Thursday, 10 July 2014

Choices? Tough

I can't avoid Hilary Clinton. There she is, in every bookstore, leering unsettlingly out at me from the special displays where Thomas Piketty's book used to sit. As much as I don't want to think about it - and good god, I'm not going to read the fucking thing - I have some thoughts on her book.

Specifically, the title.

Hard Choices. Oh my.

It has already long-since occurred to many of us who notice such things that the rhetoric of hard choices, tough decisions, or some variation on words or theme, serves only the purpose of lowering expectations, and, generally, of signalling a rightwards orientation. It was a favourite rhetorical trick of Tony Blair's, and it has now become a standard of David Cameron's. The point of the hard choice is to signal to the public that, while there are many things the speaker wishes to do - really, honestly, earnestly - in a better world, that unfortunately, things being what they are, with the need to engage with the grim realities of the world, so on and such forth, those priorities will simply have to change. It's not what we wanted. It was a hard choice.

Observers may well notice that so many of these things which are described as hard choices actually bear a strong resemblance to the long-held convictions and ambitions of the speaker or writer. Cuts in the UK are routinely described as difficult decisions; the Opposition are constantly invited to demonstrate that they are ready and willing to make those hard choices, ie. to throw their ostensible constituency under the bus in the name of the market. All our parties - as they are in the US - are broadly aligned around the same program, with only distinctions in tone and emphasis to be made. We can make the point - and many do - that there aren't very many choices, and they never seem especially hard. The point is the signalling. Politicians are on your side! They wish they could help! But, you know, the world, bad things, terrible threats.

This is useful because it suppresses debate and reinforces the idea that we live in a post-ideological age. There are no arguments to be had, no competing ideologies, no politics; only hard choices. You can believe what you like, but the world works in this one way, and you have to compromise, to accept that reality, to get power (this is compromise not in the sense of reaching an agreement with another side, so much as the sense that a wall with a hole in it is "compromised"). Once you've got that power, you can't use it, except in narrowly prescribed lines. The hard choice is the rallying call of a technocratic political elite that is almost farcically insular and homogenous; it ensures that the few radicals who do somehow get into the system are shunted to the sidelines as unrepresentative mavericks; dangerous intrusions of the dread ideology into a politics-free politics.

Anyway. What's interesting to me, then, is that Hilary Clinton is leading the charge for hard choices by slapping it on the front of her book. Obviously this is a reaction to Barack Obama. The Audacity of Hope turned out to be a millstone around his neck as he turned out to offer neither hope nor audacity; "hope and change" turned out to be the most empty of slogans as Obama turned out to be an aimless, pointless mediocrity rather than an inspirational figure of charisma and unity. The Democrats have governed on a platform of doing the bare-minimum to maintain party discipline and loyalty among their voting base, not by offering much of concrete worth to their constituents so much as stoking up the threat of the Republicans. Meanwhile the real ideological battle is not being fought; as witness endless "liberal" Facebook memes trumpeting Obama's competence in terms dictated by the enemies of most Democrat voters: in terms of managing the structural deficit, bailing out industry, and killing military targets. Clinton's book, then, surely signals nothing more than a realignment of Democrat party messaging with their intentions.

Obama offered the world and delivered next-to-nothing; Clinton is also offering next-to-nothing, but she at least is making sure you know it from the off.

Sunday, 29 June 2014


Part uhhh of a recurring (?) series of words about games I bought on Steam when they were on sale. Today: Prison Architect, available in pre-release Alpha version for half-price at the time I picked it up.


Games! You like games, right! Well, how about architecture? Who doesn't like making buildings! And prisons, you like prisons? Um. Games!

Prison Architect is the latest project by floating-brain-in-a-jar games developers Introversion Software, who previously made one of my all-time favourite games: DEFCON, the lo-fi, high stakes game of nuking your friends into oblivion and back. DEFCON was a game of bluffing, planning, and hair-trigger timing, aiming to get your precious missiles launched into your opponents' soft underbellies before they could repeat the trick on your delicate civilian populations. DEFCON put you in charge of one continent in an escalating global nuclear confrontation. At each of the game's five DEFCON stages, more of the game's choices were revealed: at the lowest level, players place their installations and fleets. In the second, radars get turned on and players can start eyeing each other warily. In the third stage, conventional weapons - fighters, bombers and fleets - are unlocked and the jockeying for position began. Four is the calm before the plunge - and what a plunge. At DEFCON five, all hell is unleashed as the nuclear weapons are unlocked. From there, only one objective remained: do as much damage as possible while protecting your own populations. Points are scored per million of population wiped out. It's... that kind of game. It was amazingly atmospheric; the action played out on a Dr. Strangelove war-room style map, each side represented by glowing cities and stylised military installations. Nuclear detonations appeared as bright blips on the map; the ensuing fallout spread over the continents with a poisonous green glow. Accompanying this was a beautifully evocative soundtrack of soft, ethereal music and the faint sounds of a tense command bunker - squeaking chairs, radio chatter, and coughing. It's as grim and pointed as games come, and it's superb fun to play with good friends.

So Prison Architect comes with a fine pedigree, which is probably the only reason I decided to take a punt (at a reduced price) on a game which is currently in a pre-release state. It's at least as pointed as DEFCON: the player must design and run a prison for a profit. The perfectly harrowing tutorial - which has the player constructing an execution chamber to carry out the punishment of a murderer whose crimes are recounting in lurid, heartbreaking - sets the tone of proceedings fairly clearly. Your charges, guards and sundry employees may appear as cheerful little blob-people, but a light-hearted romp this is not.

Gameplay consists of defining buildings, assigning workers, managing resources, and juggling the demands of your prisoners for things like security, privacy, clean clothes and something to do with the necessities of ensuring they're adequately punished (or rehabilitated) and, most importantly from your standpoint, ensuring as few of them escape, or overdose, or shiv one another in the showers, or riot, or...

It's a little hard to get to grips with. Buildings aren't exactly intuitive: you need to define a zone of foundations, add in entrances, and then start subdividing the interior into offices, cells, kitchens, what have you. You have to do this on a tight budget, and the game doesn't make entirely clear from the outset exactly how it is one gets ones hands on more money. It turns out that the player can apply for grants, which come with objectives for handy pointers to progress, and, of course, you make money from the prisoners themselves; the higher their risk level, the more reward.

So once you do get to grips with making sure you've got plenty of buildings, walls, guards and so on, and your first few jumpsuited charges are buzzing around from cells to showers to kitchens to the yard to back to their cells, the basic puzzle of the game is revealed. You need money to hold prisoners; you need prisoners to get money. You can rehabilitate them, but that takes a lot of cash. Otherwise, you can try and milk your inmates for all they're worth by having them churn out products for sale, or else to undercut your other employees and reduce your wage bill by putting them to work in the kitchens and cleaning cabinets - but to do so you'll need to train them, which costs money, so you'll need more prisoners (who need more cells and more facilities) or to make cuts elsewhere, so think hard. And then there's the unintended consequences of good deeds: you can run drug-rehabilitation programmes or put your inmates to work to cut their chance of reoffending, but you'll soon fund that some of them are taking the opportunity to steal supplies, sometimes with deadly consequences. You can try and put a stop to an absurd volume of illicit spoon-smuggling from the canteen, but guess what? Metal detectors, the electrical wiring to power them, and the workmen to install them, all cost money! Balancing all this is a pleasing challenge, at first; you feel trapped by your tight budget and, while you may well start out with the best intentions for your inmates, the need to always secure the necessary income forces you into more and more cynical decisions. I made my cells smaller so I could squeeze in more prisoners; I kept them suppressed and compliant by deploying armed guards and dogs. I researched tax-avoidance strategies using an accountant. And so on. It's a beautifully cynical game.

But. That word "game" is contentious, because, actually, there isn't much game here yet. After a while I worked out the systems enough to build a prison which, while not particularly aesthetically pleasing, ran like a pretty well-oiled machine. I'd researched everything there was to research. There were no problems. Everything just... worked. At that point, the game's dead. You can watch your charges mill around, day after day, but there's nothing to do except add in more and more inmates for more and more money and - at this point - there isn't enough to spend it on, or enough to go wrong to force your hand.

Maybe this will be fixed in the final release. I certainly hope that many of the bugs will be. At the moment there are some severe pathfinding problems which mean workers, prisoners, guards, or some comically unlikely pileup of all three can get lost or stuck. The queueing of tasks follows some whimsical formula incomprehensible to man or beast. The game is still a little ugly; the research screen especially is uninspiring, and many prisoners are lacking in art or coherent descriptions; furthermore, while the flavour text on their past offences feels like it should give them more personality and force you to care about them more, it doesn't. There's too many blob-convicts, too many names, and they're all milling around all the time, so it's hard to really develop any attachment. Their actions and proclivities don't seem to be based on their criminal background, either.

Prison Architect is, at the moment, a distracting toy with an absorbing financial balancing act at its core, but not enough to keep you playing. There isn't, as yet, a game. You can build prisons and share them to your heart's content, but, honestly, unless you really like that sort of thing - and if you do, what the fuck is wrong with you? - I'd give it a miss until it's got more of a direction.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Witch, Witcher, Witchmost

Part something of a semi-regular series of words about games I bought because Steam had them on sale! This time: The Witcher 2, which I think cost like £3.

The Witcher 2 is a rambunctious monster-hunting adventure through a preposterous medieval fantasy world inhabited variously by A. crusty dirt-farmers with silly regional accents and upsetting stains on their breeches, B. impossibly-endowed sorceresses with cold stares, thick eyeliner and low-cut dresses or C. blood-curdling monsters from the Dark of the Depths, who are also sometimes B. An action-RPG with a set character - Geralt, the titular Witcher, a dark, brooding antihero straight out of central casting - the game is notable primarily for its interesting gameplay structure and an amusing story shot through with dark-grey morality.

You, Geralt, are a monster hunter with a bad (and entirely narratively suspect) case of amnesia. Also, you might have died once; it's not really clear. The game does an excellent job of making sure the player shares in Geralt's confusion with the in-media-res prologue. Amnesia is a hack's tool for story-writing, but here it's carried off with such aplomb - and it's used so well, as the player feels they're discovering (or rediscovering, if you played the previous game) the world along with Geralt. You'll meet characters who've known you for years, or so they say - how far can you trust them? How far do you think you can take them for a ride? Many of these choices are left up to the player. You have a limited amount of control over Geralt's character and decisions - you have some wiggle-room on what strategies to take in conversations, but none of the options presented feel out of line with the sort of character Geralt is clearly meant to be. He's not a bad man, not a cruel man, but he is a hardened professional and outcast who works in a very dangerous and expensive line of business. Be kind to peasants if you want, but magic swords don't pay for themselves. I usually like more freedom in choosing my character and their portrayal, but Geralt anchors the tone of the game very well. Although he's not particularly original (and neither is the world he inhabits), he's well-executed and interesting enough to separate the game from a lot of action-RPG fare alone.

The standout feature, however, is the structure of many of the game's quests. Most RPG quest design sticks to a well-tested "go here, do this, bring evidence back here" quest mechanic, and I won't pretend that's not well in evidence here. Where the game shines, however, is in integrating the quest mechanics with the goals and methods of the character you're playing, and the tone and themes of the story. You have to hunt monsters, but the reason people will pay you to do it is that hunting monsters is extremely difficult. This doesn't just mean that they're tough enemies, but that there are methods and tactics you'll need to research and adopt in order to win. You could just wander into the cave with a sword, but you'd probably die. No, what the game wants you to do is to play like a professional monster hunter: research your enemies by fighting them off the beaten track, or better yet, by reading about them in a book. Then, gather ingredients for the potions and items (traps, bombs, swords, armour) that will swing the odds in your favour. Learn to make the right items, do so, and then you might be set. This process is my favourite part of the game, and when the game trusts itself enough to let you complete these processes, either organically in side-quests or with objectives in the quest-log on the main chain, it's always satisfying to do so, especially when this long drawn-out process is leading up to a boss. The game loses some of its shine, however, when it falls back on the more traditional "talk to this guy, now that guy, then back to the first guy" structure, mostly in the second act. It's a disappointment, because tying the character, their motives and expertise so closely into the core game mechanics is something that RPGs should be doing much more often.

