Designers and directors: finding parallel lives in games and cinema

Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto has a comparable pioneer in director Georges Melies.

The guiding spirit behind this feature is to join the dots between noted film directors and videogame designers not merely for similarities in their works (both Cliff Bleszinski and Michael Bay might be said to have a pre-occupation with things going “boom”, for example) but to draw parallels between their cultural relevance and wider influence on their respective mediums. The silent era champions, such as the Lumiere brothers, for example, might in this context find a contemporary in the likes of Nolan Bushnell, for their legacies of innovation and their importance in the early years of each industry.

I think it’s best to state this criteria upfront just in case fists are raised at the exclusion of the likes of a Hideo Kojima or a David Cage (designers who are clearly cinema-goers – cinephiles, even – but who, in my mind at least, muddy their own auteur status by merely recycling the tropes and iconography of their favourite feature films in the hope some the positive light shed on such works – like Escape From New York or The Three Colours Trilogy – might be reflected onto their own, prism-like and ironically resulting in a rather shallow correlation between their games and the film medium they so clearly adore).

A final note on the selection process – there’s a mixture of independent and more mainstream directors and designers here, in the hopes that some (if not all) are recognisable to at least a portion of the audience taking the time to read. This is no exhaustive list by any stretch, but hopefully just the spark for a discourse in your own circles that’ll get tongues wagging over how Brian De Palma – not David Lynch – has a kindred spirit in Swery 65, or how the throbbing filmic grammar of Andrei Tarkovsky should be linked to the plodding quietude of Yosho Sakamoto’s early Metroids.

Without further fuss, then, here are the pairs I’ve plucked from the picturehouses and play-rooms to set alongside one another…

Steven Soderbergh and Brendan Chung

Steven Soderbergh did something special in 1998 with Out Of Sight, an adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name. Not only did he squeeze a great performance out of Jennifer Lopez, he brought his independent cinema roots with him to the more mainstream genre of the crime caper. In Thirty Flights Of Loving (2012), Brendan Chung – a film grad and self-confessed indie cinema aficionado – achieves the same feat of amalgamated modes and methodologies. Also a crime caper, Thirty Flights charts the rise and fall of a trinity of thieves while intertwining the technical, stylistic motifs and norms of the FPS genre (collecting ammo, navigating corridors and rooms packed with cursory story detail) with the non-linear structure and storytelling of an independent film (from inferred but never explicit relationships between characters and in-game objects, to lighting and set design that wouldn’t look out of place in a Wong Kar Wai or Neil Jordan motion picture).

While a great many independent developers before Chung had broke through into the mainstream with independent games, few have ever managed to fuse the traits and history of contemporary independent cinema with the raw gameplay of an FPS quite like this.

Yuen Woo-Ping and Hideki Kamiya

You’ll likely know Woo-Ping for his milestone martial arts choreography and wire-work in pictures like The Matrix and Kill Bill, and Platinum’s Kamiya, of course, for Bayonetta. As much as the general through-line of meticulously paced and performed action that ties these two titans together, it’s their earlier works that truly connects their journeys. Woo-Ping’s Iron Monkey (1993) and Black Mask (1996) where technical milestones in practical action choreography, pushing the limits of stunt performers and rigging methods to heights they arguably haven’t reached since. In parallel, Kamiya’s first directorial gig, Viewtiful Joe (2003), did a similar thing for 2D action games. Viewtiful Joe is a technical benchmark for the genre, unifying precise collision detection with a manipulation of perspective and time that would make Woo-Ping proud.

These two standard-bearers for a specific period of action cinema and fighting game each had a similar trajectory following these career high-points, too. Woo-Ping transitioned into a hybrid of CG and practical action (reaching its zenith in Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle) and Kamiya made the leap into 3D fighting games. Both have been leading lights in not one but two revolutions in their genres of choice, then, and both have consistently pointed the way and set the mould for their peers.

Of further note is the fact that both Woo-Ping and Kamiya have arguably now transitioned back towards the genre cycles and traditions of their pasts, with Woo-Ping seemingly moving back into more practical work with the likes of The Grandmaster and Man Of Tai Chi this year, and Platinum’s kitschy-retro Wonderful 101 indicating a return to the more brash and colourful days of Viewtiful Joe and his superhero pugilism.

Georges Melies and Shigeru Miyamoto

Melies is remembered as the father of magical realist cinema, due in no small part to his hallucinogenic 1902 short A Trip To The Moon. He has a comparative pioneer, I find, in Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, whose own work has taken him to the stars in titles like Mario Galaxy (2007) and Pikmin (2001).

