Monthly Archives: May 2016

Being There

It’s a stormy night in 1995 and you’re a college student just returned from a year abroad. During that time your family moved to a large house on the outskirts of town. A house, you discover, without anyone home that looks like it’s been stolen.

That’s how Gone Home opens, a game where you assume the role of Kaitlin and explore your new house, trying to figure out what happened during the year you were away.

Now, Gone Home toes the line of being a video game. Sure, it’s ‘played,’ but there’s little in the way of actual choices to be made; you’re essentially walking around. There’s no proper conflict, no goombas to stomp nor Russians to shoot; you’re exploring a house and trying to discover what happened to your family. It’s a cool experience rife with environmental storytelling that sits somewhere as a first-person adventure game where the emotional heft comes from a sense of being there.

But that’s Gone Home, a game built entirely around that experience by an independent developer. It’s not something you’d expect to see in a Triple-A video game, the blockbusters of the gaming world. These games, much like movie blockbusters, focus on the action with the story being told through brief cutscenes (or, in the case of the Metal Gear Solid series, radio calls that last a quarter of Gone Home’s playtime). There’s a distinct separation of gameplay and story.

And this is where I talk about Uncharted.

Now, the Uncharted games have made a reputation for themselves by allowing you to play an action movie. Meaning that you don’t just watch Nathan Drake trying to grab on to a falling cargo container or running through a crumbling city; you, the player as Nathan Drake, get to try to grab on to falling cargo containers and run through crumbling cities. Big moments that would either be a cutscene or ignored entirely are made playable. It makes the action in Uncharted feel that much more visceral, you get to be the action hero.

Story, though, has mostly been done through cutscenes and bits of banter interspaced through gameplay. In that sense, Uncharted wasn’t really doing too much besides telling great stories.


Then, earlier this month, came Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Still a grand action-adventure story that would make Indiana Jones jealous, this entry took the time in the story’s downbeats to really let you be there.

Much of the central tension stems from Nathan being persuaded to leave the normal life he’s built with his wife, Elena. But the game doesn’t just tell you this, because that’d be obvious and boring. Rather, once we’ve caught up to Nathan in the present, we get the beautiful chapter “A Normal Life.” In it, the player can explore Nathan’s house, starting in the attic where they can look at notes and mementos of Nathan’s prior adventures before exploring the rest of the house where they can flip through a book of wedding photos and look at to do post-its on the fridge before sitting down with Elena to talk and play a video game (yes, in a video game; it’s awesome). What this delightfully quiet chapter does is put the player in Nathan’s shoes, establishing what he’d be walking away from were it to go on another adventure. Rather than just having Nathan say “I have a good life” in a cutscene, A Thief’s End employs Gone Home’s technique and has the player explore a space, using the clues to form their own narrative.

In other words, “A Normal Life” has the player playing a cutscene, only instead of an action one, it’s a purely story and emotional focused beat. You don’t fight anyone or climb a rockface, instead you just get to be there.

Which is pretty friggin’ fantastic.

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Superhero Stardom (A Response)

There’s a recent New York Times article I came across that laments how the rise of the superhero genre has conflated actor-stardom with character-stardom. The article itself doesn’t really chase down the points too well, but the central gist (as far as I can see) is that in the recent slate of films, characters have come to trump actors. As Wesley Morris suggests in the article, when you watch Oceans Eleven, it’s George Clooney doing all the cool stuff as Danny Ocean; but when you watch Rush, you don’t see Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt, you see Thor as James Hunt. And as more big name actors get roped into superhero films (Cate Blanchett’s gonna be in Thor: Ragnarok!), it’s more actors being roped in to playing a specific character.

Which makes Morris’ point of view seem a little weird. He implies that the fun of Ocean’s Eleven is seeing the star-studded cast play off of each other, whereas Civil War is more about watching the characters interact; the former being better. Which begs the question of whether or not you’re supposed to forget that it’s an actor playing a character and not something happening before you.

Now, the attitude here feels a lot like that kid who’s angry you got the same toys they did. For ages, the idea of a superhero has been derided. Like science fiction and fantasy it was that genre, one that no serious actor would get involved in. Heck, we even had a movie called Birdman which was all about how superhero films and all their sequels was where art went to die. Except now they are, and with it, taking on (and being known by) personae that they don’t get to create per se. Superheroes are a cultural mythology, why else are we able to discuss who’s the “better Batman?” Taking up the cowl means playing someone bigger than life. Kinda like being the next guy to play James Bond.

Hang on.

See, this is where things start to get a little weird (and Morris’ argument starts to fall down). Daniel Craig’s Bond is sharply different from Pierce Brosnan’s Bond. I mean, sure, they’re the same character, just done differently. Same with Clooney, Bale, and Affleck’s Batman. There’s still some wiggle room in really getting to build a character.

But, all the same, the more recent superhero movies are very much adaptions of the comic books; someone like Batman’s very much in the public consciousness, more so than, say, Star Lord was in 2013. It would make sense, then, that casting Chris Pratt as Peter Quill would allow for a straight shot of an adaption.

Except, again, it’s kinda not. Star Lord as he appeared in the comics was quite different from the one in Guardians of the Galaxy, more authoritative and less bumbling, though still prone to having everything blow up in his face. Much of Peter Quill in the film — and who he’s become in the comics these days — grew out of Chris Pratt’s performance and James Gunn’s script. So sure, it was based on something, but there was still a big room to build there. Heck, you can see it with all of the MCU characters.

In spending a chunk of today trying to pry apart Wesley Morris’ article I kept losing track of his point (which may be because he doesn’t back it up much). In any case, based on the title, is about the changing role of celebrity that the uptick of superhero film franchises has brought about. Which, alright, sure; but we’ve also changed from the studio system of the ‘50s. Marvel with the MCU (and, Fox with X-Men and DC with their attempts at catchup) are working on a new form of storytelling, one that sits somewhere at the nexus of film, television, comics, and those old serials from forever ago. Maybe it’s time that the nature of stardom changes, what with the steady rise of nerd culture into the mainstream. After all, the geeks shall inherit the earth.

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The Elusiveness of Fun

What is fun?

No, not what’s fun to do, what does “fun” mean? Johan Huizinga, a Dutch guy that wrote a lot about play and what play means, said in his Homo Ludens that “this last-named element, the fun of playing, resists all analysis, all logical interpretation.” He goes on to lament that there’s, to his knowledge, no direct translation in a Western language that really captures what “fun” is (and if you check Wiktionary, you’ll find the translations lacking in words that really capture what fun means).

So “fun” is weird, and writing it so many times has made me start to question whether that’s how you spell it. But yeah, fun is a thing, and it’s part of what makes play, well, play. If you’re not having fun, you’re not really playing, are you?

Fun’s essential to games, then. I don’t play Settlers of Catan or the Game Of Thrones Board Game just because I feel like manipulating and betraying my friends/family/girlfriend, I play it because manipulating and betraying my friends/family/girlfriend are fun (sorry, friends/family/girlfriend). Some people don’t find those games fun, and for them it’s less playing and more of a slog.

Like I said, “fun” is weird.

Video Games, particularly those with a narrative, find themselves in an odd place when it comes to fun. Because video games have to, by nature, be fun on some level. Even something like The Last of Us, which isn’t always particularly enjoyable due to its serious nature, retains a measure of “fun” to it wherein it is, well, pleasing to play. But other games can get by with a weaker narrative simply because they’re fun. There’s nothing innovative or narratively fascinating about a plumber rescuing a princess, but Super Mario Bros is no less compelling for it.

Capturing that fun is where things get interesting. The Division recreated a swath of Midtown Manhattan but does so little with it that there’s little fun to be found in exploring a virtual New York. Clunky controls that inhibit immersion (why can’t I jump off this parapet to a surface a foot below me?) get in the way of any interest in the game’s vague story. Destiny, on the other hand, is stupidly fun on the micro level. Sure, that game’s story’s also lackluster, but developed Bungie has figured out a shoot-melee-jump cycle that’s so darn enjoyable. Because Destiny is more fun on a beat-by-beat basis, it’s more compelling than The Division.

But here’s the weird part about fun: it’s kinda arbitrary. I know people who find Destiny’s shoot-melee-jump cycle tiresome and I’m sure there are people out there who really like The Division for its core gameplay. We joke about people “hating fun” but then again, isn’t “fun” a matter of opinion?

So now we return to that first question: “what is fun?” Amusement, sure, but if games like Spec Ops: The Line and The Last of Us can be fun on some level then we’re looking at a very different sort of amusement. Engaging? It works, sure, but Fruitvale Station was engaging as all get out and not at all fun. Enjoyable comes close, but runs in to the same issue as amusement. Huizinga didn’t really define fun alone so much as in relation to play, and he has some very clear (and useful) descriptions as what play is.

Think about when you (or I, if you read this blog a bunch) refer to a movie as “fun.” What’s that mean? Civil War had an incredibly tragic climax, but it’s still fun, right? Least I thought so, since some people find Marvel movies to be droll.

Way I see it, fun is something really hard to to capture, that really lacks a solid meaning. Play is fun, I suppose, and fun is play.

No, that’s not much of a final statement, but it’s late and that’s all I’ve got right now.

Plus, I wanna go back to swinging on ropes in Uncharted 4 because that is a lotta fun.

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A (Civil) War of Flaws

Civil War came out. This post it about that. Yes, that’s all the intro I’m giving.

Marvel’s done a fantastic job of giving their characters major flaws. Look at the original (cinematic) Avengers: Iron Man’s selfish, Captain America’s noble to a fault, Thor’s proud, The Hulk’s, er, angry, Black Widow doesn’t trust anyone, and Hawkeye’s just the archer (okay, so he’s more the cynic). It’s these clearly defined character defects that make them clash so well, something made overt in the first Avengers when Loki’s scepter has them arguing in the lab. Flaws make characters interesting. The Avengers wouldn’t be half as fun if everyone got along like sunshine and rainbows, instead they spend half their time arguing and trying to get over themselves.

It’s because it builds on that central tenet that Captain America: Civil War succeeds so well. The question posed to the Avengers in the film is simple: should they report to a higher authority? It’s a question of authority and also who’s responsible for the Avengers’ actions. The creative team behind Civil War deserve major credit for making the question, herein rendered as the Sokovia Accords, feel nuanced, with no side feeling altogether right or wrong.

But that’s all plot stuff, and, as the last eight years of Marvel Cinematic Movies have proven, the best of part of these movies are the characters.

And so the divide of the Avengers falls firmly along character based lines. Tony Stark, who’s selfishness has given way to guilt and paranoia, sees the Accords as a safeguard. Furthermore, they’re a way for him to further absolve himself of guilt; he can be part of a tool to make things right, going where the majority feel he and the Avengers are most needed. Conversely, Steve Rogers’ nobility and idealism has him see the Avengers as guardians. They’re there to fight threats no one else can and they need the freedom to use their own judgement. Where Tony wants approval, Steve believes that they’ll do the right thing no matter what. It all fits into their established characters, characters which, for good measure, get set up again quickly in the film’s opening.

Thus, Civil War’s divide is one built on flaws. Many characters’ allegiances comes out of fears and flaws. War Machine and Falcon are loyal to Iron Man and Cap and so will follow them. Black Widow and Vision see the Accords as an insurance against an unknown danger; Scarlet Witch fears control. Black Panther is nursing a grudge. Even Cap’s idealism is tempered with asking “what if they send us somewhere we don’t want to go?” The battle lines develop naturally rather than arbitrarily. The combatants have a horse in their fight and it becomes personal.

To see this done wrong, you don’t have to look much further than Batman v Superman. There the central question is one guy going “I don’t like the way you’re above it all and cause massive collateral damage” and the other saying “I don’t like the way you’re above it all and brand people.” That Batman and Superman’s eventual fight isn’t born out of an escalation of tensions and faults makes it pointless at best and arbitrary at worst. They start out not liking each other and spend the movie prepping for a fight until they’re manipulated into coming to blows.

Civil War has Steve and Tony start out amicable before the Accords cause an ideological split. It’s the reappearance of the Winter Soldier driving a wedge deeper between them, plus a couple other turns that happen so that by the time they really come to blows it is an inevitable extension of their (flawed) characters. Civil War led it’s hero-fighting-hero with character, Batman v Superman relied on a contrived plot; so while the audience feels apathetic watching Batman fight Superman, the fight between Captain America and Iron Man is brutally tragic.

And so we’ve come full circle. Tragedy is born out of flaws. Creon’s pride is his downfall in Antigone. Othello’s jealousy costs him everything. And in Civil War, it divides Captain America and Iron Man.

Man, aren’t character flaws great?

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