Thursday, 6 April 2017

Playing like a girl

The first fifteen to twenty minutes of a new video game are vital. In it, you've got to set the scene, establish the protagonist, and give the player a feel for the controls. Of course, most of the keys are standardized across games, but things like the range of a jump or the size of the hitbox need some getting used to. There's the story, as well, the sequence of events that set the narrative in motion.
The easiest way to do this is with the "attack on the homebase" trope, of course, where the homebase may be anything from a spacecraft  to a village. (Halo 1, Knights of the Old Republic,Neverwinter Nights 1 & 2, Dragon Age:Origins - the Human Noble origin, atleast, Dragon Age 2, many others). The other, of course, is the ever popular "Player as prisoner" opening (Every Elder Scrolls game ever, KOTOR 2, Shadows of Amn, even the original Prince of Persia).
Horizon Zero Dawn begins with a birth, an adoption, and a little girl coming to terms with the fact that she is an outcast and that "normal" people will not even speak to her. Oh, and that this is a world in the far future, while steel dinosaurs prowl the land, but humans are still making do with spears and bows.

Image result for horizon zero dawn art book
That's a Thunderjaw, a metal T-Rex armed with missile launchers, machine guns and a laser cannon
I've only played one set of games as a woman character, and that was the Mass Effect series, and that, only for Jennifer Hale's performance as FemShep. But that was to "check it out", and the character I identified with was Sheploo(the male default character, modeled on Mark Vanderloo ), and Mark Meer was always my def Shepard. And wherever the player character's gender is a choice, I always chose male.
Horizon Zero Dawn was the first game that I played in its entirety as a girl.

I loved it.

There are different levels of engagement when you start playing a game. The first couple of hours tend to drag a little, especially in RPGs. There's exposition, of course, and there's the getting used to things like inventory screens, maps and quest objective tracking, getting the basic economics of buying and selling stuff. There are also the questions of skills and weapon upgrades as you gain your first levels. Does this skill work as well as it sounds? Will I be using melee or range? How important is crafting going to be?

Then, there's the period of increasing engagement, as you begin to find out what tactics work for you, and which weapons. You've faced the first boss, and managed to come through. This is when you get hooked, and you consume the game, like popcorn or a bowl of paneer maggi. You can't stop yourself, and you want more - the next level, the next skill points, the next weapon or weapon upgrade.

All this, obviously, is gender neutral. And Horizon Zero Dawn does an excellent job of this. But it also gives you a likable protagonist - not one of your run-of-the-mill hardasses like Master Chief or Marcus Fenix or John MacTavish or Nick Reyes or Nico Bellic or even Darth Revan (I exclude Shepard, simply because he's introduced staring pensively out of a window at the earth and the fact that he can quote Machiavelli and Beccaria), a protagonist who you can empathize with, who is both a woman and a pariah, but who handles those loads without making the story about Aesops and morals, one who manages to be a teen without being aggravating.

Games give you agency, in a way that books or movies or any other artform can never do. And that agency allows you to identify so much more with the character you play. When I played Baldur's Gate, I would dream of the further adventures of its protagonist. I would compose mental fan fiction on the undocumented exploits of Revan and the Jedi Exile. For the past fortnight, I've gone to sleep thinking I was Aloy, with my tearblast arrows and Sharpshot Bow and spear, dreaming of ways to take down stormbirds.

Yep, that's a stormbird

A very good friend of mine presented me a T-Shirt, with the names or the titles of every video game character that I loved playing. The Nephelim. The Nerevarine. The vault dwellers and couriers and sole survivors from Fallout. The Nameless One. The Grey Warden. Nathan Drake. Geralt of Rivia (One of these days I'm going to post a Witcher related question on a Facebook quizzing board and reply to the person who posts the correct answer with the comment "You're a real Geralt of Trivia, aren't you?"). The Dovahkiin.
But if I had the T-Shirt remade, right on top would be the name of Aloy of the Nora.

It's 4:10 am in the morning. I'm running a temperature and I've just finished playing Horizon Zero Dawn. I'm feeling high and awake and so...satisfied.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017



If you aren't a Tam, you can't even pronounce it right.

It's a Tamil month, one that loosely corresponds to the period from the middle of December to the middle of January.

But if you arent a Tam, you dont know Margazhi - It's the Madrasi's season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, the season of woodsmoke at dawn when the temples play ML Vasanthakumari singing Andal's Thiruppavai, the season of kolams and carnatic music, when Tamil Nadu's scorching temperatures dip into the twenties.

It is ... beautiful.

மாதங்களில் அவள் மார்கழி, மலர்களிலே அவள் மல்லிகை

Among the months, she's Margazhi. Among flowers, she's the jasmine.

There's this song, a love song, a movie song, where this guy sings about the woman he loves. As lyrics go, the lines are simple, but so loaded with meaning that it makes your heart swell.

The song was written by a tubby womanizing drunkard - who also happened to be one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century.

Hyperbole? Maybe. But if you aren't a Tam, you wouldn't know. You wouldn't be able to evaluate the distance between ஆசையே அலைபோலே நாமெல்லாம் அதன்மேலே    and ஜகமே மந்திரம் சுகமே தந்திரம் சிவசம்போ.

So this guy, this Muthiah, wrote songs for movies. He wrote novels. He was a member of the Dravida movement, an atheist. He wrote propaganda verse.

There's a story of a man. A powerful man, beloved by millions. He was a movie star, a matinee idol, and a politician who'd become the chief minister of a state that loved him. But as Chief Minister, he found that he had to take unpopular decisions, tough decisions. So he would steel himself by listening to a song from one of his movies, taking strength from the lines "வாழ்ந்தவர் கோடி மறைந்தவர் கோடி மக்களின் மனதில் நிற்பவர் யார்" (crores of people have lived, crores have died - but who remain in memory), written by this Muthiah, a guy he quarreled with all the fucking time.

If you think this is all quite trite, you're probably justified.

But I'd like to to draw your attention to a film called Raaja Paarvai, one which starred Kamalahasan - not fucking Kamal Hassan - and a song called Azhage, azhagu.
Now, Raja Paarvai is a lovely film, where Kamalahasan plays a blind guy who is in love with Madhavi - and he asks Madhavi to draw a self portrait based on how he sees her in his mind - with eyes like stars, ears like question marks, fingers like "thenkuzhal", and so on...
The result, as drawn by Madhavi, is grotesque, but its also an illustration of the impossibility of translation.

How would you translate, for example, செந்தமிழ் தேன்மொழியால், நிலாவென சிரிக்கும் மலர்கொடியால் (yes, I know that its the hard la, not the soft la there, but translations online are fucked up). That "her voice is as sweet as pure honeyed tamil, that her smile is like moonlight on a flower?" Whatever you try, its not going to be the same.

So, autobiographical note alert, my grandfather was into films. He made money financing them, and the stories of his banging starlets are legendary in our family. As a reaction, my father grew up in rebellion. Where Thatha was hedonistic, he was puritanical. Where my grandfather enjoyed movie music, my \father swore by the Carnatic greats. But I remember this, back in 1981, when appa looked up from the Hindu that he was reading and said, to no one in particular, "What a waste. He died. What a waste of a life".

Kannadasan. Kaviarasu Kannadasan wasn't a Padma Shree or a Padma Bhushan or a Padma anything,.  But he could writeabout vegetables, about beans and bitter gourd, and make it it into one of the most heartfelt love songs ever.  He could write a song glorifying Allah, where every third line ended with "Om" - not because he was taking the piss on Muslims, but because it was about God, whatever you chose to call him or her.  He could write Deva Mainthan Pokindran, a st6aple of every Christmas and Easter Oliyum Oliyum, where Kamal was Jesus, and he could write Yaarum Varuvar, Yaarum Thozhuvar, Naagoor Aandavan Sannidhiyil.

