6 Video Games and Film: Understanding Interactive Cinema

Understanding Media to Foster Innovation

Lily Matt

Innovation of interactive media is fostering the convergence of video games and film, two intrinsically different mediums.

Interactive Cinema: A New Frontier

Interactive media has been embraced as the next great forefront of entertainment. Following modern innovation in technology, interactivity has begun to permeate throughout all facets of the entertainment industry, blurring the inherent distinction between video games and cinema. Netflix, once exclusively providing movie and tv streaming, announced that it will now be home to a line of Netflix exclusive video games as early as 2022 (Shaw). Streaming platforms will no longer serve as a distinction between content types. Since 2018, Netflix has invested in interactive entertainment with a series of movies. Bandersnatch, an extension of the “Black Mirror” franchise and coined “an interactive feature-length film,” will be referenced throughout this paper due to its unique video game characteristics and ambiguity when it comes to an entertainment category.

It is paramount to understand the differentiation between cinema and video games in an ever-evolving entertainment industry. Not to keep the mediums separate, but to better understand how to best integrate the two mediums and develop the convergence between film, video games, and the human experience.

1. Preface: Cinema and Video Games

Society breeds an inherent understanding of what cinema is. Although the term may sound pretentious and outdated to the average viewer, for the purpose of this argument it encompasses “a recording of moving images that tells a story and that people watch on a screen.”(“Cinema”, Webster). The context of “cinema” (as interpreted in layman’s terms) is indicative of the Hollywood Golden Age (Ryan). Cinema is known as feature-length films that are created to be shown in the theater. Following the advent of modern streaming services, cinema has come to encompass media that can be watched on handheld devices as well. There is an argument to be made about if home movies and Youtube videos can be truly considered cinema, but for the purpose of this essay TikToks, YouTube videos, and home movies will be excluded from the discussion. Although amateur cinema is often a leading forefront in cinematic innovation, these mediums are too ambiguous to be considered “cinema” without proper research and analysis. In the context of this essay, the word cinema will reference modern cinema and the body of work that is being created today along with traditional cinema classifications.

Arguably, video games are the easiest to identify. Interactivity has been a distinct characteristic of video games since Pong and Tetris (Pai).  Other aspects such as viewing medium and environment also play a large role. While cinema is often created to be experienced in a group environment at a theater, video games are inherently isolating. Even when playing a multiplayer game a player controls only the fate of their character directly. Direct interactions between a controller (mouse, keyboard, etc) and a character occur exclusively on a one-on-one basis. Video games are a testament to personal achievement even when played in a group. Each individual has a different experience simply based on the fact that they are the person playing, whereas moviegoers experience the same scene at the same time no matter what each individual does.

Interactivity plays a pivotal role in the classification of video games. Controlling an environment for longer than observing content is an indicative quality of a video game. In recent years, video games have begun to contain more and more cut scenes that are often done in the form of short story animations. Cut scenes serve as convergence points between periods of personal input to advance a narrative, but do not have enough screen time to consider a video game a movie.

2. The History of Interactivity in Cinema

Cinema is inherently becoming more interactive. The Kinetoscope, theater, and on-demand streaming services each became more interactive than eras previous. Interactivity has proven to be a consequence of the cinema of attraction and a sign of changing times. “the cinema of attractions directly solicits spectator attention, inciting visual curiosity, and supplying pleasure through an exciting spectacle – a unique event, whether fictional or documentary, that is of interest in itself” (Musser). Spectacle engages viewers, so there is an argument to be made that cinema has always been interactive. The Consequences of the cinema of attraction serve to make the interaction between the film and the viewer more prevalent. 1961 saw the emergence of Mr. Sardonicus, a film that had viewers vote for decisions in the theater (Burgos). However, the movie did converge to one inevitable ending for each screening.  Polyester, from filmmaker John Waters, provided audience members with scratch and sniff cards. “When the film was released in 1981, it was accompanied by the wonders of Odorama:  scratch-and-sniff cards were distributed to audience members, who were then cued by the film precisely when to scratch off each of the ten numbered smells” (“A Whiff of Polyester”).  Although scratch and sniff was relatively short-lived, it set a precedent for audience interactivity. The 4th wall was neglected as the film prompted audience members to smell specific numbers during specific scenes of the film. Never reinstated, scratch and sniff can be attributed to a consequence of the cinema of attraction.


This 1981 “Polyester” Odorama card contained smells such as leather, rose, pizza, and skunk. The audience was prompted by the film to scratch a specific number in conjunction with on-screen actions (Scratch).

