Category: Pop Culture

Archive of Pop Culture articles written by Katalina Watt.

Her Story

Her Story

What makes a game? Her Story, written by Sam Barlow, is a divisive and innovative crime fiction video game or interactive movie – depending who you ask.

The premise of the game is that you at an old PC trawling through an old police database from 1994, watching video clips of an interview with Hannah Smith, whose husband Simon is missing. The gameplay is conducted by watching a series of FMVs (full motion video) and beyond this the game gives you very minimal instruction. At first I wasn’t used to such seemingly unbridled freedom, and being the organised geek that I am I started ordering and tagging the video clips to try and create one long ordered narrative. This is an aspect of the game I really enjoyed and I think it would be fascinating to see how each player goes about organising their database search and playing at being a detective.

I would advise going into this game blind because the fun of the game mechanic is discovery, and it is a non-linear narrative driven game. I can understand why many players could be frustrated with the pared down tools, but I enjoyed that Her Story forces you as a player to deduce, listen and analyse the information you are being presented with, questioning the reliability of the narrator and making connections between pieces of information.

I don’t want to spoil the story because discovering that is truly the fun of this game, which is why sadly I don’t think this game has high replayability value. I had several moments feeling incredibly clever and Poirot-esque where I put the pieces together and then my theories were confirmed. No doubt I missed plenty of clips, but the narrative is organised so that you can garner the essence of the storyline through the gaps in narrative, in what is is inferred as much as what is explicit. While I can understand why some players found Viva Seifert‘s performance didn’t work for them, I think she did a commendable job of portraying an array of emotions and characteristics convincingly. The presence of an off-screen detective prompting with questions is implied but never explicit, and therefore Seifert does a good job of sustaining a player’s attention over what are essentially fragmented monologues.

I’m not convinced the narrative would have been as compelling for me if it had been presented in a different format, particularly a non-interactive medium such as a film or novel. The story is a fascinating one to discover filled with many themes I enjoy such as deception, family loyalty and fairy tale motifs and I felt the characters were mostly rounded with complex motivations. So much depends on what level of interactivity you expect as a player, and for some people I can see why Her Story falls into a valley where it’s not quite passive like a film and not as conventionally interactive as they expect from a video game.

I’m not sure it entirely worked for me, but I would love to see more games like Her Story. As an experience it felt innovative and striking, but I do empathise with players who felt a bit directionless. It comes down to the philosophical debate of what makes a game a game?

Some would argue Her Story’s lack of a failure state means it cannot be defined as a game, but I think this is a reductive and restrictive definition. Her Story does have a success state, but it feels clunky and inaccurate to quite call it that. There is an obvious turning point in the narrative and mechanic where you have gathered enough of the story pieces to ‘win’. However, for me the success and therefore conclusion of the game comes from satisfying one’s own curiosity about the story and feeling as though you have gathered enough information to, so to speak, close the book on it. A common search query is “Does Her Story have an ending?” and to that I would say “Undoubtedly yes, but that’s not really the point.”

Fran Bow

Fran Bow

Fran Bow is a macabre point-and-click indie horror adventure game, and in terms of tone and themes, this game reminded me a lot of Alice: Madness Returns, Neverending Nightmaresand Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. I was incredibly surprised to find the studio behind it, Killmonday Games, is the brainchild of only two people, married Swedish couple Natalia Figueroa and Isak Martinsson.

I came to Fran Bow after watching some of my favourite YouTubers do a Let’s Play of the free demo. There are some spoilers so if you want to do a blind play through, check this out later.

One of Fran Bow’s strengths is the art style and soundtrack, and Killmonday nailed the animated cut scenes making them concise, engaging and powerful. There is no voice acting, but instead the aesthetic captures the tone and mirrors the narrative of the game through the art direction and music. The main narrative arc involves Fran trying to find her best friend talking cat Mr Midnight, make her way back home and discover the truth about her parents’ murders. Whilst the images were very powerful and memorable throughout most of the game, I did find the plot meandered tediously throughout the middle and personally dissatisfied me at the end.

Fran’s motivations seem clear throughout the game, particularly with each chapter, but sometimes the writing felt a bit disjointed and plot points were included simply to extend the storyline, create drama or confuse the player. Killmonday include so many fascinating characters and backstories that are only hinted, but then manages to overload on information that is both confusing and absurd by literally making Fran read whole tomes on the lore and physics of these alternate realities. There’s some great writing here, but a lot of that is underdeveloped whilst the game’s main plot becomes burdened by too many elements. I would have found the narrative more powerful if the plot had been stripped back to one foundation concept and built up from there.

Fran Bow utilises one mechanic which allowed me to forgive its other sins. Fran begins the game in a mental asylum and is prescribed a medicine, supposedly Duotine, by her Doctor. Under the influence of Duotine, Fran sees an alternate reality, and there are many puzzles which can only be solved by interacting with objects in characters in both realities. We later discover there are five realities. The human world is the third reality, and when Fran is on Duotine she is able to see parts of the fifth reality. This fifth reality is absolutely terrifying, filled with the fears of both Fran but also those around her, suppressed memories of trauma and guilt, and images of death and abuse. This was an aspect where the writing really shone because the player was allowed to question whether this was reality or hallucination, and the horrors experienced by Fran and the other children were only alluded to.

The puzzles in Fran Bow are straightforward, but oftentimes the solutions are illogical, even when using the irrational logic of the Fran Bow universe. The puzzles are clever and well-integrated, however as it’s the main mechanic for game progression, I found myself on tedious fetch quests which slowed the pace.

The dialogue was a bit twee and the language simple and repetitive, but I can make concessions for this because of a child protagonist and a world seen through their eyes. The narrative tone in Chapter Three is so much lighter than the rest of the game that I found it jarring. What drew me to the game was the strong opening chapter, which is the basis of the demo and sets the tone for the macabre and disturbing psychological horror which is the game’s strong suit. Luckily the game does return to this with clever puzzles and a return to motifs we had experienced earlier.

Whilst I can forgive the meandering storyline, I do take umbrage with the game’s ending. The narrative is linear, but Killmonday try to leave the player with an open and ambiguous ending. Usually I’m a huge fan of these, but the ending of Fran Bow left so many elements of the plot unresolved. I enjoyed that the game left a lot to player interpretation, but it felt dissatisfying because there were many disjointed elements with which to form any solid interpretation. Again, it frustrates me because the game had the potential to tell such a wonderfully haunting narrative! Although it is heavily inspired by Alice in Wonderland (there’s even an in-game nod) and the like, I think Killmonday succeeds in avoiding many of the tired cliches of having a ‘mad’ little girl protagonist by making Fran empathetic. She is charmingly naive at times, but wise beyond her years at others owing to the tragedy she has suffered.

Fran and Alice (of Wonderland infamy)

Fran Bow is a disturbing yet wonderfully absurd romp. If you enjoy marrying elements of horror with adventure, are mad keen on puzzles and enjoy endings so open it’s like staring into the abyss, Killmonday’s debut is right up your street.

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman

An electrifying adult debut from Robin Wasserman, Girls on Fire is an unrelenting tale of adolescent female friendship and discovering the darkest parts of yourself. Many critics have compared Girls on Fire to Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, but I would say Wasserman’s novel is more immediate and urgent, made more vivid and shocking through shifting timelines and the first person perspectives of Lacey and Dex. To me, this book seemed more like the teenage debauchery of E4’s Skins meets the oppressive small-town community of Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It.

I read this in a combination of an advance reader’s copy from the lovelies at Little Brown and the audio edition, as I’m part of the Audio team there. The dual perspective lends itself well to audio, and Vanessa Labrie and Lauren Saunders are some of the most engaging readers I’ve heard.

Trigger Warning: Gore. Violence. Suicide. Animal cruelty. Explicit sex. Abuse: sexual, physical and psychological. Self-harm. Satanism.

The novel begins with a suicide and ends with a death, rebelling against a moral lesson and instead putting justice in the hands of the characters. Hannah Dexter is invisible, shunting her way through high school, frequent ridiculed but mediocre enough not to face the full wrath of the town’s golden girl, Nikki Drummond.

On Halloween of their Junior year, Nikki’s boyfriend is found shot in the woods, and the god-fearing parents of Battle Creek’s teenagers begin to fear for their children’s souls. Lacey is the misfit new girl at school, who quickly befriends Hannah and helps her discover Dex, her Doc-Martin-slinging, Kurt-Cobain-screaming alter ego.

The plot of the novel is way too gripping to spoil for you here, with events spiraling out of control as Lacey and Dex try to find each  themselves among the chaos they inflict on Battle Creek. There’s the typical concoction of any coming of age novel: sex, drugs, violence, bullying, self-harm, dysfunctional families and abuse with some religious fanaticism thrown in. Wasserman explores the traumas of being a teenage girl, the broken dreams of Battle Creek’s parents and the dichotomy between burning bright and fast, and feeling your life is full of compromise and regret.

At times the pace is a wee bit off, particularly in the middle, but it serves a respite from the madness. The events in the novel do seem unbelievable at times, but there’s enough grounding in ’90s nostalgia and the right level of fervor and fear-mongering among the residents of Battle Creek to keep Girls on Fire believable. The dual perspective is very effective but occasionally I found it difficult to distinguish between Lacey and Dex, which may have been intentional by Wasserman to demonstrate how much Dex has been influenced by Lacey’s vivid personality.

Girls on Fire is a refreshing look at the most extreme growing pains, of the dangers of idolizing someone else, mirroring them and finding cracks in the reflection. It questions the moulds we force young women to fit into, the false dichotomy between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ girls and the ways in which a society will pass judgement.

This may be Wasserman’s first novel for an adult readership, but she crafts prose that is both beautiful and haunting. I was immersed from the first page and Girls on Fire didn’t let me go until the end.

Girls on Fire is out in hardback, ebook and audiobook on May 5th.

Asking For It

Asking For It

Rarely have I read a book which is as relentless as ‘Asking For It‘ by Louise O’Neill. I was familiar with ‘Only Ever Yours’, but I didn’t expect this novel to be as harrowing and essential as it is. Trigger warning: this article discusses rape, depression and suicide.


Rape culture is a complex set of beliefs which encourages societal normalisation of sexual objectification and violence, minimising the legal and societal repercussions for perpetrators of rape. While rape unfortunately happens to people of all genders, rape culture is most prevalent in terms of male attacks on women. Men and women are taught that rape is inevitable and the dynamic between these two genders becomes one of predator-prey, casting men as wild sexual aggressors and women as helpless victims and objects to sate men’s lust. It goes without saying that this kind of dogma is dangerous, and does a disservice to all genders by prescribing these kinds of behaviours and attitudes when people are far more complex, and hopefully capable of treating others with respect.

Rape culture often includes victim-blaming, using the victim’s sexual history or appearance as a reason to excuse the rape, citing things like: “She was asking for it“, “Why was she out at that time alone?” and “What did she expect?” Rape culture fails to recognise a fundamental truth that if someone does not or cannot give consent to sexual contact of any kind, then it is rape. That’s the bottom line. We need to do a much better job of teaching people what consent and healthy relationships look like.

Asking For It‘ follows eighteen-year-old Emma O’Donovan in the small Irish town of Ballinatoom. The atmosphere is almost stifling; family ties go back generations and every town event is rife with social slights and speculation. The novel splits between ‘Last Year’ and ‘This Year’, juxtaposing Emma’s optimism for graduation and the promise that university life might bring, with the fraught O’Donovan family working through the impact of that fateful event.

O’Neill presents a fair portrayal of being a teenager, but with a harder more bitter edge. Let me clarify, there is a severe absence of body-positive, encouraging and supportive interpersonal dynamics, which I hope is not the case for most teenagers. Emma is a dislikeable protagonist, which at times makes it harder to sympathise with her, but also makes her a complex and tangible character. She is beautiful and intelligent, but also jealous and petty. Many of her unappealing traits stem from insecurities and, what seems at times, the toxic social milieu of Ballinatoom. Emma’s friendships with her female school friends is predominantly competitive and bitchy, and Emma herself has been explicitly part the system that perpetuates rape culture by telling victims to stay silent. Emma already has some unhealthy ideas around sex. Instead of seeing sex as a way of experiencing pleasure, she tends to see the act as a way of gaining male approval, which is linked to her obsessive body monitoring, and there are implications in the text of non-consensual acts happening in the past.

The incident itself had stark comparisons with the very real travesty of the Steubenville case. In ‘Asking For It‘, Emma is gang raped while she is unconscious at a party, and photos are spread across social media by her peers. She remembers very little of the night itself, found by her parents and brother the next morning abandoned on her doorstep. O’Neill juxtaposes the two halves of the book with gathering momentum to a crisis which completely alters Emma’s life. In ‘Last Year’, it is the party, whereas in ‘This Year’ it is Emma’s decision to drop the case against her attackers.

The reader only gets glimpses into Emma’s life immediately after the rape. Her world becomes even more stiflingly small as her social circle moves on without her, and the wider community resent her for bringing negative attention and particularly for ‘ruining’ the lives of the boys who raped her. There is also the impact of global social media; Emma resents the fact that she has become an icon or martyr for the cause of rape victims, and understandably cannot move past the personal destruction within her own life.

O’Neill’s technique of repeating comments from the Facebook photos of Emma’s attack becomes a sickening mantra for both Emma and for the reader. Emma has been reduced to those words and those photos because she has no memories of her own of that night. She is pressured into making the rape allegation itself, and she cannot ‘move on’ with her life because her sense of selfhood has been damaged by the violation of her body. She is expected to be ‘fixed’ by a therapist or find closure in the impending trial, but Emma experiences severe depression and tries several times to end her own life. For her, there is nothing else.

Emma knows these boys, they were her friends or acquaintances. I think it’s important to note this: most victims know their attacker. Immediately after her attack, Emma engages in sexually promiscuous behaviour as a way to reclaim her own body, but she later worries this will be used against her in the prosecution. The same occurs with other factors, such as her being on illegal substances on the night of the party. While Emma’s case never goes to trial, O’Neill highlights some ridiculous and disgusting aspects of the justice system when it comes to rape convictions.

