Medium Mislabeling - Confusing Video Games with Films
Before anybody comments, bear in mind that this is not a blog post about my personal opinions regarding the individual quality of any of the analyzed video games here. Rather, I'm exploring the games in terms of their mechanics and manners of control with regards to what makes each of them fall under the accurate label of a video game as opposed to a film. I'm aware that there are strongly divided opinions on which of the video games here are good or bad, but entertainment is not a topic for this blog post.
In the current world, human beings have a large number of artistic mediums to work with in regards to telling a unique narrative, presenting a fun experience, exploring the effects of various cultural patterns and other various topics, and there are numerous other ways to present works to the world around us. Literature such as books can tell a story through text, encouraging the reader to visualize the words through their imagination. Theatrical plays have on-stage performers to directly act out an event toward a live audience, a key trait being that it's shown in person. Films through the illusion of moving images can have complete control over its visuals and audio, with there being added amounts of planning for cinematography and editing amongst other features. And in the modern age, we also have video games, which can provide digital experiences for a player with interactive control, letting the player themselves play a role in the presentation amongst other things.
Regarding the last two of these mediums, films and video games do have a few components in common in the sense that they're both digital art forms; while they may have some physical supplements that aren't part of the artworks themselves (such as manuals or cases), the core artistic outputs are digital creations and not live performances. The feature presentation in a film (not software menus containing the film) has preset audio and visuals for their works; they're completely controlled by the filmmakers and thus play out the same each time they're watched. Though they can be paused or be organized into software menus for commercial distribution, the actual movie itself can't exactly branch into multiple outcomes, and they play with one continuous output without any moments of interactive player input. In short, there's the same general output each time. Now the scripted aspects of film aren't necessarily bad things; many films have fantastic narratives and presentations, and there can be advantages for a filmmaker having complete control over his finished work. But while they can be reacted to, the feature presentation can't be interacted with in a way that generates visual feedback to human interaction with a user interface. While both of the mediums are digital works that involve visual output, there is a particularly significant aspect of video games that makes the two unique: Player interaction.
The reason I stress that last bit is because user interaction is an extremely significant component that separates video games from films as a medium. The simplest way to think of a video game is that it's a visual game that involves user input and provides some kind of feedback or differing consequences to those inputs. In other words, there are moments when I can interact with the video game and see a result to those interactions. Even if it's something as small as moving a character around a screen, repeatedly attacking an enemy through simplistic combat, or choosing between one of two possible scene outcomes with a reaction event, then I'm still seeing a visual or audio reaction based on my events. What's important to note is that what I'm seeing does not always have to play out exactly the same way each time I play the game. I'll elaborate on path branching in particular later on, but I wanted to introduce smaller examples of user interaction. There are many forms.
When we talk about interaction with more advanced technological systems today, we also like to discuss some of the obviously larger types of impact that we can have in a video game's world, such as bringing the end to a tyrannical dictatorship by leading an invasion against an entire castle, making the choice to spare or kill someone where your actions could later affect the plot, or journeying through a desert landscape with an unexpected companion. Some of the stronger types of video game storytelling are those that are told through the gameplay, and also ones which are shown to have noticeable amounts of impact on the virtual world. We like to praise interaction elements based how engaged the player becomes through control, though at the end of the day, the fact that feedback-based controls exist in a game period is enough to show that it isn't a film.
But while interaction can be complex, there's nothing in history that's ever required that the controls in a game be extremely in-depth, even if the gameplay scenario is a basic one with only minimal amounts of gameplay. The original Pong, often credited as being one of the first video games in existence, is universally considered a game, even if the only controls that the player has are moving a vertical line up and downwards. But even though its interaction is simple, the player has a degree of control which has feedback displayed to them. To list a couple of these feedbacks: The lines are moving in response to the player's input, the ball is either reflected back or continues to move forward depending on where the player positions the paddle, and outputs like score are changed depending on user-involved events. Pong is very simple in terms of control, but since it has user interaction that has some kind of a visual feedback which won't necessarily play out exactly the same 100% of the time, then it falls into the label of being a video game instead of being a linear film which isn't interactive.
And yet while most people would consider simplistic video games like Pong, Pac-Man, and Combat to be, well, video games, some people occasionally classify specific games as being films even if said games have user control that offer some kind of a feedback. Most often, I find that this ends up happening with games whose graphics and/or audio are composed of full motion video files, such as with the visuals in a game being fully animated or even in some cases being almost entirely live-action. Other times this occasional tendency to incorrectly call a video game a film can happen to games with largely cinematic presentations, whether sections of the game involve cutscenes or in some cases play out like an interactive journey which is smoothly edited into having a continuous (although interactive) narrative flow. Sometimes people choose to do this with games that are realistic in their presentations, and occasionally, the misclassification may be targeted toward games that the person just may not personally enjoy, with that being a reason for the misclassification. But anyway, regardless of why this may happen, I want to explore why I don't think the mislabeling is accurate.
Before I start analyzing three different games which might share some of these components, I want to first get out of the way that I don't personally believe that there's such a thing as an interactive film, at least not in the sense that an "interactive film" would fall under the category of being a film. As I discussed in-depth further above, a film has an identical presentation without the user having control that ever branches the feature presentation itself in a way that shows feedback to their actions. If a "film" has player control such as letting the protagonist be directly moved around, incorporating shooting controls to be like an old arcade game, or other stuff like changing a point counter based on user interactions, then it's a video game. Games aren't films because of that interactive element, and because of this, I think that the term "interactive film" is a paradoxical term since the words are self-contradictory to the medium definitions. Again, I don't dislike films, and there are a large number of films that I like, but something isn't completely a film and a game at the same time. Now with that said, let's explore three particular games which I see the misclassification behavior happen to most often.
Being one of three games currently featured in the Smithsonian Institute, Dragon's Lair was one of the most successful laserdisc games featured in arcades. While not being the first, it also popularized (for the time anyway) a trend of animated full motion video games, which were largely action-based fantasy adventures that used animated video files for most of the graphics. Dragon's Lair had a fantasy presentation of working through surreal dungeon-like rooms as you controlled the reflexes of Dirk the Daring, a brave but also clumsy knight who was on a quest to save a kidnapped Princess Daphne from the evil castle of Mordroc. The project largely featured animations created by Don Bluth, an ex-Disney animator who also directed films including The Secret of NIMH and Anastasia. But background details aside, let's look at how the video game itself is played.
Dragon's Lair is split into a large number of various rooms, whose order of encounter is mostly randomized per playthrough. Regarding the interactive elements, rather than controlling the character's movement entirely, the game mostly uses quick time events to control Dirk's reflexes, where different moments in different scenes require the player to move in a certain direction or slash an enemy with their sword. Most of the time, the correct actions can be figured out by paying careful attention to the environment, but being a coin-gathering arcade game, a number of these reactions can be very specific and tricky. Is it always fair? Not always, but the right paths can often be seen, and there are some areas where the ways to move are briefly flashed during less obvious decisions. It's a difficult game, and it's an at times unforgiving game, but it is indeed a game.
The player has lives and an updated score, the score (as well as lives and a move guide depending on the system version) being constantly displayed on-screen; the score is affected based on the player's success at different control events, so in addition to the controls, we also have something that visually changes depending on successful (or lack thereof) player input. Although the game can be played through to the end without messing up any commands, which culminates in an intense battle with the dragon Singe, the character can die many times by not reacting with the right command at the right time. This branching is illustrated through animated scenes as well, so much so that every single room in the game has its own visual scenes to accompany each type of death before taking away a life. Furthermore, some rooms additionally involve temptations or incorrect paths to the player which can further increase the number of possible deaths and thus visual divisions, such as drinking a deadly potion even though the safer option in that room is to walk through a nearby door.
Now let me make something clear here. Are the controls to Dragon's Lair pretty simplistic? Yes, yes they are. They're basically quick time events (with path branching) that involve button or directional presses, and most of the branching involves either succeeding in a room or watching a uniquely presented death scene or perhaps a landscape-specific game over scene. However, regardless of whether the gameplay mechanic itself to a person is subjectively complex or not, the fact remains that the player is having some interactive control in a way that can let the visuals branch depending on different inputs. Further showing this, there are also some rooms with falling platforms where the longer you wait until jumping to a bridge, the more points you get, so this scene is actually showing an even higher number of possible outcomes than two, and that's more than one.
One of the arguments that I sometimes hear for why Dragon's Lair is apparently not a video game is that its controls are simple and that the player interaction isn't too significant. But there is branching in this video game, make no mistake about it. The fact is that depending on the player control inputs, the visuals and gameplay can branch into different possible scenarios; going to a different part of a scene that is considered successful and gaining points, or branching into a different scene which usually leads to death, are separate outcomes. The adventure does not always play out the exact same way every single time, and the fact that it branches depending on player control makes it a video game. If I don't press anything after starting the game, then I get alternate scenes that soon lead to a game over. If I correctly play the video game and perform well, then I advance much farther in the story and succeed in exploring more. These two different play styles didn't achieve the same result. Also, the score updates depending on success or failure. These feedback-based elements aren't found in films; the game is changing moments of output or outcomes based on how I react.
Just because the controls in a video game are simple doesn't mean that they don't count as controls period. I refer back to the Pong example from earlier, where the controls and amounts of visual variety in that game are incredibly simplistic, but the fact that there is player input that affects the visuals in more ways than exactly one makes it a video game and not a film. Dragon's Lair has simple controls as well, but just because they're different than what you might expect in an arcade game, that doesn't mean that they arbitrarily don't count as interaction. And when you add on the points element, the lives aspect, the temptation death scenes, and then start to actually look at later video games made by Don Bluth that started adding even more obvious branching mechanics like the dividing Dexter/Ace routes in Space Ace and the item collecting mechanic in Dragon's Lair II: Time Warp, this tendency to try to define certain controls as not actually being controls becomes harder and harder to accurately defend. Dragon's Lair is indeed a video game; even if it's a simple one like Pong, the fact that it has moments of interactive and feedback-based controls means that it isn't a film by definition.
In the section for Dragon's Lair, I also wanted to touch on how just because a game uses full motion video files or has graphics that aren't necessarily natively coded by the system architecture itself, that doesn't mean that there can't be any gameplay to accompany the visuals, and how it doesn't mean that the video game suddenly isn't actually a video game. I want to elaborate on this aspect by briefly exploring live-action full motion video games. These started appearing more frequently with the emergence of CD-technology on home systems (such as with the Sega CD), and this was possible because of the significantly expanded memory that discs had over their cartridge counterparts, meaning that data for CD-quality music, voice acting, and full motion video files could be more effectively stored. While there were video games that used animated full motion video files for the visuals, there were also some old video games like Midnight Raiders, Ground Zero: Texas, and Night Trap which decided to incorporate something that was considered fairly realistic at the time: Live-action video.
There are some divided opinions on which live-action full motion video games were actually successful, and most of the time this boiled down to whether the gameplay mechanics accompanying the visuals were fun and interesting, or unfinished and limited. But I'm not here to discuss which ones are good; I'm here to explain why just because the visuals are realistic, that doesn't mean that a game can't have any gameplay, even if it's simple or even if the visuals aren't fully drawn from scratch. For an example, I'm going to look at the game Night Trap.
Night Trap contains an almost intentionally cheesy premise of being a technical expert of a special control attack team (the acronym is seriously S.C.A.T.), where several agents have acquired overwritten access to a trap-based security system for a house involving a large number of cameras. People have gone missing at the place, and you're tasked with overlooking eight different rooms of the house to protect a new group of people staying over for the night. Along the way, you have to trap "augers" which are half-vampire creatures dressed in black garments, uncover a conspiracy involving a blood charity organization run by vampires, and at different times work with an undercover secret agent as she uncovers evidence... the plot is ridiculous, but it does arguably have a cheesy charm to it. Anyway, you basically play as an active-time protector.
One of the main mechanics to Night Trap is that while you can only view one room at a time, all eight of the rooms run in real time following constantly updating in-game events, with story scenes taking place in some areas while monster-inhabited moments occur in others. The directional pad and the A button let you control which room you're currently viewing, and there's an intentional delay when you load up a new camera. The augers appear in different rooms regularly, so you have to tune in at the right times and trap them using the B button when a heads-up-display meter becomes full. While you pay close attention to the action unfolding at different areas, you also need to capture certain amounts of augers or else your play session ends early. In addition to that, there are also several moments where one of the girls staying over at the house find themselves in a dangerous situation, and you need to activate the traps at the right time to prevent one of them from being captured which will also cause an alternate game over scenario. So once again we have various moments of branching gameplay, and because of the simultaneous events mechanic, you can also see different scenarios depending on whether you catch monsters and which current rooms you are currently monitoring.
Apart from initial opening company logos and an eventual end (whether you beat the game or meet an early demise), all of the live-action scenes operate in real time for each room; there's never a moment when video is being shown that you're not in some form of control, even if it's just switching rooms. These aren't cutscenes in the sense that all you can do is watch; different information is learned and observed based on your current location and gameplay decisions. Scenes where a character can be killed have multiple ways of changing without significant loading times, so while the controls may be limited, you're having an immediate impact with how you use the in-game traps. And on top of that, there's also another mechanic in the game that requires you to have the right color code set with the C button in order to use the traps; the color gets changed four times throughout the game, and the new colors are revealed during certain story scenes at specific times. So there's the need to balance trapping the augers with exploring character action around the house.
Again, I'm not mentioning whether the overall game is necessarily fun or would be considered good to different audiences of people; even if you think that Night Trap is a badly programmed and unentertaining game, that's not the point that I'm trying to make. I want to stress that even games that may have part of the screen involve visuals which are live-action full motion video files can still have moments of control. Night Trap has interactive control that offers visual and audio feedback based on the player's actions at specific areas and moments; in addition to the controls, on-screen statistics like augers captured, total number of augers so far, current playtime, and even a highlighted map of the house are also updated as the game goes on. The level of interaction, even if someone personally feels that it is simplistic and not necessarily way too advanced, has visual and audio feedback based on user actions, and because of that, Night Trap isn't a film by definition.
And just to further counter the "realistic visuals makes it a film" claim, whether or not the video game looks realistic or even uses actual shot live-action video at times should be completely irrelevant to whether or not something is a video game. Next-generation video games like those shown on the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 are pushing to achieve more detailed and elaborate forms of visuals, with some games even trying to push for an incredibly realistic visual presentation, but so what? User-based controls and gameplay interaction do not magically disappear once a video game's visuals surpass a certain level of detail. There is not a magical cut-off point, which by the way would be really difficult to define, when a video game loses its video game label based solely on its visuals; otherwise what's stopping games like L.A. Noire, Grand Theft Auto V, and Metal Gear Solid 4 from being inaccurately labeled as films (which none of them are) as well then?
I could have ended this blog post after the last two games since I already covered why they had forms of gameplay and would fall under the definition of being video games, but there's a very specific current-generation video game that tends to suffer from the mislabeling treatment as well: Heavy Rain. First, let me make absolutely clear again that I don't intend on discussing whether or not this video game has a good story or is a fun experience overall; Heavy Rain usually becomes a controversial topic whenever I try to debate the video game's quality, and review score is not something that I want to discuss right now. I do however want to respond to some reoccurring claims of why Heavy Rain is apparently not a video game.
But first, for those of you unfamiliar with the title, Heavy Rain is a video game that has a largely cinematic presentation and uses some noir-like elements for much of its story, although virtually all of the events involve some kind of player interaction albeit more so with a quick time event kind of input. That doesn't necessarily mean that the events are always a situation of Press X to Not Die though, and in fact, one of the various mechanics of Heavy Rain is that its story always leads to an eventual ending, but individual scenes and some eventual outcomes of the story itself can change in multiple ways. In addition, animations in action scenes change depending on directional or button presses, entire characters be can be killed at different moments, selected dialog can impact the speech of certain stages, locations can sometimes differ based on user performance, serial killer trials can end with success or failure, there are a few detective-based areas, the final boss fight can completely change based on which characters make it to a certain destination, and some filler segments involve moving the character around while interacting with different objects or presenting current thoughts. Whether or not it's complex or instead limited is often left up to debate, but there is a form of interaction even if it's different than most other current-generation titles. There is gameplay even if the user interface isn't necessarily a popular one. Now with that said, here are specific arguments that I want to address.
"The creator once called it a film in the past."
Heavy Rain is a story-heavy video game which was created by the developer Quantic Dream, whose other games include Omnikron: The Nomad Soul and Indigo Prophecy. The projects are overlooked by David Cage, who also does much of the writing for the narratives. He's a controversial figure who seems to have a like-him-or-hate-him status amongst gamers due to his comments on storytelling, the mediums of film versus video games, and a number of other things which for the sake of word length I won't get into. Apparently on a few occasions, David Cage referred to Heavy Rain as being a film instead of a video game, which would be strange since films aren't interactive in the same way that games are. I'm not sure if it was a slip-up, whether it's a regular classification on his part, whether he added the word "interactive" or not, or if it's just something that's overblown by the internet. I don't read about what he says too often, and the thing is, whatever he chooses to call his art doesn't change the medium that it actually is. It actually doesn't even really matter either way.
Let me describe a really simple scenario. Suppose that I have a paper-like canvas which I paint over, whether I draw a multi-colored rainbow or whatever on the surface. Once the picture which was only drawn using paint is finished, the picture now separately exists from me, and I could frame it on a wall, donate it to an art gallery, or do something else if I wanted to. Now if somebody else went up to this picture without knowing that it was made by me, or even if they knew that it was by me, would there be any doubt that what is here is a painting, whether or not the painting was considered good? Remember, the art is finished and exists by itself now.
Now for whatever crazy reason, I decide to start insisting that my stationary painting is a video game, a theatrical play, or even a refrigerator if I decided to call it that. What I personally decide to classify it as doesn't change what it objectively is. My painting fell under the definition of a painting, and if I chose to pretend it was a physical refrigerator, that doesn't magically make it a refrigerator, especially when I'm not the only person that's looking at it. This might seem like a strange scenario to describe, but the point that I'm making is that its status as a painting doesn't objectively change to say a video game or a film just because I said so. Now regarding the video game Heavy Rain, regardless of whether David Cage called his video game something other than a video game, which I don't really know nor care if he did, that doesn't ultimately change what it actually is. Heavy Rain still has moments of control, user interaction, and other elements described further above that make it not a film. It's important to separate art from the artist; they are separate things once the art is finished.
"The game uses many cinematic elements with its visuals."
Once again I ask the question: So what? Heavy Rain uses controlled camera angles for a number of its story scenes, sometimes imitating deep focus elements, having jump cuts, different types of multi-framing, facial close-ups, and at times split-screening amongst various other visual techniques. And while it may rely on cinematography a lot of the time, these are ultimately just visual changes in what's presented to us graphically; their existence does not determine whether or not there is gameplay. Also, numerous games use various cinematic elements or specific camera angles during moments in their own gameplay, like for example:
- Intentionally limiting camera angles in survival horror games to control atmospheric fear
- Manipulating lighting to either show a passing of time or to confirm an interior setting
- Showing multiple locations at once to show a sudden plot urgency
- Letting the player move a camera around to observe more of their surroundings
- Focusing a camera onto a boss character to remove ambiguity of a player's target
- Removing camera control when a designer intends for someone to walk down a corridor without looking back at something behind them
And honestly, I could list various other ways that digital cinematography is used in different video games, but then I would be going on for thousands of additional words. The ways that a virtual camera is used in video games can differ greatly, and there is no single correct way to use it. There are certain visual styles or categories like user camera control for convenience that can certainly shape someone's opinion of whether or not a video game is good, and the cinematic elements could even be considered bad to some people, but it doesn't make a video game lose its medium label so long as there's some sort of player control.
"While you do have some control, it's pretty limited."
Please refer to the Dragon's Lair section of this blog post. Let's say that you feel that your moments of impact on the story of a video game might be considered minimal, subjectively insignificant, or just generally feeling like while the video game does offer you control, it's very limited control. But like I described earlier, the fact that there is at least some user-based feedback during the actual game itself means that Heavy Rain isn't a film. Dragon's Lair also has simplistic gameplay, but whether or not it's extremely elaborate, it's still gameplay.
"The graphics aim for realism or try to be like real life."
Please refer to the Night Trap section of this blog post. While visual responses like differing item animations, character movements, moved objects, enemy damage, and setting changes amongst others can be important factors in confirming whether a player action had any kind of affected visual output, the actual theme or realistic style of a video game by itself doesn't detract from gameplay's status as actually being gameplay.
"I didn't like Heavy Rain. The story and gameplay were bad."
You are totally entitled to your own personal opinion on whether or not Heavy Rain is a good game or not. If you thought that the story was bad, that the gameplay was simplistic and unentertaining, or that any other elements like controls, acting, visuals, or audio were bad, then good for you; you're allowed to feel that way. Conversely, if you liked the plot, found the gameplay fun, and think that the game has some interesting mechanics, then good for you; you're also allowed to hold that opinion. However, even if Heavy Rain was a bad game, it still falls under the definition of being a game instead of a film due to its various interactive elements.
Like many other people across the internet, there are some video games that I heavily dislike. Sewer Shark is the worst full motion video game that I've ever played, Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) is a game that I feel is horribly designed and programmed, and I'm absolutely disgusted that a game like Custer's Revenge actually exists with what I feel includes horrible gameplay and an offensive premise. But while I really don't like these three games, and have them ranked as some of my least favorite games of all time, I will still acknowledge that they are actual games, whether I like it or not. I won't call an interactive video game a film just because I don't like it, just like I won't call a terrible movie a book just because I thought it was horribly presented. There can be bad entries in an artistic medium, but that doesn't necessarily change what medium that those entries are a part of.
Both the video game and film mediums are unique art forms which offer large amounts of potential in creative ways that let us explore storytelling, entertain people, experiment with new ideas, investigate artistic potentials, and generally just expand on the ways that we can communicate with the world around us. But while both mediums have their own advantages, it's important to know that the two are not the same, and it's the level of user interaction that makes video games different from films, the latter of which can be reacted to but not interacted with in the same way that video games can be. Whether it's done because certain entries or titles in a medium aren't liked, because mechanics or presentations have certain patterns that are rare in appearance, or various other possible arguments, the specific video games that I've seen misclassified as not being video games is something that comes up often. I wanted to thoroughly explain that there was a clear difference between video games and films; I think that we do both of the artistic mediums a disservice when we choose to not acknowledge the status of a video game as being a video game and instead give it a false identity.
Dragon's Lair isn't a film just because its controls are different than those in some other video games; there is branching and user interaction that's evident by playing the video game. Simplicity is not the same as nonexistence, and there are various visual, audio, and feedback-based indications of user actions in Dragon's Lair. Just because it uses animated video files for some areas of its graphics doesn't mean that the control suddenly disappears, and the existence of things like score, death scenes, multiple outcomes for situations even if limited, and user control put Dragon's Lair into the video game category instead of the film category.
Night Trap isn't a film just because it has live-action, and in many ways, its gameplay elements could actually be seen as more detailed than Dragon's Lair. There are ways to interact with situations that can lead to multiple visual outcomes, the user can end up in various possible game over scenarios, and there's the ability to control location and observe different events occurring in different areas but at the same time. Like Dragon's Lair, Night Trap has user controls, and whether or not they're personally liked doesn't change the fact that they exist.
Regardless of whether Heavy Rain is good or not, that doesn't change that Heavy Rain is a video game and not a film due to its interactive elements. Another specific thing to note is that whatever the game's objective medium is remains unaffected by whatever one single person in the game company may or may not have called it; a painting is still a painting even if the drawer decides to call it a theatrical play after it's finished for instance. Additionally, whether or not the game uses many cinematic elements, has limited control instead of elaborate control, aims for realism or imaginative fiction, or is subjectively enjoyable or not ultimately doesn't change the existence of its interactive controls. I elaborated on some examples of where it has controls further upwards.
Thank you everyone for reading through my blog post, and I'm sorry if the word length was really long this time; this was just a reoccurring topic that I really wanted to provide my complete thoughts on. If you have any of your own opinions that you want to contribute, whether you agree with what I said or even if you disagree, then feel free to elaborate and leave them down in the comments below. I look forward to reading them!
I miss you Dirk!
Excellent blog Ferret. I agree with your opinion.
Great job on this blog.
And you were afraid no one would read this. I just proved you wrong by commenting.
By the way, I'm amazed you got through Sewer Shark...