Flight & Payne
Tonight was a special night to be a USC School of Cinematic Arts student. The film screened in our Theatrical Film Symposium class was the marvelous Flight, starring Denzel Washington. Our guest speaker was none other than director and USC alumnus Robert Zemeckis, whose name adorns the building where I have spent the vast majority of my college career.
Flight is a character study about addiction. After a heart pounding first act in the air, its pace becomes more measured as Denzel Washington's character is slowly consumed by the weight of his own lies about his substance abuse.
I couldn't help thinking back to another character study concerning addiction I experienced this year: Rockstar Games' Max Payne 3. I had some problems with the game when it was released, and tonight I was once again reminded just how wide the gap is between the expression of a serious subject in film and in games.
Max Payne 3 was not slow and measured, it was an unapologetic Rambo-esque romp. The aesthetics highlighted Payne's struggle with substance abuse, but his inner turmoil never found its way into the moment to moment play. I mowed down enemy after enemy without a thought. I was not Denzel, I was Stallone.
And there's the rub. The game may have meant to be about addiction, but in reality it was about killing people, like so many of its peers. Why do so many games start with noble ambitions but resort to asking the player to perform heinous tasks?
The only answer I have been able to come up with is that it is hard to sell a player on a serious subject without exciting moment to moment action. But you know what, the same goes for film, yet big studio films like Flight are still made.
As game designers I feel that we have a responsibility to join our aesthetics and mechanics in a cohesive package. They cannot be about different subjects, just as a film's direction and editing cannot tell different stories.
While I believe games capable of tackling serious subjects, Flight served as a painful reminder that here they have yet to take off.