Archive for Assassin’s Creed: Unity

Assassin’s Creed: Man Against The Machine

Posted in criticism, Uncategorized, video games with tags , , , , on November 1, 2017 by drayfish

assassins creed 3 town

I was hunting for a UFO when I finally snapped.

Scampering across the wilderness, watching the silhouette of a tree on the horizon coalesce from out of the draw distance haze, I knew, before I had even confirmed the sight, what I was going to find.  But I pushed my avatar character forward anyway, watching him hunch in his predatory sprint, heading toward an inevitable disappointment.

I was playing out the last of what had now been several ‘Frontiersman missions’ in Assassin’s Creed 3.  These were optional side quests wherein the game’s protagonist, Connor, after overhearing some piece of whispered legend, sets off into the American wilderness searching for answers.  And given that each of these local mysteries includes tales of spooky ghosts, otherworldly murders, or impossible beasts, these vignettes play out like fleeting colonial X-Files investigations, unravelling the fact from the fiction in America’s early urban mythology.

Unlike Mulder and Scully’s adventures, however, here Connor repeatedly finds each story to be a bogus exaggeration.  A ‘haunted’ lighthouse proves to be just a tattered blanket on some sticks; tales of the fearful Kraken dissolve with the discovery of a rickedy diving suit; the fearful visage of the sasquatch turns out to be some old hermit squatting in a cave.  The closest the paranormal seems to dance with these campfire tales is hunting for the Headless Horseman, where a grim figure actually is spotted riding off into the wilderness.  But given that this is almost certainly just some homicidal maniac with a carved pumpkin on his head, it’s hardly the proverbial smoking gun to prove that Jacob Marley, ALF, and Elvis are sharing a rented condo in the Bermuda Triangle.

And here I was, at the end of this run of anticlimaxes, responding to the sighting of a UFO in the area.  Running across that clearing I already knew what I was going to find.  Knew in my head and my heart exactly what it was going to be.  And yep, there it was.  Not a space ship or a flying saucer, but a single umbrella fluttering in a tree.

An umbrella in a tree.

Of course, it’s meant as a bit of light comedy.  Can you believe those crazy stories?! it seems to say.  The people of this time are apparently so ignorant that a wind-swept parasol inspires tales of life beyond the stars!  But the joke is also at your expense as the player.  Look at you, you big silly, it says.  Chasing all over the countryside after a bunch of wild fantasies!

…Which would be very droll, except: isn’t this the game where the storyline – the entire main storyline – concerns a civil war between factions of an alien forerunner race who have prophesised the end of the world?  A tale in which dead extraterrestrials masquerade as gods in order to shape the DNA and psyche of every human being that has ever lived?  The series principally concerned with two clandestine cabals of zealots locked in an endless ideological conflict – expansive armies (that have gone unnoticed by the general populace) that are directly involved in every single major moment in the history of the world?  Didn’t the whole plot of the past several games explain that every religion, philosophy, and social structure in human history is inextricably tied to some weird Dan Brown fever dream of the Freemasons/Illuminati/Skull and Bones/Mouseketeers – a secret organisation that built a machine (part alien!) that can help you re-live the memories of your ancestors through inherited-genomes-pseudo-science-expositional-techno-babble?

That game?!

…But yeah: Bigfoot?  That’s just nuts.

And at that moment, scampering up the tree to let the game laugh at my willingness to jump through its hoops, something snapped.  I realised, all at once, that I had lost any investment I had in the series – that even though I might well continue playing the Assassin’s Creed games in future (and I did), a fundamental bond between audience and text had nonetheless been ruptured, and would likely never return.

That, of course, was just my personal breaking point, but if the response to the past few installments of the game are indicative of anything, I am clearly not the only one starting to lose interest.  Perhaps it was a product of the saturating ubiquity of the franchise.  In just a few months after Assassin’s Creed: Unity launched, several other Assassin’s branded games had already been announced or released: mobile apps, 2D stealth platformers, reissues of older games.  Perhaps the company burned off a lot of good when Unity emerged as one of the most unpolished, bug-riddled, glitchy games in history – its reputation further sullied when it was revealed that a press embargo from Ubisoft had actively prevented reviewers from mentioning any of these flaws until after the game was already in stores and purchased by fans.  It’s follow up, Syndicate, by many accounts, presented a more polished game with more welcome innovation, but the response was still depressed enough to warrant taking a year off from the annual release cycle, to let the franchise rest for a spell, and to pour more attention into a soft-reboot for the series, the just-released Assassin’s Creed: Origins.

