The excitement buzzed around as it was finally confirmed once and for all that video games are the dominant expression of our culture, and all hail our new overlords. The comparison even crops up again in this New Yorker article about Metal Gear Solid mastermind Kojima leaving publisher Konami.
There’s only one problem with this. Well, a few, but we’ll start with the big obvious ones that Ben Kuchera over at Polygon pointed out in this excellent op-ed.
Metal Gear Solid 5 costs $60. A ticket to a movie at my local AMC costs $11 and change. Kuchera’s research draws the conclusion that the global average price for a movie ticket is under $5. This puts into perspective the $84 million that Age of Ultron pulled in on its U.S. opening and makes the $1.4 billion that “Age of Ultron” ultimately made during its theater run look very impressive.
When I talked to Courtney about it, she pointed out that it doesn’t make sense to compare opening days for games and movies at all. A video game makes a huge chunk of its sales on opening day, thanks to pre-orders and buzz around the launch date. Films also strive to make a hefty amount on their opening day but will ultimately make a lot more than games during their theater run. Game sales, on the other hand, don’t reach that high again.
So to recap, not only did Metal Gear not actually beat Age of Ultron globally on its opening, it will never make as much money as Age of Ultron did, and less people bought the game than bought tickets to Age of Ultron.
Where does this urge to compare video games to movies come from?
Video games visually borrow a lot from films, especially in terms of the way we treat games as if they were viewed through a camera. The entire visual language of cut scenes in games is borrowed wholesale from films.
Ultimately, though, they’re not the same. The way we ingest a game’s story isn’t the same as a film, and our interactions with the two mediums are dissimilar.
That being said, films have been around a lot longer than video games. A large part of our language for analyzing visual storytelling comes from film, and it’s hard to shake that when it comes to talking about video games. And like I said, that’s not totally unfounded. We still experience many games through a camera.
Look at this trailer for Metal Gear Solid 5 that uses stylized “handheld” camera movements, even though it’s completely digital.
And in The Last of Us, which has in my opinion one of the strongest openings of all time, the camera switches fluidly between sequences where you control the camera (and the character), and sequences where the camera is controlled for you. This is done to show you things that are important or to move the story forward.
What I particularly love about this opening is that there are so many important visual clues that you can miss by simply not looking. The Last of Us does a particularly good job of trying to position you and time things so that you will see those things. Things like the buildings blowing up outside the window at 4:13 in that play-through above. The player in this case also made a conscious choice to move so that we, the people watching the play-through, would see what they saw at the right moment.
But while in films everything is orchestrated so that every visual cue comes at the right moment, it’s not always so in games. When I played a horror game called Through The Woods at PAX Prime, I described three different ways of experiencing the demo’s climactic moment. Mine was the most cinematic, but none of the paths was inherently wrong.
In Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, visual and audio cues are triggered by the player’s interactions with the game. I’ve tried to look up Let’s Plays of my favorite scenes. I almost can’t stomach watching them because the player isn’t seeing things in the order I saw them, or they’re taking too long to complete a task and ruining the pacing, or they’re just not looking in the right direction. So much of experiencing a game is intensely, mechanically personal in a way that films aren’t.
Some games want to be films. In Beyond: Two Souls, director David Cage tried to mix cinema and game, to… well, mixed results. The game told the life story of a girl named Jodie, from her childhood marked by the intrusion of her “invisible friend” Aiden to her adulthood as a CIA operative and then fugitive. Ellen Page starred as Jodie and Willem Defoe as her guardian.
Beyond: Two Souls is a game that is confused about what it wants to be. It had a special preview at the Tribeca Film Festival, featuring a Q&A with the actors and a special trailer. The Tribeca trailer is cinematic, melodramatic, and full of romance and action and emotion.
For contrast, look at the E3 trailer from the same year. It highlights the game’s action sequences, showing Jodie going from broody teen to CIA operative and finally embarking on a dangerous assassination mission in Somalia. This particular trailer might say more about what publishers think a gaming audience wants, but the game is that tonally bizarre. It shifts back and forth at blinding speeds between what it thinks an Oscar-winning film should be and what it thinks a video game should be.
If we feel an urge to compare games and film then, it’s not entirely our fault. As people like Gita Jackson have pointed out, there’s a lot we can learn from film history, cinematography, and other techniques that have been honed in a hundred years of filmmaking. The article linked here is about frame rates and why the 24fps that we experience in cinemas is important.
But games still aren’t movies, simply by virtue of how we experience and interact with them. Capitalizing on those differences is ultimately what sets a great game apart. When content follows form, you can tell a story or convey an experience that couldn’t happen in any other medium and is all the more powerful for it.