Chungking Espresso

My Top Ten Films of the 2000s

Posted in Film by Simon Ferrari on January 7, 2010

These are my favorite films of the 2000s. Please note that I say “favorite” here, because I no longer feel qualified to declare which are the “best” or “most important.” That said, these at least are in rough order by what I discern as their importance (which I’ll try to explain). The only thing I think is really missing is an Iranian film, but in my estimation the best Iranian films were made in the late 90s. Most of my readers probably already know this, but I was a film studies person for five years before transitioning to game studies. I don’t personally think it gets in the way of my understanding games as a unique medium or cultural form, perhaps because I interact daily with Ian. I may be wrong, of course.

In any case, you’ll notice that these skew toward the beginning of the decade. That’s because I started studying games in 2007 and stopped keeping up with what was winning at film festivals. During my five years of study, I purchased over 300 DVDs (mostly contemporary) and watched between 2-4 films a day. My specialization was in East Asian genre film, but I also spent a summer researching at the Irish Film Archive and familiarized myself with the classics of most historical eras and movements. My problem with most such lists by other Americans is that they’re Anglo-centric. I’m obviously biased here, but I hope I’ve presented a decent mix. I’d like to give special thanks for my years of study to Professor Richard Neupert of UGA, an expert on French New Wave and animation—one of the best mentors I’ve had the privilege to study under.

Film of the Decade: Yi Yi

This one, I believe, belongs in most “ten greatest films of all time” lists, knocking one of the Kurosawas, Ozus, or Kubricks out of contention if you’ve got two on there (typically, Rashomon and/or Seven Samurai appear in the second half of most of those lists… Rashomon obviously stays). If you look at Cannes winners, it quickly becomes obvious that the 2000s were the decade of international social realism cinema. Yi Yi, by the late Taiwanese director Edward Yang, certainly falls into this trend. The reason that it emerges on the top of the heap is that it also engages with the clash in East Asia between tradition and westernization, morality and technology, youth and age. About the disintegration and reconciliation of a sprawling family, Yi Yi is one of the few films I’ve seen that takes videogames seriously—maybe because Yang was a brilliant computer engineer before becoming a director. Its cinematography is finely-tuned, with entire conversations caught in reflections on glass surfaces, long takes, and incredible depth of field. It is funny, heartbreaking, perfect.

In the Mood for Love

Wong Kar Wai is the reason I started studying asian film, and In the Mood for Love is the reason I was exclusively attracted to Chinese females for a period of three years. It’s a period piece about the 50s and 60s in Hong Kong, so popular (despite being an art film) that it spawned a craze for cheongsams throughout China. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung play neighbors whose spouses are cheating on them with each other. The conceit is simple: “we’ll roleplay to figure out how this happened.” Neither the faces of the spouses nor any possible sexual interaction between the protagonists are ever caught on camera. There are more slow pans across alleys while rain is falling than you would ever want to see in real life, all edited to the same melancholy string instrumental. I have a tattoo of Maggie Cheung from this film on my left arm.

Dancer in the Dark

I don’t like Lars von Trier. I don’t mind that he made a trilogy about the United States without ever visiting it, because that’s not important. What I do mind is that he calls this trilogy the “America trilogy” when it would be more accurately named the “People trilogy.” The main lesson of all these films is that people, especially when they’ve got no money, do horrible things to each other. Bjork plays an immigrant working in a factory in Nowhere, USA. She’s going blind, but she’s been saving up money so that her son might have a chance at a better life. Everything goes wrong. This is a musical about factories and trainyards. Some scenes are captured by one hundred handheld video cameras shooting simultaneously, an example of kinonarrative dissonance with a purpose. Within the same moment, it both exemplifies and defies everything set forth in the Dogme 95 manifesto. Vinterberg’s Festen is the better Dogme film, but this is the superior film.


When I was in high school, we had a German exchange student. One night, while we were driving around shooting off fireworks, he said this: “In Germany, we don’t have Mexicans. We’ve got Turks. They’re like rats.” Fatih Akin, the director of Head-On, was born of Turkish decent in Germany. Many of his films are about the cultural and economic struggles of Turks living in Germany. Head-On is the story of an aging Turkish man with no love for his culture who marries a beautiful, young woman so that she can leave her family home to sleep with non-Turkish men. They fall in love. Did I mention that they meet in a suicide ward? Everything goes wrong. Main sequences of the film are segmented by these strange interludes with a traditional Turkish musical performance. The pacing is incredibly good, which is something I can’t say about his later Edge of Heaven.

