December 18, 2008

Maria

Heads up - spoiler alarm ringing now. If you're playing Gears of War 2 and you don't want the plot ruined... then what the hell is wrong with you? Why are you playing Gears 2 for the plot? Ugh. Anyway, if for some reason you care about keeping the plot pristine for your first playthrough, I suggest not reading on.

I accidentally completed Gears of War 2 today. Any game players out there know what I mean? You sit down in your bathrobe at eleven o'clock with your breakfast spaghetti in a bowl beside you, flick on the console, and then you don't stop playing until the sun has set, the game is over, and you've sustained significant kidney damage.

Anyway I did that with Gears today. It's good! Who'd have thought it. Well, everyone. The Gears series is getting a bit like Halo - it's a summer blockbuster in computer game form, it's very popular, it has huge production values, and you get a very polished product. This installment sees new weapons, new baddies, yadda yadda yadda. It's been out two months, if you're interested in the game content then you either read the reviews or bought it already. What got me about Gears was the romantic sub-plot.

Gears being a summer blockbuster, it had to have one. In this case its main support character Dom's search for his lost wife Maria, a human refugee who was separated from him at some stage in the war against the Locust aliens. For about the first two acts Dom spends a lot of time (in cutscenes) asking various people (the Military intelligence operative assigned to your patrol, other refugees, toothless old madmen) if they've seen her. We all know we're going to see a heartfelt reunion.

Which is why I did a double-take when the reunion actually occured. Maria is interned in a Locust labour camp deep underground when Dom finally catches up with her. The quirky robot sidekick cuts open her holding cell. And there is Maria sure enough, glowing with a warm filter and a soft lens flare, all the light of summer caught in her mediterranean tresses.

If this is wasn't a summer blockbuster, alarm bells would already have been ringing. Internment camp? Slave labour? Deep underground? Surely this woman should be showing some signs of wear and tear? But no. This is a summer blockbuster, and I was expecting that saccharine moment of reunion to be the end of the matter.

So I was surprised the next moment when main character Marcus says to his partner simply, "Dom", and the veil drops away. We've been seeing Maria as Dom needs to see her. The lens-flare dies and standing before them both is a husk, a starved and tortured physical shell with no human intellect behind its rheumy eyes. Maria is emaciated, scarred, blind, mentally dead.

The Maria story was utterly irrelevent to the plot. It did nothing to humanise Dom or Marcus or any of the other walking refrigerators who joke and banter their way through ten hours of testosterone fuelled alien slaughter. The cliche of the soldier with the soul, the guy who's just doing it for his gal, has seen more use than the bed-springs in a brothel. It tends to engender about as much of a reaction as showing Playboy to a corpse.

But that very, very brief moment in which I was made to look at a real aspect of human suffering - the truth of already fragile bodies pushed out of recognizable form not by armour piercing rounds or a sticky grenade but by hunger, forced labour and torture, actually registered. It made me feel bad. And knowing that that sort of reaction can come out of a completely by-the-numbers action story, even more so from a computer game, makes me feel good.


November 07, 2008

xkcd

Writing about web page http://www.xkcd.com/

Webcomics are generally the domain of the geek - the basic requirement for keeping up to date with them, that you're willing to check the internet regularly, although less of a barrier to entry since the proliferation of my.space and facebook, still suggests the edges of the realm - webcomics are an internet phenomena, and they belong to those who love the internet. Nowhere is this more true than with xkcd.

"xkcd" is a word with no phonetic pronunciation, and that about sets the tone of half of xkcd's humour. There are extremely geeky jokes here, and I don't mean "geeky" as in dungeons and dragons and lolcats (although that particular colour swatch of the geek spectrum is well represented). I mean geeky in the sense of obsessive about particularly obscure areas of learning - science, programming, mathematics. Check the bottom two questions on the "about this site" page for evidence -

http://www.xkcd.com/about/

One on sorting algorithms, the other on the writer's favourite astronomical entity.

xkcd does assume a certain level of knowledge for some jokes. For this one -

http://www.xkcd.com/472/

you've got to have read "House of Leave" by Mark Z. Danielewski to understand the entire thing (have I blubbed about House of Leaves yet? I haven't? Oh you're in for a treat...) The writing is generally good enough that even if you don't understand everything in a given strip, the latent charm and character will buoy you up through the nerd culture references and hard science. And sometimes there's something so funny you'll find yourself traling wikipedia for half an hour before you decide whether or not what's just been suggested is impossible, or merely vanishingly improbable -

http://xkcd.com/378/

http://xkcd.com/356/

Tie all that to incredibly simplistic art and a sense of pure fun and you've got an excellent comic.


