marginal gloss

Here are a few words about me.

I'm also on twitter and goodreads.

April 10, 2014 at 4:15pm
18 notes

a suggestive place

image

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.

image

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

image

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.

image

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.

image

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’.

The remainder of this text is reproduced on the website:

‘…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. 

Comments (View)
March 31, 2014 at 10:46pm
14 notes

promenade in green

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. 

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

Comments (View)
March 17, 2014 at 12:12am
32 notes

this document

I’m writing something at the moment. I suppose I have to call it a novel, though for me that word is inextricably associated with assumptions about length, publication and distribution that I don’t necessarily have in mind for this. I have a little over 16,000 words but I don’t know how long it’s going to be, when it will ever be finished, or if it will ever be suitable for public consumption. In many ways it feels like a continuation of a standalone project I started two or three years ago; I had about 45,000 words of that done, but it was never finished either.

Here are some disconnected thoughts on the production of this document. 

1. TALKING

I don’t like reading dialogue, and I don’t like writing dialogue. Even when an author writes really good speech, I tend to like them in spite of that, not because of it. Once upon a time I might have acknowledged this but simply carried on writing dialogue regardless because it is just one of those things that one must do in narrative fiction. But lately, I’ve grown impatient with my own conversational cack-handedness. So I’ve decided to stop writing dialogue altogether. 

What I like about fiction — what I think prose fiction does better than almost any other medium — can largely be summarised as everything that isn’t just people talking to one another. That is to say: it is a recorded description of thoughts and feelings (expressed or not, abstract or otherwise) in any linguistic form which is not direct speech. I would tentatively argue that even the best speeches or conversations in fiction are where the author stops having their characters chatter to one another and starts having them speak directly to the reader. 

But it turns out that excising dialogue altogether is really quite difficult! My current solution is something of a messy compromise. I still have reported speech, but it is integrated into the writing without line breaks or speech marks, with no adjectives and only the occasional use of simple reporting verbs (he/she said) to flag up what is going on. One interesting effect of this is that to write an impression of speech without quote marks is (I think) to imply that somebody said something like this, but not in these exact words. This means the reader gets the gist of what was said in words that could be more interesting to read than they would have been to hear. 

…I’m not sure I am explaining any of this very well.

2. POLITICS

Some of the plot of this thing I’m writing concerns acts of domestic terrorism. It has nothing to do with any actual political movements which exist today, but there are passages which if taken at face value would seem to support direct, violent action. And so I began to wonder how I would defend this if it were openly questioned in public. 

The obvious thing is to say that this is a work of fiction, that opinions expressed by the characters are not necessarily my own, and so on. But this seems insufficient to me, given the current political conditions in the UK. I think often of the man charged for an offhand tweet about blowing up an airport, or the woman arrested for writing Islamist poetry, and I wonder what would happen if somebody actually wanted to write something that wasn’t just a joke or a private fantasy. Something that was genuinely shocking instead of simply explicit, something or that contained an actual challenge to the social consensus. Would it ever see daylight?

I am aware that my main defence in this regard is my privileged status as a middle-class white male with no actual religious or political background. It’s fairly unlikely that anyone (no matter how bigoted) could mistake me for a terrorist. But it shouldn’t have to be that way. Nobody should have to worry about such things. Still: I do. And I wonder what a world incapable of moral shock would look like. Would it even be a place where I’d want to live?

3. HEART

The kind of writer I have always wanted to be is at odds with the kind of writer I am. I want to write weird and imaginative stories that are rich with ideas and political implications. I want to write novels like China Mieville or Ursula LeGuin or J.G. Ballard. At their best, the works of those authors seem so much more consistent, coherent and considered than anything I could ever produce. Because when I sit down to work, what I actually produce seems too much like personal recollection tempered with imagery and tropes borrowed from my immediate surroundings. I feel like I’m not worthy of the craft.

A related problem: it often occurs to me that my imaginative faculties have become inaccessible in recent years. I feel like my mind no longer travels in the way that it did when I was a child towards the things that I find stimulating. Or to put it another way, I can look at a picture by Leonora Carrington and admire it, but I’d have no idea how she got to a point where she could create a thing like that. In fact, in reading this blog entry, you are witnessing this artistic paralysis: I’m unable (or unwilling) to describe my own creative process in any other terms beyond this rather dry and prosaic style.

I suppose the only comfort in all this is that people do (apparently) want to read writing that comes from a personal place. And this distinction between the instinctive and the contrived was only ever a kind of academic platitude; Ballard himself said that Crash, one of his most violent and strange novels, came out of a crisis of grief after the sudden and unexpected death of his wife left him as a single father. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. People write books for all kinds of reasons. Examining my own reasons too closely is probably doing to be counter-productive, but I doubt it’ll stop me anytime soon.

Comments (View)
March 7, 2014 at 9:09pm
18 notes

please understand

I got a Nintendo 3DS for christmas, and I’ve been playing with it a lot ever since. I’ve had handheld game consoles before, but this is the first one I’ve ever felt inclined to carry around with me. Partly this is because it has a number of quirky features intended to nudge the user towards taking it everywhere with them and never turning it off: there’s a built-in pedometer which counts every step you take and awards you with a currency that can be spent on little game items and upgrades; and there’s Streetpass, a unique sort of asynchronous multiplayer feature which allows a 3DS to connect wirelessly to another 3DS or an open wi-fi router and exchange information with it while in sleep mode. 

