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The Inelegance of the Video Game Satire
by Mark Filipowich on 12/08/12 05:09:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Theoretically, there’s nothing holding back games from being an excellent vehicle for satire. Because they require the player to simulate a behavior—rather than just view that behavior performed by someone else—games should be in a great position to illustrate how ridiculous or destructive certain behaviors are. I say in theory because there are so few decent video game satires worth noting.

 

Seven Psychopaths is the second feature length film by Martin McDonagh. It’s a smart dark comedy with a terrific cast and a great script. It manages to be a satire of pop culture violence without turning into the thing that it is making fun of. It also manages to be metatextual without being obnoxious, a difficult line to tread anymore. The film follows Colin Ferrell’s Marty, a screenplay writer who’s trying to write a movie about seven psychotic killers. The catch is that he wants it to be “life affirming.” Marty’s neighbor Billy and his friend Hans (Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken, respectively) run a dog-kidnapping scam and mistakenly kidnap an obsessive gangster’s (Woody Harrelson) Shih Tzu. Marty winds up getting roped into Billy and Marty’s scam and the three flee the from the gang into the desert. It’s in the desert that the three characters try to find an ending to Marty’s movie (the one that the audience knows they’re watching).


Billy pushes Marty to end the film with a bloody shootout with all the ludicrous, unironic misogyny and violence that inundates action movies while Hans and Marty struggle to end the movie bloodlessly. The film’s third act starts with Billy torching the trio’s car and calling the gangster and telling him where they are, insisting to his friends that “this movie ends my way.” Marty and Hans don’t run, and they have to be as assertive and resolute in their pacifism as Billy is in his bloodlust to end the conflict in a “life affirming” way.

Drive is a film by Nicolas Winding Refn about a nameless getaway driver’s love affair with his neighbor. It’s a pitch-black, homage/critique of eighties action movies. Ryan Gosling plays The Driver, a handsome, gruesome thug who is constantly teetering on the line of psychosis. Drive is structured like an action movie, it has all the tropes and cliches that audiences have come to expect from the genre (Bryan Cranston is the driver’s mentor and father figure, Alan Brooks is the crime lord with seeming good intentions, Cary Mulligan is the virgin madonna, Oscar Isaac is the unworthy husband, Christina Hendricks is the bad girl), but they’re shown in such a realistic light that we see what an action hero’s behavior might look like stripped of Hollywood romance.

 

The relationship between the Driver and his love interest is the same one that plays out in every action film: a demure, troubled woman (bonus points for being a single mother) needs help from the hero and becomes instantly and inexplicably attached to him. But without the swelling music, the quick jump shots between action and the one-liners that rush to establish the relationship, the audience can see just how unnerving the typical action romance really is. Drive strips the glamour from the violent engagements as well. The Driver is in constant control, even as he holds somebody down and shudders with rage. He’s able to be as cavalier in his use of violence as he is when he’s tinkering in his machine shop; violence is just another tool for him to get what he wants. As soon as the Driver is finished fighting or killing someone, he returns to the frozen apathy that defines him. He’s indifferent and emotionless and completely disregards life as he goes through the motions of an action movie: his good friend and mentor is killed, the gang lord he trusted turns on him, his lady love is threatened, and he’s wounded (perhaps fatally) in the final confrontation. All with no reaction save for one important blink.

I bring these movies up because they’re both excellent satires that effectively comment on a tradition in filmmaking. They dissect the action film formula and illustrate just how insane it is to celebrate a type of entertainment that so thoughtlessly disregards violence, gender politics, and morality. Both movies are critically respected, but they’re difficult movies. Neither saw huge box office numbers in spite of generally favorable critical reception. Both suffered from poor marketing (the marketing for Drive was so misleading that a woman actually tried to sue the producers over it) and both of them, quite frankly, are kind of weird. I liked both of these movies. Seven Psychopaths and particularly Drive have what it takes to go on to be cult favorites. They are able to use the conventions of their genre to criticize the fundamental operations of it. I bring up these movies because they’re great at doing what video games have been trying and failing to do, especially recently.

 

Whenever a game tries to draw on its own history to illustrate a problem, the game often as not just ends up being a part of whatever problem it’s trying to deconstruct. In Hotline Miami, the player serially kills his way from room to room. The game leaves the question, “Do you like hurting people?” lingering for the entire game. It doesn’t matter what the answer is because, to play the game, the player has to be a constant participant in its violence. You have to endorse violence to play Hotline Miami. The game occasionally chastises the player for having fun while pretending to kill people, but continuing requires more of the same violence. The bloodshed is not changed, challenged, or looked at from a different view. It’s just there, called attention to, and then amplified.

 

The same thing happens in 2009’s Mad World. The player is followed by a pair of disembodied commentators that applaud the creativity in how they murder other people on screen. In essence, the game is a reality tv parody where the characters are encouraged to kill one another for audience approval. Points are rewards granted for more elaborate and stylish kills. Ostensibly, it’s a look at how cheap and empty the thrills of television are. But it also rewards the player for killing people cheaply and emptily. The game doesn’t examine what it’s asking the player to do. It just points its finger and reminds the player how bizarre, unnatural, and “mad” its world is while screaming, “more, MORE!”

These games aren’t like Seven Psychopaths,which treats violence as pointless and absurd, or Drive, which treats violence as terrifying and gruesome. These games treat violence as a game. They point to the extreme violence that is omnipresent in the medium and say nothing. They call attention to an unhealthy recurring trope and then they try to outdo their precedent. And this doesn’t just happen when games approach violence, either.

 

Bayonnetta is a game that follows a hypersexualized woman in a position of power over other hypersexualized women. Bayonnetta is tall, thin, lithe with an hourglass frame. She fights using pistols strapped to her feet and magical powers that when activated remove her clothing in strips. In the opening cutscene enemies slash open her skintight bodysuit near her ass and her tits (her outfit is technically made of her own hair; that doesn’t really change anything but not mentioning this has been a point of contention in the past). The game shines a glaring light on how exploitative games are designed from the perspective of the male gaze and then does nothing. It shows us sexism but doesn’t offer anything other than more sexism.

Games are smart. Developers are smart. Game audiences are smart. But when a game tried to satirize material, it often seems that the execution is so ham-handed that the game just ends up being an extreme instance of whatever it was trying to criticize. Games are in at least as good a position to deliver punchy satire as film, but there seem to be far fewer successes. Whether because audiences are unwilling to consume a game that critically comments on its own tradition or because developers are unwilling or unable to compose a sophisticated satire, it’s becoming a bigger and more noticeable hole in the canon of yearly releases.

 

Originally posted on PopMatters.


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Comments


Christian Kulenkampff
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Thank you for the nice read. I agree with you. A small game that does "political satire" right (imo): http://www.necessarygames.com/my-games/terrorist-killer

Andrew Lavigne
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This is what Hotline Miami does:

"The only way out is the way through. The only possible oppositional strategy is one of embracing these control technologies, generalizing them, and opening them up. This is the very strategy that Neveldine and Taylor adopt in Gamer, by fully embracing the very logic of entertainment and involvement that they are satirizing, and making an exploitation film whose hope is to draw audiences in, rather than alienating them. In the twenty-first century, cognitive estrangement doesn’t work any more as a subversive strategy (if it ever did); what’s needed is rather a strategy that ups the ante on our very complicity with the technologies and social arrangements that oppress us.

"In all of this, I still haven’t mentioned what really makes Gamer work: which is how the “look and feel” of the movie resonates with its generic and technological content. Gamer comes from a place where art film meets pornography-of-violence sleaze, and pretty much everything in between these extremes just drops out. As an “exploitation” film, Gamer embraces the logic of control and of gamespace, which is also the dominant logic of entertainment programming today...The film is crass and satirical, and it disclaims any sort of high-minded critique; in this way, Neveldine and Taylor are beyond cynicism. Their exploitation strategy disables in advance any critical scrutiny — but by that very fact it also disables any sort of ideological appropriation."

- Steven Shaviro, Gamer (http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=830)

Michael Joseph
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To be fair, I don't think enough talented designers are tackling this. That says something about the medium and the industry.

As a medium it's technically difficult which limits the number of folks who could do this as side venture. As an industry it's not very interested in art.

Thankfully you no longer here claims that games are art simply because they contain content developed by 2D/3D graphics artists.

Michael Silverman
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I agree with the article and other Michael... more satire games. Not only about the nature of games themselves, ALA The Stanley Parable, but the whole universe of interesting topics to talk about other than the hero's quest.

Its a clear win for everyone. Its fun to make such a game, its easy to be innovative in that space, and it makes games more relevant as a medium if we can lampoon something from real life.

I, and I'm sure many others, would get a huge kick out of a game that really sends-up needless game violence or sexist games in a witty way.

Michael Pianta
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Personally I thought No More Heroes was a relatively effective piece of game satire. It satirizes both games (with the way it toys with the expected level/boss structure) and gaming culture.

Robert Boyd
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On a related note, I've noticed a lot of parody games fall prey to the same problem - they make fun of negative aspects of game design but then do the exact same thing themselves.

Ben Serviss
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First thing: Albert Brooks was in Drive, not Alan Brooks :D

I pretty much agree with the general sentiment here - not enough talented designers are tacking satire, and the ones who do fail to express it properly through game mechanics. More than anything else, this is a symptom of the still relative newness/immaturity of games.

Keep in mind, GTA 3 came out only 11 years ago, and that game set the bar for game satire that still hasn't been overwhelmingly surpassed.

Plus, considering that the focus on technological advances has cooled tremendously compared to the leaps from 8/16/32/64/etc bit, 2D to 3D, we're only now catching up to the emotional possibilities on what can be expressed in games.

Understanding and deploying subtlety is still pretty new to developers, and just like a next-gen dev kit, it'll take some time for us to figure out how to best use it.

Patrick Lavelle
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Agreed that the issue hinges on finding effective ways to use the rules of the game to express the ironies and hypocrisies required for successful satire. The fact that we can use art, pacing, and narration to express these, but still fall back on genre conventions suggests that we still are not masters of the elusive craft of game design.

Ian Barkley-Yeung
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Planescape: Torment had a pretty effective satire of other computer roleplaying games -- the Mordon Maze. It was a big collection of 10x10 rooms, each with a few, nearly identical monsters, labeled "Low Threat Construct" and the like. When you killed them, they would somethings drop "A Clue!"; if you looked at the description of "A Clue!", it said "You now understand the story a little better". I thought it was a pretty effective satire of other games, with no real story but an excuse for a endless series of fights (I'm looking at you, Wizardry) using characters who were more collections of stats than actual human beings.

Planescape: Torment really was a different game that those, one with a real emphasis on stories and ideas and dialogue, and just like your satire movies, it was more of a cult classic than a commercial success.

Luis Blondet
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The Adventures of Albert Odyssey and Quest For Glory are great satire in the whole RPG genre and i highly recommend playing them, if not for the lolz.

Ian Morrison
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Doesn't Spec Ops: The Line qualify as a satire, and a pretty effective one at that? It's a pretty thorough demolishing of the most disturbing elements of the current "modern shooter" trend.

Connor Fallon
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I have to agree with this -- Spec Ops: The Line is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Game Satire.

That said, I think when most people think of satire they think of biting comedy, and this may be a fair clarification. Spec Ops might be considered more of a deconstruction?

I think a bit problem is that the things we are satirizing is the fact that games take these things so lightly, and thus making fun of them just seems to often take the problem further.

Frank DAngelo
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I'm not quite sure what you are saying in the Bayonetta bit. I get the feeling you think the entire game was just a satire of hyper sexual women in games, but I would argue that the game is not satire at all. Is it campy? Yes. But Bayonetta stands as one of the best action games ever made, if not even considered the best of the best by many. It offered great combat. Unique level design. Endless creative enemy types. Engaging epic boss fights. A great score. Sure it all had tackiness strapped on to it, but underneath that, Bayonetta was a great game.


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