There’s an article making the rounds now about big Hollywood action movies becoming impenetrable messes with sprawling, convoluted plots. I haven’t seen enough of these movies to have much of an opinion on them, but I’m pretty familiar with this current trend.
The first thing that comes to mind is Doctor Who under Steven Moffat. Under his watch the show’s storylines transformed into overblown complex machines with tons of moving parts but which didn’t actually do anything. It also gained popularity.
None of the big, multi-season Moffat storylines make any actual sense, but they’re full of references and callbacks and “did you notice”s and such, and are therefore regarded as intelligent and crafty. Ask fans to explain what it’s about and you’ll get funny lines, “fuck yeah” moments, and possibly a description of scenes, but no actual story or theme. There are ideas but they’re not tied to anything, and very often parts that are “awesome” separately make no sense or are contradictory when looked at as a whole. Attempt this kind of analysis and you’re told you’re nitpicking, that it’s not about that. The show that was formerly praised as being so intelligent and structurally complex is now a kid’s show, dumb entertainment, just turn off your brain.
This is the feeling I get when I’m playing boardgames such as Russian Railroads or Tzolk’in or Stefan Feld stuff. These are complex games that are quite trendy at the moment, in which there are a myriad of parts one must navigate in order to win. They are often called “point salad” games because usually you score some victory points for successfully working each individual piece, but to really win you have to gain some from everywhere, not just focus on any particular element. When I play these games, I see all these elements and epicycles and gears within gears, but there’s nothing to them. There’s no ultimate point to them other than to appreciate the complexity. They are elaborately designed engines that don’t actually do anything. My personal take on “point salad” designs is that they are such because, as with the Doctor Who scripts, since there’s no overarching goal, you have to try to develop interest in the individual parts. These games are difficult for me for the same reason Doctor Who has become pointless to me: I’m not interested in a series of individual scenes; I want them to unfold into a satisfying — or at least comprehensible — whole.
It’s not like I don’t like complexity. One of my favorite boardgames is The New Era, which shares a lot of elements with some of these games. It’s a very complicated game with a lot of moving parts, but the parts fit together and serve the whole. Lords of Waterdeep isn’t a complicated game, but it’s a breeze to teach and learn because each individual part moves towards a specified goal. There aren’t all these exceptions and subrules and complications that only exist to add more pretend depth and complexity to the game. Agricola frustrates me because it’s so close to being something I would really enjoy but then at the last minute it swerves and decides that although it’s going to give you a sandbox to play in, you have to make your sand castle just so or else it doesn’t count.
Beyond boardgames, one of my favorite movies is The Royal Tenenbaums, which seems like a series of individual scenes that are only sort of related, but when you look at the whole you see how each one is a necessary part of the large picture.
Right now we seem to be in a phase where nerd culture (which I’m only singling out because it’s the one I know best) believes that more is more and convolutedness, callbacks, and dropping vague hints that may or may not ever play out are signs of quality. It’s not just enough to get a comic book character on the big screen, the movie has to be part of a “cinematic universe” that bumps up against and sets up further movies. (This is related to the fact that people are more interested in what they think a movie is leading to instead of what they actually got in the movie; there’s forever a promise that something more is happening.) A self-contained, done-in-one movie? That’s kid stuff. And the truly deep and satisfying stories will require at least five seasons on cable to be done right, because you have to make sure there’s enough room for labyrinthine sub-plots and that the in-jokes and catch phrases have enough space to both land and be used-and-re-used.
This is why 15 hours of Firefly is seen as not enough, despite the fact that hardcore Firefly fans seem to be only interested in about four total minutes of it. It’s also why, when I say that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is great for the first three seasons, and then you should stop because that’s a perfect end point, I get told no, the other seasons are absolutely essential, and then am told of three, maybe four episodes from those seasons that are worthwhile, as though that’s a suitable return on time investment. More is more, more is better, more is quality. It doesn’t matter if, in the quest for more, we are just throwing things in that don’t actually fit but will help bulk it out, so long as the things we throw in are awesome enough.
There’s an episode of The Simpsons where the kids are being asked what they want from Itchy and Scratchy and Milhouse says, “You should win things by watching!” That’s where we are now, winning prizes for watching. You get, as prizes, “fuck yeah” moments, references, in-jokes, and yes, VPs, but they’re small prizes designed to simulate a satisfying whole. At the end you’ve amassed a big pile of trinkets, but that’s all. Nothing more satisfying or significant. If you like that, great, it’s your time to shine. That’s not my thing.