Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Things to Come

Videogames are not cinematic and they will never be.

I’m not saying this because I hate these so-called “cinematic” videogames, or because I’m a ludologist who cares only about mechanics and gameplay – quite the contrary, I prefer my videogames with story, and it’s quite difficult for me to write purely about gameplay, without the support of a fiction. It’s not even the gamer in me who’s speaking, but the film lover, which I am first and foremost: calling cut-scenes heavy, high production value and story-centric videogames “cinematic” demonstrates a profound lack of respect for what cinema really is. I think I’ve said it before: I’m coming to videogames through the “video” angle more than the “game” itself, so my take on this is slightly different than the usual one. In general, we complain about this cinematic leaning in recent videogames because it implies a loss of interactivity, a simplification, or even a rarefaction, of the rules of the game, to which the designers substitute a more classical, linear narration upon which the player has almost no control. This is true, of course, but really, most of the time, I don’t mind; it makes for a different experience, less “gamey” maybe, but it can be compelling and meaningful nonetheless.

But when I’m saying that videogames can never be cinematic, I’m thinking about images, not interaction: I’m an old-school cinephile, already nostalgic for the disappearing celluloid, and a bazinian at heart, so essentially I think it’s impossible to emulate cinema through computer-generated imagery. I’m well aware that what we mean by “cinematic” in videogames is related to the use of camera angles, movement, staging, lighting, etc., and not to the way the images are produced, but it’s a superficial understanding of cinema visual language, as if the content of the images and their ethical relation to reality was insignificant, when actually it is where the very essence of cinema lies. For sure, our conception of cinema has drastically changed in the last twenty years and CGI is pretty much a part of cinema language now, so it may seem foolish or backward-thinking to dismiss everything CGI-related in the name of some pure idea of what cinema once was. Well, I’m not dismissing CGI per se (it is not “evil” or inherently bad), but rather its current use and confusion with cinema. CGI and cinema are too different in essence to be considered as similar means of expression: while an artist working in cinema has to use the real world as his first (or even only) expressive material, CGI is similar to painting or animation in that the artist has to create from scratch everything he wants to represent. How can videogames be “cinematic” when computer-generated imagery is closer in spirit to painting and animation than traditional photographic cinema?

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Tomb Raider (2013): Surviving a Tutorial

I started to play the new Tomb Raider recently and as I already knew the first hour or so is a series of non-ending QTEs. And as I already knew too, the brand new Lara Croft is represented as vulnerable and terrified as opposed to our usual invincible arrogant hero. What I didn’t know, though (but should have guessed), is that these two elements are quite contradictory: simply put, a hand-holding, heavily scripted, QTEfest’s tutorial does not convey, at all, vulnerability and terror. There was not one moment during that whole sequence where I felt vulnerable because everything was so scripted and pre-determined that nothing seemed threatening. At least not to me as a player: I was watching a vulnerable character, yes, but I sure wasn’t playing one. In fact, the few moments I was playing, in control of Lara, I was just like the usual invincible confident hero I played before in every other third-person action game – I mean, how can I fail at pressing W? I know where the W key is after all. Pressing W for half-an-hour can feel meaningful when playing Proteus, because this minimalism suits the contemplative experience the game offers, but it doesn’t work as well when you’re running to get out of a cave which is falling around you: the triviality and impossible-to-fail action of pressing W just doesn’t match the representation of chaos and imminent threat on the screen. 

The opening sequence of Tomb Raider (the first twenty minutes in particular) is as bad a case of ludonarrative dissonance as it can get, cramming in as few minutes as possible all the biggest problems with how AAA videogames envision interactive storytelling nowadays, which is a bit sad because the intentions were good (I want to play a vulnerable character for a change) and the writing is above average, for the most part, so let’s honor this eloquent case study by taking it apart.