Videogames vs. Movies: Which medium is greater?
Comparing one narrative medium to another is a tricky business. Anyone who has read a Harry Potter book and then seen the ensuing film adaptation — which is to say, almost everyone on earth — knows that every storytelling method has its own strengths and weaknesses. Still, there is something particularly fascinating about the rivalry between movies and videogames. Cinema was the original popular art form, but it has spent over half a century fighting against rival media: Television, home video, and finally the videogame, which has evolved in just a few short decades from the primordial elements of Pong into the culture-defining medium of Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, and The Legend of Zelda.
The key to the great Film/Videogame debate is that the two have evolved alongside of each other. Videogames have become more “filmlike,” with more realistic characters and complex plotting. In turn, movies have absorbed many lessons from videogames, some of them good (films like The Hurt Locker and Children of Men have a you-are-there grandeur that feels very gamelike) and some of them not so good (watching Michael Bay’s Transformers trilogy is are exactly as enjoyable as watching your little brother play videogames you used to love before you turned 6). Now, I and fellow videogame fiend Adam B. Vary debate whether videogames have outright passed the movies as the popular narrative medium. Tell us your own thoughts in the comments.
(This is part of an ongoing series of posts in which EW writers debate the most defining pop culture rivalries. Past subjects have included the Schwarzenegger/Stallone, Godfather/Goodfellas, and the millenial pop-diva battle of between Britney and Christina. Come back here on Tuesday for a rousing battle between The Simpsons and South Park.)
ADAM B. VARY (Videogame supporter): It’s a truth that has been whispered by my friends (and a few of my colleagues) for a few years now, Darren, but I am unafraid to bray it proudly: The time of feature film dominance is dimming, and the days when videogames reign supreme is dawning. I’m not talking about gross revenues here — videogames have long since dwarfed movies on that score. And I’m only partly talking about artistry, although I suspect you’re going to zing me for that later. Really, it just boils down to this: Taken in total, the big movies of the last few years have rarely been as interesting — as able to seize your imagination, envelope you into their worlds and haunt your thinking for weeks on end — as the big videogames of the last few years.
I will concede that, Cars 2 aside, the output of Pixar stands tall as the great exception to that statement. But otherwise, our cineplexes have been choked by the likes of X-Men Origins: Clash of the Pirates of the Squeakquel. As someone I know and respect recently said on this very blog, “Were people still talking about Transformers: Dark of the Moon weeks after it came out?” No, but my friends could not stop talking about Red Dead Redemption — for months. I had buckets more fun playing, and then raving about, and then re-playing Uncharted 2: Among Thieves than seeing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Swinging LaBeouf. And even when a top-tier game like L.A. Noire disappoints, at least it disappoints in a fascinating, ambitious way that provokes thoughtful dissection — like you and I did over IM last month. What do you have to say to that?
DARREN J. FRANICH (Cinema loyalist): It’s true, the contemporary popular movie scene has followed a downward spiral of sequels and prequels and remakes. But don’t forget: Videogames practically invented the Relentless Re-Quel assault. Let’s check out the best-selling games of 2010: The seventh Call of Duty game, the sixth Halo game, two different Super Mario games, another freaking Pokemon game…and, yes, Red Dead Redemption. (There was also Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort, and for the purposes of moving this debate onto more interesting territory, I will gladly admit that Wii Sports Resort will give you a better cardio workout than Citizen Kane.)
Now, I’m going to focus in on your defining virtue here, and say that only one of those games is truly interesting. I enjoyed playing the Halo: Reach campaign with my roommate, but it was an echo of past glories. I killed Nazi zombies for hundreds of hours in Call of Duty: Black Ops, but I suspect I might be a more interesting person today if I had taken those hours to read Vasily Grossman’s WWII masterpiece Life and Fate, which is also about killing Nazis. Red Dead Redemption is the only game that truly moved me…and, as I wrote on our website, the final sequence moved me very much indeed.
But as much as I enjoyed Red Dead, I cannot praise it as a fully unified experience. Much of the dialogue was terrible. The fact that they showed the same skinning-cinema every time I got an animal pelt became infuriating. I thought the Mexico sequence dragged. And, like most videogames, Red Dead ultimately left me feeling caged, because I was always starkly aware of the limitations placed upon me. I could not romance anyone but my darling wife; I could not run off to join the Indians; I could not become a black-hatted villain, no matter how many innocents I killed, because the story of the Red Dead in-game cinemas was set in stone.
