Films, Games And The Problematic Parallels In Between

My father was not happy to hear that I wanted to be a game developer. Yet he’d never had an issue with me expressing ambitions to design and write...

My father was not happy to hear that I wanted to be a game developer. Yet he’d never had an issue with me expressing ambitions to design and write films. His exact words to me were: “There is no future in games.” When he said this, I laughed. It reminded me of something I’d learned in film history class not long ago.

Where It All Began

Many years ago, the difference between films and games was plain as day. Films were realistic portrayals of people, events, and places. They had actors, emotions, stories. Games were cute little images on a screen that you could move around and have a little fun with. As games grew, the bridge between the two mediums became smaller and smaller.

The first shift was the introduction of cutscenes. As early as Pac-Man, games included video sequences between moments of gameplay to entertain the player. Very quickly this technique was adapted to make games not just interactive toys, but a mode of storytelling. Developers began using cutscenes as a way to create complex expository scenes (as opposed to in-game exposition). Voice acting soon accompanied these cutscenes, and as animation techniques grew more complex so did these “cinematics”.

Oh yeah, Voice acting! Actors! Actors are, more or less, people. People have emotions (well, most of them). Emotions are the building block of stories. So…are we there yet? Not quite.

Pacman: The very first cutscenes. Photo Credit: http://arcadesushi.com/files/2016/05/1.png

Very Similar Histories

Film itself has been revolutionised in these same years by digital animation and assistance. In fact, the history of video games very much mirrors that of the film, though in a shorter time period. Many often seem to forget that when the film got its start in 1895, it was no more than a toy. The first films were mere seconds long, short reels of people walking about or trains going this or that way.

Historians refer to early cinema as “the cinema of attractions” because there was very little storytelling done; they were most often short escapades of dance, magic acts, plays, etc, produced more often by inventors rather than proclaimed artists, lasting only a few minutes, and often shown one-after-another like parts of a circus show. Silent cinema was not quite silent; the films had no sound themselves but were always played in sync with live music or some accompanying sound effects.

Arcades and Episodes

Think back to early video games, back to being a kid at the arcade. What were those games like? Episodic, short, you often played them in several rounds or else one-after-another. Much like old cinema would have been viewed. In older games, the sounds came from the machines themselves rather than the games inside. There’s little storytelling done in these games, usually; they are about short and quick thrills.

Do you know what Louis Lumière, one of the two brothers who made the first ever films, said about cinema? He said, “The cinema is an invention without any future.” That’s why I laughed; we all know how wrong he was.

Technology Evolving Art

Due to the availability of technologies, the advancement of games has been far quicker than that of films. Very quickly, games have caught up to film’s technological level, in fact often gone far beyond it.

We’ve come a long way from partial digital animation (such as the dinosaurs in some scenes of the first Jurassic Park) to nearly fully digitised film (seen as early as Avatar In 2009). As early as 2001, The Academy added the “Best Animated Feature” category to the Academy Awards.

As film grew, inevitably so did games; today, motion capture techniques allow for some game cinematics to be nearly indistinguishable from film-quality productions. The Last of Us used professional cinematography techniques combined with motion capture acting to construct its cinematics in a way that feels like a Hollywood movie.

So How Come Game = Films?

The difference is of course in gameplay. But why is it that the inclusion of gameplay lessens the artistic credibility of games? Simply because you have to actually do something and not be a quiet participant? Is there some fear of responsibility for one’s actions that makes this less appealing as an art form?

Some say that the collusion between film and games is a mistake, an error that must be corrected for games to really be their own art. Some say that no matter how tight this collusion becomes a game can never be art.

Renowned film critic Roger Ebert once said: “One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite an immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.”

Photo Credit: http://wallpapercave.com/wp/wp1811277.jpg

And many I’m sure would agree; The Last of Us had its fair share of critics, claiming that the long cutscenes and the frequent semi-interactive expository walks simply did not mesh with the action. They claim these elements made the pacing feel awkward and the suspense and adventure lacklustre.

But weren’t similar objections raised at filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and Ingmar Bergman, for their experimental and non-conformative techniques in films like Breathless and Wild Strawberries? These films both won critical acclaim and critical malice at their release.

Regardless, the very fact that there is a debate at all proves that there is indeed a future. The way we make and consume games is changing, the way we make and consume films is changing, and they are colliding intensely, and the friction between them is producing beautiful sparks.

So there you have it. The next time someone tells you there is no future in games, tell them to take a lesson in film history. If they aren’t convinced, well, at least you can convince yourself.

I'm a senior at UIC studying fiction writing, film, and computer science. I hope to use this mix of skills to contribute as a game developer and create settings, characters, and stories that people will love and enjoy, especially in the field of games, which I think is evolving into a form of literature. Outside of video games I love to read books of all kinds, keep up with the latest news in astronomy and physics, and play Dungeons and Dragons with my friends.
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