The convergence of videogames and cinema is a relatively new phenomenon. Discuss this relationship through the theory of remediation and immersion within the film The Matrix (1999)

The release of The Matrix (Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski, 1999) was a fundamental turning point in the development of postmodern cinema as filmmakers looked to invigorate and innovate the role of film within the communication industries. Much has been written on the influences of videogames on the cinema genre as a whole, and this essay will focus on how The Matrix remediates from primarily the videogames industries, but also from other films and forms of media. Upon the films release in 1999, Hollywood was still at a relative infancy in regard to utilising special effects and other forms of cinematic devices to immerse and captivate the audience. The film has a large role to play in shaping significance surrounding the industry, as well as providing inspirational cinematic devices that proved to be the economic platforms for other forms of media, both videogames and film included. The essay also plans to illustrate upon the notion of technology and virtual reality, and how this is intrinsically linked both within the film - and the potential future consumption of films and interactive media.


Remediation is a process where forms of media communication, such as film; borrow or refashion from other mediums, such as videogames or television, to influence and impact on the audience. Remediation is justified, because the aim is to improve the medium by expanding or repairing faults of the old medium. Remediation favours what Bolter and Grusin define as (transparent) immediacy. Through the generations of remediation, there is evidence that each new medium has borrowed and superseded the old medium – all with the same objective goal; to heighten the audience’s immediacy. For example; photography was seen as being more immediate than painting; directing devices within television were translated into cinema; and more recently the convergence of videogames remediating film – or, as this essay plans to answer – is this a mutual consensus?

Immediacy can be defined as a style of visual representation that attempts to make the medium (such as photography, television or film) invisible to the audience. (Bolter and Grusin: 272-73). The viewer does not notice the medium and is immersed within this world which they believe to be reality. The desire for immediacy stems from a wanting to go beyond the medium, and to view the representation physically; usually with no interface. However, because the medium of film itself is linear; the viewer may be kept from experiencing true transparent immediacy. Conversely however, the medium of videogames allows the viewer to play an active role, and for the most part; affect a non-linear narrative.

During the last decade the film industry has been under threat from the infiltration and increased popularity of other forms of digital media; whether they be web related or interactive mediums such as videogames. Within the medium of film, which has been seen by many as becoming stale and lacking innovation compared to other industries; filmmakers have sought inspiration from the videogames industry in the borrowing of representational devices and practices. Whether this is due to a desire to reinvigorate the output of creative cinema, or is a response to the fear of “cyberphobia” is also under question. Around the time of The Matrix’s release at the tail-end of the 20th century – the last decade had seen an increased awareness of the presence of digital media in potentially replacing cinema.

From an economic perspective, film products such as The Matrix would have their position within the market under threat; so it was the responsibility of the industry to innovate and make technological improvements. The industry was already aware of the pressures it faced in having to innovate, through the threat of the medium of television in the 1950s. Back then, it responded with the changing of aspect ratios and improved lens display technologies. However, this time around, response to the threat of digital interactivity was mixed. Some filmmakers embraced the use special effects and Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) within their films, whilst other groups such as Dogme 95 rejected the use of digital or anything artificially constructed completely.

Ultimately, the success of The Matrix was primarily reliant on both its blending of two universally appealing genres within film: action and science fiction – as well as its advanced digital effects which were reminiscent of the stylised trappings of a videogame (Hanson: 43). The films visual aura, such as the green text coding scenes and the characters adorning of trench coats have also been ingrained into our culture. Whether it is the remediation of the ‘matrix code’ into computer desktop backgrounds, or mobile phone screensavers, it is no surprise that the film grossed $460 million dollars worldwide , and spawned the release of two sequels; The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003). As complementary to these films, a series of nine animated short films under the guise of The Animatrix (2003) and the videogame Enter the Matrix (2003) were also released. Enter the Matrix had dramatic economic impact within the videogames industry as it cost $30 million to produce; heralding itself as one of the most expensive videogames of all time. This mammoth budget did however translate into an economic success for the product, which has so far sold upwards of five million copies within its lifespan .

The consumption of The Matrix was primarily through the distribution of DVD; at the time, a relatively new medium which was popularised partly due to the commercial sales success of the film. Previous to this, the sales of DVDs were not high on the agenda of analysts, as the medium itself was still in its infancy.

