See You in the Movies: How VR is Changing the Meaning of Cinematic Games

Exercise restraint in VR game design!

If there’s one word that describes many of my favorite games, it’s cinematic. What that means, however, can be a little nebulous. When I call Final Fantasy X cinematic, am I talking about the long, beautiful cutscenes, or the epic battles? When critics refer to the Uncharted series as cinematic games, does that mean the Indiana Jones-inspired stories, or the action sequences?

When we call a video game cinematic, we’re saying it somehow reminds us of a film. As games become more immersive and distinguish themselves as a unique art form, the exact elements that constitute a game being cinematic evolve, especially in the light of virtual reality.

Cinematic Games Channel Film’s Epic Storytelling and Introspection

One of the most basic meanings of cinematic is that a game features cutscenes. Here, cinematic means that you feel like you’re watching a movie because you basically are—while cutscenes are usually intertwined with gameplay, they’re essentially short films that pass without player input. In fact, cutscenes are often criticized for the way that they remove player agency from what is meant to be an interactive experience.

However, there’s more to the quality of being cinematic than merely restricting interactivity. Final Fantasy X, which is a lengthy, epic narrative with many cutscenes, is called cinematic because of how it feels to play, not just because of its passive scenes. In this sense, the game is cinematic because it places particular emphasis on its narrative. You play to get to the next section of the story, not just for the sake of enjoying the gameplay itself. In games like this, cinematic doesn’t refer to just the cutscenes, but rather how the plot is what pulls you forward. The sweeping set pieces, creature design, and intense worldbuilding make for a story that feels worthy of film.

Final Fantasy X Cutscenes
Final Fantasy X‘s gorgeous cutscenes are part of the appeal, not a distraction. Image Source: Square Enix.

The walking simulator genre is also commonly pegged as cinematic, though less for its huge scale and more for its emphasis on scenery and theme. Something like Firewatch, for example, may be categorized as such not because it’s fast-paced and exciting, but because it’s so heavily invested in its visual elements. Games like this are less focused on gameplay and more on telling a thought-provoking story, usually using player input to control pace. While Final Fantasy X might fit in among epics like The Lord of the Rings or Avatar, Firewatch is more like Into the Wild. It’s an introspective, slower-paced, graphically-impressive story that, despite its lack of action, is still cinematic in its own way.

VR Brings New Meaning to Cinematic Games

Clarifying the meaning of “cinematic” become even trickier when you factor VR into the equation. VR can be used for both film and games, so cinematic may mean a game really is an interactive movie, or it may mean something more closely aligned with other definitions of the term. Though admittedly confusing, this ambiguity opens up new doors for both filmmakers and developers. VR is a perfect bridge between films and games, as it allows for interactive movies that show off the fun of exploring three-dimensional spaces, as well as the storytelling prowess of video games that allow for up-close personal interactions.

While a movie that feels like a game, such as Hardcore Henry, is still a movie, a VR film, because of its interactivity, can be both—as can an especially movie-like VR game. These muddied waters are a good thing—more crossover means larger audiences for all this new technology, cementing its place for fans of both.

loading human vr game alice character
Emotional connections and story are at the heart of Loading Human, much like a movie.

Games like Loading Human straddle this line quite neatly. Loading Human is undeniably a video game—it features puzzles and interactions, unlike many of the virtual reality films being shown at festivals—but it’s also a narrative-driven experience inspired by films like Moon. Games like this are intentionally cinematic, drawing their influence equally from film and gaming.

Loading Human and similar games illustrate how an emphasis on storytelling, emotional connections, and realistic characterization make virtual reality games feel more like movies. This style of design, which infuses the accepted storytelling potential for film with interactivity, allows for crossover audiences; people who never play games may like the experience of an interactive film, leading them to dip their toes into the world of gaming for the first time, while people who love the immersion of VR may find a special connection to unique films through the new technology.

Cinematic VR Games Encourage Media Crossovers

Whether a game is cinematic or not has less to do with what genre it is or how frequent the cutscenes are, and more to do with how effectively it channels the feeling of watching a great movie. Because what constitutes a great movie is subjective, it’s even harder to pin down the definition of cinematic—for some, action sequences are a tiresome distraction, while others find them the hallmark of a great film.

When you add VR into the mix, things get even more complicated—but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. As virtual reality bridges the gap between film and games, we’ll see more filmmakers and directors experimenting with what defines each one. That’s good for both industries. Once again, the term “cinematic” is evolving—this time, to refer to video games that are appealing to more than just the gaming audience.

Loading Human features an incredible introspective journey through one man’s memories. Order your copy of the first chapter today!

 

Andrew Nguyen

Producer, gamer, coffee roaster, leather worker, and part-time streamer.

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