Wednesday, 9 April 2014

"Look, in this day and age, you've got to be tooled up."

There is, absolutely, no excuse for ignorance. You can't turn on, tune in, drop out - you have the resources and it's your prerogative to use them.

Between now and the end of civilization, we, us humans, are in the age of the internet. The acquisition of knowledge is no longer dependent on library cards, learned parents or even schooling. For all intents and purposes anyone anywhere can discover and unpick any piece of information from recorded past and present. We can all know everything. We're the first generation to have access to prosthetic intelligence - even if we don't have a fact or opinion to hand, we can look it up, we can get it.

But are we creating a vacuum, a lineage of people who, granted access to all knowledge will in fact end up knowing nothing? Will the persistent and free availability of wisdom foster a populace that is not, in a true sense, wise? When something is benign, ubiquitous, merely just "there" it provokes lethargy and disinterest. People who born into wealth don't appreciate money as much as the pauper, who has worked his whole life to earn enough to buy a house. With information now available everywhere and at every hour of the day, it is no longer precious, no longer a rarity or a resource. There's no urgency in acquiring it. So will we bother?

Thursday, 3 April 2014

In an anxious state

No escape from this wretched state. No escape, it seems.

The goddamn anxiety. It starts as you might expect. Shortness of breath in crowded shopping centres. Inability to speak in front of large groups of people. And then it progresses. It peels back further into the mind until one day you're too nervous to even stand up and turn off the television set. You lie on the sofa, arms clasped around you, staring into the wall, hoping to God and Jesus that there won't be a knock on the door, that the phone won't ring. You become paralysis. Your mind locks down like a cell block at lights out. Sleep is your only distraction, but it's always rough. You sweat and shiver like the dying patriarch in a Victorian novel. When you wake up an hour later, you continue to lie on your side, eyes half-lidded, totally expressionless. "Maybe," you ask "I should take a walk outside." But your body doesn't answer. Any semblance of self is locked away now in a corner of the mind so tiny the muscles don't listen to it. The disease is in control. It's holding all the keys, pulling all the levers.

There must be some kind of way out of here.


It occurred to me while playing an online shooter that videogames have birthed the most reprehensible notion in the history of mainstream entertainment: kill-stealing. How in God and Jesus did we allow this to happen? No matter how frightening, bloody or well-dramatised a videogame murder could one day be, while we still conflate killing with winning, our beloved medium will never be artistically acceptable, and rightly so. In good fiction, the death of a person doesn't feel like a victory, either to the audience or other characters. Sonny Corleone, Omar Little, Desdemona. These deaths are detrimental, vicious, a tectonic change in the direction of narrative. But in online games, what we have are men and women arguing about killing in the same way they'd debate who'd deserves the larger half of a pizza. It's lower than trivial. It's plain ugly, like two sharks fighting over a length of intestine. The act of killing isn't about point-scoring or victory. It's about the very ugliest of human emotions, the lowest of low points. Since Space Invaders, videogames have instructed us that the more we kill, the closer we get to winning. And now we're at the zenith, where in our most popular games, people are fighting over who gets to be the murderer, as if chasing pennies scattered across the floor of an arcade. We haven't just made killing fun or spectacular - we've made it life-affirming. We've cultivated an audience of pure sadists, who kill for positive emotional feedback. At this point, even games like Spec Ops: The Line, where the more the character kills, the more insane he becomes, are not enough. On a ludic level, killing in Spec Ops is still the point of the game - it's still the one thing you have to do over and over in order to resolve the narrative, i.e. win. Compared to the symbiotic relationship between killing and winning that lies at the core of videogames, the decent writing and authorial intent in Spec Ops are ignorable. The pattern still repeats itself, in Spec Ops and elsewhere. What can be done?

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Miasma. Bad air. You can't see it, but you can feel it entering your body each time you step outside.

Being a teenager in the early years of the 21st century was a very special thing to experience, secondary school and university even more so. Now, as an adult, nothing can come close to those short and busy years. There's no freedom or fancy anymore, no love or spontaneity or imagination. Life ends as soon as you become a grown-up. Deep in our hearts, we all know that this is the one chance we get - this is it. And still, we're expected to live up to obligations, expectations and responsibilities. Our lives, our one and only lives, are not meant to be joyful or recognised. We live merely to sustain; to provide; to do what we have to do. We live because there is nothing else to do. Nothing is great. Nothing is good. It's all just ok. And we keep going.

