Life Is Strange – Kills the Cynic in Me

I didn’t truly realise until a long time after first playing Life Is Strange, how much it means to me. Most players seem to instantly love it. My love was more a grower. The unaware, deep and growing sort of love that one day, bam, you realise that this is what you’ve wanted all your life. Things weren’t always like this, though.

I was massively sceptical of dontnod as a capable studio after seeing their game before this, Remember Me. Though I never played, much of the trailers and reviews published deterred me immensely. The on-the-nose references to memories and brains, the shonky design of navigation and combat, the opening’s exposition had you being narrated to, in a coffin, after waking up with amnesia, and fighting mentally deficient people in a sewer. It rubbed me the wrong, like the developers wanted to appear smart, but instead felt amateur. And with much of the game’s coverage predicated on it being dropped by publishers because it had a female lead seemed mainly like the game was looking for sympathy rather than being a well made game.

I was a bigger shit back then and unfairly judgemental to the game, especially for someone who’d never played it. I hate that I felt so hostile for little to no reason. I was also very naive on the magnitude of issues in the video game industry when it came to more diverse characters, but at the time this experience made me think Life Is Strange would be a failure. I was very wrong, thankfully.

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I started playing the first episode without much expectation, especially as I initially had doubts about dontnod’s work and the general love from colleagues and critics alike prepared my cynical self to roll my eyes. I’ve been burned by Dark Souls and countless other widely loved games, why get my hopes up? When I did play Episode One, it felt mediocre at worst, lots of setting up and explanation of the place, the people, the power, I was neutral as it was pretty basic right then. At its best, I felt it could be much more. And there was more coming to prove it.

I played each episode a week apart, every Sunday. This was around the time the last episode was releasing. At 6 pm I would keep 3 hours to play an episode. Just me and the game, an ending to the weekend. It was perfect. I could really just lose myself in it, every week, I could think of the plot, the suspects, the characters, their choices, just lost in it all. It meant a lot to have something to work towards and know it would wrap up.

I came away thinking I just enjoyed it and life was continuing as usual. I think I hit a general depressed slump soon after playing because it’s a heavy game, it had interesting approach and themes, which intrigues the academic part of my brain. I didn’t realise this, altogether, meant something. Somehow, I got to the point where moments in the story being brought up, or the announcement of a sequel, would utterly ruin me with happiness and tears. I honestly find it hard to control my emotions about it. I don’t think I’ve ever got so emotional for thinking about a game.

I should’ve known something was up after writing two blog posts about it, after watching hours of YouTube videos of fans talking to the actors, of playing the Love is Strange fan game which is all just sweet, happy gayness. I fell for this game

 

But why was this different?

 

I hate YA fiction in general, which makes my love for this game that more strange. YA stands for Young Adult, which is a big genre in fiction novels. You may recognise them as your sci-fi/fantasy Hunger Games, Harry Potters and Department 13s which can be summed up as “teens do the most extraordinary things because they’re special”. Or you can get the more realistic, potentially mundane reflections on real life stories such as The Fault in Our Stars or Perks of Being A Wallflower. I have fundamental issues with the troupes and stories within most of these stories, though I don’t hate them all (exceptions inlcude Warm Bodies, Way Down Dark) I hate how predictable and melodramatic they can be compared to other genres.

Life Is Strange feels like it does something different with what it has. It is both fantastical and mundane, with time travelling being constant and yet the appreciation for life going on as normal. Its story is both about the extraordinary accomplishments of Max and yet they are utterly irrelevant by the end in the face of life having to go on. It mixes both the idealised outcome with the sombre outcome. It is, in essence, about duality, about the binary choices it gives, because it is about how both are fleeting, in a sense.

I also think the releasing of episodes was great and smart (and probably necessary) as it meant the developers could change things as time went on. There’s a clear improvement and growth in each episode that might also explain why by Episode Three I wanted to so badly play the next one.

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If I had to analyse why Life Is Strange probably affected me more, it’s because it’s a game. The simple ability to interact, to make choice, to control the movements of a character and pick what they say or see, that sense of immersion occurs. Novels are designed in a certain way, at a certain pace, but the autonomy of video games allows the reader to really pick how to approach it. It’s a game about time, and it gives me as much as I want to take with my Max or Chloe.

This setting hasn’t really been explored in games much from this third-person perspective. Often you’ll have a Gone Home or Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture experience of a first-person, emotional story where the character you play as is an avatar for you as a player and the characters you experience are all intangible, elsewhere, a picture of what they’re like. Life Is Strange has the characters around you. They live, they have thoughts, they respond to what you say, they have character arcs over the episodes. Not exactly revolutionary, but the context is crucial. I don’t think the YA game genre has ever had an approach like this before, or at least not one as well-known, publicised or funded before. Maybe this is why it was so successful, a good game in a rarely explored medium. Maybe I don’t hate the YA genre, just the way I’ve been consuming it.

Something I didn’t think i’d see after playing would be connecting to the game on another layer through the voice actors in it. The Blackwell Podcast regularly interviews people who have worked on the game, and the most well-known ones are with the voice actors that worked on it. They usually talk about their feelings of the game and experiences they had with it. They also seem keenly aware of the gravity the game had, instinctively, or could relate to the script or characters a lot, something that’s a rarity to see in many video games.

The passion you see when they talk about the project, when they interact with fans and the community that’s developed, it’s all really great. Hearing the voice of Max Caulfield, Hannah Telle, speak of her times of stress and anxiety preparing for the acting, the experiences she’s had in life and having to cope with it is a vulnerable and touching interview. Telle being able to relate to Max and her developing of the character like finding Max’s voice after each episode, is inspiring (and very, very cute) as she tells it. But it’s not just her, it’s pretty much every interview I’ve ever heard from any of the cast, especially from those who played main characters. They are all aware of the subjects being brought up and they all bring a part of themselves to the experience, which is probably why despite difficult to hear dialogue, it comes across quite effectively.

 

The Community

 

They are quite incredible people. Not only because their work is good but, despite some real dodgy lip-syncing in the original series making it seem bad, they go above and beyond anything i’d expect from people just paid to play a part. YouTube and Twitch has been a gold mine to the most wholesome content for Life Is Strange fans. It melts my cynical heart seeing them. Watching Dayeanna Hutton and Hannah Telle, Kate and Max respectively, drink tea together because it’s something their characters planned but never got to do in-game is the sweetest thing. In that same stream, they jam out by playing guitar and singing one of the game’s songs. Also watching the actors from Before the Storm’s various social groups at Blackwell meet up in real life, bringing snacks, playing games and chatting on stream, just in general doing what you’d expect their character equivalents would do if all the shit wasn’t flying about in Arcadia Bay.

Most of the time, they stream from their homes, at their computer desk or in their lounge, inside their personal spaces because they feel safe doing so and it makes these moments more personal, connecting and affecting to a watcher.

You regularly see well-known voice actors that don’t have the time, ability or, yes, perhaps even the care, to interact with fans of things they’ve worked on unless it’s at a convention, which is a very isolated experience unless you can actually go to one. Alix Wilton Regan, a veteran voice actor in many video games, argued that you can use voice actors more for showing of your game, using them to market and connect with players. It’s something that instinctively I feel that the Life Is Strange casts are doing a bit of, unintentionally, but with good effect.

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There is an unfortunate thorn to this topic though. It can’t be ignored that one of the more prominent stories behind the Before the Storm production was the voice actor strike of SAG-AFTRA that resulted in Ashly Burch, voice of Chloe in the original series, not returning to her role in the prequel. Whilst it was reported this could’ve stopped production of the game, it didn’t, and Rhianna DeVries replaced Burch. Though it’s hard to tell if others from the original game were also involved with the strike, most if not all the characters that return in the prequel do not have their returning voice actors. It may be that it affected more than sites have reported on. Of course, it’s not unheard of to have a whole new voice cast for the characters of a prequel, but this looming story is something that has to be considered. The only conclusions I can think of are that the actors are in a less protective union or, even worse, not in a union at all. It’s troubling to think they were hired without such protection, but the fact Burch was brought on for consultancy and accepted the role gives me some comfort that the production was decent enough to the actors (though I doubt we’ll really know).

I’m not sure if their acceptance of their roles despite the strike indicates these are mostly actors involved in their first major roles in the entertainment industry, which has meant that they’re still fighting to getting any jobs, let alone be discernible. And like any newbie in an industry, you’re looking to do as much as possible to get noticed, credit, or be somewhere. Even to your own detriment, at times.

I’m thankful, then, that the community has been accepting of the newcomers and shown love for the new characters. Before the Storm had a lot to prove and delivered.  Without delving into the cesspool that can be fanbases, Life Is Strange fans are a much more wholesome bunch of people, who care so much about the character’s experiences, which in turn extends into the people who performed them. The game has no competitive edge, no need to one up another player, so it follows that people who aren’t looking to do that won’t be playing the game or talking in fan groups. And that’s purely a good thing. Hostility in the fanbase usually constitutes a shipping war, but even that’s a real rarity.

The response has been incredible, where even the actors often speak thankfully and lovingly about the fans who give them this support and love (to the point of cosplaying < 3)

As a dev, it’s amazing to see this happen, as there’s still a clear divide between how a creator faces their fans compared to a performer. There are different assessments taking place, and clearly different reactions. It makes sense really, especially from a fan point of view. The shadowy developer vibe, where no one really knows what goes into making games, isn’t uncommon (and actually a big problem in my mind), so seeing the more public facing side of the business is great and encouraging to what I do.

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There’s a funny memory I have about the series. A game I use to work on was published by Square Enix (like Life Is Strange is) and as time went on our game was successful enough that we had collaboration events and characters that crossed over into our world. This went from Final Fantasy and Secret of Mana characters to other works they’d published, like Deus Ex and Tomb Raider. It was all silly, stupid and lots of fun. And at one point I pitched for a Life Is Strange collaboration in the same vein. I wanted to see Max and Chloe in our little chibi-esque art style so badly and work to put that in our game. Unfortunately it never went past my pitch stage, it would’ve meant talking to dontnod studios about the possibility of using the characters but other things on the project came up and I moved on. It does remind me just how much I wanted to work on this game in some small, really-not-connected-at-all, capacity.

For me, the games released so far in the series have been amazing. And with a sequel on the way, it likely will continue to be amazing. It’s invigorating knowing there’s more of this sort of game out there, more so that it’s getting funded, and most of all that it’s loved. For every person that made this series happen in some small or large way, or some fan that’s made something happen thanks to this game, thank you so much. You made it possible, you’ve inspired me and loads of others. You keep reminding me why games are so beautiful. Keep being hella awesome.

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Life Is Strange – And Yet I Love It

The year is ending, and here’s (as ever the cliche) my little reflection of my favourite game from this last 12 months.

There have been times I have felt ‘ashamed’ to love games. The numerous dreadful communities and the harassment squads they’ve spawned. The focus on positively reinforcing violence as the primary interaction in games. The blind sainthoods auteur developers are bestowed. The constant othering of anyone not white, straight or male in gaming, whether they be a character or player. It makes loving this medium hard. For me, it was almost too much. At the beginning of the days, weeks, months, etc of harassment and threats orchestrated last year as a result of a hashtag created to appease paranoia & outrage, I was about to start a course at university about gaming narratives and writing them. I wanted to quit that course and never work in the industry because of this hashtag community who didn’t want games to change, explore what they are or be anything more than toys. But I didn’t quit or give up. 

I was reminded how incredibly impactful gaming experiences can be for different people, especially ones that were being released over the last year (or so). The home invasion of Gone Home, the investigation of Her Story, the isolationist horror of Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture. And now, what I consider my game of this year, Life is Strange (LiS). What can be taken away from dontnod’s series, whether you like it or not, is its a clear message of the change going on in gaming and in the people who make them.

Why I really cherish it is because there have been few pieces of fiction I’ve experienced that have had such utter heart and humanity as Life Is Strange. It’s completely surprised me, after the disparaging comments i’d heard about their previous work, Remember Me, made me lose any hope they’d do a teenager’s experience justice. And the last time I heard of a very-French studio aiming to have an interesting female lead, we got Beyond: Two Souls. But now that i’ve written so much about Life Is Strange, evidently I don’t believe that anymore.

  

[MAJOR SPOILERS for all of Life Is Strange ahead]

Unlike my previous post, which explored the first three episodes, there’s not much I can properly fault of the two concluding episodes, or even the series as a whole now. If there are faults, I take the stance of “What would I have done in their position to make it ‘better’?”. Whatever the quality of it in ita entirety, it matters little as everything LiS achieved all it ever needed. And what’s clear is that what the developers set out to make, they acheived, which should be commended greatly.

One of the main criticisms by many is the awkward written dialogue, and it is indeed still awkward. But i’d defend that it’s not to the game’s detriment. As I wrote before, teenage language is awkward and alien, especially to adults. It typically springs out from youth culture (especially black youth culture from around the world though is rarely credited to them), which means it’s the cutting-edge of what’s relevant right now. ‘Netflix and chill’ is the latest i’ve heard, ‘bae’ is another recent, though both have been around for sometime already. Just now it’s begun entering into wider, mainstream language. Teens communicate differently from adults even if we all use the same language, like regional dialects and phrases are. If the dialogue in Life Is Strange had felt natural or adult i’d be in some way be unconvinced by it, that it was ‘too real’ somehow. The original Beverly Hills 90210 TV series contains a lot of obvious high school stereotypes, who talk stereotypically. But they come across as human because of the real life situations thrust upon them which chips away at their caricature personas built up around them. Like Life Is Strange, the type of dialogue used isn’t necessarily a representation of real teen language, but it comes across with the same points & effects of them as characters.

On a more critical point, perhaps what irks me slightly is the almost quick wrap up of the teenl characters you interact with. “Polarized”, the last episode, deals with the main characters almost exclusively, leaving secondary character’s arcs largely to penultimate “Dark Room”. Admittedly it wasn’t ever their story, they never (and never should have) hogged up more screentime than they needed, but that also left them as almost paper thin moments of distraction compared to the rest of the experiences. Wrapping them up kept the pacing on the right track, it was the fact I somehow cared about getting Brooke away from her drone and Daniel away from his sketches so they could have a little fun together that made it much harder to let go of them. My development with the characters kept building episode-on-episode, an achievement in itself. Which is why viewing the series as a whole is necessary. 

 

I was personally annoyed by the use of photography as a medium for Max’s passion in previous episodes. It was lacking in the plot’s progression, was not capitalised on very well mechanically and largely could’ve been interchanged with any other school activity. By the last two episodes it developed into the important tool, mechanically and narratively, it always needed to be. Max’s awoken ability to jump back in time to moments in photos she appears in works well, and helps build towards the ending. Though I still stand by the comments I made about the first three episodes, it is overwhelmingly impressive to see how these issues were slowly addressed & allowed to expand in new ways. The developers have commented how they were working on the game as it was still being developed, allowing them to address concerns or go in new directions shaped partially by their fans. Warren’s character & the community’s reaction to him was in some way addressed which, as one of the romance options, causes his relationship with Max & the player to develop in a more ‘realistic’ way, as Warren can more appropriately respond to the actual people’s views on him. Whether you want to reject him or welcome his advances, the writers can respond more accurately as to why Max, as a player avatar, may like him or not. It has effectively shown how working on a continuing series helps address concerns raised and better impact their audience. I’d like to think it was the same for the photography, that it was seen by fans as throwaway so dontnod implemented more crucial moments where it was needed. Impressive if the development had worked like that, but who knows how much of the details the studio planned for.

And then comes the ending. What an ending. Well, depending on what you chose. I talked to a friend who had also taken that Gaming Narrative course I mentioned, and he asked me what I felt of Life Is Strange which led to a brief discussion of the ending. He wasn’t too impressed with the binary choice of sacrificing Chloe or Arcadia Bay as the only options. Similarly to some of Eurogamer’s “Acadia Baes” members have also argued, it was felt to be too limiting & that the previous decisions made were inconsequential. Of course, though, these stories are always about the journey as much as the destination, & as I brought up to him, a time travel plot will never have truly relevant choices. Though I didn’t elaborate on this more, it was intended to explain the choices are pointless in effecting the wider world when you can alter them after the fact, but that doesn’t make them any less affecting.

The beginning of “Dark Room”, for example, is set in an alternate timeline with Chloe having been severely paralysed, and Chloe requesting Max euthanise her because she is slowly and painfully dying. The player can do as she requests, refuse to or question it altogether. Regardless, Max always reverts back to the timeline she thinks of as her own (but, really, which of these timelines is ‘hers’ anymore?). On the surface it may seem the choice was meaningless as it never happened, with Max effectively having her cake and eating it, though this moment encapsulates the ending where she can save Chloe again or not, with all the consequence son her shoulders. It’s not a narrative arc, but it is a character one. My Max and I didn’t know what to do at first, but eventually helped Chloe die because she knew what she wanted more than anyone. No matter whether the decision made was ‘true’ in Max’s original timeline, the moment was very real, the decision being a completely conscious one. Max has to go on being haunted by the fact she left Chloe to gradually deteriorate in lonesome pain or that she killed her best friend. Wiping away the action doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Alterations in timelines are typically thought about how the environment and people around the time traveller changes as a result of time traveling, but rarely how it affects the traveller themselves. The mental fatigue of it can make the decision at the story’s conclusion potentially easier or much harder, but it subtly shapes what decision Max and the player will ultimately have to make.

  
As I said, the ending is sprinkled with such a finality that it’s beautiful and heartbreaking. Effectively, it is indeed the only choice that matters, including the player, as it’s the only one you can’t change to have an arguably better conclusion. Even the moment with Kate Marsh on the dorm’s roof, you can save her if you failed by restarting the game all over. But the ending’s choice is sadness one way or the other. The death of hundreds or of the person Max loves the most. As Frances Chiem argues, it’s more impactful because of this “gut punch” you’re forced to do in choosing. The worst choices in life are ones you can’t escape from, with so much ambiguity to it that you choice doesn’t ever feel right one way or the other. It’s the moment of maturity for Max, meeting the greatest grief in her life and making a choice about it.

It’s always confounding how people view the end of a choice-based story. What’s even more surprising is how many are sick of binary choices to end Life Is Strange on, when really, what else did they expect? In some people’s minds, there’s this holy grail of choice-based games where they should be fulfilled with a multitude of outcomes catered directly to them and their experiences. Mass Effect 3 infamously infuriated some with its ending’s choices, with the same reaction occurring in a wider array of Bioware RPGs and others that offer branching conclusions. Often I find these complaints come because the games lack a conclusion where everything is fixed & a happy fairytale means the lovers go on happily ever after. And yet the lack of choice is often what’s the more affecting & poignant ending to these stories. Classically speaking, these games are tragedies. Someone has to die in Max’s life. Shepherd has to sacrifice lives and ultimately her own. Shakespeare’s Hamlet ends with the main cast all dead, which is why it’s still referenced even today. Players are perhaps as naive as Max originally is when first saving Chloe, that there are always moment of defying fate without consequence. The problem with the Disney-nurtured generation is that we believe happy endings are the obvious outcome when you’ve become invested in a character. But the original fables and folktales we’re told often had dark twists to them, like Cinderella’s sisters having their toes cut off to fit their feet into the slipper or Rapunzel’s hero being blinded. The decision to evoke negative emotions is often powerful. And as i’d argue again, in an attempt to mimic this sense of reality, we can’t change the way things turn out to how we want them all the time. We have to sacrifice something.

 
My friend’s disappointment over the ending was interesting as he sacrificed Arcadia Bay, the opposite decision to mine with the aftermath he felt fizzled out. That ending does indeed have much less closure and lacks the depth of sacrificing Chloe. But I found it surprising anyone would be able to do it in the first place, to kill everyone you and Chloe know. Most player’s decisions, at the time I played had typically favoured one outcome or the other. For example, the overwhelming majority do not kill Frank’s dog, Pompidou, by throwing its bone into traffic, nor do they blame Kate Marsh’s suicidal impulse on Mark Jefferson. There was never a great deal of grey from the results I saw. Yet players were almost split down the middle over the ending, with only a marginal majority sacrificing Chloe. It’s amazing to see players split so decisively and it makes me think about how differently they experienced and perceived everything. So much so that almost half of the people who chose to not kill a dog, also chose to condemn hundreds of people to death by saving Chloe. That’s western society for you, dogs are more valuable than other humans. But the fact we have such diverse reactions is proof of the games broader appeal and sense of identity.

