On Craic: I’m Telling You, There Is No Word For ‘Yes’ Or ‘No’ In Irish

This essay is mostly about the 'craic', not to be confused with the 'cráic'

This essay is mostly about the ‘craic’, not to be confused with the ‘cráic’

At school I disliked learning Irish. Mostly because the teacher was stern and angry. When I discovered that he moonlighted as Santa Claus in a local shopping centre at Christmas, I was pretty much done. He clashed with my traditional concept of a kind and joyous St Nick, so that was me finished with Santa and, subsequently, the Gaelic tongue.

Not that I would have necessarily carried on learning it anyway. Gaelic as a language was so obviously ugly, guttural and unwieldy that everything sounded like it was the same foreign, unpalatable dish of intestinal slop. With its ‘fuinneog’s (windows) and ‘peann luaidhe’s (pencils) it isn’t a language that appeals to vain schoolboys, unless those vain schoolboys are fans of Lord of the Rings for whom Elvish proves too tricky. As a teenager this dislike was compounded by the observation that everyone associated with the language was infested with patriotism or an intense religiosity – and often both. Since the time of the Celtic Druids, Ireland has been the victim of a priest class who interfered with superstition in the political and social life of the country. Inevitably, this religious influence has found its way into the nation’s dictionary. The Gaelic language shares with Arabic, among others, the puncturing of sentences with religious sentiments. You can’t even formally say ‘dia duit’ (hello) without technically having just said ‘God be with you’. (The characteristically verbose response to this welcome is to say ‘dia is muire dhuit’ – God and Mary be with you).

But then I got a bit older and, maybe, a little more forgiving of spiritualism. I still find the priest class to be a void of moral authority – but I no longer extend that lack of credibility to the Irish language, even if it does pay homage to a Christian god every once in a while. As an adult, I’m interested in the language, not because I think it pleasant – it still sounds brutally unattractive – but because its quirks and cogs more than make up for its uninviting tone.

For instance, there are no words for ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in Gaelic. It’s the truth. If you want to answer somebody in the positive or negative, you actually have to refer back to the question itself in the form of a positive or negative statement. So, when somebody asks you ‘ar mhaith leat cupan tae?’ (would you like a cup of tea?) you cannot just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – there simply aren’t any words for that. You have to keep up the chatter by answering: ‘ba mhaith liom cupan tae’ (I would like a cup of tea) or if you’re feeling lazy you can reduce this as far as ‘ba mhaith liom’ (I would like) but absolutely no further. Never mind the possibility that you could just answer with the word ‘please’ and nod your head – because this course of action is just as long-winded by English standards, requiring you to say ‘le do thoil’ (literally: with your will).

The concept of possession is a similar peculiarity. The common way of saying you can speak or talk in Irish is to say ‘ta Gaelige agam’ which means ‘I have Irish’ – as if you carry the language around with you in your bloodstream as a kind of benign infection. This possessiveness doesn’t restrict itself to pursuits of knowledge, obviously, but becomes more confusing when talking about things which actually are attached to you. To say the colour of your hair is black you would say ‘ta mo chuid gruaige dubh’, which translates to something like ‘my share of hair is black’ or ‘my portion of hair is black’. The same goes for teeth: ‘mo chuid fiacla’ (my portion of teeth).  This word ‘cuid’ is used when there’s an indefinite quantity of something in the world over which you do not have full ownership. Which makes it seem like hair is only ever spoken about in its ethereal Platonic Form, and it is everybody’s ‘share’ of it which differs in colour, probably according to personality. All of this adds to the impression of exuberance and lengthiness which the Irish language leaves on the non-speaker.

The suggestion is that, historically, the Irish people often had nothing better to do but talk to one another, and as a result have developed an unusually long-winded mode of speech. To adopt a single word for ‘yes’ or ‘no’ during a conversation with me as an Irish person would be bordering on rudeness – I would instantly accuse you of ‘being awful short’ with me. You impolite fucker.

Of course, if I really did want to call you an impolite fucker ‘as Gaelige’, I would literally be lost for words. This is because there are no swearwords in Irish. Like ‘yes’ and ‘no’, they simply don’t exist. Every Irish teacher I have had has been adamant about this point, even proud. Although if you turn on TG4 – the Irish language TV channel broadcast throughout Ireland – you’ll probably discover the occasional soap opera character saying ‘cac naofa!’ (holy shit!) or even ‘bud ceann’ (dickhead). Strictly speaking, these aren’t swearwords either, because the words involved are the anatomical words. ‘Bud’ is the word for penis and doesn’t really hold the same forcefulness as ‘dick’ or ‘cock’. ‘Cac’ is likewise closer to the English word ‘poop’. All this means the words are funny in their own way, but it’s a silly kind of humour as opposed to anything tinged with anger or playful aggression. (If you’re curious, the Irish word for vagina is ‘pit’ – pronounced ‘pitch’ – and you can have as much or as little fun with that factoid as you like). Ultimately, if the English language is a vulgar one, with all its ‘cunts’ and ‘shits’ and ‘bollocks’, then Irish is a prudish language, in which it is impossible to summarise your absolute distaste without seeming like a clown yourself.

At least, it is impossible to show your disdain for someone in any terse way. Once again, the talkative nature of the language comes out. Should it be necessary to curse at someone, you would have to do just that – curse them. There are any number of websites that will tell you the phrases to use in these circumstances: ‘Imeacht gan teacht ort’ (may you leave without returning), ‘go n-ithe an cat thú is go n-ithe an diabhal an cat’ (may the cat eat you, and may the Devil eat the cat), ‘Go mbeadh cosa gloine fút agus go mbrise an ghloine’ (may you have glass legs and may the glass break). Sadly, such elaborate cursing is more common as part of the explanation of the ‘no swearwords’ rule. You’d be hard-pressed to actually hear an Irish-speaking person say these things. They’re far more likely to simply switch languages and swear at you in English, possibly because – as the film Lord of War pointed out to us – people tend to revert to their first languages in moments of pain, frustration or ecstasy, and the first language of many Gaelgors, though they might be loath to admit it, is English.

Of course, it is the opinion of many linguists that language is a malleable and generally untameable thing, and although swear words might not be recognised by purists, that doesn’t mean they won’t find their way into the language. Any language is in constant flux – always evolving – and new words will insert themselves into our vocabulary as irrustobabrously as they please. It’s just that, so far in Gaelic, no swearwords have seemed to stick. Possibly this is because forceful swearwords are a very English Thing. And the Irish are nothing if not ‘Not English.’ The language’s dislike for English loan-words or general English influence is noticeable in the creativity with which such loan-words are destroyed. When the escalator was invented, there was no Irish equivalent for the word, so it became the barely-altered ‘escalator’, pronounced esh-cah-lah-torr. But this was much too close to English for comfort and was soon replaced by an Irish substitute – ‘staire beo’ – which literally means ‘living stairs’.

Which brings us to the unusual case of the word ‘craic’. The origin of this unmistakably Irish word isn’t Irish at all, but Anglo-Saxon. ‘Crack’ was a slang term for ‘news’ or ‘gossip’ in England as far back as the 19th century and only became really popular in Ireland, primarily in Ulster, in the 1950s. As late as the 1970s it was still spelled the English way in songs and writing. For whatever reason the word has recently been Gaelicised and then re-borrowed into English, giving the distinct impression that it is an Irish word through and through. Most young Irish people today are convinced of its Gaelic purity. If you’re English, why not try writing ‘what’s the crack?’ on your Irish friends’ Facebook walls, and when they indignantly try to correct your spelling, you can give them a lesson in etymology. Your Irish friends will be very grateful for this.

That being said, craic is now an Irish word, simply by virtue of its quintessentially Irish definitions. It no longer simply means ‘news’ and is distinct from English counterparts. You can still ask somebody ‘what’s the craic?’ to ask what the news is, but ‘having the craic’ has come to encompass a wider concept of ‘good times’. A direct English equivalent doesn’t exist. Having ‘fun’ is too frivolous and civil, while having ‘a laugh’ is close but still too limited in its meaning. ‘Banter’ is sometimes put forward as an equivalent, being a similar mixture of conversation, joking and story-telling. But this doesn’t work either because there is a subtle difference between the two – banter involves jibes and insults and is more frequently practiced between work colleagues, who might not necessarily have been friends otherwise. Whereas real craic is more common among very close friends or family members, contains a lot more story-telling, anecdotes, reminiscing and fewer jibes at each others’ expense. Banter is essentially combative – craic is essentially co-operative. When having the craic with your friends, you ‘pass’ the laugh on to somebody else, who then keeps it ‘flowing’. When indulging in banter, you ‘serve’ a laugh like a tennis ball and wait for the rebound. Neither of these concepts is restricted to one culture – there is English craic and Irish banter – but my experience is that each culture appears to prefer its own particular blend.

Craic can also extend far outside of a single group in a way that banter cannot. Say a group of young men and women (mostly English-speaking but culturally Celtic) gather in a house for a drink. They sit in a circular fashion, enjoying the chatter and tales and generally catching up with whatever misadventures have occurred. At this juncture there is ’some craic bai’. This is not a diminutive phrase. ‘Some craic’ is still a good amount of craic. But it’s at this point the drinks are finished and the group must move from the house to another venue, almost certainly The Pub. Here, the group will undoubtedly split off into several cells, mingling with the other patrons and night-outers. Intermittently, these cells will meet up or run into one another, trade members and generally shout amusing things. Of course, the other patrons and groups in the bar have unwittingly brought their own craic to the bar. The usual effect is that all the craic becomes compounded until somebody stands on a chair or something and gives an impassioned speech about nothing in particular and everybody laughs and shouts ‘yerrrooo’. It can now be said that the craic is ‘mighty’. It is no longer simply a conversational concept, but an atmospheric one. The danger now is that somebody ‘kills the craic’ by saying or doing something sorrowful or aggressive. But for the sake of argument, let’s say this doesn’t happen. Instead, somebody’s cousin arrives through the door with a violin and a friend of his follows with a bodhrán (an Irish instrument – a handheld drum). The bar is small but packed and yet somehow there is room for the cousin and friend to sit on a stool in the corner and play what will be referred to tomorrow as ‘a blinder’. When the music reaches its peak and everybody is enjoying themselves – but not necessarily dancing – it can then be said that the craic is ‘ninety’. This, the consensus goes, is the craic at its absolute peak. If the craic has ever passed this point, it has never been documented or recalled. Thankfully, ninety is the optimum level of craic. Craic is at this point an atmosphere and, simultaneously, an experience. The craic cannot be killed at this level – it will only fade away slowly. Furthermore, it continues to exist as a moment in history long after the fact.

Retrospectively, you might expect the craic to be nullified by the force of the resultant hangover – but this is not so. Craic is simply cemented and preserved by a hangover, so long as the hangover is sustained by a large enough group and the night’s oracular chronicle set straight. The previous night’s craic now exists outside of space, time and the group(s) in which the craic was conceived. At this point, the craic has ebbed gently and the language used to refer to it must be reflective and respectful, usually in the manner of the previous night’s pre-drinks. It hereafter reverts to its conversational form. The collection of young men and women have had ‘some craic bai’, which, as I have said, is quite some craic, let me tell you.

*

With thanks to Colly Madden for the language lessons. Most of the Gaelige here is Ulster dialect.

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Filed under Essays

Tolstoy

[Wrote story. Probably going to recycle somewhere else. Pretty long. Exercise in extreme detail. But does have a point. Maybe make a cup of tea. Maybe read something else. Whatever.]

*

She didn’t open her eyes once that morning, and I guess that should have been my first clue, really. As to all the other clues, well, they were here and there, big and small. But the eyes thing, that should have been the one to give it away before all the others. She didn’t open her eyes and look at me once, even when we spoke. You don’t really think about these things when you’re hungover and warm and your back is aching and there’s a girl cuddled up beside you. Your brain isn’t very receptive to clues of any nature in that state, even the ones your own body is whining out, about getting water, about getting dressed, about getting the fuck out of there. So your brain just tells your body to shut up. What does your body know? I knew what I was doing, at the time.

I met Lucy at a party that was either just getting out of hand or just getting started. It was my flatmate’s boyfriend’s bandmate’s friend’s girlfriend’s party and I felt slightly removed from proceedings. So I brought along two cousins from different sides of the family so, if anyone asked, there would be at least two people whose chain was a little longer than my own. I brought the birthday girl some French wine and she smiled and said she was going to Paris. I asked who got her that trip and she said her boyfriend. I protested that the wine was really very good, even though I don’t know that much about wine except that people stand on grapes when they make it in cartoons.

Someone brought a dog, so my cousins and I petted him for a while thinking he looked pretty scared but also thanking him that at least we weren’t the strangest strangers there. Then one of my cousins talked to some Norwegian exchange students while the other flirted with a girl who looked mostly like himself. And I remember thinking that was odd but not too odd. I drank my rum and diet coke and got steadily more drunk and steadily more lost. There was a happy blonde girl and a camp black guy I kept running into and every time I wanted to pass them they made me tell a joke. It’s hard to come up with stuff like that on the spot, I think, so I gave them the old “woolly jumper” the first time. They groaned but let me through and rolled their eyes playfully. The second time I was ready for them and gave them the “cycle path”, which is a great, great and underrated joke that you should really hear.

Anyway, I must have gone upstairs because I was sitting beside Lucy on the top step and talking to her about War and Peace. I’ve never read it but it’s my ma’s favourite book and Lucy said she was enjoying it and just over three quarters of the way through, I think. I tried to talk to her about If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino in the same start-stop-wait-give-me-a-second-to-form-a-sentence way I talked to everybody about If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino. But she heard me out and we joked a bit about something that I can’t remember and then her friend came over and we all joked about something, probably not the same thing.

Sometimes you talk to someone and you’re drunk and what they say doesn’t really dig a decent enough trench in your memory, so it gets supplanted and overrun by simpler things. Like gestures or expressions or that kind of thing. A hand on your arm, a glance from one of your eyes to the other, a smiling squint like they recognise you. Nothing out of the ordinary, I realise, but still welcome and attractive little sparks of human contact, you remember those. What I mean by that is that she smiled and she didn’t try to run away, and this is always an assured sign of social victory in any drunken person’s mind. My cousin was downstairs insulting the girl who looked like him until she stormed away. They repeated this little tango three times in total before they agreed to go home together. My other cousin had made friends with this one man and his hat and was watching my flatmate’s boyfriend’s bandmate dancing on a table in the living room, which was really a dance floor for everybody at this time of the night.

We were drunk and ready to leave, so I went and found Lucy and insisted on giving her my number written out in pencil on a scrap of paper. Her friend was standing beside her and I remember she looked awkward about it. I was drunk and smiling and I said something enthusiastic and intolerable about talking to her on the stairs and then I waved and walked home with my cousins and the girl who looked like my cousin and a dumb grin on my face as if I was trotting home on horseback with the cavalry and I knew everybody fancied the cavalry.

I played a videogame for a week and read The Sun Also Rises, which was boring me into a coma until it wasn’t boring me anymore and became very good. For two of the days I cringed when I thought of giving my number to the girl at the party, who I couldn’t remember the name of. I went to Cambridge and got hammered with my old school friends, which always feels to me like a reunion of family. And since I like my family I had a great time. But the shenanigans of that crowd are best left for another time. Nah, we went to a Wetherspoons and I talked to a burly, pugnacious guy who liked to smile and shake hands and start fights when he was out on the lash with all his lads. He told me about the fights and about how they would go out looking to get into a mess. I was vaguely reminded about something Chuck Palahniuk did but I didn’t want to say that to him. But anyway there were a lot of misadventures probably not worth mentioning. One of my friends and I stayed up in a cottage drinking Jack Daniels from the bottle in our sleeping bags and talking about Rwanda and the Congo and how Shooting Dogs is a brilliant film that you’ll only ever watch once and me talking shit about Jamie T and how Sheila is the best song because when you listen to the lyrics it becomes a full-blown Shakespearian tragedy. I said I’d write an essay on it. You should always listen to the lyrics.

On the hangover we went back into town and I had to force some soup into me to recover while everyone else had already had bacon buddies back in the house. One of my friends talked about going to see the ‘Flighty Japes’ in concert and ending up snorting cocaine with them and slapping the lead singer on the ass, just out of coked-up compulsion. I hoped he hadn’t ruined the band for me because I’d only just discovered them and quite enjoyed their happy gnarling and I didn’t want to think of them as coke heads, even though in hindsight it’s pretty clear from their lyrics. You should always listen to the lyrics. I got on the train and went home to London.

In Liverpool Street I got a message from a girl called Lucy, who said she had lost my number but found it again and thought she’d say hi. I smirked at the wee lie about her losing the scrap of paper because I couldn’t really bring myself to care about stuff like that. But I was happy she sent me a message and it snapped me out of my hangover. I didn’t know her surname, so I just put her in my phone as ‘Lucy Tolstoy’. I thought I could just about remember what she looked like and what we talked about. I asked her how War and Peace was going and over the course of a week she said that progress had been made. She’d finished the book and asked would I like to borrow it. I took her up on it and she agreed to a drink as part of the contract. I thought I was doing pretty well for myself, so I smiled.

On Saturday she called and said she had two questions to ask me. Firstly, did I have a bicycle? And secondly, did I like jungle music? I didn’t want to be too negative sounding over the phone so I said I didn’t have a bicycle but I thought jungle music was OK. I didn’t really know what she meant by jungle music because I have never been very good at telling genres apart. I get the same thing with colours. I’m not colour blind I just don’t know which colours mix together to get the other colours. It’s the best way I can describe it. I can’t remember the names of different hues or shades. If you put crimson and maroon in front of me and ask me which is which, there’s precisely a fifty-fifty chance I’ll get it right. The same with music genres. It’s the best way I can describe it. I can tell country from classical but I can’t tell grime from dub step.  I guess there are primary genres and secondary genres like there are primary colours and secondary colours. I can’t describe it any better than that. I didn’t really know what she meant by jungle music, so I said it was OK, and sure enough it is.

There was a place in Balham that was holding a Christmas bike fair and she wanted to know if I’d go along but if I didn’t have a bike she would understand if I wasn’t game for it. I didn’t really care about bikes but I said there was no better time to get started on a hobby, so I would go and get started by buying a bell, then work my way up to a chain, then some handlebars maybe the following year and I would have a bike in no time. She agreed. I felt pretty good about it but I was still unsure how the jungle music came into it, since I got cut off when she was telling me. We just arranged the rest by text message so the plan was a bit garbled in my mind. We didn’t need to meet for a few hours, so I played a videogame for a while where I drove a car around some dirt tracks on a tropical island and ran over a buffalo by accident. I was glad nobody was in the room when I hit the buffalo because it would have looked as though I had done it on purpose, the way I was driving so badly. When it was time to go I got dressed, realised I needed to shave, got topless again, passed the razor over my face pretty methodically, and finally got dressed again in a different jumper. I felt good about my date, even though in hindsight it seems kind of strange to bring a guy out to a bike fair on a first date.

The Christmas bike fair was held in a bowls club that wasn’t really a bowls club. It was a bar. It was a pretty nice bar in fairness but it was full of bikes and people and I didn’t really understand what was going on. I met Lucy outside and kissed her on the cheek and looked at her and then I could remember what she looked like. She had straw coloured hair and she looked familiar to me. I don’t mean familiar because of the party I mean familiar from before the party. But I didn’t really think about it, I just went in with her and got us some pints of Ubu and Trumans ale and walked around the fair with her. It was weird seeing bikes in a pub that weren’t a hundred years old and nailed to the walls. In Ireland they love nailing bikes to things. But in the bowls club they were professional bikes and they were on display everywhere and there were salespeople pitching specialised parts. One of the specialist vendors had laid out all his shiny chromatic bicycle bits on trays with little cocktail sticks sticking up with labels on, like they do with meat in a butcher. He wore an apron to complete the illusion and I said to Lucy that I liked this very much. In another room there was a couple of exercise bikes set up side by side next to a big clock like the one off Countdown and people would race against each other on them, red versus blue. We joked about that and moved around the place.

She was interested in the bikes in the manner of an enthusiast who isn’t too enthusiastic. She had bicycle posters, she said, and when I asked her how many bikes she had she held up three fingers and smiled. She was looking at the sales stands while she held her fingers up. I thought maybe she was too engrossed in the bike stuff to look up at me while we spoke but she never really came across as much of a geek as the rest of the people in the place. I don’t know if she was trying to act cool or if she genuinely was cool, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt because that’s what you do when you really like somebody who likes bicycles. I looked around at the others in the room. There were a couple of dogs trotting around on leads and a lot of checked shirts, and it got to the point where I couldn’t tell hipster from authentic cyclists, since they appear almost exactly the same.

Upstairs there was a stand for people supporting the Herne Hill velodrome. She said she’d been there a few times, although not for a while, and got into a conversation with one of the fundraisers. He told us that the land the velodrome was on had been in the same hands since Shakespearian times and I tried to be funny about the whole thing by saying to Lucy that by supporting the velodrome she’d really be supporting Shakespeare, which is always a worthy cause. It wasn’t very funny but the fundraising man smiled anyway, and I guess that was nice of him to do. Maybe I should have just told the “cycle path” joke. But I didn’t think of that at the time, which is a pity because it honestly is a good joke.

Lucy bought a plastic water bottle from the velodrome people with their logo on the side. She promised a little girl at another stand that she would put some of their gold handlebar tape on her Christmas list. We sat down and drank a little and joked about whatever, and she twisted the water bottle around in her hand without really noticing that she was doing that.

After a while she opened her bag to put the water bottle in and admitted she hadn’t brought the copy of War and Peace with her to lend to me, and she would tell me why: because it was shit. I said that a couple hundred years worth of everybody else disagreed with her but okay. She said it wasn’t that it was shit, not really, but the ending was shit. She told me about the ending and about some bits in the middle in a really cloudy and vague way. She told me that lots of really interesting things happen. People fall in love, they join the army, they go off to war, they die. Things like that, she said, and all this she told me without giving any names or major plot twists away, which I appreciated even though it was clear to me that I really wasn’t going to read it anymore, since she had said it was shit. And what’s a couple hundred years of everybody else to the word of a girl with straw-coloured hair and a pint of ale? It’s not much, is the answer.

She said that she was reading Brave New World now, actually had just finished it, and didn’t really know what to think. I leapt on that because it’s one of my favourites and I talked all about Mustapha Mond and John the ‘savage’ and that dialogue they have at the end, where it’s really hard to disagree with Mond because he’s so logical and firm about lack of suffering being the most important thing. Even though you know something is wrong with the place and John is onto something, even if he can’t get the words right when he’s talking to Mond. Like he just can’t put his finger on precisely what’s wrong. He has to resort to Shakespeare too. I remembered an interview with Huxley I watched on the internet and wanted to tell her about something he said in it. But I forgot the words, so I tried to tell her about his essay on patriotism and nationalism instead. I said his essays were really good, I had read some in university. I tried to quote him but the thing he said was so long and finely crafted. You can’t really whip something like that out at any old bike fair, it’s really difficult. So I stumbled and bastardised his wording. What I really wanted to say was this, here, I looked it up:

“The personified entity [he means the ‘nation’] is a being, not only great and noble, but also insanely proud, vain and touchy; fiercely rapacious; a braggart; bound by no considerations of right and wrong… As a loyal nationalist or party-man, one can enjoy the luxury of behaving badly with a good conscience.”

Instead I said something else, about how nationalists and patriots and soldiers don’t need to feel bad when really they should. She said it was very interesting and I decided to think she was only half-lying when she said that. Anyway the subject changed.

She had a call and a couple of text messages while we were talking. She was finding out what the plan was for that night and said we were going to go meet some of her friends in North London. I didn’t know much of London. She said she lived in Camberwell. I said I didn’t know where that was, even if I recognised the name. She was shocked and made fun of me for not knowing London. I pleaded green, I had only been here a year. She’d lived here her whole life. Of course I didn’t know where Camberwell was.

The kiosks selling bike things were packing up their stuff and getting ready to leave, and Lucy decided to buy three more water bottles from the stall behind us for different people in her family as presents. She said that on Christmas morning they all go for a jog together as a tradition, which I observed was certifiably insane. She said they do it on Boxing Day too, all apart from the littlest sister who stays behind to make pancakes. I said the little sister got all the brains and told her about big family feast in our house and how we don’t get out of bed ‘til noon.

A guy from one of the closing stands came over and asked Lucy if she wanted to buy a china mug she’d been looking at earlier in the evening, with a cartoon head of some renowned British cyclist on it. She ummed about that for a minute and said she really wanted it. But of course she’d just bought every plastic water bottle in the building, so she was not too keen. I piped up and got it for her because I was sitting there between them and I felt like a dick, just sitting there holding an empty pint glass while she considered a polystyrene box and bit her lip. She really wanted it, so I got it for her and felt like even more of a dick, smiling at the salesman like I thought I could buy affection, like I could buy a mug and that’d be it, problem solved, she likes you. I mean, I didn’t really think that at the time, I only thought it afterwards. At the time I figured I was just being polite and cheesy.

She smiled at me and put the mug away in her bag, then smoothed down her dress. I figured out why she seemed familiar. She looked a lot like a girl I used to see in university. An animal behaviourist and a vegetarian. A hippy, in the nicest way. A girl who I never started seeing in earnest and always disappointed. I regretted a lot of things to do with that girl. Lucy had the same eyes and smile and lips. She looked a lot like her. Of course, I wasn’t going to mention that. Jesus. Nobody wants to think that. That they remind someone they like of a former lover. That kind of thing is likely to worry you, to crash around inside your skull. It’d just be kind of rude. Kind of unwelcome.

She looked at her phone and said we’d better go soon if we wanted to meet her friends. She stuffed all the cycling paraphernalia into her bag with some trouble and said this explained why she was always late to things. She said her bike was nearby. I told her I should get a backy the whole way to North London, or maybe sit on the handlebars. Did she have a basket? I could sit in that easy enough. She smiled and said she hoped I didn’t mind getting the tube to Highbury & Islington and waiting for her there. I didn’t mind, so long as I could find a bar near the station. She said I might see her friend waiting for her too, a Spanish girl called Mariana with curly short dark hair and glasses. I said a lot of Spanish girls fit that description but I’ll keep a look out. We left the bowls club and I walked her to her bike where I said I’d see her soon. Then I wandered up to get the tube across town.

I felt maybe she was a little eccentric or something, or a bit distracted. Everything about the date was super casual, like we were already friends or lovers who didn’t really need to do anything fancy or over-the-top. Like she already knew me and knew I wouldn’t mind taking things really easy. I was sorry I had nothing to read on the tube, except safety signs and adverts about watches and gadgets and other stuff I didn’t need. When I got to the other side I saw three girls that fitted Mariana’s description, so I put my head down and walked to the bar next to the station because I didn’t have the stones to harass, potentially three, random women. Lucy came and we locked up her bike and we walked to KFC. She asked if they had any vegetarian food. I said it’s called ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’. Not ‘Kentucky Fried Avacado’.  She said she ate meat maybe only once a week. I asked the usual question: ethics or taste? An ethics thing, she said, meat is fucking delicious. I got a chicken burger and she just got some chips and I thought we were going to sit down but she hurried us out and said we needed to get drink and get to her friend’s flat.

We arrived there with some beers and rum, smelling of our fast food. She introduced me to ‘everyone’ and introduced ‘everyone’ to me, then sat down on the floor around their coffee table and started chatting to her friend. I put on my extrovert face and introduced myself properly to ‘everyone’, minesweeping the room for names and relationships. I discovered a Dan, a Sarah, a Matt and a Mariana, who had found her own way. I uncovered the link between Dan and Sarah, which was romantic, and the tie between Mariana and Lucy, which was knotted with exchange trips to Spain and other holidays. Dan said something like he used to work with Lucy, and they all knew each other from university somewhere along the way. That’s where the friendships were based really, in university. He sat down after shaking my hand and twisted his moustache, which was thick and impressive over a beardy coat, like a British army officer’s circa Zulu Dawn. I guess he had just kept it on after Movember had passed.

Lucy sat on the floor and ate chips while Dan and Matt argued over what music to play. Matt was a tall guy with a posh voice and thin eyes. He smiled a lot. They put on Jamrock by Damien Marley in the end and then afterwards came the indeterminate dubstep or grime or drum and bass. I couldn’t tell. Tarantula by Pendulum came on, I recognised that one and realised I was instinctively bobbing my head and knee to the rhythm along with everyone else, so I was in good company even if I didn’t really know the genres. I chatted to Sarah a bit. She was a tall girl with an uptown accent, straight outta Suffolk, who worked in PR and laughed heartedly at my shitty jokes about London and all its dreadful stressy quirks. Dan put his hand on her knee to get her attention and I turned to speak to Mariana, who was pretty quiet but looked happy enough. She said she was from a town north of Madrid and I asked her if it was near Leon. She looked surprised and asked how did I know Leon, most people here didn’t. I knew Leon because I had played as the once-powerful Kingdom of Leon in a medieval strategy game for the PC, but obviously I didn’t tell her that. I just said I knew it from a map in history class at school. She looked impressed at my memory in that really brilliant expressive European way, but she really shouldn’t have been. Maps, I said, I really love maps. It’s true though, I do.

Lucy asked when Dan and Mariana were going to have a Spanish conversation and Dan started speaking Spanish with lots of hablos and soys and a really good accent but pulling lots of modest faces and adopting all the expressiveness and hand gestures. I couldn’t stop smiling. All the lispy Spanish words came rolling out from under that British bushel of a moustache. He was really on form and everyone was impressed. I asked donde esta el bathroomo and was told in the hall a la directia and we all had a giggle. By the toilet I saw Italo Calvino and a bunch of Penguin classics I didn’t recognise the names of and I considered complimenting Dan and Sarah’s reading material when I came back into the room. I never did that though. After I came back I just glanced at their bookcase and saw hundreds more all neatly rowed up. Almost every book had an orange or black spine and in parts they alternated, like the skin on an American milk snake. I felt like I was in really strong company and I wanted to talk to them about Italo Calvino but it wasn’t really the proper time, since Dan was making jokes and poking fun at Lucy for putting me on the tube while she pedalled off. He said he had something to tell her, and listen, he was only saying this because he was her friend, but she was fucking weird. We laughed and he turned to me to nod and say that she really was. I told him I already knew, I had just been taken to a bike fair and I don’t even have a bike. And this is just the start, he said.

Lucy put on a green jumper with a load of sheep patterned on it and everyone said what a cool jumper it was, and fair enough it was. The conversation turned back to genres or something else and I looked over to Lucy and tried to catch her eye because I was feeling pretty merry and she looked nice to me in the silly jumper and I wanted to smile her way but she was still picking away at chips. I waited to see if she’d look up. I waited for as long as is appropriate, maybe four seconds, then gave up and thought not much of it and went back to listening in on the jokes. And, although all the people were strangers, everything about the scene was familiar and I knew what had to be said and what had to be done and I felt I had been inserted into the group more-or-less successfully, like a memory card in a digital camera, slotted into place.

A taxi came and we got our coats and jackets and I slugged the last of my tinny of Tyskie into me and followed. The neighbour was seeing somebody out of the flats at the same time and they left their door open. So Dan gestured with a little twitch of the head toward the flat and Sarah took a few clownish sidesteps to their door and peeped in nosily for our amusement but probably also out of a long-held curiosity too. She said their flat was very nice and we all passed the neighbour on the way out the door and got in our taxi. Matt said he’d get in the front so the seat beside me was open for Lucy. She had to go and get cash out or something, so we waited for her to come back and the others chatted shit and joked about her slowing us down when she came back.

I don’t remember much about the journey to the club. I didn’t think I was blinded, but I guess I really was.

