If We Would Just Kneel – And Why We’d Rather Die
For all of the lip service we pay to the notion of convergence, how many of us really understand what it means? Most often in the game industry convergence is used exclusively to refer to the coming together of games and movies. More ideally, most people would have it mean that we in the game industry can learn from Hollywood and Hollywood can learn from games, and everyone will be happier and richer for it, and both players and moviegoers will benefit from a more entertaining, meaningful and even – potentially – a more ‘tailor-made’ entertainment experience.
For me, well, convergence is the word that most makes me want to punch people in the face.
con•ver•gence k&n-'v&r-j&n(t)s noun
1: In Hollywood – the code word for a strategy to seduce publishers and developers in the videogame industry into manufacturing games to go along with lunch boxes, t-shirts, action figures and other blockbuster movie merchandise in order to nurture secondary markets around the faltering primary market of film making itself in the hopes of maintaining a cultural stranglehold on the 18-34 year old male market segment.
2: In the videogame industry – a theoretical solution to the problem of expanding the market for games to include segments outside the traditional 18-34 year old male audience. It argues that game developers could learn from filmmaking creatives how to make their games more broadly or generally appealing. The argument is fallacious for reasons detailed below.
Thankfully – while convergence is the buzzword that everyone whispers around the boardroom and at the shareholder meetings, the creatives in both Hollywood and the game industry are busy proving why convergence is little more than a buzzword. 300 is – in fact – the movie that proves that convergence between film and videogames is impossible.
Snyder’s film rolls us back almost a hundred years of filmmaking to remind us what filmmaking is really about. His compelling, at turns disturbing and constantly electrifying visuals harken back to the apocryphal days when footage of a train steaming toward the camera would chase moviegoers out of the theatre for fear of being run down.
He reminds us that a film is not a story – at least not ultimately, not finally, and not centrally. He reminds us that a film is a series of images moving very quickly. He reminds us that the story between those images – the story that takes place in Scott McCloud’s ‘gutter’ that’s whizzing by so fast you can’t perceive it – is important, but not as important as the story being told in each and every one of his 4,043,520 or so frames.
What is 300 about? 300 is the story of a bunch of guys who fought to the death defending a way of life that we in the west ultimately take for granted to this day. And while it’s a great story, and a noble one, and important too – important enough that we’ve told it thousands of times and will probably tell it thousands of times more - the fact is that that is not what 300 is about at all.
300 is not a movie about freedom. It is not a movie about the nobility of sacrifice for a cause. It is not a movie about fighting for the greater good or about standing up for what is right in the face of certain death. In fact, in all likelihood, claiming that it is about something so lofty and rational and intellectual is a bit of a slap in the face to 300 dead guys who would kick your ass for slapping them.
At the high level – in terms of its plot and in terms of the kinds of emotions the movie wants you to take away and talk about over the water cooler the next day, sure 300 might be about some of those noble ideas. And it’s a good thing too, because those kinds of emotions – those lofty, rational, intellectual sorts of emotions we inherited from the Greeks who didn’t die at Thermopylae – those kinds of emotions are easier to put into language. Easier to sell. Easier to use to convince Larry from accounting to go see it next weekend.
But at the low level, in terms of what a movie actually is, well, 300 is a hard movie to talk about. In terms of its visual story-telling, in terms of the things that 300 is really about – the things that 300 makes you feel – 300 is an important and challenging and profound film. But if 300 isn’t about all those lofty Greek things, what is it about?
Well, 300 actually is about all those lofty Greek things. 300 is about the human form. It’s about the elegant simplicity of the physical. It’s about the beauty of the human machine, and the nature of the reasoning mind that compels it to put itself into situations that will rend it limb from bloody limb. And further, it is about the divinity of that conflict between the rational and the physical… the non zero sum conflict between our bodies and our minds that ultimately enables us to touch the spiritual, to rise above what we could ever achieve with our fists or our brains alone, or in concert.
Every frame of 300 is a tribute to the beauty and the power of our fearsome flesh. 300 is four million paintings of sand in your eye, the taste of blood, a trickle of sweat on your back, a leather strap cutting into your shoulder, the weight of fatigue in hot muscles, the compression of energy into all of your tendons and the sudden directed release of that energy as a kinetic explosion that can rend another human being in half.
It is the nature of this low level visual storytelling – these things that 300 is really about that makes it clear that 300 has more in common with dance or with music than it does with narrative. 300 is a movie that is easier to describe in poetry than in conversation. How does one describe a song, or the ballet, or a meal?
On the surface, 300 reminds us that (many of us) are descended from a fine tradition of rationality and democracy. But in its heart – its bloody, beating, meaty and very delicious heart – 300 must also remind us that we are all descendants of a more terrible and considerably longer tradition. The few dozen millennia that gave rise to our minds are insignificant next to the time that was spent forging our bodies. As Plato tells us, we are men now, but we are animals first.
Man is a civilized animal. Nevertheless, he requires proper instruction and a fortunate nature, and then, of all animals, he becomes the most divine and most civilized. But if he be insufficiently or poorly educated, he is the most savage of earthly creatures.
Plato (427 BCE – 347 BCE)
So what does all this have to do with convergence?
Well, thanks to Snyder, the point is made. If 300 proves that filmmaking is ultimately, at its core, about low-level visual storytelling, and that the lofty high-level plotting of a movie, while often important, is simply not central to a film, then there can be no real or meaningful convergence between the two mediums. Music is about the low level sequencing of tones. Cooking is about the low level blending flavors. Film is about the low level sequencing of images. Games are about the low level interaction between player and system.
Saying that games can learn from film and vice versa – while not entirely untrue – is only as true as saying convergence between cooking and ballet would make ballet taste better and would make meals better express the beauty of the human form. Ridiculous.
So, if convergence is presented as a reciprocal agreement between the game industry and film industry that will improve the quality of both games and film, will consequently broaden markets for the game industry and secure markets for the film industry – but the core promise of improved quality through shared approaches is impossible, what remains of the reciprocal agreement?
Unfortunately, things now start to look a lot more like the story of 300, and in this version of the story, Hollywood is our Xerxes. He’s really tall and really rich, and he has an indefatigable army at his disposal. We are outnumbered 1000 to 1. And in his mercy, he will allow us to remain masters of our realm, as long as we accept that our realm is the measly one of making games that are more like films. We will be kings of a very small barren rock in the middle of a great sea if only we will kneel and concede that the best a game can ever do to emotionally engage a broad and general audience is to emulate the techniques of filmmaking.
Unfortunately, as it was with Leonidas and his Spartans, this is not only something loathe to us, it is something impossible for us. Even if we wanted to accept Xerxes’ terms and kneel, we cannot because making better games by learning from film is impossible.
By my reckoning that’s where we stand. We’re between the Gates of Fire with no chance of victory. We can delay the inevitable, deny what we are, and sit passively by to watch the thing we care about be devoured alive as it takes its first steps into brighter future. Or we can resist. And fail. And in so doing show the rest of the world what that future looks like.
As far as I know – and I should know – even with the new demands of fidelity and complexity that come with the next-gen consoles and PCs, 300 people are well more than enough to make a game that makes a difference. With that in mind, I know what I have to do.