The popularity of 3D film and even the recent emergence of 4D in select theaters all increase interactivity between film and the spectator, prompting an evaluation of a spectator versus participant contract (“Computer Games”). The average viewer attends a film to experience a narrative, leaving their own perception of the world behind. The history of interactivity has always shied short of engaging viewers as participants, maintaining an expectation of passive entertainment. However, there is an inherent amount of interactivity, as proven by the power of the cinema of attraction, that is important to the viewing experience (Musser). Once exclusive to theaters, the cinema of attraction has migrated to streaming services as well. New interactive media such as Bandersnatch, is once again increasing the amount of interactivity that audiences are experiencing. This time, however, it is to a degree that we’ve never seen before. Much like the “choose your own adventure series” for the 80s, the screen prompts the participant with one of two options. After a specified time limit is up or an option has been selected the movie continues along the selected path.

The difference between video games and cinema is not always interaction. For example, scratch and sniff is not inherently a characteristic of a video game even though it is inherently a form of interaction. Interactivity is a commonality between video games and cinema, however, it differs drastically between the two media formats. The participant interacts with video games and while films influence the viewer. As a “passenger” when watching films, the story unfolds no matter what actions are taken by viewers, instead the movie influences the way that the audience thinks. Even in 4D movies the air and smells are impacting us, viewers are not causing them to happen nor are they influencing the outcome of those smells on the screen.

Players of video games influence the environment in the game. There may be a preset outcome or goal but the way that is achieved depends on the choices of the player. The artistic integrity that is present in films also differs. The frames that filmmakers present to audiences are a culmination of artistic choices in order to portray a message. Video games operate in defined spaces, however, they do not have a defined frame. They can pan the camera, destroying what would be a perfectly stylized shot that is set up in films. Bandersnatch has each frame preset and predefined, interaction coming from choices about the narrative, not the environment.

Interaction should be viewed as a tool to improve the qualities of cinema that make it great, not as a tool to destroy cinema as a medium. The goal of interactivity is to refine the experience of the cinema and make it more akin to the human experience. As the future continues to facilitate innovation, cinema and video games will begin to intersect. This does not mean that “traditional” video games and cinema enjoyed today will go extinct, simply, the integration of the two mediums is a natural progression that will create a new subset of media.


3. Documentary: “Real Storytelling”

A sizable distinction between video games and cinema is the role of the documentary. Cinema Verite and Direct Cinema are both iterations of the “truth” of an event (Beattie). Whether that be a story or an experience, all forms of the documentary are capturing real-life events as they occur or portraying scientific information that is backed up by evidence. However, the basis of the documentary is maintaining a reality that centers around something that has occurred and portraying it to the highest accuracy. The video game, even when based on a historical event, can not get anywhere near the accuracy of the documentary. One thing to look at is the inclusion of people in video games. These characters, sometimes modeled to look human, are never portrayed by real humans. “But the human figures of the other gunmen that move and shoot and run about this landscape are recognizably not human. We might be fooled for a moment that they looked ‘as if ’ they were human… but there is absolutely no way that anyone could mistake the computer-generated image for an apparent image of the real such as film” (Atkins).  The use of “real” is highly important in the context of this argument. Documentaries aim to recreate “real” conditions but technology is simply not close enough to create indistinguishable humans in video games. As long as our technology isn’t photorealistic when it comes to character rendering there is an easy distinction between the video game and cinema. There are animated movies that make this a little bit more difficult to claim as a distinction, especially if one of these animated movies is made interactive, but that’s where other factors such as narrative and scale of interactivity come into play.

The liberty of the player to influence the events at hand also destroys  “documentary”  traits that a video game may possess. “Close Combat ’s claim is always to the ‘space between’, and never to the irrecoverable historical event. As a narrative text it emerges from the historical record, but does not claim to be anything but partial in what it represents… This does not pretend to be recovering historical ‘truth’, but to be telling a ‘historical’ story” (Atkins). Reaching certain checkpoints that are recreated to look like they occurred at a historical battle isn’t going to be historically accurate. There may be convergence points that move the story along accurately, but they won’t truly be the experience due to the fact that video games have to be interactive.

Pairing video games and film has proven that interactivity has the capability to tell a “real” story outside of a documentary. Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s virtual reality experience “CARNE y ARENA” exemplifies “Virtually present, physically invisible”.  Iñárritu centered his project around “a 6 ½-minute virtual reality sequence for one person that employs state-of-the-art immersive technology to create a multi-narrative light space with human characters”(Alejandro). The project breaks the bounds of modern film making, with a convergence between video games and film. Breaking the fourth wall, interactivity with human characters, and total immersion are the forefront of a new cinematic era. This film allows sympathy and raw connection that can only come from a place of total immersion. The ways in which to combine these two distinct mediums, video games and movies, are endless and could prove to be a pivotal tool in “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”. Immersion should be seen as a way to better tell a story, not to destroy cinema as a medium of expression. Iñárritu has proven that interactivity is a future tool for the betterment of mankind’s connection to one another.

Understanding the Mold

In order to classify media that is breaking the mold of cinema and video games, we have to examine four factors: interactivity, documentary, artistic integrity, and convergence.

  1. Interactivity

Contrary to popular belief, interactivity is not exclusive to video games. With the advent of interactive cinema and the continuity of cinema of attraction, we can conclude that interactivity has a role in both mediums.

