I recently listening to an old edition of the Slashfilm podcast where they interviewed Armond White. I sort of recognised that name, but couldn't place it. No matter. Anyway, in the interview, White said a few things that I found interesting. He hasn't got many kind words for Roger Ebert, complaining that he's more like a professional fan than a genuine film critic and that he is single-handedly responsible for the death of film criticism.
I do think it is fair to say that Roger Ebert destroyed film criticism. Because of the wide and far reach of television, he became an example of what a film critic does for too many people. And what he did simply was not criticism. It was simply blather. And it was a kind of purposefully dishonest enthusiasm for product, not real criticism at all
White also complains that, since everyone has a blog now, they all think that makes them a legitimate criticI keep using qualifiers like 'genuine' and 'legitimate' because White is convinced that he is the only "pedigreed film critic" around, that the internet promotes "free-for-all of enthusiasm rather than criticism". As someone with a blog who tries to write critically, I think he's a little harsh here. Maybe feeling threatened by the democratisation of opinion?
But then you stumble across something like "Lights, Camera, Jackson", this faux-charming little bollocks of a stage-school drop-outI'm calling it now, 'Lights, Camera, Jackson' is the next James Harries, complete with future gender-reassignment surgery. Mark my words. and you think - hey, maybe Armond White has a point
This got me thinking a bit more about him, trying to remember where I'd heard his name before. Armond White… Armond White… Oh shit… Armond White!. He's the fearlessly outspokenhilariously contrarian film critic who seems to be on a one-man mission to fuck with the metrics that make sites like Rottentomatoes useful. Out of 235 reviews, his is the first of three negative reviews that prevented Toy Story 3 from getting a perfect score, complaining that it wasn't as good as Transformers 2.
In other words, he is to film criticism what Glen Beck or Joe Duffy are to political opinion.
Other amazing quotes from Armond White:
Talking about There Will be Blood, he said "Plainview is the most remarkable movie performance since Eddie Murphy’s Norbit trifecta"
In the Loop is "for smart arses, not smart enough to appreciate the cultural satire of Hot Fuzz"
"Forget the Oscar bait, Transporter 3 is the only movie you need to see this season"
It's a shame. Having read a few of his reviews, he does genuinely seem to be a smart, well-educated fellow. It's just a shame that the rise of online film criticism has led him to chase page-views through controversial statements.
It's annoying because it comes so close to being a genuinely good game. I mean, on paper, it's exactly the kind of game I would love. All the things I like are there: monsters, guns, post-apocalyptic RussiaNo idea why, but a post-apocalyptic Russia always grabbed my interest more than a post-apocalyptic USA.. It's based on an award-winning Russian science fiction story, so its story should be at least halfway decent, if previous experience with Russian science fiction stories are anything to go by. The game just lets itself down somehow. There's something missing.
Okay, the game is missing a lot of things. Like actual, honest-to-goodness character development. And a facial modelling system that actually conveys emotion instead of looking like some first-year animation student tinkering with 3D Studio Max. Most importantly though, it's missing a decent control mechanic. It's no great surprise to say that games work best when there's a 1:1 relationship between what you input on the controller and what happens in the game. In Metro 2033, there's a noticeable lag between the two, so the whole game feels 'off'. You get the vague sense of controlling a floaty gun wandering through a 3D space, but not much more than that.
A wonky control scheme by itself isn't won't kill a game. Plenty of games have managed to make their games work just fine regardless of how good their controls are. For example, Singularity - another game set in a (sorta) post-apocalyptic Russia - also has 'floaty' controls (another in a long list of things it copied wholesale from Bioshock). But, to its credit, it acknowledges this and works around this apparent limitation. It says "we understand our control scheme isn't the greatest, so we won't really ask too much of you except to shoot monsters." It works well because of that.
The developers of Metro 2033, God bless them, tried hard to make their game more than just a straight shooter. Some levels include 'stealth' sections, where you have to sneak around guards/monsters and avoid traps that draw attention to your character. Except their controls don't really allow you to accomplish this. Your character moves sluggishly, like the entire world is made of toffee. It's hard to judge lateral distance, so you'll inadvertently set off traps that you were trying to avoid. This is irritating at the best of times, but during the stealth sequences, it's especially annoying. I got about halfway through the game before I hit one particular stealth sequence. I kept triggering traps despite doing everything I could to avoid them. It frustrated me so much, I turned off the game out of spite. I doubt I'll go back to it again.
It's a shame because, like I said, I enjoyed the idea of Metro 2033, the monsters, guns and post-apocalyptic Russia. It's a shame when the game gets in the way of the game. It's the superficial things that stop you from fully enjoying it. Imagine a horror writer decided his stories should be printed in a novelty 'horror' typeface.
Although it may be a cute novelty, it doesn't enhance the story at all. It just frustrates the reader. It doesn't matter how good the story is if the reader gives up halfway through because of some mechanical problem. It's the same for games. How many games have you just given up on because you figured no story is worth battling with crappy mechanics?
On the whole, I don't really care about spoilers. If your enjoyment of a movie is based entirely around not knowing a particular plot point, then the movie hasn't really done its job. Inception, like most of Christopher Nolan's films, is so dense and complex as to be pretty much spoiler-proof. I know there's this stuff about a dream, and then a dream-within-a-dream, and then, later on, a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream (I think). Apart from that, it's all a little fuzzy.
Even still, there's been an almost universal, unwritten agreement among critics that it's best to not reveal too much about the film. I guess it's so people can go in completely fresh. Even Mark Kermode, who had previously spoiled Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (which he now refers to as "the unfortunate incident after being hit with nerd-rage") has said very little about the plot of the film.
What people are talking about, because they figure it's not spoiling anything, is the last shot of the film. "What did you think of the last shot?" they ask. "What noise did you make? I made a sort of a 'whoah' combined with a 'huh?'" And they're right to talk. Inception has one of those bravura endings that, if you were feeling particularly cynical, could easily be interpreted as the director showing off. It's right up there with Brad Pitt channelling Quentin Tarantino at the end of Inglourious Basterds: "You know somethin', Utivich? I think this just might be my masterpiece."
And, to be honest, just knowing there was this great final shot kind of spoiled the ending for me. I was sitting in the cinema trying to predict what the final shot would be, what I thought would be worth talking about. Like being told there's a twist in the movie, but not told what the twist is - you spend the entire movie thinking "She's a he! It's all a dream! The butler did it!" Technically the movie isn't spoiled, but at the same time, it is.
Christopher Nolan may be getting better with each film, but he still can't manage even simple walk-and-talk exposition. There was a lot of explaining in this movie, and he handled it by showing a lot of people sitting around saying "What?"
Coming out of the screening I went to (UCI Coolock in Dublin), I overheard someone saying "Nah, I didn't like that at all. You had to concentrate too hard". Except with a thick, Coolock accent.
Did no-one else think the film's depiction of the dream-world was a little boring? A little unimaginative? For all its cleverness - "You always wind up right in the middle of what's going on" - it completely ignored the fundamentally weird nature of dreams: running at full speed, but not getting anywhere; the feeling of the ground suddenly disappearing beneath you. Paprika did a much better job of conveying the feeling of being inside a dream, with all its twisted logic.
Jesus Christ, it's time that Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan parted ways. I know Inception is getting a lot of praise for its score, but holy shit, it sounded the exact same as every other score they've done together, except this time it was mixed by a demented monkey with a demented-monkey-boner for pulsing violins. Make it stop!
My uncle - the conspiracy nut - is so convinced that the end-times are coming that he's spent €200 on non-perishable, tinned foods. He's storing them at different, strategic points around the house.
My 18-year old niece - who ran away to Egypt to get married - has left her husband and is now on the run from him. She won't tell anyone where she is. She let the husband know she'd left him by changing her Facebook status to "single".
As you probably noticed, I'm playing about with the comments on my blog: disabling them for most new articles, unless I really, really want to hear what other people have to say. This sounds like a total dick move. "You're suppressing debate!" Probably. I don't really see it that way. The thing that kind of swung the no-comments move for me was something Merlin Mann said during his presentation with John Gruber at SXSW, when he recalled what John Gruber's response when he asked him why he doesn't enable comments on daringfireball.net:
... you were like ‘I wanna own every single pixel on my site, from the top left to the lower right. And if I have somebody come in — even if it’s somebody incredibly smart; even if it’s whoever; even if it’s SeoulBrother comes in and has something to say, like somebody really smart and really funny, like, it’s not my site any more.’.
I turned off comments in the last redesign of powazek.com because I needed a place online that was just for me. With comments on, when I sat down to write, I’d preemptively hear the comments I’d inevitably get. It made writing a chore, and eventually I stopped writing altogether. Turning comments off was like taking a weight off my shoulders. It freed me to write again.
This is what sold me. I don't know if you've noticed, but my blog output has gone up since disabling comments, exactly because I don't feel like I have to think about every word I write. I can write bullshit like that thing about Before Sunset - stuff that I would have previously held back because I'd have visions of a random drive-by commenter calling me out on it, making me feel bad.
Update: I was having second thoughts about the no-comments thing. Over the past few days, people have been very pointedly asking me why I've disabled comments - who the fuck did I think I was, comparing myself to John Gruber? - so I was thinking maybe I should just turn them back on. That is, until I enabled the Daring Fireball with Comments extension for Safari yesterday. This is from a random article (click for the larger version):
See? It completely changes the mood of the site. This is exactly what I don't want, so I think my comments will be staying off for the time being.
If you don't know this film, it's about two people, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who meet on a train, realise they've got an immediate connection and decide to spend the night walking the streets of Vienna before Ethan Hawke has to fly home to America the next morning. Throughout the night, they keep coming across all sorts of interesting things, such as: late night fairs, palm readers, late night cafes, dive bars with pinball machines, churches that apparently stay open all night, bums that will write you a poem for some money. I'll save my opinion of the actual film for another time (quick spoiler: thought it was a great film when I saw it in my early twenties; in my early thirties, however, I thought they were a pair of hateful douches). What I was thinking though is how I'd love to see that movie set in Rome. Because you know what's open in Rome after midnight? You know what's happening around this city once it gets dark?
Seriously. I really cannot believe it sometimes. Most bars close around 1am - except for the 'social clubs' - speakeasy-type joints that are well-hidden and very wary of strangers. You could go to the coked-out clubs in Testaccio, I suppose. They're too busy snorting and preening to notice the time. But in general, after 2am, this city is a ghost town. A really sketchy ghost town. We used to have a McDonalds near us that would close at 10.30pm. 11.00pm on Saturday nights - as an Irish man who is used to his battered sausage and curry chips after a night in the pub, this was the most painful for me: there's nowhere to get any kind food after the bars close.
Things are only worse during August. Already, a load of bars, restaurants and cinemas are already closed in anticipation of ferragosto - a month-long celebration of whateverthefuck. I honestly have no idea what's being celebrated. I just know that the end result is that most Romans disappear off to the beach or somewhere less oppressively hot. Which has its benefits too. Sure, more things are closed and you have to think about what shops are still open when you want a pint of milk, but the lack of crowds means that the city is a much more pleasant place to be. Still, doesn't help my initial point: there's almost nothing to do in Rome after dark.
I'd really love to see Before Sunrise: Rome Edition. I bet it would be a real short film.
There'll be some discussion of the ending of Mass Effect 2, so if you haven't played that game all the way through and you like your life spoiler-free, stop reading now
After about 30 hours of playing, I finally, finally finished Mass Effect 2. And having finished it now, I'm still happy that pretty much everything I said about the game still stands. There were a couple of side-missions that were time-based: you have X number of minutes to escape from X or to stop X from happening, but these were still small, local instances, usually coming at the ends of missions. There was no sense of urgency to any the larger narrative. Take all the time you need; that person dying of space-flu or space-gonorrhoea or whatever in isn't going anywhere. He's in another mission. Sure, the galaxy needs saving, but - holy shit! - that Krogan hasn't tasted sushi before. Better take care of that first!
Which is why the ending feels like such a cheap shot.
After being stung by some of my choices at the end of the first Mass Effect - where the game pulled a switcheroo and the person I actually wanted to save ended up being the person that died - I made sure that, for Mass Effect 2, I read up about the ending and what choices I should make if I wanted my characters to survive. Some might call this cheating. To this, I say: FUCK YOU. Including the first game, I'll have spent around 60 hours playing as this character and I'm not going to leave this shit to chance again.
When you return to the Normandy, you will have the ability to go through the Omega 4 relay in pursuit of the Collector ship. If you go on any other missions first, half the Normandy's crew will be killed, including Yeoman Chambers.
Now, I wasn't affected by this because, like I said, there were almost no side-missions left by the time I came to travelling through the Omega 4 relay. But still, I feel like this is unnecessarily punitive, especially since that the developers have established one rule throughout the game: that you can delay and it doesn't matter. Why the abrupt change? Why punish players like this? Why Yeoman Chambers?!
For the record (and as I mentioned on Twitter), immediately after saving the galaxy, I jumped straight in and did the dirt on Miranda. Commander Shepard: space mutt
Probably these developers know something I don’t. Probably they know that their market already understands the conventions of this world, and that eventually, and through repetition, anything that deviates from these conventions seems somehow false. (I suspect that this might be what Tom means when he mentions games literacy.) But for me, this time at least, it never stopped feeling like a videogame.
This is a criticism I hear a lot - that playing videogames presupposes a certain amount of knowledge. The reason I hear it a lot is because my wife is so unfamiliar with videogame conventions. So much that she's a terrific litmus test for the accessibility of a particular game. Give me a joypad and my hands instinctively fall into a familiar grip. After a short while, I'll be accustomed to the controls of a game that there will be almost no barrier between what I want to do and what I can make the game do. The controls will disappear for me, allowing me to fully immerse myself in the game. For my wife, the controls are always present. She isn't familiar with the joypad, so when the game tells her to "Press X to open", she has to actively think about where button X is. It will never not be a game for her. Years of experience has taught me that, almost universally, "X" (or "bottom button") means "Okay" and "O" (or "right button") means "Cancel". I've been doing this for so long that I don't even think about it now. For my wife, this is still a strange concept even though she uses these buttons every day to watch movies and TV through our Xbox.
Within the game worlds themselves, there are also conventions that might only be immediately obvious to someone who is familiar with games and has been playing them for a substantial amount of time. For example, the near-ubiquitous red barrel has an obvious meaning to gamers: kick-ass explosions. Wooden crates can be smashed open to potentially give you some amazing loot. In most games, the double-jump has no grounding in either the narrative or the physics of the world - I mean, what the fuck is that? Someone can 'jump' again in mid-air to go even higher? Seriously? - but this is something I almost expect when I'm playing a platform game. When it isn't present, I feel like something is missing. Giant Bomb has helpfully put together a fairly comprehensive list of the most common videogame conventions so that we don't have to go through them all here.
And so it's not so much the fact that these conventions exist that bother me, but more the fact that this is used as a stick to beat videogames as a medium. A typical conversation when we try to play games together:
"How did you know you could open that door but not the door beside it?"
"Not to me!"
"Well, because 25 years of playing videogames has taught me which doors can be opened and which can't."
"You see?! This is why I can't play videogames!"
Here's where I'm in danger of sounding like a snob, but my answer to this is: so learn, get used to it.Or, to put it in more Xbox Live-friendly terms: have you considered sucking less?
You're reading my blog, so I'm guessing that you're probably a middle-to-upper class white male with at least a secondary school educationand your name is probably Steve, Bob or Gar. You probably spend a fair portion of your spare time reading - I mean, no-one's paying you to read this so, if nothing else, I'm probably right with this assumption. Now, just think about the conventions of reading. We take it for granted, but this, too, presupposes a whole bunch of stuff. Obviously, you have to be familiar with the language, you have to be familiar with the form of the letters, the spellings of words. You have to understand the process of reading (in English, at least) from left-to-right, then top-to-bottom. These are the literary analogues to videogame control conventions, "X means 'okay'".
Once you actually master the mechanics of it, there are also conventions used in literature and reading. Right now I'm reading David Foster Wallace's The Broom of the System. To read this properly, to understand it and convert it from just words on a page to ideas and concepts, it helps to be familiar with, among other things, the logic of metafiction and the various philosophical theories of language including, but not limited to, the theories of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The first time I read Thomas Pynchon's V, I was completely unfamiliar with metafiction, and I had a hard time reading that book. Just as the game never stopped being a videogame for Emmett, V never stopped being a book for me. I was reading at such a cripplingly slow pace that it took me forever, which meant I never really developed a 'flow'. I was always completely conscious of the process of writing that made up this book. I didn't enjoy it. Because I wasn't immersed in the subject of the work, I was very aware of the form of the work, I was aware of the author's 'tricks'. It's like my wife playing a game, the controller/book never disappeared for meMy second read-trough, after more exposure to the genre of metafiction, more exposure to Pynchon's work, was much more successful. I don't think anyone would accuse the book of being at fault here. I was unfamiliar with the genre, and I was punching above my weight. I knew that. I accepted that.
I guess this is made worse with games because they are all rules, they're all convention. I recently played a game of Carcassonne with my wife, and the rules never once disappeared into the background because we constantly had to think about what we were doing. Our first game of Dungeons & Dragons was quickly disbanded after we said "fuck this" because we couldn't figure out what the various numbers meant or how we were meant to calculate things. In none of these cases did we blame the game's rules, we blamed ourselves for not knowing themThis is a lie, we totally blamed the D&D rules. Christ, even their "beginner's guide" is written with the assumption you were playing D&D in the womb. In videogame terms, I have little experience of Japanese RPGs. As a result, I don't enjoy playing them. Their rules are so transparent that I feel like I'm watching an Excel spreadsheet with fancy graphics. At the same time, I'm unfamiliar with their conventions. Do you know how long it took me to wrap my head around the concept of 'grinding'My enjoyment of Dragon Quest VIII increased immeasurably once I copped to this? These games never stop being 'games' for me. I'm never immersed.
