Sunday, September 29, 2013

Honoring cinema

This post and the last one were written for the Blogs of the Round Table at Critical Distance, a monthly invitation for video game bloggers to discuss about a proposed topic. The theme this time was "What's the Story?", storytelling in video games. You can find the other entries by following the previous link.

My last article was a bit dishonest. I almost scrap the entire text a couple of times and instead write about how it would be cool to transfer André Bazin defense of impure cinema to the context of video games, but how it is not quite possible. I do think that video games are fundamentally impure, I love the idea of cinematic video games, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with linear storytelling or with cutscenes in an interactive medium. The problem I had was that as soon as I began to write about a particular game, my “defense” of cinematic video games didn’t look so much like a “defense” anymore. In truth, I am much more ambivalent about the reality of cinematic video games than what my article implied: let’s say, then, that it was an ideal defense of these games.

So, here are the nuances I lifted out last time, with some additional musings on the subject, with an ethical twist, leading to a long coda on the Last of Us.

The usual complaint regarding cinematic video games is that gameplay and story pull in two different directions at once, until what is expressed by the gameplay contradicts the narrative, like the canonical example of Nathan Drake in Uncharted, a psychopath in the gameplay, mowing indifferently waves after waves of enemies, which would make him a far less relatable human being than what cutscenes present to us. But this problem arises only if you consider Uncharted as a movie and nothing else: the game uses cinematic devices in its storytelling and tries to look like an action movie, but why interpret the playable sections of the game as if they were non-interactive? It’s still a game after all. While it’s true that cinematic action games propose a schizophrenic experience, I don’t see any incoherency. It’s just that gameplay and cutscenes serve distinct purposes, so the player has to go back and forth between two different mindsets. Roughly, cutscenes tell the story proper while gameplay complements it in various ways, in a more abstract fashion that do not ask for a literal reading (as in: the formal system is more important than what actually happens on screen).

For example, in Uncharted, the shooting sections never move the story forward. On the contrary, they’re a hindrance in the flow of the narration – especially when the player is dying repeatedly, which quickly gets frustrating because the story is constantly interrupted by the player’s failures. But this is exactly the purpose of these sections: they meant to replicate, for the player, the characters’ experience of thrill and danger (puzzles in an adventure game work in a similar manner: they put the player in an inquisitive attitude that often mirrors the story or the characters). As I wrote last winter, allowing to die in a shoot-out is a way to convey to the player the difficulty of the mission at hand. In a movie, the spectator cannot control the flow of the story, so these ideas of “thrill and danger” are translated through other means: reaction shots from frightened characters (from the main character or, often, through an observer, a spectator’s substitute whose reaction is meant to tell the audience how to react), or from the editing, the situation itself, the framing, etc. In a video game, none of this is possible outside of cutscenes, so the designers, instead, allow the player to die and give her a challenge to overcome. 

With cinema, one of the first rules a rookie screenwriter will learn is to translate his character’s psychology through action, gesture. But like I said earlier Uncharted is not a movie, even if it does look like one from time to time, so these screenwriting rules do not apply here, at least not when it comes to gameplay. In such a cinematic video game (and in most games focusing on telling a story), we’re not meant to approach gameplay literally: it’s an abstraction, a sort of emotional metaphor of what the characters are going through. It’s more or less what Tom Bissell referred to as “gameism” recently: these gameisms are only a problem when you forget that they are first and foremost a formal system and not a direct representation of reality, so why should we get rid of them? They are what make a game a game. When Drake kills hundreds of pixels, his most recurrent action, it doesn’t say anything about him, and it doesn’t intend to. The point is not that he’s a bloodthirsty psychopath, but that he’s facing a hardship and this is how the game tries to translate this idea, through a constant flow of enemies. I’m not saying this is the best way of representing a hardship; I’m only saying this is the way this game works (as most cinematic video games), and how it asks us to approach it.

But it is not easy to do so: like Adrian Chmielarz wrote, “the more abstract the game metaphors get while the rest of the game goes towards trying to be a perfect sim, the less we enjoy the experience.” In other words, the more the game seems realist, the more the game metaphors seems incoherent: it’s more difficult to interpret the gunfights in Uncharted as metaphors because Drake is not shooting at red triangles, but at realist human figures, who look quite the same as the human figures presented in the cutscenes as relatable human beings; the human figures in the gameplay are metaphors, but the ones in the cutscenes are not. More important than the “sim-toy dissonance” of Chmielarz (or any other kind of dissonance), the real problem brought by this dichotomy is ethical in nature: the representation of human beings as abstractions whose sole purpose is to be killed, or a complete negation of the value of human life.

