Live the world, don't tell the story

The games industry doesn't need to model itself on the film industry, argues Bill Thompson

Around the turn of the century, people were encouraged to explore a new medium, one based around a technology that could tell stories in a way that tapped directly into the viewer's emotions.

The medium was not videogames but cinema. Between the late 1880s and the start of the 20th century, motion pictures developed from an experimental technology into an established entertainment medium. There were thousands of kinetoscope parlours around the US and Europe and, after Robert Paul introduced the projector in 1895, large audiences for the short films of the day.

The early years of the film industry were as chaotic as any high technology start-up of today, as new inventions flooded on to the market and audiences grew. In the US, film-making became concentrated around southern California.

The Hollywood studio system emerged, offering Ford-like production lines for films with vertically integrated giants controlling every stage of the process, a model that survived for decades.

The big studios remain, but today the film industry in the west is far more fragmented, with star directors and actors holding the real power. It is not even clear that Hollywood is profitable: in Do Movies Make Money? insider Roger Smith calculates that the 2006 releases from Hollywood will lose $1.9bn over five years, once every source of income is added up.

There are some obvious parallels between the film industry and the relatively young videogames industry. Early games were commissioned by the companies that built arcade systems or written by hobbyists for the home computers of the eighties, just as early films were made by the inventors who developed cameras and projectors. As the technology matured, many small companies were started, and a period of consolidation in the 1980s and 1990s created Electronic Arts and the other giants we see today. Major players like Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft funded games development for their consoles, hoping to bring audiences to their next-generation platforms.

Independent control

Now there are signs that the studio model is breaking down - as it did with film. Big name designers like Peter Molyneux are attempting to control their own destiny just as film directors do, although they remain reliant on the big-name publishers to distribute their work, in the same way as independent film-makers need a distribution deal.

From the outside, games seem very similar to films and, indeed, the term "cinematic" is often used approvingly in reviews and discussion. Both are industrialised forms of entertainment, which rely on sophisticated technology to create a product and advanced capitalism to provide a market within which the product can be promoted, sold and consumed.

However, the superficial similarity disguises fundamental differences between the two forms of entertainment which may lead the games industry to diverge from the path taken by film.

Back in 2005, film director Steven Spielberg announced a working partnership with games company Electronic Arts to develop three games, including one for Nintendo's family-friendly Wii. The attendant promotion gave the film industry another chance to claim superiority over mere games developers, and Spielberg remarked: "I am a gamer myself and game development has always intrigued me."

It may have intrigued him, but the assumption that being a good film director automatically equips him to design and develop games is not one that many in the industry would support. Respected games developers like Shigeru Miyamoto, Peter Molyneux, Andy Schatz and Jenova Chen could reasonably argue that their skills in creating engaging and interactive environments are somewhat different from those needed to persuade a bunch of highly-paid actors to sit up and beg in front of the camera.

Commercial relationship

One reason for the confusion may be that the commercial relationship between films and games has been very lucrative, and there is much at stake in encouraging the belief that the overlap is meaningful. Film tie-ins are among the most-hyped titles each year, with Star Wars and Lord of the Rings leading the sale charts and Spider-Man, Harry Potter and The Simpsons all crowding out other games from the shelves.

But a game is not a story. It is a space for interaction and exploration, a space that may be dressed as a medieval world or a vast alien planet, occupied by human-like characters or small yellow blobs. Games require a very different form of engagement from film. Do nothing in the cinema and the story will continue without you. Press no buttons in a game and the action pauses, at least until a character turns up and kills you.

Self-direction

The digital technology that supports film is now very similar to that used for gaming, but the end results are very different. The emotion felt by the audience at the end of Annie Hall was put there by Woody Allan. The sense of achievement my son felt when he completed Halo 3 in hero mode came from inside him, facilitated by developers Bungie - but not created by them.

This difference has provoked a wide-ranging debate online, much of it spurred by a blog entry from RJ Layton, a student at the film school at the University of Southern California.

Studio-system parallels

In a provocative post titled "movies suck" this experienced gamer expressed his profound frustration with the view that "film is something that videogames should aspire to", telling games developers that "instead of trying to make a video game that accomplishes things that films do, why not make a video game that accomplishes things films were never able to?"

