Describe a film as being ‘like a videogame’ and you’ll immediately set my alarm bells ringing. Positive, negative, it doesn’t matter, the comparison will almost always open up a can of troublesome associations, and I really have to fight the knee-jerk reflexes of my inner teenager from wailing ‘BUT YOU DON’T GET IT, MAN’. I obviously haven’t a clue how familiar any one critic is or is not with the medium, and I’ve gotten myself in hot water before by decrying those obviously not L337 enough to know what they’re talking about, when in actual fact they are more than qualified to their own readings. Channelling these teenage frustrations more constructively, it becomes clear the issue is rather how agonisingly fluid the descriptor is, and that using the term unqualified denies any meaningful signification beyond the surface of either medium. The term shouldn’t be limiting in its application, and by engaging with it beyond the clichés we can perhaps touch upon the strange morphology between the two.
To wit, some examples:
Enter the Void is just like a videogame. Not in the obvious frame of being like a run-and-gun action game with its’ fixed first, then third person perspective, but rather that it’s just like Tetris. No, it’s not about the arrangement of tessellating blocks into an orderly fashion to a thumping Russian electro-folk soundtrack [no, not even on a structural level] but rather it has a persistence of vision, sound and unconscious engagement which lingered well beyond the immediate experience of interaction. I say this as someone who consistently plays the Tetris (averaging maybe 5 minutes a day) and as a consequence I consistently experience the Tetris Effect. Which is to say that in moments of daydreaming or slight boredom I tend to unwittingly visualise the organisation of falling blocks. It’s not hallucinatory, nor disarming, it’s just handy half-conscious alarm bell for when something is starting to push my patience. I’m told it’s just another mode of half-conscious problem solving, much akin to how I’ve had the very question of this blog-post rattling about in my head for the last 24 hours. On another level it’s like that agonisingly persistent ear-worm, that bloody tune you just can’t get out of your head. Only I get it with Tetris, and blocks.
Again the glib reading here is that ‘Tetris brushes on the edges of hallucination, therefore it is like Enter The Void’, but that’s not it either. The comparison is that both pose an indirect problem, and that you leave the experience picking it apart in the back of your thoughts. A strangely pertinent scientific study has revealed that playing Tetris can reduce the risk of flashbacks for those suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, and while traumatic is to exaggerate the effect of Enter the Void, it does at least underscore my point that both are functioning on levels which your average film doesn’t even come close to. For that I absolutely love the film, even if it is a bit of a slog in its unfettered 2 hours and 40 minutes runtime.
Next case in point is Ben Affleck’s rather zippy heist movie The Town, which again is just like a videogame. More precisely it’s just like any heist mission you care to mention from the Grand Theft Auto series. The dynamic between the central characters, the structure of the heists, the getaway car-chases with the tension of desperately trying to out-run cop cars in a sprawling urban environment. Or more succinctly still, a number of conflicts building in scale towards a rather disastrous and seemingly impossible final conflict, punctuated by scenes of internal group conflict, and bookended by a number of dead-end shoot-outs. The parallels may seem cursory, but the connection had a real resonance that fails the usual description of being ‘like a videogame’.
Of course the whole GTA series is ridiculously indebted to any number of crime films that have come before it, so it’s easy to say it’s just another regurgitation of the previous generation’s heist dramas. But this isn’t just Michael Mann through yet another prism, as he deals in quite a separate package of subtexts and narrative drives. To define the ‘feel’ of a film is always a slippery task, but The Town is definitely in the same sphere as GTA. To take the general barbs of criticism used in describing a film as being ‘like a videogame’ it didn’t feel or look like a cut-scene, and the narrative wasn’t subjugated to the Crash-Bang-Whollop of its action sequences. Perhaps on a simple level it comes down to the film being action-based and set in the working class ‘burbs of the US East Coast.
To take the very same barbed club, a film which lives up to the criticisms of shallowness and general thick-headedness is the recent Resident Evil: Afterlife, which to it’s credit makes no apology for this, revelling merrily as it does in the use of some clever 3D. There is no plot, there is next to no drama for the actors to engage with, and even the action sequences don’t make much sense in the grander scheme of things. Which is not to say that the film isn’t shamelessly entertaining.
The complication then comes in that Resident Evil is still a work of adaptation, drawn from a recognised series of videogames, and by said measure is not really like the original videogames at all. It’s not a jittery-nerve journey of nigh abject terror, but a clumping great action film built on the husk of an otherwise brilliant game franchise. The brilliance of the games is not defined by a lack of plot or by godawful acting, but rather on running around a haunted house with only six bullets in the clip and two points to save your game. This doesn’t stop critics judging it in terms derivative of a videogame, but it would be just as false to judge the novelistic aspects of Blade Runner on the back of its own source material in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. The abstraction is so distant that the moniker ‘like a videogame’ becomes too hollow to actually bear any significance, and it’s quite tiring having to defend a medium on the back of such a distant (and slightly inbred) cousin.
The interrogation behind describing a film as novel-like is however a bit more rigorous, and a formalist approach can provide genuine insight to how loyal the structure of a film adaptation is. Arch-Formalist David Bordwell does a very fine job of breaking down both The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Polanski’s The Ghost in terms of pacing, and how the four-act structure of each reflects the conventional pace each holds as page-turning thrillers. Yet transpose this thinking to discussing a videogame and it’s rare that discussions ever go beyond the usual sheen of what we see on screen.
Case in point, the wonderfully enjoyable Scott Pilgrim vs The World is (over)saturated in referents from the world of videogames, and even jumps through a few hoops of the save-die-reload logic that gamers know so well. Less discussed is its function as an adaptation, and author Bryan Lee O’Malley has said the books (and consequently the film) owe a considerable debt to the structure of shōnen manga; the comics of action and romance aimed at teenage boys, filled with love rivals, fights and ongoing grudges. Not to get stuck in the trap of pursuing ever more obscure frames of reference for it’s own sake, but describing Scott Pilgrim as being broken down into ‘stages’ or ‘levels’ has perhaps less to do with Super Mario and more to do with Naruto and Death Note. But enough with the increasingly oblique references, the point is still that you shouldn’t just settle with the first referent that comes tumbling along.
Gaming as a whole is defined by its diversity of output, and when the glibbest of critics use ‘video game-y’ as shorthand for films being plotless and CGI laden they’re really just flagging up their own ignorance. I’m not denying that gamers have to endure a lot of narrative-scant talking-mannequin dramas, just for pities sake don’t use that definition as the measure by which to critique other media.