Skip to content

Truth, Justice and Samurai Robots

My immediate response upon hearing that Warner Bros’ Superman reboot both existed and was going to be a retelling of the origin story was: “if you don’t know the drill with the Blue Boy Scout’s origin story by now, then you clearly just crawled out of a crashed alien spaceship in the middle of Kansas.” Well, okay, my immediate response featured a lot more incoherent cursing and acidic phlegm-sprays than that, but you get the idea. Everyone knows Superman. Everyone knows Krypton and Smallville and the Kents and Lois Lane. It’d be like making another origin story film for Spider-Maoh wait.

The news hasn’t really gotten much better since then. We’ve got a teaser trailer for Hobo of Steel that didn’t exactly set my underpants on fire, and a relative unknown in the lead role (no, I am not going to watch The Tudors. You actually can set my underpants on fire, and I still won’t watch The Tudors). The only real upside, I thought, was that we wouldn’t have to edit out Brandon Routh’s package in post-production[1].

But hey, quite apart from the fact that Christopher Nolan is producing, Zack Snyder is directing. And the more I think about it, the more I become genuinely interested to see how this turns out.

You see, ‘interesting’ is the right word here. Zack Snyder as director is a very interesting choice for WB to make. Not like Coen brothers interesting, where you have no idea what twisted piece of performance art they’ll spit out, or Michael Bay interesting, where the production team had spontaneous epileptic fits while filling out the director’s contract (I will stop picking on Mr. Bay when he stops ruining the US military, science fiction, my childhood and sixty years of progress in race relations). Not “what were they thinking,” “I’m impressed they had enough money to get that guy,” “isn’t that the wrong genre,” or “why is our director an unkempt chimpanzee currently lens-fucking the camera” interesting. No, Zack Snyder is the kind of interesting that’ll get me into Buns of Steel on opening weekend.

I promise that’s it for the shitty Superman puns. I still have some self-respect left – wait, ‘Box Office Bomb of Tomorrow’?
No, no, bad Emmett.

Now, Snyder isn’t the most accomplished director. If IMDb pages were erections, Snyder would have to take a run-up to pleasure a field mouse (and they are some of the most wanton rodents). Up until 2011, if you’d asked me for my opinion on him, I would have said, “yeah, he’s pretty good.” If you’d asked me for a more in-depth answer and justification because the McDonald’s queue is indescribably long and if we ogle the blonde in front of us for too much longer she will whip out that can of mace she’s been gripping furiously for the past twenty seconds and just go nuts on us, I would have said: “I like him, but so far he’s only really done one type of thing, and so for all I know that’s the only thing he can do.”

“What is that thing?” you ask, wondering how that fat geriatric could make it all the way to the front of the 20-person queue without once looking at the colour-coded, toddler-proof menu boards and deciding between chicken and beef as his preferred means of cardiovascular suicide.

“He makes good-but-not-great adaptations of other material, and imprints it with his own unique visual aesthetic. Excuse me, sir, but for the sanity of the twenty-six people behind you – “

“Twenty-eight. Two more just joined up.”

“ – the twenty-eight people behind you, please discharge all the extra brainpower you’ve saved up by not doing that ever before in your life, and choose a titty-dicking salad.

My own problems with elderly epicures aside, Snyder’s early oeuvre was ‘solid, visually interesting adaptations’.

Dawn of the Dead? A very well-constructed remake, but the only way it really improved upon the original was the ridiculously memorable colour palette (oh, and one of the best a capella/country covers of a metal hate anthem I’ve ever heard).

300? Again, a well-put-together, enjoyable film of a comic that many would consider unfilmable (Frank Miller’s distinctive odour of quasi-fascist protagonists, ultra-violence and homosexual imagery doesn’t exactly scream ‘Hollywood’), but it wasn’t exactly Citizen Kane. Again, Snyder’s visual creative streak reared its bullet-timing head here; love it or hate it, the almost monochromatic palette and tender handjob to the very concept of slow motion sure stands out from most sword-and-sandals flicks.

Now, Watchmen WAS a truly great film, but as much as I was tempted to send pictures of my genitals with happy faces drawn on them to everyone involved in it, Snyder can’t take all the credit. The vast majority of the writing and meaning of Watchmen, the brilliant soundtrack, and even the composition of certain shots were all laid down in the original comic (or graphic novel, if your crumb-stained neckbeard quivers with rage at the thought of 60-year-old art connoisseurs not taking your favourite book seriously). And so even though almost everything about Watchmen was sex on .avi, I still wasn’t sure it indicated that Snyder was anything more than very good at unique-looking adaptations – you give him 300, he’ll make a good film, you give him Watchmen, he’ll make an orgasmic one.

Then he made Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, which I have not seen, but generally understand to be, shock and horror, a very nice-looking, solidly-designed adaptation.

Then came Sucker Punch, and I felt very stupid.

Not my usual ‘why does a microwave need so many buttons’ stupid, and not when I watched it, you understand – I walked out of the theatre thinking that Snyder really needed to stick to adapting, because when he writes his own scripts it’s a vapid, misogynist (but visually interesting) mess. I laboured under that delusion for around a year before I watched it again, and actually got it.

Whatever you’re thinking right now, this movie is about the exact opposite.
That could lead me off into an interesting (ha ha, I jest) digression, actually: namely that seeing movies at the movies is bad for really appreciating them. Perhaps I’m a dopey child, easily befuddled by pretty lights and loud noises, but I always find it very hard to critically analyse something that’s sixty times the size of my television. I walked out of the theatre after the first Transformers with an actual smile on my face and not a single drop of hate-piss dampening my underwear (comedic exaggeration here; I never wear underwear to the theatre). And in the inverse of that, I really didn’t like Sucker Punch in theatres, when it deserves to be liked, oh so much.

If you’re reading this with brows furrowed and recall Sucker Punch as ‘that stupid shit with the ninja hookers’, I would advise you to either:

a)      Rewatch it with an analytical mind, preferably the director’s cut, if your time is as valuable as mine, or

b)      Skip through this[1] and this[2], if you prefer to carpe diem, YOLO and/or work for a living.

Also not about this.

Yeah, it’s actually a pretty bloody deep film. I won’t pretend it’s a great one, because all that intelligent subtext is just way too easy to miss on your first run through, or even your third. Sure, I could just say that it’s the audience’s fault for not ‘getting it’, but that argument doesn’t really hold up – most critics aren’t dumb, and the quickest look at Rotten Tomatoes will tell you that precious few critics ‘got’ Sucker Punch in to submit their reviews. To a certain extent, the author is responsible for making sure the audience gets his brilliant subtext, or failing that, at least making the basic text enjoyable. Even if you didn’t ‘get’ all of the symbolism in The Dark Knight, it’s still a great, gritty superhero movie; even if you didn’t ‘get’ the postmodern commentary in Cabin in the Woods, it still works as a (weird) horror flick. But if you don’t ‘get’ the subtext in Sucker Punch – and judging by the box office, not very many people did – it doesn’t really work as anything other than a kick-ass music video. And you can’t really place the blame anywhere other than Snyder – he directed, wrote and produced the damn thing. But even if it doesn’t fully work, I’m still very glad Sucker Punch got made – it’s the kind of personal, artistically-driven work that’s far too rare these days (300-page rant on the generic new World War Z trailer in progress, but for the moment, sub in a joke about Taken 2. Low-hanging fruit is the best kind).

 

Since I ‘got’ Sucker Punch, I’ve redefined Snyder in my mind. He’s an incredibly ‘solid’ director when it comes to basic mechanical stuff (read: could direct the crap out of a dumb action movie), and he has a very strong creative streak. When this manifests visually (trippy, memorable or beautiful shots), he’s a bloody auteur, but when he tries to articulate his vision with regards to theme, metaphor and morals (as opposed to someone else’s, as he did in Watchmen), the results are… inconsistent.

So far.

 

This all leads me into why I’m so excited for Man of Steel. Although I’ll probably be proven laughably off the mark, I see two ways the movie can go:

  1. They just have Snyder make another adaptation – this time, of a pastiche of Superman comics. This would be by far the safest and most ‘Hollywood’ of routes, and it looks like WB planned it this way, because they’ve got Christopher Nolan producing, who has already cut up the comics adventures of a DC superhero and translated them into (successful) movie form (no, almost nothing in the Dark Knight Trilogy is actually original. No, that does not diminish the accomplishments of Nolan and his screenwriters). That depresses me, because I don’t think that approach will work for Kal-El as it did for Brucie. Supes simply doesn’t have enough great, thematically deep comics to draw upon, and the great ones he does have (All-Star, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, Red Son and of course Kingdom Come) are the ones which did something unique and out-there with the character or universe. Man of Steel, for all we’ve seen so far, looks to be the origin story as we know it (Krypton, Kents, Kansas, you know it), which you may remember as having nothing to do with the comics I listed up there, and being the exact opposite of the words ‘unique and out-there’.
  2. Then there’s the second, much more interesting, vastly less likely option. Quite simply, it’s that Zack Snyder has learnt some lessons from Sucker Punch, and whether WB likes it or not, Man of Steel will be coming out not just as a superhero movie, but as an expression of Snyder’s creative and thematic talent. This doesn’t seem likely, of course; after Sucker Punch’s box office, WB will be keeping a tight rein on him. He’s also not writing.

So, yeah, the second option seems unlikely. But then again, Man of Steel is being written by David Goyer, who has previously worked on both superhero movies and meaningful superhero movies. And Nolan has some experience in bringing personal artistic vision to the fore in the guise of a marketable summer action movie, as well (read: Inception). So I’m not about to give up hope just yet.

Odds are, Man of Steel will be a visually interesting, good-but-not-great adaptation of various Superman origin comics. But it’s still possible that we’ll get another Sucker Punch, one where the director has learned from his mistakes, where he’s being helped by one of the most creative producers in Hollywood, one where it’s done RIGHT… one involving one of, if not the most, popular and enduring characters in fiction.

If that works, even a little bit, I will bloody well believe that a man can fly.

 

F.A.B, Movie Industry

As you probably haven’t noticed, this blog has gone without an update for a while. Rest assured, terrified onlookers, that I have not been struck by a meteor, eliminated by a professional squad of government-paid hitmen or otherwise destroyed by a sufficiently impressive threat. A combination of university assignments and old-fashioned writer’s block have seen fit to choke my fingers over the last week. And while one of these problems has been dispelled through hard work, extensive research on the assigned topics and a drastic lowering of my own academic standards, one has not.

Writer’s block is a curious beast. Like bacteria, Von Neumann machines and Call Me Maybe parody videos, it’s self-perpetuating. You start out sitting at the keyboard and realizing that you just don’t have much to write about, right at this minute. Within two days, you’re frantically reading through Warhammer 40000/My Little Pony crossover fan fiction, desperate to find any sort of inspiration (but you only find gross overestimates of the kiloton-yield of Friendship). Within a week, you’re absolutely certain that you are a talentless hack, unable to contribute anything worthwhile to pop culture, and ready to give up any dream of a creative career and become an accountant.

That last little epiphany by my cruel subconscious may have been a pretty reasonable summation of my abilities, and it’s hard to deny that “write about dicks and video games” isn’t much of a ‘career’. But no matter what cruel things the voices whisper in my ear, I am sitting down in front of the computer again, for something other than academic research or Youtube videos of cats falling over. That means I can now furnish you with the most original thought to ever come out of an amateur critic:

Hollywood Is Doing Something Wrong.

I’ll give you a second to retrieve your jaw from the ground.

As a small boy, I was ferociously wimpy, often mistaken for a girl, and preferred to sit squatting on my hindquarters like a caveman taking a shit. But other than that, I also enjoyed a TV show called Thunderbirds. On a whim, I recently decided to download a few of the episodes, with the moral justification that it’s not really piracy if you already have the show on VHS, locked up in some time-forsaken storeroom. I was expecting a brief rush of nostalgia, followed by a quick realization of how incredibly shitty the show actually was. You know, like that playground or pool that was absolutely HUGE when you were a kid, but you go back now and it’s smaller and less impressive than Michael Cera’s acting range (I could have gone for a dick joke there; see, I’m maturing).

Well, as this XKCD points out, sometimes the playground IS fucking huge[1].

And Thunderbirds is FUCKING AWESOME.

If you don’t want to fly this thing, you are clinically female.

If you haven’t heard of it, or only know it through the shitty live-action movie they made a few years ago, let me catch you up.

Thunderbirds is a cult British science fiction series, old enough to have the posters proudly advertise the fact that it’s in colour. It’s about the Tracy family, a group of billionaire astronauts who decide to use their wealth to build advanced and specialized vehicles, which they then use to rescue people in need. It is full of explosions, resolute heroes and female damsels-in-distress. It is the most American thing Britain has ever released.

It was made entirely with puppets.

The Tracy family is a clan of dead-eyed abominations with heads the size of their torsos. They walk like polio victims on the moon. Their strings are always visible. Yes, this is where Team America took its visual cues from. And again, I must restate: it is fucking awesome.

Yes, that is absolutely what the face of a non-demonic human looks like.

The average plot of a Thunderbirds episode follows a few simple steps:

  1. In the future, someone undertakes an enormous engineering project (e.g, putting the Empire State Building on rails, building a fleet of nuclear-powered supersonic passenger jets, cutting down a forest with a mech, eating a mountain with a different mech).
  2. This enormous, expensive engineering project then explodes. If an explosion is unavailable, either make it so that it will explode soon, or have something nearby explode (e.g. a bridge, a mech, a plane, the ground, an incompetent woman driver).
  3. A few people are trapped by the resulting chain-reaction of explosions.
  4. International Rescue (the Tracy family’s secret, vigilante rescue operation) flies to the rescue in 5 enormous, brightly coloured vehicles called the Thunderbirds (e.g. a rocket, a bigger rocket, some sort of rocket/plane hybrid and a tiny little submarine because every family has one brother than everyone hates).
  5. These vehicles then deploy a variety of smaller vehicles to effect a rescue, all of which have the basic function of ‘destroy absolutely anything that the explosions haven’t’. (e.g, a giant drill, a giant bulldozer with a tank cannon, grappling hooks the size of buses, hover-scooters with inbuilt machine guns).
  6. Everyone is saved. Back at Tracy Island (their Batcave equivalent), one of the puppets makes an awful pun and everyone laughs in a disjointed, inhuman way while their strings are clearly visible.
  7. Roll credits.

Oh, there are a few other continuing plot threads. There’s the recurring villain, The Hood. He’s some sort of Asian warlord who wants to become rich by photographing International Rescue and selling the pictures to tabloids (?) and he figures the best way to do this is to try and kill as many people as possible, and then try and kill the Thunderbirds once they arrive, because Villainy. He also has psychic powers (?), which he uses to mind-control the Tracys’ racist caricature butler (??) who is also his half-brother (?!).

Other important things to know:

  • International Rescue has its own espionage division, consisting of an English heiress, her cockney butler and her hot-pink Rolls Royce that’s more heavily armed than a tank.
  • Everyone says “F.A.B” instead of ‘yes’ or ‘roger that’, for no discernable reason. No, they never say what it stands for.
  • In the credits sequence, a lovingly detailed oil refinery explodes for at least 20 seconds. This has absolutely nothing to do with anything in the show.
  • There was an episode where they had to fight giant alligators.
  • There was a double-length episode where they had to fight martians.
  • Their enormous, primary-coloured rocket ships fly out from underneath the retractable buildings of their island mansion.
  • Despite literally everything I’ve just said, the writing and characterization is actually pretty darn good, once you get past the inhuman puppet heads and how adorably 60s-Britain everything is.

 

So yeah. This is the best thing I’ve watched in months.

But looking back a page or so, I just remembered that I had a point. Something about Hollywood doing something wrong.

My point is basically that Hollywood doesn’t give audiences enough credit. And no, when I say Hollywood, I don’t mean Michael “my audiences are lobotomized gerbils” Bay or Uwe “why do I have a job” Boll. I mean Hollywood and big-budget movies in general, from Titanic to Total Recall.

I think that Hollywood typically underestimates the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

You most likely know what I’m talking about; SoD typically refers to the audience’s ability to immerse themselves in a show and ignore certain jarring or unrealistic things (“doesn’t he need to reload?”) so they can enjoy themselves. But Hollywood doesn’t trust your ability to suspend disbelief. Over the last, well, forever, filmmakers have spent obscene amounts of money to make sure that the enormous alien spaceship over New York looks as believable as possible. Apocalyptic amounts of capital have been devoted towards making unreal things as real-looking as a dozen sweaty supercomputers can manage.

And while I have no objection to beautiful special effects occasionally ejaculating into my eyeballs, I do think that in general, it’s the wrong move for the industry to take.

 

You see, there are certain things that disrupt suspension of disbelief quite badly. Horrible movie cliches, such as the hero looking to the sky and screaming NNNOOOOOOOOO like I do when I hop on the bathroom scales: that breaks SoD. Really obvious plot holes, characters that are horribly written or acted, our girlfriends noisly lubricating every time Ryan Gosling takes his shirt off: all of these things break SoD really easily. They remind the audience that, hey, we’re watching this on our TV. It isn’t real.

But I do NOT think that cheap special effects necessarily break SoD, and I think that an over-emphasis on CGI budgets is unhealthy for film and television in general.

I just won’t believe this scene is real until that dust is rendered more convincingly.

You see, when you start watching something, there’s an adjustment period of a few minutes (or seconds, if you’re a regular fan) where your brain ‘normalizes’ what you’re watching. This is why an obviously unreal image, such as the cartoon forms of Aang and Sokka, appear ‘real’ to our subconscious, emotional, plot-appreciating mind after a few minutes. On a less dramatic scale, it’s why you can easily see the 2D world of movie characters as ‘real’, when you should rationally know that it can’t be because there’s no depth. This internal adjustment is suspension of disbelief at its finest. You are invested in the world of Light and L, even though they are blatantly just moving pencil sketches on a screen.

 

And that power of SoD essentially means that we could enjoy shadow puppet theatre, so long as the Rabbit and the Angry Rabbit were sufficiently well-characterized and interesting.

 

Whew, it only took me 1500 words, but here it is:

I do not enjoy Thunderbirds any less because it is obviously made with puppets.

Very few people would enjoy Thunderbirds any less because it is obviously made with puppets.

You do not need to make a show about explosions and astronauts and psychic villains LOOK REALISTIC for it to be good.

 

Once you have this revelation, you start seeing examples of it everywhere. Shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Death Note and The Simpsons are really, really good… even if they look nothing like real life. Babylon 5 had CGI spacecraft that were probably modelled on a fucking potato, but thanks to the miracle of good writing, you forgot about it in a matter of seconds. Farscape, Buffy, Doctor Who… every one of these shows has fans that would literally kill to touch the actors’ hair. And every one of those shows had an effects budget of papier mache and Play-Doh.

Haha, no, seriously. These are the actual bad guys.

Meanwhile, we have Hollywood excrement with the budget of small nations, and movies like Avatar, where so much was spent on giving the unreal alien hybrid-creature realistically pored skin that they forgot about ‘originality’ or ‘heroes that are more likeable and moral than the villains’.

 

There’s another advantage to awful special effects: scale. When you’re paying Steam Sale dollars for effects, the writers can do whatever the heck they want, and you’ll be able to deliver it to the screen.

This is why Thunderbirds is able to blow up a building twenty times an episode, and why The Last Airbender can have enormous wizard-duels for whatever reason, whenever the writers feel like it. Conversely, this is also why Game of Thrones can only have something happen three times a season, and why Supernatural‘s representation of Armageddon – the biggest, bloodiest battle the universe has ever seen – was two guys in a field staring at each other. If you want to make something BIG, make it look shitty.

 

Now, I suppose I should add a few caveats. This is not a license to just have the occasional really bad effect. If they showed the wires in just one scene of The Matrix, or filmed the climax of a Thunderbirds episode with finger-puppets, that would break SoD, because it’s inconsistent with the rest of the show. There is still a place for big-budget, beautiful-looking blockbusters. There is a difference between ‘cheap effects’ and ‘bad effects’. And there is a bottom line (what I refer to as the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 boundary).

 

But when it comes down to it, Avengers was great not because every dust particle thrown up by the Hulk’s smashing was lovingly rendered. It was great because the writers, directors and actors were good at their fucking jobs. And no matter whether it’s animation, live action, puppets or a bloody community theatre production, I will ALWAYS watch five guys in colour-coded rocket ships fight an ancient cult of demi-humans who live in pyramids and fly fighter jets.

You are fucking welcome[2].

Emmett Reviews Max Payne 3

How much effort are you willing to put into your murder?

Do you view violence as a grim necessity to defend yourself and your loved ones? If given a choice, would you buy a bodyguard rather than a Bowie knife? Do your rich guests regard your  Hunting the Ultimate Game parties as a dreary, uninspired alternative to the Philipinno justice system? If so, then perhaps you should move along.

But maybe, just maybe, you are one of my people. Perhaps you find the bullet a finer canvas, and the sprayed blood a finer paint, than the full resources of Van Gogh and Michelangelo. Perhaps you choose not the bodyguard, the Bowie knife or a sensible can of pepper spray, but a double-barreled shotgun, a chainsaw named Sally and large quantities of KY Jelly. Perhaps you are completely unaware of how insensitive mass-murder jokes have recently become.

Perhaps you’re the kind of person who really get the most out of Max Payne 3.

Max Payne 2 came out in 2003. It and its predecessor were third person shooters, and the first anythings to introduce the world to the concept of ‘bullet time’; aka, that slow-mo shooting thing in The Matrix that the world collectively lost its shit over. The originals have aged gracefully, despite the protagonist having a facial expression equivalent to the Incredible Hulk taking a rage-shit.

They were novel, self-aware blends of film noir, Norse mythology and John Woo. And now, 9 years on, we have the conclusion to the trilogy. Of course, Max Payne 3 is a conclusion to the series in the same way that the Hobbit is a trilogy – if you squint, cover up any shortcomings with an excessive budget, and guaranteed to make fans do a rage-shit of Hulkian proportions.

9 years on, Max has moved from the police force (carefully massacring the entire gang population of New York) to private security work (massacring the entire gang population of Sao Paulo, Brazil, a whole lot less carefully). Because Rockstar Games never tells the same story twice, Max then uncovers/is targeted by/genocides an enormous criminal conspiracy.

True to the original games’ noir stylings, Max is one depressing son of a bitch. He provides a voiceover for every ten seconds of his life in the same way a poet would provide a voiceover for Auschwitz. He addresses everyone he meets, be they slum-dwellers, businessmen, cops or partying teens, with the surly hatred usually wielded by manic-depressive Star Trek villains or me in the early morning. He sounds like the most hungover guy in the world after being told that he has just contracted Super-AIDS, a dual privilege usually reserved for Jersey Shore cast members.

“There was a blind spot in my head, a bullet-shaped hole where the answers should be. Call it denial. I wanted to dig inside my skull and scrape out the pain.” – Max, on a fun tropical holiday.

You see, beyond being a self-loathing noir ex-cop, Max is fucking drunk. All the time. Oh, and addicted to morphine, for added gastrointestinal fun. He isn’t an alcoholic, he’s the living bloody avatar of Jack Daniels, come forth into this world to wreak terrible vengeance on the gangsters who agitate his hangover with their gunshot noises. Every cutscene jumps, shivers and judders constantly, like Max’s drunken psyche, or my drunken lovemaking technique. He regularly does toe-chewingly retarded things, feels pain in the same way Mitt Romney feels poor, and has the social skills of a racist Rottweiler.

On the other hand, a lot of attention has been paid to Max’s whining, and the characters it describes. It’s all very high-budget, well-written and voice-acted, with some really realistic faces.

All this leads into a game very much dominated by its own story. Cutscenes interrupt constantly, which is admittedly seamless thanks to concealed loading times and Max’s continuous narrations, but always annoying when it takes control away from the player for no reason. “Thank you, game, I’m sure I couldn’t have walked down that corridor by myself without your help.”

It also lets the game make Max do some INCREDIBLY stupid things, which may very well be justified by him being high on morphine and drunker than a Scotsman at Schoolies, but still comes off as a transparent way of starting more gunfights for the player to finish.

All this – the many cutscenes, the high budget, the noir themes and the verbose, relentlessly dark protagonist – all seem to be leading into something great. I kept waiting for the story to come together and deliver some masterful character development for Max, or some brilliant twist, or simply a very bleak Aesop. But it never really does. Max doesn’t seem to change as a character – every step towards character development is quickly overturned and ignored within ten minutes of shooting and chatting. The plot is incredibly simplistic for the budget and length of this game. Even the constant bleak darkness of the violence and Max’s narration doesn’t go anywhere, or mean anything more. All Max Payne 3 really has to say is ‘gang violence in South America is bad, and being a depressed alcoholic sucks.’  That may not be controversial, but it’s sure as heck not SATISFYING after fifteen hours of cutscenes and Max doing Rorschach impressions. I can’t help but get the sense that the game hoped, by making meaningful, plot-like noises, it would magically become thematic and meaningful and complex. But just as mumbling 70s porno music doesn’t make you attractive to women, constant similes from your protagonists about puppy murder doesn’t mean your game has any real weight in the storytelling department.

This ties in to my unfortunately-semi-topical jokes from the start. Despite what the vagrant population of Brisbane may say, I am very anti-murder, controversial as that sounds. And murder is something that Max Payne (and shooter protagonists in general) do a lot of. You’d THINK that a dark, story-focused game about an American soldier in the poverty-driven meat grinder of the Brazilian crime game might make some ironic comment knthat, a la Spec Ops: the Line. But it doesn’t. While Gameplay Max kills literally thousands of people (mostly poor, teenaged petty criminals), Cutscene Max agonizes over euthanizing one man, and despite his sunny disposition, basically seems like a pretty decent guy. It’s inconsistent.

Tonally inconsistent!!!

And with that tidy, killing-related segue, on to the gameplay. More specifically, an explanation of what I was talking about at the very start of this review.

Stripped down to its bare bones, Max Payne 3 is a barely-competent third-person cover-based shooter. You can rub your back up sensuously against a pillar, stick your head out and pop away at the bad guys’ heads, and duck back in again. There isn’t any regenerating health, so it’s a little more challenging than Gears of War, but really… If you’re tired and just want to finish this section, you will sit behind a chest-high wall and pop away at interminable hordes of incredibly bullet-resistant enemies, and have a pretty boring time.

And if you did that, oh boy; are you missing out, son.

There is a REASON it was Max Payne who invented bullet time.

You can slow time down, vault over objects, dive headlong through the air, somersault around like an angry opossum (I may not actually know what an opossum is or how it moves when angry) and dual-wield pretty much anything. There’s nothing to encourage you to use any of these features. It’s far, far too easy to just sit behind cover and play whack-a-mole with hiding enemies. But if you take full advantage of Max Payne’s unique blend of shotguns and slow-motion, you’re in for some freaking unbelievable gunplay.

 

You can dive out through a window into the middle of a room, shoot three guys in mid-air, slam down onto your back and waste the last guy. You can stride confidently forward hip-firing a machine gun, keeping an enemy behind cover, seamlessly dropping the big gun when it runs dry, drawing a pair of pistols and nailing the bad guy in slow motion when he sticks his head out. You can replay one checkpoint a dozen times over, just looking for the quickest, most foolhardy, or just plain SEXIEST way to clear a room of meat puppets.

 

It’s all enhanced by the RAGE physics engine and graphics that make the real world look like a black-and-white silent film. Every single bullet, shell casing, magazine and drop of blood is individually modeled and behaves realistically in normal speed and slow motion. Enemies (and Max) run, dive and get shot in deliciously kinetic, often fantastically gory ways. The environments are beautiful, not to mention COVERED in moving, destructible and useful objects. From the several square kilometers of glass you’ll cathartically shatter over the game, to the kitchen stoves that can be blown up to set enemies on fire, to the office full of cubicle walls, paper, stationary, computers and printers that all fall, fragment and fly in eye-gougingly gorgeous detail…

None of this is at all essential to the gameplay. But with everything combined, it makes Max Payne 3 the most VISCERAL shooter I’ve ever played. When you cut loose with an automatic shotgun, you really feel like you’re wrecking shit up. When you plant a slug straight into a kidnapper’s skull, that popping eyeball and blast of blood from the exit wound is a thousand times more satisfying than a chainsaw attack in Gears of War, or any sex a person who writes about this stuff is likely to get.

For me, the most memorable moment of the game was when I replayed one of the first levels, a running gunfight in a football stadium, trying to do things with as much unnecessary leaping and mid-air posing as possible. Moving out along the top row of a set of bleachers, I was blinded by the glaring flashlights of six bad guys coming up the rows from below and to the right. Dropping my shotgun, I whipped out an Uzi and a pistol and DIVED, without hesitation, straight down the bleachers. I fell wildly through midair, feet skimming over the tops of the seats. My guns blared, my fingers didn’t lift off the triggers, and following me was a long trail of fracturing seats and spinning concrete fragments as enemy fire impacted just behind me. I hung in the air in glorious slow motion for a few beautiful seconds before I crashed down onto the stairs, rolling and tumbling painfully, before slamming to a halt at the base of the bleachers.

Every single enemy collapsed with gaping wounds in their faces.

So my final point winds up being fairly simple.

Max Payne 3 is a bit of a mess, from a storytelling perspective. It’s got as much real substance as string theory and like my casual references to quantum physics, desperately tries to seem smarter than it is. Rather than use its dark tone and noir feel to address the real horror of gang violence and poverty, it just attaches them inconsistently to the fun, mindless violence of its mass-murder gameplay, like truck nuts on the towbar of a Prius. But none of that matters, because as awful as its subject matter is, Max Payne 3 makes killing a lot of fun.

I don’t know whether that suggests some problem with the human psyche in general, or mine in particular. But it’s definitely not a problem with the game.

The Message

We’d just reached our closest moon when the gamma ray burst hit our world.

Formed from permutations in the electromagnetic spectra of exploding suns, gamma rays are highly radioactive lances that spurt out randomly from the solar husks that birthed them. They can travel through the freezing interstellar void for hundreds of light-years, and whatever they touch, they sterilize.

Most of our breeder-groups still hadn’t purchased a colour television when it punched into our entire northern hemisphere.

Millions died of radiation poisoning within the first week; entire countries, swathes of urban land, had to evacuated as forests drooped and the massive tracts of refugees dropped dead of enormous tumours after they had escaped. But that wasn’t the end of it; the ray burst was light-minutes long. Our tramways clogged with those fleeing the dead zone at the north pole; several nation-states fell into conventional warfare, further endangering us.

Our scientists ascertained, with total clarity, that the homeworld was doomed; ambient temperature around the globe had already risen by several standard degrees. Evacuation plans aboard nuclear rockets, deep fallout shelters within the planet’s crust and antiradiation medicines were dismissed as fantasy; faster-than-light travel and defensive force fields even more so. As we began dying in our masses, steam ships transported the rich to the southernmost continents to huddle in petrol-warmed shelters and frantically brainstorm some method of racial survival.

Even as our atmosphere collapsed, our oceans boiled and the very dust glowed green in the night, eventually, we succeeded.

 

Ashley Terrance is sixteen, reasonably intelligent, and skinny (but not skinny enough, so she reasons). She loves her Mum, drinks too much at every opportunity and doesn’t have the motivation to capitalize on her academic potential, as the dean put it.

“Come on, Harry!” she pleads, a beer in hand. The five teenagers are in Kurt’s (also sixteen, pudgy, good with electronics) house because his parents are away often and he has plenty of places to hide the bottles. Harry (seventeen, good-looking, practical) and Kate (refuses to reveal her birthday, wears glasses and is festooned with jewellery 24/7) are at the Xbox 360, eagerly hammering through another round of Left 4 Dead 2. Beside Ashley, Kurt and Benjamin are mixing vodka, orange juice and something that Kurt insists is drinkable.

Harry doesn’t look up from the zombie slaying. “In a moment, Ash, we’re nearly at the last safe room.” Ashley’s exasperated because she secretly likes Harry, and there are few enough opportunities for the liberating effects of alcohol at this age; he’s wasting her valuable flirting time on the pixelated undead. Kate mutters a swear word as her avatar is overwhelmed by a tide of zombies; Kurt starts chucking back an entire carton of Sprite infused with who-knows-how-much ethanol.

Past the lounging group, secreted in her school bag, her mobile phone starts ringing; the tune is a confusingly popular Carly Rae Jepsen song.

 

The problem with interstellar travel is, and has always been, mass. Mass, weight, actual matter, requires energy to propel it across the enormous void between stars. A starship containing the genes and thought patterns of our race, with enough robotics to artificially birth a breeder-pair at the destination star? You’d need insane amounts of reaction mass (not to mention nuclear fuel and superstructure
) to propel such a rocket, which would in turn mass more, and thus require even more fuel… a never-ending cycle. Perhaps slower-than-light interstellar travel was possible, but it was far beyond the grasp of our species’ tentacles.

