Thursday, February 6, 2014

Cinematic aesthetics and video game aesthetics - An audiovisual aesthetics exam essay

During the fall semester of 2013 at the University of Oslo I wrote an exam paper for my class in Media Science: Audiovisual Aesthetics. The paper was on video game aesthetics and film aesthetics and how the two have affected each other. I ended up doing quite well ( I got a B if you must know) and so I thought I would share it with my readers in the hopes that it may either entertain or inform you in one way or the other. 

Cinematic aesthetics and video game aesthetics: In what ways have cinematic and video game aesthetics converged and affected each other since the early years of video gaming and why?

by: Anita K. Olsen Støbakk


In this assignment it is my goal to examine how cinematic aesthetics have affected video games and also quite briefly how the use of cinematic aesthetics in video games (also referred to simply as "games") has evolved during the brief history of gaming. I also intend to look closer at how video game aesthetics have affected films in return. I will use examples of early classic or "vintage" video games as they are also referred to like Super Mario Bros.(1985) and the world wide sensation Tetris (1984) where the use of cinematic aesthetics and storytelling are minimal or are in fact non - existent. I will compare those games to more modern games such as the RPG Dragon Age: Origins (2009) and the action/adventure game Assassin's Creed (2008) where the storytelling element and use of cinematic aesthetics are very prominent. I will then compare these games to films that may have inspired games or have in turn been inspired by games themselves. These films include The Matrix(1999), Dredd (2012), Star Wars(1977-2005), Sucker Punch (2011) and others. I will also discuss why these changes have occurred and how we as an audience are somewhat responsible for it. I will also briefly try to look closer at the relationship between video game and cinematic aesthetics in game and film adaptations. All this will be done with the goal of answering the research question in the most satisfying and ordered way as possible in mind.

Cinematic and video game aesthetics ? what they are:

Aesthetics in general are all the textual components that make meaning. The way we analyze it is by utilizing textual analysis. This in turn means that we look at the content of the subject matter, the narrative and the style of the film, video game or television show that we are attempting to analyze. The narrative is the story that is being told and the style is how the story is being told. When we do a narrative analysis of a film (the plot and how it is structured) we usually try to apply it to a narrative theory such as Todorovs five stages (Lacey 2000: 21) or Propp's seven spheres of action (Lacey 2000: 51) or we look at the temporal order in which the story is being told. When examining the style of a film (what you see and what you hear) we look at the use of mise en Scène (Bordwell, Thompson 2013: 112) which is a term for use of costuming, lighting, acting techniques, set design, etc. Style can also refer to editing, sound and photo. It is primarily the style of the films and video games I will be focusing on the most in this text when comparing the two different media. The reason for this is that it seems to be the far more relevant point when it comes to comparing these two aesthetics. Also, not all games include narrative and therefore cannot be aptly analyzed by using narrative theories. As Aarseth I also have to question whether a video game is a type of narrative or if they are merely capable of containing narratives (2012). For the purpose of clarity I would like to state that I see games much in the same way as Salen and Zimmerman do:

"A game is a system in which players engage in artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome" (2004)

This effectively means that I do not see games as a type of narrative, but still maintain that they can contain and relate narratives to it's audience in ways that no other media can.

The humble beginnings: Tetris and Super Mario:

In the early years of video games most games were two-dimensional arcade or platform games like Pac-Man (1980), Duck Hunt (1984) Super Mario Bros.(1985) or Tetris(1984) where the main goal seems more or less to have been entertainment and recreational puzzle solving. There was rarely an overarcing plot or story being told and if there was a narrative element to the games they were usually text based. If we look at Tetris as an example we can easily discern that there is no plot to this game. It was derived from the mathematical recreational game "pentomino" which is used to train a persons creativity and problem solving skills. It is easy to learn, but hard to master and it could very well be said that Tetris was the founding game of what is today known as casual games. Casual games are games that can be learned and played by anybody, it does not have a steep learning curve and requires little to no dedication to gaming in general. If there ever could be a cinematic aesthetic quality to this game it would be in the use of sound, but not even here can there be said to be any use of cinematic aesthetics. The music is constant and does not change during the game play it is simply there. There are noises that let you know when you are flipping your blocks into a new position, when the current block connects with other blocks and there is also a sound that let's you know that you have scored points by filling up a row of blocks, but beyond this specific mechanical function they serve no purpose. Super Mario Bros.(1985) on the other hand has taken a step closer to having a plot and a style. The plot is as follows: The evil king Bowser and his Koopa Troops have invaded the Toadstool kingdom, kidnapped the princess and turned all it's inhabitants into blocks and weeds. It is up to Mario and his brother Luigi to save the princess and her kingdom by defeating king Bowser and his minions. There are very few cinematic sequences in this game and they only last a few seconds. Usually they show Mario celebrating having achieved a goal. Text is however used to relate messages to Mario and by extension relating the plot to the player. An example of this can be seen at the end of the game when Mario defeats Bowser and rescues the princess who says: "Thank you Mario! Your quest is over!" The use of text to relate content to the audience has been used to great effect in a lot of other games like the "Legend of Zelda" series, but it has also been used in silent movies and movies like the Star Wars-series(1977-2005) where the films always begin with the iconic yellow scrolling text where we are told of what has happened in the universe since last we saw our heroes. It has also been used in films with historic or quasi-historic content like Robin Hood: Prince of thieves (1991) where the audience are in need of some context to fully understand the narrative. I am aware that this may be a strenuous comparison, but still I find it to be significant enough to merit mentioning. If we were to further scrutinize the plot of Super Mario Bros. it could also be said that it follows the classical Hollywood style although in an extremely basic way. What I mean by that is that just as in classical Hollywood film there are one or two main characters (Mario and Luigi) that the story is centered around and these characters have a desire or a goal (rescue Princess Toadstool and her kingdom). To achieve that goal the protagonist(s) must overcome an obstacle and undergo a process of change. Often the obstacle will be in the form of another character with opposing goals, the villain ( King Bowser). The protagonist will enter into a conflict with this villain but will in the end reach his goals and attain a new perspective on life or a new set of values (The princess is saved and Toadstool kingdom is safe). Granted you don't see the process of change in Mario, and you don't get that detailed and coherent look into his emotional and psychological motivations that is a key aspect of the classic Hollywood style, but most of the other aspects fit (Bordwell, Thompson 2013:97-98). This style can usually be applied to most films, but not always to video games from the 80's as quite often they don't have a plot. It is noteworthy to mention that games especially in the early years were not really meant to be watched as films were, they were meant to be played. They were meant to be interactive and unless you are actually actively playing the game yourself Super Mario Bros. for example is not very interesting to watch. The use of sound and music in Super Mario is a bit more dynamic and cinematic than the music in Tetris, but is still not close to true cinematic sound. The normal above ground levels and the water levels have their own themes, the underground levels also have their own theme, but still the themes are pretty static, they go through the same sound pattern no matter what happens in the game unless you die, then a small music sequence plays to let you know that you have in fact died. I would instead name it a video game aesthetic as it is a fine example of how sound and music was used in games from the 1980's era. So what this tells us is that even though there was little to no use of cinematic aesthetics in video games in it's early years there are traces of it to be found in specific game titles like Super Mario Bros, but it is nowhere near the cinematic aesthetics we see in games today.

