Monthly Archives: December 2012

Side Quest: Celine and Julie Go Gaming

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Could Celine and Julie Go Boating — a semi-obscure masterpiece of French cinema — contain the secrets of proper video game storytelling?

Video games need to stop trying to be movies. You’ve heard it here and elsewhere; the tight, thematically coherent structure that reins in your typical two hour film will just never fit the wily, interactive nature of a game that can be fifty times that long. Games are typically better at moment-to-moment plotting and visceral release, waves of emotional catharsis cresting on the backs of set pieces and trial-and-error player accomplishments. These scenarios can move us; at best, they can insert us into an entire world ripe with someone else’s personality. But for any number of reasons — the audience as an active participant; the variations of player experience; the sheer time investment; the, um, general awfulness of most video game narratives — the common consensus is that games can’t do what movies do, and we are hurting our medium and ourselves by still imploring them to. It’s gotten to the point that cutscenes and nakedly cinematic opening credits sequences are greeted with cringes and eyerolls by most discerning gamers. It’s like we want to tell developers, “Stop trying to invite yourselves to the movies’ Grown-Ups’ Table. Just relax. There’s nothing wrong with the Kids’ Table; we can start food fights here!”

For the most part, I agree with this sentiment. Didn’t Wreck-It Ralph just heartwarmingly teach all of us gamers that fostering community is easier when you actually like yourself? (Um, spoilers?) But as someone with no great love of big-budget genre films — from which video games borrow approximately 99.8% of their cinematic ideals  — I sometimes wonder if gaming’s supposed inferiority to movie storytelling is more about misguided inspiration than the true differences between the mediums. Why would games — rambling and easily distracted by nature, or at least since the leap to inhabitable, three-dimensional worlds — try to emulate action and adventure films, easily one of the most tightly scripted and traditionally “plot-driven” movie genres? (The answer, unfortunately, is because man-children like guns and aliens, and usually can’t draw a line between “form” and “content.”) What if there were films out there that could teach us how to deepen and strengthen video game narratives without violating the tenets of the medium? What if we’ve just been watching the wrong movies? Continue reading

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Pong (1972)

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Pong is about the beauty of synchronization, a tribal dance so rudimentary and primal that it’s impossible to ignore its rhythm. It’s a war of movement, an intense mano-a-mano trial of reflexes so often determined by a fraction of an inch. It spoke to the dawning of a new era, those rectangular paddles an obvious homage to the mystery and grandeur of 2001‘s (released just four years prior) evolution-baiting monolith.

Nah, I’m just messing with you. Pong is Pong, and if you’ve stuck with me so far, you probably have a pretty solid grasp on what it is and why it’s important. There’s no need to get too loquacious about the thing; I doubt many film surveys spend much time analyzing the finer points of Fred Ott’s Sneeze, either. Pong turned forty this month, and while retrospects abound, they wisely focus more on cultural impact than taking Paddle 1 and Paddle 2 for another lengthy spin. Outside of that celebration, the most you’ll usually hear about the game these days is when some half-informed news reporter does a story about whatever new blood-clogged war simulator just grossed $600 million in a single day, and concludes, with a smirk, “Whatever you think about that, video games sure have come a long way since Pong!

Why write about Pong? It’s not a title anyone would find conspicuously absent from this blog, not a Half-Life or a Legend of Zelda (someday soon, I promise!) necessary for this sort of retrospective. Continue reading

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Side Quest: Wreck-It Ralph

This is the first of two film-related blogs I plan on writing over the next few weeks. This is a straightforward review of Wreck-It Ralph; the second will be a little more esoteric.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is the first film I remember seeing in theaters. “Remember” might be too strong a term, though; I had just turned four, so “retain a hazy, dreamlike vision of colors and music informed by subsequent viewings” might be more accurate. Still, I’m positive I was quite taken with it, as we all were (and are) taken with Disney’s squashy, stretchy hyper-realities, these simple fables that are less movies than canvases for the ceaseless imagination of youth. (I’m still close enough to those years to remember that when your kid wants to watch The Lion King VHS for the twentieth time, it’s less about the story told on-screen and more about the world of possibility it illuminates.)

Still, even at the tender age of four, there was a moment in the film that struck me as totally inauthentic. It’s near the story’s endgame, when vain, buffoonish Gaston decides to get the heroine Belle’s father locked in an insane asylum unless she agrees to marry him. He explains this plan to the asylum’s owner, a decrepit old man who couldn’t scream “shriveled up incarnation of pure humbug evil” more if the animators actually just rotoscoped in one of the skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts. His response to Gaston? “Oh, that is despicable. I love it!”

Again, I was four years old watching this. I was not far removed from mastering the use of a toilet, and the thought of Santa Claus being a phony probably hadn’t yet crossed my mind. But the fact that this guy, this literal cartoon, was completely aware he was the “villain” of the film sat completely wrong with me. Continue reading

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