I’ve already written so much and feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. And I’m sure that’s how Louise O’Neill felt while writing ‘Asking For It’. I was in a state of shaking anger and hot tears for the entire time I read this book. And so we all should be. Because no one is ever asking for it.

Here are two of my fav BookTubers discussing Louise O’Neill, which is how I first heard about her

Only Ever Yours and The Handmaid’s Tale

Only Ever Yours and The Handmaid’s Tale

When I was seventeen, I read Margaret Atwood‘s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘. It was one of the first texts which awakened me to the idea of feminism and it remains on my bookshelf to this day.
From a flurry of recommendations, I read Louise O’Neill‘s ‘Only Ever Yours‘ over the festive season. On her website it’s dubbed “The Handmaid’s Tale meets Mean Girls“. I was so engrossed in this I frequently missed my stop, and startled commuters with very un-British exclamations. This review does contain spoilers and discusses rape and eating disorders.
Both Atwood and O’Neill use the backdrop of a dystopian society as a platform to discuss gender issues. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘ envisages a future world called Gilead run by a totalitarian theocracy which affirms ‘traditional values‘, which include return to patriarchal gender roles and conservative dress. An unnamed virus outbreak causes low fertility rate and birth rates are a priority and obsession for the government. In ‘Only Ever Yours‘, O’Neill shows us an ultimate patriarchy where women, referred to as eves, are genetically engineered commodities for male consumption, and vessels by which the next generation of men are born.
In both Atwood’s Gilead and O’Neill’s future, infertility is considered the fault of the woman. In Gilead, any children born with deformities or disabilities are termed unbabies or shredders and are exterminated. In ‘Only Ever Yours‘, Companions unable to produce a satisfactory amount of healthy sons or are exiled Underground and there are mass girl-graves of unwanted daughters prior to science eradicated natural female birth. Anyone who does not prescribe to the heteronormative values is considered a dissident. Women are taught fear and obedience, while men are taught competition and disciplineBoth societies have rigid hierarchies for both men and women, with women in the lower echelon of the society. Men are taught to aspire for influential positions in ambitious careers in the realms of politics and law, whereas the glass ceiling for women is being a Wife (Atwood) or Companion (O’Neill) to these powerful men.
ThugNotes on ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
In Atwood’s novel, female roles are divided still further into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and Offred, the protagonist, is a Handmaid to Commander Fred, hence Offred or literally ‘Of Fred’; she is his property and has been renamed after she was “re-educated“. The social function of a Handmaid is to bear children for their assigned Commander, and one of the most harrowing passages in the novel portrays the ceremonial rape of Offred by Commander Fred, with his Wife‘s assistance. O’Neill’s protagonist is freida, a sixteen year old eve in her finally year of school before the Ceremony where she will be assigned her lifelong role in society as either the ideal companion (wife and mother), concubine (prostitute) or chastity (teacher to the next gen of eves). freida has been trained from her creation to scrutinise herself and others on their appearance, to learn obsolete ‘decorative’ skills like baking and indoctrinate to value herself only based on the opinions and desires of society’s men.

While Offred has been indoctrinated, she still retains echoes of her former individuality. In the past society, she had her own name, a career and a family. In her new situation she is detested by the Commander’s Wife while also under pressure to bear the Commander and his Wife a child. She tries to negotiate her bizarre situation while Commander Fred attempts to engage with her on a human level, and she becomes emotionally entangled with one of the Commander’s workers. freida is a product of complete indoctrination, as are the other girls in the school. Whilst there is the usual adolescent interplay, there is also an insidious atmosphere of female rivalry exacerbated by ranking, insecurity reinforced by body dysmorphia and a total absence of accurate and useful information, open discussion and mutual support. The girls are isolated from the world and each other, seldom intellectually stimulated and their confidence constantly undermined.


Two of my fav BookTubers discussing Louise O’Neill

Both novels present harrowing dystopias of intolerance and inequality, with a focus on gender and sexuality. While we’re constantly progressing towards a more equal society, there is still so much to be done. There are places where aspects of these novels are closer to reality than a dystopia. I’m so glad more people are having open discussions about feminism and there is a greater understanding of why patriarchal societies are detrimental to people of all gender identifications.

Louise O’Neill discusses ‘Only Ever Yours’

The protagonists of both ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘ and ‘Only Ever Yours‘ are inherently products of their society, but they reveal an awareness of something lost from former times. For freida this is the nature channel, which represents a sense of scope and history; for Offred this is the remnants of her self-hood and individuality represented by her former life, half-remembered. In these fictional worlds, gender is a hard binary, gender roles are prescribed, and society is divided and hierarchical. Femininity is a performance and the idea of woman is stripped down and separated to the point of fragmentation. A woman cannot simply be, she must belong to someone else.





