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Why Games Imitating Hollywood Aren’t Necessarily Bad

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There’s a common gripe among gamers and reviewers. It goes something like “Games need to stop imitating Hollywood,” or other variations of the theme. But what does that even mean?  What is this complaint even really about? After all, Hollywood provides us with some great stories and is a massive, multi-billion dollar industry.

When someone says “Games need to stop imitating Hollywood,” the complaint always surrounds a specific type of game: L.A. NoireWatch_Dogs, and Tomb Raider. It’s a code way of saying that games stories have become boring and predictable, at least in part because of their reliance on common tropes.  It’s a way of explaining the plots of games like Gears of War, or how we feel when we watch something like the Eiffle Tower fall in Call of Duty (didn’t we see almost that exact thing in G.I. Joe?). “Stop writing plots we’ve seen,” is another good way of rephrasing the complaint, or “We want to see something fresh!”

That’s why you don’t often hear these complaints surrounding games that get narrative right. That’s why Journey has never been accused to being “too Hollywood” despite its incredible focus on breathtaking cinematography that would put James Cameron to shame. It’s also why Grand Theft Auto V‘s plot can be criticized for many things, but it’s never been called “too Hollywood” despite its clear use of common tropes (An Ass Kicking Christmas, Bloodier and Gorier, Even Evil Has Standards, and more!) In fact, much of the success of GTAV can be attributed to its use of those tropes, is aversion to others, and how incredibly informed it is by Hollywood and the particular brand of movie/story it’s riffing on. Borderlands and Borderlands 2 are also games heavily inspired by Westerns, Cyberpunk movies, and of course Michael-Bay style action. The story execution is great (Tell me you didn’t love Mr. Torgue’s or Tiny Tina’s DLC campaigns) but I can’t ever claim the game was awful for “imitating Hollywood.”

Art itself is transformative. It’s rapidly evolving, informed by not only the artist’s experiences in life, but by the art that’s around it and has come before. L.A. Noire was informed by classics like Naked City. Watch_Dogs is informed by Hackers, and of course it includes some very Hollywood-style vehicle takedowns. And that’s just the thing: When the “Hollywood” aspects work (I really liked the vehicle takedowns,) and are done with either grace or nuance, no one is calling them “Hollywood” and scoffing. We’re praising them. On the other hand, when **GEARS OF WAR 3 SPOILER** Dom died in Gears of War 3, I felt nothing. It was, after all, a complete Hollywood death borne right out of the 80’s, or something I’d expect from The Expendables, but it was so far and obviously foreshadowed that all impact was lost. **END GEARS OF WAR 3 SPOILERS**

As we demand “more” from our games (more graphics, more effects, more story), we’re bound to see instances where a game fails to live up to the demands of either being a game, or a good story. Battlefield 3 is arguably a great game with a bad story. Beyond: Two Souls was a game panned for being a bad game despite arguably having a really good story. In each instance we can fault the games for being “too Hollywood,’ in the sense that the former served us a really bad singleplayer campaign story full of tropes and set pieces that were determined to force us in one specific direction without allowing us any freedom, while the latter arguably had too much freedom to make choices without actually explicitly letting us know what the choices were, creating the illusion of narrow hallways unless you replayed the game or otherwise had knowledge.

The situation is more clear when phrased this way: “Videogames need to learn to tell better stories while adhering to their medium.” Beyond: Two Souls would have been an amazing game if it felt more like a game. Battlefield 3 would have been a better singleplayer game if it just told a better story while embracing that it was, yes, also a game. It’s not an “uncanny valley” of narrative and game that makes a game bad, but the failure to properly execute on a holistic design between them.

Our cries of protest need to move away from “Stop imitating Hollywood” to “Imitate better. Do better. Stop relying on lazy tropes.” Games imitating Hollywood can lead to great stories, cinematography, and generally better game experiences.

About Stephen Crane

Stephen was hooked by the NES at a very young age and never looked back. He games on a daily basis and is currently trying to climb his way up the ranked ladder on League of Legends! Outside of the video game world he actually likes running and owns a rapidly growing collection of toed shoes. Stephen Crane is the owner of Armed Gamer.

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