toatali’s musings Vol 2.

Bloodborne, the brain-child of From Software and Dark Souls creator Hidetaka Miyazaki, is well known and cited for its incredible labyrinthine story, detailed through NPC interactions, environmental storytelling and lots of encyclopaedic item descriptions. Following in the footsteps of Dark Souls and Demon Souls, which also told their stories in similarly obtuse ways, Bloodborne is the example that always springs to my mind as one of the peaks of video game storytelling, because it reveals its fascinating narrative to the player through means that are mostly unique to the medium. It rewards a player’s interest with a story that is often messy and incomplete, but surprisingly deep and layered.

Of course, all of this comes at a cost – one felt mainly by first time players or those without the desire to dive deep into the game’s story (or fan-made wikis). For those players, the incredibly veiled way in which the lore is parcelled out means that many moments are left bereft of their narrative weight. Let’s take a couple of examples from within the game to see how this is handled well and how it’s handled badly.

For a good example, we can take the game’s first major non-skippable boss; Father Gascoigne. Gascoigne is, like the player, a ‘Hunter’, someone who disposes of the beasts that are plaguing the game’s central location of Yarnham. Reading into his lore, we can find out varied facts about Gascoigne, from his partnership with Henryk to his marriage. Talking to a little girl in a house near the boss arena gives even more details about his family life, including the tragic reveal that he has gone mad and killed his own wife.

However, even a player rushing through the game understands the narrative stakes of fighting Gascoigne through simple cues. First, the cutscene beforehand reveals that he’s a hunter and that he believes you will soon become a beast. Then, halfway into the fight he turns into a beast himself. The cutscene and the events of the fight itself illuminate the importance of fighting Father Gascoigne and gives all players, no matter their investment into figuring out the narrative, some stakes in the fight.

Compare this to a later compulsory battle in Bloodborne which fails completely in giving the player any narrative stakes unless they’re fully committed to the plot. “The One Reborn” is a large creature made of hundreds of wriggling corpses mushed together. It falls from a large puddle of blood in the sky during the opening cutscene and proceeds to sort of flail about and vomit on the player from its various orifices. Of course, using video game logic, most players are going to deduce that this thing is not good and should probably be slashed at as much as possible.

However, it’s incredibly unsatisfying as to why this thing exists, why it should be killed and what is going to be gained from killing it. A couple of bosses, like the Shadows of Yarnham are also slightly obtuse as to what or who they are, but the reward for killing them remains clear – they’re blocking the path into the University where you’re headed. But The One Reborn doesn’t really seem to be blocking much other than general vague forward progression for the player.

This is a problem that becomes more and more exaggerated in Bloodborne as the game’s plot becomes more and more complex: it simply gives up trying to give the normal player any real reason or motivation as to why they should be moving forward, beyond obtuse statements that make little sense without being interpreted through the lens of various scraps of item description lore.  

The interesting question here is to what extent this is really a problem. Are players of the game owed narrative engagement and stakes if they don’t engage enough to figure them out? The answer to my mind is clearly no, but that doesn’t mean the criticism of Bloodborne’s story being overly obtuse is invalid, something further supported by the existence of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Miyazaki’s follow-up game, which attempts to join a traditional narrative with a more obtuse, Bloodborne style one.

The result is slightly unsatisfying, however. Sekiro succeeds beautifully on the narrative side, to the extent that most players paying attention to the plot can deduce the raison d’etre for almost every single enemy and mini-boss in the game without much trouble at all. By removing the RPG elements from Sekiro, the bosses become more than just large obstructions of progress but enemies with personal motivation for killing the player character and shared history with them. Fights with Genichiro or Owl are great not just for their finely tuned combat mechanics, but for the intense personal rivalry they embody. The role of Kuro, the player’s ward, also gives the player character a personal stake in the narrative. It’s all incredibly simple stuff, but it works.

