Videogames are not cinematic and they will never be.
I’m not saying this because I hate these so-called “cinematic” videogames, or because I’m a ludologist who cares only about mechanics and gameplay – quite the contrary, I prefer my videogames with story, and it’s quite difficult for me to write purely about gameplay, without the support of a fiction. It’s not even the gamer in me who’s speaking, but the film lover, which I am first and foremost: calling cut-scenes heavy, high production value and story-centric videogames “cinematic” demonstrates a profound lack of respect for what cinema really is. I think I’ve said it before: I’m coming to videogames through the “video” angle more than the “game” itself, so my take on this is slightly different than the usual one. In general, we complain about this cinematic leaning in recent videogames because it implies a loss of interactivity, a simplification, or even a rarefaction, of the rules of the game, to which the designers substitute a more classical, linear narration upon which the player has almost no control. This is true, of course, but really, most of the time, I don’t mind; it makes for a different experience, less “gamey” maybe, but it can be compelling and meaningful nonetheless.
But when I’m saying that videogames can never be cinematic, I’m thinking about images, not interaction: I’m an old-school cinephile, already nostalgic for the disappearing celluloid, and a bazinian at heart, so essentially I think it’s impossible to emulate cinema through computer-generated imagery. I’m well aware that what we mean by “cinematic” in videogames is related to the use of camera angles, movement, staging, lighting, etc., and not to the way the images are produced, but it’s a superficial understanding of cinema visual language, as if the content of the images and their ethical relation to reality was insignificant, when actually it is where the very essence of cinema lies. For sure, our conception of cinema has drastically changed in the last twenty years and CGI is pretty much a part of cinema language now, so it may seem foolish or backward-thinking to dismiss everything CGI-related in the name of some pure idea of what cinema once was. Well, I’m not dismissing CGI per se (it is not “evil” or inherently bad), but rather its current use and confusion with cinema. CGI and cinema are too different in essence to be considered as similar means of expression: while an artist working in cinema has to use the real world as his first (or even only) expressive material, CGI is similar to painting or animation in that the artist has to create from scratch everything he wants to represent. How can videogames be “cinematic” when computer-generated imagery is closer in spirit to painting and animation than traditional photographic cinema?
Yes, I make a distinction between animation and cinema because their aesthetics are practically opposite, irreconcilable. In most art forms, animation included, the artist starts with a blank page, or a blank canvas, but with photography and cinema the artist starts with, well, everything. In his few works on cinema (collected in the book Cinéma, I’m not aware of an English translation), French philosopher Alain Badiou described cinema as an effort of purification, or simplification (to be honest, I’m freely using and interpreting his words here, so this is far from an accurate summary of his thoughts). The painter starts with a blank canvas and from this purity, the whiteness of the empty frame, he can create anything; the great difficulty for the artist is to stay faithful to this “original purity”. In cinema, on the contrary, the artist starts with an “impure infinity” because he has the whole world in front of him and has to select which part of this world he wants to capture. Reality is a mess, confused and cluttered, but art presents a vision of the world; art does not represent the world, but ideas about the world, so how can an artist take this messy reality and manage to represent through it the clarity of his vision?
In most art forms, the artist can decide (more or less consciously) what he wants to represent and keep only what is relevant for his vision. A painter can choose verisimilitude and copy reality as faithfully as possible, but he can also choose to strip the object represented of any irrelevant details, or to deform it as he sees fit. The photographer, though, when he has chosen the object he wants to capture, is stuck with this object, in all its details, significant or not. A painter, for example, is never really painting this bottle, but his idea of a bottle (if the artist has a personal vision that is; if not, the painted bottle becomes a mere copy, of the real bottle or of a certain painting style). A photographer, though, is stuck with this bottle, in all its particularities, in all its messy reality. In a sense, there’s too much details, so the spectator will only see this bottle; but who wants to see a realist representation of a bottle? I have enough bottles at home, so why would I need an image of a bottle, if it’s nothing more than a convincing imitation of a real bottle? If art is a vision of the world, the bottle in itself is meaningless: how the artist sees the bottle constitutes art.
