Over the past couple months, my friend and I have been slowly playing through every canonical Metal Gear game together, starting from the very first title on the MSX, in anticipation of Hideo Kojima's eventual completion of the story's overarching plot with Metal Gear Solid V. My buddy had previously only played MGS4 and I had only experienced The Twin Snakes (a GameCube remake of the original Solid), so it's been a thrilling and mindblowing experience for the both of us. And when I say "mindblowing," I mean "absolutely confounding," because Metal Gear's canon is one of the most confusing—yet remarkably consistent—plotlines I've ever experienced in a series of video games. We've had just as much fun unraveling the story as we've had playing it, and heading into the infamously divisive MGS4 has me wondering what could possibly happen next.
The Metal Gear series is famous for a lot of things. Its innovative stealth gameplay really set it apart in the 8-bit era, but the series's most lasting effect has been on the attitude and visual style of modern action games. Kojima has a well-known fetish for film-like cues drawn directly from Hollywood, but he never really lets blockbuster aesthetics suffocate his game design. In fact, it could be argued that his most commendable skill as a director lies in his ability to use cutscenes and dialogue as tools for building momentum and tension rather than simply bridging the gap between blocks of gameplay. There is a consistence between cinematics and player input that makes those transitions feel fluid rather than awkward and intrusive.
In that light, it surprised me today to see the news that the latest Metal Gear release, the much talked-about Ground Zeroes, was originally set to have an '80s movie filter tinting the proceedings.
This struck me as somewhat bittersweet; while the implementation of such a thing sounds just wonderfully campy enough that it could be entertaining, the removal of it (mostly due to technical constraints) was, in my opinion, a wiser choice.
Video games have been trying to imitate movies for a good chunk of its life now, and while certainly not every game designer is guilty of this, a surprising number of high-profile titles are obsessed with the idea that games should be "playable movies." I'm not simply talking about games that imitate the pacing or narrative techniques of filmmaking, like the Uncharted series, I'm talking about games that ape the film aesthetic in a way that colors video games as the misunderstood stepbrother of movies. The hackneyed grindhouse cinema tinge in House of the Dead: Overkill, the film grain slider in Left 4 Dead, the lens flair in Mass Effect, and the split-screen camera angles in Heavy Rain all come to mind as moments when a perfectly enjoyable video game experience is just begging for your validation as "high art." In these moments, it's almost like those games are ashamed to be what they are, as if hiding behind familiar drapes will help it appeal more to the player. Maybe these designers are trying to draw in more casual gamers, but I don't think it's doing their work any service.
Quite simply, games are not movies. They have not, and they never will be. They have completely different visual languages, different ways of communicating plot and wildly different goals when it comes to the effect they intend to have on their audiences. But this isn't a bad thing at all—in fact, the difference between games and movies should be celebrated rather than covered up!
To me, when a video game puts on the guise of filmmaking, it ignores the plasticity and grit of film that makes the medium so appealing in the first place. In a movie, film grain is (usually) a natural visual element, a native texture that sets it apart. In a game, movielike filters can be used to give the player context of time or place (as Kojima was intending), but then it's completely artificial. Instead of communicating the message "this is genuine, this is real, you can touch this" it comes off as incredibly fake, sometimes to the point of distraction. In the end, I'd much rather play Metal Gear than some wannabe Tarantino film.
This phenomenon reminds me of the early days of film, when directors shot and edited movies like stage plays. They did this both because it was a familiar way to tell a story, but also, I presume, because they figured it was the easiest thing for an audience to digest. But when I sit down to play a game, I want to play a game. I want to see what it can do that movies can't. After all, that's why I play.
Let me know what you all think, though. Do you like movie effects in games? Why or why not?