Archive for March, 2013

Gears of War: Postpartum Edition

Posted in video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2013 by drayfish

IMAGE: Gears of War 2 (Epic Games)

I remember the blood.  The shouting.  I remember sweat and pain and carnage.

I remember losing all sense of time – minutes seemed to be hours; but somehow hours disappeared in a flash.  There was exhilaration, and chaos, and confusion.  Bunkered in, feeling wave after wave of intensity and fight, bearing down against the rush.

At one point I thought it was all over, but there was even more struggle, more agony to come.  It seemed altogether more terrifying than I had ever imagined, and yet I surged with adrenaline that made me alert, and alive, and left me shivering.  And then, when it seemed we could give no more, when we had been pushed beyond the point of endurance – it was over.  A swell of staggered, numb relief washed over me as I realised we’d made it through.  All of the fight was worth it, and the horror washed away in a flash, in the achievement of something sublime.

My child was born.

…Oh, sorry – did you think I was talking about Gears of War? 

I guess it’s an easy mistake to make.  Both are filled with agony and blood; both involve a frenetic urgency, confusion, chaos, and more than a little fear.  Both rob you of all coherent thought as you start to react instinctively, and find a way through the confusion.  Both have a military organisation assembled from the last stragglers of human resistance fighting back against an unstoppable alien armada.  …No, wait, only one of them has that.

In any case, it’s fair to say that personally, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything so weirdly analogous to the experience of those first few moments of parenthood – the birth itself and those chaotic first weeks of caring for a newborn.

People often say ‘rollercoaster’.  The early days of parenthood are just like a ‘rollercoaster’, everything’s upside down and a big rush, but soooo exhilarating.  I disagree.  I’ve been on rollercoasters.  Rollercoasters have tracks.  Rollercoasters have safety harnesses.  Rollercoasters make you remove your hat and secure all valuables.

Some people say it’s like having your heart outside your body.  In this I slightly agree – certainly in those first few weeks I remember my wife and I feeling like all of the blood had rushed out of our systems, that our bodies were in a state of startled atrophy – sleep-deprived; exhausted; short-tempered; panicked by every noise or cry our daughter made; unable to concentrate – on some level we really did feel like the guy in Temple of Doom who gets his chest torn open and thrown into a pit of lava.  But still, it does not really capture the drudgery, the chaos, and the weird exhilaration that these first few weeks inspired…

For that, I submit for your consideration: Gears of War 2; videogaming’s finest depiction of the emotional maelstrom that comes in the wake of parenthood.*

Back up momentarily to the week before my daughter was born and my beautiful wife was (as logic would dictate) still in the final month of pregnancy.  We were in the long anticipatory period before birth; the anxious, poised state, waiting at any moment for the inevitable to kick in to gear.  A bag was already packed.  A crib was already assembled.  Linen was already tucked.  Diapers were stacked.  Pumps and wipes and feeding pillows and basinets and (for some reason) grinning soft toy dinosaurs were all gathered and arranged.  Now came the killing of time…

And so, finding myself – as I so frequently am – flicking through a shame pile of unfinished videogames, I decided to slide in a copy of Gears of War 2 (purchased on sale only days prior) and leap in to while away the hours…

To begin with, if I’m honest, I was a little nonplussed.  Perhaps it was the result of jumping on a series without having played the previous entry, but to me the whole aesthetic seemed to be predictably washed out browns and murk, rust uniformly spattered with blood; the enemies looked like WWF dolls left in a microwave too long; the harrumphing self-satisfaction of the main characters completely rubbed me the wrong way (dialogue that purported to be ‘banter’ came off more as ‘redundantly repeating the painfully obvious’); and the clunky sack I was controlling seemed to move with the grace of a rolling wheel of cheese.

I played through the opening sorties with a vague appreciation of its game-mechanical polish, an appreciation for the relatively optional turret sections now becoming obligatory in other shooters, and a gradually rising respect for the art direction, which was starting to show some variance, and a surprisingly deft hand at rendering the awe of an ongoing apocalyptic collapse.  But I was still, nonetheless, mystified by everything going on in the story, and although I’m not exactly squeamish, some of the finishing-move animations (my gun has a chainsaw?!), and the spigots of blood pumping out of everything seemed a little gratuitous…

Then, suddenly, it was time.  There was labour.  There was hospital.  There was birth.  There was a new little girl in the world.  And the tribulations of Delta Squad faded utterly into the nether.

Days later, back from hospital and putting that stack of change wipes to work, I decided to occupy my fatigued mind in between bouts of newborn crying by returning to the fight.  I needed something non-taxing; something that could be paused at a moment’s notice; a game that would not judge me for being incapable of following along with a plot given my foggy mental state…

Gears was still in the Xbox.  I loaded it up again.

I remember actually thinking, ‘Heh.  Look at that.  My gun has a chainsaw on it…’

And five minutes later it had clicked.  All of it.  As my divine cherub slept in her basinet, offering a few sweet moments of quietude, I tore through the Locust horde now emboldened with a synchronicity of player and text that only comes from understanding, at last, what the core of whole thing means…

Suddenly, sitting in the flickering half-light of the television screen, with every piece of clothing I was wearing stained with spit up and saliva, the game’s gratuitous obsession with blood and gore and puke – with bodily excretions and fluids of every type – made perfect sense.  Surrounded by a trash can filled with used diapers and scattered tissues filled with snot, suddenly, hearing the words ‘Shit!’ and ‘Crap!’ in every second clause structure, and watching my character get covered in slime and brain matter and viscous goop seemed completely familiar:

Hmm…  Now I’m fighting my way through the digestive tract of a giant worm?  Yeah, seems legit.  Hey, is that a guy being eaten alive by stomach acid?  Well, we’ve all been there…  Yeah, that’s not so much Riftworm blood to have to vomit back up…

Even the sight of the bombed out detritus of once bustling cities reduced to smouldering wastelands was instantly recognisable.  As I looked around the house what I saw was all but unrecognisable from the week before – sprawls of swaddles and teething rings and pumps and bottles and mobiles, blankets and soft toys and wilting flowers, boxes filled with discarded gift wrap and dirty laundry piling up for the morning.

And yet – just as it is in game – the sight of it all was somehow glorious.  The shambolic wreckage of a new parent’s house, retaining the shape of what once was, but spilling over with the happy, weary chaos of something altogether vibrant and new.

…And completely covered in drool.

And I realised in a flash: maybe that’s why the opening level started in a bombed out hospital!  Like life, the game was declaring: You were born into this shambles, parent – now embrace the life-affirming pandemonium.

As I played on, I was able to dive into the swirling, mayhem of the story.  Just like every moment of caring for the needs of a newborn, the game is not about making plans and schedules and adhering to rigid structure: it’s about reacting, running on instinct.  If your child needs food, you give her food.  If your child needs burping, you do of the burping.  If she needs to be changed, you change her.  Needs to sleep, you help her sleep.  Linear time does not exist – your logic, order, timeframes, are but ashes in the wind of her principal need.

So too with the game…

‘Why is the Locust Queen human? someone who sleeps in more than half-hour increments might well ask…   Or, ‘What’s all this about a bomb?’  Or, ‘Who’s the guy chained up to the thing, and why did he wig out like that?’  Or, ‘Why is the Queen exploding that bomb?’  Or, ‘Why is this building being knocked down, set on fire, and flipped over?’  Or, ‘Why am I exploding the bomb now?!’  Or, ‘How are we all suddenly riding on the friendly space bugs who wanted to eat our faces a minute ago?

And the answer will always be returned: Who the hell cares?  It all just is.  And if you run with it, it’s a magnificent squall.  Because Gears of War is not about narrative.  It’s not about causal links and arching plotlines (at least not that I saw), it’s about gut instinct.  About pure, primal, primitive emotion.  Rage.  Fear.  Revulsion.  Love.  It paints on a big canvas, and uses thick brushstrokes, but the result, if you suspend all disbelief (and maybe even a good deal of belief too) is an unfiltered, expressionistic roar.

Even controlling Marcus – now that I had just given over to the mindset that the game required – had become a joy.  My lumbering pile of meat was suddenly a fluid ballet dancer across a blood-soaked stage.  There was rhythm and drive to it all, and I was soaking it in.

And speaking of Marcus – I finally knew exactly what to make of Delta Squad…

Margaret Stevenson-Meere, an Early Childhood and Family Health Nurse, wrote, in the introduction to her book, Baby’s First 100 Days:

‘Babies are not rational beings …. Babies lose the plot occasionally …. A baby does not have a grasp on anybody else’s emotional needs until he is about 7 years of age.’**

They were children.  All of them.  Manifestations of humanity’s primal id.  That’s why they are all so snappy and rash.  Why Marcus shouts ‘Gimmie that!’ when he picks up a gun.  They, all of them, operate in a newborn bipolarity of emotion.  Mournful and melancholy one moment (‘Dear God, we lost them all…’), screaming and in shock the next, only to immediately undercut it all seconds later by cracking wise and giving pet names to captured space bugs.  Like a newborn they snap from glee to devastation and back again without warning, each time punctuated by seemingly random shrieks and snarls.

Indeed, these characters even look like inflated newborns.  At first glance they appear to be farcically over-muscled Y-chromosomes made flesh, but check those proportions: they are upsized babies.  Thick arms; chubby legs; Marcus Fenix himself looks like a toddler with a soul patch.  (I’ve not played game three, so I’m not sure if he ever takes it off, but I’m fairly certain that he wears that bandana non-stop because his fontanelles have not yet closed over.)

Perhaps the clearest example of this comes in the character of Dom.  Dom is haunted throughout the game – to the point of complete irrationality – by the hunt for his lost wife, who has been kidnapped by the Locust scourge.  And when he finds her, near the climax of the narrative, the Bro-thumping tenor of the game momentarily shifts, and for but a fleeting glimmer of time, we see some genuine heartbreak – true sorrow that creeps in amidst the locker room jocularity.

Dom’s wife is gone, a twisted, malformed shade of the woman she once was; turned into yet another monster.  Dom must do the unthinkable, and in a moment of profound pathos, we feel his loss.

…But literally seconds later Dom is spitting out the one-liners again as a fresh horde of meat-bags he can riddle with bullets files in.  Admittedly, I was not expecting him to sigh, brush a single, silver tear from his eye, and turn to the heavens to murmur:

‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come…’

But you would expect something

After almost an entire narrative filled with desperate obsession and emotional fanaticism intense enough to endanger a mission to save humanity itself, he leaps back into the fray and reverts to ‘Boo yaw!’ type.  In any other game this would be a universe shattering moment of cognitive dissonance, here it’s a sign that maybe Dom needed a nap.

Speaking of which (if you’ll forgive me the aside) but: What the hell is a ‘Cole Train’?

At one point I’m in the middle of a hopeless battle, surrounded on all sides by snarling, grasping fiends – a city block collapsing around me in flaming rubble as my squad scavenges for cover – and suddenly someone called ‘Cole’ barrels through the line, shoving grenades down throats, kicking unholy monsters through the thorax, and whooping like a rodeo clown.  And from that point on in the plot he appears to offer little more debate or discussion than a series of third-person catch-cries or yelps for joy.  It’s like someone took Jerry Bruckheimer, Michael Bay and Elmo and squeezed them down in an olive press to make Extra Virgin Cole…

In any case, the men throughout are depicted as hunks of needy, flailing meat, while the women – the few that there are – become absurdly, hopelessly idealised.  I presume that someone, somewhere has already made this observation, but truly: the women in Gears of War (or at least here in 2) are exceedingly romanticised creatures.  When they are seen (which is rarely) they are statuesque, swimsuit model-proportioned, tactician voices of reason.  Frequently they appear only through headsets – angels calling from the beyond to try and calm down the chaos.   Dom and Marcus will be pinned down, screaming and storming, and a soothing voice will come over the com to act as a comfort, to direct them forward.

Substitute this sequence of events with a baby’s cries and the consolation of her mother’s voice, and the metaphor is potent indeed.  These women – protectors, guides, solace – who appear at the end to patch up the soldier’s wounds, are like surrogate mothers: a home to return to, a source of peace in a maelstrom of emotional turmoil.

From what I understand, women get to play a far more active role in Gears of War 3, which frankly would be nice to see.  Having watched one extraordinary example of their gender give birth to my child, and observing her superhuman capabilities while I fumbled about in a newborn haze, I can attest that they would handle the gore and endurance and carnage far more handily than any number of storming ‘Cole Trains’ or ‘Bairds’ or ‘Doms’.

What Gears of War 2 proved, again and again, is that often the greatest splendour can arise from the most acute disarray.  As the old adage goes: children – like an invasion by murderous alien bugs – do not come with an instruction manual.  There is no definitive handbook to read to prepare you to become a parent, no class you can take that properly renders the journey it puts you through.  But in the gory haze of Epic Game’s stirring sequel I found a distorted funhouse mirror of my own experience, and a striking experiential metaphor for the peculiar Stockholm Syndrome of love that it engendered.

By the end of those first few weeks of parenthood I could see beauty in a dirty diaper, and a peculiar glory in the exploding membrane of a writhing, mutated monstrosity, stewing in its own ungodly putrescence.  And while I’m not sure precisely who to thank in that equation, or even what exactly it is that I am thanking them for, it has meant a great deal.

Image: Gears of War 2 (Epic Games)

* Although I freely admit that this probably has a lot to do with my own, singular experience of the game than any authorial intent.

** Baby’s First 100 Days, by Margaret Stephenson-Meere. (Doubleday, 2001), p.xiii

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The Legacy of Bourne: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Forget

Posted in literature, movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2013 by drayfish

IMAGE: The Bourne Legacy (Universal Pictures)

‘We do on stage things that are supposed to happen off. Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.’

– Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

I recently watched The Bourne Legacy on a lengthy international flight.  Usually I have an aversion to watching something that might require a functioning attention span on an aeroplane.  At any moment one’s concentration might be at war with screaming children, real estate feuds for control of the armrest, the Chaplin-esque slapstick of juggling a tray of food through turbulence, or that gnawing, omnipresent fear of ever having to venture into those poorly ventilated bathrooms after about three hours in the air.  This time, however, there was a nice analogous quality to the experience.  Travelling 500 miles per hour toward another continent, surrounded by friendly strangers whose names you will never know, a bleary fog of jetlag already pressing in; somehow a film about frenetic pursuit and the quest for personal identity seemed oddly resonant…

As those who have already seen it know, this film – the fourth in the series – is not actually a sequel so much as a sidequel (I apologise for the use of this utterly made up word), offering a narrative that runs alongside, and at times intersects with, the details of the original trilogy.  Indeed, even the title indicates as much: this is the Legacy of Bourne; and consequentially, the shadow that this assumed knowledge of Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne casts upon the experience of the present film proves stifling.

The principle character in this tale, Aaron Cross (played by Jeremy Renner), is suffering in the wake of Bourne’s actions throughout the preceding films.  Bourne, by uncovering the identity he lost in his plot-convenience bout of amnesia, has kicked over a proverbial ants nest of governmental black ops.  So, while he hunts out the dark truths of his own covert engagements with ‘Treadstone’ and ‘Blackbriar’, Cross, a member of another such operation called ‘Outcome’, gets swept up in a super-assassin housecleaning, and must (like Bourne before him) run for his life from the people he once loyally served.

The film plays as part homage, part pastiche – it is even bookended by the same images as the first film (a silhouette of a suspended figure in water; the heroic couple retiring to a life of anonymity by the ocean), acknowledging the immediate familiarity of its dramatic arc.  But the fact that it runs in continuous parallel with the events of its predecessors means that the audience is being repeatedly compelled to linger on the comparison.  It is a peculiar structural decision that invites the viewer to engage in a persistent critical mediation:

Oh, this is a fantastically visceral vehicle chase through dense traffic – you know, just like the one in The Bourne Supremacy…  And wow, this is a snappy rooftop chase – kind of like the one in The Bourne Ultimatum…  And hey, he’s falling in love with the girl he’s been forced to bring with him on his flight for freedom – just like what happened in The Bourne Identity…  And this brutal, MacGyverish defence of a woodland cabin – that’s pretty much what happened in Identity, isn’t it?  And all this spry, kinetic brawling…

Well, you get the idea.

Even if it’s not fair (or perhaps even accurate) to say it, one is left with the vague sensation that there is a better, less derivative movie going on somewhere else – somewhere off-screen – on a different film reel you saw years ago.

In many ways, in light of this restrictive reliance upon its source material, Legacy operates like an action film version of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  In Stoppard’s existential play, he subverts the familiar progression of Shakespeare’s Hamlet by exploring what the prince’s two childhood friends,  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, were doing when they weren’t part of the original tale’s momentum.  Tasked with spying on Hamlet in Shakespeare’s version of the play, to test whether his feigned madness is real, in Stoppard’s version they sit on the narrative sidelines, where the audience follows them, making a futile attempt to reason out their purpose in a series of unfolding events they look upon with mystification.

The tragic comedy of the play comes from the knowledge (implicit and dawning) both in the audience and the characters themselves, that their fates are already sealed, and that no matter what they do, they cannot shake off the betrayal and slaughter that await them at play’s end.  It is a death sentence that was prescribed by Shakespeare’s text four hundred years previous, and their every action only seems to bring it further to fruition.

In an act of prescient, absurdist self-awareness Guildenstern summarises the nature of their circumstance, surmising that they are trapped within a sequence of inevitabilities that will ultimately lead to their doom.  As he declares, unknowingly also summarising the narrative constraint that robs Aaron Cross of his own agency, being pulled along in Bourne’s slipstream in Legacy:

‘Wheels have been set in motion, and they have their own pace, to which we are…  condemned.  Each move is dictated by the previous one – that is the meaning of order.  If we start being arbitrary it’ll just be a shambles: at least, let us hope so.  Because if we happened, just happened to discover, or even suspect, that our spontaneity was part of their order, we’d know that we were lost.’

And so, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (and seemingly Aaron Cross after them) nonetheless continue on, impossibly trying to reconcile their awareness that they are prey to the whims of larger narrative machinations that, by necessity, strip them of their human agency.

It’s a shame, because at their heart, the Bourne narratives have a fantastic, if somewhat specific thematic drive that raises them above the usual simplified blockbuster action film pyrotechnics.  Indeed, it’s for that very reason that the Bourne films, at the beginning of the last decade, gave the Bond franchise the pants down spanking it needed to sober up and take itself more seriously.  Suddenly, here was a series that – alongside ticking all the applicable boxes as thrilling, adrenaline-spiking romps – also had a cohesion and strong central conceit that could legitimately offer a palate upon which to explore a character.

The problem with that fundamental premise, however, is that each film is therefore defined by a sense of feverish pursuit (which even find its way into the shaky-cam cinematography and the snap edits).  The principle figure, in rediscovering himself, has fled his masters, and they track him mercilessly, desperate to silence or destroy him.  The plots are therefore propelled by a fugitive escapism, a reclamation of ‘selfhood’ that dances on the periphery of an omnipresent ‘authority’ longing to detain, desensitise and destroy the newfound individuality of the protagonist.  The themes that they tap into are powerful, primal fears, and work spectacularly in controlled bursts – but as Legacy shows, it might be too narrow a subject matter to sustain a whole series of films; marvellous lightning in a bottle, but not a self-sustaining power source.

Broadly, these themes concern personal identity.  What defines us: our past, present, or future?  Are we the sum total of our actions, or our potentiality for betterment?  In the original trilogy, Bourne rejects the brutality of his past, refusing to assassinate a man in front of his children despite his mission objective; and the seismic shock of this negation of orders (along with some minor being-shot-twice-in-the-back) dislodges his sense of self so profoundly that he is amnesiatically (I do not apologise for the use of this also-completely-made-up word) remade as a rogue agent of justice – the automaton that grew a heart.

The Bourne films therefore negotiate the place of the individual in the dehumanising conglomerate of the corporate structure.  It’s why they are all so frontloaded with bureaucrats.  Sure, those suits repeatedly act like morons:

‘Hey, I know, guys: since there’s a phone call coming from across town, let’s clear out this whole building and leave no one behind to guard our secret files.  I’m sure Bourne won’t reverse-Goldilocks us…*

‘Oh, yeah, and we should probably just put that safe filled with classified government documents in the office with the largest open windows.  I doubt anyone would think to just look through the glass…’

But the working grind of the civil servant is central to the thematic drive of these films, hence the calibre of actor they plug into these potentially thankless roles.  Sure, there’s the grab-bag of peripherals that appear in all films like these – Dishevelled-Tech-Guy who asks ‘Where is this footage coming from?’ and Highly-Caffeinated-Assistant-with-a-Stack-of-Folders who points at a screen and says ‘Can we zoom in on that?’ – but then there’s Chris Cooper as the CIA Deputy Director; David Strathairn as the Blackbriar executive officer; and even Albert Finney labcoating it up as a company doctor tasked with guiding the program.  In this latest instalment, that’s Ed freaking Norton combing through paperwork with his shirtsleeves rolled, sardonically firing out snappy rejoinders as somewhere, in another office, his half-finished instant coffee goes stale.

Bourne has fled a bureaucracy so entrenched that it completely lacks any oversight, a hive of suits and paperwork and group-think that has walled itself off from all human compassion.  Indeed, it is a system that is so blinded by its directive that it has started literally deprogramming identities and rebuilding them as unquestioning servants – perfect tools for a desensitised intelligence agency that reacts without accountability, self-validated by the vagaries of ‘the greater good’.  Bourne’s primary adversaries are people in conferences and meetings; people who have their calls forwarded to deny accountability; people who wear lanyards that define them through codes of clearance.

It is also for this reason that each of the films is punctuated by some variation of a chase or a fight with a wordless assassin.  These seemingly innumerable figures, Terminator-esque in their predatory focus, near-indestructibility, and dedication to their task, are spectres of the life that Bourne (or Cross’ Bourne 2.0) have shaken off in their quest for individuality.  As the Professor (Clive Owen) – one of the first of these professional killers sent to kill Bourne – says as his life drains out:

‘Look at this.  Look at what they make you give.’

In his dying breath he acknowledges the sacrifice of autonomy that this dedication to the corporate structure has wrought; and it is a sentiment that Bourne himself later repeats moments before he flees one final time into the shadows of anonymity at the end of Ultimatum.  They are ‘assets’, faceless, replaceable cogs in the engine of administration.  And so, Jason Bourne, and Aaron Cross in his wake, fight back against monolithic company intrusions into their personal liberties; bewildering the bureaucrats, bypassing Big Brother…

…b-doing something else that starts with ‘b’.

Bourne instead fights to discover his history, and in doing so rejects this personality sublimation, pursuing another, entirely on his own terms.  Meanwhile, in Legacy’s parallel version of the tale, rather than identity, Renner’s character is seeking autonomy – freedom from the drugs upon which, at the insistency of his superiors, he has become reliant.  Bourne seeks a reclamation of self through the confrontation and acceptance of his actions (who he was, and what he has done); Cross pursues free will by severing the chemical tether that makes him a puppet of his treacherous masters.

For Jason Bourne, this quest for independence offers a striking eruption of rebellion.  He defies convention, and strikes out in his own, new path, remaking himself in the process.  He literally even rejects the label ‘Jason Bourne’ that has been applied to him by his erstwhile creators, and all of its implied ownership.  In The Bourne Legacy, however, while Cross likewise seeks for selfhood, his journey suffers in the form of a different form of entrapment: being mired under the obligation to both weave amongst the narrative logic and recapture the unique tone of the first trilogy.

Consequentially, while the movie is actually a solid, serviceably engaging ride, the problem remains that the audience is reminded that they have seen it all before – left unable to invest in the drama from which they are dislocated.  As Guildenstern says, erupting at Rosencrantz as their tragic fate slowly coalesces before them at the end of the play:

‘Why don’t you say something original!  No wonder the whole thing is so stagnant!  You don’t take me up on anything – you just repeat it in a different order!’

To which Rosencrantz replies that he cannot think of anything original; that he is, after all, ‘only good in support.’  And for film propelled at its core by the conceit that individuality and autonomy are worth cherishing, are worth fighting for above all else, the plot of Legacy collapses in on itself by chasing a phantom it should have known could never be captured.

IMAGE: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Cinecom Pictures)

* This happens, by the way, literally seconds after they realise that Bourne must be within visual range of their building.

The Walking Smurf: Smurf Village and the Birth of Modern Zombie Fiction

Posted in comics, criticism, literature, movies, television, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2013 by drayfish

IMAGE: The Walking Dead (Telltale Games)

In my first few weeks at college (sometime back around the Mesolithic era), I remember being flushed with the joy of sitting around a table with friends, and together, gleefully over-analysing the shows that we had loved as children with our newfound, half-misunderstood academic jargon.

We handily rationalised away He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983) as the colourful delusions of a spoiled young socialite, Prince Adam, who was clearly a raging drug addict.*  As we saw it, Adam – after taking some ‘Power of Grayskull’ (total euphemism) – would lose himself in a world of paranoid hallucinations, only to see his personal demons made manifest as hairy bodybuilders and hideous fluorescent beasts.  In fact, poor Skeletor was probably a sponsor Adam’s parents had hired to clean up his act.  Adam’s sworn ‘enemy’ was always trying to steal He-Man’s powers after all (trying to convince him to pull out of this narcotic death-spiral, more like), and as thanks he gets pictured as a flamboyant Grim Reaper.  Nice.

The Smurfs (1981), we decided, was a subversive, indoctrinating endorsement of Communism.  The clues were there.  In Smurf village everyone has their assigned roles in a working class that functions to serve the greater good.  Papa Smurf, the leader distributing all that material wealth based upon need, is depicted wearing a red cap.  Brainy always gets booted out of the community whenever he sneaks into Papa’s private hoard of literature and starts trying to educate himself above his station.  Even Gargamel, always trying to turn the Smurfs into gold, could be a symbol of Western Capitalism, trying to lure these Communist faithfuls away from their cooperative social structure and into doom…**

As we sat around riffing on these analyses, spooling out the connective tissue of each metaphorical leap, we thought that we had broken new ground – unravelled a mystery with a heretofore undiscovered interpretive key.  It was… genius.  Stupid, pointless, momentary genius.  And we were laughing ourselves giddy.  …This was, of course, before the time of Google (yes, as hard as it is to recall now, there was a time before Google), where a 0.00013 second search of the terms ‘Communism’ and ‘Smurf’ would have immediately (or in 0.00013 seconds) obliterated our smug, pioneering reverie (in fact, here are some right now…)

Papa Smurf Comic Book

IMAGE: Joseph Stalin Papa Smurf (Peyo)

My slightly tangential point is: The Smurfs have been accused of many things over the years – as this cackling table of cartoon revisionists exhibit.  Some have indeed seen them as a subversive endorsement of Communism; some have seen them as an animated metaphor of a creepy hippie commune (‘Hey, put on a shirt, Hefty! And I think the FDA wants to check the chemical composition of those ‘Smurfberries’ you’re cultivating, Farmer Smurf’); some have lamented the mutilation of language that inevitably occurs when you replace every third word with ‘Smurf’.  (I mean, is it as a verb?  A noun?  An adjective?  I heard one of them once use it as a preposition.  It was enough to make me lose myself in a fit of Smurfing profanity.)

But one thing for which, until recently, I was unaware that I had Smurf Village to thank, was its impact upon the modern Zombie genre.  Yes:

Zombies!

(This could well be old news to many people currently reading this post and rolling their eyes at my ignorance – but it was a surprising revelation to me.  So please bare with my naiveté as I chase this realisation down…)

Like Vampires before them, Zombies are incredibly hot right now.  The Walking Dead (after a second season slump) is once again winning rave reviews on television; World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, has become a bestselling work of popular fiction and is coming soon to a cinema near you; narrative collisions like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies have given birth to a whole new shelf-space for genre pastiche in bookstores (whether you want them to or not); videogames like Left for Dead, The Last of Us, DayZ, Call of Duty’s zombie modes, Dead Space, everysinglegameanywhereever, have embraced zombies as metaphors, as narrative devices, as bullet sponges; and zombies have even seeped into political campaigns, such as in Joss Whedon’s hilarious Mitt Romney ‘endorsement’ for President in 2012 (here).  It has seemingly never been a better time to be an aficionado of the zombie genre – or rather, a devotee to zombie fiction has never had so much material to consume.

When one thinks of zombies, the first images that springs to mind are likely blood, gore, rotting flesh, and head cavities popped open like salad bowls to expose their tasty brains…  A tale about magical woodland sprites that live harmoniously in mushrooms is probably not top of the list, but in fact these creatures came to offer one of the earliest articulations of the modern zombie fiction popularised by George A. Romero’s revolutionary Night of the Living Dead (1968) – a text that itself was reiterated upon in his canon of sequels, and that came to inform the countless other works (28 Days Later; Shaun of the Dead; Warm Bodies) that have emerged in their wake.

The Smurfs (or Les Schtroumpfs) were originally created by Belgian comic artist Peyo in 1958.  They were a spin off from Peyo’s earlier strip, Johan and Peewit (Johan et Pirlouit), seen for the first time when the titular characters encountered a group of tiny blue pixie surrogates in white clothing.  The Smurfs were a hit, and soon got their own strip that elaborated upon who these creatures were, where they lived, their currency (communists, remember?), and what their daily adventures were like.  And it was in their very first solo adventure, ‘The Black Smurfs’ (‘Les Schtroumpfs Noirs’), that they would unwittingly establish all of the hallmarks that have come to typify the zombie genre (here).

Within the story, one of the Smurfs (I shall call him: ‘Nonspecific Smurf’) gets stung by a bug that turns his skin black.***  With this transformation his personality is wiped away, and he instantly becomes an insatiable, non-verbal predator.  He sets off on a path of destruction, biting the other Smurfs on the tail (with the nondescript sound of ‘Gnap!‘) and likewise infecting them.  By the end of the story the whole village is overrun, every single Smurf has been infected by the plague no matter how desperately they ran for freedom…   Until, at the very last second, an antidote brewed by Papa Smurf is accidentally released (actually after Papa himself has been bitten and turned), and at last all of the Smurfs can revert back to themselves, allowing normality to at last be restored.

…Yeah, that’s right: they were all infected (or ‘gnapped‘, I guess).  The whole village was lost.  Bet you didn’t see that coming.

As this brief glimpse at Peyo’s end-of-days reveals, The Smurfs have always exhibited all the hallmarks of modern zombie fiction, and this – their first adventure printed a decade before Romero’s defining take on the genre – actually offers the first and most pure articulation of that structure…

After all, at its heart, like all horror fiction, the zombie genre is more about making manifest human fears and neurosis, and playing them out through the hyperbolic lens of an encounter with an otherworldly beast.  Vampires are frequently about confronting our latent sexuality and narcissism: all the way back to Dracula these creatures have been typified by an erotic, preening affectation, and ever since remain riddled with angst for being eternally young and beautiful and super-powered (yeah, I really feel for you Edward, you’re so deep).  Werewolves are the animalistic and primal in our psyche given license by the whim of the natural elements.  Split personality beasts like Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde can be seen to explore the dangers of the uninhibited id let loose.

Superficially, zombies are always about the mass, about the horde.  They embody our fears of mortality and death (what of us lingers after we are gone?) and frequently exhibit our neurosis of becoming, or being prey to, otherness.  Whether as a parody of consumerism – shuffling, insatiable, mindless beings driven solely to consume (even depicted tearing through a mall in Dawn of the Dead, 1978) – or as a manifestation of terrorism – they could be any of us, they could come from anywhere, they look like us but we can’t understand what they want (see: 28 Days Later, 2002) – zombie fiction often gives license to what it is that we fear our society at large might soon become as we fight to hold on to the individuality and self-hood that defines us.

In the more intimate, us-against-them, scramble-to-survive moments depicted in these post-apocalyptic scenarios, we see localised opportunities to test human frailties against an uncaring, merciless force of will.  Indeed, we watch as our personality traits are put on trial, and frequently found wanting.  From the cowardly guy who drives off in the rescue vehicle, only to himself be ironically devoured by the zombie he failed to notice in the backseat; to the parent, blinded by irreconcilable grief, who willingly lets her undead child back in through the door with tragic consequences; to the smug patriarch who will pretend that he wasn’t bitten back on that last run, and that even though he’s now coughing up blood, he isn’t being effected like all those other people were…

And here we see that elemental tie to The Smurfs

The Smurfs, above all else, are a tight-knit community, whose greatest danger ultimately comes from within.  Gargamel may plot and scheme and gnash his teeth, but we know instinctively that he will never succeed in tearing this little fungus-hut cooperative asunder; together they are more powerful than they are apart, and this unity will ultimately liberate them.  This happy equilibrium is only ever truly thrown into turmoil when one of their own turns antisocial, non-communicative, and cannibalistic – literalising the fear of the other within the familiar, just as we see in all zombie fiction.

Similarly, despite being three apples tall, bright blue, and having an incredibly specific form of verbal aphasia that replaces every second word with ‘Smurf’****), they are utterly human.  The Smurfs embody all of our human strengths and weaknesses: our industry (Handy Smurf; Baker Smurf), our skills (Painter Smurf; Hefty Smurf), our spectrum of emotional instability (Grumpy Smurf; Weepy Smurf), our hubris and narcissism (Brainy Smurf; Vanity Smurf), our ability to …to be female?  (Yeah, having Smurfette’s lack of a Y-chromosome be her primary defining feature indicates that the Smurfs weren’t the most gender progressive species ever…)

Nonetheless, the Smurfs are a community of human quirks and traits refracted into the multiplicity of a shirtless pixie enclave.  In many ways, they are an expansive metaphor for the ideal, harmonious human psyche, able to play out internal psychological struggles in order to resolve the whole:

‘Jokey Smurf, you’re driving everyone crazy with that one stupid joke…’

So Jokey feels excluded, and eventually decides that he needs his communal bonds more than he longs for his self-indulgence (and really, how many times can you trick people into opening an exploding gift box before they start curb-stomping you?), so he agrees to moderate his impulses and return back to the fold, the community at large sighing in relief at this resolution.

The metaphor is repeated and reiterated endlessly: in order to remain a happy, healthy Smurf village (human society; human mind, body, and soul), each attribute has to be regulated with an eye to the greater good.  Sure, you can get grumpy sometimes – but you better cool that nonsense down every so often, or you’ll throw the whole social/psychological ecosystem out of whack, and Smurf yourself up irreparably.

It’s this same elaborate symbolic struggle that plays out in all zombie fiction, again and again – although the punishment for failing to live up to the challenge of self-restraint, ingenuity and cohesion is to be devoured by the omnipresent other that presses in; to be stripped of all those human attributes that you should have better harmonised before your impending undeath.

If you’re greedily sitting on a stockpile of food and weapons that you are unwilling to share with the ragtag team of survivors knocking on your gates: ‘Gnap!’  You’ll get zombied.  If you’re boasting yourself up to everyone as a stone cold hero, despite internally being an incurable coward: ‘Gnap!’   If you’re an irrational sexist: ‘Gnap!’  A hatemongering racist: ‘Gnap!’  A sleazebag: ‘Gnap!’  Responsible for cancelling Firefly: ‘Gnap!  Gnap!  Gnap!  Gnap!  Gnap!’

…And then driven over by a makeshift armoured RV.

Ultimately, despite their divergence in tone, it’s from this same well of self-assessment and a terror of otherness that both Smurf village and all zombie fiction spring, each, in their own curious ways, playing out the most fundamental anxieties that surface in our therapeutic drive to better comprehend our own nature.

That’s not a realisation that we came to, all those years ago, sitting around a table sniggering at Handy Smurf’s proficiency with a hammer and sickle, but perhaps that was because there was no ghoulish mass of animate corpses pounding on the windows, reminding us all of what it is in our personalities that we should cherish, or that (as is more likely the case) would inevitably condemn us to death.

IMAGE: Les Schtroumpfs Noirs (The Black Smurfs) (Dupuis)

* How else do you propose to explain Orko?

** The Snorks (1984), try as we might, could not be fashioned into anything other than a cynical rip off of The Smurfs.

*** An unfortunate choice that one sincerely hopes had only accidental racial implications.

**** I am being flippant – in reality I was surprised to learn that there are elaborate rules for the application of the word ‘Smurf’, with one such disagreement shown to balloon out into a linguistic civil war between ‘Northern Smurfs’ and ‘Southern Smurfs’ that is believed to be an analogy for similar disputes between Dutch and French speaking peoples in Belgium (http://smurfs.wikia.com/wiki/Smurf_Versus_Smurf).  …In any case, someone needs to show me in a Dictionary what ‘Smurftastic’ means.

‘Before the Bang, or the Whimper …a House Party? …Wha?’: The Narrative Bubble of Mass Effect 3: ‘Citadel’

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 9, 2013 by drayfish

or: The Yuks Before the Yuck

IMAGE: Mass Effect 3: ‘Citadel’ (Bioware)

This past week the final downloadable content for the Mass Effect trilogy, ‘Citadel’, was released, capping off a tale of galactic genocidal devastation, the tacit endorsement of war crimes inflicted upon one’s own allies, and the surrender and arbitrary death of a heroic protagonist.  And it ended (as we all surely must have suspected that it would) with a Sims-lite apartment decorator; the opportunity to chill out and lose our cash at a casino; and the option to get all dressed up pretty and host a shindig that brims over with playful hijinks…

Sure, outside those walls unfathomable monsters from beyond time and space are raining destruction down upon innumerable innocents on countless  worlds…  Sure, you, as the sole hope tasked with saving them all, know that every second of each day is being measured with all that you hold dear being pitilessly tortured, mutated and annihilated…  But never mind – it’s cool, because you can always watch a romance film with your girlfriend or upgrade the decor in your holiday house.  And yeah, okay, so the guy who gave you that luxury pad you are kitting out is currently spending his time scrambling about for scraps in a literal hole in the ground, running guerrilla raids to stay alive, his clothes reeking of the smell of burning corpses as he watches Earth reduced to ash…

But hey: that private captain’s cabin on your personal star ship that you already owned – with its aquarium, office, and en suite – wasn’t nearly enough.

You really did need a plasma screen TV.

The ever expanding practice of selling downloadable content in videogames has proved to be one of the great contradictory boons of the medium.  On the one hand it offers the potential for some publishers to cynically exploit their consuming audience by withholding material that clearly was intended to be in the initial purchase behind a secondary pay wall.  One can think of Capcom’s Azura’s Wrath, in which the actual ending of the game was withheld as ‘additional content’; the ‘Epilogue’ to the recent reboot of Prince of Persia, sold under the pretence of being extraneous despite the game hanging on a heart-wrenching cliff-hanger; or even Bioware’s own day-one DLC scandal with Mass Effect 3, in which, on the very day of the game’s release, they charged a supplementary fee to access the Prothean character Javik, the last remaining member of an extinct race, whose story offers an irreplaceable perspective on the entire trilogy’s plot, and upon whom other characters like Liara rely in order to have any narrative arc at all.  For that matter, one might even think of Bioware’s second DLC release, ‘Leviathan’, in which the audience was charged for the back story and explanation that justifies who, why, and what the series’ mysterious alien antagonists even were.

From another, more generous perspective, DLC allows developers to correct or expand upon material that they may have come to realise, after release, audiences were keen to explore further, allowing plots to organically grow in controlled narrative excursions that one would usually only see in a more long-form narrative medium like television.  Games like Skyrim (although one might argue whether a game with hundreds of hours of scripted content that literally never ends needs to offer more things to do) have continued to swell their worlds with whole new quest lines and environments; a game like Enslaved offers the chance to play as secondary characters like Pigsy, who served a supporting role in the main game, as he undertakes his own smaller adventure in prelude to his later appearance; and (to be fairer to Bioware for a moment), their addition to Dragon Age: Origins, ‘Awakening’, was set well after the events of the main game and offered the opportunity to govern a vast, previously unexplored land, with an all new cast and an entirely new quest line.

