“Wow, this game does not discriminate based on gender,” said my friend, as we watched a graphic cut-screen of my female orc merrily decapitating a heavily-armoured female Bandit Chief.
As someone who has spent over 800 hours of my life playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, part of me wants to agree with this assessment. In some ways, it’s entirely accurate. In Skyrim, there’s a distinct absence of many of the gendered tropes that put me off mainstream videogames. In all my extensive play time, I never felt like I was willfully ignoring offensive portrayals of my gender in order to enjoy the rest of the game. In Skyrim, as in many open world RPGs*, your character is completely customisable; their gender, their appearance and their skill set all come down your own choices. Both male and female bodies are equally idealized (though even the bulkiest lady body does not look strong enough to wield a warhammer). In general, female armour is not more revealing or sexualised than equivalent male armour. (Albeit, there are some female sets that have an inexplicable chest windows, which, considering the climate of Skyrim, always makes me think “wow her tits must be cold”.)
“I feel empty of hope and completely powerless to do anything about it”
These are the words my friend Elaine typed to me during an otherwise mundane catch-up chat. She was explicit. This wasn’t about her job or her relationships or any other personal drama. It was about the state of the world around her. It made her angry, but her anger felt impotent. I know those feelings so well. I wanted to tell her that it’s all going to be OK, that all the violence and ignorance and fear in our world right now is just the final desperate thrashing of the regressive status quo, that our societies are slowly, glacially shifting in a better direction. But I couldn’t say those things with honesty, because honestly, I’m not sure of anything.
“We’re living through the fall of the west”
These are the words my sister typed to me in the wake of Brexit. They made me sit bolt up in my chair. Any other day, any other year, I might have dismissed them as an unnecessary dramatisation, but how true they rang in the moment, how matter-of-fact an observation this seemed. Having taken some time to think on it, they still don’t seem like an exaggeration. Geo-politically, it’s entirely accurate: our populations are ageing, our economies are stagnating, our societies are crumbling under the weight of austerity, and our value as a trading partner is quickly diminishing, propped up only at the steep expense of our “less developed” neighbours. It seems to me that those of us living in “developed” economies – certainly in English-speaking nations – are witnessing the logical conclusion of the Great Neoliberal Capitalist Experiment. For the vast majority of people, it’s been an unmitigated failure. Lots of people have very little money and are told that it’s their own fault for not working hard enough. Those of us who do have a bit money are still mostly miserable, because all we can afford is stuff to keep ourselves distracted. For a tiny, almost negligible, handful of people, it’s worked out very well.
One of the best things that happened in 2014 was that The Hobbit “trilogy” finally juddered to a halt, meaning those of us who feel obliged to see the films out of residual Lord of the Rings loyalty can get on with our lives in peace, at least until Peter Jackson finds his copy of The Silmarillion.
We meet lady elf warrior Tauriel in the second installment of The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug. If it feels like she was shoehorned in, it’s because she was shoehorned in. The book of The Hobbit is an unrepentant Victorian boys’ club. So, this is positive right? Actively altering the source material to be more inclusive! One whole new female character in nine hours of rambling and unnecessarily drawn-out plot? You’re welcome, feminists!
As a rabid Tolkien nerd and a card-carrying feminist, I desperately wanted to be positive about this new female character, created for my presumed benefit. Sadly, Tauriel is a case study in how not to write and insert a new female character into a pre-existing world or story. The first and most obviously problem is that she’s suffering from a lethal case of Strong Female Character syndrome.
For the past two years I have been quietly enjoying Penny Dreadful or, as my pal Ádhamh calls it, Eva Green’s Weekly Hour of Scenery Chewing. It’s a slick little series about classic horror characters getting into scrapes with vampires against the delightful backdrop of Gothic Victorian London. The production is polished, the cast is stellar, the costumes are stunning and there are pleasing twists on familiar literary figures. It also has a complex and intriguing lady character as its main protagonist and I am not above admitting that I could watch Eva Green chew the scenery all day long. Truly, all was going well, until last week when a shock series finale killed off Vanessa Ives and the whole series ground to screeching and profoundly unsatisfying halt.
