Reality is key to quality entertainment (just ask Sam Fisher or Jack Bauer)

The entertainment industry is a multibillion dollar industry. Film studios, TV networks, and video game developers are competing for our attention, and when they succeed, they are rewarded handsomely. But many of the biggest successes in the field of media and entertainment have one thing in common – they are grounded in reality.

Not “reality” as defined by the vast wasteland of “reality-based” TV programming. That stuff is as unrealistic as it gets. The only way I could watch “The Simple Life” is if Nicole Richie had to clean up her act in order to compete for an eight-bucks-an-hour office job. That would be reality-based television. Unfortunately, it would also be boring, which is why I probably wouldn’t watch for more than 15 minutes.

The reality I’m talking about is a quality of successful entertaining media projects where the stories and characters have a distinct grounding in real life.

Escape? Nah. Transcend.

See, people often claim to watch television, go to the movies, or play video games in order to escape from reality. I think that’s only half true. People don’t want to escape reality as much as they want to transcend reality. That is, they want something better than reality.

They want to experience the redemption of characters that ring true. They want to experience scenarios where real problems meet real solutions. Even if the nuances of those solutions wouldn’t exactly play out in the real world, it’s still nice to see. People want heroes who succeed in making their world a better place. In so watching these stories, they can, if only for the length of the program, live in that better world.

I’ve noticed this phenomenon in my own tastes. I may seek an immediate escape from the tedium of my own life when I read/watch/play, but I end up gaining more knowledge and insight into the world around me. The shows and movies and games I like the most tend to be rooted in reality.

Consider a few favorites:

John Grisham’s legal thrillers. I recently read The Rainmaker, which seemed downright prophetic in its portrayal of corporate greed and corruption. Reading The Rainmaker can help provide a plausible scenario for the WorldCom and Enron accounting scandals.

Both critically-acclaimed Aaron Sorkin / Tommy Schlamme TV shows: the cult hit “Sports Night” and its more famous sibling, “The West Wing.” Sure, going behind-the-scenes of a presidential administration or a nightly cable sports show is a way to invest emotional weight into fictional characters. But it’s also a great way to learn about how things get done in politics and television.

I’ve written at length about my fascination with Halo 2, but it bears repeating: the success of that game is only partially due to its technical feats. A major reason why people love it is because it examines, albeit in a fantasy setting, the politics of religion and war. There are disturbing parallels between the machinations of the Covenant uprising and the contention between political factions in the U.S. This is not to say Halo 2 was written to be a political satire, but the interstellar leaders of the fictional alien populace suffer through the same hubris-driven power struggles that our own leaders do. In this way, it too is grounded in reality.

A new ethical model

With video games, the sense of vicarious identification is heightened, because instead of just cheering for heroes, you’re guiding them through their challenges yourself. And as games get more and more sophisticated in their storytelling capability, the challenges become greater. Not just harder to execute, but fraught with weightier moral consequences.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Tom Clancy’s “Splinter Cell” franchise. Besides being the definitive title to spawn a whole new genre of game (the stealth-action thriller), the Splinter Cell games have been the first games I’ve seen to explore U.S. counterintelligence programs in a manner that befits their shadowy nature. You play as Sam Fisher, a highly-trained special-ops field agent who is sent, through an experimental NSA program called Third Echelon, on a variety of missions pertaining to classified objectives, all in the name of national security.

Part of what makes playing Splinter Cell a gripping experience is the technical wizardry that enhances your sensory intake: the detailed environments, the continuous interplay between light and shadows, the pulse-pounding music, and the interesting dialogue. But those things pale in comparison to the fascinating ethical morass of situations that Fisher and his team have to wade through.

For example, in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Third Echelon’s director Irving Lambert sends Fisher to break into a Peruvian bank in order to find out who funded a group of terrorist guerillas who kidnapped an American mathematician. But in order to disguise the true nature of the mission, Fisher also has to steal $50 million in French bearer bonds. While guiding Fisher through the mission is exciting in its own right, there are a myriad of philosophical and political questions that thoughtful gamers encounter during gameplay. What is Third Echelon going to do with this money? Are they planning on giving it back later? If so, how? Does Sam Fisher rightfully deserve any of it? How much culpability does the bank have in the inadvertant laundering of terrorist money? Does this culpability justify the use of lethal force in the execution of this mission?

The advent of games like Splinter Cell has ushered in an era of new ethical models for popular culture. The days of victory being achieved by saving the princess or blowing up all the aliens… those days are long gone. No longer are there simply good guys and bad guys. Sometimes the good guys have to do bad things to support the greater good. This progression (or regression, depending on your perspective) has introduced a series of gray areas to issues that for generations have been seen only as black-and-white.

Sam Fisher: The New Jack Bauer

This complicated relationship between the iconic status of video game heroes and the morally questionable lives they are required to lead is only going to get more dicey with the newest iteration of the Splinter Cell franchise, Splinter Cell: Double Agent. In it, Fisher is required to bring down a terrorist organization by going deep undercover as a terrorist. This development will tread down the same path recently traveled by Jack Bauer, the hero of the popular FOX TV series “24” (which, incidentally, is about to release its own action-shooter game exclusively for the Playstation 2). Dedicated “24” fans have witnessed Bauer go undercover on numerous occasions in order to bring down the terrorist organizations threatening to harm its fictional U.S. of A.

It was a risky move for 24, and it will be for Splinter Cell as well. When a well-established game protagonist pushes the envelope of acceptable behavior (even for a highly-trained special agent), there remains a distinct possibility that the audience will turn on that character. Emotional connections to a character often fuel our willful suspension of disbelief. Therefore, if a “good guy” does something too heinous, even for what he perceives as the overall greater good, he will no longer be considered to be a good guy.

If, however, the established good guy later appears to be a bad guy… but then redeems his “bad guy” status by taking down all the other bad guys, then the emotional payoff can be huge. And many of the most successful entertainment franchises (ABC’s “Alias” starring Jennifer Garner is another example) work this formula well by using a series of complicated plot twists to continually shed new light on morally ambiguous characters.

This version of reality in entertainment works well because in real life, people and problems can rarely be broken down to black-and-white characterizations. There are subtle nuances and details that can change the complexion of characters and situations. So when real characters can find real solutions to real problems, and not cheat the system by using easy outs or pat solutions, that is the reality that we all want to see and live.

And if we can’t live it out in real life, then the least we can do is live it out through our favorite pop culture heroes.

I’m G*Natural, and thanks for mixin’ it up with me.

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