November 04, 2008

Have a flash fiction

I'm lucky enough to be taking the Personal Writing Project module in the Creative Writing department this year. Here for you to enjoy is a flash fiction I wrote while I was trying to find my feet with the project.

________________________________________________________________________________

Plato at sea

Although the identity of the slave had been kept quiet, the shipmaster was well aware that he was taking Plato onboard amongst the human cargo. He did not know which of his charges was the philosopher, but he enjoyed the fact. Amongst the downturned faces was a great thinker whose words and name had been circulated across the entire world. He was sure that this turn-up: that a great thinker was walking unknown amongst human cargo: showed in large part how the universe felt about humans.

During the voyage he would walk amongst the slaves and see if he could hear any of them engaged in debate - a debate which would surely uncover the identity of the great man. But no-one spoke up. The slaves muttered and jibed with one another, railing against the human mass that encroached on them since they could not move against their true captors. But there was no revelatory discussion.

Then the captain changed tack. Perhaps Plato was the quietest of the slaves - perhaps he was afraid to reveal his identity to the mass in case they turned on him for his association with the king, even if that association had turned sour. Or maybe he did not want to waste his words on the common herd. Or maybe he was simply deeply, truly and deeply downcast. But there was no slave quieter than any other. Each muttered. Each jibed.

The captain began to worry. Perhaps Plato knew that he was listening for him? Maybe the man was leading the slaves into deeper and deeper discourse when the captain's back was turned. Their quietude - normal for slaves - was a cover for their secret dissent. At present that dissent was just an act of learning - learning, and disbarring the captain from joining in. But that implied that they had already discounted the captain from a brotherhood - and wouldn't that be a fine starting point for rebellion! Perhaps Plato had already seen his way around his shackles - these Philosophers were canny men. At night Plato would slip out of them, make his way on deck and by the light of the moon steal the key from the man's jerkin pocket. Then he would go back inside and let the slaves go - and then they would throw the crew overboard.

The captain became so consumed with these doubts that he lost sleep. Every time he saw the slaves in the flesh he was convinced that nothing secret was going on. Every time they left his sight he was convinced that they were plotting rebellion. He skipped meals, and he grew lax with the charts. After a week at sea, he drove them into a tempest.

It must be Plato's fault, he thought, as the men reeled in the sails. He struggled with the rudder, desperate to keep the ship on a straight course into the waves. He had forbidden the men to look behind them on pain of having their eyes put out with awls, because the sight to stern would have paralysed them with fear. The waves were as tall as the masts and crested with white horses. They reared up above the ship like the necks of sea-serpents. Plato must be to blame - this was a punishment sent by his father, Apollo. The tempest would break the ship into tiny pieces, and all aboard would be drowned, except Plato, who would float to the shore on a balk of timber.

Plato, with his hands in cuffs, prayed for the storm to end.


November 02, 2008

Jeffrey Rowland

Writing about web page http://www.jjrowland.com/

Jeffrey Rowland is the author of two long-running webcomics, the satyrical (and anarchic) Overcompensating, and the charming (and anarchic) Wigu.

Overcompensating falls into the realm of "journal comics". Ostensibly, a journal comic should be about the author's own life, but absolutely never is. There may be similarities - Jeffrey has written arcs about his necrotic spider-bite, the day he was certain he was going to die, hiring new staff at his company and similar mundane things. But as we all know not that much stuff happens in real life - certainly not enough for a daily update. So fiction is the order of the day. Jeffrey treats modern American culture and politics like a hypochondriac having a panic attack -

http://www.overcompensating.com/posts/20080926.html

And deals with the harsh realities of modern life like a man staying afloat above a nervous breakdown, using his WACOM tablet as a raft. The results are brutally honest, absolutely absurd, and tremendously funny.

Wigu on the other hand is the tale of a little boy's adventures in the world. It's not quite the same world that Overcompensating occurs in - the scope of the adventure is simultaneously contracted - Wigu deals with events in "real-time", so by and large a comic covers about the amount of time it takes you to read it - and expanded - the Tinkle family, the stars of the comic, have travelled to the ruins of Atlantis and the surface of Mars during their adventures.

Wigu's main protagonist is the titular Wigu, an 8 year old boy living with his alcoholic mother, gothic sister and porn-theme-composer father. The family disfunctions in a caring way - so far so Simpsons. The joy of the comic comes from the family's exposure to the insane realities (and fantasies) of human existence. Wigu sees the same awful world that Rowland presents in Overcompensating, but he sees it with the eyes of a child. Not to say that everything is consequently a question of innocence lost - Wigu is a fairly astute potrayal of an eight year old child, from diction through to television obsession, and he's too much of a character to be completely perfect.

