What we needed was to seduce the curious. What we got was Triumph of the Will. Even at its best, Video Games: The Movie is a monotonous, cloyingly sweet film that soon shows its sour side once you take a long, hard look at it.
When the Kickstarter for Video Games: The Movie was first announced, its basic concept was so simple that it seemed almost impossible to screw up. Make a movie about video games, why we love them, and why those unfamiliar with them might want to try them out. Its creators would take on an ambassadorial job, sharing our love of the medium with people who didn’t yet understand it, through a medium that they already did understand. It was all so straightforward that the only surefire way to fail would be not to attempt any of those things. Unfortunately….
The resulting film could be likened to a student giving a PowerPoint presentation about protecting the environment. The student would begin by quoting Rachel Carson on the beauty of the natural world, then take a u-turn and immediately begin detailing the research he put into the project before stopping to clarify that he does not litter, and then to add that nobody in his family litters, either. He would then drone on, in a voice alternately boastful and hostile, about the various environmental restoration projects he took part in over the years, growing more and more nervous as he struggles to show more of his credentials, flashing certificates and medals of recognition, some of which are merely plastic participation medals. The presentation (and its presenter’s confidence) continues to deteriorate until the project eventually ends with him talking to himself about how, no, that one soda can wasn’t that big a deal, besides, he saw someone pick it up anyway and if he hadn’t I would’ve doubled back and picked it up myself honest he was just closer I’m a good person I’M A GOOD PERSON I AM A GOOD PERSON!!!
Out loud, where the whole class can hear him.
The students are dumbfounded. Several of them are concerned. At least a few of them feel sorry for the poor kid. This is the awkward child that Video Games: The Movie is like.
Curse of the Gamer Bubble
Now, don’t get me wrong, the movie was great. Or rather, I thought so. At first. That is to say that there’s a clear disparity between the way the film presents itself on the surface and the way it appears once you can see it for what it is.
To start with, Video Games: The Movie takes the viewer back and forth through the history of video games, from their beginnings in MIT computer labs to their cultural ubiquity today, while also talking about a variety of relevant topics including the evolution of gaming tech, storytelling, tournaments, online communities, the prospect of VR and, although briefly, violence. The resulting film is the kind of in-depth geek-out session my 13-year-old self would have drooled over.
But that said, I offer as a counterpoint a big SO WHAT? I was already way, way on board with videogames at that point. You wouldn’t need to convince me anything.
As for the people you do need to reel in? Well, let’s put it this way: I had to make a concerted effort to get out of my default state of mind and into the mindset of someone to whom all of this was unfamiliar. Once I managed to do so, however, I found it very difficult to stay awake.
And it’s not that the movie was “bland” per se, not in the least. I don’t know how much money the Kickstarter raised, but it must have been a lot, because production values were through the roof. Jeremy Snead supplemented the film’s aggressive cheerleading of the medium with stylishly animated infographics, reams of licensed gameplay footage set to twee music, and interviews from every major industry figurehead (and geek-positive celebrity) imaginable. The film even opened with a montage of classic games flashing by the screen for seconds at a time. I and the person I’d invited to view the film with me even challenged ourselves to see how many of the games we could recognize and identify, since they were displayed without even a name and a release year for context.
This is where the first of three major issues with the film begins to rear its ugly head. You see, we did catch all the references. It was fairly easy in fact. But could you imagine if we hadn’t? If we were unfamiliar enough with video games (or just not the walking encyclopedia the film seems to expect us to be) that few if any of these games were familiar or even recognizable? That is to say, if we were exactly the kind of people to whom the film was targeted?
Because if we were, I think that entire sequence would have fallen flat. In fact I think most of the film would have fallen flat, save for one section where Mikey Neumann of Gearbox Games talks about how the friends he made in the gaming community helped him recover from a stroke, sending a DS and a bunch of games to him as a surprisingly effective coping tool. Rundowns on the long march from 8-bit technology to 16-bit to 32-bit to the holodeck and beyond may be a great good time for the enthusiast or the fanatic, but not so much to those on the outside. Between the talk of games becoming like summer blockbusters and of motion capture and the struggles of trying to create a truly realistic face, it all felt too, you know, GAMERish. The filmmaker’s priorities felt very “Triple-A”, and the way his film tried to sell video games was eerily reminiscent of an E3 demonstration, often using much of the same language. And while it might work fine for us, who get all the references and who were born and bred in that environment, to others the film might as well have been in Chinese. Well, except for the members of the audience who do speak Chinese. For them it’s more like Pig Latin. (And yes, I suppose it is technically possible that a member of the audience may know both Chinese and Pig Latin, but that’s not the point.)
