Sunday, 8 February 2015

Dual Wielding: Autobiography of a Fangirl

I bang on about Tomb Raider a lot because this is a video game blog, but Lara Croft actually shares the main plinth in my own personal Hall of Fandom with another 90s icon, Tori Amos.

This is why my autobiography is going to be entitled Dual Wielding, a reference to the fact that while most people are happy just using one gun or one piano at a time, the two women who will have inspired my meteoric rise to fame, fortune and international renown had mastered the art of using two at once.

I'm a great believer in planning how to enjoy success before actually having achieved it, so I've already started work on Dual Wielding and am thrilled to give loyal readers of Well-Rendered a sneak peak at my notes. 

Chapter 1: New Game

The Spice Girls split in the same year as my parents, but before the bitter irony of "Viva Forever" could sink in, something even more awful was thrust upon me: single-sex education.

At my previous school I had been one of two girls in my year*, so I understood how a gang of boys operated (...imagine a pack of wolf puppies). However, I could not fathom the arcane rules that governed the perpetual political struggle between girls, so after being dismissed by my peers as neither a potential asset nor a credible threat, I began looking around for a role model who, unlike the Spice Girls, made me feel alright about being a bit of a loner.

Such was my social standing at the time that my decision to model my entire persona on Lara Croft didn't really make my interpersonal difficulties any worse.

Me, at 13, in the school canteen.

For a while, I dressed like her almost every day. I looked ridiculous (sadly no record exists of my leather trousers), but that just meant I had to get into character in order to leave the house: Lara didn't care what people thought about her, so I neither did I. It's true that my sartorial choices had a confrontational edge, and the wisdom of choosing a kleptomaniac adrenaline junkie as a role model was questionable. But overall, raiding Lara's wardrobe was an invaluable learning experience because it confirmed my suspicion that it didn't matter what people said about me.

I later combined Lara's attitude with the style of Brendan Brown, lead singer of "Teenage Dirtbag" legends Wheatus. This is a fairly accurate self-portrait from around this time.

Inevitably, my mastery of the art of being a weirdo threw me into the paths of other weirdos with whom I eventually became friends, so I guess it was thanks to the ultimate loner Lara Croft that I eventually stopped being a loner.

Chapter 2: Select Character

The circumstances surrounding my unintentional discovery of Tori Amos' music** are not strictly relevant to Dual Wielding's zeitgeisty deconstruction of idolotry in a post-postmodern age, but anecdotes give me the opportunity to be charmingly self-depractating, which will play well on the promo tour, so the story makes the cut.

Me at 17. I am on my way to school here, wearing a PVC bondage dress over a school shirt. Ominously, the (incorrect) lyrics scrawled on the photo in sparkly gel pen are from Jack Black vehicle School of Rock, and they are about rejecting conventional education. 

Tori's profile was at its height in the early nineties, a time when I was still too scared to watch Sesame Street***, let alone grapple with Little Earthquakes. Even when I reached my late teens, my limited musical knowledge and internet access meant that the only records I played were Madonna albums, show tune compilations and my parents' respective music collections, which consisted mainly of Chris de Burgh.

Why indeed.
Around this time, my best friend managed to escape the girls' school for the co-ed grammar across the city, and despite their shared affinity for Chris de Burgh, tension was mounting between my long-separated parents that cast a dark shadow over both my homes. Depressed, I fell behind with my studies and started skipping school, spending my bus fare on peculiar clothes, battered VHS tapes and scratched PlayStation games in Gosport's run-down second-hand stores.

This is my teenage bedroom. Highlights include a purple dreamcatcher, a cardboard Yoda (from the local cinema's promotion of Attack of the Clones), hand-painted seaweed and punked-up Barbies with black nail polish for lipstick. 

At night, I expressed my angst through interior "decoration", scrap-booking, and compiling anguished mix-tapes for the friend whom I felt had abandoned me.