Aside from some obvious visual tropes joining the two – the projection of human faces onto interstellar and organic objects – it’s their longevity and ability to evolve their distinct oeuvres and craft without ever giving in to mainstream tastes that joins these two industry titans.

Busby Berkeley and Tetsuya Mizuguchi

An assault of sizzling sights and stimulating sounds are the hallmarks of Berkeley and Mizuguchi productions, but they’ve each done far more than paint beautiful pictures that tango and travel with layered soundscapes. Berkeley, best known for extravagant Hollywood musicals such as 42nd Street (1933) and Fashions Of 1934 (1934) – but also for his ferocious behind-camera persona – pushed the envelope of kaleidoscopic and dynamically paced dance numbers. Mizuguchi, with the likes of Rez (2001) and Every Extend Extra (2006), managed to engineer and cross-pollinate systems of physical input and audio output that defined the rhythm action genre. In addition to pioneering audio-visual entertainment, Berkeley and Mizuguchi anchored a manipulation and sense of scale to their key works.

Just as intriguing, however, is how both of these talents came to prominence – or at least produced their finest pieces – at times of economic uncertainty and instability. Berkeley’s Whoopee! (1928) arrived against a cultural backdrop ravaged by the great depression and World War I, and when Mizuguchi’s Child Of Eden (2011)made its debut it was to a recovering but devastated and confused world economy. Elaborate escapism on the scale of Berkeley and Mizuguchi, it seems, is called for – or is simply conceived and birthed – when the world is at its darkest.

Takeshi Kitano and Toshihiro Nagoshi

Aside from a shared obsession with the yakuza, prolific director Kitano (Zatoichi, 2003) and eccentric designer Nagoshi (Yakuza series, 2005-present) have each challenged the traditional method of sequelisation. For a start, Kitano has made trilogies disparately tied by theme rather than explicit character arcs or naming conventions (Violent Cop, 1989, Boiling Point, 1990 and Sonatine, 1993, form a loose trilogy of redemption and reflection on a life of violence) and Nagoshi has a similarly sprawling body of work that manages to be unified despite jarring shifts in timeline (Yakuza Kenzan, 2008), platform (Vita’s Yakuza: Black Panther, 2010) and genre (Yakuza Dead Souls, 2012).

Both bodies of work are also linked by the unmistakable aesthetics and beats of their creators’ directorial style, with Kitano’s calm-shattering, sporadic bouts of blink-and-miss violence perfectly conveying the break-neck, cut-throat, here-today world of criminality and masculine over-reaction while Nagoshi’s modus operandi is identified by a clash of the bizarre, pantomime-esque and the outwardly macho.

Jean Luc Godard and Tom Francis

1960. France. A group of film critics, collectively known as the Nouvelle Vague (or New Wave, in the west), including Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut and Eric Rhomer, challenge the modern norms of filmmaking in their still unsurpassed essays on and analyses of film form. The twist in the tale is these talented writers didn’t just talk and scribble about it (as I do on a regular basis) they took it upon themselves to become filmmakers, pushing the boundaries of censorial taste and accepted style that had come to define cinema since the likes of the Hayes Code had backed their beloved medium into a corner of sterility and stunted growth. Godard’s A Bout De Souffle (1960) is perhaps the most famous and iconic of this “brat pack’s” output, and in games we have a similar emergence of critic graduating to creator in Tom Francis, formerly of PC Gamer, who delivered his own debut title this year with Gunpoint.

Gunpoint and A Bout De Souffle may at first seem like strange bedfellows, but both arguably yearn for a timeless, stylistic golden age (the crisp black-and-whites of A Bout De Souffle and Gunpoint’s 8-bit inspired pixellated aesthetic) while simultaneously shooting these retro-worlds through a revisionist’s lens (in A Bout De Souffle’s verite handheld filming and Gunpoint’s unrestrictive POV that gives players the upper-hand where previously the genre would have kept them boxed in as prey rather than predator).

The emergence of another critic-turned-creator this year, Rock Paper Shotgun’s Jim Rossignol with Sir, You Are Being Hunted, further suggests that the Francis fluke may soon become a trend.

Takashi Miike and Tomonobu Itagaki

Marrying brutality to bravura style to at once accentuate, titillate and revolt is the signature of both Miike (Audition, 1999, Ichi The Killer, 2001) and Itagaki (Dead Or Alive, 1996 – 2006, Ninja Gaiden, 2004 – 2008).

Both of these artists are unequalled in their field for an ability to render violence as both believable in its sadism and painterly in its framing (and, dare I say, beauty), and both have been berated and defined for their aggressive approaches to violence and sexualised content.