another thing they’ve done
‘I was reminded then of two things, both strangely to do with big dogs…One of these dogs was the bloodhound once seen at the bottom of an escalator in a Tube station. This dog sat like a rock on the platform at the very edge of the immense progression of upward moving empty stairs. His master tried to urge him on, patting, whispering, purring, whistling, and once even kicking. But move the dog would not. He sat absolutely. He sat and stared sadly at the ceaseless stairs emerging from the ground and travelling emptily upwards to Heaven. He seemed to be nodding and saying to himself: ‘There, that’s another thing they’ve done…’
The other dog is to be found in a quotation from Henri de Montherlant. He writes: ‘…And for a long time the baron, sitting in his chair, kept that beautiful gravity of face that men get — it almost gives them the illusion of thoughtfulness — when they lose money. Then he sighed. Newfoundland dogs often have a little humidity at the commissure of the eyes, falling like tears. Why do Newfoundland dogs cry? Because they have been tricked.’
— William Sansom, ‘Displaced Persons’
moving everything around
I have this wardrobe in my bedroom which is clearly too big for the room. It’s a useful, attractive thing, but it’s tall and wide and heavy. Like so much of my furniture, my parents gave it to me when they moved out of their old house because it was too much for them; so now it sits here, too much for me. It is full of stuff because whenever you have lived for an amount of time in a house, any empty storage vessels will invariably fill with stuff. There is probably some invented law to describe this.
My girlfriend texted me the other day while I was at work. How does it come apart, she asked, the wardrobe. She wanted to move some furniture around. Of course I was anxious. It’s really heavy, I replied, you’ll have to empty everything out of it first. And even then you won’t be able to move it yourself. Then I put my phone aside. Let her have a go, I thought, what harm can she do. (I am basically the patriarchy.)
And then I get home and she’s just moved everything around. Do you prefer it this way, she asked. I don’t know. I still don’t know. It’s all right except the size of the wardrobe is now immediately apparent from the moment you enter the room. But look, she said, at least now you can open the doors properly without banging them into your desk.
Now it looms over the bed. I remember being frightened as a child after seeing a trailer on TV for The Exorcist featuring a clip of that moment when the wardrobe levitates across the room and towards the camera. That something so friendly and sturdy and everyday might come alive and want to hurt you. I thought that was terrifying.
The point is that I would never have thought of moving the wardrobe by myself. Alone, I would have been content to let it sit in its old corner forever. Gathering dust. Now that it’s in the way whenever I walk into the room, I might actually start taking steps to get it replaced with something smaller. Because that would be the sensible thing to do.
She suggested I write a book about video games. I thought about this for a while. Games in general, or one game in particular? In both instances, certain objections apply: I know a lot about Dark Souls, for example, but I know nothing compared to some of the people out there. It would take hundreds more hours on top of the time I’ve already put in to that game to achieve complete mastery. And once that mastery had been achieved, where would the interest lie?
But let’s assume for a moment that I have decided upon a topic. Let’s assume that I wanted to write a proper book about video games. From what angle should I begin my approach?
As gaming becomes increasingly diverse, it feels like games writing is becoming further divided along tribal lines. It’s inevitable, and not altogether unwelcome; similar divisions exist alongside various scenes in independent music and film. You have big websites publishing polished, professional stuff about the biggest titles; and you have bloggers and independent journalists celebrating indie games, or launching scabrous attacks on the excesses of ‘AAA’ titles. Trenches are dug on both sides. You pays your money and you takes your choice.
If I were a really great, gifted writer, then presumably I’d be able to ignore all this. But for me, it’s the wardrobe in my room. The thing looming over me at every moment as I write. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing; once you’re aware enough of what others have said or are saying about any given topic, you can’t just block it out of your mind. It looms. And one day it might just lift itself up and crush you.
falling down the mountain
I wasn’t supposed to be very interested in Tomb Raider. I’m old enough now to remember playing the very first game in the series on PC, and I’m sure I enjoyed it at the time, but Lara Croft never meant anything to me. Back then it seemed like she was less of a character and more of a cipher for the possibilities of what you could do in a video game. She was a series of caricatures merged together at odd angles – English, Lady, Adventurer, Archaeologist, Thief, Warrior – but I never felt any of this really added up to a coherent personality.
