With the release of a real life Sonic the Hedgehog movie, I was presented with the task of coming up with the most cinematic video games for a Film and Gaming section cross post. When thinking about this topic, however, there were so many ways to consider that games have tried to be like films throughout the years, and the results have ebbed and flowed as technologies evolved. Games can have strong stories, voice acting and cutscenes, but the cinematic effect can be achieved through aspects unique to the medium. However, it’s important to consider how games got here, and whether games need film adaptations at all as a result.
What is Cinema(?)
When considering what defines film in the most clinical sense, it is an essence of motion picture art, made up of the qualities that are derivative to Hollywood filmmaking. Games technically achieve this too, but through a completely different language in what is ultimately software development with an added complexity: a controller, giving the player a completely different level of engagement and creative control.
“Cinema” is a feeling that people experience when they’re fully absorbed into a film’s world and protagonists, and empathy grows for the characters on screen as we experience the human condition from another’s point of view. A personal favorite interpretation of this essence of cinema is by director David Lynch, famous for creating the dreamscape worlds of Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, Eraserhead and many others.
“It’s so delicate, but if you get into that world it can be like a dream.
The abstract, connective feeling he describes has been something games chase after as well through their avatars, but with twice the potential for both interactivity and interruption.
Movies have evolved as a storytelling medium for over a century, but as video games near the 50th anniversary of Pong (1972) they have suffered from clashing identities since the innovation of 3D animation in the mid 90’s. Games derive so many of their expressions from the films of Hollywood, but also from their true roots as interactive software.
Among the earliest examples of games attempting to show their love of cinema, and the medium’s potential for matching its artistic power, was when ex-Disney filmmaker Don Bluth (The Land Before Time, The Secret of NHIM, Anastasia) was commissioned for the Laserdisc and arcade classic, Dragon’s Lair (1983). The game looked like an animated film, needing players to execute puzzles and actions as a knight rescuing a princess with almost seamless cuts, lest they meet certain death in comical fashion. The plot and narrative functions are not the primary goal of Dragon’s Lair as a piece of software, but an exercise in bringing choose-your-own-adventure books or a Dungeons and Dragons campaign to life.
Kojima & Team Ico – The Gift of Control
We’ve already settled the debate on whether video games can be art. This was tackled in regards to Shadow of the Colossus (2005) by the late prolific film critic Roger Ebert. Despite its goal as a more methodical, artistic title evidenced by its tone and story context, fans of it’s more popular contemporaries criticized the work of Fumito Ueda and Team Ico for their control schemes and frame rates, holding them to standards of games in completely different genres. However, the controls of Team Ico games, Colossus especially, have a specific finesse to them, the tension escalated by a perfect orchestral score by Kow Otani. The Colossi are frustrating to scale, making them feel alive, and giving the player a tangible struggle to overcome. The way their characters control compared to other games is actually what makes them engaging to some players. Wander may be a frustrating protagonist for players looking to have absolute control over every little thing, but these characters are flawed as they fall, tumble, lose control of jumps or their momentum. With such deliberate, albeit dated, design schemes Team Ico allowed a player to see the protagonists as more human than super-human, resulting in the mythical world feeling even more daunting.
Gaming’s go to autaur, Hideo Kojima, escalates these cinematic ideas with every game he makes, and controversially so in most recent effort in Death Stranding (2019), which has been called “The Grand Tourismo of Walking Simulators” in its decidedly most positive review. Kojima is notorious for having postmodern, fourth-wall breaking elements to his storytelling. Most players refer to the time he integrated the Playstation’s rumble feature in the introduction of one of Metal Gear Solid’s (1998) main villains, Psycho Mantis. However, the far more distinctively cinematic fourth wall break he’s done is in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004). Following a near death experience for Snake, in which the player is faced with a long sequence wading through a stormy jungle river, players find themselves confronted with the ghosts of each and every one enemy they defeated with lethal means up to that point. The game’s cinematic nature shines through with what is essentially a user-controlled tracking shot that tonally ties with the game’s story themes in Snake Eater’s trope filled spy thriller story and the anti-war musings of its creator.
While the Metal Gear franchise indulged in lengthy cutscenes, extended expository dialogue and self-aware features, Death Stranding tries to put the weight on the realism of its characters’ idiosyncrasies in real time animation, placing players in control of managing microscopic detail as the core gameplay. As players take control of Sam Bridges’s trip across an American wasteland, they’re forced to be mindful of the wear and tear of Sam’s boots, the rusting of equipment, how hard to pull the shoulder straps and walking momentum to keep packages from tumbling downhill. While Death Stranding didn’t resonate with most players looking for mindless action, it did with the select few who allowed the journey to put them through their paces, and when the curated indie-rock music serenade their on a return journey to home base, Kojima inches the gaming experience ever closer to what can be deemed as its version of “cinematic” immersion.