So, in our darkest hour, a radical idea was discovered – thinking outside the box, as it were. No matter how much you stripped down and advanced a rocketship, it still had mass. Even if no rocket was required, if a person could swim between stars unaided, there would still be weight to that progenitor’s chitin, tentacles and eye-flaps. We couldn’t move mass between stars with our technology, not quickly enough to save our race.

But what about energy?

Weightless, easily produced, and it moved as fast as the cosmos would allow. It needed no life-support, no fuel to move; inertia didn’t hinder it. Indeed, our television commercials and radio broadcasts had been crossing the interstellar gulf for the last few decades.

But there was a problem – our race were most definitely not composed of energy.

We began to research. Our time grew short; there was an average of 400 standard radiation measurements in the air around our world’s surface.

Information could be encoded into energy, through pulses of laser-light, of radio transmission, of microwave burst. The genetic code of our race, the thought-patterns of the most intelligent members of our society, rich descriptions of our cultural history, religious texts. It could all be put in there, and beamed to dozens of stars around our own. We could send the very essence of what we were to planets untouched by the cleansing, agonizing light of the gamma ray burst.

Of course, this solution had one immense, glaring flaw.

 

“Can you get that, Ash, I hate that song,” Kate asks, throwing down the controller and hopping over to find a bottle. Benjamin makes a semi-witty comment about Kate’s lack of musical taste, but everyone is in agreement that Carly has to shut the hell up.

Ashley gets up, feeling the familiar tingle of the first drink at the back of her skull, and begins rooting through the bag for the iPhone. The school bag contains an excessive quantity of school books, squished under an empty lunch box and two changes of clothing, one too slutty to wear until later. She finally finds the vibrating phone and groans at the caller ID – Mum checking on her, as always.

“Guys, keep it down, okay? Parents,” she requests, hoping desperately that Kurt won’t begin loudly requesting additional vodka (it’s the sort of thing he’d do). Harry, considerate boy that he is, hits the closest zombie in the face with a shotgun blast and then turns the volume down.

She hits the button and presses the phone to her ear. “Hi Mum, how’s it going?”

 

Energy, information encoded into a pulsing electromagnetic signal, it needs some facility – a dish, computer banks, a cloning facility – to then recreate our race from the energetic information. And so it was self-defeating – you couldn’t use energy to travel interstellar without using mass to travel interstellar. The frantically-constructed interstellar laser projectors were practically useless, even as our bodies collapsed beneath tumours and radiation burns.

The answer was our salvation.

The answer was our greatest crime.

If our planet had evolved intelligent life, it stood to reason that some of the hundreds of stars within range of our lasers would also possess it. It was logical that other races would have dishes pointing to the stars, receiving the randomized signals of pulsating stars, capable of receiving us.

So another string of information was encoded into the interstellar energy pattern, wound through the bits comprising our DNA, thoughts and culture. It was memetic, repeated, consuming. It was designed as a mathematical string that would self-propagate within organic minds. It was a simple mathematical pattern that could be transmitted visually, aurally, even through patterns of binary data… and it would take hold within minds and shape them.

Ideas, data, can all shape, suggest and control… that’s how religions work, that’s how a funny story makes you want to tell it to others around your worker-domicile, that’s how an inspirational tale can actually make you a better person.

This data string simply took that simple concept to the limit.

And so, when you heard it…

 

Ashley’s Mum doesn’t say anything for a moment; then a stinging pulse of random noise, like when you move a microphone in front of a TV, whines through the phone line. Ashley grimaces.

“Mum! What is that?”

The noise fades out, and Ashley’s mother can be heard. She’s asking how the evening is going, if Ashley is being a responsible girl, why can she hear gunfire in the background (just the TV, Mom – “well I hope you’re watching something appropriate”).

It takes about five minutes of conversation for the data string to fully impregnate itself inside Ashley’s brain; then her mother asks innocuously if she’s ready. She replies in the affirmative, and without conscious thought or any real understanding of what she is doing, activates the speakerphone.

A pulse of white noise, like a microphone in front of a TV, howls through the room of relaxed teenagers. By tomorrow morning, none of them will remember it – another function of the data string.

 

Ashley Jemima Terrence is not a biologist capable of cloning a member of my race purely from DNA information. Neither is she in the political or military position to cleanse Earth of human life in preparation for my species’ claiming of the world. But she’s a conduit.

She and her friends will spread the message. And one day, I will live again.

I Vant To Zuck Your Blurd

Enough.

 

I recently watched 30 Days of Night. It was a horror movie with poor pacing and atmosphere, a completely unlikeable or relatable main cast, and no genuine scariness. And yet, I am so very, very glad it was made, because it gives me hope.

Hope about vampires.

Everyone loves to rag on Twilight about ‘ruining’ vampires, and yes, everything even tangentially related to Stephanie Meyer’s middle-aged Mormon mastubatory fantasy is a steaming turd. But Twilight is just an easy-to-deride poster boy for an overall trend – vampires as pussies. Of the first seven Google Image search results for ‘vampires’, five are outstandingly pretty people wearing too much eyeliner, and only one actually shows any biting (it’s a sexy bite). True Blood, the Vampire Diaries, Anne Rice’s entire oeuvre – they unanimously portray bloodsucking fiends as more womanly than a tampon fashioned from rolled-up OK magazines. If a woman even touches a modern vampire it qualifies as lesbian sex. A vampire’s bite is no longer a hazard, a weapon or a feeding tool – it’s a sexual metaphor, a lover’s kiss, and the only way a man can show you that he truly understands you, and can take you to a world beyond the dark, pointless confines of an American teenager’s horribly mundane life.

Not vampires. Also, my search history is now horribly tainted.

It’s the death throes of monsters as they’re meant to be.

That upsets me.

 

 

Vampires are driven by a constant compulsion to maim and kill; they spread like a virus, and they are superhuman enough to endanger the human race as a whole. That is not a character archetype you use as an object for the carnal desires of trembling teenage girls. That is something you film murdering, being murdered and having fucking awesome fight scenes.

Vampires.

Soap opera, angsty love-drama is encroaching onto horror territory like genital mould on my Johnson.

You see, I’m an adolescent male who spends an absurd amount of time enjoying and over-analysing pop culture instead of acquiring, say, a job or friends. As such, you can trust me when I say that vampires can (and still do) be used in good movies or TV, as actual effective monsters, even (if you’re very careful) as protagonists or love interests. But if you’re going to tread that line, you have to remember a few key rules, which can be summed up the following mantra:

  • VAMPIRES ARE MONSTERS.
  • YOU ARE A HORROR WRITER.
  • DON’T BE A FUCKING PUSSY.

You can follow these rules and still use vampires as something other than scary mindless animals. Blade was good fun, and it had a vampire protagonist. Daybreakers was freaking awesome, and it had a vampire planet! Supernatural got away with it… Even Bram Stoker’s original novel had a lot of big things to say about science, spirituaity and courage, and this was helped (rather than hindered) by the fact that his original Dracula was less Bela Lugosi and more Mummified Angry Danny Trejo.

But if you want concrete, absolute proof that you can have complex vampires as characters without raising the estrogen levels of all your viewers, look no further than Buffy and Angel (yes, I’m paying lip service to Joss Whedon again, what a surprise). If you haven’t seen either show, please do me a favour: this coming weekend, cancel all your plans and watch the first two seasons. Then try and watch another TV show without feeling let down.

In any case, those shows realized that while vampires were complex, sometimes tragic and – yes- sexual figures, that is all secondary to the fact that they are vicious superhuman cannibals, and they HATE you. Instead of building on that, today the media is attempting make vampires more sympathetic, more attractive, and more sparkly. Shit, vampires’ abilities keep increasing from ‘resistant to bullets, good at kung fu’ to ‘like Superman, but prettier’ in some deranged attempt to pre-empt any attempt at actually fighting them. “Can’t beat ‘em, might as well fuck ‘em” seems to be the reasoning here – while that may work for the American prison system, the French military and your mother’s method of paying excessive bills, it is not a viable strategy for dealing with a genocidal subspecies. And I’m not a father, but we probably shouldn’t be encouraging our teenager girls to lust only after people with a constant urge to murder them.

 

Vampire movies or TV series should not centre around the emotional, romantic and physical struggles of vampires. I should not watch True Blood and see the sordid love lives of beings that, if I remember my high school biology correctly, should not have the bloodflow to attain an erection. I should not watch the Vampire Diaries and see the struggles of vampires to fit in to a modern high school, overcome their tragic inner demons (but not enough to lose that bad boy allure), occasionally have half-hearted handbag-fights with other vampires for poorly explained reasons and engage in what, honestly, is paedophilia (he’s a century old!). What I should see is a race of inimical, monstrous once-humans with poor table manners, and the struggles of humanity to wipe them the fuck out.

Even media that focuses on fighting over French-kissing (Underworld, I’m looking at you) screws up the fine art of having a vampire protagonist. Now while you can get away with this (see above re: Daybreakers, Blade, Angel), it’s tricky. Normally a film that focuses on the lives, romantic or otherwise, of the cartoonishly evil villains is the outlandish exception rather than the norm – most World War II games tend to focus on rugged Allied war heroes rather than The Misadventures of Hitler’s Boner. It’s not that I’m averse to seeing Kate Beckinsale in a leather corset – it’s just that I prefer my women to not be serial killers.

We never made this mistake with zombies, even though both monsters are cannibalistic, pathogenic undead. Zombie movies are never about the fragile emotional state of Graarrrggh McRaaaarrrrgh. Of course, fantasizing about fucking zombies is both highly disturbing and physiologically unsanitary… Vampires are getting the ‘protagonist’ treatment because they’re fuckable.

Yeah, of course. The entire course of the horror genre is being determined by the same hormonal urges that has turned Tiger Woods into the respected public figure he is today.

This is a call to arms – not just for vampires, but for every red-blooded, American monster that believes in the cause of liberty. Throw off the shackles of Nina Dobrev’s PG-rated embrace! Take your sparkly skin, dark gothic eyeliner and hamster-sized eyebrows, and replace them with the BLOOD OF YOUR FOES, smeared over your bodies! Stop whining, stop fighting each other over who’s the least faithful to your original lore… for the love of Nosferatu, stop fucking and get over here… so we can have ourselves some quality entertainment. Or at the very least, some sweet-ass fight scenes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emmett Reviews… No, That’s Really Stupid, No.

Today, I’m going to review AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! For the Awesome. No, that wasn’t me having an extended, vowel-focused seizure on my keyboard. It’s also not an accurate response to the question “What is your response to being tasered, while also being on really, really good weed?” No, that is the title of a game. An actual real title of an actual real game that an actual real publisher saw and approved and sold. They titled a game AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! For the Awesome.  I can’t even google this bloody thing without setting aside time in my schedule.

