a collection of things i thought about in the supermarket yesterday
I wonder what my dad thought about while he was dying. Did he know he was dying while it was happening? Was he afraid? I think perhaps he didn’t know. Perhaps he was in pain and wanted relief, and unconsciousness just came over him like a cover, like when you fall asleep without really noticing it. In that moment there wouldn’t have been time to think about anything. I wonder if he was happy with what he achieved in life. I hope he was but you can never quite tell. Everything changes when you have children, I’m told.
We came in here to buy wrapping paper and some rubber gloves and we’ve already picked up a jar of jam, a bottle of gin, eight lemons, canned tomatoes and beans, and a lot of other things I am sure we don’t really need. The bags are very heavy and I am both hot and cold. This place used to sell a lot of video games and DVDs but they’ve done away with most of them. For some reason the only game they offer is the vanilla PS4 edition of Watch_Dogs. (It’s £48.)
I don’t know if my dad ever had any creative ambition. If he did, he never talked about it. Maybe he set it aside before I came along. He enjoyed music and art and theatre and films, and was fairly serious about his knowledge of such things, but as far as I know he never felt any urge to express himself in any formal way. The things he did write to me (emails, text messages) were short and to the point, but lacked nothing in the way of affection. You couldn’t say they were cold. Once my grandmother said he was a sentimental man but this aspect was not often expressed.
Of course it does not follow that his life was in any sense lacking if he had no creative ambition. It’s quite possible that he managed to achieve a great deal more by simply choosing not to bother with such things and focusing instead on the work of his life, both in terms of his actual career but also the raising the supporting of myself and my sisters and my mother throughout our lives.
Sometimes I feel that we overvalue the work of ‘the creative’ in our society. In principle I support the right of people doing good and valuable creative work to earn a decent living; I mean, I think everyone should have access to a universal basic income, no matter what they do. But I would hesitate to apply any kind of exceptional value to the work of the average writer because in relative terms, what they do is so much less important than a enormous range of people who go largely forgotten, at least in formal terms.
The world would go on turning if a few thousand people woke up tomorrow and found that they had lost the urge to write. We’ll never know what we might have lost. But if we lost a few thousand social workers or nurses or caregivers — or mothers! or fathers! — the pain would be immediate, and real.
I recognise the woman about to serve us at the checkout as one who refused to let us buy a bottle of wine (about twelve to eighteen months ago). She thought we were underage, and though I had ID, my partner didn’t; this rule that all parties involved must present proof of age was hitherto unknown to us, and there was no getting around it. Afterwards I wrote a polite complaint to the head office of this supermarket, pointing out that I had no objection to being asked for proof of age but that if they were also going to enforce this rule they should at least advertise it in store. I got a fairly generic reply — I wasn’t expecting anything more — but since then, I’ve never been asked for ID. Perhaps they keep a little picture of me behind every counter, but if the woman at the checkout recognised me, she made no sign. As with so much in life, I look back on my actions now with a vague sense of embarrassment. I hope I didn’t get anybody in trouble.
I realise now that my scenario of comparing the vocation of writing with the vocation of parenting was a little unfair. One can do both well, as many writers have attested; I always recall J.G. Ballard’s reminder that his role as a single father and the presence of ‘the pram in the hall’ actually provided him with the time, motivation and inspiration to write, rather than weighing him down with worldly concerns in the way that many fear it might.
Think of it a different way: what if hundreds of thousands of people simply decided not to have children and to pursue instead a career in the creative arts? Schools and colleges would be flooded by applicants in their twenties and thirties and forties, brandishing portfolios and sketchbooks and laptops, pregnant only with expectations and hopes and dreams. And they’d learn and they’d draw and write and make movies and plays and sculptures and music and games and some of it would be good and some of it would be terrible. And then what?
And then what? From the privileged heights of late modernity in Western Europe, it seems that just as everything useful as already been invented, every true development in art and culture has already occurred. Improvements are not born out of true innovation but are gradual iterations on what has come before; kids grow up to become software developers and write screenplays rather than taking up carpentry and poetry. You have heard this complaint before. But as the software developers like to say: we are where we are! There can be no reinventing the wheel, no stepping in the same river twice, and there can be no fixing of this bug because we’re right in the middle of a sprint right now so would you please submit a new report through the change programme and we’ll see if we can’t come up with a quote for you in ten working days.
It has been pointed out to me that there is a contradiction between the enjoyment I get out of certain activities in Animal Crossing: New Leaf and the reluctance with which I embark on those activities in real life. In the game you can perform little tasks and mini-games like collecting fruit, digging up fossils, catching bugs and fishing in exchange for new clothes, tools and furniture for your house — but all of this is essentially optional, and you can do as much or as little as you like. Catching a bug or a fish takes a little patience, and a matter of seconds. It is nothing like the real thing, and it’s not intended to be, and that’s why I love it.
In my previous post I established that I don’t like home improvement; cleaning and cooking I don’t mind, and sometimes enjoy, but I have no interest in the kind of self-refinement through worldly goods that sells lifestyle magazines and TV shows. I am not interested in ornamentation or expansion for its own sake. I’m no utilitarian — I’ve amassed as much useful junk as anyone else — but in theory, what I want from a home is simply for it to be a place where I can be, undisturbed. I like a little gardening sometimes because gardening is just like tidying up except you’re just choosing what level and style of mess you can bear to live with.
Animal Crossing is a game about pottering. At any one moment there’s a whole list of things that you could be doing, but nothing is exceptionally urgent; all the game wants is that you pick it up and play with it once in a while. Unlike most games, it doesn’t streamline its interface to make it as simple as possible to keep you playing once you pick up the controller. In fact, AC:NL does the opposite: there’s something slow and fussy about the interaction of the systems that means it becomes hard to play for long periods at a time. Want to build an extension to your house? Okay: so farm and fish and hunt for two or three hours until you’ve ground out enough Bells to pay back your agent, Tom Nook. But after you’ve done all that work, the guy says your new room won’t be ready till tomorrow. In real time.
You aren’t meant to play it for such long periods, and to this end there are all kinds of obstacles in place which discourage extended play. The size of your inventory is small, given how much stuff you’ll want to carry around this place, and selling your stash demands the same old conversation time and time again. Whenever you take the boat to the tropical island, which is the best place to collect a lot of valuable stuff in a short space of time, you have to listen to captain Kapp’n sing you a sweet, sad little song on the way there. (Actually you can mash the B button a while to skip his song. But then he tells you off for doing this.)
AC:NL is perfect for fitting into odd spaces in my life where I want to be doing something that requires a little thought but without threat of failure. There’s no risk that I won’t understand what to do next or feel lost or alone or scared. There is no fear, and fear is the one thing that motivates me above all else. There is no death in this world, no endgame, no victory; there are little prizes and badges and gifts, but they’re fleeting, and soon your gains become amassed in such quantities that even taking them to be recycled into cash becomes a bit of a chore.