Contemporary Games:

If we now look at more modern and contemporary games in general we can see an explosive development in graphics, storytelling and game mechanics and it is here we can see just how much cinematography, use of music, sound effects and the use of mise en scène has influenced the world of video games. Thanks to the rapid development of graphic engines, 3D rendering and a lot of other technological innovations we now have fully rendered, rich and sometimes hyper-realistic game worlds and universes that characters(avatars) interact with, instead of the classic 2D platform games of the 1980's with their 8- bit graphics and bright colors . Like films games are becoming a mimetic art form. In assassins' Creed (2008) the setting switches between a modern day alternate universe and a historically inspired universe in the Holy land during the time of the third crusade. The two different time lines are clearly represented to us by the use of mise en scène. In the Holy Land the architecture of the towns of Masyaf, Acre and Jerusalem hint at the historic placement. The "Arabic" clothes that are worn by all the indigenous inhabitants and the chainmail, capes and tabards worn by the Templars give us pointers as to the time and place we are supposed to be situated in. The use of a strong white light gives an almost washed out and distressed color palette heightening the sense of gritty "realness". The way the characters speak to each other is tinted by Arabic accents and often follow a more serious and convoluted speech pattern than what we are used to in our time. There is also a lot of freedom when it comes to movement, the avatar can explore his surroundings quite freely in contrast to Super Mario where you can only move sideways, up or down. All of these things are done to create a feeling of a coherent, historical and believable world. The modern setting on the other hand is clean and polished and almost a little Sci-Fi inspired. The palette is grey and white and the area in which you can move is very limited which helps to relate the the feeling of being trapped to the audience. Instead of the classic text based adventures most games are written almost like films today, and studios employ voice actors to effectively give life to their characters by employing accents and mannerisms. They have art departments dedicated to just designing costumes and characters, and others dedicated to environmental designs(setting), they employ storyboards and composers work on themes and soundtracks for the games just like they would for a film. The use of music in modern games can be both diegetic and non-diegetic and it is no longer static. A good example of this is ?Lelianas Song? from Dragon Age Origins. It is sung by one of the NPC's named Leliana that follows your avatar as a party member. If you make the effort to get to know Leliana in the game she will perform a sad and beautiful song for the party while you are resting in your camp area. This only happens if you care about getting to know your followers and take advantage of this special and well crafted game mechanic that has set Dragon Age apart from a lot of other RPG's. Music and sound has become dynamic and is now often used to set the tone for a game, convey the mood of a certain cut-scene, as a leitmotif or to give character to specific areas in the game.

In my opinion the convergent use of cinematic aesthetics such as sound and cinematography in games can be most clearly seen in the cinematic prologues that often introduce the players to the game upon playing it for the first time and also in the cinematic trailers that game producers often release before the game itself is officially released. They are just like movie trailers, made to entice you into playing the game and pull you into the specific universe built around it. A perfect example of this is the first few seconds of the cinematic trailer that was released for the first Assassin's Creed action/adventure game in 2008 (see visual reference list). The trailer begins with a flickering rush of images as if the viewer is seeing fragments of a film or broken memories, then it cuts to an extreme long shot of an ancient city in the holy land before it takes the viewer into the midst of the city where an angry mob has gathered in a square where they have witnessed an execution. The ?camera? follows one of the executioners from behind through a dolly shot. He is a Templar in a long cape sauntering along the edge of the platform. The camera then moves on to a close-up of a wild bird perched on the gallows. The bird cries, takes flight and is followed by the camera through two different shots, a static shot, and then a dynamic crane shot as it soars up and passes a bell tower where the mysterious and hooded protagonist of the game, Altair comes into view. He is then seen in silhouette framed by back lighting from the sun in the sky, effectively obscuring parts of his costume, but revealing his precarious position on the ledge of the tall tower. Once again the image begins to flicker, making the viewer wonder if what he or she is seeing is actually real. We see the gallows through the eyes of Altair, he has found his target, the man we saw earlier on the gallows platform. The camera moves to Altairs back, a large bell chimes and momentarily obscures our line of sight. When it leaves the frame Altair has vanished and we see birds fluttering away from the bell tower in a frogs view perspective. We then see Altair once again from the back pushing through the crowd, gently at first before he begins to rush at the gallows. He neutralizes two guards before he leaps at the Templar, driving his blade into his quarry. This is done in a slow motion effect that allows the audience to see every little detail and movement involved in the action. The assassination becomes a thing of beauty almost and the brutality of it is lost on us as we are taken in by it. While we see the events mentioned above unfold we can vaguely hear the chants from the crowd, the chiming of the bell and then drums beginning to beat rhythmically in the background. They get louder and more insistent as Altair closes on his target. The sound effects build tension and fills us with anticipation. The music reaches it's most intense point when the protagonist sinks his blade in his victim. The camera then moves away in what looks like a crane shot. Altair stands over the dead Templar and then rushes away to escape from the reinforcements that have arrived on the scene. Sequences like this one keep appearing throughout the entire game and reveal crucial plot points to the player and has become more and more a standard in modern video games, cut scenes in the game itself will generally contain a lot more dialogue though. The video game seems to have become a kind of hybrid between game and film (Chatfield, 2011). Other examples of games where this cinematic influence can clearly be seen are Final Fantasy X (2001), Dishonored (2012) and The Witcher(2007). The Assassin's Creed cinematic trailer actually bears a strong resemblance to contemporary action films. Especially it draws my thoughts towards a scene from the movie Dredd (2012). In this film the main villain Madeline Madrigal (Ma-Ma) played by Lena Headey is tossed from the top of a building and falls down 200 floors. Because of a drug aptly called Slow-Mo that she has been forced to take by judge Dredd she experiences the entire fall in slow motion and the viewer shares in on her slow motion fall. Instead of falling it looks like she is flying and all around her there are pieces of falling shimmering broken glass from the window she was tossed through. We are seeing the impossible made possible. Instead of brutal and horrific the scene seems almost beautiful and serene until she hits the ground and blood explodes all over the floor.

I believe it is safe to say that through the examination of the examples I have provided above from both Dragon Age: Origins and Assassin's Creed it becomes very clear that video games have taken on a huge influence from film and owes a lot of it's growing popularity to cinematic aesthetics. As Tom Chatfield puts it in his article Bridging the gap:

"We owe to cinema, after all, the development of almost the entire modern aesthetic of moving images. From panning shots to close-ups, zooms, fades, reverse angles and slow motion we see and describe the world today through minds trained by the conventions of cinematography?and modern video games remain more indebted to these techniques than perhaps any other art form in our culture. "
(Chatfield, 2011)

Without cinematic aesthetics where would video games be today? Would they still be stuck in their arcade and platform modes? Would there only be games like Tetris out there where the only thing that matters is game mechanics and puzzle solving skills? Would there even be a market for games at all or would the gaming culture have died away like it threatened to do before Super Mario Bros. revitalized the market? Would they be able to tell the amazing stories they are capable of telling us so artistically and effectively today without the help they receive from cinematic aesthetics? I believe the answer to be no. Without cinematic aesthetics and the large element of storytelling that is so central to games today I believe the market would not really exist and gamers would never have discovered the joy of playing a game where the story is gripping, the world is believable and the mechanics are interesting and intuitive all at the same time.

Films and how they have been affected by game aesthetics:

Video Games have been affected by cinematic aesthetics for a long time and almost only in positive ways, but what happens when a film is inspired by game aesthetics? Things get complicated. First of all games are interactive things and films are not. When you watch a film you are passive and you hold no control over how the narrative will end, it is predetermined. When you are playing a game you are active and capable of changing certain events. So when you take a a video game aesthetic, replicate it and put it into a film you might end up with something that seems mindless and not engaging at all (Chatfield, 2011). Prime examples of this can be seen in films like Sucker Punch (2011). When you watch this movie you get the feeling that you are watching a video game being played. The five girls in the movie are trapped in an asylum with a crooked warden. They make a plan to escape their prison and every time they try to attain an item they need to make their escape they enter a fantasy world filled with dragons, Nazi zombies, orcs or giant golem samurais. You are being entertained while watching it but you feel nothing except perhaps an admiration for the fantastic special effects that are being employed. I maintain that Sucker Punch would have been a fantastic video game because of its spectacular stunts, breathtaking special effects and interesting world building, but is a terrible film for it's failed attempt to employ game aesthetics. Films where the use of game aesthetics have been used to great success however are the previously mentioned Dredd from 2012 and the first installment in the Matrix trilogy from 1999. In both these movies the use of a camera as a virtual presence freed from the constraints of time, place and gravity and the sense of an exploratory freedom that you often find in video games is used in a masterful way (Chatfield, 2011). Every time somebody imbibes themselves with the Slow-Mo drug in Dredd time slows down and you get the same feeling as you would in Assassin's Creed before Altair dives from a tall building or when he performs a special attack. When Neo in the Matrix is able to upload information and new skills into his mind and body through the chair he is hooked up to in one of the films scenes it hints to how a player can upgrade an avatar through level-ups inside a video game. The same can be said for the iconic scene where an agent fires several bullets at Neo. Time slows down until we can see how the bullets create ripple effects in the air and how Neo is able to dodge them in an inhuman show of speed and agility. Altair show some of the same attributes through his use of Parkour and other acrobatic skills. The characters in both game and film become something more than merely human and through the magic of storytelling, special effects and cutting edge cinematography we are able to suspend our own disbelief. So what we can take from this is that films have indeed been influenced by game aesthetics, but that it has not always been successfully handled. Great care has to be taken to avoid the pit-falls of game aesthetics when applied to film. It could of course be said that it is possible to take the cinematic influence too far as well. In the case of Heavy Rain (2010) this has been a hot topic. The games plot is very Film Noir inspired and because of it's very singular game play it feels like you are playing through an interactive movie instead of an actual game. It has been met with accolades for it's inventive and unusual game play from gaming magazines such as IGN, but has also seen a lot of critique from the gaming society for being too much like a film, for having huge plot holes and for being a step backwards in the evolution of games (Houghton, 2012).

Video game and film adaptations:

So far I have examined how cinematic aesthetics have influenced games in the 1980's and in the present, and also how game aesthetics have influenced films. What I haven't yet mentioned is how a film adaptation of a game is received or how video game adaptations of films are received. A lot of books have in the past been adapted into films with great success. The most noteworthy amongst them are perhaps the Lord of the Rings trilogy which have been hugely successful since they hit the silver screen. Unfortunately the same can not be said for film adaptations of games. Most films that have been based on classic or successful games often end up as turkeys. The classic martial arts fighting games Street Fighter and DoA (Dead or Alive) and the adventure game Tomb Raider have all been turned into motion pictures and have been termed as being both cheesy and mediocre or straight out bad. There has been quite a few turkeys where video game adaptations based on films are concerned as well, but there has however been a lot of quite successful games in this area too. Quite a few Star Wars games like the PC game KOTOR (Knights of the old Republic, 2003) have been very successful and it is still being played by avid gamers and fans of the franchise. The Nintendo 64 game Goldeneye (1997) based on the James Bond movie with the same title from 1995 was also quite the hit when it was released. One has to wonder why movie adaptations of games seem to be doing so poorly when compared to games that have been adapted from films. It may be that because the games are so interactive to begin with the classic film format is too restricting. It may also be due to the fact that the scripts for most films that are adapted from games are quite sloppy, full of plot holes and are ridiculously easy to predict. They also have to take strict time line regulations into consideration. Games on the other hand have the opportunity to expand the preexisting universe that we have already been introduced to in a film without having to worry about time in the same manner. The one thing it usually comes down to though seems to be the budget.


