When GTA V was released a few months ago there was a bit of fuss in some quarters of the gaming press regarding its depiction of female characters. Some critics were content to summarise this as a simple lack of strong women, but others argued that (like many of its predecessors) the game was shot through with a misogyny that rendered its attempts at satire inadequate.
It is pretty hard to argue that GTA V has anything other than a puerile notion of women. The only conceivable defence is that this is the way the games have always been, and so to demand anything else is to level unfair expectations at the developers. But I wonder if our diminished expectations of female characters in these games mean that critics tend not to look at specific instances of misogyny which occur within them, focusing instead on general deficiencies rather than particular decisions taken by the writers of these games.
What led me to think about this was a particular incident in GTA V which I found shocking in its casual misogyny.
(Spoilers to follow.)
We returned to London on Monday from a week away and I could feel the difference. The air tastes different to where we were last week, by the sea. Now there are different faces and languages all around us. There are people all around us. Everyone is in a great hurry and nobody looks at one another. All of this is familiar to me because I’ve lived here all my life, but it’s only when I come home that it comes home to me.
I was walking around near South Kensington the other night, killing time before a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. It’s an area which has smartened up nicely, though it still retains an air of seedy mystery. Plush restaurants and wine bars and a Lamborghini dealership sit alongside cheap little cafes which have clung on for years. Elegant mansion flats loom above grubby streets. The telephone boxes are still full of those little cards for call girls in a manner which seems like a strange throwback to another era; you never see those in the heart of the city anymore. But perhaps that’s because they took away all the phone boxes.
I have no interest in cars, but I passed one that made me take a second look. It was an Audi R8, and I recognised it because I’ve been playing ‘GTA V’ recently. The game is more aggressive than its previous incarnations in basing its cars on real-world models, and this model is one of two which the player is invited to steal in their first proper mission. I thought about how easy it is in a game to put an elbow through a window, to unlock everything with a flick of the wrist. I thought of an interview I’d recently read with Dan Houser where he described the first time he saw the animation sequence for a carjacking rendered in 3D for ‘GTA III’, and how he suddenly saw how different this felt to the crude struggle between pixel-people in the earlier games. ‘GTA V’ now has dozens of different variations on this, though all are still triggered with a simple tap of a button.
So you get in the car and go. This is the most primal pleasure for me in those games. Wherever you are, you are never far from a vehicle, and you can just take it and point it somewhere and go. It’s a limited sort of freedom, but when you get it right – when you throw the car around a corner without spinning out; when you nudge the analog stick at high speed on a highway to curve gracefully off the road, crashing through a wood fence and straight up the side of a nearby hillside; when you roar across an intersection, sliding neatly between columns of cars at the traffic lights – it feels incredible. It feels like freedom.
The most impressive thing about ‘GTA V’ is the sense of space and light. Driving well in that game involves a mastery of those elements. Whoever designed those skies deserves a medal; the game truly conveys how far apart everything in America always seems to me. Here in London, the houses are stuck together in endless rows, and everyone lives in flats that shrink with each new tower that sprouts from the damp old ground. I hate driving here because I feel trapped in the car; fearful of straying out of line, and constantly reminded of my inability to escape the traffic and the dark and crowded streets, and all these people who all hate each other, and the endless rain.
I sometimes wonder what London would look like in a modern video game. it seems strange to me that they chose Chicago as the setting for the upcoming ‘WATCH_DOGS’, an open-world action thriller based around manipulating surveillance, infrastructure and social networks in your favour. Is Chicago an interesting place for this kind of thing? Polygon seemed to think so, but for me London offers a more interesting example of the latest security systems mapped on to a city with an old, rich and complex architectural history. I may be biased, but at the moment my main concern about Ubisoft’s big next-gen effort is that their city will just be another generic American sprawl.
Not that most of London isn’t also boring. London is often extremely boring. But it contains multitudes, and it resists generalisations. There’s a base level of fun and stupid jokes you can make about California and Los Angeles, but London doesn’t have such a coherent canon of pop culture behind it. It has too much history. If character is what you want, you need to look at certain area closely, or at a particular time. That may be why Rockstar chose to set ‘GTA: London 1969’ in the year they did; it’s easy to skewer the thing if you can clump it all together around a vaguely coherent idea (which in the case of that game was basically Austin Powers). The only other significant attempt to portray London in games (‘The Getaway’) did it via Guy Ritchie movies and a very briefly cool British gangster boom.
I wonder if any game will ever be able to deliver a complete picture of a city. I suspect not; as with any other medium, there will always be an aspect of mediation determined by the intentions of the designer (conscious or otherwise). No matter how hard you drive, you can never quite escape the walls around these games – no more than you can escape the Dublin of ‘Ulysses’, or the New York of Paul Auster’s trilogy. No matter how open the world, the player is always at the mercy of a creator. They can push the limits of a designer’s intent, but to subvert it entirely would require a rewrite of the medium at a base code level.
