I had the privilege today to hear a 90 year old newspaper man catch himself using an insensitive term in a pitch and correct himself with grace. The world did not end. The ground did not shake. Everyone in the room took one, very small, step closer to being better than we were before.
Good goddamn, Atomic Blonde was something else. With Charlize Theron as an unreliable narrator and James McAvoy as good-guy douchebag-gone-native this may be in my top-ten favorite cold-war spy films ever. It’s a “genre” film, make no mistake about that, but if you have ever been a fan of ’70’s/80’s spy fiction, this is going to be right in your wheelhouse.
I grew up during the cold war. I was probably in 4th grade when it finally hit home that if the PTB’s pissing matches ever went past the point of no return, I was going to be one of the lucky ones who was vaporized on impact. It was… unsettling at the time. When your formative years involve regular reminders that all it would take was a bad transistor, or a flock of pigeons, or a bright red balloon in the wrong airspace at the wrong time, to end the world as you know it, you’re looking at a certain embrace of your inevitable radiation-fueled disintegration.
On older family member once remarked that my generation had no fear. That the comfort and security of a regular paycheck and well-defined working hours didn’t seem to hold as much attraction for us. But when you grow up with the complete destruction of humanity as a very possible outcome before you even make it out of puberty, what the hell else can they do to you? This sense that, we’re all just shuttling around behind the scenes while the facades of our major players keep shouting rhetoric at each other onscreen is one of the key drivers in this film. While posturing is going on, there is “real work” being done behind the scenes and that idea is one of the most attractive things about the cold war genre. There are people out there taking actual actions. Not superheroes, not billionaire playboys, just someone who has a job to do. Anyone can save the world. They just have to be in the right place at the right time.
For me, there were a lot of things to love about Atomic Blonde. Charlize Theron absolutely makes you believe that she is physically capable of pulling off every one of those moves. They do the Actor the service (and, yes, this is a service) of allowing her character to get bruised, spit blood, stomp around town in a stylish coat and a black eye. They (and likely Ms. Theron bought into this) are not interested in keeping her “pretty”. None of this is “pretty”, none of it is glorified. It is death, betrayal and mayhem on an intimate, fingernail-peeling, scale. The fight scenes are gorgeous and brutal in a way that has only recently become fashionable. They make every single hit hard work for both Lorraine (Theron) and her opponents. These fights are first and foremost about endurance. Who can get up again the quickest.
The story itself, the narrative that strings all of these fight sequences together is incomplete, but not for the reasons you might thing. This film was written and filmed for us “Cold War kids”. This means there is a lot of “generational canon” here that, unless your own memories of the cold war get brought to the fore by the sound and imagery, you’re going to miss. If anything, the filmmakers are guilty of going too far into “show, don’t tell” land. The current crop of 20-something moviegoers simply aren’t going to have all the references to hand. (I’m reminded of when The Two Jakes, the 1990 sequel to the 1974 Chinatown was released. After 16 years, the experience base of the moviegoers had changed and the new generation just didn’t respond quite as strongly as their parents).
Atomic Blonde reads very much like the plot of so many post WW2 and early cold war spy films, gems like Enigma where the feeling of an operative working in informational darkness is only enhanced by the viewer being kept in the darkness alongside them. This was standard fare in many stories of the time. If you are a fan of the genre, Atomic Blonde will fit right in there alongside the original Bourne Identity or Flight of the Condor.
This post was written in response to Ian Bogost’s article here: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/04/video-games-stories/524148/.
Let me point out that I highly respect Ian and his work, but since my bailiwick leans toward narratives and visual development, I felt he missed a few points and would like to respectfully respond.
Story is essential to games.
The linear progression of an idea from point A to point B to a logical conclusion lies at the corner of almost every single type of gameplay. In order to build a game structure, a progression that most people will understand right out of the box, you’ve got to structure it as a narrative of some stripe.
Most games have a beginning, a middle and an end.
