Friday, November 12, 2010

The Post-Cinematic Experience

Hollywood has always been on the lookout for the next big thing. Talkies, Technicolor, widescreen format; the film industry has evolved admirably, but like all evolving things, it has suffered some stumbles along the way (does anyone from the 60’s remember Smell-O-Vision?). High-definition digital projection and 3-D are the latest crazes, with Hollywood thrusting nearly every film into viewers’ faces whether the film warrants 3-D effects or not. Hollywood strives to be at the center of cultural entertainment, but interestingly, we are currently in the middle of an entertainment revolution that Hollywood has little to do with.

The Post-Cinematic Experience has arrived, and as its name suggests, it isn’t happening in movie theaters. The groundbreaking entertainment sensation that studio execs have only dreamed of is being played out, both literally and figuratively, on video game consoles.

It took roughly 30 years for video games to evolve to this level, but the distance covered in that brief time span is mind-boggling. A medium that started humbly with addictive games like Pong and Pacman has since brought powerful and beautiful storytelling, grand in themes and scope. For those of you who are unaware of the sophistication of modern video games, take three minutes to watch this in-game cutscene from a 2010 release, Final Fantasy XIII. This clip lasts three minutes, though the game contains 10 hours of such cutscenes spread throughout the experience. Increase the visual quality as high as your computer can handle (up to 720p), put it in full screen, and crank up the sound. Go ahead; I’ll wait.

It’s even more impressive in full 1080p HD and 7.1 DTS surround. Those who lost track after Tetris are understandably amazed, but avid gamers might wonder why I didn’t choose other scenes from other games, such as Metal Gear Solid 4 or Uncharted 2. You see, the visual grandeur and emotional storytelling glimpsed above aren’t anomalies; they are more and more becoming the norm for the industry. Five movies’-worth of gorgeous footage combined with 25-movies’-worth of interactive time where you control the characters and participate in the action yourself; if that’s not a Post-Cinematic Experience, I don’t know what is.

A bit of history ... The first time I remember feeling that a video game had transcended its origins and become art was in 1993 when I first played MYST. The beauty of the game’s visual and sound design was unprecedented, as was its simplicity. There was no health gauge, no fighting, no way to die at all, actually. Your only tasks were to explore the world on your own time and use your mind to solve the mysteries around you. Word of mouth on the game was so strong that MYST even helped sell CD-ROM drives, as many computers didn’t have them at the time of MYST’s release. People of all ages were entranced by the experience.

MYST came along at an awkward time for gaming - something akin to puberty. Computers were capable of rendering beautiful 3D environments, but consoles were stuck offering side-scrolling platformers with 16-bit graphics. The late-90’s saw consoles begin to catch up, and in 1997, Final Fantasy VII (a release for both the PC and the Sony Playstation) gave what many still consider to be one of the most shocking plot-twists ever in a game (consider this your spoiler warning, as much as a 13-year-old classic video game can be spoiled). Aeris Gainsborough, female friend and potential love interest for the main protagonist, Cloud, kneels to pray. During her prayer, the game’s arch-villain, Sephiroth (still one of gaming’s most infamous villains), descends from above and impales her with his sword.

This was the moment that shocked an entire generation (of nerds, anyway). How could a woman so innocent, so beautiful, and so integral to the story get run through with a blade right before our eyes? In many ways, it was the moment that made so many others possible. As Cloud held Aeris’ lifeless body in his arms, and Sephiroth said, “Aeris will no longer talk, laugh, no longer cry ...” themes of love and loss had officially arrived in the video game world. Two years later, Final Fantasy VIII made serious advances in graphics and placed romance at its story-driven center.

“Cinematic” has long been considered the highest possible praise for a game, but while we were waiting for video games to achieve movie quality, something better happened: video games became an artistic medium all on their own. The game perhaps most deserving of the word “cinematic” is the 2010 PS3 release Heavy Rain, but even that experimental title depends heavily on its interactive element, something that movies can’t provide. There has always been crossover between the two industries (movies based on games and games based on movies), but rarely have such efforts proven fruitful. Studio execs are currently planning big-screen adaptations of Uncharted and Mass Effect, but no matter how well done the film versions are, they won’t equal the games. As soon as you take away the controller and put the story on film, the intimacy of interaction disappears, and the essence of the experience changes.

It’s important to remember that video games are still pretty young. Think of where movies were in the late 1930’s and early 40’s; true greatness had definitely arrived, but many vital storytelling strides were still on the horizon. Computer animation has come a long way in a short time, but it still lacks the full communicative spectrum of good old-fashioned acting. Some games have bypassed this issue by successfully integrating live-action footage in place of animated cutscenes (Enter the Matrix did this extremely well), but most games aim to push the animation envelope further.

Story-driven video games usually center on big emotions and sweeping melodrama. The Final Fantasy franchise has long been known for its over-the-top emotions, and that makes sense; video game animation doesn’t do subtlety very well. Pixar has proven that computer animation can powerfully convey subtlety and deep emotion, and while video games haven’t reached that level yet, they’re close. Once improvements in technology and development allow video games to catch up, the industry will demonstrate artistic depth that no one ever expected to see on a computer or console. I look forward to the time when award-winning writers will regularly pen video game scripts.

As of 2010, the average gamer is 34 years old, 40% of all gamers are women, and there are far more female gamers over the age of 18 (33%) than there are male gamers under the age of 18 (20%) (click here to read more statistics). The video game industry is constantly growing, offering a greater variety of experiences and bringing more people into the fold. When I refer to gaming as The Post-Cinematic Experience, I don’t mean to imply that movies are going anywhere; they’re not. Movies have always been my first love, and they always will be. I do mean to imply that gaming isn’t going anywhere, either, and that many people currently misunderstand what gaming is. Video games aren’t time-wasters for tech nerds; I’ll definitively state my opinion in the ongoing artistic debate and say that video games have become an art form. More than that, they have taken entertainment in bold new directions. Stunning visuals and beautiful symphonic scores now lay alongside viewer interaction and global community (thank you, Internet). Gaming never really became cinematic, and it’s not headed that way; it’s rapidly becoming something far more interesting.

For the best films of the year, you’ll need to pick up tickets at the box office, but for the most entertaining experiences of the year, you may just need to pick up a controller.

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