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Generation Xbox and the convergence of games and film

8:00 AM on 06.16.2012 // Tony Ponce

A couple months back, Wired offered readers some insight into Microsoft's failure to get a Halo movie off the ground. The original article was an excerpt from Generation Xbox: How Video Games Invaded Hollywood, by Total Film and EDGE writer Jamie Russell. Released on April 10, it chronicles the gradual convergence of Hollywood and the games industry, and it's a must-read for anyone fascinated by videogame history or the symbiotic relationship between two seemingly competing forms of entertainment.

Your first thought may be that the book only discusses the many failed, sometimes semi-successful attempts at videogame-based films, as in the Halo case above. While Generation Xbox does indeed detail many such endeavors, it chiefly focuses on the long road gaming has marched to be accepted as a legitimate storytelling medium. Along the way, technologies and concepts born from gameing have influenced film and vice versa.

I could have written a post about this sooner, but I wanted to carefully read through and absorb all it had to offer. I'd like to tease the book some more, if you care to listen.

The seeds of convergence were sown back when licensed games were first explored, such as with Superman for the Atari 2600. Though based on hot properties, those games were too rudimentary to offer any compelling connection to the source material. Other licensed games were made, notably Raiders of the Lost Ark for its sheer scope and ambition, and though they didn't all hit it big, they sold enough for licensed games to be a seen as a valuable revenue stream.

Unfortunately, movie studios at the time only saw games based on their properties as another entry on their list of cross-promotional materials like clothing, action figures, and lunchboxes. Few cared about the quality of the games themselves, caring only about having a product to sell. Although great strides have been made since then, you'd probably agree that licensing still carries a heavy stigma.

One Hollywood figure who actually does care about games is Steven Spielberg. He has long held a fascination towards videogames -- the man loved classic LucasArts adventure games and would frequently call up Ron Gilbert personally for walkthrough tips! Hoping to leave his stamp on the industry, Spielberg co-founded DreamWorks Interactive (now known as Danger Close Games), where his greatest contribution was penning the story for the first entry in the long-running Medal of Honor series.

On the technical side, the advent of 3D graphics offered the kind of immersion that games seemed to be lacking, and the strides made in that department were felt not only in gaming but in Hollywood and television as well. Acclaim Entertainment's groundbreaking motion capture technology led to the tech featured in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which in turn influenced James Cameron when he was conducting research for Avatar. And remember LazyTown, that kids' show with the catchy Eurodance songs? Apparently, the backgrounds were generated using the Unreal engine! Who knew?

That's but a taste of Generation Xbox, which goes into exhaustive detail about the rise and fall of FMV titles, how movies like The Matrix, 300, and Inception are structured and paced in a manner similar to typical game progression, and the persistent fear among Hollywood execs that games are poised to surpass the film industry any day now. It's all eye-opening, regardless of how knowledgeable you may think you are on a specific topic.

If there's one fault I must level at the book, it's that Russell seems to be of the mind that games have been lost until the current era, in which software like Uncharted and Heavy Rain almost completely erase the boundaries between movies and games. He believes that this deep level of convergence is what's finally turning ours into a respectable storytelling medium. My opinion is that games can tell wonderful narratives without having to approximate techniques used in film and have been doing so for decades. Of course, I could just be misinterpreting his tone.

That's a minor quibble, though. If you want to read about how Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo worked through a crate of Scotch to stay sane during the filming of the Super Mario Bros. movie, Generation Xbox is a mere $14.99 on Amazon. It's pretty damn good!

Tony Ponce, Former Contributor
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