When Ian sketches out the difference between the “narrative” of the game and the “environment” of the game he seems to be putting forth the idea that, by building your story into the world you are thereby doing away with the need for narrative. But that story is still needed to inform those design decisions, in order to maintain consistency throughout the design of multiple environments, multiple levels, a narrative is required. The artists and designers need a story that will steer the design choices they make so that the entire game fits together in the mind of the player.
Even when it comes to the mechanics of the game, the key component that makes a game “fun” and “compelling” the narrative is important with regards to how the mechanics are presented to the player. The player, ideally, never sees the math. They see the UI, the visual (and story-centric) elements that allow them to run those mechanic. Without an overarching narrative to guide those decisions, you get a series of “really cool” mechanics that may never quite come together into a whole. You get a “meh” experience that loses it’s lustre fairly quickly.
Even puzzle games like candy crush benefit from the addition of a story. As cheesy and clunky as that narrative may be it’s still provides an essential path for the player to follow. It allows them to get the satisfaction of “completion” in a game that will truly never have a conclusion.
Remember when Computer Generated Imagery first became a big THING for film? It stumbled and staggered quite a bit. It INHIBITED storytelling in a great many cases, it broke the suspension of disbelief that decades of practical effects had honed to a believable experience. Filmmakers leaned on the tech too hard and gave up good narrative in favor of vertices and ray-tracing. It took Toy Story finally push through the idea that you can’t take the narrative design out of an experience. You can’t rely on the tech to tell your story for you, you can’t rely on the mechanics to make a game that will last longer then ten minutes.
The argument has been made that “narrative” games tell stories poorly, that they cannot compare to the experience that one gets from cinema, or television, or even reading a book. Games as storytelling art-form are still in their infancy. The technology has advanced, absolutely. We can build you worlds that absolutely look and feel as real as the one you are sitting in while you read this blogpost. But the use-cases for that technology always take longer to catch up. They need a breakthrough. We are still trying to find ways to keep a player’s focus on a linear story in a world that is so much bigger than what you have in books or film. Linear narrative is all about constraint and that is exactly where our problem lies. How do you keep the player following and interacting with a story when they can go ANYWHERE in the world you built?
The current example of games as simply linear narratives with player engagement is far too limiting. It’s too simple of an idea. It’s the easy road out for an industry that needs to pay it’s staff. The potential for games can, and will, go far beyond that point. We just haven’t made that next leap yet. It’s coming, someone out there, some grad student or assistant producer or overworked QA tester has it in them to make that leap. We are looking for our Toy Story, our IMAX, our Gertie the Dinosaur.
There are (as there always are) notable examples. The Halo franchise being the shining AAA example, but also on the indie-games front we have experiences like Undertale and A Night in the Woods that use simple graphics, simple mechanics but strange and compelling narratives to pull the players in. None of these games really have their “secret sauce” in the mechanics. If you take out the story, you can simply reskin those exact same mechanics with another world, another time and have an equally serviceable game. None of those titles would be the breakout hits they have become without a compelling story. A story so strong (in all three cases) that players are continuing to tell their OWN stories, to build new narratives in those worlds, to fill in the blanks left by the constraints of game design.
Is it possible to have a game whose mechanics are so good that players will be compelled to play it? Absolutely. They will play *that game* and go home. It will be swapped out by another mechanics driven title as soon as they get bored or frustrated. They are as interchangeable as the sneakers you have in your closet. But a game with a story drives loyalty, brings players into the world (and allows for multiple iterations) in a way that mechanics only games cannot. Players will forgive not-perfect mechanics if the story is compelling, if they have a *reason* to keep going. They will come back to a franchise and play something new even if those mechanics don’t get a significant update of change between story one and story two.
So, while games may not deliver pure narrative quite as cleanly as books or film or TV, I think saying that narrative is unnecessary is far too limiting a view. From the overarching idea that drives the underlying structure and creation of visual assets to the final delivery of your shiny shiny game mechanics, games are built on a narrative experience, and trying to take that out limits the experience for everyone.