Lights, Camera, Action Button

by Tim Turi on Jun 03, 2011 at 12:40 PM

No, this article isn’t about how L.A. Noire’s expressive facial animations and multilayered story have blurred the line between film and game. Rockstar’s 1940s saga makes an appearance in this article, but it’s only to stress that video games are becoming more and more similar to the archetypes and release rhythms we’ve come to know from the film and television industries. Both the local theater and your living room host summer blockbusters, gripping trilogies, and episodic cartoon installments; something that’s difficult to imagine considering the first video game was a rudimentary ping pong simulator. We’ve narrowed down the main breeds leading this converging cadence of titles hitting the silver screen and the TV screen.

The Summer Blockbuster

Film snobs love to criticize and pour pessimism all over Jerry Bruckheimer’s big-budget summer spectacles, but tons of popcorn munchers secretly anticipate these special effects extravaganzas. Similar to a big budget Pirates of the Caribbean film or yearly comic book adaptations, gamers keep lining up to buy every Call of Duty title that releases on Activision’s clockwork schedule. The single-player campaign of Modern Warfare 2 may be as digestible, disposable, and explosive as a Michael Bay film, but unlike movies, games allow gamers to continually capture the larger-than-life moments through dozens of hours of online multiplayer.

The Episodic Cartoon

Insomniac’s Ratchet & Clank series boasts gorgeous visuals akin to a Dreamworks title. The lovable Lombax and robot continue their journey in the same familiar universe in titles released on a nearly annual basis, delivering more regular content to fans than Pixar's Toy Story series. The downloadable space has given way to more frequent installments in ongoing series, with Telltale games following television’s episodic formula even more closely. The caricatured Back to the Future game and Tales of Monkey Island tell a continuous story through a series of independent adventures, providing gamers a steady supply of fun rather than making them wait years.

The Epic Trilogy

Famous cinematic trios such as The Godfather, The Lord of the Rings, the original Star Wars, and the Indiana Jones films (we don’t count the fourth film) have instilled filmgoers with a reverence for trilogies. These movies boast rich universes and stories, which can’t be contained in one film, garnering massive fanatical followings and an excess of transmedia opportunities. The religion of the trilogy has been with the video game industry since the days of Zork, and has increased in significance as games have become more popular. God of War, Mass Effect, and Warcraft spawned trilogies with such massive appeal that developers have begun planning trilogies before the first game even releases, such as Assassin’s Creed, Mirror’s Edge, and film director Guillermo del Toro’s inSANE. Sometimes the best-laid blueprints don’t pan out, or a series outgrows its original design, but the point is that game designers are working under an established film formula.

The Standalone Masterpiece

Sometimes it feels like only sequels populate the box office, but obviously there are tons of brilliant one-off films. The Coen brothers excel at plopping memorable characters into unique situations in films like A Serious Man and Raising Arizona, oftentimes leaving the conclusion open for interpretation. This occurs less frequently in video games, with sequels lurking around every corner. Still, encapsulated experiences like Bully, Braid, and Shadow of the Colossus exist on their own, leaving gamers with a single glimpse into fascinating worlds. Crafting games without leaving an obvious sequel cliffhanger is a refreshing departure from sequelitis, something that Rockstar has excelled at in recent years.

The Period Piece

Speaking of Rockstar, the company has been at the forefront of the industry delivering compelling period pieces. John Marston explores Red Dead Redemption's turn of the century Wild West, Detective Phelps solves capers in the 1940s-based L.A. Noire, and CJ thugs around in GTA: San Andreas' 1990s gang-infested California. While these games are rooted in relative historical accuracy, works of art like BioShock and Fallout 3 place gamers in distinctive 1950s settings with the added twists of an underwater dystopia and post-apocalyptic wastelands. Gamers have finally trekked through enough sci-fi futures and Tolkien-esque fantasies that they’re ready for something similar to outstanding films such as There Will be Blood, Pride & Prejudice, and Titanic, which have populated cinema for years

The Mystery

Plenty of games have mystery in them, such as Heavy Rain or L.A. Noire, but those games offer some form of narrative resolution. A few new IPs have hinged on keeping the mystery alive between entries, never divulging too much information but giving fans enough to be satisfied. Like the Lost or Twin Peaks TV series’, games like Assassin’s Creed and Alan Wake present a handful of new questions with every answer given. Discovering the Abstergo Corporations’s dubious intentions is gaming’s modern equivalent to learning what’s up with Lost’s zany island.

On The Right Track?

Video games are a hit. With popularity and success outperforming films, their apparent emulation of movies are evidently not holding them back. As previously mentioned, games like Mass Effect, Red Dead Redemption, and BioShock have each pulled in oodles of awards and enjoyed massive sales. But at some point will following the form of TV and movies hold video games back? Video games present the most dynamic, modern medium of storytelling, and it seems unreasonable to believe forever following the practices of an industry over a century old will unlock its full potential.