I stumbled across Robert Alan Brookey’s engaging new book, Hollywood Gamers: Digital Convergence in the Film and Video Game Industries, via Will Scheibel’s Camera-Stylo blog, and because I’m working on a project that attempts to engage with issues related to film and digital convergence, I gave the book a quick read this weekend and this review is an attempt to think through some of Brookey’s more compelling concepts. I’ll be the first to admit that my first book, Reinventing Cinema, did not do enough to address the ways in which convergence is taking place between the movie and video game industries, whether at the level of narrative (transmedia storytelling in The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) series, etc) or at the level of media ownership (Sony’s investment in the PS3, in DVD players, and in movie franchises), but there is little doubt that the relationship between movies and gaming is deepening on a number of levels, and Brookey’s book considers many of those changes from the perspective of someone who enjoys both movies and games.
Brookey uses a political economy approach to issues of media convergence, in places taking issue with some of the more utopian celebrations of “interactivity” that are introduced in some of the more uncritical studies of video games, a move that I think is generally useful, even if I am skeptical about some of Brookey’s conclusions (more on that in a minute). Drawing from Ian Bogost’s discussion of the persuasive function of the “procedural rhetoric” associated with most video games, Brookey remarks that “interactivity invites video game players to participate in the persuasive practices built into the games” (27). And, according to Brookey, what do most of these games persuade us to do? Essentially, they ask us to buy into the production narratives associated with the story world of both the game and the movie. In one of his most extended case studies, he describes the production narratives associated with the LOTR films, in which actors from the films describe their engagement–or lack of engagement in the case of Ian McKellan–with video games and the pleasures of playing a video game avatar. In essence, they teach us how to read these textual worlds and how we fit within those worlds. Brookey goes on to add that “video games reward compliance” (34), essentially turning interactivity into a form of compliance with the logic of the video game.
One of the strengths of the book is Brookey’s detailed description of game play, which he was able to achieve by a combination of playing the games and observing as others played, allowing him to detail the narratives of the games, as well as the relationship between the cinematic “cut scenes” and the action in the games themselves. In addition to his accounts of the LOTR video games, he offers a fascinating reading of the video game adaptation of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather movies (themselves an adaptation of Mario Puzo’s novels), one that clearly identifies how the video game play works against the attempts by Coppola to challenge romanticized portraits of the mafia.
His final chapter is, perhaps, the most important one, in that he traces out the logic behind media convergence by noting how Sony’s development of the Playstation 3 was intimately tied to the DVD format wars in the mid-2000s, with Sony working to ensure that the Blu-Ray format would win. This relationship between video gaming and DVD watching has only been intensified due to the use of PS3s and Nintendo’s Wii consoles as machines for playing movies. The role of Sony in shaping the viewing platforms through which we obtain DVDs is well worth addressing, as is the techniques Nintendo has used in marketing the Wii to people who typically don’t consider themselves to be games. At the same time, Brookey revisits some of the claims about the future of storytelling that have been associated with media convergence. Specifically, he cites a Wired interview with Guillermo Del Toro, in which the famed movie director asserts that in the near future, “we’re going to see all the forms of entertainment—film, television, video, games, and print—melding into a single-platform ‘story engine.'” Del Toro’s account also takes into account fan productions, likening the changes in entertainment culture to the oral tradition of storytelling. Del Toro goes on to add that by encouraging fan participation, we will witness the creation of a “promiscuous form of mythology,” one that will “rewrite the rules of fiction.” Brookey, citing the current state of “bad” video game adaptations concludes that such a future is unlikely to emerge from the logic of convergence (138).
This is, perhaps, where my disagreement with Brookey is strongest. Although I recognize that financial interests often trump artistic ones when it comes to the production of games, I think Brookey’s political economy approach sometimes sells existing storytelling and interactive practices short. To be sure, the practices of making machinima movies using video game engines have led to a number of creative reworkings of older texts, some of them with strong political critiques. These texts, whether tour de force performances or political statements, show that not all uses of games are compliant ones (though many of them certainly are). Like Brookey, I think it’s important to remain skeptical of celebrations of interactivity in video games (and I think his book deserves to be read widely by media studies scholars), especially when it comes to fan-created narratives. Issues of copyright and media franchising help shape what kinds of stories can be told. But it’s also worth asking how convergence can expand our storytelling repertoire in engaging–and potentially unexpected–ways.