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Gamescom: Day Two

August 16, 2012

There is a noise in the bathroom of my otherwise very nice Cologne hotel room that sounds like a classroom of expertly hapless recorder players heaving a discordant red-faced hurricane somewhere in the distance. This morning I found it quite comforting, although for a few moments in the smallest hours of last night after I’d uploaded the last of the video files that we’re here to make I became irrationally concerned that I’d developed an intricate form of tinnitus, probably thanks to the savage and meaningless noise barked from wall to wall of EA’s conference yesterday. Then I realised it was just the pipes.

This was day two of Gamescom, the media day, during which several thousand select members of the press are given the opportunity to walk the vastness of the show floor and, if they’re anything like me, imagine they’re exploring an abandoned Forerunner structure that echoes with an awful quiet in some forgotten monument to bigness among the stars.

Really I have only daydreamed this once, and it was spoilt by a woman in electric blue hotpants asking me in German something about the racing game to which her hotpants were no doubt intrinsically related. Such are the perils of the games expo, although in keeping with the general theme of complaining less about Cologne than LA I actually spent a rather pleasant morning among the coloured beanbags and playground geometry of the PlayStation area on the show floor. If this makes it sound like a soft-cornered asylum for people no longer able to deal appropriately with the jagged realities of the world beyond Sackboy’s flap-tongued embrace, then fair enough – PS3 is rapidly being repositioned as a kids’ thing, gearing up for a final hardcore hurrah with the portentously-named Beyond and The Last Of Us before making itself a photoshop flyer and doing children’s parties at the weekends.

Or if not that, then at least giving itself over to the growing LittleBigEmpire and saving a seat in assembly for children-skewing peripherals like Move and Wonderbook (that’s skewing not skewering. I am not a monster). Add to that the all-but-confirmed new budget model (the PS3 SlimSlim, or Sliiiim, still wide enough to knock your Sky box off the TV stand) which has defied rumours by not making an appearance at Gamescom (unless it’s really slim) and the PS3’s regression to childhood is tough to deny.

And who’d want to? Last year I watched joylessly blank-faced teens queue for hours to bullet each other to heaven on a stand dominated by Uncharted 3 and The Heist. This year I watched the cutest child in all of Germany sit in a full-sized wooden boxcar racer to play LittleBigPlanet Karting for a full half an hour while his mum watched patiently (I would like to meet the guys who approved his press accreditation though).

There’s a joyousness about the eclectic creativity and dressing-up box aesthetics that characterise PS3’s infant strand – The Puppeteer and Tearaway are the latest examples – and I think PlayStation does these vibrant kids games as well as anyone else. So I’m excited about the next year, but I can also hear the minor chord playing hauntingly in the background reminding me that, strange beasts that they are, games consoles always look their youngest right before they die, and in that respect the PS3 getting another price cut will be a bit like a favourite dog developing an arthritic limp that makes you want to hug them more often and take them out for longer walks that they can’t really enjoy anymore anyway.

(My secret hope is that The Last Of Us, which I saw today as we interviewed the game’s endearingly enthusiastic leads Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, will be like the last big walk on which I took my own arthritic dog, Max, who shrugged off groaning hind leg stiffness for an afternoon of snapping at long grass and a puppyish playfight that made me cry. It is understandably a hope not conveyed in any of the magazine previews I’ve written so far).

Today’s entry seems to be dominated by daydreams and wandering memories, so it’s probably appropriate that the only game I actually played was Doom 3, which is being re-released along with Doom and Doom 2. I didn’t love what I played of Doom 3, partly because it lacks the fireball-sidestepping precision of its simpler predecessors, and partly because the 3D was so extreme that when I turned corners quickly it felt like the game was stapling each screen refresh directly onto my wet unblinking corneas, which even taking into account my 3D skepticism seems a high price to pay for things appearing to be slightly further away. I shall still play the first two, though, for sentimental reasons (anyone who at this point questions how I can call Doom’s spacebar-trigger carnage “sentimenal” following a eulogy to my dying dog probably has a very good fucking point).

Filming and being tired filled the rest of the day. At one point during the hour-long actor panel for The Last Of Us I realised I was physically rehearsing a facial expression I wished our guest presenter had made for a piece to camera earlier, and tried to pass it off as a debilitating facial tic. Then on the walk back to the hotel Dave Jackson claimed that Germany was “equidistant from everywhere” which seemed for a soaring moment to be a possibility before the drab insistence of Newtonianism reasserted itself. The prick.

Gamescom: Day One

August 15, 2012

The progress bars are inching towards some early morning event horizon and the clock is plowing mercilessly onwards while I blink and switch memory sticks and worry about tomorrow. I am at another videogames expo.

