The Rise Of Cinematic Games

Over the course of the 20th century, film became the most popular form of narrative storytelling. Comprising dozens of genres and forms, movies could cover any mood and play to any type of audience. They play in giant cinemas and on small screens at the end of your bed. Unlike any other medium, film retained a power and cultural capital through the end of the 20th century that many video game publishers in the infancy of the form desperately craved.

For the most part, people who have made and criticized movies over the last two decades have shared a love of hating on video games and the developers that make them. Critics will use video games as negative analogues when they describe films as too frenetic or emotionally vacant. In fact, the late Roger Ebert once declared that “video games can never be art.”

It should come as no surprise then, that video game developers borrowed from film in order to help popularize the medium, and over the last 15 years, games are now being celebrated for their brilliance in places like the New York Times and Forbes magazine — the very outlets that slammed them in the past.

It was no accident that Sony introduced the PlayStation 3 not only as a game console, but also as the core of home theater. Apart from a way to play triple-A titles, it was also the most affordable option for the new Blu-ray format. The console, according to Sony’s logic, would encourage moviegoers to try video games.

It’s also no accident that Sony used the PS3 to launch its most cinematic franchise — the Uncharted series. Naughty Dog’s Unchartedgames borrowed liberally from the adventure tales told by Republic Pictures in the 1930s. With Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, gamers got to experience a bit of poetic cognitive looping: the young video game medium trying to discover itself by imitating film’s own era of emergent self-discovery. And the marketing worked, as the game not only experienced sales in the millions, but also experienced a cultural renaissance through used copies resurfacing on Kijiji classifieds to recent remastered re-releases.

It may not be surprising that Naughty Dog successfully used the Uncharted games (and their thrilling cinematic action-adventure cutscenes) to focus on the other end of the cinematic spectrum — emotion. The Uncharted games were not particularly deep or coherent in tone, but this is easily forgiven as its inspirations came mostly from cliched action flicks. In comparison, Naughty Dog’s other tremendous offeringThe Last of Usfocused on a story that was resolutely human, a clear evolution from the serial or pulp films of the 30s to the more realistic and heady dramas of the late 20th century.

Most of the most touching dramas of The Last of Us take place in non-interactive scenes, but that didn’t mean that the gameplay wasn’t itself dramatic. The high-pressure stealth sequences combined with the scarcity of the crafting system made the game feel cinematic, and the acting that was captured live in mo-cap sessions between stars Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker rival exchanges on the silver screen.

Now that the Uncharted series has come to a close, it’s hard not to wonder what the next big cinematic effort will be from Naughty Dog or other ambitious game studios. The Last of Us Part 2 promises to deliver more of what made the original great, but to some critics, it feels like there must be more the genre has to offer. Will the video game break free of the ludo-narrative dissonance it often finds itself carting? Will it ever truly be able to capture a universally cinematic feel? We’ll have to stay tuned to find out.