Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Hitman (2016, IO Interactive, PS4)

After a bit of a fallow year for gaming in 2015, when I played a lot of analogue cardboard games and MGS V and basically nothing else, I started this year by buying a PS4. I'm in that glorious post-new-console honeymoon period, where I suddenly have a huge library of games at my disposal. So as I cycle through games, I want to try and write about at least some of them. 

The plan is short blogs – not too much thinking ahead, not too much editing, just what I can shake loose in a single sitting – picking out one or two things I find interesting about each game. Here's the first:

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I've always enjoyed the Hitman series, but none of its previous incarnations has ever made me swoon like Hitman, the awkwardly-named sixth (depending on how you count) game.

Maybe I'm being shallow, and it's just the lovely graphics. Sapienza in particular is luscious, the kind of Mediterranean seaside resort you wouldn't mind getting bumped off in.

Maybe it's the slightly increased willingness to hold your hand. The Hitmans (Hitmen?) have always been about finding off-kilter ways to dispatch your target, and this game introduces an Opportunities system that walks you through some of the dozens of murder options present in each sprawling level. That might sounds a bit off-putting at first, like Assassination For Dummies, but in practice it makes achieving that ludicrous
disguise-yourself-as-a-kitchen-assistant-poison-your-target's-spaghetti-then-kick-them-off-a-cliff assassination a feasible prospect without having to consult an online guide beforehand.

Maybe it's the episodic structure, which I suspect was a result of how the game got made rather than a deliberate design decision, but is nevertheless absolutely perfect. Releasing the game in level-by-level chunks means there's the promise of a new destination every month, and extra incentive to thoroughly rinse the missions you've already got while waiting impatiently for the next to come out.

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So, for the first time in a over a decade of playing Hitman games, I feel like I really understand the series, for good and ill. The Hitman games pretend to be loose and spontaneous, with hundreds of ways to complete each level, and I've been tricked into thinking they're games of violent improvisation. But that's not really the case at all.

Let's use one of Hitman's coolest new additions to explain what I mean: Escalation Contracts. This mode recycles the levels you've already got with a brand new mission that takes two or three minutes to complete. Remember that guard on the left that you just sprinted straight past? Now he's the target. Once you're done, it runs you through five increasingly difficult variations on it. This time, you can't kill anyone but the target. This time, you have to kill this second guy as well. This time, that disguise you've been relying on doesn't work anymore.

It's a great way of underlining both the fluidity and the rigidity of Hitman's systems. As you level up, you can choose your insertion point, what clothes you're wearing, what weapons you have stashed in a dark corner of the level. This leads to a cool puzzle, capable of generating some genuine eureka moments before the level even begins. Oh, man, if I start in the kitchen with the poison stashed back there, I can probably do this in no time.
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Equally, though, once you've found an optimal combination and route to success, you're likely to spend each new variation basically perfecting your racing line.

At best, you're Bill Murray jumping over the puddle in Groundhog Day, Tom Cruise shooting aliens without even looking in Edge of Tomorrow, Keanu Reeves seeing through the Matrix to the underlying code. At worst, you're living through the bits they cut out of those movies' montages, screwing up one tiny moment in that combo chain and endlessly reloading the same thirty seconds over and over (to ratchet up the tension, you can't save at any point during these Escalation missions, and have to start all over every time you fail).

This is exacerbated by some truly atrocious loading screens, which involve staring at a vaguely animated map of the world for up to a minute. Mess up the first couple of seconds a few times and you'll quickly spend more time in this dull geography lesson than actually playing.

HITMAN™_20160502110734
All of which exposes the mechanisms beneath game's shiny (oh god it's so shiny) exterior. Hitman is set in a world world which revolves to a hilarious degree around the player. Practically every other male character is bald, and/or wearing a hat, and roughly the same dimensions (not to mention skin colour) as Agent 47, so that you could easily pass for that person with a simple costume-change, probably after garrotting them and dumping the body in a freezer.

This is something the game actually pokes fun at in its training levels, which are constructed out of cardboard and plywood and where you're assured all of your stabbing/poisoning/ejecting is completely harmless. It's a reminder that this is an artificial environment created for you to muck about in.

