Category Archives: Films

Extra Credits: Hunting the Bismarck is LIVE!

I’m about a week late announcing this, but I wrote a series for Extra History!

Hunting the Bismarck is a four-part series about one of the most exciting episodes of World War II. Written as an hour-by-hour intelligence procedural rather than a traditional documentary, it follows British sailors, pilots, and intelligence analysts as they try to find—and sink—what was (at that time) the largest battleship on Earth.

My goal with these scripts was to focus on neglected aspects of the hunt, like the role of resistance fighters, radar operators and signals experts. Telling the story from the British side also portrays the chaos and uncertainty the British faced as they tried to determine where Bismarck was headed and how badly they had damaged it.

I’m extremely pleased with the first two episodes. Scott DeWitt knocked it out of the park on the visuals (seriously, watch it full screen) and it’s among the best narration Dan has ever done.

I’ll also be creating a LIES comment to post beneath the final video, so if you have specific questions, feel free to ask them in the comments here!

Hunting the Bismarck – I: The Pride of Germany

 

Hunting the Bismarck II – The Mighty HMS Hood

 

AND THERE’S MORE!

It’s been a very World War II week! My column at Waypoint on Thursday also dealt with how we represent the war in media—specifically, how WWII movies and games continue to be dominated by the visual style Spielberg created for Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers.


Miyazaki’s Controversial New WWII Movie

Animation legend Hayao Miyazaki’s new film debuted late last month, and it has Japan’s nationalist right wing up in arms.

Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises) isn’t about sky pirates or spirits, instead it’s a meditation on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the chief engineer who largely designed the Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighter.

The Zero went into operation in 1940 and flew missions for the Japanese Navy from Pearl Harbor to Coral Sea.  In its time was one of the most feared aircraft in the Pacific with a 12 to 1 kill ratio.  However, by 1943 American aircraft were already faster, more powerful and carried heavier armaments than the Zero, and by the end of the war the once-iconic plane was mostly used as a throwaway for kamikaze missions.

From the South China Morning Post:

“My wife and staff would ask me, ‘Why make a story about a man who made weapons of war?’” Miyazaki said in a 2011 interview with Japan’s Cutmagazine. “And I thought they were right. But one day, I heard that Horikoshi had once murmured, ‘All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.’ And then I knew I’d found my subject… Horikoshi was the most gifted man of his time in Japan. He wasn’t thinking about weapons… Really all he desired was to make exquisite planes.”

Miyazaki took this idea and ran with it, building a film around a young man’s romantic dream of flight being captured and corrupted by manufacturing interests and militarism.  The profile may or may not be strictly historically accurate – Horikoshi died in 1982 – but a memoir he published toward the end of his life seems to support that he felt heartsick that the Navy used his beautiful plane as a flying bomb.

Despite the film being a smash hit in Japan – it’s opening box office was 960 million Yen (US $10 million), the largest in Japan this year – the movie’s anti-war message isn’t playing well to the conservative fringe.  Internet commenters have bombarded articles about the film, calling it “anti-Japanese” or referring to Miyazaki as a “traitor.”  It’s a symptom of the rising tide of nationalism in the country, led by a conservative group of politicians that have taken aggressive stances on foreign policy, World War II and the Japanese military.  The most prominent figure is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, who has denied Japanese atrocities during the War, inflamed tensions with China over the contested Daioyu Islands and tried to censor NHK programming that discussed the Japanese military forcing Korean women to serve as prostitutes for its troops.  On May 30th, Abe’s party approved the draft of a full-scale rearmament, turning Japanese Self-Defense Forces into an offensive military once more (which is not to say Japan shouldn’t have a military, but it demonstrates how the conservative Lib Dems have made a 180 on Japan’s history of anti-militarism).

Though the rest of the world tends to find Abe’s stances on WWII indefensible, he does have a core base that sees any criticism of Japan’s wartime activities as unpatriotic or a result of “foreign revisionism.”  Therefore, Miyazaki’s film about a wartime icon chewed up and spit out by militarism was sure to see a fair amount of pushback.

It’ll be interesting to watch whether The Wind Rises gets more than a limited release in the West, and if so, how differently people will see it outside the lens of Japanese politics.

