The Paratext of Video Games

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The Paratext of Video Games

In the past few years game development has taken some strange, interesting turns. Mostly, but not exclusively, from the indie scene. Games are becoming introspective, inasmuch as they are looking inward at themselves, at the nature of games and play. You could convincingly call it a kind of postmodern turn for game design. We have games like The Stanley Parable (Galactic Cafe, 2013) in which you control a bored but happy office worker who finds himself suddenly alone in his workplace, everyone else having mysteriously disappeared. Stranger still, a narrator starts giving him instructions about navigating through his empty office and the player can either obey or defy him. The game turns into a funny, but disturbing commentary on authorial intention, control and agency. Then we have games like Pony Island (Daniel Mullins Games, 2016), where the game at first seems to be a simple endless runner, but then we find out the real game is about the endless runner’s creator, who appears to be the devil himself, or certainly some kind of evil force. What follows is a battle between you and this manipulative creator as he destroys the game’s menus, makes options unavailable, and wreaks other kinds of metafictional havoc on the player. What these games introduce is a kind of self-awareness and critique of assumptions and expectations we associate with video game design. A lot of great words have been written about these types of games already, so I instead want to say a little about what these games bring to the fore – the paratext surrounding video games.

The paratext of any given text refers to the pieces of information which appear outside of the text, and inessential to it, but which nonetheless participates in and influences our reception of the text. For instance, the paratext of a novel would be the novel’s title, the author’s name, the synopsis on the back cover, chapter titles, publication details, cover art etc. In other words, the paratext is that which appears marginal to the experience of the text, but actually provides a significant network of ideas around which our approach to the text is shaped. Gérard Genette popularised the term and idea, and provides a helpful definition for both text and paratext:

The literary work consists, exhaustively or essentially, of a text, that is to say (a very minimal definition) in a more or less lengthy sequence of verbal utterances more or less containing meaning. But this text rarely appears in its naked state, without the reinforcement and accompaniment of a certain number of productions, themselves verbal or not, like an author’s name, a title, a preface, illustrations. One does not always know if one should consider that they belong to the text or not, but in any case they surround it and prolong it, precisely in order to present it (Genette and Maclean, 1991: 261).

So the paratext threatens the borders of the text, questions what can be included and what is to be excluded – the paratext is both absent and present. Genette suggests that its presence performs the function of presenting the text, a kind of threshold through which to welcome, guide, prepare, or perhaps warn the reader. The text cannot be entered without first encountering the paratext, and this is why Genette stresses the importance of the paratext for any kind of textual analysis. To show the far-ranging implications of paratexts he only has to ask one simple question: ‘reduced to its text alone and without the help of any instructions for use, how would we read Joyce’s Ulysses if it were not called Ulysses? (Genette and Maclean, 1991: 262). The title for Joyce’s epic dominates a lot of the discourse surrounding the novel. It is not difficult to imagine how the critical reception for Ulysses may have been different if Joyce didn’t choose the Greek hero’s name for the title of his novel. But looking at paratexts isn’t about dwelling on the myriad possibilities and ‘what ifs’ of what could have been; it’s about asking how these seemingly external elements contribute to and facilitate our understanding of the texts.

So what exactly would constitute the paratexts of video games? Are there any? Well, there’s the obvious ones they share with literature, namely titles, art work, the name of the artists/development team, publisher etc. You can find them all on the box containing the game (at least for those who still consume this way; I’ve resigned myself to the reign of the digital). But there’s other types of paratexts unique to video games, those that exist within the text of the game itself, not just within the box that presents it (or in the opening credits of the game text which repeats the box). These paratexts break up gameplay (and other content where gameplay is absent, like cinematic custscenes) and constitute the spaces in-between the player’s main interaction with the game. I’m thinking here of main menus/title screens, loading screens, pause menus, and even tutorials, though I realise that to include the latter would be to contradict, or at least qualify the earlier statement that these paratexts involve a break from gameplay. Yet tutorials are both inside and outside the game text; the player controls an avatar usually in a kind of play/test area separate from the game world, or more interestingly, within the game world itself, in which case the tutorial forms part of the narrative. The latter case makes it difficult to place tutorials in the category of paratext, because if the very act of learning gameplay controls falls in line with the character’s narrative of growth, the tutorial slides from the paratextual into the textual. Some loading screens face similar problems. For instance, many loading screens now give the player snippets of information, whether it’s related to the narrative and the world, or if it’s gameplay tips to help the player navigate the game space. In the latter, we can convincingly call these paratexts, but for the former, especially when these narrative snippets are allegedly derived from ancient scrolls or from the transcription of a song—sources based within the game world—they can’t easily be slotted into the framework of the paratext. Are maps within video games paratextual in the same way they are in a lot of fantasy literature? Or do they exist as an ever-present, integral component in the game world?  As you can see, video game paratext is just as problematic to define, if not more, than the paratext within (or outside) literature. What I want to do here, though, is look at some game paratexts that I particularly enjoy, whose function perhaps reaches further than a simple interface allowing the player to start the game, pause it, load it, or learn it.

