti.

Thomas Ligotti is one of the finest American horror writers of the last fifty years. Unfairly overshadowed by ancestors such as Lovecraft and more commercial contemporaries such as Stephen King, Ligotti’s collections of short fiction are seldom in print and seldom easy to write about. However, one of the recurring motifs in Ligotti’s work is the horror of the workplace. Short stories such as “The Town Manager” and “Our Temporary Supervisor” as well as longer pieces such as the novella My Work is Not Yet Done, reflect upon the surreal brutality of an institution that consumes most of your waking life whilst humiliating and dehumanising you from dawn till dusk. Kill List vocalises the same sense of surreal disconnection as the work of Ligotti; Jay is called upon to carry out tasks that he does not comprehend (his employer calls him “a cog”) and these tasks carry a heavy psychological burden.  Ideally, Jay would not have to work at all but in order to feed his family and keep them in the style to which they have become accustomed, Jay must return to work and do what it is that he has to do. Even when Jay wants to quit and go home, work follows him to his door.  There is simply no escaping the workplace. The film’s final denouement offers Jay the possibility of escape but makes it abundantly clear what price he will be expected to pay for his freedom.

Kill List’s denouement encompasses all of the strengths and weaknesses of Wheatley’s film: beautifully shot and powerfully scored, Kill List’s final scenes are a master class in pure cinematic tension. However, the impressionistic quality of the direction and the embarrassment of symbolic riches also create a distinct sense of directorial profligacy. Rather than restrain himself and pin Jay’s experiences down to a singular precise meaning, Wheatley ends his film in the broadest way imaginable: we know that Jay is unhappy, we know that his unhappiness is linked to issues of sanity, morality and family but beyond that the film’s emotional and psychological content is vague and elusive. Kill List makes its point with considerable style and power but as the smoke clears and the credits roll, it is by no means clear that that point might have been.

 

Walking Hadrian’s Wall 2011 – Day Eight: Carlisle to Bowness-on-Solway

Steps: 35,550

Distance: 21.33 km

Even with hindsight, the walk out of Carlisle remains the low-point of the holiday. Insufficiently caffeinated, under-rested and struggling to digest an almost preternaturally greasy breakfast courtesy of the Hallmark hotel, The Sheep and I greeted the rain with no small amount of ill humour.

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Walking Hadrian’s Wall 2011 – Day Seven: Lanercost to Carlisle

Steps: 31,453

Distance: 18.86 km

Given the succession of easy days, we expected Day Seven to be a little more hard going but leaving Abbey Mill behind us, we soon found ourselves making rapid progress through gently undulating countryside and farmland. In fact, our progress was so swift that a late lunch at Crosby turned into an early one.

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Walking Hadrian’s Wall 2011 – Day Six: Gilsland to Lanercost

Steps: 25,379

Distance: 15.22 km

I’d like to begin this entry with a word about the weather.  We walked the Wall during the first week of September and we went into it knowing that the weather would be what meteorologists refer to as changeable.  ‘Changeable’ is certainly an apt description of the weather we experienced though ‘unpredictable’, ‘random’ and ‘insane’ are perhaps more thematically appropriate.  Day six began with what would become one of the recurring motifs of the second half of the walk: jacket switching.  One minute it would be brilliant sunshine, then there would be bitter cold and howling gales.  Occasionally, the sky would darken and rain would pelt us just long enough to force a stoppage and a change of clothes.  These meteorological mind-games resulted in my playing chicken with the weather and refusing to put on my raincoat on the grounds that the rain simply would not last.  I am happy to say that I won more games than I lost.

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Walking Hadrian’s Wall – Day Five: Saughy Rigg to Gilsland

Steps: 20,000

Distance: 11.7 km

Having done the crags the previous day, day five’s walking felt very much like a cop-out; too few steps and too little complaining to be altogether real. The morning began with a gentle stroll along the last large-scale remnants of the Wall.

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BG43 – QWOP, GIRP and the Construction of Video Game Realism

Futurismic have my forty-third Blasphemous Geometries column.

The column uses Bennett Foddy’s flash games QWOP and GIRP to investigate the concept of realism in a video game concept.  In a recent article in Wired magazine, Foddy was championed for his commitment to “soul-crushing, low-reward realism” in video games but are GIRP and QWOP really more realistic than Assassin’s Creed?

While there is definitely something ‘unrealistic’ about the ease of physical movement displayed by the characters in Assassin’s Creed, it does not follow that QWOP and GIRP are ‘realistic’ simply because they make physical activity seem a lot more difficult. Indeed, most gamers are in fact capable of walking a few steps and climbing over a wall without falling over or drowning. They can do these things because, for most people, walking and climbing are skills that are learned in infancy, skills that they have mastered to the point where using them no longer required conscious thought. By asking us to focus upon how the laws of physics interact with the movement of our muscles while walking, Foddy is asking us to take control of a character who has not yet mastered the art of walking. But such a character is no more representative of ‘real life’ than a character who can scale a building without breaking a sweat. Both Assassin’s Creed and QWOP present us with highly selective visions of reality, visions that instantly belie any claim to artistic realism suggesting that, yet again, claims or artistic realism are nothing more than rhetorical hot air.

A better way of looking at Foddy’s games is to consider them as an interrogation of the control mechanisms that gamers have come to take for granted.  Gamers pick up a game assuming that they will be able to run and jump and kill with effortless grace, Foddy’s games deny them that ease of access. His games make the most mundane tasks crushingly difficult and so draws our attention to the manufactured nature of gaming reality.

I conclude the column by pointing out that a lot of what we think of as ‘hardcore games’ are in fact nothing more than games that refuse to call into question the basic assumptions and conceits of gaming.  In order to play a hardcore game, you have to be familiar with the games that came before it. In truth, ‘Hardcore’ games are nothing more than unimaginative games that are content to echo the design decisions made in earlier games. ‘Hardcore gaming’ is nothing more than unadventurous and conservative gaming rebranded.

Walking Hadrian’s Wall – Day Four: Chollerford to Saughy Rigg

Steps: 28,000

Distance: 16.65 km

I’d like to begin this day’s entry with a few words on preparation.  In the bumph we received from Hadrian’s Wall Ltd, there were frequent allusions to the need for us to be both physically and psychologically prepared for the walk.  Reading this, we made fun of the idea that a few days’ walking in the countryside might require a rigorous regimen of fasting and meditation. Oh the folly of innocence!

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Walking Hadrian’s Wall – Day Three: Harlow Hill to Chollerford

Steps: 30,000

Distance: 18 km

Breakfast brought more culinary disappointments from The Keelman’s.  My eggs were unseasoned and came with only minimal toast.  Also, most B+Bs tend to give people a pot of coffee for the table. However, The Keelman’s serve you by the cup and so if, like me, you enjoy your coffee in the morning, you may find yourself having to pester the waitress a few times for more coffee. Given that we arrived at The Keelman’s completely knackered and starving hungry, my memories of the place may well have been etched by the twin (and not entirely disconnected) acids of bile and low blood sugar but, after two disappointing meals and a night spent on a bed that felt like a sack of flour, I was more than happy to leave Newburn behind and head out into the countryside.

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