Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Oh, those cinematic platformers, revisited

at 11:41 AM
Cinematic platforming is something that comes in and out of fashion from time to time, so let's take an odyssey to another world where a prince lights the way to the future. Okay. Writing device of the day taken care of. What? I kinda left off in a way that doesn't lead into the subject? Of course I did. It's called BAD WRITING. Try it sometime! Coming off a brilliant segue like that, FUCK, GODDAMNIT, IT'S NOT A SEGUE IF IT'S AT THE BEGINNING. Whew. This is going poorly. We better take a line break.
*That's him.

Ha! What a pun?! Don't think it was a pun. Cinematic platformers are those games where you have to jump from one movie theater to the next. Or jumping games based on Stephen Spielberg's latest output? No, no more word games. I'm not the kind of guy to do a joke and then do the same joke again. And then do the same joke again and then do the same joke again. That's not me*. A cinematic platformer is a game in which the players interaction initiates a tiny cutscene. This probably isn't the first definition that comes to mind for you, but I'll tell you why it's the right one. Because it is.

That's what cine-plats are. When you're playing Mario (regular platformer), you press right and Mario scoots a bit right. He may animate for a second, but the end result is - and I'm going to get really technical here so bear with me: [while player presses right -> Mario_x_velocity = 1]. Remember that games operate on a coordinate plane, familiar to you from high school math and your brother, Descartes. When you're playing a cine-plat, its more like: [if player presses right -> trigger step_right_cutscene]. It's the WHILE vs. the IF. Continuous vs. Discrete. It's hard to convey this in words, so do me a favor. This'll sort it out. Go get your local NES emulator [legal] and a copy of Super Mario Bros., and a copy of Prince of Persia. Boot Mario, start the game and hit the [right arrow] key once. Mario moves like basically not at all. Boot PoP, get into the level and hit the [right arrow] key once. What happens? That's right. He took a step. That's a logical, observable process with a beginning and an end, fully animated (with rotoscoping!) for your delight. There you have a cinematic platformer. A game you kind of play, but you also kind of watch.

The game that brings this subject to the tip of my tongue is the recently released XBLA title Deadlight. At first glance, Deadlight is yet another woefully unwarranted zombie game. This one seems to crib heavier from Half-Life 2 than Resident Evil, but it's just exhausting. Does our entertainment media really need to cycle between fascination with zombies and vampires? It's so boring. So I couldn't get even remotely excited about Deadlight, and playing [the demo] has taught me a little cine-plat lesson. About how important it is, what you're watching.

What you have to pay attention to here is framing. These games present you with one screen at a time. One 'room', as it were. Entering a room is both a reward and a challenge - you're high on the rush of beating the last room! but holy shit what's all THIS about?! You have to want that next room. The puzzle element of the game is manifesting! Puzzles I'll talk about a lot, because along with exploring and killing, they're one of the primary tools for interacting with worlds. So cine-plats are puzzle games! - not exactly news. Moreover, they are hard-line narrative-driven. If you don't care what's beyond that door, you sure as hell don't feel like fucking around with Abe's love of accidentally taking one too many steps. This is your discretized linear adventure narrative. You get it in chunks, so to speak.

That's structure, so let's talk substance. Cine-plats tend to opt for instant-kill hazards and invincible enemies - this is their heritage in PC and adventure games. What you get from this is trial-and-error gameplay. Sure it feels good to run the right route the first time, but I bet you feel like you missed something. A lot of the fun of the cine-plat is in those mistakes - both the "hey cool death animation" and the "HAH you got that far just to screw up THAT" type. Remember - this is a game that we kind of play, and we kind of watch. If two people are in the room, it doesn't really matter which one has the controller, they're both getting the same experience. Each failure is in itself a scene - otherwise every obstacle would be the same exact spike.

And that's where we get to the problem with Deadlight. See, here's a game that's being advertised as cine-plat - but wait! even more! it's ALSO a survival horror! Awesome, this could be great! Awesomely enough, this could also be completely fucked from the concept, and the demo leads me to believe the implementation hasn't helped. It's just that one word - survival - that gets it so fucked up. If you're always playing it safe, if you're actually trying to stay alive, there's no trial and error. There's nothing to watch - it's just a guy running through rooms. You have a health bar for christ sake! Trip up here, take a scratch there, you keep going. It's BORING. By supposedly adding tension, they've actually completely drained what made the style worthwhile. And why, what for? You guessed it.


Can't sell a game to the kiddies these days without some ax hacking and ammo managing. So even if another boring brown screen of decomposing whatever and society fallen into whatever wasn't a poor enough drive for the narrative, we have a cinematic platformer with essentially no cinematic platforming. And what a shame it is. Do yourself a favor and grab some of the Oddworld games off Steam or GOG, or check out last summer's criminally overlooked War of the Worlds instead.

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