Video games have gone through a radical transformation over the past decade. While the public largely saw them as simple, escapist entertainment back in the day, big companies like Sony and Ubisoft had more ambitious plans. The 2010s saw the rise of more story-driven games, putting the word “cinematic” in every gamer’s lexicon.
We’ve been in a renaissance for AAA games ever since. Titles like The Last of Us and God of War have raised the bar for video game storytelling with high production value, better scripts, and advancements in performance capture. Hollywood was a north star through all of it, giving studios a lofty goal to strive towards. And by 2020, that had largely been accomplished. Games were delivering both blockbuster spectacle and more nuanced narratives, with some even attracting A-list voice talent.
But 2021 has seen some stick too close to the script. The once groundbreaking Hollywoodization of video games is starting to backfire, or at the very least stunt the industry’s growth. Some of this year’s biggest games settled for summer blockbuster status, but that undersells what the medium is capable of. Video games can be so much more than light popcorn fare.
When I look back at this year’s biggest games, only a few of them really feel like they’ll stick with me beyond 2021. That’s not because they weren’t fun. On the contrary, I had a blast playing some of this year’s big-ticket titles. But I found myself enjoying those games in the way I love watching an action movie at a megaplex: I came, I saw, I forgot hours after credits rolled.
Take one of 2021’s clear game of the year frontrunners, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. It’s a thrilling action-platformer that rightfully landed a No. 4 spot on Digital Trends’ own year-end countdown. Like anyone else, I was smitten by its spectacular dimension-hopping tech and its arsenal of chaotic weapons.
I probably couldn’t tell you much about its narrative beats, though; Rift Apart’s storytelling is about as summer blockbuster as it gets. Light character arcs weave in and out of spectacular action set-pieces that feel like a random collection of amusement park rides. It’s essentially a Marvel movie (developer Insomniac is the studio behind Marvel’s Spider-Man) with a lot of thrills, but little substance. Even the original game’s capitalist satire has been softened, making it feel inoffensive to as many players as possible.
Marvel was also on my mind as I played through Halo Infinite’s campaign. Previous Halo games were grand space operas that took pleasure in their melodrama. Infinite, on the other hand, feels stylistically inseparable from, say, Captain America. There’s a forgettable big bad to shoot and plucky sidekicks that quip every second they get. The game even seems embarrassed to be Halo at times, making self-aware jabs at itself the same way Peter Parker scoffs at the name “Otto Octavius” in the trailer for Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Both Halo Infinite and Rift Apart end up feeling strangely similar. They draw on the same Hollywood formula, carefully deploying humor and spectacle to counterbalance drama. Far Cry 6 takes the same approach, softening its loaded political themes with farcical comedy that keeps it from getting too divisive. Even Deathloop feels cuts from the same cloth, despite being dressed up in flashier aesthetics.
Hollywood isn’t exactly a bastion for innovation. Big budget blockbusters are money machines built for mass appeal. They look to draw the biggest audience possible, which is why they can feel so formulaic. Studios like Marvel treat movies like equations, boiling down creativity to a science. Spectacle cinema is still a joy to watch, but it rarely pushes the medium forwards.
Developers once looked to Hollywood movies for inspiration, borrowing ideas to strengthen a growing entertainment artform and lend it legitimacy. Now blockbusters are starting to feel like a crutch that’s flattening major games into the same template.
Outside the box
It’s not just a matter of tone. Most of this year’s biggest games struggled to marry their narrative ambitions to the actual gameplay in a meaningful way. What players actually do rarely matches up with the story being told. Rift Apart is a sincere tale about two lonely creatures trying to feel at home in a chaotic universe. The shooting gameplay doesn’t build that idea — it’s just a fun activity between cutscenes.
That’s the problem with games striving to hit cinematic heights, but not moving too far beyond that. The best video games think about the intersection of mechanics and story. The Last of Us is as memorable as it is because it makes players assume they’re the hero through play, only to subvert that expectation. Its thematic takeaways about heroism are as impactful as they are because players are the ones actually performing the game’s morally grey acts of violence.
Some of this year’s most notable releases take that same approach to great effect. Returnal puts players in an anxiety-inducing time loop that’s difficult to break out of (literally, as it’s a punishingly hard game). That gameplay setup only strengthens its larger story about a character reliving an inescapable trauma over and over again. Metroid Dread is similarly effective, making players deal with the consequences of a series’ worth of reckless decisions that snowball into a nightmarish cautionary tale. It’s no surprise that these titles took the top two spots on our best games of 2021 list.
Some smaller games took a similar approach. It Takes Two talks about teamwork and partnership by speaking through co-op gameplay that demands communication between players. Blaseball’s Expansion Era told a harrowing story about the dangers of excess by having the game itself literally collapse under an unsustainable list of features. Before Your Eyes explores the old “blink and you miss it” idiom by literally tracking the player’s eyes, an idea that can only exist in interactive media.
These examples don’t simply graft a movie plot onto a game. The stories they tell work so well because they’re built around play, a tool film directors don’t have in their arsenal. Much like a novel and a piece of live theater can both accomplish something that the other can’t, games have a specific language that allows them to explore uncharted territory. When they just strive to replicate movies, it removes what actually makes the medium special.
The gaming industry has had to fight to prove that games are more than just mindless toys. In 2021, it was clear that the medium had truly crossed that barrier and earned respect from artistic institutions, such as Tribeca Fest. With legitimacy achieved, it’s time for major studios to stop thinking of games as movies and start thinking of them as games.
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