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Like a video game: the new meaning of a classic movie insult

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Has the phrase lost all meaning?

John Wick 2
Niko Tavernise

For decades, film critics had an easy go-to for dismissing movies, especially action movies, they didn’t like: “This is like a video game.” Variants on the phrase were used to sneer at films’ pacing, storytelling, screen framing, shaky-cam aesthetics, use of CGI, lack of character development, and pretty much anything else associated with the earliest and worst games. But video games have evolved significantly since 2005, when Roger Ebert infamously hand-waved them off as an unartistic waste of time.

So what does that phrase mean today? Is it just lazy, elitist criticism? Does it convey anything useful? John Wick: Chapter 2 is in theaters, and it’s exactly the kind of film that gets called video-gamey. (The first movie in the series was compared positively to video games.) So this seems like a good time for a debate.

In a battle of wordkata, one of The Verge’s resident film critics and one of its games critics face off in a forum that’s either just like the constant squabbles in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or just like the face-to-face beatdown in the Marvel vs. Capcom games.

Photo: Netflix

Tasha: So Chris. I think we can both agree that Roger Ebert was wrong, and that video games have as much capacity for art as any other creative medium. (Even he eventually walked his opinion back a little.) This isn’t a debate about the value of video games. It’s about whether comparing them to films is a meaningful tool — and if it isn’t, whether we can turn it into one by sheer brute force of will. The “this is like a video game” argument comes up at The Verge from time to time — I used it in my review of the Netflix release Spectral, where you argued about it but allowed it because I was referencing a specific game and a specific story shape. You brought it up in your golden age of reality TV piece, where I talked you out of using it to take a cheap groin shot at the poor innocent film critics of the world. And I dodged using it in my John Wick: Chapter 2 review, even though that’s the kind of movie that spawned the phrase in the first place. You’ve repeatedly argued that “like a video game” is a tired cliché, but more importantly, that it’s never a really accurate critique. What’s your argument against it?

Chris: Quite simply: “like a video game” is too broad to be useful. A video game can be a professional sport, a reflexive skill test, a series of abstract puzzles, a mobile time-passer, a visual novel, or just online poker. A subsection of the video game critical community is constantly at war with itself over what a video game even is. So when a film critic says a film is “like a video game,” framed as a pejorative, free of additional context, I assume they have a very limited and calcified view of video games that is incongruous with a medium with an overwhelming variety and fluidity of forms.

But you know film critics better than I do. What do you think they mean when they drop the “LAVG”?

Tasha: I think they mean different things, depending on their familiarity with video games, and depending on the film in question. You’re right, with no context whatsoever, it would be a meaningless statement. But so is any other context-free comparison: If I say a movie is just like Miracle Whip or a bicycle or King Christian X of Denmark, those are equally meaningless claims. As a critic, I hope I can contextualize better than that.

In 2014, Nick Schager did a breakdown in Empire Magazine, explaining what “like a video game” can mean in the context of a film, and citing specific scenes for comparison: Oldboy’s hallway battle looks like a side-scroller, District 9’s over-the-shoulder camera POV looks like a first-person shooter, and so forth. Usually, critics do spell out what they mean when they say a particular film is video-gamey. And I think the meaning behind that statement has changed — that it used to be used primarily to describe film scenes in obvious CGI environments, with the porelessness and gimbal-limbed characters of earlier video games. As film CGI and game engines have gotten more sophisticated, that usage has diminished, and it’s being replaced by more complicated ideas, like the ones Schager cites. I don’t think the problem here is lack of clarity, I think it’s more often derision — the idea that comparing the two forms of media is usually a way of saying “This film has lowered itself to the level of mere video games.” Is that dismissiveness what bothers you?

Oldboy | Tartan Films

Chris: I won’t let off film critics that easily. Schager points to specific cinematic flourishes that intentionally borrow from games, and yes, in these ways — POV and slow-mo action — films can resemble certain video games. But what a bland point! Most of these “video game effects” were themselves borrowed from film. You could replace video game with “anime” in Schager’s piece and it would hold up just fine.

