Game-Based Narratives

Frederico Novaro

Photo Credit: Leo Fuchs

Pool hustling, state-sanctioned deathmatches between heavily armed Japanese teenagers, and high-octane hybridised football/roller-skating skirmishes undertaken as a foil for the violent desires of the masses all may not, initially, appear to have an awful lot in common. Appearances being, as they are, deceptive, it’s important to note that all three cinematic narratives (respectively, Robert Rossen’s The Hustler [1961], Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale [2000] and Norman Jewison’s Rollerball [1975]) are ostensibly and verifiably films with game-based narratives, in which there are ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, points to be scored and sanctified sets of rules to obey or to break. They only vary in the degree to which they are willing to take and to run with the definition of the word ‘game’.

Murder may not, according to a certain set of societal standards, be a ‘game’, per se, but you need not look further than the inglorious history of the gladiatorial arena (and various celebrated filmic interpretations thereof, going back as far as sword and sandal epics such as Delmer Daves’ Demetrius and the Gladiators [1954]) to see that it can be made part of one with ease, and has (amongst many others, Paul Bertel’s Death Race 2000 [1976], Paul Michael Glaser’s The Running Man [1987], and it would be impossible not to mention Ridley Scott’s Gladiator [2000])

Games, of all sorts, are important to human beings: they’re an intrinsic part of our psyches, infect and affect every facet of Western culture with some fragment of themselves, and that’s whether we recognize the fact or not. It should naturally follow, then, that games are an important part of storytelling, and nowhere is this more evident than in the world of moving pictures: if there’s a game to be played, no matter how obscure, you can rest relatively easy in the knowledge that, in all probability, there’s a film somewhere out there to satisfy its proponents.

In keeping with the principles of good storytelling, however, films that feature games prominently are not always about the games that are played:

In the future wake of mass unemployment and proportional youth disenfranchisement, Battle Royale finds the Japanese government setting up annual games of death between members of a single, randomly-selected, Japanese ninth-form class; the unwilling participants (chief amongst them, our protagonist Shuya Nanahara) are kept from escaping with fitted explosive collars, similar in design (though admittedly the idea is less crassly executed here) to the ‘intestinators’ in the Christopher Lambert pulp sci-fi/prison flick, Fortress [1993].

The aim of the program, though never explicitly discussed, appears to be Orwellian in nature: simultaneously terrifying the populace so as to keep them in line, whilst providing violent tittilation as a form of distraction (in what is admittedly the most charming moment of synchronicity in an entirely too-compelling essay, Anthony Antoniou suggests, in The Cinema of Japan and Korea, that “[…] blurring the lines between entertainment and propaganda, in order to keep the masses docile and distracted […] is reminiscent of Norman Jewison’s Rollerball (1975)”) (p. 225)

Battle Royale details a world in which children are abandoned or callously mistreated by adults and authority figures (Shuya’s unstable father commits suicide in plain view of his son, while another character is sexually abused by her alcoholic mother, and two others are killed by a teacher simply to provide object lessons, before the game proper has even begun), education is a thing of the past and death is an amusement, Antoniou goes on to argue that the film uses ‘the game’ as a way of issuing, through the eyes of its victims, “a savage indictment of a failed competitive education system, a nation’s disaffected youth, and a proud but ailing martial civilization punishing the next generation for its own failings.” (p. 228)

Despite already being contentious in its subject, Fukasaku digs himself a deeper (that is, far more contentious) philosophical hole by consciously couching the film and its terminology in the realm of the ‘game’, even to the extent of flashing up the names of the dead students, in the manner of a scoreboard, so that we, the audience, can keep casual track of the carnage (an assertion supported by Antoniou’s own observations on p. 227).

As mentioned above, Jewison’s Rollerball is not dissimilar in its own approach to the game-based narrative, though it belongs to an entirely different era of film-making and approaches its subject with a certain hip ’70s hallucinogenic sensibility: the film pits James Caan’s champion athlete Jonathan E. (heroic, quiet, muscular and virile Texan that he is) against his corporate overlords (personified by John Houseman’s part avuncular, all serpentine Mr. Bartholomew) at an emotional and intellectual level, while simultaneously having Jonathan engage in well-paid transnational athletic combat with other young men, both at home and abroad, with crippling injury or death going from a possibility to a certainty as the film progresses; the conflicts run parallel to one another and intersect on the playing field: John Hassard et al. point out in Body and Organisation that, “Jonathan’s bruised and bleeding body is continually counterposed to the distant gaze of the suited executives who watch from behind glass.” (p. 77)

Thelma Altschuler, in “Using Popular Media to Achieve Traditional Goals” (a tellingly titled essay), posits that Robert Rossen’s arguable masterwork, The Hustler, is a prime example of the aforementioned phenomenon, distinguishing between the “pure game” (played between Eddie Felson and Minnesota Fats) and the rest of the film’s narrative, the vast majority of which is concerned with the ‘game’ that Bert and Eddie play, a contest of will rather than skill, which Eddie tragically and inevitably loses (due to what Alan Casty calls his destructive “desire for money and status within his art”), as he must in order to develop the necessary ‘character’ to achieve the film’s final, Pyrrhic victory.

So it is that game-based narratives have their protagonists face off against antagonists (the other Rollerball teams, the other students, and Minnesota Fats, respectively) in the game of their choice, as engaging in the game brings them into contact with the narrative’s true antagonist, as the basis for higher-level interpersonal and societal conflicts beyond the scope of the arena: Rollerball’s Jonathan E. has his Mr. Bartholomew, and so, too, naive school student turned combatant Shuya Nanahara has his Mr. Kitano (his former teacher, now a director of the deathmatch in which Shuya is a participant), and “Fast” Eddie Felson has, as described above, Bert (arguably the most developed of the three, described by Casty as the ultimate combination of “satanic power and human weakness” [p. 8]).

