For all the imagination that goes into creating new worlds and fantastic creatures on screen, film and TV are predominantly beholden to naturalism. For these media, suspension of disbelief means being able to accept wholeheartedly what is on screen as real, at least for the purpose of the story you’re watching. Directors, VFX crews and CGI artists need to keep happy the twin deities of Spectacle and Realism: that dragon, that lizard the size of a building, that planet that no one has ever set foot on, they all need to fool us into believing that they are real.
I am not immune to the lure of big screen spectacle, and I like a well made special effect as much as the next geek. I too get pulled out of a film if the greenscreen fakery is too obvious, if the orcs, goblins or giant worms look like My First Photoshop. At the same time, there is something limiting to the extent to which we’re conditioned to expect a narrow, superficial expression of naturalism. There is something liberating to forms that are overtly unreal: even at their most real-seeming the animated worlds of, say, Hayao Miyazaki are made rather than found, and the audience is aware of this, whereas the Pandora of James Cameron’s Avatar needs to look as much as possible as if Cameron and his crew had filmed on location. And the more what we see is removed from the Real Thing (or the Convincing Fake), the more we as audiences are tasked with co-creating these worlds in our imagination. Continue reading →
You’ve probably all noticed that my blog updates have become somewhat infrequent, at least compared to the beginning, where I’d hammer out an entry a day. Don’t worry, this is just a momentary slump (I hope); things are somewhat stressful at the moment, and I don’t get to watch or read as much as I’d like. Even when I do find the time, I’m usually somewhat too tired to appreciate films, series and books as much as I’d want to.
That’s where gaming comes in. I can be as tired as I want, yet I can still get some enjoyment out of Guitar Hero (where I’ve graduated to Hard mode, meaning that I’ve now got five fretting buttons to contend with!) or Splinter Cell. Or I could be “enjoying” Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth.
CoC: DCotE (doncha love acronyms?) is one of the creepiest games I’ve played since… well, since Thief 3 and that Holy Grail of computer game horror, the Cradle. I’m not particularly informed when it comes to H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos, but for those of you who know even less, Cthulhu is this cheerful fellow:
(Any similarities to a certain crustacean Doctor are purely coincidental.)
The game has a couple of easy scares (boo! decomposing corpse!), but by and large it works with more subtle techniques: half-glimpsed horrors and whispers in the dark. Slowly going insane is as much of a threat in this game as things that go bump in the night. The game starts with the protagonist cuts his stay at an insane asylum short by hanging himself – what follows essentially is a long, drawn-out flashback – an odd way to motivate players to progress: “Just one more level and I can hang myself! Yay!” For the first two, three hours of gameplay you don’t even have any weapons, which makes for an original twist on the genre: for once, the solution to all your problems isn’t unloading a gun in some gilled horror’s face.
And the game has what is possibly the best chase sequence I’ve ever seen or played. You’re woken up in the middle of the night as a couple of shady guys (with serious throat problems, from the sound of it) try to break into your room to turn you into chowder. Your only option is to run, bolting doors behind you or blocking them with wardrobes and the like. Then, a bracing escape via the rooftops while you’re being shot at… and don’t even look down, because otherwise you’ll find out just how Jimmy Stewart felt in that classic Hitchcock movie about a guy with vertigo. I think it was called… “The Man Who Was Afraid of Heights”.
Many gamers are looking for one semi-mythic, intangible quality in games: immersion. It’s basically the ineffable property of making you forget that you’re sitting in front of a computer screen or TV, grasping a gamepad or a mouse, and feel that you’re really there. But, let’s face it, even with the most immersive games you never feel like you’re a mute MIT graduate saving the world with a gun in one hand and a crowbar in the other, or a cyber-ninja special operative infiltrating terrorist strongholds or a Persian prince able to run along steep walls and turn back time. There are worlds between playing FIFA 08 and actually kicking a football – there’s little to no comparison between pressing X or O and propelling a leather ball towards the enemy goal with your foot. Possibly the only game that offers near-absolute immersion is computerised chess, because as if you’re, like, really playing chess!
Okay, enough sarcasm – what I’m getting at is this: there are few games that make you believe you’re really doing what your on-screen avatar is doing. Fair enough, really; there are limits to how much I’d want to believe I’m being shot at by alien armies while killer zombies are trying to chew my frontal lobe. And I definitely don’t want to believe I’m actually playing football at Wembley Stadium.
There is a game (or several games, by now) that gives you a fairly convincing illusion that you’re actually doing the thing you’re playing, and that game is called Guitar Hero. I’ve had it for a while, but I’ve only recently started to play it again. And it’s great fun. Looked at objectively, it should be a humiliating experience: you stand there holding a plastic toy shaped like a Gibson guitar, pressing colour buttons and strumming a white bar in sync with popular rock songs. You’re as close to rock stardom as Third French Lord in an amateur production of Henry V is from saying, “And I would like to thank the Academy…”
But, hell, if it isn’t fun… And it does a great job of making you feel like you’re playing complex solos, totally rocking the place, dude! The game mainly works because the rock songs used make for surprisingly good videogame levels. So far, I’ve only made it to the second of four difficulty levels with any success – I’m only using four of the five fret buttons, which means that my hands are in for some pretty bad strain. But the choice of songs is almost perfect: Guitar Hero has everything from ’70s glam rock to ’80s cheese rock (is that a term? it should be!) to 21st century alternative rock. And since I don’t really listen to the radio, it’s this game that has introduced me to the following eminently cool song:
However, there’s a further turn of the screw to my geek joy. I’m very much an old-school gamer – I played games on machines that are practically Etch-a-Sketches compared to a five-year old mobile phone. My first slice of nerd heaven was a Commodore 64, a name that still brings on a hush of awe in the right crowd. The C-64 has been defunct for decades, yet there are insane people still working with them… and this is where I don’t care just how nerdy and geeky I sound, but the following is just distilled nostalgic coolness: