Remember all that recent hubbub about film critics panning 300 by terming it a 'video game film'? I was happy to see horror master (and gamer) John Carpenter discussing the matter a bit with Daniel Robert Epstein in a recent SuicideGirls' interview:
Daniel Robert Epstein (DRE): I don’t know if you’ve seen 300 yet…
John Carpenter: Not yet. I’m anxious to see it.
DRE: Often when film critics don’t like the story in a movie they will say it is comic-like but since 300 is already based on a comic book they started comparing 300 to a videogame. But they seem to forget that videogames, like comics, have some pretty complex stories. Would you say that videogames are starting to get close to being as complex as films?
John: With some videogames, because you’re involved in the action yourself, are truly exciting. You get lost in it. Whereas a movie is really a passive experience. You’re sitting, eating popcorn. If you’re at home, you’re drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette, whatever you’re doing. That’s a different experience. That’s what I grew up with, movies as passive entertainment. When critics compare 300 to a videogame, I’m not quite sure what they’re talking about. I think they’re talking about computer generated graphics. I think that’s a way in to attack a movie on the grounds that it’s more of a videogame or a comic book or something.
DRE: They can’t insult it by calling it a comic book-like movie. They just come up with something else they don’t really understand to compare it too.
John: Well, it’s all an insult, like this is not important enough. That’s the way it always happens.
Ah, the old 'passive/involved' argument. Of course, Carpenter has always been quite into gaming and, according to the same interview, his upcoming game Psychopath is still a work-in-progress:
DRE: I read about some videogame you were involved with a couple of years ago, Psychopath.
John: Yeah, that’s still percolating away. I’ll be involved with anything if it pays me money.
The rest of the interview is definitely worth a read if you're into Mr. Carpenter. While I enjoy many of his works, I'm really not all that sure I'm salivating at the prospect of him getting into video games. It's not a question of talent, but wondering whether he would really bring anything new to the table. I have no doubt that he can recognize good games when he sees them but parlaying that into interesting game concepts, stories and mechanics is a different matter entirely.
In fact, ever since I read the interview I've been asking myself 'Just what film directors would I like to see push out a game?' And the answer is, honestly, 'very few'. Excellent multidisciplinary artists are a rare breed, and most of those in film that have crossed over to video games have had a lackluster impact, at best. Most of the examples I can think of are little more than stunt-casting anyways, brought in for their name recognition and outwards flair rather than any deeper thematic values or insight. Take for instance, Metal Gear Solid: Twin Snakes, which had Versus director Ryuhei Kitamura reshaping the original game's cut-scenes.
But I digress. I was hoping to actually construct a list of several directors I'd like to see produce a game, but all I could really think of was one name, one film director who has proved that he understands video games and is capable enough to bring emotional depth and complexity to whatever narrative this game might have, all the while still recognizing that it's a game. That man is none other than David Cronenberg.
"The world of games is in kind of a trance: People are programmed to accept so little... but the possibilities are so great."
- Allegra Geller
Sure, my choice may be a bit obvious. After all, Cronenberg is best known for his fictional explorations of the psychological impact of technology, of which ultimately led to his treatise on video game narratives, eXistenZ. But see, the vastly underrated eXistenZ proved that Cronenberg gets how stories are told in games. If you're unfamiliar with the film, it's a 'day-after-tomorrow' thriller involving Allegra Geller, a game designer working on a next-generation video game named 'eXistenZ', who becomes the target of a terrorist group. Allegra and her bodyguard, Ted Pikul, then run off on a mission of self-preservation, trying to avoid those that would drive her, and her game, into the ground.
"There are things that have to be said to advance the plot and establish the characters, and those things get said whether you want to say them or not."
- Allegra Geller
The summary may sound uninspired, but the mechanics of the film are anything but. It draws from a litany of sources, but of course those that are the most interesting (at least, to me) are those that are unique to single-player video game stories. Allegra and Ted spend quite a bit of time in eXistenZ's game world, giving us glimpses into how we, as players, learn how to acclimate to fictional video game environments and adapt ourselves to the characters we play and those we interact with. Cronenberg realizes the current (and even near-future) limitations of gaming, that even though we're coming closer and closer to visual and sensual perfection, artificial intelligence and realistic computational reactions are still extraordinarily difficult to recreate in games, and he gives damn good reasons (and replacements) for them.
"It's a genuine game urge – it's something your character was 'born' to do. Don't fight it."
- Allegra Geller (again)
There's a lot more to eXistenZ than I'm able to go into here but, if you're reading this, you'll probably at least get a kick out of its 'game loop' joke. The storytelling engine itself is well worth a look, as it borrows, and even improves, on many devices and elements very familiar to adventure and FPS gamers alike.
Given Cronenberg's interest in video games, I'm surprised he hasn't dabbled in them yet, but I'd love to see him give them a try. He clearly knows what he's talking about, so it'd be interesting to see him twist it into something new, something his own. And really, that's the best we can ask of film directors dabbling in games.
So, what film directors do you think could help gaming along? Who, apart from stylistic bravado (we have enough of that right now), from the film world do you think could bring something interesting and intrinsically intriguing to games?
Update: April 5th, 2007 - GameSetWatch commenter 'CaRteR' noted that Cronenberg was involved in a video game project with Toronto-based Trapeze Media. This information seems to stem from an old interview with designer Ernest Adams, who was working on the Trapeze Media project along with Cronenberg.
I couldn't find any other information about the project, except that Cronenberg was on Trapeze Media's board of creative advisors. It's possible that his board membership was about as close as he got to the project. Either way, it appears that Trapeze Media's gaming forays have dwindled over the years into advergaming, so it's doubtful we'll ever see the fruits of Cronenberg's labor &ndah; if there were any at all.
However, if anyone has any information on the project, I'd love to hear about it!