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Chip off the old block: video games and the film industry have become a billion-dollar father-son act. Our resident industry observer Graham Leggat takes it to the next level

Graham Leggat

No longer merely a puerile distraction for maladjusted teens, video games are today a significant form of mass entertainment. More than half of all Americans play them regularly, and annual game industry revenues in the U.S. are around $11 billion. Three-quarters of this comes from software; the rest is from hardware sales. This $11 billion is frequently compared to Hollywood's $9 billion annual domestic box-office take, leading to the erroneous conclusion that the game industry is now bigger than the movie business. In fact, robust as it is, the game industry is a much smaller enterprise: a film's grosses are only the tip of the iceberg, with gobs more cash coming from ancillary sales and DVD. Three companies dominate the game industry: Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo, makers of the so-called next-generation consoles--the PlayStation2, Xbox, and GameCube, respectively--on which most games are now played. Models of vertical integration, these hardware giants also publish games. Not unlike the Hollywood majors, each develops and produces new titles via both in-house (or "first-party") development teams and outside companies, some of which are signed to exclusive deals. Of the few thousand games released each year, the majority are developed and published by these third-party companies. The largest is Electronic Arts, which publishes nearly a quarter of all releases, including bestselling sports titles Madden NFL (89-) and NSA Street (02-) as well as such blockbuster franchises as The Sims (00-), The Lord of the Rings (02-), James Bond 007 (01-), Need for Speed (95-), Medal of Honor (99-), and more.

Like the movie business, the game industry has its calendar and seasons. It dumps its trash in the first two months of the year. It holds its Cannes--the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3)--each May in Los Angeles. And from Thanksgiving to Christmas it floods the marketplace with truckloads of product and spends hundreds of millions of dollars on marketing and advertising to attract both paying customers and year-end awards. (The major distinction between the two industries comes during high summer, when relatively few, and usually more modest, games are published.)

As with movies, the cost of making and marketing games has skyrocketed in recent years. According to Variety, in 2001 the average production cost was $5 million, while marketing added another $2 million. Today, as the game industry follows the film industry in becoming increasingly hit-driven, the average budget over a game's two-year development cycle is $15 million, with marketing upping the total to $25 million. As a result, there is a Hollywood-like trend toward "safer" titles: annual revised editions, sequels, and licensed products.

Beyond the mainstream there are numerous small game development companies attempting to break through with more or less singular visions, and tight groups of PC garners, influenced by hacker culture, who modify source code to produce original and sometimes brilliant variations on existing games. And there are independent designers making simple but often artful games for mobile phones and websites. But there is as yet no game-making analogue to the indie film scene. Nor, unsurprisingly, given that video games surfaced as a legitimate medium only in the early Eighties, has there been a game-world equivalent of neorealism, the Nouvelle Vague, or Dogme 95.

The game world has, however, produced a pantheon of titans--producers, designers, and programmers not unlike, say, Porter, Melies, and Griffith, whose strokes of genius or signature styles have shaped the medium, minted genres, and forever changed the industry. The list begins with Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of some of the most venerable and best-loved titles in the world, including the numerous editions of Mario (83-), Donkey Kong (81-), and Zelda (86-). Miyamoto's so-called hop-n-bop or "platforming" titles, which marry fairy-tale whimsy with heroic adventure, are the foundation on which the industry is built, and each new iteration--like this fall's Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door--breaks new ground.

There are two other Japanese game gods: Yu Suzuki, creator of Virtua Fighter (93-), which brought new finesse to the martial-arts beat-'em-up genre; and self-confessed "movie nut" Hideo Kojima, father of the cult Metal Gear series (87-), which helped codify and popularize the stealth-espionage techniques that now appear in many action/adventure games and find their apotheosis in Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell (02-). Influenced by anime, Metal Gear, along with the Final Fantasy franchise (90-) set new standards for the full-motion video cut scenes--interstitial animated movies--that most games employ to set up and advance their narratives. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (01) and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake-Eater (04), in particular, are games that you watch as much as play.

