Games and Movies

Competency disclaimer: I have no background in game development, but I do have a background in film production. I write articles like this with some trepidation, as the world does not need another player of games telling makers of games how to do their job. However, in so far as the perspective of a former film practitioner is useful, I would love to see any conversation this may provoke in the comments.

While I have no authority to appeal to on this subject, it seems evident that games have been heavily influenced by cinema, particularly James Cameron/George Lucas style blockbusters (and many indies carry direct references to art/independent films that have influenced them). This is an intuitive step because movies convey meaning through a combination of images and sounds, and blockbusters in particular create a level of excitement and spectacle that are the standard for modern entertainment products. Furthermore, tapping into the conventions of cinema gives game developers access to a fairly sophisticated grammar that has taken us from understanding a message in 30 seconds to a mere 5 seconds or less in advertising. While borrowing from film seems like an obvious step, it may not be the most appropriate. What follows is an account of some ways I think cinematic techniques may be inappropriate for games, and some examples of alternatives that have been effective in games I’ve enjoyed.

How does a movie work?

Film theory is a big subject, and the knowledge applied on the film set may never find itself in a book, but there are some basics that find consensus among the practitioners who have written down their thoughts. One useful, idea that emerged was the theory of montage.

Just as Fascists saw the utility of the new technology of radio for propaganda purposes, the Soviet Union saw the propaganda benefits of film and dedicated considerable study to it. The theory of montage is best illustrated by an experiment done by a filmmaker named Pudovkin. Pudovkin filmed an actor with a neutral expression looking off camera and then edited this against three separate shots: a girl playing, a casket, and some bread. When viewers saw each clip they would credit the actor with a portrayal of a father’s love for his daughter, or terrible grief at his mother’s death, or unimaginable hunger. The performance gained meaning through the shot that followed it. The filmmaker Eisenstein developed the theory of montage further, but for our purposes it is sufficient to say that montage is the juxtaposition of two separate shots to create a separate meaning (if you took an undergraduate philosophy class, you might see a parallel to a common formulation of Hegelian Dialectic: Thesis + Antithesis = Synthesis).

Montage is a useful framework for thinking about how meaning is created in film, but if we’d prefer to divest ourselves of any intellectual commitment with regards to meaning, we can at least use it to illustrate how editing is important and unique to film. I do not say essential as there are famous exceptions such as Rope and Russian Ark that attempt to be ‘one shot’ films, but, of the films that influence games, a large portion of the experience and meaning come from the juxtaposition of specific shots to provoke a particular response. Editing seems to be the one truly unique feature of cinema that sets it apart from theatre or radio. Consider how constant edits to the ticking clocks of the bottles (being opened or ready to fall) create tension in this clip from Notorious:

We can narrow our focus to the components of montage and consider the shots themselves. Even in a film like Rope, the choice of what to show the audience makes all the difference. This includes technical considerations such as the length of lens, depth of field, and exposure, but more importantly it involves the decision of what to include or exclude in the context of what the audience has seen already. This is cinematographer Bill Fraker discussing a famous shot from Rosemary’s Baby:

Divorced from the context of the film (or even away from the big screen), this shot is not likely to have the same effect as it did on the original audience, but it should serve to illustrate the point. Any camera is perfectly capable of conveying information, but when wielded by someone who understands the audience’s perspective the result is a special experience and one that is unique to motion pictures.

Shots and edits in games

Having considered the essential tools of shots and edits in film, we can consider how these might apply to games. At worst, they don’t fit at all, and at best they work in a very narrow sense for a type of game that has gone out of fashion. Cinematics are present in games, and shots and edits are used quite effectively to bring about certain emotional responses or to convey information, it is very difficult to say that this is the game so much as it is the game part being put on hold to provide context for the next interactive part. Shots and edits are out of place in games, and this makes it difficult to claim that cinema is a good reference point for games.

This is an example of a movie that almost certainly would have been better as a game:

Aside from Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project, which both presented the first person perspective as found footage to justify edits, there aren’t a lot of well known first person movies, and it’s easy to see why. This perspective gives up the most powerful tools for creating meaning in the filmmaker’s toolbox and really only gains a gimmick in return. Yet anyone who has played Amnesia knows that one of the biggest annoyances present in The Lady in the Lake is one of the most discussed experiences of the game. While moviegoers’ patience wore thin watching Philip Marlowe open yet another door, Amnesia’s players lost their mind fumbling with the game’s doors while monsters chased them.

Games do not directly lend themselves to edits beyond loading screens, which are motivated for technical reasons rather than narrative. This is not a failing of games, as it would be very unusual to be playing a game and suddenly have the perspective change. One case where this worked well was the prologue for Battlefield 1, where dying would move you to another soldier on the battlefield, but even this excellent choice could not be sustained for the rest of the game. Most, if not all, of the interesting choices with regards to shots are also absent from games since the player is in control of the camera. It is not possible to have a Rosemary’s Baby moment in most games because the player controls the framing.

There are exceptions, and it would be much more difficult to make this case in the past as Resident Evil, among others, used fixed camera angles that allowed for pre-rendered backgrounds (Resident Evil also readily reveals its inspiration from Stanley Kubrick and Lucio Fulci). The introduction of Chris Walker in Outlast also relies on a forced perspective and, while it is technically a non-interactive moment of the game, is fairly seamless in its use. Of course, Resident Evil has long since moved from pre-rendered backgrounds, and it may be better to say that if cinema is to be a reference point it is most effective in the horror genre, rather than for games in general.

This is not to argue that cinema is useless for gaming, or that it should not be used as a reference point at all, but rather point out the limitations of this reference. With fewer technological constraints it becomes easier to recreate our favourite movie moments in an interactive format. Yet, as in the case of Resident Evil, the more effective use of cinematic techniques were driven by technological constraints. The Mass Effect series has generated more alien worlds and species than all the Star Wars films, but it is still not clear how this moment from The Empire Strikes back could be realized in a game by anything but a cutscene:

Alternatives to movies

A movie without shots and edits seems a lot closer to a theatrical production or a radio play. As it happens, radio drama contains more parallels to how stories and experiences occur in games than movies. Like film, technology is essential to radio drama, not just for its broadcast, but for its creation (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in addition to being hilarious, was the first radio drama to use stereo and it made a huge difference for that particular story). Critically, radio is confronted with the fact that it only has sound to convey its ideas. The absence of a visual component means there is always a space for the audience to create part of the story in their head. The difference may be best illustrated with old story in advertising of a radio and TV advertiser arguing over the merits of their respective media. The radio advertiser wins the argument by proposing a commercial of a 700-foot mountain of whipped cream rolling into a Lake Michigan that has been drained and filled with hot chocolate, after which the Royal Canadian Air Force then flies overhead with a 10 ton maraschino cherry which is dropped on top of the mountain to the applause of 25,000 onlookers.

When I reflect on the stories and moments in gaming that have engaged me the most and seem to be unique to gaming they tend to be cases with enough suggestion to get my imagination going, but not enough to think for me. Sunless Sea is well known for its writing, but I am particularly fond of the decision to give enough time to reflect on and digest what happened between ports (even if this lull was a complaint among some players). While it isn’t out yet, In Other Waters restricts your perspective to an AI assisting the xenobiologist, and has a companion book to provide another glimpse of the world. The demo was visually attractive in its own right, but it also gave me enough to imagine what my in game companion was describing. Cultist Simulator goes even further than the previous two by keeping time running and trimming down the text. While the game is entirely card and token based, there has not only been enough to keep me talking about what’s going on in the world during a stream, but also to make fairly clear mappings to my own life. Finally, Paradox Grand Strategy games like Crusader Kings II are, in essence, maps, stats, and text boxes, and yet the most rewarding way to play is to role-play your ruler and go along for the ride as the events and text provide more momentum for your imagination.

While one might argue that pausing to read text is a poor man’s cinematic, the fact remains that in all of these games the player is given the interesting choices to make, and there is enough information given to keep the imagination going during the real time components. These games play to gaming’s strengths by remaining interactive, while still being able to tell a story (unlike Space Invaders or Offworld Trading Company which are pure interactivity).

What can movies teach?

Movies can be very helpful in specific technical areas. Obviously if a game contains cinematics, the team would be wise to learn the techniques. Movies by good cinematographers will teach valuable lessons in colour and lighting, though these cinematographers are often inspired by great painters (especially the Dutch masters). There is also no accounting for the sources of inspiration, and so at an individual level movies may provide the creative spark that eventually becomes a very good game.

However, cinema’s use as a reference is likely due more to its dominant position rather than its suitability for gaming. Montage allows an audience’s imagination to be engaged as in the case of radio above, but this technique is not available to gaming due to its interactivity. It is more appropriate to seek out other examples of how authors have engaged our imaginations in real time if we are looking for applications to gaming. Seeking inspiration from examples like radio drama allow us to make games that rise above ‘movies but with the essential features removed.’