Only this one is Gamescom, in Cologne, and although an oppressive workload and the need to find internet that doesn’t run backwards give it a tang of E3’s bitterness, the fact that Cologne is really very nice and has more soul in a single block of its brutal Gothic cathedral than LA has in all its endless miles of numbing Godless sprawl makes it significantly more bearable.

We arrived yesterday, greeted by a taxi driver who told us enthusiastically that Resident Evil 6 was a “beautiful game” as we passed a giant advertisement pinned to a hotel, which made me think he was either mad or confusing it with Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, which seemed unlikely.

Today the real business started, a day before the show itself opens in the mercilessly vast Koelnmesse, but still packed with conferences, previews and assorted bangdrumming. First was a Hitman Absolution event at an unassuming high street cinema called Residenz, which inside was an unexpectedly huge and glamorous theatre with rows of wide leather seats. Hitman isn’t my favourite game because I’m rubbish at it, and because before finally caving to demand for another one IO Interactive inflicted the lovehandled misery of Kane & Lynch upon the world, a kind of metabolic syndrome in game form. And they did it not once but twice, which proves it wasn’t an accident.

There was a new Hitman mode called Contracts which looks like a slick way to introduce customised mission design to an otherwise linear experience, but from my comfy chair in which I was unable to touch the row in front even when my seat was reclined I couldn’t shake the discomfort at the opening replay of Hitman’s “Hot Shower” trailer, a CG sequence cut to Lana Del Rey’s Video Games in which Agent 47 unalives a series of hapless bodyguards before entering a steamy bathroom where a woman presses a hand to the inside of a glass shower cubicle. What bothers me isn’t the clattering juxtaposition of soothing sound and impactful action (although Assassin’s Creed has already wanked that particular shaft to a raw straw already) but the charged intimacy of the final shot, which eroticises violence in way that I’m sure was deliberate but I’m still allowed not to like. I was also struck during the gameplay demonstration by the fact that Agent 47 looks significantly less sleek these days, one particular glance at his blanched marrow countenance suggesting no longer a razor dressed in a man-suit, Mortality by Armani, more divorcee physics teacher loses his shit, murders child with brick.

Outside the Residenz we stared at a banner hoarding for The Dark Knight Returns and I wondered how Bane would sound in German (like a man who belongs on a horse, I hoped) before a homeless guy asked if we were from Israel and told Dave he liked his glasses. After a moment’s reconsideration he came back to tell us he didn’t like them after all, but by then our thoughts had turned to the EA conference.

Initially it seemed the aim of the conference was to beat me insensible with sound, as the thunderous trailer to Army Of Two: The Devil’s Cartel was launched into the audience at a volume that at one point I felt certain I could chew. This is of course perfectly in-keeping with a series that’s basically about men dressed in pots and pans only taking a break from endless massacre to give each other a fist-bump, but I’m still going to give it a chance if only because it’s now being made by Visceral, who also made Dead Space and can therefore do pretty much whatever they want as far as I’m concerned.

Except make Dead Space 3, of course, which I’m furious about. Or at least I would be if I was the internet – instead I’m just quietly excited. The move towards bigger action and bigger Isaac’s face being on the screen does take the series away from the compressed diamond brilliance of the original, and I will miss the minimalist sci-fi hook that first drew me in. But that’s not a failing of Visceral, more a symptom of an industry and an audience that always demands more and louder with extra bits, and which would never let a series continue with perfectly judged smallness even if that’s what made it great in the first place.

On a less fun note I am pretty furious with EA’s approach to marketing Medal Of Honor: Warfighter. Executive producer Greg Goodrich told the audience today that it was more than just entertainment, and it would put gamers into the boots of real-life operatives. This drive to authenticity as a COD-trumping USP is turning Medal Of Honor into an unsettling celebration of war, conflating the real and the virtual and drawing children – who will regardless of rating be playing this game in the hundreds of thousands – into an unthinking glorification of the military. It’s even more worrying than the similar conflation in the US Navy-sanctioned film Act Of Valor, which used videogame imagery to draw in the Xbox crowd, because at least when you got down to it the film itself was dutifully earnest and dull. Medal Of Honor will have all of the cock-strumming fireworks and none of the clumsy drawbacks of real life. It is a bad idea.

So thank goodness for the Sony conference, which came straight after. There was a fair share of murder and other staples – Assassin’s Creed Liberation, Killzone Mercenary, Call Of Duty Black Ops: Declassified – but there were also new ideas that moved radically away from striking the life out of another human being as the focal point of digital entertainment. Tearaway is the new game from Media Molecule, the studio behind Little Big Planet, and it’s about interacting with a tactile pop-up world of craft and origami. You control a stack of folds called Iota, and your fingers can burst through the game like a paper bag if you push the back of the Vita, which is the best thing I’ve seen in a game since someone pointed out to me that by rapidly selecting and deselecting Donkey Kong on Mario Kart 64, “you can make it look like he’s wanking a great big cock on his head”.

