The Great Game

I am struck by the visual representation of Sherlock in this episode, the extent to which the narrative of his clash with Moriarty, the “Great Game” of the heading, is reinforced by Sherlock’s physicality and framing, the focus on his figure as it moves through the steps of the “game”. If this is a dance, Sherlock is not leading it, and his place in it is curiously feminised as an object of desire as well as a slightly hapless follower to Moriarty’s lead.

In visual terms the episode is particularly full of white, stark, empty settings – the snow of the Belarus prison room which opens it, the empty spaces of the Thames-side crime scene and the art gallery.

belarus  thames

Sherlock inhabits these as a dark, isolated centrepiece, gaining focus from the contrasts which also lend him resonance as alienated and alien, apart and slightly inhuman (look at his disengaged body language, leaning back, in the left-hand shot above), associated with the cold of the snowscape or the Thames-side body site, or the gallery’s white marble. Sherlock himself is interestingly shot in this episode, high-contrast shots which emphasise his paleness and render him inhumanly beautiful, marble rather than flesh.

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He is framed as an object of desire – Moriarty’s desire, John’s desire, but also through our identification with the camera, ours. That first frame, above left, is notable for its reinforcement of the feminisation enacted on him by Moriarty’s dominance of the episode – the lighting and camera angle emphasises the actor’s bone structure, but also make him look younger and rather vulnerable.

This positioning of Sherlock as the object of desire is played up by the episode’s narrative, which presents the “Great Game” as a tussle for Sherlock’s attention. Moriarty’s introduction in the persona of the slightly camp “Jim” makes this desire explicit in leaving his phone number, but it’s also inherent in Moriarty’s flirtatious language later in the episode: “hello, sexy”; “a little getting-to-know you present”; “is that just a Browning in your pocket, or are you pleased to see me?” John’s jealous reaction reinforces this – “I hope you’ll be very happy together”.

The framing points up the series’s continual play with the tension between emotion and intellect, between engagement and detachment – Sherlock must be seduced because he is detached, but he also hold within him the potential for passionate involvement, a response to the seduction. He shares with Moriarty the potential for both extremes, cold and suppressed in one moment, excited and manic when thrilled by intellectual stimulation. And, of course, the other extreme to Belarus’s snow is the melodrama so characteristic of the series – in this episode the Golem, the planetarium struggle to Holst’s “Planets” with the wildly interrupted lighting – which externalises and dramatises the emotional extreme. Melodrama, after all, is about an excess of emotion. The series is almost forced to include it simply to balance out the detective’s intellectual detachment.

The Blind Banker

This is an extremely loose thematic adaptation of “The Dancing Men” (a criminal past issuing threats via coded drawings), with a touch of The Valley of Fear (the book cipher and secret gang tattoos) and a possible case for echoes of The Sign of Four (climbing murderers, stolen foreign treasures, Watson distracted by a love interest). Importantly, all three stories offer some version of a particularly British fear of the racial or cultural other – threats from outside are respectively Chicago gangs, American Freemasons and Indian convicts employing an Andaman islander with a blowpipe – which has been translated, in Stephen Thompson’s rather problematical hands, into the heavily stereotyped threat – exotic, inscrutable, Oriental, criminally degenerate – of the Chinese Tong.

The generic intertexts of this episode are firmly in the field of melodrama, and I am irresistibly reminded of the very specific melodrama represented by early 20th-century pulp literature and popular film focusing on Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu character. The insidious Fu Manchu was a long-running villain, a Chinese mastermind behind every kind of crime associated in the popular imagination with Limehouse and its Chinese population. Against the threat of secret societies peopled by “lesser” races is placed the stalwart Western detective figure of Nayland Smith, thwarting the underworld denizens through bravery and brawn.

the-hand-of-fu-manchu fu manchu 1 BRIDEofFU

Apart from their rampant melodrama these novels were associated with the most stereotypical and reductionist images of Chinese culture – as you can see from the covers above, shadow puppetry, dragons and monsters are accompanied by objectified female figures in exotic clothes, and by signifiers of “Chineseness” such as Fu Manchu’s long fingernails, moustache and soaring eyebrows. In the TV series intro, below, a similar reductionism is seen in musical cues (gongs, non-Western tonal qualities) as well as visual elements such as the Chinese pottery, elaborate head-dresses and faux-Oriental font.

More modern versions of Fu Manchu, in terms of the stereotype he represents, still exist; good examples are Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon (left, below) and the Mandarin, most recently seen in the third Iron Man film (right, below. Marvel’s contemporary version of the comic-book Mandarin at least has the grace to self-consciously deconstruct an extremely outdated concept). You can see the visual echoes between the three versions of Chinese villain – all three have the high-collar tunic and beard, and Ming entirely adopts Fu Manchu’s beard, moustache and winged eyebrows.

flashgordon5 mandarin

This kind of representation can be usefully understood through the lens of Edward Said’s critical work on Orientalism, which is an important early thread in postcolonial studies. (Useful primers can be found here and here. Said’s writing conceptualises Orientalism as a constellation of particular assumptions about the East made from within Western culture, but more importantly constructed in contrast to Western culture – that is, the East is seen as not only essentially different (other, exotic) but also necessarily inferior (degenerate, criminal, primitive, uncultured, superstitious, etc). In addition to these stereotypes, Orientalist viewpoints tend to homogenise Eastern cultures and treat them as a single, undifferentiated, “Eastern” culture.

All this is relevant to Thompson’s script for “The Blind Banker” because, frankly, his evil Tong hordes, Chinese circus, acrobatic Chinese cat-burglar and priceless jade hair-pin are howling stereotypes which may just as well have come straight out of Fu Manchu. You’ll note that the sabre-wielding intruder who Sherlock battles early in the episode is some indeterminate “other” race – Indian or Arabic? it’s unclear – which conforms to Said’s notion of the homogeneity of “other” cultures under the orientalist gaze. (Origami will also be identified as Japanese rather than Chinese by the average Western viewer, and the lotus design seems more Japanese than Chinese). The character of Soo Lin Yao is also an embodiment of the silhouetted, exotic female of the Fu Manchu covers; while she doesn’t dance, she is associated with the ancient Chinese teapots she tends, and is in fact described in the script as a “China doll” – like her teapots, she is “made to be touched”, an object rather than a subjectivity. I am also interested in the re-imagining of the dancing men code as graffiti, which has all of the connotations of criminality which Said identifies in the Orientalist gaze.