You can’t break the things you find here. Everything lives forever. Dead flowers and weeds are the worst the game has to offer, and can be fixed with a moment’s attention. Or pluck them away like they were never there. All the time you put into the game is quietly appreciated, and ultimately paid back with interest in a series of small but undeniably pleasant surprises.
The real world isn’t like that. Things fail, and you won’t be able to fix them. You have to do things you don’t like because if you don’t then nobody else will. You can’t just make a little money to top up your account whenever you feel like it. Entropy acts on all things, and everyone you love will be hurt and in pain and everything you like will rot and break and fall apart. But none of that will ever happen in Animal Crossing. You can boot up the save of a game from ten years ago and everything will be essentially as you left it, save a few weeds and lonely villagers. Everyone can be saved.
I returned home this afternoon in a foul mood. We’d come back from the garden centre on the bus laden with bags of compost, with new herbs and various other things, and it was very hot and my arms were aching, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that while getting off the bus I was in the middle of a story about the wreck of a local pub which has been abandoned for a number of years and how one night two men broke in there to find someone hanged behind the bar when one of the bags gave way and two of the terracotta pots we’d bought broke their rims on the ground. And I scowled and swore and picked up the remnants and carried them all home but it wasn’t till we got back that I sat down and felt bad.
This is what my life has become, I thought: I am the kind of person who goes to the garden centre at the weekend and who comes back overladen on the bus and who can’t even manage to carry the stuff home without breaking something. It wasn’t so much the breakage as the thought of an endless parade of saturdays like this stretching out before me, from now until the end of my life. Every weekend I would fill up the house with a further array of half-broken things I didn’t even want and sit in front of them like this, exhausted.
All of this is just the worst, of course. I mean that in the strictly internet sense; to put it another way, I am the worst for thinking these things. The very fact that I have a home of my own which I can furnish as I want, the fact that I have disposable income to spend on gardening stuff, the fact that we have a public transport infrastructure capable of carrying my pampered white behind to and fro on a whim — all of that is unbelievable.
But what I wanted, broadly speaking, was to be left alone. I wanted the option to reject all of that, and not only for a moment. If I wasn’t going to the garden centre, then what would I do? I imagined myself living in a small white room somewhere, a cool white room, a room with a bed and a bathroom and a computer and somewhere to make food. There would be a roof and a floor and four walls and a door I could lock and I wouldn’t have to look after anything beyond my immediate needs.
It’s a child’s dream — a particular kind of child, I suppose — but it’s childish regardless. It is ignoring the real and lingering pleasures of the totality of what we did today in favour of a kind of short-term, temporary anaesthetic. What I want is not instant gratification but only to exist in a state where nothing bad can happen and nothing can hurt me or make me feel sad. And in my pursuit of this place I become like the boy in the bubble in that one episode of Seinfeld: plied constantly with everything I want, I become angry and resentful at an outside world where everyone seems to be part of a secret conspiracy of ignorance or happiness or both.
I am tempted to file the Knifepoint podcast within my imaginary mental cabinet titled things I like but can’t possibly tell anybody about, because I always find it hard to explain why I’m interested in stuff that’s both as grim and as obvious as this — but it deserves better than to be kept to myself. It’s an irregular broadcast which is composed of horror stories and weird fiction. The stories are relatively short and self-contained, often begin with the narrator simply announcing his name and background, and they are usually read out from a first-person perspective; as if they were actually being told to you, or you were reading a written record or confession.
The tone is very subdued, very calm, very muted, even when the content becomes shocking. There’s not a lot of description, and hardly any dialogue. Often the narrator hardly has any significant relationships with other people; the focus is on entirely on the individual’s encounter with something strange. The stories are not always subtle, writhed as they are in gloom and gothic tropes, but the delivery is never melodramatic. The writing has a quality of directness which somehow convinces the listener that something terrible is always on the edge of happening — even when, more often than not, nothing does. And even though the stories often feature familiar horror staples (zombies, ghosts, vampires, etc) the author has a talent for the measured twist or the perfectly strange little detail which elevates these stories from being merely curious to something genuinely compelling.
What attracts me to this kind of thing is the same thing that interests me generally in all kinds of fictional media. It’s not so much the use of the first-person perspective as it is the emphasis on subjective experience. As a reader, or as any kind of audience, what I want is to be submerged in the consciousness of another person until I almost become that person — and I say almost, because I still want to feel the mediating force of another presence. A better, stronger person than I might be — or a worse one.
The format of this podcast is not dissimilar to the internet meme known as creepypasta. I’ve written about my interest in this before, and here’s an intriguing recent example which I picked up on via the twitter feed of games journalist Leigh Alexander. Those stories and videos often tend to be as short as you can imagine, all the better to cater for the limited attention span of the average reader on the internet, but there’s an essential intent common to both. While they start out as being somebody else’s story, the nature of the framing device is such that the reader can’t help but project themselves into the moment. The narrator is the equivalent of a funhouse car on the tracks of a ghost train ride; a re-usable vehicle which tilts and turns at every appropriate moment to ensure that our attention is always directed in the right place.
As I write this I’m thinking also of the first time I played Half-Life. Now regarded as one of the most significant video games of all time, it’s an important title because it did some incredible things with narrative in games. Here there was no attempt to emulate cinema through cutscenes where characters would leap around doing things you couldn’t possibly figure out how to do in the game, like in Dara O’Briain’s routine about Metal Gear Solid.
Instead, every aspect of Half-Life was presented to the player through the eyes of the protagonist, a regular guy who just happens to work as a lab assistant in a top-secret government research facility. The player is in full control of his movements and actions at all times, and though the verbs are still limited to the staples (shooting, jumping, pushing buttons, etc) absolutely everything was seen through the experience of this one individual. It was a tightly scripted and entirely linear experience — everything you saw and experienced had been programmed to occur at exactly the right moment — but it somehow felt like a new and intimate way of exploring a world. And it was often quite frightening, too.
There is a plot in Half-Life, but I would suggest that most of it is insignificant to the overall value of the game. When I played it for the first time I actually had the sound either very low or switched off entirely because the PC was in a shared family room, and so because the details of the story are only related to the player by the few living scientists encountered on the way, I missed out on the details of the story-as-it-was-spoken. But none of that mattered! The really important stuff that happens in Half-Life isn’t what is told to you, but what happens right in front of your eyes. The inane witterings of some primitive hunk of polygons with a Phd suddenly seem insignificant when a massive green tentacle smashes through the lab window and starts probing the room in search of those soft fleshy things it can hear but not see.
It’s interesting to see what the recent surge in online streaming has done for video games. Suddenly it seems like people not only take a great deal of pleasure in playing dark and violent ghost train games like Outlast but they also cast themselves on the internet while they’re playing. And why bother buying it when somebody’s put the whole thing on YouTube for free? I’m not a fan of this approach myself, but I can appreciate why some people enjoy it. Perhaps the experience is akin to watching a horror movie with a group of friends rather than on your own. A great deal of fun, I’m sure; but not everything that’s fun is interesting, and vice versa. Some things you just have to see for yourself.
