‘Cinematic’ is not a dirty word

Recently Rock Paper Shotgun published an article railing against ‘cinematic’ games. The sentiment will be familiar to anyone who’s spent time on any game site or comment thread. Games are games, why should games be like movies? Treating games like movies means long, non-linear cutscenes, and no-one likes those. The best course for games is to focus on interaction, and ignore films entirely. The argument is a compelling one, but I think it’s dead wrong, and stems from a basic misconception about what we mean when we say ‘cinematic’.

When a developer or publisher describes their game as ‘cinematic, they mean it has a sense of visual style usually only seen in movies. They mean they have paid attention to what film-makers call ‘cinematography’, the art of composing and lighting scenes for film. Much as, the early cinematographers learnt their trade from painters. They studied how the masters composed a scene, how they manipulated light and shadow, and then they took those techniques and built upon them, just as games are now doing with cinema.

Let me give you an example.

Long ago film-makers had a problem. They had to take scenes which consisted of two people talking and make them visually interesting. It’s the simplest of human interactions, and we all do it every day, but just watching it happen wasn’t enough, we needed something to stimulate us when we did. Eventually, they solved this problem, using varied camera angles to break the scene up and present the back and forth in a dramatic fashion, they had actors interact with objects in the foreground to draw the audience’s attention, they made scenes mobile instead of static, and moved the camera with the actors as they walked.

Mass Effect uses cinematic camera angles in its dialogue scenes.

Years later, when making Mass Effect, Bioware hit the same problem. Their games had always revolved around interactive dialogue, a non-linear, interactive method of telling a story. These dialogue scenes had always been tremendously well written, but were visually static and boring. Baldur’s Gate stuck to a zoomed out, isometric view the entire time, Knights of the Old Republic drew the camera closer and added some action, but nowhere near enough. The solution was to look to films, to use those same lessons film-makers had laid down years ago to spice up their own dialogue. Mass Effect is clearly a cinematic game, every conversation is directed with the composition and visual flair of a high quality film, yet it remains interactive and choice driven. They took a stable of cinema, dialogue driven story, and added interactivity, creating something new, and interesting.

Of course, not every cinematic game is Mass Effect. There are many games who use long cutscenes to tell their story. This cutscenes are certainly cinematic, using varied camera angles, lighting and carefully directed virtual actors, but they are also clearly not interactive, failing to give the player any control whatsoever. It is these games that have made ‘cinematic’ such a dirty word.

Yet these are certainly not the only linear games in existence. Half Life 2 is a profoundly linear experience, each player moves down the same path, has the same adventure and follows the same story. It’s also one of the least ‘cinematic’ games you’ll ever play, with the player given near total control of the camera, even during dialogue. This results in exposition being flatly explained to your silent protagonist in the simplest possible manner. Your ability to move the camera offers the illusion of control at the expense of visual interest. The total opposite of Mass Effect, which controls your visuals, but lets you control the story.

As you can see, linearity and cinematic visuals are not opposing forces, but completely independent. Yet so many people seem to confuse the two, and attack ‘cinematic’ as a dirty word, when all they really disagree with is linearity.

Half Life 2 shows the blandest possible method of depicting dialogue.

In his article Adam Smith praised the happy accidents of the emergent gameplay of Stalker or Dwarf Fortress, yet these need not be the enemy of cinema. Would Dwarf Fortress be any less emergent if it presented it’s tiny miners in with the lighting of Film Noir or the ambitious camera work of Orson Welles? Simply showing a well rendered Dwarf from a carefully positioned camera does not make him any less likely to go mad and set himself on fire, or be killed by an overpowered carp. It might even improve a game whose confusing visuals provide a barrier to many gamers who would otherwise enjoy it.

Far from a dirty word, ‘cinematic’ is something we should embrace more. We should take a long hard look at how cinema really works, and ask ourselves “Can we do this? Can we make it interactive? How will it work?”

Mass Effect showed us how powerful interactive cinematic dialogue can be, but the potential is limitless. Why haven’t we seen an interactive montage? Why don’t games ever intercut two scenes for juxtaposition? Or use split screen in narrative? Why, after so many years, are the dominant camera angles in gaming, first person, over the shoulder, top down, side on and isometric, the least visually interesting viewpoints there are? We know that changing the camera, or improving the lighting won’t make the game any less interactive, so why are we so reluctant to do so?

It’s not a simple task, and I certainly don’t have all the answers. Some of the things I’ve proposed here will prove impractical or impossible to move to the interactive realm, but we’ll only find that out if we experiment, if we try not just new things, but old things with new twists.

Cinematic is not a dirty word. All it means is taking some hints from our film making forefathers on how to make our games more visually interesting. Just as they once developed their trade by learning from Rembrandt, we can improve ours by paying attention to Roger Deakins and Darius Khondji.

Every art form builds on those that came before. We stand on the shoulders of cinematic giants. The least we can do is stop spitting on their heads.