The main menu, which is to say, the menu from which you choose to begin a new playthrough of the game or continue a previously saved file, is usually just that, a flashy but uninteresting title card interface used to offer the player this choice.

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The main menu in Final Fantasy VII (Sony, 1997), however, presents a peculiarly minimalistic main menu which I think performs several functions. First of all, the title doesn’t appear anywhere, though it has already made a faint appearance in the opening credits sequence preceding the main menu. Secondly, a strange looking sword placed in the middle of a black background; we don’t know who it belongs to or what it might represent. Thirdly, there’s no music accompanying the menu, even though there was music during the credits sequence – the famous arpeggio backed, melancholic anthem of the game. These three components—a lack of title, a mysterious sword, and no music—present the uninitiated player with several impressions of what this game could possibly be. Now you might think I’m being very hypothetical here, imagining a player unfamiliar with the cultural phenomenon of FFVII, but my first encounter with the game was almost as innocent as what I’m describing here. I learned about the game by watching a friend play a little bit of it, was instantly fascinated, bought it soon after. And although I’d seen the actual game in play, I still had little to no idea about its plot, the characters, the gameplay mechanics etc. All I had was the spectacle of the aesthetic, and that was all I needed.

But to return to the oblivious player, FFVII’s naked, stripped down main menu creates a specific kind of allure for the player which might have been lost if it was presented differently. Even the capitalisation of the ‘NEW GAME’ suggests the scope of creating a new save file, that doing so is not the same undertaking as beginning a new game of, say, Candy Crush or Super Mario Bros. The strange, fat width of the sword positions the game somewhere between sci-fi and fantasy, and its isolation in the menu not only hints towards the player’s use of this weapon, but also towards the significance of the weapon as a symbol. The narrative follows Cloud, the sword’s wielder, a young man whose masculinity is wounded quite severely when he is rejected from the specialist military unit called SOLDIER. Several other things happen to Cloud which make him assume the personality of someone who was a 1st class member of SOLDIER, a delusion which cures and fulfils his masculine ideals. The big, fat, heavy sword is thus a symbol for overcompensation, and this finds clear expression in the battles where Cloud’s more detailed animation model shows the comical image of skinny arms carrying this ludicrously hefty sword (at least until the player replaces it with a different weapon). So there’s one example of a seemingly insignificant paratextual component informing and contextualising a wider game text.

I can think of other title screens that are the exact opposite of the minimalist aesthetic used for FFVII, but are no less expressive for it. Consider the main menu of the ultraviolent indie shooter Hotline Miami (Devolver Digital, 2012), a game which revels in its manic, unthinking acts of massacre. Set in sunny Miami in the late 80s, the player controls an unnamed character who receives anonymous, cryptic instructions which usually always involve mass murder. The game’s hazy neon visuals and the sharp, overproduced pop reminiscent of the 80s, creates a kind of drug-addled experience as the player controls this crazed avatar who desperately commits consecutive mass murders. The main menu captures the essence of the game quite perfectly.

The title shows up in Russian (the game’s enemy is the Russian mob), which to unassuming eyes simply looks like words printed backwards. The title, and the multiple options below, slowly sway from side to side in a lazy state of instability. The ‘Start Game’ option repeatedly becomes out of focus in a distortion of violet neon. Palm trees switching hues between shades of purple, red, pink and white flank the screen as they pass steadily into the edges of the front of the screen, simulating a drive down a road in Miami. As if this wasn’t trippy enough, the music played alongside this is a mellow, psychedelic track, and the singer’s reverb soaked drawls make it all but impossible to discern the lyrics. All these elements create a surreal and disorienting title screen which works to convey the unstable mental condition of the avatar and the anarchic sense of morality contained within the game’s action.

