Another year, another fringe

Our theatre blogger reports from Edinburgh.

Armaggedapocalypse: not Fox Newspeak for England's riots, but one of the 2,542 shows on the Edinburgh Fringe this year (and one of the 2,532 I missed). For a different take on Britain's yoof, turn that telly off and head north! Here they do theatre, music and comedy, not Curry's.

While London burned, Edinburgh drowned: the Fringe was both bigger and wetter than ever before. This time round I was in the company of reluctant bipeds, or "teenagers", and duly found that you do not propose shows that are a half-hour wade away, in the rain. This pointed up sharply the sagging concentration of venues in the dripping crypts and cellars of the Old Town, leaving the New Town (new, that is, to George III) relatively beleaguered. The sodden punters are sticking to the shows in the super-venues rather than chancing the diaspora across town. Having hacked up heart-attack hill, you stay where you are. Even the Assembly Rooms, grand old dowager of the empty Hanoverian boulevards, are closed for some sort of retail-based refurb.

Doubtless one of the themes to be picked out of the fractal Fringe chaos is the rise of cabaret (though this is perhaps down to a new taxonomy in the Fringe programme). In truth one always experiences the "fringe" in the lower case, as a highly personal experience. It's perfectly possible to remain entirely ignorant of the existence of any cabaret at all.

Last year my "fringe" was theatre-rich, but this time the inbetweeners nixed the Malkovich Pinter, and the Oedipal Berkoff. By and large, we also avoided all celebs, and spawn of celebs (the Brandreth, Rosenthal and Stourton scions were all trying their luck). It goes without saying that the travelling circus that is Neil and Christine Hamilton, who are now a freaky Fringe staple, were also verboten.

Instead we headed for teen-friendly Sheeps ("imagine Morecambe and Wise meet Sheeps. Then Morecambe and Wise go away"), an archly surreal young sketch troupe that really whack the comedy piñata with characters like their stage-frightened singer (obscene rap at excruciating odds with shaking hands). The sick lyrics of Amateur Transplants: Adam Kay's Smutty Songs also found favour. This former med student wreaks marvellously pointless, punning havoc on pop songs - Katy Perry's well-known chorus, for example, is twisted to "I kissed de Gaulle, and I liked it."

Then there was Shlomo Mouthtronica: World Loop Station champion. (You know, loop station! The recording device cum mixing desk?) The rangy, rabbinical-looking beatboxer appears to conjure an entire band out of his mouth. Shlomo, whose genealogical roots are Iraqi-Jewish, mixes his wizardry with chat about his family, as though we're guests in his front room; when we saw him, the sweetly soulful Randolph Matthews was guesting.

And Free Run, to my knowledge the first time that "parkour" (you know, parkour!), or the urban art of jumping over stuff, has been staged. Imagine a gymnastics display of simian grace, which is literally off the rails, in that the runners spring off a bar encircling the auditorium, above our heads. Sadly, pantomime choreography involving masked villains was apparently necessary to jolly up all this jumping about. One runner's trousers ingeniously start out as boxers at the waistband and turn into jeans: just like the show, it's an over-designed simulacrum of the real, grungy thing.

In Edinburgh, just as in London, youngsters are using technology to mobilise, but to entirely different ends. Show tips are exchanged via Fringe tweets, or "twinges", and there's a hit parade of shows that generate the most noise. It was through such a tweet that we caught the Fringe's only deaf comedian Steve Day ("if there's another one he hasn't heard of them") in fine raconteur form in Run, Deaf Boy, Run! This year new apps were launched to assist with gold-panning the slew of shows, which helped unearth a morning performance from zany clown-musicians Varieté Velociped. Their Czardas finale, played on a found object down their trousers, certainly brightened the day.

Theatre-wise I didn't see too much to inspire: Curious Directive's Your Last Breath left some of us sanguinely anticipating theirs, and One Million Tiny Plays About Britain seemed a little spindly after the robust verbatim theatre of Alecky Blythe in London Road. Fittingly, it was left to Glaswegian youth theatre Junction 25 to restore faith in both theatre and youth in I Hope My Heart Goes First.

Never mind the comics, frantically scribbling emendations to include the shopper-riots in their sets, here was the real riposte to the events in London: kids producing thoughtful, funny and, at times, beautiful work. Creativity pure and simple, as Cameron might have put it.