At the club, we passed a bouncer who searched the girls’ bags and gave us all a little feel-up while being super polite about it, asking how we were doing and how our night was going. He was the most cheerful bouncer. He gave us all a smile and wished us a good night’s drinking as we each passed. I followed the rest down some stairs and I think Lucy waited a little for me, or I waited for Lucy because we got our hands stamped at the same time. One of us wouldn’t let the other pay but I don’t rightly remember who. The little blue mark on my hand was all inky and bleary, it didn’t really give me any clue as to what the place was called. It was small and it was full to just the right amount of people. A full dancefloor and a bar with two or three possible points of entry. Bassy music reverberated through all the bodies like gunfire and we were all getting our bearings. I decided to volunteer for cloakroom detail and took everybody’s jackets and Lucy’s bag up to the girl in a tiny booth. After that, we drank.

I don’t remember much. I talked to Mariana a lot. I joked about Spain and tried to speak Spanish, but didn’t really try, I was just being really poor at it on purpose, the way you do when you’re clowning around. I talked to Dan a little and said he was really funny. I think I said it about five times. You know how it is. He was polite about it. I talked to Matt and he said he knew the DJ, or the guy who was helping the DJ, or someone on the stage. It wasn’t really a stage, more a section of the floor devoted to the act. I told him I wasn’t really good at telling the difference between dubstep tracks but I liked the sound of them anyway. The same way you might like the sound of a particular instrument, like the trumpet, but you can’t tell what notes they’re playing. I mean, I said something like this, I didn’t describe it as good as all that. He got it, though, he got what I was saying. I didn’t really get to talk to Lucy much in the club.

We were at the bar’s side and somebody had ordered a lot of tequila’s, which isn’t my best shot and by the groans that went up around the place it didn’t seem like anybody else’s best shot either. I said to Mariana that this must have been child’s play to her. She shrugged a Spanish shrug. We did another tequila. Then later we did another tequila. I felt sort of sick after that one, and there was all fire and illness in me, so I waited until everything settled and I joked about something unworthy just to prove I was over the shock of the drink, then waited patiently, then smiled and went to the bathroom. I thought I might be sick, so I went into the cubicle. But I felt fine after a few seconds and just shook my head and laughed at myself. I came out and everyone was dancing, so I danced with them. Then it was my turn to get some drinks for folks, so I went to the bar.

Then something nice happened. Lucy came over to say hello. I said I liked her friends, they were good characters. They were very funny. She said I was doing very well and I smiled. She leant towards me and I asked if she was going to kiss me and she just nodded, so we kissed. I took the drinks back to the others and Lucy gave me a hand. Then we danced some more and Lucy kissed me again. She kissed a little like the girl she reminded me of. We danced a lot more and she disappeared. I danced with Mariana and Matt for a long time and it looked like Dan and Sarah had gone home. Lucy reappeared and we all got our coats and stumbled upstairs and went off into the street. We wandered around for a bit by the roadside. We waited for Lucy to get some water from a 24-hour garage. She came out with water that was flavoured like flowers, like elderberries or something. We flagged down a black taxi and decided to drop Matt off wherever the hell he lived. We all had one sip of the flower-water and decided it was a bad, bad purchase. Lucy asked if she could roll the window down. She wasn’t feeling very well. Orange light passed over her face with every streetlamp and she didn’t move. She just sat there with her head turned, breathing in the stale, cold London wind, her eyes closed and her hands folded over her coat. A strip of hair was caught over her face. She didn’t move it. She looked like she felt bad. That made my heart lurch, seeing her like that. Or it could just have been the taxi. In any case, I think I was quiet on the drive back home.

We dropped Matt off somewhere and he passed a few heavy coins in through the window to help pay. I told him to take them back and he refused. I told him to take them back or I’d just drop them out the window and he refused again, so I dropped one of the pound coins to make an example. But he just threw his arms up and walked away, all wobbly and indignant. We carried on to Lucy’s house and paid the rest. When we got in Mariana got settled into a sleeping bag and a mattress in the lounge. The house was pretty small and the mattress took up most of the floor. Lucy and I went upstairs to her room, where we kissed again. In bed she told me to bite her, so I bit her. I’m not really fussed about that kind of thing but she told me to do it, so I bit her and she bit back and we went to sleep. There was a faint feeling of second chance about the whole scenario and I smiled and felt myself vindicated.

The sensation of a dry mouth was the first thing I became aware of, when I was waking up the next day. Then the feeling of nearby warmth and spindly stray hairs on my cheek. I was pretty happy, except for all the usual physical and mental ailments that follow from tequila. I got up and went to get water and crept past a slumbering Mariana to the kitchen to fill up a pint glass in view of a pretty, sun-shiny garden outside. I can’t really remember the exact layout of the garden through the window but I remember thinking it was small and pleasant. I can’t remember anything else. I think I was still pretty blind, even then.

When I went back into Lucy I lay with her for a while. I liked her. She had a small room, a single bed, a bookshelf on either side, a desk squashed into place in one corner. I saw bicycle posters on her wall. There were a lot of potted plants. About six, or maybe seven. Aloe vera and spider plants and stuff like that. She had a tiny watering can beside them. I liked her and I liked her room and I thought I’d noticed all the interesting stuff so far, so I lay with her another while.

We exhausted the water and I went to get more. When I came back this time I noticed a baseball cap hanging on a rack on the back of her door. It was army green and had two knives, or sort of machetes, and a crown on it. I smiled and asked her when she was in the Royal Marines. She didn’t take up the joke, just said really plainly that it wasn’t the marines, it was the Ghurkas. I said ‘Heh, Gherkins’ because I was hungover-to-fuck and the words just sounded the same and I was running on all the stupid left in my brain and nothing else. She said it was her boyfriend’s cap, but he was dead now. Then she splayed her pale arm from under the bed covers and pointed across the room to a photograph framed in a cardboard stand and said, ‘that’s him’. I couldn’t really see him. I need glasses to see things far away but I never wore them and I wasn’t going to wear them in front of her so I just squinted limply. I asked her what happened, if she didn’t mind telling. She said something like: ‘seventeen bullets and electric fire’. I didn’t try to think too hard about that, so I said ‘sorry’. She said it was okay, it wasn’t exactly my fault. I said I know but that’s the thing you’re supposed to say. She said he was from Portadown in Northern Ireland. I said that was ten miles from my hometown, Lurgan. She said she knew. He’d studied in England. It happened two years ago. I asked what his name was and she told me it was Ethan.

I didn’t know what else to do. I was sad. I kissed her shoulder.

She fell asleep, or I think she fell asleep. But I wasn’t going to. I looked at her bookshelf and straightaway my eyes plucked out three books about Afghanistan without really looking for them. Your mind kind of does that when you become aware of something. I tried to look at the photo again but it was too far away and I could only see a bleary thumbnail of a uniform.

Portadown. Every time I spoke, I must have reminded her of him.

I lay on my back and looked up. My brain came to life, sober and angry, and stormed towards me as if from exile. ‘Seventeen bullets and electric fire’. I didn’t understand the ‘electric fire’ part, I thought maybe it was a military term or something. But the words rang there in my head anyway.

When I was really young and lived at home I would hear the echoes of gunshots from across the fields outside my house. At first I thought it was the British army men but my Dad laughed and told me it was only farmers shooting at birds. I remember I was afraid of the gunshots because I thought someday the farmers will shoot up at a bird and miss, and the bullet will have to fall back down again. What is to stop the bullet falling on my head? My dad said the bullets disintegrate in the air and I didn’t exactly understand the precise physical dynamics of a shotgun shell, like I do now with all my videogame-powered hindsight, so I didn’t believe him. I knew that one day the echo of a gunshot would be one of the last things I hear. I still have nightmares about being shot in the head and, after a long echo, dying of a vicious ringing in my brain.

That’s what the words were like to me. ‘Seventeen bullets and electric fire’. They echoed. They rang.

I mean, I didn’t think a lot of this at the time, it’s just what I now realise it felt like. It didn’t make any sense. At the time I was mostly thinking about how annoyed Ethan made me. Why would you go from Portadown to a warzone? Did he think he missed out? By only catching the tail end of all the horrid shit that happened at home, did he think he’d missed his chance? Why the fuck did he leave her behind, to go and shoot at people? What right did he have to go do that? Did he think he was being brave? Why didn’t he just stay fucking put in England, and be with her?

I stayed annoyed with him for a little while. More miffed than enraged, really. And then I was a bit sad again. I tried to sigh quietly and didn’t really do a good job of it and I hoped she hadn’t heard it. I had the horrible feeling of being traumatised by proxy. So I sat up for a while and then looked at her and she seemed peaceful enough, so I felt better and lay down again. She woke up and we both lay around, not really doing anything just complaining about how sick we felt and noticing how many marks we’d given each other, which seemed like a really teenage thing to do but it was fun anyway. I moaned that I’d have to go to work hungover in the evening and she said she had a Portuguese lesson to go to at noon. It was getting pretty close to that time. I asked her if she had been learning Portuguese long and she said this was going to be her first lesson. She wanted to go to Brazil. I noticed she had a cloth shoe organiser on her bedroom door that had ‘El Salvador’ written on it and I asked her about all the other places in Central and South America she’d been to and told her I was surprised she’d not been kidnapped but don’t worry it’ll probably happen in Brazil, since she wanted to visit Rio de Janeiro, so she wouldn’t miss out on anything. She bet me a tenner she wouldn’t get kidnapped and murdered and I observed the illogicality of gambling on her own death, since she wouldn’t be around to pay me when I inevitably won, but anyway I took the wager and we shook hands on it.

I said in the meantime I could teach her some Irish and maybe that would get her by. She asked how I knew Irish and she seemed surprised. I said I knew some of it because I was a big dirty Catholic, when really I should have said I went to a Catholic school and they taught Irish there but I didn’t give a tupenny shite for all that ancient guff. I said my name should have been a clue, I mean, it is a very Irish name and in Northern Ireland you don’t exactly have a name like that if you’re Protestant. You’d have a more English name. She said my name didn’t strike her as overly Irish and I shrugged and said it really was. She said she thought Lurgan was a Protestant town and I said it was more of a fifty-fifty split. Portadown is definitely protestant, she said, and yeah she was right about that, it mostly was. Ah, I said, the good old ‘murder triangle’. That’s what it’s called, the area around my hometown and I always tell people that when I’m talking about home because, I don’t know, it’s an interesting and strange sort of thing to say and I guess it makes you seem like you’re from an interesting part of the world, right on Britain’s doorstep, when actually it’s kind of boring. She asked why it was called the murder triangle and I said, you know, on account of all the murders. I think it had the highest murder rate in the UK for a good while but not everybody was killed, it was mostly political, only some types of people were killed.

‘Like who?’ she asked.

‘Um. Policemen,’ I said.

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘and soldiers.’

‘Yeah. But I didn’t really want to say.’

She said that was okay, it didn’t really matter. She remembered now, there were two soldiers killed by the IRA during a pizza delivery to their barracks. I told her about the man who was supposed to have had a hand in it and how he lived in a Lurgan council estate that was a sure-fire Republican stronghold and basically a no-go area for the police and I told her how he always got arrested any time something like that happened but they could never pin anything on him. I told her my dad owned a shop down there and the police only ever came down in plain-clothes because if they came into the estate in uniform it would likely cause trouble or a riot or something worse. I plucked a story out of the dozens I have about my dad’s shop, about a bomb scare. And how the Post Office inside always gets robbed and pretty much the only reason for that is because of the word ‘Royal’ in ‘Royal Mail’, which I guess makes a legitimate target for the IRA. They never take money out of the shop’s tills because that would be like hitting their own people. She listened to the story and I watched her for her reaction and I’d already noticed that she wasn’t really opening her eyes at all. I put it down to the brightness of the room and her hangover. I mean, there are plenty of days when I don’t want to open my eyes. Plenty of mornings I’d like to be blind.

It was eleven. I told her she should probably get up or she wouldn’t learn any Portuguese. First though, I told her to bunk the class. She was hungover and she wasn’t going to be receptive to mad new words. I was certain of this. She declined. I guess because it was her first class she felt it was important, or maybe because she planned to go back to visit South America she knew she really had to learn. They spoke Spanish in El Salvador. Either way, she said she was determined not to miss it, except she didn’t look like she was moving very far when I told her to get up. She just told me to get up first.

I got dressed and went downstairs and found Mariana awake and she said she didn’t feel too badly, which I said was down to a tolerance of a certain Spanish substance formerly known as Tequila but hereby referred to as the Bad Stuff. Lucy came down and repeated the exchange, then walked me to the door, so I kissed her and left. I thought about saying something about meeting again soon but Mariana was in earshot and I didn’t really want to arrange something or talk nice when somebody could overhear. So I just walked on out.

I got to a main road and saw a Nandos and instantly recognised the place. I fucking knew where Camberwell was. I let the buses pass by and just walked home, partly because I was liking the cold fresh air and sunny day, but mostly because I didn’t want to get sick and vomit on the top deck of some heaving red monster. It made me uneasy to think of travelling by any other means, so I put my hands in my pockets and used my feet for an hour. I did the usual thinky thing on the dander home. I felt pride and anxiety and embarrassment and amusement all around the same time, or at least in such quick succession that it was hard to notice falling from one feeling into the other. My face must have looked like an actor doing a warm-up exercise, expressing every possible emotion one after the other. Oh no, I thought, the dreaded fit of ambivalence. A bit melodramatic, I know, but anyway that’s what I thought.

I got home and slept and went to work and sent Lucy a message asking her how she felt and asked did she learn any strange new words. She replied the next day saying yeah, she had felt pretty rough but she had learnt a bunch of new words but listen, she wasn’t looking for anything more right now for a whole bunch of reasons but she had a really good time and it was good to meet me. I sent a message saying, ha ha, no worries, take care of yourself, and signed it with an X. Then I got drunk on rum and watched a few Scottish sketch shows on TV and chatted to my housemates and got a little more drunk before dinner and played a videogame and in the videogame I killed a bunch of animals for their hide, then shot some pirates and burned their drug fields with a flamethrower while some tune by Skrillex was playing over the top, then went hang gliding and knifed some more pirates and protested to the lead character’s girlfriend that no, all this violence wasn’t really having an effect on me I was just doing whatever, blah blah blah and all the rest of that shite. I wasn’t really enjoying myself, I just did it all because the game told me to. At this point I was pretty drunk and it was late and I felt beaten down and tired so I climbed a radio tower in the game and jumped off the top and killed myself and that gave me a bit of limp distraction for a few seconds before I turned the console off. I listened to some music and went to bed and had a nightmare about being shot, except in this nightmare I was two different people and we were both shot, one after the other. Usually I wake up after being shot but this time my mind just transferred itself into the person next to me in the dream, and he was shot as well. Then I died and woke up and drank from the bottle of water by my bed that I keep ready as a good cure for this sort of thing, and then I went back to sleep.

I still remember the first dream I ever had about being shot. I was lying in bed in some rundown hotel when Daniel Day Lewis stormed into the room and blasted me in the head with a revolver. The sensation inside your head upon being shot in a dream is unique, I think. Everything goes black and there’s a surge of fear, but it’s fear without any real association with anything. Just isolated, indeterminate terror. And it feels a lot like a shockwave, or an electrocution, or an intensely uncomfortable dubstep except that it’s completely silent, taking hold of your brain and shaking it, first vigorously then relaxing at a very fast rate. And when everything is dark and still again, and the feeling is that maybe you have finally passed away, that’s when you wake up.

When I woke up the next morning I didn’t feel too bad. My hangover was mild and I didn’t have work to go to and I felt like maybe I wasn’t too bothered about the Lucy Tolstoy thing anymore, so I smiled and got in the shower and rinsed myself mellow and bumbled down the stairs, mostly in a shrugging mood, so that if anyone asked me anything I resolved to shrug at them and happily enough just get on with my day off.

