The Video Game Aesthetics of Spartacus: Blood and Sand

Playing a video game is fun, watching it, not so much.

Folks have noted that the aesthetics of video games have crept into Hollywood for a number of years. One of the first times that I can recall someone discussing the idea of video games influencing film was back in 2002 at a media conference. In a presentation called “Placing the Dominoes: The Issue of Free Will in Run, Lola, Run,” Angela Stephens noted that the titular character in Tom Tykwer's film essentially “gets three lives” in the film to accomplish her run and that this notion may be derived from the pseudo-immortality of video game character “lives.”

While Stephens wanted to suggest that this notion complicates our own sense of free will because of how such illusions might alter our sense of how much control that we have over our own lives, such complicated readings are probably less common than the simple observation that the visual aesthetics of video games (especially action sequences) have often influenced cinematic visual aesthetics. For instance, I recall watching Revenge of the Sith and thinking how much the sequence with Obi Wan and Anakin fighting over a lava field on chunks of rock resembled a platformer like Mario.

Nevertheless, despite the CGI involved in shooting such sequences, rarely do directors of film and television attempt to overtly mimic the look of video game graphics. While Revenge of the Sith uses computer animation to make that scene work, Lucas has clearly made some effort to make the battle look more like the “real” that we associate with film than the more obviously artificial images found in a game, integrating animation with real actors and attempting to make them look as if they belong in the same world.

Which brings us to the new Starz series, Spartacus: Blood and Sand. This new cable television show is clearly aping a great many things, including the films 300 and Gladiator as well as elements of HBO's Rome, but watching the first episode, I mostly felt like I was watching a video game rather than those other sources of inspiration. As a video game fan this might seem like a good thing, however, I felt as if I was watching a spectacular cut scene, not playing a spectacular action sequence. Those are two very different things.

Cut scenes can be enjoyable, much like watching a cool action sequence in a film. That is very different than “inhabiting” the action through gameplay, though, which is what a good action game thrives on (and largely consists of) and which might be the trouble of evoking this aesthetic in a less immersive, more passive medium like television rather than in the medium of games. Let me see if I can explain.

My colleague, Robert Moore, does an excellent job describing the superficial qualities of Spartacus (and they are myriad), and he briefly mentions the overuse of CGI as one of these qualities. He says that as a result of this overuse “on Spartacus there is only the surface of the image, without anything underneath”. I couldn't agree more (or describe better the very weird disconnected feeling one gets in watching most scenes in the first episode).

The brutality in the show is at once excessive and, at the same time, so much less than intense. Like 300, the action is hyperstylized with the muted colors of battle scenes punctuated by the sharp contrast of blood punctuating successful sword strokes. While 300 most often seemed to be aping the aesthetic of the comic book with moments in which violence is frozen on the screen for the audience's perusal -- like the frozen time of a single comic book panel -- and characters are silhouetted at times like drawings on a page, Spartacus uses these techniques but adds to them the pure spectacle of severed flesh and blood bursting at the camera in a manner more dynamic and akin to games. Blood in particular seems superadded in Spartacus with CG splashes that look overtly artificial. When rent, bodies are displayed with CG gore revealed only as flesh parts. There appears to be no effort to make these images look in any way “real” or integrate them with the real bodies being filmed. We can see that they are graphics added on top of the real as Moore says for “sheer ornamentation, mere decoration”.

Likewise, the environments in Spartacus are bizarrely and overtly made artificial. An early overhead shot of a coliseum resembles the overhead map of a video game location on a pause menu rather than an aerial view of an actual location. Additionally, as Moore notes, “because all the landscapes are green screened, the natural world is not depicted at all”. While Moore bemoans the fact that a New Zealand production does not take advantage of the islands' natural beauty, his observation that backdrops of this sort produce the sense that the world of the show isn't “really . . . located anywhere at all, but instead belong to the strange neverwhere that CGI can generate” seems especially true. The effect that this has on watching characters move through these environments is devastating. While CG characters in a CG world (like a video game) seem to belong, the characters in Spartacus seem to exist in no world at all. It is this quality (that these characters seem to lack an actual location to stand, talk, and fight) that creates the sense of “disconnect” in the show. Having a sense that there is no setting, strangely (for me) leads to a sense that these characters lack souls. They exist as abstractions floating in something more like the environment of a game than in real life.

Ironically, video games have gotten better and better at adding a sense of their characters having a soul and largely through the use of setting and space. Consider, for example, the debut trailer of Grand Theft Auto IV, which focused much of its attention on portraying a sense of the living, breathing Liberty City before introducing the game's main character, Niko, a character that would actually inhabit that world:

One of the intriguing elements of this initial trailer for GTA IV is how it focuses on Liberty City as a setting that exists autonomous to the main character of the game. The rapidly moving day-night cycle with cars and pedestrians moving past give a sense of a “real” city, but even more so, if you slow this video down, you will see the details that make Liberty City seem “alive.”

For instance, one of the pedestrians that crosses the street in a scene is reading a newspaper. When rain begins to fall, he uses the newspaper to cover his head. Even “extras” in this production respond to the environment as if it were a real, actual place.

Video games were not always so good at creating this illusion of place. In more linear games (in this instance, I mean games that force a player down a particular path in the game world), the “world” often felt artificial and “soulless” because they seemed to lack a quality of continued space. In outdoor sequences in first and third person shooters, the player is often bound to a path that moves them forward because the foliage at the edges of the path form a barrier to moving to their left or right (Resident Evil 4 is guilty of this tendency for example). What otherwise looks like shrubbery is awkwardly transformed into a weird “invisible barrier” that forces the player towards a destination despite the fact that a low layer of shrubbery seems unlikely as something that would impede human movement. The overhead maps that are often accessible by pausing the game further reinforce the sense of linear and limited space that the player occupies by representing these paths as bounded by solid lines that keep the player moving in the “correct” direction.

Open worlds like that of GTA IV tend to deepen the illusion of space, not simply by creating a setting that is occupied by other people that do normal and natural things in response to their environment but also by deepening the illusion of space by removing a sense of boundary in these worlds. When Niko encounters shrubbery, he can always move through it. When he finds himself impeded by the wall of a building, the player knows that he can move around it because there is a world surrounding Niko that is occupied and can be traversed. Walls don't serve as mere boundaries to the “game”; they are places in a world. There will always be a way of finding the other side of a building. It is never “mere decoration” that gives a sense or impression of a building. It is a place.

This is the problem then of utilizing such clearly apparent CGI in Sparatacus. When characters occupy spaces, there is no sense that the backdrops that they occupy are real places. Sure, two characters might stand on a balcony that seems to overlook a Roman city, but because of the sheer artificiality of that background, I don't buy that there is anyone occupying that city or that there is anything going on in it. Film could get away with this before video games like GTA IV, but now by reminding me of video game spaces, Spartacus is reminding me of the limits of space rather than deepening their illusion.

It is as if the open world video game has reminded us that in order for characters to seem like they have a soul, their world needs to have a soul too.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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