The episode is self-consciously melodramatic, and the infusion of melodrama into the modern Sherlock universe is entertaining; it serves as a nice contrast with the more cerebral aspect of Sherlock himself at the same time as it seems consonant with his drama-queen aspects. The thread of melodrama is of course highly visual; Doyle’s own stories are seldom quite this melodramatic, Freemason villains notwithstanding, and his non-British villains, while often stereotypical, are not drawn in quite such exaggerated terms. It is thus a pity that the Orientalist elements of this episode should be quite so uncritically deployed, an instance where the “updated” Sherlock is actually regressive. A hundred years later we should really be better than that.

A Study in Pink

Here dwell together still two men of note
Who never lived and so can never die:
How very near they seem, yet how remote
That age before the world went all awry.
But still the game’s afoot for those with ears
Attuned to catch the distant view-halloo:
England is England yet, for all our fears–
Only those things the heart believes are true.
A yellow fog swirls past the window-pane
As night descends upon this fabled street:
A lonely hansom splashes through the rain,
The ghostly gas lamps fail at twenty feet.
Here, though the world explode, these two survive,
And it is always eighteen ninety-five.

– Vincent Starrett, 1942

Vincent Starrett was a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, one of the earliest fan societies dedicated to Doyle’s detective. His sonnet, above, is a famous characterisation of Holmes and Watson as a timeless, enduring pair whose identity is quintessentially tied up both in their relationship, and in the strong sense of Victorian idyll which pervades the poem. The BBC Sherlock embodies this sense of Holmes and Watson as somehow iconic, their meaning enduring to an extent which makes them capable of re-invention in a new century; the series hinges on the recognisability of the two men and their shared life even divorced from their Victorian setting. Interestingly, the Granada series does not adapt A Study in Scarlet, despite its importance as the text in which Holmes and Watson meet; I cannot help but read their omission in the light of Starrett’s poem, so that in the Granada series Holmes and Watson remain timeless and unending, a continual present of the two of them in Baker Street without either a starting point or (given that the series also omits Watson’s marriage to Mary Morstan) an ending to their lives together.

(Why 1895? While John Watson’s blog, the BBC media tie-in, references this Sherlockian in-joke in the stuck hit counter in its original layout (since changed, but explicitly referenced in “A Scandal in Bohemia”), it makes no attempt to explain the significance of the date. I choose to link it to Watson’s description of Holmes in “The Adventure of Black Peter”, where he notes that “I have never known my friend to be in better form, both mental and physical, than in the year ’95. His increasing fame had brought with it an immense practice.” It is entirely inevitable that John/Sherlock fanfic shippers also relate the date to the infamous trial of Oscar Wilde for homosexuality, citing Doyle’s friendship with and support of Wilde).

john watson blog

“A Study in Pink” works hard to establish its terms of reference: a close dialogue with Doyle’s stories (while this is not a faithful adaptation its intertextual relationship with “Study in Scarlet” and other stories is very strong), a focus on the emotional significance of John and Sherlock’s relationship, and the visual encodings which underscore both London as a character in its own right, and the pivotal importance of Sherlock’s deductive process externalised as visual cues. The episode establishes its relatively marginal play with Victorian codes in the cluttered, wallpapered interior of 221B, and in the frock-coat-invoking silhouette of Sherlock’s iconic coat.

sherlock coat

Introductory sequences

Granada’s version of the Sherlock Holmes stories was broadcast on Britain’s ITV between 1984 and 1994; its 40-odd episodes make it one of the most comprehensive adaptations of Doyle’s narratives, with only 18 stories left untouched. (Interestingly, “A Study in Scarlet”, the first story in which Holmes and Watson meet, is not among the adaptations.) Granada’s versions are faithful renditions of Doyle’s narratives, rich in period detail, and interpreted with a somewhat pedestrian and measured pacing. The title sequence, above, signals this fidelity in its bustling nineteenth-century street scenes, in which the recognisable motifs of carriages, street urchins and the classical theme music encode periodicity while Jeremy Brett’s Holmes watches London knowingly from his window. Its camera follows a series of micro-narratives in relatively long takes, set formally apart from each other by the freeze-frames of the titles, and unambiguously promising narratively-focused adaptations which will be conventional in format and reverential in tone.

CBC’s Elementary premiered in 2012, and is not strictly an adaptation of Doyle’s stories; rather, its contemporary New York setting hosts a relatively standard detective procedural in which names and some elements of the characters’ identities and relationship are echoes of the Victorian texts. There is no attempt to replicate the plots of specific stories, and invocations of detail from Doyle’s narratives are minimal and fleeting; it’s interesting primarily for its genderbent Watson and for the centrality of the drug addict motif in its characterisation of Sherlock. The title sequence largely avoids the location- or character-specific feel of either Granada or the BBC’s Sherlock, with theme music which retains classical/orchestral elements while being recognisably updated to modern title music conventions. In the Rube Goldberg contraptions of the sequence we are invited to focus on the notion of detection itself as the interpretation of a chain of cause and effect, while motifs in the machine – pistols, blades, swinging weights, the destruction of a china head and the eventual cage which falls to enclose a plastic model of a man – evoke the notions of destruction and murder as well as the capture of the criminal. The rolling glass ball comes to embody the inexorable processes of Sherlock’s interpretations, linking elements in a chain while also participating inevitably in their unfolding effects. New York, unlike the centrality of London in the Granada or BBC versions, is a final and momentary freeze-frame, signalling the urban environment of the detective procedural while explicitly distancing its version of Sherlock from Doyle’s.

The primary effect of Sherlock‘s intro sequence is of fragmentation: we are presented with fleeting images, often in extreme close-up, with a recurring motif of London street-scenes from unlikely angles, and with speeded-up action. Like much of the cinematography in the series, this attempts to encode something of the information overload which apparently characterises Sherlock’s own experience of the world. London is clearly an essential element in the series, as are notions of observation and visuality – images include an eye, Sherlock looking through a magnifying glass, his face reflected multiple times, and a view through a microscope’s lens. The theme music is more modern in feel than that of either Granada’s series or Elementary; its drum beat is urgent and contemporary even while its orchestral framing operates as a marker of quality. The momentary images and use of both overlay and extreme close-up set the tone for the cinematic framing of the series as a whole, and we are warned to expect something very different in terms of pace and focus to Doyle’s stories, even while the emphasis on London, both a contemporary and a historical space, insists on the lineage of the series.

