The politics of games -- and why there are no virtual romcoms

Weasel News, templars in the supreme court and socialism in <em>Fable 3</em> -- more from Naomi Alde

Yesterday, I posted an interview with the game writers Naomi Alderman and David Varela, who are both tutors on an Arvon course in September (click here to read the piece, here for more info on the course). Here, I talk to Naomi about politics in games and David about their generic limitations.

Naomi, talking about binary choices in video games, how did you feel about Fable 3?

Naomi Alderman: Oh, my god, they were dreadful. It's weird because I think it wants to be a comedy game. They've got a lot of great comedic acting talent -- they've got John Cleese and Mark Heap. Mark Heap is a genius.

They've got John bloody Cleese voicing it and what he's voicing is just a menu. He's there to go: "If you want to change your outfit, go here," or, "If you want to look at how much money you've got, go here." John Cleese! You've got John Cleese, why would you do that?

I was playing it thinking: it would be better if they just accepted this is a comedy game and we're going to have a variety of comic challenges for the hero to face. All those tasks at the end . . . do you want to build a brothel or an orphange? Do you buy up all the houses and get all the rent?

I thought that: I've become a buy-to-let landlord . . . I've journeyed to this magical realm in order to become Foxtons.

NA: Clearly, it is a metaphor for the credit crunch . . . and the correct way to solve the problem is to do what you do in that game -- nationalise all the industries and all the property and use that money to pay off this enormous debt that you have. And the wrong way to handle it is to leave everything in private hands and then you don't have any money to deal with the huge problems facing the country.

H: Maybe it's [Lionhead Studios chief] Peter Molyneux's secret party political broadcast.

NA: Ha! Have you seen the hidden story in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood?

Yes. It implies that the US supreme court has been infiltrated by an ultra-capitalist secret society.

NA: And Dick Cheney, too, is the implication . . . There's the whole thing with: "DC will take care of this."

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts as well . . . I'm surprised their libel lawyers let it go through, really.

NA: I'd love to do an interview with the guys who wrote it and say: "Did you have to get this past anyone?" Also, there's an implication in one of those sections that the government is trying to control us via TV and video games.

Is that an example of a game with an explicitly political message -- or what about Grand Theft Auto 4 and its Fox News spoof, "Weasel News"?

NA: There's a sort of fear that games are quite right-wing . . . because they encourage [violence]. There was some really great research into how attitudes towards the government change, having played these games where mostly you are playing as the American government.

Unlike Jarhead or Generation Kill, they are not narratives, which problematise the whole idea of the wars that we are currently engaged in. But clearly that hidden story in Assassin's Creed and Weasel News, they do problematise the world we live in. That's art, surely -- that's what art does.

David, are games too limited in the genres they cover?

David Varela: I don't think that games generally have as wide a range of genres as you can get in other art forms and that's something that I think is expanding now. You don't get many romcom games but there are independent games at the moment that are exploring different genres and I'm sure they're going to get more mainstream. So something like Heavy Rain, it was mainly a thriller but there was that family drama element to it as well, which you don't tend to see very much.

There is Gravitation, which is all about work/life balance. You're playing this sweet game with this little blonde child and there's a little love heart developing as you play. But to carry on playing, you have to go away [from the computer] and do some work and then you come back. As the game goes on, you have to spend more time working in order to have this precious time playing with the girl.

It's a very beautiful metaphor about growing up and having to make certain sacrifices in life. It's just heartbreaking. To get that kind of emotion from a game is rare but it's certainly possible and I'd like to see more of that.

Why do you think it's hard for games to deal seriously with romance?

It's partly a legacy about where games have come from, developed by boys, for boys. From outside the industry, the audience for games is seen as being only teenage boys but the audience is broadening out a lot more, especially in the past few years and especially with online gaming. Facebook gaming is becoming more prominent and the much wider audience means there is room for all these different genres.

I worked a little bit on a game called Spirit of Adventure (written by Christian Wheeler), which is a Facebook game that is very deliberately targeted at definitely a more feminine audience, probably aged 40 plus -- which actually reflects quite well on the people who are on Facebook a lot of the time.

That was a love story about a woman who is a grown-up, her marriage has gone a bit stale and she discovers the diary of a Second World War airman. She gets swept up in his romance and ends up investigating his life; what happened to him.

It could have worked as a romance novel. It could work in another media. If you were going to try and label it with a genre it's probably a romance but it has gameplay in it; it has some puzzles, but it has a lot of very good writing in it as well.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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In Kid Gloves, Knausgaardian style provides a route through a writer's grief

Adam Mars-Jones has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism