I watched the Gran Turismo movie and didn’t think it was very good. Still, I want more video game-related films that are just like it.
Let me explain. For other creative mediums like film and literature, biographical films, documentaries, and TV shows about the people who make or are impacted by them are more common. Films and TV shows like Ed Wood, The Disaster Artist, Tolkien, The Offer, and more come to mind. However, the video game industry did not get that same treatment until very recently. For a long time, referring to a video game movie or TV show meant that you were referring to a film that adapts the story or world of a popular game. That is beginning to change.
I saw Gran Turismo almost a month before its wide theatrical release, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Following in the footsteps of Apple TV’s Tetris and Double Fine’s PsychOdyssey from earlier this year, it’s showing that there’s an appetite and market for more long-form, biographical film and TV shows about game development and the impact video games have on the world. The video game industry has the stories to back that up, too.
The video game industry has a rich history of intrigue, drama, and behind-the-scenes stories. When you look at the tell-all articles about the development of games like Anthem or Red Dead Redemption 2 or read books about famous game developers like Reggie Fils-Aimé, Ken and Roberta Williams, or Cliff Bleszinski, it becomes clear that there are lots of compelling game development related stories that the general public does not know about. That’s not even accounting for the cultural impact of games, which films like Gran Turismo spotlight.
It has taken a long time for films, TV shows, and documentaries to start focusing on these stories. Maybe it’s because the video game industry wasn’t taken as seriously as other creative industries, or perhaps it’s just ignorance about the fact that there are so many to tell. Still, we’ve seen that mindset slowly start to shift. YouTube channels like Noclip demonstrated the appeal of video game documentaries, and developers like Digital Eclipse put in the effort to make their remasters like living museums or documentaries for the games they feature. That crescendoed this year with Double Fine’s PsychOdyssey, a 32-part documentary of professional quality following the development of Psychonauts 2.
It’s one of the most captivating documentaries I’ve seen in years, and it’s about video games and available for free on YouTube. Finally, it looks like Hollywood is catching onto this trend too. Earlier this year, Tetris dramatized the intense rights battle for the titular puzzle game in the late 1980s into a political thriller. Now, Gran Turismo is making a racing film about a video game’s impact on a person’s life.
As someone who has been more cognizant of the struggles of game development and video games’ clear cultural impact on multiple generations of people than the general public, I’m glad things like PsychOdyssey, Tetris, and Gran Turismo now exist to educate people on those same things. I hope to see many more movies, TV shows, and documentaries like this in the future, although there’s still some obvious room for improvement.
While this is a style of video game film I hope to see a lot more of in the future, there’s still clear room for improvement. Digital Trends’ 1.5-star Gran Turismo review says it “feels more like an advertisement than it does a piece of blockbuster entertainment.” I also think that Gran Turismo is a flawed movie that fails to balance promoting a PS5 game with telling a compelling story. There are some solid performances by David Harbour and Djimon Hounsou in the film, but it struggles to juggle all the character arcs at play.
There are long stretches of the film where characters set up in the first act — like the lead protagonist’s father, best friend, and girlfriend — and the conflicts that come with them are completely forgotten in favor of some intense racing cinematography and stray comments reminding you how important Gran Turismo is. Most consequentially, though, it lacks a compelling central theme outside of advertising Gran Turismo (and some other Sony products along the way).
There are multiple scenes of Orlando Bloom’s character waxing poetic about why Gran Turismo and the GT Academy are the best things to ever happen to gamers, and it holds a religious-like reverence for Japan and series creator Kazunori Yamauchi. Ultimately, this is the main area where films like Tetris and Gran Turismo currently fail. While they are biopics about compelling game-tangential stories, they also serve as unsubtle advertisements for the companies behind the games they feature.
I don’t expect the film’s creators to be completely unbiased because you need a strong point of view to make a compelling movie. That said, when that bias is toward promoting a product, it makes the film feel less genuine. This issue is potentially unavoidable at this nascent stage where this style of the movie only happens when the game companies that own the IPs want them to. Still, it’s a pitfall video game industry movies must overcome if they are to continue. And after watching PsychOdyssey, I know it’s possible.
While it was a crowdfunded reward and brings more attention to Psychonauts 2, that documentary isn’t always going out of its way to portray the likes of Double Fine, Tim Schafer, and Microsoft in the most favorable light possible like most dev diaries do. It shows the challenging, difficult moments and mismanagement of development, with the documentaries taking a step back and letting the story tell itself, not the companies greenlighting it.
Although documentaries are a very different beast from a studio film like Gran Turismo, it still reaffirms that there’s room for films like Tetris and Gran Turismo to grow. There are so many compelling human interest stories to tell in and around the video game industry, and I think they deserve to be put to film just as much as the journey of a filmmaker, actor, or author.
Gran Turismo is now in theaters.