The Problem with Dramatic Conspiracies

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This is in response to The X-Files recent return to television which, let’s face it, was great. It was fantastic, it didn’t feel like nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. The unflinching direction that hallmarked the nine years of television we all watched in the 90s (and we all watched it, even if we didn’t like it) was not emulated, not homaged, but continued. As far as television has come along in quality of drama, direction, technology and writing, it’s amazing that something that really petered out around sixteen years ago still worked so well today.

There are obvious reasons why but all of them boil down to good material and the wonderful work of Duchovny and Anderson, both of whom bear no typecast or shadow from the original’s time. In episode five, Mulder goes full Hank Moody and in several episodes, the fun side of Scully is matched by her proportionate intensity to counteract the inevitable. As the series has aged there is something that now sticks out like a sore thumb and, ironically it is the show’s original premise.

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If you watch all of The X-Files from the beginning, the story is very apparent and is, arguably, very dated. The U.S. Government is hiding the truth about extraterrestrial life on Earth and using what they’ve learned or pillaged for their own nefarious needs, or are being manipulated by an order of wankers who have united to do whatever is needed for a greater good (nefarious needs). The story stops there because I don’t want to spoil anything and like most conspiracy theories they die rather flatly in the face of empirical evidence. But if things get strange, you start to worry that this could be a case for Mulder and Scully.

Such is the power and cultural relevance of the way The X-Files delivered its fiction that it’s become an production trope, utilised by everything from hilariously implausible documentaries to the endless entertainment of heavily effected stock footage of people in suits with torches in dark basements between dramatic narration and eyewitness accounts that barely register any usable sentences, and presumably were filmed in a diner toilet off the I-25.

The problem we have watching this now and why, in my opinion, the two conspiracy episodes in the new series and a lot of the previous series are the weakest episodes is thus: We are unable to viably believe the scale of such an event or misdirection in a production and introspectively small environment as a television drama.

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In the end, The X-Files themselves were about one thing, mysteries to be solved. But the show became about something much more important to us as humans (which is weird given the importance of the shows subject) and that is the relationship between Mulder and Scully. The show, whilst driven narratively by Mulder’s self destructive approach to find out the truth and Scully’s skepticism, became a story about how we want love and affection to still blossom in the face of alien apocalypse, death by our own capitalist implosions, deals with the devil, or anything – The story was about a connection that never needed the words to be said because we saw something pure come to light. In the new series with events that have previously occurred, we see this come to the fore and it’s wonderful and painful all at once. Even after sixteen years of their on-screen absence in the roles and their drama, it makes you wonder and realise how so many of us can’t get our shit together.

But it was pure. Sure, it was a man/woman dynamic which in the land of entertainment only leads to sexual tension, but this wasn’t a show about that. It was about scary monsters, untrustworthy bureaucrats and world domination, and as the millions of viewers who were watching were adults and children, the prospect of two people copulating was really a precedent only set by the media that covered it. For the viewers we knew what it was, it was a genuine love that wasn’t guided by physical attraction but by less carnal desires.

The conspiracy works of course and is entertaining as a thread but to say it has lost its lustre in a larger, more connected day an age isn’t accurate. Utopia had the same problem for me and it’s a problem with the medium of television. The scale for us to appreciate such an impact that results from the conspiracy cannot plausibly be conveyed with the production budgets afforded to the small screen, no matter how big those budgets are. In Utopia, we had two series of five friends and a few other people associated by a grand conspiracy to release a virus that would lower the population strategically to ease the burden on dwindling natural resources and food production. But for most of it, we followed a small group of friends, with an average age of around 23, around colourful fields, empty estates and homes, whilst avoiding practically any technological contact with the world. Sexual tension was there for no other reason but to dramatise affection and as a viewer the impact of the conspiracy (in threat or practice) is never realised.

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The X-Files does a lot more than many have and can in this regard but even so, when your story is about your leading pair, a middle management servant in Walter Skinner and the face of the evil, the Cigarette Smoking Man, the wider world really gets lost. In the new series we have Tad O’ Malley, a conservative talk show host and politician who has also been able to find out things relating to these conspiratorial secrets. But even so, our only avenue to broadcast coverage of a serious problem is limited to the screen time of the O’ Malley show’s segments and regardless of how good Joel McHale is, he can’t convey the drama of an entire country, or an entire planet, slowly discovering its own pre-determined destiny by these conspirators.

