Thursday, January 3, 2013

Email About the Eurogamer Controversy

This will most likely be the last post on the blog for a short while.  I still have some essays and topics I wish to discuss, but due to the upcoming school semester, as well as some extracurriculars I will be involved in (more comics for the Hoya, applying for jobs and semester abroad programs), I will be otherwise occupied.  

The following is an email I sent to a friend of a friend, discussing a fairly recent controversy.  Eurogamer  writer Robert Florence resigned from his job after an uproar where he accused a fellow game journalist of being biased in favor a company, rather unsubtly hunting that this journalist might have been in the pocket of the company she was constantly promoting.  The unfortunately modified version of the article can be found here:

In this email, I discuss the role of a journalist, how I completely agree with Mr. Florence's opinion, and discuss where his article went wrong.
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I do agree with Robert Florence's main points about the bizarre, corporate nature of video game journalism.  It really is something we need to be aware of and keep an eye out for.  Could you imagine if someone was like this in the movie industry?  If a person of such obvious bias was caught, they would have been laughed out of the industry.  [I must admit that I do not know off the top of my head any examples of bribes and obvious bias in movie industry existing, or being penalized or punished.]  Critics and journalists are supposed to be the passionate prophets of doom of an industry, reminding us all of the sinister side of the industry we must try and fight against.  Video games are a business, but when the business side of it comes in the way of the art, the critic and the journalist must expose this to the public.  I often credit Jim Sterling of the Escapist's "Jimquisition" and, as well as Benjamin "Yahtzee" Croshaw, as the two main examples of this.  Mr. Sterling in particular has a reputation for exposing and commenting on EA's and Acitivision's shenanigans and convincing gamers that their behaviors should not be tolerated.  The fact that journalists in the video game industry can be bought is sickening and completely against their role in society.  Even the guys at Game Informer realize this.  Though they are owned by Gamestop, they are perfectly willing to comment on how used game sales can affect the industry.  Now, they have to include asterisks and generally avoid condemning Gamestop, but they still talk about it as much as they can legally.  [Their journalism IS affected by their parent company, but not to the point where they do not comment at ALL about what Gamestop is doing to sales and the mindsets of developers.  In fact, they have featured several articles discussing this, all with the disclaimer about the magazine.] 
Where Mr. Florence crossed the line, unfortunately, is naming names.  That's when legal action can be taken, and that's what leads to his removal from Eurogamer.  But here's the thing.  A good critic can simply point out who is responsible and say "get him!"  I would say Mr. Florence and Mr. Sterling do so.  However, the best critics are the one's that create a mindset in their audience to look for such behaviors.  George Orwell is probably the best example of this.  His novels Nineteen Eighty-Four or Animal Farm are both about fascism and the horrors of the reigns of Hitler and Stalin.  But he does not simply say this outright.  He creates a story, a fable if you will, that leaves the reader with a sense of paranoia and suspicion about one's government.  It's a word of warning that the reader takes to heart.  That is why Orwell's words still resonate to this day with any overreaching government when a book specifically about Hitler or Stalin is more niche.  If one points out the behaviors and keeps it vague (especially in a country with such a harsh libel law as the UK), one can create the environment in one's readers where Lauren Wainwright (the woman he mentioned) would be criticized by the fans, and you can't sue everybody who creates a ruckus about it.  That's why people mainly criticize obvious sexism in gaming and media these days, magazines and commentators have created a new environment where these things are criticized without even having the journalists say so.  We know Dead or Alive 5 is a shameless exploitation of women that should be considered childish because we have learned that it is.  Or maybe we have learned that it is, but we frankly don't care.  We process the information journalists give us, and then we decide if we follow it or not. 
Like Mr. Florence said, we KNOW Geoff Keighley and his "award show" is a load of corporate crock.  We pay no attention to it, and condemn the Spike Video Game Awards as not truly representing video game culture.  However, the passionate gamer NEEDS to be more aware of what a person is saying in video game journalism.  Can this article be truly trusted?  Is this review influenced by corporate meddling?  That's why I mainly disregard reviews for big name purchases and wait for the player commentaries in the following weeks.  These reviews are too liable to A) be influenced by corporate bribes and B) be mediated to avoid fan backlash (think the Rotten Tomatoes/Dark Knight Rises incident).   
The video game industry can be a sinister, depressing place.  But its the critic's job to point this out, and hope people listen and set the industry on the right path.  Most people won't listen, like my roommate, who merely blows off all comments I make about the games we play, saying "It's not impeding my enjoyment of the game, so I don't care; stop bitching."  But, hopefully some people will listen and we can improve it.  If not...well, then, I hope you enjoy on disc DLC and the Spike Video Game Awards.
Soon after, the person I sent this email to wrote a paper, using quotes from this email.  I may post the paper here, if I get his permission.  For now, enjoy this last post for a while.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

