The Diary of Samuel Pepys

In 1660, an English functionary called Samuel Pepys began keeping a diary. This diary would eventually run for a million words, covering ten years of his life (and England’s history). He documents some of the most important events in history, along with things like his masturbation in church, his affairs with a variety of household maids, and the first performance of Romeo and Juliet (“it is a play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life”). The diary has no longer just describes history, it has become history. It’s like the Great Pyramid: built to memorialize a great man and great times, and now great for its own sake. People will know of the Great Pyramid long after they have forgotten Khnum-Khufu.

A lot of the diary is spent documenting minutia of Pepys’s day to day life. The diary begins not long after the death of Oliver Cromwell, and the rearrangement of the state has landed Pepys with a new job (he notes at one point that when England suffers, he prospers). Soon we learn more about his personal life, which includes plays, wine, and endless marital strife (Elisabeth Pepys was often unhappy with him. Given his habit of seducing their housemaids, one feels empathy). Some of this is eternally fascinating, and some would have been mundane at the time but now provides a valuable glimpse of how an upper class Englishman lived his life in the days of the Rump.

Almost everything we know about the past is drawn from a stacked deck – conquerors writing of their greatest battles, artists painting their subjects in the full flower of youth and health. Time has an editorial process that winnows out mundane events, but you need the mundanity. A historical document without trivia is like an English sentence without conjunctions or articles – informative, but jarring, and you spend a lot of effort reconstructing the missing words. Pepys’s diary, even in its most boring pages, provides one of the clearest windows we have into Renaissance England. Most of the others are made of stained glass.

The diary’s most harrowing pages are the eyewitness descriptions of the Great Fire. Pepys’s prose is evocative and almost Blakean (“the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down”), which is appropriate, because the fire was apocalyptic, a bowl of wrath spilled before the appointed time. And it was very typical of Pepys to notice the poor pigeons. Earlier parts of the diary are hard to read (particularly Pepys describing his careful renovations of his home) because you know what will happen soon.

But the diary leaves mysteries as well as answers. For example, was this really a window into Pepys’s private, unfiltered thoughts? Or did he intend for it to be read by the public?

We don’t really know. The diary was written in a nearly impenetrable shorthand, and was deciphered in the 19th century by a St John’s College undergraduate (he would later learn that his effort was needless, and the key to the cipher was in the college’s very library). Modern editions of the diary are very clean and readable, once the reader trains his brain out of imposing anachronisms on the text (“sack” means wine, and when Pepys refers to someone as “a black man” he means that their hair is black, not their skin.)

A lot of this is embarassing and frank. I suspect Pepys knew that he might be playing to crowd. The prose seems not just precise but laboured – the work of a man not just trying to get words down, but gets not getting the ideas down, but getting the ideas down right. But he certainly composed the diary in a variety of different moods, and there’s probably portions he would have edited or excised, had he reviewed it with a cooler head.

A politician (who was not Pepys) said that writing a diary lets you experience life three times. Once, in the living. Twice, in the writing. Thrice, in the reading afterwards. But sometimes diaries reach the outside world, which means the experience was lived thousands or millions of times, or a number that might approach infinity (depending on how long such books are read). Khnum-Khufu obtained immortality, but not the sort he was hoping for. Pepys captured that immortality even better, in written words of his own design. “Dear diary” usually precedes boredom and narcissism. But here, a diary becomes genuinely great literature.

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The Burning Book

In the 1970s, there was a book called The Anarchist Cookbook. Hippies had many gods, and just as many bibles. This was the bible of the Church of the Broken Window.

The book isn’t much. It’s a “how to” guide for picking locks and phreaking phones and building shoebox bombs. Although never outright banned in America, it was printed in small quantities and was highly sought after in certain circles. Owning a copy made you the belle of the domestic terrorism ball.

Unfortunately, many of the recipes were a little “off”, plus the people who tried them generally didn’t know what they were doing. The book’s actual recipe was 1) dumbass kids try to make nitroglycerine 2) they blow off their own fingers or burn down the Podunk High gym hall 3) juvie prison sentences all around, plus the school goes into lockdown from now until the end of time. Over and over. There is quite possibly more authoritarianism in the world thanks to The Anarchist Cookbook than there would have been without it.

There were always conspiracy theories that the Cookbook was written by an “outsider”, someone trying to discredit anarchy or sabotage the movement from within. As of 2013 the copyright resided with a publisher just two blocks away from a National Security Agency depot in Arkansas, but that’s probably a poetic concidence. Regardless of his intentions, the book could be viewed as reverse-activism, advocating violence and accidentally making the world a safer and more secure place.

