Is Being Cinematic a Faulty Goal?


Cinematic – (Adj) – of or pertaining to or characteristic of the cinema


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 media? 


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.

Abridged version.


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 non-gaming industry? 


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 listen in.


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.


Closing Cinematic

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 standards.


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.



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