Thursday, September 22, 2011

Video Games Are Not Movies

That should be obvious. But a quick Google search, or even just a blip in any gaming magazine it would be easy to see why the people get the two confused. Blogs, such as mine, are more likely to show cut-scene footage of a game instead because they are compelling moments, meant to draw the audience into the scene, and get them to want to buy that game.

A lot of what we discuss these days are the cut-scenes. Our impressions of a video game typically revolve around the graphics. Most of the critical story moments in a video game will be shown through a cut-scene.

So when I see an article such as Wired's 5 Film-School Violations in Videogame Cut-Scenes, it makes me go "huh?" As far as I'm concerned, the laws of film-making are not required in order to make a videogame cut-scene. If you're trying to obtain a very realistic setting and make the gamer question if it's a game, then I would encourage the developers to use basic film techniques. If you're trying to go for over the top, sci-fi action, being as supernatural as possible, then don't use film rules as a crutch.

It's probably best to explain the use of a cut-scene. It's meant to act as cut away from the action to other scenes happening around the player that they are not interacting with, such as a flash-back to help build exposition. This has evolved into showing pieces of the story as a connector between one sequence of action to another. And in some games it's a reward/break for all of your hard work. You've spent 10 hours battling zombies and goblins, so here's a cut-scene for your troubles. Sure there is a story in those scenes, but some developers see it as a reward system.

How is a film different? It's not just content but context. Film began as a means of seeing reality through a moving image (and still works on this principle today). Even "stories" that were concocted were based around real events. Cameras acted as the eyes of the viewers. And the viewer wants to see everything. That's where cuts and such come into play. But people also don't seem to realize is that a lot of the techniques developed by the early film-makers were made to keep production cheap and not to bend the laws of reality. The point of movies is to provide a voyeuristic view into the lives of people without breaking reality with the viewer. (See Diegesis as an example.) It may not be obvious as our brains have been trained to look at the world as if it were a film camera, but think about those big budget Hollywood movies the next time you want to see one. What aspects of the story are visually missing from the film? How often do you see character reaction shots? How many times are we subjected to character close-ups instead of the action happening around them? Always fun to think about your movies...and make you hate them. >.>

For a number of video games, the purpose is to tell a story (not all as some are purely entertainment, puzzles, educational, and the like).  What a film does is provide an up-close look to characters in a story. Video games do this as well, but cut-scenes provide more context and visual information about the world around the characters that movies never explore.

This is why video games as movies, and vice-versa, do not work. Aside from the lack of interactivity with a movie.

Video games don't need to restrain themselves to film techniques to tell their story. There are no limits in a gaming world. It's physically impossible to use a real film camera in certain situations (such as shooting it into a black hole-and I mean a real camera into a real black hole, not CGI), but a video game can do it. Video games have an unlimited potential to do all sorts of crazy things and can achieve their insanity while telling their stories. Restraining cut-scenes into "it needs to be like a film" limits what video games can provide to us. Video games are about fantasy, even in the most realistic of stories. Taking that away from them is just subduing the creativity.

I'm going to use the Wired article to provide counter-points to why it's perfectly fine for the developers to have made the cut-scenes the way that they did.

Probably best that Serah didn't talk too much anyway...
First up, FFXIII and the rule "Enter Late, Leave Early". This is one of those concepts developed to save money by having the audience piece together what happened before and what happens after a character leaves a scene, without directly telling the audience. It also applies to the real-world in situations-ever been to a party and jumped into a conversation with no clue what they were talking about?

In the scene the article uses from FFXIII it shows a lot of the, um, scenery. There is little dialogue, and a lot of pretty pictures. The point? To help us, the gamer, develop some sense of sympathy at the plight of the two young lovers and the impending destruction of the coastal town by the "good" and bad-guys. We see how the town is before The Purge. We see how the character's lives all become interwoven by fate long before their current predicament. It's meant to entice empathy from the gamer, to give you a reason to continue playing. For a movie, the point is to keep the story moving forward to reach an endpoint in 2 hours or less (in most cases). With a video game? There is no time limit. So build up that sympathy for the Purged victims and let that scenery fly.

MGS4 and Endless Exposition. Ok. This reads as though the writer has never played, seen, or heard of a Kojima game. MGS in particular is the lord of exposition in all of video games. Exposition is a means of providing background information, character notes, and the like to help advance the story. Think character monologues in plays, or voice-overs at the beginning of a movie.
MGS would not be MGS without exposition.

Now in the realm of MGS, there is a lot of stuff going on. Like lots and lots of stuff. And to be honest, is Kojima used normal film techniques for these games, we probably wouldn't understand a third of what the hell is going on. Because the MGS realm is so detailed, the leaving things up to the imagination of the audiences, as the Wired article suggests, would never provide us with the full story. We'd be stuck with a lot of unanswered questions and get thrown into the realm of confusion as to what the heck is going on.

Also, exposition is a stylistic choice by the creator. Some games don't really need exposition, but they choose to use it to help convey an emotion or throw a curve-ball at the player. Catherine comes to mind with it's use of exposition to both guide and confuse the player into questioning the reality of the game. MGS is no different. The use of exposition is done to lessen confusion (as long as they may be sometimes) and provide greater context as to why you should spend the next 50 hours playing the game.

Oh no! 10 seconds dancing! Save me!
Infinite Undiscovery and Only Show What Is Necessary. The article is correct that there are only 2 reasons on why you show a scene in a movie: to advance the plot and/or characterize the protagonist. That's film 101 right there people. However the example they used in Infinite is not really the best. It's called the "Dinner Dance" scene. The actual dance only takes about 8-10 seconds as those characters are leaving the scene to go to dinner, with the primary characters following soon after, about 10 seconds later at the most. Everything leading up to the dance are story plot points and helping develop the gamers relationship to the protagonist.

I think this is more of the writer of the article just not liking the "Dinner Dance." The dance itself is merely a tool to help explain the personality of those side-characters without going into a monologue (holy crap, there's that exposition again!). The scene itself also shows more about the type of character the protagonist is, and advances the story. So, I fault this one on a lame example. Gears of War 3's Easter Egg might qualify. You're fighting a really big alien bug, so why the hell are you spending 5 seconds going down a kiddy slide? Because it shows who that character really is, a big kid on the inside while being the savior of mankind. There we go. Good example followed up by why it's ok in a video game. We don't see it as stupid in a game but as a part of the experience. In a movie? We might question reality and break that 4th wall that they don't want us to break.

2 plumbers out to save a princess in a shroom
infested kingdom, from a giant spiked
turtle/man thing. The last thing I'm sure they're worried
about is time management.
Super Paper Mario and Every Second Matters. This ties in well with the last concept of "only show what is necessary." With a film, there is a definite beginning, middle, and end. The timing and pacing help determine the speed of a film, and whether it is successful. In a game this isn't necessary. Part of the point of the game is for you, the gamer, to explore and determine all of that for yourself. In most cases, you know the beginning; your purpose is to provide the middle potion to get to a pre-generated ending. What the writer seems to forget is that there is no time limit in a game. You can speed through in 10 hours if you wish or spend 99 hours. It's up to you as the gamer to decide. Thus, a need to time and pace out a cut-scene is unnecessary. You're going to spend the next 40 hours playing the game, so what difference does it make if they explain to you that a prophetic book is a mysterious tomb of stories predicting the future? Time has no limit in a video game. In film, you need to always be aware of time. Big difference.

Mass Effect 2 and the 180 Degree Rule. The 180 Rule works like this: Two characters or objects should always have the same spatial relationship to one another. If the camera were to cross over this imaginary line, it can cause the character to look flipped or reversed on the screen, providing a jarring experience for the viewer.

Even this close-up is a little too tight for a movie.
Only games can do this without freaking us out.
Here's the thing, filmmakers break this rule a lot too. Look at Transformers or Star Wars battle scenes. So to limit it to just gaming is silly. Film can break their own rules too if they are to serve a purpose. But to do so in the manner of video games might cause for motion sickness. There still needs to be a flow to the camera where it feels seamless. Because again the camera is acting as the viewer's eyes, and our eyeballs surely don't jump from the sky to the ground, and then inside a building a mile away, in half a second.

The scene used in Mass Effect is meant to feel disjointed. Why? The characters are running for their lives. To help increase the severity of the situation and give more of a high-action jolt, the camera angles will jump around the screen. It's not so all over the place that you can't follow the action; more of it's meant to help increase the intensity. You still know who Sheppard is on the screen, and his companions. Again I'd argue that this was a stylistic choice. Which would you rather have? The current ME2 scene or one where's it's just one shot of the characters running to their spaceship with no cuts? I vote for the former to help aid the action of the story. It's also good to keep in mind that this is a game, not a movie. There isn't a need to have the camera be still, or just tilting/panning across the screen. It's meant to move. It's meant to provide emotion or excitement to the gamer. It doesn't need to be our eyes, but our thoughts.

While I can appreciate the effort the writer put into his article and getting us to think about games on a deeper level, by simply comparing film to video game cut-scenes doesn't work. The purpose of a film and the purpose of a game are two different aspects that should not be required to mirror one another. Video games stand on their own as a unique form of art, entertainment, and story-telling.

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