Kian hung his coat on the coat rack next to his door as he kicked the door closed with his right foot. His movements were mechanical, as were his thoughts, which led him first to remove his shoes for the sake of not leaving wet footprints in the hallway and then to subsequently make his way into the kitchen where he took out a two pint canister of milk and drunk from the bottle until it became uncomfortable for him to swallow the contents. This was the point where variation could kick in, if it wanted to. Necessary procedures had been enacted and now he was free to use the evening as he would. But it was just another evening, and so he made his way into the living room, checked that the television remote was in arms reach, and slumped down on the sofa. He knew that he would be there for the forseeable future – or at least until he was hungry again.

He hated himself for this routine. The sky was dark and grey outside, which justified his coming straight home from work – he needn’t feel guilty about not spending the evening outdoors. And yet, he still felt that he was allowing something vital to slip ever more gradually from his grasp. The sense of dripping was intense – almost palpable as he watched his life slink away from an over turned vase – progressing slowly but steadily towards the table’s edge and then down – drop by drop – onto the floor, never to be seen again. What a waste. To think of the untold trillions that had never been born – never had their vases filled in the first place; or the endless and ever growing list of those whose vases had run dry and who were now in the ground — or not even there – no longer in existence, anywhere. Gone to the world. He was not, he still had time; but this was how he spent it. Dulling his brain and waiting for work tomorrow.

The thought depressed him and yet he found it did little more than inspire him to continue to sit back and watch television – if it was all meaningless and transitory then why even worry? He may as well try not to think about it – he enjoyed relaxing in front of the television, didn’t he? It was such a contrast from the mental strain of work – that was a good thing, surely. And so he sat back – not really believing his rationalising, but trying not to think about it. He’d do something else tomorrow.

After a couple of hours (judging by the television programmes that had aired from beginning to end), Emma came home. Her return lit a spark in Kian that he hated. Or rather, he resented it – it felt good, excitement and happiness that the girl he loved with all his heart had come back home; back into his life after a long eight or nine hours out of it – but at the same time miserable, for he knew that the feeling was unique to him: people didn’t feel like that anymore, not normal and healthy people in any case. It was anachronistic to love someone with all your heart, just as it would have been to have had children with Emma at only twenty seven, or to have expected that they’d be together for longer than the standard rate of time – in at most ten to fifteen years; she’d be gone.

Kian knew that these feelings that he suffered were a special and individual case and the shame ate him up inside. He felt old fashioned – more relevant to the society of his great grandparents than his own. And so he denied them, as much as he could to himself, and entirely to the rest of the world – and to Emma. She would never understand – he’d be a freak to her – and a pervert for what he yearned for in his deepest and most private moments. “Hello” she said as she walked into the living room having kicked off her own shoes, leaving them on the floor in the hall. She looked pleasant, with a smile best described as ‘kindly’. “Hello” replied Kian as he looked back at her. He tried to emulate her manner as much as he possibly could – taking cues for his own behavior as much as he could from hers.

Having waited for a moment to see if he was going to say anything further, Emma turned and made her way into the kitchen. As she walked, she shouted back to Kian “how was your day?” The question was predictable and he was fully prepared for it when it came. This was always the sequence of conversation at the end of the working day when they remet each other in their small terraced house. “It was fine” he replied – hoping she wouldn’t ask further questions on the subject. “You didn’t go anywhere after work?” came Emma’s reply after a brief pause while she rifled through the fridge looking for something quick and easy to eat. Kian paused for a moment before giving the reply that he knew would arouse the least suspicion: “…no, I was with a woman – just one from work.” “Ah, thought it had been a while” said Emma, still sounding as if she were searching through the shelves in the fridge – there were only three, how long could it possibly take to find something satisfactory as an after work snack? “And you?” Kian replied “I’m guessing the same given timing”. He didn’t want to know – didn’t want to hear that the one he loved had been with some other man, had had his hands all over her most intimate parts, felt her sweat against his skin and experienced the rush that came from experiencing her body. But he had to ask – he didn’t want her to know what a backwards and sentimental fool he was. “Yeah – friend of a friend” she shouted back as she returned from the kitchen.

His heart sank and tears forced their way into his eyes. Quickly he swept them away as Emma made her way towards the living room from the hall. It was of the highest imperative that she knew nothing of his feelings – for her disgust and embarrassment would be too great to bear. As she entered, he turned to her and smiled as pleasantly as he could manage. “Your eyes are red” she said, cocking her head slightly to the left. “Yes” Kian replied, “it’s bloody freezing outside, it’s given me a cold”. Stupid excuse, but enough – he knew she wouldn’t question him further – what did it matter to her why his eyes were red?

For a while they sat in silence, letting the television flow over them like a luminescent opiate – so relaxed and unconcerned – unfeeling and unconscious. Kian found himself lost in his own thoughts and every now and again, when he knew she wasn’t going to notice, he stole a look at Emma. She was beautiful. Truly and utterly beautiful. Her skin was alabaster – so perfect that it almost seemed impossible for an organic being to be encased in it. Her face was gently rounded, with soft curves and the ever-so-slightest hint of plumpness which betrayed the youthfulness from which she’d come. Her eyes were large and deep. They glistened and twinkled like stars in deep space on dark, warm summer nights. He loved her with all his heart.

They’d been together for a year now. They had another year of living together before marriage – assuming they could cohabit amicably. Then they would stay together until Emma was thirty or so, about four years hence – and then, assuming all had gone pleasantly, they would go to the clinic and Emma would be made pregnant by Kian. That would commence a ten year minimum agreement, but fifteen years as standard, in which their marriage would stand as legally binding; for the sake of the child. At the end of that period, their marriage would automatically void and they would continue living however they wished – as individuals, perhaps as friends – perhaps not.

Kian remembered his own fifteenth year, when his father had moved out and into a house a few towns away. It had made him sad in a way that seemed primeval and intrinsic, but he had said nothing to anyone about it. His mother had already been bringing other men into the house for some time, whom his father would politely drink with once they were finished, and likewise his father had been going out regularly to have other women, presumably, when the need took him. Thus things progressed as they did for everyone – the contract was completed and his parents went their separate ways. His school teachers interpreted Kian’s sudden lack of attention and drop in grades as the onset of some latent learning difficulty – assigned him special educational needs assistants and dropped him to the lowest academic sets. He didn’t care.

Was this what was in store for him? Yes it was – and the idea horrified. He didn’t want to lose Emma in fifteen year’s time. He didn’t want to be embroiled in some hideous mutually agreeable arrangement which allowed them to raise a child without ever engaging as truly devoted lovers. He wanted what his great grandparents had had – true, eternal love. But was that genuine anyway? Didn’t they marry in their early or mid twenties in those days? Weren’t they just complying with a status quo that had long since been proven incompatible with a human nature which can, and – yes, so they say – should put itself above all else? Why was he like this? Backwards.

Kian looked over at Emma again. The flickering lights from the television played off her skin like water been agitated this way and that. Was this really what she wanted? Kian wondered if perhaps she was just like him – after all, nobody would know that he felt the way that he did – he would never allow his true feelings to be made public, the embarrassment and shame would be unendurable, and so perhaps she felt the same way but was just too afraid to let him see it. In fact, maybe everyone felt that way. Maybe it was all a big tragic act, with everyone too ashamed to admit to anyone else that they wanted real love; real devotion; the same things that so-called liberals and progressives railed against as symbols of an oppressive past. Maybe the world of meaning was still there – under a clammy layer of superficial decadence that nobody dared pierce.

But this, of course, was wishful thinking. It was just him. He was the pervert and he couldn’t excuse himself with fantasies of others oppressing their true feelings. He didn’t deserve to be with Emma – people like him belonged in institutions; or at the very least alone with only their backwards thoughts to get them through the lonely nights. He loved her – in a way that didn’t belong in the world anymore. What’s more, he wanted her – in a way that no man should want his partner. He wanted to share his body with her; as he would with a nobody – as she did with other men. It was disgusting and yet it felt like an extension of his love for her. He was sick. He stood up, walked into the wall and put on his coat and shoes.

The first specific reference to ‘consciousness raising’ I recall was with regard to personal pronouns and the fact that; generally the male ‘he’ or ‘his’ etc. was used ubiquitously. The objection lay in the fact that any reference to a non-specific doctor or lawyer or professor (or indeed anything) would implicitly refer to a male – with the female left unconsidered. This may seem trivial and semantically pedantic prima facie – surely the reader is aware that the ‘he’ is merely a placeholder for either sex - however studies show that this is not the case. ‘Power’ positions (doctors, CEOs, scientists etc.) register a default male image in the majority of minds (and a white male at that.) If an intentionally equal number of references to ‘she’ or ‘her’ with regard to non-specific presumed ‘male’ roles could jar the general consciousness into being gender neutral in its assumption of what makes a worthy pilot or PhD student, then it would be to the benefit of all – most fundamentally in the general strive toward equality, but also in practical terms as far as job opportunities and career aspirations are concerned.

Likewise, Richard Dawkins has raised the case of references to ‘Muslim children’ or ‘Catholic children’ etc. He notes that a child is not cognitively capable of taking a considered position with regard to something as major as his or her physical and metaphysical relation to the universe. They are merely able to respond to and repeat the convictions of their parents and are therefore no more accurately referred to as ‘Christian children’ than they would be ‘communist children’ or ‘Randian children’. The harm that prevails in writing off a child as being born into one or another religious community (and therefore of it prior to even being able to fully conceive of it) is just as pressing as that which we would quite consciously acknowledge of a child expected to attest to the wonders of Marxism or financial libertarianism well before they could realistically recognise the full meaning of their words or actions. Reason must be given scope to flourish.

