Video Games You Can Watch as Movies – A Trivial Top Ten

I hate playing video games. With a passion. There were two brief moments in time when I exhibited gamer tendencies – once in the 6th grade, and again when StarCraft came out. Those outliers aside, I’ve avoided the money and time sink that is modern gaming.

Well, not entirely true.

While I don’t invest in video games per se, I have been known to watch walkthroughs on YouTube now and again. I viewed the entirety of both Rapture-based BioShock games this way, and I found them quite cinematic. There was a linear story being told, albeit between random eviscerations.

Lately, a new trend has emerged. Kotaku linked to a movie-cut that someone edited together of BioShock Infinite. They’d removed all the gameplay carnage that wasn’t integral to the plot, and left the in-game cutscenes and cinematics. The results were…well…like a movie. Since then, I’ve devoured quite a few games in this manner.

And I’m going to trivially list off my favorites. Here are my…

Top Ten Video Games You Can Watch as Movies

#10 – Final Fantasy XII

I’ll admit it. Like a lot of people, I believe that the Final Fantasy series jumped the shark after that incomprehensible movie. Their crowning achievement was VII. That said, the latter games in the series do hold up to a cinematic eye if a viewer is left with the cutscenes and cinematics. Most, however, are also boring as sin.

Not the case with FFXII.

The return to the rich and vibrant world of Final Fantasy Tactics does this game a great service. It’s a pre-established environment that doesn’t require much explanation, leaving room to explore the characters in-game. I found myself far more invested as a casual viewer than I ever was with any of the other FF installments. This is Final Fantasy done right – gaudy airships and all.

#9 – Portal 2

Portal is a classic…but it’s a short classic. When making a sequel to the breakout hit, some bloating and expansion was mandatory. Enter actors J.K. Simmons and Stephen Merchant as Cave Johnson and Wheatley, respectively. Their interactions with the voiceless Chell (the heroine) provide a much-needed sense of depth and urgency. Oh, and humor. Can’t forget humor.

The return of Ellen McLain as GlaDOS as a more…uh…humanized (but still psychotic) artificial intelligence also adds enrichment. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to whittle down the edits in the game to just the cutscenes. There aren’t any. The dialogue and voice-overs occur as the player is solving portal-based puzzles. However, if you have many hours to kill, it makes for a hilarious – if lengthy – voyeuristic experience.

#8 – Grand Theft Auto V

With so many unrelated side-missions and tangents that the player can take, GTA5 plays more like a loosely-knit TV miniseries than a movie. A hilarious and politically incorrect miniseries, granted. With three main characters to choose from – each from different motivations and backgrounds – the viewer is able to witness events from different angles.

Cinematically, it fits. Interwoven point-of-view plotlines are a common storytelling device. Effective in movies such as Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and…heck any of Tarantino’s oeuvre. Eventually, the events in the game coalesce into an over-arching plot, but it takes a bit of meandering to get there. But what a ride it is.

Just keep in mind, it’s seven hours or more worth of material.

#7 – Injustice: Gods Among Us

This is probably the tightest story of all the video games I’ve listed thus far. The format of the fighting game itself allows for an easy viewing experience. With the melee gameplay cut out, the viewer gets roughly 90 minutes of cutscene footage – enough for a short, breakneck epic of a superhero movie.

The plot is simple. Members of the Justice League (and the Joker) are transplanted to a parallel Earth and must fight to make it back to their own. It’s basically Crisis of Two Earths on a slightly more rigid scale. Loved every superpowered minute of it.

#6 – Tomb Raider

It took me some time to suspend my disbelief watching a British supermodel survive that many pratfalls. But eventually I grew to like the plucky (and pert) Laura Croft prequelette. The events of the game are far darker than previous installments, but they still held true to the game series’ primary dynamic – badass chick surviving booby-traps and mythical creatures in ancient ruins.

I also enjoyed the way they (surprisingly) incorporated aspects of little-known Japanese mythology. I’ve run into mentions of the mythical Himiko before, but didn’t do any further exploration past casual mentions in anime.

#5 – Deadpool

God, I love this character. One of these days, we’ll see the mutant Merc with the Mouth get a proper big screen treatment. Not like that voiceless abomination in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Until then, the video game named after the titular character will have to do. It’s a standard hack-‘n-slash as far as gameplay mechanics go, but it’s the meta-story that really makes it shine.

Deadpool holds High Moon Studios – the makers of the game – hostage and orders them to make the greatest game ever, starring him. The rest of the game plays out like a fever dream. And the best part, he interacts with his own narrator and inner-Id. The prefix “meta” doesn’t even do this justice. It is endlessly entertaining to behold.

#4 – Batman: Arkham

All of them. Any of them.

I don’t even know where to start with this trilogy. The first two games brought back DCAU alums Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, and the rest was something even Frank Miller couldn’t come up with in his wettest dreams. The designs were atmospheric and gritty, and it literally felt like you were walking in the footsteps of the Dark Knight.

