“Cinematic” is not a good thing for games, but maybe there’s still hope.
Im going to be bold and not apologize in advance for my opinion. I don’t think there’s any merit to be had in apologizing for ones opinions in these days. If people resort so often to angry hysteria to make points, the answer to that problem does not lie in being obsequious and reflexive about what we know. The answer is in argument. And if we can’t all be reasoned, we can at least be seasoned, right?
Let’s talk about film, and why it works.
Film is a passive medium. That means film has no expectations of your involvement with it. It does what it does, and maybe you get something out of it. It has a history of countless millions working on it and refining it for many decades. But it’s important to note that with all the stylistic tools film has gained as the result of great technological pushes in the last 20 years, this has had no effect whatsoever on storytelling.
Stylistic tools do not help you tell a good story. They can accent, but they can’t do the job of knowing the audience like a writer does. A good story is born out of the self-knowledge, life experience, understanding of irony, compassion, revenge, etc. that the writer brings to the work.
If you look at a recent film like Zack Snyder‘s ‘Sucker Punch’, there is a disconnect from the film’s desire to entertain with all it’s tools, and it’s ability to otherwise convey the themes and emotions necessary to involve the audience. A similar disconnect happens when a 5 year old tries to tell you a story. There may be great imagination and unintended insights and humor in the telling, but a 5 year old is not going to lay you flat with truths learned from a life rich with experience. They see everything as surface level archetype.
That’s fine for children, but adults live in a world of layers; of confused archetype and subtext, secret loves, grudges, deceits and hidden truths. You will notice I just compared Zack Snyder’s film to a 5 year old telling a story. Actually I didn’t. I said that a awkwardness results from both. That’s because infantile bombast is an accepted and expected part of our film culture right now. The fact that “Green Lantern” is currently one of the most expensive movies ever made should tell you something about where our media is at right now.
So let’s dispense with a popular myth of film:
Film is better at telling stories than other mediums.
No, it’s not. At all. There’s just a lot of films out there, and in those, quite a few with great stories that came from talented writers, and from directors with vision. The ones who want to tell a great story, and know the tools are just tools. And the key: the film, the story, is not actually about the action, but about what those actions say about life, and how that makes us feel as an audience. James Cameron’s “Avatar” was not a bold critical success because of the technology it used, it was a success because it used a story formula that always works with a certain audience. Being a watershed of CGI did not make people LIKE the film. It was the story. It had heart.
Let’s talk about videogames.
Videogames are an active medium. They require your input, and create storytelling motifs by cleverly fooling you into thinking you are creating narrative with your actions. They are story-like, but have a different task than a story. In a videogame, there might be room for some different possibilities within the framework of one story thread that you would have in a film. And this has long been the great promise, or the great tease, of videogames:
Choices that matter.
Honestly, there have only been a handful of games that ever really pulled this off, and the ones that did it best were not all that fun to play. Rather than mention the obvious recent titles, I‘ll mention ‘Broken Helix’ by Konami. Here was a game that had 5 different story lines about an outbreak of extra-terrestrial weirdness going down at Area 51. It wasn’t particularly cinematic, but it did have some choice. But that didn’t make it a good game, and it didn’t make the story work, either. Why? Well partly because the game was a botched effort, but clinically, it was because:
Story, Cinematic, and Choice don’t go together.
Broken Helix failed because it was hamstrung by having it’s team working out 5 different story threads while the gameplay had fatal problems that didn’t get fixed. Videogames can’t make choices matter by apeing the format of film. Nor can they throw their controls out the window at a crucial moment and shoe-horn all the possible complexity of an open design into a Quick Time Event where you are pushed like Pavlov’s Dog to push a single button rapidly. Both things remove you from the action. So they are neither cinematic, nor choice.
So where are we at?
This is not some happy hand-holding time for either medium. This is a time of cross-contamination of media, and it’s not healthy for films, or games.
Do gamers want “cinematic experiences” in games? I don’t think they do. I think this is just some mid-90s Madison Avenue buzzword hype that’s gone on too long, and with the benefit of unchecked and uninformed opinion mongering online, off the deep end.
There’s good reasons the line gets blurred. Film is a linear medium, so it’s easy to discuss videogames in cinematic terms because it gives you handy reference points. Beginning, ending, call to action, climax, false climax, etc. But none of these things really apply to a game’s narrative, which is about control and response being determined by a player. A game’s narrative is told by your interaction with it’s controls, and how those controls affect the environment.
A well implemented control scheme makes a player feel ‘free’ within the games environment. Free within limits. Plug in the game ’Prototype’ and run up a building, and then do a crash-dive into the middle of a crowded intersection. All the parts of that control system have been planned out in advance, physics implemented, etc. Nothing is left to chance. Yet if feels open and ‘free’.
That’s the “freedom” gamers want. They want to be entertained, with the illusion of freedom. Real freedom is turning off the console and the TV and leaving the room.
So herein is the core of the issue. “Cinematic gameplay” hype isn’t about what gamers want, it‘s about what businesses want. And games certainly can’t deliver choice while they’re kowtowing to film tropes. Film is a passive medium, and game designers pushed to create cinematic games are turning that uninteractive passivity into forgettable videogame slush.
Why not? It’s easy. Cinematic gameplay is a move AWAY from game design. Fewer designers, less choices, less options, more scripting, more spectacle, bigger art departments, bigger budgets, less authorial control, fewer writers, less play testing, ease of compartmentalization of staff. These are all positives from a company position, and an investment position, but certainly not from the point of view of design.
Design? If cinematic games are the future, then game design is over.
It’s not that games are becoming more like film, but that game production is becoming more like film production, because there aren’t enough competing business models out there for the business to grow into, and Hollywood wants a piece. TV is nothing like film in the way it’s made, and books are nothing like TV in the way they’re made… so why are games supposed to be like film?
Because it makes everything simpler to digest on the supply chain. And it fits in with a bloated business model that’s currently churning out quarter billion turkeys like ‘Green Lantern’ during the worst economic downturn of all time.
The solution? Video game design needs to be reclaimed by the new generation of programmers and artists, and embraced by people who love games not for the story or the character development, but for the games themselves. Gaming needs to get back to gaming. Film needs to get back to film.
I’ll never forget my friend Dan McLaughlin, who used to Dungeon Master for a close group of friends who I used to play D&D with on weekends. After roughly 2 years of playing with the same characters, Dan started what would be our final module to play. He called it ‘The Valley of the Mage’. Which is where our characters were all going to be buried.
You see after 2 years, D&D had for us gone from a casual game, to a monopolistic slog of one-upmanship and anal rule-bending that had no end. Everybody had to buy every book, every die, every figure, the flexy hex maps with the acetylene overlay and the colored dry erase markers and custom folders for carrying all our character info, etc. It was disgusting. By the end we were all so self-righteous about what the rules meant that we spent no time playing.
We just ate Doritos and argued about rules all night.
The Valley of the Mage ended all that. It had a brilliant death scene for every character. I remember my 15th level Illusionist got crushed under a ton of bananas. A fitting end. But it was the best thing because it preserved our friendships with each other, and it made us look at all the baggage we had brought to that game in terms of trying to outdo one another in a social competition that had NOTHING to do with gameplay.
I can’t help but feel when I look at the bile coming off the internet about low game scores and fan boys and outliers.. Game culture needs it’s own Valley of the Mage, I think.
It could even be cinematic.