The Canadian National Exhibition (aka CNE/”The Ex)
My understanding of state fairs comes largely from longform pieces in magazines like The New Yorker by people like David Foster Wallace, so it’s hard to compare the CNE in Toronto with others. My expectations weren’t high, but it still felt more soulless than I’d imagined.
For example, I’d had a vision of rows of little indie food stalls each offering only a few weird and outrageously unhealthy dishes. In reality, most food options were larger and from bigger chains, which is perhaps not surprising given the scale of the event but still disappointing. Overall, it was fine: I had a noodle burger and a funnel cake with soft-serve ice cream. In retrospect, we should’ve tried the comparatively-deserted ribfest instead, but it was a bit out of the way and we only came across it later. I imagine it’s much busier in the evenings.
The indoor lantern festival, Legends of the Silk Road Come to Light, was quite pretty in an obvious way. Someone in China has clearly figured out that westerners really like to look at realistic-looking lanterns, and decided to engage in a bit of not-so-subtle cultural diplomacy that a) takes a modicum of credit for all achievements made along “Silk Road” nations and b) encourages us to feel good about their dreadfully-named “Belt and Road Initiative”.
I’d like to know more about how these lanterns are made. It’d make for a good longform article, I think. I can’t imagine they’re especially challenging to make, and I would like to see more daring and innovation amongst the endless dragons and such.
There was a water skiing demo featuring a truly groan-worthy framing story about a wedding party. I guess these stories are a way for announcers to fill the silence and make proceedings seem more ‘approachable’? In any case, I was impressed by the announcer pre-emptively telling us that each stunt was extremely risky in case of its likely failure. One of the skiiers had a ‘water jetpack’ which was even cooler than my highest expectations. We also walked past the parkour, whose audience sounded like they were having more fun..
The flower competition was getting a bit wilted by the time we arrived. I occasionally entertain the idea of finding the least competitive category and entering, so I can add it to my bio.
The shops were generally bad and not worth visiting.
I caught a few more shows at the tail end of the Fringe, largely thanks to Lydia Nicholas’ science-tinged recommendations:
Lovecraft (Not the Sex Shop in Cardiff)was a fantastically funny and touching and scientific gig by Carys Eleri about the neuroscience of love and loneliness. It was very poorly served by its poster, which suggested a completely different show that had precisely nothing to do with the topics it was really about.
Toby Thompsonwas just as funny and lovely as he was before, although the full length show didn’t actually have that many more poems than his short 15 minute sampler. It did, however, have more listening to records and hearing him play the piano.
War With the Newtsby Knaive Theatre had the most immersive, tech-driven experience I’d seen this year. It’s “a contemporary reimagining of Karel Capek’s apocalyptic science-fiction satire” and used its three actors and small basement to tell a sweeping story with genuine panache. I did feel that it began to drag towards the end – one particular speech was entirely too obvious and unnecessary exposition, and some of the audio was so heavily filtered it was completely incomprehensible – but it’s a real achievement for such a small team.
DollyWouldwas the quintessential bizarre genre-smashing Fringe mix of music, comedy, video, and personal storytelling about Dolly Parton and Dolly the Sheep. It was fantastic, and the less you know about it going in, the better.
I managed to play a fair few games here at Gamescom in Cologne in between business meetings. The first day – Tuesday – is solely for “trade visitors” rather than the general public, so the crowds weren’t too bad. That said, people in the games industry tend to like playing games, which meant highly-anticipated titles like Spider-Man and Smash Bros. still had 1+ hour long queues most of day.
In order of when I played them:
Space Junkies(Ubisoft) is a space-based multiplayer VR FPS with jetpacks. It’s about as fun as any other FPS, except it’s in VR, which makes aiming easier. It also had imaginative guns requiring two hands to operate that were fun if distractingly janky.
Due to space restrictions, we had to sit down in front of a PC, which meant you couldn’t look behind you – instead, you use the right thumbstick to rotate in 45 degree turns. While this may be the least-worst way of doing VR motion thus far, it’s still not great and it doesn’t help elevate an otherwise unremarkable game.
Next door was Transference (Ubisoft), a horror-themed walking simulator set largely in the real world. The art and graphics were impressive, and I enjoyed picking up stuff in the environment (postcards, letters, toothpaste, radios, etc.) and inspecting them, although this is an area where increased headset resolution will be massively helpful.
