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The quest for more cinematic games is turning into a huge commercial prospect. To continue its development, the games industry needs to broaden its audience into new segments, including casual gamers and women who are not generally attracted to current videogame offerings. Luring them requires gameplay that takes its cues from what they already know: cinema and literature. This article offers a few tips for designing games that look and feel like movies.

June 15, 2001

21 Min Read

Author: by Joël Meziane

The quest for more cinematic games is turning into a huge commercial prospect. To continue its development, the game industry needs to broaden its audience to include new segments, like casual gamers and women who are not generally attracted to current videogame offerings. Luring them requires gameplay that takes its cues from what they already know: cinema and literature.

Many people believe that games will never be able to tell a story the way a movie or a novel does, largely because interactivity limits the control a scriptwriter has over the story. This article argues that the games are very close to recreating the experience of watching a movie and offers a few tips for designing games that capture the look and feel of the cinema.

Creating a Cinematic Experience

The defining traits of fiction —theme, characters, script and production— are well known. These traits are common to any fiction, whether a novel, a play, or a motion picture. The idea of production might be most closely related to the worlds of cinema and theater, but is also appropriate when speaking of a book. A writer employs techniques such as the choice of words, the styling of phrases and the structure of the narrative to unfold a story. The same techniques employed by directors and screenwriters to captivate the audience are perfectly adaptable to video games.

How can games replicate the ambiance, the tension and the sustained pace of a good piece of fiction? What's the missing link? It's production, coupled with an appropriate game design.

Game developers can borrow the film director's know-how to improve the choice of cameras, the editing and in the end the overall credibility of the game's universe. There are elements of game design that allow a fusion between gameplay and movie-like content. Finally, game designers need to understand the defining traits of fiction and how they can be adapted to a game.


Luring players in requires gameplay that takes its cues from what they already know: cinema and literature.

The Choice of Shots
Shots are at the heart of producing any visual work. The choice of shots is a way of bringing out what is important in the unfolding story. An encompassing wide shot provides a good understanding of the environment —or illustrates a character's isolation. On the other hand, a close-up reinforces the viewer's connection with the character and highlights a character's emotions. A close-up also builds anxiety, as the viewer is unable to observe surrounding developments. Some shots have specialized functions, such as using zooms or traveling shots to portray motion.

Some shots are not always suitable for gameplay. The challenge lies in reconciling the player's comfort with movie-style cameras. There are three approaches that can help reconcile shot control with player control:

  1. The player briefly loses control of his character while the "director" brings up a movie-like shot unsuitable for gameplay. For instance, if a camera used to portray a section of the décor obstructs the player from controlling the character, the software takes over and moves the character automatically. The player is deprived of control for a very short time, but enjoys superb camera position.

  2. Instead of guiding the character, gameplay consists of issuing orders that the character carries out on its own. The "how-to-win" technique only requires correct tactical decisions. This approach has been successfully tried in Shenmue. This way a game may employ movie techniques never before used in games because actual control of the character is not an issue.

  3. Where the character's nimbleness is not a priority, the game may employ cameras that would otherwise be impractical for gameplay. This technique is used in Silent Hill. In the footpaths that open the game, the player does nothing but advance the character. The cameras deployed along the path provide a particularly permeating environment.


Editing is the least understood aspect of a director's know-how. Still, editing may be the most important ingredient for bringing personality to a movie.

A number of editing techniques can be adapted to game creation while preserving true gameplay.

  1. Frequent use of cut scenes throughout the game. These brief scenes are inserted in the fabric of the movie or game; they introduce a character, present an important object or action, etc. These landmark moments set the pace as they generate new turns and feed new information to the viewer. A good editor will insert enough sequences to sustain viewers' attention. In a game, cut scenes make a perfect addition to a high-paced game level. The trick is to design the both cut scene sequences and the gameplay in parallel with the script.

  2. Changes of camera shots essentially allow a visual diversity and thus stimulate the audience's attention. Framing can also highlight a location, a character, an object or event. Different shots can help lead to solutions that reconcile gameplay and the use of movie-like scenes.

