The Annihilation Game

Annihilation is a film that watches like a video game.

So, I have finally seen the film Annihilation, which only came out last year but has been so widely discussed by so many people whose opinions I value that I felt like I was years behind on a cultural phenomenon. Which is interesting because the movie flopped at the box office, while being critically well-regarded.

So there's a good chance that many of you reading this haven't seen it, either, and might not have felt the same hype about it that I did. It's just another example of how relative things are to one's frame of reference. In some of my circles, this movie was a big deal. 

I have a lot of thoughts about it, and I'm going to be talking about them in this entry, so please consider this your spoiler warning if you want to seek the movie out and watch it. I'll post a non-spoilery meme tweet below this paragraph to push any discussion of the film's content further down.

Yes, I was making jokes about a movie I hadn't seen yet. That's how heavily it was being discussed in the sf/f waters I swim in.

So, I have a lot of thoughts about this movie and I don't really want to write a newsletter about things like the themes or the ending or the meaning of it all, because while I do have my take on those things, I don't feel like an authoritative "That's what Annihilation is all about, Charlie Brown" piece really works. That's something that is better done as a discussion.

What I would like to talk about here is mainly the film's storytelling. I had a thought that popped into my head early in the viewing and it kept coming back as I found more support for it. That thought is: this is video game storytelling. This is the kind of storytelling that video games use.

This is the kind of observation that makes me glad I have a newsletter because if I tried to develop this idea in a Twitter thread, I'd get people replying to tweets in isolation to say "movies do this, too" or "you think video games invented these techniques?" when of course what I'm saying is more nuanced than that. Mostly the Sith deal predominantly but not exclusively in absolutes.

First, if you've seen the film, imagine how it might work, adapted to a video game. It would basically be a hybrid first-person shooter and "walking simulator", a term I'm cautious about using because Gamergators used it to diminish video games they don't like as not really video games but which I have noticed has been proudly adopted by people who make and enjoy such games. It generally refers to a game where the goal is to piece together a story through exploration, in a way that's not overly gamified. 

For instance, Myst is not a walking simulator because even though you're uncovering a story through exploration, the environment is represented by a relatively small number of locations you can travel instantaneously between, and the way forward is gated by puzzles. This makes it a puzzle game.

But if the island were instead replicated as a lush, 3D scale model with the different locations scattered between them and the puzzles were not minigames but things like an occasional gate to be unlocked or an item that would let you proceed down a previously blocked path, that would be a walking simulator.

Walking simulators frequently make heavy use of environmental storytelling — again, this is not unique to them — which is when set dressing and set design are used to tell you about the world and what happened before you got there. It's not really one thing but an entire approach to how you build the world and how you tell the story. If you find an abandoned house, whether everything is put away neatly or there's stuff like tables set for dinner and toys out can help tell a different story. If a stove is on and the pot on it hasn't boiled over, that's more environmental storytelling. 

Bethesda's action RPGs use environmental storytelling in set pieces scattered throughout environments that are mostly varying remixes of the same design assets in order to give texture to the world. Environmental storytelling is frequently mixed with more direct forms of storytelling, like finding diary entries or notes or warning signs or video logs left along the way. Sometimes the two are used together to give you a full story and it's possible to only stumble upon half of it, like a cryptic tableau in the woods involving two skeletons lying side by side and a letter elsewhere that explains how you got there.

TVTropes notes one especially common variation on this as the Apocalyptic Log: a record of a recent or long-past disaster made by people going through it. This is really common in video games because it allows the game to tell you a story your character would not otherwise be privy to, fill in the blanks about how things got to the point they are, and add more characters to the story of a lone explorer.

So, the movie Annihilation follows an expedition of soldierly scientists going into an ever-expanding alien environment that is slowly enveloping the countryside (and eventually, unless something changes, the whole planet). The whole thing has a strong aura of fatalism around it, as no previous expedition has ever returned and it feels like the classified project ostensibly studying the phenomenon is just marking time. 

There is a prologue that explains (some of) why the viewpoint character is there: her husband disappeared on a classified mission and then came back a year later, months after she had given him up for dead. He seems confused and distant, and then begins to suffer organ failure. The military intercepts the ambulance on the way to the hospital and takes them both into custody.

As a cellular biologist with military training, the woman inserts herself into the next expedition, an act the commander of which doesn't seem to feel strongly in either direction. 

Once they pass through the shimmering energy field, the movie cuts to a flashback for the viewpoint character and then her waking up in her tent, at a campsite inside the Shimmer.

At this point, it feels like a simple time jump common in movie storytelling. I had questions, though. The movie had established that ilterally no one and nothing that went through the field had come out. If it were completely opaque, I think they would have been wondering if it wasn't something like a disintegration field or a one-way teleporter to somewhere far away, but when they entered, the explorers were still visible on the other side for several feet. So what happened to the people who weren't dispatched to find the center of the zone but were simply told to step in and step out? Obviously they would have tried having people go in a few feet or for a few minutes (or seconds) before sending people deeper in. I was curious if that would be addressed, or just skipped over.

