How games conquered the movies
We used to think that as video games matured, as a medium, they would become more like Hollywood, becoming more focused on character development, plot reversals, and tight, suspense-driven narratives, rather than action set pieces alternating with cinematic cut scenes. Hoo boy, were we wrong. Instead the exact inverse has happened. Action movies have become more like video games. And you know what, this is no bad thing.
I thought of this while watching John Wick 3 last night. (Which I loved, as I did 1 and 2.) It’s not just that its ballet of bullets — especially the one with the dogs — are so like video games, in both structure and form, that they seem to have been practically been torn from a controller; you can practically see health bars and Stun markets hovering over the heads of the characters.
It’s also that the series’s primary costars, after Keanu — with apologies to Halle Berry and Ian McShane — is not any other individual character, but the world of John Wick, the Continental, and the High Table. Worldbuilding has long been a first-class citizen in video and tabletop role-playing games; now it has graduated to movies as well.
Speaking of role-playing games, ensemble-cast movies are more and more like them as well. Consider the Fast and Furious movies, or Game of Thrones. Each has a core group who are clearly the “player characters,” as well as disposable villains and extras who are “NPCs.” Each starts with the characters at a relatively low level of skill/power, and over the course of the series grow to worldshaking might.
In The Fast & The Furious Vin Diesel’s character is a really good driver and mechanic; by the time we get to The Fate of The Furious he’s a superspy capable of singlehandedly opposing entire intelligence agencies. In Game of Thrones we watch Arya become a high-level assassin before our eyes, and Jon Snow happens to become one of the deadliest swordsmen in all of Westeros, casually dispatching dozens of enemies, often several simultaneously, while rarely even breaking a sweat, because — well, there’s no real reason for it, other than that’s what happens to player characters, isn’t it? They level up and become the best.
That didn’t use to be the case. Jason Bourne and James Bond were superspies, but they didn’t really get better over the course of their series, or become so ridiculously puissant that they can casually take out a dozen heavily armed/armored expert fighters in thirty seconds, singlehandedly, as Shaw does in the trailer of the new Fast & Furious movie. Most of Jason Bourne’s action sequences are escapes; most of John Wick’s are hunts. And of course “one hunting a horde” has been the basic mode of first-person shooters since long before Doom.
Does the introduction of these new tropes / styles / narrative conceits make things worse? Well — not necessarily. The Bourne series is a lot grittier, in terms of emotional resonance and suspense, than the John Wick series, but the latter is far more stylish, semiotically rich, and immersive. I love them both about equally. It would be a shame if the only kind of action movie we ever saw from here on in was the stylized un/hyperreality of John Wick — but similarly it would be a shame if Hollywood had never made those movies on the grounds they were too brutally unrealistic.
Ultimately, video games have expanded Hollywood’s possibility space, and to my mind that’s always a good thing. Is it a universal rule that when technology introduces a new medium of storytelling, old media soon adopts the new medium’s styles and tropes? Did plays become more like novels after Don Quixote? Did radio become more like television after TV was introduced? And if/when we figure out the most compelling structure(s) for AR/VR storytelling, will video games become more like that? It seems fairly inevitable to me that the answer is yes.