An article yesterday in The Washington Post discussed the increasing presence of Hollywood stars in video games. The article focuses on Quantum Break (from the makers of Alan Wake…hey that rhymes!) and talks about how the use of Hollywood actors like Shawn Ashmore, Dominic Monagan and Aidan Gillen (not mentioned, the imitable Lance Reddick) and extensive live-action cutscenes blurs the lines between traditional media and video games. Creative director Sam Lake asserts in the article that the advances in motion capture technology means that now we need Hollywood actors who can perform the high quality acting necessary by current technology. In fact, the article asserts, with both the actual actors in live-action sequences and the digitally rendered actors in the game, it can be hard to tell which is which.
Let’s be clear: No it is not. It is very easy to tell which is the actual live actor and which is the digitally rendered actor. You can tell because if you’re killing waves and waves of uniformed soldiers, then it’s the digitally rendered characters on the screen. And if you’ve gone to the bathroom, then the live actors are on the screen.
Quantum Break does not represent the best use of Hollywood talent in a video game. It actual represents what happens when that process goes horribly, horribly wrong: a great idea is squandered on repetitive gameplay and uninspired gunfights. As we said the other day, Quantum Break is a combination of unimaginative gunfights and largely tangential live-action scenes. The game sends you off to shoot dozens of armed killers and then spends a lot of resources filming long live-action cutscenes with some really great actors and decent production values but largely disposable subplots. For example, we learn alot about one guard in particular who has been conscripted into service in order to save his family. When I encountered him in the game, I killed him like I’d killed dozens of others. When you mix TV show style episodes with traditional gameplay, it doesn’t elevate both mediums, it actually just highlights the weaknesses in both. What you end up with is a mediocre show and a mediocre game when you could have had a great game built on a really innovative and creative gameplay style.
The article is particularly infuriating when the creator of Quantum Break needed a Hollywood actors to deliver a real backstory to Jack Joyce. Let’s be clear about Jack Joyce: he is a ridiculously stereotypical and almost comically cliched video game hero. He’s an uncommonly attractive white male with no discernible source of income whose backstory is that he’s been traveling the world exploring. Even though he has never had combat training, he is instantly able to overcome hordes of armed mercenaries and he kills them without reflection or remorse. Most ridiculously, his brother is Dominic Monaghan (doing his best to hide his accent) and capturing the two actors faces realistically does not help maintaining the illusion that these two men could possibly be related (seriously, why not just cast Ryan Reynolds and Simon Pegg?). When you add to this the fact that we can constantly compare the motion capture in the game with the actual actors in the live-action cutscenes (and no matter how good graphics get, they are not anywhere close to that good), it’s a total mystery why so much effort went into both endeavors.
My point is that games like Quantum Break do not seemless incorporate live actors and gameplay; actually they inadvertently highlight how ridiculous “blurring the line” between gameplay and cinematic cutscenes can be. In the cutscenes, the actors deliberate over their choices and exchange in occasional gun battles in which all parties escape alive. In the game, my Jack Joyce killed literally dozens and dozens of armed guards all while being shot repeatedly. You can’t switch between a game world (where you kill endless numbers of people) and live action (where most every death has meaning) seemlessly. Notice, for example, how you kill so many more Stormtroopers in a game than Luke ever did in the movie, or how Indiana Jones kills so many more Nazis in the games than the movies. This doesn’t blur the line; it highlights the line. It’s like the game literally walks you to the edge of the uncanny valley and points directly at it. Here are the live actors acting bringing heavy drama to life and death decisions and here is your silly video game in which you kill hundreds of people without breaking a sweat.
Game makers seems to be weirdly enamored with depicting Hollywood actors as realistically as possible and they really don’t need to be. Gamers have never been excited about the realistic depiction of a movie star in a game. For what it’s worth, I can’t think of a single example of a game that really benefited from the involvement of Hollywood actors. Sure, if the game is based on an established show or movie, involving the actors from that show or movie makes a lot of sense. But is there an example of a game that brought in Hollywood talent for original characters and did surprisingly well because of it? Beyond: Two Souls? Call of Duty? Even Grand Theft Auto? My point is that Hollywood actors may be interested in participating in video games, but there’s no reason to think that video games should be enamored with Hollywood actors. Video games do not need to incorporate Hollywood, video games need to overtake Hollywood. And we certainly don’t need movie stars in games. Between Nathan Drake, Commander Shepherd, and even Super Mario, we already have plenty of stars of our own.