Children of Freeman

Whether or not you like Children of Men, you should (at the very least) be able to appreciate it as a barometer for demonstrating just how far games have to go before they catch up, at least in terms of storytelling, with movies. Of course, in a perfect world, blockbuster games could be something other than violent chaos with B-movie ambitions. But so long as perfectly talented developers like Hideo Kojima inexplicably worship the work of directors like Ryuhei Kitamura, the popular face of gaming is doomed to be little more than Hollywood’s brain-damaged little brother.

All throughout Children, I was dogged by a single nagging thought: I hope Valve is taking notes, because this movie is basically crib notes for Half-Life 3. Or HL4, if those Episodes are really supposed to be HL3. Whatever. The point here is that Alfonso Cuarón basically created a big-screen rendition of the world seen in Half-Life 2 — a dystopic future in which humanity has succumbed to an outside force, venturing beyond the confines of a few fascist-run cities is deadly, an underground resistance with a meaningfully Greek symbol has arisen, and no one can have children — but actually made it interesting. Convincing, even. Sure, the agent of humanity’s downfall is different; it’s aliens in one case, a flu pandemic in another. But the results are the same.

Part of what makes Children so much more convincing is the world itself; the film’s vision of London really and truly feels like a city clinging desperately to civilization, its residents seem sincerely despairing. Something that bugged me about HL2 was its utter sterility; the world was run down but still felt oh-so-sanitary. Compare each work’s respective train station sequences; in HL2, you have a few people standing around looking sad, while in Children the stations are packed with refugees being savagely abused by armed guards. Or the climactic shootouts in the ruins of rundown apartment buildings — Children’s hovels are squalid, crumbling, packed with squatters haplessly torn apart in the crossfire. HL2’s are more like fixer-uppers, and even though the few residents just kinda sit there they’re perfectly safe.

And that’s the biggest difference, I guess. Games just don’t feel dangerous. Even though you’re actually more involved in the events of a game, Children was far more harrowing. The hero and his companions seemed vulnerable at every moment. You know how Gordon Freeman’s supposed to be this everyman, a nerdy physicist who manages to battle his way through improbable odds through sheer adrenaline-fueled luck? Children’s Theo actually is. He never so much as touches a gun, let alone collects Gordon’s arsenal of rifles and rockets launchers (all of which he tucks neatly into his pants pocket when not in use, one supposes). Theo is pushed forward by a combination of desperation and conviction; Gordon keeps going forward because… well, because he has to reach the end of the level, I guess.

The only genre that really tries to capture that sense of fragility and imminent death is survival horror, but immersion is ananthema to the Resident Evils of the world. Survival horror games are seemingly designed to take you out of the game at every turn, whether by poor controls or clumsy mechanics. RE4 and some of the Silent Hill games almost get it right, but not quite. And then their storylines are tremendously stupid, to say the least. Why not a little genuine science fiction instead of ludicrous sci-fi/fantasy hybrids?

In summary, I’m old and grouchy and don’t have a lot of patience for the uncanny valley and big, dumb blockbusters. Clearly I should be ignored.

27 thoughts on “Children of Freeman

  1. I thought part of the point of HL2 was that Gordon is a character essentially without any agency. He has this giant world through which there is exactly one path, and the man in the suit makes fun of him for it.

    Also, what about System Shock 2, or Thief, for fps games with a sense of fragility and imminent death?

  2. That’s giving HL2 way more credit for self-effacement than it deserves. And stealth games have their own issues, since they boil down to sitting in one spot and wait for enemies to look the other way. That’s not vulnerability, just tedium.

  3. “Survival horror games are seemingly designed to take you out of the game at every turn, whether by poor controls or clumsy mechanics.”

    I don’t think the intention is to reduce immersion, although that may be a side-effect. All of survival horror’s trademarks (invasive camera angles, unhelpful control schemes, few save points with limted usage in some cases, etc) are designed to unsettle the player. I find survival horror games pretty immersive myself, mostly as a result of audio cues, or the anticipation of action.

    But yeah, the storylines and dialogue are generally pretty poor in survival horror games. Even Resident Evil 4’s dialogue was nonsensical, which kind of jarred against the rest of the game for me, although the (few, crazy) moaners would’ve moaned a lot louder had it not been so.

  4. If only games could be thought-provoking like Pan’s Labyrinth or Children of Men. But I don’t think we’ll ever get there. One medium is designed for story, and the other one is designed for interactivity.

  5. What do you think about Bioware’s announcement of future episodic content? I’m willing to supress my typical jaded gamer response (no pun intended) … at least for now. It seems like if any developer can pull off quality storytelling in episodic format, Bioware can.

  6. “since they boil down to sitting in one spot and wait for enemies to look the other way. That’s not vulnerability, just tedium.”
    That analysis is rather unfair — you don’t have to play it that way. Especially in System Shock 2, which prides itself in letting you choose what sort of character you’ll play. Even in Thief, you can make the enemy look away, or find another route, or just take them out.
    And if you do wait for the enemy to look the other way, it usually doesn’t take that long. The only tedious part is maybe if you get spotted, then have to wait out an alarm — but in System Shock 2, in that case I think you can also locate a security terminal and fix the issue. Or you could reload your quicksave.

  7. “One medium is designed for story, and the other one is designed for interactivity.”
    Well, as far as using games to tell a story, I still think Grim Fandango does a top-notch job. I also thought Indigo Prophecy’s failings were not a commentary on inherent problems with the medium, and, taken as a sign of the potential of the medium, is fairly promising. Just play the demo — they get a good sense of tension and emotion in that first scene.

  8. “Or you could reload your quicksave.”

    In which case, just how vulnerable are you? At least survival horror games limit your save opportunities to build a real element of risk.

    Games aren’t incapable of telling good stories by any means. It’s just that, so far, a good story and an immersive experience have been mutually exclusive. Prove me wrong, Internet!

  9. I’m not sure I even know what immersive means, here. Is Star Control 2 immersive? Is Indigo Prophecy? Is Facade? Gears of War? Oblivion? What elements of a game make it immersive, or not immersive?

  10. “Immersive” in the sense that you feel like you’re actually participating in the game’s events rather than watching or directing a robot from a safe distance. FPS kind of stuff. I don’t know. I’m basically talking out of my ass with no way to substantiate my stupid comments.

  11. Interesting in that we’re not even talking about how the stories of games match up to conematic storytelling as much as how the mechanics of videogames can inherently cripple the audience’s ability to emotionaly interact with the story being told.

    Funny how if you were to take the climactic battle scene from CoM and plaster a health meter over it (or, god forbid, make it so that the characters could absorb multiple gunshot wounds the same way that most videogame characters can), the whole schpiel would’ve been drained of it’s “OMG HOLY FUCK HOLY FUCK OMG” emotional punch.

  12. Wait, the movie version has a huge battle scene? Oh, FUCK YOU, HOLLYWOOD. STOP SHITTING ON EVERY BOOK THAT I LIKE!

  13. Don’t worry Morzas – the “battle scene” isn’t much of a testosterone-drenched Hollywood affair as much as it’s just the main characters (and a bunch of civilians) just trying to stay alive as the jackasses all around them try to blow each other to bits. It’s Gears of War meets The Nativity Story (as seen from the point of view of someone NOT clad in 300 pounds of armor and armed with a gun the size of a Volkswagen).

  14. Easy, Morzas. CoM is a touching movie, you shouldn’t worry there. A strict adaptation it is not, though. It’s very loosely based on the original story, but it manages to be a fine work of filmmaking.

  15. I don’t think movies are more about storytelling than games. Both have the same ability to tell stories, but each with its own abilities and limitations. In fact, if we should say that games are more about interactivity (a feature also present in plain literature), we could say that movies are about visuals.

    Some Tim Burton’s film are considered movie classics, yet most of them lack a coherent, good story. As for games, they have yet to develop their own sense of storytelling. Something fit for them. And like Parish said, there are some genius like Hideo Kojima, that have proven (not always, I admit it) that storytelling can be very unique when it comes to videogames. Didn’t we felt a sense of danger when we first encounter The Sorrow or Psycho Mantis and had NO idea of how to deal with him? Kojima used our established knowledge about “how a game is supposed to be” and turned them against us.

