I missed you today.
I look a lot like you now. I realised it as I stared into the mirror this morning. It isn’t so much the wrinkles around my eyes, or the way my forehead has started to furrow. It’s more the look in my eyes. When I feel sad, I get a softness in my eyes that is all you.
You had kind eyes. You were a kind man.
Nothing has really changed since you left. Space is still as amazing as you always told me it was. A man made a music video from a space station a month or so ago. You would have liked that. We would have talked about it. And then we would have agreed that we’ll never understand any of it. I would have liked you to have seen it anyway.
I remember, when you were lying on that bed, showing you some news about space exploration on my phone. The light from the phone hurt your eyes, and I felt stupid. You were hours away from leaving, and I wanted to show you some news about Mars. You nodded and smiled as I read the story to you.
It’s how we were connected. You taught me that the world is full of wonder, and that it never stops. It never stops.
On Friday I’m doing a thing at the Kelvin Hall, and I wish you were here to see it. I’m so proud to be doing it. When I was little, and you would take me out for a treat, that area was our turf. Art Galleries, Transport Museum, Kelvin Hall. An ice cream afterwards. I’ll be thinking about you on that night. They’re shutting the Kelvin Hall soon too. The Transport Museum has moved already. My past is all being boxed away.
You used to laugh, telling me that time accelerates as we get older. You weren’t kidding. You have to laugh, really. It’s scary.
Hopey pretends she still remembers her Granda. That’s good enough, I suppose. You’re a guy in a photo to her now. A pleasant mystery in a photograph. You’re like Mars to her. A beautiful distant thing trapped in an image. She’ll never visit it, but I think she’ll always appreciate how important it is.
I’ll teach her to do that. I’ll teach her to always look up and out.
I’m writing this to you on a video game blog. You’re in everything I do, that’s why you’re in this too. And I want people to know how special you were to me, and what you were actually like, because I spend a lot of my time hiding what I’m actually like. Last Christmas I was really struggling, trying to complete something I’d started here, trying to deal with what life had flung at me, and I wish I had been able to talk to you about it.
You would have told me to slow down. Calm down. And so I did. You helped me anyway, without even being there. I lost all that weight you asked me to lose, by the way. Thanks so much for that. You got the message through to me.
Uncle Charlie told me something you told him before you passed away: “The weans don’t understand that daddies have to die.”
I think I understand it now. It’s finally sinking in.
I hug my wee lassie a bit tighter because of it.
I miss you. It never stops.
In Scotland there’s something we call “Scottish Cringe”. I think the term originated in Australia, with “Australian Cringe”. It refers to something called a “cultural cringe”. Wikipedia describes Cultural Cringe like this: “Cultural cringe, in cultural studies and social anthropology, is an internalized inferiority complex which causes people in a country to dismiss their own culture as inferior to the cultures of other countries… is often linked with the display of anti-intellectual attitudes towards thinkers, scientists and artists who originate from a colonial or post-colonial nation.”
I’m a firm believer in the notion of a Cultural Cringe. It is something we have an issue with in Scotland, and as someone who works in the TV industry and does most of my work with a Scottish mindset and in a Scottish accent, it’s something that frustrates and challenges me.
But recently I’ve noticed a Cultural Cringe within gaming too. A Gaming Cringe, let’s call it. We’ve always been a little bit shy about talking about games in intellectual terms, haven’t we? When I was making the online show Consolevania some years ago, I would regularly apologise in advance for any “high-brow analysis” by saying “If you’ll let me put my wank-hat on for a minute…” It became a little bit of a catch-phrase in the show, and I’m ashamed of that today. I’m annoyed that I apologised. At the time, I just didn’t want anybody thinking I was getting all high-falutin’ about videogames.
When Kieron Gillen proposed his manifesto for New Games Journalism, I lampooned it within the show. Not because I thought it was a bad idea. Far from it. I lampooned it because I thought it would lead bad writers to write some awful arty-farty prose about games. Which would be embarrassing, yeah? I’m ashamed of that too. I think I was cringing.
I would like to think that I’m free of the cringe now. I’m in awe of some of the stuff I’m witnessing within games. All I care about these days is championing it all. Just this year I’ve been excited by Gone Home – a game set in the 90s that sees the player explore a family home to learn things about a character, a sister, a young woman. It’s the kind of experience that only a game can provide, and it has incredible depth. It’s like an emotional time machine, and I can’t wait to play it some more. And then there is Bioshock Infinite.
I was moved to write this by seeing people criticise Bioshock Infinite for its violence. I think that reaction is staggering. Just staggering. I’ve argued against videogame violence for years (and often felt like I was completely on my own). I’ve stood by and watched as game after game got a free pass for extreme violence. And that’s fine. I understand that people sometimes want their video nasties. But to target Bioshock Infinite seems more like a cringe than a valid criticism to me. Let me explain.
If there is any game that can justify its violence, it is Bioshock Infinite. It is a story about a violent man, and about the violence within society. It’s a story about extreme beauty, and extreme ugliness. It’s also saying a lot about videogames, and as it delivers its story and themes, it does it through patterns and behavioural codes that we all understand. The violence isn’t only justified by character, story or themes. It’s justified by the language of game mechanics that the game is using.
What games can’t justify their use of extreme violence? Almost everything else. And yet I haven’t seen commentators call all those other games out. Why wasn’t Gears of War widely taken to task for gruesome violence? Why wasn’t Modern Warfare 2? Was it because those games didn’t aspire to be anything other than silly old videogames? Was it because those games knew their place?
This extract is from the Kotaku piece by Kirk Hamilton (a fine writer, incidentally) that kicked off much of this debate: “BioShock Infinite is in many ways so, so close to being That Game, the one we can show to our non-gamer friends and say “See? Look at this! It is so awesome! Check out the story! It’s like LOST! How neat is this?” But it’s not That Game, because it’s so hilariously, egregiously violent that a large number of people will never give it a chance.”
We should be celebrating Bioshock Infinite for telling an incredibly daring story and dealing with incredibly mature themes within our favourite form, and doing it honestly. Instead, some of us are cringing. “They’re telling this story in big-budget violent FPS form? Couldn’t they have done it in interactive fictiony arthouse form, where only a few of us might see it?” It’s a cringe. A wide-spread cringe. I recognise it because I’ve been there. Are we really going to get all “Ugh. It still acts like a videogame!” about it? Please tell me we’re not going down that path.
Could The Godfather have been That Film, had it not featured characters being cut to ribbons by machine gun fire and bullets through eye sockets? Could Reservoir Dogs have been That Film had it not shown an ear being cut off? Could Preacher have been That Comic had it not been, y’know, gruesomely violent all the fucking time?
Bioshock Infinite has dared to dream the big dream inside the big AAA game. A creator stepped up the plate. Now we face the test. Is our videogame culture an inferior one? I don’t think it is. Not anymore. Let’s not cringe about it. We’re finally moving forward. We need balls enough to be proud about it.
If you’ve played Bioshock Infinite, read on. If you haven’t, go no further. Go and play it, and then feel compelled to write something of your own about it.
Spoilers follow. Last warning.
Tomb Raider has been marketed shamefully. From trailers that focused on Lara being battered and broken, to hands-on features full of sexual gags on Conan O’Brien (http://youtu.be/xCe8-1dbXZc), it’s clear that the marketing team behind this new game are well versed in what works for an audience of thrill-killing sexists. And let’s be frank – that audience is responsible for a large percentage of video game sales.
But this game deserved better. It’s a triumph.
I almost passed on Tomb Raider, because I found the pre-release hoopla so vile. It was only when some trusted friends told me how good it was, and how wrong my preconceptions of it were, that I decided to try it. I’m glad I did, because it’s an important chapter in the history of one of the most well-known videogame characters. The first genuinely meaningful chapter, if we’re at all interested in characterisation within videogames.
Lara Croft meant different things to different people. To some women, she represented a turning point. She was a positive force. Cara Ellison illustrated this beautifully recently - http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2012/12/19/gaming-made-me-tomb-raider/ To many men she was a pair of tits in a cave. An arse crawling through the dark. A thing to giggle over and abuse.
To me, she was nothing. Not really. I liked her for being a female character, at least there was that, but she was a ridiculously proportioned thing. A cartoon. I couldn’t relate to her at all, because she was like no woman I knew. Tomb Raider, for me, was about the tombs. The atmosphere of the caves. The world. I couldn’t find my way in to Lara Croft. I just didn’t buy that character at all. A gaming icon? Really?
I can tell you that this new game has given me exactly what I wanted from Tomb Raider. An incredible world, with every location feeling real and heavy with threat and history. A place to get lost in. Playing on PC, my finger’s always moving to that screenshot key. The people who made this game understood Tomb Raider, and cared deeply about the project. I see that now.
