08 January 2010

[Cinema] A few common aspects in the Matrix, eXistenZ and Avalon movies

These 3 closely-related sci-fi movies deal with the virtual reality theme:

  • The Matrix (all of the 3 movies) from the Wachowski brothers, 1999. A “steampunk” rusty-metal reality and black-and-green virtual world where machines use humans to generate electricity. Slave humans are permanently connected to the Matrix to keep their mind busy.
  • eXistenZ from Cronenberg, 1999. A game designer introduces and tests his new game with a dozen of people. The game content changes with the participants’ state of mind. A very interesting idea is a series of virtual reality game inside a virtual reality game inside a virtual reality game. In the end, some of the players do not know what is real and what is virtual.
  • Avalon from Oshii, 2001. In a dark, gloomy and uninteresting world, an FPS-like game called Avalon gathers many players. One gifted player makes her way into the levels to reach the legendary “class Real” level.

The interface to connect to the game slightly differ from one movie to another. Humans can connect to the Matrix if they sit on a dental chair and are plugged hard-metal sharp-ended wires at the top of their spinal column. In eXistenZ, the player connects to the game station called pod through an umbilical cord plugged in the lowest part of their back (spinal column again). These two movies depict a very intrusive and violent way to connect to the game. Indeed, the first time Neo logs in the Matrix, his convulsed face makes the spectator feel the pain of the connection. However, in Avalon players just stay peacefully on a dental chair and only wear a helmet that covers their entire face. Logging off the game can be done in putting off the helmet. To my mind, external user interfaces for virtual games should stay “outside” of the body for people to accept the game. I choose to play the game, and I am free to push the “log off” button at any time. Similarly, computers have more and more complex pieces of software to manage the energy they consume, make them sleep, shut down when this task is done, etc. but it is unimaginable that our computers do not have any physical power-on/off button. Same idea for virtual reality games.

Players can be trapped IG. Traps are illustrated by the same example in Avalon and the Matrix: bricked up windows. Players do not know they are imprisoned until they try to draw the curtains and discover a wall instead of a glassed window.

As for the IG characters, the Matrix contain NPC (agents and “programs”) and actual humans who can change into agents at any time because they are plugged into the Matrix from the machine world. The “program” characters such as the Oracle or the Merovingian lead me to compare the Matrix to a Massively Multi-player Online Game (MMOG) where players have to accomplish quests: the Oracle said that freeing the Key-maker will let Neo enter the secret back-door to end the war between humans and machines. In Avalon, the “Ghost” is the NPC to kill to access the secret levels. Some mercenaries are used by a GM to help Ash, the heroine, destroy a huge war machine but all the other characters are actual players. Avalon reminds me more of a First-Person Shooter (FPS) game as we never see huge groups of people connected at the same time in the same level of the game (a dozen players in the “Ruins C66” level and half a dozen players in the “Flak Tower 22”). In eXistenZ, all the 10 connected players have a role and the story evolves around these roles. NPC are seen very rarely and players never talk to them. eXistenZ is actually just a virtual role-play game, but the GM usually in charge of organizing the story in table role-play games has been replaced by a computer.

In the three movies, pets have minor background roles which most of the time make the spectator raise an eyebrow. In Avalon for instance, in one reality, the heroine feeds a dog she has. When she goes in another reality, a portrait of the exact same dog hangs on her wall, but she can not find the dog. Another time, she prepares food for her dog, but suddenly realizes she has no dog. It took me some time to figure out that maybe the “realities” she thinks she lives in are actually other levels of the game where some parameters change from time to time. In the Matrix, Neo has a déjà-vu when he sees the same black cat doing the same actions twice in a row. The other members of the team explain that a déjà-vu happens when the Matrix is being modified dynamically. Indeed, they shortly realize that they have been trapped inside a building as the windows have been bricked-up. A dog was seen inside the eXistenZ game, and this dog happens to be the dog of the winner of the game. I think the message conveyed by the 3 movies is that pets follow us in all the worlds we can be. They are life partners and therefore stay permanently in our minds, whatever the reality we are in.

The death of players is implemented differently in the 3 virtual worlds. In eXistenZ, the player is simply kicked-out of the game while in the Matrix, dying IG means dying In Real Life (IRL). Unlike Avalon, in both the Matrix and eXistenZ, we never see bodies disappearing after their owner has been killed. In Avalon, a player asks the heroine to kill him and see if his body vanishes to check if the “Class Real” level they are currently in is actually the real world: “if you kill me and my body does not vanish, then this world is the real one”. Following this discussion, Ash shoots the other player and the corpse disappears as usually happens in game levels, leaving her astonished.

In the 3 movies, exploits, cheats and bugs keep reminding the spectator that the action occurs in a computer game and underline the fact that all of these incredible events remain virtual, they are not real. At the end of the eXistenZ movie, the game designer reaction about the winning couple is “there was such a non-fair-play and anti-game atmosphere inside the game”. In the Matrix, Neo’s unique superman powers “break” the Matrix rules (ie stopping bullets with a gesture of his hand) while normal humans can only try to “bend” these rules (ie try to dodge bullets). Breaking rules is nothing more in the Matrix than an exploit. The cat deja-vu happening when the Matrix is dynamically changed to trap the group is an obvious bug. Killing the Ghost NPC in Avalon brings a ridiculously huge number of points to the player, letting her connect to the higher levels. I feel like that this huge number of points is an exploit in the game design of the level. Moreover, a Game Master intervenes to make the heroine reach the Ghost: this intervention can be seen as cheating. Finally, a character in a fish shop of eXistenZ repeats the same words until the players say the appropriate words that launch the discussion with the NPC. Such a not flexible dialog feature in NPC made me think of the underlying code:
while(input != “blabla I expect you to say”)
print(“what do you want?”);
print(“here is your quest”);

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