‘Cinematic Experiences’ in Video Games: A Worrying Trend

beyond-two-souls

The upcoming Playstation 3 title Beyond: Two Souls is developer’s Quantic Dream’s “most ambitious title”, offering “grand, dramatic gestures rather than quiet, undemonstrative emotion”. Like many other titles (see: The Last of Us and Bioshock: Infinite), it promises to push the boundaries of narratives and story in videogames, creating human, lifelike drama in a simulated and digital space.

However, this is not necessarily a good thing. Gameplay footage suggests that story and narrative is placed at the very forefront at the game; the acting, the direction and all of the scenery conveys senses of hopelessness, drama and struggle. Yet once you look beyond that, the very core of the game itself mainly consists of simple QTEs (quick time events). It ultimately conveys that the gameplay and how it plays has been shunned by the developers in order to focus on the narrative and the ‘cinematic’ feel of the game.

The Videogame Experience

This may be quite controversial, but I have to state it: games do not (and should not) have to be engrossing on a narrative level. The narrative is always tertiary when playing a game. Maybe even secondary.

marioWhen playing a game, most (if not all) of the experience is derived from how it plays. For example, in Super Mario Bros., the ‘story’ (if one can call it that) is irrelevant. The only thing a player needs to know is that they should avoid pitfalls, fireballs and other dangers. The ‘drama’ of Peach’s kidnapping is never there; the only ‘drama’ present in Super Mario Bros. is the ‘drama’ that the player creates by themselves through the gameplay mechanics. The inherent quality of a game (the gameplay) is pushed to the very front of the title, and all of the experience is accrued through that. When the player reaches the end of the game, the satisfaction is not derived from a heartwarming scene involving Princess Peach and Mario; it is derived from the fact that the player and only the player has overcome every single obstacle in front of him and has finished the game. Princess Peach, therefore, is not a character. Neither are Mario or Bowser. They are merely manifestations of the relationship that the player shares with the game in front of him: Mario is the avatar of the player, Bowser is the obstacle and the challenge that the game presents to the player, and Princess Peach is the symbol of ultimate satisfaction that the game rewards to the player after they have completed the game.

If Super Mario Bros. was a tense psychological thriller with a focus on Mario’s inability to protect the Princess from an inhuman evil instead, the experience of the game would ultimately be lessened. The game not would be between the player and the game; a narrative would be forced down the throat of the player and the experience that the player gains from completing the game would be cheapened. The sole advantage that a game has over other mediums of entertainment is the interactivity: the gameplay. To abandon all that in the face of simple narratives and forced scenes of drama lessens the value a game has; all of the drama, all of the excitement, all of the emotion must come from the mechanics itself, never from the context around it.

Cinematic Sickening

Consumers have also grown tired of the growing trend of ‘cinematic experiences’. Compare Capcom’s self-developed Devil May Cry 4 with Ninja Theory’s DmC: Devil May Cry. DMC 4 has a bare-bones and forgettable plot that only exists to push the player from one section of the game to the other. The gameplay, however, is incredibly deep and intricate, with one of the highest skill-ceilings in modern gaming. DmC, on the other hand, had an emphasis on the narrative and the story, shunning many gameplay mechanics introduced in the previous titles.

Yet consumers did not appreciate the changes. The newest hack n’ slash, lauded by many critics as a ‘refreshing change’, absolutely bombed in sales, selling only 0.24 million copies worldwide on the Xbox 360. DMC4, on the other hand (the game that needed ‘revitalisation’ and ‘refreshment’) sold nicely, reaching 1.29 million.

Quality of the games aside, it is only clear that consumers voted with their wallets. It indicates a necessity for videogames to go back to basics, becoming less ‘dynamic’ and ‘engaging’ and more ‘fun’ and focused solely on ‘gameplay’. The bubble is bursting, and consumers want something different. It suggests a reluctance to accept the watering down of gameplay mechanics in favour of ‘cinematic’ and movie-like experiences.

