Harry Brown. The Business of Entertainment. Editor: Robert C Sickels. Volume 1. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.
From Alamogordo to San Francisco
On June 11, 1982, Universal Pictures released Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, a story of friendship between a misfit boy and a benevolent alien stranded on Earth. The film charmed audiences, generating $11 million in its first weekend and more than $350 million in its first year. Ronald Reagan and Princess Diana cried when they saw the film, and the United Nations awarded Spielberg the Peace Medal for his work. Looking back on the film 20 years later, Roger Ebert writes, “This movie made my heart glad. It is filled with innocence, hope, and good cheer …. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a movie like The Wizard of Oz, that you can grow up with and grow old with, and it won’t let you down. … E.T. is a reminder of what movies are for.”
In July 1982, Warner Communications, the parent company of Atari, secured the rights to create an E.T. videogame for the Atari 2600 console. The deal promised a happy marriage between Hollywood and the burgeoning videogame industry. At the time, Atari led the games market, and by landing E.T. they acquired the hottest film license since Star Wars. Anticipating massive sales, Atari rushed to complete the game in time for the 1982 holiday season, manufacturing five million game cartridges, about one for every two Atari consoles owned in the United States.
The game flopped spectacularly. Warner stock plummeted, and Atari claimed more than $500 million in losses in 1983. In September of that year, Atari buried tons of unsold merchandise in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico, including almost four million E.T. cartridges. Within a year, Warner dismantled and sold Atari. Although employee dissatisfaction, inefficient distribution practices, and increasing competition with home computer games contributed to Atari’s crash, E.T. has come to signify the creative and commercial bankruptcy of the industry in 1983.
On June 25, 2005, a long way from Alamogordo, George Lucas welcomed 2,000 guests to the gala opening of the Letterman Digital Arts Center (LDAC) in the Presidio of San Francisco, where Lucasfilm and its special effects and videogame divisions, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), and LucasArts, had just moved into their new, shared headquarters. Lucas’s guests included California Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, and four San Francisco mayors. The city’s most esteemed chefs prepared a buffet of gourmet fried chicken and stuffed vegetables, while Chris Isaak and Bonnie Raitt entertained the crowd. Joan Baez, also in attendance, surveyed the scene and reflected, “There’s something to be said for having a billion bucks.”
Actually, the Letterman Digital Arts Center only cost $350 million. It covers 23 acres of the Presidio and stands on the site of the former Letterman Army Medical Center, demolished in 2001 to make way for the four main buildings of the LDAC. Located in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Lucasfilm campus is open to the public. While the buildings themselves are tightly secured, visitors may stroll, and gawk, and have their picture taken with the bronze statue of Yoda perched on the fountain at the entrance to the LDAC.
Lucasfilm boasts that the new facility features “the largest computer network in the entertainment industry, a high-performance system designed to deliver large volumes of data and high-resolution images to artists’ desktops, encouraging interactive collaboration on the creation of synthetic scenes and characters. … Distance boundaries have been eliminated, and digital artists can collaborate internally throughout the campus, as well as with creators of entertainment anywhere in the world.” While the visual effects designers at ILM and the game designers at LucasArts sometimes collaborated prior to their consolidation, they did so in separate facilities, without the advantages of proximity and a shared database. Now they work in the same virtual studio. At an International Game Developers Association (IGDA) meeting in San Francisco in December 2005, Lucasfilm representatives explained, “Developers are now ‘right down the hall’ from each other, developing on the same code base, staffing projects with crew from both divisions, and tackling problems with the best techniques either side has to offer. It’s not just about sharing assets … we’re building a unified set of technology to produce both movies and games, and give both companies unique competitive advantages.” Lucasfilm’s press release announcing the opening of the LDAC echoes the millennial narrative of the Star Wars films. The triumphant alliance of Lucasfilm filmmakers and game designers heralds a “new vision” for the entertainment industry, in which the “seamless integration of entertainment technologies … represents a new way to work … [and] recognizes the convergence of movies, videogames, visual effects, animation, and online, and brings Lucasfilm to the forefront of that movement.”
In more practical terms, the consolidation signals a more deliberate approach to media convergence. In 1982, when Warner bought the E.T. license and commissioned an adaptation for the Atari 2600, the videogame industry followed Hollywood’s lead, waiting for someone to make a blockbuster film and then buying the rights to the film. Lucasfilm now facilitates the simultaneous production films and games. In his keynote address at the 2005 Siggraph digital arts expo in Los Angeles, Lucas explained, “It used to be an assembly-line process: One person would do one thing, then the next person would do the next thing. But now, we’re going to push the envelope and get everybody to work simultaneously on the same thing.” Lucas calls this new production model “the future of entertainment.”
Beyond Lucasfilm’s corporate proselytizing, what does all this talk about a “new vision” and the “future of entertainment” really mean? How has the relation between the film and videogame industries changed in the two decades between 1982, when the adaptation of E.T. to the Atari 2600 cost Warner a half a billion dollars, and 2005, when George Lucas has reconfigured his $15 billion empire in order to maximize the potential for film-game franchising? This chapter considers the influence of film-game franchising on the way artists create films and videogames, the way audiences consume them, and the way scholars interpret them.
Hollywood and the Videogame Industry
Videogame enthusiasts and media scholars often claim that games will overtake—or have already overtaken—film as the dominant entertainment medium. In a 2003 National Public Radio interview, New York Times Magazine writer Jonathan Dee hailed the ascendance of videogames, predicting, “I can see a future in which when the technology gets a little better … I would be hard-pressed to think of a reason why anyone would pay to go see, for instance, a new James Bond movie as opposed to playing the new James Bond game.” In a 2007 Gamasutra interview, game designer Denis Dyack made the more monumental claim that games are not only more sophisticated and popular than films but also nothing less than “the most advanced form of art thus far in human history,” in their synthesis of text, image, sound, video, and the active participation of the audience into a unified aesthetic experience.
As film studios and game developers consolidate their interests, however, the traditional rivalry between film and game producers dissolves in corporate synergy, and the fortunes and creative interests of the two industries fall into harmony, as they have at Lucasfilm. Predictions of videogame supremacy like Dee’s and Dyack’s often ignore the fact that games and films share largely in each other’s commercial success. Videogame companies have grown rapidly, but they have not usurped movie studios as much as they have become viable subsidiaries capable of functioning in financial and creative concert not only with film but also with television, publishing, and sports entertainment. Consumers are not conflicted, as Dee imagines, by a choice between the new Bond movie and the new Bond game, but more likely will go see the movie and buy the game, with the sense that their experience of one is enhanced by the other. The future probably will not witness more games and fewer films but rather more games, more films, more games based on films, and more films based on games, with the integrated production and marketing of film-game franchises.
In one of the most celebrated ventures in media convergence, Larry and Andy Wachowski, creators of The Matrix trilogy, produced the game Enter the Matrix (2003) simultaneously with the last two films of the trilogy, shooting scenes for the game on the movies’ sets with the movies’ actors, and releasing the game on May 15, 2003, the same day as The Matrix: Reloaded. Likewise, on September 21, 2004, Lucasfilm jointly released of a new DVD box set of the original Star Wars trilogy with Star Wars: Battlefront, a combat game in which players can reenact battles from all six Star Wars films. In 2005, Peter Jackson likewise produced his blockbuster film King Kong (2005) in tandem with a successful King Kong game designed by Michael Ancel and published by Ubisoft. In the last several years, numerous licensed videogame adaptations of major summer and holiday blockbusters were released a few days before or a few days after their respective films, including: all three Star Wars films (1999-2005); all five Harry Potter films (2001-2008); all three Spider-Man films (2002-2007); Hulk(2002); The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002); The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003);The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005); Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006); Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007); and Transformers (2007). These multimedia franchises have made it more difficult to distinguish the production of films and videogames as separate enterprises.
The LDAC is the first factory designed specifically to make film-game franchises. In the same press release announcing a “new vision” for the entertainment industry, Lucasfilm offers more specific “facts and figures” describing its technological infrastructure, which includes 10,000 gigabytes of storage, image and sound editing systems, a “render farm” for processing digital images, a media center for format conversion and duplication, a 300-seat movie theater, and, most importantly, the largest data network in the industry with fiber optics connecting to every desktop computer to LDAC resources and to each other.
