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Hollywood misses the boat on video games

From Ryan Somers, Stratford, CT:

Though you didn't review it, I have no doubt that you've heard about the wretched mess of a film that was the recent video-game adaption "Max Payne." After I regained control of my gag reflex, I found myself understanding why one might have trouble classifying video games as art -- especially when all one sees of the medium are the films they inspire.

Though the original Max Payne game was nothing to write home about, its sequel was a spot-on homage to classic noir tales like "Out of the Past," complete with a doom-laden narration that faintly echoed the tone of Robert Mitchum's classic voice-over. Like most story-driven games, it allowed the player freedom to choose his or her actions within the environment, but the environment itself ultimately forced the main character to travel a very specific route to an unavoidable destination. The game used this opportunity to examine questions of fate, free will, and whether or not these two apparently conflicting philosophies could truly exist within the same universe. Many noirs examined these exact same questions, but the video game format allowed the player to experience first-hand the way a character may seem to choose his own actions, but is still drawn to the same inevitable outcome. Combined with countless clever allusions to Milton's "Paradise Lost," the thoughtful game was almost the polar opposite of the film it inspired.

This isn't the only example of Hollywood butchering its video game source material. In your review of "Hitman," you wrote, "Other scenes, which involve Agent 47 striding down corridors, an automatic weapon in each hand, shooting down opponents who come dressed as Jedi troopers in black… are no doubt from the video game." You used this as evidence against video games' worth as art, and though these scenes may duplicate scenarios from some games, it is like nothing we see in the Hitman franchise. Though violence is an integral part of the Hitman game, it actually actively discourages violence of any kind against anyone other than "the target." The game actually punishes the player for so much as harming another person, and rewards creativity, cunning, and patience. The art direction and storytelling (again heavily influenced by noir classics) actually serve to question the main character's morality, rather than encourage it. One of the games even centers around the deep conflict between the (now-reformed) hitman's Catholic faith and the actions he must commit in order to rescue the priest who converted him -- as well as the black mark these sins leave upon his soul. How many action films can claim to be so sensitive about their violence?

And though you enjoyed the "Tomb Raider" movies more than most reviewers, there is virtually nothing in common between the character Angelina Jolie played and her digital counterpart. The former went about her actions with a been-here, done-that attitude (I stress the word 'attitude'), whereas the latter is known for being a dignified, elegant woman for whom, like Bond, violence is more of an annoyance than a pastime. Unlike the parody we see in the films, the source Lara Croft is known for being struck with a real sense of awe and wonder at her fantastic surroundings (which are digitally constructed with as much care and artistry as any movie set, much like the environments used in Pixar films). And in the games, her near-obsessive quest to uncover the fate of her missing mother is handled far more movingly – not to mention more tragically – than either of the cookie-cutter screenplays the films' writers churned out.

I don't understand why Hollywood writers seem to go out of their way to add brainless point-and-shoot combat sequences to video-game inspired movies, especially when the games themselves either don't include or don't encourage such scenes. They are catering to a kind of mentality that many in the gaming industry are struggling to overcome. Though several of today's games are still unfortunately rooted in the archaic "shoot everything that moves and you win a prize," point-based, digital-sport approach, a good number have matured beyond this. Many are thought-provoking, moving works that include first-rate scripts, professionally motion-capped acting, awe-inspiring "set" construction, and a narrative flow that differs from good film only in that a player guides the main character along to more immersively experience the events on screen, events which are ultimately controlled by the artists behind the scenes. Please, don't let one medium influence your opinion of another, especially when they compete for the consumer's wallet.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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