Steven Spielberg: The Secret Prophet Of Video Games

How the Greatest Living Director predicted some of gaming’s biggest trends.

Steven Spielberg’s mastery of cinema is such a truism that it’s easy to overlook his achievements in other media. His work as a television producer ranges from Band of Brothers to Animaniacs to Amazing Stories, and includes plenty of hits, despite regular misfires. But Spielberg’s forays into video games are just as varied and as trailblazing as his dramatic screen work.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Spielberg is himself a gamer. He’s been found at many an E3, waggling Wiis with Shigeru Miyamoto or playing Rainbow Six multiplayer. Back in 1982, he wrote an introduction to a book called Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines. Obviously, many of his movies have been adapted into games, including Worst Game Ever E.T., but Spielberg actually once directly owned a video game developer in the form of Dreamworks Interactive. Before being acquired by EA, Interactive produced a number of licensed and original games with varying levels of Spielberg influence.

But Spielberg’s first game was produced - in one of the most theoretically brilliant pairings in the history of the medium - in collaboration with the LucasArts of the 1990s. The Dig was an ambitious science-fiction adventure game, created in the point-and-click SCUMM engine, that took six years and four project leads to develop. Originally created by Spielberg as an Amazing Stories episode, it tells the story of a group of astronauts who, Armageddon-style, deflect an asteroid with explosives, only for the asteroid to transform and ship them to an abandoned, alien planet full of secrets.

The Dig is different to other LucasArts games in that it’s far more serious than the likes of Monkey Island. A cosmic sci-fi take on the addiction narrative, it delves into surprising levels of paranoia and obsession amongst its characters. It’s full of big, bold science fiction conceits that don’t entirely make sense or come together, but which still manage to inspire some awe regardless. As a kid playing the game, I found it frustratingly obtuse, especially after reading Alan Dean Foster’s novelisation, which, like, didn’t help with the puzzles at all. Despite reaching high, The Dig wasn’t Spielberg’s best game, or his most visible.

Neither was Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair. A somewhat foolhardy attempt to turn the filmmaking process into a game, Director’s Chair was Spielberg’s dip into that most ‘90s of genres: the Full Motion Video game. It casts you in the role of an up-and-coming director, and with Spielberg’s tutelage, you cast, direct, and edit a motion picture, right up to the premiere stage, where you’re congratulated by Spielberg himself. Games about filmmaking have never really worked, unless you count things like Grand Theft Auto V’s Director Mode or Source Filmmaker. Filmmaking is a process too complex and creative to be converted to game mechanics, and too slow and grinding to be much fun as a simulation.

Director’s Chair, then, was more an edutainment tool than an actual game. It represents an attempt to shoehorn Spielberg’s filmmaking into video games literally, rather than developing a game infused with his instinctual sense of entertainment. That’s where Medal of Honor comes in - a title that would help to define a genre.

In 1999, Spielberg was in full World War II mode, riding high on the success and plaudits of Saving Private Ryan while prepping Band of Brothers for TV. But he also turned his attention towards video games. He entreated Dreamworks Interactive to produce a game that blended his interest in WWII with the first-person shooters his son Max had been playing (specifically, GoldenEye).

The result was the PS1’s Medal of Honor: a clunky, slow, ugly game by today’s standards, but one that started a massive shift in the game industry and its economics. It may not have innovated all of its features, but the particular blend of WWII setting, dramatic atmosphere, and objective-driven shooting gameplay set a high bar for console shooters. Plus, you could play as Rosie the Riveter, Winston Churchill, or (bizarrely) a Jurassic Park velociraptor in multiplayer. The Spielberg influence runs deep.

Medal of Honor’s legacy can be measured in the millions of Call of Duty games sold every year. You can draw a direct line from MOH’s simple WWII shooting, through the breakout hit sequel Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, to the early Calls of Duty, right up to today’s glut of virtually-identical COD titles. Until the recent, sci-fi entries, that was a series that still relied on the blend of arcadey shooting and historical verisimilitude that began in 1999 under Spielberg’s watch. There is no Call of Duty without Medal of Honor. In making that game, he proved himself ahead of the curve in more mediums than just one.

Another Dreamworks Interactive game worth mentioning, though it’s unclear how much direct input Spielberg had towards it (he’s credited under “special thanks”), is 1998’s Jurassic Park: Trespasser. Trespasser fluctuated between absolute genius and outright broken, pioneering many ideas that took years or decades to catch on. It’s an open-world survival game with no HUD and a focus on realism that was ambitious but near-unplayable. It featured one of the earliest full physics systems: players could stack and throw items in-game, and bodies collapsed in the very first instance of ragdoll physics. All animation was created procedurally through artificial intelligence, with every dinosaur sporting its own set of emotions. The graphics engine supported an array of rendering techniques that barely any computers of the time could handle. Trespasser was labelled the worst game of the year at the time, but there’s no denying it reached for stars that later games would actually attain.

Spielberg’s knack for giving audiences what they wanted before they wanted it continued in the new millennium. He started a collaboration with Electronic Arts’ LA studio (formed out of Dreamworks Interactive) in 2005, aiming to produce three games. The first title out of the gate surprised many: the universally-acclaimed Boom Blox, released in 2008 for the Nintendo Wii.

There’s no correlation between Spielberg movies and Boom Blox the way there is with his other games. There’s not even much of a story. It’s a physics-based puzzle-action game: players use the Wii remote to control lasers, water hoses, and various throwable objects to knock down structures built out of blocks. There are simple knockdown puzzles, Jenga-like block removal games, adventure and party modes, and even a level creator. Various blocks will net players more points; some are made of particular materials like wood or steel; others explode on contact. Gameplay involves strategy and problem-solving, often with specific objectives, and can be extended nearly indefinitely with great replayability.

Virtually anyone will note the similarities to the ridiculously popular Angry Birds series (and the game from which Angry Birds was likely most directly copied, Crush the Castle). That game became more successful, of course, thanks to cute mascots, a $0 price tag, and nailing touch gameplay right when it was taking off, but the basic block-knocking is the same. But whether or not it took inspiration directly from Boom Blox is immaterial. The point is that Spielberg saw something in that model of gameplay. It was designed explicitly for his kids - an audience he’s always been attuned to - and to create a game that was “non-violent and much more creative and strategic.” The Spielbergs even gave input directly into the game’s development through playtesting, and Steven himself was involved at the conceptual level all along the process.

Spielberg’s adventures in gaming show that while he may not be a game developer, his prowess as an ideas man - and his interest in entertaining - extends much further than just cinema. It’s all set to come to a bizarre Ouroboros-like full circle when he directs his adaptation of Ready Player One.

Even when Spielberg isn’t the lead on a product, his core ideas and guidance tend to result in something that just “gets” audiences. Spielberg may be a populist, but he’s the best damn populist there is. He’s an inventor of dreams whose output is attuned to what satisfies audiences at a near-supernatural level. Not a single visual art medium today hasn’t been influenced by Spielberg somewhere down the line. Long may that influence continue.