Whedon Need No Stinking Branded Entertainment

Posted in comics, criticism, literature, movies, philosophy with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 11, 2015 by drayfish


IMAGE: Avengers: Age of Ultron (Disney/Marvel)

Don’t you hate product integration?

You know, when you’re watching a film and it becomes painfully clear that some company or piece of merchandise has been shamelessly shoehorned into the scene. Like when Spiderman uses every object ever stamped with the Sony name in both his private and crime fighting life. Or when a character (maybe in a teen horror film), searches for information online (perhaps for the dark history of werewolves), and decides to inexplicably ignore the existence of Google, bouncing instead straight over to their to Microsoft PC to load their Microsoft Internet Explorer program and type ‘Werewolf’ into Microsoft’s Bing search engine.

Also, later in the film that werewolf will be using a Zune.

It’s just cheap and tacky, and always so blatantly obvious that it ends up insulting its viewer, who is suddenly ripped out of the film/television show to realise, in a disorienting rupture of the fourth wall, that what they are watching is an insidious, corrosive ad. A narrative experience compromised (or at least uncomfortably massaged) by the need to shill for more cash.

Anyway. Apropos of nothing, I went to the movies the other day to watch Avengers: Age of Ultron.

[WARNING: Mild, mild spoilers for the first five minutes of Age of Ultron to follow]

I was (as most of the world seemed to be) a big fan of the first one. Writer/Director Joss Whedon had danced a merry, impossible jig: wrangling multiple, franchise-carrying stars; blending wholly disparate genres (Iron Man’s playful action snark, Hulk’s body horror, Thor’s Shakespearian Sci-Fi, Captain America’s unapologetically hokey heroism); he gave the world a proper Black Widow (seriously: where is her solo movie, Marvel?!); and he wrapped it all up in a smart, snappy, romping spectacle that insulted neither the film’s audience nor its material. He validated the universe building of the Marvel movie franchise – something so audacious and unprecedented that I find it somewhat extraordinary how infrequently it gets mentioned.

An interconnected web of big budget franchises shouldn’t, on any rational level, be possible – but Avengers defiantly, proudly proved it could be.

So obviously I was keen to see the next one – the next major tent pole in the Marvel bid for world domination film franchise, written and directed by Joss Whedon while he sits on his surprise announcement of Serenity 2 (DON’T TREAD ON MY DREAMS!)

The cinema lights went down, I weathered the previews dancing at me like I owed them something, and the film began. And straight away, there it was: the party from the first film still raging. No, ‘We have to regather the team to face the encroaching blah blah blah…’ Just, ‘Everyone, keep doing that thing you’re doing…’ And it was great. Perhaps a little jarring straight out of the gates, but that’s clearly the point. I’d joined them mid-climax. A cohesive team. Game ready.

Avengers gif

IMAGE: Avengers: Age of Ultron (Disney/Marvel)

I watched happily, already lost in the deceptively effortless interplay of the characters. Saw them carve through a soviet base full of cartoonish bad guys and crack wise. Saw that same frenetic ballet of ‘splosions and bons mots. And then, in the middle of the fray, Tony Stark – Iron Man sans the suit – was creeping around a lab, looking at a giant behemoth hanging from the ceiling. When suddenly the creature roared awake, tore through the roof, and shredded everything in its path of destruction!

And oh, no…

There they lay, all of the Avengers, dead and dying. Stark looking down as they each eased out their last breath, the broken detritus of a dream for colourful heroism scattered.  Defeated.

No doubt it was just a dream. That woman who looked like the Olsen twins seemed to have worked some dark magics on Stark before he freaked out (one might even say she was a Witch, some sort of scarlet-hued witch), so he was probably just having a twisted prophetic vision.  But still, all appeared to be lost…

And then the whole cinema switched off.

The projector died, the sound dissolved, and the lights reduced to a lone emergency globe, a feeble gleaming above the exit.

Controversial choice, I thought. Make a film that runs only ten minutes. Don’t have the villain show up at all. Brutally kill off all of the titular Avengers. And most egregious of all: there was no after credits scene. …There weren’t even any credits!

Joss Whedon seemed to be making some bold choices in this, his final Marvel franchise film. No wonder critics have been childishly snitty and whining about this sequel. No wonder ‘fans’ have been throwing heat at the movie online.

Eventually we were told by a weary cinema attendant that the power to the building had gone out, and that they weren’t sure when, or if the movie was going to be able to continue.

Wow, I thought, this Scarlet Witch hallucination is really elaborate. Joss Whedon has gone super meta this time.

Turns out there really was a power outage. The whole complex was down and I would have to return another day to see what would come of this dire hallucination, to know what carnage was wrought from Tony Stark’s existential dread. But as I sat in that darkened space, the narrative stalled so unceremoniously in a state of murky, unresolved anticipation, I suddenly wished that I had something to read – something to help pass the time that might offer me insight into Joss Whedon’s oeuvre, and his numerous experimentations with genre and form.

And it was then that I remembered the new publication from Titan Books, The Joss Whedon Companion (Revised & Updated Edn). Oh, how I wished I had a copy of such a fine collection to while away the hours, waxing lyrical on Whedon’s many triumphs.*

‘But, aren’t you published in that book?’ said a voice in my head. I think his name was Shame. ‘Yeah, haven’t you got an article on Cabin In The Woods published in that? …So isn’t this all just a brazen, insulting, misleading plug for your own work?’

Shut up, you! I said to myself, and sat twisting in self-loathing in the darkness.

Product placement, I thought. What an insidious, underhanded practice it is.

And then I went out and bought all of the Stark Industry products I could find.

It just seemed the right thing to do.

So, anyone want to buy a War Machine suit, slightly used?

Joss Whedon Fully Revised Cover

IMAGE: The Joss Whedon Companion (Titan Books)

* Isn’t it funny how people confuse the phrase ‘while away’ with ‘wile away’? The correct usage means to fill up time, to spend a ‘while’; the other means to be cunning or sneaky, to use your ‘wiles’ to disarm or dissemble. Don’t know what made me think of that. ALL THE COOL PEOPLE READ BOOKS!

Boasting, Hubris, and One Exceptional Birthday Present

Posted in creative writing, literature, stupidity with tags , , , , , , on April 15, 2015 by drayfish

Vogels 2015 shortlist

IMAGE: The Vogel’s Shortlist (The Weekend Australian, 18-19th April, 2015)

I’m not very good at boasting.  I’m just a completely awesome person that way.

…See what I did there?  Seamless.

But this past week I had the extraordinary honour of being one of four writers shortlisted for the Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award for my as-yet-unpublished manuscript, Sign. 

If you are interested in reading an extract from the work, or seeing my pasty, egg-shaped face (the photographer from The Australian performed some kind of dark magic and made me look vaguely human), you can find the announcement article here on The Australian’s website.

The entire experience has been delightful.  From the welcome and kindness shown by everyone at the publishers Allen & Unwin, to the encouragement of the judges, to the continued generosity of the Vogel family and company for funding the award, to the other nominated authors who could not have been more lovely.  I keep waiting for everyone to yell ‘Psyche!’ and push me in a puddle.

The winner was the richly deserving Murray Middleton, whose exceptional collection of short stories, When There’s Nowhere Left To Run, proves yet again that despite what conventional nay-saying wisdom has been bleating on about for the past few years, the short story form is not just still alive, it is happily, proudly thriving.

So, a rare, good week.

And again, not that I’m going steadily mad with hubris or anything, but did Shakespeare ever shortlist in The Australian/Vogel’s Awards? Nope.  Didn’t think so. So that’s one/nil Shakespeare!*

Murry Middleton Cover

IMAGE: When There’s Nowhere Else To Run (Allen & Unwin)

* Don’t wave those exquisite, soul-penetrating works of immortal artistic wonder at me, Shakespeare!  You’ve been riding on those for years.

Poetry Unearthed By Legitimate, For Real, Authentic Poetic Research (Now With Facts!)

Posted in criticism, literature, stupidity with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2015 by drayfish

What was before a Chicken or Egg?

I despise April Fools Day.

A completely arbitrary mark on the calendar, used to justify telling outrageous lies and spreading often galling misinformation. And for what?  Just to make others feel stupid?  To exploit their trust in us?  To laugh at how foolish they must be to ever take at face value something we – their friend, family, colleague, newspaper, government, or scientific body – have told them.

Clearly the only real fool is anyone stupid enough to take the hard-earned faith of their fellow human beings and toss it in the trash for a cheap gag.  You’d have to be a shameless, self-destructive narcissist to do anything so glib and facile.

So anyway, apropos of nothing, I did some research on the weekend, and found a heretofore undiscovered poem by the iconic Romantic poet, John Keats.

Yeah.  That happened.  Why not?*

Like his poem ‘Bright Star’, said to have been discovered in the front cover of Keats’ collection of Shakespeare’s poems, I tracked this one down in his thoroughly dogeared copy of 101 Chicken Jokes for Transcendently Tortured English Poets (3rd edition).

I include it here without alteration, including his haunting postscript.

Let history make of this bombshell what it will…

On Looking Into Why Everything Tastes Like Chicken

by John Keats

Oft have I sought to roost in solemn dark,
to scratch for seeds and preen a lyric phrase,
Only to wake, my nests dissolved away.
A nightingale? A Grecian urn? A star?
What was all that about? What drunken haze
Sought ‘truth’ in chirps, space gas, and lumps of clay?
But lo – at last – a vision clears the strife:
two-legged waif, a symbol left unuttered,
Eternal, fowl conundrum: Which came first?
We, the cockerel’s dame, ripe with sunlit life,
Poised upon the threshold of the gutter,
Designed to fly, but doomed to walk the earth.
O chicken – ruffled, squat pedestrian!
Thou knowest where to cross; not why. Not when.

Signed, John Keats

And yes, I am the real John Keats – the one who wrote ‘Ode on Melancholy’ and all that stuff. So anyone who finds this poem should probably be given a Nobel Prize in Literature, or something.

And also a Playstation 4.)

He was a true visionary.

John Keats by William Hilton

IMAGE: Sony Fan Boy John Keats by William Hilton the Younger (National Portrait Gallery London)

* Because facts.

2014 in Film: A Redundant, Ranty (Apparently Alliterative) Round-Up

Posted in criticism, movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2015 by drayfish

Lego Movie eyes

Okay, so I’m obviously not the biggest fan of the Oscars.

In a previous post I slagged the entire history of the award, mouthed off about their tragicomic irrelevance, and petulantly whined that a faceless mass of self-proclaimed cinephiles had different opinions to me about what makes a great film – all while somehow restraining myself from mentioning that ‘Dick Poop’ gaffe.* And now that their kitschy lavish spectacle has once again bloomed and withered back into its eleven month irrelevancy, having dragged the otherwise unassailable award show host Neil Patrick Harris down with it, how could I possibly follow up such a mature and objective discussion?

Why, by indulging every bit of my crippling narcissism and going off on a shamelessly subjective rant about the films of the past twelve months that I thought were great, of course. …And apparently by also throwing in a few more petty digs at a completely unnecessary, largely ridiculous award ceremony that has no impact on anything at all.

So… maturity.

Because to my surprise, I thought 2014 was a pretty great year for cinema. And that was particularly true in the realm of ‘popular’ films – the ones the Academy usually ignores as being too far down the ‘shallow end’ of the cinematic pool, only throwing them the occasional patronising special effects or sound design award.** In truth, many of 2014’s major releases were more experimental and daring than the turgid dramas – usually historical, or vaguely sepia-toned character pieces with stilted dialogue – at which the Oscars usually swoon.

