Leave Reality at Home

One of the most contentious issues surrounding criticisms of many forms of media, particularly in films and videogames, is the issue of realism. How realistic a videogame is, how accurately it replicates the world around us both visually and thematically, is the most frequently cited factor in determining how immersive a game is, how much you ‘get into it’, and films that keep their feet very much in the real world delight both nerds and film critics alike by responding favourably to their nit-picking. But the place of realism in these media is not a simple question of ‘as much realism as possible is better’; finding the ideally realistic situation (which is a phrase I totally didn’t just make up) is a delicate balance that can vary enormously from one product to another, and getting that balance right is frequently the key to success.

That too much realism can be a bad thing can be demonstrated quite easily on both a thematic and visual front. To deal with the visual sphere of things first, I believe I have talked before about ‘the uncanny valley’, which is originated as a robotics term first hypothesised by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori. The theory, now supported by research from the likes of Hiroshi Ishiguro (who specialises in making hyper-realistic robots), states that as a robot gets steadily more and more human in appearance, humans tend to react more favourably to it, until we reach a high point of a stylised, human-like appearance that is nonetheless clearly non-human. Beyond this point, however, our reactions to such a robot get dramatically worse, as the design starts to look less like a human-like robot and more like a very weird looking human, until we get to the point at which the two are indistinguishable from one another and we reach another peak. This dip in positive reacton, the point where faces start to look ‘creepy’, is known as the uncanny valley, and the principle can be applied just as easily to computer graphics as it can to robots. The main way of overcoming the issue involves a careful design process intended to stylise certain features; in other words, the only way to make something quite realistic not look creepy is to make it selectively less realistic. Thus, hyper-realism is not always the way forward in drawn/animated forms of media, and won’t be until the magical end-goal of photorealistic graphics are achieved. If that ever happens.

However, the uncanny valley is far less interesting than the questions that arise when considering the idea of thematic realism (which I again totally didn’t just make up). These are the extent to which stories are realistic, or aspects of a story, or events in a film and somesuch, and here we arrive at an apparent double standard. Here, our evidence comes from nerds; as we all know, film nerds (and I suspect everyone else if they can find them) delight in pointing out continuity errors in everything they watch (a personal favourite is the ‘Hollywood’ sign in the remake of The Italian Job that quite clearly says OHLLYWOOD at one camera angle), and are prepared to go into a veritable tizz of enjoyment when something apparently implausible is somehow able to adhere fastidiously to the laws of physics. Being realistic is clearly something that can add a great deal to a film, indicating that the director has really thought about this; not only is this frequently an indicator of a properly good film, but it also helps satisfy a nerd’s natural desire to know all the details and background (which is the reason, by the way, that comic books spend so much of their time referencing to overcomplicated bits of canon).

However, evidence that reality is not at the core of our enjoyment when it comes to film and gaming can be quite easily revealed by considering the enormous popularity of the sci-fi and fantasy genres. We all of course know that these worlds are not real and, despite a lot of the jargon spouted in sci-fi to satisfy the already mentioned nerd curiosity, we also know that they fundamentally cannot be real. There is no such thing as magic, no dilithium crystals, no hyperspace and no elves, but that doesn’t prevent the idea of them from enjoying massive popularity from all sides. I mean, just about the biggest film of last summer was The Avengers, in which a group of superheroes fight a group of giant monsters sent through a magical portal by an ancient Norse god; about as realistic as a tap-dancing elephant, and yet most agreed as to the general awesomeness of that film. These fantastical, otherworldly and/or downright ridiculous worlds and stories have barely any bearing on the real world, and yet somehow this somehow makes it better.

The key detail here is, I think, the concept of escapism. Possibly the single biggest reason why we watch films, spend hours in front of Netflix, dedicate days of our life to videogames, is in pursuit of escapism; to get away from the mundaneness of our world and escape into our own little fantasy. We can follow a super-soldier blasting through waves of bad guys such as we all dream to be able to do, we can play as a hero with otherworldly magic at our fingertips , we can lead our sports teams to glory like we could never do in real life. Some of these stories take place in a realistic setting, others in a world of fantasy, yet in all the real pull factor is the same; we are getting to play or see a world that we fantasise about being able to live ourselves, and yet cannot.

