The Game of the Movie: Great Filmmakers and their Game Equivalents

As our upcoming Metropolis Remix should make clear, we’re not just video game geeks– we’re also pretty big film geeks. And, to celebrate the announcement of our remix, we thought we’d run an article that let us indulge both of those. Games and film are both visual mediums and communicate in a lot of the same language. So here are three filmmakers we love, and the games that talk about similar ideas and use similar cinematic/narrative techniques to do so. And of course, what better way to start than the director who started this whole debate?

The Movies: Fritz Lang

Fritz Lang is known for two things (well, three, if you count helping to create rocket science)– making some of the best German Expressionist films ever, and making some of the best film noir movies ever. His work in the silent era– MetropolisThe Woman in the Moon –are dizzyingly imaginative and grandiose, staggeringly ambitious and beautiful. His “talking” films–MThe Testament of Dr. Mabuse, and, later, The Big Heat— are some of the earliest examples of noir: they’re dark, brooding, intricate pieces with ambiguous morality and a weary pessimism.

The best introduction to the man’s themes and range would be to watch his two masterpieces, Metropolis (why not try our remix!) and M. The former is as big as the pictures ever got, an operatic and potent sci-fi epic filled with the best special effects work of the era, big political ideas, allegorical heroes and proletarian sentiment. The latter is painfully quiet, drenched in shadow and paranoia, anchored not by visuals or big ideas but by Peter Lorre’s career-making performance as a sad, isolated pedophile serial killer (in 1931, people!) and Gustaf Gründgens as the cold-hearted mob boss hunting him. They’re radically different despite being separated by only four years, both united by a sense of social awareness and humanity.

It’s not too hard to find games that are big and sweeping epics, and shadowy dingy noir experiences are equally easy to come by. But we knew we’d need a game that could cover both ends of Lang’s style; something that had the grandeur and majesty of a rocket launch and the gritty humanism of Lee Marvin’s sadistic mob enforcer.

The Game: Bioshock

Okay. This is… a pretty obvious choice.

It’s no secret that we love Bioshock. We mention it a lot. And, even leaving aside the twisting plot and player-driven storytelling, this breadth is

Pictured: Expressionism, Noir.

part of what makes its story great. It can go from the elegant and impersonal to the deeply human instantaneously: think of the first level, which begins with the towering skyscrapers of Rapture and ends with a horrifying look at Ryan’s paranoia and the human tragedy of the city’s denizens. It’s a perfect artistic match too: the world’s glamorous art-deco look and rich, light-and-shadow visual style owe a huge amount to the German Expressionism Lang was instrumental in defining (and, out of all the games we’ll discuss here, it’s most clearly influenced by its film counterpart), while its rough-talking toughs and dames, gin-chugging mob bosses, and jazzy score are a natural extension of hard-boiled noir. It also has the class consciousness, tortured characters, and keen sense of social order that characterize so much of Lang’s work.

It’s not just the general strokes, though. There’s a multitude of little details, stylistic decisions, and memorable moments that tie the game to his work. It’s hard to walk through Hephaestus, the industrial core of Rapture, and not think of Metropolis‘s chugging, monstrous machines (and, let’s be honest, this was almost certainly deliberate on Irrational’s part), or see the film’s themes of decadence, labor rights, and technological inhumanity reflected in the game’s philosophical debates. But Lang’s smaller, later films have every bit as much in common, particularly in a lot of Bioshock’s storytelling style.

It’s another half-hour before we see the main character’s face.

As soon as he got access to talkie technology, Lang became obsessed with sound, the overheard, and the power of the voice, and these are the mechanisms that Bioshock lets drive its narrative. Rosebud, for example, is a deformed splicer who scurries across the ceiling and behind walls, dropping down flower petals on the player and singing to herself.  This is incredibly similar to the way that Peter Lorre is first introduced in M, long before we see his face: as a shadow on the wall, a echoing whistle, a child’s ball rolling out of the bushes where he’s strangled her. Or his second sound picture, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, where the main villain is a voice without a body–most famously in a scene where a shadow figure behind a curtain is revealed to simply be a cardboard cut-out hooked up to a loudspeaker –feels like a definite forerunner of Bioshock‘s cast of characters speaking solely through radios and audio tapes (not to mention the reveal that a major story character is only a voice, and exists only on your radio). The game’s not solely influenced by Lang’s visual style; it shares his narrative obsessions and love of oblique, shadowy storytelling.

