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.

Friday, 14 March 2014

No title

Depression is vague feeling. It attacks like radiation poisoning. You feel different, far away, “off”, but you can't tell why. People will ask you, many times, “what's wrong?” and you'll be unable to answer. On paper, compared to the great majority, your life will be ideal. And any distinct misery you will have experienced – abuse, break-ups, job dissatisfaction – will not be not sufficient an explanation for the cloistering, all-over pain of a long-term disorder. It's hard, really, to explain “what's wrong.” And that, for many, is the handle - the struggle to articulate how this feels.

With other illnesses, the pain is localised and apparent, occasionally visible. With depression, it's everywhere and nowhere. It's in the taste of your food, the muscles in your legs, the itching in your scalp. It's in your sleep, your intercourse, your speech. But you can't reach out and touch it. You can't pick at it like a scab or wrap it like a wound. You can't reduce its swelling or hack it off, cough it up or sweat it out. Eventually, you reach a point of anhedonia, where depressive thoughts permeate everything and all. Misery becomes an element, like nitrogen or helium, silently present wherever you go. But still there's no open sore. How can you be ill? After all, you look okay.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Gentlemen, welcome to Write Club

The first rule of Write Club is: No-one cares about anything you write, ever

 The second rule of Write Club is: No-one cares about anything you write, EVER

The third rule of Write Club is: No matter how good your pitch is, the editor will either be on holiday, on the phone or at lunch when your email arrives.

The fourth rule of Write Club is: You won't see money from completed work for at least two months after it's published.

The fifth rule of Write Club is: Every idea you want to do has either been covered by other people, isn't of interest to any money-paying publication or is impossible to write about because it requires interviews with people who live by rule 3.

The sixth rule of Write Club is: The only people who will respond to your work in any sustained way will be people who hate it.

The seventh rule of Write Club is: You'll hate yourself for wasting your life writing about videogames. Then you'll hate yourself even more because you can't seem to get even that right.

The eighth rule of Write Club is: You'll never make money, be admired, become famous. You'll sit in front of Jimquisition/Zero Punctuation/anything on IGN and wonder what the f*ck it is readers want.

The ninth rule of Write Club is: Despite the knocks to your confidence and the moneylessness, this is nevertheless preferable to doing a real job. You're a lazy so-called "creative" and the idea of getting out of bed before *you're* ready to in the morning terrifies you.

The tenth rule of Write Club is: You better have a spouse who actually works and is willing to support your bullshit dream. You also better be able to cope with the crushing, only fair guilt of knowing she/he is going out to work while you're trying to explain to Kotaku why your article about the monsters in The Last of Us is a work of searing genius.

The eleventh rule of Write Club is: Everyone more successful than you is also much stupider. See rule eight. 

The twelfth rule of Write Club is: Despite your awkward, weekly pestering of PR reps, review code will never arrive on time. This means you will either a) miss the embargo and cost both yourself and the site you're writing for credibility b) have to write a review of a game you haven't even completed and/or c) miss the invoice submission date for this month and have to wait four weeks until you can bill for the review, by which time your f*cking gas has been shut off.

The thirteenth rule of Write Club is: The best way to get published is to fake enthusiasm. Claim you believe games are significantly artistic or a force for change. Everyone loves to jack off. Play up to it.

The fourteenth rule of Write Club is: You'll never be any good.

The fifteenth rule of Write Club is: Neither will anyone else.

The sixteenth rule of Write Club is: Nothing you write will ever influence the creation of videogames in any way.

The seventeenth rule of Write Club is: Previews, press events and expos always have been, are, and always will be a complete f*ucking waste of time.

The eighteenth rule of Write Club is: Never ever bloody anything, ever.

The nineteenth rule of Write Club is: You can't do this anymore. You wake up every day and it's the same: no emails, no interest, no money. Day by day your conviction is dissolving. You're embarrassed by how poor you are. You're guilty about embellishing your career when you describe it to your friends. All you have are your old articles and you check them daily, hoping they've been commented on or re-shared on Twitter, anything to make you feel like someone, somewhere is interested. You can't take feeling like this. You hate your work but you're also guilty about hating your work. Look at those people doing real jobs, with real responsibilities, and here you are shitting and moaning about having to write (or not write) about poxy videogames. There's no point to you.

The twentieth rule of Write Club is: If this is your first week at Write Club, you have to write.