The Framerate Debate: Why Videogames Need To Take A Film Theory Class

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Assassins Creed: Unity was released with a framerate of 30 frames per second. When pressed on this, Ubisoft, a developer I harbor no love for, said that they wanted the game to feel “more cinematic.” This is troublesome for a number of reasons. Firstly, 60 frames per second is the acceptable industry standard for games, regardless of whether or not this is achievable on a consistent basis for most PCs and consoles. Secondly, and more important to me, the industry standard for cinema isn’t 30 frames per second-it’s 24.

Videogames, particularly AAA videogames, have been pre-occupied with Hollywood and its conventions in a way that has been detrimental to the form. I am not only referring to the dissonance between gameplay and cutscenes, but also the way that narrative is communicated and mechanics are indicated to the player. A game like Bioshock: Infinite or Watch_Dogs or Assassins Creed want to have their “cinematic” cake and eat it too, when it comes to their presentation. AAA game developers want the sweeping vistas, the lens flares, the depth of field that indicate that there is a camera between the avatars and the players—but in practice, they confuse or outright ignore the historical precedents set for how stories are told in cinema, and how narrative is conveyed.

The fact that cinema is 24 frames per second is important. This is how our eyes have learned to read a moving image. Disruptions of that, like Peter Jackson’s experiment with doubling the framerate for The Hobbit, confuse us and keep us focused on the form of the moving image rather than the whole picture, so to speak.

I used to wonder why some televisions looked wrong, even when playing movies I had seen before. The lighting looked artificially bright, and the movement felt too clear, as if the space between myself and the screen had been disrupted. It turns out that many modern TVs are shipped with “motion smoothing” turned on, a process that makes film look like it’s shot on video, artificially creating an effect that turns 24 fps to 60 fps. As cinematographer Reed Morano says, “If you took a photocopy of a painting and hung it up in a museum, trying to pass it off as a real painting, it would look cheap and lack texture. That’s what motion interpolation does to the moving image.”

This conversation should be happening among games industry leaders and critics as well, especially as we move into a new generation of consoles, since the debate about framerates has been at the forefront of what defines the presentation of the moving image. It is certainly true that games requiring twitchy, reaction-based movements benefit from a higher framerate, but if AAA games are going to continue to be half-movie and half-mechanics, this higher framerate also affects the way that their stories are being told.

Game developers want to mimic the Hollywood mode of storytelling and the Hollywood feel of the moving image, but they ignore the fact that almost every movie their consumers have seen has been shot on strips of exposed celluloid, and has all the associations thereof. Film and video—what AAA videogames most closely resemble— have completely different connotations, so much so that Hollywood directors still see shooting a movie on video not only as a completely different process but as more than a little controversial. Video has traditionally has been associated with TV and is seen as faster and cheaper, which suits the format—it’s not necessarily bad, but it’s different. The first time movies shot on video were shown at Sundance, a conversation ensued in the film industry about whether or not it looked right in a 16:9 format, if video is fit for the silver screen. That conversation is not over, and it could be argued that the ongoing development of cinema grade video cameras has been in service of making video look like film, and ergo appropriate for movies. The fear is that even if your end product ends up as bold, sharp, and full of personality as Once Upon A Time In Mexico, it will look like General Hospital.

AAA game developers don’t seem to have paid any attention to these conversations. AAA is going to need to choose which framerate would best suit the story they want to tell, but it doesn’t look like they’ve even thought about that. As long as the consumer demands both a high framerate and Hollywood-style storytelling, game developers will continue to try and fail to deliver both, no matter how nonsensical the final product may appear. In the first person-perspective, when you see a lens flare, is the implication that your head is a camera? The world may never know. I think the only way to move past this without seeming like a luddite is to ask how this phenomenon is going to change the way we read the moving image.

As I’ve said, this is an ongoing conversation that has already been raised by filmmakers. Keanu Reeves’s truly excellent documentary Side By Side showcases the history of filmmaking along with directors on each side of the debate. They argue each side passionately; James Cameron condescends to Reeves, asking him if he really feels like video degrades the form, while Christopher Nolan laments that there is an inferior form of the moving image that is not only being used, but gaining traction. Meanwhile, there’s a whole genre of moving image-based story telling that allows characters in the first-person perspective to have dirt and blood smeared on an invisible screen in front of their eyes. It is an accepted and even expected part of this form—it’s not a matter of degradation, but of how we as viewers and players are going to move on from this point.

I have heard from friends that play a lot of AAA games that motion smoothing, aggressive film grain removal, and all the other things that “update” honest-to-god 24fps, shot on film, cinema to “HD video,” does not bother them. And that matters. It matters because Chinatown was shot on film and was meant to be seen on film, it matters because shooting on film is an increasingly important choice, it matters because Reed Morano saw one of her movies on a TV with motion smoothing on and said, “It was so disheartening to see that cinematic look I had put everything into completely eradicated — all my work ruined.” And it is disheartening because for AAA developers, it doesn’t seem like it’s a choice, it seems like they’re doing this because they don’t care. Every time I see a Field of View slider, I feel like developers don’t care or respect the moving image. Do you not even trust yourself to determine the depth of field?

Framerates change the way that we tell visual stories, and the way that we perceive them and participate in them. Even if framerates are important to how we play games to some degree, if developers are also telling a story, it matters that they understand the presentation of their narrative. Videogames are a medium that borrows unashamedly from other mediums, and the choices developers make will have wide-reaching effects on how audiences perceive both games and also other visual mediums. Videogames are a unique medium that bridges across several others, and these other mediums have a history of theory and debate about the craft behind moving images. All I want is for developers to care about that.

Gita Jackson has dedicated her entire adult life to wading through the marginalia of popular culture and finding gold. As much as she’d like to be called a “fashion expert,” she is more likely a niche fashion enthusiast. She would probably love to talk to you on Twitter @xoxogossipgita.

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