Investment in Character and the Mystery Box

Earlier this week one of the team sent around a link to a lecture by legendary film and TV Producer J.J.Abrams, called ‘The Mystery Box‘. If you’ve never watched a TED lecture before this is as good an introduction as any – whatever you think of Abrams, his films, (‘Armageddon’, ‘Cloverfield’), or TV Shows (‘Alias’, ‘Lost’) he”s a compelling speaker.  Excitable, engaging, passionate, he talks his field with the conviction you’d expect from such a reliable money maker. The whole thing”s worth a watch, but the inspiring moment for me is 11 minutes in when he show a clip from ‘Jaws’. In the clip Roy Scheider’s character is in his dining room with his son and wife.  He’s having a bad day – this is ‘Jaws’, please don”t ask why – and as he sits at the table putting his face in his hands, his son starts copying his actions. Scheider becomes aware of the copying, plays up to it, father and son snarl at each other, and then Scheider says:

“Come here.  Give us a kiss”

his son:

“Why?”

to which Scheider replies:

”cos I need it.”

It really is a great moment. The point Abrams makes is that it’s scenes like this that make ‘Jaws’ work. It’s the investment in character. If it was two hours of what is and was, even at the time, a pretty poor mechanical, rubber shark, the film wouldn’t be the classic it is. Looking at a different film, it’s the character of Ripley and the dynamic between her and the crew members that make ‘Alien(s)(2)(3)’ so utterly compelling. The monster’s not the narrative, it’s just the MacGuffin to put the already well-formed character of Ripley under pressure and show her responding to unthinkably harrowing events. Both ‘Jaws’ and ‘Alien’ invest in the most important narrative vehicle of all – character. Point made. I finished GTA IV this week. A stunning game by any standards and, unusually, one I was totally compelled to finish, even through some of the more frustrating missions. And my take-out from the whole thing, the whole, incredible, 10/10 experience, is that Rockstar are, at this moment in time, the best exponents of game narrative in the industry. Why? Because while the story’s actually very simple – immigrant comes to America seeking revenge on the people who double crossed him and his friends – the  investment in character is off the scale. The best of what our industry”s capable of; totally compelling, believable characters throughout. I could talk all night about the lesser parts, Roman, Little Jacob, the hilarious Real Bad-man, but it’s the hero, Nico Belic, who really shines. Reading Edge this week I saw him described in one interview as evil. I guess this is one way of looking at him. I was chatting to our Art Director about this today though, and you know I think evil undersells what Rockstar have done with Nico. Amoral, yes, but evil, I’m not so sure. A couple of examples to make the point: late in the game there’s this moment when Nico finally thinks he’s found the traitor, Florian. Confronting this old friend in a penthouse apartment you’re prepared for the confrontation to end all confrontations, and then Florian steps out from behind the bed, as gay as a lord and innocent with it. The relationship that subsequently develops between Nico and Florian is amazingly well pitched – funny, yes, camp, yes, but also very cleverly handled.  The high point for me is this scene, just after Nico’s taken down a ‘hater’ in the park for Florian.  They’re in a car heading back to Florian”s apartment.  Nico, normally a man of few words, suddenly delivers this lengthy monologue about honestly in politics, about how Florian shouldn’t be dating this politician who sells himself on his married family image, and finishes by saying something like: “I’m sorry Florian.  I don’t normally talk this much. But you’re my friend. I don’t want to see you hurt.” Words to that effect. It’s a great moment. Later still Nico’s talking to Kate, the sister of an American Irish criminal family, about her dead cop brother after his funeral. She intimates that Nico must be pleased to see another cop dead, to which he says: “I have nothing against cops.  They’re just regular guys trying to get by.” What comes through time and time again with Nico is that although amoral he’s actually hugely principled, driven by a deep seated belief structure centered on family, friends, honour. He has a sophistication and complexity that you rarely see in any medium, let alone a videogame. In Nico Belic, videogame character comes of age. To quote J.J.Abrams:

”when people do sequels…they’re ripping off the wrong thing. You’re not supposed to rip off the shark or the monster, you know, if you’re going to rip something off, rip off the character, rip off the stuff that matters…”

Good words.

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