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Having a Think

Will There One Day be Enough? Is it Already Here?

I’m doing a lot of replaying old games, rewatching old shows and films. Each moment I’m torn, looking at the new games on the shelf that I should or could be playing isntead. But, it’s not them I’m drawn to.

There’s comfort in the familiar and there’s excitement in the new. I am, as many are, a little uncertain of who I am right now, what I’m doing, as I’m stuck into a situation that I can’t escape. The comfort of returning to the familiar right now is enough. One day, could it be all I need?

The hope is, of course, no. The excitement of the new is worth it, there’s growth there, the growth of discovering new ways of thinking and new ways to explore yourself. This is the ideal at least, a theory of the benefit of newness, content from content.

These benefits exist in the well-trodden as well. It’s easy to see repetition as reification, reinforcing the already known, the practiced and the familiar. Repetition, however, after times of absence is refacing a memory. You find that as you repeat actions, your body moves in different ways to how it used it. I put on my favourite shirt and maybe it doesn’t fit the same way anymore, it’s still the same shirt, but I’m not the same me.

I’ve been replaying Hollow Knight, Oblivion, and Disco Elysium, all games I love. I’ve been ignoring finishing Spider-man or starting the now older Horizon Zero Dawn or God of War.

I’m listening to Hollow Knight in a new way. The first run’s uncertainty is replaced with a hunger for the game’s moments of security. (Spoilers below) I savoured meetings with Quirrel and played his story quicker than I ever had before and I needed the assurance that Monomon gives. I wasn’t uncertain this time about the locations, I was uncertain about whether the journey is just and good.

I’m struggling to accept that I’ve moved beyond Oblivion. The game is too mapped in my mind, the wonder in what was once hidden and new is refiring as familiarity. I’m travelling to this land again after walking through Breath of the Wild, Skyrim, and Guild Wars 2. It’s like returning to home you haven’t lived in in a very long time, and one that you feel like you’ve grown beyond.

I’m learning a new way to be in Disco Elysium. It’s a messier playthrough. I’ve played this story twice already and made the same choices both times, but this time I have a friend joining me and playing the evil angel on my shoulder. (Spoilers below, again.) We’ve gotten close to shooting a child. We’ve gone off the wagon. But there’s a new hopeful tragedy that I was too scared, unable to see before. I’m learning that things can get worse and worse before they hit the end and while I tried before to keep everything afloat, it good to know how much worse I could have let it been and still walk away.

Could I get these feelings from turning to the new? Or are these special from retreading the old?

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Having a Think

The Meg: the best international unity we’re likely to get

DISCLAIMER: I like shark films. Mostly Deep Blue Sea. I think it’s a fun film and sometimes that’s enough. People get eaten by sharks. It’s funny and scary in the way you want a non-taxing rollercoaster ride to be. So, you can imagine how excited I was to see The Meg swim into the shallows I was splashing about in. I’ve seen it twice now and I think it’s more than just everything you could want from a shark film. In fact, I think it’s an important step towards media that gives international audiences a chance to think more positively of each other.

Shark film is a weird genre. They’re essentially just disaster movies, but the disaster is the shark. They come with their own versions of disaster movie tropes and often sit closer to horror than your average meteor or super-volcano film does. You can link them to the waves of hysteria about swimmers being eaten by sharks and I’m sure if you look deep at it, you’ll see the films and the panic help each other out. But, at the same time, who cares? Just like the panic, they play well on that universal gut fear of deep water, imagining that something will come out of it to eat you in the same way we imagine monsters in the dark.

While Jaws‘ shark gimmick is one super vindictive shark and Deep Blue Sea gives you a few hyper-intelligent sharks, The Meg‘s simple draw is one big dinosaur era monstrosity (although, SPOILERS: there’s more than one). As a shark film I think it’s successful. You get lots of tense splashing, lots of looming jaws in the dark, and people gruesomely torn apart. There’s maybe too many scenes in relative security, but the characters are cool enough that I’m happy to be spending time with them all.

The narratives that the movie offers are mostly surprisingly progressive as well. The ridiculously wealthy billionaire character projects a redemption arc, but is secretly plotting to secure his finances. That plot culminated in a great moment where he’s eaten next to a whale he’s literally exploded. There’s also a short scene condemning shark fin poachers. It’s a nice detail that the shark film takes time out to project some sympathy to actual sharks. You could maybe argue there’s a fear of science narrative, one character musing that ‘we did what people always do, discover then destroy’. However, considering that the film is drenched in characters that are scientists and experts, The Meg could be much worse on this front. It’s no Godzilla: King of Monsters. That film flat out said the ecologists want to kill everyone.

It’s a great film. Simple, stupid, fun. But, that’s not all it is. There’s something big swimming in the bank statements of this film and that is that this is a big collaboration between American and Chinese production companies. From the looks of it, it paid off. The budget is estimated at $130mil and while it was projected to be a flop, it instead made the money back in America and then went on to get the budget back again in China. Worldwide, the film ended up making over $500mil.

Money-wise it’s a smart move and one that isn’t unique. Skyscraper, another disaster movie from the same year as The Meg, featuring Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson dangling from a collapsing building, was a production by 3 main companies: Steve Bucks Productions, Flynn Picture Company, and Legendary Pictures. All three are American companies, but in 2016 Legendary became a subsidiary of China’s Wanda Group. Skyscraper ended up performing pretty badly in America, making back $68mil of a $125mil budget. In China, however, Skyscraper made $132mil.

Of course, the funding is opaque. We can’t see the breakdown of who gave what, but we can see how it looks on the finished product. The source material (yes, The Meg is based on a series of 6 going on 7 novels by Steve Alten) is American and a little different from the film in some telling ways, most notably is the setting. The novel takes place at the Mariana Trench, but the film is off the coast of China. This is most likely so we can get the final confrontation of the film as the meg heads towards a beautiful and busy beach, Sanya Bay.

This is likely a pitch for the nice tourist destination, it does look lovely and I imagine the prehistoric shark is a rare feature. To criticise this would maybe be fair, but it would also hold The Meg to pretty ludicrous standards above the rest of the industry. Most blockbusters at the moment are full of product placement, even Jurassic World, a film which seems to be making a statement about product placement, is full of it even at points inconsistent to its apparent argument.

While a ragtag bunch of international geniuses is a frequent feature of disaster movies, this can also point to the way the film is being marketed around the world. Jason Statham is English, but a household American name thanks to his features in the Fast and Furious franchise, Transporter films, and The Expendables. Page Kennedy and Rainn Wilson are American; Li Bingbing is Chinese; Winston Chao is Taiwanese; Jessica McNamee, Ruby Rose, and Robert Taylor are Australian; Ólafur Darri Ólafsson is Icelandic; Cliff Curtis is a New Zealander; and Masi Oka is Japanese. The cast is a marketing tool, it often is, but here we see a big international pitch paying off, The Meg performing well in every one of these territories.

I think it’s possible to stop at this point and say ‘why should I care? Good for these massive companies cracking a chance to make a tonne more money, making films with huge budgets that are less likely to bomb’. It’s also possible, especially when looking at Disney’s recent attempts, to see this step into international waters as threatening a film’s integrity. This is of course not to argue that Disney ever had any integrity to begin with. There is no ethical consumption (and likely, little ethical production) under capitalism, we’re forced to make concessions about what we consume from media to food everyday. That’s why I’m going to make the case that there’s a light in this tunnel of international film-making, and to do that I want to look at a love triangle.

The Meg has one of the most positive ex-spouse narratives I’ve ever seen. Jason Statham is drawn into the story by his ex-wife, Jessica McNamee, being stuck at the bottom of the sea. She’s running out of oxygen, the pressure is building, and an unidentified creature (it’s the meg) is outside the submersible. It’s safe at the start of the film to assume that by the end they’ll have made up and got back together. They’ll maybe shout at each other a few times in the process, then at the heat of the danger they’ll kiss and we’ll forget there was ever any issue. Astoundingly, however, this does not happen. They’re not even catty towards each other. Instead, Statham has some pretty sweet chemistry with Li Bingbing’s character and gets on like a house on fire with her daughter. Later on in the film, Statham and McNamee even have a heart to heart where she’s happy to see him move on with Bingbing. This is what the fuck levels of emotional maturity that I don’t think I’ve seen in a film, like ever. And it’s in a shark film.