Perhaps I'm not thinking straight:  there is nothing more morose and self-absorbed than a man in the grips of a month-long depression. But what wouldn't you do to escape this hideousness? And I don't mean your day job, your marriage, your illness. I mean it all, every atom and cloud that comprises what we coin life. Given another option, some different reality, some alternate form of existing, would you take it? If to exist could mean more than just to live, if you were allowed to choose, for example, at birth, what kind of existence you'd prefer, what reality you'd like to live in, what sentient or unsentient being you'd like to be, is this what you would choose? I can't outline specific scenarios - like you, my imagination has crumpled over time under the brunt of proof that this, Earth, the Universe, is the sum total of everything. But try to envision another universe. Space and time but not as you know it. A life completely unfamiliar to you, unsampled by anything that has existed in our reality up to this point. Imagine it - something different, something good - and wonder whether here and now is what you want or merely what you have to make do with.

There is, of course, no escape. However much you might want to disappear you are trapped in your body, trapped in this universe by physical logic and laws that prohibit magic.

This is the illness talking. I used to see sparks strike every time I opened my eyes. Efficient, structured, discernible - the machinery of our universe was once, in my mind, the most wondrous thing. But now, just five years after I turned 18, it fills me with dread, dread that life, famine, misery, suffering, cruelty, all of it, is inescapable and that life is merely a prison.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

There are no controversial videogames

I criticised Grand Theft Auto V for being toothless and safe, for not feeling punkish in the way the old games did. In part, that's because, unlike in the 90s, when it was a plucky British start-up, Rockstar is now a global conglomerate, helmed by multi-millionaires.

But it's also because of how the game treats killing. Contrary to hysterical news reports, the people you murder in GTA are not innocent pedestrians - they're twisted caricatures. A crime game with true grit would have players gun down people who had done nothing wrong. It would make no excuses for the protagonist. GTA lets players feel like their victims deserve it. The pedestrians are all venal, gobby gargoyles, parodies of the most repugnant excesses in Western culture. As they walk by, they make sexist and materialistic remarks, droning about mobile phones, tit jobs and self obsessions. The cops in GTA IV are a fantastic example. They're all fat guys, who stand in the street moaning about immigrants and having to do their job. They're emblematic of bloated, ineffective bureaucracy, the lazy cynicism with which Rockstar approaches American politics. The last thing they are is people. Speaking in loud, so-called humorous soundbytes, they serve merely as sounding boards for the game's didactic. Killing them, when they're so openly and totally despicable, so clearly designed to be hated, is not a controversial act. It's what anyone playing the game would be expected to do.

Violence in games is only legitimate if committed against discernible individuals, whose deaths have a traceable, adverse affect on either the fictional world or the narrative. In Grand Theft Auto, neither of these metrics apply. Your victims are cartoon characters and their deaths feel less like tragedy, or drama, and more like housework - like you're cleaning the game world up by eliminating them. Because of that, not only is the violence gratuitous, but the protagonists have no complexity. Once you accept that the people they murder are all bad, all, in a sense, inhuman, no amount of swear-words or defecation jokes can give give GTA's leading men any edge. They aren't hypocritical or difficult to understand. Their behaviour isn't questionable, or in any sense opaque. With satirical dialogue spilling from the mouths of every pedestrian in Grand Theft Auto, the player can rest assured that whomever he kills, he or she is bad. The violence becomes blase, reasoned, acceptable. And the protagonists, repeatedly murdering cartoonish representations of people, rather than people, become as action movie characters: righteous, uninteresting and morally uncomplicated.

A truly controversial game would have players murder characters who didn't deserve it, characters who were defenseless, innocent or morally upstanding. A tired example, but Spec Ops: The Line perhaps comes closest to this. Other violent, so-called contentious games, such as Hitman and Manhunt, overemphasise the criminal backgrounds of the people the player kills. Via writing and visual design, they affirm that the player is better than the people he kills; that they are worse than him. It's a cowardly approach that strips violence of all its power, all its meaning. If there's a single reason mainstream game narratives are simplistic, to the point of blandness, it's because writers have never truly embraced the idea of an anti-hero. Max Payne, 47, Niko Bellic, Kane, Lynch, Jackie Estacado - they are all higher on the moral-o-meter than their victims. True controversy doesn't exist in games. The so-called bad guys that we occasionally control are just thinly veiled versions of conventional heroes.

