'V was a bad monster, turned them into freaking zombie demons from outer space.'
I've spent the last 40 days or so trying to keep a particularly severe Asperger's Syndrome ritual at bay. Like all others before it, it relates to memories I cant quite remember or trust and irrational fears stemming from uncontrolled mental images. To keep a long and boring story short, these rituals generally consist of ruminations intrusive thoughts and perceived threats similar in a lot of ways to obsessive-compulsive disorder. If I sound blasé about it its because this is nothing new. I've been dealing with rubbish like this since birth but it's been a long time since I've had to contend with one as stubborn as this. Usually my rituals fade after a few days or are replaced by a completely different one. But whenever I am faced with one as bad as this, my tactic is to try to rationalise it in my head or find some way of identifying with it. It was this tactic that led to me giving my Asperger's an identity all of its own which ended up consisting of its own personality, mental representation and eventually an online persona.
My time at school was when things were at their worst. I wasn't diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome until the final year of secondary (high) school so had no way of explaining where these obsessive rituals or communication problems were coming from whenever I got into trouble or got into a fight with someone. In my attempts to escape it, I would immerse myself in games, films and music. Never anything particularly conventional or mainstream, usually foreign art films or alternative music since the furthest away I could get from reality the more comfortable I would be. The artistic side of media tends to make this possible. Despite their success, Ive never considered the animated band Gorillaz to be mainstream which is partly why I adopted the name 'Starshine' after a song from their 2001 debut album. Gorillaz have long been known for making alternative music a strange fusion of rock and hip-hop but manages to sound like neither hence the unique and interesting sound they produce. The song Starshine is comprised of little more than the same set of guitar strings played over a synthesizer which slowly fades to an echo as the song goes on. Its lyrics are also minimal consisting of;
Starshine, they ain't gonna find me
Starshine, never gonna find me
Stand easy with myself,
Jumping up, I'm low, low, low, low
Show me down, fast now
It's very possible these five lines could be just random nonsense. On the other hand, it could be a reference to some profound philosophical text. I don't know, but what I do know is how I interpreted it. The music, combined with Damon Albarn's haunting vocals and the lyrics themselves formed the basis for my indentifying with these rituals and thoughts that were festering in my head.
The way I read into it was that there were two individuals present in the song. The first was Starshine who, thanks to Albarn's echoed and distant singing, seems to be calling out from a mysterious void as if taunting at never being found or caught. This came to represent my Asperger's Syndrome a voice from within the mind, compelling the sufferer to perform rituals or flooding their head with unwanted images. The sufferer is unable to locate or punish this voice for the damage it's done since it has no name or visual representation no identity. The second is the sufferer. The line 'stand easy with myself' in particular carried enormous resonance of someone wanting to be left alone or trying to convince themselves that they could live a life without the influence of this mysterious voice they carried around. It was something that didn't have to be part of them, something that could be fought and left behind. It immediately recalled memories of my mother as she would try to encourage me to stop listening to it and just move forward. Easier said than done of course, but it was sound advice.
The sound and imagery of a depressed world invoked by Gorillaz became a metaphor for my own mind...
This interpretation was how I came to know this voice. Before hearing this song, I was struggling to understand what it was that I was experiencing or what I could possibly do to stop it. It wasn't something I could see in my head and recognise which essentially meant that I was at its mercy. After all, how can you fight what you can't identify? But by giving it an identity, it turns into something tangible, something that can indeed be recognised which allowed me a more coherent understanding of what I was up against. So I christened it after the song - Starshine - the enemy, the evil and oppressive tyrant that was trying to take over the mind. Perhaps an evil general leading an army on a relentless mission of dominance. After that, the rituals themselves took on a new form and became battles against him with the brain becoming a mental battlefield. It wasn't long before I even gave Starshine a visual identity to help. I struggle to remember where the image came from or what inspired it but it consisted of a man dressed in black military fatigues black and white camos, boots, a black short sleeved military vest with fingerless gloves. Since he was a manifestation of my own mind I decided that he would look identical to me in terms of body type and facial features but with black spiked hair to represent his status as an evil alter ego of mine. He could be best described as an out of control rock and roller with Gulf War syndrome - the entire opposite to my outwardly nature.
After deciding on this name, I began altering my screen name to Starshine to correspond to the imagined identity that so many of us adopt whenever we go online. It became my email address, Steam ID, GameSpot ID and anywhere else that would allow me to use it. I thought that if games and online services were representative of a virtual world and that my in game avatars would be a fictional manifestation of myself entering a crowded community (something I rarely do in reality), it would make sense that it would be Starshine who would be in control of them since he also occupies a fantastical world. Indeed, he does make himself known in games. His terrible communication skills, team working and common sense all symptoms of Asperger's Syndome - have gotten him, and therefore me, into trouble countless times. It's the reason I have yet to complete a raid on World of Warcraft for example. Occasionally I would attach 'M2A2' to the end of his name which also originated from a Gorillaz song entitled 'M1A1' but was adopted more for convenience than anything else. The reason for using it was not all games allow the creation of specific characters with their own fleshed out identity created by the user - Call of Duty and Battlefield 3 being good examples, as opposed to MMOs that allow growth and development along story driven lines.
Online gaming - the mind downloads to a computer system becoming a new online persona...
So there it is. The origins of Starshine. I've been gaming since I was around four years of age but was a late bloomer to online gaming. If memory serves, I entered my first online match some time in 2002. Since then I've encountered online names of many shapes and sizes. I often find myself wandering where the origins of those names lie. I know there are many, many gamers out there who simply choose the first name that comes to mind but I like to think that screen names, more often than not, are indicative of the user's life or some event that can transcend reality and enter the virtual world. I think that's one of the few sure fire ways we have at the moment of bringing our real lives into a computer game and a powerful message for the relationship between the mind and the computer system. Appropriate as Aspies are often said to have more in common with a computer than a human being.
British television and film magazine Radio Times recently offered it's readers the chance to review a new drama called The Politician's Husband for a chance to be published online. Well, it looks like mine made the grade as it appeared on their website:
I've long held Radio Times as being the leading magazine in film reviews and although this was for a television drama, it was a big honour for me to be decided worthy.
So, thanks to them!
*Warning. This blog contains spoliers.*
'Congratulations, you are still alive. Most people are so ungreatful to be alive. But not you. Not anymore.'
When dealing with major horror film franchises, the basic rule seems to be that of diminishing returns. Virtually all of the genre's biggest named from Halloween, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Friday the 13th and The Exorcist to smaller but equally successful names such as The Blair Witch Project, have failed to maintain a consistent level of quality. So with this in mind, I had been extremely sceptical of the Saw franchise beyond the first two which had both been given positive reviews by Radio Times. Indeed, as the series went on there seemed to be a sharp dip in praise beginning with the third film which was all I needed to decide subsequent entries weren't worth bothering with.
But when the sixth and seventh films were released, reviews became positive again and I thought perhaps it was worth braving the middle section of the series if only to get to an ending that had been referred to as a 'Shakespearean crescendo of anguish and carnage' by Radio Times indicating both its profundity and bite. Also consider that Saw is one of the few major horror franchises that do what is so essential to keep audiences returning which is to end each film on a cliffhanger. Saw II was no different and finally I decided 'how can I possibly resist? I have to find out what happens to Eric Matthews. Does he survive the bathroom trap? And what of Amanda Young, Jigsaws new apprentice?' So, against my better judgment, I went out and bought the remaining five films and boy was it worth it!
The first thing that I need to stress about Saw is that it goes far deeper than the superficial label of 'torture-porn' that had been stamped on the series since the original film was released. While it's true that the selling point of the first three films is the inventive use of machinery, medieval torture devices and household tools to create devious traps with which to kill Jigsaw's victims, the skilful use of narrative and plotting is often overlooked. Saw I, II and III cleverly meander between multiple plots which eventually intersect and tie up into a surprise twist ending that would give Shyamalan a run for his money. Saw II in particular uses two separate events that initially appear to be unrelated but slowly reveals the connections between what is happening to those trapped in the nerve gas house and Matthews' battle of wills with Jigsaw while the ending seems to defy the very laws of time itself. So there's a great deal of intelligence behind the obviousness of the visuals that demands a more open mind that some horror fans may be used to. While the simple linear narratives of Halloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre may have been enough to sustain their premise, Saw is more interested in game playing and puzzle solving which showcases the ingenious potential of the horror genre beyond the modern agenda of extreme violence.
Saw often features multiple plots in each film; here police hunt one trap victim who is watching those in another.
Saw IV is by far the highlight of the series. While the inventive plotting and traps remain, the narrative itself becomes far more disturbing as the focus shifts from the plight of the victims to Jigsaw himself. The first three entries are very much centred on the victims of Jigsaw's traps and their attempts to outwit and overcome him. The original film in particular sees seemingly ordinary individuals targeted for 'taking their lives for granted' as Jigsaw puts it. The two central characters, Dr. Gordon, an adulterer and Adam, a freelance photographer would seem to be in need of a morality check but are hardly presented as evil and certainly not deserving of the violence that is inflicted on them. The audience's sympathy towards them is further encouraged by the targeting of Dr. Gordon's entirely innocent family. So here, Jigsaw is nothing more than a deranged serial killer with a warped view on human nature akin to serial killers seen in Se7en and Phone Booth.
In Saw IV, great steps are taken to provide him with a sympathetic background. It is revealed that he was once a respectable engineer with a beautiful wife with a child on the way. His wife ran a clinic for recovering drug addicts which would later for the catalyst for his games. During a series of flashbacks, it is shown that one of his wife's patients caused the death of her unborn child while frantically trying to steal medicine to fuel his addiction. This sets in motion Jigsaw's disillusionment with humanity and what he views as the ineffective methods of clinical rehabilitation. During the traps, his motto 'cherish your life' can be seen etched onto walls demonstrating his desire to encourage newfound appreciation in his subjects for their own lives. It isn't further elaborated until Saw V but his mantra is explained as rehabilitation through saving oneself from a near death experience thereby reawakening the survival instinct and creating an opposition to their self destructive lifestyles. It is a method of rehabilitation he believes to be far more effective than the conventional treatment his wife offers which he indicates by Amanda Young, a former drug addict and his first successful test subject.
Cherish your life.
So it would seem from the fourth film that the writers are attempting to justify Jigsaw's actions and demonstrating the need for his traps when more acceptable means of rehabilitation fail. Sympathy for Jigsaw is further encouraged by the increasingly heinous victims of his as the series goes on. In the first three films, his subjects consist of adulterers, voyeurs, drug addicts, prostitutes and self harmers among others - certainly not innocent individuals but who could hardly be called the devil, rather victims of their own actions. But in Saw IV, Jigsaw's 'victims' include a pimp responsible for prostituting underage girls, a serial rapist, and an abusive husband and father. The traps are designed specifically to damage them in a way that relates to their crimes such as the dismemberment of the rapist's body. Jigsaw's recordings of his voice explaining the rules of each trap seem designed specifically to provoke anger in the viewer. The tape left for the rapist in particular states;
'Hello, Ivan. As a Voyeur you have kept photos of those you have victimised. Can you see the pain you have brought them? You have torn apart their lives. You have used your body as an instrument of abuse. Now, I give you the chance to decide which is more important; your eyes which have led you blindly astray or your body which has caused those around you endless suffering.'
With that, Ivan is left to either gouge out his own eyes or allow himself to be torn limb from limb by the machine he is attached to.