The polygon world's Mt. Olympus also includes several Americans, most notably John Carmack and Will Wright. Founder and head of id Software, Carmack created (with John Romero) the blindingly fast, ultraviolent Quake (96-) and Doom (93-) franchises, almost single-handedly inventing the run-and-gun first-person shooter, online "clan warfare," and, through the release of the game's source code, the "game-modding" underground. Wright is the deviser of The Sims, in which players control the minutiae of the everyday, near-real-time lives of characters, neighborhoods, and cities. At once extraordinarily complex and stunningly banal, this peerless game has inspired numerous community-building, relationship, and simulation titles.

The Sims might never have been conceived had Englishman Peter Molyneux not made the first "God game," Populous (89), which allows players to control the lives of its many characters. Molyneux returned 12 years later with another masterstroke, Black and White (01), and has released two superb new titles this fall, Fable and The Movies. Meanwhile, in sunny Scotland, the maverick team at Rockstar North has been skillfully retooling the industry with the amoral and open-ended urban crime games Grand Theft Auto 3 (01), GTA: Vice City (03), and the revelatory GTA: San Andreas (04).

Still in its infancy, the medium is in the process of inventing and reinventing its grammar and language. Though it boasts its share of singular, unclassifiable games--Katamari Damam (04), for example, in which you roll a sticky ball around a city picking up enough clutter to make a "star," which your father, the King of the Universe, then affixes in the heavens--most titles fall squarely into familiar genres: horror, sci-fi, adventure, crime, fantasy, sports, music, racing, or war games.

Though there are endless variations and mutations within each category most titles circle ad infinitum over the same ground. MIT theoretician Henry Jenkins likens video games today to the cinema circa 1910, "when it was locked into the chase film," and game designer Frank Lantz sees "endless racks of adolescent power fantasies, witless cartoon characters, and literal-minded sports simulations." Nevertheless, more and more critics and media studies scholars, like those contributing to the online journal Game Studies or such anthologies as The Video Game Theory Reader (Routledge, 03) and ScreenPlay: cinema/video-games/interfaces (Wallflower, 03), my exploring games as endlessly tantalizing texts--"complex networks in desire and pleasure, anxiety and release, wonder and knowledge," as Lantz, in a sunnier mood, wrote in the foreword to Katie Salen and Erie Zimmerman's landmark Rules of Play (MIT, 03).

Though games lag light-years behind cinema in narrative depth, the technological links between the two forms proliferate. Hardly a week goes by without some substantial advance in gaming's high-end arsenal of digital tools and techniques, including motion capture and 3-D character-modeling; speed and lighting effects; directional and ambient sound; modifiable architectural and landscape design; real-world physics and handling; texture mapping of environments, clothing, and objects; artificial intelligence, or the smart coded behavior of non-playable characters; persistent worlds, etc. All of these are used to render realistic and convincing characters and environments in real time. In the technological sphere, since they use ninny of the same tools, the game and film industries are not merely converging, they are co-evolving.

There is also an increasing crossover of talent and influence between the two industries. Games often employ Hollywood actors, both as a selling point and for authenticity and dramatic effect. Michael Madsen has found a second career playing hard-asses on both sides of the law in GTA: Vice City and Driv3r (04), which also features the voices of Miekey Rourke, Iggy Pop, and Michelle Rodriguez. (Crossing back, Madsen and Rodriguez will star in the upcoming film adaptation of Majesco's grisly BloodRayne games (02/04)--whose eponymous heroine is a Nazi-killing vampire.) Most of the Lord of the Rings cast voice their game-world counterparts in EA's fine adaptations of Peter Jackson's film trilogy. Jet Li's voice, likeness, and fighting styles are central to the cop-out-of-water tale Rise to Honor (03), while Vin Diesel delivers, and co-wrote, the lines of a pre-Pitch Black Riddick in Escape from Butcher Bay (04), which his company co-produced.

The migration of movie talent extends beyond voicing. Hollywood cinematographers and lighting, production, and sound designers are increasingly lending their skills to games, helping, for example, to produce the visual and acoustic signifiers of screaming nitrous acceleration in Need for Speed Underground (03) and its recent sequel, N4SU2. Monster-making legend Stan Winston modeled the creatures for the prison-house Grand Guignol The Suffering (04). Ridley Scott Studios produced three live-action shorts that served as the key online promotional materials for Driv3r. Mark Lasoff, a digital FX guy on Apollo 13 and an Oscar-winner for Titanic, now art-directs EA's blockbuster WWII Medal of Honor franchise, which also has a contract with writer-director John Milius. And so on.

