1975, Jaws — "It was the Village East theater in Birmingham, Alabama. And we rode in my sister's husband's Trans Am…I have certain flashes of scenes, like the scene where Roy Scheider pulls the license plate out of the stomach of the shark. I remember that. They're just flashes. I remember it being very scary. My brother was traumatized, to this day. I loved it." — Twisted Metal and God of War creator David Jaffe, born in 1971
Video games all but smell of popcorn. They have been influenced by the movies, arguably more so than they have been by any other art form, save for other games. And the movies that influence them most appear to be the biggest, the summer blockbusters.
Play a game or simply visit a game development studio — watch for the posters, the action figures or listen to the mentions in casual conversation — and the influence of summer movies is apparent. A week can't go by without noticing the sway big movies have on creators. Last Wednesday, while showing Kotaku his game The Saboteur, Pandemic designer Tom French cited Indiana Jones' bigness and coolness of action as an influence on his game's anti-Nazi adventure. Over the weekend as I neared the end of Ghostbusters: The Video Game — itself an offspring of summer movies — I saw a late-game scene in which one of the heroes flees from a massive rolling boulder.
"[Summer movies] are touchstones in a sense they are generational touchstones," Stephen Alexander, veteran gaming artist at 2K Boston told Kotaku. "Games tend to reference them a lot, because the people who are making them are making them for people who are like themselves. Or they make the assumption, that because I like this, the audience will like this."
Prints of Aliens and Star Wars can be lifted from Gears of War and Halo, Star Fox and Final Fantasy. Also, the Indiana Jones films and Predator. T2 and Tron. Jaws. Top Gun. Independence Day.
1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark — "Indiana Jones meant nothing to me. It looked like a boring Western. I had no interest in it. I remember watching the review on Siskel and Ebert in the house with my parents — the whole family was over — and I was like, ah that seems kind of cool, whatever. My dad said, 'Yeah let's go see that.' …It was sold out, so we sat in the car, which I think was this 1970s-era brown Cadillac. And we just sat there for two hours, hanging out as a family, waiting for the next show to start. Eventually we got in, and, I'm not shitting you, it changed my life. It changed my fucking life. This is what I want to do. To live in that world and to be in that world, not so much Indiana Jones' world — though that would be great — but the world of creativity and escapism and summer excitement in terms of film and video games… It just opened the world of geekdom and film-loving and it affects me to this day." — David Jaffe
Summer movies touch everyone, not just game creators. But they may have a stronger grip in a community where it's not uncommon for a development studio to shut down for the afternoon so the team can catch the latest summer flick at a rented theater. That was a mandatory outing just a few Fridays ago, for 2K Boston, when they went to see Up.
"The great thing about the blockbusters is having the common vocabulary," 2K Boston designer Bill Gardner said. "Who doesn't talk about the Predator's cloaking device, whatever the hell it's called? And the T1000 and all that stuff, constantly touching on these reference points."
In the lingua franca of video games, George Lucas is king. "Star Wars pops up all the time," Gardner's colleague at 2K Boston, Stephen Alexander, said. "And that's where a lot of games draw from because it is such an iconic journey to go on and it has such emotional resonance and pays off so well."
But game creators don't borrow from all the summer hits of the '80s and '90s. Alexander may see some Goonies in Zelda, but he guesses that's just him. Ferris Bueller's Day Off doesn't seem to have informed many games. Back to the Future's influence, if it exists, is subtle.
1982, E.T. — "I remember seeing it at the Brooklyn Mall theater and [film company people] handing out the buttons and I was just like, 'Oh my god, I got a button.' And now the PR department is like, 'Big fucking deal, we made a million buttons.' But to a kid in Alabama who was in love with the movies, especially Spielberg and Spielberg's movies, this was like the Holy Grail." — David Jaffe
For all the love E.T. gets, it's had only a light touch on games. Alexander has a theory why. "The real power of E.T. was that emotional bond between E.T. and Elliott," he argued. "Emotional resonance is something that games are still wrestling with… I haven't seen too many games that have managed to pull that off." Ico is the only game he can think of that fits.
The more bombastic, escapist summer movies exert the most influence. They are, according to developers like Alexander and Gardner, parallel works to video games: They share the goal of escapism. The best blockbuster movies and the best blockbuster games take you out of yourself, on a ride.