This is not surprising though, even less exceptional, because these games are inspired by Hollywood action movies, which are plagued by the exact same problem. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, to take Uncharted most obvious influence, the Nazis are Nazis because it’s convenient: it sets them as “evil” so we can safely watch Indiana Jones kill them without worrying about him losing his soul or something. The violence is devoid of any real world consequences and is thus reduced to a pure aesthetic pleasure. The Nazis are nothing more than abstractions meant to be killed for our enjoyment: their function, in these movies, is exactly the same as the waves of faceless enemies Drake encounters in his game. So what’s the difference between Indiana Jones and Uncharted? Well, Drake does kill more "evil" guys in the first hour of the game than Dr. Jones in the course of four movies, but I would argue that the amount of people killed in such an abstract way doesn’t really matter (for me, one is already too much); the real problem is in how death, violence and human beings are represented on screen. And this is where I can’t defend cinematic video games anymore: they tend to emphasize the worst of their role model by taking one of the most dubious trends in contemporary cinema and they make a game out of it. For Bazin, a good movie adaptation offers an enlightening perspective on its source; cinematic video games do exactly the opposite: they demean cinema, or at the very least their perspective on cinema is extremely shallow*.

This ethical problem is not exclusive to cinematic video games (it can be extended to pretty much all video games focusing on violence), but it is more jarring in their cases since their focus is on telling a realist story (well, realist in a Hollywood sense) with real human beings – and because cinema should be able to lift video games out of these muddy waters, not sink them deeper. Not that video games need to be “saved” somehow: there’s plenty of good non-cinematic video games out there, and the best way to avoid this problem is still to keep away from violence altogether (or at least avoid to represent it directly). But if you want to include guns in a realist setting and if you take cinema as inspiration, then I’m pretty sure you can find ample examples in movies of how to represent violence in a meaningful way. 


Is Uncharted incoherent, weaken by a critical conflict between form and content? Or, more fundamentally, does linear storytelling have its place in an interactive medium? In my mind: no, it's not, and yes, it does have its place. Rather, my criticism would be that Uncharted' story, while well-written, is still quite mundane and the gameplay enhances mainly the worst part of it, i.e. the shooting. Gameplay-wise, the game is at its best in the big action set pieces and in some of its platforming sections, but there’s an awful lot of trivial shooting in between, which doesn’t amount to anything, on a narrative-level, except to repeat again and again that Drake is facing a grave danger, or that the arch-villain is ruthless. That would be the main differences between Uncharted and the Indiana Jones: Spielberg never uses the same trick twice; he can emphasize with his mise en scène (the equivalent of gameplay) both the overblown spectacle and the characters’ interactions; and even if he’s guilty of Nazi-as-abstraction-meant-to-be-killed, he’s able to nuance his use of violence (especially in the the Last Crusade), which is not something Uncharted can claim.   

On that count, The Last of Us is a big step forward and it may well be the only video game that can claim to be truly “cinematic”. It still has its share of problems (not counting my own zombie weariness): the game seems to present violence as a last resort, but some sections cannot be completed by just stealthily avoiding the enemies, making the carnage obligatory; swinging a plank of wood at zombies feels all brutal and desperate the first time around, but after fifteen hours of zombie/human head bashing, the effect begins to wear off; in short, there’s far too much killing in this game for its own good (Brendan Keogh offered a good summary of these shortcomings, and more, on his blog). And the game still represents humans as simple targets, but at least Naughty Dog is aware of this problem and tries to integrate it by defining its main character through this kind of gameplay. For once, gameplay doesn’t just enhance the worst (the violence), but serves also to define the psychology of the main character, Joel (light spoilers to follow).

For example, most human enemies in the Last of Us are the same than the enemies facing Drake in Uncharted: anonymous guys all wearing more or less the same clothes, moving in a similar manner, with no personality of their own. In both cases, the player is mostly fighting insignificant masses of pixels that only bear a superficial resemblance to the human form. Joel rarely seems to fight human beings; they’re only obstacles to overcome in order to make the story progress. The difference, then, is that this representation of the “bad guys” actually corresponds to Joel’s perspective (which would not be true for Drake): Joel is so narcissist and withdrawn that he cannot see these men as individuals anymore.

Indeed, Joel has only one goal in mind: his own survival, so he can only see his fellow survivors in instrumental terms, as either a threat to eliminate or a resource to exploit. In that sense, he is as blind as the Clickers or the Runners (the not-zombies of the game) because he cannot see the humans in front of him for what they are. The Runners offer the best analogy: with one objective in mind, they run towards it, unaware of their surroundings. Joel is more careful, but his perspective is as narrow as them; nothing stands between him and his objective (especially in the last chapters). He has no use for humanity anymore, so most of the gameplay consists of he/the player trying to avoid or eliminate almost anything that remotely looks like a human being. 

