Friday, December 25, 2009

Review :: Terminator: Salvation

Movies usually have goals, directions--things they want to accomplish. For example, District 9 wants to tell you a story about racial segregation in Johannesburg through a guy who turns into an alien. Up wants to tell you a story about love, loss, and dreams through a journey to South Africa. Terminator: Salvation, on the other hand, is just confused. It doesn't know what it wants to be, what it's doing, or what it's trying to say. All it really knows is it wants to have a lot of action scenes.

First of all, the movie is confused about who the main character is. The movie tries to swap between three characters, and in so doing, lacks any clear protagonist at all. We don't know whose story this is. First, we have Sam Worthington's character (A terminator?) in the introduction, who also appears to be the antagonist, flashing forward into the future, rising out of the flames like every confused Terminator before him. We also have Christian Bale, who mainly sits around yammering for people to obey his orders, probably due to his control-freak disorder brought upon by his prophetic status, making him one of the most unlikeable characters in the film. And lastly we have a young Kyle Reese, who mainly exists just to exist, otherwise John Connor couldn't have existed.

The film starts off with Sam Worthington, then goes to John Connor, and then back to Sam and Kyle Reese. Just when the film seems to be about John Connor, it goes back to Sam, and then to John, and vice-versa. The film is split between two protagonists, and eventually it seems that Connor is more of an antagonist, being the unlikeable chap that he is, and Worthington the protagonist (although this is reversed again in the end), due to him being the only real character with a direction. It's fine to swap between different characters and storylines, but we need to know who is the instigator of the action, who the hero is. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo is the bearer of the ring, the ultimate goal, and this allows us to understand the swap between the secondary characters. In Star Wars, Luke is the one who must master the force and destroy the death star, not Han Solo or Leia. We don't know who the main character is in Terminator: Salvation, and that just makes it all the more confusing and apathetically charged .

Additionally, the film is confused about what each character's goals are, a.k.a. desires. Movies are usually about characters trying to get something: Indy tries to get the Ark, Neo tries to save Morpheus, Batman tries to save Gotham. But in Terminator: Salvation, there is lack of this--a lack of want. Sam Worthington wakes up in the future, and we are just as confused as he is about what he is doing there. Is he a terminator? (Obviously, or how else would he get into the future?) But then what is he doing in the future and how did he come from the past (and what was he doing in the past)? He eventually runs into Kyle Reese, and it becomes his goal to save him, for some humanized reason. At least Kyle has some kind of goal--to find John Connor--but that is quickly interrupted by his capture. Lastly, the character of John Connor does have a goal: it is to successfully test the doomsday weapon of a radio signal. He does it. And succeeds; and then moves on.

The movie does look nice, and atmospheric, and most of the scenes are well-done (However, with the added niceness of each shot, it seems to become an annoying recurrence to have the camera pan over a character aimlessly staring, reflecting his lack of humanity, and then stepping down into the next scene). What the movie lacks is any sort of coherence, any unifying thread, any reason to keep watching it as a movie, not a connection of well-paced action sequences. Terminator: Salvation tries to grasp at what it thinks an entertaining film should be about, but in the end is just a poorly concocted sequences of events that suffices for a 'story.'

Labels: ,

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Review :: STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl

There are games that create stories and there are games that create worlds--the truly greatest games are ones that do both. Games that create worlds exist independent from any situated narrative; games that create narratives are locked on that narrative's rails, usually restricting the player from exploring that world. STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl is a game about a world; it's not about a linear narrative, moments of high-escalating action, the illusion of morals and free choice, or all that other nonsense. Instead, STALKER drops you into an environment: the post-apocalyptic fallout of the Chernobyl power plant, and you are put at its mercy and rules until the game promptly ends.

In that respect, it is a convincing world with a desolate atmosphere. You can stop walking along the barren roads, observe the sun beaming through a patch of clouds, see the trees and grass swaying ever so slightly, uncover a briefcase in an abandoned, rusted, truck, and then notice two mercenaries on an upcoming road heading towards you with guns ready. In much the same way of Oblivion, this is a world that you have entered, which happens to contain a narrative in it. It's not a narrative you enter which happens to contain a world around it. The difference between the two is that you can enjoy being immersed in a world without having to do some specific task, but it is much harder to enjoy being in a narrative without any specific task.

When games create their own worlds, it is an ambitious undertaking, and oftentimes the narrative can suffer as a result. Here are some ways that I think the narrative could be improved in STALKER.
Ways to improve the narrative in STALKER (the game, not the profession)!
1. Introduction of Conflict
There's a certain element that is needed to maintain interest in a story: conflict. This means there is an opposing force to your action: you try to do something (rescue a princess) and somebody tries to stop you (the evil Koopa king). What's the conflict introduced in KOTOR? The Sith attack the Endar Spire in order to capture Bastilla; you have to stop them. In The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion? The evil council of bad guys kill the king as you try to escape; you need to save his son. What about in Half-LifeĀ²? The opening scene in which the Combine have enslaved mankind; you need to rescue them.

All of these stories introduce conflict either in the opening scene, or very, very shortly after.

The sooner you introduce conflict in a story, the better, because it introduces an obstacle to overcome: a goal, and with that, a chance of failure, challenge, and victory. When I awoke in STALKER, there wasn't a sense of conflict. There was no power-push intro in which to establish an opposing force who would try to destroy me for the rest of the game. When the game started, I was in a little homey town in which I could wander and explore endlessly. This wasn't like the intro in Oblivion or KOTOR, in which I knew there was a larger goal at hand, a narrative which I needed to return to, which propelled my motivations forward even in the most mundane dialogs.

However, when I finally ventured out of my starting point in STALKER and encountered a group of loners fighting off mercenaries, that's immediately when the story (or world) became interesting to me. I finally felt that sense of a larger battle, a sense of an opposing force that I had to overcome, a goal to which I had to aspire. When the conflict was introduced, that's when I finally started caring.

2. Heart
I once saw somewhere that the "BioWare method" for side-quests was something akin to this: Make the player compelled to act because of an emotional connection to the character giving the side-quest. Why do we care to perform a "quest" for a non-player character? What's our motivation? In film and movies, the audience needs to sympathize with a character in order to care about that person. The same principle can apply to games. For example, don't just have an NPC come up to a character and say "Hey, can you kill these two bandits at this shed and I'll give you some gold?" Instead, give the NPC an emotional context in which to engage the player: "Hey, can you kill these two bandits because I'm a pilgrim and they stole my loot and murdered the rest of my family and now I am homeless and this evil gangster lord is out to kill me because I can't pay him back?" Which of the two is more engaging and compelling for the player to act? With the emotional back-story, or without?

As STALKER currently stands, there's not much of an emotional connection--there's not much heart to it. All the characters in the game exist as pointless mercenaries just sitting, waiting, guarding; shooting anything that enters their territory. That actually makes contextual sense, I guess, because why would there be any heart in the midst of bands of mercenaries in a desolate and mutated fallout region? Despite that, I still believe there should be more substance, more life to the characters in STALKER. They need to have more dreams, aspirations, lives, or cares; not just be sitting around waiting for something to happen or to shoot the next guy not on their patrol. Giving the characters more heart would give me more of reason to care for them (and then carry out the side-quest they give me!).

3. Player-Control
Rather than going into the myriad of problems associated with the second half of the plot (amnesia, wish-granting, meta-physical scientists, plot-twists) I'll just discuss the one of the player's control over the narrative.

The final scene in the game (depending on which ending you receive) takes place in the form of a granted wish (don't ask what this means in a science fiction story). You spend hours killing mutants and other mercenaries in order to get into the core of the power plant and approach the "Wish Granter," when suddenly the game takes over in a cut-scene showing you, the player, saying: "I wish... I could be rich/powerful/not-an-emotionless-loser!" and then the ceiling collapses on you and you die. What makes this so frustrating is that you spend all this time embodied in the protagonist (who up to this point was totally 1:1 with your actions) only to have him independently grant a seemingly arbitrary wish at the end which subsequently leads to your demise.

I don't want to play through a game, able to control my player's actions for the entirety of the time, only to have this control yanked away from me at the very end for the very last and crucial decision of the game. I don't want to play Half-Life 1, only to watch myself reach the final stage in Xen, then witness a cut-scene where Gordon falls into a pit because that was the presupposed ending the designers wanted you to have. I want to be able to control my actions, especially at the end, because that is when my actions (usually) matter the most--that is when I can resolve the conflict, and end the story.


Interesting and compelling worlds in games are great, but there also should be something to direct a player's actions: a narrative. It should compel the players forward, encourage them to explore this world, and remind them of their goals, no matter how far astray they may run off. STALKER still stands on its own as a world, but without a strong enough narrative, it is not the complete and engaging experience that it could have been.

Labels: , ,