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6:06 PM on 10.08.2013

David Cage: In a League of His Own

Jim Sterling's recent review of Beyond: Two Souls notices that "...the story is presented awfully, in a nonlinear fashion contrived to evoke the movies of Godard, Altman, or Tarantino." While I have no doubt that David Cage would love to be compared to these film making legends, he really has no right to. I know Sterling understands that Cage is simply trying to evoke these greats and that he could never live up to them. Plenty of awful film makers evoke the greats and it feels just as insulting as it does with Cage. A film such as Urban Legends: Final Cut, a pot-boiler whodunnit that takes place at a film school, allows the creators free reign to name drop Jean-Luc Godard and Alfred Hitchcock and it even goes so far as to use the Alfred Hitchcock Presents music in its final sequence despite the fact it works within a genre that Hitch spoke poorly of. Pretty oblivious stuff. What sets David Cage apart from the typical gun-for-hire or would be auteur movie making hacks is his insistence on undermining the medium he works within. Though the director of Urban Legends: Final Cut may lack talent, he at least recognizes and seems to appreciate the film as an artistic medium. 

Sterling's comparison of Cage to Tarantino feels ironic given Tarantino's obvious love of film and Cage's ambivalence toward video-games. Cage has gone so far as to call his games "films" in the past, a semantic distinction that would feel brazen if employed by say, the Uncharted creators, but comes off as quixotic and laughable from him. If one good thing can be said of Heavy Rain, it's that its level of freedom to determine the outcome of the narrative at so many different junctures gives the filmic game a raison d'etre. Not so with Beyond, which eschews player choice in deference to Cage's precious plot. It's understandable why Cage works within the video game space despite so clearly wishing to make a movie instead; if he were to leave interactive fiction for the cinematic arena he would make films of no distinction. As long as he is given a platform for his ideas within the AAA video game development sphere, he has a hook.

Divorced of their need for player input, however tenuous that need may be, Cages games employ none of the formal cinematic elements, biting satire, and assured themes of Godard. It would be unthinkable for Cage to end Beyond: Two Souls with a title card that reads something to the effect of "The End of Video Games", but that is, essentially, what Godard did with his masterpiece, Weekend. His film as manifesto is delivered with such style and strident conviction that when Godard ends it with a translated title reading "The End of Cinema", the viewer is inclined to simultaneously take him seriously and laugh with him. If Cage was to do the same, the player's inclination would be to laugh at him. After all, what ultimate statement about interactive fiction could he possibly be trying to convey within a game that gives the player little more agency than that of Dragon's Lair and offers as much insight into the human condition as ICP's "Miracles" video?

Comparing Cage to Robert Altman is no more apt than it is with Godard and Tarantino. Altman's Nashville is considered one of the all-time great works of American cinema. It's ending masterfully coalesces the dual themes of the corrupting influence of ego and the American youth's disenfranchisement. As suddenly and violently as the gunman shoots Barbara Jean at the political rally in an act of anarchic and symbolic protest, she is replaced by a sycophant in the right place at the right time who picks up the musical act without a skipped beat. As all this is happening, the mysterious front man of the Replacement Party never emerges. Though it is a little on the nose to see a banner for the Replacement Party hanging above the stage as one (previously beloved but recently done in by a nervous breakdown brought on by the demands of stardom) singer is literally replaced by another (no doubt on her way to being bought and sold by The Music Industry), Altman is unmistakably making a cutting observation about the public's ease in being placated by distractions such as country music stars as well as its lack of direction in a time when the counterculture desperately feels a need for change but probably doesn't know exactly what that change should be. All of these ideas come through with great nuance and confidence, and his speaking to and about the subcultures he focuses his lens on never feels condescending or disingenuous. There's good reason the film is so well respected.

There's also a good reason Cage is so polarizing. He occasionally puts forth interesting ideas such as the narrative freedom of Heavy Rain, but mostly misses the mark with his overwrought and pretentious games. Though great film makers such as Godard and Tarantino might have the pretentious label thrown at them, their work does stand on its own. Cage's over-reliance on incredibly tired cliches, superficial themes, and formulaic plots put him in league with the movie makers of the Millennium Entertainment oeuvre - except he isn't a film maker. So I guess Cage will just have to be considered in a league of his own. There is crying in Beyond: Two Souls.  

