the artistry and psychology of gaming


Movies vs. the Video Games Part 1

Movies vs. the Video Games Part 1

Among all the mediums, video games have been compared to the movies more than any other. Many games have been called “cinematic” either as a praise or as a condemnation, and many games have been called interactive movies. Many link the great plots of the game, the increasing realism of video games, or even the plentiful cut scenes in a game as a sign of that game being “cinematic”. Many movies have been adapted to video games and most of these video games have been completely unsuccessful, or at times completely mediocre. There are few exceptions like Golden Eye 007 but generally, the best movie-based video games such as The Knights of the Old Republic do not follow the plot of the movies but the merely happen in the same universe. Likewise, a disastrous series of horrible films were made based on video games and they have achieved nothing but tainting the name of the great franchise they were based on. Hitman, Tekken, Resident Evil, Max Payne, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, are all a few names which come to mind. It seems that the relationship between video games and movies has produced only a little noteworthy offspring; and it has been unsuccessful as a whole.

What I’m saying is, this movie sucks.

I believe this comparison is completely false and superficial. In fact, video games and movies are very different mediums, and the gap between them is wider than any other two mediums. Adapting a video game to a movie or a movie to a video game is the hardest imaginable task, and none of the games praised or condemned for being cinematic are truly cinematic, as they would never translate into the language of cinema. Heavy Rain, Max Payne and Metal Gear Solid series are by no means cinematic and they are only worthy as a game.

This article aims to prove this point by illustrating the fundamental differences between the video games and movies. I will use as example games that are often called “cinematic”, and will point the differences between the games and movies as different mediums with different requirements.

This one sucks too.

However, before venturing to these differences, I might address an issue. The directors or vide game creators who usually adapt the games or the movies are talentless opportunists who only aim at financial gain and no artistic motive is behind their endeavor. These adaptations are somehow a guaranteed success and therefore they will not even try to create a decent, respectable product. The movies based on the games are mostly grossly inartistic, with horrible directing and casting and are enragingly unfaithful to their source material. The video game based on the movies are at times an interactive commercial, and rarely an effort is made for these video games as well. Most fans and critics focus on this aspect and blame the shameful career of adapting video games into movies on this. However, I’d like to point out that even a true artist with no intention but artistic adaptation will face many difficulties in adapting the games into movies and the reason is the fundamental opposition of these genres in their conventions, clichés, and artistic requirements.

Here are the differences:

1) You can’t adapt awesome gameplay

This is the most obvious reason of all. Most games we call great not because of anything related to their plot or story, but because of the experience we have while we play them. We wouldn’t enjoy watching our friends play these games, and therefore we don’t enjoy watching them adapted into a movie as well. This is quite clear and needs no further explanation, but I will present three examples here.

Super Mario Bros. is one of the best games ever made, and also it launched one of the most successful game franchises ever. No gamer can be called a gamer if s/he hasn’t tried Mario, and the games, whether made long ago or new, are immensely fun. Super Mario Bros. was one of the best platformers ever made and so is Super Mario Galaxy 2 which was made in 2010. However, none of these games have much of a story (yes, I mean RPG Marios as well) and therefore all their worth is simply based on their gameplay. Characters like Peach, Mario and Luigi are lovely mascots but can never be transported to a movie as they are simply that- mascots. For a game, such things are by no means detrimental as they are simply a feature of their style, but for a movie they are. A movie without developed characters and great story is simply junk. That’s why the 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie by Rocky Morton, Annabel Jankel and Roland Joffé is simply a disaster.

This won’t be half as fun when you just watch it.

As a second example I point to Hitman series. What makes those games so great? Well, the fact that you can devise the best plan to silently assassinate someone. You must move through every step of your plan cautiously and use your intelligence in every bit, and this results in awesome gameplay. The plot in these games is only an excuse to throw assassination after assassination and that’s fine. In a movie? No thank you. And as a third example I present to you all fighting games, in particular Tekken and Street Fighter. No, a good movie can’t consist of some people fighting each other from the beginning to the end, but a good gameplay can.

2) The video game characters grow on you in a way that movie characters never will.

Look at the above example. Why do we love characters like Mario, Agent 47, Nina Williams, or Cammy White? I don’t know. It must be related to our psychology as a gamer. All I know is, there’s a relationship between a gamer and the characters of a game which is personal and special and not based purely on their character development over the course of the game.

If you look at it these characters mean a lot to us. Some of them have been with us since childhood, and with all of them we share great memories of pure fun. They’re our fictional friends with only good memories, as we’ve accompanied them through harshest of times and best of times, and have enjoyed them all.

That’s……. part of the reason.

While this might happen in a TV series, it will never ever happen in a respectable movie. A movie director has only 20 minutes to make you self-identify with the characters or you’ll watch the rest of the movies feeling nothing. A movie either establishes great characters or fails.