Something odd has been happening in the British media in the last week. The debate around the materials leaked by Edward Snowden has finally stirred into some kind of life – but not in the way you might expect. Still nobody is talking about what is happening at GCHQ and who might be responsible for it. Instead, Andrew Parker (the head of MI5) gave a speech in which he directly criticised those who would ‘make public the reach and limits of GCHQ techniques’. This was widely interpreted as an attack on the Guardian newspaper, which played a major role in bringing Snowden’s information to circulation. Then the Daily Mail launched a broadside against the Guardian, accusing it of ‘stupendous arrogance’ and branding it ‘the paper that helps Britain’s enemies’. With an uncanny sense of timing, critical editorials followed in the Daily Telegraph, the Times, and the Sun.
The first strange thing about all this is that the head of our internal secret services should be giving such a public speech at all. It was only in 1989 that our government officially acknowledged its existence in statute, but you’d never know that from MI5 today; visit its website and the impression is of a sophisticated modern corporation with a proud reputation that leans heavily on its own mythology. That the public actions of its Director General might have a political edge is only natural; if he’s to make such speeches, how could they not be in defence of his organisation? That’s his job.
Fine. But here’s a question: is it the job of the Prime Minister to defend the activities of the secret services? I would have thought not. They are (in theory) supposed to be in the service of the government, not the other way around. But when pressed to say more about what he thought of the Guardian, David Cameron was remarkably direct:
‘I think they have to think about their responsibilities and are they helping to keep our country safe…To be fair to the Guardian, when I sent the cabinet secretary and the national security adviser to go and see them to tell them about how dangerous it was for them to hold this information they agreed to have a whole lot of it destroyed.’
We already know that this happened. But it’s the insouciance with which Cameron takes personal responsibility for this which surprised me. It sounds like the kind of casual threat associated with a mafia boss who’s just sent the boys round. Oh yes, the Guardian ‘agreed’ all right – but only under the threat of legal action from the government. And so what we have is Cameron bragging about having taken personal action (outside of the courts, beyond any democratic process) to attempt to shut down a newspaper investigation. Isn’t this extraordinary?
But Cameron knows he can say anything because nobody cares. There are no dead children here; no grieving families, no tearful parents to answer to. It’s a self-justifying argument: no further explanation is necessary beyond the assertion of national security, and no further explanation can ever be given because to say too much would be to give the terrorists what they want.
This line still holds up in Britain because our media has never really found the right way to attack it. The Guardian’s big problem with the Snowden files is that they lack a human interest ‘hook’ on which to hang the story. Its last big scoop on phone hacking in the tabloid industry only really broke as a national scandal when it emerged that a private investigator working for the News of the World may have hacked and deleted messages from the voicemail account of Milly Dowler, a young teenage girl who was murdered in 2002. The Dowler story had been a cause célèbre for the tabloids (who like nothing better than a terrible murder); but the Guardian’s story turned the tables, and went so far as to accuse the News of the World as having actually hindered the investigation into her death.
The Leveson enquiry into press ethics and standards followed. It was lengthy, complex, and unusually gripping for a public enquiry. A lot of stuff happened. Rupert Murdoch got a custard pie in the face. And now that we’ve ended up with a proposal for state regulation of the press, my impression is that many of the newspapers and media organisations implicated haven’t forgiven the Guardian for what they did. And so as these axes form against the Guardian, part of what we are seeing has nothing at all to do with Snowden or GCHQ or MI5 – it’s simply a kind of essential vindictiveness.
I can’t answer the question of why there is so little public interest in surveillance culture in the UK. I suppose most people are aware of it, but we lack the libertarian impulse that so motivates privacy campaigners in the United States. It’s not something we voted for and it’s not something we can vote to remove – it’s just the new normal.
But if I could permit myself for a moment to write in sweeping generalisations, I’d say that we (the British public) crave a certain kind of moderate authoritarianism from our institutions. We don’t particularly trust individuals, but we crave the cold defining hand of our ministries of health and state and defence and schools. Ministry;that old word borrowed from the cloth. We want the ministries to know what they are doing, and we are quite willing for them to dictate to us the terms of our existence. Perhaps we should be ruled over by machines for all the good it would do our collective conscience.
big books by big men
A list of a hundred books appeared in the media recently, authored by David Bowie. Critical reaction was mostly admiring, but a few people on twitter and elsewhere pointed out how few of these were written by women. This occurred to me too. I never quite know what to do with this awareness. One reaction would be to simply state that ‘David Bowie just doesn’t like books by women’. That could be true, though it does seem to hinge upon the assumption that what Bowie doesn’t like about those books is their femininity. I don’t know the man, so I couldn’t say. But I do know a few things about me, so I propose to examine why I read more books by men than women.
