Although this post is technically a video games post, we’re not really going to see any video games in here. Instead, we’re going to talk about the film Pan’s Labyrinth, by del Toro. I watched it recently for the first time – shortly after I started this blog, actually – and I was kinda halfway through writing a piece on video game narrative at the time. I ended up getting thoughts about Pan’s Labyrinth mixed into this piece on narrative, and then it dawned on me just how much video game narratives pale in comparison to that movie. There is a heck of a long way to go before video games even come near to something like Pan’s Labyrinth. So that’s what we’re going to talk about – we’re gonna have a whirlwind trip through Pan’s Labyrinth and just notice how fantastic it is, and then feel bad about how terrible video games are at telling stories.
Obviously video games and movies are very different, so there’s no point trying to copy what Pan’s Labyrinth does. You can’t really make a fair comparison between movies and video games either – I’m not trying to compare the two so much as I’m trying to highlight how freaking good the stories are in certain movies.
The big thing I really enjoyed about Pan’s Labyrinth were the echoes. Events moved back and forth throughout the movie, foreshadowing and reaching back towards each other. It creates a stitching between past and present and future, weaving them all into each other. This stitching loads even the most innocuous actions with layers of meaning – which is good, because that’s how fairytales work. Traditional fairytales have lived down through the centuries, being retold and reinterpreted and reinvested into our cultural consciousness, and even the most mundane details have accumulated significance through the mere fact of their longevity. The same is true of the details in Pan’s Labyrinth: everything feels important.
Example: Mercedes, a servant, is in the kitchen peeling potatoes. She wipes her knife across the front of her apron – once, twice – and stores it away in a fold. In a later scene, we see it again – once, twice – the same wipe, the same tuck in the fold of the apron. In a climactic scene, she brings the kitchen knife out of hiding and slices open the face of the evil captain (Joker-style).
Okay, alright, so there’s some foreshadowing, big deal. It’s not just important plot details though – in an early scene, the captain stoves in a young man’s face with a bottle. In the next scene, he holds out a cup to Mercedes, asking her to taste the coffee she’s burnt. The same cylindrical shape has just been pretty vividly burnt into the mind of the viewer – you can’t help but read a similar violence into the cup. Even if you’re not thinking about the visual similarities, you can’t help but feel the violence lingering in the air – it’s a memorably gruesome scene.
There’s also the back and forth between the world of Ofelia’s fantasy and the world of the Spanish Civil War. For Ofelia’s first task, she must go to the blasted trunk of an ancient tree, wherein lies an old toad. This toad stops the tree from growing. Ofelia must enter the trunk, find the toad, feed it three stones, and retrieve a golden key from its belly. The golden key echoes back to the real key that locks crucial medicine in the barn, while also symbolising freedom from the fascist Spaniards. This is what Ofelia reads as she’s walking to this first task:
“Once upon a time, when the forest was young, it was home to creatures who were full of magic and wonder. They protected one another, and slept in the shade of a colossal fig tree that grew on a hill near the mill. But now, the tree is dying. Its branches and dry, its trunk old and twisted. A monstrous toad has settled in its roots and won’t let the tree thrive.”
Yup, that’s just straight-up about the fascists in Spain. That whole dialogue is juxtaposed against the fascist captain and his soldiers riding out into the forest to hunt guerillas. There’s a further echo in that Ofelia feeds magic stones to the toad. The motif of eating is woven through the movie: we see the fascists discussing ration cards over a sumptuous feast. You’ll probably know the creature with eyes in its hands (the Pale Man) – that, too, is seated at a sumptuous feast.
We’re told that the Pale Man eats children – in his lair, we see a pile of clothes and shoes, presumably from these digested youngsters. The pile refers to something outside the text: it evokes the mountain of clothes and shoes collected from Jews killed in the gas chambers during the Holocaust.
There’s a bunch of other stuff that we don’t have the time to go into here: there’s commentary on the future of Spain, symbolised by the unborn child, the fascist vision for that future, Ofelia’s goodness (symbolised by her unwillingness to murder the child to further her own goals, thereby modelling the moral for all Spaniards), the construction of gender – masculinity, violence, femininity, resistance, wealth, power, the state – I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface here, and already we’ve got such a rich, complex web – you can start anywhere, tug at a string, and follow it through the rest of the movie, picking out scenes and themes that beckon and respond to each other.
Again, I’m not saying video games ought to all try and copy this, but there’s just so much going on in terms of narrative here, and to be honest, there’s not really any video games that come close to comparing. Food for thought.