Where Kayfabe Becomes Omerta

Writing a taut, action-packed crime thriller trilogy set in the world of professional wrestling is a work of genius. Paul O’Brien, author of the Blood Red Turns Dollar Green trilogy, is no random stranger to the business – he co-wrote Jim Ross’s autobiography, for instance – and his knack for creating drama that everyone can enjoy out of the inside workings of the biz is admirable. On top of that, he has the sense of flair and drama that any good wrestling booker or crime novel author needs to have – as well as the knack for pulling the wool over the reader’s eyes in an entertaining fashion only to astonish you when he yanks it off again and reveals the truth about matters. (To that extent, being able to “work” the crowd – get them to believe a ruse – is a skill common to both fields.)

In addition, O’Brien cunningly teases out the commonalities between the world of professional wrestling as it existed back in the pre-WWF days of the local territory system and the world of the Mafia as depicted in The Godfather and other such cultural touchstones. After all, in both worlds you have regional franchises governed by a fractious bunch who get along together only for the sake of the money, and just as the Mafia has its code of silence – omerta – wrestling has the concept of “kayfabe”, the work put in to maintain the illusion that the fights are all 100% real and not predetermined in any way.

The Blood Red Turns Dollar Green trilogy unfolds in a slightly alternate version of wrestling history. Whilst the old school territory system was overseen in real life by the National Wrestling Alliance, here it’s the National Wrestling Council, and the wrestlers and promoters here are similarly imaginary. This deviation from reality allows O’Brien to present a sort of juiced-up, hyperbolic version of the era; the NWA was nowhere near as Mafia-like as O’Brien’s NWC in its dealings and in general relations between the owners of regional promotions were a bit cozier than they are presented as being here. (They saved more of their bile for the various “outlaw” promotions who’d try to set up here and there independently of the NWA, thereby cutting into their profits.)

But by dialling up the viciousness, O’Brien in effect establishes his own kayfabe – not the kayfabe of the fights themselves, but the kayfabe of the fights behind the fights, an illusory depiction of the backstage business of the wrestling world which is more immediately entertaining and exciting than the reality ever could be – and that’s saying something, considering some of the wild stories of behind-the-curtain shenanigans in wrestling that circulate.

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A (Moon)Missed Opportunity

In the pantheon of game developers specialising in text adventures back in the golden age of the genre, Infocom’s name looms large, and with good reason. By heavily pushing the line that their products are “Interactive Fiction” – and going out of their way to cover a range of genres from classic videogame fare like SF/fantasy to less traditional subject matter for games, they not only presented their products as refined pursuits for elite gamers who are too good for games which involve hand/eye co-ordination or actual game mechanics, but they arguably also set the tone for the IF fan community who beaver away producing new games to this day.

The “Interactive Fiction” label is still used by those who want to hype up the artistic potential of the medium or who otherwise find “text adventure” to be an embarrassing term – something which rather bugs me, since I think the more effort you put in to make the things you like seem less embarrassing to others, the more obvious it is that you are a bit embarrassed of them, and therefore the more embarrassing it seems. (To take an example from a very different field, the famed Gimp Man of Essex seems to be mostly regarded as a national treasure rather than a weird pervert, largely because he’s very casual about it and doesn’t go out of his way to make it weird; if he acted all embarrassed about his activities then I think he’d have a much more negative reception.)

Another beef I have with the term “Interactive Fiction” is that it’s horribly imprecise. Any videogame with a plot is interactive fiction. A gamebook is interactive fiction. A pantomime is arguably interactive fiction, at least in the sense that the characters acknowledge the audience and respond to their calls. Lots of stuff is a) clearly presenting fiction and b) clearly offering interactivity of some form. “Text adventure” pins down the medium far more precisely, and if it’s got some embarrassing and unfortunate associations you do the work to decouple it from those associations and promote text adventures which don’t go there, you don’t make up a new word for the stuff you are doing to try and set up some sort of elite divide between the text adventures you approve of and the ones you disapprove of.

More positively, the Inform family of languages, which are probably the most common ones used in the field, were developed to let home coders produce games that would run on Infocom’s Z-machine – a virtual machine which lets Infocom games be played on any computer system with a suitable interpreter.

Infocom’s development of the Z-machine is a happy historical accident which has been a real boon to the modern-day text adventure community. Infocom, it should be remembered, were operating at a time before personal computer architectures and operating systems had ossified into the major standards we have these days. By writing their games for the Z-machine, Infocom effectively only had to write each game once – then all they had to do was make a Z-machine interpreter for whichever computer platform they wanted to publish for, and then they could put out all of their games on that platform, which is obviously massively cheaper than having to rewrite each game for each operating system you want to adapt it to. (It even led to major price savings when it came to the packaging – Infocom games of the classic era came out in the same box with the same handouts and inserts for all platforms, and they’d just stick the appropriate disk or cassette tape in the box and put a sticker on the front specifying which operating system the contents worked on.)

