PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Games

The Inelegance of the Video Game Satire

Hotline Miami (Dennaton Games, 2012)

Seven Psychopaths and Drive have what it takes to go on to be cult favourites. They were able to use the conventions of their genre to criticize the fundamental operations of it. I bring up these movies because they’re great at doing what video games have been trying and failing to do, especially recently.

Theoretically, there's nothing holding back games from being an excellent vehicle for satire. Because they require the player to simulate a behavior -- rather than just view that behavior performed by someone else -- games should be in a great position to illustrate how ridiculous or destructive certain behaviors are. I say in theory because there are so few decent video game satires worth noting.

Seven Psychopaths is the second feature length film by Martin McDonagh. It's a smart dark comedy with a terrific cast and a great script. It manages to be a satire of pop culture violence without turning into the thing that it is making fun of. It also manages to be metatextual without being obnoxious, a difficult line to tread anymore. The film follows Colin Ferrell's Marty, a screenplay writer who's trying to write a movie about seven psychotic killers. The catch is that he wants it to be "life affirming." Marty's neighbor Billy and his friend Hans (Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken, respectively) run a dog-kidnapping scam and mistakenly kidnap an obsessive gangster's (Woody Harrelson) Shih Tzu. Marty winds up getting roped into Billy and Marty's scam and the three flee the from the gang into the desert. It's in the desert that the three characters try to find an ending to Marty’s movie (the one that the audience knows they’re watching).

Billy pushes Marty to end the film with a bloody shootout with all the ludicrous, unironic misogyny and violence that inundates action movies while Hans and Marty struggle to end the movie bloodlessly. The film's third act starts with Billy torching the trio's car and calling the gangster and telling him where they are, insisting to his friends that "this movie ends my way." Marty and Hans don't run, and they have to be as assertive and resolute in their pacifism as Billy is in his bloodlust to end the conflict in a "life affirming" way.

Drive is a film by Nicolas Winding Refn about a nameless getaway driver's love affair with his neighbor. It's a pitch-black, homage/critique of eighties action movies. Ryan Gosling plays The Driver, a handsome, gruesome thug who is constantly teetering on the line of psychosis. Drive is structured like an action movie, it has all the tropes and cliches that audiences have come to expect from the genre (Bryan Cranston is the driver's mentor and father figure, Alan Brooks is the crime lord with seeming good intentions, Cary Mulligan is the virgin madonna, Oscar Isaac is the unworthy husband, Christina Hendricks is the bad girl), but they're shown in such a realistic light that we see what an action hero's behavior might look like stripped of Hollywood romance.

The relationship between the Driver and his love interest is the same one that plays out in every action film: a demure, troubled woman (bonus points for being a single mother) needs help from the hero and becomes instantly and inexplicably attached to him. But without the swelling music, the quick jump shots between action and the one-liners that rush to establish the relationship, the audience can see just how unnerving the typical action romance really is. Drive strips the glamour from the violent engagements as well. The Driver is in constant control, even as he holds somebody down and shudders with rage. He's able to be as cavalier in his use of violence as he is when he’s tinkering in his machine shop; violence is just another tool for him to get what he wants. As soon as the Driver is finished fighting or killing someone, he returns to the frozen apathy that defines him. He’s indifferent and emotionless and completely disregards life as he goes through the motions of an action movie: his good friend and mentor is killed, the gang lord he trusted turns on him, his lady love is threatened, and he’s wounded (perhaps fatally) in the final confrontation. All with no reaction save for one important blink.

I bring these movies up because they’re both excellent satires that effectively comment on a tradition in filmmaking. They dissect the action film formula and illustrate just how insane it is to celebrate a type of entertainment that so thoughtlessly disregards violence, gender politics, and morality. Both movies are critically respected, but they’re difficult movies. Neither saw huge box office numbers in spite of generally favorable critical reception. Both suffered from poor marketing (the marketing for Drive was so misleading that a woman actually tried to sue the producers over it) and both of them, quite frankly, are kind of weird. I liked both of these movies. Seven Psychopaths and particularly Drive have what it takes to go on to be cult favorites. They are able to use the conventions of their genre to criticize the fundamental operations of it. I bring up these movies because they’re great at doing what video games have been trying and failing to do, especially recently.

Whenever a game tries to draw on its own history to illustrate a problem, the game often as not just ends up being a part of whatever problem it’s trying to deconstruct. In Hotline Miami, the player serially kills his way from room to room. The game leaves the question, “Do you like hurting people?” lingering for the entire game. It doesn’t matter what the answer is because, to play the game, the player has to be a constant participant in its violence. You have to endorse violence to play Hotline Miami. The game occasionally chastises the player for having fun while pretending to kill people, but continuing requires more of the same violence. The bloodshed is not changed, challenged, or looked at from a different view. It’s just there, called attention to, and then amplified.

The same thing happens in 2009’s Mad World. The player is followed by a pair of disembodied commentators that applaud the creativity in how they murder other people on screen. In essence, the game is a reality tv parody where the characters are encouraged to kill one another for audience approval. Points are rewards granted for more elaborate and stylish kills. Ostensibly, it’s a look at how cheap and empty the thrills of television are. But it also rewards the player for killing people cheaply and emptily. The game doesn’t examine what it’s asking the player to do. It just points its finger and reminds the player how bizarre, unnatural, and “mad” its world is while screaming, “more, MORE!”

These games aren’t like Seven Psychopaths,which treats violence as pointless and absurd, or Drive, which treats violence as terrifying and gruesome. These games treat violence as a game. They point to the extreme violence that is omnipresent in the medium and say nothing. They call attention to an unhealthy recurring trope and then they try to outdo their precedent. And this doesn’t just happen when games approach violence, either.

Bayonnetta is a game that follows a hypersexualized woman in a position of power over other hypersexualized women. Bayonnetta is tall, thin, lithe with an hourglass frame. She fights using pistols strapped to her feet and magical powers that when activated remove her clothing in strips. In the opening cutscene enemies slash open her skintight bodysuit near her ass and her tits (her outfit is technically made of her own hair; that doesn't really change anything but not mentioning this has been a point of contention in the past). The game shines a glaring light on how exploitative games are designed from the perspective of the male gaze and then does nothing. It shows us sexism but doesn’t offer anything other than more sexism.

Games are smart. Developers are smart. Game audiences are smart. But when a game tried to satirize material, it often seems that the execution is so ham-handed that the game just ends up being an extreme instance of whatever it was trying to criticize. Games are in at least as good a position to deliver punchy satire as film, but there seem to be far fewer successes. Whether because audiences are unwilling to consume a game that critically comments on its own tradition or because developers are unwilling or unable to compose a sophisticated satire, it’s becoming a bigger and more noticeable hole in the canon of yearly releases.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Music

Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."

Music

50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.

Film

Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.

Film

The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.

Music

Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Music

'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.

Music

Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.

Music

MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.