Toro Y Moi is the moniker of young South Carolinian Chaz Bundick. And as “Blessa” shows, he certainly has listening to a lot of Panda Bear and Flying Lotus. Look for two full-lengths in 2010.
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The relationship between plot and video games has always been an awkward one. Almost every single game out today can be isolated from its story and explained in terms of its design or vice-versa. I can tell you the plot of GTA IV without referencing the game design once. I can also explain a Mario game without mentioning the Princess. The game design doesn’t need the plot to be fun or engaging and the plot certainly doesn’t need interactivity screwing around with its authorial nature. Yet there are a huge variety of games that try to make it work, everything from arcade shooters, board games, simulations and narrative heavy adventure games that propose a wide variety of ideas on how a game’s plot should work with its design. The theory of how to connect the two sides of the experience, narrative and design, is something that is unique for each game. What are some ways to keep the design and plot working together?
When you are combining design and narrative the first thing you have to accept is that both mediums, which can stand alone, are going to have to sacrifice key elements. A plot in a video game does not have a narrative arc. You can’t control the pace of the story and thus you can’t control how the narrative is progressing. The player might get lost, quit the game, go collect random items, or just be trying to get a high score at that particular moment. A game design, once you combine it with a plot, is no longer a dynamic process. Certain elements of the game are going to be set in stone no matter what the player says or does. To give the classic argument, the plot of a football game is dynamic. Anything could potentially happen within the confines of the process. Once you insert a plot, certain things are always going to be present. This football player is always going to have this reaction to a play, this coach is always going to say this particular thing at half-time under certain conditions. Whether it’s a highly linear game or an emergent narrative with lots of vignettes scattered around a world, the plot of a game can at best only be altered a finite number of ways. An essay by Jim Bizzochi argues that the distinction with games comes from identifying what types of immersion they are creating. One type of immersion is the ‘suspension of disbelief’, which requires a narrative arc because you have to tightly pace and control what the viewer is seeing for it to happen. The essay goes on to outline several other forms of immersion, such as “challenge-based immersion” from a game design or “imaginative immersion” from a plot. The trick is that once you combine the two you have to start aiming for a different kind of immersion from the traditional ones like preventing disbelief.
Gears of War, Epic Games
Another essay from Bizzocchi and colleague Douglas Grant highlights the basic hybrid that plot and game design create when merged. You get a Joseph Campbell monomyth. The hero rises up, collects artifacts, overcomes challenges, and returns home to save the day. The characters and development cycle in these stories are convenient for the needs of the game design because they are typically static. An epic hero does not change, there is no real rebirth occurring. Instead they simply become more aware or informed about themselves. Achilles at the end of the Iliad is essentially the same person from the beginning. The events of the book do not personally change him. An epic poem or myth does not depend exclusively on a narrative arc since most portions of it can be read in any order assuming you’ll follow one of the shorter stories. Myths and legends are particularly ripe for conversion into video games because they also revolve around activities. You can explain a huge fight with a Cyclops or a sacred beast in a brawler easily enough. A different approach is to still adhere to this convention but instead develop a plot by having the game be about other characters. Nick Dinicola explains that in aGears of War 2 the main character of the game is actually Dom. Marcus is, like the player controlling him, mostly an observer. Far Cry 2 is essentially the story of the Jackal and his approach to violence in Third World countries. The solution of these games is to keep the player fully immersed in the game design while they observe a plot which, because they are not the focus, can be appreciated independently.
The Darkness, Starbreeze Studios
Yet it is possible to successfully merge narrative and game design so long as you are able to pace the two experiences in conjunction with one another. One of the greatest success stories of a game doing this is Starbreeze’s aThe Darkness. The opening of the game is pure shooting, giving the player a chance to engage and learn about the game design. The plot is fairly typical and easy to grasp with no major events until a little bit before the half-way marker. The point is that the developers know that the first thing the gamer is going to want is to play the game and they give that to them. When the tedium of shooting, collecting hearts, and other powers starts to grind is when they let the plot kick in. Once a player is fairly familiar with the game, they’re going to be more receptive to story because they don’t have to concentrate as much. The Darkness mixes plot and game design by also fleshing characters out with countless tiny vignettes that are snuck in at every chance. The protagonist, whose change is characterized by personal loss, is has numerous monologues while the game is loading. His condition is reflected in the design as a character dependent on a demon who is slowly taking control of him. The game’s real elegance doesn’t come from the clever plot or game design, it’s how they work together. When the game is really challenging, they don’t bother with story. When the game’s challenge is fairly easy, they let the characters and story have their time where so that they can be better appreciated.
From Immortal Defense
There are other techniques for merging the two mediums besides just pacing plot and game design together. You can just create a series of moments where the two reflect one another. Final Fantasy IV melds game design with narrative by having a key character betray your party. In the plot it’s a hurtful moment, in the game design you’re down a key member in the middle of a very difficult dungeon. Bioshock’s Little Sisters are a symbolic choice that represents the overarching narrative: in a perfect Ayn Rand society would you choose to be altruistic or selfish? Horror games like Silent Hill 2 or Eternal Darkness both rely on the player not knowing what to do and scaring them through a hostile game design. Games like Shadow of the Colossus or Ico rely on solitude and lack of plot to create a simple but powerful narrative. Some games create their design first and then deliver a static narrative that explores the symbolic and literal implications of constantly doing such an activity like the indie gem Immortal Defense. Combining the two means that new storytelling techniques must be developed that appreciate the strengths of both artistic mediums and does not let one or the other dominate.
Releasing: 1 September 2009 (US) / 8 June 2009 (UK)
01. The Blog
02. Give It Up
03. True Stories
06. Do It Your Way
07. In the Red
08. Fear of Death
10. The Pretender
11. Back in the Seventies
12. Not Me
13. New Days Dawn
It’s lasted over six years. It’s become the buzz in the background of our daily lives. It’s the rote response to any “support our troops” suggestion. And even with a recent ‘withdrawal’, there still seems to be no end in sight. Two years ago, Hollywood tackled the Iraq War and came up losers. It wasn’t their intentions that were flawed, it was there approach. They wanted to make our soldiers into villains, transforming their acts of bravery into the raging outbursts of psychopaths - both abroad and at home. The resulting box office failure of such films as Redacted and In the Valley of Elah should not have been a surprise. After all, with the conflict still garnering national discussion, no one wants to think of the lasting, long range consequences yet. That’s why Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is so special. It’s not afraid to show the heroism along with the personal horror.
As members of the Army’s elite EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) unit, Sergeant JT Sanborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge stare death in the face every day. Defusing bombs, landmines, and other booby traps in and around Baghdad brings them face to face with an enemy unseen and bent on their destruction. When Staff Sergeant William James arrives as a replacement for a fallen team member, he immediately sets his partners on edge. With his cavalier manner both in the barracks and out in the field, Sanborn and Eldridge fear for their lives. James is a certified adrenalin addict, a man responsible for defusing over 800 devices and yet always flaunting protocol and procedure in the process. As they move closer and closer to the end of their tour, the trio runs up against the biggest problem of all - how to deal with the horrific memories as a civilian back home.
Kathryn Bigelow has always been one of Hollywood’s greatest untapped directorial resources. After amazing films like Near Dark and Blue Steel, she was sunk in the backsplash of her marriage to/divorce from James Cameron, and the inevitable suspicion that most of her accomplishments clung neatly to his creative coattails. Underperforming efforts like K-19: The Widowmaker seemed to confirm the critic’s doubts. With The Hurt Locker, however, all bets are off. This is Master of Suspense filmmaker crafted by someone who understands the nature of nail-biting thrills. From the opening set-piece which offers an unexpected narrative twist to the moment when our main hero James discovers a series of interconnected bombs beneath his feet, Bigelow infuses her war-torn saga with the kind of white hot dread that so many modern ‘action’ films fail to provide.
