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January 17, 2012

The Video Game: The Movie: The Game

So, video games.  I hear they’re pretty cool -- like playing an interactive movie.  But if that’s the case, then should we think of them as movies?

To be fair, there is an increasing number of parallels between games and movies; blame that on all those doohickeys in them newfangled PSBoxes and Wiistations.  And to be fair, the increase in the number of gamers and the following mainstream emergence of a formerly elite hobby makes for an audience with different needs and desires -- and of course, expectations. 
So how well do the two mediums mesh?  Can we think of games as an extension of movies?  Or should the two be kept on opposite sides of a fence?  A fence separated by attack dogs, a moat filled with piranhas, and spike pits straight out of Mega Man’s worst nightmares?

Let’s have a look at our options.

The Case For

If reports are to be believed, God of War III -- as I’ve mentioned before -- cost about 44 million dollars to make -- a sizable sum, considering that there are a number of games this generation that cost ten to twenty million.  In contrast, some movies can break into the triple digits when it comes to both production and marketing (Hello, Avatar, you 280 million-dollar baby).  The end result of these exorbitant prices?  Games and movies with top-notch visuals, almost to the point of obnoxiousness -- and therefore, a real feast for audiences no matter what the medium.
All things considered, video games have been trying to recreate movie magic for years (the most egregious example being a do-it-yourself simulation by the name of The Movies).  Cutscenes go back for ages -- my most memorable experience being a choice few from Gunstar Heroes -- as both a way to advance the plot and to showcase a game’s processing power.  The FMVs of Final Fantasy VII were much touted, for example, making Aerith’s death that much more painful; in the same vein, the Sega CD game Night Trap did its best to tie in live-action sequences…and also proceeded to provide a different sort of pain.

It’s not just graphics and cut scenes that provide a proper parallel, either.  The action is moving closer and closer to the Hollywood template, thanks in part to developers aiming to “streamline the experience” or provide “blockbuster thrills”.  Stuff exploding, breaking apart, or collapsing underfoot, leaving our heroes dangling above a cliff, or pinned down by enemy fire -- with the inspiration stemming from movies, and the technology coming closer to providing digital recreations, it’s only natural for the two to come together.

So it’s safe to say that video games are indeed becoming more movie-like, and to great effect -- at least if Uncharted 3 is any indicator.  And with a game like that as a part of the gaming world’s collective resume, then it follows that other games will try to do the same (they may stumble in the process, but hey, at least they tried).  It could become a group effort -- or alternatively, a pissing contest of unprecedented scale -- to fully capture the cinematic flair that movies have enjoyed for years.  The game, or developer, that consistently delivers may secure their future and reputation for ages to come -- and I’d say that Naughty Dog has a pretty big head start.

Starring Nolan North as Rugged White Protagonist #18.

Beyond that, there may be even higher ramifications.  You know those casual gamers everybody seems to hate?  You know, the ones that have you taking care of ponies, or racing with M&Ms, or fighting with ninja gingerbread men?  This may be wishful thinking, but if they get one look at a cinematic game like Uncharted, then it may serve as their indoctrination into high-class titles.  It could change the way people look at video games -- not just as prostitute-killing simulations, but a serious medium with lots of potential.  It could even change the way we look at video games: seeing the qualities of a game in the same, or at least a similar, light as movies.  Plot, characters, setting, themes -- we might take a more critical look at games, yet have the combined knowledge and expertise to know that gameplay is as critical as any love scene.  Because as well all know, men won’t pay attention to anything without the promise of female body parts dangled in front of our faces like carrots on sticks.

Pants: optional for elite ninjas.

The Case Against

If there’s one thing that I constantly have to remind my brother, it’s that graphics aren’t everything.  There are a lot of other, more important factors at play behind games: gameplay of course, but control, camera work, longevity, presentation, and more (my favorite of these being the “impact”, i.e. how meaty each hit or action feels when performed).  Because of it, we can’t think of games as just interactive movies; too many forces are at play to reduce everything to just how good it looks, even though a fancy-pants graphics engine certainly helps.

Video games -- as others before me have furiously stated -- are active experiences, as opposed to the passive nature of movies.  The most interactivity I’ve gotten from a movie is from Avatar, if only because I saw the 3D version and I subconsciously brushed at the air when I thought an ember was flying in front of my face.  We aren’t in control of anything as viewers (yet), which means whatever moronic mistakes the heroes on-screen perform, we’re destined to watch it unfold like some special level of hell.  Case in point: Jumper.  The teleporting hero, despite knowing all too well that he can and will be tracked down by a secret organization, decides not only to hide away in his hometown, but also get his would-be girlfriend thoroughly involved in his problems.  Why?  Arguably, so she could get kidnapped vis-à-vis the plot.  Granted, plenty of games have probably got the same moronic developments, but at least some of them also have the decency to let you choose your path.  And for better or worse, that ability to choose your path -- even if that choice is limited to the light or dark side of the Force, for example -- is a key component that movies don’t have.
Have you tried not sucking, young Padawan?

Let’s not forget how many options movies take away, either.  You can’t select your character, that’s for sure; if I may use Avatar as my whipping boy a bit longer, then let me lay out an interesting scenario: rather than watching as the hero of the Jarhead tribe, Jake, protects Pandora, how many of you would prefer to see a movie starring Colonel Quaritch -- and actually have him prevail over the Pandoran natives?  But no -- you’ll never get something as tantalizing as that, seeing as how that would absolutely obliterate the entire moral of the movie (though to be fair, there is a tie-in game…that probably sucks).  Your character, your path, your play style, everything is pre-determined in a movie.  Although this same predetermined nature exists in games, it’s much more covert about it: you can only play as Dante or Nero in Devil May Cry 4 and not a player-generated demon slayer, but in exchange you get plenty of combat options, from mix-and-matching weapons with Dante to coordinated attack patterns with Nero.  The choices the player makes not only have an impact, but an impact that resonates with said player.  The name of the game is control, and movies just don’t provide that.

There's still plenty of phallic imagery in both, though.

On top of that, the plot conventions of a movie are radically different from that of a game.  For one thing, when was the last time you saw a movie that lasted for eight hours?  The longest that I know of right off the top of my head is an old version of Pride and Prejudice that my high school English class watched -- and that clocked in at around five.  If I remember correctly, that’s about the same time it takes to finish Mirror’s Edge, which if I also remember correctly was slammed for being that short.  A good length for an action game is twelve to fifteen hours (if that; lately, the norm seems to be six to eight, making a Friday night marathon run a possibility); adventure games, twenty or so.  Role-playing games, meanwhile, get slammed if there’s any less than thirty hours of content.  And that excludes post-game content; if it doesn’t, then based on my experience with Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, it’s perfectly acceptable to have a hundred-thirty hour game.  There’s much more time and much more room for a game plot to stretch its legs, and branch out the development of its story and characters.  The Tales of series is a prime example -- you can decide whether the hero sticks with his obvious future girlfriend, or delves deeper into the pasts and motivations of his teammates until he decides to travel with him (or her!) instead.  To squeeze that into a movie -- or, conversely, expect a game to conform to those standards -- is a surefire way to fail. 

There are even greater problems lurking in the shadows.  Movies have pretty rigid guidelines -- that is, the ones that succeed have certain qualities and trends that appeal to the masses.  The well-defined genres of the silver screen leave only so much to the imagination, meaning that you’d never see, say, a romantic comedy with the eclectic tastes of Michael Bay thrown in for good measure (wouldn’t that be crazy, though?).  If games were to become as easily classifiable as movies, then that would mean that certain genres, by nature of not appealing to homogenized tastes, would be in trouble.  Genres that rely heavily on gameplay, or are otherwise in their own special niche -- fighting games, strategy games, Japanese role-playing games, especially -- could get jeopardized by nature of not appealing to Hollywood-honed sensibilities.  Some games just aren’t meant to be thought of as movies, either; how much of the meaning or impact of games like Portal or Katamari Damacy would hold if re-made as movies?  Or for that matter, re-designed to be in the style of movies?  It’s already started, to some extent: realistic, cinematic games are on the rise, while unique titles that don’t fit the format either become niche items or out-of-print failures destined for the bargain bin.  And if I may throw some salt into the wound, need I remind everyone of what happens when Street Fighter tries to become more movie-like?  You get the worst of both worlds: characters who are nothing like their video game counterparts, but barely even quantifiable as movie clichés.  To paraphrase Chris Klein’s portrayal of Charlie Nash, if video games get too movie-like, then they’ll just inherit a big problem.  UGH, just saying that line makes me want to claw my esophagus out.

Monster thighs = quality.  Remember that equation; it could save your life.

The Climax:

We can all agree that movies and games, for the most part, do what they do quite well.  Call it specialization of powers; they succeed at certain productions, but may be lacking in another area by virtue of the medium’s characteristics.  Sure, the gap may be closing, and sure, there are some similarities, but they need to remain separate -- and be judged on their own merits, not how well they conform to another medium’s standards. 

Choice.  Control.  Freedom.  Interactivity.  That’s what video games offer, just as they have since the decades where a game’s memory was less than the amount of bytes used to make this document.  Though we can all appreciate the influence movies have had, and will continue to have -- and likewise, inspire new plots and developments for our future heroes -- there’s a reason that they’re divided.  So for the time being, I propose we keep it that way.  

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