Game developers could model their industry on Hollywood, but we should not assume that there are any necessary parallels between the two or even that the games developers of tomorrow would want to find themselves in the same situation as today's struggling, undervalued and exploited independent film-makers. In the fragmented multimedia online world we are currently creating, the space for gaming may owe more to web development and virtual worlds than the old media style of the film industry.

Gaming and me

When I was younger I played Doom and Quake, years ago, on Network Systems but I was never a hardcore gamer. In the eighties, there was a game I liked - an adventure text-based game, called Unix.

About four years ago my son got an Xbox and he insisted I played on Halo with him.

What I want for Christmas...

If I were to get a game for Christmas, I would like a preview of Halo Wars, which is a multiplayer game due out next summer.

Bill Thompson is a technology critic and a trustee of the Cambridge Film Trust

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007

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Seasons change, Gilmores stay the same

Gilmore Girls is fundamentally about two things: inheritance and community. The four seasons are crucial in exploring those themes.

If you’re out on the road, feeling lonely and so cold / All you have to do is call my name / And I’ll be there. The Gilmore Girls theme, a special version of Carole King’s “Where You Lead” featuring extra vocals from her daughter, plays each episode over images of autumnal New England foliage, and always reminded me of another song on Tapestry, “You’ve Got a Friend”. Winter, spring, summer or fall / All you have to do is call / And I’ll be there.

“Winter”, “Spring”, “Summer” and “Fall” are the episodes that make up Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, Netflix’s revival of the Noughties TV series. Fans won’t be at all surprised to see Netflix lean on the four seasons to organise the new show, a fundamental principle of the original series. This integral structure remains even as they dispense with other structures of the previous seven seasons, instead of the original 22-episode year, there are just four episodes used to narrate the Gilmores’ 2016, and each one has ballooned from 45 minutes to 90. And that familiar opening? Gone.

MISS PATTY: And flutter, flutter, flutter, flutter, flutter… and leaves! Where are my leaves? I got pumpkins, I got Pilgrims, I got no leaves.

Until 2016, every episode of Gilmore Girls included the same opening credits, with shots of red and gold leaves, a Connecticut town in the throes of autumn. So, those leafy fall shots would appear at least once an episode, even though the show’s picture-perfect town, Stars Hollow, would spend each series transitioning in and out of each of the four seasons. Of course, Stars Hollow is not a real place under the influence of real changes in the weather: it’s filmed on the perpetually sunny Warner Brothers lot in Los Angeles. And New England is so inextricably associated with autumn splendour, Stars Hollow so relentlessly idyllic, you might have expected the makes of Gilmore Girls to suspend Stars Hollow in a perennial fall, with Rory and Lorelai clutching hot coffees as they tread autumn leaves underfoot all year round. (It might make thematic sense, too: Gilmore Girls’ narrative of a precocious 16-year-old, brimming with brains and potential, slowly failing to achieve her own impossible goals fits both with the season’s connotations of academic beginnings and promise, and with its longer-standing cultural affiliation with maturity, pensive reflection and wistfulness.)

DARREN: Stars Hollow is charming. The last time we drove through there, there was a pumpkin patch.
LORELAI: Sounds like us.
DARREN: In March.
LORELAI: Oh, that would be the year the pumpkins arrived late.

The idea of Stars Hollow in perpetual autumn even comes up in a few episodes. Pumpkins arrive in March, autumnal events continue until the very end of November. Fall decorations are seemingly mandatory for local businesses.  But while every Gilmore Girls viewer can immediately conjure an image of Stars Hollow in fall, so too will they have an equally memorable selection of images of the town in winter, spring, and summer. No season goes unmarked. In fact, in the hyperreal utopia of Stars Hollow, seasons are exaggerated and picturesque: an overabundance of harvest vegetables, fluffy snow, budding blossoms, or falling leaves.

LORELAI: Grass is just not this green — not outside of Pleasantville, it isn’t.
CHRISTOPHER: So, what exactly are you saying?
LORELAI: I’m suggesting they brought in sod.
CHRISTOPHER: You suspect sod.
LORELAI: Yes, or spray paint. Maybe they spray-painted the grass when they spray-painted these trees, ‘cause, I mean, there’s autumnal foliage and then there’s autumnal foliage. It’s over the top, people.

But the seasonal obsession is more than just a way to emphasise the perfection of Stars Hollow. It’s an organising principle for the show’s structure, action and themes.

***

When Kelly Bishop (the actor who plays the most senior Gilmore girl, Emily) received the script for Gilmore Girls, she was stunned by the sheer weight of it. “I kept flicking it over, and looking at the thickness of it,” she told EW. “It was too thick to be a sitcom.” Gilmore Girls, consisting of hour-long episodes that make little sense out of order, but with its emphasis on witty dialogue over dramatic plotlines, hovers in a strange space between sitcom and drama.

Sitcoms are, by definition, situational — they often rely on characters thrown together in a confined space, be it the family living room, friends flatsharing or colleagues in a shitty office space. Comedy is often drawn from the familiarity of the specific surroundings: as a result, fans of The Simpsons or Friends or The Office could accurately draw floor-plans of the shows’ unchanging sets. So, too, could you draw a map of Stars Hollow, if you’ve seen enough episodes (trust me, I’ve done it). The action of a sitcom is often suspended in time and space: episodes end back where they began, the next opening as though nothing of note has happened since. Dramas, though, tend to thrive on progression of both character and plot; casts moving inexorably forward through time and space.

LORELAI: God, the town looks beautiful.
LUKE: Same as always.
LORELAI: No, it’s always different this time of year. It’s magical.
LUKE: If you say so, sure. Oh look, there’s the magical plumbing supply store where I bought a magical float for my toilet last week.
LORELAI: You disappoint me.
LUKE: Oh look. There’s the magical Luke’s Diner, right underneath the apartment that Jess magically lit by leaving every stinkin’ light on.

So, for Gilmore Girls to straddle both these genres, Stars Hollow must hold most of the show’s action and the majority of its ensemble cast, while still allowing the passing year to make its mark on the town. The seasons allow this. Much of this work is done in the background, as the set design changes from episode to episode, but characters are also constantly remarking on the changes in the town with each passing month, as Lorelai does when snow envelops the square.

The result is not just a keen sense of place, but of a place moving through time.

***

TAYLOR: Every other store in town has fall decorations.
LUKE: Hoorah for the mob mentality.
TAYLOR: We’re talking a few streamers and a paper turkey. How’s it gonna hurt to have a paper turkey?
LUKE: No turkey, no squash, no pumpkins. Nothing colored orange.
TAYLOR: OK, you don’t like orange. That’s fine. Autumn has many varied hues to toy with. This is the Autumn Festival. Your shop is right across the street from the Horn of Plenty! You’re smack dab in the middle of everything. You have to decorate.
LUKE: I don’t have to do anything but serve food.
TAYLOR: We’re talking about the spirit of fall!
LUKE: You know where you can stick the spirit of fall?

Gilmore Girls, with its principle cast of family members, and its sprawling ensemble cast of Stars Hollow residents, is fundamentally about two things: inheritance and community. The four seasons similarly become an important device for exploring those themes.

Small rural communities have long organised themselves around the seasons. Stars Hollow is no different — except in the ridiculous extent of its embrace of all things seasonal. Each season of Gilmore Girls is organised around the constant onslaught of annual festivals: the End of Summer Madness Festival that, well, ends summer, the Teen Hayride, the 24-Hour Dance Marathon the Autumn Festival complete with Cornucopia Can Drive and Horn of Plenty, November’s Old Muddy River Bridge Knitathon, the commemorations of the Battle of Stars Hollow, the Winter Carnival, the Snowman-Building Contest, the Christmas Procession, January’s Founders’ Firelight Festival, the Bid-on-a-Basket festival, Groundhog Day, St Patrick’s Day, the Purim festival, a whole host of springtime weddings and engagement parties, the springtime Movie Night in the Square, the annual Easter Egg Hunt, the Hay Bale Maze at the Spring Fling Festival, and the Festival of Living Pictures are just selection of the events honoured in Stars Hollow.

LORELAI: Oh, hey! Turn out the lights.
LUKE: For what? It’s not the real procession, it’s just the rehearsal.
LORELAI: So, it’s pretty.
LUKE: And why do they need to rehearse it? It’s the same thing every year.
LORELAI: Come on Luke, please. It’s hard to imagine living somewhere else isn’t it?

