The Best Movie Critic + review

Video Games and Movies

Justin here with some thoughts about how video games and movies inform each other.

The question of whether video games can be Art is one that has captured my imagination for years. I don't think that video games can rightfully be considered Art. I LOVE video games though, I have an unhealthy obsession with them. I play my PS3 practically every night and would bet that scarcely a day has gone by in the last 20 years that I hadn't spent at least an hour gaming. So first a clarification: while I don't think that video games are Art, I don't think that's an insult or that that de-legitimizes them in any way. I think that video games can have artistic elements and incorporate aspects of different artistic pursuits, but the experience of playing a video game – namely interactivity inherently means that it can't be art. NOW, that's not to say that Art can't be interactive, but there are some fundamental differences there. The point of this post isn't to have that discussion though, because that's a really big one. I wanted to give my position clearly and then move on to a more interesting one, the relationship, broadly speaking, between video games and movies.

Video games have long borrowed from the vocabulary of film and more and more it seems as if the line between the two is being blurred. Video games are in a painful adolescence now trying to “grow up” by providing deeper and more interesting stories with actual characters. Movies by virtue of computer technology have had to become more concerned with impressive graphics and engaging an increasingly distracted and disengaged viewership (3-D anyone?). What concerns me, however, is not only that it's ridiculous for movies to want to be more like video games, but also that video games should strive to be a genre unto themselves and should focus on doing what video games can do that other media can't.

If I were to break up cinematic style video games into three categories, we would have 1. video games that are trying to be movies, 2. video games that use elements from movies, 3. video games that are wholly different from movies.

Personally I really dislike games from the first category, video games that are trying to be movies. The best examples I can think of here are Japanese style RPGs like Final Fantasy and some Japanese “action” games like Metal Gear Solid. This comes from the excessive use of cut scenes – portions of story told with no input from the player, essentially little movies that run in game. In the typical American game, players can expect to see one medium-long cut scene at the beginning of a game and typically smaller ones between levels. Metal Gear Solid 4, the series' most recent entry, contained 9 hours of cut scenes including multiple segments that were over 90 minutes long. That is 90 minute stretches where the player isn't interacting, but is watching a “movie.” The more movie there is in a game, the less it is an interactive experience. The times I tried playing Final Fantasy or Metal Gear, it felt like the brief portions of interactivity served to trigger more segments where I blankly watched another poorly produced Engrish-filled movie. The main failing of this type of game is that the story is told wholly separately from the game play. To paraphrase my favorite video game critic, Ben “Yahtzee Croshaw from his Zero Punctuation series, playing these types of games feels like watching a DVD while taking a break every once in a while to dick around with the remote.

One positive example I'd like to mention though was 2010's Heavy Rain which was billed as “interactive fiction” by publisher Quantic Dream. The game tells the story of 4 people trying to solve a murder mystery before the killer gets his next victim. The story is engaging and well-told. My wife actually sat down and watched me play the game for the lion share of its 10 hour run time. Technology is now at the point where the graphics on the game looked so realistic, that the only times we were pulled forcibly out of the disbelief that we were just watching a movie was when the sometimes awkward controls caused me to bump my characters into things. Overall the writing was good... for a video game... if it were judged by the standards of a movie though, it would have been panned. A French studio handled the voice acting which was presented in American English, so occasionally there was some weird diction, accents, and translations. It kind of felt like watching an Argento movie. The interactivity was handled nicely though, with cut scenes flowing seamlessly in to parts where the player has to take action. In an interestingly self-reflective move, New Line cinemas bought the rights to make a movie version of Heavy Rain.

I'm going to jump straight to the third category now, video games that are totally different from movies, and I'll come back to the second type in a minute – I promise. More and more I have a profound appreciation for video games that don't try to be anything other than what they are. This is where the vast vast majority of the video games of my youth fall. Take for instance every Mario game before Mario 64 (and excluding Super Mario RPG). There was no story, virtually no exposition, and no bullshit. You didn't even realize there was a princess to be rescued until you found out that she was in another castle. These are games that are at their heart about simplicity. The camera angle is fixed and the whole game plays out from one perspective. These are games that people play not to see what happens next, but to overcome the challenge of the game itself where the reward is the action you are doing. This is where the golden age of first person shooters falls in, your Wolfensteins and the original Doom games and some more recent entries like the awesome Painkiller. Most casual games fall under this category too like the Katamari series and basically everything that Pop Cap publishes. The emphasis here is on interactivity.

Surprisingly though this is a category that movies also try to borrow from, the best examples are probably the first person sequences from the Doom movie and from Kick-Ass.

There is one interesting exception I'd like to note here, text-based adventure games like Zork. These are all story and also all interactive. An appropriate connection may be an examination of what games like this borrow from books.

The second category of games is less problematic and is where the majority of games now fall, games that strike a balance between cinematic and interactive elements. There are a lot of positive examples here. Games borrow from movies as short hand to tell their stories more effectively and create a greater sense of immersion. The ideal here for me is to have a tolerable amount of exposition, to have cut scenes used for maximum impact. Quite often when cut scenes are excessive in length and or frequency I'm drawn out of the game and start feeling resentful – after all, I put in a game not a movie. Why would I watch Call of Duty: The Movie when I can watch Rambo?

The first game that really got it right here was Half-Life. All of the action in Half-Life unfolds from the first-person perspective. There are no cut scenes per se... there are scenes with exposition where there's nothing to do but walk around and listen to people, but at no point is the player not in control of the character. I may be wrong, but this is also the first game I can remember playing that had heavily scripted in-game elements. Meaning that when the player rounds a corner they see an action play out for them, like maybe an alien drags a corpse through a vent and then the lights get cut. It feels like being in a movie – but it's also interactive, and at no point does the character loose control or see things from another perspective.

Over time, this has evolved in different ways. One of the more annoying examples is the use of Quick Time Events. The first game I noticed these in was the excellent Resident Evil 4. QTEs involve showing a cut scene and then interrupting it at some point with the player needing to take action less the character gets bitten/knifed/squashed by a boulder/etc. It's cute and I guess it's a way to get people to watch the interminably obnoxious story unfold, but 1. it's not as satisfying as killing zombies and 2. if you get it wrong you have to watch the damned thing again.
Games can incorporate filmic elements well and make their games better. For every good example though like Half-Life, Call of Duty, or Bioshock there are dozens of bad examples and worse – games where cut scenes and heavily scripted action sequences simply aren't necessary. Going back to our friend, Mario, all of his games now start with an extended cut scene about how he has to rescue the princess... is that really necessary? It's been the same song and dance since 1985!

The inverse of these games are the dreaded video game to movie adaptation. Categorically, these are damned to fail for the same reason that games in the first category are damned to fail. A movie about Mario can not capture the experience of playing Mario because you loose the interactivity. It sucks to watch someone else play Mario. And beyond that problem, there's not much of a story. Once you start asking yourself what the motivation could be for a giant fire-breathing turtle to kidnap a human princess, you're asking the wrong questions. Maybe that's an unfair example though...

Videogames are by necessity built around doing one task over and over again so that you master it by the time you save the princess. No one wants to watch a movie where the same things happen again and again!

So here's how it typically works: At Justin Co. Games, I tell my team that I want to play a game where I'm an Indian who has a bow that shoots explosive arrows at zombie dinosaurs and to make it sell better we include a scantily-clad mopey vampire chick who you get to sleep with when you beat the game. As the game progresses you fight tougher and tougher dinosaurs and have to level up your archery skills by shooting hundreds and hundreds of arrows. The game ends up being a big hit and a studio buys the rights to it. They want to turn it into a movie while the game is so hot so it's fast tracked through with a director who thrives on abuse and shitty projects. The movie that comes out doesn't please the people who liked the game because the special effects were sub-par because of the quick schedule and lack of funding, the acting somehow managed to be worse than the voice actors in the original game, and the story was far from substantive and couldn't include the big set pieces from the game due to budgetary issues. The movie is panned critically and the people who didn't play the game who saw it are baffled why anyone would 1. spend so much money putting such a stupid idea on screen and 2. not just make an original movie with a scope the studio could manage. Back at Justin Co. Games, I count my money and laugh at the foolishness of it all. I just thought that an excuse to shoot zombie dinosaurs with exploding arrows would rule, I didn't have a story or anything...

The “best” video game to movie adaptations are from fighting games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. I don't think this is a coincidence, both of those games purport to have stories, but are usually just very confusing – of course the stories don't matter at all when you're beating the crap out of your friends, getting drunk, and trash talking. My favorite martial arts movie, The Master of the Flying Guillotine, is essentially just a slightly more racist version of Street Fighter. Even classics like Enter the Dragon is just a series of fights strung together with a weak plot. Had Game of Death been finished to Master Bruce's specifications, it would have been a live action video game.

Along the same lines, a video game made as a movie adaptation is guaranteed to be awful too (with the exception of course of Goldeneye for N64). Video games take years to develop, in most cases longer than most movies. Right off, it's a race to see if the game developers can slave drive their code monkeys hard enough to get the game out on time for maximum marketing effect. When the game designers find themselves trying to interject an interactive element into something that's a passive experience, you get weird results. Other than the abysmal E.T. for Atari, my favorite example of this is the Total Recall game for NES. Nothing about this game works or really even has anything to do with the movie. You control Arnold of course, but as the game starts you are pulled into an alley by pink midgets who start to beat the crap out of you. It's up to you to punch them in the forehead until they stop getting up. Shortly after that, you find yourself in a hotel room being machine gunned - game over.

Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void is getting a lot of video game comparisons because the majority of the movie happens in first person or with the over-the-shoulder third-person video game perspective. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I'm interested to.

The bigger point I'm trying to make with this though is that I don't understand why there are these convergences between video games and movies. I get that by the virtue that they're both visual mediums that use video that there is bound to be some overlap, but there's a fundamental misunderstanding of what each can do. Isn't it enough for both mediums to exist and push the envelope in their own ways? I say that video games aren't art, but video games have not produced a piece that's as good as The Godfather or Citizen Kane, or whatever your favorite movie is by relative standards. I understand that video games are relatively young, but in that case, we haven't had a video game that has been as significant an achievement as Birth of a Nation. I think the main thing that is holding video games back is that they try too hard to be like a movie. They're trying too hard to be taken seriously by standards that they can't measure up to. On the same note, movies didn't really grow up until they stopped trying to be stage plays on film...

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Video Games and Movies + review