Anti-heroic Alien Isolation takes a bite out of gaming stereotypes

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Alien Isolation tears up the famous ‘in space no one can hear you scream’ strapline of its sci-fi film inspiration by conjuring a hide-and-seek nightmare starring the almighty Xenomorph in a game which finally does justice to cinema’s greatest monster and takes a bite out of gaming stereotypes.

Isolation drips with tension the way alien goo drips off the Xenomorph’s fangs, while twisting gaming tropes in cool ways to deliver something gripping and original. This is an achievement considering the source material is four decades old and the lame way video games usually handle the Xenomorph, draining its quintessential menace and reducing this apex predator to cannon fodder.

In a departure from this failed formula, Isolation’s monster is omnipotent and omniscient. This bitch hears almost everything, despite what the Alien movie poster said. The beast is powered by A.I (it says) so there’s no pattern to its behaviour, meaning there’s no way of knowing when she’ll come charging out of the smoke and shadows, or drop from the ceiling. The object is survival; victory is not on the cards. Your avatar Amanda Ripley – daughter of Ellen Ripley from the films – just can’t win. Isolation subverts normal gaming behaviours by having you hide inside lockers, beneath tables or go fleeing down the dark corridors in seriously unheroic ways.

If a Call of Duty veteran behaved like that, their stripes would be ripped off them darn quick. “No more loot crates for you, marine!”

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This is what makes Isolation subversive. There’s no place for a beefy steroid freak like Kratos from God of War. It’s just you hiding under a table from an unstoppable predator you can’t kill, stuck on a collapsing spaceship, also populated by frazzled human survivors best avoided because they’re losing their minds with fright and androids with dangerously high levels of logic and irony, whose circuitry has gone haywire.

By casting the player in the role of a weakling Untethered-But-Doomed-Still goat, Isolation upends the stereotype of gaming as mental masturbation material for losers who want to play at being winners. Feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, pursuit and despair aren’t the common currency of games such as CoD, or Grand Theft Auto, FIFA and others. Or if they occur, it’s usually to spur the player to go win better and bigger.

Not in Isolation.

This game crafts a bleak emotional landscape which opens up an exciting new vista of gloominess for interactive entertainment. It heroically keeps this up all the way through – and very enjoyable it is – before wobbling right at the end by suggesting Ripley might survive after she blasts herself into the dead cold of space to escape the Xenomorph one final time. That’s disappointing.

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The game’s not faultless in other areas, either. Like it’s iconic antagonist, Isolation just doesn’t know when to stop, failing to finish on two occasions when an ending is apt. (But considering the Xenomorph would be as welcome anywhere as lethal weaponry at a kids’ party, this may be apt). The missions never elaborate beyond ‘throw and fetch’ – you pull a lever or go get a thing – which makes it repetitive. There’s no deep skillset to master, making it pretty shallow.

It doesn’t matter. The central premise of Alien Isolation is powerful as acid blood on Marine flesh and developer Creative Assembly executes the game with aplomb, delivering the best rendition of Xenomorph yet in a game and cranking the scares up high. By refusing the player the chance to be a hero, this game innovates by embracing a distinctive emotional palate and being a big-ticket release which dares to be different. An essential experience.

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Incredible! This Channel 5 advert made me puke and laugh at once

I’m a big fan of corporate nonsense and this advert depicting a vet with lambs currently showing deep underground at an east London Tube station got me ba-aaaa-d.

Why advertising’s thousands of sweet little lies appeal to me isn’t exactly clear. On one level I think it’s borderline heroic of the ad biz to keep trying to impose some sort of narrative upon a semi-organised mess like society. I also think advertising has serious cajones to lie so blatantly and shamelessly to our faces nonstop, like it does. I’m a sucker for its appeal to reactionary nostalgia. But it also reminds us the good life does exist and sometimes this isn’t a bad thing to aim for. (In this way, advertising can even be transcendent and let’s face it, how many things can boast that?). Finally, advertising is a grand illusion and I like tricks.

So this advert by Channel 5 for a T.V show about a vet, set in what appears to be a rural idyll, simply jumped at me off the billboard.