These aren’t just background quirks, lending us an increased sense of familiarity with the town as we’re told over and over that these events unfold in the same, strange way every single year. They’re linchpins which hold key plot events in place. Both Jess and Dean tell Rory they love her, with less than positive consequences, during the supposedly romantic Founder’s Firelight Festivals. Rory’s romantic relationship with Jess speeds up when he bids on her basket at the Bid-on-a-Basket festival, which is also where Sookie and Jackson become engaged. Her relationship with Dean ends (the second time) in spectacular fashion at the Dance Marathon. Luke begins his romantic relationship with Lorelai when dancing with her amidst springtime decorations in the town square at Liz and TJ’s wedding. The list goes on.

The result is that the lives of our main characters, the lives of the smaller Stars Hollow characters, and small-town seasonal events are all inextricably linked to the same calendar. Particularly in the early seasons, every significant relationship, for both Rory and Lorelai, becomes rooted in the community of Stars Hollow. Public acts of citizenship and private expressions of love overlap. To live in Stars Hollow is to live every aspect of your life communally, communing with others, and with nature itself.

LORELAI: Do you know that the best things in my life have happened when it snowed?
RORY: Why, yes, I do.
LORELAI: My best birthday.
RORY: Your first kiss.
LORELAI: Your first steps. They all happened when it snowed.

***

The seasonal structure of the show also brings with it a sense of inevitability, as, in the midst of these reliable annual ceremonies, Gilmore Girls explores ideas of inheritance across the generations. In the grand houses of Emily and Richard’s world (and Lorelai, Christopher and Logan’s youths) inheritance both metaphorical and literal is an encouraged part of family life: but it feels forced and uncomfortable, restricting individuality in favour of decorum and reputation. In Stars Hollow, inheritance functions in a different, but no less crucial, way: more subtle and natural, as constant and eternal as the circles of life. For children who grow up with their parents in Stars Hollow, inheritance seems predestined, even if it didn’t seem so to the characters it affects.  

Many characters are surprised by what they inherit from their parents: Luke never expected to care so much for his father’s old hardware store, Lane is shocked to discover that after years of aching to break out of her mother’s conservative ideals, she’s not comfortable with having sex before marriage. Jess never thought he would pick up a book on intimacy from his uncle Luke, let alone read it sincerely, nor to learn so much valuable advice from him about communication in relationships.

LUKE: You do not want to grow up to be like your mom.
RORY: Sorry, too late.

Of course, that sense of inescapable legacies is taken to extremes in Rory and Lorelai’s relationship: in the very first episode, Lorelai exclaims to her daughter, “After all, you’re me!” While Rory at 16  is, in some ways, a vision of everything Lorelai at 16 was not (responsible, excited by her education, chaste, keeping a constant, serious eye on her future), as the series unfolds, that changes, as Rory becomes more impulsive, reckless and romantic. Viewers are relentlessly confronted by parallels between Rory and Lorelai’s romantic choices: Christopher is to Lorelai as Logan is to Rory, Luke is to Lorelai as Jess is to Rory. Seasons change, Gilmores stay the same.

LORELAI: He kind of looks like Christopher.
LUKE: The grocery kid?
LORELAI: Yeah. He looks like Christopher.
LUKE: And Christopher is Rory’s dad?
LORELAI: The hair, the build, something about the eyes. He reminds me of Christopher.
LUKE: Well that’s not too surprising.
LORELAI: You’re going to quote Freud to me? ’Cause I’ll push you in front of a moving car. This talk was going so well.
LUKE: You and Rory are a lot alike. It’s not surprising you would have similar tastes in men.

It is an inexorable, unavoidable logic, then, that sees Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, a show with more interest in the unfolding seasons and the passage of time than ever, that sees Rory finally become her mother. The show’s much-anticipated final four words (“Mom,” “Yeah?” “I’m pregnant”) see Rory at 32, the same age as her mother when the series began, in a similar position to her mother at 16: single, pregnant, unfocused in her career. Some found it frustratingly obvious and pessimistic, others found it optimistic and apt. I’d sum it up in the same way Lorelai comments on her repeating circumstances with her own mother: with a grimly ironic toast “to the circle of life”.

But however you feel about the ending, Gilmore Girls has pulled off one impressive feat. As Lorelai and Rory sit together in the bandstand, and the show cuts to black, it doesn’t feel like the show has ended at all. The fictional landscape of Stars Hollow has a life that extends beyond the screen, as inevitable as the seasons themselves.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.