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Leigh Alexander’s Understanding Games

Do You Cut Off Your Arm or Eat a Baby?

How a film got me to stop being a snob about video games.

by Leigh Alexander
04 August 2014, 6:00am

Lately, the movie Snowpiercer performed a sort of impossible feat: It got me to stop being such a snob about video games.

"I am a snob about video games" is such an awful sentence, such an awful thing to say, but I mean, come on: commercial video games, as popular culture understands them, are often disconcerting things.

Usually they are cut and stamped from these modular assembly line components: a linear spine, with bursts of violent combat paced between checkpoints of dialog and information. They're often about progress toward an objective or destination, a growth arc that tends to unspool in tandem with the player's own gains: more skills, better weapons, more power. You're "a guy", a cropped and grizzled cipher, barely a person.

Sometimes the game derives a theme to go with the player behaviour of gaining and killing, like, the game will be "about power structures", or "class struggle" or "the ugliness of man" – I mean, the games cost millions and millions of dollars to make, are marketed at middle-class white dudes using impeccably-detailed graphic violence, are played on state of the art hardware and the ante marches ever upward, so it's probably hard for this type of game to be about much else.

The stories tend to be things that middle-aged guys raised on comic books think are cool or deep. Sometimes there is a "moral choice", like when BioShock famously asked players to decide whether to rescue little girls or to cannibalise them for their energy. That kind of thing.

Every time I tell people I write about video games I end up having to explain that it's not this kind, not the kind where you go whoaaaa because you got the night vision goggles and everything has gone all cool green. The kind of games I write about are, like, this text game about BDSM that a woman made to make a point about consent and embodiment. Or this bleak border control simulator that provokes thought on nationalism and bureaucracy. Or this coming of age story about sexuality and the 1990s. Or this touch-screen game where you make love to your iPad.

Sometimes I'm up in arms about it, like, the kind of game where you jog ever forward as some armed guy with a buzz cut and a beanie and a backpack, or a trundling pair of disembodied hairy arms, the swinging muzzle of some weapon or another. That isn't anything to do with what the real potential of interactive entertainment is "about", and if we could just kind of wrest control of the medium away from these nerd dudes and their nerd power fantasies there'd be more and better and different stuff and people everywhere would take games seriously and relate to them and enjoy them.

Lately I was interviewed by a Columbia Journalism Review reporter who was doing a piece on games criticism, and he was perfectly nice, and asked me a question beginning with "Do you think the industry..." and I said "No, fuck 'the industry', I don't care about the industry, it's not about the industry." I get a lot of angry tweets from video game fans.

Of course, this is all kinda bad of me. If we're thinking about video games as capable of capturing larger cultural attention, of influencing people and things – and in this column I'll be doing here, we are thinking that – we have to think about commercial games in the same way we would think about blockbuster films. That pop culture always has something to say about people, even if it's pfffffffffftpopular.

Artist David OReilly's concept of a commercial video game in Spike Jonze's Her was, like most other things about the film, simultaneously familiar and alien. Joaquin Phoenix's scrobbling forward with two little fingers didn't just serve the character's vibe of being both playful and kinda impotent, it's an interface you could actually imagine video game makers selling, in this age of touch screens and ill-advised motion control experiments.

In the game he is urged ever onward, toward a nonsense-goal by a cute-looking little character who curses like a sailor, the kind of juxtaposition that amuses grade-schoolers. It amuses Phoenix's character. Watching him play video games, you are awed by the technology, you recognise the experience warmly, and you find it a little pathetic, all at the same time. Which is about right. I love to see video games touch movies this way. I thought they're working, somehow.

And when I saw Snowpiercer, I thought, they're working. I've never seen a movie be more like a video game and work. Everyone I knew called it "BioShock on a train", which is good shorthand, because it means you know you can expect an apocalyptic dystopia, with class struggles drawn grotesque, confined to a failing industrial space. Boom! Video games' language is useful!

Snowpiercer stars "a guy" – a forgettable grizzled cipher in a beanie. He fights his way up the train; his goal is "the very front", and its main boss, so to speak. There is the middle-act reversal, with the night-vision and the hostage mission. The twist ending is like so many video games, the much-excoriated "you were [x] all along" thing. There are even extreme moral dilemmas worthy of games in there, like do you cut off your own arm or eat a baby.

I actually totally loved this movie, and it was its video game-ness that made it work.

Of course, it's hard to tell whether Snowpiercer intentionally borrowed any of the commercial video games' language or structure. It's Korean filmmaking by way of French comics. It's interesting to know you don't even have to mash up Western superhero comics with American capitalist power fantasies for "video game" to come out.

"The gamey feel has more to do with the linear nature of the train and story," the French Canadian independent designer Phil Fish (Fez) tells me on Facebook IMs. "It's level after level after level, a clear progression of self-contained thematic environments. The goal is super clear: you're all the way to the back, you have to get to the front."

"The world-building techniques they used are common in video games, too," he says. "The 'branding' of the train. All this stuff just reminded me of BioShock, so much: 'Here, we built you this little underwater arboretum so you don't go crazy,' is like, 'Here, we built you this little nightclub on a train so that you don't go crazy.' That kind of huis-clos, self-contained world is very video game."

There is a revelation at the end of the film about the cogs in the train's machinery that we won't spoil. "Oh my god, please get a hold of [BioShock director] Ken Levine and ask him if the comic was an inspiration," says Fish.

He probably won't talk to me any more, I reply.

Leigh Alexander's Understanding Games will return to VICE. Meantime, make friends with the author online, here.

Tagged:
Gaming
Video Games
Leigh Alexander
snowpiercer