The other standout was Rain, a downloadable game from Japan Studio about a boy in what looks like a lamplit early 20th Century street chasing a disappearing girl and discovering a world that’s invisible except when it rains. You guide the boy’s sodden silhouette, outlined through the downour, as he dodges watery monsters and tracks the girl. It looks sad like chasing an unrecoverable moment of happiness, which is why I’m sure I’m going to love it.

Kreck’s Klosing Down Sale, or Why Games Aren’t So Fun Any More

August 1, 2012

There’s something reassuringly mediocre about my favourite exploits in World Of Warcraft. I played the game for hundreds of hours, but never became any good at it – I never really understood crafting, never did a raid, never killed a dragon on a big hill (which is the end, right? Just joking – I know it never ends).

My favourite three things about World Of Warcraft are: my Orc shaman Kreck, the time Kreck spent pretending to be a highwayman in the bushes of Duskwood, and his obsessive, inconsequential mastery of the gorilla skin and rough stone markets at the auction houses of Azeroth.

Kreck was a shaman of necessity. Despite pouring days of my life in World Of Warcraft at no point did I want to admit to myself that I was, you know, into it. So I only played with real-life friends – or, to be more accurate, friend. As there were just two of us, we designed characters on the basis that we’d need to function as a pair. Being a shaman meant that Kreck was able to heal a little, and take a decent battering before falling onto his sad-eyed, white-bearded face.

He couldn’t heal as well as a dedicated healer, or soak up hits like a warrior – but that was his lot in life, the journeyman adventurer, the sighing, trying, nearly-guy of non-legend. He was partnered with a Troll rogue called Kanhoji – the sneaky specialist counterpoint to Kreck’s blunt utilitarianism, the disappearing whirl of knives and death that would (hopefully) offset Kreck’s mild usefulness.

And it kinda worked. Kreck’s limited bursts of unspectacular first aid and ability to die quite slowly while being lumped in the face helped Kanhoji to survive while they adventured through the Barrens. And after they worked their way through the game’s baby missions and took their first steps into the contested areas – where enemy human players stood in wait – things started to get interesting.

Around this point Kreck discovered that one thing he could do was turn into a wolf. This was particularly useful to Kreck as a means of running away, as it came during a stage in the game where most enemy players hadn’t yet come into possession of a mount. Also around this time Kreck and Kanhoji’s journey took them to the shadows of Duskwood, a low-level Alliance town linked to a nearby cemetery by a long, narrow road through the woods.

They became highwayman by accident. But it very soon became the thing I liked best about the game. Kanhoji would slip invisibly onto the road and stun the strongest enemy while Kreck charged his most powerful lightning bolt (*damp fizzle*). If it went wrong Hoji would disappear in a puff of smoke, while Kreck would turn into a wolf and sprint for the hills.

We stayed there for ages. It was far more fun than any of the quests the game would have us do. Kreck took to shouting “Stand and deliver!” as he leapt surprisingly but never quite imperiously onto the road, despite the fact it would be rendered unintelligible to the people we were attacking through the game’s language system. We began to buy kit to help us get better at this entirely pointless, unsanctioned robbery – weapons, health potions, rogue dust. And we were sad when we eventually levelled up to the point that killing the humans and dwarves in our cosy murder forest become too easy to be any fun.

Kreck and Kanhoji moved on, though they never really reconnected with the missions and story thread of the game itself. Motivated by highwayman greed, I had by this point worked out how to make a decent low-level profit from Kreck’s workmanlike trades: skinning and mining. In keeping with his unsubtle role in combat (unflinching damage sponge, blunt offensive instrument) Kreck was a orcish hump of primary industry – an unsophisticated tool of digging and tearing.

I knew I could never get rich this way – not proper, craft-a-magical-jockstrap-for-1000G rich. But with big-browed determination, Kreck went further in the hitting-and-gathering business than I ever expected.

It began in Stranglethorn Vale, the jungly forest and cove of beaches you reach if you turn left off the Duskwood road, instead of right to the cemetery. Here Kreck mined deposits of ore – copper and tin, mostly, which he would refine and sell in stacks on the auction house to other players. In the meantime he was also skinning wolves and gorillas, and selling the skins in stacks.

They made small money, these stacks. One or two gold a piece. But then Kreck realised he could sell the coarse and rough stones that were the by-product of his mining, too. At this point he had no idea why – that they were used by the kind of adventurers he’d never be to sharpen weapons during dungeon sieges, and master craftsmen as the simplest ingredients in their fine works. He just saw the numbers and played along.

