In the wake of the Xbox One and Playstation 4 launches, the divide between the different gamer camps is arguably wider than ever. In fact, ‘System Wars’ is dedicated to perpetuating that very rivalry right here on GameSpot. A few days ago I was reading some of the more heated debates and - feeling rather emotional at the time - decided to have a go at writing a small poem. The general aim of it was to promote the idea that whatever camp you might fall into, whether you’re a PC or console gamer, prefer FPS, RPGs or play online instead of offline, we are all just gamers. I felt a poem was the best way to make that point rather than writing an article about it that can be picked apart and spark off yet more rivalry.
So here it is - and remember this is freeform poetry, folks - which means it doesn’t rhyme or follow any set pattern and is intended to sound closer to natural speech.
For quite a while now GameSpot’s reviewers have been on the receiving end of some pretty negative comments from community members concerning the validity of various game reviews. Comments range from accusations of bias and acceptance of bribes from publishers to general inaccuracies and misleading information. This arguably started way back in 2007 when long time editor and reviewer Jeff Gerstmann was fired from GameSpot shortly after writing an unflattering review for Kane and Lynch: Dead Men (2007). Rumours quickly circulated that his termination was due to outside pressure from the game’s publisher Eidos Interactive who had invested a significant amount of advertising money into GameSpot. It wasn’t until 2012 that Gerstmann was legally able to reveal that this was indeed the reason for his termination.
This turned out to be a far more serious blow for the site than anticipated when it not only lost Gerstmann but also Ryan Davis, Brad Shoemaker, Alex Navarro and freelancer Frank Provo in what Joystiq called the “GameSpot exodus”. These were all well liked and well respected writers amongst GameSpot’s community and their sudden departure, the reasons behind it combined with the subsequent appearance of new faces to the editorial staff undoubtedly contributed to the present distrustful attitude by the site’s readership.
But regardless of what happened in 2007, there has been nothing to indicate that there has been any dodgy activity in how GameSpot reviews games before or since. Gerstmann gave Dead Men a mediocre score despite the money being poured into the site and although it resulted in his dismissal, his review remains published and unaltered. Yet rumours and accusations towards the review team continue to the present day and to be perfectly honest, I’m tired of it. I’m tired of reading time and again the absurd nonsense that is so often spouted by the uninformed (or misinformed) community in both the forums and comments sections.
So, as a response from a tired old GameSpot reader (well, 26) and in defence of a site that has long been at the forefront of professional game journalism, I hereby call it’s dissenters out on their BS.
The most common complaint I keep reading is that GameSpot’s reviews are often biased. One that received particular scorn was Carolyn Petit’s review of Grand Theft Auto V (2013) which came under attack in September last year for suggesting the game was “politically muddled and profoundly misogynistic”. Petit herself was then hit by 20,000 comments, many of which were violent, from an offended community who were presumably expecting the game to be awarded a perfect 10 for simply carrying the GTA label. As someone who does his best to be an objective reader, the problem with calling her review biased was obvious almost immediately. Petit praised virtually every other aspect of the game from its graphics, immersion, storytelling and characters. Everyone was on board with this, they all agreed and everything was rosy. But as soon as she pointed out that the game may have a flaw, all of this positivity – that far outweighed any negative aspect of the game – counted for nothing to most readers and the focus of the community was suddenly on her suggestion of misogyny being present in their beloved game. She was accused of having a secret or personal ‘agenda’ and was inserting her own political and philosophical beliefs into her review. Isn’t it possible that this ‘agenda’ was actually her OPINION – which is what all reviews ultimately boil down to anyway – and that the absurdity of such a claim is only made greater when you compare that to the disproportionate positivity contained within? If she did have some kind of agenda against the game, awarding a 9 and calling it “an exhilarating, fascinating game” seems a curious way to go about it.
I love GTAV but I also love the fact that Petit gave it a 9 instead of a 10. It would have been so easy for her to do so considering the hype surrounding its release, the illustrious pedigree of the previous games in the franchise and it’s immense following. Everybody was expecting something truly outstanding and a game that was even better than GTAIV which HAD been awarded a 10. Perhaps it was us who were being biased for expecting yet another masterpiece – which is fine because we’re fans and that’s what fans do. But as a reviewer for GameSpot, Carolyn stayed her hand. She felt this game did have flaws that needed addressing and that to automatically award a 10 for simply being a Grand Theft Auto game would be wrong. So if anything, Petit was completely unbiased in her review for telling us what she thought – not what we wanted to hear. And she should be applauded for that.
Another common complaint is a perceived bias towards Nintendo among GameSpot editors. Nintendo developed games as well as ports released on the Wii U have been viewed as being awarded lower scores than rival sites like IGN as well as overall scores accumulated by Metacritic. It’s no secret Nintendo have been on the ropes for some time now. Besides the dwindling sales of the console itself, Nintendo have been criticised time and again for a lack of new IPs, releasing too many Mario games and a general decline in innovation across the board. These are opinions shared not just by GameSpot but the majority of game journalists throughout the world. But despite this site apparently being the only one accused of Nintendo bias - and for awarding games like The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (2011) and Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon (2013) lower than average ratings, they then awarded Super Mario 3D World (2013) a 9 calling it “a game of exceptional craft” on a console most believe to be all but dead and buried. High ratings were also given to New Super Mario Bros. U (2012), The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD (2013), Pikmin 3 (2013) and Nintendo Land (2012). This is a very strange definition of bias being generated by GameSpot’s readership.
When researching this blog I read many forum posts across IGN, Wii Chat and others where users’ accusations of GameSpot’s ‘bias’ boiled down to them awarding lower scores to games like Skyward Sword when “everyone, I mean everyone, gave it a high score” as one poster stated. But THAT’S the problem right there! We can’t expect GameSpot to give a game a high score just because everyone else did! That’s not what they’re here for and it goes against the very point of the site’s existence. If that was how games were rated, there would be no need for sites like GameSpot or IGN, GameSpy, Metacritic, Giant Bomb and countless others out there because we would all have the same point of view.
A specific reviewer frequently on the receiving end for Nintendo bias is Tom Mcshea. He penned Skyward Sword’s review which made him “the most hated man in gaming” according to n4g as well as being lampooned for his suggestion that Nintendo was “trapped by its legacy”. This is where I struggle to explain because despite a gargantuan amount of hate surrounding his articles and reviews, they appear to be…well, true. I believe Nintendo is absolutely trapped by its legacy and that they’ve become a rigid and petulant company too reliant on their core IPs. As for his reviews, I haven’t played Skyward Sword so I can’t comment on that particular game - but I have played BioShock Infinite (2013). The game was released in March last year and as most will know, received almost unanimous critical acclaim, including by GameSpot. In October, as part of the site’s redesign to include reviews by multiple editors, Mcshea posted his own less positive review and again I found myself agreeing with a great deal of it. I adored the story, the atmosphere and, of course, the ending. But like Tom I found the gameplay to be some of the most tedious and unimaginative examples I’ve seen in a very long time. While I don’t agree the game deserved quite as low as a 4.5, I was still glad there was a reviewer who was brave enough to call it as he saw it and offer an opinion alternate to everybody else’s. Whether or not you agree with what he wrote, you simply cannot accuse someone who gives one of the most lauded games in recent history a negative review of being biased. You just can’t.
If nothing else, I think a lot of gamers tend to get angry when they read or hear something they don’t like about their favourite game. I’m speaking from experience as I recall reading Aaron Thomas’ review for Medal of Honor: Airborne (2007). I was a huge fan of the series when it was still set in World War II, I loved everything about it from its single-player campaign to its multiplayer. So when this editor comes along from GameSpot’s *sports* section and posts an average review for a first-person shooter, I was not happy. I felt betrayed and lied to as I never considered for one moment that a sequel to Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (2002) could be anything less than perfect. But he was right. It’s a terrible, terrible game and blemish on the franchise. I think it genuinely taught me not to dismiss a review based on my own opinion I had formed before I had even read it which is a fundamental mechanism for how our own bias can cause us to perceive others of being so when they are anything but.
It is for all of these reasons that GameSpot is the last site I will ever judge to be biased and their continued refusal to be influenced by fan followings, hype or general expectations is why I will continue to read the works of writers like Carolyn Petit and Tom Mcshea – whether I agree with what’s being said or not. And as the site shows increasing enthusiasm for freelance and user written reviews, why should there be any reason to stop?
So last night Film4 screened The Divide (2011). It started at 2:00am and considering how tired I was plus the fact that it was a film directed by Xavier Gens, was seriously considering giving it a miss in favour of sleep. But I persevered and boy was it worth it!
I had all but given up on Gens producing anything noteworthy after 2007’s Hitman – another in a long sad line of failed video game adaptations - and the lack of any buzz surrounding The Divide which only holds a 28 on metacritic did nothing to change my opinion of him. So when it came out in 2011 I was already sceptical enough that I avoided it entirely. But then I saw The ABCs of Death last year which is an anthology of short horror films from 26 different directors each presenting a story based on a letter of the alphabet. Like most anthologies, the quality varies from film to film but it turned out that Gens' entry X is for XXL was certainly among the best.
What was most surprising was how different in tone this six minute short was when compared to his previous clichéd action schlock. The plot revolves around an obese woman who, after being ridiculed and faced with the images of billboard models, decides to flay herself alive in her apartment in a desperate attempt to become thin. The film ends with her emerging from the bathroom a mutilated cadaver before collapsing and dying. It possessed both the extreme shock factor as well the intelligence of New French Extremity carrying many of its hallmarks of brutal depictions of body horror from films including Martyrs (2008) and Switchblade Romance (2003) – appropriate from a French born director. After seeing X is for XXL I began to believe that perhaps Gens was indeed a talented filmmaker who had simply been working in the wrong genre when making Hitman.
So here he was delivering The Divide to my television screen and despite my reservations, was curious to see what a French filmmaker with an obvious eye for that country’s extremity could bring to a feature length horror that is in fact an American/Canadian coproduction. Having now seen it, I’m happy to say it has everything in common with X is for XXL and absolutely nothing in common with Hitman.
Despite opening with a spectacular depiction of a nuclear attack on New York City, it only takes a few minutes for the plot and characters to settle inside a bomb shelter underneath an office building where the small group of survivors await rescue. The casting is somewhat off kilter from what you’d expect in an American set horror film. Heroes’ star Milo Ventimiglia and 1980s romance star Rosanna Arquette are among those trapped underground. But providing terrific contrasting intensity is genre favourite Michael Biehn playing the building’s unhinged caretaker.
While there have been countless films depicting the extinction of the human race, The Divide is less concerned with death from radiation, disease or starvation than it is from simple human savagery. While this is not exactly an original theme, its use of French Extremity cinema styles to depict the survivor’s violent descent into madness gives it a uniquely disturbing approach not found in more standard fare such as Contagion (2011) or Rec (2007).
