Sunday, 27 October 2013

Escape From the Movies - How Videogames Stole Cinema, but then Gave it Back

Escape from the Movies – How Videogames Stole Cinema, But Then Gave it Back

How Games Used to Look

  • Due to technical limitations, the aesthetic of games in the 70s, 80s and early 90s was dominated by chunky, pixellated environments, stark colours and basic shapes:

Basically every design principle in the graphics of early 80′s arcade games was governed by the insane limitations of the tiny systems of the day. A list of qualities and factors that fed into creating the early 80′s aesthetic [includes]: Large pixels, tiny sprites, limited colour palette and 2-3 frame animations. At the time there often wasn’t a dedicated video processing unit, or even dedicated video memory — everything was handled by the CPU, which often dedicated most of its processing power to simply drawing each frame of video, leaving relatively little processing power left over for handling game logic.”

Sanyk, Chris. “The Early 80s Arcade Aesthetic”, May 2nd, 2012,

  • Though Stanyk seems to suggest that these technical limitations stifled game aesthetics, we may argue that in fact, they inspired an aesthetic much more unique to videogames than anything created on more advanced consoles.

Stealing Cinema

  • Sophisticated consoles such as the PlayStation 1 and Nintendo 64 allowed game-makers to create detailed, photo-realistic worlds. With these possibilities now open to them, and with the growing cost of videogame development adding pressure to appeal to a broader market, game developers started to take influence from cinema, a form similar to games in its reliance on visual spectacle, which also enjoyed a much more lucrative market:

Along with the industry’s growth into a significant section of popular culture, the audience had shaped to consist mostly of casual players and children, and the proportional number of “sophisticated” players who shaped the audience of the 1980’s interactive fiction had de- creased to a margin.”

Karhulati, Veli-Matti. “The Aesthetics of Early Adventure Games: A Reflection of Film History,” The International Journal of the Arts in Society, Volume 6, Issue 2, April, 2011.

  • However, rather than adapt visual elements of film into games, game-makers simply borrowed from film wholesale. “Cutscenes”, fully-animated short films shown at key narrative points in games, became the standard format for videogames to tell stories. Aesthetically and narratively, games became an indistinct hybrid of cinema and videogaming, and over time drew criticism for ignoring the aesthetic idiosyncracies of the medium and instead merely stealing from films:

Cutscenes, which clearly don't have anything to do with videogames, might be the most misused and excessive element in contemporary videogaming. Some developers seem to forget there is an art of writing videogames which doesn't rely that much on cinema. Squaresoft, notably with Final Fantasy 8 and the infamous The Bouncer, totally forgot the fact that a game cannot be summed up by a succession of cutscenes punctuated with vague gaming sequences”

Gaultier, Pierre. “Videogames and Cinema,” Polygonweb, March, 2001.

Ludonarrative Dissonance

  • The adoption of cinematic aesthetics into a game leads to a creative conflict between the game-maker, trying to impose the controlled creation and passive viewing of cinema, and the game player, who, as the term “playing” suggests, expects a certain degree of freedom, deviation and self-expression when interacting with a videogame:

A videogame is a network in which the player is free to choose his own path. Each crossroad implies a choice and some risk-taking. The viewer is free and active. At the movies, the viewer is captive and passive: he follows a story from beginning to end, a story whose rhythm and twists he cannot influence.”

Delorme, Gerard. Premiere Magazine, as quoted in “Videogames and Cinema,” March 14th 2001, Polygonweb.

  • Game designer Clint Hocking summarised this conflict, coining the term “ludonarrative dissonance”:

By throwing the narrative and ludic elements of the work into opposition, the game seems to openly mock the player for having believed in the fiction of the game at all. The leveraging of the game’s narrative structure against its ludic structure all but destroys the player’s ability to feel connected to either, forcing the player to either abandon the game in protest or simply accept that the game cannot be enjoyed as both a game and a story, and to then finish it for the mere sake of finishing it.”

Hocking, Clint. “Ludonarrative Dissonance in BioShock,” October 7th, 2007,

Giving Cinema Back

  • In response, a new type of videogame aesthetic has emerged, which aims to blend the game-maker's narrative intentions with the player's desire to explore. This new aesthetic is illustrated by the games BioShock and Gone Home:

Where Gone Home truly excels is as a masterful execution of implicit narrativeconveying key story and character information using subtle environmental elements instead of explicit dialogue. It is only as a game that Gone Home is able to so effectively convey the subtle nuances of character that give it its deep emotional impact, and as such it represents a huge leap forward for narrative videogames. It may not tell an incredible story, but it certainly tells it in an incredible way.

Lindsey, Patrick. “On Time and Space in Gone Home”, August 21st, 2013, Tumblr

Suggested Reading

Hocking, Clint. “Ludonarrative Dissoance in BioShock”,October 7th 2007,

Smith, Edward. “The Time I Wasn't John Marston”, March 29th 2013, Escapist Magazine.

Juul, Jesper. “Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics – The Whole Thing”, June 29th 2004,

Bogost, Ian. “Perpetual Adolescence – The Fullbright Company's Gone Home”, September 28th 2013, Los Angeles Review of Books

King, Geoff and Krzywinska, Tanya. “Computer Games/Cinema/Interfaces”, March, 2002, Digital Games Research Assocaition (DiGRA) Library

Suggested Playing

The Stanley Parable”. Galactic Cafe. Available on Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X.

Kentucky Route Zero”. Carboard Computer. Available on Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X.

1 comment:

  1. It's fun to see yourself quoted in the writing of another :)

    But I'd just like to set the record straight, I in no way suggested in my article on the 80's Video Game Aesthetic that technical limitations stifled creators. The limits forced them to be creative in other ways, doing more with less, and required them to innovate to overcome the limitations, and do things that no other medium would have led them to, resulting in entirely new aesthetic styles that continue to be vibrant and relevant today, even though computer hardware performance has improved exponentially for over thirty years.