Judging David Cage by his work

On May 23rd, Quantic Dream studios will release a new game by “auteur” director David Cage, Detroit: Become Human; a narrative-driven, action-adventure game about three particular androids in a futuristic Detroit waking up to “feel they deserve a better life”. It appears to be a very un-subtle allegory for the struggles of marginalised people, and Cage himself says he used androids as a stand-in so as not to point the finger at any particular groups. I don’t personally have an issue with that, as I actually think using androids as a stand-in could potentially show how marginalised groups are de-humanised in a more literal and explicit way. What I do have a problem with though; is David Cage attempting to deal with these themes. When Quantic Dream hit headlines earlier this year due to accusations of it being a “toxic workplace”, full of sexism, homophobia, and unprofessional behaviour, Cage responded by telling people to “judge him by his work.” The first problem with that is that David Cage does not make good games. David Cage does not craft good stories. No one man is ever responsible for an entire game of course, but neither he, nor Quantic Dream has ever made a creative decision I can respect and I’ve never seen them approach a serious issue or story with an ounce of gravitas or intelligence.

Let’s begin by examining the previous big David Cage game: Beyond: Two Souls, starring Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe. Two highly respected professionals; and much was made of their work doing motion capture for the game. Indeed, David is extremely proud of having gotten to work with Page. She’s a bit less proud of her work with him though. During the toxic workplace accusations; Cage defended himself against accusations of homophobia and racism by pointing to his work with Page and Jesse Williams; civil rights activists. The “I have a gay/black friend” is tacky at the best of times and is extremely easily countered – how much civil rights activism does Cage himself actually do? None, as far as my research has shown me (a slightly worrying sign for Detroit, Cage himself has no experience in this arena). The Ellen Page comment borders on offensive however, due to an infamous scandal that resulted from her work on Beyond: Two Souls. Page has a no-nudity clause in her Hollywood contract, but this did not stop Quantic Dream from creating a nude model of her for an entirely necessary shower scene (oh so necessary, it was absolutely VITAL). After the model was leaked online, it was reported that Page considered legal action against Sony. So, judging Cage by his work with Ellen Page? Ms Page wasn’t exactly thrilled with your work David, not your best choice.

But was the game itself any good? Absolutely not. Beyond is a mess for a few key reasons. Its gameplay is both incredibly simplistic and yet needlessly vague at the same time – it relies heavily on quick time events – timed button or directional inputs, but many times opts not to tell you what input you need to do, causing inexplicable failure. Either that or they just don’t respond. Not that it matters though; there’s no consequence for failure; whichever scenario you’re in will find a way to move ahead no matter how badly you do; all going towards the same, inexorable ending. It HAS to do that though, because David Cage, for some foolish reason, decided to present Beyond in a non-linear structure. The story is told through a series of disconnected flashbacks that makes following the narrative an absolute nightmare, and the individual beats themselves are nonsensical at best. One mission sees Jodie (Ellen Page’s character) assassinate someone she’s told is a despotic warlord… Only to find out from a news bulletin afterwards that he was a peaceful, democratically elected president. This plot could’ve been avoided was Jodie a) remotely aware of the world around her or b) looked at the *NAMELESS MIDDLE EASTERN* country’s Wikipedia article at some point. A smarter, more interesting writer, might’ve used this to make a point about American interventionism and imperialism. Not Cage; it’s just a dramatic reveal that adds nothing, because there is no coherent plot or theme in Beyond. Jodie doesn’t grow, because she can’t grow, because it could contradict later scenes you’ve already seen (not that that stops that happening). Cage’s storytelling is about as subtle as a brick to the face and every bit as painful. To quote a review from ArsTechnica:

“Through it all, there’s a sense of explicit emotional manipulation. There are constant moments where the music swells, characters’ faces get scrunched up, and the game practically throws up a big metaphorical sign saying “Feel something, dammit!” Only you feel nothing, because the plot and writing are way too overwrought and earnestly direct, and because the game never really succeeds at making Jodie a relatable and believable character with interesting motivations or reactions.”

There’s also a scene or two where Jodie is almost sexually assaulted. I’ll come back to that later; but in order to follow up on Cage’s other defence, bringing up Jesse Williams, I wanted to make mention of Cage’s treatment of other races in Beyond; specifically Native American people. During one chapter, simply titled “Navajo”, Jodie is, of course, the perfect white saviour for a small Navajo family – borderline noble savages with the faintest hint of modernity, and any reference to their culture is completely ignored. We get to see tepees burning – which the Navajo never lived in – and the two sons (neither of whom has even a trace of a very distinctive Navajo accent, deep in the heart of Arizona) take Jodie to “a place no white man has ever been before”. Give me strength. The chapter is full of lazy stereotypes, awful writing, and to say it casts aspersions on Cage’s “I am definitely not a racist” claim is understating it.

It’s hardly the first time Cage has been a touch insensitive towards ethnic minorities though. In Heavy Rain, the last game Cage made before Beyond, late on in the game, one of the four protagonists fights with a black criminal named Mad Jack. Mad Jack looks like this:madjack

Yes, he is the only prominent black character in the game. A big, scary black man with giant lips. He was mo-capped by an actor, but I can find no images of said actor for comparison to see if there was any exaggeration of his features. Even without that though, the character is a gross example of a “black criminal” stereotype from his attitude to his dialect and dialogue, and I can only assume someone physically leapt on David Cage to stop him inserting the word “honky” or “cracker” into every sentence.

But why should I have expected anything else from the director of the most awkward and ridiculous sex scene in video game history. It’s an infamous scene that exists for seemingly no reason, adds nothing to the story and proves that David Cage has no idea how humans form functioning relationships. Ethan, the game’s protagonist, is in the middle of a desperate search to save his son Shaun, and, depending on the player’s choices, may have killed a drug dealer as part of the kidnapper’s twisted game and demands, in addition to having potentially cut off a finger, crawled through a maze of broken glass and electric pylons, and driven down a highway the wrong way at full speed for five miles. The idea that he should be up for a game of hide the sausage with Madison, one of the game’s other controllable characters, and that she considers it appropriate to make an advance on him is absolutely mind-boggling.

Oh, but don’t worry if you, like a reasonable person, think that’s a bad idea (you’re not getting the best ending for thinking that already), you’re still presented with plenty of lovely sexual scenarios for Madison to get into. None of them consensual! We’re introduced to her padding around her apartment in her underwear, when it’s invaded by three men who attempt to assault and kill her. It’s a nightmare that establishes that… Madison has bad dreams sometimes and she’s an insomniac. Ooh, how about the time she’s made to strip down to her underwear again at gunpoint by someone she’s trying to get information out of. Or the hideous focus on her body when a mad doctor decides he wants to mutilate her, and then gropes her bottom; clearly titillated by her attempts to fight back. It’s pretty appalling that this is the only way that Cage thinks to generate conflict and drama for Madison, the game’s sole female lead, and shows that he really didn’t learn anything for Beyond: Two Souls. Jodie may have had more agency than Madison, but I’ve already outlined that game’s many problems.

Heavy Rain tried to be a serious mystery story about a serious kidnapping by a serial killer; a showing of love as a motivating force; a test of how far Ethan would go to save one son after failing another, filled with tension as you tried to piece everything together. But, and this is the final nail in the “David Cage can’t write a halfway sensible story to save his life” coffin, the game has to lie to you to ensure you can’t possibly see the twist coming. The truth behind the Origami Killer is that he’s Scott Shelby; one of the four characters you’ve been controlling the whole time. During a segment you’re supposedly in control, Shelby kills a potential witness to his crimes off-screen and, as you read his thoughts, expresses surprise and fear about being mistaken for the killer. Meanwhile, throughout the story, Scott is thinking about how he needs Person X’s help to catch the killer and how Person Y is his only lead on the case. It turns out he’s been gathering evidence so he can destroy it. It’s the cheapest trick I’ve ever seen and makes a joke of the player. Scott Shelby’s own thoughts lie to you to preserve the twist. It makes absolutely no sense. Heavy Rain may have had better structure and gameplay than Beyond, but a) that’s an incredibly low bar, and b) the game is still atrociously written, borderline offensive in its treatment of women and minorities, and a terrible story to begin with.

And finally, going back to Detroit, where people may have been wondering: has David Cage evolved over the years? Will this game be better written and structured? To answer that; I would like to point to late last year when a trailer and demo was shown off at Paris Games Week. The scene, featuring domestic violence and child abuse was criticised as cartoonish, for shock value and generated discussion about whether Cage was fit to handle such serious issues. Sources told Le Monde that they warned David about the misogynistic nature of the scene and how glib it came across. To its credit; I do think the trailer gets the point of how the story can easily branch in a scene quite well, though it bears all the classic Cage hallmarks of dramatic music begging you to feel something and god-awful, melodramatic acting.  But it’s clear the scene was chosen for its shock value above anything else.

Cage, in the earlier interview I linked, grumbled about how people were quick to judge on this, and how there was a context to the scene; though I would counter that this was the slice of gameplay they chose to show off for the trailer and should’ve curated it better in that event. He defended his choice to make Detroit deal with these serious issues by saying that videogames should be able to be more than fun; they should be able to be provocative and political and deal with uncomfortable subject matter. I completely agree; I consider games to be a legitimate form of art like any other medium.

Except that’s not what David is doing with Detroit.

“The story I’m telling is really about androids. They’re discovering emotions and wanting to be free. If people want to see parallels with this or that, that’s fine with me. But my story’s about androids who want to be free,” he said in an interview with Kotaku last year. Why yes, that DOES contradict what he said more recently about how the androids are a stand-in for marginalised groups! I’ve saved this reveal for the end, lying to you the whole time about Cage’s intentions with Detroit for dramatic tension. Snide jokes at Heavy Rain aside, games change all the time in development; but to have completely shifted the story into an allegory over the course of a year seems highly unlikely. That would require new scenes, editing and re-recording of dialogue and motion capture and major shifts in story beats. So I strongly question the sincerity of Cage’s work with Jesse Williams, and the sincerity of his commitment to serious themes and political allegory. If he really didn’t see any potential allusions to marginalised communities last year, when he set a game in Detroit, Michigan, site of the 1967 civil rights protest, I have to conclude David Cage doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing.

So there you are, David. I have examined your work. I judge you by it. You’re a charlatan and a hack. Can’t wait for Detroit to be awful so I can laugh at it! Because the alternative is crying.

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Review: The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker

 

Full motion video was one of the stranger experiments of 90s video games; mostly sticking purely to the realm of adventure games like Phantasmagoria, Harvester and the infamous Night Trap, though many early Playstation and Sega Saturn titles utilised clips for cutscenes and whatnot. Putting real actors inside video games could create a certain disconnect and the generally lower budgets of games in the 90s resulted in some… memorable performances, full of schlock, ham and cheese. Even the serious takes couldn’t get away from it.

