Most of the time we use the word "cinematic" as a joke, but videogames really are becoming more like cinema, i.e. cinematic. You may be tempted to attribute this to advances in visual technology, but I blame music. While the increasingly photo-realistic graphics of today's games frequently get the door with the star on it, it's the music that does the lion's share of the work in making a game feel like a movie.
Don't believe me? Try watching this recut of the Sleepless in Seattle trailer with classic horror film music:
In both cases, the entire mood of the video clip has been radically transformed by a simple switch of music. The same visuals with different music create a radically different experience.
Even better, take a look at this scene from the 1968 thriller Bullitt:
It's arguably one of the best car chase scenes ever filmed, but it starts so methodically and slow-paced that without the underlying music, it'd feel like a driver's education film. Even with the music, it's probably too slow-paced for modern audiences to interpret (if you're impatient, skip to about 3:30), but what's particularly awe-inspiring about this scene is that when the action really heats up (again, 3:30), the music takes a back seat to the roaring of car engines and squealing of tires (listen for the tire squeal as McQueen shifts his Mustang into second gear after spinning out in the dirt at about 7:45). The scene is still probably not very approachable for modern viewers, but the slow burn of the jazz music for the build-up, coupled with the complete absence of music in the chase portion is Cinema Scoring 101, and once you know to listen for it, you'll be amazed at how many current games use a similar technique.
Games have almost always had some form of music, of course, but truly cinematic scores weren't even an option until the 90s, due to the limitations of technology. Music was generally generic "mood sound" meant to inspire a basic feeling (excitement, aggression, intrigue) and often didn't mirror the action on-screen. It was also generally bad, with some notable exceptions. This all changed when cinema-quality music started being added to games, and it probably won't surprise you to learn that some of the first games to incorporate music as seamlessly as films were made by a company that started in film.
In the early 90s, LucasArts, the videogame arm of George Lucas' media empire, developed a technology called iMuse that would seamlessly match a style of music to what was happening in the game in the same way that the tempo of the music in a film changes according to what's happening on the screen. This had never been done before, but the technology was so successful that it was soon incorporated into some of LucasArts' most famous games including adventure titles like Monkey Island 2 and Grim Fandango, as well as the Star Wars-based games TIE Fighter and Dark Forces.
Playing these games, one experienced a then-unique sensation of being immersed in a cinematic experience. This was, of course, partly due to the excellent writing and programming, but largely due to the music. Hearing familiar Star Wars themes play in the background while piloting a TIE fighter, one instantly felt a part of the action, as if one were re-creating scenes form the popular films. If you have any doubt regarding the contribution of the music versus the graphics in these games, fire up TIE Fighter today if you can find a PC that will run it. The graphics are painful to look at, rendering the game almost unplayable, but the music persists.
Today, whether through similar technology or full, script-based scoring, most games will tell you how you're supposed to feel about what's happening on the screen through musical cues, or will inform you that something is happening you need to be aware of through a shift in music. Music, once little more than background accompaniment (and often bad) has become an integral, in some cases defining, aspect of the gameplay experience. As modern videogame graphics approach a level of quality near to that of films, it will be easier to point to this or that game as being "cinematic" or "advancing the art," but I say it's already there thanks, in no small part, to music.
This week, we're devoting the magazine to in-game music, with issue 277, "Symphony of Destruction". Enjoy.