Sure, 2014 had the usual slew of laughable, lamentable turkeys…

Saving Christmas

IMAGE: Kicking you in the face …for Jesus (Camfam Studios)

Like some kind of reverse-Christmas miracle, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas was even more cheap and smug than whatever you are conjuring up in your head right now. Playing as an exercise in glib sophistry, Cameron plays the role of that condescending relative you have to be polite to at the holidays who wants to tell you – for an eternal hour and a half – why he knows what’s wrong with society. The result is a Powerpoint presentation about how the shameless commercialisation and mass-marketed kitsch of the season is actually a blessing, and ultimately feels like you’re watching him press Santa and Jesus’ faces together, demanding they kiss.

Men, Women and Children too turned out a feature length sermon – this time about the death of humanity in an age of social media. But rather than actually say anything revealing it played more as the Reefer Madness of facebook and was every bit as tedious, supercilious and ham-fisted as that asinine YouTube poem all your friends insisted you watch last year. You know the one. About how, because you were looking at a smart phone screen that one time, you missed the love of your life, and will now never have a moment of true joy and die alone, unloved, and filled with regret.

So click ‘Like’ and share, guys!

There were Michael Bay’s two attempts to destroy all that is good in the human soul: Transformers 4: Age of Shameless Pandering to the American and Chinese Military and Teenage Mutant Roided-Out-Sex-Pest Turtles. Both of which are literally less enjoyable than watching a five year old smash toys together and go ‘Kerplowsh!” for five hours. At least the five year old is using some imagination.


IMAGE: ‘I love you, so emotionally crippling you is cool, right?’ The Amazing Spiderman 2 (Sony)

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is probably best avoided until you’re recovering from some kind of head injury that requires being heavily medicated and bombarded with pretty colours. With zero story coherency, camp and maudlin histrionics colliding randomly, and acting performances that induce tonal whiplash, Peter Parker appears less a conflicted hero and more a self-involved jag weed who spends the majority of the film either stalking or negging his grieving girlfriend. Incomprehensibly, the film is such a mess it makes whatever was going on with emo-Peter in Spiderman 3 look profound.

(And apparently I’m not the only one who would now probably take Jazz-hands Macquire Spiderman over Garfield’s tweaked out hipster wall-crawler, because less than a year after its release Sony has already announced they are rebooting the franchise and handing over partial custody to Marvel.***)

Meanwhile A Million Ways To Die In The West was Seth MacFarlane.

All of him.

There can be no more damning praise than that.****


IMAGE: Ironic Comedy (place inverted commas around whatever you want); A Million Ways To Die In The West (Universal)

But despite these predictable bellyflops, overall the year’s output was a surprising blast. Franchises that had seemed to be drifting into self-satisfied bloat came back lean and slick and audacious. Sequels proved to be far better than they had any reason to be. And fresh intellectual properties emerged with a confident strut.

In the Marvel universe, although its television spin-off Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had a bland start that seemed to be a warning sign of narrative fatigue, its cinematic siblings seemed reinvigorated, eager to expand and explore something new (even if, to get needlessly picky, they are still sticking with the three act rising climax MacGuffin-heavy narrative spine).

Guardians of the Galaxy made the superhero and sci-fi genres fun again, front-loaded with emotion and character, but driven by comedy and building to epic stakes. It reminded audiences what it was like to go to the cinema and lose yourself in a grand, wildly imaginative adventure, running to catch up with charismatic almost-heroes, rather than getting pummelled by the pretentious mire of a super snuff film like the previous year’s asinine Man of Steel.


IMAGE: Guardians of the Galaxy (Marvel)

Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier injected as much paranoid social commentary as it did ‘splosions and dynamic action. Suddenly the interrogation of what a symbol like the Cap’n even means anymore in a world of drones and NSA spying, wasn’t just some thematic wrapping paper, but a vital part of the mythos. It was so pointed that it even shook up the status quo of its own metanarrative, tearing down the entire S.H.I.E.L.D. agency, the catch-all clandestine service that has so far played as the connective tissue for this universe (something that may prove to be ultimately perfunctory, but that had great resonance here in a tale about a soldier questioning authority).

Also on the plus column for The Winter Soldier? Giving Scarlett Johansen’s Black Widow more screen time is never a bad idea. (Seriously, where is her stand-alone movie? After stealing every scene in The Avengers and effortlessly transcending the Captain’s buddy foil role to become the best thing in his film, it’s getting silly now.)

X-Men: Days of Future Past used a prequel-sequel time-travel conceit to soft-reboot the series, playing with any and all of the best elements of the previous films – berserk Wolverine; steely Fassbender; rich (if sometimes a little muddled) social justice metaphors laced with explosions – and gleefully obliterating anything Brett Ratner touched from the canon. It was the cinematic definition of having your cake and eating it too: it had comic book fan service out the yang, got to indulge the anything-goes abandon of alternate realities, and was so rich with talent that it had four of the most astonishing actors currently working tag-teaming two roles. And yet, throughout it all, the film somehow never felt as convoluted or indulgent as it had every reason to be, somehow seamlessly threading multiple time frames, juggling a bevy of returning mutant characters and introducing several others, and flirting with real-world history and its own established lore. The fact that it found a legitimate way to hit the do-over button while keeping whatever worked from the previous films turned a contractually mandated gimmick into something inspired.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes proved that the reboot/prequel of a few years ago wasn’t a fluke, legitimising the series as a speculative fiction alternate universe in which CGI primates presented some of the most complicated, nuanced acting of the year …only to inevitably have it ignored entirely by the Academy Awards yet again. Oh well, maybe they’ll get a patronising clip reel during the ceremony or something. No? Not even that? Well, they can dream. (Note: they are not allowed to dream.)

How To Train Your Dragon 2

IMAGE: How To Train Your Dragon 2 (Dreamworks)

How To Train Your Dragon 2 showed that sequels to animated films need not just spin their wheels and retread the same tired formulas. It went bigger, and darker, and deeper, and offered a more focussed and moving experience than its predecessor. Considering that the first film was a delightful surprise (a burst of originality and sincerity from Dreamworks, a studio that seemed to have settled into a complacent groove churning out increasingly superfluous Shrek sequels), the second was just straight up astonishing. There were revelations, real stakes, and it refused to talk to its audience like they were malleable idiots to be blasted with toy commercials and Burger King promos. In the end of the first film, the protagonist and his dragon are scarred, but that makes them stronger; by the end of the second they have both been deeply emotionally traumatised, but it makes them know the value of loss, the power of forgiveness, and the ephemeral, precious nature of peace. As far as children’s entertainment goes, it made the Smurf and Chipmunk movies look like they were drawn with crayon on garbage.

In the comedy world, 22 Jump Street likewise had no right to be so good. However, considering that the first film (an adaptation of a cheesy, late-eighties television show that was an unmistakable product of its time) somehow managed to outstrip every expectation, that the sequel was great was less a shock than it was a testament to the entire creative team that brought both films into being. And that final credit sequence of endless faked-up sequels was sublime. I would watch every one of them. You’re telling me we need five Twilight films in this world, and yet the Moonraker-style 2121 Jump Street remains only a punch line? No thank you, reality.

And to my great surprise, I actually enjoyed the first part of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay quite a bit. Yes, it was undeniably a cheap cash-grab of the studio to segment it into two parts. Yes, when you parse out the details of the story very little actually happens. Yes it’s annoying that Katniss is so weirdly hung up on one dude when a nation of people are being slaughtered. And yes, the military seems to have spent all their money on green screen technology and not training their people to be able to spot glaringly obvious doublecrosses. But despite that – sometimes because of it – I thought it was an enormous step up from its predecessors, finally throwing into relief what the series has been primarily about: propaganda.

Hunger Games logo

IMAGE: The Hunger Games Logo (Lionsgate)

In the previous films the groundwork was already laid – there was the oversimplified division of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ that tapped into a slightly on-the-nose post-Occupy Wall Street mentality; television (reality television in particular) was a manipulative opiate for the masses – but in this third film, all those disparate themes of fashion, celebrity, and the cultivation and falsehood of fame, coalesced into a single critique of merchandised ideologies. The promised ‘revolution’ was itself another layer of propaganda designed to exploit their Mockingjay – now more a symbol than a person – as a catalyst for change. And the way that the film actually integrated its own advertising, even employing the font and logos of the film’s own marketing into the ‘news’ reels used to bolster Katniss’ rise to notoriety, was ingenious. A sprawling metatextal franchise exploring the building and exploitation of hype, with Jennifer Lawrence who (as one of the celebrities whose phone was hacked and personal photographs leaked online) had her real world life impacted by a sickening invasion of privacy, convincingly playing the role of a woman trying to hold on to her identity amidst the dehumanising machinations of a relentless, exploitative publicity campaign.

Peter Bloom, a lecturer at the Open University, took a rather less flattering view of the film, but his argument struck me as a little unfair. He criticises the way in which the movies (and presumably the books before them, I’ve not read them) use the narrative expediency of personifying an ideology in the-evil-tyrant-who-must-be-overthrown, saying that this is too simple a good-versus-evil conceit; but he seems to have missed the fairly overt way in which the film presents the rebellion’s actions as being similarly manipulative for their own ends. What I actually like about this third film is that it makes it clear no one is really the ‘good’ guy, and no one is above using manipulation and rhetoric to achieve their ends.

Maleficent, too, had an intriguing conceit. Much like Wicked before it (from which, frankly, it clearly drew a great deal of inspiration), it was designed to reappropriate and realign the back story of a familiar fairytale, Disney’s own version of Sleeping Beauty, redeeming the ‘evil’ villainess by exploring the motivations that led her to appear monstrous. Although the result was a flawed movie (it didn’t seem sure of exactly who it’s central character was meant to be, and try explaining that ripped off wings rape metaphor to whatever kids you took along to the cinema), Angelina Jolie was game, and the premise – exploring some moral complexity abstracted from a cartoon whose strength, arguably, was its oversimplified contrast of virtue and malevolence – is well worth playing out further. Maleficent may not have been an entirely successful experiment, but it was good to see Disney doing something more interesting than the parade of live-action animation remakes they have announced for the foreseeable future: from Cinderella, to Beauty and the Beast, to The Jungle Book to …Tim Burton’s Dumbo?! Why?! Why have you forsaken us Mufasa?!


IMAGE: War of the Worlds – I mean, Oblivion – I mean, Edge of Tomorrow (Warner Bros.)

In the world of new and original concepts, despite what was apparently a less than stellar performance in cinemas (although, with international box office, still profitable), I thought Edge of Tomorrow was fantastic. I may, at some point, write about it further, but for a film that was essentially Groundhog Day meets Aliens, it was a wonderfully fresh take on some familiar tropes. Funny, frenetic and imaginative, the film is based on a book, but actually feels more like the perfect adaptation of some videogame that never existed – with respawning, rage quits, and grinding to level up all essential parts of the narrative. After several less than stellar projects (what the hell was Knight and Day?!) it also managed to remind me why Tom Cruise has been a movie star for so long. His pivot from facile, preening weasel to stoic, embittered hard ass was one of his best, and most self-aware performances to date.

The Lego Movie, a film that had all of the warning signs of being a crass, two-hour commercial for the overpriced (yeah, I said it) exponentially expanding licensing universe of Lego, instead became an earnest, heartfelt ode to unbridled creativity, and the beauty of madcap, unfettered play. Like its eponymous toy bricks, it stuck together the framework of a narrative from disparate pieces – a classic heroic journey, a Matrix alt-reality riff, an anti-utopian totalitarian regime, a convoluted heist, a diabolical villain, a soothsayer, a frantic chase, a band of misfits – shook it up, stuffed it with hilarity, and then, when it was already the most imaginative film of the year, transcended itself with its third act jump to the real world – using tiny yellow dolls with claw hands to flirt with metaphysical questions of predestination and free will.


