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.

Two suns in the distance on the surface of a planet in Mass Effect.
Recalling iconic moments from film and re-engaging with them in games can evoke strong emotions.

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.

Cinema Envy

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.

Praised for its strong narrative and cinematic qualities, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture has very minimalist gameplay mechanics – a point of criticism for many gamers and critics.

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.

Cinematic Gameplay

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.

Lee and Clementine from The Walking Dead Game. Their relationship served as the thematic and emotional crux of the game’s narrative. Gameplay was mixed with cinematic cutscenes to continually re-contextualize their relationship based on player choice.

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.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater recalled the James Bond movies through visual motifs and stylistics – paying homage to the iconic series, and also inviting fans to do the same.

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

References

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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M.A student in Communications, Media and Film. B.A in Women's and Gender Studies. Talking about, and studying, video games.

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25 Comments

  1. Lindgren
    0

    This is a fascinating and true article. I’m using this as a source for a deeper study in university.

  2. Jeanice
    0

    Games are making inroads but are nowhere close to cinema in general though it’s not hard to find better narrative, atmosphere and themes in games compared to say prefab cinematic rubbish like Yogi Bear.

    • alys
      0

      Games like the metal gear solid series make mincemeat of 90% of films out there.

  3. Furr
    0

    What happens when an audience becomes the performer…

  4. Shae
    1

    Metal Gear Solid showed how games could move beyond anything experienced in a cinema back in 1998 – heartbreaking, awe inspiring, rivetingly entertaining to both play or just watch, it was like nothing I had ever experienced before or have since.

  5. Stone
    0

    I would love to create or play a game (either board or computer) that could combine the mechanics of the Fable III King scenerio with a story, characterisation and complexity that matches Game of Thrones. Then, just then, might we have something more sophisticated than cinema.

  6. Chris
    1

    Cinema can go places gaming can’t, but gaming can go places cinema can’t.

  7. ToneBuilder
    0

    Great study on games.

  8. Fleck
    0

    Street Fighter 2 was tonnes better than Street Fighter the movie. This is a joke. Loved reading your piece.

  9. AGMacdonald

    The cinematic element worked so well for the opening scene of The Last of Us to cement the emotional connection, but beyond that it was more about the gameplay.

  10. That’s very true. Cinema creates brings the strong character of fascinating heroes in the mind of audience, Video game builder use this already build heroes in their games according to there characteristics.

  11. ben
    0

    I think this is a great article.

  12. Collin Bigelow
    0

    In 20 years time, will someone who says ‘I don’t like computer games’ receive the same response that similar statements about music, books or films would receive today?

  13. Bee
    0

    I think it’s also worth highlighting that the gaming world itself isn’t the most friendly toward games that go that little bit deeper. Metal Gear Solid 2, for example, was considered too confusing and too narrative driven. So although there are great games out there, I still think it’s miles behind cinema in general.

  14. love
    0

    For the sake of all that’s reasonable, I wish games companies would stop trying to emulate film. When I play a game I expect a game, a test of skill with a decent chance of success or failure based on a combination of luck, skill and understanding of its terms.

    When I watch a film I am prepared to accept a narrative presented to me.

    As games try to mimic films, they tend to lose the skill aspect in order that their narrative (which is invariably weakened by the need for interactivity and the illusion of choice, there are no exceptions contrary to what anyone might think) be presented to all players.

    • Acosta
      0

      I think some games are able to match that of any great film, because they have all the hallmarks: social commentary, emotionally immersive and skilfully crafted.

  15. Nixon
    0

    Interesting points!

  16. Fish
    0

    Film characters are played (so far) by human beings with a full range of expressions and nuanced behaviour (unless you are a Hollywood actor!). A game is a set of cartoons moving around. Sophisticated cartoons, but just images. I can’t engage with a cartoon character in the same way I do with a human being. I am afraid that animation will take over from human actors though in the future. Thank God for theatre!

  17. Hensle
    0

    Any video game that allows the user interaction with the world is going to have the advantage over movies, which are a passive method of entertainment.

    • flower
      0

      I have not encountered a game that offered the same visuals, acting and emotional depth that for example The White Ribbon, but then that’s not what I am searching in a game: I hate games that feel like films and films that feel like games.

      • Crow
        0

        One is an interactive experience which enables you to control the narrative/action in a game. The other is a passive experience where you put yourself into the hands of the director and accept the narrative as it unfolds.

    • pense
      0

      Why watch Tony Stark when you can be Tony Stark in a story of your own creation?

    • wasteLand
      0

      Games cannot be emotionally engaging. Which doesn’t make it less worthy as an art form.

  18. Amyus

    I confess I am not a gamer as such; the most I’ve done is played GT4 and hurtled around the Nurburgring in under 7 mins (gloats), but having said that you’ve written an intriguing article that has made me think that perhaps I’ve ignored the cinematic depth being achieved by mainstream gaming. Well, you live and learn. Thanks for the enlightening read.

  19. jonj

    Great points, and very intriguing ideas raised, although I would make the argument that in terms of narrative structure, most video games play out more like a season of a TV program (with many elements of Cinema).

    Sometimes chapters (or episodes) will be defined and sometimes not, but throughout the course of certain games you are given such an ample amount of time with the characters, that the actual length of time playing/watching equates to a season of TV (8+ hours).

    This only points to the merit of a video game’s narrative potential, which you really make a great case for in your article.

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