I’ve been quite the hermit lately. I went to town today, only to meet a young gentleman at the bus stop on my way there.
He approached me, very shifty, scabs all over his face, close cropped ginger hair, tracksuited. “Mate”, he said, in a very quiet mumble. “Does that hurt?”. He pinched his septum, indicating that he meant my septum piercing.
"No", I replied.
"No, I mean when you had it done, not now"
"Umm… I know. No, it didn’t hurt. Made my eyes water though"
"Oh", he replied. "Alright".
I thought that was the end of it. I pulled out my phone and pretended to be really interested in my lockscreen.
"So", he said, "I was round back of those houses. Derelict back yard. Fuckin’ Diamondback stunt BMX there. I mean… what would you do if you saw that?"
"Er… just walk past, I’d imagine".
"I didn’t". His eyes went all sad and shifty. "I nicked it. I’m not a thief. I’m a drinker, and I smoke a lot of weed but it makes me paranoid. I’m not a thief. But I nicked it."
I have no idea why he was telling me this. He continued;
"But, I think it was a sting, and now I reckon the police are going to arrest me, I’m fucking shitting it mate. I can’t go to prison. I’ve got two girls."
"Oh dear", I said. "Maybe take it to the police station?" I suggested.
"No mate, it’s a stunt bike. I mean…. it’s got no brakes, proper pegs and everything"
At that point (thank goodness), the bus arrived. Luckily, he wasn’t getting on. He’d literally stopped to chat to me.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I try not to be around The Great Unwashed too often. This always happens to me. I know people say I have kind, sad eyes, but fuck me, I’m not a street counsellor.
My bones are on fire.
Ignited with a spark into a heart long dead, new and pulsing with life. It’s something, it came to something, it will come to something. Something strong, something unique. It taught me things, to life, to laugh, to learn, to love. Waiting is hard, waiting is tiring, waiting is cold and sad, but waiting is easy, waiting is awakening, waiting is warm and happy.
December, be kind.
A series of promises. I breathe them.
I will never leave you alone.I will always protect you, especially when you don’t need protecting. I will care. I will never forget my promises. I will never let you down again. I will be there when you’re ready, and even when you aren’t. I will be present.
All I am saying is this.
I will love you.
Dig deeper, heart keeper.
Take my promise, tie it to your throat with red string and sing the songs of the oceans. For nothing can compare to the rolling tides, a promise to be the bride, and taking pride in what’s held inside.
It is below freezing and my breath billows out in clouds of carbon monoxide, warmth against the cool air and a lack of sleep. What have I become? He who waits, he who paints the sky with numb fingers. He who apologises. He who cannot, and he who will.
It is a beautiful fight.
The punches are harsh, but they come few and far between, the rest are fluttering kisses on pale skin that has seen too much heartbreak and woe, and is more than ready for the next stage, for the horns to sound that battle has ceased, and the lion may lie with the lamb. She’s seen things, and so have I. Things that would drive a sane person mad, or a mad person sane. We’ve wept, and shouted, but those times don’t even make up 1% of the other times, the times where words have been whispered, where we’ve watched one another sleep, where we’ve laughed and talked for hours every day over an irritating connection. Where we get headaches on the same side at the same time, or that damn restless leg. The bumbershoots, they mean something, and we both have them. When she paints a puffin on her fingernail because I fucking love puffins. The secret words we share. The open heart beating bang bang bang like a knocking, because I know she’s in my ribcage, on the left, knocking to remind me she’s still there.
It is a beautiful fight, and one neither of us can give up.
When I was a little boy, my younger sister ate an apple.
It didn’t seem particularly important then, but it is important now.
She took the pips from the apple, and, with my Mum’s help, she planted them in a small garden at the side of our family home. She checked it every day, and eventually, the pips took root, and they sprouted, small, weak and green at first, but becoming more and more solid.
The years rolled on.
Growing up, I always thought my family was unique, in that I had two loving parents who loved one another, in a climate where a lot of my friends in school had parents who had divorced. There were lots of words like ‘step-dad’ and ‘step-mum’. My first girlfriend’s parents were seperated and she would say “my Dad’s girlfriend is making corned-beef hash for tea, do you want to come round?”. These were all alien concepts to me. I had the typical nuclear family. Very middle class, we did lots of things together, and life was lovely.
The tree that grew from those apple pips was a constant from when I was very young. The apples that grew were too bitter to eat from the tree, so they were only useful for cooking with. My friends and I would throw the apples at one another, or smush the fallen, rotten apples against the wall, much to my parents chagrin. I would climb the tree and pass apples to my sister, and we would collect them in the orange plastic bowl (that eventually became a sick bowl when we were poorly), and my Mum would take them and create wonderful, gloopy, golden brown crumbles and pies, along with the rhubarb that grew in the corner of the big garden at the back of the house. Those pies and crumbles were eaten with all my family around me, my Grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins. Christmas and birthdays were greeted with those apples, all because my sister was madly excited to plant her pips she found in her apple.
We both grew up, and our own children took part in collecting the apples, and the place settings at the large, varnished table became more numerous, until we had to set up a second table for the wee ones.
When I was twenty-six, my Mum and Dad came to my house, and asked that I arrange for my sister to be there too. My boys were sent upstairs, and they broke the news. They were to divorce.
It hit me hard. I’d always grown up believing they loved each other deeply, but I realised, all at once, that they hadn’t. That they’d stayed together mostly for us. And I remembered, suddenly, all the times when it was evident that they just didn’t make each other happy, the lack of a connection over those countless apple and rhubarb crumbles.
After my own divorce, I lived in my childhood home, briefly, empty apart from me, a table, a blow up bed and a 21-inch television. It was waiting to be sold, the five bedrooms, the large downstairs, the big kitchen, all once echoing with voices and activity suddenly empty and silent.
I found my own place, and, eventually, the house was sold.
A few weeks ago, my Dad took me down there on the way to a meal together. Everything and nothing had changed, the front garden had been turfed where once there were only bushes and flowers, there were new ornaments on the windowsills, new curtains on the windows, cars on the hard standing that I’d never seen there before. I felt like running to the door, and banging for them to let me look at what they’d done to MY house, what my bedroom looked like, what the attic looked like where I recorded my fake radio shows.
But I did not.
But, before I left, I saw something that made me stop and reflect for a moment. The thing that had been present all those years, had stood strong in the way I always thought my parents had been strong with one another, had disappeared.
The new owners had cut down the apple tree.
I hope they made an apple crumble with the last few apples on the branches, and tasted my childhood.
Don’t be so fucking ordinary. Don’t settle. If you look at your significant other and wonder what ever attracted you to them, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re together because its ‘easier’, then you’re doing it wrong. It should fucking scare you. It should fill your mind with a million possibilities, all of them good. You should be prepared to burn down everything for them, but be secure that they would never ask you to.
If your soul isn’t on fire, then what’s the point?
He stands like a pillar of salt, actions not dictated, but resultant of unsurety, told words that cut and sliced and left him unable to breathe. He bathes in tears, he fills himself with doubt and agony and re-opens the wounds so he can feel something except the shuddering self-loathing, the pain of loss and the wasting of months and years. He waited. Long, and hard, he waited, soaking cloth with hot water he could ill afford, breathing in spores and only existing, waiting for the next month, or the next, or the one after that. He stood, bearing gifts as couples kissed and families reunited in a strange city for hours, weeping with blisters on his feet through hitting the asphalt and trying to catch his bearing. He gave and gave, and when what he was waiting for exited stage left, he broke, shuddered, and sought shelter. But shelter was not what he expected, and he wept, he ran, he lay, wracked with guilt and covered in lice and pine-needles.
This does not cheapen the error, or make it less erroneous. But they were the actions of one who was not of his own mind, one who had lost the world. Who had lost everything that mattered, all that counted, all that meant anything to him. To err is human, and we are not the sum of our mistakes.
Fear and doubt fills his house and he sits in silence, counting the days, counting the hours, filling boxes and bags and wondering when comfort will come, because there isn’t anything else to do, nor is there anything else of any value in a world where reason and love do not exist.
To have is to hold, to love is to keep, and there are more galaxies in a single brown eye than there are in the sky, and there are more to be created. The eye weeps, and the tears are ripe to be licked from pale, flecked cheeks.
He waits to be taken, as there is nothing else he can do.
The Heaven’s Gate Self-Help Group
"Now, Jamie" Martin began, "Would you like to introduce yourself to the group?"
Jamie stood, and was identifiable by the hastily-written sticker on his lapel. He shuffled in his shabby birkenstocks and grinned, nervously. ”Hello… um… I’m Jamie and… um… I can’t… meet girls. Well, I can… um… meet girls, but, you know, I can’t like..” He made a thrusting movement with his hips and slathered his tongue, lasciviously around his lips. Then he sat down, looking sheepish. The rest of the group clapped, politely.
