Friday Roundtable: Interactive Hollywood: Have Games Become Too Cinematic?

Lights! Camera! Press ‘X’! It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to envisage Isaac Clarke or Dom Santiago donning tuxedos and collecting awards from a Virtual Oscars for “Best Actor” and “Best Supporting Role”. Through the games industry’s great strides towards greater acceptance as a mature form of entertainment, its products have inevitably borrowed ideas from more successful media, typically cinema, taking elements it likes the most and tinkering with them to fit a story-telling experience that is reliant on input from the consumer, a trait uniquely ours. What we’re left with are impressive blockbuster games that can often cost upwards of $30 million to produce.

But, is this cinematic adaptation detrimental to the medium? As gamers grow increasingly used to lengthy cutscenes, flashy set pieces and film-like stylisation, is there a danger that in our complacency, games will stop being games and become mere interactive movies, wherein the player simply plays small amounts of filler to sit back and watch the next bit of the story? These questions need answers, damn it! Ladies and gentlemen, put on your evening wear and take your seats as Pascal, Chad, Declan and Sebastian discuss the videogame and Hollywood’s increasingly cosy relationship.

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Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear Solid 4 was certainly a cinematic work of art.

Pascal:

On the whole, I like the cinematic direction that gaming is going. I like to watch good movies, but if a movie offers jaw-dropping and interesting visual flair and larger-than-life feeling (to me, many Zack Snyder films come to mind), I can let my visual sense revel in the delightful feast served before it. The same applies to gaming.

Final Fantasy XIII seems to be offering me a cutscene to watch every few minutes, and I’m constantly putting my controler down to simply sit back and enjoy where the plot is going next. The same is true for many other modern games (and some a little pre-modern). Xenosage on the PS2 offered an unparalleled number of in-game cutscenes; the game was essentially combat and map navigation stitching together a ton of cutscenes.

What makes even more of an impact on me, though, are massively cinematic setpieces for the actual gameplay to take place on. Monkey’s trek through the slave ship as it’s on a kamikaze run toward New York City at the beginning of Enslaved literally left my jaw lying on the floor. And I had a hard time suppressing some boyish giddiness when I spent an entire level having Gabriel Belmont traverse a colossal metal chain spanning across a mist-filled gorge to connect two Vampire castles – moments which can only be described as breathtakingly gothic! Moments like these can be found in many genres and enrich the gameplay experience tremendously by providing unforgettable rushes; a co-op campaign of Gears of War 2‘s epic boss fights or the chase through the derelict movie set at the end of L.A. Noire‘s Traffic Desk cases are just a few more examples of cinematic moments I won’t be soon forgetting.

Finally, I think it’s finally time to make a confession that many will probably have an issue with: I personally quite like timed button-press sequences in games. Whether battling it out against a behemoth boss in God of War or unleashing a face-breaking combo on my opponent in Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe, timed button-press sequences give me the ability to engage in some epic moments of gameplay that simply wouldn’t be possibly to pull off with my normal moveset. At the same time, I’m not just watching a cutscene, as the potential to screw up is still present in these segments.

Oh, and for those that dislike games like Heavy Rain because “it’s essentially doing one timed button-press sequence after another to watch a movie”, you’re very right about that; however, I know that’s what I’m getting into with that game, and, personally, I’m okay with that.

Chad:

I’m going to play devil’s advocate here and say that the more cinematic games get, the less I tend to enjoy them. Typically, this has two reasons. First and foremost is that it takes you away from the actual gameplay. It takes control of the game away from the player, and when it’s unskippable, it has you as a captive audience.The second reason is that most games that are heavily cinematic tend to use it to hide other weaknesses, primarily story. Hideo Kojima is an abominably bad storyteller, yet (some) gamers are happy to sit through his lengthy, convoluted storylines that go nowhere. Metal Gear Solid 2, for all its cinematic qualities, was less coherent than Eraserhead dubbed with text from Ulysses. I dropped my controller and yelled “Are you f***ing kidding me?!”

Heavy Rain follows in Fahrenheit's footsteps as an "interactive movie".

Let me play two popular story-centric games against each other. Now Heavy Rain makes full use of cinematic qualities while telling a fairly cliché story that was probably rejected by the writers of CSI Miami, and uses its cinematic neo-noir style to hide that fact. BioShock, on the other hand, weaves an interesting story that is intriguing without ever leaving the first-person viewpoint. This keeps the player immersed (or maybe submerged?) in the city of Rapture.