Here is a tendency that I have noticed in myself: whenever I am in a bookshop or a library, I will go around the shelves and gather up an armful of what appeals to me for whatever reason. But before I go to the checkout, I’ll review the books, and in particular I will think about the gender bias of my selection. Most of the time, there will be a bias towards male authors in whatever I have picked out. So I’ll go back to the shelves and return those which were maybe only a second or third choice, and I’ll look again at their stock, paying particular attention to female authors. I try to even things out as best I can.
Sometimes my approach works well. In a few instances I’ve been introduced to writers whose work I might not have otherwise noticed, like Caitlin Kiernan, Eimear McBride or Leanne Shapton. Other times I haven’t liked the books so much – but I suspect this is more out of grabbing whatever appealed at first glance, and not pursuing figures of interest in advance.
If the aim was perfect equality across my reading list, this is hardly a satisfactory solution. Whenever I think of all the books I’ve been reading lately, I still end up with more men than women. And moreover, there’s an element of hypocrisy here too, because I don’t do this with any of my other hobbies. Granted, video games and films are different in that they aren’t usually authored by a single personality, but the lack of prominent women directors in mainstream cinema and the treatment of new, original female voices in gaming are both big problems for those art forms.
But why did I pick out so many books by men in the first place? In terms of my general literary knowledge, I feel like I’ve simply absorbed more about male writers than women. If you were to total up everything I’ve read, you’d probably still find that most of the books were written by men. The stuff I know about books comes from schooling, general reading, and from papers like the Guardian, magazines like the New Yorker and LRB; respectable, liberal organs full of famous male British and American voices talking about famous British and American men. Similarly, most of the reading I did at school and university was centred around prominent male authors, who in themselves were most likely informed by other great men of the past. This spiral winds on forever.
I don’t quite know how to escape this dilemma. I could work harder at it. I could only read women for a few months, or a year – but how long would be long enough? I could start following prominent more feminist blogs and internet magazines, but where to start with that? Examined too closely, my approach starts to take on all the twisted proportions of classic liberal guilt; you could argue that deliberately seeking out books by women is treating them as if they were homework to be done, or medicine to be swallowed. Why do I think that doing this will make me a better, happier person? And why stop at heteronormative voices – where’s the representation of other ethnicities and sexualities in my reading? What exactly would I be trying to achieve by altering my reading towards what I feel like I should be reading instead of what I want to read?
There can be no such thing as a perfectly representative reading list, and I would regard with suspicion anything which claims to be that. The only solution, I suppose, is some kind of awareness of the reasons why we choose the media we consume, and an acknowledgement that we rarely do this just because we think those things are just ‘the best’. Culture is not just something to be consumed; it’s something which informs our decisions, and which in turn is shaped by the myriad small choices we make each day.
The first time I played Spelunky must have been in 2008 or 2009, not long after I started writing this blog. I remember playing the alpha version on my cranky old Dell Inspiron 5150 in my little room on campus while I should have been studying for my Master’s degree. (You can still play this original PC version of Spelunky for free here and I would urge you to do so.) I’d probably read about it on Rock Paper Shotgun and, having discovered that it was one of the few titles which would run happily in Windows XP on half a gig of RAM, I played it a lot. And I’d never played anything quite like it.
In terms of its video game genetics, Spelunky is a kind of cross-breed, combining the classic action of console-based platform games with the philosophy and mechanics of ‘roguelikes’ in the world of high-level PC gaming. The player must interact with complex, difficult, emergent systems (many of which aren’t ever explained), but they do this in a very simple 2D run-and-jump style which almost anyone can pick up and play instantly.
There isn’t a plot worth writing about: you begin as a little person in a randomly generated cave and your aim is to get to the end of each level while collecting as much stuff as possible. You have bombs to blow up walls and ropes to climb up to high ledges. There are items and weapons to be collected, monsters to be killed. And there are many, many secrets to be found.
I played that old Spelunky to death, but I never finished it. Once I got all the way through the ice caves and the temple of doom to what I thought was the last level only to be crushed to death by the floating face of a giant gold idol. The problem isn’t that it’s a long game – quite the opposite. You can finish it in ten or fifteen minutes if you really know what you’re doing. It’s just extremely difficult.
I gave up Spelunky after I gave up my Dell and switched to a MacBook Pro later in 2009 (the same computer on which I am now writing this blog entry). It wasn’t long before the game was fully remastered in a handsome HD edition for the Xbox 360, but I didn’t have one of those. And so I didn’t play the game again until that same edition was released in August this year for PS3 and PS Vita, the two devices on which I do most of my gaming these days.
It plays really, really well on the Vita. It’s sort of funny how far Sony’s handheld has departed from how it was originally sold (as a kind of pocket PS3) and how it is now regarded as a choice destination for the most successful indie games. Movement is firm and responsive under the clicky D-pad, the colours are clear and sharp, and even the gentle jazzy chords of the soundtrack sound pretty good warped through the little speakers.
But what surprised me when I played this game again for the first time in about four years was how little it has changed. The developers have done an incredible job of transferring almost every little detail from the original PC version into a new engine. Everything feels just right, and from the moment I started playing I knew exactly how far I could jump, how to fall without hurting myself, how to find the hidden pickaxe at the bottom of the snake pit, or how to kill the giant pirahna fish at the bottom of the jungle world (hint: don’t even bloody try).
It’s a really hard game. You can’t even save – but then why would you bother? You’re only going to die again anyway. You’ll be impaled on spikes or fall into lava or blow yourself up with your own bomb or be gunned down by an angry shopkeeper or devoured by the demon spawn of an undead mummy or blasted by a UFO or (my personal favourite) punched in the face by a giant yeti until you bounce off a wall and back into its big furry fist like a prisoner’s tennis ball, over and over and over again. Oh yes, you’ll die.
But you come back. Death in this game is always fair, and it never really matters because you learned something, and you had fun doing it. I don’t go to games like this to be told a story or experience a narrative which coheres in literary or cinematic terms; I go to give my brain a quick once-around-the-block in the same way someone else might play chess or solve a crossword puzzle.
Every time you play it’s slightly different, and yet it’s always different in the same way. And eventually the mysteries of the game reveal themselves, and the difficulty slides away, and you find yourself making that jump, grabbing the gold, slinging the damsel over your shoulder, sprinting towards the exit and making that jump and, and, and…
on various kinds of abandonment
My recent change in mood has been precipitated as much by the change in weather as anything else. Three weeks ago we entered September and almost immediately London said goodbye to the sun for another year. Since then, the skies have mostly been rendered as solid panes of grey. Suddenly it was every British season that isn’t high summer: blustery, unpredictable, all spatters of rain and the odd break of white light between bruised clouds. The only word I can think of to describe this is unbearable – which is ridiculous, I know, since as long as I am alive and breathing, I am bearing it. There is literally nothing to do but bear it.
I’ve grown used to falling asleep to the sound of the desk fan in our bedroom. Even now the nights are cooler, I need it switched on. It’s not that the sounds of traffic or the creaking of the house wakes me up: it’s that the grey-white noise of the spinning blades is a sound I can curl up inside. For as long as I know they are spinning, I know there is nothing I need to do.
The anxiety first became manifest as pain in my back and shoulders. Perhaps this was exacerbated by long periods of sitting very still at my desk in the office. (This is what I do when I am trying to do something right.) One weekend, the pain became a lingering, inexplicable thing, the likes of which I’d never experienced before: far from an agony, more like an intense muscular stiffness in my middle-back which grew worse when sitting. So I tried to watch TV while lying flat on the floor, and I did the ironing shirtless while slathered in tiger balm, and by the time I went back to work my back felt better.
We have been very busy at work. I have been under an unusual amount of pressure. (I should moderate this by adding that I’m extremely fortunate to have a good job at a good company which [in general] looks after its employees; in many respects it would be fair to say that I don’t know what a really tough day at the office [or any other place of work] looks like.) We have a lot of stuff to publish in October and we’re busy, every day.
And this leads me to the second precipitating cause: when I am made responsible for something important that has to be fixed, and I find myself (for whatever reason) unable to fix it, the result is a feeling of total helplessness that manifests as anxiety. Specifically the aforementioned back pain but also (more recently) an elevated heart rate, a rush of adrenaline, sweating, and intense nausea or stomach pain. There has been a lot of this at work. At one point last week I became so upset that I had to leave and walk around for a while until I had calmed down again. I sat in Postman’s Park and stared at the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice, which later seemed a grim sort of irony.
This weekend has been difficult for various reasons. I had a couple of extra days off work, but if I’m at home for too long I invariably find other things to worry about, and in this case it happened to be rediscovering the long-running problems with the roof of our house. On Thursday we were visited by a roofing contractor who immediately gave us an assessment of the situation which was far worse than what I was expecting. It’s not that the leaks are currently significant – no water coming through the ceilings yet – but the roof is very old, and there are enough things wrong with it that whenever it starts to rain I worry about cracks in tiles and lead, the old beams and bricks, the endless attrition of damp and cold. Again: unbearable.
The roof is also a problem on another level because I cannot go up into the attic without thinking about my dad. He was the one who put the boards down across the rafters and who put the light fitting up; he was the one who looked at the roof when we moved in and reassured me that there was nothing to worry about. He was wrong, of course, just as he was wrong to choose a roofing company who did such a lacklustre job on the last lot of repairs that were eventually required. So this is also about me coming to terms with his fallibility, and being the person who now has to do the looking-after rather than being looked after. All of which is something I should have had to do a long time ago. But here we are.
It is a thing I am responsible for and it is a thing I cannot fix. We ended up rejecting the first quote offered by this company because I didn’t like how they made me feel. There’s another guy (a trusted local contractor) coming tomorrow to give his verdict. I am trying to do things right. I really want this to be fixed because I’m at the stage now where I don’t feel I can cope with anything else going wrong.
The only reason I’m telling you all this is as an explanation for why my posts here have become increasingly infrequent. I find anxiety exhausting – not in the sense that it leaves me unable to go out in the world – but on a deeper level. When I am anxious, I have no critical or creative faculties, and whatever enjoyment I get from reading or video games or movies is experienced primarily as a brief respite from the world at large. Writing requires me to confront things about myself which are not always comfortable and do not make me feel better at times when I mostly just want to feel better.
It was my birthday on Friday. We went to see ‘The Drowned Man’, the latest production by the innovative theatre company punchdrunk who specialise in site-specific promenade performances which are quite unlike anything I’ve ever experienced elsewhere. I had deliberately read almost nothing about this in order to fully prepare myself for the particularities of what I was about to experience.
If I am allowed to wander freely and encouraged to investigate a deliberately constructed environment, I will do this to the exclusion of almost anything else. My approach to this kind of thing is almost exactly the same way I play video games; I go from one room to another, pulling and prodding at the seams of the world to see what sticks and what comes apart in my hands or my cursor. One of my strongest early gaming memories is of playing ‘Thief: The Dark Project’ as a kid on the PC; sneaking through the shadows of a huge, sprawling mansion on the very first mission, I came across a servant asleep in a small dormitory in the basement. This was incredible to me because in that instant I knew a number of things: that if I made too much noise I would wake him up, and that his reaction was going to be one of fear and alarm; so I could kill him, or I could leave him alone. The game had told me none of this directly, but for a brief moment I felt like my instincts and decisions had merged with the character I was inhabiting.
And so on Friday, I walked through a series of darkened passages that led through a moonlit forest to a gloomy Californian trailer park, through a dust bowl town on the verges of oblivion, and finally to the gates of the legendary Temple Studios. In a recently abandoned hotel room I found a movie script by the bed; a handful of lines attributed to ‘Waitress’ underlined and annotated in an urgent, thoughtful hand. I found collections of letters, handbags, leather cases and undergarments, other assorted objects sent in by would-be actors and actresses to the owner of the studio, all framed in glass cases like the relics of a genocide. I found the bundles of dead flowers forgotten in the mail room. I found a book of newspaper clippings and columns reporting on the sudden deaths of starlets and actors, sad and inexplicable. In the back room of a deserted television store I found an ancient CRT monitor running a primitive computer-generated loop of Muybridge’s forever galloping horse. And then there was the church I found in the desert, its only congregation a ghastly crowd of straw men in suits sitting in the lonely pews.
It was enthralling. (My own experiences were fairly limited, but I have found that the punchdrunk tag on tumblr is full of stories from repeat visitors which reveal the incredible attention to detail the company have laboured on their world.) I didn’t follow the actors unless I stumbled across a scene in progress, but I didn’t need to – I always felt like I half-understood what was going on, as though I were on the verge of some great breakthrough which never came. It was enough of a thrill to simply walk into the next room with the sense that something had happened (or was about to happen) and that perhaps if I could only piece together the clues I might approach some kind of deeper understanding…
I used to think that managing my anxiety was about control. That I could be happy if I found a way to get a hold on the things that were worrying me. If only I were a more capable person, I thought, then I wouldn’t be so unhappy. (This is the kind of thing that they teach you at school in this country.)
But that isn’t actually what I want. What I want is what I have always wanted, ever since I was a child: to abandon all responsibility, and to give myself up entirely – alone – into another world. I understand that this is a condition of privilege, and that it is not always appropriate, or necessary, or possible. Yet it makes me feel better knowing that from time to time, this too is permitted.
press F for shouting
A video game came out recently called ‘Payday 2’. I haven’t played it. I did play a fair bit of its predecessor, ‘Payday: The Heist’, so most of what I’m about to say that relates to gameplay is based on that – though from the reviews I’ve read the sequel seems like it’s essentially a much-improved remake of the first game.
Both are cooperative multiplayer first-person shooters in which you commit various audacious criminal acts as part of a four-man team: robbing a bank, stealing art from a museum, double-crossing drug dealers, and so on. In practice, what this means is completing a series of objectives while either trying not to attract attention, or (more likely) battling wave upon wave of armed police who throw themselves at you with a witless abandon. If it were a movie, it would be the gunfight outside the bank in Michael Mann’s ‘Heat’.
Except not quite. One thing I haven’t heard much discussed in the context of these games is the sheer nastiness of their aesthetic. It’s not so much that the gameplay is incredibly violent – I can deal with that, though the quantity of policemen to be shot down often seems deliberately absurd – rather it’s that there is a kind of callous violence inherent to the aesthetic itself which I find incredibly unsettling.
Why are you robbing this place? Because you’re a faceless criminal and you want money. There is no other possible motivation except money or revenge or a kidnapping or something equally grand and terrible. You are a big bad man with a gun and you’re here to take all the things and shoot anyone who gets in your way. You press a button to shout at people and you press another button to shoot.
