Plenty of video games are “cinematic”. But only a handful actually make you feel like you’re in a movie. The following games tick all the same boxes as a great blockbuster — from compelling characters and unforeseen plot twists to relentless action and heart-stopping set pieces. (Some even contain romance and nooky!) If you’ve exhausted your Netflix binge-list or just feel like something a little more interactive, these ten video games contain everything a cinephile needs.
A note on our selection criteria: We’ve tried to concentrate on games that deliver tight, “feature-length” campaigns that play like interactive movies. Games with sprawling open worlds or lots of wandering around were subsequently excluded. (Sorry, Red Dead Redemption/GTA fans!)
[Warning: Minor spoilers ahead]
Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)
The Modern Warfare series is best known for its multiplayer mode, but the single-player campaigns are pure action cinema. For our money, the original has never been topped. From the opening coup d’état that puts you in the shoes of the doomed president, to the explosive climax atop a crumbling bridge, the game is never short of amazing movie moments.
The use of multiple protagonists also results in some shock deaths that occur under your direct control. Special mention must also go to your SAS side kick Captain Price who is every bit as iconic and badass as Blain from Predator (maybe it’s the mustaches). Played entirely in the first-person, the game really feels like you’re starring in a gung-ho action movie. It also doesn’t outstay its welcome, clocking in at around five hours.
Play it if you like: Black Hawk Down, The Expendables.
Until Dawn (PlayStation 4)
If you love horror/slasher movies from the ’80s and early ’90s, Until Dawn will be right up your dark alley. It contains all the classic tropes of the genre – there’s an isolated cabin in the woods, a gaggle of teen protagonists ranging from nerdy outsider to promiscuous cheerleader, flashbacks to a prank-gone-wrong and an unknown evil lurking in the shadows. (There’s even a few jump-scares involving irksome animals.) Naturally, it doesn’t take long for cast members to start getting picked off, one by one. This usually occurs in an unexpected and gruesome fashion; a beloved staple of all slasher movies
In short, it’s a perfect recreation of a “so-bad-it’s-good” horror film that people used to watch on VHS taps. I particularly like how the game gradually ratchets up the tension until everyone is running for their lives. (Oh, and it stars a faithfully rendered Hayden Panettiere, who was in Scream 4.)
Play it if you like: trashy teen horror flicks.
The Last Of Us (PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4)
The Last Of Us is set in a bleak future where humanity has been all-but-wiped out by a disease that turns people into cannibalistic monsters. Survival lies in the hands of a young girl who is immune to the virus and her reluctant contractor guardian. The game’s developer Naughty Dog are masters at this sort of thing: they clearly understand the importance of voice work and in-game “acting” to sell a scene. Of all the games on this list, The Last Of Us is probably the closest to being in an interactive movie — it’s just as riveting to watch as it is to play. We won’t give away the ending other than to say it’s one of the best in apocalyptic fiction.
The game is currently being turned into a movie with Game Of Thrones‘ Maisie Williams set to star. Unlike practically every other video game adaptation, this one actually has a chance of being good — the source material was pure cinema to begin with.
Play it if you like: The Road, 28 Days Later.
Second Sight (PlayStation 2, Xbox, PC, GameCube)
Some movies hook you in from the moment they fade up from black. Second Sight deserves a place on this list for that reason alone. It opens with the game’s protagonist John Vattic waking up in a medical research lab with no idea of who he is or how he got there. It soon transpires that he has been equipped with psionic powers which he uses in a desperate bid to escape the heavily-guarded facility. The fist act ends with Vattic making it to the front entrance, only to find his escape route blocked by a massive squadron of police cars. How’s that for a cliff-hanger?
The game fills in the gaps in Vattic’s memory by continually cutting back to the past — another classic movie trope. Second Sight is getting a bit long in the tooth these days, but the cartoony style helps to hide its rough edges and phoned-in acting. If you like movies that feature memory loss and shady government experiments, it’s well worth a go.
Play it if you like: The Bourne Identity, Lucy.
Heavy Rain (PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4)
Quantic Dream founder David Cage is one of the chief pioneers of interactive cinema. Since its founding in 1997, his company has produced just four titles; which makes him the Terrence Malick of gaming. While all of his video games are worth hunting down, Heavy Rain delivers his most cohesive and consistent “movie” to date. The game is a self-described film noir thriller that follows four protagonists whose lives become entwined by the Origami Killer; a serial killer who uses rainfall to drown trapped victims. Your decisions and actions throughout the game can affect the narrative, with the fates of chief characters resting in your hands.
Like Until Dawn, Heavy Rain is a good choice for cinephiles who don’t normally play video games. The player interacts with the game world via simple actions and button presses which means there are no complex controls to bog down non-gamers. If you enjoy this, we also recommend Cage’s other titles: particularly Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy.