Combat itself is based on a relatively simple and intuitive system of combo-chaining using two attacks; light and heavy. It bears some similarities to the Batman: Arkham Whatever series with the ability to acrobatically flit between enemies; also that you're almost always outnumbered. You can also block and dodge, and, with the right timing, execute riposte attacks for extra damage. It's intuitive and satisfying without really being anything new or outstanding. A lot of the time, especially with tougher enemies, it becomes a matter of slogging it out and outlasting them rather than any especial skill.

There are problems: the Grim Yet Curiously Sexy Darkness of the Imagined Past setting is overdone, silly and uncomfortably male-gazey (although there's nothing as bad as the previous game's pinup cards); it's clear that the writers' aim at Gritty Fantasy is still too-often dragging them into puerility. The story, while good, is also confusing as hell sometimes and rewards close attention. The array of craftable potions and items was sometimes a little too overwhelming for me, with marginal distinctions at best between a few of them. Fighting human enemies, as you will for big chunks of the game, is nowhere near as interesting as the varied cast of ghosts and ghouls, mostly because there's little to research or prepare and they have few interesting attacks. The game tries to compensate in the most dismal way possible by simply making you take on huge groups all at once. The quest tracker is buggy and navigation difficult; it's easy to get lost in some of the more open areas.

Still, though, I had fun. It's a good game, especially for the price I paid.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Feature, Not a Bug


So, the first thing to note on l'affaire Ubisoft is that it came about because a journalist actually bothered to ask a games developer just why they hell they still aren't putting a playable female protagonist into their multimillion-selling flagship series. That alone is fairly staggering; you're a games journalist, man, you're not supposed to ever ask difficult questions, let alone call someone on their obvious bullshit! The piece is, of course, currently rocketing its way across the channels and byways of the internet, giving lie to the oft-repeated claim that these questions aren't asked because people aren't interested in this sort of thing. We are, of course. Especially when it's a question-and-answer which cuts to the heart of the problems with representation in the games industry.

A female character was, we are told, on a "features list" for a long time, but simply had to be cancelled owing to the unfortunate exigencies of developing games to tight budgets and schedules. They'd have had to do different animations. Costumes. This would have doubled the dev time on those things, so unfortunately, the lady got canned. Sorry! And besides, they're doing history, and women were all in cupboards or something back then...?

All of this is nonsense, and it's hardly worth spending time on debunking. Ubisoft are a big company; the Assassins' Creed franchise sells millions of copies every year; the biggest expense as far as I'm aware wouldn't have been costumes or animations at all (there's female characters in the multiplayer mode) but rather in voice-acting, and so it's possibly telling they don't mention it.

No, the core of the problem here is that a woman was not conceived of as a credible focus for the story Ubisoft was trying to tell from the get-go. Despite their protestations to the contrary, it's clear that they started off with a male character to tell a man's story. The female counterpart was never a core part of the experience but a feature to be jettisoned. The woman is peripheral from the start: she is not integral to the experience except as an ancilliary character in the orbit of a man, deployed to chide, harden or propel the male character's adventure. Men get to be free-running sexy assassins; women get to be rescued.

It's not like Ubisoft are exactly alone here, although the Assassins' Creed, Watch_Dogs and Far Cry releases are all prominent offenders in perpetuating the utterly ubiquitous bestubbled-meaninglessly-angry-loner-male protagonist known and reviled as Doomguy. It is, as I said at the top, a problem the games industry has: because it's still male-run, male-driven, and creating for a notional audience of awkward teen boys (despite the large and ever-increasing numbers of women who play games), it is an industry utterly accustomed to putting a man at the centre of things and viewing women as a peripheral, an added extra: a feature.

When you're relegating half the world's population and a good section of your own audience to the level of a gun -with-some-flames-on-it DLC, something's badly wrong.

The maddening thing is that there are examples out there - good, successful ones - of how to do this sort of thing, and have been for years. I'll glance briefly at two here - Mass Effect and Dark Souls.

Mass Effect, as well as offering a broad palette of character customisation in terms of name, appearance and background, was constructed around a character-driven narrative that could be altered (within limits) at the player's discretion. If the character was male or female, the world subtly shifted around them, as it did with many of the choices the player could make. This kind of agency reached its zenith in the third instalment, where the character could choose to pursue a relationship with basically any of the main supporting cast. Want a chaste, do-gooder male space marine with stubble? Go ahead, you boring fuck! Want a remorseless black lesbian space-racist? Knock yourself out! Whatever you choose, you get to be the hero or heroine of your own story - and the gender choice, from the perspective of running around blasting fuck out of galactic bastards, is entirely arbitrary. It is still a masculine story and structure (ultraviolence in space; the loner against those who doubt him) - it's just that the game developers cared enough to give the player some level of control over it.

Dark Souls offers the character customisation but does something quite different with the narrative: which is to say, Dark Souls doesn't actually have much of a narrative as such, and as a result the player is given remarkably free reign to put his or her interpretation on it and, indeed, to construct their own character's story as they traverse the world. The silent protagonist is a perfect cypher for whatever the player wants them to be (with the stricture that the player has to want them to be a mouldering undead who batters monsters with a club).

There are plenty of other examples out there, of course, which just makes it all doubly maddening. Nintendo's ever-more-androgynous Link and the prospect of a Zelda game where you get to play as Zelda (!) are tantalising glimpses of progress, even if the company will have to do more than that to atone for its shameful handling of the Tomodachi Life fiasco. People who self-identify as "gamers" are constantly anxious that people aren't taking the medium seriously enough. There's something of a point there. But I expect that the Ubisoft news story will be met with the usual calls from the gamer grognards that attempting to have this discussion is somehow "injecting politics" into something that's meant to be fun, oblivious as ever to the fact that this sort of thing means games aren't fun for a lot of people. Until game-players, developers, producers, journalists - in short, the industry - get a grip on its problems with women, minorities, and all the wondrous variety that is human expression and experience, then games don't deserve to be taken seriously.

Monday, 9 June 2014


E3! Christ! It can be hard to pick your way through the exciting offerings of the still-totally-relevant Electronic Entertainment Expo - but have no fear with this, the United Servo Academy Chorus' exclusive guide to all the hits from this most exciting of games-industry trade shows!


Xbox head honchos were carted onto the stage, bound and gagged, to the audience's hotly-anticipated, next-gen lusty booing and hurling of medium-sized garden furniture. In an unprecedented gesture, the penitent suits were doused in aviation-grade kerosene and ignited with a Halo 5-branded flamethrower (retail price: $70,000, or free with Kinect)! The screaming carcasses were then hurled bodily into the baying, delighted crowd, there to be stamped and torn to bits - all in stunning 1080p!


Sony cemented their hard-won place at the top of the console-wars mound of skulls by announcing the release schedule for the 2014-2015 fiscal year would be replaced by a single game-changing release: the reign of King Death, He who is the end of all! Sony executives refused to comment on whether the ensuing demise of this frail universe would be free to Playstation Plus subscribers.


I dunno, Smash Bros. or something.


So there you have it, folks, all the news from another thrilling E3! Video games! Fuck!

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Misogyny Kills

We live in a society that hates women.

Cards on the table before I get into this: I'm a white, middle class heterosexual man who attended what I'm obliged to refer to as an Elite University. I'm about as privileged as it gets without actually being rich. As such, there's plenty about women's experience of this world that I don't feel I'm equipped to speak to, or at least that I don't feel it's my place to do so. I don't want to talk over anyone, I don't want to prejudice my voice over others. I don't think my Real Important Words have an inherent right to be heard over other people's real, lived, day-to-day experience. But as I see it, unless men are coming to grips with this vale of tears we call the world and our own place and role within the generation of human misery, nothing's going to change. So.

In light of this:

We live in a society that hates women, and I take it as evidence of the very most compelling kind that when a young, privileged white man takes it upon himself to say: "I hate women, the women who have rejected me, who have not provided the sex and affection that the owe me, as a man, and that I will now make them pay - indeed, "bring them to their knees" - with horrific violence," and then acts upon it in a murderous rampage, that a lot of people react by trying to show sympathy with him - oh, he's so lonely! - or to ignore his own explanations for his own violence by resorting to store-brand justifications like nebulously defined mental illness, or, perhaps, violent movies, or in some other way reaching for an excuse or justification which does nothing to understand the root causes of why these things happen and has everything to do with trying to turn an atrocity into an argument for your own personal bugbear.

Misogyny is so much the flesh and bones of our society that we can't - won't - even acknowledge it when things like this happen.

Using the mental illness explanation is lazy, and, worse, it tars people who genuinely do suffer from mental illness and distress as violent and dangerous. Most people who become ill (and very many people will experience some mental illness in their life) are not violent and do not hurt anyone. But so long as words like psycho and the association with killings goes on, people will continue to be victimised and afraid of seeking help.

What is more, as far as I'm aware, this young man showed no signs of being disturbed as such. We know - we know - that people don't actually have to be mentally damaged, disturbed, or ill, to commit atrocities. We know this because of the evidence of the World Wars, among other sources. The Einsatzgruppen who lined up Eastern European Jews and shot them, band by small band, in their hundreds until they filled a mass grave, were not mentally ill. They simply did not believe that their victims were fully human, and so they were able to rationalise away their death. This young man did not believe that the women he killed were fully human. They were a kind of sub-species; a sub-species that owed him. We know this because he said as much, over and over again, in his video and on the forums where he shared his poisonous little ideology with the friends and supporters of that ideology.

And a lot of people - a lot of people - believe the sorts of things this young man did. Not just within the pathetic "Men's Rights" community, but in society at large. Masculinity is defined in opposition to femininity as its superior. A man is held to be reasonable, powerful, right, where a woman is judged to be irrational, weak, and not worth listening to. Our daily lives are full of actions and activities that are gendered and policed along gendered lines. You don't have to look very hard to find this dynamic playing out in every strata of our society. It manifests in the casual cruelties of catcalling and shaming to denial of work or workplace rights, and up to the most vile and inhumane of acts imaginable. It's everywhere to the extent that to  claim you can't see it is an active act of un-seeing - of refusing to acknowledge reality.

Misogyny is intrinsic to the society we live in; by which I mean that hatred and oppression of women is not merely an incidental part of our quasi-democratic capitalist society that could be safely and comfortably excised, but rather that it is crucial for our current social setup to continue. Consider the ways that domestic work has been - and still is - considered women's work; consider how crucial this unpaid, unheralded labour is to maintaining a capitalist workforce. Consider that acquisitiveness, ambition, ruthlessness, and all the wonderful entrepreneurial traits that "lean-in" feminism, which is not actually feminism, is asking women to adopt, are defined as male traits. Consider that Margaret Thatcher knew that power is a thing that is gendered male, and adjusted her behaviour and speech to be as masculine as possible. Consider how hard it is - still - to get authorities to believe a woman who has been abused. Consider the tone of all the arguments that are used against her.

If you're a man thinking: "I'm not like that! I'm a nice guy! I share domestic labour! I don't benefit from this!": well, good for you, but unfortunately, you do benefit from it, and you probably have more internalised misogyny than you realise. As a small example, how many times have people you know and love resorted to arguing that "women are crazy", even in jest? You may, however, also realise that the same systems which hurt, degrade and oppress women also have deleterious consequences for men; that the same gendered social roles are used to drive male behaviour and crush male dreams in other ways: in the prison-industrial complexes or the expectations of male violence. In which case, congratulations! You're on the first step to realising that our society, currently constituted, is the problem. You can do some reading on this; there's plenty of literature out there.

I call myself an anarchist these days because more than anything I believe that the only society truly worth living in is one founded on respect, equality, and above all, consent in all our relationships, whether at work, in love, wherever. There is no excuse for treating people as if they are not fully people. Furthermore I do not believe there are any excuses for justifying, explaining away or otherwise ignoring the systems and ideologies which cause us to hate and to hurt one another. Misogyny kills; misogyny oppresses; misogyny is a fact of our society as sure as racism, homophobia, and all the other systems and ideas that keep us from living as equals. Our world may be a vale of tears, but it doesn't have to be: we all have a duty to share our world peaceably with others, to accord everyone the respect and dignity they deserve, to see to it that everyone can live their life to the fullest, and to fight to stamp out injustice wherever we find it - especially if we are the beneficiaries, unwitting or otherwise, of that injustice.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Your Radical Voting Guide, 2014

Politically radical but unsure how to mark your ballot in this, the most stupendously amazing and important European Elections ever? Well, have no fear! I, your good pal, have taken it upon myself to prepare this, the Radical's Guide to Voting Radically, 2014 Edition. Read on, fair reader, and know just how, when, and wherefore to strike your Blow For Democracy!

Your exciting options include:

-Write-in vote for Full Communism! Do we even have write-in votes here? Isn't this just a longwinded and naïve form of spoiling your ballot? Might you not have bothered to vote at all for all the good it does? Suppress these, the voices of False Consciousness, comrade! All power to the Soviets!

-Dissatisfied with the major parties? Summon powers more fell than they can comprehend! Clad in your finest black robes, carrying only the most perfectly scented dribbly candles, conduct your very own black mass in the safety and security of the voting booth! Teach Westminster to fear your most secret of ballots! Rejoice in the knowledge that to die first in the hateful embrace of The Dread Powers From Below is an election promise that won't be reneged on - not like those Lib Dems!

-Suck it up and vote Green! I mean, they're not going to get within spitting distance of power, and there's still a few too many people who go on creepily about industrial society and our ancestors and the pure bloodlines of the ancient races, but they're good for a laugh, Caroline Lucas is a fine person, and helping them beat the Lib Dems would be slightly funny for almost a whole day!

-Don't vote! Maybe you've been hanging around with anarchists for a bit and you've cobbled together a justification in your own head; maybe you honestly can't be arsed - stick it to the man by not bothering to show up at all! I mean, it's only the European fucking Elections, and who gives a shit? You're not going to vote for a fascist, so why are you to blame? Why is everyone giving you crap for the failures of a broken, unrepresentative, and hopelessly corrupted political system? All you've done is eat Weetabix in your pants! You didn't campaign for the Reich! Bonus points for causing Liberals nationwide to froth at the mouth and inveigh tiresomely about civic duties and the martyrs of the suffrage movements of yesteryear, who would punch them in the face for doing so!

-Vote for one of three flavours of neoliberal tyranny or some actual fascists! In which case, I don't know why you're even here. Leave me alone.

So there you have it folks! I hope that makes your options clear. Now go out there, and get some democracy right up you!

Monday, 19 May 2014


Godzilla is the heartwarming tale of a taciturn Japanese scientist (Ra's Al Ghul) and his forlorn pursuit of the only woman he's ever loved, a hundred-foot tall lizard. At all turns he is foiled by the bumbling, unlikeable dude-bro dipshits of The World's Greatest Nation and their Blessed Armed Forces (themselves), who stomp about the place chest-bumping, high-fiving, and generally making up their own dialogue as they go along. They're given a grim approximation of a human face by Rear Admiral Brigadier Colonel Field Marshal Lt. Chip SpeedDial (Macklemore) who gurns his way through a succession of scenes, most of which are poorly lit and incoherent, because reasons. Chip is a man of action, clearly, but one of the good ones - you see, he's not in Real Army, the Army that kills people, but is instead in bomb disposal. That's okay then. He wants nothing more than to return home to the loving arms of his wholesome, Aryan wife (a plank of wood carved into the vague likeness of Amanda Seyfried) and his emotionless child (a brick with googly eyes and a wig). To call this Chip SpeedDial's motivation, however, would be to overdo it. He simply happens, like rain or the wind. He's there. Now he's over here.

Chip SpeedDial can't have the nice things he assumedly wants, though, because of Mothras, and also because his dad, Walter White (Hal from Malcolm in the Middle) had to kill his wife one day in the middle of the Fukushima Daichi disaster, because of Mothras. On his birthday. Walter is only in the movie for about half an hour, and he still manages to chew more scenery than Godzilla. He might just have pulled this whole thing together with sheer force of campy will, but then they zip up the body bag and we're left with the acting (?) talents (?) of Chip and friends.

Nothing happens for about an hour, then Mothra decides to show up. Mothra kills some people whose names and faces you don't know, destroys some buildings in Definitely Japan, then flies off. Eventually, Lady Mothra appears and destroys Las Vegas, to raucous cheers from the viewers. Mothra and Lady Mothra toddle off to try and do what couples do best. Godzilla shows up, is introduced with appropriate gravitas (none), and then swims to America, where all things need to happen because the American movie-going public still can't be trusted to give a shit about dead Japanese people. While making this journey he's apparently under escort. Does the US Navy have Godzillas now? Who knows! He's not really explained, which is actually nice in an era of over-explanation and relentless backstory-churn. His name's on the movie. You don't need to explain Godzilla.

Nothing proceeds to happen for a bit longer. The movie almost shows some fighting, then decides that'd be far too much like something you'd paid to see, and cuts away. When we do finally get the final confrontation, it follows the standard daikaiju formula. Godzilla almost gets beaten. Oh no! But there's a twist, as Chip SpeedDial resourcefully torches all of Lady Mothra's unborn kids, causing the giant monster genuine, visible anguish in the movie's one authentically emotional moment. Then Godzilla hits his Limit Break, vomits fire down her neck and tears off her head. Hooray! U-S-A! U-S-A!

Oh, yeah, there's something about a nuke with a charmingly old-timey clockwork detonator on there, because Mothras can cause electromagnetic pulses somehow. Which is ironic, because the one device in the movie that can definitely cause that sort of effect is... well, never mind. Eventually it goes off, despite the actually-not-really-trying-all-that-hard efforts of Chip SpeedDial and the Howling Commandos, so the US military establishment gets to achieve its long-dreamed-of goal of nuking 'Frisco.

The movie doesn't trust its monsters enough to have them carry the action, which is probably a safe bet, because although Godzilla himself is charmingly ropey, the Mothras look like they were sketched on the back of a napkin then idly coloured in with a grey marker. Small elements of design interest - like Lady Mothra's glowing, egg-filled womb - are too slight and too brief to add up to anything memorable. In place of the cool monsters you're here to see, you get more Chip SpeedDial, more identikit dude-bro soldiers and more execrable dialogue. Example: Ra's Al Ghul has been saying, to Col. Hap Happablap's face, that nuking the creatures won't work. It won't work, and it's monstrous. Look, here's my dad's watch from Hiroshima, says Ra's. Nukes are bad. Don't do it.

In the very next scene, Col. Hap says "I need to know two things from you - will this work?" I forget the other one.

Pacific Rim was great because it took all the daikaiju nonsense, admitted it was nonsense, and went hell-bent to be the best nonsense it could possibly be. It's a campy, silly monster movie made by people who really wanted to make a campy, silly monster movie. More than that, it's supported by good performances by real actors (and also Charlie Hunnam) playing characters you might actually give a single iota of a shit about. It's anti-militaristic. It's about personal connections, cooperation, and comradeship in the face of hopeless odds. It wasn't afraid to show its hand with the monsters and the robots - indeed, it positively revelled in them - and at no point did it take itself too seriously. Del Toro did everything Godzilla should be, but better, and he probably wasn't even really trying.

In the end, Godzilla himself walks into the welcoming embrace of the cold ocean, there to be swallowed by the vasty depths. Ra's Al Ghul, heartbroken, fires his agent.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Picket Piketty

Thomas Piketty hasn't read Das Kapital, because it was too hard for him, apparently. I've not read Piketty either, so here's what I think about his book.

It's a 700-page fart by exactly the kind of asshole who won't accept people's real, lived experience or the evidence of his own eyes as valid unless there's a page of charts and tables next to a dust-dry digression by some prick with a PhD. The condition of the poor isn't real unless we can display it in a chart! You may not be able to feed yourself, but is that really data? And what are your policy prescriptions? Where did you go to school? And so on.

What do all these meticulously-collected and displayed data amount to? Why, some truly staggering insights. Did you know that wealth accumulates and concentrates, and that the ensuing inequality produces deleterious political and social outcomes? How could we have known! Why did nobody say anything!? And - make sure you're sitting down for this - what can be done to alleviate this situation? Well, you can, uh, tax the rich a bit more, I guess, or something. But not too much! We don't want to go too far, here! Wouldn't want to be a radical!

It takes - and this is worth repeating - 700 fucking pages to get to this.

Everyone but everyone is talking about it, of course, because there's apparently nothing like a 700 page book by a French academic stating the blatantly fucking obvious to finally concentrate the self-appointed Vox Populi's minds on certain realities of our Piss Hell Garbage Nightmare world for five minutes. Piketty's only useful function is to allow the bullshit-left media to continue to position itself as the Voice of Respectable Leftism without actually saying or doing anything that might actually make the world a less grinding, less miserable place. In the current formulation of our cult of expertise, it's only people like Piketty who are allowed to say, in essence, that shit is fucked, that capitalism is bullshit, and failing in its own terms, and the world is actually horrible for a lot of people, because Piketty can be trusted not to go overboard. He can be trusted to coat this bitter pill in respectable language, and of course to supply lots of charts. A normal, actual person who tried to say some of these things would be laughed out of the newsroom - I mean, come on, what are you, some kinda fuckin' anarchist!? Meanwhile, because Piketty's analysis and proposals come pre-neutered, they can be safely ignored. The news cycle rolls on.

And that's the punchline: Piketty doesn't matter. Piketty is going to be ignored. He's saying nothing we didn't already know (but now with charts!) while proposing next-to-nothing as a response, and it's still going to achieve the square root of jack shit except to launch a million shitty blogposts. This is one of them. Do you see?

Summary: Too Long, Didn't Read.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

The Hollow Crown: Dark Souls 2

Full disclosure: I'd not played the first one (or the real first one, Demon's Souls, or the real first one, the King's Field series), although I've watched some playthroughs (some more bizarre than others), and enough people whose opinions I like and respect had raved about how good it was that I became excited for the sequel. That was odd, because it's not really the sort of game I play these days. Action-RPGs aren't my thing, as a rule. I like pause buttons. What got me hooked in, however, was the idea that the game would deliver some of the experiences that I most enjoyed about the games I played growing up: the fun of exploring a world full of secrets and wonders; learning new systems and persevering through new challenges to get through that world; and most of all, the extent to which this was a game which seemed designed to be enjoyed as a shared experience. It's meant to be talked about, in the way we used to as kids - have you found that secret area? Have you beaten that boss? Here's something you can do, let me show you - and it's in this sphere, in the rekindling of that joy of playing games and jabbering about them, that Dark Souls 2 shines.

Like everyone and their maiden aunt says, it's challenging, although the claims of the series' insane difficulty always seem overblown to me. I finished it in a par time, with a keyboard and mouse, and I'm not really very good at games. "Difficult" isn't really the right word. There's nothing you can't do, no information the game is holding back (even among the ludicrous lists of numbers that make up character stats). Instead, it's relentless. You work out how to kill one enemy, do so, pump your fist, and then run into the next one. You Died. Rinse and repeat. But the genius of Dark Souls 2 is that it embraces this process so fully, and executes it so well, that you're very rarely left feeling frustrated, even in the face of multiple, stupid failures. There are only two sections which annoyed me - these are, I think, becoming notorious among those who've played the game, involving a bumrush by multiple enemies - and normally, even when I was flailing wildly and unsuccessfully, I was happy to respawn and come back for another go. And when you do succeed, it's joyous. You did something. You worked it out. Well done! Then you misjudge a roll and fall down a hole. You Died. Fuck's sake.