So, no, Hitman isn't the game I once thought it was. I remember criticising mobile spin-off Hitman Go for trapping the player on rails, which I saw as a fundamental misunderstanding of a series where the whole point is choosing your own approach. I was wrong. Hitman isn't an organic homicide simulator. It doesn't reward experimentation, except under very strict lab conditions.

But you know what? That's fine. In exchange, Hitman offers gorgeously deep levels, and it's hugely rewarding to learn the whirr and tick of their inner workings.

HITMAN™_20160507155754_1

In the process of grinding out the perfect stealthy walk down a corridor, you might suddenly notice a speedboat parked up outside an open window, or a poisonable glass of wine that had passed you by the first six times, unlocking a completely different set of clockwork mechanisms that lead to you drowning your mark in a toilet rather than dropping a light fixture on them.

Often, though you won't be able to do anything with this information until the next time you play through this level, or by switching over to a different mode. So you do, this time spotting it's possible to scale that clock tower on the square –  but to do anything about it, first you'll need to keep playing and unlock the sniper rifle. And you do, starting over and over again and finding more and more ways to dispatch your targets until you know the nuances of this simulated town almost as well as that bloody loading-screen atlas you've got burned onto your retinas.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Alex's Adventures in Internetland: The Year So Far

Oh gosh. I haven't posted anything on this blog for the entirety of 2016 to this point. I've got a couple of things cooking, but in the meantime it seemed polite to let you know what I've been busy doing instead (namely, writing for other sites for actual currency that I can use to feed myself and my very hungry dog).


My column over at ComicsAlliance, The Issue, has warped into something I didn't expect: an outlet for the frustrated English-Literature student that still resides within me. Like when I tried to capture the purple-prose energy of Grant Morrison's ambitious but flawed picture-book issue of Batman and channel it into my write-up:
"Van Fleet’s art constantly strains to break out of the restraints it’s been given, blurring the edges of boxes so they look like a Papa Roach album cover, or even flopping out onto the rest of the page to disrupt the reading flow of the text. Morrison embraces his inner pulp-fiction writer practically to the point of strangulation; strings of adjective and simile tumbling out onto the page like he’s not fully in control of the keyboard.

The result is actually quite ugly, with a visual style evoking the manual for a bargain-bin videogame, and writing that crushes just about every convention of ‘respectable’ literature like a crook’s windpipe under the weighty tread of a Bat-boot."
(And if that's not highfalutin enough for ya, I also wrote one about Rudyard Kipling, or at least the version of him that appears in The Unwritten.)

On the exact opposite end of the spectrum, here's a dumb ComicsAlliance thing about when Spider-Man rolls his mask up to his nose, and how Kirsten Dunst getting off with Toby Maguire shaped me as an adolescent. (To this day, I can only get my mack on while upside-down and wearing a ski mask.)

"My own personal kinks aside, though, that rolled-up mask is just a cool practical consideration that makes the costume feel that much more lived-in. It’s probably also my favourite thing about cosplay at cons, or Hallowe’en — seeing people in these costumes in downtime, at lunch or a bar or on the dancefloor, expresses a different side of the characters they’re dressed as."


Meanwhile, over at the day job, the ongoing ad block war (which is the third most fun war of the last six months, after Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Captain America: Civil War) has provided plenty of fuel for my inner tabloid writer, as both sides of the debate throw increasingly soap-opera-esque insults at each others.

As part of that, I spoke to Alexander Hanff, a privacy advocate who's basically threatening to take the entire European ad industry to court. The result was one of my favourite interviews I've ever done:

“People have the right to block ads,” Hanff told Mobile Marketing. “People have the right to walk out of the room or switch the channel when their TV shows commercials. People have the right to not look at the ads or destroy the ads in a newspaper. There is no law anywhere that states people have to look at ads, so to call these ad block users ‘thieves’ is completely false.

“The people that are breaking the law are the publishers and the ad tech industry and the developers of the software that is doing this surveillance, and that needs to end. And it’s my goal to stop it.”

