Comparing a video game to a movie seems like both the ultimate criticism and the ultimate compliment. Some games clearly crave the comparison; Ghost of Tsushima features a Kurosawa mode, which is about as on the nose as you can get, while Cyberpunk 2077 wrung everything it could out of Keanu Reeves. Others are more subtle about it, but the desire to be thought of as a playable movie is clear to see from the story structure, emotional beats, and shot choices.
At the same time, it feels a little bit like an insult. If games want to be taken seriously as art, their primary goal cannot be to be compared to another existing, much more established art form. Film and theatre are much closer to each other than film and gaming, but “it’s just like a play!” is not the glowing praise for a film in the way “it’s just like a movie!” seems to be for games. As someone who loves modern cinema, I don’t have a major problem with games trying to be movies, but the worst part is, they’re all trying to be the same movie.
When someone says a game is like a movie, we all think of the same thing. A Sony blockbuster; a third-person title about a stoic protagonist with hidden emotional depth, alongside a story marred by tragedy and increasingly similar emotive beats, all ending in a big confrontation. Like The Last of Us. Or The Last of Us Part 2. Or God of War, or Horizon, or the aforementioned Ghost of Tsushima. There are dozens more besides too. That plot sounds like a film, sure, but it doesn’t sound like every film. Whenever we say that games are like movies, we mean specifically that they’re like a ‘00s action movie – if games want to keep borrowing from cinema, they have to dream a little bigger darling.
Take Inception (see what I did there?) for example. It features the sort of visuals and mind-warping plot that seem much more like a video game than a traditional film; although because gaming’s desire to be like cinema goes only one way, this comparison was not made as a way to praise Nolan’s flick. Yet we don’t see a lot of games trying to be Inception. Lost in Translation, The Breakfast Club, Jennifer’s Body, Her, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind… these are some of my favourite films, but I don’t see many games trying to be those either. Also yes, Jennifer’s Body is one of my favourite films and I will not hear a word against it.
I know there’s a lot of games you could hold up bits of and say “well, this is kind of like Lost in Translation,” or whatever, but I’m not really talking about similar scenes or comparable situations. I’m talking in terms of structure, theme, plot beats, tone… these are the things the Sony blockbusters all share with the films they are so desperately trying to be, with the camera booming up over the character’s shoulder and then zooming out over the horizon.
And yes, there is a lot more to games than the Sony blockbuster farm. If Found…, Coffee Talk, Call of the Sea, and Umurangi Generation were amongst my favourite games of last year. I try to play a wide variety. There are elements of different movies I could compare to many of those games too, but it never feels like they are trying to be movies. I don’t think all games should try to be movies, but right now, I’m talking specifically about the ones that do. I’m talking about the developers who set out with the goal of making a playable film. If that is the aim – and it’s not one that I necessarily object to – why not take in the full range of cinema instead of just Mark Wahlberg’s filmography?
I actually think the link between games and cinema is a good thing – I’ve written loads in the past about why X movie or Y television show should be a video game. I love the way the video game space can take stories and explore them from fresh angles, the increased agency they offer compared to the very passive act of watching a film, and how their extended runtime provides an opportunity for more absorbing and complete storytelling. But I don’t need another absorbing retelling of a bog standard action movie. I’ve played them before, too many times. For devs who don’t want to be making playable movies, that’s great – keep on trucking. But for those who do, maybe update your DVD collection, yeah?
Next: Debates Around The Last Of Us Remake Are Missing The Point
- TheGamer Originals
- God of War
- The Last Of Us
- Horizon Zero Dawn
- Ghost of Tsushima
- the last of us 2
- The Last Of Us Part 2
Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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