Andraste’s Knicker Weasels, Part V: Mass Effect

I am posting here some analysis I’ve written over the last few years about my experience of Bioware games, slightly edited from its original form.

mass effect

The great thing about discovering Bioware games over the last couple of years has been the feeling they give me that the designers actually get something of what I want out of computer gaming, and allow for it (to a greater or lesser extent) in the possibilities they create. Primarily, they understand that satisfying gameplay isn’t just about interesting tactics or bigger and more zappy guns. It’s about narrative, and narrative is primarily about interactions, the myriad individuals and sub-plots and dialogues and relationships which give you reasons to identify with the hero and actually care about the armies facing off amid giant swathes of political turmoil. For me, good gameplay is about emotional investment way before it’s about shooting things.

I was primed for this by my experience of Dragon Age, and the Mass Effect trilogy definitely has a lot going for it. The world-building is wonderful: while it’s a rather Star-Trekky universe, full of conveniently humanoid aliens able to share air, gravity, scale, food, language and kinky sex with humanity, it’s a rich, dense and enthralling space-opera environment, with all the necessary trappings of cool spaceships, beautiful planets and interesting alien cultures. (I love the Elcor. And the speeded-up squeaky babble of the Salarians. Mordin Solus singing Gilbert and Sullivan patter-songs ftw). The bad guys are satisfyingly bad, Shepard gets to be satisfyingly heroic, and the scale is appropriately epic and prone to political back-stabbery as well as essentialist confrontation. Also, Cerberus has my vote as a highly compelling reification of human tendencies towards selfishness, self-righteousness, power-grabbing and xenophobia – they’re far more terrifying than the damned Reapers.

It’s also been a fascinating insight into the development process behind the classic Bioware character interactions, which I knew from Dragon Age I and II before I went anywhere near ME. The change in ethos across the three parts of the trilogy has been very obvious, particularly when you consider DA as interleaved chronologically with ME: ME, DA, ME2, DA2, ME3. There has been a definite change in sensibility and focus in terms of how the character interactions are framed, even within the clear, obvious and rather stereotypical tendency to give more space to romances in DA than in ME. (Presumably because sf is for Boyz and fantasy is for Gurlz and everyone knows only Gurlz do all this emotional interacty stuff. Gender stereotypes, so lovely.) ME itself was preliminary, its relationships rather perfunctory, while DA is to me the high point in terms of complexity and depth in its interactions. Thereafter Bioware has backed off a bit from commitment to well-rounded relationships, although DA2 still has more detail than ME2 does. By ME3 the relationships have become mechanical and rather superficial, thrown in, I can’t help feeling, as a sop to the soppy types who actually like that sort of thing. Because clearly, real gameplay is all about the guns and the graphics. Ptooey. (And I deeply, deeply mourn the loss of the DA-style sarky companion dialogue in the background as they comment, frequently scurrilously, on your current relationship). Nonetheless, the later games are still engaging and fun.

It also does some slightly bizarre things to character interactions to play the same character throughout the trilogy – particularly if you suffer, as I do, from lawfully good monogamous tendencies. ME2 made some odd choices, not only in the change of tone (it takes itself way too seriously, and the new squad members are too often tight-arses lacking all sense of humour; ME3’s banter levels are better) but in the decision not to allow the romance options of the first game to join the squad in the second. I spent the first ME2 play-through resolutely single and fulminating slightly at Kaidan’s damned unfair rejection, and the second one pursuing interestingly-conflicted broody aliens while simultaneously feeling unfaithful. The effect of the Bioware character interactions, particularly coupled with the high-stakes conflicts and desperate need for supportive allies, is to foster attachment. (A point which the always wonderful Ben Croshaw makes rather entertainingly here.) It’s a bit of a rug-yank to have the carefully-built-up attachment of the first game offhandedly denied in the second.

Above all, though, what computer gaming does for me is to embody an ideal of agency or instrumentality, the sense that if you’re careful and clever and persistent and thoughtful in the choices you make you can actually maximise outcomes, make a difference, save the day. Computer games at base give me the same kind of narrative pleasure as superhero films. And of course that kind of neat outcome is not at all realistic; as far as I’m concerned, realism in games should be a feature of lovely graphics and game balance, not of the story itself. Computer game narratives are heroic romance, their patterns and outcomes essentially unrealistic, predestined, the stuff of legend. I think I respond as strongly as I do to the character interactions because they, too, play out in these essentialised, idealised terms; they offer the completion and roundedness and sense of achievement of narrative rather than the messiness of the real.

All of which explains, if it doesn’t quite excuse, the fact that the climax of ME3 reduced me, as per my tweet at the time, to “the ugly crying of sheer, frustrated rage”. Previous Bioware game endings have been extremely clever in skirting the narrative knife-edge between realism and satisfaction: outcomes which are not so flat-pack heroic as to be entirely obvious, but which still deliver narrative satisfaction. This time, the shark they jumped with their dreadnought was of the more galaxy-spanning kind. The ending completely denied the careful raft of decisions, choices, moral deliberations and purposeful alliances which the three games have built up. Instead, it presented you with (a) an entirely arbitrary and unscaffolded one-click choice disconnected in all instrumental ways from your previous decisions and relationships, (b) lacking any sort of actual narrative satisfaction of the heroic sort (regardless of what you choose, you kinda die and trash the galaxy), and (c) delivered at unnecessary length in the painful, helpless, cut-scene slow motion of the more unpleasant kind of nightmare. By the end of it my throat was raw from shouting obscenities at the screen.

And I suppose the sense of betrayal is itself a testament to the success of the series to that point: the extent to which it did, indeed, present its narratives as a co-operation between designer and player rather than an imposition by the designers, and the power it has to foster this enormous sense of emotional investment as a result. I have no idea what went wrong. A lot of it felt simply rushed, as though they flung together the ending to make deadline rather than developing it properly, so that the implications were never properly thought through. I derive a certain amount of consolation from the mental image of the better writers on the series ritually disembowelling themselves in back rooms as their mutilated creation shipped. But I am sad, sad, sad beyond belief that they wrecked an otherwise lovely and satisfying thing.

Andraste’s Knicker Weasels, Part IV: Dragon Age II

I am posting here some analysis I’ve written over the last few years about my experience of Bioware games, slightly edited from its original form.


