Metroland ran a cover story titled “The Great American Videogame” in 2008. The premise was that some games have become so influenced by culture—literature, film, politics, science and religion—that they have the impact that that equals or surpasses works of literature. Pop culture critic Dominic Patten compared Grand Theft Auto to Satyricon.
“What we see in the Satyricon are encapsulations of the swath of the Roman Empire—its decadence, pomposity—in jokes, wretchedness, horror and glory, and that is what we really see in Grand Theft Auto,” said Patten. “It is a fantastically complex game that plays out on many levels, and not just with your score. It is not just a technological triumph but an artistic triumph.”
At the time the Bioshock games were borrowing heavily from the works of Ayn Rand for inspiration, and Grand Theft Auto felt a lot like New York City mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio’s favorite touchstone, Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. But these days film has become the muse of the most prominent game publishers. The relationship between Hollywood and the games industry has been a rough one, but as more games reference an increasing number of subgenres, cult films and classics, game producers may be doing Hollywood (or at least the art of filmmaking) a favor—introducing a new generation to something that isn’t ’tween literature or comic books.
Video games haven’t done much for film. Industry heads have blamed the increasing popularity of mega video game releases in the Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto franchises for cutting into their sales. Released this September, Grand Theft Auto V did $1 billion in sales in only three days.
Meanwhile, Hollywood has looked to appeal to gamers by referencing the language and themes of the best-selling franchises. This summer, Elysium and Oblivion both borrowed heavily from popular first-person shooter games like Halo, Fallout, Portal and Mass Effect. In Elysium, Matt Damon takes out cybernetically enhanced baddies with weapons straight out of most first-person shooters. Director Neil Blomkamp catches the action from the first-person perspective as Damon tries to reach a miracle healing station—the kind of thing positioned conveniently at some point in most video games these days.
Oblivion features a game-inspired soundtrack by M83, sterile environments that look like they were put together by coders rather human hands or nature, and villainous drones that look less like military weapons than the cute robots featured in Fallout and Portal. Appropriating gaming’s tropes hasn’t been a critical or financial success for Hollywood. Who can forget that the lava jumping in one of the Star Wars reboots was lifted right out of Mario Bros?
Believe it or not, the game industry has historically benefited greatly from Hollywood. Game designers across the world have been mining Hollywood for inspiration for years. Some of the most iconic games borrow liberally from cult action and sci-fi flicks. Double Dragon and Street Fighter took from The Warriors. Metal Gear borrowed its lead from Escape From New York. Doom, Halo, and a host of other games borrowed big from Alien.
As game budgets have grown, game designers have become more sophisticated in how they borrow from Hollywood and on the scale on which they do it.
The designers at Rockstar games, publisher of Grand Theft Auto, are admitted cinephiles. The last two installments of Grand Theft Auto borrow heavily from the works of director Michael Mann—especially the bank heist film Heat. LA Noire, another Rockstar release, plays out as a classic film noir a la Chinatown, Double Indemnity, and The Maltese Falcon. Perhaps their most complete appropriation of an entire genre of film came in Red Dead Redemption, an epic western that borrowed liberally from the work of Sergio Leone and the spaghetti western genre as a whole. The game sent hordes of gamers to Netflix and Amazon to explore the films that inspired the game. The theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly became increasingly popular as a ringtone, and Clint Eastwood’s mug featured in the classic poster for A Fistful of Dollars became prominent in dorm rooms of geeks everywhere.
But Rockstar’s latest epic, Grand Theft Auto V, takes the obsession with film to even higher levels. While the game’s narrative plays out like a mix between Heat, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, To Live and Die in L.A. and Boyz n the Hood, the designers take things even further by featuring art-house cinemas in their approximation of Los Angeles. One of the game’s major protagonists, Michael, regularly sees a psychiatrist where he laments his dysfunctional relationship with his family and recounts the loathsome deeds the player has helped him accomplish—like pulling off bank robberies, visiting prostitutes, or committing vehicular manslaughter.
Michael also has an obsession with film noir. He is regularly seen watching black-and-white flicks featuring men in trench coats and fedoras. Players can also visit the art-house theater where three films regularly show—the flicks aren’t particularly long, but they are detailed.
One such flick bares extreme resemblance to Un Chien Andalou, the surrealistic film by Spanish director Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali that is famously referenced in the Pixies’ “Debaser.” GTA’s version flits back and forth between shocking images, the image of a man falling, a mysterious floating woman and Spanish dialogue that focuses on a man’s struggle to find his place in the world—he deals absurdly with his sexual identity, violent urges and religion.
The films function as a look into the protagonist’s subconscious. While players can force GTA’s characters to do anything, the game’s directors will not allow them to forget that these digital people are struggling with their choices, struggling with their lives. Some of the episodes that cause characters such conflict involve helping out shameless paparazzi sabotage the lives of unsuspecting, vapid young starlets, and assisting elderly British tourists steal from film stars and eventually kidnap them.
Hollywood has provided GTA’s developers a language to express and explore the human language. Despite limited ways for players to interact with their virtual worlds—variations on violence, theft, competition and in-world games, the industry is becoming better at telling stories and relating the human condition. The same cannot be said for the creators of mainstream Hollywood, especially if they continue in their search to borrow from the language of games. Instead, they might want to concentrate on what made past films so influential for the games industry.