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ScreenPlay: Cinema/Videogames/Interfaces

Editor: Geoff King, Tanya Krzywinska
Publisher: London: Wallflower Press, 2002
Review Published: August 2003

 REVIEW 1: Bob Rehak

ScreenPlay is an ambitious, generally successful attempt to map a host of gaps and intersections between cinema and videogames, calling attention to the formal and aesthetic influences each medium works on the other. In addition, the collection highlights the benefits (and sometimes, inadvertently, the pitfalls) of adopting theoretical and conceptual models developed for one medium -- mainstream film, the dominant representational/commercial practice of the twentieth century -- in order to talk about another -- video and console games, which have a much more recent lineage and arguably demonstrate greater diversity of form and content. It is no insult to call ScreenPlay a typical book of its moment, given that the moment in question (the emergence of videogames as an object of study across academic disciplines) seems rife with possibilities: for pioneering studies of a medium just starting to realize its potential; for revitalizing reconsiderations of what media are, exactly, and how they function alongside each other; and for conversations among critics and writers from all points of the spectrum. ScreenPlay is usually, but not always, successful in its mission of opening up and illuminating these debates. Some of its authors produce incisive and original work, while others manage to mangle and obfuscate both film theory and game theory. The overall result is a book that is uneven but inspiring, impressive but exasperating -- a kid in class who perhaps talks too much but says fascinating things.

To their credit, editors and contributors Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska -- both of whom work in Film and TV Studies at Brunel University, London -- start things off on the right note with a perceptive and sensible introduction setting forth the collection's mission while warning against what ScreenPlay does not intend to do. They provide a deft overview, for example, of the schism that currently divides game studies, a disagreement between the "ludology" and "remediation" schools. The former, exemplified by Espen Aarseth (1997), a pioneering theorist of cyber-influenced textual and narrative forms, insists on the game medium's specificity and rejects -- or at least views with skepticism -- the accelerating trend in film and media studies to colonize game studies with received models of spectatorship, identification, suture, and narrative in the classical Hollywood mode described canonically by David Bordwell (1985). The latter approach, in contrast, stresses the need to understand media as a family tree with traceable ancestries and "genetic" tendencies. In Remediation (1999), J. David Bolter and Richard Grusin build on McLuhan's maxim that the content of a medium is always another medium, describing videogames as an emergent form that borrows elements and behaviors of existing media in order to speak to an audience trained to view, interpret, and interact with established forms.

How does this divide affect ScreenPlay? For the most part, the book pays lip service to the ludologists while legitimizing remediation. Nearly every essay inoculates itself with some version of the claim that "games are not the equivalent of movies, but . . ." and goes on to explore the ways in which games and movies share certain characteristics but diverge in others. It is not a wholesale rejection of the ludologists' perspective -- and in fairness, the subtleties of the argument are usually laid out articulately and earnestly -- but the implicit message is that film and film theory constitute a useful, perhaps indispensable backdrop against which to delineate and analyze games -- an approach that is not necessarily free of blind spots and assumptions. One symptomatic problem that crops up in the essays, for example, is a tendency to "monumentalize" film theory, treating it as a set of more or less settled questions about, say, identification and gender representation which are then held up to games to note correspondences and differences. Mulvey's (1989) influential essay about the male gaze and cinema's scopic regime is invoked repeatedly in relation to Tomb Raider's Lara Croft, but there is little acknowledgment of the numerous revisions that this theory has undergone in the nearly thirty years since it first appeared. Similarly, the debate over whether film viewers are "passive" in comparison to the more "active" game player is dealt with in cursory fashion through fleeting and uncritical references to cognitive film theory, itself a highly contested position within media studies.

These may seem like minor points, particularly when ScreenPlay's focus is primarily on games, not film. And indeed, the essays that dig deeply into particular games -- Andrew Mactavish's excellent discussion of Half-Life, Tanya Krzywinska's nuanced treatment of the horror games Resident Evil 3: Nemesis and Clive Barker's Undying, and Geoff King's comparison of the various Die Hard games to the film franchise that spawned them -- stand out as superb examples of theoretical cross-pollination. Both film and game experiences are deepened by these detailed and clever analyses. Unfortunately, the collection also includes work that does the opposite, reducing both game and film theory by unreflectively splicing the two, as in Sue Morris's refit of apparatus theory -- a school of thought investigating the ideological and psychodynamic effects of cinematic technology and spectatorship -- for the first-person shooter (FPS). While Morris's essay is built on an imaginative and provocative kernel, its execution seems hurried and overgeneral. A different problem occurs in Diane Carr's "Playing with Lara" and Derek A. Burill's article on the James Bond films and games, essays presumably paired due to their focus on games' construction of gender. Both are muddled by an anecdotal, "performative" writing style that contrasts poorly with the more analytical pieces in the collection.

Perhaps the best essay in ScreenPlay is, ironically, one that inverts the games-in-light-of-cinema focus in order to talk about a movie that remediates videogames. Margit Grieb's "Run Lara Run" perfectly balances its discussion of Tom Tykwer's film and Tomb Raider, showing how game aesthetics "reinvent" film narrative while coming up against its limits. It is here that the book delivers on its promise, synthesizing without bastardizing. Overall it must be said that more of ScreenPlay succeeds than fails. Readers versed in media theory might be bothered in places by an overreliance on certain writers (Andrew Darley, Steven Poole), but they are likely to find the essays' collective audacity and experimentation quite exhilarating. And readers coming from a background in game studies will find a discussion that is both expert (for if there is one thing these people know, it is games) and provocative -- a book that, despite or perhaps because of its flaws, is destined to open up new lines of inquiry and discussion.

Aarseth, Espen (1997). Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Bolter, J. and R. Grusin (1999). Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Bordwell, D. (1985). "The Classical Hollywood Style, 1917-60." In D. Bordwell, J. Steiger, and K. Thompson (Ed.). The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. London: Routledge.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: Mentor.

Mulvey, L. (1989). "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." In Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Bob Rehak:
Bob Rehak is a graduate student in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University, Bloomington. His essay "Playing at Being: Psychoanalysis and the Avatar" will appear in The Video Game Theory Reader (Routledge, 2003). While he continues to pursue game-related projects, his current work involves genre theory and the migration of special effects among media forms.   <zencat@indiana.edu>

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