Do you remember the days when you used to be able to head out to the cinema safe in the knowledge that even if the film you wanted to see had sold out, there’d be something else worth watching? I’m talking about 10,000 years ago, obviously, because here’s what’s on at your local multiplex.
Screen one: a 3D CGI cartoon about a wisecracking badger with attitude you’d quite happily reverse a six-tonne tractor over. Screen two: a 3D superhero theme park ride that thinks it’s King Lear. Screen three: a rom-com so formulaic you suspect it was created from a template on Moonpig.com. Screen four: The Very Hungry Caterpillar 3D. Screen five: all of the above, randomly intercut with one another because no one’s paying attention anyway. Screen six: a lightshow for cattle. And so on.
About once a month there’s a film actually worth bothering with: either something with a quirky sensibility and a modest budget, or the occasional decent blockbuster the studios have made by mistake. There seems to be something missing from cinema: big budget dramas with panache, aimed at an adult audience. Where are they? They migrated to television. And – don’t snort with derision here – to video games.
Consider two of the biggest video games of 2011 thus far. The first is Portal 2, a darkly humorous science fiction . . . what? Story? Puzzle? Game? “Experience” seems like the best word to use, even though typing that makes me feel like shoving my fist in my mouth to punch my brain from an unexpected angle. The game mechanics of Portal 2 are almost impossible to describe without diagrams, but I’ll try: you wander around a 3D environment trying to escape a series of rooms by firing magic holes on to the walls or floor; holes you can walk or fall through. So if I fire a hole on to the ceiling, and another on to the ground, I can jump through the ground and re-appear falling through the ceiling. This simple dynamic provides the basis for a series of fiendishly clever puzzles you find yourself working through – all of it tied into a humorous narrative that unfolds with more confidence, charm and sophistication than was strictly necessary. And before you whine about the solitary nature of games, it also includes a cooperative two-player mode in which you and a friend play through a parallel game together. The whole thing is stunningly clever and immensely enjoyable.
And then there’s LA Noire, the James Ellroy-inspired crime drama, which has caused a stir, and rightly so, with its firm focus on narrative and staggering new facial animation technology. I’m a massive dweeb who keeps up with the latest gaming developments, and even I was astounded at what they’ve pulled off here. You’re watching actors give genuine performances – within something that is still defiantly and unapologetically a video game. The lead character is played by Aaron Staton, AKA Ken Cosgrove from Mad Men – and is instantly recognisable, not just from his likeness, but also his facial mannerisms. Amusingly, plenty of his fellow Mad Men cast members also show up throughout the game (as well as faces familiar from shows such as Heroes and Fringe), reinforcing the overall feel of the game – which is like working your way through a hard-nosed HBO police procedural miniseries set in Los Angeles in the 1940s. If you’ve never played a game, or you think you hate them – but my description sounds vaguely appealing, give it a spin. Just watch someone else play it for a while if you like. I guarantee you’ll be surprised.
And what really made me excited, thinking about both of these games, is that behind the state-of-the-art technology they both make use of (which has a level of sophistication that might come as a blinding shock to anyone who hasn’t played a game since 1996), they’re both old-fashioned video games at heart – not old-fashioned in the finger-twitching, reaction-testing Space Invaders sense, but something richer, something often overlooked by the population at large: old-fashioned video games that challenge the mind instead of the thumbs.
Portal 2 is essentially a demented series of puzzles – like being stuck inside a physics-based logic problem designed by the Python team; LA Noire is a trad adventure game. Adventure games used to be as close as gaming got to fiction. They started out as interactive text-based shaggy dog stories (a prime example being Douglas Adams’s fantastic Hitchhiker’s Guide Infocom adventure), transformed into point-and-click comedies (such as Monkey Island), and then largely went away for a while, as the gaming industry focused on gung-ho shooters aimed at teenage boys. The size, scope, and sheer self-assurance of LA Noire marks a major comeback for adventure games – for interactive fiction – and, potentially, a huge leap forward for wider acceptance of the medium as a whole.
And both these games – both of these entirely different, utterly unique creations – are a huge commercial success. In cinematic terms, it’s the equivalent of films of the intelligence and quality of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Maltese Falcon not just being released to great fanfare in 2011, but actually going on to smash box office records. Somehow Portal 2 and LA Noire manage to be more cinematic than a great deal of contemporary cinema – while being something entirely different, something with the phrase “I LOVE VIDEO GAMES” embedded in their DNA like a cheerful slogan through a stick of rock. These are not replacements for films, but something thrillingly different. Gaming’s ongoing push into the mainstream consciousness has entered a bold new phase – by appealing to the players’ intelligence and imagination, it’s starting to make Hollywood look embarrassing.
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