Player Hater

Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the first video game movies to be considered free of the video game movie curse. It has made a lot of money, and critics and fans are for once mostly on the same page about its underlying quality. I still think, though, that we haven’t really explored the possibilities of “video game movies.” What I mean by this is that the movie should not just be narratively built around a game, but should formally/aesthetically draw major inspiration from the regularities and properties of games and game platforms. Most people talk about how films handle game plots or visual matches between game characters and film equivalents. These are important but miss a critical part of what makes games unique relative to film. Just as film students must be aware of formal properties of cinema, there is an enormous literature on the formal aspects of digital games.

For example, Bernard Perron has discussed the “heuristic circle” of games as a constant interaction of bottom-up and top-down cognitive processes. The player can execute actions that alter the state of the game, but the state of the game also will change independent of anything the player does. Hence the player is constantly having to integrate top-down decision-making with the bottom-up sensory data generated by the game’s changing state. Simon Dor distinguishes between the manner in which single-player games emphasize “decryption” of more or less fixed relationships between player-induced state changes and game-induced state changes and multiplayer’s continual emphasis on the “prediction” of the future actions of friends and opponents. Critically, players come to understand the features of games in both via the strategies and tactics discoverable via play.

How do considerations like this play out in games practically? I have a lot of games I would call “favorite” or “best” but if forced to choose two to take with me to a desert island I would pick, without hesitation, the original Doom and Metal Gear Solid 2. These are diametric opposites at first glance. Doom has barely any story whereas Metal Gear Solid 2 is heavily scripted. Doom is run and gun whereas Metal Gear Solid 2 revolves around stealthy infiltration. But both are similar in one very critical way: they steadily unsettle you and the nature of the unsettling is unique to the experience of game play. This is achieved via the steady circularity of interaction between the player and the game itself, rather than a fixed series of events that unfold in a darkened cinema. In both, you play the role of a military/security operative that slowly finds his world unraveling. And the farther you go, the less things will make sense.

How Doom and Metal Gear Solid 2 achieve this differs, of course, in their specifics. But the circularity that Perron and Dor explicitly or implicitly refer to defines both experiences and are critical to achieving the subjective but nonetheless highly disturbing feeling of reality unraveling before your very eyes. In Doom, the game’s loop of action is structured to never allow the player to cruise on autopilot. Levels, monsters, and weapons are optimized to present continually varying experiences and challenges that constantly force the player to exert energy thinking of what to do next while dodging and executing attacks. On a less immediate temporal scale, the circularity of game action blinds the player to the subtle erosion of familiar visual and spatial landmarks until they realize – too late – that they are far from home and the only way forward is further into the depths of hell. This requires some further qualification.

Doom is, of course, never tethered to any commitment to realism, so all of its spaces are optimized for gameplay rather than resemblance to real-world locations and landscapes. You do not notice this at first but it suddenly becomes jarringly apparent in Episode 2: The Shores of Hell, in which you start to see the Marine Base in Deimos merge with demonic and otherworldly architecture. By Episode 3: Inferno, you have entered hell itself and are confronted with increasingly bizarre, grotesque, and sadistic inversions of familiar artifacts and interfaces. The Playstation port of Doom is even more surreal and terrifying, taking advantage of PSX’s technical architecture to bathe the levels in sickly colors and make the monsters sound even more inhuman with the reverb-heavy sound effects. Either way, when you finish playing either the PC or PSX port, you have the strange feeling of a nightmare or a fever dream rather than a realistic experience. What the hell just happened?

Doom unapologetically embraces its artifice but does not dwell on it. Metal Gear Solid 2 takes the opposite approach, as it is self-consciously reflexive about its status as artifice. In MGS2, the player begins with a seemingly familiar scenario as opposed to Doom’s strange formalism: a hostage crisis on an oil platform. Over time, the player is trapped within a decaying loop of action and response. They come to realize that the situation they are coping with is in fact a recreation of prior events, and much of the choices they have made have in fact already been made for them. Accordingly, the game begins to take on the feeling of a simulation that is glitching out. Oddities and inconsistencies multiply and understandings of who is in charge and what the mission is change. But the worst is yet to come. As with Doom, the player can at least take some comfort in the regularity of a basic gameplay loop. But even that is not safe from the game’s progressive degeneration into unreality.

Just as in the infamous Psycho Mantis scene of Metal Gear Solid – the game that immediately preceded MGS2 – entities within the game will directly interfere with the player’s control schemes and visual display in order to shock the player into recognition of the game artifice. The game and game characters begin to directly breach the careful confinement between the player and the game world, producing increasingly more and more distortions in the mechanics of the gameplay loop. Only when the player has been “alienated” from the familiar does it become clear that the player’s experience of agency was mostly illusory. And this is a very powerful shock. The controller has become the controlled. It is these qualities that made the game divisive among fans, who found themselves perplexed and frustrated by the way in which the game denied them the sense of power and purpose they expected from an action techno-thriller. This begins with the game abruptly switching viewpoint from the familiar MGS1 protagonist Snake to the unfamiliar Raiden, and steadily gets worse.

Doom only hinted at this loss of control and breach of the implicit contract with the player when it mocked players that beat the first episode (“you’re supposed to win, aren’t you?”). In MGS2 this feeling of friction and disappointment is pervasive and omnipresent. Doom has produced two forgettable movies and I have heard a MGS1 film is in pre-production. What would make good adaptations of either, in my opinion? A good director could perhaps conventionally capture some of the qualities of these games via sound screenwriting and expert visual choices, but he or she would still only produce a crude imitation of the underlying circularity of interaction critical to the subjective sensation of unraveling I have described. But if a filmmaker took seriously the formal properties of the game medium, he or she might be able to find innovative and unexpected ways to incorporate them into film via novel forms of cinematography and narrative structure.

I am confident that this is possible to do, especially because it has been done when the goal has been something other than making films about digital games. Films ranging from Groundhog Day to The Shining all have incorporated interesting forms of circularity and repetition as organizing constructs. Visually films like Tron and The Matrix capture the way in which games are guided primarily by their own internal logic, however strange that may appear outside the context of the game. Perhaps one day we will get a movie about a video game that seriously incorporates influences from the game medium into the language of film. It is not clear how or why this will happen, mostly because the commercial incentives do not suggest anyone will try. However, if either the makers of Doom or MGS2 had purely been guided by commercial incentives, neither of those games would exist. So there is some hope for better game movies.