The Video Game Aesthetics of Spartacus: Blood and Sand

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.