The trick of successfully incorporating reality into these worlds is, therefore, one of supporting our escapism. In certain situations, such as in an ultra-realistic modern military shooter, an increasingly realistic situation makes this situation more like our fantasy, and as such adds to the immersion and the joy of the escapism; when we are facing challenges similar to those experienced by real soldiers (or at least the over-romanticised view of soldiering that we in fact fantasise about, rather than the day-to-day drudgery that is so often ignored), it makes our fantasy seem more tangible, fuelling the idea that we are, in fact, living the dream. On the other hand, applying the wrong sort of realism to a situation (like, say, not being able to make the impossible jumps or failing to have perfect balance) can kill the fantasy, reminding us just as easily as the unreality of a continuity error that this fantasy we are entertaining cannot actually happen, reminding us of the real world and ruining all the fun. There is, therefore, a kind of thematic uncanny valley as well; a state at which the reality of a film or videogame is just… wrong, and is thus able to take us out of the act of escapism. The location of this valley, however, is a lot harder to plot on a graph.

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Zero Dark Thirty

Well, I did say I wanted to make film reviewing more of a regular thing…

The story of Zero Dark Thirty’s production is a both maddeningly frustrating and ever so slightly hilarious one; the original concept, about an intelligence officer’s incessant, bordering on obsessive, quest to try and find Osama bin Laden was first brought up some time around 2010, and the screenplay was finished in the spring of 2011. The film’s centrepiece was the Battle for Tora Bora, which took place in late 2001; American and allied forces had been on the ground for just a few weeks before the Taliban government and political system was in total disarray. Al-Qaeda were on the run, and some quarters thought the war would be pretty much over within a few months, apart from a few troops left over to smoothen the new government’s coming into power (yeah, that really worked out well). All the intelligence (and it was good too) pointed to bin Laden’s hiding in the mountains of Tora Bora, near the Pakistani border, and after a fierce bombing campaign the net was tightening. However, allied Pakistani and Afghan militia (who some believe were on the Al-Qaeda side) requested for a ceasefire so that some dead & wounded might be evacuated and prisoners taken; a move reluctantly accepted by the Americans, who then had to sit back as countless Al-Qaeda troops, including bin Laden, fled the scene.

Where was I? Oh yes, Zero Dark Thirty.

This was originally planned to be the central event of the film, but just as filming was about to commence the news broke that Bin Laden had, in fact, been killed which, whilst it did at least allow the filmmakers to produce a ‘happy’ ending, required that the whole script be torn up and rewritten. However, despite this, the tone and themes of the film have managed to remain true to this original morally ambiguous, chaotic story, despite  including no footage of any events prior to 2003. We still have the story of the long, confused and tortured quest of the small team of CIA operatives whose sole job it was to find and kill bin Laden, and it honestly doesn’t feel like the story would have felt much different were it to end with bin Laden still alive. And tortured is the word; much has been made of the film’s depiction of torture, some deploring the fact that it is shown to get vital information and arguing that the film ‘glorifies’ it, whilst others point out the way that the key information that finally revealed bin Laden’s location was found after the newly-inaugurated President Obama closed down the ‘detainee’ program. Personally, I think it’s depicted… appropriately. This is a very, very real film, telling a real story about real events and the work of real people, even if specifics aren’t the gospel truth (I mean, there’s only so much the CIA are going to be willing to tell the world), and nobody can deny that prisoners were tortured during the first few years of the war. Or, indeed, that the practice almost certainly did give the CIA information. If anything, that’s the point of the torture debate; it’s awful, but it works, and which side of the debate you fall on really depends on whether the latter is worth the former. In any case, it is certainly revealing that the film chooses to open with a torture scene, revealing the kind of pulls-no-punches intent that comes to define it.

There are the depictions of the chaos of the intelligence process, the web of indistinguishable truths and lies, the hopes pinned on half-leads, all amid plenty of timely reminders of just what is at stake; the attacks, both the big ones that everyone’s heard of and can relate to and the littler ones that hide away in the corners of the media reporting that manage to mean so, so much more to our chosen characters. Of particular note is the final attack on bin Laden’s compound, in one of the least ‘Hollywood’ and most painstakingly accurate portrayals of a military operation ever put onto the big screen. It also manages to come across as totally non-judgemental; torture, terrorism and even the killing of one of western culture’s biggest hate figures of the last decade are presented in exactly the same deadpan fashion. In another film, neutrality over contentious issues can come across as a weak cop-out; here it only adds to the realism.