Thus, consciousness raising is a vital force. A shift in standard spoken and written communication can have manifold positive implications for the way the world is perceived by the general populace, and can trigger exponential progress when done correctly. Where once derogatory reference to racial stereotype was commonplace, it is now considered largely unacceptable and outrageous in even the right-leaning elements of civilised society. What would have been playful jibes in 1973 are now hurtful and unacceptable insults in 2013. Through such a shift in conscious awareness among the general public, racial harmony is now in a far better state than it once was.

So what of the rest of the planet’s inhabitants?

Academically, the term ‘non-human animal’ is commonplace. It is the sensible reference to members of the animal kingdom minus the homo sapien species. It has long been recognised that we are but another animal on this planet, evolved out of the same long lineage that we all share. Our differences are by degree and not kind. We are consciously aware creatures; able to experience pain; able to suffer fear and enjoy elation. We have interests which can be met or denied. All of these claims apply also to a number of other living species. To others, only some of these properties are applicable – perhaps a prawn suffers pain but is incapable of fear, for example. Likewise, there are a number of properties that apply to humans and humans alone. We are, as far as we know at present – the only species in existence capable of true language. It may also be the case that there are emotional states unique to humans; only afforded by multiple orders of thought beyond the reach of other animal species. It is not beyond the scope of reason to imagine animal species of other worlds; far more intellectually evolved than we and therefore capable of experiences and properties that we, by definition, would be unable to conceive. Nevertheless, the point remains the same – we are all of a continuum – different in varying degree, and not kind.

Why then do we insist on referring to every member of a non-human animal species as ‘it’?

This, much like the examples given above, is a pressing point. Effectively, our current language places all non-human animals in the category of things as opposed to beings. We speak of them as closer in kind to unconscious objects – trees; tables; and rocks – than we do to individual conscious beings. We make reference to ‘livestock’ and ‘culls’, to ‘numbers in the wild’, betraying the fact that the subject matter is consciously aware beings – each individually capable of suffering in myriad different ways. This is cowardice of the highest order.

I have spoken previously in this blog about what would be needed to justify the sharp distinction that we currently place between human and non-human animals; and why it does not exist. Likewise, I have spoken about how animal welfare and animal conservation are both amicable but misguided and confused doctrines. Referencing each dog, pig, whale, chimp or rabbit as ‘it’ makes plain the irrationality and delusion of the modern mindset (I say ‘modern’ since it certainly is not a universal practice historically or geographically.) Out of it comes confused justification for any number of monstrous practices including the wiping out of huge numbers of wild animals; the intensive and barbarous animal farming practices currently providing the vast majority of flesh stock and the anachronistic practice of vivisection.

For the sake of reason and civilisation at large, It is high time language caught up with science and ethical progress.

Before I begin this review it’s worth making a couple of admissions. First, I have neither read the book nor seen the stage play based on War Horse. Second, I previously had no further knowledge of the plot than I had gleaned from the trailer for the film I’m about to review (which turned out to be a lot of it.) And so, onwards…

It’s a little known fact that I was the original author of the Wikipedia article on the London ‘Animals in War Memorial’, found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animals_in_War_Memorial. Naturally (I’m sure you’ll agree),  that grants me privileged access to the sentimental spirit at the heart of this film, which is to my knowledge the only movie in existence focused primarily on the plight of horses during World War I. With that in mind – War Horse left me with two major insights: firstly, that the British remain far and away better period drama producers than Americans; and secondly, that Americans (or American film makers anyway) really don’t get rural England.

If you know anything about Tolkien, you’ll be aware that he was a devotee of rural England, who despaired of the industrialisation that threatened to eliminate the quiet beauty of English countryside. The Shire – the home of the simple country-folk: the Hobbits, was Tolkien’s manifestation of this understated winsomeness in his own imagined universe. Anyone who has had the pleasure of visiting English countryside will recognise this unique quality, and identify with Tolkien’s awe at it and despair at its loss. They will, however, not recognise it at all in Peter Jackson’s representation of the Shire in his Lord of the Rings film adaptations. As fantastic as those films are in my view, they fail utterly to represent Tolkien’s intentions in this specific area.

     

Peter Jackson’s representation of The Shire in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and John Constable’s The Hay Wain. If you don’t know which is which then I can’t help you.

Why have I mentioned all this? Because Spielberg’s representation of Devon in War Horse could be mistaken for Jackson’s version of the Shire, as long as you were willing to ignore the slight height differences of the cast. Everything from the bright green grass, to the different folk characters, to the village country japes comes straight out of the ‘old country’ representation of England that the Shire espoused to and that (one assumes) Americans take as gospel for English country character (even in modern times perhaps). Even stranger than this was how similar the dynamic between the horse, Joey, and his boy carer, Arthur, seemed to be to the relationship of Sam and Frodo in Jackson’s films (with Arthur being Sam). Maybe it was just the accents, but all the “come on Joey, you can do it, you have to push harder!” (probably not a direct quote) talk seemed extremely reminiscent to my ears.

Anyway, having covered that ongoing niggle of mine; let me move on to the rest of the film. It’s not awful. It’s quite nice. And there are occasionally enjoyable scenes. To begin with those – the scene depicting a  British charge on what appears to be an undefended German position is well produced; quite stirring; and on-target in its intentions. Likewise, a scene featuring a friendly exchange between a British and a German soldier (which I won’t ruin by going into detail, and which you’ll identify if you see the film) is amusing and manages to convey the unease at their initial contact followed by their discovery of shared humanity in their common goal that is so often referenced in relation to World War I. It would however be difficult to find any others worthy of specific mention. The rest of the movie isn’t god-awful, but it certainly lacks anything special. Moreover, mediocrity is not the only charge at Spielberg’s feet. Characters are introduced with specific narrative purpose blatant from the offset, with no depth beyond this superficial functionalism evident at all. They are present while they share some interaction with Joey (the horse), attempt to perform their function as far as pointing out the horror of war, or the sadness of loss, or the cruelty of men is concerned; and are then expunged from the rest of the feature. As a result of their shallow characterisation, they fail almost entirely in achieving the pathos for which they were intended, and as such leave an audience struggling to care at their loss or stated troubles – which is some feat in a movie depicting a real world historical tragedy. The only two characters that have any significant time spent on them are Joey and Arthur, and each of those it turns out are fairly one-dimensional too (the horse is the more interesting in case you wanted to know, but I don’t object to that).

Auxiliary issues exist too. I object to a modern film having foreign characters speak English in a foreign accent rather than speaking the language of their intended nationality. Who is Spielberg afraid of alienating in carrying out this small measure of authenticity? Idiots who refuse to read subtitles in a small proportion of a film that focuses mainly on suggestive horse head movements to get its message across anyway? I suppose it’s a small mercy that a ‘thought’ narrative wasn’t recorded over the scenes featuring horses too; however, generally speaking this failure instantly lowers the tone and quality of this, and indeed any, movie. In addition to that, wonderful as he no doubt is when suited to the film, I felt John Williams was a poor choice of composer for War Horse. Understandably Spielberg wishes to stick with his stock choices, however I feel a composer more able to capture understated power and sentiment, Max Richter for example, would have been preferable to one so gifted instead in grand fantasy and grandeur.

Ultimately, War Horse is mildly enjoyable – mediocre to the extreme, and littered with faults; none of which condemn it as terrible but which together render it strictly in the middling territory of animal companion films, and in the lower equivalent of moving and inspirational tales, which is a shame. I, Wikipedia’s leading academic on London’s devotional statues to war animals, would have loved to love this.

6/10.

I have a bit of free time on my hands at the moment, so I’ve afforded myself an hour (and half an hour for editing) a short story off the bat. Here it is. Thoughts?

 

“This is too much… Too much”. The words repeated themselves in his head with elevating volume and vitriol. They wanted to force themselves out of his frozen mouth, but he resisted. He had to. To make a sound, any sound, would spell his long drawn-out and tortured death. Death didn’t worry him so much as did the terror he’d feel and the pleasure it would give them to see it. He’d seen it happen to others. Strangers mostly, but also every temporary companion he’d acquired in his day-to-day existence. He rarely met a friendly face, few remained, but when he did he shared all he could with them. He worked with them and tried to have their presence inspire him to see the best in things. He couldn’t resist a glimmer of hope on those scarce occasions when he realised that there was someone else like him in the world: a good man; just one maybe, but still one more than him alone. That way, he wasn’t the remains of human goodness – he was only half of it. But they’d all died the same way. The chase had ensued and where he’d escaped, through cruel experience and quick-thinking, they had not. He’d watched each and every one of them scream and cry, so profusely sometimes that he wondered where they’d been storing the liquid. He’d watched the pursuers grinning and laughing, wild eyed and excited at the capture of their quarry. As expert as he had become in escape, so the hunters had become in torture, and so every death – accompanied by screams; coughing; gut-wrenching; blood; deformity and weeping – lasted deep into the night, each watched by him from his hiding place, from which grim experience had taught him never to move until they’d had their fun and left.

But something was different this time. His companion was not human; he was instead a stray dog. Once a family pet probably, but somehow a survivor in this decrepit world. He didn’t know why, but this struck him more deeply than all the previous losses he’d suffered. Somewhere deep in his mind, he felt that all humanity was to blame for the current state of things. Not all had turned to the monstrosity of the hunters, but it was the human species that had permitted the world to reach its sorry state. Every human being, from their privileged position as members of the dominant species on the planet, had partaken in the downfall; and so each was to varying degrees, accountable. But not this dog. He’d played no part in bringing about this suffering, he knew nothing of its causes and potential avoidance, and now he was going to suffer unimaginable torment at the hands of those who had. It was tragedy.

The idea growing in his sub-conscious terrified him. His body began to shiver and he felt the adrenaline begin to course through his body, making him jitter. As he desperately tried to suppress his movements, the sudden urge to action was becoming utterly unbearable. Was this really what he was going to do? It would mean that today was the day he would die. He had considered it before, but suddenly the reality of it was filling him with bitter distaste and dread. He’d thought previously, in calmer and more contemplative moments that death was nothing to fear. Life was no more than survival and suffering now anyway, there was no inherent worth in existence for existence’s sake. Why not die? At the time, in his philosopher’s daze, it had made perfect sense. It even seemed quite poetic. But now it was confronting him. It wasn’t a hypothetical consideration, it was the next thing that was going to happen to him, as real as the previous escape had been, as real as the rusted sledgehammers and sharpened shards of metal they wielded below.

He’d always wanted to believe in his bravery before, when the world was happier. He knew he wasn’t fearless. He wasn’t the type that would spit in the face of a Mafioso, defiantly laughing as petrol swashed over his body and flames lit up his surroundings; but he thought in cases where he could see the good and the bad. Where it was undeniable. That he would rationally stand up and do the right thing. This was finally one of those cases. Would the dog live long after his rescue? Probably not. “It doesn’t matter”, he found his brain interject. The alien answer to his question suddenly reminded him of his mother. As complex as he’d always considered his own moral considerations, hers were always shockingly simple. If destroying an aeroplane full of passengers to potentially save a city was a difficult issue of practical ethics to him, it was an elementary problem for her: “killing is wrong” she would say, and it would be as simple as that. This, saving this dog’s life, was one of her calls, and the realisation made his heart twinge. He wanted to cry but he couldn’t. The decision was made; his self-respect would not allow anything less. There was no going back.

The next question was how to do it. This was a time sensitive issue, and he’d already wasted enough of it with his deliberations. Most often they carried out the kill right where they’d captured the quarry, but sometimes they moved them first. If they moved the dog then any chance of a rescue would be over. The word struck him with its ridiculousness. This was less of a rescue than a trade. And it was a trade in which he knew he lost out. They’d rather a human quarry anyway, and in fact if he simply offered to hand himself over on the understanding that they free the dog; they might even take him up on it. But then, why make it so easy for them? If this was his death, if he was going out today; now; then he wanted to inflict all the suffering on them that he could. For a moment he noticed how counter this was to all his previous highfalutin moralising, but the sense of rage and defiance soon overcame such considerations. How to hurt them was all he cared about now.

Trying not to make any sound, he looked around. He was lying prone in what was once an upstairs flat above a shattered shop below. The apartment was as desecrated as everything else, but remained mostly intact aside from the crumbled front wall, which corresponded with the shops storefront, from which he was watching the scene below. Thinking back to his escape, he tried to recall anything he’d seen as he’d run to cover. Suddenly it struck him; the shop below sold household goods, and had seemed fairly well stocked – at least aside from the items that were routinely looted for shelter or sustenance. If he could find flammable products, his chances of success in his mission could rise exponentially, depending on just what was on offer.

Crawling backwards he slunk down the steps and into the shop below, the same route he’d frantically sprinted earlier, only in reverse. Gently pushing open the battered wooden door, he began to examine the shop’s contents. Over on the opposite aisle furthest to the left sat rows of plastic bottles filled with purple liquid. “Potential” he thought as he made his way across; crouched low and wary of the scene outside, of which he caught glimpses as he moved between the aisles. Reaching the bottles, he excruciatingly carefully took one down and slowly rotated it in his hand. There it was: that beautiful orange symbol that signified flammability and his ticket to a fiery and spectacular death. A grand ‘fuck you’ to the murderers outside, as well as to any others that cared to look in his general direction. So many had died whimpering he thought, “But I’ll be laughing”.

He managed to hold six bottles comfortably. He could probably have taken eight, but the potential of dropping one and having his location exposed was too much to risk. Six was probably more than enough anyway. Gradually making his way upstairs, he re-entered the flat. It was ugly and brown, but still someone’s home. Or it had been. Suddenly he felt like a vandal, like one of the louts that had caused all this. “Snap out of it” he told himself scornfully, he wasn’t one of them and never would be. He was the opposite. And if this was vandalism, then it was for good reason; not mindless destruction like theirs had been.

In the flat his sound was muffled, affording him the opportunity to work with a degree of rapidity that his earlier acquisition hadn’t. He quickly glimpsed outside to see the four men still gathered around the terrified animal. The dog was whimpering, but the torture proper had not started yet. They enjoyed letting the fear build before they began their grim surgery. While they waited they indulged themselves in booze and scrapping, each taking the occasional drunken kick at the dog before returning to their loutish revelry. He still had time.

Spinning around, he removed the white child-locked cap from one of the bottles and began to douse around the top of the stairs and down each step: the only way out of the apartment aside from a jump through the crumbled wall out of which he’d been watching. The stairs consumed the bottle in entirety and so he quickly moved to the kitchen counter to open another, instantly dousing it over the carpet; walls and furniture. As each bottle glugged to emptiness, he discarded it onto the sofa behind him. So he continued until all six bottles were empty and the entire studio flat dripped with alcoholically pungent fuel for his would be funeral pyre. He’d been worried that he wouldn’t manage to cover everything, but in truth he’d had plenty. In fact he’d had more than enough and had used the final two bottles for little more than unnecessary top-ups. “Why save them?” he’d thought. Finally, beginning to believe he stood a chance, he removed his flip-open lighter from his pocket and steeled himself for action.

All that was left was to call the killers to him, and then to spring the trap, revelling in their deaths as he embraced his own – for he knew that forcing the men to remain within the inferno until it engulfed them would also entail his own presence and demise there. He turned to the broken wall, readying himself to shout out to them, to curse them with all the rage he had built up inside, to tell them what they were and to show them what he was: a good man in a world full of terrible ones. Leaning against the wall, he took a deep breath and attempted to calm his nerves. He felt his fear had almost entirely expired, replaced with excitement and a strangely eager anticipation of his pending death and revenge. Was he happy again? It was as close as he was ever going to get. After a moment, exhaling, he stepped out with his right foot and swung his body round into full view.

They were gone. The dog was gone. The truck was gone. All that remained was a small puddle of blood that the dog’s wounded leg must have left before they’d hauled him to his doom. A chill crept through his body. The adrenalin expired and weakness engulfed him. For all the calm he now felt, he knew the awful suffering must have commenced elsewhere, and that it would continue for hours to come. It was happening right then and there, and there was nothing he could do about it. If he’d only been faster. Why did he watch for so long? Why all the pointless philosophising? Why use all the containers when he knew he’d finished the job at four? He hated himself. There was no relief, it wasn’t over – it was still happening. He’d let it happen.

He moved backwards, feeling his way to the floor until he was sitting, legs bent and arms perched on his knees. Then, reconsidering his position, he allowed his upper body to descend, his hands sliding off his knees and falling next to his prostrate frame. He looked up at the black ceiling, and felt the flammable liquid slowly drip onto his face. He watched the drips come together out of the reservoir drenching the plaster, and then descend, sinking into his skin as they collided with his frozen form. Motionless, his conscious sensation gradually transferred to the hard warm metal surface of his lighter, clenched in his right hand. Empty of thought and stoic of state, he flipped the lid with his thumb and held it aloft for a moment, watching the orange flame flicker as it danced atop the silver lighter, he was reminded of the past. Of his grandmother’s fireplace and him sitting next to it watching the fire quietly consume the wood. Closing his eyes, he loosened his grip.

What’s the difference between video games and films? The popular answer nowadays is: “not much at all”. Where once technological capacity limited programmer’s storytelling aspirations to simple pixelated sprites, uncomplicated primary coloured backgrounds and text based narratives; processing power is now so great that grand vistas, intense motion-blurred action, and overwhelming visual effects are not just possibilities but necessary fundamentals for triple-A titles. There seems to be an underlying assumption, at least in the minds of the more mainstream developers and fans alike, that the more Hollywood-ised a videogame, the better it is. A stirring soundtrack; clever and provocative camera angles; eye-popping visuals; and dramatic cut scenes grace almost all the major current best-sellers – and, if nothing else, their presence makes for fantastic marketing potential. Is there anything wrong with this? No, not in and of itself. One might object to our favourite artistic medium acting in such a way that implies it can better itself best by aping another medium, however it’s fair to say that, at least in some cases, this may actually be so.

A series like Uncharted draws heavy inspiration from cinematic sources and is all the better for it in its Indiana Jones inspired action sequences and storytelling. Likewise, games like Metal Gear Solid find a successful compromise between intricate gaming elements and cinematic grandeur and spectacle. Both of these games are fully voice-acted and both are undeniably improved greatly by it, with expertly chosen highly-talented and appropriate voice actors bringing characters to life in a manner that would simply be impossible should vocals have been represented in text rather than audio. In games like this – games that are really cinematic hybrids rather than pure gaming experiences, voice-acting is appropriate and welcome. Elsewhere however, in games that either expect the player to form a deeper involvement with the central character or create an uncanny world atmosphere; not instantly recognisable through conventional eyes, that I object to voice-acting, at the very least for the lead.

This is not the old ‘it’s better to read the book than see the film’ argument – not everything has to be contextualised by the player. Videogames have the unique advantage of being able to hybridise the process of storytelling somewhere between a novel, a motion picture, and a toy box. This arrangement allows the player to actively engage with a fictional universe while simultaneously passively observing it and allowing it to exist on its own terms. This means that the player can contextualise the interactions of the characters they temporarily indulge in, without having to also construct the environments around them, which exist independently much like in the actual world.

The RPG series: Final Fantasy was voiceless until its tenth numbered iteration. The much lauded Final Fantasy VII was a game full of words but utterly without spoken voices. Everything the characters said was played out in the player’s head, in the voices and tones they imagined appropriate in the context. Not only did this allow for a deeper integration of the player’s expectations (thereby allowing further involvement and suspension of disbelief in the game universe), but it also retained a degree of separation which reminded the player that they were looking into a universe other than their own – one they could observe and interact with, but that was not the same as the one outside the game. Such a universe was to be examined and marvelled at, not taken for granted as familiar territory.

By comparison to its predecessor, Final Fantasy X was fully voiced. In the UK by American actors which, to my ear; did not embody the roles they were intended for at all. Gone was the surreal yet recognizable universe of Final Fantasy VII, filled with characters I could relate to and understand; here was a cast of melodramatically acted caricatures of the kind I would expect to find in a by-the-numbers American comedy-drama series. The reality is that the writing in Final Fantasy X was probably no worse than that in Final Fantasy VII; it’s just that when American voices are put to it, evidently and inappropriately trying to match the melodrama from the Japanese recording, my absorption in the universe becomes impossible.

It’s this reality that fuels the ever present desire that particular Japanese games be playable in their original Japanese as opposed to an American-English dub. This is not because UK players prefer the sound of the Japanese language; nor out of a desire to play the game as it was originally conceived. Rather, the hope is that a Japanese voicing will provide the same welcome distance and open opportunity to self-contextualise that was offered previously via text boxes and written narrative. In the Zelda series, Nintendo have understood these realities perfectly.

Providing a non-verbal but audible indication of mood accompanied by a text box is an entirely appropriate means of engaging the player with the character in the context that the writer desires. In the same vein, a silent lead character is a welcome opportunity for involvement in a game, not a jarring oddity as it can be in a film. Although a player understands that they do not embody the central character on-screen, there is a connection between player and lead-protagonist that allows the player to think for the lead (and thereby consider what he or she might say) without actually having to think that they are the lead-character nor hear them speak out loud. The player neither needs to actually be the character in the game, nor to be so alienated that a voice track is necessary. There is a middle-ground, of understanding but not identification, that is filled fine by a silent protagonist – in first or third person view.

In summary, many games are much improved by voice-acting. It provides a level of cinematography that the game is aspiring to, and in these cases – a stellar and highly talented voice cast is both necessary and (in the major triple-A titles) usually present. But voice-acting is not always suitable. Where player integration with character rather than plot is the intended outcome, in games where it is vital that the gameworld is to be the player’s surrogate home rather than a fantastic spectacle for them to marvel at, voice-acting can keep its distance. And if you must include it, for the love of God, please don’t take off the Japanese voices!

There are many reasons to praise ‘The Road’, not least its confident disregard for any contextual back story. The film begins with the two protagonists – ‘the man’, and his son – waking up in a cave. They’re bedraggled; dishevelled; and unhealthy in appearance, and their surroundings match appropriately. Something has happened – destroying civilisation, leaving the world in environmental tatters and life on the brink of non-existence. This context is clear from the film’s aesthetic, and vague hints garnered from the diary-like narrative voiceover of the man. Nothing is explained beyond this apparent fact – not what happened nor why, nor if the dire situation is merely cataclysmic but temporary; or the end of everything in the world. This is the brilliance of the film – its self-aware recognition that what matters to the audience is identical to what matters to the protagonists – namely: the effect the quiet awfulness of the world has on the protagonists’ existence and psychology. It doesn’t matter how they got there; nor what’s happened to the government; nor to the country they reside in. The only thing of importance is the man’s life, and that of his son. This focus gives the film massive empathetic power. The tragedy of the hopeless situation seeps into the viewer’s mind with uncomfortable effectiveness; and musings on the extreme sacrifices and losses the protagonists suffer are extremely hard-hitting. Glimpses at some of these losses are provided as the man reminisces on his earlier life with his wife. These memories progress throughout the film (non-linearly but appropriately as memory should); providing brief snapshots of life before and after the cataclysmic events. It’s painful and moving to watch, giving the film incredible weight.

As superb as the film is as a whole, there is one particular element that particularly struck me. There may be slight exposition of some plot points in this section, and thus one might prefer to avoid reading before seeing the film first. It transpires as the film progresses that the man is slowly dying, and that he is endeavouring by example, to teach his son how to stand the best chance of surviving once he is gone. This includes, as is suggestive of the heavy tragedy bearing over the film, teaching his son how to kill himself should he need to. As well as being a survival lesson however, it becomes clear that the man is also providing a moral education of sorts – which is apparent in his warnings to avoid ‘bad people’, and his assurance that they are the ‘good people’ and always will be. As becomes clear, the defining practical factor that differentiates the good from the bad people (at least from the man’s perspective) is the willingness to hunt and kill the weak in order to eat them. It’s apparent as the film progresses that bands of people have come together to kill other people in order to eat them. Scenes showing these groups demonstrate how relatively comfortable their lives are in comparison to those of the man and his son. Though the man treasures his son above all else, he being the only thing of importance to the man in the world as it is, he has them live a life in which they both gradually starve to death rather than live as many others do – in the manner of the ‘bad people’.

This is an interesting notion from an ethicist’s perspective. Most people have mused on whether, if in a devastating plane crash, stuck high in the mountains with no means of contact with the outside world, it would be morally acceptable to eat the other passengers. Certainly a sizeable proportion of people would answer in the affirmative in the case of those killed by the crash, and a number would say the same for those who weren’t killed but perhaps were injured and unlikely to survive. The intuition seems to be utilitarian – those to be eaten are either already dead, or will almost certainly die anyway – and eating them provides the survivors some chance of going on living (or at the very least not being abjectly hungry), rather than simply dying themselves of starvation. Similar intuitions abound in lifeboat cases, where a group are on a sinking boat, unable to support a group as large as their number. If the choice is either to throw a certain proportion of people overboard (to their deaths), or to all stay on the boat and thus have it sink; killing everyone – many; maybe most, would consider it morally just to throw certain people overboard – perhaps the elderly; perhaps the injured; perhaps those least capable of helping drive the boat; perhaps the mentally or physically handicapped – in any case, some proportion of people considered to have equal rights in the normal world. But if utilitarianism gains the intuitive upper hand in those cases; it loses out in others. The stock example is the most well known challenge to crude act utilitarianism: the doctor’s waiting room. If a hospital currently holds four desperate transplant patients, each needing a different type of organ, is it acceptable for a doctor to take the life of a healthy man who has come in for a check-up in order to harvest his organs and save the other four patients? Almost everyone’s intuitive response to this thought-experiment is that it is unacceptable for the doctor to kill the healthy man, even though doing so would mean saving four at the cost of only one (rather than the reverse). In this case, deontology gains the intuitive upper hand: it’s morally wrong to take an innocent healthy man’s life, and one has a duty to uphold this principle, no matter what. Now consider another scenario in which one is expected to choose whether to save the lives of either their own family or someone else’s. First off, for simplicity’s sake, let’s imagine that family numbers and ages (and capabilities) are all equal – and that thus it’s reasonable to assume a calculus of equal suffering caused to which ever family doesn’t get saved. Here most people would be understanding of a decision to save one’s own family over the stranger’s. Indeed, the reverse decision – though perhaps not immoral – would seem somewhat perverse and disturbing. Now, taking the same scenario, let us unbalance the calculus so that the suffering isn’t equal between the two families. Suppose you are to choose whether to save your own two children, or a family of four: two children and two parents. Not saving the stranger’s here will reasonably seem to entail more suffering. Nevertheless, many; probably most, would not morally condemn you for opting to save your own children over the stranger’s family. To add further detail – let us imagine that what you’re saving either your own or the stranger’s family from are bullets from a pistol you are holding. If you don’t shoot anyone, all will be killed (by some psychopath who has put you in this situation in the first place). It’s important to note here however that despite the exceptional circumstances, if you do shoot, you are the one doing the killing – not the psychopath. If your understanding here is that it’s morally acceptable for you to shoot a stranger’s family in order to save your own children if the only alternative is to either shoot your own children or to have both families shot by a psychopath, then your understanding of this case is contrary to both utilitarianism and deontology. In this case, loyalty becomes the fundamental (though it’s not hard to imagine cases where loyalty doesn’t hold the most moral weight – it was presumably not wrong to show disloyalty to the Nazi German government for instance).

