What follows is a two-part post, combining lesson plans from two separate days of my course “Comparative Media Poetics: Cinema and Videogames,” which together formed a week I referred to on the syllabus as “Point of View, Staging, and Guidance.”
There are many different entrance points for a class organized around the relationship between cinema and videogames. Contemporary popular genres are an obvious choice—and one that, in fact, formed the backbone of many weeks of the course. This week, though, I stretched past those boundaries, and crafted a lesson plan that was grounded more in a comparative look at each medium’s history.
The first of these lessons is primarily a lecture, which sets up a course screening/play session. The second lesson is a post-play-session discussion.
Lesson One — Parallel Tracks: Forward Motion in the History of Cinema and Videogames
(If you are interested, the online and fully-animated version of my visual presentation for this lesson can be found here.)
I begin this lesson by showing students a phantom ride film. The first time I taught this, I showed them Louis and Auguste Lumière’s Leaving Jerusalem by Railway. Although it wasn’t part of the premier cinematograph screening, it was made in 1896, which establishes it as both a fairly early part of their screening repertoire, and as almost certainly the first phantom ride film ever made.
However, the fact that the motion in this film proceeds backwards (it is Leaving Jerusalem, after all), it is less than ideal. Instead, I’d recommend Panoramic View of the Golden Gate (Edison, 1902), handily available on the Library of Congress’ YouTube page:
Phantom ride films were an artifact from an era when filmmakers and exhibitors were much more creative when approaching the basic question of what to do with cinema. Its status as a major cultural force wasn’t established. There were lots of competing ways to sell it to an audience.
Some exhibitors treated it as a fairground attraction. Sometimes, it would be an act break between vaudeville routines. Sometimes, it was shown as a carnival sideshow. Sometimes, it was incorporated into musical review sing-alongs.
Phantom ride films fit in here as a form of virtual tourism. For the lower classes that couldn’t afford travel, the idea was that exhibitors would charge them a nickel to bring the place to them. The same logic applied to other types of 19th century ephemera, such as stereograph photography, which provided 3D views of far-off places to spectators.
Phantom ride films tried to do one better, providing their spectators with the feeling of virtually moving through an environment. In Jerusalem, this takes the form of a camera perched on the rear of a train, facing backwards toward the platform. More often, however (as in Golden Gate), phantom ride films had cameras counted to the front of the train. This gave spectators the sensation of penetrating the presented space. One contemporary reviewer marveled at the way this viewpoint made it seem as if “an unseen energy swallows up space and flings itself into the distance.“[i]
Exhibitor George C. Hale retrofitted passenger railway cars, installing screens in the front of them, so that audiences could sit in authentic seats in an authentic railway car and watch phantom ride films. (We see here something of a precursor to today’s theme park simulation rides.)
Hale’s Tours, as this was called, debuted in 1905, and continued to around 1907. But already, as this was happening, changes were afoot. Exhibitors were finding that things like travelogues and virtual tourism films weren’t expanding their audience. In order to hold the attentions of a broader swath of the populace, it was necessary to turn to narratives.
André Gaudreault characterizes some aspects of this transitional period:
[F]rom 1908, as we know, the cinema industry underwent profound changes, one result of which as that it began to attract bourgeois and petty-bourgeois audiences more or less new to the dark auditoriums where, it was claimed, amusement fit only for Helots was presented. … [S]such attempts to ‘upgrade’ audiences must have involved a parallel ‘upgrading’ of subjects. This explains why the cinema at this time began systematically turning towards established literary and theatrical values, of which the Film d’art was an early manifestation in France.”[ii]
To help understand this transition, we can turn to The Hold-Up of the Rocky Mountain Express (Billy Bitzer, 1906). This was a pre-1908 film, and it in fact was shown as part of Hale’s Tours film programs. However, you can already see how it’s this odd sort of hybrid, with one foot in the pure phantom ride tradition, and another in narrative feature filmmaking.
The Hold-Up of the Rocky Mountain Express has a lot of narrative action. In fact, it is similar to The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S. Porter, 1903), which came out a few years prior. But unlike The Great Train Robbery, in which we see the beginnings of what we could call modern cinematic storytelling, Hold-Up resolutely stages its action so that as much of it as possible can be shot from the front of the train. The film hedges its bets: if the story doesn’t captivate us, the basic sensation of moving through space might.