The most obvious comparison to Zero Dark Thirty is The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow’s previous ultra-realistic story about the War on Terror, and it is a pretty fair comparison to say that what The Hurt Locker was to soldiers, Zero Dark Thirty is to intelligence. However, whilst The Hurt Locker was very much about its characters  and their internal struggles, with the events of the film acting more as background than anything else, Zero Dark Thirty is instead dedicated to its events (to say ‘story’ would rather overplay the interconnectedness and coherence of the whole business). Many characters are reduced to devices, people who do stuff that the film is talking about, and many of the acting performances are… unchallenging; nothing against the actors concerned, just to say that this is very much Bigelow’s film rather than her characters. The shining exception is Jessica Chastain as our central character of Maya, who manages to depict her character’s sheer drive and unflinching determination with outstanding aplomb: as well as showing her human side (in its brief appearances) in both touching and elegant fashion.

For all these reasons and more, I can wholeheartedly recommend Zero Dark Thirty as something people should try and see if they can; what I cannot do, however, is to really enjoy it. This isn’t because it isn’t fun, for lots of great films aren’t, but because it doesn’t really stir any great emotions within me, despite asking its fair share of moral questions about war. Maybe its because I tend to be very analytical over such matters, but I’m inclined to feel that the film has actually taken its neutrality and frankness of delivery a little too far. By having no really identifiable, consistent, empathetic characters beyond Maya, our emotional investment in the film is entirely dependent on our emotional investment in the subject matter, and by presenting it in such a neutral matter it fails to really do so in people without a strong existing opinion on it. I have heard this film described as a Rorschach test for people’s opinions on the war and the techniques used in it; maybe my response to this film just reveals that I don’t really have many.

Desert Bus

Charity is, as has been well documented, the most competitive industry on the planet. The trouble is that there are many, many things wrong with this world, and lots of people who believe that all should get the same thing- but nearly all of them are going after the same target demographic (the rich middle classes who can afford to give to them), and there are simply so many of them competing for people’s time, energy and, most importantly, financial support that many get drowned under the weight of competition. This has lead to many charity events in recent years attempting to break out from the mainstream collection ideas, focusing on charitable enterprise or other such concepts in order to be different and identifiable. However, when preparing for one such event that is happening in the very near future (hence why I’m publishing this post a day early) I saw an opportunity to combine the topic of charity with blogging and an old favourite fall-back topic, gaming- but to start with, I’m going to talk about magic, so sit in for a story folks.

In 1975 a pair of American magicians delivered a show in Minnesota that would quickly become the first of many. With another co-host, the duo built their reputation with a regular show that lasted until 1981, before moving to New York to start their own off Broadway shows. By 1985 these were garnering them some top reviews, so as the 90s approached they turned their act to Broadway proper. During the 1990s they were appearing regularly on chat shows, doing US national tours and making TV cameos, firmly establishing themselves as possibly the most famous magicians on earth at that time (and possibly the present day too). Their names were (and are) Penn & Teller.

By 1995 their career was reaching a zenith; famous both nationally and around the world, they were the closest the magical world had to global superstars. And with stardom came all the trappings of fame, including incessant requests from various publishers and agents asking to be allowed to use their name to plug something, and presumably in late 1994 one such offer from Absolute Entertainment was accepted; to allow Penn & Teller to be the subject material for a videogame.

The game in question was to be called Penn & Teller’s Smoke And Mirrors; the console, the Sega-CD (an add-on for the Sega Mega Drive that was at the time fighting a furious console war with Nintendo’s Super NES). The game itself consisted of a series of mini-games, in a similar way to how a magic show is comprised of individual tricks- or at least, that was the idea. Each game was a trick you had to master, a little bit of slight-of-hand/controller that you had to learn before inviting your friends over and thrashing them since you knew how the trick worked, as a form of payback against those friends “who come over to your house, eat your food, drink your soda, play your games and always beat you” (Penn’s words, not mine). Many have since voiced the opinion that videogaming was a rather odd choice of platform for this idea, but whether this would have impacted sales was never discovered, as Absolute Entertainment went bust after (conveniently) they had completed the game’s development, but before they got a chance to ship it and pay Penn & Teller back the licensing money they were owed. Under the terms of the contract, this rendered all deals regarding use of Penn & Teller’s likenesses and intellectual property null and void, meaning Absolute Entertainment’s owners (Skyworks Interactive Inc.) couldn’t sell the game, and all the copies they produced presumably sat in a corner gathering dust somewhere. However, before the studio went under another player entered our story, by the name of Janet Reno.