Situations like this combined with Jigsaw's own tortured past all serve to encourage shifting sympathies. With the further revelations made in Saw V as well as the targeting of corrupt insurance companies in Saw VI, the filmmakers side more and more with what would be utterly unacceptable in any other context. But IV remains the most psychologically punishing, morally conflicting and therefore the most frightening of the series simply due to the dilemma it creates in the mind of the audience. After all, who are we to support; a tortured serial killer or his victim, an unrepentant rapist? Whereas my sympathy was firmly on Gordon and Adam in the first film, I had none whatsoever for subjects like Ivan which leaves a moral vacuum that can only be filled by Jigsaw himself as he ends up becoming the only viable object of sympathy that inspires the least amount of guilt within us. Can it also be argued that he is merely an embodiement of what we would all like to do to a rapist, pimp or wife beater but are stopped by our own sense of morals?
A suffering wife is forced to kill her abusive husband in order to free herself from Jigsaw's trap.
Just recently I managed to get hold of the final film and while not in the same league as past entries, the sheer insanity of Saw 3D ensures the franchise still ends with a bang. By this point in the story, Jigsaw has died and his apprentice Mark Hoffman has taken over his legacy. Unfortunately he is far more cold blooded and ruthless and the film is essentially showing what results when Jigaw's mantra is left in the hands of someone else without the twisted moral agenda to keep them in check. What follows is a climatic bloodbath bringing a definitive end to what is a severely underrated horror film franchise.
There are many films that deal with difficult and traumatic issues in society ranging from rape to suicide but it takes immense skill and care to portray them in a way that is both intelligent and sensitive. Perhaps the most difficult issue of all is child abuse. I recently saw two films that deal with it but perhaps not in the way one might expect. Both films tell their stories from the point of view of the perpetrator rather than the victim and ask difficult questions that present something far more complicated than a simple right and wrong scenario. It may seem controversial to give a child abuser the time of day but it is in this more murky terrain that more substantial points can be made. After all, it's easy to brand a child abuser a monster or an evil doer but not so easy is making sense of both their actions and the reactions of those around them which is at the centre of both films.
The following contains spoilers.
First up is The Hunt, a 2012 Danish film and the more recent of the two. Mads Mikkelsen plays Lucas, a nursery worker who is falsely accused by a child of sexual abuse. As a result, he becomes a target for the local community's anger. The film's focus is on the danger's of public hysteria but where I found it most conflicting was in its representation of the members of this small village community who quickly resort to an angry mob mentality. Lucas is beaten by shop workers when trying to buy groceries, bricks are thrown through his windows and his dog is killed then left on his doorstep. While I'm sure there are many who would say it is a reaction that should be expected if a child abuser was in the vicinity, the film soon had me feeling more anger towards them than it did towards Lucas. The villagers are generally portrayed as thuggish both in nature and look. Many are ape-like and tower over Lucas behaving as if they were bouncers at a night club preventing him from entering shops or trying to talk to people who might be able to tell him why such a lie was being told about him. So, the film asks difficult questions about how to deal with such an issue when looking at it from a one sided perspective. Does a violent action justify a violent reaction? And what of Lucas's innocence and the damage done to his own life? If his name were to be cleared, the villagers would be able to walk away relatively unscathed but would Lucas ever be able to shake the destructive effects on his psyche? When referring to child abuse, it would seem 'innocent until proven guilty' does not apply and the film's most difficult questions are based around the blind reactions stemming from it where the concequences could be even more destructive than the perceived actions of the accused.
The second film is 2004's The Woodsman which is perhaps even more difficult since it portrays a convicted child molester with sympathy and humanity. Kevin Bacon, who continues to distinguish himself as one of Hollywood's most underappreciated assets, plays Walter who attempts to rebuild his life after being released from prison. He is given a job and begins a relationship with a local woman. He is even befriended by a child which forces him to come to terms with his own past. Despite all of this and having served his sentence he continues to be harassed by a local cop and also by his colleagues once his past is revealed to them. It's in this continued punishment that the film becomes more challenging. The question being asked of the viewer was whether or not Walter was now a victim or a perpetrator. Under the law, he has paid for his crimes and is no longer a reason for concern. Yet in societys eyes, he is still nothing more than a paedophile. If he has served his sentence, is he not deserving of the same peaceful existence expected by anyone else? At what point do we stop punishing and start forgiving? If Walter has now been reformed but we continue to punish, who is now the more monstrous? Like The Hunt, the film is perhaps a commentary on those who react to violence rather than violence itself but can also be taken as a message that morality is difficult to place when dealing with forgiveness and the passing of time.
Both films are undeniably brave and I found them equally difficult to watch for very different reasons. While The Hunt inspired anger and disgust, The Woodsman was something sad and disillusioning. But what neither film did was to make targets out of the obvious. Rather than simply condemning, they ask and discuss which is usually not something society is interested in doing when faced with something as shattering as child abuse. The first instinct is to prove and to punish since trying to understand may very well be considered pointless or the kind of attention the accused would be underserving of. But by doing so, more complicated issues surface that are not always black and white and are too seldom considered which is where both films truly emerge as hugely important works. It is always the film that conflicts that asks the most interesting questions and when dealing with an issue such as this, those questions can be among the most difficult of all.
In 1961, Yale University conducted what is now known as the 'Milgram experiment' to test the psychological effects of torture. The intention was not to discover how much pain could be tolerated but how much could be dished out by the torturer before morality and conscience began to take hold if at all. The experiments involved two participants; 'the Teacher' was rigged up to a computer that could deliver an electric shock through wires attached to the wrist while 'the Experimenter' monitored and controlled the device with which the shocks were generated from. Both were separated from each other but the Experimenter was able to observe and record reactions from the Teacher without being seen by the latter. The results provided clear evidence of the ease with which torture could be inflicted through detachment from the victim. The disconnection and dissociation the Teacher and Experimenter had (or rather, didn't have) with each other indicated the human conscience was able to endure far more extreme levels of moral conflict if responsibility was reduced to only conceptual levels. In other words, it is far easier to cause pain to someone anonymous and unknowing rather than looking them in the eye.
'The Teacher' being prepared for shock and awe...
Torture has been a subtext of entertainment for many years with films being at the forefront of presenting such imagery without ever implicating the viewer as being complicit. Countless examples include the so-called 'torture porn' sub-genre of horror films that are known for depicting visceral and graphic scenes of the mutilation of one character by another. However the viewer is always protected and reassured by the knowledge that they are only a passive observer, much like the Experimenter. The very fact that they are aware of their disconnection from the events on screen allows a much greater degree of tolerance of the violence being witnessed. It also allows all personal responsibility to be waived and enables freedom from conscience and all manner of questions regarding morality never have to be confronted. It is in this freedom that the gap between films and games grows ever wider and difficult issues of games' interactivity over film's passivity come to light. Fallout 3 and Call of Duty: Black Ops are both examples of games that draw the player into the act of torture but for very different and equally disturbing reasons.
Violence has existed in games more or less from their beginnings. Not simply from the release of more controversial examples like Doom and Duke Nukem 3D but from as early as Super Mario Bros. 2 that required you to avoid spike traps and being burned to death by lava. All being released at a time when gaming technology was still in its infancy, it meant games often had more control over the player than vice versa. Players were forced down linear paths, there was never any question as to the goal that needed to be accomplished and little to no story context for the events being experienced. So they were free of torture due to the player having only minimal control over their actions which betrays the nature of torture which is to have absolute control over the fate of the victim.
The defining characteristic of Fallout 3 and what is now considered one of the hallmarks in modern game design in general is the amount of freedom given to the player. The game takes place entirely in an open non-linear world that contains no time limits and missions that can be completed in any order the player chooses at any pace they desire. While offering a wealth of opportunities, where this becomes problematic in the debate on torture in games is the choices that seem tailored to causing as much pain as possible to your enemies. At the forefront of this is the Vault-tech Assisted Targeting System (V.A.T.S.) which allows the player to target individual body parts on enemies. Combined with the ability to cripple limbs and the slow motion gameplay whenever the feature is used, bodies are left at the mercy of the player who can assign varying degrees of lethality to each limb. The role-playing elements that allow the assignment of 'perks' to improve your performance when using V.A.T.S. extend to the ability to cause more damage but also comes with the automatic ability to make them explode in a shower of bloody limbs when shot. This would seem to indicate that if you want to have the best chance at surviving the game, you have to be as violent as possible. Aside from the developments in RPG mechanics, improvements in technology and physics engines also allow the dismemberment of corpses that was once impossible due to the limitations inherent to the days of Doom. But most conflicting of all is a mission that requires you to assume the role of a maniacal childlike mass murderer known as 'the Pint-sized Slasher' where the only objective is to massacre an entire neighbourhood of innocents. The player is never under threat here and is left to dish out violence as mercifully quickly or as brutally slowly as they see fit. So while the game does indeed offer a choice to the player to be as violent as they decide, it seems bent on pushing them towards a violent choice when dealing with enemies or civilians alike. The promise of more effective performances in combat if one chooses the more violent perks incidentally takes place far before this mission so the idea of choice concerning the level of violence one wants to cause seems more and more of an illusion. Fallout 3's one saving grace for how it might justify such encouragement is that it still presents the player with just enough of a choice to avoid committing these acts of violence. The game is certainly not impossible without these perks or by decimating any enemy you come into contact with but it cannot be denied that it all but demands you assume the role of a torturer in order to be at your best in the world it presents you with.
She's at your mercy, not his.
The depiction of torture in Fallout 3 suffers under a lack of specific context. The story doesn't require it nor do the missions present you with specific reason for it aside from the simple idea that you can. So when games do present it in a context of which the most volatile is the real world and political kind, the issue becomes even murkier. Call of Duty: Black Ops is a game that is steeped in political commentary from the mission text being blacked out in the style of a classified government document to the methods in which information was extracted from the enemy. At the start of the mission 'numbers' the player is depicted as placing a shard of glass in the mouth of a torture victim before punching him repeatedly. This obviously implicates the player in the violence on screen as this is all seen from a first-person perspective but the more disturbing question is whether or not the player has been complicit in something real. The use of torture as an interrogation method has long been kept secret by the United States including by the Bush Administration and all accusations that any such activity took place have been vehemently denied. But if you take the example of the film Zero Dark Thirty which has become infamous for suggesting the location of Osama Bin Laden was extracted through torture, the argument is far from one sided. On one, CIA officials as well as Vietnam Veteran John McCain who was captured and tortured by the Vietnamese have branded the film's suggestions of waterboarding as nonsense. On the other, Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal both defended their belief that torture did indeed take place. The Huffington Post writer G Robery Denson also defended it by claiming that artistic expression was being made a scapegoat for information that had already been admitted by government officials. So how can we possibly tell one way or the other? Because of this, the question remains that events such as those in Black Ops could very well have taken place and without any definitive closure to the argument, depictions of torture remain frighteningly believable for the player and without the safety of the knowledge that they are experiencing something fictional, their implied complicity becomes all the more disturbing.
Complicit political commentary
What does all of this mean for the act of torture itself? How do games deal with the violence and the implications behind such depictions if we were to see them simply for what they are for just a moment? Whether it's fictionalised sensationalism or political commentary, the simple concept of prolonged physical pain has never been something that games deal with very well for the simple reason that they have to remain entertainment. There is only so far that one can take the portrayal of pain before it becomes undesirable for those who have to play through it. One of the problems with Manhunt 2 was that it was so overpowering and pointlessly violent that it ceased to be entertainment and became something far less savoury. It was unfortunate since the game had a good opportunity to make an interesting commentary on the line between observing and being complicit in torture in the same way the Milgram experiment had done particularly in the original game where much of the violence was seen through CCTV cameras. But this was buried under the sheer severity of the imagery itself. This raises the question of what the point of such imagery is in the first place. What would we ultimately get out of it if there was no context by which to judge or comment on it beyond the violence itself? So it's ironic that the severity of the image may be the only safeguard against being too absorbed in the idea of complicity if one is disinclined to experience it to begin with.
