Gaming as a Dad

25 years of gaming now with son and daughter in tow.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A few minutes with Jamie Russell author of Generation Xbox How Video Games Invaded Hollywood.

Generation Xbox: How Videogames Invaded Hollywood
Generation Xbox - Hollywood is under attack from videogames. Movies defined the 20th century but games are now pushing them aside as the medium that captures our time, fascination and money. Generation Xbox digs into the love-hate relationship between games and cinema that has led us to this point. It's a story of disaster, triumph and Angelia Jolie in hot pants. Learn how Steven Spielberg's game-making dreams fell apart and why Silicon Valley pioneers wooed Stanley Kubrick. Discover the story behind the failed Halo movie, how videogame tech paved the way for Avatar, and what companies like Ubisoft and Valve are doing to take gaming to the next level. Based on more than 100 interviews with leading figures from videogames and Hollywood, Generation Xbox is the definitive history of an epic power struggle that has reshaped the entertainment landscape. Are you ready to play?  

    After reading Jamie Russell's book I thought his insight on gaming and movies was great and Gaming as a Dad wanted to talk to him.  The good new was he said yes and the better news was he took the time out of his busy schedule to make this an interview worth reading, maybe twice.

GaaD: If given the choice would you rather be playing a videogame or heading to a movie? 
    Jamie: This should be a really simple answer but… it’s not! I actually started off as a literature postgrad and spent about 5 minutes teaching English to listless undergrads who used to turn up to my seminars without even having read the poem we were talking about that week. It was enough to make me realize I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life – and that I also wasn’t a very good, or patient, teacher. So my background is literature. 

GaaD: A book then?
    Jamie: [Well] I then segued into film criticism and spent about a decade writing reviews for the BBC and Total Film magazine watching about eight movies a week in London’s Soho district, which is where all the press preview theatres are tucked away in the basements of buildings.

  After 10 years hanging out in shoebox sized cinemas watching every new movie, I realized that the film industry was really dying on its feet – the ratio of worthwhile movies, especially Hollywood studio movies, to crap was just depressing. I was doing what many people told me was the best job in the world… but I was losing the will to live with every new Jennifer Aniston romcom or Michael Bay spectacular I had to sit through.

GaaD: With movies slowly killing you and teaching not an option video games were the answer?

    Jamie: [It was about that time] a friend showed me Half-Life 2 and something just clicked. I’d been a gamer since the late-1970s but it was the first time I really, really believed that videogames had come of age as a medium. Since then it’s been games that have consistently excited me as both an industry and an art form. I’m far more interested right now in Day Z than Skyfall, the new Bond movie.

GaaD: With videogames peaking your interest, and a background in movies, the book was a natural progression then?

   Jamie: I ended up writing Generation Xbox: How Videogames Invaded Hollywood, [because] I wanted to get a handle on how this upstart industry was chipping away at the primacy of the Hollywood dream factory. I had a sense that there was a history between these two worlds – a kind of tortured love affair that stretched over several decades and I realized no one had ever mined that kind of history. 

GaaD: So games or movies?

   Jamie: Now having said all that, my main focus at the moment is screenwriting, so go figure…

GaaD: Nice!

GaaD: I feel that movies have gotten to the point where they are trying to cater to a mass international audience resulting in watered down versions of a great ideas. Videogames, however, have made huge strives to have, and develop, complex stories and themes. Often games will be delayed to perfect it and rearly do you hear this about movies. Videogames seem to be more interested about carrying out a vision than just making money. Your thoughts.

      Jamie:  I think the movie industry is in crisis – a crisis caused by everything from piracy to the recession (depression?) to the impending death of 3D and Hollywood’s own lazy hubris. But the videogame industry certainly has its fair share of problems too. Comparing the two industries in monolithic terms is very tricky – after all, there are an awful lot of bad sequels, reboots and cash ins in both games and movies and I’m not sure that I’d say videogames are more interested in delivering a vision rather than just making money.