I think Bingbing x Statham is a symbolic romance. At a time when public hysteria about China in the West is at a high, where companies are being banned and students are accused of being spies, xenophobia has been seen to be rising and people are being caught in the middle of government level dealings. Not to get all Crusader Kings III, but historically a romance has been a union for the nation. These unions haven’t always worked well, Marie Antoinette married Louis XVI at a time when anti-Austrian xenophobia was at a boiling point in France and that famously didn’t work out. But, the power of culture is often underestimated. If the trend of international film-making continues then we will hopefully see more of these positive relationships that can serve as subtle shifts towards unity.

The Meg isn’t going to solve international tensions, but I think it does a pretty good job for a film about a big shark.

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Having a Think

Floating with Fear: Bioshock’s Fear of the Future

The world of Bioshock Infinite is a utopia so long as you’re a white American. This is a neat phrase, but it’s also wrong. It’s perhaps unfair to assess Bioshock Infinite by the current cultural conditions, it being released seven years ago and the company responsible for the game having released nothing since to benchmark it against. Regardless it is important to look back at our cultural products and Bioshock Infinite is a story that fails to satisfactorily look at the system it presents. A better, though maybe less neat of a phrase to describe the world of Bioshock Infinite is that it is held up by a fear that we, the player, only get hints of.

Bioshock as a series is about demagogues, the figures that stand on a pedestal and make promises for the future. These stories are situated in the birth of modern capitalism, a time rife with the cruel pseudoscience of eugenics, vivid racial oppression, and class exploitation. Bioshock paints these issues well and warns against those that promise a better society based on these principles. It is, however, Bioshocks’ critique of demagogues which is also its undoing. While those that set up these societies are the true villain, any figure that promises an alternative is painted in the same light. They are the victims of a false equivalency that is common in the world, often presented with the common trope that if you rise up by violent means then you are as evil as those you overtook.

What does Bioshock pose instead? Not much. Rapture, the location of the first two games, naturally degrades into chaos. Columbia, the location of Infinite, meets much the same fate. These descents, a result of class and racial revolutions respectively, both leaving these false utopias a wreck and offering no hope of a future. The only hope your characters seem to have is to get away and never look back on the failed experiments that have left countless lives in ruin. Bioshock’s ultimate failure is its hopelessness. Individuals may survive, but a better tomorrow is always a doomed mission, regardless of if it is promised by the capitalist individualist Andrew Ryan, the communist collectivist Sofia Lamb, the pious segregationist Zackary Comstock, or the populist revolutionary Daisy Fitzroy. All are shown in starkly evil terms.

These games are far from being on the side of the oppressors, they paint the oppressed in a sympathetic light and refuse to shy away from the hardships, albeit at the same time they use tokenistic stereotypes for some of their POC characters. By refusing a positive future for revolution, Bioshock is adding to a culture of fear mongering that leads to half-steps towards progress. Its message for society is inherently nihilist, the present, the past, and the future, all impossibly flawed, the only hope left is in escape. What message does this have to the real world beyond a complacency born out of fear?

Ironically, considering the first two games’ penchant for shock, fear is the biggest element that is overlooked in Bioshock. Most notably for those whose lives benefit from Rapture and Columbia. Fear is a big part of the demagogue’s promise, particularly in Bioshock. To lift some relevant analysis from Roger Eatwell and Mathew Goodwin’s book on National Populism, there are a few big pillars that prove the foundation of this movement. These are a fear of destruction of a historic national identity, a distrust of the established elites, and a fear of incoming deprivation, all leading to a dealignment with traditional political systems. This dealignment is where the demagogues come in, they sway people using these fears, offering a direct, pragmatic solution. 

