Saturday, 24 October 2009

Question Time

This Thursday evening BNP leader Nick Griffin appeared on the BBC’s Question Time, a show where a panel of five politicians or public figures face questions from an audience made up of ostensibly ordinary people. If you haven’t already seen it then I suggest you watch it on iplayer. If you’re not from the UK then I expect it’s on youtube by now. Obviously to get such a controversial and disliked figure on Question Time was somewhat of a coup for the BBC and I’m sure the viewing figures will reflect this. I certainly tuned into the show for the first time in a while. While I’ll discuss what actually happened on the program later, I want first discuss about the issue of whether or not Griffin should have been on Question Time at all.

In the week or so leading up to his appearance, many politicians expressed their concerns that the BNP should not be given such a mainstream platform from which to express their views. Peter Hain, the Welsh Secretary was the most outspoken critic of the decision by the BBC, saying that ‘you cannot treat the BNP like all the other parties.’ I would argue that we have to. Freedom of speech and democracy are values that are fundamental to our society, to deny the BNP a platform from which to speak would be to fly in the face of those values. We may rightly abhor Griffin and his party’s views, but we cannot stop them from expressing them. Similarly we cannot stop broadcasters like the BBC giving them a platform. Freedom of speech is not up for debate, it is not something we can choose to adhere to or not depending on who’s speaking; it is an absolute which is fundamental to civilised society. This not to say of course that we should give Griffin a free hand to say whatever he wants; it’s not like question time is a party political broadcast. The only way to show the BNP up for what they really are is to enter into open and frank debate with them, and this exactly what Question Time is for. To deny Griffin a place on the panel would be to try to sweep his vile policies under the carpet, rather than face them head on and challenge his sick assumptions. We cannot try to ignore Griffin because if we do that we allow his insidious ideas to fester, rather we must face him head on and show him that we reject absolutely all that he stands for.

I’m not going to claim that this was wholly achieved on Question Time on Thursday, but it did go some way to showing exactly how vile a man Nick Griffin is. The show was not without its problems; with a clearly hostile audience and even David Dimbleby, the host, at times unable to hide his bias, it occasionally descended into farce. I would not go as far as to say, as Griffin has said following the program, that it was a ‘lynch mob’, but the atmosphere was at times rather more hostile than I would have liked. Much as we might want to take our righteous indignation out on Griffin, we have to restrain ourselves or we lend credibility to the his cause. Dimbleby needed to be seen to be more impartial; he is the moderator of the discussion, it is not his part to take sides. Because he showed such clear bias it felt like the entirety of the show was out to get Griffin, rather than engage him in a proper debate.

That being said enough was done to make Griffin come out of the evening with a few very bloody scars. The absurdity of the BNP’s concept of an ‘indigenous Briton’ was shown up on several occasions and his statement that Winston Churchill would support the BNP where he still alive was made to look absurd time and time again. Griffin repeatedly contradicted himself and dodged awkward questions. He tried and failed to squirm and slime his way out of difficult situation, trying to apply empty phrases about ‘British, Christian values’ to everything. The other panellists were having nothing of if thankfully. Overall then Griffin was made to look like a fool. His racist policies were shown up for what they are; thoughtless bigotry. The embarrassment was not as total as many would have liked, but it did enough to mean that the BNP will have lost far more than they gained from this week.

Despite some problems, then, I think we can say that Peter Hain was wrong. We should allow extremist to have a voice, both because of the principle of free speech and because we need to publicly show extremist and hate based ideologies to be absurd. We cannot ignore them; we have to battle them head on in a civilised debate. While Dimbleby may have made the debate into a farce at times on Thursday, in principle what happened was exactly what should have happened. Griffin was made to look the fool and with any luck many more people country wide will be aware of just how absurd and hateful the BNP are.

Sunday, 18 October 2009


This summer the weather may not have been roasting, but I’m sure quite a few MPs must have been sweating like mad, wondering exactly what sort of punishment they would receive in light of the expenses scandal. This week they found out. Never one to miss an easy target, when the scandal first broke I joined every political commentator and amateur blogger in the country in condemning the MPs actions as morally decedent and calling for major parliamentary reforms. It may seem odd then that I actually intend to defend the MPs this week. While it sounds like I’m contradicting myself I assure you that I hope that is not the case.