IMAGE: The Lego Film Movie Picture (Warner Bros.)

It was a film about nostalgia and the promise of the new; it was for all ages and yet felt profoundly intimate; it was absurd and yet deeply heartfelt; a celebration and rejection of commercialism all at once; about play as a space for self-expression, communication, and experimentation.

…So obviously the Academy Awards didn’t even bother nominating it.

Because shut up, that’s why.

Speaking of the Academy Awards embarrassing themselves, at least they managed to throw some love at more experimental cinema for once, with Birdman (although not my favourite Arty, weird and idiosyncratic film of the year) proving an uncharacteristically respectable winner. Thinking it through, it wasn’t exactly a surprise (the Academy liked the story about the aging, supercilious actor who is afraid of encroaching technologies and despairs at the entertainments of the youth? …shocker) but at least it actually did have something to say, contained some career-best performances from actors willing to play on their own public personas, and had an energy all its own.

Personally, I was more impressed with The Grand Budapest Hotel – perhaps Wes Anderson’s most Wes Anderson of movies. A tribute to his obsession with boxes – both his eye for the formal precision and quirky vintage of dioramas, and the breadth and history of the cinematic frame itself – The Grand Budapest Hotel was a layer cake of tales within tales, oral history and facade, and the charming, quirky, inscrutable con man at the centre of any narrative Art form. It may not be my personal favourite of his films (I suspect nothing will manage to shift Rushmore from its lauded place in my heart), but I think it might well be the one that makes the clearest, and most elegant statement about his work. Aesthetically whimsical and yet emotionally tumultuous, fascinated both by an impossible nostalgia, and the poised, charming exteriors that barely conceal depths of dysfunction and self-delusion, it is all about the creative process; a filmic essay on Romanticism, and the malleability of truth in our efforts to transcend time. So of course, I adored it.

Grand Buhapest Hotel

IMAGE: Boxes. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Fox Searchlight)

And so, to the actors…

For me, acting MVPs of the year would have to be Chris Pratt and Scarlett Johansonn.

With The Lego Movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, his continued work on Parks and Rec., and just about the most charming run of publicity interviews ever, Pratt has become a delight to follow on screen. And with rumours of a forthcoming Indiana Jones casting and his role in the imminent Jurassic World, where he appears to have pet raptors (pet raptors!), his streak will hopefully continue …as long as none of these raptors learn how to talk.

Meanwhile, for the second year running – after last year’s double header of Her and Under The Skin, in which she mined unexpected depths from a computer artificial intelligence and an extraterrestrial sex-predator – Johansonn did it again. As already mentioned, her Black Widow was the best thing in Captain America’s movie, and against all logic she managed to give Luc Besson’s completely bonkers Lucy a legitimacy it frankly didn’t deserve.

Like a number of Besson’s other films (I’m looking at you, Fifth Element), Lucy took a sumptuous, visually stunning romp, and bogged it down in a bunch of incoherent (and yet somehow still utterly pretentious) pseudo-science and glib philosophical rhetoric; and yet Johansson, at the centre of the crazy-storm, managed to imbue the character of Lucy with an emotional range and nuance that (fittingly) transcended the idiocy of the plot she was trapped within. From the terrified woman dragged into a seedy underworld of drug trafficking, to the unstoppable ubermensch, her mind aflame with a torrent of infinite knowledge and cosmological expansion, she seemed to be acting in a different film, one not subject to the silly cartoon logic Besson frequently substitutes for character and plot.


IMAGE: Lucy (Universal)

And that final obnoxious declaration before the credits roll:

‘Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it.’

Urgh. I sure do. Because a billion years is too short a time to waste on any more Luc Besson films. At least until he bothers writing a second draft on his scripts.

But my pick of the year? The film that I personally felt outshone all of this other goodness?

Well I haven’t mentioned it yet, and it’s already proving itself the darling of every other critic and award ceremony (aside from the Academy Awards, natch), so it’s not that hard to guess…

Drum roll please…

Actually, you know what? Why not wait and reveal it in my next post?

It’ll be great. A narcissistic, myopic spectacle of self-congratulations that’s all preamble and no payoff. An announcement that’s predictable, tired, and of little to no relevance to anyone.

Just like the Oscars.


So see you then!

…It’s Boyhood.

It’s Boyhood, guys. I loved Boyhood.

I mean, of course I did.


IMAGE: The Best. (IFC Films)

* Oh, and just in case you thought maybe the Oscars voters couldn’t look worse, along comes a series of anonymous interviews with the Academy voters to remind you that people who secret themselves away in a private club with labyrinthine exclusivist rules in order to award themselves chintzy plaudits can sometimes be deplorable, superficial, inward-looking racists that proudly celebrate mediocrity. So that’s nice.

** I mean, if Roger Deakins’s sumptuous cinematography on Skyfall wasn’t enough to pull a statuette, why even pretend that a ‘popular’ film has a chance in future?

*** Give me Donald Glover as Miles Morales! Also, give me Donald Glover in Community again! And more Marshall Lee in Adventure Time! …Basically Donald Glover is the secret sauce for all good things.

****…I mean seriously, humanity. You saw him host the Oscars. You’ve seen him in interviews. You’ve had over a decade of being pummelled by the cumulative onslaught of Family Guys and Cleveland Shows and American Dads. What did you think was going to happen? Oh look: a Back to the Future reference. Yep. That’s a thing I watched once. Now back to ‘How funny is racism?’ and the jokes that go on too long about how jokes often go on to long. Hmmmmthat’sgoodsatire.

‘Habit is a Great Deadener’: Peter Molyneux and Waiting For Godus

Posted in criticism, literature, Uncategorized, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2015 by drayfish

Peter Molyneux 22Cans

IMAGE: Peter Molyneux (22Cans)

‘Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come—’
Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett

Over the last few days most every article written about Peter Molyneux and his company 22Cans has started with some variation on the same sentence:

‘Peter Molyneux has had a bad couple of weeks…’

(Well, that and the obligatory Waiting For Godot reference that self-loathing pun-junkies like me just can’t resist.) It’s the kind of catch-all observation that’s both undeniably true and open to whatever inflection the author chooses to apply to it.

For those sympathetic to Molyneux it’s a statement of solidarity – an industry luminary, a beloved, if occasionally over-eager creator has fallen into tough times, his reputation maligned by a string of unfavourable news reports. For those who have little patience for the designer, however, it’s a grim kind of schadenfreude. Finally, after years of reckless hyperbole, Molyneux is finally being brought to task for spruiking endless features, and entire games, that never come to fruition.

What triggered this whole mess was a series of glaring own-goals scored by Molyneux himself as 22Cans winds down production on Godus – the Kickstarter funded game that has yet to meet even its primary stated goals almost two years after it was supposed to have been completed. At the Fun & Serious Game Festival this past December, Molyneux announced that he was shifting his attention onto a new project, a smart device game called The Trail. Godus, he lamented, was a game that ‘lacked in narrative, progress and reward’, but The Trail (whatever it was) would be brimming with the stuff.

Everything snowballed from there.

Firstly, for a lot of people the tone of finality and regret rang some alarm bells. After all, whether his sentiments are genuine or not, Peter Molyneux has developed a reputation for disparaging his previous games whenever he wants to promote his next one (the Fable franchise being the most notorious example): ‘Don’t worry about that last game, that’s in the past; this next one is going to do everything that one failed to…’ Hearing this refrain from Molyneux again while mentioning his next project implied that he was drawing a line under Godus and abandoning it – something that came as quite a shock to the Kickstarter backers who were still waiting for a completed version of the game they had purchased. Predictably, social media and the Godus forums lit up with scorn.

Secondly, games journalists started combing back through the numerous promises Molyneux had made over the course of Godus, and the results were immediately troubling. Not only was the game still in an alpha state that lacked all of the multiplayer and competitive functionality Molyneux had been touting from its conception (in some interviews he had spoken of five hundred thousand players engaging simultaneously in dynamic battles; at present it remains a solo experience devoid of conflict), but some core promises from the Kickstarter campaign had been so walked back or ignored that the whole enterprise began to look suspicious…

After declaring that he had used Kickstarter specifically to avoid using a publisher, five months later, having met his funding goal, Molyneux signed with a publisher. The stretch goal of importing the game to Linux appears to have always been impossible. Molyneux’s own employees were posting on forums their dissatisfaction with the project and their regret that core elements of the game would never be completed. Even purchases supplementary to the Kickstarter pledge had not been honoured. Art books were neither produced nor delivered. A behind-the-scenes documentary had not been made. Some of the 359 students who paid for developer consultations and career advice felt they had been ignored.

Most gallingly, however, and inarguably the charge that has cast the biggest shadow on Molyneux, was the discovery that Bryan Henderson, the ‘winner’ of the Curiosity game that tied directly into the promotion of the Godus, had been effectively abandoned by 22Cans.

Henderson, the man repeatedly, publicly promised that his ‘life would change’ after winning the Curiosity challenge, was contacted by Eurogamer, who discovered that, despite Molyneux’s claims that Henderson would play a pivotal role in Godus (he would be ‘god of gods’; he would get a cut of the game’s ongoing profits) almost two years later he has so far received no money, had no direct involvement with the game, and been actively ignored by the company, who even stopped replying to his emails.

In an effort to hose down this controversy, Molyneux apologised to Henderson through the press, explaining that he was baffled as to how such an oversight could have occurred, and made assurances that – despite what principle members of the Godus development team had said – the game was still on track to implementing its online features. Henderson, he enthused, would definitely, eventually get to play the ‘life-changing’ role promised him.

But this latest round of interviews culminated in an exchange with John Walker at RockPaperShotgun who, rather than simply copying down the official quote, walked Molyneux through the litany of seemingly broken promises that the Godus crowd-funded project had already left in its wake. What resulted was so excoriating that Molyneux declared he was being hounded, and vowed to never again talk to the press.

That, he said, would be his final interview.

He said the same thing in an interview he gave to the Guardian, which he conducted almost immediately afterward.

And again to Kotaku, in the interview he did with them.

…And just in case the point wasn’t made strenuously enough, once more to a UK student newspaper called The Linc.

No more interviews! Except for those four and counting.

For those who claim Molyneux has cried wolf too many times, it all seemed like more feigned theatrics.

And so, in this roundabout way, we reach the point in which I too inevitably type the words:

Peter Molyneux has had a bad couple of weeks…

Godus MeteorStrike

IMAGE: Godus (22Cans)

Before I get into my opinion – about this RockPaperShotgun interview, about the audience backlash, about the industry and Molyneux himself – I should probably lay out my own history to try to head off any accusations of bias.

For what it’s worth, I’ve got no horse in this race.

I was a great fan of Populous back on the Sega Master System, was intoxicated by the grimy cyber noir of Syndicate on PC, and had a good deal more fun with the Fable series than most it seems, but I was never a Molyneux faithful. Black and White, Theme Park, Magic Carpet, and Dungeon Keeper all passed me by, and aside from appreciating that he was a cheerleader for the industry, I never personally invested in any of the hyperbole that has so often made him a subject of ridicule.

‘Acorns that grow into trees’ and generations of children that live on after your character dies sounded wondrous, but at that time no one in the industry had even programmed convincing looking hair, so I was not exactly surprised when his promises fell short. What always struck me as more irritating was that the interviewers he would tell these things to never bothered asking how exactly any of it was possible. They just printed the words verbatim, shook their heads in wonder, and whipped up some anticipatory summary about how eager they were to see the final product.