American Splendor

I know all the better hipsters in the audience were reading graphic novels before this film came out. Well I wasn’t, because I was busy watching movies all day. Directed by two documentarians, Shari Berman and Robert Pulcini, American Splendor mixes interview footage, traditional non-fiction narrative, and animated segments to great effect. The star of the show is comics writer Harvey Pekar, played alternately by himself and Paul Giamatii (before that Sideways crapfest and villain roles in bad action films). Pekar’s life story and gradual development into an indie comics icon is totally blue-collar and totally real. Hope Davis and Judah Friedlander also crafted memorable depictions of rather cartoonish human beings. It deals with cancer survival, artistic inspiration, child-rearing, and Dave Letterman—what more could you ask for?

Joint Security Area

I like Park Chan-wook’s “Vengeance trilogy.” There were a couple years when Oldboy was my favorite film. I’d watch it twice a week and force all of my friends to sit through it when they came over for a beer. Kind of like when I watched Fight Club every day when I was fourteen. You get over it eventually. JSA came out before the vengeance trilogy, and it’s about a clandestine friendship that develops between North and South Korean soldiers stationed on the border between the two countries. When I visited South Korea, I was astounded by the naive optimism of many that the North would capitulate “any day now” and accept the marvels of capitalism. JSA takes this naivete and twists it, making the conflict about people rather than ideology. The ensuing tragedy is handled in a much less melodramatic way than any other film on the subject (I’m lookin’ at you, Taeguki). Fairly brutal critique of UN peacekeeping, too, I might add. Honorable mention: Kim Ki Duk’s 3 Iron.

Spirited Away

Miyazaki is good; you don’t need me to tell you that. Along with a few other anime directors and one or two from France (Michel Ocelot), he pretty much makes western animation completely obsolete for me: he uses computers to enhance cel-filmography rather than replace it. His colors are vibrant, his environments dynamic. I don’t know if Spirited Away is better than Princess Mononoke, but I think it strikes the perfect balance between engaging both adults and children without insulting or boring either. In a country whose animation is dominated by male power fantasies (sometimes subverted) and demon sex, Miyazaki makes coming-of-age films about young women warriors. They’re sensitive, funny, and immersed in that same struggle between tradition and modernity that I loved in Yi Yi. Honorable mention: Ocelot’s Kirikou and the Sorceress.

Mulholland Drive

If this were a list from the 80s or 90s, this position would be in heated contention between Cronenberg and Lynch—that is when both of the dark, postmodern directors created their best work. We are by no means settling with our pick of Mulholland Drive, though. Every hipster you know has his or her “perfect” “solution” to the “puzzle” the film presents (actually my friend Max has the best one). What do you need to know? It’s a critique of Hollywood from someone who’s seen the worst of it. It’s got dream logic, symbolism, Illuminati, and imagery-for-imagery’s-sake. Lynch always uses that stilted, awkward acting… so what happens when he breaks down his personal fourth wall for the scene where Naomi Watts is auditioning for a soap opera? It gets hot. Honorable mention: Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises.

Children of Men

Science fiction is my favorite genre, narrowly beating out gangster film. That said, I can’t think of many innovative science fiction films from the 2000s. They remain, for the most part, neoliberal escapist fantasy. Also, the 2000s were dominated by zombie films—third-rate zombie films. Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men came along just before the recent rash of post-apocalyptic media. First: its cinematography is grainy and frenetic. The long takes during the assault on the car and the escape from the farm house are more tense than most action films. There’s a healthy dose of intrigue, mixed with advocacy for marijuana in a world where half our population is medicated, mixed with a critique of British and American treatment of illegal immigrants. Unlike many notable science fiction films of the decade, it knows how to splice its final, insane glimmer of hope with the tragic loss of its protagonist. Remember, this is the guy who did Y Tu Mama Tambien and a Harry Potter flick (talk about range). Honorable mention: Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris.

Talk to Her

What do you want out of a Pedro Almodovar film? You want a flamboyantly gay, Spanish David Lynch film. My favorite of his is definitely 1999’s All About My Mother. My dad was raised Catholic, so nothing really beats sitting down with him to watch a film about prostitutes, an absent father, and a pregnant nun with AIDS. Talk to Her, on the other hand, is much more restrained. It’s about two women locked in comas and how the men in their lives deal with it. One of them was a female matador, a core icon for the director. It runs a gamut of sexual perversion from rape (with a question mark) to shrinking men who live inside vaginas (with an exclamation point), but this kinkiness is matched with Almodovar’s deep compassion and the pinnacle of his pacing abilities. One of my least favorite films of the decade? Almodovar’s Volver.


The takeaway, for my friends who study games, is this: it’s time for social realism to fall out of favor in the cinema, and it’s time for social realism to dominate the videogame industry. Thanks for reading, and I hope I named some good ones you hadn’t heard of to look up on Netflix. Please feel free to engage me in dialogue about the choices or my somewhat vague explanations in the comments—I wanted to keep the main body short for casual readers.


