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Friday, 25 September 2015

I Like It, Butt...

(Disclaimer: This is all personal opinion. I realise I speak from a subjective perspective - and I invite conversation if I step out of line. I also sadly realise that, being a guy, I can get away with saying stuff like what I'm about to say online and face far less abuse than most women would. Which, when you think about it, is hugely fucked up.)

My favourite anime is Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, and I don't like fan service.

Now, anyone who has seen TTGL knows that this is a paradoxical situation. Gainax (creators of the anime) are well known for their fondness of fan service. I'm a big fan of One Piece, too, which is also profligate with it.

The thing is, I don't think this makes me a hypocrite (though others may disagree). I love what TTGL stands for - the spirit of constant adaptation, pushing, driving, never holding back, the shouting and fighting and sheer guts of all those involved. I think that it would be a matter of wilful ignorance to disregard everything I love - the mechs, the scale of the series, the soundtrack - for the fewer things I dislike.

Dad taught me, by negative example, to always give credit where it is due and criticism where it is warranted. Something I like can deserve criticism - something I dislike can earn praise. It's part of being a fair judge of something. You weigh good versus bad and your opinion and thoughts come as a result of the comparison of the two.

I love video games, but I have to acknowledge that Jesus H Gabenclaus, the entire industry and culture is steeped in sexism.

I'm not going to touch Gamergate. That whole snarling fuckball of a mess can stay over there. What I am going to address is a very specific example of video game sexism, and I am fairly sure that almost all of you reading this are going to be familiar with it.

Quiet, from MGSV Phantom Pain.

The moment I saw her in the trailer, I groaned internally. Here it is - one of the most anticipated games of this year (and this is a BIG YEAR), and front and centre is the reason we can't have nice things.

Realism isn't necessarily a Metal Gear trait, but lets address that big fucking elephant first. Which fuckmook thought that a hardened soldier - a sniper no less - would run around a battlefield wearing combat boots, sheer stockings and a matching bikini and thong? Oh yes, and a bit of webbing and gloves, don't forget that. We can acknowledge that Quiet needs to carry things, but we can't acknowledge that she might get SHOT. Also? Using high-calibre accuracy rifles is murder on the shoulder even if you wear padding. If the only thing protecting your bare skin is the strap of a bikini then you're going to draw blood damn near every time you shoot. Skin pink is NOT camouflage, either; legendary ghost-like sniper that drops Soviet officers like other people eat cookies, and she doesn't get camo?

Which takes us onto where things get a bit surreal. There is an apparent (very flimsy) in-game reason that Quiet can't wear clothes. I won't go into the reason why - spoilers - but suffice to say, it is a trait she shares with another character from another installment of the game. Except this other character - being male - appears fully dressed at all times.

Quiet is unfortunately the most recent in a long list of Metal Gear characters that are basically there for fanboys to drool over. There's at least one in every game, sometimes more, and every time I've had the presence of mind to be distinctly embarrassed about the entire affair. Even Sniper Wolf, from the original Metal Gear Solid, had a habit of unzipping her winter camo coat down to her navel - in case we forgot that she was apparently an F-cup or similar.

All of this is such bullshit, in part, because they know they can do better; and they do better with The Boss, from Snake Eater, who is hands-down the coolest character in the entire franchise. The Boss is a certified grade-A badass. She drops people like an X Factor audition hopeful drops notes, fearlessly throws herself into everything she does, makes the ultimate sacrifice for all the right reasons, and is generally speaking everything that the main character strives to be.

She wears combat kit throughout the game, because she's a soldier. THE soldier in fact. The boss of special forces combat, which the entire series is based upon. She manages to escape the blatant sexualisation of the rest...until one scene late-game in which she shows Snake her scar, and once more the Metal Gear cleavage is on display, because we can't get through an entire game without a dash of objectification.

I digress.

In terms of Quiet, we seem to have a character of duality. On the one hand, she is amazingly talented as a buddy - a superb shot, stealthy and deadly. Her AI is coded to make combat decisions and I've found her making smart shots in the middle of a firefight, wherein any other game might see the NPC plinking uselessly at the "closest" target. She fights like a sniper - she fires until her location is untenable, then she relocates to another post, picking whichever position (from a predetermined selection) offers her the best view of the battlefield. She has saved my ass on numerous occasions, made difficult missions easy and made impossible tasks possible.

