The Castle Doctrine is a morally bankrupt game, so why do I want to keep playing?

The game's message might be repellent, but we should be wary of drawing a line too soon. Today's independent games are a rebellious force against fiercely Republican AAA games, and we should encourage that.

The Castle Doctrine is an ugly videogame. I'm not talking about graphics, I mean morally: It emblazons the isolationist mentality that got Trayvon Martin killed.

Here's the set-up. You, a married white guy with a couple of grand in the bank must construct barriers and traps to prevent other players from entering your house and stealing from your safe. You also have a wife and two kids to defend.

If somebody breaks in while you're logged out of the game, your wife will grab half the money and make for the exit, leaving intruders with the option of either letting her go and taking what's left in the safe, or killing her and claiming the loot in full. You can also invade other player's homes.

It's easy to see what's wrong with this picture. Firstly, your wife is a passive object, to be protected in the same way as your money and your vault. Her value is only monetary. If she dies holding 2,000 of your dollars, it's a setback because you've lost cash, not because a woman has died.

Secondly, the politics are indefensibly straightforward. The Castle Doctrine assumes that everyone who violates private property means to cause harm, and that stopping them by force is always acceptable. It fails to discuss mitigating factors such as geography, circumstance or the personal prejudices of the home-owner. It uniformly approves of the US legal principle from which it gets its name. It says anything is permissible in the name of self-defence.

The Castle Doctrine is morally bankrupt. But I want to keep playing it. I want to write about it, to think about it – I disagree with Cameron Kunzelman, who says we should “be so highly critical of The Castle Doctrine that we pretend like it doesn’t exist.”

Independent games are burgeoning. If they're going to develop, every creative voice, no matter how repugnant we may find it personally, has to be encouraged to speak.

If not, independent games could slide into the same political homogeny as the mainstream.

AAA games are fiercely Republican. They espouse the military. They fetishise guns. They mistreat women. And as a result, as well as offensive, they're often boring.

Over time, independent games risk slipping into the same groove. They appeal right now to people bored of the mass-market, people looking for something which challenges the assumed standards of what games should be. Today's independent games are a rebellious force. Their stories are about love, pacifism and self-affirmation. In response to the mainstream right, they're firmly on the left.

And if games like The Castle Doctrine are continually shouted down - if we demonise political views that aren't necessarily our own - that is how independent games will remain. They won't ever deviate. They'll became as politically monotone as AAA shooters.

And how dull will that be? I recently saw Santiago Serra's 160cm Line Tattooed Across Four People, a work of video art for which Serra paid four prostitutes a syringe of heroin each to allow him to tattoo an adjoining line across their bodies. It was exploitable. It was ugly. It was everything I hate. But if the whole exhibition had just been Jackson Pollocks', I wouldn't have gone. I want to be outraged by art. I want to know what's out there.

This isn't a defence of The Castle Doctrine. That game's message, that white men can righteously empower themselves with guns, is prevalent across the industry and doesn't need my support to withstand invective.

Instead, I'm cautious about drawing a line this early on. I don't want to set a precedent where only independent games that suit our politics will be able to find a market in the future. I don't want to be sat round a table where everyone agrees with me. I think art's ability to enrage is equally as valuable as its power to satisfy. So long as it's articulated, I want to know what people think.

A still from "The Castle Doctrine".

Edward Smith is a writer based in Liverpool. Follow him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.

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In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, every other line reeks of a self-help manual

This lame sequel suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing.

The 2014 romp Guardians of the Galaxy boasted the budget of a blockbuster and the soul of a B-movie. What that meant in practice was that audiences had to endure the same biff-pow battle scenes and retina-blistering effects as any space adventure, but they were rewarded with eccentric characters and tomfoolery for its own sake.

Despite the Marvel Studios imprimatur, the film showed the forces of intergalactic evil being fought not by superheroes, but by a ragtag band of bickering goofballs: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, a self-regarding rogue in the Han Solo mould; the green-faced alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana); Drax (Dave Bautista), a literal-minded hulk; Rocket, a racoon-like warrior (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and Groot, a piece of bark that says “I am Groot” over and over in the dulcet tones of Vin Diesel. Movies this odd don’t usually become $770m smash hits but this one did – deservedly.

Those characters return in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (the “Vol 2” reflects Peter’s love of mix-tapes) but the new film suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing. Gags are rehashed; several sequences (including an interminable slow-motion section involving a laser-powered arrow) are dragged way beyond their desirable lifespan. Late in the day, Rocket tells his shipmates that they have too many issues, which rather pinpoints the problem with the screenplay by the director, James Gunn. Gunn has saddled his characters with unreasonable baggage, all of it relating to family and belonging. No matter how far into space they travel, all roads lead back to the therapist’s couch.

Peter, raised by his late mother, is delighted when Ego (Kurt Russell) materialises claiming to be the father he never knew. The old man makes grand pronouncements, only to undercut them within seconds (“’Scuse me, gotta take a whizz”) but, on the plus side, he has his own planet and pulls the whole “One day, son, all this will be yours” shtick. Gamora also has family business to contend with. Her blue-skinned sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), wants to kill her: Nebula has never quite got over Gamora being Daddy’s favourite. To be fair, though, he did force them to fight one another, replacing parts of Nebula’s body with metal whenever she lost, so it’s not like we’re talking about only one sister being allowed to watch Top of the Pops.

The more Peter gets to know Ego, the less admirable he seems as a father, and soon we are in the familiar territory of having parenting lessons administered by a Hollywood blockbuster. The reason for this became obvious decades ago: the film industry is populated by overworked executives who never get to see their children, or don’t want to, and so compensate by greenlighting movies about what it means to be a good parent. Every other line here reeks of the self-help manual. “Please give me the chance to be the father your mother wanted me to be,” Ego pleads. Even a minor character gets to pause the action to say: “I ain’t done nothing right my whole life.” It’s dispiriting to settle down for a Guardians of the Galaxy picture only to find you’re watching Field of Dreams with added asteroids.

Vol 2 gets by for an hour or so on some batty gags (Gamora misremembering the plot and star of Knight Rider is an especially juicy one) and on the energising power of Scott Chambliss’s glorious production design. The combination of the hi-tech and the trashy gives the film the appearance of a multimillion-dollar carnival taking place in a junkyard. Spectacular battles are shot through scuffed and scratched windscreens, and there are spacesuits cobbled together from tin pots and bubble-wrap. This is consistent with the kitschfests that inspired the Guardians aesthetic: 1980s science-fiction delights such as Flash Gordon, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

If only Vol 2 had mimicked their levity and brevity. Gunn ends his overlong movie with a bomb being attached to a giant brain, but this is wishful thinking on his part. He hasn’t blown our minds at all. It’s just a mild case of concussion. 

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 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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