I’m sitting here trying to think what a video game might look like if it were set entirely in a car. I just finished watching Locke by Steven Knight, a film whose complete 90-minute runtime takes place in, you guessed it, a car. Throughout the movie, the camera stays almost entirely on Ivan Locke, played masterfully by Thomas Hardy. It is not a concoction that exists to elicit a sense of thrill and excitement. Nevertheless, Locke is as tense and dramatic as some of the best films this year. As David Ehrlich from the Dissolve describes it, the film pulls “more effective drama from a smooth ride than most movies can muster from a dozen pile-ups.”
So what does a single ride down a freeway look like as a video game? While Knight does play a bit with the frustrations of a long car ride, his work is far more compelling than the intentionally boring Desert Bus, which asks players to drive a long monotonous route to Vegas. Likewise, the sub-genre of “escape the room” puzzles might mirror Locke in their confined sets (at least one game does take place entirely in a car), but they rarely deliver meaningful narratives beyond the momentary joy of riddling out an answer.
The physical limits of Locke might define the film, but in many ways, it feels as “cinematic” as dozens of far more expensive dramas. And thus, we get to the loved, despised, and always dubious word: cinematic. In games, we equate the term with beautifully rendered cutscenes, breathtaking panoramic shots of digital vistas, or sensational scripted events that fill our screens with light and action. Games like Uncharted and Heavy Rain commonly wear the “cinematic” moniker — and with pride. Games of this ilk (and it seems we can call more games “cinematic” everyday) bind themselves to concepts of film’s visual storytelling techniques but only with those with which we are most familiar.
If a video game is described as a “cinematic masterpiece,” we are more likely to conjure up images of The Avengers than of Driving Mrs. Daisy. Yet if we can look Knight’s work as excellent piece of storytelling, full of tension, suspense, and well-earned drama, then surely we have to assess the trappings that we usually conflate with the cinematic. Maybe there are better ways to bind our medium with film.
Take the constant interplay between tension and release in Locke. As our titular character takes and places phone calls, struggling to maintain an outside line to his job, his family, and his mistress, the three conflicting paths of his life tie up the line. While taking one call, he necessarily misses another, or right as he hangs up a connection with his wife, another call rings ominously over the hands-free set. At other times, the silence between calls stretches on. Perhaps a truly cinematic game pays as much attention to the action as it does to slow moments of player reflection. The pauses in Locke are immensely valuable, and we are rarely afforded moments to just think in games. Yes, we are given dips in a valley of difficulty, but are these moments thoughtful?
Or, like the people on the other end of Locke’s phone, maybe the most cinematic games are those that give more weight to the unseen. Perhaps we should consider horror, not adventure, the game genre most suited for the cinematic, as horror respects the power of suggestion. Uncharted might show, and show beautifully, but horror hints and whispers.
Oh, or maybe scratch all of that. Perhaps to be cinematic means to take seriously the quality of voice acting. Thomas Hardy carries Locke, absolutely, but he is beautifully supported by the voice acting of Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, and Ben Daniels. Their voices provide as much insight into Locke’s motivations and turmoils as Hardy himself. Stellar voice acting in games can eclipse even the best (or worst) motion capture.
So, clearly driving in a car with Ivan Locke has more in common with the excellent Gone Home than it does with Call of Duty (now starring Kevin Spacey). The game features excellent voice acting, fantastic narrative pacing, and a relatively constrained environment, all while delivering a rich story. Gone Home is a cinematic tour de force!
Or, most likely, Gone Home is just a game, albeit a good one, that uses some techniques that work, and the term “cinematic” fails to describe games as much as it fails to describe film. Games can learn far more interesting lessons by asking how little moments — a sentence cut short, a glance out a window — make all the difference. The best lessons that we can take from film are the small ones.