Monday, February 11, 2008

Cabaret: a different realism for gaming

I was hoping to write a more frothy, light post, but an idea grabbed me a couple of days ago and wouldn't let go. It appropriately starts with the movie Cabaret.

It seems that if anyone remembers a movie from the '72 Oscars, it's The Godfather. Maybe Deliverance. Yet, it was Cabaret that took 8 awards that year. I think part of the reason for the receded success of Cabaret is that musicals aren't done much, but gangster stories are still with us. And if we look at trends in gaming, it seems that they are pursuing what The Godfather and Bonnie and Clyde did so well, making stories more real by making them violent. (Of course, that's not all those movies had by any means--in fact, it might be the least of their good qualities--, but it's what I think most viewers remember them for.)

I'm not going to rant about the violence in games, but I want to point to a different path for gaming. With Cabaret, Bob Fosse made a 'realistic' musical by setting the songs within reasonable contexts. But in doing so, he created scenes like the following clip. First, we hear a golden youthful voice, and then we see the face. Yes, we know where this is going, but it is gripping nonetheless, as the camera pans down and out. Then, we watch as the crowd, quiet at first, joins in.

This scene captures a sense of what happened throughout Germany. It shows how even a boy understands how to manipulate people, how to take something that is beautiful to enlist people's affections and even passion to take them to wholly different ends. The innocence of the line "tomorrow belongs to me" takes a dark turn in meaning even while the beer garden is still sunny and the voices are singing. It's the sort of scene that makes an audience uncomfortable because the face of evil is sweet and youthful. It's easy and even comforting to depict evil as insane and ugly. But it's not true.

What does this have to do with gaming? The point is that realism too often is reduced to outwardly appearance. We see that in Cabaret: a certain dinginess, natural settings. But the movie also gets at another kind of realism . . . a kind of inward realism. It's the reality of how people think and react. What makes the Hitler youth in this scene so frightening isn't that he pulls a gun and shoots people. It's that he manipulates people, and we know where it eventually leads . . . not just to the Jewish ghettos and gas chambers. Even worse, I think, it leads to the public acceptance of these things. (
For what it's worth, The Godfather also shows that inward reality as we watch the slide of Michael Corleone.)

Where, then, is the realistic game that shows us the slothful thought, blind and misled patriotism, manipulated values, or self-deception?
The horror of a violent act begins with the decision to commit the violence. So, how is it that people decide such things? Or how does a person wreck his life with behavior he knows is destructive? Our games focus so much on the how but have left the why mostly alone.

This is a game that I would like to see. It's a trend I'd like to see. It's not that the game has to be dark, even though a lot of games, especially 'hardcore' games, are quite dark. Cabaret had, in fact, several humorous scenes, although sometimes the humor had disturbing backdrops.


fatherkrishna said...

This has got to be the way things are going dear Guttertalk... Would Bioshock be the game you are hinting at?

It's the first game I can think of that has the elements you reference here (unless I've completely missed the point of the post...)

Anyway, can I agin state my excitement about this project? I think it's going to be legendary...

The Sports Satirist said...

I remember that guy from Austin Powers. Great movie.

Billy King said...

That's a point I've never thought of before, and I think it's one to add to the unwritten "great critical gaming manifesto". I can also see how BioShock may be touching on the subject, but on the other hand maybe it's just the games charm that creates the illusion that it does.

gnome said...

I whole-heartedly agree with your viewing of Cabaret dear Guttertalk, and would really like to see how those "whys" could ever be incorporated in a game design, that actually relies on the strength of the medium: interactivity.

Oh, and I'm pretty sure that had the Germans (well, the mostly rural minority that voted for Hitler at leas)t known what the Nazi party was aiming to do, I'm pretty sure they wouldn't have been so cheerful...

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