Friday, 21 March 2014

On Laura in Silent Hill 2

At university, while studying Gasper Noe's film Irreversible, my lecturers posited that the beginning of the film, set in a grubby gay club, represented an unclean "masculine" type of sexuality while the ending, with a pregnant Monica Belluci lying down in a field, surrounded by children, depicted an ideal, picturesque version of femininity.

This seems to me a patronising, infantalising representation of women, implying they are delicate flowers who need to be protected from the grimness of reality. By outlining the similar representation that pervades Silent Hill 2, I'm in no way endorsing it - I'm simply arguing that it exists.

James, of course, stands in for the virulent male sex. He's accompanied by his alter-ego, the serial raping Pyramid Head, and routinely exacts violence against fragile, womanly creatures, such as the mannequins and nurses.

Laura on the other hand symbolises cleanliness, purity, virginity. She is untouched by the sexualised world that James has created - she remarks that, unlike him, she doesn't see monsters or anything unusual in the town of Silent Hill.

She resembles Maria, the ideal woman James imagines, and by extent Mary, whom Maria is fashioned after, the implication being that Laura is what these two women looked like when they were younger, before they encountered James.

Both of these women are affected - governed - by James's male sexual desire: Mary is killed by James because she was too ill to have sex with him and Maria is literally James's imaginary creation, a short skirt wearing, seductive nymph, fashioned to suit his predilections.

Laura however is undisturbed, unblemished. She's a female who, throughout the game, is immune to influences of men, i.e. doesn't see what James sees. In that, she stands alone: Mary and Maria are both subject to James's sexual ideals and Angela, it transpires, is traumatised by the childhood sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. All of these women, in the same way that James's psyche influences the world of Silent Hill 2, have had their lives impacted on by the sexual whims of men. They are subjects of male self-interest.

With that in mind, the Good Ending of Silent Hill 2, wherein James leaves the town accompanied by a doting Laura, takes on a more sinister tone. Rather than save her, it's as if James has claimed her somehow, as if he's leading her away from the quiet town she envisioned and into an outside world, where women like Mary are murdered for being unable to have sex. Perhaps that's a cynical approach - perhaps, in the end, we see a new James, who has broadened his narrow view of women and learned to relate to them on a deeper, platonic level. But that's up for interpretation. It depends how much you feel for James.

However you see it, the theme of men and male desire somehow "corrupting" women remains. Mary is killed because she, by James's ultra-masculine standards, has become useless. Maria exists only as a canvass for James to project onto. And Angela, perhaps most tragic of all, is eventually driven to suicide by the memories of her father, and the abuses he committed to satisfy his lust. Laura, unable to see what James sees, constantly running away from him and calling him "a bad man" is the only female in the game immune to corroding male influence. But in the end perhaps she too becomes the subject of dangerous, misogynistic intent.

On the nurses in Silent Hill 2

The theme of spousal abuse runs throughout Silent Hill 2. I've written already about James Sunderland's treatment of his wife as a sex object, and his frustrated sexuality. But that was more on a macro level. There is a small, intrinsic part of the game that speaks to the subject of domestic violence, specifically when James encounters the nurse monsters in Brookhaven Hospital.

Simply put, the most effective weapon against them is James's boot. Bludgeoning them with a pipe or shooting them with a gun makes them crumple to the floor, but unless James gives them a kick while they're down, they typically stand back up. Of course, James can kick to death other creatures in the game, but it usually takes two or three stomps before they're killed. The nurses however only take one. The sharp, pugilistic kick is a finishing move.

It's interesting because of all the creatures in the game, the nurses are the most overtly female: they wear fetishised nurse outfits, own heaving bosoms and have their legs exposed. That they're so vulnerable to James's kick hints at a sense of power, that these women can be kept firmly "in check" by a man using, as it were, his bare hands. The act of James kicking a nurse to death  is emblematic of the violent control he exerted over his own wife. It surmises the blunt, terrible force of domestic abuse.

Perhaps that's why the nurses have no faces. Though they're the only creatures in Silent Hill 2 that have human heads, those heads are contorted, blank. It's as if by withholding from the nurses any specific identity, any marks or features that would give them individuality, Silent Hill 2 is making a blanket statement about domestic abuse. It affects not one specific person, but people in a generic sense. It isn't isolated to a relationship between two individuals; it's a large, widespread problem, interceding on the lives of an indiscernible mass.

Certainly, that has been my experience with it. Domestic abuse can take many different forms and affect many different types of people. It is not necessarily violent or physical, nor is it always psychological or prolonged. It's a vaporous problem. For some people, it's hard to detect or accept that it's happening. Like the nurses' faces, it's hard to make out.