And it’s impossible to translate those characters into movies. Mario will be unfunny stereotypical fat Italian and nothing more, because he doesn’t have the nostalgia and good memories supporting him in a movie. In a fighting game they’ll be empty humans kicking and appearing in impropriate clothes and nothing more.

3) The suspension of disbelief is far stronger while playing games than watching movies.

You have to remember that as a gamer, we are experiencing the game, but as a film watcher, we’re experiencing it. There’s a vast difference between these two experiences, as one is a lot more skeptical and alert and conscious, while the other is a lot more convincing. Even science fiction and fantasy movies are more realistic than realistic video games. Even while watching an action movie we will find it completely implausible if the actor is shot multiple times and continues fighting, even in fantasy films we’ll find it annoying if a person is healed by a pat on his shoulder from his friend. We’re able to put up with a lot while playing a game, and we’re never able to stomach these infidelities to reality while watching a film.

Suspension of disbelief is a term for explaining the how we accept the use of fantastic or non-realistic elements in literary works of fiction. Samuel Taylor Coleridge came up with the term, saying if a writer could instill a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative. Now the best way to achieve such a thing is by self identification with the narrative, as we rarely question what we experience first hand. Self identification is stronger in games and therefore games can be a lot more unrealistic, but when adapted into movies, they will lose their touch and appear crazy and bizarre. This is what happened when Mortal Kombat was adapted, and a Metal Gear Solid movie will have the same fate.

4) You can stomach a lot more sentimentalism while playing games.

This is closely related to the previous reason. Although an acceptable literary method in the 19th century, modern audience of art have come to despise sentimentalism and have considered it a demerit of a work of art. It is an overindulgence of emotion on the part of the literary work; and it’s usually used when it comes to love, or sad scenes. The goal of the artist is to make the audience cry, or move their emotions deeply.

In a movie, sentimentalism is best avoided or at least deemphasized, as it’s really hard to pull off in a way that it doesn’t annoy or offend the sophisticated film watcher. While watching a movie we don’t like to feel we’re being dictated how to feel, and we don’t like exaggerations. You can compare a bad romance movie to a great one. Compare Twilight to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (by Francis Ford Coppola). Both movies deal with a love affair concerning vampires and humans, but what separates the two and makes one a mediocre escapist teenage drama and the other a timeless masterpiece is the subtlety and discreetness of one and bombast approach of the other (I leave it to you to figure which is which).

But in video games such a thing is merely impossible. Video games spend the most time developing the story and not developing the characters while the whole time of a movie is spent developing the characters. A game has no place for gradual representation of emotions and hidden hints. If they fall in love, or if somebody important dies, you have to exaggerate it, or the message won’t be conveyed.

And this is completely normal and acceptable in a video game. The point is, the notion of realism is completely different when we talk about the games or the movies. We easily accept a sentimental scene in a game and we’re moved by it. Put the same scene in a movie and we start puking.

One of the best games of all times is Final Fantasy VII. And one of the best characters of all times is Aerith. We love her for her love affair with Zack and the complicated relationship with Cloud, and her (SPOILER ALERT!) death has moved us to tears. But guess what, only in a game. If Aerith was a character in a movie she would be an intolerable Mary Sue. Just as if the character of Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca was moved to a game she would look pale and unimportant.

If someone looks at you with those teary eyes in a film, you’ll only want to punch them.

5) Too much action will kill a movie.

So, have every thought exactly how many people do you kill each time that you play a video game? Have you considered how much action is in a game? And have you considered that if a tenth of that action was to be found in a movie, the movie would be an action flick, fun to watch, but of no artistic worth whatsoever? Imagine if Taxi Driver was edited in a way that Travis drove around town killing people for 90 minutes of the movie, or in Fight Club the fighting scenes were 105 minutes and the rest of the movie was summarized in 15 minutes.

Now we have a game like Max Payne. If I adapt that game into a movie minute by minute, what kind of a movie do we have? Well, a guy finds his wife and child dead, goes on vengeance. The rest of the movie is shooting scene after shooting scene while these scenes are accompanied by him lamenting on his hard life and exaggerated emotions. It would suck. At best, it would be a fun action flick, but Max Payne the game is not a fun action flick, it’s an invaluable work of art.

Can’t say that about this guy.

Again, we ignore the important aspect; video gaming (as a medium, as a genre itself) has very different requirements and conventions from movies. Fundamentally different. So different that if we compare them we see they are completely different worlds.

Now, I don’t have 5 reasons to consider video games and movies so fundamentally different, but 7. But that’s enough for this week on the Controller and the Lamp, tune in next week to read the second part of this article, as the two other reasons are more important than the ones mentioned in this one and require a lot of discussion.


  1. Excellent article! It’s interesting to think that the difference between movies and games can partially be explained just by how we perceive them. Keep up the good work.

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