Double Life of Infinite Undiscovery

Posted in Film, Game Analysis by Simon Ferrari on August 7, 2009

In my mind, Infinite Undiscovery is the greatest Japanese RPG of this console generation.

Truth be told, it is the only JRPG I’ve played this generation. Winner by default.


Okay, I lied. I did try Eternal Sonata for about two hours before deciding not to play it anymore: I fought one unwinnable boss encounter, then killed a real boss, and then ran into random encounters with angel goats that could kill me in two hits. I realized I needed to grind a few levels to continue, and I thought to myself: “They still do this shit?” Unwinnable bosses are lame, because they encourage you to waste your time (and mega-elixirs) trying to win. Grinding is lame, because it’s a sign of exploitative, lazy pacing. Infinite Undiscovery has no unwinnable boss encounters, no need for farming or grinding, and no fast travel. I’ve written about fast travel before—I don’t think it’s an unalloyed evil, but (following Forrester’s description of the negative effects of an interstate system in Urban Dynamics) I hold that it encourages lax world design and “game sprawl.” For proof, play Morrowind and Oblivion back-to-back.

Infinite Undiscovery features a tightly designed world map with numerous paths between key areas and a healthy dose of backtracking. Backtracking can be done well—in Dead Space, for instance, it worked because new enemies and hazards were added whenever the player had to pass back through a space—but usually it’s done poorly (for instance, I don’t fancy how Metroid Prime handles it). Infinite Undiscovery handles backtracking passingly, but they blow it in the end with this miserable, albeit entirely optional, “Seraphic Gate” dungeon that forces you to run back through a masochore mashup of most of the maps from the actual game on brutally-hard mode… with only one save point. My favorite ancillary design choice for this game is how the menu is implemented. When players enter a menu, the game doesn’t pause itself. Instead, the player’s party forms a circle and sits cross-legged as if around a fire. In this state they are vulnerable to surprise attack, but as this is a hack-and-slash RPG you can almost always see enemies coming. The best part about this is that you can craft things while sitting in the menu; a cook character can heat up a kettle inside the party’s circle, and then the party can share the benefits of whatever food items you create with each other. Little touches of social realism like this are often sorely lacking in Japanese RPGs.

Here is where I’m going to do something I don’t usually do: a strictly narratological analysis. Despite most accounts (including those of the creators), the title of the game actually does make sense; unfortunately, the meaning can’t be explained without giving away the secret of the connection between the game’s two protagonists, Capell and Sigmund. This is where you stop reading if you care about spoilers.

One of my running questions throughout the game was: “Is this a game about privilege—an escapist fantasy for the oppressed?” Characters called “the unblessed” are chastised and evicted from major cities simply from a coincidence of their birth—they were born during a new moon and thus did not receive a mystical brand called a lunaglyph from the god Veros, who watches over the world from his palace on the moon. The rulers of each city-state in Infinite Undiscovery are called Aristos, men and women who have shuffled off their mortal coil and been resurrected as avatars of Veros’ lunar energy. “Meags,” or humans with lunaglyphs who aren’t worthy of ascending to the Aristo-cracy, receive gifts such as they ability to light dark spaces but are vulnerable to becoming “vermified.” The moon on which Veros lives has been chained to the planet by a mysterious cult called the Order of Chains, and as the moon draws nearer it begins emitting lunar rain. Lunar rain feeds the energy of the lunaglyph inside a meags’ body, and as lunar energy accrues within them they will either die (if they are weak) or become insane, invisible monsters (if they are your party members). Only the unblessed can see Vermiforms, but only meags can hurt them.

As it turns out, Veros is in fact an evil god on par with FFVII‘s Jenova: the chains are of his own creation, and he seeks to collide with the planet in order to destroy it, thus freeing himself from servitude as its patron deity. Meags are incapable of damaging a chain, as both they and it are imbued with lunar energy. Only an unblessed hero, an unlikely eventuality due to their chastisement and poverty, has the potential to free the world from Veros’ influence. As it turns out, Capell and Sigmund “the Liberator” are two such unblessed heroes.

