This year I bought a brand new TV. I decided it was time to join the fray and get myself a Netflix subscription. Beginning with a binge watch of the Marvel series that they have, I moved onto a few others things and then it stopped. Suddenly I was stuck in a rut where I would begin a series and find that something about it just did not fit. I could not work out why. So I asked myself “Whats going on with Netflix?”
It took the drama Dark to help me figure it out. A German language production involving a time travelling mystery, I became confused by the lack of……time. In fact, when the cast travelled from the modern day to the past everything looked the same. The local school was bereft of any signs that it was a German high school were it not for the language being spoke. The whole thing was lacking time and place.
Just like the Movies
Watching this made me think of a phenomenon I first noticed while watching the 2018 Jennifer Lawrence movie ‘Red Sparrow’. The movie was filmed on my route to work in Budapest, so I had a particular interest in it. Being a former Communist country, Hungary fits the background to the movie perfectly. Lawrence is a beautiful, dangerous assassin who has been trained by the Russian state to manipulate and seduce men for the might of the motherland. The books on which it is based were written by a man who spent 33 years in the CIA. This author also advised on the direction and production of the movie. And it was a good movie, until halfway through when someone took out a mobile phone. Suddenly the whole thing fell apart. A mobile phone? But I had been led to believe I was watching an eighties style cold war thriller.
You see throughout the movie, the imagery, the architecture, the clothing, even the dated lampshades in apartment blocks all led me to believe I was somewhere in a mid-eighties U.S.S.R. Even more confusing was that in writing this article, I went back to watch it again. Not only did I notice more things that fit my theory, I also noticed a lot more that disproved it. The cars, the brand-new metro systems, the cut of the suits. Time, space and the distinction between it was being blurred.
The Erosion of Time and Place
The perfect evolution of this can be seen in the changing production of the series Black Mirror. The early series carried a real dystopian British aesthetic, a Clockwork orange come J.G. Ballard vibe. Despite often being set in a near future, place was always obvious. Warped reality TV would take place on British council estates. Although recent series have still been exemplary, they are awash with a shiny soft focus production that is Malibu come Southend on Sea. International stars such as Miley Cyrus have been cast into lead roles to add transatlantic appeal. The concept of place has been eroded for the same notion as Red Sparrow. It is both everywhere and nowhere at once. Past, present and future all mingled together. North America and Britain conjoined. Whats going on with Netflix? It is Transatlantic TV.
The most recent example of this is ‘Sex Education’. Set in a UK school that is named ‘Moordale High’ where everyone walks around in branded school baseball jackets. People call the staff faculty (no UK schools call staff faculty, possibly in a formal way but not in general conversation). The main character lives in a house that looks like it should be on a tropical beach, not one that would inhabit the cachement of a British comprehensive. It is a British school comedy that is aiming itself at both the UK and US audience by blurring the lines of time and place. It is set in a British comprehensive and I am still yet to see it rain.
Compare this to what Sex Education seemingly aspires to be, The Inbetweeners. A show undoubtedly entrenched in British teenage life in every shadow of it’s being. From the cul de sac houses of the protagonists to their reunions in Ibiza, everything is a homage to time and place.
Gaming and the Suspension of Disbelief
So what on earth does this have to do with gaming? Because in gaming, the opposite is becoming true.
The romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described a term known as the ‘Suspension of Disbelief’. This phrase describes that no matter how fantastical or surreal a piece of art, poetry or literature may be, it can always be believed by the audience if it has within it a semblance of human interest or truth. When you play Mario, you are willing to put aside the improbable idea of a plumber jumping over giant mushrooms and getting sucked into giant pipes. You suspend disbelief, trust in the narrative (in this case rescuing a princess) and that human-interest factor that you are being entertained while playing a game.
Now think of the worst game you ever played. What made you not like it? A rubbish narrative? A terrible game engine or controls? Glitchy? No challenge? Too much challenge? All of these things interfere with your ability to suspend disbelief. They stop you investing in the story and the enjoyment of playing. And it is the same for Transatlantic TV. Every time a British school child calls a teacher a ‘member of faculty’ my suspension of disbelief is interrupted. I come back to reality. Every time I think I am watching a drama set in eighties communist Hungary and someone pulls out a mobile phone, my suspension of disbelief is interrupted.
Building Worlds in Gaming
However, while this ideology is becoming more prevalent in television as streaming services try to appeal to a global audience, gaming is going the other way. The attention to detail in Red Dead Redemption II is testament to this. It would put most movie or TV continuity to shame. The same can be said for games set in the future, for instance Horizon Zero Dawn. The whole set up is to fully believe in the detailed world that has been created, so at no point an out of place character design, clumsy dialogue or glitching game engine can ruin your suspension. You are for all intents and purposes on a future planet.
Retro Gaming, Time and Place
It could account for the huge popularity surge in retro gaming. Firstly we must consider the availability of emulation and the rise of mobile gaming as factors. But one fact is that retro games, on the whole, do this really, really well. The glitchy, terrible ones we cast into the dustbin of history. It is the same reason everyone harks on about Streets of Rage and Golden Axe, not Superman 64 or E.T.
Imagine the opening of Streets of Rage. We begin with a pulsing synth soundtrack, neon street lights, rain lashing down and punks with glass bottles coming at you. You know exactly where you are and you can suspend disbelief that it is a pixelated electronic game because for that moment you are fully in that world.
Are we all Transatlantic?
So where does this leave us? Well, it is wrong to say all TV is becoming Transatlantic TV. Peaky Blinders, solidly set in 1930s Birmingham, resplendent in thick brummie accents, puts a dampener on this theory. Game of Thrones did the same thing in its detailed building of fantasy worlds. If we ask whats going on with Netflix, we also have to acknowledge it is funding some pretty excellent stuff as well. So why then are streaming services so intent on destroying the notion of time and place?
Obviously, it comes down to a desire to appeal to people on both sides of the pond. Disney, experts at building and acquiring worlds built on time and place are entering the streaming service fray. Despite accusations of white washing characters in recent years, Disney have actually built huge franchises on the notion of time and place. Can you imagine the Lion King minus the African imagery, soundtrack and symbolism?
So whats going on with Netflix then? In appealing to everyone, is Netflix and its programme of Transatlantic TV actually appealing to no one? Should Disney change tact and follow, will gaming be the only bastion left for time and place? Will gaming follow suit? Will Transatlantic TV take over?
Images courtesy of Netflix and IMDB. Streets of Rage 4 picture is courtesy of Lizard cube games.