Cinematic elements in popular video games

Narrative techniques becoming increasingly popular

Graphic by Joshua Awolade
Graphic by Joshua Awolade

For many, Feb. 16 2011 will forever be the day that the announcement trailer for the wildly over-anticipated video game Dead Island was released and the result was gamers worldwide losing their minds regarding the heavily emotional trailer. It began with a soft piano score and three minutes of reverse chronological storytelling later, a family of three was desperately fighting for their lives in slow motion at a tropical hotel destination that had been overrun by zombies.

Despite the fact that the game failed to live up to its otherworldly expectations, it garnered the reception of the video game community and recorded nearly 15 million views on YouTube thanks to its cinematic use of editing, musical score and narrative techniques in just a few minutes.

By no means was Dead Island the first game to incorporate these foundational concepts from cinema, but it certainly did so in a manner that drew attention to the growing adaptability of video games to cinema and vice versa, while simultaneously distinguishing video games as an emerging cinematic medium.

It began with Half-Life in 1998, continued with Shadow of the Colossus in 2005, exploded in 2007 with Uncharted, Bioshock and Assassin’s Creed and was fully realized in 2013 with the release of The Last of Us. These games operate within a variety of conventional formats, ranging between first-person shooter to sandbox, also known as open world style role-playing games. However, the universal trait they all share  is a deferral of mindless gaming in favour of the pathos they seek to evoke.

In order to enhance the progression of the video game medium, these games capitalize on the usage of dramatic musical scores, character development, arching storylines and revolutionary graphics for their time to demand the contemplation of audiences regarding their existence as merely a video game.

These games have asked for more than just “shoot ‘em up” in any number of ways. Instead, they have woven narrative into the video game aesthetic, which has lead to a direct appeal to the pathos of the gamer.

Users want something to be at stake in the games that they play, they want to connect with the characters that they inherit, and videogame developers like Ubisoft, Rockstar and Naughty Dog have answered the call with games — place an emphasis on cinematography, storytelling, vivid graphics, dialogue and spectacle-driven cut scenes.

As a result of the efforts exemplified by developers such as these, the world of cinema has taken notice. Mainstream actors now lend themselves to contemporary games like Quantic Dream’s 2013 release Beyond: Two Souls, which drew the involvement of Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe as voice and motion capture actors.

Similarly, due to the inherently cinematic essence that has manifested itself in some of the most successful games of the past ten years, games such as Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed have attracted the names of renowned stars like Bradley Cooper, Nathan Fillion and Michael Fassbender in relation to their scheduled big screen adaptations.

If reports such as these are any indication, the future of increased convergence between videogames and film is increasingly bright and gamers and moviegoers have a lot to look forward to as developers and filmmakers blur the line between the two mediums.


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