The Raindance lineup has now been fully announced, and the schedule should be up on the website in the next day or so, leaving me some time to go over some of my high points from what I’ve seen so far. I’m going to kick off with Playing Columbine, a documentary by Danny Ledonne that I caught at Montreal’s Fantasia this year. I don’t think its played any other major festivals yet, but I know Raindance will be its UK debut. The film looks at the controversy surrounding Ledonne’s own online game, Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, based on the infamous 1999 high school shootings, which provoked a media uproar in the US when the press first cottoned on to it. Is there any more to the game than a sick cash-in of a terrible tragedy, especially given the role video games were alleged to have played in creating such killers? Ledonne himself certainly thinks so, and uses his documentary to explore the current state of the video gaming and its so far neglected potential.
I’m not much up on the current state of the gaming industry. I did spend a fair amount of my teenage years trying to master ZX Spectrum games such as Manic Miner and Chuckie Egg. I even wrote and released a couple of my own at one point, selling them by mail order through my company Celerysoft, and was flabbergasted to discover a few years back that someone had even bothered to archive my first release, Space Detective online (although they miscredited me as James Sharp, and yes, before anyone points out the obvious, it is a bit crap, but I was only 15 at the time). Technology moved on at such a pace that I rapidly couldn’t afford a new computer, and I was not to return to have anything to do with the gaming world until some 10 years later, when I wound up working for a short stint on Douglas Adams’ Starship Titanic.
This remained something of an isolated blip in my IT career, most of which was spent working on databases in such riveting fields as the metal and telephone directory industries, but I could see by this time that computer games had certainly come a long way since my involvement with them, as the whole world was waking up to around this time, with the first Tomb Raider title making more money than that year’s multiple Oscar winner The English Patient. Games were being developed with a narrative complexity that could far outstrip any film offering, and the graphics were catching up too. I immediately hurried out to investigate further, and bought a game called Half Life. It was aptly titled too, as for the next six months, outside of working hours, I barely left my flat. I literally had half a life, at least until I finished the game, when I was left curiously deflated and with a feeling that perhaps my time might have been better occupied in other ways.
I’m not going to get snotty about computer games, as I do actually really enjoy them, a little too much perhaps. The fact is I have a rather addictive personality and little enough time as it is to get the things I need to do done. When I do have a free moment, I’d rather spend it away from staring at a screen. I did relapse a couple of years ago, with a fairly well-known online RPG called Runescape, but in recent years, my main bit of gaming extravagance is taking out my friends in the Attack! game on Facebook. Until after watching Playing Columbine, that is, after which another Fantasia viewer confessed a similar ambivalence to the gaming world as me shortly before insisting I check out something called Ancient Domains of Mystery, and I ended up back in the same rut all over again. What I will say though, is that ADOM, a Dungeons and Dragons-styled RPG with decidedly low-fi ASCII graphics, reawakened a slightly nostalgic conviction in me that, as with cinema, the content is far more important than presentation.
In this respect, Playing Columbine seemed like a documentary tailor-made for people like me, curious about the game industry but still trying to retain a critical distance. Its director, Ledonne, despite having created such a notorious title, is not a gaming geek, and in fact is now involved in wildlife documentaries. His basic thrust is this – that nowadays PC and games console hardware have evolved to such a level that there’s no limitations in what you can do in the field, yet if you’re comparing the development of the gaming industry with that of cinema, we’re nowhere around even the Birth of a Nation mark. Whereas cinema soon realised the leap from prose to poetry, major games manufacturers are still making the same type of product – sports simulations, 3d shoot-em-ups, racing games, RPGs etc – as they always have, just improving the graphics and the sound effects and making them bigger and better. There is still nothing in the way of an equivalent of an established “arthouse” genre for computer games. However more absorbing they get, they’re predominantly still stuck in the mode of diversions or distractions, and their potential for education or reflecting on the wider issues of the world have not really been explored. This is not the first time such concerns have been raised. I remember back in the 1980s, a games designer called Mel Croucher, responsible for titles such as Pimania (1982), the early multi-media title Deus Ex Machina (1984) and iD (1986) voicing similar frustrations. The bottom line though is the games industry is still very much an industry, and with its huge overheads, it cannot yet afford to be as creative as it might.
The other point Ledonne makes, seemingly crucial when considering his own game, is that while computer games may not encourage violence, they often don’t ask you to do anything other than consume it passively. For all its technical limitations, Super Columbine Massacre RPG! did make you aware that the little sprites you were zapping on the screen were in fact representative of something else, and thus if anything, it made you more not less empathetic with the victims of the shootings. What is really revelatory though is that there is a small indie sub-industry emerging, making films not necessarily for money, but with artistic ambitions, aimed at making you think a bit. There’s a whole wad of them covered in this film – an Italian game about paedophile priests chasing choirboys, young lads in Darfur running around in search of food and clean water, and a rather more poetic-looking title called Cloud, which I’ll have to give a go sometime when I have a moment to spare.
My end impression is that there’s a whole lot more to gaming discourse than I was really aware of, and it points towards some really interesting directions that the field may develop in. Just as animation shouldn’t be constrained to emulating reality, video games too have the potential not only to explore different themes or make one aware of what’s going on in various other parts of the world, but to break away totally from their roots to explore new forms of their own. When or how this will happen remains to be seen, but certainly it is clear from the perspective of those of us who work in film, we ignore this new medium at our peril.
I’ll end with a link to a great little diversion, which I heard about on the Today program on Radio 4 this morning, the online game Sock and Awe, where everyone gets a chance to play their favourite Iraqi journalist.