Full Motion Video: A Kitsch I Cannot Scratch
Graphical advancements in contemporary video game consoles have allowed computer-generated cutscenes to have a very impressive visual quality. Many games and systems are marketed heavily for their visual fidelity and cohesion. However, this has not always been the case, with video games previously relying upon and experimenting with full motion video (FMV) techniques for narrative guidance. While live action sequences have become less popular with game developers these days, there still appears to be a limited market, as the release of Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars in 2007 implies. Is this just a nostalgic return to a more diverse and social realm of game developing, or does the use of FMV have certain characteristics that produce a unique and beneficial experience? I intend to show that FMV has a kitsch appeal to players that creates a social and aesthetic attachment to the interactive moments of gameplay.
What Makes Full Motion Videos Kitsch?
Generally, FMV sequences are renowned for using tropes from popular culture and are dependent upon them for producing feelings of energy and enjoyment. For example, a FMV cutscene in Command and Conquer: Red Alert features a scantily-clad heroine whose armour is terribly inadequate for protection and too informal for the serious war room discussions. Furthermore, several hints of sexual innuendo abound. Such stereotypical clichés evoke the female heroines and femme fatales of Hollywood action films, suggesting the explosive dynamics and high-octane plotlines of the cinema. However, neither the acting nor the storyline reaches the higher standards it suggests. Thus, they are completely kitsch in tone and perception, as “the appeal of kitsch is totally parasitic on the associations related to its referent” (Kulka, 80). In this case, like most FMVs, the scene is completely plagiaristic upon the stock emotions and preconceived expectations of conventional blockbuster movies.
The very format of FMV sequences, its live action and theatrics, can be seen to add to its kitsch and camp appeal. This may initially appear irreconcilable with the very definition of the kitsch sensation, since “nature itself can never be kitsch we may correspondingly be more reluctant to consider a photograph of a sunset kitsch than a painting of one” (Kulka, 93). Therefore, we would expect the gamers to associate kitsch sentiments more easily with digitally-created graphics than the more visually realistic filmic sections. But this has not been the case. While computer graphics are constantly improving, so does our ability to depict individuals in photos or films of higher definition. And, at least for now, most “human actors are more capable of expressing emotion than digital constructs, making it easier for players to identify with their in-game personas” (Howells, 114). In fact, they can sometimes provide a higher quality of visual, aural and kinetic detail. If kitsch requires an overly emotive association with something, then live-action seems to provide that direct connection of feeling. Arguably, it is the superior clarity, with less pixellated or glitch-prone imagery, which allows the more realistic sequences to become kitsch. Unlike the game sections or computer generated cutscenes, a live-action sequence never needs pareidolia or facial recognition because people and sets are all immediately clear forms. Indeed, games have a history of appearing more geometric and abstract due to technological constraints, which makes them look more optically unusual and innovative in their abstractness. This is especially true in contrast to FMV sequences. Therefore, we can see how the FMV parallels kitsch in providing “the instant and effortless identifiably of the depicted subject matter” (Kulka, 28-29). Thus, the FMV gaming experience can be seen to use kitsch aesthetics in a specific way, reversing traditional hierarchies or high art and low art. It contrasts cinematics, and tangible reality, as undignified kitsch while gaming is praised as relatively imaginative.
What Effect does this Kitsch Have?
However, during immersion a player would notrecognise this effect, as they would not be relating the game, intellectually or emotionally, to anything outside of itself. Yet the FMV itself counters this problem, as “the transition to full-motion video reminds gamers that this is, in fact, not real, breaking the suspension of disbelief” (Howells, 115). The change in format is both alerting and estranging. Resultantly, this destruction of the fourth wall distances the players from the melodramatic visuals, preventing them from forming empathetic reactions and causing them to adopt attitudes of critical objectivity. Hence, the gamers do not sentimentalise the kitsch FMV but deride or criticise its once banal clichés as detrimental to the experience. Also the cinematics, by disrupting any feeling of immersion, creates a frustrated antagonism in players towards itself. The FMV itself is realised to be a seemingly cheap and kitsch “commodity… destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide” (Greenberg, 12). We become aware of its derivative nature and pacifying intent as a mere commodity. Subsequently, one becomes alerted to the fact that such kitsch items, and therefore the gamer themselves, do not possess the institutional, aesthetic or social value placed upon other forms of seemingly genuine art. However, while the individual kitsch item, such as a painting or photograph, is in isolation, FMV sequences are directly compared with and contrasted with interactive and digitised gameplay. As live-action, and thus real life itself, becomes devalued through its association with kitsch, we begin to associate with the manufactured game world with increased contentment and encouragement. The constructed sections of the game become equated to art, gaming itself becomes a valuable aesthetic process rather than just a waste of time and life.
Not only that, but by aligning bad taste to a previous time period, with clichés from 1980s mainstream cinema, it emphasises the progression of technology and taste in our own era. For example, the “early games were unable to secure big-name talent, and … full-motion video became associated with substandard quality” (Howells, 114). Simultaneously, the prior age itself becomes associated with substandard qualities. Such diminutive quality included hammy acting, terrible scripts, unconvincing special effects and other example of poor production values. As already stated, we do not simply enjoy the sentimentality and melodrama because it disrupts our immersion within the game, making us self-aware and detached as gamers. Instead, we can gain self-assurance and security through mocking the culture and cinema of a previous, older generation. This is also true about our preconceptions about the technologic prowess of the twentieth century as compared to our own. Memorably, the first outpouring of this genre of games and their “initial enthusiastic reception… was the result of what was perceived as a spectacular breakthrough of full motion video (FMV) displayed by a computer” (Wolf, 152). Hence, we can derive pleasure from feelings of mechanical superiority and progression, feeling that the FMV sections are anachronistic and dated. Subsequently, the kitsch sections allow gamers to become optimistic and self-congratulatory about how much better modern technology, gaming and society appears to be, and will continue to become.
Overall, FMVs do have a tradition of overdramatic actions and maudlin scripts. This creates a notion of kitsch that downgrades the status of cinematics, often regarded as higher art than computer games, presenting virtual practices as artfully better. Altogether, FMVs may make the game experience seem less real, but they concurrently make it feel more valuable as both a status symbol and an artistic creation. Arguably, this encourages the player to continue the game with a renewed sense of empowerment.
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