Loading screens, arguably even more ephemeral than title screens, can also serve purposes beyond the base function of allowing games time to load their game worlds. Most loading screens, especially lengthy loading screens, are experiences to be endured by impatient players waiting to enter the game world. Sometimes, however, this time is appreciated in loading screens. Bloodborne (Sony, 2015), for example, featured a noticeably long loading screen in its launch state, and was later optimised for a quicker speed. While most players were more than happy about a revamped loading screen (the art design changed too, from a black background superimposed with the game’s title, to a dark blue background with helpful descriptions of items and other pieces of narrative), some players actually mourned its loss because for them it was useful for their game experience. Mark Serrels describes how he gradually developed a fondness for the original loading screen:

To begin with I didn’t notice. Then I noticed. Then I became frustrated. Then I learned to endure them. Then I became indifferent. Then, at some point […] I began convincing myself that this purely technical failure was an actual good thing that enhanced the Bloodborne experience. […] the loading screens allowed you a moment to relax, a moment to ‘think about what you just did’, to consider the reason for your death and come back stronger’ (Serrels, 2015).

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In Bloodborne, as in most FromSoft games, the fail state is encountered at a rate most players would agree is frustrating. Of course, the challenge is part of the appeal of these games. After death you face the waiting room of the loading screen, long and unadorned, but a space that also offers time to reflect and regroup. Perhaps the blank art design isn’t lazy, but rather deliberately empty so as to avoid clouding the player’s mind with other distracting thoughts. Serrels even suggests that the long waiting times could have been set in place to force the player to avoid ‘fast travel’ between checkpoints (an event which activates a loading screen), encouraging the player to explore on foot. Whether FromSoft had these intentions in mind when launching the original version is up for debate, because while it seems doubtful that any developer would deliberately include longer than necessary loading times, I wouldn’t put it past a playfully sadistic developer like FromSoft. In any case, Bloodborne’s loading screen history shows how such a seemingly trivial, paratextual component of game design can be used strategically, to guide and influence the experience of play in the wider, textual game world.

Video game analysis should then take care to attend to these small pieces of code, because if we ignore the paratextual components in game texts we risk overlooking important parts of design which, though small and unremarkable, nonetheless contribute to our experience of the larger game text.

Works Cited

Daniel Mullins Games, 2016. Pony Island, video game, Microsoft Windows.

Devolver Digital, 2012. Hotline Miami, video game, Microsoft Windows.

Galactic Café, 2013. The Stanley Parable, video game, Microsoft Windows.

Gennete, Gérard, and Marie Maclean, 1991. ‘Introduction to the Paratext.’ New Literary History, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 261-272.

Serrels, Mark, 2015. ‘I’m Gonna Miss Bloodborne’s Loading Screens’ in Kotaku. http://www.kotaku.com.au/2015/04/im-gonna-miss-bloodbornes-loading-screens/ [last accessed 24.2.17]

Sony, 1997. Final Fantasy VII, video game, Playstation.

Sony, 2015. Bloodborne, video game, Playstation 4.

 

 

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Best Records of 2016

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Best Records of 2016

I thought this list would be bigger because I remember constantly thinking to myself that this year was incredible for music, and it was, but I’m now realising those thoughts probably repeated themselves halfway through the year. I started back at uni in September so I kind of lost touch with all the new releases from that point onwards. Having said that, you’re never going to get around to every noticeable album released in the year so the ones you do get around to and invest time in are the ones you were probably going to really like anyway, and place on an arbitrary list.

Apparently vinyl sales took over digital sales this year. The implications of this are interesting. Does this mean vinyl isn’t cool anymore? Has my stupid, pretentious hobby been breached? Was it ever cool? I don’t know, but I reckon I’m singlehandedly responsible because I bought more records this year than I have in all the years before (though only four released this year, so far). The domination of music streaming services is changing the game too, with some artists releasing albums only on streaming platforms (Chance the Rapper’s Colouring Book), and others releasing them exclusively to one streaming service (Beyoncé’s Lemonade), so the aggressive resurgence of vinyl exists alongside the new digital giants of Spotify, Tidal, etc. Strange times, but what I’m really getting at is that I wish Beyoncé would release Lemonade on vinyl already. A yellow one, specifically.

Below are the albums I enjoyed most over the course of the year (not ranked; I tried and failed), but I’ve included another list of stuff I’ve heard only recently and would like to revisit.

