Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Why Event Horizon is one man's fight against his moral upbringing

And why Dr. Weir is sitting in a padded cell, cackling maniacally.

I know I'm a bit behind the times - 14 years, actually - but I just watched Event Horizon today. My goodness. Does that movie have an R18+ rating? It should have, for the violence and gore. But I digress. I'm going to spoil the movie here, so if you haven't seen it, feel free to take a 90 minute break and come back to me.

The story didn't make much sense, or at least in the way that I wanted it to, until I thought about it afterward. In the tradition of Silent Hill 2, I believe the entire episode takes place in Sam Neill's head. Yeah, I know Sam Neill is the actor, but it's an easier name to remember than "Benny Weir" which, actually was the name of an ex-student of mine. Well, that's disturbing.

Anyway, the ship is called the Event Horizon and it goes missing 7 years before the movie starts. Sam Neill wakes up from a nightmare and takes a photo of his wife off the wall, adding it to another, different wall which is already covered in photos of her. Go figure. Maybe he's counting down the days, or something, which in an odd way, as I'll explain later, would make sense.

So, to cut a long story short, she killed herself because he was too engrossed in his work. His work was apparently this experimental jump drive that folds space by using a localised black hole. This is the drive that was on the Event Horizon when it went missing. Sure, except that he never actually built the ship.

Throughout the film, the Event Horizon affects them all in different ways, but not everyone is affected. Two or three of the characters experience no symptoms at all, for no discernible reason. How odd. What's also odd is that Sam Neill gives in so blasted easily - at the first sign of a demonic presence, he tries to open the door to let it in. Smart man. There was some mumbo-jumbo about him being hypnotised by the jump gate right at the beginning, and that's why he's so susceptible but, really, as the one who built it, surely he could have done his research beforehand.

Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) is the good guy, the Captain who keeps his cool. He symbolises Sam Neill's superego. The doctor, Peters, represents his paternal instincts (as far as is evidenced, he and his wife never had any children, a fact I'll look at later). DJ, the trauma surgeon, is his impassive side - the part that can become emotionless and engrossed in work. It's no wonder he eviscerates him toward the end of the movie. And Justin represents his innocence, the part that can't live with what happened. With me so far? Good.

Let's go in reverse. Justin is the first to give into the jump gate - the first to go to hell. He comes back in a coma - shock - then starts babbling about the 'darkness within him'. He then tries to commit suicide, and ends up being put in stasis for the trip home. If we think of this in terms of Sam Neill's reaction to finding his wife had killed herself in the bathtub, it looks pretty similar. The young man/boy inside him doesn't know how to react, how to cope, and so he shuts down. What follows is self-blame, self-hatred, and then a kind of death. We don't seen Justin revived at the end of the film, and they say he's severely wounded. There's a chance he might not survive. Sam Neill's innocence has been torn to shreds by his wife's betrayal.

DJ is the doctor who's not a doctor, the tough guy who doesn't seem to feel much but can keep a level head. He does at one point, however, threaten another crewmember with a scalpel to his neck, without seeming to realise he's putting the guy's life at risk. This will be relevant later.  He's not otherwise a blip on the radar, being so impassive, but toward the end when Sam Neill finds him in the med bay, he doesn't really put up a fight, either. He gets thrown against a wall and across a tray of supplies, and then the next thing we know, he's dead (with some gore in between). Not for the faint of heart: Sam Neill hangs him from the ceiling in a semi-crucifix pose, and pulls all his insides out. You gotta hate someone a lot to do that to them. Sam Neill hated that part of himself that didn't notice he was hurting his wife, just as DJ didn't realise he was hurting the guy he had at scalpel-point. Sam Neill is getting revenge on himself through gratuitous torture. It gets weirder.