  3. The use of shortcuts avoids tedious movements that break up the pace and bring nothing to the gameplay. These shortcuts may be part of the script or left to the player's discretion. Metal Gear Solid proved the validity of this approach by allowing characters to jump to a distant location by sliding into crates.

  4. Context-linked music themes or special sound effects. Indeed, editing involves not only the image but the sound dimension too. Never underestimate the descriptive power of sound. Sound design is one aspect of videogame design that is likely to undergo the most serious development in the years to come.


Metal Gear Solid made use of shortcuts to avoid tedious movements that break up the pace and bring nothing to the gameplay.

A Credible Universe

It is essential to build a believable environment. Can you expect the viewer to become immersed in a story if characters and décor "aren't right"? There are several key aspects of a videogame that require particular attention if a designer wants to make the universe credible:

  1. Character animations must be consistent with the environment. A character that is directed into a wall shouldn't uselessly stomp on the spot. It would make much more sense if the character would simply halt. When an obstacle gets in the way, the character should understand that it needs to jump over or go around, as characters do in Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The player controls the character, but the character should have enough intelligence to adapt its movements to the environment. In Metal Gear Solid 2, a pursued Snake jumps down flights of stairs in order to escape more quickly.


    The character must understand that it needs to jump over or go around, as characters do in Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

  2. Décor must be credible and detailed. In visual terms, credible décor must include all the little details that make things feel "real." In Alone In The Dark: The New Nightmare, we stuffed in all the objects and decorative elements the player expects to see: gardening tools next to the greenhouse, clothes inside the house, etc. And if we really need our décors to look real, why not use existing, real-world locations?

  3. Nature hates uniformity. Another way to create a more credible universe is to avoid repetition and uniformity. Take a look through your window and you'll notice that buildings come in different styles. That's because they were not built at the same time. People in the street don't look the same either. They wear all manner of clothes and come different sizes and shapes. They don't walk at the same pace, either. This is real life.

  4. Think "sound" first. Before ever viewing a location, we perceive it through sound. In a game, the sound is very often mixed in as an added ingredient, even though it is often what gives the environment most of its flavor. When the character advances along a road, for example, the player shouldn't hear the same sound over and over. It is the random nature of sounds that delivers a lively universe.

  5. Backgrounds peppered with oddities. Nothing gives more personality to a room or a building then a detail that you have not seen before. It could be as simple as an ashtray with a smoking cigar butt, a piece of equipment you expect to find in the type of room you visit, music coming out of a radio, etc.

  6. A universe in movement. Simple things can be animated to give an amazing sense of life to a background. Think of the powerful effect of the flying curtains in Clive Barker's Undying or the dead leaves blown away by the wind in Hexen. In a street, a few cars zooming by, fans slowly rotating in a wharehouse, a flock of birds flying in the distance, etc.

  7. The behavior of villains or computer-controlled characters characters should be as realistic as possible. Rather than relying on flawless AI, the script must provide a proper introduction and strong behavior rules for these characters. Enemies in Soldier of Fortune move around, take shelter and engage in combat in a life-like fashion. Guards in Metal Gear Solid are animated in a way that gives them extraordinary presence: they stretch out, stop to look around, and generally behave in a realistic fashion. Guards in Thief: The Dark Project talk to each other and change tones when they spot suspicious activity. All these behavioral details encourage us to believe in characters encountered during the game. Features like these can make enemies seem deadlier and allies friendlier.

  8. Subjective view should be avoided as much as possible. Subjective views can damage a game's cinematic dimension, but such technique can be required at certain points during the game. A rifle scope or a TV monitor are good ways to integrate such a point of view in a movie-like video game. In this regard, controlling the sniper in Hitman is reasonably true to life: the cross-hairs move in step with the character's breathing and we can see the impact of bullets as they strike a target.

  9. Blows taken by characters must be credible. It is preferable to make the enemy very weak rather than enabling our hero to take an absurd number of hits.

  10. Appropriate Game Design

    There is one essential requirement in game design: it must make room for the principles described in the first parts of this article.

    There is a persistent belief in the industry that a game's lifespan is of primary importance. In reality, a vast majority of players never even finish a game. A number of factors explain this phenomenon. First, products that provide a rigid gameplay style end up wearying the player. Furthermore, once the player masters the controls of a particular game, the challenge is gone, and so is the interest. Many more players will abandon a game when they run into a puzzle or point that they find impossible to overcome.

    Game authors should, therefore, concentrate on creating no more than fifteen hours of gameplay and instead focus on quality. Once the game is finished, the player might end up craving for more, but that will only build momentum for a sequel. Nevertheless, where a game's life must be extended using the same pool of resources (décors, characters, etc.), there are many ways to ensure its replayability.


    Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force demonstrates excellent use of cinematics.

    The following mechanisms form the foundation of solid game design:

  11. A linear game architecture that guides the player, but still leaves freedom of action. This game structure is increasingly common in action titles. Medal Of Honor, Clive Barker's Undying and Metal Gear Solid are built in this way. The player is not searching for the path. On the other hand, he gets to decide how to handle arising difficulties. Events are therefore perfectly integrated into the script and the pace of adventure is easily controlled.

  12. A harmonious fusion between action and narration. The story and the script are the framework around which the adventure develops. This framework supplies the events that set the pace and keep the reader or viewer spellbound. This is what gives sense to the action. For a videogame to attain a genuine cinema dimension, narrative sections must not be shoehorned between two action scenes; they must be part of the scenes themselves. Traditional level-based game architecture needs serious rethinking. Events, new characters or pieces of information must be slipped in continuously. The excellent Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force demonstrates how inserting numerous cinematic sequences into the adventure can accomplish this goal. Narration is what draws the player into the story. It is therefore essential that information is delivered to the player at a regular interval. A common mistake is providing the player with too much information at once. Game designers often forget that a player has much less knowledge of the underlying story than they do. Swamped in information he cannot comprehend, the player ceases to pay attention and misses the point altogether.

  13. A rich story relies on sudden new turns rather than complexity. Avoid complicated stories containing too many sub-plots. A player will quickly lose bearings amidst the confusion.

  14. Pay great attention to secondary characters. They have a critic function in a story. They supply motivation to the hero, bring personality and life to the world created by the author and are often the best way to introduce new developments. In terms of gameplay, these characters also lend themselves to multiple uses: they may help the player by guiding him across a maze or fighting by his side, they may be temporarily incarnated by the player, or may die for the player so that our hero can stay alive and well.

  15. Create varied and mixed actions. Throughout an action sequence in a movie, the hero will not perform a single task, such as just shooting. For instance, in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, when Indiana Jones sets off in pursuit of the Nazis carrying the ark of the covenant, he engages in hand to hand combat with soldiers and drives a truck. These two actions are mixed. Such architecture is perfectly possible in a game's action sequence. Suppose the hero is pursued by assassins. The hero shoots back at the approaching pack. Suddenly, an ambushed villain jumps out and the player tackles him in close combat. Or perhaps he might steal a car. Such a succession of varied actions can be playable — given a common interface.

  16. Change the viewing mode with the gameplay. While moving or exploring, use a third person view. In this mode, the director places the camera as he deems appropriate. Play with camera positions to determine the best angle for each event. When the player drives a vehicle or looks through a scope, a first person view is in order. And in close action sequences, a succession of close-up cameras will preserve control over a scene while ensuring the benefits of a second person view. In this mode, the camera is "attached" to the character and follows it, most often providing a view from the rear. Made popular by Tomb Raider, this viewing mode provides much playing comfort but is quite tedious. It still works well if used sparingly in movie-like games. Lastly, the camera used in ONI is an interesting compromise between third and second person view, but its use in the heat of action may be confusing for some players.


    In the second person view, popularized by Tomb Raider, the camera is "attached" to the character and follows it, most often providing a view from the rear.

  17. Include a mechanism allowing the player to continue in spite of deadlocks. Difficulties in a game are meant for playing enjoyment, not frustration. The goal is to convey the fullness of adventure to the player. A number of mechanisms can be used to help the player get over a particularly challenging sequence. A clue to the mystery may be supplied to the player as it happens in Byzantine: The Betrayal. A secondary character may step in to help the player out of trouble (killing an annoying villain, for instance). When the software detects the player is in difficulty, it may adjust game settings to render villains weaker or fewer. In extreme cases, the software may allow the player to skip the sequence altogether. A short footage or a voice-off monologue will then explain what has been missed. In Alone In The Dark: The New Nightmare we use two complementary methods. First, the player has access to his character's notebook, which automatically records any element conducive to understanding the story: the narrative, various encounters, etc. Solutions to many puzzles are found here. The player can also use his radio to call the second character. When the software detects the player is jamlocked, a help message fitting the context—and often full of wits—is displayed.

  18. Manage the hero's death realistically. Nothing is more unrealistic that seeing the hero take in an unlikely number of hits without skipping a beat. To be credible, the hero needs to be fragile. Rather, a game is balanced by rendering villains less resilient. They may have poor eye sight or move around slowly, as in Medal Of Honor. They take hits even more badly than our hero. They can also flee. Why not have more than one hero? Only one need survive.

The Defining Traits of Fiction: Theme, Characters, Script, Production

Theme is the cornerstone of any fiction. It is the underlying structure that sustains production. It dictates the way a film is edited, the choice of décor, the music and the actors' performance. An action film is edited in an entirely different way than a love story.

Characters are the second defining trait of a fiction. It is often a character devoid of personality or acting in a less credible manner that creates a less immersive environment. A fiction enables the viewer to live the adventure by proxy. When the character or characters are overly simplified, the viewer is unable to plunge into the story. The fiction then becomes a string of images viewed with a weary eye.

The script is the roadmap of any fiction: it brings about the principal characters and events, sets the pace, and ensures that the reader or viewer receives the essential pieces of information as the story unfolds. The script should also minimize idle time and keep the audience alert at all times. These are the script-writer's primary tasks.

The final production should combine theme, characters, and script into a realistic and immersive environment. Nowadays, it has become possible to adapt these characteristics to interactive entertainment. Countless video games are out there to prove it.

Successful adventure video games are most often characterized by a strong and clearly discernible theme. The Resident Evil series has an obvious horror movie theme. Metal Gear Solid puts the player in the shoes of a spec-ops soldier. In Spycraft, we discover equipment and investigation techniques used by the CIA.

Gradually, genuine characters have started to emerge, complete with motivations and a full-blown personality. Shenmue is the most accomplished example: the cast is not merely a collection of comic book characters but individuals endowed with credible motivation and behavior. The player is able to relate to the character he impersonates, Ryo, whose father had been killed before his very eyes, because he acts and behaves in the same way that we do. Even Lan Di, the villain responsible for his father's death, is credible as he speaks and acts like a gang leader, without exaggeration but cruel and scornful of his enemies. Some older games, like Under a Killing Moon, have also introduced engaging characters like Tex Murphy, the disillusioned yet big-hearted detective.


Shenmue's storyline is supported by its strong characters.

The script is the one part of fiction that is easiest to translate to a video game. As a paradox, very few games enjoy a script that meets the aforementioned criteria. There are some notable exceptions, however, such as Circle of Blood and Broken Sword: The Smoking Mirror. In these games, the script begins by tossing the player into a mystery that becomes more dense as the plot progresses. The player finds himself sunk in ever more questions. He is hooked and eager to find answers. Then, shreds of answers start making their way into the plot. Sudden new turns and informative elements come up in intelligent ways. The story is no longer a mere coating for gameplay, but becomes a major source of gaming enjoyment, next to gameplay itself.

Finally, games such as Silent Hill or Metal Gear Solid boast an excellent use of cinematics to create drama. Many of us have been impressed by the intro to Silent Hill. A music theme with building intensity, a progressive change of lighting and the use of rolls in some sequences bear witness to a consummate art of production. In an altogether different way, Metal Gear Solid provides excellent sequences such as the helicopter take-off scene early in the game, or the first encounter between Snake and Sniper Wolf. In both cases, the choice of cameras, the background animation and the sound setting live up to genuine cinema productions.


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