What is a cinematic experience? For one, it’s a marketing term used on game boxes all the time. It conjures all sorts of images regarding action, intensity, and drama. That’s why they keep using it. A high rate of positive connotation is as good a reason as any for a marketer to repeatedly use a word or phrase. They want you to feel good about the purchase you’re about to make, and what better way than convincing the buyer that they will have a cinematic experience while playing the game?

Over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Adam Smith has a piece decrying the use of the term cinematic. In it, he mostly rests the argument upon one negative connotation of word:

The cinema is cinematic but games are not, or at least they shouldn’t be, not in their entirety. An action film can contain thousands of moving parts in a scene, a drama could contain a sequence communicated through the lack of motion, but in most instances the effectiveness of both will be achieved through blocking, through choreography and rehearsal, through placement and post-production. A game allows these elements to be broken and rearranged, and for each sequence to become something new.

At first, I was nodding my head in agreement. Of course we should avoid the term cinematic, games aren’t movies! Games are made up of systems and decisions and play styles. Watching a movie has none of these (though making one does). Then, I considered Smith’s chief example, the Max Payne 3 marketing. I don’t think that the dev team for Max Payne had in mind that the experience would be the same every time—which is the definition for cinematic that Smith seems to prefer. The marketing is talking, as they so often are, about feel.

If the marketers and designers are doing their jobs, Max Payne should feel like a movie. Every time. Oh, you died and have to play this section again? It may be different, but it should feel like a director spent hours crafting it even though you were making it up as you went along. Most games like Max Payne are power fantasies, and what could make the power fantasy better than a flawless performance, nail biting victory, or sloppy close-call? Making it look as though that was the way the scene was intended to be played all along.

So what then do we mean by cinematic? If we look at the root of gaming history we find a simple truth. Early games worked almost exclusively with fixed camera perspectives, and thus, fixed player perspectives. Sure, levels would scroll along with Mario or Link, but essentially the camera—and the player—stayed in the same place. Not so in 2012 (and maybe more importantly for this argument, not so for films in 1985).

In film, the viewer’s perspective can be almost anywhere. My view, your view, first person, top-down, wide-angle, fisheye, etc . . . . And it changes constantly. So, in a game that claims to be cinematic, the perspective should mimic some of the camerawork in film. Open up the landscape and maybe drop the UI as the first person protagonist looks over the smoking battlefield. Pull the camera out of first person as the player’s character is shot and wounded, waiting for assistance from a teammate. Show the opposing player’s view for the killcam. The list goes on. And without adding to the list, sound and music work the same way.

Many years ago, certainly long before Mario et al, cinema did the hard work of creating a visual language for the screen. Like it or not, games happen on the same conceptual screen, especially games like Max Payne. Are there aspects of gaming that designers should be focusing on instead, sure, but saying that cinematic is a dirty word seems a bit like the proverbial nose cutting to spite one’s face.

Gaming needs the mature visual language of cinema in all of its strength as well as equally strong systems with which the player can interact. Interaction is what sets games apart, and on that, Smith and I can agree.