Every art form has a story, and recalling Mark Cousins’ description of film being a grass roots art form raises the question what term would be most fitting to describe video games, the youngest of the art forms. Despite their youthful age, the story of video games is an endlessly fascinating story that tells of the emergence of an art form, its foolish dalliance with disaster, and its meteoric rise to have taken entertainment into a realm of interaction previously unexplored.
Short film director Jeremy Snead – who’s also founder of Mediajuice Studios, which produces video game marketing content – brings together documentary film and video games to tell the story of our youngest art form. With the help of narrator Sean Astin, Video Games: The Movie (2014) looks to its past, present and future that potentially has consequences for film, literature and theatre as video games race towards virtual reality – the as-of-yet unexplored realm of interactive entertainment.
Speaking with Film International’s Paul Risker, Snead explained the motivation behind Video Games: The Movie and the creative decisions that shaped its construction which were a process of trial and error. He also shared his thoughts on the relationship of video games to film, literature and theatre, and how this relationship is likely to evolve as we move closer to virtual reality.
Of every story you could choose to tell, why the story of video games and why now?
Video Games: The Movie merges two of my passions: gaming and movies. Through developing a roster of video game clients at Mediajuice Studios that I started 12 years ago, I was able to gain access to some of the bigger game developers and publishers, which really helped to give the film some much needed momentum in the beginning.
How early on did the decision come about to make the documentary non-linear? It is an interesting choice considering the use of the timeline graphic.
My goal was to get the overall message, the feeling of the industry and the community into the film in any way possible. We had early cuts of the film that were 100% linear, and it just felt soulless and sterile. Mixing it up and jumping back and forth ended up giving it pace and more energy. Non-linear also seemed to give the film a bit more definitive plotting as opposed to linear, which feels too much like your following an outline.
The timeline struck me as an effective tool in telling this story. It allowed you to strategically pick out specific moments, and while visually representing these additional moments on the timeline it was without the need to include them in the narration.
Absolutely, and we’ve all seen historical timelines of different topics and events, whether it is WWII or Baseball. People respond to visuals much more than dates and times. So I felt a 3D timeline that we are constantly travelling through would not only get the information across in an efficient way, but it would be fun to watch, and it gives the film structure. You always know where you are and where you’re going, which was important to me that the audience were never lost.
How challenging was it to source all of the video game footage, and was there any you were unable to include that you had originally planned to?
The short answer is very. We have loads of game capture systems at my agency Mediajuice Studios where we produce video game trailers, commercials and TV spots. So that was helpful in capturing much of the newer games. But yes many of the older games were like a wild goose chase through various archival houses, and even individuals who had copies of games and footage that have been long lost. When it comes to capturing all of the game footage for the film I like to use the old cliché, “How do you eat an elephant?… One bite at a time.” That’s how we had to approach it or we would have been overwhelmed.
Are video games a natural progression of literature, theatre and film, or are film and video games offshoots of technological evolution as opposed to offshoots of literature and theatre?
As we discuss in the film’s narration, the campfire is really the essence of storytelling origins; everything, I think, springs from that. All the great mythology that we draw on as a species for our literature, theatre, technology and now games comes from those primitive roots. It’s like King Solomon said, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” It’s just new to us and our generation, and we are experiencing the mythos of stories and storytelling in an unprecedentedly visceral way through film and next-next gen gaming.
In your opinion why have film adaptations of video games struggled to meet with success? Should video games be turned into films?
I think Tomb Raider (1996), Resident Evil (1996) and Super Mario Bros. (1985) are best experienced with a controller in your hand because that’s how we came to love them in the first place. Can a good movie be made from a game franchise? I think it can, but it’s tough to compete with someone’s emotional attachment to something they have experienced in a fundamentally interactive way. You change that to watching and not controlling, but you need to be a really good filmmaker to pull that off.
If video games were to never exist then how much of a void would that leave in storytelling and entertainment?