With the context of his childhood imbuing films into his DNA, and early prospects of a film career before working for Konami, it’s easy to see his fundamental understanding of the cinematic language so specifically translating to the gaming medium in sometimes the most confusing ways. Even though his personality tears through the seams of his games, it’s clear that each one he makes is driven by a desire to elevate video games as a medium to the kind of artistic articulation that films have.
Good Game or Good Movie?
The 2000’s are when 3D games could finally appear how their directors and animators intended, and Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid 4 was treated as yet another sweeping swan song for his franchise growing out of the amorphous polygon blobs to careful musings about war and politics with the longest cutscenes in the medium’s history. People would joke for years that Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots was the best movie to ever be on the Playstation 3, and you can’t blame them considering the game’s final cutscenes run for nearly two hours after the player drops the controller.
The dramatic tension of games attempting to be movies got most heated when game critic Greg Miller, who worked for IGN at the time, gave Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (2011) a 10/10 score. While it was positively received in general, many felt it didn’t have as many good setpieces as Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009), and while the PS3 was stretched to its limits technologically, the suspecting reason people did not engage with Uncharted 3 was because the new features added to the game were meant to be more immersive in theory, but broke down with buggy interactions, limited enemy variety and an underwhelming ending for what was supposed to conclude a trilogy.
Story focused games are a little more refined and leave less room for the game to create error. While the saga of treasure hunter Nathan Drake apes a lot of its narrative points on the Indiana Jones franchise, the series has always had its most timely entries be innovative visually, immersing players in a carefully balanced adventure with shootout sequences, stunning parkour and thrilling chases. The series has been hit and miss on breaking this immersion, as many 3rd person action games with a story focus do, because the distinction between what the player gets to interact with and what the game does for you is cut and dry. Naughty Dog’s also produced The Last of Us (2013), would mark a goal post for cinematic interpretation taking the lead in most game studios for quite some time as the indie games, massive online multiplayer and streaming culture was on the rise.
By the 2010’s, the rush to make the most movie-like action games was slowing, and the most influential contemporaries to the “Metroidvania” genre were on the rise with indies and Japanese action-RPGs, which tackled the balance between self incentivised exploration and precise, competent execution found in games like Super Metroid. As it stands, those most impactful are by FromSoftware, specifically Dark Souls (2011). These games attempt to dig back to the roots of their genres as opposed to the 2000’s obsession with recreating the feeling of film. The environment and lore is available if you go looking for it, but the focus is on growing your proficiency in gameplay.
The rise of Dark Souls’ popularity, and focus on the core gameplay and difficulty made the industry realize they were sacrificing the player’s ability to make cinematic decisions for themselves. With the rise of mobile games and looter shooters like Destiny, there was a new definition of a successful game mid-to-late 2010’s. The pendulum of what influenced the idea of a “good game” swung back towards a good software design over what felt most like a movie.
As the worlds of these games sprawl open with seemingly unlimited quest options, players can get thrown off from the flow of the story in what is referred to as Ludonarrative Dissonance, the disconnect between a games’ “lucid elements” in regards to player, and its narrative ones in story presentation. In games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2013), Assassin’s Creed, Skyrim and Fallout, the main story becomes lost as players get buried with vast options for tasks to perform of varying levels of importance depending on the player’s subjective preference.
Bethesda’s RPGs, Fallout 3 (2008) and Fallout 4 (2015) are go-to references for this effect, as rushing off into the wasteland to find your long lost father, or kidnapped family is always a primary goal. When players ultimately put those on the back burner to do the tasks they want to do, on a completely separate path, keeps the ability to connect with the world at arm’s length through the protagonists’ perspective. These games can overwhelm player consciousness quickly with piles of quests and crowded maps, and engagement can be sacrificed with an overload of options. The pace of an open world action-adventure is player made, and even if a game filled to the brim with detail has potential for immersion, it is the player who performs as the “editor” of this content.
Marvel’s Spider-Man (2018) and Batman: Arkham City (2011) give you an open map with the perspective and tools of already iconic characters. The look and sounds need to be what people expect, but the greatest accomplishment is putting players into a position to make decisions as though they are the main hero. There’s a reason games media nearly unanimously said in their reviews of the 2018title Marvel’s Spider-Man that “You feel like Spider-Man” when you swing across the open map of New York City. As mocked as this phrase is, it is a testament to the power of the Insomniac Studio’s ability to direct player’s concentration to give them a game-play experience where they feel in control of a movie scene or comic book page. These games avoid Ludonarrative Dissonance by giving an open world full of small tasks that up to player digression with minimal amounts of the actions seeming out of character for the protagonist, like Peter Parker abruptly stopping everything in his tracks to catch a random criminal.
Choosing Your Own Path
Story based games are able to execute this kind of variety as well, with the most successful variants including action RPGs like Mass Effect, Persona and Undertale. These games reward players who interact with the world around them to the absolute limits with branching dialogue and opportunities to socialize with supporting characters, often with statistical benefits to the gameplay or late-game story opportunities. Many of these games even offer romance options with enough effort, which has become a popular integration for better and for worse, but allows for supporting cast attachment and potential for deep characterization.
Some titles over the years focus entirely on this branching story aspect. Telltale Games, which famously shut down after tumultuous productions in late 2018, made a long term impact with their story-based four season run of The Walking Dead. It resonated with players as the episodic format would branch their decisions into long term consequences throughout the multi-year story, and resulted in some of the most emotionally poignant moments in all horror-genre fiction of the 2010’s. Conversely, there’s the works of David Cage, the creative director of the studio Quantic Dream, responsible for the decidedly grim, story-based animated games Heavy Rain and Detroit: Become Human. While the games do have their fan bases, a lot of the criticism was given is their animations falling into the uncanny valley, and simply bizarre, tone deaf storytelling choices.
Pushing the Envelope
The fact that games now run their cut-scenes in real time to blur the difference between gameplay and story sequences seem great on paper does not necessarily mean they’ll work in practice. While film animators have careful detail paid to every frame, this is not possible for video games, resulting in errors as simple as falling through the world, enemies stuck in their “T-pose” or even something as simple as bad sound mixing.
During my own playthrough of Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order I’d encountered all of these things and many others. Most exemplary was a somber, dialogue heavy cutscene on a spaceship following the story prologue, but found myself infinitely distracted by every character’s clothing whipping around wildly as though they were still caught in the mid-atmosphere rain storm of the previous scene. Respawn pulled off a near miracle with Jedi Fallen Order, especially considering their development cycle was less than that of a typical Star Wars film, but games almost always have bugs like this when the scale is so ambitious.
However, game developers have been blessed with the ability to patch these errors later on after a game ships, and we’ve also begun to find this happening in the film industry as well. The effects houses behind Universals’ tragic film Cats (2019) dropped a “patch” to its theatrical run following its initial release to fix clear animation errors, as these studio films tend to be worked on until the last minute. The very same studio, Moving Picture Company whose employees work in 2019 also consisted of The Lion King (2019) was shut down shortly after delivering the Cats revision and finishing work on the now infamous redesign debacle of the incoming Sonic the Hedgehog adaptation.
Some filmmakers and designers manage these kinds of effects work really well. In 2020, so many visual effects have become indistinguishable from the best video games and the more uncanny studio films. With releases like the Xbox published Hellblade II on the horizon that wowed everyone at E3, and de-aging effects in films so ubiquitously used, we’ll soon be getting an unasked for recreation of James Dean in a feature film role, the line is inching ever so close to completely blurred.
Toss A Ring To Your Hedgehog
Where does this leave Sonic the Hedgehog?
The Sonic franchise is notoriously troubled. While the franchise has had multiple animated series and a confusingly long running Archie comic, even the games themselves never had a consistent story or character origin that was worth following outside of the truly dedicated fanbase, and that doesn’t even get into how the Blue Blurr’s recent entries tend to have a reputation for being completely broken, sometimes unplayable. Sonic the Hedgehog is a mascot that SEGA created as as a rebellious foil to Super Mario for a cynical marketing ploy, and as skateboarding and punk rock and chili dogs peaked in the mid-90’s, the radical hedgehog with an attitude has had a fledgeling presence in gaming media, with mostly poorly received entries, some even downright embarrassing for being tonally misguided, or fundamentally broken.
Sonic needs an update badly, and if a movie comes up with a good story to put him up against Jim Carey as Doctor Robotnik, maybe the curse of bad video game adaptations could be broken. The only thing Sonic absolutely needs to do is not look like an abomination (close call), and save the day by going really really fast, and hopefully not take part in awkward inter-species romances along the way.
I do believe that even if these icons of gaming end up with film franchise deals, that they’ll never reach the same level of cinematic potential as their original software counterparts, and this is emblematic of Netflix’s adaptation of The Witcher starring Henry Cavil. While the show is based on the novels, there is no denying that the franchise garnered its popularity from CDProjektRed’s successful action-RPG video game adaptations. With Witcher 3 Wild Hunt, as the most successful so far, never had more concurrent players according to Steam statistics than in the week following the series release on Netflix. While cross-media successes are not always mutually exclusive, the trend may change in games with the amount of legacy content available, should even slightly successful adaptations arise to bring in potentially new players.
The medium of video games are so far reaching, with more eyes on professional esports tournaments than even the largest sporting events of the year. Their level of user engagement is so multi-layered, that it’s a can of worms to compare to films, despite the clear influence taken from them. The path ahead in film shows that, when people finally get tired of comic-book movies, studios are eyeballing video games as their next set of intellectual property to turn into franchises, and while that could work in a cross-medium supplemental way that The Witcher did this year, it’s also important to remember that game’s don’t particularly need film adaptations as long as developers experiment and hire good writers to craft their stories.