Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Four Matters Regarding Cloud Atlas

A Matter of Reduction

My final year of college I took a one-on-one course with a professor about Romantic poetry—Wordsworth, Coleridge, et. al. Fantastic class, just fantastic, but one that really challenged me to move beyond doing work that was merely sufficient. The professor asked me not to just be sufficient, but exemplary.

I remember specifically near the beginning of the class he had me read a poem—I don’t remember by who—and then a passage from Nietzsche regarding memory and how humans are like cows…it made sense in context. The assignment was to read this passage, which was the first of many, and then write a two page response to it. I remember sort of filing off the response and doing what I thought was “good enough work.”

The Professor took me to task for it.

The main issue was with the ending paragraph, where I spouted off some aphorism that I was certain “summed up” the entire passage. Something like “you can’t always believe what you see” or “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” A bland, trite and clichéd line that I put in to quickly and easily finish off this response, because it was one of fifteen things I had to do that week. I’ll never forget what the Professor told me, more or less word for word:

“The issue here, Mr. E, is that you’re taking this complicated, thoughtful and complex idea and are intent to simply boil it down to some essence. You want to put it in a nice little box and put a bow on top of it. And it’s natural to want to do this. But why do we do it? Because once we put that bow on top—once we ‘figure it out’—we don’t have to think about it anymore.”

Those words stuck with me. Because it is the easy way out. Reducing complicated and work-laden thought into a cliché just reeks of intellectual dishonesty. Humanity gets nowhere that way.

I was reminded of this coming out of the theater subsequent to the final shot of Cloud Atlas. After near three hours of dynamic shots, Oscar-worthy editing and acting, and deep philosophical dilemmas, a woman in front of me steadfastly proclaims that “after all that, it was just about karma.”

There was two issues I took with this analysis.

First, this person apparently didn’t know the difference between karma and reincarnation. But that’s neither here nor there. The main concern I had with her interpretation was that after three hours of film, in a movie with six different stories, time periods, and characters, she essentially dismissed the final product as some fluffy thing about karma. Which is within her rights, of course, but I have to ask: was it worth three hours of her time and $7.25 out of her pocket to see some movie about karma? Why would you pay for that experience, if that’s all you’re determined to take from it?

A Matter of Pretension

Cloud Atlas is a complicated film. It has six diverging and converging storylines spanning  a number of centuries, from slavery-era 18th century Caribbean to some time in the future at least 106 years after 2144. In a novel form, this sort of structure can be readily handled. In a movie form, it becomes the most ambitious undertaking of the last decade—even more so that special effects wizard Avatar. To make a movie with six completely disparate stories into anything approaching a whole—and we’ll get into that a bit more later—with all six stories having wildly different tones and genres—political thriller here, period piece here, outright farcical comedy here—this movie was doomed to fail. How in God’s name can you take six stories that on the surface have literally nothing to do with one another and make anything approaching  cohesive unit out of them?

The closest movie I can think of taking on such an ambitious project was actually this year's The Avengers, where six or seven distinct characters were taken from six or seven distinct worlds and mythologies and were supposed to “fit” together believable in two and a half hours—an undertaking that succeeded, in my opinion. But something like Cloud Atlas takes that concept even further—it’s the equivalent of Marvel making the six pre-Avengers movies—Thor, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Ironman 1 & 2--andmaking them one movie with six or seven complete arcs. Anyone who suggested that idea would be pronounced a plenary lunatic in any brainstorming session, yet this is basically what they’re trying to pull off in Cloud Atlas. It’s ambitious and it’s something that I’m not sure has ever been attempted on film before, and to pull it off, you have to rely on the language of cinema: editing, special effects, cinematography, sound—and not only that, you have to utilize it in dynamic and interesting ways.

When you do this, inevitably, you will be labeled pretentious.