Anohni – Hopelessness

Never has anger sounded so graceful and delicate. This is the power of Anohni’s incredible, deep crooning voice. A voice which asks to be blown away by drone bombs (‘Blow my head off / Explode my crystal guts’), to see the earth crumble before ecological catastrophe (‘I wanna see this world / I wanna see it boil’), to be observed at all times by the intensified surveillance technology threatening our privacy (‘Watch me watching pornography / Watch me talking to my friends and family’). All delivered with bitter irony, Anohni’s voice is the one of someone resigning to the fact that all these horrors will go on and on unless some kind of cataclysmic force of opposition brings about the possibility for change. This all sounds terribly grim, and it is, but it’s all rendered through the grandiose bombast of pop. Co-produced by Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never (the latter’s Garden of Delete record was one of my favourites from last year), the sound of this record is massive, with brooding bass, glittering synths, intrusions of acoustic instrumentation, booming industrial percussion. It’s a protest record that matches big ideas with a big sound; I’ve found myself in the strange situation of bobbing my head joyously to a song about capital punishment. The music videos accompanying some of these songs are really disturbing, even though it’s always just a woman (young, old, black, white) looking at the camera and lip-syncing the lyrics. Maybe it’s because it feels like they’re singing from the point after the world has been defeated by us, a kind of post-apocalyptic appraisal.

I only discovered Anohni when my girlfriend sent me a link about an article because it mentioned Radiohead. It was an article about the resurgence of music dealing with green issues, and Radiohead were certainly mentioned, but it was mostly about Anohni. Chance encounters are the best.

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

Radiohead have been one of my favourite bands since I was a stupid teenager. Though at that time the crown was worn by Muse, and I hate to bring up that old and meaningless comparison, but I remember telling a friend that ‘I like Radiohead, but they aren’t as heavy as Muse!’ In many ways this was to predict the trajectory of both bands in my music listening life. While Muse pursued their flamboyant, grand sound to the point of self-parody, Radiohead were busy experimenting with new landscapes of sound, incorporating the fragmented, syncopated beats and swirling synths of electronic music, making experimental but tight records like Kid A and Amnesiac. This new sound reached its peak with In Rainbows, and though The King of Limbs was seen as a disappointment by many, I think of it as the softer, introspective brother of the former.

I bring up this comparison because not only are Radiohead refusing to stagnate, but they don’t let Thom Yorke’s politics become preachy. Matt Bellamy, on the other hand, well, one of Muse’s songs from Drones (the album’s actually called Drones) repeats the refrain ‘killed by drones’ in a cover of a hymn written in the Renaissance. Sigh. All of which is to say that Radiohead’s new record A Moon Shaped Pool is an exercise in understatement, both musically and lyrically. ‘Burn the Witch’ could easily have been another ‘Bodysnatchers’ with distorted guitar riffs but instead they choose to use an army of screeching strings smacking the strings with bows. Alright, that’s not the best example of being understated, but it’s nonetheless an experimental way to approach a song that could easily have been a more conventional, but no less powerful, opener. It’s also about McCarthyism but doesn’t repeat ‘killed by lynching’ throughout the whole song.  ‘The Numbers’ touches on Yorke’s preoccupation with environmentalism, rallying the masses, but in the most poetic way (‘The numbers don’t decide / The system is a lie / A river running dry’). It’s hard to even focus on the lyrics in this song because of Jonny Greenwood’s distracting, beautiful yet erratic string arrangement. The centrepiece of the album, at least for me, is ‘Ful Stop’. Using a mean bass groove as a foundation, other sounds build upon it until it feels like it’s reaching boiling point and then Yorke meets the crescendo with a high-pitched refrain of ‘All the good times’. It’s a special moment, and I interpret the lyrics similarly to what Anohni is doing with this kind of distant retrospective look at what’s happened (‘You really messed up everything / If you could take it all back again’). The closer, ‘True Love Awaits’, is a dreamy rendition of a song that first appeared in live performances way back in the 90s. Some prefer the live version, saying it’s more raw and expressive when it’s just Thom and his acoustic guitar. I love both, the new one only adds to the fragility and melancholy of the original.

So, A Moon Shaped Pool is worth a listen, even if you don’t like all the weird directions they’ve taken before.

David Bowie – Blackstar

David Bowie has been one of my wee heroes since I started really listening to him when I was, I dunno, 16? 17? I remember way earlier than that when I saw the music video for Space Oddity, I think, on one of those now defunct music video channels on TV. I was a little freaked out, I didn’t know if he was a man or a woman, I couldn’t slot him into comprehension, so I switched over the channel or something. Of course, that’s precisely the point with Bowie, breaking boundaries, complicating borders, aggressively interrogating the self. 16 or 17 year old me was probably having some teenage identity crisis, maybe along the lines of ‘my hair’s too big, now my hair’s too short, my hair’s too big again, now it’s too short again; who am I?’, and Bowie was there to comfort, to say ‘your hair’s shit either way, enjoy life!’ or something. The point is, he looked weird, acted weirder, made music appropriating several different genres, made careers for others, and so was something of an inspiration to me. When he died, it was the first time I’d ever experienced genuine shock at a celebrity death, the man who fell to earth left it, but did so with the most beautiful farewell.

Blackstar was released two days before his death, so everyone started to see these morbid hints in the lyrics. ‘Look up here / I’m in heaven’ from ‘Lazarus’. ‘On the day of execution’ from ‘Blackstar’. ‘I’m trying to / I’m dying to’ in ‘Dollar Days’. Death permeates the record, it was all so obvious. But what a way to go out. It’s easily one of the most accomplished Bowie recordings in his whole career. The brooding 10-minute opener is a sinister, troubling dirge with a bridge so unexpectedly and wonderfully funky you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s another song. The sombre, melancholic beauty of Lazarus, with its lamenting strings and horns, or the frenetic bursts of the two newly arranged versions of the songs ‘Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)’ and ‘Tis a Pit She Was a Whore’. It’s a jazz club in the middle of a desert in hell, and I visit it quite regularly. You should too.

Mitski – Puberty 2

Mitski popped up in one of my Discover Weekly playlists on Spotify. The song was ‘Happy’, where the singer muses about unhappiness by personifying happiness (‘Happy came to visit me, he bought cookies on the way / I poured him tea and he told me it’ll be all okay’). So far, so depressive. And with song titles like ‘I Bet on Losing Dogs’ and ‘My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars’ you’d be forgiven for not wanting to listen to it. But though Mitski’s confronting bleak and vulnerable emotions, the music isn’t as downhearted as that might suggest. It’s part shoegaze, part dream pop/rock, and on ‘My Body is Made of Crushed Little Stars’, flat out punk. Her voice is both tender and urgent, you need only listen to the great grunge anthem ‘Your Best American Girl’ to confirm that. It’s instrumental makeup is sparse with electronic and acoustic guitars dominating, with the occasional synth layer in the background, and a saxophone at the end of ‘Happy’. But it’s a compact, tuneful and often beautiful 30 minutes.

Xenio Rubinos – Black Terry Cat

Hip-hop, soul, funk, and R&B all collide in this wonderful album by Xenia Rubinos. Her voice is awe-inspiring, flying in all sorts of directions, whether its rhythmically whizzing by in a quasi-rap, or making its way through soaring high pitched patterns to lower drawls. This is an album whose focus is the playful possibilities of the voice. But that’s not to ignore the funk fuelled instrumentals in the background, simple yet quirky arrangements which do their job providing beats upon which Xenia plays her rhythmic games. The lyrics look at the experience of blackness, immigration, gender, and other important things all dissected by that formidable voice.

Beyonce – Lemonade

Alright, I need to approach this carefully. I don’t want to say something like, ‘Beyoncé finally releases something worth listening to, relinquishing the manufactured, dull R&B she’s known for’, because, well, I’ve not actually listened to all her albums before. But there’s certainly something about Lemonade that appeals to me more than any of the other stuff has. Maybe it’s the ‘visual film’ that originally accompanied it. I saw it floating around on Facebook and started watching it, for what I thought would be two minutes or something, but I couldn’t stop. I watched more than half of it before I had to assert my will and get on with whatever else I was doing. But it was entrancing, the visual splendour of it all, this woman who within the film felt like a mythological being. And, of course, the music. Inviting the assistance of many acclaimed producers and musicians (don’t get me started on the multiple stupid memes mourning the loss of the pure genius of the single person, Beck and Queen aren’t even that good), Beyoncé creates a dazzling collection of songs ranging from minimalist R&B to angry rock to grand pop anthem to country. Okay, the country song I can do without. But it shows the creative possibilities she was playing with when making this. I don’t want to go over the controversial context of the album’s release because you’re probably familiar with it anyway, and I don’t care whether any of it’s true or not; I just hope she has more projects like this planned for the future.

Cavern of Anti-Matter – void beats / invocation trex

If krautrock had a baby with electricity. I’ve not listened to Stereolab much, but maybe I should considering how much I love this record. Tim Gene’s new project creates a world of old synths and propelling percussion to pump out a groovy, strange, spacy sound. It feels like you’re in a detective film set on a different planet, but made in the 80s and destined to become a cult classic. It’s great fun and has some beautiful moments amongst all the frenzied grooves.

Vulfpeck – The Beautiful Game

Only discovered this band this year. They’re quite odd. At first, when I heard ‘Dean Town’, I thought they were just an instrumental group jamming out meaty funk. But they also make upbeat soul music, and it’s funky too. ‘Animal Spirits’ is a modern Jackson 5 tune, and ‘Conscious Club’ is probably the best alarm clock song you could pick – because it’s infectiously fun and happy and well, it’s called ‘Conscious Club’. It’s one of those ‘if you’re feeling crap, this might cheer you up’, or ‘if you’re already okay, this will make you ecstatic’ records. Something needed in these troubled, confusing times.