Even large-name developers have lost patience with the AAA gaming industry’s focus on the ‘cinematic experience’. Masahiro Sakurai, creator of Kid Icarus: Uprising, the Super Smash Bros. series and the Kirby series has expressed concerns over certain titles’ emphasis on narrative. He considers the story as never something that should take precedence over the gameplay, as the game ends up “having their tempo all messed up as a result”. He argues that “that balance is key” in deciding on narratives. Quite rightly so, as developers have proven time and time again that a great balance between game mechanics and game narratives can exist.

Onto the Future

The future is, as always, quite uncertain in the world of videogames. Although consumers have proven that they dislike the sacrificing of game mechanics in order to favour narrative, Microsoft’s upcoming Xbox One console suggests that the lines between videogame and ‘cinematic experience’ are continuing to be blurred. Furthermore, Beyond: Two Souls is a very large scale release; its ultimate success, however, is still in question. Quality discussions aside, whether it will be a commercial success or not is, as always, down to the consumer.

What is for certain, though, is this: the ‘cinematic experience’ continues to be a trend in the gaming world. And until the gaming industry realises that this ultimately cheapens the inherent qualities of a videogame, it will always be a worrying trend in the gaming world.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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32 Comments

  1. J. Bryan Jones

    I have to disagree with almost every non-factual thing you said.

    • Nathan Walters

      I must admit, my argument could have been a little more developed. I did want to create some discussion though, and at least my ‘non-facts’ achieved that.

      May I ask why you disagree?

      • J. Bryan Jones

        Story does not cheapen the quality of the video game. When done correctly, it enhances them. Examples of games when the opposite is true dates back to the 8-bit era, but mostly this is accomplished by a poor and incoherent story. Your Mario example doesn’t hold up to the modern game. Many gamers feel some emptiness when the ending of a game sucks like with Diablo III. Anticipation increases enjoyment. You wouldn’t have the same satisfaction destroying something perceived as great like Bowser instead of a regular Koopa. Your example of making it a psycho-thriller only took its story and made it inappropriate and a poor match for the gameplay. Even with games like Mario World, story and gameplay go hand in hand. Otherwise you’re just playing Pong. There’s really too much to say to address and counter all your points. Really, it just sounds like you’ve been playing the wrong games for you. An article I wrote on Leather Wing Media has nearly the opposite intention as yours. If you care to further explore my opinion, check out this link:
        http://wp.me/p2tkt1-t

      • J. Bryan Jones

        Story does not cheapen the quality of the video game. When done correctly, it enhances them. Examples of games when the opposite is true dates back to the 8-bit era, but mostly this is accomplished by a poor and incoherent story. Your Mario example doesn’t hold up to the modern game. Many gamers feel some emptiness when the ending of a game sucks like with Diablo III. Anticipation increases enjoyment. You wouldn’t have the same satisfaction destroying something perceived as great like Bowser instead of a regular Koopa. Your example of making it a psycho-thriller only took its story and made it inappropriate and a poor match for the gameplay. Even with games like Mario World, story and gameplay go hand in hand. Otherwise you’re just playing Pong. There’s really too much to say to address and counter all your points. Really, it just sounds like you’ve been playing the wrong games for you. An article I wrote on Leather Wing Media has nearly the opposite intention as yours.

        • Nathan Walters

          But I leave the idea that stories in videogames can be very well executed(when done correctly) open in my article. The ENTIRE wRPG and cRPG genre has examples of this. Only point being, they have some very sound mechanics behind them. For example, Deus Ex has one of the best stories and narratives I have ever seen in a game. Yet it is so fondly looked upon because of the fact that it is a genre-blender: part rpg, part fps, part stealth action game.

          The main point of my article is that stories should never take precedence over gameplay mechanics.

        • Nathan Walters

          Furthermore, my ‘Mario example’ does hold up to the modern game. It is the quintessential videogame – it offers a problem and the player has to overcome the challenge in order to solve that problem. Same goes for things like Tetris and Pacman.

          You wouldn’t change the mechanics of chess to create a story, so why should you change and detract from potential videogame mechanics to do the same?