The general rule should be that whenever instances of torture are featured as entertainment, they are always accompanied by story context, music, sound effects and many other methods of dressing up extreme violence as palatable entertainment. If you were to take a game that consisted of nothing more than one person torturing another with none of the above, the response from the audience is likely to be more of disgust than of joy (with lack of a better word). In fact a browser game known simply as Torture Game 2 consists of exactly that and incurred the wrath of Fox News in a way I have yet to see with a AAA game that does employ those elements. But what if this is ultimately where games can blur the distinction between fictional entertainment and the perception of reality by placing the gamer in the shoes of a torturer for those seeking more than the mere passive observance in 'torture porn' cinema? Does this demand that story and all forms of context be stripped away in order for the purity of the experience to emerge? It would certainly seem the more visceral a game is, the more believable and disturbing it becomes. But if professional game developers were ever to focus on creating a realistic and visceral torture scene in a game due to audience demand, the fact that such demand exists would probably be more disturbing than the scene itself.
This is an extract from the introduction to a book I'm writing entitled 'the War of the Limbic System' that focuses on growing up with Asperger's Syndrome. What's posted here is the introduction to an 80,000 word book so it's intention is to offer a starting point for the reader, set the tone and to explain the origins of AS in a more subjective way. The reason i'm going for a subjective viewpoint and slightly whimsical tone rather than simply explaining what it consists of is because most people will probably have read the basics before or at least be aware of them. I think it's a pretty well documented subject these days. So, this is my attempt to be a little bit different and especially to avoid clichés and any hint of pretentiousness. Both are absolutely unacceptable in this book so if you feel that's how it comes across, please let me know.
Anyway, here it is:
As I start this first act, the most difficult question is where I should begin. Perhaps a more relevant question is where Asperger's Syndrome begins. If this is truly a subjective syndrome, there will be different answers to that question and for those who have spent their lives in research, it is one of the most difficult of all. For the moment, the exact cause of both Autism and Aspergers Syndrome remains unknown but there are several prevalent theories. One is that it is caused by a kind of error in development during the formation of the brain. Maybe a few cells that are more rebellious than the rest decide to go left instead of right shortly after conception. Another is that it is hereditary. Indeed, there have been many cases of Aspies describing similar traits in their parents including my own father who began to exhibit a lack of empathy and emotional connection with others in my teenage years. But, one thing that Asperger's Syndrome is not caused by is a child's upbringing. It is a neurological disorder present long before pregnancy is even discovered and is not susceptible to any third party influence. With such differing theories it would seem the most anyone can really do is to study what they can see in the symptoms and behaviour of those affected by it. Nevertheless, I do have to begin my own case somewhere and there would appear to be several places to do so.
So, does it begin in the womb shortly after conception as some have suggested? If so, what microscopic mechanism is at work there that could lead to such a fundamental departure from the way others see, hear and think when eventually born? Does it really boil down to something as random and accidental as a few cells ending up in the wrong place? In my struggles to make sense of it that spurned all kinds of wild imaginings, the most persistent in a blur of metaphors that stuck in my mind was about how life itself began on Earth. It started with a single-celled organism alone in the dark abyss of the sea. One day, it decides to divide to form a second cell. Millions of years later it will have developed into a complicated sea dwelling life forms including the first sharks. Much later, after branching off to form other forms of life, they crawl out of the sea to form even more varied creatures, beasts and insects. So, what began as just one basic cell evolved into an entire world of countless species both animal and plant. Yet, it was all seemingly accidental. What infinite number of events and variables had to occur to ensure that two cells in the body of one such animal, bird or fish met in order to set in motion a new path of evolution that would result in the formation of a new species? Perhaps those that believe Asperger's Syndrome to be part of their personality rather than a disability are correct if this is the natural order of life on this planet. A more dramatic theory would be that it represents a form of natural evolution in the human brain. An accidental or miss placed cell setting in motion a brand new way for a human being to think and to view the world. In almost all cases, Aspies display signs of uncanny attention to detail and the ability to notice everything around them. In doing so, they find new ways to approach everyday tasks. For example, when in school I would often be asked to move closer to the teacher whenever I got into trouble, which was quite often. They would demand that I do it immediately and as quickly as possible. Instead of moving down to the front normally by walking through the aisle between desks, I jumped on top of them and hopped over the gaps in order to reach the front more quickly, knocking over science apparatus or stepping on other students work. It wasn't out of a desire to anger them but merely to do as I was told. It has been said that we only use a small portion of our brains. So, maybe Asperger's Syndrome simply unlocks the rest of it or offers that extra dimension needed to spot quicker or more efficient ways of approaching a situation. Perhaps this is where a purpose can be found in these seemingly random formations of rogue cells in that they allow access to parts of the brain and in turn, the mind, that were previously closed off to us and remain closed off to most other people. Are Aspies representative of the future of evolution? Who's to say but its one of the more romantic and positive theories I have thought up.
Unfortunately, all of this could very easily be wishful thinking generated by an impressionable and over-active imagination. Some believe Apies are cursed with nothing more than a disability that impairs their normal brain functions and with good reason in the more severe cases that leave those unable to even speak to the people around them. It would surely be difficult to find the positive side in such situations. If our brains have been freed by Aspergers Syndrome as I suggested, why do we exhibit difficulties in even the most basic methods of communication from recognising someones facial expressions to understanding the simplest of jokes? It seems that as one door of our brains is opened, another one is closed. When things were at their worst with my obsessions, I would often interpret it as something insidious or evil. An evil entity that would taunt and laugh at me by promising something unique and advantageous but at the same time taking away everything that would enable me to function socially. From this more negative viewpoint, it became a malevolent force that had crept into the mind during its vulnerable stages of development rather than existing on a physical plain. The brain is obviously something physical but the mind exists solely as a collection of images that defines our lives. In that way, maybe the answer to the origins of being an Aspie lie in a more psychological or metaphysical state. I would sometimes envision my mind as a kaleidoscope of bright colours that would merge and disperse with one another in a constantly shifting mass of imagery. Within those colours would be my memories held within an electrical cloud of red, blue and yellow. My Asperger's Syndrome was represented by a malevolent black cloud of dust and ash that had formed with my mind in the womb and would periodically invade those colourful images to poison and distort them. It was something that seemed to be beyond my control. It would grab hold of certain images and twist them into a different shape that would become memories of obsessive compulsions that needed performing. As I got older and my symptoms became more intrusive, I felt more and more that it was becoming a suffocating and blinding cloud that prevented me from being able to see the world through clear eyes.
If Asperger's Syndrome does not begin immediately after conception, maybe it begins when we are born. When we first open our eyes and take in that first sight of the world around us. How would we interpret it? Would it be through the eyes of someone who was a fully functioning Aspie? Are we born with all of its symptoms or do they develop later in life with the rest of our bodies? If it is the latter, they must develop quickly as a typical age for those symptoms to become noticeable is around 3 years of age. Most likely we are indeed born with every symptom already in place but merely lack the tools to make them known in that first year or so. Some more than others as it would certainly be our unusual speech patterns that we first use to express our view of the world to others. But at a time when vocal communication is not quite ready to make itself known yet, the eyes would seem to be the first indication of a different mind if even if we were not aware of it. The first time a child looks around a room and stops to focus on something small or something with a strange shape or pattern would be the very first example of reacting to the world as an Aspie therefore marking the beginning of life with Asperger's Syndrome.
For game developers, to create a reboot is to run a lethal gauntlet of game design. The general opinion of reboots remains polarised and there are plenty of arguments for and against their existence. On the one hand they can enable the evolution of franchises and the show the potential for innovation. On the other, they risk incurring the wrath of fans and altering established ideas in character and story unique to a particular game world for the worse. Despite the impression that there are more obstacles to avoid than there are justifications to reboot a franchise in the first place, the primary advantage they offer is in reinvention the continuation of a franchise to keep it in line with a constantly and rapidly evolving industry as well as to ensure it flows with culture rather than get left behind by it. By doing so, developers can avoid many of the pitfalls of altering a franchise by embracing the potential for creating something innovative.
When discussing shifting cultural expressions, one significant example was the decision to move the Medal of Honor franchise away from World War II towards the conflict in Afghanistan. Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, the last well received game in the series, was released in 2002 before the war in the middle-east had reached its apex with the invasion of Iraq which subsequently continued into Afghanistan. As war became a very real and contemporary issue for games to tackle, Medal of Honor moved away from the Rambo-esque style of gameplay where gamers could single-handedly bring down the entire German army and transformed it into the slow, cat and mouse attrition of insurgency warfare that defined the War on Terror. This reboot enabled the franchise to reinvent itself in order to properly adopt a more serious and realistic approach to depicting warfare that communicated to a generation of gamers who were watching footage of the real thing on their television screens rather than the fictionalised and cinematic portrayals of World War II. Both these sensationalised representations of war and the cartoonish portrayals seen in Allied Assault were no longer appropriate for contemporary settings making reinvention the only viable course of action if the franchise was to remain relevant for a modern culture.
Insurgency warfare as represented in Medal of Honor.
When Crystal Dynamics set about reinventing Lara Croft for the newly released Tomb Raider reboot, it was a perfect example of an evolving industry leaving a tired and dated caricature behind to make way for the adoption of modern gaming culture. When the first game was released back in 1996, it was at a time when key ideas in character and story design were in their infancy allowing only limited scope in character development. In Croft's case, she was set up from the beginning as an aristocratic archaeologist with a large chest and never progressed much further than that over the course of the series. As time went on and games became more cinematic, scripted and narrative focused to compete with films, the demand and importance for realistic characters were at odds with her then-current image of a fearless and superficial sex symbol - particularly absurd considering the potentially lethal situations she so often found herself in. So, to bring Lara Croft into the contemporary era of strong but sensible female protagonists, the reboot focused on creating a vulnerable young woman faced with a traumatic experience that allowed a believable reaction from the character to the dangers she faced in her story. Her sense of fear is now palpable and the realistic approach to her discovery of the hardened survival instinct registers on a highly emotional level. It was an essential change in direction, not only to conform to what gamers now expect from their heroes but because the clash between creating a cinematic experience set in a savage and dangerous world would have been completely undermined by the presence of an out-of-proportion sex symbol.
Reinvention through a franchise reboot.
Of course, it's impossible to please everyone when it comes to entertainment and reboots represent the most treacherous ground in regards to established fan bases for popular franchises. While reboots do, for the most part, reinvent and innovate an ailing or dated franchise, they ironically remove some of the most famous and well known examples of originality in gaming. As sexist and absurd as the previous iterations of Lara Croft may seem today, she was the first true sex symbol of gaming and therefore holds a place in the industry's history. Her image is representative and unmistakable as being part of the Tomb Raider name and its a testament to her fame and power of endurance that she is able to be recognised even by those, such as myself, who have had no prior experience with the series. So, ousting that symbol in favour of something more down to earth was always going to be risky. As narratives have become the central theme to many games these days, the challenge faced by developers is maintaining a unique and recognisable character while also remaining true to a hero who is more in tune with real life. While this offers the chance for realism and believability and the potential for greater emotional connection, one of the pressing issues of character design is to create one who is not simply going through the motions of self-discovery, a tragic back-story or fracturing relationships that many of us will by now have seen before. An advantage of Croft's voluptuous caricature was that there was never any need to worry about this as sheer image alone was enough to turn her into an icon. So, reinvention is sometimes at the sacrifice of distinctive and enduring symbolism and it remains unknown if this new image of Croft will become as famous as her previous incarnation or dissolve into a sea of modern gaming heroes who already share many of the same characteristics. Another danger is that while this more modern iteration of Croft is certainly far easier to take seriously, developers still need to be careful when creating a fragile and vulnerable young woman in todays morally complex world. Such a representation could perhaps be viewed as sexist in of itself as it is open to attack from those who may very well argue the concept of a fragility and vulnerability is a clichéd and stereotypical viewpoint of femininity on the part of Crystal Dynamics. Not to mention the growing demand for a return to the gaming heroes of old where a potentially clichéd back-story can be ignored in the interest of pure entertainment with Bulletstorm probably being one of the best examples of that.
Does an initially defenceless Croft represent room for character growth or a potential attack on a sexist representation?
Perhaps now I should take a moment to consider the future of the reboot itself. There have already been a large number of them in a relatively short space of time. Some have said that we are currently experiencing an industry that may see them as nothing more than the next big thing a fad that may soon be over. This begs the question of how reboots can hope to justify their continued existence if they are going to prove themselves as something more than that. The answer surely lies with the developers themselves. Carrying out reinventions like these would require developers to seek out new talent which is where reboots can also serve to keep the industry from stagnating. As cultural trends change, new breeds of designers, writers and actors are all given the chance to emerge as important players. It would not be a stretch to suggest that reboots may become one of the primary ways to nurture the industry in the future.
I originally posted this blog as part of Chalk Talk last year but since the issue of game violence is currently hotter than ever following the tragedy in Connecticut, I thought it would be relevant to recall my thoughts on violent imagery. The focus of this blog is the wider objective they carry which is so often overlooked by those who see them simply as 'murder simulators' as Jack Thompson once called them.
I watched the latest trailer for the game Lucius today. It's a game that's being dubbed by several users in the trailer's comments section right here on GameSpot as an example of violent imagery being taken too far. These are comments I havent heard from actual gamers since the release of those that became known for their particularly violent content from the Grand Theft Auto games to Postal. Several users left comments objecting to the portrayal of a child committing acts of violence and whose sole purpose in the game is to murder members of his household and how they would never play such a game. It got me thinking back to a lot of the films I studied while in university and how they relate to the attitudes of certain users towards computer games.
Context is always the first thing people should consider before labelling any art form violent or obscene. In this case, the child in question is actually under the influence of the devil and is being coerced into performing violent acts. So, the game appears to be making a statement about anti-satanism - a kind of rejection of the perceived corruption of the very soul defined by analysts of sadist literature centuries ago. But that's just one way of reading it and it may not even be that complicated. Perhaps the very point of the game is to provoke reactions like those users on the comments board. There are some films and games whose message is nothing more complicated than to generate an emotional response. French cinema has been doing this for a long time with its extreme horror genre which includes seemingly pointless violence in films like Martyrs but when looked at closer, reveals a startlingly powerful message - in Martyrs' case it was the theory that violence can be a window into the afterlife. Theories like this vary between critics and psychologists but most agree that screen violence's primary power is the response it generates from the audience. If it truly is the aim of Lucius to repulse its audience, can that not be seen as a positive thing? If it succeeds in creating that emotion, it serves to highlight human response as being what society would judge it should be. And if it does not, perhaps the merely indicates our own indifference towards such acts of violence. I remember sitting through a screening of Irreversible's infamous rape scene and feeling well and truly sick afterwards. But with that came a sense of relief that I was reacting to it the way a well adjusted person should. So, it can argued that violence is merely entertainment's way of reminding us who and what we are and is not intended to corrupt or have any malevolent goal. In either case, whether you appreciate the game for its ability to affect or believe it to be pure evil, I think games like Lucius often tells us far more about ourselves than about the industry, its content or the people who made it. On a more practical note, there is still the basic argument is that this is not the first game to have a child as the perpetrator of violence. Bully is one while the resemblance some enemies in Dead Space 2 have to infants is another. Then there are the countless examples in film from The Exorcist to Eden Lake and I think it would be unfair to single out this one example without considering the others and how they fit into the whole spectrum of screen violence and its effects.
Several users objected to the depiction of an innocent child driven to committ the murder of his own household.
But of course, the game isn't even out yet, so my message to those who have already judged the game in the negative is that if you're looking for a moral or point to the images within this game that's more tangible than the theories I've noted above in order to justify its content, you'll have to wait until it's released because right now you're merely judging a book by its cover. Perhaps this game is trying to be a metaphor for mental illness or parental neglect and the results of that. From the look of the screenshots and interviews it seems to be the latter. If so, I'd say it has a very meaningful and relevant place in modern culture.
'Copy Cat' Crimes
To discuss examples of real world violence that may or may not have been copy cat crimes of images seen in video games, I wrote a short paper on screen violence while studying media. I used the Columbine school shootings as an example of how computer games are often flimsy scapegoats for acts of violence that are both shocking and sudden. As soon as it became known that the shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had been playing Doom, the blame was immediately put upon it despite the fact that they were both the victims of bullying and homosexual taunts. Both were also suffering from psychosis and depression. And yet so many ignored all of this and decided to blame a computer game. But in academia, you have to remain objective so I argued that if Doom was indeed a factor in the shooting, it was likely the catalyst rather than the cause. It may have been only the final shove in a situation that had been building for many years until Klebold and Harris were no longer able to suppress themselves. Like all atrocities, the Columbine shooting was obviously not committed by individuals who were of sound mind. Doom has a very large audience world wide and 99% do not committ real world violence. The same applies to all violent acts as they are all attributable to permanent or momentary loses of rational thought and judgement depending on their severity.
There is always the argument that games are constantly evolving and it becomes especially relevant when discussing computer game characters that are sometimes perceived as mindless psychopaths. I dont believe that labels such as 'murder simulators' as Jack Thompson described the Grand Theft Auto franchise can still be applied to modern computer games. Games have shifted from simplistic distractions and past times to complex narrative focused entertainment. For example, while GTAIII focused on an anonymous and emotionless character running amok around a city causing as much mayhem as possible, Grand Theft Auto IV's Niko Bellic was given an entire history, psychology, personality and purpose. Moral issues were raised in the game as Bellic's reasons for committing acts of violence were to protect family members and were the product of a past that he was regretful of. He frequently expresses remorse for killing people in the game and his demeanor is that of someone who wants to escape a life of crime, not be sucked deeper into it as Claude did in GTAIII since his only goal was to climb the criminal ladder. So, if anything, GTAIV actually promotes a positive message about the destructive effect crime and violence has on the human psyche which is illustrated in Niko Bellic.
Grand Theft Auto IV's Niko Bellic is far from the mindless, voiceless thug of the violent games of old.
Ultimately, I suppose the difficult issue facing games and those who revile them now is that as they evolve, questions that were raised by crimes such as Columbine and the imagery of titles like Lucius are only going to become harder to answer as they enter the grey area between the violence of gameplay and the morality of story. If Grand Theft Auto IV is any evidence, the number of issues, variables and problems that those examining real-life violence face is rapidly increasing.
'In a short time, Hollywood action films and thrillers have come to reflect the cultural zeitgeist of the war on terrorism'
- John Ip, Moritz College of Law
I finally got around to watching The Dark Knight Rises today. I took so long not due to lack of interest but simply because there are so many superhero films around now that I've become reluctant to buy into yet another backstory or mythological construct that ultimately follows the same pattern as most others. But I've always held Christopher Nolan's Batman films as standing apart from iterations that have come before in the way it deals with each films villain, their motives and behaviour taking on similarities with real world terrorists. Most superhero films contain analogies to terrorism with plans for world domination or mass slaughter but its Nolan's films that contain the ultra serious references to a generation living in a post 9/11 age. Essentially, they strip away the camp tone and grandiose action of most similar films to deliver a more realistic depiction of attacks on cities or populations and the reasons behind them. It's a far cry from the motifs of the action dominated decade that had immediately preceded it and one only has to revisit that decade's action genre to notice the stark contrast in style.
The 1990s were a golden age for the Hollywood action film. Examples such as Die Hard 2, Speed, Independence Day, The Rock and Face/Off are now all regarded as classics of the genre. But it's a genre that has changed significantly since the 90s both in terms of their messages and their visuals, from aesthetics to cinematography. All of these titles represented a time when there were no qualms about destroying entire cities, wiping out countless numbers of people or making use of deplorable devices such as nuclear weapons or poison gas rockets. To Hollywood, these were simply the tools with which to entertain their audiences. Perhaps the prevalence of such films took hold largely because this decade was, for the most part, a rather dull one. Politically, it was the end of many sensitive issues such as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War, becoming what many have seen as culturally stagnant since an absence of world events means little context with which to base a song or a film. So, enter the action film that replaces this period of non-activity with activity of its own. Through them we had massive alien invasions, make belief terrorist attacks, and all out war between police and gang members as if the action film were coming to the rescue of a pacified youth culture. Of course, the reason all of these make belief events were accepted without objection was because they were exactly that make believe. For example, filmmakers could tear down the World Trade Centre in Armageddon without fear of political or public outrage simply because the idea that any such event might occur in real life was unlikely to have entered the minds of many of those watching these films. So, when it did happen on September 11 2001, that kind of cheerful destruction took on a very real, shocking and unpleasant connotation. Now seen as far too sensitive to continue, the action genre's destruction of buildings or entire cities after the collapse of the twin towers essentially ended as something to marvel at or be excited by. The focus of such imagery after 2001 now turned to creating horror and resonance with a 9/11 generation. One of the first casualties of the action film in response to 9/11 was cinematography. The shots created in films such as Independence Day, where the wiping out of New York took on an almost panoramic spectacle, or Armageddon's rapid aerial editing of the meteor shower hitting the city's sky scrapers were replaced by point of view, ground level and often seamless cinematography resembling amateur camera footage.
Armageddon was one of the last examples of an action film without commentary in the 90s.
For me, the film that captured the horror of 9/11 itself most effectively was Cloverfield. The handheld, found footage shooting of the film's event carries enormous resonance for those who watched the amateur footage shot of the towers collapse from their living rooms. Since this is a found footage film, all imagery of the amphibious monster attacking New York is shot from street level as buildings are torn down before the character's eyes. In one particular sequence early on, the camera looks down a street to the skyscrapers in the distance. Suddenly, one begins to collapse from the damage sustained in the attack. But while many films of the 90s portrayed skyscrapers exploding or entire streets being engulfed in a giant fireball Independence Day style, this buildings collapse contains no explosions or fire. Instead, enormous clouds of grey smoke, dust and debris are seen hurtling towards the camera as those holding it attempt to duck and hide behind cover. I recognised this immediately as being strikingly similar to one particular piece of footage I saw of a bystander attempting to hide behind a parked car to avoid the smoke of the collapsing north tower repeating the words 'I hope I dont die. I hope I dont die'. So, in Cloverfield, gone is the awe inspiring fire and spectacle replaced with a matter of fact image of a city under attack. The horror replacing the awe is generated by the simple knowledge that such imagery has already occurred for real and recalls the shock of seeing that amateur footage for the first time, struggling to belief that it wasnt just another Hollywood film as I did on that day. To hammer the point home, a few seconds after the cloud has cleared somewhat, bystanders emerge covered in from head to toe in grey dust also recalling the countless number of nearby witnesses of 9/11 who found themselves being consumed and then transformed into bodies of grey by the remains of two of America's proudest buildings.
The influence of 9/11 on the action genre at its most evident.
