Not the storytelling, not the business, not the language, and we need to wise up, fast.
Just as cinema trod carefully on the coat-tails of theatre, videogames and their commentators still often employ the language and the design paradigms of film. Or worse, they are compared to film, or worse still, they are placed in competition.
And it’s becoming increasingly apparent that such language is not only misleading but actively stultifying for our games and industry.
This is the sort of thing I wrote entire dissertations on for my film & literature degree many moons ago, but a wildly simplified potted history: all creative mediums are judged skeptically upon their inception, and it’s not until the medium matures and inculcates its own nomenclature that it starts to be judged on its own merits.
‘Games have grown up! Take us seriously!’ has been a depressingly common cry of the past couple of years. Do we really need film critics rolling over and somehow admitting that yes, don’t worry, we the intellectual elite, do declare that gaming has had its Citizen Kane moment for us to feel better about our job, hobby, industry milieu?
Videogames are a quantum shift, as anyone that’s grown up playing them knows. Film is roughly analogous to theatre, and to some extent even literature (passive, linear, authorial), whereas videogames are active/interactive, frequently non-linear and often more interpretive or emergent than authorial. We won’t have a Citizen Kane moment because a game can be called Genital Jousting or Goat Simulator and make lots of money, already, and that’s pretty incredible.
Those games are valid, but they also don’t have much in the way of story, which is at the heart of my analysis. I see plenty of game-writers/designers asking about and buying books on narratology and screenplay writing. While many such books are full of wisdom about crafting commercially viable (and/or actually good) stories, they run the risk of misleading you. The screenplays of Blade Runner and Brazil are beautiful things, that conjure worlds from a real economy of expression, but frankly that has very little to do with infusing a non-linear mission system for a rogue-like with non-verbal lore and encouraging player agency.
Before I break down a few reasons why this is such a serious issue and suggest a few remedies, consider this tweet by the designer of such diverse titles as The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and Bulletstorm:
Language has power. In the multi-faceted, time-consuming and very expensive development pipeline, how we use it can have very real implications for how teams think and work. It can impact our expectations and therefore enjoyment as players.
For my part, I’ve worked in film, as a journalist of film and games, and in games — for a title whose team proudly touted its cinematic credentials at every opportunity to titles that are utterly systemic and emergent — and plenty in between. I studied the mechanics and theory of film for years on the cusp of the games industry overtaking it as the biggest entertainment industry in the world. Indeed, at the time film was anxiously trying to capitalise on adaptations of its interactive cousins with as much gusto as games themselves were cribbing.
I don’t have all the answers but I think we need to get talking about the problem.
Differences in storytelling
I’ll most likely make this into an expanded series of articles, but here’s the rub: you can’t apply storytelling techniques from a medium that is mechanically very different to another. The incredible scene of What Remains of Edith Finchcouldn’t possibly have been inspired by a film because the narrative action is so closely tied to what your hands and eyes as a player are doing. Conversely, GTA can never tell the greatest on-screen gangster narrative because it needs to leave room for the player to spill hot coffee on themselves or spend thousand of collective hours chasing a yeti.
- There are many, many ways of telling a videogame story, as I’ve briefly discussed in response to Ian Bogost’s toxic think piece a while ago. In cinema, there are different plots, but there is essentially one way of telling the story: a linear sequence of shots that has been authored by someone. To call a game as a whole ‘cinematic’ is utterly meaningless.
- Characterisation. Yes, in any medium we’re free to draw our own inferences about characters in a story, their motivations, efficacy, etc. However, it seems very risky to me to be completely authorial or unambiguous about the player-character in a game. This is something Tadhg Kelly has written influentially and much more elegantly about than I could, but in essence: the more control and choice you take away from a player (actions, interpretations, etc), the less like a game it is.
In fact, Kelly actually concludes that:
Videogames are not, in turns out, a storytelling art. They have tried very hard to be, and their reasons for trying are noble, but the results are always ham-fisted. There are no good game stories because game stories don’t really matter. What matters is the game world, in all of its glorious detail.
- To that end — give the PC a great backstory and a strong motivation of course, but do not under any circumstances tell or try to enforce what the player should be feeling about it all. In Drive, Gosling’s signature deadpan allows us relative freedom to project onto him, but the story is unambiguous in the extreme.
- If you want to read more detail on the difficulties of crafting meaningful player agency and why the mere existence of it is an unbridgeable divide between film and games, I wrote about it at some length already. (Or if your eyes need a rest, listen to my talk on it here)
Auteur theory essentially posits that the director is solely responsible for the film’s vision. The films of auteur directors often share a distinct style or overall sensibility, adding weight to the theory, but also becoming a prime example of confirmation/resulting bias.
However, in film, while very rarely fair to the rest of the cast, it’s at least mechanically possible: a hands on director can theoretically take credit for designing the cinematography even if it’s not her hands on the camera, for example. Notable examples are Tarantino, Bigelow, Anderson, Hitchcock.
In the games world, for better or worse, we’ve seen auteur-analogues rear their heads too. These are the vision-holders who put their name on their box, sometimes above the studio’s. That’s a deliberate choice, for marketing reasons or otherwise, in a way that is actually even more egregious than in film where the credits are a much more established convention.
I’m going to list a few names and let you make your own mind up about whether it’s likely that the relative success (or otherwise) of their is solely down to their direction and vision. And if so, whether that guarantees quality.
- Peter Molyneux (Fable, Curiosity, Godus)
- David Cage (Indigo Prophecy, the forthcoming Detroit)
- David Jaffe (God of War, Drawn to Death)
- Cliff Blezinski (Gears of War, LawBreakers)
- Kojima (Metal Gear Solid, forthcoming Death Stranding)
- Shigeru Miyamoto (…!)
As with anything, it’s not a simple equation. I will venture that, after the initial successes that arguably ‘made’ their names, the titles that game-auteurs go on to make seem rather not to live up to expectations. Interesting non? It’s almost as if a successful game requires a talented, diverse team and a multitude of visions, combinatorial creativity, and a liberal sprinkling of luck, rather than a single ‘famous’ director.
It also demonstrates that while most films operate on a ‘star power’ (director/lead actors) basis to draw initial bums to opening weekend, that doesn’t really apply to games.
Nomenclature/Glossary & Next Steps
Thanks to commentators and designers such as Kelly and Clint Hocking (among many others), we’ve got some great starting points. A few summaries below. What we need now is to abandon the word ‘cinematic’. We need to stop reading screenplay manuals. Auteur theory seems very problematic to me and I think we can do without, but we need a new kind of language for accurately apportioning and making known individuals’ contributions to a title.
There’s no doubt games are in an amazing place right now. Let’s make sure the language is up to the same standard, as the two will feed off one another.
And lastly — VR eh, bet it’ll never catch on, 2D games 4 lyfe!
- Storysense — meaning, the combined game-specific elements that allow a story to occur, rather than to be told.
- Narrative design — that is, how a narrative can be designed to incorporate player-space, agency, as distinct from ‘script’ or ‘screenplay’ writing, i.e. a linear/delineated and authorial story to be translated onto screen.
- Emergent x, y, z — the story (or gameplay, or anything else) that emerges from an interplay of systems, usually felt by the player as ‘their’ story.
- NB: this is what people often mean by ‘procedural narrative’. I know it’s semantics, but that’s what we’re discussing. Procedural can apply nicely to ‘generation’ in games, math, level design, etc, algorithmically it makes sense. But narrative should not spring from a rote, established process.
- Player agency: most simply defined as: what can the player do; what can they affect; what are the ‘felt’ consequences (i.e. illusion of impact or real, feedback/rewards etc) to their available range of actions?