Nov 052010

Many of the games I named in my previous post about the cinematic action genre have been criticized for their lack of value. Because these games are short and linear, and rarely have life-extending multiplayer modes, the validity of charging full price for them has been questioned. Simplistic gameplay and action-movie inspired plots have led some critics to call these games shallow. Yet, several games that belong in this genre — Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and Sands of Time — are regularly trotted out as examples of the best that the medium can achieve. To categorize cinematic action games as intrinsically shallow or lacking in value would be the worst sort of genre-as-pejorative thinking. Their approach to game storytelling has produced many strengths, but one central characteristic of the genre is also a critical weakness. The great artistic limitations of cinematic action games come from their disinterest in the player as a creative force.

A one-way street

This may sound like a strange objection in light of certain arguments against the artistic potential of games. For instance, in a letter published on his website, Roger Ebert argued:

Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

One problem with Ebert’s argument is that he undersells the role of the audience in art generally, but another is that he underestimates the amount of authorial control present in games. The cinematic action games in particular, inclusive of the great games-as-art examples, are strongly authored. This is evident in their linearity, their pacing, and their focus on the developer’s narrative. Their emulation of film means they have largely adopted a one-way view of story creation. The narrative flows from the developer to the player without significant input on the latter’s part.

This is not without its benefits. Knowing that the narrative flow puts the focus on themselves, and aware that the primary replay value in these games comes from repeating an experience, the developers of cinematic action games have responded by producing strong stories and characters. This is not to say that all these stories work or that all the characters are worth knowing. However, the characters of these games are similar to the principals of RPGs in that they are memorable for their personalities rather than for their capabilities. Cinematic action games tend to have strong characters and stories because they must be strong in order to justify the existence of the game.

The unfortunate flip-side of that focus on personality is that these games often disregard the characterization that emerges from gameplay. That is, they do not pay attention to the character development that emerges from what the player is doing. The Uncharted games provide a notable example in what Penny Arcade‘s Jerry Holkins described as Nathan Drake’s “unique sociopathy… which allows him to crack wise between genocides.” Drake’s nice-guy persona is absolutely put to the lie by the enormous killing spree he goes on in both games, and in light of his shooting habit his insistence on not harming guards in the second game’s museum break-in comes off as comical. It is similarly ridiculous when Mafia II‘s Vito Scaletta, who at that point has already murdered dozens of people, agonizes over whether or not to get involved in the drug trade. In a similar vein, the controversial ending of Prince of Persia (2008) was disliked by many because it did not respect the relationship that had been created between the player and Elika, which was very different than that between the Prince and her.

This is a tragic waste, because the structure and pacing of cinematic action games naturally lend themselves towards creating what Steve Gaynor might call specific violence. Because these games space combat episodes with traversals rather than bridging encounters, it is possible for them to invest every single fight with meaning rather than just the businesslike disposal of dead flesh. Prince of Persia (2008) is a case in point; the game is built around combat encounters with enemies that have names, histories, and personalities known to the player. All the fights, but especially those against the Warrior, are thereby invested with an emotional content generally lacking from the combat encounters in, say, Uncharted. Games in the genre that insist on forcing the player to repeatedly wade through waves of cannon fodder squander their potential.

The disconnect between gameplay and story should not be regarded as a necessary result of the developer-oriented narrative focus, because the best-regarded games of the genre do make the player’s actions part of the story, rather than a distraction. The player’s constant reversing of time parallels the Prince’s quest to “undo what he has done” in Sands of Time, and the recognition that this doesn’t solve the Prince’s really essential problems figures into the resolution of The Two Thrones. The relationship between Ico and Yorda is something the player must engage in directly through play, by taking her hand, by calling for her, and by defending her. The impotent rage of the colossi is developed in part through the gameplay of climbing on them, and in the finale of Shadow of the Colossus the player is made to feel their helplessness and anger for himself. The greatest games in the genre recognize that gameplay is a vehicle for plot development and characterization. Those that are dismissed as shallow generally do not; they disregard the player too completely.

Press X for next scene

Does this matter? After all, an Ebert might argue that games can be art only to the extent that they disregard the player’s input. But, the essential distinguishing feature of a game is that it must be played, and the need to be playable puts games at an intrinsic disadvantage when they attempt to emulate movies. Everyday staples of cinematic technique like deep focus, cross-cutting, even the close-up, are unusable, or highly limited, in games. You can have a long shot, but it must not be too long, or the player will be unable to follow the character’s traversal. You can have a close-up, but it cannot be too close, or the player will not be able to make sense of the action. Although the camera and character are separated by the third-person perspective of cinematic action games, they are tethered in the course of gameplay, and so in play a game can never be as interesting of a film as a an actual movie.

Of course, all cinematic options are on the table when play stops and the cutscene begins. But, in that case we have reduced the game to little more than a movie that is extremely inconvenient to watch. Nor is it a particularly good movie. For all the advances that have been made, digital actors remain inferior to flesh-and-blood actors, even the kind of actors one finds in a typical action movie. This is not only a property of the blocky models that inhabit the genre’s earliest examples. Mafia II‘s character models were noticeably not up to the task of sustaining its story, a point driven home by the game’s punchless final scene. Prince of Persia (2008) was similarly stifled by the limited expressiveness of the characters.

Moreover, their general insistence on tying the camera to a single character undercuts these games’ dramatic potential relative to films. An action movie can shift focus, showing us the villain’s plans, and the hero’s preparation, in a way that builds tension by exposing the whole chess match. The tension can be ramped up by fully displaying the forces arrayed against the protagonist. The progress of the hero’s allies can also be shown, allowing for intricate climaxes with many moving parts. While not strictly impossible in a cinematic action game, this kind of multi-threaded narrative has never been employed.

No game can ever be as good at being a film, or at developing tension in the way films do, as an actual film is. The project of matching the movies in terms of pure cinematic power is intrinsically futile. Games must use the fact that they are played to artistic advantage, rather than seeing the player’s input as a necessary obstacle to reaching the good bits.

The alternative is insipid gameplay that is intended to pose as little challenge to the player as possible. Casual players might well disagree with criticisms that games like Prince of Persia (2008) or Enslaved were too easy or practically played themselves, but these games represent a low ebb of intellectual and physical challenge in a genre that largely does not care about or even acknowledge player mastery. It does not matter whether the player learns to be “good” at these games. In the most extreme case, the player’s only role is to turn the crank that advances the developer’s story, producing a compromise between film and game that’s inferior to both.

Death to the author

The desire to emulate movies is not unique to cinematic action games. This influence is pervasive, and easily recognizable in any of a number of shooters, brawlers, racing games, and open-world adventures. Many of the issues I have outlined here apply to these film-emulating games as well. But the cinematic action games are the most film-like, the most dedicated to placing all aspects of the game world in the developer’s hands, rather than the player’s. The authorial control exerted in these games is to some degree responsible for their strengths. But, contra Ebert’s opinion, the games that put everything in the hands of the developer are the ones that fail artistically.

What unifies the best games of this genre is their respect for the narrative importance of the player’s experience. Those that ignore or dismiss the player’s role in creating the story through play can be exciting, high-quality entertainments, but little more. Not all cinematic action games are just disposable thrill-rides with pretty graphics, however. Some of the most moving and meaningful games ever made share the same values and characteristics. Where they excel is in their recognition that stories in games are always created collaboratively between the developer and the player. In that respect, the more cinematic they are, the worse games these will be.

  2 Responses to “Cinematic Action Games: A Brief Critical Assessment”

  1. Brilliant piece, Michael. You've managed to sum up the true artistic strengths inherent to video games as a medium. I can't think of any better article that's done this.

  2. “Casual players might well disagree with criticisms that games like Prince of Persia (2008) or Enslaved were too easy or practically played themselves, but these games represent a low ebb of intellectual and physical challenge in a genre that largely does not care about or even acknowledge player mastery.”

    I think this is really important (to me). I guess I’m one of these mid-core gamers, someone who loves Prince of Persia (2008) for it’s beauty, flow and keeping me in the game through the no-death mechanic (if anything breaks immersiveness, it’s loading screens!).

    However, the idea of ‘player mastery’ seems to have been lost with the advent of different play modes; maybe some like Halo and Dead Space have kept up their end of the bargain with their respective Legendary and Impossible modes, but as someone who despises hardness for the sake of hardness, I would rather see a game get gradually harder and force me into developing the right player skills that allow me to start sweating the further through the game I got, rather than just give me a sweet ride all the way through, or a hard ride all the way through, depending on what difficulty I chose.

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