Star Wars

Star Wars


There’s something intimidating about not being part of a fandom, especially one which is as large and omnipresent as Star Wars. Despite my parents being a film geek and Sci-Fi nerd between them, the Star Wars films weren’t something I grew up with. I gleaned a fair bit from pop culture and I’d say I’m definitely a fan of Sci-Fi, but I kept putting off watching them. Then The Force Awakens happened and I thought: “It’s now or never…Wait, in which order do I watch them?

This should be blindingly obvious but SPOILERS.

Princess Leia being a bad ass

Suddenly the internet made way more sense and I had that strange almost deja-vu I got the first time I saw Hamlet performed and thought: “I’ve heard this speech before”. Star Wars is such a cultural phenomenon it was like I had experienced it before I’d seen the films. I was terrified I would hate it. As someone who regularly geeks out about things they like, I know that people can project feelings of hostility towards new fans. This is usually from a subconscious desire to ‘protect’ the fandom, but I think it’s healthy to critique the media we consume, and to welcome change and fresh perspective.

Thankfully I really enjoyed the original trilogy. I binged it with a Google tab open asking very obvious questions like: “Why isn’t Leia also a Jedi like Luke?”, “What exactly is The Force?” and “Why are Stormtroopers so inept?”

The First Order commit genocide just because

I did a lot of forum lurking, but tried to form my own opinions. While I have issues with the fandom, there’s a lot about it which I love, such as the world-building and engaging action sequences. Some of the flaws are endearing, but in general the characters can be flat and I think a lot is left for the audience’s imagination. When this is done well, it leaves possibilities for great fan fic, when it’s done badly it seems lazy. Although I think prospective genres like Sci-Fi and Fantasy should try to push our ideas of cultural norms, I can be more forgiving of the original films as a product of the time.

I have no such feelings for the prequels…

Much ink has been spilt over this, but I think folk get angry about the prequels because they had the potential to be amazing. I wanted back story, but instead I found my immersion killed by a hokey script and some offensively one-dimensional characters.

Cheeky cameos from Han Solo and Chewbacca (amongst others)

The bar was so low The Force Awakens could have tripped over it. I went in knowing pretty much nothing about the new film, and yet it still surpassed my expectations.

Finn’s Stormtrooper existential crisis

It’s not without it’s faults, such as tendencies to pay lip service to the franchise, and tired themes and scenarios, to the point where parts felt almost satirical. The trouble with Star Wars is, it’s all good fun (yes BB-8 is cute and lasers are cool) but after the credits roll I find myself bombarded with unanswered questions and no longer willing to suspend disbelief. Many of the scenarios feel hollow and the characters have broad brush strokes of personality, without nuance. While The Force Awakens is a solid film, it could have been more challenging and stimulating. While there were some attempts to bring complexity to characters and their motivations, such as the internal conflicts of Kyle Ren and Finn, I felt many relationships and actions were borne of plot convenience, and the weary battle between good and evil meant nothing.

Kylo Ren vs. Rey and Finn

On the other hand, I was very impressed with the strong performances of the cast (both new and familiar). Honourable mentions must go to Daisy Ridley as Rey and John Boyega as Finn, and I was delighted to see more diversity in the fandom. I found Rey’s character to be the most genuinely complex person in the franchise, and she’s the only character other than Princess Leia who I’ve ever really connected with. Rey is independent, empathetic and resourceful to name a few of her characteristics. I was intrigued by Finn’s origin as a Stormtrooper and we didn’t get any real insight into why he would alter his alliances after being trained from birth to fight for The First Order. Rey and Finn felt tangible, and gave me hope that I could expect more of the same. My hopes for Episode VIII include fleshing out and developing the characters and backstories of Finn and Rey, without falling into the franchise’s pitfalls of simplifying characters and plots to formulas and archetypes.



The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle

Amazon Studios released Season One of ‘The Man in the High Castle in late November, catering to our desire for instant gratification and the modern trend towards binge-watching TV shows.

It’s been almost a year since I read the book, and I’ll admit I found the (rather short) novel dense at times. The main premise is an exploration of an alternate world where the Axis powers have won World War II. I thought the show did an admirable job of weaving together the multiple narrative strands and focusing the deliberately obscure geographical locations of Dick’s alternative history.

I have to mention that controversial ad campaign. Well that was super awkward. I wonder if perhaps stirring up some controversy was part of the aim to get people talking about the show, but the show’s creators were evidently familiar with the source material and executed a tactful adaptation which was belied by the ad campaign. Luckily the trailer is way better:

The overall themes and questions of patriotism, duty, family, cultural identity and fate were explored tactfully, and the ideological conflicts between Capitalism, Fascism and Taoism are presented subtly, without huge info-dumps or obvious bias – save for the final scene in Season One which felt contrived, and in my opinion began to present ‘real history’ and the familiar post-war 1960s America as a Capitalist utopia.