After I had exhausted every Andrew Lloyd Webber soundtrack and Chris de Burgh cover album I could lay my hands on, my second-hand odysseys took on a new purpose: finding new music that would impress the friend (I mean, obviously not as much as I presumed "Don't Pay the Ferryman" had impressed her, but a reasonable amount) and compel her to assimilate me into the cool and fabulous gang she was no doubt leading through Portsmouth on incredible adventures.

"Don't Pay the Ferryman" took on a particular significance to us Gosport-dwellers because we had to use a ferry every day in order to get to school in Portsmouth. This is what my commute looked like for seven years.

I really knew absolutely nothing about music, so on my trawls through the 50p buckets I graduated towards the kind of 2-disc compilation albums that were given away free with magazines (teenagers of today: this was a thing), because they promised the greatest chance of unearthing something good. Gems from this period of enlightenment include Leather and Lace: 40 Favourite Power BalladsAll Time Classic Tear-Jerkers and THE ONLY DRIVING ANTHEMS YOU'LL EVER NEED!.

Buoyed by my discovery of Meat Loaf on one such expedition, I expanded the scope of my search to car boot sales, which is where I stumbled across a grubby "New Woman" compilation with grey fluff still stuck to the residual glue from the promotional labels. It contained a track by Shania Twain, whom I held in high esteem, so I took it back to my cave with high hopes for the rest.

This is a table I made. It is adorned with, amongst other things, images from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a portrait of Neighbours star Delta Goodrem, and, mysteriously, the logo from educational DOS platformer Math Rescue. Sitting on the table is the alien from Independence Day, who is equipped with a motion-sensor that made its head split open and fibre-optic tentacles come out.

"Silent All These Years" was buried at the end of the first disc, and I'm ashamed to say that I actually skipped through it the first few times I played the CD because the opening notes were so jarring. Fortunately, the skip button on my CD player eventually broke through over-use ("Hot Summer Night", was, like, right at the end of Leather and Lace), so I was eventually forced to listen to it.

Much like you are being forced to do now!

If I've done a good enough job of characterising myself thus far, the appeal of the central message to my 17-year old self will be evident, but allow me to explain some of the finer points.

Firstly, the imagery wove the everyday into the weird, putting mermaids and the antichrist in the most mundane of settings, thus perfectly illustrating how strange and alienating "normal" life could be. For a teenager whose domestic world was at times incomprehensible, the impact of these lyrics was immense. I hadn't been searching for a musical expression of my own experience because it simply hadn't occurred to me that one could exist; songs about "real life" didn't resonate with me so instead I pursued ones about wizards.

More highlights: A Team 17 "Worm" dressed up as a Roman Emperor, several unicorns, and, pricelessly, a picture of me standing in front of a billboard advertising Chris Barrie's Discovery Channel series "Massive Engines" because I was totally in love with Arnold Rimmer.

Secondly, it created space for pain, fear, anger, love and self-knowledge to be woven together in a way that heightened the bittersweet honesty of each individual part. The beauty of the whole despite its discordant parts made me realise that I didn't have to run away from, block out or destroy the things that hurt me, that they could be incorporated into a life rich with multi-faceted emotional truth.

Some totally healthy self-expression shortly after my discovery of Tori. At the bottom right is a bottle, which has been opened to reveal the "message", a lyric from her spaced-out 1999 opus To Venus and Back.

Chapter 3: Learning the Moves

Unfortunately, this emotional solace came too late to manifest itself in an improvement to my performance in the fields of either academia or familial relations. By the time school ended for good I had, like the crew of Apollo 13, turned off all systems not absolutely essential to life support, meaning that my moon landing, a university education, had been written off.

A scrap book page created shortly my failure to get into uni. I cannot account for the picture of Rosario Dawson, but the lyrics to Tori's "Pretty Good Year" reveal my preoccupations. The envelope still contains a letter to my future self, which, all things considered, it's probably best that I don't read.

