Competency disclaimer: I have no background in game development, but I do have a background in film production. I write articles like this with some trepidation, as the world does not need another player of games telling makers of games how to do their job. However, in so far as the perspective of a former film practitioner is useful, I would love to see any conversation this may provoke in the comments.
While I have no authority to appeal to on this subject, it seems evident that games have been heavily influenced by cinema, particularly James Cameron/George Lucas style blockbusters (and many indies carry direct references to art/independent films that have influenced them). This is an intuitive step because movies convey meaning through a combination of images and sounds, and blockbusters in particular create a level of excitement and spectacle that are the standard for modern entertainment products. Furthermore, tapping into the conventions of cinema gives game developers access to a fairly sophisticated grammar that has taken us from understanding a message in 30 seconds to a mere 5 seconds or less in advertising. While borrowing from film seems like an obvious step, it may not be the most appropriate. What follows is an account of some ways I think cinematic techniques may be inappropriate for games, and some examples of alternatives that have been effective in games I’ve enjoyed.
How does a movie work?
Film theory is a big subject, and the knowledge applied on the film set may never find itself in a book, but there are some basics that find consensus among the practitioners who have written down their thoughts. One useful, idea that emerged was the theory of montage.
Just as Fascists saw the utility of the new technology of radio for propaganda purposes, the Soviet Union saw the propaganda benefits of film and dedicated considerable study to it. The theory of montage is best illustrated by an experiment done by a filmmaker named Pudovkin. Pudovkin filmed an actor with a neutral expression looking off camera and then edited this against three separate shots: a girl playing, a casket, and some bread. When viewers saw each clip they would credit the actor with a portrayal of a father’s love for his daughter, or terrible grief at his mother’s death, or unimaginable hunger. The performance gained meaning through the shot that followed it. The filmmaker Eisenstein developed the theory of montage further, but for our purposes it is sufficient to say that montage is the juxtaposition of two separate shots to create a separate meaning (if you took an undergraduate philosophy class, you might see a parallel to a common formulation of Hegelian Dialectic: Thesis + Antithesis = Synthesis).
Montage is a useful framework for thinking about how meaning is created in film, but if we’d prefer to divest ourselves of any intellectual commitment with regards to meaning, we can at least use it to illustrate how editing is important and unique to film. I do not say essential as there are famous exceptions such as Rope and Russian Ark that attempt to be ‘one shot’ films, but, of the films that influence games, a large portion of the experience and meaning come from the juxtaposition of specific shots to provoke a particular response. Editing seems to be the one truly unique feature of cinema that sets it apart from theatre or radio. Consider how constant edits to the ticking clocks of the bottles (being opened or ready to fall) create tension in this clip from Notorious:
We can narrow our focus to the components of montage and consider the shots themselves. Even in a film like Rope, the choice of what to show the audience makes all the difference. This includes technical considerations such as the length of lens, depth of field, and exposure, but more importantly it involves the decision of what to include or exclude in the context of what the audience has seen already. This is cinematographer Bill Fraker discussing a famous shot from Rosemary’s Baby:
Divorced from the context of the film (or even away from the big screen), this shot is not likely to have the same effect as it did on the original audience, but it should serve to illustrate the point. Any camera is perfectly capable of conveying information, but when wielded by someone who understands the audience’s perspective the result is a special experience and one that is unique to motion pictures.
Shots and edits in games
Having considered the essential tools of shots and edits in film, we can consider how these might apply to games. At worst, they don’t fit at all, and at best they work in a very narrow sense for a type of game that has gone out of fashion. Cinematics are present in games, and shots and edits are used quite effectively to bring about certain emotional responses or to convey information, it is very difficult to say that this is the game so much as it is the game part being put on hold to provide context for the next interactive part. Shots and edits are out of place in games, and this makes it difficult to claim that cinema is a good reference point for games.
This is an example of a movie that almost certainly would have been better as a game:
Aside from Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project, which both presented the first person perspective as found footage to justify edits, there aren’t a lot of well known first person movies, and it’s easy to see why. This perspective gives up the most powerful tools for creating meaning in the filmmaker’s toolbox and really only gains a gimmick in return. Yet anyone who has played Amnesia knows that one of the biggest annoyances present in The Lady in the Lake is one of the most discussed experiences of the game. While moviegoers’ patience wore thin watching Philip Marlowe open yet another door, Amnesia’s players lost their mind fumbling with the game’s doors while monsters chased them.
