Deathbed Recommendations

I had to go to the hospital a few weeks ago, so a doctor could put a camera up my urethra. There was a very small chance that what he found was going to be the death of me…

This was written in December, 2013, the month before Ari was conceived. I found it in a pile of drafts. It’s worth noting, since this, that I’ve had several more hospital experiences that threatened to be fatal. Luckily, none have.

I don’t know if this is just me.

I was getting morbid. I had to go to the hospital a few weeks ago, so a doctor could put a camera up my urethra. There was a very small chance that what he found was going to be the death of me. So, I went a bit Luzhin in the shower before the event, and started following consequence chains as far as I could.

I thought about freezing some sperm, because it’s likely that if the Docs find something bad, the remedy will remove my ability to reproduce. Then I thought about not getting to see any resulting children grow up. And thought about recording messages to them, and then a yearly message, so (like DeTamble in the Time Traveller’s Wife) I’d be with them, fresh, for each year of their life.

Then I got to thinking about how I’d do it. Genial, wise monologues straight to camera is hackneyed but works. And then I thought about what I’d say. I’d recommend my favourite philosophy, my favourite fiction, the strange old books I’ve happened across which will give that otherworldly edge: Lacfadio Hearn, Kipling, Laurence Sterne, Mikhail Bulgakov, Erskine Childers, Olaf Stapledon and so on. An education by proxy, skipping me, back to the formative years of each medium. I even thought about a few movies I’d recommend: The Princess Bride, Duck Soup, Groundhog Day, Fight Club, Yojimbo, and so on. Light themes but with rich philosophy behind it.

A Book, Spoiled
Yet. I couldn’t think of any games I could honestly say a child of mine should spend time on. Time that would be educative, entertaining and efficient. That irks me a bit. Spelunky? No, too wasteful of time. DOTA? Ditto and too repetitive. A shooting game? Hell, no. Planescape Torment? Good, but the interface is awful – you’re probably better off reading Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, the Ur-text for witty rogue worlds. Deus Ex? No, disappointing linearity – read SnowCrash. Mario? Repetitive, brand oriented… no.

(One thing positive I can say of many great games is that they teach you how to learn an imperfect ruleset rapidly. I think of the Reiner Knizia design ethos, which seems to consist of attempting to maximin incompatible-but-overlaid number sets, and I think that’s something valuable for realworld. But that’s something from these games in general, not from any individual game.)

What was wrong with all these games? Not one of them could I point to and say, unreservedly, that is a clean, good, efficient experience which also offers the open edges of a book. Risk of Rain is a perfect action-shooter, with the random drops comboing neatly to force different play styles on you – but I can’t say that I value the compulsion loop of an unlock-based game, especially not for a child, nor can I say that it’s improved me as a human being.

Moving Closer
Is there a game that combines the combined-toolset gameplay of Spelunky with a top-notch scripted experience that still allows the world to have the fuzzy edges a growing imagination needs? I suppose the nearest are Morrowind, Ultima 7, King of Dragon Pass.

An alternative is the Inform and Twine games, the old text adventures, like Violet and Slouching Towards Bedlam. These are near-to-perfection but they waste the player’s time with endless failstates and replays (something the otherwise-light Fable 2 is notable for avoiding). Unless they’re enjoying and learning anew from each failstate, you’re wasting their time. Horse Master is better, in that you carry on to an enjoyably strange ending, no matter what. But a bad text adventure is a short story, spoiled.

This year has seen a few games that have got closer, mingling that Inform experience with production values. Gone Home? Linear, but we’re getting there with the atmosphere, storyline and lack of failstate. Papers Please? Good – linearity concealed behind a clever, shifting toolset and political nous. The problem with these two, like Dear Esther, is that they’re just not all that much fun. The protean joy of the Stanley Parable might be the only modern game I could recommend.

I don’t think I’ve fallen out of love with games. I’ve just recognised that the other media are still superior in what I’d want my kid to input, especially for a peak quality experience.

The 360-Degree View: Documentaries.

(Panning montage of serious-looking people talking, national institutions, angry fingers being pointed, people walking around and behind things.)

(Tenor voice-over).
“It’s a blight on the national psyche, an easy way out for hundreds of people who want easy answers. Politicians condemn it, Doctors say it destroys lives. But what does documentary-making really do to Britain? And is there any way out for the unfortunate addicts who make these programmes – the dealers who consume their own supply?”

“So, what sort of people get into badly-researched, scare-mongering journalism? We spoke to Barry (not his real name), who worked in the field for ten years.

(Silhouetted figure sat in front of a cardboard picture of Big Ben.)”
“I had no self-respect, was doing badly at school and was basically bored. So I got into… into investigative journalism. At first, I was only writing the occasional reviews column for the local newspaper, but it spiralled out of control. Before I knew it I was working on shoddily-researched documentaries, desperately trying to simplify the story to make it easy to understand – but we weren’t talking down to the public, we genuinely had no idea ourselves what we were on about.
At one point, I was presenting a late night news show, a crappy quiz show, a true crime show… I just couldn’t help myself. That’s when my family intervened… I’m so glad they did.  I knew if I kept on, I’d end up presenting a daytime talk show or QVC.”