That sense of challenge rather than grinding difficulty is helped by the online functions - if you're genuinely stuck, or can't be bothered trying a boss another ten times, you can usually find someone else online to help you with that section, although your mileage may vary with the amount of "help" some summoned players are providing.

The sense of exploration probably isn't as good as in the predecessor - it rarely feels like a truly open-world game (although Dark Souls was fudging it), more a system of broadly interconnected dungeons, and the ability to warp from bonfires from the off short-circuits one of Dark Souls' apparent joys: the inclusion of gruelling backtracking as a core experience. That said, these design choices do help make the game feel just that bit more welcoming, and I don't feel like it diminished the experience. Traversing many of the game's areas - most of which are well- and interestingly-designed, with one notable exception involving sand - is a challenge in itself, and there's plenty for the intrepid explorer to find, from hidden rooms to secret routes, to ways to cut out some of the game's more maddening bosses entirely.

And there's those bosses. I don't think the designs quite hold up to some of the previous game's more outré nonsense - no illusory butterflies, giant wolves clutching swords in their mouths, or Ceaseless Discharge (heh) here, but they do cohere more strongly along a theme of Nightmare Medieval Fantasy (viewed through a Japanese lens) than the predecessor's bosses do. There's plenty of variety among them, and most walk the line between tough as nails but doable and cheap, bullshit nonsense successfully. If I had a problem, it's that a couple of the fights actually felt way easier than I was expecting. Still, though, most of these fights are memorable, and the one or two which utilised area and exploration mechanics before or during the fight will stick with me for a while. Pay close attention to your surroundings, and always remember you have a torch for a reason, kids. You... do have a torch, right?

As well as the thrill of beating challenges, you're kept wanting to progress by the art and the storytelling, both of which combine wonderfully to create a compelling sense of mystery. Each new area uncovered and boss beaten leads you further down the rabbit-hole of just what the hell happened in the cursed realm of Drangleic. Although it's sparse, the way the game tells its story is itself a triumph. You're never bludgeoned on the head with it, and, indeed, so little is outright said that piecing together the narrative is an enjoyable task in itself. This nuance and subtlety, by which as much is said with imagery, symbolism and music as with dialogue, is refreshingly at odds with the way big-budget videogames often try and Do Story. Nobody in Dark Souls 2 is telling you "we gotta" do something. You're not catapulted from area to area in a storm of bad action clichés. Instead, the sun is gently setting over the clifftops of the ruined town of Majula, while a soft vocal wails over the wind-rustled grass. Seek the King, you're told. It's the only way.

Still no idea what the tiny evil pigs are doing there, mind.

Dark Souls 2 gave me everything I wanted: challenge, beautiful visuals, a real sense of achievement, and long conversations about what to do here, how to beat this, and what some of the game's mysteries actually meant. It's a bizarre, compelling adventure which keeps taunting and goading you on into one more go, just another try. You'll fail, over and over, but when you succeed, it's as thrilling as anything a videogame can deliver. It's my favourite game of recent years.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Call Off Duty

John Manshooter was pissed. He was needed for Warfare. Advanced Warfare. He knew this because the Commander in Chief had phoned him this morning.

"John," the Commander in Chief had said, "I've got some bad news. Retirement is over. There's Warfare. Advanced Warfare. We need you."

"Okay," John Manshooter said, wearily. He was tired of this endless Warfare. He put down the grenade launcher he'd been oiling. "What's the job, Chief."

"It's going to be tough this time, John." The Commander in Chief sounded worried. "This Warfare is Advanced. It's Advanced Warfare. The Foreigns have got their hands on killer robots, maybe. Or a genetically engineered dinosaur plague or something. It's not real clear."

John Manshooter swore. "Shit," he said, and then "fuck." Those ethnics had to be stopped. Stopped with bullets. Bullets from a gun.

John Manshooter was the best shooter of bullets from a gun in the business.

"It gets worse," said the Commander. "It's the Foreigns. They're led by... by Bad Americans."

John Manshooter swore again. This time he said "pisswizard." The Bad Americans were the most fearsome foes in the world. Almost as intelligent, driven and competent as real, Freedom-and-Justice loving Americans. They even looked like real people, and some of them had familiar voices and faces. But they were twisted by their love of Foreigns, and their incomprehensible hatred of America, which made them Bad. Foreigns were no trouble. Foreigns could be slaughtered in minutes, and nobody cared. But with Bad Americans leading them... well, that was a different story. That was Advanced.

"Alright, Chief," said John, stubbing out his cigar on his masculine, stubble-covered jaw. "I'm in. In for Advanced Warfare."

"Good," said the Chief, ringing off.

John Manshooter stared out the window. He'd show the Foreigns and the Bad Americans what for. He'd show them with bullets, bullets in their faces. It was the only language they understood, except for the languages they spoke.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Damascene Ad Absurdum

The Prime Minister is a sweaty man who reeks of advertising. His one discernible quality is that he never seems quite comfortable in any situation he finds himself in. Suits don't fit him. Casual clothing looks ridiculous. His holiday pictures all look forced and unnatural. He is a scarcely credible leadership figure. The ghost of a moustache on his lip makes him look like nothing so much as a provincial bank manager, always worrying that someone will find out about the petty cash. His greatest fear is that he has gone through life assuming that he is the perfect man for the job he now occupies, but that the reverse is true. The reverse is true; he now simply hopes that nobody notices.

The Prime Minister wants to talk to you about Religion.

He wants to come across as sincere - sharing his faith, in a friendly, honest manner with you - but this is a problem for the Prime Minister. He cannot be sincere. He cannot even fake sincerity, like some of his predecessors. The Prime Minister's version of "sincere" consists of fixing you with an unsettling stare while lowering his head, like a charging bull, and hectoring you. He reduces himself to a shiny, sweat-slick forehead and shaking jowls. There is no invention in the words, no craft to what he does.

