Armageddon Obsession

Years back, at DisInfoCon (I’ll try to find the link later and stick it here), Grant Morrison, comic-book writer, ritual magician and Glaswegian, mourned what he considered the western youth’s slide into what he deemed “apocalypse culture.” It’s an interesting cultural development; this is perhaps the first time in history that a vast amount of our consumable entertainment media has been based in worlds which appear to be ruined versions of our own.

Let’s take two huge examples: Post-Nuclear Apocalypse and Zombie fictions. These have been done to death of course, but they provide adequate examples of settings and scenarios which, fittingly, refuse to die. These genres stretch far back in our popular culture; A Canticle for Leibowitz, one of the earliest novels set in the scorched wastes of a world which has in recent centuries undergone severe nuclear devastation, came out back in 1960. Night of the Living Dead, obviously not the first occurrence of zombies in folklore but perhaps the first time the subject matter had beed appropriated by the western culture industry, came out in 1968.

And yet still we obsess over these tropes. The Walking Dead is more popular than ever, and the Fallout games still move millions of units effortlessly. These genres have basically gone unchanged, and I reject the notion that zombies have been ‘deconstructed’ over time; dark notions of what people are willing to become in order to survive have been present in the genre since the beginning, as has the question (repeated ad nauseam) “are WE the real monsters?!” Making the zombies capable of running hardly constitutes a revolutionising of the whole stage. Post-Nuke stuff seems satisfied with ‘yesterday’s tomorrow forever’; the way they perceived the possibilities of the future in the dawn of the Nuclear Age, rising steel statues ravaged by fire, twisted impressions burnt into the earth for those who come after to find and ponder over.

Would it be reductive to simply consider this ghoulish western obsession with the apocalypse either a bizarre manifestation of the Judaeo-Christian ‘End of Days’ eschaton or as an example of mass-unconscious self-loathing imperialist decadence? We’re still caught up in the hall-of-mirrors that is post-modernism, an era chiefly characterised no longer by its incorporation of myriad narratives but instead by a nihilism born of diaspora and self-obsession. Adorno & Horkheimer wrote that “Under monopoly all mass culture is identical” (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1944), and whereas The Frankfurt School were principally concerned with the inherent homogeneity which characterises art produced in a capitalist society, this lends itself perfectly to the longevity of the genres in question: what better product to market to a society which finds itself in the existential crisis which accompanies imperial decline than one which offers a masochistic vision of said society catastrophically humbled by its own hubris? And one which (and here’s the kicker), depicts the viewer-projection protagonist as a survivor of the horror which surely awaits us?

Want to make an actual deconstructive zombie film? Okay. Have the film open on a shambling pack of zombies, whatever era you deem most intriguing, and follow them for 90 minutes as they wordlessly scuttle about, picking off shrieking survivors and rooting through buildings. Offer absolutely zero human element to the narrative, the backstories of any survivors glimpsed are of no significance.

That was a clumsy (spellcheck suggested ‘classy’ there) way of trying to highlight how post-apocalyptic fiction often tries to offer the audience the vicarious and deeply self-indulgent fantasy of being present for the world’s eventual devastation yet not succumbing to it. It’s the Bystander Fallacy, the delusion some people have that in a high-intensity and adrenaline-heavy situation of violence or disaster they would surely remain calm, collected and capable throughout the ordeal, logically approaching the situation rather than losing their heads and screaming about the place like the other lesser beings present, who unlike the solipsist fantasist in question are not the Protagonist of the situation.

The impression one gets from observing these highly-successful genres is that our culture is one in the throws of an anxiety; we’ve all noticed the trends and parallels, historically. We feel like we know where this is going. Fallen is Babylon, it’s the Last Days of Rome, etc. Pornhub reveals year after year that our tastes are growing more extreme and abstract, populist movements surge behind authoritarian statesmen who hark incessantly to bygone, civilised (and notably caucasian) golden ages which never truly were. It’s all coming down, maaan, and now every generation which follows gets to experience an even more crystallised terror of being all-too-conscious in the seconds after the wheels lose traction on the ice beneath and the car spins into the night, breath held in the timeless moments before the crash.


