The Joker ought to be nominated for the “Most Terrifying Game Designer to Grace Film” award. While it’d be a fitting tribute to the essence of Heath Ledger’s final performance, those he already received remain honorable without reservation. Already am I swimming in dangerous waters here, shuffling games and movies into the same boat. It’s a popular debate among gaming enthusiasts: Cinematic tools and their role in games – more or less appropriate? At the least, I can discern that no one will be replacing punctuation marks anytime soon. With so much energy spent mulling over whether or not the cut-scene should have any place in gaming, focus has deterred from the big picture. The late actor’s role as the Clown Prince of Crime not only redefined an iconic character, it distinguished a suite of arcs into an adaptive form of game theory accessible to a wider audience.
Is simply “villain” the appropriate descriptor at all times, though? Such generalizations are often catalysts for hackneyed plots, screenplays, and – yes I’m going to say it – critiques within the medium. We often wonder why emergence struggles to exist in the heavy-handed story, and it could very well be for its own sake; of giving a familiar face to pt. A, pt. B, etc. There’s a distinction to be made between a laundry list and a narrative, however. For instance, there is no real contextual need to go back and re-watch any given episode of 24 because of how literal the story can be and often is. It’d be entertaining, sure, but what grips us more effectively is not how a series of events play out, but how a series of choices reflect on a character’s arc and resulting impact/s on the given world.
Gotham City is quite the playground for the criminally active. In a town with conditions so ripe for both the corruption of law enforcement and the misguided muscle of the mob, the rise of the Joker is concocted by the clown himself, shaken as much as it is stirred. The other rise at hand in both gaming and film is the application of setting, or environment, as a character. On one hand, you have “cinematic games” starting to evolve with a method of weathering levels to give them history, thereby avoiding the often frank interruption of a gameplay experience. Then comes along a movie with the tag-line, “Welcome to a world without rules.”, and a city whose citizens weigh in as much as the most valuable players. A creative writing professor of mine, Shelly Bloomfield, suggested to me that the screenplay of The Dark Knight works like a chess game where each character and event is treated as a piece, making one calculated move at a time.
It’s only fitting to underscore a character like the Joker with the essence of their namesake. Among four royal families & their numbers oh-so neatly organized, there exists a card whose sole purpose is to have no purpose. Wild cards are often adaptable by nature, but rarely do they challenge the inherent rules of the game. It’s when “the untouchable” is finally shoved into a wall that emotional response comes out of the woodwork for something as ritual as play. Director Christopher Nolan let this theme off its leash in Gotham without making the headlines. Harvey Dent’s coin, for example, is responsible for the one game he can always win because both sides are heads. When one half is charred at the crisis ushering tails into existence, Dent loses that control over his own rules.
With the climax comes a pivotal moment in defining both the Joker as a game designer, and that Gotham itself is still subject to his play regardless of incarceration. Even though the scene builds upon physical tension that elevates into Batman beating the Joker with his bare hands, the most important component is him giving Batman a choice.
“If we’re gonna play games, I’m gonna need a cup of coffee.”- Commissioner Gordon
“I have one rule” – Batman
“When the chips are down, these civilized people, they’ll eat each other...Killing is making a choice…Don’t worry I’ll tell you where they are, both of them – and that’s the point. You’ll have to choose” – Joker
Not only do we find imagery and dialogue tailored for the same suit, but in acts that progress the movie in a literal sense to drive our return towards game theory. Months prior to its release last summer, a massive ARG (Alternate Reality Game) was composed to promote the movie, making Gotham City seem more plausible than Nolan already made it out to be. Between programmed telephone calls, viral websites, a cross-country tour for Harvey Dent’s “campaign”, and an army of goons adorning pale make-up, the promotional effort behind it crossed into the realm of fanaticism while Ledger’s untimely passing only added a surreal layer of unintended complexity to the anticipation.
References excluded, what does The Dark Knight as an example offer to game theory and design? The only choice it really offers is whether an individual decides to watch it or not, or for how long they’d choose to. That, in itself, is straight to the point enough: it is not a game, yet it adapts a history and theory into its subtleties. Retreating from the fact that it is a movie is not a viable option, nor would it be a smart one. It works within the medium of a screenplay, enriched by the culture of another. Alternatively, we should turn to immersion in games: how can they adapt practices of screenwriting and cinema without purging its nature? In some cases they already do; take for instance the success of Bioshock, Dead Space, Left4Dead, & World of Warcraft’s second expansion in the last year. All are gleaming examples of spinning a narrative & lore that anticipate the exploratory player, rewarding them with a more dynamic role in that universe. Resident Evil 4, by comparison, I happened to thoroughly enjoy multiple play-through’s of for months, but it wasn’t the interruption of plot points that kept me coming back for more. In fact, I found myself making a game out of how fast I could skip through all the scripted conversation just to justify my own redundancy.
If developers and designers of video games continue to throw weight around in the storytelling department, we need to continually take heed of how others adapted to harsher climates without compromising the core of our intentions. Technology has granted the industry access to cross-media practices for the past two decades, and generously at that. This isn’t to fly in the face of professional cinematic teams, who have no doubt provided jaw-dropping segues time after time. These are things I personally revisit to not only further my understanding of a screenplay or motion picture in their home-court, but to enjoy and appreciate for what they are. It is with cautious optimism that I hope we discover and implore creative ways, in both current and the next generations of hardware efficiencies, to take more reprieve from jarring halts in our play; let mediums learn from one another for how to exceed what they do best. History fosters artistry.