But what about Lara?
This Lara Croft is different. She’s terrified. She’s cold, shivering in the rain. She can barely balance as she walks over a narrow beam. She constantly tells herself “You can do this. You can do this.” She looks towards her mission objectives and her brow furrows and her eyes fill with dread. She kills a deer for food and then apologises to it. She kills maybe a hundred men, and you never feel like she enjoys it. You feel like she had to do it, and that you are her, and that you are scared, and that you had to do it.
She is a hero with vulnerabilities.
Vulnerability in video games usually comes in the form of a big red flashing weak point in an enemy robot’s armour. Character vulnerability is a no-no. The audience, that audience, doesn’t want it. Look at Raiden, from Metal Gear Solid 2. I can remember the response to this character at the time. Gamers on internet forums called him a “pussy” and a “faggot” because he expressed his insecurities and doubted himself. He was “whiny” and a “girl”. The audience, that audience, likes its heroes strong and sure. And male.
Playing this new Tomb Raider, I stopped thinking about the whole LARA IS A WOMAN thing about an hour in. Her gender looms too large in the discussion of this game. I was thrilled purely by the fact that I was playing as a character who expected to fail, and wasn’t sure they could survive. A character who felt real. Sure, she gets beaten and battered as she moves through the story of the game, but seen in context there is no controversy here. If this was a male character, we’d just be watching our hero in a desperate position, in a terrible place, surviving terrible people.
But it wouldn’t be a man, would it? That’s the thing. And it’s nothing to do with the sexualisation of violence against females (we’ll come to that shortly). It wouldn’t be a man because the audience isn’t mature enough for that yet. I think a large portion of the gaming audience would entirely reject a male hero suffering as Lara does in this Tomb Raider. This Tomb Raider guy, let’s call him Larry, would be another internet pussy. He’d have to be completely changed up in the sequel. He’d need to be given cyborg arms and sent back to that island with a rocket launcher and a cute female assistant flirting on the radio.
This brilliantly written game (and I never expected to write those words) has given gaming one of its most grown-up characters, but it had to do it by stealth. Rhianna Pratchett sneaked something important past the industry’s dinosaur gatekeepers.
The brilliance of this new Tomb Raider is that it kills the whole gender debate over Lara Croft stone dead. I said that she once meant different things to different people. Now I think she might represent one thing to everyone – a step forward in characterisation within videogames. She’s not a female icon. Not a male pin-up. She’s an evolutionary milestone. Lara Croft genuinely matters now.
So why did the marketing team so completely undercut that message? And why are they still doing it?
When I saw that first footage, with Lara yelping and groaning and falling and being flung through everything in sight, I was horrified. TORTURE PORN, I said. SEXUALISED VIOLENCE, I said. Within the game, it’s all presented beautifully. Nothing exploitative. It’s a story, in actual fact, about inner strength.
I could bang on about the people who edited those trailers together, and what it says about them that they presented this great story in such a manner. But I think it’s more helpful that I ask what it says about me. Why do I associate a woman being battered and beaten into submission with porn? Why do I see a woman being tied up and dragged around as sexualised imagery?
I’m a man. And to be a man is to understand that you’ve been brainwashed from birth. The default sexual role for a man, we’re instructed, is to be sexually dominant. As a teenager, I remember us all talking about the things we would do to “THAT”. Women referred to as objects. “I’d split that wide open.” I remember saying that when I was fourteen, before I’d ever even kissed a girl. Those words actually came out of my mouth, when I was a child. Even now, as a 35 year old man, there is that side to me – thrilled by dominance and total power. I think it’s important to recognise it.
If you remove those scenes of Lara Croft tied up, battered, and crawling through the dirt from all context? Well, that part of me that is sexually unmoderated responds to that. My more complete whole rejects it, but that part still responds. It still lights up. And those marketing people get that. They understand it completely.
It is wrong serving wrong. And it has to change.
Game creators, like all creators in every field, can play a part in questioning the perceived wants and needs of their audience. The people who made this new Tomb Raider have done their part. I’m sure they didn’t choose how it was marketed. I hope that with the inevitable sequel the publisher lets the game, and the writing, speak for itself.
Lara Croft. Gaming icon. For real this time.
The show is going to be late.
You will get used to this.
Ready when it’s ready.
EPISODE 1: PHANTOM PAIN
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