On the other hand...the way she has been coded to behave toward the player, to wriggle the way she does, to essentially put herself on show for the visual delectation of the player - it's sad. Very, very sad. We could have had another character like The Boss, a superb female soldier that is the equal or better of any of the men running around the place. Instead we got a pin-up, with a paper-thin excuse as to why she wears no clothes, whose way of demonstrating that you work well together is to present to the player like a bonobo. Well done, player. You have earned softcore pornography.

...I mean fuck, is that what we want? Is that really what the marketing guys think appeals? Hell, maybe it is - but not to me. I'm working hard at the moment in-game to earn the poor girl some clothes. She's not the only victim of this apparent disregard for the wardrobe department, either - but I can't talk about the other one without big story spoilers. Suffice to say, you'd at the very least offer the girl a jacket, or a towel, or something. Anybody decent would.

I am enjoying the game, thus far. The actual military-espionage aspect of the gameplay is entertaining, and the plot holes haven't sunk it for me yet. There's just this constant series of niggles - and one of the biggest (though not THE biggest) is Quiet, your most competent and capable ally, engineered as a desperate wank-fantasy.

It's a fucking embarrassment and we can do better. We deserve better, as people and as players. If this truly is a marketing thing - if the companies responsible believe that this is what sells the game - then we need to ask if the kind of people who demand a certain amount of sexual objectification from a game before they will buy it should be the people the game is marketed to. We should ask if that is the gaming scene we want to be a part of.

Speaking personally...I'm getting tired of it. I'm bored of every single game with multiple styalised characters invariably including at least one girl in a state of damn-near undress with proportions that would make Jessica Rabbit green with envy. If any gamer needs fap material, I'm sure the internet can provide it without forcing the content on the rest of us who are just here to play.

More Boss, please - and less butt.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Just Keeps Taking

Depression is a thief.

I've mused on this over the past week. I've had occasional hard times, mentally; now and then, average everyday bollocks has been difficult to surmount. Each time I have come to a similar conclusion.

Depression is a thief that steals a multitude of things from those that it haunts.

It steals time. Minutes, moments. Sometimes entire days. It turns them grey and samey, making them flow together until they are a single indistinguishable mass. It's not that they don't happen; they are just spam time. Void. The bits of the movie that happen off-camera.

It steals opportunities. Chances for career advancement, personal betterment or just plain fun. They can be rendered into hollow victories, hours spent waiting for the other boot to drop. They can be turned into ordeals so horrifying that one questions why one bothered in the first place, turning a positive event into a hugely negative one. That is, if it even lets you go or try at all.

It steals friends and acquaintances. Nobody wants to go and make friends when in the grip of a downswing - and it's hard to do so even if you can work up the wherewithal. It can push people away, too - makes unmissable social events harrowing and untenable, and often, other people's tolerance can be pushed to breaking point.

It steals people - those who don't survive it. Those who are trapped inside their own houses or their own minds. People that could have been our best friends, enriched us, made us better. Snatched away.

It steals dreams. When just getting by each day is hard enough, the notion of the future is a hard one to grasp. It all seems to be so unobtainable.

Depression is a thief.

What's worse is sometimes you don't even know you are being robbed.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Cause, Effect, Regret

As a child I was raised to take responsibility for my actions, something that I take quite seriously today.

No doubt every last one of you reading this blog will be aware of the refugee crisis which has only just gripped the world's media, despite being in the offing for years.

War Of The Worlds - the original 1898 story by H.G. Wells (and thus the musical), not the movies or the radio play - does a wonderful job of detailing the fear, the panic, the hopelessness and the madness of those running for their very lives. Not just running out of the house, or down the street - running without knowing an end goal, running in absolute terror away from certain doom.

Nobody does this on a whim, or by choice. It's totally against human nature to abandon everything that one has built, everything one owns that can't be carried. Also, in this day and age, one can't escape knowing that wherever they end up, they will invariably be treated poorly by at least a proportion of the local population - but even this mistreatment and malignity can't be worse than what they would face if they stayed.

In War Of The Worlds, the cause is very much an external problem - in the biggest way. Martian war machines intent on extinction. A warning from the author about war - wars of extermination, total war, war on an industrial scale. Herbert George was so devastatingly prescient, that 16 years before the First World War and over 40 years before the second, he was already speaking of the terror that would come with such mechanised destruction.

Today, though - today we can't blame invaders from outer space.