GaaD: I guess it's always about the money in the end.

   Jamie: [Although], speaking personally, videogames are invigorating and innovative because they’re such a young medium and also because the basic tech used to produce them is in flux in a way that the movie camera (leaving aside 3D for a moment) really isn’t. Look at what David Cage has achieved technically from Omikron to Fahrenheit, Heavy Rain and his incoming Beyond. The technical leaps that Quantic Dream’s games are making in like 15 years are staggering – in tech terms it’s like leapfrogging from Eadweard Muybridge’s galloping horses to, I don’t know, Prometheus or something. Cinema doesn’t have that kind of excitement anymore. It also doesn’t have the probing, questing fervor that a lot of games have at the moment. The rules are still being written in interactive entertainment in a way that they aren’t in mainstream Hollywood movies. Personally, as an outsider looking in on both industries, it feels like a question of rapid evolution vs painful stagnation.

GaaD: Video games have now made it to the Smithsonian. Gamers have felt from the start that video games and video game making is an art form. Does an exhibit like this finally give video games a voice in the art world? Does this help the non gamer realise the artistic quality of video games? Does this finally put video games in the same artistic category of movies, books, and music?

   Jamie: Do I care if videogames are in the Smithsonian? To be honest, no. It makes absolutely no difference to my understanding of games as a medium. William S. Burroughs liked to say that “Art is a three-letter word”, which was basically his way of side-stepping the whole “Is It Art?” debate because really it’s a question of bogus semantics.

GaaD: Like pornography, you know art when you see it. 

   Jamie: I think the time when videogames needed someone else to legitimize them is long gone. That inferiority complex has vanished. Just look at Journey, a game that had more of an emotional impact on me than most of the movies I’ve seen this year. You can get all Ebert about it and start trying to define “Art” but I prefer not to. It’s a time sink of a debate that’s ultimately very subjective.

   One of the interesting things about writing Generation Xbox was hearing the stories from the games industry people who were in the first and second wave of Hollywood crossovers. These were the people like Howard Scott Warshaw at Atari or the guys who built Hasbro’s unreleased NEMO console (which used live action footage not sprites). They rubbed shoulders with Hollywood types and were quite often star struck. But it was an unrequited love affair. As one of them said to me “Hollywood at that point could care less. They saw games back then the way you or I would look at a Speak 'n' Spell or some Leapfrog learning product for tykes today: 'That's nice. We make movies. Kiss our ass'".

GaaD: That was then. What about now?

   Jamie: Today things seems very different. Do the guys at Rockstar care about the Smithsonian? I doubt it. Do they care about Hollywood? Hell, no! A big chunk of my book has been about showing how that shift from kid brother to equal player has happened – not just in dollar terms but also in terms of psychology. Videogames don’t need to be legitimized by The Smithsonian or Hollywood… they’re slowly legitimizing themselves.

GaaD: I have talked about the Cost vs Value in gaming  before. Why do you feel that people are more willing to pay $60 to have a video game rather than then spend the $11 to see a movie?

    Jamie: That’s a good question although you’d have to ask “Are they really more willing to spend $60?” I guess it depends on the consumer, the game and the movie in question. Remember, the $11 you’re paying is for a movie going experience, rather than an actual in-your-hand product. Plus you have to factor in all the other associated costs. When I take my family to the movies, I need a new mortgage to cover the add-ons like popcorn and drinks! So the movie-going experience is somewhat ephemeral and rarely as cheap as simply paying $11… Whereas a $60 game always has a resell value even if it’s poor. That’s before we even get into the 90 minutes vs X amount of single player playing hours, multiplayer hours etc. Does a game like Trials Evolution or Minecraft even have a time cap on it? Given the amount of time you could sink into using them as a creative tool – building your own levels and cities – it’s questionable. I think the current crop of games that are actually “tools” to do something entertainingly creative is quite staggering and it has a huge impact on questions of “cost versus value”.