"Game Over for Creativity"

The following was an article from the Hoya (Georgetown's student newspaper), and was featured back in late April.  All text featured in brackets after most paragraphs is my current opinion on the matters I discuss here.  Either my opinion is changed, or had been somewhat modified by the Hoya's editors to make the viewpoint of the piece seem more pointed.
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Subtlety, thy name is Internet.
For a video game that involves shooting a lot of things, “Mass Effect 3” has come under heavy fire — from an army of dissatisfied fans and critics. [I would be wrong if I gave the impression that Mass Effect was ONLY about shooting.  For the uninformed, the gameplay of Mass Effect not only features a widely varied shooting gameplay that includes more technological powers known as "biotics"; however, the game also features a number of dialogues between characters, placing a rather heavy role on story and character interaction.]
Since its release last month [March 2012], “Mass Effect 3” has caused an uproar for its questionable design. The game, which is the last installation in a series usually known for providing strong interactive elements and extended player choice, fell short of expectations. Fan anger has reached the point where movements have started to “Retake the Ending,” parodying “Mass Effect 3’s” famous tagline, “Retake the Earth.” There have been protests, petitions and even a filed complaint to the Federal Trade Commission. 
One protest involved cupcakes.  All of them had vanilla flavoring, the taste of disappointment.
It seems that these movements have been successful, as video game developer Bioware announced earlier this month that it will release downloadable content this summer that will, as Bioware co-founder Ray Muzyka promises, “[maintain] the team’s artistic vision for the end of this story arc in the ‘Mass Effect’ universe … [while also] delivering the answers players are looking for.” [The new endings have somewhat satiated the fan outcry, yet the dissatisfaction with the endings has continued in the most passionate of fans, who claim that the endings, while more detailed, still avoid the problem of having the choices of past games not mattering in the ending, as I will detail later.]
But such a change is detrimental to video games as both a business and an artistic medium. [Now, I'm not so sure.  While some choices, such as the ending, might be considered interfering with the artistic medium, however, there have been other fan outcries that I have felt have been widely beneficial to the video game medium.  Say, the outcry against Hitman: Absolution's trailer featuring "Sexy Nun Assassins" supposed sexism.  A controversy against a trailer like that can be considered trying to promote more gender equality in the industry.  It may effect the artistic integrity of the promotion of the game; however, the benefit of an outcry may promote a better industry.]

Fans are primarily upset with the game’s ending, and I must admit that they raise valid arguments. Since the “Mass Effect” series has always prided itself on encouraging player choice, this ending to the series betrays the interactive element that makes the video game medium special. [In particular, the Mass Effect series has often prided itself on the power of choice.  In addition, Muzyka had claimed when Mass Effect 3 was in development that the ending of the game would reflect the choices of all previous games.  Needless to say, the game did not live up to these claims.]

