Earlier this week the ABC World News Posted a segment I recorded with them in which I described Metroid Prime’s achievements in game design as a breakthrough, equivalent in importance to Citizen Kane’s coalescence of cinematic techniques. While the piece is predictably terse and mostly confined to broad assertion, I think it presents my case pretty well. If you’re interested I’ve published a longer, more detailed version of those arguments in an editorial for IGN.
It’s been interesting to follow the reaction to this piece, which has broken down along the familiar lines of sarcasm, big media cynicism, disagreement, and personal derision. Another response has been to reject the very idea of cross-media comparison. I wanted to address this particular reaction a little more openly since I think the application of that criticism is misguided and a bit dishonest.
There is an undeniable relationship between narrative video games and film. To refute this is to ignore a huge chunk of the medium’s development over the last twenty years. Final Fantasy VII contains hours of pure non-interactive cinema, as does Grand Theft Auto, Metal Gear Solid, Uncharted, Ocarina of Time, Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Halo, and almost any other major “core” game you could cite. There’s gameplay, then there’s the cutscene, which is cinema. There is no equivocating on this point, cutscenes are movies. Full stop.
It follows that we use cinematic references all the time when we talk about games. Have you read a review of Uncharted 2 that doesn’t reference Indiana Jones (itself a riff on a genre borrowed from another medium)? Have you read anyone who cited Black Hawk Down or Saving Private Ryan in reference to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare? How long does it take for someone to bring out Kelly’s Heroes when describing Battlefield: Bad Company? Grindhouse and House of the Dead: Overkill? Goichi Suda is happy to talk about how No More Heroes is a direct riff on El Topo. Shawn Elliott began his review of Half-Life 2 Episode 2 with a description of cinematic gameplay, ”videogames learn lots from other media, and by imitating the everyday function of film techniques instead of their exact form, Half-Life 2: Episode 2 becomes movielike, but isn’t a game that wants to be what it’s not.”
And this is to say nothing of the throngs of games literally derived from movies, everything from Fern Gully to Reservoir Dogs. Neither medium requires the other for validation, but they have a great deal in common, and we are generally quite comfortable dealing in these areas of creative cross-over. Shakespeare uses Holisnhed’s histories as the springboard for many of his tragedies, the influence of painting on cinematography is obvious, the connection between theater and film, novel and film, novel to game—there has not yet been a medium of creative expression that hasn’t borrowed significantly from somewhere else. This has been, and should be, reason enough for comparison. Harvard expects its students to do comparative analysis as part of normal undergraduate curriculum. Note their first quoted example, contrasting the assertions of Camus, a novelist and philosopher, against that of Fallon, a psychiatrist and attempted revolutionary. I don’t think many people were scandalized by Hitchock’s assertion, in his collected conversations with Truffaut, “you have to design your film just as Shakespeare did his plays–for an audience.”
Games do not require comparison to anything else to legitimize them, and I don’t think there’s a case to be made that I say anything of the sort. But I am arguing that games exist on a continuum of creative human expression.
Metroid Prime is not great because of Citizen Kane, it’s great alongside it. I think the parallels between the two are strong. There are huge differences. You don’t earn your spurs in pointing them out, and I don’t suggest they share similar aesthetics, characterizations, or plots. But I do suggest that they both sit at a similar point in the growth curve of their respective forms. Neither deserves to be treated as a sacred cow (I prefer Marcel Carne, Lang, Kurosawa, and Bergman to anything Orson Welles accomplished), but both are historical works, and boilerplates for the most powerful uses of film and games, respectively.
And this is a point worth emphasizing, because in the years since Prime came out, games have largely ignored its boilerplate. Kojima still can’t tell ween himself from cinema. Uncharted 2 is filled with hours of movie-watching in between its clumsy interactive sequences. So too Batman Arkham Asylum, Mass Effect, and Grand Theft Auto IV. BioShock skipped film entirely and went all the way back to the antique traditions of radio play to convey its narrative, while its gameplay mechanics weren’t conceptually more refined than that of Contra. Even Half-Life 2 is filled with cinema, though it allows the interactive relief of bunny hopping in a corner if you’d rather not listen to an NPC monologue.
When we praise all of these games, how much time is spent praising their cinematic (or non-game) qualities? How much ink was spilled on objectivism in BioShock, a game that contained no such references in its actual gameplay? How many game writers praised Metal Gear Solid games for their characterizations and sense of spectacle, which only have a tangential impact on the games’ rule sets?
When we think about games in this way, we subconsciously apologize for them, as developers, writers, and fans. If you spend millions of dollars on lavish cutscenes in your game, you implicitly support the notion that games need cinema to be legitimatized, they cannot do it through gameplay alone.
I jumped on the chance to compare Metroid Prime to Kane, and stand by the validity of the comparison, because it is one of the most consistently game-like narrative works I’ve ever played. It doesn’t need cutscenes, all it needs is its art, animations, control scheme, and level design. You get story snippets in computer panels as a supplement, but they’re not essential to the gameplay itself. I compare how Metroid Prime speaks through its gameplay, to what Welles did with Kane, filling camera lens, lighting, and editing with something that couldn’t have been said in any other medium.
There are other games that you could argue for in this comparison (Portal immediately springs to mind), but the existence of alternates strengthens the case for a comparison in the first place. Film, prose, poetry, theater, and music have all given us great works that speak directly to something ineffable and universal in human experience. So do games. They can be placed in that canon, that evolution of people trying to describe something overwhelming in a new and abstract language. I think it’s a great privilege to be part of that growth, and I think this conversation is the beginning of a step forward, out of the swamp of fun, awesome, badassedness that we’ve been wallowing in while everyone else was getting on with their lives.