At some point I might actually write about some 3DS games but for the moment I want to note another small feature to which I’ve become rather attached. Thanks to a recent firmware update, you can now pause any game by pressing the Home button, switch to the camera, take a photo, and then switch back into the game. This sounds like an obvious thing to anyone used to the kind of multitasking possible on a smartphone or tablet, but it still surprises me that it’s possible on a console — partly because Nintendo don’t have the greatest record in this department, and partly because dedicating themselves purely to games is what allows consoles in general to provide a consistent and powerful environment for running that particular form of software. 

image

It should be noted that the cameras on the 3DS are (as you can see) basically terrible. They’re fine for casual augmented reality games, and the pair of front-mounted lenses gives a gentle 3D effect which is pleasing when viewed on the device, but with the pictures saved at a 640x480 resolution the photos can’t compare with the camera on your phone or your computer. But then they aren’t meant to. The camera is one of the more playful, toy-like aspects of the 3DS, a reminder that this is still the company that also sold us a camera for the Game Boy. Why do I like using it? Because it’s fun. It’s a challenge to try to take an appealing picture with this stupid thing.

It’s important to note that Nintendo have never operated at the cutting edge — or at least not in terms of always having the sharpest lenses, the fastest processors, the most storage. A key philosophy of the famous designer Gunpei Yokoi was the idea of ‘lateral thinking with withered technology’; as I understand it, this refers to iterating and innovating within an understood space of cheap and widely-available tech.

You can see this notion at work in so many of their products, from the chunky old Game Boy to the N64, which remained defiantly cartridge-based in the face of the CD ROM revolution. The Wii and the original DS were originally ridiculed for their lack of horsepower, but their innovative control schemes enabled a fresh approach to game design that caught the imagination of a public who weren’t especially interested in how many pixels or polygons could be pushed at once. 

image

I have lunch at work by myself. Sometimes I’ll go outside to play my 3DS and while I’m doing this I like to take a picture of wherever it is I am. I don’t really know why I do this except that it gives me satisfaction. The fact that the 3DS makes a rather loud camera shutter noise whenever you take a snapshot (of course you can’t turn it off - this is Nintendo!) adds a kind of perverse thrill to proceedings. I don’t want anybody around to think I’m taking a photo of them, so I have to be very careful and deliberate about when I hit the button on my goofy Japanese game-toy thing.

I can’t bear to be seen with my 3DS in the office. Part of my apprehension is to do with what Robert Florence has called the cultural cringe associated with video games. That same old shame. It’s also a little like what Leigh Alexander described when she wrote about playing Animal Crossing on the tube, which I do too. 

I see so many people playing games in public now, but they’re invariably of a very specific kind: mobile games on tablets or phones. It’s very rare to see another dedicated gaming device, but it’s not uncommon for me to sit next to one person playing Candy Crush on a phone on the way to work, then to sit next to a different playing the exact same game on the way home. To me, this seems bizarre.

image

No. It’s fine. People can play whatever they want. But it gives me the same weary feeling I get when I see a whole carriage of people reading the Metro in the morning or the Evening Standard at night. I think: is nobody else seeing this? does nobody else think this is really weird? I’m not asking that people read or play or watch or listen to anything in particular. But cultural ubiquity is cultural death.

I don’t know what’s going to become of Nintendo. They’re the only company left now of the old guard. They’re the only ones who create and cultivate a software library which is specifically tailored to their own hardware. That’s a crazy thing when you think about it. But it’s what allows their games to attain an unparalleled level of quality, consistency and innovation. It also lets them to occupy a slightly different position in the market to Sony and Microsoft, with their increasingly indistinguishable big new boxes and their endless squabbling over expensive cross-platform releases.

The big problem is in selling that hardware: the 3DS is doing very well lately, but the Wii U continues to bump along the bottom, with low sales and third party developers losing interest. I have a Wii U, and I think it’s an excellent machine, but so far they’ve failed to bring it to market effectively. That it’s underpowered compared to other consoles isn’t the problem; the problem is that nobody knows that it exists.

image

I don’t think Nintendo will ever bestride the world again as they did in days of the SNES. It seems crazy to me now that Mario could have spawned breakfast cereals, TV shows and movies. All that aggressive marketing seems a million miles away from the genial figure of their president and public figurehead Satoru Iwata, by turns clown and philosopher, who recently declared that one aim of his company was ‘to redefine entertainment as something that improves people’s quality of life’Not just to make cool toys for the kids, then.

I think people will still be playing Nintendo games on Nintendo hardware in twenty or thirty years’ time. Even their oldest systems (both hard and soft) have an enduring quality which has aged them better than most games from that era. And even though they might not use the most advanced components, their machines are certainly built to last. But I have no idea how much new stuff they’ll be making by then.

In my mind, Nintendo is like an old jeweller who once worked at Tiffany’s but who now finds themselves working in a little watchmaker’s shop at the end of your high street. They’re much reduced in many ways, but still as fine as they ever were, if not better; still preoccupied with the same old obsessions, quietly toiling their life away as the world thunders around them. You should probably go and pay them a visit. 

image

Comments (View)
February 17, 2014 at 8:35pm
27 notes

image

I don’t know how anybody writes a book. Certainly I know how it is supposed to be done: you sit down day after day and put down the words, and perhaps you plan things out as well, and at some point you read them back to yourself and think about what and how they might mean. I have even tried doing this myself, with varying degrees of success, and I’m trying it again at the moment.