Brian Eno – The Ship

The king of ambient and other art noise things returns with a cool, meditative voyage (sorry) into dreamy, yet unsettling oceans of sound. I admire those who make ambient music because anyone who can make albums of droning sounds that can function both as background noise and as something interesting to actively listen to, those people are impressive. Despite what many think, making ambient music is not as simple as holding one button for an hour long (though that’s certainly one way to go about it). And Eno shows this once again on The Ship, where various different synths are placed carefully and delicately next to others, creating beautiful textures you could swim in. What’s unusual about this record is that Eno’s voice makes an appearance, a deep, somnolent bass guiding the other sounds. It’s a really interesting and unexpected addition to what Eno usually does, and I more than welcome it. It’s less like a voice than it is a didgeridoo at some points, so it’s really just another strange synth in a world of strange synths. Also, there’s a great cover of The Velvet Underground’s ‘I’m Set Free’.

Honourable Mentions

Rihanna – Anti

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

Bon Iver – 22, A Million

Angel Olsen – MY WOMAN

Frankie Cosmos – Next Things

Dinosaur Jr. – Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not

Mica Levi & Oliver Coates – Remain Calm

Discover Weekly Gems #1 – The Leanover by Life Without Buildings

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Discover Weekly Gems #1 – The Leanover by Life Without Buildings

Spotify’s Discover Weekly feature is doing all the hard work for me. Before it I would have to rummage through the quiet, obscure alleys of the internet for something new, fresh, weird or none of those things, maybe just some new or old pop. These adventures might prove successful and I’d come back with plenty of new precious stones. Other times it would be to no avail, encountering the same uninteresting or vapid musical iterations I wanted to avoid. In both situations, and to extend this metaphor to its absurd limits, I’d come back to home soil sweating and exhausted, rewarded or punished for my little excursions into the depths of the internet’s exotic islands and caves. But now, with Spotify’s neat music recommendation system, I can reap all the rewards (or still leave empty handed) without having to do all the hard, dirty work. What’s so impressive about it is its difference from other, similar recommendation algorithms. Last.fm’s radio, Spotify’s own genre and artist based radios, or any generic ‘IF You Love X, You’ll Love Y’ lists are always (or have been for me) disappointingly shallow.

Discover Weekly creates a playlist containing 2 hours of music it thinks you might dig, and I’ve yet to be disappointed by it after using it for around two months now. The algorithm is sophisticated and deep as it responds to your feedback (if you skip a song, save another) by moulding new playlists each week, constantly refining its choices. What’s truly great is how many unknown artists and bands pop up, it’s always a delight discovering and enjoying something new. And in the spirit of that, I may as well start chronicling some of the lesser known gems I’ve come across in my more leisurely, one-click travels.

 

The Leanover by Life Without Buildings is at once a wonderful, melancholy and triumphant piece of music. It occupies a space somewhere between post-punk and emo, pretty chords steadily guiding the song along but giving way to the true force leading the piece – Sue Tompkins’s incredible, rhythmic talk-singing. Tompkins sounds like a little girl, petulantly and defiantly addressing the world in her own terms, bending language in ways which make the listener immediately question which words are actually being said/sang. For instance, the recurring lyric in the beginning sounds like ‘if I lose you in the street’, but after several repetitions is begins to sound like ‘illusion street’ or even ‘evolution street’. What I thought was ‘high heels’ a lyric website has interpreted as ‘high hills’. She’s clearly interested in the rhythmic possibilities of language, but not in the same way that hip-hop is. It’s improvisational, doesn’t always hit the beat the way you expect, and there’s certainly no attempt at structuring verse or chorus. Words seem to be there less for their content than for their form. She even inserts some French (‘je danse je suis’) because it flows well. As for whatever the song ‘means’, I don’t know, but it feels like a hopeful, optimistic anthem against something large and sinister. Its title, ‘The Leanover’, creates a submissive image, as if referring to a repressive act or state of being, and maybe the singer/speaker Is symbolically standing up? I’m not sure, but they’re also from Glasgow, and I’m embarrassed to be discovering this gem from 2001 only now.