I played and finished Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which is not in itself an especially notable achievement, but I want to write about it anyway. It is a game for the PS3 which came out in 2009, making it about the same age as the Macbook on which I am writing this entry; and despite the fact that newer and flashier models are available, both game and laptop have held up pretty well for their age.
I was hardly playing many video games back in 2009, partly because I had nothing to play them on; I still kept up an interest, but I didn’t think of myself as a person who played new games. It wasn’t till 2011 that I bought a PS3 after finally realising that I had some money and a place to play it, and (most importantly) that my parents were no longer there to disapprove of a silly games machine. But even before that I was always playing some little stupid thing; I played a few smaller, older PC games obsessively, and just before I got this Mac in 2009 I played the early versions of Spelunky on my old Dell Inspiron 5150 which was a computer so cranky you sometimes had to push down on the case in a particular way just to get it to boot up.
I remember being briefly obsessed by an odd little freeware game called Black Shades. In this game you play a bodyguard in a crowded city, drawn out in simple untextured polygons, and you have to run around gunning down zombies, snipers and assassins before they eliminate the man you are supposed to be protecting. I must have played this for hours and hours and hours, and I have no idea what was so fascinating about it; certainly there was not much my laptop could run, but perhaps there was something else about the relentless sense of paranoia that I found compelling. It was totally primitive and absolutely thrilling.
When I did my Master’s degree in 2009 I really thought I could make a fresh start. I was going back to my alma mater, but I told myself that this time it would be different. I would be friendly, popular, outgoing. I would be relaxed, affable. I would be fun. I would be the kind of person with whom people wanted to be friends. People would come and knock on my door just to talk to me! I’d even started this cool blog (the one which you are reading now) but that was going to be my secret internet persona, only to be shared with those closest to me.
And I screwed it up! I screwed it up completely. I said stupid things that scared and alienated people. Some of them thought I was mad. The invitations dried up. Other people found their own level, and I went off on my own. I ended up burying myself deeper in my studies. I did quite well at that regard; not exceptionally well, but I did all right. And I wasted a chance to be a different, better person.
Since then I have come to accept a different version of myself: I am a person who just doesn’t really have a social life, and who doesn’t try especially hard to make friends. This actually runs contrary to many of the things I think about the nature of personality, and how nobody ever really grows up or stops changing as a person, and how you shouldn’t use the fact that you suffered as a child to hold you back in later life; but whatever. As we like to say at work: we are where we are. The only person I still see from those days is my girlfriend, who I started going out with in 2009 and who probably got me through the most difficult times of that year.
I was told recently by a relative that I will never be as rich as I am now, in the broadest sense of the term. And he was right: I have no immediate responsibilities beyond looking after myself. I have no dependents. By all rights I should be taking risks with my career. But instead I’ve held down the same job for over four years. I work hard, quietly, faithfully. I could count the number of sick days I’ve taken on one hand. After my dad died I didn’t take any time off — not because it wasn’t offered, but because going to the office gave me a feeling of purpose and direction that I lack at home. Work is the one place where I know I am wanted, even if that’s only because they’ve got a contract with my name on it. It is a good place, and it is not what I want to do with my life forever.
The problem is that none of the things I want to do with my life have much in common with making money. Right now there’s a sort of meme in currency in the world of video games writing that says that even though (or perhaps because) conventional forms of print journalism and criticism aren’t making much money, there are lots of great writers on the internet who are doing good and valuable work and who deserve to be paid for it. This is true, I think; but it’s no more true of video games than it is for any other media. It’s strange to me that so many people are finding it a shock to discover that freelance writing is a fragile career that doesn’t pay the bills and offers nothing in the way of security; but when was it ever otherwise?
I feel set in my ways. My idea of a good time is to be left alone. And the pleasure of living vicariously through games is, I think, often underrated. An Uncharted title is one of those games which I’ll gladly collapse in front of in an evening with the expectation of being entertained and impressed; of course there is also a degree of challenge, but in the end I play the game to be told a story. And it’s more than a story, in fact, since on paper the story is nothing to write home about. I play to go on an adventure.
The depiction of Nepal in Uncharted 2 is beautiful, and even though it’s my favourite thing about the game, nothing about its history or culture is explained. As in the movies, it is a meticulously rendered depiction which might as well be set on the surface of the moon. Here, history does not seem like something that could have been made by human beings; it is something alien and fearful, an Orientalist world full of terrifying mystery and unimaginable wealth.
It is objectionable in all kinds of ways. Yet I can’t help but wonder at the craft of the thing. The detail of the setting is such that I was reminded of an expedition I went on many years ago to Tibet; a different country to Nepal but which is not dissimilar in many regards. The whole style of the place, from the colourful prayer flags and omnipresent tea flasks to the elegant practicality of the architecture, seemed just right to me.
One sequence allows the player to simply walk around a little Himalayan village with nothing in particular to do. The button on the controller which normally throws a punch is briefly reassigned to shaking hands with villagers, playing with the local children, and petting the local yaks. Nothing they say to you is subtitled because Nathan Drake doesn’t know the language. It’s lovely.
I often feel frustrated when I read about how the best games are the biggest and most ‘open’, or how the future of the medium lies in simulating an ever-wider range of systems and structures, as if the ultimate aim were to approach a total simulation of our world as we know it. No Man’s Sky is a forthcoming game which (it is claimed) will allow the player to explore a procedurally-generated universe, and it has rightfully attracted a great deal of interest for its use of a striking visual aesthetic on a scale which has, until now, been the stuff of video game dreamtime.
Yet to say that the game will represent an entire universe is surely a categorical error. On an infinite scale, stars and planets are no more part of the universe than a cup of coffee. Gone Home is equally a model of a universe, in its way. But modelling stars and planets is so much easier in video game terms than modelling a cup of coffee in its entirety; this much has been apparent at least since Spacewar. Planets and stars and spaceships are fun: here is a thing and here is another thing, and one is inflicting a status effect on the other. But the game has yet to be made which has something interesting to say about a cup of coffee.
The video above is an entry in the ‘Other Places’ series which celebrates the beautiful worlds of video games. This one is set in Drangleic, the world of Dark Souls II. I recommend you play it in full screen with the sound on.
There’s this site about video games called Objective Game Reviews. As single-joke websites go, it’s a pretty good site, and a pretty good joke. The idea is that those who read, comment on and frequently disagree with game reviews often do so on the basis that they are merely one person’s opinion, as if the writer had failed their craft by neglecting to adopt a purely detached perspective.
The overall tone of the site is arch, and assumes a certain amount from its readership, though it could be argued that it actually requires less than the average game news/reviews hub. The reviews themselves are written in prose but they are essentially just lists of features and gameplay elements; this is what you get with an ‘objective’ review, the site suggests, because everything that could possibly make a review more interesting comes from a ‘subjective’ point of view. It follows that everything that makes the game itself interesting also comes from a ‘subjective’ point of view because a good game is so much more than the sum of its individual components.
