Archive for themenastics

Things Strange: The Nostalgic Dungeon Master of Stranger Things

Posted in criticism, movies, television, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2016 by drayfish

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IMAGE: Stranger Things (Netflix)

SPOILERS: Dear Human Beings of The World,

Before you read this, watch ‘Stranger Things’. Watch it immediately.

Do not let anyone (like me) spoil anything about the story. Do not let anyone (like me) say cute lines from it that you will then be waiting to hear uttered by some character in some scene or other. Don’t read supplementary articles (like this very one) talking up its themes or hidden references or whatever. Avoid the AV Club. Don’t even ask anyone if it’s good (it is).

Just watch.

Go in fresh and unspoiled and have an experience.

I’ll see you on the other side.

*     *     *

The zeitgeist is funny.  It can speed along so swiftly.  What one moment was a cult delight, shared like a conspiratorial whisper, the next becomes a full blown sensation, awash with critical recommendations and twitter trending and unchecked, enthusiastic praise.  But then, as predictable as it is petulant, comes the counterattack.  And this has become particularly virulent in the age of the internet.  Once one of these kinds of entertainment convergences appears it gathers speed so fast that it seems but a moment before a saturation point is reached, and people suddenly feel compelled to deride what was once considered great.  They clamour to tear it apart in nit-picking autopsies that attempt to explain away the initial magic that others (not them, certainly) felt, and drag its makers low for their hubris, as if the whole experience was just a con job on us poor, rube viewers.

It’s strange.  It’s a strange thing.

It’s Stranger Things.

Because in the mere two months since it was released into the wild with almost no fanfare (July 15th), Stranger Things has already lived out this absurd pop culture mayfly life cycle.  From surprise critical darling, to over-rated hack job.  And, what this lightning-in-a-bottle series shows – arguably more acutely than any other – is that these kinds of analytical roller coasters can reveal more about audiences than they ever do about the text under scruitiny.  Because Stranger Things didn’t start strong and fade away like LOST.  It didn’t get snarled up in its out increasingly dim-witted mythology like X-Files.  The entire thing was released and disseminated in one day.  It went from bewilderment, to behemoth, to backlash, without changing a single frame.  It was the voices in the audience surrounding it that changed.

For my part, I loved it.

And for once – for perhaps the first time in living history – I was in on the ground floor.  I happened to be in the United States when Stranger Things was released (fittingly, I was actually in Indiana), and happily got to enjoy an unbiased experience of the show.  Before the memes and spoilers and think pieces started rolling out.  Before people began quoting things in their facebook feeds, ‘Where’s Barb?’ became a catch-cry, and fan theories mapped out the shared universe theory with Parks and Recreation.

It popped up on the Netflix feed as a peculiar looking genre throwback.  Some forgotten film from the eighties I might have watched at a drive-in theatre that had been randomly exhumed from the streaming library’s algorithm.  I read the description, only half taking it in, and pressed play.  Five minutes later I knew I was going to follow that show wherever it led.

It was sumptuous and lean and wry.  It’s characters layered and fully fleshed.  It was psychologically horrifying, poised and menacing without resorting to empty jump scares or gratuitous gore.  And it deftly collided at least three separate genres into one, juggling its point of view so as to never sacrifice one for the sake of the others.

On one level it was a boy’s own adventure romp, part ET part Famous Five, in which the investigation of their friend’s disappearance leads a handful of friends to meet a young girl with impossible powers.  It was a tale about being on the precipice of young adulthood; riding bikes through the neighbourhood; growing out of the innocence of childhood; tasting the burgeoning freedom of a relative autonomy, only to discover that adults can dangerous liars with malicious agendas.  On the level of the teenager characters, it was a monster flick.  Part Nightmare on Elm Street, part IT, it was about confronting the terrors of adolescence, like peer pressure, marginalisation, sexual shaming, and being treated like a figurative (and literal) piece of meat.  For the adults, it was a conspiracy tale about fighting against the inexorability of loss and despair; where children die, and relationships erode, and you have to struggle to retain your sense of self against the dispassionate forces of mortality and corporate conspiracy.

And for eight episodes these three plotlines hummed along until colliding in a communal effort to reclaim the young boy who had been sacrificed to the conventions of genre in the season’s opener, setting all of these narratives in motion.

I thought it was splendid.  Drawing upon a rich history of familiar influences, but presenting something audacious and unique.

Little did I realise that I was wrong.  And the show was bad.  And that my nostalgia had been exploited.  Thankfully I had critics like Film Crit Hulk, who are sick and tired of the adulation that this show has received over the past few weeks, to set me straight.

Because didn’t you know it was riddled with nonsensical creative decisions?  Like, didn’t you realise it was silly of the show to linger on the moment where the towns people think they have discovered the missing boy’s body and grieve his death?  Well, it was.  Film Crit Hulk made sure to point out that the show was dumb for doing that because, as viewers, we already suspect that he might not actually have died.  …Even though what was actually being depicting was the characters feeling this despair, rather than some gauche effort to spoon feed a viewer response through the screen.  Also, at this point in the narrative, in truth, we really don’t know what is going on with the boy – he might well be a dead, disembodied spirit.  But never mind all that.  Because didn’t you also know that a young woman seeing something mysterious, then crawling into it instead of scurrying away in fright is totally unrealistic?  …Even though her progression from meek, objectified beauty, to fearless pursuer of truth is central to her character arc.  Because never mind that either.  And surely it doesn’t make sense for a young boy risk endangering himself because his friend’s life is being threatened.  …Even though his character has been repeatedly established to have an overly-empathetic nature, even to his own detriment.  Nope.  Never mind that too.  Despite all of these things arguably making sense, be assured that none of them make sense.  Because reasons.  Because shows have to behave in the predetermined ways that Film Crit Hulk has decided.

So bad show is bad.

(And yes, that’s Film Crit Hulk.  The same guy who furiously defended the lazy, racist nihilism of the Mass Effect ending because he had head-cannoned over its garbled script with a pseudo-philosophy about the cyclical nature of existence.  Who disliked The Dark Knight Rises because he was convinced a distraught Christopher Nolan, still mourning the death of Heath Ledger, had been dragged against his will through the writing and filming process.  Suddenly now an audience projecting anything into its experience of a text – nostalgia; an awareness of hackneyed narrative conventions – is a sign of the text’s weakness, and the audience’s poor, sad foolishness for buying into all this malarkey.)

The show trades in nostalgia, he complains.  It asks you to accept the characters’ logic about alternate dimensions and psychic links without always holding your hand through the justification of such leaps.  It invites you to run with some plot points and ignore others.  On occasion it leans into spectacle as narrative shorthand.  And somehow all of this is outrageous – as if it has never happened in cinema before.  …Except for all of the countless times it happens in the many films and books to which the series lovingly pays homage.

And that, to me, is exactly the point of Stranger Things, and why such criticism rings so hollow.

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IMAGE: Stranger Things (Netflix)

Despite what I’m saying, I don’t mean to attack Film Crit Hulk specifically.  His is by no means the only negative review.  His scathing reaction against the validity of the show in particular just strikes me as representative of the critical double standards to which the series is now being subjected.  Because while Film Crit Hulk has many skills as a critic (at this point I would strenuously argue that the all-caps affectation is decidedly not one of them), his strength has never seemingly been in separating out his personal bias from the interpretation of a text.  Nor, I should add, should it be.

Criticism is an act of intimate engagement with a work of art, an interplay between audience and text.  Just like every viewer sitting down to watch a summer blockbuster, or curling up on the couch with a favourite Austen novel, or firing up a beloved videogame in which the controller already hums with anticipation, one’s own predilections and preoccupations are an unavoidable factor in the experience.  It is that very intimacy that many creators can utilise in their craft.  It’s certainly such a familiarity that the Duffer Brothers – creators, writers and directors of Stranger Things – employ to simultaneously welcome and unsettle their audience.

Because despite what its detractors claim, the eighties aesthetic and storytelling Stranger Things repurposes do not merely operate as window dressing.  It doesn’t use its period setting as a crutch to avoid dealing with the cell phones and internet coverage, nor as a cloying wistful wallpaper to cover holes in its plot.  It’s an earnest throwback to an earlier time, both stylistically and narratively, and this period specificity proves to be key to its purpose.  It’s a bower bird, meticulously fashioning a nest from the scraps of the past, operating as a near perfect union of theme and text.

To begin with, there’s a lovely superficially irony in the way that Stranger Things – a show that you can view alone on a streaming service that enables you to avoid speaking to anyone outside of your house – evokes the bygone experience of going to a video store and scrounging through the aisles for some under-loved cinematic curio.  It calls to mind that communal experience of personally sharing physical media, of pressing a VHS copy of Ridley Scott’s Alien or John Carpenter’s The Thing (taped off television and labelled with black marker), into your friends hand and making them promise, just promise, to watch it.  Just so someone you know can go on that journey with you.

More significantly, however, there is the way in which the series actively subverts expectation by playfully reconstituting the familiar.  Because oddly, what many of the critics of the show miss (or perhaps haughtily dismiss) is the most abiding narrative analogy that Stranger Things repeatedly invokes in its storytelling.  The entire show communicates itself through the lens of a game of Dungeons & Dragons.  The first scene of the series presents four boys sitting around a card table playing a session of the game; the final scenes of the concluding episode returns to those same boys, now reunited, completing their campaign.  In between, the parallel universe into which people are being sucked is spoken of in the language of the D&D shadow realm; the monster vomited up from the darkness is named after a creature from their fantasy journey, the Demogorgon; Will’s actions (‘He cast protection’), and the remaining boy’s friendships, are all rationalised though the rules of teamwork that govern the game; and the creators of the show even poke fun at their own unresolved story beats in the final scenes when the boys all chastise Dungeon Master Mike for leaving strands of his plot unexplained (‘What about the lost knight?’ / ‘And the proud princess?’ / ‘And those weird flowers in the cave?’) despite having ten hours to wrap up his campaign (two hours longer than the show itself).

Dungeons & Dragons is about taking familiar conventions and characters and situations – treasures, wizards, monsters, mysteries, magic powers, quests, etc. – and fluctuating them in unique ways, creating new situations in which to inhabit, and by doing so, exposing aspects of those disparate elements that you never perceived before, or that were never previously present.  By inviting the audience into a remade fiction, riffing on the familiar, the whole campaign becomes something new.  Done well, it creates an experience, in the process of upending these conventions, more than the sum of its parts.

And that it precisely what Stranger Things, by touching the conventions of the old but remaking them new, presents.  The series itself operates as a Dungeons & Dragons game.  The hysterical, possibly unhinged single mother of conventional genre narratives, here becomes an unflappable badass; the lazy county sheriff is revealed to be a dogged investigator willing to embrace surreality; the hackneyed douchebag boyfriend trope rebels against his cowardly, dickish nature; the iconic outcast boys on their Goonies bent are now hunted by killers, see necks snapped and brains crushed in front of their eyes, and learn that every moment of their lives, perpetually and for the rest of their days, exists on the precipice of a world of pitiless darkness that can swallow them whole in an instant.  So, fun!

And in perhaps the best rebellion of type, the attractive young bookworm brushes up against her sexual awakening, but isn’t punished and killed for it; rather she goes all monster-hunter, and tells her parents, the cops, her boyfriend, and even the cute-but-sullen outcast to whom she is warming to all go screw off when they try to demean her or dictate her life.  And even in her final scene, when narrative convention would suggest that she should have hooked up with the weirdo with the heart of gold, she zigs again to remain with the conventionally ‘bad’ boyfriend Steve, who has traded the Kevin Back in Footloose ensemble for a goofy Christmas sweater.

All these things – these rote, familiar things – are appropriated and made strange.  And in so doing the show crafts something wholly individual out of the chrysalis of the past, turning the comfort of nostalgia against itself.  In a way, the ‘upside down’ is the wellspring of genre that the Duffer Brothers have touched, and from which this show, misshapen inexplicable creature that it is, emerges.  Stranger Things subsequently defies convention and allows characters traditionally marginalised in popular culture to assert themselves beyond the stereotypes of ‘crazy single mother’ and ‘un-virginal slasher film bait’.  It reveals the past to be a dangerous place, shows youth to be more dangerous and psychologically devastating than it appears in Spielberg’s nostalgic Amblin glow.  It doesn’t mean that you cannot enjoy the show if you have not been steeped in texts it evokes, but it does mean that if you have, it can potentially speak on multiple levels at once.

But above and beyond all that, on every level, the series is about letting your freak flag fly.  About not apologising for what you love, as hokey or rough at the edges as it might be.  It is a show that encourages you to identify with the self-possessed teen who no longer hesitates from asserting herself – in either the world or the narrative.  With the mother who loves her kid enough to not give a good goddamn if the rest of the town thinks she’s nuts.  The detective who doesn’t back down when he decides to give a crap.  The lonely weirdo, more afraid and more powerful than people know, who just wants to find a place in the world.  With the outcast boys young enough in spirit to still believe in the magic of collaborative imagination.

Consequentially, the fact that there are critics who look at Stranger Things and declare its period setting meaningless surprises me; but the thought that anyone could point at its invocation of overplayed tropes and not see the way in which they were being necessarily subverted, rewriting these tired conventions, astounds.  But that’s just the thing: not everything is meant for everyone.  That’s the beauty and the penalty of subjectivity.  Critics like Film Crit Hulk clearly do not see what I see in the show.  And that’s fine.  Dungeons & Dragons is not a game the whole world can experience at one.  Each round is uniquely tailored by its Dungeon Master to a specific audience.  And as the audience, you have to know the rules and be prepared to test them.

Most of all, however, you have to be willing to play.

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IMAGE: Stranger Things (Netflix)

Vale David Bowie: He’s A Star, Man.

Posted in criticism, music with tags , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2016 by drayfish

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IMAGE: David Bowie, 1975

According to a group of international scientists, humanity has now had such a detrimental impact upon our own world that we have actually managed to shift the globe into a new geological epoch. Between our burning of fossil fuels, our addiction to driving species extinct, the dumping of toxins, the use of plastic and concrete (so ubiquitous that our oceans are now riddled with microplastic decay – yum), deforestation, reliance on fertiliser, and use of nuclear weapons, we have taken a process that usually takes millions of years of incremental evolution – from Triassic, to Jurassic, to Cretaceous – and squeezed it down to just shy of 16,000 years.

Because we’re humans. That’s what we do.

Bigger! Better! Faster! Howling as we hurl ourselves untethered into the abyss. Trying to convince ourselves that the world is not burning beneath us.

The scientists are therefore proposing a name change, from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. Because that’s the other thing we do. We name things after ourselves.

A few days after this news was announced, David Bowie’s friends and loved ones revealed that he had died, surrounded by his family, after a year and a half battle with cancer. And as hyperbolic as this will risk sounding, I cannot seem to disentangle the two events.

Not, I should warn, because I am going to try and make some hyperbolic, farcical declaration that there was a before and after David Bowie. That human history as we know it would not exist were it not for Aladdin Sane. (…I might make that argument for Station to Station, but that’s another matter.)

Because in my head, Bowie isn’t Earth, or history itself. He isn’t global warning, or nuclear fission, or a meteor waiting to strike down the dinosaurs.

He’s those scientists.

Bowie was an artist who had the capacity to name, to give shape, to epochs. Try thinking of the sixties without ‘Space Oddity’ or ‘Letter to Hermione’ (even if that self-titled album only snuck in half way through 1969). Try thinking of the seventies without ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Changes’, ‘Rebel Rebel’, ‘”Heroes”, ‘The Jean Genie”, ‘Sorrow’, ‘Life on Mars?’, etc. etc. etc… The eighties without ‘Ashes to Ashes’, ‘Let’s Dance’, ‘Under Pressure’, or ‘Dancing in the Street’. The nineties without ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’, or Nirvana’s version of ‘Man Who Sold the World’. The 2000s without the post-9/11 grim introspection of Heathen, the career-spanning Reality album tour.

Try growing up without having Labyrinth fixed like a nostalgic load-bearing wall in your soul; or forgetting his hilariously deadpan scene in Ricky Gervais’ Extras (‘Pathetic little fat man…’). Try denying the genius of his music videos, each one a unique experimental art film (and yes, I’m even including the surreally chipper ‘Dancing in the Street’).