Whatever the reason, it seems true to say that even some of the series’ most ardent supporters are now more likely to express cautious optimism than shouts of ‘Take my money!’, and I suspect that it might be Assassin’s Creed 3 the carries the burden for this shift – the game in which the series finally revealed its whole teased meta-narrative to be nothing more than an umbrella fluttering in a tree.

assassins creed 3 horse

Land Of The Free ..ish

In many ways Assassin’s Creed 3 tried to be as epic, grand and sprawling as the country – colonial America – that it sought to reflect.  But it was a mess.  Part techno-babble sci-fi, part historical drama, part thumping action spectacular, part maudlin family soap opera, part power fantasy, part mash note to hopeless emo nihilism, part meta-fictional commentary on the conventions of videogames, part unabashed exploiter of every hammy videogame trope, the game was awash with fundamental contradictions.

The narrative spanned two continents and several major cities.  It jumped between two distinct time periods.  It concerned itself with three major protagonists, all competing for the player’s attention.  There were even at least three epilogues to the game.  Literally: three epilogues.  (It’s no wonder the credits of the game run for about the length of an average Peter Jackson film.)  At some moments the narrative is filled with pretentious bloat – long meandering speechifying and posturing – but at others it is inscrutably lean – whole years of narrative development are skipped, characters inexplicably disappear or send you off on quests that have little justification.

To its credit, the game sought to explore some of the real world injustices and hypocrisies that littered the overly-romanticised age of America’s founding fathers, thereby questioning the wilful mythologising of history.  Here George Washington is depicted at times as a ruthless mercenary, even willing to order the slaughter of whole tribes of Native Americans, something true to historical record.  Ben Franklin’s infamously lecherous letter to a friend extolling the benefits of choosing an older mistress is quoted directly.  But at the same time, the game indulges a cartoonishly oversimplified revisionist conspiracy history, and frequently sidelines some inconvenient truths.  There are very few African American slaves depicted in the game, with slavery itself largely hand-waved away early in the narrative by Samuel Adams; and complex social conflicts always boil down to the game’s fantastical Templar versus Assassin’s conceit.

And it is in this, the game’s central thematic exploration of the conflict between the Templars and the Assassins – between an oppressive, clandestine society devoted to social engineering human history, and an (ironically highly organised) group of murderous anarchists striving to thwart their plans for some amorphous definition of freedom – that the issues with the game become most pronounced.

Up until Assassin’s Creed 3 the franchise had built upon each previous iteration, continuously cramming more content, more side objectives, more mini-games, into its endlessly expanding coffers.  As the series wore on, however, it became progressively overburdened with extraneous mechanics, with AC3 arguably its most overstuffed.  (Which, if one wants to get snarky for a second, seems a little ironic considering how much of its narrative is spent chastising its imperialist characters for serving an empire that wants to arrogantly overstretch itself…)

The game boasts a multitude of weapons; a series of stat upgrades; stealth, melee and projectile combat; vehicle travel; an assassin squadron to recruit, order about, and micromanage; hunting; item crafting (with recipes); lock-picking; a selection of playable historical board games; a small homestead and trading sim; cryptic puzzles; fort liberations; horse riding; an entire naval control and combat system (because for almost no reason you’re made a ship captain too); infantry orders; canon targeting; for one entire expository sequence you become a spirit eagle flying through the air avoiding obstacles because… I guess that’s something else to do.  On and on and on…

And yet, despite this glut of options, the game repeatedly strips away this wealth of choice in order to funnel the player into passive, scripted sequences.  Learning to lead a battalion of men and offer them cover fire with a canon is used precisely once – seconds after that mechanic is explained – and never seen again.  Many of the assassinations are impossible unless approached from specific angles expressly dictated by the game designers.  Cinematic sequences force the player down narrow, non-interactive pathways.  Most peculiarly, several fight scenes with major antagonists turn into straight battles of attrition in which the player character must be manoeuvred around to some piece of interactive scenery where he is required to utilise pre-rendered contextual attacks.

