Sunday, 29 August 2010

Why I hate "Cinematic"

"Cinematic" still seems to be a kind of buzz-word for videogames these days. Often scenes that are extra emotional or involving are called "cinematic". I do not really like this word and its usage expose many of the problems videogames have today. I guess some explanation is required. My two major reasons for disliking the word are:


1) Movies are not rolemodels
It means that videogames should strive to be more like cinema, that there are really important lessons to be learned by doing things like "in the movies". There is so much done in games the past 20 years, based on cinema, that has kept videogames from evolving. Linear and strict plots being one of the biggest. Because movies rely so much on being extremely specific in what the viewer shall see, it has standards that are direct opposite of what a videogame is. By having these "cinematic" goals, we have gotten things like cut scenes where all the "fun stuff" happens, quick-time-events and annoying camera angles. Games would have been far better off if these things did not become the design standards they are today.


2) Movies are not better
It implies that film is a superior medium. I would like to say that it is actually reverse. Film is probably the lesser of all story telling media. It leaves less to imagination and is the least fulfilling. Films do not require any real effort and leaves very little to the imagination. Sure, there are films that are hard to get and with very subtle imagery, but these are far between, and in my eyes does not live up the fantasies a great novel or piece of music can conjure up. In my mind games take all this a step further. While all other media gives us a prefabricated descriptions, videogames places us in living breathing worlds. I feel the difference is like reading about climbing Everest and actually doing it. Videogames as a medium is not inferior, I would say it is far superior than any else.


Does this means that the best games of today trump the best films, music and books? Far from it and quite the reverse. But videogames as a medium has an awesome potential. It would be very bad to let catchy buzz-words such as cinematic to stand in the way of fulfilling it.


12 comments:

  1. Definitely agree with you about QTEs. I utterly loathe them.

    I think that videogames, books and films as storytelling methods all have their own unique advantages, yet only videogames still have a certain stigma attached to them by the ignorant.

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  2. I'm personally wary of when designers get upset about specific words. I remain unconvinced the vocabulary we use to describe thing is as important as many other theoretical minds seem to. Ultimately if you make good games what does it matter which words people use to describe them?

    While I do understand there is a link between the language we use and how we think, and that words therefore have significance I do think there is all too much discussion about what are "games", are games "art" and whole host of contentious words where each person seems to have their own hobby horse. I just think too much discussion along these lines is a distraction from actually making games.

    I also feel there is a perfectly valid use of the word "cinematic" in describing moments in games that doesn't have either of the negative associations you attribute. When you get moments in cutscenes on AAA games where the use of camera angles, motion, lighting, and music all work together to heighten the excitement and tension of a moment that to me is a cinematic moment. It's a moment making use of the conventions to play out a specific not-interactive scene.

    This is something you can't always do well while the game is still being game like. Showing a close up of a characters face and timing a piece of music to fit a moment perfectly is not going to work easily during actual gameplay. So going to a cutscene to play that out is both effective and for a moment moves awake from gamey to cinematic.

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  3. Perrin:
    Of course, "cinematic" is a good word to describe some stuff in games. As you say when you set up lighting, camera, etc just like in a movie, then "cinematic" is very good world to use.

    What I feel, and it might not come through in the post, is that cinematic almost always is this very positive description. Like it is a videogame moment when the medium shows it true potential. It is of course okay to think like this and enjoy these moments, but I think it is a negative trend when the cinematic become the end goal.

    And I agree that discussing if games is "art" is pointless, because it is such a vague description. Likewise with other vague words. What I mean in the post is that the quest to have games that are "just like the movies", is not a constructive one. Hope that clears it up :)

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  4. I wholeheartedly support this post. This is the sort of thing why I love you guys and I'm really really convinced you might be the saviours of gaming. The part of gaming that cares about stories anyway. And the fact that you're obssessed with my favourite genre (which has been so badly treated for decades, too) makes it all the more better =D

    I've been whining for years about how cutscenes and the whole "cinematic" thing have been holding back the tremendous storytelling potential that gaming has. Sure there is a lot of talent and professionalism and whatnot in stuff like Metal Gear Solid, but I'm convinced that, from a storytelling standpoint, resorting to cutscenes is just the lazy way to tell a game's story. I mean, there is just SO MUCH MORE you can do when you have the interactivity that only gaming can give you.

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  5. I disagree about videogames being a superior storytelling media compared to anything else.

    While it brings new possibilities to storytelling, it also has a lot of limits that doesn't exist in novels.

    Which is a better format, in my opinion, depends a lot on the type of the story.

    If you have a huge cast of characters with each having an equal amount of "screen time", you can't have only one playable character or there wouldn't be much of gameplay, and constantly switching between playable characters could break any immersion.

