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Stifling the medium

In trying to pay homage to our favorite games by turning them into movies, what gets lost in translation?

Alois Wittwer, Blogger

May 11, 2012

6 Min Read

The tall poppy syndrome is a pejorative commonly used in Australia to describe the social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are criticized for being exactly that. It’s a ridiculous societal response that encourages people to censor their achievements and enthusiasm so as not to appear too bigheaded in the public.

And when players celebrated the unveiling of the Uncharted movie experience by Youtube user “morphinapg”, I eased back into my rocking chair and let out a grumbly sigh. My disappointment has nothing to do with the level of polish in such an endeavor, but rather with what I believe is misguided appreciation. I say misguided because it unintentionally devalues video games by removing interactivity, and inspires a culture of embarrassment over the distinguishing quality of the medium. The Uncharted movie experience, which splices the cutscenes and gameplay into a feature-length film in an effort to appeal to non-gamers, joins an ever expanding group of fan-made video game movies that celebrate cinema rather than games. If the most popular way we can celebrate the medium is to turn to the language of film, we are silently agreeing that interactivity plays second fiddle to the controlled scripts of cinema.

And while these things are fun, removing the interactivity of video games in order to engage the uninterested is a slippery slope where we lose the beating heart of the medium. It demonstrates a lack of confidence in a time where we need it most. Because despite almost everyone playing video games these days, the sentiment is still out there: video games are addictive, horrid things that only waste your time. In order to alter the zeitgeist to acknowledge the importance of video games, we need to put our best foot forward.

In the video description of the Uncharted movies, “morphinapg” told the world his intentions of making movies that would be watchable whether you “were a fan of video games or not, and whether the viewer was a video game player or not”. Except by removing the interactive element of Uncharted and reducing it entirely to cutscenes, we’re no longer getting the complete experience. All that’s left in the new Uncharted experience is a knock-off Indiana Jones film without the technical excellence of Steven Spielberg. You don’t get the best of both worlds.

What elevates Uncharted from its obvious inspiration is the opportunity to experience the journey yourself. Even accounting for the ludonarrative dissonance with Nathan Drake, the opportunity to determine how elegantly or awkwardly he handles situations creates a genuine sense of connection. Even with a game as linear as Uncharted, players still get to determine how Drake reacts to violent situations – a minor yet invaluable interaction. Without that interactivity, all that’s left is a moderately well-written narrative playing off easy film genre tropes. It doesn’t even match the storytelling beats of cinema because it’s structured around video game beats of interactivity. What’s left is a poor film and a ruined video game.

If we’re not making elongated love letters to modern blockbusters, we’re whispering brief sweet nothings into the ears of classic video game icons. About a month ago, the boppy, chip-tune infused Mega Man adventures of old were re-imagined as an ultra-violent live-action film. Gone are the vibrant backgrounds that made the series so visually exciting to begin with; instead, all we get is drab, empty environments and a lifeless post-apocalyptic setting. In the creator’s efforts to appropriate Mega Man to film, they’ve dropped the exuberant joy of the franchise in order to fit alongside the narcissistic, brow-furrowing so popular in modern games like Gears of War and even Mass Effect.

While art is always open to interpretation, and different creators will always bring a new perspective to the source material, appropriations should grow from a basic understanding of the text. The campy Batman of the 1960′s feels odd because the source material had emotional weight and gravitas. Mega Man has always been a happy-go-lucky adventure story; even the serious Mega Man X is balanced by a bubbly anime aesthetic. It’s concerning when the majority of fan-made game trailers drop the earnest charm of Mario, Mega Man, and even Pac-Man when moving them over to live-action. Like the light-hearted fun that defined the medium has no place in the “grown up” world of film and television. Are we embarrassed to share our earliest success stories with the world? 

Game Center CX makes a compelling case of why we shouldn’t shy away from the video games of yesteryear. Shinya Arino’s show taps into the history of the medium and actively celebrates the process of playing video games as a valid past-time. We cheer and bemoan Arino’s efforts to complete a game in one day, condensed into a TV friendly hour. We witness Arino’s failures and triumphs as he uses every possible trick in the book to complete the game he’s been assigned. He pours over manuals and playguides, consults staff members in tricky sections, and even jots down notes and strategies on the whiteboard behind him all in an effort to see the ending screen. It’s a holistic experience of video games, capturing the process of playing games while placing them in a historical context.

At the end of the show, whether Arino reaches the end of the game or not is irrelevant. What’s important is the glimpse we get into the growth of play and how Arino goes from a beginner to a master (or just stay at beginner level because he’s pretty terrible at games). Elation, frustration, laughter, anxiety, sadness – every emotion that’s brought forth from simply playing games is on display here and tells the uninformed viewer just what video games can do far more effectively than a fan-made trailer. It’s noble, important work.

But we don’t want to go overboard now. The word work conjures all other images I don’t want to associate this piece with. And while I may sound all doom and gloom, I realize that the enthusiastic video game movie trailers made by fans will not destroy the credibility of the medium. We need equal amounts of light-heartedness and impassioned cries of support for the medium to ensure it belongs to everyone.

Going even deeper down the rabbit hole, I take comfort in the knowledge that should all games disappear tomorrow, the world will not end. The issue of how to best convey the importance of video games is then rendered largely moot – it’ll happen eventually as time passes. While we wait, all I’d like to see is more confidence in the unique qualities of video games when we do celebrate them. With interactivity as the defining attribute of the medium, the best way to celebrate video games is to simply play them.

Originally posted at Nightmare Mode.

“My Neighbour Robotnik” sourced from Mark Moore and used with permission. Check out his lovely Tumblr!

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