The group was a ramshackle collection of men and women, slightly shambolic, coughing and spluttering their presence. The room was dusty, the mid-afternoon, autumnul light slashing in through blinds, splashing everything in ombre tones. Martin stood again, and coughed in a way he hoped was authorative, but really betrayed his astonishing lack of self-confidence. He had been running this group for a number of Months and had steadily lost any shred of worth that he felt as he heard the stories.
They had been meeting since February. Martin had hired the room and put an advert in the Scunthorpe Herald, at 20 pence a word, imagining the wealth that would come from these small beginnings, utilising his new-found boost in confidence that had developed since his wife had left him, three years previously. He’d found himself on the edge of the roof of the Cosby House high-rises after she’d gone, after she’d left him for a boiler repairman from Lincoln, with his fancy van and second-hand Jaguar XJS. Martin only had his Austin Princess, once his pride and joy, now a series of rivets held together with rust and duct tape. He was about to jump, when he saw, way down at the foot of the building, a teenage girl pushing a pram. He liked to tell people that he saw this, and suddenly understood that life was overwhelmingly positive for both Mother and Baby, despite their poor start in life. They could both achieve so much, only fifteen years apart, but he also knew that it was unlikely, given their surroundings and the young age of the Mother. She would never be given chances to prosper.
What he really thought, what brought him back from that ledge is that one day, one, fine day, he might be able to fuck a sixteen year old, despite being 48.
So, he set about changing his life. When he started the group, he’d started his own business, publishing self-help books with titles like “Your MIND is your FORTRESS” and “TEN STEPS to loving YOUR body”. He never did fuck a sixteen year old, but he did end up in bed with a 24 year old with buck teeth and weirdly yellow thighs. She was only half his age, and he considered that a good start.
Starting the group was the next step in his masterplan.
Martin clapped his hands, despondently. ”Thank-you, Jamie, for that… rousing speech. You’ve been here for seven weeks now, and finally, you’ve managed to complete your introduction. Now, Mary, would you like to tell us your progress?”
Mary stood. Peroxide blonde hair and makeup about an inch thick created a mask from the world. What people failed to realise, and what Mary had hidden from herself, is that she had flawless skin. She was almost 40, and she had the skin of a 23 year old. No wrinkles, no marks. A light sprinkling of freckles across a pale nose. He natural hair had not greyed in the slightest, not that anyone had a chance to see that as she poured enough chemicals on it to pollute the Thames at least 15% more than it already is. ”Well”, she began, “Well… I… Hello everyone”.
Everyone nodded and mumbled a response.
"Since the last meeting, I took it a little further with Jim. I thought about what we talked about last time. I did my breathing exercises in the mirror for an hour, and I repeated the mantra. ’I am a person of value. I am a person of value’. He seems really nice, and I was feeling calm, so I let him take me for a meal at the Snack Attack cafe on the Industrial Estate up Foxhills. I had a super hero burger, without the cheese because I’m watching my weight, and a diet coke. Then I let him feel my bra in his Audi in the carpark." She looked uneasy for a moment. "You don’t think that’s too soon do you?"
Jamie was sporting a visible erection. He shook his head, slowly.
"I mean… oh god. What if he thinks I’m a slut? We’ve only been seeing each other for two months."
She sat down, quickly, and began to cry. Jamie quickly moved his chair beside her and began stroking her back, lingering over her bra strap under her light jumper.
"I don’t think you’re a slut", said Martin. "I know you aren’t. You did very well. I just wish I could have…" He breathed in, deeply. "Yes, well… now, have we all agreed on what we discussed last week?"
The group nodded. Even Brenda, and she was in a neck-brace from when she built up enough confidence to go on the Whirlitzers at Dowses Fun Fair at the Leisure Centre. They all looked serious for a moment.
Martin stood, and said “Now, let’s do this. We can all do this, can’t we? Let’s repeat the ‘can-do’ mantra. All together now”.
They all chanted, as one, suddenly finding confidence in themselves, heads held high. ”I am better, I am more, I am strong. I am better, I am more, I am strong”.
Martin handed out coffees, and they carried on chanting. ”I am better, I am more, I am strong”.
They all looked around at one another, with bright, confident eyes, shining, their jaws set, their shoulders squared. And they drank as one person.