In my completely unhumble opinion, Dragon Age II is a pale, inadequate and bastardised shadow of Origins in almost every possible way. I’m not claiming that Origins was a perfect artefact; despite the manifold pleasures I derived from it, there were moments of frustration, areas where its execution faltered. I loved it for the breadth and depth of its world-building, its social and political sweep, its ability to transcend traditional computer game polarities into shades of grey, ambiguous moral decisions and no-win trade-offs. I adored its companion development and the capacity for building relationships amid all the questing. The things which bugged me tended to be minor and peripheral: the disappearance of interesting companion interactions in the high-stakes final stages of the game versus the high concentration of interactions early on, for example, or the minor inconsistencies in responses and plot details as earlier decisions were ignored. It’s about skimping on playtesting and quality control. I also got a little narked at some of the more clichéd armour choices available for female characters. The ones with lots of breast. You’re above that, Origins.

But these pale into insignificance beside the manifest iniquities of the sequel, which appears to have wholesalely cannibalised Origins‘s world-building as a basis for systematically junking about eighty percent of the qualities which actually made the first game, you know, good. The things which particularly got up my nose:

  • Graphics glitz. Origins had a slightly muted, medieval look and feel, both in the world design and in the design of things like menus and character screens. There was a small nod to realism in character and opponent movement: you felt the effort when you hit something with a sword. The sequel has replaced this with a high-gloss definition which makes for pretty landscapes, but which replaces the feel of the original with an almost cartoon feel. You leap your own height into the air to land a blow, for example, or move at impossible speeds to flank or backstab. I hate it. You’re not supposed to be able to bloody teleport in this world, they say so explicitly! The journal and character development screens are also weirdly modern, black-backgrounded, lacking in character and rather difficult to read. I loved the parchment-style ones from the first game. This is not an improvement.
  • Scope. It’s shorter than the first one, and is also a small-minded game – not just in locations, a single city and its environs, but in the bulk of the dilemmas and objectives which confront you. You’re money-grubbing, basically. There are larger and potentially interesting issues there – the Qunari, the mage/templar conflict – but in the end you lack the instrumentality to affect the outcomes which the first game so magnificently gave you.
  • Writing. You feel as though you’re being railroaded in this game in a way you didn’t with the first one. There are continual gaps and inconsistencies in the quest plots – your inability to talk when it makes sense, for example, so that far too much of it defaults to killing large numbers of people rather than actually, intelligently, trying to solve the problem. This is reflected in your quest journal, which has become shortened, stilted and mechanistic.
  • Corner-cutting. This drove me demented. There is absolutely no attempt to make locations different; they have, as far as I can work out, two cave layouts, one underground ruin, two upper class houses and one lower-class and a few sandy outdoor tracks, and every single encounter takes place in one of the above. They “change” them by blocking off particular doors or exits, but they leave the doors there and the map intact. Nor is there much attempt to give them a superficially different feel with colour or lighting. It’s fundamentally lazy. It makes the world feel very bland and undifferentiated, and as a player, it makes me feel insulted. Do they think I won’t notice? Honestly.
  • Your companions. The bulk of them are either damaged, or idiots, or damaged idiots. Honestly, you spend most of the game mopping up the bloody stupid decisions made by the criminally short-sighted and self-absorbed among your companions. There are very few of these people who I actually like, whereas in the first game I actually liked almost all of them. Fenris is OK, once you get over the broody goth-boy stereotype. Varric is quite fun, and I enjoy Aveline when she’s not inflicting me with assisting in her incredibly lame and fumbling attempts at romance, but the rest? aargh. Your siblings: largely lacking in personality, more so because they’re removed from play at the end of the first act. Merril: narcissistic, self-destructive teenager convinced she knows it all. Isabela: slut stereotype pure and simple, and also incredibly self-absorbed. Sebastian: sanctimonious Chantry dweeb. And don’t get me started on Anders, who was rather fun in Awakening but has deteriorated into a whiny one-dimensional fanatic. Bleah. DA is made by its companion interactions, and I can’t work out what happened. Did they fire all their writers and hire adolescent boys, or did they just squeeze this aspect of the game into a corner and spend all their time and money on graphics?
  • The truncation of the romances into a set of mechanical, limited quests, which you have to do in the right order at the right time or an entire romance option whisks off into impossibility, forcing you either to give up on it, or go back and replay the last ten hours. There’s none of the open-endedness of the first game, the sense you had that you were exploring character possibilities alongside the questing; instead, you’re ticking off boxes. Yup, had that talk, gave that gift, finished that companion quest: have jumped through hoops in the right order, bring on the romance! And you’re given far less of conversation and interaction to sustain your sense of the relationship through subsequent events.
  • The RAMPANT SEXISM! Isabela’s costume makes me feel physically ill, it’s all straining bust against skimpy corset thingy, and she’s a truly horrible slut stereotype. (Zevran’s the male version in the first game, but he’s a far better rounded character without the essential selfishness). I also ran across several complaints on the internet noting a tendency for the female Hawke romances to be far less well developed than the male Hawke ones, both in interaction and in screen time. I haven’t played a male Hawke so can’t attest to that, but they certainly felt a bit perfunctory, at least compared to the first game. The romantic cutscenes in the first one were a bit lame, but at least they were trying, you know?

This game felt as though it wasn’t the labour of love that the first one was; that it was impoverished in budget or time or both. It feels provisional; the really interesting world-building stuff is sparked off at the end of the game, as though they’re simply setting up a sequel. It’s profoundly unsatisfying to play, and horribly disappointing to anyone looking for the same immersion experience as the first game. There’s enough entertainment in it that I’ve played it through three times, but that’s more about the state of health and mind I’m in after ten days in hospital than anything about the game’s actual quality. I worked out how to use the developer console in Origins, because it was the only way to deal with a quest bug; however, in second and third playthroughs of DAII I cheerfully used the console to cheat (mostly money and companion approval), because I don’t fundamentally respect the game enough to refrain. As a self-confessed Lawful Good player I don’t use console cheats in computer games; that I should feel no guilt about doing so here is quite significant. It’s sad. This could have been so much more than it is.

Andraste’s Knicker-Weasels, Part III: Dragon Age romance

I am posting here some analysis I’ve written over the last few years about my experience of Bioware games, slightly edited from its original form.


