A Little Gamey: Why “Cinematic” Should Be a Dirty Word in Video Games

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bioshock infinite lighthouse

AAA (triple A) video games and the people who play them need to get over their embarrassing and childish insecurity. If I spent as much time getting in shape as gaming culture spends defending their chosen art form from mostly imagined assaults, I would have the abs of Ryan Reynolds. “We’re art too!” everyone cries, as if accusations otherwise are even worth entertaining, and as if the only qualifier for validity and purpose is recognition by artistic and critical bodies that weren’t built to accommodate you in the first place. “Cinematic” gets thrown around every day, and less than an adjective it’s become a badge of pride that means “we’re like movies too, we deserve your respect”, but no one seems to stop and think whether a game that’s like a movie is even a good thing. If video games are an apple pie, and “respected” art is a delicious steak, “cinematic” has become a way for the bakers to make an apple pie that tastes as much like a steak as possible because they’re worried the steakhouse won’t put their pie on the menu if they don’t. And gaming culture has either the gall or the ignorance to think that this cowardice is worthy of praise.

There are many reasons for these misguided attempts at credibility, but one of the largest lies in a certain ignorance of form. When I hear “cinematic” mentioned in a game review, it is too often praise of this exact ignorance. Every artistic medium is a tool, and not all tools are suited to accomplishing the same job. To assume that every artistic medium has the same ability to express the same ideas and uses the same techniques to do so is ludicrous, yet it seems to be the assumption so much of major video game development (and much of the critical talk around it) is based on. If something is good in a movie, it seems, people think it’s good for a game. Long cinematics are only the showiest symptom of this problem; for every game that advances its themes through gameplay, there are ten that think showing and telling are the best ways to get information across in an interactive form. Instead, doing should be the focus, but too often that falls by the wayside as plot information and character moments are pushed towards the player instead of having the player experience them. Isn’t that why people play video games in the first place, to experience? I can get entertainment from any number of places, and I can have fun any number of ways, but video games are unique in their ability to let me participate in the goings-on, to feel some degree of agency and choice, hopefully in ways that feel truly meaningful or thematically rich. Participation is the defining characteristic of videogames, their most powerful artistic tool, and if it’s going to be forsaken there has to be a better reason than a poorly thought out dedication to older art forms.

Games used to use cut-scenes because game engines were limited in their abilities, and it was simpler and more effective to make a cut-scene to express certain things. Today, however, we live in an age of unimagined processing ability, an age where one can play Alien Isolation and the graphics in the game and the cut-scenes (which the player is pulled out of first person view for) are exactly the same. So, beyond individual moments that have to be scripted in a specific way, why are we still using them? There’s no reason that games have to be stuck with this trope (and certainly games of every stripe have existed more or less without them since the first mature videogames hit the scene), so why is it still a plague on the form? I don’t want to watch a movie when I turn on my PS4, I want to play a game. I want to have the experience of playing a game, and I want to know that what I’m doing matters. Quick-time events don’t count either; reflex tests that ask me to stay engaged when the medium is telling me to tune out are not good design. I’m talking about a game that tells its story through the actions of the player, a game that can remain aesthetically and thematically consistent when the player is allowed to act. It’s not that these games are in short supply or nonexistent, it’s that they’re nearly always on the fringes, and it’s more than a bit bewildering that this kind of devotion to filmic technique is still so dominant in an art that has had ample time to develop, as well as an art that sees itself as, in many ways, incredibly progressive, even futuristic. Film as an art form came into its own when the magic of editing allowed it to find expression outside of the techniques of theatre, and sound films ditched intertitles in all but the most unique of cases almost immediately after silent films stopped being the norm. Yet Metal Gear Solid 4 can garner serious “game of the year” talk, despite having more in common with a bad movie that’s rudely interrupted by forced interaction and engagement than a game.

fez

The simple problem here is this: telling an invariable and linear (in the event sense, not necessarily in the temporal or character sense) story is not the best use of games as an art form, because this is something games simply cannot do as well as movies or novels; the kind of movement between active agent and passive participant the audience must undergo repeatedly to make this effective is ridiculous. If one’s goal is to tell the audience this kind of story, then they need to accept that games simply aren’t the art form they’re looking for, which is fine! I don’t go to an art gallery and get mad that none of the paintings tell me the story events of Die Hard. So why, why on earth are video games trying to express in a language that their tongues are not suited to pronounce? In many ways, it can be seen as an extension of the aforementioned insecurity; the easiest way to respectability is to move in a way that mimics already accepted art forms. Unfortunately, in their attempts to be “real art” (whatever that means), games cease to create unique experiences and instead ape experiences they already see as having artistic clout, and even the best of these can’t help but feel like photocopies of the experiences the player actually wants to have. I’ve already seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, so why would I want to play an Uncharted game, where the plot and action stuff I came for is broken up by long, unskippable sections devoted to me pressing buttons to climb up a rock wall?

As an example of this absence of thought in much videogame development, it’s useful to look at Bioshock Infinite. Bioshock Infinite is interesting because it was a game I very much enjoyed, and was even emotionally moved by, but that was in spite of, not because of, the gameplay. The most game-like element of it, the combat, was often overlong and frustrating and it regularly impeded my ability to progress to the parts that were actually interesting. It’s not that the gameplay was bad; it was perfectly fine shooter gameplay, complex enough to remain interesting but simple enough to reward skill and clear improvisational thinking. The problem, rather, is that the story being told was not being served by that gameplay, and being jettisoned between two vastly different and incompatible tones and aesthetics was disorienting and unpleasant. The game they were making- a first person shooter- interfered greatly with the story they were creating, a story about personal choice, fate, human failing, and responsibility. That story and the world around it were incredibly well constructed, but instead of creating a holistic piece where everything worked together, they felt a need to make this experience a “game” and didn’t bother to figure out whether that game was interfering with their art. This is a classic example of the limits of the form, and for some reason many game developers and publishers don’t seemed concerned by this at all.

The reason this is important in a dismissal of “cinematic” gameplay and storytelling is that it displays the ignorance or disinterest of many game creators- even great developers like Ken Levine- towards the art form’s tools and uses. The problem of cinematic tropes in gaming is a problem of not understanding the goals and purposes of one’s art and the techniques involved in making those goals happen. The most “cinematic” elements of Bioshock Infinite were the large-scale battles and grandiose plot line, but those ill-served the personal story that was trying to be expressed. In many ways it’s almost backwards- the gameplay was tailored to meet the demands of cinema, yet the small scale personal character connections that emerged from the identification involved in gaming were both totally non-filmic and the most successful pieces of the puzzle. This is even more frustrating when we remember that the original Bioshock game used its first-person gameplay to explicate and expand upon its themes of morality, self-interest, and power (and, yes, objectivism), having the player use methods of access that the game then asked them to consider the impact and ethics of. Although there were missteps even then, the concepts worked together nearly seamlessly, and the cut-scenes that did exist were sparse, often short, and deeply intertwined with the rest of the gameplay.

Mirror's Edge

Perhaps the single most artistically successful game in recent memory is Fez, Phil Fish’s still stunning platformer which uses its gameplay to express everything it needs to say. Outside of two cut-scenes at the beginning and end of the game, the entire story is told through the actions of the player, the deciphering of puzzles and, most astonishingly, through the physical mechanics of the gameplay. Using two rotation buttons, the player is able to morph and change the scenery around them, walking around it in two dimensions but thinking and interacting with the settings in three. This concept allows Fez to use one’s own knowledge of and experience with platforming games to question and interrogate those remembered experiences, looking at their past in new ways and from new directions. Essentially, it’s a game about the hidden facets of every experience, and the ways in which we find paths to view obfuscated meaning. When someone plays Fez, they’re not interacting with just Fez, but rather the entirety of their gaming history. It places itself contextually in the middle of these experiences through gameplay that draws attention to itself; there’s no masks or plays at being anything other than a game, and Fez trusts that being “just a game” is a powerful, rewarding enough experience to be valid on its own.

That is not to say that the only way a game can succeed as a game and not as a mildly interactive, poorly shot movie is through such conceptual audacity or abstractness. Mirror’s Edge is another game that, in its finest moments, expresses its ideas through the gameplay itself, and not through its cut-out style animated interludes (as handsomely rendered as those may be). Telling the story of a society that is utopian and beautiful on the surface but oppressive and rotting underneath, the sloppy literal narrative of Mirror’s Edge is more than made up for by incredibly rewarding gameplay, which is not only deeply fun and compulsively playable but ultimately affecting in a real way. Through direct interaction with the city (the most important character in the game), the player is made to confront both how they themselves move through and approach their own environment and what a city looks and feels like under a restrictive and totalitarian state. The city you run through is beautiful, but totally empty, a modernist dream of perfect spaces occupied by absolutely no one. Everything is clean, simple, and efficient, but the things that create an engaged environment are conspicuously missing, and the spaces your character operates from show life through your interaction with them. Moving over rooftops and through sewers, the player gives energy and vibrancy to spaces washed of any such humanity; essentially, Mirror’s Edge uses gameplay to make the player think about the urban environment as one not dissimilar from the “natural” world, and breaks down the alienation so deeply involved in much city life. This is what games can accomplish, a powerful embodied experience, and this is what they should aim for.

If it sounds like I’m asking a lot here, it’s only because gamers have been conditioned to accept less. I’m not saying no to entertainment- I could’ve easily talked about Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Skyrim, or Tetris for that matter as my positive examples- I’m just saying no to misguided and self-defeating art, and, specifically, no to games that just want to be movies. I’m saying that David Cage is wrongheaded, and his chicanery doesn’t understand what makes video games unique as an art, what makes them stand apart from other forms. If video games truly want to be respected as “art” (which, again, I find self-evident and uninteresting, but it’s so often the party line of modern video game journalism), they should be embracing what makes them games, and using those tools to connect and express. Hell, that’s what video games should be doing if they just want to be good video games. There’s no easier way to look undistinguished than to show up to the party begging for acceptance dressed like the popular party guests. So “cinematic” games, grow up, please.

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