July 30, 2013

I Hate The Male Gaze

Alexei Andreivitch lived with his wife and her mother in a small house on the steppe, far outside St Petersburg. In St Petersburg, he had been a salesman. But because he was naturally possessed of a reserved, even sullen, character, he did not endear himself to other people, and so was a not a very good salesman. Since he was bad at business, and bad with people, he was unpopular, and at his small house on the steppe he received few letters and fewer visitors. That being the case, he had no idea who could have sent him the photograph, and certainly not the reason why.

It arrived in a plain envelope, with his name - Alexei Andreivitch - written on the front in a firm hand. Nonetheless, his wife had been the one to open it. Inside was a single photograph, rendered in muted colour. The photograph was of a young woman, a girl, seated with one leg crossed over the other. She had dark hair, cut close to the line of her eyebrows. Her arms were bare. Alexei Andreivitch's wife presented him with the photo and demanded to know who she was, and what he was doing having photographs of young women sent to him. "Tell me the truth, Alexei Andreivitch." But the truth was he did not recognise the woman. He was equally baffled by the situation and found himself lamely without answers. There was no return address on the envelope. Whatever person had put this photograph in his hands had done so to torment him, he was sure, and he wondered if he was not undergoing some test.

He studied the photo for clues. The woman was in a workshop, surrounded by tools, books and machinery. In her lap, held between her hands, was an incandescent orb, from which rays of various brilliant colour streaked and faded all the way to the edges of the frame. It resembled a miniature sun - or a lightbulb, but in the precise state in which the human eye would first observe it: a momentary, unclarified blur of white. In the photograph, the woman looked down at the object, her expression almost casual, and with no evidence of wonder. It told Alexei that, unlike him, she knew what the thing was, and that it held no fascination for her.

One more detail caught Alexei's eye, which had escaped his wife's: on the back of the photo, inscribed in pencil, was the word "Olivia." Alexei had never heard this word, but the act of reading it chilled him, as if it had touched something within him that he did know. And despite all his fear, he kept the photograph near to him for the rest of his days, under his pillow or between the pages of a book, where it would always be close to the touch.

July 14, 2013

Rebecca Norton

In The Last Express, the 1997 adventure game set aboard the Orient Express in the final days before World War I, there’s a scene in the smoking car with the young Rebecca Norton sharing a divan with her travelling companion, the French Bohemian Sophie de Bretheuil. Their conversation turns to the subject of Rebecca’s diary. Sophie asks casually if she can read it. Rebecca, obviously flustered, protests that nobody’s ever asked such a thing before - her diary is, after all, rather private. Sophie teases Rebecca, says she was only kidding, and chides her for the overreaction. Rebecca is visibly relieved. And upon hearing all of this, a guy named Robert Cath, who's been eavesdropping in the corner, leaves the smoking car, slips into the girls' sleeping compartment, digs through Rebecca’s luggage to find her diary and reads the whole thing.

Such behavior is typical of Robert Cath, a disgraced doctor who listens in on private conversations and climbs onto the outside of a moving train to peep in the windows of sleeping cars. Cath’s skeeviness serves a purpose, to be fair: once aboard the Orient Express, he's simultaneously working on solving a murder, foiling a bomb plot, brokering an arms deal under deep cover and outmaneuvering the Austrian and German intelligence agencies in their conspiracy to incite world war. 

Nonetheless, he is clearly a creep. And while he is The Last Express’ hero, it’s Rebecca Norton who is the game’s most interesting character.

'How far will you be travelling?'
'As far as possible, thank you.'
Rebecca Norton, I think, has a novel in her - a great, modernist roman à clef of the 1920s, like a feminine The Sun Also Rises. Rebecca's story begins when we meet her - July 24, 1914 - aboard the Orient Express as it leaves Paris bound for Constantinople. The journey doubles as a literal and symbolic departure from the last twenty-something years of Rebecca's unhappy life in London – ordinary and marked by a long engagement to an unimpressive and unpromising man named Reginald – and propels her toward a romantic, adventurous, self-actualised future.

