‘I’ve Seen Footage’: A Formalist Reading of Unreal EP03 “Mother”

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Any formalist analysis of Unreal will inevitably find itself brushing shoulders with that of postmodernism. This is owed to the very nature of the show’s premise itself. Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon’s show about, well, the making of a show or, to describe it in other terms, the scripted “unscripted” drama behind the deliberate orchestration and institutional production of an ostensibly “unscripted” romance drama presents a number of problems for the ernest critic, to say the least.

Because Unreal is a show-within-a-show, any formalist analysis of Unreal’s set design, cinematography, location choice, lighting, and actor blocking must account for those same choices with relation to that of the “show” upon which Unreal itself centers: the reality-television romance drama Everlasting.

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Within the purview of a typical formalist reading, the focus of evaluation begins and ends at the margins of what is on the screen by the viewer. In the conventional schema of a prime-time serial drama, the camera does not exist as a object of note or even operate as a camera within the world of that drama, but rather assumes the role of an “invisible eye” roving seamlessly within and between scenes so as to induce the viewer’s uninterrupted attention to the unfolding drama itself. Not so with Unreal, or rather, not only so.

A formalist analysis of Unreal’s cinematography and editing is complicated by the fact that we, the audience, are effectively witnessing Unreal, the show itself and Everlasting, the show-within-the show, interpolated within one another and as a result, obfuscating the delineations of “reality” and “fiction” within the text and complicating the otherwise perfunctory question of who is filming what and how in what way is it intended to be seen by whom and subsequently unintended to be seen by whomelse. Have I lost you yet? Welcome to Westworld.

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I’m sorry, what were we talking about?

All joking aside, when viewed with this understanding firmly in mind, the third episode of Unreal’s first season, “Mother,” yields compelling fodder for analysis. The first episode of the season, “Return,” already established the complications of Unreal’s authorial vantage point with Rachel’s titular return to the set of Everlasting, where her humiliation is subsequently filmed at Quinn’s command before being told, “Welcome back to reality, Rachel!”

In “Mother,” the establishing shot of the opening scene is high angle view of the contestants standing at attention in a row, obfuscated by the blurry outline of some obscure adjacent plant. The camera then cuts to another high angle shot, this time obscured by the glass panel balcony of its position and dotted with cameramen and other members of the Everlasting crew, including Rachel and her ex-boyfriend […].

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While the aforementioned meta-complications of the Unreal’s formalist motivations and intentions remain, I assert that this is one of several examples for which the episode itself implicitly teaches the viewer to compartmentalize their understandings of the disparate yet inseparable halves of Unreal’s narrative not only within this episode, but within each subsequent episode of the show’s first season. Shots that would otherwise be unusable b-roll for the purposes of Everlasting, with their shaky camera tracking shots and downcast lighting, exist to frame the level of reality wherein Unreal takes place, whereas the picturesquely composed and well-lit camera shots are contextually coded as the hyper-reality of Everlasting.

No more is this dichotomy of priorities more apparent than in “Mother” than in the mid-episode climax, when Adam and Roger’s intimate hot-tub date with Maya, Anna, and Grace is crashed by the other contestants and transformed into an impromptu pool party.

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Orchestrated by Shia, one of three producers of Everlasting working under Executive Producer Quinn, as a way of gaining footage during Quinn’s absence to earn her favor, her efforts are inevitably deflated when Rachel returns to the set following her confrontation with her parents. “I’m getting great footage,” Shia protests, to which Rachel replies, “Oh what, with this music blasting? Because we can’t use it, we can’t edit around, it so shut it down.” These criticisms are further corroborated by Quinn herself upon returning to the set and observing the footage. For us, the viewer, the music of the pool party exists as a diegetic aspect of the episode itself, while for the producers of Everlasting (i.e. the main characters of the drama of Unreal) the music exists as a non-diegetic element which complicates the labor of constructing the show’s “reality” and thus, is deemed unusable and immaterial to the narrative of Everlasting.

These account for less than a handful of fascinating observations one might glean from a formalist reading of Unreal. Subsequent readings would no doubt yield even more revelations with regards to the dynamic of the crew and contestants, as well as the interpersonal conflicts between the main characters and the “real” world external to that of Everlasting’s set.

Images source(s): Springfield! Springfield!

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‘The Stanley Parable’ Incentivizes Player Dissent In Service Of The Bigger Picture

You will play a game you cannot win.

When I played the original Stanley Parable mod back in 2011, I was nothing short of enraptured. That may seem like a hyperbolic compliment at first, but it’s nothing less than the honest truth. I thought that The Stanley Parable was an intelligently crafted, concise and interesting experience that more resembled a thought experiment than a traditional game, and it turned out to be one of my favorite “games” of 2011.

To make an even bolder claim, I’m willing to throw the full brunt of my endorsement behind The Stanley Parable in stating that it may in fact be one of the most important video games to have been released in the past decade. And with the imminent release of the definitive HD remake later this year, I thought it was about time that I write about why I love this game so damn much.

The game is more than just a gleefully tongue-in-cheek take on the emphasis (and futility) of player choice in a deterministic system. it is more importantly a conversation, an interactive repartee between the player’s interactions and the condescending cajoling of a fatalistic Narrator that brings to light the unconscious baggage of assumptions that both players and designers alike bring into creating a game experience.

The Stanley Parable hinges on drawing the player’s attention to the unspoken assumptions of game design subtlety ingrained over the years into the collective gaming community’s unconscious arsenal of navigational/problem-solving strategies.

Stanley’s Cubicle

You play as the eponymous Stanley, a worker drone happily content to “push buttons” and “listen to voices” all day from the safety of his cubicle office. The game opens with Stanley realizing that he is no longer receiving any instruction from his handlers any more and ventures out into the eerily deserted office building in search of answers, all the while accompanied by a mysterious disembodied voice seemingly narrating all of his actions. At any time you can diverge from the beaten path of the narrator’s story, but not without incurring some consequence.

What follows is an experience that is both gratifying hilarious and vaguely terrifying if you think about it too long. The Stanley Parable not only  pushes but outright defies the conventional systems of gratification inherent in almost all commercial video games (see: “choices”, “endings”, “winning”), and instead substitutes it with the opportunity of allowing us, the player, to peer behind the proverbial “fourth wall” of game design and see the great and powerful “wizard” of choice for what it truly is.

A contrivance. A myth. Shadow puppets posing as reality on a wall.

You will follow a story that has no end.

At the same time, even though choice in The Stanley Parable is openly mocked and criticized ( even one of the game’s maxims is ‘You will make a choice that does not matter’), the choices that I made throughout my playthrough(s) of the Stanley Parable meant more to me than most of those I have made in any other commercial video game in recent memory.

When playing modern choice-driven narrative games (ex. Fallout 3, Mass Effect, Skyrim) it’s typical for players to try and consciously ‘game’ the system of a game in order to reap some long-anticipated endgame down the road. Players do mindlessly repetitious tasks ( “pushing buttons”, “listening to voices”) in order to farm currency in order to buy upgrades or weapons with diminishing returns, safely coasting along through starkly color-coded morality systems and unchallenging dialogue trees in order to get the “good” ending. “Good” in this sense meaning “not glaringly cobbled together at the last second by the developers in order to justify the word ‘choice’ featured prominently on the back of their game’s box.”

In contemporary game design, the merit of a choice is weighed by its outcome, with in most cases little to no recognition or actual “involvement” on part of the player’s agency.

The choices in Stanley Parable run counter to this.

The game offers six endings, each of them prompted by a diverging tree of choices that come down to either taking a certain corridor or pressing a certain button. None of these endings is definitive or “canon”; there’s only one ending where the words “The End” are featured, but in no way does it feel like a conclusion. Stanley Parable is a game whose enjoyment and “message(s)” rely on and thrive through replayability.

The difference between choices in Stanley Parable and other contemporary games is that the compensation isn’t some piece of gear or an arbitrary “achievement” pop-up, but the lucidity of watching these past choices and endings from previous “lifetimes” culminate with one another upon repeated breakthroughs, gradually building into a Jenga block tower of an epiphany that can fall apart at any given moment.

The Stanley Parable holds a mirror up to players and ask them to describe what they see. Why do we make the choices that we make? Why do we feel an almost innate desire to “break” a game? Why does playing point to point through a scripted story about rebellion and liberation feel so hollow and contrived?

Those and many more questions are up to the player to pose and perhaps, hopefully, come closer to answering while playing the game.

How I felt after playing the Stanley Parable.

The Stanley Parable follows in the iconoclastic tradition of Jacques Derrida; grappling with norms, demolishing presumptions, and leaving the audience to sift through the rubble to draw their own conclusions. It’s a lamentably rare experience and one of the most important video games of this generation. It is worthy of your notice.