The Prime Minister always comes across as a crap advertising man, which is what he is.

He wants to talk to you about Religion because the man he is most afraid of in politics has been talking about Religion also. The man the Prime Minister is most afraid of went so far as to use the term "Judeo-Christian heritage", which is as sure a mark as exists that the opinion thus expressed may be safely ignored, for the speaker knows not the fuck of which he speaks. But the Prime Minister is concerned. He fears that the man he fears most has opened a Religion gap, and that members of his own party will continue to desert him if he doesn't close the distance.

So the Prime Minister talks about Religion. There are problems with this. As already noted, the Prime Minister cannot be sincere. His timing is all wrong. His delivery is poor. The message is muddled. Worst of all, in this case, the Prime Minister isn't very religious, and this is obvious. And having never before made an issue of his alleged faith - having serially played it down, even - he now looks like an opportunist, forever tugged around by whatever the zeitgeist seems to be that day - which is exactly what he is, and what he does. The reason he fears the man he fears most in politics so much is that the man he fears, despite exercising no real power and little direct political influence, is actually good at this game. The man he fears is good at politics, although his policies and positions are self-contradictory, idiotic and spiteful. He is forever stealing a march on the Prime Minister, dragging him around in his wake. He does this to make the Prime Minister look like a weak, silly nonentity, which he is.

The Prime Minister will keep talking about Religion until the man he fears most in politics decides that this has been jolly good fun, but that he'd like to make the Prime Minister twist in another direction, and go charging off after another talking point.

The Prime Minister will continue to tie himself in knots. Sweating, leering.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

The Pirates! In An Adventure With Expenses

The ship pitched and rolled in the roiling seas. Maria gulped as she was prodded down the gangplank at sword-point.

"It's not personal," said Gideon, one of her self-appointed executioners, "you've brought disrepute to the whole band, and we simply can't have that in these tough times."

Maria shuffled a little further along, whimpering, at a couple of too-enthusiastic jabs from the cutlass. She could see the edge, now. The sea was cold, cruel, churning - were those sharks?

"We told you, Maria! We can't have pirates in the band!" said Michael, absently loading and checking his brace of flintlock pistols. "I mean, honestly, Maria - piracy? What were you thinking?"

The crowd, gathered to watch the spectacle, agreed lustily.

"Yes, everyone hates pirates!" said the man who called himself Grant, feeding his parrot a biscuit, "and they especially hate conmen!"

"Piracy is immoral and wrong," said Jeremy, shifting his eyepatch from one eye to the other.

"So you have to walk the plank! The plank! A watery grave for you! A-ha!" yelled Wee Mad Iain, doing a cartwheel and soiling himself vigorously. The rest of the crowd shuffled aside from him.

Maria had reached the end of the plank, now. All that was left was the plunge. Frantic, she cast about for friendly faces in the crowd, but there were none. Never before had she seen such a rum band of coves, rogues and looters, she thought. But maybe there was a final chance. Maybe the captain...?

"I support you unreservedly!" called a voice from somewhere, far away from the thronging crowd. "Now be a dear and fuck off into the drink, won't you?"

Well, thanks a lot, thought Maria as she jumped.


The ship had sailed on. Maria was paddling comfortably. The water was lovely, as it happened, warm, calm, and not at all fatal. The boys had even been good enough to throw down a chest laden with drinks, sandwiches, and not a little cash after her. And any minute now...

"Wotcher!" said a friendly dolphin.

"Um, hello," replied Maria, "are you my ride?"

"I am!" said the dolphin, "hang on to my back and we'll have you at Paradise Island in a jiffy. The boys told me to tell you they'd probably swing by in a couple of months, and to enjoy the facilities as much as you like in the meantime."

"Yippee!" said Maria, who very much enjoyed using things provided for her as much as she liked, and grabbed on to the dolphin.

Monday, 7 April 2014

These Stern-Faced Men of Budget

The time to Budget is upon us, and gathered around this august Budgeting table are our heroes, the serious-minded Men of Budget. Long have they slaved through the night, stiff-necked and perspiration soaked, to produce the latest of our Great Nation's Budgets.

Budgeting is very important.

"Right," calls the Chief Budgeteer, "this is a fine Budget that we have made, but it is lacking in the Common Touch, in Eyecatching Initiatives to win the hearts of the Hardworking People, the People who Work so Hard, all day at their Work, Working - Hard - that we may Budget for them. What shall we do for the Hardworking People, who are not the Workshy Scroungers?"

There is silence. Time passes. Eventually, a hand is feebly raised. The Chief Budgeteer, master of this Budget, nods that the hand's owner may give voice.

"Well... we could give them something they like."

There are nods. More voices are raised.

"Yes. Something they like. They. Them."
"Them. Yes."
"Indeed, those. Them."

"But what do they like?"

The moment's enthusiasm passes as Great Minds bend to the answering of this question. What, indeed, do Hardworking People - neither Feckless nor Workshy, Indolent nor Scrounger - like to do?

"Um. They like drinking. Getting drunk. You know."


"But not, obviously, not on anything good. Beer. Yeah. Beer. They like beer."
"Yes, they like beer!"
"Those! Beer! Them, they!"

The Chief Budgeteer, the sternest and wisest of the Men of Budget, nods his head approvingly.

"So shall this be done. A reduction in the cost of beer. Not enough that anyone will notice - a penny per pint, say - but this is indeed an Eyecatching Initiative. What else?"

"Uh... gambling. They like gambling!"
"Beer and gambling! Yes!"
"They like beer! Those are people who gamble!"
"Drunks and gamblers! Drunks and gamblers!"
"But not all gambling. Good, honest, British gambling. Bingo. Yeah, Bingo. Good, demotic, salt-of-the-earth gambling. Like your nan does. Not that evil, wicked, modern gambling."

There are more nods and murmurs of assent. A small smile cracks the face of the Chief Budgeteer, the Master of Budget. These are wise men he has assembled.