Whenever I go to a movie and see a character turn on a computer screen, I get ready to cringe. Worse than a bad Russian accent, a shot of an actor clearly faking his way through a video game can make an entire movie feel flimsy. But in a few short months, we’re going to be subjected to a whole bunch of video game shots. Why? Ender’s Game is coming.
Without spoiling too much of Orson Scott Card’s acclaimed 1985 science fiction novel, hero Ender Wiggin – one of the gifted children trained in Battle School to help defend a future Earth from a third invasion by an alien race — ends up playing a very important video game. I’ve always imagined this game in 1985 terms — a kind of nicer-looking Space Invaders. Surely, writer/director Gavin Hood has something more modern in mind. Or does he?
Here’s a quick look at how Hollywood has shown games on film:
Glued to the console
The hero grips the controls, and we cut back and forth between his sweating face and game footage. Not the most inventive way to tell a story about a game, but certainly the most typical during the 1980s.
War Games, 1986
The Last Starfighter, 1984
In the Matrix
By the late ‘90s, virtual reality looked like it might just overtake console games, and movies like The Matrix became more focused on putting you in the middle of the action than showing joysticks and button mashing. Of course, a little movie called Tron tried it first way back in 1982.
The Matrix, 1998
As video games have begun to look more like movies, movies have tried to keep up with what players look like when they’re interacting with these wildly immersive spaces. While technically Avatar isn’t about a video game, it might as well be: A guy gets to use an avatar to experience a world that he can’t access physically, getting sucked further and further into this world until he can’t tell what’s real and what isn’t. Doesn’t anyone else feel that way after a weekend gaming bender?
I don’t think it’s necessary to show Ender and his compatriots playing war games in a fully immersive 3D world to get our attention. The documentary films Indie Game and The King of Kong: A Fistfull of Quarters built up the tension over video games without showing too much actual game footage. The focus remains where it belongs: on the people who are invested in the game’s success. And that may ultimately be the best route for Ender’s battle – keep the focus on the guy behind the controls.
Indie Game, 2012
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, 2007
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