The character the game forces you to become is cruel. He is a bully. He wears a mask. Why does he wear a mask? To protect his identity, presumably, but also to intimidate. In ‘Payday 2’ you can choose to customise your own mask. I suppose this is something that fans of the game will enjoy, but I can’t see the point of it. I admire the way that some games allow you to change your character’s appearance as a way of expressing something about the player – but because these masks have to fit the intimidating aesthetic of the game world, my impression is of variations on a theme of underlying nastiness rather than an opportunity for meaningful expression. When you put on the mask, you can’t be anything other than cruel.
It’s this relentlessly unpleasant quality which eventually led me to stop playing the first game. It’s not that the gameplay is bad; in many respects it makes for an incredibly exciting, tactical and demanding team game. It’s just not a world in which I wanted to spend my time.
The success of ‘Payday 2’ seems puzzling to me, but I wonder if players have just been starved of this kind of thing in recent years. The ‘nasty aesthetic’ has actually become increasingly rare in modern video games, where high-definiton ultraviolence is still permitted as long as it comes with a healthy dose of self-awareness to sugar the pill. But ‘Payday’ doesn’t care about any of that stuff. Here, you just get to be a tough bad guy again, with potentially triumphant results. For all that critics like to carp on about how formulaic manshooters are responsible for the lack of respect shown for the medium as a whole, there aren’t many games of consequence which share the absolute dedication of the ‘Payday’ series to its own senseless amorality.
Let’s say that we are a society. Let’s say a man comes before us and makes an offer. He is young and presentable, not unattractive but not especially memorable either. He’s probably white. His age is not important. He explains that he will guarantee our country a rate of GDP two percent above what we are currently experiencing. He says he will secure our schools and hospitals and keep the streets lit and the rivers clean. He says he will keep inflation low and wages rising. But in return, we must agree to a condition.
The condition is that one in every hundred people passing through designated areas in our airports, train stations and shopping malls will be detained by the authorities. They will be kept for as long as the authorities see fit, and only their immediate family need know about it. They may be asked questions on their political beliefs, sexual history, employment and financial status. Their belongings may be confiscated. The authorities reserve the right to say or do whatever they want to this individual behind closed doors as long as it does not involve cruel or unusual punishment. In the end, they will be released.
It’s not exactly a fair trade, but it is certainly a reasonable one – at least if we assume that societies will always aim for the greater good before the rights of an individual. But it is nonsense. We could just as easily arrest half the population and have stagnating economic growth and decaying public services. These situations are set before us as if they were serious political dilemmas when in fact they make about as much sense as those absurd philosophical conundrums which ask us to choose between throwing one fat man or five thin men under the wheels of a speeding train to stop it colliding with a truckload of kittens.
There’s a moment in ‘The Ghost’ by Robert Harris which I think about often. The novel portrays a British ex-PM (loosely based on Tony Blair) who at one point late in the story loses his temper with the protagonist:
‘…take for instance all this civil liberties crap. You know what I’d do if I were in power again? I’d say, okay then, we’ll have two queues at the airports. On the left, we’ll have queues to flights on which we’ve done no background checks on the passengers, no profiling, no biometric data, nothing that infringed anyone’s precious civil liberties, use no intelligence obtained under torture—nothing. On the right, we’ll have queues to the flights where we’ve done everything possible to make them safe for passengers. Then people can make their own minds up which plane they want to catch. Wouldn’t that be great? To sit back and watch which queue the Rycarts of this world would really choose to put their kids on, if the chips were down?’
Politicians deal in moral absolutes. You take one queue or the other. She is one of us; he is one of them. A man will have something to hide, or he won’t. You can believe in civil liberties, or you can live in the real world. You have to do the right kind of thing and not the wrong kind of thing because that is the price we pay for a civilised society.
we can argue about it later (it’ll be great)
A video game was recently released for the PS3 called The Last of Us. You may have heard of it. I will probably play it. But I’ve decided that I am not allowed to play it before trying out the Uncharted trilogy, previously created by the same studio (Naughty Dog) and released in 2007, 2009 and 2011 respectively. What follows are some things I thought about while playing the first game, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune.
It’s been a peculiar experience playing this so soon after the recent Tomb Raider reboot. So much of what that game does is laid out here, from the essential mechanics of shooting from behind cover against waves of enemies to the way that the story expresses itself in cinematic cutscenes between peaks and troughs of gameplay. Both games are about exploring a tropical island while dodging peril both ancient and modern — and yes, raiding actual tombs. But in some regards Tomb Raider spoiled me because there are many aspects which it polishes to a sleek, glimmering surface where the first Uncharted seems rough and unready in comparison. Game development has come a long way in six years.
Most of what you do in Uncharted is combat. For the most part, this involves pressing a button to hide behind cover while enemies advance on your position and try to flank you or flush you out with grenades. You’re very vulnerable while exposed, but your health regenerates when you aren’t being shot. You have to kill everyone to move on to the next area. All of this still seemed rather new in 2007, except for the last part.
