When and when not to use it is a serious question…
“One of the interesting byproducts of the digitization of everything is the steep rise in nostalgia for physicality”. The resurgence of the sell of vinyl records took place only after several years of digital music dominance. The talk about the smell of paper books only became relevant when digital books started to threaten their existence. It is no different for films, specifically “film grain”.
Film grain is the byproduct of shooting movies on “film”, before the age of digital cinema. Much effort was put into improving the image quality of films, and thus the elimination of film grain (more than often taken as having a negative impact) that the majority of today’s films were shot on digital cameras offering sharp and clean images. The success of instagram, however, revised and transformed “film grain” into a new aesthetic fetish, so much so that it’s almost a no-brainer for many of us of throw a “film grain” filter onto whatever dull images we’ve shot to inject it with a mote zest. Interesting enough, post-production of quite a few of today’s films deliberately adds film grain overlay on the originally clean digital film to evoke that sense of nostalgia and aesthetic.
The trend eventually made its way into video games. The Last of Us Part II and Cyberpunk 2077 are two examples, right off my head, that showcase liberal use of film grain overlay on an essentially digital media. To what extent has this new found fetish helped the final production is, however, up to debate. There is no hard rule outright forbidding the use of film grain in video games; admittedly the choice is entirely up to the creator. But I would argue that in many cases the use of film grain in video games is unnecessary; and I will illustrate why its appearance in Playdead’s Limbo and INSIDE are pertinent and appropriate.
Out of the two AAA cinematic games, The Last of Us Part II and Cyberpunk 2077, the former features a much more apparent and better implemented film grain plot-processing, yet both use case aim to deliver the same visual effect to the their respective audience, therefore the discussion won’t lose any validity if limited only to The Last of Us Part II.
The Last of Us Part II’s gameplay structure consists of mainly two parts: Cutscenes and third-person interactions. Think of it as a film interspersed in a game, or vice versa. The use of film grain fills the entirety of its 25 hour playthrough. During cutscenes, film grain does help the delivery: live-rendered cutscenes are meant to mimic the look of films, film grain truly fools me into believing that I am watching a film. But when it shifts seamlessly, the film grain laid on top of the third-person gameplay confuses my mind: in one hand I am controlling Ellie, I am Ellie; yet on the other hand I feel like a tangible psychological distance from Ellie, as if I am watching someone else playing this game. Film grain creates a distance between me the player and the character I am playing, as film grain is utilized as a post-processing layer regardless whether it is gameplay or cutscene.
That is not to say the film grain is completely useless in video games. Both titles from Playdead, Limbo and INSIDE, features heavy use of film grain, yet I never felt the discontinuity I felt in The Last of Us Part II. One aspect of this difference is that there is no shift between cutscene and gameplay in Limbo or INSIDE. The camera never cuts and it follows the player at an almost fixed angle throughout the entire game. In other words, the player would never put down the controller and merely watch the story unfold on screen. The reason does not stop here however. Compared to The Last of Us Part II, which treats the player as movie goer in a theatre and tells its story in a very deliberate manner, Limbo and INSIDE never let that urge to tell a story surface. In their respective subdue manners, both games let the player “discover” the story, instead of feeding the story right down player’s throat with a cutscene. The fragmented details and environmental storytelling in Limbo and INSIDE’s world never grant player an unambiguous story with definitive beginnings, mids or endings. In other world, both games’ narrative and world building intentionally keep a distance from the player right from the start: Limbo’s story happens after the playable character’s death in the physical world, INSIDE situates the player in a dystopian world without explaining anything, start to finish. The eeriness of both worlds always keep the player in a state pondering, instead of merely immersing the player in the game. Film grain helps greatly with achieving this effect. It is an easily discernible trait of film, a medium conscious of the distinction between its content and spectator. Limbo and INSIDE’s world building emphasize this distance/distinction between the world and the player, even going to some length highlighting it, but the same cannot be said for The Last of Us Part II and the majority of AAA games these days without second a thought.
So, next time you want to put film grain in a video game, think twice.