Then I sat down at my computer in the kitchen and checked my emails and felt miserable. I started thinking about Ethan the dead soldier and, now that I think of it, that was probably a stupid thing to dwell on. I tried to think about it but it wasn’t making any sense to me. I remembered the words ‘seventeen bullets and electric fire’ and it didn’t make any sense at all. An electric fire just sounded like it was a fire started by an electrical appliance; it wasn’t a military term, at least not one that any first-person-shooter ever taught me. It started to annoy me and I wanted to know the real story and anyway I was curious so I did the dumb thing and searched on the internet for ‘portadown ghurka died afghanistan’. I saw the name ‘Ethan’ and a list of stories that looked like they were all about the same thing, so I chose the second one down and it gave me a long story in the Belfast Telegraph about the soldier.

He had been killed by one of the Afghan national army soldiers the British had been training to fight against the Taliban. He was just about to turn 27. I scrolled down and it said that he had died from gunfire and the blast of a rocket propelled grenade. So, rocket fire. Not ‘electric fire’. I hadn’t heard her right. She had been turned away from me, to face the photograph on her desk. The word had been lost in pillows. It made more sense now. I was still curious so I read some more and kept scrolling down. I read about how he learned to speak Nepali with an Ulster accent and I read about his humanitarian work in El Salvador and I read about the funeral and I read his family’s dedication and I saw his picture and he fucking looks like me, he fucking looks like me, he fucking looks like me.

And it was like a gunshot from a hunter’s shotgun, reverberating down the years, hanging far off in the sky for decades, silent and ready, had finally come down. Down through the cold sunshine, down through the cumulus, through the roof of my house in Streatham, through my housemate’s keyboard, through the ceiling above me and through the crust of my skull.

I got up and walked around a bit and drank from my bottle of water. I didn’t feel very good about it. I got out my phone and thought about doing something. Then I was sad for the guy, then annoyed with Lucy. I wanted to send her an angry message. What the fuck was she thinking? Did she pull me just because I reminded her of him, and that’s it? Did she have any idea how fucking weird it feels to be made a doppelganger? I sat down and started typing a message on my phone. I looked at the photograph again. El Salvador. The humanitarian soldier. Someone who behaves badly with the benefit of a good conscience. But then, that wasn’t for me to say. He still looked like me.

I deleted the draft message and put my phone away because I knew it would be a dick thing to be angry with somebody whose boyfriend has died. I didn’t really know how she felt about anything. I wasn’t going to understand it. I knew I couldn’t. So I just sat there for a while instead.

Later on I told the story to my friend on the phone, the same guy I had stayed up drinking whiskey with, in the cottage in Cambridge. But I laughed while I told it and spun it all the funny ways so that when he heard it he wouldn’t think I was too upset about it. He still said it was really odd of her though and I would say something like: ‘Yeah, just as well I’m not seeing her again. Ha ha.’ Even so, I was sorry after I said that.

I thought a lot of stupid things, like maybe sending her a nice box for putting her memories of him in, so that she could ‘move on’ and all that psych-jazz. I wouldn’t put my name to it, so she wouldn’t know it was from me. I thought about maybe sending her a book that would put into words how I felt better than I could put it, then signing it ‘A parting gift’ or some sad shite like that. But I never did any of those things, partly because they wouldn’t do the feelings I was having any justice, but mostly because they were creepy and insane things to do. I put it out of my mind as best I could and went to work and boiled the kettle for a week until it was Friday evening and I fell into a bar in Croydon with some good friends, where there was plenty of karaoke to be had. I know, most people wouldn’t have put Croydon down as a karaoke kind of place.

My friend Marius was bouncing in the seat next to me, he was so excited to sing some songs and he was smiling pretty much the whole time. He’s a hard guy to describe. He gives a lot of impassioned speeches and he loves as many little things as he loathes and he has a huge database-like brain for general knowledge and pop culture stuff. I once described him in university as a human RSS feed and he was very, very chuffed with the comparison. He’s probably one of my best friends. His girlfriend sat on my other side and intermittently got up to chat with the old blokes at the bar. Our friend Scottish Katy was there and she was laughing a lot and flipping through the folder of songs, making fun of all the terrible things. They had two songs by Jet but neither was the song everybody knows. They had Blue by Eiffel 65, which was the first single I ever bought and, I don’t know, I suppose that probably says a lot about me. Katy saw a song by All Saints and put it down on a slip of paper. Marius was filling out slip after slip, he was really going for it, karaoke was like a cult to him and he was convinced of its restorative and cathartic powers and I wasn’t going to question him on this point because I would have done anything to be restored and cathartisised, or whatever.

Marius was called up and sang Tom Jones and the lady MC told all the ladies in the bar to calm down, it wasn’t the real Tom Jones. Katy got up and sang her All Saints, which has a spoken word section about a jilted girl asking why her lover left and it sounded quiet and sad when she did it with her Scottish accent. After two beers I was just about ready to sing. They called me up and I sang National Express by the Divine Comedy, which the karaoke organising lady said she had never even heard before but, ha, was it a funny old tune. We drank more beers and gin until the whole pub was pitching in with songs and singing along to their favourites and there was an old lady called Brenda who got up and sang Somewhere Over The Rainbow. When she sang it was like we weren’t sitting in a wood-panelled residential bar in Croydon anymore. It was like we were at the opera and all the people from her neighbourhood had suited up and slipped into a grand theatre and were behaving themselves for Brenda, and staying quiet just to hear her sing. Although obviously, it wasn’t. There was still a lot of chat in the bar. The only time you didn’t hear the chatter was when you were up singing yourself because you were too busy thinking of the words. Anyway, Brenda had a really beautiful voice and when I was getting tipsy and started belting out the Irish tunes I could see her sitting by the speakers at the front clapping and singing along with my Irish Rover, which is a good song to sing because you don’t really need to know how to sing you can just punk it up, no worries. She passed our table a few times in the night and we had laughs with her and Marius wanted her and me to duet Fairytale of New York, since it was the season and all. He tried to convince me of the perfection of this plan and said: ‘Think about it. Brenda is an amazing singer. And you’re a drunken Irishman!’ The parallels with Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan were ultra-evident, he said. I said if it came to it I would do it. But really I didn’t want to ask her in case she thought I was making fun of her. In the end I found myself on my feet doing the duet with Katy instead and Marius had to come up to me and tug on my jumper and tell me I was singing Kirsty’s verses as well as Shane’s and for Christ’s sake stop, those were Katy’s parts, you dick. I recognised this and said ‘whoops’ and then we did the rest of the song and I felt the pub singing along and got hugged from behind by a woman who was swaying and drunk and absolutely loving life. I was pretty happy with the whole situation and I was laughing more of the words than I was failing to sing.

Brenda said she would sing Fields of Athenry with me. But I didn’t really want to sing that song because it was too nationalistic. It just reminds me of politics. So we didn’t sing anything together after all. I sang Whiskey in a Jar.

Then we had the last drinks then danced a bit, then I was on the bus with Katy, who fell asleep, then we were at Coldharbour Lane and I woke her up and hurried us off and I was at the roadside putting Katy in a taxi and handing her a clutch of notes, then I said something like, ‘sorry for abandoning you but there’s someone who lives around here, I have to go and see someone who lives around here and I know that’s a shit thing to say but.’ Then I closed the taxi door and crossed the road and I was outside Lucy’s house ringing her doorbell once and stepping back one step and waiting.

I heard the window above me open and saw her head poke out, so I gave a stupid, embarrassed smile and said ‘I know this is strange’ and at 2am it really was. She disappeared and another girl who must have been her housemate peeped out to see what was going on. They both answered the door together and I remember thinking how good that was, that they had each other’s backs, you never know what weirdos might turn up on your doorstep.

Lucy was wearing her sheep-patterned jumper. I gave a stupid half-laugh and gestured to it before finally remembering why I was there. I asked if I could talk to her and I knew it was stupid but I wouldn’t stick around long. She said I should have called ahead but I said I didn’t really know I was going to be here, I was just passing on the bus and next thing, yeah. I think she saw that I was harmless and a pretty sorry sight at this point because she said I could come in and her housemate said she’d leave us alone now. So we sat on the stairs and I must have repeated ‘I know it’s weird’ in that dumb drunk voice at least a few times because I’m always so desperate to make sure people know I have a modicum of self-awareness and I guess when you’re hammered it really comes out. I said I wasn’t bothered about the one-night-standishness of it all, that wasn’t it. But I wanted to know, did she pull me just because I reminded her of him, of her old fella? She looked at me like… I don’t remember how she looked at me, but I remember it wasn’t annoyed. It was kindly, or something. She said, ‘No.’ I told her about seeing his picture and I said he looked like me. She smiled and shook her head. I said he fucking does, in a pretty pathetic sad voice but still I must have sounded pretty insistent. She went upstairs for a moment and came back down with the photograph in the frame from the desk in her bedroom. She sat down beside me and handed it to me. The frame wasn’t cardboard after all, it was wooden and smooth and sturdy. I saw it up close now. I couldn’t make him out too well but he didn’t look like me in that picture, he was in fatigues and holding his gun and looking at the ground with a grin on his face almost as wide as the big camo paint streaks he had on. A real braggart. But that wasn’t really for me to say, so I didn’t.

I said I had thought he looked like me, same eyebrows and big nose, and I stroked down my nose lazily when I said it. She said ‘No, not really. Maybe you sound like him a bit but that’s all.’ She smiled again. I think she understood. I laughed a bit. I said I thought she had wanted me because I was a doppelganger. She said no. I asked that it was just a thing then? Just a shag? And I remember thinking that I never use that word, it’s stupid, but I guess it was the only one flippant and silly and drunk enough to fit. She said, yeah, that’s all it was.

I felt a wave of something, like sorry relief. I breathed out and I must have stank of beer but I think I had to sigh real bad. That’s all I wanted to do. A big sigh like the pneumatic hiss of a bus by the roadside, letting out all the bad. So that’s what I did and afterwards I felt better. I smiled. I must have sat there for a minute because she said, ‘Okay, you need to go now.’ I got up and said, ‘Yeah, of course’ and I must have apologised, I mean I hope I did, because this was the last time I saw her and everything. She said it was okay, she was just impressed that I still remembered where her house was. I didn’t say ‘Yeah, it turns out I know London pretty well’ or anything memorable like that. I just said that an estate agent from around these parts had once screwed me over, which was true. Memory’s a funny thing like that. She let me out and I said bye and I walked away and I don’t think I looked back at her but I don’t mind. I’d rather that be my last regret about Lucy than the whole dead soldier thing. She really was beautiful.

I don’t remember how I got home. Maybe the bus. Maybe I walked it again. But I remember waking up at home and expecting to feel like a dickhead. Like I had done something super embarrassing. I remember wondering why I hadn’t been attacked by remorse about anything yet. I lay there with my eyes closed for a long while, and it was for no reason other than my hangover was really bad. After a time I got up and got in the shower and washed myself in the hot water and smiled and almost cried and everything was okay.

Anyway, this long piece of tarmac walks into a bar and orders a drink. A big guy walks up to the bar and bumps into him, spilling the tarmac’s pint. The tarmac growls and storms out. The big guy says to the barman, ‘what’s his problem?’ gesturing after the long streak of black tarmac. The barman says, ‘you’re lucky he didn’t kill you, pal. That guy’s a cycle path.’

Well, I thought it was funny anyway.

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The Not-Quite-Underclass of ‘Sheila’

*

I once went to a pub in Battersea with my girlfriend of the time, who had worked behind the bar. She introduced me to her friends who were working that night and to some of the regulars.

I met a girl who had had a kid in her teens and who later rejected an offer to study at Oxford because they were snooty to her in the interview. Instead she decided she was going to be an air stewardess because she had developed a fear of flying after being on a plane journey that nearly crashed. She said she wanted to get over that fear.

I met a guy, pulling pints, who moved from South Africa with the love of his life, who later abandoned him to the English weather, leaving him only his clothes and the mutual tattoo they got dedicated to each other on his hand, which read “Two against the world.”

And I met an old man, who was dying. He consistently refused to go into hospital and get treatment for his illness because his wife needed his care, since she was even more ill than he was. An old man to whom the pub and the people in it were his only leisure.

*

It’s been a while since I wrote about a song that really gets to me. Sheila by Jamie T is a song that really gets to me. Periodically, I will listen to this song and, for all its twang and catch, a lump will form in my throat. A sadness, a little tumour of melancholy. Because Sheila to me is not about the amazing music – the steady rhythm, the coalescence of Jamie’s register and the quickfire, bleeping melody (which my big sister insists is some sort of homage to Disney’s ‘Under the Sea’). To me it’s more about the characters contained in the lyrics. Sadly, thanks to Jamie’s hasty vocal style and the shadow cast by the great music, so few people have ever stopped to listen – to notice the tragedies unfolding underneath the brilliant, flippant tune.

Sheila is a song populated by shades of London’s not-quite-underclass. Boisterous alcoholics, jilted drug dealers, addicts, abused daughters. Not every hue of the downtrodden is depicted but neither does it need to be. In Sheila three tragedies are laid out, like bodies recovered from the sea, and analysed with a forensic focus so sharp that it would rival any lauded book of short stories.

Take Jack – a.k.a “Smack Jack the Cracker Man” – whose drug dealing and dodginess (the result of being “dealt some shit hands”) has led him to a life of lonely bitterness, whose only viable way out of a spiral of misery would be the direction, fortitude and love of a decent woman. Sadly, his romantic interest, Lisa, has only gone and had a child with another man. Now Jack dives head first into a deep pool of drink and resentment.

“Well done Jack, glug down that cider,
you’re right she’s a slut and you never fuckin’ liked her.”

His friends are likewise gone from him, being “dependant mans upon the heroin” (pronounced by Jamie with an incredible broadness – “her-oh-waan” – to rhyme with the name of Jack’s old mate Dan). All Jack thinks there is to life now is getting into fights and buying the cheapest clothes he can without endangering his ability to get “glad-ragged up” in an attempt to pull – always unsuccessfully. The only girls that hang on his shoulder are “fag-hags” who have no intention of sleeping with him and who he ends up resenting as “slags” just as much as he resents his old girl Lisa.

The most tragic thing about Jack is that if he’d take the time to look around, he’d see every other fella in the Wetherspoons as identical to him, stumbling down the same bitter, woman-hating hole.

“But this sounds original, superficial’s the issue,
for one dear Jack, there’re 35 doppelgangers.”

Jack is simply joining the ranks of the unhappy alcos and drug users.

Then there’s the Sheila of the title, whose penchant for soap-like drama leads her on binge after binge of alcohol-fuelled misadventure. She is confident, loud, coquettish, a leader among her friends. She can talk to anybody, so well versed is she in London’s spidery dialects.

“Her lingo went from the cockney to the gringo,
Any time she sing a song, the other girls sing along,
and tell all the fellas that the lady is single,
fickle way to tickle on my young man’s ting.”

She brings to mind a vision of a loutish student, friendly to those on her good side, cutting to those on her bad. But ultimately, like so many of Jamie T’s characters, she is also crippled by her alcohol abuse. We are often told that all good tragic characters in the Shakespearian mould have a fatal flaw. It just so happens Sheila’s is melodrama. It’s no coincidence that the chorus starts with her dumping her beer (Stella Artois) over the head of her current love interest.

“Sheila goes out with her mate Stella,
it gets poured all over her fella,
cos she says ‘man he ain’t no better,
than the next man kicking up fuss.’”

Reeling from this drunken argument she stumbles down to the banks of the Thames, falls in and drowns. With a bleak sting of humour, Jamie addresses her weakness by lamenting that nobody heard her screams.

“I guess the carpet weren’t rolled out.”

She is not one of the C-list celebrities she tries so hard to emulate. Sheila is ordinary and thus unworthy of the attention of the media. This is a story that won’t get told in the papers. Only in songs.

But the most difficult story to handle is the third – that of Georgina. Her tragedy is the most innocent and her own character the most blameless of all the darkened semi-hooligans that swagger through the streets of the Jamie T-verse. It’s also the easiest story to understand. Out of respect or kindness, or maybe ‘just because’, the singer dispenses with his more cryptic rhymes and sings her tale in a much more linguistically lucid way. It’s probably worth just quoting in full.