Wigu and Overcompensating are different attempts to deal with the unpleasant realities of a lot of human life - the awfulness of the internet, the idiocy of politics, the idiocy of people. Overcompensating gives an exaggerated picture of human life in dissaray - Wigu filters the madness so that the world is the kind of awful place children imagine their adventures coming from. Both are superb.

(A note to the wise - jjrowland.com links to several places, amongst them Overcompensating, the Wigu archives, and the currently updating Wigu series.)


October 31, 2008

Scary Go Round

Writing about web page http://www.scarygoround.com/

Who makes webcomics? Here's a pretty common picture - they're American, they're a gamer, and they subsist entirely on a diet of Cheetohs and Pepsi Max. Unfortunately for this post most webcomicists don't reveal their daily diet. But by and large the first two elements in our picture hold completely true - the mainstay of webcomics are made in America, and a very large number are based around computer games.

Which is why I'm starting with Scarygoround - from the pen of British born and bred John Allison, from Chadderton in Lancashire.

Scarygoround tells the tales of the residents of Tackleford, a small fictitious market town in the north of England, the sort of place pensioners go to die and the young lose their minds to cloying boredom. It's also subject to repeated zombie uprising, visits from it's twin city Mechacropolis XF1 (it's Soviet and full of robots), demonic cults, smugglers, fishmen, occasional excursions into the realm of the dead, jelly-fish, leprecauns and... well the list goes on.

Scarygoround is written and drawn entirely by Allison, and updates five days a week - no mean feat. Perhaps the incentive to maintain production come rain or shine comes from the fact that he makes his living entirely from the website (advertising revenue, merchandise, and selling print editions of his comics with exclusive content).

SGR has gone through more artistic stylistic changes than any other comic, with every new arc being greeted by a change of art style. It's a little disconcerting in fact - if you follow the series for a long time you'll be surprised how much a change in the art unsettles your perception of the series. But it also speaks of a commitment to development and change which is carried through into the scripting.

The storyline of the series (which features a continuous narrative but no pretensions of an overarching plot) jumps and jiggles in random directions. Major characters are put down (perhaps even forgotten) only to resurface in a new context leading the plot off in another new direction. The best and most striking example of this is the change of lead characters - Tessa and Rachel (a pair of bar-maids / university undergrads) starred in the first SGR arc (an investigation of a mysterious murderous sentient gas which had carried off the university chemistry society) but were quickly abandoned in favour of the red-headed twice-murdered meddler Shelley Winters.

A lack of foresight? Yep. You just wouldn't do that sort of thing if you were planning the whole thing in advance. But you'll forgive it when characters are thrown off a bridge, saved by satan, return as mother superior of a nunnery devoted to evil and then casually burnt to death (and out of the strip) for banning all the orgies. If necessity is the mother of invention, then updating daily and never being allowed to contradict yourself must be the fertility goddess. And somehow it manages to stay more internally consistent and believably located in a physical world than your average soap.

SGR isn't based around jokes, but rather witticisms in a banterous style reminiscent of The Mighty Boosh - a lovely example of which can be found here -

http://scarygoround.com/index.php?date=20080111

And this is tied in with a marvellous sense of place. The England of SGR is satirised and idealised; all the knobs have been turned up to eleven. The characters are characatures, the monsters are twee (and deadly), the story arcs are absurd and compelling.

The main thing I can say to recommend it to you is this - you won't find anything more English than this on the internet. In fact it's a little more English than England. And it's absolutely hilarious.


October 30, 2008

Webcomics

I'm a webcomics reader. Well, worse than that really - I'm a webcomics addict. I probably pour twenty minutes a day into checking up on the latest editions of all my comics. When you think that most of those are just three panels long, that's a hell of a lot of webcomics.

When it comes to mass media, webcomics are ranked somewhere between sex tips and Big Brother. Their closest relative, the print daily comic, does a little better, since it has the credibility of it's patron newspaper behind it (Steve Bell's "If" and G.B Trudeau's "Doonsbury" both make credible claims to being adult satires of politics and the life of the West). But webcomics exist in the unfettered hinterland of the internet. Anyone who has been rickrolled, goatsed, or tub-girled knows exactly what sort of thing goes on in the internet (screaming zombie faces at the end of every video, porn sites consisting entirely of hyperlinks to other porn sites, teenagers arguing in mindless sub-English babble over whether "Black Obamma or jon MACcain is gonoig to wiN!!!")

