(I’m) Not a Gamer VI: Cinematic games and game mechanic movies.
While we were watching Sherlock, a curious thing happened between me and my girlfriend. Usually, she’s of the opinion that the universe is a wonder to behold and something very important that we all should have some basic knowledge of, whereas I’m of the belief that it’s very pretty in the sky at night, but that doesn’t mean it matters to college applications or paying the rent. That’s where we usually stand. And in the third episode of Sherlock, there’s a moment where John Watson is marveling at Sherlock’s utter ignorance of the solar system. “Oh hell, what does that matter! So we go ’round the sun! If we went ’round the moon or ’round and round the garden, like a teddy bear’–it wouldn’t make any difference!” Sherlock says in his own defense. And for my girlfriend, this was a big perspective shift moment, and she got to enjoy the point of view of someone who didn’t know that the Earth circled the Sun. But for me, I was sitting back, enjoying Watson’s side of the argument. It’s innate, almost childishly simple stuff–not knowing it is a matter of willful ignorance, not pride.
I mention that entire anecdote because right now, I’m about to jump a fence that I’ve been on the other side of for years. See, it’s coming down the pike right now as the next big thing to say that “video games aren’t movies”. People are–for some reason–just now discovering that trying to make video games resemble movies only ever makes them resemble piles of excrement or collections of cutscenes with interactive chapter skipping. People are just now getting on the boat that comparing the two might be harmful to both. Fun fact: I was in that boat. For a long time. Sailing alone. Upstream. Without a paddle. In water filled with duck poop. It’s slow going, and tough slogging, and frankly, I’ve had enough of it. So I’m here today to say, with certainty and finality, that video games are movies. And movies are video games. They deserve to be compared, and here’s why.
Video games, for the last ten years, have been trying to be something they’re not: movies. Bigass, fully realistic, acted by people, movies. They want their characters to be facsimiles of humans and actors. Hell, just look at Rockstar’s new game, LA Noire. The first trailer I saw for that game spent its four minute runtime boasting about its new levels of realism in graphics technology. Basically, this game was as close as anyone has ever got to putting real live human beings in a narrative. The story is conveyed entirely through cutscenes, leaving the gameplay to follow its own path (if previous games from the same developer are any indication), which means the cutscenes are really their own movie to themselves.
Metal Gear Solid 4 has–and the gamers among you reading this are already laughing at the title, aren’t you–has cutscenes in excess of 90 minutes in length. A particular cutscene in Metal Gear Solid 4 is longer than Primer–a four star piece of film entertainment. So how are games not movies these days? Even in games that are more focused on gameplay, we have machinima efforts from fans–an asspull, to be sure, but still using the mechanics of a game to convey a narrative. It’s a unique and inventive form of fanfiction that’s come up in the last ten years, but wouldn’t the real video game fanfic be the engine mod? Taking the source code of a game and telling a new story with it?
But hey–this post isn’t all ragging on video games for not being movies. There are some high quality filmmakers in Hollywood right now who are cheapening their films the same way that developers around the world are cheapening their games! There are movies that run the gamut of quality from four stars to no stars and have the audience they were developed for in common. You can tell these movies quickly from the fact that all comprehension of the story hinges upon your ability to grasp the narrative mechanic. Cos the narratives in these movies are mechanical. Oh, you want an example? I have two: one of the best movies of 2010 and one of the absolute worst I’ve seen in my life. Inception and Sucker Punch.
What do these movies have in common beside the obvious, you ask? Here, I won’t even mention the obvious. I’ll give you all the behind the scenes stuff instead. Writing based around level design! You make distinct chapters in the movie with distinct mini-accomplishments in each chapter that you progress through in a linear fashion, leading up to a final challenge that unifies the elements of the preceding film. Mook mook mook mook boss. There are even distinct victory conditions in each. But that’s not the most insidious thing these movies have in common. No, that would be the fact that both of these movies are crafted from the ground up to appeal to 18 to 35 year old men–the demographic that studios think so highly of that they expect you to like everything you see just cos it’s not staring at a brick wall. Both movies are made to carefully tread around the young-man-forward way of thinking of the audience. Inception is a movie of a single complex character, men with guns and women without personalities. And for all its girl power posturing, Sucker Punch won’t let a girl get away with being independent without being raped, being under the threat of sexual assault or dying. Just like in games, the girls gotta be sexually exploited placeholders.
So while all of you out there may just be realizing now that video games shouldn’t be movies and that they shouldn’t be compared, I hate to tell you this, but you’re totally behind the curve on this. Video games and movies have been converging for the last ten years to the point now that I can’t honestly tell you how to tell their stories apart. That’s a lie–a four star work in any medium makes its medium part of its message. It’s the three star game and the three star movie I’m worried about. But hey, we already lost them anyway, so who cares?