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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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear