Stylishly late project summary by group leader Shé Edwards
Untitled Goose Game is a colorful, charming game about the delightful antics of one of life’s most devastating antagonists. The game was developed by House House, an indie game developer based in Australia composed of just four people: Nico Disseldorp, Jacob Strasser, Stuart Gillespie-Cook, and Michael McMaster. Fun and lighthearted slapstick seem to be their forté, as the studio previously released a multiplayer game of a similar cute and cartoonish style named Push Me Pull You. Their most recent release became a hit for casual players and content creators alike, combining simple mechanics and character archetypes with entertaining puzzle-like objectives. The player waddles about the colorful world completing tasks, fulfilling the well-known power fantasy of being a particularly awful goose.
The game begins in a clearing with one simple instruction: Press _ to honk. A simple, white and orange goose pops out of the foliage, and if the player wanders downwards a peculiar ditch of bells comes into view. You take a short walk as you learn the mechanics — like the average goose, you can walk, run, bend forwards, use your beak, spread your wings, and of course, honk — and when you happen upon a garden you’re informed of your to-do list. From this point on you receive no instruction — it’s rather simple; you’re a goose, you have a to-do list… get to work. The tasks begin as simple as catching the attention of an npc and slowly increase in complexity– with the player eventually needing to distract, evade, and trap or trick in order to complete their list, much to the chagrin of the non-geese around them. Once the player finishes their list for that area, whatever disgruntled character was a victim of their crimes puts up a sign showing geese aren’t welcome — which the player can promptly tear down (as any respectable goose would) and then move on to the next part of the village, where they complete their next round of tasks. The final area the player gets to is a model village, with their final tasks being to snag the miniature bell and head home to toss it in the aforementioned unexplained bell ditch. In this way, the game manages a somewhat satisfying “punchline” — that this absurd goose to-do list of causing trouble throughout the village is somewhat of a ritual.
The minimalist structure and bright visuals of the game is surprisingly one of its most distinctive features, and ties directly to the more traditional aspects of the slapstick genre. By maintaining the definition of people, animals, and objects through easily recognizable 3D figures in bright, solid colors (such as the shape of a yellow bell, or red apple), the physical portrayal of comedic actions becomes the most distinctive aspect of the game. While the characters aren’t literally masked or disguised (as in the performance of slapstick in its earlier forms), they lack most distinctive personal features — they have a skin tone, a nose, the shape of their hair and/or hat, and clothing that is meant as much to personalize them as it is to make them easily recognizable to the player by their general labels. For example: the Groundskeeper has on gloves, boots, and overalls; the Boy is in casual shorts, stripes, and glasses; the Shopkeeper lurks around her shop area carrying a broom; and the old man wears a wool cap over short, white hair and pants (with suspenders, of course) that appear to be pulled up stereotypically high. This simplistic yet visually pleasing approach makes much more noticeable the exaggerated movement details characteristic of slapstick; everything from the way a character may jump in shock and chase you with arms waving to the silly yet empowering waddle of the Goose you control.
The controls of the game themselves are limited and even somewhat clumsy, as are those of some of the most popular slapstick games. The choice of character model typically sets the framework for this, as these games often feature inherently clumsy creatures or objects that are fun to look at — popular examples being the sloppy octopus-dad in Octodad: Dadliest Catch, or even the physics-defying goat of Goat Simulator. Geese are awkward looking animals that move about in a less-than-precise waddle, so that’s just what the player is meant to work with — and it’s more than enough to get the job done. The physically styled structure of the game accentuates another defining aspect of most games in the slapstick genre — an absurd premise that, despite maintaining some degree of obscurity, pushes the player in a somewhat coherent direction. It is important that the “plot” of the game be silly or random enough to be entertaining, but still balance itself with an understandable expectation and progression. For example, the absurdity of this game lies in the fact that you’re a goose with an oddly disruptive (and for some reason, ritualistic) to-do list, and once you give up on answering the questions that small detail raises (such as: “Why?”), every other aspect of the game is fairly intuitive and uncomplicated. The player has a clear sense of direction in its most literal form — a list of tasks meant to be completed before you can move on to the next area. The game also uses this detail to encourage the player to do some independent exploration, as you are given an alternative list with optional hidden tasks that only reveal themselves as you complete them.
Even the way objectives are concluded in the game lends itself to common constructs of the slapstick genre. The game’s comedic aggression combined with the ensured recovery of the characters reflect aspects of slapstick that have defined the genre since it’s earliest performance-centered forms — such as in commedia dell’arte (an early form of professional theater) and the art of circus clowning, two of slapstick’s recognized foundational influences. In this particular game, the player can be considered the ringmaster and the other characters the clowns — but their differences are reflected in their species rather than their status (or depending on whatever animal rights argument you might make, both). The tasks themselves, while often irritating to the characters, seem to prompt no seriously harmful or punitive consequences — a conclusion that is only strengthened by the implication that the goose has taken this exact route of mischief multiple times. As in circus clowning, the victims of the Goose’s antics always recover, which serves two notable purposes; the player has a chance to retry actions and set-ups on NPCs (as they will go back to normal behavior if left alone), and none of that pesky empathy humans tend to have can get in the way of the game’s immersive experience. A large part of the satisfaction in playing the game is drawn from the fact that actions towards the characters are malicious but essentially harmless, and thus the player can enjoy the effects of their destructive actions in good conscience. As mentioned before, this is no new concept in slapstick, but a rather underappreciated one — unfortunately so, as “Clowns always rebound” strikes me as a motto to live by.
The thing that can be appreciated most about Untitled Goose Game is that every aspect of it encapsulates slapstick as an art in the most delicate of ways. The game is minimalistic in both style and concept, but each feature strategically directs the player to its key elements. While the game does tie together some of the most common tropes of the genre, it is in no way lacking in originality or variety; there are plenty places to go and people to honk at — and the bright and welcoming setting, beautifully styled animation, and airy and playful soundtrack allows Untitled Goose Game to build an experience that prompts an almost childishly simplistic joy.
A fourth entry in my video series on detective games. It’s not real surprise that this game would end up in this series: I’ve taught it twice now (including in one class this term), I’ve written about teaching it, I named it one of the games of the decade, and right before the term launched I published a full transcript of it. What I didn’t expect was for it to be quite this long—definitely among the longer analyses of a single game I’ve done, in any format.
Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite does an exceptional job of displaying the large wealth gap between the very rich and very poor in South Korea. The magnitude of the wealth disparity is clearly depicted through the homes of the Kim and Park families. The Kim’s home is below ground in a cluttered area surrounded by other poor families. Their house has poor lighting and contains little running technology, even lacking an actual bathroom as the toilet merely sits up on a ledge. Their home is neglected by the city and is vulnerable to floods.
The Park’s home is set in an enclosed space surrounded by a beautiful array of trees. Inside the home is the simplistic and artistic complexion of a home built to not only embody luxury but also to be itself a piece of art. The house has plenty of space and modern technology, which keeps it looking simple and clean, in contrast to the Kims who use a ceiling fan to dry socks that generates much clutter.
The two homes feature huge windows that become a central component to the daily lives of their families. The Kims look up to see out of their window and the Parks look straight out to see out of theirs. Analyzing this distinction reveals a metaphor that the Kim’s are looking to move up the socioeconomic ladder, while the Park’s are satisfied where they are. This is furthered with the placement of their homes. The Park’s home is on top of a hill, protected from flooding and isolated from the poor, while the Kim’s home is vulnerable to floods and crowded by others. An argument can be made that the Kim’s embody the proletarians and their rise to the Park’s home expresses their uprising to take from the Parks, the bourgeoisie, using Marxist theory. Yet, despite their success at leaching off the Parks, things eventually turn south and Mr. Park is killed by Mr. Kim. The answer to the question as to why Mr. Kim murdered Mr. Park will be answered through analyzing the following scenes from the film.
Mr. Kim talks to Mrs. Park about the housekeeper’s “TB”
This scene is preceded by Mr. Kim getting a text from Mrs. Park to discuss in private about the housekeeper’s TB, a ploy used by the Kims to get her fired. Mr. Kim climbs up the stairs to meet Mrs. Park, a metaphor used to express his intention to transition to the top of society, leaving behind the housekeeper, another member of his socioeconomic standing.
This scene depicts that although Mr. Kim believes to be above the housekeeper, he is still below Mrs. Park in power and societal standing. The staging and location choices of this scene aid in the development of this depiction. Through an establishing shot, we see Mr. Kim opening one door and ducking under another into an enclosed room for the clandestine meeting. Mrs. Kim motions him to sit down while she stands over him. Bong’s choice to position Mr. Kim below Mrs. Park reveals that Mrs. Park holds power over Mr. Kim by being his employer, despite the Kim’s charlatan scheme. The scene exhibits shallow staging in a space so tight that the audience receives a sense of claustrophobia, playing into the fearful nature of the meeting.
Bong uses low-key lighting in the scene to portray the scene as clandestine and fearful since both Mrs. Park and Mr. Kim have much on the table to lose from the conversation. Mrs. Park’s role in the family is as a homemaker, and having a housekeeper with TB is unsafe to her family and a failure of her job, which is why she is frightened of her husband finding out. Mr. Kim needs this conversation to end with the housekeeper told she is being fired for something other than TB because she could easily refute the accusation and ruin the Kim’s parasitic employment. However, Mr. Park in this scene looks confident and calms her down to not only steer the conversation but also portray innocence.
The anxiety experienced by Mrs. Park and the confidence displayed by Mr. Kim is aided through Bong’s choices of cinematography and editing with the decision to focus on the character’s facial expressions. This is accomplished with a smaller shot scale (no larger than medium close-up) that allows the audience to focus on their faces.
Their conversation is shown through a series of eyeline match shots, which supports the depiction of their facial expressions by allowing the audience to see the impact their conversation has on each other. For example, Mr. Kim expresses his regret with a concerned look in his eyes for snitching on the housekeeper, and we see Mrs. Kim’s immediate reaction to tranquilize his fictitious concerns and then wipe a tear over having to fire her.
The scene ends with an extreme close-up of Mr. Kim attempting to shake Mrs. Park’s hand. The scene exhibits it’s first pan, moving slightly to the left towards Mrs. Park and showing how uncomfortable she is to touch him. Whether her anxiety has to do with him touching the bloody napkin or that he is dirty in general, it displays another example of Mr. Kim falling short of his intentions to be treated like a member of the upper class and not as a dirty and low income.
The Kim’s hide under the table while the Park’s are on the couch
The staging of the characters in this scene depicts the Kim’s as lower in society than the Parks. This scene reveals several reasons as to why Mr. Kim may have killed Mr. Park, including Mr. Kim’s realization that his family is still viewed as poor, even after all they have done to make money. The Kim’s are hiding under a table in the Park’s living room because the Parks came home early from a camping trip. Throughout the scene, the camera focuses primarily on the Parks, and the table that the Kims are under is only shown at the bottom portion of the screen. When the camera shows the Kim’s hiding, the viewer can only see the Park’s feet. Using different camera angles, the directors set up the scene to depict the Kims as beneath the Parks. Without the knowledge that they are under the table, someone could interpret them as rats, hiding under the floor. Rats live under the floors of homes and depend on the residents for shelter and food remnants. The Kims similarly leech off the Parks and their success.
In addition, the lighting throughout the scene shows the gap between the families. The Kims are shown in low-key lighting, and it looks like they are under a floorboard, portraying their poverty and dirtiness. In a way, it compares the Kims to the former housekeeper’s husband who is hiding from the Parks in their basement. Both the Kims and the former housekeeper’s husband take from the Parks, but at least the housekeeper works honestly for it.
Further, despite their hard work and scheming, they still reek of poor-people smell and are not treated as equals to the Parks. The camera tilts from the Kim’s hiding under the table to the Park’s laying on the couch, showing that they are above them. The Parks are shown in high-key lighting because they have nothing to hide from, enjoying their wealthy life. They are living in the top class of society with luxurious pajamas and furniture, while Mr. Kim reeks of “old-radish” as described by Mr. Park. The scene then shows Mr. Kim smelling his shirt signifying his realization that nothing has changed for him or his family. They can leech all they want, but they still are no better than the man who lives under the house in hiding. The Park’s continue to discuss the smell as the camera pans to show a close up shot of Mr. Kim and his daughter lying on the floor. His daughter seems to feel sorry for him as she looks at him then looks away. Mr. Kim’s expression is one of embarrassment and disappointment. No matter how hard he works and how much changes, he will forever be plagued with the poor people’s smell.
Mr. Park also says that Mr. Kim never crosses a line but his smell does. This is a foreshadowing of Mr. Kim crossing the line at the end of the movie. His smell reminds the Park’s of the subway, which Mrs. Park has not rode for ages. This is yet another reference to the difference in socioeconomic class. The Kim’s cannot afford the subway whereas the Parks completely disregard it as low-income transportation. As the Park’s pleasure each other, the camera pans to the table which looks identical to the floor. This is the most straight-forward representation of the Kim family being no better than rats or leeches under the Park’s house. They are lying under the floor of someone else’s house, leeching off their success. No matter how hard the Kims work to change their lives, they will never be able to get rid of the “smell,” or change their place in society. This realization is what drives Mr. Kim to finally cross the line and kill Mr. Park.
Mr. Kim kills Mr. Park
The staging of this scene is the result of the chaos set by the former housekeeper’s husband at the birthday party. Jessica has been stabbed and Mr. Kim is trying to help her as she bleeds out. The old housekeeper is now trying to kill Chung-sook.
Mr. Kim looks around at the chaos, and Mr. Park urgently orders Mr. Kim to get the car to bring Da-song to the hospital. Mr. Park neglects the wounded Jessica before him. Mr. Kim remains kneeling by his daughter and looking up to Mr. Park with his mouth wide open, which may signify the social class disparity between the pair, but also implies his disgust that Mr. Park disregards Jessica’s well-being. This scene is shot with high-key lighting, enhancing the effect of the chaos and making it look very real. But even with high-key lighting, while on the grass kneeling, Mr. Kim is shown as if he is in someone’s shadow, generating a dismal effect of upcoming danger.
From Mr. Kim’s point of view, the scene unfolds in slow motion. While he takes in everything, we as viewers are able to analyze the scene as it progresses. We see the irony of the Native American headdresses, since the scene started off so innocent and has transitioned into calamity. Reality hits Mr. Kim that their whole scheme to enhance their lives has failed after seeing the gruesome injury to his son’s head and stab wound to his daughter’s chest; he admits defeat by tossing the keys to Mr. Park. They keys fall short of Mr. Park and end up under the fight between the housekeeper’s husband and Chung-sook. Their fight is filmed like an action movie, with the audience experiencing quick jump shots between each stab. The wealthy guests stand above them, watching from a distance, which further ties into the idea of the upper class watching the struggles of the lower class from a distance they find comfortable.
When the fight ends, the keys lie under the dying housekeeper’s husband. Mr. Park tries to retrieve them, only to meet the deranged man who recognizes him. Upon retrieving the keys, he instinctively gags at his smell, something he has also done to Mr. Kim (although not to his face). This man worships Mr. Park while Mr. Kim wants to be Mr. Park. This difference is negligent because in this moment, Mr. Kim realizes that he will never be Mr. Park when wealthy men like Mr. Park give him the same label of poor, signified by his smell, to the housekeeper’s husband, a man he thought he was better than. Following Mr. Park clenching his nose together to avoid the man’s stench, Mr. Kim in a sudden shock of anger stabs Mr. Park- and why? His hard work, although dishonest, has proven to be futile. We can see this as the proletarian attempting an uprising to overthrow the bourgeoisie. Hard work has failed for Mr. Kim and violence is the only way that he can take Mr. Park’s power. After Mr. Kim flees the scene and goes into hiding, Bong leaves us with the idea that neither through hard work or violence will the proletarian ever be able to defeat the bourgeoisie.
The greatest feeling experienced upon first watching Guillaume Canet’s Tell No One is a sense of confusion, underpinned by an overwhelming sensation of uncertainty. This doubt both emerges from and pervades the film: the characters are suspicious of one another, the film’s timing and events are frequently called into question. By separating the film into it’s basic aspects, we hope to interrogate the ways in which this experience is created throughout the film, and for what purpose.
Cinematography plays the foremost role in creating the viewer’s experience of the film’s themes of doubt and its resolution. Starting off with how the film is shot, we see a few different techniques depending on the setting and how the story is progressing. We see wider shots in the start and end of the movie, which all look very similar due to the setting being the same. Most of everything that takes place in between, however, is far more focused on Alex and what he is going through rather than wider shots showcasing the environment and setting, with a lot of close ups on him with a shallow depth of field to emphasize the state of doubt and confusion he is in for majority of the movie.
As such, to amplify these feelings of doubt and confusion, many of the camera dynamics in this middle portion, including the action scenes, consist of handheld shaky camera movements rather than mounted shots or tracking shots, even in setting that we visit in the beginning and end of the movie in markedly different circumstances, which are accompanied by very different camera movements as well.
A significant and noticeable break in the movie’s fast pace and less traditional camera movements comes in the scene in the park where Alex is presumably waiting for Margot to meet him. The audience at this point is not entirely sure either about what exactly Margot’s fate was and whether it really has been her sending all these messages to Alex. And in resolving this doubt for the audience, the movie uses slow motion and lighting very similar to the scenes by the lake at the start and end of the film. However, with Alex not being able to see her and still not being aware of her presence there, they are never both in focus in the same shot, as our protagonist’s doubts have not yet been resolved.
While the depth of field is so as to keep one of the two out of focus in any given shot in this scene, as Alex stands at the tree where the two used to go routinely, he begins to realize that Margot is behind him without even needing to look. As his mind is cleared of all doubt that it is indeed Margot behind him, both of them come into focus after there initially being a shallow depth of field focusing on Alex only. The wide-angle lens allows for there to be a medium long shot rather than the close ups and medium close ups we have been seeing for most of the film when it tracks back and deepens the depth of field as clarity is finally achieved and doubt is resolved.
As this full picture comes into view, the camera tilts upward and back downward to show wide shots of the lake from when the two were children, and along with many of the shots that are framed and lit exactly as they are in the beginning of the movie, the film comes full circle and provides resolution to its themes of doubt and confusion.
Mise en scene
Hand in hand with its cinematography, the film’s mise en scene maintains the proper environment for the film’s uncertainties to develop. The first example of how staging can create doubt is in the opening scene when Margot is thought to be murdered. Canet has Margot far in the shot here and while Alex is not present, there is an implied deep staging and distance between the two. The deep staging is a contrast to the shallow staging previously depicted, which emphasized the intimacy between Alex and Margot and their happy life. The break from shallow-staging introduces the idea that the happy marriage between Margot and Alex could be disrupted, thus creating doubt in the viewer’s mind.
In addition to the deep staging in this scene, Canet also employs low-key lighting in the scene. There are a lot of shadows cast across the water and on Margot herself, and the noir-like lighting in this scene not only creates doubt as to whether Margot is safe, but also establishes the film as a mystery. Margot almost appears as a silhouette in this scene, creating the initial impression that her presence may not be a given for the foreseeable future and providing room for doubt in the viewer’s mind. The combination of deep staging and low-key lighting in the opening scene creates an atmosphere of doubt that serves as the film’s inciting incident.
While mise en scene can help create doubt in Tell No One, it also serves to help remove some of that doubt. An example of this can be seen through the decor choices in the closing minutes of the film after Alex learns the truth from Margot’s father. Alex is driving the same car that he drove in the lake scene at the beginning of the film and passes along the same country road, with the camera moving to show the ‘Lac Charmaine’ sign from the beginning of the film. Additionally, the rose-lined path to the tree where Alex and Margot had carved their initials as children remains, with new lines being drawn in the years since she had allegedly died.
By including these pieces of decor in the final scene of the film, Canet portrays how doubt is erased from Alex’s mind in a setting that is associated with a more absolute truth (the love he has for Margot) that is in contrast to the constant doubt and shifting circumstances that he experienced throughout the events of the film.
Modifying the images created through the film’s cinematography and mise en scene is its editing. The film’s editing creates doubt by arranging its shots in ways which highlight the uncertainty of its situation. This is exemplified by the flashback, the device by which the film’s doubts are resolved. On the level of editing, the flashback struggles to present past events in continuity with those established in previously-shown sequences. The scene near the film’s conclusion at the home of Margot’s father exemplifies this; his confession of past events prompts several shots revealing the true events of the night of Margot’s supposed death. As her father Jacques explains that Neuville hired the men who attacked Alex and Margot at the lake, there is a cut between a close-up of his face as he speaks to Alex, and a long shot over his shoulder which reveals him watching Margot moments before she is attacked by Bartola and Pagnac. This cut rewrites previously established events in the film’s narrative, which would ordinarily be a questionable choice as it breaks the film’s realism. However, the cut contains this unbelievability within Jacques’ character. The over-the-shoulder shot which begins the flashback establishes that the following events are being shown from his perspective, and by concluding the flashbacks with the same shot of him (falsely) identifying the body re-establishes the film’s continuity.
The flashback emerges in order to fill the gaps in the narrative which drive its action. Just as editing techniques help to facilitate these revisions, they call attention to the unexplained events which necessitate them. One of the most distinct devices used for this purpose is the insert shot. For example, after Alex questions Jacques about his discovery of Margot’s “body”, the police arrive at Jacques’ house with the photos of Margot beaten up. Shortly after, Jacques asks his wife to leave the room. When Jacques questions if they spoke to Alex, the police tell him that he left with a lawyer. As they ask “Does that sound like an innocent man to you?” the scene cuts to an insert shot of Jacques’ wife crying on the stairs. Beyond the confusion created by the photos of Margot, that the film stresses this image of distress suggests that there is a greater tragedy at play. It is never made explicit that Jacques’ wife knew the truth about Margot, but her certainty of Alex’s innocence creates ambiguity as to who her tears are for: her daughter, or her son-in-law. In this way, editing is used to raise the stakes of the film’s events, building towards its climactic revelation.
Tell No One relies on two forms of music: the score, which is a blend of piano, soft electric guitar, and violins, and the soundtrack, which mainly consists of American pop and soul music. I am going to primarily focus on the score, because I feel like that contributed the most to the sense of doubt that permeates the movie. This score tends to come up during moments of chaos, doubt, and all the various twists and turns that the movie goes through.
