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December 03, 2007

Rewarding the Long Look

Warning: The following article contains a significant spoiler for Half-Life 2 Episode 2. Caveat lector.

So, a few weeks ago I found myself in San Francisco, happily at the same time that the Jeff Wall exhibit was at SFMOMA. I first read about Wall's work in the New York Times magazine some time ago -- probably around the same time that this exhibit opened in New York, though I didn't make the connection at the time.

Wall works in large-format photography; he takes photographs that he then blows up to fit inside of lightboxes, you know, those advertising boxes that you find in places like bus stops and in airports. Typically, his photographs might occupy a sizeable spot on the wall, up to 12 by 12 feet, though I guess they are mostly six by six. The diffuse, rear lighting accomplished by fluorescence enlivens the photographs and enables the viewer to spend a lot of time discovering the photograph.

A ventriloquist at a birthday party in October 1947

Case in point: A ventriloquist at a birthday party in October 1947 was a photograph I looked at for a long time. In particular, after a bit of time, I was looking at the shadows on the ceiling cast by the balloons. When I finally connected the shadow of the balloon in the left center of the photograph with the orange balloon perhaps held by the little girl seated at left, and then to the light to the ventriloquist's right, the room came alive for me in an extraordinary way, perhaps because it suddenly felt like a very, very real place and time to me. The effect of the golden light gave it a warmth that I could almost feel, even though I was in the far starker setting of the white-walled exhibit at the SF MOMA. It was simultaneously like occupying a place in that room and at the same time feeling like I was looking at someone's photo album, perhaps a grandparent or something, telling me about the time when she was a young child and a ventriloquist came for her brother's birthday.

As I mentioned, I had read not too long ago about Wall's work in The New York Times Magazine¹, where it described his process as an artist, something which was apparently discussed in a documentary/interview at the MOMA, though I was so interested in the photographs I didn't take time to learn more about their construction at the time². He uses a technique which he describes as cinematographic; he carefully stages his photographs and particularly the people in them, giving them directions as to what they should be doing, but then fades back behind his lens to wait for the picture to arrange itself. (He also uses digital techniques to merge several images together at times, though not always, and his pioneering use of digital apparently caused some backlash way back when.) It's almost as if Wall himself is taking a long, long look at his subject matter and awaiting the photograph he wants, waiting until just such time as he understands all the elements at play.

I felt this way about several of the photos, such as Steves Farm, Steveston, which is a wide-format landscape incorporating a decaying farm (nonetheless bursting with life) set side-by-side with soulless tract housing arranged geometrically beyond a barren scrubby area populated with dead trees. Wall generally stages his photographs, and no doubt some of that was going on here (particularly with the man walking towards us not far from the center of the image, and perhaps with some of the animals), but this image is of a real landscape, a real place, and it must have taken quite some time to find the correct vantage point to capture this image. But what an image! I stared at this photo for probably ten minutes alone, walking up closer, discovering the human figure, moving slowly past it from left to right, trying to puzzle out its meaning. Or at the very least, coming up with some meaning for it from within myself.

The rewards that come from the long look at Wall's work come up elsewhere as well, from the connections you draw, once you've spent a lot of time with a medium or a couple of media. With regards to film, I've been watching (and re-watching) V for Vendetta over the last couple of days, and while of course I've been interested in the connections (and changes) from the graphic novel, I also look at John Hurt as the authoritarian High Chancellor Sutler and think, "Did they choose him because he was Winston Smith?" Great casting in any case, but when your despot can call up echoes of that greatest of dystopian novels, it's brilliant.

Lucky Wander BoyWhen I started this article/essay/ramble, I didn't expect to end up discussing Lucky Wander Boy, D. B. Weiss' novel about one man's obsessive quest to find meaning in old videogames, and particularly in the meaning of the titular arcade machine. But it fits so perfectly. In the novel, the protagonist is driven to compile a "Catalogue of Obsolete Entertainments", in which he discusses the deep inner meaning of various classic videogames, and several of these articles are reprinted in the book³. When he writes, "It is difficult to ignore the similarities between Donkey Kong and the demiurge of the Gnostic heresies" it's completely believable -- not necessarily believable that such an association exists, but that someone who takes a long look at early videogames might come up with such a connection.

