Videogames and cinema

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The industry, journalists, gamers, the public, everyone's talking about the relations between videogames and cinema. These links are very much real, and much more complex than they seem. Dive into the analysis.


Since 3D came out in the open, everyone has been talking a lot of nonsense about the gaming experience turning into something close to cinema. Although such allegations might contain some modicum of truth, they are all too superficial : just because a game features camera movements and narrative cut-scenes doesn't mean it resembles cinema. The apparent similarities between these two media rely on pure logic : in order to represent a virtual or real environment, a viewpoint is needed -whether it belongs to the director, the painter, the graphic artist or, in our present case, to the game-designer. As cinema provided a strong basis to depict a setting and tell stories through the use of the camera, videogaming naturally drew inspiration from it in such a way as to present virtual worlds in the clearest and most convenient manner.

Consequently, horizontal and vertical scrollings in 2D games, as well as camera shots following the character in games based on a third-person view are equivalent to the art of the tracking shot. As for the first-person view (utilized in Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Quake, and their numerous followers), it is nothing more than a virtual transposing of the subjective view in cinema. The functional influence cinema had on videogames is at times more subtle : in Zelda : Majora's Mask, the camera frequently focuses on specific elements in order to underline their importance (for instance, zooming in and out to show the way which was opened after a switch has been activated).

Resident Evil

Yet the influence of film language on videogames goes beyond mere aspects of gameplay mechanism. The narrative -even though the term hardly applies to videogames- has learned a lot from the movies. Much like its 'real' counterpart, a virtual camera has an important part to play in dramaturgy, an obvious example being the oppressive camera angles in Resident Evil (the frightening high-angle shot of the elevator scene). Last but not least, cut-scenes might represent the closest thing there is to cinema in a game (whether as an introduction, a conclusion or implemented in the flow of the game). Those are short computer generated movies, sometimes featuring real actors as in Riven or Wing Commander (with, for the latter, the notable participation of Jedi Knight Mark Hamill).


Cut-scenes, which clearly don't have anything to do with videogames, might be the most misused and excessive element in contemporary videogaming. Some developers seem to forget there is an art of writing videogames which doesn't rely that much on cinema. Squaresoft, notably with Final Fantasy 8 and the infamous The Bouncer, totally forgot the fact that a game cannot be summed up by a succession of cut-scenes punctuated with vague gaming sequences. Cryo is another example, a developer which favors the esthetic aspect and density of the narrative over gaming value. As for the introduction to the nevertheless impressive Shenmue by SEGA, it represents a landmark in the history of disappointing cut-scenes : an endless and poorly-shot introduction (sideways tracking during the dialogues, constant switching viewpoints and ridiculous slow-motion sequences featuring after-imagery effects, a vain enterprise of John Woo plagiarism), followed during the game by dialogues occuring every five steps which convey a depressing staccato rythm to the action.

"A videogame is a network in which the player is free to choose his own path", explains Gérard Delorme from movie-magazine Premiere. "Each crossroad implies a choice and some risk-taking. The viewer is free and active. At the movies, the viewer is both captive and passive : he follows a story from the beginning to the end, a story whose rhythm and twists he cannot influence". It is indeed frustrating to feel 'captive' in a game, meaning to be powerless, bound to follow the unfolding of the plot. Not to say that cut-scenes are inherantly bad, but they have to be short, well thought out, well-placed at distant intervals. Who's willing to lie five minutes on the couch without touching the paddle ?


As previously stated, cut-scenes represent most of the negative influence of cinema on videogames. Some game designers are frustrated directors or defectors from the movie industry, whose ambitions aim at plagiarizing their favorite reels instead of investigating the field of singularities peculiar to the gaming medium. It is very much real in Japan, where the movie-industry is akin to a wasteland : cinema lovers would rather join the dynamic videogame industry.

Night Trap

Which leads us to this conclusion : trying to blindly integrate movie professionals to videogaming can wreak havoc on the media, as proven by past mistakes (interactive movies such as Night Trap, Rebel Assault and Dragon's Lair) and some recent 'non-games'. Hopefully, the collaboration is at times more satisfying, increasing thematic and artistic density in videogames and paving the way for new approaches to story-telling. Coherent games, pregnant with logically-structured sequences which do not sacrifice action (on this note, Half Life and Zelda Majora's Mask are definitive landmarks). All in all, we need some Hitchcock, some Cameron of game-design.