But as FMV fell out of fashion due to the rise of graphical tech, it has once again fallen to the indie developers to resurrect the genre and in spectacular fashion. I’m personally a big fan of Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure and more recently, Contradiction: Spot the Liar! Both reasonably light-hearted and silly adventures that will never fail to get a chuckle out of me, though they were clearly leaning in to that schlocky side of FMV.

In that way, The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker by D’Avekki Studios is a stark turn. There’s no schlock here and very little ham. The performances are played perfectly straight and they’re all equally affecting. It’s rather fitting, considering that this is a psychological horror and murder mystery game; being schlocky would be completely at odds with the tone of the game, but D’Avekki Studios have managed to pull it off brilliantly. The standout thing about Doctor Dekker is its excellent acting combined with its horrifying narrative, with its six main actors bringing fully fleshed out and realistic though broken people to the psychiatrist’s office the game takes place in. The performances will affect you and get under your skin in every way you can imagine.

I fell in love with Marianna (Aislinn De’Ath) while being repulsed by her, I felt sympathy for Claire (Helga Ragnars) while finding her actions abhorrent, I wanted Bryce (Millin Thomas) to be a better person and to help Nathan (Dom Lister) move past his grief. I appreciated and feared Jaya (Bianca Beckles-Rose) and was charmed relentlessly by the adorable Elin (Helen Jenkinson). I was heavily invested in the characters and their fates, and knowing I could control it to an extent through my questioning was a lot of pressure. The side-characters (who only get one interview each) were every bit as interesting and managed to flesh out the world in greater detail. I was also very happy as a fan of the aforementioned Contradiction to see John Guilor in a more serious turn without chewing the scenery (I admit I miss the scenery chewing though).

The premise is a simple one: the titular Doctor Dekker has been murdered in his office, and you are his replacement. You must treat his five core patients and his assistant Jaya across five acts, while attempting to get to the bottom of just who killed him. The murderer is chosen randomly at the start of the game, meaning playthroughs will rarely be the same. Balancing the therapy with the detective work is entirely on you however, and delving too deep can have dire consequences. The gameplay itself is very simple; you simply type questions based on a keyword system into a box at the top of the screen, and your patient will answer. The interface will indicate to you if there’s anything you should follow up on in their response, though you can also type “hint” if you’re stuck for a good question. However, the system can be a little too specific in what it wants you to ask or occasionally provide an answer to question you didn’t think you were asking at all! It’s mildly frustrating.

Doctor Dekker is at its best when it feels like a real conversation and you are becoming entranced by your patients’ responses, their implications and your attempts to piece it all together. I personally managed to do this with Bryce and Marianna most; I felt connected to them and I wanted to know more while being terrified of their answers. Characters will ask you questions too, from the mundane (your favourite season) to the heavy (do you think they’re insane). It’s an experience that weighs on you and stays with you, especially because there’s no going back. You can’t un-learn or un-say things, which will impact on both your sanity and the characters’ actions. The game uses a traffic-light system to track your conversations; a red dot next to the character’s name means you need to ask more questions, orange means you’ve got all the necessary information out of them for the day, but you can keep going. Beware the green light though; it means you may have gone too far and your sanity will be impacted. They say curiosity killed the cat, but it may drive a person mad. Balancing restraint with curiosity is a key skill in managing your sanity and solving the mysteries in Doctor Dekker.

The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker has given me nightmares. It’s not a game for the faint of heart, as while nothing visual is shown, there are plenty of vivid descriptions (brought to life by the excellent actors – Aislinn De’Ath as Marianna in particular nails this), though there are a few cheeky jump scares that got me every time (god DAMN it Jaya stop interrupting my conversations). These don’t detract from the creeping dread that infests every session of Doctor Dekker though, from discussing the characters’ unique afflictions to the depravity Doctor Dekker himself sank to in his research. It’s grotesquely fascinating, deeply uncomfortable, and will hook you like few other games can. It’s a masterclass in acting and is a massive achievement in the video game medium – there’s plenty to learn here from everyone’s performance and I really want to see more from this team.

I plan to delve right back into Doctor Dekker again soon – I was too frightened to delve to the bottom of every mystery, but writing this review has solidified just how impressed I am by the game and only makes me want to plumb it further. The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker is on Steam right now for only £6.99 and I put roughly 7 hours into it during my first playthrough. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a brilliantly creepy murder mystery – and I say this as someone who has never enjoyed horror media.

8/10

Overwatch’s Symmetra and Autistic Representation in Popular Culture

As an autistic person, my ears always prick up at least a little when I hear confirmation that a character is autistic or that there’s some new TV show “about” autism. Partially because I’m excited that people will get to understand things a little more from my perspective but equally so in nervousness because I can’t help wondering if they’ll actually get it right. I worry that it’ll fall into tired stereotypes, reinforcing them and basically just be an allistic person’s view of autism. Autistic characters are still relatively uncommon, and if I were to ask you to name some, I can probably predict who you’d go for – Rain Man, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, and maybe Christopher from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time or Abed from Community, most of which do qualify as allistic people writing autistic characters, or indeed writing around them. TBBT in particular has never explicitly claimed that Sheldon is autistic, preferring to be vague about his disorder (“I’m not crazy, my mother had me tested”), but Jim Parsons has always said that’s how he plays him, having read Look Me In The Eye, a memoir by an autistic man. This is quite a common attitude, for creators to be vague rather than outright confirm, leaving them a degree of plausible deniability, leaving just inferences and references from characters around them. After all, confirmation brings responsibility.

