Movies in my Games? The Power of Video Game Cinematography

I used to hate when people would treat the creation of video games the same way as the creation of movies.  It used to pop up all the time in the schlock gamingsphere, because, well, back when the veil was still first being pulled back, that was all people had to compare it to.  It’s the only other primarily visual-creative industry of similar size and undertaking, games have a lot more similarity to movies than, say, sculpture, early on in the industry it was a lot of ex-film types really driving things, etc.  Still, that just led to a lot of oversimplifications and false equivalences.  So every time someone on the internet was like “hey, could you imagine if movies were like 90% fight scenes the way gaaaaaames are?” I just died a little inside.

Nowadays, I’m starting to wonder if game developers aren’t learning enough from the film industry.

So let’s talk cutscenes.  Some people don’t like ‘em, some people don’t mind them, some people might rightfully claim they’re overused or used poorly, but frankly, they’re just going to be a fact of life as long as games try to have a structured narrative and deliver events outside what’s strictly interactable to the player.  But some games make them suck.  Some games put you through a lot of straight boring cutscenes.  And you know what, it’s probably not the content itself.  I’m starting to think it’s really just the way the scenes are presented.  The cinematography.

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I remember the first time I realized the impact cinematography could have on a game’s cutscenes.  It was Yakuza 2.  That game has a scene about 3/4s of the way through where they draw some of the major players together, sit them down around a table, and they just talk.  For a good 10-15 minutes.  No fighting, no action, not even any real twists or surprises given.  It’s just a bunch of dudes and dudettes making plans.  And it’s not boring.  It should be the most out of place thing in what’s otherwise a sandbox action game, it should be just a big delay in what’s otherwise a high-tension packed plot, but the developers keep it from being boring.

It’s all because of the cinematography.  The people sitting around talking may not be doing any real action, but the scene is still full of activity.  The camera’s always swooping, panning, and scrolling.  The characters fidget, nurse their cigarettes, and physically expressing themselves.  Even if that motion is not really leading anywhere, the scene is absolutely filled with it.  The scene incorporates a lot of elements you’d normally see in film, where the actors deliver a bit of nuance or, at the least, visual interest through simple actions while they talk, and the direction uses camera movements to instill a sense of action and energy where otherwise there is none.

Compare that to something like the Elder Scrolls, where plot developments are largely given to you by means of a single Bethesdaface yakking at you with a single expression on his face, filling your screen.  While you could deliver the same dialogue in exactly the same way, the amount of engagement, what you’d really need, is completely different.  Hell, just compare Metal Gear Solid to itself.  Kojima’s a former film dude, he knows the rules of cinematography, and that really shows in the cutscenes.  But then they decide that’s enough work for them, and go to the codec screens to talk to you about the Lolly who Lays Low, and then you just sit on one hand and down your drink with the other while the game Speak-and-Spells to you.  Not the best way to deliver that espionage action.

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I’ve been playing through Yakuza 5, and it’s clear that whoever handles cinematography for the series has not lost his touch.  Yakuza has a lot of plot just delivered through dialogue, you guys.  Even more so than already texty series like Mass Effect.  And if this game handled dialogue the way Mass Effect does, by just having a few static camera angles read to you, it would be interminable.  Would really drain the impact of the scene, if, when they’re dropping those plotbombs on you, nobody had any real reaction, and the camera wasn’t imparting any real import to them.  But with the cinematography they show, especially in these dialogue-heavy scenes, they’re able to capture your interest and keep your attention going right on the points they want to.  The Yakuza series has some of the best cinematography in gaming, and that is one thing I really wish more games would pick up.  It’s a thing of beauty, and this cinematography lets them pull of the type of stories that would be horribly suited to the medium otherwise.

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15 responses to “Movies in my Games? The Power of Video Game Cinematography

  1. Some movies are 90% action, just look at Transformers 🙂

    I think whether games pull off being cinematic or not varies from title to title. With some games I want the chatter to stop so I can play, whilst stuff like Metal Gear or Telltale’s releases I am content watching with minimal input.

    • That is true. The last half of the Avengers films have been pretty much punchfests as well.

      A lot of it does depend on expectations, I think. You could put up with a lot of dialogue in a given JRPG. I don’t think anyone was really prepared for the visual novel that was Blazblue’s story mode, however. Content also helps a lot as well. Both Metal Gear and the Telltale games have a lot to say, so they can fill all that talky time. Something like Mirror’s Edge, where the story was never even conceived until the game was mostly done, with that amount of dialogue though? You could not stretch the material that far.

  2. The first time I actively noticed cinematography in a game happened recently re-playing Zelda: Ocarina of Time followed by Majora’s Mask. Ocarina is pretty straightforward fare, but Majora’s Mask really amped things up. Very expressive camera angles, movement, blur effects, all kinds of stuff. Also, I never really thought about Bethesda’s first-person presentation, but it’s so true… boring. And you spend so much time talking to people in those games!!

    • You know, that is true, the 3D zelda games do have a lot of good cinematography. Never really paid attention to that before, but that’s one of those things. If it’s done well, it doesn’t draw your eye at all. Thinking back, the early 3D Zeldas employed a lot of things that you just couldn’t do in movies, employing angles, shots, and sweeps that just wouldn’t work if you had to fit a man behind the camera handling them.

      • Very true – the one that springs to mind is the Ocarina of Time opening with Navi flying around the Kokiri Forest in first person at high speed… blatant technical showcase moment. And it’s funny you mention films, it reminds me of some of the stuff in Citizen Kane.

        This shot is technically impossible because of the size of the camera, but the sign was rigged to open as soon as it was out of the shot, to let the camera pass through it.

  3. You know, I’ve been working on a review of Metroid: Other M, and during the process, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe the AAA industry is at an inherent disadvantage when it comes to story-heavy games. As you know, when I think of games that have excellent storytelling, Planescape: Torment, Zero Escape, and Undertale spring to mind immediately, and all of those games have one thing in common: they’re not exactly known for their mind-blowing graphics. Because only one of those games features extensive voice acting, it would be easy to make edits to the script should the need arise. Meanwhile, when making movies, I doubt the script has had all the flaws ironed out by the time the actors begin to do their job, so invariably, rewrites ensue, and many scenes and takes are left on the cutting room floor. It’s not too big of an issue (relatively speaking) because all the director needs to do is to have the actors perform another take, which is (usually) merely an issue of recording it again.

    The development team behind the latest big-budget game doesn’t have that luxury because the script for a game utterly dwarfs that of a movie, as it has to account for everything a player might do – it doesn’t matter how linear the experience is. I wouldn’t be surprised that if at some point, the director just has to relent and let a piece of writing that would be considered first-draft material in any other medium go through. If it happens too often, those less-than-satisfactory scenes will add up and undermine whatever goodwill the rest of their game had. If this is how the process works, it’s of little wonder that games with stronger storytelling originate from the indie crowd or the overlooked sections of the AAA industry (i.e. those less interested in HD graphics than their peers).

    • That is not something that I had thought about, but that’s very true. You can’t adjust the details of a game on the fly the same way you can with films. Both, you can keep rewriting things while you’re building, but with games, once something’s implemented, the cost of making changes or trying something different just to see if it works is way higher than it is with film.

      It doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Voice actors already do multiple takes of a given line with different phrasing and paces, so that the developers can fit it to the time alloted for that character, and, with the use of mocap actors, certain developers, particularly the more film-minded Hideo Kojima, has incorporated things that just arise on the set into the games themselves. But for most developers, and for any concrete changes? The way developers make games is just too compartmentalized. You have different teams on a film, but as long as they’re in the same unit, they’re all working on the same thing at a given time. With games, you have so many different teams working on so many different things, once something’s set it’s very costly to get everyone to adjust around it.

      Which would be one of the reasons why indie developers are a lot better at that. Smaller teams, less compartmentalization, it’s easier to just move things around on the fly.

  4. Very interesting article! I tend not to notice elements of film like cinematography since they don’t utilize it that often in the games I play like platformers. However, in RPGs, I do appreciate when the cutscenes resemble a well filmed movie, especially if they’re going to tell a lengthy story through them.

    • Well, a lot of people say that when cinemetography is done right, it’s not noticable at all. Hence why industry folk think Michael Bay’s a genius for his camera direction, while most of the general public don’t see past the dumb characters and cool explosions. Even so, yeah, it’s a little hard to bring all the best practices of cinematography to a sprite based game, or anything else that’s not plot-focused.

  5. Gotta admit! Bioware and Bethesda need to start taking notes!!!! That includes Fallout 4, just cause you used a different angle with a wobbly camera doesn’t mean its any better!

  6. I really appreciate good cutscenes. I also like the games that are mostly cutscenes, when they’re done well anyway. There’s just so much that can be conveyed while interacting with a game that it seems a shame to pass up such a capable medium.

    I like that you pay attention to things like cinematography in games. We need good, critical eyes on all fronts. Nice post.

    • Hey thanks! I did get a brief bit of training in camera operation, a few years back. Never made much out of it, but it does help to bring attention to the cinematography aspects of, well, whatever you’re looking at. Cinematography’s one of those things that, if it’s done really well, you don’t notice it, so I just wanted to take a moment to bring attention, at least, to some times where it’s done well.

  7. Great post! Narrative is so important in video games, and it’s hard to find a balance between showing the player important plot points and letting the player experience them for him/herself. I actually just wrote a post on this, so I really liked reading what you had to say about it!

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