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“Cinematic” is the New RPG

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By Nelson Schneider - 10/02/16 at 02:50 PM CT

In the 8th Generation, I have been gratefully relieved to see a resurgence of true, dyed-in-the-wool RPGs after the genre all but disappeared during the grim, bleak 7th Generation. However, I have been wondering why the King Maker genre, the genre that everyone agreed was one of their top-tier favorites from the 3rd Gen when “Final Fantasy” and “Dragon Quest” were breaking new ground with every sequel, all the way through the 6th Gen when nearly every publisher that mattered had their own IP in the genre, was driven to the brink of extinction in the first place.

Looking back at the RPG genre from the 3rd-6th Gens, one major feature of the genre stands out: RPGs were the only videogame genre to provide gripping narrative content and an investment by the player in a cast of characters over dozens of hours. Old-style platformers didn’t bother with story fluff. Neither did old shooters, and that genre still struggles with narrative-focused experiences to this day. As of the 7th Generation, though, much of that changed.

Sony, as a movie studio that just happens to make TVs and videogame consoles, has been leading the charge to bring narrative qualities to genres other than the RPG. The results have been critically acclaimed… by other critics. “Heavy Rain,” “Uncharted,” “The Last of Us,” and “Until Dawn” are just a few examples of the trend that has stolen away gamers’ focus from RPGs: ‘Cinematics.’

‘Cinematic’ games aren’t particularly ‘gamey,’ at least compared to non-cinematic titles or even RPGs that seamlessly blended narrative elements with non-twitch-based abstracted combat. ‘Cinematic’ games are, in essence, an attempt to create a videogame that feels, to its consumer, much more like a traditional movie experience than a traditional gaming experience. ‘Cinematic’ games focus on spending their enormous budgets on creating the most realistic-looking graphics possible and hiring a cast of Hollywood actors to do motion-capture, voice-acting, and even having their likenesses scanned directly into the game’s assets.

The result of this focus on the superficial in ‘Cinematic’ games is twofold. First, the gameplay suffers. Second, the Mainstream – everyday folks who only play games casually or who only focus on the biggest gaming spectacles to get their dose of titillation – absolutely gobble it up. Publishers love it when the Mainstream latches onto something, as they can feed off the bubble until it pops, gaining maximum profits from minimum efforts. Gamers, however, should not love Mainstream attention to what was formerly a niche hobby for nerds, as the more effort publishers put into pandering to their huge, new (and probably temporary) audience, the less effort they put into creating products that appeal their established, long-time fanbase. We’ve already seen the results of Mainstream pandering on both sides of the Pacific, with companies like EA and Konami earning pure, white-hot hatred for their awful behavior.

Of course, the fact that gameplay tends to suffer in ‘Cinematic’ games doesn’t bother the Mainstream. RPGs, with their abstract combat, turn-based mechanics, simple-to-complex number crunching, and other nerdist elements, never appealed to the Mainstream in the first place. ‘Cinematic’ elements, when applied to a genuine RPG, are not actually detrimental in any way (unless the writing is poor, but that’s a risk regardless), but the removal of the RPG from the narrative-based experience, in favor of slapping ‘Cinematic’ elements onto a generic third-person Action game or Shooter in order to bring in Mainstream customers is the single greatest contribution to fall of the RPG genre in the 7th Gen. The Mainstream is impatient. The Mainstream wants action. The Mainstream needs instant gratification. They can get that from a ‘Cinematic’ game that slaps a big-budget-yet-stupidly-written mushroom-zombie story onto a generic Third-Person Shooter. They can also get that from a ‘Cinematic’ game that slaps a generic and stupid slasher movie story onto Adventure/Text Adventure gameplay. It should come as no surprise that the “Game of Thrones” TV series on HBO – with its focus on Dark Fantasy, violence, and tits – is the only piece of Fantasy media to catch the Mainstream’s attention. For anyone who can look past the superficial shine and who isn’t caught up in the B-rate writing that plagues many ‘Cinematic’ games, the fact that so many titles in this style have won so much acclaim in recent years should be distressing.

To be clear, I am happy to see ‘Cinematics’ being grafted onto more genres, provided it is done well and provided it doesn’t pull attention completely away from RPGs again. “BioShock Infinite,” a ‘Cinematic’ FPS, was one of my favorite games from the 7th Gen, largely because it was excellent in every category. The shooting was fantastic, the presentation was beautiful, and the narrative was thought provoking. This doesn’t happen often in non-RPGs, but I welcome the prospect of more games in more genres perfecting the trifecta in the future. If ‘Cinematic’ games are to movies as RPGs are to novels, there’s definitely room for both.

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