Jul 022012

In a short period of time I have played three games that may not seem to be similar or related. The co-op shooter Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days, the straight up cover shooter Max Payne 3, and the thriller Heavy Rain share a third-person perspective, though, one that reflects their central cinematic aspirations. Although their critical reputations vary, each of these games is an interesting failure in the project of creating a playable movie. Their problems illustrate that the project of making a playable game conflicts with the plan to create a visually interesting film.

In my previous critique of cinematic action games, I pointed out that the constraints of gameplay limit the use of even the most basic cinematic tools. The camera must remain pinned to one or the other of the main character’s shoulders, never straying lest the viewpoint interfere with the player’s success. For this reason, Red Dead Redemption can’t feature any visual nearly as interesting as the opening of For a Few Dollars More, even though it explores similar themes. This is not a philosophical conflict between player choice and artistic vision, a la Ebert, but a practical conflict arising from the demands of actualizing player choice. As a result, in playable segments, cinematic games become very boring qua film.

Max Payne 3, a game which features stylish distortions and supertitles in its cutscenes, makes this particularly evident. The visual emphasis on certain words of dialogue guides the viewer’s understanding of the scene, while the other effects convey Max’s permanently intoxicated state of existence. When it’s time for Max to actually start firing bullets, however, all of this goes away. The precision cover-shooting required to advance through the game’s levels simply isn’t compatible with its manipulations of the screen. While the player has the controller in hand, Max Payne 3 is a very boring film, just like its close relatives in the cinematic action subgenre.

This is not so true of Kane & Lynch 2. The whole game, from soup to nuts, looks like it takes place as a grainy recording on someone’s handheld camera. The gritty, low-grade look goes well with the sordid criminal story it’s telling and the overall grindhouse atmosphere. As Gene Park said in his review, it’s a look that’s inventive and deserves to be tried more. Yet, as a consequence of the visual design the game is not any kind of fun to actually play. Jim Sterling called the effects “painful and distracting” in his epic pan of the game, and this comports with my own experience. The graphical touches made it considerably more difficult to comprehend what was going on, even though the developers were careful to quench the camera’s swaying when the player aims. The game becomes less playable because it is visually interesting.

That holds true in Heavy Rain as well. Because its gameplay slots into the adventure style, rather than action, Heavy Rain has more freedom in where to place its camera, at least in principle. In practice, however, the viewpoint hovers in mid-distance, only occasionally moving in closer. Even this limited repertoire of adventurous angles sometimes interferes with gameplay, hiding the motion cues behind characters or off the screen entirely. The game has even more serious problems when it split-screens itself to show action in two locations, or to point out where you should go next. Split-screen taxes a viewer’s attention even in the context of passive observation of film. In the case of a game where the player must himself direct the action, the attentional demand makes these sequences less playable, as does the sudden change in the aspect ratio of the active field. Some of the ending sequences also feature a fast cut from a conversation to a fight, which almost certainly results in a missed QTE cue for any player that hasn’t prepared for it.

These techniques – close-up, split-screen, cross cut to action – are hardly avant-garde cinema tricks. They’re everyday staples of movies’ visual language. Yet Heavy Rain, to varying degrees, flubs its gameplay each time one comes up. In many cases, some straightforward corrections would ameliorate these problems, but it will take a great deal of invention to address the underlying problem.

The fundamental issue is that being the least bit adventurous with the camera in a third-person game degrades the player’s ability to take part in the action. Kane & Lynch 2 and Heavy Rain take the chance, with varying degrees of success. Max Payne 3 conspicuously punts. The best a cinematic-style game can hope for in play is to be comparable to the most pedestrian movie possible. No matter how many polygons get crammed onto a screen, or how expressive and realistic faces become, games simply can’t match films in terms of cinematic expressiveness. The fundamental repertoire simply isn’t available. Developers should instead concentrate on what games can uniquely bring to the table, and build emotional experiences through the player’s interaction with the system.

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