Let’s make a movie. Maybe.

Krieg and Maya drawings Edited

Did you hear they’re making a Borderlands movie? Yeah, they’re making a Borderlands movie. Well, at least they’re starting to workshop or pre-produce or whatever it is they do with the intention of eventually getting around to making a Borderlands movie. Great. Fantastic. I should be excited about this, right? I mean, I’m a fan of the franchise. Love the heroes, the not-quite-heroes, the anti-heroes, the villains and the general supporting cast. Love the crude, violent humour. Love the world and lore. It’s all good fun. Why wouldn’t I be excited to see all of this get the big screen experience? Is it ’cause of the long history of video game movies being shit? Probably a little. A lot. But not entirely. But a lot.

I mean, you look back through that history of movie adaptations and it is not particularly heartening. At best, you’ve got movies that are fun swashbucklers if not exactly memorable like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. At worst you’ve got Super Mario Bros (’nuff said). That’s not even getting into all the movies based on fighting games like Street Fighter, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Mortal Kombat- you know what, let’s just stop there before this gets out of hand. Point is fans of games that have been turned into movies are as likely to turn up to the theatre with a sense of apathy or dread (a feeling of “so how are they gonna fuck this up?” if you will) as they are excitement.

This isn’t all that surprising given the games chosen. Many video games have the barest of stories and are better remembered for their mechanics and gameplay. The plot of the Super Mario Bros games is not taken particularly seriously. It’s simply an excuse for the player to guide Mario through each of the levels, getting high and murdering turtles on the way. The video game Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is remembered less for its story then for its excellent platforming and time reversal mechanic (shit I can’t even remember the story, is it the same as the movie?) Max Payne similarly earned its place in living memory as the game that introduced us to bullet-time mechanics, rather than its plot that was “pretty good for a video game” back when that phrase had more (loaded) meaning. Let’s not even get started on the flimsy plots most fighting games use to justify their one on one brawls.

Something important about many video games that those trying to adapt them don’t seem to understand is that it is not always the plots that are important, but the lore of the game world. Game plots are often simple things, simple spins on the old hero’s journey or some such. But the worlds in which these stories take place are rich and full and often relayed over dozens of hours of gameplay, through codexes, indexes, documents, audio logs, snatches of conversation and offhand remarks. It’s a depth that cannot be easily related in a ninety to hundred-twenty minute feature film. Attempts to do so simply come off as (at best) shallow and (at worst) the boring parts of otherwise exciting action films. But it is completely unnecessary.

I’ve mentioned previously that one of the best video game movies, Crank (and its sequel Crank: High Voltage), was one not actually based on a video game but rather embraced the logic of video game mechanics, structure and pace. Another great example would be Edge of Tomorrow (or Live. Die. Repeat. or whatever the fuck they ended up calling it), whose main narrative conceit (every time Tom Cruise’s character died the day reset) bears a striking similarity to the respawn experience of most gamers. Part of what makes these films great fun is that they don’t spend too much time explaining those mechanics. There’s a bit of world building. News reports at the beginning of Edge of Tomorrow that explain the alien invasion and the exoskeletons worn by the human soldiers fighting them, an initial mention of the Angel of Verdun, high hopes for the human counter-attack. A movie within a movie at the start of Crank explaining who he is, who his enemy is and what they’ve done to him, with some clarification not long afterwards. Then they just run with it, allowing the actions of the protagonists and their responses to the changing plots to explain all the implications. Same as a game does after the opening cinematics. Well, most games.

I’ll admit this might be easier said than done. Not being a movie maker myself this is all entirely uneducated opinion. Certain games would find it a smaller task then others. The Assassin’s Creed games for example, who’ve had a movie in the works for some time now that is due for release December next year, is set more or less in the real world. You don’t have to provide an audience unfamiliar with the games much more than a date and place name for them to be able to have a rough idea of social structure, norms, local architecture, system of government and climate. The Assassin’s Order (do they call it a brotherhood? Seems a bit sexist if they call it a brotherhood), the Templars (or the somehow more ridiculously named Abstergo Industries) and the Animus technology don’t need much more than a brief explanation, an exposition heavy conversation or two, before the audience can jump to the appropriate conclusions (Assassins mostly good, Templars mostly bad, blah blah blah shades of grey, blah blah stab that guy).

The world of, say, the Mass Effect games (apparently with a movie in development… maybe? Not sure? Perhaps?) where someone is adapting a hundred odd hours across three games (books, an anime) into a film or two would be a different matter.  Seriously, there is a fuck-ton (a metric fuck-ton, in fact) of back story, history and explanation in the universe of the Mass Effect franchise. Don’t believe me? Regular conversations with your crew members includes information on the Council, Citadel, Citadel Space, Human Alliance, the Human-Batarian conflicts, the Batarians, the Asari, Asari biology, the Asari Matriarchy, the Turians, the Turian military, the Turian-Human First Contact War, the Salarians, Salarian spies, the Krogans, the Krogan Rebellions, the Rachni Wars, the Geth, the Geth-Quarian conflicts, the Quarians, the Quarian fleet, the Quarian immune system, and this all before getting into the really important stuff like Element Zero, the titular Mass Effect, Biotics, the Reapers (overall villains of the piece), Protheans, Cerberus and the supporting cast’s varied back stories. Yeah, metric. This doesn’t mean that all this information is strictly necessary for a good Mass Effect film but, well, for anyone in the audience who hasn’t played the games a lot of it is.

I’d claim Borderlands occupies a space closer to the middle of the spectrum. The stories of the main games (ignoring the more complex Tales from the Borderlands by Telltale just now) are pretty simple. Four Vault Hunters, mercenaries and treasure hunters, arrive on a dangerous planet called Pandora to find a Vault, kill whatever’s inside and loot the riches believed to be held within. The second game throws in the downfall of the Hyperion corporation and defeating the fantastically psychotic villain Handsome Jack, the Pre-Sequel throws in saving Pandora’s inhabited moon from destruction, but otherwise that is the ultimate goal of the games. Open a Vault and steal the shit inside. But there’s still a ton of backstory to the world and people that we barely even hear about. The corporations and their ongoing conflicts. Dahl’s failed mining operations on Pandora and its moon, responsible for so much of the dangerous flora, fauna, bandits, cannibals and mutants. The Eridians, the alien races that built the Vaults. How did Doctor Zed lose his medical licence? Did Doctor Zed ever have a licence? Who died when Janey Springs got her (“real sexy Athena”) scar? The Sirens, no more than a half-dozen women at a time with glowing blue tattoos and near magical powers somehow linked to the Vaults and Eridians. There’s a lot of information barely skimmed over, but that’s fine because that information is never revealed unless it’s necessary or entertaining. Much of the world we explore in these games is wrapped in mystery, teased in “Echos” (audilogs) and revealed at plot or comically appropriate times. Sometimes there’s no context provided at all. Sometimes you just gotta go and shoot someone in the face.

This is helped by its ‘Space Western’ setting. We’re used to westerns filled with men and women with barely alluded to secret pasts, silent protagonists, corrupt officials who bought their way into power, bandit gangs, warring factions and more or less neutral mercenaries on one side or another looking to make their fortunes through bounties and contracts. The world(s) seen in Borderlands could make for a great movie as long as they don’t spend to much time trying to explain it, because you don’t have to. It would simply join a long list of past movies, ranging from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (and the other films in the ‘Man with no name’ trilogy) to The Magnificent Seven. That’s if the guys making the film follow the style and standard the games set.

And that segues badly into my next concern. I guess we’ll call it style. Borderlands is cartoonishly violent and cartoonishly animated. The characters and enemies are unrealistically and exaggeratingly designed and proportions, as is the wildlife, towns, vehicles and landscape. Legend goes that at the start of development Borderlands was supposed to be a far more realistic, gritty and dramatic (as can be seen in the original trailer). But they didn’t have enough money, so instead went with what is now the series’ signature cel shaded look. This allowed it to be a lot lighter in tone, and a lot more violent. Seriously, even for a video game Borderlands is bloody. By the time you get to the end of the campaign in one of the three main games you’ve probably got a kill count in the thousands (many of whom have been incinerated, disintegrated, melted or otherwise exploded), and have witnessed scenes of torture and defilement (and have probably participated once or twice). But because you’re dismembering wave after wave of highly stylised, colourful and (important here) inhuman enemies it becomes fun and funny instead of, y’know, psychopathic.

The violence would already need to be toned down to get an MA-15 rating over in Oz (an R rating in the US, I’d guess to be the nearest equivalent) and be turned down even further to get the M or PG-13 rating that studios are known for demanding. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you. There’s more to these games than simple violence, and video games kill, maim and explode more nameless and named goons than all but the bloodiest films. But the excessive violence is a strong part of the aesthetic, since a large part of the humour is its satire of the traditional notions of the Wild West where the law was on the side of whomever brought the most firepower to the table, and settlers had to deal with the threat of bandits, mercenaries, road agents, soldiers and the Native population they inevitably crossed. Again, however, we don’t need a triple-digit body-count to achieve that aesthetic. What it does need is a great deal of absurdity.

