Thought/Process: Re-Zoning the Districts
One thing kept swirling in my mind as I watched "District 9" on Sunday afternoon: Would a Halo movie have made me feel this way?
By now, everybody knows that director Neill Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson were working on the movie adaption of Microsoft's ultra-successful sci-fi franchise. Development stalled, but you can see some resemblances in "District 9" if you squint and let your mind wander: The Prawn -- the stranded alien race that has been cordoned off in a South African shantytown -- could have passed for the Jackal enemies from Halo. The armored Multinational United soldiers and their transports might have been UNSC space marines and their Warthogs. A few shots synced the camera view with soldiers' eyes as they swept across the frame. It wasn't the first-person camera of the "Doom" movie, but it did feel game-like.
Don't let the grim look fool you. Wikus isn't much like Master Chief.
What is more interesting to me, however, is why it's so relatively rare to walk away from a videogame feeling the way I did after "District 9": energized, dizzy and nauseous with the experience of visiting a well-built world.
In tons of videogames, including Halo, human and alien contact sets off a catastrophic chain of events. Yet, when compared to "District 9," they don't feel quite as rich for commentary on the human condition. Again and again, we're told we can slip into the skin of a protagonist with a complicated past, with much at stake, with the fate of the world in his hands. And, again and again, it can just feel like so much going through the motions.
Yet videogame protagonists still feel perfect, no matter what histories they've got pinned to the backs of their shirts. In the Halo games, the universe never feels built for anybody else but Master Chief. And you know the character will be alright, because you're personally going to balance his karma.
Compare Master Chief to Wikus van der Merwe, the hapless corporate functionary who serves as the viewpoint character in "District 9." As Van der Merwe serves eviction notices to the Prawn, he alternates between preening and bumbling. He got his job out of nepotism, and thinks of himself as equal or superior to the soldiers in his command. He bullies and tricks aliens into signing themselves into concentration camps. After his fall from grace, his instincts are to cajole, wheedle, or beg for mercy.
Wikus nevers shows any of the stoic resoluteness of Master Chief or the tough-guy quips of Halo's Sergeant Johnson. Unlike Master Chief, you don't want to be this guy -- you just want him to go away. But he doesn't. You don't know whether to root for him or despise his self-serving behavior, but you are stuck with him. Van der Merwe is a non-hero, pitiful and helpless, only concerned with recovering his small life of simple pleasures.
I reveled in the fictional universe of "District 9," but I also wondered what I would do if I were in Wikus' shoes. Would I have nurtured false hope like Wikus did? Destroyed another's family to try and get my own back?
In contrast, morality comes automatically in games like Halo. Of course you are doing the right thing, because it's the only thing you can do. Despite having control of Master Chief, you only have one way to engage with his world, and that's through combat. There is no button to press to choke back fear or anger or grief.
You are never given the chance to think that we could get along with the coalition of alien races that make up the Covenant. That's not to say Halo is totally devoid of emotional complication. But overall, playing the Halo games feels like taking part in military exercises. For the majority of them, you're rampant in your power, and that has always made me feel more detached than engaged. If there is anything in Halo about sacrifice, survivor guilt or the way war dehumanizes us, the player has to strain mightily to imagine it.
"District 9" lives on the opposite end of the spectrum. Like the best of science-fiction, Blomkamp's indie underdog works as a metaphor that the audience can read on multiple levels. The Prawn clearly stand for any oppressed race of humans. And the movie's themes of technological exploitation and xenophobic experimentation coexist with squidgy chunks of limbs and viscera that constantly go flying in combat. "District 9" manages to represent both the fun of B-movies and the consequences of abused power.
The more I think about it, there is no way a Halo movie could have made me feel like "District 9" did. The sensibilities in Halo demand unquestioning belief in a black-and-white worldview.
See the resemblance?
The biggest strength of "District 9" is its conviction to keeping its audience feeling queasy about human nature. It does that with a maladjusted protagonist, gory consequences to cultural trespass and a deft allegorical touch. Thing is, videogames can do those first two things. The medium needs to reckon with its allegorical possibilities, though, and figure out how to make games feel bigger than just what you are making happen on-screen.
By the time the film's power fantasy -- laying hands on all that gloriously destructive alien tech -- reaches its epiphany, those one-shot kills from the mech suit's energy beams feel like they are in service of something. Something desperate, like the life or death of a man's soul.
I can't wait for a videogame to make me feel like that.