Stop Making Scenes: Between Accident And Animation

By Adam Smith on May 17th, 2012 at 5:00 pm.

A game

‘Cinematic’ should rightfully be a dirty word when discussing games and yet Max Payne 3′s marketing wears it proudly, like a sweat-stained vest or an inappropriately jaunty tie. A cutscene is cinematic, every detail and angle just so, no room for accident or deviation, but to aspire to a ‘cinematic’ experience during play is to ignore so much of what makes experiences within a game unique to the form. We run, gun and react in worlds that rely, for the enjoyment they bring, on the accidental and the curious as much as they require adherence to a plan. Here’s to the unexpected, the unplanned and the unforgettable.

By ‘accidents’ I mean the things that nobody scripted, the moments when elements and actors play against one another in a fashion that hasn’t happened a thousand times before and may never happen again. Even if a film utilises such strange confluences – a gull dropping into the ocean in the final shot of Barton Fink, the hundreds of necessarily retained slips in the single take of Russian Ark – once they are committed to the final edit, they are no longer accidents. From then and forever, that’s simply the way that things went down.

Animated films are different in that, frame by frame, the visual content is the product of deliberate creation. No accidents there, or at least not of the same sort. There’s no chance of an unexpectedly distracting face in the crowd to draw attention away from Princess Disney’s exchange of vows, not unless that face was deliberately placed there. Use of CGI or painted backdrops muddies the waters, providing more control and less opportunity for accidents, happy or otherwise. Here’s an example we can all appreciate: Three Men and a Baby’s ghost would be an Easter egg if the film were an animation. In the version that exists, it’s a terrifying accident.

The cinema is cinematic but games are not, or at least they shouldn’t be, not in their entirety. An action film can contain thousands of moving parts in a scene, a drama could contain a sequence communicated through the lack of motion, but in most instances the effectiveness of both will be achieved through blocking, through choreography and rehearsal, through placement and post-production. A game allows these elements to be broken and rearranged, and for each sequence to become something new.

Another game

The first time I shot a combine soldier in the face and he slumped forward and slid down some steps I stopped and watched. I died shortly afterwards and had to shoot him again. He slumped forward and slid down those steps again but this time he had more forward momentum. He slid further. Hardly any difference at all but I still remember it perfectly.

There’s a mook at the top of some stairs – stairs are often involved – in Max Payne 2, right after Max has grabbed a shotgun and secured it in his inventory, where the sun don’t shine. Pop out the boomstick, blast the goon and he’s propelled against the wall, slamming into a shelf stacked with cans. The shelf collapses, the cans fall to the ground, roll, perhaps trundle down the steps one by one. Do it a hundred times and it’ll be subtly different each time and rarely perfect. In an ideal world he would never end up with the ruins of the shelf jutting through his body in an impossible fashion and the cans would always fall just so.

It’s not a perfect world though because everything is dependent on location and time. When exactly is the shot fired, where is the point of impact, how exactly will this one death, among thousands, stand out on this particular occasion? It’s not a cutscene, it’s something that I did, over and over, and felt a strange attachment to, even if it might never have turned out quite as ‘cinematically’ as it could have done.

Still a game

Extrapolate from this and think of Total War. When the clever folks at Weta were tasked with creating the Helm’s Deep battle for The Two Towers they apparently used an AI programme for the combatants in the wide shots, to save animating each participant individually. On the first runthrough, some of those AI characters ran away and that’s not how it’s supposed to be, so the whole thing was rejigged. Accidents were eliminated and a final form was agreed on. That doesn’t happen in a wargame because they aren’t cinematic anymore than an action game is, even if they do have sweeping cameras taking in a field of thousands, flanking, fighting and, yes, occasionally running away.

Let’s go further still and consider the events that Jim has been so excited about in Day Z. The tension, horror and shock here aren’t tied to anything that should be deemed ‘cinematic’, they are instead the product of human interaction within complex systems at work. As with experiences as diverse as STALKER and Dwarf Fortress, the systems allow for individual experiences, accidental narratives and mistakes in both the working of the world and the actions of the entities within it.

Away from the confines of celluloid there is another world of creativity, a place where perfect repetition is an impossibility. A stage performance, be it musical, theatrical or comedic, can contain slippage, improvisation, interaction and variation. No matter how much precision a stage direction contains, nor how obsessively actors and technicians are implored to adhere to those directions, every performance is unique.