Write the words. That’s how it is supposed to work. But at what point does the thing being written become a book? Which matters more: that the thing is proofed and bound and made available to the public, or that it is finished?

I ask this because I don’t know how Carson McCullers wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I finished this recently for the first time, and I don’t know how she did it. It’s one of those unusual books which (deservedly, I think) has obtained a place in the canon of modern fiction despite being (in my opinion) profoundly unfinished. 

I should stress that I don’t mean ‘unfinished’ in the actual sense of being left incomplete, or that it is somehow below par as a novel. I enjoyed it too much for that. Certainly I think it is the most interesting sort of book a person just out of their teens could hope to write. And though I do think it is lacking in certain ways, those ways are less like outright flaws and more like fissures which work towards the suggestion of the novel as a peculiarly open text. Portals to understanding, not shuttered windows.

The book follows a group of people living in a small town in Georgia in the late 1930s. There’s Biff Brannon, the owner of an all-night diner; Jake Blount, a drunk and socialist agitator who frequents that diner; Mick Kelly, a girl from a poor family who dreams of being a composer; and Dr Copeland, a black intellectual and physician. All know each other in passing but come to know one another better via Singer, a deaf mute who comes to lodge in Mick’s house. They go to talk to him (he can read their lips) and he accepts all their worries without care or prejudice. All of them are lonely in one way or another.

Beyond this, there isn’t really a plot. There’s no single overarching scheme that drives the narrative, and I felt this absence when reading it; I kept expecting that Singer’s arrival would create some kind of central mystery that would involve all the characters and direct them towards some kind of conclusive reconciliation. But what we get instead is almost the exact opposite of that. Yes, Singer has a secret life — but it’s something he can never share with the others. 

The absence of plot doesn’t mean this is one of those novels where ‘nothing happens’. There’s actually a great deal of action; some of it is momentous, and occasionally shocking. When a terrible thing happens, its effects are felt throughout the book, the echoes rippling through the remaining characters even to the end — but you never have the sense that things happened because of the author dipping their hand into the world. Things happen, and often they are neither right nor wrong, but simply awful. Yet time flows swiftly in these pages; people carry on, because what else is there to do?

In some ways the book is most lacking where it tries to be most complete. By this I mean that it comes unstuck where the author tries to deal with broader political or religious themes. There are pages of nakedly ideological bickering which threaten to turn all involved into archetypes: Dr Copeland is reduced to an intellectual naive, a campaigner for civil rights forever disappointed by his own race, while Jake Blount’s rants against the capitalist system are rendered lifeless by the implication that he’s essentially the victim of his own self-loathing. Both suffer in the later passages from an overly directed narrative approach which seems to owe more to the stage than to prose fiction. 

One could argue that this highly contrived approach to dialectic does its characters no justice, and that it damages the focus on the intense, evocative interior monologue that is the core of the novel. I’d agree with this to a point; certainly it is the author’s deeply empathetic sense of the consciousness of her creations that drew me to the pages of this novel. And I would add that a more complete, more perfect work of literature would omit some of these passages for the sake of brevity if nothing else. 

But even if The Heart is a Lonely Hunter doesn’t necessarily demonstrate how people talked about race and socialism and religion in the 1930s, it does give an idea of what they might have talked about. And though many of those things have changed since the book was written, many have not changed all that much. In its own quiet way it remains a charged book. It is full of dangerous implications; angry, like someone who has no idea what to do with their anger. This book has been banned a number of times in its home country, and it does not seem inconceivable that it could be banned again. 

And perhaps brevity, completeness and perfection are not always required. Perhaps they are not even necessary. It is often more interesting, I think, to encounter something that is rough, partial or incomplete. I would much rather that people tried something ambitious and failed than never tried it at all — and it is a daily effort to apply this advice to my own endeavours before all others.

Comments (View)
February 9, 2014 at 6:54pm
12 notes

there’s aught here

image

Dragon’s Dogma is an open-world action RPG that was developed and published by Capcom and released in 2012 for what recently became the previous console generation. It is a game I enjoyed very much. For the most part, it is entirely typical of its genre, but there are many unusual things which set it apart, making it amongst the most surprising and strange games I’m played recently. It’s one of those occasional titles that receive mixed reviews and which seems to drift slightly below the cultural radar of the scene; a cult favourite for some which others might find insufferable. 

Its overall character seems like a hybrid of classic Japanese game design with aesthetics borrowed from modern European fantasy. In that regard, it’s comparable to something like Dark Souls — and in fact my girlfriend mistook it for this the first time she saw me playing it — but while smashing up monsters is the main thing you do in both games, both use a totally different vocabulary of action game verbiage. In Dark Souls, taking on more than one enemy at once is usually a recipe for disaster, whereas in Dragon’s Dogma they generally show up in such large numbers that the game feels more like a brawler. Any encounter usually begins with a careful initial exchange of abilities, but inevitably descends into a fast-paced, chaotic mess of exploding spells and riotous special moves. 

It’s at these moments that the game really looks great on-screen. At first you think maybe this might be a game where at least the magic and monsters are on a semi-human scale, and where for the skilful player every outcome is highly predictable. But each battle here seems more like a clash of strange, outlandish variables that provoke frustration as often as wonder. 

Often you’ll encounter something which is simply extraordinary, like the undead mage who can summon up a tornado (which is about the size of a real tornado) capable of flinging your character hundreds of feet into the air before sending them crashing back down to a likely death. Or what about the casual skirmish with a group of bandits which is suddenly interrupted when you look skywards and see a griffin the size of a bus hurtling towards you, talons outstretched. Moments such as these are largely emergent — which is to say they were generated from a number of complex interplaying systems, and not scripted — and were so extraordinary the first time I saw them that I really thought the game might be broken.

That might be because Dragon’s Dogma is just a little bit broken. It feels like walking into a the grand parlour of an unfinished house: it looks incredible at first, and it’s comfortable enough to live in, but behind one or two of those closed doors lies nothing more than a solid brick wall. The graphics engine struggles to maintain a decent frame rate during the frequent moments of intense action, and when you’re running around out of doors the ‘pop in’ of distant objects and textures is very much apparent. Many of the animations look great, but some of the scalable effects just look a bit wrong: while sprinting fast, my character’s movements often resembled a movie played back at the wrong speed. And there’s a lack of expression in the waxwork-like figures of the non-player characters that is mirrored in their oddly stoic, distant demeanour.

None of this was enough to really affect my enjoyment of the game. In fact, in some ways these problems actually added to the sense of Dragon’s Dogma as being a coherent world into itself because it’s also a little bit broken in terms of its story and systems. It is a deeply uncanny experience, defined by a kind of artful flatness which extends to almost every aspect of the game, almost as if it were a silent acknowledgement of its own status as a grand fiction.

image

The game is haunted by the constant sense of a designer’s reach exceeding their grasp. The landscape is somehow both beautifully atmospheric and strangely dull, and with only one major town and a handful of army camps, it feels emptier than expected. Though there are areas which feel lovingly crafted and evocative, there are other parts which seem like cursory references to the same old fantasy cliches. The English localisation can’t quite decide whether it wants to be Shakespeare or Tolkien and so it often picks some unusual words for a video game; it’s obsessed with the word ‘aught’ to the degree that at first I thought it was some kind of magical substance. Turns out ‘aught’ just means ‘stuff’.

Yet things start out pretty inconspicuously. After a fairly intense tutorial sequence, I was invited to create a character. You can be either a man or a woman, and there’s a massive range of options available to tweak your height, weight, skin and hair colour, the shape of your face, nose and brows, etc. Having done this kind of thing in many games before, my usual tendency is to play as a woman and attempt to shape her into something approximating my girlfriend. (I will then show this to her, she’ll say ‘ugh, I don’t look like that’, and we both carry on regardless.) So that’s what I did in this case. 

image

And it wasn’t until later that I found out that the seemingly insignificant choices you make in the height, weight and gender of your character actually affect gameplay in various ways. Larger, heavier characters can carry more stuff, are harder to knock over, and activate pressure plates faster (!); while smaller, lighters characters are a little harder to hit, benefit from faster stamina regeneration and greater speed. There’s even a few places in the game where you can only go if your character is physically small enough to get through the space.

It’s not unusual for a game to give the player a choice between these attributes, but it is odd that they should be abstracted in this vague way. None of this is really explained, and though the average player might not ever know the difference, once you do know it’s easy to feel cheated by this odd sort of determinism. But on the other hand, if I’d known all this stuff in advance, I’d have been more likely to make the most efficient gameplay decisions possible, and not just build a character based on what I wanted. And that wouldn’t have been much fun.

Choosing between a male and female avatar is another thing which many open-world games leave up to the player, but which often only affects the game in inconsequential ways. Dragon’s Dogma can’t quite make up its mind in this regard. Your avatar is silent throughout, and (as far as I know) both genders get the same dialogue options. Yet there are a couple of moments where suddenly your choice of gender becomes an issue. The giant ogres that roam the game world are driven into a passionate frenzy by the presence of women in a way that I found rather alarming. Later in the game, you discover an all-female group of bandits who will attack you on sight unless your party happens to be entirely composed of women. Both of these things seem like fairly extraordinary design decisions, especially as there is never any indication given that this stuff is supposed to matter. 

image

Dragon’s Dogma is full of these strange little touches which fascinate me. There’s a button on the controller which is solely assigned to grabbing other characters. The main purpose of this is for combat: smaller enemies can be held from behind so your pawns can attack them, while larger creatures can be scaled in a manner reminiscent of Shadow of the Colossus. But the grab button is active all the time, so you can just walk up to any character in the game and press it to sling them over your shoulder and carry them around like a sack of potatoes. It’s completely bizarre.

If you do carry someone around like a sack of potatoes, they won’t thank you for it. And you might want them to thank you for it because another weird system in the game is affinity — which is perhaps better described as a romance system, though there’s really not much that’s romantic about it. Whenever you talk to a character, there’s an option to give them an item from your inventory as a present. If you talk to them enough, and give them a present now and again, you boost your affinity with them. The character who has the highest affinity for you will play a key role in the game’s ending sequence — aside from that, there’s not a great deal of purpose to it.  And by far the oddest thing about this is that (as far as I’m aware) you can have almost any character in the game as your beloved. That includes children and the elderly. In its weird, wild openness, affinity comes across as a system which has been half-realised and then sunk right into the game, leaving so little explanation to the player of what is going on that many don’t realise they’ve created a romantic bond with another character until it’s too late to do anything about it.

image

Another thing that makes the game a little different to most action RPGs is the pawn system. Here’s how it works: one of the first things you do in the game is create your own personal pawn in the same way you create your own character. They’re your buddy, a computer-controlled ally who’ll stick with you throughout the game. But you can also take two more pawns around with you, and if your console is connected to the internet, these two will be the personal pawns created by other players in the world who are at the same level as you. Equally, your personal pawn can be used by other players in the world, and can return from their adventures with additional knowledge of quests and monsters, and even new items that can help you out.

