Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Tim + Alex Get TWATD #1.1: Death, Parents, Needle Dicks


This is the high concept behind The Wicked + The Divine, the latest Image comic from Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie and Matt Wilson.
Every ninety(ish) days, two handsome young writers return to this blog. They read the last three issues of The Wicked + The Divine, and they write three essays each.
Welcome to Tim + Alex Get TWATD. Each set of essays will be broken into two posts, to save our wrists and your eyes. We might be doing close readings of particular scenes or panels, picking out a theme or character that's caught our attention, or just speculating wildly. Spoilers will be everywhere, so if you haven't read the comics yet, avert your eyes or, better yet, grab them and come back later.
In two years, they'll probably still be doing this. The idiots.


“But not yet.”

You know, given that its very first page is dominated by a skull, and the majority of its cast's lives have a guaranteed expiration date of two years' time, The Wicked + The Divine has actually shown a remarkably light touch when it comes to mortality.

In the opening pages of #1, which take us back to 1923 and the era's own set of deities, we get a preview of the gods' inevitable fate. Eight have already been reduced to the aforementioned skulls, and a couple of pages later, we see the explosive murder-suicide of the remaining four. But their demises don't weigh too heavily on us – they're not characters we've had time to get invested in, despite their wonderful Jazz Age designs – nor, it seems, on their 21st Century counterparts.

Over in 2014, Amaterasu (aka 17-year-old Hazel Greenaway) is asked about her imminent demise by the comic's resident cynic, Cassandra. There is a regretful pause, a moment of wonderfully-drawn sadness in Ammy's big brown eyes, before she pretty much shrugs it off:

There are a few possible reasons for all this:
  1. They're teenagers. Do you remember being 17? The threat of dying before 20 feels more like a promise. Amaterasu's reaction is pretty much this.
  2. They're also kind of immortal. After all, that elegant set up makes two promises: You will die. But, in some sense, you'll be back, long after everyone else here is gone. It's just like pop music – I can just about conceive that Prince Rogers Nelson will one day die. But Prince, the artist previously known as an unpronounceable symbol? He's not going anywhere.
  3. They're too busy making the most of being not-dead. Creation is these gods' main business, both in the artistic being-popstars sense and the procreational one. Based on Luci's accounting in issue #3, pretty much the whole pantheon has touched pelvises. (More on that from Tim in our next set of essays.)
  4. Simple dramatic license. If The Wicked + The Divine was wall-to-wall moping about the gaping abyss (and not the kind Badb is taking about), it'd be about as much fun as hanging out in a funeral home. Besides, with a promised run of 30-40 issues, the comic has plenty of time to reach that point yet.
In fact, the one time so far that the comic has really pushed the issue – with a pure black page, lit only by the refrain “We're all going to die” – it came from the gods' music. (The two-page sequence being, as far as I can tell, a particularly abstract way of depicting the trance-like state of a perfect gig.)

It's a performance, and it's the message Baphomet and the Morrigan choose to send to the outside world. So it's probably telling that the sequence ends with three more words, lighting the darkness and breaking the rhythm: “But not yet.”
              

Won’t Somebody Think of the Grown-Ups?

The Wicked + The Divine is a series with its eye fixed firmly on the young.

Laura, our entry point into the story, is 17. The gods and goddesses are, at most, in their early 20s. Apart from the elderly and possibly immortal Ananke, the only major character that could rent a car in the US is Cassandra, who is old enough to have a Masters degree, but young enough to still be annoyed about her student loans. That said, one group of adults is very conspicuous in their absence – the parents.

Laura’s parents are both seen and heard, and her interactions with them root her as a 'normal' figure caught up in the supernatural events of the Recurrence. In issue #2 we are presented with a portrait of their normality, as the family sits around the television watching Baal’s interview. Laura’s father gently prods at his daughter’s affection for the gods, her mother prevents it escalating beyond good-natured familial banter. In issue #3, we see the consequences of Laura being caught (quite literally) at the Morrigan’s gig, and the ensuing row, again a picture of normal teenage life.

In contrast, we have the parents of the gods. Amaterasu is 17, Lucifer maybe a couple of years older. Minerva is only 12. It’s common knowledge that the gods live for a maximum of two years after they are awoken. Where are their mortal parents, lamenting their childrens’ inevitable early deaths? Or, given that we’re also dealing with pop stars and the modern cults of celebrity, where are the parents desperately trying to edge their way into their child’s spotlight, barely acknowledging their foretold doom? Granted, we’ve only had three issues, and the plot has been moving at a fair tick, but we've already had our attention drawn to the empty seats at the family table.

Lucifer’s parents (or rather the parents of the girl who became Lucifer) are twice referenced. First in Cassandra’s interview, where she conjures a picture of Luci discovering Bowie in her parents’ “embarrassingly retro record collection”, and then again when Luci regales Laura with the tale of her transformation into a god, while her parents “were out at some awful Britpop covers band”. If her parents are at the court hearing in issue #1, they never make their presence known, even when Luci is being tackled by bailiffs. Where are they, and what do they make of their young daughter suddenly declaring herself the Lord of Flies?

Of course, there’s another way to look at this. If anyone would have an absent parent who remains caught in the past, reliving their faded glories, oblivious to the damage their child is causing, it should probably be Lucifer...

              

The Baphomet Problem

Our gods so far: Luci(fer). A gender-flipped Bowie/Satan figure, dropping acidic soundbites like they were carpet bombs. Love her. Amaterasu. A young, even-more-divine Kate Bush who makes her fans leak from the trousers at gigs. Love her. Sakhmet. S&M-era Rihanna turned literal sex kitten. How could I not love her? The Morrigan. Three-in-one none-more-goth queen. Love her.

And Baphomet. Hmmmmm.

Maybe it's the look. Leather jacket, chains, mirrored aviators, animal skulls... Baphomet is the rare Jamie McKelvie costume design I wouldn't want to cosplay as. Even those exposed abs, against the dirtier crosshatching-in-every-corner world McKelvie and colourist Matt Wilson have conjured up, come off a bit Ken-doll.

Look at the texture of the first two panels below, the visual noise obscuring and framing Baphomet. Then he clicks his fingers, reveals himself – and everything goes a bit shiny.

Baphomet 2

Or maybe it's that I'm just not a fan of the musical archetypes Baphomet draws from. There's the swagger of a thousand cock-rock frontmen in his hips, some Sisters of Mercy, the hyperbole of early Manics, Nick Cave at his murder-horniest. None of them are really my thing.

Baphomet certainly falls into a character archetype I'm fond of, though: the kind of arrogant male Kieron Gillen writes so well. In his Uncanny X-Men, Namor is Kanye West's Power incarnate (I guess every superhero needs his theme music). Phonogram's David Kohl is a swinging dick of a human being who introduces himself with the Afghan Whigs' Be Sweet.

You get the impression that going to bed with Kohl or Namor, as much as you might regret it the next day, would be worth it. To quote the Atlantean king himself: “Only Namor has the ability to make the Earth move. And he reserves that privilege for one woman at a time.” David Kohl was recently named 'Babe of the Month'. Baphomet, on the other hand, is apparently blessed with a “needle dick”.

And then it struck me. It doesn't actually seem like the comic has much love for Baphomet either. Maybe this is the correct response. After all, he's introduced in a final-page splash – which, in the language of superhero comics (like Gillen/McKelvie/Wilson's last collaboration, Marvel's Young Avengers), tends to mean the reveal of our villain.

Like the real-life Top 40, The Wicked + The Divine is populated by charismatic problematic people. Luci's apparent desire to have sex with underage groupies is quickly forgiven amongst all the crowd-pleasing one liners and the humanising moment of her framing at the end of issue #1.

There's no real attempt to redeem Baphomet. When we first mee him, he's clutching the apparently severed head of a much-anticipated female character. Soon afterwards, he sets fire to a policeman and makes a speedy exit, leaving Laura and the Morrigan to face the consequences.

Given the brilliantly seductive dicks Gillen has written in the past, it's probably worth paying attention to the fact that Baphomet is the first male god we've been introduced to. In fact, he's the first male character in this series to get more than a couple of lines, and not shot/exploded/set on fire, and he's a total prick.

