It’s 10 o’clock on a Saturday night and a man sat on the table next to me in the Manchester Piccadilly Starbucks is shooting people in the face. He’s playing a game on his iPad where you first select from a selection of rifles — hunting, military — and then aim them at medium-poly targets on what looks like an everyday city street. He drags his finger across the touch screen and pinches to zoom his scope at a target. He presses a button and the view switches, the camera follows the journey of the bullet through the air in slow motion. It sails across a road, over the tops of blocky parked cars rendered in simple polygons, and then tears through a man’s cheekbone. His jaw starts to fall off as a low-res cloud of gore blooms. WELL DONE! Says the game. ONE MORE CRIMINAL OFF THE STREETS! And I sip my cold cup of tea and wonder if there’s not something to this reactionary idea of video games deadening us to violence.
This year two of the most consistently frustrating things in the world turn 30: the Final Fantasy series, and myself. It’s no exaggeration to say one of the two carries with it a legacy of euphoric highs and staggering lows (spoiler: it’s not me…mostly) but has one aspect which has remained solid from its inception in the late eighties to its modern day incarnations, and that’s the music.
Over the past month Nier: Automata has blown me away. A game that on it’s face is one where you hack robots to pieces in various fashion appeals to me, but I didn’t expect to be dragged into one of most interesting and memorable games I’d ever played. A true masterclass in story telling and emotional manipulation, by the time I had killed my way to the “true” ending, it had solidified its position as one of my favourite games of all time.
“Closure is bullshit,” James Ellroy once wrote, “and I would love to find the man who invented closure and shove a giant closure plaque up his ass.” The author of LA Confidential is wrong about a lot of things, but in this case, he’s bang on. An ending with no loose ends, unanswered questions of other dangling prepositions is desirable in storytelling, but if you try and apply a similar narrative arc to a human life, you’ll only be disappointed. Fiction which attempts to embrace the ambiguity of life treads a tricky line between purposefully disappointing those engaging with it, and just wasting their time. It’s a tightrope which Her Story, Sam Barlow’s surprise hit PC title from 2015, manages quite wonderfully imho.
I’m home sick. It sucks. Doubly so since, as well as enduring the dizziness and stomach troubles of undefined illness, any time I’m confined to my sickbed I am gripped by this contrarian desire to be productive. I’m wrapped in a duvet and sat on the sofa but staring out of the window, or into my computer screen, thinking of all the things I could be doing with all this spare time I suddenly have. I want to be creative! I want to explore the possibilities of what’s out there! But my weak and feeble body does not let me. It is, at least, the perfect situation to catch up on some videogames.
As a kid, I was kind of stupid. I was super into the supernatural, an interest that lingers to this day, in a less intense way. My trips to the library were mostly focussed on finding graphic novels that weren’t for adults, and similarly kid-friendly titles about UFOs, ghosts, crop circles, spontaneous combustion. There was a surprising surfeit of compendiums which explained the Roswell crash, or the Enfield Haunting, in child-friendly prose – with plenty of full-colour pictures to boot! I don’t know if it was because of the X-Files, or if there was just something in the air, but the nineties seemed particularly geared towards getting kids into the arcane. Neil Buchanan, of Art Attack and fronting a heavy metal band fame, hosted a CITV show called It’s a Mystery which investigated topics as many and varied as the Loch Ness Monster and people getting trapped in abandoned tube stations. Its creepy, Twilight Zone-biting opening still haunts me.
This happens fifteen hours into my playthrough of Rise of the Tomb Raider. Under my control, Lara Croft has murdered something in the region of two hundred paramilitary soldiers. This game offers no chance of a non-lethal run. It bottlenecks you out of the open, explorable environs of Siberia into corridors or arenas where it chucks waves of enemies at you. The bad guys bark threats, instructions to each other, misguided boasts that they have Lara right where they want her. I direct her out of cover, wait for the crosshairs to centre on their heads, and then let go of the right trigger. Arrows sail through their skulls with a whistle of wind and a spurt of blood. Simple and satisfying. As it has been during this particular encounter, which ends with the snowy battlefield littered with more bodies than Leningrad. Then there’s a cutscene: more of these enemies appear, looking no less frail than the ones who came before. They will be dispatched with relative ease, I reckon, based on recent experience, but no! Your long-absent pals have hijacked an enemy turret, and they wipe away the bridge full of oncoming enemies with a spray of bullets. “Thank god,” Lara sighs with relief. Eh? What?