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January 04, 2008

Of Herzog and Hercules


Jouko Ahola is not your typical actor. Ahola was a professional strongman in the late nineties, he's Finnish and holds world records in things like how far one can carry a car, which is something for which I didn't even know one could hold a world record¹. Needless to say, he's a bit on the built side, but not in a purely flashy sense. He looks strong, not merely toned or defined, but seriously strong. I gather he's retired from strongman competitions now and focusing more on his acting career, as far as that goes, but he still serves as a judge in strongest man competitions in Europe as well.

Hollywood knows exactly what to do with people like these, and I'd argue that so would the gaming industry, if we used live actors, but we'll get to that in a bit. Hollywood has had several folks like Ahola come along, but the most well-known is almost certainly Arnold Schwarzeneggar. As Arnold Strong, Schwarzeneggar played to type in his first film, Hercules in New York². He went off and did a few character roles in TV and in B movies, and also starred in a couple of bodybuilding-related movies, one a documentary. Beyond that, I suppose his English improved enough to give him an opportunity to be a star, so he returned five years later in Conan the Barbarian. You see the pattern. Lou Ferrigno was similar (though I gather a speech impediment limited his opportunities) and certainly since then there have been others.

Ahola's case was a bit different from the general Hollywood vein. He was cast in a movie by Werner Herzog, the iconoclastic German director of such famous films as Stroszek, Aguirre: Wrath of God, and Fitzcarraldo, amongst many others (e.g. the documentary Grizzly Man), this list primarily taken from those I've seen in the last couple of years. When Invincible turned up in my queue I remembered having added it primarily on the recommendation of Netflix, which suggests films for me based on patterns in the hundreds or thousands of films I've rated on their site. I knew pretty much nothing about it, except that it featured Tim Roth on the DVD cover art.

In the film, Ahola portrays a blacksmith's son who, by virtue of his immense strength, is recruited into the entertainment industry. This is all well and good except that Ahola lives in a Jewish shtetl in Poland and will be performing feats of strength disguised as an Aryan for Nazi party members early in their rise to power. The role is stunningly against type, and yet absolutely requires someone of immense build and strength to portray convincingly³. The character, Zishe Breitbart, goes on to attempt to unite the shtetls of Poland against the coming conflict based on a vision he has, and fails; how and why I won't reveal.

I'm certainly not going to claim that men of certain types should play against those types all of the time; indeed, if they did, I'd probably be writing a different article in which I ask if it wouldn't be refreshing for a strong man to occasionally play a barbarian or something. But it takes someone like Herzog to come along and take someone with huge physical gifts, such as Ahola, and find an entirely different kind of story to tell with him. Herzog is someone outside of the system, someone with a unique vision, and he is always telling stories about men like that.

I mention this in the blog because of course, we in the games industry more or less always play to type. Consider Kratos.

Ripped ... from Yesterday's Headlines

Let me say right off the bat that I loved the God of War games. Loved them both. I thought that the second improved on the first considerably, and that the storyline of each was wonderful4, though I also admit that the storyline of the second one is sticking with me less than the first. Great fun. A blast. Just like one of Schwarzeneggar's best movies -- packed with action, wall-to-wall fun. Kratos is clearly built from the ground up to be some kind of mythic superhero -- incomparably strong, muscles rippling as he moves, able to convincingly rip mythological beasts in half or limb from limb. It wouldn't work if he looked like Guybrush; form should follow function. Since our character-based games are primarily action games, our characters are built around that. This is certainly fair, and I'm not arguing against that. Kratos absolutely should look like the ultimate bad-ass, as the fiction which surrounds his game play requires it. Additionally, we are lucky in that we don't have to find actors to do these things; we get to build them and have them do whatever we want.

However, the tales we tell about characters as strong as Kratos are not the only tales we should be telling. I'd still like to see us have the potential to build games around physically strong characters that aren't simply there for the violence route. In Invincible, there's a kind of poignancy that develops because as physically strong as Zishe Breitbart is, dozens or hundreds of him couldn't have stopped the Nazi juggernaut that was to follow, and in fact, his greatest strengths originate in his love for his family, which is tenderly portrayed, and which ultimately leads to the downfall of Roth's character. In a way, Herzog is hinting that perhaps that kind of strength amongst the German population as a whole might have been enough to stop the horrors that were to follow, in a sort of cinematic echo of Martin Niemöller's famous poem, "First they came...". Zishe's strength is enough to open the door to get others to listen to him; his bulk is enough to make people take notice of him. His doomed heroism comes from the fact that he uses that notice to try to affect change, to mount a defense against what he sees is coming.

We build our characters to fill roles based on the stories we are trying to tell. It would be nice if, on occasion, we could find new functions for the forms we use again and again.

Here's hoping you'll soon see me in this space talking about Rod Humble's The Marriage.

¹If anyone can turn up information about what kind of car and such, I admit I'm curious. I can't find any pictures of him doing it, but it's listed on his official site. (back)

² Apparently, this is abysmal. I've never seen it, even knowing I was going to be writing this article, I didn't try and track it down. There are some lengths to which I will not go even for my blog :) (back)

³A little research turns up the fact that Ahola did all of his own lifts in the movie, which were prodigious. (back)

4Actually, I felt the first one had such great stuff in it that I even blogged about it. (back)

Additional thoughts

Several other thoughts occurred to me while I was writing this, and not all of them fit in cleanly (or diluted what I had to say). Here are a few of those thoughts:

  • Characters are expensive. I realize that building and animating a character in this day and age is an expensive proposition. Modeling times are up, skeletons are more complex, and therefore building and animating takes longer and longer. Fewer people would play games that explored stories like that of Zishe Breitbart, just as fewer people have seen Invincible than have seen the Bourne movies. These are market facts. Any team looking to pursue something more fulfilling narratively would have to budget accordingly. As a player, I'm willing to let my mind fill in the gaps in the animation and modeling, if you give me a story which demands it of me, which could be a whole post all of its own.
  • Narratology vs. ludology. I recently read over in Brenda Braithwaite's blog about her switch from narratology to ludology. And I've recently played Rod Humble's game, The Marriage, and will be posting about that separately. My feeling is that to get at deeper emotional issues through gameplay alone may be doomed for a long time to come; at the very least, some cultural signifiers may be required to put the player in the frame of mind to get your message. This is relevant to the discussion at hand because I remain primarily a "story guy" when it comes to games; I agree with Tadgh Kelly that fiction is important. I just want to see more fictions.
  • An example of form. All of this above speaks particularly of one type of body; I'm working from a specific movie to talk about a particular type of body and how it's generally used or portrayed. That said, it's clear that developers have already taken this lesson to heart in one other area... Clearly the women in games are mainly designed as strippers, and yet fill any number of roles in our games.
  • Herzog and Herakles. In thinking about this topic and digging into Herzog a little bit, I discovered that he made a short film at the very beginning of his career entitled Herakles. I point this out because I find it ironic; the title for this article was set long before I checked out all of Herzog's filmography. It's interesting too, in that the short film portrays bodybuilders alongside various shots of wreckage set in the modern day (with intertitles asking about the Herculean Labors). I haven't seen the film, so I can't comment on it directly, but I couldn't let that go unremarked.

Posted by Brett Douville at 02:49 PM | Comments (3)