Tag Archives: medium

Motivated Acceleration

I am endlessly fascinated by mediums. No, not people who claim to talk to ghosts; rather the forms that stories can take. Why does this story work better as a novel? Why this a video game? Why that a play?

It’s usually adaptations where you can see the cracks that are the chasms between mediums. Consider the recent comic adaptation of The Last Jedi, which is essentially a beat-for-beat retelling, it doesn’t quite capture all the visual splendor of the movie. BB-8 trying a variety of attempts to fix Poe’s X-Wing is far less interesting on the page. There are other additions that use the strength of comics, though. But point is, there are some things that would only really work on in one medium.

And Infinity War has a fantastic moment that could only have worked on film. Consider this a mild spoiler warning for someone who hasn’t seen any trailers and really doesn’t know what’s going on in that movie.

In the third act, a group of heroes prepare to defend Wakanda from the Black Order and their army. A gap is opened in the shield to funnel in the advancing bad guys, and the heroes prepare to attack. Black Panther gives an order to his soldiers, they ready their weapons, he yells “Wakanda Forever!” and leads the charge. He, Okoye, Captain America, Black Widow, Bucky, War Machine, and the others rush forward together. This is a terrifically epic moment in and of itself, but it’s what comes next that I wanna talk about. As the good guys run towards the advancing Outriders, two people pull ahead of the pack: Captain America and Black Panther. It makes perfect sense within the lore: they’re both extra fast because of the super-soldier serum and heart-shaped herb, respectively; and they’re also two of the bravest characters in the MCU. Seeing these two lead the charge is a delightful visual gag.

And it’s one that only works in film (we’re gonna ignore tv for now because budget constraints).

It wouldn’t work quite as well in prose, given that a strong part of what makes the beat work is the visual of it. Being able to see the scale of it all as well as seeing Cap and T’Challa pull ahead on film. The thrill of it would play out differently, and probably a little less viscerally. This you gotta see for it to work as it does.

So let’s go back to comics, y’know, where these characters came from. As dope a splash page as the beat would look, it doesn’t convey a key part of the gag: acceleration. Everyone starts out together, but it’s only those two who are absolutely racing towards the bad guys. They didn’t get a head start, they’re just that much faster. Ah, but the joy of comics is that they can be sequential panels. The first panel has them all together, second has Cap and T’Challa a little ahead, and in the third they’re attacking Outriders while the others lag behind. Classic three beat structure. But that’s three panels; panels take up space, and space implies importance. What was a quick moment in the film is now made more important than it was. Still cool, but no longer the quick gag.

Video games are visual and those visuals move, so maybe here we have a strong contender. Let’s not imagine this as a cutscene (because what are cutscenes other than short films?) but rather a playable segment. By virtue of games’ interactivity you’re immediately given a leg up on being a visceral thing. You’re part of the charge. But, if you’re playing as Steve Rogers or T’Challa will you notice that you’re ahead? If you’re a foot soldier or Bucky Barnes will you be too preoccupied with your assault to notice? The interactivity of games also means there’s an element of subjectivity. Playing Halo’s The Silent Cartographer on a difficult level is a solo affair, with most of the AI marines being picked off by the Covenant early on, but if you’re playing it on easy you’re part of a small army. Or it could be not getting a certain plot point in a Mass Effect game for not going on a certain sidequest. In essence, there’s no way to guarantee something lands, that the player experiences a certain thing a certain way (without taking control away from the player).

Which I guess is where film shines. Not only does it have visual storytelling, but the fact that the camera is motivated lets us see exactly what the storyteller wants us to see. Consider the shot in question again: we see everyone running forward, then the camera follows Captain America and Black Panther as the pull ahead and lead the way into the fray. The shot lasts barely a couple of seconds (if that), but it’s a fantastic little moment. We take it in and process it instantly. It’s a terrific beat, and one that would only spent the way it does in film.

You could have a similar gag in another medium, but it wouldn’t work quite the same way. A comic’s narration could draw attention to it in one panel, a game could use characters’ stats to similar effect. There are elements to media that really make them unique, and taking advantage of those elements will yield something really special.

Which is a really roundabout to say that guys, Infinity War is a lotta fun and an epic movie.

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A Grownup Video Game

Something big came out on Friday. It was produced by a legendary team known for their amazing work. No, not Man of Steel: The Last of Us, the latest game by Naughty Dog, a team most recently known for the Uncharted series.

It’s also a video game that will have you in tears after the first half hour.

Understand, The Last of Us is a grownup’s video game. No, not because of the gore or language, but adult because it’s not childish. The game does away with many tropes associated with games in its genre and instead creates a story that feels genuinely new and, more than that, genuinely emotional and heartfelt.

The Last of Us takes place in a post-apocalyptic world. Like most stories in the genre, order has been lost. There are quarantine zones where martial law is in effect but, for the most part, it’s lawlessness. But what are the quarantine zones quarantined against? Not zombies per se, but rather people who’ve been infected by this weird fungus-like thing. It’s a great scenario for a video game: put us in control of a late-twenties/early-thirties man who carves a wave of destruction through the military and infected for some reason or other. Fantastic.

But writer/director Neil Druckmann and the rest of Naughty Dog are having none of that. You don’t play as some supersoldier and this isn’t some story about a hero shooting his way to victory. In fact, the first character you play as is a helpless teenage girl looking for her father in the middle of the night. For the rest you play as Joel. His hair is graying and he’s very, well, normal. He’s like John McClane from the original Die Hard: incredibly vulnerable. He’s just an ordinary guy without training, gadgets, or even a fitness regime. Joel’s job — and by proxy the player’s — is simply to smuggle a girl, Ellie, out of the quarantine zone. He’s not out to save the world.

It’s easy enough to have this in the narrative only for it to be disconnected from gameplay. After all, the Planet may be in danger but if Cloud and friends want to go on a few side quests to level up, what’s stopping them? Not so with The Last of Us. It forces you to think as Joel. The game doesn’t let you run into firefights guns blazing, if anything it will punish you. You never have enough ammo, nor do you have enough health. The game bucks the trend of letting your life regenerate: if you get hit you’ll have to scavenge items to restore it. This reinforces your feeling of vulnerability in fights. More often then not you’ll try to avoid conflict: it’s easier.

That said, conflict in the game is visceral. Naughty Dog lays on the blood and gore in their first M-rated game; even strangling an enemy from behind is punctuated by gargles and resistance. You feel every life you take. Violence is unrestrained, but it never quite feels gratuitous. There’s no glory in it. Joel’s comments in cutscenes touch on that idea, but more the it’s desperation of battle that the game instills in you. All this is without touching on the moments of pure terror that characterize an encounter with the infected Clickers.

But large sections of gameplay are without active conflict. Sometimes it just serves story. The Last of Us takes the medium of a video game and blends it with cinema and fully utilizes both aspects. All the gameplay I mentioned earlier is married beautifully with Neil Druckmann’s script and exceptional acting and animation from all involved. I’m only a few hours into the game, but the opening — which takes place on the eve of the outbreak, twenty years before the main game — is one of the most powerful moments of storytelling I’ve experienced in any medium.

 

WARNING: The following paragraphs contains SPOILERS for the game’s opening. If you’re like me and try to avoid any spoilers whatsoever, skip it.

 

The game quickly establishes the characters: Joel’s tired from work, he’s a single dad whose daughter stayed up late to give him an early birthday gift — a watch. If you’ve paid attention you’ll notice that nothing in the game’s marketing suggested that Joel had a daughter, and then it dawns on you that something has to happen to her. When you first take control of Joel the car he, his brother, and daughter were trying to escape town in has just been wrecked. Infected swarm around them and Sarah has broken her leg. In any other game you would play as the survivor shooting his way to safety while the girl limps behind. In The Last of Us you play as a father carrying his daughter to safety. You can’t fight, you can only run through town. You are the one carrying Sarah to safety, right now you are the father trying to protect his daughter. You feel immersed because it’s a video game; Joel’s goal has become yours.

Which makes Sarah’s death at the hands of a soldier when you’ve almost reached safety all the more painful.

You watch a phenomenal cutscene as Sarah dies in her father’s arms. You’re no longer in control, you can’t do anything. You feel that helplessness as Joel tearfully pleads with his daughter to live. And tears well in your eyes as you and Joel watch her die. You couldn’t protect her. You failed. Then the game cuts from Joel’s hopeless face to the opening credits.

That’s it, no more spoilers.

 

The Last of Us uses its interactive medium to immerse you into not only its world, but the emotions within. Like the conversation you can start with Ellie about an arcade game or the subtle glance Joel gives a familiar looking watch in a cutscene: the moments are easily missed, but so typical of The Last of Us’ storytelling. Druckmann and Naughty Dog aren’t talking down to you as a player or spelling everything out for you, and they certainly aren’t trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator. They’re telling a grownup story. When you watch someone you’ve spent the past ten minutes trying to protect die in your arms it hits you all the more.

This is the power of video games. This is the game that elevates the medium.

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The Magnitude of Medium

As I hope you’ve noticed over my past few entries, I like stories. I read them, I watch them, I play them, I, um, listen? to them. In any case, here’s something I’ve noticed: the medium of a story is, in the hands of a deft writer/creator, an incredibly powerful tool.

Let’s start with books. Everyone’s (hopefully) read a book or two dozen. If not, then, well, I’m not sure what to say to you. Anyway. Books tend to be long affairs. Within them you can weave long and intricate plots and introduce dozens of characters. You have the space and you have the time to make your plot as convoluted as you want. Then there’s the beast known as internal dialogue.

One of the beauties of The Hunger Games is Suzanne Collins’ description of Katniss’ mind. Pages are devoted to the protagonist’s analysis of everything going on. Furthermore, we’re able to explore her psyche and past, getting to know just what makes her tick. This wouldn’t work in a movie, video game, or tv show. It could probably work in a comic, but nowhere near as in-depth. It’s one of many things unique to the format of books.

Now, another way to tell a long rambling story the ends with a very enigmatic ending would be television. Like books, serialized shows have time. An excellent example of a story that could only be told through serials is Lost. You may hate the ending. You may (like me) love the ending. That’s not the point here. Fundamentally, Lost is a show about characters. Everyone’s fleshed out through extensive flashbacks explaining just who they are and why they do what they do. None of their actions are out of character because we’ve had the time to learn what makes them them. This wouldn’t have worked to the same effect in a book (it’s a lot easier to watch a flashback than to listen to over a dozen characters have volumes of internal dialogue with no obvious bearing on the plot [also: no score by Michael Giacchino]). Alternately, a film simply does not have the time to so thoroughly flesh out so many characters.

Comedies probably fare the best with the serialized format. Shows like Community and How I Met Your Mother give you seasons to become (again) familiar with the characters and join their group. Those characters combined with season-spanning running jokes you’ll find that good tv comedies really use their format. The tv show starts to geel more like hanging out with old friends.

There’s another medium for storytelling that’s on the rise. Well, relative rise, anyway. Video Games. Yes, I know, we get a lot of really dumb shoot-’em-ups where the plot is about half as thin as Commando. But games like Halo, Mass Effect, and Uncharted are quickly proving that video games can tell a darn good story without having to be a role playing game (yanno, like Final Fantasy). In Uncharted the story telling has all the strengths of a good movie: strong characters, an engaging plot, and epic set pieces. But more than that, Uncharted lets you play as Nathan Drake. You get to be the hero, guiding him along the way. All the adventuring? That’s you in control. As the ship capsizes around you or the ruins crumble out from under your feet, you’re still in control, it’s you. You’re the hero.

Where video games really come out on top is immersion. In Mass Effect, Bioware created a sprawling, breathing science-fiction world with volumes of research behind it. Cool. But then you have Shepard. Well, no, sorry, you are Shepard. If you’re like me that means you spent… much more time than you should’ve on the character creation scene attempting to give Shepard a passing resemblance to yourself. Within the story you get to make choices. Do you kill this person or let him live? Do you renege on a deal and gain an allegiance at the cost of another? You actions have consequences, bringing you deeper and deeper into the world. In no other format can you gain that level of immersion.

There are others I could get into, of course. Movies, comics, webcomics, oral tradition, short stories, epic poems, all-too-short-British-tv-shows-starring-Benedict-Cumberbatch-and-Martin-Freeman-that-really-need-a-new-season-sooner-rather than later, and so on and so forth. But I think (or at least hope) I’ve made my point. Stories can be told in countless ways. The trick is to make sure you’re not only telling it the right way but using the medium to its fullest potential.

‘cuz c’mon. If it’s a good story it deserves to be told right.

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