The problem is that the shooting feels both frustrating and insignificant: it’s difficult to aim with a crosshair that feels oddly digital (i.e. it moves only at one speed however much you push the analogue stick), and each confrontation feels pretty much exactly like the last one. In the last third or so of the game, the developers do try to change things up by introducing a new kind of enemy that forces you to adopt different tactics, but for me this only magnified the aforementioned difficulties.
Perhaps more significantly, the actions of your character (Nathan Drake) in the battles of Uncharted stand in stark contrast to the guy you become in the cutscenes. Nathan is smart, quippy, generally likable in a surly way, reminiscent of Han-shot-first-Solo or Indiana Jones. And here you are just…killing hundreds of dudes? This gap between our understanding of the character and the actualities of gameplay (termed ludonarrative dissonance by those in the know) is sometimes considered the defining note of this series.
As games combine an increased emphasis on story and character with higher production values, this kind of dissonance can become more apparent. In L.A. Noire, for example, it becomes increasingly apparent that the end of every case inevitably winds up with the player blasting away in a series of large rooms full of bad guys, no matter how well or poorly you perform as a detective. This isn’t such a strange thing in a game like GTA IV which doesn’t take itself so seriously, but it’s weird to say the least when the rest of L.A. Noire plays out like a straight-faced police procedural.
There’s a temptation to use this neat observation about the odd assumptions of gaming as a stick with which to beat a whole medium. And perhaps it is a medium in need of a good beating. But in my own experience, I rarely find it sufficient in itself to ruin a game. Even though it is clunky and frequently tedious, killing endless dudes did not particularly bother my conscience in Uncharted.
It is not indiscriminate murder: this is violence which takes place in a very specific moral context. If you don’t kill them, they are going to kill you quickly and without mercy. That’s a dumb, primal reason to fight, but it’s a good one regardless. And it’s worth noting that despite the atmosphere of moral panic that still occasionally descends around certain violent titles, very few video games ask the player to fight without any motive or moral context. This isn’t out of any sense of enlightenment – it’s simply because violence devoid of context isn’t particularly interesting.
Describing the combat in Uncharted as a matter of ‘just killing dudes’ also frames the debate in a very particular way. It might be true in a superficial sense, but it doesn’t really tell you anything about what it’s like to have that experience while playing the game, or what makes the game different from a number of other very similar games. It’s a phrase which contains a couple of untested assumptions: in what way is this killing, and in what way are they dudes?
To kill something, the thing you are killing has to be alive in the first place. As this is a video game and contains nothing which can actually be alive, we’ll settle for something which gives an impression of life. The enemies in Uncharted give no such impression; their only purpose in life is to end Nathan. And even when you kill them, they don’t really die: they live on in the memory of the game, appearing over and over again in varying circumstances but behaving in the same predictable ways each time. In what meaningful sense can they be killed if they were never truly alive?
fear is sure to come
The first novel by Joseph Conrad I read was ‘Heart of Darkness’ and that was back in sixth form. The teacher warned us that we probably wouldn’t enjoy it the first time through and so he recommended that we read it twice before even coming to class – a brave thing to say to a group of wary teenagers, I suppose, but in retrospect it was good advice. The first time I read ‘Heart of Darkness’, I didn’t understand it at all; the second time I read it, I was astonished. I’ve still never read anything quite like it.
A lot of people didn’t like it then, and I’ve met many people since who find Conrad’s writing dull, impenetrable, or even risible. Some would still call him a racist. But whatever you think of his status as an author, it seems to me that there’s little to compare with him in the field of English literature. To me he is an author both of his time and yet so completely beyond it. He wrote about people adrift in the world, exiles and self-imposed outcasts, those destined to witness the fullest pleasures of life from the sidelines. His novels explore every aspect of what the word ‘alienation’ contains.
After finishing school, I studied Conrad further at university, and it was at this time that I read almost all of his novels. Much as I hate to answer the question of who my favourite author is, if I absolutely had to pick one, I think it would be him. While I may not love all of his books equally, there are a handful alongside the aforementioned classic that I can return to repeatedly and always discover something new and astonishing. ‘The Secret Agent’, ‘Victory’, and ‘The Shadow-Line’ are my other favourites — but ‘Lord Jim‘ looms high above them all in my mind.
The plot of the book is fairly simple. Jim (white, English, not really a Lord) is a water-clerk working in the far East around Malaysia. He takes a job as first mate on board the ‘Patna’, a small steamer carrying pilgrims bound for Mecca. But something happens on board which causes him and the crew to abandon ship; when they arrive, the captain and the others immediately flee the country, leaving Jim to face the consequences.
While the actual events of the plot are simple, the novel is complicated by its terms of narration. Like ‘Heart of Darkness’ before it, ‘Lord Jim’ is mostly presented as the spoken story of a sailor, Marlow. Most of it is told in one sitting, with an occasional infrequent interjection from his captive audience. It’s a style which is both highly digressive and psychologically discursive; the narrator’s instinct seems is to explain the character of this individual as a whole, not to try to explain what motivates his behaviour. It should also be noted that much of Marlow’s work consists of interpreting Jim through the eyes of others, since Marlow’s personal interactions with the man are infrequent and peculiar: often it seems as though the actual relationship between the two is only a constant stream of small, absurd misunderstandings.
