Saturday, October 17, 2009

Candle and the Windbags

Lighting a candle is suddenly in vogue . Hardly a disaster goes by without us being urged to light one up. An act that is otherwise almost always accompanied by grumbles and curses and "The power situation is getting worse everyday" has become synonymous with showing solidarity with the victims of 26/11 when done in the middle of the road. The melted candle wax economy is booming but other than that ? I understand why candle-lighting, in addition to ribbon-wearing has become the symbolic act of choice. It does give your face a very cool glow (or, in the case of ribbons, gives you a snazzy accessory . Just remember to colour co-ordinate) that looks awesome in photographs . Nothing screams "I support the sufferers of (insert cause here)" like shining a flickering spotlight on your own face.

What I don't get what purpose this serves?. Do candle-flames have superpowers?.Are they are like little flaming supermen who jump off their waxy fortresses of waxy solitude and zoom into action, stopping earthquakes in China, riots in India, brushfires in Australia and humiliating cricketing defeats in South Africa? If I went out and encouraged people to wave burning newspapers around, would cops buy the theory that I was doing it to eliminate hunger? No. They would bounce me off the funny farm and throw me in jail.

Of course a major reason for the resurgence of this trend is Rang De Basanti. It was a movie about how the young generation should speak out and act against corruption, and if that doesn't work, shoot up radio stations. THAT, I'm cool with. But there is a scene in there where approximately half the population of Northern India shows up for a candlelight vigil. That kind of jolted.the 'nations youth', who immediately went out and lit up. Their cigarettes, that is. But they sure talked a lot about how finally there was a movie with a message for the youth, and how everyone except themselves should do something about it. Since radio stations are surprisingly well guarded and it's much easier to get candles than guns at your local grocer's (plus an attack on a radio station would just mean more vigils anyway), candlelight vigils have kind of become de facto response to any major event. Or even non-event. You could light a candle for peace, poverty (elimination of), corruption (decimation of), disease (eradication of) .You get the point. The fact that it is about as effective as a stern letter from the United Nations seems to have slipped our collective minds.

Of course, this has been a been a boom for the media, especially television. Those sure look pretty on screen. Make sure you get the shot of the flames reflecting off the photograph though, otherwise the producer is going to bitch. Plus, it's easy to get sound bites, no one would push you around, and people are generally nice to you. A good break from the OTHER kind of protest marches, where they have to worry about bricks cracking their skulls, or worse, their camera lenses open.

Now, I know there are genuine emotions involved here. At least sometimes. And yes, in case of specific tragedies, or victims, maybe it does help bring some sort of closure to the ones affected. But mostly, its a cop out. Lighting a candle for poverty? World peace? Really? Its the real life equivalent of forwarding an e-mail to ten people about the poor boy suffering from a debilitating bone-marrow-turning-to-chlorophyll disease and for every mail you send WHO is going to donate one cent to save the boys life because clearly a child's life should depend on random strangers and the size of their address books. It's the aethist's version of a confession. It's cheap, easy and no one actually has to do ANYTHING. And no, lighting a match and holding it up near a wick does not constitute as DOING something. The problem's still there, but hey, at least I did my bit. Well I'm saying it's getting old. Change the gimmick. And if it can't be done, at least up the intensity a little. Make it look like you REALLY care. This Diwali, stand up for national unity. Fire up a blowtorch.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Bloody Good Fun ?

The boom of the shotgun gave way to an uneasy silence, as the last of the infected fell at my feet and bubbled away to nothingness. Even the music that had been pounding in my ears was gone. Instead there was a soft rustling, like reeds brushing against water. A bird cawed in the distance. A faint green aura meant my recent victim had left behind something valuable, some gold perhaps, or better still, a healing herb.

I leaned back and took the headphones off. My palms were sticky with sweat, my forehead felt like it had been recently irrigated, and my heart was trying to outdo the shotgun in the decibel department. Fingers still slightly shaky, I shut down the game and closed my eyes.

Resident Evil is not a series I am intimately familiar with. Indeed, my first experience with the series was it's much vaunted predecessor, Resident Evil 4 (how'd you guess?). However, this is not a review. There are plenty of those online. This is just a question that popped into my head while playing the game. Putting it simply it's this. How real is too real?

The game starts at a marketplace in a tiny African village. The entire feel is ominous, and I would say it is the single scariest portion of the game. I walk along the dirt path, and walk into a group of people kicking a sack around. The kicks are angry, violent, meant to hurt. The sack is thrashing around, and its clear there is a living creature inside it. As I instinctively approach the group, to man, they all look at me. Almost involuntarily, I back off. The piercing stares are so REAL, the threat of violence so imminent that in spite of being fully aware of being in a video game, I feel a chilling apprehension. As I slowly move towards my target in the other direction, never taking my eyes off them, the crowd continues to stare at me. Unmoving. Unblinking.