Peters is completely attached to her children, yet she's far away from them. The first hallucination she has is of her son with ugly-looking lacerations all over his legs. She only gets to see this by pulling a cloth off of a medical table after hearing a scratching sound and seeing a small hand pawing at the material. What else is that reminiscent of, hmm? Her son is also a cripple in all of her videos, and is being pushed around in a wheelchair, which has to do with a sense of imperfect creation. Peters longs to be with her children - Sam Neill's fathering instinct coming to the fore - but she can't be - his wife was barren or he was impotent. He doesn't see this as fair, hence when Peters dies it's because she's betrayed by her 'child' - a child who then smirks cruelly down at her as she lies broken underneath the jump gate, in a huge puddle of blood. Yay, miscarriage.

Morpheus is the most noble of them, but even he is haunted by his own fears. He left a man to die once and promised he'd never leave another man behind. Where does one burn? Hell. What does Sam Neill want to do, since he feels he drove his wife to commit suicide? Kill himself. His sense of what he feels is right and just tells him that he will burn in hell if he chooses to kill himself. This metamorphosis is complete when he says the apparition can't be the man he watched die, because he's dead - the flaming man then morphs into a more sinister Sam Neill, complete with self-inflicted facial lacerations. They're obviously partially healed, and look suspiciously like whip marks, which could be a form of self-flagellation - penance. Here is a man who has punished himself, over and over, yet found no redemption. The last coherent words he says to Morpheus are 'Do you see?' Morpheus then chooses to sacrifice himself in order to let the other two crewmembers - the two relatively unaffected by the Event Horizon - escape. He says, 'Yes, I see.' His sense of decency sees that he has to escape this fantasy world if he's ever going to be able to live normally again. It chooses to destroy the fantasy for a chance to escape back to reality.

The escape is incomplete, however. The remnants of the crew - in effect, a return to sanity - cannot escape from the horrors he brought them. He chooses to remain mad rather than return to normality. It's his coping mechanism - he can be sane, and choose to kill himself because he can't face the darkness within, or he can embrace that darkness and go irrevocably insane. He chooses the latter. In essence, he has the two walls of his original cell - the wall with the photos of his wife, and the wall with the other photos. He chooses his wife, the weight of which can already be seen at the beginning of the movie through the sheer number of photos. Him moving her photo across at the beginning is tipping the balance further in favour of insanity. Good job.

A note on the gouging out of eyes and the depictions of hell - in the video that shows what happened to the crew, nothing much makes sense, except that several physically impossible things are happening, and the men appear to be raping the women, but no one is having a good time. This harks back to Sam Neill's moralistic upbringing. Sex is not to be enjoyed, dammit, and people who indulge in it are going to hell. The gouging out of eyes is a self-hating reference to the fact that he was blind to his wife's distress. The naked bodies wrapped in barbed wire could by symbolic of the fact that he was still attracted to his wife, even though she was dead. She was naked in the bathtub, after all. There's also the question of how he slept with her without realising something was wrong, and so the rape could be an imagined projection of how he thinks she felt whenever they made love.

Terribly, terribly long analysis short: Sam Neill should totally have known what the jump gate did and being trying to secretly resurrect his wife. Using government funds to commit starship necromancy - brilliant! Instead it was pretty lackluster, except for its shock value. The above is my attempt to make it make sense. Ce la vie. No one said a universe of chaos had to be full of gore-porn, but there you have it. Now I'm going to go and see what other theories people have come up with to give this story more substance. The premise was interesting, but inadequately executed. Such a shame, really.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A failure, of sorts (personal commentary on the Brisbane collapse)

So, with the recent shutdown of THQ Australia in Brisbane and Bluetongue in Melbourne, I find myself at a loss. I worked with THQ as a freelance writer for several years, before they closed their handheld gaming department. The loss of some 200 staff at the beginning of 2009 saw most of my friends and colleagues moving to new jobs, but the trouble didn't begin there. The collapse of the Brisbane game industry has been a slow, but not inevitable, tumble toward the ground. It could have been halted, but it wasn't. There are two reasons for this - neither of them faults. They are simply the way things are.

I have to admit, I've taken this pretty personally. I've watched every company I've loved break down into separate pieces, have a hope of building back up, then slide once more down the rocky slope of financial ruin. The only company I've worked with that's still alive and kicking in Brisbane is Halfbrick. My friend is working on Fruit Ninja Kinect. Have what opinion of that you will. I'm just glad he still has a job.