I never played any of the sequels. Perhaps I missed something crucial. But I bought the latest one because it was on sale and it had received some good reviews. And I played it and for the most part I enjoyed it very much. In many respects, it exemplifies the best and worst tendencies of modern video games. And for various reasons I was frequently reminded of another recent critically-lauded game – a much shorter, smaller experience, but one which is still comparable in various respects: Journey.
Journey is a game where you start off in a desert at the bottom of a thing, and you slowly make your way towards the top of the thing. You don’t really know who you are or why you’re there, but the game makes it indisputably clear what you are supposed to be doing without using a giant floating arrow to point you in the right direct. And so as you explore this strange, beautiful landscape around you, you find you have certain special powers – you can jump and glide through the air, and sing in little squawks and chirps – which you can use to solve puzzles and get further in the game. And from time to time you might encounter another player and you might be able to help one another avoid the dangers in this world, and eventually reach the top of the thing.
What makes Journey special is that it dispenses with so much of what is usually considered video game baggage. There are no weapons, and no enemies to kill. There are no RPG mechanics; there’s no XP, no levelling up. There is no reason for competition between players. You can’t really die. There is no dialogue. The cutscenes are kept short and to the point. There are no events in which the game might end if you don’t press a button soon enough. And the whole thing can be finished in half the time and at half the price of a conventional big-budget video game.
Tomb Raider is a game which takes the basic premise of Journey and puts back in all the stuff that Journey deliberately omits. In Tomb Raider, you start off at the bottom of a thing and are asked to reach the top of thing. You’re usually given a pretty specific reason for getting up there, though for the most part it doesn’t really matter what this goal is since once you arrive, a cutscene plays and the thing is done for you. But once you reach the top of the thing in Tomb Raider, you’re invariably sent plunging back towards the bottom of the world, and so you have to repeat this whole procedure three or four times across the course of the whole game, because the game is about three or four times as long as Journey.
And here’s an odd thing: both games feature sequences in which the player is either sliding or flying along a surface with only a limited amount of control over their direction. In Journey, these moments are primarily intended as a method of fast travel through certain areas, showing off aspects of the game’s world that we might otherwise overlook from when encountering them up close.
It’s like the difference between visiting a museum in a foreign city, and glimpsing that same city from the top deck of a fast-moving train. These sequences aren’t really a challenge, and because the player doesn’t have to worry about failing or dying, they can concentrate on the experience of pure play in this strange and marvelous world. You trip lightly across the desert, puffs of sand rising like smoke around you, and you dive through that arch of solid rock because you can and because it looks like fun, not because the game tells you to do it.
Tomb Raider is very different. There are many, many moments in which you are either tumbling down a steep incline or caught up in a fast-flowing river, and in almost all of these the player is required to carry out some sudden action in order to save Lara’s life. If you fail, the results are sudden, graphic and unpleasant.
The most notorious of these sequences is also the most absurd: flung into rapids, you have to guide Lara in between a series of static obstacles to avoid being messily impaled through the throat; succeed and she narrowly misses getting thrown over the top of a waterfall by falling into the cockpit of a huge, rusting WWII bomber; the old plane then starts collapsing around her and you have to tap another button to grab hold of a parachute (which happens to be within arm’s reach) and then Lara flings herself out into the void and you hit another button to pull the ripcord and then at last you are gliding through the trees, steering left and right to avoid crashing, until finally, finally…
Well, it hardly matters what happens next. The whole thing is probably the most audacious sequence in a game already well-packed with video game bullshit. I didn’t particularly enjoy this part – I must have died five or ten times in that river alone, and each time I was forced to watch the same grisly death animation – and it isn’t clear what point it served in the narrative of the game as a whole. It’s as though they discovered a sudden budget surplus that they had to pour into a particularly sophisticated and expensive bit of animation, since it comes as part of a pattern of throwing crazy obstacles in the player’s path to simply make the game longer. Or to put it another way, as soon as you think you’re approaching the summit of your experience, the game knocks you off your handholds and sends you end over end back down the mountain.
Sure, Lara might have amassed more XP and gained a few more abilities afterwards, but you constantly feel like the story has been deliberately deferred simply for the sake of introducing a few more dramatic set pieces. That each new environment is often very cleverly designed and really fun to romp around is great, but there’s really nothing to compare with that constant sense of upward progression that the player finds in Journey. In that game, though your way is frequently slow and difficult, there’s never any sense of the game actually flinging you backwards. Every time you move into a new area in Journey you feel like you’ve learned something new, have gained a little, even when (late in the game) your avatar seems to be growing weaker.
I realise that I haven’t made Tomb Raider sound particularly appealing. I’m not writing this to belittle the achievement of its developers. I liked both games. And even once you realise that so much of what happens in Tomb Raider is based on systems and ideas accepted and refined through generations of 3D third-person action games, that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad video game. Perhaps with the exception of the aforementioned falling-down sequences, it does pretty much all of what you’d expect very well.
The mechanics of Journey, on the other hand, are defined by the game itself. There’s nothing you can do in that game that is not also part of the game world. You can glide and twirl through the air because the world is there to be twirled through. You can sing because you can’t talk. You couldn’t transplant any of its mechanics into another game and expect them to be understood for what they are. Nothing has ever been made quite like this.
So why do we put up with Tomb Raider? Why is it still worth playing?
Writing recently on Bioshock Infinite, Kieron Gillen described the essential absurdity of its combat mechanics as a ‘studied videogame formalism…with painful hyperviolence in place of vocal histrionics’. In other words, criticising a game on the grounds that it does exactly the kind of thing that other games of the same genre have done before is about as useful as mocking a musical for featuring people who keep bursting into song. There’s a theatrical quality to these moments in Tomb Raider, too – the songs are different, but the form itself is the same.
And the fighting feels good. I would even say that I felt better than usual about murdering hordes of goons in this game. It’s strangely satisfying to be controlling a small, inexperienced and relatively vulnerable Lara against a bunch of macho goons who can easily overwhelm her if you aren’t careful. But there are no surprises in terms of the actual presentation of the shooting.
Combat – and particularly gunplay – is a set of video game verbs easily transferred across a range of styles and genres. It is a common thing to do in many kinds of games in many kinds of different ways, and some games do it better than others. And it’s really hard to think of a totally non-violent, non-confrontational equivalent to combat which would offer the same variety of experience within a framework that is both challenging and familiar – not only because it’s really hard to define exactly what is meant by ‘violence’ in the context of a game, but also because you can do more different kinds of fighting in a game than you can do anything else.
Tomb Raider contains scenes of graphic and bloody violence, much of it essentially gratuitous. But is it more violent than DOOM for rendering this in such intense detail? Is a violent action game more violent than a strategy game? How violent is a car crash in a driving game in comparison? Are pixels inherently more violent than polygons, or vice versa? If Super Mario World makes you feel violent, does that make it a violent game?
In the end, the most I can say is that these two games are emblematic of certain competing trends in the video game industry: one takes a set of known systems that have proved their value before and refines them to an impressive degree; the other sets off in a new direction entirely. In some ways the new Tomb Raider is the same as the old Tomb Raider; Lara’s still a cipher for what video games are capable of being today, and the only difference is that both our expectations and the technology to render them have changed drastically since 1996.
Even an amazing thing like Journey offers no solutions as to The Future of Games. Its achievements are so perfectly self-contained that it’s unlikely to ever spawn a genre of its own. The closest thing we can expect are small, independent games which offer a guided emotional experience, but even those are unlikely to use the same game mechanics as Journey. And perhaps that’s for the best; devoid of all context, the stuff players do in that game start to look a little flimsy. It’s shallow, superficial stuff, intended to evoke a highly specific emotional response – but what’s remarkable about it is that most of the time, it works.
Given that video games are still such a young medium, it’s quite possible (perhaps inevitable) that at some point a new type of game will come along that will make both Tomb Raider and Journey look thoroughly insignificant. The hope that such a thing might occur is partly why I still play games in the first place.
It occurred to me the other day that my feelings about video games are comparable to my father’s feelings about fishing. Part of the appeal is the hobby itself, but I think for us both it was also an excuse to be alone in another kind of world. (As I have previously noted, this is perhaps not seen as the healthiest of impulses, but it is mine regardless.)
Games occupy a different room in my mind from my love of reading and writing. For him, fishing was about the journey towards fishing as much as it was the catching of the fish. In the same way, much of my interest in games comes from their aura – thinking about them and what they might entail, and thinking about life in a gamey sort of way. I realise that sounds pathetic but I can’t think of a better way to put it.
In the recent years before he died, my dad began accumulating a huge quantity of fishing gear: rods, reels, lures, books and clothes, all mostly from eBay. Some of this he used, but most of it he didn’t. And in the same way, I can easily imagine myself (if I ever have the time/money) collecting bits and pieces of video game memorabilia both valuable and worthless. Sometimes I nurture fantasies about getting into Sega hardware, for example, or building my own high-end PC, or buying an old arcade cabinet and refurbishing it and selling it to a local pub…
And all this despite the fact that I’ve never even held a Dreamcast controller, and I never really went to arcades in my youth. I’m inventing a history I didn’t ever have — I want to be the person who knows about such things in order to give my present self an authority I don’t currently feel I deserve. Perhaps he felt the same.
Sometimes I regret that my dad and I didn’t share many interests. I wonder about how fun it would have been to play games with him, to share those experiences I find so engaging. But I’m only fooling myself, of course — it’s just easier now to imagine the kind of person he might have been than to have to deal with how he really was. We did go fishing once or twice, and I’m sure we had fun, but it was never quite what either of us wanted.
That said, it was my dad who got me into games in the first place. He was the one who put the computer in our house (I was never allowed a console) and who introduced me to all kinds of things via the nascent internet and shareware discs. Presumably he hoped that they would be enough to get me into IT, and in that regard it worked: pretty much everything I know about computers today I learned from trying to make PC games work in my youth.
The best thing ever was when he would install a game on the computer and then just leave it on the desktop for me to find. I can remember being nine or ten years old and booting up the computer one morning only to find a big icon in the middle of the screen that read: QUAKE.
Oh, I paced through that difficulty selection area in such awe.
Perhaps you feel sorry for me. Certainly I would be the first to defend video games as a medium for expressing things that are important and unique. But I know we were different. He had options I didn’t have, and vice versa. He was raised in a different place in a very different time, and he spent his youth fishing and stealing birds’ eggs with friends because he could, and because there was not much else to do; I spent mine indoors, mostly alone, trying to escape from the world outside.
Tradition says one of these lifestyles is healthy and vigorous while the other is pale and wan. And we still have some of the eggs he collected, and his fishing gear, and the notes he made on when and where he found them. The nature of my hobby means I have virtually nothing to show for it. But there is an ephemeral quality to both: to the casual observer, the thoughts of a fisherman are as equally inaccessible as those of the gamer. There’s a core quality to it that is essentially secret.
‘The poet has his memorial in repetition, and the statesman in stone and bronze. The scholar’s hand lies always on his book, and the thinker’s eyes on canvas travel the room to rest on each human face; the rebel has his ballad and his cross, his bigot’s garland, his wreath of rope. But for the poor man and the giant there is the scrub bed wooden slab and the slop bucket, there is the cauldron and the boiling pot, and the dunghill for his lights; so he is a stench in the nose for a day or a week, so he is a no-name, so he is oblivion. Stories cannot save him. When human memory runs out, there is the memory of animals; behind that, the memory of the plants, and behind that the memory of the rocks. But the wind and the sea wear the rocks away; and the cell-line runs to its limit, where meaning falls away from it, and it loses knowledge of its own nature. Unless we plead on our knees with history, we are done for, we are lost. We must step sideways, into that country where space plaits and knots, where time folds and twists: where the years pass in a day.’
– Hilary Mantel, ‘The Giant, O’Brien’ (1998)
You can go and see the bones of Charles Byrne, if you want. They are on display in the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London. Known also as Charles O’Brien, he was the the Irish giant who became the subject of the novel quoted above. He stood almost eight feet high and not much is known about him. We have his bones still because when he died, a renowned surgeon named John Hunter bribed a man £500 for his corpse to be taken against O’Brien’s own wishes. In Mantel’s novel, when Hunter makes his offer to the still-living Charles, the giant’s response is curt: ‘Get out. Cromwellian.’
