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Are Video Games ‘Cinema 2.0’? – |

2007 was a bad year for film. The final credits rolled on two old-school masters, Bergman and Antonioni, and the best Hollywood had to offer was a tired litany of disappointing threequels: Ocean’s Thirteen; Shrek the Third; Spiderman 3; Rush Hour 3; Pirates of the Caribbean 3. It was also the year that a video game, Halo III (Bungie/Microsoft), made over $170m on its launch day, setting a record for the highest gross of an entertainment product within the first 24 hours of release.

Needless to say, the days of spotty teenagers playing Jet Set Willy on the Spectrum 48K, or bearded misanthropes losing their lives to alternate fantasy realities, are over. Games are big business, a business which is balanced, just like the film industry, on that weird and unpredictable fusion of technology and creativity.

Here we consider some of the areas where these two industries rub shoulders and overlap, to cast an eye across the boundaries that, over the last decade or so, have become somewhat blurred, and see what bearing, if any, this might have for the future of the movie business. Should the moguls and moneymen be worried? Is it game over? The title of this article may seem an alarmist or unnecessarily controversial question but then again, nobody knows anything, right?

Someone who does know a thing or two about video games is award-winning games writer Andrew Walsh (Prince of Persia, Ubisoft), and he’s certain the two industries can exist in harmony. “It’s a changing market and people want different things from each medium,” he says. “So there will be points where there’s conflict and points where they support each other, but I don’t think games will kill film. Most gamers love films as well.”

Still, in the race to dominate consumers’ limited quota of free time, it seems inevitable that there will be winners and losers among the various pillars of entertainment vying for our attention. Certainly, in terms of the finances, the so-called Triple A titles have been dominating the headlines of late, a sure indicator that the video games industry has its cross hairs fixed firmly on the finishing line.

One game in particular, the highly anticipated first-person shooter Call Of Duty: Black Ops (Treyarch/Activision), was labelled the biggest entertainment release of all time in 2010. It made more than $650m in the first five days of release, slamming records set by its predecessor, Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (Infinity Ward/Activision), which itself is now closing in on $2bn. Robert Kotick, the CEO of Activision Blizzard, is clear as to where this points. “Call of Duty,” he said, “has become the first entertainment property in history to set five-day launch records for two consecutive years across all forms of entertainment. The title’s success illustrates the mass appeal of interactive entertainment, as millions of consumers are choosing to play the game at unprecedented levels rather than engage in other forms of media.”


With all this money floating around, it’s unsurprising that the video games industry attracts the great and the good of Hollywood. The names of Andy Serkis and Alex Garland, for example, were recently exploited rather effectively in the promotion of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (Ninja Theory/Namco Bandai). But big-named actors voicing characters is nothing new; developers Rockstar Games have been using them for their GTA franchise for over a decade. Indeed, the voice cast of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (Ray Liotta, Tom Sizemore, Dennis Hopper, Burt Reynolds, Lee Majors, Deborah Harry…) looks like something out of a Tarantino wet dream!

The notion that Hollywood has somehow ‘discovered’ video games and can now quietly gobble them up is a false one.

Andrew Emery, creative director at Side, the production company responsible for casting and recording another impressive ensemble of actors (including Sir Ben Kingsley, John Cleese, Simon Pegg, Stephen Fry and Naomi Harris) for Fable III (Lionhead/Microsoft), puts this increased interest down to the industry simply growing up over the last few years. “Stories and characters,” he says, “have become more layered, interesting and appealing, so when you’re sending the information and the script over, it helps a profile actor feel that they will be able to deliver the kind of performance they want to.”

The notion that Hollywood has somehow ‘discovered’ video games and can now quietly gobble them up is a false one. Bar certain niche titles such as Clive Barker’s Jericho (MercurySteam/Codemasters), games are seldom sold or marketed through their association with any particular talent. “It’s an additional tool,” continues Emery, “but I don’t think people buy the game because of that. The story, characters and performances are only a part of the game, whereas you could say they’re the whole when it comes to a movie.”

As far as celebrity voice talent is concerned, games writer Tom Jubert (Penumbra series, Frictional Games) takes a slightly more cynical point of view. “Nine times out of ten, if you get a big-named thespian doing some voiceovers, then it’s probably lining their pockets pretty well,” he says. “There are a lot of voice directors who don’t use celebrity actors so much. You don’t put an actor’s name on the front of the game box. A lot of people wouldn’t even recognise the voice, so the actual value of getting a celebrity actor as opposed to an experienced video game voice actor is questionable.”

Despite this, Emery is confident that the industry is maturing in the way it deals with actors from the film or television sector. “If an actor comes in and there are 15 people gawping at them, none of whom know how to communicate in the shared language of an actor or director, then immediately they’re going to feel concerned about the project. It’s not agents and actors being awkward, it’s down to how that session may have been set up. They need reassurance and the industry has had to learn quickly how to set up those kinds of sessions.

“But,” he warns, “games are not trying to mimic the movie industry. We can stand on our own two feet. There are plenty of examples of movie tie-ins with games that have been very unsuccessful through to the ‘next new hot director that’s going to develop this fantastic game’ and it just seems to always fall apart. The point is that story and character is an area of improvement in games, and therefore it’s an obvious crossover with the film industry.”

There’s little doubt that games companies can stand on their own two feet. Increasingly, for example, Rockstar is favouring unknowns for its voice cast (evident in their award-winning Red Dead Redemption title) and companies like Valve have even embarked on their own cinematic journey with the amusing Team Fortress 2 movies, published online. Moreover, Valve have declared that if ever a film was to be made of their Half-Life series, they would want to be very much involved in the process.

