Tuesday, November 30, 2010

How "Spaced" Got Gaming Wright

Long before Shaun of the Dead or Scott Pilgrim vs.The World, actor/writer Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright made Spaced. The half-hour British comedy aired over two short seasons from 1999 to 2001, and in that time it managed to establish both Wright and Pegg as creative forces on the UK comedy scene.

I've been meaning to watch the show for ages. This week I finally started it, and I'm very glad that I did, because it is excellent. Anyone familiar with Wright's directorial style will feel right at home with Spaced—each episode is a joyous melee of quick-cuts, double-takes, fake-outs, geeky inside jokes and surreal, horror-tinged asides. It's also really, really funny. (You can watch the entire series for free on YouTube.)

What's interesting is that in addition to serving up some great slacker humor from a killer ensemble (including longtime Pegg/Wright collaborator Nick Frost doing his best Walter Sobchack impression), Spaced has some of the most spot-on gaming humor I've ever seen onscreen.

For example, check out the show's third episode. Pegg's character Tim spends about 80% of the episode shooting zombies in Resident Evil 2 while the other characters' scenes are cleverly shot around and intercut with his game. It's awesome not only in how it effortlessly weaves the game into the show, but also in how the show really seems to understand what a game is and how people interact with one. I remember when game designer/cool dude Krystian Majewski wrote a series of posts about how gamers are typically portrayed on TV and in movies; he found that most of the time, actors held controllers incorrectly, sat facing one another, didn't look at the screen and just generally seemed off. Whether or not they played games in real life, it seemed that neither the actors nor the director knew how to correctly portray the act onscreen.

I think we've all seen enough frantic silver-screen controller-waving to know that the bulk of Hollywood productions still don't quite "get" how to recreate the actual act of gaming. But Wright has apparently gotten it for quite some time now; not only do characters in Spaced hold their controllers correctly, the show itself often incorporates gaming's visuals and rules into its storytelling and humor.

In this brilliant scene from the series one finale, Tim and his roommate Daisy (played by co-writer/co-star Jessica Hynes) get into a big row. As they trade verbal jabs, Wright intercuts their argument with shots of Tekken, which Daisy had just been playing. Each time one of them scores a point in the argument, a character from the game is shown landing a blow, and after Daisy "wins," Tim storms out and the Tekken victory theme starts to play. The game's HUD comes onscreen and the game and the real world merge in a seamless, perfectly integrated punchline.

Keep in mind, this was in 1999—talk about being ahead of the curve! There's no question that Wright spectacularly recreated the videogame experience in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. What I didn't realize was that that particular trick was old hat for him; he first pulled it off over a decade ago.
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