Source: South China Morning Post


6 Reasons You Should Back Bit Parts on Kickstarter

The Binary Investigation Team, or BIT are responsible for keeping order in the world of videogames.  Woman floating in midair?  Invisible wall?  Glitch causing human/animal hybrid abominations?  Agents One and Zero insert in to patch it, eliminate any glitches, and restore normality.  Except something weird is happening–Agent Zero is hell-bent on investigating cases that don’t line up with normal glitch activity.  It’s almost like some higher power is messing with the virtual plain, something from… outside.

BIT Parts is like X-files for videogames, where the players are the aliens.  I’m on the writing team.  We have nine days to meet our $30,000 goal, and could really use your help.

Here are 6 reasons to back BIT Parts:

1)  We Pay Our Actors and Crew

We’re creative and passionate people at Blue Goggles Films, but we also believe that professional actors, crew, and designers shouldn’t work for free.  Things are tough enough for artistic types as it is, and though a lot of us have given time (and money–quite a bit actually) to produce the first six episodes we can’t keep that up without funding.  If you’ve ever been an artist, you know how hard it is to get paid for your work–in fact, you’ve probably been outright exploited for free work once or twice.  We hate that.  Change starts from the bottom, and our part of that change is giving creatives a paycheck.

2) We’re About More Than Jokes

BIT Parts is funny.  We bring the jokes.  But we also bring a story arch that will carry us through 24 episodes of Season 1, and even onto Season 2.  We want to tell a story with characters that develop over time rather than just going for easy gags.  Here’s a little industry secret we’ll let you in on: Some sites declined to host our videos because at four minutes, they were “too long,” and didn’t contain a punchline in the first 30 seconds.  We believe our audience has an attention span that lasts more than 30 seconds.

3) Ass-Kicking Action

Part of our mission to retain and develop top-tier talent is to get professional stuntmen and fight choreographers.  If you want to see what a difference this makes, see Blue Goggles’ Assassin’s Creed video below:

 

4) Shannon McCormick

That’s right, Agent Washington himself, of Red vs. Blue fame.  Shannon’s a classically trained actor and gets to stride around being sinister as Agent Debug.  (He, er… debugs things.)

5) It’s a Proven Team

Blue Goggles has been making videogame-themed shorts for years, including the insanely popular Skyrim Intervention and Twisted Metal: Be Mine.  This year they also partnered up with GameTrailers.com to produce a videogame short film every month–that’s twelve shorts in a single year.  If you know anything about shooting film on a budget, that’s seriously crazy.

6) Because This is What BIT Parts Looks Like Without Funding

 

On the upside, this is what it looks like with funding:

 

Please consider donating to our Kickstarter.  We have 9 days to go.


GENRE ABUSE! Part I: Why Max Payne 3 Isn’t a Noir

I write books.  More specifically, I write historical fiction which agents usually classify as historical noir, a subgenre I didn’t know existed until I pitched my first novel.  As a result, I’m more than a little familiar with the signifiers, tropes, and idiosyncrasies of historical fiction and the hardboiled writing style of noir.

Recently, I’ve noticed that two of my favorite genres are getting a lot of attention in the videogame community.  Critics praised Max Payne 3 as the triumphant return of gaming’s best “noir” franchise, and the marketing of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 has recently begun to refer to the game as “historical fiction.”

Here’s the problem: both labels are wrong.  Max Payne 3 doesn’t follow the conventions of noir and Black Ops 2 sure as hell isn’t historical fiction.

Today, we’ll deal with Max Payne 3.

Max Payne 3

Let me get one thing out of the way: Max Payne 3 is a great game.  It’s stylish, it’s good looking, it has well-written and directed cutscenes, and Max’s desperation is palpable.  Much to my delight, it makes the most of its setting and uses Brazil’s very real social problems as a backdrop to comment on the relationship between wealth and power.  I’m going to be high-fiving it big time if we do another Borders, Bigotry and Body Dumps panel, and you can put me squarely in the Pro-Max Payne camp.

However, being a good game doesn’t make it good noir.  The game contains elements of noir, no doubt about it, and takes a lot of its cues from neo-noir films like Collateral and Man on Fire, but it’s missing a true noir sensibility.  In fact, the Max Payne series has never been noir — and by playing the series straight for the third installment Rockstar created a sense of dissonance between the narrative and the gameplay.(1)

Consider the original Max Payne: it screamed spoofy mashup.  It had comic book panels for cutscenes, first-person narration cribbed from Raymond Chandler, and its gameplay mechanics were inspired by the Hong Kong action film Hard Boiled.  Sure, it’s visual cues were cut from film noir celluloid, but no one really took the game seriously.  Designers peppered the run time with in-jokes and hammy performances: mafia figure Jack Lupino prays to Cthulhu, hoods protect their hideout with the password “John Woo,” Max’s facial expressions are intentionally buffoonish, and multiple villains have an obsession with the fictional superhero Captain BaseballBat-Boy.  In the game’s most brilliant moment, Max has a bad drug trip and brakes the fourth wall, realizing he’s in a video game.