GaaD: Video games pull you in make you feel like part of the world that you control the story. Games like Bioshock, Spec Ops: The Line are adding morality to the choices that you make helping a player honestly care about the characters and the choices you make as a player. Movies are passive, although you care about the characters, movies offer no, "What if" options. What do you feel needs to be done by the movie industry to help audience feel more part of the experience rather than being just an on looker.

    Jamie: I don’t think the movie industry can do a damn thing to be honest! I certainly don’t think the future of movies is interactive. In the book I talk about the history of Interfilm, a Sony-funded interactive movie experience that had a short-lived outing in theaters in the ‘90s. It was a fascinating dead end but was really proof that it’s impossible to make a communal game controlled by a crowd. Or at least, impossible to make such a movie game fun.

   I’d actually flip the question on its head and ask “What do games need to do to make their audience (the players, I mean) feel more part of the experience?” My gut instinct is that games as a medium are on the cusp of quite radical changes in storytelling in terms of delivering more emotional experiences that resonate far deeper than simply “Go and capture the flag” or “Evade the guards”.

GaaD: Sounds to me videogames have some work to do.

     Jamie: From what I’ve seen of The Last of Us, for instance, it looks like Naughty Dog are trying to push the envelope on dynamically changing storytelling within games – the sense that dialogue and character might change during the play experience depending on what you do and when you do it. So finding a new location might trigger dialogue about a character’s backstory that would otherwise go unheard if you didn’t find that spot. Interactive storytelling is still in its infancy and I think it’s what the next generation of “cinematic” games is going to experiment more with. I’d love to see a game like Half-Life 2 where your relationship with an NPC like Alyx could change dramatically depending on how you treated her. Imagine if the game allowed you to seduce her via your in-game actions, or allowed you to abuse her to the point that she decided she didn’t like you after all and abandoned you or killed you. As the tech progresses into the next-gen it’s not the visuals that will matter – I hope – so much as the realism of the character’s interactions and the scope for making increasingly complex and dramatic non-linear stories.

GaaD: Games like Half Life, Halo, and Bioshock are believed to be great candidates for being converted into movies. I how ever believe that games of this scope could never be successful - quality wise - as movies are passive and games are interactive. The huge scope of gaming world would be lost on a movie screen making a good gaming movie nearly impossible. Your thoughts.

   Jamie: I don’t see why you can’t make a great movie set in the worlds of Half-Life, Halo or BioShock. All you need is a creative visionary who understands those worlds and has the resources to make it happen. I can totally see a movie about, for instance, the rise of Andrew Ryan from Bioshock or the fall of Reach in Halo. The problem with most videogame adaptations is that they either slavishly try to mimic the game’s story (which is an idiotic decision) or veer so far away from it (see Hitman) that it becomes nothing more than a forgettable adjunct to the game.

GaaD: Should the game makers make the movies?

   Jamie:  I’d love to see Valve make their own movie – although I doubt they will. Those guys are fantastic storytellers and with the right budget and freedom from studio interference I’m sure they could make a fantastic movie. If they did I guess the result wouldn’t be “The Movie of the Game” but more of an ancillary, supportive work that would deepen and enrich the IP. It would be an add-on much like Valve’s Left 4 Dead comics or the Assassin’s Creed novels. That kind of transmedia/cross-media approach is something I talk about quite a bit in my book. It’s also why I’m really intrigued by Ubisoft’s movie development arm and the work they’re doing at the moment – if those guys can’t get a decent Splinter Cell or Assassin’s Creed movie made given the clout they’re wielding in Hollywood and the talent they’re putting into this then I really think it’s game over.

GaaD: There is hope, it just might look different.

