Tag Archives: Halo 4

Defying Conventions

I’m still not done spitballing this essay (which is problematic, seeing as it’s due on Monday) but I’ve narrowed in my focus to make it more relevant to the class. Rather than comparing Mass Effect 3 and The Last of Us, I’m going to look at the latter game and how it does away with many of the accepted conventions of narrative video games.

Academically. Because I can.

See, for the most part narrative video games have taken on three very common tropes. Now, these aren’t bad. Phenomenal games like Mass Effect 3, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and Halo 4 employ these to great effect. What The Last of Us does is dare to do away with these.

Take saving the world. We see it everywhere in games; just looking at my shelf we have Mass Effect and the Jak and Daxter trilogy, all about saving the world (or community or what have you) from some evil. Within these games a lot of the drama comes from the need to save the world. Look at Mass Effect 3, in it Commander Shepard has to save the galaxy from the apocalyptic Reapers. There is great tension in the game due to the ever-present threat of the reapers. Every action Shepard takes, particularly with diplomacy, is heavier because if he fails the galaxy then the galaxy is lost. Commander Shepard must save the day.

Joel, the protagonist of The Last of Us, does not have the world at stake. The story is not about Joel saving the world, it is about Joel bringing Ellie to a destination. It’s a video game about a journey where the goal is almost irrelevant. The tension in the story is steadily born not out of any grand importance but out of the relationship between the two main characters. The Last of Us goes smaller and far more personal and manages to pull it off. Here we have a video game with a comparatively small focus, one unlike many of its contemporaries.

So then what is the central tension of The Last of Us? In most video games (and even several books and movies) it boils down to the fundamental conflict of good versus evil. And why not? It’s a universal conflict. The central theme of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is such. Will Nathan Drake do the right thing? It’s handled with a deal of nuance better than other games (say, any Final Fantasy), going so far as to have each love interest in the game embody one side of Drake’s duality. Among Thieves is a stellar game about good and evil. Sure, there are a few shades of gray thrown in, but still; a story about good versus evil is not bad.

The Last of Us is built on shades of gray. Joel is not a good man. We hear hints throughout the narrative of what he’s spent the twenty years since the outbreak doing. He was a raider, he killed people, he’s been a thief. He is not a nice man, if anything, he’s a hollow man no better than the others in the wastes. So what then of Ellie, the fourteen-year-old you’re charged with protecting? In any other story, no matter the medium, she would be Joel’s morality pet. Instead, Ellie is a fallen character unto herself: she’s willing takes up arms to kill others and will fight to survive no matter what. She is by no means an objectively ‘good’ character in the way Nathan Drake or Shepard are. What we have in The Last of Us is a story that hinges not on any sort of morality. Instead it is a story about surviving at any cost.

Which brings us to the third trope. Video games are more than about survival, they are often power fantasies, whether it is mowing down terrorists or fighting off invading aliens. Again, this, along with the other two tropes, is not bad. Video games, like many other mediums, are a form of escapism. In Halo 4 you are the Master Chief, an incredible super soldier who can stop the Covenant and The Didact and his Prometheans. You singlehandedly take on entire armies, thereby defeating evil and saving the world. In Halo 4 you get to be the hero and you are capable of being a one man army.

In The Last of Us you are constantly on the run. You never have enough ammo (it’s the only game I’ve played where having seven bullets is considered a lot), you are frequently low on health, and any more than two enemies usually means you’re in trouble. Rather than making you feel powerful, The Last of Us makes you feel desperate. If you miss this shot you won’t have enough ammo to kill the other soldiers hunting you. Unlike many other contemporary games, your health in The Last of Us does not regenerate, meaning if you take damage you have no way to recover beyond expending a valuable medkit. You are not all powerful: you are vulnerable and doing what you can to survive.

Though it discards many of the accepted norms of its medium, The Last of Us does it with a finesse seldom seen. The game does not subvert these tropes just for the sake of them, but rather to drive home the theme. The comparatively small stakes, the lack of a grand morality, and the vulnerability all work together to create something unique. The Last of Us is a AAA-studio game unlike many others before it, due in no small part to it daring to do something different. Neil Druckmann, creative director of the game, wanted something to raise the bar for the industry as a whole. It’s arguable this game has helped elevate the medium.

Now then. Let’s write this essay.

 

What else do I do for school? Make movies. Watch my newest short, “The Mysterious Glowy Object” now!

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Art or Not

Here at NYU I hear a lot of things about movies and art and stuff. With the Oscars being last week and half of my classes being primarily film related, I heard plenty (like how Beasts of the Southern Wild was everything an indie film needed to be […so?]). But one thing that really stuck out to me was the opinion that Argo shouldn’t have won since Argo was more Summer blockbuster fare as opposed to Best Picture fare.

Yeah, I know, I touched on this last week. This time, well, we have to go deeper.

I don’t understand this disconnect. Well, no. I kinda do, but I don’t agree with the disconnect. Argo isn’t any less Best Picturey than any other movies on the list.

Did Argo not deserve Best Picture because it was funny? Other nominees had their moments of humor and past winners were funny too. Even Lincoln solicited the occasional chuckle. Still, what is it that bars a comedy from winning an award? Sure, a lot of them can be crude and really base, but on occasion you’ll have a comedy that’s just clever. But these won’t win because of the perception that comedy is not art.The Hangover, bawdy as it is, has a brilliant script; firing its Chekhov’s guns and playing off it’s excellent foreshadowing. But due to it being a comedy it’s not award worthy.

Then is Argo undeserving because it’s thrilling? Argo was exciting from start to finish. But so were Gladiator, Braveheart, and The Return of the King. Those movies were even more action focused that Argo, but also had the same great technical achievements as the new winner. Just because Argo has its characters taking action rather than spending half the runtime ruminating doesn’t mean it’s any less than another movie. The illusion that art has to be angsty and eclectic is just that: an illusion. There is room for awesome and badassery in a Best Picture.

Could the disdain for Argo be because it deals with the titular science-fiction movie? I’m being facetious here, but seriously: what is that bars science fiction from being ‘Best Picture’ material? Sure, a lot of science fiction is crap and much of the pulp novels from which they originated are absolute drivel. But it’s been decades since those pulps and in the meantime we’ve had movies like District 9 and Inception that show us the allegorical and exploratory power of science fiction. So why is it that these movies keep getting passed over for the real awards?

I don’t buy into the idea that one movie can be better than another simply due to genre or subject matter. Just because Argo could pass as a summer blockbuster doesn’t disqualify it from its Best Picture win. Art can be entertaining. Halo 4 has some incredible emotional (and technical) moments that rival and beats many films, but it gets discarded because it’s a video game (and a science fiction one at that [a science fiction shooter). The Dark Knight, despite proving that a superhero movie could be dramatic and weighty, wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture.

There needs to be a shift in the perception of art. A movie that’s an excellent mix of direction, acting, music, writing, and editing not earning a nomination simply because it’s not ‘arty’ enough just doesn’t sit right.

And yeah, I’m still kinda bummed The Avengers only got one nomination.

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Cortana, Chloe, and Changing Trends

Cortana has always been my favorite character from the Halo games (after whom comes Buck [‘cuz he’s Nathan Filion] and Noble Six [‘cuz he’s me]). Ever since she told Guilty Spark to sod off in the original game, I’ve been sold on that blueish AI.

Oh yeah, shoulda mentioned that. Despite Cortana being depicted as a nakedish blue young woman, it was her character that won me over. She’s a sarcastic, forthright AI determined to help Master Chief achieve his goals (even if that means calling him out). She’s a fleshed out character in a first-person-shooter: and she’s a she!

Now, Halo 4 delves into Cortana and Chief’s relationship and the effects of her impending rampancy (that is, where AI’s accumulate so much data that they think themselves into inefficiency). This is heavy stuff; it’s emotional. Of course, heavy emotional scenes get lost on a lot of people when they’re delivered by a nakedish blue young woman.

Well, no.

For the most emotional scenes, 343 Industries employs careful framing. The scenes where Cortana gives her soliloquies are shot so we mostly see her from shoulders’ up. Sorry kid, no eye candy right now: this is drama. In a game whose fanbase is made up of teenage boys, Halo 4 is saying “look at her face, listen to her voice: this is important!” Cortana’s even been remodeled to look more womanly and less like a pinup in her fourth game. She’s no less attractive than in her previous incarnations, but she’s not being sexualized. And 343 isn’t going to give you the chance.

If anything, Cortana is made to appear vulnerable. Where Chief is a supersoldier in a suit of armor replete with guns and shields, Cortana is an AI construct whose avatar is just as bare as she is. Halo 4 uses Cortana’s sexuality to make her vulnerable, to make the player strive to protect her. So there’s no slow pans over her any more than there are over Chief. Again: she’s not being sexualized.

Sometimes it seems that any woman who shows up in a piece of visual media targeted at men must be sexy. Mass Effect goes a long way towards giving us developed characters, though for some reason almost every vaguely-human female character you encounter is uniformly busty (though most men you encounter are rather built, so Bioware’s fair, I suppose). Except Jack (who’s less busty), but then, she’s a bald, tattooed superpowered psychopath who’s not really meant to come off as sexy (which brings up a whole host of issues).

Female superheroes’ costumes tend to consist of a few convenient strips of fabric. For fantasy characters, armor is either nonexistant or astoundingly well fitted. Interestingly enough, one of the few things Snow White and the Huntsman (a film arguably targeted towards women) did right was giving the heroine a normal breastplate rather than the more typical boobplate. Compare to some of the entries in the Final Fantasy games where, well, that armor doesn’t do much in the protection department. Fanservice has its place, but after a while it gets stupid.

But for every Soul Caliber or Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball a game like Uncharted or Halo 4 comes along where women are more than eye candy. Are Chloe and Elena still attractive? Yep; but that’s not the point.

Maybe people get sexualization confused with sexuality. Chloe from Uncharted 2 is certainly a character who knows she’s sexy (as is evidenced from her second scene up to her goodbye [“But admit it; you’re gonna miss this ass”]). But Naughty Dog doesn’t make it her sole characteristic. She’s got her own agenda, she’s constantly looking for a simple solution, and — get this — she wears normal clothes. Sure, Chloe’s an attractive character, but at no point is she objectified by it. She’s got a sexuality to her, but she’s not sexualized.

Let’s be frank here though; sex sells. Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball probably gets a lot more revenue than other volleyball video games due to it featuring scantily clad women. But every so often something’ll come along that takes the high road. And it’s becoming more often due to the expanding appeal of genre films and video games to women. Sif in Thor notibly doesn’t have a boobplate as part of her armor, Captain Veronica Dare in Halo 3: ODST has a virtually indistinguishable armor from the guys’. Lara Croft in the new Tomb Raider is noticeably more, well, normal than her previous iterations.

We’re getting there. The trend’s changing. Slowly. But it is.

And Cortana will always be my favorite Halo character.

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