And in some ways it feels unfair to call the site a joke; part of its appeal is that there is actual pleasure in reading those perfectly stripped-down summaries of what makes a video game happen. Typical is something like this, which says absolutely everything and nothing about the game in question:
'Deus Ex: Human Revolution features seventeen weapons, nineteen augmentations, fifteen side missions, twenty five main missions, crates that can be stacked on each other, four boss fights, four kinds of grenades which can be used as mines, thirteen kinds of weapon mods, one nightclub, nine consumable items that recharge health or energy, robots, and a bomb.'
The site has recently toned down the coolly satirical element and now also champions the work of what it calls ‘subjective games reviewers’, as well as showing off some more unusual games that go way beyond the average blockbuster in transcending the basic ingredients of their existence. There’s an aspect of an authorial cult of personality to this, and in a world where it is increasingly difficult to find a readership I don’t have a problem with that. It seems to me like many video game writers have been increasingly aggressive in their self-promotion of late, but that might simply be because there are relatively few outlets where they can expect to be paid a decent living while still maintaining a degree of creative freedom. The internet is a marketplace where attention is a valuable commodity, and if you have ambition you’ve really no choice but to promote yourself in whatever way you can.
Yet there’s something I find puzzling about the suddenly serious angle to what was previously just a kind of joke. If the point of the site was to demonstrate the vacuity of terms like ‘objective criticism’, then to champion ‘subjective criticism’ is to imply that it exists in contrast to something that is worth opposing. It suggests that there are tendencies in games writing which are worth opposing, but it’s no longer quite clear what those are. Were the examples of ‘objective’ criticism displayed on the site simply just meant to be exposes of bad writing all along?
All of which brings me back to my favourite topic: my own opinions. They are, I’m told, subjective. And yet I have always aimed in my writing at something that wasn’t always just about me. I look at a thing and try to think of something interesting and new to say about it that might be prompted by how I feel, but isn’t necessarily encompassed or defined by my feelings. Actual inspiration of the lightbulb sort is rare for me. I work things out by thinking them through and writing about them. I won’t pretend that I am any more reasonable than anyone else in that regard, and I would never pretend to possess an ounce of ‘common sense’, but I have always resented the notion that the finest writing comes from a direct outpouring of the heart.
In flat contradiction to much of what I’ve just written, my reasons for objecting to the romantic approach are essentially unreasoned and personal. I am not good at expressing my feelings in any form, and so naturally I tend not to want to do it any more than is expected. It is a dangerous failing to conflate ‘things that I happen to be good at’ with ‘things that are right and proper’ for people in general; but it is, I confess, something I do on a regular basis.
This is why I have trouble writing anything authoritative. I fill every uncertain corner with caveats that stem from my lack of self-confidence. I feel, for example, that I ought to have a strong opinion about Dark Souls II. I took the day off work on the release of that game to play it, and I’m still playing it at the moment (after spending well over sixty hours on my first playthrough). One possible description of a good video game is that it is capable of occupying the attention of a player for an extended period of time, and on that basis this is nothing if not a very good game. But my actual feelings about it are so wrapped up in those so-called ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ points of view that I don’t know where to start in writing about it.
Objectively: this is a better game than its predecessor. It is more of the same experience; you control a lone undead warrior from a third-person perspective, and you venture into a series of increasingly strange and spectacular fantasy worlds inhabited by creatures which (mostly) want to kill you. There are more monsters, more items, more areas, more multiplayer modes and more characters than ever before. Moreover, many elements which oblique in Dark Souls or Demon’s Souls have been simplified or streamlined. That said, there’s much which is still pleasingly obscure, including a ton of secrets and optional areas for those who are frequently tempted to stray beyond the well-trod path.
Subjectively: this game isn’t as good as Dark Souls. I keep comparing scenes from the sequel against the original, and I keep finding the more recent game lacking. I think: is there anything here as incredible as your first encounter with the red drake on the bridge of the Undead Burg? Is there anywhere as beautiful and compelling as the Darkroot Garden or Anor Londo? Is there any sense of narrative continuity that rivals the descent from Firelink Shrine all the way through the Depths, then down further through the vertiginous shaft of knotted trunks that forms the Great Hollow to the haunting dunes of the Ash Lake?
This is not to say that the new game isn’t capable of moments of intense beauty and stillness. They are still present — but they aren’t quite correct. It’s a work from the same school, without doubt, but it lacks the touch of the master. That said, I play the Souls games for a very particular kind of experience and atmosphere that isn’t really available anywhere else, in any art form; and in this regard the sequel certainly delivers.
It often seems to me that playing one of these games is like being inside a painting: a world where everything is crafted and considered around the presence of the observing figure, but where its elements only come to life when you are there to encounter them. This seems to me to be the opposite approach to almost every other ‘open world’ game; there is absolutely no effort made here to imply that this is a perpetual place in which things are happening when you aren’t there to look at them. Every creature and every character has their place, and while they might pursue or flee from your presence, when you leave they will always return to their spot because it is their home. They were always going to be there, will always be there. And it is no coincidence, I think, that one of the most haunting (and brilliantly designed) areas in Dark Souls is a world which exists inside a painting.
I don’t think a ‘subjective’ or ‘objective’ approach is always more interesting or valid. But the two don’t have to be considered as dialectic approaches either; these terms are ultimately only words we use to imagine two different perspectives which don’t actually exist. Neither of them does anything to convey the myriad of things which a person might think and feel when encountering any kind of cultural production.
Masters of Doom by David Kushner is a stimulating and enjoyable account of how Id software came to create two of the most influential video games of all time: Doom and Quake. The book revolves around the relationship between the two key developers of those games, John Carmack and John Romero, and while it documents their lives and how they got into the industry, the actual creation of the games is very much depicted as the messy and complicated product of collaboration between all kinds of different people.
It’s written to be a fun and accessible read for people with little prior knowledge of the subject (and maybe no interest at all in video games) so the style is fast-paced and bubbly throughout. It’s polished, professional stuff, and it’s never less than a pleasure to read, but there is a weird tendency throughout to frame the facts of any given situation in a manner which is essentially fictional. For example: Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails) was a notable fan of Doom. That is a fact. And this is how that fact is expressed in the book:
‘A few thousand miles away, Nine Inch Nails’ rock star Trent Reznor sauntered off a concert stage as the crowd roared. Security guards rushed to his side. Screaming groupies pushed backstage. Trent nodded and waved, heading back through the crowd. He didn’t have time for this. There were more important things waiting. He stepped onto his tour bus, forsaking the drugs, the beer, the women, for the computer awaiting him. It was time again for Doom.’
The extent to which any given person will enjoy this book probably corresponds with the extent to which they are willing to tolerate this kind of thing. The author is inviting a kind of silent complicity in which the reader understands that yeah, maybe this scene didn’t, like, literally happen, but that this little story is conveying some kind of deeper truth about those times which couldn’t be conveyed in a mechanical recitation of the fact as stated above. And maybe it does! I don’t know. I mean, I wasn’t there.