And even now, in the teens of a new millennium, a decade since he was healthy enough to tour his music, he still remains as prescient and urgent as ever, having released two astonishing albums, The Next Day and Blackstar, replete with songs like ‘I’d Rather Be High’, ‘Dirty Boys’, ‘Dollar Days’, and ‘Lazarus’ that would make any other songwriter’s career on their own.

Bowie seemed to have an unmatched ability to identify and render in song the experience of generations. He poured all of it into his music and his personas – from pop psychedelia to crunchy rock, from glam cabaret, to freaky folk, through jazz and disco and electronic and crooner, he refracted it through the multiple character masks he employed that each embodied their age: Ziggy Stardust; Aladdin Sane; the Thin White Duke; his later, meta-impersonation of himself. Each album these figures produced offering an anthology, perfectly articulating the angst of the time in which it was released.

And like that body of international scientists, what his music described, again and again was that we were endlessly, relentlessly killing ourselves. The characters in his songs shoot themselves into space on doomed missions. They sell the world. Burn out in rock and roll suicides. Even the melodies could sometimes barely keep themselves together, with song’s like ‘Aladdin Sane’, ‘Jean Genie’, and the final song of his final album ‘I Can’t Give Everything’, threatening to run themselves apart at times, fragile moments of harmony to be treasured amongst a cacophony of sound.

He knew that we were killing ourselves, lying to ourselves, lost in ourselves. It’s no doubt why his work was peppered with references to anti-utopian literature – Orwell’s 1984; Burgess’ Clockwork Orange – nonetheless his songs were still defiantly hopeful. He used fantasy to reflect our devastation, but still saw something to celebrate amongst the despair.

Songs like ‘Life On Mars?’ might be the auditory equivalent of Hieronymus Bosch canvases, but they revel in the frenzied splendour of our disorder. In ‘Five Years’ the impending apocalypse leads people to recalibrate what is truly valuable amongst the detritus of life; the line ‘I never thought I’d need so many people’ dissolving the judgemental barriers that divide society. In the sublime ‘Golden Years’ he celebrates the sunset of a loved one’s glory. In ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’ he cries out passionately ‘You’re not alone’ to all those feeling disaffected and unseen. Chaos does not mean despair in Bowie’s soundscape. It is an invitation: ‘Gimme your hands cause you’re wonderful.’

For Bowie, in his music, in his myriad personas, when we accept all our freaky, broken excesses, we’re finally free to be ourselves. We can embrace each other without pretention, all equal in our messy wreckages of self.

Because we’re humans. That’s also what we do.

And right up to the end, with Blackstar, Bowie was continuing to describe his own – and humanity’s – demise, finding beauty in the predictable banality of our decay. His exquisite fugue ‘Lazarus’ is replete with lyrics that affirm and deny at once:

Look up here, I’m in Heaven.
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen.
Everybody knows me now.

Like all Bowie’s work, it’s marvellously cryptic and personal. He’s singing both about himself, and a character divorced from himself at the same time. He’s alive while singing about being dead; now dead while singing about being alive. He’s free like a bluebird, he says, and ‘Ain’t that just like me?’ But that ‘me’ is profoundly, impossibly multifaceted. He’s ‘known’ now, but remains fundamentally obscured. We know of him, but cannot know him.

It’s also why the cover of his final album – the last album he knew he would release before his death – is so profound. For the Star Man, Ziggy Stardust, the final image is another star, now black, disassembling itself. It is a powerful metaphor for an artistic icon in a state off self-assessment; compound and divisible, but always more than the sum of his constituent parts.

In his music David Bowie transcended the temporal. He seemed to stand outside of time to reflect our experience of it back to us. To name what we couldn’t articulate within ourselves. Like a scientist categorising the ages of global history he defined and gave voice to the experience of decades of lost souls. Those estranged and bewildered on the closing out of the 20th century, stumbling blind and just as alone into the 21st.

Which makes it even more extraordinary that even here, on his last record, released days before his death, Bowie continues to voice the impossible, eclipsing death itself to comfort his fans, transforming into one last masque, the undying Bowie, to remind them that his music – music that, like its creator, was intimate and alien in one – will remain. Those extraordinary songs might be divorced, necessarily, from the man who brought them into being. But that was always, in some way, true – and they are no less powerful for that. The music locates us, in time and experience, a campfire around which we gather, warmed even in the fading of the light.

So vale David Bowie; man who named the world.

Thank you for the gift of sound and vision.

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IMAGE: Cover of Blackstar by David Bowie

Vale DrawQuest: CTRL ALT DELETE

Posted in art, stupidity, video games with tags , , , , , , , on May 15, 2014 by drayfish

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IMAGE: ‘What’s Sizzling In The Pan?’ by DrawQuest and Me

Only late last year I was bleating on about how great DrawQuest was.

A free program designed to offer the canvas, tools, gallery, and daily inspirational prompts for aspiring artists and procrastinating doodlers to express their creativity in an encouraging environment, DrawQuest was like a sweet, supportive oasis.  It was a place where pop culture and classical art, established and original characters (and the occasional shamelessly redundant request for followers) mingled in blissful, free-associated abandon.

At any moment you could be scrolling through a five-year old’s adorably slanted drawing of a house with puffy smoke coming out the chimney, a near photo-realistic portrait of Beyonce, or a fresco of Princess Bubblegum dissecting SpongeBob SquarePants in a soundproof lab.*

So naturally enough, when I spoke of the program I compared it to the birth of all art and imaginative expression: humankind’s very first cave paintings and the revolutionary conceptual evolution that they continue, to this day, to represent.

Yeah.

‘Cause that’s not an overreach.

In any case, while I have to admit that it’s been a month or two since I’ve dropped in on DrawQuest, my fondness for the program has remained strong.  So I was greatly disheartened to hear earlier this month that DrawQuest had closed down.

As their announcement states, the program had been the target of a hacker, and while it was unclear whether any sensitive information had in fact been gathered, the owners and operators of the program decided in the wake of this breach to protect against further intrusion into their clients’ privacy by closing down the whole production.**

Aside from being a loss for those who used the platform to feed their creative spark, it’s also a sad reminder of just how transitory the world wide web can be as a means of archival preservation.  In my previous post, I spoke of the way in which the internet gave we desperate, expressive humans the opportunity to spread ourselves even further beyond the limitations of this our mortal, corporeal form.  No longer were we constrained by the need for physical space and temperamental mediums – suddenly we could reach into the nebulous, wild expanse of the digital eternal…

Except of course that now, with all of DrawQuest’s galleries and social functions shut down, we instead see hundreds of thousands of users discovering that material they had poured countless hours of love and effort into could be dissolved in an instant.

Bet those cave walls don’t seem to ‘antiquated’ now, huh?

…Wait, who am I mocking?  Me?

I’m confused.

Although to their great credit the creators and curators of DrawQuest have promised to try and restore those galleries somewhere, somewhen in future, the truth is that they appear to be a small handful of very kind, very underfunded volunteers, and a library of that magnitude will probably be cumbersome, and prohibitively expensive to wrangle.  Ideally, they will indeed find a way to return, but at present, all of that work – months of labour, passion, and effort; a testament to the enthusiastic community DrawQuest had fostered – is gone.

Thankfully, for those users (like myself) who were egomaniacal enough to link up their tumblr feeds and facebook histories and twitter twoots and flickr whatevers (why do none of these programs use capital letters, inquired the very old man typing this post?), their pictures live on, however ephemerally, in other internet galleries.  These echoes of what DrawQuest was remain, the artworks given life through its collaboration preserved – likewise, no doubt, all tremulously poised upon the precipice of another encroaching oblivion…

So to mourn the loss of a truly wonderful little community and its lovingly generous original mission statement to ‘foster a community of budding creators’, I offer some more of of my own stupid pictures.  As you scroll down this gallery, feel free to imagine me weeping, blurting the lyrics to ‘Memory’ in your ear…

Let the memory live again
Every street lamp seems to beat
A fatalistic warning
Someone mutters and the street lamp sputters
Soon it will be morning…

Wait. Those are the lyrics to that song?  Those are some of the stupidest lyrics I’ve ever heard.  Forget it.  Pretend I’m singing The Black Eyed Peas:

My hump my hump my hump my hump my hump, my hump my hump my hump my lovely lady lumps.

