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Indie developers are changing the definition of cinematic in video games

Over the past decade, the word cinematic has become a cliché in video games. It’s a term that’s come to describe big-budget studio games like The Last of Us Part 2. Have a big action set piece? That’s cinematic. Expensive cutscenes that look like a Michael Bay movie? Cinematic. Characters with any semblance of depth. Pure cinema!

The word has lost its meaning, transforming into a genre label that describes a very specific type of Hollywood-sized action game. But film is a wide media that encompasses much more than just blockbusters. There are plenty of other elements that video games can borrow from movies to create richer storytelling experiences.

While A-list games continue to build spectacle, indie developers are reaching deeper into the moviemaking toolkit to create more diverse storytelling experiences. In the process, they’re breaking down some long-standing barriers between the gaming and film world.

Playing with form

Ten years ago, it was a big deal when a video game looked or sounded like a movie. PlayStation 3 title Heavy Rain made a major impact in 2010 because no one had quite seen anything like it at the time. It felt like a playable film and offered an emotionally challenging (at least by 2010 standards) experience.

That’s changed significantly over the past decade. Now, it’s more common to see video games tell scripted stories rather than delivering interactivity with a narrative backdrop to drive the action. Those strides toward storytelling have been especially notable in the independent scene, which has steadily changed the definition of what a game even is over the years.

There are plenty of examples of that in 2021’s upcoming slate of releases. Take Last Stop, for instance. The adventure game comes from developer Variable State, best known for its mystery game Virginia. Upon its release, Virginia was unique for using film editing techniques. Last Stop uses similar ideas, with deliberate cuts and camera angles sprinkled in during the conversation-heavy gameplay.

LAST STOP | Brief Overview

In a press event for the game, Variable State developers discussed film as a driving inspiration for the title. They specifically cited the works of Robert Altman, a director known for creating large ensemble films with multiple character-driven story lines, as a key influence for the project.

Last Stop borrows that same idea to create an interwoven mystery. Players control three seemingly unrelated London residents whose paths cross throughout the game. It’s an anthology tale, which isn’t something we normally associate with video games. Surprisingly, Last Stop’s closest gaming equivalent might be Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V, where players control three Los Santos criminals.

For cinephiles who crave these type of stories, there’s bolder work being done in the gaming scene today than there is in Hollywood.

Rethinking genre

Indie studios aren’t just experimenting with film structure; they’re also rethinking what kinds of genres into which games can fit. While publishers like Bethesda heavily draw on science fiction and high fantasy, smaller studios tend to showcase more flexibility. That goes for both style and subject matter.

To see that in action, look to Hazelight Studios. Led by the ever-eclectic Josef Fares (a former filmmaker), the indie studio has built its name on pushing video game storytelling by playing with genre. Its 2018 multiplayer game A Way Out drew from prison escape movies to tell a dramatic story grounded in realism.

This year, it went in the opposite direction with It Takes Two, but the game still follows a similar philosophy. While it’s more of a magical realist fantasy, Fares uses the term “romantic comedy” to describe the game. That’s territory where major game studios have feared to tread over the medium’s life span.

It Takes Two
Image used with permission by copyright holder

That shyness toward certain genres limits what kinds of stories games can tell. By pulling from the traditional rom-com structure, Hazelight is able to tell a story about a couple on the verge of divorce that emphasizes the importance of collaboration in a relationship. That idea might sound pretty normal for a movie, but it’s weirdly uncharted territory in video games.

The scope of video game storytelling is constantly widening thanks to games like It Takes Two, and it’s not the only example. Eliza is an excellent visual novel about a woman working for a morally questionable tech company that has automated talk therapy. Last year’s standout If Found… is a striking game about a transgender woman struggling to gain her family’s acceptance. One of this year’s best games so far, Before Your Eyes, is a tearjerking drama about a person at the end of their life reliving their memories, with the entire game controlled by players’ blinks, which are tracked through a webcam.

They may not have multimillion dollar budgets, but they’re no less “cinematic” than The Last of Us.

Welcome to the club

The film world is taking not,e and that’s a significant change compared to where the industry was a decade ago. In 2010, late film critic Roger Ebert famously penned an article declaring “video games can never be art.” It was a contentious take that divided the film and gaming worlds.

The scene looks much different in 2021. Just look at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which will feature eight indie games as official selections alongside films. The first-of-its-kind decision is a sort of existential victory for a medium that’s long been painted as inferior to cinema. They’re slowly becoming equals, overcoming decades of cinephile stigma.

That’s exactly the intention of the decision, according to Tribeca Games Vice President Casey Baltes.

“My vision for Tribeca Games is to be a catalyst for bringing games and their creators to the forefront of mainstream and artistic culture alongside our sister sections in film, TV, and immersive,” Baltes tells Digital Trends. “Tribeca Games aims to remove the barriers for entry and “genre stigmas” to allow for meaningful dialogue about games’ impact on the future of storytelling in culture today, and I am so excited about treading new ground and to be a part of this shift in the conversation in the years to come.”

The gaming industry is particularly ready for that change. EA Originals Vice President Rob Letts shared his perspective on the age-old debate with Digital Trends. The EA Originals label published It Takes Two, which is part of  its deliberate strategy to support story-driven indie games that take cues from the film world. Letts sees a world where the two mediums happily coexist.

“Overall, I’m not a fan of the movies-versus-games debate,” Letts tells Digital Trends. “They live in harmony with one another, not in conflict. Films and video games are both impressive immersive experiences. The line between game, social network, and content channel is becoming increasingly blurred – and as a result, the two mediums are creating different types of experiences in different ways.”

By learning from other art forms, games are evolving in a way that’s only expanding what they’re capable of. There’s a good chance that ends up going the other way soon, with filmmakers looking to indie game experiences to pick up some new tricks.

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Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
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