The thing I liked best about this stretch of the game was developing a larger than life salesman personality for Kreck, which he’d assume as he entered big towns and cities. “Kreck’s Krazy Prices are back!” he’d announce on the city-wide chat channel. “Gorilla skins torn from the wildest beasts in the darkest depths of Strangelthorn Vale by my own hands! Gold ripped from the earth on the fiery plains of the Badlands!” It’s probably important to note that we weren’t playing on a role-playing server, so the response was usually “STFU, Krack” or a barely intelligible coded list of other players’ wares (“58+DPS underpants craft now yr mats need 3+gold eyes +buff 4ice 10fire!”). But Kreck didn’t care. He had a business to run.

Although eventually greed got the better of him. Kreck knew he didn’t have the skills to become truly wealthy. But he began to get tired of the competition on the auction house from other skinners and miners. One day, when a rival skinner undercut his pelt sale by just ten copper, Kreck snapped. He bought his rival’s entire stock of pelts, and relisted them at a higher price than his original sale. And a terrible thing happened – it worked.

Soon Kreck was spending huge amounts of money trying to maintain a tragic monopoly on the least desirable, least profitable markets of Azeroth. He’d buy up huge stacks of stone and ore and place them in his bank vaults until the demand slowed and he had room to list them for auction. And all the while he was still digging and hunting for himself – Kreck was a worker, and it never occured to him that he could have just as easily have tried to manipulate the markets without his own supply of raw material. He was just reaching – overreaching – for a little success.

But supply in the markets of Azeroth is determined by the activity of players. Supply is limited only by player activity – supply was endless. By the time Kreck realised this he’d paid a small orcish fortune to expand his bank vaults to make room for piles and piles of almost worthless stones. It was the perfect financial allegory for Kreck’s rough-hewn life of compromise and unrewarded effort – unblinkingly trading hard-earned gold for a huge collection of meaningless rock.

It’s been years since I played World Of Warcraft. What I miss about it isn’t the grand complex scheme of items and skills and missions, but the room made in the world this kind of non-game gaming. I loved being a highwayman, though it’s word I bet doesn’t turn up in any WoW manual or guide book. I loved trying and failing to be a rough stone magnate, and above all I loved the way these things made me feel about Kreck – the dogged unsung no-mark who once stopped his friend from dying, for a little while.

If there’s a point to all this it’s that I’m currently experiencing some kind of pre-next gen wobble. Constrictions on my time mean I tend play tightly designed single-player games almost exclusively. I thought that fictional VP of Everything Kevin Butler’s comment on Trophies at E3 in 2010 was probably PlayStation 3’s high watermark (“Gaming is staying up until 3 AM to earn a trophy that isn’t real… but is”) but I increasingly find that trophies and achievements leave off-track explorations feeling illegitimate somehow. It’s not that I’m a keen collector, and I see the value in guiding and rewarding players, but they work against the kind of externally meaningless joy to be had from collecting a room full of ears in Fallout 3, or saving up to buy a house without using any magic in Skyrim.

I’ll leave you with this thought. If there was a trophy for each quest completed in World Of Warcraft, I’m not sure Kreck would ever have leapt through the hedges of Duskwood screaming an Adam Ant song that nobody could understand while preparing to be beaten senseless to allow Hoji to cudgel everyone in the back of the head. And that would’ve been sad.

The downside of being a highwayman

Pixar versus Dreamworks: Shrek just got real

July 19, 2012

We all know how the Pixar-Dreamworks comparison is supposed to run. Pixar are the infallible artists behind an unprecedented run of critical hits and huge moneyspinners which has defied Hollywood logic by combining big, relentless box-office with intelligence and emotional storytelling. They make huge profits and classic movies. Dreamworks makes Shrek.

Worse than that, Dreamworks makes Antz and a Shark’s Tale, and as many Shreks as are needed in between to stop it all falling apart. Its films are smirking shadows of its rival’s, bringing a plastic proficiency to the same insect hives and underwater worlds that Pixar conjures to bustling, beautiful life.

Or at least, it used to be that way. In 2006 Pixar released Cars, a film which never sat completely right with its earlier films. Maybe because the idea of a world populated by sentient vehicles with single giant amorphous eyeball windscreens is unsettling on a low-frequency existential level (What’s inside these cars? How do they build complex machinery with tyre hands?). Or maybe because the film ditched the successful formula of small, hidden communities which have magical adventures against the backdrop of our normal world – the toys playing inanimate, the monsters coming out at night.

Ratatouille was more familiar territory, but also beset by creative difficulties – Brad Bird replaced original director Jan Pinkava when story development floundered, and the exquisite views of Paris can only distract you for so long from the fact that a rat controlling a man by pulling his hair is sinister and, in a broader sense, pretty meaningless. Wall-E was a rallying cry for Pixar’s return to soaring artistry – “There’s, like, hardly any talking!” – and it was, for 20 minutes, before becoming a patronising reminder for humanity not to devolve into bright pink beachballs. It’s harder to argue against the pleasures of Up, and the condensed life of Carl and Ellie is masterful. But the ragtag tropes which it weaves its magic are tattered and recycled – a cartoon bird, a talking dog.

