In his review of Enslaved, my colleague Brad Gallaway makes an argument for placing that game in a new genre, one that he feels has arisen fairly recently. Using the traditional naming conventions for narrow genres, the proper term would be “Uncharted clones”, but I don’t feel that description is quite adequate. While Uncharted is certainly the most identifiable game in the class, I believe the genre itself pre-dates that game. Uncharted represents not a new kind of game unto itself but an exemplary actualization of certain values in game design. Here I intend to put a name to those values and show how they relate to the characteristics of games in this group, which I think of as “Cinematic Action” games.
Cinematic action games generally represent an effort to create a playable action movie. Of course, as “action” is a broad designation that could conceivably cover anything from Silverado to Die Hard to Aliens, there is considerable variation in the kinds of experiences that are produced. However, these games have certain visual approaches in common that are related to their goal. In particular, they tend to employ an external, objective viewpoint. Universally, these games operate in a third-person perspective. One advantage of this approach is that it allows the game to naturally seize control of the viewpoint when desirable without making the moment seem excessively artificial. The player never has to ask how something is being seen, because the camera and character are divorced.
In addition, level design and set dressing are carried out with the intent of producing a realistic world. In practice, this means that the environments are highly detailed and constructed in naturalistic fashion. Although members of the genre that include shooting almost universally employ snap-to-cover systems, they mostly eschew the “room full of chest-high barriers” motif in favor of more diverse and location-appropriate protection. This is not to say that the combat arenas in Uncharted (for instance) are perfect, but they generally seem to be planned with the aim of appearing to be a real place as opposed to one constructed specifically for its gameplay properties. This is part of a general effort to disguise the game-ness of these games.
For a genre that is notable for cinematic influence, these games curiously seem to play down the traditional cinematics of the Final Fantasy variety that are clearly separate from the game engine. However, from the standpoint of creating a “playable movie”, having a clear division between “movie” and “game” is undesirable. The goal of the cinematic action games is to remove these distinctions to the greatest extent possible, producing a seamless experience. Early entrants in the genre, such as the Sands of Time trilogy, generally did not succeed at bridging this gap, but the HD generation has allowed subsequent examples to pull the trick off. Games like Uncharted use numerous cutscenes, with character models and locations that are highly detailed, but they are close enough in appearance to the detailed in-game models that the player’s eye can be tricked by the expectations of perspective once control is handed over.
Unable to achieve this graphical trick, the earlier entries pioneered and were in some ways superior at another kind of seamlessness, in which ludic elements are disguised as part of the environment or storytelling apparatus. Sands of Time is one of the crowning achievements in this respect, pretending reloads are a narrative device of the Prince’s story, and building save points into the game’s world. Games like Uncharted and Enslaved instead use checkpoint saving systems that remove the player’s need to engage with the nuts and bolts of the software. A sufficiently dedicated player can conceivably make it through these games without ever manipulating a file menu. Enslaved goes further, engaging a pretense that its menus are a physical object being manipulated by Trip, one of the game’s characters. The goal of producing a playable movie demands that the software be hidden within the fiction as much as possible.
The storytelling, structure, and interactivity of cinematic action games are also derived from the films they emulate. Games of the genre are generally plot-driven, linear, and brief — nearly all of them last less than 20 hours and many are shorter than ten. Although some of these games are set in nominally open worlds, the player exerts little to no meaningful control over the story. Prince of Persia (1) is a seeming exception that proves the rule: although the player can choose what order to fight all the principal enemies in, this choice has no effect on the relationship between the characters, their mission, or the game’s ultimate outcome. Moreover, each of these battles is itself a tightly-scripted experience that evolves as the developer chooses. Similarly, nothing the player can accomplish in the open worlds of Mafia II or Shadow of the Colossus changes the story of those games. In these games, the player experiences the main character’s story as delivered by the designers, rather than developing his own story within a designer-provided context.
This dominance is exerted not only through cutscenes and changes in location but also through the structure of play. Characteristically, combat occurrences in these games are strongly biased towards set-piece battles, with little in the way of bridging encounters. In the most extreme cases, such as Shadow of the Colossus or Mafia II, all or virtually all of the combat in the game takes place in carefully pre-planned and scripted fights. While the player generally has total freedom within those encounters, he does not choose how or when they are entered. Moreover, cinematic action games usually do not have any appreciable number of side activities, or they de-emphasize them. While collectible items that contribute to character development may be available through exploration (e.g. the orbs in Prince of Persia or the tech in Enslaved) the breadth of alternatives found in games of similar artistic sensibility (such as Grand Theft Auto) are not generally replicated in this genre. These structural choices tend to prevent gameplay, even core gameplay, from interfering with the pacing of the story.
Another expression of this desire can be found in the relative ease of many of these games. Some, such as Enslaved or Prince of Persia, seem to demand so little of the player that they have been derided, albeit by hardcore rather than casual gamers, for practically playing themselves. Additionally, these games rarely provide much in the way of feedback that indicates mastery. There’s no such thing as being really good at Uncharted, in contrast with Style-Action games like Devil May Cry with complex combat systems that can or must be mastered.
A final characteristic related to the primacy of narrative in these games is that they have a diverse set of interactive modes. Cinematic action games are never just shooters or platformers, although they may be slightly biased one way or another. Rather, the modes of interaction are about evenly mixed between a traversal method and a combat method. Uncharted primarily mixes platforming with cover-shooting, and the various iterations of the Prince of Persia series combine platforming with swordplay. Mafia II uses cover-shooting for combat and (extensive) driving as a means of traversal. Classifying these games as platformers or shooters oversimplifies the case — members of the genre are built on multiple modes of play and use each mode as suits the plot situation. If Nathan Drake is exploring a ruin it is time to climb. If mercenaries infiltrate the ruin, it’s time for him to place his back against a bit of rock and start shooting.
Because of this mixing of modes, there is non-violent, but involving, gameplay available to bridge between the combat set pieces, arguably making each fight more unique and exciting. Moreover, this style mimics the rhythm of film, in which moments of violence are generally spaced apart by quieter periods in which the plot and character development are advanced.
A cinematic action game diverges from its motion-picture forebears in that a film is built around a star, while the games are built around characters. While certain voice actors are significant figures in the genre (notably Nolan North, who contributed to Uncharted and Prince of Persia), the stories of these games are conveyed through digital actors, highly expressive character models that, through their personality, engage the player emotionally in the world. Extensive use of motion capture allowed for enormous physical detail in Uncharted and Enslaved, generating very realistic conversations and confrontations, but that is not absolutely essential. Ico generated a sense of emotional involvement through simpler but very affecting interactions like holding hands or helping Yorda traverse the environment. Similarly, the interaction of Wander and Agro very sneakily provided an emotional core for Shadow of the Colossus. Expressiveness is not only in the eyes and mouth but also in full-body motions.
The emotional engagement of the player is essential for two reasons. The first is that the player exerts too little control over the narrative to feel a sense of character ownership. As discussed above, the character belongs to the developer, rather than the player. In addition, these games generally do not attempt to inspire the player through epic confrontations. The conflicts described by cinematic action games are generally intimate ones, even when the stakes are very high. The “Prince” takes on a mighty god of evil in Prince of Persia, but the fight against Ahriman doesn’t involve a massive battle in front of a white city. The combat encounters are one-on-one, and the story is mostly centered on a guy, a girl, and her family problems. The Uncharted games concern dangerous secrets hidden by time, but the events of the games are not themselves epic, sweeping history. The problems always remain close to Nathan Drake, and they are engaged on a personal scale.
Games of this genre typically have a small cast, and the total number of full speaking roles is often less than the party size of a modern Final Fantasy game. This is as it must be, because even though the games are much longer than an action movie they devote much less time to character development.
A Central Genre
To put it as compactly as possible, a cinematic action game is a short, fundamentally linear, third-person game that uses at least two interactive modes to advance a character through set-piece encounters. The essential nature of these games is that they are intended to create an experience that is cinematic — in that its viewpoint is external, objective, and visually rich — yet playable, which results in an adherence to action formula because those are the movie tropes that are most readily transformed from observation to procedure. The intention to produce a film-like experience means that narrative flows primarily in one direction, from developer to player, rather than arising from a collaboration between them. To hold the player’s interest, the games typically feature striking, well-developed characters that engage the player emotionally.
The early examples from this genre were developed in the sixth console generation, a period when graphical fidelity had improved to the point where a game in motion could begin to look like a movie, and storage capacity and audio processing allowed for significant amounts of voice acting and symphonic music. The archetypical genre member, Uncharted, appeared in the HD generation, where the full potential for a game to match a movie in terms of appearance and sound began to actually be realized. The success of that series, and the attractiveness of the idea of the genre, means that we are likely to see more games in this vein. I’ve referenced some examples above of both prototypes and recent games that I feel fit into the category, and there are others which are closely related, such as God of War and Gears of War, that serve as bridges between this genre and its cousins. Even within the constellation of movie-influenced games, the cinematic action games are notable for their essential linearity, their close adherence to the externalized cinematic viewpoint, and their non-combat bridging between set pieces. In these respects, they represent the closest games have come to being “played films”.