Games do not directly lend themselves to edits beyond loading screens, which are motivated for technical reasons rather than narrative. This is not a failing of games, as it would be very unusual to be playing a game and suddenly have the perspective change. One case where this worked well was the prologue for Battlefield 1, where dying would move you to another soldier on the battlefield, but even this excellent choice could not be sustained for the rest of the game. Most, if not all, of the interesting choices with regards to shots are also absent from games since the player is in control of the camera. It is not possible to have a Rosemary’s Baby moment in most games because the player controls the framing.
There are exceptions, and it would be much more difficult to make this case in the past as Resident Evil, among others, used fixed camera angles that allowed for pre-rendered backgrounds (Resident Evil also readily reveals its inspiration from Stanley Kubrick and Lucio Fulci). The introduction of Chris Walker in Outlast also relies on a forced perspective and, while it is technically a non-interactive moment of the game, is fairly seamless in its use. Of course, Resident Evil has long since moved from pre-rendered backgrounds, and it may be better to say that if cinema is to be a reference point it is most effective in the horror genre, rather than for games in general.
This is not to argue that cinema is useless for gaming, or that it should not be used as a reference point at all, but rather point out the limitations of this reference. With fewer technological constraints it becomes easier to recreate our favourite movie moments in an interactive format. Yet, as in the case of Resident Evil, the more effective use of cinematic techniques were driven by technological constraints. The Mass Effect series has generated more alien worlds and species than all the Star Wars films, but it is still not clear how this moment from The Empire Strikes back could be realized in a game by anything but a cutscene:
Alternatives to movies
A movie without shots and edits seems a lot closer to a theatrical production or a radio play. As it happens, radio drama contains more parallels to how stories and experiences occur in games than movies. Like film, technology is essential to radio drama, not just for its broadcast, but for its creation (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in addition to being hilarious, was the first radio drama to use stereo and it made a huge difference for that particular story). Critically, radio is confronted with the fact that it only has sound to convey its ideas. The absence of a visual component means there is always a space for the audience to create part of the story in their head. The difference may be best illustrated with old story in advertising of a radio and TV advertiser arguing over the merits of their respective media. The radio advertiser wins the argument by proposing a commercial of a 700-foot mountain of whipped cream rolling into a Lake Michigan that has been drained and filled with hot chocolate, after which the Royal Canadian Air Force then flies overhead with a 10 ton maraschino cherry which is dropped on top of the mountain to the applause of 25,000 onlookers.
When I reflect on the stories and moments in gaming that have engaged me the most and seem to be unique to gaming they tend to be cases with enough suggestion to get my imagination going, but not enough to think for me. Sunless Sea is well known for its writing, but I am particularly fond of the decision to give enough time to reflect on and digest what happened between ports (even if this lull was a complaint among some players). While it isn’t out yet, In Other Waters restricts your perspective to an AI assisting the xenobiologist, and has a companion book to provide another glimpse of the world. The demo was visually attractive in its own right, but it also gave me enough to imagine what my in game companion was describing. Cultist Simulator goes even further than the previous two by keeping time running and trimming down the text. While the game is entirely card and token based, there has not only been enough to keep me talking about what’s going on in the world during a stream, but also to make fairly clear mappings to my own life. Finally, Paradox Grand Strategy games like Crusader Kings II are, in essence, maps, stats, and text boxes, and yet the most rewarding way to play is to role-play your ruler and go along for the ride as the events and text provide more momentum for your imagination.
While one might argue that pausing to read text is a poor man’s cinematic, the fact remains that in all of these games the player is given the interesting choices to make, and there is enough information given to keep the imagination going during the real time components. These games play to gaming’s strengths by remaining interactive, while still being able to tell a story (unlike Space Invaders or Offworld Trading Company which are pure interactivity).
What can movies teach?
Movies can be very helpful in specific technical areas. Obviously if a game contains cinematics, the team would be wise to learn the techniques. Movies by good cinematographers will teach valuable lessons in colour and lighting, though these cinematographers are often inspired by great painters (especially the Dutch masters). There is also no accounting for the sources of inspiration, and so at an individual level movies may provide the creative spark that eventually becomes a very good game.
However, cinema’s use as a reference is likely due more to its dominant position rather than its suitability for gaming. Montage allows an audience’s imagination to be engaged as in the case of radio above, but this technique is not available to gaming due to its interactivity. It is more appropriate to seek out other examples of how authors have engaged our imaginations in real time if we are looking for applications to gaming. Seeking inspiration from examples like radio drama allow us to make games that rise above ‘movies but with the essential features removed.’
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