        • Nathan Walters

          I read your article on LWM. I like your ideas but your choices seem a little strange – especially The Force Unleashed. IIRC, it basically messes with the whole Star Wars canon – doesn’t Starkiller (if that’s his name, I may be confused) BECOME Darth Vader in one ending?

          A better choice would have been Obsidian’s KOTOR 2. That takes the whole Jedi/Sith dichotomy and flips it on its head, suggesting (and arguing very, very well) that they aren’t so different after all. The Jedi are essentially as evil as the Sith because they are as proud and as focused on their power as the Sith are.

          • J. Bryan Jones

            Full disclosure, I never finished KoTOR. I got stuck in one part that was probably a glitch with all the doors closed and nowhere to go. There are better stories like Bioshock out there, but I was going about filling 3 distinct categories for case studies.

  2. Austin Bender

    I love the cinematic experience, that being said, not every game needs to be littered with cut scenes.

    • Nathan Walters

      I personally think a cinematic ‘feel’ to a game can be stellar as long as the core gameplay is sound. For example, the MGS series: the cutscenes and storytelling is massive, yet the game itself is littered with so many great twists and perks it makes it worthwhile.

      I just think a videogame’s contribution to art shouldn’t come from how well it can emulate a movie or a novel but from the literal interaction it provides to the player.

  3. I am a retro gamer and thus enjoy the gameplay over the graphics. I never fancied the cinematic sequences unless if they played a very important part of the storyline or the gameplay over whole. These days, there are too many games hiding their poor gameplay behind nice cut scenes – let’s not deny that.

    Nice read!

    • Nathan Walters

      Thanks. I agree, and while I’m not much of a retro gamer myself, I do like to play some classics. I thought of this article when I found myself playing Pac-Man the other day. I was just standing there (I managed to find an arcade cabinet at my local cinema) and it dawned on me that I was playing a videogame at its finest. At its purest.

  4. Having played Bioshock: Infinite and similar games that utilise the “cinematic experience” you bash, I can say that I’m completely opposed to your viewpoint. They cinematic experience adds a element of story telling that helped me feel immersed in the game and add to my enjoyment throughout the experience, keeping my thoroughly engaged throughout.
    I play Mario games for fun, I play games such as Bioshock for the thrill of the story as much as anything else.

    • Nathan Walters

      But what’s the point of making a game that solely emphasises the ‘thrill of the story’? Why not write a novel or create a film instead?

      The thrill of videogames should come from the game itself, first and foremost.

  5. Jason Krell

    First off, let me put the fact that I’m a writer (the author kind) on the table where we can all see it. Second, though it kills me to say it, I think you’re right in that narrative is secondary for videogames. If the game plays like crap or is a bunch of QTEs (those are awful), then it’s not much of a game. It’s an annoying movie that you can’t finish without pressing a button every once and a while.

    That being said, I don’t think that narrative ever…DETRACTS from a game. I’m trying really hard and I can’t think of a time when a good story did anything bad. And the reason DmC wasn’t as well received wasn’t because of the story, per say, but rather because of the simplified game play, as you said!

    So, while I can appreciate a game without an engaging story, I would always PREFER it to have one. Now, I don’t want that story to get in the way of the game itself, but if the devs did a good job, I certainly won’t complain about it!

    But this was a good article and great point of discussion! Good job brotha!

    • Nathan Walters

      Thanks for your comment. It really means a lot! I’ve said in a comment above that my argument could have been a little more well-written, but I’m glad that it has produced this discussion.

      I do agree that a good story can add to the experience of a game; yet nowadays many developers seem to care ONLY about the story and never the game itself. That ultimately detracts from the production. A good story to me is something in a videogame that simply gives the player context to whatever they happen to be doing. Going back to the Sakurai article, he himself only puts in story to provide some information to the player as to why certain things are happening. It really shines through on Kid Icarus: Uprising as well, because while the episodic nature of each level can seem a little strange, the writing is centered around just giving new experiences to the player. Additionally in that game, certain game mechanics are explained to the player (such as Kid Icarus only being to fly for five minutes) in order to provide context and context ONLY as to why certain game mechanics are present. If it wasn’t there, the game would just be too confusing without a lengthy and obtuse manual.