All of which misses some of the most exciting things about the interweb. When it comes to artists maintaining ownership of their own work, controlling the means of distribution, and having unfettered editorial control of their own media, no other channel can make these practises thinkable, let alone practicable. Webcomics are at the forefront of that - some of the most prominent webcomics were established a decade ago and have grown from cottage industry to office business. They survived the dot-com boom and bust and they command advertising revenues in the tens of thousands. Others are amongst the most idiosyncratic and original works of art that have managed to remain accessible and incredibly entertaining.

Which is why I'm going to be giving a run-down of the biggest, the best, and the weirdest webcomics I've ever come across. Hopefully you'll find it enlightening - better yet, hopefully I'll point out a little gem that you've spo far missed.


Suddenly an editor

I'm on the exec for TAPfactory, The Arts Publication society. That means it's plug o'clock! We're a termly student arts publication. If you've got any work you want to submit you'd like to see in print, you have til noon on Wednesday of week 7 (that's Wednesday 12th November). We accept submissions of poetry, prose, book film and music reviews, photography and fine art - in fact anything arts related you can put down in print. Our submissions address is -

tapfactorysubmissions@hotmail.co.uk


October 29, 2008

It's been a while… here's why

It's been a while - but hasn't it always...

Life became surprisingly busy of late and, barring panic attacks when I realise I have to hand in a dissertation form in two days time, I couldn't be happier. I think of myself as a bit like one of those wobbly donkey things that you can occasionally buy from a souvenir shop. As long as the wires running through them are tense they stand upright - but press the base in and down they flop.

I'm working on a film script with the marvelous Jon Plant - he directed and edited Anhedonia, a 30-minute comic film that screened at last year's WSAF. The most interesting part of the process is that we have almost entirely divided it down the middle. Jon writes descriptions of mise-en-scene, camera motion, character appearance, camera shots and so on - I write the dialogue. It works remarkably well; I'm getting quite good at characterising people with their choices in conversation, and he has an incredible visual imagination which he is very good at expressing on the page.

It's interesting to me that despite being young, already mine and Jon's skills have begun to diverge. I think it can only be a matter of practise - I've spent much more time working on scripts (two months on Crowskin, on and off for almost a year with An Evening Without Dignity, and now almost a year of intensive work on another project which for the moment I will decline from naming.

I'm at a stage where I have to make a lot of choices which could have a serious impact on my professional writing career (assuming I'm good and lucky enough to have one). One of them is this - do I want to continue to develop my skills as a script writer, or do I want to try and broaden my abilities? For my personal writing project I have decided to try and pursue an extended piece of prose. At the moment I'm not ready to let my skills solidify into just one area of writing. But looming over my future is the old phrase "a jack of all trades is a master of none." I have rarely found any one activity sufficiently diverting that I can devote my entire time to it. As a result, I'm sure that I've achieved competence in most things I've turned my hand to - but I've never gone beyond that.

So. Do I take the plunge and launch myself with both hands at one form of writing? Or do I try and broaden my skills base as far as I can?

No right answer of course. And besides, even if I'm working on screen- and stage-plays and short stories at the moment, there are plenty of other art forms I can hope to try out. Perhaps my es muss sein will arrive when I'm polishing off the dialogue for a Massively Multiplayer Roleplaying Game...


June 11, 2008

The utility of ethics

The ethics exam is going to come hurtling down on Philosophy students this Saturday, and naturally this means I am desparately trying to remember whatever parts of it I learnt in the first place.

The mode of analysing ethics covered in the module proceeds by the method of "reflective equilibrium". Here's how it works -

First off, we look through our beliefs about a variety of morally challenging scenarios, and see what sort of intuitions they generate. So for example, imagine that you are on a run-away railway trolley hurtling down a track at 5 workmen. The train-track is running through a valley, so there is no possible way for them to escape death - unless that is you redirect the trolley onto a siding by pressing a big red button. BUT! Another unfortunate workman is sitting on this siding. If you redirect the trolley, you will undoubtably kill him. Yet many people think this is permissible.

Once we have our intuitions about a range of cases, we look and see whether there is an underlying rule which can explain them all. Perhaps there are several cases like this - we can imagine lots of scenarios in which, unless one person dies, five people will die. So we will make a general rule - it is better than one die than that five people die.

Once we have our generalisation, we put it to the test again. Are there situations where the rule allows something that our intuition rules out? Suppose that we are a doctor with the power to perform perfect transplants: anyone he transplants an organ into will survive, and not only that, will live just as well as if the organ was their own. Now it just so happens that five of our patients are going to die from organ failure - two are missing lungs, one needs a new heart, one needs a liver and a fifth needs a pair of kidneys. In to our surgery walks a freindly janitor, whose tissue type happens to match all five. We ask him if he will sacrifice himself so that we can save the five, but he regretfully declines. It so happens that we have a small pistol in our pocket...