Because the pawns you’ve borrowed don’t get any stronger as you progress through the game (and, for obvious reasons, you can’t change their equipment) you have to keep swapping them in and out for stronger ones, thus giving you a broad view of the kind of things people have been doing with their characters. This amounts to a kind of asymmetric multiplayer mode where you’re not directly playing with other people but you are playing with things they’ve created; I like it a lot, and I think it’s the kind of ‘mingleplayer’ touch that we’re going to be seeing a lot more in games in the future.

What’s also interesting about the pawn system is how they are embedded into the world of the game. Dragon’s Dogma makes no attempt to ask the player to believe in them as characters; they are more like disposable automata. You are never asked to like them, and they don’t seem to like you either. Their lines are delivered without a hint of emotion or motivation, and in combat they recycle the same shouts and remarks and hints over and over again in the same tone of voice. There’s no hint of self-awareness, no suggestion of consciousness. 

image

This is another example of the aforementioned ‘flatness’ in tone. Typically, it’s the kind of thing which any reasonably experienced player would dismiss as part of the inevitable dissonance that comes with any game of this scale — after all, they can’t be expected to write unique dialogue for every one of thousands of potential pawns, can they?

Dragon’s Dogma is unusual in making this lack of depth part of its plot. The pawns are a race apart from the regular people of the game world, and are treated with a sort of wary disdain, as though they were an alien species. They’re too powerful to ignore entirely, but they aren’t regarded as equal citizens either. And they end up playing a significant role in the plot — but the plot is so convoluted that I don’t even know where to begin explaining it.

The one part of the plot which is worth discussing is the ending. I’m going to put a cut here for spoilers because the ending is truly spectacular — and really, really weird. 

Read More

Comments (View)
January 23, 2014 at 9:45pm
20 notes
Since I last wrote about Spelunky on this blog, something very important happened regarding my relationship with this game: my partner starting playing it too.
One day I decided that because she likes to play traditional 2D side-scrolling platform games it would be interesting to introduce her to Spelunky. This had never really occurred to me before because I’d written it off as too wilfully obtuse for her taste; but helpfully, the PS3/Vita version comes with a tutorial that introduces the new player to all the basic mechanics of the game. Soon enough she was dropping bombs and throwing ropes with the best of them.
At first, I think it is fair to say that she wasn’t impressed. Like most new players, she thought it totally unfair that death could come from anywhere, without warning. How was she to know that those strange carved faces shot arrows which snatched away half her health in an instant? How could she possibly deserve to perish ensconced in the furry appendages of a giant spider? And just what had she done to anger that shopkeeper anyway? 
I managed to explain just enough of it to keep her interested. The important thing, I guess, is that you are allowed to make your own mistakes; you only figure out what a bad thing can do to you in this game after it has done something awful, and by that time you are probably dead. But death is inconsequential because the game is so incredibly short.
It’s important to her that the game is on the PS Vita. Of course it plays so well on that little machine, and she can pick it up at any moment, get started within a minute, and then put it down just as quickly and go do something else (or not). One of the crew on Idle Thumbs mentioned that playing it on the Vita makes it feel like a handheld game from when you were a kid — as if it were a concise little window into another world — except that of course Spelunky is quite considerably bigger and more complex than anything you could have played back then.
Last night she did something I’ve never done and actually finished the game for the first time after previously dying hundreds of times before the final boss (which [as any serious player will know] isn’t even the real final boss) — and not only that, but she finished it on a daily challenge too. I was very proud. Afterwards, she took to the wiki and began poring over it in search of the game’s deeper secrets, of which there are plenty. And just now she called me over in a rush of excitement, having accidentally discovered the entrance to a secret level set inside the gloopy guts of a giant worm. So you could say that she has been playing it a lot.
One neat thing not widely publicised is that if you own a PS3 and a PS Vita, buying the game gives you a copy for both systems and lets you play them together over a wireless network in the same room. This is exactly like playing with a second controller on the PS3, except the players are no longer limited to sharing the TV screen together — the one with the Vita can just go wherever they want using their own screen. It’s really good!
You’d think that this would make the game considerably easier since you’re no longer dependent on the other player following you about like a little lost puppy, but this is isn’t the case: the world is still just as deadly as before, and you start with half as many ropes and bombs with two players as you do with one. Everything in the game is intended to be addressed by one player, and there are no extra areas or bonuses that can only be accessed by two. In many ways the other player becomes an actual liability for the seriously dedicated, since they can easily hit or kill you by accident with a weapon or bomb, and you’re always in competition for whatever weapons and items happen to be available. 
So we’ve been playing Spelunky a lot now, and though the lifespans of our poor characters are probably shorter in this mode than they would be in single-player, it’s a lot of fun simply because there’s so much more potential for a spectacular screw-up in multiplayer. And the stupid arguments and small victories and random chats we share while playing make me suddenly realise that this is why people are so into streaming their games for other people to watch at the moment. It would be fun, I thought, to record this and put it on the internet. Why? Because people would want to watch it? Maybe. But also because I’d enjoy watching somebody like me and their partner playing games and bickering, I suppose.

