Hide Your Workings: The Interiority of Thomas Cromwell

Wolf_Hall_cover_black Wolf Hall is the first instalment in Hilary Mantel’s as-yet unfinished trilogy dealing with the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell in Henry VIII’s court. It’s a detailed, highly-fictionalised account of Cromwell’s rise from a blacksmith’s son to the king’s right-hand man, and the time between spent as Wolsey’s man before the cardinal’s fall. Its sequel, Bring Up The Bodies continues Thomas Cromwell’s story up to the execution of Anne Boleyn. It sees Cromwell rise even further, to the height of his power in the king’s court.

Subjects of vast historical importance swirl around the action of both books: William Tyndale’s English translation of the Bible circulates throughout Europe. The Anabaptists of Münster take the city and found their New Jerusalem. Henry Tudor breaks England away from the influence of Rome. But while the novels are directly concerned with these world-changing events, this is Cromwell’s story – not merely a history lesson on early modern Europe.

And that’s the vital point that makes both Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies so interesting: this is Cromwell’s story. It’s not the story of Henry VIII, or Katherine of Aragon, or the fall of Anne Boleyn and the rise of the Seymours. It’s the story of Thomas Cromwell. Not just Thomas Cromwell, Secretary to the king, Master of the Rolls, and Vicegerent of the King in spirituals, but Thomas Cromwell the man.

Wolf Hall begins in Cromwell’s later childhood, and then jumps forward decades to his service under Cardinal Wolsey. But the short time we spent with childhood Cromwell is vital, and it frames the way we see him for the rest of novels. His time as Wolsey’s right-hand man, while not as historically or narratively important as his service under the king, has a similar impact on the way we see him.

These early sections frame Cromwell as human; as a violently abused child, as a protégé and friend of a great man he deeply admires, as a husband and father made distant by work, but capable of displays of unsteady affection. And this framing of his character is vital because it contrasts the later parts of the story so significantly. As he rises in the king’s favour Cromwell performs more and more heartless acts to please the crown, and to secure his own advancement. Without the early sections of Thomas Cromwell the man we’d likely see the later Thomas Cromwell as either a monster, or an automaton devoid of human feeling. But we don’t – we never lose sight of Cromwell the man.

It’s not about making him a relatable character – by and large he isn’t one, though anyone with an overworked, overtired, overly-distant father will likely see much they recognise. Instead it’s about making him human. We see a Cromwell who’s increasingly capable of performing ruthless acts, for reasons that aren’t ever really explicated for our benefit. But when we read through his heartless, calculating interrogation of Thomas More it’s framed by what we know of Cromwell the man. The suffering of his childhoood. The day when his wife died of fever, and the days later when his two daughters followed. We remember, following these deaths, moments like this:

“Now he stands in a window embrasure, Liz’s prayer book in hand. His daughter Grace liked to look at it, and today he can feel the imprint of her small fingers under his own.”

Bring-Up-the-Bodies-Hilary-MantelThese moments of touching, sometimes heart-wrenching humanity stay with us and keep the later Cromwell human. They don’t justify his actions, or absolve his character – they’re not designed to. But they serve to reframe everything that happens within the context of one man’s life.

But, most interestingly, while these instances serve to keep us in mind of Cromwell humanity, they don’t serve to give us an insight into him. He remains closed off to us, for all but the most fleeting of moments. In my mind, the most important line from the entire series so far comes from one of these rare insights into Cromwell’s thoughts, at a less-than pivotal moment towards the end of Wolf Hall:

‘I shall not indulge More, he thinks, or his family, in any illusion that they understand me. How could that be, when my workings are hidden from myself?’

If even Thomas Cromwell can’t see into the mind of Thomas Cromwell what hope do we have, with only his increasingly emotionless actions to interpret?  The early parts of Wolf Hall allow us to see Cromwell the man, and the events that formed him, but they rarely give us access to his interiority. As the novels progress these few moments of access become even more rare. And just as Cromwell’s convictions and motives are pulled steadily, almost imperceptibly away from us, so too does he find his own interiority increasingly remote. How can that be, when my workings are hidden from myself?

So we’re left to form our own interpretations of his character, and place our own reasons for his actions. He seems to genuinely hold some belief in the Christian god described by Tyndale and the reformers, but to what extent is his dismantling of the Catholic Church in England a result of this belief rather than a result of his desire to redistribute Catholic lands and wealth to benefit his friends, the king, and himself? Does he really believe Anne is guilty of the crimes he accuses her of? Even he seems to have conflicting moments on this – we’re never able to do anything more than guess.

To what extent are Cromwell’s actions determined by his beliefs? To what extent his desire for personal advancement, and the self-preservation of his position in court? To what extent are his ruthlessness and the death he brings about mitigated or explained by the different, rather more ruthless atmosphere of the courts of sixteenth century Europe? The lack of insight we’re given into Cromwell’s interior leaves us with no authority on these, and other, matters. So we speculate. And we create our own interpretation of Cromwell, spurred on only by the humanity we saw in his past, and the increasingly rare moments of introspection we’re allowed to witness.

