Have Video Games Become More Engaging than Movies?

I’ve had a strange realization over the past few weeks, and I’ll be curious to see if any of you agree with me. For compiling my list of five movie moments that actually scared me, I had to reach all the way back to Jurassic Park to even find a fifth one, and that was because I was like seven at the time.

Furthermore, these moments only scared me when I was at a theater in pitch blackness with a giant screen. Any movie I’ve seen on DVD hasn’t actually frightened me at all. But what has? Video games.

That’s right, it seems that horror video games are replacing horror movies as the primary way to scare grown men. This got its start way back when Silent Hill and Resident Evil were new series, but now it’s progressed to titles like Dead Space, Amnesia and the below Nightmare House mod for Half-Life 2. There are countless videos of players on the internet screaming in terror as a result of these games, despite being on a half sized screen smaller than a movie theater or a TV.

Why is this the case? Because with video games, you ARE that person. Especially in titles like Amnesia or Nightmare House, it’s a first person view where YOU’RE the one holding the flashlight or beating zombies to death with an axe. The effect of jump moments is way more profound if you’re the one controlling the character, and a nice pair of headphones and a dark room amplify the effect so much that some people literally can’t even play these games as they’re so stressful.

I think this speaks to a larger picture of how video games can actually be a more impactful form of media than movies. Another example moving out of the horror genre would be that of the action film. I can watch any number of war movies full of gunfire and explosions, but outside of a select few, the experience will pale in comparison to something like Modern Warfare, where I watch a nuke detonate in front of me and make my character crawl out of the wreckage of a helicopter only to die of radiation. Or in the sequel, where I witnessed, and actually participated in a massive terrorist assault on an airport, gunning down pleading civilians as part of an undercover operation. These kind of moments stay with you, and I haven’t been able to say the same for many movies recently.

I’ll take one last step even further. Love stories. I can watch a number of romantic films, comedy or otherwise, and even enjoy a few of them. I may appreciate the relationship between Tom and Summer during their 500 day or the duo from Once, but always I’m enjoying OTHER people’s relationships.

But take a game like Mass Effect, where the love story focuses on YOU. Granted character depth generally isn’t quite at the level of movies yet as relationship paths are limited to a handful of conversations, but I’ll be damned if there weren’t some emotional moments found in those games, getting to know crewmates like Ashley and Liara, and later expanding to Miranda, Tali or Jack in the later game and pursuing an actual relationship with them amidst the apocalypse. You’re not watching a romance from the outside, here, Shepard is YOU, and you feel far closer to the story than you would otherwise.

Maybe this is just me, and I’m a huge dork able to get lost in these video game worlds on occasion, but I really have to say I’ve had more memorable game moments than movie moments in the last few years, and I think the medium is really moving ahead by leaps and bounds to become the best form of escapism out there.

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  1. The only problem for me is the amount of time a video game can take to really draw you in. Yes, games like Silent Hill can scare the crap out of you from the first moments, but as for titles like Mass Effect, most people just don’t have the time to sink in daily to garner a true emotional response. If you play through a game like that sporadically due to raising children, a busy work week, etc, there is no way that the big emotional moments are going to mean as much to you as the gamer that has sat down and played through it in a few days.

    To me, this is why movies still provide better escapism. That, and the fact that movies offer a far more varied scope of experiences.

  2. To answer the title question: almost. When people who arent gamers can sit and watch then yes. As long as you are a player though, much better than movies. I havent encountered many video games where my wife would sit and watch me play because it was that entertaining. Resident Evil 4 was close. Any suggestions?

  3. Paul,
    I’ve been making this argument for a while, but with regard to video games being more engaging than books. Same concepts, more or less. I argue that because the details of a book don’t need to be explained to you (they’re expressed visually) and because you are a part of the decision making process in the story, you become more invested in the game’s characters and story.

