Thursday, May 30, 2013

Top of the Lake: A Devil's Heart

Top of the Lake is a mystery, in case you couldn't tell by that picture of Elisabeth Moss peering at some foul secret or something through the trees. Not that "mystery" tells us much anymore about narrative art, since any plot line by nature must have some mysterious elements in order to keep it compelling, but typically we associate it with a crime, suspects, motives, alibis...the whole collection of modular pieces that suit the needs of its storyteller's message. All of these elements are necessarily in service to unraveling or shading the central mystery, though a skilled craftsman can distract from this mechanical approach. Jane Campion's deft creative hand guarantees that Top of the Lake – equal parts rape-murder riddle, gender polemic, socioeconomic dissection, and character study – wobbles only minimally, despite the wealth of content on hand. A densely plotted six-hour miniseries brings outstanding attention to its swerves in storytelling, especially when they're as portentous as a bottle labeled “ROOFIES” or as inexplicable as a character being pardoned almost immediately for stabbing someone in a bar. Though consistently compelling, Top of the Lake is also noticeably sloppy, which ultimately diminishes the genre framework that Campion chooses to work in.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Deadly Premonition, Mass Effect 3, Bioshock Infinite: Three Choices, No Choice?

Bioshock Infinite, Ken Levine's newest stab at bringing some life to the AAA gaming landscape, has spent the last month enjoying impressive critical and public acclaim. As a game, it is a machine as well-oiled as you could hope to ask for, a first-person shooter etched from thoughtful gun combat and a Vigor system that complements it stylistically and ludically in equal portions. There has been some streamlining, but we're in a gaming climate that streamlines as a matter of course, especially by a franchise's third iteration. Narratively, Infinite hosts a plague of discontents, ameliorated partially by the game's insistence on exploring them through the story's subtext. To simplify drastically, Levine claims through Infinite that narrative video gaming will always be subject to a series of technological restrictions. It's a wonderful idea for a game to grapple with, but it doesn't always work out. Leigh Alexander has done an excellent job at delineating some of the friction that Infinite encounters as a narrative-based game, but some of her arguments are predicated on the notion that the original Bioshock unified narrative and gameplay seamlessly. It is unrealistic to expect every act of brutality in a game of this genre to maintain a sense of commodified mortality; for all that atmosphere and all those piquant Objectivist flourishes and all the hullabaloo about “Would you kindly?”, the first iteration is still a game where you mow down underwater zombies in the hundreds.