Mortal Konflict: Cinematic vs. Interactive

The Fluid Line Between Films and Video Games

By Abdul Rehman Siddiqui

Similar scenes from the video game Stranglehold and the movie Hard Boiled.

Stranglehold, a video game from Midway Games, was dubbed an “interactive sequel” to John Woo’s classic film Hard Boiled. At the same time, some people called it a “Max Payne rip-off.”

But the Max Payne video game franchise mainly took its inspiration from two sources: the stylistic “bullet time” action sequences made famous by the film The Matrix and the gun fights that made a star of John Woo, a veteran of Hong Kong cinema.

Such is the complex relationship between video games and cinema. What’s most intriguing is that as video games increasingly influence cinema, they themselves become more cinematic and risk losing their identity as an interactive medium of entertainment.

In recent years, Hollywood studios have purchased an increasing number of video game licenses for reinterpretation on the big screen. As of May 2009, nearly 70 films based on video games were in some stage of development, and about 30 adaptations of video games had made it to the screen worldwide since 1980.

Nearly 15 years since the release of Super Mario Bros., the first major motion picture based on a video game, it’s hard to find a game-to-film adaptation that hasn’t garnered mostly, and in some cases universally, negative reviews.

So what motivates producers to keep investing in these video games? Simply put, profit.

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Pokemon: The First Movie and Mortal Kombat, all movies based on video game franchises, had aggregate ratings from critics of 19 percent, 15 percent and 24 percent (100 percent representing rave reviews), yet they made $129 million, $85 million and $70 million, respectively.

Hollywood aside, an intriguing phenomenon is shaking up the video game industry. By extending the length of cinematic sequences that require either little or no player interaction, game makers are blurring the line between video games and films. For many developers, the goal has always been to make the experience as realistic as possible. Recently, however, the emphasis has shifted to immersion rather than interaction. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, for example, was hailed as a masterpiece and the “killer application” for Sony’s Playstation 3. What’s most interesting about this game by Hideo Kojima Productions is that the cinematic sequences, known as “cut scenes,” often extend 30 minutes in length. Another example is the multimillion-dollar hit, Gears of War 2.

While the cut scenes are not as long as those found in Metal Gear Solid 4, they still make up a considerable percentage of the game and have noticeably increased since the release of the original Gears of War in 2006. The result is that the final product, while demanding more audience input than a movie, reduces player interaction.

This shift reflects technological advances. Cut scenes once used to be the only way to show off the animation technology of computers. Now, other advances in technology, such as the set of video game development tools titled the Unreal Engine, allow the entire game to have that movie-like realism, and cut scenes are used to further a story line.

Brian Akaka, marketing director for Freeverse Games (Flick Fishing, Burning Monkey Casino), explains that trying to make games as immersive as possible “sometimes involves having the players take a step back.”

Not everyone likes this approach. “There should be a stoppage point” when it comes to placing cut scenes in a video game, says Mohammed Saad Malik, of Staten Island, known to the online video gaming community by his Xbox Live User I.D. “Killa Thumbs.”

Malik says he enjoys the in-game cinematic sequences because they allow for the introduction of characters and plot twists, but that he doesn’t like their duration. Speaking about Metal Gear Solid 4, Malik says, “By 2015, they won’t even be video games. They will be movies on the run.”

On another note, gamer Steven Popper, a student at Stony Brook University known as “p0Pp88” to other gamers, says he likes longer cut scenes when appropriate. Popper claims that lengthy cut scenes work fine in a slower-paced, story-oriented game but in faster-action games chop up the pace too much.

As video games try to imitate the look and feel of Hollywood, actors such as Russell Wong, Jet Li, Samuel L. Jackson and Chow Yun-Fat are lending their personalities, voices and, occasionally, digitally captured motion to these cut scenes. Wong appeared as Nick Kang in True Crime: Streets of LA, Li played Kit Yun in Rise to Honor, Jackson provided the voice for Officer Frank Tenpenny in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and Chow Yun-Fat reprised his role as Inspector Tequila in John Woo’s Stranglehold.

While fans may criticize games for these lengthy cut scenes, the games still sell – in fact, some of them are among the best-selling games in the world. Metal Gear Solid 4 sold 1.3 million copies on its first day.

Critical and commercial success aside, the video game industry itself seems to be seeking more interaction. Some games tend to place just one or two cut scenes in the entire game and let the rest consist of pure gameplay, such as the immensely successful World of Warcraft and Super Mario Galaxy. And some games, such as God of War and Resident Evil 4, require timed button presses for even cut scenes to take place properly, and missing a timed button press results in a failure to complete the cut scene. Finally, games such as Half-Life 2 and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion advance the story without cut scenes, instead having most actions occur while the player still has complete control over the character.

Whether they are the dominant approach yet, these “cinematic video games” are increasingly visible. Akaka argues that video games are not diminished but rather are more likely to gain influence through such techniques.

“I’m not saying video games are lacking in artistic quality,” says Akaka, “but in terms of cultural influence, they still have a long ways to go.”