Why are videogames so heavily influenced by movies?

As Lost Planet 3 evokes memories of James Cameron's Aliens, Ryan wonders whether games will always be heavily influenced by movies...

If George Lucas hadn’t made Star Wars, Tomohiro Nishikado’s Space Invaders would probably have been a very different game. Part of that legendary 1978 coin-swallower’s creation myth is that, when Nishikado was still in the early stages of designing what would become Space Invaders, he’d initially cast tanks, planes or even cowboys in the role of the enemies at the top of the screen, before the global success of Star Wars prompted him to design some crab-like alien invaders to shoot at instead.

Space Invaders was but one early example of videogames taking influence from movies, and the two have been inextricably intertwined ever since. In the console explosion of the late 70s and early 1980s, we saw the first games based directly on movies appear on shelves: 1982’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was one of the earliest – and most infamous – examples, and while the quality of such tie-ins have been mixed to say the least, they’ve long since become a common and lucrative industry staple.

As games have evolved and grown into an artform of their own, they’ve continuously taken visual and story cues from movies. The influence of hit films such as Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom can be seen quite plainly in everything from early platformers like Rick Dangerous to Tomb Raider and the Uncharted series. The future world of Blade Runner has had a profound effect on games – a glance at the Deus Ex series or point-and-click adventures like Beneath A Steel Sky are proof enough of that.

This month, Lost Planet 3 comes out – just one new example of a game in thrall to James Cameron’s 1986 film, Aliens. Everything, from its Hadley’s Hope-like hub world to its body armour and clanking mecha, music and lighting owe a debt to Cameron’s film. It’s weird to think, in fact, that a film released more than 25 years ago is still freely referenced and borrowed from by modern game designers.

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It’s arguable, in fact, that a trinity of directors – Ridley Scott, James Cameron and Steven Spielberg – along with a number of other, less high-profile production designers and filmmakers, have been as vital to the look and feel of videogames as such industry lights as Shigeru Miyamoto, Peter Molyneux or Warren Spector. 

This isn’t to say that the influence of films on games is a one-way street. We’re beginning to see visual ideas creep from games back into movies on a fairly regular basis; for example, in a recent Empire podcast, director Neill Blomkamp openly admitted that the gravity-defying gun in his first feature District 9, which Sharlto Copley uses to fling a roasted pig through the air, was inspired by a similar firearm in Half-Life 2.

The lingering question, though, is why videogame designers still regularly draw inspiration from a relatively narrow band of genre cinema, particularly when it comes to science fiction. Variations on monsters inspired by HR Giger or Rob Bottin’s horrifying creations for 1982’s The Thing have been turning up in games for years, and still do: there’s a scene in Lost Planet 3 where the player’s assaulted by some scuttling, neck-grabbing critters closely modelled on the Alien franchise’s Facehuggers.

Through cut-scenes and voice-overs, videogames frequently aim to evoke the feeling of being in a movie, even though the mechanics of games are obviously as different as oil and water. Where movies are passive, allowing the viewer to forget about their own physicality for a moment and become transported into the predicament of a fictional character, games constantly demand input and choices from the player; in this respect, games aren’t like films at all, but more like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, or a museum exhibit where visitors are free to wander around and interact with the displays as the mood takes them.

The cut-scene has become such a familiar part of videogames that, unless they’re poorly employed or written, we seldom stop to question why they exist. We accept that, in a certain type of game in particular, the action will occasionally stop, and the player can sit back and watch as a snippet of story plays out on the screen. Some games may occasionally require the press of a button or two, but these are often to create the illusion of involvement.

Let me return to Lost Planet 3 again for a moment, since that game has the most eclectic and strange mixed bag of cut-scenes I’ve seen this year. Plenty of them further the plot in predictable yet perfectly decent ways – the story’s about human colonists on a Hoth-like alien ice planet, and a blue-collar mechanic who rushes around in a mech suit shooting creatures and collecting the glowing, energy-rich goo they leave behind. That character, Jim, is an easy-going, pleasant sort of chap, and a world away from the barking meat-heads more commonlt seen in the genre – and the cut-scenes usually do a good job of relating the character and heightening the danger he faces. 

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Some of the cut-scenes in Lost Planet 3, meanwhile, are really, really strange. In one, Jim’s wife tells us, in a rambling video message, about how she lost her favourite hat, searched the house for it, only to discover she’d been wearing it the whole time. In another, Jim tells us that his thermal suit doesn’t have to be dry-cleaned. In still another, he doesn’t say anything at all – he just sits in a weird vibrating chair and enjoys a cup of tea. It’s not clear whether these scenes are meant to provide extra incidental colour to the game, or whether they’re a sly parody of the concept of cut-scenes as a whole, but they’re a reminder that an unnecessary scene in a game can be just as distracting as one in a film.

There are plenty of examples, meanwhile, where cut-scenes have been extremely effective, and maybe even vital to a game’s success. Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series and The Last Of Us prove that it’s possible to tell a cinematic, exciting story in the midst of an equally compelling action game. Spec Ops: The Line held a disturbing, even powerful war story in its third-person shooter belly – a story which, like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness.

The reason for cinema’s influence over games – more so than, say, books, television or theatre – is perhaps threefold. First, there’s a crossover between the people who love movies like Aliens and those who make and play videogames, so it’s logical that games should reflect the sort of films that group of people enjoys. It’s probably also fair to say that films dominated 20th century popular culture at least as much as music, art or writing, so it’s understandable that films still inform the design and structure of a relatively new interactive medium.

The main reason, though, may be because we love to tell and be told stories. Videogames have always been divided into separate genres, but in the most part, there have long been games that are competitive, tax the brain, or tell a story – and occasionally, do all three things. Ever since Pac-Man introduced simple cut-scenes in 1980, game designers have sought to introduce an element of character and plot into their games, and the medium’s rapidly evolving to the point where the quality of scenes in games like Uncharted or Spec Ops: The Line are beginning to approach the drama of those in a Hollywood film.

Although games have changed and grown hugely since their earliest years back in the 1970s, the medium’s still in its formative stages. Designers are still tinkering with new control systems, whether it’s touch screens or the Oculus Rift VR headset. Movies are sure to remain an influence on game design and game storytelling for years yet, but it’s likely that, as technology continues to evolve and games continue to reinvent themselves, the two artforms will grow further and further apart.

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