In practical terms, images and visual effects created by ILM for the Star Wars films can be immediately appropriated and repurposed by game designers. Steve Sullivan, head of research and development at ILM, explains, “An example would be, ILM is doing a shot for a film, but LucasArts artists can have that exact same shot sitting on their desk, and they can start building a game environment around it.” LucasArts’ Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005), a game based closely on the film, marked the first time a Star Wars film shared specific image data with a Star Wars videogame. LucasArts designers have likewise contributed integrally to ILM. “Previsualization,” a form of animated storyboarding developed through the collaboration of ILM and LucasArts, has adapted game design tools to filmmaking. Sullivan describes previsualization as:
a tool that directors would use to quickly mock up the ideas of a story and see what’s going to work. It’s really like building up a preview of a movie in a video game world. Instead of using static story boards, you can really just get in and create 3D content and camera moves directly. It’s the best example of the kind of collaboration we’ve got going on. It came from George [Lucas]—it didn’t come from either division. But it requires things that both divisions have expertise in.
Lucas said at Siggraph, “Cinema is not the art of the image; it’s the art of the moving image.” Previsualization is not simply a faster or flashier way of planning a shot. Rather, it enables filmmakers, for the first time, to edit the interplay of image and motion in the earliest stages of production, to control more deliberately what eventually appears on screen even before shooting begins.
Lucas cites Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones as the “first film to be completely shot digitally.” While he waits, somewhat frustrated, for Hollywood to catch up, he believes that digitization represents the future of cinema:
We’re hoping that at some point the theaters will switch over to digital projection, and the filmmakers will start using the new digital cameras so that we as an industry can advance technically and make everything much easier. Right now, Sony, Panavision, Fujinon and a lot of other companies are investing tens of millions of dollars into this idea, and the industry isn’t backing it. … At some point, I know it will all happen.”
He predicts that digitization will “democratize” the industry, enabling amateur filmmakers to shoot with a handheld camera purchased from a local Wal-Mart, edit on a desktop computer, and distribute and publicize their work on the Internet. On a more fundamental level, however, the reduction of cinema to image data means that films and videogames can be created with the same tools, as we already see in ILM’s use of previsualization. If, as Lucas predicts, “it will all happen,” then the relation between the two industries will move beyond licensed adaptations and franchises; they will, as they have in Lucasworld, merge into a single industry.
Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings, and Transmedia Storytelling
The development of previsualization technology and the franchising of blockbuster films and videogames suggest that the increasing collaboration between the two industries will influence the creation of films and games at every phase, from preproduction to postrelease publicity. The gradual digitization of filmmaking, moreover, will facilitate film-game franchising by giving filmmakers and game designers a common medium and toolset. But what kind of story will be produced by companies like Lucasfilm, equipped to produce films, games, and television shows simultaneously?
In his adaptation of E.T. to the Atari 2600, designer Howard Scott Warshaw sought to capture the suspense and sentimentality of the film by creating an adventure game that simulated E.T.’s quest to “phone home.” Players, however, found the game slow and repetitive, with neither the emotional impact of the film, nor the engaging puzzles of earlier Atari adventure games like Adventure (1980) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982). Recent critics routinely cite Atari’s E.T. as the worst game ever made, attributing its aesthetic and commercial failure to Atari’s rush to ship the game before Christmas, but the game reveals a deeper theoretical uncertainty among game designers at the time about strategies for the adaptation of a story from one medium to another. As the first great failed attempt to convert a blockbuster film to a videogame, E.T. proved that a film’s popularity alone could not buoy a bad game.
In the two decades following Atari’s bust, highly improved technology has, as we have seen, enabled designers to make their games look more cinematic. More importantly, filmmakers and game designers have learned from earlier failures and developed subtler and more calculated strategies for spinning stories across multiple media. In Convergence Culture (2006), Henry Jenkins describes The Matrix franchise as an “entertainment for the age of media convergence, integrating multiple texts to create a narrative so large that it cannot be contained within a single medium.” Jenkins observes that the Wachowskis “plant clues [in the films] that won’t make sense until we play the computer game. They draw on the back story revealed through a series of animated shorts, which need to be downloaded off the Web or watched off a separate DVD.” Jenkins calls this emergent narrative structure “transmedia storytelling”:
In the ideal form … each medium does what it does best—so that a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels, and comics; its world might be explored through gameplay or experienced as an amusement park attraction. Each franchise entry needs to be self-contained so you don’t need to have seen the film to enjoy the game, and vice versa. Any given product is a point of entry into the franchise as a whole.
According to Jenkins, collaborative authorship and the process of “world-making” define these new narrative franchises. He quotes an experienced screenwriter, who says, “When I first started, you would pitch a story because without a story, you didn’t really have a film. Later, once sequels started to take off, you pitched a character because a good character could support multiple stories. And now, you pitch a world because a world can support multiple characters and multiple stories across multiple media.”