The relationship between Capell and Sigmund, a secret unraveled near the end of the game, raises a more pressing question: “Is this The Double Life of Veronique: The Videogame?” For those unfamiliar with Krzysztof Kieslowski’s work, The Double Life of Veronique is one of the Polish master’s later films. It precedes Three Colors (his trilogy on the values of the French Revolution) and follows closely on the heels of The Decalogue (a Polish television miniseries on the Ten Commandments and contemporary life). These films were all scored by the Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner. Preisner’s music is important in creating the oppresive atmosphere in all three of the works, but in Three Colors: Blue and Veronique it is absolutely vital, because these films are both about musicians. Wikipedia summarizes the plot of the Veronique much better than I ever could, so:

The film follows the lives of a young woman first in Poland, Weronika, and then a young woman in France, Véronique, both played by Irène Jacob. Though unrelated, the two appear identical, share many personality traits, and seem to be aware of each other on some level, as if they are doppelgangers, but except for a brief glimpse through a bus window in Krakow, they never meet. After Weronika sacrifices everything in the pursuit of a singing career, Véronique abandons her own similar goal because of poor health and attempts to find an independent course for her life, while becoming involved with a manipulative man who is fascinated by clues to her double nature. The man is a puppeteer and maker of marionettes, helping raise the questions that are central to the film: is there such a thing as free will, or is it up to a creator of some kind, or is it just a matter of chance that one acts and thinks as one does?

Capell and Sigmund appear physically identical, they are both unblessed, they are the same age, and they are both skilled flautists. Throughout the game you constantly wonder about the secret origins of Capell’s birth and subsequent orphanage. Capell is something of a layabout; because of extensive bullying by meags early in his life, he has no ambitions. He seems content to play the part of a penniless, wandering musician. Sigmund, on the other hand, is “the Liberator”; he has raised an army tasked with the goal of destroying the chains and the mysterious Order behind their creation. He has forsaken his musical abilities and pursued an independent course for his life (much like Veronique), but the process of destroying the chains has begun to weaken his body (again, much like Veronique). Capell and Sigmund are separated by combat prowess and the pitch of their voices. Although physically weaker, Capell can use the power of his flute to weave a few somewhat useful (though largely neglected) magical auras. A major turning point in the game comes when Sigmund dies and Capell takes on his mantle; then, later, Capell’s voice grows cold and deeper following a tragedy, and he begins developing the battle moves that only Sigmund once possessed.

The intuitive answer to the connection between Capell and Sigmund would be that the two are twin brothers separated at birth, but, as it turns out, Sigmund is actually Capell’s father. Sigmund was once an Aristo, the king of a fallen city-state that the Order of Chains now claim as their home. His former life essentially ended when his wife gave birth to Capell under a new moon: two Aristos had just given birth to an unblessed. The queen committed suicide for shame, they sent the baby away to die in the wilderness, and Sigmund sought to free himself from his bondage to the cruel lunar god. Sigmund underwent a ritual to remove the lunar energy from his body, requiring a corporeal regression to the state he was at the moment he first received a lunaglyph: he became a baby again (hence the name Infinite Undiscovery), the same age as his estranged son.

Thus, the god Veros becomes an inverse of Veronique‘s puppeteer boyfriend. Sigmund commits the greatest ontological act of free will by divorcing himself from this divinity. Kieslowski leaves the connection between his protagonists to a metaphysical riddle about our supposed uniqueness as individual people, while the creators of Infinite Undiscovery make the connection between its doppelgangers literal through their narrative twist of reincarnation. My question for you is: how could the creators of this game not have drawn inspiration from that film?

Filmic Connections, the Dead & the Needing-to-be-Shot

Posted in Film, Gaming by Simon Ferrari on May 3, 2009

Responding to this post by my man LB Jeffries; re-posting here so I’ll remember it.

Only two arguments with this. First: “And yet in a video game it is ourselves we care about. It is our own character or the person we are playing with whom we connect first.”

That isn’t a distinguishing characteristic, and it isn’t necessarily true, either. Ebert is wrong to say it’s “the people” that are important in film. Most films ask you to identify with a single protagonist and stick with them despite their actions. The body count metaphor for success you use is echoed exactly in Falling Down with Michael Douglas, and any number of spaghetti westerns. The unique thing isn’t that these same systems aren’t represented, but that you can force the player to confront their own actions (physically, as they hold the controller) rather than the actions of somebody else who they’ve only identified with mentally/emotionally. My thinking here probably has something to do with the fact that my favorite games and films are the ones that attempt to manipulate your identification with the protagonist.

Second: it never struck me until today that Steve Gaynor’s description of the immersion model is basically the summary of how to create travelogue cinema verite documentary films. I suppose this isn’t so much an argument with either you or him, but perhaps something we should study if we hope to achieve this wonderful Promised Land where AI doesn’t totally suck and do and say the same stupid things with every playthrough. Certainly the illusion of spontaneity is there if you’re willing to bite, but game AI still usually follows the rules of “if the player can’t tell it’s stupid, make it stupid to save cycle counts.” We need to get to a stage where we’re willing to give up narrative continuity and a few really great textures to waste processing power on AI that’s disruptive and therefore enlightening.

Also, Celia Pearce and Henry Jenkins came up with the idea of game design as narrative architecture a really, really long time ago. It’s a shame to attribute it to anyone else.

