Post-Script: There Is No Such Thing As A Cinematic Video Game

There’s a bomb under the table, and Alfred Hitchcock put it there.

There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.

That’s the master of suspense himself talking about how suspense works. How do you pull that off in a game? The player’s knowledge is the same as the protagonist’s knowledge, because the player, for all intents and purposes, shares knowledge with the protagonist.

If a player knows there is a bomb under the table, and the player controls the player character, then the player can simply pull the protagonist away from the bomb and ensure nothing bad will happen. Some games have attempted this, but I can’t think of a single instance where this created the emotion of suspense.

You want to know what happens?

But thou must.”

The video game version of You Can’t Fight Fate. In video games, the main character has two jobs: in the plot, he is The Hero of his motley crew of rebellious aristocracy, mysterious girls, and many others. He’s the leader, the point-man, calling the shots. He’s also, however, the player’s avatar in the game world. Therefore, it’s becoming increasingly common for the other characters to turn to you and ask (in the form of a multiple-choice question and Dialogue Tree) what they should do in any given situation.

The problem, however, is this: The writer already has the script plotted out, and your decision, whatever it is, is going to affect all of jack squat. Either the other characters will just ignore the answer and get on with what you’re supposed to be doing, or they’ll ask the question over and over until you make the “correct” choice. You might see some altered dialogue or a slightly different scene, but the plot itself will remain largely unchanged. In particularly egregious cases, such as the page image, the dialogue tree will give you multiple “yes” options but not a single “no”.

One example of this occurs in Dragon Age 2. The player has been subjected to all manner of nonsense, and is finally presented with an option to leave. Any rational player would choose this option. Unfortunately, choosing it results in The Guy Who Murdered All The Innocent People To Point Out That He’s Not Crazy saying “no, you have to pick a side. You can’t leave.”

And then all the people who were shocked at the guy for murdering people, the good guys, who want to stop him, go “yeah, The Crazy Murderer is right! You have to stay!”

So, there you are, knowing full well a bomb is under the table, and you can do nothing to stop it, because the game won’t let you stop it. That’s not suspense, that’s frustration.

Games can create suspense, but can they create suspense in the way a movie can? I don’t think so, due to the unique way in which knowledge is imparted in a game as opposed to the way knowledge is imparted in a film.

When I wrote “there is no such thing as a cinematic video game,” which isn’t a good title, except that it kind of us, I never really got around to saying, explicitly, what I meant, because I hadn’t quite figured it out. I wrote the article because I wanted to talk to people, to learn from them what it made them feel, so I could make all these thoughts I’ve got coalesce into an idea.


Here’s the idea.

There is no such thing as a video game. Really. Like, I’m not arguing against films that employ cinematic aesthetic, I’m literally claiming that no one has ever made a cinematic game. Some people have come close, but at the end of the day, how you tell stories changes based on the medium within.

There is no such thing as a cinematic video game, but there is such a thing as a video game that mirror’s cinematic affect.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is one of the most emotionally affecting video games ever made, and it’s made by a filmmaker named Josef Fares. There’s this adage “you can’t break the rules unless you know them,” or something like that, and it’s absolutely true. Fares knows how to tell stories, and more importantly, he’s a filmmaker.

The thing about being a filmmaker is that you learn, quite quickly, how every single element is part of this greater whole. Films are gestalts.

(what’s a gestalt? it’s when you juxtapose two or more things to create a new meaning, like how a colon and a D becomes :D, a smiley face)

In film school, you learn how everything, from color, to light, to sound, to lens type all comes together to create a very specific emotional affect. As a director, it’s your job to employ these disparate elements to create very specific emotions. Everything you have is a means of communicating to the audience.

Fares knows this, because he’s a filmmaker. Film is a discipline where this is a given.

This is not a given in games, and it’s why so many games mimic the elements of cinema in an attempt to mimic the gravitas of film. For the same reason, it’s why most game stories fail.

I’ll give you an example. I was watching an action film, and I noticed a lens change that drastically lowered the quality of an image, so I asked one of my film teachers, a director of photography with decades of experience in music videos and television shows, why they’d do that.

He said that they were using a camera they could afford to lose for that scene.

That’s… really all there was to it. But the thing is, I’ve played games that mimic that ‘look,’ and these games look and feel awful to play. They’re copying the aesthetic without understanding the purpose. Chromatic aberration generally exists to imitate ‘cinematic’ lenses (but these are usually bad lenses, often meant for zooms) but it’s often applied throughout the image, when most bad lenses only show that aberration on the edges of the frame.

I’ve seen games that try to use the golden ratio in their framing, even though game cameras are so often in motion, and the golden ratio doesn’t mean anything anyways, so there’s no point.

There is no such thing as a cinematic game, because the tools games use and the tools cinema uses are so completely different, even if the audience uses a television to view them.

There are games with cinematics in them. There are games that use elements of cinema. But there is no such thing as a cinematic game. I firmly believe that now.

What I hoped to achieve with the piece was to reveal some of that, highlight what games do, and then, hopefully, remind developers that what you ought to be considering is how everything you do in a game influences audience emotion.

A game cannot, perhaps, create suspense the way that Hitchcock does, but it can create its own kind of tension. I’m scared in Alien: Isolation in a different way than I am in the Alien films. I’m scared because my flamethrower’s running low on fuel, and that means when the alien attacks, as it will, I might not be able to scare it off. The alien’s been getting bolder anyways. It’s unpredictable that way. A movie can’t make me feel the desperation I feel at opening a drawer hoping to find flamethrower fuel, and it can’t match the relief of finding fuel or the exasperation at finding none. That’s unique to games, I think.

Games can’t do things movies can, and movies can’t do things games can, and just copying the aesthetic of the thing… well…

Did you ever see Doom? The 2005 movie? Yeah. That one. Remember the first person shooting sequence in it? It’s awful. It’s trying to copy first person shooting, but because there’s no player camera control, it doesn’t behave the way a first-person shooter does, so it doesn’t actually replicate what an FPS is truly like. It gets the aesthetic, but not the idea.

That’s “cinematic” games. They get the form, but not the function.

A cinematic game is to movies what Doom the movie is to DOOM the game. The emotional qualities are lost in translation. If you want to get the feelings of DOOM, you have to make a movie that doesn’t look at all like the game.

So, yeah, that’s my addendum. You can stop reading there if you want. This next bit’s more of a debrief about the piece.

I think I made one great mistake with the article, and that’s including a disclaimer about academia. The simple reason is that: I have read way too much, as someone who has worked in academia and spent about 10 years off and on actually getting my degrees. I don’t like it. I’m tired of Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema and Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

I’ve had people tell me that academics have come up with the concepts I’ve come up with before, but they’re usually in books I can’t afford or academic sites like JSTOR that I no longer have access to. And they’re all written in that academic tone that I’m tired of reading.

More importantly, I want to come up with this stuff myself. That’s where the fun is, to have to work through this problem. So I added that disclaimer because I didn’t want people pointing me to things I couldn’t afford, written in a way I didn’t want to read, solving a problem that I have fun trying to solve myself.

It came across as arrogant, unfortunately. I could’ve done a better job. It was a first draft. People took “I am ignorant of this” as “I am smarter than everyone else.” When for me it’s like… I don’t find value in academic writing as a style, I disagree pretty strongly with guys like Schell (especially on creativity), Lantz (on formalism, and in general with his ideas of how games ought to be, he doesn’t seem very flexible to me), or McGonigal and her whole gamification thing. I really believe that gamification is bad for games, because it’s focused on lizard brain motivation, where I’m personally interested in emotional satisfaction, and I believe it’s much healthier to motivate people through their desire for emotional satisfaction than addictive compulsion elements.

Aarseth and Juul are really hard for me to wrap my head around, so I tend to avoid them. Bogost’s really readable, but I enjoy him most on his non-game stuff, like that Netflix genre generator he and Alexis C. Madrigal did for The Atlantic. But I haven’t read his books, because I can’t afford his books. Other things are higher up on my reading list right now.

So. Yeah. Tired of Academia. Not a fan of a lot of what I’ve read. Edited the disclaimer in the article to hopefully reflect that a bit better. I wrote this because it’s fun for me to write, and I don’t really want people to go “meh it’s not worth it because someone a lot smarter than you already wrote about it.”

All of this said, ya’ll should play Until Dawn and Asura’s Wrath.

I do some freelance work, game design consulting, and I’ve worked on games Hardspace: Shipbreakers and created games like Adios and Paratopic.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store