They create worlds: Grand Theft Auto

One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.

Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto series has received a lot of flak, from all sides of the political and ideological spectrum. They aspire to being The Great American Satire, and sometimes they achieve moments of wit and insight, but while they’re great games, all too often as cultural critique they resort to lazy, crass caricature that says little more than, “America, huh?”

iAxXlG-dCEaUueypHMWaXg_0_0_recut Continue reading

Better Holmes and Gardens

The British have perfected a certain kind of movie. They are tasteful, well-wrought, polite, but utterly unexciting. At best they are charming due to their cast – The King’s Speech comes to mind, which mainly works because of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush – but at worst they’re lukewarm and somewhat boring, expecting nothing from their audiences and going out of their way not to challenge them.

Mr HolmesMr Holmes is a prime example of such a film. It’s nicely shot, the script is well crafted and inoffensive, it all smacks of a certain middle-of-the-road blandness. Unless you’re into bucolic idylls, there is little about the movie that is memorable – with one major caveat: the central performance by Ian McKellen is a thing of beauty. Continue reading

They create worlds: Journey

One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. From the satirical real-world analogues of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series to the historical simulacra of Assassin’s Creed infused with secret meaning, from Super Mario‘s candy-coloured vistas to the stark alien worlds of Metroid: in games we can experience spaces that are uncanny twins of real places or that are thrillingly new. This isn’t exactly a series of posts or a new feature as an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.

One of these games is Journey, originally developed by Thatgamecompany for the PS3 and now available for the PS4. In terms of its gameplay, it’s a simple game, almost entirely devoid of challenge; it has also been called an ‘art game’ and I’m sure there are some who would even deny it’s a game to begin with, for some reason or another. It wonderfully evokes a sense of place, though: in Journey you’re a lone traveller, perhaps a pilgrim, marching onwards towards the distant mountain through deserts, among abandoned ruins, across the bottom of the ocean and up snowy slopes towards the goal that keeps getting closer even as it remains tantalisingly out of reach.

Journey

While the actual virtual locations are fairly small and can be traversed in a few minutes, they come alive through a wonderful blend of the real and the imaginary. Visually, Journey has a minimalist but beautiful style, using strong colour contrast and simple shapes to evoke less real places than our dreams of such places. There’s a sparsely surreal quality to the deserts you travel through early in the game, as if Lawrence of Arabia‘s vistas had been reimagined by Giorgio de Chirico. At the same time, the place is tangible: you leave behind lines in the glittering sand as you move through it, sliding down dunes. There’s a tactility to these environments and your place in them; late in Journey, as you travel up the mountain towards your destination, the cold wind holds you back, slowly freezing you in place. Journey‘s spaces feel both alien and real – these are worlds you could otherwise only explore while asleep, but you feel the sand between your toes, the snow on your face.

Journey offers fairly little in the way of interaction to its players, its chief method of interaction being movement, and the game gets that very right. The player avatar becomes a part of the world, where in a lesser game that avatar feels superimposed on it. Other than walking around, the player can also fly, though this power is very much limited and feels less like the kind of power fantasy common to gaming than like a moment of freedom – again, very much like in dreams. There is one more thing the player can do, though, and that’s where the world gains a dimension: he or she can sing… and if others are around, they will hear that song. Journey is a multiplayer game, but it’s a most unusual one: on your pilgrimage to the mountain, you encounter other pilgrims, looking exactly like you. They walk, fly, and they sing; where one pilgrim may chirp in short, playful sounds, another may hold a note, almost as if inviting you to join voices.

It’s strange how other people can make a virtual space in a game feel more real, but that’s definitely how I experienced Journey. It’s maybe a bit like Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”, which talks about “imaginary gardens with real toads in them”: if you inhabit a world of the imagination with someone who may be incomprehensible to you but who is real, reacting to your movement, your flight and song, then that world becomes more real as well. Some of the pilgrims I encountered in Journey went exploring with me, others were kind guides pointing out an interesting ruin or a forlorn statue for me to find, and yet others seemed to sing at me in an increasingly frustrated voice, unable to make me understand their song. And then there were some that ignored me entirely. Yet most accompanied me, for a short while or for longer stretches, on my pilgrimage towards that mountain. For a few moments, they were friends, the only friends I found in that strange world. And when I dream of the desert and the bottom of the sea and that mountain, I also dream of their song. It’s those disembodied voices that we’ve left behind, floating over the dunes.

But does it work as advertised?

How long is long enough to shake the unfairly high expectations created by everyone loving a new series? I never watched Mad Men back when it first aired, but now that the series has come to an end I finally decided to dust off my Season 1 box set and acquaint myself with Don Draper and company. The result: I don’t dislike it, I find it intriguing, it’s beautifully made, and yes, Don is an attractive figure – but I have to admit that I don’t find myself caring all that much.

Mad Men

Continue reading

Why did the chicken go down into the basement?

Men & Chicken is a bit of a letdown. It has good things in it, but on the whole, it’s not as good as Adam’s Apples, the 2005 film by the same Danish director Anders Thomas Jensen. I had high hopes for this one: it is the fourth collaboration between Jensen and Mads Mikkelsen. Jensen also has written the brilliant After the Wedding, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (both movies also starring Mikkelsen, but not directed by Jensen), and Red Road.  Continue reading

Jus Sauli

Saul Goodman is one of TV’s greatest supporting characters. He’s definitely one of the funniest, with Breaking Bad‘s writing and Bob Odenkirk’s acting working together to create comedy magic. At the same time, the humour is never at the expense of the character, which is a rare thing – each wisecrack, each lopsided bit of legal advice adds to the character, an amoral cynic with the surprising occasional flash of a moral compass underneath all the quips and jadedness. However, supporting characters do not necessarily make good leads. Is Saul a Walter White – or, better, is he a character entirely of his own that can support his own series?

Better Call Saul Continue reading

Making love out of thin air

Love Island wants to entertain in the best way it knows how. It’s at times clumsy and hackneyed, with a very short attention span, but it is sweet, goofy and sensuous, and it is hard to dislike it. Reader, I was entertained. It consists of standard scenes making up a flimsy summer comedy about a love triangle in a holiday resort under the Croatian sun called… well, Love Island. It’s a movie like filo pastry: you like it, sometimes you crave it, but it’s not anybody’s favorite food. There’s Liliane (Ariane Labed), beautiful and pregnant, and her husband Grebo (Ermin Bravo), a lovable dork. Liliane and Grebo seem to look forward to being parents. But there is Flora (Ada Condeescu), who works at the resort as a diving instructor and animator, and she and Liliane were a couple once. Continue reading