Monday, 21 May 2018

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Off to the cinema to see The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, a classic Spaghetti Western from 1966 that only has an Oxford comma if you watch it in Italian.

According to Empire magazine it's the twenty-seventh best film of all time. Twenty-five places better than Once Upon a Time in the West, which is wrong. Sight and Sound doesn't rate it so highly, putting it at joint fifty-nine, alongside Aguirre, but their list doesn't contain Flash Gordon or Where Eagles Dare so I think we can safely ignore their opinion. The fact is that the world's critics are mistaken. Ugly shouldn't be on any best film lists. It's good, but not that good. It feels like an expansion of a TV show for the big screen. A big frame housing a small picture.

Now, I love Spaghetti Westerns. They're basically Star Wars but with horses instead of spaceships. Spaghetti Westerns are Conan the Barbarian with six-shooters, or Lord of the Rings but everybody is normal-sized and a bastard. You know about Spaghetti Westerns already but I'll refresh your memory. They were financed by the Italian film industry back in the 1960s and early 1970s, with European locations doubling for the Old West. A Bullet for the General, Villa Rides, Shalako etc were filmed in Spain, but a few were shot in Italy itself (Django, My Name is Trinity) and a handful were even filmed in Yugoslavia, although that location was far more popular for East German "osterns".

The Good, The Bad and The Etc was mostly filmed on location in Spain. This scene however was filmed in Italy, on the same set as Django (bottom). Sergio Leone had more money for set dressing and extras than Sergio Corbucci.

European Westerns have been around forever but no-one cared much about them until Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dollars came along in 1964. Legal issues kept it from the international market until 1967, but despite the three-year delay it was a big hit abroad and established Clint Eastwood as a major screen presence. It was also very influential. During the 1960s Hollywood struggled with the problem of how to update the Western for the age of Vietnam and civil rights. John Wayne was still very popular but his time was passing, and although there were some strong Westerns in the 1970s the genre quickly lost its dominant position. Four of the most popular films of 1969 were Westerns, but from 1970 onwards the genre seemed to disappear into the same murky swamp as the WW2 film and the musical.

It's interesting to compare those four films. I like to think that they were all influenced by Spaghetti Westerns, if only negatively. Paint Your Wagon starred Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin, in theory an awesome combination, in practice not. Wagon cost a fortune and ran for over two hours. Along with the likes of Hello Dolly! and Dr Dolittle it was a bloated mess that represented everything wrong with traditional Hollywood. In 1969 cinemagoers instead went to see Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy, contemporary drama that made more money than Paint Your Wagon. They have aged in their own way but seem a lot more modern.

Clint Eastwood is The Good, Lee Van Cleef is The Bad, and Eli Wallach is The Ugly.

Of the other popular Westerns that year, John Wayne's True Grit was a conscious rejection of the cynicism and casual brutality of Spaghetti Westerns. It had relatively little violence and the heroes won out in the end. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the most popular film of 1969; it had some of the moral ambiguity of the Spaghetti Western via Bonnie and Clyde, but smoothed out and tidied up for a mainstream audience. I have always assumed that people flocked to it for the chance to see Paul Newman and Robert Redford in sharp duds rather than because it was a Western.

The fourth film was The Wild Bunch, which was neither smooth nor tidy. It was more violent than any Spaghetti Western, doubly so because the violence felt more consequential and the characters were less cartoonish. It had masses of bullets and bloody squibs with a body count in the hundreds, and when people were shot there was a splutch! of blood. The final shoot-out is still awesome today. I can't imagine what people in 1969 thought about it. Warren Oates gets plugged full of holes but it just makes him madder. Every time I watch that film I end up wanting to machine-gun hundreds of people but sadly here in the UK civilians are not allowed to own machine-guns so instead I can only dream. Every night when I try to get to sleep I imagine that I'm machine-gunning a huge crowd of people, and almost immediately five hours have passed and I have to get up to pee.

That's called nocturia, by the way. When you have to get up in the night to pee. It's normal unless you have to get up several times per night every night for days on end, in which case you need to cut down on caffeine and fizzy drinks. The Wild Bunch is grounded in reality but has a poetry of its own. It's a better film than anything Sergio Leone directed in the 1960s, but I don't particularly enjoy it. Ditto Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs Miller, which tells a similar story - the passing of the Old West and the replacement of rugged individuals with institutions - but in a more low-key style. In the 1970s Hollywood revised the Western, stripping away the mythology and bringing in mud, pain, and futility; some of the films were great, but they were no longer the single dominant mainstream genre or indeed a mainstream genre any more.

But let's get back to demolishing The Good etc. It was Leone's You Only Live Twice. A self-conscious attempt to top its predecessors by putting more money on the screen. Fistful of Dollars took place in a small town; For a Few Dollars More spread the action out a bit, but still had a compact scale. Ugly on the other hand has a huge Civil War battle with hundreds of extras supplied by the Spanish army, plus an expansive prison camp, a ruined town, a massive outdoors cemetery with over 5,000 crosses also apparently constructed by Spanish soldiers, and a purpose-built rail line in the middle of nowhere.

Some of the explosions go off very close to the extras, probably drenching them with spray. Did Italy have health and safety regulations in the 1960s? I have no idea. The film also has at least one horse fall, but the horse gets up afterwards so that's okay.

The problem is that, as with You Only Live Twice, the film is big but flabby. It feels like a disjointed set of arbitrary scenes one after the other, but unlike Twice it doesn't have non-stop action on its side. It picks up the pace towards the end, but it's not enough, and the overall effect is numbing rather than exciting.

At heart Ugly is a manic action cartoon, a picaresque in which the main characters are moved from one scene to another as the plot demands. We're not supposed to care about the plot on a logical level. Clint Eastwood is twice saved from certain death by cannonball explosions that come from nowhere; Eli Walach escapes from his captors by leaping from a train in broad daylight, but no-one seems to notice.* Our heroes spend what appears to be hours fixing dynamite to a bridge in full view of an enemy trench system, but nobody on either side sees them or shoots at them, even though the camerawork implies that they're being observed. As Roger Ebert pointed out in a 2003 review, characters in Ugly can sneak up on each other in open countryside because they are invisible until they enter the camera frame. The film doesn't take place in our world.

* I wonder if this scene was supposed to take place at night, but Leone realised that it wouldn't look good. The characters are mostly asleep, as if it was night-time. After escaping from the train Wallach lurks next to the tracks until another train comes along, but no-one spots him. They're in the middle of nowhere but the landscape is flat and the train guards would surely notice him.

The opening shot is terrific. A weathered man we don't recognise abruptly swings his head into the frame in a way that's just artificial enough to make it clear that the film is a cartoon.
It's as if Leone wanted to point out from the very first shot that, although the natural world can be attractive, the human world gets in the way and is not pleasant.

Condensed down to ninety minutes The Good might have been fantastic, but the film can't sustain its energy over the course of three hours. Conversely it doesn't work as an epic melodrama either. It's not in the same league as Once Upon a Time in the West and suffers in comparison with that film. The characters of West had a certain amount of depth; the plot was simple but touched on larger themes, and the occasional profundity was modest and generally worked. In contrast the characterisation in Ugly is paper-thin. Lee Van Cleef is a suave bastard, Clint Eastwood is stoned, Eli Wallach is an amphetamine-crazed variation of the archetypal Mexican bandit. We learn a little about Wallach, nothing about the others.

Ugly has an appealingly direct unsentimentality about it. For the most part the writing is functional, which is a good thing because when it tries to be deep it doesn't work. Late in the film Eastwood hands a dying soldier a cigarette, which is played and scored for pathos but nowadays comes across as unintentional homoerotic. Wallach tries to reconcile with his brother, a priest, but the characterisation and drama are on the level of a soap opera, and after one brief scene it's never really explored. He immediately reverts back to being a bastard again.

About the only clever piece of writing that works is a scene in which our heroes try to flag down a column of Confederate soldiers only to realise, too late, that they're Union men whose blue uniforms have been turned grey by dust. The film immediately cuts to our heroes bring taken to a prison camp. On the surface it's a neat gag, but in an economical way it implies that, whatever the moral imperatives driving the two sides in the Civil War, the reality for people caught up in the fighting was grim; and furthermore that for all their notoriety the three bandits at the heart of the film are specks of nothingness compared to the orchestrated machinery of war, and that in a brutal world you should "get out of the road if you want to grow old".

Actor-wise it's dominated by Eli Wallach. Off the top of my head he has more dialogue by himself than everybody else in the film put together. A little of him goes a long way, but nonetheless I enjoyed his performance. His character is a complete bastard who comes close to murdering Clint Eastwood twice, but he has charisma and would probably be fun to get drunk with provided money wasn't involved. Lee Van Cleef has very little to do and mostly just glares albeit that he's good at glaring. He only has a few minutes of screen time and doesn't say a lot. Clint Eastwood is also surprisingly underutilised. He's on the poster, but his character just drifts through the film, spending most of his time as a captive of either Wallach or Van Cleef. The other notable speaking roles are Aldo Giuffrè, who is a drunk army captain, and Luigi Pistilli as Wallach's priest brother. They have distinctive faces and I wonder if they were popular in Italy. It's hard to evaluate the film's acting because it's dubbed in post-production; you get used to it but the dubbing creates a distancing effect.

On a purely technical level it's not as good as Once Upon a Time either. With the exception of the graveyard scene at the very end the cinematography doesn't have the same visual pizzazz. The drawn-out gunfights that worked so well in Time feel unnecessarily extended in Ugly and I kept wishing Leone would just get on with it.

The two films begin in almost exactly the same way and it's interesting to compare them. Ugly starts with a suspenseful sequence in which some gunmen approach each other in the middle of nowhere. At first it seems they're going to fight - perhaps these people are the main characters - but they're actually teaming up to kill Eli Wallach. After two minutes of close-ups they launch their attack but are immediately shot dead. It's neat but visually ordinary and feels like a throwaway gag. Time tops it with an opening scene that runs for thirteen minutes - one-tenth of the entire film - during which almost nothing happens, but it's far more assured. The editing, framing, and particularly the use of sound is mesmerising. In its own way it's also a throwaway gag, but it's a breathtakingly well-executed throwaway gag.

Shortly after that the two films introduce the chief villain doing what he loves best, killing farmers and their children. In Time we don't see Henry Fonda's posse until after most of the killing is over. We know they're there, because birds take flight and everything goes quiet; after the initial volley of gunfire they emerge onto the screen like ghosts. It's classy as heck. In contrast Lee Van Cleef's entrance is undramatic. His intimidation feels like petty bullying, and despite being the film's personification of badness he's surprisingly reasonable. Whereas Henry Fonda straight-up murders a defenceless child in cold blood Van Cleef only shoots his first two victims after they pull guns on him.

Watching the film afresh it struck me that Van Cleef's character isn't really all that bad. He beats a woman, but the film takes place at a time when society didn't much care, and once she spills the beans he throws her aside and walks out. He doesn't shoot her, and unlike the villain in Few Dollars More he doesn't force himself on her either. He tortures prisoners, but again the film is set during a time and place when that wasn't unusual. Judging the characters purely by their actions on the screen Eli Wallach is actually more bad - he tortures Clint Eastwood's character and twice almost kills him, and is just as ruthless when he stumbles upon a dying soldier, pumping him for the location of hidden gold rather than immediately trying to help. The film gives him a pass because he's a comic figure, and there's an implication that most of the crimes he is accused of are flim-flam, but he's the most vicious of them all.

I'm willing to throw the world's film critics a bone. Back in 1966 the original Italian version of Bad was just shy of three hours long, but for international audiences it was cut by a quarter of a hour. This is the version that became a hit abroad. The original DVD releases of the film included the cut scenes as extras. They were in Italian because they had never been dubbed into English. In 2003 the film studio decided to add the cut scenes back into the film, with Eastwood and Wallach returning to dub new English dialogue (Van Cleef, who died in the 1980s, was dubbed by someone else). This is the version I saw at the BFI. Unfortunately the extra scenes just slow the film down and if I had seen the film when it was new I might have liked it more.

On a tangent, there's a fascinating blog post here about the various edits that have been made to the film over the years. It's part of a series of posts that document tiny little cuts and musical edits that began even before it went on wide release in Italy.

A note on the screening. I saw the film at the BFI. I don't know if it was a film print or a digital projection. The soundtrack appeared to be in mono, or at least I perceived all the music and sound effects coming from behind the screen, and only behind the screen. It was odd at first. Perhaps to compensate for the lack of surround-ness the theatre pumped the volume up so that Ennio Morricone's music was almost distorted. During the screening a woman decided to laugh very loudly whenever Eli Wallach appeared. I secretly wished that the security guards would put a noose around her neck and force her to balance on the back of the chair for the remainder of the screening. It would have been a suitably cinematic gesture and furthermore it would have sent a message to the other people in the audience.

When the guards actually did escort her out I felt a moral pang for a brief moment. I had wished ill on that woman, and my wish had come true. But my moral pang quickly passed. If there's one thing I've learned from Spaghetti Westerns, it's that human life is not sacred, and that over time you get used to anything, even if it's revolting or morally repugnant. When I lived in London I got used to the London Underground. People in Mexico are used to mass killing by drugs cartels. People in Northern Ireland have got used to untouchable IRA members gloating about Hyde Park. You get used to it. The lady's removal caused something of a ruckus in the cinema, presumably from people who had not yet got used to ignoring the suffering of others. They will!

They will. I've seen Full Metal Jacket. They will resist; then they will join in. I'm digressing here. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly doesn't work no matter how you pigeonhole it. The world's film critics are wrong. As an action cartoon its manic energy is spread out too thinly. As an exercise in pure style it's not as assured as Once Upon a Time in the West. It had a bigger impact on pop culture than Time but that was probably because the latter film was a relative flop. As a melodrama it's not as satisfying as Few Dollars More. As a meaningful epic it's inferior to, again, Once Upon a Time in the West, but also The Wild Bunch and any number of other late-60s Westerns; at the same time it has just enough pathos to imply that Leone didn't intend it to be a subversion of epic cinema. As sheer spectacle, as a visual feast to wallow in, the cinematography and editing get the job done but don't really stand out. The violence and brutality seem tame nowadays. It doesn't even have very much of Clint Eastwood. Eli Wallach is fabulous but one-note. Ennio Morricone's score is however wonderful.

Why is it so fêted? Twenty-seventh or fifty-ninth best film of all time. I have several theories. Good isn't a patch on Once but Once was a flop whereas Good embedded itself in the popular consciousness, so in the 1970s and 1980s it was the most prominent Spaghetti Western. Even nowadays Once has a faint air of Heaven's Gate about it, e.g. loved by The Europeans but unpopular in the home of English-language film criticism e.g. the United States. Obviously nowadays Once has been thoroughly rehabilitated but some of its former obscurity remains.

Secondly there's a more prosaic reason. Imagine you've been asked to make a list of great films. You feel the need to include a Spaghetti Western, because it's an important genre and you have a hundred spaces to fill, but you already have Once Upon a Time in the West on your list, in the "great films" section. So you need a second choice. Django is hip but it's not that good. As far as you're concerned Fistful and Few Dollars More are just prototypes for The Good etc. You can't pick both Fistful and Good because then you would have four Sergio Leone films on your list (along with Once Upon a Time in America) and that's too many. You can't just pick Fistful of Dollars by itself because people will wonder why you ignored The Good etc.

So you pick The Good etc even though you don't like it and never watch it. It's the same process that results in the deadly dull Goldfinger being selected by Rolling Stone magazine as the best James Bond film of all time, when it's not even the best James Bond film of the 1960s. Over time films accumulate a mass of baggage, and eventually critics start rating the baggage instead of the film, goodbye.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Kiev 4 / Kiev 4A

Hutter-buxtable hellosay today the Kiev 4, a rangefinder camera from long ago and far away. Hey dol! Merry dol! Ring-a-dong-dillo! I'm going to write the rest of this post in the style of Tom Bombadil, the jolly forest man from Lord of the Rings, although he was left out of the films because he's bloody irritating. Ring-a-dong! Hop-along! Fal-lal the willow!

J R Tolkien could not have known that dong would eventually become a naughty word. Come, merry dol and I'll stop it. It was a bad idea. It was a bad idea. I'll stop it. It's just that I'm nervous because this is only the second paragraph. I've only just got started. It takes a while for the nerves to settle. Takes a while for the nerves to settle.

About a year after writing this post I took my Kiev to the Goodwood Revival. Because it's roughly from the correct period (1940s-1960s). That's why.

Rangefinder cameras are surprisingly practical for car races. There's no mirror box blackout and no shutter delay, and if you prefocus on a spot, stop down, select 1/50th or so all you have to do is track the car through the rangefinder window and press the button.

On the negative side long lenses for the Contax/Kiev mount, or for that matter rangefinders in general, are very rare, which is one of the reasons sports photographers switched to SLRs as soon as it became practical. Furthermore you have to time your roll changes carefully and the Contax/Kiev never had a motor drive.

Russian Rangefinders
During the 20th Century the Russian camera industry exported three rangefinders to the West. That's a terrible first line. Three cameras in total? The Russian camera industry exported just three cameras? It exported three models of rangefinder camera. Not three individual cameras. The Fed and Zorki were clones of the pre-war Leica II. They used a variation of the Leica M39 lens mount that was almost but not totally compatible with Leica lenses. They were launched in the pre-and-post years respectively and remained in production until the late 1980s, at which point the Soviet Union's economic model collapsed and the Soviet camera industry was swept away by floods of cheap cameras from Japan, if that hadn't happened already.

My impression is that by the 1980s the Fed et al were viewed as sad old jokes in the USSR. The irony is that just as the Russian camera industry died off, Western hipsters fell in love with the cameras, although ultimately there were so many in circulation on the used market that it probably wouldn't have kept Fed or Zorki in business even if they had been hip to the latest trends. Thus although actual Russian people probably grew up lusting after the Nikon F4, Generation Y grew up dreaming of Holgas* and Horizont panoramic cameras.

* Technically the Holga is Chinese, but they all get lumped into the same mish-mash.

Early models of the Fed and Zorki resembled the Leica II. Later models of the Fed had an updated, ugly body; the Zorki generally remained Leica-looking throughout its life and fetches a higher price on the used market because of this. Not a particularly high price. A lot of old Zorkis were tarted up with black paint and fake Luftwaffe markings because there are a lot of gullible people out there.

The cameras had a combined viewfinder/rangefinder window with a 50mm field of view, which means that if you wanted to go wide or long you had to use a shoe-mounted viewfinder. Shoe-mounted viewfinders look awesome but are awkward. Russian rangefinders are of course manual everything although later models of the Fed had an uncoupled lightmeter.

I've never been keen on old Russian Leica clones. I don't have a bag of Leica lenses. If I did, I would be tempted to buy a used Leica body to go with them. Only a handful of Russian rangefinder lenses are widely available - the 35mm f/2.8 Jupiter 12, the 85mm f/2 Jupiter 9, and various 50mm standard lenses, generally 55mm f/2.8 for the Feds and 50mm f/2 for the Zorkis. Add on the bulk that comes with an accessory viewfinder and a lightmeter, plus nagging reliability issues, and it just seems like a lot of fuss for little reward. Will a Zorki lubricate the moral restraints of young women and/or cause other men to respect me? I doubt it.

When I was young I had a book by W E Johns called Now to the Stars. Apart from Biggles he also wrote sci-fi. In the book the heroes visit a planet covered in ice; they could look down into the ice to see a civilisation frozen in time. That's how I imagine photograph-world. It's a world in which everything and everyone is trapped in transparent glass, fixed at the moment of catastrophe.

The Kiev is the odd one out. The other two are based on the pre-war Leica, but the Kiev is based on the Contax II/III, a completely different camera that was originally launched by Zeiss in the 1930s. Throughout its life the Contax was Leica's arch-rival; it had a faster shutter, a longer rangefinder base, a more versatile lens mount, in-body lens focusing and, on the Contax III, a lightmeter, which was a big deal in the 1930s. There was a wide range of lenses of at least equivalent quality, but the system was more expensive and the original Contax I was apparently very unreliable.

The Contax/Kiev has an unusual lens mount. Standard 50mm lenses go inside the mount and engage with the focusing wheel. They don't have a focusing mechanism of their own; instead the entire lens rotates inside the mount.

Other lenses use the external bayonet mount. You can see the prongs at the 12 o'clock, 4 o'clock, and 7 o'clock positions. 

Bayonet mount lenses have their own focusing mechanism and focus in the traditional way, by turning the front of the lens.

The focusing wheel. It only works properly with 50mm lenses. In practice I found it easier to focus by turning the lens. The little tab unlocks the infinity focus lock, which was a thing in the 1930s. The old collapsible Leica lenses had infinity locks. I'm not keen. I suppose the theory was that you could lock the lens at f/8 and infinity and forget about focusing, in which case a thirty-feet-lock would have given the photographer more depth of field. You're supposed to change lenses at infinity so perhaps there was a good reason for it after all.

Sadly for the world in general and Zeiss in particular the Second World War broke out during what should have been the heyday of the Contax. The Zeiss factory was based in Dresden, which ended up in the Soviet zone of occupation. Immediately post-war the Soviets restarted production of the Contax using the original factory tooling and even spare bodies that had been stockpiled during the war. Contax production also restarted in the West a few years later, with the reformed West German Zeiss launching the updated Contax IIa and IIIa, so for a few years there were both East and West German Contaxes on the market.

West German Zeiss pulled the plug on the Contax rangefinder in the early 1960s. The Contax name re-emerged in the 1970s with the Contax RTS, a range of essentially rebadged Yashica SLRs with terrific Zeiss lenses. In the 1990s Yashica launched the Contax G, an autofocus rangefinder system that in retrospect was a few years ahead of its time; the Contax name is currently dormant.

The Nikon S rangefinder of the 1950s and 1960s was a copy of the Contax IIa, with the same lens mount, and a few third-party manufacturers made Contax-mount lenses, but not many. On the whole Leica was more popular. Leica remains in business and still sells a 35mm film rangefinder camera, making Leica technically the winner of the 1930s rangefinder wars.

So, people of the 1930s, it was Leica. Leica won. Are you listening? Hello?

You can't talk to the past. What's the Kiev like? Annoying and slightly disappointing. Only slightly because my expectations were low. I'm not a camera collector. If a camera doesn't bring something to the table I sell it on. Each of the cameras I have kept does something well. My Mamiya twin-lens-reflex has lovely bokeh and makes me feel like a god because medium format film does that; my YashicaMat is easier to carry than my Mamiya; my Olympus OM-2n has a terrific viewfinder and never gets the exposure wrong; my Fuji S5 captures clouds without blowing them out, etc. The Yashica Electro I owned ages ago is conceptually similar to the Kiev but the viewfinder was a lot nicer and of course it had automatic exposure. The big problem with the Kiev for me in 2018 is this:

It's an Olympus XA. Half a century newer than the Kiev, so comparisons aren't fair, but neither is life. The XA has a smart little 35mm f/2.8 lens with aperture-priority autoexposure in a tiny body that fits into a pocket. It also has a surprisingly large viewfinder, and although the rangefinder base is minuscule I've never missed focus yet. Switching aperture is simple with the XA, awkward with the Kiev because you have to hold the lens still and find the aperture ring. The XA has less control than the Kiev but I'm willing to sacrifice a degree of control for immediacy and speed. Lens-wise the Jupiter-12 has more distortion and the corners never seem to sharpen up, but I'm wary of comparisons given that the Kiev and lens are very old and have never been serviced.

In comparison the Kiev is the size and weight of a small SLR, surprisingly noisy (not SLR noisy, but not XA quiet either), and of course manual everything. It's not dreadfully inconvenient to pop out a lightmeter now and again but it just adds one more thing to the list of things that get between the intention and the act of taking a picture. Of course in the 1930s the Contax probably wowed people, although from what I have read it was controversial even when it was new. It works better as a history lesson and mantlepiece ornament than an image-making tool.

The Jupiter 9 has several aperture blades. Fifteen aperture blades. The lens was also released for SLR mounts and is commonly available in a black-painted M42 version.

The Jupiter 9 is a big chunk of metal and glass. The Kiev is chrome-plated whereas the Jupiter lens is more nickel-y, which is why it has a slightly warmer colour.

Ergonomically the Kiev is a mixed bag. The single-knob shutter speed/wind-on/shutter-cock control is pretty good, and although it takes ages to rewind the film at least the rewind knob isn't painful. The in-body focusing wheel has a lock at the infinity mark, which kept catching me out - you have to push down the little tab to unlock it - and the rangefinder window is positioned precisely where your fingers hold the camera, so you have to adopt the famous "Contax hold" in order to clear the window. The viewfinder is fairly dim, but perhaps it was lovely when it was new.

The extra width of the rangefinder might be useful if you take a lot of close-up photographs at f/1.5 but is otherwise of questionable worth. It's notable that both Nikon and Contax moved the rangefinder window inboard an inch post-war and no-one complained.

The other issue isn't really the Kiev's fault. My two bodies were built in the 1960s and 1970s and presumably haven't been serviced since then; the 4's slow shutter speeds don't work very well, but servicing them in Britain in 2018 is basically impossible and even if it wasn't it would be uneconomical. The rangefinder in both cases seems to be accurate although the dim viewfinder makes focusing difficult in low light.

The most widely available Kievs nowadays are the 4 (lightmeter), the 4A (no lightmeter, better-looking because of it) and the 4M/4AM, a modernised version from the 1980s with some plastic components that's apparently not as well-made as the earlier models. The takeup spool in my two Kievs has a non-standard film slot, so I have to chop off part of the film leader to get the film to take, although beyond that I've had no issues with film transport. The frame spacing is inconsistent but not wildly off, not enough to confuse my scanner anyway. The entire back of the camera comes off to load film.

Ultimately I didn't warm to the Kiev. I didn't expect to. I first became aware of Russian rangefinder cameras twenty years ago; it took me twenty years to build up the enthusiasm to own one. It's not so much the Kiev's foibles that put me off. I got used to keeping my finger away from rangefinder window, and infinity lock isn't an issue with non-50mm lenses. It's because the concept of an SLR-sized manual-everything rangefinder doesn't appeal to me. It doesn't have a niche. It's too big to put in a jacket pocket without ruining the jacket's lines, it's not especially cheap on the used market, the need for a separate viewfinder is awkward, and the wide rangefinder base slows things down if you want to go from close to far focusing quickly.

The advantage of the Kiev's interchangeable lens mount is nullified by the general lack of available lenses on the used market. The Contax ceased to be a thing seventy years ago, and even then it wasn't the biggest thing, so Contax/Kiev/Nikon-mount lenses are hard to come by today. The more extreme lenses are still very expensive because they're prized by fans of the Nikon S. Unlike the Canon 7 with its 50mm f/0.95, the Contax/Kiev didn't have a killer lens that isn't unavailable in another lens mount. The lenses can be mounted on modern mirrorless cameras although the same is true of contemporary M39 Leica lenses, which are more widespread; Soviet-era Kiev lenses were generally made for M39 as well, so that they could fit the Fed and Zorki.

