With the release of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and the highly visible presence of one Kevin Spacey, I want to take a minute to talk about an interesting trend in modern gaming; that is their seeming desire to be movies more than anything.
Take a second and do an experiment with me. Think about the best performance you’ve experienced in a game.
Was it Femshep in the Mass Effect Series? Joel and Ellie in the Last of Us? GLaDOS in Portal? The Luteces in Bioshock Infinite?
Whatever your pick was, I’d be willing to bet it wasn’t Patrick Stewart in The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. There might be some who enjoyed Liam Neeson’s overture in Fallout 3 but his absence through most of the game (along with spending part of it as a dog) hurts his chances. And who could forget the powerhouse performances of Idris Elba, William Fichtner and Timothy Olyphant in Modern Warfare 3? Well, everyone. 20 dollars if you can tell me their characters’ names, no checking IMDB!
The reason I’m belabouring this point is because there are truly great performances in video games and great voice actors that nobody knows the names of because a lot of headlines in the gaming industry follow the “look its Kevin Spacey!” archetype. Games developers, publishers and especially PR seem to believe that the concept of Hollywood star power carries over to video games. If you look at Call of Duty you could be forgiven for believing this is true, but it is more self-fulfilling prophecy than anything. The biggest games have the biggest budgets, so they pay for the biggest names, their games sell well and then Activision believes the biggest draw in Black Ops was Sam Worthington’s turn as an American soldier with an Austrailian accent.
The reason for this trend is, I believe, a self esteem issue on behalf of video games. When discussing games amongst ourselves we are happy to talk about how gaming is the biggest entertainment industry in the world, how Hollywood wishes they had our numbers. However because gaming can still be used as a punchline for jokes about nerds on late night talk shows we’re still looking to be legitimized by the public at large. Its the same reason that “cinematic” is one of the most commonly used adjectives when describing video games, those trying to sell video games dream about the mainstream appeal that movies have had for decades. If you can point at a game and say “look, Gary Oldman is in a video game” then maybe they are legit, maybe we can stop defending ourselves.
In my opinion, the cause behind this attitude is how fast gaming grew. Film grew from 1890 through the 20th century to become one of the dominant art forms in the world. Though there was pushback, conception of motion pictures as a curiosity, the legitimacy of the medium was proven decisively. Meanwhile gaming has grown significantly faster, taking the top spot in entertainment in a mere 40 years. The memory of games as a curiosity, as a toy is too fresh in peoples memories, children of today will understand what games are, and what they can do but there are many who simply don’t. Thats why we get interactive movie style games from Quantic Dream and thats why we load games up with Hollywood talent; to say “take us seriously!”.
Now I’m not saying we need to kick all Hollywood actors out of video games, Gary Oldman was actually excellent as Viktor Reznov, I’m just saying they don’t need to be our crutch. We have incredible voice and performance actors in the industry already and I find it a bit disheartening that this new digital Kevin Spacey receives more attention than a Jennifer Hale, Troy Baker or Simon Templeman. At the end of the day, games aren’t movies, we don’t throw massive names at the top of a poster and have the actors go on three month press tours; games are based on the experience.
In a recent interview with the Telegraph Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto remarked;
“These younger game creators, they want to be recognized,” he sighs. “They want to tell stories that will touch people’s hearts. And while I understand that desire, the trend worries me. It should be the experience, that is touching. What I strive for is to make the person playing the game the director. All I do is help them feel that, by playing, they’re creating something that only they could create.”
This I believe encapsulates the difference. Movies are storytelling, an audience sits down and experiences what you present them and the most important part is the actors themselves. Games contain stories, but they are more; they are acts and actions and experiences, creations unique unto the person holding the controller. It is folly to expect anyone to make the shift seamlessly and frankly I don’t know why we’re trying so hard. How much does the 5th movie star in your game add to the experience? Could the budget for Sean Bean have gone somewhere else? Somewhere better?
I’m not a game developer and I’m not an actor, maybe everyone of the actors I mentioned above were simply the best people for the job. Hollywood actors aren’t bad they’re just representative of a mistaken desire to be seen as legitimate, not just by gamers but the whole world. As long as we hope to gain that legitimacy via another industry, with clout by association I don’t believe we’re reaching our full potential. I look at gaming as an industry and I just wish we could see ourselves for what we are, not what we wish we were.
We’re not just movies with a controller in the viewers hand, we’re so much more.