But things began back in 2007, with the closure of Auran. All of their staff were let go, two weeks before Christmas and, from varying third-person accounts, without severance pay. I don't know what the games industry is like in other cities - in general, the developers seem to be a bunch of really nice, down-to-earth guys and girls - but Brisbane was like one little furry critter - wound one leg and the rest would react. Pandemic, THQ and Krome all took on Auran employees to help them get through this tough patch, and to save the talent Auran had acquired from drifting away, either to other capital cities, or back overseas.

Now, when I was working at Pandemic, a lot of people were brought in from around Australia, and from overseas, especially Canada. So this fear that all of the talented people would evaporate and leave our industry stifled under its own ideas was actually pretty relevant. Again, this is my outsider's perspective. I was working at Qantm and EB Games at the time, while also freelancing with THQ. I got the educational, retail and developer perspectives, but none from ground zero. What this makes me is very good at repeating hearsay and drawing my own conclusions, so I just want to reiterate this is my opinion. There have been enough articles about all of this for you to form your own, much more informed opinion. This is mine. Okay? Okay.

See, I had friends and even my brother working at Pandemic. I heard a couple of stories, but the news that they were going under was actually broken to me by a reporter friend of mine. She called me up to ask if the collapse was real. What a way to find out. I'd also been told, only a couple of months previously that I was expected back to work on their upcoming title - the ill-fated Batman - but whether that was ever going to happen or not, I'll never know. Let's suffice to say work as a games writer is hard to come by. I'd just lost what I then saw as my one way back into full-time games industry work. I was in complete shock.

My brother wasn't let go in that first round, but most of my friends were. Krome and THQ began collecting Pandemic employees. No one wanted to see friendly, talented, dedicated people out on the street. It didn't feel right. And so, when Pandemic finally went belly-up in another couple of months, Krome and THQ were already pretty full-up. But, again, the games industry in Brisbane just doesn't want to leave people in trouble. More hiring followed.

Things were reasonably quiet for the next 8 or 9 months. I worked with THQ on Avatar: The Last Airbender: Into the Inferno, and things looked good. That was released at the end of 2008, and I left the studio at the end of the project feeling reasonably confident that things were going to turn themselves around. Then, in January 2009, my producer friend from THQ asked to meet up to discuss a new idea he had for a game. When I asked if I would be working with the people I'd already come to know, he told me they'd all been let go that morning. He and one other person were the only people I knew who still worked there. He had tears in his eyes, and I did too. Those were good people, are still very talented people. So many of them had gotten their big breaks there, and they were utterly dedicated to the company and their jobs. It didn't make any sense, but I guess it does now.

Krome followed with layoffs, then more layoffs, then more. My brother was let go and re-hired two or three times, from memory. Then Krome shut down and KMM rose up in its ashes, but quietly, and with a reduced staff size. I don't blame them. By now there were more unemployed game developers in Brisbane than there were employed, but it must have been hard to be one of those who got picked to stay on. I was only watching from the outside, and it was breaking my heart. I couldn't imagine how things could get any worse.

Well. Here we are. 2 years later, a year after THQ Aus shut down their handheld gaming department for good, I'm halfway across the world and more than halfway to another broken heart. I've cherished the times I've spent working on every game, and each time one of those companies collapses, it feels like someone has died. I loved Pandemic. It was my dream come true. I thought, and still do think, that I must be one of the luckiest people in the world to ever have landed a job there as a writer. I cannot be grateful enough to the people who made that possible. And, for that reason, it's also so hard to let go.

I know a company is its people, not an entity of itself. I also know that the devs I met in Brisbane are some of the nicest people I've met anywhere, and their collective caring for each other is so strong that it catapulted the industry to ruin. I can't say I'd prefer to work in an industry where one company collapses and the others just let its employees fade away. It certainly wasn't a talent-grabbing frenzy, as some thought. It was dinghys and yachts gathering around a sinking cruise ship, trying to save everyone. They failed.