The third game in the series – actually a prequel – kind of lost some of the narrative punch of the other two, but more than makes up for it in one area. One gets to see how the Joker’s mind works…or rather…doesn’t work. It is a masterpiece of inner-monologuing that not even the six-plus movies managed to pull off.

#3 – Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead

If only the TV series was as well-constructed as this li’l lightning in a bottle. Borrowing designs from the source material (the comic book), and fashioning itself as a parallel prequel to the TV series, this game plays like a choose-your-own-adventure book. (Any of you remember those?)

I watched it straight through, and it felt like perusing a motion comic. When characters died, I felt genuinely sad. And there were moments of actual tension – something the TV series is only just starting to grasp competently. After my brother watched it as a movie, I followed suit. Can’t wait for “Season 2”.

#2 – BioShock Infinite

While any of the BioShock games could be viewed as narrative movies, only Infinite works as a complete story. Part of that is helped by the fact that the POV character – Booker Dewitt – has a distinct personality. Unlike the protagonists of the predecessors.

Plus, the whole thing takes place in a steampunk sky city. F**k yeah. To heck with Rapture, Columbia is where I wanna be. The classical renditions of newer songs were also a treat.

#1 – The Last of Us

Never before has a zombie-esque game packed such a wallop. When cut down to about a three-hour movie, it plays like a grimmer version of Children of Men. However, without the “aid” of Clive Owen in the lead. Gah, he reminds me of an older, British Channing Tatum. But I digress.

I don’t think I’ve “played” a video game all the way through that left me so philosophically torn. These were deeply flawed characters, but they were portrayed (or rather, rendered) so well. One could relate to them without feeling patronized. And the ending…my gawwwww! Pure, unadulterated cinema gold.

And that’s my list. There are many, many more out there. I’m well aware of that. These are just the ten I watched recently that didn’t have me clawing at my face in frustration. Like an actual gamer. If you have any others I need (or want) to look at, let me know.

I’m sure I can find several hours to kill.

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Thursday, December 5th, 2013 Musings 2 Comments

Rock, “Paper Towns”, Scissors…Dynamite

When I was a kid, a common way to end a stalemate on any given issue was with the tried-and-true “Rock-Paper-Scissors” method. The game was the best tiebreaker our mushy, five-year-old minds could muster at the time. Of course, like with anything, variants on the original formula were bound to surface – mainly as a way of circumventing defeat. The most common in my neighborhood was “Rock-Paper-Scissors-Dynamite”. Needless to say, Dynamite trumped the other three by a fair margin.

It was cheating, but it was lazy, elegant cheating. And – by proxy – became an indirect philosophy I’d follow throughout my young adult life. Why take the assured path to success when you could circumvent it entirely, or not play at all?

In 1994, I had three high schools under my belt in three years’ time. I was a part of no extracurricular activities. I could count my best friends on one hand. And my greatest achievement up until then was having no picture in any yearbook. At all. My grades were poor, I never did homework, and teachers often didn’t know my name. I was less than a geek, less than a nerd; I was invisible and proud of it.

I remember one instance when I was walking down Senior Hall with a friend – minding my own gloom – when I heard a squeaky voice to my left.

“Hi! My name’s Jenny,” she said chipperly. She was seated on the floor, kinda cute, and her hand was extended. It was a simple and sympathetic gesture.

My response?

“You’re worthy enough to shake my comb,” I said flatly. I was standing above her, glowering, and my worn black comb was in my hand. It was a mean-spirited, unsympathetic gesture.

She recoiled her hand in disgust, and I continued on my way with a smirk.

That pretty much summed up how I dealt with most situations. Save for a notable exception – a youth fraternity I was a part of – I wanted little to do with high school as possible. I felt (or at least hoped) there were better days ahead. Not to say that opportunities to advance my station never emerged, I believed that I possessed some “geek cred” if my profile remained low.

Funny thing happened in later years, though. While I refused to admit it, I was drawn to things that reminded me of high school. A song would chime in on the radio – Pearl Jam’s “Evenflow’, perhaps – and my eyes would glaze over nostalgically. In 1998, a little movie called Can’t Hardly Wait was released. It was the first of a string of teen comedies that would glut the movie market for the next half-decade. I loved the stupid flick.

The dilemma only got worse from there. I hunted down movies from my childhood, songs that made me choke-up (Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters”, anyone?), or any media that brought on a vague, yesteryear tug. What was weird about this was I should’ve had no attachment to my early teen years. Especially not high school. I had no defining memories to speak of. The whole travail was a blur. That didn’t stop me from reminiscing on a make-believe could’ve-been. I even wrote stories about it. Not very good ones, but they were jotted.

All this culminated a few weeks back with the acquisition of a library card. There was an author I’d meant to sample the wares of, a man-child my age by the name of John Green. I followed the adventures of him and his brother, Hank, on YouTube. They were efficient and proficient vloggers that covered subjects ranging from nerd culture to the elimination of – as they called it – “worldsuck”.

