History Repeating: War vogue and Battlefield 1

bf4The announcement trailer for Battlefield 1 shook the gaming world like a Somme barrage. While Infinity Ward persisted with the trend of projecting future conflicts for Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, DICE are reaching back to World War One for their forthcoming Battlefield instalment. Broadly speaking, the gaming public reacted negatively to Activision persisting with sci-fi, while lauding EA for producing an innovative twist on a familiar franchise. But is Battlefield 1 really the revolution that Internet hype has made it out to be?

Now, Battlefield 1 is a strangely non-sequential choice of title for the series’ fourth outing on current-gen consoles. Of course, the intention here was doubtless to invoke the game’s World War One setting – awkward, but fair enough. Another reason may be a sly nod to the Battlefield franchise’s heritage. In a sense, the first game in the series was set during World War One – the engine powering Codename Eagle, a WW1 shooter by Refraction Games released in 1999, was later used in Battlefield 1942 and Battlefield Vietnam after DICE acquired Refraction.

The World War One sequence in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

The Battlefield 1 announcement comes at a time when World War One has crawled out of its muddy trench of relative obscurity, and featured in some reasonably high-profile titles – Valiant Hearts: The Great War, Verdun, and a lengthy cameo in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate . Its current growth in thematic popularity, however mild, may be linked in part to the war’s centenary, and high-profile public events commemorating the devastating conflict. Yet there may also be a cyclical element to horses replacing quad bikes in the latest Battlefield outing.

Red Baron (1990), an early WW1 flight sim from Sierra/Dynamix

In the 90s, my brother and I spent much of our formative gaming time with World War One-themed flight simulators like Red Baron, Knights of the Sky, and the processor-intensive Flying Corps. These games were both popular and commercially successful (though to be fair, this was when flight sims in general were very much in vogue). Now, that’s not to say that World War One has completely fallen out of favour since its flight sim heyday – it’s always been around, but more in the form of low-profile strategy titles, or as a result of the mod community’s efforts. Fast-forward to 2016, and suddenly it’s a bankable conflict for Ubisoft and EA.

The BF1 trailer put a heavy emphasis on the inclusion of combat aircraft

The ebb and flow of a war’s popularity is an industry inevitably, it seems, as we embrace (then grow tired of) its historical peculiarities. For a time, World War Two was everybody’s darling, dominating the better part of a decade with a solid startling lineup of Battlefield 1942, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and, of course, the original Call of Duty. Now it lurks on the periphery, loved by only the most dedicated and hardcore in Red Orchestra. The Vietnam War was kind of cool for awhile, too, and although Battlefield 2 started playing with 21st century hardware in 2005, the big historical shift came with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare two years later. Suddenly we became totally fascinated with the capabilities of contemporary weaponry, and what its near-future cousins might look like.

That infatuation had truly begun to sour, however, with Battlefield: Hardline – though this was more a result of its poorly-timed glib portrayal of police militarization, rather than its modern setting alone. Even so, we have apparently grown tired of overloading our Picatinny rails with scopes and foregrips and laser sights – call it ACOG fatigue, if you will (admittedly The Division, armed with a pedantic modern arsenal, continues stumbling from strength to strength, while Overwatch revels in an eclectic range of retro-futuristic weaponry). Even so, we can probably expect a variation on this theme for Battlefield 1 – upgrading a Lee-Enfield Mk III rifle with some kind of obscure, prototype optical sight that DICE spent hours researching, for example.

So is Battlefield 1 really going to be a breath of fresh air for The Big Two FPS war games? Or just a case of Malibu Stacy wearing a new helmet? And looking (perhaps ironically) to the future, what happens when World War One has served its term as a game setting? Do EA and Activision keep going backwards through time, reaching deep into pre-history as Far Cry: Primal has done, even going as far back as Call of Duty: Trilobytes? Or does the chronological loop repeat, with Japs and Nazis once again falling into our sights? These questions, no doubt, will be answered in large part by each franchise’s sales figures later this year.

Like a glove: Product placement in The Division

glovesI wear my hypocrisy on my hands.

This confession comes shortly after First Person Scholar published my critique of The Division. Basically, I argue that by depicting a United States on the brink of total collapse, the game also holds up a mirror to real-life America, which has been weakened by a complex range of global and domestic issues. A large part of this commentary, to my mind, revolves around the police/military relationship within the game’s Joint Task Force, as their vastly different public safety duties have increasingly overlapped in post-9/11 America.

Consumerism, too, is denoted by The Division as a key factor in America’s decline – both as a pandemic vector, and a real-world overindulgence. The in-world advertising for fake products retroactively takes on a sinister tone, foreshadowing the disaster to come: Bus stop ads for “everlasting” tablet PCs highlight the redundancy of technology in a world where electricity is becoming scarce. Posters compel shoppers to “be prepared” for the Black Friday sales where the disease originated. A Times Square billboard, meanwhile, carries the tagline of a forthcoming film: “When forces collide, the city holds its breath.”

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An ominously prescient billboard in Times Square

Given the detail that Ubisoft Massive has put into The Division’s vast range of imaginary consumer goods, the inclusion of a real-world product (beyond the firearms, that is) is thrown into particularly stark contrast. Players can equip their elite avatar with Mechanix Wear® Original gloves, a brand I was unfamiliar with until I played The Division. The sudden appearance of a registered trademark symbol among the fake ads for dumb holiday movies like Don’t Tell Mom made me curious.

On visiting the Mechanix Wear® website, I learned that the gloves “are designed to combat daily hazards and injuries ranging from harsh abrasions, cut and puncture wounds to broken bones, joint damage, vibration injuries, and even exposure to fire and intense heat.” The brand is marketed, in part, towards military and police customers; the Wolf Grey line, for example, provides “law enforcement and special forces with low-visibility protection in urban, suburban and industrial environments” (and somehow also boosts critical hit damage by 7.5%). Purple gloves that will increase my primary weapon’s DPS and are endorsed by real-life operators? Sure, that vendor can have some credits.

