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Mythic Dimensions: Digital Technology and Performative Art
by Josh Marsfelder on 02/11/13 05:00:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Note: This is a crosspost from my personal blogs Forest of Illusions and Soda Pop Art.


Recently, I went to go see Peter Jackson and Weda Digital's latest opus The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in theatres. I enjoyed it, which should say something given what it takes to actually drag me *to* a movie theatre, let alone appreciate whatever's onscreen. I'm not going to talk about the movie itself here though: I'm far from a Tolkien fan so I have precious little investment in the plot or characters. Basically I thought it was an entertaining, if clunky and painfully padded, children's fantasy movie frequently weighed down by its desire to canonize itself with the fundamentally tonally incongruous Lord of the Rings trilogy. In other words it's just about a perfect film adaptation of the book.

 

No, what I primarily wanted to talk about is the other big thing that's been fueling discussion over The Hobbit for the past few months: The fact it was shot entirely in 3D and a “High Frame Rate” 48 frames per second (HFR). This has apparently made a great deal of people very angry, leading critics whose opinions I would otherwise tend to respect to make stupidly sweeping statements about “The Death of Cinema”. I'll deal with this argument a little later on, but for the moment let's focus on why someone would even want to shoot a movie this way in the first place.

 

For those who might not know, traditional movies are filmed in 24 frames per second. This has been the industry standard for, well, just about as long as there's been an industry. Now, the human eye processes information about the world at 60 frames per second, which means movies, and really any medium that is descended in some way from cinema (such as television, though crucially not typically video games) plays at a significantly slower speed then what we're used to in Real Life. Choosing to shoot a movie at a higher frame rate means filmmakers can by definition convey much more, and much more nuanced, visual information than was previously possible, meaning their movies will look much more naturalistic. Indeed, in a video blog about the choice to shoot the Hobbit trilogy in 3D/HFR, Peter Jackson described the experience, in the words of a pre-release screening group, to be as if the screen at the back of the theatre had been removed and replaced with a window into Middle Earth.

 

Jackson's comment reminded me of some things Shigeru Miyamoto had said in the past about the Legend of Zelda series. According to Miyamoto, the original Zelda game on the NES was originally built around the idea of a fantasy world inside a desk drawer, which makes a lot of sense if you stop and think about it: Imagine opening up your drawers and looking down at Hyrule and all those tiny little sprites-It's a wonderfully imaginative and very typically Miyamoto way of phrasing ideas. The original Zelda even helped to popularize a top-down perspective for action RPGs. Coincidentally enough, a year prior to the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Nintendo released a handheld console built around the concept of portable, glasses-free 3D video games, and one of the first marquee titles on that system was a 3D conversion of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

 

In a previous post I've already argued for the use of stereoscopic 3D in video games in strictly technical terms. To briefly summarise my earlier argument, I feel stereoscopic 3D, via the reintroduction of naturalistic depth perception, can help bring back some of our innate ability to orient ourselves in our surroundings that polygonal games lost due to their lack of kinesthesia and fixed, flat perspectives. This would prevent things like the troublesome platforming in Mirror's Edge and the godawful camera in Super Mario 64 (or indeed any other polygonal platformer to come in its wake: Despite a generation of gamers becoming accustomed to it, the problem's never gone away). Here though, I'm arguing from strictly aesthetic ground, because if anything felt like a literal window into a fantasy world it was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D running at full tilt with the 3D slider up all the way. 

 

Ocarina of Time 3D is one of the most visually stunning video games I've ever played and remains possibly the best showcase for the 3DS' kit to date. Hyrule has an unmistakeable depth and weight here, and running out onto the field at dawn as you shield your eyes from the realistic sun rays glinting above the horizon is a powerfully vivid experience that can be described as magical. Like so much about 3D, the beauty of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D comes subtly and in small moments, like sunrise on Hyrule Field or using the built-in gyroscope to aim Link's bow, a trick which really gives the sense the game exists in an actual place that's just on the other side of the 3DS, or perhaps more accurately a place that exists *within* the 3DS. It lives up to Miyamoto's pitch for the series like absolutely no other game in the series has: It truly feels like you're holding the gateway to a fantastic realm in your hands.

 

Despite how vivid and clever this effect was and how it was clearly designed to hold up the original guiding tenant for the series, you know what *didn't* happen during my playthrough of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D? I didn't trick myself into thinking I was Link trekking through Hyrule. I never forgot I was playing a video game. Likewise, when I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 3D/HFR I never forgot I was watching a movie. Apparently, if you listen to some critics, this is a major failing on the parts of both works and both Weda Digital and Grezzo should be absolutely ashamed of themselves. Indeed, this even seems to run contrary to Peter Jackson's own statements on the matter. Thing is, the way I see it both Jackson and the film critics are barking up entirely the wrong tree. Since the argument against 3D, and now HFR, is the most fully formed and bandied about the most in film critic circles, Jackson is most likely talking in marketing buzzwords and video game critics seem to mostly be parroting film critics (as opposed to gamers, who seem to be mostly being reactionary and opposed to any sort of change) it's the film critic version of the argument I'll focus on responding to.

 

Film critics seem to be having a bit of an identity crisis from where I stand. On the one, hand, there is, as always, a push and a desire for things to be as “realistic” as possible, hence the popularity of dark, anti-romantic and “cinematic” filmmaking techniques (see a similar trend in video games as publishers and developers race to improve graphics technology at all costs to make games look as much like movies as possible at the expense of everything else). On the other hand, there is a contingent of cinephiles who seriously argue that movies ought to be watched in a “dreamlike reverie” and only the combination of 35mm film and a 24 frames per second frame rate will achieve this. I guess we're supposed to be completely lost and overwhelmed by the rapturous cinematic spectacle of the director's vision...somehow...and anything else is nothing short of blasphemy. I've never experienced anything remotely resembling what these critics are proselytizing with any movie I've seen, but as someone who doesn't really enjoy movies all that much maybe I'm not the best person to be talking about this subject.

 

Even so though I find a lot of problems in this argument, especially as it relates to 3D/HFR. There is a belief that 3D is nothing more than a distraction and the enhanced detail of HFR makes everything look unnaturally fast and “hyper-real”. There is a legitimate technical argument to be made against the use of 3D in movies (see this article from the Chicago Sun Times), but this really isn't it and at least for me personally, 3D has done nothing but enhance my enjoyment of anything I've seen it used in in recent years. In regards to HFR though, rebutting this argument requires a great deal of technical explanation and knowledge about how eyes and the visual centre of the brain works. So it's a good thing Tested already did that then as I am neither an engineer nor a cognitive scientist (in brief, those bemoaning HFR's “hyper-realness” are frankly deluding themselves. Even the creator of Adobe Photoshop agrees with me).

 

As for the “dreamlike reverie” part of the argument, this actually gets at something that's a bit of a touchy subject for me. See, the flip side of this argument is that anything with an enhanced clarity of detail gets a negative reputation for looking “campy” and “theatrical” (say, a TV show), as opposed to being “cinematic” and “realistic” (like an old movie) which is, apparently, better. My good friend and colleague Phil Sandifer has already looked at this argument in the context of the switch from television being shot on film to television being shot on video tape here and here. When put this way then, the big film critic objection to 3D/HFR seems to actually be that the enhanced detail provided by the new digital technology breaks artifice and suspension of disbelief. In other words, it makes the movie look like a movie.

 

In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, most critics I read yelled and screamed about how HFR made Rivendell look like a Matte painting (which it was), the interior shots look like movie sets (which they were) the lighting look unnaturally harsh (which all movie lights have to be due to the nature of being movie lights) and the prosthetics look like rubber and plastic headpieces (which I shouldn't have to explain). This is apparently a Bad Thing. It's also an argument I simply cannot get behind: The Hobbit doesn't look “hyper-real”, it looks just plain *real*. This is demonstrably and provably what a movie set looks like, period. Putting aside the troubling and I sincerely hope self-evidently false possibility that some film critics don't know what a movie set looks like, this leaves the argument that movies shouldn't look staged because of a need to be “realistic” or, alternatively, to uphold some lofty ideal about the Magic of Cinema. I've always been opposed to the idea fiction has to be representationalist at all costs. To be blunt I think the fixation on making things look “cinematic” and “realistic” has been one of the most dangerous and distasteful trends in visual media and it irks me more than a little to see things assigned objective value because based on how cleverly they hide the fact they're make believe.

 

Because this is the thing: Movies and video games, despite what most people seem to want to believe, are not real things. They are facades; storytellers playing pretend. They've never been anything else, and they will never be anything else. Trying to cast them otherwise does nothing except fool people into thinking filmmakers who are being stupidly crass and hegemonic are actually representing reality, thus continuing to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and lead to dangerous assumptions such as thinking the reactionary and truly reprehensible Lincoln is actually a historically accurate biopic or that romantic comedies are an accurate representation of the way relationships and people in general work. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey are not windows into Hyrule or Middle Earth and they were never going to be: They're windows into a crude technological facsimile of what Weda Digital and Grezzo *imagined* those fantasy worlds to be like. Fictional worlds do not exist in and of themselves: They are imaginary spaces made real by the interaction of readers, writers and the works meant to act as representations of them.

 

Possibly my favourite video game of all time is The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. As a series, The Elder Scrolls has the intriguingly paradoxical reputation of being a trailblazer in immersive world building and for pushing the limits of game technology to such an extent each and every game is plagued by an incalculable number of glitches and bugs that range from hilarious to game-breaking and are frequently both at once. One could make the argument Skyrim fails as a work of fiction because the constant technical problems take players out of the game and it's world and keep players from getting “lost” in the dreamlike reverie, but I would sternly disagree: Never once have the glitches in Skyrim caused me to enjoy the game less as a work. Sure, I get upset if it randomly crashes and deletes hours of progress or spontaneously decides to make my save file unusable forcing me to start the whole game again, but I accept that as part of what Skyrim is because it posits a fantasy world that could only exist as a video game. Inexplicably levitating mammoths and farmers falling through the ground are as much a part of the world of Skyrim as dragons, wizards and Blakean Eldritch Abomination Dwarves. Skyrim is a game that embraces being a video game and all that comes with it, and that includes the glitches Skyrim is a game world in every sense of the word, but that's a topic to which we must return at a later date.

 

I have no problem accepting the fact that my movies and games are actually made by people with technology and imagination instead of Real Places I can escape to that magically come into being out of nothingness. In fact I think that's marvelous, because it just helps me get to know the creators more *as people* rather then aloof Gods. I celebrate the death of artifice instead of bemoan it because, in its dying throws, it reminds us that art, and all art by definition, is performative. Fiction and art cannot represent reality; they can't even be a 100% accurate depiction of any individual creator's vision. At best, all they can do is provide a brief, blurry glimpse into the minds of those who helped usher it into being or strike a chord with individual readersXplayersXaudience members to form an entirely unique kind of meaning.

 

In a famous and frequently circulated interview (well, comparatively so given the participants) philosopher Avital Ronell, a personal role model of mine, though she'd probably resent that label, flatly rejects the title of “Writer” or “Creator”, preferring instead to call herself a “writing being” or “secretary of the phantom”. For Ronell, writing is not something one, in the manner of a patriarchal God, makes happen and wills into existence. Rather, it can be more accurately described as the act of taking dictation from an incomprehensible ethereal force and trying one's hardest to throw up a facsimile that in some way could be construed as a crude representation or simulacrum of the original set of ideas. One does not “Write”, one is possessed and consumed by “writing”. Ronell compares those who write to drug addicts: Figures imbued with a manner of unreliability and social stigma who nonetheless have a grasp over a unique perspective and insight.

 

I love this description for a number of reasons: Firstly, as someone who identifies as a similar “writing being”, I can honestly and confidently state this is exactly what writing feels like for at least me personally. Secondly, it's a great argument for the inherent performativity of all forms of personal expression. Indeed, interviewer D. Diane Davis even uses that exact term when referring to Ronell's breakout work The Telephone Book, a piece designed to invoke static noise, contradictory information and the deconstruction and destruction of the book itself as a concept. A play doesn't represent reality and doesn't even try to: Its actors and stage sets are meant to *stand in* for things and situations the audience is familiar with and the real erudition comes from the interaction of all the pieces working together to create a larger, weirder whole. Just as Ronell says, any kind of creative endeavor, be it a book, a movie, a literary text, a journalistic piece, an ethnography, a video game or a blog post, works the same way, no matter how much certain people might wish to pretend otherwise. Personally, I find that a far more fascinating and inspiring concept then the idea our works of art and fiction spring magically fully-formed in the manner of Athena from the skulls of patriarchal Godlike Creators whose Works and Actions must be respected and worshiped in the same manner.

