Game developers are right in the middle of inventing our art form, and the rules are vague. Some of us assume that we must also invent our own system of dynamic visual expression, because those rules seem vague as well. Judging by the embarrassing ignorance displayed in some of the titles I see, a number of developers seem to think that there are no rules at all, just because they never heard of any. So it may come as a surprise to learn that the so-called "language of film" emerged as a solid body of knowledge around 75 years ago and has changed little since. You don't think a movie director's real job is doing lunch, do you?
This article is a primer aimed at designers and artists who need to incorporate cinematic sequences within their games in order to drive a story or heighten the impact of their title, and who have little knowledge of how to proceed. We will rapidly and superficially cover a lot of material since it's impossible to teach a film course in such a short article, but it doesn't matter. My purpose here is merely to bewilder readers and generate enough curiosity to send them scurrying for more information in the literature, referenced below.
I'm a veteran moviemaker and game designer who likes games that tell stories. The organization of the following material reflects my own personal views about the best way to use cinematic elements in games. In other words, the information is heavily biased. Your mileage may vary.
Until motion picture technology was invented in the last third of the 19th Century, no one had any idea that movies were possible, to say nothing of how they would work.
Without something recorded on film or video (or possibly a series of esoteric commands in a game scripting language) there is no possiblity of motion picture entertainment; so individual moving images are the primary cinematic material. They require design in and of themselves. In 1895, the Lumière Brothers strung up a bedsheet and charged startled Parisians real money to watch a train lumber across it. For a naïve audience it was a thrilling sight. At that moment it was possible to believe that cinema would forever consist of a single shot and nothing more-something like a recorded stage play, with continuous uninterrupted action an essential requirement for intelligibility.
By 1902, when Edwin S. Porter filmed The Life of an American Fireman, moviemakers knew better: an audience can be induced to understand a collection of separate film shots-snippets photographed at various times in various locations and connected only by direct cuts-as a continuous experience. Uninterrupted action was not only unnecessary, but a hindrance.
A problem remained, however. Not all shots would cut together. Some combinations worked better than others. And some cuts produced spooky effects beyond what anyone had imagined, suggesting great expressive power waiting to be harnessed. The language of film developed in the first decades of the twentieth century in order to develop a set of rules for making shots that will cut successfully, without confusion, and deliver emotional impact.
Here are some of the discoveries the early moviemakers made:
The important lesson was, as Hitchcock observed, "movies are life with the bad bits cut out."
Here is a short collection of important film elements. It's far from complete, but will suggest some of the possibilities and pitfalls of moviemaking...
Actors & Acting
Motion picture entertainment is recorded, but acting dominates, which is why we have movie stars. Casting and acting, however, are too complicated to discuss in this article. So let's acknowledge the topic and move on to purely cinematic ideas...
Framing and sizing individual shots turn out to be important considerations in making a movie, as does the orchestration of camera and actor movement. Some primitive observations...
Notice that by atomizing the events of a dramatic sequence into discrete shots chosen, framed, and cut together with care, filmmakers can intensify the movie experience in a number of important ways. For example...
The World Of Left & Right
In reality, we need a sense of navigation to understand our position and velocity through three-dimensional space. Wondering about north, south, east, west, up and down is important for our health and well-being. By contrast, in film everything is reduced to left & right. It takes a while for most people to grasp this slightly disturbing idea, but it's true. Directors must be aware of the many aspects of this principle. For example...