Forty years ago, a series of mysterious objects appeared in bars across America. These brown, wood-effect cabinets were home to Pong, a crude simulation of tennis that played out on flickering black-and-white screens. Like the dark monoliths of 2001: A Space Odyssey, these blocks of chipboard ushered in a new cultural era: that of videogames.
The game industry’s growth since 1972 has been stratospheric, and something that was once regarded as a strange, passing fad has grown into a lucrative strand of popular culture.
It’s easy to see the effect that movies have had on the evolution of games. When creating what would become the seminal Space Invaders, designer Tomohiro Nishikado was inspired to switch tanks and planes for aliens after reading a magazine article about Star Wars. His invaders, meanwhile, were partly inspired by the Martians in the 1953 adaptation of The War Of The Worlds.
Along with Star Wars, classic films such as Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Blade Runner and Aliens have all had a clear influence on game designers over the past 30 years. There are obvious parallels between Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft and Indiana Jones, for example, while the influence of Aliens can be seen in games such as Contra, Halo and Gears Of War. But as videogames have themselves grown in popularity and influence, we’re beginning to see filmmakers take inspiration from the medium. Movies may have inspired videogames for years, but it seems that this transaction isn’t a one-way street.
Of course, Hollywood was quick to hop on the videogame craze, with Tron (1982) and WarGames (1983) and The Last Starfighter (1984) arriving around the peak of the medium’s first golden age. Really, though, those movies weren’t influenced by the look and conventions of videogames, but merely used them as a topic for fairly traditional fantasy adventures (or high-tech thriller, in the case of WarGames).
It’s only over the last decade or so, particularly with the increased use of CG in films, that the influence of videogames has become more apparent. The Matrix’s virtual environments and outlandish violence appear to owe a certain debt to games, as well as anime and the wire-fu of Hong Kong cinema. It was perhaps the first film that tried to emulate the hectic thrill-ride of a particular type of videogame – all action and extraordinary, physics-defying athleticism.
For an example of a rather more subtle example of videogames influencing filmmaking, take a look at Alfonso Cuaron’s Children Of Men. A bleak, intense and stark sci-fi film, it’s story is told from the perspective of Theo, played by Clive Owen. Cuaron’s approach to shooting Children Of Men – handheld cameras, long takes – has been described as being like a documentary, but it also looks, at times, uncannily like a third-person action game.
In several key scenes, the camera lingers somewhere over Theo’s shoulder, tracking his movements as chaos erupts all around him. Some have also pointed out similarities between Children Of Men’s production design and Half-Life 2’s gloomy vision of the future.
Last year, director Joe Cornish was quite open about the way videogames had influenced his debut feature, Attack The Block. In an interview with Official Nintendo Magazine, Cornish revealed that the look of the film’s distinctive aliens, with their jet-black silhouettes and luminous teeth, was taken from the classic Another World.
“The monsters were kind of inspired by a SNES game called Another World, which was one of the first games to use motion capture,” Cornish said. “It had some terrific creatures that were made out of silhouettes.”
The idea of staging Attack The Block’s events in a single location was something else that, Cornish maintains, came from the realm of videogames. It was, he said, a “unified space”– something commonly seen in first-person shooters.
“There was a level in Perfect Dark set in a tower block that I used to love,” Cornish said. “And there were a lot of instances in GoldenEye 007 on the N64 where you had one location. It’s something that first-person shooters do well, and some movies do well, where you have one environment and you turn it into a playground. You reinvent these otherwise banal places as an action-adventure environment.”
What’s significant about Cornish’s eagerness to discuss his influences is that, although videogames are clearly having a growing impact film, so few directors openly talk about it. This is due in part, perhaps, to the mainstream media’s apparent distrust of videogames as a whole – although positive news stories about the medium are sometimes reported, stories about violent games and their impact on behaviour are far more common. And when movies like Transformers appear in cinemas, with their reliance on CG triggering cries of “It looks like a videogame!” from critics, it’s perhaps unsurprising that some filmmakers don’t talk openly about the influence of games on their work.
It seems to be the younger generation of filmmakers, including Joe Cornish and Edgar Wright, who are keen to openly reference videogames in both their conversations and their work. Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs The World served as a joyous love letter to game culture, with everything from its fight scenes to its music and sound effects taken straight from the medium.
The current and upcoming generation of filmmakers have grown up on videogames, and are finding ways of using CG to tell their stories in new and surprising ways. Neill Blomkamp, for example, was well known for his adverts and short films, which fused computer graphics and live-action footage almost seamlessly. His first feature was supposed to be a movie based on Halo, but when that project collapsed, he made District 9 instead. That film concluded with a gleefully violent shoot-out, featuring sci-fi weaponry that could have easily come from a videogame – not least the Halo series.
The documentary style and gritty look of District 9 has had a profound influence on other filmmakers since, including the alien invasion flick, Battle Los Angeles. Its attempt to present an immediate, soldier’s eye view of combat was very like District 9, and its action scenes looked uncannily like a squad-based shooting game, with dozens of almost identical soldiers shooting at robotic invaders.
It could be argued, in fact, that the recent wave of alien invasion and zombie movies is indirectly due to videogames. Both alien invasion and zombie offer up an army of faceless monsters that can be killed without remorse by their heroes – allowing for the kind of violence that can get past the censors with a PG-13 rating, in the case of Battle LA.
This was a notion director David Cronenberg brilliantly summed up in John Landis’ book, Monsters In The Movies. Speaking of the newfound popularity of zombies in film, Cronenberg said the following:
“I think that’s about videogames, frankly. In the early days of videogames, the way that you could get around parental fear of having children enjoying killing people, was to have them not be people exactly. If they’re anonymous creatures, it’s okay to kill them. And really, part of the fun of those movies and TV series is just the many different ways you can kill a zombie.”
Perhaps threatened by the increased realism and relentless action of some videogames, it seems that Hollywood, with films like Battle Los Angeles and Transformers, is attempting to lure younger viewers back into cinemas with films that offer a similar roller-coaster experience.
And as the graphics in videogames are beginning to approach those seen in cinema, a new kind of convergence appears to be emerging. Games like Heavy Rain are prized for their realism and cinematic approach to storytelling, while on TV, the makers of Sherlock use that game’s idea of displaying captions on the screen to illustrate what its characters are thinking.
And with directors such as Peter Jackson and Guillermo Del Toro turning their hand to producing videogames as well as film, it seems that, 40 years after the first Pong cabinet loomed over unsuspecting drinkers in a US bar, the two mediums are becoming ever more intertwined.