When John Green mentioned he was a writer of young adult literature, my curiosity led me to a mandatory perusal of the Almighty Wiki to learn more. Of the four novels to his credit, one particularly caught my eye – Paper Towns, the story of a girl’s disappearance and the clues she left a boy who liked her. It sounded like Goonies meets Road Trip with sprinklings of The Adventures of Pete & Pete thrown in for good measure.

Unfortunately, this meant sifting through the “Teen” section of the library. I was…oh…sixteen years outta high school. And the time I went to look for the book, I was sporting a not-creepy-at-all! five-o’-clock shadow. I justified the venture by telling myself, “The author is my age. The author is my age.” Luckily, I didn’t have to spend too long in there. The Gs were right by the entrance. I was in and out in two minutes.

(Sidenote: I did notice that not too far from “Green” was another name I would’ve never associated with “young adult literature”. William Gibson’s Neuromancer was a mere two subsections down. Now, I did read that book when I was in high school, but I would be hard-pressed to call it teen lit. Just sayin’.)

Normally, I’m a slow reader, but I plowed through Paper Towns in two days. Unheard of for me, even if it is teen reading. I owe that mainly to Green’s conversational prose. The story is simple enough – boy likes girl, girl sneaks into boy’s house, boy and girl go on an all-night caper, girl vanishes, leaves clues for boy…okay, maybe not so simple. I guess he kept it captivating enough to hold even my attention span at bay.

Simply put, the story is told from the POV of Quentin Jacobsen. No other way to label him except to say he’s the Marty Stu of the story – the author made manifest as a teenager. Quentin – or “Q”, as he’s known – has a childhood crush on the girl next door (as they often do). Said girl, Margo Roth Spiegelman, is best described as the “manic pixie” archetype. Everyone’s seen this character in one fashion or another. The most prominent examples I can think of are Kate Winslet from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Natalie Portman from Garden State. They’re interesting characters but cut from the same mold. But I digress.

Q learns that Margo has disappeared. According to her parents, this happened often and she always left clues to her whereabouts. This time, though, she only left clues for Q. With the help of his two best friends, he begins to understand that the Margo he thought he knew may have barely scratched the surface. And for some reason, this story hit me like a brick sh*thouse.

Q may have been a Marty Stu/author-in-protatonist’s-clothing character, but I could relate to him. Margo may have been a manic pixie, but I’ve known girls like her. Plus, the stage Green built to let his characters roam was a new one. In teen stories of prior readings/viewings, the dorky protagonists were inhibited by (and about) their lack of status. Not the case with Paper Towns. If it weren’t for the teeny-bopper treasure hunt put before them, Q and his “crue” would’ve gladly sailed through their senior year playing videogames and B.S.-ing. I’ve never seen any author explore that angle. Well, no one American, anyway.

In an odd way, I found parallels between some of the scenarios in Paper Towns to another unlikely story of teen angst – an anime based on a novel, no less. The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi is told from the perspective of a cynical teen (Kyon) who begrudgingly accepts his monotonous life for what it is. A small part of him desires an interesting change, but only a smidge.

His “world” is shaken with the arrival of a student that valiantly declares she wants nothing to do with “ordinary humans”. Her life goal is to prove the existence of extraterrestrials, time travelers, and ESPers (people with mental abilities). The eccentric yet beautiful oddball is Suzumiya Haruhi. Through a series of events Kyon can’t quite explain, he is thrust into her oft-foiled efforts to prove the mysteries of the universe. He also learns that Haruhi herself is one such mystery – one capable of unraveling the fabric of existence by her very whim.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. That sounds nothing like Paper Towns. Hear me out. Quentin bears similarity to Kyon in the fact that he is somewhat content with the cards he’s been dealt. A part of him does desire a shift in paradigm, but he’s too unmotivated to exact that change. Kyon, likewise – albeit more nihilistically – is accepting of his lot in life and sees change as an inconvenience.

When their prospective worldviews are tested by women [it’s always by women], both are reluctant at first to surf the tide. They do their damnedest to prevent change from occurring. However, that li’l part of them that thirsts for excitement takes over eventually. With a bat of a lash, they’re hooked.

I draw this parallel because both pieces – diametrically opposed genres, though they are – spoke to the part of me that sacrificed a casual high school experience for anonymity. Unlike those two lucky protagonists, I never had a manic pixie muse to challenge my reverent redundancy. The desire to seek out literature and movies that speak to that inner pubescent is proof of that. I guess I’m making up for lost time, encapsulating it as best I can in whatever medium I can.

If you – fair reader – aren’t familiar with the works of John Green, I seriously recommend checking him out. And by extension, seek out the anime or light novel versions of the Suzumiya Haruhi series. They are deceptively simple on the surface, but will breathe life to a part of you long thought dormant. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a fart joke to laugh at.

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Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011 Musings No Comments

I work for tea money.


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