The film immediately begins pressuring the viewer with psychological horror by refusing to elaborate on who or what is preventing them from opening the door and peering outside effectively turning the safety of the bunker into a labyrinthine prison. From there things become increasingly ugly as supplies wear thin and morality crumbles.
Where the similarities with French Extremity emerge is in Gen’s objective of assaulting the viewer with prolonged and eroding images of mutilation involving rape and torture. By far the dominating theme in the genre is the systematic destruction of the body from external forces and The Divide delivers this in spades. Dehumanization sets in first as Bobby (Michael Eklund) is volunteered to slowly hack up the bodies of killed NBC soldiers with a blunt axe. The first to fall victim from within the group is Biehn’s character Mickey who is tortured into revealing where the food store is hidden. But Mickey doesn’t fold easily and only after having fingers sliced off with a Stanley Knife does he relent, allowing Josh (Ventimiglia) and Bobby to seize control of the bunker’s supplies. The pair withhold food from the remainder of the group but offer it to Eva (Laura Farmer) only in return for sexual favours. Wendi (Arquette), already vulnerable from the loss of her daughter to invading soldiers, is routinely raped and assaulted eventually succumbing to the relentless abuse. This particularly recalls a long sequence in Martyrs where a woman is held in an underground cell and subjected to repeated physical abuse from her captors. This is ultimately what the latter two thirds of the film amount to – a slow, grinding slide into scenarios more debilitating than the one before. Even gender roles later become lost and distorted as a previously macho Bobby resorts to wearing a dress, shaving his head and smudging makeup onto his face as the body becomes a literal canvas for insanity.
Like most horror films of its type, the final ten minutes are an orgy or bloodshed as throats as slit with canned food lids and Eva, the final surviving member of the group, manages to do so out of an act of betrayal. This final action rams the point of dehumanisation from savage exposure well and truly home.
Although it is an increasing staple in American horror films, French Extremity has long been against ending a story on a hopeful note. Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2003) leaves the viewer with a false sense of happiness with its backwards narrative while Martyrs ends with the suicide of the only character able to explain the reasons for her torture of women therefore robbing the audience of any potential closure. The Divide follows the same structure as Eva emerges from the bunker after leaving the remaining survivors to die only to be greeted by a ruined, disease ridden New York.
The Divide achieves the same result as all successful films of the French Extreme horror style – the viewer should come away from it feeling revulsion, depression and very likely with a more pessimistic view of society in general. While the point of the existence of such a film is open to debate, it remains the opposite side of what Martine Beugnet called ‘the cinema of sensation’. While just about every film ever made is designed to illicit an emotional reaction from its audience, the vast majority deal in excitement and narrative fulfilment. If nothing else, films like The Divide serve to remind us that there are other forces at work within society that while not pleasant, are nevertheless part of the human psyche – and Xavier Gens’ film brings them to the surface with great success.
“On the fifth day, which was a Sunday, it rained very hard. I like it when it rains hard. It sounds like white noise everywhere, which is like silence but not empty."
- Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
London’s Random International Art Gallery is home to quite a unique exhibition. In October 2012, they unveiled the ‘Rain Room’ where visitors can surround themselves with falling water while sensors in the room detect where the person is standing, keeping them dry. Described by the Daily Mail as encouraging the visitor to “put their trust in the work”, it provides a reminder of the way rain if so often perceived.
There are few things that have such an immediate effect on emotion and behaviour. For most, rain represents negative emotions such as depression, misery and stagnation. It becomes an element that hinders the progress of those who work outdoors or would simply prefer to traverse sidewalks without being drenched by passing cars. But as the Rain Room illustrates, rain itself is nothing to fear and can have far reaching and beautifully poetic attributes. For example, the opportunity to be surrounded by it can in itself have an enveloping sense of comfort on a person. Rain provides relief from drought and has a cleansing effect on the environment, nourishing it and encouraging growth.
It is for these more weighty symbolic interpretations that rain has long been at the forefront of an artist’s palette when staging visions that require a particular sense of immersion. For moving images, it began with film as a device to raise tension, set the tone of a story or create emotion for a pivotal scene. This is likely why so many of cinema’s most famous moments from Gene Kelly’s rendition of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) to Jurassic Park (1993) and its T-Rex attack were drenched to the gills.
For the modern computer age, water in general has been cited as one of the most difficult challenges for software to handle due to its unpredictable nature. Even so, long before films like The Abyss (1989) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004) made what are now considered breakthroughs in realistically rendered O2, game developers were dealing with it on an almost regular basis.
Japanese developer Taito’s racing game Continental Circus saw its original release to arcades in 1987 being later ported to the Atari ST and Commodore 64 in 1989. While certainly not the first title to showcase weather, it remains one of the earliest known examples where rain had a realistic and dynamic effect on the player’s experience. As a Formula 1 game, the player must traverse outdoor tracks that are susceptible to dynamically changing weather conditions. Similar to 1983’s Enduro and it’s day/night cycles, weather in Continental Circus shifts depending on the distance travelled by the player. From time to time, a thunderstorm will occur, prompting a ‘CHANGE TIRES’ alert to be displayed. Unless immediately entering the pits, the car’s traction will be nullified by the rain represented by a pixelated zebra-like pattern literally flooding the screen. Rainfall also leaves lasting effects on the condition of the track in the form of puddles of water after the storm has ended.
The game as viewed today also remains interesting as being a precursor to what would ultimately become the 3D representation of rainfall and its accumulating effect on the player’s experience within a virtual environment. Fast forward 26 years to Grand Theft Auto V (2013) and its use of rain can be identified as having its origins in its 1980s forbearers. Despite utilising radically more sophisticated technology, the end result is more or less unchanged. Rainfall occurs at random intervals, effects the handling of vehicles and leaves behind puddles of water on the streets of Los Santos. The only identifiable shift between the eras as far as weather is concerned is in the behaviour of the world itself. Technology now allows the reaction of non-player characters to changing weather conditions as pedestrians cover their heads and quickly dash towards nearby shelter. The allowance of subtle details like these allow the more realistic depiction of what is intended to be a living city due to the demand presented by the advent of complex technology. Nevertheless, Continental Circus and Grand Theft Auto V have more in common from a gameplay standpoint then one would initially believe.
Perhaps then, as the rain room again illustrated, the true power of rainfall in artistic works is through its use as a narrative and aesthetic tool. If rain as a gameplay element fundamentally ends at realistic depictions such as in Grand Theft Auto V, the potential for its ability to evoke mood, story and character would seem far more open ended.
Beginning in 2001, Max Payne is a franchise that relies more heavily on atmosphere than most other AAA brands – to the point where weather tells more of the story than Max himself. He begins his story in the original game having lost his wife and daughter in a tragic prologue level. As such, the world Max inhabits has been designed to reflect his grieving and negative outlook on life as he hunts for those responsible. Set in New York which itself is referred to as ‘Noir York’ via an in-game television show, the city is in the grip of the worst blizzard in decades. As the cold, bitter tone of the setting serves to reflect Max’s state of mind, snow becomes part of the narrative as the storm gets progressively worse approaching the finale. “A hint of desperation had crept into the snowstorm, as if it was trying to get it all out before the end” narrates Max while ascending Aesir Corporation’s headquarters.
The use of snow rather than rain for atmospheric effect in the first Max Payne was a necessary choice both as a psychological plot point and also as a metaphor for the mounting trauma he endures over the course of the story. As Max sinks down into his own personal hell, the snow too becomes deeper and less manageable representing the continuously mounting odds. Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne (2003) evolves the concept of weather as metaphor by replacing snow with rain to illustrate the wasteful aftermath of the original game’s ending as what remains of Max’s life is quite literally washed away.
Returning in Max Payne 2 was one of the most memorable characteristics of the original - its use of a graphical novel rather than cut scenes to convey a moving story. Comparisons are often made to Frank Miller’s Sin City publication in both its dark colour pallet and its use of rain as a persistent presence. Due to Miller’s heavy use of contrast, characters and rainfall are most often coloured white against a black background giving an almost melting quality to each frame, as if the page itself is torn or decaying. Max Payne 2 borrows the same tactic – placing characters within a frame and superimposing layers of rain that obscures any recognisable aspect beyond the characters themselves. Like many of Miller’s characters the point rammed home is that Max does not embody the role of idealistic hero, existing purely for his own needs rather than those of the world around him. By being blurred out of the frame and leaving behind only the basic act of murder as his defining characteristic, rainfall becoming a barrier to any sense of normality. The commonalities between the original game’s plot involving a wider political conspiracy and the manufacturing of narcotics cease to exist.
Accentuating Max’s deteriorating mental state within the game engine is rain’s effect on the setting itself, now far more decrepit and nihilistic than before. Remaining mired in slum neighbourhoods, abandoned warehouses and Max’s own dingy apartment building for the duration of the story, the constant rainfall becomes more penetrative as the story goes on. Beginning with an expert use of sound, rain can be heard falling onto the roofs of darkened hospitals and disused restaurants containing skylights where the beating effect on the glass is imbued with an uncanny sense of desperation. Once the environments progress to the slums, water actively penetrates the environment through cracks in the ceiling, broken windows and fire damaged roofs as if nature seeks to reclaim a world and individuals no longer fit to exist. It is also for this reason that Max Payne 2 is arguably the best example of a game making artistic use of rain’s cleansing and purifying qualities – quite a feat for a game with such a murky sense of atmosphere.
While all of these examples have made heavy use of rainfall as an active characteristic in an environment or story, SCE Japan’s aptly named Rain (2013) released on the PlayStation Network is among the first to take a meteorological phenomena and give it a personality of its own. Taking the role of a nameless boy, the player must guide him through a rain drenched neighbourhood to investigate after spotting the silhouette of a young girl. While not promoting rain as something empowering or welcoming as the Rain Room had done, the game instead expertly taps into the common perceptions of fear in relation to weather and weaves them into the fabric of the gameplay. After discovering the girl is able to turn invisible, the boy finds that the rain exposes him to threats from the various creatures that stalk him unless he takes shelter, rending him detectable only by his watery footprints. Where rain becomes a character is in its manifestation of the enemies the boy must avoid. Instead of appearing as something with a solid mass, creatures seem to be composed of the rain itself possessing an ethereal and almost ghostly appearance.
The implication is that rain is a living presence rather than simply an event with no coherent order. By being given a watery quality, enemies offer the impression of being born out of a sentient form of life actively seeking harm against the player’s character. The need to hide under shelter represents the natural instinct to seek safety as dry areas are represented as sanctuaries where rain cannot reach. Nevertheless, there remains the need to reach the next stage of the game which means braving a dash between shelters, while quietly hoping for a quick resolve. The interruption to the fluidity of movement and purpose among various forms of life when rain begins to fall is poetically invoked in a threatening but deceptively attractive game world.