In summary the Contax/Kiev is an interesting historical relic made obsolete by subsequent developments. It's more gimmicky than the pre-war Leica and thus easier to write about, and the chunky, rectangular body is less sissy than the Leica, but on a rational level - I am a rational man - it is perhaps inevitably out of step with the times.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

PlayStation 3: The Taste of the Living

The internet is a transient medium and very little of it has lasting worth, but isn't the same true of everything?

Back in the 1940s the Americans had a television network called DuMont, which was created by one of the earliest television manufacturers so that people would have something to watch on its TV sets. Despite partnering with Paramount Pictures the network only lasted for a decade, shutting down in 1956. Dumont predated videotape and so most of its shows were broadcast live and never repeated. Many years later its small archive of film-recorded programmes was dumped into New York's East River because there wasn't space to store it, and as the canisters sank to the bottom of the river all the people trapped on the reels of film fought to escape, but it was no use. The water got in and they died.

Imagine if the entire output of Dumont was brought back to life. Digitised and put on the internet, perhaps by Netflix. Available instantly to the entire world. The people on television would be preserved forever, but silent and still because no-one would watch them. A few years ago Pathé News uploaded its archive to Youtube, but most of the clips only have a few hundred views, probably from bots. Occasionally the robonews that passes for internet journalism digs out one of the clips and there's a brief flurry of interest but otherwise Pathé's archives are trapped in a kind of eternal living death. We dream about people and things that are lost to us because the mystery is intriguing, but while the dead sleep the taste of the living moves on and the past becomes small.

If the entirety of television history was freely available to us today the majority of it would go unwatched. The same is true of radio and the written word. Novels, computer games, all media, even people. In the days when great country houses were economically viable it was common for wealthy homeowners to have libraries of books that they never read, paintings that they never looked at, rooms full of old chairs that they never sat on. Lumber rooms, they were called. We each have a personal lumber room in our minds to complement the storage boxes of junk that follow us through our lives.

In the last post I had a look at the Sony PlayStation 3, a games console released on a wave of hype in 2006. The first two PlayStations had been smash hits and great things were expected of the third, but it was technically awkward and broke Sony's winning streak. It still sold millions of units and had lots of great games, but the magic was gone. When the history of the PlayStation is written, many hundreds of years from now, the third PlayStation will be skipped over in a paragraph. It will be an eleven-year black hole. It won't even be remembered as a disaster because, after a slow start, sales picked up and its games library improved.

Back in the mid-2000s the PlayStation 3 was a topic of major importance for a handful of people on the internet who are probably now dead of old age. While researching my article I kept bumping into the digital wasteland of ten-year-old discussion threads with participants who had posted 15,000 individual little messages, who last contributed in 2012, or who were banned, wasting their lives arguing about the PlayStation 3. The internet is full of similarly depressing pits of despair; they are called message boards, and they are depressing because so many people put so much effort into so little. They are depressing because, with a little mental leap, it's not hard to imagine that the everyday lives of most people are similarly inconsequential, including my own life. Am I any better? What did I do with my time that was so good? I can't actually remember what I did in 2006.

The PlayStation 3 was developed at a cost of half a billion dollars by an enormous multinational conglomerate with what was then a dominant position in the market. The first two PlayStations were the most popular consoles of their era - the PlayStation 2 remains the best-selling console of all time - but the PlayStation 3 had a much tougher ride. Despite being marketed with the swaggering arrogance of a market leader, on decade-old gaming forums it's generally perceived as the underdog. In the early years there was a widespread opinion that the console's exclusive titles were inadequate and that multi-console ports looked better on the XBox 360. Fans of the PlayStation 3 were wont to argue that developers didn't know how to use its complicated architecture properly, but that in the future the console would pull ahead.

History shows that it never did. A decade earlier Nintendo fans pinned their hopes on the Nintendo 64DD, a magical device that would make the Nintendo N64 an unbeatable powerhouse. It was a disc drive peripheral that was supposed to solve the N64's cartridge storage limitations, but in the end it was only released in Japan and sold in tiny quantities. It was a failed god. A failed god.

Fans of the PlayStation 3 had a fetish for the console's magical "synergistic processing units", which were miniature supercomputers that could smash atoms and outrace a beam of light. They spent hours of their lives arguing with complete strangers about SPUs and bandwidth and texture streaming and lazy developers. They were desperate people fighting on the deck of a ship that was sinking into an ocean that was slowly filling with poison, on a dying world lit by a sun that was dying in a dying universe, and ten years later I am a distant astronomer peering through a telescope at little specks in the sky.

Fanatics like the Unabomber or Anders Breivik or fans of Frank Zappa tend to assume that their theories are unpopular because the majority of people are too uninformed to see the light, so they use force to make sure that their message is spread. But people aren't as stupid as they think, and without constant force the theories of fanatics die, because they're just assertions without any kind of reasoning to back them up. I have enough experience of obscure media to know that overlooked gems are rare, and that for the most part the good stuff does endure; sometimes it does more than endure, it grows with time. Big Star and Nick Drake are valued far more nowadays than when their music was new. Their music continues to speak to us.

That is my hope for the future. Human society is a giant machine that generates and processes ideas, rejecting some and building on others, and for the most part the bad ideas are rejected and the good preserved in some form. The problem is that it takes time for new ideas to convince the majority, and any attempt to speed up the process is doomed to failure because human society is complex and tends to push back.

But that doesn't mean there's no use trying, so in order to push humanity into a new age I have spent the last few weeks playing a bunch of old PlayStation 3 games. There were over 1,600 games for the PlayStation 3. Someone out there has probably played them all. I haven't. I picked some games that intrigued me and that I haven't played on the PC. Are they playable? Are they still interesting today, many years after the PlayStation 3 was a "thing"? Do they look awesome? With the exception of Gran Turismo 5 all of the screenshots were taken by photographing the screen, so don't blame the console, blame me.

0. Journey
I was eager to try out Journey. Even people who don't play games have heard of Journey. It's one of the most beloved games of the last decade or so, perhaps the single most beloved PlayStation 3 exclusive. And I use the word beloved deliberately, because Journey aspires to make the player feel ooshy. Most games try to make your heart pound or your brain work harder or your sense of the sublime tingle whereas Journey wants you to feel something in the empty space you have behind your ribcage.

It was released in 2012 as part of a small wave of latter-day PlayStation 3 indie games, along with Flower (by the same team), Thomas Was Alone (by a different team), Proteus (also by a different team), Limbo (I'll stop this), Braid, Hotline Miami, probably lots of others. One thing linking all of these games is that they were technically simple. It's not that the world's indie developers suddenly worked out how to use the PlayStation 3's synergistic processing units or that Sony cared about the independent scene, it's that even without exploiting the PlayStation 3's technical idiosyncrasies the machine could easily cope with 2D graphics and simple flat polygons.

Journey is essentially a platform game with very minor puzzle and stealth elements. There are a couple of jump scares and one difficult platform sequence but you can't die or lose the game. In some sections all you have to do is hold the stick forwards in order to progress. Nonetheless the reviews were ecstatic and although sales were modest - brisk, but modest - everybody who played it liked it nay loved it. It's an exercise in style that approaches sentimentality but pulls back. It has a lightness of touch that won me over.

The Long Dark

Graphically it reminded me of The Long Dark. It's mostly flat polygons, with some sparkly lighting effects and swishy sand. The final sequence, in which you negotiate a freezing mountain, is the spitting image of The Long Dark's wintery hellscapes although Journey was released five years earlier and is a very different game.

It has multiplayer, but it's an unusual form of multiplayer. Journey has a kind of permanent open multiplayer. When you start a new game the game picks someone and drops them into your world, at which point he or she becomes your companion. You can't swap text and you don't need the other player to complete the game (when I played it, my companion only appeared in one level). Unlike for example Thomas Was Alone you don't have to jump on anybody's back to reach inaccessible ledges or throw switches simultaneously.

Instead you have to walk and jump and slide and then walk and leap out of your chair in surprise and then hide a bit and then swim and jump and trudge and crawl and die! And then fly and jump and walk and walk and walk until you reach the end of the game, at which point the ending credits show you the names of your travelling companions and there's a nice song.

What's the plot? You're a little chap or lady trudging through the desert on your rendezvous to a shining mountain in the distance. It starts off with an Arabic feel and then abruptly turns into a Tibetan pilgrimage, so on a spiritual level it's eclectic. I bet you any money there's at least someone who believes that Journey is fundamentalist Islamic propaganda.

The game only takes about an hour to complete. I was irritated by the camera, which uses the PlayStation 3 controller's motion-sensing technology in addition to the right stick, which means you have to hold the controller very still otherwise the camera goes all over the place. A menu option to reverse the orientation of the up-down camera control didn't work. Beyond that there isn't enough to criticise in gameplay terms albeit that I've never been fond of the type of platform jumping where you have to ascend a tower by jumping around it. Journey isn't substantial enough to reward more than a couple of playthroughs. Think of it as a nice painting or an objet d'art that you enjoy and would share with your friends if you had any.

Emotional engagement, though. That's what makes it stand out. Other games have expensively-rendered human characters that I don't care about. Journey's characters are instead flappy bits of cloth that are either birds or whales depending on the environment. When you touch them they give you the power to jump, which is fun because the game speeds up when you're airborne. There's a sequence near the beginning where you release a bunch of the cloth birds, and they join you in a downhill sequence where the camera pans around to reveal the sun behind a distant mountain, and although I've seen the sequence before on YouTube it still had an emotional kick. I liked those bits of cloth.

Later in the game the environment becomes freezing cold, and the bits of cloth can't fly any more, and I felt sad. But there's a cave with a heater that you light up, and the birds are happy again! And so was I. I liked that cave. Sadly you can't stay there. There are also two scary sequences where giant metal flying monsters search for you, which might be too intense for younger players, although as mentioned before you can't die.

The opening levels have a very weak non-linear aspect - it's a shame you can't explore more - but the game quickly forces you down a path. I didn't mind. There's a simple story told with hieroglyphs that depicts a technologically-advanced civilisation outstripping its resources and apparently turning on its neighbour. Initially it doesn't make sense because the hieroglyphs are so abstract, but I cottoned on eventually. The final level begins with a tapestry that describes your journey up until to that point in the game. As the camera pans along it becomes apparent that your journey is going to get a lot harder. You're going to crawl before you reach the end. It's an effective bit of non-verbal storytelling.

Journey is available online for the PlayStation 3 via the PlayStation Network, and also as part of a physical compilation including the same team's Flow and Flower. It's also available for the PlayStation 4, although as far as I can tell it's just the same game running at a higher resolution, but it doesn't matter because it has such a stylised look. I haven't mentioned the music, which is context-sensitive and fabulous. It was nominated for a Grammy, which is normally a bad sign, but as with the game it manages to be tuneful without turning into Adiemus-style glurge. At points it's subtle. I like that.

The game went on to be very influential. I proof-read this post a year later, by which time the likes of Gris and Lone Sails were wowing the critics. They probably owe more to Braid and Limbo (which predated Journey), given that they're in 2D, but it's nice to see that indie games are still rockin'. Next game.

1. Gran Turismo 5
In theory Gran Turismo 5 was the PlayStation 3's big launch title. It was announced in 2005, a year before the PlayStation 3 was released. Back then it was called Vision Gran Turismo and it didn't exist; the footage was rendered on a PC, using models from Gran Turismo 4 with some brand-new PC-generated racetracks. Unfortunately for Sony GT5 continued to not exist for five years, leaving the console without the PlayStation's best-selling exclusive franchise for half a decade.

Gran Turismo is a series of race car driving games. The Gran Turismo games are notable for their wide range of cars, their commitment to realism, their terrific graphics and also their extraordinarily hard licence tests. The series is also notable for its influence on western car culture. Before I played the original game I had never thought about importing a Nissan Skyline GT-R from Japan so that I could upgrade the engine and turbocharger to put out 1,000bhp. I didn't know what the word NISMO meant. What was a Eunos and why did it look exactly like an MX-5?

The games were particularly influential in the UK because we drive on the left side of the road, just like Japan, and in the late 1990s importing a car from Japan suddenly became trendy. Off the top of my head you had to change the speedo from KM/H to MPH and perhaps do something with the catalytic converter. Alas the economy didn't remain buoyant and I don't own a Nissan Skyline yet, but there's still time. The games also had a range of ordinary hatchbacks, so you could drive your actual real-life car in a manner that would be illegal on public roads.

Gran Turismo was released across the world in 1998. It was part of a golden age of PlayStation games that lasted from roughly Final Fantasy VII in early 1997 to perhaps Driver in mid-1999; the period saw the launch of Silent Hill, Resident Evil 2 and 3, Metal Gear Solid, Spyro the Dragon, Syphon Filter, G-Police, Colony Wars, and Dance Dance Revolution, which you weren't supposed to like but it sold loads. If we move a few months back into 1996 there was Tomb Raider and Wipeout 2097 and Parappa the Rapper as well.

Despite all this competition Gran Turismo went on to be the PlayStation's most popular title, with sales of over ten million copies. The sequel, released in December 1999, was third-best-selling behind Final Fantasy VII. I remember the late 1990s. Back then console games weren't supposed to be serious or grown-up, and as a PC owner Gran Turismo was something of a shock. The only PC driving games were cartoonish arcade games or Geoff Crammond's deadly serious Grand Prix series. Even to this day there isn't a PC game that's quite like Gran Turismo.

GT5 was preceded by Gran Turismo 5 Prologue, a cut-down sampler with only six tracks and a few cars that was released in 2008. It sold well and attracted good reviews but nowadays feels a bit of a swizz, especially given that it was sold at full price. When Gran Turismo 5 eventually came out there were grumbles. The game had over 1,000 cars, but only 200 of them used brand-new, high-detail models. Most of the remainder were just imported from earlier versions of the game. Furthermore the premium cars included a bunch of novelties that seemed like a waste of development time. It's nice to have a pair of Second World War Volkswagen Kubelwagens and a Camper bus, but they're only used in a couple of Top Gear events, and it would have been nicer if the team had instead made a premium version of the original Ford GT40 or the Lancia Stratos for example.

The standard cars have lower-poly models without interiors, and there are a lot of minor variations of the same basic car - eighteen Honda S2000s, nineteen mark one Mazda MX-5s, masses of Nissan Skylines etc. Some of the new features, such as car damage and a smattering of NASCAR tracks, feel perfunctory. The game has an entire management simulator section that I've explored enough to win the Mazda Furai supercar but no more because the races are twice as long and you can't accelerate time.

On the other hand the driving experience is great fun, which is what really matters. Fun and also incredibly frustrating if you want to get gold medals in the licence tests but that's what Gran Turismo is all about. It also has a terrific photo mode which is why this review is so long, so that I can fit in the screenshots. You can pose your cars - only your premium cars, though - in a variety of settings. You can even pause replays and set up a camera. The photo engine gives you control of aperture, which simulates depth of field, plus focal length and shutter speed. If you choose a low shutter speed the rendering engine adds motion blur. You can even tell the engine to create a double-sized, roughly six megapixel image, although this takes ages. The motion blur effect isn't great and the bokeh is gnarly, and the resulting screenshots are slightly deceptive in the sense that the game itself doesn't look as good, but overall it's almost as much fun as racing.

I have to admit I've only played the first game in any depth, and then a long time ago. I can't compare Gran Turismo 5 with its PlayStation 2 predecessors. The gameplay relies on tonnes of grinding before you can afford exotic cars, the online functionality has long since been turned off, and despite the massive roster of vehicles the game feels surprisingly small-scale. There are only twenty-something tracks, bulked up with cut-down and reversed variations. As with Gran Turismo 2 there are dirt tracks so that you can try out rallying, but there are only three of them and ultimately the rally element feels tacked-on, which is a shame because the Tuscan scenery is good-looking. There's a simple track creator that lets you specify the scenery, length, complexity, camber etc of the track and also the time of day, but only a few tracks support different weather conditions and in the game the vast majority of your driving is in blazing sunshine.

But, yes, the driving feel hits the spot. It might not be accurate. I can't tell, I've never driven a mid-engined car at 110mph, but it feels right. Even though I'm controlling the cars with a PlayStation controller it still feels as if I'm bouncing around inside a physical object hurtling down a track. The mid-engined Toyota MR2 that features in some of these screenshots corners as if it's pivoting sharply around its midpoint whereas the rear-drive monsters in some of the licence tests feel as if the back wants to come out but is willing to be coaxed back in again. It's just a shame that the MR2, along with most of the other cars, is a standard car. It's one of the good-looking standard cars, but you still aren't allowed to get too close to it in the photo replays because the photo engine doesn't allow close-up images of standard cars.

Graphically Gran Turismo 5 is, eight years later, a mixed bag. The premium models are gorgeous and the photo mode can produce some uncannily realistic images, but on the other hand some of the smoke and shadow effects look terrible, spray in particular enveloping the car in an outline of shifting black squares, as shown in the picture of the TVR above. The lights during night driving don't look right in a way that I can't easily put my finger on. It's as if the designers were trying to make street lights and reflective road signs look cinematic, but only went half-way because it wouldn't fit with the realistic look of rest of the game. The track scenery is surprisingly low-detail, too. The developers wanted to make the game run at 60fps and 1080p, and I wonder at which point in development they realised that the PlayStation 3 wasn't going to match their expectations.

The game's version of 1080p is actually 1280x1080 scaled up to 1920x1080, but there's also an option to run it at 720p instead, which apparently runs smoother although I admit I haven't tried it. It has to be said that blazing mid-day sunshine is inherently bland, so even if the game was a graphic marvel it would still be visually boring.

Gran Turismo 5 sold thirteen million copies. It's the PlayStation 3's second-best-selling title. In retrospect it was Gran Turismo's high water mark, and I wonder if the long delay and partially-implemented features put people off the series. After release in late 2010 there were a string of patches, including a major update in late 2011 that added interior views for standard cars and updated the weather, physics, and AI; it was nice that they continued to work on the game, but the upshot nowadays is that if you install an original copy it takes forty minutes or so to update it before you can play it.

It was followed three years later by Gran Turismo 6, which had many more premium cars and apparently a better physics engine. I'll probably buy it at some point. Despite attracting equally favourable reviews it only sold half as many copies as its predecessor.

The current Gran Turismo game is Gran Turismo Sport for the PlayStation 4. It's a conundrum. It's essentially an online-only driving game with far fewer cars and tracks than GT6, but it's not a demo along the lines of Gran Turismo Prologue because it sells at full price, but then again so did Prologue so what is it? Hmm? Still in development, that's what it is, next game.

2. Thomas Was Alone
A very long time ago there was a type of game. 8-bit. You controlled a bunch of robots, one of which could push blocks, another could jump, a third could activate switches. I can't remember the game that started it all but the basic idea reached its apotheosis in the 8-bit world with Head Over Heels (1987), which managed to combine the puzzle aspects of the gameplay style with fun platform jumping and cute graphics. Done badly this kind of game is a nightmarishly unforgiving slog. Thomas Was Alone is pretty good, although I admit that I've only played the first half and have no desire to finish it because I just don't like that type of game.

In Thomas Was Alone you're the guardian spirit of a bunch of little computer programs that live inside a mainframe. They have come to life and you must guide them to safety. Thomas is a rectangle that can jump; Claire is a big square who can float, so if you want Thomas to cross water you have to switch to Claire, make her fall in the water, switch to Thomas, jump him into Claire's back, switch to Claire, move across the water, switch to Thomas and jump to safety etc. I was sickened to find that the first female character was a passive square block so I have reported the game to the Labour Party's central office. Hopefully they will have Thomas' developer arrested, which would be ironic given that, as a software developer, he's probably a leftie.

The other characters are short enough to fit through gaps or are really really good at jumping and so by working together they can negotiate the levels. As with Journey you can't really die or lose. It's basically socialist propaganda about how we have to work together as brothers and sisters* and ordinarily because of this I would snap the disc in half and burn it - socialism can only be cured by strong measures - but it's a downloadable title so there isn't a disc so my anger builds.

* Do left-wingers say "brothers and sisters" any more? That's not very inclusive. "People" sounds crap and "comrades" is hard to take seriously. I'm digressing here.

Thomas has a distinctive visual style. The narration suggests that the author is a big fan of Douglas Adams, which made me feel sad because Adams has now been dead for seventeen years. He was 49! He would be 66 now, so if he was still alive he would still be alive.

Thomas made me care when a rectangle drowned, but on the negative side - not really negative, but slightly-less-positive - I just don't like the basic gameplay style. I've said that already. It's the kind of game that inspires lengthy blog posts about emergent gameplay, which is nonsense because it's just a simple budget-priced puzzle-platform game. Of note the music is lovely. A mixture of processed piano, strings, white noise percussion and square waves. It's monotonous but it lifts the game up a notch and made me feel even more sad/irritated when the little rectangles died, and that's what computer games are all about. People feeling sad/irritated/happy about little rectangles. Next game.

36. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
I have a limited amount of time on this Earth so I'm going to speed up. XCOM was a big hit in 2012. It's a remake/reboot of the classic mid-1990s PC turn-based strategy wargame UFO: Enemy Unknown, which was begat by Laser Squad and Rebelstar 2 (both 1988), which were begat by Rebelstar (1986) which was begat by Rebelstar Raiders (1984), all for the ZX Spectrum and other 8-bit computers of the day. They were developed by British computer nerds Nick and Julian Gollop and their friends.

Thus, along with Elite: Dangerous, XCOM is essentially the remainder of Britain's 8-bit computer scene. It's nice to think that although the likes of Seiddab Attack and Mutant Monty are long-dead at least something remains of those years. I'm old enough to remember Rebelstar. Turn-based wargames are as old as computer games - I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the mathematical modelling of abstract aspects of war was one of the earliest applications of calculating machines - but what separated Rebelstar from the likes of Desert Rats (1985) and Johnny Reb was the scale; you controlled individual soldiers in a confined space rather than formations on a large battlefield. It felt more immediate, less numbery.

The game encourages you to run from cover to cover - the half-shields represent partial cover, and perhaps unrealistically the back of this hatchback counts as full cover, even though bullets would go straight through. You can in theory move your soldiers anywhere, but it's not usually a good idea.

UFO was ferociously hard, surprisingly deep, addictive but also an acquired taste. Back in the 1980s PC games were generally no fun to play; they weren't enjoyable or entertaining in the least. They weren't supposed to be fun. They were made for grown-ups. I'm talking about the likes of Microsoft Flight Simulator, Ultima, and those awful Sierra adventures where you died all the time.

Do you remember? Sierra was a software house that released a bunch of point and click adventures in the 1980 and 1990s. Their games were very popular. They had the worst kind of player-hostile trial-and-error puzzles. You are starving and you find a loaf of bread and an apple. You pick up the bread but die immediately because it's actually a bread golem that comes to life and kills you. There was no way to know this in advance, you just had to die and then remember not to do that next time. Or the second screen has a bunch of junk including a ceramic mug. If you don't pick up the mug the game becomes unwinnable three hours later because you need something to hold acidic orc blood and the only object in the game that works is the ceramic mug and you can't go back to the second screen. That kind of game. Hateful awful piles of cack.

PC games in the 1980s were like that. They were aimed at the kind of people who didn't enjoy having fun because fun was for kids. Flying a plane across country in Flight Simulator 4 in real time with six hundred dollars' worth of add-on scenery and real-time weather wasn't stupid because it felt meaningful, even though it was stupid. Ditto min-maxing your character's stats in a role-playing game. PC games fans of the 1980s are now old or dead but a genetic memory of their bitter, empty mindset remains; modern-day PC gamers still have a snobby aversion to console games because they're just pure entertainment and that's wrong. The rivalry grew in the 2000s when it became apparent that developers were abandoning the PC for consoles, or even worse developing games for consoles first and then porting them with minimal changes to the PC.

In my opinion the problem isn't consoles. They are just platforms. As always the problem is people, and if that means that some people - some groups of people - have to be hunted down and put to death like disease-carrying dogs, so be it. We can breed more people to replace them. More, better people. It will be fun! UFO had some of the anti-entertainment aspects of early PC games. You had to micromanage ammunition supplies and even tell your solders which direction to face, but at the same time the core gameplay was entertaining once you got the hang of it.

I was curious to see how XCOM worked and whether I could translate the useless skills I learned in UFO to this new environment. XCOM simplifies UFO in ways that are almost always positive. Your soldiers are smarter than before and can take care of themselves; you don't have to buy ammo; you have just one base, with lots of remote aircraft hangars; you can in theory treat your soldiers as expendable cannon fodder, as per the original, but with only four soldiers available in each mission at the start of the game that approach doesn't work as well. Your soldiers benefit more from experience and it's genuinely wrenching when one of your best people is unexpectedly reaction-shot by a Sectopod. This actually happened. I forgot that they get a free reaction shot. As with the original your squad is a multi-national, mixed-race-mixed-gender bunch of volunteers who, in the expansion packs, can even become transhuman, so in terms of diversity points it's the best game in this article by miles.

I haven't described the game. The XCOM games all have the same basic scenario. The Earth is under attack by aliens. They could easily destroy us so the governments of Earth create a secret anti-alien task force to fight the aliens and steal their technology without them noticing. It's basically Gerry Anderson's UFO (1969) but without the moonbase or Gabrielle Drake in fetish gear. One half of XCOM involves upgrading your base and researching new weapons; the other half is a turn-based wargame in which your soldiers are supposed to shoot and grenade the aliens into submission.

That's the theory. In practice your rocket launcher man will be mind controlled on the second turn and kill most of the squad. Or your soldiers will conduct a brilliant sweep-and-clear operation and then die instantly because a blaster bomb came out of nowhere. Or your best soldier will take the last move of your turn only to discover a Chryssalid hidden around the corner, which means that on the alien turn your soldier is doomed to die, and to make matters worse after he dies he'll come back as a zombie, and when you kill the zombie another Chryssalid pops out. The games have minor variations (mind control was pervasive in UFO, less so in XCOM ) but that's the idea.

I counted them all out and I counted them all back

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is top-notch and I ended up playing it more than the other games I bought. I found it generally easier than UFO although mind control and Cyberdiscs can still throw a spanner in the works. In the original game your soldiers had a time unit system whereby they could perform as many actions as you wanted during a turn provided they had enough time units left. In XCOM your soldiers only have two actions per turn, with shooting ending the turn. With a few exceptions they can either shoot, or run and shoot, or run and guard, or run and run again. One tactical upshot is that no matter how well your strategy the enemy can overwhelm you with sheer numbers; if your squad has six soldiers you can only shoot at six baddies per turn, which is awkward if there are seven enemies because one baddie will get a free shot. Furthermore the N-Squared law is in full effect; assuming qualitative parity even a small numeric advantage can create a snowball effect that causes your team to shatter rapidly when you start taking casualties.

As a consequence I initially adopted a cautious approach, crawling through the maps, which was at odds with the game's emphasis on flanking. Over time it became apparent that giving my soldiers futuristic alloy-firing shotguns and asking them to close to point-blank range was surprisingly effective and, as with UFO, there's a depth to the tactical gameplay that unfolds gradually. On easier difficulties it's enough to advance until you meet the enemy and then open fire until they die, whereas on the harder difficulties you often have to withdraw to a more tactically sound position in the hope that the enemy will overextend itself in the pursuit.

Some of the changes are less good. Your soldiers don't have an inventory any more. The equipment they start with is assigned on a per-soldier basis and remains with them. This means that the classic strategy from UFO whereby your soldiers threw grenades to each other in a relay chain until one soldier was within grenade range of the enemy is no longer possible. Furthermore if the soldier holding the medikit is killed no-one else can pick it up, even though everyone can in theory use it. Enemy weapons self-destruct when you kill the baddies, which means you no longer get piles of weapons for free, and furthermore you can't sell the things you manufacture. You can however sell anything else you pick up during a battle, although bizarrely the money values have been rounded down so that a UFO flight computer sells for $70 and your monthly budget is $700 or so. They're not literally dollars and perhaps the game's $70 is actually $70,000 but it's still odd.

About the only downside is a feeling that the game railroaded me into finishing it at a brisk pace. I felt that there was an enforced storyline hurrying me up, and ironically because I did so well in the early missions I found myself reaching the end-game long before my soldiers were strong enough to actually win the final battle. I had to basically fill time for a few months, carrying out missions until my stats were good enough to take on the Ethereal Elite. The original game had an infinite variety of procedurally-generated maps but XCOM only has seventy or so, albeit that some are one-time-only affairs. I imagine that after finishing it I will play it once again at a higher difficulty level and then stop.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown was followed a year later by XCOM: Enemy Within, a standalone expansion that contained the original game plus some extra baddies and cyborg soldiers. In 2016 the original Enemy Unknown was delisted from the PlayStation and XBox online stores in favour of Enemy Within, so the only way to get it nowadays for games consoles is on the used market. It's still available for PC owners on Steam, however. XCOM is, incidentally, the kind of game that PC owners get angry about, because it's a legacy home computer franchise modified to work with games consoles, but my impression is that its reception amongst the PC master race was surprisingly positive, so perhaps there is hope for them. The proper sequel, XCOM 2: No Subtitle, was released in 2016 for modern gaming platforms.

I haven't mentioned the cutscenes. XCOM introduces some characters who run your base. Dr Vahlen is a lady scientist who researches technology; Dr Shen oversees construction; Central Officer Bradford is a gung-ho man of action who wears a woolly pully and delivers exposition. Objectively the cutscenes aren't very good. They have the typical video game acting where everybody gesticulates instead of emoting. Dr Shen is presumably supposed to be from the Far East and is even voiced by an actor from Cambodia, but he looks like an English farmer; Dr Vahlen is a stereotypical German ice maiden but she sounds like an English woman putting on a German accent. Nonetheless the characters worked in a cartoonish way and I will miss them, next game.

The music is great, too. It's context-sensitive and has an epic, heroic tone that makes the game sound expensive, even though developers Firaxis - famous for the Civilization franchise - are relatively small fish in a big pond, next game really this time.

"All over this land - all over this wasteland". This screenshot was photographed with a camera that doesn't have an anti-aliasing filter, so it suffers badly from a moire pattern.

960. Fallout 3
We're in the home stretch here. I also played Uncharted 2, but only for an hour or so. It didn't grab me. And Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, which looked crummy on the PS3 and simply didn't work with a PlayStation controller. Fallout is one of those long-running franchises that has been around for ages but I've completely ignored it. Partially because the idea doesn't grab me and partially because I don't have the time to invest in a role-playing game. Its predecessor, Wasteland, is thirty years old this year.

The Fallout universe is a mish-mash of ideas that were trendy in the 1980s, squashed together as if the creative minds behind the games didn't care if they made sense individually or worked as a whole. It's set in a version of America where the 1950s never ended and technology retained the early-jet-age valve radio aesthetic, so it's a little bit reminiscent of Buckaroo Banzai or Cherry 2000 or Pleasantville. It takes place centuries after a nuclear war and so there's an obvious Max Max influence, but also it has the cobbled-together-from-parts look of Hardware and Steel Dawn. It takes place in a ruined Washington DC which has the look of Escape from New York or those Italian Bronx-is-burning films. It posits the idea that the post-war authorities will be corrupt, petty and fundamentally evil - and also slightly pathetic, because they're trapped in a bunker - so it reminded me a little bit of Night of the Comet or A Boy and His Dog. And it has the flippant tone of something like Max Headroom or Robocop.

The first two Fallout titles were isometric-style role playing games. The development team began work on a third game, but the publishers ran into trouble and sold the licence to another studio, with the result that on release in 2008 Fallout 3 had a cool reception from Fallout trufans. Nonetheless it sold well and nowadays it's widely regarded as one of the best or at least most important games of the 2000s, albeit that long-term Fallout fans still diss it.

The initial release was plagued with bugs and the PlayStation 3 version in particular received poor reviews, but by now the game has been patched several times and I have only experienced one lock-up to date. The physics engine tends to make objects jitter spontaneously, but that's not unique to Fallout 3. To my eyes the PlayStation 3 version looks ragged, with no antialiasing and lots of scenery pop-up in the open, but the lighting effects are nice and it still has a decent sense of scale.

The developers of the first two Fallout titles were later hired to write the next game, New Vegas, so I assume there were no hard feelings. A full-blown sequel, Fallout 4, was released in 2015. Reviews were again good, although in retrospect it tends to be viewed as a disappointment. It did however break sales records. Such is the awful state of video games journalism that I can't tell how many copies it sold, but suffice it to say that it sold a lot of copies. It's the kind of game that, even if you don't own it, you know a little bit about the mythos from Reddit posts. The Pip-Boy for example. "War never changes", from the opening narration, which is a pretty stupid quote if you ask me. It would be more poetic to say that human nature never changes, or that you don't know what you've got until it's gone, or that human beings are ants fighting for supremacy on a dungheap, or almost anything else.

What is Fallout 3? Long after nuclear armageddon America is still radioactive, but people eke out a living. Some people live comfortable lives underground in pre-war Vaults; the game begins with your character growing up in a Vault. Your dad is a doctor. Life seems fine albeit regimented, but one day you wake up to find that your dad has left the vault and the authorities want to find you and kill you! So you escape and try to follow your dad, but because this is a role-playing game it's a good idea to improve your stats first so you end up shooting ants with a rifle and whacking mutated rats with a stick that makes their head explode.

VATS in action

It's one of those games where you learn how to be a sniper by shooting hundreds of insects and if someone shoots you at point-blank range you can pause the game and apply medication. One of those games where your backpack-mounted minigun barely hurts anybody until you level up a few times, at which point the bullets become more lethal. In combat you have a choice of aiming manually, which is difficult with a PlayStation 3 controller, or using VATS, a quasi-turn-based system whereby time pauses while you target the opponent's limbs, with the limitation that each attack uses up a certain amount of your action points, so you can't just hit the VATS button and get infinite free attacks. VATS is a clever, pragmatic idea that works well.

The game takes place in a mixture of an expansive outdoors wilderness and indoors environments, with loading pauses. It's fascinating to compare it with STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, which was released a year earlier. STALKER is an action game with very mild adventure elements; Fallout 3 is the opposite, essentially a talk-to-people-and-do-fetch-quests game with perfunctory shooting. They both take place in a grim environment but STALKER is generally better-looking and much more atmospheric for reasons I will get to in a moment. They're good but in different ways. Fallout 3 has more to do. STALKER is spookier and more memorable.

Fallout 3 has a few problems that stop me loving it and loving the Fallout series in general. The 80s-style post-modern retro-50s filtered-through-the-cynical-1990s tone feels dated. The human characters all look like ten-year-old boys. The baddies are incredibly generic. The super mutants in particular are just fantasy orcs with rifles. In my opinion if a game has giant ants and giant flies it's a sign that the developers don't have many ideas.

Furthermore the art style is frustratingly inconsistent. The centaur mutant is genuinely grotesque but the larger mutant animals mostly look like cartoons, as if they didn't belong to the same universe. I can't tell if the developers had to port a bunch of bad ideas from the earlier games in the series or if they just raided models from several public domain 3D model libraries and tweaked them a bit.

The biggest problem is the writing. Despite the 18 certificate the writing is weak and tonally all over the map. It has a spoofy, flippant tone that irritates me, because it reminds of those awful Sierra Adventures. When talking with characters the game tries to give you a chance to role-play, but it boils down to having the option of a sensible response, or "that's stupid and sucks you moron die die die". As with STALKER the characters in the first major location are more diverse and better-written than the characters that appear later, so perhaps the developers simply didn't have much time to write masses of high-quality dialogue.

The inconsistency of tone really killed it for me. STALKER had issues but it was atmospheric because the game world hung together. The characters in the game seemed to believe in their predicament so I cared about them. The environmental graphics and models had verisimilitude. There was humour, but it never encouraged the player to laugh at the game. In general there was a tonal shift in Western media in the early 2000s, away from the nothing-matters, it's-all-just-a-joke irony of the 1990s to a more heartfelt, it's-okay-to-cry style. If I was writing a university essay I would devote the next ten thousand words to an exploration of the impact of 9/11 and the wars against terror and MoveOn etc on Western culture, but on a pragmatic, prosaic level I've always felt it arose simply because the all-of-these-characters-are-assholes, and-it's-all-just-a-joke style is a dead end and it's more emotionally engaging to have someone to root for.

