Sam Mendes’ 1917 has picked up a slew of nominations this awards season, including nine for the BAFTAs and 10 for the Oscars, and it’s not hard to see why. This is a war movie that manages to feel both epic and intimate, thanks in no small part to the cinematography of the legendary Roger Deakins, who stitches together a series of long takes to look like a single cut. That said, I want to add another accolade to the list: 1917 might just be the best video game movie ever made.
The best ‘video game movies’ all have one thing in common: none of them are actually based on video games. Instead of simply trying to bring a character to life or transplant cool action sequences into a movie – looking at you, Tomb Raider reboot – they try instead to emulate the rhythms of playing a game. Scott Pilgrim vs the World is an arcade-style boss rush with a romantic comedy wrapped around it, where the Seven Evil Exes even explode into showers of coins when defeated. The underrated Edge of Tomorrow sees Tom Cruise die over and over while fighting hordes of aliens, getting a little better each time; the same primary loop at the heart of the phenomenally popular Dark Souls series. Continuing this pattern, 1917 is essentially a third-person shooter.
The overarching plot, which sees two British soldiers tasked with delivering a message across No Man’s Land and behind enemy lines, is split into episodic sequences (or levels if we’re being thematically consistent) that will feel familiar to anyone who has ever picked up a controller. Dashing through the hellish remains of a bombed-out village could have come from any Resident Evil game; a firefight with a sniper echoes the stealth of Metal Gear Solid; watching audience/player surrogate Lance Corporal Schofield (George Mackay) dodge shells in a pitched battle recalls Nathan Drake escaping death for the umpteenth time. For fans of immersive sims like BioShock or Deus Ex, there’s even a moral choice of sorts at the end of the first act: kill a wounded enemy soldier or help him? It’s a tough choice, and the heroes’ decision ripples throughout the rest of the film.
The central story is not the only game-like element, either. 1917 also makes ample use of what game developers call ‘environmental storytelling’; using set dressing and objects in the world to convey a hidden narrative, or allow the player to create their own. The indie game Gone Home, in which you explore an empty house to uncover the stories of its inhabitants, is a prime example of this, and 1917 similarly lingers on tiny details in abandoned spaces. Photos tacked onto bunk beds add humanity to an abandoned German bunker, while a child’s doll in a ransacked farmhouse poses an uneasy question about its owner’s fate.
But it is the camera that truly makes 1917 feel like a video game movie. As budgets swell and technology improves, more and more games are becoming ‘cinematic’ in an attempt to create an emotional link with the player. 2018’s God of War even creates the illusion of taking place in a single, unbroken shot. Despite taking place across ‘epic’ vistas, both God of War and 1917 create a sense of intimacy with the audience – and as someone who has played a lot of games, watching 1917 replaced ludonarrative dissonance with a strange sort of cognitive dissonance. I felt my fingers itching to press a trigger as Schofield fired his rifle, or mash a button to help him push a truck that had become stuck in the mud, despite the fact that I was in a cinema with my phone switched off and not at home with a controller in hand.
Video games are almost always power fantasies of some kind. Even in games without any violence it is rare to make the player feel out of control, and Schofield’s fundamental powerlessness made 1917 especially hard to watch as a gamer. You can’t pick up a better weapon in the middle of a firefight. You can’t respawn and kill the downed pilot to save your friend’s life. You can’t hit pause. All you can do is follow Schofield through an unimaginable situation, until he finally sits down by a tree in a British camp and closes his eyes. Game over.