Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Anxiety of Influence

The business of video games is built around the production of sequels. Because the small number of major companies that develop and publish video games are publicly traded, and because market forces are arrayed against uncertainty, the creation of video games is built around the iteration of a reliable franchises whose economic success can be replicated predictably over a span of years. (Tom Kim's interview of Michael Pachter, an investment analyst who covers the games industry, illuminated this point.)

The opposition between the dictates of this business model and the dictates of individual creativity is clear. People who have romantic-era aspirations for the medium and unnegotiable creative visions find the games-making industry inhospitable. Because the production of large-scale games is largely the co-operative effort of large creative teams, games rarely present the creative viewpoint of any one individual even when they do manage to present a creative viewpoint at all. A comparison to the Harry Potter movies might help here: just as the central narrative given by the books provides a loose framework shaped by a changing cast of directors with different creative sensibilities, the basic play mechanics of a series (some particular variety of shooting, driving, whatever) provide a loose framework for a changing cast of game designers. A notable exception to this general trend is the Japanese game designer Hideo Kojima, the creator of the Metal Gear series-- Kojima's games bear the clear creative imprint of his unusual authorial sensibility in their visual style, storytelling, and humor. Michael Abbot recently compared him to the film director D.W. Griffith, and this comparison nails the fact that Kojima is a meticulous auteur with serious creative blind spots.

Back in the late 1960s, the Yale literary critic Harold Bloom argued that the basic dynamic behind artistic creation is a psychological dynamic he called agon. New works of literature are a product of the artist's struggle to overcome the generic forms of his precursors, and the artist is always spurred by a distinctly Freudian anxiety about his relationship with his artistic forebears. While Bloom's theory was meant to describe interpersonal and intergenerational creative struggles, it works quite well as a description of a certain intrapersonal creative struggle as well.

Kojima, who is in the business of producing sequels to a popular video game franchise, has found ways to express a fundamental anxiety about producing a series of games that rehearse a well-cemented set of forms and conventions: a main protagonist named Snake fights exactly four battles with grotesque, animal-inspired bosses each game, encounters cyborg ninjas, smokes cigarettes, etc. At the end of the second game in the series, the game's main villain explains that the whole game has been an elaborately calculated training mission meant to reproduce the events of the first game. (The tone of this revelation is quasi-hysterical: “Don't you see! It's just the same thing over again!”) The final installment of the series begins with a surreal filmed cooking show with containing some serious Freudian overtones: the actor cries “this is the last chapter of this snake's life!” and chops a coral snake in half with a cleaver. At other points in the game, the solider-protagonist laments that he has been trapped in a system where he has been fated to perform the same actions over and over again, and I believe this complaint is meant to work at multiple registers. Shawn Elliot proposes that certain scenes in the game are meant to the point up the obsolescence of the series' basic mechanics and environments. Kojima's work is brilliant when it manages to sound his main points of thematic emphasis-- control, governance, inheritance-- at various levels in this way, but this very dynamic is what really ruins the last game in the latter half. (Kojima cannot illustrate themes except by explicitly telling you what they are in the course of a cutscene) At points, it seems as if Kojima was pressured both to reproduce the basic four-act structure of the series and wrap up every detail of the series' absurdly complicated plot, and as a result the second portion game is given over to exposition. Kojima really is a creative genius of sorts, and the final installment shows some serious flashes of brilliance, but he still has yet overcome his anxious relationship to his own past works.

1 comment:

Matt said...

I felt Kojima overcame his anxious relationship to his own past works pretty well in MGS2 through parody. The disappointing thing about Guns of the Patriots is that it seems to be exactly what Sons of Liberty was making fun of.