Throughout the 2000s the unquestioning hero worship of Band of Brothers eventually gave way to nuance, and it's interesting to compare Brothers with Generation Kill in that respect. Nonetheless even the super-cynical likes of The Wire and Breaking Bad entertained the possibility of hope - in the former case the emotional impact of the series came not from the total negation of positivity but from its continual frustration - which is unfortunate for Fallout 3 because it feels stuck in the 1990s. It veers from spoof to melodrama to spoof in a way that suggests not that the writers were trying to portray a morally ambiguous world, but instead that they had a tight deadline and were all working independently and weren't very good.

It also reminded me of the music of Frank Zappa, in that some of the writing has the form of humour and is intended to be funny, and there are quirky characters, but there are no laughs because humour is more than just a bunch of zany characters acting stupid. At other points the game does try to take things seriously. The central plot involving your dad is mostly straight-faced, as is a short quest involving an android who wants to escape from slavery - the voice acting really sells this one in particular - but it doesn't work because the writing isn't good enough.

On a more prosaic level the game's quests usually have a bunch of odd, counter-intuitive options, none of which make sense, so instead of using your brain to work things out you have to consult a guide to determine which thing the game expected you to do. At one point I was confronted by a wannabe-vampire teenager who had killed and mutilated his parents out of a perverse sense of bloodlust. On a rational level he's an unstable killer, and given that the game takes place in a dog-eat-dog post-nuclear wasteland it's implausible that anybody would keep him around. However the correct solution to the problem is to give him a letter from his sister and offer to let him return to his home where he can live in peace, because his killing spree was obviously just a growth spurt.

Later on I found a scientist who had been experimenting on ants; his incompetence had resulted in the death of a small village. Again, on a rational level he's a menace and the world would be better off without him, but the game's correct solution is to help him conduct even more experiments, even though he's obviously going to make things worse. At one point I found a village under siege from super mutants; the obvious solution is to help them, but after suffering through the other quests I wondered if I was instead supposed to poison them because they were secretly Nazis or something equally obtuse (a more creative solution - hiring seven magnificent bandits to protect the village - isn't an option). It's just bad writing, and from a gameplay point of view it's irritating because it makes some of the quests feel arbitrary. I'm sorry to drone on about this, but with better writing Fallout 3 would have been a masterpiece. Imagine STALKER but with more substance. Instead it feels like Leisure Suit Space Quest Nine Million in 3D.

Even the soundtrack is inconsistent. There's an impressive orchestral score which makes the game feel like an epic; it's undercut by a library of catchy big band and martial tunes that play over the in-game radio. As a brief joke in one location it would have been funny, but it's heavy-handedly applied throughout the entire game. Also, while I'm in a bad mood, the first-person combat isn't very good. Fallout 3 is ultimately entertaining as a kind of role-playing junk food but I expected more.

1600. Batman: Arkham Asylum
Let's wrap this up. I can do brief. I can write to a short quota. Batman: Arkham Asylum was a big hit back in 2009. It was developed by London-based Rocksteady Studios and was, famously, just their second game. They hit it out of the park, kicking off a lucrative new Batman franchise that continues to top charts worldwide.

Mythos-wise it's a combination of the classic comics and The Animated Series. From the latter it has Kevin Conroy as the voice of Batman and Mark Hamill as The Joker, making this the second game I've played with voice acting from Mark Hamill, after the old Star Wars coin-op. Remember that? "Red Five standing by", "look at the size of that thing" etc. That was Mark Hamill. His voice casts a long shadow over the landscape of video games. He was the alpha and perhaps he will be the omega. The first and the last. Something something waters of life etc. Was Mark Hamill the first recognisable human voice in a video game? Please send your answers on a postcard to Mark Hamill himself courtesy of Walt Disney Productions in Hollywood. Just write "yes" or "no", nothing else. I had a dream about him last night. Mark Hamill. I can't remember the substance of the dream, only that it featured another actor of a similar age. Ian McKellen? If only I could dream about Monica Bellucci more often.

The basic plot and some of the villains and indeed the name of Arkham are reminiscent of the old Arkham Asylum graphic novel, although thankfully the game doesn't copy the comic's art style. It would be incomprehensible if it did. In a refreshingly swift introduction Batman once again captures The Joker and takes him to Arkham Asylum. With the help of distaff sidekick Harley Quinn and other inmates The Joker breaks free from his captors, but instead of escaping the madhouse he takes over.

As Batman your job is to punch the Joker really hard in the teeth with an exploding fist, but before you can do that you have to wade through his henchpeople and also some mini-bosses, none of which I have done because I've only finished 10% of the game. It's not that I don't like it, I just don't have time.

Kick, punch, it's all in the mind

But the bits I have played are good fun. It's basically a cross between Metal Gear Solid and top Indonesian action film The Raid, or alternatively Dredd with Batman and no guns. Imagine if Rocksteady made a Dredd game! They should do that.

You fight generic baddies by mashing the square, triangle, and circle buttons depending on whether you want to attack, defend, or stun. It's simple and repetitive but Batman is a much better fighter than I am so the fights are pure entertainment, and that's what counts. Against opponents who have guns the game becomes Metal Gear Solid with a grappling hook. You have to swoop up into the rafters with your grapple gun and then swoop down onto the baddies when they have their backs turned, and then swoop back to safety while the other guards mill around in confusion.

The use of a third dimension during the action scenes could have been awkward, but the developers put a tonne of polish into the gameplay. It's streamlined without feeling as if you're just hitting buttons rhythmically. There's even a very mild non-linear element whereby you're free to run around Arkham searching for bonuses if you don't want to immediately run through the storyline. Difficulty-wise it's forgiving (Batman can take a couple of bullet hits and mashing R1 often springs you out of trouble) but I am playing on normal difficulty, so what do I know?

Graphically the animation during the cutscenes is rough and the outdoors sections look as if Arkham Asylum is underwater. The interior locations have a lot of scenery objects that don't quite disguise the fact that the rooms are square blocks with some medical trays dotted here and there, but then again this is a game from 2009. I enjoyed Asylum even though I'm not a fan of the Tomb Raider / Metal Gear Solid gameplay style. I'm not the right person to review the game so I will move swiftly on.

Asylum was followed by an apparently more open-worldy sequel, Arkham City, in 2011, which was also a big hit. I have it, but I haven't played it. The final PlayStation 3-generation game in the series was Arkham Origins, released in 2013. A current-generation sequel, Arkham Knight, was released in 2015. The PC version was notoriously bad, to such an extent that the publishers withdrew it from sale for four months. It's better now.

As mentioned in the previous post this stash set me back about £15 in total, versus several hundred pounds if I had bought them when they were new. The non-exclusive titles are available on Steam or GOG for the PC for around £7.99-£14.99 or so each. That's not quite comparing like-with-like, but used PC games are an awkward proposition because they're usually tied to a one-use-only licence.
Cost-wise if you want a Blu-Ray player that runs a bunch of late-2000s games that you don't already own a used PlayStation 3 is a steal; if you don't want a Blu-Ray player it's only a cheaper option if you buy lots of used games.

In Summary
Of all the aforementioned Fallout 3 was developed first as a PC game and then ported to consoles but the rest were developed for consoles first. Thomas Was Alone is an exception - it was originally a platform-independent browser-based game. Of the lot XCOM has the fewest technical issues on the PS3. It occasionally judders when moving the camera around and takes a while to load textures. Beyond that it doesn't look obviously dated or limited albeit that the game isn't technically demanding. Fallout 3 looks rough, Arkham has the typical PlayStation 3 problem of jagged-looking graphics but all of the games are still playable today. I was particularly impressed that Fallout 3 worked at all. It's not the bug-ridden, unplayable mess I was expecting.

One good thing about playing these games on period hardware is that they don't require tweaking to work and are available in their finally-patched forms. Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising is apparently hard to get working on modern Windows machines, but on the PlayStation 3 it's just as bad as it was when it was new, but it works. The downside of playing games on a console is the lack of support for mods, which is particularly unfortunate in the case of XCOM: Enemy Unknown / Enemy Within. XCOM has Long War, an apparently terrific mod that adds some new features and brings back some features from UFO.

Did any of these games encourage me to buy a modern games console? No. I don't play very many games, and the ones I do play - DayZ, The Long Dark, DOOM - look and play better on the PC. Most console-exclusive games are of a style I can't stand. You know the type; cover-based shooters, or fantasy adventure games with a series of setpieces one after the other. I've never liked setpiece-style, action movie-style games because they only have a limited amount of gameplay and the replayability comes from going back and collecting trophies, which feels like a waste of my life. Whereas instead running across muddy fields in DayZ for forty minutes and then eating ten apples is a productive way of spending what little time I have left on this planet.

There are three unknown factors that intrigue me. Firstly The Last of Us, a console-style game that was released late in the PlayStation 3's life. It's a good-looking cover-based stealth game but less restrictive than most. The reviews were ecstatic, often lamenting the fact that the PlayStation 3's most technically show-offy title was released right at the end of its life cycle. I'll have to try it out some day. The next is Spec Ops: The Line, another cover-based shooter that's a kind of tonal antidote to Fallout 3, in that it sets up an apocalyptic scenario with moral quandries and treats them seriously. The third is WipeOut HD, just for nostalgia; it was once one of the PlayStation's flagship titles but seemed to fade away in the PlayStation 2 years, the end.