Cinematic Games: Video Games and the Shadow of Cinema
Most of us will have heard it before, perhaps even said it ourselves – that (critically-acclaimed game here) is “cinematic”. Often, the term is deployed with reverence, and certainly used from a place of praise to attract potential gamers. Much of Hideo Kojima’s reputation as a video game auteur arose from how revolutionary the Metal Gear Solid series was – not only for innovations in gameplay that helped inform the stealth genre afterward, but also in how storytelling can be the driving force for games. More precisely, the storytelling in tandem with the directional approach employed by Kojima across the Metal Gear games have endlessly been described as “cinematic”. Not surprising, as Kojima has expressed a deep admiration for cinema his entire career – and this admiration has been stamped all over the series – from references and homages to technical direction. The interest of “cinematic” games however, is not centralized to Metal Gear games alone.
Deeming a game “cinematic” is a very common form of praise, one that has been seeing more use these days with newer games making gains in cinematic storytelling. Critics did not walk away from Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us (2013) commending its groundbreaking gameplay (though some likely did); it was the game’s story, its characters, and particularly the performances that made waves throughout the community – with emphasis on how games are continuing to put on themselves map for their cinematic possibilities. After all, how could we forget that soul-shattering prologue? David Cage has been basing his design principles on emulating cinema for years, Until Dawn (2015) re-engages with narrative premise that we’ve seen endlessly in horror film, and Mass Effect (2007) was peppered with iconic tropes and imagery recognizable to sci-fi fans everywhere.
There is a running desire from many to see games reach the level of consideration and respect as a medium that others have long since achieved. While Games Studies is on the rise and quickly gaining recognition across academic institutions everywhere, there are still miles to go and bridges to cross before games sees the clout and regard that film and literature have seen for decades. A part of this desire for legitimacy manifests itself in using this idea of the “cinematic” to describe games – especially in describing games that we consider to be top of the form. Of course, this is not without pushback. Some reject the notion of cinematic games entirely and purport that games should stand alone without the influence of cinema, which may be removing the unique possibilities that games have to offer.
Henry Jenkins coined a useful phrase in his piece, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture” (2004): cinema envy. It describes a latent issue with discussions by game scholars when it comes to approaching game analysis. In brief, there is on-going dialogue over the place of conventional narrative in games and their appeal as an object of study – to some, these narratives represent an appealing place of examination for their socio-cultural valence and, as all artifacts of culture, deserve analysis. Others disagree, and see this over-emphasis on studying conventional narrative structures as ignoring and de-prioritizing the uniqueness of games and their possibilities. Interactivity and structural game design set the medium apart from others, such as film and literature, so focusing on narrative comes with the risk of making games derivative and de-specified from other mediums. “Cinema envy” here is used to describe the latter group’s critique of scholar’s desire to talk about games in the way others talk about films.
While this article does not speak to the on-going discourses in game studies in particular, it’s easy to see the vestiges of this conversation happening in the gaming community. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture (2015) released to great critical acclaim, nominated for prestigious awards and re-igniting conversations about the status of games as an art form. Many gamers and critics, however, criticized its mechanics and its acclaim for being overblown. At the crux of the dialogue around Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture was the tension around this pedestalling of the “cinematic” – the game was critiqued as being little more than a walking simulator, elevated by its strong narrative components and cinematic presentation. Indeed, there is much to think about when a game with very few operative mechanics leads the charge as a critical darling. The question is whether or not this anxiety overblown or misdirected.
There is a very real fear that games can only ever achieve “high culture” status the more they approximate and emulate film. I’ve appropriated Jenkins’ term “cinema envy” here because its eerily appropriate to the conversation that’s happening now: are we in a constant of cinema envy, as detractors imply? Many AAA titles hyper-focus on photorealistic graphical styles and utilize engines that work toward that kind of look – Naughty Dog’s accolades for exactly this kind of direction Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016) and The Last of Us on release is a good example. Additionally, part of the appeal and success of Overwatch (2016) stemmed from having a multiplayer shooter title that so emphatically dismissed the trend of gritty photorealism – that this was a trend in the first place says enough. We don’t necessarily escape the conversation with Overwatch either; the comparisons to Pixar are rampant, the marketing strategy of using cinematic shorts, and the fan demand for a feature film still harken to cinema’s lingering shadow over gaming.
Cinema is the leading force in image-based mediums, both in study and in everyday cultural standing. Universities have entrenched film studies alongside sociology and English literature, high class award ceremonies exist to produce and perpetuate elite film culture, and the counter-culture art world has long embraced “art films” as a staple. Video games are a rapidly expanding, multi-billion dollar industry – but there’s no Oscars for video games (not to say that Oscars are representative of artistic merit, just to be clear). There are countless think pieces in circulation discussing whether or not video games are art. The topic evokes much passion and verve from its audience. To this day, some gamers will cite Roger Ebert’s “Video Games Can Never be Art” (2010) piece with as much contention and outrage as the day it was published. We have a passionate consumer base devoted to the belief that games are art and deserve cultural recognition, and yet many will vehemently push back against any convergence of games and film.
I understand the desire to see games stand on their own, and fully subscribe to the notion that they should. That said, this belief that drawing from filmic sensibilities in media-making (especially in terms of narrative construction and direction) are antithetical to games doing just that is entirely more complicated than is easy to admit. In academic circles, games are currently fighting the battle that film used to have to back in its infancy – as cultural artifacts worthy of study beyond their structural components, able to be observed for their narrative and aesthetic potential. There is a lot to be said about the way films tell stories and evoke responses from its audience – it would not have endured and reached the place in our culture it has now otherwise. Games possess the same potential. There was a strong appeal in the way The Last of Us visually resembled a film, but it was especially appealing because it resembled a film the player got to be a part of.
Games have the ability to do what films do and with added dimension; caring for Clementine in The Walking Dead Game (2012) was emotionally resonant not only because of the game’s excellently crafted narrative and directional prowess, but because her wellbeing hinged on player choice. The interactive element in games will always set games apart from any other medium. What we would be remiss to forget is that this interactivity can “interact” with filmic sensibilities in ways that generate unique, pleasurable experiences that do not come at the cost of evaluating games on their own terms. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater’s (2004) final showdown was set in a picturesque scene, framed by white flowers and the game’s 007-esque theme song, following a long expository cutscene – but the game interrupts itself to give players the power to pull the trigger themselves and engage with the story in a way that only video games have the power to do. The cinematic direction and sensibilities here hyper-emphasize the moment you’re put in control again – the two “modes” work together to inform one of the series’ most powerful moments.
This is a conversation that requires more than the abilities of one article to find a resolution for (if a resolution can even be found). The way we conceptualize games – what makes games good, what constitutes a “real game”, what games are capable of, and so on – become complicated by the inevitable interaction with cinema and cinematic sensibilities to visual storytelling. Great games can speak to us in ways that harken back to the power of cinema, and often times the two do not have to be completely opposed and can inform each other to create engaging experiences. There is something to be said, however, for how prevalent the term “cinematic” gets deployed when speaking of games, of how this unique and emergent medium becomes subsumed by another, more established powerhouse. The desire to see gaming stand on its own comes from a place of genuine concern, in a media landscape that praises “cinematic” games and elevates the parts of them that de-specifies them as game
Ebert, R. (2010, April 16). Video Games Can Never be Art. Retrieved from http://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/video-games-can-never-be-art
Jenkins, H. (2004). Game design as narrative architecture. Computer, 44(3).
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