Note on affiliate links: I have an affiliate status with GOG.com for which I am given a portion of sales for traffic I drive to the site. The inclusion of a given title is for illustrative purposes first, but when it is available on GOG I will provide such a link. Naturally I encourage you to do your own price comparison or buy on your preferred platform. I include, on occasion, affiliate links from other broadcasters to support people who helped me in a given post or the cast in general. In this case, and Humble Links support the streamer JessyQuil. I have also received press keys for Offworld Trading Company and Crusader Kings II DLC.

I Will Now Opine About Mad Max: Fury Road and Movies in General

I saw Mad Max: Fury Road tonight (edit: well, when I started writing this… Been a couple days since). I had some Scene points (loyalty program) that were expiring, and out of everything available I’d heard the most positive reviews about it. I’d not quite intended to write a second post in a row on something creative, but this is how the day turned out. The main reason for avoiding this kind of topic is because I find it’s very easy to voice opinions on entertainment products, but there isn’t really lot of value in merely stating an opinion. This is probably why I generally have avoided reading reviews of things because they generally fail at establishing context (credentials or really any indicator that this is an opinion worth hearing), and I’m usually left without an answer to the all important question: “who cares?” There is nothing particularly bad about the expression of an opinion per se (though I’d hope we’d expect more from the institution of the review), but generally when they are negative they are also matched with an unhealthy dose of scorn for the team behind it. It’s understandable because usually it’s really fun to write in high dudgeon, and as long as everyone’s on the same page, everyone has some good laughs about what morons the people who shot that movie/wrote that book/made that game were.

I think most people are generally on board with the ‘don’t be mean’ sentiment. Generally I think this kind of behaviour is limited to talking about unknown individuals, so something like a development team, and on the occasions that it does take a specific name (ie. Michael Bay), people are attacking the concept rather than pursuing an individual vendetta against the man. That said, the sentiments expressed to these people are no less hurtful to them because they certainly are known individuals from their point of view. Now, this does not make anyone free from criticism (even poorly expressed or ignorant criticism), but it seems to me much more productive to engage these people seriously and do what we can to nurture this talent so that in future we can at least hope for more and better entertainment options. This is partly the motivation for why I wanted to elaborate on the Caves of Qud comments on Twitter (even if, as is likely the case, these views will never inform an actual decision). I also prefer criticism that rises beyond snark because it simply makes for better reading. Compare The Resistible Rise of Vladimir Putin from Foreign Affairs (which, it is worth reiterating, is a book review. Also likely behind a paywall but I believe there are two free articles a month) to any of the other reviews you’ve read recently. I clearly can’t expect to accomplish what the book review does, but in the spirit of producing commentary that attempts to at least engage with the material, I thought I would talk about what worked for me and what didn’t in Mad Max: Fury Road.

It’s worth mentioning that I believe I’ve seen the original Mad Max, but I don’t recall any details about it, and so some of my comments on character are likely to be informed by this gap. That said, the last Mad Max movie was released 30 years ago, and so I do not think it is unfair to expect that most viewers are not going to be familiar with anything that occurred in the original three films.  I also can’t expect this to be too much of an impediment because absolutely nothing about the promotion or discussion of the film has indicated it is anything but a pure action movie. And in this regard it is absolutely fantastic. It starts off strong and fast and maintains that pace for more or less the entire first half. It may not be for everyone, but I think it’s a ton of fun to watch, and I really can’t think of a movie that’s done it quite this well.

In many ways, I have to suspect that this is what movies on the big screen are about today. From a business perspective, consider the following: almost all of the information is conveyed visually, and the majority of sounds essential to the experience are not spoken words, meaning that it will likely translate better into other languages than, say, a comedy that relies on wordplay. Big sound and big visuals are also still best conveyed in a movie theatre. I have to assume the experience will be somewhat diminished on Netflix. This doesn’t mean there isn’t value in seeing a drama on the big screen, or that there is necessarily a tradeoff between the two (just think of Lawrence of Arabia), but it is much easier to make the case that action is a reason to actually go out to the movies. It’s also easier to see a transition to more action oriented fare in response to the fact that drama can develop greater character arcs over the course of a season of a television show (to say nothing of several seasons) than in the confines of even a three hour movie. It’s hard to imagine seeing Breaking Bad having the same impact restyled as a feature length movie, and it’s even more difficult to imagine The Terminator sustaining a long standing TV series (yes, I know there was the Sarah Connor Chronicles. I never saw it and it appears to have only run for 2 seasons, earning Emmy nominations for technical work only). This is why it may be easy to joke about Michael Bay movies, but there is a certain gift in being able to identify this shift in audience sentiments, if this is actually what’s occurred.