As for the derisive tone of the phrase, I think it’s a side effect of the larger problem, which is that many film critics (though not all) display a surface-level understanding of games. Their opinions often hinge on how a film looks, when the pleasure of games most often stems from how they feel. Yes, Oldboy’s hallway battle is flat like a 2D beat ‘em up, but the way the fight progresses is nothing like a video game. Visually, it’s more intimate than a game, pulled in tightly on the actors. And the fight has an unpredictable violence, nothing like the predictable and repetitive combat of fight games. The difference is noticeable in this NES demake of the sequence.

The real comparison to a game, if any, is the power fantasy: one man brutalizing a dozen or so foot soldiers for little more than the audience’s pleasure. It’s been a while since I read a review of Oldboy, but I certainly don’t remember discussions of video game-like power fantasies. Am I asking too much of film critics?

Tasha: Well, the thing there is that video games don’t culturally own the idea of naked power fantasies, particularly of the “one dude can take all comers” variety. That story-shape has been a part of American superhero comic books since the genre started, and it’s still a major part of mainstream superhero stories, including in cinema. It’s a huge part of both John Wick movies. So we don’t need to reference video games to convey what that aspect of Oldboy feels like — we could just as well reference the Neo vs. Smith fights in the Matrix sequels, or any classic martial arts film.

But side-scrolling single-plane forward-moving action is a lot more common in video games than film. I’m not sure I believe games originally stole that visual language from film — it’s fundamental to how early 2D games work, and films were never operating in that kind of single plane. Even if they did, games have stolen it so thoroughly that they own it now. And I personally don’t see a problem with referencing something culturally ubiquitous that summons up an instant mental picture, like Canabalt, to explain to an audience how Oldboy feels like an endless-runner game.

The “how a film looks” vs. “how a game feels” argument is really interesting, though. Does it help to know that when I talk about a film being like a game, I’m usually talking about how a game feels? Here’s a film sequence I first watched back in 2004 that looked a lot sleeker and slicker than the video games of its era, but when I watched it, I still thought “Video game!” Why? Because of the way it feels.

In this scene from Brad Bird’s Pixar movie The Incredibles, the camera does sometimes adopt an over-the-shoulder POV like a first-person shooter, and sometimes it approaches the action side-on like a scroller. More often, it gets ahead of the character in a way you might see in modern games, but not so much in 2004. But it wasn’t the camera positioning or the CGI that struck me here, it was the feeling of one character trying to evade, outwit, and fight a mob of baddies in a series of difficult quick-time events: grab the vine at the exact right second, jump here and then here, punch-punch-punch run, dodge and duck at the exact right second… I’ve played this kind of game. (If this scene was a level, I’d probably have to play it a couple hundred times before checking the YouTube walkthrough to see what I was doing wrong.) More to the point, as I was watching this scene, I could feel what a good immersive Incredibles video game would feel like, and how similarly it would be choreographed. Is this a legit comparison to you, or is it still apples and oranges?

Chris: Yes! And no! And sorta! I remember this scene, and you’re absolutely right about how it calls to mind a certain type of video game. For me, it’s Crash Bandicoot and the linear platformers of the original Sony PlayStation.

The jargony genre name is the 2.5D platformer, as in they occupy two and a half dimensions, rather than fully explorable 3D worlds. Like the bulk of this action sequence, the game plots its hero on a linear path that extended toward the horizon. And in both the game and the film the layout is claustrophobic, the lead character confined by walls of opposing jungle foliage or cave rock.

I suspect that The Incredibles was animated this way — tight, on-rails — for the same reason Crash Bandicoot was. At the time, producing a dense and lifelike three-dimensional jungle was practically impossible. Designers had neither the tools nor the computing horsepower. The compromise was a perfectly flat, meticulously carved hallway on which the action takes place, with a wallpaper of trees to create the illusion of an endless forest. In that way, you could say The Incredibles is like a video game, in that, as a computer animated film, it shares a limitation with a computer animated game.

