A Travel Retrospective: Slovenia

18 Dec

When we first left the plane, I had no idea what to expect. The airport was small and modern, recently renovated by the look of things. We progressed through with a minimum of fuss, nothing was particularly remarkable, yet airports are so rarely inspiring. We arrived outside and promptly looked for transportation. No buses, no trains, we took a minicab.

Packed tight with at least five other travellers, we departed into the capital, passing old communist-bloc buildings and a few more recent wealthy urban developments. Nothing really caught our eye, yet suburbs are so rarely inspiring. We pulled up outside our hotel, a repurposed Soviet tower block and progressed inside. Everything was pleasantly bright and shiny, we were mostly impressed. So far our sojourn into Slovenia was thoroughly unremarkable, enjoyable but not exactly top grade.

In the failing light and encroaching cold, we set out with the aim to take in a little of the city before darkness settled in. We were thoroughly impressed, the city centre was beautiful and unique, designed to delight the eyes. We ambled through the spellbinding streets with nary a thought, taking it all in, that is until our stomachs unceremoniously yanked us back into reality.

Food became our number one priority. Despite my other half’s best efforts, I hesitated to make a decision, unwilling to be drawn into a gaudy tourist trap. After a while I was inevitably defeated in my ‘selfish’ quest for authenticity, my arm was grabbed and I was pulled into the nearest available eatery. For once I was glad of my better half’s violent tendencies.

If you like seafood, Slovenia is where you must go. Octupus salad was one among many delicacies that we partook of across the next few days. Sausages, soups, dumplings, the cuisine of the country is quite exquisite, gaining vaue by twisting and elevating the mundane. The Slovenians, nestled between the Croatians, Germans, Italians and the Aegean sea, have come upon a varied and beautiful range of foods. That is to say nothing of their wine. The ‘Terran’ wine of the country is rare outside its borders, but has a full body, deep ruby colour and truly unique flavour, well worth seeking out through an importer.

The rest of our trip, well, we wandered around the capital with no desire to leave. The castle, the ballet, the shops, the cafes, we were entranced. We did take a short trip to Bled, a skiing town set upon a lake, with picturesque castle towering on a precipitous rocky outcrop, needless to say we were spellbound yet again.

Slovenia is a diamond in the rough, a genuine thrill to visit and explore. You would be well served by a visit there, so get packing!


A Wee Bit of Insight

4 Dec

So, over the last few days, the 1reasonwhy story has left quite a wake. On both sides of the spectrum, vitriolic words spew back and forth, feminism is equivalent to socialism/facism/nazism/satanism, men are moronic knuckle-draggers…the list goes on. That a few words on a hitherto mostly unexplored topic could cause such virtual anger is, to me, utterly fascinating. So let’s explore the topic a little.

First things first, lets look at the ‘instigators’. As some would have you believe it, a number of ultra-radical feminist individuals posted a number of tweets designed explicitly to bring about the downfall of western society, in particular the games industry. With malicious intent, they desired to knife men everywhere in the heart, instead of making them that all important sammich. Rather, a number of women involved in the gaming industry came forward and gave their first hand accounts of sexism in the gaming industry. Now, what is interesting is that a large number of those who effectively mooed ‘nuh-uh’ did so merely because they personally did not see it happen. I have never seen an elephant being born, yet I know they are the result of a live birth, they do not come from an egg or the earth. As such simply because I have not seen sexism in practice in the gaming industry or online does not mean that instances of it do not exist. There are millions of unique experiences that occur all the time, not all of them are positive. To simply deride because you do not agree does not achieve anything.

These women, and the women who play games do not represent a minority of the gaming community as a whole. Yet among console and pc gamers, they ultimately do. Does this disqualify them from a view? Some may be sanctimonious, some may be preachy and offensive, however they are still gamers. The issue is sexism as a whole, not just sexism in the gaming industry. While it may be bad, it is by no means unique, to single out one sector without a coherent strategy is both nonsensical and counter-productive. There can be no true advancement in the arguement until it is accepted that this situation is by no means unique.

On the flip side, there are the male gamers. We are sometimes stereotypes (most recently on feedbackula) as knuckle-dragging neanderthals with a single digit IQ and an inability to play games two-handed, is this the case? Must we be so horribly dehumanised? I’m sure the vast number of male gamers are reasonable individuals, must we be lumped in with the nutcases? That some insult is not the first sign of the apocalypse, thank you very much ‘Johnny’. We, as men, are dealt with in a crude manner that is not becoming.