At the time, Janet Reno was Attorney General of the United States under Bill Clinton’s leadership, and at the time in question she chose a particularly opportune moment to join the chorus of voices against the violence in videogames. Reno’s argument partially centred on the idea that these games were unrealistic, and should try to depict life as it really was rather than clouding the mind’s of the nation’s children (or something), so as a rather sly joke Penn & Teller slipped one more minigame in, the only one that wasn’t a magic trick. A little minigame going by the name of Desert Bus.

Desert Bus was described as being designed to be an example of ‘stupefyingly realistic gameplay’, and in it you played as a bus driver. Your job was to drive between two US cities, Tucson, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada, at no more than 45 miles per hour (presumably the bus was electronically limited), in real-time, right across the Great American desert. The scenery was fairly unchanging (the odd tree or bus stop goes by), there is no traffic coming the other way, the graphics are about as good as could be expected from that generation console, there are no people to pick up, and the journey takes 8 hours to complete in each direction. After 5 hours, a bug hits the windscreen. This is considered a highlight.

However, there were three things that turned this from a rather interesting statement by the game developers to a simultaneously evil and absolutely hilarious game, depending on whether you were playing or just hearing about it. Firstly, there is no ability to pause; pressing the pause button merely activates the horn, so you’re in for the long haul. Secondly, the bus lists to the right, meaning one cannot simply tape down the accelerator and leave it for eight hours- it requires one’s constant attention (and repeated turning left) to avoid crashing. If you do crash, and stay still for 15 seconds, a tow truck comes to take you back to Tucson- again, in real time, and at 45 miles an hour. Thirdly, if you reach Vegas, you get one point- and 15 seconds to decide if you want to try for another one by heading back to Tucson. The game has a limit of 99 points, never achieved without the use of an emulator. This is the world’s greatest endurance test- Penn & Teller even had plans, had the game been released, to set up a competition for who could get the most points, the prize being a luxury trip in ‘the real Desert Bus’, a few nights in a luxury Vegas hotel and tickets to their show, but of course the game never exactly received widespread coverage.

That is, however, not until 2007, when two more players enter our story- Penny Arcade and LoadingReadyRun. Penny Arcade is probably the most famous webcomic in the world, written by a couple of games nerds for games nerds (I should probably say at this point that I’ve never actually read it, but ho hum), and very much acting as a voice for the gaming community. It’s founders, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, have become successful enough to start their own gaming convention (PAX), and in 2003 they embarked on another project- Child’s Play. Designed with the view in mind of a gaming charity, a chance for gaming culture to give something back to society and to improve its negative image as being violent and uncouth, it aims to deliver toys and videogames to sick children in hospitals worldwide, in order to make their lives a little more bearable. Some have said that it’s message is perhaps not as righteous as that of, say, Oxfam, but these people are kind of missing the point of charity and it is nonetheless charmingly sweet in concept. Penny Arcade’s prominence among the gaming community is such that many key industry figures have got behind it and the charity has so far raised over $12 million, nearly one million of which has come thanks to the work of a group of Canadians behind an 8-year old internet sketch comedy series called LoadingReadyRun.

You see, in 2007 the guys behind LoadingReadyRun decided that they would try to use their small but devoted hardcore fan base to raise some cash for such a good cause, and so decided to organise a charity gaming marathon in aid of Child’s Play. Casting around for a suitable game to play, they decided that ‘the most boring game in the world’ would form a good backdrop whilst they danced, pissed around and generally humiliated themselves on camera to get donations, and so they plumped for Desert Bus. As they slotted a copy of the game (don’t ask me where they got it from) into a borrowed Sega CD, they hoped to try and raise $5,000 dollars, the plan being that their strategy of ‘the more we get the longer we play’ would last them about a weekend. They made four times their target, and the following year did the same thing again and hit $70,000, forcing them to play for nearly 4 days. By the next year their comedy had reached a wider audience after being picked up and hosted by The Escapist online ‘magazine’, and they broke $100,000 for the first time; last year they made $383,125.10, and hope to bring their sum total to over a million this year. Desert Bus For Hope 6 starts tomorrow, at 5am GMT (or 9pm PST), it’s for a great cause, and it should be entertaining to watch the kind of challenges they get up to- they are professional sketch comedians after all. The website’s here, and the list of people ringing in is here (spoiler- the list includes Notch), and a far more entertaining history of the game is here. If you’ve got the time free, give them a watch. It’s for the children.