Don’t get me wrong, I do like cinematics to some degree. Just in very small doses. The problem is, most games tend to overdo this, simply because technology allows it. I liked it when cutscenes were minute and a half long rewards, not gigabytes of the developers flexing their CG muscles.

Declan:

I find myself sitting on the fence on this one, but leaning more towards Chad’s sentiments. Games are precisely that: games.  Sit too long in the director’s chair, and a game designer risks sacrificing the immersion that defines the medium. Overindulgence in the likes of cutscenes serves to drag you from this immersion. When games are saturated in them, you get the feeling that you’ve been playing a few moments of game for meatier and more revealing episodes of CGI movie. It’s not just cutscenes, but cinematic nods in general. Take Modern Warfare: what we have is banal trekking from terrorist shooting gallery to terrorist shooting gallery, linked and differentiated only by, admittedly, often astounding set pieces, like witnessing an exploding nuke or rappelling through windows in gratuitous slow-mo. Players and critics alike are wowed into raving about an experience which is less a game and more a movie, forgetting that it is a controller that sits in their lap and not a tub of popcorn. Take out these “cool” set pieces and what you have is an unsophisticated, cookie-cutter FPS with big production value.

A set piece. Again.

To reiterate, I’m not totally against cinematic elements in gaming, providing they are not used as a crutch to make an impressive game. If kept to a minimum and complementary of the game’s overall aesthetic (like Grand Theft Auto), fair enough. On the other hand, the likes of Metal Gear Solid and Heavy Rain never strived to be anything more than “interactive movies”, and with that in mind, they work.

However, I cannot help but be puzzled by gaming’s present direction. Is the industry simply flirting with Hollywood as a result of its relatively new mainstream approval and taking advantage of all the perks of the relationship, like celebrity voice acting and renowned composers orchestrating scores, or has it begun a degenerative path down a road filled with film grain and motion blur in an effort to mimic its maturer cousin?

Sebastian:

See, this is a tough subject, because I only notice cutscenes as “cutscenes” when they’re bad or uninteresting. Modern Warfare‘s  cutscenes got me to the “oh my god, shut up I want to play the game” point; Metal Gear Solid 4’s didn’t, partly because there was so much story trying to wrap up four games already heavy on the story, that just about every minute was filled with things that were extremely compelling. In contrast, Modern Warfare’s were just explaining who to kill, which could have been done in game in much more interesting ways. The “Google Earth” approach was kind of cool, but after a couple, I just wanted to skip them.

"Uh, yeah, awkward. So, what am I supposed to be doing?"

Speaking of skipping, unless it’s absolutely necessary, every cutscene everywhere should always be skippable. I don’t care how hard you worked on them, and you can even bitch at me about it later like The Adventures of Captain Smiley does, but still, I want to be able to skip them. I also agree with Pascal about having QTE’s in cutscenes, though it might have been overdone now to the point where people have become disinterested. See, the only counter approach I’ve seen to having cutscenes is Half-Life 2, which didn’t have any. And those sequences where you encountered someone and could still move around made me feel like I should be looking for something or doing something, like “there is a reason they are giving me control, I must be prepared.” When nothing came, I felt like I had missed out on something. I think it is because we’ve become so accustomed to cutscenes that whenever you don’t see one where you feel like you should, you expect a reason for it.

Finally, I rather liked Heavy Rain. It wasn’t the “game” they were aiming for, but I really liked the presentation, and I got a gripping story that mostly made sense till the end. Gaming needs cutscenes, but even more so, they need cutscenes done right.

Pascal:

I do understand Chad’s point about having an abundance of cinematics and cutscenes, and that these have the potential to be used to veil other shortcomings, but having cinematic moments does not necessitate being a passive observer. Isaac Clarke’s battle against the Tormenter in Dead Space 2 is a great example of seamlessly integrating cinematic moments such as escaping the Tormenter’s blood-drenched “nest” only to be sucked into cold and silent space during a barrage of gunfire from an enemy ship, with the Tormenter close behind and still determined to finish you off. But you do actually fight the battle, with multiple potential ways to fail. Or, for that matter, pretty much the entire game Shadow of the Colossus; certainly every boss fight. Although, the story was kind of light in that game, so… Anyway, the game all but glowed with cinematic flair.