The reason I am defending the MPs is that I think the punishment imposed is completely unjust and unreasonable. If you don’t know, Sir Thomas Legg, the man charged with deciding the punishment, has decided that the best way of doing this is retrospectively imposing arbitrary limits on what an MP is allowed to claim per week on certain things, like gardening for example. He’s wrong. Admittedly the problem was that the rules in place were so vague and malleable that is was quite easy for an MP to get away with claiming for something that was not so much an expense as a luxury, like a moat. This is a mistake that has been made and we cannot go back and try to correct that mistake, what we can do however is change the rules to make them less open to exploitation. I’m sure such a rule change is on its way and I welcome it, but to charge MPs for breaking rules that did not exist when they broke them is completely absurd.

It probably won’t support my argument to liken this to the Nuremburg trials, but that’s what I’m going to do. At the Nuremburg trial after the Second World War, lacking any actual international law under which to charge the Nazi War Criminals the United Nations created a set of human rights laws and charged the Nazis for breaking them. The problem of course being that the Nazis had broken the laws before they had even been created. As such they were not actually criminals until the laws were created, which was after the ‘crimes’ had taken place. In any normal circumstance the idea that you can be charged for breaking a law that did not exist when you committed the act would be absurd, I do not see how a special case makes it any less so.

This of course is not to say that I think the MPs were in the right when they abused the system, they should still be punished for what amounts to stealing from the taxpayer. This punishment however should not simply take the form of arbitrary limits imposed retrospectively on certain ‘expenses’. Many of the MPs who have been forced to pay back money were not actually corrupt in the same way that some others were; they were simply claiming what they saw they were entitled to. They may be been wrong in that gardening is not so much an expense as a luxury, but it was allowed under the old system and I doubt many MPs really had the time to go through their claims and decide what counted as an expense and what didn’t, that was the job of the parliamentary body charged with regulating the expenses. The real criminals here are the MPs who were actively exploiting the system for their own gain, having one partner claim one house as a second home and the other partner claim the other house as a second home for example. These are the corrupt ones who ought to be punished, not under arbitrary and false limits, but with the full weight of the law. What they have done amounts to theft and they should not just be forced simply to pay back the money but actually punished so as to make an example of them. They should be stripped of their parliamentary seat at the very least.

I suspect that the absurdity of Sir Legg’s punishment will pass by largely unnoticed, mainly because public opinion is so against the MPs on this issue that only a fool would dare to try to defend them. However I think what Sir Legg’s punishment represents is a worrying tendency to simply accept the punishments imposed on wrong doers without wondering whether the punishment itself is appropriate. We must not allow our righteous indignation at the conduct of some MPs to cloud our judgment; it is clear to me that the punishment is unjust and we cannot allow ourselves to accept unjust punishments even when the crime is so appalling. The laws and ruling made by those charged with administering them must be seen to be just or the very integrity of the system is flawed. Tempting thought it is to take our anger out on these MPs, we must ensure that we meet out punishment in such a way as to be fair and reasonable. We cannot allow ourselves to sink to the level of the criminal when we attempt to punish the criminal, or the punishment becomes a petty game of points scoring, rather that the administering of justice.

So this is not a volte-face, I still believe that the MPs are in the wrong and believe that they should be punished. However I think that the punishments imposed are wrong simply because they work on the laughable principle that rules can be backdated to punish people for crimes that were not crimes when they were committed. It is a cliché to say that two wrongs do not make a right and yet in this case the cliché rings very true. If we try to punish a criminal without retaining our own reference point of justice, we become little more than criminals ourselves.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

It's political correctness gone mad

I don’t watch Strictly Come Dancing because I have better things to do, like gouge my eyes out with shards of glass. If I did watch Strictly Come Dancing I would probably have been filled with indignation at the recent ‘racist’ comments uttered by Anton Du Beke, who said his dancing partner looked like a ‘paki’ after she had had some spray tan put on. Instead I am filled with scorn for the media explosion that this throw-away comment has caused.

Du Beke has of course apologised unreservedly and said that his comments were not intended to be offensive. His partner, Laila Rouass has accepted the apology. So now we can move on, yes? No? Apparently we now have to have a debate about what is appropriate to say on TV and whether we should use words which could potentially be offensive so some people.

Of course this is not one issue but two; what is appropriate for television and what language it is appropriate for us to use in our day to day lives. Let me put my cards on the table and say that I don’t think Du Beke’s comments were appropriate. He is a figure in the public eye, watched by millions countrywide. He should not be using sensitive language like ‘paki’. While he made the comment in jest, it is a word which has many unpleasant connotations. In the public eye a comments which is supposed to be interpreted as a joke made between two friends are taken out of context. When the camera start rolling nothing you say or do is private, which is what makes reality TV such terrible viewing.

This is not to say that offensive words should not be used on TV; most comedy shows would lose all their material for a start. But Strictly Come Dancing and other show like it are meant to be light, family entertainment, they are not meant to be scandalous or racy. Bruce Forsyth, the presenter of the show, defended Du Beke’s comments, saying that people should have a ‘sense of humour’ about these things. The problem is that Du Beke’s comments weren’t even funny; it’s the kind of crass, immature comment I would expect from a 5 year old.

Which doesn’t lead me on at all well to the second and most interesting issue; what language is appropriate in our personal lives? In a multicultural world in which awareness of different social, racial and national groups is greater than at any point in history surely we should watch what we say? Well that goes without saying, but that does not mean that we should remove words like ‘paki’ from our lives. What we have to be careful of is context and intent.

Of course comments specifically intended to be offensive to a certain racial or social group, or indeed any individual, are inappropriate and never justified. Similarly a throw away comment which may not be intended to be offensive, but is taken to be offensive is inappropriate and we must be careful of what we say. There is such thing however as offensisensitivity (actually that word is made up). Some comments are not supposed to be taken to be offensive and people who interpret throwaway comments made in jest as racism need to get their heads out of their backsides. I think what Forsyth means when he said ‘we need to have a sense of humour’ is that we need to stop getting offended at comments which are not supposed to be offensive and are not even potentially offensive to us. While he may have been wrong regarding the Du Beke issue, he is right that people need to stop being offended on behalf of other people. I doubt very much that many Pakistanis were all that offended by Du Beke’s comments, and yet a several hundred people complained about it. I would bet that most of these people were not from Pakistan.

Essentially what I’m trying to say is that we need to understand that most of the time, people get offended in contexts where comments were meant as jokes. The thing is, when we joke about racism, we are acknowledging that it is wrong and indeed that it is ridiculous. By trivialising racism it is made to look even more ridiculous and hence be discredited. Now I very much doubt Du Beke had this in mind, but that’s not the point. The point is that when people get indignant about throw away comments, it puts them closer to a par with actual racism, doing nothing to solve the problem, simply muddying the water.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Nanananananananana batmaaaaaan

I have a great idea for a super villain. As a child his rich parent were murdered by a poor person. From this day on he hates the poor and the homeless and tries in his own sick and sadistic way to punish them for their collective crime against both himself and society as a whole. Having trained as a ninja, he returns to his home city to terrorise the local lower classes. Taking over his father company he uses his obscene wealth to lead a double lifestyle; playboy by day and vicious murderer of vagrants by night. He deploys his company’s wealth and arms manufacturing prowess to develop sophisticated equipment to help him on his deluded quest for vengeance. His main weapon however is fear. Turning his own childhood fear of bats against his perceived enemies he dresses up as a bat and terrorises the poor of his city, stalking the shadows, striking without being seen, swooping down on his unsuspecting victims and picking them off one my one. Who will stop the batman’s vendetta against the underprivileged?

I have of course, with some changes, just described to you one of the most well known superheroes ever created; Batman. The point, unless it wasn’t obvious, is that Batman is not exactly your archetypal virtuous superhero who fights crime and never puts a foot out of line. Put simply, Batman is a bastard. He runs around in the shadows beating up petty criminals and using the various gadgets on his utility belt to interfere with the plans of crime lords. He is not an ever-present demi-god who is so absurdly overpowered that he can completely stop all crime ever; he is a very rich guy trying with limited success to stop crime in one particular generic city in America somewhere. Batman makes villains fear him because he does not do the honourable thing by beating them in a fair fight; he sneaks up behind them and hits them over the head. This is because, were Batman to face up to a bunch of criminals with guns he would get shot several times before he could use his ninja training and belt full of gadgets. What makes Batman such a good superhero is that he is very human. Ok so he’s a pretty badass human with ninja training and loads of cool gear, but he’s still a human. It’s not like he’s juiced up on some radioactive bullshit that gives him special powers to fight crime.

Why, you may ask, am I blathering on about Batman? The answer to this question and actually the main topic for this week’s blog is the new Batman game that came out recently, Batman: Arkham Asylum.

The clever thing about the Batman universe is that they created this place called Arkham Asylum, a mental institute where they can lock up all their super-villains, allowing them to be reused. Batman doesn’t actually ever kill anyone; he just sends them off to Arkham so that when the writers need a new idea they can just break one of the old hands out for Batman to reel back in again.

Exactly such a thing has happened in the game; The Joker has broken out of the Asylum and reeked havoc on Gotham until Batman caught him to throw him back into Arkham. Inevitably it’s not that simple; the whole thing is a set up to get Batman locked up in Arkham with all the maniacs and a good helping of thugs to go with them. The perfect set up for a videogame.

Because it’s confined to Arkham Island the game is set in a fairly small location, so all the action takes place in a very limited area. This makes the game very tight, allowing it to tell a coherent and well paced story. The storyline is pretty well linear, although you are free to move around the Island as you please to complete all the side quests, which mostly constitute finding a load of random things scattered around the various buildings on the Island by The Riddler. By setting very deliberate and obvious limits on the scope of their story, the game developers have succeeded in making a very close-nit and coherent storyline, which really works well.

There is one massive issue with the storyline which really annoyed me. While the presence of Arkham Asylum means that you can reuse villains, it also means you can never reach any sort of closure. At the end of the game we are left with all the villains being put back where they belong, the status quo has been restored. The perfect set up for a sequel. In fact we are given one parting shot in the very final cut scene which more than suggests a sequel. Given the success of the game I expect that someone at Rocksteady games is already mulling over how they can spin the story out for another few hours. Open ended storylines where nothing is really achieved except the restoration of the status quo is not good writing.

The main problem any serious medium will have with Batman is that he is essentially a nutter running around in pyjamas and a cape. It’s very difficult to be dark and gritty when you have Batman running around fulfilling every child’s dream by dicking around on the rooftops and flying. Ok so he’s easier to fit into the modern fad of being gritty and realistic than most superheroes because he wears black rather than the incredibly vibrant spandex that most superheroes wear and has very dubious morals, but he still dresses like a bat for goodness sake. The game compensates for this by dressing up all the villains in even more vibrant colours and making half of them batshit insane. Of course this works because they’re in a mental asylum. The Joker especially is presented as being completely off the wall (as is appropriate). For most of the game he sits in a room making snarky comments as Batman runs around beating up his minions, he seem to take pleasure in the fact that the thugs that are getting haunted by Batman and are completely helpless to stop him. This of course gets around the fact that there’s really no point posting guards when you know Batman will just beat them up, perhaps the Joker just enjoys watching them suffer.

Fortunately, given that an almost constant commentary is given, the voice acting, is on the whole, pretty good. The only person who got on my nerves to much that I literally had to turn down the volume was Harley Quinn and I’m pretty certain that was intentional. The only annoying thing was some of the dialogue, which was at times so filled with clichés that I wanted to cry. Batman especially was stoic and full of emotionless tough guy drivel that I was almost hoping the Joker would win. Writers can’t seem to realise that they can give the main protagonist a personality without making him a complete pussy.

Actually to give due credit to the writers, they did include some really well done sections using Scarecrow to confront Batman with his past, creating a real sense of vulnerability. This is especially well created when the figure of Batman is replaced by Bruce Wayne as a child, walking through the rain soaked streets of Gotham when the soundtrack to his parent’s murder is played. Unfortunately these elements are few and far between and the actually levels where you fight scarecrow don’t quite live up to the cut scenes.