  Jamie: I take the point that games are interactive and movies are not. But really, right now, that doesn’t have much impact I don’t think. Yes, a movie will never replicate the feel of playing a game, the experience of it. How could it? But it can replicate the game’s worlds and bring somewhere like City 17 or Reach to life. Players want that – they’re hungry for this kind of cross-media expansion of their favourite games into other mediums – so it’s not necessarily a stumbling block. Of course, if the next-gen does what I hope it will and make far more interactive stories in games then the idea of making a movie based on a game will become increasing silly. But we’ve yet to see just how non-linear game storytelling is yet to become. Certainly right now it’s less of a problem – although any potential Mass Effect movie is obviously hamstrung right from the start if it tries to use Shepherd. Is s/he a man or a woman?

GaaD: I have felt what makes the movies less of and experience, compared to video games, is the lack of accomplishment at the end. Movie credits roll and you leave. Just as recently as 10 minutes ago I had to stop what I was doing to recognize and celebrate my son's, Yankee Candle Kid, success in finishing an Indie game. Do you feel this is a large part of why games have surpased movies for our entertainment dollars?

   Jamie: That’s a really interesting question and not one I’m sure I have an answer to. I’m sure someone out there has done some research into the psychology of games vs movies in terms of a sense of accomplishment. It would be fascinating to see what they came up with. Maybe we’re hungry for that kind of endorphin rush. I was reading about email addiction the other day – and how the ping of a new email arriving gives us a dopamine hit. Maybe our online, interactive culture is gearing us up to want more interactive, achievement-driven entertainments?

GaaD: Xbox live, Playstation Network, and Steam have made it so playing video games together is easier than ever, a truly communal experience. All it takes is a few texts and a group can be playing, chatting and truly sharing an experience together. Do you think movies will ever regain that sence of community again or is it lost for ever?

  Jamie: I think it’s largely long gone. In fact, when you go to the movie theater today you find people having that sense of community independent of the people around them. They’re in a clique of friends or they’re hooked on their phones texting and tweeting and Facebooking. They’re not giving everything to the communal experience in the same what that maybe they used to years ago. Perhaps that’s just nostalgia on my part, though.

   Technology has certainly made it easier to connect with others but it’s also limited the opportunities for spontaneous in-theater connections as a movie audience, I think. The real social element of movies has now moved online in the prerelease hype, the forums, the online communities of film fans and post-release debate. That said, there’s nothing more electric than watching a really great film with a vocal, committed audience. It’s just something that’s less apparent these days – audiences are more ironic in their viewing habits, movies are less exhilarating and there are too many other distractions like texts and emails.

   I think this generation – Generation Xbox, iGeneration, whatever you want to call them – has gone through a radical mental shift. Their attention span is very different from earlier generations. Even me myself as a 38 year old gamer can sense the change that’s happened in my life since the rise of the web, smartphones, email, etc. Contemporary life is very fragmented and it’s much harder for us to focus. A great movie used to be an experience you had to commit to – it might be years before you’d see it on VHS or on TV or even in a theater again. Today it’s not longer such a precious experience. You can go to the theater then go home and torrent the movie that night and watch a cam of it right away. A month or two later you can buy the Blu-ray. There’s no pressure to commit to a single viewing experience: the idea of a movie being a big, singular event is lost a lot of its power. There are exceptions of course – The Avengers, Prometheus for instance – but that’s a lot to do with canny studio marketing and hype. Certainly those movies are rare reminders of how it used to be.

GaaD: Kindles and Ipads have done much for making reading popular again, ironically when technology was thought to kill the idea of reading a book. Videogames have done a lot to help the movie industry do you feel video games will become an outlet for movie directors with a story to tell but no place to tell it?

