Rab Florence’s Video Game Empty is a highly anticipated event at Glasgow Film Festival and a rare opportunity for video games to be appreciated on the big screen, highlighting their increasingly cinematic nature.

Occasionally as a student, my group of game-loving friends would occupy our residential hall's communal space, when it was particularly quiet, to make use of the projector screen. It was a great viewing space that made a change from watching films from laptop screens. However, no film came close to prompting the delirious ecstasy roused by a projected game of 'Worms World Party'. For those unfamiliar with the strategic video game, it allows the command of an invertebrate platoon armed to the teeth with an arsenal of weaponry (including exploding sheep, holy hand grenades, bazookas and donkeys made of concrete).

It was only last month that I revisited these experiences in the surprising context of Glasgow Film Festival, at which Rab’s Video Game Empty has started to make quite an impact. For the first time, the event was held at the Cineworld IMAX, presenting Rab’s chosen games on a whopping screen that's usually reserved for more cinematic works. Once again, watching the strangely serene image of a sunset in the world of 'Minecraft', I was part of the frenzied excitement that surrounds displaying video games on a big screen. I began to wonder what makes the experience so attractive; the venue appeared to be sold out, with hundreds seated in rapture, I realised it was clearly not an activity reserved for students.

Perhaps there’s a satisfaction gaining from seeing the result of your actions appearing in large in front of you, presented to a greater audience than it would in the comfort of your own home. It’s like a basic form of film making. The setting and the characters are in place, the player just needs to guide what’s on screen. Both creative and explorative, it gives the gamer the opportunity to manipulate what the audience sees and challenges them to create something entertaining. Unlike film making, the situation is live, and this presents another challenge.

I had already considered the cinematic quality of games, as Rab Florence and Chris Scullion had taken part in one of the ‘Behind the Scenes’ film industry discussions earlier in the festival. The pair discussed the influence of films on the gaming industry and what it means that games are becoming more ‘cinematic’. Citing Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men and the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men as films that have had a particular impact on video games, they noted how certain tropes in video games have arisen that could be linked back to their film influences.

I must admit, I was a little disappointed to see Rab playing only from his selection of nostalgic Xbox 360 games, as some recent graphical behemoths like 'Dragon Age Inquisition' or 'Middle Earth: Shadow Of Mordor' would have been a treat to see on the big screen. With greater complexity of storyline, vast complex vistas to explore and technologies that make the scenes more realistic, the experience of video gaming is becoming more appealing visually. However, these aspects are also in tension with the cinematic experience, in more than one way.

Firstly, such complexity fleshes out a whole world to explore, giving many options and possibilities for the gamer. A film, in contrast, is very linear, and the director points the audience precisely where he chooses. A film directs our attention to certain events that are essential to the plot, whereas the video game encourages us to explore and to experience as much, or as little, as we like. Cut scenes in games allow for more directorial control at important points in the narrative, but it requires the game to wrest control from the player. This creates a stark difference between the cinematic points and the more open game play, and can be a little jarring.

Secondly, it seems that as video games become more like film, and more complex, they are being released incomplete and ironically, less like film. At its release last year, 'Assassin’s Creed Unity' displayed a significant number of glitches, including a failure to load some textures. In addition to providing a source of great amusement to some, it was also very frustrating to players who expected an immersive, cinematic environment. You wouldn’t expect such glaring visual errors while watching a film in the cinema. Such glitches break down the illusion of a realistic, fully-formed universe and prevent players from immersing themselves in the fantasy. Glitches can be fixed with patches after the release of the game, but the illusion is already broken. Game makers face a challenge in striking the balance between rigorous testing and getting the game out on its release date.

One great difference between games and films is the emotional connection. Some emotional connection is lost with the characters in video games, partly due to the ease in which a character can die and be almost immediately resurrected, with varying degrees of consequence. Character death in video games seems to incite annoyance, at most. However, we could induce a greater emotional, and arguably cinematic, connection with the characters in games by introducing greater risk into the game mechanics, and greater consequences.

Rab finished by noting that certain video games, such as 'Mass Effect' and 'Dragon Age' (BioWare are leading the field in video game diversity) allow the player to take on a variety of roles, allowing for a diversity often lacking in film. The 'Mass Effect' series allows human-alien relationships, whereas you can pursue a variety of human relationships in 'Dragon Age', unhindered by gender. Considering unrelenting criticism of the game industry (whether justified or not) that it is close-minded and prejudiced against minorities (including women), this was an uplifting note on which to end.

In another of the 'Behind the Scenes' discussions at Glasgow Film Festival 2015, I had the pleasure of hearing Oscar-winning sound designer Glenn Freemantle talk about his work, including what it’s like to design sound for a film set in the vacuum of space (Gravity).

References & Further Reading

  • 'Assassin's Creed Unity' (Ubisoft Montreal, 2014).
  • 'Dragon Age' game series (BioWare, 2009 - 2014).
  • 'Mass Effect' game series (BioWare, 2007 - 2012).
  • 'Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor' (Monolith Productions, 2014).
  • 'Minecraft' (Markus "Notch" Persson & Mojang, 2009).
  • 'Worms World Party' (Team17, 2001).

Listing image: Eoin Carey / Glasgow Film Festival, Rab's Video Game Empty