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Videogames and Tarantino: A mistaken love affair

Whether you like his work or not, Tarantino has a grip over the collective imagination many creators can only live out in their dreams. Take this year’s The Hateful Eight for instance. So much attention has been given to the mere possibility of a new Tarantino project that the film’s first script was leaked, the early screener pirated, and later, the pirates even apologized for releasing the film early because they admired it so much. Despite all that, the three-hour long The Hateful Eight managed to convince people to fill theater seats and watch a film in an antiquated format (70mm), in an equally antiquated throwback roadshow.

People hope for Quentin Tarantino to grace every aspect of popular culture, and for the most part he has obliged. He has made comic books, directed television episodes, and is adapting his newest film for the stage. Despite such an eclectic portfolio, the one medium Tarantino has gone on record as to have no interest in is videogames. “I’ve been given video game players and they just sit there…gathering dust until I unplug them” he tells The Telegraph in 2010; and so far it seems he won’t have to change his position.

But that’s okay. Turns out videogames are not lacking their own Tarantinos. Just as how filmmakers who make irreverently violent films set to ironic soundtracks will be labeled Tarantino imitators at best, videogame criticism isn’t immune to this reductive labeling either. Cheeky, violent videogames will likely be declared “If Tarantino made a videogame” by the 10 nearest critics.

Tarantino has a grip over the collective imagination

When used, that expression is often misattributed. Videogames still need to work harder to earn that sort of comparison. Tarantino is primarily influenced by other films (one look at this TV Tropes page will attest to that). Videogames occupy such a unique place on the audio-visual-interactive spectrum that it can beand increasingly isinfluenced by nearly anything: film, music, physical activities, motion gestures, it goes on. The reason filmmakers get labeled as Tarantino imposters is because there are those who are content to simply copy the most striking and inimitable hallmarks of his films (i.e. the violence). But violent games with a sense of wit doesn’t make a game necessarily Tarantino-esque, contrary to popular belief.

Take a look at Tales from the Borderlands (2014) and No More Heroes (2007). On the surface, they have all the qualities necessary for that highly sought-after Tarantino comparison: the music, dialogue, pop-culture sensibilities, and explosive moments of violence involving bad people. But like some of Tarantino’s most important contributions to film, their importance in upending videogame norms have been largely glossed over. Quentin Tarantino, for whatever lack of subtlety, can still create films that are diverse in characters, genres, and subject matter. The violence and wit simply connects these disparate elements together.

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Tales from the Borderlands might be the most ideal to compare to a Tarantino film in terms of tone and stylistic choices. But even if it wasn’t, there is a similarity between the two that runs deeper than its spot-on musical cues, explosive moments of violence, and actual references to Pulp Fiction (1994). Due to the limited freedom allowed in Telltale’s chosen genre, the point-and-click narrative adventure, they were tasked with making a franchise primarily focused on shooting into a compelling character drama/comedy. In other words, dialogue would have to substitute for gunfights in most instances of the five-episode series. It helps keep the momentum when Tales from the Borderlands demands split-second decision making and player actions. In Tales from the Borderlands, more than any Telltale game previously, your ability to talk your way out of trouble will ultimately determine your fate on Pandora. Because if you can’t bullshit your way through the bloodthirsty raiders, or the two-timing thieves on such a lawless planet, you probably have no business there in the first place.

Tarantino has always made films about bad people, and through those bad people we see the best and worst of ourselves. The AV Club’s review of The Hateful Eight goes deeper and details how each of its characters represent a certain, archetypal human value. In Tales From the Borderlands we, too, are tasked with playing two very different types of villains: the outlaw in a lawless land; and a corporate stooge of a large, evil, megacorporation. And through them we gain insight on the nature of survival, ambition, trust, and self-discovery. Telltale and Tarantino agree that outlaws and criminals, are, at the very least, the most entertaining mirror in which we can view the human condition.

their importance in upending videogame norms have been largely glossed over

So if Tales From the Borderlands managed to capture similar narrative themes as Tarantino’s best crime works, No More Heroes catapulted rockstar auteur Suda 51 into immediate Tarantino comparisons. Here was a colorful character of a man who waved around toilet paper and fronted, not a videogame studio, but a videogame punk band. He had made it big by making a game filled to the brim with pop-culture references, blood, sex, and a big old masturbation joke at its center. Really, it would have been harder to not call this man gaming’s answer to Tarantino.

Violent and humorous, No More Heroes expertly turned the Wii’s motion control into a smooth, third-person action game. However, beyond No More Heroes’ immediate style and beats, the elements that made the videogame truly subversive were glossed over. Many forget that of the many unique characters introduced in No More Heroes, the game’s inclusion of Shinobu Jacobs, the 8th best assassin in the the game’s world, stands out. Yes, she’s a katana wielding ninja; but she’s also a black, amputee, teenage girl, and later a playable character in the sequel. Possibly influenced by many of the pulp stories of the Blaxploitation genre, Shinobu Jacobs is the daughter of a kung-fu teacher who sells VHS training videos. He is later murdered prior to the start of the first game by a mysterious organization. When you meet her for the first time, she is essentially the hero of her own revenge story. While there are obvious comparisons to how Tarantino followed up Pulp Fiction with his own blaxploitation homage, Jackie Brown, it never occurred to me at the time just how a rarity a character like Shinobu Jacobs is. Not only is she a character that avoids any specific racial stereotypes, she actively embodies a uniquely original characterization while recalling influences from a variety of cultures and genres—70’s Kung-fu films, Japanese punk fashion, Star Wars, and ninja anime.

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Suda 51’s punk opus didn’t only subvert the types of characters we could see in games, either. He also subverted the way we could identify with a playable character. Tarantino did this by using revenge as a tool to have his audience sympathize with his villainous protagonists. We will probably never understand the sort of world his characters live in, whether they are criminals in Los Angeles, Jews in Nazi occupied France, or a freed slave in Southern United States. But they are out for vengeance, and we at least no what it feels to be wronged. In that way, we can understand No More Heroes protagonist Travis Touchdown, but he’s not a career criminal. He’s an otaku, a person who watches wrestling, anime, and porn. And we are forced to identify with him in ways we might not like. Namely, the game’s central masturbation joke worked into the actual gameplay. In order to be an effective fighter in No More Heroes it is important you recharge your batteries, and we are forced to do it the way Travis Touchdown would. Yep, by shaking our Wiimotes up and down.

I don’t think Quentin Tarantino ever needs to make a videogame. I’ve played enough videogames to know that many of his fans are out here making games, maybe trying to become the Quentin Tarantino of videogames, chasing all the freedom and power that kind of influence would wield. But to do this is more than making stylish games. It’s about creating media that shakes up what the audience is willing to see versus what they’re willing to experience. Tarantino, through the force of his own personality, or creative engine, can make epic films that tackle slavery, or post-civil war reconstruction starring bullets and outlaws. Videogames do this too when they move past the glossy images of the most obvious Tarantino homage, it needs only to be recognized.