In Defence of Bias
So, over the weekend my faithful companion has finally wheezed its last breath. As I prepare the final rites and visitations for my trusty laptop, I have had little time to actually prepare a proper blog entry for today. Which is to say while I’m in this transitional state I haven’t been able to edit up the next section of my story.
So, instead you get to read one of my delightful rants.
This one is going to touch upon a sentiment I’ve already expressed in one of my reviews. Particularly, I want to address the defence “It’s only a game/movie” in regards to narrative criticisms. By my own admission, I am a writer and I enjoy stories. I pay far more attention to the elements of storytelling in my entertainment than to other components. Character development and plot coherency are usually the first things I’ll criticize in fiction because I have a natural interest in them. I know many people have a greater focus on special effects and spectacle. My mother, for one, is someone who doesn’t care much for what’s coming out of the mouths of the characters so long as the overall product is fun and entertaining.
So, I recognize that my major motivation for media consumption is on the story. There are other elements that I just don’t care about. An audiophile will have far more to say about music composition and scoring than I ever will. I often won’t even notice the soundtrack to a movie unless someone points it out to me. Likewise, I don’t get much from camera angles and cinematography. I enjoy them as much as anyone else and can usually appreciate the differences in skill between the extremely well executed and the horribly botched. But strange camera angles won’t particularly ruin an experience for me.
However, nothing takes me faster out of a work than gaping plot holes and inconsistent or illogical characters. It’s what bothered me the most about the new Star Trek: Into Darkness. It’s why I’m sometimes baffled when the problems of a work seem overwhelming to the piece that it sours the entire experience for me but when I talk with others about it they actually enjoyed it. Course, it’s not because these problems don’t exist – only that these people either didn’t notice or care. It’s like those little pet peeves everyone has. Some people can’t stand how movies always portray hacking as a hokey little game. I, personally, can’t stand when vehicles are constantly exploding in every crash and my sister bemoans the absolute butchering of even the most common scientific concepts and principles.
Everyone can recognize these issues. They know that they’re ultimately detrimental to the overall quality. It’s why very few will actually argue against these criticisms. Instead, they try to dismiss them. And it’s true that not every flaw is equal. A consistency error between shots where a glass is half empty one moment and full the next isn’t going to make a great movie complete rubbish. Some small flubs are to be expected, especially from such complex productions like film and video games. Nothing is perfect.
But I feel the defence that “It’s just a movie/game” is a lazy attempt to dismiss honest criticism. It rests on a presupposition that, because the work isn’t a novel, writing and story-telling aren’t important. And I feel that this couldn’t be further from the truth. I truly believe that at the heart of every creative expression is the desire to tell a story and to treat those elements so offhandedly is to perform the gravest artistic sin.
A bold claim but bear with me.
I think that story telling is not just the oldest form of entertainment but a key aspect of the human condition. Since recorded history, man has been sharing tales with one another. Prehistoric sites around the world are famous for their enigmatic symbols and designs and scholars spend careers trying to unravel their hidden meaning. Ancient cave paintings are typically frozen scenes of terrific hunts. Some of our oldest written records are sweeping epics about mythical heroes and their adventures. In a thousands tribes over every inhabitable continent have sprouted complex societies with rich traditions in oral and written story telling. We have transferred morals, histories and our very understanding of the world and universe through generations by crafting compelling and entertaining stories.
And every creative process that has developed has revolved around new and interesting ways to tell our stories. Theatre is story telling shared between an ensemble and acted out before an audience. Cinema is the current distillation of theatre with our technology being able to bring to life lands and events that were once the sole domain of our imaginations. But even more esoteric disciplines still strive to convey a story to its audience. Tapestries were designed with the major scenes of ancient tales. Sculptures are frozen monuments of famous figures – their smoothed expressions and carefully considered poses and gestures conveying so much with so little. Even music is scored with stories in mind. And I’m not even thinking of those blaring from car stereos about unlikeable teenagers and their three hour romances. Operas and symphonies are composed within the framework of a traditional narrative structure. You have to start looking at some pretty extreme cases to find examples of story empty works of art.
This structuring of events into a coherent narrative isn’t just based on thousands of years of tradition, however. I believe that we are hardwired to understand and organize information into structures not unlike a story. There is lots of research involved on how our brains organize and process information. Broca’s area, primarily famous for its role in language production, has been implicated in some action recognition and production. A recent study found that hand shadows representing different animals activated the frontal language area. Language is a highly rule dependent and structured phenomenon so it’s not surprising to see it linked with gesture recognition which can replicate the same functions of language. And what are stories, if distilled to their extreme elements, but the communication of actions in their order of occurrence? It seems reasonable that the areas primarily dealing with structure are tied to both action recognition and communication of those actions.
There are some famous psychological phenomenon that demonstrate this structuring of random observations into something more meaningful. Take pareidolia which is the recorded illusion of seeing significant images in unrelated stimuli. The most popular of these are facial recognition in such things as moon craters or crab shells.
Our natural tendency for order combined with our love of stories leads me to think that criticism of narratives and plot aren’t just the ramblings of a lone mad man. I feel that the prime motive for creative expression is the desire to communicate complex thoughts, feelings and beliefs to others. When we become lazy in our telling then we lose the strength of our expression. Our work becomes diluted and empty and it starts to degrade all the accompanying parts of its production. All the acting in the world won’t save an insipid script. Magnificent computer graphics and thrilling action beats can only bamboozle audiences from flat characters and soulless dialogue for so long. By accepting terrible writing we are really depriving ourselves of really emotional and moving art. And I think this shows when you discuss the most memorable characters, movies and stories. Take a wide enough survey and I’m sure we’ll find that people remember and cherish the works that are done well over those that are done ‘well enough.’ And as a creator myself, it is of utmost importance that I constantly strive to improve and hone my craft in order to create the best work I can. You can’t please everyone but nor should you let obvious flaws pass under the misguided belief that just because people will accept it that makes it alright.
So, no, it’s not ‘just a movie or game.’ It ultimately is a creative tale and should try to tell the best damn story it can.