They May Look Great, But Video Games Can Never be 'Cinematic'
Today's big-budget video games look and sound great, but "cinematic" is something that they're not.
Whenever I play video games, I'm reminded of films. I don't mean contemporary films – those are intelligent, well written and mature, everything games are not. I mean pre-1900s films, specifically the shorts cranked out at Thomas Edison's Black Maria studio.
Essentially a barn, built in the grounds of Edison's laboratory in New Jersey, the Black Maria was the filming location for hundreds of short pictures made between 1893 and 1901. Most of these were sold to nickelodeons – small novelty shops, often on seaside promenades, where customers could drop a coin in a machine to watch a 30-second-or-so clip of film. You can find a bunch of the Black Maria shorts on YouTube (the best, of course, is Dr Welton's Boxing Cats) and there's a nickelodeon still in operation at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.
Dr Welton's Boxing Cats
If you go watch these films you'll likely – understandably – be tickled by how basic they are. They're essentially vaudeville or theatre performances recorded front-on in a single medium shot. There's no editing, no eyeline matches, none of the rules or language of cinema. And this is why they remind me of video games.
Edison, and other early filmmakers, essentially used their new technology to emulate an older medium. The motion picture camera, in its early days, wasn't used so much to "make" films as it was to merely record and repackage vaudeville and circus performances. Cinema, back then, was essentially theatre – to gain validation from audiences and the market, it copied its closest and most successful cultural cousin. Games, likewise, are ripping off movies. There's the unique titillation of interactivity – "now you control the action" – but the production values, and increasingly the ambitions of scriptwriters, are incredibly close to Hollywood. Blockbusters have been successful for decades and the gaming industry, like the movie industry when it first began, is copying the formula in a bid to reach the same cultural and financial apex.
But there's the contradiction, because like the Black Maria films, which looked like theatre but did nothing to capture the energy, atmosphere or sensation of live performance, games, despite trying to be like movies, have zero understanding of what cinema actually is.
I mentioned before the "language of cinema". Take a look at the short clip by Alfred Hitchcock, below, where he discusses something called the Kuleshov Effect. Lev Kuleshov was a Soviet filmmaker who proposed that the essence of cinema was in editing, i.e. the juxtaposition and contextualising of one image against another. Hitchcock talks about how if you show a shot of a baby, then cut to a shot of a man smiling, you tell your audience that this guy is kindly – that he has a paternal instinct towards children. But if you swap the image of the baby with a woman lying on a beach in a bikini, and use exactly the same image of the guy smiling, he now looks like a pervert – like he's eyeing this woman up. That's how editing works. You match one image to another, to another, to another to create a kind of visual sentence.
Hitchcock's Pure Cinema – "The Kuleshov Effect"
But games don't do that. For all their pomp, bluster and action-film pretension, there's no editing, so none of the images mean anything.
I mean, think of the most "cinematic" game you can, the one with the most explosions, the best voice acting, the most affecting narrative beats. Got one? The Last of Us? Uncharted? Metal Gear Solid? Grand Theft Auto? All those games look like movies insofar as having glossy production values and some semblance of story, but they're all played – or filmed, if you like – in one continuous shot. There's no editing. The player can move the camera around to look anywhere, whenever she wants. Without any kind of control from a director over which images are shown and in what order, all the visuals in these games, no matter how lustrous, mean nothing. It's just empty spectacle.
The camera in video games is a tool given to players to better understand their environment from a mechanical point of view, like when you tilt it round to find where you're supposed to jump to in Tomb Raider. It isn't a pen – it isn't placed by a director, and the footage it captures isn't edited, so all the images are as valid as one another. That amazing sequence in Goodfellas, where you have Karen staring down at the bloodied revolver in her hand, realising for the first time what her husband is, can't exist in games, because the player will always be titting around with the camera looking for the next collectible or whatever.
The opening scene to 'The Last of Us' is dramatic and moving. But it's not "cinematic", as the introduction suggests. (Contains significant spoilers.)
The cinematic "language" can't exist in games, because there's no one deciding, specifically, what the camera should be writing. Games can peacock, and marketers can posture all they want about the "cinematic" quality of something like The Last of Us. But these games, rather than the essence of cinema Kuleshov outlined, are celebratory of the worst excesses of films – fanfare, distraction, meaningless pageantry. By their nature, games aren't films. You can chuck in a cutscene – a little video, rendered in the graphics engine, which plays like a short film – but that isn't the game because the interaction is removed. Games, strictly, cannot be cinematic, because there's nobody choosing the images.
And on top of that, the writing in mainstream games, even 40 years since Pong, is still shite. It's not the writer's fault per se – many are stuck pandering to an imaginary audience of teenagers, nursed on comic books and summer blockbusters – but game developers could at least watch some better films.
The Last of Us takes its cues from The Road. Uncharted is National Treasure. GTA is the myriad crime flicks of Brian De Palma, Quentin Tarantino and Michael Mann. None of these films are bad, but if they're the sum total of your research, inspiration or whatever euphemism you want to use for copying, that's not healthy. If you're going to steal, steal from the rich, the richest of all being D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein. These directors pioneered editing theory. Theirs were the first films to string together these visual clauses, showing, for example, a hand carrying a gun, the shocked face of a man, and then the gun again, to imply he'd been shot. This was film operating on its terms, using things unique to it as means to tell a story.
Film thrived from then on, and became what it is today. Games, by ditching the pretensions of a medium it fundamentally has nothing in common with, could do the same.