That’s interesting, and it is tough to know. I think the same question could be asked of Rock-n-Roll and computers, and I think the answer there would be obvious. There would be a massive hole in our cultural fabric if we didn’t have the music and technology we have grown to love today. I know this is a bold statement but I think that is true of games too. There is such a vibrant community and industry that has come from games, and to take that away would take away an outlet and a passion that has literally changed and shaped millions of lives over the past forty years.
Oh that’s an easy one!
1960’s – Spacewar
1970’s – PONG
1980’s – Mario Bros
1990’s – Sonic
2000’s – Halo
2010’s – Uncharted series
There is the tendency to blame the most popular forms of entertainment for society’s ills. Violent video games have encountered the accusation and have therefore been victimised as a cause rather than a consequence of our human identity and nature. Why throughout history have forms of entertainment been readily used as a scapegoat?
I think people tend to gravitate toward the easiest answers; the lowest common denominator, if you will. Someone about 20 years ago wrote this script for what the media says about video games every time a new Grand Theft Auto (1997) comes out. We’ve heard the same headlines ad nauseam, and so one of my goals in the film is to give the other side of that argument an actual, legitimate voice from the industry itself. Hopefully people’s perceptions will start to change after seeing Video Games: The Movie.
How does the censorship and classification process of video games compare and contrast to the censorship and classification of film and TV?
Actually the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) and The Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) rating systems are even better than film because ratings, sub-ratings and detailed descriptors of what is rated and why are on every game. You don’t see that as much with The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), but I think they are coming around, and so is TV. I’m actually very proud of the games industry for self-regulating as it has done over the years, and for being a leader in that regard. But again, the average Joe doesn’t know this, and so hopefully Video Games: The Movie will shed some light on that misconception.
In the documentary the idea of the Holodeck comes up as the ultimate aspirational goal as we prepare to push into virtual reality. It provoked me to ask the question that if video games were to reach this point, would this represent the end point of their evolution, where they would reach full maturity and become a stagnant art form?
Everyone should read Ernest Cline’s book Ready Player One (2011) as he really explores the topic of truly immersive virtual reality and what that does to society. It can be good and bad like any technology. Personally, I think that these games will be there much faster than people think, and that excites me.
Could video games, as they evolve, bring about the extinction of film, theatre and literature or will the “leaning back” interactive experience that touches our sensibilities and accesses our imagination still be as an essential experience as the “leaning forward” experience that video games will continue to offer as they move towards virtual reality?
I think games will always fundamentally be their own medium, but I also think there may become a third option of interactive films that people can enjoy. Fundamentally people have two distinct mind-sets when it comes to entertainment (to your point). There is the couch potato mentality of ‘entertain me while I do nothing’, and there is the ‘lean forward’ mentality of, ‘I want to be part of this’. Both are legitimate, and both will always exist in their own way, but yes I think there may be a third option in the near future that will blow people’s minds.
With the support of crowd funding you’ve received, what are your thoughts on crowd funding being a game changer for filmmakers? Where do you think the parameters should be drawn between the opportunities to create versus crowd funding as a means to offer creative freedom for more highly successful filmmakers?
I think the world is everyone’s oyster. I’m a self-made man; I never went to college. I taught myself everything I know about filmmaking, writing, storytelling and running a business, and so I don’t believe anyone should be kept from pursuing exactly what their dreams are, whether they are an independent artist or a celebrity. I think it’s a cop out for people to say celebrities who have access to money and investors shouldn’t be on Kickstarter. Quit talking about why they shouldn’t do that and do something yourself. There are no excuses except those you make up yourself. Kickstarter is an amazing tool for anyone and everyone in the world to use. But as competition gets stiffer that will raise the bar for quality and creativity, which I believe will be a good thing.
From before to after, how has the experience of Video Games: The Movie impacted your perspective and feelings towards video games?
Creating this film has been one of the most difficult yet most rewarding experiences of my life. I will always love games; I will always love movies and I’m proud that I now have a film under my belt that merges two of my great loves.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.