Perhaps most significantly for this discussion: I neither participated in Curiosity, his grandiose ‘experiment’ in literal social click-baiting (to me it looked futile from its first announcement) nor did I invest in Godus, purported to be the successor to every one of his previous hits (the Kickstarter page describes it as part Black & White, part Populous, part Dungeon Keeper, etc). I did download the free Godus iPad app some months back. I remember thinking it was pretty but a little perfunctory, and deleted it once hit the predictable pay wall for advancement.

So when I approached the RockPaperShotgun interview, I was neither looking to defend Molyneux nor to see him kicked around for my amusement. What I found instead felt strangely inevitable. The natural end result of a cycle that has spun on for too long. It sounds trite, and the pun in the title doesn’t help, but what I found really did make me think of Waiting for Godot, and the uncomfortable tragicomic angst that plagues that play. Of characters locked into dialogue that now feels rote and overly familiar, emptied of meaning. Of people exhausted by the roles that they have no choice but to enact.

Defenders of Molyneux have criticised the interview as brutal and unfair. Walker was getting overly emotional, they say, being belligerent and twisting Molyneux’s words against him. That was not the way to speak to a games developer – an artist. Robin Parrish of Tech Times described it as an ‘assault’. Thomas Ella of Hardcore Gamer went to the hysterical length of labelling Molyneux the messiah in the article ‘The Crucifixion of Peter Molyneux Shows How Far We Have Fallen’. He describes Walker as having ‘nailed Molyneux to the cross again and again’, opining that:

‘We are not dealing with criminals or crooked politicians here; these are artists. Sometimes there will be mistakes, there will be unethical business practices, and there will even be games that failed to meet their creator’s lofty promises, but we are still talking about video games — about entertainment — and that cannot be emphasized enough.’

Voices such as these have waxed lyrical about what a grand shame it is that such a talented artist is now being chastened, unable to voice his ideas. This will stifle creativity itself, they warn. And indeed Molyneux’s response to the interview was to claim that Walker – and a hostile games media at large – were driving him out of the industry. Clearly he was being targeted in a smear campaign designed to tarnish his reputation and tear him down.

It’s an emotional appeal, and one that on first glance is hard to dismiss. Here is a guy who loves the medium and clearly loves talking about it. But to categorise it as an attack on an artist is a gross misrepresentation, one that obfuscates the real issues by appealing to the easy terrors of censorship.

Undeniably, it is a bracing interview. When the first salvo is ‘Are you a pathological liar?’ you can fairly safely assume that the follow up is not going to be, ‘So how do you juggle work and family?’ But nothing within it seemed cruel or unjust.

Whatever else you think of the piece, Walker wasn’t attacking an artist, his work, or his ideas. He didn’t slag off the dog in Fable 3 for having crappy AI, or label Theme Park a failure because it didn’t synch with Theme Hospital like Molyneux once promised. He was asking him – in his capacity as the head of a business – why his company had failed to deliver on goods that had already been paid for by consumers, such as the art books that have still not even been printed, or features like multiplayer that have now been denied due to financing decisions that Molyneux made with third parties. He was asking him why he told investors that he could produce a game in nine months when his own experience showed he had never turned one out in less than three years. Why he would knowingly ask for less money than he was already aware he would need.


IMAGE: Curiosity (22Cans)

He was asking him why a young man who had already been utilised as a piece of advertising – compelled by his ‘win’ to give interviews to publications like Wired, Game Informer, and several news outlets around the world – had subsequently gone uncompensated and ignored by his company. How he could possibly claim to still be overseeing a project if he had already announced he had handed it over to someone else – Konrad Naszynski, previously a Kickstarter backer who joined the company because he believed the game was in trouble.

Consequentially, the interview was a completely legitimate piece of journalism – even that confronting opening question. In Britain, and here in Australia, you see precisely such probing questions from journalists. Just last week an interview with the Australian Prime Minister, conducted by one of our foremost reporters, literally started with the query, ‘Are you a dead man walking?’

In fact, if anyone really wants to cry foul about Walker’s ‘journalism’, then really his only inappropriate moments were when he – clearly sympathetic to Molyneux – took him at his word, or reassured him. When Molyneux claimed to have made good on some of the forgotten student consultations, Walker replied,

‘I think what I’ve done there is fill in one [crack in the story], that’s brilliant news. I’m really glad that that existed and that you did it and that’s good.’

If he were really being an unfeeling bully, such late unsubstantiated excuses would have meant little.

The problem is that despite the occasionally exasperated tone of the interviewer, the only one Molyneux was really combating was himself. Walker was simply quoting back to him explicit promises Molyneux himself had made – often not even in the heady adrenalin of an interview, but written down, contractually agreed, and repeated in multiple venues.

So to me, this overprotective reaction from people who believe Walker stepped over some unspoken line – evoking Molyneux’s status as an artist as immunity from questioning; suggesting that holding an incorrigible day dreamer to account for straightforward business decisions is somehow killing his creativity – is more indicative of another larger problem in the industry, and gaming ‘journalism’ as a whole.

Because there is and should be an important difference between a promotional junket and asking a businessman to explain himself when it appears that might have committed the literal definition of fraud. It’s a distinction that Molyneux is clearly having trouble making, and it is frankly a little alarming that so many other commentators in the industry, wringing their hands about the mistreatment he has apparently just suffered, don’t appear to recognise it either.

Godus Mining_Settlement_cropped

IMAGE: Godus (22Cans)

Perhaps you can argue that the tone of the questioning was a little rough – but again, unlike the majority of the other interviews he would have had with gaming press, this was not meant to be a puff piece. This was not about each participant following along to the dance steps of a prearranged preview, where Molyneux had a checklist of features to mention about the product he was spruiking, and Walker was just hunting for a splashy lead. It was a reporter seeking answers to troubling questions, backing them up with research, and not accepting obfuscation and evasion in reply.

It’s exactly what journalism looks like in any other industry.

To his credit, Molyneux didn’t just take offence and hang up the phone – but that’s because even he knows he to get in front of the story before it swallows him whole. Walker wasn’t beating him up, he was giving him a right of reply; in many cases offering him the chance to clarify his own damning testimony.

That’s not to say that it isn’t still worth asking why so many other Kickstarters and games publishers have not been similarly castigated for shady practices. Why focus on an independent publisher like Molyneux when Ubisoft can advertise clearly phony footage of Watch Dogs in their pre-release marketing and slap embargoes on reviewers to prevent them mentioning the buggy, unfinished mess of Assassin’s Creed: Unity before consumers had made their purchases? Why not tear apart Randy Pitchford at Gearbox for making similarly lofty promises about Aliens: Colonial Marines, a game advertised with fake footage, farmed off to underfunded secondary studios, and released borderline unplayable? But that’s not the same thing as saying such questions shouldn’t be asked.

Lamenting that the entire industry has been apathetic to these issues in the past doesn’t mean that everyone should just give up, continue asking softball, prearranged questions, and agree to play nice. For too long this is an industry that has been beholden to utterly ridiculous trains of hype, where unfinished products are feverishly talked up. Where ‘reporting’ and advertising become inextricably mixed in previews and demos. Where visibly uncomfortable creators are prodded out onto the marketing treadmill to peddle their wares and soulless PR reps fake up enthusiasm for design features that they had nothing to do with, and don’t fully understand anyway. Where early access and pre-orders and season passes actively try to circumnavigate delivering a finished product that can be judged on its own merits.

Thomas Ella’s extremely silly reference to Molyneux’s ‘crucifixion’ is therefore rather revealing because I think it does exhibit (albeit accidentally) the problem in the gaming media that this whole situation has exposed, and why the backlash against Molyneux in particular has such resonance. Because until now the distinction between artist and businessman in video games has been unhelpfully, systematically obscured; and while many might argue that Molyneux is not the worst offender, by his own actions he is the most symbolic.

Because Molyneux made himself a god. A god of the gaming industry.

And people notice when gods come tumbling down.


IMAGE: Godus (22Cans)

There has been a communal mythologising of Molyneux over the years – partly something that he has cultivated, partly something projected upon him. His history of trading on impossible, patently loopy ideas is such common knowledge that it has even spawned a parody persona lovingly lampooning him on social media in the form of ‘Peter Molydeux’, and has given rise to an entire competition, the Molyjam, premised on trying to bring ridiculous, wilfully impractical concepts to life. He has occupied a lofty, indulged position in the industry not just because of his achievements in the past, but because he continues to be such a charismatic, mysterious subject.

It’s what makes him such an appealing interview. He seems open, unfiltered, unrestrained. Consequentially, industry commentators are always swift to describe him as charming. Just read this interview at the beginning of Godus’ development in 2012 in which Molyneux breaks into tears (something he had also done in a couple of other venues and on a pre-recorded Kickstarter video at the time), and the interviewer, describing him as the ‘godfather of god games’, seems utterly enamoured:

Personally, I think [the tears] came from the exact same place as Molyneux’s childlike excitement from earlier this year. He loves games. He loves the possibilities they present. He loves his creations. And even if they destroy him, he’s going to keep investing his heart, soul, and reputation into each and every one. “I think I will be doing games until the day I die,” he said. “At this rate, the way I’m burning through my life, I don’t see that I’ll be alive much longer.”

The tenor of this description is all too familiar. Molyneux is besotted with games – in love with them. He can’t be held responsible for getting carried away when he’s so deep in the throes of inspiration.

Never mind that (as a Kotaku article, ‘The Man Who Promised Too Much’, outlined) there are numerous anecdotes – some of which Molyneux tells himself – showing him in a far less flattering light. Lying in order to receive a gift of cutting edge computers under false pretences; throwing a stapler at an employee who argued for a higher bonus cheque; taking credit for features that were not his; embarrassing co-workers with impossible demands directly in front of the press.

He has even admitted, while excepting a BAFTA award that he frequently makes big promises that are complete fabrications in interviews just to keep reporters guessing:

“I could name at least 10 features in games that I’ve made up to stop journalists going to sleep and I really apologise to the team for that.”

Elsewhere he has acknowledged publically describing features that do not exist in the hopes that it will compel his employees to make them a reality.

And yet rather than leading reporters to question him more thoroughly in future, it just becomes part of the cycle; the contradictions just get folded into the grand narrative. Enigmatic genius or playful rapscallion? We’ll just keep describing the endearing glint in his eye and pretend everything he’s saying this time is true…

It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement for the industry because Molyneux makes – and actively courts – headlines. His promises make headlines. His apologies make headlines. The new promises he makes on the back of old apologies make headlines. Even a few weeks ago he warned Microsoft about over-promising on their HoloLens prototype and a predictable slew of articles, ripened with the irony of it all, rolled out.

But in the past three years the gulf between promise and product became too pronounced to shrug off.

Fable Acorn

IMAGE: Acorn Achievement, Fable Anniversary (Lionhead)

It is conventional wisdom that the Beatles’ biggest mistake was claiming that they were ‘bigger than Jesus’. Pride precedes the fall, and all that. But looking back, Molyneux seems to have tripled down on the self-deification after founding 22Cans. He wasn’t just bigger than Jesus. He was God.

He left Microsoft because he no longer wanted to be ‘constrained by what they can and can’t do’; he wanted to ‘ change the world and everyone will be happy.’ He was going to make the ultimate god game. He was going to make everyone in his audience gods. One lucky winner he was even going to make god of all gods, even cutting him a healthy slice of godly bounty.

Molyneux was declaring himself god of the god game that would spawn a god of gods amongst a network of infinite gods. The hype had built to a colossal, ludicrous level.

Pride precedes the fall.

Because ever since, Molyneux’s signature exaggeration has become less endearing. Since founding 22Cans and soliciting a small fortune through crowd funding he hasn’t just been delighting the press in the lead up to his big reveal – he has been perhaps been misleading the people who had already invested in his vision. These weren’t just apathetic potential customers whose attention he was trying to snare, they were the faithful who already believed in him.

Molyneux is delighted by the word ‘belief’. He believes he can make great things. He believes in the industry. He believes in games. Unfortunately, however, as the past few years have exposed, Molyneux sometimes also uses ‘belief’ as bait, robbing it of its meaning. Belief becomes a caveat. An excuse. Occasionally a weapon.

One of his popular refrains when getting called out for a promised feature that never appears is to regret that his enthusiasm so often gets misinterpreted as a promise. He shifts the blame from himself, the guy who said the words, onto the listener, the one who foolishly took them at face value. He effectively declares, ‘Well, you took the risk by believing me.’ But this ignores the fact that when he makes these statements, he explicitly declares them to be features. He’s not saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be good if…?’ or ‘This is what we’d like to do if we can figure it out…’; he says: ‘This is what we’ve done. This is coming.’

Believe me.

It’s a semantic sleight of hand that recurs again and again when one sifts through his innumerable apologies. Repeatedly, when it appears that he is accepting blame, or looking wistfully back upon mistakes, the fault is always subtly laid somewhere else. He didn’t lie, he just didn’t know what he was saying. Sure most of the goals won’t be met, but Kickstarter makes you say reckless things. He had to exaggerate.

And this is particularly true for the RockPaperShotgun interview in which his repeated mea culpas actually operate as attempts to make himself look all the more endearing. He’s sorry for being too honest. Sorry for sharing too much. Sorry for being so excited. For caring about what he does.

He’s sorry he tried so hard, but believe him, none of it is really his fault.

Blaming someone for dreaming too big, for trusting too much, feels mean. That’s certainly what Molyneux’s supporters argue in this whole mess. But it’s important to realise that what is coming under attack is not Molyneux, god of gaming. It’s Molyneux, god of marketing. The guy who knowingly traffics in deception to fortify sales. Who said that Fable: The Journey wasn’t on rails when it clearly, at every point, visibly was always on rails. Who said that Kickstarter was the only way to avoid publishers, right as he was signing up with a publisher. Who now admits the final days of crowd funding made him think,

‘Christ, we’ve only got ten days to go and we’ve got to make a hundred thousand, for fucks sake let’s just say anything.’

The people who cry foul at Molyneux’s treatment in this RockPaperShotgun interview are defending the dreamer, the artist, the sincere, if devoid of self-awareness enthusiast of the games medium. But he was not the one who was being interviewed. It was Molyneux who actively mixed those two figures up. And to continue to conflate the two just perpetuates the cycle of spin and marketing that gave rise to this muddle of a god complex in the first place. It furthers the uncomfortably reciprocal relationship that has masqueraded as games ‘journalism’ for too long.

And that is what this whole sad scenario has crystallised for me.

Experimentation is a vital part of creativity. It should be cherished and allowed to flourish – particularly in a medium still exploring and testing its fundamental expressive potential. But too often the videogame industry steps on the toes of its own innovation by promising too much too early – touting features and revolutions in game play not yet tested, funnelling everything into a bullet-points that can be rolled out as hyperventilating advertising promises before anything has even been coded. They become their own form of restraint on inspiration.

Molyneux began this downward spiral not by flying too close to the sun – as many have romantically tried to suggest – but by falling into a pattern of empty promotion, muddying the waters of creativity with marketing. Rather than experimenting with these ideas in his studio, or talking them through at games conferences, he would wind them inextricably into his sales patter. Essentially, what he was asking for was a license to workshop ideas in public, but with everyone playing along that the dreams were real, wilfully forgetting anything that he had said before, and suspending all expectation for the future. He was asking for a belief so absolute that risked becoming pure indulgence, where the promotion was more important than the work itself.

He made himself a god. He promised impossible things. But his need to stoke hope into white hot hype has set fire to his own icon, and threatens to burn the whole thing to the ground.

In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, stand awaiting a man called Godot who they have been told will meet them. They too believe. But after an eternity of waiting, with day after day after day of disappointment, of the same messages being spewed by the same messenger – not this time, next time for sure – their hope has finally faded to apathy. Words are empty. Promises unfulfilled. Sentences repeat ad nauseam.

Peter Molyneux has had a bad couple of weeks…

‘But in all that what truth will there be? He’ll know nothing. He’ll tell me about the blows he’s received and I’ll give him a carrot. …. But habit is a great deadener.’

– Vladimir, Waiting for Godot

In Godot there are no more gods left. Just a dead tree and the familiar sting of self-loathing for ever having believed in the first place.

Waiting for Godot Sara Krulwich NYT

IMAGE: Waiting for Godot (Sara Krulwich, The New York Times)

The Oscars: Playing Their Own Wind-Up Music

Posted in criticism, movies, stupidity, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2015 by drayfish


IMAGE: The Oscars Broadcast (ABC)

Do you like white guys?

If you said ‘Yes, please!’ then – as the uproar across social media over this past month will attest – the upcoming Academy Awards are for you!

Since this year’s Oscars category nominations were announced few weeks back, much has been made of the seemingly whitewashed sausage party that Hollywood is planning to throw for itself this year, with no nominations for any women or any non-Caucasians in the Best Directing category, and a largely white, Y-chromosomey roster elsewhere else across the board. All 20 nominees in four acting categories are white. And who knows? Daniel Day Lewis is such a remarkable method actor, we still may get a plot-twist revelation when the winner for Best Female Actor steps up to the stage…

But for all of the rightful rage about this gallingly myopic exclusion, I am a little surprised that anyone can still bother being shocked.

Please don’t misinterpret my glib tone: I in no way disagree with the complaints. That the director of Selma, Ava DuVernay, should go ignored while Clint Eastwood is seemingly grandfathered into the shortlist on the back of probably his most toothless (and morally ugly) cinematic offering is indefensible. It’s just that to me it seems like less of a snub and more of the Oscars – having made the most token of efforts to shake out of their proverbial slumber by giving Lupita Nyong’o and Kathryn Bigelow awards in the past couple of years – once again slapping the snooze button and happily rolling back to sleep.

Because despite how pivotal it clearly is to address the injustice of repeatedly failing to acknowledge female and non-white artists, it’s not as if this wilful blindness is unique. The Oscars routinely ignore merit, celebrate the pedestrian, and trip over themselves scrambling to play catch-up with audiences that repeatedly show themselves to have more discerning taste. You only have to look at some of the other snubs in this year’s offerings.

To pick one (I think quite telling) example: The Lego Movie was the most playful, impossibly, wildly creative celebration of imagination and narrative in the last twelve months of cinema. It defied all expectation and was charming, audacious and fearless in its storytelling. So the fact that it wasn’t even nominated in the Best Animated Feature category says more than enough…

(And yes, despite expressing surprise that anyone would trouble themselves to complain about the Oscars, clearly I am about to go off on the three-hundred and fifty-seven thousandth* anti-Oscar rant published online in the past month… It’s called being wildly inconsistent and hypocritical – something I apparently share with the institution I am about to ineffectually slag off.)

lego movie group

IMAGE: The Lego Movie (Warner Bros.)

Because it’s easy to get dazzled by the Oscars.

I mean – what prestige! What class! What impeccable discerning taste!

…No, seriously.

What of those things?

It’s not like they ever really had that stuff, and lost it along the way to become their current glittering, gladhanding grotesquery of gauche. Even the most cursory look back at the films the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have celebrated offers a fairly unflattering portrait for a ceremony that purports to celebrate excellence.

Remember when Citizen Kane won for best picture?

You shouldn’t. Because it didn’t. Neither did It’s A Wonderful Life, or High Noon, or A Streetcar Named Desire, or Roman Holiday, or Shane, or To Kill A Mockingbird, or Vertigo, or Apocalypse Now, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Do The Right Thing, or King Kong (the original!), or Pulp Fiction, or Metropolis. Indeed, most of history’s finest films – those that have transcended their age to delight audiences and profoundly inform generations of moviemakers since – have routinely been overlooked.

And yes, I acknowledge before I even get started that this is all highly unfair – peering back, with the benefit of decades of hindsight, to sneer at a clutch of ultimately meaningless awards.** But it does illustrate how poorly the Academy’s taste seems to date. For all of their posturing, the Oscars seem to have little impact on the shelf-life or reputation of a film. In retrospect they often seem to make those that they venerate look all the more farcical…

When was the last time you (or anyone) watched the mawkish Crash, winner of the 2005 Best Picture? Or that interminably pretentious The English Patient film that won in 1996? (Elaine Benes was right all along, people!) Go back and watch it now and you can see Kevin Costner already exercising all of his worst self-aggrandising, overblown filmmaking urges in 1990’s winner, Dances With Wolves (here’s the elevator pitch for every Costner vanity project: ‘Please save us, uncharismatic white man!’***) Meanwhile, 2001’s A Beautiful Mind , despite some solid acting and direction, plays more like a Lifetime original M. Night Shamalan joint.

And I’m nutty for Shakespeare, so a playful riff on the early years of the bard, penned by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern playwright Tom Stoppard and stuffed full of every living actor and neck ruffle in the British Isles is about as up my alley as it is possible to get, but even I don’t think Shakespeare In Love should have beaten The Truman Show, Rushmore, Out of Sight, or The Big Lebowski (none of which were even nominated) in 1998.

At best, you might call some of these winning films ‘products of their time’ (American Beauty; Chicago), but frequently they are just the most ‘Oscar-baity’ work on the roster that year – spectacle and emotional histrionics dressed up as profundity. It’s cheesy, mythologising pap and period pieces awash with tales of adversity like Forest Gump and Titanic, or bloated mythologising bombast like Braveheart – a rote tale of tragi-heroism so perfectly engineered that it even won a second time when someone slapped on a new coat of CGI paint and resubmitted it under the revised title: Gladiator.


IMAGE: Heroic Protagonist #1, Gladiator (Universal Pictures)

And just in case you think that comparison between Gladiator and Braveheart is undeserved, let me just quote an IMDB plot summary and see if you can guess which film I am talking about:

A supercilious Australian actor in an unconvincing accent, beloved by the perpetually unwashed extras that populate his historical foreign land, is compelled to stand up against a cartoonish, moustache-twirling villain after his wife suffers the most cruel fate of all: murder by plot convenience.

This embittered warrior reluctantly leads an impossible revolution to bring down a corrupt oligarchy; inspires the masses in an improbable revolt; is beloved by the anachronistically hot and arbitrarily sympathetic matriarch of the land (who can do nothing to save him); and ultimately sacrifices himself to become a glaringly asinine Christ-metaphor that conveniently ignores all the putting-swords-through-people’s-faces business that preceded it for two-and-a-half ass-numbing hours.

Did you guess?

That’s right: it was both of them. (Partial credit if you guessed Ben-Hur, an earlier draft of both films that I believe also did quite well at the Oscars in 1959.) If there was a TV Tropes for ‘Hackneyed Historical Epics’ (and there probably is, I haven’t checked) these two films would handily win the ‘Most Expensive Cut and Paste’ award for screenwriting.

Film "Gladiator" In United States In May 2000-

IMAGE: Unique Archytpe #2, Braveheart (20th Century Fox)

Meanwhile, the Academy routinely fails to acknowledge the people who bring the most innovative and influential works to life. Stanley Kubrick never won an Oscar. Alfred Hitchcock. Buster Keaton. Robert Altman. Charlie Chapman. Orson Welles. Howard Hawks. None of these figures could (if they ever wanted to) tout themself as an ‘Academy Award Winning Director’. (Even Martin Scorsese finally only won one for The Departed, a perfectly serviceable, idiosyncratic Scorcese work, but hardly, I would argue, his best.) And that is just for directing. Similar examples (far too numerous to get into here) abound in the acting and writing categories.

