Scorsese vs Marvel Studios

Scorsese vs ThorVeteran film director Martin Scorsese could scarcely ask for better publicity for his new film, The Irishman, than picking a fight with the box office powerhouse that is Disney's Marvel Studios. In an interview for Empire magazine, Scorsese was asked about Marvel movies and replied:

I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.

This is a much more interesting statement than it might first appear. Before delving into it, however, it is worth acknowledging that Scorsese would never have had anywhere near as much coverage for his new feature if he had not decided to position himself against one of Disney's two big-ticket purchases both of which were acquired to fill a gap in the media corporation's portfolio, which was always lacking in action franchises. I don't think it greatly matters if this is a planned PR manoeuvre from the 76-year-old director, or a lucky striking of gold by one of Empire's writers, either way it's a win for both parties since the battle line it draws guarantees more attention for both of them, and mobilises the legions of Marvel fans for free publicity, since negative reactions online – especially those guaranteed to travel far – have nearly the same effect as ploughing millions of dollars into marketing.

But I do not mean to suggest that Scorsese is disingenuous in his remarks – indeed, as critic Jed Pressgrove remarked to me on Twitter, there really is nothing enormously surprising about these comments in terms of the discourse surrounding films. That's because it has long been a tenet of what might be called 'serious' cinema that there are two competing forces in the movie theatres. This 2016 blog post by filmmaker Rob Hardy poses this divide in terms of 'films' (Scorcese's 'cinema') and 'movies' (Scorcese's 'Not cinema'), and there are hundreds of similar claims spanning decades. What is at heart here are implicit aesthetic values and the practices that those aesthetic values belong to. Representatives of cinema or film are claiming the artistic high ground – often falling just short of outright saying "we are art, you are not", but always implying it – and contrasting their craft against 'movies', which are not actively represented by anyone in this argument but merely the mass market shadow of the practice that Hardy calls 'filmmaking'.

When film critic Roger Ebert declared that videogames could not be art, or when disgruntled gamers declared Dear Esther was 'not a game', these claims were undergirded by specific aesthetic values and, along with this, participation in the practices that sustain and embed those values. Dear Esther was 'not a game' to anyone for whom 'games' were either the aesthetic pursuit of victory or of problem-solving, an aesthetic camp explored beautifully by game scholar Jesper Juul in his book The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games. Coming at the matter from this territory in the aesthetic landscape all but requires the erection of a barrier: the Chinese Rooms ingenious usurpation of the components of first person shooters for something radically novel had to be 'kept out' of games because of a felt need to valorise different aesthetic values, those associating games with challenge where something like Shadow of the Colossus might be pointed to as an exemplar. This is the videogame mirror of Scorcese's 'not cinema', which is also Hardy's 'film versus movies'.

Writing centuries before either films or videogames, the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant made a crucial point about our aesthetic values: that when we assert them, it is because we expect our judgements to have universal assent, or rather we behave as if they should be capable of garnering such agreement. As a result, when something transgresses our aesthetic values – when a Marvel movie is claimed to be cinema (for Scorsese) or Dear Esther is claimed to be a game (for certain gamers), there is an aesthetic transgression, and just as we would baulk at a moral transgression, there is potential for outcry, opposition, and argument. The disagreement, however, is usually hollow since two positions divided by distinct values never connect in any meaningful way. As Kant observed: it is a 'commonplace' that everyone has their own taste, and also that 'there is no disputing of taste'.

Thus there is no need or purpose to Marvel Studios' myriad fans stepping up to the plate to try to defend the Marvel Cinematic Universe by pointing to examples of movies in that corporate megatext that meet Scorsese's apparent definition of cinema in terms of conveying psychological experiences... as Hardy puts it, the question goes to intention not outcome, and I would further suggest that what lies at root here is participation in a particular tradition, a distinct practice of making and engaging with films that is not rooted in entertainment, for all that it is frequently marketed successfully as that. Besides all this, Scorsese is surely correct to compare everything that comes out of Disney's corporate process to theme parks, since this is the practice that the House of Mouse pioneered and is still engaged in: an applied psychology of commercial entertainment rooted in meticulous brand management. In this regard, Scorsese's point is nearly impossible to rebuff and comes down to a claim about the limits of authorial intent: whatever filmmakers might achieve in a Marvel Studios movie cannot change the fact that what has been made is the result of a tightly-managed corporate process of engineering both brand and entertainment value on an industrial scale. Our only choice is whether this matters for our enjoyment of what results – and this depends upon which practices we ourselves are engaging in when we go to the cinema.

Silk is About... The Designer's Notes

Silk Notes

Silk is About... was a Designer's Notes serial in five parts that ran here at Only a Game from August 27th to September 24th 2019. It examined the thematic influences behind the game Silk, and pondered the game from a historical, personal, and political perspective. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.

Here are the five parts:

  1. Silk is about... 200AD
  2. Silk is about...1984
  3. Silk is about... Glorantha
  4. Silk is about... Religion
  5. Silk is about... Brexit

Silk is out on Switch, Windows, Mac, and Linux in October 2019.

Silk is About... Brexit

BrexitSilk is my Brexit game. There, I said it.

Silk is about Brexit because Silk is about how people live together and, perhaps even more so, how they fail to live together. I see in 200AD an allegory of 2000AD, lessons we can learn and did not learn, and are still not learning.

I am not committed to either side of the Brexit ‘debate’ (‘battle’ is perhaps more accurate, since a debate assumes a conversation entirely absent in this matter). I understand the argument that sees in leaving the European Union an opportunity for national self-determination, even if I myself could not vote for leaving because of my suspicion – now amply proven correct – that voting to leave would not spark the essential political dialogue required for the United Kingdom to acquire a viable, shared national identity. Instead, it deepened a previously ignored divide. Knee-jerk racism lines up on one side alongside those who had more honourable reasons for desiring a departure from the EU, while political one-upmanship and the certainty that everyone has it wrong except those who agree with you overwhelm all sides and leave us no closer to having a sense of what our country could or should be.

In Silk, the desire for self-determination is echoed in the imperial battles the game makes central to the Warlord and the Rebel. Settlements defend themselves in Silk when they feel threatened... today, nations do the same. The potential for military power to be abused was always present, and has little to do with the reasons people desire to defend themselves from threats from the outside. Then as now, what starts as defence ends as empire-building. Many Brits still feel like they are part of the British Empire even though in truth we are only offered the choice of being a neighbour to the European Empire or a vassal of the US Empire. But that desire to make your own nation everything it can be is not as morally wrong as liberal opponents to national pride make out. As Mary Midgley observed, we are entitled to put our own interests first; every species does this, and doing so need not – and indeed usually does not – devolve into utter selfishness, even if that is an ever-present risk.

What risks getting lost in this perspective, however, is that co-operation is almost always in our best interest. In Silk, this is represented by the Caravan itself, where a hugely diverse range of cultures and ethnicities come together to try and succeed in the challenge of surviving in the wilderness in the Traveller, or striving to profit from trade in the Noble. The game intentionally has a little casual racism in some of the Advisor’s responses to the world they are travelling... the unfamiliar culture will always provoke a suspicious reaction, after all. I learned so much about the complexities of racism reading Michael Moorcock’s astonishing Between the Wars quartet, and Isabelle Stenger’s “The Curse of Tolerance” deepened my understanding of this even further. Racism and opposition to racism both block co-operation in their own ways, but the lesson of the Caravan in Silk is that we gain more from co-operating than from going it alone. That’s not an argument for staying in the EU as such: it’s an argument for not letting a fight about whether we should endorse one ideology or another tear us apart as a nation. And that’s just as true in the United States as is it is in the United Kingdom.

So when I say that Silk is my Brexit game, I’m not saying that Silk is offering an answer to the problems of Brexit, but rather that in this game I am reflecting on the cultural problems – in the UK and elsewhere – that led us to Brexit, and that are not solved by leaving Europe, nor by remaining. We have lost our sense of the benefits of co-operating, either because we demonise those from other cultures we see as ‘different’ (especially Muslims), or because we have lost respect for our fellow citizens and are no longer willing to let them participate in democracy because we are so convinced that they are ‘wrong’. I see disaster on both paths. Silk is, in a way that is woven into the tapestry of every game of it that anyone plays, an opportunity to reflect upon our interdependence with those around us, and to consider different paths.

We can be more than divided nations squabbling against each other, if that’s what we wish. The question, as Silk asks every player to decide at every juncture, is always: what will we choose...?

Silk is out on Switch, Windows, Mac, and Linux in October 2019.

Silk is About... Religion

Sapadbizes CoinWe don’t talk about religion, right? That’s what ‘secular’ has come to mean... we don’t talk about religion. Unless of course you want to make criticisms against religion, which are still fair game – indeed, are all but encouraged among the intellectually respectable. Liberals are only credible if they are willing to speak out against Christian nonsense, while conservatives positively thrive upon their distrust of Muslims... So we end up in this strange situation where ‘not talking about religion’ becomes a blanket cover for racism because religion and non-religion are intimate elements of culture, and so if all you’re permitted to do is to speak ill of religion, you have created an environment where racism not only festers, it achieves a kind of illusion of intellectual honesty that, in my lifetime at least, distrust of skin colour has always been mercifully denied.

Because it’s set in 200AD, Silk can be about religion without dealing with the immense baggage of contemporary religions. Islam has yet to be founded, while Christianity and Judaism are a very small part of the world of 200AD, which is dominated by what we tend to unjustly collect under term ‘Pagan religion’ or, perhaps even more misleadingly, ‘polytheism’. The civic religion of Rome and ancient Greece spreads throughout more than half of the Ancient Silk Road, and collides in the Kushan Empire with eastern Buddhism, which is still a very young religion at this time. It’s also worth noting that the very term ‘religion’ has no real analogue at this time: our capacity to talk about cultural mythos as a package deal emerged via the Enlightenment... the Romans had no equivalent term at all. ‘Religio’, the root of the word, carries the meaning of a sense of duty or responsibility in 200AD, and mostly in the sense of social obligations.

Religions that are huge today are minorities in 200AD. What we call today the Hindu traditions are not entirely absent from the game, but what we usually associate with these spiritual paths are definitely on the fringes – you can sacrifice to Shiva in the Kushan Empire, for instance, but most temples there are dedicated to the Lion Goddess Nana, whom nobody remembers today. In the Parthian Empire, Zoroastrian fire temples are the core of civic religion, and although Islam is still several centuries away you can feel the connectivity between the Parthian Empire and Islamic culture in many ways... like everything else in life, religions have a history, they are not as isolated and static as we tend to imagine, and in 200AD this is far more evident than it is today.

Not that long ago, I was interviewed about the portrayal of religion in videogames by a PhD student, in part because my game Kult: Heretic Kingdoms had on the surface a vehemently anti-religious stance. (The actual story in that regard is much more nuanced, but this isn’t the place to explore it...) One of the things I took from that discussion was the manner in which a huge aspect of the portrayal of religion in videogames is the priest or priestess as the healer – a debt from Dungeons & Dragons that seems to have been tangentially influenced by Hammer House of Horror movies of all things! I became interested in finding another approach to this issue. I didn’t set out to make a game about religion, but once I knew I was making a game about 200AD I knew that it was inevitably going to be about religion in addition to whatever else it was about.

As I came to develop the class of Ritegiver in Silk, I began to see them as an opportunity for a different way of approaching religion in games. The Ritegiver is, in effect, the diplomat: by being able to perform rites at different shrines and temples, the Ritegiver allows the player to make friends with people in new areas, to stave off rebellion by performing sacrifices that help bind them to their captured citadels through civic religion, or simply to ask for aid from strangers. I leave it to the player how they interpret this – cynically, as social manipulation, or idealistically, as a marker for what religions do best when they do not lose their way: binding people together into communities of care. Both ways of understanding religion have some truth to them, and always have.

Silk isn’t a game about religion as most people understand the term. That’s because it’s about the religions of 200AD. I happen to believe that this could tell us more about religion today than it might first appear.

Next, the final part: Brexit

Silk is About... Glorantha

RuneQuest TableauKnowing I wanted to make a game in tribute to The Lords of Midnight, the question was: how? Because making a direct spiritual successor to it was clearly not going to work – Legions of Ashworld had already tried, and it had struggled because it was solely fans of the original who could possibly appreciate it. No, if I was going to create a game that spoke to why The Lords of Midnight was important to me, I was really going to be making a game about a square-based map. It was mapping, and using other people’s maps, that made those early game experiences for me, and this was especially so for The Bard’s Tale, which I painstakingly mapped by hand with graph paper, and then took great pleasure in my friends using my maps to complete the game after me.

So I knew I wanted to make this tribute game about exploration, but I also didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to experiment with radical unexplored possibilities in narrative design, and for this I had another influence: King of Dragon Pass. I had always regretted ‘missing out’ on RuneQuest, possibly the only classic 1980s RPG that I never got to play. King of Dragon Pass let me participate in Gregg Stafford’s extraordinary game by having been set in the world of Glorantha and being, in a very tangible sense about Glorantha. To play King of Dragon Pass is to enter into a fantasy world that’s not like any others out there... it’s more Bronze Age than Medieval, it’s a world where gods and spirits are tangible and pressing in on mortal life. David Dunham’s game is an incredible achievement, one that came to my attention because my colleague at International Hobo in the 2000s, Ernest Adams, waxed lyrical about its achievements in narrative design.

But what I really fell in love with in King of Dragon Pass was the Clan Ring, the set of people who advise you as to what decisions you could be taking as the game progresses. I became obsessed with how this worked, and dug into its designed systems and internal language (OSL), becoming ever more convinced that what was ‘just’ another clever extra feature in that particular game could become the central element of a narrative design that was based upon an entirely different kind of play. Perhaps, the kind of play that would see the player striking out across three million square miles of wilderness....

The Clan Ring in King of Dragon Pass became the Advisors in Silk. They’re your party, you hire them to your Caravan, and once you hire them they’re with you until the end of the game. That wasn’t how the design began – for a while, the paper design allowed the Advisors to die if they failed a skill check spectacularly. But as time went on, I came to realise that what I was doing with Silk in terms of letting the player explore the cultures of 200AD (just as King of Dragon Pass lets you explore the culture of Glorantha), was stronger in some ineffable sense if your Caravan was more than just a set of interchangeable pawns. The Caravan is your family in the game... and by necessity, it’s going to be a family of misfits, just like every party of adventurers in RuneQuest. That’s something that speaks to me as a player of games, and a lover of the strange. It’s why even though Silk is set in 200AD, it’s also in a strange but understandable way, about Glorantha.

Next: Religion