Steve Bullin

While attempting to avoid simply stating the obvious games are interactive and movies aren’t, you can’t recreate one into another that’s inherently different argument, let’s take a deeper look into cross-medium interpretation of the video game movie problem, and break down the mediums in question a bit.

We’re going to very, very briefly illustrate some of Marshall McLuhan’s positions on media to better understand the unique issue that movie makers run into when dealing with video games as their source material. McLuhan was a Canadian philosopher of communication theory and what he’s contributed to the field is some pretty heavy stuff, so we’re going to just skim the surface to get the idea. The basic theory is like this: the format of whatever language being used has a very specific effect on the individuals using it, more so than the actual content being conveyed. Work written in Russian or French, will not truly be able to have a perfect interpretation into the English language, even if the content is basically the same, the format in which the material is presented changes how the material is received.  The video game is a different language than cinema, and it is an intrinsically different media to film than most other mediums like graphic novels or literature.

McLuhan regards cinema as a medium of sensory bombardment, where the participant is unable to reflect and determine their own interpretation like in literature, graphic novels, or even television. Cinema is a “hot” medium because it requires less energy to fill in the details, “high definition” if you would. Where a graphic novel, regular TV, radio, or literature are “cool” because they present less and require more of an active cognitive participation of the viewer. TV and graphic novels use a minimalist visual style to convey their material, radio and literature require instantaneous recognition of the material in the context of the rest of the piece, all maintained by the viewer, thus they have a “low definition” as they require more cognitive thought.

Video games are in that awkward position where a good part of the population mistake them for a “hot” medium with their high sensory output, but seem to completely forget their highly interactive input. Cinema is a medium that disengages all the senses but vision and hearing. I’m sure we’ve all had those moments after a good movie, where the credits roll and you have this sense of “waking up”. As if you sort of forgot you were watching a movie. Video games are similar in that effect but different. Your mind is not quieting down to experience the story, it is actively participating while your body still experiences that disengagement of the other senses. In that when a game movie starts reminding you of the interaction from games during the movie, you become keenly aware that you are in fact watching a movie. Similar to the effect you have when watching a noticeably bad movie, which sadly tends to be the case with most game movies anyhow.

We see this effect on the other side of the fence as well in the responses and conversations of the game industry around David Cage’s works; Indigo Prophecy (2005) and Heavy Rain (2010), the self proclaimed “interactive films”. Without the high level of viewer participation as we’ve come to expect from video games many in the video game industry argued if Heavy Rain was truly a game at all. Where on that same point, because of the level of interactivity, basically no one in the film industry would call it a movie.

I believe there is a very clear divide between Cinema and Video Games as a medium. You see it in the general focus of film vs game production: where in film you focus on making a build of one cohesive overarching experience, in games you will always see a focus in delivering the strongest moment to moment interactive experience. So no, film will never be truly like games, and games likewise can never truly be film. But that’s not to say one cannot be interpreted into another. The translation will just likely almost never produce the same experience.

Directors will probably never be able to reproduce the feel behind the interactive medium, so Hollywood goes for reproducing the next best thing: the message behind the medium. Or at least they try. typically the theater sees an awkward, if not clumsy interpretation of the story behind the game with an attempt at the aesthetic style and a somewhat forced inclusion of at least one of the game features making a guest appearance like some poorly timed cameo. At least that’s the bulk of what the audience sees. At best they’re fun, like watching SyFy originals can be fun. And part of that is the game industries fault, while there are an increasing number of shining examples, the history of video games is not one built on remarkable–much less decent–storytelling prowess. And the type of games that have enough of a fan base to catch Hollywood’s attention don’t typically have the kind of back story material that make Oscar winning films. The problem here is that directors and producers are looking at the back story as the only thing they can really interpret from; they see the gameplay as a moot part of the puzzle because they can’t convey the gameplay in their picture. Or can they?

Now that’s not to say movie makers can actually recreate the interactivity without the movie ceasing to be a movie. The first half of this article clarified that. But what film makers can do is look at the mechanics in the gameplay and figure out what they mean. The whole message in the mechanics isn’t truly a new idea, without any onscreen texts, cutscenes or any obvious delivered story-line; games have been conveying experience and story only through mechanics since the arcade days. It has simply become much more prominent in the industry eye with designers like Jonathan Blow, Tom Jubert, and Edmund McMillen returning the focus to the importance of the mechanics and what that can say over the specific content.

As a simple example most people are familiar with, Missile Command (1980) conveys the panic, desperation, and difficult decision making expected in a bomb threat scenario, and it conveys it to the player through it’s mechanics alone. You start the game and you’re instantly under fire and have to make split second choices: do you save the base or the town? If you let the town go you have a better chance of being able to save the rest, while if you loose one of the bases you have less ammunition to defend yourself. None of this is explained, all the drama is all within the given scenario the gameplay presents you with. As a cherry on top, instead of the traditional “Game Over” death screen, the player is presented with “The End”. The nuclear war has no victor message might seem a little dated to our period but at the time of the game’s development nuclear war felt like a very real threat. Today games are much more complex a product to decipher than they use to be, but the theory is still the same. Hollywood just has to look at these projects with a designer’s eye and figure out what the actions and style of play conveys to the player. In Mirror’s Edge (2007) does the perspective show Faith’s sense of solitude and individuality when on the rooftops? Does her “Runner Vision” making the exits red have any specific significance to her character? Is the fact that Master Chief in Halo (2001) runs into combat carrying only two weapons a reflection of his gung-ho, possibly suicidal, military environment? Or is that a product of some tragic Batman back story?

With the sort of stylistic and action-packed endeavors we see Hollywood producing, and succeeding at, I’m entirely optimistic for the future of game movies. When that future shows up exactly is yet to be seen, but this generation of Hollywood has proven to me we’re well on our way.

Until next time, this was Steve Bullin with a Bullin Bulletin, stay awesome everyone.

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