Thursday, July 1, 2010

Film and Games: Still Different, Still Art

The big news online for gamers today is that Roger Ebert will let us play on his lawn.  I respect the man, I and respect his willingness to say, "I shouldn't have said that."  He's right; a wise man (or blogger) knows when to shut his mouth and just listen, when the areas of one's expertise have been passed.  

There are a couple of key points in Ebert's own response, though, that show the flaws in his own argument.  He writes: "If you can go through 'every emotional journey available,' doesn't that devalue each and every one of them? Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices. If next time I have Romeo and Juliet go through the story naked and standing on their hands, would that be way cool, or what?"

That's a valid point, if it's the one you want to make.  (I would disagree, but that's irrelevant.)  But the game that touched off the whole firestorm was Flower.   

Flower is a narrative game.  There are no derivations.  You can choose whether to move clockwise or counterclockwise around a given area, and that's about it.  The game progresses through six distinct stages, with distinct and unchangeable goals in every stage.  There are no alternate endings; the game is entirely linear and tells a very specific emotional story.

The thing is, it's not the kind of story you could convey very well in a standard narrative film.  If it were to be film at all, it would have to be a 15-minute French art-film.  And even then, it wouldn't convey the emotions quite the same way.  The story of Flower is felt by the player, as you exuberantly ride the wind or duck wildly from a storm.  

The games that best fit the "art" mold are the games that use the meta-narrative of player control -- or lack thereof -- to add that extra dimension to the experience.  As a French art-film, Flower would bore the pants off the majority.  As a downloadable PSN game, it entranced players worldwide.

Similarly, there are talks of a Bioshock movie.  Leaving aside the entire seriously problematic genre of "video game adaptations," Bioshock is likely to suffer some of the same problems in a game-to-film transition that Flower would have.  To be sure, you have a human protagonist, which helps a great deal when making an effects blockbuster.

Verbinski is also on-target when saying the movie would have to be a "hard R."  Bioshock is a violent game, but not, generally, a gratuitously violent one.  (Though the player can choose, to a point, to be more or less so.)  But the pivotal scene of Bioshock must be shown in on-screen space.  The viewer absolutely cannot have the option to look away -- because what makes that scene work, in the game, is that the player has no option to look away.  The scene, which I have written about before, is made potent by a meta-narrative of control.  The game wrests control away from you and forces you to stand by, passively, and stare at a monstrosity of a cut-scene unfolding.  And there lies the emotional impact, the art and artistry, of the game.

In order for a film version of Bioshock to have any emotional impact, rather than being another zombie slug-fest, the creators of that film would have to work very hard to come up with something to fill the void left by taking any active control away from the viewer.  An entire film is, by its nature, passive and out of the spectator's control; that hole would likely be the failure point of such a movie.  For that failure point to exist, the interactivity itself must be a point of art.  And Roger Ebert would be a wiser man still if he would allow himself to see that.

No comments:

Post a Comment