It’s a clever authorial flourish, but it’s also a wholly contrived, implausible reply. This giant is (as Mantel freely admits) an invention, and one who most likely bears little resemblance to the original of Charles Byrne. In this fiction he is a thoughtful poet, a learned man fond of telling beautiful tales in the most ornate language conceivable; the essential pity of his condition is that when he arrives in London, only his body is of public interest. Nobody wants to hear his stories except as a distraction.
The passage quoted above comes near the end of the book as a kind of dying fall. It reminded me instantly of George Eliot’s final, unforgettable tribute to Dorothea in ‘Middlemarch’:
‘Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it…’
‘Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’
It is impossible to envisage how we will live on in posterity. Charles Byrne might perhaps have guessed that he would not really be buried at sea, but he could never have imagined his skeleton would be on display to this day, nor could he have thought himself as the subject of a novel, or see himself referenced in an obscure bit of prose on the internet by some scribbler soon to be forgotten in his own right. But in the end there is no such thing as posterity. Every memory must fail in the end. Visited or not, every tomb caves in upon itself, is swallowed in the dark earth.
I’ve just finished reading ‘Up in the Old Hotel’ by Joseph Mitchell, which I bought after I stumbled upon one of his previously unpublished essays in the New Yorker. One of the most memorable characters from his work is Joe Gould; a bum and bohemian of legendary status who claimed to have dedicated his life to writing an enormous and impossibly long book called the ‘Oral History of the Contemporary World’. Gould was penniless, and subsisted largely on the kindness of more successful artists who found his antics amusing; today I’m sure he would not be tolerated quite so much, and would either be declared mentally ill or simply thrown in jail.
His name survives largely because of Joseph Mitchell’s brilliant original profile of him, and because of the short book he wrote after Gould’s death on what might have become of the ‘Oral History’ itself. Since then they’ve made a movie about him, and the two men have even appeared in a video game. In some ways the relationship between Mitchell and Gould was the same as that of James Hunter and Charles O’Brien – one was ultimately after the bones of the other. Yet while Hunter was probably destined to be an important figure in medicine regardless of his interest in the giant, it seems to me that the fates of Joseph Mitchell and Joe Gould have become inextricably intertwined.
It isn’t only that Mitchell’s own reputation rests partly on that of his subject. You only need to read the descriptions of Gould’s unfinished (and largely unwritten) masterpiece to see that Mitchell saw much of himself in the poor man. At first it is described as a thing only made up of ‘conversations taken down verbatim or summarized’, which sounds simple enough until you actually try to read the thing. According to Mitchell:
‘The Oral History is a great hodgepodge and kitchen midden of hearsay, a repository of jabber, an omnium-gatherum of bushwa, gab, palaver, hogwash, flapdoodle, and malarkey, the fruit, according to Gould’s estimate, of more than twenty thousand conversations. In it are the hopelessly incoherent biographies of hundreds of bums, accounts of the wanderings of seamen encountered in South Street barrooms, grisly depictions of hospital and clinic experiences…summaries of innumerable Union Square and Columbus Circle harangues, testimonies given by converts at Salvation Army street meetings, and the added opinions of scores of park-bench oracles and gin-mill savants.’
This makes Gould’s work sound remarkably similar to ‘Finnegans Wake’ by James Joyce (of whom Mitchell was a devoted fan). Yet Mitchell can’t have been unaware that the above also serves well as a pretty fair description of his own style as a writer. In all of his essays, he is interested in people because he finds them genuinely interesting, and because he met them by accident, not because they have declared themselves to anyone in particular – and he ends up as a kind of collector of much the same kinds of malarkey, palaver, flapdoodle. (In this regard his work looks rather old-fashioned compared to the current incarnation of that venerable magazine, where the profiles are now written under the assumption that because someone is wealthy or powerful they must be worth writing about.)
Yes, Mitchell’s work is frequently incoherent, sometimes dull, pedantic, and gossipy in style: certainly the facts of any given matter are not always left clear by the time the reader is done. But his essential mission is pretty much identical to that of Joe Gould. And it is in his last work, ‘Joe Gould’s Secret’, that Mitchell comes to admire the commitment of a man who chose to make his life into literature rather than commit it to paper:
‘When I thought of the cataracts of books, the Niagaras of books, the rushing rivers of books, the oceans of books, the tons and truckloads and trainloads of books that were pouring off the presses of the world at that moment, only a very few of those which would be worth picking up and looking at, let alone reading, I began to feel that it was admirable that he hadn’t written it. One less book to clutter up the world, one less book to take up space and catch dust and go unread from bookstores to homes to secondhand bookstores and junk stores and thrift shops to still other homes to still other second-hand bookstores and junk stores and thrift shops to still other homes ad infinitum…’
It is perhaps worth noting at this point that Joseph Mitchell never published another book after ‘Joe Gould’s Secret’.
I have no particular moral to express here. I realise it would be somewhat absurd to draw a conclusion about the importance of unhistoric acts and unvisited tombs from examples of people with a more of a legacy than most.
At some point in their lives, everyone believes themselves to be significant enough to worth remembering, and at other times everyone wonders if the world would be better off without them. Joe Gould and Charles O’Brien are emblematic of this dilemma. But in the end, how they wanted to be remembered wasn’t worth a thing. Both would likely have been impressed and disappointed in equal measure by the way things turned out.
For all that is written about the violent content of video games, it seems to me that most games contain almost nothing which is genuinely controversial. This is not to say they cannot be crude or offensive or misogynistic or any number of unpleasant things. But very few games are disturbing in a political or emotional context. Perhaps if a game even began to approximate actual violence it would become so troubling as to be unplayable.
For example, nobody has made a video game about being a burglar. It wouldn’t have to be an open-world simulator with a range of career choices, nor would it need spectacular visuals or an extensive cast of characters. It would just be a game about doing something consistently terrible with unpleasant consequences every time.
You would come to a home – one of many houses, apartments, condos, mansions, etc – and you would have to find a way in. You could choose to stake it out for a while or take a more opportunistic approach. The usual stealth game mechanics would be in place.
Once inside, your only mission would be to steal valuable items without disturbing the inhabitants. There would be no particular goal other than to take stuff you consider valuable. There would be no incentives other than your own perverse sense of curiosity. You can take anything you want away with you to your own little room, which becomes a trophy chamber of sorts.
There is no plot. No equipment to be bought or upgraded. No guns or weapons. No open world to be traversed. Only a series of rooms more or less large or small.
There are people in the game, and all the people in all the homes are different. They have different faces and voices, and will say and do different things while they are being watched. They will be afraid of you. If they see you, they might scream and run away and try to get to the telephone, or they might pick up the nearest heavy object and pitch it at your head. If you are caught or killed it is game over.
When you are discovered, you will be unable to control the reactions of your avatar. You will do things you aren’t anticipating. Your character will act along the lines of a concealed archetype determined at the beginning of the game. They might be reasonable and cautious or they might be prone to sudden outbreaks of unpredictable violence.
If someone finds you in their house, they will be afraid of what you will do. You will also be afraid of what you will do.
on giving blood
(I originally wrote this on Medium and cross-post it here for posterity.)
Once or twice a year, I take the bus to my local town hall to give blood. I bring the appointment letter and my donor card and I sit and wait and drink the mandatory big cup of water while pretending to read the health notes I’ve seen many times before. Then I go to a booth and answer a few questions about when I last travelled and whether I’m taking any medication, and they take a finger-prick blood sample to check my Iron levels (which is probably the most painful part of the whole procedure). Then I go and sit in another chair and wait to be put up on a folding bed where a nurse will put a big needle in my arm and drain out a great armful of person-liquor into a plastic bag.
I don’t have to do any of this, of course. I am not an especially charitable person in other aspects of my daily life, and here in the UK, there’s no fiscal incentive to donate blood — though once you’re done, there’s all the free orange squash, crisps and biscuits you can scoff. So why do I bother?
I’m sure sociologists have produced countless theories as to what motivates individuals towards selfless acts. It’s a fun question to pose, yet I’m not convinced there’s any great mystery here. It may seem like an inscrutable puzzle from a certain point of view, but on the level of the individual, I think most people understand quite well why they give blood.
Here are some of my own reasons:
My dad began donating about seven or eight years ago. I went with him at Christmas one year, when it was especially busy. He always used to insist that in the old days, you could get a free bottle of Guinness after making a donation to replenish your lost Iron — a rather tall story which was perhaps just an excuse to go to the pub afterwards. Still, I probably wouldn’t have gone at all if I didn’t have someone else to go with, and I suspect the same is true of many first-time donors. It wasn’t something we talked about, nor was it an opportunity for father-son bonding. It was just a thing we did. It was nice.
I like the NHS. This is another way of saying: I like the idea of the NHS. Free healthcare is one of the best things about living in the UK. I believe in a system of universal benefit which increasingly seems rather old-fashioned in the current political climate; one where individuals pay in according to their ability and take out according to their need. Blood donation is this in its purest form: I give because I can, and because I hope the same system will be there to look after me one day should I need it.
There is — dare I say it? — a certain masochistic pleasure in the act of donation itself. The needle going into me and the stuff going out. You feel something for sure, but it isn’t painful as such. It’s more like: oh, there is a thing coming out of my arm here that wasn’t there before. The first few times I went, the bleeding brought on an oddly pleasant sensation akin to gentle fatigue. A bit like having a couple of pints of beer at lunchtime. And I like to watch the blood bags rocking slowly back and forth on the electronic scales that hang below the beds. The latest models emit a cute little chirp when almost full that reminds me of Mario.
In the end, I suppose it is the personal aspect that brings me back every time. My dad passed away very suddenly in October last year. We hadn’t been to a session together for a while, but it’s still something that in my mind remains associated with him. And it’s this that makes me wonder, while I wait to go up on that folding bed, how many other donors do it because of something that happened to someone else they know; not a thing they might want to talk about, but something which quietly pushes them to be a better person in some small way when given the opportunity.
These days, my girlfriend and I go to give blood together. I hope he would still think it worthwhile.
the troll and I
I think I have lived long enough now that I say this with confidence: I am not a particularly ambitious person.
I have a pretty good job, but I’m not sure you’d call it a career. I’m not lonely. I’m often quite lazy, but I’m basically an active and conscientious person. I am shy, but not so much that it makes me unhappy. My interests are modest enough that I can fulfill them without any great risk to my wallet. I don’t want a new car or a house or to go on holiday right now, but I’m thinking about getting a new TV. My foresight is limited to a cloudy awareness of the next few weeks and I am no good at thinking about what I would like to do with my life.
The internet makes it quite easy to keep a peripheral awareness of people I used to know at school and university. Some of them are now reasonably successful. I look at them with a mixture of wonder, envy and confusion. It’s not that I am particularly jealous: it’s that I actually don’t understand how they managed it.
I try to make sense of these feelings with my own somewhat deterministic view of life. I’m inclined to believe that people turn out the way they are through the sum of all their experiences combined with the limits of their culture, the possibilities inherent in their society, and sheer good or bad luck.
In other words, most of the really important things that shape who we are in the broadest sense are defined by forces beyond our control. That people are afforded a modicum of success is only partly down to their own decisions; for the most part, they just happened to be in the right/wrong place at the right/wrong time at various stages in their lives.
Naturally I include myself in this theory: I consider myself extremely fortunate to live the kind of privileged life I do. I don’t really deserve any of it. I don’t believe that things happen for a reason; it’s just that being in a certain place at a certain time makes some kinds of things more likely to happen to you than others. There is no great plan.
(I feel like I have explained all this solipsistic pseudo-philosophical crap before on this blog, so apologies if I am repeating myself. I also find myself intensely aware that all my paragraphs are beginning with an ‘I’, which just tears me up inside, but it’s too late to do anything about that now.)
The direction of this entry might suggest a conclusion that it’s okay to lack ambition. After all, if the cards have been dealt in advance, then you might as well play your hand when the only alternative is to fold.
But I can’t reconcile what I think in my head with the troll in my heart. The voice that says some people have got to where they are in life because (to paraphrase Walter White) they applied themselves. Their lives might have been shaped in advance by factors beyond their control, but the fact remains that they took the right/wrong actions at the right/wrong moments that brought them to where they are today. They chose to work when I did not.
I want to write, and I want the things I write to be read and enjoyed by other people. That is an ambition that I have. It has no specific targets or goals, but it is a thing I want to do with my life because I’ve had reason to believe that it is achievable.
It’s not that I am averse to the work involved, though it is rendered more difficult by already having a job related to writing. It’s that my own lack of specific ambition means that I am easily satisfied by something like a well-received post on tumblr. Sending something of mine (what?) to a publisher or a magazine seems to me like a cursory, anachronistic gesture; not because I believe such media are outdated, but because I don’t really believe that it’s the kind of thing I ought to be doing.
(I don’t know what that means either.)
The troll in my heart hates writing. I don’t mean that he hates my writing – I mean that he hates all writing.
We are impatient with writing and writers, the troll and I. We’ve grown bored of the trappings of fiction, the desperate lies authors tells themselves to convince others of their own importance. I don’t only mean those self-evidently untrue platitudes that say that in a Great Novel, Every Word Must Count; we’ve come to find whole concepts like dialogue and character and motivation thoroughly tedious in most writing.
You’re just disaffected, you might say. You’re bored. You play too many video games. It’s the internet. Twitter is to blame. Perhaps you are right. On a good day, I can still believe that writing – any writing – is its own justification. But every day I watch row upon row of beautiful little byline photographs struggling to be recognised by someone in amongst the biggest slush pile ever known. Some of what I see is extraordinary and some of it is dross; after a while, the ratio doesn’t matter much. Somehow it still saddens the heart.
I wrote a thing for Medium about video games and why I am suspicious of my own motivations.
(I’ve not forsaken you, tumblr; I just felt like a fling. It’s all very new and confusing. Do you like the style? Is there such a thing as cross-posting etiquette? Should I just put all my video game stuff over there instead? Who can say?)
there’s always a lighthouse
I thought BioShock Infinite was marvelous. It’s a game which understands perfectly how to compose and curate the experience of playing a first-person shooter better than anything else I’ve played in a very long time. This is another way of saying that it doesn’t attempt to impersonate a cinematic or literary style in its storytelling; it builds upon a format established in the first System Shock and BioShock games, and takes that to a refined conclusion. It’s not a particularly inventive gaming experience, and so most of the problems I did have with it are really more like things that are weird about immersive FPS games: an oddly unresponsive world populated by automaton-like NPCs, the constant scrabbling about in odd little corners for health and ammo, the occasional pleasant moment of tranquility punctuated by sudden extreme violence.
It’s kind of crazy how they’ve got away with giving this game such a remarkable setting. By that I mean that there seems to have been relatively little discussion in the mainstream media about its political content. We’ve heard nothing from right-wing pundits (at least not in the UK) about how it’s a wishy-washy left-wing conspiracy to teach a revisionist version of imperial history to our children – and I kind of wish they would pick up on this stuff just so we could have a debate about it. (It also makes me extremely excited about what a BioShock game in a British context would look like.)
Perhaps they’ve ignored the politics because it’s only been promoted as an action game in a crazy city in the clouds. I caught a glimpse of the TV advert the other night while with my family; I mentioned I’d been playing it, and they were all surprised to hear that the game has anything to do with aspects of American history and racism. On the other hand, that stuff has been trailed for so long in the gaming press that we all knew what to expect when we saw an eight-foot cyborg with the face of George Washington wielding a minigun.
The plot is…odd. I’m surprised that its sheer oddness has not been mentioned more often. I mean, I like it, but it’s highly contrived and based around so many twists and turns that a big part of what kept me playing was a simple drive to find out what was going to happen next. (Which is a good thing.) It feels to me like the kind of thing that only a developer with a proven track record could get away with because it is pretentious. And I mean that in a good way because I don’t believe in using that word as a put-down.
The most important way in which it breaks from its predecessors was that the first two and a half BioShock games (including Minerva’s Den) had stories that were outlandish, but were at least both were founded on a pretty solid ground of sci-fi realism. There was no magic in those worlds, and the weirdest things that happened in them were science experiments gone wrong. BioShock Infinite changes all that. For a large part of the game, you feel like you can’t always trust the objectivity of what the player-character is seeing. You aren’t just steering a silent invisible camera through a world of stuff with your gun as your only means of interaction. And that’s a really interesting thing for a big game like this to be doing.
(A minor spoiler to follow.)