Definitely a game

Beckett, my very own favourite absurdist, fought against that variation at times, seeing the actors as further machinery of the stage, automatons following a route and a script, almost like the mechanical contraptions that go through their motions as a ghost train passes by. In some ways, that theatre of the absurd has been presented to us in games throughout the years, in shooting galleries with little room for maneuver and, often enough, wherever there are rails, as in Beckett’s stagebound houses of horror.

It’s not difficult to make the connection between a stage full of players and a more open world full of the same. When a gunshot echoes through the Zone, improvisation begins, roles are assumed and develop as each brief plotline emerges, takes shape and sometimes ends almost as quickly as it began. We don’t need the awesome scope of possibilities contained within a STALKER to escape from the predetermined and pre-canned, not when even our shooting galleries are capable of dramatic and varied performance.

With Max Payne 3 either incoming or incomed, depending on where you live and whether you’re consoleboxing it or not, there is once more a deluge of marketing material, reviews and other assorted wordbits attempting to convince the world that it’s a stupendously ‘cinematic’ experience. I would have thought one of the reasons such an elaborate and impressive animation system has been put in place is to allow for the emergence of drama, to make each gunfight, each kill and each diving scramble for cover a fraught experience, unique to the player, not an exercise in observation.

This is technology that visually impresses while allowing for those accidents and memorable deviations from the script that are impossible in cinema. The difference between seeing a gangster blown off his feet and crumpling against a wall and thinking, “that looked neat” and thinking “that just happened“.

A cinema?

Gaming can be where things happen rather than where things are directed, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s the drunken collapse of a ragdoll or the annexation of the Kingdom of Sicily by the Holy Roman Empire, it’s not cinematic, it’s the product of play and of simulation rather than (or along with) direction and control. Max Payne 3 may have action in abundance but unlike an action film it could also contain an infinitely generating collection of deleted scenes and a hell of an expansive blooper reel. And you’ll be making them. Making them by shooting angry men in the face, body and legs.

Whether it’s how they animate or how they act, how they deal with change or how they die, the entities in games are so often incomplete, so often continuing to be capable of surprise even after we think we know them so well. I revisit films again and again because I like to share them with other people and because there’s a comfort and a joy in studying and sometimes analysing every element. On the whole, my reasons for revisiting a game are entirely different. Leave cinematic to the cinema and let’s celebrate our differences, one of which is the astonishing capacity to generate differences.

If ‘cinematic’ is entirely the wrong word to use though, then perhaps we need to find a new word to put in its place. ‘Dramatic’ doesn’t quite cut it and although I’d love to see it blazoned across game boxes, I wouldn’t have thought that ‘theatrical’ has any chance of taking root. “Coming from the makers of Grand Theft Auto, a theatrical experience like no other.” Or perhaps, “Max returns in an action-packed extravaganza of happenstance and thrilling fortuity”. My ideas are crap but maybe you can take the skeleton of one of those sentences and do better.

The word ‘cinematic’ has accrued false meaning and from being something to aspire to, as technology has progressed it has become increasingly semantically irrelevant. When a noir-fuelled game of men shooting men can so strikingly provide the happy accidents and visual improvisation which clearly distinguish it from the old master that is recorded action, the aspirations of the past start to seem more backward-looking than ever.

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59 Comments »

  1. Fox89 says:

    Spot on! I love ‘Cinematic’ in my games. But between the bits of game! If the word that springs to mind when playing a game is ‘Wow, this is really cinematic’, then you are probably either playing Heavy Rain or need a better game. Even Mass Effect I wouldn’t describe as cinematic, for the most part.

    I guess it’s this manifestation of the idea that movies are the ultimate form of entertainment. So to claim that a game is ‘cinematic’ is to say “Look at this! This game is as good as a movie! The days of bleeps and bloops and indistinguishable sprites are behind us. This is as good as a movie!”

    So yes, I also cringe when I hear that word in marketing material. Especially when they team it up with ‘dynamic’. Which is the complete opposite.

    • Dhatz says:

      1: Yay for Tachikomas, I always have one as avatar when I figure out where to change it
      2: The word seems to be mostly marketing, the real appeal of movies is short noninteractive experience that should feel finished, and they can be converted into anything and viewed on anything.

      Plus this: amounts of movies coming x statistics= many things potentially worth watching.

      • Didero says:

        If you make an account at Gravatar with the same email account you used to make an RPS account, you can set your avatar there and it will update here.
        On any other site that uses Gravatar for its avatars, you will use that avatar as well.

    • Premium User Badge

      CelticPixel says:

      Composition. A 2D platformer doesn’t have to concern itself much with composition, but once we started viewing our games through a 3D camera it was noticeably absent. Cinematics were bland, clumsily framed and, well…not very cinematic. It’s a powerful way to help tell a story, and while games can be about immersion and emergent gameplay, and all that good stuff (Stalker/DayZ fan here!), there’s no shame in a game wishing to tell a good, solid (even linear!) story, and utilising some of cinemas strengths. I know using games unique properties is something we should strive for, but we should also celebrate being able to borrow the best of cinemas tools as well.

  2. McDan says:

    Yes to this, totally. There can be times for cinematic stuff in games, just don’t sacrifice gameplay for it. And those timees when things can change are amazing too, you just need a balance.

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    DrScuttles says:

    24fps is cinematic but I wouldn’t suppose many people want their games running at that speed.

  4. Ross Angus says:

    Ah, two posts in a row concerning STALKER. A treat indeed.

  5. rockman29 says:

    Awesome article. I like how you described where you would like to see cinematics and when not. Very nicely written! Great stuff!

  6. Casimir Effect says:

    At the risk of sounding like a broken record: this is why Far Cry 2 is great.

    • Shooop says:

      And endlessly respawning bulletproof enemies is why it’s not.

      • ankh says:

        They may be endlessly re spawning but they sure as hell aren’t bulletproof.

      • Bobtree says:

        It’s not how many respawn, there always need to be more at some point. It’s that they reappear as soon as you’ve walked around a rock and turned back again. Like you weren’t even there just seconds ago.

  7. DiamondDog says:

    Cinematic is better.

  8. woodsey says:

    I think I saw/read an interview with Warren Spector where he said that “gaming will forever be the bastard-child of Hollywood” until it stops trying to be cinematic, and that’s spot on.

    I think you can probably judge which developers wished they were in the film industry by the number of times they use ‘cinematic’ to describe their games.

  9. Stevostin says:

    I should agree with that post. Normally I would. Thing is, I just finished LA Noire, and despite all of it flaws (that has been pretty well summed up here), I loved it. And very conciously I love it 50% because of the gameplay, and especially all the huge effort made by the gameplay to avoid the usual “videogame awkwardness”, odd moves, dialog rehearsals, action motivated by something the avatar would never share with the player, etc. (which causes a lot of the sometimes hugely annoying flaws). And 50% really is just the story, writing, narrative, and to a large extent, the play. For the very first time in my life I searched for a video game actor (the corrupt Vice Division cop) because I though he was just great.

    One part of me really wants rockstar deal with its cities more like in GTA Chinatown, with some dynamic, places to buy, randomness, player based plot, and add more depth to that. But another part of me also appreciate the… well, the cinematics when they”re good. And actually, pretty ofter they aren’t that good : Dead Space comes to my mind as an example of poor writing that really made me stop the game after 2h – on par with the awful cam.

    Still the paper above is useful because obviously more consideration should be given to creating huge landscapes and add none to little storytelling sprays to it (Mount&Blade works like that). But I also hopes we’ll see more game like LA Noire. Because I am really, really fond of that one. The story isn’t perfect, but it’s a bloody good one. Bitter, harsh, it has some depth. I had shivers with the last cinematic, after the generic. I love when game do that.

    • chopsnsauce says:

      Are you mental?

      Dead Space is a good to great game. The script writing might not be great, but it does the job and the atmosphere and story are great!

      Tsk. YOU people!

      • Enzo says:

        Dead Space 1 and 2 are brilliant, I think I finished both games 3 times. Can’t wait for the third game, but I’m not sure if I like the new faster movement mechanics and the fact that you have firefights with soldiers. But they added coop to the campaign so I can’t stay mad for long.

      • Premium User Badge

        Revisor says:

        Dead Space has a great atmosphere, you are right. But the story is contrived and the storytelling all over the place, mostly unconvincing. For example Silent Hill (2)’s story was also contrived, but the storytelling, exposition, dialogues were so out of this world that it supported the whole game.

      • Stevostin says:

        I was really uncomfortable with how poor and cliche the writing was, really. It just felt like a bad alien movie clone like there has been so many.