It’s writing as cinema. Many of the chapters begin like a scene from a movie, dropping the reader into a curious situation without context (‘John Carmack stood in the Ferrari dealership admiring a cherry-red 328 sports car and had one thought: How fast can it go?’) before pulling back slightly to reveal a fuller account of the situation. And while there’s nothing especially wrong with this in principle, it seems to me that the style of this book ends up at odds with the actuality of the things it describes.
This is a complete history, written with a full understanding of the subject. And this understanding exists on every page, to the extent that traces of future success are apparent even in the humble beginnings of its participants. It’s something akin to the Whig view of history, and it left me with the suggestion that the development of these games was essentially inevitable: the games turned out the way they did because of all the little successes that fed into them, and they couldn’t have happened any other way; and not only that but it’s good that they turned out this way because the games turned out to be immensely popular, so how could they have become anything else?
One document often mentioned in conjunction with the early days of Id software is the ‘Doom Bible’, the original design document for the game created by Tom Hall. It’s an interesting example because it is perhaps more important for what it omits than what it includes: the game is still about killing demons on a remote planet, but it’s also a dark and complex story-driven game with the kind of cinematic sequences that wouldn’t look out of place in a title published today. Similarly, the levels that Hall contributed to the game were relatively realistic in style compared to John Romero’s mysterious sprawling abstractions.
Needless to say, Doom didn’t become Hall’s game: the ‘Bible’ was never used, and it soon became clear that he wanted to make a totally different game compared to the rest of the company. Eventually, Hall was asked to resign. In the book, this situation is described as Carmack pulling rank: the game wasn’t going to exist without his technical prowess, and Carmack was adamant that it didn’t need a story, therefore it wouldn’t have a story. What they made instead was essentially a refined iteration of the concepts first demonstrated in Wolfenstein 3D: exciting, ultra-violent, fast-paced gameplay in worlds that were less like believable places and more the components of frightening, secretive puzzle-machines.
In no sense was Id overvaluing Carmack’s contributions at this stage. The author goes to great lengths in this book to explain just how important his developments were in making the PC a serious platform for video games, and it’s interesting to me that video games are still to a great extent defined by their technical limitations in a way that other art forms are not. This was more the case than ever back in the early 90s; it seems impossible to imagine now that it was once considered impossible to achieve a smooth NES-style side scrolling platform game on a PC, but that was pretty much the case before Carmack developed the engine for the Commander Keen games. And indeed all the games which followed at Id were determined to some degree by Carmack’s further technical innovations; the procedure was that he would dream up some incredible new way of creating graphics that nobody had ever seen before, and then the rest of the guys would try to think of something cool to do with it.
Kushner describes the process of Tom Hall’s eviction as the first incidence of an emerging pattern, one that: ‘emulated Carmack’s programming ideology: innovate, optimise, then jettison anything that gets in the way.’ But even though the author suggests this is an inhumane way to run a creative business, Carmack is afforded a great deal of reverence throughout the book. Because Doom was a success (and because Id made a great deal of money from licensing their graphics to other developers) the book affords him the privilege of being correct with the benefit of hindsight. However talented he may be, there’s no way this book could have been written had Doom flopped because the whole thing rests on this conception of a slow, inexorable progress towards greatness.
The success of Doom is depicted as the first great indie game, the herald of an upsurge in software development enabled by the internet comparable to rise of punk rock in pop culture. Despite this, Carmack emerges from the book as a deeply conservative figure with a libertarian twist: the self-made emblem of a great American success story. And it’s typical that Kushner presents without any extra comment or hint of irony Carmack’s grand assertion about the independent success of his work:
‘In the information age, the barriers [to entry into programming] just aren’t there. The barriers are self imposed. If you want to set off and go develop some grand new thing, you don’t need millions of dollars of capitalization. You need enough pizza and Diet Coke to stick in your refrigerator, a cheap PC to work on*, and the dedication to go through with it. We slept on floors. We waded across rivers.’
The problem with this statement is that the basic truth of its initial premise (programming is more accessible now than ever before!) is expanded into a maxim about success. But what was easy and obvious to Carmack is not necessarily either of those things for other people who never had his advantages, a counterpoint which would be more apparent if the book gave consideration to instances of failure in the software industry of the time.
The closest the book comes to a depiction of disaster is in its lengthy exegesis of the mess that was John Romero’s post-Id effort, Daikatana. Both a critical and commercial failure, that game is shown as the product of bad business decisions and the perils of hubris. Those were human failings, and they weren’t unique to that game. They were present at Id software too, but because Doom was a smaller project anchored to Carmack’s unfailing proficiency, the game was never going to be anything less than a refined piece of technology.
It’s fortunate, then, that the game turned out to be so much more than that. What Doom became was the product of happy accidents and weird mistakes and unpredictable creative decisions that led to the kind of thing nobody had seen in a video game before. For example, consider how the multiplayer mode which allowed people to play together over a local network wasn’t even fully considered by the developers until it was listed on a press release as a feature; of course they had to rush to include it before release, and despite that it became one of the most popular features. All of this goes way beyond the suggestion that Doom happened because Carmack had a crate of Diet Coke and a good measure of old fashioned American grit.
It’s tempting to consider how the game could have turned out had it been the story-driven experience that the original design document suggested, especially since Carmack’s famous assertion that story in a game is like a story in a porn movie (‘it’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important’) has lately proved an inadequate critical maxim. Would it have worked? I don’t know — though it is worth noting that there was at least one game made in the same engine which had a serviceable plot, and some intriguing RPG-style mechanics. But this alternative history of Doom is not something the author of this book was especially interested in exploring. And perhaps that’s all right: after all, very little of ‘Masters of Doom’ is actually dedicated to what it is like to play Doom.
When it comes to describing the game, Kushner does a pretty fair job (and it’s clear that he’s played it a bit himself) yet the experience of play is kept at an arm’s length throughout. The repeated comparison to paintball is odd, and not entirely accurate, and the reader is forever a witness to somebody else’s obsession; there is no attempt made to invite them to experience the things which make the game compelling. Above all, I was left with the sense that the most important thing about Doom was that it made a great deal of money, and while the book does suggest that it had a significant wider impact on culture, it remains vague as to what that effect actually was.
But I don’t necessarily think this is a problem. This is simply me trying to deal with my own mixed expectations when in fact the book is quite clear in terms of what it wants to be: it’s an account of history aimed at a general audience, and not a work of video game criticism. And in this regard it is perfectly enjoyable — assuming you don’t take it too seriously.
* - (The other thing that occurred to me when I read this quote is that the book describes how, in the early days of Id software, the computers they used to develop their first important games were borrowed (without permission!) from the offices of their employer, Softdisk. At the end of the day, after working late, they’d bundle the machines into their cars, drive them home, work through the night, then drive them back again the next day without anybody noticing. Softdisk was the company for whom they were supposed to be developing great new games, and despite having benefitted from those company resources, the guys that would become Id took their extra-curricular activities elsewhere once it became apparent that what they were working on had value beyond Softdisk’s ability to sell it. Naturally, the author does not see fit to raise any contradiction at this point between Carmack’s somewhat idealistic philosophy and the actuality of his work.)
