Review: The Road

Posted in Uncategorized on December 19, 2010 by Shedlock

We don’t know what has happened to their world. The clocks stop, forest fires rampage, every tree has died or collapsed,  it gets colder progressively as days, years, go by, people turn on each other as a food resource, and The Road becomes a very dangerous place. It’s the ultimate nightmare for humanity; yet, a man (Viggo Mortensen)  and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) struggle on against the desolate environment they have been cast into, in a journey to reach the coast of America. Even after the success of the Coen Brother’s film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, an adaptation of the author’s most celebrated, Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Road seems an odd choice. However, in today’s environmentally aware world, John Hillcoats’  vision of The Road isn’t out of place at all, and the film takes the viewer on an unforgiving, emotive, but ultimately enjoyable journey to the heart of our world’s future darkness.

Differences between the novel and the film are immediately apparent. Opening with a beautiful, albeit slightly sentimental sequence that only recieves a line or two later in the novel, Hillcoat’s flair for cinematography and detail-brimming images immediately hooks the audience. The attention to detail in every setpiece and shot remains at this incredibly high standard throughout the film, and more importantly, is in every performance and line delivered by the star-studded cast. Had I read the book first, I would have been highly skeptical of realising the novel’s man with a face and a voice- the novel is devoid of quotation marks and speech descriptors entirely, giving an impression of cold or repetitive dialogue- but Mortensen’s performance is truly stunning. Memorable conversations in the novel are, for the most part, given a powerful dramatic force and occasionally a higher level of meaning, be it from the little boy’s want of friends his own age to the man’s gentle and patient explanations of who ‘the good guys’ are (which incidentally harks back to Hillcoats’ no-good-guys Australian Western ‘The Proposition’). The loss of humanity in the film is brutally and honestly depicted, and brings more pathos into the characters lives and situation.

So dramatically, the film is a success; in some ways more so than the novel. However, the brilliant poetry of McCarthy’s prose is, naturally, completely absent in the film adaptation, and in some ways this is detrimental to the spirit of the tale. The simple poetic description of setting in the book translates effectively into the stark, frank filming of the adaptation, as Hillcoat and co. used real-world disaster locations to give the scenes a realistic apocalyptic and dangerous atmosphere. However, thematically, the adaptation nearly collapses. The theme of spirituality and religion that pervades the novel recieves only a few lines in the film, and they do indeed reveal more about the characters and their relationship, but God- or more importantly spirituality, in the novel is a huge theme, one that the narrator directly alludes to and builds upon throughout.  I had no moments in the film where I sat back and pondered the meaning of life or the issues brought up in the film- whereas these moments are plentiful and memorable in the novel.

Considering the popularity and reverence of the novel, McCarthy’s The Road is an unusual choice for a book to film adapatation, but in practice Hillcoat’s minimalist style provides an entertaining  and emotional experience, and more solid realisation of the nightmarish novel. The story and events have been re-ordered for dramatic effect, and the themes of the novel are stripped back significantly in order to make the plight of the protagonists more consistent and dramatic. Indeed, the drama and realisation of the film is an incredible achievement, but Hillcoat’s adaptation lacks the spirituality or simple poetry of the novel. At times The Road’s harrowing perspective is hard to swallow, although there is still plenty of joy and pleasure to be found in the experience.

A Letter to Edge Magazine

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 8, 2010 by Shedlock

I have never been intimately involved with an MMO. The most I’ve managed is a series of one night stands, starting with Runscape for the months after it gained popularity, Planetside for a few days, the Matrix Online for less than a week, a shot at Eve Online, and most recently World of Warcraft for a day or two at a friends house. So as you can see, I get around, and have an issue with commitment when it comes to the Massively Multiplayer world.

There are a variety of reasons for my lack of fidelity, from immaturity in the player-base (Runescape), to a time-involvement grinding system (Eve), but mostly what I can’t get over is the money factor, and its social implications for the gameplay. I don’t like feeling tied down- with a good console singleplayer game I can enjoy it as much as I want on one payment, without the need to maintain a social life in the game to really have fun and progress; I’m not paying money for gameplay as if it some kind of ‘you get one month, and I only do menages’ solicitation.

I understand the developers’ requirement for constant funding on their long-spanning title to maintain quality and improve the service for users, but I find commitment is fully required in these titles for a long time to get your moneys worth; make friends who you will frequently play with to make success achievable, and play enough to make up for the prostitut- ahem, subscription cost you pay every month. With a contemporary ‘never in the same place for more than a few months’ young persons’ lifestyle, this just doesn’t suit me- and obviously with millions of players on their games, advertising revenue should be able to pick up a lot of the slack as the primary income for the bigger companies who obviously don’t need their 11 million players to pay the full subscription every month in order to cut a profit.

With this in mind, this months Edge piece on GuildWars 2 caught my eye. It appeared to offer real-time MMORPG action gameplay, which I have enjoyed in other titles, but naturally (and gimmickily?) without this enforced contract gameplay, and the longer-term social ties required for success in other MMO’s. I had seen the original, but at that time was in an even less appropriate place to make a move on an in-depth MMO. Other titles have been tempting, for example APB, with it’s optional pay-as-you-go system- but we all know how that turned out, the gameplay just didn’t deliver the goods. I’ll have to wait and see, but hopefully Guildwars 2 will provide a healthy relationship for an MMO virgin like myself.

‘Players and Players’ or, A Letter to Roger Ebert

Posted in Uncategorized on June 24, 2010 by Shedlock

[This is a very unfinished piece. It’s going to be fully redrafted a couple of times, so this is the raw materials you see now. Everything in square brackets (save this statement) will be included in the letter or email I send to Mr. Ebert, but is ignorable in the context of this text.]