And he seems not to be alone with this egotistical attitude: on numerous occasions, the game implies that he was once just like the bandits he and Ellie encounter again and again, ready to do anything for the sake of their survival. In this post-apocalypse world, Joel represents the average individual, devoid of empathy. The decaying world of the Last of Us, then, correspond to Joel's perspective, a world with no regard for humanity, and the game does encourage us to ask whether this world is dying because of the infected, the monsters, or because of the humans’ behavior. The prologue already states clearly that the humans may be more to fear than the actual monsters (as usual, for a zombie piece) and the same question resonates in Joel’s final dilemma. The environments complement this ambiguity: while the human world is dying, nature, on the contrary, seems to be fine, thriving even, taking back a life that the humans left behind. The game presents a human apocalyse and not a total destruction of all forms of life; this nuance is crucial (heavy spoilers now!)

In this perspective, Ellie is a symbol of hope on two counts: she may be able to cure humanity of the infestation and she represents how Joel can preserve what’s left of his own humanity. If humanity is dying not because of the outbreak, but because of our behavior, then saving Ellie, the only person with whom Joel entertained a real, human relationship, may be the “right” choice. Scare quotes are in order because for Joel there is no right or wrong choice: there is no choice at all. He’s quite aware of the solitude he imposed on himself after his daughter’s death and he knows that Ellie maybe the only way to salvage the last figments of his dying humanity, his old self, so he never hesitates. He has to save Ellie, no matter what. This “no matter what” entails possibly sacrificing the future of humanity, and killing an awful lot of Fireflies, including Marlene, Ellie's surrogate mother, so, yeah, it’s a selfish brutal action. Still, even after all this, the ending implies that Joel can rejoin the community of man, literally, by returning to his brother who seems to have built a real community, a future that looks bright on the horizon, almost hopeful. If there is hope in the world of the Last of Us, it seems it lies inside of us and not in an external cure; we have to cure all the Joels of their blindness. I'm not sure Joel can be "cured" though: his last deeds are too extreme and selfish, his perspective never seem to widen. He took the only chance he had at redemption and messed up pretty badly.

Some people complained about the hospital scene at the very end (here for example), the obligation to pull the trigger on the doctor: they were asking for a choice, their choice, not Joel. I don’t quite understand this criticism: in an interactive medium, withholding “choice” is a powerful expressive tool. What better way to convey the tragedy of this man than to give the illusion of choice, than to stop the story until the player acknowledges the only possible action for this person at this moment? For me, this moment of hesitation, the moment you realize that you do not have any choice but to kill the doctor, is the most cinematic moment in a video game yet – I mean “cinematic” as: it’s not exactly cinema (it’s still an interactive sequence), and it’s a meaningful way for a video game to honor its cinematic influence by using its own expressive mean, gameplay.  

To be more precise, in a movie, we can only see the characters from the outside: there’s always an unbridgeable gap between them and me. Since I’m only a spectator, in a position of contemplation, I have no control over a movie, over these fragments of space coming from a distant time, and it’s in this distance that art arises, in this space located somewhere between the movie and me, where different points of view collide (mine, the director, his characters). In a game, there’s rarely a similar place for contemplation, this distance, because the player is directly engaged in the action. It is true for most of the Last of Us: I’m not exactly Joel, but I play through his perspective (the gameplay is his perspective), so the gap between him and me is tenuous. While I’m in the game, I cannot step out of Joel’s shoes; even when the game is at its most quiet (as it happens surprisingly often for a blockbuster), and I can explore an environment at my own pace, I’m still playing Joel; the camera is always stuck behind his neck. I do not have this space for contemplation that all traditional art forms offer, this spectatorial distance between the artwork and me. And this is exactly what this moment of hesitation at the end of the Last of Us offered me, this distance that the game lacks otherwise: at this moment, the game still refuse to advance if I don’t act exactly like Joel would, but it looks as if it’s offering me a choice, and I can linger on the scene as long as I like. At least, it is my experience of this moment because I tried to avoid the bloodshed; I wanted to see if the game would allow me to go through without killing. Time distended, and then suddenly this gap between Joel and me got ripped open (Joel’s choice was certainly not my choice), through gameplay, or rather the lack thereof, although not in the way of a cutscene. I was forced to contemplate the tragedy of the moment, the inevitability of what was about to happen, when I would dare to pull the trigger, as Joel has to do (I’m sure he didn’t hesitate) because of the choices he made in the past, after his daughter’s death. The difference between me, the player, and Joel, the character, is never as potent as in this precious moment (hesitation is always precious: it means someone is thinking, something modern Hollywood cinema seems to have forget).   

Playing the Last of Us is playing through Joel’s perspective, an alien subjectivity, and most of the time I’m so enthralled by the gameplay that I do not have the distance necessary to contemplate what I’m doing through him. I’m just like Joel: I have one objective in mind (finishing the game), and I will do what is asked of me to do so. But The Last of Us is aware that this type of gameplay is narcissist, utilitarian, incapable of empathy, just like Joel, so the game gradually distances the player from this character, first by giving us a glimpse of gameplay with Ellie, then by showing what Joel is capable of doing in cutscenes (torture), when we do not directly control him, then by giving us the illusion of a choice that reinforces his perspective in contrast to what the player may have chose instead, and finally by Joel’s final lie that serves only to protect him from what he did. Joel is not “cured” at the end: this lie cuts him off from Ellie, from the only thing he cares about. He is now more alone than ever; not even the player is with him: the epilogue is played through Ellie, and at this point, we’re mere spectators anyway, finally at distance from him (and this is something Spec Ops: the Line failed to realized in its indictment of the player: the problem in these games is not the player, but the character, a mixed entity between the fiction created by the designer and what the player has invested in it. As a critique of video games featuring men-with-guns, the Last of Us is far more honest and successful because it focuses on the man holding the gun, not the one with the controller.) 

(End of spoilers.)

So, this is exactly why I like linear storytelling: the possibility to share another person’s point of view. Choice, yes, player agency, sure, but when I get to choose anything I want to do, I’m only confronted to my own subjectivity. In a foreign setting, ok, and I’m probably role-playing, but ultimately it all comes back to me, to what it means for me when I decided to do such and such, and what it means for me to be “evil” or “good”. There’s value in that, for sure, and there’s a lot of nuances to be made. The obvious one: anything I choose to do, I do not control how my action is represented on screen, nor its consequences, so my choices are more like a dialog with the vision of the designers embedded in the game. Linear storytelling is a more traditional way to confront an audience to an alien subjectivity, by showing the particular journey of one character, but in a video game we are literally put in someone else’s shoes, moving around a foreign body, and this is a new, unique, powerful possibility in art (even in a novel, I may have access to a character’s thoughts, but I can never control him). 

The great achievement of the Last of Us, then, is to throw the player out of these uncomfortable, stifling shoes we too often have to wear in video games. Alas, this is also its great limit. It’s a good cinematic video game because for once it uses gameplay to emphasize the character's perspective instead of just the action, and because it uses cinema to create a much-needed distance between this perspective and ours. For the first time in a video game, the Last of Us honors cinema instead of celebrating the worst of what movies have to offer. Then again, it’s still the story of a man with a gun. Naugthy Dog is aware of the limited perspective offered by a character that can only look at the world through the barrel of a gun, so they find a way to distance us from that perspective (and only at the end). But they never dare rise above it, above what they admit themselves to be problematic (apart from some fleeting moments with Joel's daughter and Ellie). This would be the cinematic video game I’m waiting for, the one I will heartily defend, the one who will get rid altogether of this ethical problem.

So, here’s hoping that the Last of Us is a prophetic title, that Joel is really the last of those man with a gun, that we will know how to preserve that welcome distance the game offered us at the end, and that next time we can see the world through a more enriching point of view.

Somehow, I doubt it will happen.

*For what it's worth: I do enjoy these games and these movies (some of them at least) despite of this, but this manner of representing violence still need to be acknowledged.


  1. Damn, didn't read most of this because I am still uncommitted on whether to play "The Last of Us"... Going to have to make a decision about this at some point if it's going to get in the way.



    1. Well, if it can help you make a decision: I think The Last of Us is pretty good, even though it doesn't deserve all the hyperbolic praise it got. As far as man-with-a-gun games go, it's probably about as good as it can get (although the violence can be quite extreme, and I'm no fan of making a point through the use of extreme violence, especially in an interactive context). But it's worth playing, for sure.

    2. Something interesting I would like to share:
      I find the beginning of The Last of Us very interesting because we play for like a minute or two through Joel's daughter perspective (although it can be push into something more interesting). Narratively, when she dies after, I feel quite an emotion. Not only because of the «cinematic» story of when she gives the watch to her father, but because I was able to play through her vulnerable point of view (looking for her father to help her). She's also the only character that I played with, but that I cannot save (her life) (as opposed to Joel or Ellie). That prologue not only offers something we know of Joel when we play with him (20 years after), it defines the gameplay as a survival mode in which you cannot die (to make the story rolling), a determinism point of view or a closed one from Joel and also offers a «dying» experience. The only thing that I keep asking myself is, why not use the gameplay to make us feel the vulnerability of a character or a situation? For example, we lose Sarah while playing with her or make us feel the lost by not been able to save Sarah while playing with Joel. A closed point of view of Joel is far more interesting after, when the prologue offers an interaction in which you can't do anything to change it.