Tuesday, April 2, 2013
Praising Complexity in Film and Games
I recently watched Room 237, a strange and fascinating documentary entirely about Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. If you haven't seen The Shining, it is an adaptation of a Stephen King novel about a write who takes a job at a hotel, goes insane, and tries to murder his family. It is a brilliant piece of horror to be sure, but Room 237 offers several alternative readings of the film. The documentary is broken up into nine segments featuring film enthusiasts/conspiracy theorists discussing the many perceptions of The Shining. One interviewee believes the film is about the genocide of American Indians, another thinks it is really about the holocaust, yet another genuinely believes the film is Kubrick subtly confessing that he faked the first moon landing.
At first, these theories seem outlandish. Did Kubrick really place a stack of papers in front of a character to make it look like he had an erection? I don't know. But after awhile, the ideas add up. Scenes are played back over and over, with different background information and oddities highlighted each time. Impossible rooms appear obvious after multiple viewings, along with other absurdities, like disappearing furniture. In scene, if you can quick enough to catch it, you can see Jack, the film's protagonist, reading an issue of Play Girl in the hotel lobby.
Honestly, much of the film's oddities can be attributed to happenstance or simple continuity errors, but it is so much fun to dig into the stories. Take Shane Carruth's Primer as another example. It's a time travel film that, to my absolutely delight, does time travel right. The complexities of the film are deep and it keeps you thinking about, talking about it, and theorizing well after you've seen the film. Speaking of which, his next film, Upstream Color promises to be every bit as engaging.
Of course we might not have a "Stanley Kubrick of games" to make something as repeatedly fascinating and intricate as The Shining. Indeed, it is hard enough in the industry for auteurs to have as much command over their product as Kubrick did. Indie developers lead the charge in this regard, but are often constrained by budget and must maintain a limited scope.
This is all, of course, a roundabout way of praising BioShock Infinite, which comes pretty darn close to achieving a daringly rich game world akin to The Shining. The themes are rich, drenched in both pop-culture and American history. The game is about memories, mythologies, regret, racism, capitalism, religion, and storytelling in both games and within our own minds. It is an astounding work of fiction. While the mechanics do not resonate as much with the deeper themes of the story, I do believe Infinite reveals a great deal of complexity that could reward multiple playthroughs. Like the first BioShock, it is a game that will be remembered. Already, players are digging deep into the events of the game and its predecessors, looking for clues. It's just a shame it takes so damn long to play over again.
It's not just Infinite that aims to create depth in its storytelling. I might include Mass Effect into the bunch (remember the indoctrination theory?) as well as Dark Souls, which has all sorts of mechanical features that must be plumbed for meaning but hide an incredible amount of richness. These games offer something few others can: an world so rich as to lose ourselves conjecture and curiosity.