It’s Oscar Night on March 2nd, and it’s one of the only show business events that I love unconditionally and unironically. I’ve been a big film buff for many years, and it’s always a thrill to not just see the winners and losers, but to experience it with friends and talk about our personal lists. It’s not hard to see the influence of many popular movies from years past that have had a profound influence on video games, whether they be direct (Star Wars, James Bond) or indirect (Blade Runner, Alien). Generally, the films which are most renowned by video game fans tend to fall into the action/Sci Fi/nerd category, and it’s obvious why that’s the case; those movies are awesome. However, there are definitely influences that reach back to some of the most celebrated films from Academy Awards past.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Notable Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay
Over the past 10-15 years, popular culture has been inundated with procedural thrillers involving the police, FBI, or whomever hunting down a serial killer. More than just following the good guys, what really appeals to audiences dramatically is a focus on the darkness of the killer’s mind. The Silence of the Lambs was released in early 1991 and gained a huge amount of Oscar buzz due to its well-timed release on video at the end of that year. It ended up being one of the biggest winners in history, sweeping all major categories.
Considering how many copycat films and television shows came out in the wake of this masterpiece, it is staggering how well it still holds up over 20 years later. The influence of this film is also apparent in video games, particularly those of the last 10 years. With the increased focus on both atmosphere, characterization, and disturbing human behavior, you can see its influence in video games such as Condemned, Heavy Rain, The Last of Us, and BioShock. Many of those games bear a more direct link to David Fincher’s Se7en (also a phenomenal film), but it all really started with The Silence of the Lambs.
The Graduate (1967)
Notable Oscar Win: Best Director
A common theme in teen movies has to do with the inevitable process of growing up and learning about responsibility, while trying to maintain a sense of individuality throughout. This is pretty standard fare nowadays, but this was considered radical when it was presented in the 1967 Mike Nichols classic, The Graduate. Recent college graduate Ben Braddock spends an aimless summer living with his parents, emotionally adrift and unsure what he wants to do with his life. He ends up having an affair with Mrs. Robinson, an older woman and family friend. Things become complicated when her daughter Elaine, who is Ben’s age, also arrives home from college.
One thread that runs through many Final Fantasy games is the protagonists’s desire to find his/her place in the world. This literally happens in Final Fantasy X as Tidus crashes Yuna’s in-progress wedding, evoking stark similarities to The Graduate‘s climactic scene. Like Ben and Elaine, Tidus and Yuna may not have much time together beyond the fade-out, but they’ve committed to something and they’re seeing it through. One reason why Final Fantasy X‘s story is so resonant is that it taps into a similar sense of alienation and rebellion that The Graduate did 35 years previously.
The French Connection (1971)
Notable Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor
Have you ever seen a movie featuring a rogue detective hot on the trail of a bad guy, racing through the city’s mean streets with his wise-cracking partner? Have you seen 100 of those movies? Me too. Well, every single one of those films can be traced back to The French Connection, the big winner at the 1971 Oscars. Based on a true story, this movie features Gene Hackman as Detective Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle as he chases down the leader of an international drug ring. Set in New York City, it is notable for its gritty, street-level visual style as well as an intense car/train chase sequence that was legendary in its time.
In retrospect, this fast-paced, violent, and pessimistic film seems almost like a blueprint for modern action games. Tonally, there are so many video games that strive for the lean and mean approach of The French Connection; Sleeping Dogs, GTA, NARC, Driver…even something like Call of Duty tips its hat at this grandfather of all action films.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Notable Oscar Win: Best Original Screenplay
Pulp Fiction is a significant film not because of the story it tells, which is fun but overall thin and inconsequential. What makes it so amazing is how it marries pop culture, modern LA life, ultraviolence, and humor into something that was as foreign to audiences as it was irresistible back in 1994. There’s a certain thrill from this movie that the good guys aren’t that good and the bad guys are in some ways more moral people than they appear.
Grand Theft Auto as a series owes a great debt to Pulp Fiction, and it’s no coincidence that the series’s first game came out shortly after this movie. GTA games, much like Tarantino’s films, never seem like they’re in a big hurry to tell their stories, instead content to meander along and let moments happen. Furthermore, many of the most memorable characters from the GTA universe, such as Trevor from GTA V, CJ from San Andreas, Lance Vance from Vice City, wouldn’t be even remotely out of place in the Tarantino universe.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Notable Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director
There are big movies, and then there are epic movies, and then there is Lawrence of Arabia. Clocking in at 228 minutes, this is the longest film to win the Best Picture Oscar and every second of it is thrilling. It tells the true story of T.E. Lawrence, a British soldier sent to North Africa to recruit local tribes in the fight against the Turks in World War I whose exploits become legendary. Beneath the expansive surface however lies a tale of a man dealing with the effects of trauma and the struggle of having to live up to one’s own legend.
Peter O’Toole’s portrayal of Lawrence shows a character who is initially presented as larger than life, charismatic, and powerful. As the story progresses, he conveys the toll taken on his psyche as a result of his experiences, revealing a traumatized and conflicted man. Games and series’ such as Metal Gear Solid, Mass Effect, and Spec Ops: The Line cover similar ground as they explore the hard truths behind the hero myths people are desperate to believe.
These are but a few examples of how some of history’s finest films have influenced this comparatively young art form. One can only imagine how the current crop of nominees will affect the games we play in the future, or how those games will in turn affect cinema.