What does “cinematic” even mean in the context of video games? I here people use that term to describe cutscenes and how they’re more like movies, but I never quite understood what that actually meant and how one can be more “cinematic” than another, or that a game gives a “cinematic experience.”
First I think you have to ask what does cinematic mean in the context of films.
How do you define the word cinematic?
Here’s some articles from off google.
You know how there’s a different look between home movies and television or feature film? It has something to do with the position of characters, the lighting, the camera angle, the action going on. One way of putting it that seems common is that cinematic is used to describe imagery that uses the film format to deliver information specific to that format.
So cinematic in a game sense probably means delivering on a similar thing, using the frame and the objects in it to suggest information through the mutual context between objects in the frame. Here’s a game commonly cited as an example:
In these shots you get a clear sense of scale. Wander is off-center in the shots. The imagery is iconic because the actions are iconic and specific to each colossus. You get the sword guy smashing you with the sword you have to run up, you get the last one firing down on you, the repeated imagery of hanging on for dear life atop something massive. The game is set up to naturally enable these moments. Even the environments are nicely framed during traversal.
Of course, this doesn’t normally occur in most games. Most games are a weird mishmash of shots without any particular composition. Some games try to force this using fixed camera angles, canned animations, or of course quicktime events. When you can control everything in the shot, much as a movie director can, of course you can get cinematic shots, but also of course, this comes at the expense of the gameplay.
Though, it could also an interesting creative limitation. Maybe trying to think of how a game can create those types of cinematic shots leads you to design the environments, characters, enemies, animations, actions, camera angles, a certain way. Maybe you end up with another flash in the pan like SotC. It’s always worth considering things from another angle.
Check out this trailer. Look at all the gameplay shots. Look at how they’re composed to show off the background, characters, world. Notice how a bunch of them aren’t actually possible to do in the game (like plunge attacking the minotaur that close to his starting tower, with the camera noticeably pointed downwards to capture the bridge too), or never actually occur (prerendered scene with the chosen undead and companions like Black Iron Tarkus, and Anastacia at firelink), or are very unlikely to occur (3 phantoms all facing down the Hellkite Wyvern as it blows fire at them).
These shots are cinematic, many of them are more cinematic than the actual game is. When the game happens to line up shots like these, it becomes cinematic. Of course, that’s hard to do naturally, doesn’t happen for dark souls most of the time.
That type of creative limitation, trying to make a game that creates cinematic moments inherently through the scenery, camera, characters, lighting, actions, etc. It might be a neat inspiration. Maybe you start thinking about systems in a new way, maybe you think to include a different subject matter or shape your environments differently. Just remember, that’s not the primary job, and don’t kill the game in the name of cinematic visuals.
To compare to the elephant in the room, The Order 1886. It’s a game that has cinematic lighting and shot composition. It has game texts and button prompts overlaying scenes that look like cutscenes
And it’s a shit game, big surprise. A lot of the fancy shots limit your point of interaction as much as a quicktime event, and of course there are quicktime events.
So in short, cinematic, it’s a thing. Maybe you’ll find some source of inspiration in it. Don’t let it be your everything or your game is gonna suck.