Should we have been surprised to see the recent Act of Valor being marketed as if it were a video game? All its advertising—trailers, posters, television spots—essentially emulated the promotional materials of video games that shared its subject matter, like Call of Duty or Battlefield 3. Specifically Battlefield 3, in fact, for Act of Valor was even advertised alongside the successful game. Both Call of Duty and Battlefield have amassed a tremendous following, eclipsing the successes of many mainstream movies. It’s commonsensical to assume that Hollywood will soon glom onto such a lucrative gravy train, though to what extent studios will riff off such titles is unclear. Should we expect them to go the traditional licensed ‘video game movie’ route, or will games actually influence the direction of seemingly original works?
The result would likely be unfavorable given either outcome, though perhaps the latter is something for which we should actually express some concern. It would not be good if storytelling tropes from video games began seeping into films. Video games are very different from movies. This is an obvious and superficial statement, but I do feel the need to stress the noticeable distinctions between, say, an action flick and an action game, simply to illustrate the dramatic ways in which the two mediums are divergent, and to show why video game mechanics are completely incompatible with movies.
A game like Modern Warfare 3 is repetitive. It requires the player to complete the same cursory task for some six hours; in its case, slay a seemingly infinite and utterly immaterial number of enemy soldiers. Such a game is typically linear (it is a ‘ corridor shooter’); the player has no agency and is herded through the experience, doing what the game demands.
Die Hard contains none of those techniques. The action in Die Hard is limited with respect to the entire picture—there is significantly more talking than there is shooting. If one was to piece together a montage of all the fighting in Die Hard it would run for no more than fifteen minutes, and in its entirety Die Hard is a two-hour film. Its fifteen minutes of action are memorable because the four or five shootouts are the peaks on a satisfyingly erratic rollercoaster ride. The rest of the film is quiet, vacillating between dialogue and moments of complete silence and inactivity. (Famously, it takes twenty minutes to reach the first action scene.) Comparatively, the lowest points in Modern Warfare 3 are routine shootouts involving assault rifles and ten or twenty adversaries, and the high points are not too dissimilar from that. The video game rollercoaster is fairly uniform.
There are already a few instances where the noted video game mechanics have assimilated into film. The example that follows was highlighted by Shawn Elliott, once editor of the defunct Computer Gaming World/Games for Windows Magazine, now an employee of Irrational Games. Elliott related the impact video games had on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a picture he deemed “structurally and conceptually based on video games.” He cited the film’s monster closets and platforming sequences for support and placed emphasis on the film’s linearity.
Much like a corridor shooter, Crystal Skull only requires that its protagonists walk forward. They speed with abandon through a jungle, plunge off a cliff, navigate several waterfalls, and yet end up precisely where they need to be. Characters vanish only to reappear summarily in the right place (for instance, in the jungle chase sequence, Jones’ son gets separated, continues forward blindly, and is shortly reunited with his father). The film, per Elliott, lacks any sense of peril.
Lack of peril and the habituation of action—making action into something routine and mundane rather than scarce as in Die Hard—are both qualities present in video games. Since the demise of arcades and the Game Over screen, and with the now assured presence of the continue or restart from checkpoint option, death poses no significant hurdle in games, and the potential of actually being in danger seems lost. Death and peril is similarly trivial in Crystal Skull. The heroes escape from swarms of flesh eating ants, negotiate their way out of quicksand, reason with powerful, bulbous-headed extra-terrestrials, survive a number of chase sequences, and manage to defeat or eliminate hordes of Nazis, but never once do we really consider them in danger. We all know Jones will survive to see the credits roll, to hear the blasting horns in John Williams’ notorious theme. The riskless action in the film is so constant as to be numbing, and it certainly lacks the subtlety and the troughs and peaks of Die Hard’s rollercoaster. The Crystal Skull ride is plain and uniform—just like an action-focused game.
The result is something that isn’t filmic. And the same criticism applies to the recent The Adventures of Tintin, which critics charged had a surplus of action. The likes of the Michael Bay-helmed Transformers franchise also come to mind. What’s unclear is the way in which video game mechanics are fitting themselves into movies. Is Crystal Skull unconsciously (or perhaps deliberately) echoing video game mechanics, or is it simply a bad movie that stumbles in a way that echoes the tropes found in games?
In an effort to replicate the bombastic nature of the entertainment found in Call of Duty or Battlefield, action films have fattened up with special effects and action but have lost the muscle, the respectable narrative or at least the semblance of storytelling, that once made them legitimate marquee titles. Some pictures have employed this shift unapologetically. Battle: Los Angeles was clearly aimed at a gaming audience, an audience executives must picture as dullards seeking frenetic action. Even the film’s title—a three-word name literally composed of a synonym for ‘action’ and a location, as if we should await sequels named ‘Battle: New York’ or ‘Battle: Tokyo’ or ‘Battle: Helsinki’—epitomizes the ultimate in focus-grouped and board-roomed descriptive film naming.
It may be that the paths of the two distinct mediums converge noticeably when filmmakers attempt to make a product with the express goal of entertaining the audience. Fans of action films enjoy outlandish stunts, firefights, explosions. . . It’s easy to double down on what you perceive will make your film more popular. Rather than have 10% of the running time spent on action, why not double that figure? And then double that figure? So the logic runs. It is at that point that a film like Crystal Skull begins to physically resemble a game in its thirst for stunts. Most modern action games don’t even start quietly. Killzone 2 has its players land in the midst of a hot battlefield within five minutes of setting out, wasting no time on story or setting.
But the goal of a film should be different. It’s not possible to fill your movie to the brim with action while sustaining a real, meaningful story—to my mind no one has yet achieved that feat. The best genre pieces, be they action, thriller, or horror, generally feature little of what they are purported to be full of. At its core Die Hard is a picture about a shoeless man hiding in a skyscraper. And we can see the fruits of escalating that premise: Live Free or Die Hard has that same man, only much older, driving a truck on a freeway that is being shot out from under him by a Lockheed Martin fighter. The two are worlds apart in design, care, and most importantly, quality.
That kind of excessive reliance on action threatens to render the whole endeavor meaningless. To strip all meaning from the events on screen is to blunder irreconcilably. In trying to become ‘more entertaining,’ films like Crystal Skull and the fourth Die Hard are less engaging than the original films from which they derive. Crystal Skull is leagues less fun than Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Die Hard is in a class of its own, long distinguished from its sequels and, indeed, the overwhelming majority of action films. But you don’t blame video games for this recent trend. Rather, there appear to be individuals who miss what makes movies, those original action films, so popular. Nobody skips the first twenty minutes of exposition in Die Hard just to get to the bit where McClane jumps off the roof. That should mean something.