Editorials and Features
Article by: MrCHUPON
Opinion: The Cinematic Game: The Gift and the Curse [Written 2006-07-08]
Create the most cinematic experience possible in a videogame.
Though music is just as ubiquitous, if not moreso, cinema has risen through the ranks of global media as one of the more powerful and influential forces in arts and entertainment. At first just analyzed for story and characters, we've now come to appreciate several facets of film: cinematography, light and photography, direction, sound work, social commentary, philosophical commentary, and special effects.
It can be argued that the most obvious mark of the cinematic experience is the audiovisual presentation, though deep thinkers prefer the deep commentary within. You say "Michael Bay" and immediately one might think of those sweeping wide-angle shots. You say "Ridley Scott" and the epic visual grandeur of Gladiator springs to mind - the recreation of the Coliseum, the heart-pounding gladiatorial battles and the booming trumpets of the soundtrack. Saving Private Ryan's visceral, gritty experience is instinctively recalled when uttering "Steven Spielberg".
The cinematic experience is one of sitting in a comfortable, cushioned chair in plain view of the visual art that you're about to appreciate. It is one of somewhat bombastic extremes: a humongous display and powerful satellite surround-sound speakers with which to feed your eyes and ears booming explosions, bone-crunching kung fu and white hot beautiful personalities and their sultry, enchanting voices.
Flash back to the videogame - an entity whose origins came in 1947 with a primitive missile simulation, but which only hit its stride when Ralph Baer conceptualized the first console with the Magnavox Oddysey in 1968. The videogame industry continues to mature. At really only half the age of motion pictures and a figurative fetus when compared to the ancient entity that is music, however, videogames continue to try and find their definitive stride. Not satisfied to be known for interactive experiences impossible elsewhere, the videogame industry - and thus, publishers and developers - reach out and aim to borrow that "cinematic experience" from film.
It makes sense. Cinema is full of icons - icons that we, as entertainment mongers, strive to emulate in fantasy. Open your leg holster and take out that semi-automatic pistol - because you are Robocop. Challenge an empire or a power that could have you decimated with the snap of a finger, and successfully exact your revenge - because you are Maximus Decimus Meridius, husband to a murdered wife, father to a murdered son. Take these experiences and guide them through the power of your fingertips, your thumbs, resting on that controller. You can be what you see in the theatre.
It makes sense. Cinema - or at least, the stuff that box office hits are made of - is filled with explosions, body counts, stunts, effects, and hotties. Pick up Call of Duty 2 for your PC or Xbox 360. Listen to the bullets as they spiral past your head, and watch the ground shake as that nearby Stielhandgranate detonates. You'd think that Activision consulted Steven Spielberg on how to make the perfect war movie - and then gave the control to you. How about the inane amount of bodies you pile up as Kratos in God of War for the Playstation 2, or the gory decaptitations and dismemberments that you so gleefully execute? Gladiator. Troy. Braveheart. And there's always the one with the large breasts who has to sneak in there somehow - download Ritual's SiN Episodes: Emergence via Valve's Steam network, and in the opening scene greet that unnecessarily large pair hanging over your face with a smile.
But hold on - there might be a small issue. The cinematic experience is also marked with harrowing scenes that accentuate the extreme audiovisual satisfaction that we so desire. We equate these to "scripted events" in videogames - events that are out of our control. Something happens exactly when it's supposed to, in the exact way it's supposed to. Developer Warren Spector, of Deus Ex fame, quipped that Half Life was an incredible shooter... on rails.
More from the mouth of Spector, courtesy of Eurogamer.net:
"A year after we shipped Deus Ex, I saw someone solve a particular game problem in a way I'd never seen anyone try before, and I was sitting there with him wondering if his solution would work. I mean, I helped make the game, and I'd played through that part of the game a hundred times and watched probably a thousand playthroughs and I was seeing something I'd never seen before. No game-on-rails or rollercoaster ride can possibly touch that for a thrill!"
Bound to the cinematic experience, then, are we restricted to solving games and playing through them in the precise way that someone else wants us to? Do we have to trigger the time bomb to knock over the bridge - complete with cinematic audiovisual flair, bells and whistles - to get the barricade of soldiers out of our way in order to cross the bridge? At the same time, if we're given our own methods - our own means - of solving a situation, will the result be cinematic? Will it contain the bombastic, delicious dead bodies that we so desire?
Do we opt for the cinematic experience of a wide-angle view of controlled chaos? Do we want to watch from afar as we simply tell our on-screen dude to fire when ready, trigger that switch that we're told to by some floating voice, and watch the fireworks occur? Or do we give up those beautiful vistas for the choose-your-own-path interactivity that games might be better off being known for?
The cinematic experience is almost purely aesthetic, and therein lies the problem. Though not in every way - people love the visual splendor and aural crispness of that latest videogame - the desire to present scenes and exposition to us may very well get in the way of the control we as players have (or should have) over our protagonists. Games like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Deus Ex: Invisible War - gorgeous games, to be sure - are much lower in the cinematic scale than, say, Call of Duty 2. In terms of the events that are force-fed to you to showcase the aesthetic fireworks, more specifically. Yet we have that control. Do I want to save Martin Septim and help save Cyrodi'il? Nah - I think I'll go fishing for this guy, because he's going to pay me. But then, you're not fulfilling the story arc - you're not going through the big, magical and epic events - you're doing what you want.
Shouldn't we do what we want in videogames?
On the flipside, shouldn't we be satisfied with a linear story arc that tells a beautiful tale?
As developers strive to increase the cinematic value of a game, the risk exists that just maybe they'll lose sight of the control that we strive to have over our interactive entertainment. It's not our world; we just play in it. We'll get more scripted games, more epic stories, and less ability to choose our own paths. The jury's out on whether or not this is truly something to be apprehensive about. But for now, one thing is clear: thank goodness that both types of games exist.
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