Finally, this article is a really great summary of the pieces you’re covering, but I don’t think any of these pieces are attacking the questions we need to answer (with the exception of positing procedural rhetoric as our analogue for editing, which I think is an important connection). For instance, how are all the psychoanalytic connections we’ve made in film over the past 40 years altered by games? We could write for a lifetime just analyzing these differences (there are quite a number of feminist game theorists doing just that, but these ideas have yet to enter popular writing).

You mention Mirror’s Edge, right? So the other day this incoming 1st year is talking to me about the male gaze in Mirror’s Edge and Portal. And I ask, but the game camera and the cameras watching the female protagonists are different. How do you address the fact that Glados is female? How is the first-person camera acting different following the fact that we are identifying explicitly as female? Do we necessarily sexualize/objectify a female protagonist if she’s in third-person camera, or only when the creators want us to (ie Lara Croft’s muddy bottom in Underworld)? So here’s a short conversation in which Laura Mulvey’s idea of visual pleasure in the cinema is completely destroyed by the examples of two games. These are the filmic connections that are important to distinguish between and analyze.

Cut scenes and linearity in games have been dying for awhile. Time to put some bullets into the kneecaps of other cinematic tropes we’ve carried over.

EDIT: I’m actually working on killing one cinematic trope next semester: the idea of a continuity of space established by Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lev Kuleshov in early Soviet Montage film and then carried over directly into the shifting frames of Adventure and Zelda. Not going to tell you how I’m going to do it; gotta figure out how to program it first, then I’ll show you!

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Left 4 Dead and Mutual Reliance

Posted in Film, Game Analysis, Papers, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on March 3, 2009

Assignment: analyze a videogame as if it were a cinematic artifact.

Sergei Eisenstein, a Russian constructivist filmmaker and theorist interested in the idea of intellectual montage, conceived of editing as the major method available to a filmmaker for conveying ideas to a viewer. Left 4 Dead, a 1st person cooperative survival shooter, must rely on something other than editing in order to convey its rhetoric of mutual reliance to players, because it presents a seamless cinematic experience with little editing akin to the long takes celebrated by Andre Bazin. The game communicates its message through redundant visual and sound cues.

This article deals with the construction of the videogame Left 4 Dead (referred to as L4D) as a cinematic experience. This analysis draws from the fields of visual rhetoric and sound design in both cinematic and ludic arts.

L4D is an important recent example of the first-person shooter and survival horror genres. Relevant games in these genres include Half Life 2 and the Resident Evil series, respectively. Specifically, my analysis of the construction of this cinematic artifact will show how a redundancy of visual and sound cues, in the form of image overlay and sound effects, works to encourage players to depend on each other for survival.

Visual Rhetoric and Cinema
All media use rhetoric in order to convey an argument or expression. For a film or a videogame, this rhetoric does not have to come, as one might believe, from explicit dialogue between characters. “Visual rhetoric” – the way that images express or argue – is a term that can be generally applied to any film or film theory. As explained by Ian Bogost, videogames have procedural rhetoric to work with as well as visual; this is the ability to express an idea through the very programming of the game; however, for now we will consider L4D as a cinematic work.

Bazin’s Objective Reality
Film theorist Andre Bazin is best remembered today for his “auteur theory” – the idea that great directors employ unique styles and techniques that can be examined across their career. His other major contribution to film theory is a visual-rhetorical argument that deep focus and long takes will somehow construct “objective reality.” The shots Bazin loves can best be described as “exploratory,” such as the multi-layered, wandering sequence during the party scene in The Rules of the Game. This is convenient for us considering we often use the word “exploratory” to describe our engagement with the kind of realtime 3D spaces constructed by a game such as Left 4 Dead.

Bazin’s theory explains the aesthetic pleasure we experience when playing Unfortunately the notion of “objective reality” does more to idealize and celebrate cinematic artistry than to explain how a sequence of images can convey an idea; thus, we move to another school of film theory in our search for understanding.

Montage: from Kuleshov to Eisenstein
One tool for conveying an argument in the cinema comes from the style known as Soviet Montage. Theories of montage began with studies by Lev Kuleshov exploring how editing can communicate cues for understanding space, time, and action linkages between shots – the “Kuleshov effect.” Pudovkin’s early films employed this version of montage: he conceived individual shots as “bricks” to be constructed into a cohesive structure.

Eisenstein moved the theory of montage forward by recognizing that editing could also make arguments. Taking a cue for Marx’s version of Hegelian dialectics, he saw montage not as construction (piecing together “bricks”) but as conflict (among “cells”). Simply by placing two compositionally or conceptually disparate images together in a sequence, Eisenstein was able to convey complex ideas about the struggle of the proletariat against the Tsar.

