Pilgrim’s Progress

I just went to see a movie about video games. As a result, this post is going to be about movies, and about video games.

The movie in question, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, isn’t technically about video games. Strictly speaking, it’s about a boy having to fight off his girlfriend’s seven evil exes in order to win her- whatever. The point of it, inasmuch as it has a point, is the style: videogame-based comedy. While actual scenes of characters playing games do occur — the eponymous hero playing a dancing game in an arcade, mentions of PacMan and Zelda in the dialogue — the vast majority of the game-inspired content is unnamed, but still explicit. That is to say that the comedy, and much of the plot, rely upon the audience noticing the correlation between what appeared on-screen and archetypical elements of (particularly arcade) videogames, without it being actually named as such.

This makes me wonder about the ubiquity of gaming. One of the nice people from my poetry class who I went to the movie with was talking beforehand about her brother, and described him as “a nerd …except …it’s that new thing, where he’s always on games and computers, but you can’t call that a nerd any more because everyone does it.” This is pretty much what Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is counting on: it’s a mass market movie, that assumes spectator knowledge of computer gaming (and, to a lesser extent, of graphic novels — but that‘s a different topic). Not just “casual” mass-market gaming — there’s no FIFA or Wii Fit being mentioned here — but the kind of retro, arcadey, pixels-and-points stuff that has been around for yonks, but would, I think, until very recently have been regarded as “geeky” to understand.
Incidentally, and without including any spoilers (I loathe spoilers), I don’t just mean that it drops an occasional quip that refers to gaming subculture. The battles in the film are takes on the frantic action of fighting games, numbers appear on screen reminiscent of the “experience points” gained in Role-Playing Games, and when defeated, a villain bursts into a shower of coins — because, as every gamer knows, when you kill a bad guy, you get some kind of reward.

So what am I getting at here? Just that I feel like there’s recently been a kind of shift in the status of video games as an accepted component of popular culture. Of course, media commentators have been bragging on forever about how next-generation gaming is more immersive, artistic, more legitimately a cultural artefact than whatever came before. And the more advanced games become, there’s certainly a greater feeling (among younger people, at least, which unfortunately is the only perspective I really have available) that getting lost in a high-quality game — say a Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy or Silent Hill, to choose some obvious titles — is as legitimate a pursuit as watching a good film or TV program, or maybe getting stuck into a popular novel at around the Dan Brown / Stephen King level. (And before any gamer objects, yes, I fully agree that there are some genuinely brilliant games out there. I’m not talking about my personal opinion, but public perception. Or at least what I perceive public perception to be. Or …this could get messy.)
But that’s not what Scott Pilgrim vs. The World gives us. It jokes about low-plot, mostly low-sophistication games from the 1990s — and assumes that we will get the joke, in the same way that a film like Shrek assumes we will understand jokes about the clichés of fairy-tale, or Shrek 2 assumes we will get riffs on other recent films like Zorro and The Lord of the Rings. Its significance is that it takes it for granted that little characters that go “bleep” when we push the “bleep” button are already a well known stereotype among cinemagoers. Obviously the film’s target demographic has an effect — Scott Pilgrim won’t attract the same audience as, say, The Queen — but like I said above, it has no sense of being an underground or subculture film. It’s for young-ish viewers, maybe, but not just the nerdy ones.

This makes me wonder why other fields lag behind on noting games as a mass-media. Facebook and MySpace, for example, have if anything a more youth-oriented target demographic than the movie, but the profile sections for both sites only make room to list favourite books, film and television. Why not games? You could reply that games are far less erudite than, say, books – but if erudition is the key, surely visual art (not to mention theatre, architecture…) merits a text field? Besides, television can’t be far off videogames in terms of general intelligence levels – a smattering of very smart, a bunch of braindead-but-entertaining, and a whole load of dross. And if audience size is the issue, then I’m really not sure that books are more popular among the Facebook generation than interactive thumb-twiddlers. Just look at Facebook’s own accursedly ubiquitous Farmville, as balanced against the amount of young people who casually state that they “don’t really read books.”

So much for the video games part, what about movies? Oh, first off, I should probably briefly review Scott Pilgrim itself, for anyone simply wondering whether it’s actually any good. To which I say; yeah. It’s the sort of knowing zeitgeisty comedy that – even though consciously retro – will date pretty quickly, but if you see it in the here and now it’s bloody funny. The story’s awful, but broadly irrelevant, and here and there a piece of transient dialogue is extremely witty.
So that’s out of the way, and now I can talk about movies as a whole. I made a quasi-joke (“quasi” in the sense that it wasn’t funny) a couple weeks back on here about how much better chocolate tasted if you hadn’t had any in a while. Feature films are pretty much the same.
Though there’s lots of telly in my house (rugby league, rugby union, Australian Rules Football, Top Gear, American sitcoms, viciously negative political campaigning), I don’t think I’ve seen a movie since …heh, I guess since the in-flight How to Train Your Dragon mentioned in this blog’s first post, over a month ago. I did have to watch the old Roberto Benigni film Down by Law for one of my classes, but I believe the university’s copy was abridged. And I hadn’t been to the cinema since well before that. I was surprised by how much more involving film-watching was as a result.
I don’t mean that normally I sit there blankly, without engaging with the film at all — an engrossing film is an engrossing film, even if it’s the fourth that you’ve seen in a week. But Scott Pilgrim frankly wasn’t an engrossing film in the narrative sense, and yet I let it ‘gross me regardless. I found myself feeling sucked in to the movie’s plot even though it was virtually threadbare, and getting carried along by the weak storyline of a film that really wasn’t even intended to be story based. I forgot the people sitting around me, which was terribly rude really since they’d been lovely enough to invite me along. I may have leaned forward it my seat. It was a riot.

And so there you are. The take-home morals of this story are that videogames are everywhere, even in our heads, and that if you haven’t seen a film in a while it might be worth a trip. Consider thyselves taught, my children. Incidentally, on the way back on the bus, I saw two birds out the window which I’m positive had the bodies of pigeons, but parrots’ heads. It was freaky.

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3 thoughts on “Pilgrim’s Progress

  1. Hey Aran,

    This was amazingly insightful. You have a way with words that is entertaining and makes one want to continue reading. It’s rare to find – well, to me anyway.

    Glad you could make it along, none-the-less.

    See you tonight. :D

  2. Great review! I’m pretty sure you were looking at white gallas – there are so many wonderful freaky birds wanting to pinch your lunch over here!

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