At first glance, it is easy to see games, comics, and other so-called new media influencing the so-called old media of film, television, and books. Spiderman, after all, is a series of top-selling films and films inspired by game and comic intellectual property and popping up all over the place. The Watchmen, Max Payne, Resident Evil, Dead Space, the list is extensive. So much so that it can be difficult to tell sometimes which is the original medium for a particular piece of art. LOTRO is clearly the adaptation of a series of novels into a video game. Max Payne is clearly a film adaptation of a game series. The Mass Effect novel is clearly a marketing tie-in for the video game, even though it was released first. What about Dead Space? I’ve little interest in seeing the movie or playing the game, but I’m not at all certain which is the chicken and which is the egg. Certainly the game seems more of an A-list release than the movie, if that counts for anything. What I’m getting at is that I think the system is evolving past adaptation and towards a mutual or at least concurrent development of intellectual properties (for lack of a better term) across various media old and new.
This is interesting, but what is more intriguing still is that certain design characteristics from video games appear to be influencing the creation of content at a deep and creative level. Uwe Boll movies and Halo serial novels are one thing. They may be a significant step in the confluence of media styles, but I have little to no interest in viewing or reading them. Big budget movie action sequences shot to resemble game levels are another step. I started noticing this years ago, but the best example I can think of is the department store scene in Mr. & Mrs. Smith. This appeared to be filmed to appear just like a third-person shooter level. I like shoot-em-ups (and the Clive Owen movie with that title is another excellent example of game-influenced cinematography) but the connection between games and this kind of movie seems to be mostly technical in nature. I’m not well versed enough in cinematography and visual design for these kind of cross-media pollenation to resonate with me other than on a visceral level.
Today, however, I ran across an old blog posting that opened my eyes to another kind of cross-media pollination that is fascinating and full of promise. Jason Mittell wrote a thoughful essay that will soon be published in the Third Person: Authoring and exploring vast narratives anthology. Mittell’s essay is really worth reading in its entirety, so I’m only going to summarize it briefly. Mittell looks at the acclaimed TV series The Wire and the claims that it is a televisiual novel. He finds that the narrative structure more closely resembles a video game than a novel and his supporting arguments for this analysis show a deep and informed understanding of games-as-media that established gamers will find encouraging and welcome. Picking and choosing some key quotes, here is a sample of Mittell’s analysis. (Don’t take my word for it, read it it’s awesome.)
Games certainly play a more crucial role within The Wire’s storyworld than literature, as nearly every episode has at least one reference to “the game.” Within the show’s portrait of Baltimore, games are played in all venues—the corners, City Hall, the police station, the union hall—and by a range of players—street-level junkies looking to score, corrupt politicians filling campaign coffers, cops bucking for promotion, stevedores trying to maintain the docks. “The game” is the overarching metaphor for urban struggle, as everyone must play or get played—as Marla Daniels tries to warn her husband Cedric, “the game is rigged – you can’t lose if you don’t play” (episode 1.2).
Many videogames are predicated on the logic of simulating complex systems, modeling an interrelated set of practices and protocols to explore how one choice ripples through an immersive world. We might imagine The Wire’s Baltimore as the televisual adaptation of the landmark game SimCity.
Ultimately the characters in The Wire, while quite human and multi-dimensional, are as narrowly defined in their possibilities as typical videogame avatars. They each do what they do because that is the way the game is played—Bubbles can’t get clean, McNulty can’t follow orders, Avon can’t stop fighting for his corners, Sobotka can’t let go of the glory days of the shipyard. The characters with agency to change, like Stringer Bell, D’Angelo Barksdale, or Bunny Colvin, find the systems too resistant, the “boss levels” too difficult, to overcome the status quo.
If my account is correct that the videogame medium offers more insight into what makes The Wire an innovative and successful program than the novel, why wouldn’t Simon or other critics highlight this cross-media parallel as well? One answer is obvious—it helps legitimize the show by comparing it to the highbrow respectable literary form rather than the more derided and marginalized medium.
In the final quoted section, Mittell suggests that The Wire’s creators chose the televised novel metaphor over the televisual game metaphor because the general public do not accord games with the same level of respect they give novels. My thoughts are that if games & their design elements can inspire such a damn fine piece of television, that respect cannot be long in coming. Mittell is certainly doing more than most to help the general public come to see video games as a medium capable of rich narrative and as containing gameplay that does more than passively entertain.