About a third of the way through Aconcagua, a PlayStation game from 2000, four plane crash survivors are trapped on the Argentinian mountainside between pillars of rock and helicopter gunfire. The camera cuts to a frontal shot of a bodyguard thought to be incapacitated from the crash shooting, then to a government soldier being killed with a camera angle below, positioning the soldier in frame with the helicopter. The camera cuts behind the bodyguard firing at the helicopter, then to red sparks skipping across the flying metal. The helicopter begins to fly away, when a skiing pole flies out of the open door, camera following. The camera cuts to the feet of the characters, panning upward, asking “what the hell is going on?” In the following sequence, the player must control each of the four characters as they rush between natural pillars to avoid gunfire and take down the helicopter to an unrelenting march of harsh strings and shouting trumpets.
Flowing through the action set piece and Poledouris-esque soundtrack, my brain spits out a thought: “Wow, this feels like a Kathryn Bigelow film.” The moments of action remind me of the tension from Point Break, political stakes between a group of people discovering a political conservative plot aiming to kill them brought me back to the adrenaline from Strange Days.
The mere thought of games and film produces an electric shock through my brain filled with advertisements, PR catchphrases, and criticism attempting to take it all apart. God of War’s glorified single-take, Ghost of Tsushima’s depressingly inept homage to Kurosawa, and The Last of Us Part II’s fascist framing of its NPCs all come to mind.
My second thought immediately after: “ugh.” I find myself discomforted that my time with this game brought me to this forsaken place of “cinema.”
There isn’t anything wrong with games evoking movies, but the contemporary culture of videogames has a fraught relationship with “cinema.” From academics, to critics, to designers, many have attempted to make claims for a dominant notion of videogames’ relationships to cinema. In academia, a popular viewpoint that many scholars have taken is to view videogames as a successor to the qualities of film. In criticism, many writers have noted frustration in games’ attempts at cinema but inability to create images similar to the medium. Then there are designers like David Cage, claiming to be the “first’’ in an intersection of games and cinema.
To many of these peoples’ credit, the continued relationship between modern big-budget games and cinema is strangely consistent but never able to create cinema itself. As critic and Paste contributor Cole Henry points out: “Games and cinema are different art forms but they will always inform one another, for better and usually for worse. As games have progressed, they have sought the storytelling and cinematic toolkits of filmmaking to the point where almost every AAA story-based game is a pitifully, fleeting attempt at what makes cinema special while forgetting what makes games special in the first place.” While Henry makes a point that games never achieve cinema, it makes us ask why, if games fail to replicate cinema, do they keep aiming to reproduce it?
People create games to be played, but also as a form of communication. Games being designed entails decisions made to be understood in a certain way by certain people. For this reason, videogames have always been in discourse over whether or not they can be considered art.
The beginning of Aconcagua, in contrast to the action set piece of the helicopter, is desperate. Scenes display a Japanese journalist alone, finding his colleagues dying. A South American socialist presidential candidate finds her organizers dead in the snow, and towers of flame blocking any way of escaping to survival. There is no soundtrack in play, only the chilling sounds of wind rushing across the mountaintop. I have kept a screenshot since my original playthrough of Pachimama, the socialist candidate, cradling herself in defense of the wall of fire. The image screams despair as she looks downward, and relishes in the scorching abyss. Even without the context of the game’s narrative I find this image to be emotionally affecting.
Images such as the burning wall, moments of emotional play emerging, and many other reasons affect players and stay with them. Due to this expressive connection, videogames have always been in discourse over whether or not they can be considered art. At a base level this largely stems from a hope for broader validation in the medium’s personal expression. Cultural validation, though, always weaves itself through a veil of the market. Which is where we arrive at, perhaps, the true culprit behind the continuing push towards cinematic videogames: money.
Since the 1970s the film industry has been accelerating with larger and larger investments into less and less projects in a form of economics that parallels financial holding companies. Projects are composed together as variables to predict a series of points that will return a higher value than invested. And as the top grossing films of each year show themselves to be composed of more CGI, more playtime, and more stars, it becomes apparent that much of popular cinema is an enjoyment of seeing obscene economics executing as narrative imagery.
This format may not be surprising, because it’s a practice of production that has been in effect for longer than most of us have been alive, and it is a similar mode of financing that funds the big-budget game industry. Publishers organize IPs, teams, and tools to invest in that will return a higher value. Vicky Osterweil makes this point and connects it to videogames when she writes, “Other than in skyscrapers or similar massive public works, most of us will never get to see money in so concentrated a form as in videogames or movies.”