Or maybe the world would have become safer anyway – books usually don’t matter much. Writers are very excited by the prospect of book burning, the way Christians are excited by tales of Satanic cults running global governments, and it’s easy to see why. Life frequently stomps on us, seemingly for no reason at all, and it’s flattering to believe that we’re being stomped on because we’re important.

BBSs soon became popular, and the Cookbook obtained a fragmentary second life. Bits of it (literally) were streamed over 1200 baud modems, often interpolated with additions by someone calling himself “The Jolly Roger”. This person appeared to be barely literate, someone who learned English from the txt files in Doom wads, and his advice was even worse than the original’s.

“Break a ton of matchheads off. Then cut a SMALL hole in the tennis ball. Stuff all of the matchheads into the ball, until you can’t fit any more in. Then tape over it with duct tape. Make sure it is real nice and tight! Then, when you see a geek walking down the street, give it a good throw. He will have a blast!!” -Jolly Roger-

Consider putting a fuse in the tennis ball too, otherwise it won’t blow up and he’ll think you’re challenging him to tennis for two. Aerobic exercise is linked to positive health outcomes, and you won’t have killed him, you’ll have made him stronger.

Decades later, the author of The Anarchist Cookbook went public and disowned the book, thus inspiring perhaps even more people to seek it out and learn from its recipes. This page has now been viewed by hundreds of thousands of eyeballs. Do you doubt that at least one pair belong to a young, impressionable person who will actually try the recipes in the book? And that we’ll soon hear about him on the news, along with the twenty or thirty unfortunates who happened to be standing near his trailer at the time?

I don’t believe William Powell has ever made a decision that worked out the way he wanted it to. He should have gone to Vietnam, and watched the war effort crumble within a week. Or he should have advocated for cleaner streets, and watched as whole communities drowned in an apocalyptic tide of cigarette butts and plastic bags. There are hippie gods, and hippie bibles. William Powell, apparently, was the hippie Jonah.

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All Heil

Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will soon collapses inwards under its own largeness and lack of substance. Scene after scene of columns of soldiers marching, or standing in massed formation on parade grounds. The viewer gets bored, and starts trying to see signs of humanity intruding on the edge of the celluloid.

Wow, that sure is a lot of soldiers. Are some of them uncomfortable? Do they have itches they aren’t allowed to scratch? Where are they billeted and fed? Were there latrine pits dug somewhere? Where did Hitler go to the toilet? I would have liked a film made about these topics, and in a way, Riefenstahl made a film about the most boring aspect of Hitler’s rise to power.

I feel this way about many films: where the camera all but twists and cavorts to avoid capturing things that might be exciting. For example, although I don’t like the James Bond films, many things in their background are absolutely fascinating.

For example, the man called Ross Heilman.

He was a Jew from Florida who moved to Jamaica, renamed himself “Ross Kananga”, claimed Seminole heritage, and opened a crocodile farm. Some people have biographies that seem to be written by a random word generator, and he was one of them. At the height of his success Ross had more than a thousand crocodiles, and he would harvest their skins. In those days, crocodile skin sold for $2 a pound, and $450 for a reasonably good entire skin.

One day, location scouts for the film Live and Let Die discovered the farm, and wanted to use it as the fictional nation of San Monique. Ross obviously made quite an impression on the cast and crew, because they named the villain of the film “Kananga”. Ross doubled for Roger Moore in the infamous scene where he jumps across a river on the backs of living crocodiles, something that was hazardous to his health.

Something like that is almost impossible to do. So, I had to do it six times before I got it right. I fell five times. The film company kept sending to London for more clothes. The crocs were chewing off everything when I hit the water, including shoes. I received 193 stitches on my leg and face.”

Ross never became a film star, and he did not have long to live. In 1978, he died of cardiac arrest while spearfishing in the Everglades. Or so some stories say. There is a conspiracy.

This is from the autobiography of inventor, businessman, and filmmaker Arthur Jones.

“Later, he had so many people after him that he decided the only way out was to fake his own death, so that people would stop looking for him; so he took his grandmother out in a small boat in the Everglades in order to have a witness to his death. The plan being to turn over the boat in a spot where she could easily escape, but where he could get away; leaving the impression that he had drowned, even though his body was never supposed to be found.

“But it was found; it was a cold day, and he went into shock and did drown. The grandmother did get out alive, and was able to provide a true account of his death.

