Thursday, January 26, 2012

Video Games in TV: Law & Order SVU (again)

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

In 2010, Law & Order: SVU took yet another stab at portraying gamers with the episode "Bullseye," in which two video game-obsessed parents neglect their ten year old daughter. Starved and desperate, she escapes their dirty apartment in search of food and gets violently raped by a pedophile. Detectives Stabler and Benson arrive on the scene to interrogate the parents and track down the rapist.

This episode is so bad that I didn't think I'd even be able to sit through it all. The video game stuff only plays a role in the first ten minutes, but this is the kind of ridiculous depiction where I had to pause the video every 15 seconds to make a note of how bad it was. Every line of dialogue, every scene of the game, everything. Just. So. Bad. Fortunately for you, you don't have to watch it. But if you're curious as to how bad it could really be, my break-down awaits in the full article.

Stabler and Benson canvas the neighborhood asking if anyone had seen the girl, and a pizza delivery person identifies her house. She thinks the parents also have a son, because she can often hear his voice when she's there delivering pizzas. So the detectives go to the house, knock on the door, and get no answer, but they can hear what sounds like a loud TV making noise, and the voice of a young boy screaming "daddy no!" Stabler busts the door down with a well-placed foot, and they enter the apartment guns-at-the-ready, only to find the two parents sitting in front of a TV playing a video game.

By this point, it's already been established that they neglect their kids, and we can hear the parents arguing about who's turn it is to get the boy. Stabler and Benson watch for a second to get a picture of what's going on: they're playing a sidescrolling action/platformer, kind of like Trine except not as pretty and probably not as fun. The dad's fighting a dragon while the mom stands around doing seemingly nothing, and there's a kid hanging on the edge of a cliff.

Click for full-size.

What's up with that weird border around the screen? Their "power levels" look a lot like health meters, so why no call them "health" or just drop the descriptive text altogether, since a red bar on the HUD is synonymous with hit points? The chick (who's standing on the right of the screen) has her icon on the left side of the screen, and it appears as though she has more weapons (displayed on the bottom) than the burly warrior, which seems counter-intuitive since she appears to be a light-armor rogue who wouldn't be using dual swords or battleaxes. Oh, and there's an obnoxious "close-up" box of the kid that magnifies what we can already clearly see by a meager 8%. Why is that even there?

The guy's fighting the dragon by standing still and awkwardly swinging his sword around, kind of like he's a blind, uncoordinated old man trying to swat a fly in mid-air. I mean, the first animation has the guy basically punch the dragon in the face with his fist, as if the sword isn't even in his hand. Meanwhile, he's yelling at his wife: "Hurry! Caleb's hands are slipping!" and she rebuts "Like I don't know that!" All-the-while, these two people are furiously mashing away at the controllers, gripping them tightly and contorting their faces as if this is some kind of really tense moment.

This is the exact face I make whenever I'm playing a video game.

How much input could you possibly need in a situation like this? The guy's character isn't moving around, and he only attacks like once every two seconds. And the mother is over there screaming "Hang on! Mommy's coming!" as if she's actively doing something to hold onto the kid and keep him from falling (while also making it look like she's genuinely concerned about the fantasy child in a video game, and completely neglectful of her real son. Hmm). But her character just stands there looking around like she's in an idle animation. If she's supposed to be holding onto the kid, you'd think her character would be knelt over and reaching down, and that maybe her input would be to spam a button to hold on while the other guy fights the dragon. She's certainly mashing the controller, but her character does absolutely nothing.

Then, once the guy's killed the dragon, they start frantically screaming "Get the coin!" and the mom stops whatever she was wasn't doing by the cliff to run over and awkwardly jump up to grab the coin. If there was some risk of the kid falling while the guy fought the dragon, why is she letting go? Shouldn't the guy be getting the coin? I guess he does have more coin icons on his side of the HUD, so maybe they were trying to let her get one for once. Whatever. 

