Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Game Ramble: Tomb Raider

In a way it seems unfair to pick on Tomb Raider - by which, let's clarify up front, I mean the 2013 reboot and not the 1996 original - as an illustration of the particular video game narrative failing I'd like to talk about here.  It's a fault, after all, that a great number of games manage to commit, and have been getting wrong almost since the birth of the medium, and Tomb Raider is far from being the worst of the bunch.

Still, not all of them have put that failing so front and centre, or emphasized it quite so pointedly in their marketing campaigns, and for me that alone has been enough to make Tomb Raider something of an exemplar.  Because Tomb Raider the story, as conveyed in cut scenes and dialogue, is an entirely different beast to Tomb Raider the play experience, and not only do those two things not line up one damn bit, they actually spend fifteen hours working largely at odds with each other.

Well, I say fifteen hours; it's in the first five that Tomb Raider most egregiously insists on saying one thing and doing another.  Because this Tomb Raider is an origin story, or perhaps rather a coming of age story, but either way its role is to show us just how Lara Croft became the peculiarly cold-hearted raider of tombs and taker of lives that we know she will become.  As such, Tomb Raider the story makes a big deal of the moment when Lara Croft, youthful grave-robber-to-be, first takes the life of another human being.  I mean, a huge big deal; it's built up for a good ten minutes, if not the entirety of the game's opening, and the act itself is as bloody and traumatic as you could ever hope the sight of a teenage girl committing a shocking act of violence could be.  We're made to understand that this is something that will stay with Lara until her dying days, that will cast its shadow over her every waking hour...

...right up until the moment a few minutes later when Tomb Raider the game forgets it ever mattered.

Empathize, damn you!
An hour or two of game time later and you'll be merrily machine-gunning your enemies in the face, not to mention sniping them, shotgunning them, stabbing them in the back with an improvised climbing tool and setting them on fire.  And though that violence isn't exactly pleasant, it's also every bit as frequent and fundamentally dismissive as the violence in a great many other similar games.  On the one hand we're expected to sympathize with Lara's dehumanising struggle to survive and the fact that by implication there was a time when she didn't murder someone every five minutes.  On the other, we're required to help her gun down literally hundreds of people.  Frankly, even the finest plotting in the world might have difficulty making that one stick.

It seems to me that, of all the problems that video games have to overcome before they make the shift from 'medium of pure entertainment' to 'entertainment medium that everyone is also happy to acknowledge as art form' is this particular disconnect, where story and game refuse to overlap.  And this issue is fundamentally connected to other deep-rooted problems in the medium, in that most games still revolve around the act of killing, and it's hard beyond a certain point - increasingly so given current levels of visual fidelity - to portray that act, even when performed in self-defense, as sympathetic.  I mean, I like Lara Croft, I do; we've raided a ton of tombs together over the years.  But there are only so many times you can watch a teenager jab an arrow into another person's neck and still feel comfortable in their presence.

What's the answer?  Is there one?  When these games sell by the kerzillion, does anyone actually care?  Well, if nothing else, I'm confident that the answer to that last is a resounding yes; just look how many shooting-based games go to great lengths to disguise the nature of their cannon-fodder with masks, helmets, bandannas, sunglasses, or as essentially faceless robots or aliens.  Or - as both example and one possible solution - consider how the colossally successful The Last of Us frames its narrative specifically around the self-corroding nature of violence, and along the way admits that there's something horribly wrong with its protagonist for continuing to commit the acts he does. 

That, though, is a trick you can only pull so many times - and therein, I suppose, lies my point.  As long as gameplay is designed primarily around acts of violence, so video games will be obliged to tell stories primarily about violence, and so limit themselves to one shallow end of a very large narrative swimming pool.  Even then, as Tomb Raider illustrates, to tell such stories convincingly requires a relatable human protagonist, and we're basically hard-wired not to relate to people who spend an overwhelming proportion of their time killing.  Tomb Raider tries simultaneously to ignore that fact and to embrace it, and perhaps it's no wonder that it ends up fumbling both.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

C21st Gods Are Near

The stars are nearly aligned.
It feels like I've been working on C21st Gods forever.

Or rather, I should say "we."  For this project began with my artist friend Duncan Kay, there was never any possibility of anyone else drawing it, and for that reason, Duncan has been hanging on with this thing for every bit as long as I have.

Which is a heck of a long time.  I mean, what, four years now?  And in that time Gods has been through plenty of iterations, growing longer and more complex with each passing take.  Looking at the final script, it's hard to believe I somehow originally crammed it into a mere eight pages!  In the end, though, a graphic novel felt like the only option that made sense.  There were plenty of reasons for that decision, just as there are good reasons the book wound up running to three issues, and they don't all have to do with my story - though there's no denying it gains from having that room to breath.  But no, the reason C21st Gods needs to be in its current form, the one it will finally see daylight in, comes down to one thing, and that's Duncan's artwork.

Because for me, first and foremost, that's what this book is about.  It's a story and a script I'm rather proud of, a weird little tale perched on the brink of horror and science fiction and poking at the soft flesh where those two genres meet.  But that story and script have been designed from the ground up to be a showcase for Duncan's illustration work.  It's gorgeous, is the thing; I love looking at it, so will other people, and one of my missions in life is to do whatever I can to make sure they get the chance.