Gaming is beginning to develop on more diverse subjects and topics with greater sincerity and subtlety than ever before. Of course there’s still shooty-stabby experiences, but there’s a clear progression in developers creating things that are greater than than the term ‘game’ can define. Even I struggle with what I mean by it, because what a video game is, is so abstract as there is no hard and fast rule. Yet i’d argue that Life Is Strange is more an experience, with game elements behind it. And that’s interesting, because the medium is developing itself, pushing further the boundaries placed upon what a game is and trying new things with the mould. It questions what games are or what game genres are. Gaming is still essentially in the awkward teenage years, exploring itself and what it can do, whilst in a split about what it’s going to be when it grows up. Life Is Strange has become a part of that wider debate and push because its mirroring that awkwardness in finding identity and the moment of maturing.
It’s also succeeded in something which other games haven’t made me in do in perhaps a decade. It made me cry over my choices, made me wallow in a near-depressive state for days after, caused this great feeling of loss in me now that the experience and these characters are gone. I felt like I’ve lost my best friend, Rachel Amber. Or Chloe Price. Or most of all, Maxine Caulfield. They’re never going to be a part of my life again. And that unexpectedly strong connection to perhaps a trivial thing is very much a part of life, strange as it is.

Deus Ex Machina? – God isn’t in our machines

I was raised in a mainly Christian area, by parents who were brought up in old-style, Christian households (though both are atheists) and my grandmother is an ex-nun (though is not an ex-Catholic). However, it has never been something we have discussed at length, as far as I recall. I don’t really align with any of my family’s thoughts either. When I was much younger I thought I was more Christian, but things changed and my loss of faith made me more interested in other religions. Video games weren’t my first introduction to wider spiritualties but they definitely made them more approachable and interesting. Instead of reading books in the King James style, I could engage with them more dynamically. I’ve a personal love of the Dynasty Warriors series, and it first introduced me to Chinese history, characters, culture and society. In some bizarre way it’s because of this series that I now consider myself a Daoist, because these video games opened me up to more than what my school or family could offer. And it’s why I’m annoyed by the games industry’s failing to explore religion in more deep, meaningful ways. There seems to be an aversion for games to mention religion, let alone include it as something important to the design. It may be the developer’s own choice if they can’t explore the topic, with respect, or the publishers themselves may not want to kick a controversial hornet’s nest. Either way, it’s becoming more obvious that video games excluding religion is a failure.

Religion has a basis in every facet of human culture and history, in every part of the world. It’s fundamentally human to explain and discover how things work and the reason why we’re here. Video games have a lot in common with this ideal, despite them seeming to have stuck their fingers into their ears whilst going ‘lalala’ about this part of the human experience. Though, that’s not strictly true. Religions are included and sometimes discussed, if poorly in many games, especially in RPGs like The Elder Scrolls series and World of Warcraft. Though some also do it excellently, as in Never Alone, which focuses solely on representing the Inupiat culture and religion, these are an extreme rarity. Instead I’m arguing video games largely ignore religion and even when it’s included, it’s often in a derogatory way.

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On the whole, the majority of acceptable religions, especially in the west, are ones the developers have made up. Cults, tech worshippers, fantasy crusaders, warmongering tribes. These evil stereotypes associated with religion are used as an enemy, betrayer, the foil to the main character and rarely the ally. In the case of Fallout 3, the game often skews religion as unneeded, dead or dying in the vast, post-apocalyptic wasteland. The group, ‘The Church of The Children of Atom’ worship an undetonated nuclear bomb in the centre of the town of Megaton. They are obsessive in their faith, constantly praying or praising the bomb, their activities are almost exclusively based around this, though occasionally their routine allows them to sleep, the lucky guys. The behaviour of ‘The Children’ are almost zealous in their belief, never talking about anything else, and though not violent about it, they try to convert people and ask for charity. They’re not taken seriously by the townsfolk and are even flippantly labelled as a cult on a sign placed by them, despite not classing themselves as such. This theme continues into another group, of tree-worshippers called Treeminders. Well, worshippers of just a single talking tree they call the Great One, living in an oasis isolated from the rest of the wasteland. Though not highly religious, the clichéd illusion to Paganism is obvious and their group faith in the Great One makes them a highly spiritual group. But they appear to be purposefully distanced from being classified as Pagans, almost if the developers want to avoid bringing religion into this world if they can help it. Coupled with the Children of Atom, religion in Fallout 3 is shown to be avoided, as it’s either part of the old, pre-apocalyptic world and should remain as such or it leads to something more internally corruptible, whether that be in total devotion or ignorant belief. This is incredibly common in many critically-acclaimed and mainstream games.

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Bioshock: Infinite brings forward religion as a fuel to an entire society through a caricature of early 1900s America. In the sky-city of Columbia, Zachary Comstock is both the political and spiritual leader, earning the name “Prophet” and “Father Comstock”. His influence and charisma extends his presence to the very core of the city, where stained glass windows of his holy image are on display to first time arrivals and mechanised, Gatling-gun wielding robots with his face enforce the law whilst spewing his prophecies. Columbia’s society is based off his perspective on an ultra-conservative, American Christian belief, with much of it an interpretation of a rule under a nation formed by the Ku Klux Klan. Extremely xenophobic, of course, with the Fraternal Order of the Raven upholding racial purity and demonising racial equality, to the point of demonising Lincoln’s abolishment of slavery and making John Wilkes Booth angelical. Comstock normalises and explains these actions, explaining them as be why Columbia succeeds, as part of what will make his visions accomplished and why things continue. It allows him to push his own agenda. By deifying his dead wife as a martyr, he is a public figure of sympathy. By promoting his daughter Elizabeth as ‘The Lamb’, a sort of second coming of Jesus in this world, she will descend onto the world below and cleanse it of impurity (in fire, of course) to garner support for his extremisms. This is obviously a detailed world where religion is at the heart of so many parts of the society, but exclusively the manipulative, corrupting and destructive potential of it is explored.

The Halo series is the closest mainstream game to get a religiously positive hero in The Arbiter. He acts as an enforcer for the alien Covenant, effectively their religious leaders’ Special Forces figure. He was previously cast down for his failures and is reborn into this redemptive role, thereby establishing religion as a way for positive reinforcement and reclaiming life’s purpose again. But even then, he only becomes a true protagonist once he betrays the religious institution of the Prophets. His involvement in events prior to this are revealed to be as a tool of this corrupt religious system which promotes violence, frequently committing immoral acts for them to stay in power. This corruption imagery is further pushed when their holy city, High Charity, is infested by a sentient plague, a literal interpretation of the deadliness and ferocity that religion spreads like a disease. The Arbiter’s betrayal, along with the corrupted institution, legitimises its destruction by framing it as evil.

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Even games with more focus on realistic modern day settings still display religious people in a negative manner. In Heavy Rain, the character Nathaniel is a hyper-religious character who rants about the Anti-Christ and suffers from auditory hallucinations of God. He’s instantly considered a serial killer and is harassed by a police officer over his devotion. Belief here is implied to be for those who aren’t sane. The Grand Theft Auto series has also been happy in portraying religious extremism, mocking religious structure, often through The Epsilon Program. It all gives the sense that religion is not only dangerous and inherently flawed, but a joke. Something to poke at for being weird, different and outdated, where only those with mental health issues could comprehend and follow it.

Religion is almost just a trope in these games, in that any spiritual character or any who aligns themselves with it, is inevitably lacking in reason, healthy thought or has any other characteristics apart from their religious affiliation. There’s no depth there, as if it was never even considered to explore the larger implications of religion, how they’ve shaped people’s lives and how it feeds into what they create. It’s dehumanising to make characters talking signposts for their religion and not people who are more than just their faith. Religiously inspired games are some of the most beautiful and intriguing games out there. The Japanese market is much more willing and happy to put forward actual religions which praise the art and culture that’s spawned from them. And I love that. It’s so rare for games to be seen more than toys without depth, but applying religion to the modern world in a new way, in a medium that rarely explores it, makes it even more special.

Okami is an interpretation of many Shinto stories and Japanese folklore which is steeped within the game’s whole design. From the zodiac animals to a giant carp that eats the moon, with the graphics are all inspired by traditional Eastern design, and at the heart of it all is the inspiration of religion. Asura’s Wrath is even more faithful in its interpretation of the Buddhist god, Asura. Relationships and events that take place in the game, along with the design of characters and the scale of the battles all pull straight from Buddhist artwork and stories. It fits perfectly into the classic action genre, with over-the-top fights, nonsense plots with unexpected twists and the classic struggle between good and evil. The marriage between games to religion is more than viable. El-Shaddai: Ascension of Metatron is even more ambitious project in that it explores something more foreign for an Eastern developer by being highly inspired by the Jewish text, The Book of Enoch. It is highly stylised and very ‘anime’, but the characters and the events are almost completely taken from lore along with the events. It seems strange an Eastern developer tackling a Western religion, but maybe that cultural distance allows it to be less ‘politically hot’ and more about the content.

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Japan is not majorly religious as most identify with no religion. In spite of that Folk Shintoism is still widely known, with the national identity of Japan historically being a largely Shinto and Buddhist country. And it’s not surprising why it’s still relevant. Religions have some of the best and most long lived stories, adapting and changing constantly over the centuries. They’re the original superhero characters and stories. Extraordinary individuals who have been rebooted and reinvigorated for newer generations, often with teaching us morals. Video games can do help push this too. They can explore religion much deeper than simply saying “Religion is evil, we don’t need it” or “God of death, god of light. They’re enemies. Ta-da, I’ve made a religion”. It should to be more deeply considered, more carefully portrayed, because it can be better for developers and players alike.

Some could argue that it is smart and fair to not include religious stories and elements in games quite as opaquely as I argue. In the West we’ve experienced a murky, conflicted relationship with the myriad of faiths for hundreds of years. Even today the idea of religion is highly suspicious, as acts of violence committed by and against them. Extremist groups, from the KKK to ISIS (as a rule, any acronym that repeats lettering is bad news (looking at you BBC)) occupy media presence and skewer our thoughts of religion in a biased manner. But they did not become extremists because of religion. Atheists who murder Muslims have killed on the behalf of racial and social issues they believe in, not religious ones. Atheist extremists have grown in frequency, targeting women, other races and religious people in similar ways, through social segregation, demonization, terrorism and physical attacks. Extremism or violence is not a fault of religion, but of people.

To exclude religion in video games because of an extreme minority is close-minded and dangerous. It feeds the idea that religious people are less reasonable or human based purely on what they believe in, which has become a reflection in the western games I already mentioned and countless more. And as Jenni Goodchild puts it “Even if you think religion is bad, even if you think it’s flawed, even if you think we would be better off without its existence, you can’t say it’s not important. Because the point that we’re at today wouldn’t exist without it”. Religion is integral to our societies, our history and culture no matter what we think of it. Its influence is vast. And not to mention it’s plain boring if we ignore it.. We miss out on potentially amazing stories and experiences if they were utilised, like the underdog story of David versus Goliath, the Epic of Gilgamesh or the battle of light over the dark in Diwali celebration. If they were embraced the same way mythology has, we’d have amazing God of War and Kid Icarus style games, even ones that rival the Japanese ones.

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Having to argue for this is telling of how much ‘growing up’ video games still need to do before they are really brought into relevant, wider cultural discussion. It becomes even more obvious when recent news about Kanye West working on a religiously fueled video game came out of nowhere. Based around his song, Only One, it requires players to guide his deceased mother to Heaven by holding her towards the light. It’s taken a hip-hop rapper and entrepreneur to do what western game developers have not, to tell a story that’s completely religious yet both touching and positive. To use religion as a platform to explore a modern, artistic medium in a new way. I’m slightly ashamed of this lack of respectful approach, and that an ‘outsider’ to the industry is doing what is arguably the most interesting thing so far this year.

Plainly, religion isn’t the problem here. We are.

 

Further Reading/References:

Life Is Strange – what it can teach, what it could learn

I decided months back to dedicate a few hours on a Sunday completing Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season 2. It was comforting to play a serial drama on a weekly basis, reminding me how I watched weekly TV shows before YouTube and Netflix became how I digested programmes. In continuing these #EpisodicSundays, I started up ‘teenage simulator’ Life is Strange

It’s been one of the most enthralling games I’ve played. It’s painfully nostalgic of teen school life and evokes the same emotions. These types of choice-based, story-driven experiences keep me falling in love with video games, despite my epic cynicism of them. Life Is Strange is not perfect (which you’ll find out in my rant ahead) but its flaws, along with its achievements, are what make it interesting. It made me aware of how prolific game mechanics will never make a game ‘better’, how the player character develops over a story along with the players themselves, and how Life Is Strange balances all those elements (so far, as of writing i’ve only finished up to Episode 3 “Chaos Theory”).

At first, the game reminded me of Donna Tartt’s novel, The Secret History, which centres around a group of university students. All of them are into Greek and mostly super rich heirs. It’s a classic Campus novel and an incredible read. You discover the intimate details of these, frankly, horrible people and the violent events they’re involved in. Much of Life Is Strange gave me the same engagement, not only because of the drama and mysterious events that occur, the isolated school setting and an almost exact step-by-step narrative opening. But the interactions and way it gripped me with its characters and plot are what compels players to keep going.

Though most of what I write is critical, it’s there because the game has stayed in my thoughts. If I didn’t care or love it to some degree, I wouldn’t write about it.

You can be forgiven

MASSIVE SPOILERS for Episode 1 – 3

Unlike a novel, a game can make up for a failing in its writing with its use of interaction, which itself lends to the experience and storytelling. Walking around campus and getting your picture drawn by another student or talking to another about her abortion all feeds into player fulfillment and character development, as well as  layering the overall story, setting and game. The freedom to interact apart from the main objective means that, even though side plots may not lend to your main experience, they will offer things relevant to your experience in some way. Otherwise, why do them? For Life Is Strange this means expanding the narrative and choices available. It’s where many games most fail themselves. Despite being designed towards the player’s experience of adventure, side quests in most RPGs don’t tell relevant stories, they’re fetch quests for experience points or half arsed attempts. Skyrim gives you way too many incidents of hunting down wizards hiding in caves. In Life Is Strange, meanwhile, your reward is a story of a homeless woman’s life in your hometown, information on what’s happened to the fish in the bay, or Max pouring out her thoughts whilst sitting under a tree. They’re not groundbreaking revelations, just satisfying moments of the game working in ways to make these snippet events relevant to the experience. That’s not to say they’re flawlessly done.

