Summer 2010: When Video Games Took Over the Movies


Universal Pictures

Video game movies, historically, suck. Prince of Persia, May's Jake Gyllenhaal action-blockbuster, was supposed to be the grand savior of the genre—the film that proved once and for all that it was possible for a video game's plot to hold together as it passed through the eye of Eywa to be reborn as hit movie.

It wasn't.

But while the summer's most easily identifiable video game movie was an all-points failure, video games crept into many of the summer's biggest—and best—movies in more subtle ways. And while licensed video game movies tend to remain a stew of Uwe Boll dreck and the weirdly successful Resident Evil franchise, a slew of less obvious video game movies this summer offer some better clues about how these unmanageable stories fit into popular culture.

Inception was the first big one, borrowing its basic narrative structure from games. Movie buffs might call the scene where Leonardo DiCaprio's character explains the ins and outs of dream manipulation to Ellen Paige's character "exposition." But it was much closer to a tutorial level: something nearly every game has, where the player goes through a safer version of the game world in order to learn the controls and rules.

The rest of the movie followed suit: four levels, each with their own ambiance, backdrop, objectives, and legion of undifferentiated baddies, just like video games since time immemorial (the mid-eighties). In the end, DiCaprio must confront the reoccurring boss character in the final level. You can imagine the player jamming the "overcome crippling guilt" button until his self-actualization meter is full.

Most reviewers from venerated cultural institutions balked at what they perceived as Inception's impossible to follow, convoluted plot, but the gamers who helped keep the movie at number one for three weeks weren't tripped up for a second. Gamer blog Kotaku said the movie was a "sorting hat. Try it on and you'll know if you're a gamer, or not."

Other films borrowed smaller bits from games. The first 20 minutes of Predators felt like a character selection screen somewhere between Street Fighter and Team Fortress 2, and the final scene of Ironman 2 wasn't much more than a video game level complete with three types of drone enemies, a flying bit for variety, and even a mini-boss topped off with a tiered-arena battle and boss fight concluded by a Dynasty Warriors-style twin-musuo attack.

But the standout video game movie of the summer has to be Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, released last Friday. Pilgrim was game from broad structure to minute detail, cut about halfway with comic book. Like Inception, it borrowed the sequential, clearly differentiated nature of game structure: six distinct superpowered enemies, one big boss.

While Inception was game in structure and Hollywood in style, Pilgrim was game in structure and style. Full of in-gags and references obscure and otherwise, the whole movie was a love letter to a geeked out core demographic to whom obscure Pac-Man facts are akin to a deep knowledge of Beethoven and Mozart. The studio licensed a companion game that was released a few days before the movie.

Despite being comparatively awesome, Pilgrim's first weekend box office paled in comparison to Inception's. It shows that while the population as a whole may be capable of embracing basic video game structures, smirking at the bass-line from Final Fantasy 2 might be a tougher sell. And most critics complained that Pilgrim lived and died like a video game: fun, but little emotional involvement.

For years, the benchmark of a great video game was the word "cinematic." A-list video games are always compared to movies, and there seems to be no better praise for a game than "just like a movie," which is always a lie. Some of that genre's worst offenders, like 2001's Metal Gear Solid 2, at times play like little more than DVD menus taking the player from sub-par movie to sub-par movie crammed into a sub-par game.

But newer games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 are thinking about why they are games and not movies. Don't just show a newsreel of a terrorist attack; make the player gun down unarmed civilians in a Russian airport. Don't just show a nervous soldier peering through the dark; make the player try to make out whether the uniforms in front of him are Russian or American while his finger dances on top the of trigger and he waits for an order. It's worth noting that at the time, that game opened better than any movie, ever.

As video games grow more comfortable in their own skin, so older forms of storytelling are growing more comfortable with narrative structures originally developed out of gameplay necessity. And while game structures are good at creating immersive worlds, engaging action and psychological acrobatics, they've always been hamstrung when it comes to developing genuine emotional attachment to a character. As Hollywood and games converge, they may be able to solve that problem together.

For more on Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, click here.