That, even moreso than the deft, complex portrayal of courtly affairs in sixteenth century Europe, is the reason Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies are both such perfect works of fiction. The way that Mantel chooses to close off Thomas Cromwell from us, and leaves little more than his actions to support him as a protagonist. The fact that Cromwell is such a fascinating, compelling, unceasingly human character when his actions are morally fraught and his workings are hidden from us – that’s what makes the series such an incredible feat of writing on the part of the author.

Hilary Mantel’s final novel in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, is set for publication in 2015. If you know your history better than me you may know where it’s heading. Either way, if you haven’t read the previous two novels in the series you should try them out. They’re both dense, and until they dig their claws into you they’re hard work – there are so many characters, and so many of them are called Thomas – but once those claws are in they’re unlikely to come out.

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Paprika (パプリカ)

Paprika - 1Paprika (2006, directed and co-written by Kon Satoshi) is possibly one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen. It’s a fascinating exploration of the nature of dreams (and in a related vein, the nature of film) wrapped up in simple thriller story of world-changing technology and its world-threatening misuse. At first these two sides of the film run parallel but separate, but soon they mix and the entire film is consumed (sometimes quite literally) by the crazed quality of dreams.

The film revolves around a new corporate invention, the ‘DC Mini’ – a device that lets people view, record, and even enter other people’s dreams. This is framed as a revolutionary new tool for use in psychiatry and psychotherapy, and the film’s opening (one of the most startling, delightful openings of any film I’ve seen) sees the titular Paprika using the DC Mini to enter the dreams of detective Konakawa Toshimi to assess his psychological problems.

Paprika - 2What follows is a cold-water plunge into the film’s flawless recreation of dreams. Impossible acts and impossible architecture. Speeches that descend, at first almost imperceptibly, into insane, incoherent diatribes. Shifting forms and morphing faces. Parades of inanimate objects made animate. All that and more. But what defines dreams is so often not just the strangeness, or the impossibility of them, but the fact that this strange, disjointed madness makes so much instinctual sense when while they’re happening.

And it’s here, more so even than in its beautiful portrayal of the impossible, that Paprika really shines. Not only do we experience the mad, impossible architecture of dreams, but we also experience the way dreams feel when we’re inside them. Around the halfway mark its plot descends into absolute madness, and even before then it’s already tearing itself apart. The sudden theft of the DC Mini allows an unknown thief to manipulate the dreams of others. After this it quickly becomes clear that this can even happen while the subject is awake, leading to dream-like delusions, or perhaps something else entirely. From this point on every moment of the film – whether waking or dreaming – becomes entirely malleable, and it’s this that allows Paprika to really capture the feeling of dreaming.

Paprika - 4Countless things in Paprika, up to and including the entirety of the film’s climax, don’t really make sense if you stop and think about them., and in a lesser film, it’d be tempting to call these gaps and impossibilities plot holes, or narrative oversights. But it’s clear that that’s not what’s going on here. Paprika is a film whose narrative is about dreams, sure, but it’s also a film whose structure is about dreams; whose structure is dreamlike. It, as a whole, feels like a dream. It picks you up and carries you along and everything makes sense, or at least seems to.

So, after the film descends into dreamlike madness nothing really makes sense, but everything makes sense. It smash cuts to some impossible sight and we go with it. The characters suddenly exclaim that they have to do something, or find someone, and we think ‘yeah’, even though, if we stop and think, we’ll realise we can’t explain why. Things don’t make sense when you try to rationalise them after the fact, but while they’re happening – while the film is going on – we understand everything on a strange, instinctual level. Oh, of course the dreams collided. Oh, of course she can fly now. Oh, of course going into Shima’s dream and inflating him until he literally bursts will wake him from his coma. Of course.

Paprika - 3

Faces shift their form and torii gates walk. People burst out of the shells of others, like insects emerging from a chrysalid. These things strike you as mad and fascinating and brilliant. But while the individual sights seem strange, every turn and shift and incoherent direction the film goes in makes a kind of sense to the viewer while they’re watching, just as the senseless twists of a dream don’t arouse suspicion until you’ve already woken up. When Paprika finishes you find yourself unable to explain it, and when you try to think it falls just out of reach, but it was there, and you understood it in a way that even now, even minutes after, you don’t fully understand.

There are things that don’t make sense in Paprika not because the writers didn’t think them through well enough, but because the film isn’t interested in making perfect sense. Because dreams don’t make sense, and Paprika is more interested in feeling like a dream than anything else.

