Kristen Bell in Fanboys.
Show Hide image

Critical Distance: This Week in Videogame Blogging #9

On the 'cool gamer girlfriend'.

Critical Distance is proud to bring to The New Statesman a weekly digest of its popular This Week in Videogame Blogging feature, which promotes the best, often little-known, incisive criticism and cultural commentary on interactive media. This week, we catch up on highlights from San Francisco’s Game Developers Conference and take a stab at dismantling the ‘cool gamer girlfriend’ archetype.

At the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, This War of Mine head writer Pawel Micechowski spoke about designing new kinds of "survival" in the face of players who are trained to think of characters as resources to be used. Also from the conference, the #1ReasonToBe panel was a powerful recounting of women's experiences working on the game industry.

At First Person Scholar, Mohini Dutta writes about designing for the Other, calling into question the ways that designers think of themselves in position to players and parsing out the ethical ramifications of that split. Elsewhere, Katie Chironis writes about her experiences developing Elsinore and continually answering questions about why a character is black. Her answer is simple: why shouldn't she be?

Maddy Myers takes a deep personal dive into the image and concept of the "cool gamer girlfriend" and the cultural expectations surrounding her. She writes:

There is no narrative about a girl who shows up to play games and turns out to be kind of okay at them, and then she makes platonic friends who see her as a person, and then she goes home alone. My mediocrity became a huge disappointment for men that I didn't know in gaming spaces. It was a disappointment for me, too, and it still makes me extra-nervous. Every time I show up and play games in public somewhere, in some male-dominated space, there is some stupid part of me that wants to win beyond all my wildest dreams ... even though it's impossible, especially when people are staring at you. I do okay, sometimes. That's the most I've ever been able to hope to achieve: being okay at games, sometimes.

At Games That Exist, Alex Pieschel provides an extensive and amazing piece on Final Fantasy 7's debug room. Meanwhile, on Vice, Carolyn Petit explains the finitude and pain of time built into Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, while on The AV Club Jake Muncy reads Wind Waker as a response to the Zelda franchise itself.

Lastly, one of the more exciting announcements to come out of GDC is the news that Leigh Alexander, in partnership with Boing Boing will be launching Offworld – a new publication for games criticism geared toward those not served by mainstream game sites. We recommend it!

There is much more available in this week’s full roundup at Critical Distance! Tune in again next week and be sure to follow us on Twitter @critdistance for all the latest and greatest games writing from around the web.

 

Getty
Show Hide image

Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

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