Storytelling in videogames AKA games are NOT movies

I’ve been hearing/reading a lot lately about the parallels between video games and movies, how games can deliver “cinematic” stories, how games are now very “movie-like,” and how some don’t even know there’s a difference between games and movies.

My short answer to the subject is: games are not movies, and game stories cannot be delivered as movie stories. Maybe I’m not the one to discuss this because I’m not some famous game director/designer.

Or maybe I’m allowed to discuss this because I’ve not been “corrupted” by the gaming mojo.

I’m not going to write about how video game stories may be bad compared to stories in movies either. After all, there are many games with really good stories, just like there are movies with extremely bad stories.

Someone told me a few weeks ago about some game having such a movie-like story (can’t remember which one it was, sorry). My answer was what I just said above, and after a short “back and forth” I said “ok then, tell me the 5 plot points in that game’s story arch.”

Besides the lack of a 5 plot points in most of the games (although if you know of a game that does have those 5 plot points, let me know below), another big difference is that movies offer not only a main plot, but also a sub-plot. For example, in Inception, the plot is the big plan to make some dude dissolve his corporate empire, while the sub-plot is the story of the dude dealing with his guilt for causing his wife’s death. Game stories are way more straight forward.

Also, movies are not interactive, while games are interactive (although some games REALLY cross the line here, forcing you to keep the W key pressed for 2 hours, or reducing interactivity to QT event buttons which is the equivalent to pressing the Play button on your remote every 2 minutes).

This whole thing made me think on how I could deliver a story in a video game, what could work and what wouldn’t work. More specifically, I began to wonder what I could use for our current game.

Batman Arkham Asylum is what I consider a game that’s able to deliver a story very effectively (if only it didn’t have cut-scenes and didn’t force a game-over on me every time I fail to save some random cop), because it has all these different triggered events and twists that help you uncover the in one way or another.

However, unless I’m missing something the game lacks the 5 plot points, so we shouldn’t say it’s a “movie-like experience.” It does not have a sub-plot either, so the only thing moving the story forward is that we want to defeat the bad guy.

A game can also use the environment to tell a story, so we’re not limited to what some NPC said in the game, or how we advance the levels. Each environment can have its own “story” (so to speak), and we can use it to let players know something. Bioshock comes to my mind, because when I got out of the submarine-thing the first thing I saw was all this propaganda scattered on the floor, and that made me think “ok, things didn’t go too well around here…” However, this is not limited to newspaper cuts and writings on the wall. Something as simple as a teddy bear with a torn leg can be very meaningful.

This takes me to the most obvious element: text logs. In Fatal Frame, you end up learning a lot about different people just by reading their diaries. However, I’m thinking this can be combined with the environment. For example, a diary mentions the teddy bear (“Now we’re very alike you and I, Teddy. We have the same limitations, the same weakness”), and then you find that teddy bear somewhere else, and then you realize the bear’s owner is someone who lost a leg.

Games can be very linear (like Batman AA) or very open, meaning you can visit almost any location from the start (like Myst). If the game is linear, delivering the story is easier because you, as the developer/designer/whatever have entire control on when the player learns what about the entire plot. On the other hand, if the game is more open, you can’t really know if gamers will learn if the main antagonist is an orphan before or after they learn the main antagonist is attached to a wheel chair, and that this person is driven by revenge (assuming this is important, of course… but if it’s not important, why even care to mention it?).

If there’s something I learned from Dear Esther is that you can throw the story at the player and let them figure out what the hell is going on (although you still need certain degree of control, so maybe you can make a “final” level that cannot be accessed until all other levels have been completed). By doing this, it doesn’t matter if the player learns about the wheel chair before or after learning that the antagonist is an orphan, because it won’t be until they know these two things that they will learn this person is driven by revenge.

In the end I can ask why are some developers so into the “games are so like movies now!” Game making is a discipline on its own, and should not be compared to anything else. You don’t hear painters say “painting is so like taking an HDR photograph!” nor comic book writers compare their work to movies or books, so why is game making so into “mimicking Hollywood” instead of finding its own identity? I for one think we don’t need to think how “cinematic” or “movie-like” a game can be, but rather how to fully use whatever element we have at our disposal to tell a story (hint: games have all the tools a movie has to tell a story, plus interactivity and controlled pacing).

On the other hand, those thinking how there isn’t a difference between games and movies should really get a screenwriting book, realize they are limiting what a game can be, or at least acknowledge they are in fact charging $60 for a movie (any similarity to an actual product is merely a coincidence Smile).


~ by nemirc on August 6, 2012.

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