Chungking Espresso

Desert of the Real

Posted in Columns, Newsgames by Simon Ferrari on June 8, 2009

Today we take a slight detour from our series on editorial games to celebrate an editorial machinima of exceptional quality, produced by everyone’s favorite editorial game creator: La Molleindustria’s Paolo Pedercini. Simultaneously posted on Bogost’s News Games blog.

InTheSand

It isn’t easy writing about thinking, talking, or writing about machinima. One of my professors (Michael Nitsche, who I just found out is heavily cited on the Wikipedia entry on the subject) is hopelessly obsessed with augmented reality and digital performance, so last semester he dragged us through the “serious” machinima canon in an effort to inspire us into creating cinematic experiences within the 3D prototype worlds we were creating. I can honestly say that I don’t remember a single one of them, except perhaps the fact that many featured Half Life 2‘s G-Man. Comedy is there, as evidenced by the broad popularity and honing of craft achieved by Rooster Teeth’s Red vs. Blue, but I’ve yet to see a dramatic or serious piece that worked for me.

I admit that I’m being a snob about this—I can’t quite get past the fact of my film history and video editing education, and I know I’m judging these works unfairly by cinematic standards. Even when they’re made by people who are serious about pushing what’s possible with the form, they’re not made by filmmakers—they’re made by videogame fans with their own goals, standards, conventions, and communities. (Author’s Note: This is me prodding you to write about machinima if you care about gamer-based videogame interpretations, by the way.) Sometimes, they’re made by artists who already have the skills to make mods and games of their own, yet choose to express themselves in machinima form. This work is a vital counterpoint to the fan-based production that drives the bulk of machinima development (we must attack the middle-brow from both above and below, as they say).

FaithFighter2
Paolo Pedercini, the mind behind the anti-entertainment videogame cooperative La Molleindustria, recently revamped his brawler about religious hatred, Faith Fighter, to accommodate complaints from numerous Islamic organizations and news media companies. The result was Faith Fighter 2, a parodic appropriation of Gonzalo Frasca’s “commemoration mechanic” from Madrid: click on numerous gods from the first game to feed them with love and prevent their memories from fading away. When you fail, you’re treated to the claim that many made against Paolo himself: “Game Over: You failed to respect a religion, and now the world is a total mess!” Contrary to popular belief, it was in fact possible to “win” Madrid by filling up a meter in the bottom of the screen. It may be possible to keep a game of Faith Fighter 2 going indefinitely (I certainly can’t click fast enough to do so), but it doesn’t appear to have an end. At some point the player must slow down or give up, prompting the Game Over. This is clearly a self-deprecating rhetoric of failure from Paolo: when you deal with religion, you’re going to “lose” no matter what you do.

I applaud Pedercini’s ability to swiftly respond to the demands made of him with such intertextual snark, but I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t eagerly awaiting a legitimate follow-up to his Oiligarchy, which I see as his most significant work to date (largely because of the winning condition he snuck in). Last week I revisited his website to play some of his games that I’d missed (including an Italian-language “propaganda game” called Embrioni in fuga made before a national referendum on embryonic stem cell research… it is a Lemmings-like that I’ll examine in future discussions of the “editorial line” in games), and I was surprised to find out what he’d been working on lately: two videos and an installation!

The first video is an incisive, wistful, and often beautiful look at urban ecology and Craigslist’s “missed connections.” I love everything about it except the robotic voices used for reading the original Craigslistings in voiceover (which, if Paolo stumbles upon this, I’d enjoy reading the explanation for). The installation piece, called The 21st Century Home, appears to be a black-lit tarpolin wigwam zig-zagged with neon tape in order to replicate the aesthetics of Tron. Visitors (or players) stumble around in the “real virtuality” to another roboticized voice spewing pop philosophy about our transhumanist digital future. I think the robot voice works much better in this one, but I can’t really judge it all without experiencing it firsthand. Finally, to the subject of this article, the second video is (as you probably guessed by now) a machinima.

Sights

Welcome to the desert of the real isn’t the first politically-charged machinima; however, it is probably the first one to compliment an identically-titled collection of essays by Slavoj Zizek. Zizek named his seminal essay on the mainstream US reaction to September 11th after a quote from Morpheus about the nature of The Matrix, which (of course) further referenced the Simulacres et Simulation of Baudrillard. Here Paolo filters his commentary on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars through another two layers of simulacra: a videogame, and the machinima filmed within that game. The subject of the work is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is a “counter-propaganda” video, recorded within the America’s Army wargame/military recruiting tool.

I know that I’m assessing a new form with an outmoded vocabulary, but I can conceive of no greater praise than to say that this 6-minute machinima feels like a distillation of Errol Morris’s Fog of War and Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (one of the greatest films of all time).  Spoilers follow.

An American soldier crawls forward over a dune with a sniper rifle (in third person perspective). We cut to a first-person point-of-view through the rifle’s sight, following an enemy combatant lazily traversing a ridge. Just when you think the protagonist (who is you, now) isn’t going to fire, a loud crack rings out and the screen fades to black. Returning to third-person, the protagonist leaves his rifle laying in the sand. After this follows a hallucinatory trek through the desert intercut by a series of questions, in text form, from the handbook on self-testing for PTSD in American veterans.

