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Just like the movies, or: How video games are learning from films

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Early last year, God of War was still forthcoming. The hype for Kratos’ return was mounting, and hindsight now tells that the wait and anticipation was very much worth it. Yet there I was, still not really interested. Then I saw this:

Here I am then, putting my thinkin’ cap on, and I’m immediately thinking of this:

Metal Gear has been my favorite gaming franchise for years now, and that likely won’t change. The games are renowned for their lengthy cutscenes and Hideo Kojima’s cinematic approach to much of the storytelling, but it’s only been with Ground Zeroes and Phantom Pain that his approach to directing cutscenes has really grown into itself.

The way the “camera” in that Ground Zeroes scene tracks movement in a single take is something we see in films and television often, but gaming cutscenes have largely followed the more traditional style of Hollywood film editing. Mario explains quantum theory–>cut to–>Luigi scratching his head–>cut to–>Mario facepalming. You know, normal stuff.

The idea behind long takes is to keep the viewer immersed, which brings up an interesting split between games and movies. In a film obviously the audience is entirely passive, so the idea of an extended sequence, following a character or location, lulls them into a sort of trance. But in a game, I’m constantly playing as Sly Cooper. The camera is right behind you, Sly! Turn around!

But in the earlier days of when games were starting to tell real, nuanced stories, there was a lot to be figured out. I’m in the middle of Square’s 1998 Xenogears and find myself often mashing “X” to read through box after box of text, often growing a little weary of all the melodrama. One might call the pacing of JRPGs like this “literary.” Others might call it “boring.” Gaming needed a jolt to its system in how players were to be hooked by these stories, and the evolution of the cutscene and marriage of gameplay and cinematic are part and parcel of this.

In that scene from Max Payne 3 there’s a bit of a jolt within the actual cinematic, but you go from watching Max steel himself to being able to dive out like a madman and gun down gangsters. The opening ofThe Last of Us opening allows you to watch a scene play out and tension to build, and as things start to seem off the player is given the reins. When games basically flip-flop from being movies to games, you get these moments where passively holding the controller, watching, doesn’t feel so passive. It just becomes a beat of drama, and the control (shooting, navigating the early moments of a viral outbreak) becomes the action.

In the above video Dori Arazi says it himself, it’s incredibly gratifying to watch a scene unfold without those “breaks” in the story introduced by a hard cut. Take this scene for example:

Baldur turns to Freya, strangling her life’s breath from her. Dramatic stuff! But forget not Kratos, mere paces off-screen, who shoulders into Baldur, and turns the tides on him in that way. Rather than a cut to Kratos, tears welling for Freya, we get nothing but the startling action of his violent interruption. Okay, great. Choke-hold, broken neck. Holding on Baldur’s corpse, his eyes swelling in death, as it falls to the ground takes us out of intense violence and into mourning a fallen character. Same shot still, Freya emerges from the background to mourn her dead son. You’re saying Sam this is obvious, don’t baby us. But it’s so cool! To have such incredible developments in a narrative unfold at such a rapid pace, all at once… It’s kinda like life, innit?

But while the tonal whiplash you can be subjected to is one thing, for me there’s a sort of giddy sensation I get from this sort of “game cinematography” that is entirely unique to the medium. You watch this footage and the camera (I’m putting a hold on the air quotes when I talk about the in-game camera; you’re welcome) has a sway to it, like some sweating steadicam operator is heaving his rig as best he can while being damn sure he doesn’t bump into Kratos, lest he make Kratos really mad. Obviously the devs directing the scene can stabilize the camera, but that would look real weird, wouldn’t it? The tremors of motion grant that illusion of instability and physicality to a world that is entirely 1’s and 0’s.

Being without physical bodies, we’re also afforded the ability to do things that would be “impossible” to do while heaving a fifty pound camera and trying to hold traffic while the deli owner doesn’t give a shit about you movie people, he’s going into his store.

I love in that Ground Zeroes cutscene how close we get to the soldier who opens the cage, the glance down at him unfolding his gun, and then back up to catch the reflection on his goggles. That’s just crazy stuff that you could replicate in real life, but the slickness of it all works in a video game because our entire surroundings are a sort of glossy, digital special effect.

For the record, I don’t hate Sucker Punch, though I’m not much of a fan because it illustrates how live-action films and their special effects can create a disconnect where games don’t have that problem. In the above clip there’s a flesh-and-blood actress who is edited with a digital stunt double that performs all that crazy action. Not to mention the entirely-illusory robots shattering and popping, and the firearm effects, and so on.

Subconsciously I’ll watch a scene like that and identify what’s real and what’s fake, and there’s an inherent detachment that comes with that. Oh that lady’s fine, those robots can’t really hurt her. Those robots aren’t even there! In a video game, whether it’s Cloud mourning Aeris or Isaac in Dead Space being torn to shreds, because that entire world I’m watching is a construct so too are the “actors.” My investment hinges not on believing the special effects, but the game from the start. I’m a cold-hearted bastard, but if I’m going to become wrapped up in a game’s story I’m not going to be distracted because the graphics aren’t photo-realistic, or even because of a lack of voice-acting. Once you accept that you’re onboard with the game, there’s not much that should pull you out.

For all the good an appreciation of technique can do for gaming, there’s certainly a line that you can cross, risking alienation of your audience. Perhaps why I’m so fascinated with this delicate balancing act is because the Metal Gear games falter in for many in this feat.

I joked about it, but there’s valid criticism in Kojima’s cinephilic approach to storytelling. One could argue that you’re playing a game because you want to be playing it. Strange, huh? What Metal Gear’s long cutscenes and info-dumps (some of the ones in Guns of the Patriots are tantamount to well-illustrated PowerPoint presentations) do is take the player out of the game. Okay you enjoyed that sweet stealth action? Well easy there fella, we need to have a talk about nanomachines. The jolt from active to passive is what grinds the gears of some gamers, which makes perfect sense.

Kojima’s slideshows aren’t the only messy marriage of film and game. For as dramatic as popping in and out of curated cinematics and gameplay can be, hitting a “cutscene wall” is about as captivating as my 7th grade presentation on komodo dragons.

The Bouncer is a game that, for one, I haven’t played in years, but is also an early example of games and film technique not getting along too well early on. Reviews weren’t excellent, many disparaging the imbalance of gameplay-to-cutscene, with the heft of a playthrough leaning towards the latter. Feeling robbed of a gaming experience because of an excess of cutscenes is exactly what you don’t want the player to feel, and the jarring transition above speaks to that.

But while games are learning to implement film theory in their storytelling, there are countless ways video games capture a player’s attention that are wholly unique to the medium; the interactivity of playing a video game as opposed to watching a film is inherent, and for many provides a stimulation that our increasingly-compulsive, plugged-in selves crave. I’m certainly guilty of fidgeting during movies, where gaming, if I’m really wanting to play, is entirely captivating. The ways in which games do things that movies don’t is another discussion, and one worth examining. The logical question, if you’re still with me thinking “What the hell is he going to spout next,” is whether movies have something to learn from games.

Find out on the next episode of Dragon Ball Z!