Meanwhile the same year, 2009, Dreamworks was putting away its own box of tattered ideas – talking animals, thoughts Pixar has already had, fish that are Will Smith – and making How To Train Your Dragon. If Kung Fu Panda and Monsters Vs Aliens had shown an unexpected wit and taste for fresh ideas, then Dragon was the first Dreamworks film to come up with the whole package – the dazzling looks and stays-with-you emotional smarts that are traditionally Pixar’s hallmark. Made by an old Disney director that John Lasseter had thrown off what came to be Bolt, you could say it should have been a Pixar project.

Since then Dreamworks has made Megamind, Kung Fu Panda 2 and Puss In Boots, while Pixar has made an (admittedly timeless) second sequel and, crucially, Cars 2. Cars 2, which fails John Lasseter’s self-imposed rule that Pixar sequels would only happen if they had a good enough story. Cars 2, which celebrates stupidity and moronically gobbles Pixar’s impeccable record of subtlety and intelligence. Cars 2 which, most worryingly of all, seems more focused on repeating the first film’s trick of selling toys to kids ($8 billion and counting – is that why Mater switches paint jobs so frequently?) than telling a heartening story.

And the future doesn’t look much brighter. While Brave has earned good reviews, it looks like Pixar has a slate of further sequels planned, for Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo and – for reasons known only to God and Disney’s accountants – Toy Story. Maybe Pixar’s magic touch of combining big audiences with creative wow is finally fading – and maybe  that’s OK, because it’s something the folk at Dreamworks are pretty good at these days.

A version of this article first appeared in Total Film #192.

Games are too long (P.S. Everything you know about the world is dead or dying)

July 19, 2012

As a few commentators have realised recently, the games industry has reached a crisis point, the convergence of an uncertain digital future, consumer apathy at a console generation that has lasted since before time began, and people realising that reading the internet on a phone is at least as much fun as having adolescent testicles figuratively forced into their mouths online.

Actually,”crisis point” is too mild, the sort of thing that can be managed back on course by a diplomatically worded email or a brainstorm session where the word “hero” is used as a verb. As articles like this one from Dan Dawkins at CVG make clear, that is unlikely: people have stopped buying console games (the key, terrifying fact: in the first six months of 2011, 21 games sold over 50,000 in their first week of sale, in 2012 just four managed the same).

What’s actually happening is a full-blown panic attack at 20,000 feet, depressurised cabin and blaring profit warning alarm giving way to the mid-air realisation that your parachute is actually a solid brass statue of Bobby Kotick pissing in the wind as the plane above you explodes upon impact with a screaming wall of fuck.

I’m not going to write another one of these articles, as I’ve got nothing to add to the debate except panic – for which they’re well stocked – and confusing metaphors about parachutes (the reserve chute, if you were wondering, was going to be a stack of Online Pass vouchers that had 1. already been redeemed and, 2. were on fire).

Instead I’m going to zero in on a very specific part of the discussion to make a point about something that’s been on my mind for a while: GAMES ARE TOO FUCKING LONG. Much attention has been given to the fact that free-to-play and microtransaction models are eroding people’s inclination to pay for games. This might be true, although I suspect that people never had much of an inclination to pay for them, or indeed for anything, and are only now finding themselves with options to not to. Rather, I think we’re focusing on the wrong economy here (a phrase I may well have stolen from the actual Dan Dawkins this afternoon).

When I consider whether or not to play a game, my worry isn’t whether I have the money to spare, it’s whether I have the time. We’ve fallen into a perverse way of thinking about game length, led in a headless, tyrannical pursuit of value for money by gaming sites which are on 24-hour standby to write agitating headlines about upcoming single-player campaigns that dare to last for under six hours.

Full-priced games are now remarkable if they come in at less than ten hours, and many of the biggest – Skyrim, Mass Effect – offer vastly more. It’s not just the length of the campaign we’re talking about here, either. Online modes in the likes of FIFA, Call Of Duty and Battlefield represent a full year’s worth of gaming at least, before we even mention co-op modes and DLC.

Premiered at Sundance this year was a documentary called The Queen Of Versailles about a billionaire couple who set out to build the biggest house in America – a 90,000-square-foot tribute to the vacant tastelessness of wealth with its own baseball field. Except halfway through the documentary the economic crisis hit and the film instead became a story about senseless overproduction and the excesses of late-American capitalism (the billionaires ended up shopping in Wal-Mart), a metaphor for the wider crisis itself.

Of course it’s flippant to connect the grand financial irresponsibility of a wobbling superpower with the fact I don’t like to play long videogames, but I’m going to do it anyway. The games industry has similarly overproduced – top-tier games are multi-million dollar productions that take years to make and are held to a staggeringly high technical standard. They’re huge, impressive monsters – even the failures. Besides which there’s a sort of sector-wide feature creep, with deathmatch, co-op, and an intricate skinner box of meaningless XP rewards designed to keep players engaged for as long as possible. No wonder nobody’s buying any new fucking games – the ones they have are brilliant, and last forever.

And where people get the cast-iron balls to demand this stuff, I don’t know. I have my original copy of Streets Of Rage II for the Mega Drive upstairs in a box, which still has the price on – £39.99. That’s £66.75 of today’s money, for a game that lasts for three hours – a value proposition that’d have you stoned in the high street today, but never stopped it being my favourite game of all time.

SEAL the deal: How the US Navy’s Act Of Valor games the recruitment process

July 12, 2012

I watched the military action movie Act Of Valor because there was something about it from the outside that made me feel ill. The trailer – which you should watch, if you’ve not come across the film before – sells it on the basis of authenticity (“The characters in this film are portrayed by active duty US Navy Seals”) while the title makes it sound like a videogame, specifically an App Store chancer hoping to alphebetise its way ahead of Call Of Duty and Medal Of Honor into our hearts and download queues.

These things together make me feel uncomfortable – “kids, this is real” and “kids, this is like a game.” Because kids is exactly who the film is aimed at (in its final release form, at least) and the lingering underlying message is unavoidably “kids, have you ever thought about a career in the military?”

But before I shout “propaganda!” – because there’s more than that going on here, including some astonishingly awful acting – it’s worth looking at Act Of Valor in a little more detail. It’s a relatively low-budget Hollywood film (around $15 million) made in conjunction with the US military by small-time production company The Banditos Brothers. Previously the company had worked mostly on commercials and documentaries, one of which had been for the US Navy. When the Navy put a brief out to tender for a recruitment project, The Banditos Brothers – in the shape of directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh – pitched and won.

The recruitment project grew in the making, and eventually became a feature-length film showing SEALs in action, written, on the Navy’s recommendation, by 300’s Kurt Johnstad. What the McCoy and Waugh won, then, became the chance to make a film with extensive military co-operation. This is nothing new – Hollywood has a long-standing relationship with the military which basically goes “we’ll lend you our billion-dollar toys, and you make them look cool for PG-13 audiences coming up to recruitment age” (although the logic of specific agreements can be hard to follow – The Avengers was denied help because of its “unreality,” but Navy secretary Ray Mabus had a cameo in Battleship, a film in which Rihanna saves the world in khaki).

What’s remarkable in Act Of Valor’s case is that the cooperation goes much deeper than usual. The Navy gave their filmmakers everything except a production budget: access to military hardware, to special forces training missions (during which the film’s suitably corporate-video-with-laser-sights action sequences were filmed) and to Navy Seals themselves, who in the end became the film’s key cast (these Seals, who form the pillar of the marketing campaign, were on active duty – that is to say, this recruitment drive counted as active duty).

This kind of access usually comes at a price that could give even the biggest blockbuster bottom-line anxiety (“Guys, do we really need the gourmet sandwiches?”), with the hourly cost of flight missions on Behind Enemy Lines, for instance, pinned at $5,400. While the Navy didn’t write the cheques, they gave Act Of Valor the means to look like the big-budget film it wasn’t.

What I’m trying to establish is that film’s ties to the military are obvious and strong, but not without nuance. And, taken in isolation, the film itself isn’t particularly offensive. You sense that both the filmmakers and especially the SEALs onscreen are desperately keen to show their work not necessarily in a positive light, but as an uncomplicatedly professional business of which they are proud. In combination with the amateur acting – kept to a sensible minimum, but still the scene of fixed-eyed goodbyes (“I love you baby”) is like watching a glazed ham leave for college – the film generates a heartbreaking homework earnestness, a smiling sense of achievement as simple and unbeguiling as a wagging dog impatient to show you the shit it just did in the kitchen. You know, in case that’s what you wanted.

Action is the film’s obvious strong suit, generating impressive tension during one creeping hostage rescue in particular. But here the first uncomfortable crossover with games emerges, with a series of shots and images familiar from any number of contemporary conflict first-person shooters – the stat-sheet overlay, the aerial threat marker, the ubiquitous down-the-barrel view. It’s possible that this is cross-pollination – real becomes game becomes film that wants to be real so much it forgot why actors are so useful – but it seems impossible that the parallel wasn’t at least discussed during production.

The film is also structured like the games its name self-consciously apes, with a globe-spanning terror plot, and an eye for a set piece over and above logical plotting. There’s a practical reason for the film to be structured this way, as the production made opportunistic use of locations and equipment as they became available during the four-year shoot. But the similarity remains, and by the end the film becomes so episodic that its perfunctory rehearsal of words and meaning punctuate the action like ungenerous slices of bread in a thick conflict sandwich. Or even more depressingly, like introductory cutscenes that games typically offer us as a margarine narrative pre-dropoff, an ersatz replacement for sustained, significant human presence and the minimum required before the guns can start going off again.

And this is where things get queasy. What the film shares with Medal Of Honor and Call Of Duty in particular is a lean, efficient take on the military. No outwardly propogandist statements are uttered, but they’re there anyway in the the seductive ruthlessness of the hardware, the powerful mastery of war, the reverence for flags, badges and other totems of national strength.

This is the real power of the ‘real SEALs’ headline – in the same way that Call Of Duty has gifted a generation of teenagers the ability to recognise every automatic weapon on the market by silhouette alone, and Medal Of Honor rolled out ‘Tier One’ combat veterans (OK, a dude with a beard who lives in a hole in Islamabad) during its promotional campaign (or, “its efforts to sell war to children for profit”) these cold stabs at realism speak of a dangerous direct channel from entertainment to experience.

These more unsettling aspects of Act Of Valor film might have remained hidden behind the “look, Ma” showreel had the finished film not been marketed the way it has been. Having wrapped production, Act Of Valor was bought by distributor Relativity Media for $13 million in June 2011, just weeks after the military execution of Osama Bin Laden brought Navy SEAL sexy back.

Relativity was then responsible for the film’s promotion, and zeroed in on the crossover with games suggested by the film’s title and aesthetic. There was a tie-in campaign launched on the website of Battlefield 3 (watch the trailer on the Battlefield page, get an in-game dog tag reward), and a promotional deal with Call Of Duty-inspired YouTube star FPS Russia. It’s here that the awkward fusion of government-sponsored initiative and private drive for profit create a sinister, unacceptable hybrid.

As this thoughtful piece by Ed Stern makes clear, the representation of war in any medium of entertainment is a difficult thing. And of course, war itself is a difficult thing – as much as they make for unwatchable actors, the stars of Act Of Valor do a hard job, and one they believe in. While I feel all sorts of reservations about the reasons they fight and the effect it has, I’m in no position to criticise them.

What I will criticise is how Act Of Valor slid from slick-but-unsubtle promo reel to game-savvy propaganda, which found Xbox Live kids where they live and sold them a bullshit shortcut from online killstreaks to taking down jihadists.

Hollywood’s new cowboys: How superhero movies became the 21st Century Western

July 8, 2012

This is more an outpouring of thought than an analysis with anything so cumbersome as documented evidence, but here is my central contention – that comic book movies have become to post-millennial Hollywood what the Western was for the studio-era industry.

The Western always had a distinct place among the other easily categorisable types of film produced by the American industry. Most genres represent divisions of tone – comedies, thrillers, romances. It’s unusual for a particular setting or style to become so common that it becomes a genre of itself. War films. Gangster pictures, maybe. Westerns for sure. And now comic books.

Obviously there were a smattering of superhero films before the recent deluge. Richard Donner’s Superman in 1978 was a terrific success, and Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 another. But they were remarkably mounted one-offs, rather than entries into a continuing cycle – they and their sequels were the superhero output of Hollywood for the best part of two decades until around 2000, with the odd Toxic Avenger and Darkman thrown in.

So in what sense do I mean that comic books are the new Western? Well, in two ways – the first a practical, industrial reason that might actually be fairly compelling, and the second a more grasping, “ideas about America” suggestion that’ll probably make me sound like Don DeLillo if he drank too much squash.

Firstly, then: the reasons for one movie getting made in Hollywood while another lingers forever an intangible might-be are murky, mysterious, and almost always to do with money. But at base it’s true to say that it comes down to a combination of things people want to watch, and things Hollywood is willing and able to make.

Westerns (and in less dominant shapes, gangster films and musicals) were perfectly suited to how films were made in studio-era Hollywood. The studios, vertically structured, were more possessive beasts – they owned the lots, the sets, the costumes, even the contracts of stars and directors, all of which were put to work again and again making variations on the same themes, standoffs and saloons.

The material arrangement of the old studios, in other words, was designed to make a constant rotation of similar films. And, for as long as people were paying to watch them, that’s what they did.

From memory I’ve always put the start of the latest cycle of comic book movies as X-Men in 2000 (I remember its arrival, and me having no real knowledge of comic books past a vague awareness of Marvel and DC – how things have changed). Looking at a list of releases, you could argue it actually started with Blade in 1998 (or if you’re being pedantic, The Matrix in 1999). Whatever – after this the superhero form established itself as regular enough to qualify as a genre in its own right, rather than an occasional tight-trousered variation on the action blockbuster.

