Video games such as LA Noire have led to claims that games are overtaking films in terms of sophistication. But can they ever really go as deep as cinema?
The appearance of pioneering new adventure game LA Noire has reignited a debate among gamers and film lovers which has been bubbling under for years. Not least for Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker, who asserted last week that video games display an intelligence and imagination well beyond the majority of contemporary cinema. Gaming’s huge commercial success, he argued, is “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.”
It’s likely the gaming community stood up and cheered this assessment when it appeared – that was certainly the sentiment expressed by a huge number of those who commented online. At the same time, film fans were moved to defend their passion for cinema. Many agree that the studios are spewing out too many knucklehead superhero movies, cliche-ridden genre pics and feeble-minded multi-sequels, but still firmly believe that cinema refreshes the parts that even the best games in the world can’t reach.
Hollywood has long regarded itself as the billion-dollar big daddy of the image entertainment world. It has the glamour, the iconography, the big brands, the A-listers and lots of cold, hard cash. In 2010, the US box office was worth .6bn. But for a supposed subculture, the gaming industry is just as impressive a market player, if not more so – outshining the movie moguls with an estimated annual revenue of around .6bn in the US last year. The biggest hit of 2010, Call of Duty: Black Ops has already grossed more than bn for its publisher Activision – less than 10 films released in the last decade can claim the same. The gaming industry is no longer the snot-nosed little punk of the entertainment world – little wonder fans and creators alike are calling for serious critical recognition of the medium.
“There’s an element of self-justification going on in gaming right now,” says Raymond Boyle, professor of communications at Glasgow University’s Centre for Cultural Policy Research. “As industries emerge and prove their commercial worth and their influence on policy makers, they want people to accept that they’re not just a sausage factory; that there’s an integrity and an art to what they do. They begin to crave acceptance, a place at the broader cultural table. The Nintendo generation has grown up, and they resent the general perception of a gamer as a spotty, geeky teenager.”
Brooker is clearly not alone in believing that, with the atmospheric crime thriller LA Noire, publisher Rockstar has succeeded in not just competing with mainstream Hollywood qualitatively, but “embarrassing” it. But are the console-centric lobby overplaying their hand, overlooking those elements of film which, in artistic terms, video games cannot match? Geoff Andrew, head of film programme at BFI Southbank, thinks so. “It’s sadly true that quite a lot of recent Hollywood product has descended to the level of a game, simply providing one exciting graphic set piece after the other,” he says. “But if you look at the wider picture, you find films which are not just about producing excitement, but making people think in new ways about the world they live in, asking how the story relates to them, what the authors are trying to tell them, or what questions they’re asking.”
As Andrew sees it, the equation is simple, and its implications unequivocal. Turning a film into a game necessitates “reducing” it, while transforming a game into a film requires “fleshing it out”. Says Andrew: “Hitchcock knew how to push buttons; his idea of ‘pure cinema’ was about frightening us. But he also went beyond that, which is why a film like Vertigo has a sense of mystery and poetry. We’re trying to understand why this guy is so obsessed with recreating someone he thinks is dead, not just how he can do it, which is what the game would be about.
“Think of a film like The White Ribbon – it’s quite impossible to think of that as a game. If it was, it would probably be a whodunnit. Or something worse, a game where you kill people off. But its whole resonance comes from its political meaning, its historical associations, the ambiguity and psychological complexity of it. You couldn’t find that in a game.”
The argument that gaming is a uniquely immersive experience is a relatively old one, but it’s gained kudos as games such as Heavy Rain and LA Noire have got smarter, demanding both intellectual and emotional intelligence. (Though let’s not get carried away: LA Noire’s instruction manual includes hints such as: “A person who is lying may often avoid direct eye contact.” Duh.)
But while seasoned players such as Martin Neill, CEO of online software retail developers AirPOS, insist that LA Noire presents an “augmented reality” that’s so absorbing it “messes with your brain”, some argue that the cinema environment, alongside the element of personal abdication involved, makes film the more consuming medium.
“The notion that we need to control something in order for it to be immersive is wrong,” says Professor Christine Geraghty, editor of the Journal of British Cinema and Television. “Going into a big dark room and sitting in front of a huge screen, amongst an audience but also alone – they’re such important parts of cinema’s immersive quality. You need to have the pace set for you, maybe be forced to slow down or hurtled along at breakneck speed, to really experience the build of the film towards a climax, the release of tension or the moment of horror. Cinema is unique in that way – we may need to be won over by the film, but we don’t have to be won over by the form itself. We go in with a willingness to surrender.”
This voluntary disarmament, the artistic equivalent of what Boyle likens to “being on a plane and putting your life into the hands of a pilot”, is a crucial aspect of cinema’s power, particularly if we are in the hands of a master film-maker of the commercial idiom, such as Christopher Nolan, who can combine mainstream flash and nudge us not just to think, which games such as LA Noire or Portal 2 can certainly do, but to reflect over time. Nolan’s dark, difficult Inception is also the 25th highest-grossing film of all time, a poke in the eye for those who contend that smart, challenging films don’t make big money any more.
“Nolan has always been interested in puzzle films, which have a game-like process,” says Andrew. “You have to follow clues and engage intellectually. But his films work on a much deeper level than just solving puzzles. Inception, Memento and Insomnia are really about people gaining power over others by taking control of the narrative, by spinning a more persuasive story.”
The gamers see the issue differently. “Inception takes you on a ride,” says Neill. “With LA Noire you decide which way to go. It’s all about the endgame. Your aim is to get to the next level and move up to a bigger challenge. Every tiny thing you do, every turn you take on the road, what you ask your witnesses, what clues you think are important – everything is a test of your ability to make a quick decision, and get it right.”
This thrust is at the heart of the pleasure of interactive gaming, but it might also mark its aesthetic limitations. Even with the emotional backstory LA Noire provides for your war-veteran-turned-cop character, the bottom line is that he is essentially your puppet, and every time you put him on pause, leaving him standing gazing pointlessly at a fish-head (“Not every clue is relevant to your investigation”), you’re reminded he has no life of his own. He is there to help you find the answer and tie up the case.
Not only does this hinder your chances of connecting emotionally with him, it also reminds you that gaming is goal-orientated; every “scene” has a function. There’s certainly no room for individually inspired whimsy, like the “Royale with cheese” chitchat in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, or the beguiling, limb-bending dance Johnny Depp unexpectedly launches into in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (the, ahem, sixth highest-grossing film of all time). They just don’t have a place in such a strictly target-driven environment.
Similarly, the need for games to possess a universal language which must be understood by millions of users worldwide necessitates a reliance on traditional conventions and a rejection of ambiguity. Characters and plot must conform to “game sense”; if they confuse or challenge too much, they simply won’t be readable enough to fulfil their role. “It’s interesting that LA Noire, this breakthrough game, has chosen to ape film noir,” says Geraghty. “Noir is a very stylised genre which very quickly became prone to cliche. It became very coded, a series of symbols – certain kinds of hats, clothes, weapons, women.”
“We recently revived The Big Sleep, a classic film noir, at the BFI,” says Andrew. “It has a very strong, eventful narrative, but that’s not the joy of the film. It’s not just a thriller, it’s also a love story and a comedy. And that sheer chemistry between Bogart and Bacall – that’s something you could never get in a game.”
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