Video games should aim higher than Michael Bay movies
Last week, scores of gamers and video game industry insiders took to the warpath over a Capital article I wrote because it asserted that The Last of Us, a hotly anticipated new survival-horror game, left “nothing to the imagination.”
(Some of them even directed their rage at film critic Roger Ebert, whose only sin was that he tweeted a link to the piece.)
Lost in the ensuing scuffle was the larger point that the market is leading the video-game industry into the same kind of anticreative phase that the American film industry has been in for the past decade.
“The Last of Us,” as a title, inadvertently evokes how it feels to be a gamer, movie fanboy and film critic at the moment. What I believe has happened to "us" is a scenario straight out of apocalyptic video games and movies: Right before our eyes, moviegoers are being conditioned to accept increasingly machine-like image assembly.
Film editing used to consist of taking the shots that make up a scene and assembling them in such a manner that the viewer was unlikely to notice the transition, but only the emotional and conceptual content of the scene. The means to dismantle this elegant craft had already been in place since the late 1980's, thanks to digital non-linear editing. But classical form in mainstream American commercial cinema persisted right up until DVD players became ubiquitous household items.
With DVD, the home viewer had the same ability as digital editors to skip ahead (or back) to the "good parts" of a film or video program. TV commercials and music videos had already inured audiences to near-constant ruptures in the visual flow for short-form storytelling. Now the DVD gave the average home viewer (who, for the most part, had had no experience with DVD's more upscale precursor, the Laserdic) an extra dimension of voting power aside from the remote control.
Suddenly, a commercial director-turned-feature filmmaker like Michael Bay, whose split-second shots in his disaster epic Armageddon (1997) critics generally took as either brashly experimental or trashily commercial, could hold an audience captive without bothering much with narrative suspense.
The norm in 2012 is for shots to arrive on the screen with a silent crash, a new configuration of motion, light and perspective thrust on the audience, producing what film editing guru Edward Dmytryk called a "mental hiccup," or speed bump. Each of these disruptions, flowing not from dramatic necessity but from a fear of losing the attention of a superficially engaged viewer, is an act of sensory violence. And, like actual violence, it can imprint the victim. The past decade of having our eyes dragged across millions of violent ruptures in even the gentlest narrative situations has encoded us with this expectation.
So now big commercial films run at ever-higher speeds over thousands of speed bumps, catering to an audience the creators seem to think of as frantic shoppers. The time it takes to watch the chemistry blossom between two actors in a two-shot, or for a powerful realization to light up a face in close-up, is a luxury they don't believe they, or we, can afford.
Video games never had this problem. The most violent, flashy video game does minimal violence to our sense of temporal and spatial continuity; it's a built-in property (virtue, really) of the medium. The user is the protagonist and so must remain properly oriented to his environment as much as possible. In this sense, Mortal Kombat is far less "violent" than Bridesmaids.
What seems to be happening now is that big game developers and publishers are aspiring to become more like their movie-industry counterparts. Perhaps this explains the increasing prevalence of cutscenes in the game play and, for that matter, of graphically violent content.
Some game fans argued that basing my assessment of The Last of Us and its creators on the gameplay footage screened at the 2012 E3 expo was unfair, both to the game and to game critics. From their comments, I gather that The Last of Us aspires to the solemn profundity of Cormac McCarthy's The Road or Michael Haneke's Time of the Wolf.
PSX Extreme editor Ben S. Dutka posted a thoughtful reaction to the controversy on his site, and also sent me an email clueing me into the game's pedigree: "I can tell you from experience that just about every journalist and critic in the industry is anxiously awaiting it; we all believe we NEED it to counteract the influx of flashy, pointless violence and gore... We all know [The Last of Us game developer] Naughty Dog, and while what they showed at E3 was bound to get the masses intrigued, the premise of The Last Of Us will absolutely compel all players to think, move slowly, and even consider the moral implications of their actions."
But it's that powerful edit, reminiscent of a classic cut in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights, that leaves me full of doubt.
A shotgun blast to the face cuts to a title against black. Whereas Little Bill's revolver suicide in Boogie Nights, punctuated with the title card, "80's," provoked queasy mirth, sorrow and contemplation on the spiraling excesses of American life at the dawn of the Reagan era, that Last of Us cut communicates, to me, "Fuck yeah. Killing."
The hero's flippant sidekick, who sounds like Ellen Page flatly delivering Juno one-liners as she watches one of her protector's victims expire on the floor, seems ready to roam the ganglands of Grand Theft Auto (a game series which I happen to admire for its honesty about its intentions, its satirical edge and its affectionate rendering of American cityscapes.)
The game, as marketed by the company that made it, seems to me to be less about prompting consideration of moral implications than it is about keeping viewers in a reactive state, like the worst television does. And it doesn't just seem this way to me because of how violent it is.
Crude, ultraviolent Quake II for the old Nintendo 64 is one of my all-time favorite games. I remember spending afternoons blasting hundreds of mutants, dogs and guards straight to hell as I jetted from planet to planet. The best part was tossing grenades over an icy cliff, down among the rabid alien dogs below. They whimpered as they exploded out of sight. Each time they did, I snickered like Inspector Gadget's cat.
The N-64 Quake II was as eerie and immersive as George Lucas' THX-1138 or the original ALIEN, coaxing the player along with mysterious ambient sounds and encounters with aliens that passed without endless explanation or flippant Marine chitchat (the standard of post-Halo combat games).
By contrast, the Playstation version of Quake II featured hard-charging heavy metal music and clear explication of the mission. It seemed designed for kids who hate surprises or mysteries and just wanted to enjoy a monster killing spree. The N-64 offered the same space cowboy pleasures, but without those "cool" elements that keep the player narrowly focused on the outcome (like a slow-witted sniper who nevertheless shoots real good) rather than open to the experience in full.
Even my beloved old Grand Theft Auto is liberating mostly because the criminal avatar is running wild in the streets of strange but eerily familiar cities, not because he can shoot hookers in the chest. And when you plug in certain cheat codes, you can go flying over a fake L.A. in a lowrider full of homies. There's more moral humanity in Grand Theft Auto, any more than there is in any of the war games of the past decade.
Dutka says I mischaracterized the general critical response to The Last of Us, which referred to a struggle between "killers and poets."
"The way your piece is worded, it sort of makes it sound like critics and journalists drool over anything violent and aren't necessarily rewarding the aforementioned poets," he wrote. "And although I do agree that everyone these days is far too impressed with things that have no substance or redeeming value, I have to say that in regards to reviews, critics almost always reward the artistically accomplished."
He pointed to high-rated titles like Mass Efect 3 and the completely nonviolent fantasy Journey as examples of role-playing games that the critics tend to prefer over the more popular bloodsport shooters.
He also suggested another difference between film critics and game critics: The game critics are more powerful, in relative commercial terms.
"We are a bigger driver of industry sales than critics in any other entertainment industry," he wrote. "Thankfully, unlike movies - where the worst, most mocked films can be box office smashes - games don't sell if critics hate them. Bad games almost never sell well. This is why one of the world's biggest publishers, Electronic Arts, continually says during interviews that they strive to put out '90+' games all the time. That's a 9+ on the traditional review game scale and those are the products that sell. Publishers know this very, very well."
Reading Dutka's comment, I thought about Electronic Arts' SSX snowboarding series, the latest version of which I'd played recently. What a thrilling and beautifully rendered sports game. When you soar into the air high above snowcapped mountains, your heart doesn't just race, it leaps, in the child-like way it did when, long ago, the Millennium Falcon jumped to lightspeed.
Carolyn Petit, game critic for Gamepot, also looked on the bright side: "I could be wrong, of course, but reactions to this year's E3 give me reason to think that the direction of the wind might be changing a bit; there will always be violent video games but what was once shocking and electrifying is becoming expected and rote, and I like to think that developers will take note of this and find reasons to get people excited about their games that have nothing to do with violence. Thank goodness for Nintendo; the most delightful experience I had at this year's E3 was a wonderful cooperative game of the charming side-scrolling platformer Rayman Legends, which uses the upcoming Nintendo console (the Wii U) to create new kinds of multiplayer experiences. I love a visceral, savage action game now and then and I think that some such games do have moral centers, but it's Nintendo's all-ages appeal and innovative multiplayer experiences that keep reminding me why it is I love games so much."
Listening to creative watchdogs like Dutka and Petit, I almost wonder if I'm projecting the sins of film critics onto the game industry. In film criticism there has been entirely too much equivocating, and too much devil's advocacy for prevailing corporate trends that are thoughtless and profit-obsessed. As is often the case with the media's coverage of politics or big business, there is a tendency to focus too much on the success or failure of the mission and not nearly enough on whether the mission was worthwhile in the first place.
Film critic Michael Mirasol, a soulful game critic himself, described the stakes to me this way: "Video games reach into kids' lives and tell stories or evoke wonders/truths that can't be understated. When great and nuanced, they are able spark something in the heart. At their worst, they can deaden empathy."
It made me think of something documentarian Layna Fisher once told me about her "amazing" encounters with children in Sierra Leone. She said these kids displayed keener emotional intelligence than most adult urban professionals she knew back in the United States.
"They look you in the eye and take real interest in you," she said. "Other people are a source of excitement and wonder for them."
I wonder what kind of movies these children watch, and what kind of games they play.