Notice all of the typical gaming crap around the TV.

At this point, Stabler and Benson intervene. Benson goes over to the console (or is it a computer hooked up to a big screen TV? Guess these guys are more sophisticated gamers than I thought) and rips the controller cables out of the front, even though everything is wireless these days. The couple suddenly stands up from their chairs, the dude yelling "Woah! Where the hell did you come from!" As if they were so focused and obsessed with their game that they didn't hear Stabler busting the door frame open and yelling "Police!" So Stabler explains that they're from the real world and tells the guy to join them, and the guy shouts "Hell no, plug this back in! This is level 20! This is the Kingdom of Galagor!" and then the wife immediately buts in "And our boy needs us!"

Good grief. Why is it that people in these TV episodes are always obsessed with what level they're on? The game HUD even says "Level 20" on the top of the screen. I haven't played a game with numerical levels like that since DOOM and Super Mario World. Virtually all mainstream games stream the stages without calling attention to the fact that they're different "levels" in order not to distract the player from the immersion. Only ultra-casual games and certain kinds of puzzle/platformers still use "Level 1" and "Level 5." These guys could certainly be playing a casual game by the looks of the footage, but if they're supposed to be stereotypical gamer addict-nerds, then I think they'd be playing something a little more sophisticated.

So then Stabler and Benson have the two parents at the station for questioning, and we get a little backstory for these two clowns. The wife says they met online last year at "an xbox tournament hosted out of South Korea. He had the cutest avatar." Hard to think that anyone really pays attention to Xbox avatars, but I'll bet they must have had terrible pings if they were playing a match hosted in South Korea.

You think that was the face she had when they first met?

And then the best part of the episode happens: they reveal that they'd been getting by on settlement money from when the wife got hit by a bus on the way to Best Buy to pick up the latest Everearth game (whatever that may be). Getting hit by a bus can be hilarious in the right context, and it's even better considering it was at Best Buy. The husband laments the sound her skull made as it impacted against the asphalt with dread and horror, and Benson remarks "If only you felt that kind of pain for your child," referencing his raped daughter, and he says "Caleb's gonna be ok, he's got extra lives." Which is also pretty hilarious.

At this point Benson is getting impatient and tries to get a ruse out of the guy by directly accusing him of raping his own daughter. He starts to get defensive and blurts out: "Wait a second, pause the game!" just to remind the audience that this is a stereotypical gamer addict who's a little out of touch with reality, and then he follows up immediately with this: "I haven't had sex with anybody for, like, six months!" And I was on the floor clutching my sides with laughter. As if it's not bad enough that they're already depicted as fat, greasy, unkempt slobs, the final straw in the stereotype is that the gamer addict isn't getting any. You can't write better stuff than this. 

That's all that the video games have to do with the episode. The rest is all about their investigation to find the predator, and the parents don't show up again in anything that follows. The episode became instantly more bearable once those two were out of the picture. Those first ten minutes, though, were quite bad. A highly concentrated dose of gaming absurdity that me concerned I'd have to turn the video off and pretend I didn't see it. 

There was one hilarious moment later on, though, when detectives Munch and Ice-T are at a playground looking for forensic evidence. Munch spots a white, sticky-looking fluid on the ground and calls the crew over to collect samples. And then a kid sitting in some bushes calls out "Hey! You guys need some help?" in like a totally peppy sort of voice. The camera pans over and he's got white stuff around his mouth.

The kid's just chilling there with a contented look on his face, his head peeking out of the bushes like some kind of creepy stalker child. At this point I'm thinking "um.... wut?" and am ready for something totally crazy in that dramatic "Law & Order" fashion to happen. 

And then he steps out of the bushes and exposes his dripping vanilla ice cream cone, which just makes his peculiar behavior even more of a perplexing "WTF" kind of moment where I had no choice but to laugh. And then he pukes on Ice-T's feet. Comedy gold right here. 

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