This is why, for Badiou, cinema has to purify reality: the artist has to take a real bottle, in all its complexity, and purify it to obtain the idea of a bottle, or more precisely, the artist’s idea of the bottle. If the artist, in photography or cinema, doesn’t purify reality through his image, he stays in the realm of appearances, of imitation (like a painter without vision). When I’m taking a picture of my kids, for example, I’m not making art: my picture is only meant to be a memento. My image is an imitation because it doesn’t go beyond the appearances of my kids, or of the event it portrays. That’s why I took a picture in the first place: to keep a souvenir of how my kids look at that moment. It’s not a statement on my kids, and I’m not expressing an idea of my kids (well, usually not); it’s only my kids, at a certain moment in time. So, in cinema, the artist starts from the trivial, the cliché, these appearances, and from there he can elevate us towards the sublime, the extraordinary, the pure; a good movie would not represent my kids, but would articulate a particular vision of them. In contrast, other art forms already start from the purity, the sublime, and their challenge is to maintain the spectator up there, and not fall down to the level of the imitation, or the trivial (but mostly they fail; real art is rare). The purpose of art is always to offer a vision of the world, but in cinema the default starting point is the imitation (what Badiou also calls non-art) while other art forms start with the pure (art itself), so the creation process in cinema is in reverse. (Small philosophical parenthesis: to rephrase this in a manner more faithful to Badiou’s philosophy, art is one of the four “generic procedures” that can produce truths, with science, mathematics and love, so all art forms can present truths about the world, but each one does so in a different manner because truth is a process and not a revelation. Each art has their own process, so each art can produce their own particular truths. Since the process of cinema belongs only to cinema, it’s impossible for another medium, like animation or CGI, to produce cinema-truths. Videogames imitating cinema are only that: an imitation, and a poor one at that. Videogames, if they’re an art form, would produce videogames-truths, truth that would not be possible to express otherwise. This, a “cinematic” videogame is nonsensical. It doesn’t mean that videogames cannot borrow from cinema (cinema itself is quite impure and borrow a lot from other art forms), but that they cannot express the same truths as cinema.)
Moreover, in other art forms, the presence of the artist, and thus of his vision, is always implicit, even in the most seemingly impersonal and banal work. In a painting, for example, or in an animation movie, every brush strokes remind us of the perspective of the artist, of his subjectivity, of his stylistic choices, because we know that the same person (in most cases) has painted every element we see in the frame (to be precise: it reminds us of a vision, but not necessarily of a profound and meaningful one). In photography, though, the camera being a mechanical apparatus, the process of representing reality doesn’t need the intervention of a human hand: anyone can press the button and the camera does the rest. Where’s the art in that? Before photography, the operation of representing reality needed the skill of a painter, or of an evocative writer, but now a machine can make it in an instant. Because of this mechanical quality, photography and cinema have the appearances of objectivity, as if a photographic image represents an object as it really is, without the mediation of the artist’s subjectivity, so the artist’s vision may seem less clear than in other art forms since it’s obscured by this “objectivity” of the image.
Sure, there’s always a human being behind the camera who controls the angle and the frame of the image he wants to make, so photography isn’t entirely objective, but the point is that the process of representation, the printing of reality into film, is mechanical, automatic. Also, any object represented by photography was really there, at some point, in front of the camera, and it looked pretty much the same then as what we can see now on the image. A photograph of an event can be use as a proof in a tribunal, or a recording of a security camera, but not a painting of the same event: we believe that a photograph is “true”, or at least faithful to what we usually call reality, and that there’s no subjective distortion, if you will, of the object represented. André Bazin, in his famous (and much-debated) essay the Ontology of the photographic image, used the metaphor of the mold, or the print (like a fingerprint): reality is printed on celluloid and preserved, mummified. In a cinematographic image, an object is made present, in time and in space, through its re-presentation. Or, to borrow Stanley Cavell’s title, cinema is “the world viewed”: following Bazin, Cavell describes cinema as a re-presentation of a world from which we are cut off, unable to participate in. The world is made present, but we cannot interact with it, thus this title, “the world viewed”.