At the best of times I have a tendency to vanish into computer games for weeks at a time with a muffled squeak, surfacing briefly only to whinge about the bloody cliff racers sneaking up behind me again (Morrowind), or those horrible creatures who hang from the ceiling by hooks and fall on me with violent suddenness and maniacal laughter (Bioshock). I do become immersed in these things, and need to dedicate myself to them more or less exclusively for several weeks until they work their way out of my system and I can go about my more or less normal life. I have to say, though, that the straightforward fantasy FPS of Oblivion and Skyrim, or even the deeply moody and atmospheric world of Bioshock, have nothing on the seductive appeal of an actual computer role-playing game. Dragon Age: Origins is my first experience of this genre, and it’s apparently tailor-made to addict me instantly and utterly to its environment. While the political landscape, world-building and quest narratives are well written and compelling, really I have to admit that the intrinsic appeal is in the interaction with companions.

You have a whole range of companion interactions open to you, depending not only on how you decide to play the actual interchanges with the individual companions, but on how you choose to play various quest decisions in the game as a whole. Realistically enough, some companions are goody-two-shoes and conservative, others are more anarchic and subversive, and they have their own commitments and goals and allegiances in the game world as a whole. Within this framework you can establish a wide spectrum of interactions: working relationships, comradeships, mentorships, pragmatic co-operations, goofy love stories, philosophical debates, cynical sexual interactions, grand romances – the whole caboodle. My personal gaming style is tilted towards co-operation and empathy, and I appear to be (a) fatally monogamous and (b) fatally unable to turn down romantic approaches from likeable characters; as a result, my games tend to play out as a love story with tragic implications, one that just happens to be taking place in the middle of an invasion and a civil war.

The secret of actually enjoying Dragon Age character interactions is apparently to [Esc] through the incredibly lame and badly-written sex scenes. Because, pixelated naked flesh and badly-rendered gestures of intimacy, aargh. Uncanny valley. That being said, however, I have to say it’s a fairly substantial world away from the Fable ethos of “manoeuvre object of potential affection into vicinity of bed and ply them with gifts until screen blanks suggestively”. Dragon Age‘s inter-character interactions are mostly well written; you can increase a party member’s approval of you by making quest choices which groove with their particular moral leanings, or by having intense and empathetic conversations with them about personal issues and goals. (And the choices aren’t always clear-cut or obvious, it’s a reasonable stab at realistic complexity and ramification). You can, in fact, also give them gifts, but it has to be the right gift, and there are bonus points if you’ve done the chatting beforehand and give them the right gift consciously rather than by accident. Bits of the later-stage romances lean into the sappy and slightly juvenile territory, but by and large most of them don’t, and there are lovely touches both of humour and of sweetness.

These character interactions are incredibly compelling on a number of levels, not least of which are my own tendencies towards roleplaying, empathy and immersion. The mostly good writing really helps; these are real people, with real issues, and their personalities and choices tend (generally, although not infallibly) towards the coherent and believable. The voice acting is another huge pull-in, as many of the actors are adept at constructing vivid personalities. The strange muteness of your own character is one of the ways in which the game possibly falls down (obviously they can’t realistically voice your dialogue when you have so many possible identities and ways of reacting, although they do manage it in Dragon Age II), but conversely your own silence actually works as a space into which you can project your own responses. I find I talk to the screen, and the companions, a lot – I do when playing most computer games, but it’s particularly exaggerated in Dragon Age, and it feels a lot more like a conversation.

I identify with these people; I want them to like me, I enjoy both the conversations with them (and their weird/sad/troubled backstories) and the way those personalities and stories ramify out into my understanding of their tactics in actual play. And I really, really like the way that the quest-narrative outcomes hinge and morph according to your companion allegiances and goals. You’re not just hitting the big bad with a sword until it’s dead, who and how is doing the hitting is instrumental not just in the fate of the world, but potentially in your personal romantic fate as well.

My view of this is necessarily skewed because I’ve been playing only as a female character, and within the constraints of my own gaming style; I’d probably have more, and different, things to say after playing a male viewpoint, or as less Lawful Good. But if you’re playing a female character it’s actually very difficult not to romance Alistair: he’s particularly instrumental in the plot, he’s an incredibly easy sell if you’re a goody-two-shoes player, and he’s also constructed as enough of a sweet and goofy individual that turning him down feels like kicking puppies. (Internet research suggests that there is a voluble and dedicated core of female players who also end up taking exactly this route, and have constructed a whole fandom as a result). He’s a far more interesting and detailed romance than the fairly straightforward sex-options offered by other companions; he’s also an interesting option if you have a human noble origin, as your political goals and his end up being fairly entwined. If, however, you’re in a romance with him, you have no good choices at the end. You are encouraged to construct the romance with him in the mode of “one true love forever”, and one of the better outcomes for the game is for him to end up as king. As a human noble you can also manipulate things to marry him, and be One True Loves forever, knowing full well that as two Grey Wardens the chances of you having offspring are vanishingly remote, thus sparking off the whole civil war/succession debate all over again once he dies. The game’s construction demands that you examine your own motives quite significantly, and make a very deliberate choice between selfishness and self-sacrifice; it makes the self-sacrifice surprisingly hard, and if you go for the selfishness, you know damned well that you are railroading Alistair himself into it, and he doesn’t fully support you.

Thus the whole romance thing, at least in this particular set of choices, and the conflicts it creates, is really surprisingly sophisticated; while you could, I suppose, choose to play romance in terms of a basic notion of conquest, box-ticking or simple hur-hur-hur response to the awkwardly idealised animated bodies the game depicts, really that wastes huge tracts of possibilities. Most importantly, the romance options infuse the game’s fairly straightforward martial, political and quest motifs with a layer of complexity and nuance which elevate them way beyond simply finishing the boss battle. Finishing the boss battle is fun and satisfying, but it’s this kind of layering which actually convinces you that on some faintly real level you’re saving the world.

Andraste’s Knicker Weasels, Part II: Dragon Age Politics

I am posting here some analysis I’ve written over the last few years about my experience of Bioware games, slightly edited from its original form.


