If you haven’t already heard, Sony revealed a playable teaser of a new Silent Hill game during their Gamescom conference. Most noteworthy of what was shown were the names attached to the title – the game is being co-directed by fan-favorite talents Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid) and Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) and will star Norman Reedus of AMC’s The Walking Dead.
Written down on separate pieces of paper, the three names seem like a no-brainer reason to be excited for the reveal. Regardless of any personal bias, it’s pretty hard to argue that the trio are a respectively well-received group of individuals with the resumes and audience numbers to prove it. That’s not where my concerns stem from. To be frank, whether or not the title even turns out to be any good is not something I’m losing much sleep over. What does have me legitimately worried about the future of video games as an artistic medium is the increasingly apparent trend that I’ve begun to refer to as “Hollywood syndrome.”
It’s robbing video games of their individuality as a standalone platform and I’m not sure I can continue to keep quiet as it perpetually unfolds.
I noticed gaming’s first blatant symptom when it was revealed last May that Hollywood veteran Kevin Spacey was set to star in the upcoming Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. While I’m personally a big (albeit, bandwagon) fan of the House of Cards star, the news sat somewhat uncomfortably with me. With over 70 performance credits under his belt, Spacey has proven more than once that he is capable of fulfilling a variety of roles. However, when hearing the job title “private military contractor,” I don’t think I’m spewing out assumptions when I proclaim Spacey’s face is not the first image that will instantly flash in someone’s head when imagining the perfect portrayal.
I found it oh-so fitting that developer Sledgehammer Game’s interest in Spacey’s (pricey) acting capabilities aligned so well with his recent popularity surge within the Netflix-hooked 18-25 year old demographic. Even more fitting is the choice to not only hire Spacey for his voice acting, but to have his character be a digital recreation of Spacey himself.
Taking a look at where Spacey will actually be utilized, Advanced Warfare’s single player campaign, the major parallel to a Hollywood blockbuster is pretty clear-cut – huge names sell “tickets” to those who aren’t already interested in a title based on its premise alone. Especially in a cinematic-driven story like Call of Duty, consumers will inevitably need more of an incentive to continue buying into a franchise with annual entries, and a well-recognized star seems to be what publishers are considering a possible answer.
Compare it to a recent film like Disney’s Maleficent. As of the past few years, modernized imaginings and altered perspectives of fairy-tale stories and characters (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, ABC’s Once Upon A Time, etc.) are not an entirely new concept, but a fame-bearing name like Angelina Jolie’s was enough to rise the otherwise average premise into headline territory. While the cool $70 million the film dragged in during its weekend debut surely put a smile on Disney’s face, at the end of the day it remained what critics widely deemed just a decent film which was saved by Jolie’s impressive performance.
It’s the same concept that would bring an audience to Will Smith in After Earth (2013), Johnny Depp in Transcendence (2014)…
…or Ellen Page in last year’s average-scoring PS3-exclusive Beyond: Two Souls. While developed by recognized studio Quantic Dream (Heavy Rain), the game relied heavily on Page’s name to regularly place the game on the front page of online news sources. I find that to be a problem.
The beauty of the bizarre realm that is video game voice acting (and game structure as a whole, really) is that, since its conception, there has been very little pigeonholing regarding how a game character can and can’t act. Unlike in cinema, character design is considered more of a creative choice than something which can easily be given a rating. There is a sense of wonder in anonymity and obscurity, and there are few pre-conceived notions as to what makes a “good” character portrayal in a game. Take a look at David Hayter’s legendary performance as Snake in the Metal Gear Solid franchise as a testimony.
Consider the millions of fans who were captivated by Hayter’s performance and remain to hold a special place in their heart for the contrastingly awkward and unrealistic character. Now place Snake’s character, as is, in a live action film. How does that image look? Is it a pretty picture? (It’s not a pretty picture.)
If the issues in forcing game-style characters into Hollywood films are so clear-cut, why is the reverse application so well-hidden? Hiring wildly famous and traditionally-versed movie stars not only deceives audiences into associating a high cast budget with a good game, but it also reserves the ability to market this new appeal for financially-bloated publishers. Why isn’t that questioned? What about how it gives structure and standards to the once limitless potential of creative video game character design? Can gamers realize the difference in taking inspiration from a medium over flat-out trying to become it? How come major game publishers have suddenly adopted this obsessive need to aggressively mimic film structure – while abandoning core values that made games a unique platform in the first place?
Most importantly, how come the masses are buying into it?
Gaming’s Hollywood syndrome is stretching beyond simply implementing real-life actors into interactive worlds. It refers to the forceful molding of the video game structure into that of the insanely marketable film structure. If you’re old enough to have witnessed the changes, consider how much more major AAA games rely on their cinematics to sell an experience in today’s age. If you’re like myself, you’ve caught yourself spending just as much time watching a game as you have playing it in the past year. While the vicious race to outperform competitors with impressive digital resolutions (which has also emerged in the film industry) is not in itself a bad thing, it’s worth analyzing when digitally replicated movie and television stars also get tossed into the fray. There comes a point when you have to stop and ask if you’re actually playing a game, or simply a film which demands irrelevant interaction.
I love Hollywood. But I don’t need it twice.
Tying back into Silent Hill, my main concern is that the game gains no real benefit from the notable trio who will largely comprise it. Kojima, a legend in his own right who deserves recognition as one of gaming’s most influential artists, has no experience working on a horror title. Del Toro, a minor pop culture icon and director of cherished fantasy-themed films like Pan’s Labyrinth, has shown interest in game development in the past but has not since proven his capability to direct a major title. Norman Reedus, one of The Walking Dead’s most well-received and talented actors, has no experience voice acting outside of portraying his character on the show. It’s not hard to imagine Reedus was sought out solely based on his current popularity and the accessible correlation to zombies and horror he comes with. The choice to (once again) implement his real-life model certainly compliments the argument.
For me, justification will come through why the above names were chosen – not just who they are as individuals. I’m still wondering exactly why the Silent Hill brand had to be slapped onto this particular project, since it seems a pretty safe bet this will be a radically different experience than the first entries which initially put the horror franchise on the radar. I’m not blind enough to ignore that the series could greatly benefit from a new sense of direction, so long as that doesn’t entail Konami using it as a guinea pig to see just how much buzz some Hollywood names can generate.
I will be keeping an incredibly close eye on the title as new details begin to emerge, and despite my reservations I’ll allow the possibility that Hollywood talent actually has the potential to broaden video game experiences for the better…
…because if we live to see the day that Hollywood syndrome devours gaming entirely, I can assure you it will be far more horrifying than anything you’ll find in Silent Hill.