[Dear Roger,

I read your recent piece on the ‘games as art’ argument, and enjoyed it, but did not agree.]

 I spend a lot of time thinking about games and their position amongst other forms of entertainment and art [(I am studying English literature and am an avid film and music fan)]. In many ways games are similar to other forms of entertainment, holding their own position among theatre, film, literature, visual arts, and music; but naturally, the one main difference with games is that they are interactive. In this sense I believe that games are just as important as any of these forms, having their own unique way of interfacing with artful or entertaining content, but I also believe that games are at an earlier stage of development as an art form.

 A parallel I heard about and agree with between film and games suggests that games are in the equivalent stage currently as film was in the 1930s and 40s; that the technical quality (simulation: graphics, sound etc) and writing quality (characters, stories, scripts) of games is undergoing a massive development similar to what the film industry saw over this period (the film quality itself improving, and the writing and technique of the makers improving). Another reason I like this analogy, is that it also lets me draw another parallel- the general view of films when they were first being made was that they were abhorrent and against the grain of human culture and ‘correctness’. This same view is often affixed on games currently, and I think in the next several decades, games will eventually be rated on a level similar to film, music, visual art, or whatever else.

However, the reason I am writing this is to put forward an idea I had a month or two ago [(when I intended to write this letter)]. As well as spending time thinking about where games stand against other forms of entertainment/art (out of convenience, lets say artertainment from now on*), I also spend time thinking about where games stand in the view of society and culture. While games have a massive fan base, it is still not ‘cool’ to say you are a ‘gamer’. People who do not appreciate games (as art or anything else)[, like yourslef, I deduce, from comments in your article,] cannot, or will not, appreciate games until they hunker down to the level of ‘gamers’ and play a game fully from end to end. Just like saying you cannot or will not appreciate the medium of film until you watch a movie. But the majority of them (‘naysayers’) will not do this.

So I take it upon myself to find parallels with other artertainment forms, and to describe them in ways that ‘non-gamers’ will understand. Here is where my theory comes in.

I had the idea recently of comparing games to theatre. Not to film as they are so often equated, but to theatre, drama, thespian endeavours. The reason for this is the idea of ‘players’.

If you go to see a play in a theatre, there are two parties involved. The ‘players’ (the actors on stage conducting the action, and the directors and people who crafted the experience), and the audience. Seeing the play, you are in the audience. As an actor in the play, you are acting the action for the entertainment of others, and yourself to some degree. The directors or producers are the ones who crafted the experience.

When you play a game, you control the character on screen. In this sense you are the actor in the ‘play’ or game. But playing a game, you are also the audience, watching the action as it unfolds and you influence it. This is the basis of the symbiotic relationship between actor and audience, purified into the ‘player’, when a person enjoys a game. As a player, you are both the actor on the stage (this being the simulation created in the game), and the audience watching the action take place, as you act it out or influence it. This is pure entertainment- and is where the added dimension of ‘fun’ comes from in games.

Where is the art, you ask? The art is not in the ‘playing’ of the game. Just like the art in a play is not in the actors acting on a stage (there may be art to the skill of acting, but this is only made possible by the art of the play), or the audience watching it. The art in the game is in the experience that has been crafted. If we watch a play, the art is initially in the quality of writing behind the events (storytelling, dialogue, thematic elements, drama, humour, etc), then the art is crafted for the audience by the director and producer, in order to be palatable and clear, then finally the actors come on stage and bring the art into motion. The audience then find entertainment or art in this.

So here we can see three simple stages.

1. Creation of the art (writing the story and plot, crafting the characters and dialogue, making it deep or meaningful through themes or figures to create art) 

2. Realisation of the art (taking the skeleton above and making it into something substantial for a viewer to engage and interface with, which may be an art in itself, visually or aurally, as with visual arts and music)

3. Enjoyment of the art (in a play this is simply the audience watching; but in a game, it is the player both watching the action, as well as conducting it as a pseudo-actor)

To compare this with the development of a game we must take some liberties, as games are often thought with interaction in mind first, rather than a story or art, but lets say hypothetically that the game is written first. In the making of the game, the writer would write the art (the story, the characters, the script, where it would take them- just like in a play), then the developers (like the director and producer of a play) would craft the experience into something an audience can enjoy (creating the set, how the characters will behave, designing how the interaction between actor and audience will work, integrating the writing and art- the simulation), then finally, in the only stage largely different to the production of a play, the player can play it, becoming both actor and audience in the final stage.

Here I have attempted to put forward what makes games pleasing, as an art form as well as interactive entertainment, in a way relative to [a form of entertainment you will hopefully have a grasp of yourself;] the theatre play. However, from this point the issues become more contrived. As games are often designed with ‘fun’ interaction in mind first and foremost; the artful aspect of game is often non-existent. Just like with a Seagal or Schwarzenegger film, these games are designed to be explosive and thrilling, with little meaningful (i.e. artful) quality. But this is an issue in all forms of art. The truly artful creations are golden nuggets in the rough, and the majority of creations are simple thrill rides. In the game industry there are many creations that are profoundly artful and meaningful- but the vast majority are for excitement and entertainment solely. A key point, as I said, is that to understand how or why these games may be artful for yourself, you really just need to play them. [For more ponderings on these issues, see my new-born (and very under developed) blog, www.shedlock.wordpress.com]

N.B. Note that I tend to refer to art and entertainment on almost equal terms throughout- the reason for this is that art is intended as entertainment of some form, but entertainment itself is not always artful (as you have stated yourself). For example, an action movie may be entertaining, but not artful in any way, whilst another movie that is entertaining may also be artful (even if it’s not entertaining, some enjoyment can be found in the art aspect, making it at least to some degree entertaining).