Game presentation has rather suddenly reached an awkward point, leading to an uncomfortable dichotomy between pre-rendered ‘intro’ movies and actual gameplay. This never used to be a problem, as the intro movies accompanying games in the 90s and early 2000s were so far in advance of the in-game visuals and gameplay that there was never really a possibility for direct comparison. In light of the current generation of real time graphics and gameplay depth this is no longer the case.
Let’s take Warhammer Online as our example. The cinematic intro movie for the game was unveiled at Leipzig this month and it’s undeniably impressive:
As well as being exciting and beautiful, the trailer also succeeds in presumably introducing all the playable races – dwarves, elves, gingers etc – and establishing the ‘world’ of the game. However, the combat that is depicted, from the massive scale siege warfare to the flippy-jumpy acrobatics of the elf woman, is embarassingly misrepresentative of the game itself. As evidence, here is a look at what fighting in the game itself is like:
Not quite the same, is it? In fact, the combat and interface looks practically identical to World of Warcraft, to the degree that it could be the same game with slightly different art design – emphasis on the ‘slightly’, given that the Warcraft series has always shown a heavy influence from the Warhammer franchise. While we’re on the subject, WoW also has a new cinematic trailer for the forthcoming Wrath of the Lich King expansion:
Again, it’s a superb short movie (with a brilliantly ironic voiceover for those familiar with Warcraft III) but is about as far from the game experience as is possible. Back in the days of the Warcraft RTS games this wasn’t a problem, though. The movies set the scene and were clearly separate from the gameplay, both co-existing happily. CG cut-scenes that accompanied older roleplaying games such as Final Fantasy and even more recent titles like Knights of the Old Republic were perfectly forgiveable, because at the time games were still relatively limited both in visual terms and gameplay possibilities. As the gameplay didn’t even attempt to mimic the movies, there was never a need to compare.
With MMOGs offering players increasingly deep social interaction, the likes of Crysis delivering visuals that are on a par with the pre-rendered movies and RTS games depicting armies in the thousands, games are finally catching up, both in terms of what you can do in games and what they look like. This inevitably invites comparison, but the only conclusion possible at the moment is that the games are still woefully inferior.
Even games that attempt to craft their experiences almost entirely in-game, such as Bioware’s Mass Effect and upcoming Dragon Age, the results only serve to highlight the massive gulf between the game experience and the movie-going experience. Dragon Age appears to have battles on a scale not really seen before in an RPG, but it isn’t Lord of the Rings. Mass Effect has the most realistic human characters we’ve seen so far and some great locations, but it’s not Battlestar Galactica.
The problem with the all the games mentioned above is that they are all obsessed with mimicking movies, whether it be in-game or in a cut-scene or intro movie. The supposedly impressive moments are still distanced from the player by a compulsion to shoehorn the language of cinema into the medium of games. Now that games have got to a level where comparison is even a possibility, it only serves to highlight that games have a long way to go and have not yet defined their own language.
The ‘uncanny valley‘ is a term used to describe the problem inherent in creating convincing, photorealistic artificial humans. If depicted in a simplified, cartoon fashion they can be entirely convincing, while the closer they get to reality the harder it is to maintain the suspension of disbelief. This also applies to the rest of the game experience – the closer they get to the extravagance of the ‘intro movie’, the greater the challenge.
Then you have games which don’t play by the same rules and which aren’t quite so obessed with cinema. The Half Life series has no pre-rendered cut-scenes or intro movies. It doesn’t slavishly follow the conventions of cinema and has instead crafted its own methods of storytelling. The experience is contained entirely within the gameplay itself, lessening the almost subconscious desire to compare.