Monthly Archives: March 2013

Comment: Video game aesthetics and films-trying-to-be-games (and vice-versa)

Like a crazy in-law haunting the attic, I occasionally post comments to UCLA’s Mediascape, an online journal where I served as a section editor and have published a variety of articles, video essays and interviews. Now I just bang on the journal’s ceiling from time to time and shout down unsolicited opinions from upstairs. My latest example (reproduced below) ponders how films these days are drawing upon video game visuals, and vice-versa—a trend I find both intriguing and disheartening. My comments come in response to an interesting conversation between two colleagues at UCLA on the subject of digital aesthetics and game spaces as depicted in Resident Evil: Retribution, The Expendables 2, and other recent action films. The conversation is published in the Mediascape blog, titled “What My Knees Knew: Cinematic Action, or Milla Jovovich in the Flesh,” and my comments are appened to the piece and reproduced below….

Thank you both for a wonderful discussion! I especially appreciated the restraint around attributing certain cinematic elements to video game aesthetics which, as a formal property, transcend audio-visual depiction and are inexorably tied up with their interactive mechanisms (core mechanics provided by design, input mechanics provided by interface controllers). Certainly some films engage/indulge in metaphors of video game visuality (graphically integrative tie-in opportunities abound for RE and other franchises)–just as Timecode and other films employ metaphors of database. But if these objects were actual databases and actual games (a la new media) we could manipulate them as such, and then judge their aesthetic qualities accordingly. Even if we leave aesthetics behind and talk about video game visuality or spatiality in cinema, we should probably strive for specificity; text-only Zork, abstract Tetris, and (near) photo-real Skyrim are all video games but, like painting, reflect radically different visual techniques, compositional concerns and, oftentimes, materials. Just trying to study videogame aesthetics in isolation is crazy-making enough to reach for a gun (talk about videogame violence….).

Returning to film, however, I’d throw 2009′s Gamer into the discussion, as it offers (and foregrounds by title) metaphors/signifiers of gamic activity (e.g., heads-up displays), while also thwarting through plot concerns and photo-real style an easy separation between ludic space/time/event and “real” space/time/event. Indeed, one might argue, pushing it a bit, that the film’s meta-commentary suggests that we may still phenomenally know the difference between game and reality, but we’re running out of (visual) evidence to distinguish them (perhaps this is a state en route to eXistenZ, in which even phenomenal difference evaporates). This “ludic effect” writ large–life is but a game–seems an emerging theme, if that’s the word for it, in Neveldine and Taylor’s work (see for example the conclusion of Crank for a delightfully perverse equivalence between character death and 8-bit extra lives). Perhaps the mutual love affair at the moment between games-wanting-to-be-films and films-wanting-to-be-games is reflective of the techno-industrial overlap between their productions, combined with market insecurities plaguing both media. But for those of us who love film, television, and video games equally but differently, here’s hoping media’s progenitors–despite their mutual infatuations, their incestuous appropriations—stop trying to make all their children the same.