Guardian columnist and avid gamer, Charlie Brooker, recently wrote an interesting piece about the relative ‘intelligence’ of entertainment products coming out of both Hollywood and the video games industry. The basic premise was that Hollywood had essentially run out of ideas sometime in the 1980’s and is now merely stuck in an endless cycle of gimmicky (3D etc), lowest-common denominator repetition, with the primary function of the exercise being to shift as much popcorn and fizzy pop as possible. Well, an exaggeration it might be, but you can certainly see where he’s coming from with that one…
The other half of the argument was that the video games industry is an altogether different entity in terms of its approach to entertaining its customers and fans, with complex, thought-provoking entertainment being the norm – rather than the oxymoron that it would represent in the Hollywood context.
Now, it should be noted that Brooker is a keen gamer of many years (he used to write – rather excellently – for UK gaming magazine, PC Zone) but is also a fan of both film and television, so his keenly-argued piece naturally had me pondering further parallels between Hollywood and the video gaming industry – and, while I think there is some merit in the opinion that gaming currently offers more ‘clever blockbusters’ than Hollywood (maybe 8 vs 2 a year at a rough guess), there are also a load of other parallels which slightly complicate this simplistic opposition. Here’s a few comparisons of the two industries which I think are worthy of note:
1. An obvious point to start with – the two industries are increasingly intertwined with each passing year. As Brooker’s article points out, recent gaming hits such as LA Noire actually feature real-life actors, whose physical performances have been cleverly digitised within the graphics of the game. Nothing new here; many will remember the use of acted cut-scenes even in games as old as Command & Conquer: Red Alert 1. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, as games and films are converging ever more rapidly (with CGI now being a huge component of many Hollywood products) and many big-budget games requiring the kind of ‘direction’ and organisation of creative personnel that mimics that of Hollywood productions.
Moreover, even though many Hollywood video game adaptations have been utter rubbish (from Mario Bros to Tomb Raider, Resident Evil to Mortal Kombat) and many gaming movie tie-ins (i.e. Spiderman games, Harry Potter games etc etc) are not much better – there is ever more use of revenue models that jointly rely on crossover products. It should be noted that both these directions of travel (games into films, and films into games) are driven more by Hollywood than by the video games industry – though how long major companies in the two sectors will remain separate is an interesting question – I expect we’ll see some big games company acquisitions from major Hollywood studios in coming years.
2. Secondly, since gamers typically spend far longer in the fictional spaces provided by games than film goers do in theirs (many tens of hours vs. maybe two hours respectively), video games are able to utilise franchise production to an even greater degree than Hollywood. So, successful franchises such as Final Fantasy, Call of Duty, Command and Conquer, etc (the list could go on for a LONG time) can easily run into 10+ sequels and follow-ups, whereas most Hollywood franchises are well done and dusted by the third or fourth run (think Shrek, American Pie, Die Hard, Rocky etc – even those utterly milked examples will never get as far as a tenth outing).
This is of course also dependent upon the fact that every couple of years or so, games developers can call upon more advanced technologies – which in itself are reason enough to make a new instalment in the franchise (i.e. new/better graphics etc) which doesn’t happen so much in Hollywood, the latest 3D craze being a rare exception (yes, previous special effects can be bettered/outdone – but not as often as in the world of gaming). The point however is that if you bemoan Hollywood’s reliance on franchise models and lack of creativity – think again about the even greater degree to which it dominates gaming.
3. Both Hollywood and the video games industry rely massively on external sources for plots, concepts and aesthetics. Charlie Brooker lauds the recent LA Noire as an example of gaming’s ‘intelligent’ product – but that particular game owes a huge debt to Hollywood popularisation and development of film noir aesthetics back in the 1940’s and 50’s – which in itself derived from the literary genre which arose in the 1930’s, and also the visual aesthetics of German cinematic expressionism and so on.
Anyway, this list of comparisons could go on indefinitely – the point is that the interplay and convergence of these two industries and their respective forms of visual entertainment product will significantly shape and define the media entertainment landscape in coming years. Currently gaming companies are able to generate profits that rival Hollywood, without dumbing down to same extent for two reasons: they are tackling piracy more competently (though not to say it isn’t a factor in draining profits) and their product costs the consumer maybe ten times what a trip to the cinema might. If either of these things change, I wonder if games developers might have to make unwelcome creative compromises in order to safeguard revenues? Pure speculation and something we cannot really answer in a few words here – let’s hope we never have to find out.