FilmCroft: I'm Ready for My Close-up

FilmCroft: I’m Ready for My Close-upJerz’s Literacy Weblog)

Part of: Princeton
Video Game Conference

Jordan Hall’s presentation was the only one that relied heavily on cinema theory, though she showed an admirable awareness of the problems such an approach causes.

To take just one example, she suggests that the default method of playing the Lara Croft games — from the perspective of a camera floating along behind the protagonist — distances the (usually male) player from the character. The shot/reverse-shot cinematographic technique will show a close-up, then show what the character is looking at… While Tomb Raider permits the player to view the game world from Lara’s eyes, Hall finds that, lacking the information a cinematographer would provide by inserting a close-up, rather than identifying with Lara, the player merely appropriates her gaze.

Considering that the person holding the controller has already appropriated Lara’s whole body, ownership of her eyes is probably a minor point. Further, because the player has chosen to switch away from tracking mode and view the world from the PC’s eyes, presumably to get a better look at some object in the game world, the close up – which is the director’s way of announcing that a perspective shift is about to occur, is not necessary. While a director can use shot/reverse-shot to communicate emotion via the actor’s facial expression, once again, that information is not necessary — Tomb Raider is not successful because it conveys Lara Croft’s emotions; it is successful because it is fun to play (although that’s of course not the only reason). Hall is right to critique the nature of that “fun,” as well as other cultural manifestations of the Lara Croft phenomenon, but really, if a game kept cutting away from action sequences to insert close-ups of the PC, I’d get pissed off pretty quick.

It’s a videogame convention to play intense music in the proximity of a enemy, even before the PC or player has noticed it. That’s a moviemaking technique that also communicates important information about the game world. How might a quick cut to Lara’s face be useful during game play? Perhaps, when in a room with a pushable block or other hidden exit, Lara would stare suspiciously in that direction? I don’t know… if you start giving your avatar that much individuality, what’s the point of playing? I recall being disappointed that the magic wand cursor in King’s Quest 7 sparkled whenever in the presence of a clickable region. As annoying as pixel-hunting clickfests could be, the sparkling wand took away even that small bit of exploratory fun.

I found Hall’s clips from cut scenes illuminating; anonymous male characters gaze in wonder and fear at scenery or monsters; the shot/reverse-shot technique invites us to identify with their emotions and their plight, in a way that we do not empathize with Lara. Elsewhere, Hall notes, we see males gazing in wonder and admiration at Lara’s abilities, but she also notes a lack of male characters during action sequences.

For a discussion of camera and agency in games, I’d say an adventure game like Syberia is worth a look. I finally finished the game after getting stuck on the “Blue Helena” puzzle… Syberia did make occasional use of close-ups of the PC, Kate Walker, which helped establish her growing fascination with the enigmatic inventor Hans Voralberg. As a game with pre-rendered backgrounds, it doesn’t permit the shifting camera angles that Hall analyzes, but I did find the final cut scene emotionally effective — right up to the point that I learned that it was, in fact, the final scene, and that was nothing more to do. When controlled by the cinematographic cut scene, the PC made a final decision that ended the game (and set up the sequel).

With the music swelling, Kate runs across several screens of gamespace, at one point knocking over a chair that was not a clickable object during the game. For some reason, I found that event significant — the cut scene wasn’t simply replacing the animation shown during the action sequences, it was taking over the world in which the action sequences took place. I found that a bit troublesome, just as a box that had not been a clickable object near an action climax suddenly conveniently contains a bomb when the plot requires one.

These actions break the “fourth wall,” which can be effective when done well — and I almost thought the bumped chair worked. It emphasized the PC’s fictional presence in the virtual world, which was consistent with the designer’s decision to take control away from me during the PC’s climactic final choice.

Syberia which has (as far as I can tell) no timed puzzles, lots of dialogue, a haunting rich, string-heavy main theme, and gorgeous scenery. I usually played it late on my laptop, wearing headphones, in bed, after everyone else had fallen asleep. (Somehow it never felt right playing RPG or FPS games in that context). Still, the final cut scene forced the game to conclude in only that one way that sets up the sequel. Is that, in and of itself, bad? No, but it may be the reason why some reviewers felt cheated by the end. The designer’s desire to tell a story trumped his desire to give us a satisfying gaming experience.