“I was after him for having done one of the cruelest things I ever witnessed; he tied a bunch of crocodiles very tightly, packed them in a big trailer and then left them there for weeks. When their legs were untied their feet were already rotting off, even though they were still alive. I figured tit for tat, nit for shit, and had similar plans for him; but he was dead before I could find him. Several other people had plans for him as a result of some of his other stunts.”

It sounds implausible and hard to believe (and might have pleased Ross Heilman in this regard), but I wonder if it’s common for a man to suffer cardiac arrest at the age of 32.

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And Justice for Avto

“One” by Metallica has a famous section at 4:32 where Lars Ulrich plays a syncopated sextuplets on the kick drums (6 beats on, 2 beats off)…and then James Hetfield doubles it on guitar. The effect is dramatic: the guitar sounds like a machine gun.

The effect wouldn’t have worked if he’d played the cello. There’s something natural about the pairing of electric guitars and automatic guns. Although not a full rhyme, they’re at least a slant rhyme for each other. The force. The percussion. The volume. The way they harness bolts, pins, voltage, and steel to amplify something in the human condition.

But there are many guns, and if you’re drawing a comparison with high-gain metal, there’s only one gun that fits the bill. The most famous gun.

In 22 June 1941, the Wehrmacht tide overflowed Russia’s borders. Millions of Russians were killed, and millions more were wounded. In the latter category was a mechanically-inclined man called Mikhail Kalashnikov, who spent his convalescence studying mechanics and firearm design. After a few false starts and setbacks, he created his masterpiece: a gas-powered imitation of German assault rifles called the Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947 – more famously known as the AK-47.

In doing so, he joined the ranks of men like Samuel Colt, Hiriam Maxim, John Browning, and Richard Gatling – men with names that have become death. The classical Greeks believed that a society grows great when old men plant trees. Kalashnikov and his ilk are the second sort: the ones who provide fertilizer for the trees. I wonder if Mr Kalashnikov ever stayed awake at night, thinking of the bodies. All the millions and millions of them.

The AK-47 is a pragmatic weapon, easy to use, even easier to die from. Despite being ergonomically uncomfortable (and not particularly accurate), they’re cheap, can be mass produced, and function even when clogged with dust, mud, blood, sweat, and unburnt propellant. At one point, they killed 250,000 people per year. They adorn the Mozambique flag. They are simple enough for a child to use. Children often have.

Functionally, they are similar to the WW2-era German MP42 Sturmgewehr (lit: “Storm-Rifle”). I haven’t found any sources to indicate that Kalashnikov was wounded by an MP42, but it would be funny if he had. In any case, the Germans lost. The world was changing, and superior rifles no longer won wars. Truthfully, by the time Kalashnikov arrived on the scene, they didn’t even win battles.

But the world no longer has battles. Now, almost all fighting is irregular, conducted by some flavour of guerilla forces. Afghanistan. Vietnam. Sudan. The Clauswitzian ideals of battle are over, and now being a soldier means you’re crouched in a jungle, motionless, made of matter almost indifferentiate from the the mud and leaves on the ground, so fascinated by what’s beyond your gunsight that you don’t even move when a mosquito lands on your lip. In this new era of undeclared wars and uniformless fighters, the AK-47 thrives. It’s the embodiment of a Communist weapon, a different, louder voice for the proletariat.

But what about guitars? What’s the connection?

Once, music was entertainment for the rich – formal, stultified, encased in tradition. A symphony orchestra contains four rigid groups of musicians – woodwinds, brass, percussion, and strings – with other subdivisions within. Everyone has a role to play, and roles that they cannot. What was that Heinlein quote about specialisation being for insects? Symphonies have always sounded cold to me, and maybe that’s why. They remind me of a hive.

Guitars are very much a common person’s instrument. They’re easy to make, easy to learn, and versatile. You can play them standing up or sitting down (evocative of the marksman’s choice of firing from the hip or the shoulder), you can play them while singing, and you can play them any way you want. There are no rules with guitar. You can change from strumming chords to playing lead melodies on the higher frets. If the guitar has a hollow body, you can slap it with your palm for percussion.

You can play a guitar sloppily and still sound good. For some styles of music (eg, grunge and shoegaze), it’s almost mandatory that you play sloppily. If a guitar goes out of tune, you can retune them in the middle of a performance. And they can take massive amounts of abuse. Ask any rock musician just how hard it is to smash a guitar on stage.

