A Man Escaped: Robert Bresson as Maker of Stealth Games

19 01 2016


A Man Escaped has often been called Robert Bresson’s masterpiece. I’m not sure about that claim. Lancelot du Lac is formally richer; Au Hasard Balthazar is more moving. But the director’s breakthrough prison escape film is, if nothing else, a perfect experience. Every shot counts, every composition works. The pace is flawless. Bresson uses off-screen space in ways that have since been extensively copied. Even unique modern masterpieces owe their debt to him, such as Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, about a housewife who might or might not have run over a child with her car, and who spends much of the running time walking in a daze, feeling guilty about the victim she might or might not have left behind on the road, terrified by the noises and figures at the borders of her (and our) perception.

In A Man Escaped, there are many things our protagonist cannot see, and we don’t see them either. This is a powerful narrative mechanic. Bresson insisted, in his writings, on the need for cinema to remove the corset of theatrical tradition, and his productive use of off-screen space (among other techniques) allows him to do that. The camera captures just a small fragment of a larger world.

Now, in theater, there is always an unseen narrative universe beyond the limits of the stage. But, as critic André Bazin argued, that kind of spatial limitation is to be expected in theater. We’re not, however, used to such limitations in cinema, and when they’re imposed on the medium, the effect is more claustrophobic, more impactful. Even if the protagonists are stuck somewhere, the movie can always – and very easily – cut to a new camera angle, so that we can be rescued from the architectural prison. When this doesn’t happen, we grow restless and terribly aware of our entrapment. Bresson knows this only too well. He never rescues us. He forces us to share the prisoner’s perspective, his limited vantage point, his ignorance about what surrounds him and what’s beyond his cell. It’s this that makes A Man Escaped so persuasive and why we identify so much with the protagonist.

Like many art house classics, it can now remind us of a videogame. As much as interactive entertainment tries to resemble Hollywood blockbusters, its real kinship is with this kind of austere, slow-moving fare. Which is what the latest so-called art games and walking simulators, like Gone Home and especially Dear Esther, have understood, and what earlier masterpieces, like the Thief games, had grasped. According to videogame historian Jimmy Maher, back in the 80s, Steve Meretzky, the man responsible for the epochal text-adventure A Mind Forever Voyaging, once sat down to breakfast and had the following epiphany: “Interactive fiction does setting incredibly well, perhaps better than it does anything else. Intricate plotting it does painfully and reluctantly and usually clunkily. Therefore why not make the player not so much a participant in the plot as an observer?” Scrap typical character development and three-act structures. Let’s do setting. Let’s focus on space, on exploration, on movement. On observation.

Bresson did something similar, but in cinematic terms. There’s little psychology in A Man Escaped. Yes, there’s a constant voiceover. But the protagonist’s thoughts are pragmatic: what he sees, what he needs to do, what items he has, how he will get past the Nazi security guards. Interactions with other characters always serve immediate needs. What’s most important, for the protagonist, is mastering his surroundings. Only after doing so might he deliver himself from the encroaching walls. The plot, or what can be called that, is structured around his growing familiarity with the prison’s layout. Transcendence needs physicality, needs a tangible, “realistic” environment. (Paul Schrader, in his study of the director, points out how Bresson highlights the surface of “everyday reality” precisely to undermine it, to make us doubt it. Just like our hero, in this film, wishes to undermine the very defenses he so restlessly studies with such zeal.) We need to feel the material world in our bones before we can imagine anyone’s emancipation from it.

Old is New and New is Old

4 01 2010

I play a lot of video-games and I try to come up with answers to my questions. I don’t always succeed. Some of my questions are so basic that they flirt with uselessness. Some are probably so basic they’ve gone past flirting and onto a passionate, wet, and messy romance. I ask silly questions. For instance: Why do we play video-games? For instance: What kind of a narrative do they mean to tell? Most frequently: Where can the narrative be found?

My answer to the last question will not explode any brains: the narrative in a video-game is found in the environment. This can be true of film, but the player’s interaction with the environment in a video-game has to be of a different ilk. Otherwise, overused cinematic environments would not be so compelling in their video-game forms. I’m now going through System Shock II. Its abandoned space station is not exactly the last great literary discovery of the twentieth century. A forgettable film like Event Horizon had already done it. Even down to the audio/video logs! And we can’t forget Alien, which itself was playing with old haunted house archetypes. Why is System Shock II so compelling, then? And it’s not just a retread of the abandoned space station which is already a retread of the abandoned haunted house or abandoned ghost ship: we also have the ‘Artificial Intelligence gone bonkers’ motif from countless science-fiction stories. But it works better, or differently, or more interestingly in a video-game.

As far as the Artificial Intelligence is concerned, I already discussed the reasons why its video-game iteration is particularly compelling in my Portal essay. To summarize it — and many readers would have reportedly loved a summary — having an in-game Artificial Intelligence order you around the game-world is a reminder that all video-games basically do the same thing, albeit not as transparently: they order you around, tell you to do this and that, make you into little more than a willful slave. Portal is honest about the fact that the video-game player doesn’t have much in the way of choice or freedom. The player always operates inside a preconceived architecture, even in open-ended games.