This is what is ultimately lacking from the argument overall. Where is the love? Tens of thousands of comments on dozens of articles, each spewing filth about the other side, each comprehensively ‘right’. Perhaps the time is right for change, we need new consoles, a healthier ecosystem, balance between each disparate group of gamers. These are things that are all achievable. Society needs to treat some members a little better, but not at the expense of others. That is it however, 1reasonwhy is a small part of a bigger picture, that cannot be forgotten. So let’s look at this objecitvely, equality, not superiority. This is fair, is it not?

Carpe Diem et Venatus!

4 Dec

What makes me a gamer?

I suppose I could attempt to answer this in a number of different ways, I could compare myself to others and I could cite history and societal trends. If I did that though, then there could be no chance of me finding a personally satisfying conclusion.

I could blame society. When I was but a little kiddy, I was taken to my father’s work. He had Day of the Tentacle installed on his work PC, along with Star Wars: Dark Forces. I can’t pretend that I understood exactly what I was doing on Day of the Tentacle, I was only four years old and as such my attention span was a little limited. I still remember sitting on his massive leather chair, while he and his friends chatted in the corner, and entering the world of Luke Skywalker. The chance to blast Stormtroopers with a laser pistol was something new to me, and certainly put my childish and incoherent world of make-believe to shame. Videogames, despite the pixellation and limited interaction, offered a clarity of vision and pure fun. They were just so cool. I remember entering cheat codes on Dark Forces for the first time, the sense of power that came is something that Ill never forget, and the kudos that it brought me with my friends cannot be overstated.

As the years went by, games were increasingly something that my friends played. I owned a Sega Mega Drive, I played Sonic the Hedgehog constantly, I went from lobbing grenades at Gammoreans to spinning the living daylights out of Dr Robotnik. I loved both games, owning Sonic and then Streets of Rage meant that I could play with my friends, and eventually my younger brother. Then came the Sega Saturn, and then the Playstation. I was never interested in Action Men or any of those other toys, save perhaps Lego. Videogames were the height of cool.

By this point I was around eight years old. My library of games expanded considerably, I played Tekken 2 and 3, Gran Turismo, Crash Bandicoot 3, Spyro the Dragon, the list went on. Either by myself or with friends, it was increasingly how I chose to spend my time, sometimes to the detriment of my health and appearance. As birthdays and Christmases went by, so my collection increased. I would travel to my best friend’s house, he had a Nintendo 64, we’d play Mario 64 when his parents were there, then sneak his dads copy of Goldeneye from the high drawer and giggle as we shot each other to pieces as obese midget Koreans. Another friend had a good PC, he introduced me to Age of Empires, I was enthralled. I look back at this time and I dont see it as a childhood wasted, I spent plenty of time outdoors, gaming was a healthy part of my social life and development, I wasn’t good at sport and this was something I could enjoy despite my less than stellar hand-to-eye coordination. I also now recognise the potential that videogames have to warp the development of children, much the same as too much of any good thing having negative effects. I could have played less, but I’m fine now, mostly.

Then came the Gameboys and Pokemon, suddenly having those oversized calculators was the most important thing in the world, and battling oddly shaped monstrosities against each other became the only thing I cared about. My devotion was religious, as it was for all the other children in my class. Kids traded the cards and chatted about their progress in the game, it had the power to unite and was an inherently social thing. However, some stole cards, other kids got in fights over them. The adults didnt understand, perhaps if they did then so many schools wouldn’t have banned the damn things.

Then came the PS2, and Grand Theft Auto 3. Games suddenly went into unknown territory, I adapted to the violence of the game with frightening speed, my parents were none the wiser. My friends and I had been indulging in virtual slaughter for years, I was as adept at dropping men with a single shot at 300 yards as I was at stomping Koopas to death. Again, the parents either over-reacted or didn’t care at all. It was just what the kids did.

It was after this that high school came, and with it the apathy and stigma of the teenage years. Suddenly gaming went from being something that everyone did and became the occupation of a subset. It also became something that boys exclusively did. I was a flake and didn’t want to be associated with that particular group, so I disowned my consoles and played my PC in secret.

Society introduced me to games, encouraged my addiction and then took them away from me.

I didn’t just game because it was something my friends did. I gamed because it meant something very personal to me. I played Age of Empires, later I played Civilisation, eventually I played any strategy game I could get my hands on. I loved the sense of control, the power that came from ordering large groups of tiny men to attack differently coloured large groups of tiny men. This is something that cannot be overlooked, when you are an outcast of sorts it is very tempting to roleplay, I just chose to be a god.

Mostly I loved the history. I can honestly say that it was my childhood love of Age of Empires that inspired my general love of history and eventually led to me taking my undergraduate degree in history. They taught me a passion that my teachers could never instil, despite their best efforts. Games have an ability to engage that other kinds of interaction do not.

Throughout my teenage years, I played my PC, the consoles gathered dust except for the occasional bout of Timesplitters on local multiplayer with my brother.

My brother is dyspraxic, he has poor dexterity in his wrists, making writing difficult among other things. He is also six years younger than I am. We shared a room for a considerable period of time during our childhoods, and I can honestly say that it was gaming that allowed me to bond with him. We’re very different people, we have totally opposing interests, and given that for a large period of his life he has been physically smaller than myself, we couldn’t play sports on an equal level. What we could do however, is pick up two separate controllers and play the same game. This created myriad shared experiences that laid the groundwork for the relationship that we have today.

I’d play when I was alone, I’d play when I felt down. Given my library and knowledge of the medium, I had a game to suit any situation, any mood. I had a number of other hobbies and a healthy social life, I loved to write and play basketball, I read constantly and spent a good deal of time hanging about with my friends. The one constant though was my love for videogames, I’d never stop coming back, even as I grew older and my interests changed.

I can’t blame society for my love of videogames, I can’t cite it as the reason that I am a gamer. I can’t bring examples of social history or quote statistics, nor can I compare myself to others. My experience was original amongst millions of other original experiences. I game to relax, I game to cope, I game to socialise, I game to escape, I game for adventure, I game for control, I game because I always have done and I game because I am.

For me, the interaction of the medium, its ability to unite, inspire and drive the nature of entertainment into strange new realms is what lends it worth. In a world where all current forms of entertainment have remained essentially unchanged for a century, gaming is the means by which we will carve something new and exciting for ourselves.

Despite whether it made me irritable, gave me occasional anti-social tendencies or caused me to harbour the odd sociopathic sentiment, gaming made me who I am, and for that I am eternally grateful. I am who I am because I game, and that will never change.

Do we need to press the refresh button?

4 Dec

Let me just come right out and say it: this generation of consoles is at the end of it’s life. There’s nothing left to give, the consoles themselves are running outdated technology and sales will only decline from this point on.

Why is this? Time of course! It has traditionally been the case that consoles would be renewed after a period of around five years, at the moment it has been seven years since the release of the Xbox 360, where are our new toys? Now, don’t get me wrong, there is life in the current generation yet, regardless of how flaccid it may be. Let us not forget that in the final days of the PS2 came God of War 2 and Okami, both excellent games. It is at the end of a console’s life that developers have often figured out the best tricks to bring life into their works, this is most noticeable in the 360. Games such as Mass Effect come in multiple DVDs, harking back to the early noughties PC gaming scene and it’s multiple CD phase. Developers are hampered by the memory restrictions of the current generation, the current situation represents tha maximum of what can be achieved with the current hardware restrictions.

PC developers back in the day adopted the DVD as a distribution medium, then digital downloads. As technology advanced, so did developers, as having access to more powerful tools allowed them to express themselves more fully. Now, do you see a parallel? It can be argued that in order to truly innovate, the next generation of consoles needs to expand upon traditional input methods and offer greater internet connectivity as well as offering greater power. Indeed, much as most people bought the PS2 because it had a DVD player built in, current gen consoles are often bought to work as media centres. However, it cannot be ignored that, if given access to more powerful processors and tech, developers would be able to innovate on a greater scale. Simply providing new input methods does not guarentee society-wide artistic momentum.

Unreal 3 is a great engine, however it is old, much like the 360, PS3 and what have you. We need some fresh air to allow the medium to expand in interesting new directions. The swansong of the current gen is fast approaching, with titles such as GTA V on the horizon, things certainly look rosy. The current state of affairs cannot continue for much longer.

Cloud gaming, greater connectivity, different controllers…these are all things that excite me. I don’t want my children to be playing the same Xbox as me 20 years from now. The future, as evidenced by platforms such as Steam, has much to offer.

The open source movement perhaps offers the greatest window of opportunity for the gaming scene. Take for instance the Ouya, $99 when it comes out. Android powered, customisable, funded by the consumer and accessible. Is there anything brighter than a future where anyone can make a game? An in-console app store? This may sound like anathema to some, but greater access brings greater opportunity, and the customer always has the final say over their own purchase. Did Steam Greenlight cause any issues for the PC gaming scene? Has Kickstarter made any significant issues appear? Has mobile gaming killed traditional gaming? No, because the element of choice is involved, along with greater involvement. Computing for the people is a step closer, the stranglehold of EA and Activision is detrimental to the health of the industry. Where is the innovation? They release iterations of the same games year after year to increased profits, yet as we see the total number of games being sold worldwide is decreasing.

Putting power directly in the hands of the developers and the people is the best solution to solving this stranglehold. The gaming market just now is much the same as the mobile market before the introduction of the iphone, stale focussed on incremental upgrades and dedicated entirely to the publisher. Think of how that market changed, then be as excited as I am for what the near future has to offer. If a new generation of consoles is released along these lines, offering greater support for indie developers and allowing greater community involvement, then great, but what we really need is something like the Ouya to succeed and bring competition back to a broken game of monopoly that is slowly killing all involved.

War in Games, Shooting Modern

4 Dec


Ever since the beginning of the medium, war has been a core facet of the gaming experience. Battlegrounds and methods of combat have changed, nowadays we have the likes of Battlefield 3 whereas back in the days of yore Pac-Man battled ghosts in a darkened room while attempting commit genocide upon the luminescent pill race. What we define as combat in games has changed, what began as vanquishing squares has become a realistic glorified slaughter.Does this quest for realism cheapen the whole experience? Modern-shooters will never achieve true realism, that would be counter-inuitive. They instead seek to recreate the thrill of an action film within the context of a warzone. What does this mean for gameplay?

Simplified mechanics, cheap thrills and a strong competitive element, in other words, zero innovation. Where can there be creativity beyond new character models and ever more accurate ballistic models? Sure, we can switch between wars, in 2002 we were inundated with WW2 titles, now we have Afghanistan/Iraq simulations and the new Call of Duty title promises to take us into a future conflict. The shooter market has run into the same problem as the sports market, how does one innovate year on year with a product that is essentially the same and still deliver profits? As for realism, we can only speculate as to what the REAL soldiers think as opposed to the armchair trigger-junkies.

Do they find this all a little disrespectful? It is common knowledge that a large number of casualties in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have been caused by IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). How does this mirror the gaming experience? Men popping out of doorways in a complicated shooting range doesn’t seem to be the norm for most soldiers in the field. Do men and women who have lost companions in this war find it disrespectful that in a game one can recover health merely by crouching behind a doorway? To be honest, it is most likely that they simply do not care, after all children play soldier everyday and no one finds a reason to call that an act of mockery. There is one important factor yet to consider, that is that frequent exposure to gore does indeed desensitise young impressionable minds and fuels concern that these games are merely recruitment machines for military. Do these games go too far in their depictions of violence? Or is it ok for games to push the boundaries of taste in this regard?

It is easy to focus on the negative side of the war-gaming scene, after all the effects are well documented. There is still on important fact to consider however, while this may be the dominant scene in gaming at the moment, things can and will change. These games bring genuine enjoyment to a large number of people, and fund an industry that is growing ever bigger and occasionally struggling. While the publishers may strong arm development studios, this isn’t isolated to the shooter genre. We should recognise that the core of the gaming experience is to deliver “fun”, and for the moment, shooting games are “it” and “fun”.

It is just this that represents the ultimate problem for most. More than any other genre, the shooter embodies the instant thrill culture that has gripped gaming in recent years. Does this mean that the gaming medium as a whole can ever really evolve? Gamers defend their hobby and wish for it to be recognised as art, yet is there a game which deals with the issue of sex in a mature manner? Can there be a realistic depiction of a multi-gender warzone? Does the ever more realistic violence have a purpose other than to attract ever greater hordes of gore junkies? Does the shooter genre exist for any other reason than to exploit the hormones of misguided teenage boys? Can games ever deal with war in a mature, focused and eloquent fashion while innovating and still remain entertaining?

These things are all uncertain, indeed only time will tell. Maybe it will be soon that gamers learn to play something other than soldier.

The Evolution of Narrative in Digital Media

9 Jul

Across the years, in narrative terms particularly, the videogame genre has progressed in leaps and bounds. Whereas 25 years ago there was a plumber with a princess to save (who was always in another castle) we now have the likes of Mass Effect, Dragon Age and Knights of the Old Republic. What is particularly notable about this change is that, particularly with the list provided, most of the games which have made a difference in terms of narrative come from one company: Bioware. Make no mistake, it is to Bioware that we owe the advancement of the plotlines of the medium towards something like compelling narratives and quality storytelling. Bioware are the most inquisitive and most explorative of all videogame companies when it comes to the story stakes; this essay shall both detail their successes and analyse their shortcomings, both of which are many. Along the way significant other games shall be analysed in terms of what their narrative brought to the medium. Then relevant conclusions shall be drawn and foresight given as to the future of the genre.

It all began with one game, one very important game: Baldur’s Gate. Baldur’s Gate was the first significant game that Bioware produced; in this game they sowed the seeds of their greatest successes and failures in narrative terms. Technically speaking, the game is one of the 1990’s and also one of a small budget. Voice actors were a luxury beyond the reach of the fledgling studio, but indeed this was no significant obstacle for the team in question. Baldur’s Gate was a game set in the same world as Dungeons and Dragons. Bioware’s writing team did not need to create a world, they only needed to create a compelling story within it, and indeed they did. What is notable in terms of narrative is that something which became a staple of the narrative of the videogame genre in later years was proliferated in this virgin effort: the player character is silent, seemingly mute, presumably communicating with the world through telepathy. It is said that the silent player character helps strengthen player involvement with the narrative unfolding as it allows the player to more easily inhabit their character’s shoes. Various other games have taken this path, Half Life 1&2, Portal, All of the Elder Scrolls games, all the Halo games and the first Dead Space immediately spring to mind. It is certainly debatable whether this is something positive, and indeed that is an issue which shall be addressed later in this essay. The silent PC (Player character) is a trope which Bioware would continue throughout their games. Otherwise they make no innovations from a narrative point of view, that is to say if their major innovation is excluded. The idea of a save continued between games was something that had been toyed with for many years, but many companies had simply thrown the idea out of the window. This was still a time when the videogame had no need for professional writers to pad out their works with attempts at genuine art. Mathematicians wrote flimsy stories in a short time, concerning nothing in particular. Story existed to validate and explain gameplay: this was how the marine got his laser gun, this is why he hates alien robot zombie ninjas from hell, this is the particular alien robot zombie ninja that he wants to kill, he wants to kill him because he kidnapped his cowgirl girlfriend (who happens to have DD breasts, and be blonde). What they NEVER explain is why that particular marine has the ability to heal gunshot wounds with cake and bacon he found on the floor; or for that matter why alien robot zombie ninjas from hell have cake and bacon scattered on the floor around their base. While this may be fine to laugh at now, this is due to the luxury of hindsight. In reality, these games did little to distinguish themselves from one another, defining themselves through gameplay and graphics alone.

Indeed, Bioware is now approaching this point. For years they have essentially made games with the same overall storyline and different gameplay techniques. Ever since KOTOR  they have featured plots which progress as such: 1) Start in chaos, caused by an unknown enemy who appear in great numbers, are faceless and who the player is powerless to stop. 2)  Learn that these faceless goons are the minions of some maniacal Sith Lord/Machiavellian Emperor/Dragon/Techno-Organic race of unstoppable genocidal spaceships. 3) Learn that the PC is the only person with the ability and drive to stop said threat and assemble a team of specialists. 4) Fight until the end boss, beat the end boss and save the world. This formula is certainly not unique to Bioware, Western RPGs in general are the same, from Fable to The Elder Scrolls. Bioware has attempted to innovate recently to uneven effect in Dragon Age II and Mass Effect, providing alternate endings based on player activity and decisions. It is unfortunate, but unless serious innovation takes place at least in the next decade, the RPG as a genre is going to be left stuck in a rut.

People like Peter Molyneux  suppose that they can change the face of storytelling in videogames, purporting to be able to break the mould provide innovative experiences, but in the end simply typifying the genre rather than reinventing it. Black and White, The Movies and Fable are all excellent fun and unique, but they aren’t transcendental, something which their hype would have you believe. The role of the voice actor in defining the player character is something which has defined Fable, for the first time in Fable 3 the PC was voiced, as was the case in the Mass Effect series and now in Dragon Age II. Having a voice actor removes individuality from the experience, no longer can the player simply imagine the voice in his/her head to go with the character, however the involvement of the voice actor provides immersion and far greater accessibility. The essential problem with having a mute telepath as a main character ties in with the essential problem that defines the first-person viewpoint. Being essentially a floating telepathic gun/axe removes the feeling that the character has some impact on the world. Your character is created to deal with a global threat, that is all they exist to do. Conversations do not range beyond exposition and the player cannot put down roots in the world. In The Elder Scrolls I could buy a house, but for what? My character has no need to eat or sleep and no desire in particular to go back to that house, so why bother spending the profits of three adventures on it? Instead a shiny new sword of death +1 is bought.

If the essential role of the RPG is to provide the player with a feeling of empowerment, then the most striking example of the genre is World of Warcraft. Everything within this game is designed to make the player that little bit more greedy. Mounts and loot by the bucket load, Player Vs Player combat, epic foes, it has it all. It does not do anything striking or defining, it is simply well made. Yet it is the most popular MMO game by far, with upwards of 11 million players and an in-game economy larger than that of several dozen small countries. This is essentially the problem with Bioware as of the moment. Right now, it is working on sequels, nothing new. Not even a new Jade Empire. We have Dragon Age, KOTOR and Mass Effect sequels to expect. They are retreading past glories and are profiting hugely, but now that the company is middle aged, it is resting on its laurels and failing to innovate, particularly in the field of storytelling.

There are several smaller companies who are trying to do something new however. CD Projekt have released The Witcher 2 which is a riot and possesses a very mature storyline, Team Bondi have produced LA Noire which allows player investigation among other things. They are trying something new, which is admirable, but they have failed to recognise a key problem which is coming to the fore more and more often now: the battle of gameplay vs narrative. Is the narrative simply a backdrop to explain the character’s powers, such as in Bionic Commando, or is the gameplay simply something to drive the narrative forwards, such as in Heavy Rain and American McGee’s Alice? This is something which has not been solved, however some very small companies are producing some very interesting workarounds.

The market for console games is very different to that of PC games. For one thing the PC game market is very Europe-focussed as opposed to Japan and USA focussed. There is a series of games, produced by Taleworlds and published by Paradox Interactive, based in Sweden, called Mount and Blade. These games are medieval simulations, they simply create the most realistic interpretations of medieval combat that their budget will allow and they release their product into the world. There is some hokum about five identical kingdoms fighting pointless wars yadda yadda yadda, but the important thing to note is the element of player interaction. The player can be anything they want, but they have to work to earn it. The world continues on fine without the player’s presence and the player can choose what to be, whether that be a trader, a bandit or a ruler. The predominance of player narrative means that the storylines that one can craft are limited only by the tools provided. As the team expand the world, so more options become available and the storylines become more varied. Moreover, they provide (as is common with PC games) the development tools used for the games to the community, to allow the community to produce modifications (mods) which enhance the gameplay or change the game entirely. This level of player interaction means that the story is completely fresh and unique each time, although quality cannot be guaranteed.

Games in this vein, that is to say those which are obsessed with player interaction, have existed for sometime and have proven very popular, whether they are The Sims, Dwarf Fortress or Minecraft. The problem is that their very nature prompts the question, is a game an experience or a journey? Is a game like a film, taking you on a voyage through someone else’s vision? Or is it a set of tools, a sandbox, in which you can create your own vision?