It is interesting that the composer decided to rely on softer, more somber sounds to portray stressful situations, rather than a faster-paced, more high pitched score. The score does not just portray Alexandre’s doubt and confusion: it also portrays the tragic nature of the situation. The score reminds the viewer that this is more than just a mystery with twists and turns: the plot is fueled by love and sadness, and so a score that would be more in line with an action movie does not really fit.
We hear the main theme of the movie for the first time when Alexandre sees his wife on the webcam in his office (23:35). Slowly, a somber blend of piano and guitar begin to play as everything that Alexandre thought he knew is called into question. This is the moment that he begins to doubt the story about her death that he was told, and even his own account of the events. This revelation is clearly on his mind when he goes to visit his in laws, and so during the drive there, the score’s volume and intensity increases. It switches from mainly slow piano to reliance on guitar. The confusion that he is feeling is demonstrated through the music.
The score returns during Jacques’ first flashback. The sad mix of piano and guitar plays as he identifies the body. This second revelation confuses Alexandre even more, because he seems to have confirmation that his wife is dead, and yet he just saw her. Once again, the score accompanies a mood of uncertainty resulting from the conflicting information he hears, in addition to the pain of digging up old emotions.
This music returns after Alexandre talks to Margot’s friend about the mysterious pictures of her covered in bruises. As he leaves, he sees one of Neuville’s henchmen watching him, which drives his paranoia and uncertainty even further. The music continues as we cut to him frantically rummaging through the old storage unit for helpful information. The score represents the Alexandre’s inner doubt that accompanies each new revelation or suspicion, in addition to the fear that he is being framed.
Finally, during the climax of the movie, when Jacques reveals the entire story to Alexandre, the score is surprisingly absent. There is no sound besides for the dialogue between the two of them. This is because new information is no longer meant to confuse Alexandre and the viewer; finally, once the whole picture is clear, the music that represents the confusion of conflicting, constantly shifting information is no longer needed.
The score is used in cases of other revelations and moments of doubt, but I thought that listing one after another would feel repetitive. Overall, the use of the score reflects the increased levels of confusion and uncertainty felt by both Alexandre and the viewer throughout the film. It represents the fact that learning more information will often lead to more questions rather than less, and these new questions can take an emotional toll on a person, especially when connected to a lost love.
Narrative and 3-Act Structure
The narrative and 3-act structure that is at play in Tell No One, cater to the residing themes of doubt and intrigue and culminate in resolving said doubt. Tell No One partakes in a typical 3-act structure: act 1, sets up the narrative of the film and is broken up into two time periods that allow the narrative to be pushed forward and bring forth the central dilemma of the protagonist Alex; act 2 deals with the ups and downs of Alex’s adventure to find out the truth about his wife that coincides with a series of confrontations; act 3, culminates in Alex finding out the answers he’s been searching for and leaving all the doubt he had about the truth behind him.
To amplify doubt and intrigue, in act 1, the narrative pulls us 8 years forward into the present, the day before the anniversary of Margot’s death/disappearance. With that jump forward in time, the viewer can’t help but question the series of events they have just seen, but also what has transpired over those years.
The inciting incident that takes place during the first act, in which Alex receives a mysterious email with a recent video of Margot, drives the narrative and feelings of doubt and intrigue forward. After receiving this video, the truth of what happened on the night Margot disappeared comes into question, and Alex must seek out the truth.
As the film progresses into act 2, Alex’s investigation into his wife’s disappearance coincides with the police’s investigation of Alex’s part in it, and this acts as the narratives rising action that culminates in the film’s midpoint where Alex is framed for the murder of Florence, the photographer. The midpoint not only marks a significant setback for Alex in his search for his wife but creates doubt about Alex within the narrative, as now he is seen as a wanted fugitive.
Alex’s lowest point at the end of act 2, occurs when he catches a glimpse of Margot leaving the park but is unable to catch her. This is the first time in the film that Margot is seen in the flesh, and there is no longer doubt that she is alive. But as Alex is attempting to catch up with her, he is abducted by Bernard and his people. The feeling of doubt is still furthered by the questions of Bernard’s part in all of this.
The dénouement/resolution and climax of act 3 occurs when Margot’s dad tells Alex the truth about what happened the night of Margot’s disappearance. In this scene, all the previous doubt, mystery, and intrigue is resolved as Alex finally has a clear answer. After a great deal of turmoil, Alex and Margot are finally reunited.
Tell No One gives a perfect example of how narrative and the 3-act structure play a vital role in creating themes within a story. As a mystery/thriller, the narrative and the 3-act structure continuously cast doubt on what the viewer knows or thinks they know until those feelings of doubt are resolved in the final act.
Naturally, the film’s genre consolidates its devices into a central meaning. In conclusion, Tell No One‘s sense of doubt serves in order to build tension in the plot per the generic standards of a mystery. However, in separately analyzing how each aspect of the film creates this sensation, it is possible to better identify the moments in the film that are successful in their coordination of different film techniques (as could be expected, the film’s climax and conclusion are of note in every section) as well as the ways in which the devices operate independently throughout the rest of its duration.
by Brendan Boustany, Wyn Veiga, Emily Nagler, & Gabriela Horwath
Clueless is a coming of age tale that traces the development of wealthy L.A. teen, Cher Horowitz, played by Alicia Silverstone, as she searches the glitzy world around her for emotional substance and meaning. Exuding everything L.A., Cher begins the film as a spoiled, shallow, and relatively innocent girl who devotes all of her time to her self-image. Even more absurdly, during an extravagant montage of her life, she states, “I actually have a way normal life for a teenage girl,” emphasizing her profound ignorance regarding her privilege. Act two sees Cher realize that she initially undervalued emotional fulfillment and maturity, causing her to set off to find true love in the superficial environment around her. As the film progresses and Cher navigates the gossip and drama of high school, she learns that there is more to life than glam. Cher’s journey lies in the genre of drama as she struggles to find her revised place in her life through vignettes with her peers.
The superficial charisma of Beverly Hills imbues Clueless during Cher’s initial traipse through her school. However, at the film’s core lies in an astute critique of the society it initially appears to admire. As the narrative progresses, the film sharply presents issues with adolescence, gender relations, and socioeconomic disparities. Moreover, Cher develops an empowering sense of womanhood, reflecting on gender norms and their effects. She becomes aware of her privilege from a financial aspect, eventually essaying to make a positive impact on those around her. While Cher’s goals begin as selfish pursuits to boost her image, she shifts to relative patronage and goodwill as the film progresses. Her newfound self-awareness allows her to become a more genuine individual and friend, transforming her into a sincere and caring person.
Director Amy Heckerling aimed to deliver Clueless as both a classic drama (and comedy) film, as well as a resource to improve adolescent teens’ morality by poignantly presenting friendship and empathy in an unlikely setting. Cher’s maturation throughout the film represents the bulk of her arc and importance to Heckerling’s intent. Josh, Cher’s step-brother, serves as a sharp counter to Cher, emphasizing the most extreme aspects of her ignorance through his interactions with her at the beginning of the film. Notably, when Josh turns on the news in the living room, Cher combatively points out his greed with the television and obsession with the news.
Cher believes that intellectual pursuits are irrelevant to her life in L.A., and therefore completely uninteresting, stating, “Until mankind is peaceful enough not to have violence on the news, there’s no point in taking it out of shows that need it for entertainment value.” After Josh attempts to plead with her about the importance of social awareness and significant world events, Cher changes the channel to cartoons instead. Valuing kitschy entertainment over substance, Cher’s isolation from the real world and her disinterest in social activism are unyieldingly portrayed in the first third of the film. With this, Heckerling suggests that most wealthy teenage girls lack social awareness due to their socio-economic profile. Cher’s behavior is not abnormal for someone her age, but merely a subscription to this generational trend.
Cher’s misguided attempts toward patronage translate into positive change at various points in the film. In act one, Cher and Dion denote significant time setting up Mrs. Geist with Mr. Hall, hoping that Mr. Hall will hand out better grades as a result. Cher sees her teacher as a lonely man, whose anger at his shortcomings manifest themselves in the grades he gives. Therefore, she sets out to find him a life partner. While her intentions were selfish, she succeeds in creating a real, endearing match, resulting in both teachers becoming happier, more carefree people.
Similarly, she directs her ‘charity’ at Tai, a transfer student who is completely green to the superficial politics of L.A. Cher considers this mission to be one of admirable altruism and empathy. Again, Cher’s actions reflect an element of selfishness, illustrating that her faulty morals are conceived from a heightened self-opinion rather than harmful intentions.
Cher’s shifting priorities come to light as she attempts to dissuade Tai’s interest in aloof skateboarder, Travis Birkenstock. Although Travis is genuine, kind, and loyal to Tai, Cher maintains that he will never do since he does not hold the clout or respectable appearance necessary for anyone who wants to climb the social ladder. Therefore, she attempts to bring Tai together with the popular and well-groomed Elton. Although there is no genuine connection between the two, Cher attempts to artificially create a relationship due to her own vanity and narrow belief in love. When Elton ultimately makes an aggressive move towards Cher, she realizes that he is a bad person despite his wealth and good looks. As Elton abandons Cher in a parking lot after she spurned his advances, she begins to understand that social standing and morality do not necessarily run parallel. By the end of the film, Tai and Travis fall in love, and Cher happily attends his skateboarding event. Travis’s arc from his initial ‘acceptance speech’ at the beginning of the film, when Cher scoffs at every word he states, to being an accepted member of the friend group illustrates Cher’s shifting values throughout the film. She is now capable of being happy for someone else’s achievement, and she enjoys a rough-and-tumble skateboarding event at that.
Christian Stovitz is another character who teaches Cher about the depth of the world around her. Initially, Christian appeared to be a shallow, handsome boy who would serve as a middling love interest with Cher. Cher herself seemed to think this too. However, after Cher spent a considerable amount of time getting ready for their movie date, Christian abruptly leaves Cher’s house. Cher, who remains inside her narrow bubble of viewing everyone around her, is shocked by this exit. Later, when Murray informs her that Christian is likely a homosexual, Cher becomes good friends with Christian, though not in the fashion that she originally thought their relationship would go. Nevertheless, Cher finds pleasure and goodwill from having Christian around. With this, she concludes that a change of plans regarding someone’s role in her life should be welcomed and accepted to live a fulfilling life, illustrating her growing maturity and fading fragility.
Cher’s steadfast sense of womanhood grows out of her resolute commitment to her friends and herself. When Tai, plainly dressed, arrives at the tennis practice at the start of the film, Cher disappointedly states that the new girl is “clueless.” She believes that everyone’s value at the school lies in their looks and popularity.
Cher, therefore, goes out of her way to include Tai in her circle of friends, believing that the new girl is in dire need of a makeover. While this is motivated by a superficial desire to help boost Tai’s popularity, as well as stroke her own ego, their interactions lead to a genuine friendship, unaffected by the trivialities of Cher’s pursuit. At the party in “the valley,” when Tai is hit in the head by Elton’s shoe, Cher runs to her rescue, exhibiting genuine concern for Tai’s well-being. Cher appears to ignore any feeling of embarrassment that stemmed from the incident, even assuring Tai that the event was negligible, and far from humiliating. Their argument near the end of the film demonstrates the depth of their bond, as both characters express the earnest feelings they have towards one another. Their tearful reconciliation further demonstrates the sincerity of their friendship.