Everyday Horror: Clown Around the Corner

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As I was walking up from the train station at night, through the long, steep and winding path back to my house I was a little scared not only because it was night (with the deep shadows lurking in the woods flanking the path), but because I was warily anticipating the appearance of that most disturbing of creatures, the clown. The recent clown craze has created an atmosphere of paranoid hysteria, first in the States, then in Britain, and apparently now in Australia (at least that’s what I think is the chronology, but I’ve seen differing reports). What is going on? What does this mean? Most news outlets refer to it as ‘clown pranks’, a practice of scaring and intimidating people (mostly children) with creepy costumes and threatening behaviour. ‘Prank’, however, feels inaccurate. Pranks usually have an element of comedy, even when the main intent Is to scare someone – after the scare the victim quickly acknowledges the lack of danger/their own safety, and it’s laughed off. These clown sightings, though? No laughing matter. Children are traumatised, parents are paranoid, schools are shaken, police departments are taking action. Framing these events as ‘pranks’ suddenly seems wildly inappropriate.

So what could this mean? Is it a craze proliferated by social media? Most definitely. Do these people want to send any kind of message, political or otherwise? I’m not sure. Is this just a new form of delinquency? Perhaps, but that kind of anti-social behaviour is usually practiced in groups, the familiar and dreadful mob of ‘hoodies’ Cameron so eagerly wanted to hug. The clown craze is something altogether more unsettling, more horrifying than a group of threatening boys or girls. At least gangs can be explained; there is a simple logic of rebellion and power at work. But with the single, companionless clown? What possesses you to go out alone? What are you thinking as you stroll aimlessly at night? Why are you doing this? There lurks a mystery about the clown that’s absent in the traditional gang; and considering there’s more footage of gangs of people ‘hunting’ and attacking clowns, it creates a neat image of the rational violently suppressing the irrational. The ‘irrationality’ of it touches on why they are scary. It’s not just the anonymity and the grotesque exaggerations of the mask, it’s the horrible lack of context surrounding their presence. The horror of the clown derives from the absence of its proper context – amusement at a birthday party or a circus/carnival. The ridiculous juxtaposition of a clown costume and the woods near somewhere you live is jarring, especially if they are carrying a weapon. There exists an unreality behind them, that though we know them to be human, our brains can’t quite process this wholly.

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So, why does this fascinate me? Probably because we’re not talking about a horror film or game, but real life. At least in fiction we can analyse the design and intentions behind the horror, but not so much here. Are these people a collective? Do they share motives? Or is this a differentiated practice? Is it just a new pastime for bored teenagers? I wonder what China Miéville thinks of this phenomenon, considering he gave a talk on ‘Marxism and Halloween’ back in 2013 discussing the commodification of Halloween, and how it should be reclaimed for socialists. He talks about the value of fear and dread which can be used to conceive alternative futures, and how Halloween in its current form neuters these possibilities: ‘This is about the domestication of dread; the whole point of the model of dread that is constitutive of human consciousness is that it is ultimately ineffable, it cannot be quite contained’ (Miéville, 1013). I’m not sure if he would see any potentiality in the clown craze (especially when he later claims slasher films and torture porn films are not true horror), but I reckon he would have something interesting to say. They certainly are inspiring genuine dread.

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Maybe the clowns from Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus (1984) can help. These clowns, sitting themselves to dinner, ‘possessed the formal lifelessness of death masks, as if, in some essential sense, they themselves were absent from the repast and left untenanted replicas behind’ (Carter, 116) So far, so creepy. It further confirms the idea of the clown as something which shifts between the real and unreal, and in this case between life and death. An even creepier description of the clowns comes from a conversation they have which suggests the autonomy of the clown mask:

Sometimes it seems […] that the faces exist of themselves, in a disembodied somewhere, waiting for the clown who will wear them, who will bring them to life. Faces that wait in the mirrors of unknown dressing-rooms, unseen in the depths of the glass like fish in dusty pools, fish that will rise up out of the obscure profundity when they spot the one who anxiously scrutinises his own reflection for the face it lacks, mean-eating fish waiting to gobble up your being and give you another instead (Carter, 122)

I think this haunting description applies to any form of identity creation. If we adopt postmodern conceptions of the self, then we’re always inspecting our own reflection for the face we lack, filling up this interminable void with a multiplicity of personae (but that’s a different discussion). As for the clowns, what void is this filling? Is there a ‘disembodied somewhere’ creating the real life clowns? Which Is to say, are there any overarching implications about this craze? I don’t know, but I do know that I’m strangely interested in this surreal rupture of the real which seems to be gaining global traction (although, like most crazes on social media, will be transient). For now, though, I feel like we’re currently living inside a J.G. Ballard novel, those worlds where bored, frustrated communities dip into a collective id – only now it’s in costume.