Now, let’s look at another timeline, happening nearly a century later. In 1985, SEGA released Space Harrier. I don’t want to exactly say it is the “first,” but it is certainly a well-known classic example of the genre that became known as the rail shooter.
Space Harrier uses sprite-scaling technology, which allowed for the illusion of objects in the environment getting closer, and finally passing “behind” the virtual “camera.” This created the illusion of penetration of 3D space. Players could control the x- and y-axis movement of their on-screen character, but the game maintained strict control of z-axis movement, creating a feeling of constant movement inward, “into” the space of the screen
The rail shooter genre became defined by these features:
- Limited control of player-character movement
- At the very least, the game assumes direct control of movement along the z-axis
- Dominated by forward movement, penetrating “into” the projected 3D space.
In the 1990s, light gun games became the dominant form of rail shooters in the arcade. Here, since the player was holding a plastic gun with both hands, and therefore had no way to control character movement, it made sense for the games to restrict character movement to largely pre-determined paths “into” the screen. Both Virtual Cop and Time Crisis used a first-person perspective to present their on-rails movement into the space of the game.
I want to take sort of a sideways step here, and introduce a third timeline, one that is roughly concurrent with the development of light-gun rail shooters. Looking outside of the arcade, toward PC gaming at the time, se also see first-person shooting, but of a very different variety.
Arcades had to draw players in with tactile feelies they couldn’t get at home. Giving up the freedom of navigation was a trade-off that made sense (and fit the basic economic structure of the arcade). On the other hand, something like DOOM (id Software, 1993) is entirely about navigation. As Janet Murray constantly mentions, it’s all about the maze, the labyrinth.[iii] It’s about marveling at your computer’s ability to render a space you can authentically get lost in.
As we move through id’s catalogue, from DOOM to DOOM II: Hell on Earth (1994) to Quake (1996), these games also become about competition: about who can dominate these complex mazes the best, who can correctly pinpoint where on the map other players are headed, cut them off, take them out. In 1999, Quake III: Arena went so far as to drop all semblance of story. In fact, it did away single-player campaign based on a linear progression through levels altogether.
However, just as we saw with Hale’s Tours above, there were rumblings already at this time of something else happening in the first-person shooter scene. In 1998, Valve Corporation released Half-Life. It stood as an attempt to pursue a very pure form of what Henry Jenkins refers to as an embedded narrative.[iv] It forwent cutscenes in favor of scripted sequences in which players didn’t lose control of their character. It tried to keep most storytelling on an environmentally embedded level.
In order for this sort of storytelling to work, though, the game has to be basically one long corridor, with very few maze-like elements. It more or less provides one completely linear path through the space that it has constructed.
Epsen Aarseth sees Half-Life as part of a trend to make games more accessible to outsiders by introducing storytelling elements:
Underlying the drive to reform games as ‘interactive narratives,’ as they are sometimes called, lies a complex web of motives, from economic (‘games need narratives to become better products’), [to] elitist and eschatological (‘games are a base, low-cultural form; let’s try to escape their humble origins and achieve “literary” qualities’)[v]
We can see parallels here between Aarseth’s points and Gaudreault’s historical narrative of cinema exhibition and evolution. And Aarseth is probably mostly right in his analysis. But Aarseth’s prediction that Half-Life would be forgotten in a few years as a relic of gaming’s ill-conceived “story-game hybrid” phase has turned out to be short-sighted. What Aarseth failed to take into account is that Valve did linear, story-based games very well, providing tremendous inspiration to future designers. In fact, they became almost single-handedly responsible for a very real transition in first-person shooter design … albeit one that has been bemoaned by many a nostalgic internet commenter.
Here, I break from this lesson, and prep the students for the games they’re going to play. My instructions to them: Think about the ways in which Hold-Up of the Rocky Mountain Express and the Half-Life games both balance the need for presenting the basic pleasures of forward movement through space with the needs of storytelling. Here, we have two very different artifacts from very different times, that have strangely converged around similar techniques of staging narrative action.
Lesson Two — A Study in the Choreography of Virtual Cameras
When I taught this course in 2013, this lesson followed a play session that included portions of Half-Life (Valve, 1998), Half-Life 2: Episode Two (Valve, 2007), and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Infinity Ward, 2007). Also included was a screening of Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002).