Two television commercials, one produced by LucasArts to promote the game Star Wars: Bounty Hunter(2002), and the other produced by Electronic Arts (EA) to promote their adaptation of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, provide sketches of two competing strategies for transmedia storytelling. LucasArts’ advertisement, released during the 2002 holiday shopping season, opens with an animated close-up of a snorkel poking from the surface of a swampy, extraterrestrial pool. As nervous breathing hisses from the tube, a gauntleted fist grips the snorkel and plugs the airway with a thumb. A gasping, bug-eyed alien springs to the surface to find that the obstructing thumb belongs to Jango Fett, the most ruthless bounty hunter in the galaxy. Jango seizes his quivering prey and in his gruff, mercenary’s voice, jokes, “Did you miss me?”
The commercial represents another example of the collaboration between Lucasfilm special effects engineers and LucasArts game designers that Lucas hopes to maximize at the LDAC. Although created at ILM, we don’t find this scene in any of the Star Wars films. The game’s appeal, in fact, derives from its clear departure from the 2002 film Episode II: Attack of the Clones, in which Jango, the game’s hero, is a significant but nonetheless supporting character, who in the end is summarily beheaded by a Jedi light saber. The game narrative itself follows this strategy of departure from the film narrative, representing an interactive prequel to Attack of the Clones in its story of a secret bargain between Jango and the Sith Lord Count Dooku to create the clone army already in existence at the outset of the film.
EA’s advertisement, released during the 2003 holiday season, represents a different strategy. As the commercial opens with the New Line Cinema and Wingnut Films logos set to the haunting soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings films, we expect to see yet another plug for the last film in Peter Jackson’s trilogy. In fact, as we watch the Nazgûl glide above Minas Tirith, the giant Oliphaunt thunder across the Pelennor Fields, and the stalwart fellowship of Gimli, Legolas, Aragorn, and Gandalf in pitched battles with armies of orcs, we see that we are not wrong; these are indeed tantalizing scenes from the upcoming film. But then something strange happens: The filmed scenes transform fluidly and subtly into the photorealistic digital animations for EA’s new game. In contrast to the Bounty Hunter commercial, the spot simultaneously advertises the movie and the game, which derives marketability from its nearly perfect mimicry of Jackson’s film. Like LucasArts’ game, EA’s The Return of the King correlates this advertising strategy with an interactive narrative strategy, which offers players the chance to participate in scenes involving environments, characters, and battle sequences reproduced from those seen in the film. The commercial concludes with the invitation, “Be the hero! Live the movie!”
The two advertisements manifest fundamentally different narrative and marketing strategies. Bounty Hunter offers consumers something new, something unavailable in theaters, while The Return of the King offers consumers something familiar, a chance to interact with something they have seen or soon will see in theaters. At the 2004 Game Developers Convention, veteran game designer Warren Spector urged fellow designers to use film narrative as a way to “draw in the casual gamer, who’s used to having a story told to him in other entertainment mediums, particularly movies.” This strategy underlies game companies’ exorbitant spending on film licenses, which represents the acquisition of a guaranteed audience and the probable success of the game among the same crowds who pack the cineplexes.
While both strategies have proven commercially successful, LucasArts’ creation of game narratives that extrapolate rather than mimic the film narratives more freely explores the possibilities of transmedia storytelling that intrigue Jenkins. EA’s mimetic approach in both The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) and The Return of the King yields, on the other hand, missions that replicate action sequences from the films. In the first mission of The Two Towers, the player is Isildur in the midst of the ancient battle that first claimed the Ring of Power from a 17-foot, mail-clad Sauron. In the second mission the player becomes Aragorn defending the wounded Frodo from the Nazgûl on Weathertop Hill. Both scenes come from the first film of the trilogy, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. In the succeeding missions, adapted from The Two Towers, the player may choose to continue as Aragorn, Gimli, or Legolas, but, with the exception of a minor variance in the bonus missions, the choice of character has no bearing on the unfolding of the game narrative. As in the television commercial, animations and music in both The Two Towers and The Return of the King flow seamlessly into and out of sequences from the films, which are spliced into the game narrative. The game world has been designed directly from film sets, and actors from the film have been employed for animations and voiceovers, creating an overall play experience, as the advertisement indeed claims, in which one seems to “live the movie.”