I couldn’t shake the feeling that the creators of the film just didn’t seem like they were able to look outside themselves for long enough to consider what other people might find enticing, or better yet, how many of these theoretically drool-worthy topics other people might not find enticing, or interesting, or even relevant to begin with.
*Armchair Director Mode Activates*
Even worse, all this collective fist-pumping did nothing to make video games any less mysterious to the audience. It would have been an infinitely better use of ink, battery power, and the audience’s time to try and come up with a set of metaphors that capture the way interactive narrative and kineasthetics (concepts both intangible and impossible to exactly reproduce in cinema) feel in a way that works for film, much like the Cosmic Calendar was used to wrap viewers heads around the inherently incomprehensible size of the universe’s lifespan in the classic science series Cosmos. But how would one describe the concept of how a game feels, also known as kineaesthetics or virtual sensation?
(^Now this is how you get a point across!)
Well, I would put it this way. There’s an old carnival trick called the “Rubber Hand Illusion”. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. The way the trick works is that the illusionist sits you at a table and places your hands on top of it. The illusionist then blocks one of your hands from view with a screen, and places a rubber hand on the side of the screen facing you, parallel to your other, visible hand. The space between the rubber hand and your shoulder is covered with a sheet, and as a result it looks as though the rubber hand is attached to your body.
But that’s not enough to make the trick work. In order to get your brain to adopt the rubber hand as an extention of its own body, the illusionist strokes your hand and the rubber hand with a paintbrush. Both hands are brushed in the same places, at the same speed, and at the same time. And because the sensory information (the brushing of your real, hidden hand) matches what you see (the brushing of the fake, rubber hand), your brain is tricked into adopting the rubber hand as its own, attributing the soft brushing sensation to the rubber hand.
That rubber hand is then slammed with a hammer, and I have yet to see an instance in which the participant doesn’t flinch.
Virtual sensation runs on the same principle. When you manipulate the controller by, say, pushing the d-pad right, something happens on screen like, say, an avatar moving to the right. And as these feedback cycles repeat themselves in tiny ways over and over again, the brain is once again conditioned into attributing the sensation to the image onscreen, adopting the avatar as an extension of its own body, just like the rubber hand.
And then we take the rubber hand and do this to it:
(^Turn the settings to 60fps for maximum effect.)
How do you think that would feel?
But the fact that no attempts were made to de-mystify the allure of gaming was made worse still by what the film did choose to talk about. The infographics I mentioned earlier took up a large part of the early section of the film, and for some reason all they droned on about was how popular video games were. Oh boy, X many households own 2 consoles on average! Oh golly, video games are popular with Y demographics and rake in Z billion dollars every year!
And look, I’m not saying this is the worst way you could have done it No, wait, yeah I am. Because the reaction most people are gonna have to that is “…Uh, good for you, I guess…but why should I care?”
That’s the second major issue I have with Video Games: The Movie. It gives viewers the statistics, the revenue, the celebrity endorsements, but it never gives them a reason to care. The metrics by which the film weighs the value of video games as a medium are so disgustingly shallow that it insults those of us who care about video games in any genuine way and have any genuinely meaningful personal stories we can share about them, something which the film sorely lacks and should have had more of.
Forget the actors and big shot game devs. Get more ordinary players. Give us the stories of that one urban legend you set out to investigate, that neat thing you discovered in the far edges of a gameworld, that one time you stepped into a competition and somehow wiped the floor with players twice your age despite their constant condescension, or that strange kid you met over a co-op arcade game and have been best friends with ever since. Give us that oh-so-strange story of the time you picked up a used copy of a life sim, and got a peek into the virtual life its previous owner had decided to make for herself, trying to piece together the details of this person’s real-life existence from what slips and clues she left behind, like an archaeologist examining ancient artifacts, a window into a world you would never be able to touch.
Give us that moment, any moment, when a game really, really resonated with you and what you were feeling like or going through at any time in your life.
I mean, for crying out loud, the least they could have done was given the viewer some suggestions for games to try!
But no, the film seems so much more interested in consoling its creators with images of its own success that it forgets that it’s supposed to be speaking to anyone, just like the hypothetical student. It was unearthly to watch, and it took a while until I realized just what I was looking at. I didn’t like it. I had unwittingly found myself staring into the dark side of the gamer psyche.
It Was So Sweet I Wanted to Vomit
The entire production reeked of desperation. “Like me!” It shrieked, showing viewers pictures of Steven Spielberg at an arcade cabinet and Michael Jackson at a gaming tournament. “Validate Meee!” it squealed, feeding us interview after interview and statistic after statistic confirming that no, gamers aren’t at all emotionally stunted adolescents, and that everyone “fits in” in geek culture, the age-old lie, straight from the mouth of one of the film’s few female speakers, you know, for added “””””””authenticity“””””””. “Video games are here, and they are here to stay” the film says, perhaps to amaze the viewers, perhaps to reassure itself.
There was something eerily confrontational about a particular section of the film, in which images of the e-sports tournament, being held up as an example of The Triumph of Gamer Culture (Roaring crowds and packed parking lots abounded) were juxtaposed with music from the band 7 Lions, the words “We’re Taking Over! We’re Taking Over!” repeating again and again. For an instant, the film dropped its charming, if smarmy, facade to tell the audience “and if you don’t like us, lie down quietly and meet your end.” It was jarring, to say the least, and it hinted that the filmmakers weren’t entirely at ease in their company, like they were still trying to compete with the audience they were supposed to be courting.
This was especially creepy once I realized that I recognized that kind of dialogue, that insecure, mildly confrontational way of talking about video games as if your continued enjoyment of them needed to be justified to some angry Jack Thompson in some definite, quantifiable way. I’ve seen so many gamers use it before. I’ll admit I’m not above it myself. It seems to be a reflex developed over years of being mistreated and ostracized.
The truth is that we are still pretty insecure, and for good reason, too. Many of our games are indulgent and problematic. Our relationship with corporate entities is extremely unhealthy. We have an awkward fetish for violence. Our grasp of sexuality is laughable. We’re lousy to women. Hell, we’re lousy to most people, statistically speaking.
(And all these get quietly brushed under the rug in VG:TM.)
On top of that, many of us can look back to a time when we were singled out and laughed at for being that one kid who spent too much time obsessing over video games (again, me.) And, faced with this reality, we can become desperate to justify our love of the medium not only to outsiders, but to ourselves. We struggle to convince ourselves that what were doing is worth being proud of by finding “objective” markers of value, like money, popularity, and prestige. Even artistic power is more often treated like a shiny badge we can flaunt around than respected as a worthwhile endeavor developers ought to invest any real time and effort into. There’s no denying it: We have a massive inferiority complex. And so we subconsciously make a movie that turns out to be one long stroke down the throbbing undershaft of the fragile gamer ego. I’m surprised to find myself surprised.
And then, somewhere in the world, a child pops Super Mario World into an old SNES for the first time. An ear-splitting smile forms on her face, and in that moment, all of our worries seem like a flat joke. We can ask ourselves over and over why we’re still here, but that’s just it: We are still here. Ultimately, the money we gross and the favor we gain will never be as important as the fact that we’ve been this kid more times than could possibly be attributed to coincidence. And it is in failing to understand this simple truth that the film makes its fatal miscalculation.
The creators of Video Games: The Movie would do well to remember that we don’t pick these games up and stay with them our whole lives for nothing. If video games were really so hopeless, they would have died with the ’80s. But they didn’t, and in a dark theater auditorium, a crowd of people have gathered to find out why. They’re curious.
And that’s the most important thing of all: They are curious. Jeremy Snead and his crew aren’t fighting anybody. The creators of the film seem to have forgotten one crucial thing about the folks in the theater seats: They chose to show up. This means that all the work of getting them to listen had already been done. From there they simply had to satisfy that curiosity, to engage the audience and see what would develop from that. They already had the audience’s attention. All they had to do now was keep it.
But alas, it seemed they weren’t even able to do that. Instead, they accomplished the impossible: They somehow managed to make video games sound boring. Worse, they made a film that would have enthralled my gamer friends but left my father unimpressed, and that’s not much of a result.
There’s this weird psychic current of self-loathing running through the ether of the gaming community, and we’re going to have to move past it if we want to make a good impression on anyone, because if we go into the fray with an adversarial mindset, it’s going to bleed into everything we do, including any and all gestures of goodwill. It will botch our attempts to build chemistry and rapport, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. It’s kind of like with dating that way. We get a bad rap for dating too. I’m not sure if that’s a coincidence.
Because at the end of the day, we can’t get these people to feel secure in liking these things if we don’t feel secure in loving them.
EDIT 11/7/2016 7:15 – Fixed a minor typo (missing word.)