Dick’s novel has a metatext, a banned book called “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” by fictional author Hawthorne Abendsen (also the novel’s eponymous Man in the High Castle who is said to live in an impenetrable castle where the Nazis can’t find him). In the show they’ve changed this to a smuggled film reel to incite revolution, or rather, several different film reels. This works much better for the medium, and actually I found it more effective because the Grasshopper reels used in the show contain what the viewers will recognise as famous historical footage from World War II onwards such as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. One is not historical footage (or they may have edited it onto historical footage), but is almost prophetic, showing two of the protagonists in events that may come to pass.

One of my favourite scenes is an awkward dinner exchange between the wealthy Japanese Kasouras and antique American art dealer Robert Childan, which builds on this idea of cultural appropriation, colonialism and historicity. The Kasouras have Anglicised given names, have a fetish for Jazz music and what we might consider mass-produced trinkets. Childan hatches a revenge plan with Frink’s help to create a forgery, and has a wonderful speech about historicity. However, when Betty is presented with the forgery, she claims Frank Frink‘s (Rupert Evans) jewellery contains “wu” (balance or harmony) and is therefore valuable after all. Juliana’s necklace, a gift made by Frank, is admired but also scorned because it doesn’t adhere to the prescribed ideas of aesthetic value.

While many iconic scenes from the book are adapted well, there are others that either I don’t remember from the novel or were embellished for the show. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, but I do wonder about the show’s pacing. The novel isn’t particularly long and I wonder how many seasons will be commissioned; I assume Season Two is in the works as the finale did leave many questions and there are definitely some big plot bombs to drop. Many of the scenes involving Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell) were captivating, but there were some performances I didn’t find as compelling, and while I grant it’s difficult to portray character arcs that involve deception and impersonation, this makes it all the more important to be convincing.

In the novel, I found myself disliking all the characters or finding their actions exasperating, whereas in the show I think the writers tried to make characters relatable or at least fascinating to watch. There are characters who are morally questionable, but I felt even they had agendas or belief in some kind of code or truth. In essence, I gave a damn what happened to most of the protagonists. While the show honours the book’s ensemble cast, I was pleased that Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) was given a more central role and was more proactive. This move towards giving the female characters as much complexity and agency as their male counterparts may be an inevitable, and hopefully conscious, part of a 2015 adaptation of Dick’s 1962 novel. The show doesn’t shy away from the gender issues of that society, with Juliana exploiting and being exploited for her gender, and explorations of masculinity, especially in a military context – both with the Nazis officers and the Kempeitai and shown through the characters of Rudolph Wegener (Carsten Norgaardand Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente).

Further reading:

  • My student essay for a Sci-Fi course, discussing ‘Othering’ and post-colonial theory in Dick’s novel, which can be read here.
  • Den of Geek’s raving reasons to pick up the novel.
  • i09 on the differences between the novel and the show’s pilot.



As soon as I saw the advert for Channel 4’s Humans, I was intrigued. Based on a Swedish programme, ‘Real Humans‘ (here’s a Den of Geek article comparing the shows), Channel 4’s adaptation featured a strong cast with many familiar faces, including Gemma Chan, Katherine Parkinson, Colin Morgan and William Hurt – to name a few. But the first teaser trailer didn’t show us any of the main characters. Instead it worked as a fictional ad for Persona Synthetics themselves, introducing the idea of ‘Synths’ to the audience. I find the uncanny fascinating but equally unsettling, and the concept of ‘Synths’ raises troubling questions about the human nature, the existence and nature of the soul or consciousness.

‘Humans’ poster

The tagline for the promo posters was: “Made in our image. Out of our control”. There’s the clear allusion to Genesis and the Biblical narrative of “God creat(ing) man in His own image” (Genesis 1:27) which ‘Humans’ alludes to here. Humans are now the life-givers, with technology replacing the divine spark and Synths made in the human image.

The show follows the Hawkins family as they discover the reason behind their Synth Anita’s (Gemma Chan) strange behaviour. The family becomes embroiled with police investigations into ‘rogue’ Synths, and we see the dark underbelly of anti-Synth extreme groups and illegal hackers and modifiers. I thought it was commendable that ‘Humans’ presented hacking as being used for destructive purposes but also the recovery of Mia from the overriding Anita programme.

It becomes apparent this group of ‘rogue’ Synths in fact possess consciousness – the ability to create memories, experience emotions and feel pain. They were created through the wild genius of David Elster, the man credited with inventing ‘Synths’, but their existence was kept hidden from the government and the wider public.