    Another case I a can think of is when the characters just have to behave in a certain way or the story wouldn't make sense.

    In these cases, in my opinion, novels are a far superior format.


    - Anonymous

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  6. Being a bit of a film buff, I have to disagree with your comment about films not requiring effort and leaving nothing to the imagination, though I understand that was not the point of your post. With that said, I do generally agree with your overall point that games need to stop striving to be more 'cinematic'.

    What game develoupers really need to focus on is how much control should be given to the player. At first it might seem as if the best way to take advantage of games' unique possibilities would be to give the player as much control as possible. The problem is, as sandbox games have shown, total control and good story-telling don't mix very well. In some cases, a linear, more cinematic story might be appropriate.

    If done effectively, though, giving the player a sense of control and freedom can improve a game significantly. A good example of this would be the new-ish Shooter/RPG Alpha Protocol. The gameplay itself was mediocre at best, the plot was confusing and largely forgettable, but the player was given pretty impressive control over the story, turning an otherwise bad game into something I enjoyed playing.

    Eh, I'm rambling at this point. Hopefully there was some sort of meaningful message hidden in here somewhere.

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  7. Dylan:
    Yeah, I was a bit a harsh on films I guess and not totally fair. There are films that really requires much of the viewer and that leaves a lot to the imagination. But as I said, it is not that common, when compared to novels.

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  8. Here's part of a comment that I made over at Cracked when David Wong got onto one of his anti-videogame rants. I think it applies here, as well. (please excuse the reference to 9hrs as short. This was written before I started playing Penumbra.)

    Some of the most enduring games have zero plot (e.g. Tetris, Pac-Man, Solitaire). People like different games for different reasons. Heck, I like different games for different reasons. If I want to relax with half my brain on, waiting for some cutscene reward, I'll fire up Final Fantasy. If I want some NP-hard analytical challenge, I'll fire up Tetris (which is in fact NP-complete). If I want some witty dialogue or branching story, I might play the original Fallout. The goal is often to blow off some steam and relax after a long day at the office. Sure, I could read a book, but that engages a different part of the brain, and I typically read for other aims, like complicated character development.

    That's another problem--character development in a game will take place in one of three ways: (A) it will force you to make certain choices and leave you screaming that that's not what your character would do (B) it will take place off-screen or without interacting with your character, thus making your character a sort of voyeur to the other characters who are getting the interesting bits, or (C) it will be poorly written because there are thousands of branches that the writing staff have to create.

    The length another point of comparison. Ask people what a long film is, and you might hear the Lord of the Rings, or possibly Shoah (9hrs). A 9 hour game would be considered short by most gamers. If you gave a gamer a 3 hour game, she would probably consider it a demo. As a result, the plot has to be stretched out over a longer period of time, and any writer (as well as anyone who has watched the original Casino Royale) can tell you that the solution to that is not just to add more plot. When the story's done, it's done. You can do a sequel, but that's a different story. Don't forget, you also have to pay these writers for coming up with these games.

    The plots for games may seem less well-connected, and that's a good thing. Look at the AFI's top 100 films. Imagine playing any of those as games.

    The Graduate would be baffling and boring as a game, even as it remains a magnificent film. Psycho would be maddening, since you couldn't progress unless you decided to do particular things, like steal money and stop at the Bates Motel. Forcing a character to do that is trickier than it sounds, unless you tell her "GAME OVER" if she passes the motel or lock the door that she's supposed to deliver the money to.

    Players want the freedom to take the game where they want it to go, and that often means a lot of time killing things in between plot points. Films have the benefit of editing, but games are expected to leave the camera running, meaning that the pointless battles can't be omitted. If you cut from scene to scene, most gamers would whine that their autonomy was being taken away from them. Well, they would if they knew what autonomy meant.

    In short: plots are different in different genres. That's why Uwe Boll's films suck and why I wouldn't want to play the game adaptation of Citizen Kane.

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  9. About the word "cinematic":

    When the word "cinematic" is used in a game, then we can say, that this is a game that _wants to be_ a movie. It is a game that wants to be alike or at the same level as some of the greatest hollywood blockbusters. Bullet time... and even cameras in general, are all effects or materials that are used in movies. I think we all got the point here.

    Frictional Games want (at least i think so) to create games that are either artistic or just games on their own. A different form of media, but on the same level as movies or novels, just _different_ in many ways. Like apples and bananas. Both beloved and "respected" (:P) fruits, but still different in shape and taste.

    Tastes and Opinions are also two very important points. What i call art, might be called trash by someone else. Anyway, i also think, that we have to make differences between games that ARE art and games that USE art. But we have one problem here: what is the definition of art _within_ a game?

    Is it art, when you have a game about the paintings of Picasso?I guess so, but what kind of game is it? Is it a game that USES art or IS the game itself an artistic masterpiece? I think that this depends also on the way how you'd use the paintings. If you just have them in the game... but the game is a poor Alien-Shooter... then i guess we've got a game that just USES art. But if you have game, where you can jump into the paintings (and i'm not talking about mario 64 :P)... and "play" or "live" the paintings... then it can be considered as BEEING art. To be or not to be.

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  10. I couldn't have put it any better. You nail the deplorable state of both cinema and the gaming industry. And you have every right to do so, because you know that experience has to do with experimentation. (And so has art in general.)

    Penumbra struck me as one big experiment - with me and my fears, hopes and desires; with how gaming could be different, often seeming patchy and lacking finish (which made the experience even scarier for me). Felt almost like a good film noir or Max Ophüls (which for me is what "cinematic" rings - the best cinema can accomplish, without being "perfect" in every detail). You somehow knew that videogames shouldn't try to mimic what cinema can do best, so you aimed for a videographic videogame.

    Go on, push the edge further! And perhaps someday, when they witness a totally immersive scene on the big screen, people think to themselves: Now _that_ was videographic!

    (btw: any plans to join Flattr? Your posts are just too good not to be flattr'd ;) )

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  11. Very very interesting post + discussion.

    For a school ftv project i'm making a 4 minute documentary, and I chose the subject to be "Can games be art?" Having read some great opinions on other gaming sites (such as GON) and having spoken to a indie dev here in Australia (Who I will try and interview) I find myself getting less certain about my original stance that games must be art.

    A interesting viewpoint given by a GON member was this:

    “Having spent some time in the art scene, I'd be so much happier if games were not compared to art. It's a whole different world and artists/critics place importance on different things to gamers. Attempts to mix them will most likely incite the rage of game and art critics, who will complain that it has diluted their medium and will miss the point entirely. So either make it an Interactive Art Installation and subject it to art critique, or make it for the gamer crowd and call it Interactive Entertainment”

    What do you think about a game being a gallery in its own right? For example is penumbra simply a gallery showing off the 2 and 3d artworks created by many artists?

    Would you consider a 3d production art? If so, how does the addition of gameplay remove the productions right to be considered artwork?

    Can gameplay itself be an art, or is that more a sport (Pro gaming) ?

    Maybe I'm in over my head :P

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  12. I agree wholeheartedly!

    the game part of games is declining because of AAA honchos is is more worried about writing and voice actors and less about the implementation of game mechanics.

    "That's another problem--character development in a game will take place in one of three ways: (A) it will force you to make certain choices and leave you screaming that that's not what your character would do (B) it will take place off-screen or without interacting with your character, thus making your character a sort of voyeur to the other characters who are getting the interesting bits, or (C) it will be poorly written because there are thousands of branches that the writing staff have to create."


    "Character" development in game context has NOTHING todo with plot and story.

    A character in a game, is an actor with defined limitation in relation to the game challenges.
    Character development is the mechanics given that defines the number of tweak given, so that the player can overcome the challenges.

    That's why you play a given game, the plot is there as "motive" an extra incentive to play the game through.
    Do i like good stories with my games? YES i do!
    Do i want to be blended by cheesy cinematics that gives me a negative visual and audial input? no, NO NO!
    Lets face it, no matter HOW good writers you get in, wheter you get the queen to do the voice acting or spielberg to direct the camera angles...its not very...GOOD!
    Sure some parts might be decent, but then AAA expects that everyone wants voice actors, so the number and richness of NPC's, roaming in the gameworld, Is all up to the sound and animation department.

    Not to mention i suspect the writers have been changed from the Dungeon Masters to hollywood hacks.

    I loved fallouts story, baldur's gate story and planescape, and to be honest no, the writing wont win any nobel prizes(well maybe Planescape), but RPG gamers manage to write the most absurd pieces of plot and story, and they describe the actions and environment through text where you can use your own imagination if you want to.(fallout 2 does this wonderfully)
    And they can write all this in throves to fit inside a large world filled with possibilities, not a lesser number to get the ultimate linear storyline, which would diminish the varius freedom and gameplay mechanics.
    But again...let me stress, i wouldnt be playing these game if it wasnt for the game itself, thats what counts.

    "Players want the freedom to take the game where they want it to go, and that often means a lot of time killing things in between plot points. Films have the benefit of editing, but games are expected to leave the camera running, meaning that the pointless battles can't be omitted. If you cut from scene to scene, most gamers would whine that their autonomy was being taken away from them. Well, they would if they knew what autonomy meant."

    If autonomy means not letting a hack writers finding new ways to butcher gameplay im all for it.

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