In the last couple pages of the chapter “Agency” in Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray discusses issues of of authorship on the level of simply moving a body around in space:
In electronic narrative the procedural author is like choreographer who supplies the rhythms, the context, and the set of steps that will be performed. The interactor, whether as navigator, protagonist, explorer, or builder, makes use of this repertoire of possible steps and rhythms to improvise a particular dance among the many, many possible dances the author has enabled.[vi]
It’s hard to say just how much Murray means for this conceit of choreography to be taken literally. She does talk at length in this chapter about issues of navigation. She writes that, in some games, the combat is “is an unwelcome distraction from the pleasure of moving around.”[vii]
For the moment, let’s take this as license to talk about issues of authorship and moving bodies in a very literal way. Let us turn here, briefly, to two reviews of Uncharted 3. (This is a game we had played before in the class, and would actually be incorporated into several lessons.) First, Simon Parkin, who likens the experience of the game to being a hapless actor, completely subject to the dictatorial whims of an omnipotent director:
Uncharted 3 is the most exciting game in the world, but only until you deviate from the script. Even in this chase the conflict between the developer’s theatrical choreography and player-controlled interactions is clear. In order to ensure each set-piece is set off correctly, the game commits the cardinal sin of insinuating you have full control of your character, but in fact tugging you towards trigger points – making sure you’re in the right spot to tumble over the bonnet of that braking car, for example. [viii]
Blogger Michael Abbot keeps the same metaphor going:
So, if cinematic interactivity is Uncharted’s raison d’être, how does this affect the player’s experience? I believe an apt parallel can be found in the relationship between a lead actor and director on a film set, with the Uncharted player as actor and the Uncharted game as director. Playing Uncharted 3 is less about watching a film than shooting a film.
The actor must hit his marks and deliver his performance within a tightly constrained set of parameters. Autonomy is secondary to precision in this environment. I may have my own ideas of how to ‘play’ a scene, but if my approach violates the director’s (or cinematographer’s or art director’s, etc.) plans for how the scene must be executed, we have a problem.[ix]
Let’s take this point and run with it, and, in doing so, push it further. If we accept that, in certain games with pretensions to cinematic spectacle, the game developers design their games to take on the role of the director, what does this mean for issues of choreography? How do we, as “actors,” know how to move our bodies around on the stage? In theatrical direction, the placement of actors is referred to as blocking. In cinema, it’s generally known as staging.
Let’s look at blocking and staging in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. In what way, when playing the following sequence, do we feel the push-and-pull of authorship that Murray lays out, between the game’s developers (as “choreographers”) and ourselves (as “navigators”)?
[Note: Although I’m providing videos here for reference, it’s not really possible to get a sense of how the direction of “choreography” works unless you’re playing them. I make sure to have students play these games live, in front of other students, during designated play sessions.]
Here, I ask a specific question: What is the role of the player character’s superior officer, Cpt. MacMillan, in this sequence? What I’m looking here from students is an acknowledgement of the way in which MacMillan acts as a sort of “surrogate” or “emissary” for the game’s developers, Infinity Ward. Infinity Ward doesn’t address the player directly, and let them know where to go, but MacMillan certainly does. Here, we see the use of the military’s chain of command as motivation for the game’s distribution of choreographic direction.
Question: What is the role of radiation in this sequence? Usually at least one student, familiar with game lingo, will point out that they act as “invisible walls.” This is a technique that game designers use to make the explorable space that players inhabit look much larger, and more explorable, than it actually is. Jenkins argues that we should consider game designers as “narrative architects.” What does it mean if the architecture they build is often invisible? (I don’t have a specific place I’m leading to with this question; I just find it interesting.)
[P]art of the art of game design comes in finding artful ways of embedding narrative information into the environment without destroying its immersiveness and without giving the player a sensation of being drug around by the neck.[x]
Let’s dig into this balance between freedom and being drug around by the neck by comparing Call of Duty to the Half-Life games.
Here is a segment from the opening chapter of Half-Life, “Black Mesa Inbound.” The player-character, Gordon Freeman, is currently enjoying a postdoc position in theoretical physics at the Black Mesa Research Facility. The opening moments of the game are his morning commute to work, on a tram that tours several parts of the facility, before arriving at his specific workplace. In practical terms, this means that the player is quite literally on a rail. They do, however, have complete freedom to walk around the railcar, and look out different windows. Valve takes advantage of this at certain moments, staging elements so that players will have to move around to see various bits of the environment. Pay special attention to the moment around the 1 min 28 sec mark, where I turn the view away from the robot cleaning up radioactive waste, and toward a neighboring car with a blue-suited man in it.
