“Form is for us the trace of a movement”
Creative Evolution, Henri Bergson
The visual freedom of early video games opened the path for a certain abstract-motion expression, concerned with gameplay visuality and not necessarily sacrificed to verbal storytelling: a path shared by cinema during its first decades. Such coexistence of images without words, movements without plots and attractions without boundaries questions our assumptions about film and game culture, proving that the richness, multiplicity and differential nature of both mediums goes way beyond the restrictions of allegedly cinematic techniques like cutscenes, verbal dialogue and hyperrealism.
Keaton Mario Scroll
Comparative montage between Buster Keaton’s ending sequence from Seven Chances (1925) and Super Mario Bros’ platform video games (1985-). Lateral movement in a scroll-travelling.
The discoveries of early film were gradually reinterpreted and systematized, crystallizing throughout the silent masterpieces of the 20’s. In the realm of slapstick, the stunts, jumps and chases of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops were refined in the creations of Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Larry Semon and other silent clowns, just like the primitive moves of Jumpan evolved through the platforms of Super Mario Bros (1985). Among those masters of the gag, Keaton was probably the one who brought his obsession with motion, interfaces and Goldberg machines to a higher degree of visual lucidity (sublimating Henri Bergson’s mechanics of laughter). The development of sight gags –based on the creation, repetition and variation of a kinetic pattern through time- resembles the way game designers conceive certain interactions between a moving figure and the surrounding spaces. As in the early Super Mario and Sonic sagas, slapstick reels captured a screen trajectory by reconstructing the trace of a character’s action (jump, chase, pie in the face) and its physical interactions (platform, rotor, slide, cliff, pendulum, pulley, seesaw, zip-line, lever). Myths of the silent era like the final chase of Seven Chances (1925) and the dream sequence of Sherlock Jr. (1924) can be regarded as creative tools for designing imaginative gameplay, while connecting with the glitches and silent ruptures of Samuel Beckett’s Film (1965) and the playful sensibility of contemporary game shows like Takeshi Kitano’s Takeshi’s Castle (1986).
Fairbanks Action Arcade
Comparative montage between Douglas Fairbanks’ action-adventure films The Mark of Zorro (1920), Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and a number of action, platform and arcade video games like Pitfall, Prince of Persia, Metroid, Megaman, Castlevania, Kid Icarus, Double Dragon...
The echoes multiply if we compare the canon of Hollywood’s silent adventure genre with its equivalents among early video games. The jumps and stunts of Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro (1920) bring to mind the hanging vines of Jumpman (1983), just like the climbing and sliding between walls and ladders evoke the levels of Megaman (1987). Distinctive action sequences, like Fairbanks running through the drawbridge in Robin Hood (1922), recall memorable moments inside games like Castlevania (1986) and Kid Icarus (1986), while the final boss structure in the caves of Metroid (1986) is literally contained in the catacombs of The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Aside from the recurrence of visual motifs, silent film shared with the first video games the use –and triumph- of written title cards. In the early years both mediums shared the necessity of narrating without sync dialogue, a technical requirement that encouraged the creation of memorable visual texts: from the revenge island in The Black Pirate (1926) to the revenge parody in Monkey Island 2 (1991), not to mention the unforgettable title cards of The Legend of Zelda (1986), a saga that still relies on the wonder of silent words.
Early Street Fighter
Comparative montage between Segundo de Chomón’s Le théâtre de Bob (1906) for Pathé Frères and combat scenes from Street Fighter II (1991).
The images of early cinema shared with first arcades and video games a number of stylistic patterns. The absence of sync dialogue and the supremacy of visual attractions pushed creators – both early filmmakers and game designers- towards truly imaginative ways of relating the moving image to its audiences. Researchers like Tom Gunning and Henry Jenkins have studied how playfulness, spectacle and sight transformation bridged the practices of film with those of magic, circus, music-hall and vaudeville, just like arcades merged with other forms of public entertainment and body performance. Acts of gameplay were literally portrayed, as we can see when the children of Le théâtre électrique de Bob (1906) connect a couple of electrical marionettes and start a screen-fight like the ones in Street Fighter (1987) and Mortal Kombat (1992).
Pathé Magic Puzzle
Comparative montage between works by Segundo de Chomón for Pathé Frères (1907-1912) and puzzle video games like Tetris, Puzzle Bobble or Mario & Yoshi.
Visually enclosed by what Noël Burch called the “autarchy of tableau”, Méliès and Pathé Frères fantasy reels shared with early games an aesthetic awareness of the frame. Within the determined, magical space of the shot, a path was open for visually stunning effects and changes in shape, form and motion. Humans become geometrical figures like the ones in Les Kiriki, acrobates japonais (1907), game pieces whose movements and combinations resemble the legendary gameplay of Tetris (1984).
Comparative montage between Segundo de Chomón’s Pickpock ne craint pas les entraves (1909) for Pathé Frères and early arcade video games like Pacman, Bubble Bobble, Donkey Kong, Excitebike and Paperboy.
Early mischief gags in comedy reels like Pickpock ne craint pas les entraves (1909) soon started to work around chases, jumps and visual transformations, perfecting a system of vertical and horizontal interplay between the main character, his antagonists and the surrounding space. Connecting floors (Pacman, 1978), stairs (Donkey Kong, 1981) passages (Bubble Bobble, 1986) and magic vehicles (Paper boy, 1984) engaged a certain development in early film montage before they became milestones of video game history.
Beckett Mario Glitches
Comparative montage between Samuel Beckett’s visual work in Film (1965) and Quadrat 1+2 (1982), and a selection of glitches from Super Mario 64 (1996).