The Division and Mechanix Wear® social media competition

My relationship with Mechanix Wear® didn’t stop at stat boosting, however. As it happened, I was in need of a new pair of gloves for work, so I stopped past eBay and – well, the system works. I’ve been won over by in-game product placement before, but that was more in the sense of playing Forza Horizon and living out the fantasy of premium car brand ownership. If I ever start making a six-figure salary, perhaps that will translate into a sale for Maserati. But for now, the best I can do is shell out AUD$20 for a pair of Mechanix Wear® M-Pact gloves. Which I can claim on tax, helping maintain the delusion that this was a genuinely necessary purchase.

Where does this leave The Division‘s subtexts, though – does it undermine the game’s messages about consumerism? Obviously a different department at Ubisoft was responsible for establishing a relationship with Mechanix Wear®, so does it really take away from the developers’ vision, and what they are attempting to communicate? It’s hardly an intrusive bit of product placement, after all. I’ve argued that the game overall is suffering a bit of an identity crisis in its stance towards violence – maybe this is just another aspect of the way in which The Division is torn between loyalties.


Vehicle-based active shooters: Copycat or coincidence?

hesstonThe unassuming city of Hesston, Kansas is a recent victim of the ongoing security issue of mass casualty attacks in the United States, with three people killed and 14 wounded in an active shooter event on February 25, 2016. The shooter, an employee at local lawnmower manufacturer Excel Industries, initiated his attack by firing at random vehicles and pedestrians, then entered his workplace and shot multiple employees before he was killed by responding law enforcement. This followed an incident on February 20, where a 45-year-old man drove around Kalamazoo, Michigan, shooting at pedestrians in a six-hour spree that killed six people and wounded two others before he was detained by police.

Dashcam footage of police apprehending the Kalamazoo, MI shooter in the vehicle used during his attacks (February 2016)

There are unusual aspects to both active shooter incidents. In Kansas, the shooter was African-American, though this form of mass violence is overwhelmingly the domain of white males. In Michigan, the shooter was employed as an Uber driver, and reportedly collected fares during his killing spree. What is perhaps most interesting about these attacks, however, is that they were both vehicle-based in some capacity. The Michigan shooter opened fire from his car at three different locations, exclusively targeting pedestrians. The Kansas shooter, however, opened fire on other drivers as well (“He was shooting from his vehicle into other vehicles,” the Harvey County Sheriff told The Hesston Record), though also fired on pedestrians before arriving at Excel Industries.

To be blunt and clinical about it, augmenting an active shooter attack with a vehicle does potentially offer a shooter some advantages. A vehicle allows for rapid departure from the scene of a crime, thus helps to evade law enforcement; it permits an attacker to locate more victims, who may not be alarmed and therefore present targets that are easier to engage – as a point in case, Islamist gunmen fired from vehicles at multiple locations during the November 2015 attacks in Paris.

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Assailant in an armoured van (below left) exchanges gunfire with police during an attack on Dallas PD headquarters (June 2015)

Additionally, a vehicle offers concealment, a degree of protection from incoming gunfire, and a stable firing platform (for example, resting a rifle barrel on the window frame); this is particularly true if the vehicle is armoured, as was the case in an attack on Dallas, Texas police facilities in June 2015. The vehicle itself can also be used as a weapon, as demonstrated by a May 2014 active shooter incident in Isla Vista, California, where the shooter struck multiple pedestrians with his car.

There are disadvantages to using a vehicle, however – the car’s design features and license plate potentially make a shooter easier to identify and spot, while mobility is restricted to roads or other open and exposed areas. Even so, two vehicle-mobile firearm attacks managed to inflict significant casualties within the final week of February. Accordingly, it bears examination as to whether the Kansas shooter was directly inspired by the vehicle-based method of the Michigan shooter. Was it simply a coincidence, or did the Kansas shooter note the precedent set in Michigan and deliberately undertake an attack using a similar method?

The ‘copycat’ phenomenon surrounding active shooter events is well-established, and it is a sad inevitability that the United States will sustain another mass shooting in the near future. Two temporally proximate incidents do not provide anywhere near enough data to predict an emerging trend, of course. Nevertheless, taking a long term view, it might be pertinent for authorities – both in the US, and other jurisdictions where active shooter events have been flagged as a security concern – to keep a close eye on the potential for vehicles to increasingly form part of these attacks. The effectiveness of aggressive US law enforcement protocol in engaging foot-mobile shooters, a product of the ALERRT training program, was compellingly demonstrated in Kansas, with the Hesston Police Chief single-handedly neutralising the shooter. The complications and difficulties that can arise from vehicle-based attacks could, however, throw a spanner in police preparedness and response tactics.

Interview with Hugh Reynolds (Havok co-founder)

havok1I recently wrote a feature article for ZAM examining the development of ragdoll physics technology in videogames. One of my interviews was with Hugh Reynolds, who co-founded Havok in 1999 with Trinity College Dublin colleague Dr Steven Collins (both later went on to establish a mobile marketing company, Swrve). In short, Havok software was a literal game-changer, allowing developers to easily implement robust and realistic physics systems. If you’ve sent a guy flying with a shotgun blast, or knocked over a chair, it was likely a result of Havok technology.

Hugh was kind enough to answer my questions, though my deadline and word count kept much of this material out of the final article. I’ve included my questions and his responses in full, with some additional comments for context.

Trinity College Dublin research group [the academic genesis of Havok] – when was it founded, what were its aims, and was there a desired commercial outcome in place from the outset?

Founded around 1992 by Steve Collins. The aim was to create a place for research that was oriented around visualization and animation. Professor John Byrne was the head of the computer science department in Trinity College at the time and he was quite the visionary. He sort of created an off books research group licensed to do anything that was cutting edge. Steve led the team and I joined the following year.

Could you elaborate on the acquisition of Ipion [a rival German physics software studio active in the late 90s] – when and why?

We met the Ipion team in 1999 and eventually acquired them in 2000. In terms of why we were really impressed by Thomas Liss, Oliver Strunk and Oliver Grosse the three core founders and visionaries. They’d already done some great work and we felt together we could achieve so much more. It turned out to be true – Oliver Strunk is still at the core of innovation and R&D at Havok!

What were your aims in developing the Havok engine (in terms of both player and developer experience)? Did you expect it would become so ubiquitous?

From my research I could see that every time objects animated correctly physically it was somehow magic. It’s like something switches on in your head. You “get it”. I think it’s a really deep instinctive thing for us all. So you’ve got this incredible emotive type of animation and yet the people who needed to get their hands on it were kinda locked out. Physics was the purview of the “physics programmer” not the storytellers. Havok was about letting the storytellers in.

What do you see as the gameplay advantages for a game that incorporates ragdoll physics?

Ragdolls are all about empathy – when you merge this with really nicely done animation or motion capture and then transition correctly into ragdoll mode it’s incredible. Early ragdoll work with Havok had lots of snipers shooting their enemies – really really powerful stuff. As things moved on it was not all gun shots, ragdolls and animations started to merge. On that topic it’s worth giving a shout out to the NaturalMotion team who did a great job at extending this with goal seeking and more AI-based animations. That NM team eventually created Clumsy Ninja, a fantastic example of where the story tellers can work with the physics and create really heart warming stuff.



Aussie Rules: Muslims Not Permitted

United Patriots Front leader Blair Cottrell (centre, in black hoodie) addresses the crowd at an anti-mosque demonstration in Bendigo, August 2015 (photo by author)

There have been two high-profile instances of anti-Islamic group activity in Australia in recent days. On Friday, April 1, the United Patriots Front (UPF) displayed a large banner during an AFL game at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The banner – which declared “Go Pies! Stop the Mosques” – at once barracked for the Collingwood Magpies football club, and pushed a key UPF agenda of protesting mosque development in Australia. In the second incident, on Sunday, April 3, a group of supporters representing the Party For Freedom (PFF) – a Sydney-based right-wing political organisation – violently clashed with “anti-fascist” activists outside a Halal Expo at the Melbourne Showgrounds.

I have written at length about the recent rise in Australian anti-Islamic groups for the Spring 2016 issue of the Journal for Deradicalization, and the national security issues this form of political activity presents. In short, there has been tangible growth in anti-Islamic sentiment among Australians during the past two years, ranging from spiteful posts on social media, to public demonstrations against the Islamic “enemy” that is supposedly undermining Australian social values. This type of activity builds in large part on mistrust towards Muslims that followed the 9/11 attacks, and has been exacerbated more recently by atrocities committed by, or on behalf of, Islamic State.

In light of the March 2016 attacks by Islamic State operatives in Belgium, a sudden spike in overt anti-Muslim sentiment is not surprising – as a point in case, the UPF has latched onto social media hashtags like #RememberBrussels and #ProtectAustralia. Islamic State has recently suffered significant military and territorial losses in its heartland of Syria and Iraq, but by equal measure, the group has found success in striking soft western targets – San Bernadino, Paris, Parramatta – through direct or inspired operations. The public fear that this type of violence generates also manifests itself as anger and resentment in some sections of the non-Muslim population, with groups like the UPF and PFF expressing a particularly bellicose and nasty form of opposition towards Australia’s Islamic community.

The two incidents in Melbourne over the weekend were hardly a compelling display of potency by these anti-Islamic groups. The UPF banner was an amateurish effort, hand-painted onto a piece of cloth, and was pulled down by security, its owners evicted from the AFL match. The PFF protest at the Halal Expo, meanwhile, only attracted a few dozen supporters, and the sole casualty from the violence that ensued was an anti-Islamic adherent, hospitalised for cuts and bruises. Even so, the incidents both received a high volume of media coverage, providing a national soapbox for these groups to disseminate their agenda; this was amplified further when AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan directly addressed and condemned the UPF’s actions.

UPF Facebook post regarding its AFL banner display (April 3, 2016)

These incidents are, of course, perfectly legitimate news items – setting aside the audience appeal factor of social conflict and tension, the activities of anti-Islamic groups is the type of information that Australians are entitled to, and ought to be informed about. Yet media coverage of these groups is also something of a double-edged sword. It provides the anti-Islamic movement with exposure, perhaps to unaffiliated or undecided Australians who may harbour some bitterness towards Islam, thus serving to help the movement gain new supporters. Indeed, the UPF claims on Facebook that “We have had over 2000 new supporters since our ‘Stop the Mosques’ banner at the MCG,” a declaration that, as of April 4, received close to 600 ‘Likes’.

Blair Cottrell’s response to media coverage of the AFL banner (from the UPF Facebook page, April 1, 2016)

By the same token, a high degree of media coverage also helps groups like the UPF promote their “us vs them” narrative. Islam is deemed the primary antagonist, but complicit parties such as the media industry, left-wing/socialist groups, and multicultural government policymakers, are facilitating the religion’s hostile takeover of the western world. As UPF leader Blair Cottrell declared on Facebook, “When they [Muslims] want to make a statement, they blow up a city, terrorise and torture our people. When we want to make a statement we take a banner to a footy match. But if you believe the media, we are the problem.”

This type of defiance in the face of a supposed Islamic conspiracy is a recurrent reference point for the UPF and similar groups. They view themselves as being locked into a conflict with the supporters of Islam, including left-wing groups like the “antifa” counter-demonstrators outside the Halal Expo. To that end, provocative and confrontational actions by the “antifa” are just as counterproductive as the racism and bigotry of the groups they oppose. Such behaviour only stands to incense the anti-Islamic movement, and harden its resolve, feeding into its “clash of civilisations” narrative. And of course, these displays of anti-Islamic sentiment will, in turn, only serve to marginalise – and potentially radicalise – Australia’s Muslim population.