But should the developers change the ending due to the fans’ request? Despite my previous complaints, I still do not believe that this is the right approach, because the implications of such a change would be worse than keeping the ending as it is. [Eh...not entirely sure on this one.  I think this one might have been edited.]
Being a fan of video games does not give one creative control. A fan’s only voice in a product or series is whether he decides to buy it. If he had any input on the creative process, game development would become only more geared toward pleasing the majority and would be void of the boldness and experimentation that inspire and stimulate writers and artists. [THIS, however, I still hold to be true.  Video game developers should of course give SOME attention to fan clamors and listen to what is praised and criticized, and the Mass Effect team has definitely followed this philosophy quite well.  BUT, should fans be the sole force in what makes a game?  Would a series then end up like the Silent Hill series, which has fallen to the point to making games solely for fans and for everything they like that they forget to actually make a good, original game?  When fans gain too much power in what makes a game, THIS is where problems can arise.  And with a BIG decision like the ending of a game, this where the balance of creative power can slowly tip toward fans, and the creative teams will be so afraid of not appeasing them, that the game's development can only be widely affected.]
"Hey, you like Pyramid Head?  How about we put in him in every game, whether he is relevant or not."
As a result of the protest in response to “Mass Effect 3’s” ending, I fear creative directors will be less willing to take creative liberties in the future, or they will be severely limited by their publishers, who might be concerned that such uproar could occur again. And in a medium where originality and creativity are already becoming jeopardized, gamers should find Bioware’s rush to appease its fans unacceptable. [This was the point I just emphasized.  Developers are already limited by "what sells" and "what the mass audience wants".  While the promotion of games can be debated, the game itself is more of a grey area.  I'm not saying NO ONE should complain about the ending, or anything about the game (God knows I complain about a lot of things about Mass Effect), but to DEMAND a new ending seems a bit much!]
We need to maturely show that we care about our games, both as entertainment and as an art form. Throwing a temper tantrum, as some “Mass Effect” fans have done, would not influence the industry according to the protesters’ best interest. [I still find this is true.  Even with the most recent controversy I was involved in, the Bioshock Infinite cover fiasco (I may write a post about this later), I would still hold that the proper reaction is not childish anger (which, admittedly, I did have), but calm, collected criticism.  Petitions are fine, if done with a calm manner.  We need to remember that we need to show that our medium is mature by ACTING mature.  I need to improve this as much as (if not more than) anybody else, but hopefully we can make the change.]
Yeah...less of this.
(Grey Carter and Cory Rydell's "Critical Miss" from the Escapist)
I understand fans’ frustrations with the designers of “Mass Effect 3,” but their protests may affect the industry with a result far worse than a disappointing game — they may change the nature of the video game industry itself. [Whether this change is beneficial or not is yet to be seen.]

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Spinal Tap and the C.S.A. Live: An Analysis of the Various Forms of Mockumentary Techniques

The following is a deviation from my typical video game themed posts.  The final paper of my documentary class, where I analyze the effectiveness of two mockumentaries (comedy films that use the style of a documentary (though the events in the movie itself are staged and often used with actors) to give the film a false sense of authenticity).  If you have not seen either of these movies, I would highly suggest you watch both of them.  
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This Is Spinal Tap is certainly an interesting film.  With its larger than life characters and ridiculous situations, any observant viewer of the film would find it obvious that the film is a parody of concert films and biopic documentaries, rather than a completely legitimate film about the band “Spinal Tap.”  Yet, the film’s director, Rob Reiner, once noted that while more critical and “sophisticated” audiences in urban areas (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Toronto) easily determined the film’s falsity and thus enjoyed its humorous nature, not everyone could see through the ruse (Platinga, 320).  Reiner notes that when they showed the film to an audience in a Dallas shopping mall, the film was noticeably less successful.  “A small section of the audience laughed,” he says.  “The rest asked why we would make a serious documentary about a terrible band they had never heard of” (Platinga, 320).  Now, many more conscientious viewers and film buffs would find this reaction baffling.  How could anyone find a film that features exploding drummers, cartoonish characters, and such bizarre and awkward situations to have any appearance of validity?  How can anyone actually believe that lead singer David St. Hubbins’s assertion that “dozen of people die from spontaneous combustion every year”?  The answer, put simply, is the execution and style of the film.  Through an expert replication of the same styles used in other concert films and direct cinema documentaries, This Is Spinal Tap makes itself seem like every other documentary because it looks and acts like every other documentary of this style.  Through meticulous camera work and editing, the film is able to perfectly replicate the direct cinema style, and thus Spinal Tap comes to life, regardless of how cartoonish and childish they are.  This is what every mockumentary must do to ever try and convince an audience of the “veracity” of their film.  And films like This Is Spinal Tap and the Ken Burns parody C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, accomplish this with remarkable ability.

