Tag Archives: Mad Max

Trying to be a Game

Trying to be a Game

At some point, the umbrella is too small. You keep throwing things under it, hoarding definitions and references and landmarks, until it stops being an umbrella altogether and starts being a noose. The ones that hoisted the parasol as a banner start to resent the foisted structure.

Of course then the problem is one of nomenclature. What do you even call it if not this thing? This is a struggle that strikes all artistic mediums after a certain point of maturity. Once all the obvious bits are done away with, you have to start asking “what not” instead of “where to begin.” All the fruit, low-hanging or otherwise, has left the tree.

That’s how you encounter situations like the 240-hour Modern Times Forever, a Danish film that depicts how Helsinki’s Stora Enso headquarters building would decay over the next few millennia. Few would dare call it a film as something you could casually watch on your television, but it still is a categorical fit. (Strangely, though, it has a lot in common with many of the first films ever made including Eadweard Muybridge’s galloping horse.)

Video games are finding themselves critically and quickly at this point. Over the short span of 70-ish years, the industry has gone from figuring out what it needs to do to figuring out what it can do. It needed to give people an interactive experience. But what could it necessarily do beyond that?

The term “low-hanging fruit” has earned a negative connotation, but it’s not always a bad thing. The grasp and execution of it all lays the foundation for what lies higher up. Lower doesn’t mean it’s within reach; it doesn’t preclude innovation. In fact, it often requires it.

Certainly the earliest and most recognizable video games were of the needs variety. Consider Pong, a tennis-based game that took a simple and immediately intuitive competitive structure and gameplay loop into the history books. Then Asteroids and Centipede, two classics that arguably rode the space wave amidst the recently launched NASA Space Shuttle program into relevancy and, consequently, popularity.

Very quickly—relative to other mediums like music and film—video games wanted to do more, jumping from tree to tree in pursuit of higher and higher fruit. From simplistic coin-ops to the home console to the modern era of games, we eventually arrive at the like of Proteus and Dear Esther. Whole genres push the greater corral like interactive novels and, well, I guess you could call them experiments.

This is all a very long and roundabout way to bring up something that has been cropping up lately: Mad Max previews. First off, it’s crazy for any of the previewers to compare with or expect anything resembling the recent film Mad Max: Fury Road. Their mostly aligned release schedules seem to be more coincidence than anything else. It’s completely detached from the movie.

But the second part is that ignoring that first thing brings up some interesting considerations. Whereas the film was full of life and drama and implements that are exceedingly specific to what director George Miller wanted to achieve, the game appears to be a by-the-numbers affair, albeit a rather competent one. But lifeless it is by comparison.

It’s not that the game itself lacks content or life; on the contrary, developers Avalanche Studios (the folks behind the rambunctious and teeming Just Cause games) and publisher Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment (the same behind the Batman Arkham franchise) seem to have instilled a lot of freneticism into the game. With that combined pedigree, it seems inevitable the kind of game they would make.

That inevitability seems to have trapped them, though. Instead of questioning what the game can be, they made what it needed to be. It reads like a checklist (car combat, melee combat, open world, outposts, etc.) and even more so when the layers peel back. Things like throwing up into the air trackable/countable achievements like yanked tires or freed territories. Jason Shreier of Kotaku made the astute and appropriate Ubisoft comparison.

Not that there’s anything even wrong with the 1 + 2 = Mad Max equation. The structure seems like a natural fit for the fiction and the universe, so it can hardly be blamed as a capitalization on a gift horse. But the described framework quickly became a prescriptive one where reach and grasp were easily met by fruit so low it might as well already be in the basket.

Mad Max

It seems like Mad Max is trying so hard to be a game that it never wanted to explore what else it could be. It seems almost comfortable under the umbrella, watching others push out into the rain and stumble and fall. In the expansion under the brim, you go further and further until a new shelter takes in your borders.

This is not to disparage a game that isn’t even out yet nor is it to put down the artists and developers and designers behind the scenes putting it out. This is just a statement—a plea to not always want to be a game but rather be whatever you need to be. You may not fit under this umbrella and others may not join you under yours, but that’s better than slotting into a mold that never quite fit.

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Mad Max: Fury Road Review: Pedal to the Metal

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road is the most cogent insanity you will see all year. Every step of the way is another that takes you further away from recognizing anything resembling reality but each thunderous push forward makes sense. With so much empty action and hollow drama out there, it’s remarkable to find a film that gives madness with substance.