 

Bibliography

Carter, Angela. 1984, Nights at the Circus (Picador: London)

Miéville, China, 2013, ‘Marxism and Halloween’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=paCqiY1jwqc

Leisure as Labour?

Do you ever find the things you do for fun cease to be fun? Or, to put it another way, does your leisure ever become a task, a thing to complete, a chore to endure? If this sounds like the beginning of a self-help book it’s because I’ve never done this before, give me a chance. Maybe not. Maybe your leisure is safely well-adjusted and the demarcation between the two (labour/leisure) is stable. But several recent experiences of my own leisure and observations of the experiences of others’ forces me to call into question the relationship between labour and leisure, work and play. The best and probably the most alarming example would come from video games and their players. Gaming is one of the most popular leisure activities right now, and it’s associated (often negatively) with pure, cathartic play. The act of reading literature, while leisurely, has an air of intellectual sophistication that is presumed absent in the (‘thoughtless’) play of video games (although this perception has changed dramatically in the last few years, and the detractors continue to become old-fashioned and reactionary). Nevertheless, video games are still seen as an unproductive and wasteful diversion – the ultimate of leisure. But a recent phenomenon (as I like to think of it, anyway) has turned this situation quite perversely on its head.

There are a number of players who are quite obsessed with completion, whether that refers to the simple completion of any given game’s narrative, levels, stages, etc, or whether that refers to the more extreme and dedicated endeavour to collect achievements (a list of tasks set up by the developer which players might not usually consider doing). These achievements, once earned, pop up on the player’s screen with the triumphant notification of its completion. It’s not difficult to imagine how intoxicating this can be. So much so, in fact, that there are players who devote considerable amounts of time to the task of gaining ‘100%’ completion of  games. The amount of time and effort put into this completionist practice is such that the idea of playing these games as a leisurely reprieve from forms of labour becomes disturbingly unconvincing. Many players often express their frustration and boredom with this task, justifying their dire experience by thinking of the reward – 100%.

To me, this has unsettling implications about the structure of our leisure. Because this doesn’t just apply to those achievement fanatics, but to any player who’s ever had the urge to complete certain unattractive sidequests soley for the sense of conquering that particular part of the game’s code; it applies to readers slogging through a novel they dislike thoroughly because they can’t quit before seeing the life-affirming 100% on their Kindle; to those who cringe at skipping filler, mediocre songs on an album they love because to do so is to listen incompletely. If leisure shows signs of labour, then labour can dangerously mix aspects of leisure in sinister ways (although ‘leisure’ now, in this particular circumstance, is so precariously dialectic that the distinction bears little meaning). Consider the recent ‘gamification’ of marketing strategies, where consumers are rewarded with points (achievements?) for their loyalty, or when businesses ‘motivate’ their workers by setting up game-like feedback systems in which employees earn rewards (a Twix? Please, infantilise me more). In these situations, ‘completing the game’ becomes ‘being a loyal consumer’ or ‘being a loyal employee’ which, of course, is incredibly fun for the businesses, but for you? Well, as long as there’s a free cup of coffee after the 10 paid cups, or a Twix, who could complain?

So, returning back to the players themselves, why do they do this? Well, one answer is that the challenge, despite its often debilitating effects, is genuinely fun. I can believe this. There’s a reason why the masochistic play of Dark Souls became a phenomenon. And yet I know people who buy games they are not even particularly interested in because they include a short and easy list of achievements – in other words, a quick fix. Or people who play a game well beyond the point of enjoyment (genuine fun) simply to reach 100%. To me, this suggests the influence of a deeper framework. Another answer to the ‘why’ of obsessive completion is the fact that the virtues of completion and progression derive from the humanist ideals of the Enlightenment era. These values, despite the myriad historical disasters undermining them, still pervade our society. So that the desire to convert the unknown into the known (a kind of completion) is not dissimilar to the aggressive pursuit of 100%. That is, the ideal of the known world (a world subjected to or enslaved by complete ‘knowledge’), with the accompanying assumptions about the linear progression of humankind, is an ideal which comforts and encourages those chasing the 100%. It can be complete. I can be master. I dominate this space. In this context, the player is a kind of coloniser of the game world. And the capitalist assumptions which naturally develop from humanist, colonialist values are visible too: a player, rationalising his 100% obsession, once said ‘I just like to see the numbers go up’.

I’m not saying these players, or any other consumers with similar approaches to leisure media, are mindless, brainwashed droids. What I’m saying is that this behaviour, more than a quirk of personality or a form of OCD, is a symptom of something much larger.