Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Words in Pictures, in Words

Once upon a time, I strayed from this blog, and set up a Tumblr. It's now defunct because eventually I wasn't unemployed, but it was a whirlwind romance while it lasted. For some reason, I've decided to do it again. Meet Words in Pictures.

It's a photographic scrapbook of all the tastiest morsels of novels, journalism, comics and anything else that could conceivably be said to feature 'words', each with an accompanying short essay. To give you an idea of what looks like in practice, here are five of my favourite things I've written so far:

Some cards from Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game
"Imagine a Cylon came into power. Imagine they managed to work out another player was secretly a fellow evil-bot, and made their position unimpeachable while they openly sabotaged the game…
Are you starting to see it? That beautiful, complex knotted shape? This is the game in its perfect form."
Read the rest here

A Passage from Rachel Edidin's "Hey, White Americans. We Need to Talk."
"With every protest or riot or strike, public sympathy often seems to lie with what pop-culture always taught me was The Man: they've broken laws, it's their own fault, they're just being lazy, being greedy, they've inconvenienced me personally. I'm far too timid for revolution (or, hell, even for probing people's reactions in a way that might make them uncomfortable enough to change their minds) but I worry that this is just the system's antibodies at work."
Read the rest here

Two Panels from Grant Morrison's JLA: Rock of Ages

"You can see the world as Lex does, with him as the hero. It’s a very different reading of the Superman story (oh yeah, that blue thing is Superman – ’90s superhero comics everybody!), but it’s one that sticks in the mind. What if all Superman comics are actually pro-Kryptonian propaganda? What if we don’t want to be overseen, which after all is really just another word for ‘watched’?"

Read the rest here

A Passage from Andrew Hickey's An Incomprehensible Condition

"Rather than performing a close reading of Morrison’s comic, Hickey manages to reproduce the feeling of it by being smarter than the reader by just enough, cutting between ideas just fast enough, that you can still just about follow. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind to Thomas the Rhymer to Isaac Newton to golem myths to M-theory. It’s dizzying, mimetic criticism."
Read the rest here

A Passage from Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test
"It’s utterly convincing when, for example, Bob Hare tells you psychopaths are practically a second species hiding among us like Cylons. Then you turn to the next chapter, and encounter a completely contradictory perspective, and are won over by that one too. They all kind of plaster over one another, giving The Psychopath Test the texture of a palimpsest."
Read the rest here

Monday, 22 September 2014

What I'm Playing: Hitman Go

I dedicated the last four posts of What I'm Playing to an attempt at figuring out what makes a good mobile game. 

And then the very next game I played was another mobile game which didn't fit into the grand pattern I'd mapped out for the posts. Such are the dangers of trying to write honestly about every game you play, I suppose.

Hitmango (6)
Hitmango isn't a game about the popularity of tropical fruits, sadly, but a mobile adaption of the popular games franchise about leading professional killer, baldie and hide-and-seek champion Agent 47.

Before I drop in a screenshot, let's talk about the first thing you're going to notice about Hitmango. Namely, how uniquely gorgeous it is. A few months back, I talked about how Hearthstone went out of its way to imitate a physical card game, but Hitmango goes further still.

In an attempt to distill the Hitman formula down into something that will fit on the small screen, it miniaturises the whole thing – the disguises, distractions and player-engineered deathtraps – and turns it into a board game.

Hitmango (4)

From the game-box loading screens to the plaque on the wooden bezel of each level, this is something you could imagine turning over in your hands. Or admiring the craftsmanship of the sculpted figurines that stand in for 47 and his targets, like a tourist gawping at one of those elaborate mechanical clocks in a German town square.

Hitmango plays like a board game too. You move your piece along a set track, one marker at a time, and then your opponent – in this case, an AI-controlled squad of bodyguards – takes their move. Just like clockwork.

Which is to say, smooth and well put together, but a bit stiff and mechanical too. Hitmango almost feels like it's satirising the lack of choice offered by most games – how, for example, a lot of stealth games is just watching for the gap in a routine patrol pattern. But if taking a Bioshock-style jab at the illusion of autonomy genuinely is the intention here, the Hitman franchise is an odd place for it.

Hitmango (1)

The Hitman games have always thrived on giving players as much choice as possible. Do you want to put a bullet in your target from a rooftop half a mile away, or pose as a waiter and slip poison into their caviar? While Hitmango recreates these actions, it puts them quite literally on rails.

Being fair, there are some choices to be made here. Each level has additional achievements, which are often mutually exclusive – kill everyone, kill no one – to encourage replaying, but this only highlights how narrow the perfect solution is. Too often, the answer is bouncing back and forth between two squares a maddening number of times, until a guard's patrol slips out of sequence.

In a way, Hitmango is more like a handsomely-furnished Threes than any of the other installments in the Hitman series, and I'll give the same disclaimer as I did in my blog on that: maybe it's just a failing of my brain.

Hitmango (7)

Here's the thing, though. There's a bonus pack which which adapt possibly the series' high watermark: the Blood Money level 'Curtains Down'. Taking down two targets in a theatre, Agent 47 switches a prop gun for a real one, then watches from the balcony as an actor accidentally executes your mark, firing the remote min he's stuck on a chandelier at just the right moment to crush the another.

It's a moment of memorably inventive violence which Hitmango faithfully reproduces, but it doesn't have the tool set to replicate its thrills. After all, the joy wasn't in merely watching these assassinations play out. It was the knowledge that you could have just charged in with a sub-machine gun instead, the feeling that you'd discovered these alternatives yourself.

In Hitmango, these aren't choices. They're mandatory checkpoints you drag your Agent 47 figurine towards. You're not a genius professional killer earning his million-dollar bonus; you're a competent snakes-and-ladders player.

Hitmango (5)

Other games what I've been playing:

Monday, 1 September 2014

Tim + Alex Get TWATD #1.2: Sex, Icons, God is a DJ

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. In two years, they'll probably still be doing this.

Welcome back to Tim + Alex Get TWATD.


The Monarchs of Fuck

For a series whose core theme is the inevitability of death (as we discussed last time), The Wicked + The Divine spends a lot of time concerned with art’s other great motivator: sex.

The gods, as befits their largely pre-Christian origins, seem like they can’t get enough of it. While Inanna and Sakhmet (with her lifeless, drained entourage) are highlighted by Cassandra as the most prolific of the gods in this sense, we also have Woden’s “army of ethnic mono-cultured valkyrie fuck buddies”; Baphomet and The Morrigan’s Sid-and-Nancy-esque relationship; and Luci, who seems to have tangled with most of the pantheon, and flirts relentlessly with Laura. Even Amaterasu, relative paragon of purity and wholesomeness, causes fans to orgasm with joy at her concerts.

And then we have Laura, our window on the world, Virgil to our Dante. Laura is presented as neither virginally pure (she knows her way around an orgasm, it seems) nor particularly sexually experienced (she’s blindsided by Luci’s flirting). She is, in other words, your typical teen, surrounded by images of sex but not truly engaged with it yet. The gods are both her peers (in terms of age) and her idols, and are hyper-sexual in the way the world is when you are just 17.

Luci's Tongue

However, while the gods may talk the talk, we’re yet to see them walk the walk. The book isn’t exactly rated T for Teen (exploding heads, c-bombs, etc), but has so far shied away from any direct depictions of sex, graphic or otherwise. The sexuality of the gods is both everywhere and nowhere, inescapable yet entirely abstract. We can infer the kind of kinky hijinx Luci’s been up to or The Morrigan and Baphomet’s room-trashing passion, but so far it’s all been kept behind closed doors.

Sidenote: it’s worth pointing out that while Laura has been in close proximity to five different gods (or seven, depending on how you view The Morrigan) so far, her only moment of flesh-on-flesh contact with one is giving her hand to Lucifer when they first meet (and if that doesn’t strike you as ominous, you’re not paying enough attention).

The sexual nature of the gods is, at least in these first three issues, for our own interest, rather than theirs. It may be graphically detailed, but it’s there to fuel our speculation and our fantasy. The only hint of an actual stable relationship (Baal’s boyfriend) is noted as being “off-brand”. Just like real pop stars, the sexuality of the gods is there to tease, just another product for our consumption.


Icona Pop

The last work from 'Team Phonogram' (Gillen/McKelvie/Wilson) was 2013's Young Avengers, a superhero comic for Marvel which attempted a whole bunch of things and succeeded at most of them. But my single favourite thing about the series was undoubtedly the promise of a double-page spread every issue. Fight scenes were rendered as diagrams or montages or some new eye-popping idea, every month, guaranteed. Comics as a Michel Gondry pop video.

So I was disappointed to hear they wouldn't be bringing the same approach to The Wicked + The Divine. Three issues in, though, it's pretty clear that these visual experiments haven't been abandoned .

I could point to the introduction of The Morrigan, probably the nearest direct relative to YA's visual setpieces. Two circular panels, at opposite corners of a double-page spread, are linked by a black flurry of crow shapes, thick enough to become an abstract shape. All other panels are knocked off their axis or even pushed off the page as reality is bent.

Morrigan 2

But I reckon The Wicked + The Divine's real visual achievement lies in a repeating set of much simpler elements.

Look at those covers. The portraits overlaid with text are reminiscent of the trend for movie posters that looked like the Social Network's, but here the concept is pared back as far as it will go. The covers are supremely confident – of how compelling a McKelvie-drawn face can be, and of the mystery of the pop-gods' identities. That confidence is not unfounded.

