Monday, August 16, 2010

Scott Pilgrim's Usability Problem

Editor's Note: This is the second in a... a series of critiques discussing films that appropriate some aspects of videogames. It is highly recommended that you read this one, about Inception, first.

After seeing Edgar Wright's new film Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, I found myself thinking about videogame tutorials.

In-game tutorials are both hugely important and difficult to pull off, and today's game-designers have gotten pretty clever about putting them together. Usually placed at the game's start, a tutorial must not only communicate the game's unique control scheme, it must also impart the rules that govern its particular universe. On top of all that functional stuff, most tutorials also integrate themselves into the fiction of the gameworld ("Okay, soldier, let's show these new recruits how it's done. First, grab a sidearm and put a couple of rounds into that watermelon").

In theory, a good tutorial should try to get out of the way as quickly as possible, but the more elaborate a game's controls, the longer its tutorials might need to last. Games that are built around extraordinarily complex, layered systems like Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy Tactics and Dragon Age: Origins require scads of well-designed tutorials, some at the start of the game and some woven into the gameplay, to help players to keep things straight.

It can be distracting, but it's a shortcoming for which I cut game designers a lot of slack, mostly because it's accepted as a handicap of the form. After all, a player must understand a game's mechanics in order to properly experience it, and no two games play exactly alike. What if, I often ask, complicated fantasy novels didn't allocate whole pages to exposition, lore, maps and appendices? What if a film didn't spend a huge percent of its spoken dialogue on long-winded exposition, telling its audience what it is they are seeing instead of simply showing them?

Actually, now that I've seen Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, I have a pretty good idea of what that would be like. For me, Wright's psychedelic comic book adaptation was the film-going equivalent of sitting through a videogame that is all play and no tutorial.

For those of us in the gaming set, one of the coolest things about Scott Pilgrim is its narrative set-up. Here is a videogame movie that isn't based on a game, it's simply... a videogame movie. In other words, rather than adapting an existing game's story a la Mario Brothers or Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Scott Pilgrim presents an original story built on the fundamental history of videogames. It's a tale of a young man who fights seven colorful, differently powered bosses while trying to secure the love of a narratively underdeveloped damsel in distress. So, I suppose it's appropriate that the film's defining features feel so fundamentally game-y in nature.

I found Scott Pilgrim's script to be an unfettered stream of joyous awesomeness that would be totally great to see in a modern-day videogame. For the entire run of the film, characters do nothing but engage in super-rad fights with phantasmagorical choreography, sweet music and hilarious jokes, all without a single bit of wordy, overdone exposition. Forget about teaching us terminology, establishing big-picture concepts or overwhelming the audience and making them even more confused about what's happening onscreen. Wright seems far more interested in giving us some of the most grin-inducing sight gags and bodaciously bitchin fight sequences we've ever seen, usually delivered with perfect comic-book/videogame grace-notes and always accompanied by Nigel Godrich's relentlessly driving, kick-ass musical score.

It's both exhilarating and refreshingly adolescent. I'd be willing to bet that mining the script for data would reveal around 95% of the film's scenes to be totally, ridiculously sweet. It's no wonder that even though it runs for nearly two hours, we never get to know the terminology for all of the moves and weaponry - no one has time for that! There's far too much ass to kick!

Right from the outset, we get a lot of information with little to no explanation. Protagonist Scott (Michael Cera) sets about geekily making his way through his own fantasy comic-book world, and yet I felt lost at sea. A sea of charming humor. We meet Scott's new girlfriend Knives, learn that she's really young, and are given an inkling that he's kind of not that into her despite her totally obvious awesomeness. And through all of this, we're of course bracing for what movie-logic suggests will be the eventual twist... actually, they're meant to be!

But as setups go, I thought the opening sequence worked. It was hilarious if loaded with great music, and just like in a videogame, it dropped us into the action with a clear protagonist and let us go from there. So when Ramona Flowers turned up and Scott started courting her, it seemed like a natural place for Wright to slow down and explore the impressive amount of ground he had already covered. Preferably as boringly and frantically as possible. For example, there was all this text floating around everyone's head - where did that come from? Why did Stephen Stills play an acoustic guitar through an overdriven amp? What was the deal with Scott and Kim? Rather than explaining any of that, Wright chose instead to breathlessly plunge into new territory, most of it even awesomer and more fun than what had come before.