  6. Gitana Duka

    Interesting article! I think it addresses an interesting issue, especially with the arriving next gen. I really think it’s different for each player – I know I’m a huge fan of compelling narratives in games, but it’s important for games to be interactive as well, rather than throwing cutscenes and lore and information at you at every corner. The process should feel organic!

    On the other hand there are games that I turn to if I just want to blow off some steam (Saints Row for example). Overall I think the best received games are those that are somewhere in the middle – an interesting story with good, solid game play.

    • Nathan Walters

      Thanks! I agree with your last point – a blend between the two is optimal. And yes, it is different for each player. But then again, that’s part of the beauty of videogames – everybody likes something different!

  7. Interesting article. I agree that stories are of secondary importance to a video game (just take a look at the success of League of Legends), but I disagree with the idea that a good story could ever hamper the experience of a video game.

    That said, I think the larger part of the video game industries standard of storytelling requires some serious construction work. Thanks for the read!

    • Nathan Walters

      Thanks for the input! I agree, most videogame stories do tend to suck yet they only get lauded because they are the only examples of a ‘polished’ story in videogames.

  8. Stephen Gillespie

    I really love the idea of using games as a storytelling medium and therefore respectfully disagree with your thoughts on this topic. I think bringing interactivity to a cinematic experience is a great way to make it excel, which is the reason I love games like Heavy Rain, the Walking Dead, Witcher 2 and most Bioware games. Gameplay is of course very important, but there are games out there with substandard gameplay which have excelled for me due to story, a perfect example being To the Moon or Dear Esther. There will always be a place for mechanics driven gamey games, but I love it when video games are used as a unique way to tell a story.

    • Nathan Walters

      I respect your opinion, but there is a reason why TWD is known as a ‘visual novel’ and not a videogame. Furthermore, with the Witcher 2 and most Bioware games, there are usually very solid gameplay mechanics behind the story; for example, combat mechanics in Baldur’s Gate are (IIRC) based on DnD dice rolls and such. It reflects its status as an electronic representation of the DnD world.

      Videogames are a unique way to tell a story, yes – but only when they emphasise the fact that it is VIDEOGAME that is telling a story, not ‘substandard gameplay’ surrounded with reams of prose, dialogue and inaction. A perfect example of a videogame telling a great story of a world would be Dark Souls, because a large narrative exists beneath the surface of solid and polished gameplay mechanics.

  9. Jon Lisi
    Jon Lisi
    0

    A very intriguing article. I don’t play videogames, so my comments here are limited to the game theory I read and incorporate into media studies (which, I would argue, video games fall under).

    I just have a few comments:

    1. You write, “The sole advantage that a game has over other mediums of entertainment is the interactivity: the gameplay. To abandon all that in the face of simple narratives and forced scenes of drama lessens the value a game has; all of the drama, all of the excitement, all of the emotion must come from the mechanics itself, never from the context around it.”

    I take your point, even though other media has become more interactive, but I would argue that users of video games interact with “mechanics” that has been created in advance. The interaction is thus limited to what exists within the game. To suggest that games with a greater emphasis on narrative would be less interactive seems idealistic and unfounded in the reality of how games are constructed in the first place.

    2. You write: “Quality of the games aside, it is only clear that consumers voted with their wallets. It indicates a necessity for videogames to go back to basics, becoming less ‘dynamic’ and ‘engaging’ and more ‘fun’ and focused solely on ‘gameplay.'”

    This evidence is certainly revealing, but to what extent? If I were to apply this to cinema, then this would mean that studios should just continue to make sequels and unoriginal action films because those make the most money. Surely there is more to gaming than sales, just as there is more to cinema than box office?

    3. Critics within cinema studies say that films today are becoming more like video games, and critics within video games are saying that video games are becoming more like films. Surely we have learned from past battles of the mediums (literature vs. cinema, cinema vs. painting, etc.) and we can co-exist and find ways to bridge the gaps between the two, no?

