Rants & Essays

Video Games Aren’t Movies

Video Games Are Not Movies
As some of you might know, I started out my life online as filmgurl, writing movie reviews and columns for Film Threat and talking about film on the Sound on Sight podcast. These days my passion is games, but my time as a film critic has definitely influenced my views on games as entertainment and art.

For example, the types of review for access schemes that are the norm in the video game industry would never be accepted in the film world. Some might call it an astonishing open secret, one that is regularly confirmed for me in oddly hushed tones by those who have written for larger websites. Imagine if Entertainment Weekly was only allowed to press screenings if they promised a minimum review score of 8.5. The hew and cry from journalists and the public alike would halt the process in its tracks. And yet, this is exactly the sort of agreement that many sites engage in with AAA game developers, making independent journalism even more important here than in film.

Another area I feel video games could benefit from by better emulating the film industry is in the unionization of certain portions of the workforce. While the film industry model is far from perfect, the hiring and firing that follows production cycles are very similar and the number of times I am asked if I am EA wife point to continued problems with working conditions for employees of the biggest developers.


A film set in the Mass Effect universe could be cool, but I have no interest in a Mass Effect Movie starring some random actor/actress as Shepard.

And yet, despite all these similarities, when asked what video games I want to see as movies my standard answer is “none.” Video games are not movies. The translation cannot be one to one. They operate so differently as art forms/story telling mediums that assuming they should be interchangeable is a straight up fallacy. Movies are passive. We watch their images as the pass across the screen. Books are the same. We observe words and scenes and derive meaning from that. Games, on the other hand, are active. You need to engage with them. You can change them and are changed by them. They are not simply consumed, but experienced, with every one of our senses (save for smell and taste, but I’m pretty sure someone’s working on that too).

Which leads me to the real crux of my argument. With the “next gen” of consoles well and upon us, much has again been made of the advances in processing technology and image resolution. Engine builders and console makers need to sell us on the idea that greater photo realism is what will make our games better. If things look more “realistic”, then we will have better engagement. The more they look like movies, the more “impressive” they are meant to be. The more “human” facial animations are, the greater our emotional attachment will be to the game.

Gone Home

And yet, one of the most emotionally moving games of 2013, Gone Home, contains virtually no facial animations. Emotions in games are a result of story, writing, and the ability for the player to identify with that story. Unlike movies where the audience must choose a character to identify with and live the experience through the actor’s interpretation of that experience, games are able to go that extra mile and literally make the audience, or “player,” the character we want them to identify with. So in a game, you are not identifying with the emotion of a character, you instead experience those emotions first hand.

Papers Please Jorji

To me, this is really what makes games such an incredible medium for both artistic expression, and as a tool for social change. Sure, you can tell people about the devastating effects of totalitarian government, but by playing a game like Papers, Please you can live that experience and weigh the pros and cons for yourself. There is a peace to blindly following bureaucratic orders, but that peace comes at a price and Papers, Please confronts the player with that price in a way that is organic and empathetic, not dogmatic.


Compare this with something like Heavy Rain, which functions as a sort of interactive movie. Despite the conceit of controlling and therefore identifying with the main characters, interaction is limited to a series of quick time events with few real choices. Combined with cliched writing and story, the actual player engagement is superficial at best and the emotional resonance is effectively null.

While prettier graphics can help make video games a more pleasant experience, we should not kid ourselves into thinking that photo realism alone will move games forward as a medium. The real challenge is to use the tools at our disposal to tell honest stories that resonate with players.

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  • Reply
    Lady Geek Out
    January 20, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    I think you bring up some very good points on the difference between video games and film. However, I think video game films could work if they are set in that world, but follow a different storyline than the game (so that we won’t all complain about the casting of our favourite characters). At the same time, I think the films would have a very hard time being “good” as far as films go. I also don’t know if a video game based film would appeal to a lot of non-gamers.

    I hope my rambling made some sense to you!

    • Reply
      January 21, 2014 at 9:22 am

      Total sense. That’s actually the approach I usually advocate. Do I think an HBO series about the Turian/Human first contact war would be amaze balls? Yes. Do I want to see a movie that tries to condense ME into one storyline with the Rock as Shepard, not really.

  • Reply
    Stephanie Medeiros
    January 20, 2014 at 2:11 pm

    Thank you for pointing out the flaws of Heavy Rain and how making a “movie game” is normally wonky and doesn’t translate well. While the graphics were nice enough, I never did finish the game because I saw the “twist” a mile away and just gave up.

    Mass Effect was an interesting experience as a whole but don’t think it would translate well on the big screen because everybody’s Mass Effect is different. Some of them prefer FemShep or romancing different characters or being a “bad guy,” it all depends. The same goes for any video-game that people want to see as movies. We all come together as a gamer community, but most of our experiences for a single game is drastically different.