It’s a bit difficult to work out whether the tensions and complexities I detect in Dragon Age: Origins are the result of actual sophisticated world-building, or, instead, of a giant, unwieldy design system imperfectly guided in its juggernaut path, so that the edges ramify out of control. However, I’m inclining to the charitable interpretation – I darkly suspect this game of interrogating its own geo-political ramifications with absolute self-consciousness. Its basis is really very stereotypically High To Middle Fantasy with unabashed Tolkien overtones, up to and including the slightly elegiac tone and the tendency for the landscape to be littered with the remnants of vast, sophisticated, sometimes Elven empires who have brought about their own downfall owing to religion, corruption, racism, bigotry, or simply becoming drunk on their own magical power and self-destructing. (Numenor, anyone?). But it’s also quite ridiculous how much those stereotypes are subverted.

To a surprisingly upfront extent the world-building effectively externalises the subtext to all classic fantasy, which is that all this is simply about power. The need to reign in power, to control and limit and punish, is inscribed on the world-building landscape – Ferelden political jockeying, the dwarven caste system, the Templars who hunt down apostate mages but are themselves deliberately addicted to lyrium, the nasty and all too realistic racial tensions between Elves and humans. And don’t get me started on Grey Wardens – proficient heroes and protectors, given power and status, but limited and focused and ultimately controlled by their darkspawn taint. The world presents systems, often extremely repressive systems, which the setting tries to naturalise but in which it dismally and I think deliberately fails.

In particular, magic in this system is extremely problematised, prone to corruption and power-grabbing, in a way that I find all too real. The world has its own Garden of Eden mythology, a transgression and Fall specifically about the profoundly arrogant and rather stupid ambition of mages. They screwed up badly enough that, effectively, God left in a huff; the whole religious structure has this slightly desperate edge of “noooo! come back! we’ll be good, promise!”. The mystical histories of the Fade aside, in the game’s day-to-day reality any mage figure is a locus of temptation and threat, prone to succumb to demons or blood-magic at any moment. You are invited and encouraged at every step to think about whether the dangers of mages are about the corruptions of power, or the desperations of over-control.

I also find the world’s gender politics interesting. There is the usual computer-game preponderance of scantily-clad, big-busted women in the graphics – Morrigan’s revealing robes, in particular, make me grind my teeth, and I’ve been steadfastly putting her in high-necked enchanter garb at the first opportunity, and regardless of actual statistical advantage. (Also, ye gods, somebody give me a computer game in which I can set my character’s bust size as well as her gosh-darned hairstyle. I swear her breasts make it downright impossible to use a bow.) Nonetheless, quietly and in the background, Ferelden’s society presents on many levels a gender equality which is largely taken for granted. Women fight quite routinely in armies; they appear to be able to inherit titles, and fulfil them in a strategic and military role, even if they have brothers littering the place. Inheritance is clearly by age alone, not sex, and bugger Salic law, anyway. Likewise, dwarven women pass their caste on to their daughters, where dwarven men pass it on to their sons. The refusal to participate in the Judeo-Christian insistence on women as fallen and second class with a purely reproductive purpose is echoed in the religion, which revolves around the Prophetess Andraste, conqueror and head of armies and also Bride of the Maker, a lovely antidote both to desexualised Christ figures and passive virgin/mother contradictions. Even the priesthood is female, and male priests are Clearly Bad. It’s refreshing.

But above all, I thoroughly enjoy the game’s huge, incredibly interesting, rather subtextual interrogation of the nature of inherited monarchy. One example is the Dwarves, whose sub-quest setting offers you, as I said in my earlier post, a choice between the thoroughly nasty son of the previous king or the king’s morally upright chief councillor. You get to choose who you support, but you have to be aware that the morally upright councillor is also a die-hard conservative and has every intention of closing his nation to outside contact, including Ferelden and you, and propagating the incredibly rigid unpleasant dwarven caste system, with all its implications of starving casteless, slums full of outcasts and beggars, and the need for dwarven women to abandon their lower-caste children in the Deep Roads. The bad guy, on the other hand, will abolish it, thus bringing Orzammar kicking and screaming into the Century of the Fruitbat. There is no right answer. It’s all about power, and politics, and expediency, and far too often you can screw the greater good completely by sticking to principle.

Ferelden itself is less rigid a caste system: it apparently functions as a collection of bloody-minded individualists loosely held together by mostly hereditary lords who nonetheless need to politic for their adherents, but the monarchy apparently has no problem at all with removing lords and replacing them with meritorious base-born individuals at the drop of a veridium helm. (If you take the Human Noble background, you face the death of your entire family in a political side-plot to the main quest and the subsequent extinction of your line, as you can’t hold the title as a Grey Warden, which has completely driven me crazy as a player. I like that family. I’m invested in them). Even more importantly, the whole meta-plot for the game revolves around the death of the King in rather stupidly heroic battle against the darkspawn, and the lack of an heir to replace him. This leaves you with the following quite bizarrely non-ideal options for a ruler to unite Ferelden against the darkspawn threat:

  • The dead king’s widow, Anora, not from the royal line, and backed by her father Loghain, who’s a war hero who also engineered the death of the king. Even if you can turn a blind eye to her association with Loghain’s regicide and paranoia to focus on the fact that Anora seems to be quite a competent ruler (if a bit arrogantly sanctimonious), she’s also barren – hasn’t produced an heir despite five years of marriage to a husband she apparently loved. If you choose her as ruler, the epilogue makes it quite clear that she doesn’t ever remarry and doesn’t seem to see the heir thing as a priority. Everything you do to unite Ferelden thus comes to nothing with the end of her life – presumably it’s back to no heir and the nobles tussling for power.
  • The dead king’s illegitimate half-brother, Alistair, who is a Grey Warden and doesn’t want to be king. He’s a decent sort who’d probably make a good king, but Grey Wardens aren’t supposed to hold titles, and are also not good in the reproduction department owing to the darkspawn taint. This is complicated if you’re playing a female human noble who’s in a relationship with Alistair, as you also have the option of marrying him if he becomes king, and thus becoming a tainted Grey Warden queen to make an heir highly unlikely from two directions rather than one. And take it from me, it’s a fairly compelling romance, and you don’t want to give him up.

The upshot of the above is that, regardless of which option you choose, the whole edifice of inherited rule, for which you have fought through most of the game, is pretty much doomed. China Miéville would be proud. You have to interrogate, to question, to fundamentally worry about whether or not it’s either possible or desirable to save the royal line for its own sake, or even for the sake of political stability. It ends up not just being about whether you’re invested in hereditary monarchy, it’s whether the rest of the country is to the extent where the hierarchy will rip itself apart if you try and do away with it. Once again, it’s about how you control people, how you use power to limit power. It doesn’t make you a very nice person; it is, in fact, profoundly anti-heroic. Given how much I hate politics and how much I retreat into lovely clear-cut genre narratives, it’s astounding how much I continue to enjoy the game.