There are been around 30 big-budget summer tentpoles since, which translates into something like three a year. We’re regularly introduced to less familiar superheroes (Elektra, Daredevil, Iron Man), and reintroduced to familiar ones when their creativity or box-office is flagging (which is why we’ve seen three different actors play Hulk in just nine years, why we’re about to meet a new Superman, and why Andrew Garfield is now playing Spider-Man despite Tobey Maguire’s latest turn making nearly a billion dollars).

There’s something fairly extraordinary going on here. In what other circumstances would we be happy to consume the same stories in such a short space of time? And why hasn’t this continual repetition of ideas and iconography resulted in a disastrous marketing meltdown? Instead Marvel has become a Hollywood studio in its own right, and, this year more than any other, comic books films are mounting the podium of the international box-office and doing lunges in their tight costumes even though they know everyone’s watching.

To answer let’s go back to that authoritative-sounding thing I said earlier – that Hollywood’s output comes down to what people want to see (and continuing revenues tick this box with a marker pen the size of the moon) and, something we’ll explore now, what Hollywood is capable of making.

While Westerns relied on sets and costumes and Jimmy Stewart, superhero films, almost by definition, rely on large numbers of intricate special effects. And the reason that X-Men’s release in 2000 becomes important in this context is that I’d argue it was around this time that we reached a sort of digital effects singularity – the point at which they became convincing enough to render dudes having claws and firing uncontrollable Freudian mind-lasers at one another without demanding of the audience a spectacular suspension of disbelief (notably the earlier Superman and Batman films were conservative with their need to visualise Complex Impossible Things).

So what I’m saying is that the comic book film became a natural fit with an industry which was increasingly geared towards special effects anyway (the rise of George Lucas’ ILM, James Cameron’s Digital Domain, Peter Jackson’s Weta, standalone computer animation). It put the industry’s most abundant talents to work, in the same way as the Westerns had decades earlier.

Which just leaves the question – why are people watching? We know that they are, as the figures speak for themselves (“I AM MASSIVE,” they mostly say “SERIOUSLY, BRO, LOOK AT ME, I’M FUCKING HUGE”). But where does this appetite for watching people with mutant powers, atomic hearts and chainsaw voices come from?

This is the crux of it, really (“it” being the meandering path of thought I wandered down recently after thinking “Ooh, The Avengers is a bit like The Magnificent Seven”). Comic book films have replaced Westerns as the medium through which America thinks about itself. For the longest time the founding myths and expansive ideals (not to mention genocidal imperialism!) of the Western have been part-propagandist pamphlet, part-national behavioural handbook for the United States. Not that I’m saying everyone watched them and felt that way, but they were a constant, cycled reminder of how the nation was born, and the principles of integrity and opportunism upon which it was based.

And without too much imagination it’s easy to see superhero films doing a similar job now – continually exploring what it means to be the most powerful force in a world of fractured, stateless enemies. It’d be too glib to connect the dots between X-Men beginning the cycle in 2000 and what happened in New York a year later. But it’s less of a stretch to say that 9/11 was a symptom of a changing world of conflict and diplomacy that these films were beginning to respond to anyway.

There’s also a case to be made that comic books – or at least the ones Hollywood is mining for material now – are just as bound up with the history of America during its coming-of-age century as the often real-life stories and characters of the West which Hollywood used and re-used back in the day (the railroad, Wyatt Earp, Billy The Kid, sweet, merciful Jimmy Stewart). Since his inception in 1938, Superman’s most interesting storylines have been all-but manifest looks at what it means to be a military superpower (and Iron Man, when he arrived in the 1960s, did a similar job for the atomic age). Captain America was born in the Second World War and remains frozen there, a reminder of the nation’s finest hour. Batman stands as a grand example of compassionate capitalism – how it’s possible to earn billions, care about the little man, and break arms all at the same time.

This year is a particularly good one to reflect on all this. The Avengers has made a ludicrous amount of money, and told us all a story about co-operation and companionship in the face of insidious enemies while reminding me of nothing more than How The West Was Won in its juggling of established genre stars (the Cinerama monster starred John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck and, of course, Jimmy Stewart). The Amazing Spider-Man is set to prove that audiences really don’t care that they just saw how Peter Parker became en-spidered already, at least no more than they used to care that they’d already seen John Wayne swaggering about on a horse and grabbing women quite roughly by the shoulders. And The Dark Knight Rises brings to a close a trilogy of films that rival the likes of The Searchers in terms of outstanding filmmaking, and staggering ideas about America and the world which also make you feel quite sad (too much to compare John Wayne silhouetted in the door frame with Batman crouched purposefully atop a gargoyle, both doomed to isolation in broken devotion to the place they belong? Probably).

I’ll leave you with the critic Tom Shone saying it best, as he so often does. On twitter recently he put the whole thing in perspective:

Does anyone honestly think that when America is dust, the artifacts they’ll pore over won’t be The Amazing Spiderman and The Dark Knight?

Quite right too.

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