Have you ever found yourself sitting down at the end of a long day of classes, ready to kick off your shoes and engage in yet another session of procrastination with your favorite game only to realize you haven’t pressed a button in almost five minutes? You’re holding the controller, ready to play, but you are not doing anything because a cut-scene has been droning on for the last century, seemingly determined to impart every nuance of the ongoing story in blistering detail. It is almost as if you were watching a movie. In fact, you’re certain that the game you’re playing is a movie. I am looking at you, Detroit: Become Human. Would it surprise you then if you were to discover that the game you are playing uses many of the same techniques and tricks that filmmakers use to create their cinematic masterpieces? I suppose not. Long cutscenes aside, the reason that you are able to immerse yourself in a well-polished game is due to many of these filmmaking practices.
So now that the cutscene is over, you’re sitting in a digital office chair watching security cameras and performing all of the duties that are required of a good night security guard. The hallways are clear and the dining rooms are quiet. That is until an animatronic monstrosity comes through the door and attempts to separate your grey matter from your brain! Scary stuff. Five Nights At Freddy’s (FNAF) is a cult-classic video game that’s incredibly simple on the surface. You sit in an office and press the right buttons to prevent the jack-in-the-box jumpscares from turning your hair white. So what does this seemingly shallow game have to do with filmmaking? FNAF uses a technique called expositional blocking, or just blocking, as it is commonly referred to in the world of stage theatre. Blocking is the technique of setting the stage so that the story and action are efficiently translated to the audience. This includes set piece placement, actor positions, and camera movement. When you look at FNAF, you are seeing a carefully curated stage created by Scott Cauthon in order to tell his story. The claustrophobic hallways, the various air ducts, camera screens, and environmental clutter are arranged in such a way that the story of Five Nights At Freddy’s is conveyed organically. On the surface, you are clicking on the same buttons and managing a simplistic resource meter in order to survive the night, but when you start to look at the world that Scott Cauthon created, you become aware of the greater story. Posters on the wall change to show different clues about a murder that happened in the pizzeria. Newspaper clippings detail a string of gruesome child murders that have yet to be solved. None of these things are told through cutscenes or dialogue but the observant player will notice this clever use of expositional blocking.
Horror games like FNAF can have you on the edge of your seat, nose to the screen, eyes wide as you become locked in a mortal battle against your robotic pursuers. All that eye strain from sitting a centimeter from the screen makes the game textures look blurry. Actually, that blurry effect is not from a blood vessel in your eye nearly ready to burst; it is an effect known as depth of field. When filmmakers construct a vibrant scene, it often becomes cluttered, and without proper assistance, the viewer can become disoriented and miss vital information. Think of any of the climactic battle scenes in any of the Marvel movies. An especially poignant example is Doctor Strange. This movie has so much visual energy and motion blended into geometrically warping shapes that it is almost too easy to become lost in its visual candy shop. So how do you make sure that the important events are not lost amidst the maelstrom of changing colors and movement? One way is to blur out everything that is not essential to the plot. Blurring out the excess information forces the viewer to see only what you want them to see while everything else becomes background noise. In games, this effect is doubly useful. Call of Duty uses depth of field during intense battle scenes, usually when another NPC is directly in front of the camera, obscuring the players' view of the progressing battle and forcing them to pay attention to the NPC. Then the nameless soldier spouts some drivel about needing to kill something quickly and the game returns to the battle which has now evolved into a much bigger mess than you remember. That’s because while the background was blurred out, a whole host of changes were loaded in while you were blinded by Mr. Nameless Grunt’s immaculately rendered face. Speaking of beautifully rendered faces, it is no small feat to capture genuine human emotion within a game. In fact, it is a process so difficult that most companies cannot afford the production cost.
To recreate the nuance of human emotion, the rigging used on a 3D model quickly becomes a tangled web of points and interconnecting geometric shapes that even the most talented animators have difficulty with. Due to the complexity, studios use advanced motion capture technology to lay the framework for the required animations. Then comes the tedious weeks of tweaking and perfecting. Something this difficult is not an option for many developers which is why, even today, we have delightfully bad anime style mouth flappers with wooden expressions as the protagonists of our games. Without fully expressive characters it is hard to convey a character's emotion to the player. This problem was solved with incredibly over-expressive arm movements in early games where characters would stomp their feet and flail their arms in order to indicate their emotional state. In slightly more modern games, PSP era, in this case, the expressive animations were coupled with the clever use of the camera. Filmmakers have been using this particular technique for ages to portray paranoia, vertigo, or sudden realizations. It is called the Dolly Zoom. To achieve the Dolly Zoom, cameras are placed on a wheeled base known as a dolly and rolled backward away from the subject they are filming. At the same time, the camera zooms in on the characters face. This makes the background seem as if it is fading into the distance while the character is sliding quickly towards the camera. If you want to see this technique in action, watch Alfred Hitchcock’s movies. He makes regular use of this technique. So how is this useful in making more expressive video game characters? The secret is that that the Dolly Zoom plays on the viewer's mind and elicits a response from them due to the weird behavior of the camera. The viewer then associates that feeling with whatever is on the screen and enhances the experience. Daxter on PSP uses this technique in a comedic sense when the protagonist, Daxter, discovers that he is being hired to squash bugs. He believes it to be a simple extermination job but he soon finds out that the bugs are quite large and quite deadly. When he finally confronts a massive bug, many times his size, Daxter freezes with a decently rendered expression of horror on his face. However, the camera then performs the Dolly Zoom, focusing on his face while the world around him seems to fall away and become blurred. That decent expression suddenly feels more alive, more natural, and Daxter’s horror much more real.
There are many more techniques that both video game development and filmmaking share and larger-budget games are starting to incorporate more and more techniques as time goes on. Video games face a much more difficult challenge that movies due to the dynamic nature of their craft. It is one thing to create a cinematic masterpiece when everyone is working towards the same goal. It is quite another when you throw an unknowable variable such as a player into the mix. Red Dead Redemption II has been out for a couple weeks now and it comes with a “cinematic mode” for its camera. Every once in a while it captures a truly dynamic shot but more often than not—due to player action—the camera is pointed directly into a bush, or a tree, or your horse's butt. There is just no accounting for what a player will do and that is the largest challenge that developers face. Fortunately, it seems that there is no end to human creativity and I cannot wait to see what games are going to look like in fifty years. Until then, I am going to sit down with Xenoblade Chronicles and listen to my favorite cast of characters defeat robots with a hefty bowl of word salad. If you have no idea what that means, pick up a copy and see for yourself.