It’s abhorrent to me how the idea of what “cinema” is has been appropriated by video games.
Cinema is the look on James Dean’s face in the opening of Rebel Without A Cause. It’s the majestic tracking shot that opens Touch of Evil. It’s Gloria Swanson, looming large toward camera, for the parting shot of Sunset Boulevard. Cinema is beautiful, solemn, ecstatic—cinema is glorious.
But in the world of video games the word “cinematic” is used to describe spectacle, explosions, loudness, and ostentation. Grand Theft Auto, The Last of Us, Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, Halo, and other games often referred to as “cinematic” contain either none or only the barest traces of the essence of cinema. That marketers, developers and critics use “cinematic” as a way to refer to these kinds of video game experiences is a crime, like using “genius” to describe Inception. But although in the past, both privately and in articles for other publications, I’ve expressed a dislike for video games that copy movies, in hindsight, I’d like to see more cross-pollination. Developers just need to watch some different fucking films.
The majority of “cinematic” games seem inspired not by cinema, but the box office. These are slabs of entertainment, spectacular and often fun, but by no means an encompassing reflection of what movies are—more a response to what sold well during the summer. Likewise, The Last of Us, Grand Theft Auto and Metal Gear Solid—the crop of ostensible “upper” cinematic games—are not cinema in the complete and grandiose sense that the word “cinematic” implies. They’re just partly inspired by films like The Road, Scarface and James Bond.
The gaming industry has a very myopic sense of what cinema is, and what “cinematic” means. Increasingly, they claim to be a close companion, but at best, video games are merely acquainted with films. The kinds of films that inspire games—the kinds that end up repackaged and remixed into franchises like Deus Ex and Watch Dogs—come from a very, very small minority of the movie canon. There is so much of cinema that games either omit or seem unable to re-purpose, and yet they call themselves and are called “cinematic”, as if they are anything like films in general.
Admittedly, the popular and narrow idea of what video games should be, the one that has pervaded for decades, prohibits the influence of certain types of films. As long as we expect games to be dazzling, filled with action, at least ten hours long and politically male, it’ll be impossible to channel movies like La Ronde or Inside Llewyn Davis into experiences that could be reasonably sold as a video games. And “triple-A” games in particular have expanded in such a way that they communicate best with only certain genres of films—action, sci-fi, fantasy. Trying to get anything through this gelatine wall of presupposition about what video games “should be” is a daunting challenge even for the willing developer, and they have my sympathy.
But until they start to draw from films outside a tiny clutch of genres—until they replicate more than just genre cinema, full stop—video games have zero right to be referred to as “cinematic.” What other media does to games—the way sitcom characters hold a PlayStation controller wrong, the way the character in the film or the TV show who likes games is always an awkward, obsessive nerd (exceptions notwithstanding, thank you House of Cards)—this is what video games are doing to cinema, taking the worst and most obvious excesses and stereotypes, and calling them representation. Cinematic video games could be great. The video game industry’s idea of what constitutes cinema simply needs to mature.
By all means, games should plunder cinema, but they should select and copy different aspects. I’m hesitant to list off games that I think have successfully captured subtlety, melodrama, evocation and mood and call them “better” examples of a cinematic game, because those qualities do not belong exclusively to cinema, nor are these games expressly copying cinema—they’re subtle, melodramatic, evocative and moody on very much their own terms. But Actual Sunlight is as moving as any great film; Glitchhikers is sensual, evocative, overwhelming, on par with cinema’s best surrealists; Gone Home and Papers, Please find intrigue and melodrama in the mundane; Three Fourths Home is the pleasure of hearing two people having a conversation.
These games might not specifically intend it, but they demonstrate that the basest elements of cinema are not all that are applicable in our beloved interactive medium. Beyond what they currently are, games are capable of being cinematic. Again, I’m hesitant—I’m hesitant to make a sweeping value judgement of one type of film over another, because I love all types of movies, and what’s frustrating instead is the way games seem to not. But video game makers would be well served by watching better films, films that, essentially, they haven’t already picked clean for inspiration.
At the moment “cinematic,” when applied to video games, means at best The Last of Us, a consistent and intelligent drama, set during a zombie apocalypse—and at worst Call of Duty, unexciting, uncomplicated spectacle. But “cinematic” can mean so much more. Cinematic can mean beautiful, solemn, ecstatic. Cinematic, even in games, could mean glorious.
Ed Smith is a writer from the UK. You can find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.
The 6 things gamers should stop complaining about