Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Story Vs. Cinematic in Video Games

A recent article (ok, rather recent anyway) on 1up.com has David Jaffe, creator of God of War, railing against story in games.  Citing other games he has created, Jaffe looks back on his career wishing that he had not valued story so much in many of his games.  Story, he says, adds a large technological burden on the developer and, as a result, the mechanical qualities of the game diminish rapidly.  The desire within the game industry to make games more like films is heavily to blame for the loss of focus on game mechanics and has caused some serious problems.  Well, is he right?  And who is anyone to argue with such a prominent member of the industry?

Spectacular visuals have become the norm.

The author of the article, as well as Jaffe, wrestle with confusion between two words:  “story” and “cinematic.”  Does a story really need high end graphics to be told well?  No, of course not.  Stories are told in books all the time, and those don’t even have graphics.  Stories did not increase the technological burden:  visuals did.  Think about it:  all Mario games have had the same story since the beginning.  You can make a small scale 2D platformer and huge, epic 3D world with both based around the same story.  Obviously, the 3D game is going to cost much more to produce, but the story has almost nothing to do with that change in price.

The real culprit here is the necessity for developers to make their game “cinematic,” which is a different creature all together.  This is the attempt to make games to appear more like movies:  leading the player through visually stunning set pieces from start to end.  Games made in this way tend to feel more like interactive theme park rides than open ended experiences.  The player’s input and actions have to be carefully controlled so they will get the full effect of the visuals the developer is throwing at them. 

THIS is where the focus on game mechanics falls apart.  Developers have to put their biggest effort behind the visuals, leaving other parts of the game as more of an afterthought.  Since tried and true mechanics systems already exist, many developers simply copy these systems so that they can create a more impressive visual experience.  As a result, most games have similar, if not identical, controls and mechanics with little deviation from the established formula.

Of course, the article brings up Call of Duty, because it is the title of note at the moment.  Undoubtedly, the Call of Duty series is the poster child of cinematic gameplay.  The article mentions, though, that many Call of Duty players simply skip the single player and “head straight into multiplayer.”  One question:  How many is that?  What numbers do you have to support this assertion?  Without some sort of quantifiable statistic, this can only be seen as a more or less unfounded guess based on anecdotal evidence.
Call of Duty's single player places huge emphasis on visuals

Story and cinematic are not the same thing, and David Jaffe, a prominent member of the development community, not being able to see the difference is a bit troubling.  Hopefully we will see continued improvement in video game stories as the medium evolves, and it would be tragic for a misunderstanding of terms to impede that growth.  The insatiable need to high-end visuals does, however, need to be scaled back to allow time for gameplay to catch back up.
For more discussion on story in games, click here.
Images from Google


  1. I would agree. Cinematics are the plague of the gaming industry, and no one teaches important skills like game production/design or how to craft a good story. I'm not saying I'm the king of either of these things, but I can say that good games always have great stories and games I'll play again and again have amazing story elements. Graphics come second for me.

  2. A good story is, sad to say, usually the product of one individual's hard work. Most often, games are designed by an entire team of people, so no single vision has the chance to shine through. This "design by committee" policy tends to cripple video game stories before they even get off the ground.