They all stood, and walked to the centre of the circle of chairs, holding their arms out, and entered into a group hug, still chanting. ”I am better, I am more, I am strong”. Brenda was the first to drop, her corpulent frame thudding, almost making a splat sound as her top rode up under the arms of the two people on either side and her flesh hit the grey tiled floor. She was grinning. Martin went next, his legs buckling beneath him. He sighed as he hit the floor. It was strangely graceful.
The mantra became slurred amongst the rest of the group.
They all fell, one by one, until only Mary and Jamie stood. Jamie mustered up enough energy to turn to Mary, and run his hand up her stomach, and they looked into one another’s eyes, propped up against each other, supporting their weight together. Mary began to speak, but it was slurred and hard to distinguish, her eyelids drooping. ”Jeeeeaamie. doo youu fanshy m… me…. m.. mmmmm”. With a murmur on her lips, she fell, and Jamie let her fall, looking down at her limp body in half-lidded dismay.
Jamie was the last to drop.
He looked around at the bodies around him, and collapsed. He lay prone on his back, one leg twisted beneath him.
The autumn light had grown duller, now, as the day shifted into evening. The shafts of light shone through, illuminating all the bodies laying on the cold, hard floor. Jamie shifted, slightly, his dying breath escaping his lungs.
He still had an erection.
On Bioshock, violence, and video games, An Essay
So, that Bioshock Infinite game everyone has been talking about. Oh, and HERE BE SPOILERS.
I’ve had a good few ‘experiences’ in gaming, and the quality of those ‘experiences’ has been that I can’t really derive much pleasure from straight-ahead action games any more. The visceral thrill has been replaced by a wanting of more, of something to engage me. For every Locust’s head I chainsaw in ‘Gears Of War’, I pine for that moment where I unleashed the white phosphorus on innocent civilians, fully knowing the consequences, on my intense journey through the Heart Of Darkness, via a generic shooter in ‘Spec Ops: The Line’. For every zombie I kill in ‘Left 4 Dead’ (as brilliant as it is), I want to be sat, in floods of tears as I tell a ten-year-old girl who sees me as the only adult she trusts to shoot me in the head before I turn into a zombie, and I want every second of that awful, heavy responsibility in Telltale Games’ ‘The Walking Dead’. For every Covenent beast I shoot in the face with a grenade launcher in ‘Halo’, I think only of the gut wrenching decision I had to make, deciding which of my crew mates to save - Ashley or Kaiden - in ‘Mass Effect’, knowing full well that one of them, these two people I had conversed with, knew their backgrounds, knew how they grew up, that one of them would die. In the realms of this game, this experience, they were my friends. Not because they fought alongside me in frustrating, over-long combat sections, but because I’d wandered around the ship, just chatting to them, getting to know who they are, and what makes them tick. And choosing between them was a hard decision, my stomach felt heavy, my heart felt like stone.
I want those moments where I sit, numb, in complete silence, my controller like a dead weight in my hands at the trauma I’ve just been put through, the decision I’ve had to make.
I still play the straight-up shooters. They pass the time in an agreeable enough manner. Just blast through them in a handful of hours, not much required apart from an itchy trigger finger and a nice cup of coffee.
More and more, though, I find myself gravitating towards games like Rez, or Child Of Eden, games that create an experience, a feeling, an atmosphere that is unique, and not bull-headed. Games that can make me soar, that take me to another world. The ‘Evolution’ level in Child Of Eden is incredible, blowing the virii from the Phoenix at the end of the level, as the music reacts to your movements, a voice ringing out in triumph, pure and clear signalling every tiny little victory, the face of the eponymous child breaking through and flashing on the screen - this is no longer just a game, it’s an experience. Still fun, and enjoyable, but it grabs every one of your senses until you’re immersed, and part of this world.
And then, games like Bioshock come along.
At the time of Bioshock’s release, I didn’t have an Xbox, and my PC was very shaky to say the least. Not that I didn’t try, of course. I installed it, turned all the settings down, and managed to swim to the lighthouse before it completely crashed and overheated my graphics card. I didn’t manage to play it until around 2009, when I’d got an Xbox.
My first steps into Rapture were ones full of trepidation. I was genuinely nervous. The world that Adam Levine and his team have created is genuinely unnerving, the sense of something being wrong coming the moment you step into the lighthouse and activate the bathysphere, even before you see any of the insane splicers.
I roamed around, just staring out of the windows at the underwater city, watching whales pass by, hearing the groan and creak of metal as the water bore down on it with intense pressure, listening to the audio logs of the guests to a tragic New Year party, seeing and hearing the Little Sisters for the first time, and witnessing the Big Daddy leap to her defense, getting a sense of sheer might and awesome fury, and hoping beyond hope that you’ll never have to fight one. Seeing one up close for the first time, and realising that it won’t attack you, as long as you play nice and don’t attack the Little Sister it is protecting.
