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Cinematics vs. Interactive Storytelling

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Alone In The Dark
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Another World
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Black Dahlia
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Border Zone
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Death Gate
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Dracula Unleashed
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Dragon's Lair
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Frederik Pohl's Gateway
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Full Throttle
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Harvester
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Hook
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Inspektor Zebok
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It Came From The Desert
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King's Quest VII: The Princeless Bride
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Lure of the Temptress
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Maniac Mansion
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Mission Critical
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Monkey Island 2: Le Chuck's Revenge
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Shadow of the Comet
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The 7th Guest
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The Dig
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The Last Express
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by Mr Creosote (2014-06-30)

Ever since graphics were introduced into plot-driven games, people were talking about making them cinematic. Maybe it was the logical goal after moving on from the book equivalent (text adventures). At various stages of (primarily) technical development, the big breakthrough was announced. Now, this being really cinematic. Only to later hear that something else entirely then finally made games cinematic. Of course, then, people were already waiting for the next big thing. You'd think after so many breakthroughs, games would really have to be virtually undistinguishable from movies by now. Let's have a look at some of these stages, what might be appropriate comparisons and what may still be different in spite of everything.

What is an Interactive Movie anyway?

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As with so many other quality indicators, the bottom of the barrel has to be The 7th Guest. Although chock-full of actors, drama and (virtual) sets, all those long video clips are completely detached from the game itself. There is a puzzle to solve and as a reward, the player can sit back and watch another clip. So the gameplay is not used to tell a story, but as a trigger to turn the pages of the non-interactive story.

When people are talking about movie-like elements in games, they often only mean the outward appearance. That was why when CD-based games took over the market, the term Interactive Movie became so popular. What this usually implied was that real-life actors appeared in the game. Though this was really quite a stupid distinction, icompletely gnoring that drawn cartoons with a longer narrative would be called movies in the film industry, too; does this make games like King's Quest VII, where virtually every attempted player action triggers a fairly long animation, an Interactive Cartoon (though one where the interactivity is constantly interrupted)?

So if the presence of digitized faces is not it, what does make a game movie-like (or cinematic)? This begs for the introduction of a concept I'd like to call the main narrative layer. It is where things primarily happen in the narrative work. In a novel, it is obviously text. In a film, it is moving images. In a computer game, it is the player interaction. With this basic difference identified, it should be clear that maybe the approach of trying to make a game 'movie-like' is already wrong, because it is unattainable. Apples and oranges – the basis is different.

Nevertheless, the badge of being an 'Interactive Movie' is applied out there in the wild, so let's see what could be sensible criteria and how close we can get. The sensible things to examine are, of course, the storytelling techniques applied.

Talky

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Black Dahlia is a wild mixture of many things which can go wrong trying a make an interactive movie. Some parts show exactly the same total detachment of gameplay versus story as The 7th Guest. What this one has in addition is a virtually endless supply of conversations. There are at least parts where the plot is moved forward in an interactive fashion, though.

Cinema is primarily a visual medium. Any scene of just two or more people talking is, by itself, not particularly cinematic, since it (most likely) violates the main narrative layer approach. It can be, if there is additional information provided to the viewer in a visual way; for example, there can be a second layer of the conversation, distinct from what people are saying, going on through their facial expressions; or there can be something happening in the background.

If conversations are usually not even cinematic, it is hard to argue they could make a game cinematic. Yes, regardless of whether actors have been hired to speak all the lines. Mission Critical is a textbook example of this: Right in the middle of a game, there is a very long conversation with a character portrayed by a filmed actor. At the end of the game, there is another very long conversation with two drawn characters equipped with human voices. Neither of these conversations is handled particularly interactively, as the choices the player makes boil down to what to say first while eventually exhausting all options. This even goes against the prevalence of the main narrative layer of games! If anything, these scenes made the game more book-like rather than cinematic.

Intertitles

In the early days of the cinema, films were of course shot completely without sound. So interestingly enough, they were probably closer to that basic definition than contemporary ones. However, they used a special technique to get any information across which couldn't be done visually: the intertitle. The films would cut from the actual action to a text panel, for example containing an important line of dialogue or another explanation as to what was going on.