The man in ‘The Road’ is presented with dilemmas of this ilk with particular regard to his son. From an act utilitarian perspective, he’s right not to kill and eat more than two other survivors; though he needn’t stick to that rule should he come across someone terminally infirm; or who’s death would not outweigh the gain felt by himself and his son (like the old man they come across). Is he therefore wrong to consider those who live in this way ‘bad people’? Not according to the deontological position that designates him an unfaltering duty not to kill the innocent. But does this rightly apply when the cost is his son’s starvation? Should the man’s loyalty to his son overcome his principle against killing? Shouldn’t he be loyalty-bound to prevent his son’s death from hunger? If so, does that not justify the murderous bands who kill and eat the weak in order to ensure their own collective survival? Whether or not the man is right when it comes to what makes the good and bad deserving of their respective titles – undeniably he is admirable in the film. Mistaken or otherwise, what is true of the man is that morality is his priority – more important than survival or health; and despite his claims to the contrary: even triumphing over his love for his son. He embodies the virtuous man. This is roughly in-keeping with virtue ethics, which states that morality is best understood as the way the virtuous man lives rather than as a collection of duties or a calculus. To live morally is to live like a virtuous man; and a virtuous man is (among other things) a man that endeavours always to be morally good. Thus, correct or not in their moral justifications, from a virtue ethicist perspective, it seems the man and his son are indeed ‘good people’.

I intend only to highlight these musings, and in doing so: to praise ‘The Road’ as a work capable of eliciting such thoughts in so meaningful a way. If you’ve seen it, watch it again with these considerations in mind. If you haven’t, I hope I’ve whet your appetite. Without doubt it will stay with you; emotionally and cerebrally, long after the final credits role. A great achievement that I highly recommend.



Living in the thrall of a post-modern (or perhaps even post-post-modern) society, it is difficult for regular people; even relatively clever regular people, to know what to believe and upon what basis to do so. In a climate which condemns criticism of other’s beliefs; sometimes even going so far as to call the very notion of objectivity a Western imperialistic anachronism, upon what grounds can one base their thinking? Couple this relativistic mind-set with the fact that the sheer level of complexity in modern human technology; science; and logic has reached such a high degree that to understand even one tiny corner of human-expertise takes years of difficult study, and to grasp all of it is a temporal impossibility. What then is the answer? Should we do as many already have and resign ourselves to the notion that we can never really know anything; and that therefore every claim – no matter how fantastical – is equally valid (some would even say: equally true)? Or is it still possible to rationally believe things about the world, thereby necessarily considering competing claims false?

I’m not going to focus on refuting relativism in this article. That’s been done to death – so much so in-fact that I would imagine the notion that relativism is a tenable position now exists only in the minds of laypeople (and how could any still actually existent relativist disagree with that claim anyway, given their thesis?). Rather, I will be focusing on the far more pressing and real issue of how a layperson can reasonably believe (or disbelieve) complex claims, despite neither knowing about; nor understanding, what makes them true (or false).

That might sound like a contradiction. How can one reasonably believe something when one doesn’t grasp the reasonable grounds for holding it to be true? This is precisely the thinking of those who hold that the correct position on evolution; or climate change (and to a lesser extent, on God or morality), is one of agnosticism. In their heads they follow the following line of thought: “I don’t have the slightest idea about ‘claim A’, nor what evidence exists for or against it, and indeed nor how that evidence should be interpreted.  Because I lack this understanding, I myself can neither reasonably refute those who support ‘claim A’, nor those who oppose it. Thus, my only choice is to neither accept nor reject ‘claim A’, and to consider its supporters, and its detractors, as equal”. Such thinking can appear very compelling, and thus any alternative can seem instantly dogmatic and unreasonable. This need not be the case.

Naturally, whether the thinking above; which we’ll call the agnostic position, is reasonable or not will depend on a number of different factors: what kind of claim is ‘claim A’; on what kind of basis do its supporters support it, and its detractors detract it; and are there further considerations that should be borne in mind? If ‘claim A’ is the position that ‘chocolate is nicer than cheese’, then arguably the agnostic position is the right one (easy cheese-lovers). Those that prefer chocolate to cheese do so because the taste of chocolate is favourable when they’re eating it; while those who prefer cheese detract from the claim because the taste of cheese is favourable when they’re eating that – but there really is no objective fact of the matter about whether it’s chocolate or cheese that IS more favourable when eaten – the very existence of the supporters and the detractors in this case refutes the claim. ‘Chocolate is nicer than cheese’ for those who prefer the taste of chocolate to cheese, and vice versa for those who prefer the reverse.

What if ‘claim A’ is the position that ‘Allah is the one true god’? Here the aforementioned factors become all important. Is the disagreement between two laypeople? Or between scientists or philosophers? Likewise, though the question looks like an ontological claim about the real-world existence of a god, identifiable as the one referred to in the Quran; in many cases this isn’t really how people treat a claim like this. Often it’s instead taken as something like ‘it would be beneficial if people believed that Allah was the one true god’. Thus we must also consider whether one or both sides is using scientific and philosophical arguments; or whether they’re arguing on the basis of religious texts; or by pointing out how people would be socially better or worse off if they believed Allah was the one true god? Given the many different forms that this argument could take, we’d have to first define the parameters of the debate before we reasonably assess how to judge it – something which is rarely spelt out when questions like this are posed at staged debates, usually resulting in them being a waste of time.

So what if the claim is both undeniably objective, and has its parameters clearly set – a scientific or philosophical claim? Suppose ‘claim A’ equates to ‘evolution is scientific fact’. Now consider again the aforementioned agnostic position. For the sake of argument – imagine you have no understanding of evolution; you don’t know the evidence in favour of it (or against it); and you can neither refute evolution’s supporters, nor its detractors. Do you now have no choice but to take up an agnostic position on evolution? No you do not, so long as you again consider the important factors. The so-called debate between evolution’s supporters and detractors is really nothing of the sort. One side employs genuine scientific argument, where the other utilises a mishmash of pseudo-science; exploited misunderstanding; quote-mining; emotive coercion; and slander. Moreover, taking into account surrounding considerations, we have the knowledge that evolution’s detractors are almost universally already enthralled to religious positions which (so they understand) require evolution to be false – thus they are hardly able to approach the position from an objective and neutral scientific standpoint. But what if you don’t even know that? What if you can’t distinguish creationist pseudo-science from genuine science? Even so, you are still able to rationally side with the proponents of the claim that ‘evolution is scientific fact’. How? By deferring to the relevant authority.

Such a claim will send shivers down the spine of any philosophically savvy reader. Is this not the fallacy of authority? No, it isn’t – for the following reason. One may not be aware of the huge amount of data relevant to evolutionary science; nor of the practical methods applied in testing and assessing it, but one is aware of the scientific methodology – the fundamental principles of good science – used by those who do understand evolutionary data. So long as one is aware of scientific methodology, can understand how it works as an objectively applicable method of discovering truth, and can be confident that the proponents (or detractors) of a claim are exclusively utilising it in their case – one can reasonably support that case despite not understanding the nitty-gritty details themselves. Indeed, it’s on this basis that the entire scientific infrastructure works. As science has exponentially grown in complexity, experts have become increasingly specialised, to the point at which it’s possible that one PhD level scientist can possess no-better than a layperson’s understanding of his colleagues work. If that first scientist wishes to use knowledge gained from his peer’s research, he can do so not because he understands the research itself, but because he knows that his peer gained that knowledge using the scientific method; coupled with his understanding of how the scientific method leads to truth.

What then of climate change? Unlike the evolutionary ‘debate’ – a battle between scientists and the religious or scientifically-confused, climate change appears to be a clash of scientists vs. scientists. How, as laypeople, are we to handle this case? With lesser confidence than with evolution, we have no choice but to again appeal to the authority of the experts (though in an importantly different way). Though climate change-sceptics may well be genuine scientists; and may also gain their data off the back of the scientific method – they are undeniably the overwhelming minority within the applicable scientific community[1]. If the vast majority of those who understand the data, and exclusively apply the scientific method in rationally reaching their conclusions, hold that human activity is a significant contributor to climate change – then we, who do not understand the data, but who do understand the scientific method; and can reasonably assume that it’s being exclusively applied[2], can rationally side with them. That’s not to mention the surrounding consideration of the suspect links between some climate change-sceptics and certain oil corporations.

Thus – just as one can reasonably take the medicine their doctor has given them, despite having no idea how it works – we can remain confident in scientific claims even if we don’t understand the nitty-gritty details of them ourselves. We do not have to remain agnostics in all areas for which we lack expertise; and we can still say with confidence that not everybody’s position is equally valid. For our part – we should ensure that we do understand the basics, like the scientific method; and learn the very important differences in the methodologies of scientists and philosophers, and theologians; politicians; and journalists. To rationally defer to an authority, you must be aware of what reasonably makes that person an authority in the first place; and you must also bear in mind that authority’s limits: a scientist is not necessarily an authority on ethics; and indeed – a geologist is no authority on evolution. Bear all that in mind, and we need not be a world of shoulder-shrugging agnostics.


[1] From Wikipedia: “A poll performed by Peter Doran and Maggie Kendall Zimmerman at Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois at Chicago received replies from 3,146 of the 10,257 polled Earth scientists. Results were analyzed globally and by specialization. 76 out of 79 climatologists who “listed climate science as their area of expertise and who also have published more than 50% of their recent peer-reviewed papers on the subject of climate change” believe that mean global temperatures have risen compared to pre-1800s levels, and 75 out of 77 believe that human activity is a significant factor in changing mean global temperatures. …

A summary from the survey states that: It seems that the debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely nonexistent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_opinion_on_climate_change#Doran_and_Kendall_Zimmerman.2C_2009

[2] Scientific infrastructure is extremely strict in ensuring this is the case, and enforces right application via the peer-review system.

