A shtick-y World War I video game masquerading as movie told through one long and uninterrupted take (that is, in reality, a series of long-ish takes fused together), Sam Mendes’ 1917 is supposed to make viewers feel as though they’re “in it.” But its fake-azz “single take” acrobatics are often distracting, dumb, and obvious. The “visceral” shorthand of a first-person shooter video game comes to the prestige picture, and for what?
Playing Aaron Oldenburg’s monotonic, dissociative video games about tripping, currently on display at the Hamilton Gallery as “Everyday Hallucinations & Videogame Landscapes,” I thought about the limits of 1917, which looks and feels like Call Of Duty and is about as insightful. Then I thought about how for a very long time, video games were declared not to be art by serious film critics and now, here we are in 2020 with many of them heaping praise on a movie that’s just a bad video game. If 1917, a video game, is a movie, then Oldenburg’s video games are movies.
Desert Mothers is a two-player game where, using an Xbox controller, you play as a character—a bald and naked humanoid meditating—sitting in the desert able to look up and down and all around and move your arms (you can’t get up and walk around) and catch a glimpse of your double, whose movement is similarly limited and right next to you, likely experiencing something totally different. Look down and your foot pokes out of the sand, look around and hey, there are some trees. Hit the “Y” button on the controller and your point of view changes and all you see are part of your hands and a sky. You’re somewhere else maybe—an on-DMT-like cutaway where for a moment you’ve popped your cloudy head in another dimension. Hit “Y” again and you’re back in the desert. Music that sounds like somebody lackadaisical strumming a guitar or blowing on a horn plays, and depending on what buttons you mash and how, it gets windy or stormy and the sky darkens. Squiggly lines, like stray hair on a film print, jaggedly dart across the screen—it is getting stormy or you’re entering a difficult trip, you decide.