If there is any truth to the commentary provided by the Rain Room, the real power of an element traditionally held as something to be avoided is only paid tribute when applied to various works of art. This should be taken as yet another testament to the ability offered by video games as a developing art form to give life to something otherwise ignored as a routine or expected aspect of daily life. Of course, not all titles recognise this. When writing his review for Rain, Tom Mc Shea summed up the importance of the game’s reliance on its titular effect with the words; “Without the rain, you're nothing.” Although describing gameplay mechanics, this statement conjures up those that sometimes fail to properly respect the ability of immersion on offer. One particular example that persists is World of Warcraft (2004)’s addition of weather during its vanilla era where rain and other weather effects are only barely noticeable, having no effect on the player, or the world around them – a jarring oversight in a game with an otherwise outstanding sense of atmosphere.
Regardless, such examples are few and far between. With storytelling and technology both constantly evolving, there can be no doubt that rain and the elements in general will become a presence impossible to ignore as simple ambience when creating interactive entertainment.
If Sonic is going downhill, it usually means you’re doing well as the speedy hedgehog has forged a legacy out of racing down steep hills, loops and rails. Despite being created by Sega as competition to Nintendo’s own mascot, Mario, his relentless speed, rip roaring game soundtracks and cool exterior are what ultimately set him apart from the ponderous, slow moving plumber cautiously traversing a mushroom kingdom and until recently has enabled him to stand up as an iconic gaming icon in his own right.
Unfortunately this legacy of travelling downhill carries a poisonous irony when describing the recent spate of incarnations in the franchise. Beginning with Sonic Heroes (2004) and continuing through the Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) reboot, Sonic Unleashed (2008), Sonic and the Black Knight (2009), and Sonic: Lost World (2013), Sega’s once illustrious mascot has found himself mired in the wrong kind of downhill spiral. Blogger Jeff Rivera described the reaction to these recent Sonic titles as “being met with derision, mockery and downright bitterness from once Sonic supporters and fans.” While there have been many reasons cited, the most persistent is Sonic’s move into 3D with Sonic Adventure in 1999. Many critics have argued that the fast paced, rhythmic motion of the franchise’ gameplay does not translate well into 3D leading to widespread camera issues, awkward platforming resulting in unreasonable difficulty and a generally decreased sense of speed.
The result is a far cry from Sonic’s propitious beginnings.
In 1991, Japanese developer Sonic Team released Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) to critical acclaim. GameSpot called it “one of the best platformers of all time” and is credited with generating popularity for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive. It provided an alternative not just to Mario but to all platformers that were prevalent at the time including Duke Nukem and Ninja Turtles. As a character, Sonic was designed as a rebellious, freedom fighter striking a smart Alek pose on the game’s box art. Combined with his fast, gravity defying movements, Sonic the Hedgehog was ultimately responsible for imbuing platformers with a sense of cool.
Over the following years, the game received two direct sequels and multiple spin offs on various platforms including the introduction of Knuckles who possessed gliding and wall climbing abilities. Sonic Team also brought their mascot into other genres releasing pinball, puzzle and racing games. But despite the introduction into new genres and the creation of new characters many of whom played differently, the core mechanics of creating a fast paced 2D platformer remained unchanged until the late 90s.
In 1999, Sonic Adventure became the first 3D title to be released for the franchise. The game was blessed with the enormous commercial advantage of being a launch title for the Sega Dreamcast. The console itself spearheaded the sixth generation making it one of the first games to showcase the potential of advanced 3D graphics for platformers. Sonic fans and beyond watched in awe at the killer whale chase sequence which has now become one the defining images of the Dreamcast’s tragically short lifespan. Illustrating the new dynamic camera angles, the view swung in front of Sonic as he outran the Orca and zoomed out for a wide look at a fully 3-dimensional loop. Another key new feature was the introduction of ‘adventure fields’ – an enclosed area that existed outside of the game’s levels and could be explored at leisure. They served as an example of the dramatic shift from 2D that enabled an entire world to be created for Sonic to inhabit instead of being restricted to linear ‘zones’.
So the 3D incarnations of Sonic games started off strong and were showing a lot of potential. Unfortunately the transition wasn’t as seamless as early footage suggested and the end product was marred by basic but potentially crippling problems.
The most common area of complaint was the game’s deceptively attractive new camera. While the use of dynamic views during the killer whale chase, loops and jumps was impressive, they were largely scripted and beyond the player’s control. Outside of these moments, the camera would frequently shift away from the player’s intended destination, vital springs and items would be out of view and enemies that could be easily avoided were obscured behind trees and rocks. The Dreamcast controller had no method of manipulating the camera beyond a slow turn from left to right which was impossible during Sonic’s high speed dashes. The result of these difficulties would generally be a swift plummet off a cliff that would have otherwise posed no threat.
Another aspect that did not survive the transition to 3D unscathed was Sonic’s overall sense of speed which was often hampered by technical issues relating to the environment. One moment that still lingers in the memory was his inability to enter a secret tunnel in Emerald Coast unless doing so at a specific point and at a specific angle. Anything less and he would stop dead in his tracks and for a game that relies so heavily on maintaining that momentum, the abrupt loss of speed is a horrible sensation.
Nevertheless, when the game did succeed, it did so with sheer rhythmic beauty. Sonic Adventure is a triumphant display of movement and music that often borders on a surreal ballet of pure energy. In its 2D form, the design of Sonic’s world was limited to checker patterns and static backgrounds made famous by the now mythic Green Hill stage of Sonic the Hedgehog. With the ability to now render entirely 3D levels, the production design became far more outlandish as if the potential previously encapsulated by 2D was now bombarding the player all at once. One stage that still stands out is Twinkle Park. Set in a psychedelic theme park, the stage opens with a dodgem car race down a track suspended in outer space before launching Sonic via a rocket propelled roller coaster into the park proper. He then finds himself surrounded by golden pirate ships, fluorescent water rides, and castles reminiscent of Disneyland all under the shroud of a vivid multi-coloured star field. It was an experience that was crammed with intrigue and wonder that still represents Sonic Team at their most creative. Other highlights of the game include Speed Highway, a night time dash across a city skyline and Lost World which features an Indiana Jones-like temple complete with giant boulder. The sheer variety of imagery on offer here is another factor that sets Sonic well above most other platformers whose worlds tend to retain the same tried and true flavour – a common criticism beginning to creep up on Mario who has recently been accused of appearing all too often in favour of risk taking.
Having said that, the sudden change in Sonic’s world from bizarre checked landscapes to bustling cities and other human centric environments is never explained.
Of course the dazzling level design would be nothing without the game’s soundtrack. While the gameplay, design and plotting of the Sonic franchise has veered between inspired to banal, it’s music is just about the only element that has remained at a consistently high calibre. Classic Sonic games of the 90s featured an array of catchy upbeat tempos ranging from the carefree jingles of Green Hill to the more techno inspired music of Chemical Plant. To suit the new 3D era’s focus on extreme high speed gameplay, a fully realised soundtrack was created that included full instrumental compositions for each level and theme songs for each of the game’s six characters. Although the music of later titles such as Sonic Colours (2010) have been described as J-pop, Sonic Adventure’s soundtrack is very much rooted in the power metal genre and can be compared to bands like Helloween, Blind Guardianand Rhapsody of Fire as having an emotionally charged, and uplifting symphonic sound.
It seems appropriate then that music has since formed a dizzying counterpart to Sonic’s heroic objectives of preventing world domination.
However, it’s impossible to comment on the music in Sonic the Hedgehog games without acknowledging the contributions of Crush 40 – a heavy metal band fronted by Johnny Gioeli – who have been the driving force of the majority of the series’ soundtracks since the 2D era. They provide the game’s finest hour as Super Sonic faces down ‘Perfect Chaos’, a watery behemoth and the story’s final boss. Having now destroyed the city where a large portion of the adventure is set, the fight takes place amongst the flooded, rain drenched ruins of once proud skyscrapers. The climactic power of this final confrontation is augmented enormously by being set to Crush 40’s song ‘Open Your Heart’. The song’s opening signals the beginning of the fight with two bombastic guitar strikes before launching into a tense, all-or-nothing style heavy metal song as Super Sonic charges across the water towards a waiting Chaos. The ability of Crush 40 to imbue the franchise with a unique sense of power would continue in Sonic Adventure 2 (2001). For the ‘Final Hazard’ boss fight which sees both Sonic and the newly introduced Shadow the Hedgehog battling in outer space, the song ‘Live and Learn’ was written with a more aggressive tone to highlight Shadow as an antihero and rival to Sonic.
With the death of the Dreamcast in 2001, Sonic Adventure 2 became the final game in the franchise to be released for a Sega console. While the move into 3D has been met with growing derision as the series has progressed, these two games ensured the Dreamcast lived with heart and soul by providing some of the most exhilarating moments ever committed to a platformer.
While there are some who may look back on Sonic Adventure as not having an enduring quality, this is almost certainly due to its association with more recent and far more severely flawed entries in the franchise. As the years have passed, Sonic Team appear to have either become negligent or simply forgotten that speed is the defining characteristic of their blue creation. The introduction of various gameplay mechanics - the vast majority of which are focused on removing that sense of movement in favour of more rudimentary platforming - gives the impression that Sonic Team have become bent on distancing the game from the exhilarating design that made Sonic Adventure so enjoyable.
Sonic Unleased (2008) saw the introduction of the ‘Werehog’ mechanic in which Sonic transforms into a monstrous alter-ego when playing levels set during the night. While playing as Sonic during the day, the game almost resembles a return to his high speed roots with the beauty of the environment being rightly praised by critics. Unfortunately this is also what makes it truly frustrating. Once the player has to shift into playing as a Werehog, the gameplay takes a jarring lurch into mundane platforming territory as the 768mph capable hedgehog suddenly becomes a slow, plodding ape-like creature. Completely at odds with what Yuji Naka’s creation was intended to represent, these combat focused sections could easily be mistaken for another game entirely. Sonic Unleashed also represents a worrying move into more juvenile territory with the introduction of ‘Chip’ fuelling concerns of a departure from the cool of Sonic’s origins.
The most recent entry in the series, Sonic Lost World, is something of a misnomer. As a Nintendo exclusive along with Sonic and the Black Knight and Sonic Colours were for the Wii, it represents a growing interest on Nintendo’s part to recruit Sega’s mascot into their ranks. Nintendo Power commented in 2010 that while Sonic was originally Mario’s arch nemesis, he seems at home on Nintendo consoles. So much so that Forbes Magazine announced last May that Nintendo had inked a deal to bring a number of future Sonic games to the Wii U With Sonic: Lost World being but the first.