That makes about as much sense.

But all my stupidity aside, thank you for everything, DrawQuest.  You provided people a great deal of joy, and you will be missed.

 What are they learning today

IMAGE: ‘What Are They Learning Today?’ by DrawQuest and Me

Whats In The Wardrobe

IMAGE: ‘What’s In The Wardrobe?’ by DrawQuest and Me

Finish Building the Pyramid

IMAGE: ‘Finish Building The Pyramid’ by DrawQuest and Me

What's inside the shell

IMAGE: ‘What’s Inside The Shell?’ by DrawQuest and Me

put up a notice on the bulletin board

IMAGE: ‘Put Up A Notice On The Notice Board’ by DrawQuest and Me

* I never actually saw this one, but suddenly want to draw it immediately.  And yes, it is soundproof because of the screaming.

** In truth it appears to be the proverbial final straw for the company.  As the creator of DrawQuest, Chris Poole, recounts in a heartbreaking post from January of this year, the program was already running at a loss.

Losing the Plot: Or How I Learned To Love Making LOST Puns

Posted in television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 25, 2014 by drayfish

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IMAGE: The Cast of LOST, season one (ABC)

It’s been ten years since LOST burst onto our televisions screens making bold promises that its writers now admit they never intended to keep.

I don’t say that to be a jerk or get pissy about it; that is literally what the showrunners, Damon Lindeloff and Carlton Cuse, have themselves described in several interviews and statements in the years since the show’s controversial conclusion. It was the very point of the show, apparently. For them, LOST was always a narrative about people searching for meaning. And searching – as the narrative went on to prove – is very different from discovering. Searching, for example, doesn’t necessitate that anyone actually finds the answers they seek.

This past month I wrote a long, convoluted article about the ending of LOST (because the world needs more of those, right?) for the PopMatters journal. You can read it here. Weirdly, despite being decade-old news, it seemed the thing to do. The ending of How I Met Your Mother was foremost in pop culture’s communal consciousness (and went on to provoke a good deal of audience dissatisfaction itself*), and the creators of LOST had just appeared at the Paley Centre to celebrate the ten year anniversary of the their show, once again referencing their controversial conclusion as the definitive statement that they wanted to make, even if in their opinion it still appears to be misunderstood.

It all got me thinking. Firstly, about what it is that makes the ending of LOST so controversial – why it still enflames audiences, for and against it, even now. Plenty of shows have ended poorly, and yet the ending of LOST still remains the punching bag of narrative letdowns. Meanwhile, it’s by no means universally despised: it has quite a vocal group of supporters who cannot themselves see what all the fuss was about. In many ways it’s the Vegemite of television: there are those who love it, who will never understand those who don’t; while those who despise it, who will stare in bafflement at anyone that could find it edible. I guess I wanted to know what was in the ingredients.

Secondly, I was curious to understand why one of its creators, Damon Lindeloff, seems intent on repeatedly revisiting this argument – in the reviews he writes about other programs and films; in his (now defunct) Twitter account; in interviews – almost as though he legitimately doesn’t understand why people would not appreciate (or at least respect) the authorial decisions he made in closing his opus. Lindeloff can be delightfully self-depreciating about his work, but this seemed like a peculiar form of self-flagellation, actively inviting further criticism by constantly bringing the topic up, even when it wasn’t part of the conversation.

So I set about wildly speculating about why all of this was. Why some fans found the ending a violation of trust, and a complete abandonment of the show’s entire premise; why others found it an ideal, even inspired resolve for their characters’ journeys; and even why Damon Lindeloff, understandably, seems unable to let go. Hopefully I teased out an answer. Almost certainly those who read it will disagree. In any case, it’s done, it involves a minimal amount of snark, and for some reason contains a faked up poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

‘Cause that makes complete sense.

For the sake of neutrality, I tried (and undoubtedly failed) to leave my own personal history with the show out of the article. But I did want to talk, briefly (ha!) about it here. Not because I think it will be particularly revealing, not even because I think anyone else shared my experience, but just to get it out.

Because I have a complicated history with LOST. One filled with a lot of conflicting emotion. I loved LOST. I hated LOST. I loved to hate it, then hated to love it. By the time the tenth anniversary rolled around I told myself that I now mostly just think of it as a cautionary tale about buying into too much marketing hype …and yet I go and write a several thousand word article about it, trying to constantly tamp down the rising emotions that are rekindled with just the mention of its name…

I think, much as I say in the article, it’s because I really was enamoured with its potential. So for me it remains one of the most frustrating, contradictory, and aggressively wasteful uses of an extremely fertile premise ever conceived. It wasn’t offensive in the way that something like the end of Mass Effect 3 was. It wasn’t gaudy pretentious drivel that lazily milked religious iconography the way The Matrix sequels had (although the hero of LOST was a ‘Shephard’, with a father called ‘Christian’, who led them all to an afterlife in a church… so it was certainly pushing it). It just felt as though it was actively and continuously dishonest with its audience, so that when it concluded not only was I left let down by the ‘resolution’ it offered (not a big surprise, this is television after all), I felt as though it had actually robbed me of the opportunity to enjoy the program for what it always was – not what it had constantly purported, falsely, to be.

It is a particular personal shame, because I would have had no problem had they been up front to begin with and just admitted that there was no overarching plan – that it was all just an experiment in storytelling in which the writers too were on a ride – just as the audience were. After all, I’m one of the viewers who drank the Ron Moore Kool Aid of the Battlestar Galactica remake, happy to follow that narrative wherever it led, accepting that (despite the first few season’s naff pronouncement that the Cylons ‘Had a plan’) it was less of a tightly ordered tele-visual novel and more an excursion into reactive, evolving, serialised plot. Just as the human race’s familiar conventions and structures had been decimated, leaving the survivors to eke out new social orders and an endlessly renegotiated status quo, so too was the narrative racing to keep up, testing its character’s hopes and fears and faiths.

Sure, it plunged into some pretty nutty mysticism, and swung for the fences on a central theme of cyclical technological singularity and self-destruction that it struggled to always fully articulate, but this kind of urgency, of desperately trying to find meaning in the face of incomprehensible loss, to rebuild belief structures in a vacuum, was always thrilling. You just weighed the wins (’33’; ‘Unfinished Business’; ‘Exodus’) against the losses (whatever the hell ‘Black Market’ was meant to be), and you ended up way, way ahead. And when resolve was finally reached, and a new Earth founded (although many, many, many people no doubt disagree with me here), the peace was earned. The gauntlet of struggle and bewilderment along their journey revealed to be the chrysalis for a necessary change.

But LOST was always a text irreconcilably torn between its intent and its execution, seemingly unsure of what viewership it was trying to serve.

If you were watching for the mystery, what you finally discover is that there isn’t actually a puzzle to unpack. All that fan investment, all that effort to parse out the clues, all the theorems and hypothesis and projections into the text to give it meaning, all risks being revealed a waste of time. That’s not to say that such fan imagination is itself invalidated, or pointless; but it is, ultimately only a projection onto a text that is trying to remain wilfully abstruse.

If, on the other hand, you were watching the show for its characters, and for human drama, then this too was constantly swallowed by the plot’s overriding infatuation with mysteries. The characters were obsessed with searching for answers. The episodes invariably revolved around big honking questions: Who are the Others? What’s under the hatch? Who is Jacob? So what’s going on in that weird room with the –

AHHH!!! POLAR BEAR!!!

Consequentially, I’ve often wondered what I would of made of the show if I had not followed it as it first went to air; if I’d not (for the first few seasons at least) actually believed the writers when they assured their audience that there was a grand narrative they intended to unveil. Perhaps if I was instead seeing it all for the first time on DVD, fully aware the entire time that there would never be any fundamental answers coming (ever), then maybe I would be able to enjoy it all a great deal more. To actually see it for the courageous, oddball mesh of genre tropes and bombast that it attempted to be.

Because for all of its floundering around** – trying to gesture towards arguments about free will and determinism, about the nature of the metaphysical, the impossibility of human comprehension – LOST was ultimately just an elegantly made, exceptionally well-acted, rollicking adventure story. Nothing more.

And that’s nothing to be ashamed of. It actually rescues the whole enterprise. It makes all its efforts to tie inconsequential puzzles into one another a fun quirk that propels its eccentric momentum. It makes the whole adventure fun, rather than pretentiously obscure. And if I had have known all that going in, rather than getting incessantly distracted by the aimless magic trick of ‘mystery’ perpetuated by its writers, I suspect it would have been a far less aggravating, and infinitely more satisfying ride.

It certainly would have justified the mawkish, totally-illogical-but-feel-good ending they eventually bowed out with. Because, ‘Thanks! We love you! And we appreciate you hanging out with us for six years!’ is a lot sweeter a message when it’s coming from a show that was just trying its hardest, every week, to take you on a big, fun giddy ride, instead of from a text that just called you a gullible idiot for making you believe it could ever be anything more.

Lost ending

IMAGE:  The Sensation of Watching the End of LOST (ABC)

* I was never a viewer of How I Met Your Mother, so I can’t speak to its ending personally, but I did have the details of it spoiled by a particularly irate friend who had always adored the show and needed to vent his frustrations to someone. …And yikes. (He rechristened the program ‘How I Met Your Disposable Plot Device’.) For whatever it’s worth, in his opinion the last few minutes of the finale would have worked well after a season or two; but once several years had passed, once characters had moved on and the mother herself had been introduced as a legitimate, likeable character, he felt that the way both she and the emotional growth of the other characters were treated, all to service a trite ‘happy ending’, was not cool. …But again, I haven’t seen it, so I have no idea.

** The second and third series are particularly guilty of this: can anyone explain why the survivors of the back of the plane were in any way relevant to anything?

‘I Am Rubber And You Are Glue…’: Art, Criticism, and Poop

Posted in art, criticism with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2013 by drayfish

Statler & Waldorf BalconyBox

IMAGE: Statler & Waldorf from The Muppet Show

Criticism is a funny thing.

Too frequently it is mistakenly viewed as a detached, objective, practice; a figure blessed with a breadth of knowledge and experience in the field brings his or her objective, reasoned perspective to bear upon the analysis of an artwork.  In truth, of course, criticism is anything but.  Yes, one may aspire to impartial, scholarly interpretation, but an artwork – any artwork – is designed to elicit a response, to stir its audience in unique, intimate ways.

Perhaps the most iconic image that now leaps to the mind whenever one speaks of criticism is the fictional character of Anton Ego, the restaurant reviewer in Ratatouille (I have even cited him previously in a rant about videogames and Art).  A quintessential cliché of the sneering malcontent critic, Ego* spends the film glowering and sweeping about like an insurmountable killjoy, seemingly drunk on the power he wields to act as the arbiter of literal good taste, able to make or break those who would venture to pour themselves into their Art.  As the film progresses, however, Ego’s self-importance is shaken, and he is compelled to reconsider the obligation he owes to those works, and artists, that he would presume to assess.

The speech that accompanies this realisation is marvellous – Ego laments that the act of criticism can oftentimes be less worthy than the garbage it would seek to deride (‘The average piece of junk is more meaningful that our criticism declaring it so’) and he celebrates the promise available to critics: to support and defend that which is original (‘But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defence of the new’) – but the part that I find most striking is how he comes to this moment of revelation.

Anton Ego revelation gif

IMAGE: Ratatouille (directed by Brad Bird)

Ego takes a bite of an extraordinary rat’s** culinary craft, and is transported back to his youth – to the comfort and warmth and love of his own childhood home.  A work of Art stirs him in a profoundly personal, individual manner – evoking a sensation that even if he could explain it, is so subjective that it could never be dissected and disseminated into scholarly prose.  And it is in the shock of this undiluted singularity of experience that he reconsiders the folly of his analytical arrogance.

As Ego realises, critics, in order to be able to speak with any context about the success or otherwise of this artistry, must be willing to open themselves up in this conversational exchange between work and receiver; not to be blinded by subjectivity at the expense of all else (the most unhelpful ‘critic’ is the one who shouts, ‘Well I like it, so everyone else can just shut up!’), but rather to be mindful of their own preferences and persuasions, to know when they have projected themselves and their own prejudices upon a text, and whether this has unjustly impacted their judgement.

With this in mind, this past month I have waded back into the thoroughly fished out waters of the ‘Are videogames Art?’ debate (dear gods, how can there even still be considered a ‘debate’?) to take issue with Roger Ebert’s criticisms of videogames.  Ebert famously considered videogames as a medium too ‘immature’ and ‘indulgent’ to constitute a form of Art.  In his view, the act of surrendering authorial control to the player meant that the text itself became incapable of conveying meaning, and as a ‘game’, it lacked the ability to evoke empathy or self-reflection in its players.

What Ebert, an otherwise admirable advocate for the celebration and assessment of Art, failed to observe was that his own prejudices – about what constitutes ‘Art’; about what even constitutes a ‘game’ – had blinded him to a wealth of expressive potential.  He was applying the expectations of a movie reviewer onto a completely different medium, obstinately refusing to actually explore these texts on their own terms, and had therefore irreparably muddied his own argument.***

In response, I decided to use Ebert’s own criteria to perform the analysis of a videogame that he, curiously, had not bothered to undertake.  I chose Michel Ancel’s Beyond Good and Evil because (and here my own prejudices emerge) I just think its exquisite.  The result of my analysis can be read over on my latest PopMatters column, but I don’t think it will come as any surprise that I end up arguing that Beyond is every bit as good as any film (indeed probably more-so) at evoking civility, self-awareness and empathy.

…Also, you may be surprised to learn that I still think Beyond Good and Evil is great.

Spoiler alert.

But that’s all boring.  Me yammering on (yet again) about a number of misguided comments a film reviewer made years ago; applauding a game that is now a decade old; hashing out an argument that for anyone not harbouring some lingering loathing for the videogame medium really is as dead as can be?  Urgh.

Instead, I want to talk about what is by far the best piece of criticism I have read of late.  It is an article titled ‘Australian Art and the Search for Faecal Purity’, written by an Australian artist named Duncan Staples and published on his website (Duncan Staples Art).

Before doing so, however, just so that my own critical bias is laid bare, I should mention that I know Staples personally – indeed, it is his portrait of me, ‘Writer at the Bar’, that I proudly sport as my avatar.  But don’t think that just because he is a friend of mine I am predisposed to agree with everything he says****; and you can check out his Art for yourself to see that when I refer to it as some of the most lively, urgent, and expressive work I have seen, I am being completely sincere.

I mean, just check this one out:

Duncan Staples In Preparation

IMAGE: In Preparation by Duncan Staples

In his article, Staples responds to the recent outrage that emerged in the wake of critic Waldemar Januszczak’s review of the Australia exhibition at the London Royal Academy.  Having perused the exhibition – purported to be one of the most sizable and comprehensive overviews of the history of Australian Art – Januszczak had made a series of rather disparaging and farcically hyperbolic remarks about its quality, including gems like ‘tourist tat’, ‘poverty porn’, and culminating in the rather hysterical ‘cascade of diarrhoea.’  Overall, he considered the wealth of Australia’s artistic output (or at the very least this curated snapshot of it) ‘lightweight, provincial and dull.’

Staples, himself a member of this country’s Art history, has every reason to take umbrage at Januszczak’s petty dismissal of Australia’s ‘provincial’ tastes; but instead of getting indignant – as it appears much of Australia’s Art scene and news media have done – Staples instead chose to explore the ignorance Januszczak exhibited in his dismissal of two prominent painters, Fred Williams and John Olsen, who had their work likened to ‘cowpats’ and a ‘diarrhoea’ respectively.  He takes the descriptions at face value, actually putting more thought and perspective into these snide insults than Januszczak clearly did, and by doing so, reveals the accidental truth behind them – commending Olsen’s untrammelled Romantic spirit, and admiring William’s meticulous eye for capturing the reality of his landscape.

Staples performs an act of critical alchemy, elegantly redirecting the superficial insults of a reviewer who had allowed his ignorance and disdain of the subject matter to cloud his perspective.  Marrying the profound and the profane, the professorial and the puerile, the perceptive with the poop, it’s an article that is funny, insightful, and that elevates the discourse …all while still making several wonderfully indulgent references to faeces.

It is a pity that critics like Januszczak and Ebert do not more frequently take after an artist like Staples, who not only proves himself to be knowledgeable and attentive, but is alert to his own place in this dialogue between artwork and viewer.  It is a lesson that they would have done well to heed.  Because ultimately, even if they do not like the Art they are viewing, even if it offends their senses: they are the ones standing in it.

The Sydney Sun by John Olsen

IMAGE: The Sydney Sun by John Olsen

* Ah, what a marvellous name for a critic!

** Ah, what a marvellous name for an artist!

*** One can even see this mistake – to a far more asinine extreme – being played out in the increasingly patronising tirades of a figure like J.Shea at the Exploring Believability blog (someone with whom I have taken issue previously).  No longer merely denying videogames the possibility of being considered an Art form based upon his own arbitrary (and honestly rather sad) definition of what ‘Art’ is, Shea now appears to be fixated on some weird crusade to openly insult anyone who would dare approach them as anything more than violence generators for training psychotics.

**** We have had some quite heated debates in the past about issues of great importance.  …Turning the world back around the other way at the end of Richard Donner’s Superman cannot reverse time, Staples!  I DON’T CARE IF IT’S NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE!

Once, We Painted On Cave Walls: The Quest to Draw in DrawQuest

Posted in art, criticism, stupidity, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2013 by drayfish

or: ‘Is There An App For That?: The Evolution Of Art and DrawQuest

Great Black Bull from the lascaux caves by N Aujoulat 2003

IMAGE: Great Black Bull from Lascaux Caves, photograph by N. Aujoulat

Several millennia ago something unprecedented happened…

(I wasn’t there, but I heard about it from a guy.)

One evening, in a moment of fleeting respite from the onerous, unceasing pursuit for food and safety and shelter, one of humanity’s ancestors sat staring at a cave wall.  Secluded from the instinctual fight-or-flight pressures of the day, lost in a moment of reflective quietude, he or she (let’s split the difference and say ‘s/he’ – I hear that it was a popular name at the time) peered up at this barren rock, watching it flutter and warp as the firelight spilled across its surface, and suddenly, out of nowhere, s/he did something remarkable.  S/he did something that in the history of human existence – up until that very moment – had never been performed.

S/he imagined.

Rather than simply seeing a slab of stone, a nothingness that marked the borders of her/his world*, s/he saw a stampede of horses, a deer, a lone cow.  S/he saw motion and vitality and life, a kinetic vibrancy of being that compelled her/him to action.  And in that moment, seeing all this splendour in her/his mind’s eye, s/he decided to bring these images into being.  The result was cave paintings of staggering delicacy and grace, testaments to the intimate knowledge of the natural world in which this artist was immersed.  I’ve discussed these cave paintings before, noting the way in which these vivid portraits, despite calling to us from the dawn of artistic expression, remain profoundly moving to this day, reminding us of our innate human desire to reflect our world through our own unique experience.

Lambros Malafouris, a researcher in Cognitive Archaeology from  the University of Cambridge, has spoken of this act – or rather, the whole process of human beings taking these tentative steps into the world of artistic expression – as a transformative moment in our cognitive development.  For Malafouris, this prehistoric Art is the herald of every advancement in human cultural, social, and intellectual achievement that has arisen in its wake, because through these images we see evidence of an evolution in both our capacity to engage in more abstract thought, and, ultimately, to reason ourselves into a more complex state of self-awareness as embodied, social beings.

In the article ‘Before and Beyond Representation: Towards an Enactive Conception of the Palaeolithic Image’**, Malafouris speaks of the way in which images such as these offered human beings a space in which to explore the action of making meaning itself.  By proving themselves able to depict the idea of an animal or object in a series of artfully crafted lines and shapes, by evoking concepts abstracted from mere representation, human beings were able to expand their thinking beyond simplistically mirroring the physical world, and into the realm of the imagination.  In so doing, they made the image on the rock wall itself an extension of their own evolving mind:

[T]he emergence of the image made possible a new special kind of perception of the world not previously available.  The implication … is that the question to ask about Palaeolithic imagery is not ‘What kind of mind was needed to made those images?’ but instead ‘What kinds of minds are constructed by perceiving those images?’ (p.295).

These early humans were not simply attempting to reflect the world, to create a series of symbols that stood in one to one relation with observable objects (‘This squiggly line equals that horse’s head over there’), they were explorations of concepts, articulations of elements abstracted from direct correspondence.  These signs and symbols, he argues, are therefore not merely evidence that we had intellectually advanced, they actually became part of the process of that advancement.  Human beings, through the act of interpretation and imagination, were detaching themselves from direct experience in order to examine the image itself, and the concepts that this aesthetic object evokes:

‘What I suggest is, that the image makes it possible for the visual apparatus to interrogate itself and thus acquire a sense of perceptual awareness not previously available.’ (p.298)

In a later article, Malafouris speaks of this malleability of the human intellect as a kind of plasticity: ‘We have a plastic mind, which is embedded and inextricably enfolded with a plastic culture.’***  Even more evocatively, he goes on to describe this cognitive evolution as its own artistic work-in-progress:

‘Like a piece of clay, thrown onto the wheel of culture, the human mind and brain is subject to continuous re-shaping, re-wiring, and re-modelling.’ (p.55).

But however one describes it, by projecting ourselves and our imaginations out onto the world – through paint, onto cave walls – our surroundings became our canvas, and therefore became an expansion of our own minds, literally a new environment into which our abstract thought advanced and evolved.

But let’s be honest for a second.  Horses?  Cows?  Resolute hunting parties and surrealist antlers?  Earthen hues and magisterial sprawls?  A delicacy of brushstroke both tender and robust; proud and yet spritely?  Landscapes that capture the graceful and the thunderous in one?  That bring order to the transitory chaos of life through the sculpted stasis of an artist’s representational outpouring?

Pfft.

How Palaeolithic.

After all, a stampeded of unbridled stallions is so 30 millennia ago.  Nowadays we have My Little Pony.  And sure, before the invention of the wheel cows probably did look like majestic, statuesque beasts, radiating a noble, bovine tranquillity, but in the 21st century most cows come squashed between two limp sesame seed buns, discoloured by dry pickles, and served to us by an aggressively vibrant clown.  In fact, your whole theme and subject matter is outdated, guys.  We don’t pay homage to the totemic, unknowable beings that we methodically pursue and devour, any more.  Now we have celebrities.  Sure, okay, we do tend to set our emotional metronomes to every minor fluctuation of these creatures – particularly, it seems, the ones called ‘Bradley Pittington’ and ‘the Miley Cyrus’ – and yes, we do seem to hunt them for sport and scrutinise their every move…

But at least we don’t devour them.  Right?

…Okay, okay.  Shut up.

In any case, you’re out of touch, stupid precursors-of-all-modern-Art-and-culture-with-your-revolutionary-wellsprings-of-imagination.  A bunch of pictures of non-anthropomorphised animals (who cares?) painted on rocks (that’s a good way to need a tetanus shot) with hand-fashioned pigments (what no neons?) in a cave (where there is probably no parking at all)?  Geez.  Try harder next time, grandpa.

Luckily, since our ancestors and their triumphantly evocative advancement into a more imaginative self-awareness is so thoroughly dated, we have DrawQuest.

I first became aware of DrawQuest only a few weeks ago.  I was gifted a second-hand iPad, and like the witless luddite I am, at first had little idea what to do with it.  ‘But where are the small squares with which I press the letters?’ I asked.  ‘Where is the bit with the scroll wheel that I will inevitably knock onto the floor and step on?’  …Okay, this is all hyperbole, but not by much.

Indeed, although it sounds a little ridiculous, I was ignorant enough of its workings to have a brief flicker of wonder.  Here in my hands was this technical marvel (well, it’s first generation and doesn’t even have a functioning camera, but go with me here), suddenly I was peering into a window of colour and light that, with a touch of my finger, could conjure the whole breadth of human history, creativity and inquiry – an object that could near-instantaneously answer my every query, allow me to converse face-to-face with people on the other side of the globe, or show me video of most any kind of cat falling into most any kind of sink.

…So, pretty much the same as any other mass-market computer on sale anywhere – but in tablet form.  And with a touch screen that goes swish when I flick my thumb across it.

Only ten years ago an object like this would have been the stuff of science fiction****, but today it is so commonplace I’ve seen people resting their sodas on the screen for want of a coaster, seen them handed to toddlers to bash on the ground for want of a rattle, seen them hurled through the air at decathlons for want of a discus (okay, I made that last one up).  But still, this utterly remarkable slab of circuitry and wi-fi wizardry has come to represent the dawning of a new artistic age.

So what could I do with it?  What could be worthy?

When Prometheus gifted humanity the treasure of fire it heralded a whole new world order of knowledge and wonder; it represented enlightenment, the capacity to harness and utilise flame, a symbol of self-sufficiency and natural mastery around which all civilisation has blossomed into being…  Since being gifted this iPad – had this magical tablet delivered to me like some boon from the gods – I have somehow managed to leave a handful of passengers stranded in layovers on Pocket Planes (a game it is literally impossible to lose), failed to see what all the fuss is about with Angry Birds (a game I’m fairly certain is about the perils of imperialism …think about it*****), and heard myself squee with a wholly juvenile glee at the overblown nostalgic bombast of Major Mayhem (a game I truly cannot recommend highly enough – particularly as it is completely free).

But then, after a brief sojourn through Draw Something – an asynchronous Pictionary-lite game – I stumbled into DrawQuest

DrawQuest is a free iPad app designed to act as a launching point for creative expression.  Despite the adventurous title, the game is not a platformer or an RPG – it simply, elegantly, offers an opportunity to engage in creative play, providing a space, a canvas, and the opportunity of exhibition, for any and all illustration.

The app gives you a rudimentary, but surprisingly versatile, art supply kit – a pencil, paintbrush, marker, eraser, and a rainbow of colours and shades (with more that unlock relatively effortlessly), and each day presents a new ‘Quest’ – essentially a short prompt that is offered as inspiration, perhaps a picture of an empty  body of water with the question, ‘Who’s swimming?’  Should you wish, this quest can be just as easily ignored, however.  The idea is to draw straight onto the tablet using your fingers (or stylus if you have one), adding to, overwriting, or ignoring the prompt as you see fit, with the invitation to scrap or save whatever you like.

To better explain what I am talking about, I have attached a few of my rather dire offerings to this post, but do check out the finer works of other contributors here

DrawQuest Whos Sitting On The Couch

IMAGE: ‘Who’s Sitting On The Couch?’ by DrawQuest and Me

DrawQuest Help the witch move into her new house

IMAGE: ‘Help The Witch Move Into Her New House’, by DrawQuest and Me

DrawQuest Build a contraption to catch the mouse

IMAGE: ‘Build A Contraption To Catch A Mouse’ by DrawQuest and Me

There are no prizes, no fail-states, no commercials for other products.  There is no shilling for in-app purchases, or attempts to up-sell.  It is simply a safe, supportive gathering of people who love to doodle and to let their minds wander.  Indeed, aside from the opportunity to just play around and be inspired by others, it is that lack of pressure that is so refreshing.  DrawQuest is, on the whole, is by design peaceful and supportive.  You cannot vote down anyone else’s work – you either like it, or move along to something else.  No one is going to shred one other in a snippy comments section.  People can follow your work, and you can follow theirs, or you can just go meandering through the galleries of the most popular piece of the past few days.

Yes, DrawQuest can sadly still be littered with offerings that present no more than hastily scrawled pleas for followers (I truly have no idea why – having people ‘follow’ a stream of constant pleas for following sounds to me like a Sisyphean nightmare), or apologies such as ‘Sorry!  Can’t think of anything to draw!  LOLS!’, bizarrely only posted in pursuit of the game’s almost-arbitrary currency (the only thing it allows you to ‘buy’ is more colours with which to write ‘I can’t think of anything to draw…’, again, rolling a rock up a hill to nowhere).  But dig down beyond these off-handed scribblings and there is a wealth of both extraordinary artistic acuity and playful imagination on display.

People take these daily prompts and sculpt them into some wildly unique responses.  A trigger such as ‘What time is it?’ and the image of a partially rendered clock face, will elicit playful (if slightly predictable) Adventure Time scenes; will inspire small murals of daily life; stick figure vignettes of people racing to work; moments of dreamers lost in reverie; the Grim Reaper on a coffee break; groundhogs tentatively sniffing the air in search of a shadow; literary allusions to The Watchmen and The Time Machine.

And as I scan the depths of this disarmingly innocuous app, returning to it each day to exercise my own now-atrophied drawing ‘skills’ (and yearning for a stylus to replace my clumsy fingertips), I am reminded of those sublime prehistoric images, hidden underground in Lascaux, and more than a little of the cognitive growth described in Malafouris’ theories…

Because there truly is something of the cave wall in these images – and not just in the immediacy with which rock face and iPad are both stroked by humanity’s insistent fingertips.  Sure, one is pigment while the other is pixel; one communicates across the incomprehensible chasm of several millennia, while the other is but electronic vapour, born in an instant and dissolved into the labyrinthine void of the internet; but each is an attempt (however seemingly frivolous and ephemeral the latter may at first appear to be) to communicate a singular vision, to express a unique point of view.  Fundamentally, both – like all artistic expression – are stirred into being from the same elemental desire to reach out beyond the limitations of oneself and connect.

DrawQuest taps into our most elemental creative impulses, and stirs that desire to reach out beyond oneself to try to communicate something individual – even if it has been funnelled through a reverberating chamber of memes and allusions and influences.  Perhaps it’s that same urge that motivates us to pour ourselves into Twitter and facebook and Vine, that fuels the anarchic splendour of the internet itself.  For some it’s a longing to mark our territory, for some a way to connect, for still others, painting themselves onto zeros and ones and dispersing themselves into the air, it is a way to reach even further beyond the limits of their own space, to detach from canvas and paint and environment, free-associating and expanding in the untrammelled joy of creativity.

Once our cave wall was a secluded space, a cherished place, beside the warmth of a hearth fire.  It was dark, and treasured, a space that we grew into, expanded ourselves and our vision of the world through and upon.  Now we project ourselves into the cyber ether.  A mesh of pop culture and self-referential irony, a swirl of influences and stagnations and innovations projected onto the eternally insubstantial.  Once we needed cave walls to give our imagination space to grow upon; now even our walls are imaginary.  Now we create incorporeal images, refracted through the diaspora of an exponentially expanding collective unconscious.

DrawQuest offers a pop culture panoply refracted through the lens of a daily drawing prompt, with no expectation or obligation or risk of censure – just the invitation to dream, and the opportunity to hear the squeak of our plastic minds rubbing up against the endlessly shifting expanse of our metaplastic culture.  It is a multiform cave wall, at once impermanent and preserved, frivolous and profound, exhibitionist and yet profoundly personal.  It is a mass of contradictions, a breeding ground for snarky cynicism and heartfelt earnestness.

It is us, in all our goofy, dreamy splendour, stretching out into the unexplored darkness, compelled to decorate the space we find there, and in so doing, to meet ourselves, evolving into something as yet unknowable.

…Perhaps with the occasional picture of Grumpy Cat chastising Justin Bieber.

DrawQuest What Is She Drawing On The Cave Wall

IMAGE: ‘What Is She Drawing On The Cave Wall?’ by DrawQuest and Me

* ‘Her/his’ was s/he’s nickname, probably?

** ‘Before and Beyond Representation: Towards an Enactive Conception of the Palaeolithic Image’, by Lambros Malifouris.  Image and Imagination: A Global History of Figurative Representation, edited by C. Renfrew & I. Morley (Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2007, pp. 289-302.) An online version can be found here

*** ‘Metaplasticity and the Human Becoming: Principles of Neuroarcheology’, Journal of Anthropological Sciences Vol.88, 2010, pp.49-72, p.55

**** In particular I’m thinking of that ugly blinking remote control-looking thing that Al used to walk around with in Quantum Leap …although, to be fair, perhaps time travel doesn’t allow for great Wi-Fi.

***** Don’t think about it.

Brain Freeze: Frozen Synapse

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 5, 2013 by drayfish

Frozen Synapse Logo

IMAGE: Frozen Synapse (Mode 7 Games)

In many ways I have a thoroughly unhelpful and disappointing brain.  Reactive, more emotionally intuitive than coldly logical, motivated by comfort and sanguinity and introspection rather than the practicalities and planning that builds a society and keeps the lights on.  No one should ask me to build a house.  Or fix anything.  Or work out why my computer is not speaking to my printer…  I mean, shouldn’t that just work?!  I put the plug in the thing!  It says that it’s on.  The light is even blinking!

Come on!

Simply put, I’m the lazy, vague, distracted type that enjoys sitting on a sofa sipping a warm cup of tea, my thoughts drifting through the resplendent vagaries of imagination, more than I am the enterprising strategian, artfully mapping out complex manoeuvres and schemes.  When I play chess (and I play it badly), I get caught up in narrative, anthropomorphising everything.  I mourn for every fallen piece, find myself drawn into demonstratively ill-considered plays, motivated in completely irrational ways to seek vengeance for a captured rook and lamenting the soldier cut down (usually through my abject idiocy) before his time.

Oh, little horsey guy.  I will avenge thee.

So everything about my brain, my psyche, the very fabric of my being, is wired completely wrong to enjoy an experience like Mode 7 Games’ Frozen Synapse.

As a top down, turn-based strategy game in which the entire conceit is to predict, outthink, and outplay your opponent, Frozen Synapse is perhaps something of a spiritual successor to works like the original XCOM (someone, anyone, with more knowledge of these strategy games will know how accurate or otherwise this statement is).  In Frozen, you command a small squadron of drones with primitive AI – reactive pawns who obey simple, yet intuitive commands – and you are attempting to manoeuvre around a playing space – one designed to be reminiscent of a digitised circuit board – by issuing orders on where to move, where to look, how to stand, how relaxed or trigger-happy to behave.  Meanwhile, you compete against an aggressor who is concurrently trying to wipe your men off the board.  It is strategic, orderly, regimented, and requires focus and planning.

Gun to my head, I can scarcely think of a game more antithetical to my personality, less aligned with my interests…

And yet.

There is something about this game – something that ticks every box in my mind that I never knew went wanting.  Something that lies beyond that simple, petulant urge to have one-more-try…

What differentiates Frozen Synapse from other similar turn-based game designs is its innovation of an asynchronous planning stage and a parallel resolution.  You are afforded as much time as you like to plot out your move, and your opponent (either another human player, or the game itself) is offered the same; but once you both commit to the manoeuvre, time restarts, and for several seconds all of this strategy is enacted simultaneously.  Suddenly the enemy soldier you were moving to intercept has already spun off in the opposite direction; now two soldiers are heading to the same piece of cover; in a twist, the guy you were flanking has flanked your flank with his flankety flank (…I’m using that word right, no?)  And with each of these semi-intelligent playing pieces having snappy, reactive trigger fingers, things get explodey fast.

It becomes evident that unlike many strategy games, you are not prey to the whims of dice rolls and stat upgrades.  Indeed, ultimately you are not even playing the lay of the board, but rather where you predict that your opposition will move next.  It adds a whole component of projection and bluff into the objective, as you know that once you have locked in those behavioural patterns, you will be watching their routines engage with each other beyond your direct influence.  Rather than control every action, you are therefore striving to craft the most fortuitous scenario through which your little agents can succeed on their own.  You become a god of opportunity, tweaking determinism to give your rudimentary bots the greatest possibility of success.

And not surprisingly, this proves to be utterly absorbing.

Having to methodically plan out each move, watching your soldiers follow your dictates (for better or worse), scrambling for cover, peering into a room, avoiding a line of sight, blowing the snot out of half the map with a rocket launcher (that’s a good one), is profoundly addictive.  Because when it comes together, when a move does in fact accurately predict the enemy’s momentum and get the drop on them in a cathartically fatal (if momentary) triumph, the sense of achievement is quite intoxicating.  There is a genuine sense in which you have legitimately overcome, have outplayed and outwitted, a system – even in instances where (as has far too frequently been the case for me) it clearly wasn’t entirely foreseen …some in which, in truth, it was just dumb luck.

So I should make clear at this point, lest I give entirely the wrong impression: I still suck at this game.

I’m terrible.

So many times the game screen ends littered with the fallen wreckage of my shambling discordant schemes, little geometrically primitive bodies laying shattered and inert in pools of their synthetic blood.  I’ve not quite grappled with the mechanics of how swiftly a shotgunner can outpace a machinegunner; if I have to escort someone in missions I have a tendency to charge off into farcically useless cover, completely out of their line of sight; and I have little to no idea what the ‘duck’ feature does.  But wonderfully (and this is a sensation that is true of all the best videogames), here even failure feels like progression.

Even as you watch your plans go awry, you are still gradually learning the game’s mechanics, watching their logics play out.  Winning, it reveals, is not about memorising rote patterns or cracking AI routines, but about incrementally familiarising yourself with this pocket universe’s action and temporal flow.  And once you have got these jumps and starts and tactics subconsciously woven into your technique, a curious poetry of motion starts to emerge.  Suddenly line-of-sight becomes second-nature, the splashback on a grenade and destroying cover is commonplace, the sight of a missile threading doorways to ignite a distant encampment has an almost balletic grace.

On top of all this, the single player experience impressively does include a serviceable cyberpunk narrative about a dire dystopian future in which warfare (of the kind played out in the game) is conducted by synthetic programs in virtual reality.  You are effectively a hacker, using the tactics you develop to dance these algorithms into visceral combat in the artificial ‘shape’ world – the threat of death nonetheless remaining compelling despite these soldiers being overtly reduced to winking pixels and shaders.  You are vying for control of Markov Geist, a city as blessed with an overabundance of terms like ‘infographics’ and ‘vatforms’ and ‘knowledge nexus’ as it is sprinkled with suitably romantic descriptors like ‘The Shard’, ‘The Brightling Core’, ‘Fortune’s Glave’, ‘Torpor’, and the ‘Cortecan Eye’.  There are oppressive regimes, resistance movements (why, you’re a member of one, of course), cults, splinter groups, propaganda engines, totalitarian philosophies being ironically toppled by dispassionate inhuman programs.  And with the optional dossiers that accompany each mission you can dig as deeply as you wish (or not at all) into the game’s welcomingly robust world-building and fiction.

Perhaps its most ingenious design choice is the way in which it incorporates the player’s own interaction with the text into its conceit, as you, through the input of your computer, stir these digitised beings into action.  In this abstracted play-space – part Tron, part Wargames, more than a little Matrix – the game simultaneously dehumanises and invests with meaning this world, these vatform bots, and the player themself, binding them all into a necessary symbiosis.  These algorithms grant you subservience and a complete devotion of will to complete your mission; you supply them with the attribute that for the time being – at least until the inevitable robot uprising* still separates us from artificial intelligence: the capacity to imagine.  Because this game lives and breathes in that moment of projection – in that ability to fantasise oneself into a possible future, and to try to plan for its innumerable potentialities.

So with that in mind, perhaps I should look into playing the new version of X-Com: Enemy Unknown.  After all, with my penchant for getting overly invested in games of strategy and poise now totally under control, it seems to be the next logical step.  And from everything that I’ve heard about it, I’m sure I won’t get attached to those soldiers, right?  I’m sure they’ll be just like my faceless, Frozen Synapse bots.  There’s no way I’ll obsess over their every dash for cover and each foreboding engagement with the unknown.  It sure won’t matter if I name them after my friends and family and most beloved cultural icons…  Surely there’s no way I’ll feel anything when Major Springsteen is eviscerated before my eyes.  Right?

…Right?

Frozen Synapse Game Screen

IMAGE: Frozen Synapse (Mode 7 Games)

* ‘Don’t tase me, Wall-E.  Don’t tase me.’

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