“So this a short story ‘bout the girl Georgina,
never seen a worse, clean young mess
under stress at best, but she’s pleased to see ya,
with love, God bless, we lay her body to rest.

Now it all dear started with daddy’s alcoholic,
lightweight, drinking down, numbing his brain,
and the doctor said he couldn’t get the heart there started
now beat up, drugged up she feelin’ the strain.

She says in a rut ‘What the fuck I sposed to do
suck it up, start, stop, keep running through?’
True but you try, it ain’t easy to do,
she been buckle belt beaten from the back like a brat.

Dunno where she goin’ but she know where she at,
so Georgie, it’s time to chain react,
but the truth is you know, she probably fought back,
tears stream down her face,
she screamed away,
‘When I fall, no one catch me,
alone lonely, I’ll overdose slowly,
get scared, I’ll scream and shout’.
But you know it won’t matter she’ll be passing out.”

Georgina’s story is brutal. Her alcoholic father abuses her until the day he dies of a heart attack. You might think that as the victim of parental abuse she might find some relief or at least some freedom in the death of her abuser. But he is still her father and the death weighs heavily on her. She becomes strained and drugged up. On anti-depressants or something less legal, we are not explicitly told. But her sensitive nature, history of abuse and inclination to stress and tearfulness suggest the former. Eventually, she commits suicide by overdose. And as sad as this is, Jamie’s final word on the matter are as sardonic as they are sorrowful. We can practically see him standing by the ambulance, shrugging dolefully.

“I say giggidibigidiup, just another day,
another sad story, that’s tragedy,
paramedic announced death at 10.30,
rip it up, kick it to spit up the views.”

*

On my last visit to that bar in Battersea with my girlfriend, the dying old man, convinced that he would never see her again, gave her his necklace to remember him by. I walked away and left them alone to speak, under the cover of a trip to the toilets. Mostly, I did that because it felt like a private moment. But also because if she had started to cry, I would have nearly started bawling myself. And I don’t intend to do that in a bar until I’m a lonely old lech.

Later, after I had been sitting quietly among them, listening to the chatter, gossip and reminiscing, my girlfriend had me alone and asked me what I thought of her friends. I didn’t have to think for very long before saying, “I love them.” She seemed surprised and asked me why. “Because they’re…” I thought for a while. “I don’t know. Because they’re real.”

I’ve always had this feeling like I don’t know any real people. That I’ve been sheltered from the harsh reality of people who “dance and drink and screw, because there’s nothing else to do”. And it’s my own snobbishness and shyness that is to blame, really. But sitting in that bar, I felt like I had infiltrated a reality that was beyond Dickens or Orwell. That there was more character in ten square feet of that pub than I, or anyone else, could ever put to paper, no matter how colourfully or plainly we wrote.

And that’s why I love Sheila by Jamie T so much. It feels like he has done what I couldn’t fathom. In just over four minutes, he has musically presented the character and sorrowfulness of London with a richness and depth that rivals great theatre, if not life itself. It is a song that I genuinely rank alongside Dubliners for giving me a window into a world where fiction can be as hard-hittingly real as waking up in the morning from a demented dreamscape. A world where colour exists but only among dominant shades of grey. Where sadness is a blessing. Where people are defined by their strengths, yet made real by their misfortunes.

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The Real Lara Origin Story

There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the sexual assault of Lara Croft in the new Tomb Raider game recently. If you don’t know, Squeenix released a trailer that showed a young, physically restrained Lara being set upon by a bandit who means to rape her. In the struggle, she shoots him – the first man she ever kills, according this character reboot. Then a producer for the game, Ron Rosenberg, said that as a result of her vulnerability you’ll want to “protect” the novice archaeologist.

In the gender politics maelstrom that ensued arguments flared up between fifty different camps about how stupid or annoying or evil or fascinating or pointless or fine or interesting or clichéd or disappointing it was that Lara had been turned into a tearful, traumatised wee girl for the sake of an “gritty” origin story – an origin story that simply supercedes the last one she had.  One camp said such a plot point was, at best, a tired old trope that paints women as vulnerable until they’re threatened with rape. Another camp said that they saw no problem with using rape or attempted rape in a videogames story, since every other medium does it and you shouldn’t try to limit or coerce the creative direction of the author’s tale in any case – at least not until you’ve seen the whole story.

A Lara Croft, yesterday.

So the problem keeps shifting. Is it that Lara Croft has been portrayed as a weakling, where once she was strong? Or is it the insinuation that women need to have been threatened with rape before they can kick ass? Understandably, it’s probably both.

But everyone who has joined in this argument on either side has failed to consider one small thing. And that is: something a lot worse than attempted rape would need to happen to Lara Croft before she becomes the psychopath we all know her to be.

This is a woman who we first met traipsing around freezing caves in naught but a pair of short-shorts and a low-cut top. Who has killed hundreds, possibly thousands of men, in her quest for Old Lost Shit. Who thinks shooting one gun at a time is simply not killy enough. A woman who takes an UZI with her on a tourist trip to the Great Wall of China and who doesn’t think twice about filling up every endangered species she meets along the way with hot metal. This, Lara-lovers, is a woman who made the dinosaurs extinct for a second time. She is a bona fide, pathological maniac.

You fucking monster.

We’re not dealing with a mere borderline sociopath with a few mummy and daddy issues here. Lara suffers Caligulan levels of madness. Now, you could take the world of Tomb Raider for granted as an independent fictional realm of super-advanced ancient civilisations and relics of mystical power. Or you could, as I choose to, interpret the world of Tomb Raider as the ongoing depiction of Lara Croft’s perpetual mental collapse. A world in which she murders innocent government officials and has become the ultimate bane of the World Wildlife Federation.  Where she chases after “magical” artefacts and is beset by hellish visions of monsters and mutants and dragons and demons, all the while never coming to terms with the fact that they are her demons.

You think I’m joking but this is absolutely plausible. Let’s look at a few examples.

  • In Tomb Raider II, she hires a cameraman to silently follow her everywhere, then kills him with a single shotgun blast to the face as soon as she has no more use for him. Innocent fourth-wall breaking joke? Or the act of a demented megalomaniac?
  • In Angel of Darkness, she very obviously murders her mentor Werner Von Croy in cold blood after years of resentment, then invents an elaborate fantasy in order to absolve herself from the guilt. Part of this fantasy revolves around a serial killer known to be active at the time who killed 17 other people, nicknamed the ‘Monstrum’ by the press. For all we know, Lara is responsible for these murders as well.
  • By Tomb Raider: Underworld, she’s so far-gone schizophrenic that she periodically fights herself.

Two tigers protect their cubs against a terrifying poacher.

Such mania does not develop in a vacuum. Lara Croft is undeniably a psychopath but we should strive nevertheless to assess her character – not to forgive her actions but merely to understand her. So keeping all this in mind, it’s very clear what actually happened to Lara Croft when she was younger. The issues date back to her childhood, far beyond any coming of age story that takes place on a deserted island…

At the age of two Lara is strapped in a pram in the park with her childminder. A tame husky being walked approaches her pram and calmly takes her toy rattle from her. The dog trots away and she never sees her rattle again. This is Lara’s earliest memory.

At three, the young Croft’s childminder is feeding her dinosaur shapes made of processed turkey. But there has been a problem at the food processing plant and she is unwittingly feeding the child dinosaurs filled with sharp silicon residue. The childminder makes ‘rarr’ noises to make the food more appealing to the wailing child, not realising until later that Lara has suffered severe internal bleeding.

At age four, she is playing with a doll by the estate’s kennels when suddenly the hounds get loose. Arrested by a freak blood-rage, the animals savage the young girl. She tries to hit the animals with her limited edition Barbie Elegant Housewife but they chew it to pieces. She is saved by the dog handler but will undergo repeated facial and bodily reconstruction for the rest of her life as a result of the mauling, which will change her appearance every few years.

At age five, Lara is accidentally locked in the freezer room of her parent’s manor by the family’s butler, wearing only her pyjamas. She survives for five days on frozen hare meat. The specialised light bulb is constantly shining a bright turquoise and as a result the girl does not sleep once. Her mother sheds tears of relief when she is found, but Lara just stares at her.

At eight, her father takes Lara into his study and shows her a large antique globe. He explains in characteristically patriotic fashion that “the sun never set on the British Empire”. Then he turns. “One day, all of this will be yours,” he says, gesturing at the modest contents of the room. But Lara is still transfixed by the wooden globe. “All of it?” she says, eyes wide and breathing heavily through her latest nose. “Everything the light touches,” replies Lord Croft, anticipating the popular Disney movie, The Lion King. Unfortunately he is interrupted by a phone call before he can explain the Circle of Life to his only daughter and so Lara grows up with a colossal, global sense of entitlement – without any of the accompanying Mufasan wisdom. Lara stands by the globe and spins it continually for three hours, smiling.

At age 10 she suffers from an exotic and feverish virus her father has brought back from an international trip. Her new minder buys a box-set of adventure movies. An accident of technology leaves one scene from The Dark Crystal looping endlessly on the VCR, as Lara battles nightmarish visions of impossible creatures. She screams for her maid but no one comes.

At age 12, she gets separated from her family during a holiday outing in the North Yorkshire countryside. She is found two days later, grubby and tired but in good spirits. Local papers report three sheep have died in strange circumstances over the bank holiday weekend. The events are not seen as linked.

At 15 she is taken to a dance by an unintelligent but kind-hearted boy named Anthony Smeldwick. She tells her mother the next day that although she “thoroughly enjoyed herself” she won’t be seeing Master Smeldwick again because he is “too timid.” Meanwhile, Anthony’s father overhears the boy sobbing in the shower but disregards this as teenage angst.

At 16 Lara attends Gordonstoun boarding school in Scotland. She visits the school’s rifle range every day. Pupils at the time describe her as “quiet.”

You may have many objections to these biographical details and indeed they may contradict what Lara herself has previously told you. But then, even the most important details of her life have been very fluid over the years. Exactly who was on that plane crash in the Himalayas? First, we were told it was just her, then it was her and her mother. Once, she even insisted that her fiancé was on the passenger list. Every time we meet Lara, she has changed her story. And the origin tale of the upcoming Tomb Raider seeks to do this once more. Now there’s no plane crash at all, but a shipwreck. If we are lucky, Lara Croft is just an upper-class compulsive liar with a taste for hunting big game and an over-active imagination. But I fear we aren’t that lucky. This is the frightening reality of the woman who calls herself “the Tomb Raider”.

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Naughty Dog meets Tale of Tales

[Have had this interview sitting on computer for months. Nobody wants to buy it. Must smell bad or something. Richard Lemarchand is co-lead designer at Naughty Dog. They make Uncharted, which has lots of jumping in. Michaël Samyn and Auriea Harvey are from Tale of Tales. They made The Path and wrote the notgames manifesto. Found myself in the same room as all three. Tried to shit-stir. They all made friends.]

*

I wanted to get all you guys together because the presentation you did together [at GameCity] was very good at highlighting your separate approaches to game design. But I wanted to ask about the differences and conflicts that might arise between independent developers and huge commercially mega-successful developers. Richard, your focus would be on accessibility so as many people could enjoy it as possible, but Tale of Tales would be more of a niche. Would you all agree with that?

Michaël Samyn: I totally disagree. I think it’s the opposite.

Richard Lemarchand: And I also think it’s the opposite.

Michaël: Shit. We’re going to agree on everything!

Richard: [laughs] All right then, I disagree! I couldn’t disagree more!

Michaël: No, I think it’s like Richard was saying during the talk. I think [Naughty Dog] have an audience to deal with. So they work for the expectations of this particular group. While we are working at least for an undefined group. Our ambition is to reach out to people who have already decided for themselves that they didn’t like games and so we wanted [to say] ‘Yeah but maybe you’ll like this’ – and that happens. We get these kind of responses. You know, “I don’t like games but I would play yours.” That hasn’t really paid off commercially yet [laughs] but there could be other reasons for that, a particular style, et cetera. So I would say yes, obviously the group of players Uncharted reaches is much, much larger but I would think they’re more homogenous than the kinds of people we reach.

Richard: I mean, there’s a sense in which what you say is correct. I think Naughty Dog are a bit different as a triple-A game developer because we have deliberately tried to reach a broader audience, broader than many other triple-A games might try to reach. And this has been part of Naughty Dog’s philosophy since the very early days of the company. It’s why they went to such lengths to playtest the Crash Bandicoot games and polish off the sharp corners of the experience in those games. We’re famous for saying we do a lot of playtesting and of course it also is reflected in our emphasis on storytelling. We’ve wanted to bring a broader more general audience to videogames through the mechanisms of storytelling. It’s good to reach people through their emotions, I think, and it’s kind of reflected in the fact that we hear quite a lot from gamers that their family members will sit and watch them play an Uncharted game in the way that they won’t for other kinds of games. So in that sense we’re going for a broad audience. But I think that Michaël and Auriea are right in that the gaming audience has very specialised tastes and when you’re making games for that crowd it’s very important to think about those tastes. But there are all these other people who don’t yet play videogames who could be getting so much out of this amazing form.

Auriea Harvey: So therefore we don’t really have to think of a specific audience. But we think of people.


Some elements of Naughty Dog will be thinking of that audience in terms of a market. Does Tale of Tales think that as well and want your games to be commercially successful?

Michaël: It depends on the project. There are some projects that are more like research. Not that we don’t want to show them – that’s part of the research, to show them too. Things that we want to explore. Things that we want to do. And then there’s other projects, like The Path as the main example… where we do feel, “OK, this has potential to speak to a lot of people.” So we do thorough playtesting and see what we can do to achieve our goals in terms of what people feel when they play. So it depends. It’s not so black and white, where indies don’t care about the market and triple-A [developers] are concerned only about the market.

It’s not black and white but I wanted to see if any of you felt that difference. Because it’s a strong sentiment among indies that they are less concerned with commercialism.

Auriea: Well, yeah. But you kind of can’t help it [laughs].

Richard: I gotta say I take issue with the suggestion that at Naughty Dog we think first about the market.

No, I don’t mean it that way. Because as a developer you want to make a good game anyway, right?

Richard: What we think first about is the player. You know, human beings who are going to pick up the controller of something that we make. And all of the good game designers that I know think in this way. I think any time you try and second guess the human beings that might be interested in the thing you’re making in any commercial way you’re onto a losing [streak].

I’m not suggesting that the creative components of a studio would think that way but perhaps the marketing ends of a company?

Richard: Well, of course. If you work in a marketing department then your concern is with communicating to a potential audience that you have something they might be interested in.

That’s what I mean. Big developers will always have people employed to do that but indie developers maybe less so?

Richard: Everyone has the possibility of doing that though. When you think about a band like the Smiths who went from being a small band in Salford playing in working men’s clubs in front of maybe a few dozen people to – in just a few months – being the biggest band in Britain. They went about that not through Marketing in any formal sense but through something that’s a very important related concept – which is word of mouth and finding your audience, finding people who might be interested in your music, who share your values. In the case of games I think it’s just the same. I think that’s why indie games are so exciting right now. All of a sudden we have evidence of the fact that there are people out there who share a certain kind of values about what games could be and who are interested and who have, you know, a pound or two to spend on it. It’s like the breakout success of Sword & Sworcery EP. The fact that that went from being a side project for Capy to being this enormous hit on the App Store is testament to the idea that the audience is there and that it’s important for creative people to learn and understand how to relate to it.

Richard Lemarchand of Naughty Dog shows off some of his oft-praised hand gestures

You brought up music during your talk, when Richard described Tale of Tales’ work as the equivalent of punk music. It feels less like punk to me and more like ‘New Age’.

Michaël: I would describe it as Baroque actually [laughs].

Auriea: No, we’re definitely more Baroque.

Richard: Yeah, Cactus is punk.

Auriea: Anna Anthropy, definitely.