I wasn’t sold on the heavy use of full-motion video (FMV) to set up the story. There’s something vaguely B-movie about all game FMV, which is often delivered straight to camera, and while this wasn’t awful, it just dragged on.
Surprisingly, I found Transference even more nausea-inducing compared to the highly vertical environment of Space Junkies. There’s something about using a controller stick to walk around (rather than using your legs to walk) that puts me off, even with the 45 degree snap-turns. The fact that you had to walk around a lot to pick up stuff and carry it between rooms really didn’t help matters, and while the Ubisoft attendant helpfully whispered hints in my ear, it really just highlighted the poor level/puzzle design.
So, I remain unconvinced that using a controller to navigating in an open world VR space will ever be entirely free of nausea for me, and after 15 minutes of play of both games, but particularly Transference, I was glad to take the (very comfortable) headset off. Perhaps a wider field of view (FOV) would help, and I wonder if you eventually get used to VR, especially if you’re a kid who’s grown up on it.
Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey (Ubisoft) is like AC: Origins, but it looks marginally nicer and it’s in Greece. What else is there to say? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
I managed to catch this game while the queue was short. Even better, when the attendants spotted my “Exhibitor” badge, they ushered me right in, perhaps assuming I was far more important than I really am. But karma came around when the console crashed just ten minutes after I started playing.
Starlink(Ubisoft) is the latest implementation of “Toys to Life”, most famously and profitably demonstrated by Skylanders. I was impressed by how versatile the toys were, and how well the fit together – you can choose between pilots and then slot a spaceship over them. The spaceships themselves are modular, allowing you to mix and match components between ships, and even turn wings and weapons backwards (not convinced this will have useful gameplay effects, however). The gameplay was basically Starfox… and the graphics were really quite rough compared to the ultra-HD gorgeousness exhibited by the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X.
Sadly, I didn’t get to drive in Scotland or Edinburgh on the Forza Horizon 4(Microsoft) demo on Xbox One X. I really enjoyed the original Forza on the Xbox 360 and it’s nice to see it continuing to walk the line between realism and arcade gameplay, especially with the helpful rewind feature. But it’s not enough to make me buy another console.
Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum Session!(Bandai Namco) reminded me of my enduring love of rhythm games. There’s not a lot to this one – you can hit the single drum in the centre or the rim, and besides things like drum rolls, that’s more or less it. There was a good selection of songs – I played Let it Go, the Totoro End Theme, Carmen, and some other classical song. It was the only game I played on two separate days, although that’s partly down to the total absence of queues.
The response on the drums felt a bit soft, and I thought the notation of hits against the drum rim vs centre didn’t really correspond with melody or, well, anything else. But hey, it’s a rhythm game by Namco, you know what you’re getting.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan(Bandai Namco/Supermassive) was available for demo on the same day of its announcement, which explains why there were no queues. Like Until Dawn, also by Supermassive, it has highly atmospheric and realistic graphics, with no free look, and consequently, very cinematic (and manipulative) perspectives.
I found the demo quite boring and lacking in context. The cheesy, stilted dialogue and the exceptionally slow walking pace didn’t balance out its use of the LA Noire mechanic of “inspecting objects” which I always love.
Ride3 (Milestone) had no tutorial and was impossible for me to play. I couldn’t figure out whether I should be tilting around corners or how much I should be breaking – and yes, I have played driving games before. This was the only game I had to abandon before the end of the demo.
Amazon Prime Video had an immersive “brand activation” experience promoting their Jack RyanTV show, freshly imported and translated from New York Comic Con. It was not good. We had to a wait a long time for them to reboot the first task, a mediocre shooting gallery game. The second task involved us watching the Jack Ryan extended trailer (pretty transparent, I know) and answering questions about it. Unfortunately, all the questions were in German, despite the fact that we’d registered as English-speakers.
I guessed all the answers randomly out of four choices, and scored 48%. “How?” demanded one of the attendants as I walked out. “Guess that’s on a need to know basis,” I said, with a twinkle in my eye.
The popularity of this poor experience just shows how much people value live action ‘immersive’ entertainment…
Since I have an Exhibitor badge, I was able to queue up early to play Spider-Man(Sony/Insomniac) on Wednesday. The web slinging and general feeling of motion is excellent, and you really can zip around the entire open world with zero loading times or pop-in.
I didn’t quite figure out whether I should be holding down sprint/web button all the time, and my usual tactic of spamming attacks didn’t work on some enemies (probably a good thing). Good dialogue, good transition into QTE-powered cutscenes. Very much looking forward to this game in November.
What began as a fun force-feedback drive on F1 2018(Codemasters) gradually turned into an unrelenting nightmare of spins and crashes. I can’t explain what happened: on the first two laps, I was literally outracing Lewis Hamilton, and then somehow I just couldn’t stay on the track. Maybe the game was was simulating tire wear or somehow I pressed the wrong buttons that changed traction control (everything was in German) but it was all I could do to reach the finish line with a shred of dignity intact.
Let’s face it, industry-led videogame conventions are weird. Most of the games are going to be out soon, there are plenty of gameplay videos online, so why wait in a queue to play for hours? The answer, of course, is that some young people love these games with the passion of a thousand stars and are willing to wait any amount of time to play them even for just 15 minutes.
Because I am a terrible person, there is no sweeter sensation than arriving at the convention hall at 8:45am and not only walking past thousands of the general public (10am admission) but also hundreds of trade visitors (9am admission) all desperate to get in. I used my extra time to visit the toilets while they were clean, and then to play Spider-Man.
The queuing process for all the games was well-organised with clear wait times.
The 10-20 food trucks served the trade visitors perfectly well on Tuesday, but were laughably inadequate when tens of thousands of the general public arrived on Wednesday. It is baffling how the organisers refuse to improve this. Do they not like money? Do all the visitors just go hungry all day? I’m not sure if you’re meant to pack a lunch…
I say this in all seriousness: the videogames industry has a drinking problem. Every event seems to involve vast quantities of free or cheap alcohol, and you can easily bounce between events from 5pm until the early hours. It’s not healthy in any measure, and we shouldn’t feel like the only way we can socialise is by getting hammered.
Museum After Hours: A medley of 15 minute samplers from comedians, poets, and circus acts.
I enjoyed SHIFT‘s cyr wheel acrobatics – or at least, what little I could see of it due to the dreadful staging (not their fault). Pro tip: unless your circus performers are on stilts, you better have raked seating or an elevated stage.
Jay Lafferty had great delivery but spent her time dunking on obvious/tired subjects (millennials, Brexiters, rich people, health and safety, gluten intolerance).
Ben Target‘s physical meta-comedy was met with aggrieved incomprehension from the mostly-aged audience; I thought at least half the jokes were pretty great, which is a good hit rate.
Solid acrobatics from Tabarnak. Shame it was all over in just five minutes.
My highlight was Toby Thompson‘s lovely and funny poetry, whom we saw on Kate Tempest’s recommendation. I’ll try to catch his full show next week.
Once Upon a Daydream: Adventurous family-friendly mix of live action, music, and animation by a Taiwanese company. There are many good bits but the “miserable single woman seeks happiness through love” theme was tiresome.
First Snow / Première neige: The most Canadian thing I’ve ever seen. Deeply earnest, mulingual, multicultural, multinational, fourth-wall breaking, overly concerned about its place in the world, with good acting, important story, and confused execution. You can tell this is devised theatre.
One of my favourite games in recent years is Her Story. It’s more of a puzzle than a game, really; you’re trying to uncover the truth of what happened in a crime via a database of short video interviews with the suspect. The only way you can access a given video is by searching for a word that appears in its transcript and hoping it appears in the results; and to prevent you from just searching for the word “is”, the database will only show the top few search results. This means that the only way to find all the videos is by carefully listening to the interviews and noting down unique names or places or things.
Her Story is wholly linear – it would be nonsense to determine the outcome given its premise – and there’s no way to fail. Instead, it’s a tightly written and carefully crafted puzzle that demands and rewards close attention and engagement with the videos. If you play the game, make sure you have a notebook to hand.
Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective (SHCD) is basically Her Story: The Board Game. You solve a series of cases by interviewing people; and because this is a wholly analogue board game, the interviews are written down in a book, so it’s more like you’re reading interviews. In another curious parallel with Her Story, the main way you identify people to interview is by looking up their names in a directory (like a search index!), such that you need to pay close attention and take notes. Similarly, there’s only one correct solution to each case. There is a nominally a score based on how many people you interviewed before solving the case (the fewer the better) but most people don’t bother keeping track, and I encourage you to follow their example.
SHCD has an extraordinary reputation in the board game world. It’s ranked 65th on BoardGameGeek, on par with classics like Dominion, Codenames, Battlestar Galactica, and Pandemic; it’s by far the oldest game in the top 200; and yet it barely even qualifies as a board game! What, then, accounts for its popularity? As far as I can tell, the reasons are:
Strong theming: SHCD is thoroughly drenched in Sherlockian lore, from the main cast to the most minor bystanders. The newspapers that accompany each case, the copious dialogue, the intricate map of London – they’re impeccably designed, at least in the modern edition. So whether you’re an ardent fan or merely an occasional TV watcher, you won’t find this game lacking.
Novel (and good) game mechanics: I’ve never seen SHCD’s game mechanics – interviewing and ‘searching’ a directory for new leads – in anything other than Her Story, which was itself celebrated for its unique game design. But novelty alone isn’t enough; there are plenty of weird games out there, and some of them are really enjoyable, but only a few of those have mechanics that are as instantly understandable as SHCD’s.
Not enough narrative puzzle games: There are surprisingly few good long-form narrative puzzles available, by which I mean multi-step mysteries with a solution. There are plenty of brainteasers and the like, but not so many that have actual stories and can be enjoyed over the course of an evening. That said, if there were more good ones out there, we’d realise just how bad some of SHCD’s puzzles are.
People who dislike SHCD do not finish it: Each case in SHCD takes a couple of hours to solve, and I imagine most players are unwilling to pronounce a definitive opinion unless they’ve completed all ten cases. Consequently, there’s a selection bias amongst reviewers towards those who enjoyed it enough to play for a good twenty hours.
In case you hadn’t guessed, I didn’t like the puzzles in SHCD, which is a serious problem because the game is fundamentally all about guessing rather than solving (yes, I said it)
Even after pursuing every lead, visiting every location, and interviewing every suspect and witness, it’s very common to end a case with multiple plausible and even probable explanations for the mystery, in which case you’re at a loss as to which one you’re meant to pick. There are a few exceptions, like Case 2. This is one of the community’s favourites, and I’m pretty sure it’s because it’s the one that provides the most solid evidence in the game. By the end, you feel confident you have the answer, not merely an answer.
When it comes to narrative puzzle games, I don’t expect perfection or anything close to it. Having designed several alternate reality games and hundreds of puzzles, I know full well that you can’t predict how players will approach them, especially with lots of clues and red herrings. But when you have multiple reprints of a game that was originally made in 1981 – almost forty years ago – including multiple reprints of the English language edition, it’s baffling that there are still massive problems with several of the cases.
Take Case 3, for example. After an frustrating evening trying to solve this mystery, followed by an equally frustrating ‘solution’ presented by the fictional Sherlock (you are merely his hapless sidekick, dispatched to tackle the case independently), I discovered that this case has been broken for literally decades. Despite multiple attempted fixes to the narrative, including swapping the identity of the murderer, it remains a fundamentally broken and nonsensical story requiring massive leaps of logic, with plenty of posters on BoardGameGeek feeling the same way. Quite why the designers didn’t just cut their losses and write a new case, I’m not sure.
As per usual, Holmes was leaping to conclusions based on very circumstantial evidence. While we came to the same conclusions as Holmes, our mindset was more like “Yes, that could be a possible explanation, but there is no real proof. It is all suspicion. It is clear why the lions were killed, and it is also very clear that Barry O’Neill was in cahoots with the person who did it, and it might very well have been Thomas O’Neill as they are brothers and he was in the neighborhood. But all of that is definitely not sufficient evidence to clearly pinpoint Thomas as the killer. Can’t we find more? Can we talk to Thomas? Can we link Thomas to the case in a stronger way than just saying that he is the brother and he is a thief and he was in Europe?”
Still, considering how the previous cases were constructed, we knew that when a story can be told that fits all the facts, for Holmes that is enough to assume that that is actually what happened.
Opinions may differ, but I feel that a satisfying solution to a mystery should not merely be plausible, it should be exclusive. In other words, the mystery should not have multiple plausible solutions – at least, not given a consideration of all the evidence. I can make exceptions for TV shows and movies where the action moves so fast that you don’t mind the occasionally leap in logic, but I’m not willing to extend that leniency to puzzle games.
SHCD commits an additional sin in a later cases that involve actual puzzles – Caesar ciphers and such – that got me very excited until their convoluted nature collapses in on themselves. Don’t even talk to me about the Bridge House Hotel problem.
We all imagine that we could solve a mystery through deduction alone, just like Sherlock Holmes does, so it’s no wonder that SHCD – an exquisitely-themed game with unique mechanics – has dazzled players and reviewers. What I don’t understand is why reviewers, including Shut Up and Sit Down, claim that SHCD wants to “provide you with a level, fair playing field”.
I’m aware this sounds like sour grapes from someone who wasn’t able to solve the puzzles. Trust me – I know I’m not good at solving puzzles (as it happens, I think that makes me good at setting them). But I do know when a puzzle’s solution is unfair, in that players could not reasonably be expected to have arrived at it given the evidence. The fact that this happens in most of the cases in the game, and that there are countless BoardGameGeek posts describing the same frustrations again and again, indicates this is not a trivial problem. It’s a major flaw riven through the very heart of the game.
People are in love with the idea of being Sherlock Holmes, of lying on the carpet with a cocktail in one hand mentally wrestling a mystery to the ground. And in SHCD, the thrill of the chase is real. The challenge of puzzling the clues together is real. The pleasure in acting as a detective is real. But it’s all for naught when the solutions are broken.
The world’s greatest detective deserves much better.
If you insist on playing the game despite all my warnings, here are some tips:
Buy the Space Cowboys edition, which has the nicest materials and the fewest errors (Amazon UK, Amazon US).
2-3 players are best. Any more and you’ll get frustrated by having to pass the gamebooks around too much.
Set a two hour time-limit to solve each case. If you don’t have it by then, you’ll just get more annoyed. For some cases, 90 minutes is enough.
Quick notes on this book by Jeanne E. Arnold, Anthony P. Graesch, Enzo Ragazzini, and Elinor Ochs, a popularisation of a 10-year study in which 32 middle-class Los Angeles families opened their doors to archaeologists and anthropologists to photograph, count, and classify every single visible object in their house.
In general, it’s fascinating to look inside a wide range of American households. The houses were not specially tidied for the photographer so it’s a raw and realistic portrait.
The photos were taken from 2001-2005, so they’re pretty dated.
They didn’t look inside cupboards or wardrobes or boxes. I’m sure this is partly unavoidable due to privacy concerns, but it would skew the findings somewhat. Neither did they count “abundant stacks of papers, mail, and magazines, which we deemed impossible to tally with accuracy…”
If you were doing the study today, you’d get a grad student to walk inside with a SLR or 4K video camera and try to use machine vision to classify everything. If it worked well, you could identify every visible book, album, picture, and even do stuff like estimate the total mass and volume of objects. It’d make for a good cross-departmental research project.
The authors spend a little too long talking about just how much work the project took, which I don’t doubt but probably doesn’t warrant mentioning so many times. We already bought the book!
If you’re wondering how the researchers selected the 32 houses, this book won’t tell you. I assume the process is detailed in one of the original research papers, but it’s surprising they don’t include it here.
General & Storage
Americans own way more shit than I ever imagined. No wonder you’re all in debt.
A lovely turn of phrase: the US is the “most materially rich society in global history”.
At the time of writing, the US had 3.1% of world’s children, but 40% of the spending on toys.
One parent: “The closet is extremely unutilised because we usually can’t get to it.”
“Cars have been banished from 75% of garages to make way for rejected furniture and cascading bins and boxes of mostly forgotten household goods.” The authors estimate that 90% of the total square footage of garages in Los Angeles is used for storage.
Kitchens & Food
“The typical Los Angeles refrigerator front panel is host to a mean of 52 objects.”
Making dinners with “mostly” convenience foods is only about 10% (or 5 minutes) faster than dinners that use mostly raw ingredients. Measured differently, convenience foods involve 26 minutes of “hands on” preparation time, versus 38 min for raw foods (excluding any oven/microwave time). A 12 minute different in preparation time isn’t as small a margin as the authors make it out to be, especially for busy and tired parents, but they do point out that convenience foods reduce complexity and shopping/planning time.
14% of meals were from take out!
“Stockpiling is an efficient foraging strategy for parents who want to minimise the number of times they have round up young children…”
No-one uses their back yards.
Most of the houses are single storey, including the big ones.
I would love to see a longitudinal study to observed the effects of the recession and the impact of smartphones and tablets on the total material load inside US households.
Toilets have been unchanged in form for many decades. I note that out of all the rich tech companies I have visited over the years, only Google X had those fancy Japanese toilet/bidets.
This has not aged well: “At no point during tens of thousands of years of human history have people been as deeply engaged with nonessential technologies as we are today. Ownership of devices associated with entertainment and mobile communication has escalated from fad to addiction.” I should add that the edition I read was published in June 2017, long after it had become apparent that computers cannot be considered “nonessential technologies” that are only good for addictions.
A verse from Pablo Neruda, reflecting on the possessions at his home in Chile
They told me
many things, everything.
not only did they touch me
and take the hand I gave them
but they were bound to my life
in such a way
that they lived in me
and were such a living part of me
that they shared half of my life
and will die half of my death.
This House is about the efforts of whips to maintain the shaky Labour government from 1974-79. When it premiered in 2012, a time when the most exciting thing in British politics was the coalition government between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, it doubtless felt like an exciting, topical play about the idealism and reality of politics – hence the rave reviews.
Between Brexit and Trump, shit has gotten very real, so the play has lost some of its power in its 2018 incarnation. But that’s not the only reason why it left me cold. Fundamentally, it’s a story about Parliament, not politics. You never hear from a single person who isn’t a politician; you never spend a second outside of Westminster. It feels clammy and paternalistic. And I’m not sure that I care for that kind of story any more, not given the state of our politics lately.
(I also didn’t like the play’s fast and loose treatment of the arithmetic of the 1974 elections and just how governments are formed, but whatever.)
Rhinoceros was written in 1959 and is essentially about fascism and Nazism – note-perfect for our times, sadly. I enjoyed it very much and if there’s a production near you, I recommend you see it.
Here’s what I tweeted at the time:
Act 1: hey I thought this was meant to be about fascism, wtf?
Act 2: whoa whoa too much, pull it back!
Act 3: ok this is perfect
I really need to stop paying attention to The Verge’s book reviews. They loved The Gone World, which struck me as a novel-length SCP written by a fan of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion. Gratuitously gruesome, weirdly incompetent (woman) protagonist, plot that doesn’t hold up under inspection at all. So… let’s make it into a movie!
Film critics were not kind when A.I. Artificial Intelligence was released in 2001. A.I. was directed by Steven Spielberg but originated from, and was made with, Stanley Kubrick, up until his death in 1999. A lot of reviewers accordinly blamed Spielberg for pretty much everything they disliked about the film, notably its final 30 minutes which appeared to be overly sentimental.
I enjoyed the movie when it was released. Admittedly, a lot of that was because I’d played the associated ARG, which also provided more context for the final 30 minutes. But it was hard to convince my friends that it was a good movie, especially in the face of critics.
In the past five years, prominent critics have begun reappraising A.I., to its benefit. A better understanding of the ending, and the relationship between Spielberg and Kubrick, sheds much light on the intention and message of the movie. In short, Spielberg didn’t write the ending, Kubrick put the teddy bear in, the aliens are actually machines, and the ending isn’t happy:
Watching the film again, I asked myself why I wrote that the final scenes are “problematical,” go over the top, and raise questions they aren’t prepared to answer. This time they worked for me, and had a greater impact. I began with the assumption that the skeletal silver figures are indeed androids, of a much advanced generation from David’s. They too must be programmed to know, love, and serve Man. Let’s assume such instructions would be embedded in their programming DNA. They now find themselves in a position analogous to David in his search for his Mommy. They are missing an element crucial to their function.
When the epilogue begins, it’s Kingsley’s voice that explains the ice age and the passage of time. Does that mean David’s story – ie AI – is itself a creation myth, told by these futuristic mechas about the making of their kind, as an attempt to understand the elder beings that made them?