The influence of Nintendo is clearly to be seen in Lost World as Sonic once again becomes platforming centric while drawing a number of comparison’s to Nintendo’s own Super Mario Galaxy (2007). Levels are filled with free floating puzzles, floating islands and boss fights that include an encounter where Sonic must dodge fireballs that has been described as almost identical to a fight with Bowser atop a small planet. The platforming itself is largely lifted from Galaxy with spiked tubes to navigate through and slippery surfaces during a visit to a frozen world. The issue with such blatant copying is the fact that the speed of Sonic the Hedgehog games is incompatible with the slow, tactically driven platforming of Super Mario. While trying to remind gamers that Sonic is the character present in Lost World as opposed to Mario, the fast paced gameplay of previous titles is hindered by the unreasonable difficulty level present in trying to avoid spike traps, obstacles and navigating gravity defying worlds while having virtually no time to react to the given situation. The result is a tedious, excruciatingly slow experience where levels must be reloaded time and again. GameSpot’s Mark Walton commented in his review, “Sonic: Lost World desperately wants to be Mario Galaxy, but in overtly coveting the great Italian plumber, it smothers the talents of its blazing blue hedgehog.” Lost World is sure fire indicator that while Nintendo may have made clear their desire to offer Sonic a new home after Sega’s exit from the hardware industry, that home does not include Mario’s own world and should be a reminder that the original game was created as a departure from that very world to begin with.
So it’s been a difficult road for Sonic of late. At this point it’s important to remember that while the failings of recent titles can be laid squarely at the feet of Sonic Team, it’s hard to stay angry at a company who has put so much emphasis on attempting to bring innovation to its flagship series. From the move to 3D, the introduction of new gameplay mechanics, an entry in just about every genre known to exist and dynamically changing game worlds, there can be no doubting their bravery and efforts to keep Sonic the Hedgehog new and exciting. And at one time, they got it almost exactly right.
Sonic the Hedgehog is a character whose world used to be invigorating, full of life and constantly evolving. Given the chance, and the right kind of free thinking that made him so likeable in the past, he can be again.
"The smog was heavy, my eyes were weeping from it, the sun was hot, the air stank, a regular hell is L.A."
- Jack Kerouac
At the turn of the 20th century, a Jewish immigrant penned a stage play after having had the chance to absorb the fusion of American life with other emigrating cultures. It was entitled 'The Melting Pot' and although its story has long been forgotten, its title has become one of the most common descriptions of the city of Los Angeles. Today, it is used to describe a city that has no fixed identity, is recognised as one of the most culturally diverse places in the world and whose very existence is obscured under an orange haze of heat, smog and dust.
The city's chaotic and contradictory nature is entrenched in virtually every aspect of the its environment; As the heart of American popular culture, the world recognised Hollywood sign stands tall as a symbol of the American dream. Yet it is a symbol juxtaposed with what the LAPD once referred to as "the gang capital of the nation" among the poverty stricken suburbs resting below the Hollywood Hills. It is a city with a long history of illegal immigration problems illustrated by a number that has now reached 2.6 million according to the University of Southern California. But it is also a problem that has been one of the contributing factors to the city's multicultural identity - an identity that is now so entrenched that many inner-city schools are attended solely by minorities legal or otherwise.
Like the city itself, depictions of Los Angeles in popular culture are endlessly diverse with each rendition attempting to tackle a different issue. Changeling (2008) commented on corruption within the LAPD of the 1930s whereas Gangster Squad (2013) chose to focus on the city's history in dealing with organised crime. Michael Mann's Collateral (2004) took a more aesthetic approach using digital photography to depict the chaotic nightlife in a blur of neon signs and car headlights while coyotes aimlessly wander across highways. But for all these titles' intellectualism, arguably the most successful analyses of life in contemporary Los Angeles was Falling Down (1993). Rather than dealing with wider political or cultural subjects, the film depicted one ordinary man pushed too far by the smog filled, gang polluted city and whose 'mission' to return home was continuously hampered by arrogant yuppies, neo Nazis and retired billionaires. It succeeded in highlighted both the suffocating heat of an overcrowded metropolis and the difficulties in navigating a space that seems torn between countless different cultures.
Now blessed with the ability to create large scale depictions of real life cities, the freedom offered by video games to explore and soak up environments at the player's desired pace has enabled Rockstar Games to effectively meld all of the above examples into one package resulting in a genuine fusion of colour, culture and crime - the likes of which are rendered impossible by film's reliance on fixed story structures which usually prevent the focus on multiple ideas.
Represented in Grand Theft Auto V by the city of Los Santos, its real life counterpart's multicultural identity is one of the first subjects confronted with the presence of multiple protagonists, all of whom are of different backgrounds and race. First, Michael is depicted as the organised crime element of the city. He is often seen wearing mafia-style suits, speaks with a slightly gruff Godfather-likeaccent, is an expert at planning heists and is under a witness protection program that recalls the later life of bona fide gangster Henry Hill. Franklin, reminiscent of Carl Johnson, fills a 'Boyz N the Hood' role as an African American low income criminal living in a broken down neighbourhood. Making heavy use of cultural and racial slang that has now become synonymous with the gang occupied residential districts of Los Angeles, Franklin is the only native among the three and is presumably intended to represent the city's diverse racial population. Finally, Trevor is a Canadian who is routinely chastised by people he meets for being north of the border. This includes his encounters with the Civil Border Patrol, a fascist right wing duo who pursue and arrest immigrants regardless of their legal status.
Over the course of the game's first act, the three slowly end up mixing with each other as they are drawn into mutual criminal arrangements that involve protecting one another'sbusiness operations, performing heists and rescuing each other from their rivals. Illustrating the fusion of different cultural backgrounds, missions that see the three working together provide them with unique roles integral to overall success; Franklin, who begins the story as a car thief is usually the driver of a getaway vehicle while Trevor's history as an air force pilot sees him given airborne assignments which include spotting targets for Franklin or Michael using infared cameras. Together, they occupy a character wheel on the bottom right of the player's HUD as if providing a menu of different races and cultures that can be selected at will specifically for their special and unique abilities they bring to the whole. This focus on multicultural cooperation is only reinforced by the absence of character exclusive missions outside the main story. The concept of multiple protagonists of varying race may have even contributed to the idea of setting the game in a city modelled after Los Angeles. Particularly considering that no other American city has had such long standing problems with both immigration and crime that have been argued countless times by individuals such as Manhattan Institute scholar Heather MacDonald to be far from mutually exclusive. According to her studies, 95 percent of homicide warrants were at one point solely targeted at illegal immigrants.
So what of the Los Santos itself? The Grand Theft Auto series has been long focused on creating believable cities for the player to occupy. But with the series now in its fifth generation, what separates each representation of a metropolis other than simply providing a different layout to explore? Over the course of playing GTAV, I found the best way of answering that was by comparing it to the depiction of New York in Grand Theft Auto IV (2008) which is vastly different both in aesthetics and personality. GTAIV is often remembered for its ultra-serious approach to representing New York by removing many of the more bizarre features that had emerged in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004). This included the ability to gain and lose weight, add and remove tattoos, hijack trains and jets and mow pedestrians down with a combine harvester. In their place was a far more depressing and moody game world with an almost completely grey colour palette while the story dealt with no-nonsense gangsters and deep-rooted psychological issues inherent to Nikko Bellic's past. This approach, while a departure from traditional Grand Theft Auto games, may have worked for a setting reminiscent of New York but Los Angeles requires a far different outlook that virtually demands a return to the more outlandish features of past titles in order to properly convey a more confused space.
To reflect the confused nature inherent to L.A., Los Santos is far more open and colourful than Liberty City. Night time reveals a neon drenched downtown, filled with nightclubs, bars and heavy use of building and streetlights that almost resembles the use of colour seen in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), a futuristic interpretation of a decaying Los Angeles. The streets are far wider with a greater amount of vegetation comprised of palm trees and forest surrounding the Vinewood Hills. This is not merely a stylistic choice based on the setting. This hypnotic blurring of colour serves as a reflection of the often nonsensical space the player occupies throughout the course of the story. Due to having multiple protagonists, the story continuously lurches from one scenario to the other as both environment and character change in the blink of an eye. At no point is this more obvious than the transition from Michael and Franklin sitting in the former's spacious, Italian Renaissance themed mansion watching a widescreen television to Trevor's messy trailer situated in the middle of the desert. Things only become more muddled as each character finds himself moving into spaces that do not reflect their backgrounds or personalities. Franklin suddenly finds himself in possession of a mansion in an area of the city usually reserved for celebrities while also being 'employed' by paparazzos and super rich car dealers. Likewise, Trevor becomes embroiled in real estate and mixes with the rich and famous when he is asked by a celebrity obsessed couple to steal possessions from film and music stars.
All of this gives the impression of a damaging shift between zones of cultural influence which is even depicted as having a dehumanising effect in Michael's case. The promise of the American dream that is so invitingly advertised by the Hollywood (or Vinewood) sign has become something of a nightmare. His transition from snowy North Yankton to Los Santos sees him landed with all manner of psychological issues that appear serious enough to warrant therapy sessions. Once Trevor tracks him down he routinely mocks his changed pursuit of a blissful family life commenting that the city itself has turned him 'soft'. Trevor himself appears to be the only character who is fully aware of the city's suffocating power as he airs his resentment for journeying to Los Santos while overlooking the night time lights with Wade.
From a gameplay perspective, the freedom offered to the player in a city modelled after Los Angeles is defined by excess - both literally and figuratively - resulting in a new kind of decadent chaos that has been absent in past titles. The excessiveness of being able to fire rockets into oncoming traffic is nothing new in the Grand Theft Auto series except it now takes on a somewhat different meaning when dealing with a space so culturally murky. Michael is representative of a life of excess that is indicative of countless Hollywood celebrities that occupy tinseltown. His broken marriage and two spoiled kids is a story that will have been heard many times by anyone remotely concerned with celebrity culture. He is shown to have a heavy drinking problem indicated by his penchant for expensive alcohol and is revealed by his (hypocritical) wife to be a cheat, apparently having had multiple affairs with off-screen prostitutes. While his behaviour is not unheard of, it is juxtaposed with the sheer lunacy of characters such as Poppy Mitchell - an actress who films a sex tape of herself purely for the sake of creating publicity. When she is discovered by the Franklin, she descends into a psychotic rage and is later involved in a high speed chase which leads to her arrest. This depiction of Hollywood's underbelly is made difficult to process by it being precisely the kind of meltdown that has become part of the fabric of being a real life celebrity. While Rockstar and the GTA series has long been known for creating exaggerated representations of everyday idiocy, this is a rare case of them getting it more or less exactly right. When seen up close in a work of fiction, the realisation of the reality the player is faced with in a game whose very reputation was once defined by unrealistic excess becomes rather disturbing.
