Philosony: Colossus, reign over me!

I recently sat down to watch Reign Over Me, a drama with Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle. Not a bad movie, a tug-at-your-hearstrings affair about about a man whose wife and daughters died on 9/11 and the friend who, running into him 5 years later, tries to help him cope with the reality he has withdrawn from. Somehow I managed to miss the discussion during the film's release about the role of Shadow of the Colossus in the film, so I was a bit surprised and delighted at what I assumed was a mere cameo. At the same time in the back of my mind I thought this might be another gross misrepresentation of games that further promotes gamism - negatively stereotyped portrayals of video games and video gamers. Doesn't this send the not-so-subtle message that games are escapist tools that players use in a mentally unhealthy way to ignore the reality around them?

For those unfamiliar with the premise of the film here's a brief summary. Rather than accept the death of his family and grieve, Charlie Fineman (Sandler) has chosen to forget about them and sever ties to anyone who might remind him of the life he used to have. He is withdrawn and misanthropic, spending his days continually remodeling his kitchen and playing Shadow of the Colossus. Alan Johnson (Cheadle) is an old college roommate who re-kindles their friendship and eventually persuades Fineman to get help. Along the way Fineman meets the obligatory love interest and Johnson discovers and confronts his own issues. They also kill a lot of Colossi.

Nothing particularly groundbreaking about the story, however Shadow plays a prominent though subtle - probably too subtle for anyone not familiar with the game - role in the film. When Johnson first asks Fineman what he's been up to he cryptically replies, "I'm practicing all the time up in the valley - took down 12 of the colossus so far. It's like another dimension; you take a journey and discover yourself." While I immediately thought of Team ICO (what PSFanboy can hear the word "Colossus" without going that way) I dismissed it. Since when, I thought, does Hollywood allow games to be talked about with that kind of existential significance?

In fact, if we really want to read into it we can actually see a lot of symbolism in the game's film portrayal - marketing ploy or not. Shadow of the Colossus is a (please don't shoot me) giant metaphor for Fineman's inner struggle - hi

s solitary journey to find and defeat the demons that are preventing him from "bringing back to life" the memory of his family. Johnson, like Agro, is integral to Fineman's ability to succeed in his quest, but ultimately he must do most of the work on his own.

Forgive me the rather lengthy exegesis. I don't intend this post to be a movie critique. Actually I want to think about how this film is a model for a more robust use of games as metaphors in films. Why don't we see more of this sort of deep and meaningful inclusion of games in films, something beyond the typically contrite representation of adult male juvenile behavior that we see in The Break-Up or The 40-Year-Old Virgin? Why don't more filmmakers use games symbolically in their films? I bet Guillermo del Toro would jump at the chance.

Music has obviously cornered the market when it comes to other media having an influence on film. This makes sense. Not only do popular songs greatly enhance the mood of a scene and, when chosen well, provide insight into the psychology of the characters, but they also have a general appeal. If you're not familiar with the song it's not hard to pick up the gist of it listening to the snippets played during the film. Reign Over Me, in fact, takes its title from a song by The Who and Fineman frequently uses music to tune out the world. Even if it's not music I'm familiar with (apologies to The Boss, no, not that Boss), that doesn't prevent me from "getting" it.

Games are different though. The intricacies of Shadow of the Colossus - particularly Wander's objective and the mythos behind his quest - are not made explicit in the film. I imagine most viewers who didn't know the game made few if any connections between it and Fineman's inner struggle. Is it simply not worth it, in a cost-benefit analysis sort of way, to go through the effort and expense of licensing a game and incorporate it seriously into the plot of a film for the relative minority who would understand it?

Other movies also find themselves not infrequently playing the role that music does, as cultural artifacts that enhance and reinforce the themes of the film. But other films, like music, are more likely to resonate with a general audience than games. Perhaps the use of Shadow in this film is a good example of how games could be used in cinema in an ideal world. For the time being, though, any deeper significance might need to be made more explicit for general audiences. Reign Over Me received so-so reviews, but none of the professional reviews I've read pay much attention to the game. I'm not saying that understanding the game changes your perception of the film from lukewarm to categorically awesome. However, if that had been the case I think the film still would have had a mostly moderate reception because the deeper significance of game wasn't explained and as things currently stand with games as a medium you can't expect most (re)viewers to be armed with that knowledge.

Still, I think it's an interesting exercise and a promising dream for broader cultural acceptance of our medium. Can you come up with examples of ways games could be more meaningfully included in film, in the hopes that we may see more of this strategic symbolism in the future? For instance, a film about nuclear proliferation could have a character playing FFXII. Imagine (anachronistically) if Bastian occasionally put down his books to explore his imagination in LittleBigPlanet. What games do you envision being used to enhance the viewer's understanding of a film, and how?