Unless something fairly extraordinary is announced soon, it seems likely that Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes will be the only big-budget video game released this year to depict agents of the United States military as being complicit with and involved in rape, torture and murder. It’ll be the only single-player game which establishes them as the enemy, and which allows the player to hunt down and incapacitate or kill as many Marines as they want.
This aspect is easily neglected for several reasons. One of these is that the essential nature of the basic enemy faced here is the same as in every Metal Gear game: it’s the generic army man with rifle and radio, never-tiring and ever-ready to investigate the clatter of a fallen magazine or the rap on a wall from around a corner. That these guys are American citizens — the forces of good in basically every modern militaristic video game — is commonly overlooked, and this despite the fact that the game goes to unprecedented lengths to give each soldier individuality: every single one has a different name and face, each based on photographs taken from an actual people.
The direct presence of American forces also represents a break in the Metal Gear series as a whole; the one other notable appearance of USMC is at the very beginning of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, where the player is specifically forbidden from killing them because they’re Americans. Peace Walker took a step away from this by setting itself in Costa Rica in 1974 and involving the Sandinista Liberation Army and the CIA, thus invoking a darker period in US history — but it still featured a complicated geopolitical Cold War sci-fi story involving giant robots and artificial intelligence, and was broadly a lighter and more playful take on the series than that ultra-serious epic, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.
Ground Zeroes is quite different. It’s set in a black site; specifically, in an early version of the camp at Guantanamo Bay, in 1975. The switch towards an open world is reflected in the sense that this place is a legal and moral grey area, a sort of barbaric playground where no options are off the table — not for the Americans, and not for the player. The tone throughout is one of gloom, anguish, betrayal and resentment. The aspiration towards cinema is still there, but if this was a movie it’d be less like Michael Bay and more like a grim documentary-style expose. The camera lurks near the ground in the cutscenes, granting unsteady glimpses of details which may mean nothing or everything. The series has always grasped towards high seriousness in this melodramatic way, but the element of camp is not quite gone either: it’s just tucked away with a great deal of care so that it can be ingested in the right quantity for any given player.
There’s a kind of mutual relationship at work here between the serious and silly elements of the game. The reason why this portrayal of war crimes is able to reach an audience in the first place is because it is embedded within a series which is only known to a wider audience as being associated with tactical stealth action, cartoonish characters, and an absurdly convoluted storyline. Yet what we actually have in Ground Zeroes is a game in which you play as the leader of a terrorist cell with the objective of infiltrating a US military base to assassinate individuals, steal or destroy assets, and (optionally) kill any serving personnel who get in the way.
That is not a game which could exist in a realistic cultural context. You could not play this game if the protagonist were an Iranian commando fighting the Americans, or an Irish paramilitary fighting the British. I don’t say that because I believe such a thing should never exist, but it would certainly never be picked up by a major publisher for a console release. That would just never happen. It is only foreigners and terrorists who get to do the dying in most video games.
The plot of another recent stealth-action game, Splinter Cell: Blacklist, provides an interesting contrast with the setting of Ground Zeroes. This is not least because the villain of that game, Sadiq, is in some ways similar to the figure of Snake at the beginning of this instalment. Both are men leading private armies of disillusioned soldiers in targeted strikes against American interests. Naturally, because Sadiq’s only real aim is surprisingly reasonable (the withdrawal of American forces from their worldwide empire of military bases) he must be portrayed as an unhinged killer for the game to portray him as an effective bad guy.
Sadiq’s demands are never really up for debate after he murders a whole bunch of American troops, so by the time the game actually begins the only acceptable response is to send in our hero Sam Fisher to sort him out. But Sam has no particular moral qualms about killing, and neither does the game: the player is actively rewarded for lethal takedowns, and the fact that a slightly higher score is possible by avoiding or knocking out enemies feels more like a concession to the hardcore stealth aficionado than a moral statement. Occasionally, one is presented with an on-screen prompt during a cutscene to either kill or release a captured enemy; I always chose to release them, but this never seemed to have any discernible effect on the storyline. At one point Sam actually went ahead and stuck his knife into a guard even after I chose what I thought was the non-lethal option, a display which seemed so gratuitous I can only assume the developers were making a particularly grim joke at their hero’s expense.
Blacklist also contains a portrayal of the camp at Guantanamo Bay (see above) albeit one which is supposedly set in the present day. Once again the camp is imagined as kind of gloomy netherworld in which terrible things are going on behind closed doors, but there are a number of key differences. Unlike Ground Zeroes, nothing especially shocking is depicted here; it’s all kneeling detainees in orange jumpsuits, barking dogs, and canvas tents flapping in the night; and there’s next to nothing in the way of implied criticism, no hint that all the people here are anything other than extremely dangerous terrorists. You might as well be in a generic prison level from any other video game, except that those at least have some moaning and groaning from the corners, and there’s actually very little suggestion of suffering here. At least not until the protagonist turns up: like Snake, Sam Fisher is there to find a prisoner, but not to rescue them. He just turns up to torture them, ask a few questions (key quote: ‘You’ll talk. The only choice you have is how much it hurts.’) then sneak off into the night again.
Despite this, Blacklist goes to some lengths to establish clear blue water between Sam Fisher and the soldiers operating the base, even though both are essentially just different agents of the US military doing the exact same thing. Sam can’t be seen by the marines because he isn’t supposed to be there, but because they’re the good guys Sam isn’t allowed to kill them (the mission will be instantly failed if you do this). This is one of those things which makes sense in the moment-to-moment play of the game, but which when given further consideration seems like an inadequate band-aid over the gaping hole where this game’s heart should be. You aren’t permitted to kill them because this is an American game and they are American soldiers; because their lives are worth more than all those other foreigners and terrorists put together.
Ground Zeroes lets you kill as many Americans as you want, if you want. The key difference is that it penalises a player’s score for killing anyone, even if you’re told that they are the enemy. This seems unintuitive at first because the game does still provide you with a number of different ways of doing away with guards, but it at least recognises that the method which takes the most skill to perfect is that of sneaking through the world while causing as little disturbance as possible. This is not least because all of the non-lethal methods of disabling your enemies come with a host of disadvantages compared with simply killing them outright. Ever since at least Sons of Liberty, the Metal Gear games have always promoted abstinence from violence as a more difficult, refined form of battlefield encounter than what is practiced by one’s adversaries, and Ground Zeroes continues in this trend of presenting the non-lethal approach as an opting-out of the brutality practiced by the enemy.
Who we think of as the ‘good guy’ in most fictional mediums is often determined by their actions first, and the reasonableness of their motivations second. To put it another way: purity of intent is no good if you do a lot of terrible things along the way. Video games complicate this somewhat because of the usual disconnect between gameplay and plot, and that’s why Sam Fisher gets to be the good guy despite potentially racking up a body count of soldiers that exceeds Sadiq’s. Conversely, the Metal Gear series has always sought to leverage this sense of ludonarrative dissonance more so than most games, often in ways that are both playful and amusing as well as thought-provoking.
