James Ellis explores the influence of cinema on the video game industry...
A very demanding title I’ll admit. This is not an ever lasting debate over which is more entertaining. It is not a bout of two major media giants ready to exchange blows like King Kong and Godzilla. But rather a look at how games have started to converge on film storytelling prowess. It is a bit self indulgent I admit but as a massive film fan and avid games player I want to put down how games have started to up their ante in the world of storytelling and character development and how Hollywood blockbusters have started to forget theirs. I want to make it completely clear that when I’m talking about films I am mainly talking about mainstream movies; please do not comment with how character development within some Lebanese film is beyond anything a computer game could muster, the point is moot. I want to look at mainstream entertainment the stuff that News of the World always give five stars and on the poster you see “A thrilling ride from start to finish”.
Firstly I am and will always be a lover and bitcher of films but I also enjoy playing games. Games have always had flimsy plots and a lot still do, they were all about the action, it was previously seen that you don’t need a story to make a good game, you just need an action hero and stuff to shoot at. Or an interesting puzzle or a load of simulated life humans that you can spend time torturing. And its right you don’t need a story to make a good game. Take Vanquish, the recent output by Japanese developer Platinum Games - it had such a dire plot and no real interesting characters that even after completing it I can’t remember or care what it is because you got to shoot huge robots in slow motion while sliding along the floor. Who needs a plot after that? The game structure was based on one giant set piece after another. I didn’t really care about the person I was playing as because basically it felt like it was me doing that. It was me that decided to run up to the drill wielding robot, kick him then in slow motion shoot a shotgun in his face. The problem is, with the recent slew of action blockbusters Hollywood feels it can do the same. But it can’t. Games have an interesting wild card that you control the protagonist. Films cannot have that instant immersion. What pulls you into a great blockbuster, what provides you with that escapism we all need is character and plot.
Lets take a few recent releases from the golden coast. A terrible addition the Hollywood hacks churned out was the remake of Clash of the Titans. It looked great; the effects had all the gloss and glamour that you have come to expect from a movie with this budget. The quality of the cast was up there with any major film: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton and Sam Worthington. I mean Sam Worthington, who had just come off the massive, mega, multi-billion dollar earning monster Avatar, filled the lead of Perseus. So with star quality and great effects we are well on our way to a great film. Problem is that the writers forgot to install any plot or character to think of. At the beginning Perseus is with his family whom all subsequently die, but they have had so little screen time or have any characteristics that you don’t really care. Perseus never seemed that bothered either. Secondly, and I apologise for my lazy writing, the reason that our hero and his motley crew venture forth was so thin and confusing that I can’t even remember it. I should look it up, but I remember nearly all plots to other films, I’ve just forgotten this one because its rubbish. So I’m not even going to bother as I feel my memory, which is usually pretty good, has obviously blocked it out for a good reason and replaced it with a bad taste in my mouth. The film jumped from one set piece of action to the next, characters fought and died, CGI monsters attacked and retreated and the Gods did things that you just couldn’t be bothered with. Each set piece held no peril because the characters were so boring and plain that it was hard to care if anything happened to them. Characters are important to the plot as their motivation and plight help the story along, as an audience you either cheer the hero along or boo the villain. When films like this forget to put in interesting relatable characters all you have is a hollow shell of events, which is boring. I mean Disney made subsequent Pirates of the Caribbean films because of Jonny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, we the masses wanted to see that character in different situations. This audience interaction is very important, as I said before games get away with not having any plot because the character is controlled by you so immersion is a given. But with films watching a character we love in a thrilling plot is what lets us escape the mundane real world. Hollywood used to stand tall where dreams and imagination could come to life but now with reconstituted jism like Prince of Persia, G.I. Joe and Clash of the Titans (all films based on existing ideas and all shit); Hollywood has become the McDonalds of the film world. They took original ideas and butcher the crap out of it till there is no goodness left, and then they hide it in a nicely presented box and charge too much for it.
Now computer games are hot on their heels with how to tell a story, and they also have all the rest of the ingredients too: I mean Liam Neeson was in CotT and in Bethesda’s Fallout 3. As a case study lets look at Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption, a game where you played as a cowboy. Amazing. Every boy (and girls) dream. The game had everything: cascading beige shaded vistas, dark snowy forests with bears ready to tear you limb from limb and prairie lands with migrating bison. Proper ladies and gentlemen populated this pixel paradise as well as down right drunken scoundrels and mysterious hard edged cowboys which of whom you were one. Of course! Your character was a grizzly gun wielder, authentically named John Marston, who had left his violent rough and tumble bank robbing gang and was being coerced by federal agents into hunting them down. And with his family at stake John Marston had no choice. I mean for a plot its fantastic; it reeks of a western classic like those of John Ford, Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood. You could do everything that you would expect and want to do in the Wild West, but the most important thing was that John Marston was a great character and all the people you met throughout the game were as endearing and accurate as any classic western film. The plot was epic as well as personal with all the twists and turns that you would hope for. At the end I was genuinely moved as my actions had led to a terrifying climax. This was a western for all western lovers. The script was just perfect the writers had done their research to make sure that players really felt that the people you met along the way were a part of the world. Red Dead Redemption was not an anomaly; there are quite a few games out there where story and character have obviously been a prevalent component in the creation of the game.
A recent and revolutionary game was Heavy Rain by Sony developers Quantic Dream. The game has you play multiple characters that were affected by a homicidal maniac called the Origami Killer. It was drenched with imagery and characters influenced from films such as Se7en, Zodiac and basically any David Fincher film. The critics lauded it has a bold and brave game, with the writing that seemed like it was straight from the silver screen. That was where the problem lies all of these great games with great stories were just ripped straight from the long canon of genre films that Hollywood had been producing for years. Red Dead Redemption was a fantastic game because it made you feel like you were John Wayne himself, but would I replace John Wayne's “acting” for his pixel doppelganger: Of course not. Hollywood in the years gone by has set a very high standard of which games are striving for. Game designers reproduce their heroes that were ingrained into their minds. And fair play to them, why isn’t Hollywood trying to maintain that goal by furthering the standard of the stories that they tell. Well folks that’s our fault as entertainment junkies; we buy games in their millions and all they do is replicate what has been told, we demand sequels and with the internet's freedom of speech bitch about what they did wrong on this film/game and what they can do better next time. This sort of behaviour basically tells Hollywood big wigs to keep churning out the same stuff. Whereas games are striving to get the recognition they deserve, but are never going to get it because they keep replicating what they have seen. They need to make strides into the unknown because they will always have their own wild card that you are the hero or villain. So it’s a case of should we give the masses what they want which is basically the same as we had before, or should we be brave and bold and risk all for something new? That’s up to us really!
The only thing that concerns me is why don’t game designers look to Britain’s long history of films to build titles around? I can’t wait for My Beautiful Laundrette: The Game. Just imagine online multiplayer for that!!!!
Here are some games where the stories are just fantastic, if you know any others please tell me.:
Both Uncharted games
Batman: Arkham Asylum
Mass Effect 1 and 2
Dragon Age: Origins
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed