Wednesday, 25 August 2010

When the real world begins to look like a Video Game...

A quick look at the new Arthur Conan Doyle adaptation from the BBC.

Watching the recent BBC adaptation of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, updated to modern London and named simply “Sherlock”, I noticed some similarities between the presentation of information in this new drama, and that in computer games.

I have already compared Quantic Dream’s PlayStation 3 blockbuster Heavy Rain with old-school adventure games. Now I find myself looking at the television screen and thinking that computer games must be entering the subconscious of society more than ever. As Sherlock Holmes checks a body for signs of life, certain words flash up on screen and float incongruously around his head – a la Heavy Rain. Later, Dr Watson receives a text message. Rather than show us the phone, or have a character read it out – the text appears on-screen – just like it would it a traditional point and click game.

Not major points alone, but together they form an aesthetic that is very heavy influenced by video games. In fact, much of the investigation process or deduction is handled silently, with the facts being presented purely in text as the scene is searched. This kind of direct presentation, on-screen labelling – speaks to a generation accustomed to discovering facts and acquiring information from a computer screen. Listening to a long conversation about the facts of the death would be the obvious way to present this data, however having it appear on-screen, hovering in the ether, makes it more direct and accessible. You could get the pertinent facts without even turning on the volume. For me, this harks back to an age when games WERE silent. Sound cards were expensive and rare. Information needed to be displayed on-screen, or not at all. When done successfully, this would be direct and informative. When done badly, it would be the equivalent of the long, drawn-out conversation.

Perhaps presentation such as this speaks more to a society that won’t listen, that don’t want to pay attention. They want the basics and they want it now, forgoing any extraneous details. Conversely, it could be being used as a method to ensure viewers pay greater attention to the show. I know a lot of people who say they rarely make the time to sit down and watch a regular show. Television acts more as a background noise to other activities such as searching the internet. By putting some of the story information across in the programme by text only, the viewer is forced to engage with the images, rather than just to sit back and listen, whilst their attention may be elsewhere. Without fully engaging and staying glued to the image, important information which is left unspoken would be missed by those watching.

I like to think though, that it is simply a case of making use of different formats for conveying information. Why not integrate different storytelling methods? Games have been claiming film-like qualities for years – shouldn’t films borrow back from games? Yes – if done correctly. We see in the film of Doom, for example, with its’ first-person shooter sequence, where the camera acts as the eyes of our hero, to an underwhelming effect  – a gimmick for the sake of a gimmick doesn’t work. Sometimes the best films are the ones that don’t try to be like a game.

Where the process compliments the art, then we have a useful and logical fit. If, when Holmes is brawling with a cultist, we switched to seeing the world from the point of view of Sherlock, and energy bars appeared at the top of the screen, I'd more likely than not switch the channel. Sometimes though, the viewer doesn’t need Holmes to explain that he found red lipstick on the banker’s collar – an on-screen label simply helps to streamline the process and it helps the fast-pace of this modern adaptation stay on track.

It is rather good after all, whether it really takes any influence from Video Games or not.