The Hobbit Feels Like A Video Game, And That's Not A Good Thing

"That movie sure felt like watching a video game." As I walked out of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey earlier this week, that statement was bouncing around in my head. Bloated, histrionic, pandering and derivative, I found The Hobbit to be a resounding disappointment. And it really did feel like a video game.

As we discussed it over a post-movie beer, my moviegoing companion actually mentioned it without prompting. "That was like watching a video game," she mused. "Why was that like watching a video game?" Why, indeed. And what do people mean when they say a movie feels like a video game?

It wasn't the first time someone's made that complaint/comparison about a movie, and it won't be the last. Modern video games have closed the visual gap with the highest-production Hollywood films, and at the same time films have become more computer-enhanced than ever. The visual distance between the two media has been shortened to the point that games are regularly compared with films. It seems appropriate that people would begin to compare films to games, too.

My friend and I weren't the only ones saying that about The Hobbit, either -- the comparison has been popping up on twitter and in other reviews, including this one for The Atlantic Wire by former Gawker-er Richard Lawson, titled "'The Hobbit': Like One Bad Video Game.'"

Perhaps the reason that Warner Bros. is forgoing the usual console video-game tie-ins for simple mobile games is because the damn movie already looks like a video game, and not a very fun one at that.

But why is it such a pejorative? "Ew, that movie was like a VIDEO GAME. Gross!" When I say that The Hobbit felt like watching a video game, I certainly don't mean it in a good way. I love video games, so why is the connotation so immediately negative when it comes to film?

Like any cross-media comparison, comparing a film to a video game is a form of critical shorthand. And it's a useful one, as it operates on several levels. The comparison contains within it at least two separate complaints, and uses our common understanding of games as a convenient staging ground for them. The first one is obvious: Visuals. But the second one is deeper, and perhaps more damning. It's useful to understand both kinds of comparison, because both help me parse why I found The Hobbit to be such a bummer.


Let's start with the surface-level comparison: The Hobbit really does look like a video game. Watching the film isn't like playing a game, it's like watching one. (Lawson: "The most special effects-heavy sequences look very much like the non-playable parts of modern video games -- the exposition bits that can amp up the graphics because they don't have to worry about the randomness of play." Can't say I disagree.)

I saw the film in 3D running at 48 frames per second, which, to the uninitiated, is the newfangled way director Peter Jackson wishes it to be viewed. 48fps is a dramatic shift from the current cinematic standard of 24fps, and the upshot is that we see twice as much visual data than we're used to seeing. Most critics are not fans of this technique. Neither am I.

To say that The Hobbit's 48fps presentation is a disaster feels too mild. No, it is a flaming abomination. The easiest way to describe the experience is to conjure that moment when you plug in your new HDTV without realising that it shipped with its motion interpolation setting switched on. That setting speeds up the TV's output to simulate a higher framerate, so the first time you watch your favourite show on your new TV, everything looks… off.

It's like you're watching Masterpiece Theatre, or a daytime soap opera.

The characters move too smoothly, and everything is too clean. It's like you're watching Masterpiece Theatre, or a daytime soap opera. (Motion interpolation is commonly known as the "soap opera effect.") That's about how The Hobbit feels at 48fps. The framerate-hike serves to grotesquely highlight the collision of hyper-real actors and computer-generated fakery. It's uncomfortable and often goofy, like sitting uncomfortably close to the stage during a theatrical production of Tolkien, praying that the actors won't single you out for audience participation.

The Hobbit's enhanced framerate prompts the video game comparison in a few different ways. Framerates have long been a point of discussion and debate in the video game scene, but in a different way from film. Most console games run at around 30 to 40fps, though souped-up PC games run closer to 60. Framerate tests are used to determine a gaming PC's relative power, and 60fps is something of a gold standard. Players usually tweak a game's settings to attain higher, more consistent framerate -- poor framerates can make a game feel sluggish and unpolished, while high framerates feel smooth and responsive. The Call of Duty games famously maintain a 60fps baseline even on on consoles, which is what lends them their eerie, hyper-smooth appearance.