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Why do games to revolutionary politics so badly?

Too often, you know who the good guys and the bad guys are, but not why.

It is one of the ironies of videogames that they often embrace some of the most radically political situations in the most noncommittal ways possible. After all, just because a game features a violent revolution or a war, that doesn’t mean the developers want to be seen to take sides. The results of this can be unintentionally funny, creepy, or just leave you wondering if you should disconnect your brain before playing, as if the intended audiences are shop window mannequins and crash test dummies.

A recent example of a game falling over itself to be apolitical is Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, an open world game about stabbing people set in London around 1886. The game has you embarking on an extended campaign against a secret organisation which controls London, and by implied extension the British Empire as a whole. You fight against them by murdering assorted senior personnel (as well as hundreds of affiliated henchmen), sabotaging their various endeavours and generally unleashing all manner of mayhem against the group.

Why do we do this? Well, because we’re reliably informed that the people we are killing are members of the Templars or are working for them, which is apparently a group of Very Bad People, and not like the Assassins, who are much better, apparently. London under Templar control is bad, apparently, and under Assassin control we are told it will be better for everyone, though we never really find out why.

Your credentials for being on the side of righteousness seem to stem from the fact that when you meet famous historical figures like Charles Darwin or Florence Nightingale they seem to like you and let you help them out in various ways (usually but not exclusively related to stabbing people). The rationale presumably being that since Charles Darwin is a great man slashing throats at his behest reflects well on our heroes.

Even in these interactions however the game is painfully noncommittal, for example your characters in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate will happily to kill police officers for Karl Marx, but they don’t actually join the Worker’s Party, because heaven help us if it turned out that either of our heroes did anything that might suggest an underlying ideology.

It feels very much that when a developer is so timid in attaching defining ideological or political qualities to the characters or groups in the game then Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is what you end up with. There is no sense that your characters stand for anything, at least not intentionally. Instead your hero or heroine wanders around a genuinely beautiful rendition of Victorian London trying their absolute level best to not offend the sensibilities of anybody (while stabbing people).

By contrast something like Saints Row 3 handles this sort of system altogether better. Saints Row 3 works along a set of almost identical mechanics for how the struggle for control of the city plays out; do an activity, claim an area then watch your minions move in. However what Saints Row 3 does is cast you as an anti-hero. The design is self-aware enough to know that you can’t treat somebody as a regular hero if their most common form of interaction with other people is to kill them in cold blood. Your character is motivated by revenge and by greed, which is probably terrible karma but at least it gives you a sense of your characters purpose.

Another approach is to have the antagonists of the story carry the political weight and let the motivations of the heroes become ennobled by the contrast. The best example of this is a game called The Saboteur. By setting the game in occupied Paris during World War Two, ensuring that everybody you kill is a Nazi or Nazi collaborator, everything is good clean fun. We know that Nazis are bad and the game doesn’t need to go to great lengths to explain why, it’s accepted ideological shorthand. Another example of this is Blazkowicz, the hero in the Wolfenstein games; here the character is not engaging because he delights in ruthlessly slaughtering people, he is engaging because he delights in ruthlessly slaughtering Nazis.

When it comes to games set in World War Two it is still possible to mess things up when trying to be even handed. For example Company of Heroes 2, a strategy game set on the Russian Front, takes such pains to remind us of the ruthlessness of the Soviets that it ends up accidentally making the fascists look like the heroes. The trick would seem to be when approaching a historical situation with a clear villain then you don’t need to be even handed. It’s a videogame where tanks have health bars after all, not a history book.

Of course it can be argued that none of this ideological and political emptiness in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate makes it any less fun, and to a point this is true. The mechanical elements of the game are not affected by the motivations of the character but the connection between player and character is. As such the motivation to keep playing over hours and hours of repetitive activities suffers badly. This is a problem that past Assassin’s Creed games have not been too troubled by, for instance in Black Flag, the hero was a pirate and his ideology based around the consumption of rum, accumulation of doubloons and shooting cannonballs at the Spanish navy made complete sense.

If a game is going to base itself around important events in the lives of its characters it has to make those characters stand for something. It may not be something every player or potential player agrees with, but it’s certainly more entertaining than watching somebody sit on a fence (and stab people).

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture