Saturday, 6 April 2013

Goodbye Roger Ebert.

Here is my review of Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory. Like its name, the game is is rambling and incoherent, if colourful.

Is that smutty or just incoherent?

It also reinforced my dislike of having to summarise a 2,000 review with a mark out of ten. I gave it a six which, due to video game review score inflation, is effectively total damnation, but I would actually recommend it to "people who like that sort of thing".

"That sort of thing", of course, being incredibly detailed, slightly pervy 2D-novel style anime JRPGs with mechanics that focus on collectibles and customisation. It's a niche genre, but one with a large fanbase, and Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory's publishers NIS America cater to it admirably, putting a huge amount of effort into good quality localisation.

That fanbase contains the people who are actually going to search for a review of Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory because they want to know the details, so the review and the score is for them. It's not really for GodisaGeek's more mainstream readers. That group might stumble across the review and (I hope) find it interesting, but all they really need take away from it in a practical sense is it that it's not for them.

Plutia gains some XP.

A comparable demographic in the film world is the audience for low-budget horror films. There is plenty of specialist criticism of the genre for its fans. Kim Newman, for example, writes a video nasty column in Empire entitled "Kim Newman's Video Dungeon" in which he reviews low-budget, straight-to-DVD releases. He's an educated connoisseur of the genre and his reviews are generally as scathing as their subjects deserve, but the point is that when he does recommend something, it's on the understanding that it's only a recommendation if you're in the market for gratuitous gore and nudity.

Like video nasties, I think niche games should be awarded review scores based on their relative appeal to their audience rather than their overall appeal to gamers, otherwise what's the point? I didn't really enjoy Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory, but I understand what it's trying to do and I've read enough fan commentary on it to know what the hardcore fans want out of it. So I'm not going to give it a two out of ten simply on the basis that a BioShock fan will hate it.

Neptune and Noire have a serious discussion.

This is an approach I take to all video game reviews that I write. As a consequence, they tend to be fairly utilitarian; I know people come to them wanting to know whether to drop £40 on a game and I aim to help them make that decision. I try and make them fun to read and maintain a consistent thread throughout, but when a publisher gives me a game in good faith, I feel I must put fair analysis ahead of my desire to write something entertaining.

It's possible to do both of course, which is where the film critic Roger Ebert, who died this week, comes in. He argued for reviewing films on their relative, rather than absolute merits, on the basis that different genres serve different audiences and purposes. His review of Shaolin Soccer contains a quote that illuminates his approach:

"When you ask a friend if Hellboy is any good, you're not asking if it's any good compared to Mystic River, you're asking if it's any good compared to The Punisher. And my answer would be, on a scale of one to four, if Superman is four, then Hellboy is three and The Punisher is two. In the same way, if American Beauty gets four stars, then The United States of Leland clocks in at about two."

It's on this basis that he refused to conclude his review of the nastiest of video nasties, The Human Centipede with a score at all ("it is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don't shine," he remarked), and said of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider:

"Lara Croft: Tomb Raider elevates goofiness to an art form. Here is a movie so monumentally silly, yet so wondrous to look at, that only a churl could find fault."

A churl like me!

A long time ago I wrote an article about why I disliked the Tomb Raider movies. The main reason was that Angelina Jolie didn't really play the games. I took great offence to this because at the time I thought Tomb Raider was the most important thing in the world, and that even speaking its name without having played all the games at least four times was tantamount to blasphemy. While I still think Tomb Raider is the most important thing in the world, I now realise that nothing is actually particularly important, so it doesn't matter whether Angelina Jolie played the games or not.

My other grievance, that the character in the film doesn't have much in common with the character in the games, contradicts my general opinion that a film adaptation of something should be first and foremost a good film, not a worthy or faithful adaptation.

For example, mockumentary A Cock and Bull Story is an adaptation of sprawling eighteenth-century metanovel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman that stars Steve Coogan as himself. It is altogether a better film than the bland, plodding Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, which is basically just a moving version of, erm, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and arguably a more effective adaptation in that it continues a dialogue with its source material using a set of tools that only films have.

I could have namechecked all manner of adaptations there, but I chose that one because I want the internet to know that I have actually read The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Yeah.

Anyway, in the Tomb Raider article I brought up Roger Ebert and his famously ill-advised condemnation of video games. Like most gamers who got incredibly angry about his comments, I didn't know the first thing about Ebert or his approach to film criticism. If I had, I probably wouldn't have called him a "dinosaur".

Ebert later admitted that while he stood by his comments about games on principle, he should never have aired them without taking the time to play them. Although the original article is worth a read (though not if you're easily angered), the second is wonderful, even if you don't agree with it. It concludes as follows:

"I had to be prepared to agree that gamers can have an experience that, for them, is Art. I don't know what they can learn about another human being that way, no matter how much they learn about Human Nature. I don't know if they can be inspired to transcend themselves. Perhaps they can. How can I say? I may be wrong, but if I'm not willing to play a video game to find that out, I should say so. I have books to read and movies to see. I was a fool for mentioning video games in the first place."

Yes. If you want to argue for or against something, go out there and educate yourself. If you consider the research process to be a waste of your time (because you have books to read and movies to see), count yourself out of the debate. That's fine, you won't be missed.

This hopefully just means that you'll be all the better at doing what you do best, which in Ebert's case was reviewing all manner of films with sincerity, diplomacy and humour.


  1. I had written out a fairly long comment about the whole "faithful adaptation" thing, but it got a bit ranty, so here's a condensed version:

    Disclaimer: I'm about as far from a film critic as you can be.

    Games don't translate into film as easily as written stories do, so like you said, it's not a crime that Angelina Jolie didn't really fancy playing Tomb Raider. However, many (like me) see it as artistic heresy when an adaptation deviates from the source material when it doesn't need to. See Minority Report, where the film has a completely different ending from the original short story.

    Call me stodgy if you like, but I do think an adaptation's adherence (or lack thereof) to its source matters.

    I had no idea Roger Ebert had passed away. To be honest, I always sort of ignored his opinion after reading/hearing once that he thought Minority Report was a good film, though he may have been being sarcastic.

  2. Well, I'm not saying faithfulness isn't important, just that it should always be a lesser consideration than being worthwhile in its own right.

    I've seen Minority Report but not read the story it was based on so I can't comment... though I do remember thinking the ending was pretty silly. I'm thinking (SPOILERS) of the precogs in their cuddly jumpers. Hmmm.

    That said, Philip K. Dick adaptations are always quite interesting in this regard because his novels and stories are based around ideas, rather than plots, meaning that adaptations can veer away from the events of the book/story and still remain coherant and valid. (MORE SPOILERS) Blade Runner is the obvious example, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is (I think) a fable about consumerism that a) features a lot of synthetic animals and b) ends with him rekindling his marriage. Blade Runner is completely different, it uses the same ideas but it's more about humanity, and Deckard's relationship with Rachael is very important. I like it as an adaptation because it finds something in the book worth exploring that wasn't necessarily one of the central themes. I think it's ok to change the events if you're doing it for that reason.

    Having not read the story, I can't say, but I imagine Minority Report's ending was more about convenience and (dare I say it) test screenings than it is about narrative or conceptual integrity. As you say, "it doesn't need to", so it's pretty unforgivable in artistic terms.

    I just looked up the review; Ebert did like it. The first paragraph does not fill me with confidence:

    "Tom Cruise [...] generates complex human feelings even while playing an action hero."

    I guess Tom Cruise does generate complex human feelings in me, but none of them are good.

    I decided to ignore his opinion after the video game uproar, but then I read the article where he admitted that actually he shouldn't have said anything because he doesn't quite care enough to do the research required to have a valid opinion on the matter, which I thought was admirably honest. I now tend to read his reviews after (not usually before, he can be cavalier about spoilers) I watch a film because he always offers an interesting perspective.

    1. I can't say you're wrong about a film's faithfulness being less important than whether or not it's a good film in itself. It's a perfectly valid viewpoint. While writing my last comment, I was feeling a bit crusadery about the whole thing. There are a great many films I've enjoyed whose source I haven't looked at, and like those who liked Minority Report regardless of whether they'd read the story, there's nothing wrong with that.

      I won't spoil the ending of the short story, but it's hugely different from the one in the film to the point where it becomes a different story with a different message. It's like if they made a film adaptation of Final Fantasy X (SPOILERS for any onlookers who haven't played it) which ended with Yuna accepting her summoner's fate and sacrificing herself to bring a measly ten years of peace.

      (I think it's only fair to add here that I only watched the film once and read the story once, and that was least seven years ago.)

      I haven't read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep or seen Blade Runner but I do think it was a wise move to change the title if they ended up, as you say, making the film completely different. But again, that's just my inner snob talking.

      I've taken some time to read a handful of Ebert's reviews. From what I've seen, he won't criticise a film's story on its originality or “depth”, but rather on how it serves the film itself. Now, I can see that he knows a hell of lot about films and how they work – I almost feel like reading his reviews has made me better educated than I was before. But even if I accept his opinion on Minority Report, I don't think my inner snob can forgive him for giving Avatar a four-star score (the highest score he gives, as far as I can tell) and not touching upon how insultingly naive some of the plot elements and characterisations were. Still, I'm glad that I've had another look. I learned a few new things about some of my favourite (and least favourite) films, which is always nice.

  3. I think the main reason the title of "Androids" was changed is because it would make the film far harder to sell. "Blade Runner" sounds cool and flashy while in a film context, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" could be anything.

    I do agree, however, that a significant plot/theme change warrants a title change. Again, A Cock and Bull Story is a prime example of this.

    I didn't know about the Avatar review. I've managed to avoid watching it so far, but there't nothing I've read about it that's made me want to see it. "Insultingly naive" seems to summarise what I've read. If I ever see it I will no doubt write it up!

    1. I haven't seen A Cock and Bull Story or read the source, but I enjoyed The Trip, so I probably should (he says, adding it to a long long list of films he's "meaning to see").

      Avatar isn't a bad film. It's probably worth watching, as long as one doesn't go in expecting the plot/themes/script to match up to the special effects and cinematography. But your mileage may vary, as they say.

    2. I don't mind a bit of SFX porn, but I like a good plot to go with it. I've seen a couple of writeups of Avatar that basically point out that it is excatly the same as Disney's Pocahontas with all the nouns transposed...

  4. Yeah, that just about sums it up. Some have said that, yeah, it's a rip-off storyline-wise, but it's a good story so it doesn't matter. I can't help but disagree.

    Much to my chagrin, Ebert gave a 4/4 to Prometheus, too. I'll resist getting into a rant about that film, as I've alienated (see what I done there?) most of my friends and family by going on about it, and I don't want to waste any more bytes of internet than I already have.

    1. I really want to see Prometheus, but only if I can play some kind fo drinking game to it. To be honest, Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection were so silly that I feel like the situation can't get much worse. Like when Disney bought Star Wars, I never thought "nooo, they'll ruin it" because Phantom Menace..