This restriction is perhaps most clearly displayed in the game’s much maligned introductory chapters.  Rather than allowing the player the freedom to explore their world, the game directs them, over the course of several hours, in how they are to move and behave, drip feeding them new skills and dictating how to use them.  Indeed, you are so confined in this tutorial period that you spend a good portion of it trapped on the deck of a boat, surrounded by open ocean that offers only inglorious death.

The reason that this opening chapter is so constrained is revealed in a plot twist misdirect: the character you are playing, Haytham Kenway, is actually a devoted Templar – not the freedom-spruiking Assassin you presumed him to be.  Thus, this kind of rigid, claustrophobic play-style is entirely representative of his world-view.  When the game’s true historical protagonist is revealed, Kenway’s illegitimate Native American son Ratonhnhaké:ton, or Connor, the stage seems to be set for a direct interrogation of the irresolvable yin and yang spiral at the heart of the game series.  Having literalised the conflict between Templar and Assassin as father and son, by asking you to play as and empathise with both men, the game appears ready to weigh free will and totalitarian order against one another on a global and personal scale.

But then it goes on to repeatedly undercut this intriguing conceit.

What happens instead, over the course of a dozen more hours, is a curiously undercooked build up to a rote fight.  Connor eventually meets his father and arbitrarily agrees to start running errands for him, with any notion of free will disregarded as neither the player, nor the supposedly independent Connor himself, is permitted to do anything but follow Haytham’s morally questionable instructions.*  Soon Connor is predictably double crossed, and the father that you were compelled to play, whose goals you were at first invited to empathise with, is reduced to merely a stiff, narcissistic zealot, his motivations for diligently serving the Templar order and spreading imperial dominance across the globe through violent oppression no more nuanced than any other moustache twirling villain.

The climactic battle between Connor and his father – the supposed resolution of the conflict between these two characters and the culmination of the game’s oversimplified metaphorical exploration of their world views – becomes merely another endorsement of constraint.  For all of his innumerable fighting styles and weaponry and companions, Connor (and the player that gives him agency) can only win this scripted fight if he performs precisely as the game dictates, by participating in the game’s obsession with counters and interactive objects – effectively a series of dressed up quick-time events.

So at the climax of Connor’s narrative, although incessantly paying lip service to the notion of ‘freedom’, and supposedly using him as a symbol of defiance, Assassin’s Creed 3 instead persists in stripping any such freedoms away, forcing the player down a singular, preordained path from which they cannot stray.

assassings creed haytham

The God Is The Machine

The disregard for free will that plays out between Connor and Haytham proves to be merely a microcosm of the journey that culminates in Assassin’s Creed 3, and that has played out in the series’ meta-game over several years and in multiple instalments.

The linking narrative that drove the numbered instalments of the franchise up to that point concerned Desmond Miles in the present day, a man living out the memories of his ancestors in a device called the Animus – essentially a virtual reality suite.  When the series began Desmond was essentially a bit of immersive narrative point of view, a way to contextualise the historical game play and give the whole experience more immediacy for the player.  And this premise offered the Assassin’s Creed games one of the most exciting opportunities for exploring the relationship between creator, audience and text in the history of fiction.

In a manner that no other medium could attempt, the Assassin’s videogames invited their player to be an inextricable participant in the thematic exploration of control and freedom at the heart of the narrative.  You, as player, controlled Desmond, who in turn controls an historical figure (which could change between instalments), with each layer of the fictive onion becoming ever more loaded with irony.  The historical figure (Altair; Ezio; Connor; Edward, etc) believes that he has autonomy, but he is ultimately being shepherded by Desmond, who is himself being piloted by the player – them self ultimately subservient to the design of the game, the Animus itself into which you peer.

You’re essentially playing as the ultimate turducken of antiestablishment freedom fighters, always within the regimented, pre-rendered playpen that has been walled off for you, and that will only allow you to progress if you perform as it dictates.  Kill too many civilians?  Well you’re out of phase and have to restart.  Tried to jump out of the arbitrary boundaries of the landscape?  Well you get reloaded back in place.  Keep dying and getting thrown back to a checkpoint?  Well that’s because according to history you didn’t die there, so you get to restart and do it properly.  A civilian NPC is glitching out in the background?  Well this is a computer simulation, after all.