But Ground Zeroes goes much further in differentiating its heroes and villains in a way that has been the subject of much debate. And I’m going to put the rest of this essay under a cut because it contains spoilers. (Also I should include a trigger warning for mentions of sexual violence.)
We spent a few days last week in Florence, Italy. We stayed in what I want to call a converted convent, except that it isn’t entirely converted: there are still sisters living there, but the tourist accommodation seems to operate separately from their world. We never saw any of them but I am told they are still residing. From the street level, you wouldn’t know it was a hotel: to be let in you have to ring a bell, and while coming home after midnight isn’t exactly forbidden, it is made clear that this would be an operation too complex to be worth bothering with for the average patron.
The convent is a very old and strange building, and one of the most unusual places I’ve ever stayed on holiday. By the standards of the modern hotel, the rooms are basic — no TV, no air conditioning, creaky metal bedsteads — but they are kept to a high standard. They were spotlessly clean. The precise configuration of the views and furnishings varies; my sisters’ room had an absurdly ornate fresco on the ceiling, while mine had artificial tiles that would better suit an open-plan office and an ensuite bathroom that was much too large for its sparse arrangement of the usual porcelain accoutrements.
There was a television room on each floor that we never used with some religious things in it. There was a magnificent stone staircase with a towering ceiling that amplified the slightest sound. There was a lovely quiet garden where you could sit and read a book where the only disturbance was a lady blackbird fussing about in the low box hedge border. None of this can be faulted.
Because I knew there wouldn’t be a TV I brought a little portable radio with me. I heard a song on it one morning and I had one of those moments where you know the song and you know that it’s amazing but you can’t place what it’s called or who it’s by. This being the modern age it was not long before I found the wifi to Google it: of course it’s Big Blow by Manu Dibango, a song which will continue to sound amazing even if it is played on the tinniest of mono speakers.
Often I remember my dreams more often when sleeping in an unfamiliar place. Most days at home I stay up too late and don’t get sufficient sleep for the time I have to get up for work, so at the end of each day I fall into a kind of deep oblivion, and when I wake up it seems like only minutes have passed by. Holidays smoothen things out a little.
On the first night in Florence I dreamed that a man had just arrived in the hotel and was in the room next door to ours. This man was surprised to find that his room was not a room at all but actually a sort of narrow square or piazza open to the city air. in the middle of this place was a double bed, and the only ceiling to this bed was a high stone canopy, and above that there was a slightly smaller canopy, and above that canopy was another smaller canopy, and so on and so on. The pyramidal cascade of canopies stretched far beyond the visible limits.
On the second night I dreamed I owned and was reading a book based on the video game Bioshock Infinite. I suppose it was written by Ken Levine but I remember nothing about the book itself except that it was a dusty beige hardback with a strange name that I don’t now recall. I do remember that its physical form seemed to be based on my old edition of a Wyndham Lewis novel called The Apes of God.
I woke up with the urge to play the game again. I probably will, but not right now. I’ll stick by my first impressions but I do feel I have more to write about it. Now that the first flush of critical enthusiasm has faded, it seems condemned to be looked back upon as one of the great, peculiar follies of the latter days of the last console generation. This seems to me to be quite a fair assessment, but the game’s no less interesting for that.
In my third dream we were in a cinema watching His Girl Friday, a film which I’ve never actually seen in its entirety. Again I have no recollections of the film itself but I remember that for some reason it was not projected on the big screen but on a little portable screen erected in front of a handful of seats to one side of the auditorium. In my notebook I write that the film I saw in my dream had a ‘pornographic sensibility’, but that it wasn’t actual pornography; I have no idea what this means.
One day we took a trip to Siena. There is an old hospital there, Santa Maria della Scala; founded over a thousand years ago, it’s one of the oldest buildings of its type still in existence, and was apparently still treating people as recently as 1995. Today it is a museum and tourist attraction. Renovation seems to have been gradual, piecemeal, continuous. When we arrived it was late in the day, and with the place almost deserted of visitors it was difficult to tell which parts were open for visitors and which parts were still under construction.
While some rooms feature beautifully restored late medieval frescoes, the place as a whole is confused, with the assorted exhibitions oddly disconnected and lacking any kind of coherent historical narrative. The new hospital has been designed as a distinctly modern combination of serious museum, miscellaneous exhibition space, monument to the genius of Italian innovation and industry, and all-purpose conference centre. A stroll through an ornate chapel leads you into a gallery of satirical work by a modern Italian cartoonist. Tucked under a new staircase, a patch of old plaster has been scraped away to reveal wall paintings hundreds of years old. The small brown figure of a farmer stares back at you, his face a stolid mass with a suggestion of anguish.
It is a place worth visiting simply for the sense of mystery which hangs about it. And perhaps I am simply too accustomed to the British style of museum in which history must be recreated as a rather patronising kind of multi-sensory ‘experience’. Here, perhaps no such narrative coherence is possible: this was always a working building, one which was reconfigured so many times over the centuries that any true reflection of its current state would resemble a manic palimpsest of varying designs and ideologies, beliefs and strictures.
And then there are some parts of the place which were too sacred to risk deconstruction. There is a chapel on the lower floors called the Oratory of the Company of Saint Catherine of the Night.
Cool and dusty, with its dark panels and vaulted ceilings shrouded in gloom, it has the unsettling air of a place only recently evacuated by its inhabitants. The text for visitors pinned to the wall described it as a ‘a suggestive place’.
‘…Known since the Fifteenth century as the Confraternity of St Michael, the company devoted itself mainly to pietas towards the dead. In fact it was based near the Hospital’s cemetery and the so-called carnaio (charnel house) with a chasm that from the upper floor at the same level as Piazza del Duomo sank down to the much lower level of Piazza della Selva…’
The trail continues into the tunnels below the hospital. You feel as you descend that you must surely be underground, and you are, but because the hospital is set into a hillside now and again daylight peeps in from cracks around a door. According to a brief and somewhat cursory inscription, down here is where an aqueduct once provided the hospital with water from a system of locks and reservoirs and where the laundry and other essential services were located. (How did those things work? What was it like down here back then? Were these places used as air raid shelters during the war? None of this information is forthcoming.)
The tunnels are cold, the lighting sparse, and the only flooring wooden boards over the dry earth. From time to time there are wooden staircases which lead down into pitch black passageways. The nature of these passages is unclear, but a velvet rope prevents the unwary visitor from venturing into those dark corners of the earth.
Down here there is an exhibition about the archaeological origins of Siena in Roman times, which is interesting enough. Then there is another exhibition dedicated to the collection of relics which once belonged to the hospital. I had not seen so many of these anywhere before coming to Siena; such things were all but wiped out from England during the Reformation. Bits of human bodies, many too small to be discernible, encased in elaborate custom gilded boxes.