In the case of ‘Citadel’, however, it is difficult to gauge where this material sits on the logical, thematic, or even material scale by which one usually assesses such DLC.  At its heart it is additional content that many fans felt was notably missing from the core game: a chance to reconnect with beloved characters that were dismissively sidelined in the vanilla experience, and an injection of humour to break up the maudlin dirge of the larger plot.  (Although from what I have gleaned that humour sounds like it may have been a little too wacky in the midst of a literal day of reckoning…  Did I read correctly: Javik – brooding orphan of an exterminated race – stars in a Blasto movie?!)

A cynic might suggest that Bioware – noting that their preceding pieces of DLC were being met with a sliding scale of apathy (ending in the widely criticised ‘Omega’) – have decided to cash out, to cobble together one last mission with a checklist of audience requests and raise the price fifty percent to cover their losses.*  An optimist, however, would see this DLC as one last, joyful pastiche of all the elements they loved in the series that the base game simply had no time to address.

Either way, it is certainly true that it seeks to satisfy many of the superficial criticisms fans had directed at the game over the past year.  Another hub environment?  Check.  Romance options to pad out the paltry exchanges in game?  Done.  Some conversation with comrades that is about something – anything – other than war and death and dying?  Sure thing.**  But it stops well short of tackling the naff deus ex machina at the heart of the plot, or the lie of hope and inclusivity repeatedly espoused throughout that is abandoned with its Pyrrhic victory.  As an answer to the fundamental issues that many fans (myself included) had with the ending of the game, it seems almost belligerently peripheral.***

Consequentially, ‘Citadel’ appears to likewise sit in a weird nether space of narrative, seemingly a textbook example of the potential discordance that can emerge from mishandling the DLC model as a medium for storytelling.  It’s very existence indicates that this was an addition of character service and reflection that the story required; but in refusing to violate the nihilistic endpoint that the plot is heading toward anyway, and by ignoring the war upon which you are unwavering focussed at any other point in the game play, it becomes an irresolvably discordant aside from everything it is intended to echo.  Thus from every angle, this addition to the narrative seems to ask for an insurmountable leap in logic for the player to successfully suspend their disbelief.

It’s true to say that so far the content appears to be getting highly favourable reviews, but again, what is being praised – a surprisingly light-hearted tone, filled with a playfully naff sci-fi premise and punctuated with gags that wink-at-the-audience with fan-service – strike me as extraordinarily out of place considering that this remains a tangential diversion from the central thrust of the narrative, and the desperate, claustrophobic imminence it sought to press upon the player at every angle.  Admittedly, this is something that, in itself, might not be an issue, except that the game itself, in literally every moment outside of this DLC, breathlessly demands that the player realise: there is no time to relax, that every moment of pause means whole civilisations are being brutally wiped from existence, and that quietude and self-indulgence are now luxuries all life in the universe (let alone that universe’s saviour Shepard) can no longer afford.

Indeed, in a curious piece of tragironic (I call copyright on this word) prophesy, Joker, the ship’s pilot, earlier remarks in the body of the game that he is repulsed by the cavalier way in which the people of the Citadel are ignoring the horrors of the war effort.  As he says to Shepard, through a sarcastic snarl:

‘Hey commander, big news: the new Blasto movie is breaking opening week records; there is also a big expose on Quasar tournaments; tips on how to make your apartment look bigger; and – oh yeah – a big ass Reaper invasion.

And so, as if intentionally trying to spotlight the fundamental disparity in this plotline – in this DLC (set during an even more climactic, ominous part of the conflict) Shepard has a run-in with Blasto himself; is able to waste time in a casino gambling on Quasar; and can become the universe’s feng shui master of interior decoration.  All while the universe burns.

It would appear that this DLC asks its audience to maintain two completely contradictory states of being at once: to invest in the severity and casual horror of war omnipresently in play during the larger game-structure (in which the plot kills off characters and whole worlds in every mission; in which tales of loss and madness and hopelessness press in from every angle from antagonists, allies, newsfeeds, and overheard NPCs), while at the same time embracing this momentary oasis of frivolous, playful abandon (where – for the sake of the war effort, apparently – you are invited to relax in a hot tub, or break a record on how many pull-ups Shepard can do, or turn on a raging kegger).

Indeed, even expressly stated character agendas are conveniently, temporarily abandoned.  Many of the living squad members from the previous games, although having offered pressing, unavoidable reasons for why they absolutely could not join you in Mass Effect 3, are suddenly willing to forget those obligations and return here, for this rest-stop abstraction, before disappearing again back to their directive.  To take but one example: many players were disheartened when the character of Miranda, arguably the principle squad member of the second game, spent this final arc of the trilogy off on her own quest to find her sister, refusing to join the war effort and reboard the Normandy.  But now, arbitrarily, she is back to get dressed up and have a night out to relax – her kidnapped sister be damned.

Ultimately, if only this were a legitimate epilogue set after the events of the ending (which would, of course, clearly need to be fundamentally altered), the lighter tone and earned respite would be a perfect tonal fit.  We would be in Return of the King’s ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ territory – the stakes a little lower, the chance for character resolution and reflection more organically informing the tale.

And a narrative (even as goofy as this) about Shepard having to restate what makes him/herself so individual in the light of a nefarious doppelganger, makes a perfect kind of sense for the dénouement of a series that purported to be concerned with player choice.  Suddenly, the symbolic alternate to all your/Shepard’s choices (evil clone evile clone evil clone) would be made manifest, an opportunity to mirror back a distorted image of what might have been.  Although admittedly clichéd, it would offer a nonetheless legitimate through-the-looking-glass trope that has danced alongside sci-fi for as long as people have been growing menacing goatees and theatrically cocking their eyebrows.

One suspects that the mindset behind creating this non sequitur addition to the narrative was a product of Bioware trying to simultaneously distance themselves from their polarising ending while still embracing it – an act of gymnastic duality that results in an impossible illogical snare.  After all: they’ve already declared that they would not touch or alter the ending from this point on (at this point, given the dismissive, frequently sarcastic tone of their Community Coordinator Chris Priestly, they’ve effectively chiselled that message into stone tablets), but contradictorily, they now want to offer players an opportunity to wind down after the narrative, to immerse themselves in a static bubble that operates both within and abstracted from the endpoint they retain the right to point to as an artistic ‘vision’.****

Presumably Bioware are banking on the majority of players being widely apathetic to the ending, knowing that many (if not most) will happily play this pocket of story after their already finished game, willing themselves to overlook how ludicrously it juts out from the unwaveringly focused structure of a journey that screams linearity.  After all, it’s a premise that expects players to have either forgotten the insistency of the plot (‘Well, the Reapers are killing everyone and everything, but we’re gonna paaaaaarty‘), or to have willingly divorced themselves so utterly from the narrative that they can just embrace it as a non-canon farewell of sorts, blocking out the real conclusion to paper it over with this paradoxical but playful kiss to the audience.****

Indeed, even in their advertising in the run up to this release, Bioware were finally no longer spruiking ‘war assets’ and ‘big, universe changing choices’ – instead promising moments of quietude and peace with the characters many longed to hang out with in such a manner before the game was launched.  It was a complete 180 from their usual advertising message, but it was one that required Bioware to pretend nothing was wrong (even in the basic logic of where this mission and hub exists in the narrative), while asking the player themself to just block out that smothering, ominous knowledge that all of this joviality is merely a pantomime of solace before the apocalyptic storm that will wipe it from memory.

And personally, I apparently can’t even begin to do that anymore.  That plaintive whistling sound in my head is telling me that if ever there was a time that I could have – that I might have walled off that nihilistic conclusion as a peculiar dream and just embraced the bubble of respite offered, headcanoning my way to a muddled kind of peace – that time is now gone.

But maybe that is ultimately the message of this whole thing: maybe this is all on me.  I drank the Kool Aid and believed that the choices mattered, that the decisions made in the journey were worth respecting and that the plot deserved the investment it invited.  But if even this farewell – a mid-narrative-epilogue to a series about morality and choices – is designed to utterly dissolve the relevance of its own logistical spine, to undermine the conceit that it is wrapped within, then maybe I really was just playing the game all wrong.

In the end (or the middle, or whatever) the choices really didn’t matter; the end was a lie.  Sure, one day soon you’ll be forced to abandon all that is being cherished in this curious little siesta, but it’s okay, because none of it mattered anyway.  So why not just raise a glass and drink away the regret?