This gonzo mix-and-match sensibility, and acknowledgement that Max Payne was a game, was what held it together thematically.  Remedy understood that the core of the game was slow motion gunplay — that transcendent experience of diving over a balcony, dual Ingrams chattering, bad guys falling, and feeling so goddamn cool.  It was a style of gameplay that sacrificed realism for sheer overindulgent bullet-gasms, and the story was overindulgent to match.  Max Payne 2 tried to ground the plot in a love story (perhaps this is why it failed to connect with players) but the franchise still retained its wackiness to an extent.  Despite Max Panye 2 being billed as “A Film Noir Love Story,” the game didn’t so much embody noir as it borrowed some of the elements.

But when Rockstar took the helm, Max Payne 3 turned into an entirely different property.  Dev teams recontextualized the series’s memorable features as serious and gritty.  Max became an alcoholic.  His previously tongue-in-cheek use of painkillers morphed into a prescription drug addiction.  He went from cynical to actively self-destructive.  The comic book panels were replaced by compartmentalized cutscenes that portrayed his fragmented and fraying psyche.  Half the game Max is drunk, and the other half he’s got the DTs so bad he can barely see straight.  All cheekiness and sense of fun has been stripped from the dialogue.  It’s a strong new direction and well-executed.  Rockstar really gets the conventions of the genre, especially noir’s obsession with appetite, specifically, appetite for the forbidden.  In early film noir movies, these forbidden appetites usually had to do with lust, but now that the modern world is more open about sexuality, current noirs tend to focus on alcohol or drug abuse — and Max Payne 3 nails the theme of addiction better than any game I’ve ever seen.

In short, Max Payne 3 was a full-blown attempt at noir drama, and a successful one at that.

During the cutscenes, at least.  There’s the problem.

No matter how much Rockstar pickles Max in pathos during the cinematics, he’s still going to turn into a swan-diving superkiller as soon as the player takes control.  Suddenly his hands go steady and he can defy physics.  He can take bullets without flinching and snipe grenades in midair.  He’ll mow down armies.  His self-doubt and negativity is rendered absurd: He’s Superman with a large-caliber handgun.

All of which would be fine, except that such unbelievable talents fly in the face of what noir is supposed to be.  Noir is a genre that features the everyman.  Protagonists tend to be ordinary people who need to expose a conspiracy or escape a threat much bigger than themselves.  Often they’re cops, minor hoods, prostitutes or gumshoes, but whomever they are, they’re all alone in the big bad world, extremely vulnerable and woefully unprepared for the dangers and miseries they face.  They’re never rich.  They’re sometimes smart.  They’re always tough.  What keeps them alive is not the ability to do what others can’t, it’s the ability to do what others won’t.  A noir hero’s superpower is perseverance — he keeps going when any reasonable person would quit.  He may finish the story beaten down, shot up, and strung out, but goddamn it, he’ll get to the end.  Max Payne 3 forgets that noir is about emerging victorious despite your powerlessness.(2)

Max Payne 3‘s body count is a problem too.  Most noirs feature a fairly small number of killings.  Even the most violent examples — the film version of L.A. Confidential, for instance — contain only two or three dozen deaths, many of which may occur offscreen.  A good noir doesn’t need more than six bullets, if they’re used right.  Halfway through Max Payne 3 I had already killed over a thousand enemies and fired 15,000 rounds.

Explosions of violence can and will happen in noir, but generally these are momentous events that either kick off the story or serve as the payoff after a large buildup.  Noir is closely related to the thriller in its use of tension.  Both genres rely on the fact that an unfired gun is a more powerful storytelling tool than a fired gun, since it’s potential for violence is much more frightening than the violence itself.  When a character gets shot at, we barely blink an eye, but if that same character is standing there with a pistol against her head, we begin to sweat.  Tension gives us time to wonder what happens next.  It allows our anxieties to eat at us.  We try and figure out the motives of the man behind the trigger, try to plot his next move, try to guess what’s going to happen next because, oh God, the wait is just unbearable.  Live or die, we feel relieved when the gun fires.  Gunshots don’t create suspense, they dispel it when the tension comes to a boil — they’re the whistle on the tea kettle.