1983, Return of the Jedi — "[My mom] had come to check me and my neighbor out of sixth grade. We were going to go to like the first show at one o'clock. …I was so excited, I couldn't keep my mouth shut. The word got out and my math teacher, Mrs. Vance, who to this day I don't forgive, basically had a shit fit about it and ended up calling my mom and stuff. It became this big deal and she wasn't going to let me — whatever the fuck — graduate sixth grade. Ultimately, I ended up going to the movie, and I remember waiting in line. It was all the people who show up for a summer movie the first day. It was a big deal. …And I remember, after that point, really trying to recreate that for the rest of my junior high and high school experience. I remember hoping — hoping so bad — that Willow would have this huge line and it never really did." — David Jaffe
Some developers bristle at this or at least laugh off the overwhelming influence that summer movies have. Alexander and Gardner's boss, Ken Levine, said as much to me in January 2007: "Most video game people have read one book and seen one movie in their life, which is Lord of the Rings and Aliens or variations of that. There's great things in that, but you need some variety… Look, I just steal from other sources."
Aliens is the one that gets the eye-rolls a lot. Another drop-ship? Another group of space marines? Another tough-talking black sergeant? Another drab color palette? "When it came out, Aliens' visual design was so amazingly fresh and almost mind-blowing, it's not surprising that so many people have taken it and used it to make their space game," Alexander said. "It is a rich ground to place a game in, but it seems like people have gotten a little bit lazy in using this visual language at this point."
But don't blame the summer movies alone for this, Alexander said. "A game creator has a brilliant flash of inspiration and they mimic something from Aliens, for example, and it's incredibly successful and then other creators mimic that game. I don't know that it's everybody drawing from the same source. I think games are maybe borrowing too much from each other in some ways. You fall into the 'it worked once — let's not be risky — and do it again.'"
1989, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — "When Last Crusade opened I was such a total fucking geek. I didn't care. I was in high school. The cement had dried on what kind of geek I was going to be. My brother, with me and a couple of my buddies, we all had logos of Last Crusade painted on the back of our cars like it was homecoming." — David Jaffe
There's another draw the summer films have for game creators and the publishers they work for: Bigness.
There's spectacle that surrounds the release of the film expressed in long lines, big ads, talk-show guest appearances, commercials, souvenir cups, national — international — media attention. It's natural to want that.
"The spectacle around the summer blockbusters is something to envy," Gardner said. "You want to break into the mainstream and get people talking, but when you come down to it, as envious as I may be, I try to focus on what we're doing right more than anything else. When it comes down to it, I don't know if we'll every be able to emulate that type of hype."
Still, while the siren song of summer movie status can be hard to resist, it can cause problems when game companies misuse the model. Taking the rate of explosions from a Michael Bay movie and injecting it into a game won't make the game as exciting as the Bay movie. Even a summer movie fanatic like David Jaffe knows this. Borrowing a key scene — the visuals, the audio — doesn't play to gaming's core strength, interactivity. So developers should best bear their influence with caution. A little nod here or there can be a nice touch, of course.
2005, God of War — "God of War is the game I always wanted to make. And there's a huge influence of Raiders of the Lost Ark in God of War. Pandora's Box is the Greek mythology version of the Ark of the Covenant. Actual moves that Kratos does in God of War are directly an homage to what Indy does in Raiders of the Lost Ark. When Indy kicks over that statue when he's in the Well of the Souls, it's the exact same animation — obviously Harrison Ford or the stuntman did it for real — we had Kratos mimic what he did with his body with the giant column when he first gets to Athens." - David Jaffe
So maybe the summer movie blockbusters are safe from video games ripping them off wholesale. And maybe games will continue to find their own way to develop as a unique medium. In fact, games have already been seen to be exerting their own influence on the summer films: see the sidescrolling action sequence in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones or the increasingly video-game-like action scenes and car chases in so many other summer films, like Terminator Salvation and The Bourne Ultimatum.
That doesn't mean some creators won't want you to feel that summer movie feeling when you settle down in front of one of their games.
2009, Eat Sleep Play — "There is a literal aspect to the influence these things have had. But then, more importantly, there is a philosophical impact that the summer movies have had from a standpoint of wanting to provide, for my audience — look I understand that we don't make movies, we don't reach as big of an audience — but I still take the responsibility of the audience we do speak to very seriously. And, as much as I look at the works of [Flow and Flower development studio] That Game Company or [Ico creator Fumito] Ueda when he does Shadow of the Colossus, I'm so okay leaving that level of emotion and that level of meaning to someone else. I want to be the guy who provides the escape. I want to be the guy who provides the video game equivalent of the summer blockbuster." — David Jaffe, co-founder of game development studio Eat Sleep Play
(Movie poster images via the Internet Movie Poster Awards site.)