A week ago, as I was waiting in line with a bunch of scuzzy-looking gamer freaks to get a hold of Grand Theft Auto 5 right when it was to be released at midnight, I thought to myself, “When was the last time the premier of a movie made me feel like a kid on Christmas morning?” Later still, as I wandered through the seedy underground of GTA 5’s immersive world – wanting to get to the next mission to see how the story would progress — I realized, “When was the last time I felt this engaged by watching film?”
And while I know next to nothing about video game theory or even what goes into the physical production of games, I found myself more engaged and interested in the unfolding of GTA 5’s story than that of any film in recent memory – film being a medium I have supposedly dedicated a large portion of my life to studying, making, and understanding. Upon reflection, I can definitively say the last three games I’ve played have exceeded the last three films I’ve seen in terms of sheer narrative engagement. They were films that I enjoyed, even – but the games simply grabbed a hold of me in a way the films didn’t. Grand Theft Auto 5’s cinematic approach is much more than that — it’s a style Rockstar have developed ever since GTA III – a certain sardonic realism in dialogue and character blocking within cut scenes.
Sure, playing a game isn’t passive like watching a movie. One could argue games are inherently more engaging because of their interactivity. But it’s not just that. Saying games are more engrossing because you play them rather than passively watch would be a gross simplification of the medium and its narrative potential. We seem to have come to a time when video games as a whole are beginning to reach an apex in terms of storytelling. Congruent with this is a general decline in commercial Hollywood cinema, each summer season only accounting for meager financial gains through inflated ticket prices and commercial hype. It’s truly making me believe that games will displace film as a dominant narrative medium — if they already haven’t.
Consider two other blockbuster games released earlier this year, BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us. While the quality of the gameplay itself in BioShock has been debated, Irrational Games and head designer/writer Ken Levine expertly constructed a complex, intelligent, engaging and entertaining story. The strength of the ending alone would be enough to make any Hollywood screenwriter jealous.
The Last of Us drew particular attention for its cinematic approach to storytelling and gameplay. In this case, the characterizations and narrative were so strong; some gamers irreverently suggested that The Last of Us should be nominated for an Oscar. Gamefaqs forum member ThePCElitist even went so far as to declare, “This game [The Last of Us] demonstrates that it’s possible for a game to tell a more intimate story with subtlety and drawn out character development that a movie can’t do in an hour and a half. It’s one of the few games where I actually felt what Joel felt or what Ellie felt on the screen.” And this, at a time when film producers are already feeling the squeeze from the renaissance currently taking place in television.
The dominance isn’t just creative, however, it’s monetary. Dennis Scimea of Salon has already written about how Grand Theft Auto 5 became the fastest-grossing media product ever released, easily trumping the highest grossing film. Grand Theft Auto 5 made $800 million in its first day of release, much much more than Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 2’s $91 million opening. Granted, these figures don’t take into account the cost of making a game vs. film production or instant home release vs. theatrical exhibition; however the vast difference in gross absolutely cannot be ignored.
Another important aspect of game narrative that must be considered is their specificity to the medium itself. That is, more specifically, their in-adaptability to film. Video games have been using their own unique qualities – non-linearity, interactivity– to tell complex and engaging stories that, simply, cannot be done in the most big-budgeted of Hollywood tent poles. There’s a reason film adaptations of games rarely work, it’s because narrative games have something crucial that films — by their nature – lack.
So I pose the question, are video games displacing film as the dominant storytelling medium? What screenwriter, after seeing the innovative and complex story made possible in BioShock Infinite would turn down writing a video game if offered?
I am only taking into account pure storytelling however, not spectacle – as many argue is something film still has to offer. However, in a world of escalating graphics, where technical innovation seemingly doubles every year, the beautiful vistas in GTA 5 offer hyper-real eye candy that already rivals Man of Steel’s fantastic Kryptonian renderings.
But narrative games are only one slice of the pie, there is a population of games out there that attempt to engage gamers on a purely interactive level – with no built-in narrative at all to drive the action. However, by and large the more mainstream, more successful games have been those that are fun to play and narratively engage the player.
In any event, it’s becoming more apparent every summer movie season that films do not hold the storytelling monopoly they once did. Just as the once dominant novel was largely displaced by film, radio, and television, film is slowly succumbing to cable television’s hour-long dramas and blockbuster video games like Grand Theft Auto 5.
But maybe I’m jaded, maybe my understanding of film is what’s keeping me at arm’s length, maybe videos games are more accessible narratively because they are still a mystified medium to me.
But then I think about all those numbers again.