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Games, Movies, Football, and ‘The Model’

I started watching the Speed Racer movie last night. And fell asleep in the middle. But it still kind of triggered a cascade of thoughts about games and movies and narrative and such. Maybe nothing terribly new — but, like a clean pre-owned car, new to me.

So.

I’ve been reading Jim Rossignol‘s new book, This Gaming Life. (Awesome cover, by the way.) It’s good as a kind of well-written overview of the state of computer gaming in 2007, not incredibly deep, but fun to read and with a fun travelogue feel. In one chapter he writes about Will Wright’s notion of ‘the model’ — which Wright speaks of in this Seed conversation I found:

Well, when kids … play a game there’s a model in the computer that they’re playing against. And when they play they’re reverse-engineering that model. As they get better at the game, they get a more accurate representation of that computer model.

And that’s quite satisfying, the feeling of discovering how the game works. Again, nothing shockingly new, but I liked the way he put it and while I’ve added ‘game mechanic’ to my vocabulary over the past few years, thinking in terms of a game being a combination of a mechanic and a model seems useful. Maybe they’re really one-in-the-same, but there seems to be some subtle distinction.

Okay.

Speed Racer is like a fourteen-pound bag of Skittles — an over-saturated sugar explosion with almost nothing apart from that immediate rush. And I think it’s one of these movies which has decided to be more ‘video game-like’. I’m trying to think of other examples of these, but I think most major superhero movies have sequences which are supposed to be ‘video game-like’. And they usually kind of suck, except in the raw sugary spectacle sense. Why? Because in Speed Racer, at least, I have no idea what the ‘model’ is. Flickering clips of cars spinning around and doing all sorts of cartoony shit with almost no attempt at internal consistency — it’s nearly impossible to cheer for a win when I don’t know what the rules are, what the track looks like, or, really, anything about this hyperreal racing universe. The story sucks — they attempt to make me care by setting up a story of the little guy taking on the corrupt Ol’ Boys Network. But I don’t care. If the only thing worthwhile about your movie is the racing scenes, then I want to know more about how the racing works.

I want to contrast this with John Madden’s take on football. I don’t watch too much football, but I found this article, Summa Cum Madden, fascinating. (BugMeNot login here.) Long quote:

During [an early game], Madden diagrammed Bill Walsh’s new West Coast offense on the CBS Chalkboard, an early version of the Telestrator, and pushed CBS producers to abandon the TV-friendly tight shots for wider angles that showed how the players work together. ‘He told me, “You ever show me a replay with just a guy running with the ball in his hand, you can expect silence,” says Sandy Grossman, who was Madden’s director for 21 years. Thus, the first tenet of Maddenism: a football game can be understood only by analyzing all its complexity. As he once put it: ‘Football isn’t nuclear physics, but it’s not so simple that you can make it simple. It takes some explaining to get it across.

And this is kind of what’s exciting, right? I don’t really care if some over-paid jock hot dogs or thanks Jesus when he makes a touchdown. I don’t really care if Speed races to save his family’s motorsports business. But if you want me to get into a game — even a completely fictional one — I have to have some sense of what’s going on and some sense that if I were to put myself into the game, I would still be wowed by the pure awesome skill or athleticism of the characters — real or fake — also playing that game. It’s not fun to watch videos of people kicking ass at Halo because I don’t play Halo or know Halo. It is fun to watch people kicking ass at Team Fortress 2. Because I love that game and if someone does something spectacular, well, that’s meaningful to me.

So that’s all I really have to say about that. If I had to make a recommendation for the next director of a Speed Racer-like movie, it would be: Give me some way to understand what the actual game or sport is in the story — give me a sense of the ‘model’ (show me what the track looks like, for example) — so when something cool happens, I give a shit. It’s tough, but if pro football can be explained to a bunch of people who’ve quite possibly never held a pigskin, then surely this can be done. At least it would give your movie something to occupy its time with instead of some dumbshit canned plot. I’m excited to see games that are more cinematic and movies that want to include elements of video game culture. But while developers of the former seem to be innovating hard, creators of the latter seem to be flailing.

3 Comments

  1. It’s amazing how interesting it is to *see* a system in action where you had just been seeing a mass of confused activity. There’s this incredible scene in King of Kong, where Steve Weibe basically telestrates how donkey kong works, and I think being able to understand what’s going on at this kind of macro-level is what makes watching sports or any other game compelling. I think this is why Starcraft has caught on so much in Korea– the game has such a wide following, a sort of critical mass where average citizens understand the game well enough to appreciate the strategies.

    Friday, October 3, 2008 at 4:57 am | Permalink
  2. There was once the promise that television would offer viewers a new button for the remote, as if we don’t have enough already: the camera angle button. One would be able to flip through all the choices like the director to find the most comfortable position to watch your show from… probably most appropriate for sports, a la Madden, so that you could focus on what you needed to in order to understand the game or a situation better. Several sports video games already offer this, and I think Madden actually offers blimp view (or it used to). The players looked more like dots moving around.

    Friday, October 3, 2008 at 1:23 pm | Permalink
  3. Charles Joseph wrote:

    It’s interesting, because on one side there’s the understandable phenomenon that watching a complex system is more fun when you roughly know how that system works.

    The other thing you seem to be implying Josh, and maybe I’ve misinterpreted your words, is that there’s almost an aesthetic reaction happening here. In other words, you’re no longer satisfied with WHAT happened, you want to know HOW it happened. Something I’ve wondered is if as games become a more dominant form of entertainment, will they change our expectations of other forms. Seems like you’re suggesting that they inevitably will.

    Friday, October 3, 2008 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

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