Game Lessons Learned from the Films of 2014
This past year’s slate of films is another opportunity to consider cinema with an eye towards game design.
Last year around this time , I called for a continued engagement between game makers and film. Bridging creative mediums offers all sorts of fruitful lessons as we understand and experiment with storytelling. This past year’s slate of films is another opportunity to consider cinema with an eye towards game design. Movies matter to games and vice versa, so let’s take a look at some of 2014's more interesting game lessons.
Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is widely predicted to be an Oscar contender and for obvious reasons. Linklater shot the entire film periodically for eleven years, following the same young boy from childhood to adolescence. It is a coming-of-age epic if there ever was one, and it wears its authenticity with pride.
While some of Boyhood’s dialogue and plotting is a bit too contrived, it is hard not to be pulled into the meta-story of the film. Rarely do we see with such clarity the way our paths in life can feel simultaneously inevitable and full of possibility. Growing up, frivolous moments can become focal points for self-identity, and people we know and love can change and disappear from our lives entirely.
Games are accustomed to changing the world based upon our decisions, but more often than not, each moment is artificially epic or poignant. Do you let this person live or die? Right or left? Linklater takes a risk with Boyhood that I would love to see in games by daring to take a slow and meandering path to explore the repercussions that reverberate through our lives.
I actually disliked David Fincher’s Gone Girl for the very reason that I think it is an important film for those interested in games to watch. Based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl is about Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), whose wife vanishes into thin air. Soon his town and the media turn against him as suspicions arise over the disappearance.
This movie, like the book, exists in three parts, each distinct in their transformation. While the first segment of the film plays like a murder mystery, the second shifts into thriller territory, and the third into a macabre game of romantic politics. While I don’t think Fincher pulls off the sudden genre shifts, I give him full credit for the attempt.
This is where game creators can learn a valuable lesson. In an industry where thematic genre is too frequently associated with mechanical genre, game designers far too rarely bother to play with conventions and upset the pacing and expectations of their work. Fincher embraces Flynn’s chimera, fitting his exploration of media and love into a stylish genre exercise. I desperately wish game designers were as brazenly playful with genre.
Produced in 2013 but only released earlier this year, Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary about a film that never existed. In the 1970s, Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky began work on an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. While he never got the movie off the ground, the attempt has since become a folkloric legend. At its most magnificently imagined, Jodorowsky’s Dune would have been a psychedelic masterpiece, featuring the likes of Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, and the art of the brilliant H.R.Giger. It could have been remembered as an expensive masterpiece of epic storytelling.
“Could have been” is the key phrase here. While we have notes, storyboards, and various artistic material, the film was never made. Instead we have David Lynch’s bizarre 1984 take on Dune. So why all the interest? Because in many ways, the never-made film is the perfect film. The creative process alone is a valuable exercise. Jodorowsky’s dream is so absurd that you have to marvel at the attempt. To appreciate Jodorowsky’s Dune from a games perspective is to embrace the outlandish and incredibly auteur-driven works of game design that only ever exist on paper. All those ambitious and magnificent ghosts of ideas create the bedrock for amazing game design.
Every year a movie comes out that reminds me that the bridge between games and cinema flows both ways. Edge of Tomorrow, since renamed Live. Die. Repeat., is the game-movie of 2014. It is also one of the most underrated films of the year that does a better job of showing the joy of failure in play than the vast majority of games.
The plot of Edge of Tomorrow, based on the comic All You Need Is Kill, follows a reluctant military officer who goes to war, dies, and wakes up earlier that same day. The Groundhog Day phenomenon repeats endlessly and the reluctant soldier becomes an expert warrior. Doug Liman must play video games because he manages to spotlight the hilarious idiocy of some games, especially shooters, while also capturing some of the pleasure in repetitive learning and mastery. Anyone into action games in particular will find a welcoming experience in Edge of Tomorrow, and it’s an excellent example of the way games feed into other entertainment culture.
No film on this list, not even Boyhood, dares to explore meaning as recklessly as Birdman. Alejandro González Iñárritu, director of Amorres perros, Babel, and Biutiful, could be called arrogant or overly dramatic in his approach to film, especially his earlier work. Birdman is cleverly shot to create the illusion of one single take and is filled with enough references to the art and history of cinema to fuel a decade's worth of college papers on the film. It is a flagrant and self-aware film and an absolute treat to watch.
The reason Birdman appears on my list not for the questions it explores, but for the answers that it so openly never finds. Take Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), the titular Birdman, who is constantly hallucinating a more powerful superheroic version of himself. Throughout the film, he is surrounded by actors playing roles within roles. At one point, Riggan delivers an incredibly convincing lie about growing up in an abusive home. Truth in the film is elusive. The greatest moments of truth in Birdman are quiet and personal. At Riggan’s most triumphant, he’s completely off camera with only his daughter sharing the moment, the audience removed from a private moment of meaning.
With Birdman, Iñárritu undermines (or at least seriously questions) the power of film to express meaning to its audience. Instead he offers only an opportunity at grasping personal meaning found in the act of watching, whatever it may be. Birdman is a call to engage with what you consume, regardless of what it is, and for creators to leave the meaning in the hands of the consumers. It’s not hard to imagine game designers and players that can take these lessons to heart in their own pursuit of meaning and creation.