    And, of course, there’s the subjectivity. I know I have felt much related to game characters over the years. Vivi from FFIX, for example. A 9 year-old child dealing with his own death, not as a decision, but just because that’s the way life is. It moved me. And the sense of danger didn’t come from the gameplay. Of course it won’t come from there, ’cause all games CAN be finished, one way or another. No, it came from the character itself and the story he tells.

    Uh, too long. Sorry.

  16. Did you see the way they ate cookies in Children of Men? That was way more nuanced than any cookie-eating I’ve ever seen in a videogame. I mean, holy hell.

  17. you make an interisting point, and initially when I saw the first few trailers I saw the simularities between HL2 and Children of men. Although HL2 has this surreal aspect with the GMan cameos in TVs, monitors and this couple who always appear in the corner grieving over their loss. HL2 has a sense of opression and dread a pretty convincing City 17, but it always has moments where something is manipulated and monitored this way like a Twilight Zone episode. The Half Life series may never see an ending. I’m betting that after these episodic content we will get another cliff hanger for HL2 while children of men has the opertunity to be one complete narrative story. Personally I would love to see Gordon kick down a door and reviel you’ve been in space in floating spaceship with old men with white powdered make up dressed in leather trench coats who are controlling everything with wierd little bugs in their heads like Dark City instead. At least that would explain HL2’s limitations in creating a real world in City 17. Or GMan is actually Riff Raft and has to rocket back to Transexula.

  18. I don’t understand everyone’s love for Children of Men. I was disappointed throughout the movie. Nothing seemed to click–nothing was in all that much depth. And I think that was because of the meaningless story and poor acting. Julianna Moore appeared to me (perhaps my taste is incorrect) to be a horrible actress. And she seemed to lead the way. Everyone except for Clive Owen (and Michael Crane, I suppose) seemed horrible at acting. For instance, Cid’s constant reference to himself in the third person didn’t improve his character; he couldn’t seem to utilize the mannerism correctly. And the lady who used to work at a hospital and help women give birth seemed to freak out and then calm down for no reason at all (let’s not forget the overly peculiar landlord-esque lady who just happens to bypass the “amazing” battle scene unharmed (did anyone else think that was humorous? )). The only part of the movie that I actually liked Cid was when he shut the land lord lady up. I could not stand the long haired terrorist either. What kind of terrorist leaders allow an underling to be so arrogant? (Does anyone remember how in The Godfather the mafia leader tells his own son to shut up? His own son.) The pieces did not seem to fit. Let’s not forget the end scene. What happens exactly (I’m going to assume that the boat Tomorrow holds all the right people to save the day)? Hmm. Okay. I don’t care anymore. I thought the story could have been told much better and that the characters could have been given far more depth (I cannot believe that the soldiers in the building would just let Owens walk down the stairs carrying a BABY in a battle zone. No protection? GIVE ME SOME GODDAMN ANSWERS instead of making me make assumptions as to how people are feeling). I was disappointed.

    I did enjoy the visuals and the music (and I did enjoy the scene that you, Jparish, posted about several days ago), but otherwise….meh. (I kind of wish they cut the story out all together, and made a fucking beautiful silent –SHUT UP POOR ACTORS, though some music would be nice–film).

    P. S. I watched the movie with a friend who said he thought Children of Men was going to be the best movie of the year (he already saw it) and afterwards I couldn’t help but think that the story was garbage. Then I remembered that he loves Elebits (or whatever it’s called) and that I could not stand its story (its interesting use of the wii remote is what makes the game). I guess I’m trying to say that the story didn’t seem like a big deal in this movie. It was mangled by poor acting, and instead others things made people enjoy it.

  19. i saw this movie last night. fantastic. and then my friends and i erupted into a debate about what prog rock is, and we capped it off by watching the videos of Meat Loaf’s I would do anything for love, and GnR’s November Rain. Thank you jeremy, thank you.

  20. The name “Cookies” derives from the Dutch word “koekje” which means little cake, and arrived in the English language through the Dutch in North America. It spread from American English to British English where biscuit is still the more general term.


  21. At lan parties, me and my friends would buy Chewy Chips Ahoy and put them on the sloping tops of our monitors, where the heat would escape. The result? Tasty, warm cookies between frags.

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