The Movies: Werner Herzog

The most revealing thing about Herzog’s style and passion as a filmmaker is that he doesn’t consider his documentaries and his fictional works to be distinct from one another– every film he’s made is in pursuit of “truth,” whether it’s to be found in stories or in the real world. This leads to a fair bit of overlap between the two genres: his documentaries have little vignettes and scenes in them that are totally fictional, while his fictional films incorporate real characters, non-actors and are often dependent on coincidental footage and completely real actions (such as in Aguirre, when the crew built rafts from local trees, lived on them, and ate the same food as the film’s characters).

The most relevant aspect of this is the way in which Herzog uses the camera as an active participant. In Aguirre, a film about a mad conquistador seeking El Dorado which was shot with a single handheld camera, water is splashed onto the lens, the viewer is shaken by the movement of the Amazon, and scenes from filming are incorporated into the story. In Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Nicolas Cage’s brilliant, manic performance is made uncomfortably close by a camera which simply stares as he descends into lunacy, letting him sink to new moral lows and not giving the viewer a chance to look away. Fata Morgana is a documentary about the Sahara that mainly lets the camera wander and encourages the viewer to put together the pieces themselves. It’s perhaps best demonstrated in his remake of Nosferatu when Dracula  first creeps into Harker’s room: rather than move the camera cinematically and build tension, he films it almost like surveillance footage, keeping the camera at a distance and letting the scene play out, highlighting the very real sense of invasion and shame rather than a more abstract fear.

The Game: Half-Life 2 (and episodes)

“Every man for himself, and God against them all” seems like an apt description of occupied Earth.

At “encourages the viewer to put together the pieces” a good chunk of you said “Oh. Valve.” And that’s absolutely right. There’s not a better

Pictured: somehow, NOT City 17

match for Herzog’s “leave the camera running” approach than Valve’s method of narrative, which rejects cutscenes and exposition in favor of simply letting the story happen in real-time (especially in Half-Life 2, in which as long as Gordon’s conscious the “camera” keeps going). They will never sacrifice a sense of realism and physicality in the name of making something more cinematic or exciting. Just as Herzog lets his view linger on the churning Amazon waters in Aguirre or simply lets his actors create chaos, Half-Life 2 creates a naturalistic world and turns the player into an objective observer of it. The slow walk in the opening through City 17, in which you’re reliant on intuition instead of exposition, the chaos that erupts when you send antlions into a swarm of combine, the first meeting with a Combine Advisor in which you can only stare, paralyzed, at it– these are all moments which feel like a natural counterpart to Herzog’s passionless, implacable stare. In particular, the series’ most traumatic moments– the Stalker car in Ep. 1, the meeting with the Advisor in Ep. 2 –feel like companions to the murder scene in Woyzeck, where the violence is center-framed and the camera remains immobile for the duration of the entire unbroken scene. And, just as the opening shots of Aguirre present a seemingly-solid jungle and waits for the viewer to spot the line of people walking through it, Valve guides the player through the world not with objectives or HUD symbols but by placing them in seemingly-infinite setting and using lighting, level design, and visual cues to point the way.

“A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger.”

Like Bioshock, there are also plenty of thematic parallels. Half-Life 2, like many of Herzog’s pictures, is about a conflict between destiny and powerlessness– Gordon Freeman, like the protagonists of Woyzeck, Even Dwarfs Started Small, or My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, has no control over his own future and is trapped in a world that he doesn’t belong in. This idea– the notion of a world rigged permanently against the heroes, of a universe so cold and violent that survival is a triumph– is what gives Half-Life its tone of unrelenting fear, and what gives Herzog’s works their grinding momentum. Similarly, Herzog’s other main topic– the “burden of dreams” –gets a fair bit of play. The band of idealistic heroes struggling against a dimension-spanning monolithic empire is exactly the kind of foolhardy nobility that Herzog loves. There’s also a good bit of the “harmony of overwhelming and collective murder” that he focuses on in films like Grizzly Man and Fitzcarraldo: Half-Life finds you exploring areas like Ravenholm and the Sandtraps, where the world itself has been rebuilt to be your enemy.

