With the Wii U already sitting comfortably in our entertainment centers and the PS4 slated for release by the end of this year, the next generation is here. So it's a good time to ask the question: Will video games finally close the gaps they've always had with movies?
Certainly, games won't be replacing films any time soon—not every experience needs to be interactive, and the game industry has expended a lot of effort making games less like movies, adding motion controls and other gimmicks. But games have always had a few problems that kept them from competing with films in key areas. And all of those problems are disappearing quickly.
The most obvious problem has been that games can't look as realistic as a live-action movie, or even a top-end animated film. This is especially obvious when humans are interacting on screen—the faces look awkward, and the lips don't move quite right. The effect is so pronounced that it's been called the "uncanny valley," a term that was once applied to movies such as The Polar Express, but nowadays is used mainly to talk about video games. Movie animation has moved on, but games haven't quite figured it out yet.
When an audience is trying to relate to people in a story, this effect really stands in the way. Not only is it distracting, but it draws attention to the fact that the characters aren't quite right—that they aren't really people. Immersion is basically impossible with this wall between the story and the audience, no matter how subtle the problem might be.
The current generation saw great strides against this issue, and the next one might eliminate it completely. L.A. Noire pioneered new motion-capture technology that could digitize the details of performances from real actors. And even games that don't go all-out can at least make their characters look somewhat convincing by carefully matching the characters' lip movements to the words they're speaking. Soon, we'll be able to connect with game characters as easily as we can connect with real actors, or at least with high-quality animation from the likes of Pixar.
Another persistent problem has been the quality of voice acting. Because many game studios have low budgets and tend to focus more on gameplay, we'll probably never be completely rid of horrible voiceovers—but now that games have a foothold in mainstream culture, some real talent is getting involved. Two actors from television’s Walking Dead will reprise their roles for the upcoming Activision adaptation, and Ellen Page will appear in Beyond: Two Souls from Quantic Dream. And of course, L.A. Noire featured Aaron Staton from Mad Men.
A similar revolution is occurring in the realm of writing. Again, we shouldn't forget that some studios have low budgets, so crappy text and dialogue could always be a part of video games. But as gamers grow up and bad writing becomes more apparent to them, more and more attention will be paid to this area. Titles like Portal already show that a game can be as funny and engaging as a movie. There's no reason the next generation can't feature much better acting, on average, than this one did.
But the most important question—and the one with the most uncertain answer—is whether developers will care enough to get the plots right. We play games to play them, not so much to follow a story or immerse ourselves in extensive lore. When a game offers those things, most of us see it as icing on the cake rather than a core part of the experience. For every BioShock, there are a hundred games where you fight off a generic alien invasion.
In a sense, video games will always be hobbled by the fact that they are games. Developers know they can create a compelling experience if they get the core mechanics right, whether they pay attention to the fundamentals of plot or not. When corners are cut, they’ll be cut in ways that make games look bad next to movies.
But with things getting better all the time—from technology to plotlines to games' place in the larger culture—there's reason for optimism. Perhaps one day, games will replace movies as the premier visual storytelling medium.
Date: February 26, 2013