Videogames vs. Movies: Have games replaced films as the modern popular narrative medium?


Image Credit: Melissa Moseley

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.

NEXT: “The majority of mainstream movies today truly are just sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Comments (81 total) Add your comment
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  • Nerwen Aldarion

    Me, I think Video games have eclipsed films in originality for sure. I’m getting tired of the reboot/crappy sequal fever that seems to have gripped Hollywood as of late.

    In the video game world…well there is still a lot of creativity to be had. Only in this world can you be Desmond Miles from 2012 going through his ancestor’s memory as an Assassin in Reneissance Italy, or you can be Marcus Fenix trying to destroy the locust horde with you chainsaw Lancer, that is hell bent on the destruction of humanity, or you can be Commander Shepard saving the galaxy from a race of machines while every decision you make determines if you walk the path of light or darkness.

    What does the cinema offer right now? Well they’ve got machines tearing each other apart oh and don’t forget the reboot of Dirty Dancing coming out!

    I still find movies that are enjoyable…but Hollywood isn’t going to reclaim the mantle of the creative epicenter of the world until they actually start coming out with more original ideas again.

    • Thom

      While I tend to agree that videogames tend to take more chances creatively I have to add: videogames have countless sequels and reboots as well. Perhaps even moreso than movies.

      Sadly, EVERYONE runs things into the ground, not just Hollywood.

      • harry

        very good point Thom

      • Cygnus

        Honestly most video games seem like derivatives of first-person shooters from the time of Wolfenstein, Doom, Quake days, or they’re head-to-head fighter games like Mortal Combat. Puzzle solving adventures and linear story games are over done too. Even the online multi-player games are just extensions of age-old character-based D&D type role the dice and action. It’s like movies have genres that become cliche like westerns, rom-coms, muscle-head action flicks. Both mediums suffer from originality, the technology and graphics just get fancier.

      • Jason

        Yep. I agree. The creativity is there, but I would add that sometimes the quality isn’t in the storytelling.

    • FrankA

      I agree that narratively videogames are already starting to be on par with the best movies, but there is a major issue that holds games back: the limited audience. Sure, some titles like Call if Duty sell copies in the multi-millions, but that isnt the norm or on par with the lasting impact a movie can have. The games business is so driven on first-six-month sales and that causes most to drop of the face of the planet while great films like Jaws and Gone With the Wind continue to be relevant. Games need to become cheaper and be playable on future devices to have their narratives become as impacting on society as movies are. You might have the best story in the world, but if only a small niche experiences it then it’s mostly for nothing.

  • Jay

    Video Games cannot “replace” movies simply because I, personally, do not have the time to finish most of the games I play. Sure I play them and enjoy them, but its rare that I play one through to the finish. So in that respect, you could say I never see the ending.
    Movies start & end in about 2 hours. If I had a game that I played straight through to the end in 2 hours, I’d feel pretty ripped-off.

    • AK

      Add to that the fact that movies are truly a MASS medium, whereas video games are enjoyed by a much smaller segment of the population. How can video games ever eclipse film when most people never play them?

      • m

        errr. wrong

        video games make more money annually than movies, and music combined

      • freak

        @M yes it seems that way, cause of the price tag on the games, as movies might be $10.00 and albums are $9.99 and under. Even when you add the two meduims together they make less money, than a $60.00 game. So in shear mass video games do appeal to less people than the masses or might have less people having the time to sit down and use days to complete a single game.

      • Mike

        I think it’s the “much smaller” segment where you may need to revise your statement. The Wii pretty much blew the door wide open on Mass Market Video Gaming. When you start seeing video game systems in senior citizen centers, there was new ground being broken. Now, with PS3 and XBOX joining in on the Motion Gaming world, the appeal is spreading even further. But yes, there will always be a subsegment of CORE gamers that is “much” smaller than the movie-going public.

      • bob

        NPD estimates that consumers spent between $15.4 to $15.6 billion on all video game content, not including hardware…Motion Picture Association of America states that global box office receipts were 31.8 billion.

        Granted, this is not net, but I highly doubt that Video games eclipse the earnings of film and music combined.

      • bob

        sorry, numbers were for 2010

      • bob

        last one. If there are better numbers, I wouldn’t mind seeing them.

  • Josh

    To expound on Nerwen’s posts in support of video games, you can also be a member of an order called the Grey Wardens and battle to save the country from civil war and from inhuman monsters called Darkspawn. One thing about video games is that they also reboot and use the same material over and over agan, but reboots take a long while, like almost 20 years in the case of Tomb Raider, and there’s still plenty of ideas and material to draw from to create new and exciting games. Look at Epic Mickey. I love Warren Spector’s work, and I love classic Disney. I didn’t know how it would work when Epic Mickey was first announced, but as details came, that they were combing through Disney’s incredible backlog of classic shorts like Mickey and The Beanstalk and downplayed, forgotten, and outright scrapped characters to make a game with, I got more and more excited until I put in a last minute pre-order and was a Day 1 adopter of it. Love it. Even if I love a movie to no end and it’s the best movie ever made, I don’t get as excited about movies as I do about games, because unlike movies where you’re just sitting there watching it happen, in a video game, you’re making it happen. You’re doing it vicariously through your character, rather than just watching a character do it.