Because Left 4 Dead is an almost seamless first-person experience (it does cut to a 3rd-person view when your character is restrained by a Smoker enemy or hanging onto the edge of the level geometry), it cannot rely on editing to convey its argument about mutual reliance. Soviet Montage films were created before the advent of sound in the cinema, but in order to explain how L4D functions as cinema we must also take its sound design into consideration (Stockburger, 176).

Redundancy, Not Always a Bad Thing
The art of redundancy is one aspect of montage theory that I believe helps explain how L4D work. In many of Eisenstein’s works, he capture individual actions multiple times from different angles and then edits them together. This helps place emphasis on the action, highlighting its intentionality and consequences. L4D employs a redundancy of visual and sound cues in order to make its argument for mutual reliance between players. This is to say, information about the world is conveyed to player/viewers in an overlapping, cooperative way.

An Artificial Image: HUD and Overlay

The HUD is something I ignored in my discussion of L4D as a photographic image, but it bears mention now. A HUD is an artificial construct placed “between” the visual representation of a game’s action and the player. In L4D the HUD communicates information about the status of one’s teammates: their health and their inventory. This information is redundant, because it can also be gleaned simply by looking at them: they stagger when they’re injured, and one can see their equipment strapped to their belts.

Working together, the HUD and the visible state of the player avatars help one quickly gauge the state of the team before a firefight. A visibly staggering avatar, or a character displaying a health bar “in the red” on the HUD, sets the pace for the team. Leaving her lagging behind or unprotected will result in her imminent death and a weakening of the team; therefore, the image itself encourages the other players to protect her.

Finally, the HUD also informs players if they are currently being attacked from behind or the side. This primarily informs one to turn and beat off the attacker oneself, but in some situations it acts as an important cue to announce multi-angle attacks over the headset so that a teammate can direct their fire to assist the overwhelmed character.

“Backlit” haloes, a form of artificial image overlay, communicate various types of information to a viewer/player depending on their hue. Blue haloes (0:39 in the video) stand in for teammates whenever one’s view of them is blocked by level geometry. This both enhances tactical knowledge and encourages players to keep track of each other, because characters too far away can be easily incapacitated before a teammate can run to help. Blue halos also surround items such as ammunition, bombs, and medpacks concealed by darkness. Carefully distributed by the game’s AI Director, such items are essential to surviving upcoming encounters; therefore, the game clearly wants players to be able to find them without undue searching in shadowy recesses.

Other haloes appear around teammates when they become adversely affected. An orange halo (0:46) means that the player has recently been blinded by Boomer bile, constrained by a Smoker’s tongue, or pinned down by a Hunter. If constrained or pinned, a character must be rescued quickly by a teammate or suffer incapacitation. If an avatar has been blinded by bile, hordes of Infected will be attracted to them. This cues one to pay attention to this player and defend them from multiple angle of attack. Players blinded by bile lose the ability to see overlay haloes on top of the general decrease in visual clarity, so the orange halo also serves in this case to alert others that they must communicate with the blinded character to avoid friendly fire.

A red halo surrounds a character who has been incapacitated or a Hunter currently pinning someone (0:46). An incapacitated character will slowly bleed to death on the floor unless another player runs over to help them stand up. Thus, we see that the green, yellow, and red of the stoplight have been modified here to become the blue (all safe), orange (caution), and red (stop everything and help) haloes. Despite the wealth of information provided by image overlay, it only becomes truly redundant when sound effects have been added to the cinematic experience.

Diegetic and Non-Diegetic Sound
Sound design stands as one of the most important components of AAA videogames, the elusive capstone to a work that can either make or break its market and critical success. In survival horror games, designers use sound expressively to convey feelings of danger or uncertainty: even a sudden lack of non-diegetic music in these games communicates to a player (usually, it’s an upcoming surprise scare). In this respect, Left 4 Dead conforms to the norms of the genre; however, added levels of detail in this game hammer in the message of mutual reliance through redundancy of cues and match Stockburger’s definition of the spatialising “indexical function” of sound objects (208).

Most of the sounds in the game, including the unique growls of different types of Infected and character dialogue, are diegetic; only the crescendo is non-diegetic. “Crescendo” means exactly what one would think – a term coined by Valve to describe a climax in their game’s procedural soundtrack. L4D features three kinds of crescendo: horde (5:17 in the video), tank (3:05), and witch. All three of these send cues to the players that they must stick together (if they’ve been separated) and prepare a strategy for the encounter to come. In the case of the witch crescendo, there is also a diegetic element – the noise of her sobbing. This sound practically commands players to turn off their flashlights for fear of alerting the avoidable yet devastating killer (she incapacitates humans in one swipe).