It is for these reasons that the ability to go off mission and create havoc by staging showdowns with the cops now suddenly seems far more conventional than simply occupying this severely twisted city space. However it does serve as an example of the nonsensical nature of Los Angeles itself that the player is able to embark upon a drug fuelled rampage only to immediately follow it with a visit to the screening of a French art film.
When researching this essay, I asked for people's opinion of what life was like for the average resident of Los Angeles. The most persistent response I received was that the city looks after only those rich enough to afford a home above the traffic, noise and smog. Everyone below it is subjected to what Jack Kerouac described as a literal hell. But for all its negative aspects, it is a space that has created value for its inability to appear as something coherent. Its diversity and cultural richness has led to it being the unofficial hub from which virtually all other modes of expression originate in the United States. With countless explorations of the Hollywood system and the commentaries on race, immigration and crime that give birth to works such as Grand Theft Auto V, perhaps the identity of Los Angeles ultimately rests with what observers have to say about it.
"The artist cannot always dominate his work. He is sometimes its God, other times its creature."
- Francois Truffaut
In 1957, film theorist Andre Bazin wrote an article for French magazine Cahiers du Cinema arguing film's primary purpose as being a reflection of the director's personal vision. Francois Truffaut similarly advocated that despite the highly industrialised process of filmmaking, directors should be encouraged to use the apparatus of production in the same way as a writer uses a pen, transforming them into tools for expression. As studio executives, ratings boards and target audiences impose more rules, regulations and trends to push the artist in a specific direction, the struggle for the artist is to still be able to bring their intended goals to the surface. An infamous example of this struggle was the production of Alien 3 (1992) when director David Fincher walked off set before filming was completed citing constant studio interference and unreasonable restrictions preventing him from creating his own entry in the franchise that had made the previous films so unique and successful.
In my last article, I described film theory's monstrous feminine as now being translatable into gaming due to the enormous evolution in storytelling over the last decade. Continuing on from that idea, perhaps the same can now be said of auteur theory, particularly as the increasingly corporate approach to game design that has seen franchises like Halo become more successful than the likes of Harry Potter can now be compared to the film industry both in terms of cultural impact and their relationship with the artist.
Identifying the Artist
One of the most difficult aspects of defining auteur theory is what role the artist occupies on a project or even whether one exists at all. Like film, corporate financed game design involves a large team from concept design through to release. While The New Yorker's Pauline Kael opposed the idea of the auteur as being ignorant of film production as a collaborative process, the status of the artist has nevertheless traditionally rested with the writer/director as being the ultimate creator of the work and the individual responsible for giving it life. For games, the artist is far more difficult to identify when more than one individual often contributes to a specific role on a project, not least of which is writing duty. As opposed to film where there is usually a single writer, game developers often employ an entire staff to work on separate elements of the game. While Christopher Schlerf was given the credit of 'lead writer' on Halo 4 (2012) implying a certain amount of artistic control, he later commented that he was only one part of a 'narrative team'. These so-called narrative teams are common place on AAA titles; the plots of each class for Star Wars: The Old Republic (2011) were the result of collaborative efforts by the likes of Drew Karpyshyn and Jennifer Helper working on the Jedi Knight and Smuggler storylines respectively. Things become even more complicated when considering the parts played by designers and animators whose job it is to mould the writers' intentions into something visually striking and intriguing. In recent years, the titles given to game designers have ranged from level designer, system designer, world designer all the way to lead designer responsible for overseeing it all. With both writers and designers, this enormous number of people responsible for the creation of AAA titles seems to call the idea of auteur theory existing for games into question as it defines a work being created by a single artist. So with all of these roles and with each one requiring a certain amount of creativity, where does the title of 'artist' ultimately rest? Or are we forced to ignore the idea of the artist altogether and view game design purely as collaborative? Perhaps the answer lies with the individual who dreamed up the original concept since it's important to remember that all titles begin as a unique vision in the mind of one person. For example, BioWare's Mass Effect trilogy began as rough notes scribbled by Casey Hudson on a blank piece of paper. Does this make him the auteur of Mass Effect?
Perhaps this question is ultimately answered by the presence of a distinct role occupied by just one person - the creative director. As the closest equivalent to a film's director, their responsibility is to lead a project forward and is therefore the only role involved in every aspect of a game from devising ideas and brainstorming to working with each of the teams spread out across the production. Notable examples include Shigeru Miyamoto and Peter Molyneux who as creative directors are the most directly responsible for the Super Mario and Fable franchises respectively.
Arguably one of the most prominent creative directors to have emerged in the last decade is Irrational Games' Ken Levine whose role as both a project leader and storyteller has earned him the status of a true artist. Originally intending to launch a film career, Levine had written screenplays before being hired by Looking Glass to create the fiction behind Thief: The Dark Project (1998). After founding Irrational Games, he was then able to draw upon his aquired knowledge and enthusiasm for artistic works which included Ayn Rand's theories of objectivism which would become the driving theme of the original Bioshock (2007). Describing his passion for such works, Levine commented to IGN; "the sort of utopian and dystopian writings of the 20th century I've found really fascinating." The result of both these deeply personal influences was a product laced with commentaries on Orwellian and philosophical works ranging from Rand to William F. Nolan's dystopic novel Logan's Run. There can be no doubting that Bioshock's concept was the product of Levine's love of the world he was creating and by leading a team of incredibly talented but subordinate designers, he was able to do as a game developer what Truffaut asked of filmmakers - to utilise the apparatus of production to achieve his own personal vision.
Officially, the title of creative director is not isolated to one project but is a corporate role within a company, overseeing multiple projects. If in some cases this leads to a routine approach of game development or if there is any truth to said development as a collaborative process as Kael advocated for film, it may inadvertently provide evidence of auteur theory in the form of trademark characteristics in a developing company's most recognisable titles.
An element of creating imagery that defines an auteur is the continued use of unique thematic or visual motifs that come to be symbolic of the style of a particular artist. For the world of filmmaking, these can be represented by a focus on particular issues, an adherence to setting up specific kinds of shots or developing a working relationship with members of the cast and crew - all of which make a film instantly recognisable as the work of a particular director. For example, Stanley Kubrick became well known for his focus on the theme of dehumanisation from the brainwashing of Vietnam recruits in Full Metal Jacket (1987) all the way back to the suppression of violent thoughts in A Clockwork Orange (1971). Likewise, his extended use of tracking shots and the infamous 'Kubrick stare' became his visual hallmarks throughout his career.
Over the years, as game developers have solidified a reputation for creating very specific types of games or making use of unique interpretations of game worlds, similar auteur trademarks have begun to appear despite being the product of a collective rather than an individual. Examples can be found in companies such as Id Software's penchant for creating visceral first-person shooters and Blizzard Entertainment's interest in creating absorbing fantasy worlds. More specifically, one of BioWare's most recognisable trademarks has been the use of dialogue wheels when interacting with NPCs that stretch from the original Mass Effect all the way to Star Wars: The Old Republic while Valve's use of certain sound samples of ammo collection and reloading weaponry can be heard in both the original Half-Life (1998) and Team Fortress 2 (2007).
This is not to say that this area of auteur theory does not exist for individual artists, however, but as technology has developed and the focus of titles have shifted from gameplay to more story driven objectives resulting in film and games becoming more interchangeable, it has only been in the last decade or so that recognisable auteurs have begun to emerge. The traits of an auteur defined by filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick can, whether ironically or consequentially, be found in game designers who have built careers out of story and character focused titles - not least of which is David Cage.
After founding Quantic Dream in 1997 and developing a number of conventional titles including Omikron: The Nomad Soul (2000), Cage spearheaded and released Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy in North America) in 2005. Like Hideo Kojima and the Metal Gear Solid franchise, Cage is credited as writer and director while the game itself was promoted as an 'interactive film' creating a title that seemed determined to present a narrative focused work of fiction that was the product of a specific individual rather than a collaborative effort. Elevating Cage to the status of auteur is his preoccupation with specific themes. Just as Kubrick became centred on the idea of dehumanisation, every game Cage has been involved in since Fahrenheit has had a focus on mental illness or psychologically scarred characters, specifically female characters. Despite the majority of Fahrenheit's focus being on the slow mental deterioration of Lucas Kane, Carla Valenti is presented as a fragile detective suffering from acute bouts of claustrophobia while struggling to comprehend the violence occurring all around her. One stand out moment where Cage's interest in mental illness and psychology blend together is a fear stricken Carla traversing the darkened hallways of a mental hospital where violent inmates have broken out of their cells. Identical themes can be found in Heavy Rain (2010) as Madison Paige's insomniac, nightmare-ridden photojournalist is reduced to sleeping in old motel rooms while becoming involved in the Origami Killer case. While scant plot details have been revealed about the upcoming Beyond: Two Souls (2013), similar to Fahrenheit, the game has been labelled a psychological thriller utilising spiritual concepts and containing a narrative focusing on a female character who may or may not be suffering from schizophrenia.
Speaking at the 2011 BAFTAs, Cage promoted himself as an auteur and advocated them as essential if the industry is to evolve away from the fractured and resulting impersonal air of collaboration seen in games like Star Wars: The Old Republic; "I know no good stories that are written by 50 people, a story is something emotional, something personal, that you want to share and it is strongly linked to your own life and experiences." Having solidified his interest in specific ideas Cage presents narrative through personalised and unconventional means rather than resorting to established genre types. In terms of gameplay, Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain essentially boil down to a series of quick time events as a means for storytelling. Though not merely a collection of mini games, such events serve as a conveyor belt for narrative as key scenes only progress through environmental interaction rather than the completion of set objective. The fact that such methods of gameplay are extended over multiple titles satisfy the established conventions of defining an auteur as a creator of instantly recognisably work - for the simple reason that no other developer has produced such an unusual focus on interacting with narrative itself to illustrate adeep and intense interest in the theme of psychology.
Having been a discussion about artists bringing their own visions to life, I can't end this article without paying attention to the roles being played by indie developers. Indie games are created without the fundamental restrictions often imposed by larger studios and corporations whose target audience or reputation for specific types of games may lie outside an auteur's intended goal. Usually relying on small development teams, limited (if any) funding and ideas largely based solely on the personal experiences of the developer, as Cage advocated, sheer motivation to make a vision a reality is arguably the driving force behind all indie games. Of course, not all indie developers can be considered auteurs as many will undoubtedly view success as a fast track into AAA development. But in such cases as Jenova Chen's Flower (2009), a game described by Playstation.Blog as being influenced by his interest in philosophy to create "a poem exploring the tension between urban and nature", continued artistic freedom to create innovative and original works of art seems reliant on maintaining a certain distance from major publishers. Considering Flower's widespread critical acclaim, it would have been fairly easy for Chen to transition to the world of AAA titles. Instead, having signed a contract with Sony to release games for the Playstation Network, Chen began work on Journey (2012), another indie title with similar philosophical themes surrounding the power of environment. If developers such as Chen maintain such a protective and steadfast commitment to an unhampered personal vision enabling such original and intriguing games to come to life, the future of gaming's auteurs may ultimately reside with indie developers and the resulting niche market. Particularly with the steps being taken by platforms like Steam to nurture prospective talent combined with the availability of digital distribution.
