Association Internationale du Film d’Animation
International Animated Film Association

Video Games + Independent Animation

Author: Jeanette Bonds | Date: 12/11/18, 2:11 PM

Independent animation is thriving. An increasing amount of artists and filmmakers are popping up all over the world. We can attribute this rise in independent animation to several reasons, one of the most significant of which is access to technology. It’s no longer necessary to rely on large teams to make films. We can now make films on our own, from our homes, on our computers, tablets, and cell phones. From production to distribution, we can do it by ourselves, or with a few friends from anywhere in the world.

Independent video games are on the rise and for similar reasons. The language of coding is not as unfamiliar as it once was and we no longer need large teams with massive budgets to make a game. These too can be made on our own from our homes. Also, with the advent of Steam, distribution has become much easier as it allows for independent games to have wide releases.

These new distribution methods have created a platform that encourages experimentation with gaming structures and formats. We are seeing an increase in the production of games made by independent artists challenging the tenets of traditional gaming structures. For example games that have no narrative structure but rather focus on tone, experience, and world building. It is now common to find communities merge as artists from the art, filmmaking, and gaming community join together to create interactive projects.

Within the last few years we've seen several independent animators/filmmakers such as Michael Frei (Plug & Play, Playables), David OReilly (Mountain, Everything), Carl Burton (Islands), and Peter Burr (Aria End) step into gaming, taking their visions into interactive/game spaces. And while these filmmakers are crossing into new interactive/game territories, they continue to make film versions of their games, versions that are true to gameplay. We have also seen several independent animators create games that follow traditional gaming structures such as Cuphead and Night in the Woods.

“I mainly wanted to do something I haven't tried before,” says Michael Frei. “My films are designed for a passive audience and function best in a cinema. What I wanted to create was an animation for an active audience. That functions best on an interactive medium such as the internet.” Interactivity is at the core of video games. There are often multiple direct and immediate choices to be made. There are often different paths to take. Runtime is not fixed as you can progress on your own time. Games can be played alone, with friends in person, or with strangers online. The possibilities are endless.

Artist Peter Burr says “Games are special because they require our touch to live.” Filmmakers are accustomed to creating fixed experiences, and perhaps it is the endlessness of interactive possibilities and the ability to create and build entire new worlds that would naturally interest imaginative independent filmmaker animators to transition into games. That combined with rapidly changing technology which has made it possible to both create and distribute games independently. Ultimately the material of games is animation, so there’s a logical fluidity between the two mediums even though they are different.

In recent years, there has also been a more specific trend in animation which can now be viewed as a precursor to the rise of games made by independent animators. There have been a number of films that mimic the aesthetics, narrative styles, and functions of video games; we will take a look at a selection of these films which best express this impulse. These films simulate different game styles and gameplay from different eras of gaming history including side scrolling games, arcade games, role playing games, and first/third person point of view games.

In 2008, viral stop-motion animator PES made the film Game Over which uses various objects such as pretzels, pizza, salt shakers, candy, and toy cars, to recreate the gameplay of iconic games from the 1970’s/80’s console Atari including Space Invaders, Frogger, and Pacman. PES used actual sound effects from these games to create an accurate portrayal of the games. Game Over is a direct replica of these games, and in its replication acts as an homage to the games that were on the forefront of changing the minds of future generations.

Game Over - PES

In 2014, Ricky Cometa made the animated short Corridors, a film about a boy who is confronted by his parents as to why he doesn’t do his homework. This film makes visual and audio references to the 1990s Super Nintendo console; the text appears as it does in games from that era, and the console itself makes an appearance in the film. Musician and sound designer Jeff Liu creates audio that is an emulation of 16 bit music from Super Nintendo, mimicking the melodic style of games from that console and era. But unlike Game Over, Corridors is not a direct replica of a game, but rather uses the aesthetic limitations of Super NES to inform the rules of how his characters can move through the narrative of the film.

Corridors - Ricky Cometa

In 2013, Kristian Andrews released Let’s Play Nomad X, a film about a player who reviews his favorite 90s computer game and in the process inserts aspects of his personal life. Visually all we see is the gameplay itself. But what distinguishes this film is the sound. What we hear is the player going back and forth between reviewing the game and explaining how he lost the love of his life. As the film progresses, the review becomes less important and his personal story rises to the forefront. Let’s Play Nomad X  as a reflexive parody recognizes reviews a byproduct of gaming culture and makes us think about the person facing the screen rather than the screen itself.

Let's Play Nomad X - Kristian Andrews

In 2014, Gints Zilbalodis released Priorities, a film about the bond formed between a man and his dog after their plane crashes and they are marooned on an island, trying to survive and find their way home. While Zilbalodis has stated he made no intentional connection to video games, what makes this film fit into this discussion is the way he chose to use the camera. The cinematographic style is similar to that of third person point of view games. The camera moves constantly and the character is constantly at a fixed distance from the lens. Whether or not it is intentional, from a cinematic perspective it is impossible not to associate the camera style with video games. Priorities is a great example of the cinematic language of games direct influence on a new generation of filmmakers.

Priorities - Gints Zibalodis

In addition to the films mentioned here there are several examples of films which incorporate video game aesthetics including (2009), Holy Path (2013), and Gamer Girl (2017), and Martin Cries (2017).

These films are just a few examples of filmmakers expressing their desire (whether it be a subconscious or deliberate) to shift into games, which up until recently, hasn’t been easily attainable. At the very least these are examples of the impact video games have had on filmmakers. For a younger generation, video games have become a massively more prevalent source not only for inspiration, but also as exposure to animation period.

There is a new generation of filmmakers who have grown up with video games and have seen games evolve over time. We’ve seen technologies transform, consoles come and go, and game styles evolve. This new generation has been influenced by games and gaming language, and as such it’s only logical to see this influence manifest in their filmmaking.

Jeanette Bonds is a writer and independent animator living in Los Angeles. She is co-founder and director of GLAS Animation.