It seems inevitable, as console graphics follow at the heels of computer generated imagery in big production movies, that one day the experience of playing a game will be indistinguishable from the magnetism of watching a narrative play out on the big screen. Some would argue we’re there already – the list below certainly makes a good case for a high level of cinematic immersion in modern (and a few gems from the past) video games backed by multi-million dollar budgets.
10. Heart of Darkness
Okay, so maybe it isn’t the most obvious place to start, but playing out Heart of Darkness was a purely cinematic experience provided by French developer: Amazing Studio. The story itself is simple enough – players are hurled into the pixelated body of a child called Andy, thrown into a sprawling adventure as he attempts to rescue his dog, Whisky, from a host of shadowy spectres and 2D-animated puzzles, scattered across a linear storyline, packed with hungry flora and precarious walkways. In total, there’s roughly half an hour of cinematic sequences on offer here, among thousands of animated frames on pre-rendered backgrounds. Pick up the plasma cannon, eviscerate a few clawed enemies and see if you don’t fall deeply in love with the simplicity of this narrative-driven adventure. A few subtle details – like the fact your protagonist suffers from nyctophobia (a fear of darkness) – also add a heart-rending note to your travels to the Darkland in search of a boy’s best friend.
9. Alien: Isolation
There’s no better source material than Alien for a survival horror video game. This one, developed by Creative Assembly, is set some 15 years after the events of the original 1979 movie. Cue pangs of nostalgia as you enter the regolith-stomping moonboots of engineer, Amanda Ripley (daughter of Alien’s Ellen Ripley), and drift off to discover the truth of your mother’s disappearance. What’s most effective about this particular franchise outing is that you’re not some hardened marine, looking to spray bullets at foes that leap out from dark corners. In this adaptation, the emphasis is on going slowly and listening for sounds of enemies scurrying through vents, or appearing as thermal dots on your motion tracker. Stealth and patience are both essential. Any action is usually short-lived and serves to wrench you back into the tension and memorable scares of the original movie. Turn up the sound and dim the lights for the most atmospheric experience in this raw and claustrophobic thriller.
The opening sequence to BioShock is up there with some of the best of all time. It all starts in the 1960s – you can tell you’ve been lugged back in time since you’re smoking a cigarette on an airplane. Then, suddenly, the plane crashes and you’re treading water among oil fires in a blackened ocean. Soon, you notice a desolate lighthouse in the near distance. You swim up to it and climb the moonlit rocks. You’re alone. There are no other survivors. When you walk inside, the lighthouse a door slams shut behind you. At which point the lights come on and a banner appears that reads: ‘No Gods or Kings. Only Man’… So, we’ve off to a good start, right? After that you wind down stairwells, hop into a brazen pod and descend in the flickering light of a projected movie. When the movie cuts out, you have your first plummeting glimpse of ‘Rapture’ – a Manhattan-esque underwater city scattered with neon-signs and patrolled by marine life.
You’ve entered a submerged utopia, turned abyssal dystopian nightmare…
7. God of War
In 2018, the God of War franchise flung players into the mythological grit of cleverly devised cinematic set-pieces. Kratos was back with his usual gory tricks and here he was rendered in a more lifelike form, stretching the already immersive game mechanics and infamous deity showdowns to new heights. With cinematography fit for the biggest screens, enriched by intelligent camera tracking and placement, we had found ourselves happily plunged again into the viscera of another epic story, specially designed to feel like one continuous shot. Think Birdman (the movie), only there’s a controller in your hands and instead of steering an undressed actor through Times Square, you’re navigating the ancient tales and tribulations of humanity’s earliest superheroes.
6. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
Talking about cinematic gaming experiences, Uncharted is a big-budget adventure that boasts some of the most movie-esque graphics and action sequences any console has ever been able to conjure up. Factor in some world-class voice actors – plenty of witty one-liners – backed by an immersive soundtrack from composer Henry Jackman, and you’ve got a work of storytelling genius that doubles as a trip to the cinema.
This is pretty much the closest you can come to feeling like you’re ‘playing a movie’ and the fact that movie is pretty much Indiana Jones, only enhances the action adventure experience tenfold.
5. Red Dead Redemption 2
If the Coen Brothers ever made a game, we can imagine it would play a lot like Red Dead Redemption 2. There are long atmosphere-building sequences in which nothing much happens at all, really. As much pleasure can be derived from roaming the outback as diving headlong into the nitty gritty of your campaign. This is a truly expansive journey through the Wild West – seen through the squinted eyes of your scarred, Eastwood-esque protagonist – in which accidents, mishaps and misadventures sprawl in all directions. You can simply stumble upon side or stranger missions – the grips of which you might not even notice, until you’re deep inside a cave, staring down a knife-wielding fanatic. It’s the kind of wild, crazy and beautifully observed storytelling Rockstar is now synonymous with.
4. Max Payne 3
Tough guys in video games are often repellent. Jarring dialogue, crude caricatures and drawling voice-over work can have you fumbling for the kill-switch – if it’s done badly, that is. In Max Payne 3, the stylish camera work, garbled dialogue and moody environments are all pitched to gravelly perfection. Again, this game plays like a movie. One that might’ve been directed by Guy Ritchie, filled with slowed Matrix gunplay as we follow an ex-NYPD detective turned cog in the violent gear train of a Brazilian family.
And with this one, it’s another point for good ol’ Rockstar – bona fide filmmakers of the video game industry.
Some call it The Godfather of first-person shooters – while a few of the squawking aliens might need some tutorage from Pacino and Brando, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more impactful video game. The first Halo was everywhere. Even those clunky old Xbox controllers couldn’t detract from the cinematic feel of firing glittering needles into your enemies, or getting to grips with the best advanced shooting mechanics of that time. One thing everyone knew at the outset was that the SPARTAN was here to stay. So, the countless sequels and endless hours of hammer-swinging action came as no surprise. Nor did anyone question those ever-increasing waves of players, who returned time and time again to do battle in this detailed sci-fi world.
2. The Last of Us
More recently, we were given another taste of cinematic gaming with the release of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. Like a lot of the games we’ve mentioned here, this one was centred on a powerful human dynamic – the struggle of a father to raise his child in a cruel, dystopian world. Marked by the bloody, visceral handprint of movies like 28 Days Later, or The Road, this horror adventure called for an intense focus from its players. The character arc feels deeply authentic, bristling with pathos and high stakes action. The gameplay is steered by tension and emotion. The visuals are breathtaking. And – unlike the wonky thrill of playing Sims and removing a pool ladder until your swimmers give up the ghost– you actually care what happens to Joel and Ellie in this stark and broken world.
1. Grand Theft Auto V
We were reluctant to give it up too fervently for Rockstar, but for all our attempts to veer in other directions, we just couldn’t resist enshrining GTA V as our most cinematic game. There’s more criminality in this action adventure than your best gangster flick. Here in San Andreas, you’re hurled into an excess of gore, gangs and debris-spitting collisions. Just imagine plugging your controller into the mind of Michael Bay. And given that this is the fifteenth instalment in the franchise, the single-player story has been refined, perfected and finally bolstered by complete authenticity. Your single-player journey even branches out across an open world with three equally integral protagonists, one of which is the now iconic and darkly anarchic Trevor Philips – a drug dealer/gunrunner/wild-man for the ages. This release also served to cement the fact that video games are a far more lucrative source of entertainment than the movie industry. To date, GTA V has made a staggering $6 billion off the back of its $265 million budget, doubling the figures grossed by the likes of Star Wars, or Avatar.