 

I think of all forms of modern media video games have the biggest potential to emphasize and reinforce this fact, which is part of the reason I'm bothered so much by the language from certain developers and critics that games need to be more “cinematic”. Due to the irreducible factor of player agency, by definition there's no way a video game can force a passive narrative or specific experience onto its audience, despite the efforts of some developers to do exactly that (but that's perhaps another post). Games are fundamentally set up as dynamic interactions between multiple parties at a very overt, literal level, so this performative thread shines through the brightest with them. For a good example of how developers can write this back into the text, let's look at one of the best spokesperson characters for games-as-plays around: Princess Peach Toadstool. Yes, it's once again time to do one of my signature hyper-redemptive readings of a character or text either nobody likes or has nobody has ever heard of.

 

But how, my indignant readers wail, do I think I can redeem Princess Peach of all gaming characters, the poster child for sexist, stock damsels-in-distress? Well, I respond, it's actually quite simple once you realise what the Super Mario games actually are. The common perception of the Mario games, most famously and succinctly articulated by Yahtzee Croshaw in articles such as this one, is that despite the original Super Mario Bros. (or Super Mario Bros. 3 depending on your preference) being an indisputable classic, it's a tepid and unchanging series that has somehow managed to last over 25 years telling the same basic story and rehashing the same basic game over and over again with absolutely no variation. Also, Peach is reprehensible because all she does is look pretty and get stupidly kidnapped, serves no purpose and lacks any personality or characterization, which would be a valid complaint were any of it actually true. The Mario series' lack of so-called gameplay innovation is one thing and an argument to be examined another day (and one I think might have merit, at least as it pertains to the games of the past decade or so), but Yahtzee's dead wrong when it comes to plot and here's why.

 

First of all, I'd mention that despite my universal disdain for any kind of kidnapping plot, King Bowser actually had a somewhat acceptable motivation for kidnapping Princess Peach in the first Super Mario Bros. and one most modern critics seem to have forgotten. See, what no-one remembers anymore is that in the story printed in the original manual, it's stated Princess Peach is an extremely powerful sorceress, possibly the most powerful in the entirety of the Mushroom Kingdom, and the *only* one with the power necessary to push back the Koopa invasion force and secure the land. Naturally, Bowser wants to seal her away where she can't do any damage so he can stomp over the Mushroom Kingdom uninhibited. Frankly, Peach is the one who saves the world in that game: You, Mario and Luigi, are just there to give her a hand and clear a path for her. Even if the plot of Super Mario Bros. made sense though, that doesn't explain or excuse all of Bowser's subsequent kidnappings of her, does it? Well, no it *wouldn't*, if he had done it again, as I'm inclined to argue Bowser never kidnapped Peach a second time, and even the first time is debatable.

 

Shigeru Miyamoto is not a hack writer. I mean I really don't think I should have to state this, but a lot of critical readings of Nintendo games seem to operate with this as an implicit fundamental premise for some reason. Even in the more recent games where he has little-to-no creative input, he still has to sign off on the game and let the developers know they're being somewhat loyal to his original vision. They have to be meeting his expectations to some extent, and unless he's a terrible writer there must be something more going on here. And indeed there is: Look *very* closely at the Super Mario games that came after the original, starting with the US version of Super Mario Bros 2 (A.K.A. Super Mario USA), the next game Miyamoto had a major hand in. The story is, as is well known, meant to be a dream, but the game opens up with a *curtain call* and you select your character by *shining a spotlight* on them. Super Mario Bros. 3 takes this to the logical extreme by not only having the title screen be a big stage with a curtain and props, but the level design itself looks like it's been built by stage hands, as there are conspicuous amounts of bolted-on scenery and scaffolding and Mario and Luigi even “exit, stage right” whenever the level ends. The Super Nintendo games Super Mario WorldXSuper Mario Bros. 4 and Yoshi's Island take a slightly different tack by opening with fairy-tale narration, but the main point is still there: These games are stories being retold via the act of playing them.