Andraste’s Knicker Weasels, Part I – playing Dragon Age: Origins

I am posting here some analysis I’ve written over the last few years about my experience of Bioware games, slightly edited from its original form.


I came fairly late to Bioware games, playing Origins for the first time towards the end of 2010, and without having played Mass Effect before. It quickly pulled me in to fairly obsessive gameplay, but I also became fascinated by how the game works, its actually extremely complex and self-conscious play with narrative choice, world-building and player satisfaction. I shall now proceed to theorise about this at length, and probably over several posts, so feel free to stop reading if you’re (a) not at all interested in the process by which computer games grapple themselves to your brain with hoops of steel, or (b) you’re planning to play Dragon Age Origins at some stage and don’t want a half-brick spoiler wrapped in random academic analysis to hit you in the forehead.

Origins is a role-playing computer game; its basic premise is that you don’t just play the hero, bashing your way through hordes of enemies (here, darkspawn) in a fantasy landscape, you also control a group of fellow adventurers who are companions, skills compliments and in some cases potential romances, of which more anon. The classes tend to boil down to Warriors, Mages and Rogues; it’s all terribly D&D, comfortingly familiar, and in practice much less of an agonising cliché than you’d imagine given the way the class definitions are supported by the world-building. Your interactions with both companions and NPCs are not just lines of textual conversation choices on the screen, they’re voice acted, and extremely well so – as an immersive technique it works spectacularly. The straightforward quest-narrative, hack-and-slash, kill-the-boss component of the game is thus mitigated and complicated by issues of personality, response and the ultimately quite complex process by which you end up constructing your own hero’s character in interaction with those presented to you.

The game is thus predicated on choice, to an extent which ramifies its possible outcomes to an unbelievable extent, and makes me wonder how the hell it can possibly be cost-effective for Bioware to commit the time and production costs to the raft of detailed alternatives given that a single player only experiences a fraction of them. You can start not just with any class or race, but with six possible backgrounds and starting scenarios. What you choose impacts seriously on the possible outcomes to the meta-game; in a sense, from the first click which chooses your background, you are already narrowing the possibilities in a way you can’t possibly be aware of until much, much later.

This instrumentality of choice is really one of the defining features of the game ethos. There are multiple points throughout the game where an apparently minor choice of dialogue shapes your experience extremely profoundly much further along, to the point where it’s honestly not worth reloading and replaying. This sounds as though it should be frustrating, but in fact it’s supported well enough by the general shaping of choice that it’s more satisfying than anything else. Origins has this disconcerting way of feeling real, and the limited ability to predict outcomes is an integral part of this. (You can, of course, cheat by looking it all up online and playing accordingly, but you thereby rob yourself of a fairly specific kind of immersive pleasure).

It may sound a bit odd to talk about an unabashed middle-to-high fantasy computer game being “real”, but in fact it does present in these terms, not just in narrative consequence, but in the frequent absence of clear-cut choices and obvious moral polarities. Despite the centrality of “kill the Evil Darkspawn”, this is in fact an intensely political game far more than a heroic one – in this it’s a beautiful contrast to the far more clearly heroic structuring of something like Fable. It fascinates me that Origins so often presents you with a narrative scenario in which there are no perfect choices – everything is compromise, settling for the lesser evil or the pragmatic option or accepting the unpleasant consequences to a gesture of principle – surprisingly more like real life than computer game. I end up chewing over the options for days – do you support the total bastard whose political plans will intersect well with yours on the meta level, or the honourable, upright, reactionary dude whose closed-minded virtue will reduce trade with you? Do you secure your own life or that of someone you care about at a morally dubious cost which may have nasty consequences later? A lot of this, of course, happens because as a gamer I skew to goody-two-shoes with horrible inevitability, and I’m sure the game is a lot more clear-cut if you are inclined towards the murkier depths of cut-their-throat-no-problem, but I’m charmed and impressed by the extent to which the game doesn’t allow me to pretend for an instant that it’s all gas and gaiters if I’m Simply Nice To Everyone All The Time. (And some of your companions are extremely morally dubious, and get all miffed if you don’t do the pragmatic thing, so even a clear-cut decision in moral terms may make difficulties for you in terms of party approval).

The deliberate undercutting of heroic expectation takes place in the world-building as well – Ferelden is an entertainingly-constructed sort of dogged-British-culture in the midst of louche pseudo-Italian assassins, slightly fey quasi-French invaders and weird Germanic types up in the cold north, but it’s in no way an idealised fantasy setting. I particularly love what they do to elves, who are a downtrodden minority who live in ghettos and are the subject of casual racism and discrimination – the antithesis of Tolkien. (I tend to default to mages and often Elves for racial bonus reasons, but I don’t actually think you want to do that here. I didn’t follow the Elven mage I generated very far, her life was sad and unpleasant and rife with downtrodden dysfunctionality which I found horribly true to life.) But it’s more than inverting obvious racial stereotypes – the religion, while pleasingly centred on a female rather than a male prophet, is nastily closed-minded and given to crusades, the Templar order who suppress mages are downright frightening in their zealous bigotry, and the landscape is littered with entrapped, marginalised, desperate, death-centred groups (Grey Wardens, blood mages, Legion of the Dead, Andraste knows what else) whose adherence to ideas of “glory” and “sacrifice” is beautifully undercut on an ongoing basis.

Ultimately I’m surprised at how well Origins gets away with the gritty bit, given the necessary balance in computer gaming between immersion in a “real” experience and the basic function of wish fulfilment. We don’t really want to play games in order to mirror real life too closely, we want to be heroes with actual agency, and to be able to Win, to Set Things Right. The trick is to infuse the heroism with difficulty and consequence to the point where the stakes are high enough for victory to actually mean something. Even complicated, ambiguous victory. I think they nail it.

some random observations on the narrative impulses of Avengers fan fiction, part 2

Avengers fanfic on Archive of our Own, as of April 2013, constitutes around 24 000 fics. I discussed some of the broader narrative themes in the preceding post; here, I’m interested specifically in the relationship fics, rather than those which simply explore the team’s interactions in a non-romantic sense. My own anecdotal sense of the ship spread from my own reading – that it’s very Tony/Steve and Clint/Phil heavy – is very much backed up by a rough statistical survey. The table below is based on tag counts, which are not always exact owing to the wild and wonderful tagging habits of fanfic writers, but is probably a fairly representative snapshot of AOW’s major Avengers ships as at 26th April 2013, counting any ships with 200 or more fics in the category.