The Defence Security and Equipment International exhibition (DSEI for short) is hosted every two years at the Excel Centre in London, in September. It originated from the British Army Exhibition and the British Navy Exhibition, which (after running separately since 1976) were combined in 1993; in 1999 it was privatised.

DSEI is, essentially, one of the world's biggest arms fairs. The scale of the technology and hardware on offer is immense, and includes such articles as "suicide" drones and self-guiding bullets. Armaments of all shapes and sizes line the metaphorical shelves of the exhibition, and a significant proportion of those shopping are from established Middle Eastern governments.

Here and there, one can find indications that those who organise DSEI hope that their goods won't be used for internal repression - though at least once, a couple of companies have been thrown out for setting up stands with electric batons and metal shackles, which have an uncertain usage in a military non-internal fashion. This also seems to imply that it's perfectly okay to deploy an Accuracy International AX50 long-range anti-materiel rifle against anyone outside of your own borders, but shooting your own people with it is a big no-no.

DSEI is only one of the many arms fairs that occur the world over. A quick search reveals over a dozen more. It is reckoned by the SIPRI military expenditure database that the value of the arms trade is over $1.5 trillion a year. To put that in perspective, $1.5 trillion is:

  • More than Australia's $1.44 trillion GDP, making the arms trade the twelfth biggest economy on earth (just behind Canada at $1.77 trillion).
  • Enough to build a thousand top-of-the-line 862 bed hospitals like the Parkland Memorial hospital in Dallas TX.
  • Greater than the estimated value of the entire Premiere League, given each club's individual purchase value as a whole.
  • Enough to buy the 4 biggest cruise liners on earth (Allure Of The Seas, Oasis Of The Seas, Anthem Of The Seas and Quantum Of The Seas) 300 times over.
  • Over two million average London houses - or over five million average UK houses outside of the capital.
  • Sufficient to give every single refugee in the world (60 million approximately) an average UK lifestyle for a year, with change.

That's quite a lot of money.

Am I drawing a connection between the highly valuable nature of arms sales and the current crisis? Well, yes, actually. I genuinely am. The arms industry makes itself fat off the willingness of nations to make war, and refugees flee crisis - crisis such as their nation being attacked by an unrelenting enemy.

Am I suggesting that IS buys all its weapons from DSEI? Not at all. Assad's regime, however - I'd be very surprised to find no guns in their hands that were tendered at a global arms fair. I might also imply that various groups the world over have armed organisations like IS with weapons that they would acquire from the companies selling at events like the DSEI. Remember in Rambo 3, wherein the CIA were selling/giving weapons to the ever-so-brave Afghan mujaheddin in order to combat the evil Russians?

Of course, those US-made Stinger missiles - so crucial for bringing down the Russian HIND helicopters that dominated the Afghan battlefield - got turned on the benefactors when the mujaheddin became the bad guys... short, rich governments with access to weapons have a habit of arming people, either by selling them or through some kind of political deal. Those people, well. They go on to do what they want. Sometimes what they want is evaporating Palmyra and  killing people indiscriminately.

So when good old Ronnie Reagan was talking about trickle-down economics - which has proven to be an excuse to make rich people richer and poor people poorer - perhaps he was talking about how the consequences of our actions will trickle back down to us.

We made money. We made money buying and selling weapons. Weapons are being used to fuel a massed panic flight from the levant; and now, those refugees have turned up in the kind of countries that sell those weapons.

This is the literal trickling down of the investments made in the eighties. Much like the financial crisis of the past decade - this is the seed we have sown, the bed we have made. Or at least, the bed that was made by those making the money selling the weapons and deregulating the financial sector.

As a child I was taught to take responsibility for my actions - to give credit where it is due, and criticism where it is needed. If we as a civilised nation were to profit from the wars and military brutality that has been so endemic across the world in the past three decades, then we as a civilised nation have to shoulder the burdens of those consequences. It's the only decent thing to do.

Of course, the true victory of the profiteers is now, they have a lot of other people singing their same song. Public opinion is on their side, at least in the UK, and that's a fact that actually makes me feel slightly ashamed.

The most successful squadron in the Battle of Britain was Polish. They defended OUR homeland, when we took them in from THEIR homeland after it was invaded. They fought to the death, literally, to defend us. At the end of the war, we hung our heads in shame, and let the Soviets take their homeland away.

I like to think we're better than that, now.

(Of course it bears mention that after WW2 ended we took in record numbers of refugees, and vastly increased public spending despite being in a time of austerity, and we did alright - but that's a factoid that most are happy to ignore.)

Sunday, 6 September 2015

People Writing Songs That Voices Never Shared

Call me a musical elitist but there are some songs that I think people shouldn't cover.

I've found plenty of covers that are better than the originals - "All Along The Watchtower", for example, is a superior Jimi Hendrix cover of a Bob Dylan song (and I bet I know which one you're more familiar with) - but there's plenty more songs which suffer the indignity of a truly shoddy cover.

I don't just mean one of those dance covers - like take the lyrics of the original, have them sung by a different (usually bland and usually female) vocalist, and put a pulsing eurodance beat behind it. There's plenty of those, mind. No, it's the artists that attempt to cover a song in a similar vein to the original...and it badly.

Is it a case of overstretching their limitations? Knowing they'll suck at it but doing it anyway because it's easier than writing something new? Record company manipulation? Actual villainous intent? Who knows - but it happens...and more often than you might think.

Fair warning. The links below may contain awful music.

Look at Alexandra Burke's much-maligned cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" - a song that she admits she never wanted to cover (which possesses an already fully acceptable brace of covers by Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainright). Look at Leona Lewis - a trio of awful covers on one EP, "Iris" (originally by the Goo Goo Dolls), "Colorblind" (originally by Counting Crows) and "Hurt" (originally by Nine Inch Nails, and covered superbly by Johnny Cash). Look at the dire cover of "Under The Bridge" originally by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers as vomited out by All Saints, and the terrible rendition of "American Pie" by Madonna, who needs to apologise to Don McLean.

 I feel I am perhaps picking on the ladies here. So let's even the field. "Tainted Love" - originally played by Gloria Jones, lamentably covered by Soft Cell, and once more regurgitated by Marilyn Manson. Shitcoverception. The My Chemical Romance cover of "Desolation Row" does no justice to the Bob Dylan original. U2 are repeat offenders - "Satellite Of Love" (by Lou Reed) and "Fortunate Son" (by Creedence Clearwater Revival) are two notable offences. And let's not forget Paul Anka, who produced an entire album of swing covers that devastate the originals. Just listen to how he desecrates "Black Hole Sun", and then hear how Soundgarden meant for you to hear it.

I have used some pretty strong language here. Vomiting, desecration, so on. I do feel pretty strongly about the subject, it bears mention - music is very, very important to me. Enough so that hearing a bad cover, to me, produces the same reaction as watching someone smear shit on the Mona Lisa.

All this leads up to me being very cautious, very suspicious even, when it comes to artists recording covers of songs that are already wonderful. You know the songs I'm talking about. Things like "Stairway to Heaven" or "Wish You Were Here". When you find out someone's recorded a cover - you feel antsy. I know I do.

The last track on the new Disturbed album is a cover of "The Sound Of Silence".

I didn't actually know this, as I was listening to it on my break at work. Just plodding through the songs, as they streamed the album on various websites in the week leading up to its release. So I wasn't looking at a track list, when the song began.

Here's the song.

...hearing this was like a religious experience for me.

My skin went into goosebumps. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I shivered. I could do nothing but listen, and I was glad that nobody else was paying attention to just how lost I was to this song.

It hit me in every primal centre. I bet my pupils dilated. I could do literally nothing but listen - and then I went back and listened again. Six times, I listened to that song, between 11 and 5. Six times. Then I went home and listened to it more - and I have listened to it at least once a day since.

In fairness, Disturbed have produced a significant amount of good covers in the past - "Shout" by Tears For Fears, "Land Of Confusion" by post-Gabriel Genesis, "Living After Midnight" by Judas Priest, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" by U2, and more besides. Maybe this one shouldn't have surprised me, but it's one of those songs - one of the ones you should be very careful about covering.

I truly think they did it justice. It's always haunted me, this song - and this cover of it still touches me in the same way that the Simon and Garfunkel original does. David Draiman's voice is a huge contributor to the overall quality of this track, there's something about it, a texture to it that sinks right into your bones and makes you feel what he is saying.

In conclusion...listen to the song. Expose yourself to it. I know it may not touch some people the way it has touched me, but I would beg any of you that read this to at least give it a chance.

After all...silence like a cancer grows. We should fill that silence with music.