Dishlickers and Headkickers: UFC196 in Regional Australia

Sale Greyhound Club hosted its first UFC pay-per-view screening on a race day – March 6, 2016

The Ultimate Fighting Championship has carved out a market in regional Australia, but not to the degree I’d hoped.

Heading south out of Eden on a road trip taking the coastal route to Melbourne. It’s early afternoon on Sunday, March 6, and the preliminaries are already underway in Vegas. I stop first in Lakes Entrance, phoning around the various sports and bowls clubs to see if anyone will be running the UFC196 pay-per-view.

“Nah mate,” someone at the Lakes Sports & Community Club tells me. “No-one in Lakes Entrance will be showing it. Too expensive.”

Back on the road, next stop Bairnsdale. A club full of pokies and TAB facilities directs me to the RSL, but they too have opted not to purchase the fight. My last hope is Sale, so I push my little Polo hard to cover the final 70 kilometres in this desperate search for the UFC.

DSC_0145When I arrive at the Sale Greyhound Club, the main card is already underway, and the upstairs function room is packed out with scores of MMA fans. The barman serves me a beer, taking quick glances at the Anderson-Lawlor fight. It’s the first time the club has run a UFC pay-per-view event, the barman explains. “Make sure you ‘Like’ this event on our Facebook page,” he urges me. “That’ll let the boss know to keep doing these in future.”

The sport’s ever-growing popularity would be hard for a club owner to ignore, with UFC193 in Melbourne attracting a record crowd. Even so, the club has taken a sizeable gamble today. On top of the pay-per-view licensing fees to Fox Sports, which would run a fair way into four figures, the club also installed a new projector and screen in the function room specifically to show the UFC.

But the gamble, it seems, has paid off.

“Oh yes, a great turnout today,” a bar manager says. “We will be doing more of these sorts of events, no doubt about it.”

The large crowd is mostly comprised of the UFC’s core demographic, young males in ballcaps and black hoodies. Some have brought along their girlfriends, who’ve dressed up a little for a proxy night at the MGM Grand – a nice dress, a little eyeliner, a flash of cleavage. There’s also a few outliers, like the old bloke quietly sipping tea from a foam cup, and the mother trying to keep her toddler entertained with an iPad. Mostly though it’s a day for the boys, who “ooh” and “ahh” at each crack of a checked leg kick and thump of a stuffed takedown attempt.

The barman’s voice comes over the PA. “Ah guys, just letting you know we’ve got a few platters of hot food sitting up here at the bar for you, so come and help yourselves.”

There’s a rush to the bar, and a guy sporting various shades of buzzcut and a black Eire polo shirt gleefully returns to his seat with a handful of dim-sims and spring rolls.

“Free food!” he smiles, a trace of Ireland in his accent. “That’s pretty fucking alright, hey?”

The Villante-Latifi fight wraps up, another decision for the judges. “Should’ve been a knockout,” a young Aboriginal guy complains after the Villante-Latifi fight. Technically speaking, he gets his wish soon enough. The women’s bantamweight belt fight is next, with Meisha Tate taking on divisive champion Holly Holm. “The Preacher’s Daughter” assassinated Tate’s longstanding adversary, Ronda Rousey, with a brutal headkick at UFC193. The shockwaves ripped Tate off the bench for another title shot, but she’s a heavy underdog in the betting odds. No UFC champion is ever cemented in place, however, and after several rounds of heavy trading, Tate eventually wrestles Holm into a savage rear naked choke. The champ gives a final, desperate spasm before she falls unconscious and relinquishes the belt. There is a patter of claps at the Sale Greyhound Club, then an exodus to the bar for more beer and food.

The guy in the Eire shirt grows excited as the fanfare leading into the Conor McGregor-Nate Diaz fight kicks into overdrive. “Woo! Here we go, baby!”

Having secured the featherweight belt with a lightning-quick knockout in January, McGregor has taken a gamble of his own today, stepping up a weight grade to take on Nate Diaz in a quest to hold two belts simultaneously. Diaz puts up an immediate roadblock, however. The men trade hard in the first round, and Diaz sustains a cut above his eye, but hammers McGregor onto the canvas with a takedown that he twists into a merciless rear naked choke. McGregor grimaces in pain, and taps out.

In the post fight interview, commentator Joe Rogan tells Diaz, “You just shook up the world.”

“I’m not surprised, motherfuckers,” Diaz replies, which draws a laugh from the Greyhound Club patrons, though Eire shirt is quiet and dejected. The fights now over, patrons spill out of the function room and onto the pavilion for a few more beers in the late afternoon sun, ready for the greyhound races to jump. The barman moves about the function room, resetting chairs and clearing the empty glasses. He’s an MMA fighter himself, dominant in wrestling, and missed out on attending UFC193 because he was competing in a semi-pro fight in Perth that weekend.

“I’ve been watching the UFC since the early days, back before it became mainstream,” he says, admitting that he once contemplated taking a shot at the UFC. “I used to watch those old fights and think, ‘I could do this.’ But at the time it didn’t seem like a real life, a career.”

Now in his mid-30s, and having suffered a bad knee injury, the barman is resigned to touring the domestic MMA circuit, and admiring the glory of the UFC through satellite TV. Still, he’s happy to see the sport becoming so prolific and popular, noting the various MMA and “jits” (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) gyms that have opened in the region.

DSC_0150Outside, the greyhound races have commenced. Before each race, the dogs are paraded along the track to the sounds of the Baja Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out?” When they are locked inside their starting line boxes, the music switches to the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.” It will indeed be a good night for some patrons – the guy in the black Eire shirt included, who backs a long-odds dog that runs into third place.

