Games don’t have to aspire to be movies

Interactivity is one of the fundamental principles of video games. This is how games are often justified as a medium that can somehow be elevated above its closest cousin, film – after all, a cinephile’s experiences are usually passive, whereas video games are not. A movie buff has no say in how the film’s narrative is shaped, while games are the exact opposite.

It’s a strange impulse, for more than one reason; it implies a certain passivity in the movies while suggesting the support is poorer for them, while serving as a seemingly devious way to justify the games as more than just push button movies. But it also seems at odds with the adjective describing a game as “cinematic”, which is loaded with a certain measure of self-mockery on the part of the player, as if games should strive to be more like the best of movies. .

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There are many games that want to emulate movies. The ancestors of these are likely developers like Hideo Kojima, David Cage, and Sam Lake, who are clearly in love with movies and whose games are heavily influenced by their favorite filmmakers. David Cage, in particular, is clear about his intention to merge film and games. In an interview with Game Developer years ago, Cage said the cinematography would help “emotionally engage the player.” “If you don’t have any emotional involvement, you’re just staring at the pixels on the screen,” he said. He then develops his vision to merge both cinematography and interactivity in Quantic Dream’s games, to the point where games and movies are nearly indistinguishable.


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Such conversations have taken place before, even before the advent of games. It was the same with painting and photography, theater and film, with the new medium hoping to capture some of the artistic flourishes of the older, but more established medium. And throughout the history of games, the medium has long tried – and struggled – to become more like a movie. The recent swell of the game’s adaptation to movies has generally been met with some trepidation, but also generally with good humor. It felt like some sort of weird vindication and acknowledgment, almost like the games were now quite well be considered and translated into films. It’s the culmination of the all-too-common refrain that games should already be at the top of important cultural artifacts, because storytelling in games is as good as movies now, but with an added dose of interactivity, too, that movies can ever deliver.



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Many reviewers considered the writing in games to be vastly inferior to that of film and literature. But I wouldn’t agree; we’ve all had deeply sentimental experiences with games before, and it’s not just because of the emotional highs and lows that its plot alone offers. Instead, it’s the mix of multiple factors – editing, pacing, environments, gameplay, emergent storytelling, etc. – who do not always follow the rules and the language of cinema. Some of the games best moments are barely cinematic; take the “Would you kindly” twist in Bioshock, or the splendor and melancholy of indie fare like Limbo, Gris and Disco Elysium, or even the ASCII weirdness of Dwarf Fortress. What games have to do is throw away the imagined associations they have with a medium they have little to do with, other than the similarities of seeing moving images and sounds at the screen, and examine and embrace its own idiosyncrasies. It’s also why I’m not particularly excited about the range of news about games as movies in recent weeks; ultimately they are just derivatives of the original.


Next: Revisiting the landscapes of Dear Esther, 10 years later


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