These three seem totally relatable and likable.
But how in particular is this possible?  Let us use This Is Spinal Tap as our first example.  What exactly did Reiner do to make the characters of Spinal Tap “come alive?”  It is certainly a hard task to accomplish; the characters, as mentioned, certainly aren’t “normal.”  They are larger than life parodies of every stereotype of the heavy metal and rock genre, with everyone serving a particular role, from the overly macho lead guitarist Nigel Trufel, with his phallic use of the guitar and his complete lack of knowledge of his own instrument, to bassist Derek Smalls, who tries (and fails) to embody the “silent intellectual” trope often associated with rock bassists.  Yet, as mentioned, some audiences felt the band was real, and that is due to the stellar acting of the band’s “members.”  The basis of this “believability” was due to the fact that the film was largely improvised, with the actors only having a rough outline of what was going to happen in the scene.  Thus, they were able to create a sense of the band members being real people by giving genuine reactions to the questions and situations they were presented.  With the lack of a “strict” story and script structure found in other Hollywood films, Spinal Tap’s “members” rants and dialogue seems more in the vein of just normal conversation.  A particularly good example would be when Rob Reiner’s “Marty Di Bergi” (an affectionate parody of Martin Scorsese, the director of the concert film The Last Waltz (1970) asks Nigel about Nigel’s amp that goes “up to 11.”  Di Bergi asks why Nigel could not simply have just “made 10 louder”, and Nigel stops for a moment, considering this idea, before sheepishly and childishly replying “but it goes up to 11.”  However, in the moment before his answer, we see the cogs in actor Christopher Guest’s head slowly moving, and Nigel seems a little more human.    His response is still comedic and childish, but as we see him slowly try to put the pieces together, and eventually failing, he seems more like a real person.  If the script was more regimented, and Nigel responded even a second quicker with the same line, it wouldn’t have the same level of believable earnestness the moment in the film does.  Thus, with the improvisation, the film becomes more like a direct cinema film, since the reactions of the characters become (or seems to become) more genuine.  And, in many ways, the members of Spinal Tap become very much like “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” from Albert and David Maysles’s Grey Gardens.  Though, on the surface, both groups seem almost too cartoonish to be real, the way they act and interact with each other creates a layer of believability.  Though both the Beales and the members of Spinal Tap both act in ways that no rational person would ever consider to be true, when we actually meet and witness their interactions, they become “real.”  We can follow their thought processes, and their inabilities and failures to understand “normal” thoughts.  In this way, the members of Spinal tap walk the fine line and explore the beautiful limbo between fantasy and reality.

