Are games worth watching instead of playing? Maddy Myers looks at the rise of cinematic narratives in games.
Have you seen the movie The Last of Us? You can watch it in full on YouTube; it’s about two hours long. Comments describe it as “one of the best movies I’ve ever seen” and say the work “has more heart and talent than 99.9% of the shit Hollywood puts out.” That’s because Hollywood didn’t put out The Last of Us at all—a videogame studio did.
Several users have edited together The Last of Us cutscenes and gameplay footage to make it resemble a film instead of a game; a simple search for “The Last of Us movie” will provide various interpretations. Dozens of other “cinematic” videogames from the past few years have gotten the same YouTube treatment, complete with the inclusion of the word “movie” in the YouTube title. Bioshock Infinite, the Tomb Raider reboot, Remember Me, and countless other games can be experienced without a controller… and without any of gameplay sequences included, either.
One user who had edited together a film version of Bioshock: Infinite explained that “the idea while recording was to really try to ‘become’ Booker and move/look around as he would”. This user had also gone out of their way to edit out all game-related footage in the game, including subtitles, health bars, pop-ups about gameplay mechanics, and so on. And yet, no one seemed to be angry that this user (or any of the others) had missed the point of the game—which is, presumably, to play it.
All of these “movie” editors will, sooner or later, likely be asked to remove these videos due to copyright claims, which is too bad, since these “movies” provide a good reference point for critics or fans who want to cite scenes or look back at a favorite story without having to do the work of replaying the game.
Yes, I just used the word “work” to describe a 15-hour game like The Last of Us. It’s a game, so it’s meant to feel like “play”, but The Last of Us does not want you to settle down and feel comfortable. The journey feels instead like a miserable slog punctuated by moments of high anxiety—as well it should. It’s set in the middle of a god-damned zombie apocalypse. That sensation of stress and collecting what you need to survive and barely making it is not a pleasant feeling, per se, and it’s not meant to be pleasant, either. But what if you already felt that feeling of living in a high-stakes Hollywood action film for fifteen hours, and now you just want to … well, sit back and watch that movie?
I find these “movies” to be a surprising counterpart to a common gripe I hear uttered by self-described hardcore gamers: “I just want to talk about gameplay, I don’t care about all of this other stuff.” I wonder how many of these people end up going back and watching Let’s Plays and “movies” of their favorite games, to relive an echo of what we ideally should recall as a stressful but rewarding virtual experience.
These recuts of games also seem like an unusual sidebar for complaints and/or celebrations that high-budget adventure games have become progressively more cinematic in recent years. This year’s crop—The Last of Us, Tomb Raider, Bioshock Infinite, and Remember Me—all included lengthy cut-scenes, as well as hand-holding portions that take the player on a guided path through a laid out series of striking visual set-pieces. The yellow brick road has been a stunning one, in all cases, but it has always been a road without detours or alternate routes.
I find myself praising these games for being “cinematic” and then condemning the environments for not being “interactive” enough in the same breath—not to mention that, in these games, I often found myself questioning the length of combat sequences. Did they add in these extra enemies just to pad out the time on my save clock? Did they feel like their “movie” wasn’t “gamey” enough?
Of the four titles I’ve cited, Remember Me has had the least critical acclaim and has sold the least copies—and yet, of those four, it’s the game I’ve thought about the most since playing it. Even though Remember Me suffered from a multitude of problems, from shoddy combat to fenced-in platform sequences, I still believe the game’s memory hacking sequences to be an important touchstone when it comes to rethinking cut-scenes, interactivity, and the dual sensations of “watching” and “playing” a game.
At first, I thought the best way to improve Remember Me would be to polish up the combat, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that what I really wanted was for Remember Me to showcase what Nilin excels at: hacking memories. I found Nilin’s talent for these hacks to be even more disturbing than Lara, Booker and Joel’s penchant for murder in their respective games. The most arresting aspect of Remember Me from a narrative and a gameplay perspective is the memory hacking—and yet, most of the game revolves around Nilin performing hand-to-hand combat, as opposed to mental gymnastics.
