Friday, 21 February 2014

The Art of Attitude

[Contains spoilers for DmC: Devil May Cry (2013).]
From what I gather of the original Devil May Cry games, they were operatic cheesefests—aesthetically speaking, Final Fantasy by way of Nightwish. The core hack-and-slash combat had a heavy metal feel to it, the martial, kinaesthetic equivalent of power chords and shredding. The story was about demons and thematically didn't go much deeper than that—a swaggering power fantasy with the gothic backdrop to enlarge it to mostly meaningless melodramatic proportions. The idea was to slay demons and look good while doing it. You even got points for being stylish.
Dante from DmC with colourful FIGHT! text overlaid

Storywise, there existed two parallel worlds: the human world and the demon world. Player character Dante, suave demon hunter, went about preventing demons from crossing over from one to the other, using his own half-demon status to access both worlds. His demon side gave him his superpowers while his human side gave him his soul. Avenging the death of his human mother was provided as additional motivation for the character.

Breaking from the original series, DmC: Devil May Cry (2013) was a remake by a different developer—Ninja Theory, a British company, taking over from the Japanese Capcom. The game still had all of the above, but scaled back the gothic trappings and placed the demon-slaying in a new, altered context.

In the new game, while this essential set-up remains, demons become a metaphor for the malevolent aspects of modern-day society. The parallel demon world, Limbo, already exerts control over the human world, and demons exist in it disguised as the humans behind society's most insidious institutions. Each of these institutions has to do with oppression and control, keeping the humans brainwashed and malleable: fear-mongering TV news networks, corporations with manipulative advertising and products that render consumers docile, nightclubs and reality shows oriented around the spectacle of celebrity, the entrapments of investment banking, and mass CCTV surveillance.

Dante showing his middle finger

The Steam description for the game describes the new Dante like a teacher might in a school report: 'The Dante of DmC is a young man who has no respect for authority or indeed society in general.' Though targeted by demons who fear his power for being the half-breed son of a powerful demon (as in the old games), the real purpose of Dante in this game is to be a walking, talking middle finger.

In the beginning, Dante lives a heedless, hedonistic lifestyle. His fuck-you attitude towards the world is somewhat generalised and, well, devil-may-care. As the game progresses, his outlook matures: when he agrees to join a group of rogue vigilantes who call themselves the Order, inducted by human psychic Kat and Dante's estranged brother Vergil, the middle finger starts to find more specific targets: the demonic institutions that hold the city in their grasp.

If the old games offered a more or less straightforward power fantasy, the new DmC frames the hack-and-slash more specifically as rebellion. The aggressive heavy metal is transmuted into something a bit more punk rock—still very showy and stylish, but aesthetically rougher and rawer than its predecessors. Dante reflects this in the way he dresses, the way he talks, the way he acts, hurling f-bombs at enemies and fighting with a brawling style. Player performance is still ranked for stylishness, which is basically a measurement of variety and combination in combat, but the letters denoting the different grades have been tweaked to fit the new mood, spelling DIRTY! CRUEL! BRUTAL! ANARCHIC! SAVAGE! SSADISTIC! The entire game is shot through with this aesthetic, up to and including a noisy electronic soundtrack.

Dante in action, achieving ANARCHIC rating with an aerial attack

The demons themselves are still pretty metal, and their world carries with it all the usual cliches of hellish imagery: hellfire, screaming souls and corpses, strange larval things, pentagrams, and masses of fairly generic demonic creatures, from skeletal to insectoid to bestial to twistedly cherub-like. The demon hordes probably feel like the most uninspired aspect of the game when compared to the creativity seen elsewhere, but in tune with the raw ethos of everything else in this game, their design has an emphasis on the gross-out as much as the gothic, some of the bigger ones really pushing the boundaries of the nauseating and grotesque. The point being, this is the true face of the demonic establishment: evil, repulsive and barely human.

The game takes the demonic metaphor a step further by presenting us with a quite literally hostile environment. Under the influence of Mundus, when the demons become aware of Dante and drag him into Limbo (often via CCTV cameras, which are in fact demon eyes on stalks), the world breaks apart, distorts and crushes in to try and stop him. For the player, this mostly entails contrived and perfectly assailable platform challenges, and the transformation nearly always takes place several steps ahead as scripted. But it still emphasises the demons as oppressive forces, and the nature of Dante's battle as against the twisted environment created by the demons as much as the demons themselves.

