January 30, 2009
Posted by WildlyParenthetical under Uncategorized
I haven’t read Davis’ book, but I do work in a similar area. The question for me is, in the diagnostic category of ‘causing marked distress’, what, precisely, causes the distress? Some would say OCD, and yet even Agin observes that if your obsession earns you money, it’s unlikely to be a psychiatric symptom. Thus what makes something a symptom is not given by the symptom itself, nor by the brain, but by how particular behaviours are situated within a given culture. What defines something as a symptom is not, in the end, a psychiatric matter. Which means that psychiatrists really need to be able to engage with the context within which that symptom occurs; what makes a particular behaviour problematic? Yes, severe distress, but what produces that distress? A mismatch between the expectations of the context within which the person works, and that person’s behaviours.
You might say that none of this matters, but as has already been pointed out, the use of psychiatric drugs is already re-setting the bar for what counts as ‘normal’ within our cultural context. As a result, more people are falling outside ‘normal behaviour’ and this, then, causes the distress which is apparently key to rendering something a psychiatric symptom. Thus ipsychiatrists need to begin to engage with understandings of the world which do not treat the brain as if it occurs in a vacuum, because to do otherwise is to reproduce and expand the very problem they are supposedly seeking to address.
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost
January 17, 2009
Posted by WildlyParenthetical under Australia
Potentially it was foolish to attempt to revivify this poor lost blawg when I was about to go into full time work. For those of you full-time full-timers, doubtless this seems like the whinge of a spoilt child. But nontheless, my body clock has needed a teensy bit of tweaking, leaving me with little time to spend on selfish pursuits. But I could not neglect you all for too long, lest you think I would not return. So I wanted to share with you the spectacular works of a friend of mine, Patrick Boland. For those of you who have ever been even mildly drawn to the mysterious machines of steampunk, or to the magic palimsest of industrial remnants, or to the scary-glee of ancient robots, or to the hard, soft lines of sandstone cut by prisoners…. or, for those of you who are Sydney-siders, like me, if you have been enchanted by the bizarre and extraordinarily rare density of history you can find at Cockatoo Island, check out the gorgeous photos Patrick has taken (some of these are trimmed, thank you so so much, WordPress…). Find the Rool Thing over here:
The Goblin Hall:
It’s comin’ ta git cha!
Greys go gorgeous…
Enjoy, kidlets. I shall return at some point, carryin’ on about the Whedonverse, or potentially about Sydney Festival stuff I have been indulging in!
January 10, 2009
Posted by WildlyParenthetical under feminism
, sex work
Okay, so that’s a couple of points there. I actually posted this post earlier, got anxious about it and took it back down, and am now putting it back up. I sound a little anti-Amy-Chin… I’m sorry about that, coz I’m not really. I disagree with her, but I feel like this post is maybe a little… uh… emphatic about that on a couple of points. So bear with me…
To continue on with that theme, Amy-Chin argues that another key attribute required of prostitution in order to make it feminist is in relation to the public/private distinction. Now, I am not an American liberal feminist (sorry mes amis) and so the whole public/private sphere thing just doesn’t have the appeal it seems to for others. Part of this is because the public/private distinction is an incredibly gendered divide, one which has been used to both keep women in the ‘private’ sphere, and to render the abuse of them not a matter of public concern. But the other thing is that, whilst I get that according to a particular model of labour, the ideal workplace might be one which you can leave behind, I’m not convinced that any of us ever do that entirely, and I’m not convinced it would be a simple good. What we do for a living is part of who we are; this is always the case, even if we hate it with a fiery passion (the fiery passion is part of who we are… or how we are). But even accepting that this distinction might be a key matter for the possibility of feminist prostitution, the issue really seems to relate to the capacity to treat it as any other job. To be honest, this seems a fairly class-based question, at least in the world of Firefly (I want to think some more about whether it is in the contemporary world). Those who are poor don’t seem to be able to live out this distinction between the public and the private. The entire crew live where they work, and occasionally this means that blood and cow manure are where they live. Mal is thoroughly defined by his job, even as there’s more to him than that (of course). Kaylee spends a huge amount of her time ‘off’ in the engine room, present to the possibility of ‘having to work’. In some respects, amongst the others depicted, Inara’s job is the most defined by the public/private distinction if only because she has to go to her clients.