But guitars are quiet, and need amplification. The Beatles famously quit touring because they couldn’t hear their instruments over the sounds of screaming fans. Through the sixties and seventies, the wattage of stage equipment kept rising, and soon artists could impose their visions at literally deafening volumes.

In short, the guitar is to instruments what the AK-47 is to guns: a multi-purpose tool. They’re a transition from a world where maps dictate territories (the limitations of classical instruments and classical weaponry were both defining factors in the character of early war and music), to a place where the tool is servant and slave to the master’s voice.

Is there some link between the mutating forms of music and guns? Does it reflect some deeper change in the currents of the world? Biologically, evolution can follow two routes: divergence (where a species splits into two dissimilar lifeforms), and convergence (where two dissimilar species evolve to look like each other). A good example of convergence is the thylacine, which looked and acted rather like a fox despite belonging to the marsupial class. The stripes give the game away, but the skeletons are so close that it takes an expert eye to separate them.

Small arms and musical instruments almost seem to be following convergent evolution: fast, efficient, interchangeable, and they even look similar. Roy Orbison starred in a terrible movie called Fastest Guitar Alive, about a man who has a gun inside a guitar case. Maybe that’s generic, and every guitar is halfway to a gun (or vice versa). Guitars are sometimes called “axes”. We should update our terminology.

(For an earlier example of machine gun drumming, listen to “Darkness Descends” by Dark Angel at 0:53.)

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Flesh Inferno – Simon Whitechapel

Jesus proclaimed himself the light of the world. Light obtained by burning heretics on pyres is probably not what he had in mind. Flesh Inferno is the third book in Creation’s Blood History series, and covers the Spanish Inquisition in general, Torquemada in particular, and religion in abstract. Although Whitechapel writes from a secular background (the very first sentence contains the words “I despise the Catholic church”), the book is evenhanded and fair. It’s not full of gruesome descriptions of torture, which might have been a miscalculation. The audience for the Blood History books probably wanted gruesome descriptions of torture.

Sadly, there might not have been as much of it as we thought. Although the cover blurb states that “nearly some 9,000 perished in [autos-da-fe] – and nearly 100,000 in the dungeons – during Torquemada’s reign alone” the actual book states that Torquemada was probably responsible for only around 2,000 direct executions. But isn’t that still a lot? Maybe. It’s also the number of homicides reported in the United States of America every two weeks during the crack epidemic. Museums often feature recreations of elaborate and diabolical torture equipment supposedly used by the Inquisition, but most of them seem to be artifacts from the Victorian period. If you were tortured by the Inquisition, it would probably be with something cheap and easy to hand. Nothing the Inquisition did was unique to the Inquisition, and a secular version might be even better at it: the Inquisition’s hand was forced, because it had the nominal goal of saving souls. A nonreligious Inquisition would be free to explore sadism for its own sake.

The historical parts were a bit boring. The parts I liked were the speculation and theories. Whitechapel’s really good at coming up with interesting connections, and cross-breeding ideas from unrelated fields. The reciting of Psalms during torture is contrasted with Pavlovian conditioning. The smell of roasting human flesh (evocative of pork) is suggested as a possible inspiration for a Spanish anti-Semitic slur “marrano” (filthy pig). I didn’t like the editorial decision to have every translated passage matched with its untranslated Spanish, regardless of length or relevance. On page 75 there’s a block of uninterrupted Spanish that spans across four straight pages. There’s simply no need for this, and it comes across as a strategy to push the book’s page count as high as possible.

Comparisons between the Inquisition and Nazism are inevitable and obvious, but Whitechapel gets something out of it: the similarities between the Spanish concept of limpieza de sangre (“cleanliness of blood”) and the Nazi concept of Blutschande (“blood defilement”). This is something I’ve always wondered – why has Christianity, a faith with overt universalist literature (Romans 5:1, among many others) so often associated with ethnic concerns of blood? Is this a universal impulse that finds its way into all human affairs? Or is there something in the religion itself that enables this thinking? We never get near the answer in this book, but maybe nobody ever has.

History is an Ouija board, and when you imagine the past, you are also (at least in part, sometimes in whole) imagining the present. Facts are facts, but our interpretation of them changes with the weather. Joan of Arc was a nationalist figure until that went out of fashion, an ecclesiastical figure until that went out of fashion, and now exists as a cross between a Disney princess and a “grrl power” feminist icon. Christopher Columbus has been an explorer, a pioneer, a symbol of Italian pride, and is now a disreputable villain. Soon he’ll be alchemized into something else. Time’s crucible spares nobody except the obscure and forgotten, and when we are dead our descendents will imagine inaccurate things about us.