 

I think it should be obvious what the logical conclusion to all this is: The Super Mario games are plays, and Mario, Luigi, Bowser and yes, Peach, are part of a travelling acting troupe. Peach just happens to be comparatively badly typecast, or maybe it's an attempt to retell the same story many times with subtle variations as a kind of metaphor. This isn't, I hasten to add, solely my interpretation: It's a fan theory gaining significant momentum online (to the point even Cracked mentioned it) and has even been confirmed in a statement from Miyamoto-san himself. This also handily explains the various Mario spinoff games and why Mario and Bowser play tennis and go kart racing together when they're not at opposite ends of a plan for world domination (incidentally, this revelation, paired with the working-class origins of the characters, leads to the intriguing conclusion Miyamoto is likening Mario's acting troupe to William Shakespeare's. Do with that what you will). This reading does seem to hold: If we look at just about any Mario game made since the original five or so, we see that curtains, stages and retelling stories have become fundamental parts of the series, not to mention the infamous fact it's difficult to read the Mario and Donkey Kong from the original Donkey Kong as being the same characters from Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong Country and their successors. Obviously they're not: They were playing different roles in a different play at that point.

 

To return to the main thrust of this post, which was how high-end digital technology like 3D and HFR enhances performativity in media, let's look at the most recent Mario game as of this writing (or at the least the most recent one I've played): Paper Mario: Sticker Star on the 3DS. The case for HFR is fairly straightforward and self-demonstrating in my opinion, something I feel I've sufficiently justified and not as relevant to video games, so we'll talk about 3D here. The Paper Mario spinoff series has always driven home the theatrical production reading harder than other Mario series, and this new game is no exception and clearly delights in having stereoscopic 3D to play with. Mario can move in, on and around various bits of scenery, which can be knocked over, picked up again and rearranged to suit different gameplay needs. Everything looks to be made out of cardboard and a key aspect of the game is remembering that the levels are literally cut-out facades in a three-dimensional world, and the game forces players to keep checking things from all angles to find everything. It feels as if Mario's in a play and improvising on the fly when props and sets don't always do what they're supposed to. While the game's major point could probably be conveyed without it, clearly it's relying on stereoscopic 3D to get it across particularly vividly.

 

Another 3DS game I've been playing recently, Atlus' Code of Princess, uses a similar approach. It's a cross between an arcade beat-em-up and a JRPG that's wholly aware of the inherent ludicrousness of both genres. The characters are all delightfully self-aware parodies, and even more laudably mostly female, but the most interesting aspect of it from our perspective is the way the battle stages work (and as an aside, note the ubiquity of the term “stage” to describe video game levels). Like in most beat-em-ups, Code of Princess uses a static camera angle that slowly follows the character as she fights her way from left to right. The main innovation here, aside from the aforementioned RPG experience system and genre awareness, is the fact there are three main battlefields on the screen at once, and the characters can leap into the background and foreground at various degrees, which is where the stereoscopic 3D comes in. It's not as overtly theatrical as a Mario game, but the world of Code of Princess definitely feels much more like a stage set thanks to this sort of gameplay (in addition to the general look-and-feel of the game on the whole) than a fully developed fantasy land, and that's to the game's benefit.

 

Just like a play, these games work by recognising they're inherently performative and gain a lot of their strengths as works by playing off of the audience. Each playthrough of a video game is different, even before you factor in the different styles and tastes of individual players, just as no two performances of the same play, even if it's put on by the same troupe, will be identical. This is abundantly clear here, as it is in all video games, but I maintain a thread of performativity runs through all creative works: We wouldn't have differing interpretations of things if it didn't. So why pretend it isn't there? Why pretend movies, music books or your medium of choice exist in a vacuum separate from human emotion and thought? That's the perhaps uncomfortable truth things like 3D and HFR force media critics to come to terms with. Far from getting us closer to some mythical Truth, all these new technologies will do is remind us of the multiplicity of meaning, and I for one couldn't be happier.  

 

O Objectivity our subjugator, your legend is lies, lurid and false; your dreamlike reverie a con for the ages.


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