Perhaps one of Amy-Chin’s points of evidence for Inara’s inability to maintain a public/private distinction is that Inara reaches a point at which she declares that she needs to leave Serenity. This comes after her friend Nandi, who ran a whorehouse, was killed. We’re set up to believe this is the grounds for Inara’s confession of love for Mal (he is certainly about to say so to her), but instead, she says “I learned something from Nandi. Not just from what happened, but from her. The family she made, the strength of her love for them. That’s what kept them together. When you live with that kind of strength, you get tied to it, you can’t break away. And you never want to… I’m leaving.” According to Amy-Chin, ” [i]t is not merely Mal’s moral objection to Inara’s profession that inhibits their relationship; it is the fact that, as a Companion, she cannot escape her identity and have a private life outside her public profession. As the series makes clear she has a choice: to renounce her professional identity and financial independence or leave. There is no third way.” (p. 183). This is, certainly, one possible reading: that she cannot escape her job without giving up her financial independence. Amy-Chin connects this to Inara’s comment on Companion policies on dating: “it’s complicated.” On the other hand, Inara’s background remains a mystery; she left an excellent position as the up-and-coming ‘House Mistress’ (it would seem the Guild or Guild schools are broken into ‘houses). Earlier in that episode, Nandi has commented that no one knows why she left. Given that it’s pretty clear she’s drawn to Mal, and enjoys her time on Serenity, and is visibly upset by the discussion, I would suggest that it can be read as an impossibility because of previous experiences. Say, (ooh, randomly, because this motif is never used ;-)) she was hurt either by, or because of people she was close to. Or hah! I have just discovered ‘Inara’s secret’, and it makes her even more understandable and in some ways quite selfless here. But I will not spoil yez. There’s a youtube clip out there you can find if you like.
A few other things: Amy-Chin claims that Zoe, Kaylee and River “do not trade on their femininity as a source of their power” (p. 178). I really object to how this is phrased. I don’t like the idea that femininity is a) a defined thing and b) a source of improper power. (Men ‘trade on’ their masculinity all the time; I’ve never been sure why women should be ‘good girls’ and not do so…) Which power, precisely, does Inara gain as a result of her femininity? Her respectability? Surely that’s a result of her job rather than simply her appearance or manner (though these may be key to her job)? Which femininity, precisely, are these other women not trading on? The definition of femininity at work seems a fairly middleclass one, if it is defined by Inara’s appearance and grace. Kaylee’s femininity is, I would suggest, very definitely present; it is simply a less trained one, one which is probably more working class. It’s a significant part of who she is, and even a significant part of her getting the job on Serenity (is that power?). River’s femininity might lie in her balletic grace, which causes everyone to underestimate her, but is also a key part of her deadly fighting style. Would we really want to set her fighting prowess in opposition to her femininity here? And Zoe… I adore the depiction of Zoe: she is incredibly capable, but thoroughly feminine. She doesn’t ‘trade’ on her femininity, but if you ask me whatever ‘power’ she has (and that’s seriously such an undifferentiated term it’s probably half the problem here) is bound up with her femininity.
Another: Amy-Chin claims that for the Companion, “the emphasis is on education and refinement, albeit for the express purpose of pleasing men, rather than the cultivation of such traits for their own worth.” Heh. Welcome to twenty-first century education. Show me a single form of education that is not at least sold on the grounds that it will enable one to do a particular job! Further, it’s not clear to me, given that Inara does in fact service a woman client, that we should be assuming that only men engage Companions. It’s clear that Inara chooses to primarily service men… and could choose otherwise.