Of course, the above image doesn't do the sequence justice. To understand exactly how brilliant the graphics and how accurate the facial expressions are, one HAS to play the game. As an introduction to a scary game, it performs fantastically. But when it came to the actual game, and these people charged, slavering, gnashing their teeth, more rabid animals than man, THAT'S when I started wondering. These people were too accurate. Too human. Of course, Capcom is very good at making the enemies just a shade on the unreal side, so it's not very difficult to line them up in your sights and blow their heads off. But what next? What about games like Grand Theft Auto, that sticks firmly to reality. An over the top, outrageous reality, but reality nonetheless. In the previous GTA'S it was easy to mow over pedestrians in a tank because the characters, while anatomically correct, looked nothing like real human beings. They looked like toys, and rolling over them and seeing the same blood patch appear for every single victim was like pretending to shoot up your G.I.Joes. A slice of guilty free fun. But things are changing, aren't they? The uncanny valley has nearly been breached, and photorealism is not too far away. So what happens then? What happens when blocky, toy bodies are replaced by mangled corpses that look so real that it's like being at the site of a horrible shootout? Would the insanity of video games would still be fun? And what would it say about those who enjoy that.

Games are already trying to make sure things don't get too real. Enemies in Mirror's edge are so padded and armored they might as well be robocops. If you choose to harvest the little sisters in Bioshock, the game (thankfully!) fades to black instead of showing the playing character perform gruesome surgery on a child. The upcoming Borderlands has taken a step AWAY from realism and looks pretty, but cartoony. Resident evil itself makes it clear that the waves of enemies are simply monsters in human form, victims of an incurable plague that has wiped out there humanity. So it's not really a bad thing when you make their heads explode in a burst of plasma. So far, so good. But still I'm uneasy. There's a reason why Tom and Jerry is for kids and Cannibal Holocaust isn't, even though the cat and the mouse do things to each other that would make even the most conscientious torturer sit up and take notice. It's all about presentation. There's still some way to go before we have the technology to blow off the limbs of a foe with successive shotgun blasts and watch the twitching body fall to the ground, the latest physics technology making the entrails spilling out of the hole in its gut as realistically as possible. Question is, do we want to go there?

I have defended video games all my life, and will continue to do so. I still believe that good games are the most immersive form of fiction known to man. Nor do I want developers to hold back out of political correctness. But I truly believe that graphical ultra-realism wouldn't contribute anything to the medium. After all, Agatha Christie didn't need to stain the pages of her books in blood. I look forward to the future of games, not because I want to see decapitated bodies, but because I want to experience fantastic stories. Let's focus on that for now, shall we?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Horn Cease!

Someone once said the car was an extension of a man's sexuality. Don't ask me who, it doesn't matter. Well if that be true, then for some, honking has to be the equivalent of stroking oneself. There is no other explanation as to why they engage in it with such frequency and vigor. You know who I'm talking about. You hear them before human eyes can possibly see them. The car may be any make, model or size, but the horn would definitely be the shrillest, loudest, pitchiest sound source invented, guaranteed to be the simulation of physically taking a cheese grater to the eardrums. The road may be as empty as central Thar or clogged as far as the eye can see, it doesn't matter. Speaking the universal language of 'beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep' the acoustic army wades into battle against peace, good taste and common sense.

The horn is a tool. It's a way to warn the oblivious of several tons of metal headed his way. The Microsoft Encarta dictionary (I was too lazy to look up anything else) describes it as as "automotive emergencies noise-making warning device". See that word there? EMERGENCIES? Unless you are absolutely brain-dead on the road and have the motor reflexes of a five-year-old with Parkinsons riding a roller coaster, every moment you spend on the road cannot be an emergency. So why the desperation to make some noise, so to speak? Why do these people need an earsplitting accompaniment to every move they make on the road? Is it an adrenaline thing? After all, in this age of road rage, when every Tom, Dick and Hari can become a frothing maniac with a gun at the slightest ding to their chrome, speeding can kill in more ways than one. Then there are cops hiding behind bushes, trackers in hand. Is this how the thrill seekers are lashing out? By making some noise? Has 'button to the plastic' replaced 'pedal to the metal' as speed junkies stage the world's whiniest rebellion ever? I don't know. All I know is, something needs to be done.

Now obviously, putting pictures of bicycle horns with a big red slash across them has not worked. Shocking, but true. Despite slathering enough posters throughout the city to prop up small building , the Delhi no honking day on January 1st too was not a rousing success, as it quickly devolved into the not giving a fuck day. So I suggest few alternatives. Honking SWAT squads armed with mini-nukes in every street corner is clearly off the table, what with Obama pushing for further nuclear disarmament. So I will need the car industries help with this one. It's simple really. Just a set of four speakers attached to the driver's seat that feed the sound of the horn inside the car. Only louder. That should deter some, but what about the people who are already deaf, thanks to playing 50 cent on rotation in their car stereos? Well, then comes the next step. Any time the driver holds the button down for three seconds,the car would deliver an electric shock. Not a mild, this-is-tingly kind of shock, but a heavy duty, high voltage, driver-grilled-to-perfection shock. Sure, there would be a few deaths. Pileups would be a problem for a while. But after the horrified screams have subsided, after the smoke has cleared and the explosions have stopped, you'd be free to step out and walk in peace and silence. And it would all be worth it....

Until that is, a car ploughs into the small of your back. You'd never hear it coming.