Question: Do you remember precisely how the bandits make their getaway in Rocky Mountain Express? With luck, students can dredge up at least most of the following details: The bandits commandeer a handcar. They continue on the track the train is on, as we travel close behind them. At same time, there’s a parallel line of action—their getaway carriage is coming up the road alongside the tracks. Eventually, they converge with it.
In this segment of Half-Life, there are moments in which we similarly have multiple things to look at as we move forward on a linear path. (A literal train track, in both cases.) In each case, different lines of action are staged so as to compete for our attention. But unlike in Rocky Mountain Express, in Half-Life we don’t just have to shift our eyes to transition between the different lines of action. We, as players, actually have to move our virtual bodies in space to see them one at a time.
Question: Are we being “drug around the neck” here? Students can disagree here—and it’s helpful if they do, as the best answer is actually “yes and no.” We are stuck in a tram, which means that, much like in a rail shooter, we we have no control over our forward momentum. So, in that sense, we are “drug around by the neck.” But, at the same time, players are free to adjust their view as they see fit—we’re given enough freedom to, for instance, entirely miss that glimpse of the man in the blue suit.
And this is a surprisingly interesting design decision for Valve to make! The man in the blue suit is, in fact, the conspiratorial “G-Man,” someone who turns out to have a central role in the series’ overarching mythology. This is the first chance that players are given in the entire franchise to catch a glimpse of him. And Valve allows us not to. In fact, Valve encourages us to miss him, by giving us a much-more interesting robot to look at, and a jokey scene of industrial spillage that resonates with the warning about regular radiation screenings.
Let’s jump forward a decade, to Half-Life 2: Episode Two.
Question: For the moment, let’s put aside the fancy visual effects of the “portal storm.” What is perhaps the greatest new tool in Valve’s toolset we’ve just seen for directing the player’s attention, enabled by more advanced graphical rendering technology? The answer I’m fishing for here is character animation.
At the 2 min 33 sec mark, Valve knows that we’ll be looking at the big shiny thing off in the distance, and needs us to turn around and look at the collapsing train track behind us. In order to do this, they use the animations of our companion character, Alyx Vance. The way that Alyx points at something behind the player is already a step up from the jerkiness on display at the end of the clip of the first Half-Life. But even before she points, we have her facial expression:
The point is actually a redundant cue: It wouldn’t surprise me if a significant number of players whip their view around just in response to that face. Valve knows well that if we see someone with a shocked expression on their face, we’re going to be curious as to what it is they’re looking at.
From here, I break off into very free-form discussion. I try to get students to express opinions on the relative artfulness of each games’ choreography. (Personally, I am partial to subtle cues of Episode Two over the overly literal military commands of Modern Warfare, but this partially a matter of taste, and student disagreement in this area can be productive.) I try to have the games in a playable state, if possible, so that students can experiment with what happens when they go off-script, making false steps in the games’ choreography. Sometimes they’ll try to break the games in ways that never even occurred to me!
[i]. Gunning, Tom. “An Unseen Energy Swallows Space: The Space in Early Film and Its Relation to American Avant-Garde Film.” In Film Before Griffith. Ed. John L. Fell. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
[ii]. Gaudreault, André. “Showing and Telling: Image and Word in Early Cinema.” In Early Cinema: Space – Frame – Narrative. Ed. Thomas Elsaesser. London: BFI, 1990. Pg 278.
[iii]. Murray, Janet H. “Agency.” In Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: Free Press, 1997. (I assign this chapter as reading before this lesson.)
[iv]. Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” In First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004. (This is my second reading assignment for this lesson.)
[v]. Aarseth, Epsen. “Genre Trouble: Narrativism and the Art of Simulation.” In First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004. Although Gaudrealt is writing primarily as a historian of production and exhibition practices, while Aarseth’s piece is a polemic against the over-reliance on narrative as a reference frame by his fellow academics, both of these insights work to crystallize certain historical parallels here.
[v]. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck, pg 153.
[vii]. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck, pg 129.
[x]. Jenkins, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” pg 127.