InquiringNuns

Call-and-response is a popular mechanic in documentary film: the earliest example I can remember of this sort is the 1968 film Inquiring Nuns, in which two nuns walked the streets of Chicago asking people, “Are you happy?” Pedercini replaces the call portion of the call-and-response with those from the PTSD checklist, and he replaces the response with a segment of the aimless trek through the desert.  He essentially subverts the rhetorical query (“Are you happy?”)—to a viewer who could either be a gamer or a veteran—with a suggestive one: “You aren’t happy, are you?” I can personally relate to the question pictured below, having suffered for years now from increasingly violent nightmares that force me to wake up suffering from heavy breathing and chest pain (of course, I don’t think that Paolo is saying these questions apply equally to gamers, or that all gamers endure the same dreams that I do). One of the questions “Feeling emotionally numb and incapable of loving feelings?” reminds me of the problem of Everquest Divorces.

PTSDIntertitle

Remember that Molleindustria’s stated goal is to subvert the entertainment industry’s influence on the videogame medium. This is a very Zizekian mission in itself—the scabrous philosopher holds that dominant ideology completely structures the subject even in an era when we’re increasingly cynical and aware of its functioning. One could argue that a machinima about PTSD is irrelevant by now, that we’ve all known about it for years now. But Pedercini asks us to recognize an analogous condition: gamers also suffer from a kind of PTSD, a mental dulling following prolonged exposure to videogames that encourage violence without reflection. The America’s Army games, in which the mission is never justified nor questioned and everyone plays “the good guy” (American troops) in various roles, are an obviously egregious contributor to this ludic ideology (as detailed in Bogost’s Persuasive Games and Halter’s From Sun Tzu to XBOX).

Fog of War isn’t an exact match for how the intertitles work in Welcome, but I feel that they are relatively close in spirit and form. Morris’s work is composed of a series of lessons (as opposed to questions) from former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, focusing on what he has learned after a lifetime of studying and waging war. McNamara’s final lesson from his original eleven on the Vietnam War is as follows:

“We failed to recognize that in international affairs, as in other aspects of life, there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions … At times, we may have to live with an imperfect, untidy world.”

This in fact roughly equates with the message of Zizek’s writing on post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy: America must recognize its cultural imperialism and acknowledge that the choices and solutions we’ve established to the event thus far are completely reactionary, obscuring the reality of the situation and the way out. It’s possible that Paolo is saying something similar about mainstream games and their solutions to the demands to “grow up” from academics and highfalutin critics. On the one hand we get “tactical shooters” that replicate the immediate physical repercussions of gunfighting while still ignoring other consequences and assumptions. On the other, we could argue that something like Bioshock attempts to reflect on the nature of violence through the form of the shooter, but we’d be lying to ourselves if we asserted that the game didn’t end up valorizing it in the end—plasmids don’t provide ways around direct conflict, but different flavors of mutual slaughter. Neither tactical nor pseudo-philosophical violence is the answer to the goal of making games more serious, honest, mature, artful, etc. As the original Faith Fighter argues, violence as a primary mechanic must be subverted instead of “improved.”

TasteCherry

Welcome to the desert of the real reminds me of Taste of Cherry mostly because of its minimalism, spare color palette, meandering non-narrative, and extreme take length (which are typical of many of his films). Most machinima adhere to what we would identify as a postmodern editing style of incredibly short takes: taking a look at a random selection of works on Machinima.com, I clocked an average take length of 2 seconds. Red vs. Blue, having been refined and developed over time, has a longer average at around 5 seconds. Welcome features an 11-second average shot length, truly the machinima equivalent of the extremely long take practiced by Kiarostami (at least by current standards). The takes pulse like a cardiogram: they begin at around 8 seconds, reach a crescendo of over 20 seconds just prior to an intertitle, and then drop back down.

Taste of Cherry deals with problem of suicide in the Muslim world. Suicide is incredibly taboo in predominately Muslim countries, especially those with theocracies (Kiarostami is Iranian). Having decided to take his life, the protagonist (Mr. Badii) of Taste of Cherry wanders the dusty landscape for roughly two hours trying to find someone to cover his body after he dies. Badii has crossed a religious Rubicon with his decision, leaving him in a walking Purgatory between life and death. A similar problem confronts the protagonist of Welcome—once a soldier has killed for her country, what is the rest of her life going to be like? Once a gamer decides to put the gun (controller) down, what is there to think, say, or do? Taste of Cherry finishes with a short meta-documentary on the filmmaking process cued to Louis Armstrong’s Saint James Infirmary Blues, while many veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars find themselves dealing with mental and physical health issues by the end of their tours of duty.

I’m not saying the experiences of war and war gaming are the same, only that they are essentially subject to the same dominant ideologies. Once you’ve begun to combat the structuring of your subject, how long will it be before you find a new social frame to latch onto? “What comes next” is the nagging question La Molleindustria continually strives to answer for our medium.

Horizon

Welcome to the desert of the real ends where David Byrne’s True Stories begins: a frame split like a Rothko painting, the horizon line perfectly dividing ground and sky. Such a shot connotes new beginnings and infinite uncertainty for the future. I’m left with one lingering question: Pedercini uses the PTSD checklist as a cinematic and  metaphorical framework, but would we actually want to try to make a videogame that emulated a light form of PTSD in the player? How would we go about doing this? Would it be ethical to do so, simply to make a political point or allow empathic access to the mindset of the mentally damaged veteran? I wonder if these are questions Paolo asked himself before deciding to create a machinima instead.

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