But, so long as a fear is fed it will never disappear. Those that benefit from the systems offered by Bioshock’s demagogues have their fears built up day by day, manifesting in a paranoia that Bioshock fails to depict. We are expected to believe that Rapture and Columbia are ideal for those that fit in, but we only see its successes and failures, never the people in the awkward middle. This kind of societal paranoia manifests in self-hatred and internal struggle for all but its most pious members. These kinds of totalitarian societies can only work in the way that they are shown if they have constant cycles of reasserting paranoia. In ways this is shown in both, but the focus is always on the other rather than any internal threat, failing to address the impact on even those that the system benefits.

Bioshock’s worlds are open to be seen as functional for the lucky few, but the reality is that in these societies no one wins. The oppressors become trapped by fear, forced by a mental oppression of their own making to fulfil their role, keep their identity in check so they remain on top. These figures don’t need a game to show them sympathy, but Bioshock misses out by not depicting them. The world of Bioshock Infinite is not a utopia, even one for the white American, it is a form of mental and physical oppression for all involved.

Unlike the characters, we cannot run from our systems of oppression and we cannot be fearful of every promise of the future. Instead, we should strive towards unpicking these notions of a perfect past and live in hope for a better future.

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Enemy Types and Drone Strikes

Sleeping Dogs by United Front Games is about an undercover cop rising through the ranks of the Honk Kong triad. The police are the bad guys, or certain cops are, and they’re the good guys, or so we’re trained to think. The Triad are the good guys, or certain characters are forgivable, and they’re the bad guys, or so we’re trained to think. The game’s plot treads this line well, corruption is systemic in the police force but their job is to ‘do good’, and while the Triad’s actions are far from forgivable their members are people who you can understand and sympathise with. The game’s plot is welcome nuance for an open-world crime game, but its gameplay shows us the abstraction we’ve had buried deep into our perception.

The fighting in Sleeping Dogs favours martial combat over gunplay, with a range of different opponents that force you to switch up tactics. Larger opponents attempt to grapple you so you should hit them with heavy attacks, opponents with fist wraps are impossible to interrupt so you should counter them and grapple them. You become trained while playing the game to look for and identify types of people, determining how they threaten you and how you should respond. In some side missions, once you have defeated a small gang, you can hack a camera in their hangout, hooking it up to your apartment to catch their Triad contact and point them out to the police. This contact always looks the same, suited and often on their phone or with a briefcase. You never see their illegal activity, but you know they’re a criminal from how they look, where they are, and who they’re hanging out with.

Sleeping Dogs is not a villain, but it’s indicative of a way of thinking that shelters us from a complex reality where our governments are complicit in far away violence. Collateral damage from a drone strike is forgiven, if someone is accidentally at a military target then what might they have had to hide? If a school or hospital is destroyed then surely it was the ‘enemy’s fault for hiding behind civilian infrastructure. A drone operator sees a target marked by military intelligence and clicks a button. The hero of Sleeping Dogs sees a member of the Triad, you click a button, and the police take them away.

This visual simplicity does not make Sleeping Dogs a bad game, instead it makes it a great one. These methods are tied to the very heart of how video games function, a perfect unity of visuals and interaction is a mark of an effective game. So should video games rethink what makes them effective? Probably not, while games (especially AAA) can do much more to think of the impact of their gameplay and how it relates to its narrative, reality should be our focus. If modern warfare tactics, both on the battlefield and how it is communicated to the people, are drifting further from reality then we must work extra hard to sensitise ourselves to the unwelcome truth.

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Chasm and Individualism

Chasm is a metroidvania game, released in 2018. In most ways it’s what you would expect from a game of its kind, but there is one big difference, it’s map is procedurally generated. This is a re-emerging trend that has been brought back by the renaissance of roguelikes, where the point of the game being its replayability makes procedural generation an attractive feature. Procedurally generated maps are also incredibly popular in survival games such as Minecraft, Terraria, and Don’t Starve, where the challenge of the game comes from exploring and adapting to the unexpected circumstances. For a metroidvania game, however, this feature is arguably counterintuitive, so where has it come from?