Now there’s a word that’s undergone some deferment of meaning over the past few decades. Few things will doom any hope you have of getting a message across than being labeled “pretentious.” At this point in pop culture it amounts to a kiss of death. Because no one likes people who think they are better than everyone else. What’s fascinating about pretentious is how diminished the word has become. The root word "pretense" means, more or less, an affectation or conceit, usually not supported by fact. So something that’s literally pretentious puts on airs, or gimmicks, and think that's an end in itself to get a story or message across. Or a person that’s pretentious dresses himself in layers of sophistry and world-weariness when he really has no idea what he’s talking about—as an English major you meet a lot of these.

Now the word has become twisted, mangled in its overuse. Anything that doesn’t do things traditionally is pretentious. Write a novel with out-of-order chronology? Pretentious! Make music that doesn’t match a form? Pretentious! Focus on beautiful, mind-bending cinematography? Pretentious! It’s a crime, really, because it’s just another form of the reductivism mentioned above. You don’t have to think about something that’s labeled as pretentious: in your mind, that’s all it can be, and is therefore unworthy of consideration.

It’s a crime because there’s no legitimate way the word can be applied to Cloud Atlas, but it has been already. Because the film isn’t trying to do anything that fits the manner of “pretense.” It just trying to tell an endlessly convoluted tale in the only way it can, by maximizing the language of cinema at its disposal. This, obviously, is pretentious. For some reason. Cloud Atlas has complex, tradition-defying, almost perfectly executed editing that gently weaves the audience through six disparate stories with different tones and content without feeling out of place or jarring. Obviously, this is pretentious. Pretentious! Pre. Ten. Tious.

Ambition is pretentious. Unless you’re talking about special effects and 3-D. Then it’s not pretentious. 

PICTURED: Arguably overkill special effects and 3-D. Not pretentious.
I think this is one word that really needs to undergo some introspection. We can tell when something is pretentious. It’s a gut instinct. Like roughing the passer in American football. If you have to hem-and-haw over whether a call is roughing the passer or not, it’s probably not roughing the passer. And if you have to actively find reasons to label something pretentious, it’s probably not pretentious. It’s might be just trying new things. Cloud Atlas is trying to do new things. Cloud Atlas is attempting to do something arguably never attempted before. Cloud Atlas doesn’t entirely succeed. But that’s not pretense. That’s courage.

A Matter of Dismissal

The saddest part of the whole affair is how easily courage can be denigrated.

A lot of hoopla has been made about the makeup in this film. Race-bending, gender-bending, age-bending, and everything in between. The link above talks about how terrible it is. Listening to it, I’m reminded just how psychologically taxing the life of an artist can be.

Way back in 2008 there was an indie game named Braid that became the biggest thing ever there for a while. It was  deeply personal brain trust of Jonathon Blow. It was not some mega-corp Triple AAA platformer, nor a cynical cash grab. It was just a guy trying his best to say something through beautiful aesthetics and game play. When people didn’t get the game or had issues with it in the resulting flurry of attention, Blow was constantly there. Constantly online to correct and argue his vision. Some condemned him as a blowhard who couldn’t handle criticism. But it’s pretty apparent why he acted the way he did. Braid was and is a game of ideas, aesthetics, art and emotion. To have people “not get it” and to have people routinely dismiss it has to hurt. Has to be a slap in the face. It’s like criticizing someone’s child, and inevitably the parent is going to leap to the child’s defense.

The same thing is true of Cloud Atlas. You can tell this was a passion project. You can tell that people really put their all into this movie despite the challenges and the very real chance it was going to bomb horrifically.

The makeup is constructed in service of the movie. The Wachowskis (and Tom Tykwer) obviously thought it was important to not use different actors in these roles. And to say the makeup is bad is…really sort of missing the point. Is it really bad? Is it really? Are people expecting white Hugo Weaving to ever really look like a Korean? Or Keith David? If you honestly think that’s even possible—well, you live in a more fascinating world that I. For what it's asked to do, that is, make you think people of respective races/ages/genders are other races/ages/genders while still recognizably the original actor, then the makeup is spectacular. If you can even partially make the audience think Hugo Weaving is a Korean, you’ve done quite a job.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? A movie about the links of humanity and partially about reincarnation, and especially a movie with six disparate stories is going to have to have more to ground it than a random image of a comet-shaped birthmark. Having the same actors through all six set pieces not only serves the entire theme of movie, but also gives the audience a through-line to latch onto. To lessen the chance of confusion and, ultimately, detachment. The Wachowskis (and Tom Tykwer) are not idiots. They knew that people were going to recognize Hugo Weaving as a Korean—but focusing on it is simultaneously part of the theme and missing the point entirely. It’s the equivalent of people watching a movie from the sixties and saying the special effects look fake. Okay, yes, but is that what the movie’s about? Is that what it’s trying to say?

