Lady Bird

The intention behind the film was to make the equivalent of a Boyhood-style coming-of-age movie, but from a female perspective. Thankfully it doesn't stretch into three hours but is quite tightly edited. Scenes are like snapshots, with hard cuts moving you drastically forward in time before you can linger on how a moment develops or resolves. That makes for some discordant effects – Lady Bird and her mother are screaming at each other in one scene and then back on speaking terms the next. But I think that's to the film's purpose, which is to highlight the complexity of their relationship. This is encapsulated by an exchange towards the end of the film where Lady Bird gets her mother to admit that while she may love her daughter, she doesn't necessarily like her.

Although the film has an unvarnished style (Saoirse Ronan didn't want to cover up her acne with makeup, for example), there are still references to genre staples, although they are given a twist. There's the slightly less conventionally attractive best friend, but in one of the sweet moment in the film she becomes the prom date rather than the entitled, pretty dude in a band. And the traditional race for your love trope in an airport is not romantic but involves the mother realising that she wants to have a proper goodbye with her daughter, and it doesn't resolve as it normally would. These subversions show that real life isn't as neat and tidy as films make out, even if you sometimes need to use filmic short cuts to communicate meaning and emotion.

It's very good – and reminded me of stupid things I did when I was in school. It's a Bildungsroman in the style of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where flight is necessary in order to develop as a creative and as a person, but that distance reinforces the impact of the place where you grew up. Joyce never stopped writing about Dublin even though all of his books were written in mainland Europe. Greta Gerwig seems to have the same conflicted feelings about Sacramento. In another pivotal scene, the ability to really observe her surroundings is reinterpreted as a kind of love. That applies as much to the mother-daughter relationship as it does to the city.


Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines

The cruel trick Bloodlines pulls is to make the thing you are pursuing, built up like the Ark in Raiders, into a meaningless McGuffin. Your boss doesn’t use his wealth and influence to achieve anything substantial but just has you chasing baubles. The most satisfying ending is therefore seeing how his dreams of world domination are subverted and destroyed, leading to the triumph of the Anarchs – a sect with barely any political organisation championing the dispersal of power.

Although you become a formidable vampire by the end, you are always a pawn, as some of your more mysterious emails testify. The chessmaster knows all the moves before the game starts, and the beginning tutorial with Smiling Jack takes on a new significance with that hindsight. The implication is that without his guidance you wouldn’t have made it out of Santa Monica, but he trains you up to be the perfect sleeper agent – one who doesn’t even know who is pulling the strings. And if you decide to become a prince yourself, you end up sharing the fate of your erstwhile employer. The game tempts you with power and punishes you if you seize it. 

It’s an interesting move to have the game telegraph the player’s lack of agency in this way. At the very beginning, a fortune-teller basically tells you what is going to happen, and if you play as a Malkavian (a vampire who sees the future at the cost of going mad) you get voices in your head revealing upcoming events. RPGs are supposed to be about player choice, but Bloodlines is acutely aware of the limits of that, not just in the game itself but in the format generally. You are never as free as you might wish. At some point, the game will find a way to railroad you to where you need to go. Bloodlines hangs a lantern on that manipulation. You are a puppet of the other characters in the game, and ultimately of the developers who made it.

It’s a vampire game, so it’s very sexy. But it’s also a noir set in LA, so the sex is sordid and gross, and the developers don’t quite distance themselves from the exploitative and objectifying nature of what they are portraying. The most glaring example of this is the cheat code for inflating the breasts of female character models to ludicrous proportions, but even without enabling the console, you have the optional fetch quests which reward you with nothing but risqué posters of the female characters in the game, literally reducing their complexity to two dimensions.

While you do spend a lot of time in porn shops and peep shows, and can observe blow jobs in alleys and lap dances in strip clubs, as a vampire you are nonetheless cut off from participating in the game’s sexual economy, at least in the normal 'human' way. Vampire society finds sex distasteful and vampires who have sex are perceived as degenerates. So although you can seduce girls in clubs or pay hookers, it’s not their bodies you get, but their blood. That has an interesting distancing effect from the seediness all around you. You move in a world where sex is available everywhere but for you it's mediated by a need to fuel your vampiric powers. In most playthroughs, you don't actually get to sleep with anyone. You are a bloodsucker, not a sybarite. You’re there to use people, not enjoy them.

Sexuality in Bloodlines is structured by the heterosexual male gaze and caters to the whims of the perceived audience for the game. But while the female characters may be designed with fan service in mind, the writing is strong enough to make them interesting nonetheless. A minor example is Velvet Velour, who may embody the stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotype, but who is also very aware of how she is perceived and patronised by the people around her. If the player completes her side quests she will start emailing you bad romantic poetry, but in doing so she also comments on how her creativity might be dismissed because she is (or at least used to be) a sex-worker.

Therese and Jeanette are more complex, and this piece by Cara Ellison is a good articulation of how they represent the Madonna-whore complex, and how society rewards one and punishes the other. Even then, the game is quite clever in subverting this dynamic – showing that Jeanette’s voraciousness is ultimately a healthier expression of sexuality than her sister’s, which is the product of patriarchy in a really quite dark and disturbing way. The player can pick which character to save, or they can save both, in which case the sisters learn to manipulate their contrasting images and gain a new kind of interiority beneath the masks they wear. That outcome underlines the impossibility of building a self outside of the expectations of the world around you. The only freedom to be found is in understanding and mastering the roles you have learned, and discovering how to slip between them.

A still more fraught moral dilemma is presented by the fate of Heather Poe. Arguably the game fridges her to provide some extra motivation in taking down the Sabbat, but you could also read this as a way to actively punish the player for engaging in what is clearly a toxic relationship. Heather is your ghoul – a human dependent on your blood – and she becomes emotionally obsessed with you even if you treat her like dirt. The ickiest expression of her submissiveness is how the player (in another blatant bit of fan service) can tell her to change her outfits, either into to something "dark and gothy" or into her underwear. The ethical thing to do is to release Heather from her blood bond, not only because it removes her from danger but because it allows her to escape an unhealthy relationship that can easily turn into an abusive one. The twist is that mechanically the game rewards you for keeping her around – she drops out of college and gives you her money, she's a dependable source of blood, and finally just before her death she'll get you the best armour in the game. It's like you are being given a perfect girlfriend that gives you presents and does everything you say, but the game will kill her if you don't do the right thing and let her go to become her own person.

The writing and the characters are Bloodlines's strong suits. There are problems with the gameplay that are only partially addressed by the decades-long fan community project of fixing the game's bugs. Although missions were intended to allow for different playstyles (combat, stealth, social skills), in fact the game guides you towards using stealth in the middle portion of the game and combat at the end, and if your build isn't versatile you will struggle. I rolled as a gunslinging Toreador and found the majority of the game pretty well-balanced. I even had fun shooting my way through the Sabbat stronghold, although other players tend to experience it as a grind. Having the flamethrower made the fight with Andrei trivial (and enjoyably so) but the other boss fights were too much for me and I ended up partially cheating my way through them. Ming Xiao has far too much health, making the fight a tedious war of attrition, and the final fight on the rooftop had too many things going on at the same time for me to really try and engage with it. That said, given its reputation I found the game a lot more playable than I expected. Only the very final couple of missions were troublesome.

The game does better when it comes to environmental design. There is a justly famous haunted house level early on which remains a masterclass in how a game can freak you out – all the more impressive in that the ghost can't actually hurt you very much. A later level in what is effectively a private insane asylum also does a good job in building mood, while also serving as a character study for one of the vampire barons that you never actually end up meeting (the sound design for the level also purposefully drives you a little bit unhinged). The developers licenced an early version of Valve's Source engine to make the game, and it all still looks pretty great. The decision wasn't so much about taking advantage of the engine's physics as it was about utilising its unbeatable facial animation, which alongside some solid voice-acting makes a typical pitfall of action RPGs into a strength. The visuals are there to make interacting with the characters as immersive as possible. Those characters are ultimately what makes Bloodlines such a joy.