So, why isn’t Remember Me a stealth platform game with a bigger focus on the memory hack sequences? Is it because these hacking sequences do not include enough of a “skill component”? Perhaps I’m out of touch with what people who “love gameplay” really want, given my appreciation of role-playing, but I’m pretty sure that no one enjoyed Remember Me’s fighting mechanics. I just also don’t think that making that combat slicker would’ve made for a more coherent game overall.
No YouTube “movie” of Remember Me has attempted to edit out the memory remix sections of the game, even though these sections are too tied up in interactivity to make sense as a film. While watching these “movies”, I felt like I wanted to jump in and click on items myself, to slip back into the head of the game’s protagonist, Nilin the memory hacker. The experience felt less like watching a story unfold and more like, well, watching someone play a game. Some of these videogame “movie” adaptations make that sensation more obvious than others, and it’s not just because of the editing job—it depends on how interactive the videogame actually is.
If you are watching a cut-scene and not participating, or only participating by pressing a button occasionally, then are you still “playing”? The “play” part, for me, involves role-playing as your character. Whether I am still “playing” relies on not only my ability to self-insert into the game, but also, whether or not the game invites me in.
Throughout exploring each of these YouTube “movies” and thinking back on my gameplay experiences, as well as watching these other users’ own interpretations of how Booker or Lara or anyone else would look around and explore in-game, I kept thinking back to Darius Kazemi’s “Fuck Videogames” essay, in which he writes, “Let’s say you have a thing you want to express or an idea you want to explore. Maybe it’s best explored with a game. Or maybe it fucking isn’t.”. I also kept thinking about how Bioshock Infinite’s lead writer, Ken Levine, has just entered the world of film by agreeing to write a Logan’s Run remake for Warner Brothers. Would any of these games have been better if they hadn’t been games at all?
I don’t know whether I would have liked the movie version of Bioshock Infinite very much, but I admit, shooting guy after guy after guy did take away from my overall enjoyment of the game. Killing began to feel less like a grand moral quandary and more like swatting flies. But that doesn’t mean I think the game should have been a movie—on the contrary, I wished that the gameplay had better served the game’s overall tone (some critics call this problem “ludonarrative dissonance,” and I am not the first person to talk about this with respect to a Bioshock game). Even Levine admitted the difficulty of negotiating these aspects of the game in a Kotaku interview, in which he stressed his belief that games must include a “skill component”—which, in Infinite, ended up being target practice.
I question why “watching” and “doing” must be always at odds in games, though, since Remember Me managed to find a workaround. I am always watching a game as I play, so the question becomes one of participation. Do I feel involved? Including a “skill component” seems less important to me than ensuring my involvement in some form. Some “skill components” in games have the effect of making me feel less involved—especially when I am asked to repeat tasks to the point of absurdity.
Figuring out how to include a “skill component” in a videogame seems mandatory to appeal to people who allege to “only care about gameplay”, and yet developers must find gameplay that won’t alienate or bore people so much that they never finish the game in question. Perhaps game companies care more about getting players to buy their game and do not care whether anyone finishes it, although I doubt the designers of The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, Tomb Raider or Remember Me would have bothered to create such climactic ending sequences if their creators didn’t care about anyone completing them.
I could just watch those endings on YouTube for free, of course. And yet, still, I prefer to do “the work” of playing. Perhaps it’s because I don’t think any of these narratives hold up without the added sensation of playing in them. Or perhaps I just feel guilty for sitting idly by and not holding my own during the downfall of humanity. I have to do something—it’s just a matter of whether or not the videogame will let me.
Maddy Myers writes the biweekly Hyper Mode column for Paste Magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Kill Screen and at the Border House. She also blogs at her personal website Metroidpolitan and tweets @samusclone.