Tinsel Town Blues - The Birth of Video Game Envy

by Chris Lowthorpe in , ,


The Godfather, Paramount Pictures, 1972

Digital games are better than films. How do we know this? Because game-loving TV critic Charlie Brooker says so. What a relief. Now pompous twerps who stop their children playing digital games, or limit gaming time, can cut the poor mites some slack and stop them being shunned by their more ludic mates. Games are officially good. The Guardian has said so.

Brooker correctly highlights how big budget drama for adult audiences has deserted the cinema for television. He could have been even more specific and said American television. Let’s face it, if The Godfather was released today it would be as a miniseries on HBO. Anyone who has watched Boardwalk Empire can see the New New Hollywood happening on the small screen. Take into account other shows like Big Love, Mad Men, The Wire, Treme, or Generation Kill, and Tinsel Town’s efforts start to look very mediocre indeed. I think few people with a brain would disagree with Brooker on this first point. But his second point, that we might look for quality drama on our game consoles, might be harder for some to swallow. Is it really true that digital games are now better than films?

Portal 2, Valve Corporation, 2011

The real answer – as Charlie knows – is yes and no. Games like LA Noire and Portal 2 – his examples – are easily more entertaining, thought-provoking, and fun than the vast majority of dross Hollywood puts out for the mainstream audience. Ask any of us who’ve played the Grand Theft Auto series since it’s inception and we’ll bore you with how the franchise has grown from a slice of throwaway top-down fun to one of the sharpest send-ups of contemporary Western culture on screen. Red Dead Redemption – another Rockstar title with GTA and LA Noire – is also engaging drama and sharp cultural critique, especially for Western geeks like me. All these – and many more – prove that games are often better at being dramas than many films.

Grand Theft Auto 4, Rockstar, 2008

But before we get too excited we should remember that for every LA Noire there is a Call of Duty: Black Ops. One of the most commercially successful games in history, Black Ops is also possibly one of the worst. A rushed, poorly constructed, and greedy sequel that in Campaign mode – where a single-player plays the story – is one of the worst pieces of so-called drama I’ve ever encountered. The premise and narrative structure are appalling – so bad that I neither understood why I was killing things – call me a lily-livered liberal but I like to know why I’m commiting mass murder – nor cared.

Brooker attempts to gloss over these games by suggesting they’re a phase, like the puberty of the ‘teenage boys’ who play them. He’s right about that to a point, but he’s wrong in saying only teenagers play them. All kinds of people have told me about their love for the CoD franchise – taxi drivers, bartenders, university lecturers, doctors, butchers (apt that) – and yes, before you ask, they were all men. These games may be mediocre at storytelling but they have mass appeal.

Before the whining about singling out First Person Shooters (FPS) starts, I’m not. Not at all. I like a decent FPS as much as the next wannabe Navy SEAL. But admit it, the narratives and dialogue are usually risible. You know it really, don’t you? They aren’t great storytelling devices that make us ponder the nature of war in the way The Naked and the DeadCatch-22, or The Deerhunter might. They create drama a different way, by eliciting quick reactions and demanding hundreds of player choices are made per minute. Done well this usually allows players to overlook the poor premise and dodgy dialogue, and the games are great fun for a couple of hours. But serious storytelling they ain’t.

There are plenty of other non-FPS digital games that are also poor storytellers, too many to mention here. And to be honest even the best game narratives aren’t perfect. The Rockstar titles often suffer from the kind of clunky and hackneyed dialogue that makes you squirm and run to the nearest bookshelf for salvation. They can be childish and derivative too – often taking their mission scenarios directly from the designers favorite books, comics, or films. Even Portal 2 is – as you might have guessed – a sequel. But that doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining, or dramatic.

One thing Charlie Brooker does touch on in his description of Portal 2 is its experiential nature. And here’s the key to understanding digital games. It’s how these immensely complex and clever pieces of popular culture create drama, by creating an experience, not necessarily a story. The drama isn’t always laid out for you in the same way as a film or book, it needs your input. And therefore it needs to leave some gaps for you to fill. You have to do something to experience something – be that tension, frustration, excitement or whatever. These all go towards creating drama, but not always the kind of drama you might be expecting, or the kind you can directly compare to a film or book.

When we talk about digital games and film it’s natural to try and draw comparisons. Can games tell stories as well or better than films? Can films be as experiential as games? Over the past ten years or so this constant comparing has lead to accusations that game designers suffer from so-called ‘Hollywood envy’ – a Freudian-lite concept that describes an impotent desire to make big sprawling epics that tell complex, immersive stories like The Godfather or Once Upon a Time in America. The best game designers – with a few select titles – have proven this impotency is over – even if the dialogue could still benefit from some extra Viagra. As Brooker describes, the reverse has happened in our mainstream cinemas. These are now dominated by poor 3D extravaganzas that have little story and rely on eliciting a visual ‘wow factor’ to create a usually unsatisfactory experience. (These sexual metaphors just keep coming – Ed.).

Remembering that not all games tell great stories – or should even try to – it seems to me that old Charlie might well be right:

The envy is now flowing in the opposite direction.