Cold Weather (2010) (Spoilers)

Half-Life 2 (2004)

Mumblecore came of age in the mid-2000s, and most of what I know about the genre comes from David Denby’s 2009 New Yorker article. The movement consists of roughly two dozen films with micro-budgets, amateur actors, and a realistic/naturalistic style. The typical cast of characters consists of aimless or disaffected twenty-somethings, and many of the film plots center around the sometimes-mundane concerns of that set.

Cold Weather starts out right in that wheelhouse, with some winning performances from its leads and an ear for conversations that sound genuine while remaining compelling. And the film stays in that territory for forty minutes, until a late night phone call moves the story rapidly into a tense detective yarn, culminating in a last third that’s a pure, edge-of-your seat thriller.

This transition is so clever because of how much the realism of the setting enhances the sense of danger and tension. The characters are just a group of people anyone in their twenties could recognize from among their own friends, thrown suddenly into a plot that could get very, very scary. The film lightens the mood slightly with the main character’s interest in (and gradual affectations of being) Sherlock Holmes, but the proceedings never become tongue-in-cheek. And they can’t—the natural feel of the film makes the unanticipated peril seem all too serious.

The Half-Life series is famous for taking the “first-person” part of first-person shooters as a strict storytelling rule rather than a description of its gameplay. You play as Gordon Freeman, but short of the cover art for the games there’s no indication of what you look like. The game lacks the old video game standby of cutscenes, preferring to rely on triggered events and scripted interactions with other characters to move events along.

That has its most interesting effect on two game elements that have proliferated over the years: collection and exploration. Cutscenes allow for a certain relaxed approach to gameplay by neatly separating the actions you control and the story you absorb. Emphasizing and exploiting that distinction is practically the calling card for the GTA series, Red Dead Redemption and other sandbox games—because the story is waiting for you at a specific location that you can choose to avoid, you can amble around and get into mischief. Half-Life 2, by contrast, simply doesn’t encourage searching around. With the timing of story development less certain and the sense of wanting to get somewhere safe heightened, there’s not much of an incentive to be aimless. The game designers are, of course, encouraging this, constructing levels that largely don’t emphasize off-shoots, side-paths or environments to explore, but their efforts there are almost unnecessary. The impetus to explore and experiment plays much more into the desire to encounter new enemies in new environments, all the more because the game’s engine puts the sense of free play firmly within the ebb and flow of combat. If you want to satisfy your curiosity, then, the best direction is forward.

That sense of fun in combat comes mostly from the element that attracted the most attention at the game’s release, a physics engine which helped to bridge the gap between platforming and fighting with the gravity gun and heavily manipulable environments. Unlike the Splinter Cell series, however, the combination of gameplay elements didn’t correspond to an increased freedom in how to progress toward or achieve major objectives. Half-Life 2 remains a heavily scripted experience, and the largest freedom of action is in how you choose to take down an individual batch of enemies. The game drills into you that it exists in a single line that you take in by moving forward. You’re free to do something else, but avoiding what’s in front of you doesn’t and isn’t mean to serve a purpose, while other games actively encourage such a delay.

Half-Life 2 moves away from feeling cinematic not only its complete removal of third-person perspective, but in the consequent absence of any cuts. For all practical purposes there is no editing in the game, and while that’s not the case for Cold Weather the film makes every effort to make its edits not register with the viewer. The cuts are practical and straightforward, rarely trying to create any tonal or emotional effect on their own. There aren’t any breaks from the basic mode of storytelling, either, which makes the construction of any storytelling frame much less noticeable, as there aren’t scenes that are set apart as clear markers of plot or emotional development. Whether the mode is first-person gunning-and-running or no-frills cinematography, there’s simply one, near-continuous flow.

One key effect is to remove any sense that this or that scene only serves to push toward the scene that really means something. Because there’s an expectation of an eventual peak but no apparent emotional or rhythmic road map to how the story will arrive there, the events you take in occupy the same level of relative significance. Totally flattening the structure, making the big events lurch up all of a sudden, adds a real unpredictability, which contributes to the air of dread that both works manage to turn on at a moment’s notice.

Due to this lack of visible structure, where the larger stakes are not so clearly defined, individual moments also come to hold greater significance. The central drama that you hook into, that you care about, is whether the character will make it through the scene and on to the next. And in the case of Half-Life 2, where you’re physically in control of and responsible for that progress, that can be scary as hell. The enemies in Half-Life 2 aren’t especially challenging or intimidating, but few games that aren’t explicitly horror will make you jump, flinch or start in quite the same visceral way. And while there isn’t any violence whatsoever in Cold Weather, you’d be hard-pressed not to tense up during its more nail-biting sequences, especially during the preparations for its final sequence.

It’s also important that both works have elements that aren’t “realistic.” The pursuit portions in the second half of Cold Weather seem to rely on an especially oblivious target. Gordon’s total lack of dialogue is breezily accommodated not only by characters who might be used to his personality but by total strangers. These are fictional stories, after all, and there are some liberties. But the in-scene authenticity of this or that event matters much less than the evocation of how people actually live their lives when something unexpected occurs, which is with no specific idea of what they’re going to run into next. Hiding the visible plot machinery packs a much more realistic punch than any clarity of detail or presentation.

That tension and the way it makes what you see engrossing has the added benefit of providing a thematic and emotional resonance that might otherwise be provided by a traditional, evident story arc. That comes out in subtle touches, such as how in Half-Life you don’t shoot anything with a human face and spend a great deal of time alone, enhancing the sense of identification you have with any human beings you encounter, or the ways in which Cold Weather makes you invest all the more with the characters because they feel so genuine and recognizable, so utterly unlike parts of a story.

The simple fact is that you can go anywhere with this kind of approach, and that’s a very exciting place to go. More of this, please.

2 thoughts on “Rails

  1. Pingback: Etymology | Accidental Jellyfish

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