Now, when I wrote my Portal essay, I was under the impression that Portal was doing something rather novel. And, well, it still is, but an awful lot of what I wrote in the above essay can be just as easily applied to the iconic 1999 computer game. Back-tracking through the medium’s history is so difficult and spotty, so dependent on the whims of availability, that the burgeoning art-form and its devotees suffer from severe amnesia. Finding a ten-year-old video-game is about as challenging as finding an avant-garde silent film. Hell, it’s more challenging. Menilmontant is on Netflix. So is Man Ray… on the same DVD! Video-games are more elusive. And I’m not referring to obscure independent products released in the very depths of non-commercial distribution. I’m referring to the most famous games, the cream of the mainstream crop of computer gaming during the nineties: Planescape: Torment, Day of the Tentacle, System Shock I and II, Grim Fandango (for fuck’s sake, Grim Fandango!), Baldur’s Gate II, Alpha Centauri, etc. We can thank the spirits for Good Old Games and Steam offering the likes of Fallout 1 and 2, X-Com: UFO Defense, Freespace 1 and 2, Monkey Island, and Beneath a Steel Sky. It’s a start. No medium can survive without a good view of its past.

The problem with a medium plagued by amnesia is that it’s doomed to repeat itself, dumb itself down, move up and down like a sine wave, weaving from brilliance to mediocrity to worse and then back to brilliance, and on and on to infinity. So old games end up being more ‘advanced’ than newer games, because the newer games forgot that older games ever existed. Half-Life 2 is hailed as revolutionary even though it’s simpler than Deus Ex and System Shock II. Exploration games are applauded for being free and airy, but A Mind Forever Voyaging was already doing that in the eighties. But nobody remembers the eighties. And you can’t blame them. I can’t even claim to be removed from this forgetful group. The only reason I’m even playing A Mind Forever Voyaging is because, many years ago, an eccentric Australian couple in Bakersfield decided to bestow upon my family their dilapidated and deliriously outdated computer, including, along with their bargain package, two games: the very first Flight Simulator and A Mind Forever Voyaging. I didn’t get very far into the latter. The box didn’t include the map and the little number wheel thingy, which are absolutely essential. I bet that the box had once included both items, but the eccentric Australian couple had evidently lost half of the game materials. Anyhow, almost a decade later, I decided to give the text adventure a new whirl. The lost items are now viewable online. That’s nice. But where is the critical or canonical discourse to promote these lost gems? Do we all require eccentric Australian couples in order to discover these video-games? And how many of those are there around the world? In Bakersfield, of all places?

There is a growing critical consciousness out there that is beginning to focus on the works of days past. But is it enough? Or more crucially, is it the right kind of attention? The argument would be that no attention is the wrong kind of attention, and admittedly, retrospectives of old classics are typically loving and sweet. But does every retrospective require the words “the graphics look dated, but…” before the description and/or analysis of the game proper? The graphics in Beneath a Steel Sky look dated? You don’t say. A point-and-click adventure game from 1994 doesn’t look like a game from 2009? Astonishing. Why mention this? “The graphics are ugly nowadays, but the gameplay is great!” How are they ugly? Nobody says anything interesting about graphics. Color, composition, tone, general aesthetic, detail, perspective, etc. This is more interesting. What do the graphics actually do? If you simply mention that they’re dated, what are you really saying? It was made in 1994, of course it looks dated. We don’t need to be told this. We already know, and anyone seriously considering playing a game from 1994 is likely not expecting Crysis.

So, amnesia. Portal explores thematic territory previously trodden by System Shock II. Each game still does unique things, of course. And their moods are not compatible. Portal is not scary. It’s ominous, mysterious, enigmatic, etc. But not scary. System Shock II is famously terrifying. Different goals. Different storytelling. System Shock II is using the ‘uncovering reading material’ technique employed later by Deus Ex and Metroid Prime. You walk around and find newspapers, audio/video logs, computer readings, writings on ruins, etc. You read the storytelling waiting for you in textual scraps found throughout the game-world. Portal functions more along the lines of Half-Life 2. The storytelling happens around your character. You don’t stop to read. Things happen around you or are directly told to you. The most you might halt your pace during Half-Life 2 is to listen to a video-speech on one of those over-sized monitors overlooking the city streets. Portal has scribblings on the wall and a PowerPoint presentation. You might stop for a while to peruse them, but it’s not comparable to the pillars of e-mails and logs you find in System Shock II or the bountiful newspapers and datapads from Deus Ex. So, again, they’re different games. But my forgetfulness is impossible to ignore. System Shock II would have fit perfectly into the essay I linked to above, more perfectly even than Metal Gear Solid 2. How could I have included it, though? I hadn’t played it. And I hadn’t played it because it’s under-publicized, even with its historic status, and it’s scarcely available. You might ask: But how can it be forgetfulness on my part if I hadn’t played it? You can’t forget what you haven’t lived through. Alright, but I contributed to the medium’s forgetfulness, in my small, small role as a blogging commentator. And that’s why a medium’s amnesia is troublesome. Forgetfulness breeds more forgetfulness from those who can’t even hope to remember what they haven’t begun to experience. The problem feeds itself.

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