Be honest. Does it ever happen that you sit through a supposedly good horror or zombie movie and enjoy the suspense without actually caring about the main characters? That you watch the attractive young B-actress open a door that basically has “imminent death” written all over it with blood splatters and instead you feel a sort of relief at the thought that Darwin’s principles still apply?
Or that you watch an action flick that ticks all the mandatory boxes (heroic character, damsel in distress, massive explosions and toppling buildings/crashing aircrafts, evil villain with grotesque plans, etc.) and you yawn the evening away hoping for a hint of an emotional connection to what the protagonists are fighting for? And then the credits roll.
I used to be a huge movie buff, with interests ranging from French art house to pulp/grindhouse to Hollywood blockbusters, but lately I can’t seem to care enough about even the biggest record-breaking productions to extend my attention span to an hour beyond the (usually catchy) opening scene.
I don’t know whether to blame the state of the movie-going audience or the lack of storytelling qualities of today’s directors but as far as I’m concerned, cinema as a platform for storytelling has lost its momentum. 3D gimmickry and bluescreen rendered effects are mistaken for innovation, outside-the-box thinking is often drowned in pretentiousness, vampires are misused to disguise horrible emo fluff for awkward teenagers.
I came to this realisation when I wondered how it is possible that I can still spend 5 hours of non-stop peering at a small Vita screen to play through Uncharted:Golden Abyss and actually identify with Nathan Drake and care about his motives and friends…
My bold hypothesis is that cinematic gaming has come to a level of maturity where it is beginning to surpass movies as a narrative medium.
“Interactive movies”, that’s the derogative term coined by oldschool gamers who believe that any genre invented after the platformer was a step backwards from gaming perfection. I say cinematic gaming is the logical evolution in video games, finally made possible by the maturity of both technology and production studios. When Mario tumbles off a candy-coloured slab of pixels the last thing you worry about is Princess Peach’s fate. However, when Joel is badly injured in The Last of Us you really do care about Ellie, whose safety you invested so much energy into.
That’s the magic of story telling in gaming. You’re more than immersed in the story; you have an investment in it and in return you’re getting something that goes beyond just curiosity of what will happen next.
Usually the game mechanics are nothing new, it’s the narrative techniques where the real innovation happens. As far as gameplay goes all Prince of Persia games are more or less the same, but the one from 2008 stands out. The one where you team up with Elika and the game takes the time to give both characters more depth and personality than usual. After a few hours you’re starting to need Elika’s company; not just in terms of gameplay, but especially on an emotional level. Coupled with a haunting soundtrack and a dramatic fatalistic storyline the game makes you understand and respect its ending. It’s the cinematic things that make the experience so compelling.
More so than when I was watching Lord of the Rings and concluded that I wouldn’t care if an orc had whacked Frodo and Sam was to continue the quest – as long as I could take in more of that beautiful scenery from New Zealand. Probably not what Peter Jackson had in mind.
It seems that video gaming has finally achieved something that Hollywood rarely has: turn even hardened action heroes into three-dimensional characters that are worth caring about. It asks the gamer to dedicate time and energy and it offers drive, persistence and an emotional connection in return.
Would Uncharted 2 – one of this generation’s most brilliant video games – have made an equally brilliant movie? Doubtful, because it would lack that something extra that being a video game adds to the mix (for a moment ignoring that Hollywood would probably also cast some annoying douche for the role of Drake, such as Ryan Reynolds or Chris Pine).
So will video games replace movies? Not any time soon. You wouldn’t plan a gaming session on the couch as a first date. The movie theatre is still an attractive place to go as a social activity. However, with the declining quality of what Hollywood churns out for those who come to the cinema to be taken on a narrative ride there is definitely a bright future for video games as a medium for telling stories that pull you in and not let go until you the credits roll.