“Hey you, Number 4!” he shouts at the dog as it’s led back to the kennels. “Hey you, yeah you! Thanks!”

DSC_0147Moments later, a schooner glass topples from his table and shatters on the concrete. Shouts of “Taxi!” echo around the pavilion. The excitement of a victory after Conor McGregor’s tapout is perhaps too much to handle. Or maybe it’s just the steady intake of cheap Carlton Draught. At any rate, it’s been a big day for the underdogs. From Meisha Tate to Number 4, the magnanimous barman to Eire shirt guy, the Sale Greyhound Club has put on a winning show.

Dystopian Sports: The Murder of ‘Deathrow’ by a Ruthless Industry

Deathrow (2002), a dystopian future sports game developed for Xbox by Southend Interactive

When we look into the future through the medium of videogames, what do we see? It’s often a pretty grim vision, driven by base survival instincts – the post-nuclear wastelands of Fallout and Metro, the ruthless corporate domination of Syndicate and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, the heartless prisons of Chronicles of Riddick and Portal. Even future sports titles, sci-fi games that explore the notion of what people might do for fun and entertainment in the future, generally reach the same pessimistic conclusion: we will mercilessly compete to win, maiming or killing the competition in the process.

In the metallic colosseum of Speedball 2, for example, a player might be injured badly enough to require medical evacuation, but an unmoved ice-cream vendor will continue selling his wares to spectators. The hypersonic speed of the anti-gravity ships in Wipeout, meanwhile, is the greatest challenge to a player’s race to finish first, though the competition can also intervene with mines and missiles. Even in the flippant neo-soccer of Rocket League, players can be temporarily eliminated if they are struck by an opposition car at full boost, eliciting a roar of delight from the crowd.

Not for sale!

A particularly brutal vision of the future, as viewed through a sporting lens, was the 2002 Xbox exclusive title Deathrow. Developed by now-defunct Swedish studio Southend Interactive, Deathrow imagined a televised 23rd century sporting competition, the Blitz Disc Association, whereby two teams of four players faced off in a closed arena, scoring goals by throwing an electronic disc through a hoop. Players would violently tackle each other to gain possession of the disc, and could outright engage in hand-to-hand combat while the game played on around them – in fact, beating everyone unconscious was a legitimate route to victory. The disc itself also served as a weapon, as it could be charged up to inflict damage when thrown at the opposition.

Loading screens also embraced the televised presentation style, scrolling through fake advertisements with a dark sense of humour

Deathrow gave impressive attention to its dystopian future broadcast presentation style, including advertisements for AI slaves, teleportation services, and “Lifelike Robotic Pets.” The roster of teams, meanwhile, also leaned heavily into the game’s bleak setting, and ranged from mercenaries, to religious fanatics, to combat drones. My personal favourite was the Sea Cats, an all-female team of “amphibian mutants” with hammy Russian accents. “The cybernetic, genetic, and chemical modifications made to the participants promise levels of violence never before seen on TV,” the game manual explained.

Deathrow was an excellent sports title, albeit one with reasonably straightforward gameplay mechanics – fight for the disc, score a goal, change your team’s strategy from aggression to defence if required. Deathrow really nailed these mechanics, however – the combat system included a range of attacks and defensive measures, while throwing the disc felt intuitive and accurate, and could be curved for trick shots (As the game emerged at the peak of post-Matrix bullet-time infatuation, passing the disc to a teammate in midair would result in a brief slow motion effect for a spectacular “one-timer” goal). The inter-game team management aspects were also pretty basic, but again included some nice touches – you could accept offers of mysterious performance enhancing drugs, for example.

Deathrow not only looked fantastic, its core gameplay was also well-polished

At a technical level, Deathrow was also very impressive for its time – even moreso given the fact the engine was developed in-house by Southend Interactive with a very modest number of employees. It was a damn good looking game, with bump-mapped, high-poly count characters and settings, and copious amounts of dynamic lighting and reflective effects. It also had great sound design, with the heavy thuds of combat and the ominous siren of a conceded goal all thundering through in Dolby 5.1 surround. In short, it was the perfect technical showcase for the very capable Xbox, which was still struggling to find traction in a console market dominated by the PlayStation 2.

Unfortunately for Deathrow and its creators, the console’s reduced market share may have gone a long way to seeing the game slip between the cracks. There’s all kinds of cliché tags you could apply to Deathrow – hidden gem, forgotten classic, sleeper hit – but whatever you want to call it, the game was simply not a commercial success at the time of its release. It’s also been speculated that the game’s publisher, Ubisoft, dedicated most of its marketing resources in that period to games like Splinter Cell, leaving Deathrow to languish unloved on store shelves.

Screenshot_2016-03-01-13-53-07Underwhelming commercial performance was, of course, always going to have an impact on any plans for a Deathrow sequel. I asked Southend Interactive’s founder and former CEO, Anders Jeppsson, whether Deathrow 2 was ever a real possibility: “It was and we did have a lot of awesome things planned,” he told me on Twitter. “Unfortunately the game didn’t sell enough for Ubisoft to fund a sequel.” This is a real shame – Deathrow not only deserved a bigger audience in the first place, but there were aspects that could have been refined or added in a sequel (online multiplayer most crucially) to help flesh out the IP’s strong potential. Southend Interactive, for its part, eventually went on to develop a string of mobile and Xbox Live Arcade titles. In 2013, a dispute with publisher Deep Silver saw the entire Southend team migrate to Massive Entertainment where – somewhat ironically – they are working on The Division under the auspices of Ubisoft.

It’s great to know this talented team has been put to work on such a high-profile, big-budget title for Ubisoft. But at the same time, it strikes me as a slightly bittersweet outcome. Given the right resources and marketing clout, would Deathrow have had enough commercial impact to warrant a sequel, even a new series for Ubisoft to push? It’s possible, I think, but also impossible to say for sure. Such is the merciless nature of the videogame industry, of course, particularly when it comes to the big publishers. The tooth-and-nail fight for survival that dystopian games like Deathrow depict is the very same calculated logic that governs whether a game – even its creators – will live or die. Only the strongest contenders in quarterly reports will survive. In this age of crowdfunding, however, we’ve seen the resurrection of passion projects that didn’t initially resonate in commercial terms, DoubleFine’s Psychonauts being a prominent example. And Deathrow has certainly gained a cult following in the 14 years since its release, with forums and online petitions calling for its return. So if its creators were so inclined (and if any IP issues with Ubisoft could be resolved), perhaps the gaming masses could offer the belated lifeline that Deathrow so deserves.

Everyone in Fluoro: The Canberra Warehouse Rave

A generic Fyshwick warehouse hosted a spectacular party on February 19, 2016 (photo by Tom Fry)

Fyshwick is dark and empty, far too late for the daylight businesses, much too early for the gentleman’s clubs to be in full swing. The Uber driver quietly follows the prompts from Google Maps, curious about the out-of-the-way nature of this fare. He pulls up outside a warehouse on Townsville Street, surprised to see the little groups of people milling about on the footpath. The front windows glow blue and rattle with the muted thud of a kickdrum.

“What’s going on?” the driver asks his passengers.

A warehouse party, they explain.

“Oh,” he nods. “Cool.”

The revellers might as well be going to a picnic. They carry cooler bags and eskies, some big enough to need two people to lift, laden with beer cans, wine casks, and plastic bottles full of pre-mixed sprits. The BYO policy is liberal – glass containers notwithstanding – and open to interpretation, so an ecstatic dude stops to bump some cocaine before disappearing down an alleyway to the warehouse entrance.

The February 19 event is sold as being a rave, a callback to an era where abandoned industrial spaces became temporary party venues, hidden away from the scrutiny of authorities. Decades later, with electronic dance music now well and truly part of mainstream musical culture, the need for clandestine parties has all but disappeared. It’s a presentation choice rather than a practical necessity, but it makes for a novel setting. Event promoters Escape Ferocity have put on an impressive show, transforming the sterile warehouse into a colourful cave, a stage backdrop of painted screens, white walls covered in bright projections, the roof humming with rolling techno basslines. Even though it’s an above-board event, the promoters withhold the precise location until a couple of hours before the doors open. “In the interest of a sweet party, please don’t put this address online, inc. social media,” they plead in the advisory email: “Let’s avoid crashers and nubes with no idea.” The idea is doubtless to further invoke the secretive spirit of old raves, but perhaps also to minimise forewarning to law enforcement.

German techno producer/DJ Ann Clue, signature cigarettes waiting beside the decks (photo by Tom Fry)

Sure enough, the police show up anyway – and early, just over an hour after the party commences. It’s a single patrol, three officers in fluoro vests. One of the promoters comes out to meet them, assures them the requisite paperwork is done, points out the copious amount of private security on hand, their concerted efforts to contain revellers within the warehouse fenceline. The police want to see for themselves, however, and push through the dancefloor, flashing accusatory torchlight on any squirrely hand movements. Collars, collars everywhere, bumping against the cops with mistimed dance moves! Such is the bizarre cognitive dissonance dynamic at work in the modern rave scene – the police could arbitrarily select 20 people, pat them down, and the majority would be carrying an illicit substance. They know this, the security guards know this, the promoters know this, and the people on the dancefloor know this. But for now it’s an awkward truce, and the police presence is about visibility rather than outright enforcement.

That balance is in danger of shifting, however, when a young guy drops to the concrete floor, overwhelmed with chemicals. He’s placed in the recovery position, and although conscious and responsive, is taken away in an ambulance. The police return and complete another lap by torchlight, doubtless delivering some stern ultimatums to the promoters. But the party goes on, the warehouse filling out by midnight and rapidly raising the temperature, sweat condensing and dripping down the windows. A shirtless, long haired guy smiles broadly and nods along to the music as he navigates the dancefloor, holding up a goon bag and offering it around to strangers. His gesture epitomises the happy and communal vibe, which relishes in the novelty of the setting and the DJs on offer, a pure celebration of electronic dance music.

“How good is this!” enthuses a girl who, for her part, is sharing around a tall can of beer. “An actual, proper techno rave in Canberra, this would never have happened a few years ago. This is so amazing!”

Boris Brejcha played a two-hour set, followed by a back-to-back session with Ann Clue (photo by Tom Fry)

The two headline DJs are stripped-back techno types from Germany, and have probably already played their fair share of industrial venues (legally or otherwise). Nevertheless, the crowd’s enthusiasm is infectious. Ann Clue is the first international to take the decks, chain-smoking as she delivers a rolling set full of euphoric melodies, extending her arms out to embrace the crowd’s adulation. (Clue later remarks on Facebook, “I’m still speechless about last nights warehouse party in Canberra [monkey emoji] that was so super cool!!!). Boris Brejcha, who produces for (and runs) the FCKNG SERIOUS label, takes over a couple of hours later, slipping on an elaborate harlequin mask as he gets underway. Brejcha takes the driving techno into darker territory, but retains the melodic underpinnings established by Ann Clue, who makes frequent cameos to dance on stage, cigarette in hand.

The Germans eventually share the stage for a back-to-back set, pushing the party through until after sunrise. But for those revellers not charging on illicit energy, that’s a bit of a tall order after a long Friday at work. Instead, they request another Uber; while they wait on the street, they strike up conversation with a drunk guy who’s just tripped over a speedbump in the alleyway. He remembers the venue from when it actually served as a warehouse.

“We used to come flying through this alleyway during our lunchbreak, absolutely fanging it, and we’d hammer over these speedbumps,” he says. “Then we’d chuck smoke bombs in at the guys who were working there.” He laughs. “Did it heaps of times, that was great fun. Good use of a Commonwealth car, hey?”