(I also got to write one of my beloved brief-history-of pieces, this time on the occasion of Twitter's tenth birthday.)

With the lonnnnng gap between issues, it's been a while since Mr Maytom and I once more returned to our Tumblr side project, Tim + Alex Get TWATD. But my most recent essay was heavily delayed enough to fall into the 2016 window, and fortunately it's one of the ones I'm happiest with, as I pick apart the distancing effect I felt across the course of WicDiv's 'Commercial Suicide' arc.

"Each guest artist bends the comic’s style to match with the relevant god, but in a lot of cases I think it’s actually more to do with how they want to be seen.

Brandon Graham trades in McKelvie’s crisp thin line for something softer and more sensuous, even while we realise that Ruth is actually a character in denial about her feelings, not embracing them. Stephanie Hans’ glorious painted art amps up the mythology angle, in line with Amaterasu’s self-presentation as the most classical god. Reading the issue, I didn’t feel any closer to the character, because Amaterasu is permanently posed, every panel is an epic mural."

(For more of me enthusing about Gillen/McKelvie comics, and exposing a little too much of myself, check out my ComicsAlliance review of their Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl, which kind of turns into a veiled rant about how I'm getting old.)

I mentioned already that I have a dog, right? Right at the start of the year, I managed to find a neat way of closing that using-my-time-to-actually-feed-him loop by writing a Kotaku piece about dogs and games, from Nintendogs to The Sims.
"There are some things that no game can really prepare you for. I don't remember the bit in MGS V, for example, where D-Dog is sick en route to a mission, producing a substance that resembles awful school-dinner chilli con carne but which he apparently finds delicious.
There's no Nintendogs minigame that has you waggling the stylus to pee against a shed at 3am in a sleep-deprived attempt to teach your new puppy that the garden is a great place to go to the toilet."
(I also wrote another thing over at Kotaku about pairing music with games, including Dre/GTA and Carly Rae/Audiosurf, but as that was specifically about 2015 stuff I've relegated it to this bracket.)

And if you'd like to get a little better acquainted with little Lucky Spencer-Dale, why not watch this lovely short film starring he, me and Imi, directed by friend of the blog Reece 'Shimmerman' Lipman?



(There's also a 'profile' on me in which I answer a set of questions about London as stupidly as I can manage.)

Oh, speaking of videos... Would you like to see me looking like an idiot in a variety of VR goggles? Of course you would.



(And if that piqued your curiosity, check out this more in-depth piece about my feelings and reservations about virtual reality after spending a bit more time there.)

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Tim's Person of the Year 2015

Tim Maytom's Person of the Year is a venerable institution around these parts, dating all the way back to 2010. Every year since, Tim has come to me, and the following dialogue has ensued: “Alex, can't I make you my Person of the Year this year? Please?” “No, Tim, that would look too self-congratulatory.” “But you're my hero, Alex.” “I know, but...”

And then Tim has to go and find a different name to add to our own personal Hall of Fame. In previous years, we've inaugurated Donald Glover, Amy Poehler, Pete Holmes, Matt Fraction & Kelly Sue DeConnick and most recently Taylor Swift. Most of the time, Tim isn't wrong. Will this be the year he finally slips up? 

Tim Person of 2015 Mystery

The criteria for bestowing the Tim Maytom Person of the Year Award upon an individual is a complex and inscrutable algorithm that is hard to predict. Sometimes it serves as recognition of potential and the personal impact the individual has had on me, while on other occasions it is awarded to someone who has already hit the crest of their career and garnered huge praise from the world at large. However, 2015 is the first time it’s gone to someone in the same year they’ve already been presented with a MacArthur Fellowship (aka a Genius Grant).

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the actor, rapper, lyricist and composer behind In The Heights and Hamilton, was announced as a MacArthur fellow in late September, but by that point he had already had quite the banner year. Hamilton, his project that combined rap and R&B with the life story of one of America’s founding fathers, debuted off-Broadway in January to rave reviews and sell-out performances. By July, it began the move to the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway, where over 700 people lined up for lottery tickets on the first night.


