Friday, October 8, 2010

Envlaved, Uncharted 2, and "Cinematic" Games

Ninja Theory probably hates this, but Enslaved can not be discussed without also mentioning Naughty Dog's Uncharted 2. The thing is, Enslaved is basically a reply to Naughty Dog's title. Naughty Dog says "This is the PS3. This is the kind of title one can only make on the PS3. This is the future of gaming, and every other console exists in the past." Ninja Theory's reply? "What's that? Sounds like bullshit, but I can't hear you with all that Sony dick in your mouth."

Despite this, Enslaved and Uncharted 2 are basically cut from the same cloth. They both come from the school of thought that believes that games are quite akin to movies. Titles like God of War, Call of Duty, and Metal Gear Solid also fall into this mold, but none seem to so exemplify it as these two titles. This school of thought claims that video games are simply movies, with the added element of interactivity. As such, they are less analogous to the "advance" from books to movies than they are to the additions of sound and color to movies. Note, for example, that nobody makes silent black and white films anymore, but more people are reading than have in years. These developers don't see games as alternatives to cinema, they see them as improvements to it, replacements of a bygone relic.

"An interesting crossover of the newspaper and political simulation genres."-
This perspective on the industry has manifested itself in two basic strategies, but both have the same basic goal of making games more like movies. The first of these, having had its heyday in the PSX era and still being a perinatal favorite in Japan, is the cut-scene heavy game. What's the easiest way to make your game more like a movie? Put more movie in it. The result is a title like Final Fantasy XIII, where gameplay often feels like a way to break up the videos. You have periods of gameplay and, upon their completion, the player is "rewarded" with a cut scene. Metal Gear Solid 4 may be an even better example, as it's design is simply littered with the tropes of the American action movie. These are the games which brag about the total length of their cut scenes on the back of the box.
Pictured: SquareEnix's vision of streamlined gameplay
The second of theses strategies argues that the first is incredibly flawed. These developers believe, and I agree, that game developers get no credit for cut-scenes. They can be pretty ,well acted, what have you, but they are not actually part of the game. One can not improve a book by packing in a DVD intro sequence. This is compounded by when the protagonist's actions in cut-scenes are more impressive than those the player can actually perform. This only serves to highlight the shortcomings of the the game's actual gameplay.
Cool cut scene, but there's not an actual "roar" button. Unacceptable.
This second strategy aims to make games more like movies, but by having the actions taking place in those movies be fully initiated by players. Gameplay is another element of the whole, like video or audio. These devs would no more take gameplay out of sections of their game than they would audio.

Now, out of the two elements, I personally side with the latter. There is, however, a third argument. This would simply say that games are games. Chess doesn't necessarily need a story or sweeping vistas. They may still believe that games are art, but they don't believe emulating movies produces a superior product. In some ways, this view actually places video games on an even higher pedestal than the other theories.

In my next post, I'll post my reaction to the Enslaved demo, and discuss this concept of "cinematic" games in practice.

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