Interacting with the medium and being acted on are two different things. 3D, 4D, and even scratch and sniff are prompted by the media itself and do not alter the course of the actions taken because they are pre-recorded.

Video games are preprogrammed with convergence points but what happens during the game is ultimately up to the player. The player interacts with the game and changes the way something progresses. Depending on the type of game, there could be endless permutations of how one plays a level and therefore the experience of playing a specific game is never again exactly the same.

  1. Role of documentary

One of the most straightforward differentiators is the documentary and the presence of humans on screen. Actors are pivotal to a majority of movies, although animated movies deviate from this aspect of the definition, it works for all other movies. Considering the slow rate of advancement from interactive movies like Bandersnatch it’s safe to say that interactive animated movies still fulfill enough of the other movie criteria. A Documentary is only possible when the spectator can not change the events at hand and therefore, along with the inclusion of real human actors, video games are not cinema.

  1. Artistic integrity

Lighting, the size of the frame, what is shown, and the way in which actors move is all defined by the creative liberties of a director or group. Video games allow the player to alter some of these quintessential aspects of cinema. Classification is ever-changing as the technology changes however in the case of Bandersnatch we can conclude that, although it is interactive, the inability to create something that hasn’t been prerecorded, frames that can not be altered, and the presence of people that are “controlled” by changes in narrative, not direct control, means that Bandersnatch should be classified as a movie.

As media continues to evolve there will be a greater convergence between video games and cinema. The distinct differences between the two mediums are precisely why they will alter the way we view the world when combined. Understanding the intrinsic differences between video games and film is not a way to sequester them from one another, but to better understand how to best integrate video games and film. Choosing which factors from each medium best serves the purpose of an interactive experience is key to creating something impactful. Combining the special properties of video games and film could lead to experiences that transcend anything experienced in one’s personal life, allowing humans to forge connections that can only be created by shared experiences.


Works Cited

  1. “Alejandro G. Iñárritu: CARNE y ARENA (Virtually Present, Physically Invisible).” LACMA, Los Angeles County Museum of Art , 2017, www.lacma.org/art/exhibition/alejandro-g-inarritu-carne-y-arena-virtually-present-physically-invisible.
  2. Atkins, Barry. More Than a Game : The Computer Game As Fictional Form, Manchester University Press, 2003. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/washington/detail.action?docID=242616. Created from Washington on 2021-07-15 04:36:04.
  3. “Bandersnatch Featurette .” YouTube, Netflix , 3 Jan. 2019, youtu.be/VNw9DAwp2Kk.
  4. Beattie , Keith. “The Truth of the Matter: Cinema Verite and Direct Cinema .” Documentary Screens: Non-Fiction Film and Television , 2004, pp. 83–104.
  5. Burgos, Danielle. “A Brief History of Interactive Film.” The End Run, 25 June 2019, endcrawl.com/blog/brief-history-interactive-film/.
  6. “Cinema.” Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cinema.
  7. Computer Games and New Media Cultures : A Handbook of Digital Games Studies, edited by Johannes Fromme, and Alexander Unger, Springer Netherlands, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/washington/detail.action?docID=973656.Created from Washington on 2021-07-15 05:03:08.
  8. Iñárritu, Alejandro G, director. CARNE y ARENA (Virtually Present, Physically Invisible). YouTube, YouTube, 9 June 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=zF-focK30WE.
  9. Musser , Charles. “Rethinking Early Cinema: Cinema of Attractions and Narrativity.” Cinema of Attractions Reloaded , Amsterdam University Press , 2006, pp. 389–416.
  10. Pai , Gaurav. “Video Games and Cinema .” Cinema and Technology . 12 July 2021, Seattle , Washington .
  11. Ryan , Marie- Laure. “Interactive Narrative, Plot Types, and Interpersonal Relations .” Interactive Storytelling , Springer , 2008, pp. 6–13. University of Washington , link-springer-com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/content/pdf/10.1007%2F978-3-540-89454-4.pdf .
  12. “Scratch and Sniff Ticket: Polyester .” Mediamatic , Mediamatic , 31 Oct. 2015, www.mediamatic.net/image/2016/12/14/undefined-219032211.jpg%28%29%28FE5DB5A6B0507AA53464FE04F2E740B5%29.jpg.
  13. Shaw , Lucas, and Mark Gurman . Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 14 July 2021, www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-07-14/netflix-plans-to-offer-video-games-in-expansion-beyond-films-tv?sref=W6GJF3MS.
  14. “A Whiff of Polyester: Inside the Odorama Process.” The Criterion Collection, 25 Sept. 2019, www.criterion.com/current/posts/6605-a-whiff-of-polyester-inside-the-odorama-process#:~:text=When%20the%20film%20was%20released,of%20the%20ten%20numbered%20smells.



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Video Games and Film: Understanding Interactive Cinema Copyright © 2021 by Lily Matt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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