25 April 2009

"Bad Videogame Movies" considered redundant phrase

We had been talking this week at work about the difficulty of making good movies from videogames. Apropos to that, Time magazine has a feature on the Ten Worst Videogame Movies, which as they observe, "is like shooting fish in a barrel with a plasma canon."

My observation is that there is actually a specific reason videogame movies are hard to do, which has to do with a fundamental limitation of game characters. In linear narrative, any screenwriting book or teacher will tell you to demonstrate the personality of the characters to the audience by the choices they make. A well-written screenplay continually forces the character to make choices, and from those choices we learn more about who they are. At the beginning of the movie, those choices are small: what do they do after work? Does he remember to buy flowers for his girlfriend? In a well-written screenplay, the choices both become harder to make and larger in consequence as the movie goes on. But the point is, the character is defined by the choices they made.

In a videogame, particularly for the main character, the choices that occur during the game are typically made by the player. Thus, nothing about the character can be defined by those choices. Typically in a videogame, the key choices that have made the character who they are, were all made prior to the beginning of the game. For a game to be fun, the choices made during the game need to be up to the player, meaning they can't define the character since every player plays differently; or, there have to be no meaningful character-defining choices made at all, and the player simply focuses on skills. The second one is actually more common, as it's much easier to develop. Either way, the actions taken by the character in the game cannot define who that character is, as far as the overall property is concerned.

Thus, almost all videogame characters fail the "of course he would" test. With a well-drawn movie character, you should know (by the end of the movie) how they would respond to a whole range of moral dilemnas, whether you saw them face that particular situation or not. Would Luke Skywalker lie on his resume to keep his job, at the expense of a co-worker? Of course not. Would Han Solo? If the money was good!

But can you project that on to most videogame characters? Almost all videogame characters are known to us from the following: their boss/organization/syndicate gives them a job to do. It's hard and there are complications. If we play the game long enough, we finish it. We don't get a chance to learn much about their moral dilemnas because either we're busy shooting aliens or because we rather than they make the choices. Would Lara Croft flirt with a friend's boyfriend? Well, how we would know, it doesn't come up much when killing bears with a pair of pistols.

Anyway, none of this proves that it's impossible to make a good movie from a videogame, it's just that even very well-known videogame characters don't give screenwriters much to go on if they want to craft a story. Personally, my guess is that the good videogame-based scripts (surely there will be some someday) will start by taking the world of the videogame and finding a side story in it; the main characters, the Marios, Laras, and Sonics of the world, are of necessity too shallow to work well.

18 April 2009

...but they do have taste

The Economist's obituary this week was for Helen Levitt, a great photographer in the Henri Cartier-Bresson mold. I was lucky enough to encounter some of her photographs when I was in grad school in Boston, but most people have never heard of her. Featuring her or others worthy but not especially known shows the good side of erudition.

The Economist quote #1

From the April 4th issue's leader on "The Rich Under Attack". This is probably more delicious if you know just how pro-business the Economist usually is.

Yet, even a newspaper as inherently pro-business as this one has to admit that there was something rotten in finance: the basic capitalist bargain, under which genuine risktakers are allowed to garner huge rewards, seems a poor one if taxpayers are landed with a huge bill for it all. Hence the anger.

"Gang", "King".... whichever.

I just finished reading "Gang Leader for a Day," by Sudhir Venkatesh. If you read "Freakonomics" you'll remember the chapter called "Why do Drug Dealers Live with Their Mothers?" in which they looked at the economics of the drug trade. Most of the data they analyzed there came from a Indian-American grad student who had spent time in the Chicago housing projects hanging out with a drug gang. Sudhir Venkatesh is that grad student, and this book is his autobiographical account of the five years or so of his life that he spent around the Chicago housing projects, primarily in the company of "J.T." and his branch of the Black Kings drug gang.

This isn't really the kind of book you read to get a grand conclusion, all tied up and made clear; but it's a gripping journal of his life inside a world I really don't know much about. There are a ton of fascinating and harrowing moments along the way (such as when he witnesses, and the Black Kings are on the receiving end of, a drive-by shooting), and there is a sense of closure to the book, since updated housing policies catch up with the Robert Taylor projects by the end of the book (as they have, thankfully, to most high-rise projects in San Francisco).