Mental Diarrhea #00002 – Hitman, Mirror’s Edge, death of culture etc etc

So Hitman: Absolution was a wet pile of shit. It abandoned a model the series had followed for years, threw a bunch of established lore, characterisation and features out the window marked ‘Retcon’ and caused a lot of lost faith in IO, who seemed hell-bent on turning their most prized IP into Kane and fucking Lynch. I’m not saying Kane and Lynch isn’t fun if you’ve got a friend and a bottle of vodka, but so are bad movies, poetry slams and awkward sexual experimentation, all of which are less likely than K&L to give you an STI. When I heard Jesper Kyd wouldn’t be returning to compose for Absolution I knew it was going to disappoint, but as a card-carrying fanboy of the series I sighed, hitched up my girdle and plonked down the £40 I needed to be proven right.

It was a horrible mess of a game and I traded it in a few days later for Far Cry 3 with no regrets. I picked it up again when it went on sale out of some kind of misguided loyalty to the series; I figured I might as well finish the damn thing. Shockingly enough it didn’t improve.

Sounds odd, but the main draw of Hitman, at least for me and some people I spoke with, was similar to that of Mirror’s Edge: the fluidity of precise movements and actions within a well-memorised landscape/scenario. Mirror’s Edge was interesting in that it actually improved with repeated plays, the first few forays into red-and-white-palette parkour mostly consisting of stabbing Templars with your wristbl- wait, no, that’s the OTHER game where a secret society seeks to disrupt authoritarian control by way of running on rooftops to a red and white colour scheme. SORRY EVERYBODY. But yeah, first few ‘runs’ in Mirror’s Edge are mostly about awkwardly bumping up against walls and falling to your death on the streets below. Later, once you’ve got a feel for what you’re doing/where you’re going, the game really comes to life. It’s surprising how many clever shortcuts you can find, and the combat is actually pretty enjoyable (no, seriously) if you just never use guns and experiment with the hand-to-hand stuff.

Hitman was similar in that the first few times you took on an assignment in Blood Money, Contracts or any of the others it was mostly a blind grasp at the walls. You’d explore the area, stealing disguises to hide in plain sight, figure out where your target was, what their routes and routines were, and plan accordingly. The next time doing the same mission you might try a little something you’d considered before, or check another room you’d missed, or just figure out something brilliant. The more you experimented, the slicker and more streamlined your hit became, and soon it wasn’t long before you got that Silent Assassin rank you’d been hankering for. If you wanted to you could just grab an assault rifle and cowboy the joint I suppose, but it’s playing like that which lead to Absolution being made, so I hope you’re fucking pleased with yourself.

Absolution offers little of this. I know it’s a well trodden point but most mission don’t even seem to involve assassinating anyone, which felt like the equivalent of a Dynasty Warriors game featuring Guan Yu doing his taxes or baking some bread. It’s just not right. The thing is… Absolution isn’t even necessarily a bad game, really. It’s just a terrible HITMAN game. Whack some hair and a different outfit on 47, remove any mention of “The Agency” from the script and BAM, new IP from IO and a halfway solid one at that! But we’re living in a ball-less era for the industry, for all creative industries I suppose. Curse of the postmodern. Adorno and Horkheimer wrote about this beautifully in their 1944 text The Culture Industry, wherein they identify in the young Hollywood industries a horrifying future: one in which media is made primarily to be sold, rather than to educate or even entertain on any level deeper than that needed to ensure future sales. Why would a developer take the risk of starting a new intellectual property with some genuinely unique features when we’ve got all these fucking spreadsheets telling us that players like all this ubiquitous shit, have a distaste for escort missions and supposedly fucking LOVE the sewers.

It’s the era of the reboot, the long-since relevant sequel, the game which immediately sends me flaccid by self-consciously trying to latch on to past glories. Hitman is dead; Long live Hitman.