The key to all of this is Sophie de Bretheuil. How and where Rebecca and Sophie began their affair isn't clear, but it's easy to understand anybody being attracted to either one of them. Sophie is beautiful, confident, fashionable, worldly and doggedly positive, and moves through life with a clarity of purpose that is almost painful. Rebecca is literate, witty, compassionate and keenly observant with a poetic soul. She's still generally timid, but Sophie's influence has activated something in her; given her a surge of new romantic and sexual confidence. Sophie not only appears to be Rebecca's first same-sex relationship, but her first truly intimate one.
'Sophie has saved me in her careless, wonderful way!' writes Rebecca in her diary. 'I have made the break; I do not care!'
Sophie is whisking Rebecca away to a remote island, somewhere in the Mediterranean. 'When the day cools down,' she tells Rebecca in French, 'the golden afternoon light comes, turning the water a deep blue and black. We will eat olives and homemade bread... Then we will walk along the cliffs, like Sappho and her beloved, in light, gauzy gowns and watch the sun go down.' That the island is never named only heightens its mythic quality as some dreamlike lesbian utopia.

The purpose of their journey is in large part Rebecca's reinvention, which Sophie is happy to chaperone. She offers regular suggestions about Rebecca's dress sense, how she should change her hair, and, more than once, what Rebecca ought to be doing if she's ever going to be a writer.

That’s the other thing about Rebecca Norton - she's a writer. At least in the sense that she can write; she's not a writer professionally and seems to have written little outside of her diary. Sophie believes in Rebecca's talent, though, and urges her to 'write her play' once they're on the island. 'It could be brilliant,' she says. 'One of your amusing little pieces, like the one you did on Reginald.'

The writers of The Last Express, Jordan Mechner and the late Tomi Pierce, believe in Rebecca too, enough to write her diary - 20 pages of it - in a strong, engaging and poetic voice, a gift for conveying adventure and romance, an empathy and acuity for the world around her, and a sense for introspection.  

Mechner and Pierce also gave her Rebecca West as her namesake, the British author whose 1966 novel The Birds Fall Down inspired parts of The Last Express' story. But Rebecca, when we meet her, isn't ready to embrace the destiny that her literary christening suggests. It doesn't appear like she's given any serious thought to being a writer. It doesn't appear like she has much of a plan for anything - which, at this stage in her life, is half the point. If something's going to change that, it hasn't happened to her yet.

'Last night my seductress allowed me to sit by the side of her bed for a long time and brush her hair. How happy I was! Her embrace pulls me into a dream - far away from my old, upholstered world - at last "une vrai vie intime" in this fragile, rattling old box racing into the future… Then she made me sleep up above. There I lay guarding her slumber like an old and faithful dog. She is beautiful in her sleep.'
'It is hard to love Sophie.'
Rebecca Norton, who is new to love, and especially new to a love like this, romanticises every look, every touch. But she's fallen for someone who is resolutely unromantic; a woman whose experience is tempered with pragmatism.

Sophie de Bretheuil is unapologetically capricious. Her affection for Rebecca is sincere, but never indulgent. Sophie does not believe in the same kind of singular romantic devotion. Already, she talks of a future beyond them, in which both women are lovelessly married to men for the practical benefits. She encourages Rebecca to have as much fun as she can now, while she's still young. 'You'll still be attractive for another year or two, once you've outgrown your awkwardness and learned how to dress.'

Maybe worst of all, Sophie's invited others - her bohemian friends - to the island with them; the Island that is so important a part of Rebecca's personal transformation, which she has imbued with such hope and power. Sophie extolls the virtues of her friends Josephine, Francesca and Victoria - Victoria's 'irresistible', Sophie says cheerfully: 'Last summer she lolled around all day like a big, lazy orange cat, sleeping and waiting to be stroked.'

'I came to be with you, Sophie,' says Rebecca. 'Not with Josephine and that group of parasites.'

As the Orient Express brings Rebecca and Sophie closer to the island, it brings Rebecca closer to the realisation that she is fundamentally incompatible with this woman she loves so deeply; that this woman who is the only love of her life is soon going to become the first love of her life. Sophie and Rebecca exist, for the foreseeable future, in the final moments of The Graduate.

And then, with Rebecca on the brink of heartbreak, the world goes to war. 

For the young, future writers who fought in the war - Hemingway, Fitzgerald - the war shaped their worldview. Their disillusionment characterised their literature. By the time war is declared – with Rebecca and Sophie not on the island but, as a result of Robert Cath and his story, stranded somewhere in Belgrade – Rebecca has begun to develop tremendous capacity for disillusionment. As all of Rebecca's love and idealism begins to crack, war spreads across Europe like sirens, manifest of her personal tragedy. 

Rebecca is destined to come of age during the war, to join the lost generation. And maybe the war is what's going to put her on the path of being a writer for real. Between the war, and Sophie, and the island, Rebecca will finally know real pain, and come by it honestly – that credential which makes all great writers legitimate; that thing she’s been missing her whole life.

July 4, 2013

Raising Kane

You might not have thought so, but "the Citizen Kane of video games" is something that you throw around lightly.

In video game criticism, Citizen Kane is a favourite topic. Game critics seem to harbour a collective obsession with identifying the one video game that can truly be called the Citizen Kane of video games: meaning, a video game as significant to its medium as Orson Welles' 1941 classic was to cinema. It's implied that the Citizen Kane of video games, when it arrives, will mark the moment that video games shift gears from flashy entertainment up to legitimate, capital-A Art.

Metroid Prime, Grand Theft Auto, Metal Gear Solid, Bioshock and The Last of Us, to name a few, have all been nominated as the Citizen Kane of video games; though the fact that the comparison is still being made would suggest that it's none of those. This mocking Tumblr offers many more examples.

It's fair to say that through overuse, "Citizen Kane of video games" has become a rhetorical cliché, perpetuated by writers and reviewers as an illusive and ultimately meaningless milestone for the video game industry. So long as there's no way to conclusively settle the question, the guessing will probably continue.

Who could say for sure, though? Who could put this issue to bed once and for all? It'd have to be someone whose word everyone could accept as definitive on the subject of Citizen Kane. That's not me; I admit that. Nor is it any critic or writer I can think of. If only we could ask Orson Welles himself! But Welles, who passed away in 1985, unfortunately cannot be contacted.

Or can he?

The Ouija board, or "talking board", is a common tool for communing with the spirit world. Séance participants place their fingers upon the planchette - a wooden pointer - and a spirit, once summoned, subtly guides the fingertips, moving the planchette over the board to spell out messages. The spirit may wish to tell you who it was and how it died, or what the Citizen Kane of video games is.

Interestingly, the Ouija board was manufactured for the mass market by Parker Brothers, publishers of the classic board games Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit and Risk. Who knows which of the Parker Brothers was the weirdo into stuff like this. Perhaps an off-kilter Parker "cousin", who came back from college with long hair and a denim jacket, and tried to get the Parker Brothers to hotbox in his Camaro.

In the United States, the Ouija board is available at major toy and department stores. Not so in my United Kingdom, where I had to buy a board on eBay. eBay, it turns out, hosts a thriving cottage industry of homemade Ouija boards. A popular model is a large, circular board with its letters shunted to the edge to accommodate a portrait of a majestic wolf. I opted for the board you see in the photo above: tasteful, decorated in black and gold and festooned with the signs of the Zodiac. I admit to being skeptical about whether a homemade Ouija board would possess the same spiritual energy guaranteed by the Parker Brothers' corporate logo, but the homemade one was cheaper.

I don't know if you've ever asked somebody if you can come to their house to summon the spirit of Orson Welles via Ouija board. My friend Alex, would you believe, did not jump at the chance when I offered it to him. He relented, though, and one Wednesday night we found ourselves around his living room table constructing a candle-lit, paranormal shrine to Orson Welles, Citizen Kane himself.

In the photo above, you'll notice DVDs of Touch of Evil and, underneath, The Third Man, which I placed there as totems to attract Welles' roving ghost. It's also customary to offer the spirit some physical sustenance. Given the video game-focused nature of my inquiry, I chose to offer Welles Mountain Dew and Doritos because of their unprecedented brand synergy with Microsoft's Xbox and by extension, video games as an industry. I wrote "For Orson" on the bottle of Dew so that there could be no confusion.

Proper Ouija procedure is important. For example, you mustn't drink alcohol, as this increases the chances of accidentally summoning an "evil" spirit, like maybe a Leni Riefenstahl. You also shouldn't insult the spirit, so I instructed Alex not to call Orson Welles a fatty or joke about the outtakes from his frozen pea commercials. Welles, for all his talent, doesn't seem like the kind of guy to laugh at himself.

With all other preparations undertaken, Alex and I set our fingers on the planchette and touched knees under the table to increase "energy flow". I began my invocation.


"I would like to speak to George Orson Welles, commonly known as Orson Welles, who was born on May 6, 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and who died on October 10, 1985 in Los Angeles. I would like to speak to the Orson Welles who was an influential figure in cinema, theatre and radio, responsible for the esteemed films Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, The Magnificent Ambersons and F for Fake, among a host of others.