However, Sudhir spends a lot of the time in the book trying to understand what the tenants think of the gang, and ultimately that provoked an interesting realization for me. J.T. sees the gang as beneficial, keeping order and establishing the boundaries in the projects, since for all practical purposes the police in that era did not come to the projects. At one point he declares, "there is no difference between the gang and this building." Of course, Sudhir wonders, given the gang's predilection for violence and drug abuse, whether the tenants really see it that way.

He attempts to branch out at one point and interview other residents about the economic tricks they use to survive in order to get some of that perspective. The mechanics who fix cars on the street, the woman who runs a candy store out of her apartment: he chronicles many of their adventures in ghetto-scale entrepreneurism. He's surprised by how much both J.T. and the building's tenant association president, Ms. Bailey, are interesting in hearing him retell these fascinating stories.

Of course, that interest is because they (in various combination) extract money from all such activities. Sudhir's information allows them to tighten up quite a few places where they weren't extorting as much money as they could. As one of the mechanics says angrily to Sudhir afterwards, "Man, J.T. is all over these n-----s."

On the one hand, this incident does point out that the combination of the gang and the tenant association are effectively the government of the housing project: they levy 'taxes', the gang is responsible for physical security, and the tenants' association for what passes for social services in that brutal environment. But they have the characteristics of corrupt government as well: the gang members who abuse their women get no punishment because of their position in the gang; the money is skimmed off for the organization.

The realization I had was that this is the form of government not just of brutal Chicago housing projects, but that in practice it was the form of government practiced in much of medieval Europe. As much as afterwards, all kings, dukes, earls, and lords cloaked their actions in the language of divine right, that level of government came from physical domination: the strongest, meanest guys got together, won some battles with other strong, mean guys, and as a result established the local government. If you read about the Welsh Marcher Lords or the events of English interregnums as fictionalized so well in Ken Follet's "The Pillars of the Earth," you can find that that pattern was operating even in relatively civilized England at various points: the people best-organized at wielding the violence and keeping the discipline amongst their thugs take over.

Sadly, seeing those parallel made me wonder whether, at a certain point between subsistence and prosperity, this kind of organization is a spontaneous feature of human societies. Happily, we can rise (and most current societies have risen) above this, but seeing the similarities between 12th century thugs and southside Chicago ones makes both of them seem like slightly more than just anomalies of their respective historical periods.

05 April 2009

Sakura, sakura

Another fantastic year of cherry blossoms along the Megurogawa (where I live)!

From Sakura 2009

03 April 2009

Quaint 50s-style marketing alive and well in Japan

On the side of a poster stand near Meguro station:

From Tokyo

Fun Words You Might Find on a Japanese W-2

It's April, and apart from Cherry Blossoms that means I have to pay my American taxes! In my mood of helping those who live in Japan, here's another vocabulary post, this time "Words you might find on your Japanese pay stub":

勤務状況=きんむじょうきょう=work situation
出勤日数=しゅっきんひすう=days worked
給与所得=きゅうよしょとく=earned income

基本給=きほんきゅう=base pay
通勤手当=つうきんてあて=commuting allowance
通常外支払給=つうじょうがいしはらいきゅう=extraordinary payment
支給合計=しきゅうごうけい=total payments

健康保険=けんこうほけん=health insurance
介護保険=かいごほけん=nursing insurance
厚生年金保険=こうせいねんきんほけん=welfare annuity insurance
雇用保険=こようほけん=unemployment insurance
所得税=しょとくぜい=income tax
地方税=ちほうぜい=local taxes
差引不足税額=さしひきふそくぜいがく=deducted amount of insufficient taxes
控除合計=こうじょごうけい=total deductions

計算資料=けいさんしりょう=calculation data
会社保険料計=かいしゃほけんりょうけい=company insurance amount
非課税支給額=ひかぜいしきゅうがく=tax-exempt allowance
課税対象額=かぜいたいしょうがく=amount subject to taxation
振込支給額=ふりこみしきゅうがく=bank transfer amount
現金支給額=げんきんしきゅうがく=cash payment amount
差引支給額=さしひきしきゅうがく=deducted payment amount