So the problem I’m getting at is not reducing the violent nature of a game for a movie adaptation then, but in trying to ground the film too much in reality. Video games are, in their need to be fun or deliver gameplay, completely unrealistic. Real people, for example, cannot survive multiple gunshots, duck behind a chest-high wall and pop up again a couple moments later good as new. Real people get at least a little winded when they parkour their way to the top of a castle. Real people aren’t usually assaulted by gorillas hurling barrels. Fun shit, but not very believable. The danger than comes when you try to ground something that is by its nature ridiculous and unreal closer to reality and believability. Turns a perfectly good game about jumping on angry brown fungi with legs and anthropomorphic turtles in order to rescue a princess from (hopefully) the next castle into whatever the fuck the Super Mario Bros. movie was about. It’s still pretty bonkers, but it’s not the kind of bonkers you really want. It points out its own ridiculousness instead of rolling with it and insults the fans of the original property by changing the things it doesn’t think an audience will buy into something it thinks the audience will. Which is stupid. But hey, y’know, that was the nineties. We made a lot of weird stuff in the nineties.

Far more likely these days is that it will in the best case turn into yet another generic action movie with some vaguely supernatural (see Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) or science fiction (Doom) elements. A formulaic and familiar show with a familiar name. Nice to look at, but none to memorable. That’s probably the thing that worries me the most, is seeing such a vibrant and colourful franchise watered down til it loses what made it so remarkable in the first place. This doesn’t just happen to video game movies, and there are far more examples from other mediums (I reckon my fellow nerds would make the claim that until recently comic book adaptations were the worst offenders). The hyper-ridiculous Tank Girl was supposed to be even more hyper-ridiculous were it not for a meddling studio. One of the great complaints about X-Men Origins: Wolverine was the film’s treatment of character Wade Wilson, better known as Deadpool (but don’t worry, the new movie ought to fix that). It is known for great movies to have surpassed the works they’re based on (I heard that even the author of the original book Fight Club preferred the movie’s ending to his own), but this is more exception than rule.

Would someone making a Borderlands film be comfortable with a character like Tiny Tina? She arguably uses the second most sexualised language (the first being Mad Moxxi), is extremely talented at violence and casual about torturing those who’ve done her wrong. She’s also, like, twelve or thirteen, and brings with her all the immaturity you’d expect from someone who was forced to adapt after being broken at a young age on a planet filled with cannibals and monsters. She’s also the centre of some of the game’s most touching and heartbreaking moments (like when we find out what happened to her parents or the her dealing with the trauma of losing another important father figure in the Assault on Dragon Keep DLC). Doctor Zed, Scooter, Doctor Patricia Tanis. They’re all insane, broken, violent people, the last of whom is attracted to furniture. And these are your friends. Let’s not even get into the characters you aren’t supposed to like. Like Claptrap. Let’s not talk about Claptrap. Can you imagine a film that includes the odd yet beautiful relationship between the Psycho Krieg and the canon asexual (but not confirmed aromantic) Maya. Hell, can you even imagine a film where one of the main female characters ends up getting together with one of the main female supporting cast-members like Athena and Janey Springs at the end of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel? If that’s too much for a big-budget blockbuster, it’s unlikely they’d get away with all the actual crazy shit.

There is also the habit of producers to assume that people won’t be able to relate to characters unless they’re all conventionally attractive white folk. Because we as a varied group of peoples and cultures can’t possibly relate to people who, y’know, actually look like us (hey, I’m only a conventionally attractive-ish white guy, I’m allowed to make the point). Point being that the titular Prince of Persia in the movie, and the princess he was after, were played by white actors. Point being that it happens all the fucking time. Shit, they even do it in reboots these days (I’d go gay for Benedict Cumberpatch, but did they really have to make him fucking Khan?) or to the goddamn Bible (that’s an odd bit a blasphemy right there). Admittedly while all six of the female playable characters are pretty white women (something that I’m hoping will change in future games), but there is still a diverse cast of different colours, genders, sexualities and body shapes. I can’t imagine too much of that whitewashing happening in these circumstances, can’t see Roland, Brick, Mordecai or Salvador being turned into a bunch of generic white dudes. I can, however, see a character like Ellie (the digital embodiment of body confidence) being ignored or downsized in favour of someone or something more, well, conventionally attractive.

Not that video games themselves aren’t guilty of some pretty heinous crimes turning colourful characters into bland cut-outs (compare what Overstrike was to what it became) or hypersexualising female characters (if I need to provide examples of this than you probably don’t care too much about this article anyway). ‘Tis why we need to guard our most interesting characters so carefully.

Alright, last thing I wanna do is ask a simple yet oft underestimated question. Who the bloody fuck is going to care? I mean I do, obviously, or I wouldn’t have gone to all the trouble of writing this. But it’d be more accurate to say that I care about this now.

Way, way back in 2012 I was in the car with my father and younger siblings. Think we were on our way to grandma’s house or something. Anyway, we saw a billboard advertising the imminent release of Max Payne 3. My dad, casually, turned to me and said, “I didn’t even know they made a Max Payne 2.” I was a bit taken aback by this, and replied with something along the lines of “Yeah, years ago.” He thought about it for a moment then asked if they still had Mark Wahlberg playing Max. No, Max Payne was a video game series and this was the third instalment. Oh, okay. My dad looked into the rearview mirror and asked if any of siblings knew that. None of them, including my younger gamer brother, did.

I care about a Borderlands film right now. I might not care in the however many years it takes for any Borderlands film to be made. Three or four years is a long time for video game franchise. Anything over five is a lifetime. The Max Payne film was released a whole seven years after the game. Same with the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time film. Few games have the kind of broad cultural longevity that an MMO like World of Warcraft have, which still has a large, solid fanbase after eleven years of life and is still relevant enough in the broader pop-culture as ‘The one MMO to rule them all’ (even earning an episode dedicated to it on South Park) that the movie due out middle next year will likely be a rousing success. Maybe. Probably. Will the Borderlands franchise still be relevant in the years it takes to write, make and release a film? Maybe. We’ll see. Point is that in four or five years you’ll have a bunch of young’uns entering the target demographic for this kind of film who’ll never have played a Borderlands game (maybe they’re aware that Borderlands 3 was released a little bit ago, but didn’t pick it up cause they didn’t have the time or interest to go through the first three games and assumed you’d have to). And studios won’t be able to rely on those of us who are and were fans of the series going to see it for nostalgias sake alone. We’ve had our heart broken way to many times before. It’s gonna have to look good, it’s gonna have to follow in the spirit and character of the games to get us in to see it.

Ultimately, what I’m getting at is that it is possible to make a good movie adaptation of a video game. And we want good adaptations of the things we love. We really, really do. So please, if you’re going to make those adaptations, please don’t fuck it up. Please.

Try harder, or why I’m loving Bitch Planet

There’s a really excellent comic series running right now by the name of Bitch Planet. Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick and drawn by Valentine De Landro it takes place in a future in which ‘non-compliant’ women are sent to the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, nicknamed (you guessed it) Bitch Planet. It’s a clever feminist satire of 70s exploitation films. The art style and colours (done by the excellent Cris Peter) are deeply reminiscent of grainy film and a tacky science fiction aesthetic, cleverly placing the female cast in positions where they are sexualised in the context of the world without sexualising them for the readers. The characters are likeable and real, representing not just a cross-section of race, body-types and sexualities, but also personalities and motivations, coming together for an opportunity to strike back at the patriarchy that governs their world. And man, fuck the patriarchy that governs their world. With a brick. Sideways.

What really exemplifies this series for me, however, is how fucking disgusted with myself I feel after I read them. Just really goddamn gross. And yeah, that is a good thing.

The scary part of this particular dystopian future (like many great dystopian futures) is just how familiar it feels. Body-shaming, slut-shaming, sexuality-shaming, racism, stereotypes, pseudo-scientific explanations for why man is superior to woman, a belief that the sole purpose of females is to serve men perpetuated by the media and popular culture instilling little doubt in the younger generations about this ‘truth’. This is the world we live in now. The world of Bitch Planet simply codifies it into law and makes non-compliance (being fat, gay or promiscuous) punishable with prison sentences and even death (shit, it’s not even hard to think of countries where this is actually a reality). The villains of the piece, Father and the other old men who rule, are unpleasant caricatures scarily reminiscent of the good old boys who fill governments and governing boards the world over. And good god how I wish for the protagonists, the bitches of Bitch Planet, to punch their smug, misogynist faces in. The part that gets to me, however, is that they might not.

Right from Issue #1 it was made clear that any victory would be bitter-sweet and failure was the more likely outcome. That undercurrent of failure being more than possible has continued through the series all the way to this weeks Issue #5 and doesn’t look like it’ll be ending soon. You feel like no matter what they do, no matter how hard they try, those above will simply change the rules to keep themselves there and there is nothing that these heroic women will be able to do to stop it.

Just like it often feels in the real world. The real world where women are blamed for being the victims of sexual assault, harassment and violence, then punished with more of the same. The real world where a woman has to work twice as hard to be in the same position as a man and still earn less pay. The real world where a woman’s reproductive rights (and their universal rights to bodily integrity) are constantly under attack by backwards moralists and their pocket legislators. The real world that I am a part of. And part of the problem.

I’m a big believer in the old saw that art mirrors life and society, and when I read Bitch Planet I see a pretty ugly reflection. I can’t read this and not feel like I’m not doing enough to change this reality. Change this reflection. I’m not doing enough to make this world we live in a better place for my sisters, my cousins, my daughters if I ever have them, my friends. Shit I’m not even sure what I should be doing, just that I’m not currently or not doing well enough. Not trying hard enough.

That’s what’s great about Bitch Planet. It’s a simple reminder to try harder. And that’s what I’ll do. It’s what we should all do. Because the world of Bitch Planet is not a great place to be.

So I’d definitely give it a recommend giving it a read. It’s fun, exciting, horrifying and tragic all at the same time. Most importantly it’s a reminder to keep trying harder.

Who does the Tomb Raider represent?

A ruling by the US Supreme Court has legalised marriage equality in all fifty states. Hooray for the gays! Well, hooray for the entire LGBTQI community, but that doesn’t rhyme as well. Glad to hear it. Hopefully it won’t be long before the same thing finally happens in Australia. Canada’s had marriage equality for years and they seem to be doing alright. Ireland certainly hasn’t been struck down by heavenly fire since its recent referendum, and you’ve got a pro-marriage equality PM in charge of the Conservatives in the UK. Life is getting better for non-hetero-normatives around the world. Now (as I’ve heard mentioned a few times already) begins the battle to remind people that LGBTQI discrimination and homophobia won’t just disappear because one bloke can marry another bloke, the same way that racism didn’t end in America with the end of segregation. But hey, one battle at a time and right now is a time to celebrate.

On another end of the news spectrum E3 has passed us by with much ado (depending on your perspective, quite possibly about nothing). I’m pretty stoked about Mass Effect: Andromeda, Star Wars: Battlefront 3 and X-com 2, am interested in Horizon Zero Dawn, was glad to finally see Evie Fry get her own trailer for Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, and (unlike so much of the gaming population) don’t really give all that many fucks about Fallout 4, the remake of Final Fantasy VII or Shenmue III. Wish I gave more fucks about Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst. Each to their own, right? One of the games on display that I’m really looking forward to is Rise of the Tomb Raider, sequel to the 2013 reboot of the franchise. I was a bit fan of the 2013 game, finding its visuals stunning, its gameplay exciting and a younger Lara Croft’s genuine character development deeply engaging. If the new game is more of the same, I’ll happily buy it.

And I really hope that Lara Croft is still gay.

Well, that likely requires a little bit of explanation. Perhaps a better way of putting it is that I hope we can continue to assume that Lara Croft is, at the very least, not a cut-and-dry heterosexual.

For me, like so many others who played and enjoyed the game, this came from what we perceived about Lara’s relationship with her friend Sam (short for Samantha), who spends most of the game as a damsel-in-distress for Lara to rescue. While Lara obviously cares about the other friends who survived the shipwreck (and her own survival and rescue are important motivating factors), it is Sam for whom she literally scales mountains, butchers her way through armies and faces down (spoiler alert) an undead weather witch to save. And while the relationship we see is never anything more than platonic, well, you get the feeling that Lara probably wished for a little more.

Lara at Bar gray edited 14:7:15
“Surprised you didn’t say ‘put me in a tomb.'” “Seriously, don’t tempt me.”

This likely shows my own pop-culture conditioning more than anything else. If nearly two and a half decades on this earth watching and absorbing fiction have taught me anything it’s that you only risk life or limb doing that kind of shit for a person if they’re a blood relative or you wanna do the horizontal polka with them (trying to be a bit more poetic today). But there are those sideways glances, the concern, the way Lara relaxes in Sam’s presence, the way you can cut the sexual tension with a knife and everyone seems to notice except Sam and goddamnit Sam can’t you see that she wasn’t interested in meeting those cute boys she was interested in being with you because she loves you and why can’t you love her back! Why Sam? Why can’t you love her?

I’m joking. Mostly.

As I said, I’ve spent a lot of years being told that romantic love or simply reckoning that s/he would be a good root (not too poetic) is the primary motivator for grand quests of courage and daring do. So when I see (or am playing as) a character going out to rescue the princess locked in the tower I tend to make assumptions about the hero’s motivations. Reckon I’m not the only one. This is shifting as those creating that which we consume experiment with broader relationships. It can also be argued that in trying to make game protagonists the kind of blank slates upon which the player can project themselves we’re also seeing a natural decline in the old trope (this is something I’d like to go into substantially more in the future and will a little more in one or two paragraphs).

Now, is Lara Croft in love with Sam? Maybe. At least want to get into her knickers? I suppose that’s possible. Just because I think I see that subtext doesn’t mean it’s there in either the writing or the animation. It would also be possible for Lara to be gay and not want to bonk Sam. Despite the juvenile stereotypes film, television, books and games have hammered home for years it is possible to be friends with unattached members of the gender you’re attracted to without wanting to fuck them. And if Lara is sexually attracted to Sam she obviously respects her friend’s sexual preferences and is happy simply being best mates (and hell, if she’s willing to murder her way up a mountain to protect this relationship, I’m sure she’d be willing to take a few cold showers as well). But all of this focuses on a big ‘if’ that is never answered one way or another.

I’d like to direct you towards this great post from the blog Pfangirl Through the Looking Glass which, despite the title, weighs up the evidence for or against Lara being romantically inclined towards Sam with a focus on comments made by Tomb Raider writer Rhianna Pratchett, rather than which team Lara bats for. The post concludes that no, they’re just very good friends and Lara has fought so hard because she is protecting her surrogate family in a way that she never could for her biological parents, while being fairly and appropriately ambivalent about what Lara’s sexual orientation is (since it doesn’t matter in the context of the relationships we see and can possibly apply to in the game). Lara’s just protecting her best mate and there doesn’t need to be any more to it.

But I still reckon she’s into girls and hope that I can continue thinking so in the next game. This is a matter of projecting my own biases onto the character, assuming that language, subtext and motivation implies certain emotions. It shows how much we care about the characters that we wish to relate to them on a deeper level, and it is a credit to the writing that we can. It allows us to take the story and characters and see a narrative that is smaller, more personal, and sometimes far grander. Allows us to apply the plot and character development to our own lives and experiences. The story of Lara Croft in the 2013 reboot is very much a coming of age story. I can’t help but imagine there must have been some out there who saw their own adolescences mirrored by Lara’s struggle and transformation from privileged (if already physically tough) academic to ruthless survivor. Perhaps saw their own fear of losing their close friends and family as they “become who we’re meant to be” in Lara’s fear of losing her friends and family as she starts her own journey to do the same. Ultimately she is able to keep many of her friends, albeit at a cost, and is stronger because of it.

Maybe I’m just pulling this all out of my arse. I have a habit of doing that. But I don’t reckon it’s too unreasonable a suspicion.

So, is the rebooted Tomb Raider gay? Maybe. I think so. Others might see her as straight, asexual, bisexual, or decide it simply doesn’t matter. And in a large way it doesn’t. It doesn’t effect the gameplay, plot or (arguably) the character herself. In another way it most certainly does. Lara Croft is the first lady of gaming. She holds a special place amongst such less inspiring characters as Ms Pacman and Princess Peach as being one of a very small handful of female game characters that has managed to earn a presence outside of video gaming community within the wider pop cultural awareness. What happens to Lara, the way she acts and who she is, is important because she represents by default so much of the past, present and future of the gaming population. There’s a reason so many people were upset at the treatment of Lara in the comments by the designers  before its release and in the gameplay itself. The graphic death scenes, the attempted rape, the remarks by a developer that they hoped players would “want to protect her” as she is continually beaten down, all seemed to be an attempt to de-power and diminish a character who for so long was one of the few female-starring power fantasies. I think she’s still a powerful character (and it is hard to argue that she wasn’t, at least by the end of the game, pretty fearless and very bloody deadly).

I’m a straight white male. I am fucking overrepresented in all aspects of western popular culture. What happens with a character like the Tomb Raider is important because awareness of who and what she is reaches beyond the video game community. They don’t have to outright call her gay, straight, bi, ace or any other colour of the rainbow. They just need to allow the room for players to apply their own emotions, assumptions and biases to the character. To see their own story reflected in hers. To represent them.

Honestly, it makes for a more interesting protagonist anyway.

Where’s she at then?

Assassin male and female blank Edit

I scribbled this out last year, just before Assassin’s Creed: Unity came out, when Ubisoft was taking flak for failing to include playable female characters in the co-op because it was too hard and expensive to animate them. Made one of my sisters chuckle, flew right over the head of my brother. He’s 14, god bless him, and just doesn’t quite yet have the best grasp of sarcasm and irony. He’ll get there though. Anyway. Fortunately for Ubisoft, the controversy (in my experience at least) died down a fair bit once the game itself was released. Unfortunately for Ubisoft that was because Unity turned out to be glitchy nightmare fuel (which sidelined women in plenty of other ways). Apparently animating male characters is hard and expensive too.

But it’s a new year, a new Assassin’s Creed has been announced and low and behold Syndicate (set in Victorian era London, at the height and centre of the Industrial Revolution) will star not just a mutton-chop and top-hat sporting male playable protagonist, but a female playable protagonist as well! We’ll be playing as twin sibling assassins Jacob and Evie Frye as they battle to free London from the oppressive yoke of Templar rule by murdering them and their mates. Good stuff. They’re saying we’ll be able to play through most of the game as either character, aside from a few specific missions for each where they get their own character development. Great stuff. And hell, by the looks of it the gangs of London that will make up both the player’s and the antagonist’s armies of underworld gangs will be equal opportunity employers, meaning we’ll have contextually appropriate female opposition to stab. Fantastic stuff. Wait… yes, that’s still good. People are rightfully excited. Yet, after checking out the first few trailers, pictures and gameplay video I can’t help but think, “So, where the flying fuck is she?”

Seriously, look at the announcement trailer:

You hear Jacob talking, see Jacob standing in front of a growing army of street thugs, see Jacob leaping about and stabbing people. No noticeable Evie.

Then there’s the first cinematic trailer:

Again, Jacob talking, standing, leading, leaping and stabbing, along with him flying up walls with some sort of grappling hook launcher/retractor… which is actually pretty damn cool. Still. No noticeable Evie.

But wait, there’s the pre-alpha gameplay footage that’s just come out!

And there’s Evie! In the cut scenes! She does bloody exist! Of course, we only get to see her in those cut scenes and at no other time during the entire walkthrough. And even then Jacob takes the centre stage as the driving force of this particular (I suppose you’d call it a) plot point, with all the exciting lines and sense of humour, while Evie is calm and politely apologetic.

Ubisoft have since released a trailer introducing us to Jacob Frye, but seem to think another introducing us to the brand new collectibles is far more important than a trailer introducing us to one of the main playable characters. Shit, even the box art has got Evie crammed to the side while Jacob takes front and centre.

Now, I know it’s early days. I know that at any point the marketing team might flood us with information and images of Evie being the arse-kicking heroine that (I bloody well hope) we all expect her to be. I know that the creators are actually pretty decent at writing diverse and nuanced characters and they have far from the worst reputation when it comes to writing women. I know that they might simply be underplaying their first playable female in a main Assassin’s Creed title, not making a big deal out being able to play as a chick because it really fucking shouldn’t be. I know that the apparent sidelining of Evie in this first round of promotional material may have more to do with the marketing team still being terrified that boys think playing as a girl is ickie than with the game or developer following the same train of thought (I know that this disconnection between marketing teams and developers is still a major problem in Triple A gaming). I know, I know, I know. If you call me anything you call me fair-minded. The problem is that I do not have a reason to trust Ubisoft.

I can’t help but feel that a big part of the reason Evie will be a playable character is Ubisoft reacting to all the flak it took last year. And there’s nothing wrong with that. One of the great things about the video games industry is the way the interaction between player and developer, consumer and creator. It also goes without saying that including a playable female character is a big progressive step forward. But if they end up largely side-lining or stereotyping the character (in the game or the promotional material) than it won’t be nearly big enough, especially since it’s already been shown that including playable female characters in the story and marketing won’t hurt game sales.

Look at Bioware and the advertising for Mass Effect 3, where it reacted to the fans demanding that FemShep be featured in the art and marketing by allowing them to select a default look and then putting her in trailers and artwork, something that the developer carried over to the advertising of Dragon Age: Inquisition, where the narration of trailers was voiced by the actors playing both the male and female Inquisitors, and the main box art featured an ambiguously armoured figure. When Blizzard received complaints that it was using the same (stereotypical) body-shapes for its female characters in upcoming title Overwatch it responded with the (absolutely badass) Zarya. Both companies received a lot of goodwill from their fans for their responses, so there’s no reason for Ubisoft not to follow suit. But I’d argue that both Bioware and Blizzard (even when owned by EA and Activision) have a far better history of positive female representation in their games (not perfect, but definitely better) than Ubisoft’s development studios and the publisher itself do. Shit, when I googled “list of Ubisoft female protagonists” all I got was a bunch of articles about the controversy I mentioned in the first paragraph of this blog, about Ubisoft’s lack of female protagonists.

So when I don’t see the lady in question featuring prominently – or at all – in the first round of announcements and hype beyond “you’ll get to play as her, we swear!” I just can’t bring myself to take their word for it.

Now, I’m probably just being facetious. Evie will probably be a great character with a great story and great development. And god knows I probably won’t have access to a console or PC capable of playing it come Syndicate‘s release. I’ll also mention that the only two Assassin’s Creed games I’ve enjoyed enough to play to the end were Brotherhood and Black Flag, so my opinion probably doesn’t matter all that much.

But still. Ubisoft need to be held accountable. It’s not enough to be able to play as a chick, she needs to be treated with the respect and power that the male characters of your games receive. At the very least, she needs to be given her own trailer before one announcing the fucking pre-order bonuses.

Reflecting on the myth, I expect I’ll always be a Nationalist. It’s who I am.

Back when I was in high school I planned on getting a tattoo. Specifically I planned on getting the Southern Cross, the five stars that adorn the Australian (New Zealand, PNG and Samoan) flag. Probably on my shoulder. Maybe my calf. Not important. Anyway, at the time the idea behind the tattoo was to demonstrate that I was an Australian and, more importantly, proud of that fact. The Southern Cross had after all long been a symbol co-opted by Aussie culture (despite the fact it is visible across the Southern Hemisphere) from the flag flying above the Eureka Stockade to the plane flown by Charles Kingsford Smith on his record-breaking journeys. Then the Cronulla Riots happened.

To my great and continued shame in the weeks before the riot I supported what was going to happen. I’d heard that a pair of surf lifesavers had been beaten up by bunch of Lebs, and I wanted to hear that those bastards got their heads kicked in for harming an Australian icon. A ‘fight’ was planned. Rumours spread a small army of Lebanese youths were going to descend upon the beach so good, honest Aussies better turn up in force. Other rumours said it was going to be a fairly multicultural affair, with Greeks, Turks and even a few ‘good’ Lebs joining up with their white Australian brethren to beat the shit out of those who were violently refusing to assimilate into our culture, our way of life. I may not have participated but I didn’t have a problem with it happening, and for that I am sorry. I was a fuckwit. I strive to be less of one now.

It did turn out to be a multicultural affair, since there was a pretty multicultural range of victims. A few thousand white morons rocked up to Cronulla and proceeded to harass (at the very best) and violently attack (at the far too frequent worst) anybody who looked remotely brown or ethnic, including Greeks, Turks and Lebs, while a thin line of brave police threw themselves in front of the mob. Watching it on the news and hearing the stories afterward you couldn’t help but be horrified at the thought of a bunch of arseholes wearing the Australian flag attacking their fellow Australians in a misguided attempt at avenging the perceived wounding of an Australian icon. Shitheads looking for an excuse to attack folk they already considered un-Australian.

The anger, the resentment, the disillusionment, the isolation of the communities that had been attacked was visible and raw. It was not the first time that nationalism was used to excuse senseless violence, but it was the first time I’d seen it and its results from more than an academic perspective. For someone who’d always associated the national identity with their own, it was a hell of a learning experience.

*****

This past April 25th marked the centenary of Anzac day, one hundred years since thousands of Australian and New Zealand troops landed on the beaches of the Gallipoli peninsula, not even a year into the First World War, at a spot that we’d come to call Anzac Cove. Over the last century the mythology that has developed around Australia’s involvement during the eight month campaign has become a key part in defining the national culture, and I would argue that this mythology is the linchpin upon which most Australian nationalism is built. We don’t have the long histories of art, architecture and enlightenment that many other nations have. We are a young nation. We have our military history, our sport, our bushrangers and then a host of things to be ashamed of like the Stolen Generation and the White Australia Policy. When we have little in the way of widely and regularly discussed positive national mythology to start with, it should be no surprise that what we do have has been latched onto to by the national consciousness. Especially when they refuse to talk about the ‘fun’ parts of colonisation (I’d recommend John Birmingham’s Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney for that) and both pre and post-colonial Aboriginal culture (instead of, I shit you not, the literal bones left behind at a turn of the 19th century butcher’s shop that counted as the ‘Australian content’ of the high school ancient history syllabus).

The key word above is mythology, because make no mistake the popular memory of Anzac Day is far more taken by the stories and legends of the campaign than the actual history. Simpson and his donkey rescuing wounded men until he was killed (he was one of many, but the only one whose name is commonly remembered). The incompetent English landing our brave lads on the wrong bloody beach. The incompetent English soldiers playing a game of football on another beach while our brave lads were butchered capturing Lone Pine (mind you there were plenty of English troops getting butchered at different beaches at the same time as well). The incompetent English officer who decided that the Light Brigade should empty their rifles for a good old fashioned bayonet charge at the Turkish machine guns (actually it was an Australian officer, but that doesn’t make for as good a movie). Aussie troops playing cricket between artillery shells on the rare bit of flat land. Two-up. Mateship. The Anzac Spirit. Humour in the face of adversity. Courage under fire. Service and sacrifice. Warrior larrikins. The baptism of blood from which our great nation was forged or united or whatever. Good stuff. Maybe. Depends.

That bloody waste of life attempting to take the Dardanelles from the Ottomans has become our origin myth, with the Anzacs standing besides the USA’s founding fathers and Civil War leaders, the UK’s Winston Churchill and (literally on the other side of the battlefield) modern Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk as the referential arbiters of the national zeitgeist. We talk about the Anzac Spirit and what the Anzacs fought for with the same kind of conviction that Yank pundits bring to arguments about what Ben Franklin’s opinion on the gun control debate would be. Bringing up the Anzacs is a quick way to add credibility to a statement, argument or ideology. We make bold claims about what they fought for, what they would be ashamed of, what they would be proud of, their preference for lamb over tofu. There are few higher honours than associating ourselves (or our brands) with the Diggers of wars gone by, when we can get away with it. Can’t always, thank god and the law for that. This is of course failing to mention when some bastard on a bus (or train) decides to inform some poor family that the Anzacs fought specifically to keep out anyone not born on the British Isles.

