If you’re reading this article, it’s extremely unlikely you aren’t at least passingly familiar with John Carpenter, a director/screenwriter/composer whose film resume includes seminal cult classics like Halloween, Escape From New York, and The Thing. If you watched a scary movie from the late 70’s/early 80’s with a cool synth score, it was either directed by him or by someone who really wanted to emulate him. What’s a little less known to the public at large is this: John Carpenter loves video games.
Believe it or not, if you follow Carpenter’s Twitter account (@TheHorrorMaster), you’re just as likely to find him discussing a new release as you are the usual celebrity tweets about upcoming projects or appearances.
While a 66 year old man being an avid, outspoken gamer is charmingly unusual on its own, the fact that it’s John Carpenter suggests something pretty interesting once you think on it a bit. Why do video games appeal to him so much? Why does that feel like such a natural connection? I’d like to submit a somewhat bold claim and it’s this: John Carpenter’s film work in the 70’s and 80’s is deeply ingrained in the DNA of what we know today as video games.
Let’s start with Halloween.
One of Carpenter’s earliest films, it famously opens with an extended, first person POV sequence where young Michael Myers gruesomely stabs his older sister.
First person camera work is about as old as the movie camera itself, (and utilized famously in films like the Bacall/Bogart noir thriller Dark Passage) but while Carpenter certainly didn’t invent the technique, this is arguably the most famous first person perspective scene in American film. What’s so effective about this sequence, and really Halloween as a whole, is that Carpenter forces us to literally see the world through the eyes of the movie’s monster. The shallow breathing, the movement up the steps. The portions of Halloween that place us behind the mask of Michael Myers are invigorating and unsettling because it creates an illusion of control, of culpability; Carpenter is tricking us into holding the knife as it goes into Michael’s sister.
Fourteen years later, id Software releases Castle Wolfenstein 3D and, a year later, Doom. Both games are considered to the two most influential first person shooter games and I’ve included a sample of Doom‘s gameplay below.
Cool synth score? Check. Extreme gore and violence? Check. Preying on helpless teenagers out of psychosexual frustration? Hmm.
See, whether it was a conscious choice on the part of the game designers, Halloween (a hugely successful film released when the creators of this game were young men, I’ll point out) is all over this game. The only difference is that the game designers tweaked it to be more palatable to players, so that the first person perspective is fun; a game built around brutalizing unarmed, half-naked women is disgusting, but swapping them out for space demons and literal Nazis you can murder with impunity leaves the player with far more acceptable targets. Looking back at Carpenter’s original scene, there are even odd little flourishes that resemble what will become popular video game trademarks: Young Michael stealthily hiding from his sister’s boyfriend in a dark room, and the bell chime sound effect that signifies the light going out in her room (but wouldn’t feel too out of place in, say, a Zelda game).
In a weird example of how cyclical influences can be, Doom‘s appropriation of the first person perspective found it’s way back into film via this scene from the 2005 adaptation of the game starring Karl Urban.
Maybe the most obvious connection between Carpenter’s filmography and the world of video games is the surprising relationship between Escape From New York and Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear series. Beyond the obvious and superficial (two lead characters named “Snake”), the actual mechanics of the games are strongly influenced by the film. This is especially clear in 1998’s Metal Gear Solid, a title that popularized both stealth gameplay and the use of “cinematic” cut scenes and action.
Right off the bat, we see how liberally MGS borrows from Escape: a plot that finds our hero (the player’s proxy) sent in to covertly rescue high profile hostages from a remote location, an expository mission briefing delivered by a gruff military handler. The game even places opening credits over the cut scene action of Solid Snake infiltrating a base underwater in order to evoke the feel of a film.
Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken is a weirdly vulnerable action hero compared to invincible peers like John Matrix or Marion Cobretti, and it’s worth pointing out that he’s repeatedly stabbed, forced to flee from gunfire and knocked out during Escape From New York. This, in turn, informs the gameplay style that the Metal Gear series is famous for; as Solid Snake, you spend much of the game sneaking around foes rather than directly engaging them because entering their direct line of sight often means death.
Looking ahead 13 years later, we can even still see Escape From New York‘s profound influence alive and well today in games like 2011’s Batman: Arkham City, whose premise is even more explicitly cribbed from Carpenter’s film and throws the Dark Knight into a criminal society microcosm virtually identical to the one Snake Plissken was forced to fight his way through.
Although the examples we’ve looked at so far are all removed from each other by decades, Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China is a rare instance where one of his films and similar games draw on an unrelated, outside trend. Specifically, Big Trouble is Carpenter’s take on the kind of Kung Fu/martial arts movies that were largely popular in the 70’s like Enter The Dragon or The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, which themselves inspired beat em up arcade games like 1984’s Kung-Fu Master.
What’s really noticeable about Big Trouble In Little China is that there isn’t really a plot to speak of, or at the very least it’s a pretty bare bones one. Wang Chi and Jack Burton are forced to fight their way through an army of foes both human and inhuman to rescue their respective damsels in distress. Despite not actually being based on one, the movie actually feels like an arcade beat em up. Characters move from one location to the next after defeating a variety of bad guys, they even receive power ups from a “six demon bag” and face mini-bosses in the form of three storm elementals (who would in turn inspire Mortal Kombat‘s Raiden). In classic “final boss” fashion, immortal wizard and primary antagonist David Lo Pan is ethereal and untouchable by the film’s heroes until the very end of the film. In case any of this feels like too much of a stretch, there was even a Commodore 64 game based on the film and, yes, it was a sidescrolling beat em up.
So does this mean Big Trouble In Little China is the first “video game movie?” Maybe not officially, but it’s worth pointing out that the film’s formula, tone, and look would go on to be shamelessly (and unsuccessfully) ripped off by the first “true” stateside game-to-movie adaptation, 1993’s Super Mario Bros.
John Carpenter’s connection to the world of video games is, admittedly, hard to concretely pin down. What is clear is that many of his films, by virtue of being highly accessible and popular genre movies, served to introduce game developers to many existing (but less known) cinematic concepts that would become important foundations of gameplay and game aesthetic. Why does John Carpenter love video games so much? Maybe it’s because he sees so much of himself in them.