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Values and characteristics of the Cinematic Action genre

Sparky Clarkson's picture

In his review of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, my colleague Brad Gallaway makes an argument for placing that game in a new genre, one that he feels has arisen fairly recently. Using the traditional naming conventions for narrow genres, the proper term would be "Uncharted clones", but I don't feel that description is quite adequate. While Uncharted is certainly the most identifiable game in the class, I believe the genre pre-dates that game. Uncharted represents not a new kind of game unto itself but an exemplary actualization of certain values in game design. Here I intend to put a name to those values and show how they relate to the characteristics of games in this group, which I think of as "Cinematic Action" games.

Filmic Realism

Cinematic action games generally represent an effort to create a playable action movie. Of course, as "action" is a broad designation that could conceivably cover anything from Silverado to Die Hard to Aliens, there is considerable variation in the kinds of experiences that are produced. However, these games have certain visual approaches in common that are related to their goal. In particular, they tend to employ an external, objective viewpoint. Universally, these games operate in a third-person perspective. One advantage of this approach is that it allows the game to naturally seize control of the viewpoint when desirable without making the moment seem excessively artificial. The player never has to ask how something is being seen, because the camera and character are divorced.

In Enslaved, the camera views a large robot standing behind the main character.

In addition, level design and set dressing are meant to produce a realistic-looking world. In practice, this means that the environments are highly detailed and constructed in naturalistic fashion. Although members of the genre that include shooting almost universally employ snap-to-cover systems, they mostly eschew the "room full of chest-high barriers" motif in favor of more diverse and location-appropriate protection. This is not to say that the combat arenas are perfect—in Enslaved, for instance, chest-high barriers put in depressingly regular appearances. In general, however, shooting zones seem to be planned with the aim of appearing to be a real place as opposed to one constructed specifically for its gameplay properties. This is part of a general effort to disguise the game-ness of these games.

Seamlessness

For a genre that is notable for cinematic influence, these games curiously seem to play down traditional cinematics. In games like the Final Fantasy series such scenes have typically been rendered in a style that clearly (and almost ostentatiously) differs from the game engine. Cinematic action games, by contrast, strive to reduce such differences, because from the standpoint of creating a "playable movie", having a clear division between "movie" and "game" is undesirable. The goal of the cinematic action games is to remove these distinctions to the greatest extent possible, producing a seamless experience.

Early entrants in the genre, such as the Sands of Time trilogy, generally did not succeed at bridging this gap in a strictly graphical sense, but the HD generation has allowed subsequent examples to pull the trick off. Games like Uncharted use numerous cutscenes, with character models and locations that are highly detailed, but they are close enough in appearance to the in-game models that the player's eye can be tricked by the expectations of perspective once control is handed over. The switch between observational and playable modes is often performed by matching the images, or zooming out from the end of one mode to begin the other, further blurring the line between them.

Unable to achieve this graphical trick, the earlier entries pioneered and were in some ways superior at another kind of seamlessness, in which ludic elements are disguised as part of the environment or storytelling apparatus. Sands of Time is one of the crowning achievements in this respect, pretending reloads are a narrative device of the Prince's story, and building save points into the game's world and fiction. Games like Uncharted and Enslaved instead use checkpoint saving systems that remove the player's need to engage with the nuts and bolts of the software. A sufficiently dedicated player can conceivably make it through these games without ever manipulating a file menu. Enslaved goes further, engaging a pretense that its menus are a physical object being manipulated by Trip, one of the game's characters. The goal of producing a playable movie demands that the software be hidden within the fiction as much as possible.

Developer-controlled narrative

The storytelling, structure, and interactivity of cinematic action games are also derived from the films they emulate. Games of the genre are generally plot-driven, linear, and brief—nearly all of them last less than 20 hours and many are shorter than ten. Although some of these games are set in nominally open worlds, the player exerts little to no meaningful control over the story. Prince of Persia (2008) is a seeming exception that proves the rule: although the player can choose what order to fight all the principal enemies in, this choice has no effect on the relationship between the characters, their mission, or the game's ultimate outcome. Moreover, each of these battles is itself a tightly-scripted experience that evolves as the developer chooses. Similarly, nothing the player can accomplish in the open worlds of Mafia II or Shadow of the Colossus changes the story of those games. In this genre, the player experiences the main character's story as delivered by the designers, rather than developing his own story within a designer-provided context.

In Shadow of the Colossus, bosses like this one are the only opportunity for combat.

