“Every time you see a great film, you find new things in it.”
As I was posting my last blog entry about beginnings on the 4th of April, the life of a respected film critic was going the other way. Roger Ebert, a name that anyone involved in the film industry will know regardless of their area of expertise, passed away on the same day. Now, if I was ever to enter the industry proper, I think (and I would like to think others would agree) that my area of expertise would be writing. Perhaps not necessarily film criticism, but writing in some form or other. For that reason, Roger Ebert’s style and opinions have held great interest for me in the past few years since I discovered him. No doubt this is the case for the next generation of film critics out there as well.
In a sort of ‘tribute’ to Mr Ebert, with a tongue-in-cheek twist that winks towards his opinion on video games, I’ve decided to give you my own top ten list… Or rather, my two top five lists. Through it I’ll hope to show what we agreed and disagreed on.
Roger Ebert described his critical approach to films as “relative, not absolute”. This list should be considered the same way. What I’ve done here is picked my top five favourite films at the moment, and then my top five favourite video games (I say ‘at the moment’ because it would be foolish to think they aren’t going to continue changing over time, depending on what else I discover), while also bearing in mind that I don’t want to bore you. That would be counter-productive, wouldn’t it?
Phase One – Films.
5 – Superman II (1980).
It may have faced some strong competition lately from The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008), but Superman II is still arguably the greatest superhero movie Hollywood has ever produced. It’s not just because of the brilliant action sequences that involve Superman battling three ‘super villains’ with powers equal to his own, although these are great and the climactic ‘battle of Metropolis’ has been a clear influence on more recent comic book adaptations such as Avengers Assemble (Whedon, 2012), but also the heartfelt interactions between Clark Kent/ Superman and Lois Lane.
Lane gets the idea into her head that Kent is Superman and spends the first half of the movie trying to prove it; it’s up to Kent to conceal his identity (at great emotional pains to himself) while also juggling the responsibility of protecting others from danger as Superman. This eventually culminates by going down one dramatic route and then another, as we see Superman give up his powers before realising by doing so he has left the now-unprotected world at the mercy of three Kryptonians who had personal problems with his old man.
But for me, Superman II is best remembered for its subtle moments of humour. At one point the main villain, General Zod, breaks into the White House and forces the president to kneel before him. As the president gets down on his knees, as if in prayer, he utters the word ‘God’ under his breath, to which Zod corrects him; “Zod”. Later on, Lex Luther, who helps the villains find Superman in exchange for being made ‘ruler of Australia’, clearly gets more than he bargained for from the deal and expresses relief when his arch-enemy eventually turns up, saying “Superman, thank God…” This doesn’t stop him changing his mind again later in an effort to get the best outcome for himself, of course. Rather than continuing to reveal the best bits of the film, though, I’d recommend just seeing it for yourself. This is one ‘popcorn thriller’ that you don’t have to feel guilty about enjoying.
What did Ebert say? “From his earliest days in a comic book, Superman always has been an urban hero. He lived in a universe that was defined by screaming banner headlines and vast symbolic acts, and Superman II catches that flavour perfectly… the feeling of actuality makes Superman’s exploits more fun. It brings the fantastic into our everyday lives; it delights in showing us the reaction of the man on the street to Superman’s latest stunt.”
4 – Fight Club (1999).
I include this film because it does a very simple thing: it highlights many, if not all, of the things that are wrong with our society today, and the potentially dire consequences created by a consumerist-led culture. The main character, an unnamed man known only as ‘the narrator’ (for reasons revealed later), is tired with life, suffering from insomnia and trudging through a monotonous 9-to-5 existence. In order to find excitement, he begins attending support groups for people with terminal illnesses. It helps him get in touch with his subdued emotions and, you could say, gives him a reason to live (seeing people worse off than yourself will tend to do that). He meets Tyler Durden, a name that will be imprinted on your brain by the end of the film, with whom he forms ‘fight club’, an underground movement that starts out as a sort of ‘support group’ for men suffering from the same boring, unfulfilled life. Soon it becomes something quite different; less ‘support group’, more ‘terrorist group’. The club grows out of the narrator’s control and turns against the higher elements of society that epitomise consumerist exploitation, using violence as their means of primal expression.
What I liked most about the movie was its potentially ‘Christian’ theme. While God isn’t referred to directly, and the filmmakers certainly didn’t have this route in mind, without doubt the film is pointing towards our instinct to search for something more than what this life offers us. The thing that these men are lacking, the thing that turns them against a society that worships possessions and monotonous jobs that in turn allow you to buy more possessions, is God. Only they don’t know it. And the only thing left once you take God out of the picture, is chaos.
What did Ebert say? “Women, who have had a lifetime of practice at dealing with little-boy posturing, will instinctively see through it; men may get off on the testosterone rush. The fact that it is very well made and has a great first act certainly clouds the issue.”
3 – Pulp Fiction (1994).
Tarantino has split movie-goers in the past twenty years with a diverse array of films ranging from the bad (Death Proof – yeah, there’s a reason you haven’t heard of that one) to the ugly (Django Unchained was, at times, quite uncomfortable to watch), yet something that even the haters seem to be able to agree on is that he did make at least one good movie that you can’t help but enjoy. That movie is almost always named as Pulp Fiction.
There’s not much that I can add to your knowledge of this film; it’s probably the best known one on this list, which is a high compliment in itself to a director who was working in a video rental store until his late twenties. Oh, and this was only his second film. Some will say it was also his peak, but I think Jackie Brown (1997) and Kill Bill (2003/4) are strong contenders for that label too. Undoubtedly, it has to be said, this one is still my favourite, and one of my ‘most watched’ movies.
What did Ebert say? “Dialogue drives Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction – dialogue of such high quality it deserves comparison with other masters of spare, hard-boiled prose… Like them, QT finds a way to make the words humourous without ever seeming to ask for a laugh. Like them, he combines utilitarian prose with flights of rough poetry and wicked fancy.”
2 – Memento (2000).
Chris Nolan is perhaps best known by contemporary film fans for his Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, but it was his first breakout hit that I believe is still his best. Memento is a story told backwards (quite literally, as we start at the end of the story, then reverse to find out what drove us to that conclusion) about Leonard, a man suffering from a form of short-term memory loss known as ‘anterograde amnesia’, which prevents him from creating new memories. He develops this condition after an attack that also kills his wife. Or is that really the case?
The great thing about this movie is that Leonard isn’t the typical trustworthy narrator, nor the typical ‘hero’ of the film. He is a man pushed forward only by his desire for avenging the death of his wife (whether he remembers it or not), and as time goes on you start to question, along with the other characters and perhaps even Leonard himself, just what kind of guy he is. There are little details about the film, sleights of hand by Nolan and red herrings that you may only begin to notice once you’ve seen the climactic twist at the movie’s end, but which give you the feeling that nothing can be taken for granted in this story, least of all our main protagonist. That is, of course, if you’re as committed to watching it several times as I have been, and then once more just because you loved it.
What did Ebert say? “I’ve seen it twice. The first time, I thought I’d need a second viewing to understand everything. The second time, I found that greater understanding helped on the plot level, but didn’t enrich the viewing experience. Once is right for this movie. Confusion is the state we are intended to be in.”
1 – Dr Strangelove (1964).
If I manage only to convince you of one film to see from this list, let it be this one. Dr Strangelove is, for me, the late Stanley Kubrick’s greatest film (in a list of great films to which his name is attached). A straight-faced Cold War satire that is hilarious without ever really trying to be, this film took the 1960s political climate (in the immediate aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis and JFK’s assassination) and turned it on its head, embarrassingly highlighting – with comic effect, it has to be said – the potentially disastrous outcomes that wartime military ‘attitudes-without-a-leash’ can produce.
The impact of the movie’s genre can’t be emphasised enough. Would this film have come anywhere close to having the impact that it has done if it had chosen not to be funny about it? Not a chance. Dr Strangelove singlehandedly proves that humour is the best way for humanity to deal with its own stupidity, and its lesson is still resonating today through films like Django Unchained (Tarantino, 2012). The difference between these two, of course, is that Strangelove was made in the midst of the very thing it was making fun of. It was a film way ahead of its time, and yet perfectly timed to make waves in the wartime culture of 1964. In the end you realise this turns it into a very rare breed that we refer to as ‘timeless’. Nowhere (in film) is that word more relevant than it is here. Was it controversial and outrageous? Absolutely, but anything that blatantly highlights our own undeniable faults always should be.
What did Ebert say? “…out of rudimentary physical props and a brilliant screenplay, Kubrick made what is arguably the best political satire of the century, a film that pulled the rug out from under the Cold War by arguing that if a ‘nuclear deterrent’ destroys all life on Earth, it is hard to say exactly what it has deterred.” – “Dr Strangelove’s humor is generated by a basic comic principle: People trying to be funny are never as funny as people trying to be serious and failing. The laughs have to seem forced on unwilling characters by the logic of events.”
Phase Two – Video Games.
5 – TimeSplitters 2 (2002) – PS2.
The words ‘first-person shooter’ probably makes you think of Call of Duty or Battlefield, but before the days of annual mass produced online death matches, there was another FPS that earned the title of ‘best multiplayer’ on PlayStation. For me it still hasn’t been surpassed.
TimeSplitters 2 was the sequel to TimeSplitters, a cult hit that was one of the maiden titles released along with the PS2 in 2000. The original was a fun multiplayer blast, but didn’t have much else to write home about. This sequel took what made it successful and expanded everything. There was an actual story mode this time. Multiplayer was improved further, with a co-op mode joining death match, ‘capture the flag’ and many other options. There were over 100 characters available to choose from.
Anyone who knows me knows that I was never the biggest fan of this type of multiplayer (when it comes to competitiveness, I prefer strategy), so the fact that a predominantly multiplayer FPS game gets into this list is a huge compliment to its design. If anything deserves an HD remake, it’s this. Whether or not the currently saturated industry would recognise its excellence is another matter.
4 – Fahrenheit (2005) – PS2.
Possibly one of the most important yet criminally underrated games of the PS2 era, Fahrenheit was a prelude to Heavy Rain (2010, PS3), and was the first major sign that ‘Quantic Dream’ had big things ahead of them in the gaming industry. Unfortunately not many people realised it at the time; the game got good but not outstanding reviews and sales figures struggled to break the top 20 for the year.
The game gave you control over four characters, including a man who you first meet just as he commits a murder in a New York diner, and the two detectives investigating the case. Which side you choose to be on will, to some extent, decide how the game proceeds. While this idea wasn’t fully realised at the time (obvious console limitations meant there were only so many possibilities, rather than limitless ones), it was an interesting premise that kept you guessing until the end, and then made you want to play again just to see what you could do differently.
It bore the look of an ambitious developer still finding their feet in the line of interactive cinema, but make no mistake: much of what people loved about Heavy Rain was fleshed out in this game. It also, for me, has a more interesting (if somewhat less emotionally affecting) plot than its big brother. It feels much more humble too; this game knows its place, whereas Heavy Rain was arguably a victim of its own hype. Anyone who’s played Fahrenheit will perhaps understand why.
3 – Silent Hill (1999) – PSOne.
The original Silent Hill is psychological horror at its best, and also the root of my interest in Japanese culture. It follows an ‘everyman’ (not a clichéd military-type, not a trained FBI agent, but someone you wouldn’t be surprised to see sitting behind a checkout at Tesco or selling you car insurance for Go Compare), Harry Mason, searching for his daughter in an isolated fictional American town known as ‘Silent Hill’, which is typical of any other isolated American town, aside from the fact that this one isn’t really isolated. Deformed creatures roam the town and want nothing more than to welcome you with open limbs; a city-wide siren signals regular shifts into an alternate dimension housing the town’s best selection of gleaming furniture and immaculate paintwork in what is a fine display of artistic design; the few other humans you meet seem more threatening than the monsters trying to eat you.
This game had all the things that a 1999 mainstream video game should not have had. Thematically bold and horrifically imaginative, I doubt we’ll ever see another one quite like it. Whether or not it was surpassed by its sequel is beside the point: anyone who’s played both knows that despite sharing the setting and game play, the games are quite different and (in as liberal a fashion as the word can be used) as enjoyable as each other. When it comes down to which one has had more of a lasting impact on the industry, though, it undoubtedly has to be this consistently frightening first game.
2 – Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2005) – PS2.
Few developers could have ‘Snake Eater’ as the tagline for their game and still expect to be taken seriously. Especially when it’s there not for any symbolic or metaphorical reason, but because the main character, well, literally eats snakes. Yet, when Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater was released in 2005, that’s exactly what series creator Hideo Kojima expected, and it’s exactly what he got.
Having found success with the cinematic Metal Gear Solid in 1998, and created arguably the first true ‘Hollywood blockbuster’ of the gaming industry with Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty in 2001/2, Kojima decided to go back a little for the third instalment. Perhaps aware that the current generation’s graphical limits had already been reached with SoL, Snake Eater retained the cinematic feel of its predecessors – albeit with a different style to suit the game’s jungle setting and 1960s time period – while focusing on greatly improved game play, creating a more seamless experience than ever before.
As ‘Snake’ (yes, it’s a codename), you spend the entire game in an environment where you have to catch your own food if you wish to remain healthy, heal your own injuries, and sneak past guards without the help of the advanced Soliton radar system you had taken for granted in the previous games. The result is a game that can feel a lot harder to play until you get used to it (and that doesn’t happen immediately), but one that you know is more realistic than most others you’ve ever played. Add to that a James Bond-inspired theme tune played over the stylish opening title/ credits sequence, and you know you’re on to a winner.
1 – Final Fantasy 8 (1999) – PSOne.
My favourite game is certainly not the best game by mainstream standards, nor is it even the best game by Final Fantasy fan standards. This is because it gave them something quite different from what they were used to.
An evil sorceress travels back from the future to take control of a present sorceress through a form of mind control in order to travel further back in time and meld it all together with a view to creating a paradoxical universe in which only she can exist. This kind of twisted logic runs through the plot of many a Final Fantasy game; some considered this one to have more holes in it than usual. They’re probably right. Yet somehow, as you play through Final Fantasy 8, as you soon discover the characters are so well written and designed to the point where you start to genuinely care about them, you find everything starting to make a kind of perfect sense. You begin to care about saving the world. When you become immersed in this experience and give your imagination to its universe, potential plot holes lose significance. For you, the world is real, and no amount of critical thinking can pull you out until you finish it.
But the best thing about this game was its sheer diversity. Game play was vastly different from its predecessors, and any version since for that matter. It used a unique junction system that allowed you to get quite powerful early on, if you were willing to work at it. Equally, if you didn’t work at it, you would find yourself running into big problems as you got further into the game. This turned off some dedicated fans who were used to levelling up and getting better weapons as they naturally progressed, rather than having it depend on their own style of play.
I’m not going to deny it; this game, along with its genre, is not to everyone’s tastes. What it is, though, is the most personal one for me, being the first mature RPG I played (assuming we’re not counting the old Pokemon Red and Blue games in the ‘mature’ category). Many people would say it was number 7 for them, but I guess I was slightly late to the Western Final Fantasy party.
Phase Three – Films and Video Games.
So, what did Roger Ebert say about video games? Not a lot in fact, because he was a film critic. But he did have an interesting opinion on them as ‘art’. In a 2005 interview, he said this;
“I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.”
Now, there is so much in that quote that I could spend a whole other blog entry on it, and maybe I will at some point. But the only thing I wish to highlight for now is the last line of it. Ebert emphasises that ‘for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured’. It is not hard to think of the types of games he is referring to here; I myself have been largely derogatory towards those series’ that release annual updates of themselves, because they’re not good for the progress of the medium as a whole (I say that knowing the irony of my favourite game actually being the eighth instalment of the longest running series in history). But I think if Ebert was to read this list, he would perhaps understand where I’m coming from in considering video games equal with films. I believe my top three, at least, have been important in developing my understanding of culture. And while those top three clearly borrowed from film (understandable as the latter is a much older form of entertainment), I would argue they also bring something to the table that a film never could. Silent Hill is the most frightening entertainment product I have ever experienced in either medium, precisely because it puts you in the shoes of a protagonist going through the events as they happen; a film feels more like it’s showing you events that have already happened, and there’s a sort of subconscious comfort in that.
Video games, in my opinion, have the potential to one day eclipse their older cousins. Unfortunately, they may be held back in that endeavour by the commercial-driven society in which we’re currently living.
All Ebert quotes were taken from the reviews on his website – www.rogerebert.com – and from the 2005 article “Why did the chicken cross the genders?”, which was written for the Chicago Sun-times and can also be found on his website.