Although I felt it carried the most powerful connections to the event, this wasn't the first time Hollywood replicated the symbolism of 9/11 in action films. War of the Worlds contained the same style of cinematography, deciding to shoot an invading alien race from the ground rather than with dramatic, wide, aerial shots but arguably makes better use of the shock factor. Again, distancing itself from fellow alien invasion film Independence Day's fireballs, War of the World's initial attack scene contains no explosions but instead depicts buildings, cars and people being reduced to ash on contact with the tripod's weaponry. As central character Ray flees the attack, he is caught in the rising clouds of dust being thrown up by the carnage around him. Eventually, he makes it home only to look in the mirror and see he is covered from head to toe in that same dust he had to run through. This is a direct reference to the same experiences of those present at ground zero where they never realised they were covered until reaching home and looking in the mirror. The horror on Ray's face is unmistakable and he vigorously washes himself in disgust.
Low street level camera angles in War of the Worlds recall amateur footage of 9/11.
These two examples deal more with the effects of terrorism inflicted on the bystander rather than terrorism itself, however, which brings me back to Nolan's Batman films. Although there is plenty of terrorism present in his three entries, the focus is more on the motives of the villain rather than the effects of their plans. No act of terrorism is committed for the sole purpose of killing. There is always a wider political or religious motive behind them. 9/11 is generally believed to have been motivated by the United State's support of Israel and the presence of coalition forces in Saudi Arabia which were perceived by Al-Qaeda as being part of the West's goal of wiping out Islam. If this is true, it would be wrong to say that Al-Qaeda simply wanted to kill Americans. On the basis of their wider ambitions, it was simply a means to achieving their goals. This includes local terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh's bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 killing 168 people. When asked why, he claimed it was retaliation for the Waco siege. But if you take the examples of both Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher's iterations of Batman in the 90s, the central villains do largely commit slaughter out of a sheer desire for bloodshed. Jack Nicholson's Joker gases an entire restaurant to death and proceeds to dance to Prince around the bodies of his victims while casually defacing priceless works of art. So, murder becomes a form of entertainment for him and nothing more. Two-Face in Batman Forever is somewhat more complicated as he is portrayed as having a deep hatred of Batman using acts of terrorism to bring him out of hiding so he may have a chance of killing him. Even so, he too commits acts of murder on a whim as he slaughters the family of Dick Grayson at a circus seemingly out of boredom when Batman fails to reveal himself.
By the time Nolan had taken over, he removed a lot of the cardboard villainy replacing it with more coherent motives specifically meant to speak to a 9/11 generation. For example, it can be argued that 9/11 was also partly motivated by the World Trade Center being symbolic of the western economy, something the Middle-east does not posses. If so, The Dark Knight Rises' Wall Street attack sequence by a ragtag gang carries significant weight. In Batman Begins, the villain Ras Al Ghul's goal of wiping out the population of Gotham City is similarly defined by a hatred for what he views as a decadent western society. His backstory is that he sees the majority of the world as populated by violent criminals who must be wiped out in order to leave the world as a place that only the virtuous can inhabit. This can be connected to the suggestion that Al-Qaeda has such a strong belief in Islam that it has led them to hold it up as something so righteous that all other religions can be defined by a state of immoral decadence by comparison. If so, it would indicate that they regard themselves as the only virtuous society remaining. The Dark Knight Rises references this idea by depicting Gotham City as being captured by a terrorist organisation led by the character Bane. Once in charge, he announces to the population that he is handing over justice to the virtuous so that they may deal it out to those viewed as corrupt. In doing so, the film simultaneously makes a second point of asking difficult questions of how terrorists might look at us, not simply how they might see themselves making it a far more complex film than Batman Begins. One scene shows a kangaroo court being presided over by Scarecrow, a former villain of Batman Begins and sentences many city and police officials, those seen as corrupt, to either exile or death. What this implies is that how we might perceive villains or terrorists could very well be how they see us in turn. After all, the West has invaded virtually every country and killed countless numbers of civilians while claiming to be bringers of peace - a number far disproportionate to those killed by terrorists.
Bane captures Gotham City before handing it over to the 'virtuous'.
Terrorism had never been at the forefront of contemporary culture in such a way before 9/11. Groups such as Al-Qaeda had received little attention from the West and their existence remained largely unknown. After 9/11 as the threat of terrorism became all too real, it's perhaps only natural that the style of Hollywood action genres changed as they suddenly gaining a new method of expression. The question now is what the role of the modern action film is today with this newfound ability. Is it still simply to entertain, is it to educate or is it to ask questions about the nature of cinematic action? Still, some might ask whether it even meant to become something more profound than pure spectacle or should it revert back to its previous form during its golden age? And would it even be possible for the genre to morally embrace such casual destruction again for the purposes of sheer entertainment? I think it's important to remember that the 90s were known for highly entertaining action films whereas today they take on more depressing qualities which often drain the entertainment value away. For example, despite their interesting messages, I'm far more inclined to lose myself in Burton's original Batman than I am in The Dark Knight Rises. But perhaps the difficulty in confronting the threat of terrorism on screen is ultimately the point. If it is, the genre is fulfilling its new purpose successfully.
A notable film scholar once commented on the multitude of Vietnam movies made by Hollywood and their continuously changing objectives as being symbolic of America's inability to make coherent sense of a long and bloody war obscured in a lack of clear moral agendas. The sheer diversity of these films seemed to carry the divided opinion of the public and indeed the veterans of what it was all about and ultimately what led to America's eventual withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973.
The vast majority of Vietnam War movies were made during the so called Vietnam boom of the 1980s, a time when Hollywood seemed to finally be comfortable with presenting the subject matter in a negative light. This differs greatly from John Wayne's attempts to glorify and bolster support for the war with his borderline propaganda film The Green Berets which argued that America's fear of the spread of Communism was based on the idea that a very real threat existed. It was the only Hollywood film made about the war while it was in progress and remains the only pro Vietnam War film made by Hollywood. Fast forward to 1986 and actual Vietnam veteran Oliver Stone wrote and directed Platoon partly to counter its portrayal in The Green Berets. As evident of Hollywood's shifting attitude, the film approached the war from an ultra realistic standpoint as opposed to the cowboys and Indians scenario of John Wayne's entry. Stone depicted soldiers on the receiving end of psychological disintegration and referencing atrocities committed by American soldiers including My Lai. In Platoon, there are no heroes, only victims. He countered Wayne again in 1989 with Born on the Fourth of July which sees veteran Ron Kovic feeling betrayed by his government for perpetuating the threat of Communism in order to encourage young men to sign up for the Marine Corps. It was a threat that ultimately failed to materialise. Both filmmakers, however right or wrong they may have been, approached the war in their own way with an often clear personal view of the conflict.
The Green Berets (top) and Platoon (bottom) differ in their portrayal of the treatment of the Vietnamese.
As the decade went on, these views became more and more varied. Stanley Kubrick's theme of dehumanization, common to most of his films, is presented in Full Metal Jacket as a brutal and brainwashing basic training sequence while Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now is a vision of a drug infused return to humanity's most basic primordial instincts which seem to be spurred by the jungle environment of Vietnam. Marlon Brando's character Colonel Kurtz, having left the home front of a comparatively advanced country, retreats to a tribal God-like status deep within the enveloping foliage. Aside from these, there are more blunt portrayals of the combat itself in Hamburger Hill which was also directed by a Vietnam veteran.
But what all of these examples do have in common is their success and status as classics. Platoon won four Oscars and both Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now are held as two of the best in the war genre as a whole. So, how does this relate to their interactive counterparts?
Like Vietnam War movies, games portraying the war also vary greatly in their depiction of the different elements of the conflict. Battlefield Vietnam takes a less than serious approach to war like the rest of the series and favours sheer fast paced action over a message or goal. Wings Over Vietnam is a focus on the aerial combat which occurred during the war and Shellshock: Nam 67 is essentially a clone of Medal of Honor set in South East Asia which similarly applies to Men of Valor. Both games featured the same detachment from the setting to focus on creating an exciting first-person shooter experience.
Battlefield: Vietnam throws realism to the wind in favor of a more traditional action game.
These and countless other examples, while being different in their approach also share something in common just like movies. Unfortunately, it's their distinct lack of success and the failure to tap into the imagery and ideology of the war in a meaningful way. Shellshock: Nam 67 was accused by IGN as boasting about its horrific depiction of war and then using that as a selling point. In both their own review as well as GameSpot's, the game was described as failing to deliver on that realistic depiction thus rendering the game a hollow and pointless exploitation of Vietnam's reputation as a brutal and unsympathetic war. Men of Valor is nothing more than a rehash of Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and an attempt to cash in on that game's success. Unlike Allied Assault, the former contains none of the hard hitting realism seen in the Omaha Beach sequence but rather boils the war down to a point and shoot scenario. More recently, Call of Duty: Black Ops became another casualty of a botched depiction. I had high hopes for this game when it was announced the series would be tackling Vietnam. Considering the brutality seen in both the franchise's World War II and Modern Warfare settings, it seemed like perfect ground for a series that prides itself on intense depictions of warfare. It turned out that Vietnam only played a small part of the game's campaign as the constant globetrotting required it to be a fleeting experience. I could have easily seen past this if not for the nonexistent impact the sequence made when I eventually played it. The sequence in question was a portrayal of the Battle of Khe Sanh, a lengthy confrontation which lasted from the 21st of January to the 8th of April 1968. But, the game reduces this to a ten minute battle where the player's character is portrayed as halting an entire North Vietnamese assault, which consisted of over 17,000 men in the actual battle, all by himself. What has become Call of Duty's signature approach to war as a lightning fast and frenetic race for the objective works against it when considering the nature of Vietnam and the battle itself. It was a long, drawn out battle of attrition with neither side claiming a resounding victory and the gung-ho attitude of the game's portrayal of the battle comes frighteningly close to the equally gung-ho approach seen in The Green Berets. So, Black Ops joins the long list of games set in Vietnam that fall short of realising their complicated subject matter.
So, the question now is why does it seem to be so difficult for games to achieve the same level of success that films have? Part of the answer lies in the games' inability to forget, for a moment, the established genre conventions of a first-person shooter. When Hollywood was making World War II movies in the 1940s all the way to the 1960s, there was never any question as to the heroism of American, British, French, Canadian, Australian and countless other nations involved in the war. It was a war with a clear and righteous objective with no doubt over who was right and who was wrong. America emerged from it's victory over Germany and Japan smelling of roses and was a country regarded both for it's heroism and aid in repelling the threat to Europe and the South Pacific. Many World War II films reflected this with Sands of Iwo Jima being a particularly patriotic example. Even more recent examples like Inglourious Basterds are not shy about taking a more cartoonish direction to the war. Tarantino can get away with this because most of us are comfortable with how we view World War II. Had he done a similar story in Vietnam, he would likely have been met with outrage. When the Vietnam War did arrive, America's heroic image became muddied and clouded as the murder of civilians and the psychological damage done to both veterans and the nation's public as their country's righteous image seemed to be dissolving on television before their eyes, took their toll. So, Hollywood had to change it's approach to portraying war which resulted in the negative outlook seen in the films of Oliver Stone, Stanley Kubrick and Francis Ford Coppola. With games, what had worked so well in shooters based on World War II where there were no qualms about mowing down entire hordes of German soldiers to rescue French farmland or lay waste to an entire town during D-Day to liberate the northern coast, was no longer viable in shooters set during Vietnam for the same reason. Not only that, the environments the war took place in also demand that developers rethink their approach. While you can re-create the beach landing of Saving Private Ryan in Allied Assault as a straight forward shooter level fairly easily, it is another task to re-create the long patrols through dense jungles, encounters with booby traps, hidden bunkers and the hit and run tactics of the enemy. Soldiers were literally swallowed up by the jungle and were often barely able to move through it. They certainly weren't able to briskly jog their way through as you would probably be able to do in a game. So, like movies, games also need to change their approach to war when dealing with a conflict like this. Even when depicting all out battles like Khe Sanh, developers need to take into account factors such as the length of the battle, the heat exhaustion experienced by soldiers, incidents of friendly fire and the unclear outcome.
