About Us | Game Reviews | Feature Articles | Podcast | Best Work | Forums | Shop | Review Game

Cinematic Action games: a brief critical assessment

Sparky Clarkson's picture

Prince of Persia Screenshot

Many of the games I named in my post about the cinematic action genre have been criticized for their lack of value. Because these games are short and linear, and rarely have life-extending multiplayer modes, critics like my colleague Brad Gallaway have questioned the wisdom of charging full price for them. Simplistic gameplay and action-movie inspired plots have led many critics to call these games shallow. Yet, several games that belong in this genre—ICO, Shadow of the Colossus, and Sands of Time—are regularly trotted out as examples of the best that the medium can achieve. To categorize cinematic action games as intrinsically shallow or lacking in value would be the worst sort of genre-as-pejorative thinking. Their approach to game storytelling has produced many strengths, but one central characteristic of the genre is also a critical weakness. The great artistic limitations of cinematic action games come from their disinterest in the player as a creative force.

A one-way street

This may sound like a strange objection in light of certain arguments against the artistic potential of games. For instance, in a letter published on his website, Roger Ebert argued:

Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

One problem with Ebert's statement is that he undersells the role of the audience in art generally, but another is that he underestimates the amount of authorial control present in games. The cinematic action games in particular, inclusive of the great games-as-art examples, are strongly authored. This is evident in their linearity, their pacing, and their focus on the developer's narrative. Their emulation of film means they have largely adopted a one-way view of story creation. The narrative flows from the developer to the player without significant input on the latter's part.

This is not without its benefits. Knowing that the narrative flow puts the focus on themselves, and aware that the primary replay value in these games comes from repeating an experience, the developers of cinematic action games have responded by producing strong stories and characters. This is not to say that all these stories work or that all the characters are worth knowing. However, the characters of these games are similar to the principals of RPGs in that they are memorable for their personalities rather than for their capabilities. Cinematic action games tend to have strong characters and stories because they must be strong in order to justify the existence of the game.

The unfortunate flip-side of that focus on personality is that these games often disregard the characterization that emerges from gameplay. That is, they do not pay attention to the character development that emerges from what the player is doing. The Uncharted games provide a notable example in what Penny Arcade's Jerry Holkins described as Nathan Drake's "unique sociopathy... which allows him to crack wise between genocides."

For an archaeologist, Drake sure spends a lot of time killing people

Drake's nice-guy persona is put to the lie by the enormous killing spree he goes on in both games, and in light of this shooting habit his insistence on not harming guards in the second game's museum break-in comes off as comical. It comparably ridiculous when Mafia II's Vito Scaletta, who at that point has already murdered dozens of people, agonizes over whether or not to get involved in the drug trade. In a similar vein, the controversial ending of Prince of Persia (2008) was disliked by many because it did not respect the relationship that had been created between the player and Elika, which was very different than that between the Prince and her.

This is a tragic waste, because the structure and pacing of cinematic action games naturally lend themselves towards creating what Steve Gaynor might call specific violence. Because these games space combat episodes with traversals rather than bridging encounters, it is possible for them to invest every single fight with meaning rather than just the businesslike disposal of dead flesh. Prince of Persia (2008) is a case in point; the game is built around combat encounters with enemies that have names, histories, and personalities known to the player. All the fights, but especially those against the Warrior, are thereby invested with an emotional content generally lacking from the combat encounters in, say, Uncharted. Games in the genre that insist on forcing the player to repeatedly wade through waves of cannon fodder squander their potential.

The disconnect between gameplay and story should not be regarded as a necessary result of the developer-oriented narrative focus, because the best-regarded games of the genre do make the player's actions part of the story, rather than a distraction. The player's constant reversing of time parallels the Prince's quest to "undo what he has done" in Sands of Time, and the recognition that this doesn't solve the Prince's really essential problems figures into the resolution of The Two Thrones. The relationship between Ico and Yorda is something the player must engage in directly through play, by taking her hand, by calling for her, and by defending her. The impotent rage of the colossi is developed in part through the gameplay of climbing on them, and in the finale of Shadow of the Colossus the player is made to feel their helplessness and anger for himself. The greatest games in the genre recognize that gameplay is a vehicle for plot development and characterization. Those that are dismissed as shallow generally do not; they disregard the player too completely.

Press X for next scene

Does this matter? After all, an Ebert might argue that games can be art only to the extent that they disregard the player's input. But, the essential distinguishing feature of a game is that it must be played, and the need to be playable puts games at an intrinsic disadvantage when they attempt to emulate movies. Everyday staples of cinematic technique like deep focus, cross-cutting, even the close-up, are unusable, or highly limited, in games. You can have a long shot, but it must not be too long, or the player will be unable to follow the character's traversal. You can have a close-up, but it cannot be too close, or the player will not be able to make sense of the action. Although the camera and character are separated by the third-person perspective of cinematic action games, they are tethered in the course of gameplay, and so in play a game can never be as interesting of a film as an actual movie.

Zooming much further out would make this view from Enslaved overly difficult to play.

Of course, all cinematic options are on the table when play stops and the cutscene begins. But, in that case we have reduced the game to little more than a movie that is extremely inconvenient to watch. Nor is it a particularly good movie. For all the advances that have been made, digital actors remain inferior to flesh-and-blood actors, even the kind of actors one finds in a typical action movie. This is not only a property of the blocky models that inhabit the genre's earliest examples. Mafia II's character models were noticeably not up to the task of sustaining its story, a point driven home by the game's punchless final scene. Prince of Persia (2008) was similarly stifled by the limited expressiveness of the characters.

Moreover, their general insistence on tying the camera to a single character undercuts these games' dramatic potential relative to films. An action movie can shift focus, showing us the villain's plans, and the hero's preparation, in a way that builds tension by exposing the whole chess match. The tension can be ramped up by fully displaying the forces arrayed against the protagonist. The time spent watching a charismatic villain plot against the hero is part of the appeal of movies like Die Hard. Also, the progress of the hero's allies can also be shown, allowing for intricate climaxes with many moving parts. While not strictly impossible in a cinematic action game, this kind of multi-threaded narrative has never been employed.

No game can ever be as good at being a film, or at developing tension in the way films do, as an actual film is. The project of matching the movies in terms of pure cinematic power is intrinsically futile. Games must use the fact that they are played to artistic advantage, rather than seeing the player's input as a necessary obstacle to reaching the good bits.

The player develops a relationship with Yorda at the same time that Ico does because the relationship is played.

The alternative is insipid gameplay that is intended to pose as little challenge to the player as possible. Casual players might well disagree with criticisms that games like Prince of Persia (2008) or Enslaved were too easy or practically played themselves, but these games represent a low ebb of intellectual and physical challenge in a genre that largely does not care about or even acknowledge player mastery. It does not matter whether the player learns to be "good" at these games. In the most extreme case, the player's only role is to turn the crank that advances the developer's story, producing a compromise between film and game that's inferior to both.

Death to the author

The desire to emulate movies is not unique to cinematic action games. This influence is pervasive, and easily recognizable in any of a number of shooters, brawlers, racing games, and open-world adventures. Many of the issues I have outlined here apply to these film-emulating games as well. But the cinematic action games are the most film-like, the most dedicated to placing all aspects of the game world in the developer's hands, rather than the player's. The authorial control exerted in these games is to some degree responsible for their strengths. But, contra Ebert's opinion, the games that put everything in the hands of the developer are the ones that fail artistically.

What unifies the best games of this genre is their respect for the narrative importance of the player's experience. Those that ignore or dismiss the player's role in creating the story through play can be exciting, high-quality entertainments, but little more. Not all cinematic action games are just disposable thrill-rides with pretty graphics, however. Some of the most moving and meaningful games ever made share the same values and characteristics. Where those exemplars excel is in their recognition that stories in games are always created collaboratively between the developer and the player. In that respect, the more "cinematic" they are, the worse games they will be.

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3   PC  
Series: Uncharted   Enslaved  
Genre(s): Adventure/Explore  
Articles: Editorials  
Topic(s): Games as Art  

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Games as Art

Hmm, this article didn't appear on the main site for some reason.

Is there a primer on 'Games as Art', or is there any essential reading that someone could point me at? For me, Art is intrinsically linked to narrative - fiction, movies and even paintings which 'tell a story' eg Brueghel's village scenes. I can also appreciate that some art like sculpture and painting has a standalone aesthetic beauty, though this is generally not enough to hold my attention. I say 'I' but I'd imagine it's like this for a lot of people.

So bearing that in mind, shouldn't it be the case where cinematic games and games that take control away from the player would have the most potential\greater likelihood for becoming Art? I'm sure this idea is beaten to death, hence my need for the 'primer' mentioned above.