Another techniques used by the writers to make Batman less of a cold, heartless bastard is to have Joker and co. constantly comment that locked up an Arkham is exactly where Batman ought to be. While this is a step in the right direction, in many ways it doesn’t go far enough. Joker keeps on saying that Batman is a nutter, but never seems to present any evidence, simply repeating the same old one-liners over and over again. The idea that Batman is as bad as the criminals he’s fighting could have been presented really well by using Scarecrow’s hallucinogenic drugs to present Batman with a twisted view of his own past, much as I did at the start of this review. Instead the idea of Batman’s insanity is presented in an incoherent and underwhelming way.

I’ve just noticed that I’m almost at two pages in Microsoft Word and I still haven’t mentioned gameplay, so let’s do that. Actually there’s very little to say, the combat flows beautifully, is fun to play and appropriately challenging. The main problem with it is that there is too little variety. Once you’ve beaten up one thug with a pipe, a brick, a knife or an electric rod, you beaten up them all. A couple of different variations of thug would make some of the fights less samey. Despite this the combat system is one of the most entertaining I’ve ever played.

While unarmed thugs are taken out with seamless, flowing combos, thugs with guns are generally taken down by creeping up behind them and taking them out silently. These stealthy elements mix with the hand to hand combat seamlessly and progress nicely in difficulty, although the game doesn’t really exploit the final developments of that progression. There is one really challenging level near the end, but nothing after that, which is really disappointing. One does have to wonder however why the thugs don’t ever look up and why whoever designed the interiors had such a fixation with gargoyles.

It just would not be Batman without gadgets. There is always the danger of overpowering Batman with a whole dirge of different gadgets which can solve any problem. Fortunately the game balances the gadgets really well, meaning that, although new things become available, they don’t necessarily make life any easier. Gadgets allow access to different areas, most of which only contain more of the Riddler’s challenges. The main issue with the gadgets is the way in which Batman gets them; at one point he even calls in his batmo-plane to deliver a new gadget. Why not just get in the bloody thing and use that to stop the Joker? Maybe Batman is insane after all, that or the writers couldn’t think of any other way of getting that particular gadget to you.

The principal weakness of the gameplay in Arkham Asylum is the boss battles. Batman seems to have an infinite number of Batarangs because every single goddamn boss fight requires that you throw one at an appropriate villain at an appropriate time. One would hope that the developers could think in slightly more innovative ways of defeating people like Killer Croc or Bane than simply throwing a Batarang at them and running away. The only thing that makes it harder is that you have to beat a load of thugs up at the same time. As I have already alluded to the fact that Scarecrow levels are particularly underwhelming. The first one is good, but after that they don’t get much harder. If only they did because the sections themselves are excellent. Probably the best boss battle is the one with Poison Ivy, which is both challenging and really fun, although even then it’s still just throwing a Batarang at the giant plant. It also contains the game’s one quick-time event, so it looses marks there. The pinnacle of inadequacy comes with the final boss battle against a juiced up Joker. Essentially it’s a fight against a load of thugs with the occasional bit where you have to run away from a giant version of the Joker. That is all the game can offer? Fighting one of the most psychopathic and brilliantly insane super villains of all time and all the game can offer is exactly the same as it has for the last few hours? All the developers can think of to do with the Joker is given him some spinach like half the other bosses in the game and make you avoid getting beaten up by him? After completing the game one is left with an underwhelmed feeling of ‘is that all you’ve got to offer’. We are left with the feeling that the game is rummaging around in its toy box, searching for something new to show us. The Joker is a crazy psychopathic clown for goodness sake, how hard can it be to create a really wacky and at the same time truly challenging and original boss fight?

Despite its flaws, this game is superb. If you haven’t bought it yet, go and do it now. Batman Arkham Asylum is one of the best games I’ve ever played. Sure it’s not perfect, but it’s well worth the expense. Not only does the story make for hours of fun, the challenge mode allows you to make the most of the game’s best bits. Given the game’s success I think it’s inevitable that a sequel will emerge at some point. Let’s just hope that they put as much time and effort into making it as good as this game as well as trying to iron out some of the issues. The game could easily have taken a different direction and I hope a sequel will try to develop some of the things the game didn’t really do very well. I fear that any sequel will fail to live up to the game’s very high standard, but, if done properly, a sequel could be just as good if not better. Anyway, to sum up this absurdly long blog, Buy. This. Game