Before unpicking this, it is worth noting that I think Chasm is extremely well put together. The difficulty curve at the beginning is harsh but, as with many metroidvania games, the feeling of progression and accomplishment of going back to those early areas, armed with the abilities you gain throughout the game makes that challenge well worth it. The world of Chasm and the story is extremely trope-y, so don’t expect world building on par with Hollow Knight, but it does the job and is far from the focus of the game. Similarly, the equipment system and RPG elements don’t shine too brightly but they work well and the game is well balanced, even if save points can be sparse at times (at least in the map that generated for me).

What Chasm offers you, different to other metroidvania games, is a unique experience. If you select your own map seed then you will be playing a version of the game that no other person has played. Of course you will still collect the same equipment, fight the same foes, and level up the same character, but your challenge and your experience will be unique. Does this make the game more replayable? I would argue a little bit, but not nearly enough. I would sooner replay Hollow Knight or Guacamelee! despite the map being the same, simply because they create a world rich enough that exploring it once doesn’t deplete it. A replay of Chasm will create a unique challenge, but the world will, paradoxically, offer you little new. The only perk then, from this procedurally generated world, is individualism.

Every game created in the Euro-USA world has been created in an individualist society. Art and literature, even some film pre-dates the obsession with the individual, but games have existed solely in this personal-political system. It makes sense then, that for the longest time games would be single player or competitive, and when a game is co-op the point is often that your characters have their own unique abilities that add to the team (think Borderlands or Trine). Of course, some games challenge this in ways. In Planetside and Running with Rifles you are encouraged to be a soldier in service of the greater team and while you do have your own individual traits and equipment, these elements are less about the strength of the individual, and more about the needs of the collective. However, these examples sit in the embers of an intermittently re-igniting nationalism where we all come together for warfare.

Individualism is often present within the game as well as in the way it is played. Many games feature a solitary protagonist or a group of playable characters with a main character in the center. Here, an interesting example can be made of the progression of the Final Fantasy series of games, notably made in Japan, a country with much less of an individualist history. In the early Final Fantasy games, you play a collective, in the original these characters don’t even have an identity, only a job. As the series develops, these characters get identities, but their roles remain malleable. While characters in Final Fantasy VI through VIII have specialisms, they can often be equipped in a way that allows them to fulfil any practical role, anyone can (and will) be your healer. In XI, X (including X-2), and XII these roles become more solidified, but still with customisation. Finally in XIII, the characters are near unique and you primarily control one character at a time. 

The above example is worth comparing to a Western RPG, Mass Effect. Mass Effect is similar to FFXIII, in that you control a collective, but roles are clearly pre-defined for each member. Even more individualist is the focus on Commander Shephard, this leading hero that must accompany every mission. Not only this but you can mould Commander Shephard in your own image if you wish, your Shephard is unique, much like Chasm’s map. But what does this all mean? Why does individualism matter in video games?

Games enforce ideology. That isn’t to say video games cause violence, research suggests they do not. Video Games do, however, promote ways of thinking through a form of rehearsal, especially when choices are presented to you within the game. One of the most effective games to present this idea is Spec Ops: The Line, a game that challenges and exposes the agency you have in shooters that feels almost like a direct response to the infamous Call of Duty level, ‘No Russian’. In Spec Ops, you play a US soldier deployed in a disaster stricken Dubai to provide humanitarian relief and recover a lost US unit with the same task. When, instead, your character is met with resistance from an insurgent population, in a traditional shooter way, like a hammer seeing nails, you shoot and kill in response. As you go through the game you begin to descend further and further into villainy, clearly taking innocent lives. All the time this is happening, the game condemns your actions, it shows you to be the villain, but the only way to escape this is to go deeper or quit. Spec Ops shows you that in a video game, a closed and controlled system, you have no agency in the ideology you rehearse.

Chasm is not a champion of individualism, but it is a token of it. I argue there is no gameplay value in the procedurally generated map but instead, an ideological one. When playing a game it is always worth keeping an eye on how your actions make you feel, keep an eye on what you rehearse in yourself, because the makers of the game may, knowingly or unknowingly, have you enacting their own politics.