John Logan claims that this surprise ending was nothing to do with ratings and everything to do with serving the story, a claim on which I call hefty amounts of BULLSHIT because no writer could honestly claim that this rushed and truncated excuse for an ending was part of his vision all along. On the most basic level, so much of it made no narrative sense. Here are eight reasons why:
1. The gang’s all back together but… why?
Victor Frankenstein has had zero contact with Malcolm or Ethan for an entire season, but when they run into him by pure chance in the hallway in Bedlam they’re like, “Oh hey, we’re about to go on suicide mission to save Vanessa who you also have not seen in an entire season, want in?” and he’s like YES OK NICE TO SEE YOU WHY NOT! This contrivance seems to be purely for the sake of getting the old gang back together for the big finale, which is… why? I mean, Victor is cute and all, but he also spent the entire season trying to violently brainwash Lily into dating him again, which puts him squarely on TEAM VILLAIN. Victor Frankenstein is a bad person and he’s also fairly useless in a fight and also HE’S BEEN IN A DIFFERENT STORYLINE FOR THE WHOLE SEASON so why on earth did he have to be there?
Of course, if you live in Ireland, you don’t need a peer-reviewed study to tell you this. Our country is a live illustration of the trend. Every year, at least 3,500 Irish women (that’s an average of nine women per day) spend time, energy and money travelling to the UK to obtain a safe, legal abortion. Those who are unable to travel continue to turn to illegal “abortion pills” or even more drastic measures to end unwanted pregnancy – we’re not sure about their numbers, but it’s safe to assume they are not negligible.
For those of you who call yourselves “pro-life”, your one and only campaign point seems to be preserving our Constitution’s 8thAmendment at all costs. I’m sorry to inform you that your time and effort is sadly misplaced. Ireland is not and has never been “abortion-free”. Our blanket ban on abortion does little, if anything, to deter women from ending unwanted pregnancy. All the evidence suggests that repealing our 8th Amendment and replacing it with clear and humane legislation on reproductive rights will not increase abortion rates among Irish women.*
Looking back at my 2015 New Year’s post, the overall tone is upbeat. Which is as it should be. I mean, I’d made it. Right? I’d poured myself into getting the best education possible, I’d done the grind of part-time retail jobs and internships, run the gauntlet of networking events and online applications, and I’d gotten where I was supposed to be. I was a professional Digital Communications Something Something, with a healthy income and a nice apartment in a nice city with easy access to the rest of Europe. I had a handsome boyfriend and a good circle of friends, with plenty of opportunities to make more. I was the postcard for “Where Do You See Yourself Five Years After Graduation?”
And I was, to put it delicately, abysmally fucking miserable. Because when I wrote that post at the start of 2015, I failed to mention that I was living with chronic anxiety and every ounce of my energy was going into maintaining a façade of socially-acceptable OKness. Even here, on my blog, which is supposed be an outlet, not a performance.
Shelter. Banished. The Long Dark. Three games, all very different in terms of scope and gameplay, but with a unifying factor that ties them together: the total lack of supernatural threat. There are no zombies, no monsters, no mysterious forces at work in the shadows. Your deadliest enemies are snow, disease and starvation. But to say these game are about man (or badger) vs. nature would be reductive, because nature is also your closest ally in the quest for survival. Most of the time, death is the consequence of your own lack of foresight or intuition.
As a result, all three games are stark and compelling vehicles for emergent narratives; tiny events take on huge significance and the meaning of victory is skewed. Survival is the only quest, the only game worth playing and also the only game you can never really win. These games understand this innately and push the player towards understanding it too. Through your choices, you will spin stories of isolation, struggle and loss. Perhaps, eventually, you will discover your own version of victory.
Are you in the mood to snot-cry over a virtual badger? Then this the game for you! You play as a mother badger trying to guide her five adorable squeaking cubs to a new home, while keeping them fed and avoiding deadly hazards such as birds of prey and forest fires. As you shuffle resolutely through the world, the painted-paper landscape and whimsical music belies the brittle urgency that permeates the game.