    I completely agree with your article as it applies to Horror and Adventure games, but Love stories are more effective in movies, I think. That’s because in movies the characters are going to give the right response to your emotional prodding. In games like ME2, I can spend a while giving the wrong prompts to my female party members and really kill the mood for myself (odd to write that) in doing so. In a movie, it’s all scripted, which is a better thing for Love stories than it is for Horror or Adventure games.

    Still, I’m glad you’re making this point. Comic books evolved from Action Comics to Watchmen; movies evolved from slapstick “Talkies” to the 9.5 hour LOTR epic; games are evolving from Intellivision to Super Mario Bros. to Uncharted/Mass Effect/Final Fantasy. At some point, people will submit to the reality that games are a viable medium for expressing gripping, beautiful and emotional content. But, for now, I’ll accept the fact that video games are derided as childish and not suitable for people above 30…. Once old people are pushed off of the bully pulpit and people like us are the “old folks” I think we’ll see video games respected just like movies and books.

    Btw, imagine when the LA Noire face recognition technology is improved and then applied to games universally…. I think that will be necessary before Love stories can be portrayed in video games as well as the other genres.

  4. The opposite thing happened to me, I was playing and showing off Crysis 2 to a bunch of friends, and they were good just by watching me play for 2hrs or so. And some of them had their gfs with them. It was pretty neat. However if I put them to watch Dead space, the girls would probably run away 😛

  5. Let me be clear, I’m not saying that WATCHING someone play a game is more entertaining than a movie (though sometimes it can be fun depending on the game as has been mentioned), but PLAYING actually gets a better reaction out of you, the consumer.

  6. Yes i understood that, it’s the interaction that catches u, it’ll never be the same feeling for the spectator as to the player.
    My point was that some games are becoming even better to watch than most movies.

  7. I agree with the article, I can even sit down and watch someone’s “Let’s Play..” Series on youtube for hours. There have been games in which the love story has captivated me, one that stands out is in Final Fantasy X. Horror games is a no brainer when comparing to movies, and action games can win 50% of the time. Movies to me are still a little ahead but it is getting to the point where games will be getting better. Give it a few more years.

  8. Also my friend and I always talked about how in the FEAR games for PC, you’re like 8 inches away from the screen as apposed to 10-20 feet, and no matter what, the scary shit wont go down until you build up the courage to walk forward. Movies happen no matter what, you can just close your eyes and wait.

  9. I thinks it’s safe to say that movie quality has gone down over the last few years, whereas Video games are still constantly innovating. Reason, gamers and gamer companies don’t just care about money. Protip: Hollywood only cares about money.

  10. @Paul:

    Dragon Age: Origins had phenomenal love stories and character development along those lines. Way better than most roms/rom coms I’ve seen. Glad it evolved past the Mass Effect “have 3 conversations with someone, then sex” deal. It’s become friends, talk, laugh, fall in love, et cetera.

  11. But you’re only comparing games with genre movies. While I can still happily argue that the average game is nowhere near the innovative power of a good movie, I do recognise that a dedicated gamer will not find what they are looking for in an average Hollywood film, but I doubt very much that games will ever achieve a contribution to match The Godfather or Cinema Paradiso, to pick very random examples.

    The very notion of cinema stretches far beyond California. It’s telling that when you talk about scary films, you come up with Jurassic Park, which granted, is scary, but is not a dedicated Horror film, so have you considered Spanish, Italian, Japanese or Korean cinema? If don’t like subtitles have you at least tried Antichrist?

    The best films are not merely about getting an instant reaction; you talk about “engaging” and “emotion”, but your examples are fleeting reactions, not deep, possibly spiritual connections, which films can achieve. Again, you stick too strongly to Western film too. Once? Ok, but watch In The Mood For Love and then find me a game that even comes close.

    In the end it’s largely a moot point. Comparing games with books and films is absurd beyond mere entertainment; cinema moved past that by the 1920s and the average blockbuster is merely a side-effect of what is a pure art form. With a book or a film you should be willing to put yourself in the hands of a single ‘voice’. Let the author or director express an idea and manipulate your perception of it. With a game, it’s purely the interactive visceral experience you’re after and they are brilliant at it.

