Video games have a story problem. They've had it pretty much since their very inception, and they'll probably never STOP having them. It's really damn hard to tell a good story while a player is mucking around in the game world. Generally speaking, they won't care, and even when they do, it's hard to draw their attention to certain things without wresting control of the narrative away from them. So, instead, most games turned to cutscenes, cutaway mini-movies that tell stories in between gameplay, and thus began games' everlasting obession with becoming movies. Here are just a few games that can help you track the evolution of cinematic storytelling in games, and help keep you on track for our theme month on the intersection of games and cinema.
Ninja Gaiden isn't necessarily the first game with cutescenes. Technically, the interstitials between Pac-Man levels count, and Karateka sets up its story with an opening cutscene, but Ninja Gaiden set something of a standard for "cinematic storytelling" in games.
It's not to say it was particularly innovative or anything, some developer would have taken player control away for a moment to show some animation play out eventually. Ninja Gaiden just did it on consoles before (almost) anyone else. It advertised itself as being "just like the movie", which was sort of pushing it, considering how static and choppy the animation was. It was more like a series of manga panels than the anime it was clearly taking inspiration from.
Ninja Gaiden represents this odd turning point in the story of console video games. It wanted to have a story as overbearing and hokey as the RPGs of the day did, but also be have the faster, more popular gameplay of an action game. The speed of the game, and the limitations of the hardware meant the only way to pull it off was to wrest player control away, and make them watch the story rather than play it. It's not the first game to use cutscenes, but it's the first one that people noticed, and its style of cinematic storytelling refuses to go away.
Shenmue is a terrible, beautifully ambitious game. There's this term that comes up every few years when people talk about the next big games- some excitable developer or unsavvy PR drone talks a big game about making a movie you can play. Putting aside the fact that it's kind of a ridiculous idea, it's not hard to understand the appeal there. Games have, on average, some of the worst writing and storytelling in any medium. Meanwhile, the best movies are lauded for great character writing and dialogue, but wouldn't it be great if all those cool things that happened in that movie happened to you?
That's the thinking behind the whole "movie you can play" thing, at least. Ostensibly, that was the thinking behind Shenmue too. It was meant to be this grand, multi-part epic about a man's journey to find the man who killed his father and exact revenge. It's pretty simple action movie stuff, but the issue came in trying to turn it into a game.
In theory, Shenmue is a saga, in practice, it's a slog. The dialogue is a crummily written as any other game, with voice acting that's pretty easy to recognize as being of a mid-'90s vintage. Meanwhile, the game gets bogged down with uninteresting combat, fetch quests, and quick time events. The real special thing about Shenmue is the detail and depth of its world, which features an innumerable amount of tiny features that mean nothing from a mechanical perspective, but do the significantly more important job of crafting a believable world. Plus, it was overshadowed by Grand Theft Auto 3 late that same year. GTA3's world was enormous compared to Shenmue's tiny town, but lacked the depth to make it a really believable world. Maybe that's what we really want out of movies we can play, fully realized worlds we can lose ourselves in.
Speaking of movies you can play, maybe the most important person to talk about in the context of games inspired by cinema is David Cage. Cage's ouvre is made up of games that want desperately to be overlong movies with semblances of interactivity. Heavy Rain isn't particularly unique among those, but it's worth noting simply because it's both the closest, and furthest he's ever come to reaching a true "cinematic game".
Ostensibly, Heavy Rain is an adventure game. You move a character around, they interact with stuff, the plot moves forward. In practice, it's much more of an interactive movie, with minimal player-interaction, and the ability continue the narrative after failing certain gameplay scenes. It's an interesting, experimental gameplay style for a game, the issue comes when you think about the movie part of the hybrid.
Heavy Rain borrows heavily from movie cliches, with stock characters and stock scenes strung together to ad out its, admittedly pretty interesting plot. The characters are written inconsistently though, which begins to get ridiculous when one character repeatedly monologues internally about how he's not the villain before the game finally reveals he totally, totally was, and was somehow lying to you in his own brain. Ethan and Madison's romance is stilted and awkward, not to mention the strange, incredibly distracting voice-over work that's a hallmark of the interactive movie genre. We'll be talking more about David Cage as the month goes on, but for now, It's good to reflect on how Heavy Rain is a pretty interesting game, but a pretty terrible movie.