Games Like Sifu Need More Meaningful Cinematic Influences

Intertextuality has existed in media for centuries. Essentially it means taking an idea – an image, a line, a theme – and deliberately transplanting it from one piece of media into another. It began in literature, but has since been used in theatre, music, painting… you name it. The medium most fascinated by intertextuality by far though is cinema. Aside from literally adapting works in other mediums, film is full of homage, parody, send-ups, and tributes – and it loves to self reference most of all. Movies build upon each other with references all the time – the reason so many horror movies show us slow moving shots from the killer's POV is because Friday the 13th did it so successfully, for example. The shot of the car driving away reflected in De Niro's glasses in Casino has been repeated over and over again, as has the close-up on the peering eye in Psycho. A gun being fired directly at the camera has been a thing since 1903's The Great Train Robbery. Video games, which have always harboured something of a desperation to be seen as films, are getting in on the act – but I'm not sure they understand it.

Sifu has only been out for a few days, but already the corridor fight scene has established itself as one of the most popular set-pieces. This is lifted entirely from Oldboy, where the iconic corridor fight scene has already been recreated by film and television multiple times, most notably in Daredevil. On the one hand, this is a cool fight scene, and if you can play Sifu well, it makes for a cool set piece. If that's all you want, then fine. It's a cool reference, end of story. But the best types of intertextuality are not just 'oh that's cool'. If you just want a collection of movie references strung together, go watch The Simpsons. The best intertextuality doesn't just take the imagery, but the feeling that comes with it.

You could make some argument in the connection between Sifu and Oldboy – both are driven by martial arts and both are tales of revenge at the cost of one's own life and sense of self. But Sifu is a game about Chinese culture made by a team of white developers – it doesn't exactly demonstrate a connection to the region or a reverence for the culture whose story you're telling to throw in a movie from a completely different country (Oldboy is Korean, not Chinese) just because it looks cool. It's also part of a wider tapestry that makes Sifu feel like soulless caricature.

This problem isn’t just specific to Sifu, however. Games love Easter Eggs, but they never really reference any deeper than that. They just like to take cool things and point at them, as Sifu does. I've written before about the strange relationship games have with films. More and more triple-A blockbusters are trying to be films, but they all seem to be obsessed with being the same film. Anything with the nuance of, say, Promising Young Woman would not fly. It's why we constantly, and somewhat pathetically, brag about The Game Awards (essentially an advertising showcase with some awards) beating the Oscars (an actual award ceremony) in the ratings.

Games should be taking influence from film. They're the closest art form to ours, and they have over a century of experience behind them. While VFX can always be pushed to more technical limits, films are not chasing down visual improvements every few years and discarding everything that came before. Films are the masters of telling stories through their visuals, and through letting images conjure up emotions. Games can apply these references more tangibly – they can not just show you the corridor scene from Oldboy, but put you in the corridor scene from Oldboy.

Unfortunately, this comes with a complete abandonment of the ideas behind the references. Even giving Sifu the benefit of the doubt when it comes to mixing and matching Korean stories with Chinese stories, the feeling of what the scene represents in Oldboy is lost when the game forces you to fail at it time and time again thanks to its steep difficulty curve. Games should be doing more of this, but they should be doing it better too.

Games have been looking to films for a long time. Kojima's whole career is based on movies he saw. But as we keep posting clips of Sifu's Oldboy and pointing out how cool it is, we're letting games stagnate. If they want to lift references from films, they need to show more understanding, and more appreciation, of what they're referencing.

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