There are still just too many imperfections built into the videogame art. By comparison, my three favorite westerns — The Searchers, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid — are things that I would consider perfect documents, and although they are each only 1/100th of the playing time of Red Dead, I think I learn more from them every time I watch.
Adam: Okay, yes, those are classic westerns, and they — along with the classic spaghetti westerns of Clint Eastwood — are exactly what inspired Red Dead Redemption. And if you press me to stack up my favorite videogames against my favorite movies, not only would the movies pile be much higher, just the act of stacking them would cause me to get misty. That is not something I can do when thinking back on Super Mario Bros. 3.
But you know what else is true about the films in that pile, and about the movies you mention above? They are old. A lot of them are really old. And I, good sir, am talking about the movies of today. What big, non-Pixarian film of the past three or four years could you honestly add to your Favorite of Favorites? Of course, there are small films like The Kids Are All Right or Beginners that still captivate me. But if I’m being brutally honest, even a movie as satisfying as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 is still a shadow of the experience of reading the book it is based on. I feel like such a fusty crank saying this, but the vast majority of mainstream movies today truly are just sound and fury, signifying nothing. They are racing to see which one can be the most like, well, a videogame.
Videogames today, on the other hand, are in a really interesting place. Yes, they are imperfect. Yes, they stubbornly force you into certain choices (which you do realize is how movies work all the time, right?). But I can see them striving to give us something we’ve never experienced before, to hook us into a big story, and to reinvent how we absorb that story. In some ways, they feel like the movies of 100 years ago, as early filmmakers figured out what the visual grammar of cinema would be. So, really, videogames are trying their damnedest to be more like movies.
Also, I may be fired for writing those last two paragraphs.
Darren: This summer definitely has been the worst ever for Hollywood sci-fi/fantasy action adventures. Green Lantern and Cowboys & Aliens are already in the dustbin of history, and Pirates of the Caribbean 5 sounds like an existential threat. But I think you’re being unfair if you just focus on the cinematic genre that has essentially only existed — at least in its current, digital effects-heavy form — in the post-videogame era. The Social Network made over $200 million at the box office last year — do we leave that out of the conversation just because there’s no videogame genre for “Corrosive All-American Success Story?”
Now, I could argue that videogames don’t have dialogue as good, or characters as fascinating, or a plot as clockwork-perfect as in The Social Network. You brought up L.A. Noire. Let’s set aside all the annoying sub-games that were added into Noire to make it more amenable — the gunfights, the chases, the deeply unnecessary open-world — and focus on the central selling point of Noire: The fact that it was literally trying to place you inside of a genre that has mostly lived in literature and film. Genuine acting! Dialogue-as-gameplay! Mise-en-scene! It was fascinating, it was different…and it fell flat. I can respect L.A. Noire as a first step towards something, but comparing that to The Social Network is like comparing 2001: A Space Odyssey to George Melies’ From the Earth to the Moon.
But honestly, I don’t think videogames need good dialogue, or a Robert Towne-worthy plot, or even really “characters” in the classic sense. The most religious experience I have ever had with a game came while playing Shadow of the Colossus, a PS2 masterpiece that honored all the tropes of the extremely well-trodden fantasy genre — damsel in distress, magic sword, horrible creatures, noble horse — by deconstructing them into near-abstraction. The landscape is barren. The main character never speaks, and his motivations are left vague. Shadow is a game that is almost purely focused on the specific pleasures of the medium — exploration, repetitive-yet-beautiful music, gorgeously terraformed level design, and visual problem-solving.
The problem is that Shadow of the Colossus remains kind of a curiosity. Its influence is mostly see nalong the margins, in short-but-sweet online flash games and the ever-fascinating offerings from the XBox Live Arcade (Braid, Limbo, From Dust). I think L.A. Noire was doomed to failure, for precisely the reason you mentioned: Videogames are trying too damn hard to be movies.
