Video Games Aren't Movies, Is that such a bad thing?
Games have come a long way. What started out as pixels moving side to side on a screen have grown into massive, fleshed out worlds, with visuals that are inching closer and closer to photo realistic. Games are now huge adventures that tell personal stories, while still introducing unique mechanics and gameplay foils. As games have become more cinematic, there are a lot of people who say that games should aim to be more like movies, I’m here to argue against all of that.
Movies are cinematic experiences, taken in with no audience interaction. Their stories are already set, everyone will see the exact same thing on the screen, and while every viewer may interpret the film in a different way they all witnessed the same story. Games on the other hand are intrinsically interactive experiences. What makes video games so enticing is that each player will have their own experience, their own triumphs and their own failures. Even if a game is incredibly linear, like Super Mario Bros., the player will still have their own stories, their own victories, and their own distinct memories based on how they chose to tackle each hurdle.
A game like Super Mario Bros. is actually very important to look at when attempting to make sense of this issue. Back in the day, when games were just a collection of pixels, no one even thought to compare them to films. They were completely different experiences, focusing primarily on gameplay systems and mechanics rather than stories. Those games that did strive to tell a story, such as the Final Fantasy games, did so in a text-heavy manner, focusing on the story itself rather than its cinematic value. As games went from 16-bit to 64-bit they rapidly became more cinematic. More detailed characters, voice acting, 3D worlds; it all made for a more realistic experience that was able to tell more compelling stories but also deliver more diverse gameplay. Classics such as Metal Gear Solid showed us how video games can string together a touching, dramatic story and tense, action filled gameplay to great effect. This PlayStation and Nintendo 64 era delivered big, open worlds, new 3D gameplay innovations, voice acting, and flashy new graphics. No one could deny that games had come a long way in just ten years, and this caused people to look to the future.
I won’t look at each the next 15-20 years too carefully because they took the innovations introduced through the PlayStation and N64 and built upon them. Graphics became more complex and realistic, voice acting became a larger part of games and motion capture allowed for more emotional performances, and more powerful hardware made way for more complex gameplay systems. While a lot of games still focused on gameplay, choosing to develop their systems and iterate and improve upon old ideas, some, such as David Cage and Quantic Dream (just one example), decided to focus hone in on the cinematic capabilities of gaming. Heavy Rain, a popular PS3 title, didn’t have much gameplay to speak of. It presented the player with choices and tasked them with completing sets of quick time events and guided the players through a narrative. While each player did experience the game differently, depending on what choices they made, and this is a form of interactive storytelling, players never truly felt like they were doing too much, simply guiding a character through series of tricks and traps. While these games are enjoyable they are not what games need to strive to be. There is a good reason why games titles such as Skyrim, GTA, Fallout, Assassins Creed and Far Cry are so popular. All of them thrust players into massive, living worlds that are full of nooks and crannies to explore, people to meet and stories to uncover. Because these worlds are so massive, and the outcomes for each situation so varied, every player will feel like they have made their own unique mark on the landscape, sculpting a world that is only theirs. While the stories will always be a constant in these titles, the experiences are the variables that people come back to time and time again.
I remember trudging through the fields of Skyrim, walking towards the quest marker on my compass when, out of nowhere, a butterfly zipped in front of me. I immediate began to chase it, abandoning my objective and seeing where it would lead me. I wasn’t disappointed. When I finally caught up with it I was in front of a cave mouth, which in turn led to a trip through a dingy dungeon, culminating in a dramatic fight with a gang of vampires.
This only happened because the world itself was so open. There were so many opportunities scattered throughout the land, buried under the mountains and tucked away in the cities. While linear, story driven games are still great fun; they need to be shaped by the player. The Uncharted series offers up very straightforward experiences but every player has unique memories about getting a sweet headshot or mowing down a group of baddies with a turret. What I’m trying to drive home is that we cannot abandon the interactive nature of games, because that’s what has made them such significant experiences to so many people. I’m not suggesting that developers should do away with cinematic and dramatic storytelling, it just isn’t the sole path gaming needs to travel down. We are currently able to enjoy a massive catalogue of games from all genres, each offering new and unique experiences. Gaming needs to keep going down the path it is already travelling down, and stop trying to become something that its not.