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Is Being Cinematic a Faulty Goal?
Cinematic – (Adj) – of or pertaining to or characteristic of
Do you like cinematic video games? Do you think video games should work towards
being cinematic? Or should I word this
more accurately…? Do you want to watch your video games, or do you want
to be involved with your interactive
I have come to a point in my gaming where I do not care for
games that goad to be “cinematic.” Now,
of course I have a reason for this—and it’s because these are video games. Not movies. I am not absolutist in this, in deed, many
games feature the occasional cinematic moment that I quite enjoy—but I like
these almost exclusively when they occur as the final segment of a game after
completing the final objective, or defeating the final boss, or mastering the
final challenge. They make sense at
the end of the game, because at that
point, a gamer is done with the story
and it’s time to enjoy your accomplishment.
Watch the final story segment, view the end credits, watch the final
Achievements blink onto the screen, and to bask in a feeling of accomplishment.
Outside of that, these are not movies. These are video games. I play
video games, I watch movies. I should not be watching video games. So I
can’t help but wonder if making games “cinematic” is a faulty goal. By definition, it is a faulty goal! It misses
the point of making interactive
entertainment in the first place! I
won’t say it’s stupid, I won’t say they suck (indeed, some do
*cough*metroidotherm*cough*), I won’t say anything quite of that nature.
Rather, making games cinematic is faulty because it does a disservice to gaming as a medium. There are arguably better ways to tell a story in a video game than to just put up a
video to be watched or worse—skipped—because a player is anxious to get back to
the game. Making a video game cinematic
seems as misguided as writing a novel that defers to pictures to be
descriptive. The point of a novel is to
enjoy the descriptive and powerful nature of the written word. So what of graphic novels? Those are similar, but to enjoy a nigh
perfect melding of written words and visual art.
How would you feel to purchase a literary classic—say Moby
Dick, War and Peace, Tom Sawyer, Frankenstein, Dracula, or the works of
Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway,
Franz Kafka or even Stephen King or whoever—only to find large pages of (generally) artistic literary text replaced by pictures?
Assuming that you are eager to enjoy the literary text for itself, would
you not feel a little cheated ? Where
are the words? Where is the text? This
would be seen by lovers of literature as a gross disservice, if not a
disrespectful butchering of classic material.
What about a movie? Would
you want to sit through a movie that, all of a sudden, halfway through, brings
up the house lights, demanded that you put down your popcorn, and instructed
you to read a text that had been handed out to you in the lobby? This would not create the cinematic
experience that you were hoping to have.
This would break the cinematic
experience. “Friday the 13th Part VII will continue after you have
finished reading the text handout you received.” Granted, no Friday the 13th film is exactly a deeply artful, “cinematic”
experience—but I selected that for a reason—to highlight the absurdity of this
idea. Does it not sound ridiculous? “Get back to the murders!” you’d yell at the
screen. “At least show that girl topless
again! We came here to be entertained!”
I could keep this up, of course. I’m crafty like that. Would you want to attend a Broadway play that
is broken a third of the way through to just lazily play a movie on a
screen? Would you watch TV that suddenly
requires you to plug in a controller--or worse, make cumbersome use of your TV remote--to decide which diagnosis Doctor House
should try next? Of course not!
These mediums are for specific entertainment purposes. This has been something that long interested
me—what defines a certain
medium. What comes to define it? I’ve gone to school for graphic design,
animation and cinematography, and video game design. I’ve seen—as we all have—many franchises that
cross over several mediums. Movies get turned into video games, comic books get
turned into TV shows, TV shows get turned into books, etc. But what truly
defines each medium? Perhaps we
should examine that first.
Defining the Medium
Video games are wholly different than every other entertainment medium in one singular aspect above
all—they are interactive. You are not just reading or watching or
viewing or following a story—you are participating
in it. You are part of it. A novel, when
written in the first person, can give the impression that you are in the shoes
of the protagonist (or at the very least, the narrator)—but you don’t make the
decisions for the character. This is as
close to gaming as any medium gets, and though you may feel like you are there, you are not affecting the story. This makes video games entirely unique.
It also presents incredible challenges to the storytellers
in the medium.
Now, every other medium has been demonstrated and defined
time and time again. There are some
things—stories, tales, events, presentations, etc. that can cross the
boundaries of different mediums—but there are also a great many that truly
define their medium. I once argued that
the reason the original 1933 King Kong
was such an incredible and powerful movie was that it was one of the early
films that truly defined it’s
medium. There was no television at the
time, comics were newspaper funnies, and the other entertainment was books and
stage plays. King Kong is a defining moment in cinema. King Kong is a massive adventure story
wrapped in a tragedy, which spans vast prehistoric jungles and modern
cities. It could be written, but it
could not be done on stage. And to do it
on film showed the power of
film. The epic scope of Skull Island,
the giant horrors of Kong himself. King Kong defines cinema and a true
cinematic experience. Every shot, every
scene, every larger-than-life setting.
We all, probably, know what defines the comic book
medium—horror comics. What? No? You
think it’s the superhero story? Oh fine,
I suppose that is a better
genre. After all, it was the genre invented by comic books. Comic books are the only medium where a
colorful individual elaborately dressed in spandex can not seem downright silly. We
all remember the joke from the first live-action X-Men film.
"You two knock it off, just share Jean Grey!"
We see people in real life, at conventions, wherever,
dressed as Spider-Man or Batman and we either chuckle or admire their
craftsmanship, but we can see why it’s so unrealistic and maybe even a little
silly. At the same time, we’ll sit down,
read Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and be awe-struck by the story and
storytelling. The comic book makes this
genre valid, it is the defining genre of this medium. Almost no movie or TV show will do Superman
justice, but comic books make him likable—even plausible or believable.
This of course, can continue as well. Shakespeare, Cats, and Rent (to my
understanding—someone no doubt understands this better) help to define the
stage play. These stories make sense
here. Well, maybe not Cats, but that’s
where it stayed and stayed so popular for so many years. Granted, of this particular medium, I am
particularly ignorant having seen only three things on stage: A high school rendition of The Elephant Man,
Riverdance (which was awesome), and The Vampire, which was a throw-back
vaudevillian style play that encouraged the audience to boo and hiss the
ridiculously over-the top villain character in a heavily over-acted
musical. Suffice to say, I thoroughly
enjoyed the experience, and would like to see more.
Now we have video games. Two things define games in this
regard. Pure challenge through
interactivity, and narrative told through interactivity. This may be the part of initial dispute to
this blog. Challenge through
interactivity is playing video games more for the physical, skill-based
contest. These are your shmups
(Gradius, Ikaruga), your run-n-gun titles (Contra, Metal Slug), your
platformers (Super Mario, Rayman Origins/Legends), and your puzzle games (Tetris,
Bejeweled, *ahem* GravBlocks). These are
titles that tend not to have cinematics, where control and interactivity are
key. They are not the focus of this as
we play them for the challenge and joy of the gameplay itself.
The others—the story-based titles—are the focus here. In case you haven’t figured this out to this
point, I’m indicating that filling an interactive medium with cinematics is
doing a disservice to the medium.
This showed up in Google Search under "disservice."
Why it’s a Disservice
Before we continue, I’d like to make a distinction here, as
I understand there is a key arguing point some of you may think I’m
overlooking: Games can be cinematic without cinematics.
Alan Wake is a good example of this, featuring environments that seem
very cinematic as the player moves through them. Running through a ravine as police cars and
spotlights break the darkness above, blazing through the darkened haze—this can
create a cinematic feeling to some people.
I argue that this is not
cinematic so much as it is atmospheric. It certainly looks stunning, and it delivers
an impact to the player, but it is not
cinematic. Remember the definition from
the top—something is cinematic when it is done for the art of cinema and
telling a story through cinema. The use
of the word “cinematic,” here, would then appear to be simply wrongly used.
Now, the point of a video game is that it is an interactive
experience. Cinematics are a disservice
simply because they replace interacting with watching. A player is no longer doing so much as they are watching. It is a disservice as it apes to be something
it is not—it tries to imitate movies when it is not a movie. It is no longer using the strengths of the
medium, it is attempting to use the strengths of another. And finally, I feel that it ultimately cheats
the player out of an experience to
replace it with a viewing.
There is also a kind of laziness about it, I dare say. Almost as if the industry doesn’t know how to
tell great stories in its own medium, so it defaults to “whatever Hollywood
does.” Or maybe there’s more to
this? Surely, I can’t be the only gamer
who’s occasionally had the impression that many in our industry want to be
accepted by Hollywood, as writers or directors or creators of art or what have you. And I can’t imagine why anyone working in gaming would want the approval of a starkly
I’m a pretty big movie fan myself, and part of my schooling
in the past has been in understanding filmmaking and cinematography—shot
set-up, scene lighting, direction, camera use, logical transitions, etc. But as a gamer and a game designer, I’m not
interested in appealing to Hollywood or trying to make a cinematic game—I’d
much rather make an interactive game that draws a player deeper into the story
and world therein (if indeed that’s the game I’m making).
Now, I’m not talking about a few seconds in the beginning
that introduce a concept, or a few seconds at the end that wrap everything up
in a neat little package. I’m talking
about constantly stopping the game itself to interject story at your face in
the form of videos that do not interact with you anymore than watching The Big
Bang Theory on reruns on TBS.
Flow-stopping, ham-fisting, narrative droning, cinematic movies.
"Please stay behind the white line sir. Do you have your 10-88 form?"
So What’s “Better?”
I toyed with a term for this for a while. After Googling a few different terms to see
if they’d been adopted elsewhere and how often they had, I have stumbled upon
what I personally feel should be the focus of story-based game development. We should not be making games cinematic, we should be making them interamatic.
Interamatic – (adj) --
of or pertaining to or characteristic of and defining of storytelling in
an interactive (video game) medium.
So here’s what I mean by this. When we make something cinematic, we are
using the strengths and defining characteristics of cinema and filmmaking. We are focusing on making movies and attempting to appeal to a
Hollywood-style of storytelling.
When we make something intermatic, we are using the
strengths of the interactive medium and defining characteristics of
interactivity through video game design and player involvement. In this, we are focusing on telling a story
that never breaks a flow, and in which the player is predominantly involved
from the player’s perspective. Control
is never taken from the player to force them to watch something happen, they
are involved in the happening itself.
The player can be involved in at least two ways:
First (we’ll call it the Constant Flow method), the story may be occurring around them
allowing them to take deliberate part—such as paying attention to the story,
approaching the non-player characters that are talking—or they may simply
ignore the details and continue to walk around the current area. Flow is not broken, and the player is
continually active if they so choose to be.
If they wish, they may approach the characters who are talking and
Second (we’ll call
it the Direct Conversation method),
the player may be involved in a direct conversation with an NPC character,
wherein the player is given conversation options which further affect
advancement and gameplay. In this way,
the player is directly targeted during the conversation and must make decisions
pertaining to it.
Both of these maintain the interactivity of the game, and
both largely maintain the flow of the gameplay and advancement through the
game’s world. Both of these methods use
the medium to its strengths and tell the story in a way that continually
involves the player and which cannot be
done in any other story telling medium (sans those old “choose your adventure”
books from the 80’s).
I suppose we should maybe have some examples to all this,
even though you’ve already thought of a few yourself.
"Oh this big heavy chemical suit? Don't worry about it, I'm sure you're safe. Do you have your 10-88? This zombie gunk requires the proper paperwork."
For the Constant Flow method (the first example), I’ll give
you Transformers: War for Cybertron, BioShock, Metroid Prime, and ZombiU. These games largely lack static cinematics
where you just watch something happen.
Rather, when you encounter a character who has something to say to the
player character, the player continues playing—the player maintains control
during these segments. If the player is
truly interested in the story, they may choose
to stand and pay attention, or they can continue to meander about the current
area until the characters are done talking.
These moments tend to be brief, yet always advance the story, and the
flow is never broken. The player is
unlikely to feel like they’re forced to watch something and the feeling that
one is “in” the game world is maintained.
It treats the player with respect.
“Here’s a section of story—you may listen intently, or let the guy talk
in the background while you scour the area for items.” In the case of Metroid Prime, the story is
discovered through the game world due to player exploration—everything is done
by and through the player and direct interaction with the world around them—it
never breaks the flow (until Prime 3 started including scenes with several
characters speaking around Samus).
For the Direct Conversation method, we have a huge number of
modern titles—the Mass Effect trilogy, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, Fallout,
Elder Scrolls, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, etc.
The flow may break, but the interactivity does not. The player is still involved in the story,
and in this way, may actively be affecting how it proceeds. The player is, in this way, often deeply involved in the narrative, and
never just a casual observer. These may
involve cutting away from the player camera to a conversation angle, like Mass
Effect (which goes from a standard 3rd person perspective, to
up-close conversation views), or it may remain “live” during the game itself
such as in Fallout: New Vegas or even more lively with Skyrim—where a player may
walk away from conversations.
