Identity Crisis – The Changing Face of Games

kevin spacey call of duty advanced warfare

Games are big business, folks.  The video game industry, currently, makes more money annually than the movie and television industry.  We have earned the right to our own awards ceremony, media personalities, sports leagues, etc.  We have a film based on Warcraft currently making massive profits overseas.  So, we did it!  We can now (symbolically) rise from the shackles of our parents basement and take our rightful place in the mainstream.  However, with this prestige has come change.  Recent years have shown developers hiring more Hollywood talent, while also marketing titles very differently, becoming closer to cinema in design.

In 2014, I saw the debut trailer for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and was taken aback.  It was just another celebrity cameo, sure, but this felt a bit different.  For the first time, I did not see just see an actor stepping into the role of a fictional character.  No, this time I saw Activision literally drop a high-profile actor into their game.  Advanced Warfare, starring Kevin Spacey: Coming soon to a console near you.  The way Spacey was being portrayed felt very “Hollywood” in design, and I do not think that was by coincidence.

Of course, game developers have been using celebrity voices for a while now.  Consider Patrick Stewart in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, Sean Bean in The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, John Goodman in Rage, Elijah Wood in Spyro the Dragon, among others.

Nor is this the first time an actor has stepped into the shoes of a video-game.  For example, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig lent their voices and likenesses to the Bond games. As did the Game of Thrones cast to “Telltale’s” series of games.  The difference: These are games based on established films.  Call of Duty is a game franchise, first and foremost.  A more apt comparison would be Nathan Fillion of Firefly fame being prominently displayed in Halo 3: ODST and Halo 5.  For an even bigger example, the upcoming space-sim Star Citizen has an impressive amount of celebrity voices and likenesses.  Clearly, this is a trend that’s getting bigger.

game of thronesSource:

With all of these other examples, and bigger ones looming, why am I so hung up on Kevin Spacey?  Crudely put:  This is the first time, to me, games went full Hollywood.  The game had a marquee star.  To compare, think of any recent movie with Jennifer Lawrence or any number of movies with Brad Pitt, or George Clooney.  Actors who are “hot” right now and will put butts in seats.  Given his sudden boost in popularity with House of Cards at the time, Spacey’s casting felt very strategic.  Spacey plays a fictional CEO named Jon Irons, but make no mistake: “Activision” cast Frank Underwood in their videogame.

They want to tell stories that will touch people’s hearts. And while I understand that desire, the trend worries me.

This trend towards the Hollywood style can also be seen through marketing.  Just take a look at this trailer for FIFA ‘17: The Journey.  Watching this the other day, I briefly considered that this may not be a soccer (football) game at all.  I had to ask someone next to me, if this was a sports game or a drama centered around sports?  Throughout the entire trailer, there is not one example of gameplay.  We do, however, see our character on an airplane, in his kitchen, and yes, giving hugs.  There is even the cliche Hollywood scene where the underdog is crouched in a long hallway with his head down, clearly on the ropes.  Everything about this trailer speaks to cinema, from the music to the text (“you will know his name”) that appears throughout.  Also during this year’s E3 expo, look at the trailer for Technomancer that forgoes gameplay in favor of edginess and sex.

fifa 17


At the same time, Film and Television are being influenced by games.  Beyond the franchises being brought to film, a more practical example is the recent title Quantum Break that actually had a complementary web series streamed through console.  “Remedy Inc.”, the developers, had a symbiotic relationship in mind, saying that “how you play the game impacts the show, and the show informs how you play the game.” [1]

quantum break


It certainly looks like the industries are benefiting and building off of each other.  This relationship has served to push games into the spotlight and move gaming from the niche into the mainstream.  However, it can also be argued that adopting this cinematic approach is taking away what makes gaming a unique medium.  I think Shigeru Miyamoto said it best, in a 2014 Telegraph article, stating:

“These younger game creators, they want to be recognised,” he sighs. “They want to tell stories that will touch people’s hearts. And while I understand that desire, the trend worries me. It should be the experience, that is touching.  What I strive for is to make the person playing the game the director.  All I do is help them feel that, by playing, they’re creating something that only they could create.”

Seeing the style games are adopting, and the marketing used to promote them, it seems to give a really clear idea how the video game industry views itself presently.  This also gives an idea of where the industry wants to go.  The industry wants to elevate itself, and be seen as something more than throw-away entertainment.  While the industry is thriving in this direction, it is also reasonable to think that this trend is creating an identity crisis, blurring the lines a bit too much.  This is not a huge problem for gamers, however, as there are still developers who are purists, shedding presentation for pure gameplay.  Gamers have more choices than ever, but it is also obvious that the industry, and its games, are changing.  All we can do is just relax and see where it takes us.

Jordan is an actor, singer, educator and writer who has a deep love for Shakespeare, classic rock, coffee, old dogs, batman, fantasy novels and video games. He is a Performing Arts major from the University of Connecticut and has lived all over the place—most recently, Beijing. In his free time, he can be found in pretentious coffee shops, reading a giant fantasy book, in nature, on stage, traveling, gaming, singing with his friends band or using his dogs as a pillow.


  1. Thank you for this fun and informative article!

    • Thank you for the kind words!

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