The morning after. Escape Ferocity switched the door branding from a stamp to permanent marker partway through the night to identify legitimate ticketholders.

The Commonwealth might be looking to get its revenge tonight, however, with another AFP patrol showing up during Brejcha’s set. There’s more of them now, more flashlights, more scrutiny. But the rave goes on, as it has always done. And the revellers love it, with glowing Facebook reviews popping up throughout Saturday: “such a killer party. Good vibes all round!” and “one of the best nights I’ve ever experienced in Canberra,” and “That was nothing short of phenomenal!…Canberra has the most wonderful group of good eggs. Feel blessed to know so many wonderful souls and cannot wait to share some boot scooting again soon!” Escape Ferocity struck a winning formula with their warehouse rave, and will surely want to repeat the event’s success in the near future. Word of mouth will be strong, however, so it will be interesting to see how the promoters continue to walk the complex line between exclusivity, accessibility…and those other guests in fluoro, the police.

The Low-Poly Gravity Battles of B.U.D. and the Warthog

grow home 2
Although a sci-fi adventure, Grow Home doubles as a simplified flight simulator

Picture a cube on a level surface that weighs about a kilogram. Push it and it slides, or topples if the right force is applied. The cube transforms into a sphere. Push it and it rolls. Flip the surface vertically, the object drops away. Here are the gameplay fundamentals for the excellent Grow Home, an in-house experiment that blossomed into a commercial hit for Ubisoft. It’s a visually striking title with peculiar control mechanics, almost infantile in their clumsiness, which underscore the childlike wonder and innocent triumph of a little robot’s perilous ascent through a colourful fantasy world and back to his mother ship. Yet it also evoked strong memories of a straight-edged military flight simulator I played relentlessly as a kid, A-10 Cuba!

Released in 1996, A-10 Cuba! was developed by Parsoft Interactive, a studio that burned brightly (but briefly) as a standard bearer in flight simulator complexity and detail during the 90s. As with its prequel A-10 Attack! the previous year, Cuba put players in the highly interactive cockpit of an A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft, shifting the theatre from Western Europe to the US military enclave at Guantanamo Bay and its hostile surroundings.

The cockpit view in A-10 Cuba! featured an array of interactive switches and buttons

There are immediate visual parallels between Grow Home and A-10 Cuba! – both employ low polygon count objects with sparse textural detail. In the case of Cuba this was, of course, a product of its era and the early Pentium-powered context in which it was produced. Grow Home’s visual style is something of an homage to this era, much in the same way that recent titles like Proteus and the Shelter series embrace blocky simplicity to paint their worlds. In the case of Grow Home, however, the low poly count may be as much a consequence of its “proof of concept” origins as it is a deliberate artistic choice.

There is a lot to be said for this low-poly art style. It might not be as immediately evocative as ultra-detailed titles like Until Dawn that are clawing their way out of the uncanny valley, but the prominent geometry in low poly games feels easier to connect with, somehow – like you’re driving a car with the bonnet removed, the engine and moving parts proudly on display. With this type of art style – be it a deliberate choice, or one made due to development constraints – it’s almost as though the audience is invited to fill in the blank textures, taking environmental cues from broad brush strokes rather than minute details.

A-10 Cuba! featured progressive damage modelling that affected the aircraft's handling
Progressive damage modelling affected the aircraft’s handling

Having said that, the world in A-10 Cuba! still felt wonderfully alive and packed with attention to detail. It functioned as a sandbox game, in many ways – players were given a specific mission to carry out, but the world was inhabited by numerous other military aircraft (friendly or otherwise), tanks and trucks, even civilian cars. All would go about their pre-programmed business, but if the player chose to stray off the mission path, the game was flexible enough to allow for some spectacular emergent moments.

Ejected pilots would bump and roll down hills at the mercy of the physics engine

Before I obtained the full version of A-10 Cuba! I spent countless hours replaying the demo version for MacOS. The setup was always the same – take control of an inert A-10 on the tarmac at Guantanamo, a couple of F-16s scrambling to intercept some enemy MiG-29s across the bay, a C-5 Galaxy cargo aircraft lumbering in on slow approach. If you went by the book, it meant waiting for the C-5 to land before commencing your own takeoff. If you were quick enough, however, you could pull onto the runway and watch gleefully as the Galaxy’s AI pilots desperately tried to pull up and go around for another landing attempt. Sometimes they succeeded, fuselage barely clearing the runway before they gained altitude; other times, they would clip the ground and lose control, the hulking aircraft grinding across the airfield and shedding large chunks of its airframe before exploding in a bright polygonal fireball. The pilots were usually sensible enough to eject when faced with this outcome.

Here is another point of convergence for A-10 Cuba! and Grow Home – both share a strong physics model, rooted in tangible gravitational forces. In Cuba, the physics felt like they had real weight and consequences. When taxiing, the A-10 would sway listlessly during turns, and its nose would dip if you hit the brakes too hard. The game physics even replicated the A-10’s legendary durability – the segmented aircraft model could lose a wingtip to battle damage (or just as often, skylarking), and while it was possible to continue flying the aircraft, it required careful airspeed management and control input to keep the A-10 level and stabilised. It’s the kind of care and due regard for gravity that was needed to navigate B.U.D. around the more vertiginous parts of the Star Plant in Grow Home. Misstep and stumble and the physics could be merciless. You might be able to make a desperate grab at the plant, or deploy a leaf glider to sail back around for another attempt at scaling it. Too often, though, it meant sending B.U.D. into a thousand metre freefall that ended with him shattering into dozens of pieces at the base of the plant.

Altitude loss critical! Typical outcome of careless navigation in Grow Home

At the end of the day, Grow Home and A-10 Cuba! are vastly different gaming experiences, of course. One is a meticulously researched flight simulator, the other an exploratory sci-fi adventure (albeit with occasional flight simulator aspects). But to me, it feels like they stem from much the same place: A desire to accurately replicate the laws of mechanics and motion that we, the audience, are governed by every day. No matter how low-fi the fighter jets or roaming sheep may appear, we can immediately intuit the forces that we can apply to these objects, and accurately infer what the outcome might be – crash, shatter, restart.

From Half-Life 2 to Rocket League, strong and pervasive physics modelling is not exceptional in modern gaming. But the presentation style of A-10 Cuba! and Grow Home arguably lends these games – or their physics engines, more the point – a sort of bare bones impact. Their no-frills objects, chunky and sharp-edged, seem to carry a certain knowable weight to them, like dropping a brick from a freeway overpass. Even with worlds full of hostile MiGs and carnivorous plants, the primary adversary in A-10 Cuba! and Grow Home is gravity – and by the same token, it is the feature that provides for some of their most entertaining moments.

UFC193: A Song of Merchandise and Ire

The queue for the merchandise stand on the pavilion is longer than the ones to enter Etihad Stadium. People wait ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, even after the preliminary fights have commenced. They want their Reebok-branded keepsakes. They want to declare their allegiance to reigning champion Ronda Rousey with a AUD$110 t-shirt, or a $10 stubby holder at the very least.

Etihad Stadium, Melbourne, 15/11/15

Rousey is a phenomenon, a prodigy, an icon. The most successful female Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) competitor in the short history of the women’s bantamweight division, undefeated in her professional mixed martial arts career, sending her opponents home with busted elbows or splitting headaches in a matter of seconds. A promo video plays again (and again and again) on the big screens around the stadium, a slow-motion montage of key points in Rousey’s life – childhood introduction to judo, 2008 Olympic bronze medal, training for the UFC. The plan, Rousey says, is to retire undefeated. The 7:1 betting odds against her opponent, fellow American Holly Holm, are pretty confident that Rousey will take another step towards that goal today.

The event set an attendance record for the UFC, even without a full stadium

The UFC is banking on Rousey’s invulnerable allure to draw a big crowd. Victorian laws were amended in March to permit cage-fighting, which the UFC immediately jumped on by announcing a high-profile fight card in Melbourne. The UFC grew into a large-capacity arena business many years ago, but Etihad Stadium is a whole new scale of venue with room for 60,000 punters, thick rows of plastic chairs laid out on the field area. While the upper tiers look a bit patchy, UFC attendance records have been broken today.

Large groups of police move through the crowd, body armour tucked beneath their high-vis vests, the gunshots of Paris doubtless ringing loudly in their pre-event briefing. The audience is asked to observe a moment’s silence for the French attack victims; even when a blast of electro house suddenly cuts through the silence, the crowd remains standing, mournful and confused.

The crowd turns to watch the next fighters walk into the octagon

The majority of fights at UFC193 feature Australians, something of a host country privilege. Most of the locals fare pretty well, with victories from young Jake ‘The Celtic Kid’ Matthews and Robert Whittaker drawing ecstatic roars from the crowd. Other fights are less impressive; a heavyweight bout between the towering Stefan Struve (Netherlands) and stocky Jared Rosholt (USA) is a dull affair of timid circling and lethargic wrestling. The crowd repeatedly boos, demanding bloody satisfaction. “You’re allowed to punch him, big fella!” someone shouts, which draws a big laugh from the restless arena.

The co-main event for the day – which is to say, the second most prestigious fight – is a showdown between reigning women’s strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk (Poland) and Valerie Letourneau (Canada). Like Rousey, Jedrzejczyk has dominated her division since its inception, and the prediction is that Letourneau will end up on her back, bleeding profusely from multiple gashes to her face. Instead, the women trade shot-for-shot through five excruciating five-minute rounds. Jedrzejczyk ultimately emerges victorious, taking out the fight on points from the judges, but her struggle sets an alarming precedent for the day’s main event.

Ronda Rousey’s calling card is Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation”, and when the arena darkens and the song’s opening riff kicks in, the stadium echoes with a thunderstorm of cheers. Holly Holm’s reception is muted by contrast. It’s almost superstitious, like the crowd is welcoming a new victim into the lion’s den. The fight begins, with Rousey refusing the courtesy of touching Holm’s gloves before they start trading shots. “Here we go,” remarks a guy in the crowd. “Thirty seconds and we’re done.”

From the outset, however, Holm plays it smart. Slips in to land a quick punch or kick, then backs off. She’s wary of Rousey’s legandary ability to grab her opponents, throw them to the mat, and twist their arms into ungodly angles to force a tap-out. Holm slides in again, lands another punch. Another. And another. Rousey’s nose busts open, and she blinks in surprise. The invulnerable aura is fading, fast. “Ooooh, we might make it to the end of the round!” the guy in the crowd remarks.

A dejected Ronda Rousey waits for referee Herb Dean to raise the hand of new division champion Holly Holm

And sure enough, the bell dings and the women are sent to take a thirty-second breather. The crowd is going ballistic – it’s been almost two years since anyone has managed to take Rousey to the second round. Holm is deconstructing the legend, one blow at a time. Then it happens – Holm manages to stagger Rousey, then knocks her out cold with a kick to the head. She dives in to finish off the champion with a blur of punches, but it’s overkill – Rousey is finished, the referee waves off the fight, the impossible is done. Etihad Stadium is on its feet, roaring its approval, screaming out in support of Holly Holm the Queenslayer.

As the thousands spill out onto the concourse and into the Docklands area, many decked out in their Ronda Rousey gear, there is a sense of having witnessed sporting history. Not everyone is pleased, though. “Ronda ‘Can’t take a punch’ Rousey!” shouts a fat guy in an askew ball cap, unsteady on his feet as he pushes through the exodus. “Fucking stupid bitch cost me a thousand dollars.”

Note: This article was written immediately following the event in November 2015