Jim is defined by a kind of empty-headed idealism which can be interpreted in a number of ways. In the opening pages, Marlow sketches this out as the product of what was once termed ‘Muscular Christianity’ in England: a sheltered private education; youthful dreams nurtured by tales of adventure on the high seas; no particular beliefs beyond an innate faith in one’s own quiet superiority. In short, he received all the preparation a privileged man could expect to receive from life. But when the moment for action came, Jim found himself unable to act. At naval college, his classmates rushed to the aid of a ship in peril on a high sea – but Jim remained on shore. It is never made clear why he stayed. In the moment when his idealism was put to the test, something held him back.
This early episode sounds a defining note that echoes throughout the text. From this point on, our view of Jim is coloured through the recollection of others. Marlow frequently refers to him as appearing as if ‘under a cloud’ – obscure and indistinct – but he also says that he was ‘one of us’, which becomes something of a challenging statement when you consider that his disapproval of Jim’s actions on the ‘Patna’ is as much professional as it is personal. It suggests that Marlow could also suffer from this same moral weakness that might put the lives of others at risk. But though Jim failed as a sailor once in his life, he won’t necessarily fail so hard again.
Later, Jim moves to a remote village in a place named Patusan. He is sent there by a wealthy trader named Stein; what starts as a favor for Marlow takes on a life of its own as the older gentleman starts to take an interest in Jim as well. Stein’s diagnosis is simple: Jim is ‘romantic’. But what might seem like romance to one is incurable stupidity to another – Cornelius, the only other white man in Jim’s village, calls him ‘a little child’.
There are so many passages in this novel that I would like to quote, but one scene which struck me in my most recent reading is Marlow’s conversation with the French sailor, an older man who was involved in the events surrounding the Patna. His dialogue – typically stilted, as with so many of the conversations in this book – conveys something important:
‘“And after all, one does not die of it.” “Die of what?” I asked swiftly. “Of being afraid…One is always afraid. One may talk, but …” He put down the glass awkwardly… . “The fear, the fear—look you—it is always there.” … He touched his breast near a brass button, on the very spot where Jim had given a thump to his own when protesting that there was nothing the matter with his heart. I suppose I made some sign of dissent, because he insisted, “Yes! yes! One talks, one talks; this is all very fine; but at the end of the reckoning one is no cleverer than the next man—and no more brave…Eh bien! Each of them—I say each of them, if he were an honest man—bien entendu—would confess that there is a point—there is a point—for the best of us—there is somewhere a point when you let go everything (vous lachez tout). And you have got to live with that truth—do you see? Given a certain combination of circumstances, fear is sure to come…”’
Here, couched in scattered French and broken English, lies a glittering shard of truth: that so much of our lives is defined by the constant interplay of bravery and fear, and that even the best men frequently find themselves in such states where they must live with the bitter truth of their essential condition. Jim is incapable of realising this, and it’s his inability to accept his own failure which gives him a weird power even as it renders him doomed.
If taken to its logical conclusion, the Frenchman’s point contains a troubling and thoroughly Conradian suggestion: if we can never predict how we will behave in a life-changing situation until we are actually in the moment, then all philosophy is rendered senseless.
And here also is why I take it so personally: there is something awful in Conrad’s conception of Jim which chimes with the way I see myself. That constant tension between dreams and waking life; that sickening sense of inadequacy; the feeling that somewhere along the line, I missed out on a secret part of development which everyone else took part in. There’s something in Jim which (for me) goes beyond simple empathy and moves towards a kind of uncanny doubling; it’s as though I had discovered what I might have become in a different time and place.
But I recognise that most people probably also feel like this from time to time, and that perhaps this familiarity might account for some of the novel’s success over the years. In referring to Jim as ‘one of us’, Conrad created not so much a portrait of a man as an illumination of an aspect of humanity:
'It struck me that it is from such as he that the great army of waifs and strays is recruited, the army that marches down, down into all the gutters of the earth. As soon as he left my room, that “bit of shelter,” he would take his place in the ranks, and begin the journey towards the bottomless pit. I at least had no illusions; but it was I, too, who a moment ago had been so sure of the power of words, and now was afraid to speak, in the same way one dares not move for fear of losing a slippery hold. It is when we try to grapple with another man's intimate need that we perceive how incomprehensible, wavering, and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun. It is as if loneliness were a hard and absolute condition of existence; the envelope of flesh and blood on which our eyes are fixed melts before the outstretched hand, and there remains only the capricious, unconsolable, and elusive spirit that no eye can follow, no hand can grasp. It was the fear of losing him that kept me silent, for it was borne upon me suddenly and with unaccountable force that should I let him slip away into the darkness I would never forgive myself.’