In particular, there’s often a bias to depict the past as more violent, lurid, and gruesome than it actually was. Maybe this is to exculpate our current society – a failing civilisation can appear successful by rewriting history to be worse. Or maybe it comes from a need to create interesting stories. Romantic 19th century woodcuts of the Barbary wars depict dramatic swordfights on crowded decks, gunsmoke swirling around scimitars and turbans. The actual diaries of the soldiers involved in these battles recall lots of boredom and pipe smoking, with occasional pauses to fire a cannon. The past doesn’t complain when we revise it. Nobody’s ever been sued for libel by a historical figure. But one can’t escape the impression that historians are like those Jewish POWs who swallowed the family jewelry so it wouldn’t be discovered. Yeah, there’s a pearl in there somewhere. Are you ready to go searching through shit to find it?

The book is out of print now, and used copies might be hard to find. If you’re looking for a history book, there are surely better options available, but Flesh Inferno asks a number of interesting questions about the past, and finds an angle that probably would have been impossible within the confines of straight history. It’s difficult to study a pile of ashes and discern the causes and reasons, but it’s a worthy task, and perhaps a necessary one. Someday, the fires might burn again.

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The Shining

Stanley Kubrick was a consummate perfectionist. Actress Shelly Duvall remembers the shooting of The Shining as 200 days of fake crying and swinging a bat, over and over, sometimes for dozens or hundreds of takes. There’s a Hollywood joke about how directors get lazier as the day goes on. “At 7:00am, you’re shooting Citizen Kane. At 7:00pm, you’re shooting Plan 9 From Outer Space.” Stanley Kubrick wanted Citizen Kane at 7:00am, Citizen Kane at 7:00pm, and if he could wrangle it, Citizen Kane at all the hours in between.

Ironically, this obsessive approach actually made his films less perfect, as it increased the odds of a continuity error between shots. Kubrick’s films are a target the size of a barn door for the forces of entropy, and indeed, the final cut of the Shining has a lot of goofs. Furniture mysteriously moves between shots. Danny’s sandwich has different bite marks.

I think Kubrick must have been aware of this, because The Shining also contains extremely big and easily fixed mistakes, ones that a perfectionist surely would have noticed. At the start of the film, the caretaker who murders his family is named Charles Grady. But when Jack Torrance meets the caretaker (or his ghost), he introduces himself as Delbert Grady. The climax of the movie involves a chase through a hedge maze, but, but in the opening aerial shots (where we see the entire Overlook Hotel) there is no hedge maze on the estate.

These blunders are so big and showy that they seem like intentional blunders. They’re so clearly part of the movie that one attaches thematic significance to them (Jack’s perception is unreliable, the hotel is not as it seems, etc), and maybe Kubrick was hoping we’d also attach thematic significance to the smaller ones, too. After all, a mistake is only a mistake when you admit it. Everyone knows that when you mess up performing a martial art kata, you don’t hastily correct. You make it look like you meant to do that.

If this was Kubrick’s strategy, it worked. Mssage boards are full of thematic analysis of the different bite marks in the sandwich, and so forth. Nobody will believe that he was actually capable of making a mistake.

Stephen King famously didn’t like this adaptation. Kubrick probably couldn’t have adapted any of his works to his satisfaction, except maybe for Christine, which is about a car. Kubrick’s movies are very cold, and although sometimes full of human energy, they usually don’t have a human heart. Jack hacking through a bathroom door is scary the way a wind-up machine doing the same thing is scary. King’s novel invites us deep into Jack’s psyche, while Kubrick’s movie turns him into another scary thing in a house full of scary things.

Were these intentional stylistic touches? Or where they deficiencies in Kubrick’s storytelling abilities? Because of Kubrick’s tactics, I’m not sure. At a high level, it’s difficult to tell a feature from a bug.

I feel the same way about the changes to the story’s lead. In the book, Jack Torrance is a nice guy with a monkey on his back. In the film, he’s a terrifying alien almost from the beginning. His suit doesn’t fit. He pounds the keys on a typewriter as if it’s a boxing match. When his new employer asks if his wife is comfortable staying at a hotel with such a gruesome history, he replies with something like “she’s a confirmed ghost story and horror film addict!”, hitting a jarring combination of weird and socially awkward. Every time he smiles, it’s an uncertain smile, as if the reptile inside is worried about tearing the human skinsuit.

Almost all of the film still holds up. It cuts out most of King’s self-indulgent touches (the living hedge maze animals, the jar of wasps), leaving a story that’s very slow while never dragging. You feel the passage of time, and the alienation from the outside world.

I think he damaged Shelly Duvall’s sanity, though. The woman just isn’t right.

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Helloween – Pink Bubbles Go Ape

What happened here?

Helloween’s fourth album is stupid and bad, and it’s stupid and bad in a way that bands are normally immune to. Pink Bubbles Go Ape would have made sense coming from a solo artist. All artists have THAT period, where they snort a rail of coke laced with rat droppings and make a concept album about socks disappearing inside the lint dryer. But how the fuck did five members all agree to sign off on this inanity?

To recap, Helloween were on an incredible hot streak through 1985-89. Walls of Jericho and both of the Keeper albums (notice that I make no mention of a third) wrote the book on Teutonic power metal. After touring with Exodus and Anthrax, and getting airplay on Headbanger’s Ball, they finally seemed on the verge of a big break.

Then principle songwriter Kai Hansen left the band. His final composition on a Helloween disc, “I Want Out”, was apparently less a catchy tune than a dire prognostic. Immediately, the band went into a tailspin, with drummer Ingo Swichtenberg’s schizophrenia becoming worse and vocalist Michael Kiske now harboring delusions of reinventing the band as a pop group.

Three years later, we got this, and the band’s chances at becoming a mainstream metal act ended in a fit of pure absurdity. It’s one thing to shoot yourself in the head. Helloween managed to shoot itself with one of those joke store pistols with a spring-loaded *BANG* flag.

The album is either hard rock music that isn’t very good, or comedic lyrics that aren’t very funny, and usually both at the same time. Almost none of it sounds like power metal. “Kids of the Century” makes an effort at rocking hard, before confessing partway through “yeah, I got nothin'”. “Number One” is a Weikath song from the early 80s. It’s no mystery why it never appeared on a past Helloween, but why it’s on this one is mystery aplenty. “Goin’ Home” and “Heavy Metal Hamsters” are like special-needs glam rock, if such a thing existed. I’m imagining huge teased 80s hair, hidden beneath a SPED helmet.

In a final surrealistic touch, the only songs that sound like old Helloween (“Somebody’s Crying” and “The Chance”) were penned by new guitarist Roland Grapow. Both of these songs are great, particularly the second one, which has lots of soaring guitar harmonies and a dog-whistle high note from Kiske. Grapow was a thirty year old car mechanic, drafted to fill the gap left by Hansen’s department, and “The Chance” reflects the optimism at such a stroke of luck. Unfortunately, Helloween was and is a dysfunctional band (even without Kiske), and in ten years he’d probably relate more to “I Want Out.”

“Mankind” wastes a great Queensryche atmosphere with a goofy chorus, and the final ballad “Your Turn” is saccharine gloop. It’s nearly as bad as “A Tale That Wasn’t Right”. Put this in your car’s fuel tank and your ride would never work again.

What’s the French expression? Folie à deux? A bunch of people suddenly going mad (or ape, as the case may be?) It basically put a spoke in the band’s wheel, and set off events that would leave most of Helloween’s lineup getting fired or dead. It’s a tragedy, masked as a comedy.

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I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

Released in 1995, just as the adventure game genre was falling off a cliff, I Have No Mouth Et Cetera captures the industry in its final burn-it-to-the-ground moments, where everyone was flailing around and trying to find something that would attract their audience back from Myst. A lot of risky experiments date to this period, including this one, an adaptation of a Harlan Ellison short story.

The story is much the same. Fuelled by Cold War hysteria, the human race has engineered its own coffin. A godlike supercomputer called AM controls the earth, and for its amusement it keeps alive the last five humans for more than a century, torturing them in all sorts of physical and psychological ways. But at last it has grown bored, and will engage its captives in a final game: they must survive a scenario constructed from their own minds, and their own repressed traumas.

Gorrister, a suicidal loner who resents women. Ellen, who relives a violent rape whenever she sees the color yellow. Benny, a hapless pawn who has been altered to look like a gorilla. Ted, a paranoid lunatic who is “so twitchy he could make poison ivy nervous.” Nimdok, a Nazi scientist who assisted Dr Mengele in the Holocaust.

Using a point and click interface you explore each of these characters’ minds. Whether you can “win” is unclear, even at the end. AM has complete control over all of these characters, and there’s no reason for what it tells them about their backstories to be completely accurate.

At its best, IHNMAIMS is a fascinating and memorable experience, and it’s often at its best. It takes away most of the comical aspects of Ellison’s story (like the “AM gave us canned food but no can opener” gag), and adds a ton of psychological depth. The story was about five interchangable nobodies surviving a maniac computer. The game centers its focus on the characters, and explores their pain. Rather than a telescope looking outwards, it’s an MRI looking inwards.

Unfortunately, there’s a reason the adventure game genre died, and IHNMAIMS doesn’t break the trend too much.

It’s full of pixel hunts, full of “puzzles” that amount to blind guesses, and the lack of direction means that you cannot solve the game in any logical way. The game conjurs a dreamlike atmosphere, which helps the narrative but poisons the gameplay. A large part of IHNMAIMS consists of wandering around in a daze, clicking on stuff.

One particular point grates: you have to cross a bridge, but it requires a passcode that only Nimdok knows (meaning that there’s an 80% chance you’ll select a character that has no way of getting through that particular point). There’s no way to figure out the passcode, and no way to get past that point. You’ve either made the correct choice previously in the game, or you haven’t. Thanks, guys. Throw a shovelfull of rotting haddock on my desk while you’re at it, to really make my day.

The interface is unintuitive. There’s ample opportunities to “strand” yourself, with no way forward and no way back (and you won’t know this in advance, so your save is now probably useless), and the puzzles are usually completely unclear as to whether you’ve solved them or not. That’s my criticism of IHNMAIMS writ small: there’s never any goddamn feedback when you do something. Are you going the right way? The wrong way? Oh, questions, questions!

Grognards spit upon “The 7th Guest” as not being a true adventure game, but in a way, it got something right. The puzzles were self contained, and had rules that you could follow. You’d beat one, and move on to the next one. Sometimes those puzzles were hard, but you could always understand them. You weren’t wandering around trying to guess what the developers wanted you to do!

So you have a fascinating layer of content, but it’s stuck inside a frequently clunky and frustrating adventure game. Unfortunately, stories improve games far more than games improve stories, and IHNMAIMS is exhibit A in the prosecution’s case.

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Broken Signposts

One of the cool things about hell* is that you’re allowed to break stuff without guilt. Smash the furniture. Write on the walls in your own excrement. Hell is the worst place possible, so anything at all you do there would change it for the better (Like a maximally random jigsaw puzzle could be partially solved by lying on top of it and having a seizure). It’s fun to break stuff, and it’d be a shame to wait until the afterlife to start. Thankfully, I have an incantation that flings the gates of hell wide open:

“Here’s my views on sex and gender.”

Any discussion about sex and gender immediately becomes the worst conversation in the whole world. They all share this status, somehow. Everyone has an opinion, everyone brings emotional baggage to the subject, and nobody ever changes their mind. It is the most shrill, unpleasant, fact-averse topic of discussion on the internet.

That said, if we’re not afraid of breaking thngs…

For complicated reasons, humans have evolved into dimorphic sexes: male and female. Although this is biologically instantiated in our chromosomes, our sex has various outwards signs (bone structure, facial hair, sex organs, etc), which we call a gender.

Why do we need such thing as a gender? Because primitive humans had no way of telling whether someone has XX or XY chromosomes (nor can the average person today) so we needed fairly obvious outwards signs. And it works. Usually you can tell what someone’s sex is without even being aware of what chromosomes are. Diamonds are strictly defined as octahedronal lattices of carbon atoms, but a jeweller doesn’t need to fire up an electron microscope to tell whether something’s a diamond. A diamond leaves outward signs of its own nature.

Sex is the reality, gender is the signal.

But in the case of humans, sometimes the signs don’t match the reality. Sometimes accidents of nature (androgen insensitivity, sexual aphallia) or social choices (Ru Paul’s Drag Race) will leave a male displaying signs of femininity, or vice versa. What do we do in these cases, where the signs don’t match the reality?

Let’s break away from diamonds, and consider ships.

Some ships belong to England, some belong to Spain. To help differentiate them, they fly a flag of the nation that owns them. If you see a ship flying the Union Jack, you assume it belongs to England.

But suppose an English ship takes down the Union Jack, and runs a Spanish flag up the mizzenmast (ie, dressing in drag). What’s changed, exactly? Has it now become a Spanish ship? No. It might confuse other ships into thinking so, but absolutely nothing at the level of reality has changed. It’s still an English ship.

Suppose Queen Elizabeth sells the ship to King Philip (ie, transgenderism). Has it become a Spanish ship?

You can make an argument for or against. It is now subject to Spanish maritime law and can journey into Spain-controlled waters. But there’s a sense in which it’s still not a Spanish ship, and will never be a Spanish ship.

