By nick braccia, October 24th, 2009

Credit to Culture Hacker friend .tiff for showcasing this flash adaptation of “Cavern of the Evil Wizard”. CotEW, if you don’t know, is the King’s Quest-style adventure game that confounds 12-year old Josh Baskin and his friend, Billy in the 1988 Penny Marshall directed Tom Hanks vehicle, Big. It’s a small detail, but, from a dramatic POV,  it  probably works better than anything else in the movie (saving Robert Loggia). The dramatic pay-off occurs in the movie’s final act when the pre-teen Baskin, in a 30-something Tom Hanks-ish body is able to return to the game with enough growth and insight to solve the problem that flummoxed him in his kid body. He’s still just a kid inside, but he’s progressed according to his own clock (not Zoltar’s)

It’s a scene that any gamer kid born post 1970 can relate to, but I think it’s particularly memorable because it was a truly accurate depiction of a period game’s assets, user interface and general experience. Although CotEW was created specifically for the movie, it was clearly made with a familiarity of Sierra and Mindscape published games of the  mid to late 80s.

This is a superior interpretation compared to how interactive entertainment is usually conveyed in dramatic mediums (TV, movies). Traditionally, console, PC, and sometimes even real life games are mimicked and reproduced poorly. Here’s a list of bad examples.

Grievous Offenders

  • The Columbine kids playing FPS games in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant.
  • Multiple Episodes of Law & Order mimicking EverQuest, Second Life and other flavors of the day.
  • Tron, eXistenZ, The Lawnmower Man and most attempts to “suck players into the game” usually ends up playing to dramatic conventions while employing a gamey aesthetic, but it’s really just a style choice, and has nothing to do with how people actually play.
  • Sundry examples that depict actors violently button mashing, convulsing and gyrating–something gamers never do. Ok, rarely do.

On the other hand, there are good examples. South Park, not surprisingly, always gets it right. Veronica Mars showcases Fable effectively, without actually pimping the game by name, and Zombieland’s WoW references are spot on. In the LARPing world, Even Role Models gets it pretty good, way better than, say The Game, or even Tag: The Assassination Game.

Thoughts on other good or bad examples of interactive entertainment depicted in a non-interactive, dramatic medium? Why do director always misrepresent “play”? My guess is, they aren’t gamers and/or are worried they’ll alienate the massive non-gaming audience if they’re faithful. The art house directors like Cronenberg and Van Sant probably don’t care, happy to convey abstract notions instead of accurate representations.

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Posted in gaming movies

nick braccia is a Creative Director at G2 in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Earlier in his career, he spent 7 years developing concepts for Masterfoods and P&G clients as part of G2 in New York City. Since 2001, he's explored his passion for immersive narrative experiences and contributed to the ARGs "Catching the Wish" and "Unnatural Selection" under the direction of author and guru, Dave Szulborski. Recently, Nick directed "No Known Survivors" to support EA's horror survival title Dead Space and "Vroengard Academy", promoting the Random House title, Brisingr. These projects were conceived and completed while working for Ian Schafer's integrated interactive agency, Deep Focus in New York and Los Angeles.


  • polly frost

    Great post, Nick. I think part of the reason for how games are portrayed in movies is that filmmakers have felt threatened about losing their audience to games. There's a self-interested morality to how they characterize the evil effects of gaming. It's similar to how tv was portrayed in movies in films like Network.

  • Some thoughts:

    I just watched E.T. over the weekend and had forgotten all of the Dungeons & Dragons stuff there. It seems to get the game mostly right (I especially like Elliott's use of the phrase "Zero charisma" as a taunt directed at one of the older boys later on). The Freaks & Geeks episode Discos and Dragons also gets D&D right.

    Comparing these two - against each other and against some of the movies you mention - is useful, however, in that with E.T., "getting D&D right" is just part of the movie's more general project of getting early 1980s American kids culture right (see also: Elliott's Star Wars toys). D&D is used as a marker of what kinds of kids these are, but its "gameness" doesn't really figure into how the movie works in the way that the computer game from Big does.

    Freaks & Geeks also uses D&D as a detail to make its recreation of an early 80s suburban milieu seem more authenic, but it goes a little farther than E.T. does in that what D&D is - in terms of the experience it provides both as a game and as a social activity - helps to dramatize some of the show's central themes. D&D really did (and still does, but to a lesser degree) provide an opportunity for the freaks to mix with the geeks, and the "role playing" aspect of the game was certainly a big part of its appeal to both groups and its ability to, momentarily, erase those kinds of sub-cultural barriers.

    I'd also note that the three strongest movies (aesthetically, at least) that you list - eXistenZ, Elephant, and The Game - all "get it wrong" in one way or another. With Elephant, I think it's a case where Van Sant cares more about a certain look and feel in the images and editing and less about accurately recreating "reality". I'd note, tangentially, that there are no cell phones in Elephant. Van Sant is definitely abstracting reality but that's different from favoring "abstract notions" over "accurate representations". All artist abstract reality: that's the (or a) defintion of "artist". Whether or not getting a detail like that "wrong" is a dealbreaker is a pretty subjective thing (which I've written about on my blog: http://foragerblog.blogspot..., but, at least here, the video game stuff doesn't seem to tie into a major plot point (unlike, say, the weird use of "Wish You Were Here" in The Squid & the Whale does).

    With The Game and eXistenZ, I think it's slightly different: these movies seem to be coming out of a tradition of New Wave and Cyberpunk science fiction (J.G. Ballard, William Gibson, etc.). Their concept of "games" owes much more to the head games of 1960s "mind-fuck" literature than to games as they are actually played by people. The games in both films are physical and logistical impossibilities.

    But, again, I think the phrase "abstract notion" is a bit dismissive: both movies are metaphorical and conceptual, but their metaphors and concepts are expressed through concrete, cinematic details.

    (Also - I think Ray Sawhill and Polly Frost's web-show The Fold does a good job of taking some of the ideas in eXistenZ and rounding them out with "realistic" details.)

    I do agree, though, that if you're making any kind of a "realistic" movie where some of the plot hinges on/revolves around game play, it's better to get it right.

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