Of course it’s not just the Gallipoli myth that’s used to justify or underpin Australian nationalism. Charles Bean, Australia’s official historian during the Great War, arguably did more to construct the image of the noble Australian sheep-shearer-turned-warrior courteously gunning down Germans with one hand while refusing to salute with the other than any other correspondent at the time or since, and he believed that it would be the battlefields of Passchendaele and Fromelles that would become the great Mecca for Australians coming to pay respects to their honourable dead, not Gallipoli.

Others point out that far from uniting the nation in a baptism of blood the Great War actually did more to divide it, as the reasons for entering the war (loyalty to Britain, the mother country) and the (failed) referendums over conscription split the country along class, religious and ethnic lines (that can more or less be described as “English vs Irish”). It is far easier to claim that the battles of World War Two did far more to unite Australia than the First did. The Siege of Tobruk where the second round of Anzacs earned a reputation for ingenuity and attack dog enthusiasm for a good fight. The Fall of Singapore, which shifted the mentality of many Australians away from “still a far flung British colony” to a nation that couldn’t keep relying on mum and had to start looking out for itself. The Kokoda Track where the Japanese Army was beaten for the first time, by soldiers referred to as “Chocos” because it was expected they’d “melt like chocolate” upon contact with the enemy.

The debate over which conflict should take precedence in the country’s collective consciousness is one argued by nationalists and national leaders. I’ve always been partial to the Light Horse Brigade’s campaign against the Turks in the Middle East myself, particularly the Battle of Beersheba (called the Last Great Cavalry Charge for a reason). Keating tried to push Kokoda as the fight we should focus on during his tenure as Prime Minister. But when I hear pollies talking about which bloodbath we should remember most fondly I can’t help but remember a few of my old history (and geography) teachers, back in high school, who’d joke that since it was a Liberal PM (sorta) that won the First World War and a Labor PM that won the Second neither party wanted to admit the other war happened (I myself am a bigger fan of Billy Hughes than John Curtin, mostly cause I’m a sucker for anyone who takes the piss out of an American President at important negotiations deciding the fate of the world).

Even the brutal battle at Long Tan during the Vietnam War has entered the positive national mythology. Gallipoli is still king though, and that’s not likely gonna change any time soon.

*****

At university ‘Nationalism’ and ‘Nationalist’ became dirty words, usually shorthand for some reactive leader, party or ethnic group responsible for half the unspeakable acts of violence over the last century or two. The “great disease of the twentieth century” as one of my lecturers called it. After all, it was the actions of a handful of nationalists that lit the fuse that started the Great War, and nationalist pride that allowed it to detonate so spectacularly. Or it became shorthand for the very mockable ignorant jingoists who live in perpetual fear of societal collapse, y’know, the kind of folk who took Pauline Hanson’s warning of an Asian invasion seriously, or who recently piled onto streets around the country (with their swastika-wearing kin) because some jackass reckons that Halal Certifications are being used to funnel money to ISIS or some such shit. Fucken ‘Straya cunt. At one point during a course on religion and violence, when looking at religious nationalism, the tutor asked us to raise our hands if we identified as Australians, identified Australia as our homes. Two people did, and one of them promptly dropped it when he found out that not identifying with any nationality, being a “citizen of the world” so to speak, was an option.

I might sound cynical. I tend to sound cynical. It’s part of my sense of humour. I blame my parents for letting me watch too much Blackadder growing up (though you could argue there’s no such thing). The thing is I am a nationalist. I always have been and likely always will be. I was the guy in that class above that kept his hand up (I remember jokingly stating that the rest of them could “get the fuck out of my country”). There was a time when I tried different labels, like ‘patriot’ (which carries its own clichéd baggage), but the substance hasn’t changed. I identify as an Australian first and foremost, and embrace the heritage and history that comes with it. Good or bad. I still call Australia home an’ all that implies. Living across the world on another continent with a different culture, sports and traditions, I have embraced this identity more than ever. I’ve fallen back on my accent, old slang and old profanity more than I even did back home. I talk about it every chance I get. I love Canadian beer, but I use it as an excuse to talk about Australian beer more than anything else. Poutine’s alright, but you really wanna get a meat pie inta yah. Stuff baseball, cricket’s way better. Good god I miss Aussie coffee, as I keep telling people. And thunderstorms. You can bet that when Anzac Day rolled around, I was happy to talk to anyone who asked about what it meant, and meant to me.

Because I’m proud of what I am. There’s an argument against national pride that effectively amounts to “why be proud of an accident of birth?” The fact that I was born in Australia and not some other nation was random chance, why should it matter that was where I came from? Add to this the fact that I’m the son of immigrant parents (my dad was born in Iraq, mum was born in England, they both came to Australia when they were kids), so I don’t even have that strong a claim over Australian history and heritage. I don’t have a grandfather who was an Anzac or a great-great-grandfather who arrived on a convict ship. Definitely don’t have any First Australian in me. But I’ve never felt this argument had much credibility. I am proud of Australian culture and history because it was part of creating who I am today.

I like who I am today, or at least who I try to be. I hope I’m a good person, though that’s for others to judge. I definitely strive to be one. This is because of the people that raised me, my parents, family, teachers and friends. It is also because of the culture that raised me. Like so many kids growing up I sucked up the mythology around the Anzacs every chance I got, and loved every bit of it. Good or bad. The virtues I aspire to are, rightly or wrongly, tied into that mythology. Egalitarianism, giving everyone a ‘fair go’, mateship, generosity, determination, humour in the face of tragedy, grace in defeat, sacrifice. These are all ideas that are embodied somehow within the mythology of Anzac Day. The Anzac Spirit. They might not always be the best virtues to aspire to, but I aspire to them nonetheless.

Now I’m not saying that other countries and cultures don’t produce good, noble, virtuous people. Nor that our mythology has a monopoly on any of those things above. I’m definitely not saying that Australia and Australian nationalism hasn’t produced more than its share of cunts (see the story at the beginning). That would be fuckin’ stupid. I am simply saying that if I can be called a decent person (and as I said, I hope I can), I can be proud of the people, places and culture that made me that way. I can be proud of my identity.

About six months to a year after I raised my hand and got a few laughs telling everyone else to fuck off, a friend from that class brought it up in conversation. At the time, she said, she’d felt like she was closer to being an Italian than an Australian, identified more closely with her family’s heritage than with that of the country she’d grown up in. This changed after actually going to Italy and learning, explicitly, that she was not Italian. After that, she told me, if asked the question again she’d raise her hand. She’d come to the conclusion that she was an Aussie. It was not her whole identity, she was not a nationalist, just that she identified as Australian.

*****

National myths, especially the ‘origin stories’ as I’ve heard them called, are often problematic. They’re often bloody. There is the mythos around first the Revolution and then the Reign of Terror from which Modern France was born. The long, bloody civil war in China against the Kuomingtang and Japanese invasion that ended with the Communist victory. The US Civil War which divided the nation then sort of united it. Kemal Ataturk’s successful defence of the Dardanelles against the Entente invaders, as I mentioned above, and the rise of the Young Turks as the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the Turkey we know and love emerged.

It seems you need a “baptism of blood” to inspire a nation’s existence, self-worth, values and purpose. Dumping a bunch of crooks onto a beach (guarded by another bunch of crooks) and telling them to build a city, or a bunch of old white men convincing other old white men that maybe life would be easier if everyone on the continent shared in a common defence, immigration laws, currency and rail gauge doesn’t exactly excite the popular imagination the same way that a brutal assault on an easily defined ‘other’ for politically malleable reasons, full of daring do and a healthy dose of sacrifice. As I said, we haven’t got much else well-known history that isn’t a dark stain on our national soul.

As far as these baptisms go though, the Gallipoli campaign and the legend of Anzac isn’t too bad. Yes, they don’t really provide us with the cast iron legal foundations upon which our nation is built in the same way that The Revolution gave France “Liberté, Equalité, Fraternité”. But the mythology also doesn’t carry around the same sort of baggage that many other nations and cultures have to (or refuse to). Not like the problematic aftermath of the US Civil War, where the courage, bravery, sacrifice and determination of the Confederate soldiers defending goddamn slavery is still honoured by Americans on both sides of the line. And, while definitely not all angels, the Anzacs certainly don’t carry the weight (or have to live in denial) of a genocide round their necks like the Young Turks do with their treatment of hundreds of thousands of Armenians, Greeks and other ethnic groups. (Of course there is far, far too little official recognition of the Frontier Wars that plagued the Black Australia pre-and-immediately-post-Commonwealth during white settlement and expansion, something that needs to be fixed).

Both the strength and weakness of any mythology is that it is open to interpretation by the popular conscious. Anzac Day certainly has its problems, like the glorification of war, the often one-sided hagiography of our returned and fallen servicemen and women, the commercialisation of commemoration, and the militarisation of Australian culture far too frequently used to create, justify and enforce a dangerous attitude of ‘us versus them’. But we can also use it do great good as well. It’s taken us long enough to admit that there were probably a fair few Aboriginals in the ranks, and that when they returned they were probably treated almost universally like shit (taking us another fifty years before we stopped treating them as part of the local fauna), but whose general experience of army life was one of equality of pay and treatment. It’s a history that can push a simple message through the thick skulls of white Australia: if the Diggers didn’t have a problem with indigenous Australians, then how bloody dare you? Well, it should be simple. One day we’ll get there. Then one day it might not even be needed.