Dante face-to-face with hideous giant succubus, who screams WHO THE FUCK ARE YOUUUUU?

In addition to punk rock, the game taps into other cultural icons of rebellion and anti-establishment: the masked Order evokes the Anonymous movement, and Kat mixes Wiccan spells with graffiti. (And squirrel semen. Cuz squirrebellion.) All of these reference blend neatly to form a simple but effective characterisation of resistance.

Placed in this context, Dante's hack-and-slash is loaded with meaning, the game's overarching narrative of rebellion distilled in the act of hyper-stylised combat. The fighting itself becomes an expression of freedom and empowerment, a poetic gesture that offers the same kind of emotional catharsis as rocking out—heady, intense, fast, furious, exhilarating, totally single-minded... and above all, full of attitude.

What makes DmC cool is its sense of fun—it knows that it's a game about demon-slaying, and it's aware of how tongue-in-cheek it is to literally demonise these institutions. With the exaggerated, cocky swagger of Dante and all his cheesy one-liners, it clearly doesn't take itself too seriously. The game's real strength is in its playfulness, and how it mixes both human and demon realities to give us a topsy-turvy and still shamelessly videogamey but resonant world. The game excels where it gets most conceptually inventive, usually the levels oriented around one of the boss demons and directly lampooning some aspect of malignant society. It's at its weakest when not a whole lot frames the action except a line from A to B, like some of the streets and corridors that tend to string the bigger setpieces together.

Dante faces the glitching head of demon news anchor Bob Barbas

For me, the game's most inspired sequence is the Raptor News level, where Dante flies into a TV screen and has to traverse the colourful flying parts of an overblown news title sequence to reach Bob Barbas, demon news anchor. A giant glitching holographic head above a pentagram, Barbas' verbal interaction with Dante is mediated through further TV screens, the host delivering an on-air diatribe that simultaneously insults Dante and characterises him as a terrorist. At one stage in the ensuing battle, the fighting is filtered through the lens of grainy aerial CCTV footage, while Barbas' commentary and the Raptor News Network tickertape is overlaid. The fighting itself doesn't really change—the player does more or less what the player always does—but the framing cleverly manipulates the action.

In some ways, though, not much has changed from its predecessors. At its heart, the game is still a power fantasy, directed at enemies that exist mainly for you to have enemies, to enable your cathartic little rampage. It gives us easy targets to rebel against so we can feel the satisfaction of rebellion, to feel like simple attitude is enough. It's always easier to demonise, because it gives us a simple and satisfying emotional target. Bill O'Reilly and Fox News are worthy targets for ridicule, and hardly less grotesque than their thinly-veiled DmC counterparts, but while it's not impossible to carry over the obvious points it makes about media manipulation and editorialising news anchors to all media and journalistic entities, including the less outright cartoonish, it's still low-hanging fruit.

It's very similar in a lot of ways to The Matrix, the original 1999 film. Like DmC, The Matrix made with pointed literalness and raged its disaffected humans against 'the Machines', who kept control over the human population by plugging them into an oppressive virtual reality. It served as a catch-all allegory for something like the state-corporate complex of late '90s America, with shady government agents lurking at the paranoid edges of a dull office-drone existence. Like DmC, the forces behind this structuring of society were demonised, a clear-cut evil pulling the wool over human eyes. They were a tangible enemy that had to be destroyed—sinister, scary and comical in their inhuman fuckedupness. The creators also elected to convey this narrative through the genre of the action film, much as DmC does through the hack-and-slash.

Neo displaying his middle finger to Agent Smith

Video game genres, where they depart from cross-media genres, tend to refer to the verb that defines the specific action of the player (shooting, slashing, roleplaying, strategising, traversing 'platforms'). While that's often not all there is to the aims or the themes of a game, inevitably this verb plays a central role, and it either conveys or conflicts with theme. The world of DmC is simple enough that the player actions of hack-and-slash, shooting and platforming are able to carry most of the burden of meaningful action required by the story, because it's mostly about rebel attitude. It's not all there is to Dante or to the player's involvement, but it's the most important and central part in relation to what the story is trying to convey—it's the meat and potatoes. You could trim away the cutscenes and dialogue and lose some of the emotional depth and character development, but most of what Dante's about would remain intact.

Though movies don't have a player to apply such a specific verb to, in action movies the 'action' is central in the same way—albeit encompassing all kinds of physical feats that would normally be further delineated in games, from martial arts to gunfighting to car chases. To call something an action movie isn't usually to say that it's a film with a little action on the side—the action is meant to be a defining characteristic, front and centre, containing the bulk of what the film has to offer. This is why action films, like many games, are notorious for delivering power fantasy, catharsis and attitude while being light on things like character development and theme.

This centrality of 'action' is why The Matrix can properly be called an action film. What made it exceptional for an action flick was that it managed to pack so much meaning into the action itself. The character of Neo, though by no means complex, had a very neat, fit-for-purpose evolutionary arc dealt with primarily through the action—through the kung fu and the guns-lots-of-guns and what they represented in context. For all the set-up and dialogue, it was the action that conveyed most of the meaning and distilled the theme: Neo's empowerment and transcendence of the Matrix.

Neo tearing up the lobby with a gun in both hands

Neo transcended the Matrix by asserting control over his environment. This is most clearly represented by the lobby scene, in which he and Trinity infiltrate a government building and lay waste to a SWAT team sent to try and stop them. In the Matrix, which is an entire world built to imprison humanity, oppression and control are represented spatially, through the structure of the environment, as much as by hostile agents—in this case, by the lobby itself as much as the SWAT team. All of Neo and Trinity's fancy wall runs and aerial tricks signal a measure of power over this environment, defying the rules of the simulation. Destruction of the environment also matters—not only are the SWAT team annihilated, but the place is riddled with bullet holes and the lobby's concrete support pillars are reduced to chewed up apple cores.

This is a little different from DmC, in which the demons are the ones who actively distort the environment to make it more imposing, and Dante doesn't cause a whole lot of environmental damage. The Matrix game adaptations indulge in this environmentally destructive power fantasy more directly, as do the Max Payne games that, like The Matrix, trace their particular brand of slow-motion destructive poetry back to John Woo's heroic bloodshed films. But the spatial metaphor is still essentially the same. Control over space and the imposing structure equals power.

The way the heroes revel in this performance also informs the sensibility of the action. The film has fun with it, indulging in the thrill, the freedom, the escape from the conventions of reality. Teasing free of the rules of the Matrix, the action is showy and stylish, basking in it, affecting its own attitude of empowerment. Everything that could be considered 'cool' or flashy about the rebels—from their ridiculous bristling arsenal to their shades and their long, flowing coats—is its own attention to attitude. And as in DmC, playfulness is its own giddy expression of freedom—one associated with irreverence, mischief, maybe youthfulness, and the expression of individual identity.

Neo firing at the SWAT team while performing a somersault

Just like DmC, The Matrix seems to operate best as a straightforward expression of its anti-establishment attitude, with everything constructed and aligned according to this purpose. Like Dante, Neo starts out with generalised discontent that finds form in physical enemies. Through him, the film offers a simple emotional trajectory: by the time Neo and Trinity are gearing up for the raid of the government building, partly manipulated into action by the Oracle, they're all but ready to headbang their way through the mission.

This attitudinal trajectory is carried through to a logical conclusion which is totally open-ended: after saving Morpheus but supposedly being killed by Agent Smith, Neo resists this death-by-Matrix by sheer will power (and a little brain-boner courtesy of Trinity); he demonstrates that he can not only bend but break the rules of the system; and, over a screen that says SYSTEM FAILURE, he leaves the machines this voicemail:

I didn't come here to tell you how this is going to end; I came here to tell you how this is going to begin. Now, I'm going to hang up this phone, and I'm going to show these people what you don't want them to see. I'm going to show them a world without you... a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world... where anything is possible.

With Neo shooting off into the sky, the film abdicates responsibility for what happens next... until the sequels, at least. It leaves things open-ended not only to make a point of newfound freedom and possibility, but because this is the outcome of an evolution that was only ever supposed to be very simple and attitudinal. The film is about a state of mind that by the end has served its purpose: this is as far as raging against the machine gets us.

Dante flies towards an upside-down cluster of screens displaying the Raptor News logo

DmC likewise ends with humans seeing the world the demons don't want them to see, when the shield of illusion between the human world and Limbo collapses and the demons become visible to everyone. This happens when Dante and Vergil defeat Mundus, the Demon King, after battling their way to the top of Silver Sacks (Goldman Sachs) Tower where he resides. When Vergil reveals his intentions to become the next Demon King and rule the humans, essentially seeking to perpetuate the same oppression, Dante dispatches him in a similar manner, holding true to his trajectory—and again, obtaining and maintaining a very open-ended freedom for humanity.

The Matrix sequels didn't pick up the story with the same project in mind as the first film, instead going about frustrating and complicating whatever made this narrative so easy; everything which enabled it to be the cathartic jerk-off it was (which could be at least one of the reasons they didn't go down so well, though probably not everything that didn't work about those movies can be chalked down to intentional thematic deconstruction). If there's one thing the sequels helped make us aware of, it was that the first film was too simple, its own kind of meta-Matrix, which dosed us with too easily-attained satisfaction. The reality represented by the film was oversimplified to fulfill its attitudinal aims.

For instance, though the sequels didn't address this one, both DmC and The Matrix mostly sidestep the matter of the humans who are complicit in their respective systems while not being outright evil. In DmC they're sketchy, tormented lost souls. In The Matrix, some people are, according to Morpheus, 'so inert, so helplessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it', but the simplistic narrative can only offer a disturbingly simplistic solution: if they get in the way, like the security officers in the lobby of the government building, they have to be killed. And if the heroes begin their stories caught up and suffering in the system, they are never responsible for extending that suffering to other people, or seen as benefiting from it in any way—which, as a representation of modern Western society, is quite an easy, convenient narrative for a character like Dante who ticks the boxes of straight, white and male. (As, incidentally, the punk movement was predominantly. Dante, in other words, cuts a very white and masculine figure of rebellion.)

Dante lounges with a dozen admiring nameless angel women in attendance

DmC does address the temptations and exercise of power, which it contrasts/seeks to balance with 'humanity' or empathy, when Dante and his power-hungry brother Vergil face off at the end (and this conflict is also what the parental storyline and Dante's half-demon nature boil down to, as was sort of the case in the old Devil May Cry games). But while Dante has to learn to care about humanity and to stop drinking toxic soft drinks, he doesn't have to deal with having ever been, say, a potential womaniser whose sense of cool relied at least in part on being surrounded by an objectified cadre of sexy angels. In other words, he's only ever a victim or a vanquisher of oppressive forces. 

Lilith, on the other hand, Mundus' demon mistress and bearer of his Spawn, is a comically grotesque parody of celebrity-style cosmetics, without any of the cultural or sociological context that might reflect on the conspicuously gendered nature of this parody. Lilith is also characterised as subordinate to and absolutely petrified of Mundus, with an implicit sense of threat that uncomfortably evokes an abusive relationship, yet we're still asked to beat her up in a boss fight, however cartoonishly, while her monstrous baby drags her around by an umbilical cord. While Lilith is probably the most sympathetic of the demons—Dante reacts in horror when Vergil coldly executes her later on—the demonisation process still denies the character some of the unraveling she probably deserves. Instead, she gets to be the epitome of a teenaged boy's apathetic characterisation; that is, mainly, fucking gross.

DmC is meant to be teenaged, by design. Along with the irreverence, swagger and gross-out demon-smashing fun, thematically it explores Dante's maturation from apathy to anger and finally to empathy. It's meant to be a formative experience for a young character. But maybe an attitudinal narrative like DmC's also has to embrace an adolescent sort of solipsism to really work.

Dante punches a nightclub bouncer and leaves the message FUCK YOU on his clipboard

The narratives of The Matrix and DmC are both designed so we can project ourselves into them: as vessels for attitude, we can relate our own trajectories of rage, disaffection and rebelliousness to these protagonists and feel empowered through them. In the case of Dante, this is particularly emphasised by player control. Neo, on the other hand, fulfils the role of the disaffected everyman who hates his job and gets to stick it to the man. His status as the One can be viewed as an extension of this, representing total rejection of the Matrix and therefore offering the most complete attitudinal trajectory. In either case, Neo and Dante's state of mind is supposed to be our state of mind, their evolution our evolution, our shared attitudinal path.

But in such a narrative, it's only the self that really matters—the emotions and psychology of the individual projected onto the world, the rest of reality folding to serve it. It creates a reality that—not unlike the simple act of headbanging—attends to and indulges, above all else, one's own feelings.

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