We used to think that as video games matured, as a medium, they would become something more Hollywood-like, focusing more on character development, plot inversion, and narrow, suspense-driven narratives, rather than action pieces that alternate with movie-style scenes. Hoo boy, if we’re wrong. On the other hand, the exact opposite has happened. Action movies have become more like video games. And you know what, this isn’t bad.
I thought about this while watching John Wick 3 last night. It’s not just that his ballet of bullets – especially dogs – is so similar to video games, both in structure and form, that they seem to have been practically torn from a controller; you can practically see health bars and stun markets floating above the characters’ heads.
It is also that the main protagonists of the series, after Keanu -with apologies to Halle Berry and Ian McShane- is not any other individual character, but the world of John Wick, the Continental and the High Table. Worldbuilding has long been a first-class citizen in video games and desktop role-playing games; now he’s also graduated in film.
Speaking of role-playing games, ensemble films also increasingly resemble them. Consider Fast and Furious, or Game of Thrones. Each has a core group that are clearly the “player characters,” as well as disposable villains and extras that are “NPCs. Each begins with the characters at a relatively low level of skill/power, and over the course of the series they grow into the power to shake the world.
In The Fast & The Furious the character of Vin Diesel is a very good driver and mechanic; by the time we arrive at The Fate of The Furious he is a superspy capable of single-handedly opposing entire intelligence agencies. In Game of Thrones we see Arya become a high level killer before our eyes, and Jon Snow becomes one of the deadliest swordsmen in all of Westeros, carefree dispatching dozens of enemies, often several at a time, while rarely sweating, because -well, there’s no real reason for it, apart from what happens to players’ characters, is there? They level up and become the best.
That didn’t used to be the case. Jason Bourne and James Bond were super spies, but they didn’t really get better in the course of their series, or they became so ridiculously powerful that they can eliminate a dozen heavily armed/armed expert fighters in thirty seconds, without anyone’s help, as Shaw does in the trailer for the new movie Fast & Furious. Most of Jason Bourne’s action sequences are escapes; most of John Wick’s are hunts. And, of course, “hunting a horde” has been the basic mode of first-person shooters since long before Doom.
Does the introduction of these new tropos/styles/narrative concepts make things worse? Well, not necessarily. The Bourne series is much more sandy, in terms of emotional resonance and suspense, than the John Wick series, but the latter is much more elegant, semiotically rich and enveloping. I love you both equally. It would be a shame if the only kind of action film we saw from now on was John Wick’s stylized lack of realism, but it would also be a shame if Hollywood had never made those films on the pretext that they were too brutally unrealistic.
Is it a universal rule that when technology introduces a new narrative medium, the old media soon adopt the styles and tropes of the new medium? Did the plays become novels after Don Quixote? Did radio become more like television after television was introduced? And if/when we discover the most compelling structure(s) for AR/VR storytelling, will video games become more like that? I find it quite inevitable that the answer will be yes.