Why is it that most video game movies are so bad?
Surely, part of this is because the type of games chosen to be adapted are generally the basest and dumbest sort of games, but this can’t be all, can it? After all, Warcraft is hardly a base sort of game, and neither are Super Mario Brothers or Hitman, but what these games do well is something that no film could ever properly capture.
When people use phrases like “cinematic” to describe games, I can’t help but cringe a little. Not to say that this isn’t a worthy aim for games to have, but that more often than not, someone using “it’s just like a movie” betrays that they themselves don’t understand what it is about games that is so unique. The most visible example of this sort of thing is the Uncharted series. These are great games, don’t misunderstand me, but they are at their very core concerned with telling a cinematic story first and being a game second. So there’s something about it that feels rather shallow, and I don’t just mean in the way we usually use that word for games.
As the reliably great Mark Brown over at Game Maker’s Toolkit said in a recent video, what designers like Fumito Ueda understand best about games is that they “speak most loudly through their design.” This is to say that games are at their core, a series of coded systems and mechanics strung together to provide an interactive feedback loop for the player. The two most important words there are “interactive” and of course “player.” This is the coded language we use for people who experience, or more accurately, engage with the act of playing a game. Books have readers, music has listeners, films and TV have viewers. Each one suggests an active, not passive role in engaging with the material.
There are many ways to engage with a game, but by far the simplest, easiest way is to interact with a game’s systems and mechanics. It might not be the easiest way for the developer to communicate with the player, but it’s surely the subtlest, “purest” and most artistically applicable. Think to what your strongest memories playing games, even heavily cinematic games like Uncharted, are. I’d bet a solid amount they aren’t passively watching a cutscene, but doing something to interact with the game world as it has been presented to you. Riding into Mexico in Red Dead Redemption, cresting a hill in Halo, swapping controller ports to avoid having your mind read in Metal Gear Solid, or even merely taking a few minutes to relax and soak in the ambience of Mass Effect, Life is Strange, or any other dozens of games. These are the experiences that most often stick with us, and not a one of them is reliant on the spoken word, or upon the forced perspective of cinematography.
Games are capable of conjuring a great many different emotions non-verbally, but even then, the best way to deliver exposition is to do so organically. Half-Life very famously does this by showing, not telling the signs of impending doom all throughout the opening tram ride through the Black Mesa facility, but even this is a little too static. Their later efforts, specifically Half-Life 2 and Portal, are masterworks of environmental storytelling, due in no small part to their love of playtesting all of their games nearly to death. By letting people engage with the experience.
Another solid example of what I consider “pure” game design is Nintendo, whose primary focus seems to be on mechanic over everything. Form follows function for Nintendo. Everything they do in their games is based on how it meshes with the game that’s being made. The music, the characters, the very plotlines themselves have all famously been contrived from the mechanics. Mario kills Goombas by jumping on them because he’s in a platformer, and his primary way of engaging with the world is by jumping. Samus shoots doors to open them in Metroid because she’s in a shooter, and her primary way of engaging with the world is by shooting. And so on.
The Immersive Sim sub-genre goes about communicating through mechanics in a different way, by providing a series of simple, discernable, and malleable systems for the player to mess around with. Deus Ex famously allows for just about whatever solution the player can think of to be used to move forward. The game will notice and remark upon whatever the player decides to do, but it doesn’t judge. Thief and Dishonored bring a small and distinct amount of powers or abilities to the table for the player to experiment with. If you know how a guard is going to react to certain stimuli, then combining them in different ways can lead to surprisingly creative results. Add in that these games are, by their very natures, simulations, and they are just about the pinnacle of the more subtle, experiential sorts of art that games are uniquely suited to.
An example of what I’m talking about can be found in Uncharted 4. The key subplot in the game is protagonist Nathan Drake’s long-lost brother Samuel’s obsession with piracy, and his drive to recover the lost pirate treasures of William Avery. This drive is heavily tied into his feelings of loss for the Drake’s mother, who was a historian and researcher into such things. So when Nate and Sam are swinging around from ropes through vibrant jungles and onto derelict pirate ships, you can often hear them giggling and laughing like idiots. It’s because they feel like little kids again, playing at being dashing swashbucklers like they did before their mother died and they stopped being children. That’s a great bit of subtext, and if the game took the time to have them openly talk about in an unskippable cutscene, it would only water that down and make it seem as though Naughty Dog thinks we’re all idiots.
People often level the claims that games like Gone Home or Firewatch (the latter recently featured in a handsome writer’s 2016 games of the year) are somehow less than games because they don’t feature stats or inventory or combat, but those things don’t determine what is and isn’t a game, and that’s not the sort of thing I’m talking about. You don’t shoot anybody in Tetris, and you don’t have to follow a bunch of little dotted-lines to find the next sidequest in Pac-Man (another design problem with Brown tackled not too long along). So called walking simulators like these are made with game assets, they’re made by game designers, and they could only be experienced in the medium of video games.
The problem isn’t that games shouldn’t try to be cinematic when they have to be, some designers need to structure their games that way to make them coherent. The problem is when you cut down the mechanics themselves to make way for more traditional storytelling, you make the game a little less of a game.