This dominance is exerted not only through cutscenes and changes in location but also through the structure of play. Characteristically, combat occurrences in these games are strongly biased towards set-piece battles, with little in the way of bridging encounters. In the most extreme cases, such as Shadow of the Colossus or Mafia II, all or virtually all of the combat in the game takes place in carefully pre-planned and scripted fights. While the player generally has total freedom within those encounters, he does not choose how or when they are entered.

Moreover, cinematic action games usually do not have any appreciable number of side activities, or they de-emphasize them. While collectible items that contribute to character development may be available through exploration (e.g. the orbs in Prince of Persia or the tech in Enslaved) the breadth of alternatives found in games of similar artistic sensibility (such as Grand Theft Auto) are not generally replicated in this genre. These structural choices tend to prevent gameplay, even core gameplay, from interfering with the pacing of the story.

Another expression of this desire to maintain the pacing can be found in the relative ease of many of these games. Some, such as Enslaved or Prince of Persia, seem to demand so little of the player that they have been derided, albeit by hardcore rather than casual gamers, for practically playing themselves. Additionally, these games rarely provide much in the way of feedback that indicates mastery. There's no such thing as being really good at Uncharted, in contrast with Stylish Action games like Devil May Cry or Bayonetta that have complex combat systems and explicit rewards for mastering them.

A final characteristic related to the primacy of narrative in these games is that they have a diverse set of interactive modes. Cinematic action games are never just shooters or platformers, although they may be slightly biased one way or another. Rather, the modes of interaction are about evenly mixed between a traversal method and a combat method. Uncharted primarily mixes platforming with cover-shooting, and the various iterations of the Prince of Persia series combine platforming with swordplay. Mafia II uses cover-shooting for combat and (extensive) driving as a means of traversal. Classifying these games as platformers or shooters oversimplifies the case—members of the genre are built on multiple modes of play and use each mode as suits the plot situation. If Nathan Drake is exploring a ruin it is time to climb. If mercenaries infiltrate the ruin, it's time for him to place his back against a bit of rock and start shooting.

Because of this mixing of modes, there is non-violent, but involving, gameplay available to bridge between the combat set pieces, arguably making each fight more unique and exciting. Moreover, this style mimics the rhythm of film, in which moments of violence are generally spaced apart by quieter periods in which the plot and character development are advanced. In line with this desire, these games frequently use their traversal segments as an opportunity for character banter or soliloquies—Sands of Time was particularly effective in using this approach.

Emotional Engagement

A cinematic action game diverges from its motion-picture forebears in that a film is built around a star, while the games are built around characters. While certain voice actors are significant figures in the genre (notably Nolan North, who contributed to Uncharted and Prince of Persia), the stories of these games are conveyed through digital actors, highly expressive character models that, through their personality, engage the player emotionally in the world. Extensive use of motion capture allowed for enormous physical detail in Uncharted and Enslaved, generating very realistic conversations and confrontations, but that is not absolutely essential. ICO generated a sense of emotional involvement through simpler but very affecting interactions like holding hands or helping Yorda traverse the environment. Similarly, the interaction of Wander and Agro (as well as the antagonist colossi themselves) provided an emotional core for Shadow of the Colossus. Expressiveness is not only in the eyes and mouth but also in full-body motions.

Movement and graphic detail in Uncharted's cutscenes help to build emotional involvement

The emotional engagement of the player is essential for two reasons. The first is that the player exerts too little control over the narrative to feel a sense of character ownership. As discussed above, the character belongs to the developer, rather than the player. The desire to draw the player in through an attraction to the character personalities partially accounts for the genre's extensive gallery of broadly appealing good-natured rogues.

In addition, these games generally do not attempt to inspire the player through epic confrontations. The conflicts described by cinematic action games are generally intimate ones, even when the stakes are very high. The "Prince" takes on a mighty god of evil in Prince of Persia, but the fight against Ahriman doesn't involve a massive battle in front of a white city. The combat encounters are one-on-one, and the story is mostly centered on a guy, a girl, and her family problems. The Uncharted games concern dangerous secrets hidden by time, but the events of the games are not themselves epic, sweeping history. The problems always remain close to Nathan Drake, and they are engaged on a personal scale.

Games of this genre typically have a small cast, and the total number of full speaking roles is often less than the party size of a modern Final Fantasy game. This is as it must be, because even though the games are much longer than an action movie they devote much less time to character development.