Mostly the Academy finds itself scrambling for retroactive relevancy, dispensing Lifetime Achievement Awards to filmmakers whose work they have otherwise ignored. It’s here that the names like Hitchcock and Altman and Chaplin finally appear, invited to ascend to the stage to receive an accolade that, by that point in their career, should be retitled the ‘Yeah, No Duh Award’.

And yet despite all the evidence to the contrary, the Oscars – seemingly by sheer force of will on behalf of the Academy that stages them – somehow continue to be treated as though they inherently possess some relevance or prestige; that they in fact represent the definitive voice of the industry.

But the second that you dig into the specifics of the peculiar voting processes around which this whole ceremony revolves, things become very murky indeed. Because the Oscars are not judged by audiences, or critics, or even a cross-section of peers. In truth, the whole nomination and voting process is carried out by a small, highly secretive club of only around 6000 members.

For more detail on this whole weird secret-best-friends-group-hug of a society, Sean Hutchinson at Mental_Floss has provided a fine overview of their mysterious admissions process, but the short version is this: any hopeful wanting to get in has a brief window, once a year, in which they need to be sponsored by two already-sitting members. This person must also have ‘demonstrated exceptional achievement in the field of theatrical motion pictures’ – at least to whatever standard the Academy’s Board of Governors deems appropriate (and it’s not as if those members yearly oversee a gaudy ceremony that directs floodlights of scorn onto their questionable judgement).

And the results speak for themselves!

Because while you might be under the impression that the Oscar voters are all just a cluster of old white men, according to an LA Times report only 94% of them are white, and only 77% are male. Also, their median age is a spritely 62.

…Which, okay, looks bad.

But don’t worry about it. That report was published waaaaaaay back in 2012. They’re probably posting some radically different numbers now. Especially since the memberships are for life.

To anyone still unconvinced, anyone worried that such an insulated process might result in people who aren’t the most illustrious of filmmaking doyens having their say, I say to you:

Steve Guttenberg is a member.

That’s right. The man responsible for this nuanced New Zealand accent is judging others on their acting prowess.****

As is Lorenzo Lamas. Because his parents nominated him. So take that, anyone who dares suspect nepotism in the selection process!

But if you’re still thinking that such a system risks being a little too elitist, and potentially discriminatory, it should be noted that anyone can, of course, also become a member of the Academy if they were nominated for an award in the past year. …So lucky for Selma director Ava DuVernay. She won’t have to expend that mental energy wondering whether she’ll be getting an invite.

In any case, even then, after all those hurdles for membership are cleared and you are deemed as important to the film industry as Meatloaf (yep, he’s a member too), the actual process through which films get nominated are still fairly suspect.

Those who cast their votes don’t have to have seen all (or any) of the films they select. It really is just up to whatever they want to pick, whether they have thoroughly scrutinised the year’s features or not. This is something complicated further by the fact that it therefore often falls to the companies releasing these films to get the screeners into people’s hands – to spruik their product. In fact, in the case of Selma, some have stated that this might be part of the problem: according to David Carr in The New York Times, Paramount was throwing all their weight behind Interstellar before its mixed critical reaction sent them into the fallback Selma position.

So after all this – a clandestine, unrepresentative governing body; suspect members; no oversight on who is nominating what, and why – it’s hard to see why anyone puts so much stock into such an anachronistic spectacle as the Academy Awards.

Even with the Gute on board.


IMAGE: Selma (Paramount)

That is not to dismiss every Oscar win, of course. For what it’s worth, although their process is suspect, their taste questionable, and their authority laughable, many would argue that they do get it ‘right’ sometimes, occasionally picking a winner that stands even the most perfunctory test of time. Usually it’s when the performance or film is undeniable – the first two Godfather films, Casablanca and Unforgiven spring to mind; and Meryl Street isn’t doing nothing out there – but as their terrible average and labyrinthine selection processes show, they clearly have biases, quirks, and are addicted to some pretty cheesy melodrama that does not age particularly well.

So ultimately, rather than see this is as some targeted conspiracy against any specific demographic, I look as this year’s Oscar nominations as just another example of the tunnel vision that has always made them ridiculous. This recent outcry against their exclusionism is not solely about sexism or racism, but a reaction against their whole outdated culture.

Perhaps, now that the film industry is thankfully starting to diversify (at least relative to the status quo that has maintained for generations) audiences are now able to see the stark divide that has always existed between quality, transformative cinema, and those films that the Academy chooses to glorify in its empty, inward-looking pageantry.

Maybe that’s why The Lego Movie was subject to such an egregious snub; perhaps the message of that film cut a little too close to home…

A film about a boring old uninspired white guy, making vapid, cookie-cutter products, who refuses to share his toys with the wildly creative next generation?

Yeah. It’s not hard to see why that one might sting a little.

Lego Movie Emmet

IMAGE: Non-White Guy Emmet, from The Lego Movie (Warner Bros.)

* We have to take a number like at a deli.

** Also, who cares if I’m being unfair? This is my nitpicky rant, on my tedious, unloved blog, so the gross rhetorical injustice will stand!

*** Although, it’s almost worth sitting though the turgid idiocy of The Postman just for the hysterically self-important scene at the end when a kid holds a letter out for Costner – in the most needlessly melodramatic way possible – to collect. He will post that letter. Because he is a postman. Who posts things. In the post.

**** This is a long shot, but ‘Hi!’ to any Get This listeners out there. I hope this managed to ‘full the yurning void…’

‘Hashtag! We’re It’: 2014, A Retrospective (Part 2)

Posted in criticism, literature, television, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 19, 2015 by drayfish

Hashtag 2014 with Cat by Me

2014: The Good (Or Marginally Better) Stuff

In my last post I skimmed the surface of why 2014 was such an enormous downer …to put it mildly. For a few thousand interminable words I blathered on about several of the year’s most unsettling cultural and pop cultural controversies – from Gamergate, to Bill Cosby, to the trend of police shootings of unarmed black men – and briefly explored the way in which these stories were directly forwarded by, impacted with, or responded to in social media.

It was despairing stuff. And I hadn’t even gotten to Ebola, Syria, or made any snotty remarks about Taylor Swift or Flappy Bird yet (no doubt I’ll get to them momentarily).

But now it’s time to dig up and out of the hole. Because thankfully, this need for fellowship and community – a longing symbolised by our use of the hashtag – emerged in other, far more life-affirming ways, as people felt the impulse to join together and help one another out.

Kermit Ice Bucket Challenge

IMAGE: Kermit The Frog’s Ice Bucket Challenge

There was the Ice Bucket Challenge to raise money for research into the motor-neuron degenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Essentially a good-natured update on the email chain letter, it involved people filming themselves dumping a bucket of ice water over their head, and then calling out others to do the same, raising awareness for the disease, prompting others to get involved, and inviting donations. It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement as friends, celebrities, and world leaders were called out, eventually reaching the kind of pop-cultural ubiquity that results in parodies, fail videos, Presidential shout-outs, and lazy Simpsons references.

Reading Rainbow, a television show designed around sharing books with children and promoting literacy (and that contained an oddly gloating theme song about flying ‘twice as high’ as a butterfly – why not let the butterflies have that one thing?) was brought back from the dead after its cancelation in 2006. The show wasn’t re-launched on television, but was instead funded by a social media-propelled Kickstarter campaign to be turned into an app that will allow children to stream books and content directly. The Kickstarter met the one million dollar goal it had set for itself in less than a day (I believe eleven hours, actually), and had soon easily raised five million, with the additional funding going to providing free access to the service for underprivileged schools. The grateful joy with which Reading Rainbow host LeVar Burton thanked the contributors was wonderfully heartening.*

Reading Rainbow Kickstarter

IMAGE: Reading Rainbow Kickstarter

That impulse to share ourselves also surfaced in less purely altruistic contexts, including the way in which we consumed our entertainments. Sure, the days of friends and family sitting around on the couch shouting at the same copy of Mariocart and wrestling for next go on the controller might be largely behind us, but the popularity of Twitch streaming and the re-emergence of appointment television like Game of Thrones meant that, rather than killing off the communal experience of pop culture, in 2014 the lounge room instead just infinitely expanded.**

It was a trend that can perhaps be seen most obviously in the popularity of last year’s surprise schlock-watch Sharknado, a SyFy original film that became a magnet for gleeful, snarky commentary over social media when it aired. This year’s Sharknado 2: The Second One doubled down on the cheesy idiocy of its premise, throwing every B and C-grade celebrity cameo at it they could manage, moving the unconvincing green screens of the whole production to New York City, and building to a climax in which a man (named Fin; I never get tired of that) surfs a shark through the funnel of a tornado while wielding a chainsaw. The resulting Twitter-nado may not have felt as organic and delirious as the first time around, but it was still proof that ironic-viewership had gone global.

Sharknado 2

IMAGE: Sharknado 2: The Second One (Syfy)

Indeed, this kind of social media word-of-mouth is inarguably the reason that some soulless, spiky-haired studio executive, having just flicked through a Venn diagram of internet memes and a budget projection for integrated advertising, green lit production on this year’s most cynical contribution to humanity’s seasonal depressive state: Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever. As you can probably imagine, the result – a Reddit image that had ballooned into a tedious viral phenomena and been repackaged into a cheap, gratuitous ‘hate-watch’ spectacle – would have been equally as subtle had the Lifetime Channel just shown a two hour commercial block with the phrase ‘Viewers like you make us sick’ superimposed across the screen.

Even the tradition of after-show ‘water cooler’ critique and speculation accompanying any series that has captured the attention of the zeitgeist has now expanded into its own genre, rife with programs and podcasts that discuss programs sometimes only minutes after they’ve finished airing. Chris Hardwick (who appears to have spent this past year using his Nerdist network to stage some form of world-domination coup) now hosts Talking Dead to mull over AMC’s The Walking Dead; Kumail Nanjiani (likewise everywhere this past year) has dipped into cult television of the past with The X-Files Files (only one of the now countless new Star Wars/Buffy/Twin Peaks/Doctor Who podcasts out there currently propagating like a virulent strain of flu).

Thankfully, shows that invited this kind of devoted analysis were suddenly everywhere. There were the usual examples like Mad Men (heading into its final episodes) and House of Cards (still sneaking up on everyone with full season dumps on Netflix), but some freshmen shows like Fargo (which, as a semi-adaptation of a film, took everyone by surprise by being captivatingly bold, idiosyncratic, and thematically resonant) and True Detective (which ended all handwringing over the long-redundant ‘divide’ in quality between television and film), came out of the gates fully formed, demanding their audience’s communal attention right from their opening minutes.

true detective

IMAGE: True Detective (HBO)

True Detective in particular kept people riveted for weeks, locking them in the kind of grand pop cultural conversation arguably not seen since the early days of LOST (before everyone realised that show was just yanking their extremely long, irresolvably convoluted chain***). Audiences wildly speculated on the identity of the killer, plunged into deep-dive critiques of the show’s signature gothic splendour, and playfully mocked Mathew McConaughey’s ‘flat circle’ monologue until the dialogue,

‘Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again…’

became more a metatextual commentary on our own impulse toward de-contextualised memes than it did the hunt for the monster in the existential labyrinth of the human soul.

Or whatever.

But for me, the best moments in television this year came in the conclusions of two beloved and irreplaceable programs, both of which took their last bow by acknowledging the intimacy and strength of community.