The world built up around all this is engaging, traumatic, intense, and brilliantly written. Even the combat feels right. After all, this is a video game, and it needs to sell copies. It’s a competent shooter, but there is weight to every death you inflict, you’re never overwhelmed, nor do the Splicers appear from nowhere. You know they’re around, you can hear them, with insane rambling internal dialogue as they prowl the hallways in search of their next fix.
It was a feeling that sold the game. This sense of ‘other’. And it was a game of moments, of experiences. Realising just who your character is, and why you seem to blindly follow the requests of the men speaking to you through the radio. Understanding this was all by design, despite the seemingly random events that led to you visiting Rapture in the first place.
Bioshock 2 was similar enough, again selling this world well.
Bioshock Infinite feels like the true sequel, however. Instead of an underwater utopia, you visit a utopia in the clouds, all clean lines, bright colours, blue skies and barbershop quartets. There is still an unnerving sense that something isn’t quite right, still that sense that there is a greater purpose for your attendance in the city.
You are tasked with finding a girl, and taking her to New York City. You don’t know why, only that if you succeed, your character’s gambling debts are paid off in full. And your character, Booker DeWitt, has deep seated agony within him, over something he can’t quite remember, and that he can’t quite forget.
Ultimately, Bioshock Infinite fails, but also succeeds.
The ambitions of the series were very lofty, and Bioshock was subdued enough to then carry the grand ideas it set out to carry. The violence felt necessary, at no point did you feel like a God, destroying wave after wave of faceless enemies. It carried weight, and along with all the beautiful little details, like shrines to lost husbands, or audio logs from a crazed surgeon, it all came together and made the world seem real, vibrant, alive.
Infinite comes along and goes for grandeur. Waves of enemies pour into arenas, ready for your electricity bolts or bullets. Skyhook executions are vile and unnecessary. It all still has this sense of foreboding, but it’s more visceral, much more in-yer-face, while being impersonal and faceless.
But it’s the moments aside from that which make Infinite shine. It’s the moment where you’re searching a basement with Elizabeth, the girl, and you have the option to pick up a guitar. Your character sits, plays a simple melody, and Elizabeth sings a beautiful song. It’s a wonderful, wonderful moment of peace, and it’s moments like these that pull the whole thing together, and prevent it from being just another shooter. While you’re escorting Elizabeth, she roams her surroundings, looking under tables, running ahead in excitement because she’s been locked away for her whole life. These moments resonate, give you a sense of humanity. It’s these, along with the ending that will be discussed and mulled over for years to come that elevate the Bioshock series above other games. And I hope the sheer runaway success of this game will inspire game developers to push those boundaries, understand that AAA titles can have incredible stories, and reach much loftier ambitions.
I found myself wanting a version of the game with the violence stripped out. I literally spent the first half hour or so with my mouth open at the sheer detail in this world. It’s beautiful. The music, the dialogue, the sound design. When Booker rings the bells at the lighthouse, there is a herald of horns and red lights bearing down from the heavens. Even the blink of the lighthouse bulb is perfect, and just adds to the atmosphere. Running through it again, I start to understand why the man in the lighthouse was dead when I got there. I realised who the couple rowing me to the lighthouse in the boat were. What the ‘AD’ on my right hand stood for. Who Elizabeth truly was. To be able to enjoy that, without the ever-present pistol hovering around would be daring, and achievable. Some interesting puzzle mechanics, perhaps, and no-one needs to have their neck graphically broken with a spinning hook. Revisiting a time where 'Myst' and 'The 7th Guest' reigned supreme, beautiful graphics, engaging story, and bizarre puzzles as you unravel a mystery. I’ve got no real issue with violence in games, but it just sometimes isn’t needed to serve the story.
Story. That’s the main thrust. I’ve always liked a story that has ramifications outside of the universe which it serves. I like to see a million paths leading from the path I have just walked, whether in a book, or a movie, or a video game.
Not so much a review, as an essay. Just a ramble on what video games can mean, what they can do, what they can say.
I don’t want to delve into what Bioshock Infinite does say - that’s covered sufficiently in many places. I’m still thinking about that ending and what it could mean, and I will be thinking about it for Months to come.
NB -There are a series of articles here, which do a far better job than I ever could at delving into the myriad of themes in this game.