Together, they are providing both the tools and the canvas for auteurs of the modern computer age.
*Spoiler Warning* (Dead Space, Dead Space 2, Bioshock 2, Catherine)
When discussing film, one of the most well documented and contested theory is the portrayal of femininity. From depictions in horror of the so-called 'final girl' and 'scream queen' where displays of sexuality determine survival to the often psychologically scarred representations of duality in contemporary dramas, women on screen have a long history as victims of both physical and mental trauma. At the forefront of the scholars exploring these ideas is Barbara Creed whose psychoanalytical discussions have become required reading for film students. But rather than simply exploring why women are victimised, Creed offered an oppositional view to the persistence of masculinity as the cause of violence. Using examples like Psycho (1960), and The Exorcist (1973) she argued women as the 'castrator' rather than the 'castrated' with the female body and sexuality become corrupted and threatening - an argument summed up perfectly by Creed in one simple sentence; "men fear women not because they are castrated, but because they are not castrated" implying both a form of immortality over masculinity and an allusion to the abilities of reproduction inherent to the female body. As she explored Alien (1979) as being particularly significant in its visual representations of deformed female anatomy, female-on-male rape and the corruption of childbirth, all of which leave masculinity on the receiving end, Creed named this theory 'The Monstrous Feminine.'
While she has become valued by those exploring film, not so well established are similar ideas now emerging in games. As the industry has evolved to become more scripted and more focused on character driven storytelling, the gap between the interactive and the passive is becoming increasingly blurred. As Beyond: Two Souls (2013) prepares to combine them together and featuring Ellen Page - who is arguably at the forefront of femininity absorbing masculine roles into female gender politics - the purpose of this essay is to explore if theories like Creed's can now be applied to films interactive sister medium. Due to the complexity of game development and the many theories that are now translatable from film to the interactive, I have split this essay into three distinct points - Metaphor, Development and Culture.
Since I have already mentioned Alien, it seems fitting to begin with gaming's closest equivalent to emerge in the last decade -Dead Space (2008). From its first iteration, the series has borrowed many trademark elements of the Alien franchise from traversing long, dark corridors to the theme of organic growth overpowering industrial environments. While there have been many direct adaptations, they have so far neglected any commentary on the images of corrupted female anatomy which helped make the classic monster so intriguing on film, opting instead to focus on gameplay. As if attempting to fill this gap, Dead Space has created a villain out of the female role of reproduction in the shape of organic walls with vagina-like openings and bulbous masses protruding from orifices as a twisted image of female genitalia. There are many environments in the series that are positively teaming with symbolism as the female body seems bent on absorbing the mining industry, a sector traditionally male dominated. Providing the walking metaphors are the Necromorphs known only as 'pregnants' signifying femininity as a specific target for deformity. As their name suggests, pregnants are identifiable by their large egg sacs protruding from their stomach. A misplaced shot will cause the sac to burst and release decidedly insect-like creatures to attack Isaac Clarke. By making firepower a risk, the player is left considerably more vulnerable as pregnancy becomes a destructive rather than creative act. Alongside pregnants are 'the pack', taking the form of a child around five years old. Representing the results of corrupted pregnancy, an apparent abandonment of motherhood and having a far more humanoid appearance devoid of scarring and obvious deformity, the game makes seemingly deliberate assaults on the player with questions of morality as the decision to fire upon apparently human children becomes more and more conflicting.
Aside from the Necromorphs themselves, it is also worth noting that several of the situations Clarke finds himself in throughout the series are the result of a villainous female character. The original game's Kendra Williams is revealed to have orchestrated Clarke's mission to the Ishimura for her own gain while Dead Space 2 (2011) immediately introduces the seemingly empathetic Daina, also with dual agendas - both characters signifying an end of traditional female nurturing instincts as selfless assistance turns to selfish goals. In keeping with Creed's oppositional stance to female victimisation, these examples seem far more potent than the more grounded, clearly identifiable villain archetypes found in the religious megalomania of Dead Space 3 (2013)'s Joseph Danik, thereby ensuring the threat posed by femininity remains at the forefront of the series.
With the exception of Kim Swift, the few female game developers currently existing in the industry have traditionally remained unpublicised and towards the back of a completed game's marketing campaign. Games that claim to promote positive representations of femininity nevertheless remain the result of a male-centric development base having been promoted and developed from a masculine point of view resulting in a disconnect between conception and objective. Perhaps the most obvious example to emerge recently is Crystal Dynamic's Tomb Raider (2013), a reboot exploiting weak female stereotypes while promoting masculinity through her transformation into hardened survivor despite the developer's promise of a more realistic portrayal of female specific attributes.
But while they may have ultimately gotten her wrong, the rebooted Lara Croft was a character created with a clear goal in mind of departing from her status as a sex symbol. Despite its numerous accolades, Ken Levine's original Bioshock (2007) has become symbolic of confusion when illustrating clear feminine characters. The two primary antagonists embody traditional villainous male archetypes - the megalomaniac in the form of Andrew Ryan and the power hungry Frank Fontaine. The only vague attempt at a female presence is Tenenbaum who occupies a constant grey area due to Levine's refusal to elaborate on what she is intended to represent - caring mother figure or manipulative scientist? She both protects the little sisters while also showing no resentment towards the player's potential decision to harm them for profit, even choosing to aid the player's journey against Fontaine towards the game's finale.
In a recent article for GameSpot, Media Molecule's studio director Siobhan Reddy is quoted as stating "It takes women working in games for games to change" which raises question of whether or not female developers would be more adept at capturing issues unique to their gender considering the failure of Tomb Raider's reinvention of Lara Croft. Bioshock 2 emerged in 2010 as a story focused on the effects of Rapture's deterioration on female gender roles. But rather than resorting to male archetypes for a female character as Crystal Dynamics had done, 2K Marin producers Melissa Miller and Alyssa Finley led a development team in an entirely opposite direction to successfully provide the game's female leads with a specific theme of corrupted motherhood. Set 10 years after the events of the original, Rapture has fallen under the rule of Sofia Lamb as she and Tenenbaum now struggle for control of the little sisters. In the game's lore, Lamb originally embodied traditionalist representations of feminine sensitivity seeking to reinvent Rapture as a perfect selfless utopia geared towards mutual benefit rather than the selfish enterprising of the artist encouraged by Andrew Ryan. However, by the time of Delta's reawakening, Lamb's goal has become severely twisted as she is revealed to be exploiting her daughter Eleanor to further her goals. By resorting to genetic experimentation to create 'the people's child' who would embody Lamb's altruistic ideology, her daughter becomes little more than a symbol of a decaying society as the breakdown of the mothering instinct mirrors Rapture's physical deterioration. Lamb's treatment of Eleanor as mere property is also depicted in continuous messages of hatred sent to Delta after separating mother and daughter. Columbia University's Jane Middleton-Moz stated "a mother with borderline personality disorder tends to treat their child as a need gratifying object as opposed to an individual, an autonomous person." If this is indeed the case, Lamb's psychological state should carry enormous resonance for the perception of a mother's tendency to project failed ambitions onto her offspring - hence the genetic alterations of the little sisters ultimately symbolised by Eleanor. Meanwhile, combating Lamb's control over the little sisters is Tenenbaum, fleshed out in far greater detail for Bioshock 2. Her desire to help Delta return the little sisters to their original forms serves as an indirect admission of deformed feminine instincts having previously embodied the role of a mother creating unnatural offspring purely for scientific ends where any form of sensitivity had been drained away.
As Media Molecule stated, there are very few female game developers but there are even fewer (if any) games one can cite where female developers have specifically set about commenting on difficult issues inherent to their gender. Miller and Finley harnessed unique and empathetic outlooks to tap into a new type of fear symbolised by the loss of a child and the subsequent loss of one of femininity's defining characteristics. The mothering instinct is of course unique to femininity and although books can be read and lessons can be learned, executions of gender specific issues are always diluted when attempted by an observer which is why the game's story would have certainly been lesser under male leadership. This may also be why Levine failed to address the evident potential for commentary on corrupted femininity despite having designed both the little sisters and Tenenbaum for the original game.
Although the examples I've argued so far are related to a decidedly western market of game design, any worthwhile argument of femininity in games cannot ignore the Japanese take on female archetypes particularly when compared to the victimisation readily employed elsewhere. Certainly the most persistent example of female innocence in Japan can be found in the long running Final Fantasy series. Despite the presence of strong, resilient female characters, they are nevertheless consistently displayed as doe-eyed, delicate and with an angelic child-like appearance - Yuna and Vanille being particular stand outs. Blogger Mattie Brice argued such innocent portrayals have become the cultural norm for Japan; "The Fandom Final Fantasy appeals to expects certain characters in their party, as consistently having that stereotype of a young girl just past sexual maturity shows." But this is not to say that Japan is free from female victimisation as this 'cultural norm' extends to depictions of exploitation that may have been precisely the catalyst needed for more recent rebellious emergences in games. Japan is a country with a long heritage as a warrior culture where women have traditionally served as subordinates - the few notable examples of female Samurais have become buried under historical interpretations of male leadership. It was not until 1986 that the Equal Employment Opportunity Law took effect lowering many of the barriers that had hindered feminine prosperity. Perhaps it is a repressed traditionalist attitude then that has given rise to many fetishist images of the female body under threat considering some Japanese depictions of pornography can be traced back to the early 1800s. Contemporary imagery includes 'tentacle porn' where alien appendages are used for phallic penetration of a usually unwilling victim while 'lolicon' refers to sexually attractive representation of seemingly underage girls signifying the corruption of innocence by male lust. The latter remains prevalent in the countless depictions of fetishised Japanese schoolgirls and may have contributed to the emergence of character archetypes found in Final Fantasy.
