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A Venue for Spectacle

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Thursday, Nov 10, 2011
Big budget games have usurped film as the go-to venue for spectacle.

Two weeks ago I discussed a promotional video in which Harrison Ford plays Uncharted 3. The advertisement capitalizes on our familiarity with Ford as an adventure movie icon, in particular his role as the much loved archaeologist Indiana Jones. The commercial, I argued, positions games in pop culture as the natural offspring of film, the medium that inherits the proverbial torch, bringing swashbuckling cinema adventures into an unparalleled medium. After encountering some of the stunning set pieces in Uncharted 3 and seeing the mad and chaotic encounters of Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3, I am inclined to agree. Specifically, the huge triple-A titles that consistently rank among our yearly top tens have become the new vanguards of spectacle, creating outrageous scenarios and environments that give even the well budgeted cinematic piece a run for its money.
  
To give some environmental and action spoilers for Uncharted 3, there is one scene in which Nathan Drake moves from a cargo vessel graveyard onto fishing boats loaded with enemies, then onto a large cruise ship, and finally escapes from said cruise ship while it flips sideways and begins to sink. This ocean-faring set piece is one of the most dramatic and well orchestrated environments that I have ever experienced in a video game and stands out as one of the best action sequences in the entire Uncharted series. Naughty Dog continues the series’s trend of offering up heaps of visual treats and action-packed moments of spectacle.


This latest addition reinvigorates the cinematic adventure genre more than its predecessor and far more than George Lucas’s own Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It also offers numerous homages to films that inspired both its story and aesthetic, from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to Paul Greengrass’s Bourne Ultimatum. As has been noted by countless others, the Uncharted franchise is undoubtedly cinematic.


Of course other major titles offer just as much if not more spectacle than Uncharted. Modern Warfare 3, and Battlefield 3 players regularly inhabit war zones just as intricate and explosive as anything Michael Bay could design. Arkham City is one monolithic set piece that could make Chrisopher Nolan jealous. Even Roland Emmerich, the director who brought us such ridiculously excessive films as The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day, and 2012, must struggle to outdo many of today’s action-packed video games.


We could see a growing gap between the scale of action in film and games largely as a result of technology. Simply put, spectacle is ludicrously expensive. The budget for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was roughly 185 million dollars, and the special effects still appeared artificial. While Uncharted 3 no doubt cost a small fortune to produce, I would be shocked if its cost came anywhere near half as much as the Indiana Jones failure. At a fraction of the budget, Naughty Dog can offer an eight hour experience with more than multiple amazing set pieces, supported by top-tier voice actors and stunning advancements in motion capture that allow fluid animations to enhance the realism of character models. Even when the game’s visual fidelity fails to appear completely realistic, it remains consistent within an entirely computer rendered world. The more visually rich these fictional worlds become, the more impressive the spectacle appears.


None of this is to say that spectacle alone makes a great game. A richly designed set piece will not save terrible gameplay or a painfully written story. Indeed, many may disapprove of the cinematic and authorial approach that Naughty Dog took with Uncharted 3. Regardless, the extravagance of its action scenes and the richly decorated grandeur of its environments rival those created by even the most revered adventure film directors. As the game’s lead designer Richard Lemarchand states in a recent interview, “I think the way to think about it is not that video games ape cinema in any way. But that cinema is a jumping off point for a very sophisticated type of game.” (David Jenkins, Uncharted 3 Interview - Nolan North on Chasing Pictures”, 1 November 2011)  With Skyrim’s vast world opening up soon, I have no doubt that fans of Peter Jackson’s take on Lord of the Rings may find themselves satiated by Bethesda’s efforts well before The Hobbit hits theatres. Big budget games have usurped film as the go-to venue for spectacle. In this regard, I’m sure that the game’s industry will be happy to take over.


 

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