A crescendo seems to lie somewhere in between Murch’s “flat” and “dimensional” audio-visions (xxii) it begins seconds before one can make visual confirmation of an attack (the sound of the door slamming coming before the image of it).

Humans Chatter, Infected Growl
Diegetic dialogue and sound effects lay at the heart of the game’s sound redundancy. The dialogue between characters in L4D has been lauded by critics and designers, and a fan of the game has even programmed Twitter feeds between bot accounts to emulate their simple banter.

When a player grabs ammo her character announces, “ammo over here!” When an Special Infected, such as a Hunter, spawns it emits its unique growl; this sound cue is then reinforced by dialogue stating, “Look sharp, I hear a Hunter!” A wounded character will not only begin to visibly stagger, but he will also call out to his teammates: “Ugh, I’m in a lot of pain… wait up for me!” These redundant sound effects constantly draw player/viewer attention to changes in the game state, while simultaneously making the avatars more “human.” This is how L4D embodies Chion’s synchresis (Murch, xix).

Because it is a seamless first-person experience without cinematic editing to express its argument (as in Soviet Montage films), Left 4 Dead relies on something other than editing in order to convey its rhetoric of mutual reliance to player/viewers. A redundancy of visual and sound cues, in the form of image overlay and sound effects, works to encourage players to depend on each other for survival.

As with even the most well-designed implementations, the redundancy of information in Left 4 Dead quickly becomes old to players who have experienced the game multiple times. For the rhetoric of mutual dependence, we can paraphrase Wittgenstein’s assertion about his own philosophy: once one understands the argument being made, they must abandon it as a ladder already ascended.

Once players have grasped the idea that they must stick together to survive, they are able to compete against the game’s AI at higher difficulties (higher degrees of realism in damage to the player) and concentrate on developing emergent narratives through their gameplay. The necessity of sometimes abandoning one’s teammates at the finale of a scenario has already been written about as a particularly difficult and heart-wrenching decision-making process – only after understanding the game’s argument would one even be able to see the game in this light.

[1]Murch, W. Foreword, in: Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, by Michel Chion. Columbia University Press, 1994, vii-xxiv.
[2]Stockburger, A. PhD Research into the Modalities of Space in Video and Computer Games. 2006, 175-206.

Newsgames and Documentary

Posted in Columns, Film, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on January 16, 2009
I know you’ve already looked at the title and exclaimed: “Cinema Envy!” Well step off it for a moment, because I’m not going to sit here and lament how newsgames “aren’t as good” as documentaries. Rather, I’d like to take a look at the various sub-genres of documentary in order to identify some room for new types of newsgames that we might not have seen yet. Along the way, I’ll make some  comparisons between works in both media. I promise not to analyze them using the same standards or theories. I’ll also try to avoid stepping on Ayo’s toes here, because she’s planning on upcoming post on the value of transparent bias and reflexivity in film and games


There are some games that are painfully reminiscent of the cliché of “talking head” documentaries. Ian and I examined a game called Homeland Guantanamos earlier in the semester about an alien (both legal and illegal) detention facility and one particularly troubling death that took place there. What started out as an intriguing investigation simulation quickly turned into a series of poorly motivated fetch quests linking together video clips of interviews with detainees. The makers almost seem to have given up on editing a properly engaging documentary and instead “settled” on making a video game, a medium they apparently associate with sloppy narrative and multimedia-happy tedium. The idea of going into a detainment area for unwanted or criminally suspect aliens does however call to mind Fred Wiseman’s work on High School and Titicut Follies. These are basically one of the precursors (print muckraking or “yellow journalism” being the other) to investigative TV reporting.


Investigative journalism works in any medium – for a time. By transposing oneself onto the camera’s POV, both Wiseman films and investigative news allow one to gain access to secret or contested spaces; however, recent studies have shown that TV viewers are perceiving such “soft journalism” as a poor turn for television news. And we don’t see documentaries like Born Into Brothels or Iraq In Fragments causing the same amount of public commotion as did Titticut Follies, which – along with works such as Foucalt’s Discipline and Punish – raised widespread concern over the well-being of people held in mental health facilities.

Perhaps its time for serious games to step up to the plate and take on the muckraking mantle? I don’t think it’s diminutive to say that what counts as soft news in TV and film is much “harder” than most of the material one comes across in video games: it’s a nice place to start and develop from. Video games simulate processes and spaces better than any other medium, and they grant a modicum of control that aids engagement with an issue. What I’m saying is, Homeland Guantanamos could have been a really important newsgame. If a game similar to Molleindustria’s McDonald’s tasked itself with focusing on one of its four mini-simulators, say the cattle processing plant, then something far more meaningful than an investigative report would emerge. PETA’s Mama Kills Turkeys pairs the familiar Cooking Mama sim with shocking video footage of poultry plants. This could have been a really persuasive piece, but the work falls mostly on deaf ears because the game itself doesn’t focus on the troubling part of the cultural phenomenon (namely, the mistreatment of animals in processing plants).


Moving on, “intimate” documentaries are an intriguing branch of the genre that we really don’t see converted into the newsgame medium. Art video games such as Jason Rohrer’s Gravitation and Passage seem to share a lot in common with the experimental home movies of Stan Brakhage, but this kind of document doesn’t really count as news. I’m talking more about games that would relate one person’s own point-of-view on a current or historical news story. If you’re my age, then you hear all the time about our parents were doing when they heard about Kennedy’s assassination or the Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. Lots of films dealing with the period call upon these nostalgic moments, so it’d be exciting to play a game that simulates the feeling of anxiety or wonder at watching these events unfold.

Ross McElwee makes some of my favorite intimate documentaries, and he deals with many issues that would fit comfortably within “serious” gaming: love, death, religion. His Sherman’s March starts off as an exploration of the historical event and quickly spirals off into his own march through legions of “eligible” Southern bachelorettes. It might seem like I’m harping for more first-person perspectives in newsgames, but it seems like the metaphor used in McElwee films is an entertaining and accessible way to approach historical and current issues. One game called Medieval Unreality, a collection of personal reflections on blood feuds in Albania created as an Unreal mod, replicates this model (in a necessarily less humorous way than McElwee). What we have here is a violent FPS being turned into a non-violent, collaborative meditation on loss and reconciliation – accomplished through metaphor and evocative imagery.


Next, some documentaries seek to muddy the waters of truth and falsity about a news event. The Thin Blue Line and Capturing the Friedmans are some good examples of this. The latter reminds me of a nightmarish nonfiction version of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, where each new firsthand account of a supposed mass molestation brings the viewer further and further away from understanding the “facts” of what happened. A game like Kuma’s John Kerry’s Silver Star Mission could have accomplished something like this. The company claims that their game will “present the player with the facts needed to decide what happened” the day Kerry supposedly ran a swiftboat nose-first into an embattled beach and shot a fleeing Viet Cong at great personal risk. In the middle of Kerry’s presidential race, conflicting perspectives on what exactly occurred during that mission arose and brought into question whether or not he deserved his Silver Star. Instead of showing both accepted and dissenting versions of the events, the game simply regurgitates Kerry’s own story.


Another example, closest to the goal of The Thin Blue Line, is the JFK Reloaded game that seeks to show how hard it would have been to make the Oswald’s killing shot from the depository. This was to be the world’s first “mass-participation forensic construction” of a historical crime, and a contest was held to see who could get closest to matching the conditions claimed in the Warren Commission. Ian’s written before about the shaky ground on which video “evidence” stands in court cases and the rising acceptance of simulations in courtrooms, and I’ve also read a bit about the Innocence Project that seeks to get convicts off of death row by exposing flaws in their legal proceedings. Newsgames dealing with such contested court cases seem to be an obvious direction for such simulations to develop.

Finally, many newsgames seem to follow the “Michael Moore” style of wildly biased “documentary” work. Moore’s early work on Roger and Me and The Big One cast the director as a crusader for the underdog on a highly personal quest. For a few years, it was touching to see him approach the business leaders he criticized with pleas for their participation in the work. Since Bowling for Columbine, these pleas have struck a discordant tone with more and more viewers – raising such questions as, “is a senile old bat like Charlton Heston really the bad guy here?”


I personally think that September 12th makes its argument against “tactical bombing” pretty well, but that might only be because I already agree with its premise. Someone trained in counterterrorism or ballistics might have good reason to disagree with this premise – namely, it’s blatantly reductionist and it doesn’t propose an alternative solution to the war on terror. Some of Molleindustria’s work can also be seen in this light. See my post on their McDonald‘s game and how it ignores some verification work that might otherwise strengthen its model. These games are most similar to Moore’s Sicko and Fahrenheit 9/11: we know what they’re arguing against – and they do it well – but whether we agree with them in the end is usually reliant on the opinions we enter into playing/watching them with.

These Moore documentaries, and the newsgames I’m comparing them, work because their bias is transparent. Moore’s habit to skew the order of certain timelines in his films aside, everybody knows what they’re getting into when they pay ten dollars for a ticket. As long as the makers of these newsgames don’t actively seek to decieve their players, then I can’t see anyone mounting a strong opposition to them based on bias. Newsgames aren’t satisfied with presenting facts. Unlike traditional print and TV news, they task themselves with persuading players to see an issue their way. It might be necessary to take a more nuanced or balanced approach – presenting both sides of a contentious subject matter and letting the player decide which is more plausible – before we see these games make any converts.

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