The script, though not bad, is not glorious, either. “Go fuck your selfie” is comedic on paper, but it lacks the proper context to be funny. It comes off as an adult trying to emulate teenager’s humour. Other attempts at teenage language simultaneously makes me cringe, hating these detestable young people (i’m such an old man), as much as liking them for their awkward and weird flaws which I wholly sympathise with. I can’t blame a teenagers’ lexicon being almost sickeningly impenetrable to someone in their twenties, as the language isn’t constructed to connect with me anymore. It reminds me of what that time in my life was like, which is the purpose of it being there.

Teens, however, are exposed to an adult world and adult ideas all the time. They’re not complete troglodytes who only talk about fashion, memes or pop culture (honest). Max’s knowledge of Photography is an example, a speciliased passion of hers, but it’s never properly expanded upon to anyone. It’s all contained in her thoughts when looking around her class, and it’s explored briefly with one classmate and never with the Photography teacher she admires. Sure, it may be a facet of her introvert nature and it isn’t necessarily entertaining for those who don’t care, but we’re kept playing in her shoes for hours. It would make understanding Max’s love & the way she expresses her appreciation for it a whole lot better, rather than for the most of my time wondering over its relevance. The times we’re hunting down photo album opportunities are only a game mechanic instead of something key to our experience. It’s not even a crucially engaging to do, or truly relevant to the plot. Max could’ve been into poetry, attending a prestigious poet’s class, writing sonnets of what she sees instead of taking pictures & the everything would develop the same. Without some key defining feature of it, then it’s ultimately, inconsequential.

Time’s running out

Her time manipulating powers have greater relevance, comparatively. They are the crux of Max & Chloe’s adventures, & what rejuvenates their friendship. They are what’s slowly killing Max, breaking her sense of place in time. They completely define a uniqueness to the game and her character through the player. Gameplay-wise, it serves primarily as a tool for players to redo almost everything, a power many people wished they had in real life.

The ability to reverse a decision on a whim allows us to fulfill our fantasies and equally helps define Max’s character. In a real life moment of choice, we make ‘spur of the moment’ decisions, without all the information we may need and definitely with no certainty what the outcome will be. We grit our teeth, hoping for the best. Players are often given extremely long pauses to the gameplay or cutscene in which to think about what to do. This in no way a reflection of a real life version of advising someone on whether to go to the police or not about a suspected sexual assault. Life Is Strange, however, transcends this dissonance of reality by allowing Max to become as powerful over her decisions as a typical player. She has the ability to know each outcome and rewind to make things occur how she most wants. “Chaos Theory” was the first instance I explored this, though there are many previous instances. It has an opportunity where she can support Chloe or her stepfather, David, as they argue. One outcome leaves Chloe dissatisfied and David promising to protect their family. The other leaves Chloe happy as David is told to leave the house by Chloe’s mother, fracturing their marital relationship. However it proceeds, having powers gave Max a greater control of her own life, which in turn also makes her choices have a greater gravitas. She can tailor her life to correct mistakes or gain more knowledge on an outcome. It is not simply a ‘spur of the moment’ mistake for her, it is a methodical & thought out process.

And that brings up possibly the most impactful choice in the game. Talking down Kate Marsh as she prepares to commit suicide. As Max briefly loses her powers during this, everything becomes a defining moment for her as a character. Not only because it will lead to a young woman’s death, but that it it can only possibly end one way or the other. The way you address Kate’s problems, how you’ve acted as a friend & how much you know of her all matter. There’s no redo. Whilst every possible choice in Life Is Strange is to some degree defining, stopping Kate is the most human experience so far in the game as it leaves Max powerless. So whether Kate jumps or not, much of what happens in the next episode puts Max’s actions in greater context and defines her.

William Price. Chloe’s father, who died in a car accident when both her and Max were just tweens. Somehow, Max goes back in time to the afternoon just before that tragedy happened and she makes the choice to save him. This isn’t a player choice, it’s obligatory. Agency is Thrown out the windows, as even when I tried to let things play out as they had always meant to, with William dying, the game won’t let you. Or, more accurately, Max won’t. It can be argued that she chooses to do this because she failed to save Kate Marsh & wants to make up for that mistake or because she has saved Kate and knows she can do it again having been given the opportunity. But she also wants Chloe to be happy again, to not be the ‘loser’ she becomes without her dad. Regardless, Max takes a very teenage approach to the situation, to think that changing the past will ever make the outcome better for all. In the new timeline she creates, Chloe is in a wheelchair with her now having been in a car crash (oh the thematic irony) and no longer like the friend Max had before. All of this is fed into by a mix of game mechanics and prescribed plot. The way her time powers are used should be what the camera  is doing, pushing forward the game’s world, its outcomes, Max’s decision. It’s why these powers, no matter how strange they are to have in a story about a teenage girl’s life, ultimately help build everything. But no, it’s like a grinding fetch quest from an RPG, with as much wasted potential.

Old-fashioned ideas

Life Is Strange‘s number of traditional mechanics & attempts to also subvert them leaves a jarring sense of not knowing what it wants to do at times. I missed several opportunities to affect the future by out (or over)thinking the game or unconsciously rewinding so they became undone. In “Chrysalis”, where David is harassing Kate as Max watches. You can either stand up for Kate or not get involved and take a picture. My understanding at the time was that every picture Max takes will always be in Max’s inventory, whether she rewinds before that point or not. It’s what happens with the photo album pictures you take in the environment. So I believed “Great, I can take the picture to show people how much of an arse he is if I ever need to, rewind, having both the picture AND the opportunity to help her”. Nope. The photo’s not there after rewinding. As if it wasn’t taken at all. I was annoyed but still fine with having helped Kate*.

Though I can understand the ludo-narrative dissonance in this case, it’s still a very missed opportunity. And I wouldn’t bring it up if this was then disregarded “Chaos Theory”. When Max unexpectedly goes back in time, she can take a picture of Chloe and her father. I reversed this moment, unintentionally, but didn’t think anything about it, as the picture was in my photo album. I believed my job was done. When the episode finishes, however, and displays choices made during the episode there’s a result that shows whether you had taken that photo or not. This means it has some consequence, and that the game recognised I’d reversed to before it. It’s a minor issue but deary me, the game contradicts its own continuity on the matter. It’s ludo-narrative dissonance-ception (which is a term no one wanted). Maybe that’s the nature of episodic content being released over time, where designers realise missed opportunities and can change the game, but it just shouldn’t have happened like this. The continuity isleft muddled. It’s primarily an issue with designing choice based games, because as a creator you want to be subtle in highlighting how important a choice can be without overdramatising and spoiling the consequences behind it. But it doesn’t help when the player feels duped somehow.

Pause, for thought

To finish this overly long rant coming to an end, Max, like so many other player characters, is lost between being identifiably her own character mixed with the control of player input. Enough so that the actions players pick for her feel as if they fit her teen personality, which then reflect on us fitting into the role of being her. It’s hard to tell what or who Max is without us in her life, as her guiding conscience, the ‘Jimminy Cricket’ on her shoulder. She would be much like she was before her powers develop. Innocent. Now, as she develops differently dependent on the player, we all all have a different view on her. Love or hate her, like some terrible Marmite anecdote, what really matters is that we all ‘feel’ something towards her. The agency Max has, even to the point of resisting our control, makes her more than a bunch of texture models on a mesh skeleton, like actors in a movie or words on a page can be more than just what they are. The moments we go through, or simply just spending time spent with her allows us a caring bond. We are Rachel Amber, always a presence, manipulating the story in some degree yet wholly not there. We are Max’s friend before most other things. That engagement builds an amazing experience, if nothing else.

* On an aside to Kate being harassed by David, this moment could arguably be a comment on the famous “The vulture & the little girl” photograph by Kevin Carter. Photographers can be cold & calculated in getting the ‘perfect’ picture, disregarding their humanity in an instance to fulfill it, as has been described of Carter not helping the famine stricken girl who collapsed in the photo. This moment is reflected with the weakened Kate and David preying on her insecurities. Max, as a the figure behind the lens, can either follow in Carter’s footstep’s, taking the shot, or challenge his stance by stepping in on that brief moment. Though I doubt that’s the creator’s intention, it fits in quite nicely.

People are Horrible – Way Down Dark by JP Smythe

I suppose I should admit something in this particular review. As a rule, I hate the YA (Young Adult) genre. Well, it’s more a prejudice against them perhaps. In my eyes they’re incredibly clichéd, lazy, structured badly and commonly involve plots or characters that are plain unlikeable. The genre often spawns TV and movies of the same lackluster stories, with actors whose abilities exactly match their character’s blandness. Twilight is often the worst cited example, but it’s just the most obvious. And worst of all (I know how much of an arse I am for thinking this) is that people love them, and I mean absolutely swoon for them, which irritates me considerably. My creative writing classes at Uni were filled with students praising the YA stuff they’ve read. Harry Potter this, or star sign characters that, something about Seven Sisters, or Sons, or who cares? They’d sometimes say how it got them into wanting to write and how they wanted to do their own YA stories, and this was coming from some very good, young writers. People who are aware about good and bad writing. It feels like a sin to not like them though, as a rule. Which is why it’s nice I can finally recommend one I like.

I’ve read most of James “JP” Smythe’s work, and he’s evidently a consistently great writer, who cares a great deal about his work. He was also my lecturer in those creative writing classes I mentioned, and I’ve felt that it might seem biased or paint me as a kiss up to write about his work. Even though I like a great deal of it. Now I’m free of the clutches of higher education and his grading, my mouth can now be unzipped. The Machine deserved the praise it received, having built a world and characters so familiar, yet distant. The Explorer remains as one of my favourite examples of striped back sci-fi, which boils down to the heart of the genre, exposing and challenging what humanity is. His ability to write horrific and disturbing sci-fi has always been solid and continues into Way Down Dark.

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The story revolves around Chan, a girl growing up on the spaceship, Australia, the last refuge of humanity. And I use ‘refuge’ very liberally there. The idea of Australia as being safe, or just a place for people to escape a decaying Earth, is fundamentally false. Death is common practice, through the fighting of factions or the squalor of a dirty, metallic world these people live in that’s all slowly falling apart. Like Croydon, in space I suppose.

The novel is brutal and unkind, rarely optimistic and oppressive to the point of making my shoulders slump down in despair for the main characters. It strikes out from the typical YA idea of clear cut morality, of good versus evil, since survival itself is not constrained by it. Chan is a fighter at the beginning, as it’s the way her mother taught her to survive, but is no hero of any sort. The evolution of Chan when she goes against the ‘rules’ her mother laid out, of being selfish and staying alive, gives the story a greater sense of change and progression. A traditional YA novel often focuses more on grand destinies or magical powers, but as Chan acknowledges, she’s just like everyone else. But she’s just decided to do something about her situation.

This is when the novel shifts from Chan being a girl to becoming a woman. And when I realised the novel was Batman set in space. An origins story of a hero that’s needed and not necessarily the one it deserves (oh the references). And what’s a Batman without a Gotham city? Australia is set up as a spaceship version of a city council block, a towering great mass of floors with people trying to cram into living in small berths in the wall. The place also has a long history, this being set a long time after the ship first launched, where floors are destroyed or have been taken by factions or made as some sort of practical space. And when it all gets too much, someone has to step in to keep some sort of order amongst all the chaos.

The plot itself is straight forward and arguably the weakest part of the novel. It’s incredibly linear in its set up, which isn’t bad necessarily as it keeps a plot tight, pacey and to the point. But from the get go, it makes a corridor of what felt like a large, open world. Smythe obviously envisioned Australia in great detail, having allocated territory to certain gangs, floors which act as markets or religious areas, with secret areas and all. I thought there’d be some sense of exploration to it all, where the reader would be told of or discover a greater history to it all, a culture within it. But there wasn’t much of any of it. It was merely peppered in the bare minimum to advance the plot. And, without spoiling anything, I don’t think the sequels will vividly explore it more. So by the end there’s still no complete sense of Australia as a unique place or world, with no real potential of more. Which is a shame, as I wanted more of Australia’s culture to be there, in the book.

The amount of death also feels as if it limits the ability to tell of a more elaborate place and occasionally may be overdone. Often in a first person narrative, a way to explore significant areas of the world without the perspective character actually going there is surrounding them with characters who have, telling their stories slowly and sharing their viewpoints of the world. But nope, a number of interesting minor characters are introduced, who could reveal more, end up being removed a short time later. I got this world was bloody from a whole family being senselessly butchered, yet I was still often reminded that this was the world they lived in. But I will praise that, despite being planned as a trilogy, the novel itself feels as if it wraps itself up in a meaningful way whilst also leaving the potential for more. The plot is perhaps too much to the point without enough breathing room the further in it goes, but that’s more a personal issue than a criticism of author intent.

The writing is, as ever, solid, pacey, to the point. Imagery is evocative, though at times I would get lost at where things were set or what certain places were, the world is that expansive in what it attempts to cover. The ever present description of blood never feels overdone despite it often being a hard thing to balance over 270ish pages, especially in such a violent book. If I was being extremely harsh, there were minor lines or words that I would’ve cut to keep the pace up or to a more consistent tone, and I also noticed a minor spelling mistake (“the forth floor”). If you think that’s too harsh, well, I learnt from the master of harsh editing. But in no way does it detract from the solid style and great writing present, and should reinforce how good it is if i’m struggling to find faults in it.