Of course, the subject matter lends itself to such intensity. Based on journalist Mark Boal’s first hand experiences in Iraq (he also wrote the script), The Hurt Locker crackles with authenticity. The lingo is there. So are the props and procedures. And oddly enough, so is the attitude. These soldiers take their aggressive machismo into the countryside, forced to deal with situations that are terrifying in their randomness. One moment, you could be taking out a single shell imbedded in the ground. The next, an entire gang of insurgents appears, armed to the teeth and ready to riddle you with bullets. As a director, Bigelow understands how to manipulate the audience. Like Hitchcock, she finds the MacGuffin within the sequence, and then exploits it with a magician’s agility.
This is especially true of a brilliant moment when James, Sanborn and Eldridge come across a group of British operatives in the desert. Before they can get their bearings, they are under sniper attack, and with every precise hit, our heroes come closer and closer to the end. After setting up a massive gun and targeting the terrorist’s far off safe house, the trio waits…and waits…and waits. Because she has established that oft forgotten rule of successful fright filmmaking - anyone can die at any time - we worry about the fate of these men. We’ve come to care about them and their dedication to duty. Then Bigelow revs up the potential danger by throwing in the kind of whip smart direction that made her early reputation in Hollywood.
While the big names listed here seem to get all the pre-release glory, the real stars of The Hurt Locker are mostly unknown: Anthony Mackie (as Sanborn), Brian Geraghty (as Eldridge), and in an Oscar worthy turn, Jeremy Renner as danger junkie James. Bringing the necessary bravado to carry his character across the blurred lines between death wish and duty, we never once question the newcomer’s cowboy manner. Instead, we look at how present he is in the face of almost constant hostility and recognize that he’s one of the few soldiers who is meeting the war head on. He laughs at the tricks the terrorists use to foster the insurgency. He scoffs at the notion of doing things “by the book” or “halfway”. While he pretends to have a heart, he is quite taken with a young Iraqi boy who sells bootleg DVDs. And when Hell literally leaps up around him, he spits Satan in the eye and waits for a response.
Sure, it all sounds like testosterone and threats, explosions used as accents to the whole notion of America’s futility in the Middle East - and for the most part, Bigelow manages said stance quite well. Toward the end, when we see what life is like back home for these raw nerve recruits, how everything relates back to their time in the line of fire, we finally see the deeper, more indelible scars. Men like James, Sanborn, and Eldridge were never meant to be part of a peace time power shift in a steamy foreign location. They didn’t ask to play political arbiter. While never unprepared, they do seem unmotivated, having to manufacture purpose by playing their professional life so close to the edge.
This then is the modern military, a high trained group of able individuals who see the enemy as an all encompassing classification, something that can’t be easily deciphered or quickly negotiated away. In the face of such hatred, the only appropriate response is to literally ‘defuse’ the situation. Firefights are pointless. Both sides are armed and willing to die for their cause. But for the men capable of walking into a potential hurt locker and face the penalty head on, there is more natural nobility than any speech from a fancy flag waving politician. For once, someone got it right. Kathryn Bigelow’s main contribution to the story in Iraq is her desire to make it seem all ring true - and terrifying. The Hurt Locker is said reality check - and it’s excellent.
Listen to the Jacksons sing “Can You Feel It”: “All the colors of the world should love each other wholeheartedly.” Or, dare you sit and play “Earth Song”. “Heal the World” probably never left the easy listening stations. Consider the type of orchestration behind creating “We Are the World” and daring to show Third World kids as subjects, not objects; they created music with Michael and he with them. It would make a crippled person want to jump up and take action and that’s exactly what lay at the heart of the matter.
Inclusiveness, the Jacksons’ music continually says, will lead us to not only take care of one another, but also to respect the earth. Take a close listen to Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, the whole album including, and especially the interludes. The Jacksons inspire hope. They dared stand with humanity—in front of humanity—asking: “What about us?” Indeed, their music says, what about all of us For the Jackson family, their music was neither about their bling, nor were their messages ever about ‘them and us’—but all of us! Do we dare care enough about us?
// Channel Surfing
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