Play it it you like: Se7en, The Cell.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4)
Another Naughty Dog entry and deservedly so. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is the sort of game George Lucas might have made in his heyday, had the technology allowed it. It takes all the best elements from classic adventure films and rolls them into a single action-filled package. It’s all here — the over-the-top shootouts, the death-defying escapes, the burgeoning romance, the quip-spouting square-jawed hero. All that’s missing is a precocious kid sidekick, which is probably a good thing.
The game’s most valuable asset is its chief protagonist; the globetrotting adventurer Nathan Drake. Like all of the best action heroes, Drake has an everyman quality and deadpan sense of humour that makes him instantly likable. Like The Last Of Us, the series is currently being turned into a movie with Chris Pratt in the lead role. We made that casting bit up, but he would totally make a great Nathan Drake. Make it so, Hollywood!
Play it it you like: Indiana Jones, Romancing The Stone.
L.A. Niore (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)
OK, I know we said “no open world games”, but we had to make an exception for Team Bondi’s L.A. Noire. As its name implies, the game is a hard-boiled film noir set in 1940s Los Angeles. Players take on the role of officer Cole Phelps, a rookie detective and ex-war hero who swiftly becomes embroiled in the City of Angels’ seedy underbelly.
The primary strength of L.A. Noire is the way it effortlessly merges gameplay with cinema: for example, the piano music will often give a telltale tinkle when Cole is near an important piece of evidence. This lets the player know they need to take closer look, yet it also feels like a natural part of the soundtrack. Unlike most open world games, you can also opt out of driving from point A to point B on the map if you’d prefer to speed the plot along. It’s little touches like this that really make you feel like you’re inside a movie.
The game also features superb acting courtesy of Team Bondi’s MotionScan technology: real actors were filmed inside of a ring of 32 cameras which faithfully captured their facial expressions from every angle. The fact that the game used established actors also helps (fans of the TV show Mad Men will recognise several familiar faces.) If you enjoy this game, be sure to keep a lookout for its spiritual sequel; the curiously titled Whore Of The Orient.
Play it it you like: L.A. Confidential, Chinatown.
Metal Gear Solid (PlayStation, PC)
The entire Metal Gear Solid series feels like the insane ramblings of a drug-addicted screenwriter who never made it in Hollywood. It is crazy fan fiction for films that don’t even exist. This sounds like a slam, but it’s actually a compliment — MGS is a perfect game for anyone who enjoys bonkers anime, over-the-top spy movies or cult action flicks that don’t make a lick of sense. It has provided some of the best cinematic moments in gaming, along with the most colourful villains this side of James Bond.
If you prefer (mostly) cohesive storytelling and a tight, action-packed plot, stick with the original. Despite the woefully outdated graphics, it’s probably the most “movie-like” of the bunch. Okay, so the actual gameplay isn’t particularly cinematic (you spend most of it hiding in corners), but when those big action movie moments come, they are blockbuster calibre through and through.
Play it if you like: Moonraker, Evangelion.
Grim Fandango (PC)
Grim Fandango’s creator Tim Schafer is a legendary video game director who specialises in comedy adventures. Other works that bear his signature style include the critically-acclaimed The Secret Of Monkey Island, Psychonauts, Brutal Legend and Day of the Tentacle. On first glance, Grim Fandango doesn’t seem to offer much for movie buffs — but behind the weird cartoony graphics is a loving homage to film noir classics including The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca.
The game takes place in an Aztec-influenced Land of the Dead where departed souls prepare for their final journey into the ether. Players take on the role of Manuel “Manny” Calavera, an undead travel agent who assists souls in their trip to the underworld. As the plot unfolds, Manny uncovers a conspiracy involving crooked transport officers with links to organised crime. (It’s basically On The Waterfront with calaca puppets.) As with all Schafer games, dialogue is one of Grim Fandango’s biggest strengths, along with the Pixar-levels of imagination on display. If the idea of this game intrigues you, pick up the remastered version which is available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Windows, Mac, Linux, Android and iOS.
Play it if you like: Tim Burton movies, The Book of Life.
Mafia II (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC)
Mafia II is not the greatest of video games, but as an interactive gangster flick, it’s pretty damn perfect. The game follows the life and times of low-level crook Vito Scaletta as he climbs through the mafia’s ranks in post-WW2 New York. (Actually, the game takes place in a fictional city called “Empire Bay”, but the inspiration is obvious.)
Mafia II is the ultimate indulgence for fans of the gangster genre. All the classic hallmarks are present and accounted for: there’s the childhood friend who drags the protagonist into a life of crime, a stint in jail where alliances are made, crooked union bosses, the “first hit”, a forced betrayal of a former boss and vengeance served ice cold. The game scores extra movie points for its fantastic period soundtrack which includes many licensed hits from the era. In fact, the only misfire is the title: they clearly should have gone with “Mafia Part II” in homage to The Godfather‘s sequel. Tch, eh?
Play it if you like: Goodfellas, The Godfather.
This story has been updated since its original publication..