Additionally, following the party, Cher’s “no means no” attitude towards Elton’s forceful advances testifies to her staunch commitment to herself as both a woman and a friend to Tai. Although the incident lands her at a remote gas station by herself in the middle of the night, Cher never questions her decision to deny Elton’s advances, illustrating her commitment to self-respect and her resilient sense of womanhood. She also abandons her matchmaking pursuit of Elton for Tai, indicating her loyalty to her friend and her innate desire to protect those she cares about. Her growing respect for Tai’s differences allows Cher to understand that “normal” and “popular” are not binary terms, and if something feels right to her, she should pursue it, regardless of what others (such as Elton, her father, Christian, or another guy) may think.
Cher exemplifies her innocence and wavering morals in an argument with Tai near the end of the film. Even though Tai ultimately hurls the cruelest insult of the fight, “You’re a virgin who can’t drive,” Cher seems crushed by the idea that she has hurt her friend, indicating that if she knew the negative effects that her do-good personality and actions had on people, she would not continue to do what she does.
Following the argument, Cher reflects on why she was so upset that Tai liked Josh, and she realizes that the aspects of Josh she hated (his social activism and craving for knowledge) were ones that she felt she needed to do for herself. In the end, she does not change to become someone that Josh likes, but instead one that she alone admires. Her recognition of her own cluelessness is what drives her to become a consciously moral individual. Her love for Josh allows for the most significant turning point in terms of her character development: she wanted to change something for the sole reason of changing it, instead of garnering more support or recognition for her “charity.” Through this, the film crescendos its thesis: virtuous actions must evolve from conscious decisions to do good. Cher’s experiences ultimately allow her to reevaluate what she values most. Seeing that Tai finds happiness through friends and relationships, and not through the clothes she wears, Cher eventually understands that superficial pursuits will never lead to substantial prosperity.
Cher’s ignorance and selfishness dramatically shift as she begins to venture outside of her privileged bubble and explore Josh’s interests. When Mrs. Geist asks the class if anyone is interested in community service, Cher eagerly raises her hand to participate. Fast forward, and Cher is suddenly leading the Pismo Beach fundraiser at school. Not only is she now committed toward the betterment of society, but she also regains her popularity at school for her activism. When walking around school grounds with her captain badge, she receives a standing ovation for her efforts. Again, Cher receives such support when she hosts a table for the Pismo Beach Fundraiser and becomes instantly surrounded by intrigued students.
The film began with a flashy montage that displayed Cher’s narrow focus on success in school as well as her social life. She demonstrated these interests by trying to set up Ms. Geist and Mr. Hall with little interest in their actual happiness and primary interest in getting better grades. Her success in this endeavor nudged her to continue committing kind acts. Her next “project” became Tai, an initial materialistic pursuit that lead to the two becoming very close. By the end, Cher found a unique, caring, supportive friend and became genuinely interested in Tai’s best interests and happiness. Cher’s most epiphanic realization of her ignorance and selfishness came from emerging feelings for Josh. Reflecting on her feelings for him, she chose to mature and alter her world views. By the film’s conclusion, Cher learns to show empathy and understanding for her peers in contrast to merely seeing them as beneficial or harmful towards her social image. Fittingly, the film closes at a wedding, illustrating the warmth and happiness that Cher receives after changing her persona through all of this. Cher’s peace by the end of the film demonstrates to the audience that while self-improvement can be fraught with obstacles, positive change is possible if one can commit to reevaluating and shifting how they view and interact with the world.
By Junyoung Choi, Haina Lu, and Adayan Munsuarrieta
Walt Disney once said, “Animation can explain whatever the mind of man can conceive. This facility makes it the most versatile and explicit means of communication yet devised for quick mass appreciation.” In this way, animated films can serve as a powerful bridge between reality and fiction; by perceiving reality with a specific lens and bringing in those “real” aspects into its world of fantasy, magic, or science-fiction, the animated film can provide impactful social commentary on the world outside the screen, without having to document reality via live-action. Within the film, the audience may encounter details of the animated world that is ostensibly far-removed from reality, but resonate with certain socioeconomic struggles, political injustices, or relevant changes (whether it be technological or natural) that occur just outside the screen.
Animated films have come quite a long way since cel animation, where the artist would draw thousands and thousands of frames by hand. With traditional hand drawn animation, simulated pans or tilts were relatively easier, but simulated forward tracks were incredibly labor intensive. Whereas many of Studio Ghibli films directed by Hayao Miyazaki still insist on the fundamental traditions of animation––carefully hand-drawn frames put together to create motion, many Western animated films of the modern era use CGI. The integration of CGI evinced in many of the more contemporary Disney films like Big Hero 6 and Zootopia has allowed for a much more dynamic range of tilts, pans, and even tracking as well as the simulation of diverse lighting schemes via 3D animation. The ability to animate freely, whether it be through drawing or 3D technology, allows within such films the use of plasmaticness of contour, which Eisenstein refers to as “a rejection of once-and-forever allotted form, freedom from ossification, the ability to assume dynamically any form.” Though this reliance on plasmaticness has taken a back seat with the more recent animated films that began following a rather realist animation style like in Zootopia, the spirit of plasmaticness seems to persist in not only some modern Disney animations like Big Hero 6 but also many of Hayao Miyazaki’s iconic Ghibli films including Princess Mononoke. Many of the creatures in My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Calcifer from Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), and Ponyo from Ponyo (2008) are also cases in point regarding Miyazaki’s love for plasmaticness.
Princess Mononoke exhibits Ghibli’s easternized adaptation of Eisenstein’s concept of plasmaticness, showcasing many thoughtful uses of plasmatic transformation to demonstrate an overarching theme. Using Miyazaki’s style of plasmaticness, the film makes poignant commentary on the destruction and decay of mother nature, which appear to be a more and more relevant threat that confronts all of humanity.
Big Hero 6 retains some of the traditional elements of plasmaticness, while deviating from that fluid form at some key moments of the film. By juxtaposing elements of plasmaticness with highly advanced science-fiction technology, Big Hero 6 is able to warmly welcome its viewers into a world full of dream-like progress in robotics while effectively communicating the power of friendship and solidarity.
Zootopia,interestingly enough, also contains many traditional elements observed in many Disney films, such as the humanized animals who walk and talk. However, the animated film does not feature much of Eisenstein’s concept of plasmaticness of contour, in that the inhabitants of Zootopia do not visibly break the laws of physics or cast magical spells. Instead, the film relies on cinematographic techniques such as lighting, staging, and camera angles to expose the inherently broken social binary of predator and prey prevalent within the ostensible paradise of Zootopia.
Princess Mononoke (1997)
Like many of Studio Ghibli’s films, Princess Mononoke is hand-drawn and animated frame by frame. The film paints a beautifully tragic struggle between the conflicting visions of the guardians (or gods) of the forest and the increasingly industrialized villages that contaminate the nature surrounding the villagers. The lingering impacts of industrialization and human settlement are presented as the suffering of the forest’s guardians; within the film, the transformations of said guardians into vengefully cursed creatures are some of the most prevalent adaptations of Eisenstein’s plasmaticness of contour into Miyazaki’s style.
The film begins with the guard spotting something odd oozing out from the forest near the village. The clearly dark and demonic creature that creeps out of the forest puts the viewer at unease immediately, as there is a clear disturbance in the natural order of things as well as the environment. The giant boar covered in slimy creatures that resemble writhing slugs attacks the villagers, and the young prince Ashitaka comes to the defense of his people. Though he is able to kill the monstrous creature, he pays the price of having his own arm infected by the slug-like creatures that once wrapped the giant boar.
Expressing the wrath of nature with plasmaticness of contour, Miyazaki forebodes the viewer of the film’s overarching conflict between industrialization and nature from the very first scene. As Ashitaka journeys toward the land of the West, he realizes that the growing infection on his arm has given him superhuman strength. This cursed mark on Ashitaka’s arm is a powerful metaphor for human industrialization. Much like the rapid expansion of industrialization, the area that the mark covers rapidly spreads up his arm; like the industrial advances that allow for humans to make enormous changes in lifestyle, the mark gives Ashitaka incredible power; but in the long run, both industrialization and the mark end up hurting the users who rely too heavily on them.
Further into his westward journey, Ashitaka encounters ‘Kodamas,’ or tree spirits. He is relieved to see several of these spirits, as their presence suggests that the forest is healthy.
Though a simple one, this is a great exhibit of Miyazaki’s adaptation of plasmaticness. These ‘Kodamas’ continue to reappear throughout the rest of the film, at times shaking presumably due to human expansion into and exploitation of nature, and in other instances trembling from the uncontrollable fury of the forest gods who blindly sabotage humans and forests alike.
Big Hero 6 (2014)
Disney’s Big Hero 6 released in 2014 was fully 3D computer animated and showcased significant progress in CGI technology used in animations. Primarily a superhero film, multiple aspects of the animated movie distinctly parallel more realistic counterparts, creating something that takes a step ahead in imagining what reality might look like based on the information it has at hand. The main character Hiro is a scientific prodigy, coming up with a billion-dollar industry idea for a school science project. Throughout the film we see him develop the nanobots, troubleshoot Baymax, and develop upgraded weapons for himself and his friends. The technological representation in films is not new, it appears distinctly familiar even though we don’t recognize such technology. Hiro’s cyberdesk operates similarly to the way Tony Stark’s cyberdesk works in the Marvel franchise, and Baymax’s final armor is even similar to that of Iron Man’s. During the production of the movie, a main animation challenge was incorporating these Marvel elements through animation in a way that was not overly redundant. While viewing these scientific innovations in films as an audience member makes us feel detached from the possibility of utilizing such gadgets in real life, the inspiration for them come from current research. Producer Don Hall mentioned that when designing Baymax, the design team visited university labs working on the development of “soft-robotics. Hall stated: “I met a researcher who was working on soft robots. … It was an inflatable vinyl arm and the practical app would be in the healthcare industry as a nurse or doctor’s assistant. He had me at vinyl,” and recognized that the technology “will have potential probably in the medical industry in the future, making robots that are very pliable and gentle and not going to hurt people when they pick them up.” The technicalities of Baymax’s design are highlighted in the film, which emphasize his characteristic as not a menacing but a huggable robot, promoting a feel-good theme throughout the movie. However, the research behind putting such a design into animation and furthering its capabilities can be inspiring to realistic future technology.
Two other important themes highlighted in the film are that of friendship and teamwork. Again, Big Hero 6 is able to promote these values indirectly. The evolution of Baymax and Hiro’s relationship throughout the film emphasizes this focus on friendship. Although Baymax is very much a machine, he is designed to appear as a friend. We see that he has solid, metallic machine parts, but his exterior follows a principle of plasmaticness, being able to assume dynamically any form without abiding by rules of anatomy or physics as described by Eisenstein. This plasmaticness contributes to the detachment from reality, while inviting viewers to like him more because of his funny and unexpected behavior.
Later on in the film Hiro fits Baymax with a more rigid armor, covering up his huggable appearance as they prepare to fight the villain––a deviation from the plasmaticness seen earlier. Though the appearance of Baymax has undergone a drastic change, Disney is not shy to present the continued friendship between the two: we see Hiro teaching Baymax a friendship handshake immediately afterward. At the movie’s end, this “symbol of friendship” is ultimately what allows Baymax to return.
