Much to the distaste of some avid fans of computer games, a common criticism levelled at some films is that they are game-like. Fans of games argue this does games a disservice, claiming that in some way using “like a game” as a criticism of a well-respected medium like film is implying games are inferior, or otherwise ignoring the merits of games in some way. This could be considered fair; simply saying something is “like another medium” is not inherently a criticism (for a poetic book, theatrical film, or filmic game as in the case of Journey can all be great) but at the same time being “gamelike” can also definitely be something for which a film should be criticised.
To begin with, what makes a film gamelike, and are these traits good or bad things? I firmly believe that even the best-written mainstream games are still lacking compared to non-interactive media at this point in time (and since the comparison being made here by most critics is between mainstream games and mainstream films, mentioning a game like To The Moon or Journey in comparison with the sorts of films described as gamelike would be like complaining that Alien vs Predator is less good than Jules Et Jim – true, but not very useful.) The sorts of films most commonly called gamelike are action films, inviting comparison with action games – a film like The Expendables may be described as “like a video game” in its use of action setpieces. I would argue this is an entirely fair comparison; most action films now do have gamelike traits because they share a target market with game-players; the same audiences will likely watch The Expendables as play Call of Duty. As Call of Duty embodies the cinematic game ideal, where gameplay is compromised in the name of spectacle, so would it be justifiable to say The Expendables and its ilk are action films reduced to their purest form; a series of setpieces interspersed with downtime.
Interestingly, the belief that empty spectacle and a superflux of action for its own sake is not good for narrative media is generally held both among film critics (who complain a modern action film like Transformers is lacking compared to something like Aliens) and game critics (who complain the linear, cinematic experience of Call of Duty is lacking compared to something like Quake). So as a result to call a big, bombastic but ultimately hollow action film gamelike is entirely reasonable; an undesirable trend in filmmaking is reflecting a trend in gamemaking and the result is not a good thing. Similarly, the moves towards controversy and excess in such games in an attempt to stand out in a genre whose fans are becoming dissatisfied with “ordinary” experiences can also be argued to be being reflected in film, and again calling this “gamelike” is entirely reasonable.
There is another side to the use of “gamelike” as a criticism; weakness of narrative. Most games fall into two camps, highly linear cinematic experiences (as explained above) which ultimately tend to feel like poor cousins of cinema in terms of writing quality, or level- or dungeon-based episodic progressions. This latter form of game storytelling is built around the strengths of the game medium; a game generally needs to go between a number of locales, contain a steadily building challenge but also justify each step of the journey in some narrative way. RPGs do this by having the player go from town to town and be unable to progress without completing some locally-themed dungeon, be it finding a ship, saving a missing child to earn the trust of someone or some similar trial. For the RPG genre, be it played with dice or on a computer, this is the easiest way of repurposing the “hero’s journey” plot into a gamelike form – the players have a reason to go to a number of places, gain power in a linear progression and fight increasingly powerful and varied villains before a final showdown.
For films, this simply does not work. That is not to say quest narratives or hero’s journeys do not work for films, but gamelike narrative progression is unsuited to film and it is here, again, that gamelike is a major failing of another medium. Most games use this narrative progression unsubtly to the point where it has even become a cliché within the medium; four themed villains, four places to go to and any number of sinking ships, blocked passes and missing persons to be found on the way. Were a film to use this thumpingly unsubtle method of telling its story, it would rightly be castigated – for being gamelike. The real world, and its depictions in fiction, does not work around discrete levels or “levelling up”. A fantasy film can easily tell a quest story concerning recovering artifacts from places, but it must tell it in a different way to a role-playing game lest it feel simply like the viewer is watching someone play that game.
So thus, a gamelike film could well be one which tells its story in episodic chunks badly tied together, where individual incidents feel less like natural narrative progression and more like arbitrary “boss fights” placed in the way of the protagonists. This even ties in to the initial point made above about the empty spectacle of gamelike films – passive storytelling, without the need to include interactivity and account for varying rates of progression, must have something beyond the thrill of seeing a new setpiece or ability to keep the viewer’s interest; and without the need to accommodate any choice, or account for different playing styles, it is only natural that what remains (the storytelling) should be held to the highest standards. Even an action film must have at its heart a strong story – this does not necessarily mean a complex one – but if there is not a clear sense of motion and a naturalistic progression of the story appropriate to the medium then there is a problem.
To conclude, gamelike is a very good critical term for discussing the negative aspects of a film; this is not a slight on games per se but a necessary recognition that two different media have different storytelling conventions and cannot easily be combined. A film can be gamelike and good, in the same way as a game can be filmic and good, but if done badly then the result is a poor relation of both. Similarly, the significant target demographic overlap between purchasers of bestselling games and viewers of popular cinema means that the two media will inevitably inspire each other – and if film begins to succumb to the same flaws as games, then gamelike is once again valid criticism.