Our first module this year revolves around Game Art and Machinima. In groups, we will be creating our own one-minute films using models created an animated in Maya, then controlled in Unity.
Up until now I had only really thought of machinima in terms of fan-made films made in-game, recorded either using a separate program such as Fraps or in-game recording tools. The main series that comes to mind for me is Red vs. Blue, which was made from games in the Halo series. I used to watch the show a lot when I was younger, and what struck me about it was that even though the animation itself was very limited (all the characters ever really did was run and "bob" their heads to indicate they were talking), and the only distinguishing features of the characters is the colour of their armour, you still manage to get a strong sense of their personality thanks to the great voice acting and scriptwriting, and as the series progressed, the recording and editing techniques became more advanced and cinematic.
However I still haven't really considered it a form of filmmaking I would seriously look into, mainly because I feel it's a little difficult to manipulate game characters into moving or posing in a way that fits your idea without extensive use of mods.
But our first lesson was spent looking at game cut scenes, and I realised that there is a lot more to machinima than what I previously thought. As games and films become more closely intertwined, with games achieving a highly advanced, cinematic quality, finding ways to progress the story in similarly cinematic ways - without necessarily resorting to extensive cut scenes with no player interaction - is becoming increasingly important.
There are a few different ways that games approach cut scenes, extensive dialogue and progressing the narrative. I'm going to have a look at a couple of different examples and explore the effectiveness of each.
Metal Gear Solid - Grey Fox's Death Scene
Metal Gear Solid has been praised as one of the most innovative and immersive video games to ever be released, and a forerunner for the stealth genre. It has a complex, emotional storyline which is expressed through extensive cut scenes. Even though the PlayStation 1 graphics are relatively limited and simplistic, the combination of effective pacing, dynamic editing, sound effects, music and voice acting still makes it highly engaging and affecting, even more so than many games nowadays that can take advantage of more advanced graphics.
This particular approach to cut scenes is very much like a film. The protagonist, Snake, is visible and can speak and contribute to the story with no input from the player. The player simply puts down the control and enjoys the dramatic unfolding of events before them, until the next interactive segment arrives.
Although this approach does work well for telling a story and illustrating characters (and works well for games with excellently-written stories and characters like MGS) nowadays games are a becoming a lot more interested in how the player's choices effect the narrative and develop the character in their own unique way, and as such interrupting their experience of "being" the character by showcasing lengthy third-person cut-scenes can potentially be jarring and break the player's immersion.
Portal 2 - Introduction
(specifically from about 1:24 onwards)
This video demonstrates a very different approach to cut-scenes. Valve have been called "experts of the silent protagonist", with mute characters such as Gordon Freeman from Half-Life and Chell from Portal being the character through which the player - from the first-person perspective - experiences the games' universes. This fact is even humourously played upon in this scene, when Wheatley asks the character to speak at around 2:40.
So how would a narrative progress without any vocal input from the player character?
I find this scene (or just about any from Portal 2) a wonderful example of how the first-person perspective can intensify the game experience. During the cinematics you never break the immersion because you are the character, and you are seeing what they are seeing at that specific moment. Also, whereas many games seem to be fairly clearly cut between cinematic cut scenes and interactive action sequences, here you always remain in control of Chell, which adds a whole new engrossing element to the game so that you never lose interest. When I was experiencing this for the first time, it gave me that adrenaline-filled, happy feeling you get when you know you're experiencing something great.
The other characters, whether they be the robots or recordings you discover as you explore the world, are excellently voiced with memorable dialogue, and it is entirely through them that the story unfolds - you barely notice that your player doesn't say a word. And once again, music and sound effects plays a highly important role in bringing together the whole experience.
Heavy Rain - Interactive Cut Scenes
Heavy Rain expresses narrative through interactive cut scenes using quicktime events. As a cinematic scene plays out, you still have to interact with the game by pressing a button at a specified time. Whether or not you choose to press the button can sometimes dramatically effect the narrative's outcome. This method has altered people's perceptions on what constitutes a video game, as Heavy Rain seems more akin to an interactive film. Breaking down expectations of video games and creating new, novel ways to experience a story made this game particularly exciting, and it seems more and more games are being made that act as more of an interactive story or film experience, such as the indie hit Dear Esther.
Quicktime events can occur in fighting or other action sequences, where the buttons or controller movements emulate your character's movements; punching/kicking or breaking free of your enemies grasp, driving a car, or doing slightly more mundane things like sitting/standing and household tasks.
As well as this, at some times in the game, you can press a button to see your character's thoughts or possible dialogue options. Their emotions effect the way in which the words float about their head, meaning that if the character is feeling high-strung or scared, it will be more difficult to see the available options and pick one, which makes the player share the character's frustration.
This is a rather unique approach to video game interaction, and I feel it really intensifies the emotional quality of the story - in this particular scene, the awkwardness felt between Ethan and Shaun, as although Ethan cares for and loves his son, they severely lack communication. This means that any happy moment from Shaun feels like a small achievement, and you feel happy for Ethan, no matter how short-lived and bittersweet it might be.
I think all three of these methods can be highly effective, although I like that games are exploring ways to make a game interactive without necessarily using violence, or to express a story without just using pre-rendered cut scenes.
Games which involve killing targets still seem to be the most popular, as it offers the ideal combination of narrative, challenging gameplay and clear objectives. But those like Portal and Heavy Rain raise questions on different ways in which we can interact in these environments, or gain valuable insight into the psyche of the characters, and it's refreshing to see something different.