On top of that, the six in Big Hero 6 stands for the group of six friends who work together to tackle their challenges, emphasizing the theme of teamwork. We see many frames in which the six teenagers (or heroes) stand together facing the villain during periods of action. The physics of the movie are perhaps exaggerated to show the effectiveness of each of their respective abilities when working in conjunction or complimenting each other. Once again stylized elements of the film are drawn out to emphasize the relation of stronger underlying themes to reality.
Disney’s Zootopia is an animated film released in 2016 that relies heavily on 3D animation. The film focuses on the corruption discovered by the bunny, Judy Hopps, and her fox partner, Nicolas Wilde, about the seemingly utopian mammalian society they live in called Zootopia. The utopian society is mainly divided into two parts: the 90% prey population and the 10% predator population that are able to coexist. In the film we see how Judy Hopps is able to make history and become the first non-predator police officer and how juxtaposition between the prejudices she was taught and the discoveries she makes expose the inherently broken social binary of predator and prey. Throughout the film, viewers receive insight into the species based discrimination in the form of tokenism, stereotypes, microaggressions, media, and policy-making. These societal problems addressed within the animated film are meant to reflect and comment on many of the racial issues that still exist within the world today. In contrast to the two previous films mentioned, Zootopia veers away from using plasmaticness of contour and instead employs a more realistic aesthetic throughout the film despite the fact that characters are talking animals. In order to convey these heavy messages to children, Zootopia uses traditional cinematographic techniques such as lighting, staging, and camera angles to portray characters in a certain light.
Before the film begins to cast light on the real discrimination that is present within Zootopia, the film works to establish the city as a seemingly perfect utopia where all animals can achieve their dreams. In the first two images the intersection between the reality of the size of animals and the fantasy of them living human lives come together to convey a sense of inclusivity in the city. In the first image, we see tubes that serve as public transportation specifically designed for smaller animals––and how they use it in order to get to work. Similarly, another shot zooms into an image of a juice shop; the giraffes are able to comfortably place their orders and receive their drinks through the tube. The acknowledgement of the realistic differences in size between the various animals as well as the supportive machinery that helps bridge the gap between these animals establish a sense of inclusivity within the city of Zootopia, at least at first sight.
Within this image of Hopps entering the police station we once again see the use of realistic animation choices support the message within the film. Here, the “camera” is positioned at the same height as it tracks Hopps and draws light to the stark difference between her and her predator peers. The use of loud roars in the following shot helps add to the intimidation Hopps and the viewer may feel. Here, the use of high-key lighting provides the clear visibility which allows for both Hopps and the viewers to not feel threatened by the predators. However, by contextualizing Hopps’ actual height, the film adds to the sense of “fragility” that characterizes many prey. In other words, through the cinematography and sizes of the animals, it becomes all the more evident that a disparity in power between predators and prey not only exists but is a truly divisive conflict.
In this scene with Mayor Bellwether, we are exposed to the ways in which she leverages the narrative that predators are dangerous savages in order to gain political power. In this shot, we see how low-key lighting makes the Mayor go from being a seemingly innocent prey to an imposing, dark figure. Here, the staging serves to show how she places herself above the predator-prey power dynamic, quite literally––she attempts to manipulate the dynamic from the outside and exploit this divisive nature for her own gain. However, much like the act she has put on throughout the majority of the film, what she is fooled by in the end is just another act Nicolas and Hopps put on in order to trick her into lowering her guard. Such images draw clear connections between the use of lighting, staging, and the realistic aspects within Zootopia that construct how both viewers and the mammals within the city understand predator and prey relations.
Final Project by: Meagan Johnson, Katerina Stefanescu, and Alan Countess
Echoing the mass anxiety felt in Hong Kong during the early nineties, Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 breakout film Chungking Express details the story of two cops searching for a meaningful connection in a somewhat isolated society. The filming of Chungking Express occurred during rather turbulent times in Hong Kong. Hong Kong was being handed over to the People’s Republic of China after being under the sovereignty of the United Kingdom for over 152 years. Its citizens were also in the midst of both a personal and cultural identity crisis. Before Hong Kong’s return to mainland China, pre-handover movies such as Chungking Express served as a political commentary on the fantasies of being integrated into their mainstream Chinese culture. In response to this uncertainty, there began to be an emphasis on time and routine–a way of seeking stability in an unstable and unpredictable world. Chungking Express follows the romantic journey of two policemen pining after a lost love. The film carries motifs of mass global connectivity, intoxicating youth, frustration, and hopeless romance. The film presents a dual narrative, or two stories told in a sequence of each other. In the first story, Cop 223 is blinded by his heartbreak. His ex-girlfriend broke up with him on April Fool’s Day; thus, Cop 223 chalks his breakup to a cruel joke. He lives in denial of what it means to lose someone and remains in a state of fantasy, replaying his memories and his love in his mind. In the second story, Cop 663 holds little hope for his ex’s return. Instead, he falls into a melancholic funk. In both stories, Cop 223 and 663 meet energetic women–a sign of hope and wonder in a disillusioned society. By analyzing Wong Kar-wai’s illustrious storytelling, cinematography, and editing, the film reinforces the idea that living in a city of millions does not always lend itself to forming meaningful human connections. Instead, urban isolation is an exigent circumstance for the characters to reflect on the inevitability of change.
In the first story of the film, Cop 223’s love interest–the anonymous drug smuggler–attempts to survive the seedier underworld of Hong Kong. About ten minutes into the film (10:14-10:38), we see the nameless woman (Bridgette Lin)’s fellow smugglers handling their product. Despite the danger of transporting large amounts of a controlled substance, there is a mundane-ness to the art of concealing the cocaine. In this scene, the camera focuses on the running sewing machine, the precise cutting of fabric, and crafty shoe-making. In the first few sequences of this shot, the audience could assume the characters are workers of Hong Kong textile factories, not professional drug lords. There is an art to each of their movements; As if each movement of the thread is a part of their body. They have done this a hundred times before. This scene contributes to the overall emphasis on routine in Chungking Express, a way to keep motivated and grounded in a culture suddenly fueled by anxiety. Ironically, this is one of the only instances of structure in the film. While most of the film chronicles its characters’ struggle to make meaningful human connections, this scene illustrates a beauty during utter chaos. Amid the uncertainty, routine connects us and allows us to remain grounded in the few parts of our life we can control.
In continuation of the first story, the beginning of Cop 223’s journey is distinguished by two scenes. The first (1:54-2:47) follows Cop 223, running to catch a potential suspect through the tourist-packed streets of Hong Kong. Moments before he meets the anonymous drug smuggler, the camera catches glimpses of the world around Cop 223 as he sprints past a series of lively individuals. As he gazes against a man with a McDonald’s bag on his head and a large mannequin, we get a sense of the entirely random and disjointed lives of Hong Kong’s citizens. Although they all appear under the ecstasy of the bright street lights and the endless street vendors, very few seem to engage with the masses. The movement of the characters is so impersonal that most of the other characters are blurred as if to strip them of any sense of individuality. Cop 223, surrounded by hundreds, is entirely alone. This scene demonstrates Wong Kar-wai’s rather poetic cinematography, an instance of Cop 223 consciously pushing out those around him to wallow in his pain. Cop 223 hopes not only to get back his lost love but to connect to the world. Cop 223 seemingly believes finding love and intimacy is the solution to overcoming urban isolation. He fishes for a meaningful connection in the second scene (25:40-26:04). While it is evident that Cop 223 is physically alone in the snack bar, he is emotionally shattered. In this desperation, he calls upon the people he had the slightest of a legitimate human connection with–even if it’s someone he knew in the fourth grade.
Wong’s intentional use of creative cinematography techniques highlights the ways in which Qiwu and Officer 663’s interactions with their love interests relate to the film’s overarching theme of pursuing genuine connection amid the loneliness of modern urban life. The first instance of a short yet meaningful interpersonal connection is between Qiwu and the woman in the blonde wig (specifically 28:00 to 32:54). This scene immediately stands out in terms of the warm, orange color of the light that shines on the two characters. In contrast to the preceding and proceeding scenes, this scene’s use of warm, low-key lighting heightens the beginnings of kinship that seem near impossible in the harsh Hong Kong world that Wong previously shows. As the scene progresses, the shallow depth of field shifts from solely focusing on Qiwu to focusing on both of the characters behind the bar. In this way, they are now both the focal point of the scene together, blurring out the rest of the background and thus the loneliness that otherwise permeates their lives and their world. This focus on the two characters and their connection is perhaps most apparent at 32:35 when the bartender informs Qiwu that the bar is closing. The camera is solely focused on Qiwu and the woman in the blonde wig resting her head on his shoulder. Only the voice of the bartender is heard, and the only part of him that is visible onscreen – his shoulder – is completely blurred. Therefore, even though the bartender technically also engages with Qiwu, Wong shows that this is not a meaningful human connection and rather a necessary, practical one. Even though the relationship only lasts for one night and a short birthday message, Qiwu and the woman in the blonde wig’s connection is contrasted to and extolled in comparison to Qiwu’s other less impactful interactions.
For Officer 663 and Faye’s story, one scene stands out in particular (53:50 to 57:05): when Officer 663 speaks with Faye behind the counter of the food shack, leaving her with the envelope containing the key to his apartment. From a cinematographic standpoint, this scene exceptionally stresses how meaningful the lovers’ connection is as compared to the nameless, faceless characters that surround them. The shallow depth of field throughout the film, including this specific scene, means that usually only one person or thing is in focus while the rest of the scene is blurry. In this scene, Faye and Officer 663 tend to be the only figures in focus while the rest of the foreground and background remains blurred. The shallow depth of field enhances the loneliness that these characters feel because only one thing can really be in focus at a given time, heightening the solitude of their lives. Effectively counteracting the loneliness accomplished through the shallow depth of field, Wong plays with time in a really fascinating part of the scene starting at 56:13. As Officer 663 sips on his coffee with Faye leaning over the counter watching him, the two characters move in slow motion. However, the rest of the people walking in the foreground, while completely blurred, are in fast motion, practically looking like unidentifiable colors. Time slows down for the two lovers, showing that they are forming a bond that unites them and will save them from the loneliness they suffer (and that the people in the foreground are just failing to deal with).
Wong uses subtle cinematographic techniques to further extrapolate just how rare the connections between the two sets of lovers are. Employed throughout the film, Wong’s use of shallow depth of field acts both his stylistic trademark and furthers the storyline. By emphasizing the solitude of these characters, the moments when characters are both in focus within a scene are especially striking and further illustrate the significance of finding small moments of human connection amid the loneliness of the ever bustling Hong Kong of Wong’s imagination.
