Game Lessons Learned from the Films of 2013

Poltergeist by ganando-enemigos (DeviantArt, 2011)

Ignoring the lessons other media imparts is a harmful form of self-delusion. This is a spotlight on this year's most important movies for game makers and players to see.

There’s an interesting aversion in the games space to discussing film -- or other media for that matter -- as it relates to games, and perhaps rightly so. Game makers and enthusiasts sometimes share a concern that by comparing games to film, we water down our own value. And it is true, using film -- or any other media for that matter -- as a metric for success in the games industry is a losing battle.

However, ignoring the lessons other media imparts is also a harmful form of self-delusion. We crazy wonderful humans tell stories, and lots of them, in all sorts of ways. Engaging other media is a fruitful practice that empowers our own craft. To that end, this is a spotlight on this year’s important films that might be worth considering in relationship to games. Each was selected for its own reason, but all prove insightful. Do not consider these reviews or even personal suggestions. I encourage readers to watch these films in particular with consideration to the lessons we can learn about game artistry.

The Stories We Tell

Directed by Sarah Polley, The Stories We Tell is ostensibly a personal narrative about the director’s family and the revelation that she is not, in fact, the biological daughter of the person who was always believed to be her dad. Through family interviews and Super-8 family footage, Polley begins to paint a picture of her mother as she never knew her and in the process learns more about both her real and her adoptive father.

Initially, the documentary appears to be a candid and heartfelt examination of her own family, but then it becomes so much more. Yes, The Stories We Tell starts with Polley, but it morphs into a larger narrative about family mythologies and even documentary filmmaking itself. With a few wonderfully executed twists, the film becomes about the act of storytelling and the messages and meaning that we find in creating and participating in stories.

Those interested in games may find in this seemingly simple documentary an immensely compelling perspective on writing. Polley’s comfort and playfulness with the genre is also artfully expressed and would be an excellent reminder to game creators to both acknowledge and yet abandon expectations about their craft.


Alfonso Cuarón’s latest is easily the biggest name on this list. The director of Children of Men, Cuarón has earned both accolades and admiration from fans, making Gravity one of the year’s most anticipated films. It is a great film to be sure, but it makes my list, not for its quality, but for its handling of self-limitations.

Gravity takes place almost entirely in space. For much of the film, the protagonist is entirely alone. Even so, the film’s 90 minute runtime feels packed with thrilling moments and genuine drama. Cuarón imposed upon himself an extreme limitation, but he feels as liberated as ever. Coming off of playing Grand Theft Auto V, it is easy to associate immense scale and grandeur with Triple A games. While yes, Gravity certainly uses its $100 million budget all over the place, the simple idea that excellent action and storytelling can occur in any setting is an important lesson. I would love to see as daring attempts at storytelling in blockbuster games that we see here in Gravity

About Time

What The Stories We Tell is to documentaries, About Time is to romantic comedies, sort of. The director, Richard Curtis, has made a living off of touching RomComs (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually), so he has some expertise in their production. Maybe this is what lets him play around with the genre enough to explode it outward into something more significant than most expect.

At its core, About Time is about a young man who leans he can travel back in time and uses his newfound ability to find love. Adorable, really cheek-squeezing stuff. But in the process, About Time also becomes about, well, everything. It’s about regret and loss and family. It’s about how easy it is to change your life -- and how hard. It’s about obligation and hope and pettiness and change. About Time is a sappy puff piece at times, but it still manages to transcend its genre and actually become something that, I believe, makes the world a better place.

Curtis’s audacious commitment to a greater message is all too rare in any media. We may find it in games like Journey or Bastion, but I welcome its more frequent appearance in games.

Frances Ha

Most of these film selections portray stories that seldom, if ever, appear in games. Frances Ha on the hand is a “coming of age” story in a way, something many games produce in the very act of character development and empowerment. From RPGs to Shooters, games that dole out new abilities as players gain proficiency follow some of the same tropes of coming of age stories, mechanically if not narratively.

That being said, Frances Ha's titular character is 27 and is generally failing at life. Frances’s dancing career is failing to take off, her friend is moving on with life without her, and she continually makes poor financial decisions. Played brilliantly by Greta Gerwin, Frances is one of the oddest protagonists in film this year and one of the funniest.

While games can handle squeezing some compelling narrative out of their protagonists, few actually attempt to show how awkward and uncomfortable personal growth can be. For that reason alone, France Ha is well worth your attention. As an added bonus, it’s also the only non-documentary film on this list that passes the Bechdel test.

Upstream Color

While I tend to dislike Fez more and more with every passing moment, I have to appreciate Phil Fish’s almost psychotic commitment to his vision for the game. Five years in the making, Fish seemed dangerously attached to his work and the final product is a unique albeit imperfect personal creation. In this way, Fez and Upstream Color are cross-media compatriots.

Directed by Shane Carruth, Upstream Color is a strange film about two people bound by an alien parasite. It is a fitting follow-up to the Carruth’s phenomenal time-travel film Primer, even if it did take him nearly a decade to create. Carruth’s long production might have to do with his absolute adherence to his personal vision. So protective of his work, Carruth acted as the film’s director, writer, producer, lead actor, cinematographer, composer, and more. This is a work produced almost entirely by one individual, and its unified vision is apparent.

While individual auteurs in games seem possible only in the indie space, Upstream Color also has a lot to say for thematically dense and unrelenting storytelling. Like Primer, this is not an easy film to consume. It is quiet, complex, and never talks down to the viewer. Even so, it also portrays a system that can, with effort, be unraveled. Hey, maybe it’s even a little bit like Dark Souls.

Carruth uses all the tools at his disposal to invite viewers into a participatory experience and a rewarding one at that. Many games could take lesson and venture into the unabashedly weird. Or, even better, maybe Shane Carruth could venture into game design.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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