The Filmic Metaphor

lens flares, videogame lighting, and Lakoff and Johnsen's conceptual metaphors
a big lens flare

Have you ever stared at the sun in a 3D videogame? It’s one of those fun things that you don’t get to do in real life, like double jumping or grenade spamming. Staring at the real sun is painful; your brain resists even the attempt. But your computer screen can only get so bright, so you can pitch the camera across the skybox and stare directly at the sun for as long as you want.

Lighting in 3D videogames is complicated. I don’t profess to have more than a basic working knowledge of how to light a video game scene, but in my experience, light doesn’t come from the in-game sun. Light can come from a sort-of “ambient” world lighting, which doesn’t emit from a particular source but instead flows all over the scene at a specific angle, dictating the way shadows behave on surfaces, textures, objects. Light can also emit from a flat plane as an “area light,” like an invisible lightbox in the sky, or from specific points that radiate in all directions equally, like the light emitted from lightbulbs and candleflames. There are games that do use an actual sun object as a light emitter (Outer Wilds for example) but that’s usually because its illumination is contingent on a mechanic particular to that game. Most designers won’t go to the work of programming in a sun object if they don’t have to.

So when you stare at the game-sun, you’re likely not even looking at the world’s lightsource. You’re probably looking at a cluster of white pixels painted on the ceiling, or some object generated elsewhere in the 3D space and then projected into the air, forever unreachable, simultaneously present and not, forever receding. But sometimes you look at the videogame sun, and your vision is embellished with a bit of that cinematic spice we all love: lens flare. It’s subtle. It’s dramatic. And it feels so natural you might not even consciously notice it.

Lens flare, real lens flare, happens when a strong light source passes through a physical lens and is distorted in some way, scattered or flared or sculpted into bubbles and feathered artifacts that marr the resultant image. It can be understood as a failure of technology, or a failure of photography to accurately capture our experience of the world. And though it’s a failure, it’s kind of pretty and interesting to look at. We, as media-consuming subjects, associate lens flare with rawness. An image with lens flare appears unedited, captured in the moment, dramatic, dynamic. It draws the eye in a straight line to and from the lightsource, giving the sun a searing primacy in an image.

This set of associations is so strong that lens flare, once an aberration to be edited out, is now added to films. It’s a visual trope—it’s trope-ified. There’s a million jokes about J. J. Abrams plopping lens flares all over his space movies as though he were really out there in the cold vacuum, pointing a camera at a planet. The first deliberate lens flare was made by cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa in the movie Woman in the Dunes in 1964. I just wholesale copied that last sentence from wikipedia but it’s interesting.

So what’s it doing in videogames? Again, lens flare is the result of a physical interaction with a physical lens. Videogame worlds aren’t physical. They’re made of dreams and math. There’s no lens. The sun isn’t really emitting light. Why would looking at the sun create a lens flare?

For one thing, like I said, it’s a visual trope with all those previously stated (dynamic, raw) associations built into it. People tellingly describe lens flares as “cinematic.” Lens flares just feel a certain way, and they symbolize a certain cinematic feeling.

For another, a lens flare implies brightness. It implies a level of brightness so strong, so intense, that the technology “at hand” can’t contain or capture it. Again, a screen can only get so bright, and a game designer has no control over the player’s maximum screen luminosity at all. So lens flares give the game designer a visual shorthand for the upper-end of the brightness scale. You’re able to simulate a blinding sun with some simple, computationally inexpensive sleight-of-hand.

But at the same time, you’re also simulating a lens. This is the hidden implication in lens flares: the existence of a camera. The idea of the “camera” is so deeply embedded in videogame DNA that the word is used in game engines and their coding languages to refer to “the object that sees.” I had trouble writing that last sentence because we don’t have other words for it. It’s a camera! First-person camera, third-person camera, second-person camera (?) (VR?), etc. It’s a camera.

Lens flare, like motion blur and depth of field and bloom lighting, are the more obvious protrusions of a visual language inherited from film. Why do we unnecessarily mediate the experience of the game world through the underlying implication of the camera's physicality, and, by extension, the “film” that we’re playing?

