Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Hideo Kojima (and a bunch of other people)
PS4 (and maybe other places? I'm not sure.  I played it on Tony's PS4)

I've never really written about video games before, and I haven't really played much of anything made after the Playstation 2, so please bear with me here.  I'm sorry if anything below is totally obvious to people who've been playing and thinking about video games for years.  I just wanted to write about this game because it's probably the worst I've ever felt playing a video game.

P.T., as I understand it, is a playable teaser for Hideo Kojima's upcoming game Silent Hills, the latest entry in the Silent Hill series of horror/survival games.  In the game you play from the 1st-person perspective of some anonymous man who wakes up in a room and explores a hallway in a house, possibly his own.  The controls are simple: you use one control stick to move, the other to look around and to look in closer at something.

The initial fear comes in quickly as you listen to a radio broadcast about a man who recently murdered his wife and child.  You are alone, exploring a dimly lit hallway.  There's trash scattered everywhere and all you hear is the squeaking sound of a lamp suspended on a chain swinging back and forth above the foyer.  When you finally come across a door that you can open, you pass through it and you end up in the exact same place you began in the hallway.

Now, I understand if uncanny circular floorplans aren't exactly your idea of horror, but don't worry-- it only gets worse.  I'll try to skip past detailing the rest of the awful, horrible things that you're subjected to (a quick look through the "PT" or "playable teaser" tag on tumblr or a search for walk throughs on youtube will help you out there), but "it only gets worse" is something that I feel is an accurate description of my experience playing through it.

I think that's what I want to get at here: games as an immersive experience.  I'm regularly impressed whenever I see new games these days and how meticulously they've built the world of the game that you'll probably only be spending a couple hours a night on, but P.T. is probably the best recent example of a truly immersive experience and it just takes place in a dimly lit hallway.  P.T. achieves this by creating a very real atmosphere that takes advantage of both the visuals and the sounds of the game, but it's also very dependent on the horror and mystery of it all to compel you to keep playing.

After playing through the first couple of loops of the hallway, I set my controller down and decided to stop because it was too scary.  And nothing really even happens during those first couple of loops aside from the terror of being trapped in some sort of strange hallway and this horrible feeling that you aren't alone and that something is going to be waiting for you when you turn the corner.  It only gets worse.

I came back to the game the next night, convinced that since I already knew what was going to happen for those first couple of loops, it would be less scary.  It worked for a little bit; I was feeling pretty brave and confident, exploring the hallway and taking my time looking at all the picture frames and details, but once I figured out what to do next I got scared all over again.  The game is not above using a very effective, cheap scare.

When I think about the scares in P.T. I can easily see those things working just as well for a horror movie.  However, what I think made P.T. a scarier experience for me was that all of these things happen as a direct result of your participation.  With a horror movie, you're always watching a movie.  You're always a step removed from the action that you see.  With an immersive horror game like P.T., you are involved in the fear via the character you're controlling.  This is all happening because you are in a way actively choosing to experience it.  In a horror movie you can shout all you want, but those characters are still going to turn the corner and see something scary.  In P.T. you can shout all you want, but you're the one who's still pressing forward on the controller, ready to look behind that door that just mysteriously opened a crack.  It's that sort of agency and involvement that really makes you feel awful.  You know you shouldn't look behind that door, but you're going to do it anyway.  It only gets worse.

As I was playing, my stomach started hurting from all this anxiety I was putting myself through.  My entire body was clenched, ready to just toss the controller away and bolt out of the living room.  Actively managing my body's fight or flight response was entirely exhausting, but there I was, forcing myself to keep on going, to keep subjecting myself to whatever evils lurked in that awful hallway and that horrible bathroom.  Everything was terrifying and you had to figure out little puzzles to get to the next part, which, on top of everything else, was inevitably just a return to where you started, but somehow scarier.  That was one of the most interesting things about this game, I think; the progression of the kinds of fear and terror that you experience as the game goes on.  It starts with the fear that comes with not knowing what the situation is; who/where you are, what you're doing here, etc.  Then it continues to the more uncanny fear related to doors not opening to where they should,  and things not being in their place; that sort of purposely nonsensical architecture akin to what Kubrick was doing in The Shining or in Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves.  Later on we get more traditional horror elements like ghosts and murder and blood, but those fears of the unknown and the uncanny remain and seep into the rest of it.  Different horror elements are introduced as the game progresses, but they never disappear.  You enter a door and end up back at the beginning, but those horror elements stick around and build on each other, allowing your own fears to grow and, like the best horror, carry over into your own life.  Walking to the bathroom in the middle of the night is always the worst after watching/reading/playing a really good horror experience.

Probably my favorite part of this game came towards the end of my playing experience.  The last half of the game, maybe even more than that, I played while Tessa and our friend Tony gave me tips about the puzzles and what to do next.  None of us had actually played through the entire thing, so with me behind the controls, we set out into that darkened hallway and screamed at every scare around the corner.  I doubt this is what Kojima had in mind when he said he envisioned seeing people around the world having to collaborate to solve the final puzzle, but you make due with what you have.  It was nice playing the game together and sharing the same feelings of terror and dread, knowing that we were all hating every step, but still compelled to keep on going.  That's the kind of shared experience I never typically associated with online gaming groups.  There's something to be said about being in the same room and being scared together and yelling at each other and solving a problem together.  I don't know exactly how that ties in with P.T. being an immersive horror game, but maybe I'll take it as the one big sigh of relief I had during my experience.

Anyway, P.T. was a really interesting and terrifying gameplay experience.  It's nice to see Kojima's odd, brechtian affectations applied to a horror game, as it seems to be a genre of games that really thrives on those tics.  I was happy to have played it, but I was happier that it was all over.  At least until whenever Silent Hills comes out.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

thoughts on Multiversity and being okay with things moving on without you

The Multiversity #1
Grant Morrison, Ivan Reis, Joe Prado
DC Comics

I used to be really into punk rock music.  Like most kids in high school, it was the only kind of music that I thought really spoke to me.  Today, I still like to listen to punk rock but it's with a sort of detached, almost academic kind of fascination.  It no longer really speaks to me and my worldview so much as it makes me recall a time when I really believed in this music.  This is all a roundabout way to help you understand me when I say that I read that first issue of Grant Morrison's Multiversity the way I listen to punk rock today.

I liked that first issue of Multiversity.  I think Grant Morrison is great at these kinds of grand, multiversal, ensemble superhero narratives.  It was fun, and I think more superhero event epics could benefit from this approach of making everything as big as possible.  However, my problem with it is that it seems that we've seen most of this before.  I understand that that's partly by design.  Morrison enjoys making call-backs to his previous work and he seems to be interested in dealing with a certain set of themes in all his work, most especially in his superhero epics from DC Comics, but another part of it is that even all of these big ideas where he sort of just mushes together a bunch of sci-fi/spiritual/mystical-sounding concepts together to make things seem so big and crazy and wild and connected just all felt kind of routine.  I don't have the issue at hand right now so I'm paraphrasing, but there's that part where Captain Carrot is telling Earth-23 Superman about how the House of Heroes is orbiting through bleed space or something, and for all the sci-fi elements in his explanations about how the House of Heroes works, it kind of all just amounts to "This door won't be in the same place in five minutes."  Cool.  It's a place where everything shifts around because of weird science.  Yeah, I'm familiar with that.  Got it.  I'm being a little paltry here, but it's only because I think I'm just disappointed that I don't get that enthusiastic charge from all that sci-fi gibberish speak that I used to get when I was reading Morrison's comics in High School and College.

The rest of the issue feels like that as well.  Parallel Earths!  I know.  Analogues of familiar superheroes from other comics!  Yeah, I see.  From other publishers!  Right, like Image used to do.  Those guys are in there too sort of!  Yes.  There's a spaceship that goes through the space in between universes and it's controlled by music!  Yeah, we saw that in the last Grant Morrison event comic.  It was cool.  METATEXT!  I live on the internet.