I found a bar job and embarked on some hardcore moping, interrupted only by a phone call from a teacher at the school I had failed to grace with my presence for most of the previous two years. She offered to help me re-apply, and despite almost crippling fear of failure, I eventually obliged. She deserves a lot more credit for the way things turned out than she's going to get in Dual Wielding, but there aren't any funny pictures of me dressing up as her, so for narrative purposes, her part has been edited down.

The cover of my scrap-book, showing The Craft legend Fairuza Balk, Tori from the sleeve notes of Under the Pink, Lara from the cover of emo-tastic Angel of Darkness and Brian Blessed as Prince Vultan from the greatest film ever made, Flash Gordon.

I received a selection of rejection letters from places I wanted to go, acceptance letters from places I didn't (at this stage, I - quite rationally, I feel - did not want to join a club that would have me as a member), and one offer from a wild-card institution, Goldsmiths, which was dependent on me taking several exams I was too late to enrol for. None of them invited me for an interview.

At this point I did something wildly out of character, which was to get on the train to Goldsmiths by myself and tell to the admissions tutor, in person, that it would definitely be a good idea for him to let me study English there despite all the bits of paper that showed how bad I was at everything that wasn't English. I'm guessing he partly said yes just to make me go away, but it doesn't matter because after years of being convinced that despite some early promise, I would never amount to anything, I suddenly found myself staring at something that wasn't failure.

Reblogged on tumblr, original source deactivated.

When I got to uni, I did all the reading, ate all my vegetables and made friends by being nice to people, discovering that functioning people weren't members of a secret club with arcane initiation rituals, they just didn't turn setbacks into defeat. However, my elation when I realised that I could be one too soon turned to indignation. What? It's that easy? If I'd spent my energy on school work rather than trying to blu-tac fragments of my psyche onto anything that would stay still, where would I be now?

This reasoning sent me plunging into a hitherto unexplored corner of my own head I like to refer to as "Where Fan-Girling Goes Bad". I became convinced that if it hadn't been for my various setbacks, by now I too would have been bewitching the world with my artistic talents like Tori, fearlessly travelling the world like Lara, or both.

I'd spent so long trying to embody Lara's attitude that she felt part of me, and I identified with Tori's music so strongly that I had got her voice confused with my own. On some level I felt as if the facts that I didn't actually write those songs and couldn't sing or play the piano were just technicalities - the songs meant so much to me that I had actually started to feel that on some level, they were mine.

When my self-esteem was virtually non-existent, this mild delusion hadn't presented a problem, but my dazzling and hitherto unseen ability to turn in an essay on time led me to the conclusion that in a just world, someone as brilliant, sensitive and together as me would be well on the path to global domination by now. Unfortunately, I was really far behind schedule (at 20, I had yet to churn out even one Booker-prize winning novel), so for a harrowing few months, I found it hard to focus on my work or even my friends without plunging into a well of anger and regret.

Instead, I scrutinised the life and work of Tori Amos and the development of Lara Croft in a bid to uncover clues that would let me jump back on the train to success as if I'd never fallen off. Fortunately, what I found taught me a few good lessons about failure, and frankly helped me chill out about the whole thing.

Lara was conceived before the days of thousand-page style guides and committee decisions on the colour of a character's shoelaces (I work in licencing and have frequent anxiety dreams about signing off on a 100x100 icon depicting Batman's cape flapping the wrong way), so after the original Tomb Raider was released to runaway success, no-one knew quite what to do with her.

Lead designer Toby Gard, just 23 at the time, parted ways with publisher Eidos over the creative direction they took Lara in, while back at the studio, the pressure to churn out annual sequels to keep up with demand resulted in a steady decline in critical and commercial success, culminating in the ambitious but deeply flawed Angel of Darkness. Despite flashes of brilliance in the Crystal Dynamics years, the series and the character have neither totally recaptured the heart of the fan-base, nor returned to the apex of cultural relevance. The 2013 reboot was an extremely good game, but more because it followed trends rather than set them.

It is interesting to compare original Lara's twin pistols with 2013 Lara's bow and arrow. In 1996 the pistols marked Lara out as someone different, but in 2013 no fewer than five major releases featured a grimly determined young woman with exactly the same signature weapon: Tomb Raider (Lara), The Last of Us (Ellie), Game of Thrones (Ygritte), The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Tauriel) and of course The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Katniss Everdeen).

As for Tori, she might have won a scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory at 5 years old, but she's better known for being asked to leave six years later as a result of her preference for rock music over classical, and her reluctance to read sheet music. When, after over a decade of gracing Baltimore piano bars with impassioned covers of "Feelings", she finally delivered on her early promise and released an album, Y Kant Tori Read, it was a critical and commercial disaster.

It would be another three years before the release of the monumental Little Earthquakes, but even since then, the incredible successes have been punctuated by horrifying record company battles, patches of creative stagnation, and no small amount of personal struggle.

This is Tori's 1988 hair metal album, Y Kant Tori Read. The doodles are part of the original cover design for some reason. Tori has expressed regret and embarrassment about it on multiple occasions, but I honestly think it's brilliant. Please bear in mind how much I like Meat Loaf before you devote bandwidth to downloading the bootleg on my recommendation.

A sensible person would have found this encouraging, but these women were my idols, and when I realised that their paths were fraught with struggle and compromise, I was disappointed.


By the time Dual Wielding is released, I will be so admired for my genius and beloved for my philanthropy that no-one will think any less of me for explaining that at this time, I still believed that the world was divided into people who were destined for greatness and people who weren't. I definitely considered myself to be the first kind of person, so despite my detour, I was pretty certain that my innate brilliance would shortly put me back on the path to aforementioned greatness.

Thanks to the tombraidergifs tumblr for this gem.

Anyway, when I realised my heroes were flawed, it had to mean one of two things: either I had been worshipping false gods all along, or success was something you actually had to work at... and even then it wasn't guaranteed, or permanent. For a while I thought the former was true and started looking for replacement spirit guides, but when I couldn't find anyone who could handle more than one gun or piano at a time, I decided that maybe this "hard work" thing was worth a try.

Chapter 4: The Adventure

Some readers will think it's sad that I required so much guidance from a fictional character and a famous singer. What about the wisdom contained in works of literature, the stories of people who have faced profound adversity, or even real-life friends?

The truth is that there are in fact many people whom I actually know who have helped me along the way, and you will hear about them all in my acceptance speeches for various prestigious awards. But this story is not about me (though I think you'll agree I did a good job of making it look like it is). It's not even about Lara, or Tori. It's about being a fan.

Me, last year. You can buy this T-shirt!

For that reason, I hope Dual Wielding will be as inspiring for my own fans as Under the Pink and Tomb Raider II were for me, and that it reassures them that it's ok that when things get difficult, it's ok to follow in the footsteps of those you admire until you feel safe pull on your enormous boots and make your own.

*I was basically Toots from the Bash Street Kids, a role I clearly relished because I now work at a games company with exactly the same gender ratio.

**The events of this story occur four years after the first time I actually became aware of Tori's existence, on pre-Cowell era British karaoke extravaganza Stars in Their Eyes, in which an angry special constable belted out "Cornflake Girl" and didn't win. Unbelievably, I did not become a die-hard fan after watching this performance, and it would be a long time before I stopped associating this "Tori Amos" person with rolling eyes and purple lamé.

***According to my parents I refused to watch Sesame Street for years after being traumatised by a character called "Captain Zero" who was apparently retired for being too violent. I don't have any non-repressed memories of Captain Zero and Google reveals nothing, so I can only conclude that the actual source of my terror was far more embarrassing and my parents are too polite to mention it.

Although the funniest images on this blog post are definitely mine, it also contains several images that aren't, and which I couldn't track down credits for. If they're yours and you'd like a credit/link or for them to be taken down, let me know. Thanks/sorry.

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