    • Nathan Walters

      Thanks for the reply, it really gave me food for thought. Just as there are more to videogames as there is more to cinema than the box office, unfortunately the majority of the industry (and therefore the quality of say, 85% of all titles produced) are subject to the large box-office trends.

      As for your third point, I should have made my article clearer. There are stellar examples of a videogame that has a ‘movielike’ feel. One such example is the MGS series, which has great storytelling and scenes. However, this series is only so great because of the very solid and refined gameplay mechanics that surround it. The game would still be extremely enjoyable even if the story and narrative was lacking.

  10. Kevin Wong

    Very well said, I agree with you on many levels and great choice using DMC4 as an example.

    • Nathan Walters

      Thanks, it really means a lot. Your recent article looks very interesting but I have not had a chance to read it yet.

      Honestly, I just love picking on the whole DMC4/DmC thing, because there are just so many interesting things about it. From the atrocious writing to the full-on insults directed towards the fans of the series, DmC was just a trainwreck of a videogame. I’d probably touch on it even more in another article.

  11. James Lillywhite

    I think this is an interesting point – indeed, if you look at the Final Fantasy series, and the modern developed of those games, they seem to have put cinematic experiences above typical series troupes. For example, in FF13, the first 10-15 hours are almost entirely linear, with dramatic cut scenes and events – this is fine in a normal game, however with this series being typically a free roaming RPG, it is quite an interesting development.

    Thanks for the read!

    • Nathan Walters

      Thank you! I have been meaning to write another article but I’ve been moving etc. so it has been put on the backburner recently! Should start writing one soon, however.

      Yeah, about FF13: you are completely right. That, unfortunately, really dragged down the gameplay (not to mention the story was a bit stupid (even by jrpg standards), the characters were unlikable or one-dimensional and the terminology was just ridiculous). When you get to the 20-hour-or-so mark, the game gets really good. In fact, the only time I genuinely enjoyed the game was after I completed it!

  12. I thought this offered an interesting perspective on games. However, I feel like I am more invested into a game if you can almost build a relationship with the character and basically feel the same things as them. I think that’s why The Last of Us was such a great game for me, because I became completely attached to the characters and the storyline as a whole, but it didn’t neglect itself of wonderful gameplay at the same time.

  13. I would like to politely somewhat disagree. Though you make a valid argument on game mechanics being important, story is upmost important in drawing consumers who perhaps are not that familiar with the gaming industry. I do however agree with you on the aspect that a balance of both game mechanics and story is a great necessity. Take for example, Skyrim, although it has a unique gaming system (though at times it can be quite shoddy and schlecht,) there is practically no true narrative there. A player can wander aimlessly about the world and be absolutely completely lost at what the core story is and what on earth they are supposed to be doing. However, when the narrative is present within the game, a player will then have a sense of direction, of moving forward. This is not to say that we should not have free roaming experience. That can be quite fun too! But a game should have a generally strong narrative plot and an entertaining story.

    It would be fun to further discuss this. Very well written! Sehr gut!

  14. Danijel
    0

    I agree with you, i found this problem in Witcher 3, great story but its too long becouse the gameplay is not great and it gets boring becouse of it, and i must say that sidequest not related to main story feel a lot worse in story elements and i think the should not exsist becouse they destroy gameplay also becouse of their repetitive nature

  15. wow, its quite old this article

    I think most game companies are people who kind of want to get into the hollywood business of making movies , instead of making games. I used to like watching cinematics, when they were a rare breed… But I think the whole purpose of making games is to play them yourself, not to watch it on a movie.

    I think the game should feel more like you have choices, that you control the whole story line. And not feel like you are playing to get to the next cinematic…. which will force you to have the ending the creator of the game wants you to have….

    Also many companies now force you to watch the cinematics without giving you the chance to skip them, which makes you build up so much anger and bitterness towards them….

    Plus there are many people who don`t have much time to play, and want to play a game and not watch a movie….

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