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Tron and Wargames – Great Flicks Based on Fake Games

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Despite Hollywood’s enduring fascination with video games, only in the past decade has the medium advanced enough to become ripe for adaptations. Before then, Hollywood didn’t see much narrative potential in the plotless, pixelated games that devoured quarters by the truckload in arcades across the country. (Coming Soon: Pac-Man. He’s yellow. He’s dangerous. He’s hungry.) So rather than base their movies on existing games, studios lured arcade audiences with movies about the medium, shaping plots around fake games that had higher levels of detail and intrigue than Donkey Kong could offer. Weirdly, the resounding success of some of these “fake” video game movies has yet to be matched with real gamer flicks. Take a look at the high scorers.

Tron (1982)
Tron_125x125.jpgVisually, video games of the 1980s didn’t have the “wow” factor today’s virtual entertainment is known for — unless you consider three-color explosions awe-inspiring. Thus, when Disney’s first CGI pic placed real-life actors into a neon-glowing world of light cycle races and power disc duels (imagine Pong mixed with Frisbees and death), gamers were shown a spectacle they’d only dreamed of experiencing. Tron takes the bland surface images of computer interfaces and creates an entire three-dimensional universe that supposedly lays just beyond the screen. Unimpeded by the need to stick to any particular game as source material, the movie gleefully jumps from one computer-inspired setpiece to another, all the while making the imaginary world of games, dare I say it, beautiful.

WarGames (1983)
Wargames_125x125.jpgThe least visually spectacular of the bunch, WarGames has one of the most politically relevant stories of any video game movie to date. Using games as a catalyst for the plot, John Badham’s teen-friendly portrayal of Cold War paranoia appeases the geeks in the audience with plenty of  “boy interacts with a superintelligent computer” elements, while at the same time weaveing a complex story about nuclear proliferation and war as an un-winnable catastrophe. Granted, WarGames has a strong anti-game thread in it, given that a plucky Matthew Broderick almost destroys all of mankind by treating a sentient missile defense system like his own personal X-box. But despite what anti-video game crusaders would have you believe, it’s not like real games have the power to destroy the world — yet.

The Last Starfighter (1984)
Last_Starfighter_125x125.jpgThere was only one movie in the mid-1980s that spoke to young gamers’ two greatest desires: To one day be respected and admired for their skill with a joystick, and to use that skill to save the planet. Initially planned as the first phase of the most massive video game tie-in of all time, The Last Starfighter tells the story of a boy who is so good at a particular arcade game (which would have later been released by Atari if not for financial complications) that a benevolent alien race recruits him to save their species from annihilation. For introverted, socially stunted gamers, this was a small slice of fantasy heaven. Modern game adaptations focus so much on adapting story and character that they often neglect to address the pure, simple fun of being a gamer. Perhaps it’s fitting that Atari never produced the actual game — if it had, The Last Starfighter would no longer be the one arcade machine that could make all your wishes come true.

eXistenZ (1999)
Existenz_125x125.jpgThe vast majority of David Cronenberg’s psychedelic techno-thriller takes place within the confines of a video game, which is, in turn, about video games. It takes some of the visual cues so familiar to gamers (guns, controllers, plugs) and through Cronenberg’s signature mix of horrific violence and surreal narrative turns the entire experience into a self-reflexive head trip. What does the rising popularity of interactive art have to say about society and real life? In a world where video games are the ultimate art form and indistinguishable from “real life,” what importance does that life have? Given the illuminating questions the movie poses for the plugged-in generation, and the way the questions intersect with video game culture, I can’t help but wish that eXistenZ were actually a game. Then again, maybe I should just be thankful that spending two hours in front of Gears of War doesn’t drag me into an existential dilemma of epic proportions.

Those are just a few movies that owe their greatness to fake video games. What are some of your favorites?

Anthony Burch is the features editor for and the co-writer and director of the video series, “Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’?” He’s also working on his first artgame, which should be done sooner or later. Probably later.

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