Why is it so bad for a game to be 'cinematic'? More games need to be this way, says Brendan.
By Brendan Keogh on January 22, 2013 at 10:14 am
You know what I love? Cinematic games. For all the times that we say the best videogames are those that are “games first” (whatever that means), I love the games that aren’t afraid to take a lesson or two from film in their representation of my actions and the world they’re happening in.
Videogames aren’t movies. That’s a statement so obvious that it shouldn’t even need to be made. But just because they aren’t movies doesn’t mean we should ignore all the similarities that both film and videogames have in common. Sure, videogames are about what we ‘do’ by pressing buttons and engaging with systems and all that, but a large part of how we understand those systems and interactions is through the way things are depicted on the screen: what things look like, and what angle we are viewing them from. Both videogames and movies rely, in varying degrees, on the depiction of moving images on a screen.
Which is why it makes no sense to me when I hear it said that it shouldn’t be a positive thing to call a game ‘cinematic’. Why not? Cinematic stylings have been helping create intimate relationships between audiences and images moving around on screens for decades. Why would we ignore all that when it comes to the relationships with screens that videogames fostered?
It was the Playstation-era Final Fantasys that first helped me to appreciate what cinematic style can contribute to a videogame. I remember, as young and impressionable as I was, watching the opening movie of Final Fantasy VII as the camera lifts up over Midgar and then swoops back down onto the train station to meld seamlessly with the opening action of the game. Final Fantasy VIII did even more with this merging of video and gameplay in its first major mission, where the player is chased by a giant robot spider through some city streets. There would be no cut from the chunky characters running off screen to the full-motion video starting. It created a breathtaking cohesion to the world between the scripted, cinematic sequences and my own actions. It didn’t just feel like I was watching an action movie; it felt like I was a part of an action movie.
Around the same time, my friends who owned Nintendo 64s were being handed control of the camera itself. Using four little ‘c’ buttons, they were moving their own virtual cameras around fully-3D worlds, setting up their own, personalised cinematic sequences as Mario jumped around the princess’s mansion. I was enjoying being a part of an action film; they were being a part of an action film and its camera crew.
For me, though, this wasn’t something I really embraced until I owned a Playstation 2 (though, I did spend hours in Driver’s replay director but that is kind of detached from actually playing the game). Playing Grand Theft Auto III, every time a car caught on fire, I would walk away from it slowly, holding down the reverse-view button so the camera would be in front of my protagonist, watching him swagger slowly as the car explodes and everyone panics (something I still do today with Niko Bellic). Or in Ico, I would hold down ‘R2’ to zoom the camera in and adjust the right analogue stick to create these cinematic sequences as Ico and Yorda walked through the castle. It looked nice, and that made it feel nice to play.
Whether the player or the game has control of the virtual camera, videogame’s have a long history of being, in part, cinematic. More contemporary genres like the sticky-cover shooter (and over-the-shoulder third-person games generally) depend on the fact that the action on screen is as enjoyable to look at as it is to participate in. That doesn’t just mean it requires more polygons to be more ‘realistic’, but that it needs to be depicted in a visually stunning and captivating way.
And that’s why I love games that embrace being cinematic—be it a scripted kind of cinematic or one that I can control myself. Just because videogames aren’t movies, doesn’t mean we should ignore the ways they are similar. Just because videogames are about ‘doing’ doesn’t mean we should ignore the role ‘watching’ plays in the virtual acts we are doing. When I am playing a game that can be described as ‘cinematic’, I don’t feel like I am merely watching a movie; I feel like I am acting in a movie, like I am bringing a movie to life, and that is something only a cinematic videogame can do.