PIXELS AND MOVING IMAGES: ATTACK OF THE CINEMATIC

Video games- these were once thought of as solely the preserve of pubescent 15 year old boys and socially inept older men still living with their parents and smelling vaguely of oxtail soup.

Nowadays, we know this to be an out-dated stereotype. Games are more mainstream than they’ve ever been, and healthy sales and revenues – rivalling even Hollywood - will attest to this. Video games are more polished, more diverse and more exciting than they’ve ever been.

So why aren’t their often brilliant narratives being taken as seriously as those found in films yet?

Well traditionally, video games just didn’t do storytelling very well. Arguably the most successful games franchise of all time has never spent more than five minutes in the boardroom figuring out its narrative – big lizard captures princess, portly plumber with a penchant for ‘shrooms runs to her rescue. That’s lunch.

Let’s be honest, the only way to go from there was up. But recently, gaming narratives have reached new and lofty heights of intelligence and sophistication that previously could only have been dreamed of. In part this is down to the big zero-gravity moon-steps forward in technology (I’ll come to that later), but it’s also in response to an increasingly savvy and discerning audience- for whom brainless running and gunning in the likes of Call Of Duty or Halo Reach just aren’t stimulating enough anymore.

The fact that games still haven’t gotten the balance between gameplay and storytelling right yet might have something to do with the limitations that one invariably places upon the other. In order to keep the pace and energy of a great narrative, gameplay must often be limited – sending the player down a linear corridor, with little to no available exploration space or incentive to go anywhere else. Or, in order to set up exposition, story-heavy games will bombard the player with one lengthy cutscene after another, until they begin to wonder if they’re ever actually going to get to play anything. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Hideo Kojima…)

Conversely, simplicity is often the mark of great gameplay – one need look no further than Mario again for proof of this. Or, if you do need to look further, how about Tetris, Pac Man or that old snake game on your mobile phone.  As simple as they come, yet utterly addictive. The Legend of Zelda series is a little more complex than any of these, yet how many of us can actually say we cared about rescuing the eponymous princess? Or even knew what was going on half the time? Sometimes, the lack of a story can be a bit of a blessing in disguise; games you don’t need to think about too much are great pick up and play fodder.

However, there are two recent titles that not only buck this trend, but have the potential to change the landscape of the games industry entirely. The first is Portal 2 – a staggeringly smart game that exudes more wit, charm and darkly sweet humour than anything else on the entertainment market, be it a film, book , TV show or anything else remotely culturally significant. Developers Valve took a simple tale and simple gameplay mechanics (test subject Chell escapes from scientific facility using only a portal gun that creates inter-spatial tunnels between flat surfaces) and with these basic elements made a beautifully immersive experience with stellar voice acting and genuinely challenging puzzles. It helped that they had the vocal talents of British institution Stephen Merchant and film/TV favourite J.K Simmons, but the pitch perfect script – telling you just enough but never cramming exposition down your throat – helped rogue A.I. GLaDOS steal the show. A lack of cutscenes is both welcoming and telling - the narrative shines but never takes the focus away from gameplay. Rather, it enhances the experience and encourages your exploration and lateral thinking.

The other more recent and perhaps even more filmic title that bridges that gap between games and cinema is L.A. Noire. Developed by Team Bondi (no, not Rockstar – they polished and published it) this hybrid of a game is set in the police department of a 1940’s – you guessed it – Los Angeles. It plays almost like a cross between last year’s hugely successful ‘interactive movie’ Heavy Rain and Rockstar’s massive franchise GTA. However, fans of GTA expecting more of the same will be left disappointed – it’s much more of a ‘thinking’ game than those titles. L.A. Noire is actually not unlike early point-and-click adventures like Monkey Island – rather than mindlessly plugging headshots, you have to fully explore your environment.

L.A Noire’s biggest achievement though is with its facial recognition technology, which takes motion capture to a whole new level. The main character is Cole Phelps, played by Aaron Staton, best known as Ken Cosgrove from Mad Men. He’s instantly recognisable in his role here; not just from his voice or face, but also in his facial mannerisms. L.A. Noire marks the rise in credibility of not only voice acting in games, but face acting too. This, coupled with a plot to match any of AMC’s output, a feature sized cast and its lengthy IMDB page, marks L.A. Noire out as a monumental leap forward in cinematic gaming. Could it be that gaming is finally about to be accepted by the masses as a real, credible entertainment industry in its own right? One with stories that stand the test of time and stay with you after you’ve turned the console off. It’s possible; we’ve just taken our first step.

Before the next Call Of Duty knocks us back two steps, of course…

ARTICLE BY AOIFE WILSON FOR GINX TV