The thick jungles of Vietnam would never allow for the gameplay seen here in Allied Assault.
Until the game industry realises that certain historical events are subject to differing approaches in their portrayal, I suspect we'll only continue to see more disappointing games set in Vietnam particularly if Black Ops is anything to go by. It requires the ability to see beyond the rigid conventions currently present in war games and someone who is comfortable with re-inventing the approach to war as a slow moving and psychological juggernaut rather than a setting where the aim is to kill as many enemy soldiers as possible until you reach your objective. However, the industry is still young and continues to evolve and mature. I'm fairly confident that we will eventually see a game that does the war justice. If movies took twenty years to finally be able to confront their country's demons, perhaps it will take a similar length of time for games.
Towards the end of my secondary school years, I was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. It answered a lot of questions about my preoccupation with small details and narrow interests that had manifested themselves in my enthusiasm for films and computer games as well as providing an explanation for my difficulties in communication. These signs had been present since early childhood however and formed the basis for my experiences of visual arts which blossomed into a fully fledged passion. So, the focus of this blog in explaining the origins of my interest in gaming as well as what I have grown to love about it will be a look at how Asperger's affected the way I view games and their three main characteristics that became central to how I experience them. These are environment, character, and story.
Before I get into discussing those three however, how I became a gamer seems like a more logical place to start. My sister, who was six years older than me was given a Game Boy for her birthday when I was still in primary school. I did not yet have a PC that was capable of playing games so every time she was out of the house, I would play on it without her permission. In school, I was struggling to maintain friendships. I would often get into arguments and fights with the other kids due to misunderstandings in speech but even so, I knew that games were popular among them. So, one day, I decided to sneak her Game Boy into school. Nobody else in my class had done this before so when I revealed it from my rucksack at lunch time complete with a brand new copy of the first Wario Land that had recently been released, I was able to use gaming as a conduit for properly socialising with my peers. We sat in a corner of the cloakroom and huddled around this tiny screen and tried to complete as many levels as possible before the bell rang. I connected with them about a subject that was of mutual interest and, at that age, bringing something in that provided that much excitement did wonders for my popularity. It wasnt long before I was able to forge proper friendships with them outside of school and was regularly invited to friend's houses where I was introduced to Doom. So, this is where my earliest gaming experiences began. Not as an interest in the games themselves but as a way of dealing with my inability to communicate on any other level with the people around me. There are many out there who would laugh at the idea of games being a form of therapy but this truly was an example of games having a positive effect on a lifestyle. I could just have easily been shut away in my bedroom by myself playing on this Game Boy that I didn't even own. So, it was very much a way of reaching out.
At around the same time, Duke Nukem 3D was very much my introduction to the potential of game environments and worlds. I was only able to play it over my best friend's house since there was no chance my parents would approve of its content. What I had seen in Doom and Wario Land were intriguing but there wasnt anything alive about those worlds. They were simply part of the background, scrolling past as the hero made his or her way across the level. So, unlike Doom, I didnt consider Duke 3D as your typical first-person shooter. Its levels are circles rather than linear lines to the finish with multiple ways to approach how you find your way to it. Essentially, the game had done in 1996 what BioShock tauted as so different in 2007. But the real beauty of Duke 3D was the interaction with objects around the world which, for me, was perfect material for someone trying to escape from awkward social interactions in large groups at school. Televisions could be switched on and off, game machines could be used, comic book stores could be explored and strippers could be tipped. Despite clearly not being set in a realistic representation of reality, it contained many basic aspects of it in its design which meant I got to experience the world free of the constant threat that saying the wrong thing to someone might get me into trouble. In this virtual world, there were no other people to deal with or to avoid, only the objects and places themselves and how I chose to interact with each. It was as if an entire city had been built solely for me to occupy. It was a liberating and exciting way of approaching a game.
As time went on and I played more and more games, I became enamoured with the concept of freedom and exploration that they offered. Attention to detail is a huge part of having Asperger's Syndrome. For those who have it, everything in their field of vision is focused on at the same time. For example, when I walk through my local shopping mall, I notice the woman with the blue shoes and the man carrying the brown satchel with gold buckles. I quickly read every sign in a shop window as I pass them and can see every title on a game store shelf just by glancing. None of this is voluntary but rather a compulsion to see everything around me. I approach game environments in much the same way. In 1999, when I finally got my first console, a Dreamcast, I bought Sonic Adventure. It was the first real adventure game I played and the first to offer me an open ended world to explore. I was familiar with previous Sonic games and their basic 2D platforming approach. They never appealed to me because they boiled down to going from point A to B which I had seen before in Wario Land. So, I bought this one on the promise that it was 3D and offered something different. From the game's very first cinematic I knew I had found something special as Sonic is seen leaping between rooftops in a fully 3D city opening up a wealth of possibilities. The game was split up into adventure fields and action stages. The action stages were where you would find the traditional fast-paced Sonic platforming albeit in 3D, but the adventure fields were game hubs with a set theme and allowed you to explore them at your own pace. The Mystic Ruins field was by far my favourite. There were rivers and lakes to explore, a train station connected to a huge viaduct, a floating Island that held a giant emerald and best of all, an entire jungle to get lost in. This jungle is where I spent most of my time in the game. There were meandering paths that crossed rivers and were sometimes overgrown by fallen trees and vegetation. There were the occasional lost explorers you would find along the roads and in the centre of the jungle stood an enormous pyramid inspired by Mayan architecture that you could climb. The fact that I was given so much freedom in an environment that was brimming with nooks and crannies and such vivid detail is why I remember this game so fondly and that infectious whats out there attraction was present from the very beginning. As someone who is compelled to experience every nuance of detail and has a strong desire to see every possible pixel in the game world, I was in my element.
For me, characters in games always have to be believable. If I am to play games as a form of escapism, the ability to put myself into the shoes of the games hero is paramount in achieving that. To do so is to put myself into the game, into the world of the character and experience the events they do as closely and as personally as possible. As its name suggests, the first-person shooter allows the gamer to experience the world from the eyes of the central character. By doing so, those eyes become your eyes and secondary characters you interact with speak their dialogue to you, not someone else. However, I think this is only successful with the silent protagonist. The character who doesnt speak means that responses to dialogue must be filled in by the mind of the player. Each statement directed in his/her direction provokes the brain to form a response but never to utter it since doing so would obviously fall on deaf ears. But simply forming that response alone establishes a connection between the player and the character speaking to them via the first-person perspective thereby pulling the player into the events of the game and making them part of it. As soon as the player character speaks, that connection is severed as the response is dictated by the mind of a third part script writer and is not the response that would be chosen by the player. So, at that point, the player is only in control of ensuring the character reaches the end of the level safely and does not participate in the story on any personal level. Half-Life 2's Gordon Freeman is still the best example of the silent protagonist that I've seen so far, particularly the games method of dealing with the developing relationship between himself and Alyx Vance. On that final level as Freeman is lowered into the core of the citadel with Vance expressing concern and telling him to 'be careful', shes telling *you* to be careful and its all I can do to stop myself from responding to my computer screen with the words 'I will, my love'.
Gordon may be a man of few words, but it works for the player.
In trying to deal with my Asperger's Syndrome, I found the best way of coming to terms with it and putting it into a context I can understand, is to find similarities between it and stories in games and films. I have already been able to find metaphors for the condition in films and television for a while now but its only recently that Ive been able to analyse themes in games that can provide the same sense of reasoning. The first was Max Payne. The character of Max Payne is a deeply troubled one who is tormented by psychological compulsions stemming from the death of his wife and child. Add to this, he is forced to isolate himself from the rest of society and adopts a trust no one attitude when he is framed for murder. The first example, the games levels that portray Max's periodic nightmares and see him traverse a labyrinth of twisting hallways and hallucinatory images, provided a basis for comparison of the intrusive images that often invade the mind of the person with the condition. These images range from acts of violence to sexual abuse depending on the person but all are unwelcome and involuntary and are never memories of any real event but completely fabricated. One of the more troublesome ideas of Asperger's Syndrome is that there is another spectrum of thought existing in the mind that provides an area for these images to be created. In the same way that this otherland always conjures up unpleasant images, Max always dreams about violence and loss. So, Asperger's forms a breeding ground for compulsive thought, while the death of Max's family compels him to relive that moment as constant nightmares. The second example is the loner approach to Max's plight. This is portrayed best in the first game where Max is forced to confront his own demons and to find his own answers entirely by himself. At no point in the game is he aided by any other character. Those that dont try to kill him turn out to have ulterior motives. The sufferer's difficulty in communication coupled with the difficulty others often have in understanding someone who has Asperger's leaves the him or her with the feeling that there is nobody nearby who can help or understand them which can also lead to a view of the world as being very threatening. If they are to control or suppress their symptoms, they have to do it themselves which gives rise to obsessive rituals and focused interests in an attempt to prevent a perceived threat from occurring.
Max is plagued by nightmares where he repeatedly fails to save his wife and child.
All of this may sound extreme but these examples are two of the more literal interpretations of the condition that I've been able to find in a game. More recently, I've discovered that metaphorical answers can be found in Mass Effect 3.
In Mass Effect 3, there is a cutscene towards the beginning of the game as the Normandy flees Earth to avoid the Reaper invasion. What is noteworthy here is the way that the Reapers are presented as an invading force descending on a peaceful and innocent world. They swarm like locusts not merely to destroy but to enslave and dominate life itself. One of my own theories of how my Asperger's Syndrome developed is that it was an insidious attack on the mind that intensified as I grew older. The carefree innocence of childhood was what prevented it from completely dominating me when I was younger but as I grew and became more aware of it, it began to make itself known in the form of those intrusive images, constant compulsions to perform ritualistic actions and the obsessive-compulsive approach to every task I performed in life however mundane. I came to read these compulsions as a form of mental slavery, a kind of oppressive regime forced upon me hence the compulsive power of it. The transition from childhood to adolescence that leaves a gap for Aspergers to exploit represents a massive attack on the mind that brings about the death of innocence. I used to often ask myself the question of how I could still be innocent when I am plagued by so many horrific and random images. That didn't sound like an innocent mind to me but one that had been indoctrinated and enslaved. So, every time I see that cutscene, the Reapers become the army of Asperger's Syndrome and Earth becomes the mind. This imagery, together with the four repeating melancholic piano keys in the games soundtrack ensures the power of this moment and the games concept as a whole.
The Reapers rain fire down on the once peaceful Earth.
On reflection of my experiences, not just with games but with all forms of visual arts, they almost always carry a deep personal weight. Im often asked why I spend so much time playing games by my father who has never fully understood my condition and I often want to tell them him It enables me to understand my own life that much better. I never do because Im not confident that someone who views games or films merely as disposable forms of entertainment is ever going to understand that. The kind of value they can have for someone who is trying to make sense of the world around them is invaluable and in the same way that films have done, games are continuing to serve as a guide for understanding and interpreting what is sometimes cloudy and hard to come to terms with on a more literal level.
