The Ryan Lambie column: when movie directors do video games

Steven Spielberg has a new game out this week. Ryan looks at other points where movie directors have crossed over with videogames, and comes up with some who should...

Boom-blox: Spielberg abandoning narrative for non-linear story?
This week sees the release of Steven Spielberg’s latest foray into the world of video games. Given that Spielberg is one of the biggest names in Hollywood, with some of the highest-grossing films of all time under his belt, does his video game carry the same pet themes so prevalent in his movies? It would appear not…  Boom Blox for the Nintendo Wii is a physics-based puzzle game which many reviewers have been quick to pigeonhole as ‘digital Jenga.’ The absent fathers, distinctive camera work and sentimentality, all Spielbergian trademarks, are curiously missing from what is a surprisingly uncinematic game.

It could be argued that video games are a natural progression for Spielberg, whose most recent films have occasionally felt like games themselves. Take, for example, the scene in the latest Indiana Jones film where Shia LaBeouf’s character swings from vine to vine through a jungle canopy. Not only was it one of the most jarringly obvious CGI sequences seen this year (and hardly the ‘visceral action stunts done the old-fashioned way’ the pre-publicity hype promised), it felt far more like a game than a film. Similarly, the ‘transforming temple’ sequence near the film’s conclusion felt like something borrowed from one of the Tomb Raider games – hugely ironic considering Lara Croft is essentially a female Indiana Jones.

Steven Spielberg isn’t the only Hollywood director who’s turned his hand to game creation – others have made the leap with varying degrees of success. Boyz N the Hood (and forthcoming A-Team movie) director John Singleton worked on Fear and Respect, a game which promised to be a gritty tale of gang warfare featuring the talents of Snoop Dogg, but was cancelled before anyone could play it.

Following the absolutely dire Paycheck movie, legendary Hong Kong director John Woo migrated to the digital realm with his videogame Stranglehold, which contains all the Woo-isms you’d expect – balletic violence in slow-mo, flapping doves and Chow Yun Fat with a gun in each fist. The critical response was mostly positive, though some reviewers rightly pointed out that Max Payne used John Woo’s ‘Heroic Bloodshed’ style to better effect.

Personally, I think more directors should try their hand at video games. I’d be extremely intrigued to play a Wes Anderson RPG – I’m sure he could come up with an array of dysfunctional characters to act as an antidote to all the boring barbarians and wizards more commonly found in the genre. Or how about an interactive body horror experience from David Cronenberg? I’d be the first to pre-order a copy of a decent Scanners game.

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If you wanted to get really silly, Uwe Boll could do a game based on a film based on a game. As absurd as it sounds, this has been attempted before – some of you may remember the abysmal Street Fighter: The Movie video game back in 1995.

The very notion that a movie director can inject so much of their trademark style and personality into a video game shows just how much the medium has evolved in recent years. As one person on an MTV discussion board cleverly pointed out, the closest a game could get to emulating Indiana Jones’ edge-of-the-seat thrills back in the early eighties was the simplistic Pitfall on the Atari 2600. Twenty or so years later, games have the capacity to excite and surprise us with an ease that equals (and often surpasses) movies themselves. Games may still be riding in cinema’s slipstream to a great extent, with concepts and storytelling techniques often blatantly stolen from movies, but we’re now at a point where the quality of CG in movies and games is almost indistinguishably similar. For the first time, directors are seeing games as a viable (and lucrative) story telling medium.

So while the simplistic Boom Blox doesn’t immediately leap out as a Spielberg title, his next, yet-to-be-titled project with EA (the second of three proposed games) just might. Details are sketchy at best, but a spokesman for the developer said the game would be about ‘building an emotive relationship at a story level and a gameplay level between the player and another character,’ and its ultimate aim would be to make the gamer cry. Whether Spielberg achieves this rather dubious ambition remains to be seen, but the very fact that eminent directors of Woo and Spielberg’s calibre are getting involved with game production is proof that the medium has come of age.

 Last week’s Ryan Lambie column is here.