It’s something of a truism that movies based on video games are, well, terrible. Really, truly, unabashedly terrible. I’m still trying to get my money back for having sat through Wing Commander (USA, 1999), even though it was a matinee. And I went on a free pass.
The attempt to transfer the experience of playing a game, interacting as an active participant, to the decidedly passive experience of watching a film, fails, without fail, time and time again (cf. Uwe Boll). Not to assign value to the various modes of culture consumption—film, at its best, offers a transcendent experience and forces active mental participation, while the mere fact of interactivity in video games does not guarantee a worthwhile, active thinking experience—but the basic expectations one brings to playing games differ from those one brings to watching a film.
Choices, options, paths are, of course, constrained by the game as readily as a director positions actors in a scene, but the illusion of choice, of agency, remains, and this sense of being in control appeals to the gamer—and it’s this sense that doesn’t translate across genres.
Video game films fail most often because they attempt to portray figures from the games that the gamers themselves control. If the long delayed Halo film ever comes to fruition, it will fail, because what the screen Master Chief does is not necessarily what I would have done; his thoughts, given voice on the screen, as he mows through the Covenant forces, were not my thoughts as I did the same in the game.
But they finally did it. I finally saw not just a good video game movie, but the best video game movie ever.
What is it? The Damned United (UK, 2009). But, you protest, that’s not a video game movie! Isn’t, it, though?
As I watched this fictionalized look at brilliant football manager Brian Clough’s rise through the English league ranks, taking Derby County to the First Division and then ultimately (and briefly) coaching Leeds United, Clough’s experience felt very familiar to me. Not that, in real life, I’m a hard charging, outspoken gaffer willing to defy a very rich club chairman, nor have I even played one on TV—but I have played the game.
Football Manager, to be precise.
A football management game (natch), Sports Interactive’s Football Manager—released as Worldwide Soccer Manager in North America, replete with MLS branding—allows the player to control a football club from any of scores of leagues around the world, from the lower rungs of the English leagues through to the summer Scandinavian leagues and the arcanely structured South American leagues up to the top flight European leagues.
Once the squad is purchased and trained and the tactics laid out, matches are played without direct intervention by the player. Oh, you can tweak tactics on the fly and adjust positions and strategies, but the player does not directly control the individuals on the pitch. It’s nothing like EA’s FIFA series. Really, once you’ve prepared your team, you just sort of hope and pray.
The scene in The Damned United where Brian Clough is hiding in his office when Leeds came to the Baseball Ground during Derby’s first season in the First Division? That’s Football Manager in a nutshell.
He paces, smokes, worries, and can’t bear to peek outside to see the scoreline, reacting only to the glorious roars and ominous murmurings of the home crowd. I’ve done that in Football Manager. That is the Football Manager experience.
I’ve hidden my eyes, turned off the monitor, worried and fretted as an entire season’s worth of work—hours of play—hinged on hidden variables I did my best to compensate for. Would the random number generator be kind? Could my fullbacks contain the golden boot winner? Would the goalposts be thick as girders or thin as reeds for my strikers?
Or would it be another season of toil, trying to gain promotion, trying to win the cup, as the squad aged and became restless, as the board chafed at my lack of progress and the fans grew fickle?
I was in control, but I wasn’t. The whole problem of non-agency in video games, the illusion that you can do something the developers didn’t plan for, vanished, because non-agency is part and parcel of the game itself.
A great gaming experience, captured by the best video game movie. Ever.