Is digital Keanu really the future of games?


The real world actor Keanu Reeves was perhaps the most high profile showing at the E3 videogame expo in the US this week. This was odd considering he is not actually a videogame.

As 2019 goes, the actor is undeniably among the most popular and profitable movie stars of the moment and has a very cool haircut with which to play zen badasses with. It is kinda cool therefore that his likeness, voice and perhaps even his haircut, will be in an ambitious science fiction game set to be released next year.

Yet one cannot escape the feeling that using a movie star in games is not really the same draw for an audience that it is in the movies. Keanu’s actions in a game are the result of a team of programmers, designers, writers and even the actions of the player themselves.

What then is the point of movie stars in games?

It might well become increasingly the norm for Keanus to head up videogames ahead of their launch. But cyberpunk 2077 is not a movie, even with its aims for cinematic visuals and storytelling. This raises some questions on the role that movie stars, whether icons or not, can actually play in a game’s success to entertain and engage.

It is pertinent at an uncertain time for what the concept of a game actually is, and what they might become with the advent of streaming services that seek to run high powered games through the web itself.

E3, now some two decades old, is supposed to be one of the world’s foremost showcases for all that is good and new with games. Nonetheless, some of the biggest announcements were that a very real world movie star, and some other action heroes, were going to be digitised and put into some new releases.

Will these games be any good? In some of the biggest reveals at the event so far, we were given cinematics rather than gameplay details. So in short, who knows.

Mr Reeves appearance in the much hyped Cyberpunk 2077, CD Projekt’s follow up to the hugely successful Witcher 3, could well add some interesting plot and visual flare to the title.

Yet Keanu’s appearance at E3, as charismatic as it was, was all surface sheen. For many, it was a welcome surface sheen, but much like the large amounts of non-gameplay footage shown during this major gaming event, we didn’t get much of an idea of any new mechanics on some of these anticipated new games.

Ironically, Keanu’s John Wick movies are having an interesting impact on games. The movie series, which tells the tale of an unstoppable assassin navigating and stylishly murdering his way through a strange parallel world of hired killers with their own code of honour and currency, has had a very clear stylistic impact on how some recent games look and sound.

Visuals, sounds and star power are always a pleasant cherry on top, but they can rarely lift an underwhelming title.

Having John Wick in your game does not necessarily make a good John Wick game.

To be fair to this year’s E3, the inclusion of icons and movie stars in games is nothing new.

Keven Spacey has previously contributed his voice and image, now somewhat diminished in the eyes of the public at large, to Call of Duty – Advanced Warfare a few years ago.

Twenty Years ago, David Bowie’s decision to provide a crude likeness of himself and some music to the curious Dreamcast title, Omikron: The Nomad Soul, certainly provided fascination and press coverage on its release in 1999.

However, his appearance in the game didn’t necessarily add anything substantial from a gameplay perspective to a somewhat metaphysical game. It is fair to argue though whether the title would be remembered at all without the Starman’s involvement.

A step backwards?

To be pretending that games are just like movies, and should be sold and marketed as such, feels a little retrograde in the current era of Playstations, X-Boxes and Switches, where games can be played almost anywhere.

There was a time when it was almost mandatory for blockbuster films to have tie-in videogames to try and crudely recreate some parts of some popular, or not so popular film in a vaguely interactive form. If you loved Jurassic Park, while not blast away some dinosaurs in a 2D shooter?  You love Wayne’s World, how about blasting sentient musical instruments in a 2D shooter and on it went for the best part of a decade.

While modern hardware can faithfully recreate the looks and sounds of modern blockbusters, videogames have now arguably transcended movies in their appeal. This isn’t to say they are better than movies – they are just different – even with some of their shared visual appeal.

Creating a facsimile of a popular film character in a video game has been possible for decades, although not necessarily in a photo realistic manner.

But the real evolution in videogames, whether in larger budget triple-A titles, or smaller-scale independent games, has been the creative news ways games have sought to explore news ways of making you emotionally engage as a character. This is not just about making you feel empowered to be heroes, or more complicated, flawed character, but also in how games can make you question your behaviours and rethink perspectives.

It is a pretentious thought, but it also gets at how a small title from a handful of developers that may invoke some retro visual game style can feel infinitely more engaging and compelling than a humongous 3D open world that pushes modern hardware to its limit to capture.

Industry… assemble

So when a new videogame based on the Avengers movies and comic books was announced at this year’s E3 by Crystal Dynamics, there was a lot of interest in what exactly the game would be, how would it play, and how would it seek to convey the appeal of cinema’s mightiest heroes.

However, a gameplay reveal trailer didn’t really show gamers much about how they will get to play out their own superheroics other than in a cinematic trailer that the developer says is based on the game’s engine.

This was something of a brave gambit considering that large amounts of the potential audience helped make the latest Avengers movie the second biggest grossing film of all time barely two months previously.

How then would the game seek to make the player feel they are really assuming the role of Iron-Man or the Incredible Hulk. At present we don’t know. The game trailer certainly looked cinematic, but we already have a huge number of Avengers in the cinema. An animated cutscene risks being a little underwhelming.

We know games can look and sound great, but isn’t it time for industry remind us how the current generation titles also actually play great. Let’s show Hollywood what the industry can really do.  Now that would be a worthy cause for John Wick.

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