There are also striking examples of visual and narrative styles, tropes, and structuring devices derived from games in recent films--beyond the obvious citations of Alien vs. Predator and Resident Evil: Apocalypse. The fraught exploration and zombie killing of 28 Days Later, not to mention its supermarket "power-up" scene, recall many survival-horror games. The try-try-try-again format and coin-collecting conceit of Tom Tykwer's 1998 pop hit Run Lola Run resemble, in the abstract, platformers like Mario. The action in Spy Kids 3-D, at one end of the spectrum, and Mamoru Oshii's 2001 art-house sci-fi film Avalon, at the other, takes place literally within video games. And numerous setpieces in the Kill Bill and Matrix films--die delirious boss battle between Neo and Agent Smith's endlessly spawning doppelganger army in Reloaded; Urea Thurman and Lucy Liu's bloody battle in a snowy, moonlit Japanese garden in Kill Bill Vol. 1--borrow as much from fighting games as from martial-arts films. The dojo scene in The Matrix resembles nothing so much as the training modes in Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance (02) or Virtua Fighter (02).

Just about everything video games know about visual language and narrative was learned from the movies (and, to some extent, television)--from camera angles to cuts and dissolves, from the deployment of original music to mise-en-scene. The Getaway (03) and The Getaway: Black Monday (04), from Sony's London development studio, are cast and scripted to explicitly reference iconic English gangster films like Get Carter and The Long Good Friday. The eerie locations and sexualized cuties-in-distress of Japanese cult-favorite Fatal Frame: Crimson Butterfly (02) look and feel like a J-horror pic. The Max Payne and Dead to Rights series, as well as James Cameron's worthless Dark Angel (02), appropriate The Matrix's signature bullet-time device. And, but for its leprous sand zombies, Ubisoft's award-winning Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (03), with its fluid animation, distinctive art design, and sublimated desire between a roguish boy-prince and his feisty exotic love interest, would fit seamlessly into the Disney catalog. In sum, very few cinematic stones have been left unturned. Case in point: last year Rockstar North's dismal Manhunt lifted its central visual and narrative tropes from the apocryphal snuff film of popular imagination.

With the exception of Paul W.S. Anderson, director of Mortal Kombat (95), Resident Evil (02), and Alien vs. Predator, and possibly the Wachowski Brothers, who wrote, shot dedicated footage for, and approved every conceptual detail of that best-selling pile of crap Enter the Matrix (03), few filmmakers seem to aspire to make movies that resemble games. And yet players, developers, and publishers, for their part, are unabashed about their love affair with film and its aesthetics. Their Holy Grail is the "lived movie," something that would combine the immersiveness of cinema and the vigorous interactivity of the video game. Cinema's scrappy stepchild, the game world is as Oedipal as it gets, constantly competing with an idealized phantasmic father lot the love and attention of the mass market, yet never truly believing that it enjoys or deserves it.

Ironically and almost miraculously, the game industry's juvenile-industrial compulsion to please its public, to make games that are as engaging and immersive as films, has produced, primarily via the Internet, a deep and seemingly genuine dialogue between game players and industry pros. There is no other dominant commercial entertainment industry in which the same progressive ecology of like minds and avid yet productive sharing of information and rigorous detailed opinion can he found. For the most part, game developers and publishers behave as if they depend on garners not merely to consume but indeed to improve their products from one iteration to the next-a far cry from Hollywood's relationship to its audience.

Where this almost utopian sense of community comes from I don't know. It may be a function of gaming's roots in the wallflower meritocracies of hacker or geek culture. It may be the naturally evolved ethos of a business that innovates on a quarterly basis. It may be an artifact of a new and truly digital medium, or of one that is vigorously interactive. Or a generational shift manifesting itself via evolving socio-industrial dynamics--in which case you'd probably want to rope in the far-reaching democratizing influence of the Web. My guess is that it's the irresistible, robust, and magnetic vitality of a youthful form feeling its strength as it comes of age.

Graham Leggat works for the Film Society of Lincoln Center and is the game columnist for the New York Daily News and Filmmaker magazine and the editor of the Journal of Temporary Art.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Film Society of Lincoln Center
COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group





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