I don't have very much to say about girls actually playing games. I feel that if they want to play games they should go ahead and do so and never mind what anyone else thinks. That's all there is to it. Any opposition to that or even the need to defend and find reasons to justify girls playing games just suggests that women are in some way different from men when it comes to what their past time should be. The question should simply not exist. So, instead I'm going to approach this blog with a look at why female involvement in the industry itself is important for both sexes. To do this, I've chosen to examine both the female creators and the consumers of games so I've split the blog into two sections. To tackle the question of how femininity is represented in games, I'm going to first look at how it's done so in Bioshock 2, before mentioning briefly the importance of such games being viewed and discussed by female game journalists.
Although it's true that it still had a disproportionate number of male developers, when I was following Bioshock 2 prior to its release, one of the first things that stood out was that it had a far more prominent female development base than most other triple A titles that had my attention. Specifically, these were 2K Marin's senior producer Melissa Miller and executive producer Alyssa Finley. Aside from giving a female face to a game for a change by 2K choosing to feature them in multiple developer interviews, they succeeded in creating a game that tackled both the negative and positive side of femininity that I can only attribute to their understanding of the fairer sex. Not only that, they showed a competent handling of a world that they had inherited from its original male creator, Ken Levine, and a genre that has been geared almost universally towards male gamers since day one and I don't think you have to play Call of Duty or Medal of Honor to know that. As much as I loved playing it, the original Bioshock offered very little in the way of a female perspective. The player character was male, the city of Rapture was run by a male megalomaniac who was being usurped by a psychotic and violent underworld boss and the little sisters were portrayed as little more than experiments gone wrong. Their creator, Dr. Tenenbaum was not given enough attention to register as the caring mother figure she was intended to be to her experiments nor was it ever made clear whether she was an ally or an enemy to the player. The rest of the game was a barrage of explosions and gunfire which was the standard necessity in order to cater to the male demographic. But all of this is what makes the sequel stand out more than its given credit for. For me, Bioshock 2 is about motherhood first and foremost embodied by the new antagonist of Sofia Lamb as well as Tenenbaum herself who is fleshed out far more this time around. In the game's story, Sofia Lamb strives to re-create Rapture as the perfect utopia where everyone would live selflessly to help others lead better lives. In order to do so, she utilises her daughter, Eleanor, who had previously been a little sister under the influence of genetic experimentation. Sofia sought to use her as a guinea pig to pursue her ideology by developing that experimentation in order to turn her into the peoples child who would embody those altruistic ideals therefore becoming little more than a symbol for a decaying society. But what initially appears to be a selfish and abusive villain is gradually revealed to be a corruption of motherhood symbolic of what Barabara Creed called 'the monstrous feminine' as Lamb becomes more and more distressed over the player characters desire to save Eleanor from her. On many occasion she expressed her hatred to the player for separating her from her daughter and Sofia's desire to create a child with a perfect intellect can be read as the yearning of all parents for their children to be the best they can possibly be both in body and mind, hence the physical alterations little sisters undergo. Sadly, it's a common error made by parents to see their children as they want them to be instead of as they are as well as trying to make sure they follow the parent's preferred path rather than allowing them to discover their own.
Sofia Lamb with her 'experiment' daughter, Eleanor.
Opposite to this, we have Tenenbaum who serves as a guide for the player and his attempts to rescue Eleanor. Although it was Tenenbaum who created the little sisters in the first game, she spends the majority of both trying to find ways to change them back into normal young girls. This can easily be read as an attempt at redemption but more than that she embodies the protective instincts of motherhood and the way parents often try to shield their children from the dangers of the world. In both games, Tenenbaum is seen taking care of these girls by sealing them away in a make shift orphanage and threatens multiple characters, including the player, with death should they do anything to harm them.
The rescued little sisters are kept safe in Tenenbaum's orphanage.
All of this is evidence that a game so heavily focused on motherhood and produced by two female developers can be a great example of female talent creating intelligent, interesting and, most importantly, unique game worlds. This particular story benefits hugely from its feminine influence because I believe that only the female sex can truly understand the concept of being a mother. Males can read about things like childbirth and motherhood in many self help books and parenting guides but it's no substitute for personal experience. Perhaps that's why Levine paid so little attention to that subject in the first game despite the potential being evident with both Tenenbaum and the little sisters. Yet, it was never expanded upon so maybe that's just Levine not knowing how to approach it. So, in order to properly tackle a subject like that, you need those who can offer unique insights, theories and ideas that go into portraying the protective and corrupted sides of each female character. I've always felt that there are certain issues that can only be illustrated with an empathetic outlook and Bioshock 2 is an example of the female gender using that outlook to their advantage and tapping into the female instinct of motherhood that makes the game's story so effective.
With the release of games that comment on subjects like those in Bioshock 2, it could well become more difficult for a male point of view to fully understand what is trying to be communicated to them as time goes on where games develop and evolve in their messages. This is where female journalists become particularly important. I have read more than a few comments by forums users, bloggers and even female journalists themselves on many websites that they often feel threatened by how male dominated the game journalism industry is. But whether or not they feel threatened now, they're unlikely to feel that way for very long. There will always be those old fashioned members of the industry that feel games should continue to be male dominated. But that's irrelevant since they'll be left behind as games continue to evolve aesthetically and culturally with the inclusion of more female talent like Miller's and Finley's and their failure to move with the industry will only leave them on the outside where they can no longer contribute. Ultimately, it's female game talent that makes female game journalists so valuable because they can not only relate to the issues being communicated by a female perspective but also put them into a clearer perspective for male readers of game reviews in order for them to better empathise with representations of femininity. So, if for no other reason, we need female journalists to help keep the game industry healthy and vibrant and to make sure messages like those in Bioshock 2 are not missed by male gamers because an understanding of femininity is itself valuable if the industry is going to move away from the male dominated attitudes of old and the stereotypes of simplistic girl gamers.
In closing, my advice for women feeling threatened by male dominance in the industry or are embarrassed or timid about being a girl gamer is to just do it. Play games loudly and speak loudly even if it gets under the skin of every male in the room because there's nothing more inspiring than a single voice that speaks louder than those of the many.
I'm a child of the 90s which means I grew up during what I like to think of as the final years of an era where games could be defined as catering to a niche market. From the late 80s to early 90s, gamers were essentially split into two groups, those who played Mario and those who played Doom meaning that these two games represented the polarised attitudes of many gamers. Were you a console gamer who enjoyed the tried and true platformer? Or where you more into action and the developing first-person shooter genre which was very much PC exclusive at the time? What both camps did have in common was how they were looked upon by those who didnt play games. I remember my parents wishing that I was out socialising rather than spending hours at a time playing Doom. Then there was the perceived geek factor that said if you enjoyed jumping over colourful blocks and catching mushrooms, you were a bit of a nerd. When I was still in primary school, I would often bring a Game Boy and myself along with about four others would spend most break times playing Super Mario Land. We were in a class of about 30 so it was the five of us huddled around this tiny screen while any other member of the class who happened to pass by would look on in embarrassment that we were not outside playing football. So, my early gaming experiences were very much defined by isolation of social groups. When not in school, I was alone in our study playing on the PC. If you wanted to be a gamer, you had to sacrifice your social life and any hope that you would be considered cool by your peers. Either that, or keep it to yourself. We had our small group of gamers in school but any discussion about games to any outsider and it would be social suicide. But then, something happened.
In 1994, Sony launched the original Playstation and suddenly games were finding a new place in the wider social structure and entrenching themselves as a popular cultural form. This was partly a result its participation in the clubbing scene. In nightclubs, there would be booths set up along the walls where you could play games on the Playstation between dancing and getting drunk. So, it was a strange fusion of what had previously been a past time for those who were often alone in a dark room and the party atmosphere that relied so heavily on your place on your place on the social ladder. Surely, these two were the most incompatible activities in the world. So, how did this console manage to gain acceptance with the masses? It probably has more to do with the games rather than the console itself and the fact that Sony exercised pure marketing genius on both fronts. One of the Playstations launch games was Wipeout which had a curious relationship with clubbing. First, its visual design was characterised by an ultra slick futuristic setting and a constant barrage of colourful light shows which coupled with the games high speed racing meant it had a lot in common with the revellers who would often be dancing while playing. In fact, the game was promoted specifically to them by making available a set of Wipeout themed clubwear and free copies of the games soundtrack to those who participated in the games launch which was also held at various nightclubs. But it was undoubtedly the games music that solidified the game, as well the Playstations cool factor. Its genre of choice was electronica which is widely used for dancing as well as background music which is what the majority of clubbing beats consist of. Contributions to the soundtrack where made by The Chemical Brothers and Orbital who are both arguably two of the most popular electronic dance groups working in their respective industry. The Chemical Brothers were one of the groups responsible for pioneering the big beat genre which makes use of heavy synthesised loops and a thumping rhythm which is why Wipeouts soundtrack sounds so similar to popular clubbing music. Many of those who did play the game would surely have formed the opinion that such important music groups would never had anything to do with something they thought was uncool. So, was it time for them to rethink their stance on games in general? The question that had never been considered before was now being asked. Flash forward to the present day and I think its obvious that games have now found a firm place in popular culture and is no longer a past time for the geek or for the lonely.
Wipeout's futuristic design was a major factor in the game's appeal to clubbers.
I still hold the Call of Duty series as a prime example of how games have developed culturally not just in terms of their widespread appeal but also in their aesthetics. In the days of Doom, a lot of the appeal came from the visuals that were inventive but were rooted very much in a straightforward corridor shooter which were the limits of the technology at the time. With the advent of cool that was kick started by the Playstation, games made the transition into the same territory as the blockbuster movie where the focus became on creating a bigger experience and how many millions each release would make. In the same way that franchises like the recent Batman films were eagerly awaited and consistently broke box office records, the Call of Duty franchise has received much the same treatment. Each game is given television advertising usually accompanied by a song by a famous rap star offering further evidence of gaming's acceptance by popular culture and early reports by various publications focus on how many units have shipped and what records have been broken by game sales. This widespread popularity has helped the franchise become a popular multiplayer focused game with millions upon millions of players worldwide. Playing Call of Duty online is now the cool thing to do with your time whereas playing a game like the original Doom's deathmatch mode back in the day was seen as an activity for the geeks. When discussing the formers cinematic approach, the development of technology undoubtedly had a lot to do with it, but theres no denying the fact that each Call of Duty game tries to ape the previous instalment with more explosions and more spectacular scripted events in the same way that new iterations of a movie franchise do. While technology did unlock the ability to create impressive set pieces like the siege of New York harbour in Modern Warfare 3, surely Infinity Ward, could just have easily created the traditional corridor shooter of the Doom era with modern technology rather than going down the overblown and complex route of making a game similar to a movie. So, there's the question of the motives of the developers in choosing to design their games in this way. Was it to compete with Hollywood? Was it to prove that games were just as visually impressive as movies? Or was it a demand by an evolving gaming culture? If it was the latter, this raises the question of whether or not games are now being usurped by a culture what was previously scornful of them. It's an interesting theory that what had been a past time for a very specific market was now being tailored for the masses which could be the reason why many feel the gaming industry has lost a lot of its unique qualities. Its as if the clubbing demographic that adopted the Playstation declared that if games wanted to be cool, they had to be tailored to their tastes. That could be why games like Call of Duty are frequently criticised for their lack of originality or why we now have an overabundance of games endorsed by stars of movies and music.
Technology aside, was this transition from corridor shooter to interactive action flick seen in Modern Warefare 3 (below) what the gamers of Doom (above) really wanted? Or was it the demand of an outside demographic? And does it represent a loss of control over a niche industry?