As for the future of the evolution of narrative in digital media, it is uncertain. No major players seem willing to innovate and certainly no one is taking notice of smaller teams. In this troubled financial climate where marketing men have overbearing influence as opposed to the developers, callous hackers willing to destroy for the sheer hell of it, who would dare to innovate? Conservatism abounds, but the medium is in dire threat of growing stale. Videogames are the most exciting and unique of all forms of entertainment, if they are to continue their ascendance, then changes need to be made.

Until then, we can be safe in the knowledge that at least there are some who have the courage to go forwards.

Sean Cameron

What makes a good X-Men film?

9 Jul

With the release of X-Men: First Class, and the success that it has achieved, both critically and commercially, it is now time to ask the question that is on everyone’s lips: what makes a good X-Men film?

There have been a total of five X-Men films now, all of them are linked and all of them share cast members. Each has a large cast and across the life of the franchise no less than four different directors have transitioned the characters to film. Brett Ratner, Bryan Singer, Danny Wood and Mathew Vaughn have all helmed, however out of them, there are those who are clearly better at directing superhero films.

So, let’s start with the directors. Danny Wood directed X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Mathew Vaughn directed X-Men: First Class, Brett Ratner directed X-Men 3 and Bryan Singer directed X-Men and X-Men 2. Prior to X-Men, Danny wood directed the Academy Award winning Tsotsi, Brett Ratner had cut his gums on the Rush Hour series, Mathew Vaughn directed the superlative Kick-Ass among others and Bryan Singer broke into the scene with The Usual Suspects. These are all very different films, and indeed none are specifically similar to any of the X-Men films. Yes, some elements are comic, as in Kick Ass,  some are touching as in Tsotsi, some are very action orientated, as in Rush Hour and the intrigue present in The Usual Suspects is very much alive in the X-Men films. Does that mean that anyone of these directors has a different expertise that benefits the franchise more? No, it does not.

On closer inspection, it can be seen that one thing holds two directors above the others, that is a love of comic-books. Matthew Vaughn and his writing partner Jane Goldman have in the past adapted the work of Neil Gaiman and Mark Millar for the silver screen to explosive effect and clearly love the genre, their dialogue and understanding is near unmatched in the film industry. Bryan Singer is a comic-book geek, he loves the characters and has grown up with them. Alone, a love for the genre and the characters does not guarantee a good superhero film, Zack Snyder loved Watchmen a little too much, suffocating the film while Christopher Nolan, only vaguely interested in Batman beforehand, revolutionised the genre. What elevates the films of Singer and Vaughn is the balance between love and technical ability. While Wood and Ratner are both technically competent directors, they don’t care much for the characters, and indeed X-Men 3 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine are very much exercises in style over substance.

That is not to say that the characters present in X-Men aren’t exercises in style over substance themselves. Who among the X-Men has real depth? Xavier is an all-powerful rich boy, Wolverine is nigh-on indestructible, Storm is Halle Berry and Mystique can become anyone. There are those who have suffered real trauma and difficulty, such as Magneto, Nightcrawler, Rogue and Beast, yet they are never truly the focus. It is when an X-film gives more breathing room to its more troubled characters that they truly begin to rise. After all, that is what the X-Men are, the representatives of genetic diversity fighting against the bigotry and fear present in the world, frightened teenagers and troubled adults who have to come to terms with overwhelming responsibility. X-Men 2 and X-Men: First Class touch on these themes to varying degrees and are all the better for it, with the truly interesting characters being given plenty of time in the sun. Again, this is where Wolverine and X-Men 3 fail, both are nothing more than glorified action scenes pasted together with vague attempts at pathos.

So, it has been established then, X-Men: First Class and X-Men 2 are the best examples of the X-franchise, while Wolverine and X-Men 3 fall flat. The directors are what truly make the difference in these productions. From casting, to scriptwriting, to producing, the directors have had a hand in many aspects of the final product that constitutes each film, not least shooting it. Danny Wood and Brett Ratner fall short where Mathew Vaughn and Bryan Singer stand tall.

So what makes a good X-Men film?

The director.

So, where next? Fox has stated that they envisage a trilogy being produced from the newly released X-film, something which should surely be celebrated. Whether it will be Mathew Vaughn at the helm is something that is yet to be seen, but one thing is sure, now that we know what happens when toads are struck by lightning and that you shouldn’t mess with the Juggernaut, bitch, we can comfortably look forward to more X-drama, X-fun and most importantly, X-citement.

Sean Cameron