Grand Theft Auto 6, and Games vs Movies
Blockbuster games are becoming more movie-like, and blockbuster movies seem out of ideas. Will they trade places in cultural importance?
The trailer for Grand Theft Auto 6, the latest in the groundbreaking game franchise, launched five days ago has 136 million views as of today. GTA 5 came out 10 years ago and has had astonishing longevity - it's still played as much today as it was then; it regularly appears at the top of streaming and sales charts, and the sequel is so hotly anticipated that trailers for the trailer were causing global newspaper headlines weeks ago.
The story of the GTA franchise is that of AAA games generally over the last 20 years. Budgets and development time have ballooned but so has the complexity and immersiveness of the products they create. If asked to reach for a character from popular culture a kid of twenty is as likely to cite Trevor from GTA V as, say, Thanos. So with the cost, personnel and cultural resonance aligning, and Marvel movies tanking at the box office, this seems as good a time as any to ask blockbuster games are threatening to overtake their movie equivalent as a key narrative and an artistic experience of our time.
The gaming industry itself isn't sure. They know they often have a bigger product than Hollywood, but a younger and less culturally respectable one. Over the last 20 years there’s been an attempt to legitimise gaming as an art-form by aping the outward appearance of the movie industry. This includes trying to create oscar-like award ceremonies (with mixed results) and roping in famous actors to do voice work. This hasn't had any noticeable impact on the cultural legitimacy of gaming and often seems to be motivated more by a neurotic sense of inferiority on the part of creators about the infantile nature of the gaming product than being audience-driven.
That concern isn't always ill-founded. As story experiences, games are in a bind because their primary function will always be the "experience" end rather than the "story" end. They will always need to sacrifice some art and narrative finesse to provide the breadcrumb-distributing experience that makes games so addictive. The big games that are praised for containing the most positive "movie-like" elements - good dialogue and voice acting, an interesting story, emotional stakes - often fail to use the unique virtues of their medium. What they often provide you with is not a game that's as good as a movie, but movies lightly disguised as games, and with none of the narrative virtues unique to the gaming medium. I'd include the God of War series and The Last of Us as good examples of this, though they're both great in their own ways.
One of the biggest factors that makes games a threat to their big-budget movie equivalents is the precipitous decline in the quality of the latter ever since the dawn of the budget special effects era. Over the past 30 years or so the denouement of every big budget summer movie tends to be a good guy shooting at a horde of faceless bad guys as a blue beam shoots into the sky and a clock counts down to destruction. If that's what movies are then games will always be a better experience, since they provide you with the type of story with equivalent production values, but with you as an active participant in the action who has some agency in how it unfolds rather than a passive viewer of it.
That decline in the quality of blockbuster movies has been met with an improvement in the quality of games, with creators increasingly finding ways to create something that is effective at being both a story and a game, and that conveys the former using the unique virtues of the latter. A good example is the "Bloody Baron" questline in the Witcher 3, which is an unexpected late-60s/early 70s Hammer Horror story in the midst of an open-world sword and sorcery game. The Witcher 3 came out in 2015: the biggest movies that year were The Force Awakens, Fast and the Furious 7, and Jurassic World. Who would dare argue that the Witcher was a qualitatively inferior experience than any one of those three masterpieces, or that one was less worthy of being taken seriously than the other?
I generally regard gaming as a bit like pornography: people do it, and they enjoy it, but it's bad for them and they shouldn't celebrate or talk about it too much. In spite of that it is true that the biggest games can provide an aesthetic experience of a type that you can't get in other mediums, and certainly not movies. If you're playing Skyrim and you arrive back in Whiterun at three in the morning, game time... the moons are out and your character's breath is frosting in the air, your boots are crunching on the path... the streets are deserted and snow starts to fall… Particularly if you've been immersed for a long time, this is a deeply resonant aesthetic-emotional experience, that is more than just about story; it seems linked to a sense of pleasant loneliness or isolation for which we don't have an english-language term. When I played GTA 3 in my early twenties it often provided me with similar experiences, and no doubt GTA 6 will provide that experience to new players.
The result is something unique to gaming, not merely a bad imitation of the feelings that the best mainstream movies can create. Given that mainstream movies seem so moribund and stale perhaps the challenge is not how games will become more legitimate by becoming more like movies, but how movies can rejuvenate themselves by learning from the best qualities of games.