It’s a burden that everyone who creates art has to be able to handle, and it’s tough to do. The makeup people on this film probably put hours and hours and days and days and weeks and weeks, blood and sweat and tears and maybe even a bit of sanity to make the makeup in this movie as serviceable and realistic as possible—all so a bunch of critics on the internet can dismiss all that work in a couple of sentences. Not to try and garner sympathy for those poor, oppressed well-off art directors and makeup designers, but still...it does have to be difficult.

A Matter of Resonance

I’m going to make a prediction here, that the biggest problem people are going to have with Cloud Atlas is its lack of narrative resolution. I’m also going to make a prediction that people won’t realize that’s the problem they have with it.

By its score on Rotten Tomatoes alone, Cloud Atlas is probably going to claim the mantle of the most polarizing film of the year. The wave of five-out-of-five star reviews is only matched by the equal number of one-out-of-fives. It’s a challenging film, and one that’s going to have people scratching their heads upon its conclusion. I think one of the biggest causes of the head scratching is the narrative resolution.

A certain level of snarky-elite critics pontificate ad nauseum about how general audiences are idiots. And yes, that can certainly be true. But general audiences can also be intelligent and perspicacious without even knowing it. People can feel when something is off, it’s a basic human survival mechanism. What most general audiences don’t have is enough knowledge of cinema to articulate what, exactly, feels off about a movie. It’s like a person who knows nothing about plumbing continually hearing an ominous gurgling coming from the sink. They might not know what’s wrong, but they know something is.

Since general audiences don’t possess the language or understanding of film to express their issues with the film, blame gets laid at the feet of other things. Bad special effects, bad acting, ancillary portions of movie making that are tangible and easily defined. Usually the problem, however, lies in story and character; more complex phantasms, and much, much harder for people not trained in the language of narrative to discern.

I see this being the case with Cloud Atlas. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, but it’s a gut instinct. Because the movie leaves you feeling kind of hollow, despite the amazing filmmaking on display and the deep, heartfelt themes of human empathy. There persists a nagging intimation that something is missing. This something is narrative resolution, which Cloud Atlas  (perhaps intentionally) is devoid of.

I won’t say something condescending such as "people like to have the movie answer all questions and have it explained to them," but there is a concept called "narrative unity," which Cloud Atlas noticeably lacks. The Wachowskis (and Tom Tykwer) try to lessen this impact by casting the same actors in different roles throughout the time periods and repeating images throughout all the stories, but it doesn’t replace the fact that in the end these stories have nothing intrinsic to do with one another. Soon-Mi becomes revered as a God in the post-apocalyptic setting, but it doesn’t affect the progression of the plot of those respective stories in any substantial way. The stories are completely and totally isolated as far as narrative progression goes.

Again, this may have been intentional. In fact I’d bet a large wad of cash that it was intentional; it's also risky, and whether it works or not...meh. The movie’s not trying to put a bow on everything, and the narrative cohesion of the plot as a whole is achieved through editing, but it’s hard to see what each narrative has to do with the other—and they don’t. There are literally six different movies playing at the same time, with nothing—narratively, mind you—to connect them.

PICTURED: Except...except it's not. Not really
 Now Cloud Atlas is about life, human empathy, and why kindness matters even when in the grand scheme our actions don’t. This type of movie doesn’t lend itself to narrative resolution; and it probably would have hurt the movie to try and force it in. Unfortunately the rectitude of the decision will probably not keep audience from the feeling that something is missing after they leave the cinema, which will, in turn, lead to blaming more visible elements such as six stories! Bad makeup! Tom Hanks doing a Cockney accent!

I’m hesitant to even call this a weakness. Is something you do intentionally classifiable as a weakness? But I can’t shake the notion that this lack of narrative connection/resolution will alienate at least some of the general audience. Humans like things to have a connection. They like things to have a point—for everything to sort of flow into everything else, so they can look back and see how it all lines up and makes sense. Perhaps it’s a way for us to organize an inestimably chaotic universe? So what does someone not bathed in the aesthetics of narrative do with a movie with six different stories that seem to kind of have something to do with one another but by the end, don’t really?

In Conclusion:

Cloud Atlas is an event, and undoubtedly the most fascinating experience I’ve had in a theater in recent memory. It is an ambitious, sprawling, epic, masterful and heavily flawed piece of art. Masterful editing and makeup almost completely obscure the inherent incohesiveness of telling six separate stories simultaneously. But to be frank, all that’s really beside to point. It’s just filler. What you really need to know, what people really need to realize is that this is an ambitious, gorgeous, sweeping movie more like a symphony than the cinema we’re used to, and that movies like this don’t get made very often—usually because they have a less than ten million dollar opening weekend.

With that in mind, all three of you in northern Manitoba that are reading this, please go see Cloud Atlas. You may come out thinking it’s stupid, overhyped, incomprehensible, unwieldy and tonally unbalanced, but I can almost guarantee you won’t be able to stop watching.

Until next time,

Mr. E

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Tradition and Spec Ops: The Line

 Whereas if we approach the poet…we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.
                                                --T.S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent.

There’s a moment in Spec Ops: The Line, after you’ve unwittingly dropped white phosphorous upon unarmed, undefended, innocent civilians and unsuspecting, innocent U.S. Army aid workers; after you’ve discovered the former 33rd command team executed and decomposing; after you’ve discovered the radio that Colonel John Konrad is ostensibly using to get in your ear and show off what a general prick he is—there’s a moment where you find two men hanging from a bridge. One is hanging for the crime of stealing water. One is hanging for the crime of killing the family of the man accused of stealing water. And you have to choose who lives, and who dies.

I killed the man who killed the family.

You find out later that this was all a hallucination of the shattered mind of your player character reeling from the guilt of the white phosphorus incident and turning his erstwhile commanding officer into a bogeyman to blame for his failings. But that doesn’t make the action any less indicative. When I thought I had to make a choice, I chose the man who killed the family. I thought that was justice.

Here’s what I didn’t consider:

Killing the snipers holding us hostage and making the decision. This you can do.

Shooting out the ropes holding both men, to try and free them. This you can also do. The game is smart enough to give you more options; to think outside the box and take choices that you didn’t know were there.
I didn’t do any of that. Didn’t even cross my mind. I was given a choice, and I chose.

Was this the sort of instinctual training video games have given me that Spec Ops was intentionally trying to subvert? Was this an indication that I’m not one to think outside the box or seek another way? If I’m given two terrible choices, will I take one while ignoring everything else but the choice at hand? Do I in my heart of hearts believe that I knew who deserved to die—and what’s more, did I?

You might say it doesn’t matter. It’s just a videogame. A situation with as much bearing on real life as last morning’s Dora the Explorer. It doesn’t say anything about you. These platitudes, I think, miss the point. At worst, they’re the same sort of cognitive dissonance that Spec Ops so glibly introduces the interactor to. A willful denial of circumstance.

Spec Ops gave me a choice. And I chose. And when I really, truly dwell on it—I honestly believe I would have made the same choice in a real-life circumstance.

What does that say about me?

