Videogames and Star Power
Star power and Hollywood are entirely symbiant. Having the right people in a film can mean the difference between box office success and Tesco’s bargain bin. Equally, the evolution of videogames has meant that a cast of familiar faces is sometimes enough for a production house to green-light an otherwise spurious project. How many times have we seen Nintendo shoehorn Mario into a role that would be more befitting of a tailor-made character? Be that as it may, I began to wonder if Hollywood’s star power could ever begin to encroach on the world of videogames and what that might look like. Perhaps the entrepreneur within was beginning to discover a niche in the market when, lo and behold, none other than Rockstar Games beat me to the punch. Typical!
I feel that how we engage with characters depends on our prior knowledge of their existence. Popular celebrities will find it much easier to obtain their desired role; just look at how much Mel Gibson has struggled after his disgusting anti-semitic outbursts. Luckily videogame characters don’t carry a real world stigma around with them, and are ultimately, much easier to control and manipulate. We must always remember that video game companies are a canny lot, and if there’s a buck to be made, somebody somewhere will make it. The real question is – will a rise in recognisable acting talent make videogames any better?
L.A. Noire has been out for over a week now and we’ve all been suitably astounded by the facial animations on display. Although the technology is not utterly infallible, it is a huge step forward for animation and a means of conveying emotional impact to the player in a way never before thought possible. Facial expression is one of the most important tools in an actor’s inventory with which to deliver a suitable dramatic presentation. I refer you to Colin Firth’s performance in Tom Ford’s 2009 film: A Single Man. Firth portrayed his character more with the subtle nuances of his expression than the delivery of his lines. In doing this, a whole myriad of emotion was conveyed and in many cases his physical performance betrayed the nondescript connotations of the scripted text. Firth was able to create a character whose torment and regret was never outwardly obvious, but lay delicately below the surface; only occasionally rising up via a deft movement of the eyes or a twitch of the mouth.
Harnessing this level of subtle physiognomy for most titles will prove an exercise in futility. Videogames on the whole have not reached a level of intensity which requires a full assessment of an individual’s anatomy; it does show some hope for the future of physical performance furthering the art form, however. Sadly I imagine it’ll be a while before I see Mr. Firth gracing the shelves of my local Gamestation, but this is all just simple conjecture.
The subtleties of a performance on this level are usually quite by-the-by where Hollywood is concerned. I do think, however, that casting agents will be starting to look at Team Bondi’s creation with a raised eyebrow and a cartoon light bulb blinking above their head. The lead character in L.A. Noire is played by Aaron Staton, who, up until now was a fairly nondescript actor in a series of quality television shows. Entering his name into a search engine, however, and it’s his starring role in L.A. Noire that is currently granting him such fevered notoriety. It’s not surprising either as, for all its awkwardness; it appears to be the young actor delivering a full and precise dramatic performance in the game. He is also achieving a great amount of media exposure due to the startling nature and wonderment of the technology.
Up until now, a Hollywood actor performing in a videogame was a fairly unremarkable exercise in marketing. A lacklustre vocal delivery muddled over a deformed character model all held together with lip-syncing resembling a donkey chewing on a bag of marbles was the norm. It was all very uninspiring and a usually an accompaniment to a major cinematic release. I imagine it became something the actors involved would most likely want to forget; a necessary evil to keep the money men happy and secure enough finance to fund a sequel. L.A. Noire, however, is quite a different story indeed.
Comparisons between cinema and videogames have been floating around now for the best part of a decade. I still remember the release of Metal Gear Solid and the fanfare of praise it received. It rode on the wave of acclamation which on more than one occasion heralded it is the final step for videogames to be viewed as an equal to movies. This was far too presumptuous from the outset, and even now gaming has a long way to go to rival some of the best that cinema has to offer.
One of the major draws cinema and Hollywood has over videogames, like it or not, is star power and the media circus which follows its menagerie of major players. As unattractive as the proposition of idolisation carrying over into videogames is, it does represent a real opportunity for more open minded film stars to make a name for themselves.
I would call it media saturation. A high flying agent to the stars would call it boom town. Either way, if games continue down the path of mature and involving narratives, it will become an option for many of Hollywood’s finest to present themselves to different generations and (potential) new markets.
A good example of this would have been the most recent instalment of the James Bond franchise – Blood Stone. Bizarre Creations’ 2010 release was an original story in the unending saga of everybody’s favourite British spy. The designers went to great lengths to achieve a similar level of popularity created by 2006’s Casino Royal, even hiring famed James Bond writer Bruce Feirstein to pen the tale. In many ways the success of this game would hinge on whether or not it would have enough authenticity as an original Bond story along with all the characteristics and components found in the movies.
Had Blood Stone been able to utilize the facial recognition technology present in L.A Noire then a more credible performance would have been delivered by the cast. As it stood, Daniel Craig looks like he’s made from pink crepe paper and has all the facial connotations of a sock puppet. I don’t think I need to remind you of how well Blood Stone was received.
At the moment, having a Hollywood actor featuring in a videogames strikes me as more of an advertising boon than an attempt to give creditability to narrative or performance. I imagine it’ll remain this way for some time; perhaps until the technology becomes more readily available or videogames undergoes some form of creative renaissance and we all start demanding that Colin Firth should star in our first-person military shooters. Videogames have survived this long without the use of the Hollywood A-list flouncing their outrageous demands and thespian shenanigans all over the pages of EDGE magazine. Videogames have created their own list of luminaries and personas, and they are much more accommodating to the medium being made up of a series of ones and zeros stored on a hard disk.
I remember when star power was something that made Mario invincible, not dictated what films I was meant to go see.
Is this access to technology which will enhance the performance of actors within videogames going to change the medium altogether – no, not at all. We all expected technology to create a situation where characters would eventually become indistinguishable from their real life counterparts. What we didn’t think about is whether this would enhance the overall appeal of videogames in general. The physical performances in L.A Noire are by some way the best part of the game, but in no way does that make the game an essential title. Some of the fundamental flaws of L.A Noire are elementary coding errors, which, whilst not overbearingly obtuse, do sap much of the fun from the basic gameplay.
Ultimately, it is this which will devalue a game more than the performances of the lead actors. When I sit down to play a game, I want to be stimulated and challenged, but at the same time I want a healthy dose of interactive enjoyment; that’s why I chose to play a game and not go to the cinema. No two words send a chill down my spine more than ‘interactive movie’, and for good reason. The main difference between films and games is that one is a passive experience whilst the other is an active experience. Metal Gear Solid 4 was criticised for not being dynamic enough with the exposure of its narrative and for good reason. A good, strong story is becoming imperative for many major releases of late, but designers and coders who forget why gamers are holding a control pad in the first place will be in for a shock when the first week’s sales figures come in.
Gameplay is king in the world of videogames and I doubt any amount of Hollywood thespian-ism will change that.
This article was first published on Wednesday 1st June 2011 on Thunderbolt.com