Gaming needs to move away from cinema
Since first becoming a commercial success in the early 70s, video games have skyrocketed in popularity over the last four decades. They have also undergone a dramatic transformation. In their earliest form, games were filled with pixelated, two-dimensional sprites – today they’re striving to achieve photorealism. Yet, games have never quite managed to leave the shadow of their older cousin – cinema. Games have proven that they’re capable of being exceptional when it comes to storytelling, but the medium still relies on certain cinematic tropes that hold it back from its full potential. In order to put this into context, we need to look back at how both mediums evolved.
Once upon a time in the late 19th century, a new medium was invented. Through a series of technological innovations and advancements, innovators finally began to develop a technology that would allow them to create a moving photograph. These moving images created an art form which would come to be known as cinema.
Given that the medium was brand new, two of the inventors, Auguste and Louis Lumière, were unsure, and perhaps somewhat uncaring, of how to fully realize its potential. They were both trained photographers, and had never seen anything similar to what they had managed to create – except for maybe the small novelty attractions such as shadow puppetry and magic lantern shows. Thus, they styled their first films as a combination between the novelty shows and photographs. Their first film, La Sortie des usines Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon) can be accurately described as a moving photograph. There was no story, no editing, and no special effects – just a series of people moving within an image.
The brothers decided to show their work to the locals in Paris, who were absolutely amazed by what the two had managed to realize. Amongst the crowd was George Meliés. The magician realized at once that films had much more potential than the simplistic moving photographs that the Lumière duo had created. The brothers, however, refused to sell him their camera, and so he went off to invent his own – and make some of the most imaginative films to ever exist.
As the 20th century dawned, cinema began to become more and more well known around the world. Filmmakers began to create better ways to tell stories within cinema. George Albert Smith, Edwin Stanton Porter and David Wark Griffith were all instrumental in coming up with new techniques to do so. Porter created one of the most iconic close-ups in cinema history in The Great Train Robbery in 1903, while Griffith’s (incredibly racist) Birth of a Nation introduced continuity editing in 1915. Continuity editing completely transformed how movies were made, as it allowed for seamless cutting between different images. This meant that directors could create a complex narrative that wouldn’t confuse its audience. The technique is still used in nearly all forms of commercial cinema today.
From its humble beginnings, cinema became the most dominant art form during the 20th century. Sound and color added to its magic. Great directors from each decade shaped the medium further and further. Film theaters and television ensured that everyone would have access to it, and that everyone would be able to enjoy it.
Cinema is such an integral part of our lives; it’s difficult to imagine life without it. Yet, it was also in the latter half of the 20th century that video games began to be developed. Much like cinema, video games took place on a moving screen. Unlike cinema, however, it was almost entirely interactive. The player was both an active participant of the process, while also remaining a member of the audience – a complete reversal from the passive cinema spectator.
At their core, games are an assimilation of interactive mechanics that when combined together form a system of challenges for the player to navigate and overcome. Some of the earliest games never had any sort of story, merely an aesthetic designed by the developer to give the player a general idea of what they were doing, such as destroying an advancing alien fleet or chasing down ghosts in a maze. As the medium evolved, the technology behind video games became more and more advanced, eventually creating more complex systems – which often meant they were accompanied by more complex visuals. Eventually developers began creating stories for their games. Though some of them were simplistic, more ambitious narratives eventually emerged.
The primary idea that made it different from cinema was control: In a film the director uses the camera to record something. With actors, costumes, props, sets and special effects he is able to create a world. With a script, he is able to give that world context. With editing he is able to blend different images together in order to form a cohesive narrative. It’s entirely linear, and completely created by the director and others. The audience is entirely passive, observing what the director creates for them through his eyes.
Games are created within engines by developers. There they design the levels and create the art assets and mechanics that the player will utilize. The developer creates the world, but most of the tools of control are given to the user. The player controls the camera most of the time, and inputs orders via a controller that occur directly on screen. This means that nearly everything can be altered – which makes player-controlled, non-linear narrative possible.