We live in a society that prioritises the allistic view on autism above the views of autistic people themselves. Most “hard-hitting” dramas centring on autism are about parents who must learn to cope with their autistic son. Consider how frequently The Guardian publishes articles by parents who are openly contemptuous towards their autistic children, rather than asking autistic people themselves what their lives are like, or how people somehow consider the discredited views of Andrew Wakefield in any way relevant. People would rather expose their children, and other children as a result to fatal, mostly eradicated diseases than risk them “contracting” the dreaded spectre of autism through vaccination. Googling “autism and vaccines” brought up this awful site and petition to end the “epidemic”. It also isn’t that long since the brutal attack on Scott Vineer in my home town of Lisburn. The message is clear – autistic people are a burden who cannot speak for themselves and must be eradicated. I roll my eyes whenever anyone brings up the search for a cure, as if I am an infected victim. Even Autism Speaks is moving away from that attitude for goodness’ sake, and they once claimed broccoli could “ease symptoms”.

Even in popular culture, most depictions of autism are homogeneous and rely on trite stereotypes, resulting in frequently negative depictions. The obvious example is Sheldon Cooper, who is incredibly bigoted, selfish, and endlessly demanding, becoming a real burden to everyone around him. With that in mind, can you understand why I might consider it extremely insulting to be compared to him? Sure, he’s at the very top of his field, but utterly reprehensible in all other ways. Other autistic characters all share at least one similar trait; the notion of being “high-functioning”, which I have a multitude of problems with. Firstly, autism is a spectrum, and dividing people into high or low functioning erases many experiences in the middle, while assuming that these are immutable statuses. As Leah Harris also points out (in an excellent article you really ought to read for more information on this debate), the label can also be used to deny treatment or support as you’re seen as “not needing it”, or invalidating your experiences. This is something I get constantly, people praising me for “not seeming autistic” or saying they “never would’ve guessed”. I can see my personhood diminishing in their eyes as they say it, patronising and condescending. Furthermore, while these “high-functioning” characters are always extremely skilled in their chosen fields, depictions of “low-functioning” characters are barely people at all, characterised by grunting, rocking back and forth and being basically an object with no independent thought processes or understanding. To quote S.E. Smith, “Either characters have been blessed by the magical autism fairy, who sprinkles them with sparkling dust so they can go forth into the world and do inspirational good, or they’ve been cursed by the autism bad witch, and they need to find a pail of water to throw over her.”

Autistic characters are defined exclusively by their autism and are either your inspirational pornography or pitiable objects. There’s very little middle ground. That said, Abed from Community is probably the most positive example I’ve seen, being both realistic in terms of his difficulties with social cues, while showing human aspects such as empathy, and even being actually written by an autistic person (Dan Harmon was recently diagnosed with Asperger’s), so praise where it’s due.

Symmetra_portrait

I’d now like to move on to discuss Overwatch, the hit shooter by Blizzard Entertainment (the brains behind World of Warcraft). Many considered it one of the best games of 2016, and for good reason. It’s a bright, colourful, team-based multiplayer experience, with highly refined gameplay, a focus on movement to capture objectives, and most importantly for this article, a varied and fantastic cast of lovable characters. In lieu of any kind of story mode for the game, Blizzard has chosen to flesh out this cast’s backstories and personalities through animated shorts (for example: The Last Bastion) and comic strips (example: Reflections) with high production values, all of which greatly add to understanding which hero you’ve picked for each match. Understanding that Tracer is in a same-sex relationship or that Bastion was traumatised by its experiences in the war against the Omnics helps us relate to them more and enhances our appreciation of them. One such comic I’d like to focus on is A Better World, which focuses on Satya “Symmetra” Vaswani. In this comic, one particular panel (see below) appears, which, taken with her behaviour in the rest of the strip, sparked a wave of fan discussion, leading to director Jeff Kaplan confirming her autism in a reply to a fan letter.5-2

“Symmetra is autistic. She is one of our most beloved heroes and we think she does a great job of representing just how awesome someone with autism can be”, he said, and indeed Blizzard has shown her plenty of love, including drastically revamping her abilities after noticing she was the least played character in the game (probably due to her being the only support character who doesn’t heal others, but I’ll get to that). Her behaviour in the rest of the strip backs up the diagnosis. She’s seen to have difficulty in social situations, blurt out critical opinions at inappropriate times, is hyper-logical and obsessed with order. She can’t stand crowds, and is easily overwhelmed by sensations such as sound as smell – something that rang especially true for me, and made something about her design really click. Note the headphones she wears – while it’s easy to just assume these are for communication, they also likely assist Symmetra in navigating daily life by filtering out loud or unwanted noise. Granted they’re not completely effective, but it rang true with my own experience and use of earphones and music to block out busy crowds and whatnot.