Casty, in his essay The Films of Robert Rossen, aptly points out that, where The Hustler is concerned, “what is important is the way he is playing pool […], the way he is winning and why”. Casty recognises that The Hustler is infinitely more concerned with the state of play regarding the hearts and minds of Americans than anything that ever happened on a pool table. It is, he suggests, not about pool sharks and pool players, gamblers and gambling, but rather depicts “the struggle between the girl and the gambler for the unformed soul and the unshaped energies of the pool-playing young American, skilled but isolated, without purpose, mission or connection.” (p. 8)

Naturally enough, however, the similarities eventually break down, be they artistic or philosophical in nature: Where The Hustler and Battle Royale have a firm grasp on lucidity and complex narrative, Rollerball sacrifices a certain amount of itself to the altar of ambiguity in the name of squeezing in large amounts of surrealist imagery, which hinders the search for certainty in analysis.

The Hustler makes sure to spend its time in the here and now and centers itself closely around the life and times of its protagonist, Eddie, both Rollerball and Battle Royale make a special point of contrasting high-brow art and culture (symbols of normality and the outside world) with the brutality of the killing fields their respective protagonists engage with.

Both, for instance, open with classical compositions playing over relatively innocuous scenery: in the case of Rollerball, Tomaso Albinoni’s “Adagio in G Minor” complements the stark, darkened Rollerball stadium, while Battle Royale contents itself with Giuseppe Verdi’s “Dies Irae,” which plays over violent waves crashing onto a section of coast line. Again, as the narratives progress, both films counterpose compositions in lieu of purpose-built soundtracks with increasingly violent imagery and greater ironic effect: Royale favours Bach, Johann Strauß Sr., Johann Strauß Jr. and Schubert, while Rollerball fancies Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky.

This isn’t the sign of a spectacular auteurist at work: Thomas Fahy (Killer Culture: Classical Music and the Art of Killing in Silence of the Lambs and Se7en) points out that many horror/thriller films “equate classical music with the art of killing” and “[create] a tension between culture and barbarism” (p. 28); both films are making an obvious and much-belaboured point about the connection and contrast between brutality and high culture, and the effect that can be visited on an audience by removing any kind of demarcation between them, similar in concept to what Bruce Sterling in his 1985 preface to William Gibson’s Burning Chrome called the “one-two combination of high-tech and low-life”. (p. 3)

The motivation here is clear: to expose the barbarous lows to which humanity can sink; “savagery becomes an “art” that reflects the violence, hatred, indifference, deceit and depravity endemic to modern capitalist society.” (p. 28) Fahy, again, has his finger on the pulse.

The closest The Hustler can come to approximating this is in the oppositional traits of its main protagonist and his love interest: the well-educated, literate ‘college girl’ with aspirations of becoming a writer, and the burly street-wise hustler, but that is clearly because its aim is different, its target similar (not merely capitalism, as in Rollerball, but the very foundation of the American psyche, the American Dream and the competitiveness it inspires, comes under attack) but still not in line with those of the other films. Casty notes that, “only in one scene, in the open air […] can Eddie verbalise his sense of his skill as more than a tool of conquest […] perhaps such things as fights and pool games can best be employed as negative symbols of imperfect humanity.”

Finally, there is also the matter of the relative success of each film, in its attempt to extend itself on wings of metaphor. Of all three, Rollerball is the one to fail grievously, clutching for dear life its precious artistic ambiguity to the last. As Jonathan E., wounded and exhausted, faces down his corporate masters in the ruins of the blasted arena, the film’s twin salvos, against facets of machismo and corporate culture both, should meet and detonate; instead, it must be said that they fizzle, as Jonathan E., far from making of himself a sacrifice in a doomed world, instead rises up from his grievous injuries, born up by the chanting of the audience, and skates on into an unknown future, solidifying a theory brought up Asbjorn Gronstad in One Dimensional Men: Fight Club and the Poetics of the Body, that “the body of the hero of the quintessential action movie is damaged only to confirm and preserve the dominant, one-sided masculinity inhabiting the psychology of the film’s narrative origin” (p. 12)

In that one moment of reverting to type, all of Jewison’s good work is undone. Nothing has been resolved, obliterating the whole point of summoning up the game’s for use as a narrative technique in the name of (admittedly impressive) effects sequences, which stands in contrast to The Hustler and Battle Royale, which see their games through to the end, summoning them up to deal with both of their parallel plots: respectively, Fast Eddie finally beats Minnesota Fats in a mirror sequence to the film’s opening confrontation, and eclipses Bert in doing so (though at a terrible cost), and Kitano, Shuya’s tormentor and the representative of a whole society, is dispatched in the same classroom where the game began. The conclusions are artful and largely complete (Battle Royale leaves a small opening for a sequel, which was eventually completed), and prove the worth of the narrative trope.


~ by Martin Kingsley on October 5, 2008.

One Response to “Game-Based Narratives”

  1. This image as well as many other of Paul Newman was taken by Leo Fuchs ( and is available for sale at the Helios Gallery. We have modern reprints, limited edition prints and vintage prints of Rock Hudson in some of his best moments on and off the set, in real life and in many films.

    The website is and

    The Helios Gallery

    Paul Newman Modern Prints

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