Which brings us to a question which is particularly interesting, I think. There are those feminists who argue that heterosex for money undermines the idea that heterosexuality is the naturally occurring sexuality, and that in this way prostitution is a transgressive act. Amy-Chin argues that because Inara’s prostitution is placed in the context of her burgeoning (but oh! never fulfilled! never fulfilled!) romance with Mal, it is in fact this relationship that legitimises Inara and thus her job. She argues that a fairly conservative notion of sexuality is actually at work in Firefly. In many ways, I agree with her. There are three (or so… ) major couples: Zoe and Wash, Kaylee and Simon, and Inara and Mal. All three are straight. Their stories all curve in an arc. And this, I think, is part of what’s interesting here. Sexuality, as it is depicted in narrative, is given a strong teleology. It is a key dynamic of progression. The achievement of heterosexual union is most often climactic (at least an element of a climax, (heh; I am a kid, I know) or perhaps more strictly, a kind of ‘reward’; note the reflexivity in relation to this in Kaylee’s hilarious-but-oh-so-fucking-awesome response to Simon’s declaration of having wanted to have had sex with her in the film: “Screw this! I’m gonna live!’. This is the difficulty that is faced by attempting to write a conventionally-shaped narrative about prostitution: here’s Inara, achieving heterosexual (well, mostly) union, on a regular basis, with the ‘wrong dude’ and without ‘reward’ games being played (I just found this discussion in amongst research; disappointing that Firefly fans don’t take up all the opportunities the Whedon man offers!) . Amy-Chin is right here, that all of Inara’s encounters with her clients are subordinated to the sweet agony of her unrequited love for Mal (well, if her feelings are anything like mine ;-)). That is, of course, partly because the show’s… uh… about him; he centres the narrative. There’s a moment in Heart of Gold, when Inara comes across Mal leaving Nandi’s room. He falls over himself to make excuses, and she cuts through the crap and tells him she’s glad, adding “One benefit of not being puritanical about sex: you don’t have to be embarrassed afterwards.” Later, however, we see her sobbing her eyes out. Now some see this as ceding ground to conventional monogamous heterosexuality, to have her in tears over Mal sleeping with someone else. And that’s certainly in play. I don’t want to pretend it’s not. But in addition to this, there’s also the dynamic that Nandi is the whore that Mal can ‘get past’ his issues with prostitution with. Further, Inara knows that sleeping with him would immensely complicate her world; this is reinforced by the fact that although their desire for each other has been pretty clear from the beginning, and she, not being an idiot and also being well-educated in such matters, would know this, they simply haven’t had sex. And the one I personally like best: that she’s upset that he had sex with Nandi and not her, and she wants to sleep with him; simple desire stymied. Nonetheless, the centrality of Mal-and-Inara to the narrative does seem to push forward the one-true-love-for-ever-and-ever-oh-and-of-the-opposite-sex-please image of resolution which Western narrative has engaged in for so long. And it is part of what functions to rescue Inara from the place her prostitution would usually put her: soiled, broken and completely lacking in morals. Mal sees worth in her, and so the audience is supposed to too. This is, of course, problematic, because it is our immediate acceptance of Mal-the-hero which then feeds through into legitimising Inara as someone to be respected and valued, rather than her on her own terms.
Yet this is not quite so simple either, methinks, because the audience’s relationship with Mal is fairly ambivalent (or at least potentially is): we are clearly meant to disapprove of Mal’s repeated description of her as a ‘whore’, particularly since it is set in contrast to his obvious, if extremely poorly expressed, affection and respect for her. This affection and respect, I might add, is heterosexual (and as such fairly conventionally heteronormative in some respects) but it is also not premised on simply what-she-is-for-him; that is, while it’s problematic that Inara’s value is seen through Mal’s desire for her, at the same time, his desire, I think, moves beyond a woman-as-object-for-man’s-use kind of misogynistic heterosexuality, and into a real acknowledgement of her as a person. He emphasises this himself when he says “I might not show respect for your job, but he didn’t respect you. That’s the difference.” For example, his willingness to joke with her, his somewhat unwilling or admiration of her capacity to move easily in a variety of settings, his belief that she will easily play out her role as a rogue in Trash; there are lots of other examples of his demonstration of respect for her abilities. Indeed, part of what he seems to dislike about her job is that he thinks that others don’t respect her for it, and that she permits this. This isn’t necessarily the case, and indeed, he does seem to know this, too…
And the fascinating thing about their relationship, which I think that Amy-Chin misses, is that by raising this issue explicitly, Joss is prompting the viewer to interrogate his or her own understandings about sex, sexuality, women and prostitution itself. Mal’s internal struggle over whether or not he respects Inara is not unusual, or unrecognisable: in fact, it’s the tug-of-war that Western culture continues to work with. There are women who have sex with others who pay them. Where in that is the badness, the lack of respect, exactly, inherent in that? There are sex workers who are great at their jobs… why is this a bad thing? These questions remain live, because so few disrespect Inara’s job. As the audience, we know that Mal, especially the Mal who is so obviously anti-Christian, ought to be getting over whatever is standing in his way to respecting Inara (and to getting with her), and this obstacle is not, I think, depicted as being ‘Inara’s job’ so much as ‘Mal’s stupidity about Inara’s job’. This emphasis is a radical shift. As Mal works through his tug-of-war, then, so can the audience, asking: What makes a whore, and why are they considered to be the least worthy of all women? Why is sex-for-money such a problem for conventional morality? Why is monogamy, for that matter, thought to be where it’s at? And for me, this is what makes text feminist: when it prompts and coaxes its audience to que(e)r(y) and work through conventional misogynistic crap in order to reach a feminist realisation, rather than merely representing the feminist ideal.
January 9, 2009
In amongst the very fun discussion about kick arse women on TV which has been happening over at Hoyden About Town, the wonderful su suggested that I might be interested in an article which takes its place in the world of Whedon-verse fan-academia. Given that I spent a sizeable proportion of thesis-writing time refusing to allow myself to engage in Whedonverse academia, I was rather cheery to be able to read it. “Tis Pity She’s a Whore”, by Dee Amy-Chin (Feminist Media Studies 6(2), 175-189) is a good article in lots of ways. It sets itself a task, and it works it through: is Inara, from Joss Whedon’s Firefly really a feminist depiction of prostitution, as some have thought? Few articles really succeed in doing this, so it’s nice in that regard. I should say from the get-go that Amy-Chin reckons Whedon fails at feminist prostitution. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, perhaps surprisingly, I disagree with a number of her claims. Part of this, again perhaps unsurprisingly, is because I stand by what I said about Buffy all that time ago: first, that it is a text like any other, with multiple meanings at work at any given time; second, that what makes a text feminist is not that it depicts a feminist utopia. So I’m just going to run through a few of Amy-Chin’s more memorable points and point out my responses. (When I say memorable, I kinda mean ‘I’m doing this off the top of my head coz I’m feeling rool lazy and elsewise this post will not get written. So correct me if I’m wrong, won’t you please?’)
She claims that the way that Inara is filmed reproduces her as an object under the male gaze. Her focus (I think she’s borrowing someone else’s work, from memory) is on one of our first encounters with Inara. After having been used by Mal to make a preacher uncomfortable, and been called a ‘whore’ yet again by him, she is knelt on the floor and bathing herself with a sponge. In some ways, and Amy-Chin notes this, the scene can be understood as voyeuristic. Inara’s attention is turned in on itself, and displays no awareness of the viewer. This is where Amy-Chin suggests the male gaze is permitted to take hold: Inara doesn’t glance back. But what’s interesting to me is that Amy-Chin simply by-passes what for me were the really interesting elements of the way that Inara is filmed in the pilot episode: the shots are paused. I’m not sure if you all remember what I’m talking about here, but as she squeezes the sponge out over the container of water, there’s a split-second pause, where the water hangs in the air, suspended. There’s a shot, too, of water dripping down her back, of her graceful movement, and this too pauses. This echoes earlier, where she is ‘servicing’ a client, and the shots stutter again, pausing as she glances away when he asks about her home (indeed, it’s unclear in this earlier part whether she actually is looking away, or if it’s a physical rendering of her internal reaction to his question). Now the question is, is this stuttered temporality significant? To me, yes. The action pauses, giving space for reflection. The reflection may be Inara’s, but for me at least, it was also mine. It asks you to dwell with her at that moment; not in simple observation of her body, but in a wondering about what is especially significant here. It offers breaks in what could be otherwise a simple voyeuristic gaze. Inara might not gaze back at the gazer, but a sense of intimacy is engendered because the shot is no longer about how hot she is (although she totes is ;-)).
But the real bulk of Amy-Chin’s argument engages with existing feminist writings about prostitution. She explores, briefly, positive theorisations of prostitution that have been offered by a range of feminists. From my recollection, the main elements of these are: that the woman (we’ll let the gender thing slip in this context, but I do know there are boyz who do this too, k?) ought to be able to choose whether or not she engages in prostitution, that prostitution ought not to be a matter of stigma, that she should be able to maintain the distinction between public and private, and that the focus of health testing should fall on clients, not on prostitutes themselves. This last one I won’t look at, really, except to note that Inara does undergo a health check, and there’s nothing that really suggests she checks out her clients for their health record.
It’s pretty clear throughout the series that Inara chooses her clients, and has a great deal of control over who she services, under what circumstances. The Guild is mostly what makes this possible: when a client turns nasty, she tells him that he won’t be able to get a Companion to contract with him ever again, as he will have a black mark against his name. So far, so feminist, it would seem, right? Well, if we’re being entirely fair, we should point out that whilst she has the capacity to respond to bad behaviour on the part of her clients, she is nonetheless subject to it. Which leads us to the next issue that needs addressing: the question of stigma.
It’s certainly true that the stigma remains attached to prostitution in the universe of Firefly. Mal continually displays his disapproval of her way of making money, to which Inara’s rejoinder is that at least her way of making money is legal, unlike his. He refuses to name her as Companion, the name in the Firefly universe for a woman who has undergone training, is a member of the Companions’ Guild, and sexually services her clients. Instead, he refers to her habitually a ‘whore’, even when she grumps at him about it.
Shepherd Book appears uncomfortable with her and her choice of profession, although it is to her that he turns at the end of the first episode when he has a crisis of faith. This produces the rather lovely image (Amy-Chin argues it’s not so great because it draws on a history of prosititutes providing spiritual support) of Inara’s hand resting on Book’s head in benediction. I personally like the inversion; it challenges the Christian disapproval of prostitutes. Indeed, we can even read this as speaking back to the stories of Mary Magdalene: maybe she wasn’t grateful to Jesus for ‘allowing’ her to escape her ‘sins’, but he was grateful to her… (this is all quite aside from the question of whether Magdalene was actually a prostitute at all; probably not seems the current scholarly understanding, but she was powerful in the early Church (and had a Gospel all of her very own) and so her influence had to be diminished: whoredom, clearly the key!). This is interesting because it’s fairly clear that a recognisable form of Christianity has persisted into the future Firefly depicts; and oh, thank all that’s holy (sarcasm, mes amis), it’s evangelical.
Now, see, Amy-Chin thinks that this stigma, clearly still at play in this universe, means that Whedon isn’t depicting feminist prostitution. To me this isn’t the case at all. I am a little (just a teensy bit) bit over the idea that the only way for something to be making an activist point (feminist, anti-racist, anti-transphobic, whatevs) in a TV show is by showing the perfected version of the world. It supposes that, in order to be feminist, a show should depict how the world would be if it were… what? equal? different-but-with-respect? Whatever. The point being, Amy-Chin thinks that Whedon is failing to do something feminist with the Inara character because she is stigmatised, because the world is not ideal. Personally, I think that a world not-yet-perfected allows us to see the continuity between that future and here, but also allows us to imagine another way that prostitution could be done. One in which to some at least, the prostitute may be conceived of as a respectable woman, in which her work is not thought to be an inherent violation and derogation. Indeed, in one episode it is her status that allows her to intervene in the acts of government officials, a situation that is especially tricky for the crew of the Serenity (and which as a result keeps coming up). A world in which the prostitute is given sufficient control and support of her own work that she can choose her clients and respond when they do not give her the respect she deserves. But a world which still has a perhaps exacerbated version of the dissonant understanding of sex work we currently live with. A world, though, through which we are encouraged to work it out…
More to come…
(PS I have not edited this properly, so apologies for that…)
January 4, 2009
Posted by WildlyParenthetical under gaming
As long long promised:
A small tidbit you might not know about me: I am a gamer. Occasionally, yes, I want to be Angelina Jolie in Hackers, but I’m a tad more sincere in my adoration of computer games. I am regularly found critiquing the shit out of the industry, which seems to have massive problems with a) girls, b) plots and storylines, c) trusting their audience, d) grasping that realism is really not necessarily all that. And a few other bits and pieces. A friend I’ll call Boy Sovereign and I on a regular basis discuss the possibility of making computer games. He claims he’d code them; I claim I’d write them with proper storyline. He then looks at me dubiously.