3-43-5

There are a number of things I really like about Symmetra’s depiction. Firstly: this is an autistic character in one of the most high-profile and beloved games of the last few years. Not only that, but she’s a woman. If autistic characters and positive depictions thereof are uncommon, female autistic characters are practically non-existent. Sure, there’s Sugar Motta from Glee, which was disgustingly offensive (“I have self-diagnosed Asperger’s, so I can say whatever I want.”) or Dr. Dixon from Grey’s Anatomy, but she was practically cartoonish in her depiction. Autism is significantly under-diagnosed in women, and is seen as a male condition  (even though many of us on the autistic spectrum have huge issues with gender in itself, but that’s a post for another day) and Symmetra goes some way to bucking that trend, and even her depiction of being more “high-functioning” makes sense due to how differently girls are socialised, meaning that not knowing she’s autistic unless told might be fitting for a lot of people. I also really like the fact that Symmetra is still a Support character – considering that most understanding of autism is that people who are on the spectrum lack empathy or emotions etc (blatantly false), for her to be a Support, someone who must actively display and use empathy to assist the team by knowing who’s in need and how is refreshing and so much more true to autistic experiences. She’s an unconventional support, sure. She can’t heal other characters, providing them instead with Shields to protect them and placing Turrets that can slow enemy advances, or Teleporters to get respawning team-mates back to the front lines, but I feel this unconventional style of support is in some way representative of both her way of thinking and and her autism. It feels like Blizzard directly implemented Symmetra’s autism into playing as her in an understated manner, and that to me is fantastic.

Fans have been generally positive about the reveal, but there are criticisms to be had. It’s arguable that Symmetra’s trust in the Vishkar Corporation, despite some of its shadier actions (the burning of the favela depicted in A Better World for example) plays into stereotypes of disabled people being easily gullible or weak, but her own agency runs counter to this – while she is focused on that greater good, she still runs into the burning favela, is horrified by what she sees and works to protect those she can. Furthermore, as THE neuroatypical character in the game (ie the only one we know of), she still falls into the classic “high-functioning” trope and is hard to consider truly representative. Symmetra is still one of the most positive ways of depicting autism I’ve ever seen, though naturally I do have certain biases in this discussion, but until the spectrum is actually shown to be a spectrum across media, it’s hard not to be at least slightly exasperated at the constant false dichotomy of high and low functioning and just wish for a little more variance.

Doctor Strange: A (mostly spoiler-free) Review

Tonight, my housemate Gareth and I went to see the latest Marvel movie, Doctor Strange. I was mildly anxious about it, given the whole whitewashing thing they pulled with Tilda Swinton, but at least the director has since owned up to it, which I respect, condemnation aside. It’s handwaved in the film by their claim she’s of Celtic descent, rather than an outright Asian woman, but as a white person, it’s really not up to me to say if that’s an acceptable excuse or anything like that, and I hope the high-profile racebending is addressed and fixed satisfactorily in the inevitable sequel.

That said, I did find Swinton’s performance to be the strongest in the film, bringing resilience, serenity and maturity to the role of the Ancient One that is both soothing and authoritative simultaneously. She plays an excellent mentor with considerable depth and the implications surrounding her character and her decisions are fascinating to watch. It’s the kind of role I would love to see more of Swinton in in future performances.

Unfortunately, the person she interacts most with is Benedict Cumberbatch’s titular Stephen Strange, who may be the most punchable “man of science” fictional character since the entire cast of The Big Bang Theory. There is nothing redeeming or likeable about the selfish, arrogant, prat of a man whose actions utterly fail to reflect what we are routinely told about him. It’s claimed that Stephen got in to medicine to help people, but he frequently contradicts this in the early scenes, turning down cases that aren’t “interesting” or could damage his “perfect record” in surgery. It is impossible to develop any sense of sympathy for him, even when he receives debilitating nerve damage from a car accident (that is entirely his own fault – so much so that the film includes a disclaimer about dangerous driving in its credits) that kills his career as a neurosurgeon stone-dead, his lashing out, particularly towards Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer, renders him utterly contemptible. It never gets better, Stephen is supremely arrogant and lacks foresight or care about consequences and really doesn’t grow as a character, other than accepting the whole magic and mysticism thing.

Strange has been compared to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, but I would disagree – he is much less endearing, and it is not at all helped by Cumberbatch’s performance. He utterly fails to hold a convincing American accent, he frequently mumbles lines and oh, lord, the action scenes are not his strong suit. Neither is the nerve damage in Strange’s hands, which is incredibly inconsistent throughout the film. Sometimes it takes him great pain and effort to open his hands, other times he’s casting spells without a care. It really sucks you out of the film, which is a shame, because Strange‘s strongest asset is its world-building and atmosphere. The visual effects are utterly breathtaking (though if I were Christopher Nolan, I’d probably be calling my lawyer) and the opening scene in which The Ancient One fends off the (incredibly forgettable, but it’s a Marvel movie, so what else is new) villain Kaecilius and his thugs on the side of a building, sets the tone for unequivocably the best-looking Marvel movie so far, though the action choreography frequently clashes with the visuals, which is a shame. Strange’s cosmic trip as he learns about the world beyond what he can see is also a genuine treat and reminds me very much of Kubrick’s iconic visuals from 2001: A Space Odyssey. That said, the extra-dimensional entity reminds me just way too much of Andross from the original Starfox, and just looks silly.

The final thing I must praise from Doctor Strange is its superbly entertaining supporting cast. I already mentioned Tilda Swinton of course, but Benedict Wong as… Wong (coincidental according to the comic lore), the librarian puts on a delightfully deadpan performance; stonewalling Strange at every turn while still teaching him plenty about the world of magic. Plus you’ve got Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, Strange’s fellow student who serves as a strong foil, and he’s pretty great in everything. Rachel McAdams, sadly (especially as she’s the only other prominent female character), is criminally underutilised and it feels like several scenes of her interacting with Strange ended up on the cutting room floor, probably because Cumberbatch is in his worst performance since Hamlet. It leaves the resolution to their characters arcs feeling very out of left-field and unsatisfying.

