Deeper than Henry James

Apart from being the last word in weirdness, this PlayStation game is curiously subtle
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The Independent Culture
IT WAS, I think, when I discovered Anita Brookner in my Christmas cracker that I began to have doubts about the festive season. Not the exquisite Miss Brookner herself, in a cutaway swimsuit and sash, you understand - just a fragment of text from her novel, Hotel Du Lac: "Good women always think it's their fault when someone is being offensive. Bad women never take the blame for anything."

Yet another social-comment bullseye for Anita there, I think we all agree. But what was it doing in my Boxing Day cracker?

Frankly, I was appalled. I shell out good money for crap - but real crap, you understand, not some ersatz form with any shred of dignity about it. I expect the worst for my money. I demand a small green flimsy paper crown that will split up the back when clamped on my head, a purple squeaker thing with a curly feather, that won't unroll properly, a plastic key- ring in the shape of a warthog, and a small bus ticket with the words "Why do bees hum? Because they don't know the words", printed several times in sequence. Call me a perfectionist, but that's the kind of quality on which I insist.

This year, I'm afraid, things were very different. Inside the kind of cracker you get at festive dinner parties in south London, you find a scallop-brimmed paper hat designed by Philip Treacy, a tiny Moog synthesiser that blows loud squeaks when you programme it (and later on, it plays variations of themes by Berg and Ligeti, but that's just showing off in my view), a tungsten-steel German key-ring with voice identification gizmo and door-piercing laser gun. And you get a motto by Anita Brookner.

I could hardly contain my disappointment. Can anybody really imagine that Christmas is anything to do with taste? That because their ridiculous angel-bedecked tree is a posh pounds 60 Sprucus norwegicus nonspikus that doesn't drop its needles all over the Berber, it is a less foolish object to have in your home than anyone else's tree? That although you and I have both drenched a small black fruity pudding with brandy and set fire to it, but mine was a 19-year-old VSOP Curvoisier and yours was a ghastly two- star Fundador picked up at Malaga Airport's El Bastarde gift shop in 1994, we have not both been guilty of a shocking waste of alcohol? That, while both our three-year-old daughters have spent the last six days refusing to take off their Fairy Princess costumes, but your daughter's is a pounds 125 creation from Joanna's Tent in Chelsea, and my daughter's wand and fairy wings are from Toys R Us, either star-struck midget has any connection with haute couture?

All you can do is embrace the prevailing air of tacky amateur dramatics, and go where the wind takes you. Then you might enjoy an experience like that of my friend, Jeremy, who went to a drinks party the Sunday after Christmas, had a dozen glasses of Napa Valley Cava Mumm and found himself beside a charming blonde lady of 50.

Jeremy is the most courtly of men - serious, intellectual, judicious, long-married, able to explain what Wim Duisenberg and his cohorts have in store for us - but he is not especially gallant with the ladies. Anyway, there he was gazing at the black roots and the pretty face of his fellow guests. After a while, the euro-conversation flagged a bit and he said: "So, ah, did you get any nice presents?"

"Yes indeed," she responded. "My husband gave me this Cartier bracelet, the children gave me some soap and my neighbour gave me some edible knickers."

Emboldened by drink, Jeremy was moved to ask: "Oh really? Ah, what flavour?"

"Chocolate and strawberry, I think," said the woman. A silence fell, as it does at such moments. Then: "As a matter of fact," she said, "I've got them on at the moment."

"Have you really," said Jeremy, without thinking. "Actually, I was feeling a bit peckish..."

It just slipped out. Really, he didn't mean it. Both of them stood there in a Putney living room, rooted to the spot with embarrassment, flanked by their husband and wife, both guilty of flirtation beyond the call of duty. Neither could continue, short of actually saying, "Would you care to have sex upstairs?" Nor could they convincingly return to the Central European Bank. In fact, if the hostess's son hadn't appeared, showing off his horrible bug-eyed Furby, they'd probably be there still.

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IT'S EXTRAORDINARY how swiftly we lose our prejudices after a certain age. When I was seven, I knew I could never, ever, grow to like (a) girls, (b) marzipan, (c) cheese and (d) jazz. It took a while for me to get over these notions - respectively six years, nine years, 11 years and 30 years. In your early adulthood, you know you'll never really like skiing, gin, cigars or the plays of Noel Coward, but it takes only a couple of years to change your mind. In your thirties, you tend to poo-poo this new-fangled nonsense of microwave ovens and personal stereos, then find yourself guiltily trying them out after a few months. Now I find, after only a token year or so of complaining about the things, I've become pathetically hooked on PlayStation games.

"No, no, no," I used to say. "I won't have the children spending their lives gazing at the TV screen. No, no, I won't endorse the culture of violence, in which every game features a lot of bash-crash-spin-around- wallop confrontations. No, no, think of all that wear and tear on young thumbs..." Then you plug in the thing, and your life is suddenly transformed. Whole afternoons disappear as you wrestle with a game called Toca 2, trying to keep your 150mph Peugeot on the racetrack in the falling rain, while your knuckles go numb and the control device in your hands vibrates seismically whenever you career off into the piled-up tyres or the lap signs.

Even worse is to think that I, who have always disdained fantasy fiction, and its warring tribes with their stupid names, am utterly transfixed by something called "OddWorld", in which a stumbling, flatulent, adenoidal, not-very-brave lump of green ectoplasm called Abe has to rescue scores of foolish, hyper-excitable Mudokkan slaves from the Glokkan mines, under the eyes and the anteater beaks of the sadistic Sligs. Yes, I know what you're thinking - I'm afraid I may be loosing my marbles too, I who once gave up reading late Henry James because I found it too psychologically facile.

My household has turned into a domesticated OddWorld. My tiny daughter has started appearing beside me when I'm in the bath, making horrible faces and squeaking "I'm a Slig". But apart from being the last word in weirdness, the game is curiously subtle.

For one thing, it's not as violent as you'd expect. Instead of bashing everyone you encounter, you have to take to the enslaved Mudokkans, express sympathy and interest as if you were at a drinks party, hold their attention, get them to trust you and follow you to freedom. The only violence you perpetrate is when they get too excited, and you have to slap them to bring them to their senses. The whole thing, in other words, is like the arrival of the Victorian novel, full of emotional shifts and hysterical melodrama, upon a literary scene dominated by travel and adventure.

If this goes on, we'll soon be looking at a new PlayStation game where meek ladies in cardigans patrol the streets of South Kensington trying to find conversational gambits that will destroy their flashy, but morally bankrupt, rivals. So yes, stand by for part one of AnitaBrooknerWorld.

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