Deconstruction of the myth is a necessary thing, and there are many great examples floating around academia and journalism worth reading. But reconstruction should not be ruled out if it can be used to promote the best values of our culture. We learn from history, but we’re inspired by legends. We need to make sure we’re inspiring people in the right direction.

*****

The non-Australians I’ve met and know are frequently surprised by how we act on Anzac Day. Yes, there is commemoration, as should be expected of the day but there’s just as much celebration. We mark Anzac Day with drinking and gambling, going to the pub to play two-up, punctuated by moments of contemplation. So different to the sombre ceremonies and minute of silence on Remembrance Day. I’m not entirely convinced this is a bad thing. It might seem disrespectful, but isn’t a healthy irreverence one of those traits that we, ironically, revere about the legendary Anzac? We’re certainly quick to step in when someone comes off as overly disrespectful, and it keeps things in perspective. We celebrate the lives of those who went to war for us, still put the uniform and still go to war for us, rather than mourn the dead. It keeps the focus on those who fought for us and still fight for us, rather than on those we fought. War is hell, but peace is great, and most of us have been able to only enjoy the latter because a few have suffered through the former. Maybe it still sounds disrespectful, maybe I sound disrespectful, but I don’t believe that’s the intention. I think, at worst, it’s the only way we know how to do things.

Is that a problem? Maybe. I don’t think so. But I might be part of that problem.

*****

I know the dangers of nationalism. I know the problems its caused. The wars it’s started. I’m not trying to excuse it. Simply trying to explain my own.

I didn’t get that tattoo. There were more than a few marking the skin of those draped in Aussie flags slinging racial slurs and informing the world that the Anzacs fought for Cronulla Beach, that the Lebanese had no right to come and interfere with an imagined social order. The Southern Cross tattoo, at least in Sydney, found a secure place on the uniform of the angry, discriminating Bogan. I’m not saying that everyone who bears that icon is a racist, they’re not, I know plenty who aren’t, it would be ridiculous to make that claim. But in my mind and those of plenty of others including the members of my Middle Eastern, dark-skinned dad’s family, it became part of the stereotype of the ignorant, racist bastards that make their presence known every so often in the worst possible ways. It’s not the worst part (the violence and abuse that makes people feel like outsiders is), but the fact that they try and legitimise the behaviour, legitimise the hate, with a claim of defending Australian culture, the Australian way of life, leaves me angry.

Because I’m an Aussie nationalist. I love the positive parts of that heritage, accept the bad, apologise and promise to always do better. To accept everyone who looked at Australia, or even arrived without knowing better, and decided it seemed like a decent place to live.

A decent place to live, which we can be proud of. That might not be what the original Anzacs fought for, that might not be what our current Diggers fight for. But it’s something I ascribe to the myth. That’s what I drink to on Anzac Day.

Hope that makes sense.

Thoughts and prayers with those currently serving, and those that have in the past.

Quick note: this is not an academic article or an extensively researched piece of writing. Mostly I’m just working off memory. There’s probably more than a few factual errors, and there are a definitely a few half-truths. This is a personal opinion piece, and no disrespect was intended towards most of the folk (live or dead) I mentioned in this post that I didn’t refer to with profanely. I have a sarcastic way of writing and talking.

It’s just not cricket

Something I did not expect when I left Sydney for Vancouver was how much I’d miss Australian sports. This would surprise more than a few people who know me, since I’ve never been much of what you’d call by any stretch of the imagination a sportsman or sports fan. Sure I’ve played a little bit of backyard cricket and tossed the footy around with some mates and still enjoy doing both, but I’ve never been part of any organised sports team and never been particularly capable of the catching, kicking, throwing, batting or tackling required by most games. Watching games, tests and matches has similarly never been high on my list of priorities. Sure I watched as the Dragons won the Grand Final a couple of years ago, grab a beer and watch NSW and Queensland battle it out for State of Origin, woke up to watch more than a few of Australia’s matches in the FIFA World Cup, but honestly sport has always been more white noise than anything else for me over the years. Cricket or Union on in the background at barbecues, AFL or League on the TVs at the pub, Soccer generally around and about. Really I only paid enough attention to have a rough idea what was going on and be able to hold a conversation with my more athletically minded fellows. Hell, I only went to my first cricket game a few months before I climbed onto the plane to come here. White noise. But goddamn do I miss it.

This became particularly noticeable when the ICC Cricket World Cup came to its (inevitable) conclusion, as Australia beat New Zealand by 7 wickets to claim the trophy. I was working during most of the match, on a long shift crowded with customers getting a bite to eat pre, post and during first a Whitecaps game (soccer), than a Cannucks game (hockey). With my phone not working how it was meant to (the bastard), and the local sports filling the screens at the restaurant where I find gainful employment, I was unable to check the score until I arrived home late in the evening (well, the wee hours of the morning technically). It was probably the most anxious I’d been about a score, count or tally in any sport into which I take an interest in a very long time.

It was also the most I’d spoken about sports in a very long time. In the days immediately before (and the day after), I took every chance I could get to explain the rules, mechanics, scoring, sledging and rivalries of the game with an enthusiasm that would have made several of my mates proud. This was odd because, while I was never one of those people who always needs to inform everyone that “they don’t care about sports,” I’ve never been one for holding extended conversations about the subject. Religion, politics, economics. TV, video games, movies, music. These have always been my preferred topics. Yet there I was the day after the final gleefully explaining overs and runs to a co-worker’s boyfriend so he’d understand what was happening while the highlights played on the television above the bar (as well as the co-worker herself between customers). I’ve barely spoken at all about the shows I’m watching, the games I’m playing or the political situation around here or at home. What I have spoken about is cricket. And rugby. Oh, and beer, but that’s for another post.

I can’t help but wonder if I’m simply trying to fill a void left by moving outside the usual sphere of influence of Aussie sports. It’s hard to overstate the importance of sports in Australian culture. In many ways sports is Australian culture, underpinning both national and local pride and unity. Hell, we love our sports so much we actually care about our women’s teams (and isn’t it just disgusting that we as a general culture still think so lowly of our female athletes that this can be seen as a serious measure of how much a nation cares about athletics). While they don’t receive nearly as much respect, funding and support as they deserve, we still actually give a shit about how the Opals, Matildas, and Hockeyroos are doing, unlike some other countries in my, albeit limited, experience (*cough*). Wearing the Green’an’Gold and representing the Jack’an’Cross* is about the highest honour one can achieve. It saturates every day life, it’s what we talk about, it’s what we watch, it’s what we do. It’s funny how many conversations with Aussies I’ve met over here have devolved into discussions about sports back home. It’s what we have in common. Leaving that, going to another country with different sports on the television, while not jarring, has left a noticeable absence in what I was used to. Instead there’s ice hockey (just called hockey over here apparently).

But it goes beyond just a difference in what sports are on the TV to the talk itself. I’ve found there to be a focus on statistics at a level never reached when talking about Australian sports. We certainly quote possession, test averages, tackles, shots at goal, shots stopped, wickets and anything else that can be counted in any of the sports we care about, but since I arrived I’ve heard numbers spat out about this player or that team at a rate that has stunned me. Seriously, it’s fuckin’ crazy mate. I suspect it might be partly because of the presence of ‘fantasy’ teams (hockey, baseball, basketball, football, whatever) which relies upon those statistics in order for the owner (or whatever they call themselves) to win. The closest comparison I can think of back home is footy tipping, and even then that always struck me as more a collection of guesstimates and evolving biases. I’ll admit that it doesn’t help that when I do hear people discussing plays or strategy I rarely have a goddamn clue what they’re talking about. Regardless it often feels like the games played over here are boiled down to a collection of numbers representing some average effort rather than the effort itself. And there lies the key difference, in my very humble opinion (seriously, I don’t really know shit about this), between how Aussies and Canadians/possibly-North-Americans-in-general discuss sports. In how we discuss effort.

Aussies really do take the whole “it’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game that matters” idea very seriously. Of course we like to win, results matter, but we also understand that not all our athletes are the best in the world at what they do. Losing to a superior team/athlete in a fair match despite giving it our all is still something to be applauded. Just look at how proud we are of the Socceroos efforts at the past three FIFA World Cups (and outrage at the perceived unfairness of the treatment of the team at the hands of those arseholes at FIFA). Not that we don’t like to win, and constantly losing at something can become a drag (just look at the NSW Blues up until last year, or the Wallabies). But a brutal tall poppy syndrome generally means that we’d rather watch a team give it their all and lose than win without trying. And few things will piss an Australian off than someone who doesn’t think they have to try (just look at the anger towards the Australian Men’s Swimming Team at the London Olympics, James Magnussen became the butt of more than a few jokes). So when we talk about sports, when we talk about the cricket, we talk more specifically about action and effort. Mitchell Johnston’s brutal bouncers, Michael Clarke’s continued play despite an injured Hamstring, Mitch Starc’s left handed variations throwing off batsman too aggressive or too tentative. The usefulness of Haddin’s aggressive sledging and New Zealand’s apparently disconcerting respect and politeness. Yes, we have our own statistics, but it’s more like the empirical evidence used to back up an anecdote rather than the anecdote itself, like what I feel like I hear when people talk sports in Vancouver.

Thing is though I’m not saying that Australian sporting culture is any better or worse. Just different. Not what I’m used to. Like a different language. Given how pervasive sport is in Aussie culture, and given that I’m the sort of person who’s always participated to some small extent in that sporting culture (even if it was just watching and listening), it should be no surprise that the difference would be noticeable.

What does this mean? Well it means that while I enjoy hockey, and I do enjoy hockey (it’s fast-paced, constantly shifting and violent, what’s not to like?), I’ve been unable to develop much of an emotional connection to the game. I don’t much care who wins and who loses. At least not because of any of the people I’ve discussed hockey with. I am a bit partial towards Boston, because I’m a bit of a Celtophile and an old fan of Boston rockers the Dropkick Murphys, but I don’t mention that much since it seems like Boston are some sort of arch-nemesis in Vancouver. Which doesn’t make a whole lotta sense since most of Vancouver seems to take a pretty mercenary attitude towards teams, supporting other teams and only supporting the Cannucks when they’re winning. Yet they seem to maintain a rivalry with everyone except, I don’t know, fucking Winnipeg. Starting to rant now, best stop before I really get started.

Anyway, hockey’s fun to watch. But I just find myself unable to really care what’s going on. It’s unfamiliar. It’s just not cricket.

*God help me that will become slang for the Aussie flag before they decide to change it.

Keeping faith in Dragon Age: Inquisition, Part Four: Reflecting on the story and why it matters

So the developer is god, the story appeals to the faith of the player in the game itself, when Bioware’s writers cribbed off history they did so with a deeper appreciation for the place of religious institutions within the societies it mimics.

At the end of Part Three I claimed that the most important story mechanic was the player’s control over the Inquisition, over control of the institution into which people are able to place their badly beaten faith. The game says this at times directly (there’s a line from Mother Giselle that “an army needs more than an enemy, it needs a cause”) and at other times with thinly veiled metaphors. The cut scene in which the formation of the Inquisition is announced to the world involves Commander Cullen nailing the proclamation onto the door of Haven’s Chantry in a way that is reminiscent of the popular image of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the church at Wittenburg (and the popular image of the beginning of the Reformation).

While the Inquisition is initially declared to be a heretical organisation by the surviving Chantry hierarchy, it becomes more or less an institution of change and reform. While the game certainly provides the ‘evil’ option of “doing it for the [personal] power” the Inquisition still tends to provide a net positive to the world’s major institutions by simple involvement in the various conflicts going on. Following in the footsteps of other Bioware RPGs you’re given the opportunity of making decisions big and small, but almost all of the big decisions in DA:I have world shaking consequences because they effect one or more of the major institutions of Thedas. Do you choose to side with the Templars or the Circle of Magi? Whichever one you decide would have far reaching implications for the people of the land. If you choose the Templars, do you disband the centuries old organisation (removing a trusted constant from the continent) or do they become partners in an alliance? If you choose the Circle are they heavily indebted allies or prisoners (continuing the cycle of leashing magic users). Do you choose to allow the Grey Wardens the chance to atone and rebuild, or banish them from southern Thedas? Who will sit on the Orlesian throne? Who will sit beside/behind the Orlesian throne? Who will the Inquisition support as the new Divine? Cassandra the reformer, or perhaps the far more traditional Viviene?

Decisions, decisions... so many exhausting decisions.
Decisions, decisions… so many exhausting decisions.

Our decisions have (as far as the game itself tells us) long-reaching consequences for the lands and people of the Dragon Age world, how we make those decisions depends on how we interpret our characters personality and where their faith lies. My Inquisitor found herself willing to forgive the Templars who had been fooled by a demon doppelganger, but banished the Grey Wardens who had so willingly started using blood magic. She supported Empress Celene in the Orlesian Civil War but installed the elf Briala at the Empress’ right. And she honestly gave no shits about who would become the new Divine of the human Chantry, but was glad for her friend when Cassandra was named (in the epilogue).

So, why does it all matter? Because it allows for better understanding of the past, present and future by providing a reasonably understandable point of reference for people to understand. I’ve already mentioned my belief that video games provide a valuable resource for teaching today’s youth some important ideas and concepts (some educators are already doing exactly that). This falls under the same principle.

Let me use the Crusades as an example. Ask most folk for the causes of the Crusades and they’d probably respond with some combination of religious fanaticism and using religious fanaticism as an excuse for conquest. Recent arguments I’ve heard though was that it was the delayed response to centuries of Muslim conquest all the way up through Spain to the gates of Christian Europe. The release of many decades of anger after watching what had been the Christian Middle East and North Africa conquered by the heathens who were stronger and more advanced, and the feeling of impotence that would have come from being unable to halt Islam’s advance. It was a response by the faithful questioning why God was allowing the unfaithful to inherent the earth and deciding that it must have been because they had to work for it. Now when a lot of scholars talk about the roots of modern Islamic terrorism they say some very similar things, that it is a response by the weak and disempowered faithful who have spent the past four centuries watching the ascent of the Christian West, who have then proceeded to conquer, divide, puppet and generally mistreat the Muslim world which a few hundred years ago dominated the world. And if someone who’d played DA:I asked me explain the situation using a literary example, I’d talk about how easy it was for the Elder One to recruit from the disenfranchised citizens of Tevinter surrounded by decaying symbols of their own lost glory, worn down by centuries of conflict with the technologically advanced Qunari and bad blood with the rest of the continent (and their former possessions), reasonably sure that they’d understand what I’m talking about.

When discussing something as emotionally subjective as faith, being able to understand through experience is key. By appealing to the player’s faith in the game like Bioware does in DA:I, it allows the player to empathise with the character’s crises of faith better, and understand the emotional responses by those characters towards the institutions that held their faith. Understand the emotional responses to our treatment of those institutions. The faith of the player in the game, regardless of how they are playing, is both challenged and reinforced. As I said, it provides a point of reference that reflects the real world. It allows us to better empathise with people around the world and the issues that arise from their faith, treat them with the respect they deserve instead of dismissing them outright for placing that faith in something we disagree with.

Understanding all the issues and views involved in a problem is the first step in solving it. I don’t expect playing Dragon Age: Inquisition will fix the world, but anything that adds positively to the cultural zeitgeist helps. But, shit, I’m an optimist.

Alright folks, I’m gonna end it there. Thanks for reading. I’ll find something else to talk about.

An icon leaves us

Lap scan edited

The news came through on Friday that Leonard Nimoy, the man who was and always will be Spock, died at the age of 83. News sites, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and all the other places where our collective culture gets its information filled with headlines that generally were some version of “He lived long and prospered.” Forums and more artistic social media walls or feeds quickly filled with fanart, photos, quotes, tribute pieces and more than a few animated gifs. An important part of popular culture, an inspiration and mentor to millions has died, and the act of collective mourning has been amazing.

Now of the many fandoms that I might claim membership in, Star Trek was never one. I’ve seen enough episodes and know enough about the various series/characters/plots/context/surrounding-culture to be able to reasonably discuss it, but truthfully William Shatner’s role as Denny Crane on Boston Legal (particularly his platonic relationship with James Spader’s Alan Shore) had far more influence over me during my formative years than Captain Kirk ever did or ever could have. But that doesn’t change the fact that Leonard Nimoy, Mr goddamn Spock, has just died and it’s fucking hard to not feel that loss.

Mocked, parodied, tributed, influenced, referenced in. Star Trek has influenced popular culture at a level that only a handful of other franchises can claim to have reached, and the characters of its original series (movies, and to an extent the characters of the sequel series) will always be associated with the actors that played them. Try as he might in the new movies, Zachary Quinto will never be the Mr Spock (and that’s alright, let him build his own legacy). Add in his prolific career beyond Star Trek and social activism and Nimoy was, like few others, a secular saint. His death has left a grand hole in our cultural cosmology that I don’t see being filled any time soon.

It happens. People seem to have processed his death and worked, written, drawn and animated their way through it. He was an old man. He’d been sick for a while. Unlike the deaths of other icons like Robin Williams or Michael Jackson his mortality had been apparent for some time. We knew it was coming. That doesn’t make it less sad, but it does make it easier to process.

Rest peacefully Mr Nimoy. Sleep well Mr Spock.

Keeping Faith in Dragon Age: Inquisition, Part Three: So what’s it all about then?

Sorry this took so long folks, but here is Part Three. Part One can be read here, Part Two here.

So, we’ve established that the developer of DA:I is the ‘god’ of the game and that appeals to the player character’s faith in-game are also appeals to the player’s faith in the game. How does this relate to the story, politics and lore of the game and the world within? Well, let’s talk a bit about faith first more generally, in real life and in the game.

A few years ago, back at university, I found myself doing a course with the rather self-explanatory title ‘Christianity in Medieval Europe.’ It was a good course that covered everything from the iconoclastic debate, various heretical movements, the inquisition, Christianity’s evolving relationship with Islam, academia and scholarship, and of course the history of the saints. By the end of the course there were two things that really struck me, however. First was how fun it was to be able to use the word ‘flagellate’ in casual discussions (and I got to use it a lot). Say it with me, flaj-ell-ate. Fantastic. Second was that we still have a very low opinion of medieval Christians, one that comes from some very modern yet very old-fashioned misinterpretations of the reasons for faith, ritual and religious institutions in the Middle Ages. The assumption tends to be that Medieval Europeans were a bunch of ignorant flat-earthers who answered every question with “God did it!” or “because the local priest told me that’s what the scriptures said happened!” and whose lives were, as a result of this stupidity and blind piety, “violent brutish and short” (to use an overused quote). The reality was that this, for the most part, was simply not the case. Unless of course you were a Viking. Then it was a life goal.

The reality was that they either knew the world was round or would have responded to an explanation as to how we knew with the tenth century equivalent of “Well, that makes sense.” The reality was that for those Medieval Europeans the church and religion had less to do with answering how the world works in what we’d now define as a scientific sense and more to do with where their place in the world was. Categorisation instead of explanation. This is us (because we hold these beliefs to be true and perform these rituals), that is them (because they hold those beliefs to be true and perform those rituals). Social cohesion through the creation and/or enforcement of social norms. This behaviour is correct and righteous, that behaviour is wrong and sinful. The power of the church came in its power to codify or legislate the social norms affected by the belief and faith of the populace, because it controlled the rituals and ritualised elements of that faith. To take a quote from Mary Douglas’ classic book Purity and Danger (which I’ve been messily paraphrasing), “As with society, so with religion, external form is the condition of its existence… As a social animal, man is a ritual animal… Social rituals create a reality that would be nothing without them. It is not too much to say that ritual is more to society than words are to thought.” The religious institutions established a particular world view, a particular reality, and our divinely ordained place within it. This did not make Medieval Europeans stupid, it made them human.

That is what the folk over at Bioware seem to understand, so when they cribbed heavily off of Medieval European history (and they did crib heavily) they were able to do so at a very deep, conceptual level. The Qunari, for instance, may not seem superficially similar to the Islamic world in the Middle Ages (there certainly aren’t any Arishoks running about saying “there is but one God and Koslun is his prophet”), usually seeming more Asian in influence (pulling from Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism etc), but the Qun guides all parts of life and government in a way that would have impressed Muhammad (peace be upon him). The apparent stagnation of the Qunari  (they have gunpowder, but don’t seem to have advanced beyond basic artillery and bombs for centuries) is similar to the stagnation that eventually brought down the Ottomans. Similarly, the endless war between Tevinter and the Qunari is reminiscent of the Byzantine Empire’s piecemeal conquest by the technologically superior Muslims (their frequent battles for control of Seheron remind me of the various battles for Crete). The division of the Chantry between the Tevinter Imperium’s Black Divine and the rest of Thedas’ White Divine (based in Orlais) based on different interpretations of a specific passage (regarding magic), just how divine the prophet Andraste was, and a refusal to accept each other’s authority resembles the divisions between the Eastern Orthodox Church (and the Patriarch of Constantinople) and the Western Catholic Church (and the Bishop – Pope – of Rome). And of course Fereldan and Orlais are very obvious analogies of England and France (and their respective relationship with each other). Antiva is Italy, Nevarra is Spain, the Anderfels are Germany or Switzerland.

But all this is on a Macro level. On a micro level, they understand how people’s faith in god or the institutions that call upon his/her authority can be harnessed for good or ill. A lack of faith in the Chantry to protect them from the abuses of the Templars led to the Mage Rebellion. A feeling that the Chantry was taking them for granted led to the Templar Order also rebelling. Disillusionment amongst the soldiers fighting for the Empress or Duke in the Orlesian Civil War led to the rebellious ‘Freemen of the Dales’. The game’s main villain is able to gain so much support from Tevinter’s fringe nobility because he promised to halt centuries of decline and return the Imperium to its glorious and glorified past. It is understandable for Iron Bull to be a little disillusioned with the certainty of the Qun, even at one point joking about their religious leaders had been trying to explain why the Qunari hadn’t been able to conquer Thedas for centuries. Sera despises the institutions of the nobility and priests, and acts to get even with those who step on the little people, but recognises the futility of some grand revolution. Cassandra’s discovery of the Seekers’ secret history rocks her world view so severely because it disrupts her faith in the institution she’d pledged her life to. History is full of the disenfranchised striking out against the forces that had previously controlled their faith, and almost by default their lives.

The power given to the player in DA:I, the core story mechanic for much of the game, is not the magical Anchor on their hand but their control of the titular Inquisition. The Inquisition fills a vacuum of power, seeks to actually re-establish order and stability, and fix apocalyptic hole in the sky. It provides a new institution into which people are able to place their severely shaken faith. The player is able to then influence how that faith is harnessed, and shift the order of the world.

How this works in the story and why it all matters will be explained in Part IV. Just one more, than I’ll talk about a different game guys. Promise it won’t be as long coming.

Knights and flags and anthems and Taylor Swift on the radio. Happy Australia Day!

Australia Day Sketch - Edited

Seriously, Happy fuckin’ Australia Day. That weird holiday when people across the country are able to cover themselves in the Jack and Cross (a slang term for the Australian flag I just invented at this moment) without automatically being judged as racist bogans, parading how fair dinkum Aussie they are in a bizarre parody of national pride ripped heavily from July 4th episodes of American television.  Ozzie! Ozzie! Ozzie! and all that. I’d sooner deck myself in the green and gold, but that’s me.

The lead-up’s been a particularly strange one this year. It’s always a bit of a political wank, as both sides of whatever line you happen to be watching cloak their own ideas of “what it means to be Australian” (or some such crap) within the language of patriotism and nationalism. There were the usual articles about how for the Indigenous community Australia Day, the anniversary of the convicts being disembarked from the First Fleet (and, in the mature-rated history books, the crazy, drunken orgy that followed), is also the anniversary of the beginning of the bloody White European conquest of the continent. Some better (passionate arguments made quite reasonably, by members of the Indigenous community and supporters with proven records fighting for aboriginal rights, for a less culturally insensitive date), some worse (social media hipster liberals ’embarrassed’ by displays of national affection on a culturally insensitive date). But a lot of the air time seems to have been taken up by other controversies (loosely using the word here) this year.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten raised the old Republican debate in an Australia Day eve speech, reckoning that it’s about time we thought about cutting ties with the English Royal Family and figuring things out for ourselves. This is at odds with Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s reintroduction of rewarding people the government likes with knight and damehoods. One winner was (now) Sir Angus Houston, former Air Chief Marshall of the RAAF and Chief of the ADF, recently in charge of the search for MH370 (by all accounts a top bloke deserving of the right to put ‘Sir’ in front of his name). Another winner? Prince Philip. I shit you not, Prince Philip, the goddamn Duke of Edinburgh is now a Knight of the Order of Australia. ‘Cause he served in the Royal Navy and is the titular Duke of Edinburgh of the Duke of Edinburgh Award. I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve to be a Knight of the Order of Australia, it just seems like pretty small change compared to some of his other titles. Given His Lordship’s (or is it His Majesty’s? Royal Highness’?) sense of humour, I’d like to know what his reaction was when he was informed. Apparently it hasn’t gone down well with Mr Abbott’s own government who, aside from not all sharing his monarchist leanings, are upset that he’s disregarded his own word to use the honour to award prominent Australians (rather than foreign royals).

At the same time, the old argument about the need to change the flag to one that doesn’t give prime position to that of a foreign country did the rounds (as it always does this time of year). While I’m partial to switching to some version of the Eureka Flag, a pattern with some real history and meaning beyond ‘won a magazine competition about a century ago,’ but I don’t expect we’ll see a change any time soon. Unless the Kiwis change there’s first. Fun stuff.

Then of course there was the joy that came from a proposal by the National Australia Day Council encouraging all Aussies to get up at noon (Eastern Daylight Savings Time I’m assuming) and sing the two official verses of the national anthem. Personally, I wanted to kick the shins of whoever came up with that jingoistic tripe. Not only do Australians have a long, storied history of disrespect, flippancy and irreverence for such displays (the ANZACs of the First World War, for example, had a reputation for refusing to salute no matter how hard their British officers tried), but we had to endure the long-winded complaints by pseudo-intellectual lefties like myself telling people exactly why it was such an un-Australian suggestion. We needn’t have bothered worrying. Nobody gave a shit, and nobody sang the anthem.

But the real controversy, the real issue that rocked the nation, was Taylor Swift’s inclusion then exclusion from Triple J’s Hottest 100 list. The Hottest 100 is an annual cultural phenomenon in Australia, receiving millions of votes and listened to at any party, pub or gathering worth a damn. Run by the major public youth broadcaster, it tends to act as a cultural litmus test of what is relevant that extends across genres, leaping from punk and heavy metal to dance and hip hop. Given that the Js are listened to by the kind of folk who eschew commercial radio for being too commercial (and are unable to recognise a tautology when they say one) there was plenty of anguish over a campaign started on Buzzfeed to get Shake it Off by Swift onto the list. Seriously, people were not fuckin’ happy, which only fuelled the anti-hipster fires. Triple J remained relatively mum over the issue, finally announcing before the broadcast that she had been disqualified because of the Buzzfeed campaign (and a social media bandwagon jump by KFC). And again, people were not fuckin’ happy. It was probably the right decision by Triple J, who couldn’t let the lovers and haters get away with “troll[ing] the polls” lest it set a precedent. I don’t imagine Swift is shedding any tears over her disqualification, she certainly doesn’t need the press like so many of the other artists on the Hottest 100 list, and it really was an act of trolling. Still, while I wouldn’t call myself a fan of Tay Tay I don’t hate her, and it would have been a bit of a laugh if she managed to win. It certainly wouldn’t have been as bad as last year when Royals by Lorde was beaten for the top spot by Riptide by Vance Joy. Lorde was bloody robbed.

Christ, are other countries’ national days like this?