"I have here copies of Orson's movies Touch of Evil and The Third Man. They are on DVD, which is a new technology. The picture and sound quality are very good. I also offer Orson's spirit a gift of Mountain Dew and Chilli Heatwave Doritos. I have opened the Doritos packet for him a little bit.

"Please only communicate using the board. Otherwise I will have to ask Orson Welles to leave.

"Am I speaking to Orson Welles?"

Nothing happened.

I wasn't sure what could be the problem. Alex pointed out that I hadn't opened the bottle of Mountain Dew as I had the packet of Doritos. Not wanting to take my hand off the planchette, I wrenched the bottle open with my teeth, and put it back on the table so its smell might better entice Orson.

Time passed. We read the back of the DVD cases for inspiration and meditation on Welles' spirit. We then grew bored and discussed what we thought about season four of Arrested Development.

"If you don't want to eat these Doritos," I warned the board, "I'm just going to throw them out."

After ten minutes of silence, I repeated my question. "Are you there?" And finally, the planchette began to move under our fingers, very slowly, across the rows of symbols.


Two? I didn't know what that meant. "Is this Orson Welles?" I asked.

The planchette moved to the Zodiac symbol for Pisces.

"Are you saying you are a Pisces?"


We paused to look up whether Orson Welles was born either a Pisces or a Cancer. This took a long time, and it turned out that he was neither.

"What are you trying to say?" The planchette set off again.






"Are you illiterate?" I shouted at the board.



I'd had enough. "No more bullshit. Are you Orson Welles?"


"Okay. Mr. Welles," I say slowly, as if speaking to the spirit of a small child. "I have called you here to ask one question." My voice wavered, as I realised I'd been waiting to ask this question for my entire adult life. "As the star... and co-writer... and director... of the seminal 1941 film Citizen Kane, what... in your opinion... is the Citizen Kane... of video games?"

The planchette moved.


R. It starts with an 'R'. The Citizen Kane of video games starts with an 'R'!


RE. "Maybe he's going to say Rebel Assault," I whispered to Alex.


REB. What else could he be spelling? We racked our brains: Reborn? Rebirth? Was Welles ignoring the question and trying to tell us that he wanted to be reborn? That's more than we really wanted to deal with.



My heart raced.



REBLSAT. "He's saying Rebel Assault!" I whispered urgently. "That has to mean Rebel Assault!" But which Rebel Assault? There were two.


Alex and I exchanged looks. "Are you saying Rebel Assault II is the Citizen Kane of video games?" I asked Welles.


"Well... why?"



Gr... graphics? Because of Rebel Assault II's graphics?


Not the graphics then.




GRDSTF? What does that mean? Grad staff? Grand staff? Is he saying that the LucasArts team that developed Rebel Assault II was a grand staff? Or grand stuff? Like he's just affirming that Rebel Assault II was "grand stuff"?

Alex suggested that "grand stuff" was consistent with the kind of thing Welles might have said in his life, being a man from olden days. He's right that it's easy to imagine the Orson Welles pictured below, bearded and orotund, offering a terse "Grand stuff" as a grudging endorsement.

But why Rebel Assault II? The game is remembered, if it's remembered at all, as a rare misfire from LucasArts' golden age. Released in 1995 - the period in which LucasArts was still known for making untouchable adventure games like Monkey Island, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, and Full Throttle, and quality Star Wars titles like Dark Forces, X-Wing and TIE Fighter - Rebel Assault II disappointed. It's not even the best of the Rebel Assault games. Alex and I, who each played Rebel Assault II as children, clearly remembered being let down by the game's weird blend of risible full motion video, simplistic arcade shooting and wildly imprecise flying sequences.

In our confusion, I realised I had yet to dismiss Welles' spirit from Alex's living room. "You can leave now, if you're ready," I told him. I'd been warned that once summoned, some spirits don't want to leave, and I was prepared for what to do in case Orson refused to


Just like that, Orson had gone, and the portal was closed.

Why does Orson Welles like Rebel Assault II so much? I confess that his reasoning still eludes me. Perhaps because Rebel Assault II, with all its full motion video is in many ways a movie, and thus something he felt he understood? I don't know. But Orson Welles knows, I suppose, and perhaps that is enough.

Afterwards, once we'd turned the lights back on and I'd cleared away the Ouija materials, Alex found a 40-minute YouTube montage of Rebel Assault II scenes on his iPhone. We watched the video and ate from the packet of Chilli Heatwave Doritos. All in all, it was a pretty enjoyable evening. GRDSTF, some might say.