The Word of the Day
In an industry that seems to need a new buzzword every few years, it's never really a surprise when you hop from meeting to meeting and hear the same phrases over and over again. At E3 2009, the big word is "cinematic", as in "cinematic experience" or "cinematic dialog" or just plain "cinematic game."
So apparently games are movies again. But, depending on the game and the approach, "cinematic" has taken on a wealth of meanings.
Bioware's Mass Effect 2 is the most cinematic. It's cast as a trilogy, has a strong script and compelling protagonist. And we in the media got to see a lot of cutscenes. In fact, judging by the ratio of game action and talky bits on display, ME2 is as close to being a playable movie as any game can get.
Supreme Commander 2, a brawny real time strategy game (one of very few on display at E3) has a story based campaign that Gas Powered Games compares to Saving Private Ryan. For GPG's Chris Taylor, a strategy campaign needs characters and personalities to draw you into the world that is around you and your units.
WET from Artificial Mind and Movement, however, uses cinematic in the sense of appearance - it's a stylized spaghetti western filtered through the action lens of John Woo. The protagonist earns "style points" for acrobatic kills that look good on screen no matter how impractical they would be for an assassin. How many spinning dual wielding ass-kicking gunfights can you have in a single room? More than you would think.
The flexibility of the term speaks to both the power of film and the versatility of game designers. Many seem to make games based on the types of movies they want to star in. But make the actions too film-like and you risk pulling the player out of the game and into your vanity production. How far can an RPG or shooter push the movie analogy before it becomes a series of short action sequences interspersed with the epic story that the designer wants to tell?
The tension between gameplay, story and graphics in design is not new. And even as everyone becomes cinematic, we can take comfort in that the adjective turns out to be as vague and useless a descriptor as every other buzzword. The question is not whether games want to look like movies, but which parts of movies can be well integrated into a game.