    As for the graphics, I want to see innovation in gameplay. Rust is a great example, I think. I’m tired of typical zombie games but Rust is in alpha and will be taking out the zombies entirely, resulting in PVP and survival against the elements. It’s an interesting concept and I really hope future games continue to push the limits in terms of storytelling, game play mechanics, and experiences.

    • Reply
      January 21, 2014 at 9:23 am

      I haven’t heard much about Rust, but I’ll definitely check it out. Sounds like an interesting approach.

  • Reply
    January 20, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    I’m in total agreement with you here, for the most part! Long story short, I think it’s difficult to emulate the impact a video game has on a person through film. They’re just meant to be experienced differently. You just can’t translate the feelings of discovering things on your own through gameplay to film. Because it’s not you anymore– it’s some character on the screen.

    I haven’t played Gone Home yet (next on my list), but Papers, Please was amaing and unsettling. I haven’t played Heavy Rain either, but was going to play Beyond Two Souls. I kept hearing the same things you mention about Heavy Rain and decided against it. Even if a game is heavily story-based, it should at least let you PLAY and DISCOVER for yourself.

    Elyse @ Cuddly as a Cactus

    • Reply
      January 21, 2014 at 9:25 am

      We all had such high hopes for Heavy Rain… And yet. I do have friends who are having fun with beyond Two Souls, but the few Let’s Plays I’ve seen didn’t make it seem that interesting for me.

  • Reply
    January 20, 2014 at 11:32 pm

    I know it’s not quite the same, but I often see people jumping ship for the next latest and greatest MMO purely because “the graphics are amazing”. I find that, for me, the wow factor of pretty pixels doesn’t last long at all if the story line is lame or the game play is rubbish.

    As for movie adaptations of video games, I find it very similar to most book adaptations: you’re talking about 20-40+ hours of story line! When you condense it down to two hours, you’re going to lose a LOT of what made the story worth telling in the first place. I do like Lady Geek’s idea of same universe, different plot. I hear that’s working out okay for Defiance.

    • Reply
      January 21, 2014 at 9:30 am

      I hear ya. My favourite MMO was Glitch, and it’s graphics weren’t exactly technically flawless. I also agree on the point about adapting a story of 20-40 hours down to 2. Aside from the perspective and engagement gaps, just finding the part of a video game plot that would make for an interesting movie is extremely difficult.

  • Reply
    January 23, 2014 at 5:49 pm

    100% agreed. Except Street Fighter, like 1994. HAHAHA Just kidding, it may secretly be a guilty pleasure… Ha.

    • Reply
      January 24, 2014 at 12:10 am

      Is that the one with Scott Wolf and Alyssa Milano? Somehow I’ve never seen that.

  • Reply
    Games and Movies Aren’t the Same. Let’s Talk About It. | Pixelkin
    March 28, 2014 at 6:03 am

    […] difference lies in passivity,” she writes on her blog. We watch and absorb films—they leave their imprint on our emotions, but we don’t engage […]

  • Reply
    June 8, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    This reminds me of Scott McCloud’s notes on why some of the best comics use “cartoony” characters placed against realistic backgrounds (Tintin, most anime) ; the simplified character acts as an avatar for the viewer to take them into a rich, sensorially stimulating world.

    Similarly, I find myself drawn to video games where my avatar on screen is very stylized or simplified (DeBlob 2, Okami, Fez, Journey, Sly series) – It’s just easier to fall into the game and concentrate on play. Or games like Myst, Riven, and The Unfinished Swan, where you don’t even have an avatar.

    By contrast, most AAA hyper-realistic titles seem to present a barrier to empathy. They feel like movies (and indeed, a lot of the formula is “do stuff to unlock a cutscene”). I tried InFamous and just couldn’t get into it; I felt at a remove from my onscreen character and in fact, the “realistic” lighting, NPCs running around, etc, made it harder to see what was actually happening. I didn’t feel very invested in it and ultimately gave up not far in.

    I see more of a game/movie connection with CG cartoons, obviously – the avatar-to-character crossover is perfect – but they’re often left to the ghetto of “kids’ gaming.”

  • Reply
    Games and Movies Aren't the Same. Let's Talk About It. | Pixelkin
    October 2, 2014 at 5:52 pm

    […] difference lies in passivity,” she writes on her blog. We watch and absorb films—they leave their imprint on our emotions, but we don’t engage […]

  • Reply
    Games and Movies Aren't the Same. Let's Talk About It. | Pixelkin Beta Site
    December 21, 2014 at 12:06 pm

    […] difference lies in passivity,” she writes on her blog. We watch and absorb films—they leave their imprint on our emotions, but we don’t engage […]

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