I love video games. From FPS gore-fests like DOOM to thought-provoking indie adventures such as INSIDE, I enjoy the wide range of experiences that this medium has to offer. For decades, this medium has been condemned by parents and politicians alike, but the public’s attitude towards video games has improved drastically over the past few years. While video games are still a source of controversy, many people have come to accept the medium as a legitimate form of storytelling. This tectonic shift is thanks in large part to a recent trend in the industry: Cinematic Video Games.

UNCHARTED 4, THE LAST OF US, HEAVY RAIN, BEYOND TWO SOULS: These are games with a cinematic quality, designed to feel like interactive Hollywood blockbusters. These games tend to draw their inspiration from popular movies (UNCHARTED = INDIANA JONES) or pay homage to a particular genre (L.A. NOIRE). They present cut scenes with a certain cinematic flair and, most importantly, they put a major emphasis on narrative and character. In many cases, this has paid off. Heck, THE LAST OF US tells one of the most enthralling stories that I have ever experienced in any medium. Games of this caliber have helped transform the medium into a well-respected art form, but is this trend really improving video games? Or is it stripping them of their one unique quality?

Shut Up and Let Me Play!

I recently completed my play through of MAFIA III, an experience which evoked equal measures of admiration and indignation. But let’s begin with the positive aspects. MAFIA III tells a captivating story filled with fascinating characters, all of whom are brought to life by some of the greatest voice acting in video game history. Set in the American South during the 1960s, the game follows Lincoln Clay, an African American Vietnam vet seeking retribution for the murder of his friends and family. But this isn’t a simple revenge plot, as the narrative explores heavy themes such as racism and the effects of war.  The story is told within a faux-documentary framework, interspersing game play with interviews, old photos, and grainy footage. This framing device adds layers to the narrative, allowing players to examine the ramifications of their actions from an outside perspective. The story was superb, the acting was phenomenal, and the presentation was truly cinematic. But in terms of game play, MAFIA III was rather… meh.

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MAFIA III pesters the player with a seemingly endless amount of repetitive tasks: Go to warehouse, murder henchmen, interrogate target, destroy contraband, rinse and repeat. While the main story missions offer some variety, they are only made available once the player completes enough of the aforementioned filler-quests. These formulaic missions are made even worse by the game’s mediocre AI. The enemies you encounter are downright dumb, which makes the “stealth” option entirely too easy (just stand behind a crate, whistle and wait). The guns-blazing approach is a little more fun, but without any unique mechanics, MAFIA III is just a generic cover-based-shooter. It is not a bad game, it is just painfully bland. At times it can be quite fun, but for every moment of joy, there is an hour of mindless repetition. Halfway through, the game had already grown stale. I would have quit playing if I were not so invested in the narrative. I found myself trudging through the “action” just to see how the story played out. MAFIA III commits the cardinal sin of video games: it puts story ahead of the actual gameplay.

I feel like I’ve been here before…

This is one of the major problems that this trend has brought about. Many cinematic video games treat the story as a worthy substitution for fun. These games strive to mimic what we see on the silver screen. However, these are two drastically different forms of media that require their own approach to storytelling. Video games involve active participation, while films are made for passive observation. When a game strays into passive storytelling, the result is a boring mess. Take BEYOND TWO SOULS for example. It had an interesting concept and a fantastic performance from Ellen Page, but the game was so determined to have you play it a certain way. The experience is plagued by incessant hand-holding and it often feels as though the game plays itself. BEYOND TWO SOULS wants you to think that you are in control as it leads you down a very rigid path.

Another prime example would be QUANTUM BREAK, a game that takes “story over gameplay” to a whole new level. To be fair, the game was actually quite fun to play. It featured a time manipulation mechanic which allowed for creative combat scenarios, but the major issue lies in how the game tells its story. For some reason, the developers thought it would be a cool idea to switch between gameplay and live-action episodes. Yes, the game actually wants you to stop playing and watch TV. Some might call this an interesting hybrid, but I call it an annoying distraction. Jumping between computer-rendered gameplay and cheesy live-action segments is an awkward shift that makes it impossible to achieve complete immersion.

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Then there’s L.A. NOIRE, Rockstar’s love letter to old school crime thrillers. As a fan of film noir, I must admit that I really enjoyed the story. I cannot say the same about its gameplay. L.A. NOIRE’s major selling point was its interrogation system. This required players to watch for subtle facial ticks in order to gauge whether or not a suspect was lying. Thanks to groundbreaking motion capture technology, this had the potential to be a fun, innovative mechanic. Sadly, the whole thing boiled down to waiting for the suspects’ over-the-top, cartoonish reactions and pressing X. Sadly, when compared to NOIRE’s run-of-the-mill gun-play and boring car chases riddled with scripted set-pieces, this was actually the most interesting part of the game.

Lying, or just doing a bad DeNiro impression?

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good single-player campaign. I will take a solid story mode over online multiplayer any day of the week. But a video game cannot rely on story alone. It also needs to be fun. If the game isn’t fun, then what is the point in playing? It would be like trying to read a novel that has a great concept but clunky, confusing prose. The problem is that many of these “Cinematic Video Games” do not properly balance gameplay with story.

This tends to go in one of two ways. On one hand, the gameplay can be polluted with scripted set-pieces and quick-time events. Like THE ORDER: 1886, a game that somehow managed to be both incredibly short and endlessly dull. Here, the story intrudes too much upon the gameplay, limiting the player’s control and guiding them in a specific direction. Other games tend to treat story and gameplay like two separate elements: play the game, watch the story, play the game, watch the story, so on and so on. In doing so, the developers fail to capitalize on the medium’s greatest strength: the potential for full immersion.

Immersive Storytelling

Unlike any other form of storytelling, video games can actually put you into the narrative. This allows you to become heavily invested in the world and its characters, but if the story and gameplay do not flow together, the player will constantly be pulled out of the experience. There are a handful of cinematic games that have successfully blurred the lines between gameplay and story, creating a truly engrossing narrative. One of these games is Quantic Dream’s HEAVY RAIN.

An interactive crime drama.

Not only is HEAVY RAIN’s story incredibly well-written, but it blends seamlessly with the game play. Yes, it consists almost entirely of quick-time events, but they are handled so well. The action is quick and intense. What makes it even more stressful is the fact that you don’t get any do-overs and there are countless moments where a screw-up can result in the permanent death of a playable character. HEAVY RAIN presents the player with difficult moral quandaries and, unlike most “choice-based” games, every decision can significantly impact the story. Every encounter is tense, every choice carries weight, and you are almost always in control. HEAVY RAIN is one of the few games which succeeds in telling a truly immersive story.

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Another successful attempt at immersive storytelling can be seen in MASS EFFECT 2. This game streamlined the MASS EFFECT franchise, focusing more on combat and cinematic storytelling. These changes could have ruined the franchise, but developer Bioware pulled it off, delivering one the best games of the last console generation. Part of what makes MASS EFFECT 2 so great is the fact that it interweaves the gameplay and narrative. The story plays out as an interactive heist movie. You build a diverse team of highly-skilled professionals to help you complete a dangerous mission, and it all culminates in one of the greatest climaxes in video game history. The game has you come up with a strategy and select team members to complete certain tasks. This ending requires you to draw upon everything you’ve learned about your squad in order to select the individuals best suited for each objective. MASS EFFECT 2 succeeds in making the player feel as though they are actually taking part in a dangerous mission where every wrong decision can have disastrous results.

Choose the best man, woman, or reptile for the job.

But a game does not need to give the player total control or include choices in order to be immersive. A great example is Naughty Dog’s powerful, post-apocalyptic tale THE LAST OF US. The game tells the story on Joel (a disillusioned man with a rough exterior) and Ellie (an optimistic teenage girl who is smart, resourceful and strong-willed). This game does not have any choice-based elements and includes some scripted set pieces, but it still manages to bring the world and its characters to life, using gameplay in order to achieve this.

First off, let’s talk about the combat. The action is gritty and visceral. There were times when I ran out of bullets and began attacking my enemies with bottles, bricks, and table legs. It actually felt like I was in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, fighting for survival with limited resources. Then there’s the game’s central duo. Without revealing any spoilers, let me just say that story is dependent on the relationship between Ellie and Joel. As the narrative moves along, you see them develop a tight bond. Their relationship feels genuine thanks to fantastic writing and performances, but it is also helped by the Ellie’s usefulness in combat.

Best sidekick ever!

Unlike the majority of video game companions, Ellie does not march blindly into danger. From time to time, she actually lends valuable support. I remember one instance early on in the game, before the characters’ relationship had taken form. An enemy had just grabbed me by the collar and I was struggling to break his grip. I thought I was done for, when out of nowhere, Ellie bashed my attacker with a brick, knocking him to the ground. She then proceeded to stab and kill the man. At that moment, I knew she had my back. From there, Ellie continues to prove useful as she begins taking part in shootouts. I depended on her as much as she depended on me. I began to bond with this character, and not just because some cut scene told me to.

The Future of Video Games

I do not have a problem with all Cinematic Games. I have a problem with the boring ones. I love a good video game story if it is told correctly. Gameplay should never be sacrificed in favor of narrative. Instead, these two elements should be tied together. A video game should not bombard its audience with flashy cut scenes (or worse, live-action episodes). A game needs to thrust the player into the story and let them experience it first hand. Games should not just strive to look and feel like movies. They should strive towards total immersion. While the industry has had a few missteps, I am optimistic about the future of gaming. With so many great titles on the horizon (RED DEAD REDEMPTION 2, MASS EFFECT ANDROMEDA, DEATH STRANDING, and THE LAST OF US PART II) and the endless possibilities offered by exciting new technology (such as Virtual Reality), I believe that video games will eventually strike the right balance between gameplay and narrative.

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