Just as Creed argued that the monstrous feminine is directly oppositional to male dominance, there have been rare examples in Japanese popular culture of precisely this oppositional objective to the established female victimisation I have just described. This brings me to Catherine (2011), a fairly unique example of a Japanese female character asserting control over masculinity. As a psychological horror, the game occupies similar territory of Japanese horror films many of which feature feminine characters as the 'monster' of the story as it was with Ringu (1998)'s Samara. In the case of Catherine, male protagonist Vincent finds himself trapped between two women both of whom represent corrupted feminine values. Already in a relationship with Katherine, Vincent becomes involved with a mysterious other woman (Catherine) who proceeds to draw him into a nightmarish fantasy land where men are reduced to anthropomorphic sheep. These worlds make up the puzzle solving portion of the game as Vincent must traverse moving blocks to reach safety while avoiding a boss who in one stage is represented as an enormous child-like monster. The impression of imprisonment and the objective of fleeing from a symbol of reproduction provide the game's metaphor of the perceived masculine fear of commitment at their most confrontational by feminine symbols. His situation is further complicated in the waking world by Katherine who reveals herself to have missed her period. This revelation in the story is treated as an alarm bell for the player reducing it to a device for increased tension. As the player is encouraged to fear the notion of pregnancy from both women, the atmosphere becomes one of suffocation as Vincent finds himself at the mercy of two female bodies.
The game's story draws to a close with the revelation that Catherine is in fact a Succubus - demons sent from hell to seduce men through sexual intercourse according to medieval folklore. Beyond their obvious predatory intentions, a Succubus can best be described as a female vampire. As Roman Buttner argued, "Vampirism has traditionally been associated with lust and sexuality, which becomes clear in various vampire movies" - an unwilling female victim who would often symbolise purity or virginity by wearing white clothing awaits on a bed to writhe under the penetration of a male vampire character. Perhaps the most famous examples can be found in Nosferatu (1922) and Dracula (1973). With this role now occupied by a female character, it can be argued that Catherine depicts feminine vengeance on masculine dominance - the presence of a Succubus in a Japanese game both opposes images of victimised women in tentacle pornography while also restoring control of the female body to femininity as Catherine's agenda is revealed to be to draw men away from women they are not intending to impregnate.
The objective of this essay has been to determine if games have now reached a point where they can invite the same close scrutiny from an analytical perspective films so readily attract from scholars such as Susan Sontag, André Bazin and Barbara Creed. During my research for this paper, I discovered that a distinct lack of such equivalents exist commercially. If one is seeking this kind of commentary on games, it seems they have little choice but to turn to one of the many freelance writers who are making the internet a springboard for contemporary readings compared to the catalogue of film scholars' books available on Amazon. It is certainly not due to a lack of potential as I have hopefully proven here - finding such theoretical imagery is becoming far easier with the advancements of technology unlocking more complex art forms. Even examples such as Lollipop Chainsaw (2012), an otherwise unremarkable zombie game can be read for its commentary on a weak feminine stereotype usurping the role of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)'s Leatherface.
With the upcoming Beyond: Two Souls featuring an actress who had her start in the film industry as a male castrator in Hard Candy (2005), perhaps there is enough imagery emerging for a scholar to one day count games among their sister's intellectual elite.
Barbara Creed's The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminisim, Psychoanalysis is readily availble to purchase from Amazon.
If Dead Space were to be adapted for the big screen, it would be something like this; a haunted house in space where the menace is not clichéd malevolent aliens or technology gone awry but one of the most overlooked subjects perfectly suited to the dark recesses of space - Hell. At first it might seem strange to mix an outer space environment with a religious construct considering the struggle between science and faith but, as Dean Sobers once explained in his own essay, there are two primary regions for the science fiction landscape; the first is "how our own experience and outlook broadens as space is explored"while the second deals with "how previously entrenched ideas change when confronted by cosmic revelations." With no idea older or more entrenched in society than religion, it is in the latter that Event Horizon (1997) shines as an example of religious imagery attempting to reclaim a threatened existence personified by the presence of human beings in space.
It's easy to dismiss Paul W.S. Anderson as a hack director and indeed, subsequent work such as Alien Vs. Predator (2004)and the Resident Evil film franchise would suggest as much. However, perhaps his greatest flaw lies in his insistence on playing both writer and director when he would certainly appear to be better at the latter. Event Horizon was penned by Philip Eisner after pitching the film as 'the shining in space' to Paramount executives. But despite the reliance of The Shining (1980) on atmosphere, Eisner's script contained large tentacled aliens as antagonists rather than the forces of Hell that would later be conceived by Andrew Kevin Walker. Already feeling it bared too many similarities to Ridley Scotts Alien (1979), Anderson ordered re-writes from Walker who had previously written Se7en (1995) and would later write the scripts for 8MM (1999) and Sleepy Hollow (1999) establishing himself as a virtuoso in creating sustained psychological horror. So, it was a rare case of Anderson wisely leaving writing duties to others resulting in him entering principle photography with a near-perfect script for a unique and inventive outer space horror story.
Event Horizon's premise taps into the myth of the Bermuda triangle and the many urban legends surrounding the unexplained disappearances of ships and planes that have allegedly occurred over the decades the film borrows heavily from the legends of the Mary Celeste, Flight 19 and particularly, the Baychimo, a ship missing since 1931 but said to appear and disappear periodically. In this case, the spacecraft of the title has reappeared as a living derelict vessel having been given its own conciousness after spending seven years on the other side of an artificial black hole created as part of an experiment. What exists on this 'other side' is described by the ship's designer Dr. Weir (Sam Neill) only as "a dimension of pure chaos, pure evil." By combining the sense of mystery inherent to the Bermuda triangle legends and the refusal to elaborate precisely on where the ship has been prior to its reappearance represents one of the few expert uses of the genre's key theme.
One of the most intriguing elements of science-fiction is the journey into the unknown that allows limitless potential for imagination and storytelling. For science-fiction horror, the forbidding void of space where lonely and vulnerable spacecraft travel provides the perfect setting for HP Lovecraft inspired terror. His theory of 'Cosmicism' concerns the potential for an incomprehensible and all powerful force lurking out in the darkness of space. In all likelihood, this force would view the human race in the same way as we view insects, not hesitating to arbitrarily eradicate us without conscience. This concept has inspired multiple works in various mediums from Star Trek's the Borg to Mass Effect's Reapers but it continues to be a vastly overlooked idea where too many science-fiction stories use space travel as a springboard for a human character's own journey of self-discovery. Such titles largely dominated the rest of 90s science fiction with Contact (1997) and Mission to Mars (2000) being high profile examples of stories that had become a cliché following the endless imitations of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
As a result, Event Horizon has ended up as one of the few examples since Alien to make appropriate use of the void as forbidding. The film's opening sequence provides an immediate reveal of the ship floating aimlessly in orbit around Neptune. In keeping with the myth of Bermuda triangle, the backdrop of the planet's blue mass churning under a chaotic and thunderous storm reflects the oceans the future has left behind, replaced by a black and infinitely larger ocean that remains unexplored and unknowable. What both oceans have in common is their penchant for swallowing ships into their respective voids and the very name given to a 'black hole' implies a one way descent into nothingness.
The reason why Bermuda triangle myths persist is due to the fact that many ships or planes that disappear there are never found leaving their ultimate fate open to interpretations and wild imaginings ranging from sea monsters to UFO involvement. Event Horizon offers a speculative answer to this question as the ship becomes one of the few to return from her journey into the unknown while the film's religious imagery attempts to fill the gaps left by our own lack of experience. No Human being has yet been able to examine a black hole in person to identify precisely where such a tear in the fabric of space may lead. Astrophysicists around the world continue to rely on mathematical equations while leaving an absence of a physical description of this other side beyond numbers on paper. Sobers himself argued that without a mental image to draw on, combined with the largely unexplored and unknowable mass of the universe, religious archetypes inevitably fill the gaps as a representation of something all powerful and mythical in quality. One modern example of this can be seen in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life (2011) where the creation of the universe is accompanied by an operatic score and juxtaposed with theories on how God originally intended life to evolve.
Event Horizon is set entirely in and around the spacecraft meaning religious archetypes must be represented by manmade technology. To maintain a connection to religious imagery, Anderson designed the interior of the craft after Notre Dame Cathedral. Scanned into a computer, disassembled and then rebuild as a metal spaceship, the opening shot of the looming craft shaped like a cruciform appears as a gothic interpretation of faith against the darkness. The interior gives the impression of an art deco mortuary enormous pillars occupy the bridge, the medical bay has a symmetrical maw-like entrance while tall narrow windows resembling those of a medieval castle give the only often obscured view into space.
Occupying such a foreboding environment creates an escalating sense of discomfort for both audience and crew of the search and rescue ship Lewis and Clark (named after the famed American explorers) as they are subjected to visions and hallucinations of past sins seemingly triggered by the Event Horizon itself. None contain as much impact as Captain Miller's (Laurence Fishburne) vision of a burning man rising out of water in the ships engineering section a prime example of religion penetrating a scientific environment. Designed to appear as a collage of living paintings, the film's graphic scenes of violence become jarring compositions of torture as images of Hell flash on screen for frames at a time. If one was so inclined as to freeze frame such sequences, they would be able to make out crewmembers impaled on spikes, wrapped in chains, covered in lacerations and drenched in blood and maggots. Due to each composition's brief screen time, Hell appears more as a blur of light and colour rather than something coherent as this other place remains an unmapped zone of imagery seemingly existing only within our imaginations, the same imaginative speculation that gave rise to the majority of biblical artwork now represented as these macabre compositions. Not content with visual representation alone, Anderson makes outstanding use of sound to evoke Hell as an unseen horror; unexplained explosions, power drains and thumping sounds give rise to the notion of a forceful occupation or reclamation of the ships scientific ideology.
Enduring as something more inventive after countless examples where the traditional monster is the villain of the piece, familiar forms of the classic outer space antagonist are stripped away. With no coherent enemy, Anderson allows Hell itself to become a slow permeating force creating a shapeless, unidentifiable presence from which there appears to be no escape. Although the concept of past life events returning to haunt has been covered in Solaris (1972), it's important to contrast Tarkovsky'swhimsical approach to what is ultimately a commentary on nostalgia, with Anderson's own interpretation of unwanted memories returning to demand penance rather than obtain closure on civil grounds. Perhaps the two films could be compared as their own representations of Heaven and Hell in outer space.
Boston University's Bryan Stone stated "Other than pornography, horror is the film genre least amenable to religious sensibilities. It offends disgusts, frightens and features the profane often in gruesome and ghastly proportions." Perhaps the revelation of the ship's status as a life form can be taken as the most potent form of this kind of deformity of our religious outlooks. The concept of life being given to the lifeless is a subject often discussed by religious texts but while the majority of those represent it as an organic and enlightening act, bestowinglife on a machine turns it into an invasive and deforming act as the nature of science becomes an unnatural representation of life. Ultimately, Event Horizon can now be read as an attempt by religion, represented here by the forces of Hell, as aggressively staking a vengeful claim in a void where science has reigned as the creator of the rules that govern existence. In the film's climax, a now 'converted' Dr. Weir, having been brainwashed and physically deformed by the ship's hallucinatory power, signifies what was once a pinnacle of scientific experimentation as being the sole property of Hell as he forcibly attempts to send both ship and crew back through the black hole.
