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Old 07-13-2010, 01:33 PM   #1
jrrtoken
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Cinematics: Good? Bad? Buzzword?

There's been a lot of talk about the paradigm of "cinematic" in video games. It's a descriptor, like visceral, mature, hardcore, and any other crock that a marketing agency excretes from a staff meeting. Whenever a game is deemed "cinematic", the description is obtuse and vague; Is the gameplay "cinematic", or are they talking about the emotional-environmental simulation found in the game? When comes to RPGs, this is further mystified. For example, in Fallout, a 2D-isometric RPG, whenever dialogue was initiated, this very clever overlay appeared on the screen, with camera on top, dialogue on the bottom:



Today, this probably wouldn't be considered "cinematic", but in a different light, it does show the PC, the NPC that you're talking to, and the scenery, all though a third-person perspective. Would this not be considered "cinematic"? Within the Fallout example, however, there's also "talking heads"; a more detailed and animated first-person perspective of select NPCs, usually the NPCs being VIPs or other important characters. These "talking heads" were also voice-acted, presumably for "immersion" purposes.



Talking heads were obviously implemented for greater immersion of the player in the gameworld. The addition of a more detailed perspective and voice acting simply boasts "cinematic".

Moving on to a more contemporary example, we have Deus Ex.



Unlike Fallout, the 3D Deus Ex allows for multiple, dynamic camera angles, and also hides all of the HUD and adds a letterbox frame. Is this more "cinematic" than Fallout's talking heads? Everyone also has voice acting and facial animation, and even the PC has his own voice acting. Indeed, Deus Ex does a better job of plunging the player into the sim, if judged on dialogue alone.

However, consider this: does the addition of PC voice acting, a given PC name, and a given PC appearance inadvertently reduces the role-playing effect of bringing the player into the gameworld? RPGs are highly centered around character development, both from a statistical and thematic perspective. They're also based on good storytelling and atmosphere development, as this also puts the player deeper into the role that he/she is playing.

Let's take KotOR, for example:



It shares the same camera angles, NPC voice acting, and letterbox frame as Deus Ex (albeit with greater environmental detail and more unique facial expressions), but unlike Deus Ex and like Fallout, KotOR allows the player to change the PC's name and appearance, and also doesn't include PC voice acting. As a player, which game would provide a greater role-playing experience? Is there a direct trade-off between greater character creation and cinematics, or is the comparison merely subjective?

Let's take Mass Effect:



Alright, we've got all the trappings of Deus Ex; the dynamic camera angles, the PC voice acting, the given surname. But wait, what's with the interface? It's a wheel-based dialogue "hub" with summaries of player responses instead of complete, scripted lines. Mass Effect was highly lauded for being more "cinematic" than previous RPGs, but was the "streamlined" interface really the clincher? For all purposes, it was the same tree-based dialogue system as any previous RPG, albeit with the summarized dialogue options with a more console-oriented faceplate (presumably).

Again, this affirms the character immersion vs. environment/thematic immersion argument, and could be interpreted in many ways. Players don't get the same level of character customization (I'm not talking facially, however) as say, KotOR, but they do feel a greater level of character interactivity (NPCs can address you by name, you can audibly talk back). Yet, you can't play as yourself (Hi, my name is ***** **********), and you're not boxed-in to any preset voice acting, because, well, there is none.

Finally, we have Alpha Protocol*.



Like Mass Effect, Alpha Protocol features a "streamlined" dialogue UI, a premade, voice-acted PC, etc. What Alpha Protocol does differently, however, is providing a different paradigm for dialogues; there are no "trees", everything is linear-based, and you can't "go back" in dialogues. Oh, and there's a timer for responses. This has all the hallmarks of a "cinematic" game, one where there is less player-control. However, what Alpha Protocol does to compensate for less perceived player control is preset "personas" that are featured within (almost) every conversation. Each persona, usually amounting to aggresive, professional, and suave, provides a different personality for the PC, and gives the player more free agency when it comes to storytelling. NPCs will react to the player's personality via each persona "choice", and the consequences can be variable. This also broadens character development, as it allows for one element of P'nP role-playing which hasn't been heavily included within cRPGs: personality development. Morality doesn't really count in Alpha Protcol, as it's completely eschewed, allowing the PC's personality and player preference to decide the perceived "right" choice, with what's "right" to be subject to subjective, personal opinion.

While Alpha Protocol does include a heavy amount of restrictive "cinematics", it does try to compensate for this, and does so fairly well. However, it still eschews much of the free-form entertainment found within many less-cinematic RPGs. This ultimately beckons the question: Should games be more "cinematic"? Are "cinematic" games more entertaining than "non-cinematic" ones?




*groans from the teeming masses
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