As a present to myself post-PhD, I played Bioshock. It’s a Take-Two Interactive First Person Shooter (FPS), and it provoked a serious buzz amongst the gamer communities when it was released (which was a while back now; I took a long time to write the PhD, ‘kay?). At least part of this was because it was, allegedly, grounded in, like, intellectual shit. Ayn Rand’s intellectual shit, to be precise (okay, yes, that’s just my way of getting in a snide and empty dig at Rand…). In this respect, it looks like it’s treating its audience with some respect, expecting that they can handle sophisticated theory (if you can call Rand that).
The game is set up, in fact, as a critique of a utopia of Randian proportions: you enter this utopia as it has stopped being a utopia, so the story goes. Rapture, which is the name of this city, is built underwater. This works well, of course, as a technique for delimiting gameplay, as most FPS have to do. Your movement through the city is enabled by a kind of public transport system, and of course you can only make your way from one area to another through long glass tunnels (with all kinds of sealife moseying about on the other side). I have to say that whilst I understand the need to give people a track through the game, I think that the Half Life series does this a lot better, feeling only minimally containing, for the most part, even as you can trust to the game to not let you go off on annoying, unnecessary tangents. (Oblivion, I found, was a bit this way: I haven’t finished it because Oblivion gates kept opening every mile or so, and after a while it gets a bit boring trying to close them. I’m told that there’s a particular task that needs to be accomplished to stop them from popping up, but for this here girl-o’-thoroughness, that’s not a very successful technique.)
Anyway, so there’s this underwater utopia, run by this guy Andrew Ryan. The physical setting is gorgeously art deco, which I kinda loved. His philosophies are advertised around the place, and announced at regular intervals over a kind of PA system (apparently the massive freedom of libertarianism doesn’t include freedom from fucking advertising). This utopia has gone to shit, mostly because a mob leader challenged Ryan for the city. It’s also, though, because everyone was partaking in gene splicing (which you do, too, throughout the game, letting you shoot electricity, ice or fire from your fingers, amongst other things). This splicing has made the people of Rapture into the major bad guys you encounter: splicers. There’s a variety of splicers running around to make your life hell. Amusingly, many talk away to themselves as if they were still a part of Jazz Era upperclass life, with gossip, scandal and disapproval peppering these conversations, all in an aristocratic accent. There’s also doctors, who call out to nurses to ‘help me find this patient’ (that’d be you!). But whilst I appreciate this continuation of the setting, the splicers themselves are pretty boring. They just… kill. They’re just grumpy. It feels like they should bring more to the game than simply being impediments that stop you getting where you wanna go, which is how they wound up feeling. I know this sounds strange, given that the Combine soldiers in Half Life 2 aren’t exactly the most exciting of enemies—they’re just your basic military—but I found the splicers just annoying as the game got going. I actually suspect that this has more to do with the storyline of HL, but we’ll get to that.
These aren’t your only bad guys: there’s also the Big Daddies, who run around apparently looking after the Little Sisters. The Big Daddies are all armoured up to the nines, and they’re ‘looking after’ the Little Sisters because they can produce ‘Adam’ out of dead bodies, which in the convoluted reimagining of the technologised human body in Rapture, is necessary to the processes of gene splicing (while ‘Eve’ is used to ‘power up’ to use these abilities). Now here comes the apparent depth of Bioshock. Ready? Yeah? The depth is that you can choose to either ‘harvest’ the Little Sisters, nicking all their Adam and killing them in the process, or you can ‘save’ them, using a special tool their creator gave you, and getting only a proportion of their possible Adam. That’s it. It has effects on how the game plays out, but it’s really a choice of two things, in the end: harvest a single lil sis, and you’re condemned to being the at least semi-baddie. Big ethical dilemmas, huh? At the same time, you’re misled by someone you apparently rely on, manipulated by them. Except that, even though I knew that this was the case, there weren’t really many options for going other ways. This just becomes frustrating, in the end.
So this is supposed to be the fabulous part of this game: it engages your ethics. But I have to say, as if I were a lil teenage gamer, HL totally pwns Bioshock in this regard. In Half Life 2 (I played HL after HL2, so I’m focussing on the latter), you’re being pursued through a city which is under invasion. Your friends, freedom fighters, really, are helping you make it through, in amongst making amusing comments about your taciturn nature (‘Don’t say much, do you?’ sez Alyx, coyly tucking hair behind her ear). I think it helps the drive of the whole thing that you’re continually under pursuit, whether you’re heading through the underground railway or sneaking into a prison complex. It makes the linearity of the path you travel seem more natural (coz you’re doing it at speed, rather than curiously investigating every lil door). Not just this, but at each location you reach, there is some information given, some decision reached about your next task. These flow pretty naturally: at one point, you’re just aiming to get away, then you discover your friend is in prison, so you go to free him. And so on. (In Bioshock, on the other hand, you’re clueless at the beginning, and it’s not exactly clear why you keep moving through the game (especially once you’ve been betrayed). I mean, sure, you want to know what’s happened, but do you really want to die to know? Perhaps not…)
Okay, so, so far, so seemingly-lacking-in-ethics, right? Yeah, kinda. Except that the entire story of HL and HL2 is shaped by the G-man. The G-man is a mysterious dude who appears randomly, pauses time, speaks weird and seems to be able to control the dimensions. At the end of HL, he makes Freeman (your character) the offer of employment. It’s not much of a choice, between facing a room full of aliens with no weapons, and accepting his offer. At the beginning of HL2, he claims to be responsible for bringing Freeman back to earth to fight the Combine. Yet as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the human who ceded earth to the Combine manipulated Freeman’s presence to unearth the core elements of the resistance. Instead of a simple one-off choice, then, the player is left in the position of not knowing whether or not s/he undermined the resistance even as Freeman appeared to be part of it. It’s not clear to what extent you are simply a tool of the G-man, and whether the G-man is on the side of the human resistance, as he seemed to be, or not. (At the very beginning of HL, it seems he’s responsible for bringing the aliens to earth in the first place). Everything you might have thought was simply survival, all those you killed in the game, all those lucky escapes, all becomes suspect. But because you only find out about this later, you wind up wondering if you had betrayed your own friends unknowingly, rather than, as in Bioshock, having to pretend to trust the person you knew was going to betray you in order to keep the game moving.
This seems a more compelling story to me; the querying of apparently innocent deeds, rather than the self-evident weightiness of the ‘kill or do not kill the little girl’ in Bioshock. This is, probably, partly my non-adherence to a teenage paradigm of good and bad. I’ve heard since that the creator of Bioshock was forced to simplify the storyline, on the claim that people wouldn’t be able to follow it. I suspect, then, that there are a few more dilemmas one would have otherwise had to face: perhaps even the alteration of the body through gene splicing would become a questionable matter for the player. It did seem to me a little odd that you killed off a bunch of nutty splicers (who had gone crazy due to too much gene splicing) but never seemed at risk of becoming one of them. Later in the game, you ‘become’ a Big Daddy (dressed up as one, anyway), so this element would have worked really well: to what extent must you participate in what you are resisting in order to resist it? At what point do you give over simply resisting and seek to dominate? These would have been interesting questions, but they never really quite make it into being seriously considered. And the big boss battle at the end is just kinda lame, in the end. Why is it that the games industry might be able to complexify its gameplay somewhat, but the final battle is always one of pure force?
In the end, Bioshock wants to be more interesting than it is. Its context is cool, but the splicers become nothing more than an irritant as the game goes on. Part of it is context, I think. Half Life 2 moves through a city, through blocks of apartments, through sewers, through canals (on a hovercrafty thing), along coastline, through prison blocks, through huge city buildings, through sand dunes (complete with ant-lions buzzing at you); you fight on farms, lighthouses, in prison blocks, in mines, in the big weird Citadel, in huge warehouses, in small cramped towns and so on. The variety of contexts requires you to be continually finding new ways of engaging your enemies; and they themseles are varied: regular combine soldiers, the shot-gun-bearing variety, big helicopter things you take down with a rocket launcher, roof-suckers, ant-lions, zombies, head crabs (of various kinds) and so on. It maintains interest, where Bioshock became just a repetitive exercise in shooting things.
So thanks, Valve, for trusting your gamers. And phooey to those stupid execs who made Bioshock just another FPS, albeit with pretty graphics.
January 4, 2009
Posted by WildlyParenthetical under Uncategorized
Just in case you’re wondering what I’m up to… I am going to dance in public (well, all things being well, and my apparent inability to recall an entire sequence of steps being properly remedied). And what kind of dance will this be? Well… let’s just say that it’s potentially the most unusual dancing you’ve ever seen. Wish me luck finding a taffeta 80s dress…
January 3, 2009
Baby in this case being me (and that’s one of the few chances you’ll have to see me refer to myself as ‘baby’) and the bad thing being neglecting this blog shamefully. SHAME! I have been prompted to make this potentially one-off return (who can say? I have broken too many promises to the internet to trust myself to stick to anything… ever…) by, first of all, the brand spanky new year, second of all by the title of my blog glaring balefully at me from my bookmark bar, and third of all by Paul Gowder’s engagement with this post. If you want to see where I’ve been waxing lyrical, it’s been over there (poor Paul, I practically took over his blog for a moment there), over at AWB’s, long-windedly at Books Do Furnish a Room (a design philsophy I already adhere to) and more locally I’ve been Hoydenizing (they’re up for a weblog award. If nepotism counts for anything in this day and age, go vote for tigtog and Lauredhel. They do a great job at HAT).
But if I’ve been neglecting ma blawg, you should know I am an equal opportunity neglector. Although I have a small review (well, apparently I am wordy and long even when I am simply reviewing other people’s work!) coming out, the promises of papers have once more drifted into the ether. I have yet to write the terrifying email to editors of serieses my poor PhD might be welcome in (seriously, I started writing one: ‘Dear Prof. X, I was considering submitting a proposal for a book based on my PhD for the series X, and wanted to give you a chance to say no before I…’ wait, no, something’s not right here…). I’ve got plans for papers that really need to get underway, mostly for special issues which will probably, with my luck, already be packed to the rafters. In other news, I am peeling skin from burnt shoulders (seriously, it evokes kidness for me, back when I used to paint PVA all over my hands just to pull it off slowly later on), learning to hoofer, reading, ah, god, fiction! and being generally a lazy bum. This’ll change any second, no doubt ;-). I have also applied for a job (eep!) in Ireland (accents, sigh…). That took a fair bit of doing, in the end, trying to enumerate the responsibilities of tutoring etc. But it was good to have done. I have heard nothing, but we shall see (I figure a thousand and one people applied for the job, as who doesn’t love an Irish accent, really?). The job kinda looks perfect for me, but probably half of that is just the process of writing the job app and trying to convince them of that…
I have to say, though, my friends, that laziness is extraordinarily relaxing. As are days at the beach, especially where there are waves involved. I shall try to be a bit more disciplined here at the blog, but you know me. Promises, promises… But happy new year, intertubular world. I hope it brings naught but fun, happiness and surprises of the good kind to you all!
P.S Thanks to all who sent me virtual congrats, both here and privately. You made it possible, midears! I should probably also let you lot know that I have been awarded a ‘Vice Chancellor’s Commendation’. Scare quotes designate me not really knowing what it means, but they tell me it’s for excellence in research. Suh-weet! You’ll let me know when I cross the line into boasting, right?