Hamilton LMM

By the end of the year, celebrities including the Obamas, Paul McCartney, Madonna, Steven Spielberg and Oprah had all paid a visit to see the show, and the success had led not only to his MacArthur grant, but also to a gig composing music for a scene in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and contributing both music and lyrics to the soundtrack of new Disney film Moana.

Hamilton is a revelation. The musical reframes the story of one of the key figures in the American Revolution as a hip-hop narrative, as Alexander Hamilton rises up from his birthplace in the West Indies to become Washington’s right-hand man and eventual Secretary of the Treasury, all on the strength of his writing. As a US history buff, a hip-hop aficionado and a fan of musicals, it is most assuredly My Jam.

Hamilton tells a story both triumphal and tragic, one that manages to make history feel vital and contemporary almost effortlessly. What’s more, Miranda makes this slice of history all that more accessible by placing it in the hands not of more white men, but of men and women of colour, both stylistically and literally (the only white member of the main cast plays King George III, a symbol of the status quo set against the revolutionary forces of the young United States).

That might all of that sound very worthy, the most important thing to remember about Hamilton is how fantastic the songs are. From big, key moments that employ that whole cast like “My Shot” and “Non-Stop” to devastating solo moments like Phillipa Soo’s heart-breaking rendition of “Burn”, the entire show is filled with top class song-writing and exemplary wordplay.

Miranda, who began writing the musical in 2009 based on a 400-plus page biography of Hamilton he was reading on his honeymoon, not only wrote the music, lyrics and book for the show, but also stars as Alexander Hamilton. It’s not an exercise in ego, though – Miranda is a fantastic rapper and singer, conveying Hamilton’s ambition, naivety, romanticism and arrogance through his performance.

Hamilton

He also leaves some of the best numbers for his co-stars, such as the fantastic one-two punch of “Helpless” and “Satisfied”, sung by Phillipa Soo and Renée Elise Goldsberry respectively, and “Wait For It” and “The Room Where It Happens”, performed by Leslie Odom Jnr as Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s rival and eventual killer.

The success of Hamilton has been astonishing. Broadway performances are sold out well into 2016, and the original Broadway cast recording debuted at #12 on the Billboard album chart, the highest entrance for a cast recording since 1963. The show’s popularity has led to crowds of several hundred people queuing for the cheap ticket lottery each day, and Miranda and other members of the cast entertain these hopeful attendees daily with so-called #Ham4Ham performances which remix the show in acapella fashion.

Its success also means the charismatic Miranda has become a regular on US chat shows, where he has demonstrated both his charm and wit, and his considerable skills as a freestyle rapper. Looking at Miranda’s work ethic and the amount he has achieved in his 35 years, it’s not hard to see why he saw a kindred spirit in Hamilton, who, as the musical reminds us, wrote “like he needed it to survive”.


Even before the powerhouse success of Hamilton, Miranda had won Tony and Grammy awards and been nominated for a Pulitzer for In The Heights, his musical blending hip-hop and Latin music with more traditional Broadway songwriting to tell the story of a largely Dominican-American neighbourhood in New York. He also won an Emmy Award for co-writing Neil Patrick Harris’ opening number from the 67th Tony Awards, has written music for Sesame Street and the Bring It On musical, and guest starred on The Sopranos, House and Modern Family.

For those of you keeping track, that means Miranda is three-quarters of his way to an EGOT, with only an Academy Award missing. And given both his involvement in a Disney film and the number of directors who have been sighted at Hamilton performances, the smart money says he’ll snag one before too long.

Hamilton has been the soundtrack to the latter half of my year, and captured my imagination in a way few other pieces of pop culture have in 2015. But more than that, Miranda is my person of the year for the sheer exuberance and joy he always seems to project. He is someone who has worked incredibly hard to reach the level of success he has, but still retains an almost overflowing level of passion and good humour, as well as a genuine sense of humility and generosity that come from having seen so many of his dreams recognised. I hope he continues to see the same level of triumph that he has this year, and I cannot wait to see what his next projects are.

