Game Lessons Learned from the Films of 2013
Ignoring the lessons other media imparts is a harmful form of self-delusion. This is a spotlight on this year's most important movies for game makers and players to see.
There’s an interesting aversion in the games space to discussing film -- or other media for that matter -- as it relates to games, and perhaps rightly so. Game makers and enthusiasts sometimes share a concern that by comparing games to film, we water down our own value. And it is true, using film -- or any other media for that matter -- as a metric for success in the games industry is a losing battle.
However, ignoring the lessons other media imparts is also a harmful form of self-delusion. We crazy wonderful humans tell stories, and lots of them, in all sorts of ways. Engaging other media is a fruitful practice that empowers our own craft. To that end, this is a spotlight on this year’s important films that might be worth considering in relationship to games. Each was selected for its own reason, but all prove insightful. Do not consider these reviews or even personal suggestions. I encourage readers to watch these films in particular with consideration to the lessons we can learn about game artistry.
The Stories We Tell
Directed by Sarah Polley, The Stories We Tell is ostensibly a personal narrative about the director’s family and the revelation that she is not, in fact, the biological daughter of the person who was always believed to be her dad. Through family interviews and Super-8 family footage, Polley begins to paint a picture of her mother as she never knew her and in the process learns more about both her real and her adoptive father.
Initially, the documentary appears to be a candid and heartfelt examination of her own family, but then it becomes so much more. Yes, The Stories We Tell starts with Polley, but it morphs into a larger narrative about family mythologies and even documentary filmmaking itself. With a few wonderfully executed twists, the film becomes about the act of storytelling and the messages and meaning that we find in creating and participating in stories.
Those interested in games may find in this seemingly simple documentary an immensely compelling perspective on writing. Polley’s comfort and playfulness with the genre is also artfully expressed and would be an excellent reminder to game creators to both acknowledge and yet abandon expectations about their craft.
Alfonso Cuarón’s latest is easily the biggest name on this list. The director of Children of Men, Cuarón has earned both accolades and admiration from fans, making Gravity one of the year’s most anticipated films. It is a great film to be sure, but it makes my list, not for its quality, but for its handling of self-limitations.
Gravity takes place almost entirely in space. For much of the film, the protagonist is entirely alone. Even so, the film’s 90 minute runtime feels packed with thrilling moments and genuine drama. Cuarón imposed upon himself an extreme limitation, but he feels as liberated as ever. Coming off of playing Grand Theft Auto V, it is easy to associate immense scale and grandeur with Triple A games. While yes, Gravity certainly uses its $100 million budget all over the place, the simple idea that excellent action and storytelling can occur in any setting is an important lesson. I would love to see as daring attempts at storytelling in blockbuster games that we see here in Gravity
What The Stories We Tell is to documentaries, About Time is to romantic comedies, sort of. The director, Richard Curtis, has made a living off of touching RomComs (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually), so he has some expertise in their production. Maybe this is what lets him play around with the genre enough to explode it outward into something more significant than most expect.
At its core, About Time is about a young man who leans he can travel back in time and uses his newfound ability to find love. Adorable, really cheek-squeezing stuff. But in the process, About Time also becomes about, well, everything. It’s about regret and loss and family. It’s about how easy it is to change your life -- and how hard. It’s about obligation and hope and pettiness and change. About Time is a sappy puff piece at times, but it still manages to transcend its genre and actually become something that, I believe, makes the world a better place.
Curtis’s audacious commitment to a greater message is all too rare in any media. We may find it in games like Journey or Bastion, but I welcome its more frequent appearance in games.
Most of these film selections portray stories that seldom, if ever, appear in games. Frances Ha on the hand is a “coming of age” story in a way, something many games produce in the very act of character development and empowerment. From RPGs to Shooters, games that dole out new abilities as players gain proficiency follow some of the same tropes of coming of age stories, mechanically if not narratively.
That being said, Frances Ha's titular character is 27 and is generally failing at life. Frances’s dancing career is failing to take off, her friend is moving on with life without her, and she continually makes poor financial decisions. Played brilliantly by Greta Gerwin, Frances is one of the oddest protagonists in film this year and one of the funniest.
While games can handle squeezing some compelling narrative out of their protagonists, few actually attempt to show how awkward and uncomfortable personal growth can be. For that reason alone, France Ha is well worth your attention. As an added bonus, it’s also the only non-documentary film on this list that passes the Bechdel test.
While I tend to dislike Fez more and more with every passing moment, I have to appreciate Phil Fish’s almost psychotic commitment to his vision for the game. Five years in the making, Fish seemed dangerously attached to his work and the final product is a unique albeit imperfect personal creation. In this way, Fez and Upstream Color are cross-media compatriots.
Directed by Shane Carruth, Upstream Color is a strange film about two people bound by an alien parasite. It is a fitting follow-up to the Carruth’s phenomenal time-travel film Primer, even if it did take him nearly a decade to create. Carruth’s long production might have to do with his absolute adherence to his personal vision. So protective of his work, Carruth acted as the film’s director, writer, producer, lead actor, cinematographer, composer, and more. This is a work produced almost entirely by one individual, and its unified vision is apparent.
While individual auteurs in games seem possible only in the indie space, Upstream Color also has a lot to say for thematically dense and unrelenting storytelling. Like Primer, this is not an easy film to consume. It is quiet, complex, and never talks down to the viewer. Even so, it also portrays a system that can, with effort, be unraveled. Hey, maybe it’s even a little bit like Dark Souls.
Carruth uses all the tools at his disposal to invite viewers into a participatory experience and a rewarding one at that. Many games could take lesson and venture into the unabashedly weird. Or, even better, maybe Shane Carruth could venture into game design.