Apart from those points, this is very standard Marvel fare. A script with a lot of great jokes (any scene that humiliates or brings Stephen down to earth is a great example), a villain who makes no impact whatsoever, some cosmic lore that enhances the whole cinematic universe and a couple of stingers, with the promise that “Doctor Strange will return!”

Does he have to though? Does he really, really have to? Yes? Damn. Cumberbatch needs to up his game bigtime for his next appearances. It’s confirmed that he’ll be playing a role in Thor 3: Ragnarok, as well as Avengers: Infinity War and at the moment, I can see him being a very weak link in the lineup. Doctor Strange is honestly worth seeing for its cinematography, gorgeous visuals and soundtrack, along with some strong turns, if you can look past the most overrated actor in modern Britain being garbage, and the whitewashing. Still good, just certainly no Iron Man or Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

I am a survivor of sexual assault and ableist abuse

Going to put a content warning here for descriptions of sexual assault, naturally, and ableism.

You’ll be friends with the people you meet in university for life, was advice I was given in upper sixth by one of my French teachers. I believed her and saw the reasoning – by studying the subject of my choosing, I’d be meeting like-minded people with similar interests and personalities, in theory. Once first year began, I latched on to a group and thought we would be good friends. Sure, there was a lot of teasing and needling each other, but for the most part, it was in that vitriolic, but friendly way. Bear in mind I said for the most part. It’s taken me a very long time to come to terms with this, but I now know and believe that those people were abusive towards me. We had our good times, yes, and there was genuine care and affection, yes, but here is the truth of the matter. Firstly, I was always the butt of the jokes, and my autism played a factor in this. They knew I had it but still mocked me for my reactions and pressured and forced me to sing and dance for their amusement despite my obvious discomfort and humiliation while we were spending time together. Some even saw me as a mere resource rather than a human being, just asking me for information and help without even so much as a “Hello, how are you doing”. While I was slightly flattered that I was the first one they came to for help, it also made me feel used and sub-human. I’m not an encyclopaedia. With the benefit of hindsight, therapy, opening my eyes and the support of many truly loving friends, I see this treatment for what it was. Abusive and discriminatory.

The worst thing they did to me came just after we started our second year. One night, we decided to stay in one member of our group’s houses, have a bit of a laugh, some food, some drink and a good time. Sounded like fun. It was four years ago now, but I still remember the night fairly clearly. The night proceeded as normally as one of our nights out always had really, but at about 2am, I’d had enough and decided to go to sleep in the conservatory (a terrible decision – caught a nasty cold). Now once I do get off to sleep, even if it takes a while, I am a very heavy sleeper, especially if I’ve been drinking. I’d had about four or five pints of cider that night, plus a King’s Cup, so while not completely blind drunk, I was still fairly intoxicated, as was everyone else. However, once I did eventually get off to sleep, some of the boys in the group decided it would be hilarious to do things to me while I slept, with one of them rubbing his genitals on my face and putting them in my mouth. I don’t know if photo or videographic evidence of this exists and I don’t want to know.

So from my description, an obvious question comes to mind: how do I know this happened if I was asleep? Simple, I was told. But I was not told out of concern, or out of disgust at what had happened. I was told mockingly, to wound me and to make it clear that I was a complete joke. I wasn’t told immediately. I was told a year and a half later, on the night that we graduated. My graduation was consciously ruined by these people mocking me once again, throwing the fact that I’d been sexually assaulted by one of them (who wasn’t there) at me as a total joke and that they were all complicit. I don’t know where to begin with how incredibly wrong this incident was from start to finish. My trust was abused. I was abused. Criminology students, who are exactly the sort of people who should understand the impact of sexual assault and how criminal what they did was, my peers, abused me and treated me as a joke. And that is deeply concerning on many levels.

It’s been two and a half years since I was told about my assault. I’ve frequently discussed it in therapy. I’ve discussed it with some close friends. I shared it with Everyday Sexism. And while many were sympathetic, some blamed me for passing out. What could I expect? Now that I know, I can’t unknow and I can’t unsee it. I regularly have images of what it might have looked like flash through my mind and keep me up all night. I feel sick. I feel like a thing, a toy. I never went to the police. Why would I? I had no evidence, I know how they treat survivors, and I knew that they would all back each other up. My word against six or seven others’.

That’s my story then. I’m still surviving and doing my PhD. I have much better friends than they could ever hope to have been to me, and if I ever have the misfortune to lay eyes on the one who specifically violated me, or those who enabled him, I’m not sure how I’ll react. Maybe I’ll cry. Maybe I’ll scream. Maybe I’ll fight. Don’t know. Would rather not have to deal with it. I deserve better. Which is the message I want to end on: I deserve better. Talk to your friends about people with autism. Tell them how to treat them with respect. Talk to your friends about consent and sexual assault. Make them understand if they don’t. I can hear people roll their eyes at this. “Decent people don’t rape”. “None of my friends are like that”.

Yeah, that’s what I thought too.

The musical theatre moments that give me chills

Musical theatre has been an enormous part of my life since I discovered it as a young teenager. Granted, of course, I’d seen a lot of the classics around Christmas as a kid. Grease, The Sound of Music, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and of course, plenty of Disney movies, not that I recognised them as musicals at the time. And while my opinion on the mentioned titled has soured over the years (Disney movies aside), performing in musicals and watching a larger variety over the years has given me a much deeper appreciation for the genre. The introduction of music gives musical theatre an extra tool in story-telling, and when used effectively, can create truly spine-chilling moments and performances that cannot be replicated by any other form of media. That is not to suggest that shows that don’t do this for me or failures – there is merit to the more light-hearted and “frivolous” and some shows just don’t benefit from those types of moments – The Producers and Avenue Q spring to mind, despite being two of my favourites. To celebrate and demonstrate this, I wanted to list off (in no particular order) ten of my favourite moments that really do give me those chills and bring out stronger emotions that simply couldn’t have worked for me without music.

  1. Non-Stop from Hamilton

Beginning with the most recent addition to my list and most recent ear-worm, Hamilton is a brilliant piece of theatre told in an incredibly innovative manner, and I cannot praise it enough. I’m really not a hip-hop or rap fan and yet I honestly cannot get enough of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece. But the moment that gives me chills above all others from Hamilton (and it would be easy for me to just stick the whole thing here) comes from the close of Act One and Non-Stop, detailing the titular character’s tireless work ethic and his incredible rise to power and prominence as America begins to set itself up having defeated the British. Narrator and rival Aaron Burr describes it brilliantly in the coda, and his delivery truly sells both how impressed he is and the incredible feats Hamilton is capable of.

Alexander joins forces with James Madison and John Jay to write a series of essays defending the new United States Constitution, entitled The Federalist Papers. The plan was to write a total of twenty-five essays, the work divided evenly among the three men. In the end, they wrote eighty-five essays, in the span of six months. John Jay got sick after writing five. James Madison wrote twenty-nine. Hamilton wrote the other fifty-one!

  1. Tonight (quintet) from West Side Story

Moving back a good 50-60 years now to a musical I’m proud to have performed in and respect hugely, though I strongly question its structure. In most stage performances of West Side Story, the interval is after the rumble and the deaths of Riff and Bernardo. In the performance I worked on, it was instead set after the quintet and before the rumble, allowing the tension to be kept over the break. But I digress. The reprise of Tony and Maria’s romantic duet allows for outstanding harmonies that, as said, dramatically ramp up the tension before the fight between the Jets and Sharks and create contrast between the purity of Tony and Maria’s infatuation and the violent hatred and racial tensions between the two gangs.

  1. Will I? from Rent

This one is slightly more personal – while I was working on a performance of Rent, my great-uncle passed away, the very day that our cast was learning this song and the routine to go along with it. As such, it always brings back memories of how he was after having his stroke, permanently bed-ridden at home. Even without that though, the round creates arguably the most human and tragic moment of Rent. The story of the main cast screeches to a halt as the members of the AIDS support group stare their mortality in the face and question what’ll happen to them as their health inevitably deteriorates. The way the round builds is what sells it for me, growing each verse.

  1. Javert’s Suicide from Les Misérables

Javert is one of my favourite characters in musical theatre, and every confrontation between him and Jean Valjean offers a critical eye on his zealotry, unflappable determination and belief in the justice system, even when it is shown to be wholly and unnecessarily cruel, something Hugo critiqued for a good hundred pages in his original writings. Seeing the character as this moment of vulnerability, worn down from his repeated encounters with Valjean and grappling with his moral quandary shows his resolute stubbornness to adhere to his principles at the effective cost of his life, and the mirror with the show’s opening as he leaps from the bridge to his death is one of Les Mis’ highlights.

I will never forgive Russell Crowe for his mangling of it.

  1. No Good Deed from Wicked

Defying Gravity is the obvious choice, and indeed, it has that effect on me as well, particularly in its final verse, but No Good Deed comes at the lowest point of Elphaba’s life and is all the better for it. The ice in her voice as she declares herself evil because she has no other option is palpable. It’s a very bitter song, full of years’ worth of resentment towards everything that has backfired on the Witch of the West and cost her friends, family and her lover and can hit very close to home for anyone who’s felt similarly misfortunate despite their best efforts. The vocals are incredibly challenging, but very rewarding for any actress who can pull them off, and her pure despair can make for haunting and chilling performances.

  1. The Hunt from Whistle Down The Wind

Another tension-building song, The Hunt is perhaps an unusual choice, but I love the way that the townspeople’s bloodlust reaches its peak here. But juxtaposing it with the children’s innocence and determination to protect The Man, whom they fervently believe is Jesus reborn (literally), and having the adults reprise No Matter What is a brilliant stroke that underpins many of the themes of Whistle Down The Wind, as is highlighting the conflict between Sparrow and her father Boone. It’s the show’s dramatic high point, and is sold almost entirely by performance, as the vocals aren’t especially challenging or interesting – this just speaks to the strength of the lines and music as well as actors’ ability, and is one more wonderful phenomenon within musical theatre.

Take my word for it, I can’t find a link for this one.

  1. Music of the Night from Phantom of the Opera

The musicality of Phantom makes any of its numbers excellent choices for this list but Music of the Night plays to its biggest strength – the Phantom himself and his incredibly alluring character and underpins a lot of what the show is about – the beauty of music in itself. It’s a melodious and gentle piece that directly contrasts with the Phantom’s mighty introduction and is more about his character than his mythos. The contrast is perfect and the wonderful musicality combined with quite soothing vocals make for one of Phantom’s most spellbinding moments.