Tim Person of 2015 Frames

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As well as being a prolific tweeter and accomplished RPG-smith in his own right, Tim Maytom is the good-looking half of the Maytom & Spencer creative partnership. 
A relationship built from the foundations of Tim's Person of the Year posts, the two now work together 9-5 at Mobile Marketing Magazine, run a Wicked +Divine blog on Tumblr, and play (and write about) a mean game of Netrunner.

Together, they are the blogosphere's answer to Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Which is which remains to be seen.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Alex's Adventures in Internetland: July-October

It's another round-up! I've been leaving my wordy droppings around the internet again, but in case you haven't spent the last quarter tracking my every move, I've collected the finest samples from the last few months and brushed them into one neat corner for you to sniff at.


Artful Dodging: Why Invisible, Inc’s Rewind Button Is Great

Writing for Rock Paper Shotgun remains an honour. Getting to talk about Invisible Inc, which was a contender for my favourite game of 2015 before the year had even started was even better. I go deep on a single mechanic, and use it as an excuse to tell some anecdotes from my games.
Jolie ‘Banks’ Murphy is sneaking past two heavily-armed Obake drones with the help of her newly-acquired cloaking device when it suddenly cuts out. Turns out she didn’t read the label properly – it’s only good for one turn’s worth of invisibility. Both drones turn towards her, arm their weapons and click into overwatch mode. There are no hiding places left, and her supposed partner, the cyborg psychopath Adam Sharp, has already strolled into the level’s exit teleporter and flipped the switch.

What do you do?
Re-re-read the rest here.

The Issue: Empathy for the Henchman in ‘The Invisibles’ #12 (1995)

For the last six months, ComicsAlliance has been my primary outlet for freelance work (check out my author page for the whole lot). Earlier this month, I started a regular series on stand-out single issues that tell a story. The first one focused on The Invisibles' 'Best Man Fall', and it's still finding its feet a little, but I think the series has the potential to be one of the best things I've ever done.
There are panels where the young Bobby resembles Oor Wullie, star of a family-friendly Scottish comic strip of the same name. As an adult in his military regalia, he could almost be the star of a war story in a boy’s own adventure comic like the Eagle or Valiant; British comics, the kind I remember discovering in stained, broken-spined annuals at my grandparents’ house as a relic of my dad’s own childhood – and no doubt, a mainstay of Bobby’s too.

All of which combines to gives ‘Best Man Fall’ the ring of real human experience. It’s probably no surprise that the tiny tragedies are the ones that bite most. The wee Bobby clutching his teddy bear in a dark bedroom, as his parents fight in the next room, whispering, “It’ll be alright. I won’t let anybody hurt you”. The same bear seen, a few pages earlier, dumped in a bin.
Read it here and then feel free to tell me I'm totally wrong.


Making Sense of the Endless Reflections of Her Story

Killscreen is the games website for people who enjoy stroking their beard and perusing some Derrida over a nice snifter of brandy – so obviously I've wanted to write for it since day one. After playing excellent detective game Her Story, I finally got my chance and broke out the old English-Lit-student tools for a study of my single favourite gaming experience of the year:
“My name is Hannah. H-A-N-N-A-H. It’s a palindrome. It reads the same backwards as forwards. It doesn’t work if you mirror it though, it’s not quite symmetrical.”

That's how Her Story begins. At least, how it begins chronologically speaking. After saying yes to a coffee (black, no sugar), this is the second line spoken by Hannah in her interrogation. When you played, though, chances are this wasn't the first, or even second, clip you watched. The game is constructed out of hundreds of clips like this, which can be viewed in any order depending on which search terms you pick.

It's also the game's first lie.
Start your investigation here.

Return of the Je-DICE: An Entire Imperial Assault Campaign

Stars War! Imperial Assault is probably my favourite board game of the year, with its delightful miniaturised versions of cinematic icons like Han Solo, the AT-ST, and that weird cat thing from Episode II.

So, I got together with comrade Mike Didymus-True for a joint diary of our ongoing Imperial Assault game, for his blog The Boarding Kennel. The Notorious M.D.T. is a much funnier writer than I am, and that inspired me to up my game a bit, I think. The first two posts are up currently, with a much higher gag count than my average article, plus a fun cartoon of me and Mike. What more could you want?
Being evil is great. Red lightsabers, nefarious plans, rattling your enemies’ bones with lightning that shoots out of your fingertips, room-filling evil laughs. Mwahahahahaha.