Way Down Dark’s greatest accomplishments for me is in the fact it’s not clichéd. Or more, it’s the ‘least’ clichéd out of the YA novels I’ve known, because stories simply cannot avoid clichés in some form. A prison spaceship, a coming of age story, with crazy cults and a wise old master, a lot of that is here. Yet Smythe comes at it from a different angle or puts a different slant on them, eliminating the more tedious ‘write-by-numbers’ formulae I find in the genre. And the lack of a tangible teen romance was incredibly refreshing. Gone was half-baked, heterosexual pairing between the main leads as the stakes get higher and hormones are bubbling. It’s actually great to see this just in the context of it being detraction from his own work, where the relationship isn’t the driving force of the narrative or characters. This book was, and I presume will continue to be in the trilogy, Chan’s story.

If anyone who has read his previous work, looked at this and thought “A Young Adult book? I’ll skip this one” I’d recommend a brief read of opening to see the ability of this book to want to know more about it, the world it’s in, the people that live within it. I never would’ve touched this book if I hadn’t read Smythe’s back catalogue, but with it as a reference, any fan will enjoy this latest adventure.

When I think about the swaths of YA books or simply some of their concepts they employ that I hate, this isn’t one of them. It’s not YA. Not ‘just’ YA, then. It’s a good book. I know, what high praise coming from a dick such as myself, but it is a rare occurrence that a book can get past its genre’s constraints. There is little higher praise from me than to say that I don’t feel YA is a bad genre in its entirety. I’m happy this book is on the shelves, shaking up what I consider the norm, bringing something familiar yet different to the table.

The Novel That Sent a Steak into Space – Meatspace by Nikesh Shukla

Kitab Balasubramanyam. Not a typical name. So much so that only two people on Facebook have it. One is from London whilst the other lives in India. For being so far apart, social media is what connects them, binds them, to become so much more in the meatspace than cyberspace ever could.
Shukla’s Meatspace tells the story of social media, loneliness, failure, loss and what makes us identifiable in a world where we can be do whatever we want in. And a bit of sex. What novel doesn’t have it these days?
It’s also really funny and heartfelt when it needs to be; a strange mix that never seems to conflict. It approaches its emotionally touching issues in such a truthful and relatable way that I genuinely feared what Twitter could do to me if I wasn’t careful.
Meatspace-web-ready
It opens with Kitab coming out of a relationship. He’s also a down and out, uninspired author who spends most of his time eating his ex’s chutney and watching porn alone (as if porn is ever communal). He has his loud, fun-loving brother, Aziz, and his sociable, lady-killer father to keep him company. Then life gets all turned upside down when the brothers encounter their doubles online and have to deal with them in their real lives.
After the beginning, the novel develops into a dual narrative, between Kitab at home by his lonesome and Aziz with his adventures in New York. Aziz tells his exploits through blog posts whilst we follow the ever isolated Kitab as he deals with his number 2z The writing is great, solid and enjoyable. I’ve felt that Shukla has always had a great style in his own work and his voice for character has made him one of my favourite authors of recent memory.
Though I was still off by quite a lot, the ending was as I expected. With the ideas of the online identity and what it can all mean being at the heart of it. Despite this I didn’t expect how much I would tear up on the train carriage hone as much as I did, nor how much i’d smile. He’s great at manipulating the reader. I felt the same way with the last of Shukla’s work I read, Coconut Unlimited.
Whilst reading I debated whether the novel was an ‘of-the-moment’ sort of story, that only those who read it RIGHT NOW! would be able to understand the effects of social media and the internet would has on our daily lives. Technology is a fickle thing. Many of the references to internet language, sites, events and such all seem fleeting and potentially go out of date sooner than later. Yet by the end you understand that being of the moment is why this works. Shukla effectively contextualises the novel as needing to be during this time and it is only RIGHT NOW! that the effects of Kitab’s relationship with it can be understood. The novel gains its pillar of longevity on that cultural moment alone.
Altogether, this is one of the finest novels about modern life i’ve read. It brings together all the dysfunction and issues that people online can face and how that effects the real one.
(I’m terrible at reviewing books. Go read it though. It really is a great novel that anyone whose be online can understand. Those who aren’t will probably never dare touch the internet with a 12ft Ethernet cable.)

Hearing Our Identity – How the Spoken Word was opened up to me

I’m still really new to spoken word. My idea was that it was a sort of niche favoured by those failed artists in movies or people who came up with the most terrible poetry filled with just noises and orgasm noises. My background knowledge was basically about the spoken word as a joke.

In my first year of university I had the opportunity to go to my first spoken poetry event as part of some independent group research. One of the guys in my group was well versed in the medium, he was part of the Barbican Young Poets and was performing a few weeks into the course. Great, whether I liked the evening or not, our assignment would be sorted. I hadn’t known the guy for long and I wasn’t expecting much from the medium. Plus it was a long ol trip to Lewisham for this event, I couldn’t be arsed. But when we went and the performers began, I was amazed. There were stories of kings and crowns, then the clowns who toppled them. Everything from laughter and love to the tears caused by family. The use of spoken words, playing with language, it was like some artsy story told through a stand-up comedy piece. And when the guy I was amazed.

Kareem Parkins Brown. I love the man in so many respects. He’s funny, smart and soulful and just the right amount of different to be familiar. And when I say funny, I mean it. We did stand-up comedy together as part of our one of our modules, and despite him being ill for many of the classes and getting little feedback, Kareem was easily the best out of all of us. His work feels like it captures London through a young guy’s eyes. The stress and pressure of a society that keeps pushing down on people and how keeping faith in yourself and doing better can improve your life. Call me biased.

One of my favourite pieces by him Brown Pink Grey:

University continued to be kind and kept introducing me to some amazing spoken word performers. Last year when I was working as a part of our university’s Creative Writing Day soiree we had some guests who were writers, agents and other such people in the industry. The tiptop speaker of the night was the Joshua Idehen.

Since I was working I noticed people coming in and out of the venue. I didn’t know who he was at the time, but Josh turned up late, sat at the back of the room and seemed to be playing on a laptop whilst the room was silent and the podium speaker read their heart out. I thought he was bored, dragged by friends, family to sit through shit he didn’t care about. But at the end of the night, as things began to wrap up, his name was called. He was invited to do some spoken word and that’s when I heard it.

Bring on the Eagles. It was an epic treat to be in the presence of Josh when he recited the poem. It was so pure, like he was reciting in front of friends, not fifty shades of strangers. It brought the house down as it was meant to, and spoiled the Lord of the Rings for a few people, apparently.

You can find some of that majestic night here (at 15:50): https://www.mixcloud.com/XfmRadio/the-beatdown-with-scroobius-pip-show-31-01122013/

The Beatdown with Scroobius Pip – Show 32 (01/12/2013) by Xfm Radio on Mixcloud

I recently heard Joshua speak again on the Arts Emergency podcast today and it reminded me of all the talent in spoken word and how little attention the many amazing performers are out there, creating poetry that makes the best of the voices we have.

So if you’re anything like I was and thought spoken word poetry was restricted to those with more uncontrolled feelings than the tempered artwork it can be, give the stuff I’ve posted a listen. Maybe it’ll change your mind. There’s talent out there. We miss the vast majority of it. What we really need is for it to be pointed out. So here’s my finger.