        I was really pissed of with the cam. Constantly blocking a good third of the screen with my character was by the way an excellent exemple of how wanting to get game look like movie at all costs was ruining the game.

        And of course, there was the comparison to System Shock II. It was just hugely painful to play Dead Space knowing how hugely greater it would have been if made like a System Shock game. I do think it’s a shame that Dead Space sells because it means money goes to this kind of design decision instead of the one I think are fondamentally better, at least for a while (things tend to correct themselves on the long run, we’ll just all get old before we stop to see close up third person views, especially for shooters, but it will happen).

    • brulleks says:

      Interesting – I was utterly disappointed by LA Noire for all the reasons that you liked it!

      Games, to me, are about play, exploration and experimentation. I love a good story, but if that’s all I’m getting out of it then I’d rather read a book or watch a film. (In LA Noire, I didn’t even feel the story was that good, to be honest: some of the dialogue was horribly hokey and the idiocy of the detectives in failing to spot patterns – yikes, they should have been fired after the first couple of homicide cases, the true culprit was so signposted).

      Still, because of the diversity that the interactive nature of games allows for, we’re going to see even greater branching of the medium than in any other as it continues to evolve. Which should be great for everybody who enjoys any kind of game, but means that consumers will have to be more attentive to what they’re buying and reviewers will have to pay greater attention to the potential audience when critiquing.

      My greatest fear is that only the most popular gameplay types will survive, and that those will turn out to be the games with minimal interaction, such as COD etc. Still, with the huge sales of Skyrim and various projects rushing in to fill the gap left by Stalker 2, this fear has abated somewhat.

      I loved Max Payne 2 for the very reasons stated above: I tried for the ‘perfect’ kill with every enemy – which, to me, means the most destructive and violent! – and of course, was usually slightly disappointed with the result, which made me want to play it more and do better. Somehow, this worked better in MP2 than in Bulletstorm (which was clearly designed for such a player response), perhaps because the idea seemed new to me back then, but the environments were also more interactive, more physical.

      • Stevostin says:

        Well, really, I am quite the cinematic opponent usually. But sometimes, it just works, like a good serie works, and then it’s great. Somehow writing this I thought “what I’d probably like is to see series replaced by something like LA Noire, and video games by something like Day Z”. But then I thought : no, I actually you’re pretty close to just like how things goes those days, with Day Z, La Noire & The Wire existing in the same world. I’ve been into videogame for quite a while now and really the last 4-5 years are such an improvement. Not only the indie stuff, but more & more action adventure “ala System Shock”, procedural cleverness being back after a loooong vacation (Minecraft, etc.), open world model becoming a strong trend… Video games are definitely going somewhere, and of course this somewhere is many places, because quite obviously video games is a too big media to have only one ideal form. I think there is room for LA Noire, and there is room for Day Z. What’s important right now is that the industry gives more and more importance to the Day Z trend, ie publisher provides the set up, but that’s really players who provide the narrative. Because the balance isn’t yet there by a long shot. But it will. I can see it coming.

  10. Auldreekie says:

    The word “cinematic” from “cinema” derives from the greek “Kine” also in Kinetics, refers to a mimic of our real world motion (well it basically just refers to motion).
    For me the use of the word cinematic is adequate in this case, when I run Kinetic experiments they also involve chance and have unexpected outcomes. If we take the actual definition of the word as coined by the lumiere brothers back when they first ventured into celluloid, most games are “cinematic”, even Day Z.
    The problem is of course the marketing of the game with the word cinematic and what it now implies.
    Totally agree with the article but I think the etymology holds the true meaning of the word.

  11. MythArcana says:

    *cough*Duke*cough*Nukem*cough*Forever*cough*

  12. pilouuuu says:

    That’s what I love about games! And that’s the reason why GTA IV, while having scripted cinematic cutscenes is best when you simply drive around the city causing chaos. I love punching a guy and then he follows me and punches me in front of the cops and the cops arrest him. Or when I run over a guy and the ambulance comes and I punch the nurse and the nurse starts fighting with me and another ambulance shows up to assist the guy. So much fun!

    That’s why I dislike pre-rendered cutscenes. With in-game cutscenes, for example in Dragon Age, you can see the characters using different clothes, maybe some covered in blood. More variation could be added to that.

    I think games should have a balance between scripted with all this variation the article talks about.

    • Pointless Puppies says:

      It’s one of the many reasons I hated GTA IV. I honestly felt like an idiot during those “chase sequences” that weren’t even “chase sequences”. Sad that in the middle of what I thought to be a “catch up with this guy!” moment, the enemy car would always magically accelerate in the exact same moment every time, a garbage truck would always crash always at one very specific point, and it would always crash in exactly the same way every time so as to block your path. Then you “catch up” with him when they said so and only when they said so.

      I’m sorry, but if you want such a meticulously choreographed chase sequence where even individual cars always crash in exactly the way the “director” wants them, how about you just go make a movie? I understand it when developers want to go for something, but this kind of micromanagement in the gameplay is really quite antithetical to what video games are all about.

  13. Calabi says:

    I dont think most triple AAA developers really get games. They dont know what they are and they dont know what to do with them.

  14. JForce says:

    Some people like cinematic games, other people don’t. This article proclaims that all games should suit the preferences of the latter group and ignore the former. How is this position justified?

    It can’t be. Surely you would agree. So then you really shouldn’t say things like “‘Cinematic’ should rightfully be a dirty word when discussing games” and “The cinema is cinematic but games are not, or at least they shouldn’t be, not in their entirety.” ….right?

    • Adam Smith says:

      By your definition what is a cinematic game? My position isn’t that all games should suit certain preferences, it’s that the term isn’t particularly useful in describing what happens within a game of any sort.

      That’s why I look at Max Payne 3 – apparently one of the most ‘cinematic’ games that has ever existed, but I find that term limiting and backward-looking.

      Auldreekie makes a good point above – I reckon the Euphoria engine in use is far more kinetically interesting than a two hour long video, no matter how much motion there is on screen during that video.

    • chopsnsauce says:

      The article isn’t saying that though.

      It’s arguing against the use of the word “cinematic” as even cinematic games offer unique performances within the game (even if the uniqueness only comes from shooting people and them reacting in different ways each time).

  15. Lu-Tze says:

    “Emergence” is the word you are looking for. HTH.

  16. Maldomel says:

    Well, games are only trying to be cinematic because of movies. Many games are designed to be like an interactive movie: the character is controlled by the player, but the setting is usually narrow enough for a linear progression. You don’t stray from the path that was chosen for you, and if it’s well done, you don’t want to go into those alleys on the side.
    This is a bit different with more open games, or rpgs who generally allow the player to take on sidequests and free roaming on the land. But if you follow the main story, it is pretty much the same.
    Then there’s like those open world games with little to no story or objectives, like Minecraft (adding unique worlds generated on the spot) or the likes of Mount and Blade. Dwarf Fortress is also a good examples, there are no cutscenes in this game, only pure adventure and “accidents” all the time.

    And yet all those games have their unique charms and styles.

    But now if we are talking about stories and cut scenes, I can’t really see how game would be less cinematic, considering movies are book-ish in their own style already. It’s too much influence when you look at storylines and the way they are told.

    That’s the point where a realize I don’t quite get what you are talking about, Adam. Books have influenced movies, and cinema is influencing games. Games are far more opened in terms of scripts and storytelling, considering we are making our own stories from a base material, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be called ‘cinematic’ either.
    Though, ‘theatrical’ would be great too.

    • noodlecake says:

      I always want to go into the alleys at the side. I always explore everywhere that isn’t the obvious direction that you are meant to go first. I can’t help it. Sometimes I annoy myself with that if I am at a particularly good part of the in game story.

    • John Connor says:

      “games are only trying to be cinematic because of movies.”

      YOU DONT SAY?

  17. brian says:

    I guess Adam is hoping that in the future there’s no games modelled after film so 20 years from now he can write a piece lamenting the lack of cinematic flair in games like they’re used to be back when classics like Call of Duty Modern Warfare was around and it wasn’t all sandbox games that allowed you to make your dreams come true.

  18. DogKiller says:

    If I want cinematic, I will watch a film. Watching games trying to ape films is not a good experience for me, because the results, helmed by people who seem to have no experience with this kind of stuff, always seem to end up deeply embarrassing. Let somebody make their own story in a game, and I guarantee you it will be a hundred times more memorable for them. And you know, I’m not even talking about full sandbox here. Just the opportunity to go off the rails and do your own thing in Elder Scrolls or Fallout is miles better than watching bad cut scenes.

    • malkav11 says:

      Conversely, I find that the story presented by game writers is quite often vastly more interesting than the stories generated by me, the player, which tend to go like this: “So, I stabbed this guy. And then I shot that guy. And that guy. And oh look, that guy.” In ideal circumstances, perhaps “So, I exploded this guy with fire and his body flew 500 feet into the air and ragdolled in an unnatural way.”

  19. Soapeh says:

    In terms of storytelling, the best part of Dead Island wasn’t the awful and unintentionally hilarious wooden ‘cinematic’ FMVs during the campaign but the bits where you can chat to NPCs and your co-op buddies can jump-kick and maul the oblivious soulless automatons.

  20. erikkain says:

    This is spot-on. Halfway through the game, I can’t help but feel that so much of the narrative could have occurred during gameplay. There’s some terrific dime-novel writing in Max Payne 3, but they spend way too much time worrying about cut-scenes and cinematics instead of gameplay, and the gameplay itself suffers from this enormously especially after a while. Lots of lost opportunity here.

  21. noodlecake says:

    This is exactly why GTAIV is so much more fun than any of it’s clones. I’m sure that V will build on that a lot but the procedural animations and fairly awesome physics allow for all kinds of neat stuff when you start playing around. I wasted so much tme just throwing myself into oncoming traffic or walking around drunk to see how Niko interacts with his surroundings. I think the most surprising thing that happened was when I jumped onto a car that was driving down a steep hill and he sort of rode it sat down all the way to the bottom of the hill and then fell off the front onto his feet and carried on running. It didn’t look weird or glitchy like it would in most games with basic ragdoll physics it was really nice and fluid.

    • Tyrone Slothrop. says:

      This is one of the reasons I preordered Max Payne 3. The Euphoria animations and gunplay alone will be fucking glorious if gameplay footage is anything to go by, I still love the comparatively simpler combat of GTA IV solely because of the dynamism that results from the animation, hit-reactions and A.I. MP3 just looks to be several orders of magnitude better in those regards, I wish I was interested in Diablo 3 because the wait till another chapter in Max’s life is unbearable.

  22. SirKicksalot says:

    Obligatory “Dan Houser is a hack” post.

    The *experience* is what matters most to me. There’s room for all kinds of them. I’m open to anything, I just want to be entertained. If a cinematic game like Max Payne 3 is good, iamokaywiththis.jpg. If not, well, what a shame etc. Execution is what makes the difference. That’s why I can play and love both Far Cry 2 and BLOPS.

  23. hamburger_cheesedoodle says:

    It’s a funny thing, timing. I got this horrible (Horribly awesome) urge to give Deus Ex another run through last night, probably getting close to my tenth play-through. And I’m still doing new things. Last time I made it through without killing anyone, so this time, I am going through killing everyone killable. Did you know that a decade and almost ten runs on, I’m still finding new things to do? Did you know that killing the troopers before sending Paul’s message to Silhouette gives Simons some delightfully sigh-y dialogue?

  24. michailnenkov says:

    I’m out of film school, screenwriter of sorts, and I turned my attention to game narratives some years ago. What the school had taught me is the beauty of the writer’s craft, the precision, the thoughtfulness applied to every detail.

    It’s the art of guiding the mind, attention and emotion in the viewer. This is the point that caused me countless headaches over the last months. Film is effective for one and only reason, and that is emotion. Everything else is derivative. Emotion is crafted, emotion is motivated and if all goes well – emotion is felt. This is what Molyneux got right and is often mocked for the attention he brings to it, but it’s the ultimate truth for any story-based art form. That’s what Fable does, it is very precise in creating emotional bonds, and I’m yet to play a game that does it better.

    What the article had touched on is for the most part concerning the immersion of the player, the feeling he is in fact the PLAYER. That is a tough thing to do in general, but I’m sure for myself, that the thing that breaks immersion even more than cinematics is the presence of emotion in the player’s digital representation that is not present in the player himself.

    Games so often presume – or depend on – the player’s willingness to imagine and empathize with unmotivated events. Countless games narratives begin with “Your mother/father/uncle/girlfriend/country has been killed/abducted/terrorized by a villain – go deal with it” or something along the lines, that is rightly considered the base of most epic tales, but is idiotically though of as a thing single-handedly capable of creating a good story. But I digress.

    What my real dilemma mostly comes from is the fact, that if I was to write an effective, emotionally captivating game narratives, I would demand a certain (rather high) level of control. I know that the article is not arguing against story guidance, but bear with me. The trend for the last few years has been “let the player’s to exercise their freedoms, give them a branching storyline” etc. The article mostly talks about the little things, the little moments that come from simulated worlds. They are a great source immersion, but at the same time the worst possible enemy of it. As Will Wright has said in a lecture years ago, players are very good at recognizing what their freedoms are. Every player knows the possibilities of a world within the first couple of minutes in the game. We know right away if we have running faucets and flushing toilets. This is fine for inanimate objects, players are capable of a certain level of abstraction and quickly get accustomed to the world that is not limitless in possibilities, but believable. What destroys the immersion is the supposed story-driving elements, that are left to be explored. I really tried with Fallout 3, the story was well set up, but after few hours in the wasteland, I’ve lost most of the emotional connection with my digital father – the very thing that was supposed to drive me forward.

    Those are the cases where I would exercise control the most – I’m terrified of the prospect of players ruining the experience for themselves. The ideal case would be a story so well-written, that the player is feeling the urge to progress thru the story, motivated by the same feelings and emotions that would be felt, had the situation appeared irl, not needing missions and objectives. But one can only dream.

    Interestingly, that’s what minecraft has done, exercising no control at all, supplying only the world and the rules, and the player follows with a narrative of it’s own. But that’s where I don’t fit, because I wouldn’t have a job and because I want to tell stories to people. The game industry has to decide what it want’s to do. The creators of Max Payne 3 have decided and they may very well fail at doing it, but if they don’t stumble on the perfect balance of control and freedoms, someone else will…

    If anyone cared to read the whole thing, I would love to hear if I’m wrong, I’m thinking about this more than I should, probably, but that’s how I feel about it.

    • DodgyG33za says:

      @michailnenkov. Maybe you are right about emotion and film, but only because any reaction to any art form could be described in terms of emotion. To me the best sort of films (and books for that matter) are ones that provoke thought rather than emotions. That leave you thinking about them or their premise for days, weeks or even years.

      I don’t think “the game industry needs to decide” anything. People have different tastes. Some want a sandbox so that they can create their own stories (Skyrim, Minecraft), others want story, yet others are content to grind for endorphins and many like combinations of the three.

      Personally I would be happy for developers to skip cut scenes all together as I rarely watch them.

      In short, I don’t think there is the perfect balance.

    • JackShandy says:

      Games are fundamentally a less manipulative form than movies. Sounds like an insult, but there it is. In a good game the story is told by the mechanics, not by a pre-made script: The pre-written lines only support the narrative that happens as you play.

      You could always make Dear Esther games, though.

  25. FRIENDLYUNIT says:

    This is relevant to my interests.

  26. noodlecake says:

    There are definitely some story driven games that I have really enjoyed. The Witcher 2, all three Mass Effect games, both Dragon Age games, Heavy Rain, Fahrenheit, Broken Sword (1 to 4), Final Fantasy 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 12 (12 less so). I’m happy to have very little choice in the game if the narrative is strong enough and the art direction is good enough and it’s well paced.

    I tired of Fallout 3, Oblivion and Skyrim fairly quickly but forced myself to continue out of principle of having laid down the money for them. The story was dull and the voice acting in all the games completely sucked out any character that existed in the game world. The AI and combat is pretty terrible in all of those games. Obviously they are tremendous technical feats but what’s the point if they don’t suspend your disbelief?

    I have sunk a lot of time into Terraria and Minecraft however. When played with multiple people the game world changes around you in an intelligent, creative and rational way and every game or world is different. Both these games succeed much more than Skyrim or Fallout in this regard. I believe in the town we’re building on the techworld server far more than I do in Skyrim as a place despite the monumentous achievement of the developers in bringing the place to life just because the characters are so dead.

  27. MordeaniisChaos says:

    Except that shotguns are built not by accident to blast guys back, physics objects are there for the express purpose of creating dynamic scenes, ragdolls are designed in particular ways to blast around in such a way or crumple in such a way, often animated to some extent to guide them in a particular direction. Much of the CG in today’s movies is simulated in the same way that a game world is. Yes, they set up the shot, they control the variables, but ultimately a simulation is a simulation. Game engines have controlled variables too, and when a game engine allows me to vent my anger on a ragdoll by emptying the remainder of my clip into the corpse, causing subtle and believable corrections of it’s trajectory as it crumples and falls, I feel very much the same thing when I see that happen in a movie, but from a different point of view. I would absolutely say that this is “cinematic”, as it is both relating to and suggestive of filmic content.
    The idea that ragdolls are built just for ease’s sake an aren’t given a lot of time to make sure they behave in a particular way, like making enemies crumple and drop in a satisfying way. And often, it’s not just a ragdoll, but an animation that blends into the ragdoll, or some sort of procedural animation that is designed to encourage a particular thing to happen. No, it isn’t totally controlled most of the time, but it often is controlled nearly as much as CG in a movie. Do you think every tiny move in even a pixar movie is keyframed? No. There are physics, water simulation models, etc. Look at the Animations in Lord of the Rings, a lot of that wasn’t totally keyframed, making use of advanced techniques that simulate various factors.
    When Max Payne goes into the last guy mode and you riddle him with holes, that is gameplay, but it is a very specific thing that the developer created.
    Hell, listen to how Valve guides the player along the game. They set up views of vistas and events that encourage the player to witness them, to take note of them, and react to things around them in a particular way. It’s more than just randomness, and acting like it is is a bit ignorant of what goes into making games, especially today.
    No, they aren’t movies, but that doesn’t make them lacking in cinematic qualities.

  28. LennyLeonardo says:

    This is a really great article.

    I think “cinematic” could be a useful word in describing games, if used intelligently (sort of like “painterly”, used to describe the composition of a film shot) but as overused as it is it’s just become another silly marketing geegaw.

    But then, “cinematic” does mean “OF the cinema”, not “LIKE the cinema”, so they all get it wrong anyway. Maybe it should be “cinemaesque” or “cinematical”. Or not.

  29. MadTinkerer says:

    When I played Half Life 2, and especially Episode 1 and 2, I thought that “cinematic” was the perfect word for the game. There are no cutscenes, and you feel like you are immersed in an action movie. Like an action movie, the experience is linear and the characters are scripted. But like a stage play, there is some room for improvisation within the limits of the AI (Alyx shielding her eyes when you shine your flashlight in her face in the dark, “JUST PUSH THE BUTTON ALREADY” and so on).

    Left For Dead and LFD2 are similar, but only if you play singleplayer and avoid multiplayer. The “bot AI” acts reasonably close to the “character AI” of HL2, and suddenly the other three Survivors are characters and you are an actor improvising with them as situations occur. Sadly, playing multiplayer ALWAYS destroys this illusion and turns it into a pure action game, but you don’t need to play multiplayer (or online, for that matter).

    Portal 2 sometimes feels a little like immersive cinema, but because the gameplay is more about solving puzzles than interacting with characters directly, and the dialogue is more overtly tweaked to make the player laugh, it has less of the “feel”. In fact, it feels more like being in a cross between a sitcom and a game show, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just totally different to HL2 and L4D. And Portal for that matter, but that’s another post for another time.

  30. fish99 says:

    The first screenshot – is that the guy who killed Max Payne?

  31. wererogue says:

    Really they just mean “the camera work is complementary to the action”. Just like all the other Max Paynes, or Sands of Time, or various other games that pushed forward the use of exciting shots to pace the action.

  32. Bweahns says:

    I just had to add my best Max Payne cinematic anecdote.

    Playing Max Payne 2 back in the day I was in some darkened apartment at the top of a tall building and a goon jumped out and I blew him away with my trusty shotgun, however with the havok physics engine deployed in the second game he then flew backwards and landed in an office chair which in turn went careening backwards whilst simultaneously revolving as office chairs do, it finally banged into the wall below an open window at which point the momentum of the body on the now swiveled chair propelled the corpse out the window.

    I was pretty blown away by that at the time (despite thinking Max Payne 2 as a whole was a bit bland compared to the first) and it sticks out to this day. I tried to recreate that moment by loading the game and doing it again, I tried a few times and it just didn’t happen.

  33. Josh W says:

    Stylistic, stylised, kintetic, well paced, with emotive use of space and camera angles, with tightly matched and synchronised musical cues, slick.

    That’s one type of cinematic.

    There’s also “like a movie”, which tends to mean “I stopped what I was doing for a moment and just watched”. Like the non-interactive stuff is so good that you could just enjoy it for itself even not inside of a game. Like a work of art/like a painting applies to similar things, as does, “this is proper music”.

    There’s probably other comparisons people make too. Perhaps you could go through a dictionary of cinema, take out all the positive adjectives and apply some of them instead.