Would you like to know what my least favourite part of the last Harry Potter film was? It was the part half way through where the cast and crew lost all confidence in their skills and just put one of J.K Rowling’s pages on screen for the audience to read.
Don’t remember that part? That’s because it didn’t actually happen. Everyone involved trusted themselves to tell the story in the format they were working within. This is generally true of all films, books, and comics. So why is it that video games are always trying to be a medium they’re not?
My university was visited by two representatives of Climax Games two years ago and, for the most part, the talk was very interesting. It was only until one student asked what the studio’s future was that things took a turn for the worse. We were told that the studio would be focusing on delivering “cinematic gaming experiences” and I switched off completely.
This represents a problem to me. As games get larger budgets and technology continues to improve, the focus has shifted to cinematic experiences with “Hollywood production values”, to quote Heavy Rain producer David Cage. Here’s the thing, if I want a cinematic experience, I’ll go to the cinema, or pop in a DVD.
I love stories in all their forms. I love reading books, I love watching films and I love playing games. I don’t love watching games. There’s a part in the middle of Metal Gear Solid 4 where the gameplay breaks off for a cutscene that’s near an hour long. That’s more than an average episode of television, just to move the plot forward a little.
Gaming is an interactive medium. If you have to take control away from me for that long just for some story exposition, you’re doing it wrong. Just to throw some numbers in here, there are approximately 8.5 hours of cutscenes in Metal Gear Solid 4. On my first (and so far only) playthrough, my final time clocked in at 7 hours. That basically means that I paid £40 for a piece of interactive entertainment that I spent more time watching than actually interacting with. Frankly, this is unacceptable.
At another, yet just as wrong, end of the spectrum are the Uncharted games. The games are very linear, guided experiences, where cinematic is a selling point. While I was basically in control for the whole game, there were points where I would be engaged in exciting chase sequences that relied on pacing and set pieces to keep the game flowing. The problem here is that the player is a variable they have no control over. If a player is bad at timing the jumps, the pacing is shot. And what was their answer? They autocorrected me if I made a bad jump. It was the equivalent of being a child at a friend’s house, as he drags me around by the arm, determined to show me all his cool things.
Again, they were taking control away from me, while attempting to maintain the illusion that I still had control over the game. Please don’t piss on me and try to pass it off as rain.
It’s worth noting there are some exceptions. Alan Wake utilised book pages in an interesting way that tied into the fiction, and provided a justification for the game’s linear nature. Max Payne and Infamous’s comic book segments matched perfectly with the styles of each game.
So, what’s the solution? I honestly don’t know. And I doubt we’ll find out as long as game developers insist on emulating Hollywood films rather than letting the medium evolve into its own thing. Shouldn’t we be demanding better from this interactive format? Looking at the sales of the Metal Gear and Uncharted games, people are apparently happy to settle. As someone who wants this industry to grow and prosper, that worries me.