  1. The Next Ten Minutes from The Last Five Years

The Last Five Years’ unique structure is at its peak here, as the midpoint of the show and the midpoint of their relationship allows for the only point of the show where Jamie and Kathy sing together (though not at the same time). It makes for one of the most romantic pieces in musical theatre, made all the more poignant by the audience’s certain knowledge that things will all end horribly. All at once both beautifully heartwarming, and sure to make the eyes water, The Next Ten Minutes is a romantic duet that pulls at every heartstring it can to drive daggers into the audience’s chests, making the most of dramatic irony.

  1. Mister Cellophane from Chicago

Mister Cellophane is a rather unassuming number – much like the character performing it. It’s a very quietly resentful and self-loathing song from musical theatre’s biggest doormat, but utterly showstopping in its own right and it’s oddly inspiring in that way. In a show full of over the top characters, sex appeal and bombastic jazz numbers, Amos apologises to the audience for taking up their time, but refuses in his own small way to go quietly into the night and stands up for himself by complaining – possibly for the first time in his life. Granted, I’m perhaps reading too deeply into it, but it strikes a chord with many people frightened of confrontation and who consider themselves doormats like Amos. It’s a song that conveys a lot of sadness and his final “never even know” is frequently a haunting moment and highlight of any performance.

  1. Madman from Blood Brothers

I really like the songs where everything just goes to hell, if you can’t tell. Another piece where dramatic tension is built up as high it can go before the finale, Madman is notable for being the culmination of the Narrator’s ominous prophecies – the Devil has Mrs. Johnstone’s number. I’ve had the pleasure to play this part myself, and it’s very hard not to get into it and be almost pleased that things are coming to an end this way. The bombastic vocals are an excellent tool and give off the impression of madness that matches both Mickey’s bloodlust and the mood of the show as Mrs. Johnstone and Linda panic and rush to stop him from shooting his brother dead.

In concluding, writing this post finally got me to put words to exactly why I love musical theatre, why it is so valuable and how strongly it can affect our emotions. May it never cease to do so.

The little ball of rage in my chest.

I am exhausted all the time. I am angry all the time. I am miserable all the time. I struggle not to weep all the time. Why do you think that is?

Every day, I wake up and I dread getting out of bed. I dread checking Twitter or Facebook or any news sites. The latest bullshit is in from a world that utterly despises women, anyone who isn’t white, able-bodied or minded, heterosexual or anything outside their assigned gender. I rant about it on Twitter, feel my heart rate and blood pressure accelerate, that tight little ball of rage in my chest grow hotter and hotter until I want to scream and cry and break down.

What do I have to complain about though? I’m non-binary, yes, but largely male-presenting and even using male pronouns, not to mention white and heterosexual. Autistic as well, but everyone tells me they’d never guess. As if that’s a compliment. That I resist completely being myself and have trained myself to adapt because I’ve been told I have to, not just by parents, but society as well and violent people who despise everyone like me. It is not that long ago that Scott Vineer was beaten and left for dead in the town I live in. It weighs on my mind any time I leave the house, especially at night. But I can get by. It’s empathy though that leads me to feel that ball of rage. Donald Trump argues women should be punished for seeking abortions. And the world continues laughing at the clown, while ignoring that that is currently a reality on the island of Ireland, where women in the North are currently being prosecuted for using pills to induce abortion with a potential life sentence and in the Republic, the 8th Amendment casts a dark shadow over women. Trans men who have not undergone gender reassignment surgery as well, but when was the last time transgender people actually factored into a discussion that wasn’t about how they’re traps or rapists or dangerous or mentally ill? It makes me want to vomit.

Men harass, stalk and beg women to send or post nudes, but god forbid they take any sort of control over their own sexuality – women’s bodies exist solely for male pleasure. Cover yourself up, love. Have some self-respect. Some dignity. But let me have a wank first. The message is clear: men are desperate to control women at all times. They do not exist for themselves. They cannot be allowed to feel pleasure in their own skin, and the vagina is a dangerous thing that must be mutilated in many countries. And should women dare to enter the domain of “men things”, they are treated with pure scorn, accused of wanting it all to themselves, taking it over. Targeted harassment campaigns, such as those against Anita Sarkeesian, Alison Rapp, Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu and countless other women on the internet and in the gaming industry in particular are increasingly becoming the norm and have already been for years at this stage. Being a woman on the internet is dangerous and even more so if you hold the radical notion that you’re an equal.

The MSM blood ban continues to hold, LGBT rights are run rampant over and their organisations’ funding are slashed, while the DUP councillors who uphold this and prevent change through undemocratic abuse of the petition of concern, intending to keep Northern Ireland as far behind as they can run for re-election and have their posters up already. Edwin Poots and Paul Givan’s faces litter Lisburn everywhere I walk, and the little ball of rage gets hotter when I see the posters.

And this is just everything on my mind over the last 24 hours or so. I have not even scratched the surface of everything that weighs on me constantly and how much I want to work for change and to believe it’s possible, even in the face of all fading hope. The only palatable radical politics come from old, cisgender white men, because when anyone else talks about an unequal society, they’re lambasted and ignored because of their marginalisation. The marginalised are further marginalised. The situation is bleak, and desperate. I want to believe. But every day I get a little sadder. A little angrier. And a little more exhausted. I am so tired of feeling this way. I am tired of the unending torrent of bullshit that is heaped onto anyone considered different. I am tired of people begging for their rights to be recognised as human and treated as equals in a culture of desperate control and marginalisation. I do not want to live in a world like this. Not in my name.

Ask me again why I’m always so angry.