Now that I have looked at the converging relationship between game aesthetics and cinematic aesthetics by comparing how cinematic aesthetics have affected the development of video games and vice versa by using films and video games as examples I believe that I with some degree of certainty can point out the most general ways in which the two different aesthetics have influenced each other and why they to do so. First of all cinematic aesthetics have given video games the gift of cinematography (exposure, perspective, speed of motion etc.), Mise en Scène and also the classic Hollywood style that can be found in many though not all video games containing a narrative. It has contributed to the video games transformation into a hybrid of film and game that showcases the best of two worlds. It has also helped to make storytelling become a prominent and well integrated part of games and game mechanics, especially in RPG's. Video game aesthetics have in turn made films a sort of hybrid as well. A lot of the same techniques that go into rendering a game today are also used to create for example fantasy, super hero or sci-fi movies. They make seeing the impossible possible. Also by utilizing the same emotion and aesthetics of a gaming experience (Chatfield, 2011) like it has been done in Dredd and The Matrix they create the interactive feel of games without any real interaction. It has also freed the camera from just being an extension of the human eye, the camera can be virtual and freed from it's normal constraints. So in converging with each other games and films have begun to meld together, games more so than films though. A lot of, but certainly not all of the work that goes into producing a film seems identical to what goes into making a video game. They share cinematography, use of music to set tone and amplify the experience of the game or film. Where they clearly differ is that a film is a type of narrative whereas a game can only contain a narrative. A film has a set plot and it will not change and can not be affected like the plot of some games can. In a lot of games you are the hero and events are altered based on your active participation, whilst in the films you are passively watching the hero as a silent witness. So why have video game and cinematic aesthetics converged as they have? One reason might be because it is possible. Video game graphics have become so realistic that they are capable of blending almost seamlessly into motion pictures, and because there is a growing demand for more realistic games it seems almost natural to implement cinematic cut-scenes and camera techniques into video games. It is hard to give an absolute answer to this question, but if one were to theorize over it one could say that just as the camera, films and cinematic aesthetics has taught us to see and experience the world in a certain way video games have begun to do the same. We have gotten used to seeing things from impossible angles and in impossible ways like the shattered glittering glass that surrounds Ma-Ma's fall in Dredd and the slow motion assassination of a target in Assassin's Creed. We are more willing to suspend our disbelief than we were before and the lines that separate reality and the virtual world are easy to blur thanks to the advanced and realistic computer generated worlds we immerse ourselves in often on a daily basis by watching films and playing video games.

"we are building worlds ever more finely attuned not to the limits of actuality, but to our own hunger for experience."
(Chatfield 2011)

According to Chatfield we hunger for experience, for something new that we have never seen before or have never been able to do before. The convergence of cinema and video game aesthetics makes this possible because it enables us to construct worlds and universes both in films and games where anything is possible and our imagination is the only thing that can hold us back.


- Aarseth, Espen, 2012, ? A Narrative Theory of Games?

Copenhagen : Center for Computer Games Research, IT University of Copenhagen

- Bordwell, David and Thompson, Kristin 2013, ?Chapter 4, The shot: Mise en scène? p. 112 in Film Art ? An introduction, tenth edition. New York: McGraw-Hill

- Bordwell, David and Thompson, Kristin 2013 ?Chapter 3, Narrative Form? p.97-98 in Film Art ? An introduction, tenth edition. New York: McGraw-Hill

- Bordwell, David and Thompson, Kristin 2013 ?Chapter 5, The shot: cinematography? p.160 in Film Art ? An introduction, tenth edition. New York: McGraw-Hill

- Chatfield, Tom, 2011, ?Bridging the gap: When film and game aesthetics cross over? in Prospect Magazine.

- Houghton, David, 2012, ?Heavy Rains big plot holes? ,, articles.


- Lacey, Nick, 2000,?Introduction to narrative theory? in Narrative and genre. Key concepts in media studies. Germany: Macmillan press ltd.

- Salen, Katie and Eric Zimmerman, 2004, Rules of Play. Game Design Fundamentals

- Tetris Holdings, 1985-2013, ?History?, official Tetris website.

Visual reference:

Assassin's Creed cinematic trailer 2007, Ubisoft

Lelianas song, Dragon Age: Origins, 2009, EA Games.

Neo dodging bullets, The Matrix, 1999, Warner Bros.

Ma-Ma falls to her death, from Dredd, 2012, DNA Films

(c) Anita K. Olsen Støbakk. Skrevet for eksamen i Mevit 1110 Audiovisual Aesthetics ved Universitetet i Oslo høsten 2013.

No comments:

Post a Comment