Nobody, I hope, comes to worship these things any more. Yet there they are, still on a pedestal of a very different sort, the objects of amused curiosity rather than fear and awe. I think of Siena cathedral, where we had been earlier in the day, and I think of the popes who were all important enough in their own time to have their faces individually modelled and set carefully in plaster and placed high above the nave. All of them forgotten today. There was no way they could have known that their only lasting legacy in the eyes of those who passed below would be as a tiny and entirely superficial part of an aesthetic whole the likes of which they could not possibly conceive.
We found something else in the tunnels which we were not expecting. At one point a section of earth had been cut away, revealing a densely compacted mass of human bones in the wall. The hospital cemetery had been laid on top of a mass grave, the text said. There is something about seeing human remains at eye level which is quite different to seeing them in the ground at your feet.
Three of the films I’ve seen at the cinema recently have been centred around men who exist at the intersection between creative failure and their unusual romantic lives. Those films were Inside Llewyn Davis, Her, and The Zero Theorem.
I don’t declare this to make a wider point about how too many films are only concerned with the aspirations of men and relegate women to providing either emotional support or shrewd whining from the sidelines — but I’m sure you could make that argument if you wanted to. Off the top of my head, the only recent film I’ve seen which deals with creative failure from a female perspective is Young Adult. I liked that film very much. I understand it had a mixed critical reception, but at this point I’ve basically given up on reading film reviews.
Also I should say that I am thinking of a fairly broad definition of ‘failure’ here. I am not saying that any three of the lead characters who inhabit these movies are not good at what they do. I am saying that none of them are permitted to realise their ambitions. They might not be exceptional in their own particular circumstances, but in all three films the focus is on them and their work to the degree that they are made to seem exceptional even when their work is maybe only average at best.
Llewyn fails not because he isn’t good. He fails because he’s a jerk. More specifically, he’s the kind of jerk that people will only put up with if they’re already a success. Refusing to compromise one’s artistic integrity in exchange for commercial reward is still seen today as a sign of authenticity in almost any creative field you care to name. But often what happens when you try to sacrifice your life for your work is that you end up without any life and without any work.
For great art to reach a wide audience, being good isn’t enough: your work has to chime with the spirit of the times in a way that requires active engagement with what those times are and what the audience might want to hear. Bob Dylan knew that well enough. But then again, he also wrote his own songs; or at least he became the most adept at stealing them from other people.
When Llewyn loses his temper at the dinner party, he reminds his hosts that music is how he pays the rent. He’s being quite serious, but within the context of the film the line has further ironic resonance for two reasons: he’s technically homeless, so he isn’t actually paying rent to anyone; and he isn’t actually earning anything from his music. Time and time again he is paid for the performance, but not for the song. This is the inherent contradiction at the heart of the struggling folk musician. If your music belongs to everybody, how do you expect to get paid for it? There are a lot of portraits of black musicians on the walls of this film; whatever do you think happened to all those guys?
And when it comes to the performance, how good is Llewyn, really? There’s a kind of trickery at work here. Part of the charm in the sequences where we see him sing and play guitar is that his performance is captured with the complete and undivided attention of the camera. From the moment the film begins the audience is shown this guy and told: look, this guy is something. This is an entirely different context to how virtually everyone else in the film experiences Llewyn’s music. Is ours the correct context, or is it simply the one which best matches the singer’s image of himself? Here’s what I know: listen to both versions of Green, Green Rocky Road on the soundtrack. I know which one I prefer.
I was not a great fan of Her. I thought it was great to look at, quite interesting to think about, and quite dull to watch. I have no idea how this won the Oscar for Best Screenplay when Inside Llewyn Davis seems to me better written in almost any respect you care to name.
There’s a number of things about this movie which don’t add up, but the one which particularly bugs me is the moment in which Theodore’s A.I. lover Samantha declares that she’s had a selection of his writings accepted by an agent and published in a book without telling him about it. This is odd because what Theodore writes is not stories or poetry or journalism but bespoke personal letters of an intimate nature for real people who might not want to (or be able to) write themselves. The implication seems to be that the audience will find Theodore’s work appalling because it’s terrible that people don’t write letters anymore; happily, this film is on hand to remind us that even in this dystopian IKEA-fitted future, people are still capable of exchanging soggy banalities in the flesh.
My first objection to Samantha’s publication scheme is practical. Surely if Theodore had been commissioned to write these letters for other people, wouldn’t they own the copyright in perpetuity? Wouldn’t they have any objections to their personal correspondence being used in this way? Is the implication that this stuff doesn’t matter because the writing was all fake anyway? But presumably it wasn’t fake to the customer or they wouldn’t have bought it! And it’s especially weird how the book was suddenly declared to be a sort of creative victory for Theodore. Given what we know about the world in which he lives, isn’t it inevitable that somebody else would have done exactly this kind of thing a thousand times over?
The irksome question of ‘fake sincerity’ seems to be at the heart of this film. Jonze takes the Turing Test and punts it firmly into the long grass, arguing that if anything is expressed with perfect good faith then hey, it might as well be true! And why not? It’s almost impossible to disagree with this premise when the character of the A.I. which presents itself in this film is indistinguishable from an actual human being. There is no sense in which Theodore falls in love with Samantha because of her machine-like traits. And maybe that’s what disappointed me above all else about Her. It wasn’t a movie about computers at all: it was just a movie about putting a little woman in your shirt pocket.
The Zero Theorem is a slightly different thing. Qohen, the protagonist, doesn’t consider what he’s doing to be anything other than work. For him it is a means to an end, a way of supporting himself until he receives the ‘call’ (an actual telephone call!) that he believes will give his life a purpose. Clearly the actual call is a MacGuffin. We know this. But he is desperate for something — anything — that will give him direction, and it might as well be that.
It’s a film constantly circling the drain of oblivion. The audience is told repeatedly that Qohen’s job is to reconcile the everything that is the universe with the nothing that was its origin and which will be its end. But so often the movie seems like it’s about to pull back from that, partly because there’s so much other goofy Gilliam stuff going on, and partly because it seems like some resolution might be found either in the arms of the obligatory love interest or in the final completion of the great work that will prove — what, exactly? What was it we were promised again? Nothing. Okay.
The manic creativity of Qohen’s mathematical pursuits is visualised in abstract as a kind of hyperactive video game about stacking cubes into complex structures of impossible size and dimensions. It’s a rather neat image, reminiscent of modern theories about the future gamification of work, and no less absurd than all those dreadful cinematic tropes where an angry young man hammers away at a typewriter or whips a brush against a canvas.
But that big nothing is exactly what we’re going to get. The Zero Theorem ultimately presents a quite different vision of artistic failure than that afforded to Theodore Twombly and Llewyn Davis. The one thing those men have in common is that they at least seem to recognise that the only route of escape lies in letting go of their current predicaments; whether or not they’re willing to take that exit off the highway is another matter.
Yet only Qohen takes the dream of escape towards its logical conclusion. His inability to deconstruct his own work leads him to a kind of calm, absolute, unblinking pessimism. He withdraws from the real world entirely, submerging his consciousness in a world of eternal sunset. It may be brighter than a black hole, but it’s not much more hopeful.