Just recently, I did a review on a game called Firewatch. It was made by two of the writers of the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead episodic game. Those two had amazing talent, but they wanted to make something completely original, instead of sticking with Telltale’s formula of just taking old IPs and giving them an episodic take. A tactic which has had mixed results. Sometimes it’s awesome, like with The Wolf Among Us. Other times it’s mediocre or outright boring. Like their takes on Jurassic Park and Game of Thrones. While neither one is bad, both of them are lacking something. A vital spark that the first season of The Walking Dead had in spades. That thing was great use in having characters shape stories, almost entirely through dialogue. Which through brought to Firewatch incredibly well. The opening of this game has you shaping the life of the main character, and helping tell his decisions, either good or bad. Here was my first playthrough.
But this got me to thinking about something I saw on a game trailer for the new Doom that is coming out in a month or so. Someone in the comments was saying that buying this new game was a waste of money, since all modern games are is interactive movies. I started to think about that. And I want to talk about it, because the thing is – I actually disagree with that sentiment. There are elements of film, but it’s so much more. But while the person making that sentiment was begrudging this fact, I’m not. This might just be my most inflammatory Critical Examination post, because I know that my opinion on this issue is unpopular. Once I am done, I will leave the comments open for you all to give me all the shit you want.
If games are just interactive movies, then I suppose the first thing we have to have is a definition of what makes a movie. A film is a visual medium. You have characters on a screen acting out a story. The story is written typically in a three-act structure, with the performances and the visual elements coming together to have us (the audience) taking something away from that story. Or, in Michael Bay’s case, we just watch shit blow up until the credits. Which, while critics in ‘Murica pan these films left and right (and the Internet is right along with them), these films are big bucks in places like China. There’s a reason that the climax of the last film was Hong Kong. China is in love with these movies. And for those of you who are part of this “why don’t we have more minorities in these movies?!” camp, there’s an answer. In foreign markets, they like white action heroes. There’s actual market research to show this. The Asian communities in-particular love to watch whitey kill people. You wanna call racism? Well then, you’re calling the Chinese racist. Against you. Work that out however you need.
Films typically are defined by the strong visual performance, along with strong acting. At least if the film is done well. Sure, you sometimes get stuff like God’s Not Dead or Paranormal Activity, or even something truly amazing like Samurai Copor The Room. But the best films the ones where you have all the elements coming together to tell a visual story with the characters having some form of growth by the end. Hell, even action films can have that, as shown in a rather fantastic video detailing what’s wrong with modern action movies (linked here).
Since films are a visual medium, the simple rule is – show, don’t tell. Don’t feed the audience long bouts of exposition. Instead, show them the elements of the story. Some exposition is fine, but keep it to a minimum. Your visual elements have to make the story work. Otherwise you get boredom like Tales of Earthsea. Now that we know the rules of a film, let’s ask one simple question – do video games fit in with this structure?
The Last of Us
Here’s a game that you’d think would be the quintessential answer to the question. After all, it has two main characters. The story seems to have three arcs. The characters grow and change over time. And the whole thing is done visually. There are elements you can collect along the way, but the fact is that it still follows the “show, don’t tell” rule pretty well. But the truth about this game is not so simple.
The thing about this game is the fact that while there are intense moments in the game, what separates it from a film is the fact that you are inside of the experience. You are with Ellie when she is being hunted by David. You are with Joel as he is running from the infected with his daughter in his arms. All of these things are with you in the driver’s seat. Only through your actions do the events play out. And while there is no choice in how the events play out, the game makes it feel like it fits. You couldn’t change what happened. The tragedy of that game was destined to play out as it did. And it made for one of the most emotionally-gripping stories of all time.
Another thing the game had that no film did is the little moments between Joel and Ellie. Would you have cared as much about them without the little bits of conversation? Like when you are walking through the city, and the two share thoughts? When they learn little tidbits about one-another, through dialogue that you can sometimes skip. Pieces of character development that add so much to the story. Like when you first come upon the monkeys at the University. You can chase after them and see a whole dialogue play out between Joel and Ellie. Or how, if you explore around, they get to talking about the merits of college, and you find out some of Joel’s history when he was growing up. This sort of attention to detail is something that film simply couldn’t do. I hear that a film version of this game is being made, and I honestly think it has no other option than to suck. Partly because of the darkness of the plot material, and partly because it can’t capture those moments and make these two characters seem like real people.
But maybe this was a bad example. Let’s take a look at a game that is loathed by my side of the gaming fence and see if we can argue that it is an interactive movie.
This game has an ugly reputation to the extreme in a lot of gaming circles. The hipsters gamers were in love with it. I think that while it isn’t nearly as good as they say it is, it isn’t as terrible as other gamers say. It isn’t just a “walking simulator.” There is more to the plot, and it’s stuff you get to find out on your own. This is a game that kind of blows the idea that all modern games are just interactive movies out of the water, if you ask me. Why? Because of how it is made.
