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Digging into the Southeast Asian bootleg videogame cutscene economy

This article is part of Film Week, Kill Screen’s week-long meditation on the intersection between film and videogames. Check out the other articles here. And, if you’re in NYC, grab tickets to our Film Fest at Two5Six on Friday, May 15th.

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I didn’t have the patience to play Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. All I wanted to do was watch the cutscenes. In its first hour, the game prompted me once to retrieve my backpack and take several steps through the jungle before plunging into the next intriguing cinematic. When faced with the game’s finicky and exacting combat, I gave up, hissing its praises even as I tossed my controller. I’d barely defeated the Aryan supersoldier Ocelot, the first boss, before I gave up.

Snake Eater was just a drop in the ocean. Living in Laos at the age of 17, I played a shit-ton of videogames. My dad and I had a weekly ritual where, after enjoying coffee and bagels at Joma cafe, we’d buy a cheap game at the morning market from our favorite DVD/game salesman. The Saturday after swearing off MGS3, I saw a new DVD on display: Metal Gear Solid 3 Snake Eater: The Film. They’d made a movie? I shelled out two dollars for it and a copy of Drakengard and took the film home, unwrapped it and fed the disc into my computer’s yellowed optical drive.

Metal Gear Solid 3 Snake Eater: The Film. They’d made a movie? 

The DVD was a heavily editorialized compilation of every cutscene from start to finish. MGS3 is a massive game, so it makes sense they’d have to cut certain things to fit it on a DVD. Most of Snake’s audio communiqués were missing, and most encounters with the COBRA elite operatives were trimmed down to be almost incomprehensible. The Pain and The Fury were altogether excised, while others like The Sorrow (an eerie encounter that dregs up every casualty the player accrues in-game) rang hollow without any context. While the editing made the plot more confusing, Hideo Kojima’s self-aware and paranoid direction have never relied on making any damn sense anyway.

Keep in mind: I found the DVD in 2005, before YouTube was a thing, and even had it been a thing, nobody’s internet was fast enough to stream the boundless library of playthroughs that are available now. These “films as cinema” were virgin territory, and I began noticing them everywhere in Laos. In a backroom shop smelling of incense was a handsomely packaged multi-disc compilation of Final Fantasy X and X-2’s cutscenes in Japanese, with subtitles in Mandarin. The case was hardbound in light blue cardboard with a dust jacket and smelled of freshly-pressed plastic. I bought it for five dollars.

My mom and I took a tuk-tuk to the Evening Market on the far side of town where I found a glossy bootleg of the entirety of Xenosaga Episode 1’s heady theo-philosophical space opera. The DVD and cover were in a flat plastic sleeve and had been filed between Jumanji and a theater-cam recording of Alien Versus Predator. It cost two dollars but only had the original Japanese audio.

On my walk home from school I would pass a chorus of fruit-sellers and fish-fryers on the side of the road, after which was a tiny, dim-lit DVD shop. I would often duck in to look around, mostly because it was always air-conditioned. After some time, I got to know the shopkeeper, a large-eyed man named Ghop who always had recommendations. “This—good,” he pulled out a dusty VCD and fed it into his DVD player. The opening cutscene for Soul Calibur started playing, then segued into an FMV from one of the Mortal Kombats. Judging by the poorly cropped watermark, the cinematics had been recut from several different E3s and television ads. “Twenty-thousand kip,” Ghop gesticulated. I nodded politely but didn’t buy.

Watching only, renders these games the same way pornography renders sex 

I soon amassed a small collection of these game cinematics. Some of the playthroughs contained small interludes from sloppy editing: a glimpse of Tidus sprinting down a corridor, Snake crawling through the swamp. But when I cut to Final Fantasy X’s Seymour, coughing after an unseen battle, I found myself yearning for the experience of the game itself. It was one thing to see the teenaged melodrama surrounding a decisive fight, but quite another to feel the tension and cooling relief that accompanied the hours of preparation entailed in a JRPG victory. Watching only the cinematic components renders these games the same way pornography renders sex: colder, somehow diminished.

Judging by their popularity, the DVDs were very watchable despite the language barrier. I walked past a kiosk full of Lao teenagers gathered around a Xenosaga compilation and saw their eyes light up at the dazzling space battles. When my family was traveling through the international terminal in Jakarta in 2004, I heard “Melodies of Life” by Nobuo Uematsu over the speakers. When I looked up, I could see the ending FMV from Final Fantasy IX playing on each of the terminal’s TV screens. The fact that these cinematics were treated as pop culture to be digested—and carefully distilled from dozens of hours of gameplay in a burgeoning medium—felt like both a courtesy and slight.

In the last decade, watching games has become its own kind of entertainment. YouTube is stuffed with Let’s Play videos and select scenes from every game. Rather than struggle through tens of hours of careful learning and strategizing, we can see full playthroughs online if we so desire. Three hours of carefully pruned cutscenes from Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater are on YouTube. So are Silent Hill 2, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty and pretty much every game ever made. While I almost miss the verboten allure of hunting down obscure game DVDs in dusty backrooms, I have to admit that YouTube is far easier to search. And way more legal.

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This article is part of Film Week, Kill Screen’s week-long meditation on the intersection between film and videogames. Check out the other articles here. And, if you’re in NYC, grab tickets to our Film Fest at Two5Six on Friday, May 15th.