But, real talk: it can get lonely on the darker side of the force. Also, there’s a lot of paper to shuffle through, and dozens of bags of cards and models to lay out. So, borrowing an idea from Shut Up & Sit Down’s Matt Lees, I lured another to my cause. Sharing the terrible burden of being monstrous with me as she does most of life’s burdens will be Imogen ‘Imi-perial’ Dale.
The saga begins here.
 

#fuckingtara

My latest post – at least, until I get off my arse and write the piece I currently owe – for Tim + Alex Get TWATD, my blog with your man Tim Maytom.

The Wicked + The Divine is the one comic I'm impatient to get my eyes on each month, and this issue was an absolute stonker. I wrote and posted this piece within a couple of hours of finishing the comic, so it's fairly raw, but hopefully that's part of the charm.
I’m not sure I’ve ever felt this dirty after finishing a comic. Ugh. Issue #13 is a magnificent piece of work, in the way you might tell someone, you’re a piece of work, you are. It wormed inside my guts and hardened, and now I feel like I need to shower.

A lot of that feeling is because I’m complicit.
Read the rest here.

Design and the Distillation of Ideas in Mike Del Mundo’s Covers

More ComicsAlliance business! In which I try to tackle the biggest weakness in my comics writing – an inability to fully describe the art – head on, by writing about some very, very pretty pictures.
You don’t need me to tell you that Del Mundo’s covers are gorgeous. He’s an incredible draftsman with an even stronger sense of design. Covers let him push the latter talent to the fore, dancing through various styles, from stark two-color minimalism to detailed paintings, via pastiches of Escher and Art Deco posters, all depending on what suits this issue best.
Judge several books by their covers here.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Tim + Alex Get TWATD #4.2: Triple Trouble (feat. Michael Eckett)

This time round, a third handsome face appears, as we are joined for night one only by special guest star Michael Eckett. Aptly enough, Michael is here to writing about Urðr, she who is three-in-one, kicking off a fans-and-creators special here at Tim + Alex Get TWATD.

Spoilers up to the very last drop of The Wicked + The Divine #11 below. Read that, then come back and read this. Please come back. Please, it gets so lonely in here...
Triple Trouble
                  
Three Cheers for Sweet Remorse
Michael's face Time to sound entitled.

There are elements of performing that can be profoundly awful. Moments that go beyond making you want to throw in the towel and become a data analyst; ones which fill you with the dread that either you or the world is broken and you’re not even sure how to distinguish. It’s not the moments you’re prepared for, like trying to do a show whilst a stag party loudly plans what buffet they’re going to, or performing to a room of four people, whilst a snow storm goes on outside, only to be interrupted by a fire alarm. (Always stay in character, even if that character is the personification of an abstract concept. Or a tree.) The times that really break you are the ones can be the times when people cheer.

Issue #10 sees Cassandra, now one of the Norns, finally taking the stage with a willing audience ready to hear her message, that truth which she sees and has been dying to deliver. The moment is chilling and stark as their performance shatters the riot and their words cut through the silhouettes. Then there’s a beat. And then the crowd cheers. And we’re left with a broken person who cares too much.

Urdr Performance

In the past I’ve written plays with my suicidal thoughts and depression as metaphor, and people have laughed and clapped. I wasn’t sure how to react. I’ve made shows philosophising about life and death with monologues of existential angst and ennui because I’ve been lost, confused and scared and the only way I knew how to process it all or get help was reach out and hope someone else felt the same way. And they fucking cheer.

Writing can mean spending months contemplating how to craft the nebulous feelings into something simultaneously true and entertaining. It’s hard to go out and speak personally and vulnerably, hoping to connect to people because you have something important to say (whether that’s because it’s important to you or Important because you’re going to save the world).

