Please stop comparing video games to movies

Heavy Rain

Many video games catch not only great commercial attention but remarkable critical attention as well. We have seen games like Heavy Rain, The Last of Us Part II, and even entries in the Metal Gear series described as fantastic interactive experiences, even heralded in the same way as Hollywood’s greatest films.

I would suggest that not only is this an unfair comparison but also a harmful one. Video games, by their very nature, are an intricately different medium and should be weighed against one another rather than another form of media.

The easiest parallel we have for this sort of faulty comparison is also one that has been around for quite some time: books to movies. We’ve heard, countless times, how often that “the book is better” when comparing movies to their source material. Books have more ability to go into direct detail, and they have more space to explore various plots and characters. No movie can ever cover everything a book does because of its limited length. What makes a good movie does not make for a good book.

We run into the same situation – even if the variables are different – when comparing a movie to a game. A game has an interactive component that a movie does not – Netflix’s experiment with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. A movie has a set amount of time that it targets to try to tell its story. It also has the advantage of better control over the writing, the lighting, and the camera work.

Video games have this in cutscenes. But for the majority of games, that sort of control is impossible. Video games do not aim for the same experience as a movie, and they shouldn’t either. We can have absolutely amazing experiences with games of any genre, yet a comparison to films will inevitably break down. It breaks down not just with the aforementioned camera and cinematography but also purely on the experience.

A film allows for long and detailed exposition. Plus, filmmakers have had over a century to hone their craft. Video games are at their strongest when they focus on their strengths: the gameplay, the engagement with the player. Rarely do cutscenes take center stage in a critically-acclaimed video game. Of course, there are games that manage both cutscenes and gameplay well. Again, though, this distinguishes the medium from films. It’s still interactive.

Various forms of media often get compared to one another. In the end, we look to the medium’s strengths. This is true for books, theater, movies, and now video games. But they should not attempt to be what they aren’t, nor should they be expected to be. Like any good medium, we should celebrate what makes video games unique rather than try to compare it to what it cannot be.

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3 Comments

  • Cliff says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more – let them do their own things, I say. I would be fine with games dropping the whole photo-realistic, cinematic-style thing for a while: how about going back to making sure that more video games are fun to play, and not spending so much time worrying about how they stack up to films?

  • GrimmyHendrix says:

    Yeaaaaah maybe people will stop doing that if games stop trying to be movies.
    Quantic Dreams’ games can barely be classified as games. Even David himself said they are like interactive movies and he wanted to be a movie director first. Also it doesn’t help that developers hire Hollywood actors for mocap and voice acting because they are good actors without realizing a good actor doesn’t make a good mocap or voice actor. One of the best performances in the last decade IMO is Melina Juergens. Heard of her? Probably not cause she only did 1 role and that was in Hellblade. Or The Order 1886 had black bars to make it more “movie like”.
    And with publishers like EA, Activision and Ubisoft, they are constantly talking about how cinematic and movie like their games are. I think if companies stopped trying to be like movies, people would compare them less to movies.

    • Kyle says:

      That’s a fair point. Companies definitely do try to make their games more like movies and market them as cinematic experiences. I think that Phillip’s central point is that there are pitfalls in making comparisons across mediums due to their unique strengths and limitations.

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