Since I last wrote about Spelunky on this blog, something very important happened regarding my relationship with this game: my partner starting playing it too.

One day I decided that because she likes to play traditional 2D side-scrolling platform games it would be interesting to introduce her to Spelunky. This had never really occurred to me before because I’d written it off as too wilfully obtuse for her taste; but helpfully, the PS3/Vita version comes with a tutorial that introduces the new player to all the basic mechanics of the game. Soon enough she was dropping bombs and throwing ropes with the best of them.

At first, I think it is fair to say that she wasn’t impressed. Like most new players, she thought it totally unfair that death could come from anywhere, without warning. How was she to know that those strange carved faces shot arrows which snatched away half her health in an instant? How could she possibly deserve to perish ensconced in the furry appendages of a giant spider? And just what had she done to anger that shopkeeper anyway? 

I managed to explain just enough of it to keep her interested. The important thing, I guess, is that you are allowed to make your own mistakes; you only figure out what a bad thing can do to you in this game after it has done something awful, and by that time you are probably dead. But death is inconsequential because the game is so incredibly short.

It’s important to her that the game is on the PS Vita. Of course it plays so well on that little machine, and she can pick it up at any moment, get started within a minute, and then put it down just as quickly and go do something else (or not). One of the crew on Idle Thumbs mentioned that playing it on the Vita makes it feel like a handheld game from when you were a kid — as if it were a concise little window into another world — except that of course Spelunky is quite considerably bigger and more complex than anything you could have played back then.

Last night she did something I’ve never done and actually finished the game for the first time after previously dying hundreds of times before the final boss (which [as any serious player will know] isn’t even the real final boss) — and not only that, but she finished it on a daily challenge too. I was very proud. Afterwards, she took to the wiki and began poring over it in search of the game’s deeper secrets, of which there are plenty. And just now she called me over in a rush of excitement, having accidentally discovered the entrance to a secret level set inside the gloopy guts of a giant worm. So you could say that she has been playing it a lot.

One neat thing not widely publicised is that if you own a PS3 and a PS Vita, buying the game gives you a copy for both systems and lets you play them together over a wireless network in the same room. This is exactly like playing with a second controller on the PS3, except the players are no longer limited to sharing the TV screen together — the one with the Vita can just go wherever they want using their own screen. It’s really good!

You’d think that this would make the game considerably easier since you’re no longer dependent on the other player following you about like a little lost puppy, but this is isn’t the case: the world is still just as deadly as before, and you start with half as many ropes and bombs with two players as you do with one. Everything in the game is intended to be addressed by one player, and there are no extra areas or bonuses that can only be accessed by two. In many ways the other player becomes an actual liability for the seriously dedicated, since they can easily hit or kill you by accident with a weapon or bomb, and you’re always in competition for whatever weapons and items happen to be available. 

So we’ve been playing Spelunky a lot now, and though the lifespans of our poor characters are probably shorter in this mode than they would be in single-player, it’s a lot of fun simply because there’s so much more potential for a spectacular screw-up in multiplayer. And the stupid arguments and small victories and random chats we share while playing make me suddenly realise that this is why people are so into streaming their games for other people to watch at the moment. It would be fun, I thought, to record this and put it on the internet. Why? Because people would want to watch it? Maybe. But also because I’d enjoy watching somebody like me and their partner playing games and bickering, I suppose.

Comments (View)
January 12, 2014 at 4:58pm
10 notes

taking out dudes

image

So I bought ‘Splinter Cell: Blacklist’ for the Wii U. This has nothing to do with that TV show staring James Spader, though I kind of wish it did because I like James Spader. I bought it because you can get it pretty cheap now, because I’m one of the handful of people in the UK who bought a Wii U, and because for some stupid reason I liked the idea of playing it on this particular console.

And actually it does look very nice, and you can play it solely on the gamepad, and the sound and music is very well done, and the whole thing exudes a very polished quality that I don’t often encounter from most of the games I play. This is because (as my partner pointed out while watching me from the couch) I don’t often play this kind of big, loud, expensive action game which is so obsessively focussed on the activities of the American military.

It plays perfectly fine if you don’t mind that the story is preposterous, that the characters are totally hollow, and that the whole thing exudes an aura of strident seriousness with not even the slightest hint of humour, or even playfulness. Once we’ve established it’s that kind of game, it’s totally fine. 

I’ve not played a previous Splinter Cell before and I’m finding that the stealth is much more challenging than I expected. The thing with almost all stealth games is that getting good at them requires a lot of failing and restarting simply in order to feel out the boundaries of the simulation: how far guards can see or hear, for example, or the space between being seen and everyone in the world knowing where you are. All this stuff is kind of fuzzy and different in every game.

But the difficulty here is also due to the presence of some punishing instant-fail mission conditions, the lack of mid-mission saves, and my own tendency towards staying perfectly undetected while taking out every living thing in the place (which is arguably harder than just leaving them all alone). They do make it incredibly satisfying to take out dudes: you can pop them in the head with a silenced pistol shot, zap them with a tazer, knock them out with a puff of sleeping gas from a remote camera, or just sneak up on some guy and drag him backwards through an open window, choking him unconscious as Sam Fisher whispers sweet nothings into his earholes. 

