Storytelling, Videogames, and Cinematic Imitation

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Have you ever noticed how film adaptations of video games are mostly rubbish? Of course you have. And so has everyone else. In fact, a quick google search will show an extensive list of people making just that point. That is not what I am here to say (wait, where am I?). It is largely accepted that the video game industry has been treated poorly by the movie business, to the point of callousness. Where else but this hellish misunderstanding of the two mediums could give such prosperity to the likes of Uwe Boll? No. I am here to say that the video game industry has to take a step away from the great works of the film industry. Take a step right back I say, get over the terrible things that have been done to you in the name of film and grow up.

The relationship between these two industries has always been a bit testy. It would be fair to say that there is a longer history of film makers damaging the reputation of video gaming. Videogames have risen in an age of entertainment when cinema ROOLED. Coupled with gaming’s appeal to geek culture, the video game industry’s insecurities (amongst its fans at least) were often provoked by the world of film. In 1978, when Richard Donner was showing the world that a man could fly, the gaming industry hadn’t advanced much further than two lines knocking a square ball at each other. And when film moguls finally acknowledged the appeal (financially anyway) of gaming culture, they wasted most opportunities to achieve the visual spectacle that gamers yearned for, and made rubbish films instead. The list of casualties is extensive, and often held up as crimes against the gaming industry: Super Mario Bros, Street Fighter 2, Resident Evil, Doom amongst others. But now the gaming industry has the tools and skills to compete visually with the world of film and tell the stories that they have been desperate to tell for 40 years. Well-earned I say. Problem is that the stories they want to tell are rubbish.

It’s a bit rich to criticise the films listed above when one looks at the source material. The stories are unimaginative, the characterisation is very limited, and the script often particularly bad. There’s very little to build an actual story from. Let’s go through the list:

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Street Fighter 2 (1991)– the only reason story even comes into this game is to imitate narrative closure at the game’s end, as well as providing some scantily clad characterisation in the form of the heroes motivation. The script serves as an early example of the problems in translation in video games. The film, Street Fighter (1994) was filing in a lot of gaps to make a cohesive story, and ultimately stretched the storytelling qualities of video games too far.


Super Mario Bros. (1993) does have the makings of a great story, which I think the filmmakers had a good crack at. I mean, how did two Italian plumber siblings find themselves in this eternal struggle against a world of dinosaurs and sentient mushrooms in a bid to save a princess from a giant spiky turtle dragon? Interesting premise, no? And Bob Hoskins (RIP). While the film was a big swing and a miss, it’s not as though any of the games in the Mario universe were ever telling a better story. The game follows the template of the maiden in distress story with no deviations, which works well for a medium that is not primarily aimed at telling a story. The game hardly provided the filmmakers with a cohesive story that only required pointing a camera at. The production of the film is a well-documented disaster with the budget exceeding millions before a final draft of the script had been submitted. But Hollywood egos and money chasing studios aside this failure can be put down to the fact that the Mario Bros was trying to retell a story that didn’t exist in the first place.

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The filmmakers of Doom (2005) seem to have identified the lack of a story in the source material from the start and instead tried to imitate the game as a game and resulted in a curiously uncinematic experience. It tried to tell the story using The POV device that is used in the game as a first person shooter.

 This managed to displace the viewer as a film watcher and also as a game player. It is not a criticism when I say that gaming is a more selfish medium than film. Gaming has a stronger emphasis on allowing the player to control a characters reaction rather than films emphasis on an understanding of the characters motivations; one seeks total immersion and the other aims to invoke empathy. This film didn’t achieve either of these things, because it fell in the chasm that separates the storytelling abilities of the two mediums that this scene thoroughly highlights.

Now that games have the technology to imitate the look of film the game industry has taken what appears to be a no-brainer decision, and focused more on cinematic storytelling. Now it isn’t uncommon to find 2 hours of a game’s running time that is taken out of the control of the player and replaced with cut scenes; boring, predictable, and largely rehashed scenes from rubbish 90s/00s films. Some games have even reduced the players involvement by telling them what buttons to press to progress through a cut scene in the form of quick time events.

The counter argument I’ve heard is that the spectacle is enough. In fact, it is possible to watch the game like a film! How lovely! Thing is, that is complete bollocks. And if you agree with that premise, you are hogging the controller and should give someone else a go

Jason Melvin, you are a shit boyfriend. And why aren’t women playing games in these ads?.

If we are to apply Sturgeon’s law (that 90% of everything is crap) I would say that the 90% of films that are bad tell a story better than the leading 10% of video game titles. I’m not saying that games shouldn’t tell stories, because all art forms, to a degree, say something about the human experience. Instead I’m being critical of the gaming industry’s obsession with telling cinematic stories.  My favourite games have terrible stories, flat characters, and terrible scripts. Christ, Watch this. Watch all of it! The world of gaming is a billion dollar industry but is incapable of showing a realistic development of character over the course of a games running time, which can be in excess of 10 hours. Listening to Max moan and MOAN over the hours it takes to complete the game’s storyline is grating to say the least. I wasn’t rooting for him, and the games completion (like almost all games) was set on his survival to progress through the game. And in terms of visual aesthetic, the developers have just taken Tony Scott’s Man On Fire (2004) hook line and sinker. It’s not a great film, but cinematically it achieved everything it set out to do 7 years before Max Payne 3 came out, and did it considerably better.

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Let’s focus on one of the gaming industry’s most often cited examples of how gaming is overtaking cinema in its storytelling: The Uncharted series. It was playing these games, which I enjoy very much, when I realised that naggling irritation I felt when I played the biggest releases of the gaming industry was a reaction to the rubbish films I was being made to watch rather than play. When the cut scenes are edited together to make a narrative without gameplay the story is a mash-up of Sahara (2005), Vertical Limit (2000), and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001). All of which are not remembered too fondly (I actually quite like Vertical limit. shut up.), but I think it is fair to say that when each of these titles is directly compared cinematically to the Uncharted series, they win every time on the charge of best dramatically told cinematic story. And when the crème de la crème of any entertainment or art form cannot hold up against bloody Sahara, it’s time to take stock.

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