The Legend of Korra was a four-season television epic (a sequel to the sublime Avatar: The Last Airbender) so wondrous that Nickelodeon consistently seemed baffled to know what to do with it. For two seasons they barely advertised the series, for a third they hurried it to air with no advertising at all, burning through half the episodes in a marathon and then yanking the rest to screen ‘online’ in a bold new strategy of anti-marketing. For the fourth season they threw up their hands entirely and decided to just let the internet have at it, leaving room, no doubt, for more decade-old repeat screenings of Spongebob Squarepants.


IMAGE: The Legend of Korra (Nickelodeon)

Thankfully the show’s audience were not as incapable of investing in grand, serialised narrative as Nickelodeon believed them to be, and the show was lovingly followed to its conclusion by a grateful fan base who got to see one of the finest evolutions of a character and universe ever rendered in ‘childrens’ programming. Over the course of its run, Korra tackled themes of bigotry, propaganda, anarchy, totalitarianism, terrorism, social upheaval, genocide, and post traumatic stress, all punctuated with dynamic action, sumptuous visuals, and a robust roster of richly drawn characters, any of whom (perhaps with the exception of Mako) could easily have headlined their own show.

I mean, Asami was a female Batman.


And with its final season revolving around an expansive metaphorical exploration of World War 2, with fascism and the rising threat of atomic weaponry at its core, the show built to an exceptional crescendo that, rather than simply ending with the easy resolve of a villain slain or an army destroyed, instead chose to conclude with a perfect encapsulation of the shows principle mission statement: that compassion and sympathy are our greatest tools for peace.

Not a smack down drag out (although it did deliver some sublime action also), but the willingness to extend oneself with kindness, forgiveness, and understanding – to build a community that is strengthened by diversity, and in doing so, consequentially, to cultivate peace within oneself.


IMAGE: The Colbert Report (Comedy Central)

In a very different alternate reality, The Colbert Report bid farewell in December in order for its star, real-world Stephen Colbert, to move to CBS in 2015 and take over the retiring David Letterman’s The Late Show. But once again – ironically for a show that gravitationally bound to the ego of its fake conservative pundit ‘Stephen Colbert’ – the show instead chose to celebrate community.

Alongside the show’s searing satiric wit, much of its genius can be traced to the real-world Stephen Colbert’s unique and expansive skill set. Colbert is an exceptional improvisational comedian, coming up through Second City and honing his craft for years on The Daily Show, and it has been that skill at sustaining, adapting and evolving a joke, that seemed to inform the show. The ‘Yes/And’ of long form comic narrative allowed it to go wandering to truly surreal lengths: the Sean Penn Metaphor-Off; the Late Night Ice Cream Battle with Jimmy Fallon; Cooking With Feminists; the Shred-Off with the Decemberists; his decade long argument with his mirror-self, his only ‘Formidable Opponent’; the Daft Punk debacle; and his eternal wars with Jimmy Fallon, the liberal bias of reality, and bears.

Not surprisingly then, the finale proved to be an equally epic comedic wandering toward resolution. After faking out the audience for months with allusions to the character’s inevitable demise – ‘Grimmy’ the Grim Reaper was seen lurking around the set, pointing ominously to a dwindling clock, (and one assumes swiping office supplies) – the show made the inspired decision of subverting this expectation and having Colbert – by accidentally killing Grimmy himself – ascend to a state of omnipotent godhood, allowing one of the greatest long-form satiric characters of all time to finally take his place amongst the pantheon of American folklore, ushered into eternity with Santa Claus, Unicorn Abraham Lincoln, and …Alex Trebek?


colbert goodbye

IMAGE: The Colbert Report (Comedy Central)

But while riding into the nethersphere of iconography, Colbert’s final act, letting the mask partially slide away, was to send a heartfelt thanks to the ‘Colbert Nation’, the fans and community that were an integral part of the success of his show.

Because as this final episode, taking its last bow, elegantly acknowledged: without the Colbert Nation there would have been no Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, he would never have appeared, in character, before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, delivered his blisteringly subversive speech at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner, ran for president, or in the saga of the SuperPac (what I personally thought was his greatest achievement), had his audience raise a fund he was able to exploit for practically any insidious, disingenuous or libellous act he could imagine, unequivocally revealing just how corrupt and lawless the entire system of campaign funding and advertising still remain in politics.

The character of Stephen Colbert (‘The T is silent, bitch’) was an egomaniacal blowhard trying to remake the country into his own conservative fantasy, but that character needed – nay, required – a legion of chanting, ecstatic fans, in on the joke and feeding him with ironic adoration that masked a genuine affection.

And as Colbert stated in his climb to the stars, it sure as hell was fun.

Speaking of fun (and hell), videogames too often found themselves structurally and thematically about trying to foster communities (if one can momentarily scrape aside the festering garbage of GamerGate). Even though the majority of my personal videogame highlights of the year were solitary, it is hard to deny that the games of 2014 were marked by a move toward enticing co-operative play, with multiplayer elements intruding upon traditionally solo experiences.

…Even when they probably shouldn’t.

Assassins Creed Unity

IMAGE: Assassin’s Creed: Unity (Ubisoft)

Assassin’s Creed: Unity, the latest in a series fundamentally concerned with being a solo assassin, working aloneone, single, solitary, lone clandestine agent, by himself, against the world, individually (have I built this up enough yet?) – decided that the next logical step in the series’ evolution was to swallow its own multiplayer component and turn the game into a four player drop-in hack and slash fest.

Because teamwork.

Admittedly, despite the game’s subtitle, the single-player option is still there (beneath all the reminders of co-op and companion apps and in-game purchases), but the game’s publishers, Ubisoft, seemed so keen for the world to try their new multiplayer feature that they rushed the game out the door before bothering to nail down a stable frame rate, put faces on some of their character models, fix whatever it is that makes you arbitrarily fall through the streets of Paris into a gaping white abyss, iron out the innumerable visual and audio pop-in delays, or check for game-crashing main menu bugs.

They also decided that every reviewer of the game should be legally prevented from reporting on those myriad problems until a day after the game had been released when it would already have been purchased by eager fans.

…Because teamwork?

But hey, cynics: that’s not because it was an unfinished, glitchy mess, victim to Ubisoft’s now unsustainable yearly-release franchise model! It’s because it’s more ‘cinematic’ that way.

…And no girls allowed.


IMAGE: Destiny (Bungie)

Bungie, the creators of Destiny, were likewise so sure that multiplayer experiences were the wave of the future that they seemed willing to gut their single player game before release, portion off content and locations for future DLC, and wholesale remove character options and plotlines, bargaining that the lure of frenetic team-based multiplayer experiences would make up for the remaining hollow shell of loot grinds and Peter Dinklage’s mono-droning that now substituted for a story. (And now no one even knows where that wizard came from!)

Then there was Titanfall. Remember Titanfall? The slick, frenetic multiplayer-only mash of parkour and Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots from Respawn Entertainment, the team that built and were then screwed over by the Call of Duty franchise. Titanfall may not have been the revolution that many fans had hoped for, and like Destiny, the narrative might feel like little more than an afterthought – an insect buzz in your ear while you are concentrating on not getting shot in the face – but it has certainly already impacted multiplayer shooters, with Call of Duty already peeking over their shoulder for ‘inspiration’. Somewhere that A.I. dog from Ghosts is wiping a tear from its eye with one paw as COD ‘borrows’ Titanfall’s mech-suits, verticality, and futuristic aesthetic, and slaps a grinning Kevin Spacey on the front of the box so that no one has to pretend to be surprised when the character goes full super villain at the most arbitrary moment in the plot.

Elsewhere, Nintendo – whose Wii U console (to put it kindly) has struggled in the past couple of years with low sales almost no third-party support – managed to regain some ground in the marketplace by banking on new iterations of two of their most popular multiplayer franchises, Super Smash Brothers and Mario Kart 8 – again proving that tight, competitive and mischievous gameplay can still captivate. Indie darlings like fencing multiplayer Nidhogg became impossibly addictive. And Blizzard’s unassuming but insanely addictive competitive electronic card game Hearthstone (currently conquering everything from PCs to iPads), redefined and legitimised freemium games.

…Also there was Flappy Bird.


IMAGE: A Bird That Flaps (.GEARS Studios)

I –

I have no idea what the hell Flappy Bird was all about.

…Self-flagellation in a year of self-loathing?

But whatever it was, it too was marked by an element of pop cultural social bonding. People shared this weird little curio with its nostalgic (read: ‘ripped off from Mario Bros.’) aesthetic, frantically competing against each other to better one another’s maddeningly miniscule scores. It was argued over and defended. Trippy little time-waster? Ad revenue peddling trash? Game? Carnival skill tester? Quaint? Evil? It was an unavoidable discussion point in the endlessly evolving debate over the legitimacy and breadth of videogames. And eventually – as is the mark of anything that has contributed for good or ill to the sum total of that conversation – it was soon cloned into an oblivion of re-skinned sludge in the app store.

But the greatest examples of videogaming’s inclination toward the sharing of experiences came not at the whim of a publisher shoehorning in a co-op function, but through social media venues like Twitch and YouTube. Online personalities like PewDiePie have become sensations by inviting people to watch them play videogames (like that cousin who would ‘let’ you watch over his shoulder while he played his third run-through of Street Fighter 2); people share footage of their best speed-runs; first plays can scratch that itch to fire snide commentary at poorly-made games without having to pay for, or suffer through them, yourself.

Then there was Twitch Plays Pokemon – one of most curious social experiments to ever witness unfold, and a wild insight into unfettered groupthink.

It started when an Australian programmer designed a way in which Twitch chat could be used to life feed commands for the Gameboy game Pokemon: Red. The game could therefore be played in real-time, non-stop, to a global audience, who were themselves telling the game what its next moves should be. Soon, an audience of several thousand viewers (at times up to over 100,000) were inputting directions all at once, which the game then tried to play out.


IMAGE: Screenshots from Twitch Plays Pokemon

And the result was captivating – if utterly bonkers. Strategies were bickered over on the fly. Trolls fought against those genuinely trying to advance the game. An escalating war of moves and countermoves went on behind the scenes to try and get the action on track. Eventually a democratic voting system even had to be implemented so that the game could advance at all.

It took just over a fortnight of unbroken, erratic play for the game to be completed; but even more remarkable than the heartening fact that the project managed to advance at all, what was really surprising was the way in which it revealed, in microcosm, the way in which we human beings like to impose a communal narrative upon our daily experiences.

While the game chugged along, prompted by the live, unpredictable hive-mind breaking, advancing, and testing its boundaries, whole histories and mythologies were soon spawning organically from out of the apparent chaos. On screen, the main character and his menagerie of pocket monsters reacted in skittish, twitchy, irrational ways, but from out of this disorder, a saga began to unfold.

Each Pokemon was given a new name (often sounded out from the alphabet salad punched into the renaming feature), and imbued with distinct personalities and motivations. There were treasured artefacts, sought for and inopportunely discarded. ‘Consulting the Helix Fossil’ grew from a playful justification for the player character’s random selection of this useless tool in battle, to a divine ritual, a consultation with the true deity of this bizarre world, and a battle between gods that inflated into an eternal conflict between good and evil, anarchy and democracy. There was betrayal (‘The False Prophet’ who abandoned them all); heartbreak (the darkness of day eleven, when so many Pokemon were needlessly released as the chatlog repeatedly pressed the wrong commands); loss after loss; but in the end, impossibly, through perseverance and passion, victory was achieved and the journey through a literal chaos, finally validated.

