How Video Games Affected (and Still Do) Pop Culture

Steve Nielsen


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When arcade machines were big, and home TV’s were small, few could imagine how strongly video games and movies would merge sooner than expected. But, as pop culture in postmodern times is syncretic, everything merges. Real life inspires writers, scenarists, directors, painters, as well as game makers. They create masterpieces that inspire other creators, as well as entrepreneurs and scientists in real life, and the circle closes.

It comes as no surprise that the gaming industry most influenced cinema (and then TV), as both arts are visual and cinematic. Here come some milestone movies inspired by video games, of various impact and value, but noticeable and influential.

Tomb Raider: Ping-ponging Lara Croft

Tomb Raider Gameplay

Not the earliest of all these franchise, but probably the most successful and the most spectacular, Tomb Raider (who minds?) started as a response to adventure movies like Indiana Jones and the followers. The idea of a female Indy turned out much more successful than gamifying the original character, and so Tomb Raider, with brilliant and dangerous Lara Croft, was there for long. Square Enix, in fact, created one of the most recognizable game characters.

In 2001 Lara Croft made it to the big screen, played by Angelina Jolie, and returned in 2003. The dialogue was a huge hit, and only Jolie’s refusal kept the producers from making a trilogy or more. In the hiatus, a new game trilogy was announced, and that inspired a reboot, with Alicia Vikander as Lara. Despite mixed reviews, it’s a commercial success anyway, so Lara is to travel to more countries, find more ancient artifacts, and fight more villains.

Hitman: The Hit

Hitman Poster

This stealth game series, following the lines of assassination as art, describes a story of a cloned super-assassin, dangerous both to his victim and his creators if he gets loose. The series focused on the methods of murdering, and its story is more of a detective than an action movie. That inspired two movies: The Hitman (1997), quite a successful one, and its reboot Hitman: Agent 47 (2015) that nearly flopped.

The significance of The Hitman is, though, in the idea that a great narrative in a game is okay, it’s a norm rather than an exception, and these movies rather highlighted the reality than lit it up.

Street Fighter: So 1990s

Street Fighter Gameplay

And now let’s get back to the arcades. Street Fighter first was one of those martial tournaments for two that were played on arcade machines, with special joysticks, and it, in fact, codified many conventions in one-on-one local fighting games. There wouldn’t be, say, Mortal Kombat the way we know it without Street Fighter. The movie based on this game, starring Jean Claude Van Damme, Raul Julia, and Kylie Minogue, was released in 1994.

The most noticeable about this story is that the movie itself inspired new installments of Street Fighter, following the storyline of it, and making its characters resemble the movie actors. There were other movies as well, and also manga and anime series, and it shows that the most basic idea with good visuals can be as good a start for a media franchise as an elaborate narrative and rich world. But this story is incomplete without the next example.

Mortal Kombat: From Bruce Lee to Ronda Rousey

Mortal Kombat Gameplay

The first Mortal Kombat game was obviously inspired by Street Fighter too, released in 1992, right following the huge success of Street Fighter II. Thus the idea of multiple selectable characters for each player, as well as combos and unique moves, isn’t that original; yet the game also offered its brutality (FATALITY!) and its own elaborate mythology, mixing Oriental and Western legends.

Both games source can be traced back to cult Hong Kong martial action movies, like Enter the Dragon (starring Bruce Lee), and thousands of less known franchises; but the legendarium of Mortal Kombat was something all these movies lacked, so it only took three years for the first movie to hit the theaters. Starring Robin Shou, Christopher Lambert, and Bridgette Wilson along with other actors, it recreated the martial tournament between gods of Outworld and Earth and the fighters they brought.

The story continued in the movie sequel of 1997, two TV series, and, of course, in the games that are still released.

Pixels (as a Supergroup)

Pac-Man Arcade Machine Poster

This movie of 2015 wasn’t a superhit by itself; it rather commemorated the influence of the entire gaming industry upon cinema. The idea of featuring the characters of cult arcades as real dangers is quite new, and the mashup aesthetics was the right choice, but the movie lacked a solid script and some camp atmosphere that would only be logical. Thus, it flopped, yet thanks, Sony, for a chance to see Pac-Man so big.

This postmodern trip should be seen along with Ready Player One, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and other movies based on fictional games. These reflect the gaming obsession rather than translate certain games into cinema language, but somehow they recreate gaming aesthetics even better than some official movies.

Love All of Them

It’s funny that the reverse influence wasn’t as massive. Movie-based games are quite rare, and mostly they flopped, the only systematic exception being LEGO projects after Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and other cult franchises.

The influence of games on the movies is ambiguous too. Uwe Boll is the most notorious example, but not the only one. So excuse us for only selecting the franchises you won’t regret the time you spent on.