But we might remind ourselves that criticism is as inevitable as breathing, and that we should be none the worse for articulating what passes in our minds when we read a book and feel an emotion about it, for criticizing our own minds in their work of criticism.
There’s a not-insubstantial faction of video game fans that have been awaiting the genre’s first foray into “high art” (whatever that means) since the Playstation 2/Xbox/GameCube era. These are the people that are fellating Spec Ops as the greatest achievement since Super Mario Bros. 3. There an also not-insubstantial faction of video game fans—not casuals, mind you, but true “gamers”—that find the whole argument not only tiring, but foreboding. Games don’t need to be art; games just need to be fun. Games don’t need to appeal to the masses. Games just need to appeal to us. We’re fine the way they are, so what’s the fuss (Note: Channeling Dr. Seuss, apparently. –E). These are the people that upon playing Spec Ops would insist on the platitudes written above. There is only one difference between these groups of people: introspection.

Introspection is, after all, the root of criticism. And the growth of art coincides with criticism. The moment when man evolves from saying “I like this” to asking “Why do I like this?” and then proceeding from there. It’s how things are shaped.

Spec Ops: The Line is a third person cover-based shooter from Yager studios. It is a quasi-continuation of a franchise of largely forgettable games made for the original PlayStation. Its gunplay is functional, but basic. Its combat is stuck in the mid-2000s. It's short – 5-6 hours on normal difficulty setting (which, to be fair, is very much a challenge). All in all, at its most basic gameplay components, Spec Ops is nothing to write home about. It is in all the ancillary functions where it excels.

Games inhabit a unique place among entertainment, and in fact most other endeavors, in that they are a synthesis of product and art, and often the former is given far more weight. In this way games bear more in common with carpentry than most other art. That’s not a put-down, it’s just the way it is: the utility of the thing is inherently as important as how it looks. The interacted object (the game, in this case) only can be considered passable if at the least it fulfills the purpose consigned upon it by the interactor (the player). It’s great to have a fancy bookshelf, but if it collapses to kindling when any weight is put on it who’s really profited? 

Gaming’s relationship between these two facets remains at best uneasy. Games with severe gameplay limitations—bordering on outright broken—often are given a pass because of aesthetic and story. Likewise games sometimes are forgiven childish storytelling because of awesome gameplay. Balancing the two is a master act that few games have pulled off, and Spec Ops is not one of these. As competent as its gameplay is, it remains merely that: competent. 

So as a game, Spec Ops cannot be considered perfect. And it is not perfect. What it is is important. And its importance makes it great. As with comedy, timing is everything in art; this being the case, Spec Ops has pulled off one of the most gut-wrenching punch lines in the young history of the medium. Release a game like this when online gaming and the realistic brown shooter of both third-and-first-person variety hold sway over half the industry with an alarming dearth of context, release it near the end of a decade-long conflict that caused a nation to question its moral rectitude and how it treats its men and women in uniform, release it in the correct moment, and you have transcended the formula of gameplay and narrative. You become something great. This, ladies and gentlemen, is art.

Tradition is a matter of much wider significance…It involves, in the first place, the historical sense…not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of literature…has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.
The fact that you’re being duped—or at the very least that something is going on that you’ve hitherto been unaware of—doesn’t, believe it or not, occur until a bit after the white phosphorus incident, and the gameplay itself is what gives you the hint. The white phosphorus is gut-wrenching, unexpected, a twist that in a modern military shooter is akin to something out of Homer; that is, ingloriously sublime. A quintessential horror so beautiful in its atrocity its takes one’s breath. It is a seminal moment in the game, and in a perfect world would become a seminal moment in gaming. 

But it’s not quite there that you start to suspect something’s going on beneath the surface. It’s after, directly subsequent to the in-game moment enumerated at the beginning of the post.

Ludo, Adams and Walker have to make their way through a sandstorm to shelter on the other side. In game this is nothing knew. A gameplay affectation that you’ve done at least once before, maybe twice. But for some reason—maybe the white phosphorus incident, maybe an intentional gameplay mechanic, it becomes something a lot more gruesome. An insane, twisted, harrowing run from both the elements of nature and man. A lack of clarity in conflict. For me, even with all I had heard about the style of the game, it was here that I started to understand its complexities, forcing you on a heart-pounding pace from checkpoint to checkpoint, bullets flying, enemies hidden and flanking, on and on and on, not-stopping, not even bothering to slow down. Really, just barely hanging on to survival. The game tosses you into a conflict with severe flippancy and doesn’t quite care if you live. Firefight after sandstorm, atrocity after injury and not a second to catch your breath. I soon came to the realization that the game’s not on your side. It’s not wanting you to have fun. It’s wanting you to barely keep up. It wants the veins to pop out of your arms and your eyes to go bloodshot and to have you leaning forward in the seat feet planted on the floor and teeth gritted. It’s not interested in your relaxation, only your comprehension. I tried to play this game in a position of comfort. It didn’t work out too well.

