By Monica Villarreal
In today’s modern world, it’s rare to meet anyone who hasn’t either experienced watching a movie or playing a game. The vast majority of us have done both, and with that you might have a personal preference for one and it makes sense. While both mediums have been proven to be strong sources of storytelling, they are vastly different with how they present their stories and thus how immersed the consumer can feel. However, slowly there’s been a trend of taking inspiration from one another with the most interesting one being movies taking notes from video games.
In theory, it seems easier for a video game to replicate components of film than it is the other way around. That’s because film has more constraints than video games, and this leaves video games with more expressive freedom than what can be done with a camera.
This is not to say video games are superior to film when it comes to storytelling. Instead, what I’m trying to emphasize is the difficulties that can come to bring one medium’s way of storytelling to the other. Video games rely heavily on interactivity and input from the audience, allowing them to experience the story in their own way. This can include the idea of “resetting” as one fails at a level of the game and must restart to try again. Of course, this depends on the type of game since not all of them have this function, but nonetheless this ability to loop and learn from your mistakes is prominent in what defines video games.
As for movies, we as the audience are simply viewers; watching pre-recorded pictures on screen. Components like acting, music, camera work and so forth make this timeless medium so enjoyable and in a way easy for video games to take inspiration from and not the other way around. There’s only so much one can do to replicate the same feelings and experiences that are so unique in video games, but that’s still not stopping directors from trying.
Doug Liman’s 2014 film Edge of Tomorrow is an example of this effort. Based in a world where humans are on the brink of losing to aliens, we follow the story of Major William Cage who after a few minutes in battle gets instantly killed. However, he instantly wakes up 30 hours into the past, starting this story of time loops as Cage tries to use this new skill to humanity’s advantage.
Taking inspiration from the aforementioned video game “death loop,” it’s clear that this is an example of the potential future films can be if they continue to explore the possibilities in games. The whole “start at the beginning when you die” is parallel to the experience of many video gamers when they have to start over after receiving the infamous “Game Over” screen. However, before we can imagine such scenarios we must inspect what exactly is done in Edge of Tomorrow to recreate this effect, but most importantly if this was a successful attempt or not.
Films Prior to Edge of Tomorrow
Before delving into what Edge of Tomorrow does right or wrong, let’s look at films who have either similar aspects to the movie’s time loop or video game qualities, specifically movies before this title’s release.
The biggest and most well-known example of a time loop based film in Western media is the 1993 film Groundhog Day, directed by Harold Ramis. This film, starring Bill Murray, revolves around a TV weatherman who, for unknown reasons, has found himself reliving the same day over and over again. No matter what he does, he wakes up to the same situation and has to relive the same normality for the entirety of the film up until the end when this loop stops.
Unlike Edge of Tomorrow, this film is more focused on the comedic aspects of such predicament and places our main character in humorous situations to keep the audience entertained and invested. In addition, although it’s not really inspired by any video game, the way it executed the idea of “looping” still plays a crucial role when we come to examine Edge of Tomorrow.
Basically, Groundhog Day was a blueprint on how time loops could be used in film through a series of repetitive visuals, careful pacing, and a narrative built around this function. As we’ll soon discover, Edge of Tomorrow follows some of these aspects, but there are some tweaks so it can have this Halo-esque feeling.
While Groundhog Day centers around time loops, one film that is literally fully inspired by video games is Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Edgar Wright’s 2010 film, based on a graphic novel of the same name, was revolutionary in the way it handled the theme of video games.
On the surface, the story centers around titular Scott Pilgrim and his journey to defeat his girlfriend’s “seven evil exes.” However, what makes this film so outstanding is how heavily video-game inspired it is. From battling seven different bosses, collecting coins (or XP) when Pilgrim defeats an enemy, and its video game-like visuals, Scott Pilgrim feels like watching a video game.
This movie is probably the most famous example of how movies can truly implement elements in games into film. And once again, although different from Edge of Tomorrow in story and style, we can see how it’s possible for films to borrow elements from a video game and successfully implement it to deliver something new to its audience.
Video Game Influence
Knowing there are films that can implement ideas seen in video games to this medium, it’s time to examine both how Edge of Tomorrow attempts to do so, and if by the end, it succeed.
Firstly though, what does it mean to succeed?
For me, a film succeeds in implementing a games aspect when it provides two things. One is a brand new experience to the viewer that couldn’t have been done in any other form. What I mean by this is that by using functions seen in games, the film was capable of introducing something new and refreshing for the audience.
