Ghost in the machine

Free the robots!

Why games make crappy movies — and movies make crappy games

Last Wednesday, I went to see “Game Engine” — a selection of innovative video-game movies that were screened as part of the New York Video Festival. Much of the evening was devoted to exploring an interesting question: Where do films and video games begin to merge?

What fascinated me most was the reaction of the filmmakers in the audience. These are guys who, by and large, don’t play video games. If they’ve ever thought about games, it’s because they’re fascinated by the increasing “realism” of 3D graphics. They think that if games are getting better, it’s because they’re becoming more like movies — more able to render lifelike human characters with realistic facial expressions. These filmmakers are not alone. Indeed, this basic concept — that games get better the more they resemble movies — is the dominant way that mainstream cultural critics think about games.

But as I’ve argued before, this completely misunderstands the nature of games, and the nature of narrative. Games are not some poor cousin of movies, desperately attempting to become photorealistic enough that they can have convincing, dramatic scenes. Game are about creating systems that you play in. They’re about establishing a situation with a few basic rules, and then turning players loose to see what they’ll do. That’s why games are often most impressive when they’re acting not as dramatic wannabe movies, but as little physics simulations: What happens when you blow that thing up? Or when you jump off that ledge? Or when you drive that tank at the wall at 200 miles an hour? Or there are games like The Sims, which create simulations of what I call “emotional physics”: They render hypothetical social situations. (Hey, what would happen if a family had a domineering rock-star kid, a passive model-train collecting father, and a heroin-abusing crackhead mother? Let’s find out!)

The point is, the pleasure in these games is not even vaguely like the pleasure of narrative. They’re inherently interactive. Narrative inherently isn’t. Narrative is about surrendering yourself to the author’s will; as Northrop Frye once pointed out, the fun is not in crafting the story yourself, but in asking “yeah? And then what happened? And then? And then?” It’s about not being in control. Narrative is, at heart, a rather masochistic pleasure. A good narrative drags you along almost against your will, which is precisely why we describe a really good novel as a “page-turner”. It grabs us and forces us to keep going, keep reading, for hours and hours, long after we know we should turn off the light and go to bed. That’s the pleasure of narrative — and while it’s wonderful, it’s not even vaguely interactive.

So it’s never been a surprise to me that video games are at their absolute worst when they they most desperately attempt to include traditional narrative. At the New York Festival showing, the audience sat through a couple of the narrative “cut scenes” from gangster games like The Getaway, or shooter games like Half Life. In each case, the game-makers had crafted little dramatic scenes where you stop playing for a second, and just watch the characters deliver prescripted lines. And uniformly, these scenes were simply awful. The scripts were pretty leaden, and the characters looked static and inert. And the crowd of filmmakers noticed it. You could see them looking around at each other, going, what the hell? This is crap. This is shittiest filmmaking I’ve ever seen in my life.

But then something else came on the screen, and completely blew them away. It was a short video done by a fan of the snowboarding game SSX. The gamer had pretty much mastered the game, and perfected the most incredibly cool moves imaginable — really hilarious stuff that simply wouldn’t be possible in real life, like having a snowboarder jump off the board, spin around through the air like a ballet dancer on point, and then grab the board again in time to hit the powder at 100 miles an hour. The gamer recorded hundreds of shots of these moves, and stitched the best ones together into a video set to the Evanescence tune “Bring Me To Life”. (You can download it and view it here yourself!)

The filmmakers loved it. They went berserk. Because here, finally, was something genuinely innovative. The insane camera angles in the game — soaring through the air alongside the pirouetting snowboarder, zooming in and out in the blink of an eye — would be physically impossible in the real world. Indeed, these moves are what’s most game-like about games: The ability to generate fantastic new physics, environments, and worlds. By using the virtual world inside the game, the gamer had produced virtual “camera work” that was crazily cutting-edge … stuff that the real-world filmmakers would never dream of trying. (In fact, they probably couldn’t try it even if they wanted to, because such camera work in the real world would be prohibitively expensive. But inside a virtual world, anything goes.) When you watch that SSX movie, you realize that closest cousin to the modern video game is not the movie but the music video. Music videos are another genre that relies heavily on hallucinogenic, Dali-esque video tricks — and, incidentally, does not rely on narrative very much at all.

To me, it’s more proof that game-makers should abandon their awful and incredibly boring attempts to put movie-like elements in their games, and focus on what makes games, well, games.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Search This Site


I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

More of Me


Recent Comments

Collision Detection: A Blog by Clive Thompson