Videogames have always been invested in obscenely funded images because videogames are rooted in silicon valley technofetishism. Similar to the recently circulating crypto art that provides an obtuse image representing ecological footprints the size of two airplane trips, videogame computers have been romanticized by curators and scholars for their ability to produce abstract imagery on financially inaccessible hardware. The cinematic aesthetic is merely a natural, digestible progression of large amounts of money formalizing into media from the early days of hobby computing. As Geoff King and Tanya Kryzwinska write in their book ScreenPlay, the quality of cinema is appreciated more than other qualities of media; specifically they make comparisons to television. What other way could the videogame industry make more money if not by adapting the successful practices and qualities of other markets?
What I find refreshing in Aconcagua is that it doesn’t adhere to the norms of the medium to tell a story with cinematic qualities. It isn’t a shooting based game, it is a point and click. It doesn’t focus on a white, male soldier—it tells a story of an international group of politically involved individuals working together to survive an attempted assassination. However, Aconcagua is still a game filled with the kind of gun-based, military action that the medium is dominated with. The game’s history gives context as to why it was produced as an action-cinematic title.
While there isn’t much info in English about the game, reports from its prerelease note that Sony was developing this multilingual, action-adventure title in an attempt to make an entry into the Argentinian game market near the end of the PS1’s life cycle. While I can only speculate for the sake of this essay’s argument, the cinematic homage of Aconcagua can be seen as an attempt to make videogames broadly appealing towards a new marketplace.
Again, though, games are not films, and as such they have developed different thematic norms. There are certainly overlaps here between film and videogames, however, because of the structuring of administrative positions, the history of videogames consumer base and norms of practice they are not precisely the same. Big budget games designed around narrative still largely perpetuate experiences which glorify and validate violent, male-centered stories of imperialism and racism. These thematic norms utilize cinematic aesthetics to maintain dominant cultural hierarchies, and also create a consequence of erasing cultures of cinema.
Cameron Kunzelman and Yussef Cole both wrote damningpieces on The Last of Us Part II’s violent anti-Black and colonial ideals. In his piece Kunzelman asks “What is the gaze we have access to? It is one that has an anti-Black politics and produces a structure unable to see Black people as deserving of representable, witnessed death. What kind of mourning is at work when the subject is dead and raced? It is only a mourning for someone else’s lost innocence. The game can only understand Nora’s death as something that must be passed through to show how serious and adult and mature the game is, how far Ellie has fallen, as if the reality of senseless murder for dubious reasons is a far-off possibility rather than a core component of the American republic.”
God of War’s long take was not just a financial-technical showcase, but a massive budget displaying validation for acts of violent men. As Jackson Tyler wrote, “It is a GTX 1080 for your soul.” Ghosts of Tsushima was not just a failed homage to a famous Japanese director, but as Haru Nicol wrote, an appropriation and sterilization of the aesthetics it claims to be inspired by.
Nuance can still exist within these videogame cinematics; as Cameron Kunzelman has also written about Heavy Rain, we are still effected by these cinematic moments despite their glaring flaws. Grace Benfell also has written that even when games do not give us anything, we still take hold of our own meanings in their compositions. It is from Benfell’s concept that I believe cinematic games can be understood as a subjective experience rather than an exclusively compositional one.
While there is a practice of games utilizing cinematics as a means of aesthetic investment, I believe there is also an individual response to cinematics as an emotional state. Developers can utilize multi-million dollar CGI technologies to attempt to form similar images to that of film, but it is only when the player is in the game, bringing their own emotional selves to it, that it can become cinematic.
I’ve been using Aconcagua to think through these ideas, and it is the game’s strange hybrid of game and film aesthetics that brought me to this idea. There are certainly designs of images and sound that evoke cinema, however, Aconcagua never escapes the fact that it is a videogame. Walking into certain parts of the environment, the images of the videogame clearly evoke adventure point-and-clicks from the ‘90s. Because the videogame was designed for the Playstation, none of the moment to moment player action is ever smooth. It’s honestly frustrating to navigate through with the camera cuts that the game attempts. However, despite the glaring fact that it is a videogame, I feel an emotional state of mind that is similar to viewing a Kathryn Bigelow film. Thinking this way, I find the more important question is not whether or not the cinematics of a game “works.” Instead it may be more constructive to look towards ourselves and ask why certain games evoke a response which we deem “cinematic”.
Waverly is a trans game artist and freelance writer. She has written at Uppercut, Into The Spine, and Fanbyte. You can find her on Twitter @hotelbones.