Whilst we are entertained as viewers, it is never by the wider threat but more the impact it has on our two characters and, after ten years of television, The X-Files has finally realised that and does as much as it can to resolve the giant alien elephant in the room and get to where the real story is – Mulder and Scully. In truth, nothing can scare us anymore thanks to rolling news and the entrenched fear we are all programmed to live in by it. No longer does the narration of Orson Wells cause panic at the news of martian attacks, nor do the characters of Michael Crichton attempting to stop a deadly disease brought to earth by a fallen satellite, or Bernard Quatermass apologising to the world for what has become of Astronaut Victor Caroon and the danger he has caused. I even remember a made for TV B-movie (although the name escapes me) that was the apocalypse being broadcast as rolling news with reports all over the world coming in as the presenters know their sign off will also be the sign off of mankind.

The thing is that the conspiracy stories can work, and do work in books and even in movies. The first X-Files movie is a testament to that. But the limitation that TV has, not only for production costs but practicality behind everything and most importantly time to produce, edit and sell a series, sadly renders at times a bigger picture in a largely undramatic way. Thankfully The X-Files became more than that and its return should be a lesson to all: Never lose sight of where the drama truly is. Unless things are getting strange and you’re starting to worry…

I’ve already done that pun.

Shit.

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Oh and episode three was fantastic, it was the payoff for every comedic big monster episode ever and was funny, transcendent and just beautifully shown, especially with the mementos to crew and colleagues now departed. So shut it.

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VideoBrains Talk Transcript – When Bad Guys Are Good

Right. I did this talk for VideoBrains back in October. Honestly, I thought it wasn’t a good talk but now having watched it back five months on, I’m less scathing of myself. However, due to my fast and at times inaudible speaking, I’ve decided to put the script here. Yes those puns were mostly all written, including the one about wearing a tie for Jake.

You can find out more about the wonderful talks and tickets to future events at http://www.videobrains.co.uk/.

 

My original plan was to come out here in a black leather jacket and shades with Bad to the Bone by George Thorogood and the Destoryers playing. Thankfully I changed my mind, mostly because I thought Jake would kill me for not wearing a tie.

My original plan also included looking at my experience of playing as a bad-guy or an anti-hero. I thought it would go well with the theme. Although I have to say that it has also been interesting to find the differences between a literal interpretation of an anti-hero and what we consider in an modern entertainment context to be an anti-hero.

But before I list a few of these characters that we all know and love or loath, I think I should share with you the games that inspired me to talk about this in the first place.

Back in 1994, I had my first PC. A slightly rescued and rebuilt IBM 386mhz PC with a floppy disk drive. Moving on from the fairly linear design of the console games available to me in my local Blockbuster Video, and the growing impatience at my Spectrum’s ever failing keyboard, I found many games that I just could not stop playing. X-Wing of course was first, but it was TIE Fighter that gripped me. Here I was, an aimless pawn in the story arc of my then favorite trilogy. I was a nameless, faceless piece of cannon fodder who rose above it to see this fictional conflict from another viewpoint.

I was shield-less and ballsy, shooting rebel craft in to polygons and leaving nothing but waste for the vacuum of space. But for years I had a very binary notion of good and evil. The rebels and the Imperials by their nature sound as they should, which when you think about it is eloquently designed to engender empathy for the side of the fiction’s protagonist. I imagine Orwell would have had a field day with Star Wars in that regard.

But in a strange way, because the game was designed to be harder and reflect that almost Japanese WW2 airforce dogfighting dynamic, I became more attuned to the Imperials. There was more to lose here, more to prove and therefore, more to gain in success.

Then there’s Dungeon Keeper, the titular inspiration of this month’s topic. What a game Dungeon Keeper was. The magnificent Richard Ridings, whose voice I first heard introducing the Polymorph on Red Dwarf, exudes the most deliciously evil tone, like it oozed out of my Packard Bell’s speakers back in ’97. It’s at this point that most of you have probably decided to put the word ooze on par with moist in your forbidden lexicon.