I realise I've gone all this way without explaining just how it's come to be that C21st Gods is close to seeing the light of day.  And that's a story in itself, but here's the shortened version: I got talking to a guy by the name of Bill Campbell about some entirely unrelated matter, and during the course of that conversation I remembered having seen on Facebook that Bill had something to do with comic books.  So we started discussing comics stuff, and it transpired that the reason Bill was an authority on the subject was that he was publishing them through his outfit Rosarium.  Within minutes I'd discovered that Rosarium was putting out some genuinely exciting work and that Bill was exactly the kind of editor I'd like to work with, and eventually I got around to pitching him C21st Gods - which as luck would have it was right then at a stage where it could be pitched.  Needless to say, Bill liked it.  And suddenly, after a mere four years, everything was in place for Gods to become a reality.  If only things could always be so easy!

That said, we've a ways to go yet.  But finger's crossed, we'll have the first issue out by the third quarter of this year, with two and three following in close succession, and then - the main event! - the trade paperback, with probably some DVD-extra type stuff thrown in and definitely a hidden secret extra ending, because it's right there in the script. 

So watch this space.  Or, I guess, maybe just watch the stars.  Either way, C21st Gods are finally on their way.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Eastercon 2015

I have a soft spot for the Three Magpies pub at Heathrow.  Their food is good, their prices are reasonable, their staff are awfully nice and friendly.  In fact it's rare that I've gone in and there hasn't been some sort of wacky high jinx occurring, whether it be the bar staff shrink-wrapping the chef's car or everyone loudly explaining how the dishwasher has just exploded.  What impresses me most, I think, is that, as the only pub just outside the busiest airport in the country, they could get away without doing any of these things; they could overcharge and be rude to people just like the hotel bars do and no one would ever bat an eyelid.

I mention this for two reasons.  Firstly because I ended up passing quite a large proportion of the weekend I was supposed to be spending at Eastercon in the Three Magpies, and - a not unrelated fact - secondly because everything I've just said is so great about the Three Magpies was not the slightest bit great about this year's Eastercon.

I've got to admit, my expectations were at rock bottom before I even walked through the doors.  I'd volunteered a couple of times to be part of the programming by then, and been ignored on both occasions; no polite "sorry, we just have so many potential panelists this year," just plain old-fashioned ignored.  In fact, I'd had no communication whatsoever: no news updates, no reminder of the dates, not even anything to say that the programme was out.  As I talked to other writers, it became apparent that none of these experiences were unique to me.  More people, it seemed, were being cold-shouldered than weren't, and some of them were very big names indeed.  Ignoring people who offered up their time for free was, it seemed, not a logistical error but an actual policy decision.

Then the programme came out.  And oh boy but did the programme explain a lot.

Panel topics assigned apparently at random.  Panels that were a mix of the endlessly overdone and the willfully obscure, with very little middle ground indeed.  Far too many events that were a showcase for a group or individual and not much else.  One small press author with a talent for self promotion appearing a staggering eight times.  Religious ceremonies.*  An overwhelming sense that the entire thing had been thrown together at the absolute last minute, whilst watching children's TV, drunk.**

Now at this point I would normally admit that I was wrong after all and the whole thing turned out to be unexpectedly brilliant.  Only this time, I wasn't and it didn't.  It looked like a mess from a distance and it looked like a mess up close.  It was, in fact, a mess.  And quite an angry-making mess in the grander scheme of things, because it cost me a heck of a lot of money, money I could have spent on something else - attending Nine Worlds, say - and not sitting in a pub in Heathrow.

But, in that old spirit of fairness, here are some things about this year's Eastercon that were actually pretty good.  The art dealer's room was solid, though apparently a step down from previous years.  I heard nothing but positive things about the Newcon Press mini-programme strand.  A few excellent films were shown, and in particular a pre-release copy of one of my absolutely favourite anime, the magnificent Wings of Honneamise***, not to mention the recently released and nearly as marvelous Patema InvertedAdrian Faulkner's talk on hurricanes and the chasing thereof was entertaining enough that it made me wonder if I shouldn't have gone to some of the other talks, dull though the programme made many of them sound.  And there was the ever-reliable Barcon, in which I hung out with friends old and new, and probably took about five years off the life of my liver, but still managed to have a hell of a good time.  Say what you like about Eastercon - and I have! - but it attracts a fine crowd.  It's only a shame that this year its organisers chose to trap that crowd in a Heathrow hotel with barely a thing to do worth doing.

Hey ho.  Sorry to rant, people.  Unsatisfactory science-fiction convention programmes may very well be the epitome of first world problems.  Then again, this thing could so easily have been so much better, and there's an argument to say that shoddiness should always be called out, in the dim hope that maybe things will not be quite so shoddy again.  I don't want next year's Eastercon to be like this one.  I want it to be awesome.  And so do a great many other people, I suspect.

Positive note to end on?  Um.  Next year it's in Manchester, and Manchester's only an hour's drive away from me, as opposed to the six hours it takes me to get to Heathrow.  Yay to that!

* I'm not saying that religious gatherings have no place at a science-fiction convention.  Although, yeah, I kind of am.  But even if I wasn't, might it not make sense to make it multidenominational, and so avoid pissing your inclusivity policy right up the wall?

** I heard talk that it had in fact been finalized way back in December,which would actually explain the problems every bit as well.

*** Although, if there's one circumstance when I would absolutely argue for a trigger warning beforehand, it's when showing a film that includes a scene of attempted rape.