The covers are comfortably iconic enough that The Wicked + The Divine's interiors start playing with them from the very first page, echoing the face of Luci or Laura (depending on which version you picked up) with a big ol' skull in the exact same proportions – a trick issue #3 repeated with The Morrigan's head.

Look at the use of black. For four pages, as Laura takes a journey into London's underground, issue #2 almost turns into an illustrated prose story, each page featuring a single quarter-size piece of art and a smattering of words carefully on a sheer black canvas. In issue #3, they push it even further, beginning with black panel borders which eventually overwhelm the whole page. There's one entirely image-free page with just ten words on it, and I've stared at it probably longer than any other.

Like sensory deprivation, these sections highlight what's great about each element of the creative team in isolation – the rhythm of Gillen's narration emphasised by the room it's given, Clayton Cowles' ever-so-slightly-organic letterforms bringing Laura's chatty diarist voice to life, McKelvie's compositions toying with negative space to create a believable sense of place, Matt Wilson lighting these sets moodily to lead us down from the pinkish surface to the deep blues of the underworld – before bringing the band triumphantly back together for the end of the issue.

Look at those diagrammatic scene breaks. Iconic in the simplest sense of the word, the symbols on these pages act like a wordless 'Previously on...'. They tell us that there are 10 gods who have recurred, and that this leaves two spots to be filled, they imply a connection between factions of gods, they even encourage the readers to deduce who's who. Taken individually, each symbol is its own invitation to pick a favourite, doodle their sigil in class, get a tattoo.

If Young Avengers' spreads were superhero comics as pop videos, The Wicked + The Divine's design elements lean closer to the album cover – the kind of image that people might want on a t-shirt or a poster, even if they're not into the source material.

In a way, I needn't have written this piece. Look around the rest of the page, and you'll find our response to the unique look of The Wicked + The Divine. It feels ready-made for fandom, a DIY borrow-if-you-like visual language, and that's exactly what we've done. We haven't found a way to incorporate the black yet but we will. Oh, we will.


Woden’t It Be Nice

As someone who spent a large chunk of his boyhood cultivating an interest in classical myth, it’s been fascinating watching Gillen, McKelvie et al reimagine the gods of The Recurrence for the 21st Century and weave the connective tissue between their ancient exploits and the pop archetypes they are made to inhabit. The teasing insights we’ve been offered into the gods we have yet to encounter have got my speculation engines working at maximum capacity, and none more so than Woden, AKA Wotan, AKA Odin, the Allfather, king of the Æsir, patriarch of the Norse gods.

Reinterpreted as a modern music icon, the most obvious genre for Woden is, of course, heavy metal. Between Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, Scandinavia’s clutch of church-burning, Norse-iconography-appropriating black metal groups and the fury and bombast associated with the Norse pantheon, Woden seems like the easiest god to assign to an archetype. However, I want to offer an alternative interpretation, based on what we’ve seen in the issues so far – Woden as the superstar DJ.

One of the first mentions we get of Woden is in issue #2, when Cassandra brings up that many of the gods are planning to socialise at his 'Valhalla', which she doesn’t seem too fond of. So far, he’s the only god who seems to have a close association with a fixed location – a home base, so to speak. Given that all the gods are manifesting as musical acts, it seems only logical that Valhalla is a venue, and while there are of course exceptions to the rule, nowadays the most likely acts to have strong ties to a particular place are DJs. Bands and artists have to tour, but a DJ can cultivate a following just by spinning at the same club every Friday night.

Issue #3 also mentions Woden that permanently wears a mask of some kind, and not the metaphorical kind. This could of course be in the Slipknot/Lordi/Gwar vein, but ask most young people today to name a musical star who wears a mask, and the most common answer is likely to be Daft Punk or Deadmau5.


And then we have Woden’s 'valkyries', who are implied to have somehow been transformed into something beyond human by Woden, and whom Laura has seen in concert on multiple occasions. There’s DNA from Phil Spector’s various girl groups there, but a more contemporary comparison would be a DJ with a rotating cast of guest vocalists, each one elevated to stardom for a single track before they’re thrown aside.

There are mythological arguments to be made too – the Æsir were a pretty hard-partying bunch, and Woden, perhaps more than any other gods we’ve met so far, needs a kingdom to rule over like a DJ commands the floor. Woden is often torn between his nature as a frenzied warrior (read: hardcore partier) and his role as a wise master of spells (detached overseer of the dancefloor).

Plus, in myth, Valhalla was the home of the ‘glorious dead’, and if there’s a better term for a gang of club kids staggering home at 5am, I haven’t heard it.


Tim + Alex will return in November to discuss issues #4-6 of The Wicked + The Divine. Missing them already?

Alex's ramblings can be found here at Alex-Spencer.co.uk. If you'd like him a little more succinct, his 'Words in Pictures' Tumblr features mini-essays on chunks of prose and comics. Want even more brevity? Catch him on Twitter @AlexJaySpencer.

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.

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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.