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What Do We Mean When We Say “Cinematic”?

There are some adjectives that spring to mind reflexively when we experience certain things. When we sit by a warm fire, we might think, “toasty”. When we take that first bite of a freshly-baked cake, we might say, “delicious”. There are other words. Plenty of other words. But some come as a reflex. One that springs up time and again when discussing video games is “cinematic”.

What does this word mean, though? When we describe certain games, or moments within those games, as “cinematic”, what do we mean? What weight does this word carry? Are there better alternatives? Many people hate this word, but should they really? Is there truly anything so bad about the word “cinematic”? Let’s break it down.

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Defining “Cinematic”

First off, we all instinctively know what games fall into the “cinematic” bracket and what games do not. This, in itself, proves that there is a use for this word. If you know what the word means or what games it encompasses without further explanation, then it has its uses, even if it still has problems. I’m also reminded of the word “janky”. First time I heard it, I instinctively knew what it meant in relation to video game controls, and therefore it’s a reasonable and useful word.

cinematic video games

So, what games are cinematic? Well, they’re almost always AAA big-budget titles, not pixel art indies. They’re games that provide a near lifelike graphical experience which can capture precise bodily and facial animation and detail, with bombastic orchestral music to match. And they’re almost always linear single-player action games, locked to a third person perspective, featuring choreographed set pieces. It’s these set pieces that near enough define the cinematic angle, because they help the player achieve the feeling of playing the lead actor in an action movie. Such “cinematic” games include, but are not limited to, the Uncharted series, the newest God of War, and The Last of Us.

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There are exceptions to all of this, however. Indie darlings like Ape Out and Katana Zero both have a certain cinematic edge to them. And first person games like Doom and Bioshock feel intensely cinematic. So, if the spectrum can be broadened, what exactly is the point of this word? Is it useful at all or too broad and vague? The argument I often see made against it is that it doesn’t pinpoint a specific feeling. It’s obtuse and lazy. As critics, we should be able to more specifically and closely define a feeling or an experience. It’s like those achingly dull phrases that book critics always use: “A page-turner!” or “A tour de force!” What the hell do these terms even mean? That’s often the same reaction people have to the word “cinematic”. But, is that fair? Yes and no.

Let’s break the word down and really examine its parts. “Cinematic”, in the broadest sense, means that a game (or a moment within a game) closely resembles a scripted and choreographed piece of cinema. That it gives players the same wide-eyed, jaw-on-the-floor reaction that an action movie car chase, shoot-out, explosion, or super hero brawl can deliver. In cinema terms, “cinematic” means a moment or scene which uses a blend of expert choreography, dynamic camera work, sharp pacing, varied effects, and intense music to deliver a white-knuckle reaction of surging excitement and adrenaline from its viewers. For a game to do the same, it needs to deliver in most of these same areas.

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And so, a “cinematic” video game has varied and adaptive camera work (like the early fist fight with Baldur in God of War), scripted set pieces that might remove some aspects of player control (like the motorcycle chase in Uncharted 4), or short scenes with shifting and changing environments that require quick reactions from the player (pick any scene from the Tomb Raider reboot). All of these moments feel cinematic because they play with the camera, the scenery, and the script. They deliver an illusion of cinematic filming quality.

That’s not all there is to it, however. Games with a fixed camera angle, like Ape Out, can deliver something of a cinematic experience. Ape Out does this with reactionary music that is almost entirely produced by a jazz drum sound. It also does it by providing players with levels that are, in themselves, short bursts of adrenaline which demand focus and quick reflexes. Within those bursts, the scenery changes and is affected. The game doesn’t have a big budget or varied camera angles, but it uses the map layout, the reactionary music, and the quick, short pacing of each level to deliver something of a cinematic experience.

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How to Use “Cinematic”

What we’ve suggested here is that “cinematic” encompasses a checklist of details which must be implemented together in order to deliver that “cinematic” experience. They don’t all need to be checked off but, well, the more that are checked off, the more cinematic the player’s experience will be.

So, cinematic can be understood, experienced, and implemented. It can also be broken down and defined relatively easily. But does that make it a useful and suitable term? I guess that depends on the context.

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cinematic games

One of my biggest gripes with criticism within any form of entertainment media (literature, cinema, video games etc) is a lack of detail and clarity. If you don’t explain why a certain book is a “page-turner”, then what good is that information to me? Feel free to use the phrase, but your immediate job thereafter is to explain why it’s a page-turner with details and examples.

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The same can be said for “cinematic”. If I were to describe something as a “cinematic action game”, I need to then immediately qualify that and give context for it by discussing the developers’ use of camera work and scripted set pieces, and how the music blends with specific actions and moments within the game; I need to look at how the animation of the protagonist’s face and body immerse the player within that “cinematic” scene. By all means, use the word “cinematic”, but then immediately dig into that checklist and describe each item.

This isn’t a lesson in good criticism, however. It’s merely a demonstration of how a word that some people dislike can, in fact, be used competently and effectively. Any word arguably has its uses; it just comes down to whether or not that word, by itself, is enough. If it isn’t, use more words. There are plenty of them. “The game uses a combination of X and Y to create a cinematic experience” is far more useful and descriptive than “this is a very cinematic game”.

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Ultimately, the word “cinematic”, in itself, is perfectly fine, but it does seem to be lacking in detail. It’s one of those words that comes with an asterisk, and behind that asterisk needs to be a few words or lines which offer greater detail and specificity than the word “cinematic” can possibly provide by itself. “Cinematic” is a fine word, but it’s of little use alone. And there are many words guilty of the same thing: beautiful, exciting, funny, delicious, breath-taking. I could go on. These are all fine words, but they’re not enough. Detail is key.

“Cinematic” is definitely a word we need when discussing video games, because many video games really do deliver a cinematic gaming experience. We just have to be sure that we know what the word means and that, when we use it, we’ve done the word, the game, and the developers justice.

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