Perhaps Max Payne 3‘s dissonance stands out so much because Rockstar’s last game, L.A. Noire, so nicely fulfilled the tenants of the genre.  Sure, there were still more shootouts than a Film Noir or hardboiled novel would feature, but these were paced in a way that they punctuated the game rather than defined it and Cole Phelps never came off as an Übermensch.   I have no issue with calling L.A. Noire a noir, in fact I’d probably hold it up as the gold standard for noir storytelling in an interactive environment.  Heavy Rain is another game that could stand alongside it in that pantheon.

Unfortunately, I can’t in good conscience call Max Payne 3 a noir.  Though the cutscenes fit the genre perfectly, the actual gameplay undermines the themes of the genre and pulls you out of the narrative.  While I can understand how someone might argue that the narrative is driven by the cutscenes, and therefore the gameplay should be considered separately from the narrative, this answer doesn’t satisfy me.  In an interactive storytelling medium, shouldn’t the gameplay support and define the narrative tone?  Isn’t that the point of a story-driven game?

Max Payne 3 isn’t a bad game, but it’s an instructive example of how mechanics can undermine the genre a game attempts to emulate.  As we continue to push the envelope in interactive storytelling, we will gradually discover which mechanics best support the conventions and tones of genre narratives, or else redefine those conventions to fit the new medium the same way theatre has different conventions than film, which has different conventions than a novel.  Max Payne 3 is an action game told in the style of a noir, and there’s nothing wrong with that — provided we recognize the difference between visual presentation and theme.

Next time in Part II of GENRE ABUSE!: why Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 isn’t historical fiction.  Here’s a hint: it’s set in the future.

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  1. Rockstar has had this problem before, and usually it happens about when they’re trying to update older franchises by making them more realistic.  Take Grand Theft Auto IV for instance.  I was having a great time as Nico Bellic, playing out a story of crime and intrigue, feeling the pathos, balancing my desire for revenge with my thirst for the American dream…then I passed a billboard for a beer called Piswasser, which seemed to depict a woman peeing into a beer bottle.  Buzzkill.  It’s like I was zooming along in an F-1 when someone deployed the chute.  I got pulled out of the experience because this billboard, a relic of the earlier, sillier, GTA titles which peddled rude jokes and satire of American consumerism, didn’t seem thematically consistent with the world.  There’s a lot to be said for the more freewheeling aspects of the early GTA games, but forcing those aspects to exist cheek-by-jowl with the new, realist face of GTA IV triggered a jarring shift in tone.  Rockstar isn’t the only studio who has this issue, either.  For years, Naughty Dog has struggled with the fact that Nathan Drake, despite being a lovable rogue in the cutscenes, transforms into an F-5 tornado of homicide whenever the player takes control of him.
  2. Max Payne writer Sam Lake has said that “there is no concept of a happy ending in Film Noir,” but that’s not exactly true.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the genre.  In noir, happiness is never given, it’s earned and earned hard.  Characters have to go the distance for what they want, they have to suffer hardship and loss before they reemerge to claim their prize.  They’ll win battles, fall in love, avenge partners, and find peace, but there’s always the question of whether the things they’ve done in pursuit of happiness will ultimately undermine the happiness they find.  It’s a constant push-pull between the ends and the means.  They can find pleasure and contentment, but if they do it’s always a refuge, a happiness earned despite the rotten callousness of the world.

De-Pixelated’s Inaugural Episode: Operation Raccoon City

Sound the sirens!  Throw the ticker-tape!  Find an unemployed blueblood to smash a champagne bottle against the keel!

This morning, a new show called De-Pixelated launched on GameTrailers.com.   De-Pixelated was created by my friends at Blue Goggles Films, a scrappy Austin production company that focuses on videogame-related content.  I’ve worked with them as a script consultant on shorts and served on the writing team for their upcoming webseries BIT Parts.

Recently, Blue Goggles caused a bit of a splash when their short films Skyrim Intervention and Twisted Metal: Be Mine logged over 600,000 combined views on YouTube.  On the strength of those successes, they pitched GameTrailers on the idea of featuring their short films once a month under a single brand.  GameTrailers said “Hell yes,” and De-Pixelated was born.

Enjoy Blue Goggles’s take on Operation Raccoon City, and keep on the lookout for more content coming this way.