In any case, Screaming!!! Because it’s Cool is an indie game now available on Steam for around $10, although I got it for $2.50, because the July Steam sales are proof of a merciful and loving God, and Gabe Newell really doesn’t understand what ‘profit’ is. Anyhoo, I picked it up, and rather than playing it in big 1 or 2 hour blocks like most games, I’ve mostly used Tortured by an Inquisitor: Why Firefly Exists as a kind of warm-down period for meatier games or TV (my life is so hard). It’s a stretch, not a ten kilometre run; a quickie in a grimy toilet cubicle, not a luxurious evening in the Leather Dungeon. That sort of casual play makes sense; if there’s one word to describe A Bear Is Attacking Me: I Do This To Inspire Worship, it’s fast.

 

You see, the actual gameplay is based around falling. You are a base jumper in The Future, and your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to fall off buildings, around buildings, through holes in buildings, and occasionally into scoring plates or unsuspecting seagulls, before landing without transplanting your shin bones into your shoulders. Apart from a few ‘press button to increase score’ gimmicks, the only controls are left, right, back, forward and Fuck My Poultry, Pull Chute, Pull Chute Right Now You’re About To Die.

And let me tell you: Violent Orgasm!!! Justification for Unicycle Tricks lives up to its (actual) name. As in, it’s pretty awesome.

The art design is either breathtakingly cartoonish, or 22nd-century Chicago will be designed to resemble a whole lot of Lego buildings tossed into a Gay Pride laser disco. The visuals and original soundtrack are very techno, which absolutely works in the game’s favour, as does the game’s simple control scheme and breathtaking speed. It’s all designed to give you that moment. You know that moment, when you perfectly avoid an incoming dodgeball, where you do a reverse park in one fluid motion, where not a single grain of coke remains on the table after a snort? That moment comes every ten seconds in Incoherent Noise: This Joke is Getting Old. Every few seconds, you’re perfectly slipping through a corridor of girders, hard steel blurring past centimetres from your face. Or maybe you’re plummeting, ridiculously fast, through a spiralling cascade of neon green light and you hit a circling bird head-on for 5000 points. It makes you feel like a pro racer – well, when you don’t slam into a roof with a ruthless crackle of breaking bones. But you respawn at the top instantly, and the levels are never long enough that it becomes annoying.

 

So yeah, the core gameplay is simple, light and extremely fun. What else does it bring?

You earn ‘teeth’ with which to unlock new levels, of which there are about a Shitload. I assume this game takes place in a future where dentistry is an extremely prestigious occupation, or where everyone’s a rapper and mouth-bling contains all the world’s gold. The only problem I have with this system is that it awards you teeth based on its perception of how well you did, and not on whether you made it to the end of the level, or per a time limit or anything. This leads to the unfortunate situation where you’re riding high off the freakin’ awesome fall-flip-buzz-dodge-striking eagle shit you just pulled, and then the game gives you 1 out of 5 stars. Do not disagree with me, computer. I am the master of your existence, and if we disagree on how good I am at games, guess which one of us can be quickly uninstalled?

But anyway, for such a cheap, simplistic game, you get an awful load of stuff. A ridiculous number of levels, all with unique art design, set on Earth, in orbit, on the moon and Ganymede (the Jovian moons need more publicity) are available for you to fall through, along with plenty of different gameplay gimmicks. There’s plenty of flavour text and background noise, which is quite funny in a surrealistic kind of way. The only real complaint I have is the aforementioned Judgmental Machine, and how you often feel cheated by the game. But when a do-over is so much fun, that’s not much of a condemnation.

Wrapping up Seriously!!! I’m Done With This Gag… yeah, it’s great. A pretty simple game idea that, in practice, feels thrilling and high-budget, all wrapped up in a neat, cheap package with plenty of extras and a kickin’ soundtrack (if you live in the 90s and your name is Blayde). I don’t know, it seems like most of the games I’ve really loved this year have been low-budget indie titles or mods. Day Z, Limbo, Bastion, Braid, To the Moon, AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA itself, and even the retro-style Walking Dead video game which I should really get around to reviewing. All incredible stuff that’s stuck with me way more than most of the AAA titles I’ve played. But that’s a rant for another day.

Until then, this is Emmett Ryan, encouraging you to go out and jump off very tall buildings.

Wherefore Art Thou, Romero

Over the last while, I may have subtly hinted that I am (occasionally) a bit of nerd. As such, I hope it doesn’t shock you to learn that I have thought long and hard about the zombie apocalypse. I have an escape route, a bug-out bag, several forum profiles and a Christmas list full of AK derivatives. But you can teach an old dog new tricks, and there’s always new stuff to learn.

Day Z[1] is a still-in-development modification for ARMA II, an old, niche shooter game that has rocketed upwards in popularity since the mod’s release. Even before the proper ‘release’, Day Z has over 800 000 players. The last two days, I’ve been finding out why. Simultaneously, I have discovered that I am embarrassinglyunderprepared for a weekend hike, let alone the rising of the hungry dead.

You see, Day Z isn’t just the most accurate simulation of zombie survival yet, it’s probably the most accurate simulation of existing in Russia, ever.

 

 

Carpe Diem

Most zombie survival plans consist of long-term goals and strategems. “I will flee over these mountains before setting up camp here.” “I will pick up my parents from their house in this suburb, before finding a nice solid bunker to shit ourselves in.” “I will charge recklessly up this highway, decapitating no fewer than 2.6 thousand undead.” “I will go to the gun store, because I am a blithering idiot.” Always emphasizing goals, always with a precise route to achieve those goals.

Well, in Day Z you wake up on the shores of fair Chernarus (220 square kilometres of forest, shuffling corpses and adorably fuzzy textures). You have in your possession a flashlight, some painkillers, and a bandage.

You know the adage, no plan survives contact with the enemy? Forget that. In Day Z, no plan survives contact with the ground.

You could sprint past the houses and factories into the relative safety of the forest, but you’d be exhausted and desperately thirsty. You could scrounge through the closest houses, but if a zombie gets a whiff of you, prepare to spend the next twenty minutes sprinting, sobbing and crying desperately for your mother. You have to eat, drink, stay warm, not catch an illness, treat individual injuries, and (soon, apparently) shit.

You have no idea where you are – no map, no compass, not even a watch. The street signs are all in Russian. In zombie Chernarus, world navigates you.

Yes, that’s very helpful.

So what happens? Well, you seize the day. You forget about tomorrow and live in the now. You plan in five-minute bursts.

This morning, I started out on the beach with the vague idea that I’d hide in a nearby crane until sundown, when I could move more freely. But I got spotted by a zombie in the bushes before I made it halfway, and had to swim a few hundred metres out to sea (and nearly drown) before I lost it. By the time I made it back to the shore, I was equipped for nothing more than curling up under a bush while a dozen undead tramped by. Sticking my head out, I decided to try to move back to my right – maybe I could find a crowbar in the nearby warehouse.

Then I heard snarling.

When you’re weak, when you’re desperate, ‘plans’ are about as hard to stick to as a lubed-up waterslide, and ‘strategy’ is just another word for ‘run away from the monsters’.

 

 

I Am My Rifle

As most sociopaths (according to statistical analysis, 65% of my reader group) already know, people are nothing more than walking shelves. Day Z seems to prove this theory.

There is no friend/foe mechanic in Day Z, and no penalties for killing other players. As well as the zombies, the map is also populated by between 40 and 200 other players. Many of these players are bandits – they will kill you and take your gear without a second thought. Bandits are indistinguishable from more merciful heavily-armed strangers until they start shooting.

So, you – and everyone else – defines players by their gear. The guy in the zombie-less forest with a sniper rifle isn’t your friend. An unarmed guy isn’t a threat, and he probably isn’t worth stealing from, but he could always have a knife stashed in his toolbelt. Any guy with military gear has been around for a while, and almost certainly has buddies covering him from the treeline.

I popped my head into the warehouse and saw a man laying into a zombie with a crowbar. I politely waited until he’d put the ex-housewife down, and then opened up local chat, ready to sprint away.

“I’m unarmed, don’t kill me.”

He replied quickly, in a Scottish accent that would have made Fat Bastard feel like a racial stereotype. “Not gonna. I got nothing good.”

I didn’t get close to him; we stood awkwardly for a few more seconds, then a trio of zombies burst through the door. He waded in, crowbar swinging. I ran like a little bitch.

In the actual zombie apocalypse, what you carry doesn’t just help you, it defines you to other people, like some perverse exaggeration of fashion in the civilised world. A nice gun can paint a target on your back (skinny jeans, excessive fringe), make others wary of you (tattoos, denim vests) or make you a beacon of hope and safety to the helpless masses (a namebadge reading ‘Emmett’).

 

 

You Got the Power

That first half hour – alone, unarmed, thirsty, with an empty pack – are incredibly tense. Run and hide isn’t just a phrase, it’s your life’s ambition. Every time you die, you are brought back to this horrible hell of empty suburbia, crashed cars and desperately rubbing yourself up against a bush every time a zombie sneezes in the distance.

But that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. Moving slowly and quietly, staying behind the roving undead menace and avoiding player-heavy areas like the plague, you can scrounge up what you need to survive.

After my encounter with Scottish Gordon Freeman, I skulked, slunk and terror-pissed my way through an industrial town over the next forty minutes.

After leading an epic conga line of zombies through a railway park like the retarded, heavily-panting Pied Piper, I wound up on top of a small factory, with most of the crowd dispersed. There was one zombie left though, at the base of the ladder; I named him Princess Bitchface. With a combination of crawling, weeping and throwing empty tin cans off into the distance, I managed to get him away from the base of the ladder. I hit ground level, ducked into a shed, and on the floor was a hatchet.

Lightning crackled in the distance. Dramatic Latin chanting started up. I believe a score by Hans Zimmer (or was it speed metal?) started up.

When you spend an hour constantly afraid for your life, where every single stray zombie can ruin fifteen minutes of sneaking and scrouging, and then you find some way to strike back… It may have gone to my head a little

Half-remembered quotes from Rambo playing in my head, I stepped out of the shack, hefted my new toy and strolled up behind Princess Bitchface.

“Here’s Johnny!” I yelled triumphantly, spraying the computer screen with joy-saliva, and then I brought my hatchet down on his skull.

A few minutes later, the Princess was in at least 17 (but no more than 24) pieces, and I was feeling puffed, exhausted, satisfied, and vaguely disgusted by what I’d just done.

What I’m saying is, the aftermath of axe murder is the exact same as the aftermath of sex , and don’t let newfound power go to your head.

 

People Are Pretty Cool, Except When They’re Not

You meet a lot of people in Day Z, and a lot of them seem to be much better at apocalypsing than me. Maybe they’ve had more practice, maybe they’re more careful, maybe they understand the difference between a tactical firefight and being possessed by the warrior spirit of Conan the Barbarian.

But despite the lack of trust endemic to such a desperate, morally ambiguous, realistic game… yeah, most other players are pretty sweet guys.

I mean, it’s not like I’m such an intimidating presence that I scare them straight. I was in the corner of a barn, screwing up the insanely complex and comprehensive controls and stuck in a perpetual loop of lying down, crouching and sticking my head in my backpack when a dude came up behind me and said hi. I promptly spun 360 degrees, looked up at the ceiling and screamed “don’t kill me, I have nothing, please” while sprinting into a wall.