Throughout you are given options to use either lethal or non-lethal methods. This is expected. But the particular advantages of going totally non-lethal aren’t clear, and (as ever in such games) the options for stunning available to you are limited and often feel rather puny. Not killing means at the end of each mission you get more of one kind of points than the other, and though I think ‘ghosting’ along might well get you the highest potential score, I haven’t yet encountered any kind of moral kickback for slitting throats instead of smothering them. 

This doesn’t especially bother me. ‘SC:B’ is a game which is so brutal and so casual in the violence deployed elsewhere that I feel like Sam Fisher is the kind of guy who just would kill indiscriminately when the situation demands it. So he does that. Or rather, I do it for him.

It’s strange to me how players often consider non-lethal options more virtuous than killing in a game like this. It entails projecting a degree of humanity on to one’s adversaries which (in most cases) they simply don’t possess. With a few notable exceptions in stealth games (e.g. ‘Dishonored’) that guard over there has no story, no background, no life; he is not a character. He has no purpose beyond to kill you if he finds you.

Taking out that guard is akin to flicking a switch in a massive, complicated puzzle box. It is a small change of state which can have wide-ranging implications in a complex game; but because the guard is only defined in the world by his role as a guard, his demise is always trivial and always temporary. For comparison, consider how differently it would feel in a game like ‘Day Z’ where confrontations necessarily play out differently because each avatar you encounter represents hours of careful, strenuous progress on the part of another person.

Since very few games have enemies recover from being rendered unconscious, the only meaningful difference in game terms between lethal and non-lethal methods is in what it feels like to do the deed. Does the animation depict cold-blooded murder when you hit the trigger, or does the target flop to the ground while snoring peacefully? The player picks the one they prefer and makes their choice. Lines of code change from one state to another, but either way your target is never more or less alive than they ever were. And should you ever return to the mission, they’ll be there again, alive and alert, ready to welcome you over the barrel of a gun.

Comments (View)
December 30, 2013 at 7:18pm
21 notes

going home

image

For some reason, it’s around this time of year that people like to talk about what video games they enjoyed most over the last twelve months. This has always seemed to me to be a bit silly and arbitrary but perhaps that’s because most of what I play these days is already quite old by the time I get around to it. Still: one of the few games I played immediately on release this year was Gone Home, and if I had to make a list (of any kind) this would be at or near the top.

Gone Home is a game that casts the player in the character of Katie Briar, a young woman who returns to her home one night in 1995 to find that her family has inexplicably disappeared. The title is slightly misleading in that this house isn’t really a home for Katie; her parents and sister moved in while she was away backpacking in Europe, and so the implication is that the player shares in her feelings of fear, disorientation and curiosity which will lead her towards the mystery in the house. You explore the house from the first-person perspective common to violent action and horror games, but there’s nothing to fight or kill here. The game is about exploring your intensely detailed surroundings, and deducing from found objects the story of what has happened in the year or so since Katie’s departure.

It’s a fascinating, moving and highly accomplished work of art which I would recommend to everyone, no matter how much experience they have in the medium. I have no hesitation in also calling it a video game. This seems like an obvious statement, but one of the funny things about the video game community is that it tends towards entrenched divisions over issues which would be considered trivial in the rest of society. So for example, because some people are now choosing their Games of the Year, and because Gone Home features on these lists, some other people are getting angry because they don’t think it counts as a video game. 

This strikes me as very odd. From what I’ve seen, most professional critics are quite sure it is a video game. I don’t see how there can be any confusion: Steam calls it as a video game; it is for sale in Apple’s app store under the Games section; it calls itself a ‘story exploration video game’ when you look it up on Google. Gone Home is a thing which both defines itself as a game and is categorised by our market economy as a game. To insist that it isn’t a game is much like going to the theatre and shouting ‘this isn’t a play!’ even while you’re sitting in the front row of the stalls. Whether you enjoyed it or not, to claim that for whatever reason Gone Home ‘isn’t a video game’ is simply incorrect.

The question is self-answering. Of course it’s a game; to query its status is only to confirm its ultimate existence as a game. But the question itself is a distraction, a sideshow which pushes players towards defining themselves against one of two poles based on what they think about it. These categories are completely arbitrary and ultimately worthless, but one could not exist without the reactionary tendencies of the opposition.

If we were to allow each side to draw a caricature of the other, on one side we’d have the Mainstream Gamer Dudes (angry, young, male; probably racist/misogynist/transphobic; starved for violence/sex; propping up the ailing console industry with one hand while quaffing Mountain Dew from t’other) and against them the Indie Gamer Cabal (smart, inclusive, attractive; forging freelance careers based on either making games or writing about them; fond of weird PC stuff and text adventures; fiercely dedicated to Changing the Industry for Good, etc).

The thing that bothers me about having to wade through all these unhelpful generalisations about audience and authorship is that it interferes with the few meaningful criticisms that the ‘this is not a game!’ brigade are trying to make. One is that there isn’t enough to do in Gone Home to make it a worthwhile experience. This argument states that the lack of verbs available to the player (beyond inspecting objects, throwing switches and opening doors) means there’s only so much they can get out of the experience. The implication is that a game which combined the storytelling of Gone Home with a more challenging and innovative gameplay experience would be more worthwhile than what we have now. 