Wong uses sound throughout the film to show the monotony and isolation of urban life. Music plays a large role in the way characters interact, for instance, Faye is constantly listening to the same, loud music. She even says that she likes listening to it loud so that she doesn’t have to think. In this film, Wong portrays urban residents as being stuck in a monotonous cycle of urban life, but also lacking the motivation to escape their dull patterns. By listening to loud music, Faye is trying to simply get through each day by going through the motions. She isn’t looking for happiness in her daily life, just the end of the day. In addition to this, we constantly hear the same song continued from different parts on different days (California Dreamin’). By always showing us the same song from the CD she listens to, Wong creates a sense of flow to Faye’s days. By continuing the song where it previously left off when we see the characters the following day, the divide between days feels subtle. The days have the same pattern, with the exception of personal relationships, which the film focuses on for the plot. Additionally, the choice in the song played throughout the film, California Dreamin’, is purposeful. Faye wants to save up money so that she can travel some day, specifically to California. By using this song as her escape from everyday life, Wong portrays how people focus on far away dreams rather than enjoying where they are. Faye derives no joy from her daily work at the store, she only dreams of a future where she can leave.
In addition to the music used in the film, Wong often uses narration to reveal the inner thoughts of characters or explain some context to the viewer. By using narration to explain context and move the plot, Wong is able to use less dialogue between characters to achieve these purposes. In doing so, he is able to show how lonely characters are. We see this used often at the beginning of the film as He Qiwu thinks about May. He’s inner voice narrates his thoughts on expiration dates and why May left him. This has the effect of showing the loneliness he feels without giving him any other characters to talk to about his problems. Overall, the way Wong uses narration has a similar feel to characters talking to themselves. Wong purposefully uses narration to achieve goals that could easily be accomplished through dialogue, and does this to show how isolated the characters are.
The film also uses editing to portray a sense of urban isolation. There are many times when the film is edited to have a time lapse effect while the main characters move slowly and noticeably. I find this technique interesting, because in a way, Wong uses the business of the area and the volume of people passing by to show loneliness. In the scene where Officer 663 is stood up in the bar, this effect is used as he puts a coin in the jukebox. We can see his hand slowly move to put the coin in the machine as people rush by behind him. As we see these people pass by as blurs on the screen, we are put somewhat in the perspective of the officer. He is isolated from the scene around him. He doesn’t know the people passing by and he is not interested in them. He just focuses on the jukebox he got change for as he waits for his date who never shows. Even though he was around people the whole time, Wong uses this effect to make the night feel empty and lonely. This effect is also used earlier in the film while Officer 663 drinks a cup of coffee. His girlfriend recently left him and left him a letter which he decides not to read. As he stares off into space and drinks his coffee, we see people move by on the street outside the shop. We are very aware of the passage of time in this scene and get an odd sense of how the officer perceives it. He seems to be lost in thought and unaware of the world around. Again, we get a sense of loneliness and isolation as he deals with his loss.
Throughout Chungking Express, Wong depicts the urban isolation experienced by city residents. Using storytelling, we are shown individuals struggling to find connection in a big city. The plot shows heartbreak where those hurt wallow in their pain alone. Despite the mass of people in the movie, this storytelling shows the lack of ability to reach out to others in urban life. Wong also uses cinematography to express these ideas. The film utilizes shallow depth of field to show the inaccessibility of other people in the city. We see the important characters in focus, but others simply pass by. Additionally, scenes are often filmed with a handheld camera. This has the effect of putting us in the perspective of the characters. Because Wong is trying to portray what urban isolation is like, this is a useful tool to help us understand what characters are feeling throughout the film. Wong also uses sound and editing to show these ideas to the viewer. Sound is used to highlight the monotony of days in urban life. Each day we hear Faye listen to the same song and do the same things. Further, Wong often uses narration as a replacement for dialogue between characters. This creates a feeling of characters talking to themselves since they don’t have close relationships with others. Finally, the film employs time lapses in its editing to show the separation characters feel from the rest of city life, and the other people that pass by from day to day. Overall, Wong builds the film around the idea of urban isolationism. He employs many techniques and aspects of the plot to achieve this, and as a result, provides the viewer with a perspective of what loneliness is like in a big city.
Chuchel is an absurd, zany, surreal point and click game where you guide a character named Chuchel. You go through a series of puzzles and minigames with the goal of getting the object of Chuchel’s desire, which is a ripe juicy cherry. Chuchel finds himself in all sorts of ridiculous and silly situations, and his primary partner in crime/nemesis/pet is this cute little companion whose name is Kekel. It’s a very playful game with a lot of interesting interactions, sound, and animation, and is extremely slapstick in nature.
In this video, I’m going to talk about how the game Chuchel emulates traditional slapstick found in movies, shows, theaters, and cartoons. Made by Amanita Design and released in 2018, Chuchel is a great take on classic slapstick humor in a more modern, untraditional medium – that is to say, a game! I’m also going to talk about how Chuchel differs from traditional slapstick, but that comes quite a bit later.
The idea that Chuchel has a lot of slapstick comedy is usually quite obvious when you play the game – this ridiculously fuzzy, orange, temperamental ball named Chuchel constantly undergoes a series of physical mishaps — there are plenty of pratfalls, objects thrown, clumsy tripping and falling, and so on and so forth — and these mishaps are often accompanied by the sounds of squeaks, boings, squelches and plops.
What I really want to do here is articulate why Chuchel feels so slapstick-y, and explicitly explain how it embodies traditional slapstick. Recognizing that Chuchel is slapstick is one thing, but understanding the why and how of it is quite another .
What is Slapstick Comedy?
So, what is slapstick, in a more traditional sense? What might you see in more veteran mediums, like film or theater or cartoons? I’m going to mainly rely on Louise Peacock’s article “Slapstick and Comic Performance”. One of the definitions Peacock provides is the following:Slapstick is “a mode of performance that relies on broad physical comedy…derived from performed violence and comic pain and is likely to involve trips, falls, beatings, and throwing of items”
Let’s now take a quick look at the history of slapstick, starting with live performance: Commedia dell’arte, otherwise known as “Italian comedy,” dates back to the 16th century, and was performed by theater troupes from Italy throughout Europe. The performers often wore masks, forcing them to project their characters’ emotions through bodily movement and action, such as — leaps, obscene gestures, tumbles, and all sorts of physical performance.
Additionally, the characters were often meant to satirize Italian stereotypes, like the foolish old man, or devious servant. Peacock notes that the highly stylised performance combined with the masks worn by the actors discourage the audience from developing an empathic relationship with any of the characters.
There are clearly elements of slapstick present in Commedia dell’arte — the costumes and exaggerated movements dehumanize the performers and allow the audience to laugh, even when conflict or violence arise. The exaggerated caricatures of Italian stereotypes combined with an absurd comic frame give us something we can all point to and laugh at — the characters and their stupidity are recognizable, yet exaggerated enough so as to be foreign, as are the absurd situations and circumstances the characters find themselves in.
Circus clowning is another early form of slapstick, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century across the UK, Europe and America. Circus clowning relies mostly on physical gags, and similar to performers of Commedia dell’arte, the clowns perform with exaggerated movements, outlandish costumes, and face make-up. Peacock points out that such hyperbolized movement and appearance “go some way towards establishing an otherness about the performance that mitigates the appearance of pain.” However, unlike Commedia dell’arte, these characters are not satirizing stereotypes that can be found in reality; rather, the humor in circus clowning comes from the exaggerated movements and behaviors of the performers. The humor, then, is heavily grounded in the physicality of the performers.
Through their costumes and make-up, circus clowns become entirely “other”. The “gags” performed by circus clowns, further their ‘otherness’. The gags involve comic violence between clowns and dubious props, and are often of an excessive and unexpected nature.
The props used often take a spin on our expectations of those objects: for example, props might include a flower that squirts out water, or a Pringle can that actually contains a snake inside. They enable the performers to physically act in a greater variety of ways by offering more potential and surprising interactions – they can touch, engage, and react to the props with highly stylized and hyperbolized behavior. All of this ultimately contributes to the clowns’ “otherness”.
From these stage examples, we can see how important dehumanization is for slapstick to be successful. Through the usage of masks in Commedia dell’arte and the makeup of circus clowns, performers distance themselves from their characters and establish a lack of reality, which lets the audience know that the violence and pain being portrayed isn’t real. We laugh at rather than sympathize with them.
Of course, the dehumanization never goes so far as to render the characters and their actions entirely unfamiliar – rather, slapstick works by juggling between the real and unreal. Real enough that we can recognize the circumstance – unreal enough such that we can laugh. “Otherness”, established by masks or makeup, emphasize the ‘unreal’, but maintains the realness required to identify what’s occurring.
Props, too, also go a long way in enabling the performers to establish the lack of reality or a hyperbolized one through actions, as briefly explored earlier in circus clowning, what with the flowers shooting water and all…but we can really see how props enable slapstick performers in silent films, such that the lack of reality can be found in the hyperbolized stunts and interactions performers might have with the props.
Film and Television
Buster Keaton, for example, is an icon when it comes to slapstick, known for his silent films from the early 20th century. His films usually focus on his outrageous stunts, such as…jumping across the top of buildings, falling through awnings, or approaching Jean Claude Van Damme levels of flexibility. His stunts often rely on props in the scene, like a car that falls apart on its own, or pieces of lumber in the way of a moving train. The usage of props is vital to highlighting unreality in such films. Without quirky sounds to emphasize the action, the props combined with Keaton’s elaborate stunts provide the circumstances of some central absurdity.
Keaton’s performances with these props are often outrageous and risky. Peacock connects this risk to notions of excess, and points to the example of Keaton narrowly fitting through the hole of a window on the falling facade of a house. While we are aware that the facade itself is made of real building materials that threaten real harm to Keaton, this interestingly does not prevent us from laughing. The threat itself is so unrealistic that it lends itself to the characteristic nature of slapstick, which is to say: excess. We never really believe that something as outrageous as a falling facade would happen, much less hit the fictional character Keaton portrays.
Moving a few decades forward, Tom and Jerry is another classic example of slapstick comedy. What’s notable about this show is that it implements sound and is animated, which contrasts against the silence in Buster Keaton films and the genuine physical skill of Keaton. Nonetheless, the foundation of slapstick humor remains the same, despite the stark difference in auditory and visual stimuli. The show Tom and Jerry still seeks to establish notions of excess and a lack of reality, the same as Keaton films. The sounds that accompany actions in Tom and Jerry are often exaggerated and unrealistic; for example, the show makes use of slide-whistles when someone falls or gets confused, or cymbals when crashes occur. This auditory input adds to the unreality by further emphasizing the excessive nature of the interactions that unfold.
Additionally, the performers – aka, Tom and Jerry, are extremely malleable and resilient due to their animation. There are more opportunities for exaggeration and unexpected events; characters can shatter like glass or be flattened into a pancake. Obviously, stage actors cannot survive being pancaked the same way animated characters can, so the unrealistic aspects in slapstick can be exaggerated tenfold. Animation really opens windows for slapstick humor as the characters are no longer dependent on the skills, contortions, and acrobatics of the performers, but rather, the creativity and imagination of the animators, which significantly carry and enable more potentiality for slapstick humor.
Also, what sets Tom and Jerry apart from the other examples I have mentioned is its reliance on a central double act. While double-acts are certainly present in Commedia dell’arte and circus clowning, it isn’t always at the forefront, as it is with Tom and Jerry. Having two characters in conflict with one another not only sets the stage for hilarious situations, but also gives the audience some choice over whom to identify with. The main characters use just about everything at their disposal to mess with each other, leading to oodles of comic pain and violence. The absurd dynamic between Tom and Jerry is an ever-present source of conflict and hilarity, which nicely sets up absurd situations that add to the excessive nature of the show.
Elements of Slapstick
So what do these traditional examples of slapstick have?