In the case of our intrepid hero, he is particularly obsessed with Lucky Wander Boy, the imagined unemulatable arcade game which gives the book its title, but also reflects this same sort of long look. In the game, a player who spends enough time exploring the game is ultimately rewarded by entering the third level -- no one can agree on how this happens, but picking up items in the appropriate order might have something to do with it, as might the order of traversal of the landscape of the second level. It's bizarrely described, but I think we're meant to understand that the game makes a model of the human playing the game and tailors the third level specially for him. Lucky Wander Boy is therefore not just the name of the game, but role of a player who explores the game long enough, who wanders about in the empty second level aimlessly until the third level reveals itself.

One interesting statement made in the "Catalogue of Obsolete Entertainments" and one that long-time readers will be unsurprised resonated with me was the following, which appears early in the book.

< Game > showed and showed well that video games can traverse the entire range of imagined experience, and resonate effectively with the wider world of which they are a part.

Lately, of course, there's been a bit in the gaming news about Jon Blow's talk at the Montreal Game Summit in which he decries what he feels is a lazy game design. He spoke, of course, of industry darling World of Warcraft, which boasts something north of nine million subscribers and climbing. Having played it entirely too much myself, I can understand what he's getting at -- WoW presents a constant but ultimately meaningless chain of rewards, much in the same way Diablo did. I've not listened to the full talk yet, and so won't comment on Blow's talk at length either, but it seems that Jon's trying to get us to make games that reward a long look at the lessons they teach4, rather than those that simply spoonfeed sugary snacks to our audience.

I know what he means. Although I thoroughly loved Half-Life 2, I recently played through the episodes and found the second one to be especially forced in its storytelling. Clearly, the fine folks at Valve are reaching for something here, trying to tell a story with more resonance than your typical first-person shooter. But in making NPCs who act primarily as vehicles to tell you the next bit of story while they (frustratingly slowly) open a door between bits of excitement fails to deliver on the promise of the title they extend. Half-Life 2 was very memorable to me -- so much so that I recently played through a whole bunch of it again -- and I think that the opening of that game tells a story in a much more compelling way through knowing how to draw the player's attention, through prodding the player just enough so that he gets the correct impressions but not so much that he feels the prod.

Instead Episode 2, while still enjoyable as a pure shooter, relies on thin Hollywood tropes and such blatant manipulation to attempt to deliver an emotional punch in the death of Eli Vance that I ended up feeling more annoyed than saddened. Eli constantly telling Gordon how he's as proud of Gordon as if he were his own son. Alyx making more frequent contact with him. Eli looking at old photographs and worrying over Judith. Eli telling his daughter to look away, to close her eyes, as he died. Alyx' tearful voice over a black screen as we await the credits. I was meant to feel sorrow and empathy, but the manipulation was so unsubtle as to leave me feeling merely hollow and uncaring.

Don't get me wrong. I'm glad someone's trying it; even if the result didn't work for me, perhaps it's working right now for someone else. But I look forward to subtler storytelling, something that rewards deep thinking about the result. Something that rewards a longer look.

¹Every time I mention the NYT Magazine to one of my friends I assume that he mentally rolls his eyes, since it seems so much of my view of the outside world comes from there. I've been reading the magazine religiously since about 1997, week in, week out, and have missed only a small handful of issues. This is far longer than any other periodical has been able to hold my attention. Which I guess is another long look... (back)
²I did, however, purchase a coffee table book of Wall's work, which incorporates a lot of interview material, and have been reading bits and pieces of it. I've never bought a coffee table book before, though I've always had books on my coffee table. :) (back)
³As someone who himself discourses at length in his blog, I found these to be the most interesting element of the book, which is not all that surprising, I suppose. (back)
4Braid has jumped through its first hoop with XBox Live Arcade certifiication, so it looks like I'll have something else I'll want to play on XBox Live when I finally buy one some time next year -- I mean, in addition to Schizoid. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at December 3, 2007 09:15 PM


I feel I have only myself to blame for this post. ;-)

Lucky Wander Boy sounds very much like Zen Buddhism, where the "empty" second level must become fully explored before the enlightenment of the third level takes place. He probably makes that distinction in the book as he parallels the main character's quest with a quest for enlightenment.

Kinda reminds me of the movie "Circle of Iron", which was written by Bruce Lee.

Posted by: Feil at December 4, 2007 11:07 AM

As well you should, John, though naturally I've been thinking about the post since I was in SF a couple of weeks ago. You just pushed me, which is good.

Enlightenment is another potential read of Lucky Wander Boy the game (though given the end of the novel, the parallels to the main character are not obvious), and something I considered while reading it. But there are definite cues that it has more to do with psychology. I thought, of course, of the quote about the abyss staring back into you -- while you're busy staring into Lucky Wander Boy, LWB is staring back into you.

It's an interesting read, especially for us game folks, and costs next to nothing on Amazon (I imagine it's all remaindered copies now, much like the cartridges buried in the desert :). My thanks to Jamie Fristrom for reminding me that I wanted to read it.

Posted by: Brett Douville at December 4, 2007 12:38 PM

Umm... that's a pretty major spoiler in there for those of us who haven't played E2 yet. :-(

Good essay, though.

Posted by: Chris Corry at December 5, 2007 10:20 PM

Er... yeah. Sorry about that. I don't always know where I'm going to end up when I start. Maybe I should put a standard disclaimer in or something. Although usually I'm pretty much the last guy to play anything...!

Posted by: Brett Douville at December 6, 2007 01:23 AM

Heh. I'm actually playing through all of HL2 for the first time on the 360. But don't worry, I'll probably have forgotten your spoiler by the time I've gotten to the end of E2. ;)

Posted by: Anonymous at December 6, 2007 12:33 PM

I enjoyed and bought in to Episode 2. I can see where your frustrations are coming from, but HL2 (and all the episodes) rely heavily on you "going along for the ride" and if you ever try to push away from that or try to look behind the curtain then it will break down quickly. Even the very opening moments of HL2 suffer form this. I got off that train and just stood there for like 5 minutes just to see what would happen. Nothing. Just the video screen repeating itself all over again and thus breaking the "fourth wall." As much as Valve is a great FPS storytelling developer, they are also just as much a roller coaster ride company (and don't let them tell you otherwise). I've heard complaints that people have over overly scripted heavy-handed sequences in Ep 2 and to that I just say, then don't get on the roller coaster. I think they are damn fun though.

Posted by: TimL at December 28, 2007 02:08 PM

I guess I realize that I'm going along for the ride, and I know the gameplay can break down if you wait in places too long. I guess what really frustrated me the most was that at any number of places on the ride, it felt like I was waiting *forever* for the car to get to the top of the hill so I could have fun with the next exhilarating bit.

Even that have been fine, I suppose, had anything interesting been happening in these bits. But it was often just Alyx chatting away about something while she cycled through some animation of mucking with electronic equipment. It was like the boring animated conversations in play during Neverwinter Nights 2. Sure, you're giving me some exposition, but you're boring me to tears while you're doing it, because your characters aren't expressive and I really can't *do* much of anything. At least with a coaster, you know when you're going to crest the top and begin the descent -- but not so precisely that you know at what exact moment you'll pass the tipping point.

I'm fine with HL2 episodes being a roller coaster... so long as they are a good roller coaster, both in the up and the down bits.

Posted by: Brett Douville at January 2, 2008 12:47 PM