Comedy with Consequences
Web-based action sitcom Red vs Blue is one of the many media texts known as "machinima," a type of "virtual filmmaking" that often utilises and repurposes video games to create new cinematic texts.1 Filmed primarily via the first-person-shooter (FPS) game Halo, though also blended with occasional motion-capture animation, the majority of the Red vs Blue characters are in full armour, including helmets, with limited ability to gesture or otherwise move. This hinders the visual expressiveness of the characters, or what would be considered non-verbal performance in a live-action series. While skilled voice-acting and the accumulated depth of narrative history is part of building a relationship with the audience,2 here I shall use the shot in which the character Agent "Wash" Washington is injured to demonstrate how elements drawn from other media forms (like TV) can impact an emotive scene when performance elements such as expression and body language are unavailable.
One of the main tools Red vs Blue uses to impact emotive scenes is the intertext. These are references made to texts outside a given narrative universe, for example an in-joke or winking reference to another TV show. Intertexts are one of the major elements of meaning-making;3 for example, the fact that Washington has always been called "Wash" evokes a similar and similarly-named character from Firefly (and its sequel film, Serenity),4 Hoban "Wash" Washburne.5 Both characters are initially considered by their peers less able to handle or engage in combat, though both grow able to do so over time. They both also have a similarly odd and irreverent sense of humour.
In season 15 of Red vs Blue, in which the above shot occurs, there were four intertextual references to the Firefly series and film.6 The third intertext of season 15 was the above scene, where Wash, delirious from having been tortured, wanders out from cover and is cut down mid-sentence. Firefly's Wash also underwent suffering that was treated comedically and was killed mid-sentence in Serenity. Thus, for those viewers who were familiar with both series, the rapid, unexpected influx of these intertexts could act to create tension as it foreshadows the above scene.
The suddenness of the shooting likewise contributes to its emotional force. The use of slow-motion and the corresponding audio drop-out adds to the portent of the event. This gives a grace to the character's fall out of frame (and, in the next episode, his fall to the ground) rather than the usual look of death or injury shown in the series. The blood used throughout season 15 is also different to that of earlier seasons. Rather than the usual pixelated spray at normal speed or a pool of blood under a character's body from a death or injury, in this season it was filmed as live-action blood which was then composited in to create a more realistic look.7 The blood in the above shot is an arterial spray from the character's neck, an obviously vital area, which reinforces this realism along with the use of the composited blood connecting the injury to an earlier death in season 15.
Given that Red vs Blue is filmed primarily via Halo, it is important to remember that the object of Halo is to kill as many enemies as possible while playing "capture the flag." Although the shot that fells Wash comes from the side, the camera is pointed directly at him, much as it would be in gameplay. He addresses a character directly in front of him as he turns toward camera, which means he is looking at the audience through the screen when he is shot. This in turn puts the audience in the role of the shooter, at least for those who play FPS games (in which case Halo can be interpreted as either paratext or intertext)8 even though the audience would presumably not want the character to be harmed. The series also blends action and comedy, often using one to subvert the other; by structuring the shot this way, Red vs Blue also subverts the pleasure of gameplay, arguably reinforcing the reading of the series as being anti-war.9 In this case, it is subverting FPS games as well. Guilt-driven revenge is a main theme of season 15, so this can be argued as a method by which empathy is increased for the other characters who express diegetic feelings of responsibility for Wash's injury.
The impact of this shot is, however, potentially altered based upon the format in which one first sees it. Red vs Blue is first released as short episodes online creating a serial, but after the series has aired fully each one is released on DVD as a single film. For those watching for the first time on the DVD, the fact that Wash is injured but not dead and being taken for medical attention is apparent within two minutes of screen time. The fact that he is alive and being treated for his wounds is known by the viewers within 40 minutes. For those watching each episode as it was released, however, this was the final shot of season 15, episode 17; it can therefore be interpreted as having been significant simply because of its positioning in the episode. There was then a week of waiting before Wash completed his fall to the ground (the first shot of season 15, episode 18) during which tension over the character's fate would presumably have built. Though he is taken for medical treatment in the beginning of the following episode, it is not until the final episode of the season (episode 21, or three weeks later on the release schedule) that the audience learns that Wash is still alive. A final reference to Firefly (a character refusing to say the line that immediately preceded that series' Wash's death) that occurs subsequent to Wash's injury can also either reinforce the character's jeopardy and/or potentially be a mis-lead to create more concern by the audience. Regardless, this does show how intertexts can keep a character (and attendant emotional engagement) "present" within the narrative even when they are off-screen for a significant period of time.
This shot is a good example of how various textual, paratextual and intertextual elements are utilised to create and sustain tension when non-verbal performance elements are limited or unavailable. It also illustrates how important timing and format can be, as the tension over Wash's fate varies widely. That season 15 is the first of a trilogy also implies that such a pivotal moment will be revisited, thus encouraging rewatching.10 Finally, this shot illustrates how close comedy and tragedy are, with consequences being the key difference between the two.