Last week Ben Kuchera wrote about how hard it is to make a proper game based on the Aliens franchise. Of course, this was in response to the disastrous release of Aliens: Colonial Marines. Kuchera does have a point. The number of awful Aliens games outnumbers the successful ones, and even the rare successes don't live up to the legacy of the franchise. So what's the problem? It's a series about marines shooting space monsters. How can that ever go wrong as a videogame? Isn't what what most videogames are all about?
Disclaimer: The problems with Colonial Marines are innumerable and go way beyond how they handled the themes and tone of the franchise. I'm just using this as a launching point to talk about what a mess we're in with games trying to be "cinematic". So keep in mind that while I'm talking about Aliens games, this is leading back into the larger conversation about games that want to be movies.
While there have been five or six Alien movies, we have to remember that when people say "Aliens franchise", they're usually just talking about just one movie. (The actual number of movies might vary based on whether you include oddballs like Aliens vs. Predator and Prometheus.) The franchise began as a sci-fi horror creature feature with Alien. But it was second movie that gave us motion trackers, space marines, bipedal forklifts, the alien queen, pulse rifles, and some of the most frequently quoted one-liners in movie history. Since then the series hasn't been able to decide if it wants to embrace the sexy action movie tone of the more successful second movie or return to the cerebral slow-paced horror of the iconic first movie. You could argue that while videogames can't seem to cobble together a crowd-pleasing sequel to Aliens, Hollywood hasn't really done any better. Somehow these two original films haven't been able to produce any further titles to carry on their legacy of big ideas and visceral intensity. We wound up with movies that were mostly dull and pointless, or mindless action schlock. It's like if Audrey Hepburn and Albert Einstein had kids who all wound up being ugly morons.
But what both Hollywood and videogame developers have forgotten is that the movie Aliens isn't about the Alien. It's not about space marines, the Weyland-Yutani corporation, or sketchy robots. It's not about those things for the same reason that Star Wars isn't about lightsabers and Stormtroopers. Those things are part of the setting, but they're not the main characters. Ellen Ripley is the main character, and we experience the threat of the aliens through our connection to her. We're afraid of the monster, because she's afraid of the monster and we want her to live.
At first the movie Aliens is about Ripley coming to terms with the nightmares of the first film and her desire to resume some sort of normal life. Eventually it becomes her quest for redemption as a mother as she bonds with Newt, the lone survivor of the colony. Her relationship with Newt drives her character in the third act and frames the entire final confrontation as a duel between protective mothers. That's emotional dynamite, and it's why Aliens is a classic and so many other movies with better stunts and special effects have been forgotten.
That sort of emotional resonance takes time to develop. Aliens spends a huge portion of its running time revealing the characters and how they relate to each other. Aside from the brief dream sequence at the beginning, the audience has to wait a full hour before they see their first alien. That's half the movie.
This presents a problem for videogames, where developers still treat story like this annoying obligation that needs to be dealt with before we can get to the "real" game. On one hand developers seem eager to deliver a "cinematic" experience, but then they spend five minutes trying to accomplish what Aliens did in an hour. They force-feed us cutscenes introducing a few stereotypical characters and somehow they expect this "cinematic" feeling to materialize out of nowhere. Developers and gamers are dreaming of this mythical title where we can get that panic, intensity, and horror of facing the Alien Xenomorph but they're overlooking the groundwork required to make all of those feelings possible. Halo, Resistance, Aliens, and Mass Effect each have a very different emotional texture, and that texture comes from everything that happens before the shooting starts. Because once you're killing stuff, the mood is set and it's all about fixing problems with bullets.
You can see this backward thinking at work in a lot of big-budget shooters. When the game wants to tug at your heartstrings, it'll briefly introduce an NPC. If the developers are feeling ambitious, they might even give this person a name. Then the character is killed off and the writers expect you to shed tears for this empty nobody. Think of your fellow teammates in Crysis and Crysis 2. Or your brother in Far Cry 3. Or Some Kid in Mass Effect 3. Or the mother and daughter in Modern Warfare 3. I suppose these deaths get the job done in the sense of establishing who the bad guys are, but they don't have the big emotional payoff because the writers never made the required investment. Sure it's sad, but like reading the names of strangers in an obituary, it's not going to fill you with grief.
I want to be clear that I'm not demanding that developers give us an hour of non-interactive cutscenes before we get to the part of the game with the shooting. My mantra over the last few years has been, "If you're going to put a story in your game, make sure it's worth watching." But I'm coming to realize that the whole idea of a "cinematic" gameplay is deeply misguided. Cinema isn't just car chases and explosions. Cinema is also characters having conversations and forming relationships.
If you want the audience to care, then you need to engage them emotionally. If you're going to engage them, then you're going to need character interaction. And unless you want to make some Hideo Kojima-style cutscene showcase, you need to make those moments of interaction part of the gameplay. The best vehicle for an Aliens game - or for any game aspiring for a cinematic feel - probably isn't a straight-up shooter, but a Bioware-style thing with dialog wheels.
I know that with the new console generation peeking at us over the horizon everyone is excited about the new graphics, but making the world more photorealistic is a great way to make games more expensive to produce while doing nothing to make the thing more thrilling. Developers need to be working on new ways to involve the player in the non-shooty parts of the story, not making the shooty bits fancier.