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Level Up, Cinema: The Intersection Between Film and Digital Games in the Late 20th-Early 21st Centuries

June 5, 2022

post-thumb This research paper explores the way interactive and immersive elements from games have influenced the film industry, pioneering a new generation of interactive cinema. The piece includes information on the history of interactive film and the use of game creation tools in filmmaking. It highlights the mutual influence between the two mediums and speculates on the future of interactive film.

In October 1958, tens of visitors waited in line for their turn to approach the five-inch screen depicting two lines, one of which was representing the ground and the other a tennis net. Physicist William Higinbotham invented this simple game to attract viewers to the Brookhaven lab where he worked, but little did he know Tennis for Two would be acknowledged as the first video game of many to come1. In the 1970s, the first commercial video game, Computer Space, was introduced, followed by Pong, which grew extremely successful, resulting in digital games becoming more mainstream2. In 2020, data reveals a record set in video game spending, peaking at 56.9 billion dollars spent in the US on gaming hardware, accessories, and content3. Alongside the rise of video game popularity and sales in the 21st century, other industries have begun to take note of the aspects of digital games that make them so appealing to the public.

The film industry specifically has implemented both interactive and immersive elements into its content, engaging audiences in new ways and taking after characteristics of digital games; they do this through utilizing game logic in film plots, using mainstream gaming creation tools for film production, and incorporating elements of audience interaction in film. This paper aims to examine the intersection between gaming and the film industry, arguing for a so-called new generation in film, characterized by interactivity and immersive nature stemming from the rise of video games. Although video game influence on film is not extreme to the point of a sharp rupture between film before and after the rise of games, it is evident that video games have introduced filmmakers to the desire of the public for immersive experiences and audience participation. This paper also addresses the contrary: specific film techniques that have been implemented into video games, which is crucial to fully understand and analyze the scope of their intersection.

Video game influence on film is most prominent in outright interactive films, which are now easily accessible through online streaming services but were only available through special exhibitions in previous years. The first interactive film, Radúz Činčera’s Kinoautomat (1967), was aimed less towards entertainment and more towards making a political statement and conducting a psychological experiment. Each of one hundred and twenty-seven audience members was given a remote with two buttons to make decisions during the film, yet ironically no matter their decisions, the film would end with the same burning building. This related to Činčera’s satiric view of democracy, where no matter the presumed power of the audience, they remained powerless in the creation of the narrative4, expressing the power of interactive film to represent ideologies as well as to entertain, as more recent interactive films aim to do.

Entering the contemporary era, I’m Your Man (1992) gained traction for being a 20-minute unique and entertaining interactive film. At first, the film was only available at 42 theaters because of the technology needed to screen the film, such as special devices on each seat that viewers would use to vote on different actions. I’m Your Man was advertised in a way that showcased its interactivity. The release poster states, “It’s NEVER the same movie twice!”5 indicating that the film’s marketing emphasizes the interactive nature of the film where the audience influences its outcome, which it believes will draw in viewers. An interview on the making of I’m Your Man reinforces this idea, as it speaks on the importance of an active audience in film, which can be easily created through an outright interactive film6. This interview also generates the answer to the question of why interactive films are made: film, technology, and an active audience are all contingent on each other and are crucial factors of any movie, highlighting the fact that interactivity may bring to life one or more of these components and encourage the audience to become increasingly active and act as writers and directors. Essentially, a movie is not a movie without an active audience making choices, whether those choices have an effect on the outcome of the movie or not. Yet ultimately the film was a failure, receiving positive reactions from teens but an overwhelming majority of negative reviews. A New York Times article released years after I’m Your Man’s release addresses the film’s failure and attributes it to studio politics, a lack of marketing money, and a newfound leaning toward the online medium7. Therefore, the film crew worked to adapt the film to DVD, making it the first interactive DVD, in an attempt to achieve success despite the negative reception in theaters, because of the belief in the future of interactive media.

Entering the age of Netflix, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018) achieved extreme popularity due to the immersive nature of the film. Although Netflix had released interactive children's shows in the past such as Minecraft: Story Mode, Bandersnatch is Netflix's first interactive film for adults and is extremely more complex, with over one trillion combinations of choices and five possible endings8, making up for the flaws seen in the past two interactive films described: the lack of possible outcomes in Kinoautomat and the lack of an online format in I’m Your Man. Bandersnatch contains a video game-like interface for players to choose actions and choices for Stefan, the main character, immersing viewers into the film. In a Variety article on the film, the Netflix director of product innovation noted the potential of reaching beyond linear television9. While the Bandersnatch director reveals he was immediately reluctant at the thought of interactive television, he became intrigued by guiding actors through filming scenes in parallel realities depending on viewer choices10. Additionally, the characters’ actions in the film mirror the actions of the viewer viewing the film and making decisions; for example, the film’s plot surrounds Stefan's adaptation of a choose your own adventure book into a video game and his struggles when the many choices of his game become extremely complex, just like the viewers may struggle with the stakes of the complex choices they must make for the film. Additionally, there are lines relating to the act of choosing, which the viewers are partaking in, such as “How one path ends is immaterial”. Therefore, while Bandersnatch is an interactive film, it is also immersive, as the viewers’ and main characters’ conflicts with complex choices and actions mirror one another. Therefore, Bandersnatch takes after not only the interactive nature but also the immersive aspect of video games, adapting its tactics into filmmaking.

Game creation software and techniques have also been adapted for use in filmmaking, giving rise to the ability to create high-quality virtual sets and effects. Epic Games, the billion-dollar popular game company that gave to Fortnite, created Unreal Engine, a 3D creation tool targeted toward game developers11. Along with video games, Unreal Engine can be used to create virtual sets for TV and film, allowing films with CG environments to require almost no post-production. The Unreal Engine End User License Agreement source confirms that a video game company created Unreal Engine, and thus reiterates the intersection of video games and film in terms of production software. Because this game creation tool can allow for more dynamic and easily made 3D creations, it can also allow for more immersive environments in film. Unreal Engine was used to build 3D environments for The Mandalorian live-action series, which were then displayed behind the actors on LED screens, providing the actors with context to their scenes, allowing them to become immersed in the show and yield better performances. Another example of a film’s utilization of Unreal Engine comes from Independence Day: Resurgence (2016); this creation tool allowed the filmmakers to create an immersive and realistic environment of explosions, roaring waves, and cities collapsing. The utilization of Unreal Engine for filmmaking provides insight into the intersection between the worlds of gaming and film, and showcases the way aspects of gaming can assist films in becoming more captivating and immersive for audiences.

Video games have also been influential on film in terms of material content. Video games have given rise to new dynamic worlds and fan-favorite characters, for example, the magical land of Hyrule from The Legend of Zelda and the unique heroes of Overwatch. As a result of the positive reception towards video game material, filmmakers have borrowed content from games and created films inspired by their storylines. The 2009 film District 9 was originally proposed to be a feature based on the hit game Halo. Yet, Peter Jackson and Neill Blomkamp, the proposed producer and director, ran into issues regarding Microsoft rights, studio politics, and budgeting. Because of the chaos surrounding the Halo adaptation, the team decided to turn their efforts toward an independently financed original film, leading to the creation of District 912. Although the Halo film failed because of the complicated politics surrounding its creation, it still expresses that there is a demand for video game films. Additionally, through inspection of District 9, there are still many details of the film that are closely related to and possibly influenced by Halo. Both the film and video game focus on a science fiction military world where aliens and humans are in conflict. The District 9 press kit also contains an image of one of the film’s aliens13, which resembles Halo’s aliens in terms of color scheme and build14.

District 9 producer Peter Jackson has been an avid gamer all his life, and although the Halo game did not end up being created, he expresses his passion for making filmmaking immersive with tactics he implements in District 9. In an interview, he reveals that he tries to make movies that the audience can step into to become part of the film world. In order to encourage audience participation, he states that he moves the camera in a certain way to remove the barrier between audience and screen15. These tactics are present in District 9 when certain scenes are filmed like “vlogs” and others are meant to be from the perspective of security cameras or news reels. These immersive techniques demonstrate the interplay between filmmaking and gaming, expressing that video games and gamers have a sense of how to create immersive environments that filmmaking take inspiration from.

Although the Halo film was not successful, other video-game-based films have made it to release such as Resident Evil (2002), an action-horror film adaptation of the game series Resident Evil, created because of the game's popularity. In a study with Resident Evil game players on their opinions on the film, many expressed that they seek out the immersive experiences they find in video games when watching films, and the film Resident Evil lacked these experiences. One interviewer expressed that defining factors of the game were the claustrophobic corridors, ever-present nightmarish atmosphere, and eerie sense of being alone, which were missing from the film. Samantha Lay, the author of the study, also brings up the concept of the frustrated spectator: video game players who may feel frustrated and hopeless while watching a film because they cannot do anything to help the characters like they can in games. Additionally, interviewees did not feel much connection to the characters in the film; psychologically, individuals may grow close to characters in video games easily because they are controlling them, while films must work to develop their characters to make viewers care16. This was another major complaint about the film from Resident Evil players. Therefore, the negative reviews of the Resident Evil film show while there is a demand for gaming film and immersive experiences in film, especially from gamers, borrowing content such as stories and characters from games is not enough, and dynamic, interactive filmmaking is required to fulfill these desires.

Alongside the rise in video games, puzzle films have become increasingly popular for the way they bewilder viewers and involve audience participation. Puzzle films work to encourage an audience to think, while defying norms of classical cinema through tactics such as time loops, multiple storylines, and unreliable narrators. Rashomon (1950) is a classic example of a precursor of the puzzle film genre because of its non-linear nature and how it provides the same story through multiple subjective perspectives. Rashomon did not yet set a trend for non-linear films but is important to acknowledge.

Instead, Pulp Fiction (1994), a film whose plot is out of linear order, and Groundhog Day (1993), a film about a weatherman living the same day over and over, may be noted as the start of a new “mainstream” of puzzle and nonlinear films. Pulp Fiction’s press kit includes images from the different nonlinear narratives that make the film a puzzle film17. According to Jasmina Kallay in her book Gaming Film, figuring out the tricky storyline of a film can be akin to solving a game. This also connects to Elsaesser and Panek’s theory, which Kallay writes about, which attributes the trend of moving away from linear patterns of thinking to the rise of web surfing and video games. Additionally, Kallay writes that while gamers often play a certain level multiple times to achieve mastery, viewers must watch puzzle films more than once to understand the scope of the film and develop new theories18. DVD and online viewing in the 2000s make it easy to rewatch films, aiding in the potential of puzzle films to become an immersive and captivating experience for viewers. In agreement with Elsaesser, Panek, and Kallay’s theories, puzzle films mimic video games in the way that they involve audience participation through thought, urging audiences to think through films and “master” their possible solutions.

Although beyond the scope of this paper, film technique has also been highly utilized in video games, which is important to note when analyzing the relationship between the two media. According to David Bordwell (1986), a classical film scene may introduce itself through a shot establishing the characters in space and time before it moves on to closer shots of subjects and actions that relate to the defined goals of the characters. Classical scenes end with something that provides a transition to the next scene, such as a facial reaction or a significant object. According to King and Kryzywinska in Screenplay cinema/videogames/interfaces, video games use cut scenes as narrative segments, using the classical film scene techniques that Bordwell describes. These scenes are also used as rewards for players after completing certain levels, to introduce new characters or goals19. These “emotional and visual rewards” bring closure to narratives in games.

One example of a game containing cut scenes is Kirby Super Star Ultra (1996). The cut scene titled “Revenge of the King” establishes the characters in time and space. For example, the scene begins with a close up view of the king; then, the camera zooms out to reveal the king’s subjects and the grand hall before cutting to a shot of an ominous castle on a stormy hill, the presumed location of the king. This scene works to introduce the king and establish where he is located in the grand scheme of the Kirby world. Additionally, the cut scene “Helper to Hero” depicts one of Kirby’s helpers about to enter battle, with images of a glowing trophy above his head20. This cut scene relates to the character’s goal of defeating the boss, just like Bordwell explains. Cut scenes in video games utilize classical film technique in order to establish characters in time and space, highlighting a defining aspect of the intersection between film and video games.

With the rise of video game sales, creation, and interest in the 21st century, comes the desire for interactivity in media. Audiences and filmmakers alike have utilized new technology to allow viewers to become active participants in film by making choices that affect characters or thinking through complex puzzle films. This brings up questions about the future of filmmaking and viewing. Will theaters still be able to function normally with interactive media? Is interactive film simply a fad? Do viewers watch film in order to immerse themselves into an interactive experience or do they just want to relax after a long day of work? Can these ideas coexist? The answers to these questions are in the near future, as further advancements in immersive film technology are made, including 3D film and 360 videos, accessible from one’s own devices. Yet, the point still stands that the rise in video games coincides with the desire and rise of video game inspired film and media, and that the idea of immersive and interactive film opens the doors for new, creative ways of storytelling in the future of cinema. Video games have introduced filmmakers to the desire of the public for immersive experiences and active participation in film, allowing filmmakers to take inspiration and continue to innovate on the current state of film.


1. Tretkoff, Ernie. “October 1958: Physicist Invents First Video Game.” American Physical Society, October 2008. https://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/200810/physicshistory.cfm.

2. Tyson, Jeff. “How Video Game Systems Work.” HowStuffWorks, February 11, 2021. https://electronics.howstuffworks.com/video-game2.htm.

3. Piscatella, Mat. Twitter Post. June 15, 2021. https://twitter.com/MatPiscatella/status/1350078857970270209?s=20&t=bJYa5M1ZPytcri-7YawKSQ

4. Stanton, Jeffrey. “Experimental Multi Screen Cinema.” Westland, 1997. https://www.westland.net/expo67/map-docs/cinema.htm.

5. “I'm Your Man DVD Cover,” 1992. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/0/0f/Im_Your_Man_DVD.jpg/220px-Im_Your_Man_DVD.jpg.

6. GameoftheBlog, “The making of I’m Your Man - an interactive movie,” August 11, 2007. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mx4NeJe9CJI&ab_channel=gameoftheblog

7. Napoli, Lisa. The New York Times, August 17, 1998. https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/library/tech/98/08/cyber/articles/17dvd.html.

8. Roettgers, Janko. “Netflix Takes Interactive Storytelling to the Next Level with 'Black Mirror: Bandersnatch'.” Variety. Variety, December 28, 2018. https://variety.com/2018/digital/news/netflix-black-mirror-bandersnatch-interactive-1203096171/

9. Ibid

10. Gold Derby. “Director David Slade Discusses Possible Plans to Amend 'Black Mirror: Bandersnatch' | GOLD DERBY.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WPehvufYbdY&ab_channel=GoldDerby%2FGoldDerby

11. “Unreal Engine Eula.” Unreal Engine. Accessed May 8, 2022. https://www.unrealengine.com/en-US/eula/unreal?sessionInvalidated=true.

12. Gaudiosi, John. “Jackson Explains How Fate Killed Halo and Gave Birth to District 9.” Kotaku, June 21, 2013. https://kotaku.com/jackson-explains-how-fate-killed-halo-and-gave-birth-to-5324697.

13. District 9- Press Kit Photo. Flickr. Sony Pictures, June 3, 2009. https://www.flickr.com/photos/spe_pics/3815672744

14. “Halo Gallery Alien Image.” Halo Waypoint.. https://wpassets.halowaypoint.com/wp-content/2021/08/Mcc_13_MediaGallery_2021_1920x1080.jpg.

15. Ibid

16. Lay, Samantha. “Audiences Across the Divide: Game to Film Adaptation and the Case of Resident Evil,” November 2007. https://thob.pw/710.pdf#.

17. “Pulp Fiction 1994 U.S. Press Kit @ Posteritati.” Posteritati Movie Poster Gallery. https://posteritati.com/poster/51420/pulp-fiction-1994-us-press-kit.

18. Kallay, Jasmina. Gaming Film: How Games Are Reshaping Contemporary Cinema. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

19. King, Geoff, and Tanya Krzywinska. Screenplay: Cinema/Videogames/Interfaces. London: Wallflower, 2002.

20. RetroArchive, “Kirby Super Star Ultra- All Cutscenes (Full Movie),” May 27, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vL9p7prh6fY&ab_channel=RetroArchive.