As for the moment-to-moment action — “punch-punch-punch run, dodge and duck at the exact right second” — I just don’t see the Incredibles sequence as being that different than, say, the truck chase in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, any fight scene in the early works of Jackie Chan, or the gunplay of peak John Woo, all of which happened before video games as we know them.

Hard Boiled | Golden Princess Film Production

Tasha: But when we compare films and video games, we’re not talking about origins. If we were writing about that Indiana Jones truck chase today, we might well compare it to a video game. That isn’t a claim that video games came first — it’s just a way of reaching for something familiar to help readers visualize the scene being described.

Chris: I know, I’m being terribly pedantic here, but like you said about power fantasies, I think games and film have borrowed so much from one another, that the very blunt line “like a video game” is meaningless. What’s meaningful, at least for me, is the unpacking of that initial idea. Like a video game is useful as shorthand for a critic’s notebook, from which it can be unpacked onto the page.

Am I the worst? Is this me being too sensitive about my precious toys?

Tasha: Yes! And no! And sorta! I don’t personally think it matters that films were doing action before video games, and that it was sometimes linear action, and that it sometimes pitted one hero against many villains. Video games have come to own certain stagings and dynamics by culturally dominating them, by embracing them more than films have, and by taking them to culturally ubiquitous places. Put it this way: there were films about plumbers before Mario games existed, but today if someone made a film about a cheery mustachioed Italian plumber who always wears a short-brimmed snapback hat and red overalls, a film critic writing about that character without referencing Mario would appear to be badly out of touch with the culture. I agree with you that critics need to be knowledgeable and specific about their references to make those references hit home, but I hope you agree that if a comparison is apt and it’s contextualized enough to make it meaningful, it’s okay to use it.

Chris: Yeah, I agree with that.

Gears of War 4
Gears of War 4 | The Coalition

Tasha: But here’s the issue we ran into with my Spectral review: I compared the film to Gears Of War both because the gigantic future-guns the characters are using by the end of the film reminded me so much of that game, and because the quest-to-quest nature of the movie felt like the Gears games feel: the entire film is about bringing an object or person to a place to trigger a big fight, then repeating that process until the final battle. I’ve seen other critics use “like a video game” for this purpose as well — to define a film that seems like a possibly arbitrary series of connected quests and fights, and especially to define films that use the “quest, fight, quest, fight mini-boss, quest, fight boss monster” mold. (The Clash Of Titans remake and its sequel comes particularly to mind, but a lot of fantasy films follow this pattern. And yes, they have since at least Jason And The Argonauts, but see my point about that above.) How do you feel about critics comparing films to games specifically because of this kind of structure?

Chris: This sort of comparison is fine, so long as the critic — as you did in your review — points to a specific structure of a specific game. Which I think gets to my big takeaway from this conversation. Critics shouldn’t say “it’s like a video game,” they should say “it’s like this video game” or this genre, or this structural conceit.

I’ll invert the issue: video game critics sometimes like to compare certain video games to film. Heavy Rain is “like a movie.” Call of Duty “is cinematic.” Neither of those are especially useful descriptions. Specificity goes along way in livening up the analysis. Heavy Rain aspires (and fails) to be an interactive adaptation of the grimy worlds of David Fincher. Call of Duty, at its best, captures the kinetic patriotism of early 21st century Jerry Bruckheimer, and in some ways, has preceded the modern works of Peter Berg.

Broad strokes do both films and games a disservice. I think we can agree on that.

Tasha: It does criticism a disservice, too! So it sounds like we’ve found a compromise: critics can compare films to video games (and vice versa) if they’re knowledgeable enough about both media to make those comparisons worthwhile, if they’re specific enough in their comparisons to make it clear what they’re saying, and if they aren’t just using the parallels to dismiss both the film they’re talking about and the games they’re comparing it to.

All of which sounds like common sense to me, and like saying, “Critics should be rational, informed, thorough, and clear.” I’ll be the first to admit we don’t always live up to all of those goals, but these are good aspirations. So is understanding what we mean when we use this overused phrase, and realizing there are a lot of ways to use it lazily or unproductively.

I’m glad we both won here, Chris. This is just like a co-op video game!