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Camera-Eye, CG-Eye: Videogames and the “Cinematic”
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Camera-Eye, CG-Eye:
Videogames and the “Cinematic”

Iused to be good at games. I was good at the only Space Invaders machine in South London, in 1979. I was the first kid to have a ZX Spectrum in my school, in 1982. I published in the national games magazine Crash when I was seventeen. But since the age of eighteen and my first degree, I’ve concentrated on cinema. So this article comes from a film studies perspective; I’ve relied on game experts for many of my examples. Because I’m no longer good enough at games, I haven’t been able to play through to witness most of these scenes first-hand. I’ve had to watch them at a secondary remove, as records of other people’s achievement. That is, I’ve had to watch game scenes as films.

Of course, one of the reasons I focused on cinema is that you couldn’t study games academically in 1988. You couldn’t even take a degree solely in cinema: my degree was unusually progressive, offering fifty percent film and a token module in television. Since then, film studies has become higher status, moderately established, and respectable–on the middle-rung of the ladder between the academic study of television, games, and comics at one end, and literature at the other. By extension, complaints about the careless adaptation of Doom [End Page 122] (Andrej Bartkowiak, 2005) and Daredevil (Mark Steven Johnson, 2003) may rage across discussion boards but rarely make it beyond fan communities, whereas issues about the adaptation of Austen or Atonement ( Joe Wright, 2007) from their original literary texts are debated in broadsheet newspapers.

The “Videogame” Film

Because fidelity to the original is of low priority when porting from games to cinema, direct adaptations of videogames—with rare exceptions—have little in common with the aesthetics and conventions of the source material, and resemble the game primarily only in mise-en-scéne and costume design. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (Simon West, 2001), for instance, ignores the opportunity to re-create the player’s experience by having Lara “seen to die, even if only on one occasion, and then to be able to restart a sequence, game-style, for another attempt.” Its occasional references to the game-world constitute “insubstantial nods . . . rather than anything central to the structure or form of the film.”1

However, a more general conception of the “videogame-style film” can be established from references to diverse movies that incorporate game conventions while not adapting a specific game. On a broad aesthetic level, the term “video game” is used to connote spectacular, showy displays of effects at the expense of subtext and character, as in: Tony Scott’s bravura digital camerawork in Déja Vu (2006);2 the spectacle that overwhelms ideas in I, Robot (Alex Proyas, 2004);3 The Matrix’s emotionless, uninvolving stunts (Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999);4 the exhibition bouts between CGI monsters in King Kong (Peter Jackson, 2005);5 and the dense, detailed, but artificial action sequences of George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels (1999, 2002, 2005).6 More directly, critics and fans have identified specific videogame memes in films, such as the progression through levels, power-ups, and signature moves in Ong-Bak (Prachya Pinkaew, 2003),7 the “get all weapons” cheat code in The Matrix,8 and the platform-jumping in Attack of the Clones (George Lucas, 2002) droid factory. These are regarded as playful, knowing quotations and in-jokes along the lines of the Lara Croft “nods” or, in the latter case, as cynical cross-marketing through the placement of a scene that was immediately adapted to PlayStation and Xbox. [End Page 123]

Finally, “videogame” style in films suggests a certain form of narrative, based on the cycles of character-death and reset. Charles Ramirez Berg traces the “Tarantino effect” in recent cinema to the influence of postmodern resistance to master narratives, of hypertext links, and of videogames, which “repeatedly take players back to the same situations.”9 Similarly, Jeff Gordinier identifies the “PlayStation Generation” of twenty-first-century-filmmakers, who “mess with narrative in new ways [. . .] mess with time...