Like Movies—with Buttons

[30 April 2009]

By L.B. Jeffries

PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor

Probably the biggest problem preventing video games from being fully appreciated by pop culture is the constant expectation that they should look and act like movies. The mistake is understandable: both methods of storytelling tend to produce a final product that visually resembles the other. To someone watching you play a video game, it looks like you’re generating a movie. The problem is that this is where the similarity ends and the vast difference begins. The huge number of preconceptions, standards, and assumed responses that come out of a film simply don’t exist in a video game because of the very element that makes it unique: you.

It helps to think about what a movie is in terms of structure. When the technology to coordinate sound and film came together, people initially turned them into very brief documentaries. You’d go to observe a fire being put out in a major city because for many people, they would never see such a thing in their real lives. A man by the name of Melies, who specialized in theater, quickly realized you could use film for delivering a narrative. One of his films, Le Voyage Dans la Lune, was designed as a series of scenes (like in a play) that the audience would observe to understand the story. Melies thought of the camera as a stand-in for the audience, so he never changed perspectives and kept the camera in one spot constantly.

The innovation that would evolve films into their full potential was when Edwin S. Porter began to organize his film by different shots instead of scenes. He stopped thinking of movies as just a play being taped and started to seize on the mobility of the camera and the potential for a constantly shifting perspective. David Cook explains in his book A History of Film Narrative, “Cinematic narrative depends not so much upon the arrangement of objects or actors within a scene (as does the theater and, to a large extent, still photography) as upon the arrangement of shots in relation to one another.” The ways those shots could be organized and the technology for creating them would go on to change, but the fundamental nature of a movie is to produce a story through a series of linear shots linked together.

Of course, this isn’t how a video game works at all. The fundamental nature of a game is to produce a story or message through a series of rules that the person interacts with. In his book Persuasive Games, Ian Bogost says that narratively they work more like an enthymeme. That’s a Socratic method of debating where you have three points: premise, assumption, and conclusion. What the player is doing is testing out and discovering the assumption part of the process. The filmic properties of games simply come up when presenting the conclusion, to presume that this somehow accounts for both premise and assumption is why the comparison to film always causes problems.

Whereas the series of shots that makeup a movie intrinsically account for all three elements, a video game expects you to provide the input that lead to the various conclusions. In one medium, you are told everything and your ability to perceive the message is all that matters. In another, the player interacts with a series of rules and develops assumptions based on the responses they receive.

Put into practice, the immediate difference this produces is that the player themselves are involved with the story. In his review of Hitman, Roger Ebert explains the movie is a prime example of why video games will never be art to him. He enjoyed the relationship between Agent 47 and the love interest Nika. However, the action sequences are so over the top and unnecessary that Ebert rightly complains they seem more like throw-ins than having any relevance to the story. “It has a high body count but very little blood and gore. I wish it had less. It’s the people we care about in movies, not how many dead bodies they can stack up,” he says.

And yet in a video game it is ourselves we care about. It is our own character or the person we are playing with whom we connect first. The body count is relevant because the body count is a popular way for getting the person to feel successful when interacting with a rule system. Even for a non-violent act, such as Okami’s rejuvenating natural environments, the reward sequences would eventually become dull. In a film, watching Amaterasu heal the land or perform miracles would become trite after the first or second time. We’d get bored with the image and want to see something new.

Because it is instead a reward in the game, we associate the scene with new feelings of success and accomplishment. Our presumptions and actions have been validated and the filmic portions of the game are a confirmation of that. The visual and plot flaws that make a video game turned into a dull movie are precisely what makes the game work in the first place.

The problem with comparing film and games even bleeds into the creative process itself. Approaching a video game as a movie with action sequences in-between tends to make them create rule structures that are incredibly confining. Michael Abbot did a post chronicling the problem with Persona 4 and accepting the constant control inflicted on him. You don’t want to say you’re too tired to read, or you have to go to school. The problem is, if missing school means I miss out on cool events, why not just let the player find out the hard way?

Steve Gaynor makes this argument in an essay on the Immersion Model of storytelling. You don’t create a story, you create a world and fill it with people. That’s the approach of games like Far Cry 2 and Fallout 3, in which you’re free to explore a vast landscape while your conduct is only governed by a broad set of rules. The desire to manhandle the player into a linear series of shots or scenes almost becomes archaic because, like Melies only putting the camera in one spot, you’re missing the fundamental strength of the medium.

Like Edwin S. Porter realizing that a series of shots was how you structured a film, games have to abandon the presumption that they need to obey a linear narrative or controlled message and just let the player loose. The message they generate comes from the discovery and interaction with the world, not from sitting placidly and being told what to think as one may feel they do while watching a movie.

Even people who make movies are beginning to understand that the mediums need to start being separated. Steven Spielburg openly acknowledges that using cutscenes rarely does anything except break immersion for the player. Although Mass Effect may attempt to be a cinematic space opera, the camera angles often suffer from an awkward problem. It has to keep focusing on the player because that’s the person we chiefly care about.

As a consequence, the cinematic technique of shots telling a story falls utterly flat. The camera just sticks with us while we interact with rules and dialogue. Even expecting the two art forms to develop in a similar manner is a flawed presumption. Keith Stewart argued that even though Mirror’s Edge innovates, we still panned it because the innovation didn’t work. Would we ever dare say that to a film director who tried to do something new? No, of course not. But as Chris Dahlen aptly points out, video games are based on software and rules. When that software is failing to create the experience it wants to, when the rules aren’t quite right, then a reviewer has every right to say they look forward to a sequel when the experience is more refined.

Video games are not the first artistic medium to become deluged in the techniques and flawed desire to imitate film. Comic books in the ‘80s began to adopt a variety of visual techniques and drama from film. The problem that slowly arose was that people began to abandon the strengths of the comic book medium. Alan Moore explains that part of what makes comic books interesting is that you can freeze a moment in time. You can lock onto a person’s facial expression, have a long conversation, or depict a sense of drama that movies cannot. In a film the images go by, the emotion has passed, and the audience has little time to dwell before the next big thing is happening.

Moore explains, “If we only see comics in relationship to movies, then the best that they will ever be are films that do not move.” It would be very easy for games, by trying to mimick movies instead of relying on their own strengths, to fall into a similar cultural dead end. If we keep incorporating linear narratives and constrained activity in our games, then they will be little better than movies with buttons.

L.B. Jeffries is the pseudonym of a law student from South Carolina. After majoring in English, L.B. wandered around the resort scene in California, taught a little creative writing in Vermont, and ended up dead broke on the lower east side of Manhattan. A year of working for the government convinced him that there are some things worse than death so he took the LSAT. He continues to maintain his sanity and artistic sensibilities by posting a weekly on the PopMatters blog, 'Moving Pixels', providing game reviews, and whatever else captures his fancy.

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