Being the irredeemable townie I am, you could tell me cheese burgers grow in the ground and eggs come from horses and I’ll believe it because I relate to country life entirely through advertising and food fads.

But even I see through this one. IMG_6536[1037]What sticks out here is the epic denial involved in presenting this image with a straight face, considering what the real lives of farm animals are like. It’s done by deeply marinating reality in sentimental nostalgia, creating an image which taps into a long artistic tradition of romanticizing the countryside for the benefit of urban dwellers.

This image is full of quasi-religious, twee, rustic symbols, like something by a drunk Italian painter from the 16th century. The holy light from above illuminating the man’s rosy, reassuring chops. The Lamb. This Good Shepherd’s beatific expression and his protective pose. The way the digit ‘5’ logo wraps itself around them both like a serpent – a reminder of the deceit we’re looking at.

It’s a sweet deception. Pure heavenly balls.

Everyone knows conditions are bad for most farm animals in this country. Just being born is bad news for our furry fellow mortals. In reality, the vet’s job is to help get those food units he’s hugging into the mincer as quickly and cheaply as possible. I doubt the creatures’ accelerated lifespans leave much time for frolicking in the hay with our vet.

I’m aware criticizing advertising for bullshit is like telling a cop who’s arrested you for no reason; “You’re doing your job, officer!” It’s just confirming to them that they did great. But baloney this daring by Channel 5 merits a mention.

Flashman: Satirical friend or Faux? Book review

flash pic.jpgIf you enjoy Starship Troopers as satire and not as a straight-up action movie, then this ‘adventure novel’ about a soldier of the British Empire might be for you. Or is it?

Like the 1996 film about humanity waging interstellar, colonial war on alien bugs, ‘Flashman’ by George MacDonald Fraser, doesn’t let its mask slip for a second.

So firmly fixed is this mask that it’s reasonable to ask whether actually there is no mask, in which case this novel becomes deeply, deliciously problematic.

‘Flashman’ is half a century old and the eponymous lead is one of the great anti-heroes of fiction: a cowardly rat, a proud racist and even a rapist, who’s ready to step over the mangled bodies of his ailing comrades in his childish eagerness for prizes.

In this the first novel of a series of 12, young Harry Paget Flashman joins the army and goes on campaign in Afghanistan and the Raj. There he behaves appalling towards allies, foes and locals alike and for his repulsive deeds and vile personality gets handsomely rewarded by Victorian English high society. Flashie hoodwinks everyone up to and including a young Queen Victoria.

It’s a series of events that reads like a crushing indictment of Empire-era Britain for putting upon a pedestal a specimen like Flashman who by today’s standards belongs behind bars – or at least languishing eternally in the deepest slough of shame ever dug by the pitch-fork mobs on social media.

Upon completing this ‘Boy’s Own’-style adventure I thought it was clear: ‘Flashman’ the novel is a biting satire. 

And then I read the author’s foreword.

In it, Fraser admonishes the reader not to treat his story as satire, insisting it be read at face value instead.

Wut?

Doing this involves denying the existence of a deeper level of meaning. It cuts away the whole basis of my interpretation of the book and dumps ‘Flashman’ straight away in very murky water. This is because satire is what redeems the novel.

If the satire isn’t real, then all the racism, colonial violence and conquest which Flashman shamelessly recounts via the first-person narration, goes completely unchallenged. Instead, the reader ends up validating line by line this abominable Victorian with his bristly mutton-chop side burns, gammon-colour face and glowering contempt for foreigners.

The non-existence of satire means there’s no way to do anything except validate this despicableness by continuing to turn the pages. The all-knowing reader participates as the diabolical Flashie collects glittering prize after glittering prize. It’s a great example of the power of first-person narration: it makes you complicit.

For this reason alone, satire has to exist in this novel! 

Fraser’s denial of satire removes in a puff of smoke an entire aspect of this book’s personality and makes reading it into a pretty sordid exercise. Which is why Fraser’s demand in the foreword is scarcely believable.

This lingering queasy ambiguity gives the book a whiff of disreputableness at a time when the culture war is focused upon the likes of Sir Winston Churchill, whose reputation is being revised by a small band of activists, who point out the official Greatest Ever Brit was glaringly, unapologetically racist. It’s not beyond the bounds to conceive of Flashie the cad and a young Churchill being thick as thieves together on foreign adventures.

The Churchill episode and others like it are reminders that history is a truth contest over who controls the past; it isn’t just one thing after another. Complex, problematic and with its meaning unresolved (in my mind, at least), Flashman taps into this never-ending wrestling match. 

‘Flashman’ is a novel which is out of place in our hyper-literal era for refusing to condemn explicitly (or even sub-textually, or perhaps in any way whatsoever) what is plainly unacceptable. It ignores the trope of fiction that the bad should end badly. Perhaps it’s why there’s no been screen revival for Flashman: this made-up story is just too much like real life.

Doom review: Nihilism is great

Doom is the photo-negative twin of those ‘relaxing’ ASMR videos on weird YouTube: it does trigger tingles, but that’s due to this game’s angry, overheated intensity. As for chilling out, well it’s about as soothing as being caught outside naked during a Blitzkrieg with only an umbrella.

I actually made a no-Doom-before-bed rule because I’d be lying there after a session with eyeballs twitching beneath their lids like poprocks fizzing in two dishes of nuclear Coca Cola. I had no choice: Doom is the enemy of sleep.

This game by id Software didn’t exactly make me cry, but it did come close by being the meatiest, loudest, seizure-inducing speediest, most relentless slab of home entertainment I’ve played in ages. Doom is an overdose of everything essential about first person shooters.

It is simple: Get all the guns (and the chainsaw) and then keep going until you mince every last thing on the screen. They come in waves and you spend a lot of time running around low on health and ammo with huge, very aggressive demons howling at your heels.

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You play a dude who teleports between Hell and an industrial faculty to stop the legions of the damned which your corporation has accidentally unleashed during the course of its important work. What work? ‘Weaponising demons for the good of humanity!’ according to one chirpy hologram guide.

As and when Doom gets the Virtual Reality headset treatment, expect hospitalisations. On the other hand, if the ASMR community on YouTube ever gets bored of borderline creepy role-play videos ranging from the bizarrely avant-garde to naff titillation, then Doom is the surprise new way to get those tingles. And it’s only marginally more disturbing than some guy from the internet mumbling in your ear.

It’s a very well put together game. Every audio / visual detail combines to create an atmosphere which is the macabre equal of a tense horror movie. Factor in the explosive jump scares which signal another wave of attacks, the game’s sense of humour and its blistering pace, then Doom’s cup (of blood) truly does runneth over.

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The attention to detail is excellent, not least in the rich backstory and narrative which is there to be discovered, but is so easy to overlook because you’re constantly blasting your way through horde after horde of hell-spawn.

Special mention for the depiction of Hell in Doom. It’s a Games Workshop-style fever dream of skull piles on top more skull piles, rotating pentagrams and nightmarish architecture, set to a soundtrack of satanic choirs chanting in the bottomless pit. Basically, it’s Brexit Britain circa 2030. And excellent fun it is.

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Doom on PS4 is the distillation and the epitome of gaming as pure nihilistic fun. If you own a current gen console, then it belongs in your collection.

Abzu on PS4 Review: A druggy aquarium

Abzu is the gaming equivalent of taking magic mushrooms and spending two hours staring at your fish tank: just because it feels profound doesn’t mean it is.

You play a swimmer in a wetsuit and flippers dropped into a vast ocean on a mission to stop an army of upside-down Toblerone triangles stealing all the energy, or something. You dive down to the depths in search of sea creature spirits to free and windlasses which open doors to the next level.

It’s unchallenging gameplay that provides plenty of time for socialising with the sea-life, of which there is plenty. Captain Birdseye could confirm if the species are all genuine, but they behave the way you’d expect on a snorkelling trip.

What’s unusual about Abzu is that this underwater safari seems to be the whole point.

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Developer Giant Squid wants you to engage with its sea creatures. Your character can perform only a few actions – and none which harm the creatures – so the choices really are to hang out with the fishies, or play another game. Appreciating nature on its own terms in its natural habitat, in a peaceful way, is a pretty novel ecological message which gets sledge-hammered home when you buddy-up with a huge yet benign Great White Shark. There’s even a ‘meditation’ function for bonding with the fauna.

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But being woke about the life of fish doesn’t cover up that Abzu is thin fare. Storytelling is entirely absent and it’s up to the player to patch one together from ancient Egyptian-style murals on the walls of drowned temples. Confusingly, you share the waters with dinosaurs from 80million years BCE, while the no-good Toblerone thingies seem to have arrived from a grim far future in outer space. Ancient Mesopotamian creation myth is in there, too.

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Basically, it’s a right old jumble. If Hulk Hogan appeared riding a Megalodon, the picture wouldn’t be more mixed up. There’s a bold bid to explain things here.

Discovering Abzu’s Babylonian influence involved reading up on Mesopotamian creation myth and Sumerian etymology, (er, thanks Wikipedia). With left-field sources like these, why not do more with the storytelling in-game? Requiring a encyclopaedia for the full story simply ain’t fair and it smacks of laziness by the developer.

Abzu is sweetly gorgeous game with interesting depths it never dives into and gameplay that’s shallow as a puddle. It seems like there’s secret treasure in the fish tank, but the ‘shrooms soon wear off and you find yourself gurning hard with your nose pressed up against the glass. A great show it is, though.

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I played Abzu on PS4.

Homo Deus review: Popular science creates sci-fi nightmare

It says on the dust jacket that Homo Deus is ‘Popular Science’ which is huge and bad news for humanity if true.

Let’s hope the categorisers at publisher Picador are wrong and Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari is really ‘Science Fiction’, or ‘Wild Speculative Fiction’, or ‘Dude Are You On Crack!’

Finishing the final page of this doorstep-sized volume is like closing the casket on life as we know it. Nostradamus would be proud of the forecasts Harari makes in this sequel to ‘Sapiens’.

Displaying command of history’s grand sweep and an eye for the telling detail, this book makes a series of predictions about what’s likely to happen in human progress during the 21st century. You can’t fault the methodology: past behaviour usually is a reliable predictor of future behaviour.

Homo Deus reports a technological revolution is coming which will do to our creed of humanism during the next few decades what humanism did to God over the past couple of centuries: deliver a redundancy notice.

We will become the pets of our household servant gadgets, most people will subsist on government handouts because the jobs are all gone and our purpose will be as data producing units for some kind of vast, non-human intelligence that we created and lost control of.

At least Homo Deus explains the reasoning for these doom-laden predictions in prose which is always compelling. Reading this stuff, it’s easy to think humanity’s fate is already sealed and that is testament to the power of Harari’s argument.

But this book is a huge leap in the dark. It’s thrilling stuff, but a bit too sure of itself. Progress is never as smooth as it’s painted within these pages.  Also the role politics and economics can play in interfering with the mega-trends Harari identifies doesn’t get the weight it merits.

Homo Deus is an erudite slab of evidence-based ‘what-if’ futurism which regularly tips over into the realm of science fiction. Timely warning or raving mad speculation – you choose. But a ripping read it certainly is.

Hope: A Tragedy – a funny take on the perils of remembrance

Making fun from serious topics is high-risk in our hyper-literal era and so it’s bracing to read a novel which dares to get its lols from the Holocaust.

Hope: A tragedy by Shalom Auslander came out in 2011 and I can’t find any sign that it triggered a social media meltdown by folks fond of using outrage to get the Hearts and RTs moving in their Notifications. This novel contains plenty of potential for offence, yet it seems the keyboard warriors turned down the chance of a performance. Who knows why: maybe because the subjects of the humour are Jewish?

New homeowner Solomon Kugel discovers Anne Frank herself squatting in his attic. Frank is old and bitter after spending 40 years cooped up, trying and failing to write the sequel to The Diary. Anne Frank is sick and tired of the Holocaust. “And as for the relatives you lost in the Holocaust’ she tells Kugel, rolling up her sleeve and revealing the fading blue concentration camp numbers tattooed on her arm. ‘Blow me”.

Meanwhile, Kugel’s elderly mother is not. She relives it every day, despite never having lived it the first time round. She is certain she was a victim of Nazi oppression – she wasn’t – and tells her son that various lamp shades and bars of soap are the remains of their relatives from the camps – they aren’t.

There’s surrealism; Spongebob Squarepants gets rounded up by a death squad and Kugel has a deep moment with a badly hurt foal. He’s a drip who thinks it’s the examined life that’s not worth living. His mother’s fixation with the past ends up having a decisive effect upon present events.

Hope: A Tragedy sure has an alternative take on remembrance and sentimentality and it makes its points with real-life examples of the depravity the Nazis unleashed. Using sensitive material this way can be unforgivable – like when airhead TV shows use concentration camp footage for added gravitas. But Auslander’s writing skilfully walks a very fine line, prising out humour and pathos to challenge how, why and what we choose to remember.

It’s super easy to imagine the same material and methodology being used to create a very different book, that would go down a storm with anti-Semites and Holo-hoax conspiracy theorists on the Alt-Right and far Left.

The one gripe with Hope: A Tragedy is a style point. There’s no speech marks in the edition I read, maybe to make dialogue look less bookish and more natural? But there’s ‘he said, he cried, she said, etc’ littered everywhere and that’s just as artificial. So what’s the point?

This short novel makes comedy from the darkest subject matter and has a profound message about the perils of remembrance. Well worth a read.

Journey on PS4 shows it’s not always better to travel than arrive

Five days a week I commute from east to west and back again for work and I’m adamant this is one journey with as much gaming potential as doing the washing up. But what do I know? Journey is a game in which you must complete an epic commute – and it won a pile of Game of the Year awards a few years back.

So what was all the fuss about?

Journey on PS4 – it originally came out on PS3 back in 2012 – involves walking, some sliding and jumping. And that’s about it. Completing the game took around 3 hours max and it involved bashing just two buttons. It is possible to cruise through this game with ease. That’s not meant as boasting, the gameplay is just thin.

There’s nothing wrong with simplicity, but the storyline is every bit as stripped back as the gameplay. For example, there’s these giants in robes which appear at the end of each level. What are they doing looming ambiguously over our wee protagonist in the cut-scenes? It’s never revealed and that is an issue. Are you invited to join the dots, to use your imagination. It just comes off as lazy.

So where’s the award-winning magic?

The storyline’s minimalism reflects in the graphics and colour. This does work well and is lush at times – as in the screenshot below. There’s a sense of grandeur with the large scale environments and there’s plenty of originality on display in the fantastical living dragons and floating jellyfish-type creatures made of enchanted cloth which help you progress through the levels. At one point you travel through a cloud tunnel at warp speed and then burst into some kind of heavenly plain. I guess this is meant to be some kind of transcendental moment. Well, it didn’t work on me.

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Maybe my soul’s turned to wood without me noticing, but this flighty-poetical-dreamy stuff achieved nowt. You spend AGES trudging up hills and along dunes which are near empty of almost anything to do, except press on ahead.

But the soundtrack is great. It’s highly responsive to what’s taking place on screen and the sparse and exotic instrumentation is highly atmospheric. It’s a minor triumph and sure helps make Journey less boring. The snooze-athon reaches an er… climax in the finalé, which is so anti-climatic you wonder if you’re witnessing heroic obstinacy on the part of developers refusing to indulge gaming’s tropes. But an anti-climax it remains.

All I got from Journey is FOMO. Like, surely I’ve missed out on something here. But the thing is I don’t really care to replay it and find out. Journey disproves the old saying that it’s better to travel than to arrive.

Midnight’s Children deserve your time

Midnight’s Children is hard work but it’s well worth the effort to read this crossover blockbuster from the early 1980s, which won the glittering literary prizes while simultaneously being so popular on the streets of India that pirate booksellers wrote to the author thanking him for providing them a living.

Salman Rushdie’s second novel is about growing up in modern India and paints an intensely vivid picture of the young nation after its independence from Britain in 1947 – which must have been a pretty intense time. It’s dense, misleading, whacky and intoxicating: a fantastical tale and a tragedy. I’d also be willing to bet its crazy world is plenty more true to the reality of India than any number of Instagram snaps of the place.

At the heart of the story is the narrator Saleem Sinai, a man born on the stroke of midnight on Indian independence day. Over the course of the novel’s 600-or-so pages, Saleem shows how the big events which shaped modern India in the years after its birth are all his fault. The timing of his birth bestows him with supernatural powers and he’s not the only one… enter the other children of midnight.

Saleem the narrator is unreliable and the tangential prose I struggled with at first. Rushdie lays the detail on thick and there’s plenty of incredible fabulist incident (Rushdie helped establish magic realism in western writing), which may push right up against the boundaries of your credulity and patience, if you like your novels to proceed in a step-by-step way and free from excessive adornment by the writer. I’m a big fan of Rushdie and found Midnight’s Children the most challenging of his novels to get to grips with. But my failings as a reader never sunk my enjoyment of this feast of a novel and I’m very glad about that. The prose style is a large cake laden with decoration, but its all executed with humour and lightness of touch which is its own magic.

There are so many ideas bursting out of this story and Rushdie cooks up a perfect blend from them all. Herein lies Midnight’s Children big achievement for me. The reality it constructs feels pretty close to what reality is really like: where the past, present and possible futures are constantly bumping up against each other in our thoughts and feelings and revealing themselves in daily life in odd ways. Rushdie’s is a style which is idiosyncratic and won’t appeal to all tastes, but it sure does mine. For example, the recurring motif of jars of chutney which capture the sense of the places, times, people and feelings is original and powerful.

Despite this, I did end the novel with a hashtag problematic sense of satisfaction. Was I satisfied because this rich novel nourished me, or was it just because I’d made the finish, like a mountaineer who clears the summit after losing his boots near base camp? It’s probably a mix of both. Midnight’s Children tells its story generously with a grin on its face and it’s as fresh as water splashing on your face, even all these years after it appeared in the world.

The Last Guardian is a slow gaming classic

The Last Guardian is original, gorgeous to look at, a bit repetitive and pokes you in the feelings.

Emotional depth is the stand-out feature of this game, which has at its beating heart the relationship between a small lost boy and a giant, flying feathered creature named Trico.

The Last Guardian wants you to care about its characters and it succeeds. Sony’s Japan Studio have recreated that bond between a boy and his dog. Call Of Duty this game ain’t. It’s slow gaming.

You navigate a cloud-capped complex of crumbling old towers, dark chambers and rooms pulsating with luminous energy conducted by mysterious technology. The environment is stunning. It’s nice to just linger among the towering, plunging ruins while flocks of birds fly by far below. Graphics are unfussily effective, right down to the rendering of Trico’s feathers, which flutter in sunlight in a way that’s god-darn poetical.

In this fantasy adventure game, teamwork is essential: you can’t get anywhere without your big beastie companion. You must feed Trico and pull spears out of its body when it’s hurt. The gameplay isn’t varied; it basically adds up to pulling levers and lots of platform jumping. Some people might even call it dull: there’s no boss battles, no weaponry to speak of and you do spend a bit too long trying and failing to get Trico to follow commands. Occasionally you must battle castle guards which are nothing but possessed suits of armour full of blue smoke.

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It’s a sign of how well the developers succeed in creating a bond between the player and the characters that I caught myself cheering when Trico survives one particular moment of jeopardy. It’s the first time I’ve responded like that to a game. I couldn’t pull out the spears out of the poor thing’s bleeding body fast enough.

My personal experience of gaming’s Landscape of the Passions is that it’s not a lush place. It’s normally a visceral hell-scape with just a single fuming volcano spewing out raging fury, feverish glee and nothing else. The Last Guardian is very different. It’s a meditation on companionship and is well worth a look.