Not a sequel (fan theories be damned) but not being touted as a reboot, this entry into the franchise finds Max (Tom Hardy) once more trying to survive in a desert wasteland following some cataclysmic event forcing the total collapse of society. He’s captured by a battle-tuned gang called the War Boys only to be set out again as a chained up “blood bag” for a pursuer in the chase.

The hunt is after an Imperator named Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a leader of the group that has turned against their cultish king Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Joe has been holding beautiful women as his wives for breeding—seeing as how the desert near-apocalypse has turned everyone hideous—but Furiosa could abide no more and seeks to set it right.

From the beginning to even the end of that narrative setup—and all the way to the end—is the most bat shit crazy and overwhelming dive into a pool of lunacy. It’s a hungry sort of insanity surrounding all of the action, like if a red-tailed hawk didn’t just want to but had to dive faster so he took hold of a passing F-16 and went headfirst into a pile of fireworks and gasoline.

And it’s all totally comprehensible. With the combat-ready big rigs and “pole cats”—the guys you see in the trailer riding atop swaying poles attached to speeding trucks—and the inexplicable but absolutely necessary flaming guitar War Boy, it would be easy to lose sight of the purpose of each action sequence. But director George Miller has an uncanny knack for making visual absurdity wholly digestible and beautiful.

At no point does it come across as action happening for the sake of action. A great deal of it borders on gratuitous, but it fits so well within the world Miller has built that it all seems natural. There’s a logic to the reactions and nutso solutions for even the smallest problems that crop up. Siphoning nitro from mouth directly to the engine and tank-convertible cars and even more hysteria that defies words all nestle right into your arms like an exploding, bleeding, screaming teddy bear.

Mad Max: Fury Road

That is perhaps the most impressive part: the world-building is so exhaustive. Like how scarcity of resources have led to distinctly exclusive encampments that specialize solely in those assets. Or how singularly capable a cult leader can manipulate beliefs into unwavering loyalty and a twisted sense of camaraderie. Every single piece of Fury Road seems completely considered.

That part is not a surprise considering Miller has been storyboarding and concept arting since the late 1990s. There wasn’t even a screenplay for the longest time. The surprising part is how from that unconventional development there also emerged several strong, stout themes.

There isn’t a lot of dialogue—just like the other Mad Max films—but that allows everything to be intellectually distilled into just primal senses. While primarily all about survival, characters emerge from their visually stated origins just as do your desires for these characters. You know who you want to survive and who needs a bloody retribution right off the bat and you begin to intuit why along the way.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Take for example the War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult), the aforementioned pursuer to Furiosa. You might recognize him as the fellow in the trailers yelling into abject terror something about a lovely day. Already a delectable turn for normally nice boy Hoult, Nux goes through several transformations. And as you understand the strangely Norse-infused ideologies of Joe, it makes more and more sense in a demented way.

The mythology extends further into even the name of the movie. Joe’s wives act very much in the fashion of Greek Furies, or Norse Valkyries. In their pursuit of reclaiming Joe’s “property,” these women are guiding—picking and choosing—those that die and ascend to the prize promised them.

And then there’s the feminist angle, which is not necessarily feminist so much as it is humanist. “We are not things,” says the wives. And once the elderly women enter the picture, they make a structured and bold entrance. It’s a statement about possession of people as well as the intrinsic value of a body versus spirit. Absolutely there is a feminist statement in it, but there’s also a core that seeks to defeat universal folly. (But really, those women kick ass. Don’t forget that.)

Mad Max: Fury Road

There are a few disappointing bits to the film, though. As a consequence of the lack of dialogue, which is also a consequence of being incessantly chased and exploded, there isn’t much of a discrete arc outside of Nux. Max and Furiosa are mostly the same as when they started by the end of the movie and the wives don’t project much personality beyond wanting to not be sex slaves. And due to the heavy use of mouth-obscuring masks and Hardy’s trademark gruff, much of that dialogue is indecipherable.

So then unless you are able to pick up and buy into the instinctual development of these characters, it’s a lot harder to care for them. You begin with broad swaths of personalization and as the movie goes on, you see the layers emerge rather than listening for them. Showing is a lot harder to do than telling anyway, but it’s so much more effective. With all the carnage, though, showing is even harder, but Miller still manages it, though not as much as he could probably do with a few dozen more hours.

