Shin Godzilla is a satire of Japanese bureaucracy and a nationalistic underdog story about politicians uniting in the face of disaster, which sounds terrible. It sounds very people-centric, and nobody goes into a Godzilla movie for the people. People aren’t much more than a necessary evil to string together what would otherwise be an incoherent jumble of guys in monster costumes throwing punches at each other and stumbling over miniatures – you need people to engineer a semi-coherent story with things like pacing and build-up, though you also need them to hurry up and get out of the way for said sequences of rampaging monsters.
But Shin Godzilla is fascinating because it’s so people-centric. Its politicians are woefully underprepared for the appearance of a giant monster and, it would seem, any disaster whatsoever. Undoubtedly informed by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake + tsunami +nuclear disaster combo, directors Hideaki Anno (who wrote the screenplay and is best-known for anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion) and Shinji Higuchi present a government stumbling through red tape with all the success of someone who wanders off into the jungle without their machete. They call committees. They call sub-committees. They meet in one room and adjourn to meet in another room and then adjourn again to return to the first room, surrounded by an excessive, omni-present swirl of names and job titles. It’s an energetic effect, with dynamic camera angles and quick cuts and breathless back-and-forths amid subtitles comically plastered over different parts of the screen to create a fussy sort of chaos – there are lives at stake, but so is status and decorum. When civilians in one scene stumble into the military’s imminent response to Godzilla, multiple departments panic – without guidelines to follow, with careful planning now disrupted, there can be only anarchy because those guidelines are what rule rather than decisive action.
Eventually, an awesome mid-film display of Godzilla’s destructive power kills the highest-level politicans and paves the wave for ambitious young Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa). Freed from superiors holding him back out of self-preservation, he takes charge of a special Godzilla response committee composed of “lone wolves, nerds, troublemakers, outcasts, academic heretics, and general pains-in-the-bureaucracy.” They’re outsiders (though still pretty attractive ones) positioned as the next generation, as the only ones capable of getting things done. Shin Godzilla presents the old guard as incompetent and unequipped to confront potential catastrophe, yet the only thing to humble them and push them aside is death itself. It’s this sort of pessimism that makes the film’s silly nationalism, which comes complete with a proud “look at us” speech and an upbeat guitar-driven teamwork montage, go down easier than it might have otherwise – it’s less a mindless celebration of what is than an angry indictment of an ineffectual bureaucracy that obstructs what could be.
Still, the onset of that nationalism shifts the film’s focus from satire to a more standard mystery of how to take down Godzilla. Without public officials to skewer, some of the life drains from Shin Godzilla as it steps into well-executed routine: the triumph of the human/Japanese spirit. Solving Japan’s Godzilla problem in competent, united fashion just doesn’t compare to that initial ping-pong between bureaucratic incompetence and traditional Godzilla destruction, which dries up around the same point. And that’s a shame, because the film offers one of the most novel takes on the towering monster that the series has seen. This time, he evolves, first from a goofy, bug-eyed creature that can’t support its own weight to stand upright and eventually into what could be his most terrifying incarnation with a beady, inhuman eye, spindly arms, a tail like a humongous tentacle, and thin, crooked teeth. Toho promised their new Godzilla would be his biggest incarnation ever, and yet Anno and Higuchi never revel in excess, in burying the audience’s vision with debris and explosions and death. Perhaps that’s due to budget constraints, but there’s a purpose here, a willingness to let the big moments be big instead of trying to mold the film into a constant spectacle.
When I saw Shin Godzilla in theaters, I didn’t expect a franchise going 31 strong to stage its perfunctory destruction with such skill and energy. I didn’t expect it to evoke the work of Aaron Sorkin or Dr. Strangelove. However, what I saw in the theater hasn’t quite translated to Funimation’s disc release, which cuts the Japanese text for character names/job titles and thus cuts a huge part of the film’s comedy. In the theater, the text cluttered an already busy film by layering subtitled dialogue at the bottom upon Japanese titles in the middle of the frame upon the translation of those titles at the top. Cutting the titles so their English translations may sit comfortably out of frame loses the point – they’re supposed to be intrusive and obnoxious, causing visual chaos by reflecting the government’s obsession with status while commenting on how inane that obsession is. Their removal is indefensible.
Their removal is also, in a twisted sense, consistent with being a Godzilla film. The history of these movies in America is for them to be altered in some way, sometimes significantly. Everybody knows this. After all, the West’s prevailing mental image of Godzilla is, apart from the monster himself, that the weird, halting voices don’t match the Japanese lips they emerge from. This version of Shin Godzilla, the most refreshing kaiju movie in years, does not cut any scenes or alter any dialogue or insert any footage of Raymond Burr, but once again, in the adaptive process, something has been lost.
The more things change.
The Shrouded Isle is nothing if not contemporary. I play the leader of a cult governed by various statistics represented by little bars across the bottom of my computer screen – I keep them obedient, I keep them ignorant, I keep them religiously zealous, etc. I have advisers who often turn out to be poorly-qualified, and my cabinet is a bit of a revolving door because I get rid of one every few months. That this isn’t the White House and that I fire people by sacrificing them to the demon god Chernobog are minor details. The Shrouded Isle is a neat doomsday cult management sim that holds some amusing commentary on oppressive power structures and parallels to the current political climate, but in practice, metaphors like these don’t extend particularly far beneath the surface.
A game goes like this: to get Chernobog to rise again and liberate us all from mortal torment, I need to survive three years while managing the populace with those stats I mentioned earlier: ignorance, religious fervor, discipline, penitence, and obedience. Though I exercise total dominance as the unseen leader and designated clicker of eerie, monochrome, Game Boy-esque menu screens, these attributes are enforced by five families. Each season, I choose an adviser from each family to carry out their ancestral duties like burning books (which increases ignorance) or investigating heresy (which bumps obedience), and at the end of every season I sacrifice a chosen adviser to the void.
The Shrouded Isle is complicated, as all things are, by the human element. I, the all-seeing prophet of our lord Chernobog, know exactly how to lead my followers into glorious Armageddon, but the trouble is getting them to do my bidding with any sort of efficiency. I can only select up to three of my five advisers each month (three months to a season), and the families will grow happy or unhappy with me depending on whether I select them to perform their sacred duty. If I let them get too unhappy (or if one of my governing stats sinks too low), the game will end because the villagers will grab their torches and pitchforks. Each individual adviser also comes with both a virtue and a vice that further affects my stats to degrees of varying extremity when they’re selected – charisma, for example, is a minor virtue that will give a slight bump to my fervor, and being an artist is a mortal sin that will absolutely tank my ignorance.
The dilemma: vices and virtues are a mystery, revealed only by either choosing the adviser in question each month (which is governed by chance) or by asking their family to make an inquiry (which is guaranteed to work but unavailable if the family is unhappy with their dear leader). From there, it’s numbers. How many advisers I choose affects how strongly they shake up the statistics – while I’d get bigger numbers to both village stats and family disposition if I choose only Andrei Efferson to whip the unfaithful for penitence, I’ll get a more balanced spread if I choose two or three advisers (plus more chances to reveal vices/virtues). And if I manage to uncover that Andrei is an artist, his family will be slightly less upset with me if I select him as the lucky end-of-season sacrifice – creating art, after all, is a mortal sin.
It’s a clever system that forces you to juggle enough different values to prevent easy decisions without overwhelming you with numbers. And as morbid as the whole process sounds, it’s abstracted enough through menus and expressionless character portraits and flavor text to distance you from a pesky conscience – you see them less as people than the numbers they contribute to. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that The Shrouded Isle has abstracted and streamlined things a little too much. For how well the various systems interlock, they leave little room for stories to emerge because it’s the numbers that matter above all. The flavor text never indicates Andrei tries to raise penitence any other way. He has no relationships to speak of. The process of figuring out what makes him tick is little more than a series of dice rolls. His name may pop up in a creative random event, but those come few and far between.
Andrei is less a character than, well, a number. And while this makes for an effective commentary on how people are dehumanized when they’re exploited by their leaders, it grows tedious after just a few hours. That’s not terrible for a game that originated as a short riff for a Game Jam, but The Shrouded Isle is dependent on how many permutations its systems can lead to. It lives on how many stories it can create, and it squashes so many of them before they get anywhere interesting that it loses out on further commentary. Never do you adapt to plummeting ignorance by figuring out new ways to keep people in the dark, nor do you stamp out brewing resistance by any method more complex than increasing stats. In this game, the systems by which oppression functions certainly intersect, but they never expand or adapt to keep the populace under its, well, shroud; instead, they’re simple and crumble at the slightest protest. Rounds are short and end quickly because this largely text-based management structure affords so few possibilities, and the effect is less of managing a complex system to keep the populace in line than solving some short math and logic problems.
The Shrouded Isle doesn’t offer much more than a few hours of entertainment for its novel concept because of that simplicity, but perhaps that’s the point. Compared to the beginning, rounds grow easy and uneventful when they’re nearly over and you’ve figured out most of the vices/virtues; after all, isn’t it easier to maintain a system of oppression than to get one going in the first place? The game ends rather than allow you to adapt to plummeting stats because, compared to its lofty goals (whether that’s the return of a demonic god or just an uninterrupted, unchallenged regime), the oppressive cult mentality is thin. It’s easily toppled at the slightest hint of weakness, if people truly wish it to be. And in a grim little game based around summoning the apocalypse, a game released in the current global political climate, that’s the most depressing thing of all.
(Words cannot describe how pleased I am for actually getting paid to write about The Rocketeer [which holds up wonderfully, by the way] in 2017)
ZAM – Two steps forward, three steps back: how Hellblade reinforces myths about mental illness (Included + quoted in Critical Distance’s “This Week in Video Game Blogging” for August 27th)
My second freelance article went up today, and I don’t have much to add this time. I was reluctant at first to come out against Hellblade because it’s so rare that any form of media even makes an attempt at a nuanced portrayal of mental illness, but because it’s been pretty much universally acclaimed for that portrayal, I felt there was more than enough room for a different take.
I guess that’s the question when it comes to criticism: when is criticism warranted? If no one was talking about Hellblade, what would be the use of offering a counterpoint? And furthermore, would that amount to just kicking a game or any piece of media while it’s down? I’ve been writing a review of The Shrouded Isle that’s not particularly positive, and though The Shrouded Isle has a decent amount of coverage, there are comparatively few reviews because it’s a much smaller sort of indie game and so I wonder what the value of my perspective is. Not many people visit this site and the game came out a little while ago, so there’s no service to a theoretical consumer that I’m performing.
I had the same concern about my review of The Silver Case. I managed to frame it as an early look at Suda51 and where he would later end up, but what if it wasn’t made by a developer who would later go on to become A Name? I’m not what you would call a positive person, but I come out from my general negativity feeling like it needs to have some direction; positive criticism can highlight, but negative criticism tends to tear down and thus requires something in front of it to tear down, or it needs to simultaneously highlight something else while it’s stomping on the rubble. So with that in mind, there’s probably value in approaching every negative analysis that way; just saying that some talked-about media is bad isn’t saying as much as I’d like. (I realize this is all probably very obvious to people who are, like, good writers but it’s new to me so you’ll excuse treating it like a profound thing).
I do think I’ve (by total accident) succeeded to a point with my Hellblade essay here. It does address what I think (and which you, imaginary readers, should also think) is a very important topic: the portrayal of mental illness. But also Hellblade is supposed to be the perfect vehicle for exploring mental illness because it’s a videogame, and yet the conventions of a traditional videogame are its undoing. So that raises the question: how do you tackle this subject in a game? Can you even do it within such a framework, or does it require a new approach that relies less on a traditional videogame structure? If nothing else, the question is out there.
Coherence has never been Suda51’s strength, but then coherence is never the point. To play his games, or at least to play the games Goichi Suda made before his nickname became a meaningless brand aesthetic, the videogame equivalent of a Quentin Tarantino Presents, is to be enveloped in their strange worlds, their surreal journeys. I can’t tell you much about what Killer7, his greatest work, actually means, but I can tell you everything about the way it feels to stand in the middle of its weirdo narrative and its sparse, apocalyptic dreamscapes. This release of The Silver Case remasters one of his earliest games, the debut title for studio Grasshopper Manufacture. The best thing about it is that you can see where Suda’s going. He’ll get there eventually. He’s just not even close to being there yet.
Though The Silver Case is technically an adventure game because you wander environments that sporadically feature puzzles to solve, it presents itself as more of a mixed-media collage. There are the puzzles and the gridded 3-D spaces in which they reside, but also there’s the text that spills from character portraits with the volume and frequency of a visual novel. Everything plays out in windows of varying size surrounded by symbols and strings of words that flash in and out of the negative space. Sometimes the windows show the occasional anime interlude or a bit of FMV or (most often) an illustration, but never choices. My interaction with the game often borders on nonexistent outside the button I press to advance the text. The effect is both distinct and distancing – I don’t occupy The Silver Case’s world so much as see it through those windows, view it from behind the glass. I wander its fussy grids one square at a time, searching for the floating sun-burst symbols that mark either an interactive object or another person; in this game, one’s as good as the other.
That is to say, The Silver Case isn’t much of a visual showpiece for Suda. Beyond the illustrations and one chapter entirely in black and white, the character art scarcely changes; no single emotion escapes from the boxed-in neutral faces. Instead, I’m left to focus on the writing alone as delivered by the angry clacking of letters filling out a text box, the sound of a thundering typewriter that supplements Suda’s harsh, jagged dialogue. But what might have otherwise highlighted a strength of character/clarity of vision/etc. only demonstrates how difficult it is to subsist on his dialogue alone. The game’s cast is large and indistinct, composed mainly of the uniformly hard-boiled detectives in the Heinous Crimes Unit. Only two leave an impression: Kusabi, the hardest-boiled of them all whose open disdain manifests in absurd nicknames for the player like “chinchilla” and “Big Dick”, and Chizuru, who is a woman and therefore receives the bulk of the game’s sexism with lines promising the player a date as a reward or apologizing for her anger with “I was on my period.”
A side narrative, “Placebo” to the main storyline called “Transmitter”, is more successful at building character with its extended portrait of a downbeat journalist (incidentally, it’s written by Masahi Ooka and Sako Kato and not Suda at all). In addition to telling its own parallel story, Placebo serves as a kind of explainer to the more obtuse Transmitter, an interconnected series of cases concerning (sometimes loosely) the escaped serial killer Kamui Uehara. The Silver Case is a procedural of sorts, not quite in the sputtering adequacy of the CBS tradition but closer than you might expect. I’ve said little of the narrative up to this point, partially because the different stories in each case are tough to condense into one singular thread outside the Kamui connection. The other reason is that it’s all pretty much bonkers. Even in the true depths of its incoherence, however, I only occasionally glimpse Suda’s odd brand of inspiration, with a guy who predicts the future through the pain in his wisdom teeth or Kamui’s murder weapon, a “customized harpoon gun” (there is no elaboration and it actually makes less sense in context), or one deaf character’s preposterous, convoluted, and successful scheme to fake perfectly functional hearing. Mostly, Suda plays it straight. Many of the cases unfold conventionally, and the ones that don’t still feel conventional when their gestures toward the futuristic or the unorthodox disappear into the void left by the absence of a strong visual component or writing that evokes any sense of place.
I see occasional brilliance in The Silver Case. It’s in a tense chase through the woods in the black of night, where allies disappear into the darkness as their radar blips go dead. It’s in the sudden, unsettling appearance of a human shadow on the tile floor that compels you to look up, a creepy moment that only works half as well as it does because of the game world’s otherwise ruinous scarcity, because this is the first time you’ll ever see a human represented in the 3-D space. It’s in the way it de-personalizes the player, incorporating your avatar’s videogame-y silence by writing you as an emotionally traumatized creep, by referring to you more often by Kusabi’s nicknames than whatever character name you chose before the game reveals itself to be about identity all along. It questions how we perceive information, how it travels and affects our view of people and cities and countries, how it’s gathered by the journalist character in Placebo.
What The Silver Case doesn’t do is find something cohesive in its mess, a larger point behind the dull puzzles that otherwise bury its inspiration. You lumber from one square to the next with a tedium that’s sometimes so blatant it can’t be anything but intentional, yet this kind of joke at the player’s expense speaks to nothing in particular – as a commentary on the unexciting routine of police work, it’s lost on a crime unit too thinly-sketched to sustain any scrutiny or satire. The game’s endless text fleshes out neither its world nor its characters before spiraling into nonsense; it’s the first time Suda’s incoherence just reads like amateurism or incompetence. It would be easy, maybe, to say that The Silver Case exposes the lie of Suda51, that Goichi Suda is nothing when stripped of the artifice. Mostly, though, it plays to his later career like a shaky student film or one of those awkward TV pilots where the characters act strangely and some of them are played by different actors and no one has quite figured the plot out yet. There are fragments here, and in that regard The Silver Case can be instructive because you can imagine how they’ll later come together into something that makes sense, relatively speaking. But if I was the TV network, I’d have passed.
The nice folks at Paste Games let me write this piece about Prey and its approach to race, which I guess I’m super anxious about? It’s unfortunately easy to pick out some things like Ghost in the Shell that do race poorly; praise somehow seems difficult when there’s so much room for error, so much history and so many stereotypes to navigate in making the case for something positive.
What I’ve struggled with most in writing about race is how to say we need characters who are Asian without being foreigners and to not make “foreign” sound like a bad thing. Because all Asians are grouped into the Not From ‘Round Here category, I fear that emphasizing a difference may inadvertently create some division or the appearance of it, a wish to not be associated, when it’s more the frustration of being unacknowledged + unseen.
But to sidestep these problems, how do I refer to us? “Asian” or “Asian-American” are the common terms, but not everyone who deals with this is an American, and “Asian” is broad. Too broad. There are so many countries, so many people within those countries grouped under such a banner that it seems pretty much useless, especially when I want to talk about those of us who didn’t come from an Asian-dominant country. And yet because these are the terms people use and consequently how we are perceived, they’re also the easiest way to talk about the problem without going through the whole process of defining new terms that might not even be perfect, either (I certainly can’t think of any). It’s best, or at least it seems to me that it’s best, to work off what people already know, to build understanding from prior knowledge.
In putting out essays on these topics, I’m put in a position where I’m a representative, even if only four or five people read them. For this reason, I want things to be bulletproof. I need them to be. I need the right vocabulary, need no wiggle room for misunderstandings or misrepresentation because this shit is important. But it’s about as open-ended as it gets, which is scary. And as someone whose face has morphed from a baby you wouldn’t mistake for white if I was dunked into a bucket of mayonnaise into something more racially ambiguous, do I even have the authority to speak on these issues anymore? To be a representative?
I guess I’ll do what I can.
Alien: Covenant takes place years after Prometheus and concerns the crew of a colonization vessel bound for deep space. After a mid-flight disaster, they head for a new destination, one that has green grass (presumably, beneath the grey-ish filter), oxygen, water, and the eponymous phallic aliens that give this film franchise its title. It’s also home to Prometheus’s returning cyborg David (Michael Fassbender), formerly a severed head but now complete with a full body and a grungy 90s haircut. The film makes Prometheus look wildly successful.
Now to be fair, I kind of liked Prometheus, but it’s been canonized as a disappointment and I have few protests. I don’t insist it’s particularly great or secretly good all along, but I do believe it manages something that Alien: Covenant does not: it makes it fun to watch people die. Prometheus is like a decent slasher movie, albeit mostly sans slasher villain. You don’t sit down to a slasher looking for empathetic characters or displays of real ingenuity or the widespread triumph of the human survival instinct; no, you go to see idiotic teenagers die in absurd, creative ways.
While it’s an admittedly deserved point of contention that nobody in Prometheus is an idiot teenager under the influence of alcohol or marijuana, everyone dies quite creatively. Within the framework of a crew tripping over a different bio-weapon every few feet, Ridley Scott has free reign to throw in giant squids and mutants and a pale, bald, musclebound humanoid alien. The movie succeeds through the sheer amount of stuff it flings at the wall; the musings about faith and the place of humanity in the universe may not stick, but the horrifying C-section sure does.
That’s not to say Alien: Covenant actually needs variety to be any good, of course – Scott and James Cameron managed OK in earlier films with only the xenomorphs (Cameron did add a xenomorph queen, though that was late in the movie). But I left the theater with this palpable xenomorph fatigue. Unavoidable, maybe, when the creatures in question are over 30 years old and have, in various forms of media, tangled with the Predator, Batman, and the cast of Mortal Kombat. The bar for a creative xenomorph kill is perhaps unfairly high, but even when you correct for the raised expectations, Alien: Covenant swings low; three characters die while they’re washing up, on two separate occasions. Let me reiterate: this movie goes for a trite shower kill not once, but twice.
The Covenant’s crew is composed of thin sketches: the one in the cowboy hat (Danny McBride), the one who evokes Ripley if you squint hard enough (Katherine Waterston), the one who believes in his lord and savior Jesus Christ (Billy Crudup). This would be forgivable, as it often is in horror movies, if they didn’t meet an untimely demise with all the excitement of their number coming up at the DMV. Barring a scene with a crane that momentarily shakes Scott out of his malaise, the act of getting got in Alien: Covenant feels perfunctory, like even the film is bored of its title creatures.
The only thing Scott seems interested in is David, who’s positioned as a sort of tragic, lonely artist. He glides through the crypt-like interior of an empty city, masking contempt behind an eerie politeness. As played by Fassbender, he’s the cracked face of perfection, unpredictable and sinister and amusingly seductive when he encounters the Covenant’s resident cyborg Walter (also Fassbender). It’s David who provides the film’s core, a statement on the nature of creativity and the relationship between a work and its maker that goes down easier than Prometheus’s dead-end philosophical pretensions but nonetheless gets swallowed up when there are faces to hug and chests to burst. David and the xenomorphs wrestle for the film’s spotlight, and the ones who get it don’t seem like the ones Scott wants to indulge.
The carrot on a stick for Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien universe (xenoverse?) has been this promise of answers to its narrow mythos. In Prometheus, it was the question of just who that elephant-headed pilot was from the beginning of the original Alien, plus the motivation of the sinister Weyland-Utani corporation. For the sequel, it’s where, exactly, the xenomorphs come from. That answer may very well be the only takeaway from a film as mismatched and miscalculated as Alien: Covenant, but it’s an empty one, and not just because it’s dull and half-formed in order to leave room for more films. For all Prometheus’s troubles in asking the Big Questions about life, Scott uses them to smartly distance himself from Alien lore. The weakest parts of Prometheus are when it invokes the lingering questions of its universe, when it tells us the elephant-headed pilot isn’t elephant-headed after all and when it uses a xenomorph as a post-credits tease like it’s a Marvel character. By taking the other direction, Alien: Covenant ties itself up in lore whether we want it or not.
The strength of a fictional world is its scope, in how its bigness and mystery reflect the relationship we have with our own world. In giving us the answers, Alien: Covenant’s only essential contribution is the way it further flattens its universe into one that’s small, easy to explain, and as tiresome as the creatures that inhabit it.
(Included in Critical Distance’s “This Week in Video Game Blogging” for May 14th)
Nathan Drake’s house is neat but still messy enough to look like people live there. Two floors, nice neighborhood, loving partner lounging on the couch. It’s the familiar picture of domestic bliss that writers have, for eons, used as shorthand for what chips away big chunks of your soul, like cutting an apple with a spoon. Here, Uncharted 4 includes a PlayStation with a brief Crash Bandicoot level, both as an amusing nod to Naughty Dog’s past and an interactive way to establish the dynamic between Nate and Elena as she watches him play.
But Crash is also this tragic prop. As Nate remarks, Crash performs the same runs and jumps that he did in his previous life; the furry, jort-ed mutant even runs from a boulder like Indiana Jones, Uncharted’s most obvious inspiration. These days, Nate only works salvage, a pale imitation of his former treasure hunts. His grand adventures, his life-and-death struggles against morally dubious competitors have been reduced to video game contests that determine who does the dishes. No coincidence that after he fails to beat Elena’s high score (the game is even rigged so that he can’t win, can’t even get the fleeting gratification of victory), she asks him if he’s happy.
Uncharted 4 does not actually break the fourth wall at any point, but putting a PlayStation controller in the hands of its protagonist and having him play an old Naughty Dog title is certainly tapping at the bricks, sledgehammer in hand. This isn’t hidden in a corner of Nate and Elena’s house, either – it’s a requirement to move forward. The game reaches out to the player by making Nate a player himself, who’s similarly unsatisfied with the older video games available to him and itching for a brand-new adventure. Within this context, Uncharted 4’s narrative uses the overarching theme of accepting who you are to address not only the idea of players moving on from Nathan Drake, but the long-standing critique of his sizable death toll. And one year later, as Naughty Dog is poised to make good on their promise with an upcoming spin-off that allegedly doesn’t feature Nate at all, I’m reminded why I’m happy to see them leave the character and their wishy-washy defense of him behind.
Said narrative hinges on a “one last job” setup that comes courtesy of Nate’s long-lost brother Sam, who needs help finding the equally long-lost pirate colony of Libertalia + any treasure therein. Nate believed his brother was dead and thus accidentally left him to rot in a Panamanian prison, but there’s no guilt trip necessary – Nate has stewed so long in his own discontent that he practically jumps at the chance to lie to his wife and go treasure-hunting again.
Libertalia becomes both stage and symbol for much of the resulting conflict – just as the colony let its residents escape the constraints of an ordinary (and decidedly anti-pirate) world, so too does it let Nate escape the steady job and the domestic bliss and the refrigerator with leftover Chinese food. But the fact that everyone in Libertalia killed each other casts a foreboding shadow over his escapism, one that’s only emphasized by an earlier confrontation with Elena over his lies. He tells Sam at one point, “I left my life for you,” and if the pirate skeletons are any indication, it’s not worth it. When Elena tracks Nate down again on the island, she’s less interested in getting him to admit the obvious error of his ways (though he does, and she remains rightfully peeved) than literally meeting him halfway, out on the stage of his escapist fantasy.
Although Elena intends to bring Nate home, she also admits settling down was, on their part, an overcorrection – she runs and climbs and shoots right alongside him because the escapist, adventurous streak runs in her, too, and it’s a hard thing to leave on an attic shelf with the other souvenirs. Once all the fires and explosions of the climax subside, Sam reveals that he’s snagged enough gold pirate coins to set Nate and Elena off into a different sort of retirement, which lets Elena reboot her TV show and Nate pursue a more family-friendly form of treasure-hunting. It’s the complete realization of the island and Libertalia and everything that happens there as metaphor for acceptance – by gaining something from the place signifying their restlessness and escapism, they’re able to move forward without abandoning a key part of themselves. Instead, they build on it.
In other words, the story of Nathan Drake concludes with everyone accepting that Nathan Drake pretty much is who he is. He goes on this long journey to come to terms with his own displeasure with an ordinary life and learns that it’s not something to be cured so much as accommodated. Elena and Nate reconfigure their lives because they accept their mutual need for discovery and globe-trotting. Similarly, Sam learns to accept that his brother is finished; he has a wife, a home, a life beyond crazy suicidal expeditions.
Uncharted 4’s final message for the player mirrors Nate: the person with the controller moves on, accepts the idea of no further adventures. It nudges us in the direction of being OK with the character’s retirement and with Naughty Dog’s presumed impending exit from the Uncharted business (spin-off notwithstanding). Everything wraps up smoothly, without a word for the path of third-person shooter destruction that Nate leaves in his wake on a quest to find himself. The bodies are frustratingly filed next to thrill-seeking and telling lies, as nothing that The Love of a Good Woman can’t fix.
Criticizing Uncharted’s body count is, I realize, such an old argument that the fourth game even includes a joke trophy (“ludonarrative dissonance” for killing 1000 people) poking fun at the idea. But the game’s central theme directly conflicts with that persistent argument. Involving players in a large acceptance narrative and asking them to move beyond Nathan Drake’s adventures, as its characters have, means Uncharted 4 also asks players to accept Nathan Drake’s actions. Conversely, the critique of his death toll is a matter of players outright refusing to accept those actions and demanding a better explanation, which Uncharted 4 never gives. Its trophy for 1000 kills is instead emblematic of a dismissive approach – the game only seems to contextualize its violence within the story when the spiraling mayhem of the gunfights and setpieces reflect just how out-of-control Nate’s lies to Elena become. Death, or at least death in terms of faceless video game henchmen, is little more than a broad, abstract concept used to sporadically color other themes, a parallel to how years of first-/third-person shooter conditioning have taught players to perceive video game kills.
Uncharted 4 not only maintains the status quo, it preaches acceptance of the status quo; violence is just what Uncharted is, what video games are. It does this even when some of its changes are at least adjacent to the criticism, if not a direct response. The game consciously dials back the number of enemy encounters, cutting down on the huge waves that materialize from thin air that had become an irritating series trademark. It presents nonviolent stealth as an occasional option. There are trophies for making it through certain sequences without actually killing anyone. When Uncharted 4 tweaks its approach to death, it’s only in terms of the game mechanics and not the narrative it holds so dear; Nathan Drake may kill less (and has the option to kill even fewer still) than ever before, but the game insists on separating those kills from the story, on still treating them like an abstract video game concept. Observe how, even after Nate and Elena reconcile on the island and the onscreen chaos stops broadly reflecting the chaotic state of their relationship, the death toll continues to tick upward. This pivotal shift remains exclusive to the narrative and its themes; mechanically, things stay the same.
I think back to the video game metaphor near the start of the game. Crash represents Nate in more ways than one: he’s out of date. Contrast such aimless violence with even Naughty Dog’s previous game, The Last of Us, where the body counts are similarly big but manage to fuel a pessimistic vision of the world. For what quibbles I have with The Last of Us, that game takes place in a horrifying, ugly reality, and more kills contribute to its ugliness. Uncharted, meanwhile, clings to kills as a way to occupy the player between story beats – climb a cliff, solve a puzzle, shoot a mercenary in the head with an AK-47. Not that there isn’t room for these types of stories within the broad spectrum of video games, but with all eyes on Uncharted, the poster child for both video game storytelling and how video game violence can screw with video game storytelling, its ultimate response to criticism is both disappointing and exasperating. In what may be the franchise’s final opportunity to address Nathan Drake’s violence, Uncharted 4 offers only a limp shrug: that’s the way it is, so learn to accept it.
Arrival released in theaters not even a week beyond the 2016 election. It is, chronologically speaking, a post-Trump film, but it is not written as such. That’s not a criticism so much as a reality of production schedules – shooting began in mid-2015, the screenwriter turned in a draft before that, and somebody had the idea rattling around in their head even before that. If we envisioned the presidency of Donald Trump at all in mid-2015, we didn’t give it much credence, let alone construct whole films around the idea. That’s not to say Arrival is apolitical, of course. Its central conflict revolves around getting China and Russia to chill out. A group of soldiers mutiny after being radicalized by what appears to be a conservative radio show insisting that Somebody Needs to Do Something. At the start of the film, when everyone on the planet is flipping through channels in search of news about the alien landing, Amy Adams chides her mother to avoid “that other channel” because “those people are idiots.”
Because the film is informed by the current (or, at least, formerly current) political climate, the U.S. government naturally figures into the plot. They are on edge about the revelation that humans are Not Alone in the Universe, so characters must constantly reassure military and intelligence agency types that the aliens don’t mean any harm, that they won’t use such-and-such information against humanity, that the earth won’t be the epicenter of any cosmic explosions. Despite these apprehensions, the U.S. remains willing to talk to the aliens, and much of the film follows Amy Adams as she deciphers their language and develops a way to communicate.
It’s true that I can’t imagine this kind of restraint under the Trump administration, but Arrival lost me on a much more basic level than that. In sci-fi movies, we are accustomed to the U.S. government’s narrative presence, typically by one organization or another like FBI or CIA or military as representative(s) of the entire political arm of the United States – they are The Government, proper noun. Though details vary between each film’s portrayal, there is a constant: The Government is on top of things. The Government is on the scene with unmarked vans and HAZMAT suits at the mere mention of UFOs and little green men, and as viewers we are mostly OK with this. We willfully suspend our disbelief at preposterous response times and openly accept that, where aliens are concerned, all of America may as well be a white suburban neighborhood. It just makes sense.
While a single glance at the legislative process over the past few years should pretty much torpedo anyone’s faith in this weird hyper-competence and make any resulting conspiracies seem fundamentally ridiculous, we remain able to suspend our disbelief. The reason we’re able to do so is a basic faith in the government, the kind cultivated by grade school textbooks and anthropomorphic singing bills – by the people, for the people, all that stuff. Not a faith that our interests are being served necessarily, but a faith in the government’s ability to function as a semi-oiled machine at (at least) its minimum setting and thus at a basic level of competence. Regardless of in-fighting or political posturing or what have you, we believe (or want to believe) things are still humming along beneath the hood, that everything is going as planned. Sci-fi movies embellish from there, of course, but they retain this crucial basis in reality – “as planned” just so happens to include an alien cover-up.
Which all makes it very hard to watch Arrival now, at the end of March 2017. Twice Trump has been thwarted in court over absurd travel bans. Not only are the ethics of the people in his administration regarded with pretty much a perpetual question mark, but so are their most basic qualifications. We hear reports of jobs unfilled, rampant leaks, executive orders passed unread, the failed Yemen raid, the health care debacle. The list goes on. The obvious question on America’s lips: how does this administration react in your average alien movie? The Government in Arrival doesn’t even do anything that seems outside the realm of possibility, but with current political events hanging overhead, their smooth response seems absurd. It’s not a question of restraint, because let’s be honest, a Trump-led U.S. would occupy the exact spot a trigger-happy China and Russia do in this film. Instead, it’s a question of the ability to do the most basic stuff. The Government quickly arrives on the scene, sets up a perimeter, doles out information on a need-to-know-and-you-don’t-need-to-know basis; nobody gets in or out without somebody’s say-so and so on and so forth. Other countries behave likewise. It’s all just simple competence, and yet simple competence feels completely implausible.
Back in 2000, I voted for Al Gore. The fact that I did so in kindergarten because I liked the color blue should tell you how politically aware I was for the last widely-criticized presidency, so I can’t say if my reaction is unique to Donald Trump. What I do know is that observing the 2016 election has had the odd peripheral effect of dislodging a basic faith in government that movies like Arrival rely on. Fiction is a lens through which we observe reality. We distort, we twist, and we shape that reality to suit the story, but we use it as a base. And when I see The Government functioning with some level of competence, when I look through Arrival’s lens at the place where our own reality should be, I don’t see anything at all.