Suddenly the merely-competent gameplay carries a sinister undercurrent. Enemies obviously spawning from distinct points, weather related vision-obscuring disasters, bullets whizzing every which way, cover sometimes shattering right in front of you, your characters reactions to injury slowly turning from professional notation to unhinged raving. The game won’t let you leave. If you play it, you will work. You will not have fun. But you won’t be able to put it down either.

This is called engagement, and it’s a concept that games have a hard time fulfilling, internalizing, or appreciating. Engagement is not the same thing as fun. They are not mutually exclusive, certainly: something can be fun and engaging very easy, and quite often this is the case. But there is a certain a certain level of fun that is not engaging at all. This is time-wasting fun. Fun that is a distraction but that you can put down whenever you want. Like a game of horseshoes.

Spec Ops is notable for being on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. In many ways it is not fun at all. Literally. From its tough slog of the gameplay to its fast, near Olympian sprint-like pace from fire fight, cutscene, fire fight, cutscene, to those accused, hell-bound turrets near the end of the game when you’re storming the hotel, Spec Ops cannot really be designated fun in any way, shape, form or fashion. Even its video-gamey aspects—say, slowing down when a perfect headshot sends a guy's entire skull blasting like shrapnel from the ruined stump of his neck—come and go so fast that there’s barely any time to relish such a “fantastic kill.” No fun, no happy-go-lucky, no pleasure in seeing a man’s head get blown off, what kind of garbage Call of Duty clone is this?

The answer being that it’s no Call of Duty clone at all. It is engaging, it is gripping. It is not a pleasure to play Spec Ops—but it does make you think. It is in the same vein as Call of Duty and Gears of War, but not of the same blood. It carries the same tropes, but it spins them in different ways, makes the player truly examine what, exactly, it is they are doing. It doesn’t try to be Battlefield. Instead, it does something much more important: it responds to them.

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.
Criticism creates growth in all walks of life. Criticism is how we learned what does and doesn’t work, what we should and shouldn’t do. This holds true as well for video games. And Spec Ops is an encouraging step forward for the medium, if only that it signifies that games have reached a point where they can respond to themselves.

There have been games before that critique the medium as a whole, or critiqued its unique relationship to an interactive other (the gamer) that’s an integral part of its function. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and Bioshock immediately jumped to mind. But gaming has never really been able to respond to the products of its own creation. Part of this is its relative youth as a medium. The story aspect of video games has been around pretty much since its inception, but its use of narrative has only been salient since maybe the nineties. Not to mention the advent of gaming period didn’t come until the late seventies. Meaning gaming simply hasn’t had time to respond to itself. It hasn’t done enough, built enough of a foundation. For a while there was nothing really to respond to. 

But we can’t deny that gaming hasn’t really desired to respond to itself either. There have been other concerns. Fanservice is one, both the sexual and power fantasy kind. The onus is more on making something that the interactor will want to keep interacting with, rather than something that has an impact or imparts a message. And it hasn’t really shown much of a push to move away from that, the ubiquity of online play being a huge contributor here. Being as online play and online multiplayer is nigh-expected for games, and being that there are only a few genres and types of games that can comfortably accommodate online play, instead of response, there is merely a sort of uniform Xeroxing effect. Even Spec Ops has an online segment, for no real reason other than, probably, the publisher wasn’t willing to put it out without an online segment because, probably, fans of games, especially this genre of game, are going to expect it to be there no matter how underwhelming. There has been no response, merely imitation. Spec Ops: The Line, in a perfect world, represents a response, and the beginning, perhaps and maybe, of a movement.