But still, what should be done? What should I do when I'm having trouble reading a book like V? Well, I should read other books. Books that are more at my reading-level. Slowly build myself up my familiarity with literary conventions so that I could enjoy the book properly. You wouldn't expect a teenager coming straight off Twilight (for example) to be able to pick up and enjoy Ulysses (again, for example), so I don't see why you'd expect someone completely unfamiliar with modern videogames to be able to enjoy them properly either.
A couple of days ago, I wrote about how Red Dead Redemption could be seen as a useful metric to demonstrate how far videogaming has come. Now I want to discuss the other side of that argument, how Red Dead Redemption represents how far videogames still have to go as a medium.
Let's tackle the issues in reverse order
As Emmett points out, despite being labelled an 'open world' game, Red Dead Redemption does not offer the player a particularly satisfying level of immersion and freedom. There's very little actual 'openness'. It's hard to play this game and not feel an amount of disappointment with the enormous gap between what is possible in the game and what you wish was possible. As with almost every game I play (especially these open world, sandbox games), the first thing I did with Red Dead Redemption was to test just how far I could push the game until it breaks. This gives me a feel for the 'rules' of the world I'm in. I started running around, knocking things over, knocking people over. I wanted to see if there was any way to get the non-player characters to react to me in the world. Nothing happened. I spent five minutes pushing one NPC into a fire, and again, nothing happened. One of the face-buttons on the controller allows you to 'interact' with NPCs; however, this could be more accurately described as a button that allows you to "tip your hat and say ma'm". It does nothing else. This is the extent of your ability to interact with the majority of characters beyond shooting them deadEven this isn't final. I can't think of the amount of times I shot the poker players in Armadillo only to have them re-appear the next day.
And while I praised Read Dead Redemption for the range of possibilities it presented, the game offers little outside the realm of prescribed activities. Apart from the hilariousbugs, very little emergent behaviour is possible within the strict videogame framework. Despite being traditionally one of the most popular activities in westerns, your character cannot rob a bank. One could argue that this is intended to keep your character in line with the game's narrative (similar to why you cannot hire a prostitute in this game, despite it being one of the most famous features of its Grand Theft Auto cousins). Why, then, can none of these things be done during the game's epilogue, when none of these rules apply?
On the other hand, perhaps this criticism is unfair. True 'openness' is virtually impossible to achieve without the assistance of a real games master behind the curtain -- as in Jason Rohrer's Sleep is Death -- or a virtual one -- such as the kind of thing we're approaching with Left 4 Dead's AI Director. On the plus side, at least the game's setting helps give the lack of activity a sense of reality. For me, one of the most frustrating parts of Grand Theft Auto IV was the way in which the city appeared to be a bustling metropolis, a living world, yet the vast majority of the buildings were just flat textures draped over geometric shapes which you couldn't interact with. Plus, with the crowds of people in GTAIV, there was enough character model repetition to break any sense of believability. It's hard to take a game seriously when it randomly sends a herd of identical characters coming your way. Red Dead Redemption at least does away with these unbelievable flat-textured districts populated by clones in favour of a more believable barely-populated expanse of prairie. This at least makes sense within the context of its setting.
In my previous post, I mentioned how Kane was criticised for not having enough for the player to do. However, no-one complained about the weak-sauce narrative that supposedly tied the entire thing together. Maybe this was just a product of its time - 'story' didn't seem to be a major concern in 1986 (the year that gave us Crocodile Dundee, Cobra and Police Academy 3: Back in Training). Or maybe it's just that no-one thought a videogame could or should have a good story, so it was just taken as given that any story tacked onto a videogame would be a pile of ass. Who cares about story when shit blows up good?
First of all, let's call a spade a spade. It's 2010 and the story of Red Dead Redemption is no great shakes either. An outlaw, trying to mend his ways but brought back out for one last job. If that sounds familiar to you, it's probably because it's also the plot of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, a film that the developers return to again and again. Along the way, Read Dead Redemption touches on themes of manifest destiny, the taming of the frontier west and the whole Conradian question of whether civilisation is actually just savagery with a nattier dress sense. Again, these are themes that we see time and again across the entire Western genre. When Red Dead Redemption actively attempts to tackle these themes, it demonstrates just how immature videogames are as a storytelling form. For example, as a mouthpiece for the supposed dangers of scientific hubris and the inherent savagery hidden beneath civility, Harold MacDougal is handled dreadfully. There is no subtlety to any of his conversations. It's as if Rockstar were so afraid that people might miss their point with this character that they decided to hit the player over the head.
Few characters in the game are handled much better than MacDougal. For the briefest of moments, I thought Rockstar were demonstrating an understanding of subtlety with their handling of the relationship between Vincente de Santa and Quique Montemayor. The first time you meet them, there is a brief look between the two of them that makes you think "hey - are they together?" It was so brief, so easy to miss that I thought maybe I was either imagining it or reading too much into a few keyframes thrown in by a bored animator. A few more interactions and it is hinted that, yes, these characters are in a homosexual relationship. But just like with MacDougal, the game eventually gives over, afraid that you might have missed those hints, again hits you over the head with the point: these characters are gay. This isn't even the worst of Read Dead Redemption's crimes against characterisation. Marshall Johnson is little better than a slightly less hateful (but similarly, slightly less nuanced) version of Unforgiven's Little Bill Daggett. Landon Ricketts is clearly the bastard son of Lee Van Cleef and Sam Elliott. The snake oil salesman, Nigel West Dickens, well... well, he's just a sophomoric creation lacking any sort of nuance or wit.
As well as the characters, many of the game's missions are also lifted from films. For example, the stampede scene from Red River becomes an entire mission in Read Dead Redemption. Another involves rescuing Bonnie MacFarlane from hanging, just like in Hang 'Em High. Robbing a train full of ammunition? The Wild Bunch. The side-mission where the player must save a person from being hung by shooting the rope is obviously taken directly from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Except without any of the tension or narrative support. Throughout the game, you are asked to save prostitutes from being sliced by some knife-wielding cowboy who, just like in Unforgiven, took offence at the prostitute laughing at the size of his penis. Unforgiven turned hat event into the inciting incident of that film. Red Dead Redemption treats it like a throwaway joke.
Against direct comparisons to film (which it seems to openly invite), Red Dead Redemption falls completely flat. The lack of originality in its storytelling is only exacerbated by the ham-fisted way in which it is executed.
With that said, what these films fail to achieve and what Rockstar seem to pull off so easily is to provoke an emotional reaction to its themes. The Wild Bunch can make you think about the end of the era of the outlaw cowboy, but Red Dead Redemption can actually elicit an emotional response to this same theme. The reason Rockstar succeed where the movies fail is because of immersion. Your own experience is central to Red Dead Redemption, and placing you inside a well-realised world helps colour your experience.
Mise-en-scene is an enormous part of storytelling. I'm a huge theme park nerd, and my favourite part of any good theme park ride is the pre-show area, where you queue to actually get on the ride. To stop punters getting bored, the creators of theme park rides often litter the queuing area with props which create atmosphere and allow the punter to construct their own story before they even get on the ride. When it's done well, the scene-setting transforms a good ride into a great ride.
Videogames have the ability to create a level of mise-en-scene that film, as a medium, has no hope of replicating. Red Dead Redemption is filled with incidental details that serve no explicit storytelling purpose but just enrich the atmosphere of the game. Props that tell stories, if you want them to. For example, although it isn't beaten to death in the game, Marshall Johnson is a widower. If you want to, you can find his wife's gravestone in the local graveyard. This allows the player to fill in the gaps and construct a back-story for Johnson, more than actually comes up in the course of gameplay. Likewise, the environment is dotted with things for people to find. For example, the 'Mystery Site' at Repentance Rockhas become famous precisely because there's no explanation for it. It's just there for players to stumble across and flesh out their experience. A film, on the other hand, is limited in how much it can put on screen. It must be judicious in its mise-en-scene. Too much and it can be confusing. As huge a fan as I am, Terry Gilliam sometimes tries to cram so much on screen at once that his films become visually distractingThe Adventures of Baron Munchausen is one of my favourite films of all time, but I think I've only twice managed to watch it in one sitting. Every other time, my brain just shuts down from overstimulation.
Similarly, while film places the audience very much apart from the action, but videogames literally puts you inside of the action. This isn't someone else's story, this is your story. Although everyone plays the same game, the way in which you approach this game allows you to write your own story. How many people came across grieving suicide man? How many did it while hunting beaver in Aurora Basin? How many did it having just survived an attack by a grizzly bear and a coyote? How many players actually came across the Mystery Site at Repentance Rock? Although I share experiences with other people who played Red Dead Redemption, my play-through is my story. While some people argue that this kind of immersion can have a negative effect, it's also one of the medium's biggest strengths.
From a storytelling point of view, immersion is a valuable tool that Red Dead Redemption often uses to its full advantage. Even without the overarching narrative of the cutscenes and interactions with characters -- the traditional storytelling tools used in videogames -- the game tells an entire story just using atmosphere and its immersion.
(Here's where I'm going to have to get a bit spoiler-heavy. If you haven't played the game to see "REDEMPTION" flash across the screen, you might want to stop reading now).
The opening acts of Red Dead Redemption take place in the classic image of the frontier west: one-horse towns with ramshackle, wooden buildings. Lawless places where storekeepers aren't afraid to tell you about their hatred of the jews. These towns paint a picture. Just as the town of Deadwood was as important a character to that show as Al Swearingen and Seth Bullock, the frontier towns you visit in the game are as important to the story of Red Dead Redemption as Nigel West Dickens and Landon Ricketts. You spend a good twenty hours in this version of west and, at the end of those twenty hours, you come to appreciate it, you come to romanticise it. Although some might accuse me of overstating my case, I'll say you actually develop an emotional attachment to this placeOn a similar note, I'd argue that the 12 or so lonely hours you spend in the world of Shadow of the Colossus helps you develop an enormous bond with your only companion throughout that game -- your horse, Agro -- to similar emotional results.
So, when you finally reach the town of Blackwater, the last section of the game -- with its brick buildings, tea rooms and vision of modernity -- you actually feel out of place. You feel as if you are, as Landon Ricketts says, a relic, an anachronism. I personally felt a genuine sense of disappointment that I'd left the west that I'd come to love, because as a player, you understand that version of the west. As a character, MacDougal might be clumsily written, but he's a perfect cipher for the entire town of Blackwater - underneath his facade of physiognomy, MacDougal is a racist prick - perhaps worse than the shopkeeper in Armadillo because he believes his racism is scientifically justified (the shopkeeper just hates Jews, take it or leave it). Blackwater is probably more savage than any of the frontier towns you've visited -- suddenly you don't feel as if the things you're forced to do are serving any sort of 'greater good', they're just plain mean -- but Blackwater hides this savagery under a facade of modern brickwork and electricity.
The experience of reuniting with your family at the end is difficult to describe to someone who hasn't played through to this part of the game. Having been exposed to the viciousness and brutality of Blackwater and having finally put a (somewhat unsatisfactory) end to your outlaw days, a return to a more straightforward, rural life is incredibly affecting. You might not be taking on gangs of armed bandits, but the idea of spending a few hours tending to your herd, teaching your son to shoot -- the quiet life -- feels like a reward. As I pointed out, Read Dead Redemption essentially apes the entire plot of Unforgiven, yet for everything that film did right, at no point did it make me feel any sort of emotional connection to Clint Eastwood's character. At no point did I have the tiniest inkling of what it meant to put down guns, leave the outlaw way of life behind and to settle down. For everything Read Dead Redemption did wrong, I understood this. I felt this.
In many ways, the twenty-four years that separate Kane and Read Dead Redemption are like the hundred-something years that separate the Lumiere brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat and James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar. There's no question that Cameron trumps the Lumieres in terms of sheer spectacle, but it's debatable whether his film actually represents a century of storytelling progress. The level of technological sophistication in Read Dead Redemption is leaps and bounds above that of Kane, but at the same time, there can be little doubt that the level of storytelling has also improved. Granted, we're talking about the progression from virtually nothing to mere cave paintings, but it's still a demonstrable improvement. But, more hopefully, there's improvement in the right direction. Rather than simply aping films and filmic conventions, videogames are finding their own feet when it comes to storytelling. They are using the uniqueness of their own medium to their advantage.
If you've got five minutes, you should go read his essay now, but if you had a quick look and you're still all "tl;dr", here's the short-short version of Hocking's argument: while the story in BioShock is all about freedom, choice and power, the story of player's actions (what Hocking calls the 'ludonarrative' of the game) is restricted to one pre-defined path. So, despite all the talk of free will and choice, the player actually has no choice in the game since it does not provide an option for the player to do anything but help Atlas.
The danger in Hocking's argument comes from the way that it makes you realise how prevalent this ludonarrative disconnect is within games. It's like the little arrow in the FedEx logo: suddenly, you can't see anything but this dissonance.
Right now, I'm slowly playing through Mass Effect 2. I say "slowly" because, not only am I experiencing a difficulty with the underlying story and mechanics of the game (I find that the cookie-cutter structure of the missions gets a little stale after 12 hours or so), but also because the ludonarrative dissonance in Mass Effect 2 means I am not as fully absorbed in the game as I really wish I could be, so I can't do anything but slowly chip away at it.
##The problem with Mass Effect 2
Like the majority of videogames, Mass Effect 2 is about saving the galaxy. Huge, terrifying aliens are coming to destroy all life and - surprise! - only your character can stop it. This is the 'main quest' of the game, and given the weight of it - the protection of all life in the galaxy - it should be your number one priority. Except there is nothing forcing you down this path. In fact, the game does the opposite; rather than forcing anything, it presents the player with an smorgasbord of 'side quests' and gives the player the option of how he or she wants to play the game.
Heavily influencing my playing of Mass Effect 2 is my experience playing The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. I powered my way through the main quest of that game in the course of a couple of evenings. I completely avoided all of the side-quests or, indeed, anything that would take me from the path that would lead to me destroying all the oblivion gates and saving the world - I mean, who has time to join guilds and fight in gladiatorial arenas for sportI did actually complete the arena missions in Oblivion - one of the advantages of playing through the game the way I did was that I never got to a high enough level that the monsters were particularly difficult. The arena missions, then, were an easy way to make a lot of money in the game when there's an evil demonic force sweeping the land? In the end, the game was fun, but after I completed it, I didn't see much point in playing the rest of the game. The rest of the game being where everyone says the real enjoyment is to be had. In effect, I sabotaged my own experience of this game.
With this in mind, I'm doing things differently with Mass Effect 2. I'm trying to play each and every side-quest I can find. I'm scanning planets, talking to every random stranger, endorsing each and every shop on the citadel and trying to fuck just about every character I think the game will allow me to. Don't get me wrong, I'm enjoying Mass Effect 2. These parts of the game are actually lots of fun and amazingly relaxing ways to kill a few hours. Except they're completely at odds with the story. In most of the cut-scenes, my character shouts about how the reapers are coming and there's no time for X - the galaxy is in danger and time is running out!
And yet, I waste hours - literally hours - scanning planets for minerals.
To make it worse, the game actually encourages this ridiculous disconnect. For example, your crew members will occasionally come to you with a problem that present new missions. If you choose to help them, completing these missions will increase their loyalty to you. When you first speak to them about these problems, there are two conversation options: "Sure, I'll help" or "Sorry, there's no time". Within the context of the game, I'm left asking: why does that second choice even exist? If my hours of fucking around scanning planets has taught me anything, it's that there is time. Lots and lots of time. Even still, if you agree to help your crew member, this mission just becomes another side-quest which you can tackle whenever you want. There's nothing compelling you to go and deal with it right there (which is good, because in my game, Jacob's dad has been in trouble for a couple of weeks now). Theoretically, you could say "sure, I'll help", completely ignore them and finish the main quest without any sort of punishment.
Within individual missions, too, there's a lack of urgency or engagement. The game will tell you that someone is in trouble, that their life is hanging by a thread, but at the same time, the game actively encourages and rewards slow and methodical exploration. So, rather than rushing to the next area where the hostages are being held, you should first examine every nook and cranny, hack 'datapads', break into wall-safes, collect the ammo that has conveniently been left lying around the place. Take your time because the game, and the character who is supposedly in danger, will wait.
In my 22+ hours of playing Mass Effect 2, I have come across one - ONE - mission that was time-based and had a sense of urgency. A side-mission in which the player must stop a missile from launching within a set time limit. One mission out of maybe sixty.
I don't mean to single out Mass Effect 2 with this complaint. Lots of other games suffer from the same problem. I finished the penultimate mission in the main quest of Fallout 3 before deciding that instead of facing the climax of that game and saving everyone, I would rather wander the wasteland with my dog and giant supermutant friend, hunting out all the side-questsUnlike Oblivion, it used to be that when you finished Fallout 3, you couldn't go back and continue to play the game and explore the world - this was corrected in a subsequent patch. The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time is another example. You could rescue Zelda, or you could kick some chickens for hours and hours. In fact, it's almost a genre staple: the RPG whose over-arching 'main' story is less important than the abundance of side-quests.
Other games have been more daring in their approach to the time mechanic and what it means for the narrative. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, for example, has actual, time-based consequences, constantly increasing the tension in that game. Dead Rising is also built around time: the entire game takes place over the course of three days, and actions occur at certain times within that world (and, unlike BioShock, this game does give the player the option of non-participation. The player can simply sit around doing nothing, waiting for the game's three-day timer to run out and for rescue to arrive. It's not a great ending, but at least it's catered for).
Having been disappointed by powering my way through Oblivion and disappointed by taking my time with Mass Effect 2, how should I tackle Dragon Age: Origins?