              

Next time on Tim + Alex Get TWATD: 
Laura, she's more than a superstar. Let's talk about sex, Badb. They're right and crazy pretentious!

Find Tim's blog at trivia-lad.blogspot.co.uk, where his piece on the semiotics of TW+TD's finger snaps first gave us the idea for this whole thing, on Twitter @trivia_lad, and even, if you think you can handle the sexiness, on Tumblr.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

What I'm Playing: XCOM

So far in our journey through mobile gaming, we've shuffled tiles with  Threes, murdered demons with Hoplite and explored wordy galaxies with Out There.

Throughout, I've been trying to work out what makes a good mobile game. What is the right balance between complexity and simplicity? What length of game works best? How important is randomisation? Should you be able to abandon a game and come back to it days later?

Or does none of that actually matter?

XCOM Logo

Originally a PC game, with very little changed en route, XCOM is in many ways a terrible fit for mobile. It requires your full attention, revolves around drawn-out battle sequences that are a little fiddly to control and impossible to drop and pick back up without disastrous consequences. The app annihilates battery, and if you play for too long my phone, at least, burns the tips of my fingers. One particularly heavy session left my right hand a rigid arthritic claw for days afterwards, something I haven't experienced since my mid-teens.

Luckily, while XCOM might be a bit rubbish as a mobile game, that doesn't really matter on account of it being just a fucking great game.

It's probably my favourite of the past however-long-it's-been-since-Spelunky-first-came-out, and in spite of all those problems, XCOM actually feels pleasantly incongruous on the tiny screen. It's a blockbuster miniaturised and bottled like the city of Kandor. The screenshots peppered throughout this blog don't do it justice, but in motion the game is Aliens and Independence Day and Starship Troopers squashed down into something you can play on the bus.
XCOM 7
If you pull at XCOM's edges, and tease it carefully apart, you'll find it divides into neat halves: a resource-management base building game and a turn-based strategy game.

The turn-based battles are the star here. Half a dozen soldiers are dropped into an invaded city, or UFO crash site, tasked with hunting down every alien in the area and welcoming them to Earth in the fashion of a young Will Smith. You have to keep as many of them alive as possible.

It's taut, tense stuff. Especially if you plug in headphones – another way that XCOM is out of sync with most mobile games – and take in the soundtrack. Ambient birdsong and the odd chirrup of alien tech gives way to an electronic score, building agonisingly as the soldiers push back the fog of war, praying they're not about to uncover a nest of Mutons. Occasionally, screeches suggest the position of nearby enemies, then suddenly the soundtrack explodes into action-movie techno as an entirely new species steps out of the darkness.
XCOM 3
Make it through all that, and any remaining squad members get to fly back to HQ, to treat their wounds, collect their promotions and pick out a special ability. This is the other half of XCOM and, though it might be possible to prise them apart, you soon realise that the two halves describe a perfect yin-yang, feeding endlessly into one another.

Each mission gathers you resources which you can use to build equipment for the next foray into alien territory, or artefacts you can study to unlock new technology. Which can be used, in one instance, to take aliens prisoner and bring them back to base for autopsy. Which unlocks...

Each long-running game of XCOM is its own clockwork construction. Appropriately, it's also one that runs on time: in the battles, with each soldier granted two actions per turn, and also back at the base. The latest discovery might take a few days to research, building and launch a satellite a whole fortnight. This adds up to a compelling list of interlocking tasks. Three days until the new recruits arrive, five until your latest superweapon is ready.
XCOM 1

It's here that other mobile games might take the opportunity to squeeze in buy-with-real-money gems to speed up progress, but there's no forced grind. You can fast-forward as much as you want, racing towards that next unlock – but lean on that button too heavily and you'll be accelerating your own demise.

Every few days, there's a new city being invaded for your soldiers to rescue – or, worse, two or three simultaneously, of which you can only attempt to save one. Constantly ticking away beneath all this is a monthly timebomb, in the form of the end-of-term reports issued by the shadowy council of nations behind the XCOM project. Fail to protect a country and it might abandon the project, taking precious income with it. Lose enough countries and it's game over.