He was, to put it mildly, awesome.

I've always loved hacks. And Kannadasan was the ultimate hack.
But in his commercialism, he transcended commerce.
He transcended politics and propaganda.

So if you had one song to sum up Kannadasan's life, which would you choose?
This one?

or this
or this

or this, the only song he wrote for Mullum Malarum,

or this
or the ultimate Tam stoner anthem

You can't.

And that's my point.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

On and Off Facebook

After a layoff of around six months, I got back on Facebook. I think it was a mistake. Within hours of my initial return post, I was back on the page, checking and rechecking who had liked it, who hadn't, who had noticed my absence, who had commented and so on. I mean, I can talk all I want about the interesting stuff friends and colleagues are doing, and all the jokes and memes and political commentary, but ultimately, its all about getting likes and comments on your posts.
Which, when you think of it, is actually kind of sad.
There's a videogame trope called gameplay and story segregation. There's the gameplay - the tactics of combat or platforming, the sequences of keystrokes and button presses that take you from one level to another, and there's the story, the overall narrative. The technical term for this is "ludonarrative dissonance" - meaning that while the story tells one tale, the way you play the game tells another.
The most obvious example would be a lawful good paladin in a roleplaying game who loots everything that isn't nailed down - because, well, loot means better equipment, more money, easier boss fights and so on. So, in essence, while you may be playing an ethical character, the game rewards you for unethical behaviour.
In Facebook, of course, you set the narrative. The role you play is your online self - something which hews - at certain levels - to yourself. The building blocks of your online personality - your political views, your sports and hobbies, the books you read and review on Goodreads, the movie clips and music you post, your attempts at wit, all the rest. There are the vacation snaps, the showcasing of family, photos of gatherings and reunions in boozy pubs and college campuses - thats the story.
The gameplay is the likes you gather, the number of comments on each photo and post, and its not unlikely that at some point, Facebook - or Instagram or Sanpchat - will introduce metrics that measure your social media presence - "You are a 'four star' personality. You have an average of 24 likes and 15 comments on every link you share. You have an average of 67 likes for every photo album. Your most popular memory featured your spouse and children urinating in tandem at the Mannekin Pis on 24th July 2016. Your most popular post tagged Bill Clinton and Ivanka Trump" and so on. And so, in through the Black Mirror we go.  
Being away from Facebook took me away from it all for a while. It wasn't easy. The first few days, almost by reflex, every time I opened my browser, my fingers would work thusly. +D, "fa", and autocomplete would fill in "" and . But then, since my account was deactivated, I would be asked to login, and I would sigh, and then pull back.
But as withdrawals go, it was pretty mild. Maybe it was because my post would be ignored, more often than not. If I was lucky, I'd get a couple of likes and the occasional comment. (That, of course, is a very good reality check for narcissism).
But here's the thing. My life didn't change for the better. It wasn't as if I'd decoupled from the net completely. So I might have missed grieving posts about the passing of Carrie Fisher or Edward Albee or George Michael, or the shocked ones about Trump's election. I must have missed furious debates on demonetisation, and whether or not it was a disastrous bungle that destroyed the economy. And as ever, the arguments about gender and caste, about Jaya and Jallikattu, about storms and steel bridges. I missed the discussions about that Australian Open match, or the Mistry Masala at Tata Sons
All in all, not much, because it's not the events you miss.
There's this piece of faux-profundity that goes "Wherever you go, there you are." But like most trite shite, it's true. Not in the sense of "ooh. Enjoy every moment mindfulness yada yada bullshit", but because there's no escaping from yourself. And staying away from Facebook isn't a journey into the uncharted. It's pretty much the same as staying of Facebook.
Games succeed because of replayability. Replayability is a function of gameplay, however good the story is (except maybe Planescape:Torment).  So, story be damned. I'm back for the gameplay.

PS: A cry for help. Please like this.