We Are People (W.A.P) are an extremist group who organise rallies and deliver a message of frustration and fear of Synths, believing their existence is making humanity redundant. Arguments that Synths are taking away job opportunities and an emphasis on the ‘Othering’ of Synths evokes strong comparisons with anti-immigration sentiment and even hate crimes. W.A.P doctrine also feeds into underground fight clubs where folk place bets and watch their fellow humans destroy Synths. The Synths have usually been modified to de-activate their ‘laws of robotics’ (in the Asimov style) of self-defence and protecting humans from harm.

Campaign poster

Prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, and ‘Humans’ gave a disturbing insight into the future of sex as a profitable service. Niska (Emily Berrington) one of the sentient Synts, is trafficked into prostitution, and is objectified and commodified. She is imprisoned in a booth, and subjected to degrading assembly-line health checks and an endless stream of sordid customers. Leo (Morgan), advises her to de-activate her pain receptors while they try to find a way to rescue her, but she is adamant that she was “made to feel”. Berrington presents Niska as a woman who has been sexualised from her moment of creation (even by Elster, her own creator) and resents humanity for its base desires and abuse of others. She does fight back, literally, and one of her most harrowing lines is delivered to the brothel’s Madam: “Everything your men to do us, they want to do to you”.

Synths are equipped with sexual functions and an ‘Adult mode’ which is supposed to activated by over 18s and used as a form of sex toy. The programmed behaviour of desire and synthetic pleasure is presented as being awkward and terribly sad, void of intimacy and sincerity as I imagine encounters of that nature commonly are. It’s a clinical and unsatisfactory caricature of intimacy where spontaneity isn’t possible and pleasure is mechanical.

Niska screaming in her sound proof prison

There’s a rather heavy-handed bit where Niska carries around a copy of Arthur Koestler’s ‘The Ghost in the Machine’ (1967) which itself takes it’s title from philosopher Gilbert Ryler‘s description of Cartesian dualism. However, ‘Humans’ does explore questions about the nature and existence of the soul, and the sanctity of life. The characters of Mia/Anita and Karen/Beatrice also ask us to explore the fundamentals of identity. For example, Mia’s autonomy is overridden by the ‘Anita’ programme so she exists ‘trapped’ in her own body. But for Karen, she has been created to replicate and replace the dead Beatrice Elster, but she doesn’t possess those old memories and has been rejected by the other conscious Synths. I thought it was particularly poignant that Dr Millican was so attached to glitching Odie because they shared memories of Dr Millican’s deceased wife. The existence of human-machine hybrids such as Leo (Colin Morgan) evokes Science Fiction literary themes of post-humanism or trans-humanism.

Dr Millican and Odie, adorbs

There’s an overwhelming sense of consumer culture gone unchecked. Every possible need and desire can be catered for by a Synth. In this world, Synths are considered property with no legal status. Many Synths are relegated to ‘menial’ tasks which are actually fundamental to keeping society running. This begs questions to do with class, unemployment and the value of labour and reminds us of people’s past fears of industrialization. I couldn’t help but think of Marxist theory regarding the alienation of the worker.

The sentient Synths possess the ability to awaken consciousness in other Synths, an idea which fills many people with dread. This is presented as a mixture of disgust towards the ‘unnatural’ and a fear that Synths will gain power over humanity, embodied by the government officials who work to control and subdue the sentient Synths. Arguably an essential part of being human is freedom and autonomy and that is what the Synths capable of desire are striving for.

I thought Series One was a strong opener, and I am very much looking forward to the next series. However, whilst ‘Humans’ does everything right, I didn’t feel it particularly pushed any boundaries or brought anything new to the discussion of the themes it explored. But I remain optimistic, as often a show’s first season must lay the groundwork for greater things to come.

The Stanley Parable

The Stanley Parable

I was delighted to be a guest contributor to Structo literary magazine, with an article on interactive fiction in “The Stanley Parable“. The game explores some of my favourite themes such as rebellion, mind-control and the dichotomy between man and machine. You can click on the image below to give the article a read.

Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones

‘Game of Thrones’ is one of HBOs most popular shows, combining sexposition with fantastical creatures, visceral battles and political intrigue. As the Honest Trailer says: “It’s like history, but with dragons…and boobs”. Whilst I have read the entire book series thus far, I think the TV show does a fantastic job of adapting the source material. It stays faithful to the major plot and character arcs, and streamlines the bulky world-building and family trees. It keeps Martin’s cutting dialogue but does away with his poor descriptive writing.