A Central Genre

To put it as compactly as possible, a cinematic action game is a short, fundamentally linear, third-person game that uses at least two interactive modes to advance a character through set-piece encounters. The essential nature of these games is that they are intended to create an experience that is cinematic—in that its viewpoint is external, objective, and visually rich—yet playable, which results in an adherence to action formula because those are the movie tropes that are most readily transformed from observation to procedure. The intention to produce a film-like experience means that narrative flows primarily in one direction, from developer to player, rather than arising from a collaboration between them. To hold the player's interest, the games typically feature striking, well-developed characters that engage the player emotionally.

The early examples from this genre were developed in the sixth console generation, a period when graphical fidelity had improved to the point where a game in motion could begin to look roughly like a movie, and storage capacity and audio processing allowed for significant amounts of voice acting and symphonic music. Arguably, however, the values of this genre developed even earlier, with games like Dragon's Lair. The archetypical genre member, Uncharted, appeared in the HD generation, where the full potential for a game to match a movie in terms of appearance and sound began to actually be realized. The success of that series, and the attractiveness of the idea of the genre, means that we are likely to see more games in this vein.

I've referenced some examples above of both prototypes and recent games that I feel fit into the category, and there are others which are closely related, such as God of War and Gears of War, that serve as bridges between this genre and its cousins. Even within the constellation of movie-influenced games, the cinematic action games are notable for their essential linearity, their close adherence to the externalized cinematic viewpoint, and their non-combat bridging between set pieces. In these respects, they represent the closest games have come to being "played films".

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3   PC  
Series: Uncharted   Enslaved  
Genre(s): Adventure/Explore  
Articles: Editorials  
Topic(s): Games as Art  

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Fantastic Piece!

Nice one, Mr. Clarkson. A well-thought-out and satisfying editorial.

You're lobbying for this term is sound; "Cinematic Action" it is.

TERM GET!

Emotional Engagement?

Very enjoyable article, with a nice description of the genre. I've only played one of the games mentioned - Uncharted 2 - so I'm not really in a position to comment except I'm not sure about the necessity for emotional involvement you mention.

I finished Uncharted 2, but I spent the entire playthrough admiring the game from a distance rather than being emotionally involved. I enjoyed it, but the Friends-like characters and Indiana Jones type plot didn't draw me in. Mostly what I was experiencing was admiration for the technical aspects - 'wow, look what they've done there', or 'that's quite neat, the way they've closed off the way I just came in' kind of thing.

So I found the game enjoyable, but definitely in a detached, popcorn-eating way. Like a blockbuster movie, I guess, but maybe a second-tier action flick rather than a top-end blockbuster where it draws you in and you're cheering on the hero through each escapade.

You mean film games? Games

You mean film games? Games that have their over all narrative limited by being more film than game?

Ya... ca we stop praising and liking these shitty games already? Less content, less options is not ever better.....

ZippyDSMlee wrote: You mean

ZippyDSMlee wrote:

You mean film games? Games that have their over all narrative limited by being more film than game?

Ya... ca we stop praising and liking these shitty games already? Less content, less options is not ever better.....

But lots of people get lots of enjoyment from these games. They're highly entertaining, and surely that's the first requirement of a videogame? I don't even like the genre, but I'd consider buying Uncharted 3. Plus, Uncharted 2 actually pushed the envelope technically with its cinematic gameplay (the collapsing building, the train ride etc), so even if you hate the game, you have to acknowledge its contribution to videogaming as a whole.

Couldn't disagree more

ZippyDSMlee wrote:

You mean film games? Games that have their over all narrative limited by being more film than game?

Ya... ca we stop praising and liking these shitty games already? Less content, less options is not ever better.....

I couldn't disagree more. In terms of the number-of-hours-played-to-long-lasting-impression ratio, these games are highly effective. For those of us who like a good yarn but without the time or emotional bandwidth required to sink tens of hours into a full-blown RPG, these kind of games are just the ticket.

Nice article.

Over simplification

Pedro wrote:
ZippyDSMlee wrote:

You mean film games? Games that have their over all narrative limited by being more film than game?

Ya... ca we stop praising and liking these shitty games already? Less content, less options is not ever better.....

But lots of people get lots of enjoyment from these games. They're highly entertaining, and surely that's the first requirement of a videogame? I don't even like the genre, but I'd consider buying Uncharted 3. Plus, Uncharted 2 actually pushed the envelope technically with its cinematic gameplay (the collapsing building, the train ride etc), so even if you hate the game, you have to acknowledge its contribution to videogaming as a whole.

