Tribeca Games Festival and Merging the Worlds of Gaming and Cinema

From talks with filmmakers to discussions with gamemakers, DualShockers recaps the experience of New York City's first-ever Tribeca Games Festival.

By Ryan Meitzler

May 12, 2017

When it comes to video games, a medium that has grown exponentially in the past three decades from Super Mario Bros. to the mind-blowing realism of Horizon: Zero Dawn, few other art forms have had quite the influence on games as much as cinema and filmmaking. Putting aside the difficulties that film has had in capturing the essence of video games through games-to-film adaptations like last year’s Assassin’s Creed feature film, video games have taken far more in return from filmmaking and cinema to make their experiences larger than life, and in putting the player into their own “movies” that they can control, interact inside, and engage with.

That conversation between video games, movies, and the space between them was the main focus of the Tribeca Games Festival, the first annual gaming-focused event from the Tribeca Film Festival that took place recently in New York City, and which DualShockers had the opportunity to attend and experience all that the festival had to offer.

Tribeca Games Festival marked the first gaming-focused event at the annual Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, with the weekend including panels, demos, discussions, and more about the intersection between games and film.

The Tribeca Film Festival – a staple of the filmmaking world since its founding in 2002 by Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro and Craig Hatkoff – has been no stranger when it comes to incorporating video games and the advances that the medium has seen in the past few decades into the largely film-focused festival. Notably, the Tribeca Film Festival served as one of the biggest stages for Rockstar Games and Team Bondi’s L.A. Noire to be the first game ever showcased at the festival, while subsequent festivals included titles such as Beyond: Two Souls and others as a way to bridge the gap between games and the film industry.

Rockstar Games and Team Bondi’s L.A. Noire made a notable appearance at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2011 as the festival’s first-ever video game showcased at the event. (Photo: Francois Chang)

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For this year’s installment, the Tribeca Games Festival saw its debut in late April 2017 as the first off-shoot of the Tribeca Games Festival specifically devoted to games. Taking place over the course of two days in Tribeca’s Spring Studios – with the inaugural day including a concert and a crowdplay session of Telltale Games’ recently-released Guardians of the Galaxy series – the bulk of the festival’s focus turned to conversations between those that make and play video games, alongside the visionaries and craftsmen that create the films that occupy our TVs and movie screens.

Compared to the gaming-focused E3, PAX, Gamescom, or other expansive events that dominate entire convention halls, the Tribeca Games Festival proved to be a far more intimate weekend of games and gaming culture. Largely set between two rooms devoted to panels and creator talks, the event invited more of a sense of curiosity and conversation when it comes to games and their relationship to cinema, and the numerous angles and debates that that might entail between the two art forms.

Tribeca Games Festival featured several demo stations for attendees to try out game demos and a selection of virtual reality experiences, such as Job Simulator and Virtual Virtual Reality.

The festival’s second day was almost entirely devoted to these conversations as the morning and afternoon brought a variety of talks and guest speakers to the stage to discuss their games and the cinematic influences that inspired them. This included mini-panels with Giant Sparrow’s Ian Dallas that provided a deep dive into the artistic inspirations of the studio’s recently-released What Remains of Edith Finch, to more outward-looking discussions with both designers and filmmakers on the prospects of the future. A panel between director Brett Leonard and Google VR filmmaker Jessica Brillhart highlighted the advances seen through the debut of virtual reality devices in the past year, and how the medium is completely reshaping the ways that filmmakers (and game designers) can approach their art forms, entwined within a celebration of the thought-provoking cult sci-fi film, The Lawnmower Man, for its 25th anniversary this year.

Game developer Davey Wreden and moderator Chris Grant (Polygon) onstage discussing Wreden’s works, The Stanley Parable and The Beginner’s Guide.

John Watson of Stoic Games in a discussion of the company’s epic strategy title, The Banner Saga, and the series’ focus on having players make tough moral choices.

Those looking for talks more gaming-oriented, however, weren’t left out in some of the bigger discussions hosted at the Tribeca Games Festival. The afternoon included notable panels such as those with Davey Wreden of The Stanley Parable and The Beginner’s Guide in an insightful talk on toying with players’ expectations and, especially, delving into the ways that gaming has some tangible ways of engaging with viewers in different ways than cinema.

Later on in the day, game designers like John Watson of Stoic Games took to the stage to elaborate on the illustrative work of The Banner Saga series in balancing beautiful artwork with complex decision-making and moral choices from the players. Likewise, a post-mortem discussion of Watch Dogs 2 with the game’s creative director Jonathan Morin offered insight into listening to players’ feedback from the first game, and approaching player choice and open-world game design inside its bustling and vibrant recreation of modern-day San Francisco. Campo Santo’s Sean Vanaman also provided a fascinating look into the creation of Firewatch during his “Retro Active” discussion looking back on the game since its debut last year, especially in regard to turning an unusual story and premise into an engaging and thought-provoking gameplay experience unlike any other.

Several of 2017’s most high-profile game releases were available to play on the show-floor, including The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and NieR: Automata.

That isn’t to say that the Tribeca Games Festival was all talk and no games, so to speak. Throughout the morning and afternoon, demo stations were available for the event-goers to try out some of the latest and greatest titles from recent game releases, such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the WildNieR: AutomataWhat Remains of Edith Finch, and a few VR selections like Job Simulator and Virtual Virtual Reality.

Bethesda Softworks’ Prey stood out as the only title of the bunch that wasn’t already available of the demo stations, but the selections stood out otherwise not just as examples of some of the excellent titles that 2017 has already brought to gamers, but also as a calling card for just how far the medium has come in the past few years. Likewise, one of the festival’s lower floors was entirely devoted to a Virtual Reality Arcade where attendees could experience VR titles drawing heavily from both traditional games and experimental film.

Giant Sparrow creative director Ian Dallas and several other speakers took to the stage for a discussion involving the studio’s latest release, What Remains of Edith Finch.

However, the real meat of the experience at Tribeca Games Festival came down to the afternoon and evening keynote conversations pairing filmmakers with some of the gaming industry’s most notable minds and creators. The first of these conversations kicked off with Remedy Entertainment’s Sam Lake and director Neil Burger (LimitlessDivergent), proving to be a pertinent conversation between the ways that cinema and gaming in the past few years have cross-pollinated. Lake himself addressed the ways that titles of his such as Max PayneAlan Wake, and (especially) Quantum Break not only borrow cinematic influences, but often the cinematic form entirely, like the TV episode cutscenes that players experienced in Quantum Break. Meanwhile, Burger took to expressing his admiration for the choreography and camerawork of the Uncharted series and how that has informed some of his own work, itself a fascinating reference to draw from given Uncharted‘s deep roots that draw from iconic films such as the Indiana Jones series.

Director Neil Burger and Remedy Entertainment’s Sam Lake were the first of the festival’s keynote speakers to delve into the relationship between games and film.

Iconic gamemaker (and self-professed cinephile) Hideo Kojima made a notable appearance at the inaugural Tribeca Games Festival and drew a roaring round of applause and cheers during his entrance onto the stage, joined by long-time friend and moderator Geoff Keighley. Kojima was incredibly coy during the talk in discussing his upcoming and hotly-anticipated new title Death Stranding – going so far as to say that the game does, in fact, have “a plot” – but the real joy of not only seeing Kojima in person was to hear the ways that cinema has deeply influenced his work. Playing through any of his games should make that clear enough, given his love of hour-long cutscenes with enough flair to fill a season of television, that many of games are described incredibly well by calling them “cinematic” in scope and style.

But hearing Kojima reference cinema classics like Taxi DriverRaging Bull, The Deer Hunter, and 2001: A Space Odyssey and drop personal anecdotes about his love of film brought the conversation into a deeper point of the ways that art isn’t so much about groundbreaking ideas and reshaping a medium as we know it. Instead, that thought shifted more into an appreciation for the works of creators and taking those ideas and inspirations into a new light. Even when asked about the possibility of making a movie – a question that Kojima said he simply wouldn’t have the time to execute right now – his response marked a wonderful contrast in the potential of storytelling in cinema, as he would like to make either a big-budget film or “an indie movie about two characters talking in a room.” Given that Kojima himself said that his parents forced him to watch films every single day, Kojima’s appearance at the Tribeca Games Festival brought out an enlightening side of the legendary game-maker beyond his occasional tweets on the film’s he’s seen recently.

Hideo Kojima drew a big crowd while discussing his love of film, and (briefly) going into his upcoming new project, Death Stranding.

Kojima’s responses naturally led into the festival’s final talk of the evening between BioShock creator Ken Levine and Doug Liman, the director of hit action films like The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow. Levine and Liman’s talk in particular dug right into the heart of the “Games X Films” discussions that dominated much of the weekend, as Levine talked in-depth about the genesis of BioShock not only from an artistic and game design sense, but also in the ways of storytelling that gaming’s interactivity can afford. Levine, in particular, brought up “confusion” as a potent storytelling technique that players of BioShock can surely attest to, while even bringing that topic up through modern examples in his praise of FX’s recent series Legion, and the ways that its purposeful “confusion” of the audiences offers intrigue and curiosity to the narrative.

Liman, in return, brought up gaming as a direct influence of his 2014 action film Edge of Tomorrow, in which the main characters played by Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt are essentially “respawning” into a war zone, like a futuristic version of Groundhog Day. He even went so far as to explain that Edge of Tomorrow‘s main arc could be heavily construed as that of a video game player dying and retrying a section to get better and learning from their past failures.

Director Doug Liman and BioShock creator Ken Levine closed out the festival with a discussion that included video game storytelling devices, VR, and FX’s Legion.

While the event played out far more like a film festival than what convention-goers might expect from more gaming-focused events like E3 or PAX, the Tribeca Games Festival and its conversations between those that make games and films helped to bring out what makes each art form unique, and often highlighting their flaws. That isn’t meant as a negative thing – film has struggled in adapting games to the big-screen more times than not, and games have often chased after the dream of becoming interactive movies to the detriment of the medium’s core strengths.

However, the conversations and talks at the Tribeca Games Festival highlighted a relationship between gaming and film that wasn’t about one form besting the other. Instead, hearing the discussions of game designers drawing on their cinematic influences and filmmakers taking to the unique storytelling capabilities of games (and especially virtual reality) brought out an awareness and admiration that was truly engaging and inspiring.

“Cinematic” is a term that has come to define gaming over the past few years with experiences that now rival what the movie industry has to offer, though hopefully in future years events like the Tribeca Games Festival can continue to show that games and films can bring out the best in each other, on and off-screen.

The Tribeca Games Festival took place from April 28th-29th, 2017 in New York City – for a closer look at the panels and talks given during the festival, you can click here and head over to the festival’s archived streams via Twitch.

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Ryan Meitzler

Ryan is the Editor-in-Chief at DualShockers and has been a lover of games as long as he can remember. He holds a BA in English and Cinema and lives in New York City.

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