    • Josh


    • Nerwen Aldarion

      I agree, part of the fun of playing a game from beginning to end is setting the controller aside and saying “Hey I did it!”

      When it comes to films I just turn the TV off…

    • Olivya

      “unlike movies where you’re just sitting there watching it happen, in a video game, you’re making it happen. You’re doing it vicariously through your character, rather than just watching a character do it.”

      I completely agree with this statement. Being in the action and making decisions affecting the outcome of the story is a huge part of what makes videogames so great.

      I think, on the horizon, when virtual reality games become available, the movie industry will be hit hard and most will have to shift their resources over to gaming.

  • MikeB

    apples and oranges. Games are fun and interactive, but there usually isn’t much story. Not enough to eclipse movies for story telling. I don’t see how they can be compared.

    • Scott

      Isn’t much story? Is Farmville the only thing you’ve been playing lately? There have been dozens of amazing storylines in games the past couple of years alone. That’s a lot more than I can say for movies here recently.

      • RK

        Can you plant apples and oranges in Farmville?

    • Lily

      Play a Bioware game, their games have more story in them than most movies made nowadays.

    • L

      There are a lot of games with great stories, you just have to play the right games. Anyway, I don’t understand why one has to eclipse the other. I love both films and video games, but see them separately, so maybe I just don’t get the comparison.

  • Jon

    This is stupid. Games have never, and will never, eclipse movies. For instance, allot of gamers often say that the worst thing about videogames is the storyline. When a film is all about storyline, where does a videogames come in with it’s excessive hours of late-night online game play? Oh yeah, that’s right, it doesn’t. And another reason that video games will never eclipse movies is simple- I could waste $10 dollars and see the hideous transformers movie, but I can’t waste $60-$70 dollars on some hideous war game just because there’s a minigane featuring zombies.

    • Fingerlakes Dave

      Nicely said

      • Crazy Stupid Movie

        No, this isn’t just stupid. This is down syndrom retarded with a tad of autism. Video games aren’t even close. This is assinine. Anybody who says other, needs to get laid, virgins.

    • Andy

      The problem with your comment is that you are generalizing all video games. Just like movies, there are also awful video games. I love the storylines in games, they used to be mainly present in PC games, but in the last 15 years or so consoles games have been injecting more and more interesting storylines. I love both mediums, games and film, but your comment is too general. At least no one in the video game industry has come out recently and sad that storylines don’t matter, unlike a certain guy at Disney just did.

  • The Luxe Heritage

    The only video games I like are the Sims series and the Orange Box (Left 4 Dead/ Half Life).
    I prefer movies hands down.

  • DocRules

    I really want a Buffy-Veronica battle. Make it happen.

    • Eric P

      Who’s Veronica?

  • Nathan

    I’ll just say this, I’m more excited for Arkham City for my PS3 than I am for the The Dark Knight Rises.

    • Crazy Stupid Movie

      That’s because your gay.

      • D

        intelijence faile

  • D

    One is interactive, one isn’t. It’s like comparing PLAYING a sport to being a SPECTATOR at a sporting event. I love to play, but sometimes I want to sit back and root for my team. Both have their perks. Kinda silly to compare them, really…

    • PDDB

      I agree. Slow news days create these kinds of “stories” unfortunately.

  • RK

    Movie, 2 hours, $10
    Games, 100s of hours, $40
    Winner: games

    • Fingerlakes Dave

      >Movie, 2 hours, $10
      Games, 100s of hours, $40
      Winner: games
      Multi-millions of people, some multiple times, spending $10 and 2 hours to see a movie. Worldwide. Many games never make it to (or, from) the US.
      Less games to make same $ value is *less* people actually exposed to “storyline”. Even with used market counted.
      Movies win!

      • Rachel

        I think the point is that games give you more bang for your buck.
        $5/hr vs $.40/hr
        Games win.

    • Michael

      Definitely. I’ve gotten at least 300 hours out of games like Fallout 3 and Oblivion and those are entirely story driven.

  • Kevin

    TV has surpassed film in terms of narrative. TV provides the best opportunity to mimic the narrative and emotional complexity of novels. Making an argument for videogames is ridiculous. Gaming is a waste of time and money. With the amount of time kids invest in gaming, they could be learning a trade or developing a talent. It rots the mind and offers no value. Games like Madden are good when played as a social entertainment, but otherwise gaming is for kids and burn-outs.

    • Angela

      But the confines of TV and movies are completely different. TV shows have the opportunity to become super-complex because they have, theoretically, all the time in the world to draw out plots and character arcs, where as the average movie only has two hours to tell a story and to get an audience equally invested. There are good movies and TV shows, just as there are bad movies and TV shows (I’m not completely disagreeing, but I want to point out that, when people herald this as the Golden Age of TV, they seem to forget that for every Mad Men and Fringe, there’s a Real Housewives or Jersey Shore). I won’t pretend I’m an avid gamer, but I have friends who are, and they find plenty of value in video games outside of simple escapism. Some of them require a lot more brainpower than you’d think, and they help with physical skills like reflexes and coordination.

    • Anonymous

      Actually many video games offer puzzles of all different kinds and therefore work to enhance problem solving skills. Not to mention there are lots of multiplayer games that people play together like Mario Kart and dancing and karaoke games. Then there are video games that encourage creativity and those that have complicated plots that make it so you are practically playing out a movie. So they really aren’t all that bad.

      • Anonymous

        *I meant more complex plots not complicated plots.

    • @Kevin

      Seriously? You’re going to extoll the virtues of TV and call GAMING out as the activity which “rots the mind”? I’m not personally a gamer—I don’t usually even have two consecutive hours to watch a movie unless it’s something my 7-year-old can also see (although my definition of that is pretty liberal)—and I recognize that there’s a lot of good TV out there amongst the trash (most of which I don’t get to see either), just like there has been since the inception of the medium. But no matter how involving or ultimately thought-provoking a given show OR feature film might be, watching TV (or a movie) is a PASSIVE activity. How many studies with electrodes on people’s heads need to be conducted before you believe that certain large areas of your brain pretty much shut completely down when you’re parked on the couch WATCHING something? Games, by contrast, require constant neural activity; and while I’m not saying that the nation’s youth should be glued to their XBoxes for six hours a day any more than they should be watching six hours of TV, at least when my kid plays Thrillville (because we’re so far behind the curve all we have is a PS2) he’s arguably LEARNING something. In order to successfully advance in that game, he has to solve logic puzzles, develop his spatial reasoning, make business decisions, and exercise a lot of creativity. When he gets to the point, hopefully many years from now, of playing whatever first-person shooter on a network with a cabal of other gamers, he’ll be forging social connections just as valid as anything else we have in the modern age. Videogames will never replace movies in MY heart (I wanted to go to film school until life intervened), but I can certainly appreciate the profound emotional and intellectual impact they’ve had for other people, and I think, quite frankly, that you’re being disrespectful.

  • Brandon

    The medium of gaming has created fatbodies en masse; kids aren’t choosing Shrek The Fourth over playing baseball and bikes, they’re choosing to sit on their fat a$$es for hours on end to engage in vicarious bullsh**.

    • Andy

      Yeah! Well said Brandon. No, sorry, I was just kidding. You’re boring.

  • Danno

    I think it does depend on the person, but me personally I recently cancelled Netflix because I’d get the DVDs and they would literally sit on my dining room table unopened for 2+ weeks until I sent them back unwatched basically because I’d rather play Crysis 2 for a couple hours than sit and watch ANY movie really (except maybe Empire Strikes Back)

  • Some Dude

    Movies still win out over games, no question about it. Out of the half a dozen games I plan on picking up this holiday season I’m betting almost none of them will have a worthwhile story. Gears of War 3 will feel like it was written and acted by a group of sweaty UFC fighters,Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3 will be nothing more than a string of over the top set pieces hastily pasted together and Mass Effect 3 will continue to be a high tech choose your own adventure book. Oh and Uncharted 3 will rock even if it’s by and large Indiana Jones 2.0.

    Sure I’ll probably enjoy most of these games, (actually I’ll be skipping Modern Warfare 3), but that will have more to do with the so-called gameplay rather than the narrative.

    • Michael

      I totally disagree. Mass Effect 3, Skyrim, Arkham City, and Uncharted 3 will all have excellent writing. Sure not all games will have absolutely terrific stories, but neither will all movies. Different pieces of art try for different things, some try to tell great stories, and some just want good gameplay. It’s like criticizing Captain America for not being The Tree of Life. it’s unfair to use Gears of War of Battlefield as examples of storytelling in gaming.

  • Jen

    Funny, I just read an article from CNN about why people don’t finish playing video games–most of us don’t have the time. We’re all busy, and most of us can find 2 hours to watch a movie, but it’s a whole lot harder to find 20-40 hours (or more, if you’re an unskilled gamer like me) to finish a game. And that’s why videogames, for all of their creativity, etc., will never eclipse movies.

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