Yet it seems today that games have relied more on the tools created for cinema, rather than fully take advantage of their own. In the current generation especially, many AAA games have begun to construct themselves as pieces of film. By constraining players through the use of fixed/limited cameras, scene editing, and scripted events, game developers have reduced the role of the player as an active participant. By not giving them a system that lets them feel like they’re shaping what is happening – the game becomes less of a game and more of an interactive film.
Deus Ex creator Warren Spector recently stated that developers should move away from this design. Though Spector admitted it’s natural for any new medium to copy others – film copied both photography and theatre when it began – he also said it was important that developers rely less on cinema tropes in their design – such as the use of certain editing techniques.
He said, “It breaks the illusion; it wrests the experience away from players who want to be directors of their own experience. In most games the action is continuous… we either take control of the camera ourselves, or we leave control of the camera to the player.”
Spector is correct. Though games have successfully borrowed settings, iconography and ideas from cinema, many titles today have gone too far. Why? They do so to make their game as visually impressive as possible. The emphasis currently placed on large set pieces more often than not takes away control from players.
This isn’t to say that linear narratives aren’t welcome within the medium. In fact many of the greatest games we appreciate often give players a narrow enough path. Games like Half-Life, Call of Duty, and Halo have shown what great design can spring forward when it’s tightly-focused. Of course, some linearity is absolutely necessary when telling a story. The problem arises, however, when the developer does not appreciate that the player is an equally important cog in the game’s design.
This separation of narrative and mechanics of late has lead to a real emerging problem. That problem is called ludonarrative dissonance. Coined by Clint Hocking in 2007, the former creative director of LucasArts and Ubisoft Montréal used the term to describe when a game’s story clashes with its mechanics. Using BioShock as an example, Hocking criticized how the mechanics contradicted the narrative. The mechanics in Bioshock encouraged the player to be either selfless or selfish – thus creating an interesting depiction of the title’s exploration of its theme of Objectivism. Yet at the same time, the narrative only encouraged the player to help others – which went against the principles of the gameplay. Hocking explained that this created a dissonance between the two.
The problem often stems from the narrative the developers construct via cutscenes or other cinema-like devices in order to give the player a sense of context. For example, some critics of the newest Tomb Raider stated that Lara was portrayed as a vulnerable, inexperienced young adventurer. However, when a player acquired their first firearm they could immediately shoot it with perfect accuracy. Others point out the fact that Nathan Drake is a happy go-lucky treasure-hunter whose kill list matches that of a small atomic weapon. Some may say that this is more “fun”, but playing through an engaging, believable narrative can be incredibly enjoyable. Developers need only to balance the two, as well as use their mechanics in service of their narrative.
Film is able to overcome this problem easily through the use of editing. Games, however, should not rely on cinematics to overcome this problem. If a character is portrayed as being inexperienced with firearms, then that should be reflected in the shooting mechanics. It’s through the mechanics that players interact with where the real story is told, not in the cutscenes they watch. Mechanics is where they forge their experience, and by limiting their ability to do so, developers become more like filmmakers rather than game designers.
There are a plethora of other examples of ludonarrative dissonance that exist today. Mass Effect 3, a game driven by the idea of giving players choices that would then yield consequences, betrays this with its somewhat linear ending. Max Payne 3’s story of redemption is constantly undermined by frequent close-ups of grotesque bodily harm that he inflicts on others. Protagonists in the Assassin’s Creed series are more akin to walking tanks of destruction, rather than vulnerable, silent assassins.
Simply having a cutscene that informs a player of a character’s inexperience is no longer good enough. Game mechanics need to be built to reflect the messages that their narratives operate on. By doing this, it will give gaming greater respect as a medium of storytelling, as well as stopping players from having to suspend their disbelief while playing.
Warren Spector’s original Deus Ex allowed players to specialize in particular skills at the beginning of the game. If a player chose hacking and swimming over firearms, then the player’s aim would be much worse than if he chose otherwise. This lack of experience was expressed through the mechanics.
Film is an extraordinary medium, but so is gaming. In order for games to become better, then they must focus on their strengths rather than simply try and copy others.