Sunday, 31 October 2010

Trick or Treat? (Lessons from History 6: Halloween Edition)

Today is the 31st of October (as those of you who have calendars will no doubt be aware). Likewise those with any knowledge of popular culture will be aware that today is Halloween; the one day of the year when it’s totally appropriate for little children to take sweets from strange men. It’s also a time when there is nothing but Horror Films on TV and people actually buy pumpkins.

As you might expect, behind all the modern secular traditions, ruthlessly exploited by soulless supermarkets and commercialised almost to the same extent as Christmas, there is some historical explanation as to why little children dress up and threaten people into giving them unhealthy food and why we carve comically ugly faces into large hollowed out vegetables.

You might remember from my discussion of the origins of Christmas last December that the newly founded Roman Catholic Church was really rather fond of adapting Pagan festivals into their newly popularised religion. I also alluded to the fact that Roman Polytheism had a habit of absorbing local cults into its Parthenon. While last time the cult in question hailed all the way from Syria, this time the festival is very Celtic indeed, which explains why Halloween is celebrated mostly in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and to a lesser extent England, as well as the USA; which was highly populated with Scottish and Irish immigrants in the early 20th century.

The festival in question is Samhain, which mean’s summer’s end. The end of October and the beginning of November have long been associated with the end of summer and the start of winter, especially in cold of Northern Europe. The Celtic calendar divides the year in half, the winter months from November through to April are the dark half of the year, whereas the months from May through to October are the light half of the year. As such Samhein marks the transition from the light half to the dark half, just as Bealtaine in late April, early May, marks the transition from the light half of the year to the dark half.

Samhain is known as a festival for honouring the dead, because it is believed to be the time when the barrier between the living and the dead are closest. The symbolism here is pretty standard; the dark half of the year is associated with death, because darkness and the colour black are pretty synonymous with death. Darkness is essentially nothingness, just like death in many ways. Similarly the winter months are characterised by lifeless trees and coldness, which is also associated with death. By contrast, the light half of the year is associated with life, for the opposite reasons. As such, the day in which the light half of the year and the dark half of the year meet is bound to be associated with the thinning of the barrier between life and death.

So what has this got to do with Halloween? Well when the barrier between life and death meet, evil spirits have a horrible habit of escaping their dark prison and infiltrating the world of the living. In order to protect oneself from these evil spirits, it become customary during Samhain to dress up as an evil spirit, so that they didn’t realise that you were actually living, because apparently evil spirits are not only dead, but incredibly stupid. It also became customary to protect your houses by placing a guard carved out of turnip (the Pumpkin is a later, American innovation). Bonfires were also lit around this time, but that has not transferred over to Halloween, but another common celebration that happens in a few days (I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about, if not, tune in next week!)

I alluded to the Roman habit of absorbing conquered rituals and cults into their own Parthenon earlier, and Samhain was no exception. When the Romans conquered Britain they associated the practice with their own Festival to celebrate their dead, Feralia. Unfortunately this took place in February, so they also associated it with the day honouring the autumnal Goddess Pomona, which fell in October. The Goddess’s association with apples is thought to be the reason why Apple Bobbing is popular around Halloween.

The Roman influence is not as strong as the Christian one on the festival however. While the Catholic Church was trying to establish itself over the whole of the Roman Empire, many common cults and practices were morphed into Christian celebrations. Samhain, then, was turned into All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day, a day for celebrating the entire Catholic Parthenon of Saints and all dead people respectively. These days fell on the first and second of November, so the 31st of October became All Saint’s (or Hallow’s) eve, what we now call Halloween. All the spiritual stuff about revering one’s ancestors became associated with first two days in November, whereas the slightly more spooky stuff about guarding against evil spirits continued to be practiced in more Celtic areas like Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall and was later commercialised into what we now know as Halloween.

So dressing up and Jack-O-Lanterns come from Celtic traditions, Apple bobbing probably comes courtesy of the Romans, and the tradition of children begging for sweets probably dates back to the tradition of the poor begging for food from the rich on All Saint’s Day. So we owe the bizarre celebration of Halloween to the Celts, the Romans, Medieval Christians and an awful lot commercialisation.

The more you know, eh?

Sunday, 24 October 2010

My Top Ten... Video Games

You might remember that over the last few months I’ve done a trilogy of Top Tens regarding music. Well I’ve run out of musical things to do it on (well when you’ve done albums, artists and songs where else can you go?). So now I’m moving onto video games. I’m not a massive gamer; I don’t sink hours and hours into video games like some do, not have I played a massive variety of different games, but I have played enough to make a decent list. Again in no particular order.

  • Bioshock: I’ve mentioned before how incredible Bioshock’s story is. Wonderfully self aware, with a really interesting setting and an outstanding plot. To cap it all it’s also very well written. Not only this, but the gameplay is superb. Probably the main flaw I found was that the difficulty setting were too extreme – medium kicked my ass, but easy was a breeze. Other than that it was pretty outstanding.

  • Assassin’s Creed: I actually just finished playing through this one. Really well written, excellent characterisation. The plot is a little overblown and suffers from trying to raise the stakes a little too high, but still succeeds in making me want to know what happens next; it’s just a shame it ends without really resolving anything. I guess I’ll just have to play the second game instead. The gameplay gets a little repetitive at times and the game drags between assassinations, but it’s still really fun when hundreds of guards start chasing after you. I was a little dubious about the part of the game set in the present, but I very quickly warmed to it because it’s so well written.

  • Prince on Persia: Sands of Time: So good to see an interesting and well characterised female protagonist and a well written love story in a video game. Another really well written game that really sucks you into the story. The pacing a little off because it really drags through the middle part, but the gameplay is good enough to get you through that. The platforming keeps coming up with interesting new things. If anything the difficulty curve is somewhat off, leading the combat to drag a little (not helped by the lack of variety). The camera is pretty horrible at times, but you get used to it eventually. Shame the writing fell away for the sequels, because Warrior Within fixes many of the gameplay issues.

  • Portal: Need I really explain it? Fantastic story, wonderful aesthetic and brilliantly imaginative gameplay and excellent voice acting. The only problem is that it could have been longer, but then the challenge modes at the end serve to extend gameplay somewhat, so all is forgiven. Now where is Portal 2?

  • Psychonauts: I’ve discussed this one before. Charming story, hilariously written and always fun to play. There are a few issues with the gameplay, but they’re not deal breakers, especially when you consider that the game contains a psychic bear, Napoleon’s ancestor playing strategy games in his own head with Great-daddy Bonaparte and, well a psychic fucking bear!

  • KotoR 1: The only RPG on the list. One of those Western RPGs from back in the day when they still followed a fairly linear plotline, just with a large number of sideplots and a bit of freedom as to which parts of the plot you tackle first. This meant that it actually had pacing and was pretty water tight, unlike more modern RPGs like Mass Effect and Fallout 3, both of which are decent games, but are simply too bloated and meandering. In both games my save got wiped and I didn’t really care enough about the plot to go back to them. I’m one of those gamers who does everything in the game because I assume it is necessary to the plot, so I just end up getting bogged down in all the bullshit side quests. You could do this in KotoR without losing track of the plot, which, by the way, was awesome.

  • Rome Total War: Finally I’ll stop going on about games with good writing, because R:TW doesn’t really have much of a story, it’s just a really, really good Turn Based Strategy game with lots of replay value. While Empire tended to get a bit too overwhelming and repetitive, Rome had a really simple and still interesting mechanic that meant you could just keep on playing it for hours on end, which I did.

  • Battle for Middle Earth 1: Another strategy game that I have sunk hours into over the years. Shame the sequel was rubbish, but you can’t have everything I suppose. BfME managed to stand out from the crowd of Age of Empires clones by adding in some really interesting original features that I mention in my review of the sequel. It’s a really well balanced game that really is piles and piles of fun.

  • Batman: Arkham Asylum: I wrote a review of this a while ago, so best just to check that out. It’s another really fun platformer with much better combat than the other games of the same ilk already listed. Not as well written and with a few gameplay flaws, but the story holds the game together well enough and the flaws are nothing too major. I can’t wait for the sequel to come out.