But an increased framerate can also hurt a video game. I remember a couple of years ago, I was showing a friend Uncharted 2 on our apartment's new HDTV. The Uncharted series is famous for its cinematic presentation, but our new TV had motion interpolation toggled on, which made the game quite creepy-looking. Everything moved too realistically, and cinematic sequences that had once safely escaped the uncanny valley were abruptly tossed back into it. We quickly turned off the TV's upsampling and all was well again.

Believe it or not, Valve's classic action game Half-Life 2 also suffers at a high framerate. I recently replayed the game on a decently powerful gaming PC, and had no trouble rendering even its most chaotic battle sequences at 60fps. But the higher framerate in Half-LIfe 2 combines with the game's realistic physics to make everything feel somehow small, like you're watching miniatures bounce around an elaborate sci-fi toy-theater. The Combine's fearsome striders and terrifying whale-helicopters tumble from the sky like plastic playthings, and everything feels too controlled and immaculate.

The Hobbit has a similar problem. Everything feels smaller, diminished, from the sets to the backdrops to the action sequences. In particular, a climactic chase sequence through an underground goblin kingdom has no tension at all. It felt like I was peering in on a bunch of tiny men running through a tiny little digital set. When it didn't feel like watching a video game, it felt like watching a tiny amusement park ride.

If movies were games, The Hobbit would be running on the most bleeding-edge gaming PC known to man. The irony is that the increased tech actually serves to make the film significantly less appealing.


So the phrase "It looks like a video game," partly refers to The Hobbit's visual appearance. But I get the sense that's not the whole story. If I had seen the film running at a standard framerate, I suspect I would have had similar overall complaints, and my friend would have made the same video game comparison afterward. That's because the complaint is indicative of a deeper problem.

Video games convey drama and consequence in a very different way than other media.

Video games convey drama and consequence in a very different way than other media. In a game, you can die dozens, even hundreds of times, and you'll always be back, replaying the same bit until you win out. As a result, action sequences can feel inflated, and for an outside observer, they can feel shallow. Watching a game, particularly a photo-realistic action game, can be confusing and incoherent out of context -- why should I care about this? What are the stakes? The main character just took a shotgun blast to the face, got back up, and mowed down twelve bad guys. Where is the tension?

Often in The Hobbit, there's a spectacular amount of crap happening on-screen. Characters tumble all willy-nilly, enemies stack on top of each other, everyone is yelling… but no one appears to be in any real danger. Most of Thorin's heroic band of beardy dwarves are indistinguishable from one another in the heat of the moment, and they all appear to be essentially impervious to physical harm. They fly this way and that, but we never really feel all that worried about any of them. Gandalf is absent for most of the battle sequences, and usually turns up at some culminating moment to wield his godlike powers and save the day. For all its wild action, there's very little actual tension, and I had a hard time finding a purchase.

I felt similarly about many of the action sequences in the Star Wars prequels, particularly the opening space battle in Attack of the Sith. There are enemy droid spaceships everywhere, the Jedi are zooming all over the place in their starfighters, everything is exploding, lasers are flying off the screen… and yet for all the surface-level histrionics, there's no actual tension. Amazingly enough, the entire sequence is actually dull. We're not worried anyone will die or even be hurt, and there's no specificity to any of it. I remember seeing Episode III in the theatre and just kind of spacing out after a little while.

Another example comes from the Matrix trilogy. In the first film, Neo faces down Agent Smith in a climactic fight scene. The whole story has been building to this point. We know Neo's task is impossible, but he's going to try anyway, and the brutal throwdown is all the more exhilarating because the stakes are so high. In the second film, a newly superpowered Neo faces down an army of Agent Smiths. This second confrontation may have a lot of whiz-bang effects and choreography, but it contains a fraction of the tension of their first showdown. And safe money says more than one person mentioned how much it felt like watching a video game.

