“Adam” is part tech demo, part hypnotizing and inscrutable science fiction intrigue. It’s honestly a better tech demo than a story, showing off an achievable visual fidelity that will soon close a major gap between AAA and Indie game production values. The practical value of the short is in the potential for an industry transforming technology, but there’s an tactful use of suspense in the cinematic that builds an enticing universe.
Before I get into how “Adam’s” suspense generated and related to a French philosopher, watch the short. It’s more like a scene than a conventional short film, but my critique is based on the desire for more. In other words, it’s fuckin’ cool and I wanted to see more.
Anyway, I promised you insights from a French philosopher, so here we go.
“Adam’s” engagement can be attributed to how the narrative teases and divulges information (French philosopher incoming). Roland Barthe, literary theorist, philosopher, and all around smarter-person-than-everyone best describes this suspense in 2 of 5 codes that he asserts define and create networks of meaning in narrative. I graduated in 2013 so forgive me if I’m totally botching this.
Barthes argued that the 5 codes are inherent to the very structure of meaning in any narrative. For Barthes, this wasn’t simply an interpretation, but empirical fact. Only the first 2 are of interest to me in “Adam.” These two codes are ways to generate suspense in a narrative, an important element in that it generates a desire in the reader to stick with the author. Working on a short story or film, but feel like it’s dragging on? Create more suspense (but make sure it pays off or the audience will make fun of you on Twitter).
How To Create Story Suspense: The Hermeneutic & Proairetic Codes
- The heremeneutic code (HER.) is concerned with with unexplained narrative moments, or “engimas” that raise questions and makes the audience demand further explanation. Warning: the use of HER. can come with pitfalls if your loose ends are not cleared up, explained too early, or not explicated to a satisfactory degree. An audience doesn’t need all the answers, but don’t give them enough and there they go roastin’ you on Twitter.
- The proairetic code (ACT.) is concerned with the anticipation of an action’s resolution, e.g., when Arya in GoT draws her sword on another character or the question of how a Stark will react when their family member is killed before their eyes. ACT. is suspense that revolves an resolving action, not a desire to resolve a mystery.
“Adam” uses both these codes to great effect. While Unity does “fail” in the HER. category (as too many answers are suspended), I’m inclined to say the team succeeded in that ‘m still engaged with the narrative asking questions.
But let’s look at few examples of HER. and ACT. in “Adam.”
HER. and ACT. in Unity’s “Adam”
- 0:01: Who are these two stilted silhouettes at the start of the film. Later: they are suggested to be some sort of robot emancipators. Why?
- 0:20: What’s with Adam’s existential crisis? Is this his first time being alive? Or was he once human?
- 2:21: Why are some of the robots confused and surprised while others look seasoned?
- 3:22: Why is there a felony code on the robot’s chest display?
- 3:45: Why the hell is there diegetic classical music coming from the shaman robots?
- 4:21: What’s with the shaman robots’ fashion choices? Are they from a robot tribe? Why do robot’s need thick clothes? Can they feel?
- 4:37: Does a black display screen mean the robots are free now?
- 5:10: Why was Adam imprisoned in the first place?
- 1:28: What will happen if Adam succeeds in ripping his face off?
- 1:50: What will Adam find outside the door that just opened?
- 2:43: Why did the human fire warning shots?
- 2:52: Why did one of the wardens call a cease fire on the man murdering robots?
- 3:10: Why are all these armed men, raising their weapons and fortifying at the sight of two shaman robots?
- 4:08: What’s going to happen when the Shaman robot plants his staff in the ground and raises his hand?
You get the idea. What’s really interesting about these codes is they are completely intertwined with time. The effect is at it’s most powerful if you’re watching in chronological order. So yes, spoilers undercut the affective power of a story. Barthes likened HER. and ACT. to music, having the same “the same tonal determination that melody and harmony have in classical music (30).”
A traditional, “readerly” text tends to be especially “dependent on [these] two sequential codes: the revelation of truth and the coordination of the actions represented: there is the same constraint in the gradual order of melody and in the equally gradual order of the narrative sequence” (30).
In other words, just like melody and harmony must be heard progress in proper chronological order to produce their full effect, so must the suspenses and enigmas of a narrative.
Use HER. and ACT.
While this isn’t necessarily a “how to” guide implementing HER. and ACT. in one’s own narrative work, I would argue that it’s helpful to be aware of these two techniques. The devices can be invaluable tactics for controlling the pacing and pleasure of your story. Suspense is tension and tension produces dramatic energy, maybe the most vital component of a compelling story.