In it’s fifth season, the show’s storyline is as complex and sprawling as its title sequence map, so like ‘Orphan Black’, I’m going to focus on thematic elements. Most of the clips are pretty spoilery. There are some general spoilers, but I’ll flag up any specific plot spoilers with *SPOILERS*

Chunky fantasy books make the best doorstops

I understand Martin’s world is a fantasy medieval-esque setting, and therefore patriarchal values, as well as chivalric and feudal values are implemented in this world, but many of the male and female characters embody archetypes or stereotypes. The show fleshes out the characters into complex and flawed human beings, but there are more named male characters with volition and agency, acting rather than reacting to situations. The show can be progressive at times, for example with its portrayal of Oberyn Martell an openly bi-sexual character without it being his defining character trait. Infuriatingly, there’s a lot of female nudity with barely any male equivalent. There are examples of tom-boy warriors, seductive sorceresses, wizened old men and tricksters.

This is a rare example of a powerful clothed female character and nude male character in GoT. And we only get a peachy bum.

Furthermore, what I find most troubling is the amount of misogyny and sexual abuse which takes place in Martin’s world. Sometimes it’s just a casual plot device, sometimes it’s used as a way of ‘developing character‘. This is a sensitive topic and I do believe trauma can be used to add depth to a character’s back story, but I feel female characters are put through situations of sexual threat whereas male characters are given complexity through a range of situations. Sometimes even sexual threat is used to develop a male character, even negatively, through action, whilst female characters are passive. Sexual abuse is serious, traumatic and needs to be addressed. *SPOILERS* Male characters’ sexuality has been used against them in Loras Tyrell’s trial for homosexuality or Theon Greyjoy’s torture and castration. Using rape as a throwaway plot device, way of adding ‘depth’ or fuel for a revenge narrative is NOT doing characterisation justice. *SPOILERS* I’m referring particularly to the recent episode which featured Sansa Stark’s wedding to Ramsay Bolton, but there are so many examples throughout the whole show.

It’s all about political expediency in Game of Thrones, and high status and reputation are some of the fundamental things the characters try to hold on to. Every character has a persona, or quickly learns to adopt one, and in King’s Landing especially, there’s a fantastic performance of courtly manner and a dissonance between action and oath.There are humiliations, revenge stories, victorious battles and dynasties brought low. It’s as epic as it sounds. There’s a fascinating TED Talk which suggests the War of the Roses inspired the historical content of ASOIAF. There’s a huge ensemble cast, but even so Martin hints at the stories of other minor characters. It can be problematic when trying to keep up with complex lineages and whose side someone is on, but the visual aspect of the show makes the protagonists clear enough. Although, no one is safe. Recently the show’s creators have blind-sided avid readers by reassigning story lines.

Oh Ramsay, you are worse than Joffrey…

The viewer is given to understand that there are many houses in Westeros and beyond. Some are noble, some not so much, and houses rise and fall. Whilst some are ancient, all noble families have a name, banner and motto. Rivalries and alliances can be fluid, but family loyalty is considered the highest of all principles. Characters demonstrate a fierce need to protect their families and their names, and sometimes those are mutually exclusive. Nobility is portrayed as a cause worthy of death, or leading to an untimely death (depending how pessimistic you are). Characters are often conflicted with their obligations and duties, be it to crown, country, family or themselves.

The feudal system permeates Westeros, but really comes to light across the Narrow Sea in Essos, with Daenerys Targaryen and the liberation of the slaves. Daenerys is faced with the unenviable task of conquering and controlling several cities on her way to reclaiming the Iron Throne in Westeros. Her army and council are made up of people from differing backgrounds and conflicting values, and she faces the tension between being loved or being respected and feared by her people. The show deals with the difficulties of fairness and justice in a system which allows the rich to exploit the poor, favours the rich and sets power in their hands. Whilst historically we know it’s possible to overturn the feudal system, but whether it will come to pass in George RR Martin’s world remains to be seen. Whilst the social structure is rigidly feudal, there is some social mobility as shown through characters like Grey Worm of the Unsullied. Daenerys’ speech from the S5 trailer hints at the idea of ‘fortune’s wheel‘, with our fates constantly shifting.

I think it goes without saying that the show is bloody gorgeous. There’s a huge team that work on it from setting to costume, to soundtrack and filming. The entire team behind the script and production as well as the cast are all top-notch. The show has set a precedent for itself and other material of its ilk.

The fantastical elements work to support the underpinning mechanics of what makes the books, and by extension the show, so successful. Game of Thrones explores the human condition, from it’s bleakest depths to moments that are inspiring and affirming. It does this through a range of experiences and having a large and dynamic cast of characters. The fantasy aspect cannot be ignored, nor should it be, but that’s not what interests me so much. Whilst I still take umbrage with many aspects of the show, there’s a reason I’m still hooked at it’s fifth season. What fascinates me is not the existence of magic, but what people choose to do with the power it brings.