It goes to 11.  No further questions.
But even if the actors were acting in a believable manner, the film still would have lost some feeling of a “direct cinema” feel if the cinematography was too structured.  If there were too many crane shots or even a use of a more high quality camera, the film would have lost the feeling of an “on the fly” style of filmmaking.  However, Reiner saw to this too, for he “contracted documentary producer Karen Murphy to give the film a surface authenticity, and hired cinematographer Peter Smokler, who had worked on Gimmie Shelter, as director of photography.” (Platinga, 320)  In other words, in order to give the film an aura and feeling of a concert style film, like Gimmie Shelter, Reiner hired producers and cinematographers who had worked on these kinds of films.  To anyone, this concept seems obvious.  Who would know this style of filmmaking better than people with experience?  And it certainly pays off.  The concert scenes in particular are shot in a style very similar to other concert films and even some early music videos, with the camera frequently moving around and creating a rapidly moving cavalcade of dynamic images and angles, making the film’s audience feel like there are witnesses to a true Spinal Tap concert.  But the cinematography is also impressive in many very subtle ways.  In fact, one could say it is the subtle differences that give the film it’s direct cinema feel.  Sometimes, when the camera is moving, it will shake and shift since the cameraman is walking with it, giving the impression that Di Bergi and/or his cameraman is always present in the scene.  Adding to this effect are the times where you can actually see glimpses of Di Bergi, catching quick glimpses of his hat or jacket.  While in a more structured film this would be considered a glaring flaw, the “accidental” inclusion of Di Bergi in scenes makes the camera work seem rushed and in the moment, just like a Maysles film.  There are also many times where the characters in the film look directly at the camera, and then guiltily look away, as if they are remembering they are not supposed to do such a thing.  There are even two occasions where certain characters in the film question who Di Bergi and his crew are, presenting something not even the Maysles have shown: how new people react to the presence of the camera.  These touches, as well as the generally sloppiness of the film’s cinematography (sometimes shots are obstructed or noticeably shaking), give the film the more “direct cinema vibe.”  This, combined with the acting, give This Is Spinal Tap a strange sort of genuineness that can make people believe the band is real.
Reiner's Di Bergi (Left) and Christopher Guest's Nigel Trufel in one of the many "interviews"
Yet, just as there is not only one style of documentary, there is no one style of mockumentary, and just as This Is Spinal Tap perfectly parodies and mimics the style of “direct cinema” documentaries, the 2004 film C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America presents an affectionate parody of the dry style of Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker famous for his extremely lengthy documentary, The Civil War, that aired on PBS in 1990.  However, before going into how C.S.A. mocks Burns’ style, we must first go into what Burns’ style is.  To put it frankly, Burns’ style is what most people consider when they think of documentary, and features several very particular kinds of footage and techniques.  The most noticeable and recognizable technique is the “voice of God” narration, which drones over the poetic descriptions of battles and the history of the conflict.  It also features many photos, which are panned over or zoomed in on in order to make the shot more dynamic or to shift the focus from object to another.  For example, Burns may focus on a specific area of a painting of a Civil War battle before zooming out to show the rest of the canvas as the narrator drones on, as well as some dramatic music, or a reenactment of a song performed at the time (such as “Dixie” or “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”).  Speaking of reenactments, Burns uses these quite often to convey a certain meaning.  For example, he can just use the marching of feet on the ground to convey a moving army or a firing cannon to convey a battle.  Another common trope of Burns’ documentary is the interviews, or “talking heads.”  From intellectuals to former Senators and even descendants of those involved in the fighting, many people put in their two cents on the importance or significance of a certain event.  Finally, Burns often used different voices to read the letters and diaries of famous historical figures or common soldiers, as if the people themselves are reading the letters instead of the narrator. 

C.S.A. utilizes all of these tropes and more in its portrayal of an alternate history, and while it may not convince any American of its veracity, I can see where it would confuse someone who is not familiar with the history.  From the voice of God narration, to the reenactments, to the “talking heads,” C.S.A. uses Burns’ style perfectly.  In many ways, one could say that C.S.A. uses Burns’ style to point out how ridiculous and manipulative the style is.  For example, in order to create an alternate history, the filmmakers have to use a lot of re-contextualization of certain pictures and documents in history to keep the film somewhat grounded in historical accuracy in order to make this alternate history seem believable.  One scene that caught my eye in particular was the use of photographs of the destruction of a particular city.  In Burns’ film, he never says the name of the city, and merely mentions that the “South” faced terrible devastation in the war.  As one would expect from a documentary, Burns used a photo to convey a meaning he could not really show in detail.  However, in C.S.A., the exact same photos that Burns used to convey Southern destruction were now applied to the North.  In a matter of fact tone, the narrator in C.S.A. tells us that these photos are now supposed to represent New York City’s devastation.  In this moment, I had an experience similar to the viewing of Land Without Bread, noticing the huge assumptions I had made when watching Burns’ film.  I could certainly understand that the narrator of C.S.A. was lying, but how could I be sure that Burns was telling the truth?  In this moment, the makers of C.S.A. were almost pointing out how easily it is to be manipulated by the images and official sounding narrator of a Burns-style documentary.  In fact, this seems to be the main interesting point of the film.  While there are some images that do fail at “reworking history” (some of the fake historical characters have photos that do not match the same grainy quality as others from the Civil War era), many of the created images do make the film seem quite official.  Many political cartoons, paintings, and photographs are either doctored or re-contextualized to have completely new meanings, and have the potential to confuse the uninformed or inattentive.  The Confederate Flag can seem perfectly natural on top of the White House’s flagpole.  John F. Kennedy’s speech about “freedom” during his televised debate with Richard Nixon can take on a whole new meaning when taken in the context of the Confederate system of slave labor.  The footage taken in World War I can be easily reworked to be taking place in Mexico instead of Germany if the narrator claims it is.  And while some images are more humorous in nature, the ability C.S.A. has at creating such an official portrayal of this alternate history is rather startling and disturbing.

Once again, the brilliance lies in the subtleties that make the film very similar to Burns’ The Civil War.   Even the smallest of touches, like the repeated “commercial buffer” of a soldier walking silhouetted across a red sky, with a cursive “C.S.A” imposed over the image, seems almost directly ripped from Burns, just with a different title.  In addition, the “talking heads” segments in both Burns and C.S.A. share a similar tendency to have bizarre angles and zooms on the faces of those interviewed.  While there might be some shots of the interviewees shot from a comfortable distance, other times the camera is zoomed right into their face, sometimes at strange tilts.  In both films, it is jarring, yet it meant to create more dynamic shots.  These talking heads segments also capture the rather long-winded and pompous ways some intellectuals portray themselves on camera, adding in the same dramatic pauses and reactions of hatred or admiration that scholars often present in films like Burns’.  Another good example of these subtleties would be the press conference of fictional senator John Ambrose Fauntroy V (the great-grandson of one of the men who helped to create the C.S.A.).  In an almost direct parody of Bill Clinton’s denial of his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky, Fauntroy denies that his ancestor had “sexual relations” with one of his servants, thus making Fauntroy of mixed blood.  While the scene is indeed humorous in itself, the real magic occurs in the presentation, which marvelously mimics an actual press conference, not only in the camera angles, but even in the low quality camera used, making the scene seem ripped from a cable news channel.
This looks way too familiar.
Another interesting section of the film is not part of the documentary itself, but the fake commercials.  While mainly used for comedic effect and to reflect the new, incredibly racist society that formed under the C.S.A., these commercials are brilliant in their techniques.  From bizarre, Snuggie-style infomercials advertising a tracker collar for one’s servants (featuring the same terrible acting and attractive models that one would find in other infomercials), to an incredibly macho commercial for a cigarette brand called “Niggerhair” (based on an actual product) featuring footage of cowboys and horses in a wide open plain, these commercials perfectly reflect not only the culture of the C.S.A., but mock our own commercials by merely presenting the same footage with small differences.

Thus, by following the styles of the different kinds of documentaries to a striking amount of accuracy, these filmmakers are able to create a surprisingly believable new “reality.”  The question becomes not “how could someone believe a band like Spinal Tap is real?”, but “how can one not be sometimes tricked by the presentation of the films?” In their cinematography and their stellar acting, both films have a lot that could possibly confuse or misinform a less attentive viewer.  And while the situations they portray might be ridiculous, are they ever really more ridiculous than the Beales of Grey Gardens?  Are they ever presented with less matter-of-fact assertiveness than Burns’ The Civil War?  By performing such effective parodies of documentaries, these filmmakers make us aware of the all too common tropes we find and take for granted in documentaries.

  1. The Civil War. Prod. Ken Burns. Dir. Ken Burns. PBS, 1990. Digital Distribution.
  2. C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America. Dir. Kevin Willmott. By Kevin Willmott. IFC Films, 2004. Digital Distribution.
  3. Plantinga, Carl. "Gender, Power, and a Cucumber: Satirizing Masculinity in This Is Spinal Tap." Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Ed. Barry Keith Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1998. 318-32. Print.
  4. This Is Spinal Tap. Dir. Rob Reiner. By Rob Reiner and Rob Reiner. Perf. Rob Reiner. Embassy Pictures, 1984. Digital Distribution.