Look, I'm not a slow guy when it comes to these sorts of films. I'm pretty fast, actually - show me something rocking and funny and I'll usually come out of the theater with a more relaxed appreciation of it than most. But even though I "got" Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, it still felt like too much awesomeness, too fully badass, and most problematically, it never wasted my time by explaining a ton of shit that I didn't even need to know.

For starters, there's the scoring system. It was so unclear - Scott scored points for defeating each boss, but it didn't seem tied to a scoring matrix or leaderboard. What was worth how many points? When he defeated Todd Ingram, he got 3000 points, but when he tricked Lucas Lee into crashing his skateboard, he got 2000. What's more, how many coins did he get for each enemy? What kind of coins were they? It seemed that when he defeated Patel, he only got a little bit of money, but why? Later, when Ramona helped him fight Anne from Arrested Development, she didn't get any points at all, while Scott got 4000. Why does only Scott get the points? Wright could have easily solved this by having another character, maybe played by Leonardo DiCaprio, come out and waste at least fifteen minutes dourly explaining the intricacies of the Scott Pilgrim universe's scoring system. But no, he seemed content that we'd all be having too much fun to care.

More fundamentally, I found myself wondering where Scott got all of his amazing abilities. All at once, this 23 year-old bassist seemed trained in all manner of martial arts, able to fight dozens of enemies without spilling a drop of his own blood. Where did he learn to do all that? Is he a superhero? Was he trained by someone? Is he a vegan, too? Sadly, in Wright's quest to show his audience a really, really good time, the director all but ignored these pressing questions. What we really needed was a good ten-minute flashback to Scott's time with Kim, during which they could maybe wander through a depressing landscape dotted with repeating gray skyscrapers or something... that would've totally done the trick.

Compare Scott Pilgrim's opening scenes to those of one of its clearest spiritual ancestors, 1999's The Matrix. After that film's big reveal, the Wachowski brothers did a fantastic job of having Laurence Fishburne self-importantly explain how the Matrix universe worked. I understood how Trinity was able to take out those cops, why she ran for the phone, why she was so afraid of Agent Smith and how she escaped the dump truck. I understood where Morpheus' voice was coming from and how he was able to guide Neo through the cubicles. The mythology of The Matrix was no less complex or heady than that of Scott Pilgrim, but its core mechanics were demonstrated and then explained with far greater economy, clarity and humorlessness.

But after almost two hours of whoop-ass fighting, crackin videogame in-jokes and heartfelt homage to every single thing I loved growing up, I walked out of the theater feeling giddy and stoked, but also fuzzy on some of the most basic tenets of Scott Pilgrim's mythology. It could be argued that that's on me, but I say it's on Wright. By accident or by design, his film was so fucking money that I never even cared to learn the rules of the systems he had designed. Why couldn't he have spent even a moderate percentage of the film on boring exposition? At least then I might've known why Scott was able to jump so high.

Any game designer (or teacher) will tell you that an effective tutorial must strike a balance between being a ton of fun and actually imparting information. What's more, there is a reason that many game's tutorial sections go on for as long as possible and occasionally recur throughout the game - at some point or points, we need to stop experiencing and start learning.

Of course, films and games don't adhere to the same rules, and a film can be utterly confusing and still "work." But all the same, I felt that Scott Pilgrim vs. The World's biggest problem was one of usability. It was, quite simply, way too much fun to use. It wasn't so much that the fiction was unclear or impenetrable, it was that I was having such a good time and had suspended my disbelief so thoroughly that I didn't care. For all the film's super-brilliant action and great supporting actors, its constantly shifting set-pieces left no room for boring-ass talk and jargon.

Wright is no stranger to the fine line between hugely funny jokes and genre sendups - from Shaun of the Dead's musings about zombies and responsibility to Hot Fuzz's sick take on being a small town police(man) officer, his supremely enjoyable films have long been steeped in a compelling blend of the hilarious and the awesome.

But I believe that with Scott Pilgrim, he has bitten off more than he can chew. Like a game designer who makes a game that is simple and ridiculously fun to play, Wright expects his viewers to laugh, cheer and high-five without first understanding a whole bunch of rules.

As explosively fun as most of its scenes are, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is the first film I've seen that feels like it would have benefited from more people dragging their sorry asses out to the theater to see it so that it didn't finish the weekend box office in fifth fucking place.
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