I wanted to start this post with a picture of a vampire smoking Cloves. That didn’t pan out. Then I searched “pretentious vampire” but mostly got pictures of vampires and/or goths I respect.
If an okay game thinks that it’s bad, is it actually bad? If the game seems ready to not just acknowledge its flaws but actually incept them into a player’s mind, what does it say if you judge the game according to those flaws? I just downloaded and tried the game BloodLust Shadowhunter (all spelling and punctuation is not on me!). It’s billed as a dungeon crawler, though the third-person perspective makes me think more of its other massive influence, Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines. You are a vampire, and you are creeping about and occasionally biting people on their necks. That’s a fine idea, and one I’m usually willing to hop into—even if, as with the execrable DARK. From what I’ve seen, BloodLust is better than that, even if the graphics don’t quite measure up.
However, the game sure seems nervous about itself. As a sign of potential insecurity, I played BloodLust Shadowhunter (I can just smell the cloves) for 82 minutes, according to Steam. When I died, after clearing a dungeon, and a few story quests, and gaining 3 levels, and putting a lot of quarrels into giant apes of various shades, the game still said (in English I’m cleaning up a touch here): “Noticed you only played a few minutes, here are some tips.” Word? An hour and a half is only a few minutes? I wonder if that message is just primed to play the first time someone quits, based on the assumption that folks will punch out fast due to jank and/or bugs. I didn’t really have either, save for one area I couldn’t access for what seemed like a story task; even there, though, I was getting a dialogue indicating I just didn’t have the necessary strength to achieve the goal, so it’s vampiric life imitating actual life!
I just watched a thoroughly not great film. There were actors in it, including Willem Dafoe and Amy Smart, who I enjoy. Another person was in it is who is relatively famous and has a roughly equally famous brother. The movie was not enjoyable. I watched another movie a day earlier that was equally unsatisfying, and so forgettable I had to spend ten minutes learning how to check the “recently watched” section of Amazon because I was sure I watched it there, only to eventually find it on Netflix. It featured an actor known more for his comedic work in what was a trailer-promised exciting and dramatic turn. It was also bad!
I bring the movies up because both films were, at their hearts, action films that asked very little of the viewer. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve also watched “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Snatch,” and “Total Recall” in the same period of days. Oh, and the 2014 Robocop, which I quite enjoyed. An action film doesn’t need to demand attention to detail and a deep appreciation for string-instrument battles to be great, though it does need to demand these things to be “Red Cliff.” I am happy to watch bullets and puncher happen in a filmed and fantastic setting, if for no other reason than to distract myself from how often such things happen in the real, actual world and folks of my hue are the targets. My wife and I just watched Rocky IV while partaking of Giantbomb’s (note that as a Premium podcast, I’m not sure exactly what non-members will see when they try that link) newest feature; that movie is music and montages and jingoism and it was great!
What struck me, though, after having consumed a couple of thoroughly poor films and then playing an early access game—with some major graphical and translational work to be done, after which they could attend to the UI issue—is how different the criteria I apparently apply to each medium are. More precisely, how different the qualities that cause a thing to register as bad.
With a movie, the main thing I notice when it’s bad isn’t shot framing or camera steadiness or even acting quality. TV shows, acting quality is a thing; my wife’s been watching Gossip Girl because she was home sick, and I’ve managed to be in the same room as that show for no longer than seven minutes because every line is terrible. Casting also kills me there, because when a show says “Look at this hot and sexy person,” I need to feel convinced the person is hot and/or sexy. Daniel Craig coming out of the water in Casino Royale was something I didn’t need to argue with. Scarlett Johansson ever anywhere at all, same thing. I recognize there’s a matter of taste at work there (and certainly the male gaze is involved, but as we’re discussing my subjective opinion on aesthetics that’s the gaze I have handy), but everyone in Gossip Girl is a twig of a gender and lip gloss is happening. Can’t do it.
Mostly, though, what I notice in bad movies is plot. More specifically, the presence or absence of plot and its progression. What I was most struck by after both of these bad recent movies was how little actually seemed to happen, and how low the stakes seemed to be, and how little it all mattered. This is significant, for me, because I can abso-damn-lutely tell you what was happening in the episodes of Gossip Girl I was present for a few minutes of (kid breaks out of a hospital; a game of truth or dare is escalating to a dangerous place and consequences exist; a girl is less popular than another girl but wants to curry her favor; girls are coming of age; these two people slept together before and made a thing, they want to maybe sleep together again). Nashville, Drop Dead Diva, Ugly Betty…I know, at least in general terms, what is up. Who the players are. What the stakes are. Why Juliette’s torso looks strange for the actress who plays her (hint: she’s pregnant).
Those two movies I watched, though, presented far greater challenges in terms of plot retention. Which wasn’t to say that the plots were remotely complex. I’ll sit down with the aforementioned Red Cliff and say—to anyone in earshot—“See, it’s key that Kongming is playing here, because his music tells the strategist of Wu that he is a man who can be trusted. Similarly, Kongming is coming to know that this is a man of serious mein and power.” I want to know these things, and communicate them. I love nuance.
But both of the movies I watched, which coincidentally happened to take place in Southern areas, had things to do with families, and feuds, and crime, and cops. Guns were fired. Women were threatened. Yup.
Note that, again, I can talk about every season of Justified in macro- and microcosm and discuss threads and so forth. But when a movie is bad, that stuff just passes right through me like unto a McDonald’s regular patty.
This contrasts with video games because, in a video game, I’m paying attention to most of the stuff that doesn’t matter to me in a movie. Voice acting is a distraction. Lighting and camera work, those are things. But I’ll still happily spend exactly as long running around and stabbing zombies/dark zombies/mummies (these are essentially the same model) with a dagger, mastering when to right click and when not to, and developing tricky strategies—I noticed my Eye of Kilrogg/Mage Hand spell had a damage value, so I started sniping monsters to whittle them down; I realized that crossbows appear to do penetrative damage to all monsters in a line, and adjusted my tactics—as I will watching a single movie, and at the end of that time period I don’t go “Shit, I sure wish I hadn’t spent x on that experience, and won’t put myself in a position to do it again.” I’m gonna log back in with my vampire, and stab more things with my dagger, and go into that dungeon that the developers straight up warn me I can’t really resurrect in/out of. I will do it because the illusion of agency somehow makes participating much more acceptable.