Tag Archives: Aliens

Creative Exchange (and Video Games)

Video games borrow a lot from movies. Snake, on the original box art for Metal Gear, is played by Michael Biehn. Or at least someone who looks just like him. Contra’s box makes it look like you’ll be playing John Matrix and John Rambo taking on the Xenomorph from Alien.

But then there’s Halo, which drew much of its aesthetic wholesale from Aliens. Look at their portrayal of marines in space: the video game’s UNSC Marines sport body armor and helmets almost identical to the Marines in James Cameron’s sequel. Even Halo’s venerable Sergeant Johnson is very much inspired by a sergeant from Aliens. Both forces are fighting against a creepy, parasitic alien that starts out as a small thing that attaches itself to a host.

As much as Halo uses elements of Aliens, however, it never feels like its copying it for lack of better ideas. The game’s plot adds concepts like the genocidal Covenant trying to wipe out humanity, Cortana the glowing blue AI who helps you along your journey, and the mysterious titular Halo ring. Halo also wears its inspiration on its sleeve, making no attempt to cover it up. There’s an affection to its homages and you can tell that Bungie really liked the movie.

Which is kinda how it goes with video games. Gameplay-wise, Halo introduced and popularized several mechanics we now take for granted. In Halo, damage taken isn’t permanent pending a health pickup, rather you have shields that recharge over time. This encouraged players to experiment more, to take more risks – if you got shot too much you could just run off and wait for your shields to recharge before trying again. It changed the way shooters were played, because now almost every shooter has rechargeable health. Halo justified it through your character’s shields, but later games like Uncharted or Call of Duty make no effort to give a narrative explanation. It’s just become the way games are.

I like to talk a lot about how games are a nascent art form, what with Tennis for Two coming out a hair under sixty years ago, and Pong is barely forty-five years old. Since then we’ve seen games grow from basic pixel-ly lines to real-time rendered games that give CGI films a run for their money. Mechanics, too, keep changing. Consider the idea of a cover system, which allows for the player to hide behind something while still shooting. Wikipedia tells me Kill.Switch was the first to implement it, but games like Gears of War and Uncharted really brought it into popular consciousness. There’s an exchange of ideas in video games, one to an extent you don’t really see in other, more established, mediums.

We know what a movie is; there’s fiction, documentaries, and variations thereof. We know what a book is, what a comic is. But what exactly a video game constitutes is kinda left in the air. We’ve Halo, a sci-fi shooter, but That Dragon, Cancer is a game by two parents whose son had terminal cancer. You play a Call of Duty game by running around shooting people, the Sims is pointing and clicking at people and objects, meanwhile Johan Sebastian Joust is played by holding the controller and pushing each other around in real life. The special thing here is that games borrow ideas from each other no matter the genre. An action movie borrowing techniques from an arthouse piece is seen as being daring and cultured, but an early chapter in Uncharted 4’, “A Normal Life,” clearly draws on the exploratory narrative games like Gone Home. This isn’t just happy coincidence; Neil Druckmann, who wrote and directed Uncharted 4, tweeted about the game back when it came out. People who make games play games, like games. Even though there’s a massive variety of types of video games, there’s a cross-pollination amongst them that gives games influences from all over the place.

Look, I like video games a lot. I grew up playing them and find their evolution to be absolutely fascinating, in no small part to taking influences from all over the place. There doesn’t seem to be a ‘wrong’ place to get inspiration. There’s no one correct way to tell stories, so there’s something to be learnt no matter where you look. If video games continue this anything works mindset, I can’t wait to see where we are in ten, twenty, thirty years.

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Great Artists Steal

When explaining what make the Mac so good, Steve Jobs quoted Picasso saying “Good artists copy, great ones steal.” In an interesting twist of fate, that quote often gets attributed to Jobs now instead of Picasso (who may or may not have said it first). It’s a fun quote that definitely is the background for the Mac, it’s also very applicable to, y’know, art. And here that means everything.

Especially Neill Blomkamp’s filmography. Who, you ask? You might know him from the Halo: Landfall short and as the guy Peter Jackson chose to be the one to direct the Halo film. When plans for the Halo film fell through, Jackson instead gave Blomkamp the resources for District 9, an amazing piece of serious science-fiction that showed a few shades of the Halo games in its design and look. It’s subtle, but there’s some resemblance.

E
nter Elysium, the trailer for which dropped earlier this week. It’s Blomkamp’s next film and it looks just as cool as District 9. It too has some stolen design influence. Let’s look at the titular Elysium. It’s a ring-shaped megastructure, like the titular Halo (which wasn’t the first, but more on that later). So we have that look, but it doesn’t look just like a Halo but like Mass Effect’s Citadel as well (the spokes and the interior design). Artificial world inhabited mostly by the rich? Looks like the Citadel’s Presidium to me. It’s an almost uncanny resemblance. But it’s not bad. It’s a good idea, and Blomkamp’s not just copying the idea, but he’s stealing it and mixing it into his own work. He’s using it for a different story.

Halo’s a thief too, particularly from the film Aliens. How much? Halo’s Wikia has an entire article listing them. Not only are the marines’ armor very similar, but Sergeant Johnson is more or less Sergeant Apone. They even have some of the same lines. More than that, the setting of a ringworld is similar to the titular structure in Larry Niven’s  novel Ringworld. Halo took conventions, ideas, and designs (and a secondary character) and gave it a new life with a totally new story. Halo doesn’t feel or look derivative; that’s good stealing.

Uncharted is another culprit. Globetrotting treasure hunter who more often that not finds something with a supernatural power? Nathan Drake might as well be Indiana Jones without a whip. They’re often in similar predicaments: already up against crappy odds, everything goes wrong and they’ve gotta fumble —sorry, improvise— their way out. Nathan Drake is Indiana Jones set sixty years late. Yet the works as a whole are different enough. Uncharted’s supporting cast is more different and consistent than Indy’s and the plot and character arcs are very different. Uncharted takes what’s essentially the Indiana Jones mythos and reworks it for a more modern age. The end result is a fantastic video game that, for no small reason, has been called the best Indiana Jones video game.

The trick with stealing is to not take something wholesale and repeat it. As Steve Jobs said in the interview where he quoted Picasso: “It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things humans have done, and then try to bring those things to what you’re doing.” Just copying something isn’t enough, you have to blend it in to what you’re making. Look at Dungeons & Dragons. Much of the setting is taken from JRR Tolkien’s work; you’ve got Hobbits, Ents, and Balrogs (all of which had to be renamed in later editions). But Gygax and Arneson gave the world its own spirit, mixing in influences from other worlds as well. Super 8, Mass Effect, The Secret of Monkey Island; everyone steals from everyone else. The thing is to make it new, to make it work, to make it yours. Don’t copy; steal.

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