(Tenor voice over)
(Another silhouette, this time huge, oddly like John Simpson wearing a Burkha.)
“John (not his fake name) is a current documentary maker.”

“I used to respect myself, wear suits and ties, look smart and make news. But gradually, I wanted to be more like the people I talked to, started wearing knackered t-shirts or ethnic clothing ‘to blend in’. God, I’d doorstep perfectly innocent people, just to make them look confused and upset when I asked them pushy questions while they were picking up their milk. I’m not proud of what I did. You know, making insinuating remarks, giving damaged people an out, so they could blame someone else for their problems. Documentary-making, it’s corrosive on the soul, y’know. I can’t stop – think of the children. I think I’ve got it under control now.”

(Tenor voice over)
“We spoke to a specialist in the field, who’s treated many addicts.”
(Picture of a woman in a white lab coat and glasses who sounds as if she’s never heard the words she’s saying before).

“If you’ve got an addictive personality, you should stay away from documentaries. There’s a visceral thrill in trying to cram all the relevant information into a 30-minute time slot, but gradually they all give in to temptation. They simplify, they excise relevant facts, they pander to their own prejudices. After a while, they’re not making documentaries any more, they’re making opinion pieces with a veneer of respectability provided mainly by how much they frown and nod – but they can’t stop themselves. Eventually, we bring them here.”

(Cuts to long shot of a chaotic ward of people, variously wearing backless nightgowns, suits and ethnic garb, all nodding, pointing toy microphones and frowning.)

(Tenor voice over)
“So there you have it, documentaries kill babies and play into the hands of radical Islam. I’m been a man with a reassuringly English name and deep voice. Good night. ”

Next week: something relevant to current affairs, maybe? Like should women have the vote?

Fuck Provenance

To the tune of: The Durutti Column – Trust The Art Not The Artist

Fuck provenance. The joy of many modern critics seems to lie in the attribution of intention to the auteur, or at least cause to the auteur, focusing on the backstory more than the object of study; the importance of something is thus pushed back, the homunculus raised to the point of key importance, and credit or blame ascribed to this new creation instead of the creator or the piece, and so on, ad infinitum. The homunculus is to blame, no it’s the sense of ego, no it’s the neuroticism in that ego, etc. Value drains out of the object and down this chain of blame or praise.

What does this hunting for origins add to the enjoyment of the piece? What does knowing where Jeunet grew up add to the value of Jules et Jim, or even knowing Jeunet made it? Provenance is not mandatory knowledge for the appreciation of a good. As if a single billionaire could tell the difference between a identical diamond dug out of the ground in Africa and one compressed in a Russian machine, but they pay the price for the story. It’s the placebo effect, carried over to appreciation; oh, this was Nabokov’s cap, my look at the lining, that must be his sweat staining the hat-band, my, I’m enjoying this hat so much more. This steak was cut from Wagyu beef; not grown in Japan, no, nor of the same breed, nor subject to the possibly-mythical abuse/massage, but it’s Wagyu despite the lack of relevant attributes. If the sense data is the same, what matters the origin?

Much of this painting's quality is from the canvas's texture; whether that was intended or not is unknowable and doesn't matter.

This approach is used in food, increasingly, and I was with Delia in her kickback against the snobbery of food provenance; some of the most interesting food I’ve eaten has been cheap, or canned, or frozen, (though the mediocrity of source matters as little as the quality, of course, and inverted snobbery is as bad as the original.) In the arts (movies, games, paintings), we ask what the intention of the author is, as if that’s relevant to the finished product. Yet intention does not imply result, especially where silver-tongued auteurs are involved, and correlation does not imply causation. I judge Gaugin on his skill levels and the general quality of his works (occasionally good texturing, great colour range, poor penmanship/perspective); I judge his artwork on its own merits.

Again, if you’re a subconscious determinist, you might argue for the creator’s story being important irrespective of what he actually intended, the act of creation being valuable whether or not the direction was accurate. I, personally, don’t understand this. I have no problem with you appreciating a story; but it should not impinge on the important aesthetic judgement, that comes from you irrespective of history. The way cut glass grates against your incisor; the satisfaction in the predictable kickback of Bioshock’s shotgun; the richness of colour I’m told raw meat and Van Gogh’s paintings possess; the surprising toxicity of lead-based paints eating away at your reason. These are the raw materials for your judgement, not the supposed intentions of a fellow human black box, not that the water of this distillery flows through peat bogs; I just love the scent of smoke from that glass, and I don’t need to know why it’s there to appreciate it.

Fuck provenance. Fuck intention. Fuck origins. Taste is personal, value is visceral; move away from that and you’re just lying to yourself.