This...THIS is what I want! Can you see that!? Can you SEE that? No? Give me another year and I'll show you!
Firstly, this article is largely in response to Anthony Burch's "Why 'Avatar' Didn't Change Anything for Gamers" and if you haven't read it, I suggest you do so here...
might just be ahead...
And so we begin...
Thoughts on Avatar from Another Gamer
Like many others in gaming communities around the world, I was unnerved by James Cameron's vague musings and decrees at E3. For a quarter of an hour, he spoke thinly to his captive audience about a world we "had never seen." Well of course we hadn't seen it before, this was the world of Pandora we're hearing about. The only place that world will ever be fully realized is in James Cameron's head. But to a captive crowd of gamers, a race of people who value their sense of sight above all else, this was simply unacceptable. But how can we believe you if we can't even see it?
Well, I have a confession to make. I went to see Avatar
Monday afternoon, all my doubts really wanting to be cast aside. I was still very apprehensive and worried. I even primed myself with an abysmal crock of you know what by seeing Sherlock Holmes
the day before (and what a bad, bad movie that was...but that's fodder for a different article altogether). I was grinding these disappointments between my teeth, hoping James Cameron hadn't committed career suicide. And if the Avatar
video game was any indication...
Three hours later and all these fears proved unfounded. I saw Avatar
and I thought it was magnificent. I was mystified and a small tear was rolling down my cheek (but, to be clear, I cry at everything). It wasn't until I saw the new and improved Jakesully abruptly open his 20 foot eyes on a multi-story IMAX screen and a flash to black revealing the movie's title: Avatar
, materializing before a roused, cheering audience that I understood - I didn't want to snap out of it, remove my ugly-as-sin plastic 3D glasses, and leave the theatre. In that way, I was just like the human Jake Sully - confined to my chair, an observer to another world far more exciting than my own.
So what's the explanation for James Cameron's E3 presentation? Frankly, I don't care anymore. Chock it up to him being a master of circumlocution. A man who really knows how to play his cards. He went all in with his chips on a royal flush we were convinced he could never produce. He did the best thing for us: withhold. Far too many movies are spoiled with stock Hollywood trailer after trailer, but here, in the grand scheme of things, I only knew the movie involved big blue people called Na'vi and a paraplegic controlling something called an avatar. You have to applaud the patient audience the same way James Cameron should be applauded. He obviously knows when he needs to take his time, not to rush his product, as impatient as it makes everyone else. George Lucas was the same way about Star Wars
. We should thank
those stalwart directors like George Lucas and, as it appears, James Cameron, for believing in a product and refusing to settle for the next best alternative as long as possible.
And here I thought crazy James Cameron was some Caligula reincarnate decreeing from the Rostra at E3.
So what about the movie?
Now I have to acknowledge that Anthony Burch does make some good and some even strong points. James Cameron discussed the movie under the pretense of a video game, promising to immerse us in an unforgettable world. Obviously, a video game delivers a more direct sense of immersion. With a controller in your hand, how can a movie hope to compete? Well honestly, to debate whether video games deliver immersion in a way a movie could never hope to is a pointless argument. Just as there are things a movie cannot do, same is true of a video game; this immersion can cut both ways.
James Cameron's primary field is the movie anyway, and not the video game. Granted, it may be wrong of James Cameron, perhaps in some circles even "unforgivable," to promise a similar "breakthrough" experience on a video game level that can be witnessed in the Avatar
movie. But let's not kid ourselves (and likewise James Cameron should not either, but it's a business, and he's a promoter that needs money for the next film). Any video game based on a movie that is released a week or two before the film itself is meant to be nothing more than a cash cow. We shouldn't be surprised that the video game was terrible, and we also shouldn't hold it to the same standard. Neither should video games and movies really ever be expected to be the same. In the world of cinema, James Cameron has had audiences captivated time and again (Terminator
, etc), and what's truly remarkable here is that he manages to make these disaster movies beautiful. That is, disaster in the cinematic sense, for instance, in a sense of peril. And though I'm not certain, I'll lay my own cards down, saying the peril I felt for the Na'vi at the attack on Hometree was unlike any peril I really felt in a movie before.
Immersion, immersion. What really is immersion anyway? Are we referring to a factor of Sight? Of Entertainment? Of Feeling and Emotion? Whatever this "immersion" is that we discuss, every movie or video game is bound to immerse us in some way. It isn't really fair for someone to claim they aren't immersed because the jungle plants on Pandora are silly. Because they've "seen" them before. If you're that cynical you won't be immersed by anything. Even I will admit I've seen this world of Pandora before. There have been plenty of jungle movies, the shot of the American fleet flying past the floating mountains felt an homage to the great Hayao Miyazaki, how many mecha video games have we all played, anime we've all seen?
But never has the scope been quite like this. Any world that a movie director seeks to create always has a single, often unspoken goal: to entertain. And one way to entertain is to make an audience feel at home. The genius of Avatar
is that it fuses together the very best of the old and new (whether in theme, story, tropes, or hell, technology) on a scale rarely, actually, I changed my mind, never
sustained for almost three hours before.
This brings to light one of the movie's biggest flaws, at least for me. The movie took much too long to pick up it's momentum, spending time in the army world, the American world, the human world. It's all too familiar, especially for a gamer. How many FPS games have we all played with superhuman equipment? However, hindsight in this case reveals a bold and smart choice, because how can the Na'vi world be believably interesting and preferable if the human world all the main characters wish to escape from is equally appealing? Little is explained and everything flies by at the Pandora base, but that only gives us all the more reason to pay attention and really want to learn about the Na'vi side of life. James Cameron directs his audience well (I swore I saw his ghostly frame preaching from that same Rostra above the IMAX screen). When it comes down to it, I don't mind that the film doesn't gain its best footing until Neytiri shows up and legitimately shakes things up.
And this is when we really start to feel the immersion. And where Avatar
, believe it or not, presents a lot that video games can, and should
Anthony Burch in his discussion of both Avatar
and The Saboteur
is ignorant of a very important world component. A world is not simply a world with its rocks and dirt and structures (Eiffel Tower or not). A world is not even it's trees and grass and water. All worlds are an interconnected community. And the movie makes such a big deal out of these networks, this life force, and a sense of "The People" and camaraderie and community that I'm baffled that Burch missed it. This Lifestream-esque force should be familiar and important enough to anyone who's played their fair share of Final Fantasy VII
or heard of, oh what's it called, the Force I think (and I'm sure every gamer has heard of that one). So yes, this stream of existence that apparently connects us all has been "done before," but never has a movie like Avatar
put this concept on such a universal, planetary scale. When the Na'vi sing and prey to Eywa, the audience feels the prayer inside them. Jake Sully is a representative of the audience here. He inhabits a role we grow to envy and wish we had. Jake Sully is the gamer of the movie by proxy, able to use his avatar, and we all wish we had one.
So we want to follow Jake every step he takes. And as much as I could have done without his gruff voice over, consider how much more attractive the language of the Na'vi becomes. We want them to keep speaking their language (it sounds so much nicer than Worthington's best Solid Snake impression anyway). Avatar
, above all else, immerses us as members of "The People" and its communities. We are a part of that "network," which, by the way, I am beyond impressed the actors accomplished to discuss and talk about with such believable and captivating sincerity and, what's more, act well doing it. Zoe Saldana deliver's a stellar performance as Neytiri and we never once stop to remember what she looked like as Uhura in Star Trek
. If I had my way, she's be Neytiri all the time.
Of course, Burch does indeed mention people in his article. You can blow up your fair share of Nazis in The Saboteur
while having free reign to explore a fully rendered world and have fun doing it. That's all well and good, but it's arguments like this that are counterproductive to any "Games as Art" debate. A video game world is only deceivingly more complete than any world in a movie. What's been left in James Cameron's head and what sweeping, breathtaking snapshots of Pandora we will never see are little different from painted backgrounds of a video game, the desynchronizing barriers in Assassin's Creed II
that stand between you and the rest of Venezia, the invisible blockades you'll find in almost any JRPG. But what is unseen leaves a shroud of mystery in a movie. In a video game, this just comes off as clumsy. How immersed do you really feel when you run in place at the edge of a cliff, prevented by some unfathomable force of engine code that prevents you from plummeting into the ocean? And what of these Nazis? Are they meaningless bodies with a Nazi label that forces us to say "evil" out of convenience? Well in The Saboteur
and many other games they are little more than target practice. A player may slaughter countless "enemies" that prove only to be an army of vessels. What weight do any of these carry? Their significance within any community is made inconsequential, especially if they disintegrate, disappear, or worse, respawn! The tribe of the Na'vi not only feels realer, but more fragile.
When Hometree is attacked, James Cameron makes the first of a number of anti-war statements in Avatar
. Cameron has effectively staged another Hiroshima. Certainly, the weapons are nothing nuclear. Instead, Cameron writes a terrifying inequality. A mushroom cloud consumes cities, missiles trees; the potential of the weaker arsenal is the more frightening. Missiles and bullets are used far more frequently than the big one. Everything is fragile and will not necessarily come back. No reset button for the Na'vi. With every Na'vi death, we feel great pain and a great weight crashing down in the fumes and fire. And why? Because we have been entrenched in their community and what hurts one hurts the rest...and us too.
