Monday, August 15, 2011

Video Games in TV: Warehouse 13

"Some TV shows just don't get it." Part of a periodical series: Video Games in TV

Tonight's episode of Warehouse 13, "Don't Hate the Player," was kind enough to synchronize precisely with my plans to write another article for Video Games in TV. This episode follows the tried formula of "players stuck in a virtual reality game," where the heroes play the game in order to save the day. Unlike most other episodes that show a completely inept understanding of the medium, "Don't Hate the Player" strives to be a respectful homage to video games. It's not a perfect tribute and comes off a little shallow, but there's no reason to hate this episode.

As a basic premise, Douglas Fargo (a cross-over character from Eureka, another one of SyFy's shows) has developed a piece of technology called the BRAID, a Bioelectric Reality Augmentation Interactive Device. It's an elaborate headset with gloves that basically put a player's perspective and consciousness into a simulation. But he can't get it to work properly, and so he resorts to using one of the supernatural "artifacts" that the agents of Warehouse 13 are assigned to track down and quarantine.

The artifact--a teaset--is said to activate the imagination center of the brain, and successfully sends Fargo and his collaborator Jerry into the game during a beta-test. Shortly thereafter, they go unresponsive, sitting on the couch like vegetables, unable to jump back into reality. So the agents of Warehouse 13 get a call and rush to the scene to help. They spend a little time investigating the scene, but eventually conclude that there's nothing they can do from outside of the game.

Claudia and Pete wearing the BRAID.
Setting up his profile, Pete says that he wants to be "a badass," so he picks the Gladiator class, which looks strikingly similar to the default Warrior skin in Guild Wars. Claudia says she "just wants to be herself" and apparently becomes a Faerie, a type of potion-wielding elf. The other classes appear to consist of Knight, Mage, Werewolf, and Mystic Priest. Once they're in-game, we establish that the avatars have an in-game controller which lets them return to reality, and that Fargo has modeled his game after Warehouse 13.

And that's about all there is to the set-up. The rest of the episode has them picking up quests, finding keys, following trails, using magical objects, and battling enemies while searching for Fargo, Jerry, and trying to reclaim their controllers after a formidable foe takes them. It's all pretty simple, with a lot of the progression happening "behind the scenes" while we watch other Warehouse agents doing other things unrelated to the video game premise. It's not particularly exciting, because as an audience we just see them in random situations doing things, but at least it doesn't have me rolling my eyes.

Besides all of the sets, props, and dialogue reminding us that this is a video game, they apply a nice posterizing effect, making everything look slightly cell-shaded. It's somewhat clever and doesn't interfere with the visuals at all, aside from seeming incredibly cheap. It doesn't make it look especially like a video game, it kind of makes it look like bad film. Except that after a few minutes it becomes hard to tell that it's even there. I'm not sure if my eyes just got used to it, or if they made the effect more dramatic during the first scene and then toned it down a bit.

Pete and Claudia first arriving in the game.

There's also an amusing moment early on where an NPC harangues them to pick up a quest to save the princess in the tall tower. They keep declining the quest, asking if he's seen or knows anything about Fargo, and get stuck in an endless loop with the NPC asking them to take the quest. Virtually every game these days lets you decline quests, so it's not especially applicable, but it's a nice throwback to earlier games.

Whenever players equip or use an inventory item, a cheesy 8-bit sound effect plays, very similar to the sound effects in original NES games. Again, games have more advanced sound effects than that, and at this point it seems obvious that these things are here just for the sake of the audience, not for the game. It's as if they're there just to remind us that this is a game, but they also pay homage to classic games.

There are also a couple of sections where the camera assumes a first-person perspective, letting us see from Pete's eyes as they walk through hallways with a torch in-hand. It feels surprisingly natural in the context of the film, unlike the sound effects that pop out from nowhere, but it only serves as a reference for gamers to think "Hey! It's just like an FPS or something!"

This game also features a quest compass that paints a yellow path on the floor, guiding the players where they need to go. It's pretty convenient from a directing standpoint, because it's another video game trope that makes this game more like a video game while getting the characters through everything efficiently. But I hate those kinds of quest compasses, so that's a bit of a strike.

The tall tower where the princess resides.

As they go through the game, a grim reaper occasionally stalks them, and at one point takes their controllers from them. The reaper reminds me quite a bit of Pyramid Head from Silent Hill 2, primarily because of the way it walks. It's got a slow, heavy walk and it drags its giant axe behind itself. I'm not sure if this was intentional or not, but I thought it was an interesting parallel.

Finally, there's the teaset artifact. The team eventually discovers that although it enhances imagination, it also enhances the darker side of our subconsious. As a result, things start happening in the game that Fargo never programmed, and the players have to face their deepest fears. One character has a fear of drowning, and winds up in quicksand; another character once had a fear that she was insane because of her deceased brother, and gets strapped to a table with electroshock therapy as her psychiatrist taunts her. This concept, again, kind of reminds me of Silent Hill 2 where everything about the town is some kind of manifestation of James Sunderland's psyche.

When one of the characters outside of the game realizes this, she asks one of the other gamers what he knows about Jerry's subconscious fears. The other guy says "I don't know, we only ever talked about video games and fantasy football." So she responds "Why are guys so emotionally absent? I need a woman," and the guy buts in "Yeah me too." And I laughed. This had potential to be a negative stereotype of gamers being antisocial and not dating, but that angle is defeated by the fact that Jerry has a girlfriend who's quite normal (as in, not a fellow antisocial video game nerd), so I was pleased with this bit of dialogue.

Other than that, there's not much to say about "Don't Hate the Player." It's enjoyable enough and doesn't do anything to piss me off as a gamer. It feels more like an homage made to pay tribute to games, instead of treating games like a weird outsider. The video game aspect seems fairly shallow, still; it's obviously a rudimentary representation that's supposed to make sense to people who haven't played video games, but I wish there could've been more depth to the game. It ultimately feels like a cheesy TV video game episode, but I've seen far worse depictions. Even though the whole video game aspect isn't particularly exciting, it's treated with care and works in a functional sort of way. 


  1. I thought it was cute when Claudia requests to "just be myself" gets her the avatar of an elf. The play on words (mys-elf) was rather inventive and kept her avatar in the game theme. Being a shallow gamer myself, I rather enjoyed the episode.

  2. Hi
    I built the headsets as well as a whole other set of working props for Stefaniuk FX Studio for this episode; a retrofitted "Simon Says", virtual reality gloves (ordinary gloves with LED strip lighting), and a sophisticated light controller sequencer for driving the large format "Simon Says" was a brutal build and I don't know if any of the these other props ended up being used....