Steve/Tony 5553 Clint/Natasha 2492
Clint/Phil 3059 Tony/Pepper 1906
Thor/Loki 2444 Thor/Jane 1005
Tony/Loki 1706 Steve/Darcy 338
Tony/Bruce 1253 Steve/Natasha 210
Steve/Bucky 779 Natasha/Bruce 221
Bruce/Clint 438 Bruce/Darcy 217
Natasha/Pepper 304 Clint/Darcy 365
Tony/Clint 268 Darcy/Loki 316
Steve/Loki 258 Natasha/Bucky 274
Clint/Loki 231
Steve/Phil 225
Steve/Thor 200
TOTAL 16718   7344

Steve/Tony as the largest pairing by far is probably inevitable, especially given the heavy weighting towards slash in the corpus as a whole. These are interesting characters, both with their own films behind them to round out character development, and they exemplify the classic fanfic (or general romance) tendency to read antagonism as sexual tension. In the film they very much vie for dominance of the Avengers team, their clash predicated on their absolute difference: Tony is a futurist and an iconoclastic loose cannon, Steve is an anachonism and a conformist and team player. Tony’s abilities are intellectual, Steve’s are presented as largely physical. Tony is a dissolute playboy whose cynicism and sexual experience are contrasted to Steve’s clean-cut morality, idealism and essential innocence. (In terms of sexual representation the innocence/experience binary drives a very large number of fics; it also possibly accounts for the subset of Steve/Darcy, given that Darcy’s verbal wit and association with popular culture in canon provide a natural foil to Steve’s outdatedness). In addition, the Tony/Steve film depiction works in tension with the canonical comic-book material, in which they are close friends and joint leaders of the team: Whedon’s film effectively works to negotiate an inevitable opposition given the movieverse characterisations, but in so doing it starts to restore to some extent the comic canon.

The Hawkeye/Agent Coulson focus is a lot less obvious (and I have to state for the record that the ship nickname, “Bowtie”, amuses me intensely). Both Clint and Phil are peripheral characters to the narrative; while Coulson has had some build-up in bit-part appearances in earlier films, Hawkeye not only appears in The Avengers more or less for the first time (his cameo in Thor hardly counts), but he spends a large portion of the film out of character, a cipher under Loki’s control. Perhaps it is this essential blandness which makes the ship so popular: Clint’s absence of agency, and Coulson’s bland pen-pusher persona, are the perfect blank slate onto which fic writers can project their own desires. Both characters combine that surface neutrality with extreme competence, exemplifying the fandom fascination with power and agency – Hawkeye more obviously in his archer persona, but Coulson by implication or by extension outside the text, as in this Marvel One-Shot. Coulson is a fascinating character in his own right, given power and impetus not just in the actor’s depiction of him, but in the fan reaction and adoption of him, which have overwritten his canon fate with sufficient conviction that he will return, not just for Phase 2 films, but in his own TV series.  In his SuperNanny persona, wrangling these disparate personalities, he is a beguilingly competent Everyman, an intrusion into the canon narrative of the fan writer’s own viewpoint.

Thor/Loki is perhaps inevitable, given the intensity and angst of the brothers’ canon relationship as much as the traditional fanfic fascination with incest as a symbolic motif for intimacy and connection. It is interesting that it outweighs the canon pairing of Thor/Jane by a factor of two to one: Jane clearly has her own following, but the incidence of Thor/Jane fics gains some of its weight from the pairing as an unexamined background in many fics whose focus is another relationship entirely. Tony/Pepper (“Pepperony“) shows a similar tendency, although to a lesser extent;  Tony/Steve or Tony/Loki pairings will often start with a Tony/Pepper status quo which is thereafter disrupted and replaced by the writer’s non-canon preference, but again, Pepperony has its own fan supporters.

Ships based on similarity rather than difference are also implicated in some of the pairings above, particularly Tony/Clint (sass, at least with comics canon Clint) and Steve/Thor (a confluence of blonde muscle). Steve/Phil becomes inevitable given the film’s establishment of Phil’s fanboy adoration of Captain America, an element which speaks directly and deliberately to the notion of fan investment and serves as a point of recognition for many of these writers. I must confess to not reading much Tony/Loki, which I find profoundly disturbing in terms of gender politics; the natural fit between the two inheres obviously in their similar trickster personas, quick-thinking and fundamentally iconoclastic, but I am more than somewhat worried about a young female writership which seems consistently to wish to redeem a mass-murdering psychopath as a suitable boyfriend figure. The most endearing similarity-ship, though, is undoubtedly Science Bros, Tony and Bruce bonding over the bunsen burner in the approved genius-scientist fashion; again, the elements of the ship are clearly present in canon not just in their obvious affinity, but in Tony’s understanding of the pressures which drive Bruce and the Hulk, and his function as a shield to Banner’s problems with military authority .

The other popular het pairing, Natasha/Clint, is also interesting: the attraction here is, I think, not so much the inherent sexiness of two black-clad and super-competent spy/assassin types, but the film’s assumption of a whole emotional past between them, simultaneously tantalising and generative. Again, the comic chronology substantiates this to a very great extent, since it’s a perfectly legitimate pairing in comics canon; it will be interesting to see what the second Captain America film makes of the other major comics canon relationship, Natasha/Bucky. The Red Room and the Winter Soldier backstories pair inevitably with Hawkeye’s experience of mind control under Loki, creating a shared history of damage which adds considerable intensity and emotional resonance to their interactions.

This is clearly an incomplete account, and pairings I haven’t touched on here offer their own logics and appeal; I hope this is sufficient, however, to demonstrate the far from random nature of a fan-fic reinterpretation, the extent to which canon elements must drive and inform the new narrative. Avengers is, as I said earlier, particularly ripe for this because it remains so character-driven despite its big-budget action identity, offering fanfic writers an irresistibly attractive confluence of opportunities and inspirations.