No, You Do Not Have to Be A Gamer to Like Inception!

Last week, Patrick Goldstein of The Los Angeles Times ran a provocative blog post about the mixed reception surrounding the film, Inception, in which yours truly was quoted heavily. Here is what he quoted me as saying:

If Inception plays especially strongly with a young audience, it's probably because they instinctively grasp its narrative density best, having grown up playing video games. "When it comes to understanding 'Inception,' you've got a real advantage if you're a gamer," says Henry Jenkins, who's a professor of communications, journalism and cinematic arts at USC. " Inception is first and foremost a movie about worlds and levels, which is very much the way video games are structured. Games create a sense that we're a part of the action. Stories aren't just told to us. We experience them."

Even though the density of Inception can be off-putting to older moviegoers, it's a delicious challenge for gamers. "With Inception, if you blink or if your mind wanders, you miss it," says Jenkins. "You're not sitting passively and sucking it all in. You have to experience it like a puzzle box. It's designed for us to talk about, to share clues and discuss online, instead of having everything explained to us. Part of the pleasure of the movie is figuring out things that don't come easily, which is definitely part of the video game culture."

Goldstein did a good job of compressing almost half an hour of conversation about critical response to the film into a few substantive paragraphs. In no sense do I feel misquoted there -- indeed, he drew on my conversation as background to frame other parts of his discussion as well.

I have, however, been bemused by the ways that my claims here have traveled through cyberspace and gotten a bit more distorted by each new contributor. So, Entertainment Weekly's blog picked up on Goldstein's story and shifted the ground just a bit. It's headline reads "Inception -- Only Good if You are Young?" And on Twitter, several people rephrased the claim, " Do you have to be a gamer to like #Inception?" By the end of the week, when someone tweeted that they only "partially agreed" with my claims about the film, I wrote back to say that I only "partially agreed" with them too since people were responding to a partial representation of what I had to say in the first place!

So, let me take a step back and sketch out what I thought I was arguing. I start from the assumption that differing responses to the film are at least partially shaped by differing interpretive strategies. I discussed this concept back in my book, Textual Poachers, in relation to arguments made by reader-response critic Peter J. Rabinowitz about how genre impacts reading.

Peter J. Rabinowitz has suggested that genre study might productively shift its focus away from properties of fictional narratives and onto the 'strategies that readers use to process texts," seeing genres as 'bundles of operations,' conventions, and expectations that readers draw upon in the process of making meanings. As Rabinowitz puts it, 'reading' is always 'reading' as."...Different genres evoke different questions readers want to ask and provide alternative rules for assigning significance and structure to textual content. Rabinowitz distinguishes between four basic types of interpretive strategies: (1) 'rules of notice' which give priority to particular aspects of narratives as potentially interesting and significant while assigning others to the margins; (2)'rules of signification' which help to determine what meanings or implications can be ascribed to particular textual features; (3)'rules of configuration' which shape the reader's expectations about likely plot developments and allow the reader to recognize what would constitute a satisfactory resolution of that plot; (4) "rules of coherence" which shape the extrapulations readers make from textual details, the speculations they make about information not explicitly present within the story. The reader's experience, he suggests, thus requires an initial decision about what genre(s) will be most appropriately applied to a given narrative and then the systematic applications of those genre rules to the process of comprehending the textually provided information.

Of course, the ability to mobilize the interpretive strategies associated with a genre rest on having access to and familiarity with that genre in the first place as those of us who teach freshman film classes discover when we try to expose students to westerns or musicals or any other genre which has not been part of their repertoire of consumption. That's the sense in which gamers have an "advantage" -- they have a set of skills, literacies, competencies, expectations, call them what you want, that they bring with them to the theater and which shapes the range of strategies they have available to them which helps them to make sense of a film like Inception.

So, this brings us back to my claim about games and Inception. I am not saying that it would be impossible for a non-gamer to enjoy the movie. It doesn't represent, after all, such a dramatic break with other films which have come before it. In the interview, I drew analogy to the way D.W. Griffith cross-cut between four different historical periods, intensifying the movements between them as we neared the climax, in his silent classic, Intolerance. I would also agree with Entertainment Weekly's Darren Franich that it is less complicated than many art films or even, in his example, some classic film noirs. Yet, it interests me that the discussions around Inception are the kinds of discussions we might once have had around an art film in the 1960s or even an indie film like Nolan's own Memento, yet they are occuring around a summer blockbuster. The genre elements are part of what makes the film popular, part of what makes it fun and pleasurable to play the game that Inception offers us.

David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson have offered a brilliant analysis over at their Observations on Film Art blog about the role that exposition plays in maintaining clarity as we move between the different levels of the film. Indeed, they suggest that the presence of exposition across the film replaces character development in many cases, insuring that we can in fact follow the different levels or layers at work here.

I would also argue that at the start of the film, the audience is required to make a leap of faith, entering into a world whose rules are not immediately clear (especially in the opening sequence) and which are still being laid out to us in the final segment. This is very much like the experience of a gamer jumping into the game without always knowing the rules or properties, trying out new ideas and bumping into walls, until they learn how it works. Bordwell's discussion of the film's opening segment (which he calls a "training exercise") suggests that it may function as a "tutorial" or "sandbox" level -- such as we see in games where our first level of play allows us to test our capacities and rehearses skills we will need later in the game. So, at the most basic level, I would say that gamers have a predisposition to embrace certain kinds of open-ended experiences, figuring out what's going on as they go, which is different from the notion of clear expositional foundations we would association in classical Hollywood narratives. Indeed, gamers may have an expectation, as I suggested, that the film not lay everything out for us at the start but expects us to make an effort to figure out the pieces as we go. This is part of what makes an experience like this more intense and immersive. I couldn't believe it when I realized how long I had been in the theater, not having glanced at my watch during the duration, indeed, not having breathed very much while watching Inception.

This is not to say that the film abandons us altogether to our own devices. Genre plays an important role here in terms of helping us to map what's going on and understanding what matters in the film. We can read it as a straight forward action film or as a science fiction film -- think Total Recall. But there is also the possibility of making sense of it in terms of the conceptual vocabulary that games provide us -- so that we can understand the final sequence as moving between "levels" or "layers," each with a well defined task or "mission", each with a visually distinctive environment (not unlike the fire or ice levels in classic Nintendo scrollers like Mario Brothers or Mega Man), each requiring a different set of skills to master and a different set of obstacles to overcome. I am leaving aside claims that the film may pay tribute to specific games in its visual references: Bordwell cites Assassin's Creed II, Meigakure, and Shadow of Destiny. And Kristin Thompson closely examines a claim that the film was inspired in part by an episode from The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck Companion.

Entertainment Weekly asks, "Is Inception the first great video game movie? Not based on one specific game, but rather, on the whole stylistic structure of video game storytelling?" Well, not the first certainly, since I think there's a strong argument, say, that Run Lola Run builds on a different set of properties from games, and the same could be said for The Matrix movies, but it does mean that cinema may be learning things from games which come through more interestingly when it is not trying to directly adapt games to the screen but is simply trying to produce movies that speak to a generation of movie goers who have grown up gaming. One reader asked why not just make an Inception game in the first place. I'd argue that these films deploy a language borrowed from games precisely to explore experiences which would be difficult to achieve in a game. I think thinking of Run Lola Run as a game helps us to explore the theme of choice and consequence which runs through the film, yet the filmmaker has the capacity to make every choice offered a meaningful one while in games, many choices are necessarily arbitrary and uninteresting.

Thinking about Inception as a game or at least a film for gamers might also speak to the ongoing critical discussion of its lack of development at least in terms of its secondary characters. Kristin Thompson writes,

"The characters' goals, apart from Cobb's, arise from the premises of the dream-sharing technology. Of course, they want to get paid, but that's assumed. Their actions all arise from the need to keep doing what they must to sustain the dreams and later from the need to improvise solutions to unforeseen problems that seem to violate the rules they have previously known. Why they need the money, whom they go home to when off-duty, how they got into this business, and all the other conventions of Hollywood characterization, are simply ignored."

This is consistent with an argument which Mary Fuller and I made about games in 1995. The very nature of an interactive narrative serves to strip characters of psychological depth -- game characters are often glorified cursers, vehicles we use to move through the game worlds, rather than characters into whom we project sophisticated motives or anticipate character development. Their goals are assigned from the beginning. They are defined through their capacity for action and their missions. The need for an open-ended structure means that we do not expect them to learn through their experiences nor do we expect their actions to be motivated through psychological realism. Choices become relatively arbitrary, having more to do with resources and capacities, than drives or needs. I don't think this lets Inception off the hook in terms of character issues, but it is interesting to think of this shift in the function and nature of characters as an extension of the game-like logic I am describing.

Bill, a reader, sent me an email with an interesting question about my argument:

"I agree with you in the LATimes article where you say gaming experience may have a lot to do with someone's appreciation of the movie Inception. However, I'd like to propose another possibility. I'm not sure many members of past generations understand or accept the film's premise. As DiCaprio's character describes it, conscious experience is not a literal transcript of the world, but an ongoing process of virtual construction by the mind. Although this premise has scientific merit, it is not widely known or embraced by the majority of tradition-bound Americans."

Here's my response:

"I would agree totally with you that the film's perspective on reality and perception also has a generational slant. It's interesting though that the films and television shows which take on some of this philosophical/spiritual argument are often associated with games and other digital media -- so I would see The Matrix, the final episode of Lost, and Inception, as all part of the same conversation about our relationship with the real world. We may as a culture be more open to such ideas because of our experience of the digital, just as people in the industrial age were more apt to think of a clockmaker god, or people in the early 20th century started to understand repetition compulsion in terms of a phonograph record in their heads. As Sherry Turkle suggests, we use technologies as tools to think with and a key question we use them to consider is the nature of consciousness."

This exchange would suggest that the game analogy extends from the formal structure of the film to the spiritual or metaphysical level on which it also tries to operate.

Now, coming back to Goldstein's original blog, he takes my discussion of gamers and maps it onto what he sees as generational differences in people's response to the film. I would point out, however, that the age span of active gaming expands with each passing year: more younger players are entering the game market, more older players are continuing to play into adulthood, and more seniors are trying games through multiplayer worlds and the Wii controller, let aside casual games. So, let's be careful about assuming there's a correlation between being young and being a gamer. After all, I'm over fifty and I still play games.

I hope this at least clarifies what I meant. I have only seen the film once and I have a feeling that I would need to see it many more times before I could offer anywhere near an adequate analysis, so take these as provisional observations about a work which I am sure many of us will continue to debate for a long time. It's exciting to have a summer film which sparks this kind of discussion!