Posts Tagged ‘noir’

Last Wednesday I took a day trip to Durham, primarily to attend a seminar run by the Inventions of the Text series  in the English Department [a department I was attached to, with the History, department for BA]. I saw BioShock and games narrative mentioned in one of the papers and we’ll, what’s an academic nerd girl going to do but turn up?

BioShock was one of the games that I had hoped to include in my PhD thesis before I realised that I just wasn’t going to have the words to do the research justice. As I am on a PhD by Creative Practice course my thesis is only 30-40,000 words, which is less than half a normal PhD thesis. My initial scope of film, anime and video games was a little over ambitious.

This doesn’t change the fact that the game BioShock fits all the criteria for my PhD research. It is set in a posthuman noir world with a very unreliable narrator/protagonist who navigates the gamer through the genetically modified nightmare of Rapture.

BioShock is a first person shooter game where the player inhabits the view point of Jack, a guy who is on an airplane that crashes in the sea near a lighthouse in 1960. On reaching the lighthouse Jack finds it is actually the entrance to the underwater city of Rapture, built by Andrew Ryan as a place where science and the arts could flourish outside of government control, or any control for that matter. Jack soon discovers that the citizens of Rapture made a breakthrough in genetic engineering through use of ADAM a substance harvested from sea slug, granting the citizens superhuman powers called plasmids.

 

As the trailer makes very clear this is a game which revolves around choices; the player’s, the characters’, the moral and the immoral decisions we will make to survive. This is what makes the twist and turns the player experiences as Jack all the more challenging.

Amnesiac playable characters are pretty common in computer games, they allow for important information about the world of the game to be explained to the gamer without it feeling too expositionally clunky. [NB – not always a successful strategy.] The first person shooter POV also places the gamer right into the view point of the character, usually with a pair of hands wielding weapons of mass destruction in front of you.

I’m not a huge fan of first person games, I think growing up playing Tomb Raider has made me feel more comfortable seeing the whole of my character on screen, from an over their shoulder P.O.V. But I warmed to BioShock because visually and narratively there was a lot of draw me in.

Now what makes BioShock different and unsettling is the twist in the identity of the unreliable, amnesiac protagonist. For two thirds of the game, you bomb along, following the directions of friendly rebellion leader Atlas, trying to survive the bat-shit crazy citizens of Rapture so you can escape to the surface and get your old life back. So far so ordinary for this type of game until the designers pull the rug from under your feet.

The fact that the playable character, the gamer’s identity within the game, is revealed to be false, a clone of Andrew Ryan who Fontane/Altas, designed to take out the king of Rapture, really sucker punches the gamer. Like the main character, the gamer believed they had some autonomy in the game world, they could explore where they wanted and could make large moral decisions like whether to harvest [kill] or free the Little Sister characters

But Jack, and the gamer, never really had any freewill and now ‘would they kindly’ play by the rules of the designers and die…

This brought the gamer to think about the horror of the game’s thematic concepts of brain washing, genetic cloning and control, but also to think about the process of playing videogames in general. Once you engage in playing a game you surrender your freewill to the game’s mechanics, don’t you? Or do you?

That issue was the crux of the paper given by Dr. Julian Reidy at the Inventions of the Text Seminar, titled “You just complicate the narrative!” Computer games as ‚Erzählspiele’ (narrative games). [That’s a quote from BioShock Infinite, by the way, Daisy Fitzroy shouts it at Booker in one of the alternative realities.]

Video game criticism usually falls into a debate between ludology  [it’s all about playing the game] and narratology [it’s the story, stupid]. Some critics feel that because the gamer is constrained by the rules of the game world, there is little room for the interpretation that occurs when someone reads a book or reads a piece of art and therefore games cannot exist as art in their own right. [I’m paraphrasing terribly and overly simplifying.] Needless to say this is something I disagree with.

Dr, Reidy posited a two way communication between gamer and game, demonstrating that narratives are developed from even the most simplistic game mechanisms, the gamer can’t help creating them; story cannot be cut from mechanism, they co-exist.

Moving on to BioShock Infinite he examined how the latest in the BioShock series [and the original game, in my opinion] draws the gamer’s attention to how they, and the playable character, complicate and reinvent the narrative—an attitude not much different from the way we engage with literature or history. Interesting, huh? And you thought it was all about mashing guys in the face with a skyhook…

Hopefully the article this talk was based on will be published and translated from German into English soon so that I can read and rethink the points raised.

[The talk also sparked a thought on my recent gaming/viewing.I’ve been revisiting the Silent Hill game series while watching Twin Peaks for the first time… Do we think Silent Hill 2 can be read as a game version of a Lynch film/show? I don’t know, but there are a lot of visual and narrative similarities.]

The second talk was given by a PhD candidate at UCL, George Potts, titled ‘You seen The Godfather?’ – The Sopranos and the postmodern gangster. The discussion revolved on the ways that fact and fiction inform each other.

The Sopranos exists in a modern world where the gangster characters would have seen films like the Godfather trilogy or Goodfellas. The show uses these already established media pieces to take apart the idea of the gangster, separating fact from fiction and howing the blurs in reality.

This got me thinking about my own creative work. How many times have I reacted to a horror movie by thinking ‘Why would they do that, haven’t they seen a horror movie before?’ I find characters who exist in ‘present day’ versions of reality who haven’t experienced the same cultural devices that we have stand out. It’s the same as writing a movie now without smart phones.

Any character of my generation or below—without a good excuse of growing up beyond the reach of electricity—would be hard pushed to not mention Tomb Raider, Indiana Jones, Uncharted or even Harry Potter when faced with an action adventure scenario. Are these references avoided because there is some copyright law doom looming or just writer oversight?

I reference the above Indiana Jones scene—the running behind the gong in the opening of Temple of Doom—when two characters in my adventure film attempt a similar trick to escape bad guys. “It worked in Indiana Jones, didn’t it?” says the love interest. “But that was a film!” the heroine retorts.

It felt natural that these characters, who were obsessed with archaeology, history and myth as kids, would have at least seen Indiana Jones movies. Movie referencing is part of our everyday slang, our short cut language of the twenty first century. I wonder if any character can feel realistic if they never reference games or films or tv shows? Is this any different from character referencing literature, poetry or myths?

I don’t know the answers, just ponder the questions…

So the seminar series did exactly what it should have, it provoked new academic and creative thoughts. It was an interesting, exciting and mentally stimulating evening.

When I started my PhD, little did I think that I would be pawing through Stanley Kubrick’s original notebooks and other written ephemera related to the unfinished [for Kubrick] film AI: Artificial Intelligence. Let’s face it, I didn’t think anyone would let me get my grubby little student hands anywhere near anything belonging to Kubrick, not without going through some trails by decontamination first.AI Poster

Of course Kubrick is renowned for movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining and A Clockwork Orange, but it is the movie AI: Artificial Intelligence that fits loosely into my area of PhD research. It is about an unreliable protagonist, a robot boy who isn’t entirely sure he’s a robot at first, nor that he isn’t an individual, who on realising this information wants to become a real boy and sets off across sci-fi noir landscape on this quest.

[Actually it is debate-able in the final film, which was finished by Steven Spielberg that David, the robot, is the only protagonist. It feels to me that David’s “mother,” Monica, is just as much of a protagonist in the first section of the film as he is. The unsatisfying feeling I get  during resolution and quest of the movie stems from the fact that Monica’s goal, her story, is not fully explored. Although for this post that’s beside the point – what was I saying about PhDs and focus?]

The year that Kubrick bought the rights for Super Toys Last All Summer Long from Brian Aldiss was 1982, the year Blade Runner was released in the cinema. It was with Aldiss that Kubrick began work on the screen idea [thanks for the term, Ian McDonald] that would become the Spielberg film A.I.

There were multiple writers brought onto the project and, after re-watching the film, I was interested to get a little taster of different drafts that eventually evolved into the final movie. As a screenwriter myself, I find it fascinating to see the different ways a script story develops from the original idea, through the influence of directors/producers/studios and even actors, to the final product.

Naturally I was a little excited, in what I hope wasn’t too obviously a fangirl kind of way, to be entering the Kubrick Archive at the London College of Communication. The room itself even threw off a Kubrickian aura, white being the dominant colour, clean lines, glass partitions and a luminous ceiling. It was like a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey and I was well on my way to a little researcher heaven when the trolley arrived with, as I’d been warned, the un-catalogued material on A.I.

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2001:A Space Odyssey

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The Stanley Kubrick Archives

There was more material than I imagined and, excitingly for me, most of it different drafts of the scripts. Unfortunately the material was not in chronological order so a later draft from 1999 was mixed in with something from 1990.

In hindsight, the logical thing to do would have been to get all the scripts onto a table and order them before starting to read. But it was my first foray into the world of the academic researcher so I picked up the box nearest me and just about managed to work through it. This gave me a flavour of the collection.

  • Cue cards covered with Kubrick’s mostly legible scrawl, questioning key points, brainstorming scenes, locations, characters and especially character motivations.
  • Notebooks filled with slightly less legible scrawl again showing Kubrick’s mind at work on the project, locating the plot holes, the places where pace dies in various earlier drafts and trying to find ways to fix the problems.
  • Script drafts and script-ments [these feel part way between a screenplay and a treatment]. I looked at two different script-ments by Ian Watson.

The first scriptment, Foxtrot, was a long way from the final film and I feel shows a lot of influence from the cyberpunk novels of the 1980s like William Gibson’s Neuromancer. There was a voice over, noir narration from a super artificial intelligence which reminded me of Wintermute in Gibson’s book. The untrustworthy narrator of this version really caught my interest as it fits into one of patterns I am exploring in posthuman noir science fiction films and anime. The scriptment read more like a sci-fi novel than a script and with that carried an  unfilmable quality, some scenes would certainly be difficult to get into a PG or even a 12 certificate film.

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Rouge City in the final film of A.I – the dark cyberpunk influence remaining from Watson’s first story idea

As a story, though, Foxtrot was a compelling and complex look into the relationship between humans and their robotic creations. The obsession of a little boy to become the person his mother wants him to be, a ‘real boy,’ and the dawning of childhood’s end.  The imagery and set pieces were mind-blowingly creative, making me feel a bit tame in the way I approach screen stories.

In another link to my PhD research, this scipt-ment by Ian Watson’s first stab involved multiple references to Japanese language and culture, like the cyberpunks fictions of the 1980s and 90s. So far, so exciting – for me, anyway.

When I’d found myself connected to the interwebs later, I discovered Foxtrot was a short story Watson was commissioned to write as a sample piece before he was hired to work on A.I. You can read the full article about his experience working on A.I. on Ian Watson’s website.

The second script by Ian Watson, dated around 1993, was far closer to the film made. It has the figure of Gigolo Joe and the locations of Rouge City and the Heavy Flesh Festivals. The super-A.I. is gone, Teddy is spared his Wintermute styled AI possession, and the journey David, the robot boy, takes follows a similar pattern to the film.

There is one character, a female recluse who hates humans, who Kubrick has copious notes about but who clearly will never make it to the end. As I closed the box for the day it was she who was playing very vividly on Stanley’s Kubrick’s mind.

More to come in Visiting the Kubrick Archive – Part Two...

Details of the Kubrick Archive:

Location: University Archives and Special Collections Centre
London College of Communication
Elephant and Castle
London
SE1 6SB

Website: http://www.arts.ac.uk/study-at-ual/library-services/collections-and-archives/archives-and-special-collections-centre/stanley-kubrick-archive/