Entertainment Geekly Mailbag: 'Mockingjay' talkback and a defense of 'Assassin's Creed'
Big week for explosive arrows! Last week I reviewed Far Cry 4, one of the best videogames I’ve played this year; I also saw The Hunger Games—Mockingjay: Part 1, one of the best non-movies I’ve seen this year. Readers responded with their thoughts about Ubisoft’s franchises and some deep thoughts about the state of moviemaking. If you want to join the conversation, or just want to tell me I’m wrong, email me at email@example.com.
A “Far Cry” From a Masterpiece
Allow me to start by saying that I haven’t played Far Cry 4 yet, but I feel safe in calling “bullshit” on the title of your article. Saints Row IV is Ubisoft’s masterpiece and, outside of the first two Arkhams, the best superhero game out there… a strange thing to say about a game that wasn’t birthed from the gaping maws of either DC or Marvel. I find this rather amazing, considering Saints Row started off as the red-headed stepbrother of GTA. All these years later, just compare the dialogue in the two latest iterations; one game has a pretty sharp and funny script, the other has its protagonists exchanging tedious monologues, as if they’re at the most violent forensics tournament ever.
From the reviews I’ve watched, I think we can safely assume that FC4 loses big time on the whole “cohesive story” thing. The Big Bad pops out at the beginning, makes quite an impression with what he thinks of cell phones at the dinner table… and then disappears for most of the game. Parts of which are filled, from what I saw, with almost scene-for-scene rip-offs of missions in FC3.
So, really, what we’re left with is pretty colors and fun stuff to do. And that sounds great. I have nothing against pretty colors and fun stuff to do. Unfortunately, I think a triple-A video game should be held to a higher standard if it’s a “masterpiece”. Look at the comparison I made above. Just one of GTA5‘s neighborhoods is probably as big as all of “fake Steelport”. So what’s the difference? When my SR4 president starts destroying the city and shouts “Yeah! Take that, fake Steelport!” It’s just a throwaway line while you’re destroying something, but it’s funnier than anything said in all of GTA5.
So howsabout a real “masterpiece” test. Let’s give it a couple months and let us know how many times you played through the story mode of FC4. I’ve played SR4 about… well… four times since I got it last year. I’m gonna bet you won’t be able to say the same thing about FC4.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just received my copy of XCOM: Enemy Within from Amazon. If it’s anything like the last one… well, I smell a “masterpiece”!
[follow-up email sent six hours later]
PS: reading this over, I didn’t mean that last part to reek of smart-assery. But between that and the paragraph right before it, I really did have to answer the door to receive my new copy of XCOM: Enemy Within! Don’t know if it’s a masterpiece, but obliterating an alien with a shotgun is still a “Team America… fuck yeah!” experience.
So there’s a lot to take in here, and I take a lot of it very seriously. But we should pause and point out that Saints’ Row IV is not a Ubisoft game by any stretch of the imagination. (The Saints’ Row franchise was developed by Volition and published by THQ, until THQ sold it off to Deep Silver.) However, I’m going to assume that Bill was using “Ubisoft” as a descriptor in a more abstract sense—not a game made by Ubisoft, but a game that feels like Ubisoft, in the same way that The Dark Knight is the best Michael Mann movie of the last decade.
The last couple of Saints’ Row games do have a lot of Ubisoft-ish qualities. Like the open worlds of Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, and Far Cry, the Saints’ Row games are kind of meta-sandboxes, giving the player a ludicrous amount of powers and weaponry, letting you run wild. I had the same exact experience with Saints’ Row 3 and 4: For the first two hours, I thought they were the most fun ever; and then I got bored, because the games make you so superpowered so quickly that there’s no sense of growth or evolution. The Saints’ Row games are basically Cheat Code: The Videogame—which is a big part of their allure! But for me, it also makes them weirdly static and ultimately unfun experiences.
Like a lot of contemporary videogames, I actually think Saints’ Row has way too much story: The fourth game starts off with your character as the president, and then aliens destroy the world, and then there’s a digital-universe version of a city, and there’s also a running Mass Effect parody. The helium-inflated ridiculata is part of the point, I guess, but over a stretch of several hours, it gets old. Whereas the smartest thing Far Cry 4 does is basically dispatch the story almost immediately.
I should clarify, up front, that I’m a bit of a story skeptic when it comes to videogames. My favorite videogame ever is Shadow of the Colossus, which has a weird and emotional and incredibly straightforward story that requires basically two bookend dialogue cutscenes. Far Cry 4 isn’t that, but it’s closer to that than Saints’ Row. For that matter, it’s closer to that than Grand Theft Auto V, a game which I loved playing even though every aspect of the narrative felt problematic, silly, and often downright aggressively boring. (I wrote about this a bit last year.)
Speaking of story in videogames:
Listen. I’ll defend Assassin’s Creed ‘til the cows come home. And believe me, I know how rare the super fandom stance is getting around these games, but even I admit it’s essentially the same game each year with and an alt-tabbed setting change and new scruffily handsome face attached to a wrist with a knife.
But, and stick with me on this one, at least the hundred-million monkeys tap-tapping away on those hundred-million typewriters are DOING something. Trying something. It’s crazy and bizarre and kinda illogical if thought about for too long, but it’s also the only game whose mythology and story I’ve wanted to think about for too long. It reached its peak during the naked Adam and Eve glyph-a-thon in part two, and has been going slowly downhill since (boy-oh-boy was the promised apocalypse story-line wrap up of ACIII a mega-disappointment), but I still love its bonkers-ness. It’s like Lost if Lost would still be on the air and we’d have gotten an episode all about Vincent the Dog.
I’m giving Unity a few weeks to patch its starting line stumbles (what a weird age we live in), but I’m definitely saddened by the apparent lack of modern-day kookiness people are talking about like it’s a positive. I still remember Jade Raymond teasing the Matrix-y data scrolling around Altair during demos at E3 back in ‘07. I’m that one guy who read every single hacked computer file in Black Flag (no modern day assassins because cars cause the mind to wander and the Animus can’t sync with the hazy brain waves, who knew?!) Maybe the modern day stuff hasn’t been handled the best recently – well, besides the we’re-going-there meta-ness of Black Flag – but, and this is just my opinion, Assassin’s Creed isn’t Assassin’s Creed without it.
This was probably way too long, I just had to get it off my chest.
This is in response to my sidelong jab at Ubisoft’s other franchise—the description of Assassin’s Creed‘s mythology as “the thousand-monkeys-typing-on-a-thousand-typewriters lithium cocktail of wristbladed ninja monks who fight apocalypse zealots because ancient-astronaut god-mutants taught humans some sick parkour.”
In hindsight, that looks like I’m insulting the games. But I want to make something clear: I am totally with Mitchell. I fully support how completely batcrap bananas the Assassin’s Creed series is, on a plot basis. Have you ever read Assassin’s Creed: Brahman? It’s the story of a programmer in Bangalore who’s engaged to a famous Bollywood actress and starts using the Animus to roleplay as a Kashmiri assassin who’s in love with a princess. The story is about, in no particular order: The industrial-era tyranny of colonialism; the modern-era tyranny of globalization; the postmodern tyranny of digitalization; male anxiety about long-term relationships; and Hindu gods that are actually mutant-aliens or whatever. And this is a graphic novel spinoff.
The problem is that the content of the Assassin’s Creed mythology—which suggests JRR Tolkien’s The Silmarillion rewritten by the Zucker Bros. and remixed into a season if Adventure Time—is so radically removed from the actual experience of playing Assassin’s Creed videogames, which have lately devolved into extended fetch quests. Even if you ignore the glitches—and as my colleague Natalie Abrams points out, it’s hard to ignore the glitches—there’s just something very staid, repetitious, and earthbound about the last few games. They’re more fun to talk about than they are to play.
And now to Mockingjay! Note: One big spoiler for Mockingjay-Part 2 follows:
First of all, I need to thank you. You’ve done something that I’ve been trying to do for 3 days now. You’ve put into words my thoughts about that blockbuster “episode”. (And I’m sorry about the English mistakes, I’m brazilian).
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the Hunger Games (yes, all caps) and I am one of the very few that like the Mockinjay book – most of my friends don’t. When I read that they decided to make the same thing as the last Twilight movies, I spent some time trying to believe it and trying to think about how they could possibly turn such a small book into 2 movies. The first chapters are slow, so slow that they’ve could be like 15 minutes of one real movie, which makes me kind of angry, because I’m afraid they won’t use the “extra time” on the second movie to “correct” some stuff that Suzanne Collins maybe didn’t care much when she was writing (I mean, the woman makes us love Finnick Odair, gives us such a huge depth into his character and when he dies, it all happens in like… a paragraph?).
Talking about her, I was surprised to see her name on the credits of this “movie”. God. Why. I understand their reasons, they saw the chance to get extra billion dollars. but where does it leave us in the terms/matters of cinema? As you said, where’s the middle and end? Today, we have some huge productions like Game of Thrones (which one episode is worth the 6 euros I’ve spent on my ticket, since I’m studying Journalism in Lisbon now.) That could easily be a better movie than this prequel/episode/120minuteteaser/biggesttrailerever.
The same will happen to Allegiant.
Agree on all counts, and I think the Game of Thrones comparison is particularly apt. At least 3/4 of every season of Game of Thrones is a bunch of good actors standing around on a gorgeously production-designed movie set, talking about all the big plans they have. (Ultimately, those big plans pay off in the 2 or 3 episodes of Game of Thrones where actual things happen.) Mockingjay 1 is basically one of those stand-around chessmaster episodes of Thrones, except it’s two hours long, the dialogue isn’t as good, the sets are less interesting, and it’s all rated PG-13 so nobody can swear or die or engage in the popular human activity of sexual intercourse.
However, I want to make one thing clear: I love the book Mockingjay. It’s so dark, so weird, so fundamentally unsettling, and above all else, it’s so resolutely unfun in a way that feels purposeful. The only really accurate way to film Mockingjay would’ve been to hand it to Jean-Luc Godard; there’s a fundamental dissonance to pitching such a bleak, angry book as a two-part popcorn thrill ride.
I find that part one of Mockingjay was lacking of action. However it was a completely necessary part for the movies to stay true to the book. If they tried to squeeze it all in one movie it wouldn’t include some important parts and would cut down on their time in the Capitol. So there’s my opinion, it’s a movie.
This is the Harry Potter argument and I disagree completely. A book is a book, and a movie is a movie. Plenty of good movies based on books have radically altered the original text: Jaws, The Shining, Manhunter, Jurassic Park, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Blade Runner, The Graduate, The Last of the Mohicans, American Psycho, and on and on the list goes. Hell, Stanley Kubrick spent most of his filmmaking career taking good books and altering them completely into transcendent movies.
I worry sometimes that I sound like a film-major snob when I make these comparisons, and I totally understand if you want to respond: “Bro, stop comparing a fun popcorn movie to Full Metal Jacket!” But dammit, Mockingjay is a book that could’ve been Full Metal Jacket. Suzanne Collins fits so many big ideas and complicated emotions into her series, and it’s depressing to see all stuff get repackaged by the media-industrial—especially considering that so much of Mockingjay is literally about how genuine complicated emotions and big ideas get repackaged by the media-industrial complex.
I thought this was a very interesting article, but there were a number of grammatical errors that made me cringe.
One example: “Then suddenly there’s a vampire baby chewing threw her mother’s womb.” I am sure your meant ‘through.’
I cry over grammatical errors in my posts, but let she who is without sin cast the first stone. (I think you meant “you meant.”)
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Book)