Video Games, Cinema and The Culmination of Both
In recent years Hollywood studios have been slamming theatres with a plethora of video game adaptations and are showing no signs of slowing down. With titles such as The Mario Movie and the Sonic the Hedgehog trilogy set to hit theatres in the near future, the trend brings to light the rapidly evolving connection between cinema and video games. Gone are the days where video game cutscenes are limited to janky, poorly rendered character interactions. We now see immersive cinematography incorporated into our favourite games, attempting to build upon the fictitious worlds we know and love. This jump in quality has made it easier than ever for studios to create faithful adaptations and has considerably strengthened the bond between these two genres. How far can it be pushed, you might ask? Press start (keep reading) to find out.
The relationship between cinema and video games is often one of pluralistic tolerance. Whether it’s through the previously mentioned in-game cutscenes or those herky-jerky games that pause the storytelling so you can press “Δ” to open a door (think David Cage and Telltale), there has often been a clear sense of separation between these two modes of entertainment. We fuck around with the interactive experience of pressing buttons while the cinematic elements satiate our unconscious desire for some semblance of an “immersive” narrative (or just nice little reprieves to rest our sore fingers). These half-baked attempts to fuse the two mediums are to blame for my own dissatisfaction with popular video games that include interactive storytelling; the film elements become a crutch for the game itself.
While games developed by big video game corporations are able to use cinematic realism to create an immersive and experimental experience, we see older games falling short due to cinematic limitations. These older or lower budget games (think Uncharted or the later Tomb Raider games) feature undesirable elements like rigid camera placement, disorienting spatial awareness and forced continuous movement that interfere with the overall playing experience. It constantly disrupts the game’s momentum just so you can complete the most innocuously vapid objective to continue the narrative. Or, even worse, to compensate for the piss-poor rudimentary gaming experience. Press “F” to pay respects to this unimaginative fusion of video games and cinema.
What if there is a way to successfully blend video games and cinema in such a way that one medium does not compromise the other in terms of conceptual integrity? If integrating film conventions in video games often presents as a stunted effort to equalise the two mediums within their respective practices, how can they be combined in a way that emphasises the common potentialities and contradictions between the two? Enter “Machinima” (not the defunct media company, although that’s where they nabbed the name). It’s a cinematic genre that makes use of computer graphics software and engines to attain a “cinematic” result. Think “Red vs Blue”, the whole concept of a “Let’s play” that is recorded video game playthroughs, and to some extent, those video game “meme compilations” you see on YouTube. More specifically, I want to talk about one film that instead aims for a more poetic and abstract form of expression within the confines of its video game foundations, Rehearsals for Retirement by Phil Solomon.
Initially working and making films within avant-garde film circles (he’s worked with the famed Stan Brakhage at one point) Solomon’s following projects revolved around utilising the video game series of Grand Theft Auto to explore the possibilities and limitations of seeking meaning within a virtual world. The film strikes you immediately with its slow, languid pace with a plethora of barren fields scattered around in the multiple countrysides of GTA: San Andreas. Despite their rigid, blocky wind textures flowing against the pixilated greens of the field, they still manage to conjure up feelings of belonging in some ethereal phantasmagoric plane of existence. You’ll also spot an unknown figure appearing throughout; San Andreas’ main character Carl Johnson, “CJ.” Instead of CJ’s familiar white tank top and jeans, we see a shadowy version of his figure. His jet-black silhouette appears to have any and all human features removed. Furthering the eerie effect this creates, planes appear suspended in the air, vehicles clip through environment textures and objects, and trees don’t move in the wind, instead remaining static reproductions of what they’re intended to represent. These digital approximations of real objects appear to be completely void of any interior substance.
This is what Solomon is hinting at us: how much can this artificial, computerised world substitute our perceptions of our material reality? Fake world vs the Real world? Blue Pill or Red Pill? Can we feel the same things in the digital world just as much as what we can intuit within the “real world”, or are there some irreconcilable differences? Can you even ponder about existence in a virtual world that lacks some inherent ontology/existence outside of the textures it replicates? Impressively, he manages to pose all these questions and more within the span of 11 minutes.
Most people who game often harbour a very depressing belief; that video games function as escapism from the miserable realities that we endure. And Hollywood, the magical, white and cishet genie who grants us serotonin understands this. It is effectively cashing in on the commercial appeal of video games coinciding with the more mainstream, PG-13 movie-going audience. They’ve got a hold of our generation’s collective nostalgia, hook, line and sinker. The Machinima genre expands upon these commercialised adaptations of video games we commonly see in mainstream media. It’s more reflective, more experimental and subverts our expectations for cross-medium fusions.
Instead of begging those studios to continually make sequel-bait adaptations of your favourite video game, take off the nostalgia glasses and let the calm, contemplative aura of Machinima bring us back to earth and accept the affective boundaries in our penchant for digital immersion. Take the red pill and come to terms with cinematic artifice rather than bathe in the euphoria of simulacra. This is your sign. It’s time to try out something different; and that something is Machinima.
Trevor’s Machinima Recommendations:
Parallel I-IV (2014), Harun Farocki
Super Mario Movie (2005), Cory Arcangel & Paper Rad
Operation: Jane Walk (2018), Leonhard Müllner & Robin Klengel
A Man Digging (2013), Jon Rafman
Fourth Era (2018), Aaron Berry
She Puppet (2001), Peggy Ahwesh
Rehearsals for Retirement by Phil Solomon is available, free to stream, on Youtube.