Messhof is punk.

Richard: Exactly, yeah yeah yeah.

Auriea: I like this.

Richard: Whereas you guys, I didn’t mean to draw that direct connection.

Auriea: No no no, we didn’t mind.

Michaël: We’re actually post-punk.

Richard: That’s more like it.

Auriea: New Wave!

Michaël: Actually, we’ve cleared it up… [This happened when] Frank Lantz once said that Doom is rock ‘n’ roll. And I picked up on that and said “Well, if Doom is rock ‘n’ roll then The Path is punk.” And then somebody in the comments said, “No no no, you’re wrong!” – because, you know, geeks – “According to this definition, you should be post-punk!” And that’s when we learned we were post-punk.

As long as you’re not post-pop-punk-rock.

Auriea: Oh no, let’s not go down there.

Okay, let’s move on. Some of the observations recently made about Uncharted are that it’s sometimes more like an interactive movie. That it sometimes takes control away from the player.

Auriea: We get the same comments though.

I don’t think it’s necessarily meant as a bad thing.

Michaël: In a way, I think in Uncharted it’s almost a revolutionary thing. Not so much the interactive movie kind of thing but the fact that it’s linear. And it really takes you through an entire story and it’s almost like you can’t do anything wrong. I think that’s quite rare to do that kind of thing. The only strange thing about it is that every once in a while you have to stop and shoot a hundred [bad guys]. Which is just weird.

Auriea: That’s the thing I kept saying when I was watching and playing. I was like, “Why is the shooting in here?” Because everything else was doing it for me. Then all of a sudden: “Why is he – oh, okay we’re gonna shoot something.”

Michaël: Not just the shooting though but also –

Aureia: No, I wanted to take the shooting out of it, literally. Because it seemed to me that in most games I’m always complaining that a [company makes a] shooter and they sort of smear art on top of it. You know, like Bioshock or something where it’s like an excuse for the shooter. Your game totally didn’t feel like that to me at all. It felt like this was a genuine experience –

Michaël: A story. You want to tell a story.

Auriea: I even love the action parts where he’s half falling out of some plane and you have to climb. I thought that was really cool. But then every so often you would just get the feeling like, “If they would just take the shooting out of this part” or “Oh no, somebody’s gonna show up and I’m gonna have to shoot them, right? Right!?”

Richard: No, I understand that and there are other people who feel like you as well. But we’re making a game for a certain audience, we kind of talked about this this morning.

Auriea: Yeah, I know. But I think it’s an interesting game – that’s the only reason I was disappointed [laughs].

Richard: The way I see it, the shooting – which has a relationship of course to the traversal and the way you take cover in the world and the other combat elements – all of that stuff is very richly game-like in the way that we formally define games, like we talked about this morning. Because there’s a win condition and a lose condition and there’s this compact but rich set of rules that allow you to make strategic choice in this space. And that adds up to what I think of as a kind of ‘carry signal’ for all the other stuff that happens in the game – the atmosphere and the story. It’s a way that we can sort of bring our audience of videogame players who have grown up engaged in these kinds of play activities along with us as we take them on this emotional journey through this sequence of events. And I’m interested in the potential of this kind of approach because I think already we’re starting to see games like… we were talking [earlier] about that match-three levelling game… Puzzle Quest.

Auriea: And Dungeon Solitaire.

Richard: Right, these games where you have this very rich game-like core mechanic with this wrapper of RPG progression built around them but it’s really very new and very revolutionary. That’s just one example of the kinds of things you can do when you use ‘game’ as a carrier signal for all this other rich stuff that we associate with the arts.

Michaël: But would you say that you’re step-by-step trying to move away from that? Because I see that in your evolution as a designer. Like you’re trying to educate your audience to stop wanting all that.

Richard: Well, it depends. I wouldn’t like to speak about – yet – about the kind of things Naughty Dog will do in the future –

Michaël: I’m just extrapolating.

Richard: But [within] the industry as a whole… I think that many people were surprised by how little combat there was in LA Noire, for instance. The emphasis in that game shifted towards the experiential, towards exploration and this rich interaction with the characters in the game, which in a way I think signals a trend. And of course indie games like Sword and Sworcery EP, like Dear Esther by thechineseroom and lots of other cool games are continuing to explore this avenue of inquiry.

Parts of Uncharted 2 were directly inspired by Tale of Tales' walking-through-a-cemetery-simulator, The Graveyard. No, really.

Michaël, you sound like you were trying to tempt Richard to the dark side there for a second. To get rid of all the core mechanics.

Michaël: The thing is when we started with games… we felt this great desire within the game design community to do exactly what we wanted to do with games. They wanted it to be what cinema was for the previous century. We want to tell the stories, we want to be culturally relevant, we want to appeal to all sorts of people, have all sorts of genres. I think that… maybe we wanted to see things that were there that maybe weren’t there. But also there were games in that period – I’m talking early 2000s – there was Black and White, there was Ico, there was the earlier Silent Hill games. There were all these games that were pulling in that direction and I think it just didn’t catch on quickly enough. It felt like the games industry said, “That’s it! We’re going back to gamers.”

Auriea: But they kind of had to because it was a new console generation. Nintendo always does it’s thing, while PS3 and Xbox were duking it out so they had to have their sales, so everything suddenly got really conservative again. And we were sort of really disappointed by that.

Richard: But I think that’s how it goes. Like the tide, it rushes in and then it goes out again and then it rushes in…

Michaël: Maybe.

Auriea: Yeah, but the PS2 generation was just getting really interesting. I mean, you had Rez, you had Shadow of the Colossus –

Okami.

Aureia: Okami didn’t really do it for me but I loved it for other reasons. It just seemed like things were getting very interesting and then when the new consoles came out it got really conservative and stuffy.

There’s a different focus emerging recently of other types of games, mostly on social networks, which are removing all the extraneous narrative and just focusing on a psychologically arresting core loop. Zynga’s games, for example. I wanted to get your feelings on those kinds of games.

Michaël: Yeah, I think it’s a great opportunity and I’m very curious to see how the triple-A industry will respond to it. Because on the one hand of course there’s panic… so I wonder if they’re going to start copying those things and move towards gaming and become this mature gaming thing. Or if they’re going to say, “Well, if they are doing that then we don’t have to care about it.”

Auriea: That’s kind of how I see it. That’s interesting and everything but that’s just some people who like that stuff but there’s other people who hate that stuff.

Michaël: Everybody likes games, that’s fine. I don’t think this is a new generation of gamers at all – these people have always been playing games. It’s a ‘new generation’ of Facebook users and there happens to be games there [laughs].

Auriea: Because they’re like, “Oh, Aunt Suzie is doing this thing. I’ll try that too.” Why not? That’s great. But –

Michaël: But we do that at the coffee table too when we pull out the Scrabble board.

Aureia: – and eventually Facebook is going to die.

Michaël: And we’ll all go back to Scrabble! [laughs]

Auriea: Games may or may not move on from that. Those games may move onto a different format. Who knows? The only thing that’s for sure is that Facebook will disappear at a certain point. Those people will either pick up another game or they won’t. Most likely, they’ll be like, “Well, that was interesting” and move onto whatever they going to [move onto to]. They’re not terminally invested in it, I think.

You all said in the presentation earlier that all of these types of games can live together. That there’s room for every type. But is there any kind of game you would just like to see less of?

Michaël: That’s a personal choice anyway. You could see less of anything you don’t look at!

I mean that you would actually like to not happen anymore at all. Like, imagine if you were to adopt a really despotic attitude…

Auriea: Oh, I would love to be despotic! I would get rid of war simulations. Not necessarily RTS’ like historical recreations and stuff like that but you know, I could get rid of war as a sport.

Michaël: Extrapolated from that, I would get rid of any game that uses more than symbolic representation. Representation and game structure should be divorced.

Auriea: That’s much larger [laughs].

Michaël: Because I think in games before computers and early computer games it was like that. You had abstract tokens and it was all about the structure of the game. And you could focus on that and get your experience there. Now if you take a pawn, suddenly somebody dies. And it comes with all this baggage of, you know, humans dying. And it shouldn’t because the result now is that people are still playing them as games when – as you saw at Eric Chahi’s From Dust presentation – when you die it [can be] funny. But death is not funny! And so, I would probably get rid of that.

Nathan 'Laughs in the Face of Death' Drake

As somebody who helps make a game in which an awful lot of people die, how do you feel about that Richard?

Richard: Yeah, it’s quite complicated subject matter. I would like to see fewer of any kind of game that degrades human beings. And I think that there’s too much suffering in the world in the early 21st century and not enough culture that elevates people. I think that game design has a great opportunity in all of its forms – both formal game design and in a broader sense of experiential videogame design – for helping individuals who are struggling in their basic human circumstances, whether they feel shitty about themselves today or whether their social and economic circumstances are really oppressive –

Michaël: You mean like all of us?

Richard: I mean like all of us! [laughs]

Michaël: The 99% [laughs].

Richard: I would like to see fewer games that aren’t helpful in that way and more games that are.

Auriea: Yeah, more games that are beautiful. I mean, I don’t want to get into some sort of la-la-land situation were everyone’s like, “Everything’s lovely, let’s join hands.” … To keep talking about cinema seems redundant but you see very interesting films about war that are not just gratuitous… you know what I mean? There’s usually a point [to those films]. And I guess with games I never see that point. That’s what I guess you mean about degrading human life.

I’m guessing there are no fans of the ‘No Russian’ sequence of Modern Warfare 2 in this room then.

Auriea: No, nothing of the sort.

Michaël: Actually, that is an interesting situation. I think all of the more mundane shooting around it I would forbid first. Because that’s kind of tricky and perverse. And that’s kind of nice, I like perverse.

Richard: I was very interested in the player’s reactions to the No Russian scene… what I mean is that how people behave in the game when they’re put into that situation I think is really interesting.

Michaël: You can’t play the victims of that, though.

Aureia: See, that’s the problem with it. You can only be one [side]. Like, you can’t be the victim of that? Maybe if they’d done that then it’d have some sort of redeeming value because then you would think about that differently. I mean, they always want to put you in a position of power. As if. You know what I mean?

But isn’t that what a lot of games are about? Being empowered?

Aureia: Yeah and that’s dumb.

Michaël: That’s brilliant that you say that because that’s actually not been my experience with games before videogames. Games tended to be more like an excuse to be socially together with another person.

Aureia: Yeah.

Michaël: I mean, some people play competitively of course but those are nasty people – you don’t want to play with them! You want to play with nice people who don’t particularly care whether they win or lose but they –

Aureia: They just want to be with you.

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Filed under Failing to sell articles in spectacular fashion, Indie

I Want To Be NowGamer’s Blogger

Hi there! I saw the job advert competition on NowGamer and immediately knew it was mine for the takings.

“Love games?” it asked.

And how!

“Got a voice?”

A regional one!

“Then you need a blog on NowGamer!”

OK! What do I do now? A web-log post of no more than 1000 words on a games related topic? Easy. You’re reading it. But maybe I should be introducing myself first.

My name is Malachy and I want to write a bout games. It is a dream job competition. I love games as if they were my auntie Nell, who has taken care of me since my father died of exposure while digging for turf out in the bog. I love games this much. I love Mindjack and also The Halo 2. I love games so much that I am willing to write all about how great they are for none of the money, even though I have a first class degree in Neuroscience and Writing (it’s true!) and have written for many web-logs before. All I want is the exposure. Even though my dad died of exposure and I have an intense fear of it. That is how much I have love for games.

Anyway, introductions over! The games-related topic I have chosen is…

Indentured servitude!

Wow big words I know. But how is that a games-related issue? Well, I’ll tell you how. Lots of games have tackled this issue. Remember that bit in Mass Affect 2 where you go to the shiny planet run by Alan Sugar and everyone is playing the Stock Exchange and you go into a bar and there is a girl there who has not paid her debts and she has gone into indentured servicitude to pay them off? That is important! It is what they call in games an “ethical quarry”. Do you help the girl by convincing someone to buy her? Or do you tell her what she’s doing is wrong for her lifestyle choices and to become a better person? Who knows!

Selling people is against many laws in lots of countries, unless people sell themselves, which Auntie Nell says is legal "on the continent"

Mass Affect 2 also has lots of funny looking people being racist to each other. Here, the blue lady is calling the helmet lady a "quarian" - a derogatorish term for someone who often gets themselves into ethical quarries.

On the one hand she will be working for nothing. On the other hand you will have called her stupid. It is a very difficult choice series. But if you think about it, it isn’t very nice to exploitify someone just because they owe you money for, say, some turf.  And it is also not very nice to call someone a stupid for only being desperate, even if on the outside it looks like they are really really stupid. She is in trouble! You should be nice and help her! You can also get Paragon points for freeing the girl, which makes Commander Shepard more handsome.

But this is not the only game that deals with in-dentist’s servitude. My favourite game ever is Bioshock. It is a very intellectuist game about shooting mutants in the face. And guess what! It has a whole big thing about slavery running through it the whole way! This is called a THEME. In my Neuroscience and Writing degree (first class it’s true!) I learned that THEMES are very important things in games and not just in books. The THEME of slavery in Bioshock is very complex and there is no easy way to describe it or “deconstructualise” it, as literary people might say. But I will try.

SPOILER! RED ALERT! SPOILER!

Oh my God it's so scary I love it

Bioshock is also a game about "objectivism", which is a philosophy that believes only the main objectives of a videogame's mission should be completed and never the optional objectives because they are parasitic to enjoyfulness.

The whole way through Bioshock you are playing a game where you choose to kill or save little girls. It is like a side game but it is a good one because it gets you more mutant powers. This is another example of an ethical quarry. But near the end you discover that actually you have had no control at all over what you are doing and that the man who you trusted is actually a sneaky American pirate who is controlling you through hypnotists! Oh no this isn’t good, you might say. But actually it’s really clever! You see, the main baddie is called Andrew Ryan and the whole time he has been saying “A man chooses, a indentured servant obeys” or something like that. And then you see it’s true! He was a little bit right the whole time. Which is scary. The whole time you were doing something you thought you wanted to do, and something you thought was in your best interests but actually it turns out you were being exploited and manipulatated! That is a clever THEME.

So there you have it. Too very interesting examples of indentured servitude in games, or as my hispanish Neuroscience and Writing professor that I met on the internet would say, “los video juegos”.  I hope you have learned something about games by reading my web-log because I have had lots of fun writing it. I also hope that NowGamer consider me the right person for the job competition because I would love to write more about games for absolutely none of the money.

Thank you, NowGamer!

2 Comments

Filed under Ethics, Ethics! Ethics? Two for a pound. Get your ethics here., Work!

Why ‘Time To Pretend’ is the Greatest Song You Must Never Listen To

[Sunny day out. Contemplating drinks on the doorstep. Got no work to do. Both good thing and bad thing. Like life. Contradictions make my stomach feel unsettled. Great. Can’t drink now. Article follows…]

It ends with the image of a man choking on his own vomit, for one thing. But then, you do not hear that bit. You never really hear any of the words. From the moment the first few beats of MGMT’s most popular track bubble up unstoppably from silence, your faculties of negativity and scepticism dissolve. Music that is so undeniably hopeful, that the heel of every happy-drunk hero at the bar taps and turns in quick succession. Yes, you’re at a club. Why wouldn’t you be? Even if that normally bothers you, it won’t tonight. Because the unconstrained happiness of a hundred people flowing onto the dancefloor like milk into a bowl, matching the tune with lipsticked and non-lipsticked o-shaped mouths, is an infection. Da-doo-doo-doo-doo DOOP! DOOP! There’s a cheer in the air. But it’s hard to make an O shape with your lips when you are smiling this much – just like you can’t whistle and smile and the same time. That’s not how lips work. You can have one or the other. But you’ve made your choice tonight. Tonight, it’s O shapes all the way. Tonight, you join the happy people, this nutty bowl of Cheeri-os.  Da-doo-doo-doo-doo DOOP! DOOP! Da-doo-doo-doo-doo DOOP! DOOP!