Layered over that is an element of America's slaughter of the Native Americans, the war in Iraq, imperialism, and the futility of destruction and war. What is so astounding is the paradox James Cameron has constructed, and we dare not even question it. The army, which is so impeccably American, is the arch-nemesis and great evil. Normally I find fault in a movie that resorts to a sustained twenty, thirty minute action finale. But unlike, say Attack of the Clones
, the action here isn't only fun to see. The stakes are incredibly high with every blow, every death, creature, even that cringing sensation produced as ships explode among the trees, and most poignantly, the deaths of humans or Na'vi. Yet, we side with the Na'vi, not thinking twice about our own racial and moral treason until we've left the theatre. We want the army dead physically and philosophically. Every life and every kill matters. And that is something a video game has not been able to accomplish: justification, cause and effect, where every little thing remarkably impacts the state of the entire world. Yes, I know in Morrowind
, for example, if you kill a quest giver that have has an effect on the world because you've lost the ability to do quest, but how immersive is a mechanic that half annoys the hell out of you when you'd rather sit blissfully on your couch? Who cares about the second Nazi to the left - move out of range and game programming may prevent them from ever reaching you. While in Avatar
, If there still is one armament left, Pandora remains in danger. When will gaming philosophy and mentality actually move past a glorified evolution of Duck Hunt
is layers of depth and metaphor we never expected to see, largely after Cameron's E3 showing. We moviegoers, particularly those that are also gamers, lost faith in James Cameron, and as he's shown with his latest movie, who are we to have begrudged him that?
To quote Darth Vader from Star Wars: I have you now!
Roger Ebert in his review of Avatar
said he was reminded of when he first saw Star Wars
. If that is true and the way he felt is anything like I did, I wish I could go back to 1977 to see Star Wars
premiere. How many times will we really get to experience these visceral feelings just by watching a movie? Sure that can happen with a video game too, but there's always a pause button. There are not enough opportunities among video games to just sit back and go, "wow," lean back, and sustain an "ahhhhh" without the action being interrupted by some other threat to your life and a "Game Over" screen - and then an inexplicable ability to just restart. This sense of awe and wonder I don't think I've ever really experienced in a game, transcending beyond a crucial "fun factor," save a few, and one in particular. That game was Shadow of the Colossus
Now a game like Shadow of the Colossus
is famous for its desolation. But truth be told, this world would never have existed without those mysterious civilizations that put them there. Still there indeed is
life around you, what little there seems to be. The game famous for its 16 colossi would have had limited impact if each of these towering figures did not fall without reason or having a significant aftermath. Now, there is always the possibility of being proven wrong, but this is an experience that could not be accurately produced by a movie wholesale. The desolation of community inspires exploration on behalf of the player. This game's plot is its exploration and its world and the strange passage of life and death that unfolds with the downfall of each colossus. But that is the beauty of the sometimes art form that is the video game. Every medium can provide its own unique experiences. An oil painting has its own flat finite space for the eyes to peruse and explore. A video game world exists as an anomaly, an unseen set of data working to create an explorable world that, now and then, can be immersive. A movie is primarily another sub set of man's vision to produce a reaction among its audience, and its interpretation an audience is free to explore and decode between edits, cinematography, and acting. The theatre is a fixed location catering to selective attention. A live staged production can deliberately stimulate the senses by staging more than can realistically be digested in a single go-around.
How are the worlds these art forms construct similar? They immerse, entertain, inspire, disturb, go for the gut. They all strive to immerse in their own individual ways. The unfortunate and current relationship of the video game and film industries is that they pretend to understand it. This relationship that they pretend holds true is a belief that the mediums are one and the same. The truth is, video game and movie cannot operate unilaterally. And no one is more sensitive to this than gamers. This cutscene is too damn long!!
We've all grumbled our fair share through the current generation of cutscenes, wanting to play the game. Because that's just it. You play a video game. You watch a movie. Right? Or wrong? You can watch a video game too, but wouldn't you rather play it? Personally, I don't mind when these lines are blurred, I find the products quite interesting, although they can never be properly fused or cloned. While you cannot ever "play" a movie in the sense you would play a video game, maybe what Avatar
manages to do is play you. A movie that plays the audience in a new way, not just by eliciting emotions, but by tricking the audience into thinking they'd be better off among the Na'vi. A movie that can play the gamers in the crowd? Well, perhaps this frightens some of us.
The question we should be asking may not be "did Avatar
change anything for the gaming industry?" A movie is absolutely not going to change anything a week after its release anyway. If entertainment industries were that immediate we'd be on Final Fantasy VV
by now. Instead, I think of it as an opportunity for the video game industry to reflect and take away from the movie how animation can be used in other meaningful ways. Not to ask, well what's so new and different? But what has this experience shown us that allows us to go even further? To rethink.
I don't know what that answer is yet, but I won't pretend to understand what the next best step is either. Because, in all seriousness, what is the next step for video games to take? Is it motion technology? Is it a graphics issue? Or beyond the purely technical, is it heart and soul? Maybe instead of investing life and soul in rehashing an already pre-existing reality as acutely as possible, we should inspire life and soul in games that helps us escape our own world instead. As I said, I don't know what that answer is and I won't presume where to go next. Yet.
I suppose when it comes to movies, I adore being played. Certainly, Avatar
won't play everyone in the audience, but it played me.