For those that only know the freemium travesety, Dungeon Keeper was one of those pre-Milo Molyneux games that followed an isometric building/strategy formula that his Bullfrog studio made famous with Theme Park and Theme Hospital. Of course, ever the guy to subvert convention, the idea for this building game was to construct dungeons and attract minions in your quest to take over the land. A land of fantasy prospered above the surface where you built your halls, libraries, training rooms, treasuries and chicken pens. Your imps would dig out rooms, mine for gold and take over areas, digging faster with a gentle slap of the “god hand” cursor. You could then possess any of your minions, including the rather bemused chickens and run around, preparing for when the knight of that realm decided to come down and challenge you. And eventually lose to your never-ending wave of corruption, destroying the entire kingdom before it.

Basically, whilst actually being a good strategy game, it was the first one that I played that actively celebrated you being a complete and total bastard.

As a thirteen year old I never questioned it but as a man well and truly fixed in his early twenties, please don’t correct my maths, I’ve become more fascinated as to why I enjoy this subversive frivolity.

Terry Eagleton is a renowned literary critic and theorist. Writing for The Independent whilst promoting a book he had written on evil, he said this:

When did evil start to look so alluring? One answer might be: when goodness began to look boring. We can blame this on the puritanical middle classes. It is they who redefined virtue as thrift, prudence, meekness, abstinence, chastity and industriousness. It’s not hard to see why some people should prefer zombies and vampires. Goodness came to seem negative and restrictive. As the poet Auden wryly remarked, the Ten Commandments consist in observing human behaviour and then inserting a “not”.

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/so-bad-its-good-why-do-we-find-evil-so-much-more-fascinating-than-goodness-1965587.html

 So, in this aspect, I enjoy playing evil because I’ve been surrounded by so much socially acceptable, middle-class driven virtue, that I am instinctively programmed to seek the antithesis of this. I also worked in telesales for seven years but I’m sure that’s got nothing to do with it.

Eagleton is of course referring to something more classic with his words and the rise of the gothic and more fantastical strands of literature over the course of the Victorian era. But all of this leads to the conclusion of escapism. Which of course is the default explanation for anything that doesn’t involve you just being happy with your below inflation office employment and the ever retracting welfare support system you’ve been forced to rely on.

Escapism: “The tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy.

Well. Shadow of the Colossus is in the fantasy setting. I’m not going to go in to it too much because many people are much better qualified to wax lyrical about the game. But escapism certainly is a subjective experience here.

Playing as Wander, the “protagonist” depending on your viewpoint, you go on an heroic quest to destroy the Colossi in order to save Mono, but as you progress you realise this comes at a cost with your own soul becoming more corrupted and the destruction of nature by your hand changing the balance of the entire realm.

Now, we have some empathy here with Wander because, even though the reasons are presumably selfish, we can understand at a human level the need to save and not lose what we love. We understand the avoidance of grief and the extension of comfort. To us, Wander is doing all the wrong things for the right reasons.

You’d think right now that I’m going to go straight in to the anti-hero but I’m actually going to disqualify some characters first, before we go in to that strand of thought, because there is a definite separation between an anti-hero and a hateful character.

Trevor and Michael from Grand Theft Auto V. In fact pretty much any main character from this series of games. It may seem like a strong word, “hateful” but that’s what they are. We should hate their guts for the pain and torment they blissfully put others through in the process of fulfilling their narrative agenda. Trevor needlessly tortures a man, so you can’t get more hateful than that, surely? We should be totally disgusted by this.

But we aren’t and for an explanation of this, I’m turning to… Ken Levine.

No, not that Ken Levine, but I will point out something he said to IGN earlier in the year about character in his new game that:

‘”to make an interesting character, you have to have a character who has a bunch of passions, wants, and needs”… Levine says a character’s wants and needs are the heart of who they are. “It’s not their skin color, not their religion, not their sex. It’s what they want, what they need, and what’s in their way.”

http://uk.ign.com/articles/2015/04/10/ken-levine-talks-characters-and-relationships-in-his-next-game

 It’s a statement that the Ken Levine I’m actually going to talk about echoes completely. Ken Levine is an Emmy winning TV writer, producer, and director and has worked on everything from MASH to Cheers to The Simpsons. Hateful or evil characters are quite hard to sell in TV because usually they alienate you as a viewer. The most recent example of this was probably Watch_Dog’s Aiden Pearce, whilst not being hateful, he isn’t exactly likeable. So why do we even attempt it?

Because they’re interesting. 

 Evil characters create drama and suspense. They stir up the pot. They surprise us. They make choices that we wouldn’t make.  They say things we’d like to say.  They cut through the bullshit (or create their over own).  Their worldview is different. It’s fun to watch them operate. Sometimes you actually root for them, and other times you can’t wait for them to get theirs. And on certain rare occasions you do both. Seriously, who holds your interest more – Anna from DOWNTON ABBEY or Claire from HOUSE OF CARDS? 

http://kenlevine.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/why-do-we-like-hateful-characters.html

So this is where we start differentiating the anti-hero from these other more psychotic characters. Looking this up on Psychology Today, I found this blog post by H. Eric Bender MD. Trying to define an anti-hero as a more morally ambiguous character who did the right thing, despite their “antisocial behaviour”:

It might be because their moral complexity more closely mirrors our own. They’re flawed. They’re still developing, learning, growing.  And sometimes in the end, they trend toward heroism. We root for their redemption and wring our hands when they pay for their mistakes. They surprise us. They disappoint us. And they’re anything but predictable.

 While the antiheroes’ incompatibility with societal rules lays the foundation for compelling drama, it’s their unlikely virtue in the face of relatable circumstances that emotionally connects us to them.  Consider the moments that we spent cheering for Tony Soprano.  Typically they involved his efforts to overcome his anxiety—a relatively common condition—and his attempts, at times unprecedented, to protect family, both nuclear and crime.

 Similarly, Walter White garnered our sympathy when we initially learned of his cancer, lack of financial stability, and inordinate medical debt. The failures of our society are not unique to Walter White, but are a common, shared experience between the character and his audience.  He feels our pain as he, too, has been pushed too far by a broken healthcare system that threatens his family’s —let alone his own—survival.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/broadcast-thought/201309/rise-the-antihero

So here’s a few video game characters that fit that bill, Alan Wake, John Marston and Joel from The Last of Us.

Then of course there’s the characters that you create in role playing games like Fallout, Skyrim and Mass Effect. They are bound by their own worlds but your decisions are what make them the virtual projection of your own human values, unless you purposefully set out to be a cannibal or something.

Then there’s the more linear choices you make in Telltale’s games like The Walking Dead, the actions you take in Lionhead’s Fable games and even now as we speak, Halo’s Master Chief who is being promoted as a renegade that we know is doing things for the good of mankind.

Our relationship to anti-heroes is based very much on our own limitations of what we can do and what we want to do. Anything from revenge to redemption, restitution to reconciliation, revelation to retirement.

I think that’s something we can all agree on, right?

No.

Because I wasn’t happy with this and wanted a better, more definitive definition, I went back to my degree (I studied English Literature and Creative Writing, hence being a games journalist), I wanted to find something formal, something concrete. And so I took to my bookshelf and found my Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory. Want to see what it said?

“A ‘non-hero’, or the antithesis of a hero of the old-fashioned kind who was capable of heroic, deeds, who was dashing, strong, brave and resourceful.”

 “The anti-hero is the man who is given the vocation of failure. The anti-hero – a type who is incompetent, unlucky, tactless, clumsy, cack-handed, stupid, buffoonish – is of ancient lineage.”

This description then goes on to note various examples, highlighting Greek New Comedy, Don Quixote, and Tristram Shandy. Even Leopold Bloom from James Joyce’s Ulysses is mentioned.

Which makes me think that the definition in a modern sense, especially across other entertainment has changed, or at least how we see them.

And if we see some of these traits in a modern game character – unlucky, clumsy, tactless (which means showing a lack of skill and sensitivity in dealing with others or with difficult issues) – then we have our classical anti-hero.

Max Caulfield.

Max, a troubled late teenager struggling to come to terms with her new found independence, is trying to impress herself among the new faces in her life in a place she no longer knows. But without the fall back of other figures to guide or correct her path, it’s left up to her own judgment that, once gifted with power proves to be both naïve and brave. Her selfish actions also reveal her selflessness.

The thing is with all of these characters and these games, especially now in our current era of entertainment, character and game design, it’s impossible to have such a complete and binary explanation of what an anti-hero or a bad person is. Everything is so subjective and fluid that there is no definitive list that says what the characters are.

That leads me to conclude only one thing, which is the terribly cheesy notion that these characters are us, because of the way we play them and how we project, not only our desires but our fears too. The things that scare us, the things that make us jump, by extension make our characters jump too (even if they don’t actually jump). We are all our own anti-heroes only because we are all so different.

Which only tells me something I already knew from the start, which is that I am a complete and total bastard.