Peacock identifies the following as essential elements of slapstick comedy:
A central double act
Comic pain and comic violence
Falling and tripping
Throwing of objects
And stunts and acrobatics
Going on to also mention the use of:
Excess and transgression
We’ve certainly seen some of these elements in the traditional examples we just examined.
So how is Chuchel traditionally slapstick? Well, it certainly has all the elements of slapstick! You have the central double act of Chuchel and Kekel, which is reminiscent of the double act between Tom and Jerry, though Chuchel and Kekel don’t antagonize each other as much. The dynamic between Chuchel and Kekel is primarily that between an owner and a pet, but of course, with that comes scenarios in which they are in conflict, and scenarios in which they are collaborative.
There is plenty of comic pain in Chuchel, as is found in traditional slapstick. Comic pain occurs because of some accident or some type of incompetence, and you could see this in this example of circus clowning, where a clown accidentally drops a sandbag on his foot. So in Chuchel, you find many examples that manifest comic pain, particularly through falling and tripping. Chuchel here attempts to get the cherry, but falls over himself. Comic pain can manifest not just through the actions of the performers, but also through the use of malicious props. For example, we can guide Chuchel to press the red button, but shortly after pressing it, a heavy weight flattens Chuchel like a pancake. In this case, both the player and Chuchel does not expect this to occur from pressing the red button, and the red button acts as a malicious prop that causes Chuchel’s pain. Malicious props often subvert our expectations, as seen earlier in the example of a flower unexpectedly shooting water.
Not only do you find a lot of comic pain in Chuchel, but you also find many examples of comic violence. Comic violence occurs when either one of the central double act attacks one another or when a third party attacks both of them. Comic violence is abundant in Tom and Jerry, as we can see here. Jerry throws a brick at Tom, who shatters like glass. In Chuchel, we can see comic violence occur in the double act of Chuchel and Kekel – they’re both in mech suits, punching and boxing each other.Additionally, it occurs when Chuchel and Kekel team up, precariously balanced on one another to hammer open an egg, which acts as the third party.
THROWING OF OBJECTS
When you think of objects that are thrown in slapstick, you might first think of the classic pie in the face or rotten tomatoes. In Spongebob, Squidward attempts to do an ‘interpretative dance’, which is unfortunately not received well by the audience, and gets tomatoed. Chuchel draws on this scenario in this particular example, where Chuchel gets an egg thrown at his face after he lifts his name up and flexes. He also gets a variety of objects thrown at him by you, if you are the player, as he is singing – and presumably, he’s singing poorly.
STUNTS AND ACROBATICS
Stunts and acrobatics are also found in Chuchel, as they are in Buster Keaton films. Keaton obviously does things with his body that most people cannot – he can dangle upside-down on a rope, perched precariously by a waterfall and save a woman. And Tom in Tom and Jerry can fly through the air with flimsy-looking wings and bounce off a needley house, only to land perfectly in an inflated pool. Chuchel is like Tom and Jerry in that Chuchel is animated as a performer, and the things that he can withstand and do are also quite amazing and unrealistic. For example, Kekel can act as an object to be tossed to knock down a door frame of wood, and bounce off a variety of objects without accruing any actual harm.The exaggeration that can be created in animation is impressive. Bodies can contort in ways that even the best human contortionist could not mimic. Stunts and acrobatics, in animations found in Chuchel or Tom and Jerry, very much emphasize the sense of unreality required to establish a comic frame.
Additionally, one of the most important aspects of slapstick is sound. Unfortunately, Buster Keaton films lacked that, but we know of the unrealistic nature of the presented scenarios by context and the skill of the performers. However, other traditional forms of slapstick, like theater or shows that have sound, have that in abundance.
Chuchel also utilizes sound effects to establish distance from reality. The sounds are highly stylized and exaggerated, and reinforce the excessive nature of the violence. Chuchel has a lot of conventional punchy sounds that you might normally hear in slapsticks, like a fall or punch might be accentuated by ham-smacking noises and cymbals. But Chuchel has really amazing unconventional, unique sounds too, like jello creatures emitting synth noises, or birds singing like an alarm clock. These are really unexpected and add to the surreal, zany nature of the game, and heighten the sense of unreality that enables us to laugh at everything that’s going on.
Excess is also important for audiences to derive satisfaction from slapstick performances. Physical excess involves stunts that would normally be physically impossible for the average person, as we can see here in this Buster Keaton stunt.
Excessive violence is also commonly found, but it must be excessive to the point that a lack of reality is clearly depicted such that the audience doesn’t gasp in horror, but laugh instead. Tom and Jerry, for instance, has excessive violence, but it is so exaggerated that we don’t empathize with Tom, but rather, laugh at him. Chuchel clearly contains physical excess and excessive violence, like when he gets cut in half here.
Transgression is also a vital component for audiences to derive satisfaction from slapstick performances, particularly, social transgression. Transgression is particularly satisfying because it allows the audience to get a form of vicarious pleasure and amusement from the action – Peacock describes slapstick as a “safe form of rebellion”, where we can enjoy the breaking of status quos without suffering the repercussions.
In Chuchel, Chuchel gets egged in the face, and normally this is a no-no in day-to-day customs, but here the player can break social custom without any judgment or fear of retaliation. Additionally, transgression can be seen when Chuchel pees on asnowman, and peeing in random places or anywhere you want is a no-no. This is meant to amuse and satisfy the player, as the player guides Chuchel to pee on anything he wants to.
This brings me to my closing remarks about Chuchel and gaming as a medium for slapstick. Interactivity adds a new dimension to the genre, and Chuchel gives you a variety of ways to participate, as it is highly interactive.The player participates in a way that a passive audience cannot.
You can not only guide Chuchel and act like his ‘God’, such that you practically interact as Chuchel, but you can also at times be the audience and interact with Chuchel. For example, you not only are able to guide Chuchel to pee, but you can also chuck objects at Chuchel.
This dynamism allows for a much greater, enhanced degree of vicarious pleasure that more traditional mediums don’t have – it grants the player a greater feeling of autonomy and variety. The player essentially experiences slapstick in a more intimate way, as the interactivity amplifies the vicarious pleasure he or she feels.
Other slapstick games, like Untitled Goose Game, or Octodad, also allow the player to choose how they experience the humor. Ultimately, I believe that interactive forms of media, like video games, provide unique opportunities for the genre. We can finally participate in the fun of slapstick comedy.
Return of the Obra Dinn was the most fun I’ve had doing a “required reading” throughout my entire career as a student, and I’m not ashamed to say I’ve returned to complete it since playing the portion I was able to complete before class. The game was released by independent game developer Lucas Pope in 2018, and went on to win Best Indie Game at the 2018 Titanium Awards. The game also received a well-deserved accolade for Best Art Direction at the 2018 game awards. In Return of the Obra Dinn, players are tasked with uncovering the mystery of a ship which came into port with all 60 people who set sail on it either dead or missing. Using a “Memento Mortem” which allows to view still scenes which preceded each crew member’s murder, your task is to explore the dense crime scenes past and discover exactly what became of every single person on the vessel.
Far and away, the thing that struck me, and struck most of us, about Obra Dinn was its 1-bit aesthetic. The trend of modern games emulating retro aesthetics is nothing new, but I think I know why the look of this particular game won us all over; a retro aesthetic implicitly compliments its design as a puzzle/mystery game. There is ambiguity inherent in low-poly or pixelated graphics, and games that take advantage of this(or are restricted by it) cause a player’s imagination to fill in the gaps, often to mysterious or unsettling effect. I am a huge fan of indie horror games, and while playing through Obra Dinn, I found myself reminded of two games in particular: Calm Time and Hide. Both of these games make use of this same ambiguity to elevate the horror within them. When I see a ghost’s face represented by a square of 16 pixels, or find myself being chased by an amorphous dark blob, they become the scariest things I want them to be. The mystery and fear it creates is also used to great effect in Obra Dinn. The ambiguity attached to retro aesthetics is also related to retro gaming as an era, and the limits placed on gamers by the technology of the time. In the days before widespread internet use and extensive walkthroughs, there were much fewer ways of obtaining reliable information about games. Official guides did not serve as walkthroughs, hints and tricks in gaming magazines like Electronic Gaming Monthly could be falsified, and it was much easier for general misinformation to spread. This simply doesn’t exist in modern gaming due to the prevalence of walkthroughs and wikis removing any true element of mystery from a game. Sure, players can opt out of using these resources, but the fact of the matter is that their sheer existence removes a significant amount of tension from modern gaming, especially in the mystery and puzzle genres; at the end of the day, if you can’t figure something out, you can just look it up. While it may appear to some to be a minor point, I think the graphical style of Obra Dinn being reminiscent of this era of true mystery in videogaming has a significant effect on the way players experience it. In a way, you somehow don’t believe that modern wikis will help you decode this archaic-looking game, and prefer to discover its secrets for yourself. Going wiki-free is, of course, the way you should play a game like Obra Dinn, and the way its graphics connect to and compliment the game’s intended style of play compliments the allure of its mystery.
The act of playing Obra Dinn can best be described as an investigation, not just within the context of your character’s duty, but for the player as well. The 1-bit aesthetic combined with the game’s relatively low amount of detail places a fundamental limit on the amount of information you can obtain, and since you are focused on scouring the environment for clues, this limit is frustrating, extremely compelling, and occasionally deeply unsettling. Secrets hide behind blocky pixels and low-poly models. I think an excellent example of the game’s potential to instill fear can be seen in the design of the crew members’ eyes, which are cast in shadow and cannot be seen. Something as simple as this lack of eyes made each crew member and passenger seem oddly inhuman and frightening. The crew of the Obra Dinn is a fearsome and mysterious bunch. This fear of the unknown as it pertains to the crew is conveyed beautifully through the “group photo” that serves as a progress tracker. The photo of the Obra Dinn’s passengers is intimidating at first glance; the men aren’t all easy to see, and the picture itself is extremely grainy, reminiscent of what a real photo from the era might look like. The task of discovering specific information about so many people is daunting. There’s something inherently uneasy about looking at a photograph and not knowing who’s in it. As the player discovers the secrets of each crew member’s death, their appearance in the photo changes to be in greater relief, which symbolizes the player gaining more knowledge about them, but the gaining of this knowledge itself is the player’s goal, not revealing the photograph. This speaks to what makes retro aesthetics so inherently terrifying; the fear of the unknown. The fear of what your imagination turns those few dozen pixels into. Obra Dinn uses the player’s fear of the unknown to great effect in its gameplay, giving you the opportunity to dispel this fear by learning and cataloging as much information about each of these shadowy figures as possible. By the end of the game, every single man on the Obra Dinn will be given a name and cause of death. As a player, you want to complete this task because in knowing, you dispel your fear and become comfortable in this hostile environment. Meanwhile, your character wants to complete this task for reasons germane to the game’s story. Effectively, this achieves an exceedingly rare feat in gaming by aligning the player’s interests with the character’s interests. I thought this was a really nice, clear example of visual design complimenting genre.
Obra Dinn also affected an impression of mystery on me and developed a deeper connection between myself and the gameplay through the investigation mechanic, and its dense “scenes”. Upon finding a corpse, the player can go back in time for an audiovisual snapshot of the crew member’s last moments, and search for clues about the person’s identity and cause of death. These scenes are never as simple as the murderer and victim. Almost every one requires exploration to find another crew member moving around somewhere outside the scene, who players have to find in order to understand future scenes. Once I realized this, the game went from a glorified hidden object game into a full-on investigative adventure. Moving about the stills in 3D and uncovering their secrets is what makes this gameplay for me; it justifies the mechanic of going back in time more thoroughly than a static hunt for hidden objects would, and requires the player to establish a timeline of the story in their own heads in order to keep crew members’ identities and movements straight between scenes. The game does not spoonfeed you any information via triggered cutscenes, nor does it notify you when you’ve discovered something. Removing these mechanics not only establishes a deeper feeling of mystery by not leading the player by the hand toward their goal with a series of cathartic progression indicators, it also immerses the player in the game by requiring more of them. You, the player, are the one who reveals information to yourself, and you come to all conclusions independently. The game’s mystery is the obstacle, and you need to be the solution, because the Obra Dinn is not giving up its secrets through flashy cinematics that essentially let you take your hands off the keyboard. Anything piece of information you obtain is wrestled away through your own wit rather than given to you, and this is far and away the game’s greatest design strength.
In summary, Return of the Obra Dinn is a perfect reinvention and recapturing of the mystery genre. The aesthetic and unique gameplay are perfectly in tune with the game’s genre and desired effect on the player, and the player experience is truly in a league of its own. Obra Dinn shows the potential for reinvigoration of genre through precisely calculated principles of design.
Clueless by Amy Heckerling includes some of the most memorable costume design from the 1990s. Anyone who has seen the movie, even if they cannot remember a specific outfit, remembers the fashion as distinctly bold and of the moment. The movie is about a girl who loves shopping, so naturally the costumes reflect that. I counted and the protagonist, Cher Horowitz, wears 42 distinct outfits throughout the movie. That is a new costume roughly every two minutes. These outfits, and those of others in the movie, provide insight into character, demonstrate relationships and showcase the power of fashion for a teenage girl with a credit card.
Mad for Plaid
The most iconic outfit of this movie, one that has been recreated over and over, and still sells as a Halloween costume is, of course, Cher’s yellow plaid coordinated school look:
The first thing Cher does at the beginning of the movie when she’s introducing herself to the audience is to put together this outfit. This costume says a lot about Cher. For one, it speaks to a level of perfectionism. There are several pieces in this outfit and they all perfectly match with each other. Even her chewing gum matches.
Not only is the outfit coordinated within itself, but it is coordinated with her location. It’s a plaid schoolgirl-esque outfit and she’s wearing it to school. Cher sports a number of these looks throughout the movie, exclusively at school.
She is someone who cares about and knows how to dress for an occasion, and plaid becomes a signifier of that in the movie. She even has coordinated plaid pajamas!
We see other characters adopt similar looks but always in relation to Cher. The outfit Dionne is wearing when she is introduced is also a coordinated plaid schoolgirl look, showing her and Cher’s affinity and their like-mindedness when it comes to the importance of fashion. It’s significant however that Dionne never wears a coordinated plaid outfit again. For Dionne, plaid serves only to demonstrate her connection to Cher.
Tai’s first post-makeover outfit at school includes a plaid skirt and color coordination. Cher has transformed Tai in her image and the outfit reflects that. Later in the movie, when Tai reveals her crush on Josh and is seen flirting with him, she wears an entirely coordinated plaid schoolgirl look.
This second plaid outfit is a culmination of Tai threatening to replace Cher’s status, beginning with her increased popularity after her dramatic experience at the mall and coming to a head with trying to usurp Josh’s affection. The callback outfit shows how much of a threat Tai is to Cher, and the power that Cher’s makeover had on Tai’s social status. The rest of the movie, Tai wears no plaid.
In fact, the only other major character who wears plaid as consistently as Cher is Josh. With Josh however, it is not a coordinated, event-appropriate outfit. It’s grungey plaid flannels fit for a Nietszche-reading college freshman.
On Cher, plaid highlights her dedication to perfection and fashion. On Josh, plaid shows a similar dedication to aesthetic but that of someone who “doesn’t care” about fashion. He aggressively signals the opposite message that Cher does, but with the same pattern. The way they both employ plaid shows how their characters are different sides of the same coin. They have differing world-views but at the end of the day they have an undeniable chemistry and compatibility. Their matching plaid outfits visually demonstrate this for the viewer.
My final note on plaid is on how it coincides with Cher’s growth throughout the movie. At the beginning of the movie she is a somewhat silly schoolgirl who emphasizes appearance and shallow approval too much, and her schoolgirl plaid skirts reflect that. After realizing this about herself and performing her “makeover on her soul” Cher has ditched these schoolgirl skirts and now almost exclusively wears pants. However — plaid pants!
She has not abandoned her love of fashion or her perfectionist ways. Cher is more serious and grown-up but she still remains true to herself and her love of fashion, and the proof is in the plaid.
Cher as a Beau Ideal
Cher isn’t the only fashionista at Beverly Hills High. Every single peripheral character has their own fashion statement. These peripheral characters are largely fleshed out through their fashion and serve as foils to Cher’s clothes. Through their clothes these side characters establish their own personalities, and when compared to Cher’s clothing, carve out nuances in her character as well.
Take Dionne as an example. Clearly, she is just as fashion-conscious as Cher, and that is their main bonding point. However, her clothes are typically more garish and revealing than Cher’s. For instance, she accessorizes with plastic-looking hats where Cher leaves herself unadorned.
Where Cher wears short schoolgirl skirts Dionne does the same but in pleather and with fishnets.
Dionne matches the thread in her braids to her top, in equally bright colors. At the same party, Cher wears a bright bold outfit but in a solid color, and her hair is in an elegant and effortless updo.
Dionne’s actions go along with her brighter, bolder, and tackier style. She gets in dramatic fights with her boyfriend for everyone to see. She is also bad at driving, but to the point where she has a screaming fit on the freeway. Cher has similar qualities – being whiny with Josh and running through stop signs come to mind – but hers are more subdued than Dionne and in general Cher has a more genteel demeanor. Their clothes reflect this and provide a visual aid that establishes these aspects of their personalities.
Another peripheral character that really sticks out through her clothing is Amber. I discussed previously Cher’s coordination and perfectionism, and Amber shares those qualities when it comes to her fashion but takes it to an extreme level. Look at this outfit:
It’s a callback to an earlier scene when Cher is picking up Dionne for school and pokes fun at her hat saying, “Shopping with Dr. Seuss?” and Dionne retorts “Well at least I wouldn’t skin a Collie to make my backpack!” holding up Cher’s fluffy purse. Amber has a similar purse, but much larger, and her entire outfit is constructed around that material. Not only is she coordinating to an extreme level, but with a fabric established within the world of the movie to be gaudy and over the top.
All of Amber’s outfits are meticulously coordinated like this, to the point where it becomes cartoonish:
Also, her hair is always perfectly coiffed, with obvious effort and a lot of hairspray going into it.
This stands in contrast to Cher’s easygoing blonde locks that seem to effortlessly fall from her head looking naturally beautiful.
Amber has even less screen time and fewer lines than Dionne, but her personality is clearly demonstrated through clothing. She is attention-seeking, image-obsessed, and lacks elegance. All of these traits are established through her boldly cartoonish looks that portray her as a “fashion victim.” Cher, in contrast to Amber is much more effortless and stylish. Although Cher’s outfits are meticulously accessorized and coordinated, she knows when to stop.
A famous saying in fashion, from Coco Chanel, is “Some people think luxury is the opposite of poverty. It is not. It is the opposite of vulgarity.” Chanel’s designs were known for their luxurious elegance and effortless class. Cher’s outfits in contrast to Amber’s and Dionne’s show this side of her. They establish her as more level-headed and mature in comparison to her friends and place her as the beau ideal of fashion and teenage girlhood at Beverly Hills High.
A Sense of Control
Right after Cher and Dionne meet Tai, they offer to give her a makeover. Tai originally declines and, among their pleas, Dionne says this about Cher:
More than just makeovers, the movie shows time and time again how Cher gains a sense of control through fashion and shopping. The first thing we see her do is assemble the iconic yellow plaid outfit. Perhaps even more than the outfit, the process of choosing the outfit reveals Cher’s character. She has a computer system in her room that scans her clothes for mismatches and provides a mockup of her wearing the clothes.
Cher is a savvy woman who seeks control over her life through clothing. She treats fashion as more than a hobby. It is something that involves precision. There are right and wrong answers. It is a tool for her to wield, and the most important one in her arsenal.
Cher demonstrates this ability to use fashion as a tool for her own gain when she gives her teacher a makeover. Her grades are lackluster in two classes, so she gives one of those teachers a makeover and sets them up with each other, and sure enough, they change her grades in her favor.
Later, Cher uses fashion to control a situation with her father. When Christian picks her up to go to a party, her Dad tells her to cover up because her clothes are too revealing. Cher obliges, but covers up with a see-through garment. Here she uses clothing to stop a fight and be able to wear the clothes she wants, so she can try to get the guy she wants.
Her relationship with Christian is one where she has an unprecedented lack of control. Before finding out he is gay, she wants to seduce him. Even if he weren’t gay, wanting someone to see you in a romantic way is still a pretty powerless position to be in. Discounting lying and plastic surgery, there is not much one can do to control whether someone will like you or not. But, Cher still attempts to gain power in this situation through her clothing. She wears more revealing clothes to attract him, and when he is coming over for a night alone, she spends almost all day picking an outfit with Dionne.
Because fashion has worked like this for her in the past, Cher believes the right outfit will give her the power to control whether a boy likes her.
Cher has a similar approach when it comes to her driving test. We continually see Cher drive poorly and never really see her practice or attempt to get better. Then, the day of the test she throws a fit when she can’t find her “most responsible ensemble” – a “white collarless shirt from Fred Segal.” However, like with Christian, her outfit would have made no difference. She still fails, no matter how capable she looks. Her losing her ability to control her world through fashion plays into her character’s turning point in the story.
After failing her driving test, when she is at her lowest point and is soul searching for why she is so affected by Tai’s crush on Josh, Cher stops her inner monologue and goes into a boutique to buy a dress. The scene cuts to her with a shopping bag, still soul searching. Her life has been turned upside down when she realizes that she can’t talk her way out of failing her driving exam and her friend likes the same boy as her – and her response is to go shopping. At the most unstable moment in the movie Cher seeks a sense of control through fashion.
When Cher realizes that she loves Josh and needs a “makeover for her soul” she also involves fashion, but this time not for her own benefit. She acts as Captain for a group that is collecting items, like clothing, for families affected by the fictitious “Pismo Beach Disaster.” It’s notable that Cher is using fashion for good, but also that the Pismo Beach relief involves more than clothing. She also collects things like canned goods and kitchen wear. This is a small development that shows Cher’s overall growth. She is still trying to find control in a chaotic world, but now it is not just for herself, and not just through fashion.
The costume design in Clueless illustrates all the nuances in Cher’s character, and all the steps she takes in her maturation. She goes from a silly schoolgirl who wants to always has to get her way to a level-headed woman that gives back to the world – and remains effortlessly elegant throughout. Both the costumes worn by the characters and her character’s attitudes towards the costumes in the movie flesh out her personality and its evolution.