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31 July 2015

Why games shouldn’t be like movies, and why movies shouldn’t be like games

It is time to drag them away from each other for the benefit of both.

By Phil Hartup

You don’t have to see Pixels* to know that videogames and movies do not make a good couple. The relationship between games and movies has been little more than a succession of low points going back to E.T. in 1982. It surely must be tempting to think that this compulsion for games and movies to feed into and off each other is a sign that they are artistically tied together, that they are both destined to lift one another to higher and better things and that they have something important in common that means they can both learn from each other.

But no; games are games and movies are movies. The fact that they sometimes look similar is coincidence. It is time to drag them away from each other for the benefit of both.

I’m not going to launch into a bunch of examples of terrible games based on movies and terrible movies based on games because we’re looking at something deeper than simply the worst excesses of cross-promotion. Of course the manifestation of the incompatibility between these two media is often atrocious, we all know this, but rather than look at the misbegotten sum of the parts, we need to look at the parts and see why they don’t work together.

The biggest problem is that movies and games operate from an entirely different perspective. Being the audience is not the same as being the player. This sounds like an extremely obvious point to make but it appears to be one that eludes some game developers as they litter their games with expository cut-scenes, Quick Time Events (or QTEs) and scripted sequences. There is a sense that movie directors sometimes miss this point too, where action and violence are used in place of plot coherence and character, leaving movies that look like they might have made fun games to play, but fail because, simply put, they aren’t games. It is no coincidence or surprise that the Star Wars prequels made much better video games, even as Lego, than they did movies.

But what makes the difference between audience and player so fundamental? To get to the root of this we have to look at what a game is and what the role of the player is within it. A game (ideally) is not something that you watch; a game is something that you, as a player, act within. A good game is more akin to a piece of theatre than it is a movie, but with the player’s role not as audience member but as (usually) lead actor.

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For an example of how this works in practice, let’s look at the first Mass Effect game. More recent examples could be anything from The Witcher 3 or Dark Souls 2 to GTA V and XCOM, but the original Mass Effect got this spot on. In Mass Effect the player takes the role of Commander Shepard, and then the player gets to interpret that role as they see fit. What background does their Commander Shepard come from? Is Shepard a man or a woman? How does the character go about their pursuit of the villain? What weapons do they prefer and do they dart from cover to cover popping heads at will, or is every fight conducted in a mess of blind-firing and hopeful order giving? Each player interprets the role of Shepard differently- the character is to the gamer what Othello, Hamlet or Lady Macbeth is to an actor, a role within an existing story which they can interpret within certain limitations. When somebody plays Mass Effect they are in effect creating and experiencing a unique story.

It’s easy to say that this exists in Mass Effect because it is overtly a roleplaying game, but it remains true for all games. A good game allows the player to express themselves, whether it is through a particular style of play in Counterstrike, the way you build up your nation in Civilization or anything in between.

It can be said that there are also different ways to play that are arguably comparable with different ways to act. Some players will play a game and attempt what passes for a naturalistic approach, trying to keep within the reality of the game fiction, playing their game as they think the character might act. Others might focus exclusively on the game mechanics, taking what could be seen as a Brechtian approach, eschewing aesthetic immersion in order to engage with the systems. Most players will find a place in between and muddle through in their own way.

What this essentially means is that games are live, they are performance pieces, or they at least should aspire to be. Their developers should not be looking at movies as an aspiration, because for all the celebrity and red carpets and praise heaped on movies there is no inherent superiority to them. Movies are not an upgrade of games, they are not something that games should wish to be. By that same rationale movie makers should not be looking at the screens in front of gamers and thinking that if they can replicate what’s happening on them they will magically create something which holds millions of people spellbound. To attempt to replicate a game within a movie is like trying to draw a tesseract on a flat piece of paper.

All this doesn’t mean that you can’t make a great video game that uses a movie as inspiration. The Warriors (Rockstar’s underappreciated 2005 classic) proved that you can make a great game tied closely to a film, being one of the rare examples of a brilliant game that shares a huge amount with its source material in terms of setting and tone. But as contrary as it seems for a game based upon a movie, it still isn’t trying to be the movie.

Contrast this to something like Beyond: Two Souls or if you want to look further back the painfully disappointing Dragon’s Lair and the problem is clear. The problem is less games not based on specific movies, but rather games seeking to be movie-like, to their detriment. Few games have embraced this wrongheadedness so completely, but many flirt with it, such as the Quick Time Event laden mess that was The Order 1886 or the linear nostalgia-assassination that was Aliens: Colonial Marines. It never ends well.

Ultimately we’d all be better served if movie makers made movies, game developers made games, and nobody got any funny ideas about crossbreeding the two.

*You don’t have to see Pixels at all, thankfully.