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Games On Film: What does 'cinematic' actually mean?

Gaming PR regularly uses the term 'cinematic' to describe its products. But what does this tell us about the way the games industry sees cinema and indirectly, itself?

Xander Markham, Blogger

November 14, 2010

6 Min Read

This isn't going to be a rant about linearity or spectacle over gameplay, or anything like that. Those topics have been covered extensively enough already and at least once by me. I'm quite open in my preference for less linear styles of game and level design, but that doesn't mean that's the only direction I'm hoping the games industry turns towards. During this stage of its adolescence, gaming as a means of creative expression should be focusing all its efforts on what it can do, rather than what it can't.

What has tweaked my interest this week, having recently been hired to write for new community film site Flixist, is the use of the term 'cinematic'. Of course that word has been in the gaming PR lexicon for a long time, but I'd never given it much thought before other than assuming the meaning that the game was desperate to be an action movie. More than likely that's all the PR people are thinking about it to, as an easy point of reference to bring in an audience whose cinematic life has been spent suckling at the teet of Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer. Jesus, that's an ugly image. I'm so very sorry. But moving swiftly on, the question I've been thinking about is what the use of this term says about the way the games industry views the film industry and indirectly, itself.

The curious thing is that in financial terms, the games industry has absolutely no need to try and leech audiences from Hollywood blockbusters. Gaming is by all accounts blowing cinema out of the water right now as the preferred entertainment medium for this generation of 16-35 year olds. Call of Duty: Black Ops sold in the region of 5.5 million copies on its first night, bringing in about $360m for publisher Activision and making it the biggest entertainment launch in history. Even the biggest films can't come close to that in a single day and remain considerably more costly to produce. Games made from popular movie licences do not have a particularly good record of either critical or financial success, with even big names like James Bond failing to bring his film (or literary) audience with him. Many have turned a profit, but the big gaming success stories – with the possible exception of the N64's GoldenEye 007 – have all come from IPs unique to the medium.

But the games industry continues to hold a 'me too' complex, trying to sell its products on consumers' familiarity with another medium rather than another game, or perpetually returning to that bottomless pit of whether a game can ever be art and what it need to do to get there. Part of that might be a familiar case of creative envy: it's a strange condition that even the most successful figures in creative industries have a reluctance to completely sit back on their laurels even though there's little guaranteed financial incentive to do anything else. Television, for example, has by now worked out that formula shows like American Idol, 24 and Big Bang Theory are as close to sure-fire successes as will ever be found and yet while those formats do get regularly recycled, shows like Mad Men and Community still get on the air (and producers like Mitchell Hurwitz find investment for new projects based on tiny-rated cult classics such as Arrested Development) despite only drawing a fraction of the numbers that a more mainstream-friendly show might attract.

For its gargantuan financial success, the games industry still can't break free of the perception that it only really produces one kind of experience for one kind of person. Black Ops may be raking in the cash, but its lustily gratuitous use of violence and gore won't be challenging those ideas anytime soon. Mario might be the industry's most long-held pop-cultural icon, but his games are most commonly associated in the non-gaming adult mind as a childhood memory, something that is inevitably grown out of, rather than the Disney classics which were aimed at children but are seen as intelligent and sophisticated enough to still be respected by adults as well. Until gaming manages to find its breakout story, that can be experienced equally be all and prove that it can do a creative experience as well as the other media but in its own distinctive way, then that 'me too' complex might prove a difficult mindset to escape.

I doubt that the majority of gamers care much about whether their medium is culturally respectable or not – if reaction to the Wii's mainstream success is anything to judge by, the opposite might even be true – but as a young industry striving to cement its place in the entertainment world, there's a strong business incentive to help it get there too. After all, if gaming can already pull a $360m launch day out of its hat, imagine the sorts of figures it would get if the medium received the same sort of coverage as the others. Black Ops' launch was a big event for gamers, but didn't exactly receive prime coverage in newspapers and magazines. Despite having the likes of Sam Worthington and Gary Oldman providing voice talent, the only 'celebrities' who turned up were strictly lower tier. Yet over in London, the premiere of the new Harry Potter movie was making headlines and even had famous faces not involved with the movie keen to be seen on its red carpet. There are no highly watched television shows dedicated to games or respected gaming writers à la Roger Ebert, and star names of Steven Spielberg or JK Rowling's stature have yet to be found. Gaming sections in magazine and newspaper entertainment pullouts rarely stretch to half a page, whereas film and literature and theatre often take up several in addition to being the focus of the writers' features.

Is all of that just a case of my reading something into nothing? Maybe. It is a wet Sunday afternoon here in Blighty and wet Sunday afternoons do have a tendency to bring out the cod philosopher in me. But even if this is a case of a cigar just being a cigar (thanks Sigmund) and the use of the term 'cinematic' really is just analogue to 'action movie-like experience', that still says something about the low standards to which the games industry seems to be holding itself. Action scenes are great for sure, but cinema can be emotionally and intellectually stimulating in so many incredible ways that for the games industry to only be able to equate itself with that single slither of such an immense and varied medium has a sadness of its own. If games are to try and use the term 'cinematic' as a status symbol, perhaps their definition will one day grow to include stimulating writing, high creative standards and a broad range of experiences that gives all audiences something to engage with. But of course the final irony will be that the day gaming deserves to call itself cinematic will also be the day it no longer needs to.

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