In Media Res

Comparing the ascents of film, television, and video games, and where they stand now from the cultural perspective.

By: Samuel Sattin

Filed Under: Culture Editorial Life Movies Reflections Retro

I grew up on the cusp of the Nintendo Generation, when video games were just starting to become commonplace in the American household. Each of my friends, regardless of their economic strata, had a Nintendo, or some variation upon it in the late eighties. Unknowing test subjects and pioneers, we heralded the soon-to-explode future of a now recession-proof medium from our desiccated suburban plots on the Colorado prairie. We were 8-bit scions. Unsuspecting neophytes.

Once we latched on, it was impossible to let go.

Many of us remember what happened in those early years. Consoles began evolving like some Akira-spawned techno-beast, gestating Super Nintendos, Sega Genesis systems, or offshoots such as the Turbo Grafix-16 (which my parents rented for me one glorious weekend in the summer of 1991), from the grafts of their humble predecessors, as if evolutionary game-slime had emerged from cryogenic storage sleep beneath Neo-Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium and found itself incapable of constraining growth. This era was—it seems to me now—the one in which digital gaming reached beyond the purview of the arcade and became popularized, portable, and affordable. Considering the amount of silence parents could expect a console investment to garner, most were more than willing to dish out $149.99 (the rough modern equivalent of $277.00 in 1988) to keep their children from making a makeshift bomb in their backyard. At the time these games seemed fairly innocuous, anyway. The modified ancestors of Pinball, Pac Man, Defender, Galaga, capable only of distraction and little to nothing more.

Film in the 1980s by contrast—albeit not yet prorated by motion capture computer animation—could boast to have already grown into its own as an art form. Video games were still learning to walk, and thus simply ignored by the cultural elite. It would have been difficult to imagine video games being put on exhibit at MoMa in 1988, anyway, as they will be next month. The genre had not even begun to compete. Film, like literature, also underwent its own period of juvenilia in incipience, a period in which it was looked upon as kitschy and sensational by the artistic community at the time. But the common eye (the deciding factor in the long run), decided the medium was worthwhile, and proceeded to glue itself to recreations of life by way of a lens. Before long, film had become the most popular method of popular media consumption in Europe, the United States, and abroad. Now, the idea of even questioning the idea of whether movies can or cannot be considered art is anathema. Sure, plenty of gripe is expressed about rotting your head by watching too much television, but video games are still at the forefront of avoidance by those who consider themselves arbiters of aesthetic relevance. Especially since television has entered the golden age of HBO, Showtime, and AMC, amongst others, it has been rendered intelligent by publications as elite as the New Yorker.

One of the reasons for the slow uptake of not only video game enjoyment but also video game appreciation is that it’s the new art form on the block. For those of us who spend time following the industry, we know games teem with just as much image, concept, intrigue, and ambiguity as film can. Withstanding Indie titles such as Flower, Journey, Braid, and other games that test the construct of the genre in a way avant-garde artists—such as the Dadaists—did in the 1920s to the visual arts, video games have continued to evolve in both mainstream structure and narrative. They’ve been lent award-winning literary and cinematographic talent. They operate on the expectation of delivering a variety of elements, such as storytelling, visual appeal, and play. But still, they exist in a realm of appreciation similar to (or less than) comic books, which have been long-struggling to dig themselves out of ubiquity.

What’s interesting about this phenomenon is not merely the manner in which games have been ridiculed, being that all forms of art expression are ridiculed to begin with. What’s interesting is the rate in which games are maturing, and the ways in which they compare to other forms of entertainment. Though similar to film in their total reliance upon the visual, games have a different corollary for art. They have their own limits. Their own relevance. All of which are worth exploring.