The pain that follows the cheers is a selfish one. It’s hard to be too angry with a crowd who have been conditioned to show praise in a certain way, or who are polite and interested enough to ask what you’re doing next. (Turns out you can’t say “I just did a thing. You saw it. I poured myself into it and it nearly killed me, isn’t that good enough for you?”) But you have adrenaline pumping through you and at the same time you’re berating yourself for not being good enough to get the message across. Caring hurts, trying is hard and your successes can feel as bad as your failures. You feel like a prick for wanting more from people.
 Urdr

But sometimes you have something to say and you truly believe in it, and all you can do is hope that someone will hear it. The moment where Laura consoles Cassandra/Urðr works really well; there’s some excellent composition and framing and the message is sweet and true. Some people get it, sometimes a critic will treat your comedies seriously and will nail your themes and reference points, and sometimes your piece will inspire someone to write an essay because of how it made them feel.

I guess I write so that people can understand me better or to show that I could understand them; for a while it was all I had and there was an urgency to it. A performance isn’t necessarily entertainment – and even when it’s didactic, it’s mostly an attempt to connect.
                  

The Crowd + The Congregation

When I read Issue #10 and the moment that Michael describes, I was also struck with a desire to write about it, although from a very different angle.

Everything Michael says is true. I’ve been on his side of the equation, although not in kind of public way that someone writing, directing and performing in a play has. I’ve known the feeling of laying yourself bare only to have people not ‘get’ it, or to be blandly appreciative in a way that makes it impossible for you to tell if they actually engaged with the emotions and ideas you were putting forward. It’s frustrating and saddening in a way that can make you question everything you’ve been doing. But I want to talk about the other side of the interaction – the audience.

So far in The Wicked + The Divine, we’ve seen a variety of audiences, but they have all tended to act as a mass. From the initial waves of ecstatic adoration at the Amaterasu concert to the goth riot at The Morrigan’s underground gig. At Dionysus’ rave, we find a crowd literally made one, united by the spirit of the god and surrender to the beat. Even more recently, we’ve had the Glastonbury-style gathering at Ragnarock that so disappointed Urðr and the writhing mass of bodies that comprised Inanna’s residency.

Ragnarock
In each instance, the crowd is a single entity, with only Laura’s insights there to give us an occasional individual perspective. It’s both a telling element, and a truism. Anyone who’s been swept up in the euphoria of a great night on the dancefloor, chanted along with thousands of others or been carried on the waves of a mosh pit will concur – sometimes you cease being a person and become part of an audience. In those moments, considered nuance is surrendered to visceral reaction, and thought to instinct.

When, in issue #10, Urðr/Cassandra despairs that “they fucking cheered”, it begs the question, what else could they do? I’ve been at gigs where artists have poured their hearts out on stage, in songs about heartbreak, depression, suicide and loneliness, and at the end, when the last chord fades, the question stands. How do I show my appreciation for this act? How do I relay to this person that I have felt what they felt, that they have spoken of my pain in words I could never find? But then the crowd instinct takes over, and all you can really do is clap.
Urdr Crowd 1 Urdr Crowd 2
Like Michael said, we’ve been conditioned to show praise in certain ways, and at most situations where a crowd is involved, you have clapping, cheering or shouting in the hope you are heard above the din. None are particularly subtle, nor do they carry the weight of feeling we sometimes need them to.

There are some interesting exceptions to the rule though. Let us wander away from the realm of pop music and comics briefly, and consider the other great art form of the 20th century – professional wrestling.

Crowd reaction is a huge part of pro wrestling. One writer once described it as “a LARP where the wrestlers are playing athletes and the audience is playing the audience, and everybody’s in on it”, which gives you some insight into both the theatricality at work, and the importance of interacting with, and playing to, the crowd.

In pro wrestling, the lines are very clear cut. You cheer the faces and boo the heels. While that’s simple once they’re in the ring, entrances (often the best opportunity for a wrestler to convey their persona or hook) can complicate this – and one in particular, Bray Wyatt, is a great example of this, and how a crowd has adapted to it.


Wyatt, like many wrestlers, has cycled through a number of different roles, but currently plays a sort of demonically-possessed Southern preacher character. Most definitely a heel, but an intimidating, awe-inspiring villain, rather than an ostentatious one you could easily boo. His entrance consists of him walking slowly into a darkened arena, the only light a gas lantern he is holding aloft, while Mark Crozer (formerly of The Jesus and Mary Chain) plays.

