Faith from Mirror's Edge.
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The pressure to get more women in videogames is finally paying off

For years, games have desperately needed to get over their addiction to tedious generic white guys as their protagonists for their own sake. Now, it finally seems to be happening.

E3 is a weird event, a mixture of a tradeshow, a party conference and religious cult’s coming together to summon its all-powerful yet perpetually indifferent Super-God. It is also, alas, the physical manifestation of all that is rotten in videogames. The blistering cynicism, the exploitation of nostalgia and the carefully nurtured groupthink designed to add more hype, more hope, to whatever products the big studios are pushing, regardless of whether said new product is anything good, new or of any genuine interest at all. You might almost say I’m not a fan.

But for all that E3 remains important, because E3 is the Fountain of Bullshit deep in the heart of the videogame jungle. It is here that the industry sets out its stall for what it considers important.

As such the signals from this year’s E3 are mixed. The first and most important positive from the show itself is that for a lot of the promotional materials shown for a surprisingly large number of games, the player characters shown were women, either as the sole protagonists or optional protagonists being given top billing at a major event. This nod to the greater inclusion of women in gaming has been a long time coming. Given the time it takes to develop videogames it feels like growing pressure to change gaming from being so overtly hostile to the women it depicts is finally starting to pay off.

This is a very good thing because, even setting aside the important issues of representation and casual sexism, games have desperately needed to get over their addiction to tedious generic white guys as their protagonists for their own sake. For years the medium has had a problem with characters seemingly created by focus groups and marketing departments looking to create heroes who will tick the boxes for optimal sales. You don’t make great art by pandering to marketing demographics and anybody claiming you can’t sell a game with a black protagonist or a bisexual protagonist needs to address their argument to the fifty million plus copies of Grand Theft Auto V that have been sold thus far.

That being said, there really is no valid reason to set aside the issues of representation and casual sexism anyway. Diversifying the characters in video games is a win-win.

The bad of E3 this year has taken a couple of forms. The most depressing on a personal level was seeing Bethesda announce Fallout 4 with an accompanying free to play, in-app purchase funded mobile game. I’ve hugely enjoyed the Fallout games over the years, but seeing the mobile game appear, and seeing it become hugely successful, has filled me with dread. I had hoped, in my naivety, that when EA released a mobile version of Dungeon Keeper that was met with an angry mob, lessons had been learned. I hoped that gamers had learned that embracing such products is helping to dig the graves of the games we love. Alas not. Apparently all it took to sell this where Dungeon Keeper failed was a slightly less cynical monetisation plan.

Meanwhile E3 also saw new kinds of shenanigans employed by Sony in exploiting Kickstarter to get money for the long-awaited Shenmue 3. There is no earthly reason why a corporation as large as Sony needs to use Kickstarter to get extra funds for a game that fans have been waiting years for and there is no need for them to use Kickstarter as a means to gauge interest in the game, they know people are interested or else they wouldn’t be talking about it during their E3 show. What we’re seeing here is Kickstarter being used to generate additional revenue during the development of a game and it is an extremely slimy precedent.

Gaming has always been an industry that pushes the boundaries of both of technology and of its culture. There is little or no sense of tradition in gaming, because it has simply not been around long enough to have one form. One unfortunate consequence of this is that there is no real sense of what is right and fair when it comes to how developers make their money from players. As a result we see an industry that seems more invested in finding new ways to squeeze money out of its customers than it is in making them something worth playing.

The highlight for me this year was the PC gaming show and seeing the sequel to Euro Truck Simulator 2, the self explanatorily titled American Truck Simulator being shown up on the big screen. It is hard to imagine a game being less at home at E3 than a detailed simulation of cargo hauling, but there it was amid the Battlefields, Tomb Raiders and Fallouts, a reminder that despite all efforts to understand games, gamers and gaming, it is all still a bit weird.

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

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era