So my two faults for this collapse, as I perceive them, are this : the state government, for trying too little too late and for giving it to the wrong people, and our Australian games industry, for caring too damn much. I love you for it, at the same time as I hate you. If you were a little more selfish, I wouldn't be so close to tears. But then I wouldn't be so proud, either. I can't tell what I would prefer, but I can say this :

Brisbane has lost one of the most vibrant and friendly communities it has ever had in losing all of our game devs. I hope many of them go indie, but I also know from too many friends that it's not an economically viable option. They have houses, families, living costs. An iPhone app a month, even two, isn't going to make a dint. Maybe some of the dispossessed can get together and start a new company, but with what? And this is where the government fails us. Unless you want to be making educational games - the definition of which is so loose that it changes monthly - or projects that record local history, you're out of luck. You can apply for a NIS grant, but that's, what, $15,000? Get everyone together to all apply for grants and you could scrape together maybe $300,000, over the course of a year. And you still have to eat.

Victoria's state government has a better idea - the Film Victoria grants in particular say that you just have to prove a product will be economically viable, and promise to repay the money as soon as you start making a profit - but I've still seen too much money go to people who have no idea what they're doing. I've worked with too many of them. Luckily, my current project doesn't suffer from such inadequacies, but there are far too many that do. Qualifications don't seem to have any bearing on the grant approval process. You can write a grant application to make a video game if you're a novelist, and they won't check if you've got the team or knowledge to back it up. Or, more distressingly, I've had my name put to projects that should never have been approved, and had my 'presence' count toward people getting grant money that they then choose to piss into the wind because they know nothing about game development and don't even have a design document for a two-year turnaround to ship a AAA title. Then the government sees all their failures, and decides not to invest in the game industry anymore. It's a stupid cycle of failure.

Stricter regulations for grants, and more specific grants targeted at bolstering the video games industry specifically would go a long way to getting all those Brisbane devs back on their feet. I know we had a state-wide disaster at the beginning of the year, and all that money has to come from somewhere. I just wish there had been processes in place earlier to stop this slow slide from happening. I'm hurting, and it makes me angry. The Brisbane games industry didn't deserve this. But maybe nothing could have been done, and in any case, it's moot now.

So here's a salute to the industry I loved, in the place where I lived. To all the wonderful people I worked with, and who I hope I get to work with again at some point, to the talented artists and inventive programmers, the erudite designers and the kind-hearted producers :

The Brisbane industry will return. Next time, we'll do it better. We'll take care of each other without losing our own battles, and we'll still have the compassion I've come to love so well. If anyone can do it, I know you can. Chin up, Brisbane. It's a long road ahead, but you know what to do, now. Start with one foot in front of the other, and I'll see you in a couple of years.

xoxo L~

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Heavy Rain, Fable 3 & perceived value

I've been thinking about this for a while. Not just because I always seem to spend more time on Facebook games when I've vowed to give them up, nor because I play them over console games, neither of which makes me particularly happy about my personal gaming habits. I've just been remembering fondly a scene from the very opening of Fable 3. Not the chicken scene, because that broke my heart - no, the scene with the character's brother.

At the beginning of the game, your brother, the king, makes you choose between the lives of three random strangers who were heading a riot to protest his tyrannical rule, and your boyfriend/girlfriend. Once you make your choice, your character says, "I'll never forgive you for this!" Your brother replies, "Good. Then you'll never forget it."

In Heavy Rain, Ethan's quest is determined by the value the player places on his son's life. Treat Shaun like rubbish, and he'll tell you he hates you. When he goes missing, would you really care? Personally, I would - I would want to make things right. But I treated him the way I would like to be treated in the first case, and instead, he told me he loved me. It shouldn't matter, since he's fictional, and all of my actions are meaningless, but the experience had meaning for me. The entire game has a high perceived value on my end, because of the way it made me feel.

This is something a lot of non-gamers don't agree with, but I'll get to that later. I'm more interested in the relationships that can arise between characters when they have a disparity of values. In Fable 3 (spoilers) it turns out your brother saw completely alienating you as a means to an end - an end that involves fighting a greater evil than you would have been aware of had he not pushed you out into the big scary world. You wouldn't have believed him if he'd just told you. The experience was necessary to your understanding and growth, and so he took the steps necessary to ensure it, even though it made you hate him. I think I fell in love with him then, just a little.

Of course, I made the decision to forgive him. Perhaps if you don't the feelings won't be nearly so warm and fuzzy. But to me, his actions - his selflessness - made him of worth. I won't say my own brother treated me similarly, nowhere near it. But it's a tragic line from manga everywhere to make the ones who love you hate you so they'll act in everyone else's best interests. It's a plot in Gentleman's Alliance Cross, and in pretty much every film with a Dark Mentor. Of course, it only matters if the character had a bond with the protagonist to begin with, and if their perceived betrayal hurt them in some way. A character who puts the hero through trials with no fellow-feeling cannot truly be a Mentor, in my opinion. To be a sympathetic character, it should hurt them more than it hurts the hero, otherwise where is their stake? If they have nothing to lose, why do they care?

I remember at this point Bastian, and the Childlike Empress. Despite the name he gives her being Moonchild - really? That was his mother's name? - he starts off as a passive observer who becomes so deeply entrenched in the story and the world that the destruction of Fantasia wounds him more than it does any other resident. Sure, they don't want to die, but in a way Bastian is the one who'll be worse off if they do. He's just lost his mother, and he needs something to hold on to. That he finds value in Fantasia moves him to act. Whether or not it makes him a better person is arguable, but that's also not the point.

Value differences are, at a surface level, what separates the hero from the villain, but if they're one and the same, we get a greater sense of sympathy. As it seems I keep on quoting, inevitability + irony = win, as far as endings go. How much greater then, the unexpected-but-inevitable? The king in Fable 3 would not have done what he did if he did not care - deeply - about the welfare of the kingdom. I would say he cares even more than the protagonist, who was uniting them in an attempt to usurp the throne. The king knew he could never unite all the tribes, so he put in motion the machine that would, at great personal cost. If that isn't love, I don't know what is. It's a very movie-worthy, dramatic kind of love, and it's selfless as history has shown us is rare, but it is love nonetheless.

Who does the hero love? If they are the player character, as they must be in a game, is it really anyone? Can I love a boy made of pixels so much that I will cry when he is rescued? What is gaming as a character - not as a silent protagonist - but a slow, aching, forever-unfulfilled kind of love? We place our own emotions on them, it's true, in the same way that Gordon Freeman is the coolest guy ever. But these games show us a part of ourselves that we hope exists and, in turn, allow us to feel good about ourselves, even if it's only strangers in Megaton increasing our load times to give us Nukacola.

What is the value of self-love? Maybe my perception of its value is higher than for others, but when games teach me about who I am, I don't think there is a price I can put on that. Those instances are few and far between, but they keep me playing. For many others, I hope that's also the case. I like to think our collective goal is not just escapism, but enlightenment. Does that make us the villains in our own game? That we act in Maslow's 5th hierarchy, in our own self-actualising interests?

Well, that's up to others to decide. In the meantime, I'm going to think about this some and work it into my Masters project.

Friday, August 5, 2011

What are the unforgivable sins?

This is something I come across a lot in movies, and which is immediately a deal-breaker for me : I don't believe any action is so evil as to require death.

Sure, there's the argument that the character feels as though they could never forgive themselves, and so they purposely get in the way of danger. But there's also the typical betrayal scene, where someone important to a main character wounds them irreparably. By the end of the movie, that person will be dead. I don't know about you, but I don't want all the people who upset me to die, or I'd be swimming in my very own Dead Sea.