Is it permissible for the doctor to proceed? By our previous principle, he should be allowed to. After all, if the one person dies, and the doctor uses his organs, the five will not die. This will be the better course of action according to the last principle. But our intuition says that the doctor may not proceed.

We now have two options - we can reject the principle, or reject the intuition. Maybe we think the principle is good enough that it is worth ammending our intuitive moral judgements - or maybe we think the intuition is so sacred we will need to refine our principle before it becomes tenable.

Reflective equilibrium is the point we arrive at when we have bounced our general rules and our native intuitions together until they start to stick. When we have made a culling of our intuitions and a refinement of our principles, we eventually decide that this, right here, is our ethical system.

I don't much like this mode of procedure. For one thing it's conservative. If we spend enough time, we can finesse our moral theories indefinitely until we reach the point at which they produce a 1:1 match with our intuitions. But whilst this could be seen as refinement of the theories, taking away sharp edges, to me it looks like dulling them down beyond the point of interest. What is incredible about Utilitarianism is that it demanded every person be counted as one in the moral calculation, irrespective of social position. What it achieved it achieved through radicalness. By finessing the parts of Utilitarianism we find hard to swallow, we may also slip the loop of any requirements it places upon us. To refine the theory to match our existing convictions is to neuter it.

Another problem I have with the level of theoretical discussion is that frequently, the points being made have bearing only conceivably on the theoretical level. When we live in a world where thousands die from starvation and grain is dumped from container ships when prices dip low, it is surely irrelevant whether we believe that it is the lack of equality between rich and poor that is at issue, or the lack of priority that is given to the poor on an absolute scale.

I hold out hope for ethics' potential for making the world a better place, in what I can only think of as a trickle-down effect. Abstract debate informs less abstract debate, feeds into think-tanks, informs policy groups, and eventually arrives in the political realm as reforms in one direction or another. But to me the link seems painfully tenuous.


June 09, 2008

Freud and the first years

On the 3rd of March 2007 and on the 4th of April 1920, two workmen (John Parisman and Ulum the Bold) were doing excavations on the same stretch of the space-time continuum not far outside central Coventry. Some paperwork in head office had gotten crossed and consequently, when Parisman laid down the chrono-pipe in 2007 Ulum screwed it in in 1920 with a right-handed monkey wrench that wasn't due to exist for another two billion years. Thus it was that the following conversation snippet:

"Yeah, but what if you don't have a father? Steve - big Steve - he hasn't got a dad. So why would he want to do his mum then?"

Fell backwards in time from the mouth of the first-year undergraduate who had uttered it in 2007 while waiting for chips and arrived, more or less intact, at the ears of Sigmund Freud while he sat at his writing desk in the office over his practice. As often happens in cases such as this, the words were translated into German.

For a moment Freud sat in silence.

"Kein Vater." He said, softly. "Kein Vater."

With great solemnity he took up his pen and jabbed it into the leather surface of the desk. Twisting it to a violent angle he snapped the nib, hurled the pen-stub against the wall where it spattered blue ink. Pushing back his chair with sudden violence he rose, grabbing the unfinished manuscript for "Das Ich und dad Es" and pitching it into the smouldering awls lining the fireplace.

"Kein Vater!" He yelled as the flames took to the pages. "Kein Vater!" The cheap ink boiled from the paper and turned the smoke rising into the room a filthy purple. The clouds whirled in lazy purple whirls until Freud opened the windows and the dirty gas was drawn out. The wizened man screamed out across the cobbled street:

"Kein Vater! Was wenn man Kein Vater hat geschehen würde? Was! Kein Vater, oh mein Gott, kein Vater!"

He grabbed hold of the ivy clinging to the outside wall and pushed out of the window, emerging in a swirl of purple, his flat shoes skidding against the flints of the wall. He swayed unevenly for a second and then began to clamber up the thick ivy, occasionally putting one hand around the drainpipe for extra leverage. By the time he had reached the roof a crowd was staring.

"Kein Vater!" Freud screamed, slipping from slate tile to slate tile. "Kein Vater!" He yelled at the gulls. "Kein Vater!" He yelled at the clouds. "Kein verdammt Vater!" He yelled at the world.

Eventually he was shot by a passing mountebank with an inordinately accurate catapult, cracking his temple and sending him hurtling to the floor like a limp sack of books.

This was all sorted out in the same instant when George Potts came back on duty and gave Ulum and Parisman a loud drubbing and a pay drop.


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