Naturally, A-listers everywhere are chomping at the bit to be involved in some way. Actor Mark Wahlberg, for instance, recently turned down the lead in the reboot of The Crow in favour of the movie based on the popular PS3 franchise, Uncharted (Naughty Dog/Sony). Traditionally, of course, games based on films and films based on games are almost universally panned. From the millions of unsold Atari 2600 ET games dumped in the Nevada desert back in the ’80s, to the online petition with currently over 350,000 signatures requesting director Uwe Boll (responsible for more than his fair share of underachieving video game adaptations) to stop making films entirely, the two often make uncomfortable bed partners.

“When you’re talking about video game adaptations,” says Jubert, “they’ve kind of missed the point. What makes a video game unique is that they’re interactive. A game can understand a player in a way that a film cannot; it can shape its narrative or game environment around them.”

The key issue here can be summed up in one word: gameplay. Games don’t start with stories or ideas, they start with the mechanics of gameplay. At the inaugural 2010 London Screenwriters’ Festival, games writer Rhianna Pratchett, one of the panelists on a Writing For Games seminar, jokingly described herself as a “narrative paramedic” while Tom Jubert’s own blog is ironically entitled Plot is Gameplay’s Bitch.

“The problem when you go as a writer into a development studio,” says Jubert, “is that the programmers or the artists see it as a bit of threat to what they’re doing. The last thing anybody wants is to have a writer turn up and say, ‘Okay, we’re changing the game in the following ways,’ and have them taking over. Which is always a fear. Whereas with film, even the biggest blockbuster begins with a script and a writer, and things grow from there. The idea behind the blog title is that we should never forget in games that while we are crafting interactive narratives, interaction and gameplay is the core of the experience.”

That being said, it would be foolish for film world pundits to breath a sigh of relief and presume that game narratives will always lack the subtlety and depth of that of a good film. “More and more people are starting with an idea of what gameplay they want,” continues Jubert, “and then immediately getting a writer in. And that is having a big effect on where the game goes from there.”

Jubert believes that bringing in outside screenwriters can be a positive experience, so long as one understands the differences between the two storytelling mediums: “The games that don’t have story or plot at all still revolve centrally around drama, just like any film does, but the drama is produced from intelligently designed gameplay mechanics which generate drama on the fly, as opposed to someone in an office sitting there designing it. But if a game does have writing and script, then it should be done to a high degree of polish and the fact that writers from other industries are being brought in is certainly indicative of that.”

RiddickOne area where games and films can be harmonious might well be connected to the de rigueur movie buzz phrase transmedia storytelling: looking at ways in which the ‘universe’ of the story can be enriched or expanded upon across various media, usually with financial gains in mind.

Andrew Walsh cites Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (Starbreeze Studios/Vivendi Games) as a good example of where the two industries have worked together to enhance the universe. “They took a sentence from Pitch Black about Riddick having escaped from a prison and made the game about that instead. It came out to support the world at the same time as the Chronicles of Riddick film, and it actually ended up selling better.”

Total mainstream acceptance of video games is, however, a long way off. Highlighting the way in which game mechanics are designed to keep the player addicted, a recent BBC Panorama investigation had the same whiff of scaremongering that accompanied the furore around James Vicary’s subliminal experiments on moviegoers in the late ’50s. For the two industries to form proper, long-lasting bonds, those blinkered views and preconceptions about the world of gaming will have to change.

“If you walked into your local cinema and you’d never seen a film before,” says Jubert, “you’d come to believe that film was about giant robots that turn into cars and super spies who run around stealthily killing 200 people in 90 minutes. The truth is that just like in cinema, there’s a huge world of independent gaming where people are actually trying to push the boundaries and do really interesting, artistic stuff. Any time a game is released and it’s successful and doesn’t involve ninja bitches with tits the size of this room, it’s a fantastic thing!”

The success of the narrative-driven game/movie hybrid Heavy Rain (Quantic Dream/Sony) suggests that the artistry and innovation of game design is developing at an exponential rate. Team Bondi’s forthcoming LA Noire title, to be published in spring 2011 by Rockstar, was described by Future Publishing’s CVG (Computer & Video Games) website as a ‘giddily cinematic experience, housing an unflinching, surprisingly cerebral adult journey’, with characters that ‘carry with them a human presence and intimacy never before seen in video gaming’.

BAFTA first recognised that artistry back in 1998, and at their next video games awards they plan to introduce a new Social Network Game category. Just another sign, as if one were needed, of how the video games industry is constantly reinventing itself, and how communities of players themselves can evolve and manipulate game narratives in unexpected and sometime unsettling ways.

“There’s a submarine simulator called Silent Hunter,” says Jubert, “and it takes a long time to get a sub from one side of the Atlantic to the other, so there’s a time-speed-up button. But there are people who take it completely seriously and will sit there for two weeks and play through as someone on an actual submarine would. It’s pretty crazy and not something you’d catch me doing tomorrow, but they’re interacting with that fiction on a level that cinema could never even begin to consider, in ways that even the developers didn’t intend, which on a cultural level are no less valid or less interesting than any predesigned narrative that you can think of.”

An extreme example perhaps, but one that neatly symbolises the almost limitless narrative potential inherent in the medium of the video game. And in this timid era of dreary cinematic reboots, retreads, remakes and sequels, is it really so alarmist to ask whether the 21st century kids will look upon the passive experience of cinema with the same degree of amused curiosity as we do now with, say, the magic lanterns and dioramas of yesteryear? ♦