“Human beings must be the key to the meaning of existence,” the Kingsley mecha tells David, and the line sounds odd until you realise these creatures hold humans in the same awed regard as humanity holds its gods. Dr Hobby’s son died so that David might live, and these new mecha are descended from David’s line.
In that light, AI’s ending isn’t twee, but wrenchingly sad. The love we’re seeing, between a mecha and a clone, is a simulacrum, as manufactured as a movie. But if it feels like the real thing to us, what does that tell us about the real thing? In that moment, Spielberg shows us real fear and real wonder, knotted together so tightly it becomes impossible to tell the two apart.
Unpredictability, though, is not necessarily what audiences want, which brings us to the focal point of controversy over A.I., and a major reason the movie is more of a cult item than a confirmed modern classic: the film’s ending. Initially, David’s drive leads him to the bottom of the ocean, staring at a statue of the Blue Fairy, convinced that if he waits long enough, she will work her magic. You may have heard, or even subscribed to, the belief that this moment, with David waiting underwater indefinitely, is the “correct” end to the film. But the movie presses on past this neatness, jumping forward thousands of years. The Earth has frozen over, and an advanced race of mecha-beings (not aliens!) uncovers David. Through a process that is, admittedly, a little drawn out with explanations (including, essentially, two different types of narration), the mecha-beings, eager to learn from a robot who knew humans, agree to revive Monica for David. In this form, though, she’s more of a ghost; she can only stay revived for a single day. She and David spend a perfect day together before she drifts off to sleep, accompanied by her mecha son, essentially a dying ember of human life.
It’s understandable, then, that so many backseat directors would dutifully follow that program. This is not, however, Spielberg’s obligation. The film frequently adopts a robot’s point of view, but was not made by one. By sticking with David after thousands of years’ worth of waiting, Spielberg stays true to a robot perspective while also deepening David’s sadly close connection to human experience, a far trickier balancing act than having David dead-end at the bottom of the ocean. The actual and vastly superior ending of A.I. is more than a bleak kiss-off; it imagines humanity’s final moments of existence (if not literally, certainly metaphorically) as a dreamy day of wish fulfillment. David wants to be a “real boy,” and the scenes with the ghostly Monica turn his desperation and sadness from an imitation-human abstraction to a desire with an endpoint, which in this case coincides with, more or less, the end of humanity as we know it. As such, the sequence also turns the comforting idea of dying happily into something pretty fucking sad. Spielberg hasn’t grafted a happy ending onto a dark movie; he’s teased the darkness out of what his main character wants. David’s artificial intelligence has given him the very human ability to obsess, and then to take solace in his own happiness above anything else.
Mark Kermode at the BBC: AI Apology (published 2013)
In 2002, Spielberg told film critic Joe Leydon that “People pretend to think they know Stanley Kubrick, and think they know me, when most of them don’t know either of us”. “And what’s really funny about that is, all the parts of A.I. that people assume were Stanley’s were mine. And all the parts of A.I. that people accuse me of sweetening and softening and sentimentalizing were all Stanley’s. The teddy bear was Stanley’s. The whole last 20 minutes of the movie was completely Stanley’s. The whole first 35, 40 minutes of the film – all the stuff in the house – was word for word, from Stanley’s screenplay. This was Stanley’s vision.” “Eighty percent of the critics got it all mixed up. But I could see why. Because, obviously, I’ve done a lot of movies where people have cried and have been sentimental. And I’ve been accused of sentimentalizing hard-core material. But in fact it was Stanley who did the sweetest parts of A.I., not me. I’m the guy who did the dark center of the movie, with the Flesh Fair and everything else. That’s why he wanted me to make the movie in the first place. He said, ‘This is much closer to your sensibilities than my own.'”
Snap Judgment is the novel of podcasts for me – each episode is hard to get into, and each story can be intimidatingly unpredictable, as personal tales inevitably are. But overall, the podcast is surprisingly rewarding and consistent. That’s a real achievement compared to more highly-produced podcasts that are like crystals, almost too perfect and artificial in their construction – as Radiolab and Gimlet Media can be, for example.
So consider this a short note of appreciation for Snap Judgment. It’s not my favorite podcast but it does good.