For a while I was wondering if I even still like superhero comics.  I'm more of a grump about it these days, but I do still like this stuff.  I just don't get the same high I used to from it.  Multiversity itself is good so far, it's doing what it's meant to be doing, and a few years ago I would have been really excited by all of this.  I think somewhere along the way my tastes and sensibilities have changed, and I don't respond the same way to the same things like I used to.  Maybe it's because of over-exposure?  Like maybe somewhere along the way we all got over exposed to superheroes saturating the media and the weird metatext themes of superheroes being in the real world just became the actual text and it wasn't so weird to think about these things anymore.  Sometimes it feels like all you see on the comics internet these days is superheroes in the real world or movie casting news about the latest superhero movie or cosplay about superheroes and the last thing you are going to be excited about is how there's a Savage Dragon analogue in a DC event comic.  That's fine.  That happens.  I think the mistake lies in thinking another superhero comic is the answer to that problem.  Superhero comics can't save you from superheroes.  I think my problem was approaching a new superhero comic and thinking that it was the kind of thing that would make me feel like how I felt when these things were still so fresh and new and vital to me.  All a new superhero comic has anymore is more superheroes.

Anyway I give it Fifty Two (52) Bright Shining Earths out of an Entire Universe of Possibilities, and I'm going to continue to read along because I still listen to punk rock and watch skateboard videos for some reason.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Christopher Nolan

When I first saw The Dark Knight Rises, I walked out angry about how long and awful it was, but after a rewatch, I find that I've softened on this movie a bit.  It's still a kind of garbage movie, but I found there were definitely some things to like about it.  It's weird to look at it this way because it's the last of the three movies, but it seems to me like The Dark Knight Rises is like a bridge between the aesthetics of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.  With Batman Begins I got the sense that Nolan et al weren't entirely sure what they wanted the series to be, so they put out the realistic approach that they wanted, but left themselves open to the more fantastic elements of the superhero genre: Batman's crazy tech, the League of Assassins, Scarecrow's fear gas, etc.  When they saw that people seemed to be responding to the realism of it, The Dark Knight capitalized on that and pushed the realism further, giving us something more akin to a crime movie.  The Dark Knight Rises splits the difference, keeping the realism while still remaining comfortable with the more fantastic elements that wouldn't have been out of place in Batman Begins.  The League of Assassins is back, Bane's long game plot to destroy Gotham while Bruce Wayne watches is an insanely comic book super villain-esque plot, we get a Catwoman team up along the way, Batman fakes his own death, and THERE'S A FUCKING BATMAN STATUE TO HONOR HIS MEMORY!  So how did this Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of Nolan tones all go so wrong?

First, let's talk about the best thing in the movie because I think it leads pretty well into the worst thing about it.  Bane.  Bane is the best thing in this movie.  "But oh that atrocious Sean Connery impression through a gas mask voice!" you lament, as you clutch your pearls, and a prominently displayed piece marked "REVERANCE TO THE SOURCE MATERIAL" dangles in between your fat old-time political cartoon fingers.  I softly cradle you in my arms because I remember that I too was once like you, and again I say it: Bane is the best thing in this movie.  Tom Hardy and Christopher Nolan create a version of Bane that is still very much true to what I think is the core of the character despite the determined exclusion of his trademark enthusiasm for steroids.  Bane is a man who has the strength, determination, and will of Batman.  He gets the jump on Batman in this movie because at this point in Nolan's timeline Batman's pretty much quit the game.  He's out of touch and he's gotten soft.  Would Bane still have gotten ahead of Batman at the top of his game in The Dark Knight?  Yeah, probably.  That's what villains do in these things -- they get ahead of the hero and the hero learns a lesson.  Moreover, while Bane is a man who is driven by an ideology, Batman is driven by a very vague notion of justice.  It seems Batman just hasn't really given much thought as to the scale of that justice, and his role has been largely reactionary, while Bane's message is clear and proactive: the status quo is corruption and in order to fix it, it must be dismantled: with a nuclear bomb.

