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.
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.
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.
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.