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11:18 AM on 08.18.2013

Why Winback 2 Is A Camp Classic

Naughty Dog's orgiastically received The Last of Us can already be called a seminal work in the modern, narrative-driven, third-person action-adventure genre. Of it's many merits, it's arguably the greatest achievement in dramatic, video-game voice acting.

Winback 2: Project Poseidon for the Playstation 2 and Xbox is definitely not that.

I'm Sorry. I didn't mean to upset you Mr. Chiklis.

I'd like to say that it's simply a product of its time and of course can't be compared to something like The Last of Us, but it was released when games like Half-Life 2 and Metal Gear Solid 3 had already earned accolades for their deft story-telling and distinguished voice work. 

Winback 2's performances are bad, but the previous entry's in the series may be even worse. If you have ever had the pleasure of perusing the Audio Atrocities archive of amusing and acrid aural acting, you are probably familiar with Winback. The only likely reason Winback 2 is not featured on the site is that its sonic crimes are less humorous on the surface. The producer of the game, Koei, assigned a brand new director for the sequel who used a completely new cast. I like to think the meeting that led to this decision was similar to the one in The Simpsons episode wherein a group of Hollywood mucky-mucks brainstorm about a Radioactive Man film:

Koei Executive 1: I don't see why we need to change the cast. The die-hard Winback fans will insist we stick with the original voice-actors.

Koei Executive 2: I keep telling you, they all left the industry in shame after the dismal reception the game received. 

Koei Executive 1: Maybe so -

Koei Executive 3: Besides, we want to avoid the camp of the original version.

Koei Executive 2: So who can we get to direct this thing? We need someone with a rudimentary grasp of the English language and a passable understanding of
audio engineering.

Koei Executive 3: Let's get Agile sound [the actual company responsible for Winback 2's English dub]. I'll bet they're quick, resourceful, and adaptable.

Koei Executive 2: Not only that but they have actors who really know how to annunciate!

It really does seem that the major concern for the sequel was to simply make the audio clean sounding as well as to get the voice-actors to pronounce the words properly. At one point in the supplemental video Andrew Grant, the Voice Director, instructs, "That's the way to do it sir. Let's just slow the whole thing down and you'll be spot on." 

Do you trust that grin?

The implication seems to be that perfecting the line simply requires reading it at a more deliberate pace. Mark Skoda, who plays Jack Walcott, ruses that, "It's funny how life plays into how you project your voice." 

Mark Skoda - voice projection enthusiast

It is not. No amount of life experience will help an actor "project" his way to an affecting performance; Laurence Olivier's soliloquy in Richard III is evidence of this. The overall effect is that all the game's characters have a strange tone to their readings that make them seem less like the members of S.C.A.T. they are supposed to be, (yes, the elite paramilitary force the player controls is named after animal feces) and more like the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers using their meat husks to conceal their alien origins

The Room director, Tommy Wiseau, is someone who has been hypothesized to be an alien himself, due both to his inscrutable accent and his ability to coax such odd performances from his human actors. Though Grant does not have an exotic accent, he does cajole his actors into delivering similarly not-quite-accurate renditions of human speech and activity. Another trait the two share is a perplexing sense of pride. Like the auteur filmmaker who has been known to appear at festival and midnight screenings as well as grant interviews promoting his work (he even appeared on Podtoid!), Grant pimps his cast, crew and self in a documentary short subject accessible through the Playstation 2 game disc's main menu. 

Winback 2's "Voice Diary" menu option

It does not need to be played to completion for the short film to unlock; it simply needs to successfully boot up to allow the player to access it. Behind-the-scenes bonuses of this variety existed in game packages prior to Winback 2's release, but this sort of up front proclamation was and continues to be an anomaly.

Who can say just why the producers of the game were so proud of the work they did for the English voices, but its critical and commercial bombing didn't prevent Grant from working within the industry. A cursory listen to the spoken dialog in his most recent work, the 2011 PC adventure game Black Mirror III, reveals some laughably inconsistent and clearly Canadian in origin attempts at European accents. Canada is a step up from Mars at least. 

Mars needs moms and S.C.A.T. members.

Video game voice directors like Grant fill an invaluable role in an industry increasingly obsessed with being taken seriously as an art-form capable of stories on par with those found in film and television. Without them, a sense of self-importance among highfalutin game players and designers may never go checked. They contribute to the pantheon of interactive high camp and I salute Andrew Grant as its latest inductee.   read

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