   Jamie:  Lord, I hope not. One of the curses of movie directors is that they seem to think games are like movies when they’re clearly not. I don’t know of any movie director who’s ever had an idea for a game that’s generated brilliant game play apart from Steven Spielberg. In the book I talk a lot about Medal of Honor, the game that Spielberg was the creative force behind at his Dream Works Interactive company in the 90s. I also talk a little about LMNO a canned, EA-funded game Spielberg was working on with a designer called Doug Church. Everything I know about the latter is secondhand but it sounds fascinating – a lot like what Naughty Dog is doing with The Last of Us in fact. I get the sense that Spielberg saw that game play and AI could make game stories dynamic very early on. I’d love Spielberg to make a narrative driven game rather than Boom Blox. For the most part, though, Hollywood directors don’t know much about game design. And why should they? I’m giving Del Toro the benefit of the doubt at the moment…

GaaD: As technology has advanced it has played a part in helping both video games and movies often with one back stratching the other, do you feel that new gaming engines like Unreal 4 will give the video game industry that last push to blending the two industries into one or will this just make it that much hard for the movie industry to compete with games and stay relevant?

   Jamie: I think there’s a distinction we need to make between the game and movie industries and games and movies as mediums. Unreal 4 is going to help games feel more cinematic as a medium, that’s pretty certain. We’re on the cusp of truly realistic graphics – to the point where there isn’t really anywhere to go. We can get better animation – especially of characters – but really, do we need much better lighting effects? I don’t think the tech can add much more in that regard. What games need more urgently is a better sense of what they can do emotionally. They need to grow up a little in terms of trying to tell stories. Now not every game falls into this category – Angry Birds, for example – but the ones that are trying to compete with novels and movies certainly need to work out how to emotionally engage the player beyond simply run, shoot, kill mechanics. Something like Journey is illustrative in its emotional affect, so is Braid or even Alan Wake or Left 4 Dead (I love how scary those games are in their gameplay – the sense that the monster could be right behind you is as creepy as any horror movie’s visceral frights). Even Minecraft, in survival mode, taps into something really, really primal.

I’m not sure Unreal 4 is going to make much difference to the two industries blending together. Outside of the grey zone of CGI – where games/movies crossover quite a lot – the industries are very, very different.

GaaD: How long before your book is turned into a movie then licenced to a video game? Or if you prefer made into a video game and licenced as a movie? In the end would you even recongnize your work? Is this why Hollywood and Video Games will forever be at odds with story telling/ or if you say yes Do you feel this is why Hollywood and Video games play off each other so well? Or a little from A and a little from B?

   Jamie: Ha! That would be something. Imagine a game where you play a Hollywood exec trying to figure out how to woo a game developer into selling you the movie rights!

I would love to see a documentary about the games/movies crossover, though. Most people think it’s just about crappy movies like Max Payne but it is really a much more interesting field than that. In the book I cover everything from the way the movie industry was terrified by Atari in the 70s and 80s to the first contact between Hollywood and games designers during the aborted NEMO console when people like Jane Fonda and Stanley Kubrick were in discussions over making games using live actors. Then there’s everything from the secret history of Spielberg’s influence on the game industry to the aborted Halo movie and how Microsoft got its fingers burned in Hollywood. It’s a really thrilling story of visionaries, drugs and abject failure – you want drama, it’s got it! There’s probably a great movie to be made about games designers – I read a screenplay a while back for a movie based on the rise and fall of Atari. I actually think movies about videogames – as opposed to movies based on videogames – are something we’re going to see a lot more of in the next few years. Indie Game: The Movie was interesting in that regard. I’m always amazed that the videogame industry can generate such huge, well-known IP and such enormous revenues yet if you ask someone on the street who Miyamoto, Ken Levine or Warren Spector is they’d go “Who?” Videogames have such a rich and vibrant history and come with such a loyal, inbuilt audience, it’s only a matter of time until movie producers wake up and realize they’re missing out on a great opportunity.

GaaD: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this and helping out my website. Hopefully I have also created more awareness of your book and the unspoken history of videogames and the movies. Gaming as a Dad welcomes you back anytime.

Jamie: Sure thing.

Okay people now go buy his book and follow Jamie on Twitter!

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