  • Half-Life 2: Finally a game with actually pretty bad writing. I mentioned before that Half-Life 2 is not actually all that well written and fails to appropriately characterise the Protagonist. That being said, it’s fun. I mean really fun. Really well balanced weapons, a variety of different enemies and a good difficulty curve. If you want a good shooter with some interesting physics puzzles then Half-life is as good a bet as any.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

It's in the Game

This week EA Games released the new Medal of Honour game. Normally I’d ignore such news because I’m not a huge fan of shooters, especially online ones. However this particular release has caused a media storm because it allowed the player to play as the Taliban against allied forces online. I said ‘allowed’ because EA have since backed down and renamed the Taliban ‘The Opposition’. This was a terrible decision and indicative of a wider problem with Video Games as a medium

The problem has to do with Video Games in the popular imagination. People see them purely as entertainment and not as art. People do not see that video games can make an interesting or profound point about the state of the world. Nor that they can tell a moving and engaging story. People who don’t understand video games think that they’re only there to entertain people. Games like Medal of Honour and Halo suffer from this especially because they are primarily online games in which no real story is told once the painfully short single player campaign is done with.

It does not need to be said that this assumption is entirely untrue. While there are some who would still dispute this, to most commentators in the industry, Video Games are most certainly an artistic medium. That’s not to say that every Video Games is a work of art and certainly not to say that the industry has produced as many great works as the film industry, even when you take into account their relative life spans, but the fact that Video Games can be used as a medium to tell as story and invoke an emotional reaction in the player means that they most certainly qualify as an artistic medium.

This popular misconception means that, whenever a video game has some content which is controversial, the media does not see it as an attempt to make an artistic point and make people think about the issues being raised, but simply an attempt to increase sales in some clever popularity stunt. This problem is compounded when the game itself is seen as rather juvenile; the image associated with a shooter like MoH is of an adolescent sitting in a darkened room getting over excited over shooting someone through the head. It’s not a great image and certainly one which acts as a barrier to viewing something as an attempt to make a mature comment on current affairs.

While this viewpoint is not without merit, it oversimplifies things. Calling the opposition ‘the Taliban’ probably was, in part, done because it would doubtless attract attention and increase media coverage and hence sales. No doubt many of the players would fail to comprehend the significance of playing as the Taliban beyond it being pretty cool. However for the majority of the audience, no matter how juvenile, the experience of playing the Taliban against the allied soldiers would be slightly more meaningful. Rather than the Taliban just being the bad guys who we all shoot against, the perspective changes and the allies becomes the bad guys who are shooting you. The realisation is that war is a pretty scary experience for them as well as for the allies. When you’re playing as ‘the Opposition’ it doesn’t quite have the same effect because it’s not rooted in reality and so the change is not quite so shocking.

Admittedly calling the opponent ‘the Taliban’ and allowing them to be played on multiplayer is pretty weak as artistic statements go, but if Video Games are ever going to be appreciated as an artistic medium, they are statements that have to be made and staunchly defended. If someone were to make a film told from the perspective of the Taliban fighting the allies it would probably be hailed as a racy and controversial work of genius. Sure there would be some who would oppose the issue, but most of the media would come to accept it in time. Indeed films like The Hurt Locker and Jarhead explicitly criticise Allied forces, but no-one bats an eyelid because films are accepted as a mature artistic medium. There’s no reason why a game should not be able to deal with mature and complicated moral issues with reference to current affairs without being criticised.

The fault here largely lies with EA, who rather weakly backed down in the face of media pressure. Developers have to stand up for video games as an art form or else the popular perception of them will not change. Indeed the industry has already shown how it is capable of weathering media storms; remember the controversy over the sex scene is Mass Effect 1 a few years ago? Now think how many RPGs have sexual relationships as part of them? Pretty much every RPG deals with sex and relationships in some way now. Perhaps if EA had decided to be a little braver many more shooters would be presenting modern conflicts with enemies taken from real life, rather than simply being set in ‘Oppositionstan’. Maybe even single player campaigns will start allowing you to play as the Taliban as well. I mean we’re used to playing as Nazis against the Allies, who’s to say we shouldn’t start playing as the Taliban as well?

The problem that Video Games have is that it’s not just the protagonist who is the Terrorist, it’s the player. Video Games are interactive media, so the audience is not just viewing passively, but actively taking part in the action on screen. This is a fantastic tool for emersion, but sadly makes any attempt to tell a story from a controversial point of view far too racy for the media to accept. This is a great shame because in terms of making an artistic point it’s fantastic. Any story attempts to put the audience in the protagonist’s shoes and nowhere is this done better than in Video Games because you are literally in the protagonist shoes. The potential for creating an emotional reaction is much greater because part of the work of creating an emotional connection is done for you.