No not when we get MW2,Resistance 2 or Bioshock, less is not better, its just as easy from a dev standpoint to add a bit more and make the default play mode the least er "time consuming" and put in menu options to allow us to play a game thats a bit more complicated than the box it came in.....

Sorry but over simplification has turn gaming into mass marketed crap.

Alv wrote:
ZippyDSMlee wrote:

You mean film games? Games that have their over all narrative limited by being more film than game?

Ya... ca we stop praising and liking these shitty games already? Less content, less options is not ever better.....

I couldn't disagree more. In terms of the number-of-hours-played-to-long-lasting-impression ratio, these games are highly effective. For those of us who like a good yarn but without the time or emotional bandwidth required to sink tens of hours into a full-blown RPG, these kind of games are just the ticket.

Nice article.

Hardly more like highly forgettable, I had more enjoyment and memorable experiences from Quake 2, Soul reaver, FF4,FF6, most of the games made before 2000.

These day falacic, fou film experiences are focused on far to much and gameplay is himed in last, look at Damnation it goes through the motions but comes off a poorly made game and everyone can see it yet games that are virtually the same get raved about because they have a better press agency and no one dares to question or diss a game that sold well, as long as it sells it good there can be nothing wrong with it and I hate that sentiment so much.

Games today have lost mechanic depth and and well weaved mechanic narratives, instead what we get is a film we can kinda play on the rails we are kept on.

Addendum

Addendum

I probably could stand the whole experience shrinking deal if mechanics were not shat on, the trouble is we need more customization in games so we all can adjust them to taste. This means at a bare minim we have better button mapping and broader difficulty settings.

I still would rather see games change into a medium where the normal setting is the game plays itself and you ca watch a simplistic abbreviated version of the whole game, you can then choose to watch a longer version or play the short,abbreviated medium or whole version.

I am really sick of minimalistic mechanics that are unfinished and un polished with minimalistic level layouts. I mean look at CV:Lords of shadow its practically the same game as LOI and COD only without smaller levels and less over all content and frankly I perfect the others more than it.

I don't really agree with

I don't really agree with anything Zippy is saying. I lay out most of my case in the companion post to this, which will probably hit the front page soon but until then can be found in the blog menu to the right. I don't feel that the mechanics of the class as a whole are weak (the Sands of Time trilogy, for example, includes some of the best platforming segments I've ever played), and I strongly disagree with the idea that these games are failures generally. As I note above, some of the games that regularly make the rounds in the games as art debate rightfully belong to this category, because they share its central values. There are important qualitative differences, however, between Sands of Time and Uncharted, that make one a genuine masterpiece and the other a mostly disposable entertainment. These have little to do with mechanics or adjustable difficulty per se and a great deal to do with the interaction between the player and the game's narrative context.

You forgot Heavy Rain

Sparky Clarkson wrote:

I don't really agree with anything Zippy is saying. I lay out most of my case in the companion post to this, which will probably hit the front page soon but until then can be found in the blog menu to the right. I don't feel that the mechanics of the class as a whole are weak (the Sands of Time trilogy, for example, includes some of the best platforming segments I've ever played), and I strongly disagree with the idea that these games are failures generally. As I note above, some of the games that regularly make the rounds in the games as art debate rightfully belong to this category, because they share its central values. There are important qualitative differences, however, between Sands of Time and Uncharted, that make one a genuine masterpiece and the other a mostly disposable entertainment. These have little to do with mechanics or adjustable difficulty per se and a great deal to do with the interaction between the player and the game's narrative context.

The trouble is " interaction between the player and the game's narrative context." Atmosphere, setting and camera style to follow the petty scenery dose not a game make.

Oh and in all this you forgot Heavy Rain, the first real FMA game we've had in a decade.

Ack rage rant getting the

Ack rage rant getting the better of me.
Let me try and salvage anything I said.

First off I know you are talking about a specific line of games that use film styles well. Its just I see most games these days emulating film styles haphazardly and it just kills me.

I hate the design emphasis on cinemagic as most come off as a side project of a AAA project they were suppose to be working on(DOOM 3,Gears of war, And Uncharted, Far cry 2 to a lesser extent). It fouls up mechanic depth and a solid gameplay narratives and trades them for pretty film fa...mmmm let me change that word.... er.... mmm inadequate high concept d-i-c-k-a-r-y.(sorry dunno if the filter will block it and I am tried as is).

I just have little care for it for it destroys what I enjoy the most out of a game and thats the mechanics, now with that said why do I think it hurts mechanics. Its obvious is it not? It whittles down mechanics,pacing and other things to create a very tight and IMO limited product.

Now I am going to eat my words here a bit, this loathing dose not reach ICO and Shadow on the Colossus as they go beyond A typical triple A pablum.

You're trying to justify why

You're trying to justify why these games are no good for lack of 'mechanical depth', but are failing to appreciate the fact that a lot of people, like myself, actually *enjoy* them. If entertainment value is what counts, these kind of games can't be all that bad can they?

Why does a piece of media have to have any 'mechanic depth' or 'gameplay' to make it any good? We like films, we like books, we like music - none of these are interactive, all of these are 'on-rails'. The 'on-rails' aspect does not in itself make a game bad - it's the execution that counts. Indeed the on-rails shooter has been around since the 80s and there are good ones and bad ones. These cinematic action games are just on-rail adventures and there will be good ones and bad ones.

You might argue that lowering the interactivity element discludes these from being considered 'computer games'. But is this a relevant debate? Even if you don't consider these as games, this new breed of entertainment is exactly targeting the lesser interaction and more direction market, and does not make it any less valid or relevant.

As I said, if you want to sink 100+ hours into Final Fantasy for a memorable 'gaming' experience then that's your prerogative. Many like myself really don't have the will or time to do so these days. The 'on-rails' impact that Enslaved (15 hours) had on me was at least as effective on a *per-hour* basis, than when I played Fallout 3 for 2-3 solid weeks.

If done properly this genre can provide memorable characters, tangible atmosphere and unforgettable experiences in efficient time frames, much as as the other forms of non-interactive media do. Don't judge this genre of entertainment purely on the basis of where it sits on the gray scale of interactivity.

I'm a full-blown convert.

I don't get that Sparky is

I don't get that Sparky is criticizing the genre, rather defining it.

Obviously, I mostly agree

Obviously, I mostly agree with Alv here, especially on broader principles. For those who don't really have a lot of time to devote to games and want something that's fun to play and emotionally impactful without a huge investment of hours, this genre provides a lot of value. Obviously, there's a balance to be struck; games like Uncharted, Enslaved, and Mafia II are graphically engaging but (to me, at least) emotionally empty and mechanically uninteresting. This problem is not unique to the games in this specific genre, but is broadly shared among many AAA games. The key to addressing it is not necessarily choice, because meaningless choices (e.g. your appearance in the recent Fallout games) add nothing. Rather, it's key to design games that make what the player does important, not just in the sense of mechanically advancing the plot but also in the sense of defining the characters and their relationships. This doesn't require choices or options so much as it requires a sense of how player actions define their relationship with the game world.

And Rob is right, this particular essay is not meant to be critical so much as it is meant to define the genre and explain why I believe other apt descriptions like "third-person shooter" or "platformer" aren't sufficient to capture what's going on in them.

Soul Reaver

Having just finished the game yesterday (for the first time ever!) I think it's interesting that you used it as a counter-example to the kind of games that populate the Cinematic Action genre.

Going by the criteria laid out by Sparky, Soul Reaver could quite easily be an early example of Cinematic Action.

EDIT: Interestingly, I just looked it up and found that Amy Hennig was the writer/director of both Soul Reaver and Uncharted. Small world.

Don't mind zippy he's

Don't mind zippy he's focusing on the shiny light on the wall and not the wall itself....least not till the idiot runs head long into it =>>=.

I am ranting about the degradation of qaulity in general and not something as ..er sublime as genre changes.

THo I am whining a bit off topic as this is less about subtle things like qaulity and more about how you typical action game has morphed (for better or worse) into a fancy film project(for lack of better words on my part).

But I dunno only a few games devoid of mechanics and a game at its core(Heavy Rain) need the tag line "Cinemagic action title", tho I suppose ICO and SOTC would fit as well as they go beyond the norm.

IMO look to the over all core of a game, and it can more easily be defined as Action(real time fighting), Adventure(slower pace with noticeable exploring),RPG(RPG like rules, money,equipment,exp,levels,skills,ect).

Third person and first person are almost un necessary these days as neither are rare and both sell well , platformer,puzzle,ect are still widely used.

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