So I can see Sparky's point about player interaction and the development of the character; that makes things a little clearer for me, as I had thought that player interaction would necessarily dilute the 'artistic' experience until now. When I was reading the article, I was going, 'but development of the character is just another way of saying narrative' but it is starting to sink in now!

Sooo...character progression and development (via player interaction) as a means of emotional involvement, which contributes to the game becoming art, possibly helped along by other things like narrative, aesthetically pleasing environments (I'm thinking Bioshock), convincing gameworlds etc?

Nice article, by the way!

Nathan Drake

I wonder what Nate did to attract all this popular criticism when he simply falls in the grand tradition of the scruffy adventurer. Doesn't Indiana Jones kill many a Nazi and then smile or joke about it? Is the difference volume of kills (necessitated by the length of the game) or 'evilness' of the people killed (nothing is more evil than a Nazi!)? The rebels in Star Wars, the crew of the Serenity, and the slayers from Buffy follow the EXACT same model, why don't people wonder at their "genocide"? Heck, doesn't EVERY action movie ever involve murdering 'bad' people and then cracking wise?

To be clear, Nathan Drake doesn't kill random tour groups who wander into mystical areas. He defends himself from attacking hordes of PAID MERCENARY KILLING ARMIES who are often shown to be inhumanly cruel or murderous (the killing of Jeff the cameraman, the treatment of Chloe and Elena, the constant betraying of their own faction, etc etc). He fretted about killing museum guards because they were simply men doing a job and for once, he was in the wrong. This sort of criticism was vaguely humorous as presented by Penny Arcade. As a serious criticism of the Uncharted series' story themes or artistic value, it is extremely dishonest and unfair.

Brilliant article.

Brilliant article. Kudos.

However, I think you make too fine a distinction between 'game' and 'movie' - it's all just entertainment and escapism. The criteria as to whether or not a piece of entertainment is any good is, ultimately, the amount of satisfaction the consumer derives from it.

As I alluded to in a previous posting, and as you constantly allude to throughout your article, this all comes down to execution -- integrated script writing, direction and art -- not where the product is between game and movie. As such, I fundamentally disagree with your closing comment that the more cinematic the product, the less the game. Indeed, you give examples of current cinematic action games that work and those that don't, which kind of contradicts your closing comment.

Nathan Drake is not Indiana Jones

Yes, Indy occasionally kills a Nazi, but to pretend that the level and nature of violence perpetrated by Jones and Drake are equal or even similar is itself dishonest and unfair. Indy's bodycount for the whole of the original trilogy is probably exceeded by Drake within any single firefight. Killing people is a staple activity in the game but a relatively rare occurrence in the films. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy and his allies sneak into an archaeological dig and outwit the Germans. If this were reproduced in an Uncharted game, do you imagine that it would play out as anything other than killing everybody on site? Indiana Jones outwits his opponents far more often than he outshoots them, which is essential to his trickster-hero persona. The same cannot be said, even approximately, for Nathan Drake.

There is a qualitative difference as well. In an Indiana Jones movie, most of the violence is specific, even if the enemy is anonymous. The shirtless man he fights near the plane, the swordsman in the bazaar, and even the various chases, involve the development of a relationship, however brief, between Indy and his foe that implicitly recognizes the fact that they are both human beings. Can we say the same for the thousand nameless men Nathan Drake headshots or throws off cliffs? The violence perpetrated by Drake is anonymous, general, and dehumanizing. It is only because it has these properties that we can accept Drake's personality at all. If, however, we start to think of the men he kills as people, his personality seems a lot less like charm and a lot more like pathology.

Drake vs. Jones

Definitely some good points made in there, but I do have some counterarguments. First, to be fair the Indiana Jones of videogames is EXACTLY the same as Nathan Drake. He kills more people than in the films, those people are more generic, and he still makes light of the situation as if nothing has changed. I would first of all state that it's in the nature of action gameplay to have many, many foes to kill, otherwise the game would get boring. And the number of people killed total is a function of game length and balance. Imagine Uncharted 2 with 20 enemies total. In the entire game. Unless those enemies had the best AI imaginable, this would be a pretty boring game. And enemies that smart would disallow 90% of the tactics that make Uncharted combat fun. In the original Uncharted, there were far too many enemy spawns per encounter. This was easily traced to Naughty Dog's relative inexperience at this kind of gameplay and was improved for 2. You also mention stealth for Indy, did you know that stealth is a valid (and even encouraged) option in both Uncharted games? If the stealth attack animations are assumed to be nonlethal for the most part (as they would have to be for the museum sequence to make any sense), then killing or not is a matter of player agency in many scenes where the "easy way" is simply to blast your way through.

Getting away from the functional reasons Nathan kills so many goons, lets talk about the comparison and rationale for it. Does Nathan enjoy what he's doing or does he look for alternatives? Well, what's Nathan's catchphrase? "Crap crap crap!" Although jokey, he says this to imply his utter dismay at being attacked and having to defend himself. In the museum stage, he refuses to kill even though it would be easier. In the cutscenes with "named" enemies, he tries to debate or defuse his enemies. He willingly teams up with them against greater dangers in both games, and is always betrayed, never the betrayer. Finally, consider how Flynn is ALWAYS given the benefit of the doubt by Drake, even when it would make complete sense to just shoot the doucher, until finally Elena is nearly killed for their mercy. If EVERY enemy in the game was given this many chances, Drake would have been killed on the boat in the opening of the first game, hardly an appeasing option.

Going back to the Indy comparison, I think you give him quite a bit of credit that you refuse Drake. In the motorbike chase scene, Indy offs 5 or 6 Nazis and laughs uproariously at the way he killed the jousting guy. Indy TRIES to shoot many people, it's just that his gun fails often as a dramatic/humorous device. When the British troops arrive at the end of Temple of Doom and mow down every last evil cultist, both Indy and the audience are meant to feel relieved and pleased. Indy uses stealth because 1) it's more realistic for one guy to sneak onto a base rather than to have an exciting gunfight with everyone there and 2) because he is almost always in the enemy's homebase, a situation Drake never encounters.

Enemy banter

Sparky Clarkson wrote:

Yes, Indy occasionally kills a Nazi, but to pretend that the level and nature of violence perpetrated by Jones and Drake are equal or even similar is itself dishonest and unfair. Indy's bodycount for the whole of the original trilogy is probably exceeded by Drake within any single firefight. Killing people is a staple activity in the game but a relatively rare occurrence in the films. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy and his allies sneak into an archaeological dig and outwit the Germans. If this were reproduced in an Uncharted game, do you imagine that it would play out as anything other than killing everybody on site? Indiana Jones outwits his opponents far more often than he outshoots them, which is essential to his trickster-hero persona. The same cannot be said, even approximately, for Nathan Drake.

There is a qualitative difference as well. In an Indiana Jones movie, most of the violence is specific, even if the enemy is anonymous. The shirtless man he fights near the plane, the swordsman in the bazaar, and even the various chases, involve the development of a relationship, however brief, between Indy and his foe that implicitly recognizes the fact that they are both human beings. Can we say the same for the thousand nameless men Nathan Drake headshots or throws off cliffs? The violence perpetrated by Drake is anonymous, general, and dehumanizing. It is only because it has these properties that we can accept Drake's personality at all. If, however, we start to think of the men he kills as people, his personality seems a lot less like charm and a lot more like pathology.

I will try and keep this brief(and coherent) if you have enemy banter of any kind then that pretty much humanizes them to the point of being a nameless film extra Indie fights.

I am trying to wrap my head around this notion of cinemagic style you are talking about ad I can not help to think its gameplay neutral, I mean look at Gear's,Enslaved, uncharted and POP(08) what do they have in common? Its not gameplay, for the most part its the visual style or camera work that tries to knead the scenery and gameplay together(since it has little of each) . . . aherm...

Also is not Call of Cuthulu (and to a lesser extent Clive Bakers Undying) even Resident evil and the RE styled games not cenimatic?

Even a better question what about Bioshock or SS2 dose potentially deep atmosphere automatically come off as cenimatic?

If so then cenimatic gaming is not new, perhaps its being more polished since graphics are still being overly worshiped.. .

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Code of Conduct

Comments are subject to approval/deletion based on the following criteria:
1) Treat all users with respect.
2) Post with an open-mind.
3) Do not insult and/or harass users.
4) Do not incite flame wars.
5) Do not troll and/or feed the trolls.
6) No excessive whining and/or complaining.

Please report any offensive posts here.

For more video game discussion with the our online community, become a member of our forum.

Our Game Review Philosophy and Ratings Explanations.

About Us | Privacy Policy | Review Game | Contact Us | Twitter | Facebook |  RSS
Copyright 1999–2010 GameCritics.com. All rights reserved.