Saturday, September 26, 2009

Why Video Games Are Making Films Obsolete (But Not Books)

I've never been a particularly big fan of movies. Sure, I have a few favorites from over the three and a half decades of my life, but I've also seen far less than your average person. Indeed, people are often shocked when they hear some of the movies I have not seen (included on that list: Akira, The Godfather, The Shawshank Redemption, The Princess Bride, The Goonies). Furthermore, most of the ones I have seen have been via television (in the forms of VHS, DVD or cable), whose tortured, senile death throes I have already discussed at length elsewhere on this blog.

The movie house, like the stage theater, is a dying space. Certainly it will always have its aficionados, but its usefulness as a provider of social memes and connecting experiences is decreasing every year. For starters, people have more options for experiencing film due to increased and increasing technological freedoms. No longer must the blockbuster movie come with the implied agreement of noisy audiences, gumshoe aisles, a ten-dollar ticket price and thirty minutes of commercials. Indeed, some filmmakers are now choosing to release DVD and online streaming version of their films concurrent with the "proper" theatrical release. The reasoning is simple: people want control of their media.

And that is exactly the reason why films are becoming obsolete, while their red-headed stepchild, video games, becomes more and more engaging. Films strip much of the control mechanism away from media by their very design. It's only now, faced with the extinction of their entire distribution network, that studios even allow for such alternate means of viewing experience. Films are passive, while video games (and, oddly enough, books, the precursor to film in the realm of narrative delivery) are interactive.

Wait, what? Did I just say that books are more interactive than films? I did. It's one of the many ways in which literature is superior to the cinema as a vessel for storytelling, and since you're clearly incredulous now, I'll explain why.

Books allow the reader control over the environment. When you read a book, you envision how the characters look based on the descriptions provided by the author. You envision how buildings, stretches of land, entire planets look via the author's cues -- but that is your envisioning. It's different from everyone else who reads the book. Until Lord of the Rings was a series of Peter Jackson films, no two people thought of Frodo as looking the same; of course, now that film has tainted our collective social consciousness, it's almost impossible to think of him as not looking like Elijah Wood. Film takes away your ability to create the environment for a narrative. (I've discussed that at length before, too.)

In contrast, a video game provides a fully-rendered environment, but gives you control of the action. In a video game, you control the character's path. The narrative is one that you provide yourself, choosing which direction to go next, which challenges to surmount. Many video games do indeed lead the player into a simplistic, linear path, but even those that do never play the game for you. Film does exactly that. In film, the viewer has neither control of the action nor the environment. The control mechanism is removed entirely, providing a purely passive experience.

Timing is another element of control that film robs from the viewer. In a book, you can linger on a page, a paragraph, or a sentence as long as you like, savoring the emotion of the moment that the words provide you. In a video game, you control the rate at which the character progresses, both in a literal and metaphorical sense; even games with a level timer do not ensure that you will use the exact amount of seconds to reach the end of the stage. But in film, timing is everything. Shots are timed to convey the performance required by the director. Cuts are editted to maximize the flow of the story by the producer. Films rarely escape the two-hour Golden Rule, which itself is timed so as not to risk conflicting with our biological clocks, since no one wants to go to the restroom in the middle of a film. Even the release of films is timed to meet up with summer movie habits or Oscar nominations; television does this too, with its tried-and-true "tune in next week" format to keep us coming back to the screen every week at the same hour.

All of these variables point to a very interesting trend: people are now deciding that they want control of their experiences. They no longer desire to be stuffed into a train car and taken, blindfolded, to their destination. They want to enjoy the journey; they want to conduct the train. This is exhibited in other forms of modern art as well, music being the immediate example. Mash-ups, covers and sampling have become commonplace. The line between producer and listener blurs more by the day. Bedroom composers create songs to rival the professionals; Jonathon Coulton, Owl City and Lady Wallace all have followings as large as any fly-by-night pop icon. Again, the reason is that technology is now so cheap and ubiquitous that the tools for anyone to become an auteur are readily available.

This points us to the other prevailing reason that film is going to die: it takes much more money to make a movie or a television show than it does to make a book or a video game. A-list stars, Redrock depth-of-field adapters, over-the-top CGI rendering, on-location site licensing, endless legions of producers and co-producers and executive producers -- all the things required to make a film add up to hundreds of millions of dollars. No book or video game has ever cost so much, though video games are getting close these days; Grand Theft Auto IV cost a whopping one hundred million to make, but that's an extreme exception, and on average a current generation console game costs about fifteen million, which is still nowhere near movie budgets. (For comparison, a hundred million in Hollywood will get you The Adventures of Pluto Nash.) Novels, it almost goes without saying, come nowhere near these costs; putting words on a page will set you back maybe a five thousand dollar investment.

What we have, then, is an entertainment industry which firstly costs more than any other to maintain, and secondly is no longer able to deliver the demands of its target audience. This is an equation for bankruptcy. Most damning of all is that the industry knows this; even Speilberg, Hollywood's messiah, is dumping buckets of money into exploring new options in 3D technology, just to keep his floundering artform fresh.

I do like film. I've gotten a number of grand experiences out of the medium of cinema. I can't, however, look the other way as that medium continues to vaunt itself as the arbiter of culture, when it is clear to me that its authority in such matters has become dubious and suspect.

Once, when I was visiting my mother, I found that her computer had a DVD playing program that would increase or decrease the speed of a film while keeping the audio the correct pitch; you could take a movie up to two hundred percent of its original speed without making the actors sound like chipmunks. Amused by the possibilities, I immediately decided to watch Star Wars Episode Two: Attack Of The Clones. At its normal speed, the bloated epic seemed merely forced and pompous; compressed to a single hour, however, it became a blistering onslaught of visual sensation akin to an acid trip. Lightsaber battles were resolved in a matter of seconds. Ponderous love scenes were now paced as frantic adolescent make-out sessions. Languorous dialogue became rapid-fire sarcasm. In truth, the movie was far more enjoyable than it had been in its official timing. But you'll never see it in the theater like that.