Celluloid Envy and 'Cinematic' Games

Despite the criticism of games as narrative, almost every game player can quickly name dramatic stories from games which sticks in the mind as moving and engaging, whether it's Aeris’ death in Final Fantasy VII, Monkey Island's comic capers or Ragnar Tornquist’s The Longest Journey. Gamers frequently cite story as the reason they're interested in sequels - it's core to the appeal of RPGs such as the Final Fantasy series and even games such as Starcraft, hardly the most plot focussed game ever made, have hooked people, judging from the comments in our first impressions of the Starcraft 2 beta.

Clearly then, story is important to games - so if Ebert and company have a point, it's that the structure of games' approach to narrative is weak. What's the solution? Well, it can hardly be to become more linear - historically, attempts at designing games which mirror the structure of conventional storytelling has tended to result in a substantial loss in meaningful interactivity. If you want a case study of film conventions being drafted into games then cast your mind back to the early 90s and the CD-ROM bound interactive movie genre. This is the one and only time that we’d suggest going an playing something like Phantasmagoria, which is the gaming equivalent of trying to tie your genitals in a knot.

How Games Tell Stories Celluloid Envy and 'Cinematic' Games
Phantasmagoria: The Reaction Video

The interactive movie genre represents a design philosophy that saw video games as a new storytelling system but that still tried to use the conventions of cinema. It was a path that turned out to be an evolutionary dead end. Ask anyone who has played the dregs of the genre and they’ll tell you the interactive movie was essentially what happened when you answered the question “What do we do with all of this awesome free space we have on CD-ROMS?” with “fill it with live-action cut scenes from out of the dark bathysphere portal inside Roberta Williams’ brain.”

Some truly rubbish games were made during that time, such as the Phantasmagoria series or the timeless Mafia-versus-Egyptian-Mummy caper Double Switch), but a lot of titles sold very well - and received critical acclaim. Looking back, it's clear they had one draw, and that was fact you could build a game using long full-motion cut scenes thanks to the space afforded by CD-ROMs. Each new interactive movie pushed the boundaries of video, with bigger budgets and slightly more famous actors. The time when active storytelling would be put in players’ hands seemed nigh and everyone was declaring that games were about to reach a new peak.

How Games Tell Stories Celluloid Envy and 'Cinematic' Games
That's Mark Hamill on the...left?

With the use of live-action cut-scenes, designers were able to tap into the kind of celebrity power that had fuelled the film industry for decades by using recognisable actors. A surprising amount of actors did become involved, with the likes of Mark Hamill and Malcolm MacDowell starring in Wing Commander III, Under a Killing Moon featuring James Earl Jones and Margot Kidder, and The Dark Eye somehow getting William S. Burroughs on board.

In fact, it was around this time that EA’s Trip Hawkins was waffling on about games being "the New Hollywood" and his $700 machine that was going to become a staple of every home: the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer, which was a CD-based console aimed at high end users, frequently featuring interactive movie titles.

There was a bit of a problem though, and that was the fact that interactive movies weren’t incredibly interactive. In part this was a technical issue. Due to limitations in memory and the high cost of production, only so many cut scene variations were ever filmed, which meant the games could offer little in the way of really varied choices - and this of course, harmed replayability too. It's simply not fun to make a choice, then wait five minutes watching a video before making another.This genre forced the player to adopt the role of passive voyeur in the spirit of film, more often than it allowed the player to play. The result was an introduction of authorial control over the elements of choice in the game, creating narratively-sound games that worked directly against the unique properties of games – a fact which ultimately spelled the end for the genre.
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June 13 2019 | 09:59

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