Video games can be art. We’ve all accepted that by now, right? The height of Roger Ebert’s small-minded objection was years ago, and he’s since admitted that he probably shouldn’t have gotten involved. Meanwhile, the idea of video games as art now has its very own, full-length Wikipedia page, which is enough proof of existence and acceptance for me. Moreover, a strong case for the artistic character of the medium can be made from the movies it has inspired. Many of the feature adaptations have been miserable, cynical studio trash, of course. But there are fan-made shorts that show a thriving video game community that deserves to be noticed.
Yet it gets complicated by the role of the game studios. Many of the more interesting shorts have been produced “officially,” by Warner Bros., Ubisoft and the like. Branding confuses any definition of art, and while it doesn’t completely ruin any artistic ambition on the part of the filmmakers, it needs to be taken into account while evaluating the content. Finally, even the fan films are almost entirely devoted to big studio games. As anyone who has seen Indie Game: The Movie will tell you, some of the most artistic video game work is being done by a handful of independent designers. An indie short film adapted from an indie game, like Braid or Super Meat Boy, would be cause for celebration.
Grand Theft Auto: RISE, by Gevorg Karensky
This newest addition to the fan-made genre hit YouTube just last week, inspired by Grand Theft Auto IV. Making a live-action adaptation is a tricky thing, because it necessitates some sort of balance between a normal filmmaking style and an attempt to reproduce the audiovisual experience of playing the game. Gevorg Kavensky and his team tackle this brilliantly, not only introducing the maps and info-graphics of GTA but also moving the camera to occasionally exactly re-create shots from the game. It doesn’t need a complicated narrative to succeed. Rather, this is six minutes of expertly constructed sheer cool.
Street Fighter: Legacy, by Joey Ansah and Owen Trevor
Where Kavensky sets out to reproduce the third-person visual experience of watching the game, Joey Ansah and Owen Trevor spend more time on the appearance and movement of the characters. The costumes are simple but meticulous, and show a clear devotion to the littlest details of Street Fighter’s design. The fighting is very carefully choreographed as well, even before CG takes over and the more magical moves are introduced. Punches, kicks and poses keep to the original rhythm of combat. The end result is compelling enough that there was no need to re-create the detailed and somewhat ridiculous backdrops of Street Fighter. An empty wood is enough, letting us fill in the setting on our own.
Mortal Kombat: Rebirth, by Kevin Tancharoen
The dream of any filmmaker, of course, is akin to what happened to Kevin Tancharoen. He had spent most of his career as a dancer and choreographer, working with the likes of Madonna and Britney Spears. Then he produced and directed this eight-minute short, causing a stir on YouTube in June of 2010. It reimagines the Mortal Kombat universe with more realism, a strategy that could very easily open up the game to another live-action feature film. Warner Bros. went for it, taking on Tancharoen to develop Mortal Kombat: Legacy, a nine-episode Web series that would arrive in 2011.
Pokémon Apokélypse, by Kial Natale
The best fan shorts are the ones with a sense of humor. Many of the most fun video games are also the silliest, and few have been quite as ridiculous as the Pokémon series. Kial Natale and cowriter Lee Majdoub looked at the potential dark side of that universe in this irreverent trailer for an imaginary feature film. It makes you think, pointing out the effective comparability of Pokébattles and dog fighting. Building from the campiest elements of both the game and the TV show, Pokémon Apokélypse pays homage to the fun we’ve all had playing the games while simultaneously entertaining us anew.
Sonic: Night of the Werehog, by Takashi Nakashima
SEGA produced this 3D-animated film, making it one of the quirkiest studio-made video game shorts ever. It’s set in a haunted mansion, in which a number of klutzy ghosts terrorize visiting children and collect Polaroid pictures of their screaming faces. However, they didn’t expect Sonic to show up, and certainly not a Sonic that turns into a werehog on the night of a full moon. It’s the sort of thing that Dreamworks would produce to play before an animated feature, rather than something from a video game studio. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also very strange.