The Tormentor was not conducive to Pascal's underwear collection.

You know how every horror tale needs moments in between the scares for you relax and just breathe? And how that totally helps the enjoyment of putting yourself through an agonizing build-up to the next scare? Well, some cinematics can be like that; you’ve worked through the level/battle/random event, now sit back and relax for a moment while we unfold more of the story for you, then it’ll be time for you to get back to the action. Of course, this would require a game with a) a lot of story and exposition, and b) a story that I give a crap about in the first place!

Oh, and I couldn’t agree more with Seb about the option to skip cinematics. The battle against Riku in the original Kingdom Hearts was preceded by some insanely long cutscenes, and, of course, I died at that boss no less than thirty or forty times. Seriously. It made me stop playing the game for a few months, before finally coming back and beating the hell out of it just for that! Of course, you could only save just prior to the cutscenes, and there was NO option to skip them. I can see not letting you skip a scene the first time through, because, hey, some people may push a button inadvertently, but come on! Making me watch your cutscene ad nauseum is, like, a crime against humanity! (This was compounded by the fact that the story in Kingdom Hearts bored me to tears and I couldn’t have cared less…)

Chad:

I want to say that some cinematic presentation can be very well done: the Mass Effect series often has lengthy conversations and indulgently gorgeous shots of the Normandy flying from one place to another, but it’s not overdone because BioWare didn’t forget that the player’s choices are what drives the narrative. Being able to direct the flow of conversation makes you feel more involved than having two talking heads yammering at each other via a codec. In addition, the sequel adds those Renegade and Paragon interrupts, allowing you to do things you don’t have a gameplay button for, like pushing a guard out a window or hugging Tali (both make more sense in context).

And I will go on record as saying QTEs are one of the most overdone game mechanics of the past half-decade. Some games do them right and they mesh well. In God of War and Bayonetta, they fit perfectly as finishing moves. However, in action-adventures like Tomb Raider Legend and RPGs like The Witcher 2, they’re arguably less welcome.

Oblivion: it's all in the eyes.

Finally, let me just mention The Elder Scrolls. The entire game is played out through the protagonist’s eyes. No change of camera angle, no scripting, just user-directed exploration. This game series is more immersive than just about any of the over-scripted linear games out there. Just saying.

Sebastian:

One game isn’t indicative of the entire trope though. The Elder Scrolls series has done a great job, but that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily the best method. Having to actually play everything in a Metal Gear Solid or Final Fantasy game like that would suck.

I think the game industry relies on cutscenes because 1) they are cheaper and 2) the game can control what’s happening. In some games, regardless of bad or good quality, sometimes the developers need control to show or tell the player something important, like in the aforementioned examples,  and I think that’s okay. There are absolutely games that do it too much, but overall, I think cutscenes are used well.

Declan:

My only concern is that developers will waste their budgets on shiny cut scenes, set pieces and stellar voice acting (I hate to think how much it cost Bethesda to hire Sean Bean and Patrick Stewart for Oblivion) at the expense of the rest of the game. The likes of Call of Duty and Medal of Honor (and I’m talking about the 2010 reboot) are memorable not because of their run-of the-mill, action man shooting, but rather, their impressive cinematic moments with cratering explosions and lots of very emotional man-yelling. Medal of Honor, in particular, put a massive amount of effort into being visually astounding, but delivered a six-hour long campaign (and that’s being generous), an anticlimactic ending and the same, cloned shooting mechanics. Indeed, it seems that in the FPS genre, games are fighting to outdo each other in the cinematic department while not improving the core game experience.

Do I enjoy these Hollywood-esque moments? I sure do. Who doesn’t? But should they really be such a prevalent part of mainstream videogames? I’m not convinced. I think we should be finding more constructive and creative ways to uniquely define the medium, rather than scooping up old clapper boards from our older cousin.

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Share Your ThoughtsBnB writers have shared their thoughts, and now it’s your turn. What do you think? Have games become “too cinematic” or are cutscenes, set pieces and a general Hollywood vibe a good thing which will help further the medium as a mature story-telling art form?

The table is yours.


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