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September 22, 2005

New Wave

Night and the City Bob le Flambeur

In France in the early 1950s, film theorists founded a journal called Cahiers du Cinema¹; in it, they decried the current state of cinema and called for new types of film-making. Interestingly enough, many of the great films in the movement, which came to be known as Le Nouvelle Vague or "The New Wave", were film noirs. But they were different from Hollywood's version of the genre -- these were often moody, extremely character-driven pieces. They had the atmosphere in spades, but the stories they told and the characters they contained were extraordinary, and the film-making was a breath of fresh air.

Take Bob le Flambeur². Here you have a film about a small-time gambler and one-time crook who did a stretch in prison over a heist; but now he's well-known in certain circles (amongst criminals and policemen) because of his consummate style. He's old-school; there's a way you dress and comport yourself even when you're losing your last franc.

The key feature of the movement I want to take away at the moment is not, however, the films noir of the period nor the character-driven stories. What I want to examine a little further is the extraordinary devotion of the New Wave to mise-en-scene, which basically boils down to filming on location for every shot, no studios, no sound stages, using natural light and capturing long takes. Characters are placed in the very real locations that surround them, and events play out in these real locations.³

Jules Dassin's5 Night and the City is filled with such scenes, where Richard Widmark (playing an unsavory character we can't really like but nonetheless must see something of ourselves in) dashes through the streets of London, trying to save himself from his certain fate. Although both the movies I'm talking about are not classified as New Wave by the sites I read on the topic, I think they contain enough of the elements to be indicative, if not perfect examples of the form. I've also recently watched Jules and Jim, a classic of the movement, and much of what I have to say here could be extended to that film as well. And I also think that The Third Man has something to offer -- filmed on location in London, even though it was a Hollywood film, it also favored mise-en-scene and had a lot of resemblances to a film like Night and the City; I guess since The Third Man came out first, we have to assume that Dassin stole a little bit, but I suspect not given the short difference in time between the releases and the fact that Dassin was French, etc.

The Third Man

So, now that I've inundated you all with a bit of New Wave talk, I want to talk about another New Wave coming our way, this one rather literal.

Innovation: Another New Wave

In the last week or so, Nintendo unveiled its new controller -- finally, we get a look at something that really feels next gen to me, feels like a console I absolutely need to own. This is a New Wave I feel I can get behind.

No question, they could have shipped a controller like that as a peripheral for this generation, but then, of course, not everyone would have one (EyeToy, Jungle Beat bongos, PS2 network adapter...). They are essentially launching a new console entirely so that they can have an install base for their innovative control scheme. Remarkable.

What really encourages me about this is how, watching their promo videos, I felt that they were encouraging a new type of mise-en-scene. Watching a couple play tennis on the couch, hearing the Zelda sword swings and shield clangs as a guy swung his arm around, seeing the families playing party games and fishing together, reading about how intuitive Metroid Prime 2 felt with the new controls, I was just entranced. I must have watched that promo video 8 times in a row.

I felt like here was a great step forward in making me feel like I was part of the game, by making some of my physical movements replicated in the game -- call it me-en-scene. It's a new form of interaction. And while I'm sure some of the critics are right in that most of the games will be largely the same, I really don't even care; it's not like the other systems are offering anything radically different in terms of gameplay. Watching that teaser, I could see myself newly immersed in games like Eternal Darkness or Resident Evil n, imagine myself aiming the grappling hook in some new Zelda, swinging a virtual club in Toadstool Tour. All in one handy device.

I'm always reading about how Nintendo is for kids and all that, but honestly, it took quite a while for my kids to be able to play Mario Kart with me, and mostly because the controls were just a little too complex for them. We probably played six months before they could drive the karts all that well -- and they're still not really even close. I think this will be easier for them, and we'll be playing that many more games.

I'm completely looking forward to gaming's New Wave. It's the only console I can see picking up on the first day. I know that it won't have the library or the realism of the other consoles -- but it's the one that's going to offer me something really new on that first day, even if it's in the context of traditional genres. And that's just really great.

¹I am indebted to a very excellent article on GreenCine which helped me to collect some information about the French New Wave. Although I've picked up this information in bits and pieces over the years from film reviews and DVD commentaries, this two page article covered the subject in great detail.
²Although usually translated as Bob the Gambler, I think a more literal translation would be something like Bob the Flamboyant One -- and this better captures the essence of his character, in a way. Bob gambles, to be sure, and it's an essential element of his character, but he manages to preserve an ever-present style at the same time, and this is lost when you merely consider him as a gambler. Note that Nick Nolte's version of the character doesn't carry nearly the same flair (nor carry the gambling to its natural conclusion) in the recent Hollywood remake "The Good Thief". Neil Jordan's remake is somewhat limited by its need for a happy ending; I'd rather a single Bob le Flambeur to a hundred Good Thieves.
³There are at least a couple of things to remark upon here: one is that the long take is still being practiced, almost effortlessly, by Quentin Tarantino -- the dialog between Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction about foot massages in the hallway before they encounter Brett and his hapless posse stretches out beyond belief, but feels completely unforced. There's a similar long take following Sofie Fatale in Kill Bill vol 1 down to the ladies' room where Beatrice lies in wait -- it doesn't feel quite as smooth but it really sets up the following moment well, when Beatrice calls out O-ren. (I've seen that movie four times now and writing this I'd love to watch that scene again.) Anyway, the other thing is that a similar practice made it into the manifesto of the Dogma 95 gang, though they took it even further to require that ambient audio be similarly recorded. I can recommend The Celebration, one of the early Dogma 95 films -- I was completely surprised by that movie, which is so remarkably rare as to be treasured. Strong stuff, though, be warned -- not graphic in terms of imagery, just strong themes.4
4It's probably worth noting at this point that in my text editor, the footnotes already are longer than the text at this point in the post. Ugh. My thinking on this topic isn't probably as clear as I'd like. But get me talking about Quentin Tarantino and I'm bound to go on for a while.
5At the time that I watched Topkapi, I had no idea that Dassin had made it -- nor should I have -- but I really loved the movie, and had known even that it included an homage to Rififi, which Dassin had also made (hrm, is it homage if you are making homage to yourself?). In any case, I searched it out on IMDB and it appears that there may be a Topkapi update in the form of a Thomas Crown sequel featuring Pierce Brosnan. For those of you who can read my more-than-latent snobbery into the films I watch, yes, I am in fact appalled.

Posted by Brett Douville at 07:25 PM | Comments (3)

September 15, 2005

Art and Product, Creators and Consumers

My Life as a Fake

Peter Carey's very absorbing My Life as a Fake is a really extraordinary update of the tale of Frankenstein. In this modern retelling, the monster is born of some literary tomfoolery when a middling poet named Christopher Chubb creates a literary hoax: a fictional poet by the name of Bob McCorkle, who composes amazingly literary and allusive poetry despite his (faked) background as an apparently uneducated bicyle mechanic. After an apparent suicide by the magazine editor who was the target of the hoax, Chubb discovers that his creation has become real, and much of the novel unravels the mystery of the creation and the interplay between the created and the creator.

Much of the novel contains twists on the original story which became almost instantly a sort of myth¹; I don't want to go into them in any great detail, but they drive the plot forward inexorably. Bob McCorkle is a monster driven by a desire to fill the holes that are in his backstory -- he has all these tremendous ideas and a remarkable gift for poetry, but it can take him a good time to identify the use of simple implements like rakes or hoes or what have you. For in creating Bob McCorkle, Chubb didn't give him a full childhood, merely the barest outlines of one, and Bob made flesh feels the gaps as great pains in his soul. He is a consummately understandable monster; in the light of his lacks, he is pitiable, though we can still despise his actions.

It's a really great read, though perhaps not as good as The True History of the Kelly Gang, which I would recommend first.

I've been thinking about the book a lot lately in preparation for posting about it, and I had settled on a sort of generic discussion of the relationship of a creator to his creation and drawing parallels and differences with books (single author) to films (a collaboration of a few artists with a large support staff) to games (a collaboration of several artists in different disciplines). But then someone else out in the blogosphere provided me with just the little jolt I needed to cement my thinking.

The thing about the games industry these days is that while it is increasingly mainstream, it hasn't yet reached the kinds of numbers where we can regularly pair high production costs and quality with risky or quirky themes and designs. While every now and again someone comes out and says how games have hit the mainstream because our business has surpassed the box office in terms of revenue, it's an oversimplification. While the business has grown dramatically since the rise of the current generation of consoles, we're still reaching out to a much smaller audience than films, because movie tickets cost about a fifth of the cost of a top game and DVDs aren't even factored into the film revenues we're usually compared against. Nor are international box office nor international DVD sales; really, it's gone beyond apples and oranges to be apples and orange groves. We are still dwarfed by the collective market of film.

(Incidentally, I take all of the above more or less as read -- I don't think I'm really saying anything particularly new or interesting, but it's a first step in my thinking on the issue and thus I share it with all of you.)

At this point, then, high-expense, high-profile games are products. While there will always be the surprises that break out and do something interesting in the marketplace², most of what we do is all about making a good product that gives players a dose of good fun in a way with which they're already pretty familiar. That is, if we want to tap into the mainstream and deliver a really gigantic hit. And particularly if we want to do it year after year, which is the model that Electronic Arts has used to make itself the first 2 billion dollar company in the business.

Part of what sparked my thinking about this was a post I saw in another blog. The blogger, a designer by trade, was admonishing an NFL football player who had spoken out and complained that in adding some new feature to the latest Madden the game had gotten harder and less fun. His response was something along the lines of, "Well, buddy, you do your job and I'll do mine."

Frankly, I was pretty astounded. I was taken aback, because that customer wasn't having fun. And that customer had even gone so far as to think about why he wasn't having as much fun. And that customer was summarily dismissed, as if the designer knew better whether the customer was actually having fun.³

When I was developing games at LucasArts, I had the good fortune to work with a director/lead designer who took entirely the other approach: he actively solicited as much feedback about the play as he could, from the team, from test, and from blind testers. He went out of his way to train people to sit and watch blind testers, to teach them to ask open-ended questions about what they were seeing, what kind of notes to take. Not only that, of course, but he took that feedback very seriously, even if it went against his own sensibilities.4 His feeling was that we need all the feedback we can possibly get; in development, we play our game so many more hours than any customer ever will, and we no longer have any idea by the time it ships if it's really any fun. We can only sort of judge that it's probably more fun than it was before we polished this or that feature, or before we balanced this or that stat. He got it, in my view.

Because what we're peddling is fun5, especially to the mass-market that is most of our business these days, given our budgets. We sell a product in a fairly narrow space, compared to novels or movies. We deliver fun, not even the more general "entertainment". We occasionally sell fear, horror, suspense, but in the safe way rollercoaster rides do -- as good, safe, sitting-down fun.

This is a little different from what books or movies can offer. The economies of scale there are enormous -- so a director can create something that more than 99% of the viewing public won't really like or get, and still find an audience and even receive critical acclaim.6 A lot of my friends probably wouldn't enjoy a book like My Life as a Fake, but it's still viable, Peter Carey is off making a living at it, capturing a vastly small percentage of the market, certainly less than 1% of people who buy books7. Imagine if we took a 12 million dollar game with 8 million bucks of marketing8 -- at 10 bucks a pop for the publisher, hitting less than 1% of the 100 million PlayStation market means a loss of more than 10 million dollars9. Ugh. With movies and its multiple revenue streams, it's closer to books in terms of cost to break-even numbers, though it's probably not exactly the same. That's why both these media can afford to deliver such a wide variety of types of entertainments, including presenting extremely difficult material.

We need to be honest about what we're delivering at this point in our development. And frankly, we need to be thankful for any feedback we can get, and do everything we can to get more of it. Because right now, there aren't enough people playing for us to scoff. Right now, our players are just as much the authors of the experience as we are -- they're the ones who ultimately need to have the fun, since that's all we offer them, all we can afford to offer them at this stage in our development. If you think you can afford to dismiss that, I suggest you find another line of work -- at least, until our market is really larger than the movies, in terms of actual people buying games, and not the revenue they generate.

¹Frankenstein is, of course, very well worth reading, not for nothing is it a classic. My recollection of it is of it being less about horror and more about the relationship of the good Dr. von Frankenstein with his creation -- the responsibility that the creature comes to believe Frankenstein owes him. Very compelling.
²Yup, Katamari Damacy, The Sims; in my view, these are analogous to film surprise successes like The Blair Witch Project or Four Weddings and a Funeral.
³I should note at this point that I don't believe the designer in question was in any way responsible for Madden. But I think the point still stands, because the author himself identifies himself as part of the brotherhood of game designers.
4As lead programmer or the gameplay programmer on those projects, I'm proud to say I often got in his face about that. Sometimes I won, sometimes I lost, but we always had great arguments about design. In the end, I hope the players won, regardless of which of us drove the design in those particular cases.
5Yes, this is another blatant plug for the sort of game I'd really like you all to go out and buy, please.
6To judge by the ridiculously small sample size of the folks I saw it with, Broken Flowers was such a movie.
7Of course, the install base of people who could buy books is enormously large. The hardware requirements are essentially a pair of eyeballs; while economics are a factor, they aren't a huge factor, since libraries buy up a substantial number of copies to boot.
8These seem like reasonable numbers to me, given the next generation hardware; the marketing budget comes out of what I guess you'd want to spend to ensure your very big bet.
9The PS2 may not have hit these numbers yet, I'm not really sure. The PS1 certainly did. But the math stands -- I'm certain that the PS2 market is more than 50 million worldwide, which means that 1% of the market is break-even on a $20M title.10
10That said, budgets on current PS2 titles haven't quite hit that number, but they're not that far off, really. Next gen economics don't make a lot of sense unless the attach rate11 is very high or the hardware sales go through the roof.
11Attach rate means the number of people who have the hardware actually buy the game.12
12I believe I have now crushed any personal best as far as number of footnotes for a single article goes. In addition, I've also added footnotes to footnotes, which is a Wallace-ian condition I never aspired to attain. :)

Posted by Brett Douville at 11:16 PM | Comments (4)