Proper Action and Shit – Filmic Techniques in Games

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Another addition to the ever growing series of articles that look, at the mechanics behind video games and their industry, with all the accuracy you can expect from someone who has nothing to do with it. This week, my attention is caught by the shiny prospect of video games utilising techniques normally found in films, and the difficulties and possible benefits that come from nicking ideas from an entirely different industry and forcing it into a different medium of entertainment. Methinks Valve will feature prominently.

Films and video games have had a strange symbiotic relationship in the past decade or so. Every major film release will see a video game being released to tie into it, with the vast majority of attempts being truly awful – to the extent that I don’t actually own a single movie-tie-in game on any platform. This is of course primarily a way of increasing the revenue and exposure the film itself generates, with the game existing in a subservient context, only being there to make the film more popular. Of course, there are games that break that mould and actually achieve the title of Game In It’s Own Right – games such as The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, or the Spiderman 2 game, but in the vast majority of games the end result is dire.

Film is not, however, entirely to blame for this state of affairs – there have been a number of attempts to create films based on games, to an even lower success rate. Although we can place a large portion of the blame for that on one Mr. Uwe Boll, even other people’s attempts have fallen well short of the games they are trying to recreate on the big screen. There have been some films, such as the Resident Evil films and apparently the Max Payne film (although I have yet to see it), that are merely mediocre, but there are no truly classic video game films.

Where a combination of the two have been rather more successful, however, is the attempt to incorporate certain elements of films into games to give the experience more of the atmosphere you can find when you sit down to a film at the cinema. This comes in a huge number of forms, and has a wide spectrum of success when it is implemented, but generally it adds something to the game it’s used in rather than detracting from it.

I’m starting where I predicted I might, with the almighty video game developer is Valve, creators of the Half-Life and Team Fortress series, as well as the recently released Left 4 Dead. Apart from the relatively recently released Team Fortress 2 and even more recently released Left 4 Dead, Valve have very much focused on the single player aspect of videogames. As a result, they use certain techniques that they’ve been honing since the original Half-Life that give a more cinematic experience to the player. For example, by creating a relatively on-rails FPS, Valve can pretty much tell where the player is at any one time, and therefore know fairly accurately what that player will be looking at. As a result, they can script sequences that occur outside the player’s available area to make the world outside seem larger and more realistic. For example, even in the original Half-Life the player would come across locked doors with glass panes, where beyond your reach you could see events unfolding that while not immediately affecting you gives you a sense of a living world outside of what you directly interact with.

This techniquewas developed further and improved upon in the Half-Life 2 series, with the player often sighting events outside their control that made it feel as if the city/rebellion/countryside was existing even when the player was not there. Such a feeling is generally only found in games where the developer puts in a huge amount of effort to actually make a game where this is the case, such as Oblivion or the most recent GTA games. What Valve have done is find a way to achieve the same application of atmosphere without having to create areas that exist outside the players view, saving valuable time and resources. When they came to create Team Fortress 2, however, they came across a problem with this process of development – in a multiplayer game it becomes much more difficult to tell where exactly the majority of players will be at any one time. As a result, they have introduced a ‘payload’ gameplay mode, where a team have to push a cart from one end of the map to the other. By doing this, Valve reestablished their control over where the player is likely to be, as well as keeping the gampeplay interesting with a moving, yet still (literally) on-rails hotspot.

Valve have taken these techinuqes even further with Left 4 Dead, to the extent that each campaign within the game is introduced as a movie, with a suitably cheesy poster and a credits-like stat screen at the end. However, rather than relying on scripted events which would undermine the random nature of the game, Valve opted to take the processing and structure of modern films and apply it as best they could to video games. As a result, you can see the influences of films throughout the game, from the grainy quality that is placed over the screen, to the dramatically lit streets. Everything within the game is created to give the feeling that what you’re playing is less of a horror game, but more of an interactive horror movie. The music and sound effects very much reflect this, with tension building music becoming so effective that the entire team actually slows their pace through the level because they know that such music in films means a sudden crescendo, and therefore a fight.

Of course there are more direct ways of having film elements in your video games, as the creators of Command and Conquer could tell you. Their very well established live-action sequences in the game are possibly as famous as the games themselves, and are notoriously badly acted. However, it allows for much more variety in the emotions portrayed as, with the possible exception of Valve’s games, the technology simply isn’t advanced enough to create realistic facial expressions that can be instantly recognised by a player. By including real actors, you eliminate this problem as well as adding some quirky features to your game.

Obviously films and games are not the same thing. However, I think it’s safe to say that they can learn a lot from one another, and the techniques being used by Valve are only the beginning. As developers realise that films have already covered a lot of the ground that they themselves are currently covering, they will begin to look at comparisons to their games in films, and adjust them accordingly. After all, it’s simply common sense to use information already shown to work well within your own creations, it’s like market research, but it’s aready been carried out for you.

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