In many adaptations of the Star Wars films since the release of Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 1999, LucasArts has adopted an elaborative approach, in which multiple games, such as Jedi Starfighter (2002), Clone Wars (2002), and Bounty Hunter do not mimic the film narrative but rather follow independent narratives branching from the movie plots. Although familiar movie characters, in some cases, reappear in the LucasArts games, the games’ animations, soundtracks, settings, and narratives are original. In contrast to the mimetic The Lord of the Rings games, the game narratives situate themselves outside the established chronology of the Star Wars films, becoming, in effect, interactive prequels and sequels to the films. In a 2006 interview, LucasArts Project Lead Chris Williams said:
We’re not in a space right now where we just want to be cranking out movie games. To the extent that we did that with the Episode III game, we’re kind of done with that. We want to be telling new stories, new experiences, and really taking advantage of the interactive medium. And not just rehashing or serving up a film experience in a sort of interactive way. We’re not sitting here right now waiting for ILM to come to us with some big film project so we can just crank out a movie game of it. The goal is use these tools, techniques, and knowledge to make a really exciting, innovative, next-gen product.
At the same time, Star Wars games reinterpret scenes from the films in ways that are recognizable to the established Star Wars audience but are, nonetheless, new. In Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003), a role-playing game set four millennia before events depicted in the films, the player character liberates a comrade from slavery by winning a swoop bike race, a sequence that recalls The Phantom Menace, in which the young Anakin Skywalker must win his own emancipation in a pod race. In the same game, the central plot twist reveals that the player character, plagued by amnesia through more than half the game, finally discovers that he is a powerful Sith Lord thought to be dead and now psychologically reprogrammed by the Jedi Council to do good. The revelatory animation echoes Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), in which Luke Skywalker, undergoing Jedi training with Yoda, beheads an apparition of Darth Vader only to discover his own face behind Vader’s mask. Finally, the closing animation of Knights of the Old Republic, in which an evil, celestial-sized superweapon is spectacularly destroyed and a battle-weary but joyous crowd celebrates the motley band of heroes, recalls the familiar ending of Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), in which the Death Star is annihilated, and Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Chewbacca, and the faithful droids are given medals before a happy assembly of rebels.
LucasArts has also adopted this strategy in its “Jedi Knight” series: Dark Forces (1995), Jedi Knight (1997),Jedi Outcast (2002), and Jedi Academy (2003). Each of these games represents a narrative sequel of the original Star Wars trilogy in which central characters from the films, such as Luke Skywalker, Boba Fett, and Lando Calrissian, recede to supporting characters, and new characters, unseen in the films, take center stage. Republic Commando (2005), likewise, is set during the Clone Wars of Episodes II and III, but abandons the perspective of the elite Jedi heroes in favor of that of the faceless grunts, who appear in the films only as laser fodder.
In a March 2004 interview, Peter Morawiec spoke to Game Developer magazine about adapting genre fiction and film narratives to game design:
As the videogame market matures, I believe it’s natural for the story-driven games to be crafted within established narrative genres. With the age of today’s average gamer pegged at something like 29, the audience welcomes greater thematic variety, as well as deeper and more mature storylines. I believe that people will instinctively want to play the same types of genres they like to watch or read. (12)
Morawiec describes his own game designs as interactive narratives that move forward:
no matter how badly the player does, allowing even a total newbie to fumble his or her way through an entire storyline, without repeating missions or getting stuck. In a passive medium such as a movie, whenever the hero hits a low point mid-film, the story doesn’t restart; rather, the hero recovers or finds another way to go on.
In terms of the interrelated strategies of designing and marketing film-game franchises, Morawiec’s proposed script-imperative game narratives coax a player-character along a relatively linear narrative path, limiting the “hybrid active-passive experience” in favor of replicating the traditional narrative structures of film. LucasArts has instead increased the potential of the player to participate actively within the mythic film-game universe, while sacrificing, perhaps, a measure of identification among the built-in film audiences.
For those who do not come to the games by way of a primary interest in the films, LucasArts’ strategy explores the evolving possibilities of transmedia storytelling by giving the consumer, as Jenkins suggests, multiple points of entry into the franchise. While EA has created a game narrative more tailored to the massive audience of the Lord of the Rings films, a sort of interactive advertisement for the films, LucasArts has developed a true experiment in world-making that allows game companies to adapt multiple game titles from a single film and allows the player to participate more actively within an expanding film-game universe.