Heavy Rain is a new title exclusively available for the Playstation 3. It accounts the story of the ‘Origami Killer’ – a serial killer who follows the unsettling modus operandi of drowning ten year old boys in rain water once the levels are sufficiently high, and then abandoning them for the police to find later with orchids on their chests and origami dogs in their hands. The title tells this story from the perspectives of four separate protagonists – a father; an FBI profiler; a private investigator; and an investigative journalist. All interactions in the game are handled via what are known as ‘quick-time-events’ – context sensitive on-screen commands – often with multiple options available. How the story progresses depends on how the player reacts to these commands throughout the game.

First things first: Heavy Rain is not a game. Neither is it a film. I’ll come to the reasons why this is so in due course, however it’s worth bearing this in mind from the offset – if you hate videogames; or if you’re just naturally lacking in coordination; or wits; or curiosity, and so imagine that you’re no good at them and never will be – don’t assume that Heavy Rain is necessarily a write-off for you. Being a bad gamer doesn’t count you out of this unique experience.

So what is Heavy Rain if the two categories above don’t apply? Well – it’s a hybrid. Not a mere combination of film elements and game elements, as has been done several times before, but an actual melding; an amalgamation; of the two mediums. Where a game like Metal Gear Solid 4 could rightly be described as half-game and half-film, with the player/viewer spending half their time watching a movie and the other half playing a videogame[1], one can only describe the player[2] as doing both simultaneously in Heavy Rain. It’s a little viewing, but not enough for the experience to become passive; and a little gaming, but not enough to warrant the notion that the player is actually in control of the characters in the piece. At no point are you fooled into thinking that you are Ethan Mars; Norman Jayden; Madison Paige; or Scott Shelby[3], while playing Heavy Rain – an important factor given their conflicting interests and motivations. The game[4] doesn’t desire the player to invest his soul into any one character at any one time – they are not your virtual avatars, as is often (perhaps even always) the case in videogames – rather, they are freely existing (fictional) people in their own right, there for the player to judge; to like; to hate; to pity; to be aroused by[5], and to whom the player is never expected to do more than empathise with – which is the defining element of Heavy Rain.

So why isn’t Heavy Rain a film? After all – films similarly intend their viewers to sympathise with their characters, without being absorbed by them. What then distinguishes Heavy Rain from a movie like Primal Fear say, or The Fugitive? Well, it’s the aforementioned empathy – and the manner and sheer degree to which Heavy Rain manages to achieve it. There are morose parts of Heavy Rain; exciting parts; anxious parts; morally challenging parts; yes, a vast (if not the whole) gamut of human emotions are covered throughout Heavy Rain’s myriad starts to finishes. The game forces empathy to these elements in a manner that is simply beyond the scope of cinema. By placing god-like control over how these events play out for the protagonists; in the hands of players, any degree of passive non-accountability is forfeit. Particularly given that one is never ‘punished’ for the form their control takes – the story simply takes whatever the player does in its stride and continues on. Again this serves to highlight the defining quality of Heavy Rain: that the protagonists are not representatives of the real world player but independent people in and of themselves. The ramifications of the beating; the crime; the death; the bad decision, that the player causes the protagonist to suffer, are not met by the player (as would happen in most games: either via a gameover screen, or some hindrance to their gameplay ability), but by the character – and the fictional universe of Heavy Rain itself. Moreover, the control the game offers the player over these decisions is not always purely intellectual (though it is sometimes). Though there are of course points at which the player may calmly consider their options and then opt to move the story along as they see fit; there are other moments at which barely any thinking time whatsoever is given, and the story’s progression is down entirely to the players attentiveness; reflexes; or ability to tolerate pressure. Naturally, the points at which the game depends on these differing faculties mirror the situations the protagonists find themselves in – for example, the parrying of a punch depends on a split second reaction to the on-screen display by the player, as opposed to a thought out decision – while control over how best the protagonist may negotiate someone into opening up emotionally is handled slowly and methodically, with time to consider which of a number of persuasive tactics is likely to be most effective. If you’re an uncoordinated mess under pressure; but a sweet and compassionate human being, the events of the story will reflect this; and likewise if you’re able to reconstruct an assault rifle in under five seconds, but are socially inept.

Of course, Heavy Rain is not flawless. However the story progresses, there are a number of plot holes (including one major incident which I won’t detail in order to keep this commentary spoiler free) which can be mildly jarring – though certainly not enough to spoil the experience. In addition, though I have not read this elsewhere and therefore suspect that this issue may be unique to me, the discovery of the Origami Killer’s identity is somewhat unsatisfying. It’s not cheap, and on paper it’s a reasonably fair; or even good choice, but it doesn’t strike you (or rather me) in that satisfying way that great plot twists can when executed well. It just doesn’t ring true, for some very important reasons that I’ll refrain from entering into here for the sake of avoiding ruining your experience. Hopefully you’ll think otherwise. The controls are also not perfect. Due to the manner in which on-screen commands are portrayed, the player can occasionally influence things in a way that was not only unintended; but also unfairly beyond their control. Though I found these instances rare, they did exist – and they were certainly frustrating in a game which places such importance on the control and decisions of the player.

Ultimately, Heavy Rain is an important artistic occurrence, and one that any genuine cultural or artistic commentator would be wrong to ignore. It is not perfect in its storytelling; nor its cinematography; nor in its gameplay – but it does bring something new to the table – something significantly heavy, and groundbreaking enough to qualify as a shift in expectations for the artistic medium of videogaming. I certainly highly recommend it to gamers and non-gamers alike.


[1] … that both happen to be involved in the same fictional universe, following the same plot)

[2] I’m using this verb simply because there’s no other to accurately describe the experience I’m trying to portray.

[3] The four protagonists of Heavy Rain.

[4] Again, simply because there exists no other appropriate word.

[5] Certainly an element that exists, though not immaturely or gratuitously.

What can one say about Avatar that hasn’t already been said a hundred times before (by people who actually get paid to offer their opinions no less)? The answer is, probably not much. Nevertheless – believe it or not, I have devoted only a miniscule portion of my life to reading reviews or commentary on James Cameron’s epic new piece, and so, while I don’t doubt that what I say will greatly overlap with what you may have read several times previously, you can rest assured that my review is at least sincere and underivative – like a pure, unspoilt, and innocent alien species. That’s blue. And still human looking enough to be attractive.

So first a confession or two: I missed the first fifteen minutes of the film due to the tardiness of the restaurant I was attending previously. You might consider this a damning factor which renders my review redundant – however I wager that in fact the first fifteen minutes are quite easily sacrificed. Here’s what I imagine roughly occurs in that first quarter hour (correct me if I’m wrong): in some manner, the film explains that it’s set some time in the future, when everyone relies on a natural resource (ridiculously named Unobtainium), which has been mined to exhaustion by the foolish and short-sighted; but technologically highly capable; humans (of Earth I guess). So – these desperate people look to space for an answer to their troubles and are overjoyed to find a luscious planet or moon: (colloquially named?…) Pandora, which is rich in that most unobtainable of substances: Unobtainium (but absolutely no abundantium ironically). The only problem is that Pandora is infested with a bunch of nature-loving; tribalistic; blue alien hippies – with slightly bigger noses, amongst other physical features which slightly differentiate them from humans – but not enough to stop them being sexy (Cameron’s notes: must have a love interest). Now upon making this discovery you might have expected the technologically and militarily powerful humans to hold their hands up and leave Pandora alone, however if you did then you’re a tree-hugging fool (there I said it), because in this world of realpolitik; capitalism; and Western imperialism: might equals right, and guns sure as hell beat bows and arrows (you’d think) no matter how tall or azure you are. And so – the plan to drain Pandora of its, *sigh*, Unobtainium – is formulated. The gunships are prepped and ready; the commandos are fired up for the assault, and all that stands between the desperate humans and the destruction of Pandora is a nominal ‘humanitarian’ effort to ‘persuade’ the blue aliens (more imaginatively named Na’vi, rather than Alienarians as would have been appropriately in-keeping with the Unobtainium theme) to move out of their sacred hometree and relocate to somewhere more accommodating to the invaders. This effort is conducted by “limp-dicked science majors”, who communicate with the native Na’vi by jacking into bodies that resemble their own, known as Avatars – thus, the Avatar programme is born. Now I’m sure that’s not EXACTLY what happens in the first fifteen mins., but I’m close enough, right? In any case, this constitutes a fair summary of the situation in Avatar; the rest of the plot can be pretty easily predicted on the basis of this little intro. Great or otherwise, Avatar’s not a film to shock or surprise – I could have spelt most of the plot out to you before I arrived at the cinema.

So what else happens? Well, the lead: a wheelchair bound marine, again experiences the thrill of working legs via his Avatar body, and thus cockily runs out of the medical suite before he’s properly learnt how to control his sensory motor skills. He initially fully backs the human mission, and is mentored by the (obviously, and one-dimensionally, horrible) Commander of the military – who has a southern American accent to make it clear that he’s an evil militarist. However, having been sent down to Pandora in his Avatar body, under the wing of tough but lovely Dr. Grace (played by Sigourney Weaver) – a scientist, and therefore the intellectual and liberal counterweight to the military Commander, he comes to identify and empathise with the Na’vi – not least because he falls for the first one he meets after she reluctantly saves his life from a pack of alien ‘dogs’. After thanking her for her rescue, she disdainfully retorts that she should not be thanked for killing innocent other beings, who did not have to die but for his ‘baby like’ antics. Thus the tone is set and Cameron’s point with the Na’vi is made. Through further revelations, it transpires that the Na’vi live in total harmony with their world. Moreover, they are able to mentally communicate with its animals via a cabled uplink created by meshing their ponytails with the animal’s long… mental uplink connector… tubes; and to upload memories and thoughts by linking their ponytails with sacred trees. In short, Pandora’s world is not merely a place to the Na’vi, but an interconnected constituent part of their existence – to use the film’s analogy, it’s like the neural pathways of a brain:  each little neuron, and thereby each Na’vi or other animal; or tree, is a part of the whole. However, as later transpires, this is more than the animism or pantheism of primitives; there is a genuine scientific basis for the Na’vi’s connection with the world – to the surprise of the scientists, and the disregard of the men in charge of the human mission – what the nature loving Na’vi mystically and mysteriously speak of is the truth. Our marine lead discovers all this as the film progresses, and in doing so, integrates and gains acceptance with the Na’vi tribe he’s living with. He also gets the Na’vi girl he fell for at the beginning. No prizes for guessing what happens next.

From here on I’ll be providing some sweeping revelations which may constitute spoilers (if you somehow lack the imagination to work out what happens on your own – if you’ve been lobotomised for example). Thus, if you want to remain entirely in the dark then stop reading now, otherwise continue (you have been warned).

Continuing from where I left off, and relieving you of your unbearable suspense, yes: our hero marine begins to sympathise with the Na’vi plight. Perhaps it IS unjust for powerful invaders to simply force their way into someone else’s home and then either intimidate the natives out or eradicate them with superior gun power, he thinks. Perhaps it’s wrong for anyone to rape the natural world for the sake of unchecked advancement and the greed for power, he wonders. Could it even be that it’s unacceptable to cut down one tree on the basis that there are others to take its place (there’s a line that sounds a bit like that in the film)? These ethical revelations strike our simple but good hearted marine, and thus – having come to the conclusion that doing obviously evil things is wrong – he decides to rebel against his human compatriots, eventually gaining the aid of two or three of the more enlightened members of the human horde, and then by inspiring all the Na’vi tribes to come together by rousing them via a reenactment of the exploits of one of their great legendary heroes (riding a massive red bird). Needless to say, he succeeds, with the Na’vi counter-intuitively demonstrating that future Blackhawk helicopters are no match for wooden bow and arrows and alien pterosaurs, and sending the humans home; presumably to revert to a Na’vi like tribalistic state as a result of their dwindling Unobtainium resources (one assumes wind farms must never have taken off – which is fair enough given that they positively ruin the views from the windows of hundreds of moronic wankers).

What to say about Avatar. Well, first off – everyone is right about it. It is insanely epic in terms of its scale and its phenomenal special effects (which are truly wondrous in three dimensions). It is sort of an inspiring rallying cry for environmental concern – although it is a little too hippified to appeal to any of the more backwards conservative types; and a little too spiritual to appeal to intellectuals. It’s also extremely formulaic and painfully predictable. Every character is insanely one-dimensional, and there’s not even an inkling of sympathy generated for the human cause (which is somewhat unrealistic given that our own history demonstrates the ease by which countries can gain mass support for similar actions). Avatar’s biggest and overarching flaw is its obviousness. It’s simplistic and blatant – both in terms of its storytelling and its message. As mentioned previously – there’s nothing here plot wise that you haven’t seen before, or that you wouldn’t have been able to guess as soon as you heard the words ‘aliens’, ‘human invaders’, ‘undercover Avatar agents’, and ‘Unobtainium’ (come on – what’s going to be the defining quality of this fascinating element – it’s squishiness?) . In terms of the message – unrenewable exploitation of nature is bad and self-defeating / animals aren’t mere commodities, but other sentient beings / fire power doesn’t entail superior rights / perhaps even the old ‘Noble Savage’ idea. Yes – all of these are relevant observations (with the possible exception of the latter) – but they are also positions that have and do face heavy opposition, whether explicit or implicit, in our actual world; by many divergent people. The truly magnificent feat would have been to acknowledge that opposition and to show it to be flawed, short-sighted, immoral, irrational, ignorant, but nevertheless: seductive to A LOT of ‘normal’ people; rather than to sum it all up in a superficially horrid, big bad invading force, that everyone but Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin would hate. Another plot alteration which would have improved the film at least ten fold would have been to add an extra sprinkling of frank realism: to have the Na’vi lose. As George Monbiot has observed[1], the plight of the Na’vi bears no small similarity to that faced by the Native Americans upon the arrival of the European explorers. Just as the peaceful, nature loving native Americans were systematically and almost totally wiped out by the invading Europeans – who took themselves to have a god given right to take the Americas – Cameron would have infinitely improved Avatar by showing the Na’vi’s tribal defences to be as useless as they realistically would have been against the human technology of the future (or now for that matter). Show them valiantly make their final stand, and be crushed and swept aside with zero casualties to the invaders. Show their homes obliterated and their forest’s destroyed to make way for human installations. Show their remaining numbers penned in to ‘reservations’. Show the nominal efforts to appear civilised on the part of the human invaders; and if you dare – show (and quote) the religious justification. In short, show Pandora scream and then gradually, painfully, die as it’s coldly and systematically raped by its human dominators. Perhaps Cameron considered this too upsetting an end for his 12A film; or maybe he considered a victory more inspiring for the purposes of his environmental message, than a defeat, however I think an allegory on the arrogance and cruelty of Europe’s past; and the short-sighted and greed-fuelled exploitation of the world’s present and future, would be far more poignant and moving than a Hollywood happy ending.

I enjoyed Avatar, a lot. I wasn’t bored while I was watching it, and I didn’t feel the need to check my watch at any point during the show. In fact I was surprised how quickly the two and a half hours slipped by (…it felt more like two hours and fifteen minutes to me. Ha. Ha.). Nevertheless I was a tad disappointed, though unsurprised, that it wasn’t the great rallying cry for environmental concern and respect for human and non-human ethical considerations that I’d wished for. It looked incredible. Contrary to the claims of some, it wasn’t cringeworthy, and the scriptwriting was far from the worst I’ve seen (although bear in mind that I play a lot of videogames). If I had kids, I’d certainly be happy and eager to show them Avatar – and who knows, perhaps it would be through their young eyes that I’d see Cameron’s rationale for his happy ending and superficiality of purpose. Maybe a ‘can do’ attitude towards an ethical future would speak to a child in a way that it can’t to me, and perhaps an accomplished and esteemed film director like James Cameron knows that, while I do not. Regardless, I can only speak for myself, and I say this: Avatar is admirable and wonderful, but it’s not great.


[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/jan/11/mawkish-maybe-avatar-profound-important

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here and so, as you’d expect, I have a backlog of things that desperately need saying. Who knows what’d happen if I weren’t to write them all down here – I have a few ideas… but I won’t trouble you with them since I am going to write – now. Right now. Write here, right now. Ignore that and keep reading.

Did you really think illegal downloading wasn’t a crime? You didn’t? You know it’s stealing, right? Then why the rage, old chum?

Are you a filthy thieving downloading piece of scum? If so, Peter Mandelson is after you. Mandy hopes to push through a plan that would see the web connections of Internet pirates disconnected – a move that has met quite considerable condemnation from the young and tech. savvy members of the British populace (you know: the ones who do most of the downloading). Here I don’t wish to focus on whether or not Mandelson’s plan is practical; nor whether it could even be properly applied without risking punishment to those who have genuinely done no wrong (having had their internet connections high-jacked, for example). No – what confuses me in this case is the genuine outrage, shown by those who participate in the illegal filesharing practice, to this decision. Their condemnation isn’t directed at the unworkable nature of Mandelson’s plan; nor at any other factor related to implementation. Rather, they’re disgust is aimed squarely at the suggestion, the mere idea, that those who steal intellectual property via the Internet should be punished for their legally acknowledged crimes. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not myself condemning filesharing here (and neither am I supporting it). Like an adolescent, zit-covered David Cameron attempting to smoke a poorly constructed spliff, I must confess to having partaken in the practice in my early teenage years. It was a given to fourteen-year-olds in those Napster days – and then it was just music, with each megabyte taking at least a minute to download. Now films; TV series; games; software; and even operating systems can be downloaded in but a small number of hours. And many, many, many people are doing it. “Good luck to them” you might say, “it doesn’t affect the multimillion pound music / film / games industry anyway” you might rhetorically continue. I’m not entirely sure you’re right, but fair enough. As crimes go, downloading ‘Fight For This Love’ by Cheryl Cole is nothing major (well, the filesharing part isn’t), but come now: certainly it is still a crime. Whatever you think of the people who own the data you’re stealing – however rich they are – and however little your theft will affect them, you are still undeniably committing a crime: the crime of theft. You can’t legitimise stealing a millionaire’s doormat by pointing out that he’s rich and can easily afford the loss. The shoplifter’s excuse that the supermarket won’t suffer, and that it accounts for the existence of thieves, goes no way towards morally or legally legitimising their actions. And don’t pretend that your filesharing is in anyway justifiable on a kind of Robin Hood-esque basis – I’d wager that you could afford whatever you’re stealing – and if you can’t, I’d certainly doubt that you strictly needed it. As I said, I’m not here to rain moral condemnation down on anybody. I’ve benefited from the filesharing of others. I’ve taken part in it years ago. And I don’t particularly think worse of those who I know still do it. But it is crime. It is theft. And, like a shoplifter, surely the response to being caught out must be to put one’s hands up and say “fair enough” – not to bleat on about how evil Peter Mandelson is for trying to uphold our country’s laws. Few pickpockets have arrived at the police station only to erupt into a fuming tirade over how despicable it is to restrict their freedom to pick pockets – even if they stuck exclusively to the superrich.

‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’. Yeah, it glorifies terrorism you know. Yeah seriously… No, it does! …No it doesn’t you impetuous pawn.

The largest ever entertainment release – Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 – is now available, and is being enjoyed by countless millions of gamers the world over, some responsible; some stupid; some clever; some mature; some hopelessly childish; some (due to awful parenting) actually children; some PhD students; some secondary school dropouts, and so on and so forth. Why is this game in particular important? Well – because it features one of the most controversial sections of a videogame to date (so controversial in fact that the game asks you if you want to skip it before you even start playing). For those who are interested in seeing more or less exactly what happens in the game, watch the video below (but note the spoiler):

The scene has the player, along with three or four non-playable characters, casually enter an airport in Moscow and open fire on the unarmed civilians there-in. The civilians flee, the player’s character and the others continue to fire. Security guards are easily cut down, as are people trying to help injured others to their feet. Wounded people try to crawl away only to be shot in the back, and by the end of the level the player leaves the airport with a bloodbath in his wake. The context is that the player’s character is a member of an elite military task force, who goes undercover in a terrorist organisation in order to bring down their highly dangerous leader. In order to stay undercover, he’s forced to take part in the airport massacre – and, like him, you the player must actually be there pulling the trigger – there’s no escape from liability in the form of a cutscene, you actively take part in the entire section of the game – every murdered civilian falls as a result of you genuinely opting to pull the trigger with your crosshairs aimed squarely at their backs. Controversial enough for you? Predictably, both sides have gone to war, competing to see who can provide the more painfully inane argument. On the anti-COD (Call of Duty) side, we have suggestions that the game is excessively violent; glorifies terrorism and killing; and might influence others to behave in the way the game portrays, while the pro-CODers spout the usual ‘it’s just a game’; ‘it’s not real’; and ‘you don’t have to play it if you don’t like it’ rubbish. Let’s be clear – in the form of the preceding arguments, both sides are wrong. With regard to the anti-CODers – the game is not excessively violent. To be excessively violent would be to include violence that was inaccurate to the realities of the situation (i.e. war and terrorism). The game doesn’t do this, and is certainly less gory (and bloody) than a number of other, far less controversial, titles currently available. It categorically does not glorify war or terrorism – war itself is presented as chaotic and terrifying, and the terrorism scene is one of the most uncomfortable and troubling portrayals that I’ve ever come across, in any form of artistic media, succeeding dramatically where many other games have tried and failed. It positively didn’t promote the idea that acting as the character does in the game might be ‘fun’ or ‘cool’; and no more glorified callous murder than did Schindler’s List. The pro-CODers are just as wrong. The fact COD:MW2 is a game, and not real, does not thereby earn it a free-reign to portray just about anything it wants. There is a reason the BBFC exists, and it’s not simply to calm the constantly raging tempers of the Daily Mail reading masses. It is certainly possible that COD could have portrayed the terrorism scene unacceptably. If the game had suggested that terrorism were a good thing – or if it had made mocking reference to a real life murder – or if it had screwed up in any number of other possible ways, the BBFC would have been well within their rights to condemn it. A game in which you play a jolly paedophile who has to search out and abuse children in exchange for points to spend on your computer rig would not be acceptable – despite the fact that ‘it would be a game’ and ‘it wouldn’t be real’. The same applies to the suggestion that you don’t have to play it if you don’t want to. This idiot excuse comes out of modern relativism, and the idea that rightness and wrongness apply no further than one’s own personal feelings. The idea is that if COD:MW2 is wrong ‘for you’, then there is nothing necessarily compelling you to play it. However, you have no right to assume it’s wrong ‘for other people’, who themselves are free to play so long as they don’t force you to watch. Again, this is utter nonsense – if Infinity Ward (the game’s developers) had done wrong, I’d be just as correct to condemn them, despite not having fallen victim to their crime, as I would to be to condemn a murderer, despite not having suffered his. Moral condemnation can still be applied by those who aren’t directly affected – hence the existence of our (or any) legal system. So who’s right? Well – ultimately, it’s the pro-CODers, though not due to any of the previously mentioned ‘arguments’. The game’s terrorist scene is handled maturely and frankly, and is a complete success in its goal of leaving the player feeling awkward; uncomfortable; and utterly disgusted (at their own actions, not at the game’s inclusion of the level). Contrary to (one of my heroes) Charlie Brooker’s suggestion, I felt the interactivity of the scene was completely justified, managing to create an atmosphere and sensation that just would not have been possible via a cutscene portrayed utterly outside of the player’s control (as has been the case with a number of games featuring ‘moral choices’). If there’s a negative point to be made it’s that the rest of the game’s campaign fails to be anywhere near as absorbing, and the plot as a whole struggles to be engrossing or involving, which is a shame given that the fundamental ideas are very good. Thus, the terrorist scene sort of just pops-up, not particularly in context, and not captivating in the sense of it bringing you any deeper into the plot – but that’s not a condemnation of its highly successful content; just as a bad war film wouldn’t, in its struggling storytelling, thereby delegitimise its inclusion of battle footage. COD:MW2’s terrorist scene is legitimate, justified in its inclusion and interactivity, rightly available (to adults) in the UK, and utterly horrible all the same.

Christmas time. Mistletoe and whine. I hope the adverts start in June next year.

It’s exactly a month until Christmas today – the day of the birth of our Lord. And what I want to write about here is how damned annoying it is that everyone’s forgotten about how it’s HIS day, and how we need to be honouring Him! Oh, and about the Jews… Not really… Christmas nowadays is nothing to do with Jesus, or Christianity, and that’s a very good thing. It has, quite naturally and without cultural intervention, evolved into a time that genuinely belongs to all people (or any that want it). Sure, there are the moaners: those who say it’s nought but a materialistic free-for-all – a time for retailers to exploit shoppers, and for children to exploit parents, and for DFS to exploit everybody – and there are those who whinge that “boo-hoo the adverts are on even earlier this year!” or that “Tesco’s are playing Christmas music, and it’s only October!” as if the sight of a Christmas tree on TV, or the sound of Noddy Holder’s horrible, horrible, voice exclaiming “it’s Christmas!” causes them internal bleeding, or something else worthy of such persistent complaint. Well to those people I say: “shut your faces you miserable bloody stupid gits” (and I’d encourage you to use the same phrase). Of course Christmas is utilised by shops trying to sell their wares; and of course children get overly covetous when they see an opportunity to get some toy they’ve been yearning for (since they saw the advert in October); and yes everybody (apart from tirelessly joyous w*nkers) loathes Christmas music – - But it’s no worse than JLS’ or Ndubz’ mindless Casio keyboard adapted ‘beats’, which were playing previously! And contrary to what the moaners suggest, the adverts aren’t on all THAT early – it’s not as if they’re so constant that we can’t even tell Christmas time apart, from, say, Easter (which starts in about February by the advert calendar, leaving January as a useful buffer for those of us who set our watches by commercial campaigns). Yes Christmas, as a retailing / self-serving / annoying / marketing time extends from late September to New Years, and yes, if you must, you can count that as a negative. But look too at the positives. Who, but the most jaded, or the most unfortunate (the former who have themselves to blame, the latter who obviously don’t), doesn’t have fond memories of at least a few of their Christmases? For whom has some Christmas not been a particularly special time – at some point in their pitiful little lives? I’m talking about the actual day here – when the children’s greed has done its job, and when the retailers are out of time, and when nobody goes to the shops to listen to awful Christmas music because they’re all closed. On Christmas day, December 25th itself, it is a truly happy and special occasion. This is so, for despite complaints, the massive build up does actually manage its purpose, and Christmas day is left feeling like a genuinely satisfying climactic event. Everyone feels a happy obligation to make an effort to enjoy the day rather than let it pass by unnoticed (apart from the most awful people on the planet). Children are happy, friends and family are united, work and daily life temporarily cease, and – if you do it right – peace and good will truly do extend to all men (…in your local vicinity, the war continues, despite yuletide). It’s nothing to do with Jesus (for most); and it’s nothing to do with the Winter solstice, as was the case in the Pagan festival the Christians initially commandeered; and indeed why should it be? What more beautiful a thing to have Christmas in its current carnation; as a time when families and friends unite to try and enjoy each other’s company, to make one another happy via generous gifts, to reflect on the year and the positives in life; than to worship a long dead carpenter (or builder, apparently carpenter’s a mistranslation). Stop complaining about Christmas – even if you do hate the adverts, or the music, or the lights, or the children’s happy laughter. There was a time when you were that six year old, looking forward to a day of toys; games; and grandma – and if you get over your melodramatic self-pity – you might just learn to enjoy it all over again.

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