You sing and you sing. But you must never, ever listen. You are happy and you want to stay happy. The lyrics to Time to Pretend are not happy. They aren’t exactly sad either. They straddle the line of ambivalence, a line that in the real world would manifest itself as a single yellow line on a Central London side street, in that it makes everyone feel ever-so-slightly negative even though nobody agrees about precisely what it means.

At the beginning, it sounds like an unashamed celebration of youth, fame, money and success.

“I’m feeling rough, I’m feeling raw, I’m in the prime of my life /
Let’s make some music, make some money, find some models for wives.
I’ll move to Paris, shoot some heroin and fuck with the stars /
You man the island and the cocaine and the elegant cars.”

The entire song can be read like this, as an unapologetic chorus of success and all that success brings. Heroin and all, there is nothing to be sorry about because it is “our decision” to live fast and die young. It’s a celebration of autonomy and the triumph of the ambitious individual over a life of menial jobs and a bleak future of shitty nights out down at the school disco after your shelf-monkey work shift, trying desperately to pull off knee high socks.

This triumph of fame and fortune over an everyday life in the lyrics explains the music’s bounciness then. Oh wait no it doesn’t ha ha I set you up it was a lie. The yellow-line ambivalence finally leaks in quietly through the next few lines (but only if you’re listening, and let’s face it – Da-doo-doo-doo-doo DOOP! DOOP! – you aren’t).

“Yeah, it’s overwhelming but what else can we do? /
Get jobs in offices and wake up for the morning commute?
Forget about our mothers and our friends, /
We were fated to pretend.”

But what else could we do, man? We were fated to pretend. MGMT seem to want you to think that personal autonomy had nothing to do with chasing success. Success is a train that drives itself. Like the DLR line. There’s no fucker at the wheel, getting paid absurd amounts of cash because of the poor air quality. You decide one day that this is the train for you, you get on and it just goes whether you want it to or not, unstoppable and unmanned. This is your “morning commute.” The only decision you get to make is whether you get off near Canary Wharf and climb to the top of Citibank like King Kong, swatting down all the other bankers buzzing around you, or whether you get off in Blackwall and hang out in the Marina with all the bohemian boat-owners, making art, darling.

MGMT chose the Marina. The words “fated to pretend” is the giveaway. Art is about pretending. And an artist is just a person who makes things that aren’t real seem real. Artists are pretenders and successful artists are just the best at it.

This makes a lot of art seem like a con. But some art is also lovely. Like this song for instance. Time to Pretend goes quickly from a celebration of a rock and roll lifestyle, to being a selfish fame-chase with the excuse that: “We had no choice, man. Fate made us do it.” And in no more than a few beats it hits us with the hurt and the ambiguous tone of the lyrics becomes all the more serious, in total contradiction to the upbeat tones hammering away in clubs all over the world.

“I’ll miss the playgrounds and the animals and digging up worms /
I’ll miss the comfort of my mother and the weight of the world /
I’ll miss my sister, miss my father, miss my dog and my home /
Yeah, I’ll miss the boredom and the freedom and the time spent alone.”

Listed here is everything that could ever be important to any human being who has suffered a loving family. Childhood, a sense of home, a sense of belonging, genuine companionship, your brother, your sister, your mum, your dad, unconditional love and liberty.

“But there is really nothing, nothing we can do /
Love must be forgotten, life can always start up anew.”

To sacrifice one happiness – your family – for another happiness – success, is among the hardest decisions an average person could ever make. With difficult decisions like these, people engage in a curious (but sometimes ultimately necessary) self-imposed mindfuck. They tell themselves that they had no choice. No decision after all. They were fated to pretend.

This decision – whether it feels like one or not – is both empowering and crippling. The last few lines reveal the pragmatism that now affects the mind of the successful.

“The models will have children, we’ll get a divorce /
We’ll find some more models, everything must run its course.
We’ll choke on our vomit and that will be the end /
We were fated to pretend.”

Though it reads exactly like it, these lines are not delivered as tragedy. The mind of the success-chaser is already made up. The DLR has departed. And maybe there really is no way out now. These lines are delivered matter-of-factly, with a youthful (if messy) death as the final and foreseeable end but not necessarily a sad one. This is the verse that is sung unapologetically. Fame has a heavy price and the famous do regret the loss of all that was once simple and normal, the loss of family and real friends. But this fare: it is non-negotiable. If it must be paid, then it must be paid. Having learned of all the things the successful sacrifice, it becomes crass to judge them as selfish or self-indulgent. Things are much more complicated. Time to Pretend is not a celebration of fame, nor is it some simple excuse-laden floor filler. It’s a complex and frank plea for empathy, an open letter from the “successful” to all the regular people left behind, stacking shelves and serving drinks and having Sunday dinner with their family.

The choice between one form of happiness and another form of happiness is never an easy decision. You can’t whistle and smile at the same time. You can only have one or the other.

(Da-doo-doo-doo-doo DOOP! DOOP!)

4 Comments

Filed under Essays, Music

Ten Games by Political Alignment

[Election held. Referendum on changing the voting system. Voted ‘Aye, why not?’ Nation voted ‘Shut up, Brendan.’ Sulked home to play games and daydream of better tomorrow. Discovered tomorrow does not belong to me. Belongs to someone named Gideon. A curious turn of events. Article follows…]

Politics is a dirty business. Just look at those elections out there. Filthy, just filthy. Luckily for us, games have absolutely nothing to do with politics, right? Wrong. There’s loads of politics in the games you play. Just laying low, waiting to pounce on you like a tax avoidance activist hiding in the clothes rack at Topshop. Some games are so thoroughly politicised that you could never be forgiven if you misinterpreted their alignment. Handy then, that we’ve highlighted some of the most blatant acts of propaganda.

Half-Life 2 – Authoritarian

"Baton" is a French word. It means "Oh, fuck. A baton."

Gordon Freeman. The clue is in the name. The clue is also in every time some cycloptic alien starts babbling about “the one free man.” And every time those angry people in gas masks offer you a lead salad. If you thought the story of military resistance against an oppressive collaborator government was enough to prove Half-Life 2’s democratic credentials, the absolutely rigid, inescapable corridor shooter formula should make you reconsider what the game is really about. Overtly, it’s about the struggle for freedom. Underneath, it’s a story on a train. It’s a gorgeous, futuristic train but it’s still stuck to the same tracks every time you play. You might think you’re breaking free of the combine. But who’s really in charge? The game, that’s who. Now, pick up that can, you pleb.

Medieval II: Total War/Empire: Total War – Imperialist

He posed like this for 16 hours to get this picture right.

It’s possible to play Medieval II, or any of the Total War series, as a pacifist. A relaxed and tender leader. Playing as England, you could send diplomats to everyone and keep kissing hands and licking boots as if they were drenched in delicious Hoi-sin. Of course, what silly fellow would do that? The game isn’t called Total Peace. It’s called Total Kill Everybody Not Wearing a St George’sFlag Innit. It starts with nicking a little bit of Scotland. Then pinching some of Ireland. All necessary for a robust security policy, you understand. Before you know it your expansionist greed has you invading Marrakech, chuckling like a spice-crazed lunatic. The map MUST be red. Just one more region. Just one more. Those Imperialists, they weren’t evil or greedy. They were just misunderstood. They just had OCD.

Abe’s Oddysee – Environmentalist

Did you know? 'Abe's Oddysee' is an anagram of "Be a seedy sod."

In Oddworld, there are only two political parties. One is the Glukkonservatives. The other is Green Party. By establishing a clumsy Mudokken called Abe as a hero, Oddworld Inhabitants put the ‘mental’ firmly into ‘environmentalism.’ Those Glukkon fast-food corporations weren’t as ‘armless as they seemed (har har – they had no arms, like). They were well on their way to making animal life on Oddworld extinct and were about to embark on some seriously nasty business against all those Mudokkens. That is, before Abe stepped in and sabotaged all their machinery – obviously a massive metaphor for PETA activism. A petaphor, if you will.

Minecraft – Libertarian

If you say so Johnny Boy.

“We’ll do what we like, and we like what we do,” in the words of latter-day prophet and objectivist Andrew W.K. Minecraft follows this tenet. Not to Darwinian extremes, thankfully. But still with the requisite amount of survivalism. By placing blocks around you can make anything you want within the confines of physical reality. In singleplayer no other humans exist, so nobody but you is going to come to harm. Thus, no government middleman is gonna come out and tell you what to do. Hurrah! Liberty! Ah, but you must always be aware of those out to get you. In this way, the Creepers represent the destructive looters of communism. Simpering into places they don’t belong and spreading their destructive beliefs. Those dirty reds. Those dirty, green reds.

Red Faction – Socialist

Subtle imagery.

Those dirty reds. Those brilliant, dirty reds. Dirty because they’re bloody hard at work down t’pit. On Mars. Breaking their backs for their exploitative corporate masters who shank them for everything they’re worth and rape from them all political or personal power. Parker, the player’s character, is most certainly an Arthur Scargill character, taking on the might of Marsy Thatcher. Yeah. Workers unite! Solidarity! In the end, Parker and the Red Faction win. Just like Arthur Scar – oh… wait…

EVE: Online – Anarcho-capitalist

ISK is an acronym. It means "I should've known."

“We’ll do what we like and we like stealing everybody’s money so let’s do that,” in the bastardised words of investment bankers who listen to latter-day prophet Andrew W.K. There must be a Venn diagram of that demographic somewhere. I know it exists. It’s certain. It can’t not exist. Oh! Oh, I know! Add another circle to the diagram for people who play EVE: Online. The central section would be a devious place. A wretched hive of individualists and profit-making swankypants’ with twenty glossy Mercedes’ each. They wouldn’t be kind people, that’s for sure. But hey, it’s fun to hear about them picking each other’s pockets as they infiltrate enemy corporations and fly around null-sec space getting blown up by ever more expensive lasers.

Super Mario/Legend of Zelda – Royalist

Hey you, turn that crown upside down.

Save the Princess? Okay, hold on here ‘til I shine up the ol’ coat of arms. There, now I’m ready to risk my life for somebody whose only claim to governance is that they were born in a frilly pink dress. Assuming she is actually in this castle, I will undoubtedly be given a commendation of faultless chivalry. Perhaps I will even become romantically involved with the princess. Just like in the fairy tales they show on BBC these days. Alas, I am nought but a lowly plumber/village pleb. She will never deign to marry me. In fact, she seems to get kidnapped quite a lot. If this isn’t some form of Stockholm syndrome, I am beginning to suspect Bowser/Ganon is being ritually wheeled out as the old “constant external threat” card. Kings, queens and despots have been using that one for millennia. Save the Princess? Screw that. The people wait with bated breath until the day Ollie Cromwell guest features in a Nintendo title.

Assassin’s Creed – Nietzschean

And you'd be right, Fred. You'd be very right.

“Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” This is the wisdom Machiavelli imparted to Ezio Auditore in the late 1400s. Then he swan dived off a bell tower. Oh wow, you’ve just learned history! But more than that, you’ve also learned the mercenary credo of 19th Century mad bastard Freddy Nietzsche. He ruled that ethics is for silly people and that whoever wanted to get ahead should be prepared to do anything. And that’s exactly what you do in Assassin’s Creed. To complete the game, you must be prepared to do whatever unseemly, amoral deed is required. That includes listening to some Allah-awful hogwash conspiracy theories. And forgetting everything you ever learned in school about when planes and tanks were invented. Forget… forrrrrrget… have you forgotten yet? “Forgotten what?” you say? Excellent. Whatever you do, don’t read this paragraph back.

Worms – Nationalist

Earth worms.

Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. What’s another word for scoundrel? That’s right – ‘worm.’ No, don’t try and argue. I’ve looked it up in a thesaurus. What’s another word for ‘thesaurus?’ That’s right – ‘don’t argue.’ Those worms certainly wouldn’t. They’d be too busy prancing about exclaiming about the dangers of explosive sheep in a Welsh accent. Or the perils of bananas in a Caribbean accent. Or beaming themselves up with teleport devices in a Scottish accent. These are all nationalistic stereotypes obviously. Of which these worm-scoundrels are all fiercely, insanely proud.

Metroid – Feminist

This is the only nippleless image of Samus on the internet.

So you’ve navigated your way through screen after screen of nasties. You’ve shot up a seriously rude Pterodactyl looking S.O.B. who’s been squinting at you all night. You’ve put a missile into that soggy Mama Brain and jogged merrily out of an exploding facility. Finally, the big reveal. Who is Samus Ar – OH MY DAYS IT’S A LAYDEE. Well… chuh. I guess. Why couldn’t it have been a woman this whole time? Metroid is the videogame equivalent of that riddle about the brain surgeon who turns out to be a woman, making you feel like a massive presumptuous pillock. And then you go look for pictures of her on the internet. Although, maybe you wouldn’t. Oh heavens, I’ve been presumptuous again.

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A Letter to the New Statesman

[New Statesman had job opportunity couple months ago. Unpaid. Annoying. Wrote email to comment section and editors. No response. Nick Clegg now suddenly against this carry on. Lot of hypocrisy floating around. Even left-wing magazines out to rape youth. Must flee country. Letter follows…]

From: Brendan Caldwell
To: comments@newstatesman.co.uk
CC: jbernstein@newstatesman.co.uk,
mhasan@newstatesman.co.uk, selmhirst@newstatesman.co.uk
Date: Feb 03, 2011, 14:59
Subject: Internment

I am disappointed to discover that your magazine has recently advertised for an unpaid intern. Has the New Statesman editorial staff suddenly had a collective attack of explosive amnesia? Or did they always have an exploitative attitude towards the youth?

Internships like this restrict the best jobs to those who can afford to spend months without being paid. And – as you should know – unpaid work for a profitable, non-charitable company lasting longer than three weeks is against minimum wage legislation.

Considering the opinions of several NS journalists on poor social mobility in the UK and their sympathy for the youth movement, what sense does it make to exploit young people’s desperation for good jobs? Kinda hypocritical. Aye. I went there. Wanna fight about it? ‘Course you don’t. What you want to do is publish this comment as a demonstration of transparency.

Failing that, would you kindly pay your workers?

Brendy Caldwell,
Northern Ireland

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Masochists Stole My Picturebook

[Wrote a piece for Eurogamer recently. Subject was masochism. The tame kind. Not the sexy kind. Some elements left unexamined. Attempted to let it go. Took a shower. Hated self. Took another shower. Unclean feeling remains. Article follows…]

*

“It’s just not a single axis is the thing,” said Adam Saltsman. “There’s definitely this – I feel – completely invented idea that there is a ‘challenge axis’. And the ‘challenge axis’ has masochistic, hardcore games on one end and it has accessible games on the other end.

“I actually think that there’s two axes.”

Who is Adam Saltsman, you ask? And what the fiery Dickens is he talking about? He’s only the creator of Canabalt. “So what?” So what!? Hey. Fuck you, pal. You ever played Robot Unicorn Attack? Yeah. Well, just thank your lucky Saltsmans that even exists, okay?

He spoke of difficulty. To define a game as “masochistic” you gotta know what makes a game difficult.

Sometimes you find a game difficult because of the content of the game. Sometimes there are just a load of spikey spikes. Think VVVVVV. Often there is one, sickeningly precise method of avoiding the obstacle in question. But sometimes in games, the spikey spikes are intentionally impassable. Either way you’re like a baby with a pack of brand new, razor sharp colouring pencils. Sure, they’re stationary. And, yeah, they’re colourful all right. But if you leap at them too enthusiastically they’ll mess your life up. Ouch. Hurt baby imagery. Get used to it.

That’s only sometimes. Othertimes you find a game difficult because you are still getting to grips with the control scheme or the user interface. Think Dwarf Fortress. In which case the art materials aren’t so immediately dangerous. They’re just a hundred times harder to use. The pencils are now an advanced graphics tablet with a MacBook and all the appropriate software. But you’re still a baby. And everyone knows babies can’t use advanced graphics tablets.

Both VVVVVV and Dwarf Fortress are difficult. For entirely different reasons. In the article mentioned above I explored the reasons someone might call these games not just difficult, but masochistic. Any sensible person would have interviewed Terry Cavanagh, the creator of VVVVVV. I didn’t. He was pretty busy. I quoted Adam Saltsman. Creator of a one-button game that even you in your pencil-punctured, Mac-illiterate, metaphorical baby form could play.

Justification stations!

The reason I included parts of a conversation with Adam Saltsman was because Saltsman had the above to say about axes of difficulty. It’s pretty fascinating stuff. And his point cleaves  any clean definition of masochistic in two.

Observe Graph Uno.

Oh no. Graphs.

The horizontal axis stands for the Ease of Access. Stay with me here. Graphs are dull, I know. But they aren’t half as dull as trying to think all of this up in your brainmind. So stay with me.

Like I says, the horizontal line stands for Ease of Access – how easy it is for the average player to get used to the controls, the menus, all the input methods. In general, the user interface. An old Infocom adventure game might be further left on this scale than, say, a point-and-click adventure game. Since in Infocom games there are more commands to discover and memorise. In point-and-clicks, you just go buck-mad with mouse-power, clicking all around you until it’s the only thing you ever hear. In your dreams you see your mother tutting. But all you hear is that neutral plastic, that Logitech tick. Anyway, point-and-click is more to the right than command-driven. Argue ergonomics if you like, weirdoes. One is undeniably easier to access than the other.

The vertical axis stands for Ease of Play – in other words, how easy or hard the gameplay features are to the average player. Like the Ease of Access line, this is subject to the natural ability and/or the previously acquired knowledge or skill of the player. I say “and/or” because this isn’t the place for a nature/nurture argument. It isn’t. It isn’t. Isaiditfuckingisntsopleasegoaway.

An example: the section of VVVVVV that begins at “Doing Things The Hard Way” reportedly used to have less spikey spikes when it was in Beta. It now has a few more spikey spikes. Statistically, you are now more likely to die when trying to complete this section than you perhaps would have been if you had played in Beta. So the Beta of Six-Vees-No-Spaces would be higher on the Ease of Play axis than the final release.

Similarly the Dark World of Super Meat Boy is lower on the axis than the World That Is Not The Dark World, because it is harder. This all appears to work fine when discussing games within themselves. But the Ease of Play axis starts to rumble disapprovingly when you use it to compare games to other games, startled as it is by the terrible, beautiful beast they call SUBJECTIVITY. Is Super Meat Boy harder than VVVVVV? My twisting, bilious inside-gut says yes. Your flabbadocious beer-belly says no. Whatever whatever.

Man. Fuck graphs.

Observe Graph Uno again. For surely now you comprehend. This is why Dwarf Fortress is masochistic. It is the only one of the games discussed that falls into the lower left corner of the graph. Hard and hard. Or, if you prefer, ‘ard an ‘ard. This is because it is mind-crushingly complex. And because inherent inaccessibility actually has an effect on the ease of the gameplay features. If you can’t figure out how to dig a hole, controls-wise, how are you meant to dig a lot of holes, gameplay-wise? Difficulty of access has a gravity. Such a singular concept! And nobody bothered to tell me before. When Adam Saltsman first explained it to me, it was one of those bewildering moments of clarity. Like I’d just noticed the RAF Spitfire that had been following me for the past four days. Periodically hiding behind trees and tittering to itself.

As Dwarf Fortress’ interface becomes easier for the player to use, the gameplay features become easier to implement. Through practice and – let’s face it – a YouTubian education, we can defeat inaccessibility’s gravity. We can achieve escape velocity.

Duh, I suppose. This much is obvious. Practice = less hard. But does Dwarf Fortress become less masochistic? Maybe. But only if we use Graph Uno as a diagram for both difficulty and masochism. And only if you agree with what my previous article says – that masochism is not a static thing but is defined at the moment of an enjoyed failure. I.2.da.E. – a game is only masochistic at the moment a player fails (and likes it).

I’m serious. They offend me.

This maso-moment is at the central point of the graph. Where the big, red wobbly line represents the players experience of Dwarf Fortress. As they learn the UI it becomes easier to play on both axes. And when it smacks the centre – a transcendence. Difficulty and Enjoyment fuse and cocoon. We think, simultaneously, “this is frustrating me!” and “this is entertaining me!” This is the feeling of spiritual ambivalence required for a game to be called masochistic. Because masochism is a completely paradoxical term. The meat of pain and the pastry of pleasure rolled into one healthy and unhealthy snack. An oxymoronic sausage roll of lovehate. So bad. But so good.

All that is one reason why I would describe Dwarfy Hideout as masochistic. Here is another: it cannot be completed in any traditional sense. Adam Saltsman is again to blame for this destructive thought-germ. (“I will say this: you can beat Super Meat Boy. You can’t even beat Canabalt.”) The keeper of dwarves is destined to fail. As is the Canabaltic runner.

I choose you, Graph Dos!

Dwarves like graphs. But only for the axes.

Here the Ease of Access line remains the same. But the vertical axis is now tracking Ease of Completion. Where the bottom of the line is Impossible and the top of the line is Super-duper-fluffy-bunny-easy. Mark you the positions of Canabalt and Robot Unicorn Attack. Compare them with Super Meat Boy and Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. And looky here. Dwarf Fortress remains huddled away in his corner.

Actually. You know what? Graph Dos is functionally flawed. The top and bottom do not represent approximate opposites. The opposite of Impossible would be Automatic (something that happens bizarrely often in modern offerings, for cinematic purposes or accessibility’s sake).  Hear ye, hear ye. We, the writers, do solemnly declare Graph Dos negligent. Graph Dos II will take his place in office. The predecessor will hereby be hanged until dead. All observe Graph Dos II and do the law well unto him.

Hail to the King, maybe.

This bad boy now has the vertical axis in the form of a question – ‘Can the game be “completed”?’ Which simplifies the issue somewhat. Pledge allegiance to whatever diagram you want. It doesn’t matter to me. But note well: where is thon Dwarf Fortress? Still burying into the extreme bottom-left. Hunkering down for a harsh winter and scaring away every other title that scurries near. The bottom-left is the masochist’s domain. It is where the Harmers live. Should you go there, be wary.

Weeeeeeeee! Dwarves! They obstruct everything. Defying every convention except the one that holds the ground to be a Good Thing. They are my collective nemesis. And it is mainly because Dwarf Fortress, while being decidedly masochistic, defies one of the central attributes of masochistic games – that they have simple narratives. Super Meat Boy is your basic save-the-princess story. You Probably Won’t Make It doesn’t have a story at all. Even that monarch of masochism I Wanna Be The Guy has a very basic story (there’s this kid, called The Kid. He just wants to be The Guy).

Hard platformers tend to shy away from complicated narrative. Is this because constant death can break the flow of story-telling? If the reverse can be a problem – constant story-telling breaking the flow of gameplay – then it seems possible for difficult patches of play to screw with the progression or timing of a story. Even if it only disrupts the player’s memory or attention to specific details in the plot.

In Prince of Persia: Sands of Time you spend the game alongside Farah (finally, a princess developed past the point of being a weepy chick in a pink dress). Although initially being at odds, the Prince and Farah grow fonder of each other as you progress. Then comes a point in the game where they become separated and you have to find Farah by navigating some darkened doorways, arranged in a circle. You go in one doorway only to come out another, right back where you began. It’s like watching a Benny Hill sketch with only one person. And with the TV on Mute.

To start, you have no idea which doorways to go through and in what order to do so. But it’s clear that there is some combination of entrance and exit that’ll lead you somewhere. Eventually, through a spark of thought or the resigned acknowledgment of Internet’s superior intelligence, you discover that standing in front of certain doorways trigger a subtle watery sound effect. Go through the doorways that “trickle” and you will reach a room of baths, where Farah is waiting for you.

Then Prince and Princess wordlessly have sex.

You always know these two likeable rich-kids are sexually attracted. But the pacing leading up to the, er, climactic event is jarred by the confusion of the preceding puzzle. Unless Ubisoft were trying to make some kind of ‘nice guy’ point about how many hoops you have to jump through to fuck somebody, the unforeseen difficulty of this segment can make the story wobble.

Super-hard games avoid this pitfall by either having no story at all or by giving their player’s character a single, uncomplicated goal. Even Canabalt has a goal (even if it is just a bottomless pit with an overhanging banner that reads “better than last time.”)

Masochistic games are full of contradictions. For all the difficulty ingrained in the environment of masochistic games, the motivations for their characters are among the simplest in gaming.

Chris Breault of Post-Hype has a great essay about narrative and difficulty, focusing on VVVVVV. But he is talking about extended narrative, outside of the story created by the game’s author. He’s talking about narrative that is a part of gameplay itself. Note that this is not the kind of narrative we’re talking about.

Still, you might argue that VVVVVV is a strong balance between story and difficult gameplay. Yet the narrative of All-The-Vs is not complex. Captain Viridian’s shipmates are lost and he must find them.

This is not to say that simple storylines are bad ones. VVVVVV’s story is involved and emotionally engaging to the point where its simplicity is part of the charm. Vermillion’s pining for Violet and the mutual concern for shipmates as demonstrated by the pixelly smiles and frowns of the characters might be simple touches, but they are far more effective at provoking empathy than, say, the Abramsesque tripe that occurs in the complex narrative of Assassin’s Creed. Regardless, VVVVVV’s story remains uncomplicated.

Canabalt – only “masochistic” by the judgement of the imposing, absolutist bastard that is Graph Dos II – has an equally simple narrative: you run away from something. Or perhaps you run to something. Who knows? Nevertheless, you run. You run because shit is going down. And some abstractly dangerous, possibly invasive force, is launching that shit down. Or perhaps you run for other reasons. Perhaps you are simply a devotee of that great thinker Forrest Gump, in which case you run because You. Just. Felt. Like. Running!

So it might be a fair expectation that “masochistic game = simple story.” Ah. Ahh. But in Dwarf Fortress, the narrative is complex. It twists and fizzles as your dwarves go on errant quests to contaminated water sources, or slowly go insane at the prospect of working without the right materials. It’s like an underground Eastenders. Except it is interesting.

However, this is more akin to that type of narrative which is wedded to gameplay. Not the kind over which the author has full(er) control.

For the sake of big, rowdy argument, let’s say this doesn’t matter. The assumption that “masochistic game = simple story” then asplodes in our face because of the Ascii demon that is Dwarf Fortress – that abusive digital husband of a hundred journo love-hate marriages. It will therefore be necessary to amend our statement, if we consider Lovely Fortress/Dwarf Cuntpain to be a masochistic game (and I do).

Therefore, the amended statement should look like this: “masochistic platformer = simple story.”

There is no reason why this ‘rule’ could not be challenged. There is probably a game out there I don’t know about which already disobeys. In any case it is troubled by the initial problems of definition (What is “masochistic” to you? What is a “complex” narrative to you?) However, there does appear to be a trend, at least within the current indie market, for difficult platformers to intentionally limit the complexity of their tale.

That said, let us be fair. For masochists, a complicated story is frankly unnecessary. They don’t need elaborate neo-noir characters of grey, dubious loyalty. They don’t need convoluted moral maze drug-dealing sub-plots. They don’t need to walk in the garden of forking paths or navigate swirling, entwined social relationships. The only thing a masochist needs is a goal.

And lots of spikey spikes in front of it.

*

[Addendum: Apology in order. Actually did speak to Terry Cavanagh eventually. Words said. Interview follows… ]

*

In summary: I think VVVVVV is a masochist game. This interests me. What do you think about that kind of genre?

My opinions on that subject are not going to gel very well with what you’re writing about because I love V and I’m proud as hell of making it but I think my focus as a designer has changed a lot since I made it and I’m not interested in the same things anymore. I’m not so interested in challenge anymore, I guess, as a way to make game design interesting. I think it’s been done to death. I dunno. I’m more interested in the other ways that you can make [a game interesting.]

Is that a reaction to how VVVVVV was received or praised?

I feel like if I was to go back and make, say, another challenging platformer I think that I would just be retreading ground that’s very well-worn at this point. And there are people that do it better to be honest. I’m exploring other avenues right now.

Do you feel VVVVVV was a “masochistic game”?

When I was making it, I didn’t think of it that way at all. In fact, it took like two or three months of development before I even realised that it was hard. It’s kind of weird to say it but when I was making V I was more interested in the kind of permutations of the challenges that you could create for the player to explore. I was more interested in the composition of each scene. Getting from one area to the next should be interesting and very often that meant it was hard. But it’s only one way to make a room be interesting – to make it hard, to make the player sit back and look at it, see how they’re going to approach it.

And in other rooms there is something else to be interested in. There’s a big space outside the ship where it’s just exploring.

Yeah, that came very late in development actually but it was always part of the plan. And by the time it was implemented I was kind of worried that it clashed with what I’d done in other places. But I think it works very well as a contrast.

Would you say there’s a comparison to games like SMB, which are designed to be hard? But you say VVVVVV wasn’t designed with that in mind?

No, it sort of… near the end of development I did make some hard challenges just to be hard. But it was more about exploring the possibilities of what I could do with a small set of verbs. It wasn’t about making challenges that were frustrating or were in any way meant to even challenge the player, I guess. That wasn’t what I was thinking about. That’s not how I was thinking about it.

A lot of people would say it’s a hard game but the frequent checkpoints keep it forgiving.

Yeah, it’s very important to approach it that way. If you’re going to ask the player to do a challenge hundreds of times then it’s really awful to ask them repeat anything y’know… My idea behind the layout of V is that there should be checkpoints after every screen challenge, so you should never have to do anything you’ve already beaten. That’s done.

This is why in say Sonic 4 there’s a rising water challenge with no checkpoints followed by a difficult boss whereas in VVVVVV there’s a rising spikes challenge with lots of checkpoints.

I think there’s like thirty checkpoints in that level [laughs].

A subject that comes up when you talk about masochism in games is accessibility. VVVVVV is very accessible – basically three buttons. Do you think that an inaccessible game (Dwarf Fortress for instance) could be described as a masochistic game?

I’d have to think about that. It’s a good point. But you also need to separate accessibility from complexity, I guess. I can’t really say much about Dwarf Fortress just because I’ve never gotten into it. But there are other games which are similar in ways, like Space Chem. Space Chem is incredibly complex but very accessible and I guess that would introduce a third axis into that equation.

Do you reckon Space Chem is a masochistic game in that way?

I think we’d have to define the difference between just being difficult and being masochistic. Masochism would kind of imply that you somehow get off on making the player go through explicitly difficult challenges, right?

Well, that could be a sadist’s game, from the point of view of a developer.

Oh, of course! [laughs nervously]

A lot of people had that experience with VVVVVV, of getting frustrated but going back to it time and time again for some compelling reason.

It definitely introduces a difference to Space Chem, which doesn’t ask you to redo the same challenge until you get it right. It more just keeps telling you to work out the solution.

I have a message to pass on. It’s rude, so I apologise. It’s quite sweary but it is a sentiment that comes up quite often when I discuss VVVVVV with anyone.

Is it something about how awful it is?

No, it’s not that. It’s more about the difficulty of it. It reads: “If you get the chance, see if you can slam a door on Terry fucking Cavanagh’s fingers. Tell him I told you to do it and that I said “Piss fuck fuck fucking Veni Vidi Vici fuck piss.” Do you have a response?

Your friend needs to remember that that part of the game is optional and he’s doing it to himself. Nobody needs that trinket! [Laughs] I’m actually surprised at how much I point this out but the collectibles in that game are actually called “Shiny Trinkets” – I mean, how unsubtle can you get! There’s a menu option that allows you to unlock every single challenge in the game and it’s intentional. The idea is you challenge yourself, if you want to, y’know? Nobody has to do Veni Vidi Vici. It’s a ridiculous challenge, it’s muscle memory. I’m shocked at the amount of people who jump right into it to get Shiny Trinkets.

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