We live in a time where gamers have to accept their industry is now shared by other forms of popular culture. While that can unlock doors to unique forms of influence such as the creation of rhythm games that can have their own artistic and unique qualities such as the Dreamcast's Space Channel Five which I still regard as a wonderfully original game, I often feel a sense of loss. Its as if we as gamers, particular those who grew up before the days of the Playstation have had something stolen from us. Games like Doom had the appeal of belonging to a very exclusive group which had the value of standing apart from the masses. Thats been lost in the merging of the various industries now but theres always the possibility, thanks to constantly evolving technology that something equally unique will emerge and bring back a little bit of niche to a beloved past time.
It was Gamespot's own Kevin Van Ord who said that the purpose of a reviewer was to provide a portal, not a mirror meaning that reviews should not be read simply to back up your own opinion about a game, movie, book or song. Reviews should always be unbiased, ignorant of the writer's own personal opinion and above all, be a guideline for those unsure about purchasing the subject of the review. While I agree with this stance, I also take a certain pride in knowing that my game collection is of high quality and is regarded by professional game reviewers and that I generally have good taste. All of that is a matter of opinion, of course but I can't deny my own sense of comfort I get from knowing that I've purchased a game that carries an 'Editor's Choice' award from Gamespot.
While I will read a number of reviews from many different sources, my ultimate decision of whether or not to buy a game is ultimately based on one review. This is due to having a higher regard for certain publications, in the case of games, it's right here. For movies, it's always been Radio Times. For example, if IGN were to give a game a bad review and GameSpot gives that same game a good one, I would be inclined to defer to the latter's judgement. I've always felt the staff of Gamespot and Radio Times are the most consistently accurate reviewers in their respective fields which is why they're the ones I always end up listening to. So, there is a certain amount of bias, not on the part of the reviewer, but the reader if this is the rigmarole that they follow. While, there is a certain security in knowing that your preferred publication is more likely to be accurate in it's review, there is a constant threat that every so often, it will produce a review that disagrees with your own opinions. And when that happens, it's often more difficult to accept than if it were from some hastily written or amateur review from a Google search.
While I said that reviews should not be representative of the reviewer's personal opinion in order to eliminate bias, it is often the bias of the reader that results in disappointment with a game and it's review. I remember reading GameSpot's review for Medal of Honor: Airborne back in 2007 and being outraged not only at it's 7.0 score but also at the reviewer himself. I had essentially cut my teeth as a gamer on World War II shooters and had loved Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. It had been a huge part of my early gaming experiences and was the very first game I ever played competitively online. It had gotten a high review and had been praised for it's adherence to realism and cinematic gameplay which were milestones at the time. So, now this new entry in the franchise that I had been eagerly awaiting had been downgraded from a 9.0 to what I regarded as a lacklustre 7.0. I remember thinking 'How dare this website, give a sequel to one of my most beloved and critically acclaimed games such a disappointing score!' I felt angry at the reviewer but also at GameSpot itself for going back on it's own views about a game that I perceived to be of an equally high standard. But what had actually happened was that the game had been given a perfectly just review and I only disagreed with it because of my own bias towards the franchise in general based on my history with it. I'm sure that if Airborne had been one of the worst games ever released I still would have regarded it with equally high esteem. Having looked back over the review and played the game again more recently, I find myself agreeing with the it this time. So, was I biased? Was the reviewer in a better position to judge this game than I was? I'm sure but I still can't help feeling that I always wanted that game to get a 9.0 simply for carrying the Medal of Honor title and being reviewed by my most frequented publication.
Allied Assault's depiction of the Omaha Beach landing was highly praised by GameSpot and many other publications for it's realism.
I'm older and wise now and I try not to use reviews simply as a mirror but I still rarely buy games that get a rating lower than an 8.0. That's partly due to my belief that GameSpot's reviews continue to be accurate but also because I still want my collection to be high quality. There are have been occasions when I have deliberately gone out of my comfort zone and bought a game from a genre I dislike simply because I felt it was time to add another 9.0 to my list of games. One recent example was Dark Souls which I actually regard as a very routine hack and slash game with an unoriginal fantasy setting. Although, this method does carry the occasional benefit of discovering a genre that I had previously ignored. It was BioShock that introduced me to the Steampunk sub genre which is now one of my favourite games of all time even though I initially only bought it for it's high score and numerous awards.
I suppose the argument is endless and depends on the readers own opinion more than anything else. I often ask myself why I am buying a game as I stare the store shelves. Do I really agree with the review? Am I just buying this game because it's popular or highly regarded? Am I actually going to play this game or just let it collect dust on my shelf? Those are just some of the questions that come into my head now before picking one off the shelf now. On one occasion, I was about to buy Fifa 12 based on it's high score but as I held it in my hand and was walking to the front desk to pay for it, I stopped in my tracks. I though 'Hang on, I don't even like football. Why am I buying this? It looks completely boring.' So, I promptly put it back on the shelf and impulse bought Alan Wake instead which I'm confident I enjoyed a whole lot more than I would have if I had gone ahead and bought Fifa 12 with it.
So, there are lots of variables when reading a review that play a role in whether or not we actually go out and buy the game or not but I think to avoid disappointment or becoming disgruntled by a review you thought unfair, the best thing you can really do is simply to buy the game that you want - not what everyone else wants. After all, some of my best gaming experiences have been with titles that weren't even reviewed at all...
When I was a child, my interest in popular music was next to zero. I was not in touch with popular musical trends or what was in the charts. There were bands and songs that would be sung by my classmates that I had never heard of and I seemed to be the only one who hadn't. But I didn't mind because while music was popular with my friends, games were popular with me. Rather than spending time in my bedroom socialising with generic background R&B music playing, as they would often do, I would be killing aliens and blowing up spaceships on Cannon Fodder and Raptor: Call of the Shadows which I found far more interesting. I thought anyone who didn't was crazy. It's ironic then that games were my first exposure to the power of music and kick started my interest in the power metal genre.
For me, a massive part of music is association with imagery. This fit my passions for games like a glove. Cannon Fodder came first with the opening title song 'War Has Never Been So Much Fun', juxtaposed with cartoonish images of stubby, fat soldiers yelling at each other while also splicing them into real black and white backgrounds of battlefields. This was the game's attitude to war, a satirical approach that reduced sodliers to caricatures and war to a sport where the menu screen even had a score board showing how many enemies you had killed and how many of your soldiers they had killed. But the tone quickly becomes more serious as the game's main menu consists of a green hill with grave stones representing each soldier you had lost on various levels. Accompanying this was a sad, melancholic instrumental theme. This ingenious use of music and image created the intentional contradiction between the blasé attitude to death seen in the opening and heard in the song's lyrics ('kill 'em with your gun') and the seriousness of the sheer numbers killed as a result of that attitude seen on the hillside. For me, this was the game highlighting the gung-ho attitude of soldiers in John Wayne war films, which often featured absurdly patriotic musical themes such as in the opening of The Green Berets, and then replacing that with the brutal honesty that many of those soldiers in reality end up as a grave stone on a lonely hill somewhere. Even as a child of about 7 years old I found this a powerful mixture of music and imagery.
The images of your dead and their sad musical theme sap the pleasure from the disproportionate score board.
Raptor: Call of the Shadows didn't have the satirical message of Cannon Fodder but had a soundtrack designed specifically to create adrenaline for the game's fast paced and hectic aerial combat. The soundtrack expertly weaved between a bombastic military theme that wouldn't be out of place in a Michael Bay movie to more suspenseful build ups consisting of a slowly rising beat as the jet approaches the final boss of each scenario. The speed and tone of the music generated nothing short of panic during the more intense moments when waves upon waves of enemy fighters are attacking your lone jet and you try to resist dropping your last megabomb that you were saving for the boss. I think this is still a prime example of music creating emotion appropriate to gameplay rather than setting that we see and hear so often these days in modern fantasy games for example.
Fights often become a ballet of gunfire and explosions.
As much as I enjoyed the music in both of these games, I was not exposed to a soundtrack containing actual lyric driven songs for a game until 1999's Sonic Adventure for the Dreamcast. This was also one of my first 3D games and my first real adventure game I had ever played. The soundtrack consisted of screaming guitars and lightening fast drum solos of Crush 40 to accentuate the speed of Sonic's levels. As he would charge down a ramp suspended in mid-air on the Windy Valley stage you would be treated to a searing combination of guitars and vocals that created not only adrenaline but a sense of the power of speed rather than simply speed itself - that by going fast enough your could run up vertical walls and jump hundreds of feet into the air. The game's snowboarding sequence featured a punk rock theme you would associate with the snowboarding crowd that would rise and fall each time Sonic performed a spectacular stunt on his board while plummeting down the mountain's cliff faces and landing without a scratch. This was the aim of the game's music. It had the ability to represent heroes as being able to do truly extraordinary things and it was the music the gave the player the sense of being able to do all of these things, not the fact that Sonic was just incredibly fast or that you were playing a game that was far removed from reality. The final boss fight between Super Sonic and Perfect Chaos is nothing short of a titanic clash between two god-like beings whose power to inspire owes a great debt to the song 'Open Your Heart' that plays during the fight. The song begins with two powerful strikes of the guitars strings that serve as the bell ring to start the fight while also illustrating the finality of the struggle between these two immensely powerful characters - Super Sonic can run so fast he can run on water while Chaos has just destroyed an entire city. The song then allows guitar riffs and drums to take over while Johnny Gioeli's sings;
'Thunder, rain and lightening
Danger, water rising
Clamour, sirens wailing
It's such a bad sign'
It's a wonderful combination of music and action that create a power even the best action movies seldom achieve. Once I had beaten Chaos I felt like I had just run a marathon - that I had achieved something truly epic. And ultimately that's the games magic. It's expert use of music allows the player to truly take on the role of a hero rather than merely controlling a hero. I wanted to do all the things that Sonic was doing in the game. I wanted to be able to perform impossible jumps and run up walls to the sound of guitars more than anything else in the world just to show what the power of the game's music had built up inside me - an urging to do something spectacular. But more than anything else, I wanted to be a hero. This was the experience that inspired me to get into heavy metal music. I loved the promotion of heroic ideals and the message of triumph over adversity. It wasn't long before I was listening to power metal bands like Helloween.
Inspired by a heavy metal song, Super Sonic (and the player) charge at Perfect Chaos who dwarfs the heroic hedgehog.
I wouldn't say that modern use of music in games is any better or worse but it is very different. With so many games relying on atmosphere these days, It's difficult to find a game that actively makes use of a strong soundtrack. Games like World of Warcraft and F.E.A.R. feature outstanding musical scores but only for the purposes of creating a world that is vibrant and absorbing rather than attempting to illicit strong emotions from the gamer inherant to the perils and trials of what your character faces. After all, we do put computer game characters through some very tough times, it's only fair that they should have some encouragement with their own fist pumping theme song. One of the few recent example I can name is Alan Wake. The soundtrack to the game is a corker featuring the likes of David Bowie and Poets of the Fall who also wrote songs for Remedy's Max Payne 2. The character of Alan Wake is a man constantly pushed to the edge of his sanity by the surreal situations he faces on each level and the songs were specifically chosen for their equally surrealistic content. As Wake grows increasingly detached from reality, it's no wonder that the game ends with the lyrics 'ground control to major Tom'...
As games become more and more like movies in the cinematic content and developers are hiring professional film composers more often, what I'd ultimately like to see is developers willing to approach their scores with an eye for creating positive and negative emotion rather than simply integrating them into the atmosphere of the level and I think songs are a great way of doing so. Otherwise, music becomes those songs my friends listen to in their bedrooms - background music.