I saw the Transformers movie a few nights ago, and while I thought it was fine on a fundamentally gut level, I realized that what it reminded me most of was a video game brought to the big screen; a big, shaky explosion-laden video game with which one might feel exhausted after playing. That Michael Bay lacks subtlety is not a particularly ground-breaking commentary on cinema, I realize. I like to imagine that when Michael Bay goes to Thanksgiving Dinner, he does not simply ask his judgmental Aunt Maggie to pass the mashed potatoes, but shakes the table violently until bottles of white wine topple and shatter while pyrotechnics explode under the cranberry sauce before pointing with one hand toward the potatoes and toward his mouth with the other. Watching his films is like snacking on habanero chiles with a mouth ulcer, an all-encompassing experience that demands one's complete attention despite occasional moments of extraordinary discomfort. In the wake of realizing that Michael Bay could be an exceptional developer of first-person shooters, I realized that virtually every game suffers from the same lack of visual subtlety as the Transformers.
I'm hesitant to draw out comparisons of video games to cinema (again!) for recognition of the fact that they are dramatically different beasts, but where the argument of meeting movie standards of story-telling within gaming fails, I think there may be something to suggesting that the industry could do better at visual creativity. If there is one thing which gaming and the movies clearly share, it is the dependence on creating compelling images, and, not unlike movies, gaming of late too often relies entirely on technical whizbangery to compel ocular attention.
But, like The Transformers movie everything in gaming these days seems so focused on blowing my mind with computer generated awesomeness, that the games commonly reach some sort of rendering-awesomeness critical mass, or even rendering-awesomeness overload, and either I can't process everything going on or I actually begin to lose interest as I search for substance.
This is why I wish video games were more like Joss Whedon shows.
I know, for some people that's going to be a credibility killer right there, the end, perhaps of an article that was fumbling toward something salient and then took a dramatic right turn through the guard rails and off a cliff, dashing eventually upon the rocks before the gas tank exploded in a very Michael Bay kind of way. But, I choose Joss as an example not because he is some sort of nerd god, but because he has an eye for detail while being true to the nature of the medium – in this case gaming. I mean, I could ask for a Kubrick, or a Scorsese, a Polanski or a Pollack, but I suspect that doing so would be perilously close to suggesting that gaming needs a Citizen Kane and I know how very much so many of you hate that idea. It is a suggestion I fully retract, despite never having actually suggested it, and now spit upon as I would that guy who played Kraemer on Seinfeld.
But, back to Joss. The thing about Joss is he embraces his inner-nerd, a thing of significant proportion only eclipsed by his equally robust outer-nerd, but he also has a great eye for crafting images on the screen. Watching his shows, I know when he is directing, because the quality of the visuals is elevated, the creativity of the angles enhanced. The work is just more compelling visually, even down to otherwise ordinary conversations which go beyond simply looking over one character's shoulder as the other one talks and then switching back and forth. There is action and information in the background, thought about angle, height and perspective that mean something to the story. He recognizes that the camera is the storyteller, the filter through which all information is conveyed. Like Spielberg, Joss has an eye to creating an indelible image – so many frozen moments of memory from shows like Firefly and Buffy -- something that defines the characters and story visually, often without a word.
The point actually has very little to do with The Joss, who is by all accounts a nice guy but doesn't appear to have expressed any actual interest in gaming and is probably quite busy right now in Hollywood not having his movies made. The point is that an analogue to Joss, or Sam Raimi, or even Spielberg should be looking at this incredibly visual medium with intense moments of potential coolness and thinking to themselves, "man, they're just missing out on how cool this could be!"
I understand that interactivity creates difficult scenarios for framing creative shots, but I don't think it's as unreasonable an idea as it might seem. There are plenty of opportunities in even your average action or RPG game to shoot interesting shots; even the throwaway moments of conversations or moments of tension before the big fight could be a place to add weight just by framing an entrance or discussion better. Frankly, I don't need to see poorly lip-synced facial animations straight on anyway, why not do something with the camera to elevate the moment that is usually diminished by technical limitations? Why not take advantage of the story-telling potential of artful direction, enhance the bad-assitude of your supposedly bad-ass character by occasionally dropping the camera low as the main character enters the space-bar (for the record, the first bar in space must be named the Spacebar, particularly if people still use keyboards) so it looks like he's towering on our screen.
I'm really not trying to artificially plug the square block of cinema into the round hole of gaming. But, I think of some of the efforts like Call of Duty, which integrates moments of gripping cinema into the action, or the original Resident Evil which created great tension through the use of compelling static camera angles, or even the playback on races for games like Gran Turismo which I find myself watching over and over again. For such a visual medium it seems logical to put more thought into the art of direction than there has historically been. As a way to compel the gamer without relying on narrative, a way to distinguish a title from its competition and simply a way of enhancing a sense of terror, tension, humor or strength in a given scene, few things might be as powerful as a well directed game.