Like all other forms of mass media and entertainment, video games often play host to fads. These present themselves in tried and true storytelling conventions, but they can also crop up in more mechanical and aesthetic aspects of games. Take the rash of releases adopting a cel-shaded art style — where characters and settings were rendered in a way that gave them a more cartoony look and feel — that rose up between 2001 to 2003 and has since been abandoned by most major releases today.
Sometimes these style choices come and go due to changing technical capabilities of consoles and other hardware, but they can also stem from buzzwords that have somehow woven themselves into the game development (or at least game marketing) world. The latest of these stock phrases that the industry seems to have latched onto is the idea of a “cinematic experience,” or attempting to create a film-like presentation in a game.
That doesn’t sound like too bad of an idea at first, and in a few instances it’s worked really well. Take the last few releases from Naughty Dog, the developer behind the “Uncharted” series and 2013’s award-snatching “The Last of Us” adventure/survival horror title. These games pulled off the cinematic experience by doing a lot more than emulating movie conventions; they were able to seamlessly blend action, cutscenes — scripted scenes that propel the story and where the player doesn’t have control — and just letting the player bop around in the backdrop to help build up the in-game world.
Cutscenes seem to be a big deal when games are marketed as being “cinematic.” While these are often shown and staged in ways that mimic filmmaking conventions, I don’t think there’s any reason to try for something that “transcends the line between game and film.”
That last bit is a quote from Forbes that was featured prominently in TV spots in the advertising campaign for “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare,” that came out last November. Also showcased in this campaign was a whole lot of Kevin Spacey. Yep, “House of Cards” Kevin Spacey. Because the tagline I look for when I go out browsing for a new FPS is “Featuring Academy Award-Winner Kevin Spacey.”
Seriously, what the hell? Why would that sway me to get this game over another? I’ve got nothing against Spacey, but why is he here? By all accounts the game’s rendering of his likeness is well done and his vocal performance is up to usual Spacey standards, but, like … why? It just seems so unneeded to try to shoehorn something that would almost be a guaranteed box office draw into the gaming medium.
Games are their own space, with strengths and weaknesses unique to their realm. They present players with a capacity to think, create and play in ways that haven’t been done before, and continually trying to link them to the existing cinematic world isn’t necessarily the best way to bring out their potential. Sure, it can and has worked in the past, and I’m sure it will again in the future. But I’m much more inclined to be impressed and captivated by something I haven’t seen before than by an interactive emulation of something else I enjoy.