Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Hardcore Henry is a true application of first person shooter tropes to cinema

You can't do this with a d-pad Source: Youtube
I've been excited about Hardcore Henry for a while now, anticipating a spiritual successor to the gimmicky and glorious action film Crank. After seeing it on the biggest screen I could find (recommended), I walked away satisfied but also surprised at its conceptual depth: this movie is a full-throated attempt to bring video game tropes and design culture to the big screen.

To see the qualities that reveal Hardcore Henry as a video game adaptation, it's important to understand the distinction between the art of video games and the art in video games.

As in film, video games aggregate art from other media: they contain music, photography, architecture, literature/story, etc. But they are also qualitatively distinct art forms in and of themselves. Like cinematography in film, video games contain unique artistic dimensions of value that are native to the medium. These unique dimensions shape and inform the design trends of genres, and might include things like immersiveness or storyline interactivity.

Why the FPS?

As video games have matured, so have their design cultures and tropes. The first person shooter (FPS) is one of the oldest and most successful genres, and as such a fairly well-developed and recognizable 'memeplex' has taken shape. It thus makes sense that the first really successful attempt to adapt the video game medium for film focuses on the FPS.

It's important to note that adapting a video game medium isn't quite the same as adapting a specific video game franchise. Most of the past video game movies have been pretty terrible, suffering in part because they've tried to both at the same time. The insight of Hardcore Henry is to focus solely on the medium and genre elements, eschewing any existing franchise in favor of a generic storyline. This adds clarity and counterintuitively makes the film more fun for video game junkies due to the many easter eggs.

The Memeplex

So what does a FPS film adaptation really mean? At one extreme, YouTube has hundreds of videos that are literally video game walkthroughs. Besides obviously being live-action, Hardcore Henry is an attempt to get as close to a FPS as possible while still being essentially a Hollywood movie. Its strategy--successful, in my opinion--is to identify the highest-profile FPS tropes and cultural elements and build a movie around them. The most obvious ones include:
  • Sci-fi action with male focus. FPSers have historically been oriented around a specific consumer group: young boys. While this may have changed a bit recently, the archetypal FPS is still an overwhelmingly violent action/sci fi with women occupying minor support roles.

  • Emphasis on weapons. Collecting various guns and properly deploying them is a huge part of first person shooters. Hardcore Henry replicates this extremely well by having the protagonist frequently switch between a diverse array of guns, always topping up the clip when ammo is lying around. Another bit that really shows Hardcore Henry's attention to detail is the way in which the perfect gun always shows up just in time to defeat the right enemy.

  • First person perspective. This is obvious, but the entire movie is shot with GoPro head-mounted cameras, with the viewer seeing the protagonist's face only via mirrors. Past movies have dabbled with the 'found footage' concept, but Hardcore Henry represents the most ambitious attempt to date at truly recreating the FPS feel.

  • Power-ups. Many times throughout the film, the protagonist recharges his battery cell (or takes an adrenaline shot) to get an immediate life/power boost. The accompanying reaction shot is ripped straight from the FPS game design playbook.

  • Protagonist's lack of agency. In all FPSers, the player controls the protagonist, meaning they have no knowledge of the fictional world, and their actions are entirely circumscribed by the choices of the game designers. Typically games have some helper character or higher-up providing expository dialogue and sending you on missions or whatever. Conversely, protagonists in most movies are quite different, serving as self-aware decisionmakers who further the plot on their own. Hardcore Henry correctly identifies this FPS trope and structures the movie accordingly.

  • Boss battle. Most action movies have some sort of climactic fight scene, but Hardcore Henry draws on a subtle element common to most FPS boss battles: technical precision. Video games are in part an exercise in physical and mental skill, and typically the boss battle is a culmination of hours of training via some perfect-timing procedure. In Hardcore Henry, the protagonist is trying to get close enough to the boss who's levitating in the air along with some corpses and debris. The protagonist must perform a careful sequence of jumps in order to strike. I could almost taste the joystick rotations as I was watching, and to me it was the clearest piece of evidence showing why Hardcore Henry is best understood as a FPS adaptation.

  • Levels. Video games are typically divided into various levels, each with different settings, weapons, and explicit mission objectives. Hardcore Henry's adaptation of this FPS design element is perhaps the most well-done. The movie is truly a collection of different set pieces, with action taking place in self-contained environments and super-quick transitions between them (in fact, most transitions could be considered cutscenes). The map diversity was really nice, and echoes such well-known titles like Goldeneye and Halo. Just consider the movie's chronology, all of which contain ample fighting and ultraviolence:
    • Start / Futuristic lab
    • Freeway overpass
    • Moscow city center 1
    • Moscow city center 2 (with mini-boss fight)
    • Hotel entry
    • Hotel exit / mini-boss chase
    • Brothel
    • Highway road battle
    • Forest
    • Secret lab
    • Secret lab defence battle
    • Alleyways
    • Boss tower entry
    • Boss tower escape
    • End / Rooftops--final boss battle.

Does it work?

Evaluating Hardcore Henry like any other movie seems to miss the point. The more important question is: do all of these video game tropes ultimately work in the movie medium? Yes and no, but mostly yes.

Some aspects are unquestionably better. The acting and graphics are way more realistic. The sex appeal is far more... appealing. The use of music is superior in film than to FPS gameplay, mostly because video game interactivity precludes sophisticated planning and synergy. The biggest advantage of film over gameplay is the greater diversity of protagonist actions: in a video game, your choices are limited by the controller buttons and available design alternatives. In film, anything goes, as the top screenshot demonstrates.

Some elements work better in video games, however. In Hardcore Henry, fast cuts and quick jumping within scenes often breaks up the immersive quality of the FPS experience--I was very much expecting more long, extended takes. This is probably necessary due to the time constraint, but I found the density of action somewhat jarring and relentless compared to the typical FPS, where you have frequent calm periods and can choose to wander at will.

Another relative limitation of live-action film is simple physics. Although Harcore Henry did amazing things with its GoPro approach, I found myself anticipating extreme action shots that were frequently sidestepped. There were a few wild jumps, but overall I got the impression that safety concerns limited the scope of the film. If Hardcore Henry does well financially, I expect that bigger budgets and future innovation with drones will greatly improve on this weakness.

Video Games are Art

In general, I see Hardcore Henry as an important indicator that the first person shooter video game genre has achieved a level of success and sophistication as to be worthy of a mainstream, identifiable memeplex and design culture. Being established enough to attract big-budget funding for a medium-crossing treatment should be the final word in settling video games as intrinsically artistic cultural productions. It's perhaps ironic that a movie best showcases how much video games have developed and matured, but I expect we will see more sharing of artistic elements between media in the future.

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