The King is Dead
I was recently taken to see the remake of The Lion King in which the characters are played by realistic 3D animals. Because I’d never actually seen the 1994 cartoon version (yes, I know), we watched the original first, so I’d have some idea what the remake was about.
And it was very odd.
In the original you notice all the flourishes that animation involves – the squash and stretch, the exaggerated facial features and distortions – and my primary interest – the ‘pink elephants’ section, where west-coast Disney abstract colour-music style comes into play (the ‘I Can’t Wait to be King’ song). How the hell are you going to do that with hairy puppets?
And they didn’t. There was no abstraction, no traditional distortions. When an animal couldn’t do something, it didn’t happen. Their faces were expressionless. It was all based on REALITY. But you know – it’s not reality. This leads to confusion like adding strong female characters to a plot where the male hero wins back his harem of acquiescent females – back to screwing his aunts, mother and bride – who is of course his step sister. Because you know lions aren’t REAL people.
Nothing wrong with the film, worth seeing, and good job on the income it’s making. But the original cartoon is actually more real for the storyline. And this leads to some thoughts about our artistic pursuit of reality and where it has taken us.
The same year as the original Lion King, iD’s DOOM2 ushered in the age of the first-person shooter (or FPS). It pretended to work in 3D but really used “2.5D”, where flat surfaces are scaled and overlayed by depth, back to front, presenting a pseudo 3D effect. DOOM was obviously a cartoon, with cartoon logic, as were first-person shooters over the following decade. But constant battle between FPS authors reached greater realism both in image and physics – and by 2004 games such as Half Life 2 were more photographic than comic. We can now make games that look ‘real enough’ or ‘movie quality’. Which I think, like The Lion King, is a dead end. Because we’re losing hold of the unreal.
An example of unreal I’d like to pick out is Action Half Life, around 1999, a FPS game which allowed ‘modders’ to create their own maps for multiplayer combat. Specifically, I look at modifications created by ‘Hondo’, a reclusive author of what seem to be standard play maps which conceal vast and surreal hidden areas for players to discover. The vast majority of players would never know that a push at a certain wall, or a gunshot that touched a certain window, would open a portal to apparent madness. The message is that most people do not care to know, or need to know, that there is something beyond the mainstream. It was a topic much on people’s mind at the time – but already an old topic by 1927 when Hesse wrote about the “Magic Theatre, Not For Everyone.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steppenwolf_(novel)
When you look at Hondo’s levels now, they seem chunky, simplistic – cartoony. It takes a strong imagination to be enthralled by that you might think. Same goes for many other weird old games from the old days. But I think the limitation in plausible reality of the game engine enabled Hondo to create worlds beyond reality. To put that another way – it is becoming more difficult to conceive abnormality as computer worlds become more realistic. Which is perhaps why 2D games came back into fashion around the same time as the 3D game touched upon reality.
Two dimensions greater than three.
When attempting my first computer game/album I was inspired by many things. One was the game Dream Diary by Kikiyama which has a wonderful disregard for reality. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yume_Nikki
Although it’s thematically based on a familiar idea of dreams and dream logic, it goes beyond The Wizard of Oz et al. which simply swap a different politics for our own – that one needs to overcome a new social hierarchy. The dreamspace is more flexible than the usual workings of the of the mind – the author has worked in the larger palette of 2 dimensions. When I stupidly tried to use similar devices in 3D I was confined. In 2D, distance is not fixed, everything can squash and stretch. Colour is texture but also topology, mood, meaning. Objects are implied, and do not take on more detail as you get near. There’s more – but let’s just sum it up by saying there are stories that cannot be properly told in a certain space.*
An often-used narrative is the inside. The hero is in a world – the plot reveals to them that their world is inside what we know to be the real world. It’s satisfying to be in the know and anticipate the drama they will find in our familiar place. Sometimes the story starts by concealing the inside – a story such as The Truman Show is obvious, but quite a few detective stories like Blue Velvet share this mechanism – the reveal of the real.
Much more difficult is creating the outside. Because the outside should really be outside. Which means the writer really needs to be outside as well. (It’s been said that Phillip K. Dick was such a writer, but perhaps it was his insides that were so unique.) I am not sure that an outside can be written by a normally functioning human mind.
For me, if there is any interest in portraying 3D ‘real’ worlds, it’s in their outside – that which falls outside the walls that contain the player and the specifications of the maker. Again, for me, a game such as Red Dead Redemption is merely a cowboy simulator, which becomes far more exciting once you find a crack in the wall and the true unknown behind. https://in.ign.com/red-dead-redemption-2/136692/news/red-dead-online-players-discover-a-whole-new-land-beyond-world-boundary
Look at the many examples of outsides that have come about in game design. Most are discarded scenery and are interesting the way urbex in abandoned buildings is interesting. But some of the outside is the gibberish of incomplete or overlapping code. Sometimes ‘gibberish’ is only a problem in seeing what is really there. The ‘real world’ – as perceived by the mind – has an ‘outside’ in that we are confounded by ‘gibberish’ such as quantum entanglement. I’m far too stupid to go into this – I’ll let a grown up try to explain: https://www.quantamagazine.org/were-stuck-inside-the-universe-lee-smolin-has-an-idea-for-how-to-study-it-anyway-20190627/
Anything that disrupts the sense-making of the brain, that disables the definition of correct/incorrect seems to take you outside. LSD is well known. I’m particularly fond of the described effects of DMT – I am not a user of psychedelics. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/5gkkpd/dmt-you-cannot-imagine-a-stranger-drug-or-a-stranger-experience-365
DMT is probably disabling some censorship of experience. You are always making things up, but you’re making up something different to usual. That’s important.
So long as I keep working inside, I’m going to see inadequate results. That’s OK for the most part – if Disney are happy to trade art for success then I’m in good company. But there’s a feeling like I am wasting time on trivial things. I know there’s an outside, I know it stays outside, and even though you can damage your head with drugs and see stars, that’s not the same.
I would rather damage the media, the way Hondo damaged it. If you rip the canvas you can get results that you would not otherwise reach. But I don’t know what the canvas is or how it can be ripped. I guess the programmers of Red Dead Redemption know the holes they are leaving in their maps – calculated mistakes. I’m not as clever as they are in that and perhaps it comes down the old principle of knowing your art.
An old argument I used have with Paul Mac. He’d say you have to know how to play the piano to know how not to play the piano. I’d say you can just hit the piano with an axe. But I think he’s right. Then I’m right. Know how to play the piano. Then hit it with an axe.
* Since writing, two 3D versions of the game have shown up with which to test my argument. One is a fan tribute by Eddy using a period game engine (for Duke Nukem 3D). This keeps the old cartoon effect and seems favorably received by players. The other is an ‘official version’ by the makers of the game engine used for the original 2D game. It earned quite a bucketing here – I am sorry, lots of adverts.
I’ve had a go at the Eddy version. It’s reminiscent of the original and so I think I am having my memory feelers tickled. But while it’s kept the strangeness definitely not adding anything and arguably exploring the space seems much less exotic. I didn’t look at the other – it sounds badly written.