Are Cinematic Video Games Good for Gaming?
As two of the most popular forms of media on the planet, video games and films are closer as artistic mediums and entertainment products than ever before. In 2017, the games industry earned approximately $108.8 billion, doubling the roughly $40 billion pulled in from global movie theatre sales, an unthinkable achievement prior to the advent of smartphones and mobile gaming. Alongside this increased ubiquity of gaming has been a societal shift in the way games are perceived and discussed: once secluded to the realm of children and adolescents, video games are now recognized as a legitimate art form in their own right, deserving of the type of criticism and analysis afforded to their silver screen counterparts. As both a factor in and a result from this trend, many contemporary console and PC games draw substantial influence from the structure and style of films – but is this a good thing?
To be sure, advancements in technology, design and animation have breathed new life into gaming’s storytelling, allowing for a degree of immersion and engagement previously impossible in the era of 2D gaming, exemplified by the cutscene, an extended visual sequence framed or structured cinematically. But the proliferation of cutscenes has also had an unintended consequence: inasmuch as they almost exclusively render the player a passive observer, these sequences subvert the interactive nature of games entirely. An overreliance on cutscenes could diminish the defining characteristics of a video game to a detrimental extent.
Still, these advancements allow for more emotionally complex experiences in gaming as new modes of storytelling are made available. The Uncharted series from developer Naughty Dog achieved substantial recognition for its cinematic story, an Indiana Jones-esque adventure saga that utilized gameplay, voice acting, and an enthralling score to deliver an engrossing experience not unlike a night at the movies. But each of these titles were games first and cinematic second, ensuring the player was an active agent in the story and not just a spectator. The danger of Uncharted is not in the games themselves, but in the misunderstood example it might set for others: if “Indiana Jones as a game” works, what other movies can be dressed up as games.
The most common and flagrant example of this are video games literally adapted from films. Reservoir Dogs and Scarface: The World is Yours, both released in 2006, represent the most superficial and obvious way to emulate cinematic experience in video games; by copying and pasting the worlds of two famous movies over generic third-person shooter gameplay, each title offers baseline cinematic thrill while forgetting to be interesting, engaging games in their own right. But because they are adaptations, they are easy targets for identifying cheap overtures to the cinematic experience – far more fascinating (and potentially worrisome) are those games which incorporate the influence of film less directly.
2013’s The Last of Us and God of War (2018) are two titles that take substantial (and similar) influence from film, to varying results. The former is a post-apocalyptic title focused on the unlikely duo of smuggler Joel and wayward child Ellie as they traverse across the former United States. Although the game is ostensibly a third-person, action-adventure game, its beating heart is its storyline and characters, particularly the relationship between its two protagonists. As the plot progresses, the complexities of their mutualistic bond deepen as they continue to grow as characters in the face of continued adversity. With motion capture technology, every painstaking detail of their journey is rendered in (often excruciating) realism. Films have long depicted such relationships onscreen: the Badass and Child Duo is a well-worn trope (recently utilized to great success in 2017’s Logan), and while many video games have broached such territory in the past, in games like The Last of Us, we can see how technological advancements allow for a realization of these relationships that commands the same emotional resonance as live-action performers. In this way, The Last of Us depicts a story and a relationship in a video game that is almost without precedent in its film-like immediacy and impact.
Crucially, The Last of Us also functions as a smooth, enjoyable video game, avoiding the passivity that many movie-like games engender. The same could be said for God of War, a mythological action-adventure game concerning the titular former deity, Kratos, and his human son Atreus on a personal quest of emotional closure following the death of the latter’s mother. However, God of War fails to hit the same emotional highs as The Last of Us. Neither Kratos nor his son are as developed as Joel or Ellie, and their story, while entertaining, often relies on its outsized mythological setting and aesthetic to achieve impact, and ultimately doesn’t hit the same stirring peaks and valleys. As a result, the inclusion of a child as a main character feels less like progression in mature video game narratives and more like a cheap method to raise the emotional and dramatic stakes in what is ultimately a reboot of the franchise.
Even The Last of Us is not immune to casual use of established tropes: Joel’s story begins with the death of his young daughter, Sarah. While this tragedy greatly informs and provides the foundation for his intense emotional kinship with Ellie, the fact remains that this is another example of a male character’s story being initiated by the death of a female loved one. Like Kratos and Atreus’ unsatisfying father/son relationship, these kinds of tropes aren’t necessarily damning in and of themselves – instead, they demonstrate some of the pitfalls encountered by games that seek to appropriate more and more from cinema in the way they create and actualize their narratives.
Ultimately, the growing parallels between video games and movies is, more often than not, a positive development. Both mediums stand to gain exponentially from a careful and considerate borrowing of each other’s strengths and possibilities, particularly when it comes to character and storytelling. Still, the realization of cinematic narratives within the medium of video games carries with it a whole new host of obstacles and difficulties, particularly when it comes to a liberal use of tropes and clichés. It’s up the the innovative developer and the discerning consumer to help ensure that cinematic games represent the best of both worlds, rather than the worst.