The video game industry as a whole is a more profitable business model than the Hollywood studio system, yet it’s still considered a niche market, and something that is frowned upon by our elder statesmen as a waste of time, a distraction that leads to sloth and violence, and an empty spectacle almost entirely lacking in educational and social benefits. In many ways, video games are viewed in the same way that many viewed film once upon a time, and subsequently television, when both mediums first gained popularity. But film and TV caught on with the masses quickly, and after a short while their artistic and cultural values couldn’t be denied. But the commercialization of platform gaming began in the 1970s, and yet video games still struggle to gain the widespread respect our society openly devotes to film and literature, with many failing to see the transition from 8-bit pixels jumping over bricks to the complex design and storytelling we see in many of today’s top-tier platform games. In honor of Video Game Day, we hope to shorten the cultural gap surrounding video games by taking a look at the medium’s relationship to our favorite media outlet: Film.
Within film criticism, frequent comparisons are made between movies and video games, and usually such comparisons are made in the form of a negative critique. When we discuss empty spectacle, style over story, or excessive, computer generated action scenes, there’s no hesitation in bringing up video games to emphasize upon these negative reflections. And in some cases, these critiques are accurate. There are many terrible video games. In fact, there are probably more bad ones than truly great ones, though the same can be said for books, comics, and yes, even movies. But that sort of criticism isn’t predicated on the fact that the game the film borrows from must be terrible. Rather, it only emphasizes the point that there are movies that feel like video games in a way that feels wrong or inappropriate. I made this very same critical comparison when I talked about American Sniper’s treatment of Iraqis as bodies to be shot at in the same vein as any Call of Duty title. This isn’t a condemnation of the video game franchise itself, but rather an observation meant to highlight the fact that the movie should have different preoccupations than recreational sport, as director Clint Eastwood sets the film up to do.
Or take a look at Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. Its plot is structured very much like a video game, with a linear set of objectives to complete, and boss battles set as plot points along the way. It sets itself up to be like a video game in structure, dialogue, and design, but it fails as a movie because it lacks tension, character complexity, and or any sense of physical connection between its characters and the real and imaginary worlds that they inhabit. As a video game, stretched out to 12 to 15 hours, it likely would have been a successful endeavor, with more time allotted to developing the ideas of feminism Snyder claimed the film was about. Yet the issues with these films, and so many others like them, don’t prevent us from comparing film to video games in a positive light, or recognizing their respective artistic values.
For all the games that rely solely on empty spectacle, head-shots, and thinly drawn, anatomically absurd archetypes, there are those games that do something different. The very best of our video game narratives create complex characters and relationships, deliver complex and interesting themes that could rival any of the very best literary narratives, and showcase worlds and action set pieces that stand with the best of Hollywood’s big-budget blockbusters. Really, we shouldn’t expect them to do any less since many of our modern games draw inspiration from film. The Dead Space trilogy borrows heavily from John Carpenter’s The Thing, Ridley Scott’s Alien, and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Uncharted and Tomb Raider series both take a page from Indiana Jones, and the action-adventure serials upon which it was based. And the Dragon Age games lean heavily on the fantasy lore most clearly established by J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, and the art of Frank Frazetta. Many of these games, even at 12 hours or more, are structured like movies, and incorporate set-pieces and a wide variety of camera angles, like movies. In fact, the very reason for video games utilizing cutscenes is to shorten the divide between the two entertainment mediums. If you think about your favorite game that you’ve ever played, or even your favorite game that you’ve ever watched someone else play, it’s hard to deny that video games are an art form akin to going to the cinema.
In 2010, Roger Ebert quite famously wrote “Video Games Can Never Be Art.” He was one of the most frequent offenders to make the comparison between bad blockbusters and video games in general. His argument for their lack of artistic value was that “no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists, and poets.” Yet my counter to that is how many have really, honestly tried? And how many of those who would agree with Ebert’s assessment have actually played video games on a regular basis? For those willing to look, worthy comparisons are everywhere. The Matrix, still considered one of the greatest science-fiction films within the action genre, borrows heavily from video game mechanics, and even plays around with the rules of basic game design (such as having Neo download new action movies, wardrobe accessories, and weapons directly onto his avatar in the Matrix).
The Wachowskis have made no secret of the influence of platform gaming in their filmmaking, and it would be foolish to deny that their films are art. Edge of Tomorrow director, Doug Liman, has stated that his film directly plays with the notion of video games, specifically in regards to the gaming mechanic of re-spawning. But while such films as those two are influenced by video games, they are not video games themselves, and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say it’s one art form borrowing from another art form, just as film borrows from literature and painting (and a number of my fellow contributors and I have delivered a list of video games that surely pass the test of being art, just to prove the point). And like all art, there is good and bad, high-brow and middle-brow, and low-brow. But let me assure you, if a square canvas of solid color can hang in a modern art museum and be considered art, then surely something that takes years of work and design, regardless of the final product, can and should be considered art, as well.
In order for established game and film criticism to develop, we must recognize the two mediums influences upon one another, an influence that could only exist if both mediums are in fact art forms. There is no fault in drawing comparisons between the two in our respective criticisms of each, but in order to do so and deliver anything of merit, we must be specific in our analogies. To simply state a specific film is like a video game in general is lazy; it fails to give credit to the diversity of inherent to each medium, and the problems and success that can arise when one form borrows from another. Video games and film are constantly evolving in their presentation and intent, and only by being aware of each will we be able to accurately discuss the impact of a relationship between the two that’s only becoming stronger as time goes on.