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Dracula Unleashed and the Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective games (pictured) are also some of these games in which the player spends most of his time just passively watching video clips. Their case is still a little different, though, because in them, watching those videos is basically the whole game! Drawing conclusions from what the player has seen is the only content of the game. The interactivity has been virtually outsourced. Strange.

On an abstract level, the intertitle is also still very much alive in the film industry, by the way. Establishing shots stating date, time & place ('FBI Headquarters, 09:37pm') are nothing but a stripped down version. Also every time a character on the screen sits down to read about certain events or background information in the paper or in a book while the camera remains on him reading, it is a break from the prevalence of visual storytelling. Acting out the information passed to the character, for example in a flashback, would be the cinematic version of this. Just having him sit and read is nothing but an extended intertitle, because it halts the progress of the main narrative layer.

This has an interesting equivalent in the world of computer games which is used to this very day. Many adventure games have the player finding scribbled notes or even complete books which then should be studied. These written pieces of evidence move the plot along, but they, too, constitute a break from the main layer or the work: the interaction. That makes them a fairly awkward device in a frame of a game and they are usually used when the designers couldn't think of a decent way to integrate the equivalent information into the interactive parts.

Two major examples of this are Death Gate and Alone in the Dark. The former uses this a little more intelligently, namely as a complement to the interactive part of the narrative. In the latter, it basically is the narrative, i.e. the game departs from its main narrative layer almost completely. It could be argued that this sort of thing does make a game cinematic – it would be an interactive (but badly made) silent movie. Whether this is a worthy goal to shoot for, is an entirely different question, of course, because to achieve this status, the game sacrifices a lot of what could otherwise make it a successful game, every time the interaction comes to a grinding halt.

Cutting Technique

Alone in the Dark is considered a pioneer in applying another cinematic technique to computer games, though. Like movies until the 1910s, games usually use a scenically static camera. AitD had different, often imaginative camera angles (triggered by the players movements), mimicking the cutting technique prevalent in movies approximately since the 1920s.

Unlike intertitles, this does not hurt the interactive nature of the game. Rather, it complements it perfectly, as it makes the action appear even more dynamic, helping the impression of being involved interactively.

Only if used in the way described, of course. The intro of Full Throttle, with its off-screen narration and its perfectly aligned camera movements and well-timed cuts undeniably owes very much to movie techniques as well. Though there, it is not used to enhance the interaction, but just to set a mood. It is an excellent cinematic moment. If used right (and most important: sparingly), this sort of thing can still enhance the overall experience. It remains a gamble to break the rules deliberately.

Cutscenes

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On the balance of player actions triggering animations, Dragon's Lair turns cause and effect around completely. The player is basically just watching an excellently animated cartoon and at fixed points, he can determine which of the two or three pre-determined outcomes the scene should take. Here, one has to ask the question whether this can still be counted as a game, because the interaction is really minimal. It comes as no surprise that the game is distributed as a regular movie DVD these days.

Which leads over to another aspect often labelled cinematic: the cutscenes. Maniac Mansion is often cited to have introduced or at least popularised cutscenes in adventure games. Cutting away from the main action can indeed be considered cinematic, because by far most movies do indeed employ an omniscient or at least multi-faceted narrative perspective.

At the same time, a more brutal intrusion into the interactive power of the player to lead the story is hardly imaginable. His role is diminished to that of a bystander, while at the same time producing a dangerous rift between player and character knowledge: The player receives information (in a non-interactive way, no less) which his alter ego does not share, possibly influencing the player's decisions in ways which would make no sense from the perspective of the protagonist if he had his own will.

Another World is an example of a game which does a good job of at least not making the rift between the interactive and non-interactive parts not too obvious. The use of the same graphical engine makes the transition appear more or less seamless. Though, of course, this does not solve the inherent issue of the player spending all too much time just passively watching.

Multi-Polar World

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The Dig was marketed as a major cinematic experience – but ironically, it is one of the least cinematic games made by Lucas Arts. Abstract puzzles taking place virtually outside the plot-driven world (7th Guest style again) and characters frozen in time as long as the protagonist didn't make major achievements went directly against many of the cinematic rules outlined here – regardless of how many 'movie-like' rendered cutscenes it had.

Nevertheless, cutscenes are one incarnation of one major element of movies: Many games center their narrative completely around the protagonist. He is the one and only character capable of triggering changes in the state of the world. This is not only easier to develop (because it avoids a lot of complexity), but it also often avoids player frustration. However, it is hardly cinematic. Take a game like Monkey Island 2: That party in the governeur's mansion, for example, just goes on and on, until the player finally gets there and does various things. The other characters are just props. Monkey Island 2 is an amazing game nevertheless, which just shows once again that maybe sometimes, aiming for maximum cinematic appeal might not be everything.

Still, it is a very fascinating goal to design a more active world for the player to participate in. There are varying degrees of how to simulate a more active (instead of purely reactive) world around the player. Shadow of the Comet is actually still a purely reactive game, but it makes a serious attempt to make the town it takes place in and its inhabitants seem alive anyway. Lure of the Temptress goes a major step further and gives every character his own schedule for the day – with the mentioned effect of it being slightly annoying when the player is unable to find the blacksmith in his shop, for example.

Games which manage this sort of thing more successfully usually fall in the borderline of the adventure genre (if at all). It Came from the Desert does a good job of keeping the progression and evolution of its world believable over time while still taking into account what the player's actions are causing. More often than any other genre, it is role playing games, though, which manage to really simulate a living world in much more cinematic ways. A few rare gems like The Last Express being the big exception in the classic adventure genre.

Conclusion

A game can never be completely cinematic. Otherwise, it wouldn't be a game anymore. If being as cinematic as possible is a goal considered positive, we have to distinguish between two categories of cinematic techniques.

First, there are those which undoubtedly make a game more cinematic, but which make it drift away from its own core mechanics. A game should tell its plot as interactively as possible. There may be good reasons to violate this general rule in some places. Yet, it should always remain the first and foremost goal. A game design which does not apply such things out of absolute necessity, but out of choice, is generally not a good one.

Second, there are those which work well inside a game environment, because they don't go against the very heart of what makes a game. Applying such techniques can be a very good idea, because the language of cinema is well established in people's minds and it can indeed complement a solid game design very well.

From its first incarnation, but even more so in the third and fourth parts, Wing Commander has attracted this badge of being cinematic pretty much every time it is mentioned. By everything discussed above, this does not fit at all. It is pretty much a fallacy based on outward appearance. The outwardly (seemingly) cinematic parts are virtually non-interactive; the actual game is played on a completely different level. What can be considered actually mildly cinematic is the character interaction during the interactive space combat scenes, though, so it's not a complete disaster.

If too many elements of the first kind creep in, the designers should consider whether they have selected the right medium to tell their story. Or, to put it in another way: If you don't want to make a game, don't make a game! Only trying to imitate another medium, as attempted in the 'Interactive Movie' phase in the mid to late 1990s, was literally a step in the wrong direction – with questionable results we're all aware of by now. It is almost too ironic too mention that a game like Border Zone, completely without graphics, feels much more cinematic than, for example, Inspektor Zebok, a game full of video clips made with actors! The reason being that the former takes a popular film genre (the action-packed spy thriller) and transports the feeling through its frantic and tense real-time chase scenes, rather than the format into a fussy video mess.

While games can indeed still learn very much from other narrative mediums, they also have to find their own rules, their own ways and their own language. This learning process is still far from over: How to tell a story with interactive means and well is hard. Many older games basically had an introductory narrative at the beginning, then the interactive game began and the narrative stood still until the very end – or there would be short bursts of non-interactive narrative progress between the playable episodes (Gateway and Hook being prime examples of such a structure). No matter how good the individual plots are, this is not a very successful way of interactive storytelling, because it is not continous through the main layer.

I define the perfect narrative game as never interrupting the interaction for more than a minute, because the information is fed to the player purely as feedback to his own actions (or, maybe even more interestingly, through his own actions). Maybe this will, too, be unattainable. Yet this shouldn't discourage anyone from trying to come as close as possible!

Researching for this article, the greatest irony of this whole topic occured to me trying to identify the game on this website at the time of writing which does come closest. Believe it or not, I think it's Harvester! The narrative consists of the player trying to make sense of this world. This is achieved through playing and (pretty much) playing alone. Harvester is hardly an excellent game.

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