Today, the film exists as 'cult' remaining cruelly overlooked by the wider majority of the science-fiction community. This may largely be due to Anderson's continuous downhill slide into mediocrity since this project but, perhaps ironically, with its intriguing premise, well executed thematic elements and making outstanding use of the void in which it is set, Event Horizon is considerably more profound than the average genre film - a rare thing indeed.
"I can't take them calling me a hero. All I did was try not to get shot. The things I saw done, the things I did, they weren't things to be proud of."
- Flags of Our Fathers (2006)
In part one of The Pacific (2010), Colonel 'Chesty' Puller, alludes to a notion that Marines fighting in the pacific theatre of World War II were isolated from the rest of the conflict, being unable to engage what has become the symbolic enemy of the allied forces. "The Marines will do battle with the Japs on tiny specks of turf that we have never heard of. Never mind the Nazis, Mussolini - Hitler is not going to be our job" he explains.
His point appears validated as nearly 70 years later many of these 'specks of turf' are still generally unheard of and have remained unrecognised as the sights of some of the most horrendous fighting the world has ever seen. It has only been recently that some of these arenas are now finally emerging with the apparent new objective of depicting the pacific as the war's 'uglier side'. According to The Guardian's Peter Beaumont, these islands represent "a story so little told because, for years, the public has preferred to turn away from its dark undertone of savagery" - a preference represented by the traditional celebratory tributes of late 40s and 50s war films. The Pacific, imbued with modern filmmaking mentalities, has now led to shifting terrain altering the pacific theatre's reputation and creating many contrasting ideologies between different eras of the American war genre - arguably the most glaring of which is the interpretation of heroism. As a new willingness to portray increasingly negative imagery has arisen, there has been little opportunity for the classical heroic ideology of a wartime soldier to remain intact. Instead it has found itself buried under the grime of realistic depictions of combat in what have become the forgotten battles of the war.
Cinema is saturated with films about World War II and even though many exist to comment on the pacific, they are largely isolated to the battles of Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima - battles perhaps thought to overshadow the unedifying engagements on neighboring islands. For many years following the war, Hollywood was drawn to sights like Guadalcanal for films such as The Gallant Hours (1960), a film celebrating admirals on both sides of the battle, for the heroically symbolic imagery on offer. Iwo Jima in particular was immortalised by Joe Rosenthal's photograph of the stars and stripes being raised on the summit of Mount Suribachi. One of the most blatant examples of classical Hollywood's sensationalist approach to such an event remains Allan Dwan's Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) starring staunch Republican John Wayne as Sergeant Stryker leading the charge up Suribachi with Japanese troops existing only to provide him and his men with cannon fodder. The film was highly regarded by the USMC for its patriotism and became required viewing for new recruits indicating its potential use as propaganda. Meanwhile, many members of the public who watched the film were rumored to have shed tears at Wayne's death scene.
After the debacle of the Vietnam War and Hollywood's numerous attempts to exercise the ghosts of that conflict in the shapes of Michael Cimino, Oliver Stone and Stanley Kubrick, depictions of the pacific theatre also become more sensitive. Following on from a new wave of ultra-realistic representations of warfare in Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Band of Brothers (2001) he helped create, Steven Spielberg produced Clint Eastwood's double bill of films depicting the effects of combat on Iwo Jima with Flags of our Fathers (2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006). In contrast to Dwan, Eastwood illustrated combat as ugly and unglamorous - His decision to sympathies with the hopeless situation of the Japanese defenders in Letters from Iwo Jima opposes the rigid anti-Japanese stance of Sands of Iwo Jima while a scene in Flags of our Fathers sees a cake made in the shape of the Suribachi flag raising being covered in blood red sauce, reducing Rosenthal's photograph to a metaphor for post-traumatic stress.
In 2010, Tom Hanks, together with Spielberg, executive produced The Pacific, a miniseries with the apparent intention to remove the heroic ideology of the 1940s from a theatre where barbarity and atrocity seemed overwhelming to any such notion. Commenting to Time magazine, Hanks said of his father, who was a veteran of the pacific; "He had nothing nice to say, no glorious stories to tell about it." It was a comment that suggested a determined focus to depart from the attitudes of past titles like They Were Expendable (1945) which had portrayed those serving in the pacific as enthusiastic and war ready soldiers; "Well get all the soaking we need on our way up to hit he Japs, sir!" proclaims Seaman Jones (Arthur Walsh). Cementing the miniseries' solemn approach to the theatre's depiction is the immediate introduction of its three central characters who are far more stoic than their classical counterparts. Before leaving for war, John Basilone (Jon Seda) exchanges nervous looks with his father at the family dinner table while Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale) is seen silently praying at Saint Mary's church. Finally, Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazello) does not depart at all having been denied permission by his concerned father, a veteran of World War I. Beginning with the first frame, there exists a foreboding atmosphere where anxiety, rather than enthusiasm is the defining emotion.
Parts five, six and seven focus on Eugene Sledge in his eventual participation in the Battle of Peleliu, a tiny and strategically questionable coral island in the Palau chain - an island referred to in Sledge's own memoir, With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa (1981), as simply "a terrible place" and representative of precisely Beaumont's description of a little told story of savagery oppositional to classical Hollywood war films.
Five deals with the initial landings on Orange Beach II in what is surely one of the most terrifying portrayals of combat ever captured on screen, easily outdoing Saving Private Ryan in terms of sheer ferocity. The cinematography for the sequence seems determined to create a grinding atmosphere of utter panic for maximum distress as camera shots follow Eugene from his departure from the Navy fleet in a realistically slow approach towards the shoreline, followed by his slow crawl up the beach filmed in one long tracking shot. The soundtrack is perforated by the screaming of wounded Marines while rapid, continuous artillery strikes shower Eugene in sand, dirt and debris.
Part six immediately follows the landings with the subsequent battle for the nearby airfield. In contrast to the slow cutting of part five, six portrays Marines making a dash across open terrain rapidly edited to convey the speed of their accumulating casualties. The quick cutting reduces the sequence to a montage of dismemberment rather than an event of strategic execution as each shot seems focused on violent loss of life while apparently ignoring the Marines objective of securing the airfield. When watched back to back, the impression offered to the spectator of combat on Peleliu is one of hopelessness. With soldiers objectives buried under the camera's relentless focus on gunfire, blood and dust, the result is a depiction of atrocity so overpowering as to leave only a 'one step forward, two steps back' sensation making any notion of heroism impossible to attain.
In part seven, Eugene's company moves into Peleliu's Umurbrogol Pocket - a labyrinth of mountainous limestone rocks honeycombed with Japanese fortifications. Faced with rooting out each hidden bunker one by one, the Marines enter a proverbial meat grinder where the determining factor of survival is reduced to pure luck. Unlike parts five and six which rely on the power of impact alone, seven has specific points where the opportunity for heroic status is forcibly denied. When Lieutenant 'Hillbilly' is wounded, Sledge is sent from cover with a stretcher to carry him back to relative safety, braving a chaotic sprint through the canyons where men to his left and right are swiftly cut down. After transporting him a mere few feet, Hillbilly is shot a second time through the chest killing him and thereby denying Sledge the ability to care for wounded buddies and signifying the loss of the most basic method of compassion representative of a heroic soldier.
Historically, the Battle of Peleliu was largely ignored by the wider aspect of the war receiving little attention by war correspondents and being overshadowed by General MacArther's return to the Philippines. Perhaps in keeping with this lonely status, none of the eight Medal of Honor awards given to Marines on the island are mentioned in any of the three parts adding weight to what author Gordon Rottman called "the forgotten corner of hell" and allowing the miniseries an accurate portrayal of a battle where heroes went ignored and unknown.
The Pacific's own portrayal of Iwo Jima marks the miniseries' most potent example of the systematic erasing of heroic imagery. Having been awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on Guadalcanal, John Basilone is sent back to the United States to take part in a war bond drive earning him celebrity status and becoming the embodiment of heroism for the American public. Part eight focuses on his return to the front lines as the gunnery sergeant of his own platoon. Troops under his command comment on his legendary status; "He killed like a thousand Japs on the 'canal. The guy's a hero!" says one of his men in admiration while female personnel swoon at his close proximity. Upon reaching the beaches of Iwo Jima, Basilone lives up to his heroic status by single-handedly destroying a Japanese garrison and aiding a tank trapped in a nearby minefield. While rounding the airfield, he is struck through the chest and left arm by Japanese mortal shrapnel while his shocked men look on helplessly. The scene ends with an overhead zoom out of Basilone lying among the bodies of Marines killed alongside him. Ceasing to be a heroic celebrity, his fragility is now exposed as he becomes indistinguishable from the other 7,000 Marines killed on the island.
Returning once again to Peter Beaumont's comment, places like Peleliu and part four's New Britain received their first dramatization for the screen in The Pacific at a time where the majority of past directors and writers had deliberately avoided war zones where the lines between heroism and atrocity faded. Part of the defining atmosphere of the war in the pacific is a nation bent on preserving civil freedoms clashing with a warrior culture who believed suicide was preferable to surrender. With both sides regarding themselves as more righteous than the other, there existed a lack of tolerance for any form of positive culture from both sides existing on the same stretch of ground which ultimately resulted in the one sided view of classical Hollywood directors. Films like Sands of Iwo Jima are indicative of the views of many Americans during the war who believed the Japanese soldier was little more than a cruel and vicious killer. Referring to representations of the classical period, The Washington Post's Stephen Hunter commented "Our filmmakers, enraged over Pear Harbor, seemingly always included a scene where Japanese perfidy expressed itself only to be wiped out most satisfyingly by the righteousness of our soldiers." While war crimes in Nanking and Bataan remain some of the most appalling of the period, The Pacific and Letters from Iwo Jima now nevertheless go out of their way to illustrate the Japanese soldier himself as a fierce but humanistic opponent serving as an enemy combatant, rather than the perpetrators of war crimes against civilians so readily employed by classical Hollywood to give Japan the role of the villainous opposition. This is reinforced by the miniseries' unflinching desire to focus on the lesser known engagements of the theatre where barbarity existed on both sides from the Japanese banzai charge to the cynical and uncompassionate American advance through the mud of Okinawa.
With such an approach ensuring that heroism becomes virtually impossible to find and solidifying islands such as Peleliu as battle sights where the hero is absent from our screens, The Pacific has ensured the current generations' first impression of the theatre is a barbaric and negative one as opposed to the superficial black and white (both literal and figurative) imagery of heroes and villains personified by John Wayne, Allan Dwan and John Ford. In doing so, it has emerged as one of the most substantial and important entries in the war genre of recent times.