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Subtle Storytelling: Why Do We Hate It?
Growing up in an era when the games industry was able to churn out quality horror title after quality horror title, the severe lack of such experiences over the past several years had left me feeling nostalgic and disappointed. That is why, once I heard the announcement of Shinji Mikami’s next game The Evil Within, I couldn’t help but feel excited. Ultimately, it turned out to be an imperfect experience that was still able to offer real frights. But where it really grabbed me, and felt painfully maladroit for many is its peculiar approach to storytelling.
You see the player has to work for the story, as The Evil Within is incredibly subtle. Without giving away too much, the game takes inspiration from Silent Hill 2, Inception, and Resident Evil to create a story that, at first glance, presents itself in archaic and confusing fashion, but has symbolism and narrative threads littered throughout that not only help it make sense, but have it be profoundly interesting. It does this through its many frightening and well-designed enemies that visually stand for something greater, and a smorgasbord of collectibles such as journal entries, audio logs, and newspapers that are a necessity.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that if the player doesn’t actually engage with said content, they’ll be hopelessly lost once the credits roll. But I don’t believe this calls for criticism towards Shinji Mikami and his team, but rather we should appreciate developer Tango Gameworks’ herculean effort to tell its story differently. As consumers we’re used to having everything be explained to us; we’re prone to straightforward storytelling, and find anything that isn’t to be contrived and a huge failure.
We’re finding it more and more difficult to give more eccentric and original ideas a proper shot. This has only gotten worse over time due to the rise of entertainment platforms, like YouTube and Netflix, that grant the viewers total control over how they consume their content. If you don’t like the opening seconds or minutes of a certain video or film don’t worry, just click on the next one.
Denis Villeneuve’s thriller Enemy, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, is a prime example of this. Released in the United States this year in March, the movie was met with lukewarm reviews. Upon first viewing Enemy makes little sense and will leave the viewer dumbfounded, and maybe even angry. The film follows college professor Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) who discovers he has a double named Anthony Claire; after their first meeting, Anthony proceeds to invade Adam’s life. On the surface it might appear as a confusing, generic thriller but once someone takes the time to peal away its complex layers, they’ll find a film containing strong commentary about totalitarian governments and the human psyche.
Popular YouTube film critic Chris Stuckmann claims to have analyzed Enemy for two months, contemplating what its deliciously impressive panoply of symbolic imagery meant. He uploaded a 25 minute video titled Enemy EXPLAINED – Movie Review in which he does exactly that, explain the film to his audience. It remains as one of his most popular videos with nearly 500,000 views, and has helped people to not only understand Villeneuve’s film, but appreciate and praise it. Stuckmann included Enemy in his top 20 movies of 2014 list.
Without that extra effort it might have remained a waste of time for many, including Stuckmann. So where do we draw the line? When does a film, novel, or game stop being a great work of subtlety, but an exercise in frustration? In my opinion, if the outcome of your effort to understand its inner workings is meaningful. This is totally subjective yes, unless a product like The Evil Within or Enemy has nothing to say at all, which they both do. While the former might not contain the same complexity within as Enemy, it’s still a great effort from Mikami and his young studio.
Generally we should be more cordial towards various forms of entertainment that we can’t judge, or understand at first glance. If not, then we will risk pushing creators away from attempting to challenge us mentally. More digestible products like Call of Duty or Marvel movies are still great fun and can tell complex stories in their own right, but diversity wouldn’t hurt. Next time when you’re reading a novel, watching a movie, or playing a game that tends to hold its cards close to its chest, forcing you to reach out with great effort, welcome the challenge. Don’t fear it, and try not to judge it.