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Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End came out recently to glowing reviews, with most critics praising it for its fantastic storytelling and character development, as well as its breathtaking visual presentation. The word “cinematic” is often brought up, and with good reason – A Thief’s End, like the rest of the games in the Uncharted series, is known for its cinematic flare and blockbuster thrills and action set-pieces. Uncharted‘s Nathan Drake has often favorably been likened to a contemporary Indiana Jones, and the resemblance is certainly not coincidental.
“Cinematic” has a wide range of meanings when it comes to video games – it could refer to a game’s presentation, its storytelling, its characters, or all of the above – but it tends to have a very positive connotation. To call a video game “a cinematic experience” is to praise it. It’s even become a prominent aspect of video game marketing, with many major releases highlighting how much they resemble movies at least in some capacity.
It’s curious, then, that the exact opposite seems to hold true for movies. It’s not uncommon to see the phrase “like a videogame” be used as a blanket statement of dismissal and disapproval. Movies that are “like videogames” are often frowned upon.
The late great Roger Ebert, one of the most prominent film critics of all time, had a particularly strong stance on videogames, at one point declaring that they can never be considered art. While his position slowly changed over the years, you can still find critics today that use “like a videogame” as a criticism.
Hardcore Henry, an action movie from this year that was shot entirely in a first person perspective opened to mixed reviews, some praising it for its innovative style, while others criticizing it for being repetitive and too much “like a videogame”.
At first, this discrepancy between the two mediums seems to have an obvious explanation – the interactive element. You cannot play or interact with a movie the same way you can with a game. When a game channels something particular to cinema, it can be more immersive because it grants the player direct control – you can not just watch an action movie, you can be a part of it, which is part of what makes games like Uncharted so appealing.
On the flip side, a movie that feels like a video game would be defined by the loss of that interactivity. A movie inherently lacks the ability to be as immersive as a video game can, because regardless of its format, its still something that exists independently from its audience.
So, that explains why video games are praised for being like movies, while movies are criticized for being like games, right?
Well, no. It only seems like the obvious answer, until you factor in the rise in popularity of Let’s Plays. A Let’s Play is a video or a series of videos that documents a playthrough of a particular game. It’s literally watching someone play a game, often with some form of commentary. It’s a type of online media that’s become increasingly popular over the years, taking a life of its own, as it were.
Now, of course, audiences generally watch Let’s Plays for the commentary. Let’s Plays can provide players with strategy tips and useful information for their own playthroughs or they can be a source of entertainment, with the personality of the content creator being what keeps people coming back – but you can still find plenty of playthroughs online that feature no commentary whatsoever.
Gamers that do not own a Playstation would probably go online to watch a playthrough of the Uncharted games, preferably without commentary, just because they want to experience the story and the action. That in itself is practically indistinguishable from watching a movie – which is why a lot of these types of video are often titled something along the lines of “Uncharted The Movie”.
So the answer cannot be as simple as one medium offers interactivity, and the other does not, since it’s clear that people can and do enjoy watching video games like they would a movie.
One could point towards the poor track record of video game adaptations over the years as a possible reason for why some film critics do not have a high opinion of the medium. It’s possible that there’s a connection, but it’s unlikely that it’s the main reason.
It’s far more likely that video games as a whole are still experiencing the growing pains of becoming a recognized art form. Even though the medium has evolved considerably since its inception, it can and still is often dismissed as an activity only for young children or teenagers.
There are all kinds of social stigmas that surround video games and the people that make or play them, which, understandably, can be quite upsetting. To have something that you either love to do, or is a part of your career be offhandedly shrugged off as immature, childish or incapable of being anything more than mindless entertainment is insulting.
What better way to counter those arguments than by comparing yourself to a medium that faced similar criticisms at one point in time?
It took a very long time for cinema to become recognized as the global cultural cornerstone it is today. The rise of cinema in the early 20th century was often challenged by critics who felt moving pictures are not art.
Broadly speaking, the attitudes that video games face today are not that far off from the uphill battle movies faced in their own early days.
The constant need for “cinematic” visuals or storytelling in games may be reflective of some kind of need for validation for the industry as a whole. If video games can excel at being cinematic experiences, that perhaps they can be recognized and widely accepted as a legitimate form of art, just like movies are.
The video game industry often acts as if it still has something to prove. As a medium, games continue to grow and evolve with each passing year. They are more than just a hobby and they speak to a far wider audience than just children. Grand Theft Auto V grossed $800 Million on its first day of release and Call of Duty: Ghost topped that with $1 Billion. There is no inherent need for games to constantly strive to live up to the standards of cinema, to prove that games are art worthy of recognition. Let the games speak for themselves, regardless of what they might have been influenced by.
As for the film industry, film journalism and, to some extent, the general public – maybe it’s time to stop being so dismissive of a steadily rising new creative medium. Not all games are art, but they don’t have to be, and the same holds true for cinema, music or any creative industry.
Let’s collectively retire “like a videogame” as an accepted form of criticism. There are more accurate and nuanced way to critique a movie, or any piece of art. Even a simple clarification such as “like a bad videogame” would be better.