–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Genre and Illusion

by | Dec 12, 2022

A well-established principle in the world of video gaming is that stylized graphics age better than “realistic” ones. Consider two games, released in 2012: Max Payne 3 and Borderlands 2. MP3 sought a more realistic aesthetic, while Borderlands employed a highly stylized, almost cel-shaded one, and the results are easy to see. [MP3 doesn’t even hold up against the yet older Borderlands 1, which released in 2009.] If a game looking like Borderlands 2 came out today, no one wouldn’t think anything ill of its visual design, but if a company released a game that looked like MP3 now, its dated graphics would be the first thing people talked about.   

Max Payne 3 (2012) [Top left]; Borderlands 2 (2012) [Top Right];
Borderlands (2009) [Bottom].

An equally well-established principle, in the world of fantasy and science fiction entertainment more generally speaking, is that these genres require suspension of disbelief if they are to resonate with audiences. This is inherent not accidental given fantasy and science fiction’s subject matter, something that remains true even in their more grounded, “realistic” instances. So, while Star Wars (1977) certainly requires more suspension of disbelief than, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the latter still requires it when engaging with its more speculative, “far-out” elements having to do with the mysterious monolith that appears throughout and Dave Bowman’s trip into it at the film’s end.

One way of dealing with this need to sustain audiences’ suspension of disbelief involves mitigation, meaning that creators attempt to minimize the need for such suspension by offering high-end, high-budget, “realistic” treatments and effects. In film, think Terminator 2 (1991) or Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films (2001-2003) or The Avengers (2012), and with regard to television, think the Battlestar Galactica reboot (2003-2009) or The Expanse (2015-2022). Mitigation of the need to suspend disbelief is accomplished here by way of artistic illusionism.

Terminator 2 (1991) [Top left]; The Two Towers (2002) [Top right];
The Avengers (2012) [Bottom].

Another way of managing the suspension of disbelief involves accepting and “leaning into” it. In this mode, little effort is made to offer realistic treatments or effects, going instead for an obviously crafted and stylized art design that is distinctive and apt given the film or show in question. In film, think A Clockwork Orange (1971) or Brazil (1985), while in TV, think Star Trek (1966-1969) or Babylon 5 (1991). Here, the need to suspend disbelief is not mitigated, but nurtured and sustained through art design and a concern for aptness rather than mimesis.

Babylon 5 (1991) [Top left]; Brazil (1985) [Top right];
A Clockwork Orange (1971) [ Bottom];

Some will say that had the makers of the films and shows I’ve just mentioned had access to the money and means to go illusionist, they would have. But, while I’m sure this may be true in many (or even all) of these cases, it doesn’t address the suggestion that I am going to make throughout: that in genre entertainment, we sorely underestimate the advantages to the second, “stylized” way of making films and shows and also wildly overestimate those of the first way. Interestingly, this is a mistake that video gaming has not made, and stylized games are as well represented in the industry – and among its best products – as the realistic ones. Indeed, one of the most successful videogames of all time, World of Warcraft, always has had highly stylized graphics and design. [At its peak, the game boasted some twelve million monthly subscribers.]

World of Warcraft in 2007 [Left] and today (2022) [Right].

The trouble with illusionism is that its products age poorly. Inevitable – and never-ending – improvements in computer graphics and animation will always change expectations on the part of audiences, meaning that what everyone thought looked realistic ten years ago will look dated, even awful to the same people now. Today, while The Lord of the Rings still looks great for the most part, quite a bit of the CGI and some of the costuming looks dodgy. The same goes for the then-groundbreaking effects in Terminator 2 (the “liquid metal” Terminator doesn’t look nearly as great now as it once did) and more so for the visual effects in The Avengers and other Marvel Cinematic Universe offerings. Indeed, I don’t think it much of a stretch to say that in twenty years, the visual realization of the Hulk in the MCU is going to look worse to audiences than the Lou Ferrigno-painted-green Hulk we got in the Hulk TV series that ran from 1977-1982.

The MCU Hulk (2015) [Left] and Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk (1977) [Right].

In the early days of television, shows were staged and produced much like plays. This was due to limitations imposed by camera and screen sizes and set-production, as well as by the fact that many of these shows were filmed in front of live studio audiences. Excellent writing, strong ensembles, and creative but inexpensive set design lay at the heart of this brand of television. Think comedies like The Honeymooners (1955-1956) and I Love Lucy (1951-1957), science fiction like Lost in Space (1965-1968) and Blake’s 7 (1978-1981), and the horror drama Dark Shadows (1966-1971). Let’s call this the “staged” model of television.

The Honeymooners [Top left]; Blake’s 7 [Top right];
Dark Shadows [Bottom].

With the airing of Miami Vice in 1984, audiences experienced the first instance of what would become a new mode of TV-show making, commonly known as “cinematic.” High production values, an emphasis on location shooting, big set pieces, and the integration of hit songs into the soundtrack made for an entirely different viewing experience. Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice might both have been 1980’s police dramas, but the former remained very much in the staged model of TV show making, with a good portion of its drama taking place in the police station, bedrooms, and other interior locations, while the latter was an action-packed extravaganza, the experience of which was much more like watching a feature film, except that it was on television.

Hill Street Blues (1981-1987) [Left]; Miami Vice (1984-1990) [Right].

This cinematic format rules television today, with shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones being hailed as belonging to what many are calling the “golden age” of television. Now, I’ve always objected to this – if Breaking Bad’s finale had an audience of 10 million or so, while MASH’s finale was watched by 106 million people, it’s hard to see how the former represents the “golden age” of TV rather than the latter – but such characterizations when used evaluatively, rather than as historical-period designations (as they are used with regard to comics, for example), are entirely subjective. The point I want to make with regard to these competing formats is different and has to do with aesthetics.    

Consider one of the most popular genres: mysteries and detective fiction. Whether written by Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers or Agatha Christie, they have a number of common, core elements: Careful and precise characterization and setting; well-crafted dialogue; and, of course, impeccable plotting. Unlike thrillers or war fiction, they mostly eschew large-scale action set pieces, preferring more intimate and cleverly executed crimes, often committed offscreen. They are wordy, talky, frequently take place in static interiors, and usually focus on a distinctive, charismatic detective and his or her aides, assistants and companions: in short, an ensemble.

A number of superlative television series were produced based on the writings of these authors, and their leads have become the iconic representations of their respective legendary sleuths. Sherlock Holmes, starring Jeremy Brett, which ran from 1984-1994; Poirot, starring David Suchet, which ran from 1989-2013; and the Lord Peter Wimsey series, starring Ian Carmichael, which ran from 1972-1975.

Brett’s Holmes [Top Left]; The BBC’s Poirot [Top Right];
Ian Carmichael’s Lord Peter Wimsey [Bottom].

While Wimsey never received the cinematic treatment, Holmes and Poirot did, and the results were decidedly inferior to their staged counterparts. Kenneth Branagh’s big, cinematic treatments of Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile failed not simply because they lacked the charm, patience, intimacy and quality of writing that made the BBC’s treatment of the Belgian detective and his cases so strong, but because Branagh is terribly miscast as Poirot and unable to “act his way out of” it. Only two feature-films did somewhat successfully translate Christie’s novels onto the big screen: Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express, in which Albert Finney ably took up the role of Poirot, and John Guillermin’s, Death on the Nile, starting Peter Ustinov, which came out in 1978. Ustinov was also somewhat miscast (though not nearly as disastrously as Branagh), because while quirky and somewhat grating, qualities both suitable to the portrayal of Poirot, Ustinov was too large and bombastic a man to capture the essence of the fastidious Belgian. Nonetheless, both films work well, but it is worth noting that they are produced much more in the staged style than the cinematic one.

Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express [Top Left]; Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express [Top Right];
John Guillermin’s, Death on the Nile [Bottom].

Turning to Fantasy, C.S. Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia (published between 1950 and 1956) as a fantasy for children, with Christian allegory woven throughout. The books are beautifully and lovingly crafted – with iconic illustrations by Pauline Baynes – and a central element of Narnian “lore” is that beyond a certain age, one cannot return to Narnia from our world; that Narnia is a land and a kingdom ruled by and ultimately for children.

Between 1988 and 1990, the BBC produced The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Silver Chair. The scripts adhered closely to Lewis’s original text, often down to the very word, and the actors and actresses cast looked like ordinary children and early adolescents, rather than film stars. Costumes, sets, and “effects,” while handcrafted and beautifully designed, made no effort at illusion.

A Pauline Baynes illustration from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950);
Stills from the BBC Production of The Chronicles of Narnia (1988-1990).

Contrast this with the Narnia films made between 2005-2010. With the massive success of The Lord of the Rings, studios were desperate to have their own version of Peter Jackson’s hit trilogy, and given that Lewis was one of Tolkien’s friends and interlocutors – as part of their informal literary group, “the Inklings” – and had written a popular fantasy series of his own, it’s unsurprising that the Narnia chronicles would be seized upon. The films dispense with much of Lewis’s language, take great liberties with the plot, and go full blown cinematic and illusionist, in an effort to turn Lewis’s homely, elegant, and thematically rich tales for children into action-adventure blockbusters. The CGI is turned up to full blast, as the land of Narnia is packed with talking animals, mythological creatures, and even a proxy for God, in the form of Aslan, and the only way to “realistically” render such things is through computer graphics and animation.

Stills from the cinematic Chronicles of Narnia films (2005-2010).

The result is a series that fails to embody the spirit of Lewis’s beloved books and which manages the suspension of disbelief far worse than its staged, stylized BBC counterpart. With more “realistic” combat and large-scale battle scenes, the capacity to believe that fights against minotaurs, evil sorceresses, and armies of hardened Telmarine soldiers are won by animal and spirit armies led by schoolchildren is undermined. The issue isn’t just the general folly of illusionism, although the CGI and other effects in the films are worse than those in the Peter Jackson films (and will age even more poorly as a result), but rather that this sort of treatment is ill-suited to the source material. Lewis’s exquisite though unostentatious dialogue and prose, the realistically characterized interactions between the young Pevensie siblings, the cozy, intimate settings in which many of the books’ most memorable scenes are set – Mr. Tumnus’s cave, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver’s dam, the Parliament of Owls – are better realized by way of a staged, stylized treatment than by an illusionistic, cinematic one.

This is a mistake, once again, that video gaming has not made.  If there is an analogy to the older, “staged” model of production in video gaming, it would be the classic, isometric “CRPG’s” of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s: titles such as Fallout 1 and 2 (1997-1998), Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2 (1998 & 2000), and Planescape Torment (1999). The purpose of these games was to translate the kind of tabletop role-play gaming people enjoyed with Dungeons and Dragons (1974), Aftermath!(1981), or Traveler (1977) into a computer game. Given this purpose, the games’ visual presentation and systems were designed to be as apt to the table-top gaming experience as possible, with the Game Master being replaced by the computer’s AI and other players swapped for computer controlled non-player-characters. Since party maintenance and tactical combat lie at the heart of table-top gaming, the top-down, isometric point of view, turn-based or live-action-with pause model that one finds in the early CRPGs was optimal.

These types of games disappeared for quite a while, and video-gaming suffered the same sort of illusionist/cinematic arms-race that we’ve seen on the film and TV fronts. But gamers and the industry itself seemed to become aware of this more quickly – and of its being a problem – than their counterparts in film and television, and the result has been a Renaissance of new games being made in the classic CRPG mode, including Pillars of Eternity, Divinity: Original Sin, Wasteland 3, and Shadowrun: Dragonfall. And not only have they been critically acclaimed, they have been well-received by gamers, with Divinity: Original Sin 2 (the sequel to the first) being widely praised as one of the best computer role playing games ever made and having sold, by this point, millions of copies.

Pillars of Eternity (2015) [Top Left]; Divinity: Original Sin (2014) [Top Right]; Wasteland 3 (2020) [Bottom Left];
Shadowrun: Dragonfall (2014) [Bottom Right].

My point is not that the illusionist, cinematic treatment of genre material is never appropriate or successful, but rather, that the stylized, staged treatment is very much underestimated. With genre in particular, the latter boasts significant advantages that should be taken seriously by creators and producers in television and film, as it has been by their counterparts in the video gaming industry. The suspension of disbelief required for genres like Fantasy and Science Fiction is often easier and better managed by way of the stylized approach, rather than the illusionistic one, as realistic visual presentation involving computer graphics and animation inevitably ages and does so poorly, in every instance. And for genres like mysteries and detective fiction and even police dramas – and indeed, for genre entertainment of every variety – the staged approach to production may just be more apt with regard to the source material, especially if that material’s strengths lie in its dialogue, characterization, and ensemble-dynamics rather than large, action-packed set pieces.

Rather than viewing verisimilitude or realism or grandness of scope as intrinsic goods in genre entertainment, they all should be subsumed within this virtue of aptness. Indeed, I would maintain that once commercial considerations are bracketed (as they are always present and relevant as a purely practical matter) such aptness should be the overriding concern of creators and producers in the business of genre filmmaking and television. Visual presentation and production style should always serve the source material and not the other way around.