Adam: At least videogames are trying. You raise The Social Network as the one example of a high-grossing, character focused, non-visual-effects-driven feature film that was, you know, also really challenging and interesting and doing something sorta different and stuff. But it’s pretty much the only film from the last 18 months that meets all that criteria. (Also, you’re being a little tricky with that global box office figure: It grossed $96 million in the U.S., which is decent, but not blockbustery.) Meanwhile, in the last 18 months, you and I have played Portal 2, Mass Effect 2, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Heavy Rain, L.A. Noire, Red Dead Redemption, and BioShock 2. All of them attempted in ways big and small to do something different — sometimes successfully, some not so successfully, but at least there was the attempt. (Roger Ebert must hate my guts so much right now.)
By the way, I’m surprised that you haven’t brought up Christopher Nolan yet.
Darren: I still don’t think it’s fair to leave out foreign films and indie movies just because they’re essentially not stupid enough. Here’s something to consider: Super Mario Galaxy 2 has currently sold about 3.2 million copies in North America., which translates into a money bin full of cash, since each game costs $60. But if you multiply that number by the average US movie ticket price — about $8 — you’d get $25.6 million. Midnight in Paris has currently grossed $48.7 million domestically. So there you have it: Salvador Dali’s mustache remains a bigger draw than Mario’s.
But I’ll accept your terms for this duel, Adam! As much as I loved the overall experience of Mass Effect 2 — which was probably about 33 hours of my life — there are a thousand nitpicky things I could argue over. The action gameplay is okay, but not great. The level design can feel repetitive. Perhaps a couple dozen of the literally hundreds of sub-stories are hamfisted, or underwritten, or just boring. This is to be expected in a game of such size and scope. And, as you say, it’s attempting to do something different.
So let’s compare it to Mr. Nolan’s Inception, another fascinating, exciting, flawed sci-fi project that tried to do something different. I love Inception, even if I have to admit that the whole snow-heist scene is kind of a bust, and also accept the fact that, according to the movie, everyone’s dreams look like Michael Mann movies. But here are things I don’t have to accept in order to enjoy Inception: Invisible walls, glitchy character animation, load times, freezing, or the nagging part of my brain that refuses to cross the Uncanny Valley.
Adam: Games shouldn’t freeze, and load times are the devil’s work. But before photo-real CG and HD Blu-ray digital transfers made us demand to see the individual pores on the six-hoofed horses of Pandora, audiences were perfectly content to forgive wonky visual effects so long as the movie itself was riveting and the characters compelling. Which is to say, if Nathan Drake’s ankle slips through a solid wall now and again, or if the eyes on some grizzled bandito in Red Dead Redemption aren’t exactly convincing, I don’t really mind so much. I’m having way too much fun to care.
Look, I admit, I am making a silly argument. Of course videogames have yet to deliver anything within the same (Super Mario) galaxy as There Will Be Blood or Borat or Toy Story 3. It’s just when I stand back and really think about which medium has captured my imagination more consistently in the last few years — and which has the potential to head down even more fascinating avenues of storytelling possibility in the next few decades — I have to tip my hat to the progeny of Pong.
Darren: You might be right, and I can only imagine I’ll look like a pagan in 2037, the year that some hotshot young developer creates a thrilling existential space-marine videogame inspired by the work of Ingmar Bergman, while meanwhile all ten nominees for the Best Picture Oscar are prequels, sequels, remakes, and reboots of The Fast and the Furious. Certainly, any medium that encourages experimentation at the absolute top level is clearly on track to greatness — let’s not forget, the big videogame western of 2010 was Red Dead Redemption, and the big movie western of 2011 was Cowboys & Aliens.
But film is a sensual medium, composed of delicate humanity and emotions rendered physical. The best special effect in the Iron Man series is Robert Downey Jr. The best moment in TRON: Legacy, a movie positively drenched in videogameness, is when Olivia Wilde naively asks Garrett Hedlund if he knows Jules Verne: “What’s he like?” Videogames are by nature a more clinical art form — designed by hundreds of engineers, played mostly in solitary silence — but they are starting to discover the soul in the machine. You can see it in the wrenching last level of Braid, the quiet prairie of Red Dead, and the witty horror of the villainous machine in Portal. But if we’re talking about beautifully silly entertainment, would you rather be playing Assassins Creed: Brotherhood by yourself or cheering on with a packed crowd while Captain America tackles Nazis on a big screen?
Adam: The answer to that question is easy: I would rather be tackling Nazis as Captain America in my own personal holodeck.
Follow Adam on Twitter: @AdamBVary
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich