Games

Relearning Patience

I find myself increasingly impatient with games. I tell myself that I don't have the time to invest in a 50 hour RPG. I don't like being asked to slog through a long manual or parse obscure game mechanics. I don't have time for any of that, or so I think.

Tell me if you've heard this one before: a brash young man gradually mellows over the years, gains perspective on life's annoyances, and begins to respond to setbacks in a more measured, thoughtful way. At some point, I realized I was this walking stereotype. The things that annoyed me in years past had gradually become easier to take in stride. I can't do anything about a traffic jam. The old lady at the grocery store who insists on paying for two apples with a personal check will finish when she's finished. A single bad day at work isn't a sign that I should abandon all my earthly possessions and become a monk. Life is a marathon, and patience is the key to winning.

However, this general mellowing hasn't completely extended to my attitude towards games. In fact, it's often the opposite. I find myself increasingly impatient with games. I tell myself that I don't have the time to invest in a 50 hour RPG. I don't like being asked to slog through a long manual or parse obscure game mechanics. Long cutscenes? Widely-spaced checkpoints? Load times? I don't have time for any of that, or so I think.

I'm not sure where this mindset comes from, but I'm inclined to blame the non-gaming world. I know I can't control life's random occurrences, and I've come to terms with the fact that a big chunk of being a responsible adult is dealing with unexpected inconveniences and poorly-designed systems with as much grace and flexibility as possible.

Games are alluring because they can, at least theoretically, offer an alternative. Their worlds can be clear, orderly, and logical. They can have specific, achievable goals. They can provide a wondrous, entertaining diversion from life's ordinary events. In short, they offer the promise of efficient, dependable pleasure. I think of video games as one of the precious few sanctuaries immune to the random bullshit that crops up elsewhere. My patience reserves are usually running pretty low by the time I get around to firing up a game, which makes unexpected roadblocks all the more taxing.

In reality, this mindset is neither logical, fair, nor helpful to me or the games I play. Actually, many of the games that try my patience end up teaching me the virtue of that hard-won personality trait, and they do so in a context far more pleasant than an immovable traffic jam.

I noticed this while playing Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, an adventure game with a modern meta-narrative wrapped in a surprisingly traditional adventure game system. Initially I was irritated by the character's slow walking speed and the game's insistence on elaborate (and unskippable) scene transitions. The puzzles and battles were similarly demanding. Failing a battle sequence requires you start over at the very beginning. Some of the challenges require trial and error. The separate phases of the game are dependent on the phases of the moon (that is, until you discover ways to skirt this rule). This annoyed me until I realized that fighting the game's pace wouldn't help anything. I slowed down and began noticing the smaller details. The pixel art was actually very expressive, the slow movement speed allowed me to appreciate the subtle musical shifts, and repeating battles taught me that attacks patterns were quantized with the game's soundtrack. Trite as it sounds, I stopped to smell the digital roses and came away the better for it.

This isn't an isolated occurrence. I'm currently playing through Dishonored, a stealth game whose plot is told through subtle environmental features along with a host of found documents. Piecing together the social and political factions of the game's world by rifling through diaries isn't the fastest way to digest a plot. Stalking a single guard for five minutes before making an (often unsuccessful) attempt to subdue him isn't the most direct way of dealing with a problem. I was a bit freaked out when I discovered that I had spent a couple hours chipping away at a single assassination mission until I realized that was exactly the point. I had to adjust my expectations about how I would be interacting with the game: Dishonored is about building and rebuilding a series of cascading plans and then having the persistence to carry them out. It isn't the most direct approach towards excitement, but it yields a long-term sense of satisfaction that I wouldn't have been able to achieve with the raw efficiency of a machine gun.

But what if the waiting game is measured in weeks, rather than minutes? This worried me before starting Telltale's excellent The Walking Dead episodic game series. I hadn't played the first few episodes, so I was able to experience them consecutively, in much the same way that I watch television (i.e., consuming entire seasons in a week via Netflix or Hulu). After catching up, I was initially irritated that I'd have to wait a month before resuming Lee and Clementine's journey. This inconvenience soon morphed into something positive when I realized that waiting meant that I was part of a larger shared experience. Each episode has given rise to virtual water cooler moments where my friends hash out our choices and make predictions for what might be in store in the next episodes. The time between episodes has given me the chance to revisit my decisions and even reinterpret the actions of particular characters. This time-enforced lesson in restraint has increased the amount of thought that I've given the series, and has definitely changed the way I approached subsequent episodes.

In the end, maybe games aren't actually the last bastion of instant gratification that I've built them up to be. And this is okay because the idea that games are somehow separate from the rest of life is a flawed assumption anyway. Life is a marathon after all, and video games are yet another part of it. Rather than offering me a chance to shed my patience with the press of a button, they instead invite me to continually relearn one of most valuable traits one can possess.

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60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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