In Assassin’s Creed 2, this immersion culminated in a thrilling moment of expository dialogue in which Ezio meets Minerva, an ancient alien who had disguised herself as a Roman god, only to have her turn away from him and talk directly to the audience, rupturing the fourth-wall and dragging the player them self into the fiction.  In its direct sequel, Brotherhood, there was enormous horror evoked when the Desmond character was possessed by an otherworldly force and forced to kill an ally.  No matter what buttons you as player pressed to avoid this fate, the character was inexorably propelled toward the deed.**

As the series went on, Desmond’s present day journey hinted at some grand role that he was apparently going to play.  As an individual with free will he was going to be pivotal in saving the world at the end of 2012.

But whereas the Assassin’s Creed series had once been so good at incorporating these videogame conventions into their fiction, using these limitations as colour for the tale and exploring the strange frisson of pre-programmed content and potential player agency, in AC3 they were forced to make a definitive statement about just how much input the player could ever have on the story, and their answer was dishearteningly grim.

In AC3, as the textual and metatextual worlds collided with the release of the game in late 2012, the audience’s role, at all three levels of the games narrative – Connor, Desmond and Player – is finally revealed to be entirely perfunctory.  Connor’s entire life story is reduced to a means to finding a key for a locked door.  You wrestle your way through forty hours of side missions and lock picking games and upgrade trees and ship sailing, sit through a Forrest Gump-style greatest hits package in which Connor is inexplicably pivotal to every major moment of American history, all just to watch a guy throw a necklace into a hole (a necklace that looks conspicuously like a computer disc, meta-fans). Then, after waiting for that cut-scene to end, you shift back to Desmond’s time period, to passively watch yet another scene play out that entirely undermines any illusion of agency you may have still had…

Back in the ‘real world’, Desmond, digs up the magic key, opens a mystical door, and in a lengthy exposition dump with two ancient aliens, Minerva and Juno, he is told that humanity is weak, and civilisation is unsalvageable.  The aliens opine that all religions and social structures are doomed to corruption because human beings are inexorably self-destructive and need to be controlled, and in a particularly patronising dialogue Minerva dismisses humanity as ‘children’ who have ‘squabbled over [her people’s] refuse’, incapable of saving themselves or even understanding their place in the universe.

But rather than defy this categorisation of humanity as weak-willed followers, Desmond seemingly goes on to prove it true.  He is told to kill himself in order to free the despotic alien Juno – an act that has been orchestrated by Juno herself – and bizarrely, Desmond immediately agrees, once again with no choice or input from the player.

The whole series therefore reveals itself to be a build up to a willing, wilfully ignorant, suicide.  Desmond, surrendering all autonomy, is struck lifeless in a wash of light, with he, the narrative, and the player, all suddenly rendered moot, reduced, like everyone else in the series, to pawns moved at the behest of forces beyond their comprehension.

Juno is released into the world, temporarily preventing some sun-spot related world catastrophe, but free once again to enslave humanity.  She laughs, seemingly at both the dead Desmond and the player, and swaggers off stage to scheme her way through the inevitable threatened sequels.  Even the epilogue of the Connor story reveals (in a cut scene afterthought) that despite spending the game desperately striving to save his people’s land, they simply move away without Connor anyway.

In a game series that claimed to be celebrating the audacity of liberating oneself from tyranny, Assassin’s Creed chose to use the concluding game of its initial trilogy, a game set in the messy chrysalis of the American revolution, to state that ‘freedom’ is merely the illusion of choice in a state of willing constraint.  The ending of the Desmond Miles story, both in narrative and gameplay, proving to be merely a joke at the expense of the player.  Look at you, you big silly, it says.  Thinking you were an autonomous individual with an impact on anything of substance…

Assassin’s Creed 3 becomes an enormous, beautifully rendered sandbox game designed just to kick sand in your face.  In its final moments it shows that the only way in which to ‘win’ the Assassin’s series was to not play at all.  Having led its audience on a multi-episode chase – promising revelations, promising autonomy, promising UFOs, it revealed itself to be nothing more than an umbrella fluttering in a tree.

assassins creed 3 desmond

Flying Your Freak Flag

Ironically, it was admitting the ultimate futility of its serialised narrative that would go on to make Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag such an enjoyable game.  As a sarcastic, self-serving pirate, the game’s protagonist Edward Kenway was completely distinct in its now woefully convoluted mythology, a refreshing blast of impertinence in a franchise bloated with faux gravitas.  The plot he was reluctantly drawn into was largely irrelevant and wilfully nonsensical (he puts on an assassin’s uniform he just found, and so, like something out of Greatest American Hero, he gains magical assassin-vision and can immediately start leaping off cliffs and performing stealth kills), but Kenway’s cynicism toward it seemed to mirror the player’s own:

‘Sure, sure, the spyglass of the ancients that can DNA stamp whatever…  Just give me my ship so I can sail the seas and goof around.’