Ignore Hamburg because London is under threat? Expect panic to spread in Germany, and a highly unfreundlich call from Merkel. So, that satellite I mentioned? You're going to need it to stop Germany tipping over the brink. You sell all the unusued alien tech you can on the grey market to raise funds, then realise you need to build an uplink facility in the base before you can launch it. Then, as you skip through the agonising weeks, it hits you. Council report: 10 days. Building completion date: 11 days. Auf wiedersehn.

Countries and cash are big abstract resources to threaten the player with, but speeding ahead has another cost. Every squad you send out on a rescue mission is made up of a half-dozen fragile human beings. With their own speciality – there are four different classes: sniper, assault, heavy, support, plus some added psychic business later in the game. Their own rank – awarded for successful missions and kills, giving each character access to a class-specific tree of special skills. And most cruelly of all, their own name.
XCOM 2 Jeffy
Meet Jeff Jefferson. Nowadays, that's Colonel Jeff Jefferson, Support Division, but he's been with me since the very first mission, when the game automatically generated his hilarious name and Canadian origin. I have a Canadian friend called Geoff, so naturally I tweaked Jeff's appearance to match, posted a screenshot on Facebook, laughed when he was assigned the nickname 'Rogue'. And then I started to catch myself pulling Jefferson back from the action. To safety.

Each mission is an opportunity to lose your best men and women. If Jefferson gets blown to hell, as he inevitably will, eventually, that's the end of his story. His name will be engraved on the 'Memorial' menu in the base's barracks, with a brief history (how many missions, how many kills, the ridiculous codename for the mission that finally claimed him), and that's it. All his experience and personality will be lost, like tears in rain.

Somehow they're not just jumbles of stats or resources with arms and leg, they're little people. Contrast with the 'SHIV' robotic gun platforms which can fill the role of a soldier in a battle. I'll happily let these anonymous droids perish, despite the adorable way they skim across the landscape, but the humans gather stories and identities too quickly to ever be disposable.

Meet 'Papa Bear' Muthambi, who was always up front ready to take his lumps from those alien bastards. Deceased. 15 missions, 42 kills, KIA: Operation Brutal Gaze. Or Tiffany Spencer, who I was already predisposed to like even before she earned the nickname 'Shotsy' and took a whole squad of Mutons with a shotgun. Deceased. Or 'Doomsday' Liu, who once had to blow up a civilian to take out a Chryssalid that would have torn through the entire squad – the right decision, but she was never the same again. Deceased.
XCOM 5
A confession: some of these people have died more than once. I've let myself cheat a couple of times, purposely crash the game or just boot up an earlier save. That's something I never did on PC, but this is my unreliable smartphone, and these poor bastards shouldn't have to suffer because of a clumsy thumb or hungover commute.

Still, even knowing I can reload at any time, XCOM is terrifying. Ridiculously so, for something that's playing out on the five inches of plastic burning my hands as I miss a vital tube stop. For all its complexity, the beating heart of XCOM is simply this: sending beloved characters forward into the unknown, over and over again.

That can hurt, but when one system exhausts you, another pulls you back in. A battle ends, disastrously, but there's that fast-forward button. Inviting you to research the piece of alien tech your one surviving soldier dragged back to base. To build that new plasma rifle that's going to avenge your fallen comrades. But then you hit an alien encounter, and it's all go again, and the combat draws you back in.
XCOM 6
This alternating loop pulls you through the story being told by your game: which countries you save, which you let burn, who makes corporal and who dies alone on a battlefield. Because at its best, XCOM is the equivalent of a cracking pageturner. The game engages your attention on a moment-to-moment basis but what's really compelling is the constant question: what happens next?

Which brings us to the reason that XCOM is actually, secretly, a fucking excellent mobile game too. Like that thick wad of paperback you're addicted to, it can go everywhere, fill any gap, become an intrinsic part of your life for months.

Unlike a book, though, this story belongs entirely to you. There's never going to be another Jeff 'Rogue' Jefferson. That's why I have to hold onto this one.
XCOM 4


Other games what I've been playing:

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London, United Kingdom
Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.