EA has abandoned its mimetic approach in Everything or Nothing, a game that has gained critical favor as the first Bond game to offer a narrative independent of the Bond films. EA’s elaboration of the Bond franchise compared to its replication of The Lord of the Rings suggests that their strategy with The Two Towers and The Return of the King has been determined, at least in part, by the existing mythology first created by Tolkien’s novels. Because The Lord of the Rings games are third-tier adaptations—games based on films based on novels—and the Star Wars games are second-tier adaptations—games based on films—their respective designers have been bound by two different sets of rules. In a sense, Tolkien’s novels have been canonized as a kind of immutable sacred text, and fans of the novels undoubtedly represent an established audience for the films who must, on some level, be acknowledged. As Peter Jackson has often spoken of his faithful intentions toward Tolkien and Tolkien’s devotees, EA has similarly deferred to Jackson’s films in order to avoid the risk of alienating the audiences who purchase the games based on their love for the films or the books. Neil Young, who oversees EA’s Lord of the Rings franchise, explains, “I wanted to adapt Peter’s work for our medium in the same way that he has adapted Tolkien’s work for his.”18
One could not imagine Tolkien’s The Return of the King ending with Frodo and Sam impaled on the ramparts of the Black Gate and Sauron’s forces annihilating Gandalf and Aragorn and spreading eternal darkness over the World of Men. In The Lord of the Rings games, bound to some extent by the fixed narratives of Tolkien’s novels and Jackson’s films, such evil endings mean that the player has failed and must try again. Star Wars, on the other hand, is a more malleable mythology, and fans of Lucas’ films, who sustain a cottage industry of derivative serial novels and fan fiction, seem more receptive to manipulations of their canon. In Knights of the Old Republic, for instance, the player may choose to reject the good counsel of the Jedi, slaughter loyal friends, and claim the galaxy in the name of Dark Side. The player, in a sense, may choose to fail according to the ethical standards established by the films and yet succeed in the game. The Two Towers and The Return of the King offer the player no such choice. LucasArts seems to have evaded criticism by Star Wars purists by disengaging from the film narratives, by letting the movies stand as they are and creating instead alternate stories partially unbound by the expectations of their established audience. Nonetheless, in their varying experiments in bringing interactivity to Middle Earth and that long-ago, far, far away galaxy, EA and LucasArts have begun to create and to test these new modes of storytelling that have become possible in the wake of media convergence.
Media Convergence and Media Criticism
In April 2008, LucasArts released Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, its first major “next-gen product” available for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Nintendo Wii. The game realizes both the technical and the narrative aspirations of Lucasfilm. Like Bounty Hunter and Knights of the Old Republic, the game narrative extends beyond the films and introduces new characters. Set 7 years after the events depicted in Revenge of the Sith and more than 10 years prior to the events depicted in A New Hope, The Force Unleashed casts the player as Darth Vader’s powerful apprentice, a figure who does not appear in the films. The game dramatizes the “dark times” in which the Jedi Knights are hunted to extinction and Darth Vader is fully transformed into a “Dark Lord of the Sith,” events only vaguely represented in the films. With a new game engine jointly developed by LucasArts and ILM, The Force Unleashed represents the latest fruit of the collaboration fostered at the LDAC. In his production diary, Project Lead W. Haden Blackman writes, “The groups within [LDAC] are separated by discipline, but nothing happens in isolation …. [T]he animation group bleeds into the design team, which is a stone’s throw away from the cinematics team, who takes their work and directs the characters and settings to perform the cutscene animation that propels the story.”19
With the considerable financial and technological resources of the film industry brought to bear on interactive entertainment, videogames such as The Force Unleashed will look more cinematic, as Blackman promises. With game design tools brought to bear on moviemaking, films will look faster and more kinetic. But, from a critical standpoint, will these games and films be better? Just as media convergence has transformed they way artists create films and games, both in the tools they use and in the stories they tell, it has also influenced the way critics and scholars evaluate and interpret films and games.
