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Gamer's Paradise: The Evolving Relationship Between Film And Games

Tracing the two mediums’ relationship from emulation to interdependency.
November 21, 2012, 5:47pm

In this recurring column, Leigh Alexander visits exciting new creative frontiers in the video game space, which is seeing a period of incredible growth and diversification, attracting new talent and demonstrating intriguing innovation. Here she'll cover emerging artists, trends, and so much more.

Video games and film make strange relatives: you can tell they're family, but they're different, and they don't always get along. Sometimes we like to refer to video games as "interactive entertainment"—to clarify that they require direct engagement and dialog, versus passive media that simply require attention and consumption.

The strange cocktail of difference and similarity between film and games has a lot to teach us about the nature of interactivity. In the early days of gaming as a medium, it wasn't possible to conceive of it as something that could ever approach film's particular style of fidelity and immersion—with limited graphics, the first arcade and home computer games were simply play tools.

But makers of games have always dreamed big, with creative visions larger than what primitive technology allowed. It wasn't just that they wanted to create richer and more elaborate experiences than some diversion to play in a bar or when bored at the office—there was a craving for the cultural legitimacy film had. What if games could be art in that way, too?

The desire for art and legitimacy had as much to do with games' onward march toward more filmic experience as the acceleration of exciting technology. It had less to do with building a better game. The quest to resemble film actually tends to distract from what makes games fun.

Interactive entertainment benefits from interactivity. Games of the late 90s into the turn of the millennium saw a boom in cutscenes (non-interactive cinematic portions), but once fans got over being dazzled by the visuals, they soon realized every time their game made them watch a sequence, they had to put the controller down and stop playing—and play is why people buy games.

Still from The Matrix (image © Warner Brothers)

But the relationship between games and movies endures: the 90s boom in science fiction flicks about gamers, hackers, and people that could pass from a physical into a digital world à la The Matrix made nerdery look cool. The geek's rise into cultural power over the past decade means that film and television had to learn to believably represent the culture and aesthetic of games, even in small ways. That required incredible attention to—and respect for—gaming as a medium, and an understanding of the technology that helps them look and feel the way they do.

The recent years' surge in superhero fandom sees games and films linking closely. Batman, as an entity, has a series of incredibly-successful cutting-edge Hollywood films, and developer Rocksteady's Arkham series of highly-regarded blockbuster games. The potential for games and movies to share the same universe means added incentive for the two media to keep in step culturally, since cross-media properties—characters and worlds that can be leveraged across TV, internet, games and films—are big business.

Interestingly, popular television is increasingly taking on structural similarities to gaming experiences. Look how many episodic TV action and drama shows now play with sparse, fast-paced narratives that focus on character "missions" supported by environmental objects. Sometimes it goes even further than that—in the BBC's “Sherlock,” hovering text is used as a conveyance to show the viewer the detective's world of digital communication.

Still from Silent Hill: Revelation 3D

And despite their reputation for being frequent disappointments, movies based on video games, like this year's Silent Hill: Revelation 3D or Resident Evil: Retribution reliably help prop up the box office, almost always turning a profit these days. During a challenging period for Hollywood, games are still managing good numbers at retail even as most of their business goes digital.

A little inspiration from the cinema has gone a long way for some games: Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series began with its creators, brothers Sam and Dan Houser, taking cues from gangland flicks like Scarface, and it's among the most successful series in the history of the medium.

Grand Theft Auto’s homage to Scarface (Image via Rockstar Games)

Now though, current design wisdom is finally learning to embrace that games are their own entity that should discover their own best practices versus aping the conventions of movies, embracing open worlds with player-directed choices instead of the linear, event-based structure of film. Even movie-loving Dan Houser recently told The Guardian that with the most recent GTA game, Rockstar "wanted to try to find something that could be better than movies in a way—more alive and more vibrant. It was time to move on and do our own thing."

Games have definitely come into their own, and the level playing field between interactive entertainment and movies offers unprecedented opportunity for both to continue sharing ideas and borrowing from one another.


Previously: Worshipping At The iOS Altar