Miller is still a master of kinetic filmmaking, and this time he has injected his cinematic statement with hefty social commentary. He never overindulges himself into a gratuitous state, never going chargeless into a pointless fight or explosion. He’s hewn Mad Max: Fury Road into a sharp and profound and striking film that you should definitely see.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Final Score: 10 out of 10

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The Year in Review: Not Angry, Just Disappointed

The Year in Review: Not Angry, Just Disappointed

This year has been a rough one. Compared to the past few years where you could go into January with high hopes and a belief that this industry was headed somewhere good, leaving 2014 also leaves an aftertaste. There are some usual suspects that always make us shift uneasily in our seats, but when they stack up high like a plate of endless pancakes, it’s cause for concern.

Concern and indignation, really. First let’s consider that this holiday season looked like a banger back at the turn of 2014. We had games like Batman: Arkham Knight and The Order: 1886 coming at us hard and fast. But Arkham Knight‘s October turned to 2015, as did The Order. The same goes for Mad Max and The Division. (Technically aimed at the next year anyways, even The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt suffered yet another delay, breaking promises and deadlines.)

This turned the end of the year from a gangbusters gameapalooza to a rather tepid end to a depressing year. (We’ll get into that in another TYIR.) While not terrible games, we are left with Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker and Lara Croft: The Temple of Osiris for December. November was a little better off with Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and LittleBigPlanet 3 along with Far Cry 4 and Dragon Age: Inquisition (and the obligatory Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed releases), but still not the fresh bounty we’d been promised.

The Last of Us Remastered

Perhaps worse than that, we were fed stale (if refined) bits of bread and told they were good as new. This year was rife with HD rereleases, an invitation almost too obvious with the nascent years of these new consoles. The biggest and more recent titles of yester-generation came back like Grand Theft Auto V and The Last of Us, both of which proved their objective quality and impressive aesthetics.

As devs figure out how best to milk the hardware of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, we further received the announcements of rereleases of DmC, Saints Row IV, and supposedly Borderlands. It’s a marginally improved concession for convenience if you want to play these games, but the draw of playing on our infant nostalgia is wearing thin. It’s almost becoming annoying—insulting.

You probably noticed that there’s a big HD rerelease missing from the aforementioned 2014 litany: Halo: The Master Chief Collection. That’s because it leads right into the biggest trend of disappointment for the year. Case in point, one of the biggest components of the Spartan anthology—the online multiplayer matchmaking—simply did not work. This lead to both Bonnie Ross, head of 343 Industries, to writing a personal apology to players and throwing an offering to the voracious wolves.

Halo: The Master Chief Collection

The biggest and most advertised portion of the collection was, in a word, useless. It’s still a lovely and centralized way to play the campaigns of the main Halo series of games, but all that marketing about playing every map with all your Xbox One buddies just couldn’t be made true. And unfortunately, it wasn’t the only one with that problem.

Driveclub didn’t have its full capabilities until this month, a chasm of lacking features including weather and, most importantly, online play. Its launch popularity broke its own server infrastructure, rendering much of it useless to its players, which then drove Evolution Studios to delay the Driveclub PlayStation Plus Edition.

Then there was Assassin’s Creed Unity, a true debacle on almost all counts. Frame rate often fell to nightmare status and crashes were strewn about like sprinkles at a Baskin-Robbins. Missing faces were commonplace enough to question the veracity of general healthcare during the French Revolution. It was so bad that Ubisoft offered free DLC and a free game so as to surreptitiously attempt a legal dodge.

Assassin's Creed Unity

Ubisoft, actually, just hasn’t had a good year in general. It had a solid highlight with Far Cry 4 and South Park: The Stick of Truth, but its highly publicized and anticipated Watch Dogs turned out to be somewhat of a dud. The Crew also turned out to be quite the uninteresting product and not without its own fair share of technical issues.

Combined with putting out the single most broken game of the year in Unity, Ubisoft has a lot of ground to make up in 2015. (They do get credit, though, for putting out Child of Light and Valiant Hearts: The Great War.) Quite a few studios coming out of 2014, actually, have a long road of ahead of them.

Bungie put out a similarly mediocre but functional game in Destiny. We thought they were just Halo developers and this would prove they could do more, but we ended up with Halo with odd bits of MMO mixed in and a mild proof that they do absolutely love pseudo-robotic space warriors with flying AI buddies.

Destiny

While not a broken or a bad game, it was disappointing. Much of the big, triple-A roster this year, in fact, was disappointing. Thief, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!, everything just mentioned, and so much more failed to live up to expectations either set by studio reputation, past franchise titles, or even just good demos as past trade shows. You have plenty of reason to be mad about some of these and many other things, but really, I’m just disappointed at this point.

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