    Actually I just started L.A. Noire and it is superb, I really like it. But it has zero chance of matching the best of that film genre. There is something new to find every time you watch Double Indemnity, Vertigo or L.A. Confidential. As soon as the game passes control over to you, it can only enhance what those films achieve, not replace it.

    Finally before you get too carried away, games are falling into the same trap of Hollywood anyway. When predictable crap like Modern Warfare is entering its third sequel, with a handful of look-a-likes as competition, you surely have to question where all that innovation has gone when they are clearly pandering to a mass audience.

  12. I must politely disagree with Moviegoose. The question was, have video games become more engaging than movies. I argue that they were as soon as they gave you a story that you could change.

    Taking Mass Effect as an example, ultimately the story you play through is going to be directed by the game, but the way that you play it will be different to others, meaning that each person will have differences and it is these differences that give the player ownership of their experience.
    My play through was my own, my Shepard was my own, it is this ownership that engages the character.

    I love Star Wars, but Luke Skywalker is always going to be Luke Skywalker. That universe is one I will enjoy and want to view, but I do not feel a part of it.

    You mention it in your own response, that a movie is a voice, expressing an idea to you. However it is a voice coming from a loudspeaker, not a conversation.

    I will agree that some games are becoming too mainstream. I do not feel immersed in Modern Warfare games. I can appreciate the story they tell, and in that way feel they are more like movies, however I do not feel anything from that story, similarly to movies. I have no agency over the events, and because of that I do not have the engagement with either the character or the story.

    Top that point I also say that games are not just AAA blockbusters. There are a number of indy games out there that use emergent gameplay to create stories and worlds that are given life only as much as the player is willing to invest, to that end they are created only if they engage with the player.

    You also said that the average game is nowhere near the innovative power of a good movie, could you give me some examples? I have grown very distanced from TV and movies lately, but would love to see some people trying new things.

    I still love movies, and I love seeing things that can only be done in movies (the hallway fight in Inception and revenge of the giant face from inglourious Basterds are the two most recent examples), but I am a games person.

  13. Sorry, took me a while to reply! I do take your points, Alaxander, but you reveal the problem when you say a movie is a voice in a loudspeaker, not a conversation. Forgive me for being indistinct, but it is a conversation of sorts, with your mind. The filmmaker is asking you to engage with him and then he will manipulate your perception and ask you to grasp his idea. The whole point of this discussion though is that you might not find movies engaging anyway, but the examples you’ve mentioned are largely trying to entertain you. That might sound ridiculous, but what I mean is that the best films, the real classics, are not obvious.

    You ask for examples of innovation, but when I originally responded I was thinking more of the history of film and titles as diverse as Sunrise, City Lights, The Apartment, Vertigo, Once Upon A Time In The West, Suspiria, Texas Chainsaw Massacre… the list is quite literally, endless. What I’m trying to point out is how much depth there is to cinema and how fundamentally challenging it can be, while the limits of a games narrative are quickly exhausted and falls into predictability. But it is at least a young medium and goodness knows where we’ll be in 30 years. Games have a long way to mature.

    It is true that Hollywood is currently in rut and the obsession with 3D is a desperate mistake as an example. But for a brand new film that isn’t trying to purely entertain, try Confessions. I only saw it the other night and it’s a fascinating piece of work. Very grim, but astonishing. I think of it now, because you’re keen on taking a part in the story as a game allows you to do, but Confessions demonstrates why that is absolutely impossible in many cases. It’s too intricate and challenging. And yes, absolutely engaging without recourse to overblown set-pieces. It makes an interesting companion to OldBoy, another incredibly innovative story that challenges you to think about it still, days later.

    They are both tough to watch, but film in it’s purest form is not always easy. The same can be said of any art. I have yet to find a game as challenging on that level, because your mind can persuade you to stop playing, but it’s harder to stop watching. The best films make you freeze to the spot, which a game by definition will never do.

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