Lights! Camera! (Press X For Action)
It’s Saturday night. You nestle into your seat with a big bag of popcorn and a bowl of chips. The screen is shining bright as you dim the lights. The show’s about to start.
Hostages are being held captive by a terrorist group, and one lone hero is the only one strong, stealthy, and brave enough to save the day. The plot promises action, thrills, romance, and daring adventure.
You reach over and grab your controller.
This isn’t movie night- it’s game night.
Cinematic games aren’t anything new. It seems like practically every major title that’s come out in the last decade has tried to ape the silver screen. A three-act structure, swooping camera angles, realistic (or psuedorealistic anyway) graphics that make characters look more like actors than a bunch of pixels-every major beat of movies is mimicked, in one way or another, in a lot of video games. Some of this year’s biggest games, such as Arkham Knight, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain all heavily feature filmic elements as a core element of their design, with big name stars like Jonathan Banks, Kevin Spacey, and Kiefer Sutherland headlining the projects.
Over the years, as cinematic games became more and more prevalent, a common thread started to appear between them. For a while, it seemed like a lot of developers were using games as vehicles for their Hollywood dreams, using the skills they had (programming, designing, etc) to make, basically, playable movies. They would use the playability of the product to enhance the story, as opposed to the other way around. At the time, this wasn’t really a problem, as the novelty was still fresh, and having a more in-depth story provided plenty of ammo for those trying to make the case of games as art. But as time went on, and graphics got better and better, more people took notice when the visuals overtook the gameplay, and not necessarily for the better. They also took notice when things worked really well all across the board, with the visuals and gameplay working in tandem to create a whole new kind of experience.
Let’s take a look at a few cinematic games and what made them hits-and what made some others go belly up.
The Metal Gear Solid Franchise
This is the obvious pick, I know, but it fits. I’m not personally the biggest fan of the franchise-you put me in the middle of the action in MGSV and I’ll die faster than you can say “so, the right trigger shoots,” but I know a lot of people like this franchise, and it’s not hard to see why. The original Metal Gear games basically invented the stealth genre, but they helped fuel the “auteur” movement in video games once they reached the third dimension. Hideo Kojima’s love of movies shone through in these games, which went out of their way to provide fluid cutscenes with artistic camera angles and editing, deep and thought-provoking characters and themes that dealt with anything from genetics to the war economy, and just as much emotion and heart as any Hollywood blockbuster could. Playing the first game was like living through Die Hard, a fantasy more than a few people have had, and it got crazier and crazier from there. Characters like Solid Snake, Otacon, and Revolver Ocelot, became famous both in video gaming circles and pop culture itself as Kojima’s grand, dramatic, and occasionally goofy throwback to 80s action flicks made gaming history.
Super Smash Bros. Brawl
Everybody’s played Super Smash Bros. at some point, but it’s usually been for the sake of making famous characters like Mario and Sonic beat the living hell out of each other. Super Smash Bros. Brawl tried something a little different. They had beloved characters all placed in the same world, so why not have some fun with it? The Subspace Emissary, the story mode to Brawl, wasn’t just a big love letter to Nintendo fans- it actually worked really well as a Nintendo crossover movie. The dramatic cutscenes in between the battles and platforming levels genuinely made Brawl feel like it wasn’t just a fighting game. These weren’t just models throwing fists at each other; they were characters, with their own motivations and goals. If you’ve played any of the games these characters came from, you’d know this already, but if you’ve never played some of them (like myself with the Mother franchise at the time) you could still get just the same amount of emotional impact when something happened as you would with your favorite character. The game made you cry for a freaking toy, for crying out loud! It really made you feel like everything you did had purpose behind it. In the end, Brawl managed to get its story to compliment the gameplay and heavily enhance the player experience.
D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die
This one isn’t as common a name as the first two on the list, and it doesn’t break any big molds in graphics or cinematic drama, but there’s a reason it’s on here. D4 is a murder mystery, a time travel story, and a point-and-click adventure game, so the gameplay is of heavy importance. What’s interesting about D4 is how it incorporates that gameplay into the story as opposed to working around it: during key moments of the game, the player is made to perform quick time events that define what happens in the following moments. For example, a character starts throwing dining china at the main character, David Young. The player has to catch all of the plates using their mouse (or, if you were one of the people who got the game on the Xbox One, their own hands via Kinect) in time to get a perfect score. If you do well, David catches the plates, but if you don’t, he drops them. This kind of dynamic (where whether you do well or poorly in the event influences the events following) is a lot of fun, because you could have one playthrough where the story is about a smooth detective that does everything right and one where he’s a clumsy dork that winds up with more trouble than he can handle. Of course, if you mess up too badly, you lose the game, but if you mess up just enough, the story is a totally different experience. With these events and a fun little episodic element (complete with an opening theme song), D4 manages to meld its story into the interactivity of its medium pretty damn well.