Much of The Hobbit feels similar. Granted, Jackson's directorial flair and imagination save the action sequences from feeling as bland as those of the Star Wars prequels, but the visual cacophony is similarly devoid of tension. And while computer-generated effects are certainly tied up in this whole thing, they're not wholly responsible: Gandalf's showdown with the Balrog in Fellowship of the Ring was almost entirely computer-generated, and even upon a third or fourth viewing it carries more dramatic heft than The Hobbit's entire three-hour runtime. It's no coincidence that Bilbo and Gollum's famous first meeting is the most enjoyable and watchable sequence of the new film. As they circle one another, trading riddles, The Hobbit stops feeling like a video game and starts feeling like a movie.

Of course, to disparagingly say "It feels like watching a video game" is to ignore the many ways that video games do create dramatic tension. Those of us who play games will be quick to point out that games build tension differently than films. And besides, not all games are so quick to eschew consequence. (Hello, Dark Souls! Paging ZombiU!) But the exceptions to the rule are beside the point: The comparison is shorthand.


Granted, The Hobbit has other problems, as well. (Suffice to say, I have a few bones to pick with Jason's generally positive review.) The source material is less exciting than the main trilogy, and the film is terribly padded -- a book of its length has no business being adapted into a hat-trick of three-hour films. There are almost no women in the movie, and it's all so unsexy it makes Fellowship of the Ring seem like the Downton Abbey Christmas special. Thanks to the segmented approach they've taken, there's an unfortunate lack of Smaug, the villainous dragon who, provided Benedict Cumberbatch's performance is as Cumberbatchian as we're all hoping, could well prove to be The Hobbit's answer to Andy Serkis' Gollum.

"Eh? Remember this? You liked this, right? Remember?"

Perhaps most dismayingly, The Hobbit constantly engages in the most patronizing sort of fan-service. Lady Galadriel whispers into a character's mind as her eerie theme music plays. The camera sweeps overhead as characters battle warg-riders on the grasslands. Gandalf appears on a ridge, the sun at his back, or whispers to a moth and sends it off to summon rescue. And every time, the film gently elbows you in the ribs. Eh? Remember this? You liked this, right? Remember?

I don't make the comparison lightly, but too often in The Hobbit Jackson falls into the same traps George Lucas did while making the Star Wars prequels. He confuses action with excitement, and the result is a film devoid of tension, with no risk and therefore no payoff. That Jackson also indulges in Lucas' tendency to rely on his audience's affection for past material only makes the comparison more apt.

I was sorely disappointed by The Hobbit. What could have been a bittersweet, light-hearted return to Middle Earth feels instead like a self-indulgent faux epic, drowning in bloated spectacle and unearned sentiment. It was almost exactly as satisfying and dramatically engaging as watching a stranger play a video game. And there wasn't even an achievement for making it all the way through.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens in Australian cinemas on Boxing Day.


    Ah a good honest review. I was reluctant to go see this at the movies and reading this makes me happy to wait for a copy of it to pop up. Thanks.

    TL;DR version: I'm old and want things to stay the way they are, improvements be damned.

    Seriously, I can't believe this line "The characters move too smoothly, and everything is too clean. " is written in the tone of a complaint! 48fps looks amazing, it's just a shame not everyone will get to enjoy it.

    I am so sick and tired of this comparison. Especially since it has always been used in a derogatory manner. Games come in a multitude of forms and using an entire medium as a shorthand for describing parts of a film is just lazy.

    Also while I haven't seen the movie, this whole review sounds like the guy was actively looking for everything wrong with it. Even if you want to be wowed by something new and different, don't be so affronted when you notice similar things in a movie made by the same production house with the same director and the same actors as the previously popular series of movies all based on books in the same universe written by the same guy.

      i think the point is WATCHING a game being played by someone else is shit. which, with the statement about lack of tension, is how i understood the article's intent to be.

        Well we'll have to agree to disagree on that. Doesn't change my opinion that using the reference is lazy critiquing.

