Cinematic Video Games: A Boon or Bore?
by Wyatt Gordon
If you’ve been playing video games for as long as I have (read: 23 years of my 26 years being alive), you probably have a firm idea of how the industry has changed over the years. Several trends have come and gone (motion controls, gritty, violent shooters, and we are now squarely in battle royale mode), but I think one of the most egregious trends plaguing the industry right now is this desire to push games into becoming more “cinematic”. For the longest time, I’ve been familiar with the sentiment that games aren’t “mature” enough for general audiences and are less capable of being considered artistic or thought-provoking and more thought of as toys for those who can’t grasp such deep concepts. While the stigma has been gradually waning in recent times, I think the response to it, that is, making games more like narrative-driven movies with a side of gameplay, has acted as a detriment to games overall.
Don’t take this as an attack on your favorite games, of course. You’re free to enjoy any game that focuses on a cinematic story (I myself enjoy the Metal Gear Solid series, which is guilty of this), but the result of the shift towards these kinds of games has made so many AAA (“triple A” for those uninitiated) dull and formulaic. Nowadays it feels like the most popular publishers are trying to take notes from generic Hollywood fare (how many times have you heard promises from game developers that an upcoming title will be a “deep, cinematic experience”?). I’ve both experienced and watched others groan when many games suddenly come to a screeching halt in order to deliver exposition in long, unskippable cutscenes that completely destroy the pace of the game and any enjoyment I or others were getting out of it. I emphasize the “skippable” here, because if this were included in the games I’ve been writing about, this issue would be much less severe. Alas, even in games I enjoy greatly (the Far Cry series comes to mind), the developers elected to have the game go into autopilot when hitting a flag that initiates a cutscene, with all control being taken from the player in favor of delivering a plot, one which not all players may even find interesting (I’m among those who can invest myself in a game’s story enough that I’ll have the patience to watch, but I know not everyone relates). The underlying issue here could be argued as a desire for more freedom in games, but there’s more to it than being forced to watch a boring story.
Another negative effect of this cinematic push has come in the form of a lot more heavily-promoted games becoming homogenized in terms of gameplay and plot. When I mentioned that publishers were taking notes from Hollywood, I also meant in terms of writing, which consequently also affects the game’s playstyle. You of course have your Call of Duty games that are barely distinguishable from each other, each acting more or less as a war movie or spy thriller where you move in a straight line, shooting all of the bad guys from room to room while being occasionally interrupted by a turret or vehicle segment. Even with the occasional innovation or two within the series, I could never shake the feeling while playing any entry that I was in a glorified shooting gallery while having the most basic of characters barking lines at me.
Even outside of Call of Duty, though, it seems commonplace nowadays to find games that take place from a third-person over-the-shoulder perspective, sometimes with an open world (another overabundant trend) and similar gameplay mechanics to all others like it (usually involving crafting, sidequests, collectibles, or some other combination of checkbox mechanics stuffed into games these days). A few examples that variously fit these archetypes include God of War (2018), Horizon Zero Dawn, Days Gone, and the rebooted Tomb Raider trilogy. With so much focus on a realistic aesthetic and heavily-cinematic narratives, it feels like the industry has become a homogenized hodgepodge of different flavors of the same game. In-turn, this has greatly limited the amount of experimentation mainline games can conduct anymore, as anything that might stray from these mechanics is typically deemed too risky to invest in (one thing this shift in the industry has proven is that these tried-and-true trends make for a great profit. The gaming-industry has become a multi-billion dollar one for a reason). Creative freedom, as a consequence, has been relegated to something only commonly seen in the independent video game market, which means it’s much more likely to go unnoticed.
On that subject, there are numerous games out there, both mainstream and independent, that are both able to buck these trends as well as be engaging, artistic experiences. BioShock, having been released back in 2007 before the advent of these trends, is considered a masterpiece in nearly every aspect. Instead of taking your usual cinematic approach, BioShock builds its world through in-game lore in the form of audio diaries and radio messages, only rarely taking control away from the player to set up a cutscene. Dark Souls takes a similar approach in a much subtler way, giving the player no indication of the deeper character or world developments unless they themselves look for it. One could very well play through the entire game lacking the context of hidden character motivations, backstories, or knowledge of the world and still have a fulfilling experience just from playing it. Both BioShock and Dark Souls were mainstream games, and despite the lack of your usual tired cinematic story-telling tropes or formulaic gameplay mechanics, they were critical and commercial successes, each game being held in high regard and arguably being considered among some of the greatest games ever made.
As far as the independent video game scene goes, Hotline Miami and its sequel are both intricately-woven puzzle boxes of narratives, not only being highly-addictive, adrenaline-pumping action games, but also giving the player freedom to skip any parts of the story they want to in favor of continuing the game. Katana Zero takes this a step further, as it not only allows players to skip segments of the story, but there are even in-game consequences for doing so, the ability to skip being presented as interrupting dialogue from NPCs. Alongside this, Katana Zero, like Hotline Miami, offers a thrilling, action-packed experience with a rich narrative and themes, once again all without the burden of turning it into a forced cinematic experience. Not only this, but both independent games have even found critical and commercial success themselves, and coupled with BioShock and Dark Souls, it’s a clear indicator that there is still a market for these types of games, possibly signaling to larger developers that there could still be a chance for creativity with the right game pitch to their publishers.
Of course, there’s the argument to be made that the change to more cinematic, narrative-driven games has led to video games becoming more accepted and popular, as series such as The Last of Us have become so popular that it has earned accolades from critics while even earning itself a mini-series. While this may be true, I find it’s also a double-edged sword, as it seems games are losing their identity as games in order to become interactive movies. In order to be taken more seriously, it feels some developers have foregone the focus on being a game in favor of being a story presented with bouts of audience participation. This is not the case across the board entirely (as there are certainly still games that focus more on engaging gameplay), but it’s lamentable that in order to become more accepted artistically (and financially successful), there are some games that feel the need to force some kind of cinematic experience. The examples listed above make for a good case that games can still be thematically immersive as well as unique and engaging to play. This, of course, could all just be cynical positing, but I’d personally just like to see more games attempt to buck the current trends and regain the creative freedom they used to have.