Art is about response. Every so-called new thing is built upon the old, and completely indebted to it. It is why the old axiom about “reading a lot and writing a lot” if you want to make a career of the latter practice is always bandied about. You have to not only read story, but understand its history. What others did, why they did it, why it matters, if its old, cliché, been done before. How to put your own twist on it.

In this post-structuralist world this attitude is a mite bit disregarded. The individual creativity is triumphed over all, really. It’s the individual who creates things in a vacuum, and the “best” artists are people who are able to take this so-called vacuum and make art from it. This is why a lot of art gets accused of “ripping someone off” even if similarities to anything else are negligible. Why people rebut the landmark qualities of Citizen Kane with cries of how thisthisandthis were done before in this movie. This is also why the average poem in a college bi-monthly literary magazine is uniformly terrible. There’s no room in a post-structuralist, rigidly individual society for reliance on others, especially on dead people in the past.

But such a paradigm does exist, has always existed, and will continue to exist. All art, even groundbreaking art, will have everything from is spice to its base firmly rooted in the history of the respective medium; what is up to the individual artist is to take the history offered to him and decided what to do with it. How to spin it in his own way. And Spec Ops breaches the issue through what I will go ahead and title the Star Wars method.
Star Wars was a response to a lot of things. It was a nod back to the serials of the 1930’s, the space adventures of Buck Rogers and company that so entranced George Lucas as a child. It’s also a firm adherent to the “hero’s journey,” a trope and methodology of storytelling that has been around since literally the beginning of human history, and probably a while before. But for our purpose, we’re going to talk about the other response of Star Wars, the one that made it such a popular, lightning-in-the-bottle film in 1977. And that is its message of hope; but not just that it had a message of hope—that good triumphs over evil, and there are still heroes and a bright future for humanity—but that its message of hope came at an indescribably perfect time. Star Wars¸ whether George Lucas meant it or even realized it, was a response to the doom and gloom of the early seventies cinema, a doom and gloom which of course mirrored the zeitgeist of American culture as a whole. And its 180 degree twist from the accepted notions of film narrative at the time is what made it such a phenomenon, and that, more than anything, is how it changed cinema’s landscape, even more than its revolutionary special effects. It was the attitude of Star Wars that made people really think about how they viewed their life and they way they watched movies. Star Wars could not have existed, or certainly would not have made the impact it did, without the years of cynicism that came before it.

The case is the same for Spec Ops. The very existence of a decade’s worth of brown, realistic shooters is what made it not only possible, but so heartfelt. It’s the attitude. Spec Ops is responding not to simply a trend in gaming, but to a movement that becomes more unsettling the longer you gaze at it. As game guru Tom Bissell suggests, the game really compels us to look in the mirror and ask: are we all not a bit crazy to like these "realistic" shooters? The answer’s a bit more complicated than a yes or no. What’s not complicated is what Spec Ops signifies for the industry, if we let it. If it can change the scope or make people dwell on this or that advertisement just a little bit more—then it will truly have done something that’s to this point unheard of in the medium of video games. It will cause a shift, and change in the movement. Romanticism was a reaction to the cold, sterile logic of Enlightenment. Will the era of the Realistic Shooter be replaced with the era of the Introspective Shooter? Will Spec Ops herald a new era of video game criticism and intra-medium comportment? Only time will tell. But what a landmark for the industry if it could.

Someone said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.
I was in GameStop the other day when an advertisement for the new Medal of Honor came on. Touted for being written by Tier One or Line One former military—pardon the glitch in memory—and promising the most realistic war experience ever seen in a videogame. What does it mean that Spec Ops: The Line alone made me regard this advertisement with more than a bored dismissal, but without outright disdain? Does a piece of art that makes a person looks at even a small portion of their life with more consideration indicate a master work? Maybe not. But maybe, just maybe, Spec Ops is a sign of something more. A sign of things to come. A sign that games, while not necessarily having to be serious, might just take what exactly they’re saying more seriously.

Until next time,

Mr. E