[Yesterday, I read a blog by Sarah Kelly and coupled with some thoughts I remember from Lou Lantos, I was brought back to the idea of an old film about a hostile new breed of extraterrestrials that terrorize whatever environment they manage to habituate.]
Yes, it’s dead beat horse to compare film to videogames these days, but I’m not doing that here. I’m simply using an old favorite film of mine to establish a paradigm for how games can be developed in their own right. Insight is cheap and it’s everywhere, people just refuse to take it for reasons unique to them now (usually time is the issue); I’m indulging in that today, so enjoy if you want---or better yet, disagree with me and “scream" (LIKE THIS!) down in the comments.
I chose the 1979 film Alien, which was directed by Ridley Scott and released to praise that hasn’t wavered too far, even in the past thirty years. Last night I rented the DVD and combed through some of the special features, specifically the director’s commentary. Ideally, I would have enjoyed listening to more than just the director's input, but considering that Scott is one of the few directors that hasn't slipped entirely off his rocker in my eyes, I can live with it. It’s one thing when you listen to how something in a particular medium is made, it’s something else entirely to draw theorems across multiple mediums, and that’s what I want to try here today.
As we get older, we're trained to read between the lines and appreciate certain nuances in the things we enjoy. It doesn't happen to everyone, but it does happen nonetheless. After James Cameron's sequel Aliens, the franchise picked up a distinct tone of action-pacing when it didn't have to. This no doubt led to the fall of the progeny which culminated in what we have now, Aliens vs Predator. Not to say those movies are the bane of my existence, but considering what the series started as, it has been diluted to a mere comic-book mashup for the sake of a simple popcorn-fun film. There's a lot of reasons why Alien comes off as a humble beginning, but one of the most prominent is the reality of its buildup.
“I always remember having this argument with some of my colleges at that particular time including the studio, where they kept saying…’but nothing happens for forty-five minutes!’. And I said well that’s the whole point because once it starts to happen, I think we should have them. I think…if nothing happens for forty-five minutes, it’s revealing the world where these workings in space function in; and it’s very interesting today in 1999, we’re now talking about deep mining ideas in space. This of course, is part of the description of the Nostromo---it's involved in just that.”
Is this kind of modesty extinct in today’s video-games (how about just the media in general)? How many games actively build-up anymore? How many have done so at all? Most titles are created in the sense of strapping the player in a rolling coaster and sending them on their way. The problem with most games however, is that they've perverted the enjoyment of the ride, by having continuous spiraling loops right out of the gate. These loops struggle on repetitiously until the ride ends and we're meant to be so enamored with it. One thing I will admit to the majority of people as a beneficial trait to have, is that they adapt pretty well to any given situation, be it biologically, mentally, or just general perception. After so many loops disguised in different fatigues, the effect has worn off and the structure of the ride needs to be tampered with altogether (if not torn down completely).
This film did such a thing in its own medium with forty five minutes of buildup (keep thinking of the rolling coaster, as this is an ascent). The reason we don't have better writing or depth of nuance in games is because most gamers aren't generally willing to shift their definition of "enjoyment". They want consumable fun, plain and simple, which is why I went on a tirade about the nature of "escapism" not too far back. Perspective counts for everything and changes radically from person to person. Now the process will be slow, but tremors have to be started to send new messages throughout the population of the gaming industry. As my last post clearly states, the type of games I'm talking about cannot and should exist tomorrow, but the progenitor thoughts are to be nurtured and should poke their heads out in games more than they do now. I'm not going to waste my time with examples, as I'd rather people point them out to me themselves and I have to keep this relatively short.
I'd Like More Adjectives
There's hundreds of words I've not yet used to describe games overall and one of them is somber. As a nice segue from the last section, I'd have to call the developer's intentions in to question here. I'd be genuinely interested in hearing how specific any developer(s) would find delivering tone to sequences in their games. Something I honestly did not know was a statement I heard on last week's Listen UP. It was something to the affect of how common it was for game designers to play little to no games, period. I certainly understand this on some levels, as development sucks up a tremendous amount of free time, but how can one contribute to making something past a certain extent without a threshold investment in it themselves? I find that a bit insane to be quite mild. I’m not asking anybody to be as passionate as I am of course, but I think the awareness to develop great titles---to move past the barriers that some gamers seem to be rightfully complaining about, lies deep within the developers playing more than WoW in their freetime (not to slight you WoWzers of course). The stagnancy in design is only the responsibility of the audience (the sheep) to a certain extent; it's the developers (sheep-herders) who I expect to do their jobs.
Jean "Moebius" Giraud contributed to Alien as well, who was an influence of Yoji Shinkawa. =)
If there's a corollary for acting in video-games, what exactly is it? What is the tradeoff for not having to cast an actor(tress)? It can't be as simple as technical skill, can it? Voice acting only accounts for so much. In many ways, its more difficult because gamers are now familiar with terms such as the uncanny valley, but as far as visuals go---that's a very easy hurdle to jump. Getting an emotional response or granting life to a video-game model extends far beyond graphical fidelity, it always has. Things like animation should complement human idioscynancies. This kind of thing is what some characters are based on, which games have a problem with by default (the schism between the player and the character played).
“We were told just enough about them, so we knew classically who they were.”
Even unoriginality doesn't affect a game in this area, because archetypes are as old as time itself. People respond to classical archetypes because they can identify them with multiple facets of their own persona. The story is only background information at that point, the sandbox in which characters play. Once again, why do you think Star Wars has garnered the following it's had over the decades? It tapped into a easily accessible pseudo-religious undertone that nerd subculture just won't let go, even to this day. Most competent science fiction depicts harsh or life far below luxurious living to emphasize the characters themselves. Games don't do this because once again, the implications tied to such characterization is not fun in the traditional sense. Also, please keep in mind that in gaming context, I'm not referring to trial and error puzzles or blatant tutorials. What I AM referring to is a way to have the player familiarize themselves with the world around them, aided by fictional contextual wrappings; this can be done in thousands of ways which are at the designer's disposal, no excuses there please.
“The idea of making the hero a heroine was a master stroke"
For a couple of seconds, lets disregard the gender issue and look at this in a larger context. How many characters have annoyed you with sustenance in game? I can't imagine one having a long list of those because games haven't successfully translated that sense of visceral human interaction yet. There are surely good examples scattered here and there, but they are often few and far in between. This is all while any one game doesn't really feature a "cast" in the traditional sense. An easily ready example I can knock off the top of my head is Alien's Lambert, the ship's navigator. She's insufferable and an obnoxious crybaby, but the dynamic she presents to the cast makes her crucial to the experience overall (meaning that if given the choice, I would by no circumstances want her omitted from the film). I can't really recall a character like that in any game I've ever played in my entire life. It's always been characters that make me sigh at best, but I would never grant them a term such as "necessary annoyance".
Now, getting back on topic, I'd love to see more rise in the depiction of not only male heroes but heroines specifically, as they are pretty scarce and mostly predicated on a deformed consciousness of nerd-sex-appeal. The character of Ellen Ripley was an oddity at the time because the first film specifically depicts her as an officious bitch (it's one of Sigourney Weaver's most attractive roles in my opinion). Despite being second in command (or is it third, I forget?), she manages to talk up to even her superior officer, Dallas. As the other members begin to die and lose their nerve around her, she remains steadfast (for the most part anyway) and by the end of the film, the audience is forcibly twisted to enjoy her as an protagonistic force to be reckoned with. The most recent example I can think of a game even coming remotely close to this kind of heroine would be Nariko of Heavenly Sword. I suppose not all is lost if I can at least cite a few lady heroes who didn't fall apart at every corner. Building off the previous section however, once we get a game that can actively build up somber and low-key moods, there will be far more facilities for heroines (specifically) to thrive. Differentiated, women tend to speak on more subtextual tones than men, so making a convincing heroine is not only challenging, but has to be a reward in and of itself when all is said and done. Speaking very generally, they often provide more sustenance to an audience, and that wouldn't change, even across a game.
Social Taboo Distortion
Rebellious chauvinism, prejudice, and cleverly disguised sexual imagery runs throughout the Alien franchise. One thing I will argue for in the immediate sense, is for games to stop being so damn scared of upsetting people. The title, Six Days in Fallujah being cancelled (call it what you want, I'm calling it dead as of right now) is the perfect example of this. I absolutely hate the ideal that wants everyone that want to live in a perfect world, but without those people, this wouldn't be even possible to begin with (which is kind of depressing in itself). However, getting people to transcend the boundries of their own judgements and beliefs are what all mediums strive for at the best of times, even if it's a comedy. As the heroine of Alien, Ripley is by far the Alpha aboard the Nostromo. A specific scene near the end of the film has her very aggressively conversing with Parker, the ship's engineer. The novelty of this situation is that a white female (Sigourney isn't really small) talks a large African male into straight silence while dictating a plan. Yes, the races do matter and anyone who thinks different should really think about that. Apart from that, Ripley remains extremely prejudiced against androids during this film and its sequel as well (there's an ironic presence by the events Alien: Resurrection too). The way that the film delivers these taboos through science fiction is like an injection of creativity into the audience. By the time they realize these novel situations, they've already happened and events are intertwining within those circumstances as a result (i.e. how many people actually care about what a shot does after it enters the body?). I'll hold the sexuality off for a minute and demand that someone give me any kind of game (I prefer science fiction obviously) where social taboos are explored or painted in a light that's respective and individual to the medium of a videogame. The most prominent example I can think of here is the matriarch of the entire Snake legacy in the Metal Gear Solid franchise, The Boss. That depiction in itself was only slightly unnevering due to governmental abuse and sacrificial actions that are usually attributed to women (specifically mothers).
As much as I’ve seen it thrown around out there that gamers have been given too much Giger-like work, I’d argue against that, declaring only that they’ve gotten a reflection of it in a funhouse mirror. In case you're not privy to it, H.R. Giger's surrealist work is what gave rise to the unique visuals of the Alien franchise. It's specifically known for dark sexual underpinnings. Given how the pop-biology of the Xenomorphs work, it's not that hard to see "sex" when shit begins to hit the fan. The facehugger, the chestburster, and the phallic/yonic designs of the Xenomorph's head basically yells it as every corner of the movie. The lifespan basically represents extreme rape and birth throughout the movie (my Twitter followers might recognize the term "traumatic insemination"). Hell, even the surreptitious predatory nature of the creature is more akin to intimacy if you want to stretch it a bit. I've commented enough about sex in the past months to be sick of it for a while (see VGA 6-2 and 6-1). I just want it noted that there's more to the equation than the Japanese showcasing how perverse their heads work. There's far more creative ways to get away with sexual undertones than making breasts physics operate for female characters in fighting games. Sexually creative commentary is a sparse presence in the industry, that's all.
Now, something that should also be recognized is how art direction shouldn't be so backwatered in video-games. There's an obvious hierarchy visible in many games and it's far too easy to peg certain titles as:
"Welp, looks like marketing won for this game..."
There are very few singular minds in the industry because artists are still broke nutjobs. I'm not saying give full design reign over a title to the artists (that's just as dangerous mind you), but they deserve far more than they're given, far more. Artists by my definition, are creative, innovative, and often economic idea machines. They usually don't need half of what they're given to create something truly extraordinary. Thanks to how gamers are built these days however, their presence is spread thin for the whim of of superficial desires. Yeah, YOU, me, we all dropped the ball there. Can we finally move past that spilled milk situation and get going again? Even I'm tired of hiding behind the popular choices like Kojima and Shinkawa. Those guys should be drowning in a pool of their own piers, not standing tall over a kingdom of gamers worshiping them. When you divert that much power to juat one person, the idea will over-blow itself, no matter how talented or revered said person is.
As far as science fiction goes in videogames, we don't have it, if for no other reason than creators trying too hard to capture what film has already made unique to itself. There's a difference between "science" and "scientific" and its a schism very few games have even recognized thus far. The number of times I heard Ridley Scott say "There's some nice gobbledygook" was hilarious because he knew his boundaries and the limits of how far he could travel in his own arena. The purposelessness of certain objects and systems aboard the Nostromo is something only a few people are going to notice at the end of the day. Not only that, but even the people that do notice it will typically praise how creative a certain action/circumvention was (granted they're a reasonable human being looking for anything other than something to bitch about). The world of astronomy in particular is hostile from my observation, because some people are attempting to make the damn universe smaller than we know it to be (and "we" haven't even stepped foot off this damn rock yet). Mediums aren't limited to hiding in what we don't know, but are adverse to distorting (or destroying) what we do know. I think that's problematic, because it takes pretentiousness to an entirely new level (its lunacy is almost impressive). This means games which are still relatively young suffer the most as a child medium because adverse events and reactions filter and trickle down into the development, hindering how the creators themselves see what they wish to make. There's much to be said about what can be bent and broken in the Matrix. There's two sides to that metaphor though. The smarter people are content with playing the role of the machines, while others wish to live plugged into the system. If I have to feed my ego anymore in this blog, I'll declare myself "The One" and will obstinately dedicate myself to yanking some of you pathetic bastards out of the system myself. It's time some of you finally open your eyes. =)
If you don't see sex in a picture like this, what the hell DO you see?
Unlike Scott, I’m not the biggest fan of Alien’s actual score, however I do love the majority of its general sound design. Every single bit of noise in the movie is nearly priceless, and helps to form the core illusion of it's world. I will grant the music some praise though, specifically in tugging certain tensions during specific scenes. The commentary is riddled with Scott uttering the phrase “love this cue”. Luckily, some games are making some real progress with their individual sound design, but I'd love to not only see more room for music made, but sound as well. Music is hard because people tend to connect with it as a core medium moreso than any other artform out there, therefore they get very snippy and judgmental about it, extremely fast. Games of horror, "science fucktion" (the bastardized adoption video-games have taken for themselves), and musical-based titles use it most competently in games. This is for the obvious reason that sound plays an integral part in the experience for those types of games. This is what defines most of the Silent Hill games for me personally, as those titles do more than most and all that's going on usually just equates to rhythmic and pulsating industrial noise. I can't specifically complain about this area of gaming because the time track it's on just seems to fit in my eyes, and I don't want to tamper with it on any level (yeah, I'm egotistical enough to think I can have that kind of influence too). As of right now, we've got some good examples, which seem to be steadily increasing by the month. I will say however, that visual juxaposition against music or lack of music makes for some gargantuan moments. I've not seen anything even remotely similar (in a game) to the strobe light effect near the end of this film, where Ripley runs directly into the Xenomorph. All that's there is silence, and because of that, there's a visceral feel to the scene. Games get the headstart on this by having a player in direct control of a situation, but that has turned into an Achilles' heel (or the opposite of a headstart, whichever), which ironically sets games back expontentially. This is because the problem of a developer dealing with the degree of control a player will have at any given moment is an extremely difficult task which developers haven't fully mastered on any particular front yet. I don't envy them with that task either; as that's an idea that looks damn hard, and I doubt it's any easier to deal with on paper or in execution.
So yeah, this could/should culminate in breeding an “alien” game if the ideas are taken into consideration by someone, someday. Some title with foreign aspects that hasn’t been seen before and could very hostility assert/propagate itself, not only in the market, but general perception, and most importantly (in my case anyway), artistically.
I might turn this into a series. I’d love to do this for 2001: A Space Odyssey as well. (8bithack reminded me of Solaris this morning as well). For Alien's attempted "Metrodian" tone (reverse-perceived that is), 2001 screams Portal to me for a number of reasons.
Now, someone fucking take me to see Moon. >=(