It’s hard to disagree with this line entirely. Of course it would be a better game if it were a better game! But then we have to ask: why didn’t they make this hypothetical better game? A possible response: not only is making any game at a certain level really hard, it’s especially difficult with such a small team working independently of a major publisher. I can only speculate, but given the resources available, it seems to me that the developers of Gone Home made the decision to apply themselves entirely to a very particular kind of interactive storytelling, rather than split the game irrevocably between story and action (as most do). 

As it stands, the only way in which Gone Home is able to avoid the problem of ludonarrative dissonance is by dodging the question. The player never has any alienating interactions with a cast of mannequin-like computer simulations because there happens to be nobody home right now. There’s nobody to shoot or fight here because Katie is in an empty house, and this is 1995 in the real world, in the same historical and cultural existence that many of the people playing through it actually lived through. There is no extra layer of interpretation, no suspension of disbelief, no allegory at work here: it is a story expressed as straightforward emotional literalism.

This doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities for creative expression and alternative game modes within the world of Gone Home. One thing players like to do is take advantage of the fact that the game possesses an unusually large number of small, insignificant, moveable objects, and so they will gather up as many as they can find and dump them in one place, take a screenshot, and post it on twitter or elsewhere. There is no real reason for doing this beyond that it looks quite funny (if done right). Others have taken screenshots of a room in the house and then photoshopped in something incongruous from another game — often a gun, a monster, or some other classic video game trope — with the intention of underlining the absence of those things from this title. And then there’s the cult status achieved by Christmas Duck, which speaks for itself. 

This is the metagame of Gone Home. I’ve participated in it as well; since playing it, I must have read a dozen illuminating and personal commentaries on the game which have added to my own interpretation, pointing out things I’d missed and colouring the experience further with biographical stories from the author’s own life. And now I too am writing this essay which in its own way might become part of somebody else’s experience. This is a great thing, and not especially unique to Gone Home. Games like Dark Souls have also provoked such debate, but it’s more often centred around gameplay — but since that part is evident to all involved in Gone Home, the only thing left to talk about is the plot and the characters, and how those made the player feel. And that is not something we often talk about with regards to video games. 

In its rigid adherence to a very particular kind of narrative realism, Gone Home resists alternate interpretations beyond those intended by the designers. For me, this is both its great strength and its only real flaw, and I think this is what people mean when they insist that it ‘isn’t a game’. It is a closed-circuit experience. There is no opportunity for the player to have any experience beyond the one prescribed for Katie and her family. But that’s fine. Not all games need to be open, and being closed is something that Gone Home does extremely well.

Comments (View)
December 10, 2013 at 10:04pm
8 notes

the creative

Dear MG, 

Thank you so much for sending me those articles from the Salon website. Your new printer is a very fine thing. Do they really come with all those headlines around the borders? How very tedious — though not dissimilar to what newspapers have become. Anyway I have cut them out and fashioned them into a collage. I hope you like it.

I apologise once again for the cheque-shaped hole clipped to this communique. Money has not been at the forefront of my mind recently, though perhaps it should’ve been. Since I lost my job I am behind on various payments (but they do not relate to anything I cannot stand to lose). The manager called me yesterday practically begging for my return — well, you can imagine what I told him. I can’t do it, I said. I’m much too busy. Busy with what, he asked. I have my projects, I said — those same projects which I wasn’t permitted to raise in meetings — those projects which will make my name?

Well, I didn’t say those parts. I’m not a braggart. But I’m sure he caught my inflection. So anyway you will understand why the part about creatives not being properly appreciated in industry really affected me. It confirmed all the decisions I’d made lately regarding my future. No more would I be the subject of the impatient whims of some slob in a suit. I would light out for the territory — find a circle of like-minded creative people who would offer the kind of endorsement and encouragement I have never known.

I’ll be perfectly honest — I haven’t found them yet. But I must say I took exception to your inference suggested in the second article that I am unhappy because I am a man without friends? Nothing could be further from the truth! I have friends. I have you, for example — though we don’t see one another, I know you must think of me often. And I have made a new friend who I really must tell you about. 

Actually, that isn’t fair — he’s not a new friend at all. We’ve known one another for a very long time. Though of course he didn’t recognise me when he saw me again — oh, but it all came back soon enough. As he lay in the back of the van, coming around from the sedatives, he even spoke my name! My actual name! He had so many other names for me back then, and none of them were kind.

‘You must make a commitment to your own mind and the possibility that you will not be accepted.’ I really feel that now, as never before. I have been liberated from this crass and dreadful need to ‘fit in’ which so many fools suffer from. My new friend here had become a victim of it himself — one of those ‘satisfiers’ — no doubt happy in his ignorance as a pig is in shit. He’s staying with me now, temporarily — while we work things out — and he’s kindly agreed to be a test subject for my first project.

I can’t tell you too much about it but things being the way they are, there is a slim chance this could be my last project. After all, my friend here only has so much blood in him. ‘Most people agree that what distinguishes those who become famously creative is their resilience’ — and if that’s the case, he doesn’t have long…

I hope it will serve as a memorial — a testament of sorts — to what I hoped to achieve — it is not so important whether or not it really works but whether I am remembered. But then it is important to treat everything you do as testimony, isn’t it? To the creative, every moment is a small proof laid at the feet of eternity.

Sincerely yours,

P. V.

Comments (View)