It’s a fantastically atmospheric bit of showmanship, but not one that easily lent itself to the crowd showing their appreciation. Booing didn’t fit it, and while slow, measured claps worked for a while, they also took away from the power of the moment. Then, at some point, fans realised that if they held their mobile phones aloft in the darkness of the arena, they looked like a sea of fireflies, a silent mark of respect for a great wrestler, and entirely in-keeping with his character. Of course, before too long, the WWE were selling tiny plastic Bray Wyatt lanterns that lit up in a slightly more ghostly manner (and earning them some nice merchandising money), and the entrance was entirely transformed.

Of course, this sort of evolution of fan behaviour is dependent on the way professional wrestling works – the serial nature of character building, the ritual of the entrance, and most importantly the central nature of the crowd to the whole event. But maybe, just maybe, we can find some way to import some of the ethereal majesty of a spectacle like this into how we react the next time we’re in a crowd.

Or maybe we’ll just have to rely on something like this…
                  
Material Girl
As we're talking about the relationship between audiences and performers this time out, I thought it was time to focus on The Wicked + The Divine's main point of intersection between the two: Persephone.

We only get a dozen panels of Persephone before [SPOILER REDACTED], and most of what's communicated about her in time relies on the comic's visuals.

The cigarette she's had between her fingers all arc finally flares into life, phosphorus-bright. It's a vivid realisation of Laura's story-long dream but implying, pages before the other boot drops, a sudden end. It's not the kind of flame that fades slowly; it's the kind that burns out.

Persephone 1
It's another great McKelvie design, obv, and those few panels have inspired an explosion of fan-art tributes. But her look is less cohesive than most of others in the series, in a way that feels intentional. Our Persephone is a patchwork god, her influences showing through in this first performance.

Not in the way some of the other gods are, cribbing from real-world pop stars – there's a dash of FKA Twigs in there, particularly her nose ring, arguably a pinch of Madonna in a certain mode,
but no direct reference point – but from the Pantheon themselves.

The white streak in her hair recalls Inanna. The heavy black boots and the skulls strung on her necklace tie her to the Underground gods, Morrigan and Baphomet. The asymmetrical triangle of markings on her face refers back to her Amaterasu-inspired make-up in the first issue, mixed with the harder angles of Morrigan in her Badb form.

The cigarette, of course, is a link to Luci – a bad habit picked up from a bad friend – but it flares with the trademark purple-pink of Inanna. In fact, the colour run through her entire outfit, having apparently become Persephone's own trademark, possibly in the wake of Inanna's departure a couple of pages earlier. (Is that too cruel even for Team WicDiv? I actually hope I'm reaching here.)
Persephone 2
But at the same time, Persephone is very recognisably still Laura. The lettering and colour of her speech bubbles stay the same – something that was par for the course with the initial gods, but not true of the last four we've met – and her physical transformation is less marked than the other before/afters we've seen.

Her asymmetric hair remains almost exactly the same as the one Laura wore pages earlier, except flipped from left to right, and with that streak of white. It's not the haircut one she started the series with, notably, but the one she picked on her way to godhood. Along with the make-up and the cigarette – symbols she's picked up along the way – perhaps this is a sign that Laura's has been a gradual transformation, rather than leaping fully-formed from the brow of Ananke.
                  

Next time on Tim + Alex Get TWATD: Shit, the next arc's nearly here! The format of the story is changing, so obviously we'll be following suit.

For more of Michael's handsome face and words, find him on Twitter @meckett. The plays he mentioned were put on through Sigil Club, the production company he co-ran. He's not writing at the moment, as far as I know, but if Grant Morrison taught me anything about sigils, it's that sufficient focused masturbation can solve anything. So get wanking. For Michael.


You can find Tim's blog at trivia-lad.blogspot.co.uk, where his piece on the semiotics of TW+TD's finger snaps first gave us the idea for this whole thing, on Twitter @trivia_lad, and even, if you think you can handle the sexiness, on Tumblr.

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.