The problems come more when the game tries to recreate the areas in which Bloodborne succeeded. Perhaps because of time constraints or perhaps because it was deemed unnecessary, Sekiro’s world never feels quite as fully fleshed out as Yarnham. Delving into the notes in Bloodborne makes characters the player will never even meet feel more fleshed out than some of the major characters in other games. Meanwhile, very little is still known about a character like Lady Tomoe, one of the background characters in Sekiro.

Perhaps at some point Miyazaki will manage to marry the two halves. Personally, the environmental storytelling approach of Bloodborne is more interesting to me as a kind of story that can only be told in a video game. But critiques of its unapproachability shouldn’t be taken lightly either. Some people don’t have the time investment to delve deep into a game’s wiki pages and it’s understandable that a story with simpler narrative stakes, such as Sekiro would be preferable.

In a way, the debate boils down to the same one as the difficulty argument that plagues the release of every Souls-like game. Does a player who has spent money on a game deserve to be able to master that game? The answer to that too often gets bogged down in far more important questions of accessibility to properly tackle here. But seeing it from a different light; whether a player who has spent money on a game, book or movie deserves to understand its story, puts the debate in a different light. I would say no, but the implications of that are complex and I can’t help but admire the game that attempts to offer both.  

Shortly after the film Another Round, the latest by Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, won Best International Feature Film at the Academy Awards, the internet was ablaze at the news that the film was to be remade for an American audience with actor Leonardo DiCaprio to star in the remake.

Fans of the film and cinephiles in general were outraged by this news, as often happens on the announcement of an American remake of a foreign feature film. Many people were quick to quote South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho speaking on the matter. Despite Bong being involved in the American remake of his own film Parasite, many people found the Another Round announcement a fitting time to quote him saying, “Once you overcome the one inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”. As someone with a keen interest in foreign film, I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment. However, I don’t think that this actually applies to the field of the American remake in the way that some people imagine it does.

Let’s stick with Another Round for a bit. The film, about the merits and dangers of alcohol, can be seen to have a pretty universal scope. Many people in many cultures drink, and even if you don’t, you’re likely to have been affected by the drinking habits of those who do. However, it’s equally important to note that every culture drinks differently. The drinking age in Denmark, like other European countries, is 18 – something that drastically changes, for example, the way young people drink and are taught to drink in comparison to a country like America, where the drinking age is 21.

In the case of Parasite, although Bong Joon-Ho is correct that the film’s resonance abroad is due to the global influence of the capitalist system, it’s undoubtable that the way capitalism functions is different in South Korea to how it functions in America. South Korea is a relatively new country even in comparison to America, with a civil war and an economic miracle that has happened within the lifetime of many of its citizens. Bong’s films often have enough surface level appeal to make them incredibly watchable outside of South Korea, but an understanding of South Korean politics and history can have a huge influence on the way films like The Host or Memories of Murder are seen and understood by the viewer.

Subtitles aren’t all that is needed to fully understand a foreign film. All films, games, books and TV shows are created within a larger political, social and cultural context. In an ideal world, every viewer of Another Round would have an intimate understanding of Danish drinking culture before watching, but that simply isn’t feasible. Of course, with just subtitles, a viewer like me can understand, enjoy and love Vinterberg, Bong Joon-Ho or any foreign director’s films. However, to truly squeeze everything out of them, more knowledge and effort is required on the part of the viewer.

That’s why an American remake of Another Round is something that I can still defend, as bizarre as it might seem to see a self-proclaimed cinephile say. One only need look at The Office to see how the same premise can be expanded upon and warped by the culture that adapts it. American remakes may sometimes be cheap ways to exploit already popular stories, but this isn’t something inherent. All storytelling is parsed through culture as well as language, so adaptation is occasionally necessary to get the most out of an idea for the largest number of people.

The following segment contains major spoilers for Breaking Bad, and minor spoilers for Citizen Kane.

I don’t particularly like the ending of Breaking Bad. Not the final shot, which I think is great, or even too much specific about the final episode, which is overall as well produced, acted and written as the rest of the fantastic series. My problem is more with the way in which the finale, titled “Felina”, views the series’ protagonist Walter White.

The previous episodes of the series have been dedicated to destroying Walter’s image of himself that he has cultivated throughout the series. Despite claiming to his wife to be “the danger”, the legendary meth cook Heisenberg, as the series progresses this claim is called into question more and more. First, Walt kills his former associate Mike by mistake in a fit of blind rage after Mike questions his intellect. Then his partner Jesse turns Walt into the DEA, inadvertently setting off a chain of events that sees Walt unable to stop his brother-in-law Hank being killed and all his money being stolen by neo-Nazis. Even Walt’s attempts to leave the business behind end in him stuck in a small frozen cabin in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but two DVDs of the same film to keep him entertained.

In the series finale, however, much of this good work is overturned. I’m actually going to leave the serious analytical task to a Youtube comment from a stranger here, something that must prove I haven’t gone crazy. The comment, left on a clip from the finale, says; “Walter White truly won in the end – he got money to his children, defeated all his enemies, freed Jesse… Probably the greatest character ever.” Indeed, the final episode, despite Walt’s death at the end, does show him basically win. It doesn’t vindicate Walt entirely – he’s still left alienated from his family and friends, but it’s telling that nothing in the final episode can touch Walt. Nobody kills him, not even his cancer. The bullet wound is self-inflicted from when he saves Jesse. Walter White dies a hero’s death.

It might be that I’m wrong about this, and that showrunner Vince Gilligan always intended this kind of ending for Breaking Bad. But it seems to me that Walt’s death was more of a response to fan adoration of the character than anything else. It’s an ending that appears inherently like fan-service, which is probably why I enjoyed it so much when I first saw it. The problem is that it runs counter to some of the ethos of the show, which aims to point holes in the Heisenberg mythology that Walter creates for himself.

Breaking Bad is one of a string of ‘bad genius’ shows that sprung up around a certain period in the mid 2000s, such as The Sopranos and Mad Men, although they all seem to follow a narrative model of classic tales of patriarchal hubris like King Lear. In essence, the myth of the “great man”, be they a crime lord, drug kingpin or advertising executive is deconstructed and challenged by a narrative that provides a closer look at the inherent emptiness of this myth. They are counter-cultural cautionary tales to the viewer that challenge what might be our pre-conceived notions of masculinity or success.

Breaking Bad follows this example pretty much until the end of the show. Driven by his cancer diagnosis, the mild-mannered Walter White, who has screwed himself out of business and financial success through his own cowardice, decides to climb the ranks of the drug trade using his chemistry knowledge. However, despite buying into his own self-made myth of him being the great cook Heisenberg who can even kill crime lords like Tuco or Gus Fring, Walt’s life slowly becomes emptier and emptier and he becomes less and less happy.

A traditional ending to this kind of tale would be one employed by a film like Citizen Kane. Despite all the money, wealth and fame Charles Foster Kane has accrued in his lifetime, he dies alone, entombed within his own castle. His last words are a callout to a symbol from his childhood, something that made him happy in the days before he scarified friends and family for the sake of wealth.  

However, Breaking Bad gives a surprisingly decent and peaceful death to Walter. The specifics seem similar to Citizen Kane – Walter also dies alone surrounded by a symbol of his wealth – the famous blue meth he created. However, the circumstances of his death leave him with far more closure than is allowed to Kane, or other protagonists of the genre.

I’m not going to go as far to say that Breaking Bad is wrong for doing something different. Instead, the problem with Felina is that despite breaking from the mould of the genre it belongs to, it sticks firmly within the mould of the culture surrounding it. In the ending of Breaking Bad, the show defies its counter-cultural premise by buying into the myth of Heisenberg that it itself created.

Of all of the art critics, pop-culture critics like myself are at the bottom of the barrel (especially unpaid, un-published internet pop-culture critics). Even among the pop-culture critic, there is a hierarchy. Films are higher than TV and TV is higher than video games. And, even among each of those there are mini hierarchies. It’s better to write about Breaking Bad or Mad Men than about New Girl or Friends, which themselves are more prestigious to write about than The Real Housewives of Washington D.C. As I’ve written, game criticism is on still more of a level playing field, but the idea of “casual gaming” and the perceived importance of games such as Shadow of the Colossus over mobile fare like Candy Crush Saga mean that it isn’t a lasting balance.

There’s lots of discussion to be had over why and how different shows and films are given preference over others. Sometimes it’s justified by the work’s overall quality, but so many times it isn’t. One way in which prestige is parcelled out is through aesthetics. Certain aesthetics within film and TV are often deemed as being superior to others, regardless of how they are used. Movies shot on film as opposed to digital, for example, are often judged to inherently have more aesthetic merit. Shows with a style reminiscent of reality TV or multi-cam sitcoms can sometimes be instantly dismissed by critics. In the field of video games, games with a more childlike look, such as the original release of The Wind Waker, used to lead to backlash from fans and critics alike, despite the game’s arguably superior gameplay when compared to the more grounded follow-up Twilight Princess.

These kinds of value judgements are made constantly, and while it’s sometimes for the sake of necessity, it can mean that certain works are robbed from the ability of being able to be judged on their own merit. But I think just as, if not more interesting, is to see how an artistic aesthetic can prevent critics from looking past face value judgements. In other words, looking at when critics judge a book by its nice-looking cover.

A 2018 game by Sony’s Santa Monica Studios, God of War is not only impressive looking in the amount of polygons it fits into Kratos’ manly beard, but carries with its aesthetic an air of importance and prestige. The camera swoops without cuts from cutscene directly into gameplay, passing over gorgeous Nordic vistas seamlessly into introspective shots of the game’s two protagonists ruminating on the massive beast they’ve just plunged axes and arrows into.

There’s an air of aesthetic importance to God of War that overshadows the fact that the game itself really isn’t all that. This isn’t my review of the game itself, which is fun, well-written and well-paced, although far from perfect. It’s more to say that the game’s tone, even with the new focus on father-son relationships and Kratos’ attempts at self-reflection, doesn’t actually match with its aesthetics. God of War, at its core, is still a large-scale action game and were it stripped of the grandeur of its aesthetics, situates itself more in the same vein as action-adventure games like Devil May Cry, that have big set piece fights and kooky sidekicks that supply a stream of witty banter.

Nevertheless, anyone playing God of War will undoubtably get the impression of the game’s prestige – of its weight. While the gameplay and writing skew towards fun action-adventure, the backdrops and the camera scream at the player that this is a work of some gravitas, with something important to say. I think it’s because of this that the game received such glowing praise upon its release – God of War’s core is engineered to provide the player with some well-paced fun, while the presentation tells you that the fun you’re having is in some way important and artistic. Look at it too long and the disconnect becomes apparent, but a first-time run through the game does a pretty good job at tricking you.

People tend to see the amount of dialogue and the reliance on un-skippable cutscenes in games like God of War and assume that games are trying to become more and more like films. I see the argument, but I disagree. Instead, I think that games are trying to justify their budget by adopting more of an air of ‘importance’. In God of War’s case, one of the ways it tries to do that is similar to how some films, like 1917, do it – with using only one single shot. But the impressive scenery of God of War’s locales are an inherently video-gamey way of proving your importance, rather than a style copied from films.

“Prestige” is a difficult thing to define, especially because the way in which it’s defined and judged changes and varies between time and culture. But you know it when you see it, and as a critic, you have to be careful to discern between what is actually important art and what is simply trying to tell you it’s important with a shiny veneer and nice graphics. God of War is a fun game, but personally I would have preferred it dropped the pretence and embraced its own strengths. When something tries to be prestigious, it’s normally a good sign that it won’t be.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed the second edition of my brain dump. As always, you can follow me on twitter or donate on patreon.

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