From this, it seems quite clear that CGI is a completely different beast than photographic image: there’s no presence in CGI, no “objective” re-presentation of reality. Everything has to be created from scratch, from the blank of an empty computer screen. Like painting, CGI reminds us of the subjectivity of the artist (artists usually). The problem here, in cinema and some videogames, is that CGI is not used like painting, but instead tries to imitate cinema; CGI imitates a bottle and tries to fool us in believing it’s a real bottle. In painting, realism is a choice, one amongst infinite possibilities, so the prowess of a faithful representation of reality is meaningless in itself, unless it’s part of a larger vision. The real prowess is in the depth of this vision, not in the technical skills required to adequately paint reality. The same goes for CGI: who cares if the special effects in a movie feel realist or not? The interesting question should not be: do they look real?, but: why are they there, or what do they mean? Likewise, who cares about videogames capacity to feel naturalistic, visually? Well, a lot of people care, obviously, but we shouldn’t: realism is one option, which is not suited for each and every game, and it’s simply not true that “better realism” equals “more emotion”, or more possibilities for character’s depth. Just think of animation: to take a well-known example, Hayao Miyazaki’s movies are highly stylized, but we are still moved by his characters; the difference is that the expressiveness comes mainly from the artist visual style instead of a “realist” representation of his characters’ emotions. Miyazaki does not purify reality because he doesn’t work with reality to begin with; rather, he found a visual style that corresponds to his vision and the stories he wanted to tell. He maintains us in the purity of the white page. This is traditional, narrative animation, but one of the most profound cinematographic experience I know of is Stan Brakhage’s Untitled (For Marilyn), and it’s a silent abstract film. Right now, in videogames, “better realism” equals “more emotion” only because we are going for that stupid holodeck, because we want to represent human characters in a wannabe-photographic image; but again, this is only one option, and frankly it’s the least interesting (and potentially damaging) one.
Why don’t videogames or all things CGI take their cue from animation instead of cinema? Why imitate real life when your medium can represent anything you can imagine or represent reality in any way you see fit? Why limit yourself to copy something which already exists? And what does it mean when CGI tries to imitate reality, or a photographic image that is already a representation of reality? In his Ontology of the photographic image, Bazin wrote: “The quarrel over realism in art stems from a misunderstanding, from a confusion between the aesthetic and the psychological; between true realism, the need that is to give significant expression to the world both concretely and in its essence and the pseudorealism of a deception aimed at fooling the eye (or for that matter the mind); a pseudorealism content in other words with illusory appearances.” (What is cinema?, page 12) What is CGI, as it is generally used now, if not the “pseudorealism of a deception aimed at fooling the eye”? And how can cinema integrate CGI without using it as an illusion? And what can wannabe-cinematic videogames learn from this? Can they use CGI in a non-illusory way, in a context where the image aims for realism (because surely realism has its place too)?
I will not answer these questions now: this is an introductory post, a draft for things to come, a mission statement for this blog. I threw a lot of things here to which I want to come back in the next months, from the philosophies of Badiou, Bazin and Cavell to the question of cinema and animation, or the illusory use of CGI in cinema, and all of those objections you could raise to some points I touch too rapidly (some examples: sure, the presence in photography, but what about post-production effects, and all the possible deformations of the original image? How is that different from the integration of CGI? And how a “trick” like a composite image, transparency, à la Méliès, is so different from this CGI? Etc.) Like I said, I’m interested in videogames as images (which is not to say I will leave gameplay behind, that would just be blind, but images will be my focal point). This desire to write about computer-generated images was the reason why I open this blog in the first place, why I turn myself towards videogames after writing for some time on cinema, at Séquences, and it also explains the logic behind my title: an exploration of the uncanny valley of the CGI as we know it now, both through its use in cinema and in videogames. It took some time to finally come to this introduction (partly because of my lack of confidence about my writing skills in English, and partly because I drifted away, as I tend to do fairly often…), but let’s officially call this blog open.
I’m feeling a bit ambitious with all this (just while writing this post I felt it is probably more than I can chew), but anyway let’s see where it goes. I have some things prepare for my next articles: I want to approach CGI first through cinema, with some landmark movies that not only use CGI but more importantly are about CGI. I’m thinking, for now, of both Tron and its recent sequel, Tron Legacy, James Cameron’s Terminator 2 and Avatar, and the two most beautiful films on the subject, Ang Lee’s Hulk and Life of Pi. This will lead, I hope, to a more specific discussion on videogames, and how they can produce their own videogames-truths, to borrow Badiou’s vocabulary. Also, I’m almost finish with Tomb Raider, so I will surely come back to it, from the point of view of ethics, the representation of revenge.
See you soon!
(And for the improbable French readers who don’t already know about my other blog, well I have another, older blog in French, dedicated only to cinema, where you can find, amongst others, my take on Terrence Malick’s two last films, or my review of one of Eastwood’s masterpieces, Bridges of Madison County, two of my favorite filmmakers. I’m planning there a retrospective on Gus Van Sant and possibly James Grey.)