In the interests of full disclosure – and as is no doubt already clear – I freely admit that I have not played this final offering from Bioware (nor do I foresee myself doing so in future), so my comments are merely those of a mystified onlooker trying to make sense of a baffling marketing campaign that left me behind when Mass Effect 3 first concluded in an eruption of nihilistic angst exactly one year ago.  Yes, I’m the Dickensian orphan boy abandoned to the cold streets, my nose pressed against the frosted glass pane as I look in on another’s family meal.  Of course I’m riddled with jealousy that everyone still inside seems to be enjoying themselves so – laughing and lit with the glow of a comforting fire – but the larger, rational part of me is also thinking: ‘Wait a minute – this isn’t Christmas.  This is meant to be a funeral.  And that guy carving the turkey is meant to be dead…’

In any case, I remain desperately envious of those who have bought the DLC and who can enjoy it.  It sounds like there is a lot of character business in there that sounds like a good deal of fun (and I’m still not sure I’ve ever fallen so madly in love with a rag-tag team before – well, excluding Firefly, natch).  For me though, I just can’t seem to flip the switch in my brain that can justify the seismic rift this tangential mission would require of my suspension of disbelief; nor the thought of having it end only to feed back into a conclusion that undoes everything I would cherish about this sweet hiatus anyway.

But again, and I mean this sincerely, to those who can and will enjoy it: have fun. You will have all of my jealousy burning a hole in your back as you play…

IMAGE: Mass Effect 3 (Bioware)

* The critically panned ‘Omega’ was likewise increased in price – an action that perhaps led to more scrutiny lambasting its comparatively meagre runtime, derivative action, lack of character interaction, and peripheral narrative.

* Again, someone judging the work unfavourably might declare that given Mass Effect’s track record, these were all elements that the designers knew were expected in the original release, and that they simply withheld for ransom in this last hurrah.

** Although to be fair, this DLC was clearly never intended to win back those fans.

*** Without ever deigning to explain what that ‘vision’ was meant to be.

**** Indeed, it’s funny how one of those concept artworks with everyone drinking (pictured at the header of this post) seems to have been ‘inspired’ by an image I remember seeing of the crew partying in an alternate fan-made ending, here: http://fc02.deviantart.net/fs70/f/2012/075/9/7/mass_effect3_how_it_should__ve_ended_by_hellstern-d4stwab.jpg

‘EVERYONE SHUT UP SO I CAN HEAR MYSELF DECIDE WHAT ART IS!’: Colin Moriarty and the Fallacy of Commercial Self-Regulation in Art

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 2, 2013 by drayfish

IMAGE: Six Days in Fallujah (Konami)

Who doesn’t love and angry rant written months ago and left to ferment?  Mmmm hmmm…  A nice, acidic argument – now completely out of context, with references that almost no one recalls – lambasting an opinion piece that pretty much everyone has already forgotten?  Those smoky, earthy tannins of matured rage smouldering on the palate.  Who doesn’t love that?

…What?  Nobody loves that?  In fact, people actively despise that?  Oh.  Well, this blog might not be the taste experience I predicted…

Anyhoo…  This piece was actually written in response to an IGN Playstation editor, Colin Moriarty, and the peculiar editorial appeal he made last year to the videogame industry, declaring that ‘political correctness’ was stifling the creative potential of game designers.  It struck me as a ludicrous (and rather childish) screed, one that fundamentally mistook personal gratification for artistic license.  That this irrational tantrum was being offered by a prominent representative of videogaming – a medium that I believe deserves more regard than it is currently afforded – unnerved me greatly.  (Indeed, in truth I’m still rather shocked that he retains such a high position in the industry.)

My response (which follows here) was written and published last year at What Culture, but I offer it up now in all its un-contextualised, un-timely, utterly-irrelevant anti-glory:

‘EVERYONE SHUT UP SO I CAN HEAR MYSELF DECIDE WHAT ART IS!’: Colin Moriarty and the Fallacy of Commercial Self-Regulation in Art

IMAGE: Tomb Raider (Eidos)

 I: ‘Do what I say, not what I do’

I’ve taken issue with the opinion of IGN Playstation editor Colin Moriarty in the past.  A few months ago when Moriarty loudly decried the temerity of fans who would dare question the rushed, illogical, nihilistic endings of Mass Effect 3 (a game whose creators themselves went on to agree needed ‘clarification’ with a free Extended Cut), I lamented the way in which Moriarty, despite being a mouthpiece for the videogame community, had joyfully set back the debate over the validity of games being Art with a number of stifling and anachronistic sentiments about the way that they should be approached as texts.  In a curiously hypocritical declaration for a game-reviewer, Moriarty had posited that audiences had no right to be heard by the creators of videogames, that their only options in engaging with a text were to either purchase the work and unquestioningly praise it, or to not buy it, shut your mouth, and walk away.  For Moriarty there was no avenue for feedback or critique; you either paid your money or got the hell out: nothing to discuss here.  Seeing this as a shockingly reductive way in which to interact with any work of Art – let alone in the still-burgeoning medium that videogames represent – I concluded that Moriarty was probably in the wrong profession, and that his stifling hostility certainly did the legitimacy of his own position as a critic no favours at all.

At the time I had hoped that Moriarty would prove this strange outburst to be a momentary lapse of thought.  Having finished venting his ire at the ‘entitled whiners’ of the Mass Effect community who seemed to have somehow personally offended him by not agreeing to being satisfied when he told them to, I believed he would return to his function as a reviewer, perhaps even, one day, looking back to appreciate (if never vocalising) the irony that his very career was based upon the commentary he had condemned others for attempting.  And yet, only months after his first outburst, in the past week Moriarty has chosen to cast his net even wider.  Expanding his buy-it-or-shut-the-hell-up treatise to the whole of the videogame world, Moriarty has decided to decry the ‘Political Correctness’ that he imagines is stifling all creativity in the field.

II: All the little things…

In an opinion piece published on the IGN Playstation website, Moriarty argues that, as he sees it, all videogame Art is currently under threat.  Games in the midst of development, he argues, are being choked by the whims of vocal minorities; voices of complaint are stifling the creativity and innovation of developers, compelling them to change their visions based upon the most insignificant of personal grievances.  All because, as he states, ‘Even the most mundane and inconsequential something can send a person into a tizzy.’*

But what are those inconsequential ‘tizzy’-inducing ‘somethings’?

Well, helpfully Moriarty offers a list.  They are: rape; the sanctity of people’s religious beliefs; and graphic recreations of ongoing real-world military bloodshed (actual events in which currently serving soldiers have watched their squad mates die).

You know?  The small stuff.

Extraordinarily, considering how harangued he sounds in his Chicken Little proclamations, Moriarty offers no legitimate examples to support his claim that this kind of censorship is rife.  Citing the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot (in which pre-release advertising showed the game’s protagonist being overtly threatened with sexual assault), the game Smite (which offers gratuitous and unflattering depictions of Hindu Gods), and the now-cancelled Six Days In Fallujah (an FPS that recreates in painstaking detail the real-world events of the bloody insurgency in Fallujah), Moriarty argues that somehow – he’s not actually able to articulate how, but he can feel it: somehow – these games are being stripped of all creativity and communicative potential by voices of dissent that would question how such subject matter is being depicted.  However, in the three examples he has selected only one can perhaps be said to have been effected by the criticism it received.  Tomb Raider and Smite are both confirmed to be going ahead without any alterations at all, and it still remains unclear why publishers Konami pulled the release of Six Days In Fallujah – though one can fairly comfortably suspect that it was more to do with projected sales figures than the moral outrage of a ‘vocal minority’.

For Moriarty even the suggestion that one could question any of the design decisions in these games equates to an affront to free speech, but, as now appears to be the case with his entire thought process, he misses the nuance that can put these complaints into context.  The issue with Lara Croft’s threatened rape in the recent trailer was not that the subject matter of sexual assault itself should never be depicted in fiction, it was that it was being used, cynically, as a tool through which to disempower the central protagonist in order to make her sympathetic to a playing audience.  Much of the complaint centred around the suggestion that we, the players, needed to be so ham-fistedly manipulated, that we would feel no compulsion to follow a strong female character unless she was first violated and beaten down, a weakened damsel in distress that we, with our godly player-agency, could rescue from the ravenous advances of predatory men.**  It was an advertising move that insulted its audience as much as it did the heroine (who thankfully, we were soon assured, was not actually going to suffer a sexual assault in game just to elicit empathy).

Indeed, in order to scramble up to his fearful, speculative peak, Moriarty has had to completely ignore the reality that in the history of the medium very little – indeed almost none – of this so called ‘Political Correctness’ has ever actually succeeded in altering the design of a game.  Nonetheless, he believes that all dissenting opinions (such as those of veterans of war who questioned how appropriate it was to release a sensationalised portrait of an ongoing conflict in Six Days… – this is literally the argument Moriarty makes***) should always be ignored in favour of the marketplace, which has a better chance of regulating the material to which the public should be exposed.  Instead of debate and dialogue, Moriarty proudly subscribes to a form of Darwinian Capitalism in which the dollar is the sole measure of a text’s artistic merit.

And who knows, perhaps he’s right…  It’s certainly true that money has, in the past, always been the best arbiter of Art.  That’s why Transformers remains the most important cinematic touchstone in recent history; why Twilight is the finest piece of literature to have elevated the written word; and why Justin Bieber is widely considered to be history’s finest composer.

…Hold on.  What?!

Alongside being patently idiotic, Moriarty’s purely commercial vision would also theoretically silence any critic who did not speak with their wallet …although it goes without saying that Moriarty (as a ‘critic’) reserves the right to himself complain about whatever he feels (it would appear that he is either addicted to, or is incapable of comprehending, irony).

III: ‘Yer with us, or agin us’

To arbitrarily shut argument down, to point to some mythic commercial idol that will somehow rescue us from the need to converse with one another about social and artistic issues is so mind-numbingly reductive that it is hard to believe Moriarty could be unaware of the false dichotomy he employs.  By pointing to some mythic commercial idol that will rescue us from the responsibility of actually having to think for ourselves Moriarty uses the oldest and most rote means of shutting any discussion down; in his new fallacious bipolarity of argument he decrees that either everything is allowed, or everything is not:

Should we succumb to the plight of political correctness and let it ruin the creativity of our industry like it’s corrupted so many other artistic avenues? Or should we stand up and say “anything goes” and encourage the creative minds that give us the games we love to push the envelope, social consequences be damned?

It’s the kind of infantile either/or scenario that is popular in any rhetorically specious debate: ‘Well if you don’t agree that torture is acceptable then you’re pro-terrorist’; ‘If you eat meat then you can’t complain about animal cruelty’; if you laughed at Leno you must hate Dave; Pepsi versus Coke; Jacob versus Edward; ninja versus robot.  In discourse it’s the equivalent of putting one’s hands over one’s ears and shouting ‘La la la la laaaa…’ to avoid responding to contrary opinion.  It’s pathetic.****

Indeed, in any other circumstance it would be comical to hear someone so witlessly misapplying this kind of arbitrary delineation to a debate on artistic merit.  It is as if Moriarty were intentionally evoking each and every cliché in the history of turgid irrational screeds.  We get the predictably uncontextualised Benjamin Franklin quote; the ‘Thought Police’ have their obligatory mention; and his tantrum even comes packaged with its own victimhood complex: I’m sick of being told how to live; I know plenty of fire fighters but I never stop anyone saying anything about 9/11!!, etc.  Taken completely out of context (as Moriarty impossibly wants people to consume all Art), his opinion piece is an hilarious, although unwitting, parody – the indignation of a paranoiac with a persecution-complex, wailing that the ‘PC’ bogeymen are ruining all his fun.

However, as Moriarty is not joking, and as these opinions are being espoused by a commentator who is himself a member of the gaming press, this ludicrous fear-mongering has the potential to be quite harmful for a new medium of expression that has, throughout its relatively short span, struggled for legitimacy in a world that frequently dismisses it as juvenile distraction.  Moriarty might well be content to pursue an illusory enemy, leaving his city to burn in the process, but for those of us who do genuinely care to see the videogame form accepted for the innovative artistic medium that it is, seeing someone who should be using their platform to advance this message instead railing like a petulant child is quite disheartening.  I can only presume that this is why his employers at IGN provided a more rational response from a fellow editor the next day, seeking perhaps to offset the unflattering portrait his eruption presented of the contemporary gamer.*****

For critics who have long dismissed videogames as the competitive playthings of people too self-involved to conceive of what the purpose of ‘Art’ actually is, Moriarty’s petulant ultimatums – silencing debate and reducing the medium to pure consumer product – will confirm their every ugly stereotype of games and the people who play them.  Rather than innovative texts that have the capacity to redefine narrative experience and audience interaction, games will merely remain a means of juvenile gratuitous satisfaction, feeding whatever wanton or base desire for which its customers are willing to pay.  By reducing the conversation of Art down to a cartoonishly politicised either/or proposition, Moriarty undermines the very validity he claims to defend and risks making gamers everywhere look like infantile fools.

IV: ‘The reason we all have one mouth but two ears’

In the end, Moriarty sounds like little more than a brat throughout his opinion piece, squealing for his toys as the big mean ‘Politically Correct’ mummies and daddies of the world try to tell him that sometimes it’s important to think of someone else in the world besides himself.  Indeed, there are so many things wrong with his ill-conceived fantasy of a commercially-dictated artistic merit that in trying to formulate a rejoinder it is difficult to know where to start.

Does one begin by pointing out that Vincent Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime, so profit alone is no validation of Art?  Does one explain to Moriarty what the highly profitable pornography industry actually is, and how profitable it has proved over the years – since he seems to have made himself wilfully unaware?  No.  In the end, one needs to settle on the simplest answer; the most fitting response in this case.  One needs to offer him the advice one would offer to the tantrum of a child:

Despite what you might think, Moriarty, you don’t know everything.

No one person does.  And it is only through being willing to participate in healthy, adult discussion that works of artistic merit (and ideally of profit) can be produced, dissected, and enjoyed.

For all his bleating about protecting the rights of freedom of speech and expression, Moriarty is so busy weeping for the fun he imagines himself to be denied that he utterly forgets about the social responsibility that any self-respecting artist should value.  No artwork is divorced from the social and cultural milieu into which it is presented; no artist works in a vacuum.  Any piece of Art (if it is to be considered worthy of the title) – and even if it aspires to speak for generations beyond its time – remains a conversation with an audience that cannot be divorced from its context.

Simply being able to say something is no immediate indication that one should (as Moriarty’s own article proves); and reminding artists that they have a duty to communicate something of value, not to simply pander to whatever base desire floats momentarily across the transom of their mind is not the Orwellian censorship about which Moriarty apoplectically shrieks.  It is simply part of the organic dialogue of creativity in which every artist must participate; to pretend otherwise, to mistakenly equate ‘freedom of speech’ with a reckless abandon of purpose and taste is to fundamentally devolve the act of expression itself.

It would therefore serve us all – artists, audiences and critics – to remember that communication itself is the most elemental component of all artistic expression, and lies at the heart of every interaction between audience and text.  Videogames offer us an unprecedented window into a thrilling new relationship between creator and player; but with restrictive voices like Moriarty in the gaming press conceitedly shouting such dialogue down, the debate over whether videogames should be considered Art is only made harder to justify; they become nothing more than soulless product met by a silent audience, made-to-order fare with nothing innovative to say and nothing to ask of their player.

IMAGE: Smite (Hi-Rez Studios)

* http://au.ign.com/articles/2012/07/17/opinion-the-problem-with-political-correctness-in-video-games

** The producer Ron Rosenberg in an interview with Kotaku stated that he wanted players to feel an urge to ‘protect’ Lara from danger: ‘When you see her have to face these challenges, you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character.’ (http://kotaku.com/5917400/youll-want-to-protect-the-new-less-curvy-lara-croft)

*** ‘Never mind that we have hundreds of games about World War II – a war in which some 65 million people died – anything to do with Iraq should be censored. Why, because it just happened?’ (http://au.ign.com/articles/2012/07/17/opinion-the-problem-with-political-correctness-in-video-games)

**** Besides, the ninja clearly wins.

***** http://au.ign.com/articles/2012/07/19/political-correctness-a-different-view

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