The Movies: David Lynch

There are two David Lynches. There’s the one that everyone knows from pop-culture, who does weird, weird movies about sex and dreams and is probably high all the time. But there’s also the real one, who does weird, weird movies about sex and dreams but is an unabashed sentimentalist, lover of white picket fences and diners, has probably never had a stronger buzz than a good black coffee, and has one of the most optimistic views of the world of any filmmaker since Frank Capra. He made Eraserhead, yes, but he also made  Wild At Heart (a film that is almost painfully sincere and romantic), he truly believes in the kind-hearted wholesomeness of Twin Peaks, and he gave Blue Velvet— on of the most emotionally violent films of all time –a happy ending. (There’s also the David Lynch who made Dune, who was burned alive and buried in North Carolina under the filming locations for Velvet).

Thematically, Lynch is fixated on morality and desire. If we’re given permission to do what we want, how far will we take it? Mulholland Drive puts us in the head of a character who has done an evil thing and guides us through the process by which she justifies it, and views her own life. Blue Velvet uses Kyle McLachlan as an audience surrogate and forces us to confront our own cruelty and the way that we envy the freedom of evil and cruelty– probably the best single shot in his  filmography is  Dennis Hopper, torturing Isabella Rosselini, staring directly into the camera and hissing “you’re like me.” But for all this deeply ambiguous subject matter, Lynch’s fundamentally hopeful worldview is able to find a path out: the evil in his world (Dennis Hopper’s almost-Satanic Frank, Twin Peaks’ BOB, a spirit of pain and torment, the Winkie’s Man in Drive who functions as an embodiment of the world’s arbitrary cruelty, Willem DeFoe’s tattooed, rotten-toothed, rape-gargoyle in Wild At Heart) is inhumanly evil, something that we can recognize and reject. And there’s no more noble, kind, and altruistic hero in pop culture than Dale Cooper, a man willing to enter Hell itself in the name of love and good police work.

Aesthetically, you can go down a checklist: industrial machinery, 50’s Americana, jazz music, highways, coffee, cigarettes, hallucinations,  sex,   diners, blondes, cranial injuries,and deformity.

The Game: Fallout 3

“I’ don’t understand why people think Crazy Clown Time is something sinister.”

It’s not just the weirdness– so many people harp on how Killer 7 or Psychonauts is “the David Lynch of videogames,” which is a great way to show that they’ve probably never watched any of his work. It’s the way that surrealism butts up against the wholesome and romantic, the way that Lynch finds beauty in horror and grotesqueness in the ordinary. And that’s what Fallout 3 does. Like so much of Lynch’s work, it’s both a celebration of Americana and nostalgia (poppy music! cool cars! 50’s diners! baseball!) and an acknowledgement of the evil that’s inextricably tied to them (nuclear escalation! American imperialism! A culture of sexual violence! BOB just, oh god, please make him stop!). Its darkest moments and happiest moments are all twisted together and bound up in the same screwed-up world. Just like how Wild At Heart painted a romantic, wild-lovers-against-the-world story and then had it go exactly like those usually do, Fallout creates a world where the idyllic fifties never ended– and neither did the duck-and-cover paranoia, racism, and global cold war thereof.

“Did I ever tell ya that this here jacket represents a symbol of my individuality, and my belief in personal freedom?”

It also has a distinctly Lynchian sense of morality. Like Jeffrey in Blue Velvet, who is presented with a submissive and broken woman and has to consider if he’s willing to become a monster, Fallout 3 gives us a nuke in the middle of town and the ability to push the button. Both ask us the question: “consequence-free, no judgement, opportunity in front of you: you wanna be evil?” And you can be evil— BOB, with his  “thing for knives” has nothing on the Ravager of the Wastes. You can also be good; like Cooper, like Betty Elms, you can be a cheerful force of do-goodery and a helpful angel.

And you can, of course, do this while exploring industrial machinery, decked out in 50’s Americana, listening to jazz music, strolling down highways, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, having drug-fueled hallucinations, flirting with the opposite sex, stopping in diners, traveling with (or being) a stunning blonde, inflicting brutal cranial injuries on the deformed. Matter of fact, that’s how the game encourages you to play it.

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