Comparing one narrative medium to another is a tricky business. Anyone who has read a Harry Potter book and then seen the ensuing film adaptation — which is to say, almost everyone on earth – knows that every storytelling method has its own strengths and weaknesses. Still, there is something particularly fascinating about the rivalry between movies and videogames. Cinema was the original popular art form, but it has spent over half a century fighting against rival media: Television, home video, and finally the videogame, which has evolved in just a few short decades from the primordial elements of Pong into the culture-defining medium of Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, and The Legend of Zelda.
The key to the great Film/Videogame debate is that the two have evolved alongside of each other. Videogames have become more “filmlike,” with more realistic characters and complex plotting. In turn, movies have absorbed many lessons from videogames, some of them good (films like The Hurt Locker and Children of Men have a you-are-there grandeur that feels very gamelike) and some of them not so good (watching Michael Bay’s Transformers trilogy is are exactly as enjoyable as watching your little brother play videogames you used to love before you turned 6). Now, I and fellow videogame fiend Adam B. Vary debate whether videogames have outright passed the movies as the popular narrative medium. Tell us your own thoughts in the comments.
(This is part of an ongoing series of posts in which EW writers debate the most defining pop culture rivalries. Past subjects have included the Schwarzenegger/Stallone, Godfather/Goodfellas, and the millenial pop-diva battle of between Britney and Christina. Come back here on Tuesday for a rousing battle between The Simpsons and South Park.)
ADAM B. VARY (Videogame supporter): It’s a truth that has been whispered by my friends (and a few of my colleagues) for a few years now, Darren, but I am unafraid to bray it proudly: The time of feature film dominance is dimming, and the days when videogames reign supreme is dawning. I’m not talking about gross revenues here — videogames have long since dwarfed movies on that score. And I’m only partly talking about artistry, although I suspect you’re going to zing me for that later. Really, it just boils down to this: Taken in total, the big movies of the last few years have rarely been as interesting — as able to seize your imagination, envelope you into their worlds and haunt your thinking for weeks on end — as the big videogames of the last few years.
I will concede that, Cars 2 aside, the output of Pixar stands tall as the great exception to that statement. But otherwise, our cineplexes have been choked by the likes of X-Men Origins: Clash of the Pirates of the Squeakquel. As someone I know and respect recently said on this very blog, “Were people still talking about Transformers: Dark of the Moon weeks after it came out?” No, but my friends could not stop talking about Red Dead Redemption — for months. I had buckets more fun playing, and then raving about, and then re-playing Uncharted 2: Among Thieves than seeing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Swinging LaBeouf. And even when a top-tier game like L.A. Noire disappoints, at least it disappoints in a fascinating, ambitious way that provokes thoughtful dissection — like you and I did over IM last month. What do you have to say to that?
DARREN J. FRANICH (Cinema loyalist): It’s true, the contemporary popular movie scene has followed a downward spiral of sequels and prequels and remakes. But don’t forget: Videogames practically invented the Relentless Re-Quel assault. Let’s check out the best-selling games of 2010: The seventh Call of Duty game, the sixth Halo game, two different Super Mario games, another freaking Pokemon game…and, yes, Red Dead Redemption. (There was also Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort, and for the purposes of moving this debate onto more interesting territory, I will gladly admit that Wii Sports Resort will give you a better cardio workout than Citizen Kane.)
Now, I’m going to focus in on your defining virtue here, and say that only one of those games is truly interesting. I enjoyed playing the Halo: Reach campaign with my roommate, but it was an echo of past glories. I killed Nazi zombies for hundreds of hours in Call of Duty: Black Ops, but I suspect I might be a more interesting person today if I had taken those hours to read Vasily Grossman’s WWII masterpiece Life and Fate, which is also about killing Nazis. Red Dead Redemption is the only game that truly moved me…and, as I wrote on our website, the final sequence moved me very much indeed.
But as much as I enjoyed Red Dead, I cannot praise it as a fully unified experience. Much of the dialogue was terrible. The fact that they showed the same skinning-cinema every time I got an animal pelt became infuriating. I thought the Mexico sequence dragged. And, like most videogames, Red Dead ultimately left me feeling caged, because I was always starkly aware of the limitations placed upon me. I could not romance anyone but my darling wife; I could not run off to join the Indians; I could not become a black-hatted villain, no matter how many innocents I killed, because the story of the Red Dead in-game cinemas was set in stone.
There are still just too many imperfections built into the videogame art. By comparison, my three favorite westerns — The Searchers, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid — are things that I would consider perfect documents, and although they are each only 1/100th of the playing time of Red Dead, I think I learn more from them every time I watch.