Rants ‘N’ Reviews: Video games shouldn’t be movies

Columnist Robert Mecchi on how cinematic video games are holding the industry back

For a long time, video games wanted to be movies. Games wanted to tell epic tales over the length of 10 to 20 hours, and they wanted to look as realistic as possible while doing it. When games like “Uncharted” began hitting shelves, gamers were rightfully impressed with the presentation and storytelling, with some people describing it as a playable Indiana Jones movie.

However, now that photorealistic graphics are becoming more commonplace in the gaming world and linear storytelling is getting a bit stale, people are beginning to realize that video games have so much more potential than their film counterparts to create living, immersive worlds. This is due in large part to the one facet that differentiates video games from nearly every other form of media: interactivity.

Interactivity in games is something that many cinematic video games have begun to shy away from, and this trend is hugely disappointing to a lot of people.

Now, when I say that a game is interactive, I don’t simply mean that the in-game avatar reacts to button pushes on a controller. A truly interactive game will shape itself around the decisions made by the player, and the game world will alter to reflect those decisions. True interactivity in a video game means that no two game worlds will be exactly alike.

This is something that has sadly been shed by games like “Uncharted,” where every player will see exactly the same scenes at the same points in the game, just like a playable movie.

The thing is, if I wanted to watch a movie, why would I be playing a video game?

That’s not to say that I hate the “Uncharted” series. They’re hugely successful and mostly enjoyable as playable films, but because everything that happens in the game is already set in stone, they can grow stale fast. It’s like watching the same movie four times in a row. There’s nothing surprising in these games, aside from their graphical fidelity, and the actual gameplay mechanics are passable at best.

Another gaping flaw in the design of cinematic games like this is the narrative dissonance on display. For example, in certain non-playable scenes in the game, emphasis is placed on moments where characters are forced to kill someone, and the consequences play out in full. However, when the time comes for the player to take control, enemies are slaughtered by the dozens, yet this doesn’t seem to affect the characters at all.

A well designed game shouldn’t have narrative dissonance. If I were to watch a film where the main character is remorseful for having to kill somebody, regardless of who they were, I would be a little taken aback if they were to suddenly go on a murdering spree in order to get from point A to point B. Characters’ actions should be consistent with their moral values, and in many cinematic games, the actions of the character do not line up with their moral standards.

Sometimes, this dissonance can actually be used to great storytelling effect, like with the “Bioshock” series, but those games aren’t cinematic, nor are they trying to be. Instead, the designers have embraced benefits of an interactive medium, and in doing so they crafted one of the most highly respected series in the industry.

The “Bioshock” games don’t want you to just sit back on the couch and watch the action play out. They require you to be invested in the game, forcing you to build up your character with genetic modifications that have some pretty interesting ramifications, and because the game is presented entirely in first person, the player sees the story unfold the same way that the main character does.

Games should be intimate, and a great game will create a relationship between the player and the world instead of simply putting the world on display. The video game industry used to look at the film industry with jealousy, and many developers often put out cinematic games in an effort to validate themselves as artists. To me, though, that’s missing the entire point of an interactive medium.

Still, the fact that many developers are waking up to the true potential of interactive storytelling is giving me hope. Maybe we’ll even see a “Call of Duty” entry that isn’t trying to be “Michael Bay: The Game” someday.

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