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The Torch: Playing your film?

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Our parents and grandparents, they watched movies; our young siblings or kids enjoy video games. What of this? A film is a film certainly, but what else?

There is no generational rift when it comes to film consumption. Film markets are healthy; the industry constantly rejuvenates its audiences.

But eminent voices talk, if not of the worlds of cinema and video games as being mutually exclusive, clearly of two parallel entertainment The Torchuniverses developing in a way that calls for reconciliation or at least new forms of integration.

What is the distinction between creating a video game and a movie? Are there reasons for the uneasiness often observed particularly in some of the older film professionals and the increasing disregard for filmmaking on the part of game designers and their peers? Do there not exist lines of intersection and possibilities of crossing those boundaries (and I’m not talking about merchandising or spin-offs)?
There are undeniable structural differences between video games and feature films, which render the one effectively incompatible to the other. The latter is a closed work of art, your take on life presented to somebody else as an entity, a statement coming into its own which calls for a reaction. The former consists of providing an open playground for others to find themselves in.

A video game asks you to acknowledge a specific set of rules and to choose a setting to construe a given situation. This is thrilling precisely because it does not force any preconceived direction of drama, confrontation, challenge or experience on you, but lets you decide which way you’re heading. It is a differing level or interpretation of “control”, and an antagonistic functional approach to what it means, which sets films and games apart, although they both share the visual realm as their original purview.

Seen from a filmmaker’s perspective you could acuminate the point that it is basically a question of control – your artistic control over your work, its integrity, its import, and finally, its relevance. But couldn’t one say equally that playing is the most active form of consuming, where a work of art exists only in the fleeting state of its unfolding and derives its credibility from putting the individual personality of the gamer “to the test”, a real life human and not some fictional dummy?

Often it’s being claimed that with video gaming it is first and foremost taking a break from the manifold demands of the real world that leads so many, especially among the young, to spend more time in front of their home computer playing, than socially interacting with their family and friends, still the only three-dimensional world out there. But one does not need to be a nerd to enjoy video games, just as you are not required to be an emotionally inept film buff to appreciate a good movie and spend the better quantity of your spare time checking out the celluloid landscape on offer; with quite a lot of inspiration to be gained in the process.

No, it is decidedly odd that in getting away from the real, we should be constantly hunting for ever more realistic simulations of the world we supposedly try to escape. And fantasy doesn’t disqualify this observation. Whatever fictitious setting glues us to a console for hours at a time, the basic principles remain intact. It comes down to either logic, or our inherent ability to associate and make decisions based on projections and extrapolated experience.

Likewise, what is it about films such as “300”, “Shakespeare in Love” or “The Great Yokai War” that we can relate to them in so many different ways, despite their being very much unlike our everyday surroundings? They all share the same fundamental structural elements, the bare bones scaffolding of nature resemblance by nature variation. If this has the power to capture our imagination, then I think that our fascination with computer games has much more to do with playing reality than playing a game. Here, we can challenge the tangible and temporarily suspend its overpowering prosaic sensibility, to have a more fluid, liquefied simulacrum of that system instead, with its many rules and interdependent restraints which we all have to adjust to – the rest is fighting off boredom, of course.

Despite all this however, there do exist obvious repercussions of the virtual world in our everyday reality. Take famed gamers in South Korea for instance, or “World of Warcraft” championships being held and of relevance in real life factuality. They mean a reintegration of the virtual into the real, which to me indicates that in fact these two worlds are closer apart than commonly assumed. The dichotomy that may take hold of a youngster who think they can simply swap their games in exchange for reality, is a pathology not to be denied. But even in its destructive inward lure it is telling of a relationship to the outside world nonetheless – only one that’s gone sour for whatever reason. I personally am deeply suspicious about all that which binds people by taking on a drug-like quality, and there can be little doubt that indeed video games have a certain addictiveness built into them, it’s part of their concept. And I will leave it to you to decide which
is in fact more interactive or activating in nature, movies or video games.

Visit any gamers’ convention and you will find that it is not just about longer or more complex games and improved graphics. At the heart and center of shop talk is a steady demand for video games to offer an ever more intense experience, to be more captivating and ultimately, more like real life. I reckon this provides a perfect gateway for film professionals to venture into this alien, uncharted territory and rethink their prejudices and misgivings about this perceived rival, if they happen to have any.

Story-driven games, alternate endings, multiple endings – let’s not focus on endings for once and step outside your usual suspense format. Endings are for whodunnits mostly. Let’s think of a basic situation, say a group of friends, first banding together, helping each other, then falling apart one by one. There you have a very simple plot movement you can play endless variations on. Shoot 4 hours of film and insert junctions in the story, crossroads where you have a given number of characters in a certain location and now the viewer can choose which one to follow for the next couple of minutes, which story line the focus should stay on. If you have a great cast, endearing characters, then audiences will love to come back watching the same movie again and again, only each time it’s slightly different because in every cinema there’s a different version shown. Soon you’ll have a multitude of folks literally running all over town in search of an angle to the main story they still haven’t seen, and this could actually pay off, could it not? Think of your hard-copy release: with the number of story crossroads the number of story variants will increase geometrically so that you could get up to 24, 81 or even 256 different combinations to unfold in just one movie, depending on which turn you take, which loop you follow through or how elliptic you want it to be – as a viewer playing not a game but a film.

This may sound as if it requires an excess of technically advanced refinement and equipment; surely any such production would have to increase in scope considerably? But at the bottom of it is a very simple principle we all know – editing, if only in a very basic sense. Think flashbacks, extra dialogue adding a twist, an optional blow-up or “plot-zoom” to some of your more elusive mise en scènes. All of these already carry the potential to entertain your audience further, or deeper, whatever you call it. We all have our favorites in omnibus films, right? So why not allow for that remote control to acquire an all new meaning for a change? Focus on character inner life, on psychological landscapes, moods and atmosphere to provide a meta-level “protagonist”. That would be a true 21st century metropolis-style film. Can Singaporean filmmakers prove their worth by breathing life into such a truly multi-faceted concept?

Games are not to be demonised; it won’t make them disappear anyway. Video games won’t render the movie-going experience of old school cinema invalid or films superfluous, as this art form is too mature and vigorous to die any untimely death in the foreseeable future.

Fusing the antagonists bears huge potential and little risk for both – what could either of them lose from reaching out to the other? Singapore has all the assets needed to outline and probe the possibilities of joining the two worlds and profit from the ensuing innovations. If animation is the link and resources must be shared by necessity, why not think beyond the confinements of one and cross over to the other with ease and playfulness? It could be quite rewarding.

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