Adopting film theory as a means of interpreting games, media scholars propose that what we see in film establishes precedents for what we see in games, in terms of both thematic content and visual perspective. Film critic Graham Leggat writes, “just about everything video games know about visual language and narrative was learned from the movies … from camera angles to cuts and dissolves, from the deployment of original music to mise-en-scène.” Game scholar Mark J. P. Wolf likewise claims, “Theoretically, many of the same issues are present in video games and film: spectator positioning and suture, point of view, sound and image relations, semiotics, and other theories dealing with images of representation. … It is perhaps due to the desire to measure up to the standard of visual realism set by film and television that the video game evolved as it has.”21 Videogame evolution parallels cinematic evolution, for instance, in the construction of virtual spaces. Wolf compares the single, static frames of early games like Taito’s Space Invaders (1978) and Atari’s Missile Command (1980) to the early films of Lumière and Méliès, which maintain a static point of view and make no use of editing to link different locations. Scrolling games like Activision’s Pitfall! (1982) and Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. (1985) correspond to the early development of panning and tracking. Early adventure games like Atari’s Adventure and E.T. simulate cutting and continuity editing through the use of distinct but contiguous game spaces. Finally, Wolf argues, the immersive three-dimensional environments of current games replicate the “space represented in classical Hollywood film … viewed from multiple angles and viewpoints.”
At the same time, the potential for the player to act within these virtual environments makes game spaces essentially different from film spaces. Wolf explains, “Whereas the cinema offered a window and positioned the spectator within the world it depicted, the video game goes further, allowing the spectator to explore that world and take an active role in its events.” Our success in a game depends largely on our knowledge of the game space, and game narrative often unfolds in spatial terms, as we discover new stories in different areas of the game world. Unlike films, most games offer a map, a symbolic representation of the virtual environment that aids our navigation. In this sense, game space is twofold, containing a diegetic world as well as a metadiegetic schematization of that world. Perhaps most important, game spaces must offer the potential for free exploration and so must appear navigable and continuous. Alexander Galloway explains this essential difference between cinematic vision and “gamic vision”:
Gamic vision requires fully rendered, actionable space. Traditional filmmaking almost never requires the construction of full spaces. Set designers and carpenters build only the portion of the set that will appear within the frame. Because a direct has complete control over what does appear within the frame, this task is easy to accomplish. The camera positions are known in advance. Once the film is complete, no new camera positions will ever be included. … By contrast, game design explicitly requires the construction of a complete space in advance that is then exhaustively explorable …. The camera position in many games is not restricted. The player is the one who controls the camera position, by looking, by moving, by scrolling, and so on.
Peter Molyneux, creator of Black and White and Fable, calls the player “the best camera man because he knows what he wants to see,” but the challenge, he says, “is to allow people the flexibility to choose their own camera angles,” while maintaining visual and narrative coherence in the game.
This notion of a “camera” and the ability to control it forms a crucial part of the visual language of videogames and, on a technical level, enables the synthesis of films and games envisioned by Lucasfilm. The first-person perspective that has become conventional in current games, following models like id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D (1992) and Cyan’s Myst (1993), has its origin in the “subjective shot” utilized in film. Galloway describes the subjective shot as “a rather extreme first person point-of-view shot, where the camera pans and tracks as if it were mounted on the neck of a character. … The viewer sees exactly what the character sees, as if the camera ‘eye’ were the same as the character ‘I.’ ” In films as in games, the subjective shot is marked by visual or sound effects that simulate the physical or psychological experience of the character: blurred or tinted vision to indicate injury, a binocular or magnified view to indicate peering through a lens or a scope, or panting and heaving to indicate fatigue.
Citing familiar scenes from the films The Terminator (1984), Predator (1987), and The Silence of the Lambs(1991), Galloway notes that films most often use this specialized shot to represent “a sense of alienation, detachment, otherness, or fear … the vision of criminals, monsters, or killer machines.” Games, on the other hand, more commonly use the subjective shot not to represent marginalized consciousness but rather to “achieve an intuitive sense of affective motion,” to simulate being and acting within a virtual world. The subjective shot has become a keystone of game design in a variety of genres, including first-person shooters, role-playing games, and driving games. In fact, Galloway concludes, the subjective point of view “is so omnipresent and so central to the grammar [of videogames] … that it essentially becomes coterminous with it.”
While games, according to Leggat, Wolf, and Galloway, are the progeny of cinema, in terms of both content and visual language, the aesthetics of game design have also begun to exert an influence on filmmaking as film becomes more digitized. Ridley Scott, who produced a series of live-action online short films in 2004 promoting the release of Atari’s DRIV3R, finds greater creative potential in games. Scott told the New York Times, “The idea that a world, the characters that inhabit it, and the stories those characters share can evolve with the audience’s participation and, perhaps, exist in a perpetual universe is indeed very exciting to me.” Leggat compares the fight choreography in the Matrix and Kill Bill films to the wild moves performed in fighting games, and Galloway calls attention to the “bullet time” sequence in The Matrix, where time slows and Neo impossibly dodges a hail of gunfire, as “a brief moment of gamic cinema, a brief moment where the aesthetic of gaming moves in and takes over the film.”