Paprika - 6

No other film I know does this; marries the plot of the film with the way it’s constructed to create a film that feels like a dream. Take Inception for example. It’s arguably Paprika’s closest relative in the medium, and Christopher Nolan has stated that Inception was inspired in part by Paprika. Inception captures some of the strangeness and the impossibility of dreams, and its plot revolves around dreams, but only rarely does it feel explicitly dreamlike. It focuses on the architecture of dreams, but not the feeling of dreams. And the strange, impossible twistings of the plot leave us with gaps that feel like plot holes, like oversights, as a result. But Paprika is so immersed in the nature of dreams, the feeling and the qualia of dreams, that its impossibilities and incoherences don’t feel like mistakes. They feel like deliberate and vital decisions that allow the film to feel the way it does.

Crucially, Paprika never feels like it’s just throwing crazy concepts at a wall to see what sticks. It nails down the feeling of dreams not by just being weird and crazy, but by being weird and crazy in exactly the right way. By looking at dreams and capturing, perfectly, the specific mix of feverish, indescribable madness that characterises so many of them. And by capturing the structural madness, rather than just the obvious madness of strange, impossible imagery.

Nor is Paprika an arty film that creates oblique images and references for the sake of some opaque mystery. It’s carries you along as much by being fast, clever, and punchy (with incredible animation, and skilful use of editing) as it does by feeling dreamlike. It’s not just a film of grand ideas and high concepts, it’s a film of slick, masterful execution, from the art design to the animation, the sound, the voice acting, the editing, the screenwriting, the everything. It’s perfect, my god it’s perfect.

Paprika - 5

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Relic Tycoon Development Diary: Game Engines

I’ve been pretty busy lately, so there hasn’t been too much actual progress on the game. As such, this update is going to focus on something pretty simple – the game engine I’ve chosen to build Relic Tycoon in.

When you start working on a new game one of the first things you need to decide on is the game engine you’ll use. Do this too early and you might chose an engine that’s doesn’t fit the game, making development more difficult than it needs to be. Do it too late and the ideas you have during planning can easily become unfocused and overreaching. The idea of the game you have in your head won’t take into account the different limitations that different game engines impose, so when you finally come to choose an engine none of them will seem like a good fit, and you’ll probably end up with a heap of cut ideas and wasted time.

Choose an engine at the right time – after the core of the game is nailed down, but before you flesh out your central ideas, and you’re in business. You can choose an engine that’s going to work with your core vision, and you can incorporate the strengths and weaknesses of your chosen engine into every future idea you have.

Obviously, you can trust me on this, based on my extensive experience as a producer at leading AAA game developers the fact that I’ve made two small games in Twine. But this thinking has already helped me out a lot in the past. I chose Twine for my first two games because they were ideas that worked well as simple hyperlink stories, and they didn’t need particularly robust engines propping them up.

There were a couple of things I wanted to do that Twine made annoying or impractical. But while I could have chosen different engines that might have made those features possible, no other engine would have allowed me to make those games as quickly and as easily.

So, surely I’ll be using Twine again for Relic Tycoon? Quick and easy development sounds perfect. Well, no. Twine is great for a certain kind of game (fairly traditional Choose Your Own Adventure-style branching narratives), but unlike End Boss and Character Creator, Relic Tycoon isn’t that kind of game at all. I actually started making a prototype in Twine, to test out some ideas before I chose a final engine, but even then it was fighting against me every step of the way.

I couldn’t think of a good engine to use, so I thought about making the game from scratch. But Relic Tycoon isn’t that complex – surely there must be something that would allow me to make the game without having to invest weeks or months into building the foundations first.

And then I realised that the ideal engine did exist. It’s StoryNexus – the online platform made by my old employer Failbetter. StoryNexus was essentially built to allow people to make Fallen London-style text-based games, and while Relic Tycoon is different from Fallen London in a lot of ways (for example, it’s a bit more mechanics-driven, with the removal or near-removal of grind and repetition), the basic structure is similar. Partly because I’ve been influenced by Fallen London a great deal, and partly because I thinking the structural decisions behind Fallen London are intelligent, with huge applicability for other types of experiences.

I’ve already had to make a couple of compromises, but ultimately it’s been a great choice. Development is already much easier, much faster, and I’m incorporating my knowledge of the strengths and drawbacks of the engine into every idea I have.

The only real problems are ancillary to the game itself. For one, making Relic Tycoon is StoryNexus is not going to help me improve my programming skills, which is something I definitely need to focus on. But right now I want to write and make games, and the only way I can guarantee I’m going to be able to do that is if I sit down and write and make games. I don’t want to spend months struggling to force myself to do something difficult and tedious in my limited free time, when I can spend that free time actually making something interesting.

So I’m going to keep building Relic Tycoon in StoryNexus. It genuinely seems like by far the best choice, and it’s already allowing me to stop spending my time worrying about technical frustrations and start spending more and more of my time writing and designing.

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