These methods replace cinematics, further the story in a way
that involves the player (or does not unnaturally remove the player from the
environment), and furthers the story in a way that is unique to interactive
storytelling and gaming.
Essentially, anything that is done to keep the player
involved, to maintain player control, and to maintain the illusion of active
player involvement in the virtual world is what aids in the interamatic
strengths of the game. Instead of
calling a game “cinematic,” we could say its very “interamatic.”
We can still call some games cinematic—games like Metal Gear
Solid or that dreadful Metroid: Other M because in that way, the word is
accurate—these games are notorious for lengthy over-long cinematic sequences
where the player is merely watching
rather than interacting. These are not interamatic experiences and
they do not truly benefit the gaming industry as a whole, nor are they
immersing the player with the strengths of the medium.
"Well according to this, the player is supposed to be able to control you at some point."
Whoa, Wait a Minute—Metal Gear Solid Does a Disservice?!
Ooohh you got me!
Yes, I think it does. *Dodges
flung poo* I have never personally been
a big Metal Gear Solid fan myself, and the over-long cinematics and chatty
story sequences have not aided my ability to get into them. The last time I tried was on the PSP, and
literally a twenty minute cinematic
sequence on a portable game did
nothing to sway me to this franchise. In
a portable game, I may only have
twenty minutes—I should be able to do
something in that time.
When it came down to the complete fiasco that became
Metroid: Other M, I went into it eager to have another brilliant Metroid
experience—like Super Metroid or Metroid Prime--to being disgusted with the crude and misogynistic way the central character was treated in constant ham-fisted cinematic nonsense.
In Super Metroid and Prime, the story was told through atmosphere and exploration and the
player interacting with the world. I’m a
male, and I felt like I was in Samus’
shoes, I was Samus seeing the world
through her eyes in Prime. In Other M, I
sat through hours of ham-fisted, sexist, boring, droning cinematics where an
awkward and mistreated woman stood around awkwardly, talking to herself because
of rampant daddy issues. Here’s another
problem with the cinematic—they risk going on too long and actually harming the story.
The sexist treatment and constant character assassination of
Samus Aran did excessive damage to the character, the story, the universe, and
the franchise as it completely upended literally two decades of development
where players learned about her by being
her. No longer being Samus, players were forced to sit by as the flow of the game
was repeatedly broken to watch her be talked down to by *** stereotypes,
act like a spoiled brat with daddy issues, and frequently drone on about the
very events that had just occurred. Whereas I may say that Metal Gear Solid is a
disservice to the abilities of the gaming medium where storytelling is
concerned, Metroid: Other M is a testament to how attempting to merely tell a player a story can flatly ruin storytelling in gaming.
Yep, that's how we all felt about your crappy movie game.
Maybe I love gaming too much. That’s entirely possible. That’s why I criticize as much as I do. Because gaming can always be so much more than it is. But as an industry, I can’t help but think
that when we merely try to be like someone else, we are failing to improve ourselves
by our own standards—and ultimately, we are not measuring ourselves by our
If a game developer wants to make a movie, then they should
leave gaming to make movies. They can
then be schooled by professionals on how to write a good narrative and set up
meaningful shots, if nothing else (the developers and writers of Metroid: Other
M could stand to learn this lesson). But
we are letting ourselves down by attempting to live up to Hollywood’s standards
with a medium that has every potential to be far deeper than Hollywood could ever
tell a story. I’m not ripping on
Hollywood—let them have their popcorn flicks and meaningful dramas and
increasingly terrible, remade, ripped-off horror films. I’m saying that video games and game
developers need to STOP LOOKING TO HOLLYWOOD for inspiration. We cannot
write narratives the way Hollywood does.
We cannot write narratives the
way novelists or comic books do.
Over the past generation, we have seen the growth—the first truly
evolving, verypositive inklings of what storytelling should be in gaming. Mass Effect, Bioshock, War for Cybertron, Kingdoms of Amalur, etc. Many
games through the years have delivered greatness in story and storytelling (my
top vote always goes to Secret of Evermore during the 16-bit era), but we now
know, quite factually, how it should
be done, how it benefits gaming and
uses the medium to its strengths.
I think making games cinematic
is flatly obsolete and misguided. It’s
time to make our games interamatic,
and celebrate the strengths of interactive storytelling and player
involvement. We don’t need Hollywood to
tell a great story.
Thanks for stopping by!