Videogames and Cinema: Four types

This post was written by guest author Aaron Hamel

Video games and cinema have an association that I think can be broken down into four distinct parts or categories. The first of these categories includes games that are based upon films. This category uses a popular film and bases the game play off of that film (or at least incorporates the source film in some significant way). The second category encompasses films based upon games. An inverse of the first category, these films use video games as their source and incorporates that video game into the narrative of the film in a significant way. This also includes films that use video games as a central plot element, such as <The Wizard> or <Tron>. Category number three consists of the full motion video (FMV) game. These games use video sequences in tandem with gameplay in order to create a sort of “interactive cinema.” The final part of the relationship is so called “cinematic adventure” game. Since the advent of 3-D graphics technology, video games have often used cinematic techniques such as shot selection, framing, and camera movement, especially with the use of cut-scenes.

Games Based on Films

Video game designers basing their video games upon popular films is not a new trend by any means. The first notable example of this is the infamous <E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600>. E.T was a fiasco for Atari. The game received terrible reviews, with many commenting on the obviously rushed nature of the game. This criticism was well founded, however, as the games designer, Howard Scott Warshaw, had designed the game in a mere six months. Eventually, after cartridge after cartridge was returned to Atari after the 1982 Christmas season, the decision was made to bury all of the unsold cartridges in a New Mexico landfill.  It would be the first of many poorly received licensed games.

There have been a select few that have been noted as being a shining example of using a film property creatively. One of these such titles is the arcade game Star Wars. Star Wars took place during the last act of <Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope>, with the player controlling Luke Skywalker during the rebel assault on the Death Star. Star Wars the arcade game actually took a few liberties with Episode IV, the film on which it is based. For example, instead of shooting lasers, the TIE fighters in the arcade game shoot “fireballs.” This was done in order to make the gunfire easier for players to shoot and dodge. Even with these liberties, however, Star Wars is still a classic example of a licensed game done right. The game not only chose one of the most thrilling passages from the film to translate into a game, but it used sounds ripped directly from the film to further immerse the player.

Sweet Home movie poster

One of the most fascinating games based upon a film is the 1989 Famicom game スウィートホーム, or <Sweet Home>. Never released outside of Japan, the game was developed by by Capcom in order to capitalize on the Japanese film of the same name. This cross-promotion went so far, in fact, that the trailer for the film went so far as to include footage from both the film AND the game. <Sweet Home> is one of the rare video games adapted from a film that really works as a companion to the film on which it is based. The plot of both the film and the game concerns a group of five people attempting to locate a lost fresco by the famous painter Ichiro Mamiya. Once they arrive at her estate, however, the door locks and the investigators must find a way out before the various ghosts inside the haunted house kill them.

While the film version of <Sweet Home> is a fairly conventional (at least by Japanese standards) haunted house type film, with gruesome special effects and a rather predictable story. The Famicom version, however, takes a different narrative path. Instead of using cut-scenes to tell it’s story, it plays like rfeading an expository novel, with letters and notes hidden throughout the mansion intended to flesh out the story. These letters create more of a back story than a 90-minute film ever could, and therefore the game works with the movie instead of simply attempting to mimic scenes from the movie.

Films Based on Games

Super Mario Bros. The Movie

One cannot start a discussion about films based on video games without bringing up the most infamous one of all, <Super Mario Bros.: The Movie>. Exemplifying everything that is wrong about video game films, <Super Mario Bros.: The Movie> takes everything that makes the Mario games fun and memorable and just does away with it. In place of the bright, colorful landscape of the Mushroom Kingdom from the games, the audience is greeted by “Dinohattan,” a Blade Runner-esque metropolis that bears essentially no resemblance to games. Cartoonish representations of characters like Yoshi and the Goombas are replaced by much more drab, realistic looking ones. It’s too bad, because there once was a good Super Mario Bros. movie, though it was never released in America. スーパーマリオブラザーズピーチ姫救出大作戦, or <Super Mario Brothers: The Great Mission To Rescue Princess Peach> is an anime version of Super Mario Bros. released not long after the original game in Japan. After watching it, it’s obvious that the anime version is much more successful in capturing what made the Mario games so memorable. It’s got all the celebrated characters from the games, as well as replicating all of the colorful locales. It even uses sound effects from the game where applicable. For instance, when Mario shoots a fireball, it makes the exact same sound as it does in the game. I’m not sure if it’s necessarily a great movie, but as a representation of the Mario games, it certainly blows the 1993 film away.

I think that the main problem with the 1993 film is the clear sense of misdirection that pervades it. John Leguizamo (who portrays Luigi in the film) stated that it was one of the worst experiences of his career and that the biggest reason the film turned out so poorly is because the director of the film wanted to create a darker vision, while the studio wanted a children’s film. This statement makes perfect sense, as the childlike nature of the video game is constantly clashing with the dark atmosphere of the film.

More interesting than films that are directly based on games are films that use games as inspiration for their plot. One key example of this immediately springs to mind, <Tron>. Not only do video games figure heavily into the plot of the film, but the plot takes on a video game-like structure at one point. In <Tron>, a computer programmer is sucked into his own game and is forced to fight his way out. Even today, the special effects in the film are fantastic, and I feel that <Tron> captures the video gaming experience far better than any film that’s actually based on a video game. Once Flynn (Jeff Bridges) enters the computer world, the film actually takes on a video game styled narrative. Flynn is subject to a number of challenges (light cycles, tank fights, etc.) until he reaches the “final boss:” the Master Control Program (MCP). It is because of this structure that I feel <Tron> is truly the only successful “video game movie” of all time.

Full Motion Video Games

Dragon’s Lair

One of the most interesting developments in game design was the creation of the full motion video (FMV) game. These types of games had their heyday from 1992 to 1995, during which 61 FMV games were produced. By combining live action video with interactive button pressing, these games attempted to bridge the gab between cinema and video games. One of the first of these games, <Dragon’s Lair>, also proved to be one of the most successful. Disney mainstay Don Bluth’s animation briefly brought players back to the fledgling arcade scene, and for a while, things were looking great for FMV games. This resurgence, however, was short lived because the Laserdisc drives installed in the arcade cabinets required constant maintenance.  This early form of the FMV game vanished from arcades quickly, and this form of game didn’t appear again until the early 90’s with the advent of console-based CD technology. Three consoles were at the forefront of this technology: the Philips Compact Disc Interactive (CD-i), the Panasonic 3DO, and the Sega CD. Many of the games for these systems were FMV based, with the Sega CD going so far as to include the FMV title <Sewer Shark> as a pack-in.

<Dragon’s Lair> itself was ported to every one of the consoles. None of these consoles were ever popular, however. The CD-i gained a reputation for a small time for it’s licensed Nintendo games, but quickly fizzled out. The 3DO’s exorbitant $699.99 price tag seriously limited it’s consumer potential, and it too quickly faded. Only the Sega CD lasted slightly longer, primarily because of controversy surrounding one it’s games, an FMV adventure titled <Night Trap>. The plot of the “game” was typical B-horror movie fare. Dana Plato stared as an undercover agent working to stop a group of zombie/vampires (“augers”) from killing a house full of teenage girls. Gameplay basically boils down to switching around the various rooms, as if operating a security camera system, and waiting for the augers to get in the right spot so the player can “trap” them by pressing a button. Pressing this button either initiated a trap scene, in which the auger is humorously disposed of, or the player misses, and the auger goes free and sometimes kill the girls in the house. This part of the game is what started the controversy. The voyeuristic nature of the game no doubt exacerbated the heat surrounding the game.

Voyeurism could be seen as a sort of running theme throughout many FMV games, including <Double Switch>, a game that had similar gameplay to <Night Trap>, and <Wirehead>, a game that tasks the player in guiding a man with a computer in his head through various situations. Most other FMV games are played in the first person, such as <Crime Patrol> and <Mad Dog McCree>. It’s these types of games that come much closer in achieving the goal of an “interactive cinema.” By achieving this, though, they are much worse games. It’s basically just like watching a really bad movie, except if you mess up, you have to start the movie all over again. It gives the player little control over the actual events that take place because these types of “games” are little more than on-rails shooters with live action video. Overall, it would seem that the FMV genre isn’t as much of a hybrid of video games and cinema, but a Frankensteinian mutation of the two.

Cinematic Games

Since the advent of 3D technology, many developers have been trying to make their games more “cinematic” in nature. Games of this type include the <Final Fantasy> series (at least post-VII), Hideo Kojima’s <Metal Gear> series, and the <Ninja Gaiden> series. Even before 3D, though, video games used a visual language similar to cinema. The original <Ninja Gaiden>, considered the first game to use cut-scenes, can be seen as the originator of this trend. Before <Ninja Gaiden> most games, like <Metroid> and <The Legend of Zelda>, told their stories through their manuals. <Ninja Gaiden> was the first game to tell it’s story within the actual game, and it did it through highly cinematic cut-scenes. Through the games use of highly film-like angles and techniques like shot-reverse-shot, the games cutscene’s play like an animated film. The game relies heavily on cinematic techniques to tell it’s story, drawing visual inspiration from Japanese films and anime. Hideo Kojima’s <Metal Gear> series also draws heavily from a variety of cinematic references. For example, on the cover of the very first game in the series, <Metal Gear>, the character of Solid Snake is modeled after the character Kyle Reese from The Terminator.

Later games in the series, notably <Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty>, make use of extensively long cut-scenes, with some passing the 40-minute mark, that are very cinematic in nature. The most recent entry in the Final Fantasy series, <Final Fantasy XIII>, contains similarly long, cinematic cut-scenes. It seemed that the game designer’s were sacrificing gameplay, especially in the first half of the game, for the drawn out story. Many recently released popular games, <Mass Effect> for example, have had marketing campaigns chiefly advertising the story aspect of the game. That’s not to say that gameplay isn’t important in today’s gaming climate. More abstract games like <Flower> and <Braid> tell their stories in ways completely devoid of cinematic reference, instead using techniques that are unique to the video game medium. These types of games, however, are exceptions as the vast majority of popular, blockbuster games have narrative campaigns pattered after cinema.

Video games have shared a tumultuous relationship with cinema throughout the mediums young life. With six video game based films set to be released by 2011, cinema’s influence on video games shows no sign of letting up. Though it seems that the current trend is to make blockbuster video games as cinematic as possible, perhaps in the future the video game medium can further develop it’s own visual language and become something more than just “interactive cinema.”

Aaron Hamel is currently a sophomore at Michigan State University and is pursuing a degree in film studies.


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