The worlds, genres and icons to which cinema gave life have always been an untarnishing source of inspiration for developers. Beyond the numerous licenses and adaptations from movie to game, a majority of game-designers multiply the references and borrow a lot from cinema, notably from US blockbusters of the past twenty years. Often, video-game directing and gameplay are directly inspired from memorable sequences of famous movies. Among the most plagiarized directors one can name John Mc Tiernan (Die Hard, Predator...), James Cameron (Terminator 1 & 2, Aliens, Abyss...), George Lucas (the Star Wars saga), John Carpenter (Escape From New York, Los Angeles 2013...), Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner...), Steven Spielberg (Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park...), etc. Many major games hint at their graphic and thematic models: Blade Runner for Omikron (PC, 99), Tim Burton's gothic esthetic (Batman 1 & 2, Edward Scissor Hands, Beetlejuice, Sleepy Hollow...) for MediEvil (PS,98), Georges Romero's horror flicks (the Living Dead Trilogy) for the Resident Evil saga (PS, 96, 98, 00).

The Nomad Soul

More anecdotal, the aquatic Boss in Zelda 64 (N64,98) reminds us of the translucid life-form in Abyss, a stage in Lylat Wars (N64,97) features a gigantic flying-saucer a la Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 96), in Goldeneye (N64, 97), the elite forces' two handguns fighting style' are reminiscent of John Woo (extreme case of a film adaptation referring to another movie!), some sequences in both N64 Zelda pay tribute to the western genre...

"As cinema builds universes and stories, videogames seize these and use them as canvas to create on", explains Gérard Delorme. "The links between cinema and videogames is close to the one between literature and cinema. The latter feeds on the former. Even though videogaming might overthrow cinema's position as the most thriving entertainment industry, it will always need cinema, just like cinema needs novels to adapt".


The relations tying videogames to cinema are not unilateral. Pushing aside the irritating adaptations of videogames to the big screen (Super Mario, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Double Dragon...), we can observe some resonnance to the gaming media in the works of directors. "Videogames clearly reflect on the movies", notes Gérard Delorme, "Matrix being the most obvious example, with it's putting in parrallel a virtual and a real world, its interfaces and constant alluding to the player's scheme of thought (blue pills or red pills ?). On another note, we see an increasing number of movies and novels where the character stops to resupply in weapons, ammos, food, medicine, tools and varied accessories".

From Tron to Matrix, a quantity of movies took videogames and virtual reality as their central theme. Sometimes it ended up as a pretty messed-up experience (The Lawnmover man), whereas other attempts gave birth to interesting philosophical and political debates (eXistenZ). Increasingly, a new breed of directors succeeds at basing intelligent story-telling on computer and videogame culture. It is certainly true in Japan, where anime directors released a few masterpieces on the subject (Ghost in The Shell, Lain...). This is true also in the US with the Wachowski brothers, whose over-estimated Matrix met worldwide success. Surprisingly true in France as well : recently, Christophe Gans' flamboyant 'Company of Wolves' testifies to an excessive passion towards le cinéma de genre as well as videogames (see the fighting sequences which weapons are taken from Namco's Soulcalibur).

Ghost in the shell

In a few years, videogames have leaked through every layer of the cinematographic industry, driving directors to tell different stories in an innovative way. Both videogames' and cinema's futures depend on their ability to feed on each other without giving up their singularities. A difficult battle : indeed, the two media seem more likely on the verge of nullifying each other. The highly anticipated sequels to Metal Gear Solid and Matrix, each of which symbolises the relationship between cinema and videogames, should enlighten our judgment as far as progress in both arts is concerned. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, the debate is going stronger than ever. Want to think it over in 2002 ?

Article by Pierre Gaultier (march 2001). English translation by Tristan Ducluzeau. Special thanks to Gérard Delorme.

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"Trying to blindly integrate movie professionals to videogaming can wreak havoc on the media, but can also improve its thematic and artistic density"




































- an interview of Hideo Kojima