One of the arguments I hear a lot for video games being ‘inferior’ to other forms of expression is that they exist purely for entertainment value. Of course, this idea is self-defeating at best. To begin with, every form of expression is a vessel for entertainment, entertainment whose complexity rises or falls depending on the character of the maker. Games simply take more flak for this because they are a little more blatant in their purpose. They are games after all. They don’t hide it. If you look at an annual release of popular films in the United States in particular in any given year, however, you’ll see a lot of similarities to titles being released on the PS3 or Xbox 360 every month. Films are geared towards provoking a visually arresting and worthwhile experience in the viewer, whether via an intergalactic space battle or domestic drama. They exist as a way to escape one’s mortal trappings for a brief while. Games occupy a similar space. If not the same space. So what are the real differences between the two, then? And why is one given so much more artistic relevance over the other?

The recent history of the digital medium aside, one of the biggest differences between games and film is, of course, the matter of time allocation. When it comes to a film, you’re committing an average of about two hours, as opposed to, with some games, up to 40 or 50. The amount of time you take to winnow your way through Borderlands 2, Skyrim, or Dark Souls is intimidating at best to someone with a 9 to 5 job and a family. Part of the chasm between gamers and film-aficionados, then, may very well be the amount of commitment required to enjoy each. It’s a relevant point. A game takes on average more time to play then a movie does to watch, or even a book does to read. As a piece of art, then, a curious, average-type gamer like myself must take care to choose a few titles per year, for fear of neglecting other responsibilities. This isn’t a negative thing. It’s a reality of a genre that thrives on maximizing competition. Shadow of the Colossus, one of the most moving games I ever played, took me a few months to finish. Am I glad that I did so? Of course—I’m doing the same thing right now with Borderlands 2. But time is hardly disposable. How to economize it continues to be a challenge for an industry whose expression is based on commitment to see an adventure through.

The above also plays into more obvious differences. With film, you simply don’t have the ability to change the course of the narrative. A film is removed from the individual when it comes to interaction. A viewer is capable of interpreting and/or absorbing a viewing experience to the point where he or she feels to be a part of it, but not of affecting the story’s itself. A video game’s success, however, is largely based upon player agency. If a player is pulled through an entire game without any ability to interact with his or her environment, then he or she might feel shortchanged. This is what happened with Final Fantasy XIII, anyway, a game Western critics found problematic for its narrow scope and lack of open world. A game cannot be passive in the same manner of a film. It is a piece of interactive technology. Whether cooperative, competitive, or a combination of the two, a game succeeds based on its ability to incorporate the player. A film, by comparison, refuses collaboration by those outside of the studio, and is possibly better off for it.

As discussed in an article I wrote for Kotaku, my personal prejudices and sense of shame concerning video games was shattered when I played Bioshock in graduate school, after a long sojourn from the genre. Games, or at least good games, in a way that is unique to any other genre, allows you to change the course of a story, to participate in it actively, to make your way through a complex and beautiful maze in order to reach the center. As a writer, this interests me immensely. The best of books, film, and visual art expect very much the same thing from whoever is on the receiving end of the product, but video games, they allow for user operation. They are still evolving in form, purpose, and value, but this digital genre has yet a lot to contribute.

Filed Under: Culture Editorial Life Movies Reflections Retro

About the Author:
Samuel Sattin's work has appeared in Salon Magazine, io9, Kotaku, The Good Men Project, The Cobalt Review, J Weekly, and Cent Magazine,among others. He acts as both Minister of Propaganda and Contributing Editor at The Weeklings, and his debut novel, LEAGUE OF SOMEBODIES, is being released by Dark Coast Press in April, 2013. He lives in Oakland, California, with his wife, a beagle, and a cat.

12 Responses to “In Media Res”

  1. Alexander Feigenbaum

    I like this as a summary, and I think the idea of length for games is an important one. In my experience, the games that are the most moving, or have the most emotional impact, tend not to be the 40+ hour long games. The three indie titles you mention earlier (Braid, Journey, Flower) are all less than 5 hours, as are Dear Esther and the just released Depression Quest. The Walking Dead took about 10 hours, but worked as five two-hour instalments.

    These experiences can be consumed in one uninterrupted sitting, and I think that greatly adds to their ability to connect with players on an emotional level.

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