The game’s Caribbean open world was immense and beautifully realised; you met some fun characters; could largely explore and distract yourself as you pleased; and the story, such as it was, made little sense (none at all if played with no prior knowledge of the series) and seemingly had no impact on anything.

Even the present-day framing narrative was marked by a wearied, self-mocking tone.  Desmond, the fixed point in the overarching tale was gone – literally a dissected corpse lying on a slab somewhere that you could only really learn about if you trawled through endless multimedia Easter eggs.  Characters from the previous series appeared only in bit cameos.  Now, you were just some faceless quality tester in a cubicle, actually working for the bad guys: a videogame company overtly modelled on Ubisoft itself that was intent on global domination by milking their golden goose franchise to hell.

Black Flag succeeded as a rowdy epilogue because it embraced its pointlessness, but this snarky, self-immolating tone was clearly not one that Ubisoft wanted to foster.  The next year’s release, Unity, was therefore straight back to pumping out revenge tales and the dread machinations of global cabals intent on enslaving the blah blah blah…  Continuing to advertise itself with promises of ‘hope’ and tides of ‘revolution’.  But whether or not fans of the franchise are going to follow the series any further down a path that has already been proven fruitless remains to be seen.

Curiously, the series’ future success might well depend upon what players thought of one of the few features that Assassin’s Creed 3 offered in spite of its pessimistic thematic bait and switch.

Connor’s home base throughout the game, the Davenport homestead, was actually a little self-contained community that gradually grew and changed over the course of the game.  Connor would meet people on his journeys and invite them to live on his land.  Over several years, with his (sometimes slightly creepy) assistance, these people would build new houses and buildings, fall in love, get married, start families.

And eventually, the members of this little makeshift community decide to make their own flag – a banner that they believe will better represent them than whatever design is being cooked up by the leaders of the newly minted United States.  What they make is a collage, a symbol of community stitched together from scraps.  It’s a lovely image – emblematic of the resourcefulness and defiance of this little civil enclave amidst the largely uncaring, hypocritical governmental forces amassing beyond their borders.  It is also a symbol of the narrative: a makeshift contrivance cobbled together in defiance of the crushing weight of history’s – and the franchise’s – grim inevitability.

What you make of Assassin’s Creed 3 – arguably what you make of the entire series going forward –seems to depend on how willing you are to ignore the game’s illusion of independence and instead focus on the little things.  If, rather than hoping for a logical narrative through line, or expecting any payoff to the thematic promises of free will overcoming subjugation, if you can concentrate instead upon the character beats and vignettes of humanity that play out amidst its oppressive design, there may be something still worth playing.

A UFO that turns out to be an umbrella?  Yeah, screw that.  But a flag made of scraps that just wants to celebrate the mess that is life?

That’s worth chasing.

Assassins Creed 3 UFO

* Even in side-missions you are inexplicably forced to do Haytham’s work for him.  Connor is still running around chasing Ben Franklin’s notes long into the game – even though he wasn’t the guy originally given that task.

** This moment gets ret-conned in an entirely unsatisfying way in Assassin’s Creed 3 when Desmond claims that he could have stopped himself from killing Lucy.  Apparently she was a Templar agent and he knew that, even though you didn’t and there was no evidence of such a ‘twist’ at all prior to her death.

[Note: an earlier version of this article was first published on PopMatters.]

 

 

 

 

‘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.

Korra-next-to-statue

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.

A FEMALE BATMAN, PEOPLE!!!

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.

cr_11032_05.jpg

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?

Okay.

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.

destiny

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.

flappy_bird-2

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.

Twitch_plays_pokemon_animated

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.

illridewithyou

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.

hashtag

* 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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