Movies vs. Video Games: The Problem with Comparison

There has been a strange trend with the recent reviews of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” Surely, one would expect comparisons to Tolkien’s original book and Jackson’s previous “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. But video games?

Yes, the recently released film adaptation of Tolkien’s timeless story has become the latest victim of being negatively compared to a video game. While critics have taken issues with the film’s slack pacing, bloated length and overabundance of CGI, some have also seen it as less of a cinematic exercise and more of an electronic one.

The recent “Hobbit” film is only the latest movie to be negatively compared to a video game

Rottentmoates’ Tim Ryan writes:

“I love the following things, in no particular order: cinema, video games, and BBC series. However, The Hobbit taught me an important lesson: I don’t like it when my movies look alternately like video games and/or BBC series. There were moments in the film where I wasn’t sure whether I was watching the making-of featurette or a cut scene (for a millisecond after Gandalf showed up to rescue the dwarves from the Great Goblin, my brain instinctively steeled itself for an intense boss battle).”

While Ryan wrote mostly of Jackson’s controversial decision to shoot the film in 48 frames per second (twice the normal 24), a similar argument could be made for the film’s CG-heavy visuals. It’s certainly not the first popular movie to receive the seemingly ignoble distinction. Everything from “The Avengers” to film in the “Transformers,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and “Spider-Man” franchises have been, one time or another, been compared more to video games than movies.

The comparison is rarely flattering. After all, video games are child’s toys, while film is an old and sophisticated art form. Or so the consensus seems to be.

But, for several reasons, comparing movies to video games is never a truly valid critique. The major flaw in reasoning is the fact that movies and video games are fundamentally different mediums. No matter how much we might call it so, “The Hobbit” is a movie. It will never be interactive. Regardless of how many times I watch it, even if I memorize every line, the movie will never change. It is an artifact, immovable in time. That’s the beautiful thing about film: the story itself changes the same, but our interpretation of it can change along with us.

The major difference for video games is that they are, by their vary nature, interactive. It is a more dynamic medium, with a greater potential to engage the audience via its unique interactivity. Why then, are video games mentioned when a movie is criticized for being all flash and no substance?


“Bioshock” (2007) is one of the premier examples of the power of interactive storytelling, something that film will never be able to share.

Roger Ebert’s famed argument that “video games can never be art” is still being hotly debated, but certainly they can be as entertaining and emotionally engaging as movies. For every forgettable shooter or smash-em-up, there seems to be another game that is thought-provoking or emotionally engaging in ways that the medium of film can never convey. A popular example is “Bioshock,” and for good reason. The games dystopian themes and twisted world are magnificent simply because the player is allowed to explore them and shape them as they see fit. The reason a “Bioshock” movie sounds so unpalatable is simply because fans can’t imagine a version of that universe in which they aren’t the ones making the decisions that shape the story and world.

Or consider “Amnesia: The Dark Descent,” arguably the most terrifying game ever played. The terror exceeds that of any horror film because you are the one being hunted, you are the one running for your life. Many games emphasize making the player feel powerful, but this one trades in the art of fear.

Oddly enough, video game critics sometimes make the opposite argument: a game can, apparently, unflatteringly resemble a movie if there are too many cut scenes, too much static plot and not enough interaction. The greatest example is probably the “Metal Gear Solid” series, which features award-winning game play but has often been criticized for requiring players to sit through hours of convoluted storytelling before pressing a button.

“Metal Gear Solid 4” was criticized by some for its lengthy cut scenes sometimes resembling a movie more than a game.

The fact is that movies and video games can both be wonderful experiences, but for very different reasons. Movies will never be video games, and video games will never be movies. They are fundamentally different mediums, with their own strengths and weaknesses. Look at adaptations; there’s a reason both video games based on movies and movies based on video games rarely turn out well. No one has been able to quite figure out how to translate one medium’s strengths to the other. And maybe that’s the way it should be. Ultimately, critics should stick to what they know best. Movies should be compared to other movies, and games should be compared to other games. It does little good to call a film or a game something it’s not.