But in reality, if I’m only going to talk about the action, I have nothing new to say here. If you don’t know that Fury Road has a lot of really good action in it, there’s plenty of other people who can communicate that better than me. What else is there to keep you entertained for two hours? Here is where someone might go for the old saw that it’s ‘good for action but not much going on for the story.’ Again, there’s more going on here than that cliche can permit. There’s actually some interesting ideas going on in this movie, both in terms of setting, but also those weird image systems english majors like to keep talking about. Different fluids keep coming up: Max as a ‘bloodbag’, the rationing of water to keep the population under control, the farm of wet nurses, and the theft of gasoline all keep coming up again and again in the first half. It’s apparent enough that the people are living under an oppressive, extractive system, but the return to this theft of fluids (my Strangelovian phrasing aside), provides a nice coherence to the setting that suggests that this is more than just a string of cool stunt performances with dialogue to keep it respectable.

On this note, we can make a contrast between the two types of review. Someone wanting to regale us with the time they slummed it with the plebes and enjoyed a brainless bit of dumb fun would point out something like ‘why would they use so many flamethrowers and chainsaws if fuel is so precious?’ But, with maybe some reservations, I like this touch and see it as another indicator that a lot of thought and care was put into creating this world. Such extravagance is ultimately a display of such supreme confidence, and I can think of more than a few historical precedents (imagine the complaint “If money is so precious, why do these Romans keep wasting them on spectacle?”). ‘Wasting’ fuel on a flame throwing guitar (or the entire rig with drums and speakers) just as easily is a display of strength and the assuredness that further conquest will bring in more fuel. I’m maybe less sold on the utility of the combat oriented uses (the chainsaws, the flamethrowers) given the presence of more primitive (and reliable) weapons in the film, but this maybe accounted for a fraction of a second’s thought in the overall film. I also thought the design of the different weapons and tactics on display were quite ingenious, and tremendously enhanced by different styles for different factions, and I really like the touch of a post-apocalyptic world where humans can be reduced to tools (Max as a blood bag, the blind guitarist, etc.). It’s certainly possible to create a sequence of high-octane vignettes without putting any thought into the setting, but I think the fact that Fury Road bothered to take the time to fully realize its setting is something that sets it apart and makes it a really good time at the movies.

Unfortunately, I also think there are limitations on this front. I should first note that apparently Eve Ensler (author of The Vagina Monologues) was a consultant on this film, and so I may simply be missing the mark when it comes to characterization. This caveat aside, I really don’t know what to make of the characters in Fury Road. Max seems to go from a crazy person with a beard who eats lizards to, well, a crazy person without a beard (who may or may not still eat lizards). Furiosa is a bit more interesting with a lot more implied story, but the dialogue is pretty sparse, and generally reduced to orders or directions, so there really isn’t much room for development. This leads me to probably my only real complaint with the movie. I’d say the first half (I didn’t exactly time it) is loud, exiting, and just a grand old time. Once they’ve escaped the army and begin looking for ‘the green place’ things begin to drag a bit, and I kind of feel like I could have gone out, gone to the bathroom, and maybe have gotten a coffee without missing too much. The aforementioned material on fluids is more or less gone at this point (rather than being present throughout the film as is the case with other movies that use these techniques effectively) with possibly the exception of the poisoned water of what turns out to be the remains of the green place. If ‘the big no’ moment (or is it a skyward scream? Comment below) is any indication this is the big emotional lynchpin, but I was sort of indifferent at this point. This is the point without action, but unfortunately it feels a bit aimless which, while perhaps appropriate to the circumstances the characters find themselves in, doesn’t do a lot for me as a viewer. For contrast, the film sets up some really great moments of conflict (admittedly in action scenes) where there are three characters all after the same goal, each completely at odds with one another, so the drag is really noticeable. In face of the fact that the conclusion is much like the opening in terms of thrills and engagement, I do quite literally mean this is my only complaint. The ending may be a bit simple (Furiosa is embraced as a new ruler without question and Max walks off as the lone wanderer he was at the start, possibly in search of a lizard), but it ties everything together, and I suppose gives Furiosia the redemption she’s stated as seeking.

So what might we do with the sagging middle? Fury Road doesn’t fall into the sin of most movies today which is to be too long. It clocks in at an even 120 minutes which is a perfectly reasonable time for a movie. That said, I wouldn’t be too disappointed if it were cut down. But as I said, maybe there’s a bit more going on here which I simply didn’t realize, and maybe I’m going a little too far in saying that it’s perfectly acceptable to have a pure action film. How might we change things if forced to keep the present runtime? The following answer almost certainly reflects my present interests, but I hope to argue that this alternative direction is at least consistent with things I think are already strengths of the film, and possibly strengthen points where I feel the film is weaker.

In the present ending, Immortal Joe is killed, and Furiosa’s revelation of this is sufficient to establish herself as his replacement. This may work in the world of the film but is an opportunity for conflict that isn’t explored. Immortal Joe has set up a system through which his access to and limited distribution of precious resources secure his control. Joe was the present warlord, but this system is very much intact after his death and Furiosa needs access to it to accomplish her goals (even if she ultimately seeks an equitable distribution of these resources). In the current version of the film, Furiosa’s successful combat against Joe is all that is required for her to seize power, and it can be possibly justified if we assume the existing administrators feel the need for a display of strength in order to keep the current system in place. But let’s take a step back and contrast Furiosa with a character like Maximus in Gladiator. Maximus initially refuses Marcus Aurelius’ call to lead Rome back to a republic, explaining he is not a politician and cannot handle institutions such as the senate. His soldierly instincts permit him to survive in the gladiatorial arena, but not to achieve success (“Are you not entertained!?”). His journey in some senses is a political one in which he must learn to win the crowd in addition to being an effective combatant. When he  finally defeats Commodus, he delivers his final speech to the crowd, his mastery of both spheres complete. I think Gladiator’s a great movie, and certainly is not short on excitement, so is there anything we can take from Maximus’ journey that we can apply to Furiosa’s?

Let me motivate this further by asking you a question: Suppose overnight Kim Jong-Un was successfully overthrown by US and South Korean forces, who now inherit all the systems of control of his repressive government along with it’s starving, uneducated, desperate population. What would happen? Fury Road’s answer is that they would realize the better way and embrace the new government from the coalition without a second’s thought. This, to my view, is a tremendous missed opportunity. If we shorten down the ‘wandering’ moments to communicate the essential information (Furiosa’s past, meeting the Vuvalini, the poisoning of the green place) and instead make the final confrontation not just a trial by combat, which Furiosa has already displayed considerable skill in from the outset, but instead make the seizing of the citadel the final challenge the characters need to overcome. I think this conflict still allows the film’s themes to come through, and strengthen’s Furiosa’s quest for redemption. The current redemption is effectively granted to her by the whims of whoever holds the levers to bring the party up to the valves that hold the water. While she may go from simply saving herself and the five wives to saving the citadel, it’s a side effect of her fight against Immortal Joe. In contrast, a fight to bring the citadel under her control (ideally one that is at least partly, if not fully political in nature, again, Gladiator demonstrating that these need not be mutually exclusive), makes the achievement that much more meaningful. It presents an opportunity to show more of her character, in addition to providing a better role for Max who is a former cop (and so has a past that involves public service and the enforcing order).

In so far as this is a review I suppose I should finish by saying whether or not I think it’s worth going out and seeing. As always, I need to hedge my bets and say it depends on what kind of a movie you want to see. If you don’t like loud movies with violence, then this is not going to be the movie for you. If you go to movies looking for ‘holes’ to poke in, you’ll probably be able to project them (though as outlined above, I don’t think can be sustained) and so presumably will not enjoy yourself. Likewise, while I think there’s more to the story than what I hear others give it credit for, if you want a bit more dramatic meat in your films, you’ll probably be a bit disappointed. But honestly, those individual cases aside, this movie is a fantastic reason to go go out to the theatre and watch a movie. It’s big, the sound design is great, the stunts are great, the soundtrack is a perfect match, and the action has fantastic pacing and tension throughout. And if, like me, you’re worried it’s dying out halfway through, take heart, it’s just as exciting in the climax. I’m happy to have spent the time and money.

The preceding contains what some might consider spoilers and probably shouldn’t be read if you don’t want to know any details about the plot before seeing the movie.