Let's take a look at some examples. I recently watched Category 6: Day of Destruction. Spoiler alert, but the main character's daughter's boyfriend accidentally shoots her in the shoulder. Oh no. Well, they're locked inside a bank without power and all of the hospitals have been evacuated so, yeah, it's pretty grim. But first of all, it was an accident. One of the other characters says, "You point a loaded gun at someone, that's no accident." But he shot her because the security guard tackled him. So he's an idiot who doesn't know what he's doing who just happens to have a gun. Welcome to the USA, if movies are to be believed. Does he deserve to be crushed by a giant falling girder, mere metres from safety? No, I think not. Is what he did unforgivable? The girl lived. She didn't even seem to blame him that much. Do you think she would be happy he was dead? It is really the best outcome for everyone involved?

I certainly don't think so. I think people like the idea of karma, which is why games like Fallout 3 and Fable treat you like a king when you're a good person. No one ever runs up to you in real life to give you a free Nuka-Cola just 'cause you're a swell guy. Similarly, the people who betray you don't deserve to (and hopefully don't often) get crushed by falling girders. It's escapism, but it's also self-aggrandisement in a very upsetting way - I'm better than you, you should die. Or, in most cases, you betrayed me, you should die. Really? I would have no friends and not even any enemies if that were the case. Let's look at some other examples.

Taken : the blonde girl who decides that she's going to sleep with every guy she can because she's on holidays gets killed, while the brunette virgin is fine (not even traumatised).

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade : Elsa is a Nazi. 'nuff said, apparently. Come to think of it, a lot of Nazis get killed in Raiders of the Lost Ark, too.

Cloverfield : everyone. The sexy girl for being sexy, the cameraman for not paying attention and trying to hit on the sexy girl when he's overweight (so, like, omg, gross, yeah?), and pretty much everyone else except the main characters, and the jury's still out on them.

Spiderman 3 : Peter's friend - "They're my friends, I'd die for them." Way to sign your own death sentence. But you know something that's inconvenient to the hero. How much easier is it for you to die than to relive the angsty tension of the last film? A lot easier, apparently. This becomes a lot more sinister when you come to the conclusion Peter Parker probably let him die.

The Mummy Returns : I love it, I do, but Imhotep's betrayal at the end does not warrant eating to death by scarabs. Benji in the first Mummy was greedy - he got himself killed. Anuk-sun-namun's reincarnated self just didn't want to die. Considering she lived through thousands of years as a spirit just to reincarnate to be with Imhotep it's a bit of a stretch, but sure. She's only human. I wouldn't plunge toward the chasm to hell, either. Does that really mean I deserve horrible scarab death? I hope not.

The Dark Knight : Two-face. He's such an interesting character. Can't you let him be a ridiculously unstable corrupted influence for just a little longer? No, he has to die because he betrayed his morals. Sigh.

Of course, there are cases where death absolutely makes sense : Dragonheart, The Reader, Kung Fu Panda, Star Trek, Aliens ("You always were an asshole, Gorman."), BioShock 2, Fallout 3, and countless others. Syd Field says that the best endings combine inevitability with irony. Sucker Punch has an amazing ending, for just this reason. Where it is the only outcome, then it is forgiven, even cherished. Where it is an easy way out, because explaining would take too long (or perhaps the writer doesn't have the skill to explain it succinctly?), then it should be boo'd and hissed from popular media.

Why? Because we shouldn't expect that in our lives. We don't want that. It seems like 'poetic justice', but about as many people understand that phrase as understand the saying 'that begs the question'. There's an episode of Family Guy where a pub owner gets caught after framing Peter for insurance fraud. Lois says, "Whatever he gets, it'll be too good for him." Well, he gets hanged and his daughter is put into an orphanage. I was delighted, because it shows just what a gap there is between our expectations and what we actually want to happen. We say a lot of things we don't mean. If all of them came true, the world would be a horrible place.

But when death is the inevitable end, as in American Beauty, Benjamin Button, Ghost, The Time Traveller's Wife, as, yes, Fallout 3, then we have time to appreciate life's beauty, to understand the sacrifice and to be grateful that such a difference was made in such a short time. We seem to forget, in most movies, that good people die too. It's watering down the issue to use death as a solution. What it is, is inevitable. And we should never hurry the inevitable. It has a funny way of catching up with us anyway.