Bane's plot to destroy Gotham is a great use of the over-the-top scheming that should be standard from a SUPER VILLAIN, but it's played straight enough that it doesn't seem too out of place with the tone that Nolan goes for.  Tom Hardy's performance is the kind of camp that perfectly offsets the self-seriousness of the movie around him as well as working to establish the idea that Bane is also a charismatic character.  There's a reason why Bane was able to build himself an army, and it's because he's a likable, imposing figure who is offering change through revolution to Gotham's long-suffering and forgotten.  Tom Hardy makes Bane look like he's having a great time overturning the status quo.  Perhaps Bane doesn't exactly delight in all the murdering like Heath Ledger's Joker seemed to, but he's certainly feeling comfortable in his convictions.  It's all a part of the job for Bane, and while it would be tempting to think that Bane loves his job, I think it's more that he is his job.  Bane exists as the primary agent of his cause and as little else, which is what makes him so intimidating.

Now as I understood it, Bane's whole end game was to destroy Gotham and make Batman watch, thus breaking him completely.  The class revolt that Bane triggers is really just a step along the way to detonating a bomb in Gotham, a way to provoke chaos and fear and bring out the worst in people, which means one of the more interesting pieces of this movie-- Gotham's violent class war-- is largely just set dressing, right?  I believe at the time of this movie's release we were in the thick of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the idea of class war was certainly lurking in the American consciousness, so it makes sense the Nolan and company would try to work that in somehow to give their finale a little more timely relevance, but I think that's exactly the problem with it: it's a great idea that just feels tacked on without any actual thought or development.  But as it stands in the movie we have, the promising and relevant idea of a class uprising is turned into a couple of cartoonish street riot scenes and then a backdrop for the third act of the movie.

It's also a pretty confusing statement that Nolan is putting out there.  I'm not sure about what exactly he's trying to say with this one.  I mean, speaking as one of America's 99%, Bane's message is appealing to me.  Maybe we should just dismantle capitalism and tear apart the Upper East Side for being complicit in a system that actively works against 99% of its people, right? It doesn't seem like it's been doing any favors for us lately.  I guess all the murder and violence is wrong, but Bane's message is resonant, despite it being just another step along the way in his mission to destroy Gotham.  If Bane's the bad guy we're supposed to be rooting against, then why is his message so appealing?  And what about Batman?  Isn't Batman the good guy that we're rooting for?  When Batman sees that Gotham is falling apart, and it's not entirely because of a super-villain's plot what's his response?  He saves the city from blowing up, fakes his own death, and decides to go on a permanent Italian vacation.  I thought Batman's whole shit was that Gotham was his city.  You saved the city from a nuclear bomb, but what happens afterward?  Everyone in Gotham decides they should all just pretend it never happened and go back to this system whose incredible flaws and corruption were just exposed to the entire world?  Wouldn't that period of rebuilding be at least as chaotic?  Wouldn't Batman want to stick around for that just to make sure nobody else needs to get hurt?  So I guess I'm still wondering what Nolan wants us to think about this.  He presents these viewpoints with the idea that there is nuance, but he never follows through in exploring that, favoring instead a strange transition from the interesting gray area of a violent class war to the more easily opposable and offensive marshall law.  Then he caps it all off with a black and white "Batman saves the day and everything's fine let's honor him with a statue" ending because it's his big finale and we've got to have some kind of closure.

Bane's message of changing the system seems justified despite it just being a part of his villainous plot, and sure, maybe it's going about it in the wrong way, but Batman's not out there to change anything at all.  Batman is fighting for everything to be just the same as it ever was, and as soon as he gets the chance he leaves it all behind.  It's that kind of inability to commit to a stance that takes an interesting idea, "how would Batman deal with class uprising?" and turns it into something frustrating with no clear payoff.  Further, it reflects these movies' inability to decide what they want to be.  Batman Begins wanted a grounded, realistic take on a concept that is inherently unrealistic, The Dark Knight was less a crime movie and more a movie embarrassed by its source material, and The Dark Knight Rises tries to make a relevant political statement without actually taking any kind of position on the issue they bring into question.  And it's not even one of those things where it's up to the audience to decide what the movie means, since either side of the argument doesn't ever really get a chance to develop.  Bane's incitement of class warfare is incidental to his mission and politics, and Batman ultimately abandons any political responsibility after he fakes his death.

I guess I wouldn't find the confusing politics of this movie so frustrating if Nolan didn't take up most of the first act trying to establish class disparity as a theme in this movie.  Catwoman has a little threatening monologue that she whispers to Bruce Wayne, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt pretty much gets Batman back into the game by shaming him about how he doesn't even know about what's happening to the real people of Gotham anymore on account of his locking himself away in his mansion.  Couple all of that with the idea that one of the popularly cynical takes on Batman is "Billionaire who beats up poor people in the streets," and after the first act, I'm getting pretty excited to see how Nolan addresses this facet of Batman's character, but by the end of the movie that idea's just kind of quietly swept under the rug, like Bruce Wayne's bum knee.  At least it didn't feel like every character was just explaining the entire movie to each other like in The Dark Knight.

Anyway, there was stuff I liked about this movie too, I swear.  Like Bane.  And that part where Batman finally comes back on the scene on his motorcycle and he just kind of fucks things up.  Also the part where Batman is in the bottom of the pit with a broken back and the only way out is through total determination and believing in yourself, and Batman's like, "um duh."  I remember people talking about how that part was boring, but I guess I've just always been down with people aggressively training and believing in themselves.  Because I'm an AMERICAN.  Oh yeah and SCARECROW COURT.  Scarecrow court was the best thing since Bane.  More Scarecrow Court.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Christopher Nolan's First Two Batman Movies

Batman Begins (2005) Christopher Nolan
The Dark Knight (2008) Christopher Nolan

I liked Batman Begins a lot when I first saw it, and I think part of the reason why it was so well received was because we hadn't really seen a take on Batman quite like this in the movies.  By 2005, when that movie came out, I'm sure comic book fans were pretty accustomed to seeing a self-serious take on Batman, but for the movies it still felt exciting enough to have Batman be a grumpy street-level vigilante.  However, people seem to gloss over the fact that Batman Begins still deals with some pretty goofy elements.  Most of the first third of the movie is about Bruce Wayne joining up with  the League of Assassins, and the endgame of the bad guys is to put fear poison in Gotham's water supply and then use some wacky macguffin to evaporate all the water so that everyone inhales fear gas and goes crazy.  There are more than a few strange elements that are played entirely straight in this movie, but Nolan does a great job of fitting them into this street-level motif that he's pushing.  In fact, out of all three of Nolan's Batman movies, Batman Begins is the most willing to incorporate the more outrageous elements of a comic book superhero into its self-serious, "realistic" take on Batman.

The Dark Knight, on the other hand, pushes self-serious realism even further, keeping the outrageous elements mostly outside of the workings of the plot, and limiting its use to the aesthetics of its villains.  There is very little to distinguish this movie from a crime movie, and it's reflected in the way Nolan shoots scenes as nods to Michael Mann or Ridley Scott.  It's a perfectly valid choice to make, treating a Batman movie as a kind of louder crime movie, and it's the kind of blending that could potentially elevate it above the trappings of either genre, but it is completely hamstrung by Nolan's distrust of his audience.  It seems like every other scene we get a character explaining the thematic weight of what has happened or what is happening.  Typically it's Alfred, sometimes it's Jim Gordon or Lucius Fox, every now and then it's The Joker or Rachel Dawes or Harvey Dent.  We know exactly what everyone's doing and why they're doing it and what it means on the grand stage that Nolan insists he's presenting us with.  I thought this movie was amazing when I first saw it, but this time around I just couldn't get past how all these characters are constantly explaining the movie to you.  I remember a few movie critics online at the time going on about how Nolan crafted a modern Shakespearean tragedy or whatever bullshit, and maybe in some ways that's true, but the most apparent similarity to me is how both Shakespeare and The Dark Knight Rises are big on explaining themselves to you.  It has the components of a great movie, but its inherent distrust of its audience and of itself keeps it from reaching its full potential.  I'm still ride or die with Heath Ledger's Joker, though.

I'll write about The Dark Knight Rises next time because I feel like I may have more to unpack about that movie than these two movies combined?