The trailer opens with a quote from Abraham Lincoln. The camera sweeps over to a room filled with seemingly holographic monitors as two technicians scramble. Then the voiceover: “It was the first global terrorist attack in history. They struck nuclear reactors on five continents simultaneously, and in an instant threw our world into chaos.” The next two minutes show chaos: a private military company with walking tanks and hovering aircraft, running soldiers decked out with futuristic gear, and lots and lots of explosions. There’s a slow-motion leap accompanying a spray of bullets. Kevin Spacey is there too, with a performance ripped straight from House of Cards. He looks into the camera: “Ideas don’t determine who’s right. Power determines who’s right. And I have the power, so I’m right.”
So what Hollywood blockbuster is this? Well, none of them. It’s Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, the next entry in Activision’s ludicrously successful gaming franchise. Were it not for the minimal gameplay footage interspliced between the bombastic visuals and pseudo-cinematic camerawork, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
But in the mind of Glen Schofield, co-founder of developer Sledgehammer Games and director of Advanced Warfare, Hollywood can’t compare to his newest project. “This has the scale and scope of the equivalent of four Hollywood movies in it,” he said in an interview with Gamesbeat.
Ignoring the fact that that’s unquestionably false—unless a planet literally explodes and a major city is leveled by two nigh-invincible aliens and causes the death of tens of millions of people, it won’t match up to Man of Steel, let alone some amalgamation of Man of Steel with Avatar and the Matrix sequels and/or any Star Wars films—it’s simply a ridiculous thing to say.
In fact, it’s a meaningless thing to say, because the scope and scale of a video game can’t truly be compared to a film. Trying to make that comparison is like trying to compare the scope of a particularly massive literary world with some unrelated film world. How would you go about doing that? You wouldn’t and couldn’t.
To compare a game to a movie implies a fundamental connection that simply isn’t there. Games are not interactive movies. They never really have been. While games have been aping the style of movies for years, it’s time for players and developers to get over themselves and stop focusing on other media.
There are things video games can learn from film. As an audiovisual medium, some of the cues of cinematic language that have built up over the past century can benefit all newer visual stories. Cutscenes—the unplayable narrative clips that are interspersed between gameplay—could benefit from a better understanding of camera angles and different “cinematic” techniques like montage. But landmark games like Half Life 2 and Bioshock have told stories without camera angles or editing. Those two games are some of the most effective and compelling ever made, and their narratives push the medium forward. They focused on what makes a game a game, and had great success because of it.
The best example of the fundamental distinction between video games and any other narrative medium is in the standards of writing. The unfortunate reality is that writing in games is rarely much better than Internet fanfiction. That was true in the 1980s (though there was less fanfiction to compare it to), and it’s still true today. But where that could ruin another medium, it’s little more than a hindrance to a video game.
A video game with terrible writing can still be added into the canon of “Best games ever made.” (If you look at said canon, you will notice that most of them are terribly written.) That’s not how other media work; a movie with poor writing can be enjoyed—possibly even loved in a “so bad it’s good” kind of way—but no one will ever think it’s an “amazing” film.
And a TV show with poor writing? Dead on arrival.
Which is interesting, because now video games seem to be transitioning toward a TV comparison. The upcoming Battlefield Hardline is a cops-and-robbers take on the popular war-centric franchise, and it’s going to be presented as a TV serial. To quote the official game description on publisher EA’s website: “With a fresh new style inspired by from [sic] the most popular crime dramas seen on television today, Battlefield Hardline’s gritty story will take you through so many twists and turns, you won’t be able to wait until the next episode.”
But that’s really not a comparison the team should be inviting. If the first 12 minutes of game footage released this month is any indication, the writing in Hardline is cringe-worthy at best.
Despite the equal-parts bland and painful dialogue, the game still looks interesting. And that is a quality unique to video games. No one who isn’t an actual masochist hears dialogue like that in a TV pilot and thinks, “I definitely want to be subjected to this for 8 to 10 hours.” But in a game it’s both par for the course and just generally acceptable, as long as the act of playing the game is enjoyable.
Remedy Entertainment’s upcoming game Quantum Break will be putting that theory to the test. Remedy and Microsoft have teamed up to make a story that spans both the game itself and an accompanying live-action TV show. Though there’s not much information on the TV show, early footage of the gameplay looks interesting, if not mind-blowing. And as with the other videos, the writing isn’t spectacular. If the game sticks to interactivity and can keep the time-bending gameplay fresh, then it will be a success regardless. But the TV show, whatever it ends up being, won’t be able to hide behind flashy tricks. It will have to stack up against everything else the medium has to offer.
Someone looking for a short, passive experience will watch a movie. Someone looking for something longer might binge-watch a series on Netflix. It’s only when a player makes a clear decision to play something—to actually interact with a narrative—that they’ll want to pick up a game.
People who make and play video games need to realize that movies aren’t their competition. TV and film are competition for each other, but anyone who wants to play a game doesn’t want to do either of those things. Every medium is at it best when it’s doing something no other medium can do. TV shows are at their best when they tell a massive story over dozens of hours and really flesh out their characters and their world. Films are at their best when they can compact a story down to its essentials.
Video games are best when they allow a player to experience something new or interact with another world in a meaningful way.
This may seem like a semantic argument, but it points to a larger issue: Video games still haven’t formed a clear identity. This isn’t a rehash of the ridiculous argument that games aren’t art (they are), but the reality is that too many people argue over the definition of a “video game.”
When even the medium’s critics can’t agree, that’s a serious problem. It’s one that the industry needs to resolve, and this obsession with trying to replicate the experiences of other media is a distraction from the fundamental problem. Video games shouldn’t try to be blockbuster films or TV serials, because they can’t be either. Those goals are like a desert mirage, and the sooner everyone realizes it the better the medium will be.