The plot of Inception revolves around a group of specialists who invade people’s dreams to steal ideas– or, in this case, to plant an idea. This is a story entirely about crafting a world for an audience in such a way as to elicit a specific desired emotional reaction– and what a powerful and unnerving journey that can be for the creator himself.
We make our games to achieve similar but less-specific ends, and without as much information about our audience or as much direct interaction from our end, but the methodology feels similar. Unlike other ‘created reality’ films such as The Matrix, this film tells things from the world architects’ point of view and puts us in the position of thinking about the processes they use to achieve the desired emotional manipulation. The false world is not the product of some mysterious other, but of an interaction between human beings, albeit a strange and mystical one.
Ultimately, the movie leaves us with questions that maybe strike a bit close to home. After spending so much time creating, can we artists come back to the real world? Do we want to?
Kaiji is a Japanese animated series about a young man who is forced into gambling in order to pay off a debt foisted off onto him by an irresponsible co-worker. As the series progresses, the stakes get higher and stranger and Kaiji gets more and more addicted to the thrills and uncertainty of gambling.
Kaiji is a clever character, and always comes up with some way to game whatever system he is presented with, but also often overestimates his own cleverness and is caught out by the tricks of others. The games at first seem like simple games of chance, but there’s always some strange angle to them which he tries to take advantage of, with mixed success. Unpredictable effects emerge from the simplest rules, and the path to victory is often distant and obscured– but there’s a world of difference between a game which is difficult and one which is impossible, and the insight to see which is which can be the difference between life and death.
Games are powerful and can influence our worlds in way we can never foresee. It can be difficult to escape once you have heard the siren song. Sometimes the only winning move is not to play– or is that just fear talking?
You’re alone in an unfamiliar room. Explanations pop up wherever you look telling you where to go and what to do, what your motivation is, why your life is strange and unfamiliar. In Memento, Guy Pearce basically plays a man trapped in a video game tutorial.
It’s unusual and perhaps worthy of comment that two movies that found their way onto this list were created by Christopher Nolan. He seems to have an affinity for characters who find themselves in strange liminal worlds where their existence and behaviors are not quite explained. Everyone has days like that, right?
In the long run, we end up constructing our world up around ourselves and planting signs to guide our way through days like those. It’s uncommon for games to allow players that leverage, but we’re beginning to see the possibility, crude as it may be, in games like Minecraft and EVE Online. Usually, though, as designers we construct the world for the player, and we make the signs to guide him on his way.
How strange, then, that we create signs to mislead him: How much stranger, then, when he creates signs to mislead himself.
While you create a system, it can be difficult to see how it can go wrong. For a system with many players with distinct and contradictory goals, this difficulty is amplified, and as the number of players increases the amount of chaos and the potential for unforeseen results reaches a statistical certainty. It’s annoying when it happens in games– it’s deadly when it happens outside of them.
Everyone in The Wire is part of a game of laws and drugs and politics and public relations– any one of these underworlds on its own would be a byzantine shit show, together they are the world-class cacophonous bullshit disaster of Mayan prophecy.
And yet, caught in the maelstrom, cause of and affected by it, there are people. Each, in his or her own way, is being ruined, degraded, and dragged through the dirt by the system, and each in his or her own way works to sustain the system because it’s what they know. In a way, it’s a relief to know that no matter how bad we crap up our game worlds, they’ll never be Baltimore.
If at first you don’t succeed…
In our world, we don’t get do overs. If we fail, we may encounter similar challenges later on, but that failure lives into eternity– which is sometimes terrible, but is just as often a relief as they fall into forgotten obscurity. That time you were talking to your mom and accidentally called her by your girlfriend’s name will eventually be lost to history. Rejoice, motherfucker. Oops, sorry, too soon?
Game challenges, most of them, remain static. The same hurdles await us, and if we should return to a game that was the bane of our thumbs in our youth we may find it has become much easier. Decades of practice does that sometimes. In Groundhog Day, it’s not made explicitly clear how much time Phil has to practice the fine art of existence, but it’s probably at least a few decades. At first, realizing the new video game-esque parameters of his world, he begins to experiment in much the same way that people do in Grand Theft Auto games. Eventually, however, he decides to harness the power of this sandbox in order to improve himself in ways that he would not have the latitude to do in the ‘real’ world.
How long will it be, do you think, before that begins to happen in the Sandboxes we make? Perhaps it already has…
The Muppet Movie
Making things is wonderful. Perhaps we’re driven to create by dreams we half remember, dreams of flight and fancy clothing. Perhaps we love the creations of others so much that we want to become closer to them, to walk in their shoes, to create as they created. Perhaps we just feel too big, excited, loud, colorful, to be contained to ourselves, and need to spread some of our raucous joy to the world, whether the world wants it or not. Whatever it is, we all find ourselves, driven by such different impulses, in the same place.
If you want to do it the easy way.
Hollywood is more than a place, here. Hollywood is the ideal of creation. Hollywood is the mythical place that artists and performers travel to through their work, each keystroke a step, each brushstroke a step, each wingbeat, each drumbeat, each heartbeat, a step towards someplace that may not exist but is very real.
Life’s like a movie: Write your own ending. Keep believing, keep pretending.