Thursday, October 23, 2014

'Parallel I-IV' (2014) directed by Harun Farocki [LFF 2014]

It'd be a shame if the London Film Festival were entirely pretty actors in expensive clothes prancing around on a drizzly Leicester Square red carpet.  Sometimes you want to dig a little deeper. That's where 70 year old Czech born German experimental documentarians come in. Screened as part of the Experimenta strand, the late Harun Farocki's Parallel I-IV is a series of short documentaries that explore the politics, imagery and narrative limitations of videogames.

I enjoy the odd videogame but I have no illusions as to their worth.  Maybe one day they will evolve into a worthwhile activity, but as it stands they're glorified Skinner boxes designed to dole out doses of emotion.  The most powerful illusion that a videogame creates, the barometer by which we measure their quality, is the creation of a false sense of accomplishment (popularly known as 'gameplay').  Whether it's becoming a champion race car driver, winning the world cup or becoming the top crime boss in a city, what videogames ultimately simulate best is success.

In this regard the best videogames act as opiates, granting the player a temporary tingle of fake happiness that quickly fades, needing to be supplemented by another fix.  And then another, ad infinitum.  There's a reasonable argument that other media offer the same thing; the adrenaline rush of a good action movie or the shiver down the spine when those star-crossed lovers finally smooch.  But whilst other media are often able to make you more intelligent and give you new perspectives on the world, videogames tend to make you dumber through a seductive narrative of individual empowerment.  

With that in mind, the key to the Parallel series success is exploring videogames from an outsider's perspective.  Harun Farocki, having no emotional attachment to the medium, comes at it with a clean mind, free from preconceptions as to how games work or what conditions of 'good play' are.  What interests him is the idea of poking at the edges of virtual worlds, observing behavioural algorithms and examining methods of representing reality.  

An aspect of games that's often overlooked is the accepted boundaries of behaviour for a player.  Experienced players know the ropes, for example, they instinctively grasp the boundaries of a level and capabilities of their avatar and, so, over the course of normal play, won't try to squeeze through barriers that demarcate where the game world 'ends'.  

In footage from L.A. Noire we follow a policeman around an impressively rendered 1940s Los Angeles, the only obviously unrealistic thing the impassable roadblocks preventing the player from leaving the city.  A seasoned player wouldn't give these a second thought, yet Farocki drives his virtual cop car directly into them over and over again.  We see a similar process in Red Dead Redemption, a cowboy meanders his way across an epic prairie, only to plunge to his death when he crosses a certain, unmarked point on the map.  Open world games sell themselves on player freedom, yet Farocki exposes that freedom as strictly defined.

Farocki shows us repeated clips the player behaving in ways that expose the limits of the game.  The most striking are his manipulations of NPC behaviour.  In Mafia 2 he leads the player character towards an old woman who's smoking a cigarette, standing directly in front of her and blankly staring.  In the course of normal gameplay we'd hear a short voice clip from her telling us to get out of her way and we'd move on.  In Parallels she begins cycling through repetitive voiceclips and animations, smoking an infinite cigarette.  There's a performative aspect to videogames that often goes overlooked; the player encouraged not to shatter the illusion of the gameworld by playing their role as the designer expects. 

Examples like these expose the ideological limitations of the medium, which arise from the basic need for the player to be at the centre of events. This means the vast majority of games present a solipsist world in which the player is God (even games with thousands of simultaneous players tailor the experience of each player to tell them they're 'the chosen one').  Players thus become immortal and nearly omniscient - everything in the gameworld designed to entertain them and them alone.

Given that hardcore gamers immerse themselves for endless hours in worlds where they are the centre of attention is it any wonder that their identities become warped?  In the ongoing #Gamergate farrago, self-styled 'gamers' have reacted with astonished horror at their pastime being exposed to cultural analysis, reading criticism of their entertainment products as criticism of themselves. They are trapped in a confused loop: "The feminist says the game is sexist, which means that I am sexist, but I know I am not sexist, therefore the game is not sexist. If the game is not sexist then the criticism is false, therefore the feminist is a liar therefore she is a whore therefore fuck u whore i will rape u so hard."

Reactions like #Gamergate show us the extreme consequences of videogames' operant conditioning, the player's personality becoming accustomed to an endless cycle of masturbatory, egocentric wish fulfilment that's easy to achieve in the virtual world but impossible in reality.  Farocki's film scratches at the surface of this, but it only takes the tiniest effort to peek beyond the veil and expose videogames as a medium with an inherently limited scope.

Consider this: after 35 years of cinema we had the formal experimentation of Eisenstein and the narrative and technical genius of Welles' Citizen Kane.  After 35 years of videogames we are still largely mired in corridors full of people to shoot with guns and B-Movie narratives. Graphics have approached photorealism but we haven't progressed beyond Space Invaders with its waves of slowly approaching targets to eliminate.  Perhaps the medium will eventually take a great leap forward (games like Minecraft present promising, if embryonic, possibilities), but from a 2014 perspective that leap feels a long way away.

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