Video Games have great potential to create an emotional response, indeed many of them do, however they have some huge hurdles, many of them self made, to get over before people take them seriously enough to consider them art. The most important one of these hurdles is the image of being nothing more than entertainment. Developers need to start taking themselves seriously and consider their games art. They need to stand up for artistic decisions and start making people appreciate games as more than just entertainment. I’m looking at you, EA.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

National Poetry Day

I doubt that you know this, but Thursday was National Poetry Day in the UK. While the necessity of giving poetry its own day is up for debate, I don’t want to pursue that path because frankly I don’t really know nor care about the answer. Instead I thought I’d share some of my own poetry. I’ve not done this before because most of the poetry I’ve written is pretty crap. However of late I’ve started writing some poems that I actually quite like.

The premise is that I start with a photo that I’ve taken on my travels around the world and use that photo as inspiration for a short poem. The theme is Man’s relationship with the natural world, but I’ve only been sticking to that pretty loosely so far. The reason I’ve started doing this is that I keep getting bouts of inspiration and desire to write something, but no idea what to write about. A photo provides a really good focal point for this inspiration and allows me to channel it into something tangible.

Below are three examples, the first of which is about Hiroshima. To get some of the references you might want to check out this Wikipedia article .

Grey Skies and Falling Rain

Across the river from the bombed out husk
Is the bell that will always be rang,
And the flame that will never go out.
Sombre monuments to our destructive

Innocent white cherry blossoms bloom,
Stark contrast to the empty concrete.
The solemn grey reminder of the tragedy
Of human progress,
In the hands of the barbarous.

The grey skies and the falling rain
–Nature’s pathetic fallacy–
Punctuate the grim scene.

The rain will not extinguish the flame,
And the bell will keep sounding
For peace.

While bombs rain
And sky’s greyed
By mushroom clouds

The second is inspired by a photo taken when I was skiing in Austria back in 2008.

The Cable Car

Jagged white peaks carve the perfect blue sky,
The shadow of the mountain bathes half of the valley in darkness,
As the sun gleams off the snow.
Sprawling forests dirty the perfect white floor
With snow-speckled dark green carpet.
Defiant, shoulders of rock peak out from the snow,
Breakers of permanence swimming in the sea of white.

Through the valley floor a road carves and curves into the snow,
An earthworm of humanity against the mountain giant.
A car streams along the road, flying towards the town,
Nestled just out of sight,
Surrounded by trees and half shadowed by the mountains.

And the people in the cable car sit and watch,
As they fly over the mountain along cords of ingenuity.
Their glass castles swaying in the cool alpine air,
As they observe man’s wild and untamed

And the third is inspired by my recent trip to the Northern Territory.

To Steal the Soul of Death

In the swamps of North Australia
In the Billabongs and the rivers,
In the shady jungle at the water’s edge,
Floating just below the surface,
Of the serene, wind-rippled water,
Lives Death.

And from the boat we peer into the middle distance,
Straining our eyes to catch a glimpse.
Lifting our cameras to steal the soul of Death.
To capture the moment we were mere meters from him,
To immortalise our close encounter,
In mere pixels.

So we can go back to our homes in the cities
And boast to our friends that we were so close
And show them the pixels to prove it.
And relive our risk filled trip into the outback,
In fictional detail.

While in the swamps and the Billabongs,
The crocs keep ignoring the boats,
And the straining eyes
And the cameras.
And wait for dinner to enter the water.

Two other poems in this embryonic collection have recently been published in Downright Fiction, which I encourage you to check out, not only because it includes some more work by me, but also because there are some truly fantastic pieces of work by others.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Up top!

Some of you might know that I’ve spend the last week and a half travelling around the Northern Territory of Australia, which is why there has been no Project 365 for a while and no blog last week. Well I’m making it up to you by posting last weekend’s blog post today and also posting one on Saturday. I will also update Project 365 at some point in the next few days.

So anyway, I flew up to Alice Springs early Saturday morning (September 25th) and got in about midday, so I had the afternoon to relax by the pool and wind down before the tour started on Sunday. This way fortunate because it was an early start on Sunday – we had to have our bags on the bus at 6:30 in the morning! After a bit of breakfast we started the long trip to Uluru (4 or 5 hours on a bus). We had lunch in our resort before heading out to the Rock for the afternoon.

Uluru was very beautiful. Although some of the group climbed to the top, the Aboriginals request that you don’t, so I decided not to. Instead I did a walk around the bottom and took some very good photos! In the evening we sat and watched the sun set over the Rock, which was a wonderful experience.

Then it was back to our resort and into bed after a bit of supper in preparation for another long day. We woke up for breakfast at 5 am in order to get to Kata Tjuta (some big rocks a few miles away from Uluru) for sunrise and then do a two and a half hour walk around the domes before the heat set in. We retraced our steps in the afternoon on the way to King’s Canyon; our stop off point for that evening. Again it was dinner and an early night in preparation for another early morning the next day.

The early morning was so that we could walk through King’s Canyon before the heat of the day. This walk was probably the highlight of the trip; even better than Ayer’s Rock! The rock formations reminded me a lot of pictures I have seen of Cappadocia in central Turkey; needless to say it was absolutely stunning. That evening we returned to Alice for dinner at a charming pub called Bojangles. I ate an 800 gram steak, which I think was about 2 pounds! I got a certificate for my trouble from the restaurant and $5 from a friend, so it was worth it.

The next morning was a late start (thankfully because we’d stayed at the pub until late the last night). We travelled up to the Western MacDonnell Mountains and explored some of the beautiful rock formations in the morning and then went back to Alice for the afternoon. Some of the group stayed in Alice the afternoon, but about half a dozen of us (me included) went Quad biking, which was absolutely awesome! We then returned to our resort for dinner and entertainment in the form of a live Guitarist and a reptile handler. I got to have a snake wrapped around my neck!

From Alice we spend the next 2 days heading 'up the track' to Katherine. This involved 2 days of solid driving through some of the most desolate and deserted landscape I've ever seen. Apart from the occasional rest stop and a couple of small towns there was almost no sign of civilisation for miles on end. The small patches of civilisation were all pretty quirky as well. Two of the best were probably Daly Waters; a pub in which passers by have left pretty much every kind of memorabilia to adorn the walls. We left a vest signed by the entire tour to add to the extensive collection of crap, and Wycliffe Wells; the self-proclaimed UFO capital of Australia.

Eventually, after many long hours on the bus, we arrived in Katherine; the third largest town in The Territory. We had a bit of time to shop here before heading off to our accommodation for the evening. The next day we went Kayaking down the Katherine River before cooling off in the pools beneath Edith Falls - the first of many swimming stops over the next few days, which were much needed due to the oppressive tropical humidity. In the afternoon we headed into Kakadu; the largest National Park in Australia, and got settled down in our accommodation. Unlike the rest of the tour, this accommodation was in permanent tents, which was an interesting experience, but very humid given that they lacked air con!

The next morning I, along with half a dozen other people from the tour, went on a scenic flight over the national park, which was absolutely stunning. It proved to be a superb way to see the park both because of its vastness and the humidity making it impossible to spend too much time outside the air conditioned bus. The rest of the morning was spent exploring some of the Aboriginal art sites around Kakadu, which was a really interesting experience. It's a bit of a shame that we don't really know what most of the paintings represent. In the afternoon it was back to the camp site for a relaxing time in the pool and at the bar watching the Rugby League Grand Final.

We were up early the next morning so that we could get to Corroboree Billabong to get up close and personal with Australia's deadliest species - the Salt Water Croc! Fortunately no-one was eaten and we got to get a close look at both fresh and salt water Crocodiles as well as a plethora of bird species that inhabit the Billabong. After our close encounter we got back in the bus and drove to Mt Bundy for our final night together! Another tour member and I went on a guided horse ride through the homestead, which was good fun - and I didn't even fall off once! We saw lots of Wallabies and Kangaroos roaming the homestead as well as some huge termite mounds.

We departed Mt Bundy on the last day of our trip and headed to Lichfield National Park, where we spend a relaxing day travelling between waterfalls and swimming in the beautiful pools. Our last stop was Darwin, where we had dinner and hit the pub to say goodbye to everyone! I unfortunately had a plane to catch in the early hours, so I didn't stay for the duration. Even so it was a really good end to a really good trip and I look forward to my next one.