This, of course, has also been very helpful when it comes to running classic Infocom text adventures and brand new Inform-based homebrews on modern computers, because the exact same task applies: simply write a Z-machine interpreter for whatever new platform comes out, and then once you have that working everything written in Inform or by Infocom can be played on that platform.

The fan community has also followed Infocom’s lead in recognising that there’s two things which are really key to a good text adventure: an interpreter which is easy to engage with and can understand a broad range of commands, and really solid writing. (After all, if the sole means a game has of delivering content consists of text, it may as well be really nicely polished text that is a pleasure to read.)

It’s fair to say, then, that whilst the homebrew adventure game scene has made some very important contributions to the genre – making a range of interpreters for running new and old text adventures on modern computers, smartphones, and more or less anything with a computer chip in it, as well as expanding the versatility and hence the user-friendliness of interpreters by widely expanding the range of verbs understood – they’re very much standing on the shoulders of giants, and Infocom is by far the largest giant. Usually, I would say that this position is well-earned; of the 1980s-era text adventures I have played, Infocom ones have almost always had the richest and most flavourful prose, the most forgiving and user-friendly parsers, and the most interesting stories and puzzles.

There are, of course, exceptions…

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The One Lacklustre Book

The Travis family consist of university lecturer Susanne, second-hand book expert Don, and their 12 year old son Marshall. Relocating to the UK when Susanne gets a job teaching a course on cultural depictions of violence at Manchester University, their stay in the country gets off to a bumpy start when Don is on the receiving end of a road rage incident – the other driver being so furious at Don that he actually invades the Travis’ home to confront him. But it’s when the attacker is jailed that their real problems begin – because he is part of the Fancy family, local criminals who take this as a personal affront, and soon both the adult members of the family and Darren Fancy, a boy about Marshall’s age who is keen for the approval of his uncles, have embarked on a campaign of terror against the Travises.

This is a non-supernatural novel which finds Campbell in full-time social commentary mode, and ordinarily I’m cool with that, but this time around he loses me – mostly because the novel feels extremely heavy-handed. It’s always hard to judge these things, of course – there’s a natural tendency to imagine that people who are saying stuff you agree with are stating their case refreshingly forcefully, whereas people who are saying stuff you disagree with are being shrill and shouty. That said, here I agree with more or less all of the individual points that Campbell is making, but find the novel impossible to get into.

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Mini-Review: Hotline Miami

Steeped in the 80s-retro aesthetic of its soundtrack (including synthwave leading light Perturbator), Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and other manifestations of 80s nostalgia (there’s even cathode ray interference lines over all the graphics), Hotline Miami is a viscerally enjoyable and infuriating slaughter simulator that takes fairly simple principles of play and comes up with a delightful range of challenges based around them. You play an anonymous schlub in a Drive-esque Letterman jacket who gets mysterious phone calls euphemistically instructing them to go to a designated location and murder everyone there – but you’re just as fragile as the various gangsters you fight, so one hit will kill you. Stealth, speed and strategy are therefore your friends; guns are handy but are loud and will bring enemies running and have limited ammunition, whilst melee weapons tend to require you to take the risk of getting up close and personal (though nicely you can throw them too, leaving yourself unarmed) but are nice and quiet.

With a simple top-down presentation and controls (mouse does attacks and facing, arrow keys move), the game is nice and easy to get into but quickly reveals hidden depths. On your crime sprees you wear various animal masks which each have their distinct powers, and selecting the right mask for a job can be a significant tactical choice. The masks also seem to have a bit of a life of their own, confronting the anonymous protagonist in dream sequences between parts of the game, and then there’s the question of who’s setting all of this up in the first place, which is explored down two different timelines…

That said, the game isn’t without issues. The depiction of women is glibly fetishistic, with the protagonist getting an implied lover as a prize on one level and then her getting fridged later on for a cheap extra twist of the knife. There’s also a rather simplistic and cartoonish take on race, where for much of the game the only significant people of colour represented are “big black bruiser” archetypes. It is, in short, about as problematic and glib as much of its source material, which at best amounts to putting fidelity to that above the obligation to improve on one’s inspirations.

In addition, the comparative lack of a conventional mid-level saving process can make the game frustrating at points – though on the other hand this does tend to encourage you to experiment a bit with your tactics rather than constantly trying to get one fiddly bit just right, so I’m hesitant about declaring that an outright flaw. Overall, Hotline Miami is a charming, brief little piece which doesn’t outstay its welcome and offers ample replay value in terms of trying different ways of gruesomely murdering dozens of people.

It’ll All Come Out In the Wash

Much like the decline and fall of anything which comes out of Italy, the decline and fall of giallo was a long, slow, awkward process. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the genre was established at the hands of the likes of Mario Bava and Dario Argento as an artsier-than-average brand of erotic murder mystery thriller. However, by the 1980s the form had become dragged down – as had much Italian genre cinema – by a combination of diminished budgets, cheap sensationalism, and a glut of inferior examples of the form, with entries like The New York Ripper arguably abandoning the artistry and sophistication of earlier entries in favour of a mean-spirited sort of violent titillation.

Although the 21st Century has seen giallo-loving directors and creators producing a revival of the form through homages like Amer or Berberian Sound Studio, in the 1990s the genre eventually petered out, until only Dario Argento’s less-celebrated late-career works and a few scattered other releases were keeping it alive. Among the entries in this terminal stage of the original giallo canon is The Washing Machine by Ruggero Deodato (whose cinematic notoriety largely rests on Cannibal Holocaust).

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One Last Bite of the Cherry Pie

Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost’s tie-in novel, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, had the conceit that it was an in-character mass of documents that FBI Agent Tamara Preston was looking over and annotating after their discovery at a crime scene, thus providing a wealth of new information about the history of the town from before its founding right up to the end of the original series, recontextualising material, rehabilitating some of the dross from the limp end of series two, and acting as a delicious appetiser for the weird banquet that was Season 3. Like I said in my review of the Secret History, it was basically a Twin Peaks take on House of Leaves.

If the Secret History was an appetiser, The Final Dossier is a last cup of coffee and an after-dinner mint. Substantially shorter than The Secret History, it takes a similar premise but has a much more straightforward presentation, being a coda to season 3 assembled once again by Tamara Preston, detailing her various discoveries about what’s been going on with the town and its residents since the end of series 2. However, rather than being a lovingly compiled set of deliciously fabricated documents with Tamara’s commentary, it simply provides Agent Preston’s direct summary of her findings. (The sole exception is an autopsy report on a major character from the original series who was conspicuous by his absence from season 3.)

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Gull’s From Hell and John’s From Glasgow

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

It’s the late 1880s, and royal party boy Prince Albert “Eddy” Victor – grandson of Queen Victoria and second in line to the throne – has been having all manner of fun. Encountering Annie Clark, a Catholic woman who works behind the till at a sweet shop just across the road from Eddy’s favourite rent boy brothel, he begins an affair with her which culminates in an ill-advised secret marriage and the birth of a child – one who, strictly speaking, would then be in line for the throne.

Queen Victoria will not stand for this, and she uses all the covert influence available to her to make sure that Eddy and Annie are forcibly separated. Among the resources available to her is the power structure of British Freemasonry. With members riddled throughout the British aristocracy and respectable professions, the Masons were a microcosm of the establishment of the time, and a large cross-section of Victoria’s male family members were Masons. Between that and a perennial desire for Royal patronage, it was no surprise that the Brotherhood was willing to do favours for Victoria. In this case, this included enlisting Dr William Henry Gull – Freemason, physician, and mystic – to the task of performing an operation on Annie to profoundly damage her mental capabilities. Even if she could get someone to listen to her story and she were able to coherently tell it through the cognitive fog imposed on her, nobody would give it any credence.

However, Annie’s fate wasn’t unknown to all. Marie Kelly, an East End prostitute and friend of Annie’s, is aware of what happened, and also knows that painter Walter Sickert – who had accompanied Eddy on his visits to the seedier side of town – is aware of what’s happened. When she and a group of her fellow prostitutes are shaken down for protection money they don’t have by a local gang, they hit on a plan of blackmailing Sickert for cash. Alas, they get greedy, ask for more money than Sickert has available, and when he turns to his Royal connections for help word of the matter gets back to Victoria, who dispatches Gull to silence the women, permanent-style.

Alas, Gull’s work is no clean, surgical strike this time around. Having suffered a stroke, Gull has become prone to mystic visions and occult obsessions, and he regards the work to be done in averting Royal embarrassment as a mere pretext for his true goal. The 20th Century is looming, and Gull believes that by conducting the murders in a particular manner and pattern, aligned with the occult geometry of London, he can turn them into a ritual act which will shape the very nature of the coming century. His intention is to make it safe from the rising tide of feminist and other progressive challenges to the status quo, winning the day for what he sees as the inherently masculine force of Apollonian rationality. The actual outcome is, well, the history we got…

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