Cinematography is a bit of an alien concept to most video games. As the name might suggest, it relates primarily to cinema, involving the fine details of the composition of shots – All that stuff that determines whether a film looks – and feels – like a world-class work of art or a cheap soap opera. Most of the time this passes movie-goers by – at the very least, they rarely notice good cinematography, but just spot the really bad stuff. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever watched a direct-to-DVD movie and thought it just looked cheap in some way that you couldn’t quite put your finger on. There are a few rare exceptions – plenty of people noticed Roger Deakins’ phenomenal work on Skyfall – but for the most part, people who aren’t filmmakers, critics or Academy Award judges don’t notice cinematography.
That might go some way to explaining why it hasn’t had much significance in video games thus far. More importantly, it’s that interactive element that scuppers things – great cinematography is all about trying to control every detail of a shot, which is difficult to achieve when you’ve handed control over to the player. A developer can’t go and frame a beautiful shot if the player will be able to move their character, change the camera angle, and then blow up the statue creating those beautiful shadows.
Is this one of the artistic limitations of modern video games? After all, it’s still very much a visual medium, much like cinema (though that isn’t to say gaming is entirely visual, obviously), and it’s very clear that lots of people pay an awful lot of attention to games’ visuals. That should be obvious to anyone who’s taken part in a debate about which console has superior graphics, obsessed over frame rates and graphic settings, or just remembers the furor that accompanied the unveiling of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker all those years ago.
David Cage, director of Heavy Rain and the recent Beyond: Two Souls, has often faced accusations of being a failed filmmaker, stuck making games when he’d rather be on a Hollywood set. That’s because his games are undeniably filmic, and because he has often spoken of everything that the games industry can learn from the history of film. Unsurprisingly, he has a similar opinion when it comes to cinematography. Speaking to the Tribeca Film Festival he said that, “Actually we don’t have a DP [Director of Photography] in games, and this is something we are going to change on the next game because I can really feel now that the technology has reached a stage where we need one.” In the interview, he discusses how on Beyond, the team at Quantic Dreams used more fixed shots, rather than moving the camera around needlessly, along with attempts to use physical cameras to film motion capture, and recreate physical camera effects such as depth of field within the game engine – lessons learnt from studying cinema.
Cage has come under criticism in the past for his claims that gaming should learn from cinema, but in this case at least there’s really no need – this is about making the most of the visual territory shared in common with cinema, not about sacrificing any of the stuff that makes games unique. Cage is aware of the challenges involved in the interactive medium. “When you’re not in a cutscene the player is in control, he can navigate wherever he wants, and you need to make sure that you have a sense of cinematography all the time.” It’s the attempt to replicate physical lenses that Cage hopes provides this sense of cinematography throughout Beyond, even as the player, rather than the designers, decides where to point the camera. Cage doesn’t want cinema’s influence to start and end with cutscenes, he wants to bring lessons from film into the whole interactive gaming experience.
It would be tempting to say that the way to bring cinematography into games is to wrestle control away from the player. One could imagine, for example, a game proposing a return to Resident Evil’s fixed camera angles and pre-rendered backgrounds – these allowed the developers total control over the framing and lighting of every shot in the game. But this of course comes at the cost of interaction – it makes games more cinematic, but at the cost of part of what makes them games. Resident Evil’s system was, of course, a compromise due to technology at the time – a way to have detailed and complex backgrounds without being too taxing for the Playstation to handle, and as the tech improved, the franchise dropped the stylistic quirk.
Resident Evil actually offers another example of the importance that camera angles can have for games: Resident Evil 4’s over-the-shoulder perspective. An attempt to strike a balance between the first-person viewpoint and the third-person history of the series, Resident Evil 4 left its camera hovering just over its protagonist Leon’s shoulder. A small change in some respects, but one that has a major impact on the game, making enemy attacks feel more urgent and pressing, while still allowing you to see Leon and his position in the game world. This may have been a change that primarily impacted gameplay rather than changing the visual feel of the game, but it demonstrates the significance that small camera tweaks can have.
Offering players almost total camera control has been common practice in gaming ever since the days of Super Mario 64, and anyone who played early 3D platformers will remember that battling the game for control of the camera came to define the era, with the best titles often being the ones with the best – and freest – camera. It’s understandable why, as early camera algorithms often left players unable to see the jumps they had to make, or swapped camera angles all of a sudden, inverting left-right controls with them. When the camera began to interfere with gameplay like that, it’s no surprise that the solution often became to simply give the player free reign.
Perhaps a balance can be found, however. 3D platforming might be a good route to the answer, and we’ll stick with Mario: the Super Mario Galaxy games are a great example. With their gravity-bending, perspective-f******* gameplay, the Galaxy camera no doubt took up a decent chunk of development time, and it’s a testament to those games’ polish that it works at all, with it only rarely a source of frustration. What’s important about it for my purposes is that it allows the player control of the camera, while at the same time automatically selecting the appropriate camera angle for every moment. As you zoom between planetoids, flip upside-down, and god knows what else, the camera keeps up, offering you a perfect shot almost every time, presumably guided by a mixture of complex algorithms and some detailed positioning by developers. Nintendo’s development team got to select the perfect angle to view every section of every level, optimized both for gameplay and for aesthetics – while at the same time giving the player the option to tweak their perspective whenever they needed, or wanted to. Meticulous design and free interaction, hand in hand.
Ultimately, the hope is that cinematography will never be particularly noticeable in games – just like it isn’t in cinema for your average viewer. Cinematography in games means more precise camera positioning, better algorithms to determine free-moving cameras, control given to players when they need it. It means depth of field and aperture width, recreating some of the effects of real cameras – when they suit a game’s visuals, of course, as some games will benefit from the freedom to not be tied to the visual style of real cameras. It means using lighting and effects and everything else to make every single frame of a game look exactly how the developer would want it to look – even when it’s a player controlling things. And ultimately, it means most players not even realizing that any of that is happening.