It was a true shared mythology, equally as frivolous and convoluted as it was palpable and portentous; one conceived and made manifest in a marathon improv from contributors (even those trying to troll it into madness) devoted to a singular, communal experience.****

In new media (if you can call a media that’s now at least a decade old ‘new’) the podcast world exploded with the coming of NPR’s Serial, the first real pop culture podcast sensation. A true-crime story helmed by NPR reporter Sarah Koenig, Serial revisited and reinterrogated one real-world murder cold case over the course of multiple episodes. The result was a cultural phenomenon, a series that harkens back to the days of early radio in which families would crowd around to hear the latest instalment of their weekly shows, stirring the same kind of audience dialogue (and somewhat muddled demands to beware of ‘Spoilers’) that would usually accompany a critical darling HBO series.

Much has been made of the debate that the show has triggered about whether or not Adnan, the man convicted of killing his high-school girlfriend, was guilty. Several publications (most notably and hypocritically The Intercept this past couple of weeks*****) have criticised Koenig for showing undue bias toward Adnan and thus stirring up an army of online armchair detectives; but at its core, at least in my experience of it, Serial was never about finding some exonerating piece of evidence, or advocating on anyone’s behalf.

Sarah Koenig by Meredith Heuer

IMAGE: Sarah Koenig (Meredith Heuer)

Koenig’s twelve episode journey was a staggered documentary investigation into the layers of a presumed slam-dunk conviction that exposed, as those layers were peeled back, some troubling implications for the case and the American legal system as a whole – despite whether Adnan ‘did it’ or not. Its why Koenig anticlimactically never comes to a decision on whether she believes Adnan is ‘guilty’; why so many who followed Serial remain convinced he is a murderer and why so many others are baffled that anyone could consider him a suspect at all.

What Koenig was instead exploring was the way in which the machinations of the justice system can all too often be clouded with the frailties of human perception. How notions of ‘truth’, ‘justice’, and ‘proof’ are prey to our imperfect memories, biases, obfuscations, and self-interests. Whether Adnan was a charming psychopath or a kid screwed over by an incredibly unlucky series of events, it was the process of his trial and sentencing that was really the focus, one that, when light was thrown upon it raised a lot of troubling questions – from shifting witness testimony, questionable prosecutorial conduct, negligent representation, and untested DNA – no matter what the ultimate result.

And perhaps that is one of the best symbolic representations of the curious nature of 2014, and its tendency toward the makeshift community of the hashtag. Serial was a podcast that, by the very nature of its medium, was designed for individual people to download and listen to it privately, in their own time, to make of what they will. Instead it triggered communities. Not only the most downloaded podcast in history, it gave rise to sprawling group discussions in Reddit and forums, resulted in listening parties, handwringing speculation about ‘trial by audience’ in the press, inspired people to fund a school scholarship in memory of the victim, and to flood Twitter with a torrent of conversations punctuated with everything from ‘#freeAdnan’ to ‘#MailKimp’.

Throughout the year the hashtag became an avenue for society to voice publically some uncomfortable issues that have perpetuated for generations. In September, in order to bring awareness to the prevalence of domestic violence, thousands of women used the hashtags #whyistayed and #whyileft to discuss their decisions to remain within or escape abusive relationships. After Emma Watson’s address to the United Nations, in which she spoke hopefully about a future in which both men and women work together toward equality, the hashtag #HeforShe went viral. And in July the seemingly irresolvable conflict in Israel and Palestine had a moment of – even if only fleeting – hope when the hashtag #JewandArabsRefuseToBeEnemies was shared across the globe.

It was also a outlet through which many could express grief, or acknowledge loss. When cricketer Phil Hughes died after a freak bowling accident on the field the hashtag #PutOutYourBats became a communal signature of condolence. Celebrities like Robin Williams, Harold Ramis, Elaine Stritch and Philip Seymour Hoffman were remembered in outpourings of memories from their life and work. And poet Maya Angelou’s final tweet before her death in May was a fitting, elegant farewell, re-Tweeted by almost a hundred thousand fans in thanks:

Maya Angelou Final Tweet

Finally, in the last few weeks of the year, Hashtags proved themselves to be a means of expressing the very best impulses in humanity.

On the 15th December, a lone gunman held eighteen people at gunpoint in a cafe in Sydney’s Martin Place. What unfolded was a lengthy hostage standoff that the media soon began misreporting to be a ‘Muslim Extremist’ action. In particular, Rupert Murdoch’s fear-mongering, sensationalist rags, despite having absolutely no evidence with which to back up this speculation, declared it an ‘ISIS death cult attack’, trying to tap into a terror that far too many Australia’s politicians have likewise preyed upon in the past decade and a half, that ‘Muslim’ is somehow a synonym for ‘terrorist’. (Murdoch, like some kind of Twitter carrion bird, later even gleefully used the whole incident as advertising for his paper’s bloodthirsty fatuousness.


IMAGE: #illridewithyou

But in spite of this prejudicial reporting and fear-mongering, the public decided to respond in a kinder, more inclusive way. Fearing that people of the Muslim faith might be harassed the next day by ignorant, angry commuters that had been stirred into a xenophobic spin, a hashtag, #illridewithyou, started up over social media. People shared their public transport timetables and details, offering to be a friendly companion for anyone riding on those trains and buses and ferries who might otherwise be feeling alone or targeted. Rather than being some territorial mark of identity, or prideful sign of exclusivity, #illridewithyou was an invitation, a promise. It offered solidarity and support in the face of prejudice and fear.

(Murdoch’s papers, of course, were swift to sneer at the whole thing as another ‘left-wing’ conspiracy of superiority – the usual nonsense – all while conveniently failing to mention either their own inflammatory misreportings or their boss’ ghoulish gloating.)

There’s no denying that this year was rough.

Atrocities went on around the world seemingly unchecked. Almost three hundred school girls and women were abducted by terrorists in Nigeria. School children were slaughtered by Taliban gunmen. Sunni extremist group ISIS seized control of much of Iraq and Syria. There were beheadings. Slaughters. An Ebola epidemic swept through West Africa. We saw new Cold War sabre rattling as Russia ignored international outrage at their invasion of Crimea and Ukraine. Multiple (multiple!) commercial airplanes went missing or were shot from the skies. Horrible racial injustice seemed not only entrenched, but was aggressively defended by many in power or in the media. A group of artists and critics were demonised and terrorised because of their gender. If the FBI is to be believed, North Korea successfully threatened an entertainment company into forgoing its freedom of expression.

Like something Shakespearean, even society’s clowns didn’t seem to be safe: Joan Collins died, Bill Cosby was disgraced, and, again, Robin Williams, a man who delivered endless delight to others, lost his own battle with crippling despair. Then, right before the holidays, everyone learned that the United States, self-described beacon of freedom and democracy, has had its CIA engaged in, and consistently lying about, a horrifying, ongoing campaign of torturing war prisoners.

And in case that didn’t haunt your dreams enough, Dick Cheney emerged from his Darth Vader egg tomb to cynically evoke 9/11 to the news media again, show no remorse for even the innocent people that have been brutally tortured – in some cases to death – and proudly declare that he’d be happy to implement such systemic violations of the Geneva convention again ‘in a minute.’

So… Merry Christmas?

Dick Cheney Still Cheering for Evil

IMAGE: Dick Cheney on Fox News (Fox News)

A lot of the time, 2014 really did suck.

But in spite of all this – sometimes as the only way of dealing with it – it also proved itself to be a time in which people sought out one another for comfort. Tried to make them laugh. Tried to remind them that despite everything going on around them, they weren’t crazy, and they weren’t alone.

This year reminded us that, sure, the internet can be a cesspool of inward looking bias, an echo chamber of hatred and misinformation and conspiracy and cruelty, but it can also be a mass of firing synapses, linking us in incomprehensible, inspiring ways. People riffing on the day’s events in 144 characters or less; swapping personal stories in comments sections; commiserating in blogs; collaborating on research in Google docs; breaking stories in Reddit; angling for social change on facebook; fighting censorship on YouTube; turning eight seconds into surrealist vaudeville on Vine; desperately hoping that MySpace is still a thing on MySpace.

We have now stretched out into the vast, wild nothingness of the internet, a space untethered from location and time; one in which we can bring with us as much or as little of ourselves as we like.

Sometimes this means that people, freed from the responsibility of identity, can act like raging, abusive, trolling lunatics, but other times, those times in which social media reveals itself to be a fount of collaboration and conversation, the hashtag can be a symbol of so much more. It signifies a space in which we can dare to get giddy about Star Wars again, or to grieve the passing of those who inspired us, or to giggle at memes that we all know are ridiculous, but that momentarily lighten our psychological load.

And so, for me anyway, this year finally showed what that hashtag actually represents.

The hashtag is the best and the worst of us, all our impulses and yearning for community collapsed into metadata key. Four lines, intersecting across one another, gaining strength from that support. It represents not just some longing to shout our existence into the nether, but to be heard and to hear others. To remind ourselves that, despite the darkness, there are others out there eager to huddle closer to the light.


* Seth McFarlane pledged one million dollars to the cause, continuing to mess with my mind by endlessly ping-ponging between heroism and villainy. Million dollars to literacy? Good. Million Ways To Die In The West? Unmitigated evil. Being the principle producer on the return of Cosmos, one of the year’s greatest joys? You are a ray of sunshine. The Simpsons/Family Guy crossover? You are a monster who must be stopped.

** Note: These are points that South Park made, albeit far more elegantly, in their two-part season finale episode. Does anybody but me care that I wrote the first draft of this before the episodes aired? No? I just sound sad and defensive? …Fair enough.

*** Someone else might want to throw Damon Lindelhof’s new show, The Leftovers, into this list of great new shows, but after LOST, the idea of another Lindelof-run mystery-bait premise about broken souls yearning to understand themselves means I’m already out.)

**** For anyone interested in reading an account of the narrative that unfolded in Twitch Plays Pokemon, you can find a grand one here.

***** Two of The Intercept’s reporters, in an act of extraordinary hypocrisy, recently published two interviews – one with the original prosecutor of the case, the other with the prosecution’s star witness – and then used these accounts to try and discredit Koenig and Serial as being disingenuous, unethical, sensationalist, and derelict in their journalistic obligations. They felt so strongly about this that they published a lengthy introduction to the interview with the prosecutor in which they declared all questions of Adnan’s guilt to be moot, and Koenig to have lied about trying to contact the prosecutor for an interview. They then proceeded to leap on to Twitter to rile up anyone who might take issue with their work and even distastefully try to use the murder victim herself as a cheap emotional ploy to avoid criticism. It was a weird little tantrum meltdown so baffling that even other reporters had to step in to question their self-aggrandising ‘trolling’.

Meanwhile, the fact that they were basing all of this solely on the accounts of two people who had every reason to paint themselves in the best possible light, that their reporting made several factual errors, that they edited a direct quote to misleadingly make it work to their own damning narrative, that it was they (not Koenig) who was creating a media spectacle out of the principle witness by revealing his name to the world and giving out personal information that was never revealed in Serial, and, astonishingly, that their own two witnesses were now openly contradicting one another’s stories (the witness having admitted that much of his court testimony was a lie – something they let pass without even a follow up question to the prosecutor), made their petulant grandstanding about Koenig’s supposed failings as a journalist all the more farcical.

Vargas-Cooper in particular even went so far as to give her own interview to The Observer, again failing to see the mind-boggling hypocrisy of trying to make herself the story while chastising Koenig for apparently doing the same, and describing those interested in the case as ‘delightful white liberals who are creaming over This American Life‘. The hubris was staggering, and one presumes an embarrassment to The Intercept.


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