Silver Screen, Gold Disc

The Sincerest Form of Imitation


Games’ relationship with cinema is pretty simple: Games rip it off.

Games are, hugely, a derivative art-form. Their best visual motifs and scenarios are taken directly from one movie or another. What’s amazing is how relatively few in number these are. This article evolved from a conversation with a designer friend of mine when we tried to work out the smallest number of films we’d have to remove from existence to destroy the game industry in its current state. With a short-list of six thrown into the void, the industry would be barely recognizable, full of designers stroking their chin and thinking, “You know, I know we have to drop our soldiers from an orbital vessel to the ground in some manner of ship, but God knows what we could use.”

Clearly, cinema is derivative culture, too. Films echo films all the time. But at least a filmmaker had a bright idea somewhere along the line. Games echoing film just implies that game developers aren’t smart enough to think up ideas themselves. That films are now taking from games doesn’t particularly help address the imbalance either. Taking games’ derivative plots, settings and mores and turning them into cinema only ends in concentrated derivativeness; a photocopy of a photocopy. The actual original bits of game culture integrated go no further than the occasional first-person shot in a movie like Doom.

The real hopes for turning parasitism into symbiosis lie outside the films, which are directly licensed. The games that resonate most are those which make themselves influential, like NHL being used sociologically in Swingers. And if you look outside of cinema, games’ cultural mores weigh heavy on comics, like Scott Pilgrim, or TV series, like Spaced.

But, this process is relatively new and has a long way to go yet. At the moment, the conceptualists of videogames are often indebted to cinema to the point of creative bankruptcy. Admittedly, some fare better than others. Even if cinema is stripped away totally, specific genres walk away with relatively few scars. Until Lord of the Rings, fantasy cinema was only a small influence on Western Fantasy games. They took either from a literary source or good-ol’ Dungeons & Dragons. Eastern fantasy games’ influences are equally hard to tie down to a direct singular influence. Outside fantasy, sports games would be pretty much untouched. However, it’s interesting to speculate what sports games would look like if you didn’t draw from modern television’s coverage of sporting events.

Some other sub-genres are left bereft. Fantasy games can get away without movies, just about. Science fiction games just fall apart. For as long as videogames have been a rising cultural force, the primary way science fiction has been consumed is on the silver screen. While Halo quietly took some pieces from Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, its more celluloid-inspired riffs were more obvious. Irrational’s forthcoming BioShock – inspired by objectivist classic (yes, I know: contradiction in terms) Atlas Shrugged – really is in a minority.

The following list is our best attempt to collate those who have been pillaged so often by games, it’s almost reached the point where we’ve forgot where the component elements came from. In terms of series, we’re taking the film which was taken from most.

If any of these films had never happened, the game industry would be so screwed they’d even have to – ladies, hold your man, gentlemen, pour a stiffening brandy – try being original for a change.

Mad Max 2
Mad Max manages the rare trick of both being enormously influential and curiously ignored. In terms of its look – once described by JG Ballard as “Punk’s Sistine Chapel” – it entirely cemented the idea of what anything even vaguely post-apocalyptic should look like. Yes, come the end of the world, everyone will immediately attach bits of car tires to their shoulders and apply a car-grease foundation to their features.

Dawn of the Dead
When the game shops are full of games which take from George Romero movies, the dead will walk the earth. It will come soon enough. Especially in certain sub-genres – anything that marches with a shuffling gait beneath the banner of the survival/horror game – the images of society falling apart (shortly followed by the remaining humans) lingers in many a designer’s mind. It would probably be cruel to suggest that the zombies have inspired a considerable number of AI programmers over the years, even when not programming zombies.

The Matrix
For all its success, The Matrix arguably would have scored higher if it was a less derivative work itself. For example, the trench coat and shades was already a post-cyberpunk clich

Blade Runner
Put it like this: Blade Runner invented the future. While others’ view of the future is clear fantasy, as Ridley Scott’s world unveils in front of us, there’s a nagging worry that we may end up living there. Clearly, Blade Runner is a film that has had huge cultural impact on how everyone portrays the day after tomorrow.

Star Wars
If we were looking across the whole life of videogames, it’s arguable that Star Wars would be the single most influential movie in the industry’s history. Its release in 1977 provided inspiration in everything from high level ideas like game types (Space Invaders was created in 1978. Space remained the natural adventure-playground for games for years afterward) to the base implementation (even if videogame tech could have made more realistic noises, with Star Wars influence, it’s entirely possible they’d still have applied an exciting and iconic array of bleeps). A virtual sub-industry has been created around the Star Wars franchise, and when a developer wishes to present an enormous space battle, he’s thinking of matching what Lucas managed.

Ironically, while Alien was the original, it’s Aliens where the majority of developers go when their creative well runs dry. For example, Giger’s original design for the body-horror, genitalia-phobic organic alien has inspired anyone who sat down to work out something icky to shoot, but the implementation in games owes more to Aliens. An alien’s lifecycle is too iconic to take without being too obvious, but the more generalized egg-laying queen has been used time and time over. Any alien race, if they’re not taking from the “Grays” of urban folklore, is more often than not Giger-derived.

But that isn’t even the primary influence. Instead, the movie’s Colonial Marines provide the backbone for everything from Halo to Command & Conquer‘s view of the future. Where in even the dirtiest parts of the Star Wars universe are elements of romance, the Colonial Marines take their own visual cues from a post-Vietnam military with its array of firepower, gung-ho slogans and omnipresent wise-cracks. The Colonial Marine’s weaponry provides the backbone of most shooters. Hell, if they managed to cram a mini-gun into the movie, they’d have a majority shareholding in weapons stocks in any given shooter.

It goes on an on, and watching Aliens can feel like an advertising video for game hardware. The drop-ship design specifically is borrowed whenever an orbital landing is called for. Actually pre-empting Full Metal Jacket, the easy, brutal camaraderie is reprised time and time over. Developers make use of the Marines’ hand-scanners, which chirped faster the closer the enemy way, to build tension. The specific design of the armor, all clasps and hard edges, shows up everywhere. Even the use of dropped flares as a cliffhanger comes from Aliens. The billowing smoke and blue light that director James Cameron fills the corridors with are modern games’ default atmosphere.

If we removed Aliens from existence, the list of games left without a premise could have filled this article. To badly paraphrase Voltaire: If Aliens didn’t exist, someone would have had to invent it. And really, that would just be too much work, wouldn’t it?

Kieron Gillen has been writing about videogames for far too long now. His rock and roll dream is to form an Electro-band with Miss Kittin and SHODAN pairing up on vocals.

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