The interactive nature of game narrative that intrigues Scott has also prompted more independent filmmakers to reconsider the ways a story can be told on film. Tom Tykwer’s film Run Lola Run (1999), for instance, portrays a young woman trying to aid her desperate boyfriend as he rushes to repay a debt to a crime boss. Even with its chic rapid-fire editing and animation sequences, Run Lola Run looks like a standard caper film until Lola, surprisingly, is shot dead about 20 minutes into the action. Rather than accept this outcome, however, she simply opens her eyes and says, “No,” transporting herself back in time as if restarting the game, which she replays twice throughout the film until she achieves the desired ending. Run Lola Run reveals that interactivity has begun to destabilize the way filmmakers view their craft, even at the fundamental level of narrative structure. Tykwer’s film in not nonlinear but multilinear, like a game that a player can complete or fail to complete in any number of ways.
For some critics, however, media convergence, particularly this increasingly visible influence of videogames on cinema, signals an aesthetic and intellectual corruption. In a survey of films about the Second World War, film critic David Thomson calls Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001), “not just a colossal bore, but a defamation of popular history that leaves you in despair of the cinema.” Thomson believes that videogames have obscured filmmakers’ and audiences’ understanding of the complexity of history and the reality of violence. He writes:
It’s what you get when the kids in the audience and the kids in charge have spent two decades playing video combat games. … Virtually every set-up [in Pearl Harbor] puts the camera in the best position not just to see the explosion but to be it. The essential Bay shot is the POV from the bomb that falls on the Arizona; it has all the gravitational zest, and the denial of damage or tragedy, that’s built into the trigger-jerking spasms of video games.
For Thomson, gamic vision in films does not signify the exciting potential of media convergence but rather reduces cinematic art and marks a shallow fascination with the hyperactive images of violent action rather than a critical exploration of the causes or consequences of such action.
Although fans of Star Wars and The Matrix might accuse Thomson of being old-fashioned, Thomson rightly observes that films, when they try to copy games, often look silly. Even as The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (2004) proves that good games can be made from bad films, and EA’s The Godfather: The Game (2006) proves that good games can be made from good films, Hollywood has not yet discovered a way to make a good film from a good game. Early attempts to do so have been ridiculous or merely forgettable, including Super Mario Bros. (1993), Street Fighter (1994), and Mortal Kombat (1995). Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), rendered entirely in CGI, lost more than $120 million and bankrupted Square Pictures. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), Resident Evil (2002), and Silent Hill (2006), have done well at the box office but utterly disappointed film critics with their glossy violence, inane dialogue, and shallow characterization. In other words, they seem too game-like.
Jenkins compares current videogames, with all their flaws, to the cinema of the early twentieth century, an art form still in a stage of rapid technical development and radical experimentation, still awaiting coherent theories and critical approaches, and still lacking a tradition or a canon. Videogames, Jenkins believes, have almost unbounded commercial and artistic potential, but they need time to grow up. Leggat similarly describes the relation between games and film as Oedipal: “cinema’s scrappy stepchild, the game world is … constantly competing with an idealized, phantasmic father for the love and attention of the mass market, yet never truly believing that it enjoys or deserves it.”
The most spectacular failures in film-game franchising, from Atari’s E.T. to Square’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, occur when filmmakers attempt to replicate the grammar of videogames in films or game designers attempt to replicate the grammar of films. In a review of Jackson’s The Return of the King, film critic Anthony Lane writes, “As I watched the film, an eager victim of its boundless will to astound, I found my loyal memories to the book beginning to fade. It may be time to halt the endless comparisons between page and screen, and to confess that the two are very different beasts.” As the fusion of the film and game industries continues and transmedia franchises emerge, designers of film-based games must similarly acknowledge that games and films, despite their convergence, are also two very different beasts. Though some may try to make games that play like films, or movies that play like games, we find that the narrative forms governing one genre do not quite fit the other. Like the Matrix itself, transmedia narrative is a new sort of beast born in the age of convergence, an expansive and perpetually expanding simulated dream world constructed not so much to control as to entertain. In choosing the blue pill, however, we submit to both.