Futurismic have my forty-third Blasphemous Geometries column.
The column uses Bennett Foddy’s flash games QWOP and GIRP to investigate the concept of realism in a video game concept. In a recent article in Wired magazine, Foddy was championed for his commitment to “soul-crushing, low-reward realism” in video games but are GIRP and QWOP really more realistic than Assassin’s Creed?
While there is definitely something ‘unrealistic’ about the ease of physical movement displayed by the characters in Assassin’s Creed, it does not follow that QWOP and GIRP are ‘realistic’ simply because they make physical activity seem a lot more difficult. Indeed, most gamers are in fact capable of walking a few steps and climbing over a wall without falling over or drowning. They can do these things because, for most people, walking and climbing are skills that are learned in infancy, skills that they have mastered to the point where using them no longer required conscious thought. By asking us to focus upon how the laws of physics interact with the movement of our muscles while walking, Foddy is asking us to take control of a character who has not yet mastered the art of walking. But such a character is no more representative of ‘real life’ than a character who can scale a building without breaking a sweat. Both Assassin’s Creed and QWOP present us with highly selective visions of reality, visions that instantly belie any claim to artistic realism suggesting that, yet again, claims or artistic realism are nothing more than rhetorical hot air.
A better way of looking at Foddy’s games is to consider them as an interrogation of the control mechanisms that gamers have come to take for granted. Gamers pick up a game assuming that they will be able to run and jump and kill with effortless grace, Foddy’s games deny them that ease of access. His games make the most mundane tasks crushingly difficult and so draws our attention to the manufactured nature of gaming reality.
I conclude the column by pointing out that a lot of what we think of as ‘hardcore games’ are in fact nothing more than games that refuse to call into question the basic assumptions and conceits of gaming. In order to play a hardcore game, you have to be familiar with the games that came before it. In truth, ‘Hardcore’ games are nothing more than unimaginative games that are content to echo the design decisions made in earlier games. ‘Hardcore gaming’ is nothing more than unadventurous and conservative gaming rebranded.
In his excellent extended essay What Ever Happened to Modernism? (2010), Gabriel Josipovici provides a spirited reading of Cevantes’ Don Quixote. Quixote, argues Josipovici, is not merely the first modern novel, it is also the first post-modern novel as within the novel’s various framing devices lies the recognition that there is something profoundly false about the form of the novel. A falseness that can never quite be expunged, regardless of how full-throated an author’s commitment to realism might be :
“Don Quixote’s madness dramatises for us the hidden madness in every realist novel, the fact that the hero of every such novel is given a name merely in order to persuade us of his reality, and that he has giants created for him to do battle with and Dulcineas for him to fall in love with simply to satisfy the demands of the narrative. And it dramatises the way we are readers collude in this game because we want, for the duration of our reading, to be part of a realised world, a world full of meaning and adventure, an enchanted world” [p. 34]
No genre has so proudly worn its commitment to realism as the police procedural. From TV series such as The Wire through to books such as Izzo’s Total Kheops (1995), McBain’s 87th Precinct series and Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels. The police procedural does not merely seek to entertain by providing us with a mystery that the protagonists can gamely unravel, it also seeks to reflect the reality not only of the books’ settings but also of the job of solving crimes and being a policeman. However, as Josipovici wisely points out, there is a tension here. David Simon’s The Wire beautifully captured the political realities of contemporary America, but is it not just a little bit handy that one of the police officers should have chosen to go and get a job teaching thereby allowing the series to devote an entire series to the problems of America’s schooling? Similarly, Izzo’s Total Kheops does a wonderful job of communicating the texture and character of the town of Marseilles, but is it not convenient that the book’s protagonist listens to cutting-edge hip hop while drinking local wines and eating immaculately cooked locally-sourced produce rather than humming along to Johnny Halliday whilst enjoying a burger and a coke?
Clearly, the police procedural’s commitment to realism is in desperate need of being challenged and deconstructed. Corneliu Porumboiu’s Poliţist, Adjectiv scratches that itch. With long and delicately manicured finger nails.
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In my recent piece about Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog (2008) I discussed the difficulty of attaining genuine cinematic realism. But this makes a number of largely unwarranted assumptions about realism as a concept.
It assumes that there is a difference between something being factually correct and something being realistic. Johnny Mad Dog might well express true stories about what it is like to be a child-soldier but this does not necessarily mean that it is ‘realistic’. In fact, in my piece, I chide Sauvaire for allowing an editorial tendency to creep into the film. I reasoned that because the world does not contain neat little truths, any attempt to present a cinematic audience with neat truths is unrealistic. This suggests that realism is an entirely different formal quality than factual accuracy. It assumes that ‘realism’ also carries with it certain aesthetic demands and formal demands. This is, to put it bluntly, an idiosyncratic view. It presents realism as an aesthetic and moral ideal that can be aspired to but almost never achieved : Art, being artificial, is necessarily in some sense false.
For this piece, I have decided to look at the issue of realism from an entirely different perspective. To present it not as an ideal but rather as an affectation, a stylistic quirk. A quality that has only a tangential relationship with factual truth and almost no relationship whatsoever with the moral imperative to speak the truth and present the world as it really is.
What better place to start then, than with propaganda? Art that is conceived precisely not as a means of telling the truth, but rather as a means of convincing people that a false vision of the world is in fact correct. One way in which propaganda can be made more believable is if it chimes in some sense with the world-view of the people it is aimed at. Propaganda films are works that are false but have that ring of truth. They rely upon that ring of truth to be effective.
One of the best examples of this kind of film-making (along with 1942’s In Which We Serve by Lean and Coward) is Alberto Cavalcanti’s Went The Day Well? An absurdly fantastical every-day tale of valiant little Englanders banding together to fight off a cohort of brutish Nazi paratroopers dressed as British soldiers.
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