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Deus Ex Cinema

  Until recently, I hadn’t been aware of what the term “Deus ex Machina” actually meant. In case you, like myself, are unaware of its intended usage, it’s basically the idea of an illogical plot twist in a narrative. Somebody or something magically shows up and delivers an item, a piece of information, whatever that instantaneously shifts the odds in the protagonist’s favor. It’s a technique that lacks any foreshadowing or realistic connection to the world that it’s taking place in, but it’s convenient, and a quick way for a writer to get themselves out of a corner they’ve written into.

  Now. needless to say, the occurrence of this is rampant in video games, where revelations can be unveiled so suddenly and unpredictably that we sort of just take the lack of a cohesive narrative as a given. But, the majority of games don’t aspire to any heights of literary greatness, so I’m generally willing to overlook it so long as the gameplay holding the whole thing together is solid, and as long as the logic of how you interact with the world isn’t compromised.

  Sadly, however, that logic is quite often slapped, beaten and shot in the kneecaps by the cinema scene.

  3D gaming made the in-game cinematic, as we think of it today, a reality. Cinemas have existed forever in gaming, be it the story of Mr. and Ms. Pac-Man in their respective arcade games, or the Ninja Gaiden franchise’s reliance on mid-level slideshows to weave a narrative, though somehow dodge explaining why you were being attacked a motley crew of buzzards, warlocks and football linebackers. But 3D brought with it the potential for camera angles and cinematography, and the increased storage capacity of CDs made voice acting a possibility. For better or worse, developers had been given the basic tools necessary to feed their moviemaking muse.

  The result was lots of cinema scenes, but very few cinema scenes that in any way improved, or even complemented, the gameplay that they were built into. Cinemas became vanity projects, rarely necessary within the context of the game, but feeding the taste for Hollywood that many game directors seem to have.

  Today, even though cinematics have become as ubiquitous as attract modes are to arcade games, and exponentially more time is spent rendering, shooting and voicing them, they still tend to feel at odds with the actual game that contains them, and so we get what I call “Deus ex Cinema”, where the characters take advantage of abilities or make actions that you, as an in-game player, can’t.

  This is particularly prevalent in RPGs. Since the majority of the actions are taken within menu screens or during combat, your actual in-game avatar tends to have little or no ability, beyond just running around and walking up stairs. Yet a cinema scene comes on, and magically, you see your character jumping across chasms, doing ninja rolls away from enemy attacks, and all sorts of acrobatics that you could never get the character to do under your control. The “God from the cinema” comes down whenever it feels necessary and destroys the logic of how you interact with the world, as well as blatantly undermining the power of the player, taunting you for how limited your control over the characters is.

  Just as bad, if not worse, and present in just about every genre imaginable, is the disparity in power attacks have in-game compared to a cinema. In-game, you may be soaking up gunfire like a sponge, Rambo-ing your way through hordes of enemy soldiers. Then, you get to a cinematic where an enemy nicks you with a single shot, and suddenly you reel back like you’re mortally wounded. “Deus ex Cinema” saw to it that gunfire only affected your character when it was convenient to the storyline. Even worse is party-based games where characters can die and be easily resurrected via item or spell, but then at some point get “legitimately” killed in a cut-scene and can’t be brought back. The ultimate example is the death of Aeris midway through Final Fantasy 7. Anybody who has even a slight understanding of Final Fantasy gameplay logic will tell you that death can be quickly and easily reversed by way of a Phoenix Down, so what about Sephiroth’s katana to the gut made it irreversible? Why didn’t Cloud just toss a PD to Aeris and shrug the whole incident off? Again, a convenient piece of narrative overtakes and undermines the logic of the gameplay, and the player’s ability to realistically affect the game world.

  The typical rallying cry against cinema scenes is “Find a way to incorporate the story into the gameplay”, but I say we need the baby to crawl before we ask it to run a marathon. Ideally, game design will eventually evolve and mature to a point where storytelling and interaction find a beautiful medium, but before we ever look at that as a realistic goal, we just need cinematics to not destroy or undermine the most important story that a game delivers, the one we create as players. If I choose to invest the anywhere from 5 to 50 hours needed to see your creation through to the end, then at least give the impression, create the illusion, that me and you are equal partners in this undertaking.

© Kerry Daniszewski 2005 - 2008.  The character Bubsy is property of Accolade, or whatever still exists of it, and Mai Shiranui is property of SNK Playmore.