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The GTA VI Trailer proves that Games are the New Cinema

The sun rises over a fuchsia skyline, highlighting the barbed wire of a prison block. An inmate, Lucia, in jail because of “bad luck, I guess,” gets out and heads into what looks like downtown Miami. Wherever this is, it’s a city that never sleeps, with the spinning wheels of neon low-riders, bikini babes booty-shaking in the club, casual gun robbery and a general feeling that everyone is living large on the swamp and across the bay. Hell, there’s even a glimpse of a man watering his lawn, buck naked. What is this film?

But this isn’t a trailer for a new Martin Scorsese or even Harmony Korine movie, it’s for Grand Theft Auto VI, the video game. GTA VI is the franchise follow-up to a game from the Rockstar Games studio, and the first new game in this franchise for ten years. Its predecessor, GTA V is one of the most successful and lucrative games ever made, which explains why the reception to the trailer feels like that for The Force Awakens (or perhaps a better example, for The Phantom Menace). The trailer is gorgeous; rewarding the patient audience with beautiful visuals and hinting at compelling storylines. And, unlike trailers for most films, this trailer is entirely animated, currently at >60 million YouTube views.

It comes as no surprise that the GTA VI trailer is already a raging success (even with it leaking a day early), but there’s something else going on here. The level of furore feels like the latest nail in the coffin for the once media top-dog: the film industry. When was the last time cinema audiences felt a palpable hunger for longer-form interactive stories? It’s amusing to see people so amped for this game’s arrival (as reference: GTA V takes anything from 32-50 hours to beat) when recently so many clamoured to complain about Killers of the Flower Moon’s 3.5 hour running time. Perhaps it is the static nature of cinema that makes it feel like it is struggling to assert its place in our dynamic monoculture? Because today, my friends, the public can’t get enough of girls and guns and games.

Why now?

Cinema isn’t quite at its death knell, but it is in a period of flux. Thanks to streaming services and the pervasive nature of the internet, the average cinema-goer can find out what films are coming out and how they can view them with a finger tap. Add to this the fallout from a global pandemic continuing to cast a shadow over world economies. Things are pretty bad in the UK right now (coincidentally the original home of Rockstar Games’ founders Dan and Sam Houser), and people either can’t afford to or, more worryingly, simply don’t want to hit the multiplex every week.

Superheroes vs Super Mario

Cinematic flux is the natural state as studios arrive at the end of an era, and the last 15 years have been dominated by superhero-led comic book franchise entertainment. The signs of superhero film fatigue came as far back as 2020, after the awesome success of Marvel’s Infinity Saga. Avengers: Endgame was a high watermark of modern tentpole filmmaking, and its success was partly due to studio cooperation and 22 prior film’s worth of backstory (which makes about 45 hours of storytelling, not unlike the length of the average Triple A game).

With modern franchises (the DCU, Harry Potter, later Star Wars, Jurassic World, YA titles) film borrowed the parlance of gaming to keep audiences hooked. And to get all scientific, the 21st Century has also brought us sweeping trends like Toyification and the infantilisation of culture. These trends prised open the gate (a gate which required forced opening) to gaming as more than a kid’s activity but a firm part of mainstream culture.

No film genre or story type can reign forever, and many studios (including Pixar, a former regular Box-office leader) began to find themselves regularly swimming in critic-infested waters. Something else needed to fill the vacuum. It looks like the bold, original and mostly untapped stories offered by a long history of video games could do just that. The kicker is that cinema and TV offer something that gaming doesn’t – passive access to a ready-made audience who want drama without the barrier to entry of pushing buttons.

Cinema is morphing into gaming culture before our eyes. The biggest box office numbers in 2023 (according to Box Office Mojo) are for Barbie and The Super Mario Bros Movie – two films made about toys and games with a pixelated day-glo feel, and scripts that appeal to both adults and children. But it’s the numbers that come further down the box office hit list that are the most intriguing. Across the Spiderverse, an animated movie with an intense gaming feel, comes in at number 6, and the breakout hit Five Nights at Freddy’s (based on a popular video game series that began because a game designer designed a freaky looking animal) is currently at spot 15. A movie nobody saw coming with a light horror vibe based on a very weird game has made more money than each of The Flash and The Marvels did. And just to hammer the point home: Five Nights cost $20million to make and, combined, The Flash and The Marvels cost nearly $500million.

And it doesn’t end there. Further again down the list comes Gran Turismo, a live-action film based on a driving game franchise, which has made a respectable $122million (on a $60million budget).


Talking of respectability, that’s another reason why the game-film transition is in its ascendance. Game properties are finally being taken seriously by film studios and critics. It’s not like films based on games haven’t been made before. From Tomb Raider movies starring Oscar winners to a failed Assassin’s Creed movie, however, studios are doing more than preparing to keep throwing adaptations at the wall to see what sticks. The movie studios are reckoning with talent, allowing narrative designers to work as and with traditonal screenwriters. Milla Jovovich is no longer tasked with bearing the burden of leading successful game adaptation films, with her numerous movies based on the Resident Evil franchise. These films made money but bore little resemblance to the hugely successful Capcom game horror series.

Hitting closer to the mainstream mark was Mark Wahlberg and Tom Holland’s live-action Uncharted film. It came from games studio Naughty Dog, a developer that has spent the last 10 years making the most cinematic of action games, full of cut scenes that play like a mini-movie. 2023 saw Chris Pratt playing Mario, and Neill Blomkamp (of District 9 fame) directing Gran Turismo. The rise of the new horror genre in the 2010s has also helped, as many games that make it to the big screen include a horror element. Jason Blum, a modern arbiter of horror taste, saw the potential of video games as narrative and produced Five Nights at Freddy’s with a screenplay written by Scott Cawthorn, the game’s director.

2023: The year TV helped games go mainstream

It now feels like a snowball effect. One moment, gaming was a niche pastime not often making it to a screen larger than a PC in a darkened spare room, disk drive whirring. Now, game story reveals and character narratives are becoming embedded in the collective mindset akin to The Godfather or Barbie. And this has been sped up by TV, as a bridge between games and film. 2023 started strong with the huge mainstream success of HBO’s The Last of Us, effortlessly transitioning a beloved Playstation game into a nine part TV series. Other TV networks saw this success coming, and were already developing their own shows – like the unhinged Twisted Metal shown on Peacock. Games designers also began to make themselves more easily accessible, as shown best in the DoubleFine Psychodyssey documentary series. Who knew that games makers were people too?

Although there continues to be numerous anime shows and animated films made based on video games, film investors are now focussing on live action adaptations. The names working on the shows continue to get bigger, such as Jonathon Nolan (Memento, Westworld) behind next year’s new Fallout show. It’s no longer outrageous to imagine Denis Villeneuve, Ava DuVernay and Quentin Tarantino dipping their toes into video game waters.

Games are Cinema

Gamers always knew that video games can be an innovative and engrossing medium. But now non-gamers may also be coming onboard, with newer games able to be re-classed as actual cinema. Immortality, a trippy detective game that asks players to study hours of film footage and click the screen searching for image links to work out what has happened, is one such game. Another is Alan Wake 2, a newly released mystery shooter, which blends live footage of Matthew Poretta (the IRL actor who plays the titular character) moving through a hellscape with realistic gameplay controlled by the player. Between these games and the rise of VR headset gaming, the technology has finally caught up with game designer’s creative ideation.

The next few years will see an explosion in game adaptations branching out in genre, with TV shows covering everything from medieval history (A Plague Tale), politics (Disco Elysium), and environmentalism (Horizon) to teen mental health (Life Is Strange) and a whole host of movies are in pre-production. 

The releases of this decade will determine whether games become the dominant storytelling force in cinema and TV. But for now, enjoy the wait for GTA VI and get ready for your granny to ask how she can join the DadBodSquad.

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