I honestly believe that part of the reason that the GG side of the fence despises this game so much was based on the fact that it was falsely advertised. The first trailers for this game made it seem like the house being abandoned had a much creepier vibe than the game actually did. If they had told this story for what it is, I bet that while it wouldn’t be liked by the people who hate it, they would have just written it off. Oh, and there was the fact that the games media was stroking this game’s nuts SO hard. That was also a real problem.
This game is a send-up to nostalgia and coming home. You do this by exploring the house. You interact with objects and go through the house. You can put on an old mix tape that the main character made on a cassette. Going through the house and finding all these novelties is meant to evoke emotions that you have when you have lived away from home for a long time and come back. I refuse to believe that some of the people in my audience haven’t had this experience at least once in their life. Like when you go back to an old fort you made as a kid or something. The game was meant to be about those nostalgic moments.
Could a film really do that? I don’t think so. Movies about nostalgia tend to lay it on WAY too thick. Like making the nostalgia the absolute best thing ever. We have enough of that stupidity on Tumblr, don’t we? Or Buzzfeed (the absolute worst “news” site on the Internet). The Internet’s obsession with nostalgia is what has fueled hipster culture. But the thing about Internet nostalgia is that while it may make people totally cool with watching the first Star Wars movie all over again with a fresh coat of paint, this wasn’t that. Films that glorify nostalgia make it all about how amazing nostalgia is. But despite what “Only a 90’s Kid Would Remember” posts say, real nostalgia isn’t like that. It’s a quiet experience, with memories coming back in a subtle way. I genuinely can’t think of one film that does that element. Much less does it right.
Alright, so we’ve debunked two games that people have called “interactive movies.” Let’s take a look at one more, as a nice segway into making a point about what gaming is, and how wrong the critics of modern gaming are.
The Mass Effect series was brilliant. Were it not for the TERRIBLE ending to the franchise (I have literally ZERO intention of playing the new game. EA burned me to the bone, and I’m done with them), this would have gone down as one of the greatest franchises in gaming. The first two games had me in love. Hell, the first two and 7/8 games had me in love. No joke, right up to when they went back to Earth, Mass Effect 3 had me enraptured. It did everything right! If I could only figure out how the fucked up the last act of this game so much.
But while these games did have a cinematic quality to them, there is one thing that they had which no film could have – the Codex. The Codex was the backbone of these games. Well, that and the character interactions. For real, who can honestly just go through the game and not want the dialogue and whatnot? That’s what makes these characters so fun! Anyway, the series had an ever-growing encyclopedia of information about the universe the game took place in, which you could consult at any time if there was something you were interested in. Whether it was something about the planet you are on, or the technology of that universe. Everything in that franchise followed a strict set of rules, set out in the Codex. Well, everything up until the very end of the third game, but enough people have bitched about that.
Mass Effect was a science fiction game in the same vein as Star Trek – talky and techie. You had characters talking to people, doing stuff, then talking to other characters about the stuff they just did. Then you would have them wrap up little mission, which are framed just like episodes. The second game did this almost flawlessly. The loyalty missions for characters are my favorite, because they allow you to get into the minds of the characters and learn who it is you’re fighting beside. Each mission was unique, and depending on your actions, had a conclusion that could run the emotional gamut. For a game to basically have missions which are like episodes of an old sci-fi TV show is amazing. It is something that you couldn’t possibly duplicate in a film. I’m glad they scrapped the idea for a film based on the games. It just couldn’t be done. The universe and the characters in it are just too massive to possibly do without a shit-ton of exposition. A film can’t have the Codex, after all.
So where does this leave us? Are games like films? The truth is – no. They aren’t. Those who want to complain that games are not like they used to be back in the days of the original Doom can stuff their criticisms right up their ass. because the fact is that video games take the best elements of film, television and even books and shove them together. They are the culmination of all the great story-telling art, and I love that. Some of them can even tell fairy-tales, in the same vein as old story-books. Like The Unfinished Swan.
I think the criticism of games comes from the fact that people lament the loss of the old 2D games. It is these people who don’t want to come into the 21st century of gaming. Which is weird, considering that Steam is absolutely brimming with games for those kinds of people. Nostalgia is just as big in gaming as it is everywhere else. It’s the reason a spiritual successor to Banjo Kazooie has been made. I’m not saying that they are bad people because they want something else from gaming. I’m just saying that they are dissing on this medium and I think their criticism are more than a little unfair.
But maybe I’m just some hipster. Let me know what you think down in the Comments. And be sure to Like this post and sub to me. Because I’m awesome and shit.
Until next time, a quote,
“I can’t believe I’m going to leave this world as a pile of bear shit.” -Henry, Firewatch