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The Home of the Cyber Shark(s)

BBBAAAAAWWWWW is the sound they make…. that's descriptive enough, right?

There has been a lot of talk recently, and for a while now, about video games vs. movies.

As a gamer (and someone who considers herself a hardcore gamer, though that definition caries from person to person), I can see the trend of comparing video games to movies as troubling: video games are inherently different from movies, and I’m not very comfortable with the idea of comparing them to one.

As someone who studies, and consumes, media however, this comparison seems natural.

Video games, in their current iteration, are necessarily visual mediums. The graphical capabilities of these machines is tremendous, and video games have always been moving in the “more realistic” direction, under the simple idea that a human should look like a human, and the  better something looks, the more immersive it will feel.

This is, of course, not a universal approach, nor should it be. One of my favorite games, Psychonauts, uses a more surreal/cartoonish approach to its characters, allowing a game that should look graphically dated today, as clean and fresh as when I first played it, on the XBox… before the 360 was even announced.

Anyway, back to the point: Video games are a visual medium in today’s market. Because of that, and because we are humans, it is only natural to compare to whatever medium is closest to it. That medium is, of course, movies.

Humans do not handle new information well. We are afraid of change. And the only way we can handle change is to frame what is new and different against what we already know, and what is superficially similar to it.

And, another thing that needs to be said: Humans love a story. Most of our entertainment is narrative driven in some way shape or form: songs tell a story, paintings express a mood, theater explores themes, and books and movies go without saying.

When we get together with our friends, the very first thing we do is tell stories about our time spent away from said friends.

It is, therefore, completely natural to use this new medium as a way to tell a story.

So, when narrative is combined with visual aesthetics, it is only natural a person would compare a video game to a movie – cutscene heavy game or not.

I am one of the (probably) few people who do not see this as a bad thing. Instead it is necessary in the evolution of video games: whatever they are (and really, defining exactly what a “Game” is is hard enough – what then constitutes a “video game” becomes a whole other mess), need to be compared to an existing form of media that they are not. In comparing video games to movies, we are also able to see how they are different from them, and are able to change them, if they need changing.

The beauty of a video game, and this is the point that people don’t seem to grasp, is that it can be so many things: there is no one definitive way design a video game; no one tells you that [x] is a video game, while [y] is not. The only thing that needs to be in there is some form of player interaction – and this is no different from any art form or entertainment medium: there has to be engagement with its intended (and perhaps more importantly, unintended) audience. Movies, theater, and paintings merely ask that you be open to what is already established (obviously, there is room for debate here, depending on what kind of theater we’re talking about, etc…), whereas a video game asks its player to move the narrative forward, to actually be apart of it.

Whether it takes the form of button mashing, or sitting back for 20 minutes as you have to decide which of your teammates you’re willing to sacrifice in order to stop Saren, you have to make a decision.

Are video games trying to be like movies? Maybe? Maybe not. There are plenty of video games in existence, old (of course) and new that, while cinematic to a degree, are nothing like movies, and do not hold themselves to that standard. And that’s great!

And there are, of course, movies that do: they focus on the visual intensity, the sound design, the narrative, etc… and put that effort into making it feel like you’re playing a movie. And that’s great too!

Because a narrative has no set structure, and it is up to the game designers to design a game around the story they want to tell, whether it’s a simple one, or a complex one.

And narrative is important, before anyone reading says otherwise. I don’t mean some overarching plot that is epic in scope, or even a storyline with characters, but there does need to be a driving momentum – a reason, a need – to the game. Whether it’s just “to win” in the case of racing games or fighting games, or more complex motivations in an involved RPG, that narrative needs to be there, otherwise why progress to the next race?

And because we are all different people, we react differently to these games, but that doesn’t make one way of presenting a game inherently better or worse than any other.

What we need to start considering, in condemning these game companies for making “cinematic” games, is if the game’s narrative is served well by the form or not.

Not to turn this into a video games are art conversation (that’ll be another time), but that is something that artists do all the time: they spend a lot of time trying to figure out what is the best way to present their work – from the decision to purposefully hang a frame crookedly, to deciding what lens works best for a particular scene, artists struggle with finding the best way to get their ideas across. And when they’re successful, it’s great. But let’s face it, we’ve all seen it fail as well.

In the end, video games will continue to evolve, indie games will continue to influence the industry, and the form of video games we have now will not exist in 10 years, and something new will come along that people will start comparing to video games.

Just remember that video games are really, really, new. And that movies were once compared to plays.

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