Cinema and Deeper Themes in Video Games

If you listen to the gaming industry’s leaders, you will often hear how videogames and movies are beginning to bleed into one another.  They will talk about how cinematic videogames are getting.  How videogames are becoming a great art form where storytelling and gameplay go hand-in-hand.  For the most part, this is true.  Cutscenes are more and more commonplace in games today, professional actors are being hired to voice in-game characters, and even basic games have some element of “story” to explain the existence of the gameplay.  Yet, despite this trend, gaming still lacks a few of the qualities that define its older brother.  Movies (the best ones, anyway) have the ability to provide depth and insight – not just with characters and their development, but with issues and elements of the human condition.  Movies can provide commentary on society.  They can look with approval or with horror at some element of human living.  Films can speak to broader issues, and, ultimately, can cause us, as the audience, to think harder and deeper about these things than we did before we saw them.



"UP" may have been an animated movie, but it dealt with such themes as death, loss, bitterness, letting go, and finding joy. It entertained AND challenged the audience.



At present, few videogames do this.  Sure, a few try with varying degrees of success, but most don’t even bother to attempt it.  Videogames are seen by the majority as a fun pastime that provokes very little thought, even if the professionals want to laud it as a great form of art.  I would argue, however, that art, by virtue of being art, requires provocation of thought.  Whether that thought is entirely on the creator’s end as he seeks to provide a new way of playing something or it is on the recipient’s end as the game makes him think in a different way, videogames must provoke thought if they are to be considered art.  Themes (beyond “the country/world/universe is in peril and you must save it!”) must be dealt with.  Ideas must be explored.  And, in some cases, beliefs must be challenged.


"Uncharted 2" has some of the best storytelling I've ever seen in a videogame, and yet, aside from giving us some fantastic characters and great development, it hardly touches any deeper themes.


Of course, videogames are in a particular category all of their own that makes dealing with complex themes far more difficult.  Videogames are, first and foremost, games.  They are not (no matter how much you try) movies.  If the interactivity is lost, it is no longer a videogame.  The challenge, then, is this: How do you marry the growing cinematic nature of gaming with the continued need to provide fun and compelling gameplay?


"Heavy Rain" was highly cinematic, yet the gameplay looked incredibly boring to me.


(Note: This piece is not saying that all videogames need thematic storytelling to be art. A game can be devoid of any story and still be “art.”  My point is that, if you are going to embrace cinematic storytelling in gaming, you must evoke themes and depth if you want your game, as a whole, to be “artful.”)


The Super Mario Galaxy games are masterful without the need for deep, compelling cinematics


The challenge is made even more difficult when you begin to consider how gameplay may inform the themes or issues you might deal with in your storytelling.  For example, we have the issue of pacifism.  There have been a plethora of movies that deal with the idea of pacifism – for it, against it, or somewhere in between.  Games, however, generally avoid the issue altogether.  After all, most videogames involve gameplay that can be quite violent.  How can you address the issue of pacifism in a cutscene when, one minute later, you’re blowing the heads off enemies with a shotgun?  I recently played the campaign for Battlefield: Bad Company 2.  The storytelling was mediocre and not meant to be deep, but there was a character in the story who claimed to be a pacifist.  Sadly, this stance was only created to provide comic interaction between the pacifist and a character who certainly wasn’t against violence.  By the end of the game, the pacifist was killing people (and quite expertly) along with you and your team.  You could argue that this, in and of itself, is commentary on the issue, but, if it is, it’s not insightful and it only serves to amplify the only stance on this issue we generally see in the videogame community.


Shooters are often guilty of taking a dark subject and stripping it of any thematic depth - content with merely throwing waves of expendable people at you.


There are other times when game creators unsuccessfully try to invoke themes in storytelling that don’t mesh well with the gameplay.  In my review for Metroid: Other M, I stated that “gameplay Samus” felt very different from “cutscene Samus.”  The story designers for Other M attempted to invoke thematic ideas of weakness and insecurity, but these themes were destroyed during gameplay when you saw Samus take out enemies in ways that were often brutal and violent.  I’m not saying that games should avoid violent gameplay in order to better tell stories.  Far from it, in fact.  There are many anti-war movies that are actually very violent in execution.  Does that discredit these movies?  Of course not.  In many cases, these movies are executed in such a way that the violence is seen as a terrible by-product – a realistic result of bad actions.  The difficult part in bringing this facet to videogame storytelling would be in combining the portrayal in both gameplay and story.  In the case of commentary on violence, the challenge would be portraying the violence in such a way that it is not glorifying the violence.  Since gameplay is supposed to be fun, most developers avoid the topic altogether instead of taking on the admittedly strenuous challenge of commentary on war or pacifism.

There are, of course, a handful of exceptions in which videogames do go deeper and provide thought-provoking insight.  The first BioShock game comes readily to mind as one example of a game that overflows with social commentary.  BioShock is a very graphic and gory game, but, at every turn, the violence is depicted as horrible and terrible.  You fight to stay alive, but the violence inflicted throughout your time in Rapture is seen more as a tragedy than as sport.  The creators of BioShock successfully managed to turn your enemies, the Splicers, into people that evoked your pity as you learned more and more about how they destroyed their own lives.  And that’s not even delving into the dystopian themes woven throughout the game.


While not a perfect game, BioShock successfully tapped into larger themes rarely seen in videogames.


Of course, this is merely an example of commentary on violence.  Storytelling can evoke commentary on other themes as well.   Sadly, most videogames simply provide good entertainment without going a whole lot deeper.  As stated earlier, games don’t need storytelling to be “artful,” but, since the growing trend for games is to include storytelling, you might as well do it properly.  Some games are getting better, but there’s still a lot of room for growth.  I don’t envy the task that lies ahead of game designers with this conundrum.  On the one hand, they are challenged to tell better, deeper stories, but, on the other, their gameplay must remain top-notch (and, what’s more, synthesize with the themes of the story).  Anything less, and fewer people will care.

Videogames are becoming more cinematic.  This is fact.  But, in all reality, the marriage of gaming and cinema is still in its infancy.  If videogames are truly to become cinematic, they must invoke deeper, more timeless themes.  They should provide commentary, and they should stir thought.  It may make them more controversial, but that’s part of the beauty of cinema.


~ by digitallysmitten on March 9, 2011.

One Response to “Cinema and Deeper Themes in Video Games”

  1. I will say I enjoyed your read, and while I am generally against the cinematic push in video games, your article did bring up some interesting points.

    And I think my biggest issue with games as movies, is the battle between interactivity and desire. I mean unless you create a nearly linear and rigid experience, video games are experienced differently by everyone who plays them. When you or I sit down to watch a movie, we all see the same film, but what we take away from it may be different. I’m not sure how video games will overcome that hurdle without taking away what makes them video games.

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