I call this underlying set of assumptions, implications, and remediations the filmic metaphor. When I use the word metaphor here, I don’t mean it in the banal sense of a simple comparison (“video games are like movies”), I mean it in the sense of the conceptual metaphor, an idea from the book Metaphors We Live By by linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnsen.

The conceptual metaphor is pretty easy to grasp. Lakoff and Johnsen argue that we understand concepts through systematic metaphors. For example, the metaphor that time is money is more than just a pithy aphorism. We literally understand time as a valuable personal resource like it were money, and this relationship peeks through in the language we use to talk about time: you’re wasting my time. I’m spending time. That mistake cost me an hour. He’s living on borrowed time. I lost a lot of time on that project. Thank you for your time. These quotidian phrases actually point to an underlying, implied semantic structure. We don’t just talk about time like it was money, we understand it as though it were money. Money kind of hangs in the background of time, structuring it through a process of metaphoric inference, like some kind of ghostly scaffolding.

The filmic metaphor is the conceptual metaphor that says we understand games as movies. That we derive meaning from videogames through the “lens” of film. The lens flare is only one piece of evidence of this semantic undergirding. There are others, some more obvious and some more subtle:

End credits- Lots of games have scrolling credits at the end. Credits are the result of the film industry’s relationship to its laborers, and became commonplace in the late 60s, decades into film’s development as a medium. The way credits are used in games can get kind of weird; videogames don’t always have a logical “end” point the way a film does. In Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the credits appear when you get K. K. Slider to play a show on your island. You didn’t beat the game or finish it but it makes sense as the credits spot. In the Super Smash Bros. series, the credits double as a kind of shooter minigame where you attempt to blast each name in an insanely flashy Space Invaders-style scenario. The weirdness of these credits examples to me gestures towards the medium’s resistance to their intrusion in some way. They feel “wedged in” to games instead of part of their natural development.

Cutscenes- This one is more obvious. Cutscenes are just short movie scenes used to push the plot of a game along. They can be kind of abrupt, arresting control from the player, shifting the camera, whisking away the UI. Suddenly, the character you were controlling, who could moments before only communicate with grunts and cries, is now speaking full sentences and emoting with their body. Some older games even use actual movie actors (Tim Curry in Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3) in their cutscenes. The whiplash of going from little 85-pixel sprites of tanks and ships to a flesh-and-blood Tim Curry is… cool unique to the medium.

Trailers- New games and movies are both revealed with trailers. Sometimes other mediums take a crack at trailers (anyone in the poetry world remember when people were making poetry book trailers in the 2010s? lol) but they remain the domain of videogames and movies and are integral to their marketing.

Film mode/cinematic mode- Some videogames have a “film mode” or “cinematic mode,” which usually reduces the UI, changes the aspect ratio, and maybe does something with the colors or shading. The most obvious example I can think of is Ghost of Tsushima’s Kurosawa Mode, though other games play with these same elements. I think Red Dead has one too? This reveals a sort of latent desire to "play" a film, as though you could rip the videogame-y bits away and have a servicable playable movie.

Soundtrack/score- Videogames have borrowed heavily from film in this department: moody background swells, musical themes and motifs that develop, specific action cues enriched with quickened tempos. Games do complicate the simple pairing of image and sound, though. How long a player spends in a certain area is variable, and so the backing track often needs to have a seamless looping quality. Still, the echoes of flim are legible, especially in big-budget AAA titles, which tend to have more overt cinematic ambitions.

Language- Big-budget action games are blockbusters. Solo, artsy games are indie with an auteur’s touch. Games are broken up into scenes. Certain parts are setpieces. In-engine objects are sometimes called props. Models have rigging (maybe that one is more nautical).

Consumption habits- Which big action movie doesn’t have a video game tie-in? Which massive video game hasn’t at least been optioned for a movie? How many games have been made out of movies vs. books or tv shows? (Are games to movies as movies are to books?)

Camera- Yeah, we touched on this. I just want to talk about Super Mario 64. This was an early 3D platforming game, so helping the player understand how a 3D camera works was a design priority. In the opening frames, the game conceptualizes/introduces the player’s camera as a Lakitu, a floating turtle on a cloud carrying a camera on a fishing rod.

an image of mario being filmed by a cloud creature holding a camera on the end of a fishing rod

I love this bit of anthropomorphization. It’s like Mario is actually the star of a weird Takeshi’s Castle-esque reality show. But this is a rare instance where we actually get to see the camera that we’re supposedly looking “through” for the remainder of the game.

Other games just take the camera implication for granted. In Overwatch, characters perform “highlight intros” during the post-game results, where they flex or dance or do a little personalized emote before their feats are displayed. In one of these intros, a character accidentally bumps the “camera” and throws it off its angle, then reaches over to adjust it while apologizing. Left 4 Dead will speckle blood on the lens of your first-person camera during particularly hairy engagements. We’re not supposed to believe those blood speckles are on our character’s eyeballs. No, they look like they’re on a camera lens that was too close to the action. In fact, tons of Left 4 Dead’s paratextual and nondiegetic content frame the game as a zombie movie that you’re playing through scene-by-scene.

left 4 dead screenshot with blood splattered on the lens/eyes of the player

“Videogames are not films,” writes Brendan Keogh in the introduction to A Play of Bodies. “Yet the parallels between the doubly embodied and situated experience of film and the complex presence across worlds and bodies felt by players in the experience of videogames are striking.” To ignore these parallels is to attempt an impossible or intellectually dishonest reduction: peel videogames down to their isolated game-like elements: rules, goals, mechanics. “Videogames very much are successors of cinema, print, literature, and new media,” he continues, “as well as a continuation of a millennia-long history of games.” The filmic metaphor concept has less to do with these dense questions of embodiment (which I'm excited to write about soon/later), and more to do with how we, as consumers, talk about and think about games in relation to other media objects in our orbit. I like Keogh's use of the word "successors." Maybe videogames have taken up a spot where film once sat, and now have certain ideas projected onto them.

Films and videogames, at their most marketed and widely public levels, are big-budget entertainment pieces that transpire on screens. As games—specifically 3D games—developed, we had a visual language ready for them right there in film. It was a visual language through which we understood space, movement, narrative, and characters; it provided techniques, terminology, shortcuts, ideas, approaches, forms, and genre signifiers. These elements were grafted onto games, sometimes clumsily, sometimes to sublime effect. They also brought baggage: implications (the physicality of the camera), weaknesses, assumptions. Examining the filmic metaphor as such can help us understand this relationship, which could lead to a richer understanding of games through the already-developed discipline of film studies. In fact, there’s already a lot of amazing research in this overlap that I will cover at a later date.

In their book, Lakoff and Johnsen use the conceptual metaphor “argument is war” as their primary example: we advance ideas, attack weak points, win or lose arguments, employ rhetorical strategies. After describing this relationship, they ask: does it have to be this way? What if we understood argument not as war or battle, but as a dance? How would our language around the concept be different? How would arguments feel different if they were positioned as cooperative, artful activities of mutual benefit instead of aggressive, martial, winner-take-all showdowns?

An interesting idea to be sure. One has to wonder if we’re doing a disservice to the possibilities of videogames, if the filmic metaphor restricts. It definitely affects the kinds of games that get made and the kinds of games that the market allows/rewards. Perhaps the filmic metaphor will crumble as videogames develop and seep into other avenues of life, though there will always exist a genre of cinematic games. Young people today will have stronger associations with games than with films and we might see an eventual inversion or blending, where the visual language tics particular to videogames start finding their way into films (there’s a flying noclip CGI scene in one of the crappy Hobbit movies that felt straight out of a video game, anyone know what I’m talking about?) (there’s also been a few “first-person shooter” style movies which look kind of nauseating).

The question remains: what if we understood videogames not as films that you play, but as something else? Instead of camera, Emerson’s transparent eye. Instead of blockbuster, big-budget rubix cube. Instead of film mode, bar graph mode.

Next on ludosynth, I will humbly offer 3 holistic possibilities:

Videogame as benches.

Videogame as haunted houses.

Videogame as strip clubs.

Unless I change my mind.