Playing With Form

A few days ago, I started Kraken by China Mieville, and I was a little startled by the writing style, at first. It seemed so heavily at odds with everything he’d written before, even Un Lun Dun, his sort-of children’s book, which, while sticking to more simplistic prose, was still effortlessly graceful and eloquent, each sentence flowing rhythmically into the next.

By contrast, the beginning of Kraken is an exercise in sparse writing. Sentences are clipped, as if neutered, the writing keeping itself serviceable without ever rising above that tired mantle, describing the theft that lies at the heart of the book with a sort of detached, almost hesitant style that was slightly difficult to read, but, I suppose, suited the mood, in a way. It was confusion that pervaded, confusion at why someone who so clearly can write, so clearly not choosing to.

I’m 100 pages in now, and it’s starting to dawn on me exactly what he’s doing, and it’s just brilliant, and making me seethe with jealousy. You see, Kraken is a novel about a scientist/curator in the Darwin Center, part of the Natural History Museum in London, losing a giant squid, or Architeuthis, from the large tank used to preserve it in the center. It’s an impossible crime; the squid simple can’t be gone, yet, somehow, it is.

Obviously that’s not entirely what the book is about. You slip into a world of cults where the cults are actually based on deities that exist, and are all vying for their slice of the apocalypse, and it’s this descent into a world of backdoor magic and low level mysticism that has necessitated him holding back his considerably prose skill. The start of the novel, restrained in reality, is similarly clipped and gelded, and it’s only as we slip into this separate existence, where the story really takes place, that he throws off his self imposed shackles and allows himself to flex his writing muscles.

It’s a wonder to witness, and I marvel at it. Just the thought of forcing yourself to write in a particular stilted way, for an effect that few will notice, but all will feel is astonishing. Cormac McCarthy does a similar thing in The Road, where the writing is so sparse, starved of punctuation and basic grammar, that you can’t help but have the feel of his melancholy post apocalypse conveyed directly into your frontal lobe. These guys are masters of their craft, realising that perfection isn’t really the goal. It’s only once you’ve mastered your writing that you can fuck around with it, start stripping it down to the bare essentials, get a good look see in the engine so that you can realise which parts go where, and which parts really go.

Films have done a similar thing. The first that comes to mind is the cinematography of the fight scenes in the Bourne films; yes, it’s bloody hard to figure out exactly what’s going on, but there’s an undeniable keneticism to the way they play out that you can’t deny. It’s a flurry of movement, and the camera can barely get a hold of it, because the cameraman is right up there with them, forcing the lens down their throats as they fight. You can almost imagine it as a second assailant on Bourne, something else for him to grapple with. It puts you there by taking away your clear perspective, by hamstringing you, visually, for your own benefit.

Even something as clumsy and brazen as the desaturation of Sin City, with that oh so ‘strategically’ placed bits of colour, work on a similar principle. You can have full colour, sure, but by taking away pretty much everything, you get a mood across that’s pure noire, and allows your attention to be drawn to little traits that would otherwise be lost in the haze of background noise. Red lips here, gold hair there, the flash of blood across a wall. Your eyes are drawn to them because the rest is grayscale. It’s a very obvious way of doing it, but it sure works.

Inevitably, I get on to games. The two recent examples I can think of are Kane and Lynch 2 and Dead Space. The latter forces your perspective, right on Isaac’s shoulder, too close, really, to be able to see much more than his hunched shoulders. But that’s half the point; by obscuring the action, making you wrestle with Isaac just as much as you wrestle with the necromorphs, they’re getting across some of the desperation of his situation, they’re getting you right up close to the action, and they’re making you feel just a little bit more. That’s good.

Kane and Lynch 2 is far less subtle about it, but wholly more successful. People who complain about the inaccuracies of the guns, the opaque nature of the visual filters; they don’t really get it. This isn’t a game that’s supposed to be one, in binary terms. No, you’re there to experience it. It’s not a hard game by any means, and the firefights are long mostly because you’re flailing around with a pistol as if it’s some explosive flyswat. I mean, who aims anymore? It’s all about having the camera right down in the gutter, while the action takes place kind of on camera, kind of out of view. The game had its faults, definitely, but it conveyed the feeling of chaos, and the lack of real cohesion, that feels endemic of what a gunfight is really like.

It’s not like we’re anywhere close to the literary examples though. That’s because we aren’t anywhere close to mastering our craft. But we’ve nailed it in some areas. We know how to program a gun to fire with 100% accuracy, for instance, and most games decide that that’s probably not the best of things, for obvious reasons. And, as we reach our apex in all these different little details, we’ll be free to start messing around with them, playing with the form.

About Phill Cameron

I've graduated, had a look at the world, and spat. Now I'm devoting my time to moving from 3/4 of a games journalist to 9/10ths. I figure I can get away with 9/10ths.
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