But then we learn that what we saw was what the character experienced: she walked into the Shimmer and then she woke up a few days later, her squad apparently having spent multiple days walking deeper in, and eating their rations and making camp but on autopilot.

It's never belabored, but we can infer why no one stepped in and stepped out: that close to the edge, there is at least a disorienting effect and possibly an overriding imperative to walk deeper in.

Once they're inside, they proceed with their mission: to make their way to the lighthouse that was ground zero for the effect and learn what they an about the cause and nature of the anomaly.

As I said, there's an air of fatalism about the whole thing. What's the point of learning more about it if they can' communicate what they learned?

From this point, the movie divides pretty cleanly into chapters based on when and where the team camps for the night. Each time they camp, they learn more about the environment and also about the people who passed that way before them, the last team. When they camp at an old military base that was the project headquarters when the zone as much smaller, they find a video recording left by the woman's husband's team (Apocalyptic Log!) and physical remains of a team member that expand on that (environmental storytelling!) 

All along the way, the hauntingly beautiful landscape is giving its own clues, some of which are explicitly examined and remarked upon by the characters.

Each time they camp, we are given another dream flashback for the main character... cut-scenes that fill in what the prologue did not tell us. And each time they camp, there is a monster attack. And aside from one instance early on that sort of establishes the danger, there are only monster attacks when they camp. They don't happen when the party is moving openly through the wilderness.

Now, it's easy to come up with reasons why a predatory creature would attack only at night, and also why they might be more vulnerable when staying in one place, but they were not attacked on their way in, during the trance. The thing that struck me about the three monster attacks in the movie — one while they were examining an abandoned boathouse, one while they were in the military base, and one while they were in an abandoned house — is that in-universe, they all happened in proximity to artificial structures. 

A monstrous crocodile attacked while they were looking for boats to traverse the swampy wetlands, but nothing bothered them once they were in the water. A hideously mutated bear attacked the military base and also the house (and without going into details, it was definitely the same bear).

I have in-story theories for why this is. If you assume there is a life or intelligence of sorts — even if not in the sense we know it — directing the Shimmer, it may associate houses and buildings with people and so search them regularly. It may regard them as irritants, as it cannot assimilate them, and so periodically "scratch at them". There's a theory in the movie that part of the consciousness of people killed by the creatures may be left behind inside them, so the dangerous animals may be drawn to people and signs of people because something within them remembers humanity, in much the same way that a predator that is fed by people will lose its sense of caution around them, possibly leading to attacks.

I mean, it's actually not unusual at all for a bear to wander into an abandoned house looking for food. It's only the juxtaposition of this with how serenely safe the mutated world is outside the context of constructed structures that makes it notable.

So we have three attacks, and basically each stage of the journey in between those attacks is different. Each attack could easily mark a different chapter in a video game, and we learn new things about the characters, the main character's past, and the world they're exploring in each chapter.

"But you could say that about a lot of movies! It's just how stories work! You find out more things as you go!"

Sure. But watch Annihilation and tell me if it's not starker there.

And then at the end, we come to the lighthouse.

The area around it is the most otherworldly yet, having been exposed to the energy of the Shimmer for longer. Inside, we get another Apocalyptic Log which changes everything. And it isn't just that, it's also a tutorial of sorts for an item that is found not far from the video camera. And then a descent into a wholly alien environment, a few more revelations, a transformation sequence, and... a boss fight.

And not just a boss fight, a puzzle boss fight. A fight the protagonist can't win without recognizing the boss's pattern, understanding the boss's nature, and then using the very item that is found there and watched a video showing her how to use. And when the boss is defeated... well, turns out it was a load-bearing boss, because the entire thing comes down. Goodbye, Shimmer.

Don't get me wrong... the ending is deeply symbolic, rife with psychological and philosophical themes, enigmatic and yet satisfying. I have half a poem written inspired by it, and I'm going to be thinking about it for years.

But it's also some straight-up Legend of Zelda stuff. Everyone knows you beat the boss by figuring out its pattern and using the item you find in the level. 

If you are one of those people who thinks that the point of media criticism is to divide the world into Bad Things You Aren't Supposed To Like and Good Things Everyone Should Like, you might be thinking I'm taking the movie apart by pointing these things out. Or you might think this is a weird way to talk about a movie I like. 

I don't approach criticism that way. My review of this movie is that it might be the kind of thing you like, if you like this kind of thing. This isn't faint praise or a backhanded compliment for me... it's true or everything. I loved it. You might not. 

So none of the above observations are meant to be a negative. It's something I find interesting. Was any of it deliberate? Was the director or anyone else involved in production influenced by the structure of video games they had played? Even if it's pure coincidence, we're going to see more and more people making movies who came up with appreciation of video games as a narrative artform.

I'm curious to see where things go.

Thank you for reading!

Please share and subscribe!