What Exactly Are Cinematic Video Games

jmaltz@pnosker.com September 26, 2010 0

This week I want to discuss something which is often used but never really fully explored, cinematic video games.  The word cinematic is tossed around a lot in relation to video games recently; it has been used in relations to moments, cut scenes, camera angles, a move which in many ways makes a lot of sense.  After all, video games are becoming more and more realistic, continually pushing the boundaries between motion pictures and interactive entertainment.  However, for the amount that the word is thrown around, there is surprisingly little in the way of an actual definition of what gives a video game cinematic qualities.  Given that, here is, to my mind, the best definition of exactly what makes a video game cinematic.

The place to start on this is quest is the same place that any question about definitions starts: Mirriam Webster’s good ole’ dictionary.  Looking up cinematic, we get two definitions


1: of, relating to, suggestive of, or suitable for motion pictures or the filming of motion pictures

2 : filmed and presented as a motion picture

Seeing as no one would argue that most video games are designed to be released as a motion pictures (put your pitchforks down, I’m not suggesting they’re not art), it seems that the first definition is the one that we’re after for this exercise.  However, even just focusing on this more precise definition we’re left wanting for more.  There are a lot of things which are relating to, suggestive of, or suitable for motions pictures and their filming which would not be considered cinematic if put into a video game.  Heck, popcorn reminds me of movies, so do Orlando Bloom, close-ups, pandering to indie audiences as a refusal to “sell out”, critics raving about something which I hate, and beautiful women in fancy dresses, however, none of those would be considered cinematic by any stretch of the imagination.  This is because, after boiling the best cinematic moments down to their component parts we are left with four things that give any moment/cutscene/video game a cinematic feel: scale, the evoking of an emotion, music, and surprise.

In order to form the basis for a cinematic moment there must first be a sense of scale both about the moment and about the game.  This can be established in two different ways.  The first, and perhaps the more difficult way, is to create a world which has a sense of life to it thanks to a rich mythology and characters which feel real.  Once that world has been created, every action the player undertakes feels as if it has repercussions outside of the current level.  This strategy is particularly effective both in Bioshock and Half Life 2, something which makes many moments in both games feel as if they were ripped straight out of a Hollywood movie even though they are rather standard (albeit well executed) video game fare.  The alternative method to create scale is to simply create environments which are large, detailed, and fraught with peril.  Gears of War used this method to great success, creating cut scenes and gameplay sequences which feel especially cinematic as Marcus and company just barely escape the clutches from the locust on multiple occasions.

Once a sense of scale has been established, the next step to making a game cinematic is to inspire an emotion within the gamer.  Now, this emotion can be one of many.  It might be fear and anxiety brought on by a particularly intense level such as when you need to saved the crashed helicopter pilot in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.  Alternatively, it could be sadness when Sephiroth stabs Aeris through the back at the end of the first disc of Final Fantasy seven.  It might even be happiness and excitement when you see the return of your favorite characters in the opening cinematic of SSB: Brawl.  Regardless of what the emotion is though, the simple fact that something within a video game stirs within you causing you to laugh, cry, cheer, or grip your controller in white knuckled anticipation puts it well on the path to being cinematic.

Now, if these two elements are in place then it is very likely the developers have, at the very least a decent cinematic experience.  However, in order to truly make it truly great one the music must fit the bill as well.  Music is the icing on the cake to any video game; without it, the game would still be good and enjoyable to play; with music though, the game becomes indescribably delicious.  If you don’t believe me on this, simply go play the Halo series to see how music can complement and enhance cinematic gaming experience.  Without Martin O’Donnell’s excellent scores, the games would still have been plenty cinematic if only for how well Bungie conveyed the size and worlds of the rings.  However, just like in the LoTR movies, the addition of a soundtrack which is both enjoyable to listen to and fits the gameplay well serves to amplify the cinematic quality of the levels.  Heck, go listen to one of the Halo soundtracks just by itself; I guarantee you the music alone will make you feel as if you’re running to find 343 Guilty Spark.

Last but not least, just like the twist in any movie, a truly fantastic cinematic occurrence in a video game will surprise you, leaving you speechless for the moment and causing you to talk about it endlessly later.  From the discovery that you are indeed a splicer in Bioshock to the death of Aeris, the best cinematic occurrences leave you stunned and open mouthed.  However, more than anything else, perhaps the best way to define whether or not something is cinematic or not is whether or not, at the end of the sequence, you are left thinking “wow, that was awesome”; because once that feeling is inspired within you, then the developers have gone above and beyond all of the above criteria and have created something which is truly worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster.

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