Adam: Okay, yes, those are classic westerns, and they — along with the classic spaghetti westerns of Clint Eastwood — are exactly what inspired Red Dead Redemption. And if you press me to stack up my favorite videogames against my favorite movies, not only would the movies pile be much higher, just the act of stacking them would cause me to get misty. That is not something I can do when thinking back on Super Mario Bros. 3.
But you know what else is true about the films in that pile, and about the movies you mention above? They are old. A lot of them are really old. And I, good sir, am talking about the movies of today. What big, non-Pixarian film of the past three or four years could you honestly add to your Favorite of Favorites? Of course, there are small films like The Kids Are All Right or Beginners that still captivate me. But if I’m being brutally honest, even a movie as satisfying as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 is still a shadow of the experience of reading the book it is based on. I feel like such a fusty crank saying this, but the vast majority of mainstream movies today truly are just sound and fury, signifying nothing. They are racing to see which one can be the most like, well, a videogame.
Videogames today, on the other hand, are in a really interesting place. Yes, they are imperfect. Yes, they stubbornly force you into certain choices (which you do realize is how movies work all the time, right?). But I can see them striving to give us something we’ve never experienced before, to hook us into a big story, and to reinvent how we absorb that story. In some ways, they feel like the movies of 100 years ago, as early filmmakers figured out what the visual grammar of cinema would be. So, really, videogames are trying their damnedest to be more like movies.
Also, I may be fired for writing those last two paragraphs.
Darren: This summer definitely has been the worst ever for Hollywood sci-fi/fantasy action adventures. Green Lantern and Cowboys & Aliens are already in the dustbin of history, and Pirates of the Caribbean 5 sounds like an existential threat. But I think you’re being unfair if you just focus on the cinematic genre that has essentially only existed — at least in its current, digital effects-heavy form — in the post-videogame era. The Social Network made over $200 million at the box office last year — do we leave that out of the conversation just because there’s no videogame genre for “Corrosive All-American Success Story?”
Now, I could argue that videogames don’t have dialogue as good, or characters as fascinating, or a plot as clockwork-perfect as in The Social Network. You brought up L.A. Noire. Let’s set aside all the annoying sub-games that were added into Noire to make it more amenable — the gunfights, the chases, the deeply unnecessary open-world — and focus on the central selling point of Noire: The fact that it was literally trying to place you inside of a genre that has mostly lived in literature and film. Genuine acting! Dialogue-as-gameplay! Mise-en-scene! It was fascinating, it was different…and it fell flat. I can respect L.A. Noire as a first step towards something, but comparing that to The Social Network is like comparing 2001: A Space Odyssey to George Melies’ From the Earth to the Moon.
But honestly, I don’t think videogames need good dialogue, or a Robert Towne-worthy plot, or even really “characters” in the classic sense. The most religious experience I have ever had with a game came while playing Shadow of the Colossus, a PS2 masterpiece that honored all the tropes of the extremely well-trodden fantasy genre — damsel in distress, magic sword, horrible creatures, noble horse — by deconstructing them into near-abstraction. The landscape is barren. The main character never speaks, and his motivations are left vague. Shadow is a game that is almost purely focused on the specific pleasures of the medium — exploration, repetitive-yet-beautiful music, gorgeously terraformed level design, and visual problem-solving.
The problem is that Shadow of the Colossus remains kind of a curiosity. Its influence is mostly see nalong the margins, in short-but-sweet online flash games and the ever-fascinating offerings from the XBox Live Arcade (Braid, Limbo, From Dust). I think L.A. Noire was doomed to failure, for precisely the reason you mentioned: Videogames are trying too damn hard to be movies.
Adam: At least videogames are trying. You raise The Social Network as the one example of a high-grossing, character focused, non-visual-effects-driven feature film that was, you know, also really challenging and interesting and doing something sorta different and stuff. But it’s pretty much the only film from the last 18 months that meets all that criteria. (Also, you’re being a little tricky with that global box office figure: It grossed $96 million in the U.S., which is decent, but not blockbustery.) Meanwhile, in the last 18 months, you and I have played Portal 2, Mass Effect 2, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Heavy Rain, L.A. Noire, Red Dead Redemption, and BioShock 2. All of them attempted in ways big and small to do something different — sometimes successfully, some not so successfully, but at least there was the attempt. (Roger Ebert must hate my guts so much right now.)
By the way, I’m surprised that you haven’t brought up Christopher Nolan yet.