The visual glamour and computer-generated effects within The Matrix were primarily the reason the sales of DVD for the film exploded. Never before had these digital effects appeared crisper or cleaner, thanks to the increased resolution that DVD allowed. The advances in technology over VHS, also gave users the ability to control the broadcasting of the film; in similar ways to how one might control a videogame. The multiple action scenes within The Matrix could be repeatedly enjoyed by the user, who had the ability to slow-down scenes within the film; marveling at their aesthetic qualities and aura of the digital effects. Although it could be argued that the mainstream distribution transition from VHS to DVD would have occurred with or without the release of The Matrix, it is important to reflect that the release of the film definitely sped up the consumption of DVD players within homes across the world.

Although for a large majority, filmmakers produce films that aim to be realistic, and immerse the audience; there is a sense of irony when studying Bolter and Grusin’s theory of immediacy. In order to create an authentic representation or experience of immediacy; filmmakers must use a wide range of different media forms, within a single communication medium, and in therefore doing so, create the notion of hypermediacy.

The relationship of cinema is a top-down interaction between filmmaker and audience. Narrative choices available to users within games, such as whether to take a certain path are conveyed within The Matrix. For example, Neo is given several choices throughout the film, such as the option to take either the red or blue pill. However, as the narrative has already been cast in stone, the user cannot change the storyline or actions that occur within the film. It is due to this reason that a sense of immediacy is lost: the audience witnesses a product where they have no bearing on the outcome.

Clover conveys the presence of The Matrix as being akin to the ultimate videogame. He argues that the audience identifies Neo as a game character, set in a videogame world – that immerses the spectator more than a videogame can because of its real world graphics and astonishing visual effects. The Matrix could easily be thought of as a videogame that masquerades itself as a film. The Matrix borrows numerous attributes from different videogame genres throughout the course of the film. The long segments of dialogue, and the search for ‘truth’ or ‘meaning’ as desired by Neo in the scene where he confronts the Oracle to find out his future, is reminiscent of adventure point-and-click videogames. This is because within these games, the player, like Neo, has to rely on obtaining information through conversing with a wide range of characters within the game environment – eventually seeking the ‘clue’ or answer that they desire. As well as this, the role of ‘powering’ or ‘leveling up’ like one might do in an Role Playing Game is apparent within The Matrix, albeit within a digital form.

This is achieved by the film incorporating numerous loading and training programmes –via a digital channel, to increase the power and skills of the characters. For example, in one of the latter scenes in the film, Trinity has the years of skill needed to pilot a helicopter ‘implanted’ into her body – almost instantaneously. The action-scenes in The Matrix borrow from the genre of First Person Shooter games, where the action is fast and the user is reliant on an abundance of ammunition and a wide range of arsenal. This creates a dramatic tension within the film, as the audience waits with baited breath to see if the ‘heroes’ can survive and successfully eradicate the enemies.

By the 1990s, game designers had moved from two to three dimensions and had begun to incorporate cinematic language in an increasingly systematic fashion (Manovich: 83). The improvement of video game graphics contributed to a trend within games design that has developed over the last decade. The ability to create “cinematics” within games, creates a fragmentation; interactive elements within a game that rely on user input and decision making, that are oscillated with non-interactive elements such as ‘cut-scenes’. Videogame designers use three different methods of incorporating filmic techniques into games. In the chapter Within a Game: Playing a Movie: When Media Collide, Howells, S., states these three methods are the use of Full Motion Video (FMV), pre-rendered computer graphic (CG) animation and in-game (or ‘engine’) cut-scenes (King, G. & Krzywinska, T: 114).

Many games throughout the past have emphasised the importance of a structured and well developed narrative – similar to that of film. The release of Sony’s PlayStation videogame console in 1995, allowed for the implementation of Full Motion Video (FMV) within videogames. As both a stylistic trend and one used to drive narrative, the technology was used effectively in games such as Final Fantasy XII (Square Enix, 1997) and future sequels.

However, the downside of using FMV within games, instead of using game-engine cut-scenes, which generate graphics ‘on the fly’ and therefore have the same aesthetic quality as the game environment itself – is that a sense of immediacy is lost. FMV was not integrated into a large majority of games within the 1990s. This primarily was down to the economic factors surrounding the gaming industry: videogame departments had fewer resources, and their budgets were generally much lower when compared to film departments. Therefore, although the visual effects of FMV were stunning, the scenes often lacked emotion, as they had poor direction and lower production values. In relation to the theory of immediacy – the largest obstacle was that the player was constantly reminded that the FMV footage was not real and not integrated within the game. This was because, once the FMV scene was over, the screen returned to the original virtual environment. Videogames in that era suffered from a low-definition resolution and did not have the capability to create high polygon character modeling and textures, therefore the immediacy of the immersive FMV scenes would have been instantaneously lost.

As well as these high-definition computer generated animations, the use of the cut-scene within games has been critical to the understanding of both character and storyline development in game franchises such as Metal Gear Solid (Konami, 1998-) and Resident Evil (Capcom, 1996-). Recent gaming releases have also showed a willingness to implement Hollywood-like narrative development. The recent release of Gears of War 2 for example; contains a plethora of cut-scenes which make the user play a more passive role within the game, but at the same time heightens the emotional boundaries between product and player.

Games also borrow other cinematography techniques such as the use of the camera in creating a depth of field, and other mechanisms such as the role of lighting – to help create atmosphere and ambience within a gaming environment. Nintendo revolutionised the mechanism of controlling a camera within a virtual game environment, with the release of Super Mario 64 (Nintendo, 1996). Directing this virtual camera, (with the helpful aid of four specially designed buttons integrated into the input controller device), established the importance of the ‘virtual camera’, and how the relationship between player and camera was just as important as controlling the characters movement (Manovich: 84).

The Matrix engages to the audience, the social warnings of digital technology embracing their life. In a similar vein to other virtual reality movies, such as Strange Days (Bigelow, 1995) and eXistenZ (Cronenberg, 1999) the film explores the threat of a constructed digital reality. The Matrix emphasises the danger of complete mental immersion of life within a computer-generated world. In a virtual world, humans are completed controlled by the computer.

In a paradoxical way, complete immersion, through computer-generated digital effects would only be completely realistic, when the environment is actually the ‘real world’ that we see in front of us. This is the premise in The Matrix, where the world believed to be real is actually a digital illusion, created by computers to keep humans trapped within this virtual world. Mediating relentlessly between the present and the future, analogue and digital, The Matrix could claim to be the more immersive movie ever made; it was unquestionably the movie most haunted by the fear of immersion (Clover: 29). This fear of immersion within a constraint, such as virtual reality has long been propagated by science fiction movies which show the consequences of the ‘loss of body’ within a virtual environment (Lawrence, 2007).

McLuhan stated that the channels of communication are the primary cause of cultural change; a view that has relevance within The Matrix. Technological advances, within mobile communications for example, have shaped the role of how society interacts and communicates. This dependence is conveyed within the film as the use of the mobile phone is central to the films narrative development.

Furthermore, McLuhan also spoke about the way technological developments have potentially brought a hindrance to society. For example, humans can easily become controlled or develop a tendency on technology that makes them lose sense of reality or the real world. Within The Matrix this danger is portrayed, as the humans within the film are 'trapped' within a fantasy world (although it appears as normal life) that has been created by an intelligent cyber-computer.

It can be argued that the performance of Keanu Reeves as the character Neo within The Matrix, was crucial to the audiences immersion within film, as the actor had to appear as appearance itself (Clover: 22). The process of projecting your own identification and characteristics upon the role of an actor is central to Mulvey’s theory that cinema spectators become interested in the fascination with and recognition of their own likeness (Mulvey: 202). This process of becoming personally involved within the medium has also converged into videogaming. The release of the web cam peripheral has allowed gamers to map their own facial features onto avatars within certain videogames such as Rainbow Six Vegas (Ubisoft, 2006). As well as face-mapping software – the wide range of character customisation available in game franchises such as Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2003 (Electronic Arts, 2002-) has been pivotal in increasing the immediacy felt between videogame players and the medium.

The Matrix pioneered several cinematic special effects, such as its use of stereoscopic photography and the now famous ‘bullet time’ effect. The freeform camera used dominantly throughout the film is also reminiscent of the camera system in many videogames, where the user can have complete control; especially during action-replays where it is usually possible for the camera to be rotated in a 360 degree motion. ‘Bullet time’ is a digital effect which distorts the permutation of time, by using slow-motion and time lapse techniques. The Matrix wasn’t the first film to use this technique, it was preceded a year previously by action-vampire movie Blade (Norrington, 1998). However The Matrix holds the accolade for establishing the technique by incorporating frame interpolation as well as CGI. There is no doubt that the use of ‘bullet time’ in The Matrix helped push the digital technique into the mainstream, and inspired other filmmakers to use it within their own films. It was primarily a stylistic effect that both immersed and fascinated audiences at the time – an all-encompassing spectacle into the future of technology (Clover: 40)

The economic impact that ‘bullet time’ had on both the film industry and other convergent mediums was great. For example, the technique was mediated into a gameplay mechanic, used in Max Payne (Rockstar Games, 2001), where the player had the facility to slow down time within the videogame. The game was an economic success; 670,000 sales on the PC format alone, and spawned the sequel, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne (Rockstar Games, 2003). A recent film adaptation was also released in the US in October 2008.

There is an argument whether the remediation between videogames and film is harmful for each medium, but many see a hybridity of sorts, an ‘interactive film’ if you like, being the future of non-linear film narrative, where the user can make gameplay decisions by interacting with the film. This interactivity would be beneficial in improving on this genre as the relationship between user and medium is dramatically changed. A film could employ the first-person perspective, seen in some genres of videogames, used primarily to immerse the user within the gaming environment. The user could also alter the temporal flow (the main defining characteristic of television), and still benefit from having the structured and emotional narratives that have been developed throughout the course of postmodern cinema (Bolter, 2006).

Experiments into ‘interactive cinema’ have been minimal over the last decade. The most prominent attempt being Mr. Payback: An Interactive Movie (Bob Gale, 1995). However the film was not a commercial success. Although the narrative of the film could be changed, it relied on the cinema audience, in which the film was projected, making choices as a collective. Because the film was not directly interactive, the viewer was constantly reminded of its hypermediacy. Many new media theorists dream of the realisation of the ‘holodeck’ – a virtually constructed environment that relays the narrative qualities of film with the ability for a human to be ‘present’ within it. You could however argue, that filmmakers already offer to the spectator a metaphoric copresence through the in-depth character building narratives that impact upon the viewer dynamic. Many also feel that even a linear narrative can convey what is ‘real’ just as well as an interactive videogame can.

The increasing hybridity in the media communications economy is allowing for the marketing and consumption of films to be conveyed using numerous forms of media: through DVD releases, the franchising into videogames, and marketing via web sites and television advertising, Grusin concludes that these forms constitute a “cinema of interactions” (Bolter: 2006). Many argue that the remediation of cinematic influences into the genre of videogames is damaging – even watching the most ‘cinematic’ of videogames is still like watching a really bad, low resolution film. A video game is there to be played (Poole: 87). In today’s media economy there is arguably still room for both film and videogame mediums to enjoy economic and creative success.

The impact of the next set of technological advances in graphics chips and game engines will blur the boundaries even further between computer graphics and reality. How long will it be until we see videogames and CGI that look like ‘real life’? Whenever this occurs, it will definitely impact the mediums of videogames, film as well as the realisation of virtual reality in a very exciting way.

References

DVD:

Wachowski, A & Wachowski, L. 1999. The Matrix. [DVD] New York: Warner Brothers

Books:

Bolter, J. & Grusin, R. 2000. Remediation: Understanding New Media. The MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Hanson, M. 2004. The End of Celluloid: Film Futures in the Digital Age. London: Rotovision

King, G. & Krzywinska, T. 2002. Screenplay: cinema/videogames/interfaces. London: Wallflower Press

Manovich, L. 2001. The Language of New Media. The MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Mulvey, L. 1986. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, in Rosen, P (ed.) Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, 198-209

Poole, S. 2004. Trigger Happy: Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution. Arcade Publishing

Papers:

Bolter, J. 2006. Transference and Transparency: Digital Technology and the Remediation of Cinema. [Internet] Available at: http://cri.histart.umontreal.ca/cri/fr/intermedialites/p6/pdfs/p6_bolter_text.pdf [cited: 14th November]

Lawrence, A. 2007. Science Fiction Fear and Cinematic Desire: Virtual Reality, Total Cinema, and the Mind-Body Connection. [Internet] Available at: http://www.pseudopia.com/Assets/Writing/virtual_reality_and_cinema.pdf [cited: 14th November]