There’s a word that gets thrown around in the gaming PR e-mails I receive that’s sort of annoying. It’s a word you’re probably familiar with: "cinematic." It's a sort of useless word, one usually referring to games with polished graphics engines, large explosions, and lots of hyper-engineered set pieces, but it does have the potential for relevance. Video games do rely on cinematic convention and technique to communicate ideas and themes, and the word is used to discuss ideas such as camera placement, transitions, and organized narrative, it regains some of its usefulness.
But as the eighth console generation dawns on our fair world, my glance across the spectrum of games makes me wonder about our desire to draw so heavily from cinema in our inspiration and motivation. To be sure, movies are one of the many art forms that game-makers draw upon -- and in some cases have literally borrowed from -- in order to create some of the most influential styles. But as we delve into ideas like mission structure and player engagement with narrative, cinema starts to become...well, a less useful tool. And the tool that takes its place might be television.
Cinema is an art form which conventionally doesn't last more than three hours, while video games are programming loops meant to engage for much longer lengths of time. Their acts are more compact, their language meant for short form communication, but in a medium where the raw necessities of game mechanics could demand up to an hour of story development per level, can we really afford to think of our plots in gaming narratives that could to be solved in that length of time?
Of course we can. But when they don't, television provides lessons that film cannot, in part because video games and television have a surprising amount of similarities.
Managing a long length of time.
Television seasons can run from six to 100 episode-long seasons depending on the format and factors of production. To remain as successful as it's been, television writers need to bring audiences back episode after episode. Lessons here include the formulaic efforts of creating stand-alone sitcoms like the Big Bang Theory or formula dramas like Law and Order. But more importantly they deal with a management of a weekly status quo. Television shows strangely enough can operate like video games -- there is a core set of mechanics and rules that define each episode, and a repetitive interaction in those mechanics are what help flesh out the characters. This effect ranges from simple sitcoms to nuanced dramas, but the impact is the same -- the show creates a normalcy that helps the audience understand when characters are trying to preserve the status quo while the show deliberately upends it.
Grappling with Larger Casts of Characters.
Even when a game puts you in the role of a central character, your in-game friends and allies become important parts of shaping out the experience. Characters need to be solid personalities with an animated presence, otherwise their mechanical purpose becomes clear. Your commanding officer becomes just a voice with an internet connection, your friends just become walking meat shields and your romantic interest becomes just something to be taken away so you can recover it. Even the best action-oriented TV shows know when and how their characters need to act and interact in order to set up conflict, and looking for the subtle ways they engineer their multi-member casts is a step to turning your mechanical tools into actual people.
Solving that "player must fail" problem.
Remember earlier how we talked about the status quo and the need to preserve it? That's something movies can't offer -- they're constantly resisting any state that is a simple status quo, and because of that your protagonists need to consistently make forward momentum in some capacity. But in games, you often need to fail over and over again before your skills line up to the point that you can advance, and the conflict between these storytelling methods is what creates boss fights where even though you win the fight you lose in the cutscene. Creating mission designs that manage to return to a certain point while still advancing the plot and player growth in a specific fashion could be a powerful asset.
Practicing Remixing Reusable Resources.
The scariest thing about the popularity of Seinfeld is that it managed to make America fall in love with a group of characters who hung out in the same area over and over again. The Big Bang Theory can’t seem to escape the gang’s apartment and even action shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. return to a familiar location like "the bus." This has to do with the realities of T.V. production and set design, and that reusable familiar locations are just cost-effective to produce for filming. But while game designers don’t automatically need to limit themselves to one location, the idea of examining how to tell different stories and create different scenarios within your familiar assets is an important one, since it starts to get you think how making little changes can impact larger gameplay decisions.
Some Video Games Are Already Doing It.
One of the strangest game play innovations of the failed Alone In The Dark reboot was an explicit definition of its different acts as TV episodes, and giving the player the choice to skip over whatever parts they wanted. It’s not a perfect example, but between the episodic nature of Telltale’s games to the self-contained nature of Mass Effect 2’s missions, we’re already starting to see some games that are stretching their limbs and not trying to have every mission race for the finish line.
Television is in some ways the art of riding on a bicycle -- choosing when to coast and when to pedal actively, those moments of pedaling actively being what actively moves the plot along, and the moments of coasting being moments where characters get time to simply interact with one another. While I could easily make the same argument about film, it’s not a format that seems to fit into the kind of films so-called ‘cinematic’ games might want to emulate. So if game designers are going to look so furiously far to another visual medium to try and find their inspiration for their games, all I can ask is that ultimately, why not borrow from a medium that seems to have more in common with their own?