Up until now, I’ve assumed that English ships and Spanish ships are exactly equal, beyond the property of who owns them. That’s not the case for the human sexes. Men tend to be larger and stronger. Women carry more body fat. What if English ships have shallower drafts and narrower hulls, making them better for navigating rivers? And what if Spanish ships have wider beams and more ballast, making them better for navigating oceans? Has Queen Elizabeth selling a ship to King Philip changed anything about the nature of the ship? No, it hasn’t.

Presumeably, if Christopher Columbus asks for a Spanish ship, he doesn’t give a shit what flag is flying on its mast, or what piece of paper belongs to what person. All he wants is a ship that can cross an ocean! If King Philip gives him a purchased English ship, he’s not going to be happy, regardless of who insists it’s now a Spanish ship.

Sadly, I think this is the case for a lot of transgendered folk. Their bodies bear obvious signs of who they were. Women are not normally six feet tall, with hands big enough to palm a basketball. Men are not normally. They can think they’ve changed their gender, and society might decree that they’ve changed their gender, but ultimately, the signs are still in conflict with reality.

The only option is to haul the, hack away and refurbish the hull, so that it kind of looks like a Spanish ship (transsexualism). We cannot do this very convincingly for humans.

*Though it depends on which hell you are formulating. The Bible conceives hell as. Some of these places are dark and cold, others are burning hot. The Islamic hell is more explicitly the latter. “The person who will receive the least punishment among the people of Hell on the Day Resurrection will be a man, a smoldering ember will be placed under the arch of his foot. His brains will boil because of it.” Pure Land Buddhism has many hells you can end up in, the most fearsome of which is Avici. It lasts for trillions of years, and has iron snakes, iron dogs, and iron walls. You can die there but will always be reborn inside. And presumeably you must take a pill, to prove to it that you are cool.

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Super Noah’s Ark 3D

Notorious rip of Wolfenstein 3D with a family-friendly Christian theme. Instead of shooting Nazis, you’re feeding animals. Hitler is a monkey.

If the creators had been more self aware, they would have made it exactly five minutes long, because that’s the point where everyone stops playing. You fire up the game, laugh at its kitschness, and then get bored and play the actual Wolfenstein 3D. It has episodes? And boss fights? What were they thinking? Who the hell cares? It’s like rubbernecking a crash. Fun for a few seconds, but these guys assume you want to spent your whole damned day gawking at a t-boned car.

The game actually plays okay. It has the same mechanics Wolfenstein 3D, and it’s about as enjoyable as Blake Stone or any other clone games that were rushed to market. You’re not chewing your face off while playing it.

But it exposes the problem at the heart of 99% of “ironic” clone games – it’s a setting brutally forced upon a gameplay concept that it has nothing to do with. The Wolfenstein 3D engine was designed for violent first person shooters. You can’t turn it into a religious family friendly game by giving the main character a food pellet gun instead of a pistol. The mismatch between concept and game is stark, and ultimately impossible to ignore. It’s like one of Richard Cheese’s “death metal lounge music” songs, except it was made in deadly seriousness.

The graphics are okay for 1992, not so much for 1994. In a touching nod to the rising grunge genre, the music blows. The slingshot makes an irritating *BOING* sound that drove me to killing my audio altogether. I don’t understand why all the animals have hitscan attacks. I keep dying from across the room for no apparent reason. Goat spit is apparently fatal. Wolfenstein 3D tended to have an overdose of mazes, and so does this one.

There’s little scrolls you pick up that force you to answer Bible trivia questions, the game’s only nod to the dismal “edutainment” genre. Remember the days when you could play the most mindless games possible, but so long as you had to answer a question every now and then your parents thought you were learning?

But despite some endearing qualities, the game’s nonsensical premise deep-sixes it. It’s the same logic that gave us “well, Miley Cyrus is cooler than a bird, so if we make a Flappy Bird clone with Miley Cyrus, it will make the game cooler!” Except Miley Cyrus has zero natural context in the world of Flappy Bird, so congratulations, you’ve made a contradictory clusterfuck. Games and their concepts must actually match.

I call this a “joke game” even though the creators were apparently deadly serious. All the world’s a stage and all the world’s a joke, just some people are just one level deeper than the others. A marriage of form and concept might be possible. I’m thinking of a game where Noah massacres helpless animals with high-powered automatic weapons. Or maybe where BJ Blazkowicz gives snacks to Nazis. Modders of the world, get on this!

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