One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.
One of the biggest differences between computer games when I first started playing them, back in the 1980s, and modern computer games is scope. Open worlds of the kind that we’re used to nowadays didn’t exist on the 8-bit and 16-bit computers of yore, but these days it’s not rare for a game to feature a world many square kilometres in size. In 2001, Grand Theft Auto III let us rampage in a Liberty City that measured 9 km2 in real-world terms; Grand Theft Auto V, which came out in 2013, covered an area of 127 km2. Things get even more insane with the possibilities of procedural generation, so that we got a 1:1 scale simulation of the Milky Way galaxy in Elite Dangerous (released in 2015). As game worlds get bigger and bigger, though, it becomes increasingly difficult to fill them with meaningful content, and arguably Elite‘s in-game universe is several light years wide and a nanometre deep. Which is one of the reasons why the toy-box solar system of Outer Wilds is so engaging.
I haven’t yet seen Interstellar. I’m definitely curious about the film and looking forward to it – I’m still as much a sucker for gorgeous space imagery as I was back when I was eight years old and had a poster of the solar system and its planets on my bedroom wall. At the same time, I have to admit to some apprehension, and that’s due to two things: Christopher Nolan and his fans. There’s a lot of hyperbole about Nolan and his films, just as there is too much criticism that dismisses his films, or patronises them, due to his making genre cinema. It’s difficult to find discussion of, say, The Dark Knight or Inception that doesn’t treat the films as either cinematic masterpieces or as hollow and derivative, as the sort of genre movies that let some sci-fi and superhero fans go, “Look? That’s brainy, isn’t it? The genre’s all grown up now?” At its worst, Nolan fetishism brings forth silliness such as proclaiming the director the new Kubrick.
I like Nolan’s films, even The Dark Knight Returns for all its flaws. Nolan has proven that he’s a skilled, smart director who knows how to handle his material well. He’s also deeply flawed: several of his films, for all their complicatedness, aren’t actually all that complex. He’s too enamoured of Big Questions that aren’t actually all that big or relevant, and that have been done before. Nolan likes a bit of the good old “… ah, but is it?” at the end of his films, but try to answer those questions and there’s not all that much there. That spinning top in Inception, the question whether at the end of the film Cobb is still in the dream? That twist is already there in the film’s premise – it’s predictable. Similarly, Memento‘s conundrum concerning Sammy Jankis’ identity? It’s a twist too far, an example of Nolan not trusting his film to have made the same point about Leonard’s malleable identity in the absence of memory already, taking it to near-absurdity. If Nolan’s films, and especially his scripts, insisted less on their apparent depth (which often totters on the border to pompousness), they’d actually make a more convincing case for being deeper than your general genre fare. As it is, through his films Nolan doth protest too much that he’s making grown-up films for grown-up people with grown-up brains.
There’s something else that Nolan doesn’t do all that well, and that’s action sequences. Given the right conceit, his action can be amazing: look at the hotel fight in Inception, divorced from gravity. In the same film, though, you get the sub-Bondian mountain action, which is dull and generic. Look at The Dark Knight‘s truck sequence and it’s a confusing mess of direction, cinematography and editing, while the Heat-with-clowns intro works tremendously well. I remember seeing The Dark Knight at the cinema and loving some scenes while wondering in others whether we were being shown a version of the film edited (and badly at that) to be shown on planes.
At the same time, Nolan does excel at doing films about men who make convoluted plans to avoid facing the emotional wrecks they are. Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige and Inception: in all of these, Nolan finds striking images and interactions to show his protagonists’ helplessness and the lengths to which they go to deny just how lost they are. To my mind, these themes are much more interesting than yet another treatise on what is real and what is a dream, or that central question that mankind has faced for centuries: whether Batman can be broken. Nolan has been accused of making cold films that are thin when they try to be emotional, and I don’t think sentiment is something he does well, either as a director or as a writer: but give him characters, especially men, who don’t know how to deal when faced with their own failure and loss, and he’s riveting. This is a director who should do a modern version of the Orpheus myth – if he hasn’t already done so in various ways. His Orpheus, when told he cannot look back, would be likely to construct an ingenious device of smoke, mirrors and cameras to trick Hades, without ever realising that Eurydice is gone for good.
As I said at the beginning, I’m curious about Interstellar, and I’m sure it’ll be a visual triumph. The trailer worries me, though; it looks like Nolan is making his Contact, complete with daddy issues. I’m not sure I trust him as a director to handle sentiment head-on: he’s no Spielberg, and even Spielberg isn’t always up to the task. Nolan has been best so far when he had his characters approach emotion at oblique angles, because they’re rarely good at handling them. At his best, there’s an understated but effective undercurrent of emotion in his films. I’m very much hoping that Interstellar will prove more The Prestige than Contact, and that he didn’t try to be both Kubrick and Spielberg at the same time. It didn’t work for Spielberg either when he did A.I.
P.S.: For anyone else who has a yen for astronomy porn, there’s the upcoming game Elite: Dangerous. In space, no one can hear you become speechless at the sight of all those planetary rings.