The second element focuses entirely on the main selling point of Edge of Tomorrow: the effectiveness of the time loop. Even though it’s repeating the same visuals, the same story points, and keeps the audience stuck along with the main character in this predicament, was it able to keep us entertained and not perhaps frustrated? After all, the vast majority of movies rely on providing new scenes and narrative points to keep the story going. We know Groundhog Day was able to do so, but it’s different with Edge of Tomorrow since this loop is directly tied to the main character’s death. Every time he fails, we as an audience suffer the same punishment of having to start over, so one can see how this could become a problem for enjoyment.
In video games, depending on the genre, failing is part of the experience and enjoyment. From simple Tetris to “rage inducing” like Super Meat Boy or Worlds Hardest Game, the ability to lose and at the same time win is what makes the interaction with video games so unique. One game that is similar to Edge of Tomorrow includes Halo (2001) with it’s first-person shooter and main story quests. However, one game that perfectly encapsulates the feeling of trial-and-failure is Dark Souls (2011).
This game is famous among the gaming community for being extremely difficult with the only way to progress being to simply “git gud.” However infuriating it might sound, this game succeeded because just as that catchphrase suggests, with hard work, practice, and skills players are able to advance in the game thus making the anger felt in fighting infuriating boss battles seem like nothing compared to the overwhelming feeling of accomplishment once you defeat them.
So as a result, it appears like a challenge for Edge of Tomorrow to replicate this same feeling without tiring the audience. The actions on screen are completely out of control, and all we’re left to do is stare and hope Cage doesn’t fail or else we’ll be brought back to the beginning.
However, even with these worries of boring the audience, I believe Edge of Tomorrow was able to bring the same struggle and joy of “restarting” in games to the audience through many different and unique storytelling techniques.
Succeeding in the Time Loop
For the first third of the movie, we are stuck watching Cage struggle and fail to advance in the story. He continues to die on the first attack on the beach, and we’re just left to see his failed attempt to move forward.
This might sound tedious to watch, but on the contrary it was made enjoyable with some minor yet important techniques.
The first and most important comes to the editing of these sequences. The quick, short, and fast-paced cuts between each of Cage’s attempts keeps viewers invested in the film even with it’s repetitive nature. We are focusing all of our attention on keeping up with Cage’s attempts to succeed, and with each failure we can laugh or groan in slight frustration, ready for Cage to try again.
The repetitive nature of this portion of the film is described best described by Erin Manning’s idea of “preacceleration.” This rapid sequence of events perfectly pulls the viewer into the story, preparing them before we begin to truly see advancements in the story once Cage begins to train and slowly improve.
This plays into the second factor of making this time loop successful with that being the pacing in the narrative. After the preacceleration, we get to accompany Cage’s journey of slow-yet-steady improvement as he gets further and further into the day. Just as in a game, this is the part when the consumer of the medium can feel the effort and see results, or in the case of the movie we see it.
However, what also helps the story move along is that eventually Cage is ahead of the audience. We stop seeing every single failure he goes through, so we’re left to decide if what we’re experiencing the same thing on-screen as Cage. This small detail immensely helps drive the story forward as Cage now becomes the one guiding us through the story. We’re no longer on the same level as him, and that itself makes it even more interesting for us to experience.
This plays to the third part of what made this film work so well: the narrative. For the last half of the film, this once “annoying” yet minor inconvenience of restarting has become more personal. We begin to learn more about this world and it’s story, and through his daily interactions with the people around him, we learn more about who Cage is as a person.
In addition, we slowly get to see him build connections with people who he continuously has to meet for the first time over and over again which causes him to begin to care for these people where now each reset is a death to both him and his relationships.
By combining all of these factors together, Edge of Tomorrow ends up delivering it’s audience a refreshing taste of narrative that’s so commonly seen in video games. As a result, we end up with an exciting, new, and refreshing film that couldn’t have been possible without the inspirations behind it.
Only The Beginning
Edge of Tomorrow has proven that the once thought notion that films can’t replicate the experiences tied to video games can be contested, and to be honest this is pretty exciting. As the film industry begins to take more notice of the unique storytelling potential video games have, all we can do is to wait and see how the possibilities of visual storytelling expand or even begin pushing these boundaries ourselves. Maybe one day we’ll be able to directly interact with films in theaters, or perhaps directly experience the anger of “game over” on the big screen. But until then, we just have to wait until tomorrow.
Edge of Tomorrow. Directed by Doug Liman. 2014. Netflix.
Juul, Jesper, and William Uricchio. “How to Fail in Video Games.” The Art of Failure, edited by Geoffrey Long, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2013, pp. 69–90.
Ledet Christiansen, Steen. Rhythms Now : Henri Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis Revisited. Aalborg University Press, 2019.
Manning, Erin. Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009.
Montfort, Nick, et al. “Repetition in Process.” 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2013, pp. 90–103.