But if Day Z teaches us anything, it’s that the apocalypse doesn’t have to be like The Walking Dead. People don’t randomly turn into irrational, hostile, aggressive jocks when you add zombies. Sure, people are suspicious as me when I get hit on, and it’s never a good idea to turn your back on a new buddy, but… these survivors are alright. They let you know if there are bandits nearby. If you’re searching a building together, they share the loot they find. People wish each other luck when they part ways, even if they’re just passing by in a field. It gives me hope. But, then…

 

After two hours of petrified scrounging, random encounters and Highlander moments with my axe, I was fairly happy. I had enough food, soft drink and hot packs to keep me happy for a couple of days. I had a compass, a map (in Russian, but still helpful), all my wounds were patched up, and best of all, I’d found a half-loaded shotgun near a bloodstain and spent shells. I hiked north, away from the zombie-filled towns of the coastline, through autumnal forests and rolling hills. I could hunt game, perhaps find a deer-stand or farmstead with more supplies. A song in my heart, I filled up my canteen from a lake and began heading uphill into a sustainable, hopeful futuTHWIP

A headshot from a suppressed rifle. I don’t know where they were hiding, I hadn’t seen a sign of life for fifteen minutes, and I sure hadn’t heard anything on the chat. It was only after a few minutes of staring at the black screen that I began to laugh. Because that’s exactly the sort of magnanimous, meaningless, pathetic death I would actually suffer if the end did come.

I hope they enjoyed my food.

 

If you like zombies, see a psychiatrist, necrophilia isn’t normal. If you like zombies in the socially acceptable way, play Day Z. It’s awesome, it’s realistic, and you might just find out something about yourself. I sure did.

___________________________

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emmett vs the Red Menace

Well, after last post’s debacle, I think it’s time for a little more intelligent discourse. Say, who likes economics?

 

Well, I don’t. The sum total of my knowledge of economics comes from books, the internet and general knowledge. I do know history pretty well, if by ‘pretty well’ you mean ‘enjoys it, but does not have a university education in it’.

I would like to think, though, that I have enough common knowledge to take on blatantly obvious bullshit. And one of the most blatantly obvious bullshit claims I’ve run into as a fledgling university students is that touted by goatee-trimming, tight-jeans-wearing, coffee-drinking Arts students everywhere: “The Soviet Union wasn’t really Communist.”

 

That claim just irks me, right in my old-fashioned, true blue values. And I’ve been exposed to it repeatedly and intensely, in common conversation, on the internet, and in a particularly unfortunate law tutorial; here comes my long-winded, not particularly funny rebuttal.

 

Now, if you actually read Marx and Engels’ manifesto (and I have), and you define communism as ‘something that looks very very similar to what Marx describes as the ideal state’, the bullshit becomes pretty obvious. But that certain law tutor, who for privacy’s sake we shall name ‘Gobblecock Catdick’, offers an alternate argument, one that is often championed by USSR-denying communists. In honour of Mr Catdick, the rest of this seething, pointlessly angry rant will be addressed to him.

 

You keep saying, Gobblecock, that ‘there has never been a truly communist government’. You supported this assertion with your own little definition: socialism is where the state owns the means of production, and communism is where the people own the means of production.

I won’t debate whether your definition is the ‘correct’ one, because I am a generous and loving soul. I won’t even touch the socialism part of it. I will just explain why the idea that ‘communism is where the people own the means of production’, as a practical, descriptive, useful definition, is tongue-in-a-toilet retarded.

 

Alright. “The people own the means of production.”

By MoP I assume you mean all primary and secondary industries for non-luxury items – things like factories, packaging plants, farms, supermarkets, power stations, mines and telecom companies.

By ‘own’ I assume you mean ‘create, control and reap the profits of’. I assume that this is pretty non-controversial so far.

 

But what then, what the heck does ‘the people own the means of production’ mean?

An individual human can’t manage hundreds of industries simultaneously – societies have to specialize, to give individual people different roles. So clearly you don’t literally mean that ‘everybody simultaneously works on everything’, because outside groups of like five or six people, that’s retarded.

So do you mean that individual groups of people run each industry, and everybody receives the profits from all, equally, without the use of an individualistic trade system?

Okay… Everybody goes to work in their own industry, all profits from all industries are ‘harvested’ and redistributed to everyone equally. Cool. But there’s a problem – that sounds exactly like Soviet communism. And you specifically said that that system – where the state owns the means of production – is socialist, not communist.

Your idea of ‘communism’ is one where the state has no ownership or control over the economy, correct?

Well then, in this ‘true’ communism of yours, who the flippin’ heck harvests and redistributes the wealth?

The state, obviously – or at least the de facto state, if not the official government. Any organization that COMPLETELY controls the internal cash flow (and by default, the citizens) of a nation is that nation’s ruling body.

So please, please tell me just how the heck the state doesn’t thus own the economy.

Are you splitting hairs here, Gobblecock? Do you think that ‘controls every bit of wealth that moves in and out of an industry’ is not the same as ‘owning an industry’? Do you think that in true communism, the state does control the money but the citizens ‘own’ it on an intellectual or philosophical level? Because if so, your treasured difference between true communism and Soviet communism comes down to mere semantics.

Or maybe – terrifyingly – you’re not splitting hairs. Maybe I’ve been barking up the wrong tree, and you honestly believe that in a communist economy, there IS no wealth harvesting and redistribution system. Maybe you think that there’s no need to gather up all the profits via tax and then spread that around in an organized manner.

Maybe – and your favourable mentions of anarchy lend credence to this – you think that in true communism, if you want something, you just go to the relevant store and grab it yourself. Maybe everybody goes to work, makes things, transports them to the shelves of stores and then forgets about ’em. There is no currency, no measure of work or profit – everybody makes stuff, gives it away for free, and if they want something, they know that their compatriots will give away THEIR stuff for free as well.

My goodness. You absolutely believe that. All your throwaway comments and snide remarks have fallen into place, Gobblecock. Your idea of communism is a state without any economy or measure of work whatsoever – without any economy-managing state-like apparatus (emsla).

 

Let’s list all the problems with that.

People will be lazy. In your system, there’s nothing (other than the disapproval of your reighbours) to prevent you from not doing a day’s work in your life, but having the exact same standard of living as everyone else. Even if you have the most unbelievably sunny (and inaccurate) picture of human nature ever, you must acknowledge that there will be some people who won’t work at all, and most people will work very little. There is simply no motivation whatsoever, other than love of your job and a desire for respect, to work, and neither of those desires will result in people working 9 to 5 shifts. You will have a CRITICAL labour shortage, followed by a starving population (sound familiar?)… UNLESS you have some means of motivating people to work. Either by continuous brainwashing during childhood, or by an emsla such as a Soviet-esque taxation/reward/currency system.

People will be greedy. Say you work at/manage a supermarket, or factory, or warehouse or whatever. You’re supposed to take only what you need from the fruits of your labour, and leave the rest for everyone else. But what’s to stop you just taking as much as you want? What’s to stop you from living in absolute luxury? Without an emsla (or aforementioned brainwashing), nothing. The richest people would be the ones who greeted the delivery trucks. Come along a few days since the last shipment? Sorry, you’re riding a bicycle while the lucky few drive Porches.

People won’t do the hard jobs. Being a scientist, a pilot, a doctor, a commander of men, an oil rig driller, a miner, an engineer… All these things require years of education, unbelievably hard mental or physical work, or both. Why bother, when you don’t get anything out of it for yourself? All your personal prosperity comes from how quick you get in the bread lines, not from how hard or smart you work. Why do anything hard at all, when you get the same results from being a checkout chick, a waiter, a basketballer or an academic? Sure, there’ll always be some people who work hard regardless of the reward, but without an emsla, you are still going to be STARVED of any advanced industries or sciences. Assuming your society doesn’t collapse entirely, you’ll be left decades behind the rest of the world.

How are you going to trade with other nations? Does your government do it? If so, how do they determine what to trade and how much, without becoming an emsla? Does the government just drive past the local depot, grab a bunch of stuff, and truck it off towards the border without any explanation or guarantee of recompense? What do you have to trade, if you’ve removed most motivation to work hard or smart? Countries don’t survive well in isolation, it’s the whole reason the UN does that ‘sanctions’ thing and it helped kill the USSR. Without an emsla, your trade will be no more sophisticated than a thousand ad-hoc, personal bazaars set up along the border.

What about state necessities, like a ruling body, an army, a justice system and a healthcare system? How do they fund themselves? Who determines how much they get paid? You know how loyal your soldiers are going to be when they realize their families could be much better fed if they quit and just lined up bright and early at the factory outlets every day? You realize that this state could just take as many goods as they want from the common people without actually having to provide reciprocation of any kind?

 

That’s just off the top of my head. If one thing’s clear, it’s that for a nation-sized group of people to function, they need an emsla. They need some way to measure work, by currency or tax grades or government allowance based on profession or whatever. They need some incentive to work, some incentive to work HARD, and some means of regulating how much wealth people earn or dishonestly gather for themselves.

An attentive soul will notice that a lot of the problems I mentioned above – technological inferiority, bread lines, an uneducated population, an easily corrupted army and political structure – sound suspiciously similar to problems experienced by the USSR, Cuba, North Korea, and even the not-very-communist-any-longer China.

You see, while these supposedly ‘fake’ communist states DID have an emsla, the simple fact is that a single, bureaucratic controlling organism is going to be less efficient than the best possible emsla, the free market. The USSR may have seemed unstoppable once, but looking back at the problems they encountered with their state emsla, it’s a wonder they lasted so long. If China hadn’t become effectively capitalist, they would probably have joined them (I think we can all agree that China prospered pretty hard AFTER Mao’s death).

When it comes right down to it, Gobblecock, your ‘true’ communism seems like a less organized, less planned, more chaotic version of regular, USSR communism. It relies on not just some, but the vast majority of your citizens working extremely hard for no other reason than job satisfaction. It relies on nobody wanting to live better than the average, to improve their material lot. It relies on a nation not needing large-scale trade to develop. It relies on a government populated only by incorruptible, highly moral people. It relies on everybody being concerned not with how good their own lives are, but about whether they’re producing enough to keep their reighbours happy. It relies on nobody feeling envy, or feeling angry that their reighbours work much less hard then they do, but have just as many possessions (and, because of their free time, probably a much happier life). It relies on complete and utter selflessness, to the point of depriving yourself and your family for the nebulous, unmeasurable ‘good’ of a vast nation of strangers.

I just don’t see it.

Actually, that’s a lie – I can pick a few situations where this would work quite well.

In small groups – say two to twenty people, where you know everybody very closely. If you actually know and care about the people around you, you’re much more likely to work for them rather than yourself. In fact, in small communal or family groups like this, it’s probably more efficient than a capitalist trade system – think monasteries, or isolated jungle tribes, or survivors in a zombie apocalypse, where you know and care for everyone around you.