    The Hobbit is a children's book, I think it was even supposed to be from the point of view of being a children's book in Middle Earth that told a version of events, entirely from Bilbo's point of view, in that style. Assuming the movie has a framing device of an older Bilbo telling this story to someone (Frodo?), and assuming it is in the vein of a children's story then this all seems pretty par for the course. In essence it isn't a completely true, unbiased or serious version of events. There are no stakes because we know they win, and the main character survives. And complaining that it's 'unsexy'... what the hell?

    So, basically, we are complaining that the movie is too smooth? Never in my life heard of this being an actual issue rather than a compliment.

      I think the complaint from most reviewers is that the animation has become too smooth with the increased frame rate. Consequently you can now really see the difference in movement between actual people and animated movement, because animated movement doesn't capture the subtle jerkiness of human movement.

      Reading the critic comments on 48fps is quite infuriating. Clearly none of them understand what it is, the way they're commenting about sharpness. Frames per second has nothing to do with fidelity and clearly none of them realise that.

    This review and writer lost all credit when they said "unsexy" are you kidding me? LOTR is is a epic tale the proceeded the hobbit for a more mature reader. People need to stop thinking too much about the frame rate and watch the movie. The opening scene to revenge of the sith in 2005 was a visual marvel and to say it was basically 'bland' is so stupid, they are jedi they have thing's under control. JUST ENJOY A FUN MOVIE! If it looks like a quality game like mass effect i am in.

    Attack of the Sith was awesome, almost as good as The Fellowship of the Two Kings IMHO

      Are you trolling?

        The 'article' does, in fact, say Attack of the Sith. Maybe he meant Revenge of the Clones?

          Haha I missed that. I guess it's one of those times your mind fills in the blanks/errors with assumptions.

    You can still go see the Hobbit in your beloved 24fps non 3D if you wish. I for one will embrace our new 48fps masters!
    The whole "flaming abomination" as the author of the article puts it will pass as did the move from theatre to silent film (outrage - ruin the theater), from silent film to talkies (outrage - subvert the unique aesthetic virtues of soundless cinema), and black and white to colour film (again outrage - Orson Wells "Don't let Ted Turner deface my movie with his crayons.").

      To be fair, Welles was referring to colorising films that were shot in black and white, which absolutely is an 'abomination'.

    Too smooth is a legitimate complaint!

    A few of us were discussing this and a friend came up with a theory that at 24fps, our brains do a bit of work joining frames to perceive it as fluid motion, thus we are "immersed".

    Whereas at 48fps or with motion interpolation, our brains need not work as hard and we are sort of taken out of the experience. Plus, not having to work hard at joining frames, our brains will instead focus on other details and flaws of scene, essentially reducing our immersion

      then why do we still get immersed in 60- 100 fps games?

      If that's the case what the hell are our brains doing during the 'unlimited frames' of real life?

    Let the hipsters keep their 24fps, blurred cinematic experience. After playing on a PC for years at average framerates of ~60, even watching movies these days can be painful as the framerate can just never keep up with the action. Some of us want a high-fidelity, fluid viewing experience.

      Thankyou! It was just recently that I rewatched the Lord of the Rings Trilogy at a cinema, and found some of the sequences quite jarring because of the blur. It's true, 48FPS takes some getting used to, but what it gives us in return

    I wonder if it is anything like watching Bluray for the first time. I remember first time watching Casino Royale on bluray and thinking how weird everything looked and how detailed and smooth it all was. Not really sure if I liked it or not. Now I would never choose a dvd over a bluray if I had the choice.

    I will definitely go see it now and disregard this review!
    Sometimes it's best to decide for yourself.........

    I want to see the 48FPS visuals for myself. I remember when Avatar came out, all the critics worked themselves into a lather about how awful 3D was and how cartoony Avatar was and how it was going to be a huge bomb., and WHOOPS most successful film of all time.

    On the other hand, I completely believe it isn't a great movie. Giving the Hobbit as many hours of screenplay as the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy is just begging for bloat and overly slow pacing. I think it's going to backfire too.

    Bad enough that he disregards the movie's content because it looks too good but I couldn't read on after he said "The Hobbit has a similar problem. Everything feels smaller"
    Well that says it all doesn't it?

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