Are Blockbuster Films Better Without Places?

Recently a veritable ‘divine beast’ of games criticism, Ian Bogost, has in his agitation triggered an avalanche of news pieces leaping to reaffirm (or reassess) the standing of videogames within our larger pantheon of media products. How do videogame stories relate to film stories, in terms of quality and style? Should videogames even have stories? What would it mean to embrace or abandon them? Are we winning the war for entertainment supremacy? And so on, essay after essay, tumbling down off Mount Games Criticism like boulders off Mount Hylia.

These questions present the dual hidden assumptions that a) a ‘war for entertainment supremacy’ exists and b) it’s desirable for videogames to ‘win’ it. Do we seek conquest, perhaps, over the neighbouring empire of movies: to surpass its achievements, to steal its citizens, to seize its territories and plunder its wealth? Well, yeah. But there’s also the aspect of spectator sport. Videogames are the home team! We want there to be a contest, and we feel we’ve got a strong contender.

I don’t really care whether movie stories are better than videogame stories. But there’s one thing I’ll say for certain: videogame CGI is in numerous respects way cooler than film CGI.

This is a more important comparison than you might first think. Just consider, for one moment, the sheer human force involved. Each and every Marvel film requires hundreds and hundreds of animators to work really long hours building CGI sets, characters and effects. A great deal of the film’s budget goes towards that. We’re not talking about some incidental production detail; this work threatens to dominate the entire film-making endeavour. In the end, what does all the labour and expense yield? Artfully-composed moving images of the fictional world of Asgard? Well, okay, that’s amazing! But it would be good if, y’know, we could explore the place a little more while we’re at it. What lies in wait behind those fancy Asgardian pillars we notice in the background of the establishing shot? I bet there’s a treasure chest back there! I would like to go find out.

Videogames,. just like Marvel movies, require hundreds and hundreds of people to work really long hours building virtual worlds (a process we in the biz call “Mario time”). Yet in addition to merely framing our fictional places within camera shots, videogames are also really good at letting people explore them. This permits us to build a very strong sense of place since, after all, we are literally constructing places in which we plan for our players to walk around. Hasn’t it always been very important for works of fiction to provide the sense of a place? It’s a big deal, historically speaking.

Videogames like Kitty Horrorshow’s Anatomy and (to a lesser extent) Zelda: Breath of the Wild are excellent at providing this ‘sense of place’. You can walk up and touch things. You can climb on things. You can never finish the game because you were too scared to descend into the basement. These are all excellent fictional experiences. And so, as more and more of our creative budgets funnel downward through the blackened, gaping maw of CGI asset production, videogames shall continue receiving greater blessings from said maw than any denizen of the silver screen.

It’s a tremendous irony, don’t you think? After decades spent in rivalry against the film industry and its formidable storytelling capacities, we discover that Hollywood’s great tent-pole blockbusters have spent those same decades fashioning makeshift ‘walking simulators’ out of expensive CGI-driven panning shots.

Would it be better if these movies took Divine Beast Bogost’s advice and simply stopped aspiring to tell us about places? I don’t really think so. They’ve got their own cool, unique thing going on. I think it is perhaps better if we leave them to it.