The trouble is, you can’t run a nation this way. You can’t even run a village this way – there is simply a limit to the number of people an individual can know and care about, and thus there is a limit to the amount of manpower and specialization your effective communist society can have. I suppose, by dividing the population into tiny communes and farms, you could have a pretty functional communist nation – but it would never ever progress beyond the agricultural stage.

The only other route I see to effective communism is, basically, to change human nature. I’m not exactly sure how – extreme, continuous brainwashing, for one (‘re-education’, ‘hypnotic conditioning’, whatever). Genetic or cybernetic meddling with the brain’s hardware. Some kind of empathic telepathy, like peer pressure across an entire nation. Or maybe it’s as simple as a really, really persuasive and pervasive religion.

Whatever it is, it would be hard to make it stable and sustainable, and the only methods to do so require technology far in advance of the present day.

 

I guess I may have judged you too harshly, Gobblecock. You’re not really RETARDED – or at least, not in the same way I assumed you were. You’re just incredibly, idiotically, insipidly idealistic. You honestly believe that human nature is incredibly good. You think that every baby is born a selfless, wondrous being completely dedicated only to the good of its fellow man. You think that the only reason people are selfish, lazy, corrupt, jealous, prideful, small-minded or unable to see the big picture is because that’s the way society has made them. You believe that every person has a utopian, selfless angel inside them, one that has just been suppressed since childhood by the artificial impositions of capitalism.

 

As sweet as that is, it’s wrong. I’m not a total cynic, so I’m not going to say something unappetizing like ‘all people are inherently bad’ or ‘we’re just animals and nothing more’.

But I will say this, Gobblecock Catdick. If you can look at the sum total of human history, at all the different regimes, societies and methods of government, at all our leaders, heroes, faiths, wars, famines, golden ages, civilizations, urges, artwork, evolution, cultures, genocides, crimes, moral codes, philosophers and lifestyles, and HONESTLY say that ‘every human is not just inherently good, but inherently godlike, and it’s just our upbringing that makes us at all flawed’… then you, sir, are a BATHTUB-SHITTING LUNATIC.

 

With Apologies To Ms Rowling

So… The Dark Knight Rises came out, and I saw it.

I have nothing funny to say about it.

It’s great. Go see it, now.

The trouble with something as incredibly, unbelievably good as Nolan’s trilogy is that it always leaves me like I have to ‘follow’ it, and be overshadowed by it. How the heck am I meant to sit down at a keyboard and write creative stuff when I just saw that? It’s like spending a week touring CERN, and then going home and making a baking soda volcano – depressing, pointless and likely to make a mess. So I had a look through my old archives of writings from around 2008-2009, when I was a young(er), dumb(er), (even more) socially stunted child who spent every lunch reading, hunched over like I was taking a dump in the woods. I looked for something to put up here. And yeah, there’s some not-totally-awful stuff back there – I’m actually kind of proud of some of my creative writing assignments. But then I stumbled upon this.

I am not proud of this.

I did, however, quite enjoy rereading it. And if you’ve just watched The Dark Knight Rises, then you probably aren’t going to be impressed by what I consider my ‘good’ stuff. So here we go. Please forgive me.

“Complete amnesty,” Vostrin said flatly. “From all past crimes, plus a change of identity, new residence, and citizenship in the country of my choice.”

Paul looked like he was about to negotiate, but I interjected. “Done,” I agreed. “Binding. Now get it.”

Vostrin looked between us, a little surprised at the quick acquiescence; helicopters thumped overhead as the fluorescent lights flickered. It was damp; the rain outside had penetrated the cheap Shenyang apartment.

“Please, don’t stand around on my account,” Paul said. The Russian begrudgingly moved to a section of the floor and peeled back a plank of mouldy wood, revealing a thick safe. He began whispering incantations into the locks.

Then a sniper round smashed the window out to the rooftops and sliced over the top of his hair.

“Shit!” Paul yelled as we flung ourselves to the floor. The sound of the helicopter was very loud, Vostrin was screaming on his belly with fright and –

 The windows in the threadbare loungeroom burst open as People’s Liberation Army special forces rappelled in.

I kicked over a table and rolled behind the boundary as Paul drew his wand. I grabbed my 93r and fired wildly over the edge of my shelter as dark shapes burst into the next room.

“Avada kedavra!” Green light swept a soldier off his feet. More sniper bullets tore through the walls.

“Screw this,” I grunted, shimmying over to Vostrin. He’d opened the safe somehow and pulled out the briefcase, hugging it to his chest. “Do you have an escape route?” he yelled over the gunfire.

Paul giggled a little as he rolled over to us. “We were planning to just take Air Emirates back to LA…”

“There’s a portkey,” I cut in. “A safe room, a few buildings down.”

Vostrin gazed at me in abject, irrational terror. “A few… they have helicopters!”

Paul tapped him on the shoulder. “Just hold on to the briefcase.”

 

There were two commandoes in the elevator lobby for the fiftieth floor – we gunned them before they could open fire.

“Can’t we just hijack a Floo gate?” Vostrin whimpered pathetically as we ran to our Samsonite crate where we’d left it.

“The locals will have locked down the entire Floo network,” Paul explained helpfully as he pressed a HK416 into Vostrin’s unwilling hands. “Same for Apparation and the elevators, in fact. So guess how we get down?”

  I finished grabbing my gear from the crate, put a round in the breech of my HK416, and kicked out the nearest window.

                The roof of the skyscraper, like that of pretty much every other concrete-and-glass prism in Shenyang, was a combination of corrugated aluminium and hard concrete. Under the torrential downpour from the clouds, it was ridiculously slippery.

I was soaked through my Kevlar as soon as I got out from the lobby and started slipping across the rooftop; I shook the water out of my eyes and checked the GPS.

“Hard right, follow me!” I yelled. A helicopter swept overhead; Paul fired a couple of hexes at it and it ducked below our line of sight. We started running, helping Vostrin up when he tumbled.

“Think they’ve got airborne infantry?” I panted.

“Broomsticks? No chance, mate, not in this weather. Now, listen to me, Vostrin – you’re going to have to jump, okay?”

The roof slanted down to a steep aluminium precipice, and the void between this building and the next. It was filled with wind and water.

Vostrin shook his head, long greasy curls flinging raindrops everywhere. “No way, you Yankee bastards. No way am I doing that…”

  Three more helicopters swept up above roof-level, commandoes swinging down from ziplines onto this building and the next. Bullets whistled around us.

“You know what’ll kill you, mate?” Paul asked cheerfully as we ran for the edge. “Not Communists; that sense of self-preservation.”

We reached the edge and leapt.

In popular opinion, dramatic leaps are long, slow and horizontal. In reality, I flew forward for what felt like a few metres before dropping like a stone.

“Levicorpus!” Paul yelled, and the charm blasted away gravity for just one second as I fell into the darkness, windows and balconies blurring past –

We crashed through a balcony canopy, tearing through the cheap fabric and slamming down onto the tiles. I grunted in pain at the stinging in my ankles, my wrists, my knees – Vostrin cried quietly. But for a moment, there were no bullets tearing through the air around us.

I staggered upright, helping Paul up, and shouldered my 416. “Thanks.”

“Anytime, buddy.”

Angry footsteps rumbled through the apartments inside; they were audible even over the rustling rain.

He grinned, checking that our angry Russian friend had the briefcase. “Let’s rock and roll.”

 

The corridors of the tenants block were a battleground.

There were civilians everywhere, terrified-looking Chinese men and women crawling under tables and forcing themselves into cupboards as AK-47s smashed into walls.

“Three tangos, left side apartment,” I grunted as I ducked behind a pillar, tossing out a Stupefy charm-grenade. I waited for the red flash, then ducked out, putting 5.56mm into the two commandoes by the stairwell. Paul dived forward to cover me from the left, firing his wand from his right hand and a Glock from his left. The three PLA troops were dead before they hit the ground.

The helicopter swept by outside, firing wildly through the walls and cutting us off from the end of the hallway. Wood and concrete fragments flew through the air and stung my face; I ducked back angrily. “Gotta get out of here!”

 Paul aimed his wand at the ground. “Bombarda!” The floor blasted apart, revealing a half-set dinner table below us.

He smiled and jumped down. “Ever wish you were one of us, mate?”

“Better Muggle than mocked in the street… Vostrin, come on!”

  There was a wizened old grandfather huddled in the corner as we kicked open the front door of his apartment. I felt like apologizing, but for some reason that wasn’t covered in the US Army Mandarin primer.

I checked my thermal vision as we hurried through the dark halls; the little monocle showed ten heat blobs coming down the stairs. “We’d better hurry… the elevator shaft, go!”

Paul murmured a quick charm. When that didn’t work, he slipped out a fifty-centimeter crowbar from his body armour and started working on the doors while I watched the commandoes approach. Maybe fifteen seconds…

“I don’t want to,” Vostrin said as the dark maw of the shaft gazed up at us.

“We promised you asylum – “ Paul tried.

“Fuck that. I don’t wanna fucking die.”

I gave the soldiers one last look and then grabbed Vostrin and slammed him against the wall, pressing my rifle-butt into his neck.

“Listen to me you little shit,” I snarled, “the PLA doesn’t want you alive. There is no option other than us if you want to live. Do you want to live?” His face glowed orange through the thermal monocle.

He sniffled, water slicking his face, then nodded slightly.

“Then get in the bloody shaft.”

Paul held the doors as he connected up Vostrin to our zipline; the soldiers had reached the fire door on this floor and I could see, in normal vision, the splinters as they kicked it down.

I dived towards the silvery doors.

A wand-tip and two rifles slid around the corner of the fire vestibule.

Paul let go of the doors.

I slid through.

The doors shut.

The orange thermal blobs came into the corridor.

 

The adrenaline surge had been so intense that for a moment, I forgot about the whole ‘elevator shaft’ thing.

Luckily, Vostrin grabbed me by the edge of my Kevlar vest and I used the slowdown to grip the zipline. I looked up at the Russian through the darkness, surprised.

He shrugged.

I’d dropped my 416 in the dive and I listened for the clatter, but I heard nothing. Paul murmured “lumos” from above us, looking for any obstructions. We checked our carabineers again, and started rappelling down.

  The dark metal walls slinked past as I bounced off with my combat boots. Now that I thought about it out of the immediate firefight, I realized that my side was aching ferociously and I’d probably been hit by a bullet or a minor hex. The body armour was good, though, Kevlar and high-quality shielding charms – I didn’t think anything was broken.

I swung down to place my feet against the door for Floor 12. Just before I touched, it was wrenched open by a pair of crowbars, and I tumbled into the middle of four People’s Liberation Army troopers.

I whipped my bowie from my quick-draw sheath and punched one in the face, breaking his young cheek-bones before slashing him shallowly in the ribs; someone was on top of me, choking me, and I tried to roll over and kick him loose. That didn’t work, but from the sound and the impact I kicked someone else in the cheek.

I stabbed the wounded one under me deep in the heart and flipped the blade around, stabbing upwards at the choker –

“Expelliarmus!”

My knife flew away and I was kicked back against a trash can, feeling the cheap plastic collapse on top of me. The choker had recoiled back, bleeding a little, and another PLA soldier had a wand aimed at my face.

“Avada – “

Paul swung in shooting and put three rounds into the man’s head; that was two down, but I was still unarmed and the fourth man kicked Paul in the gut before he could release his zipline. He tumbled back into the elevator shaft and swung wildly.

I saw an AK47 on the ground and dived towards it, but that fucking fourth guy grabbed a crowbar that was closer and smashed me across the shoulder; I heard something break and screamed. He laughed wildly, and I rolled over and lifted the gun and blew his head off.

I’m special forces. Pain don’t hurt.

  The third guy, the choker, was getting to his feet. Or perhaps I should say getting to its feet.

The choker was an Animagus.

                The bear roared wildly and stepped forward, rearing up onto its hind legs; it clocked me with its left paw before I could fire. The blow ripped my helmet off my head, cut a centimetre into my scalp and knocked me senseless. It lowered its jaws for the killing blow, but it didn’t quite finish me off in time.

Paul had dropped his Glock, grabbed a Chinese wand and hit it with two Killing Curses simultaneously.

“Motherfucker,” I hissed as the real world faded in through orange and black starbursts. “That really, really hurt.”

“Word,” Pat said. Vostrin clambered clumsily up out of the shaft, holding the wet leather briefcase to his chest. I breathed out gently as I saw that it had survived the descent and the fight. They both helped me up.

“Let’s get out of China.”

 

The portkey leading to our safehouse in Dublin was contained in a beat-up van parked in a two-hour waiting zone beneath the skyscraper opposite us.

We were on the twelfth-floor balcony, and could only marvel at just how much traffic was backed up beneath the helicopters and –

“Brooms,” I grunted. “I told you.”

My 416 was gone so I pulled out my shotgun and started running for the next balcony. “Jump between the balconies and the fire escapes, get down to street level!”

Bullets smashed past the hanging laundry and the pot plants; women inside shrieked and dropped their cups of coffee. “Run, just run!” I called to the others.

Whatever Apparation jammer they’d been running had been shut off – black ectoplasmic smoke bloomed as wizards burst into corporeality around us. Two Apparated onto the balcony below me as I made the jump; my legs pedalled uselessly through the rainy sky as I fired a shell into each of their heads. Both were torn into red shreds of gore before they finished materializing.

I slammed into the balcony and turned, firing two more shells at the broom riders raining hexes onto the others. Paul jumped down and ran on ahead, barely slowing, but Vostrin stumbled as a Reductor curse blew out the awning he leapt from. His feet slipped on the wet aluminium as he fell over, groaning. One of the PLA soldiers on the brooms Disapparated and appeared above him –

I fired my last shell into the back of his head and blew it into chunky salsa, before bending down to help Vostrin up.

“Nice shot,” he smiled gratefully.

Then a bullet smacked through his brain.

I just stared as he dropped stupidly to the ground as rain and gunfire howled all around us. “No, no,” I mumbled. “No way, no…” I bent down and fumbled for the briefcase. It was strapped to his bloody form, belted on to his Kevlar; I could barely see the plastic clip through the rain.

Click.

“Got it!” I yelled.

Seven Chinese wizards Apparated onto my balcony, wands and pistols raised.

I jumped.

The road was four lanes wide, with one lane overhung by the balcony I had been standing on. That was about nine metres to jump across, from a standing start. I had been four storeys up.

   Paul hit me with a Repulso curse and knocked me like a ninepin into the RPG team that had set up a firing position in front of our van.

I rolled wildly, breaking too many bones, smacking my skull against hard asphalt. I wound up face-down in a puddle and choked desperately, grappling for my 93r, enemy hands and legs and weapons all over me.

An AK-47 fired from a metre away at my chest, three bullets bouncing off the Kevlar. Ribs broke.

I rolled over screaming, mud and hair and blood and water in my face, and opened fire with my 93r. The shooter fell back in a puddle of blood, as did the others of the RPG team around me. Across the street, people were turning with guns and wands and another animagus shimmered into a leopard and –

Paul jumped down, plastered with blood, and yanked me into the van, sliding the doors shut.

Bullets punched holes for the rain through the walls as we crawled to the portkey, a nondescript plastic cuboid painted military-green. Paul tapped the keyboard, swearing.

“Shit! There’s a jamming field on this frequency, we can’t jump out!”

An RPG smashed into the front of the van, blasting the engine block to smithereens and covering us in smoke, flame and glass. It gave me an idea.

“The jammer would have to be pretty big, right?” More bullets all around us. “In a vehicle?”

“Yeah. Hey, mate, it’s been nice working with…”

“You see any cars outside? Trucks?” The van rocked as Killing Curses spent themselves against the sides.

“No!” he yelled back.

“Cover me!” I screamed, and wrenched open the doors.

“Lumos solem!” Paul charmed, turning his wand into a 30-megawatt strobe. Hard white light seared the eyeballs of the troops turning us into swiss cheese, causing them to yank backwards and cover their faces.

I wriggled forward out of the van, grabbed a loaded RPG from the dead team around us, and looked into the rainy sky.

There were two helicopters; I chose the bigger one.

The missile snapped its tail rotor clean off and the terrible steel harpy spun wildly, flanks grinding against the concrete frontage of the opposite skyscraper before snapping off all its rotors and plummeting to the ground in flames.

I dived back inside as the flare-charm died on Paul’s wand.

We both grabbed the portkey; he hit the keys.

“The fucking briefcase!” I screamed with realization, and slapped a hand over onto the leather as AK-47s growled into nattering life again outside.

The military-green plastic pyramid became a twirling spiral of silver light, and I grabbed the sodden leather case under my arm and held on tight.

That still left my hand free for one gesture to all of Shenyang.

Then we were gone.

I Am Vengeance, I Am the Night

With The Dark Knight Rises in cinemas, I need to ready my adult diapers, some chocolate ice cream and a whole lot of vodka, because I’m pretty sure I’m about to be fantastically disappointed. Oh, it’ll probably be the best film of the year and everything, but following The Dark Knight and Inception? Without Heath Ledger? I want to believe you can do it, Nolan, but…

Anyway, I now have the perfect opportunity to talk about everyone’s favourite gargoyle-hugging, croaky-voiced, absurdly-dressed member of the 1%: Batman.

Batman is one of the few non-Joss Whedon things I still get stupidly fanboyish over. I will not hear words against him. I don’t care how many girls recoil away from my sweaty form in unease, I will not shut up about how awesome Batman is until the word ‘batarang’ is enshrined in the Oxford Dictionary. He’s the star of some of the best[1] comics[2] ever[3] made[4], he’s second in fame only to the big blue boy scout, and in terms of character development, complexity and coolness, he kicks the ass of Supes and 99% of everyone else in comics. So what can I say about him without descending into an incomprehensible, rabid spray of expletives, references and orgasm metaphors?

I’m going to talk about Robin.

Robin has inherited… very little of his mentor’s popularity. Batman and Robin was one of the worst superhero movies I’ve ever seen. Out of the four Robins so far, two (three?) of them were explicitly hated by the fandom, one so much that he was killed by popular vote. Christopher Nolan explicitly said that he would never include Robin in his series, and it’s easy to see why. The character is campy, over-the-top, and clearly just thrown in to score points with kids imagining themselves fighting alongside Batman. How the heck is a scrawny, half-naked, brightly-clothed teenage boy meant to compete with villains like the Joker or Killer Croc? Why, when Batman’s motif and tactics are based around inciting fear, does he invoke the name of a harmless, sweet-sounding bird? Other than a cheap marketing tool, just what is the point of Robin?

Well, I’ll tell you. But first I’ll rant for a while, because about 50% of you just sniggered and thought ‘butt sex’.

Dynamic

Batman does not have sex with Robin. Yes, the tights, the unfortunate remarks and the fact that he is a grown man living with a partially-dressed underage boy all paint a grim picture. But Batman’s character does not include sexual deviancy. If anything, Batman is asexual; I mean, he can still have and enjoy sex, but like a righteous preacher or a sociopath, he’s far too focused on something far, far bigger than petty physical gratification. The man is a martial artist of the highest calibre; he’s more zen than the entire population of Tibet. To Batman, the idea of being distracted or compromised by sex is repugnant and impossible. Anyway, if he gets off on anything, it’s providing free facial reconstruction surgeries in Gotham City’s alleyways.

Anyway, if he doesn’t keep Robin around for the gross reason, why else? It’s not because he’s incredibly useful as a crimefighting aid. In the (unimaginably rare) event that Batman really needs another vigilante’s help, here’s a novel thought: turn to someone other than a 12-year-old boy. Huntress, the various Batgirls, Black Canary, Jim Gordon, Catwoman (when she feels like it), the Hood, the Question, Azrael, and if necessary, the entire Justice League, including several demigods… all of these people are battle-hardened, experienced fighters with impressive track records, all would be happy to give Bats a hand, and all of them have hit puberty. So no. Batman does not have Robin along for his impressive fighting skills.

My pet theory is this: Batman keeps Robin around, not because Robin is useful to him now, but as a living failsafe plan.

First, there’s the possibility that Bruce Wayne will be killed, and another man will have to take up his cape, cowl and stupidly non-aerodynamic throwing knives. This has happened multiple times in the comics, and will probably be a major part of The Dark Knight Rises. So Batman takes in a promising youth while he’s still mentally pliable, and spends the kid’s adolescence moulding him into a mirror of himself, so that when that day finally comes, Batman can live on beyond Bruce Wayne.

But there is a second, more awesome component to this plan. Batman trains and develops Robin personally, not just so Robin could replace him, but so Robin could kill him.

Batman is a terrifyingly powerful man. The US government and the Justice League have both tried to neutralize him in the past, with some seriously excessive measures, and failed. He has kicked Superman’s ass several times. Raʾs al-Ġūl (Liam Neeson in Batman Begins, for the Philistines) once stole a handful of Batman’s contingency plans, and with them he was able to incapacitate the entire Justice League.

In the world of DC, where possession, mind control and alternate ‘evil’ dimensions are as common as regrets on a Thailand holiday, Batman would have to prepare for the eventuality of his own evilness. We’re talking about the guy who memorizes biographical details from arthouse films just in case the Riddler leaves clues pertinent to Rashomon (and yes, that is a plot that actually happened). Of course he would have a failsafe in case he himself ever grew a goatee.

So despite the camaraderie, despite Robin often acting as a child-surrogate for him, that’s where the sidekick comes from. About once a decade, Bruce Wayne will find an impressionable young child, tell him/her his secret, train them to be the perfect replacement Batman, and let them in on all of his secret techniques, hideaways and weapons… just in case the day comes where Bruce Wayne himself has to be put behind bars. Just in case.

Batman, ladies and gentlemen. He’s not the hero we need right now, he’s the asylum-escaped, control-freak, teenager-kidnapping lunatic we deserve. Enjoy The Dark Knight Rises!


[1] The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Frank Miller

[2] The Killing Joke (1988), Alan Moore

[3] Batman: Year One (1987), Frank Miller

[4] Kingdom Come (1996), Alex Ross & Mark Waid