How many times in the last week alone have you read an article, comment or blog post in which someone has likened video games to Hollywood movies? Not the industry’s business models – but video games themselves?
Probably quite a few. But while games might look like movies, the similarity is often skin-deep – and it’s not just because of the presence of ludonarrative. The fact that players can take individual action and affect what occurs on screen is a compelling difference, but the real dissonance between a major (often AAA) heavy-story game and a Hollywood movie is much more basic. Movies are continuous experiences while games are often enjoyed in chunks.
Now, that’s not always true – but while games are often broken up between anywhere from a few to several dozen play sessions, films never relinquish their hold on the audience. Movies are meant to be enjoyed in one, continuous sitting – usually clocking in at around two hours. Their structure is carefully designed with this in mind – hinging on the continuous experience of the audience. If a viewer were to stop the movie periodically only to come back the next day… It would wreck the film’s flow.
And yet, even twenty-hour games that many players experience over weeks of short spurts are going out of their way to mimic this structure. In fact, those games trying hardest to copy the big budget Hollywood movies are almost always the massive AAA games themselves.
To see how damaging this is, just imagine sitting down to watch a movie and stopping it every twenty minutes or so – not resuming the film until the next day. Suddenly the narrative becomes loose and disjointed, the characters more difficult to care about and resolutions come very far apart.
It’s no wonder that many game stories are so difficult to get into.
If anything, games should take their lessons from a very similar medium to film, but one utterly different structurally - The Television Series.
A TV series is much more suited to the episodic nature of most gamer habits – both providing an overarching storyline that spans its entire season and making sure that each individual episode has a satisfying conclusion. Right now, several titles have made successful use of “Episodic Gaming” – though from more of a production standpoint than anything else. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, these episodic games are released as chapters or episodes, one piece at a time – propelling the overall adventure until an entire "season" is purchased. But we don’t have to stop there. We can begin structuring even our most massive AAA games with 30 hours of gameplay (I’m looking at you Bioware) into an episodic structure, easily experienced within the average play session.
… I imagine that some people, probably with the best intentions, are even now scrolling enthusiastically to the bottom of the page – ready to drop in a comment. Something along the lines of, “Yes, but every gamer has different lengths of play sessions – and those vary depending on the situation. How can you account for that?”
I’ll smile delightedly and launch into something like, “That’s the beauty of it. You don’t have to account for play session length! Not much at least. Though a play session may last anywhere between twenty minutes to eleven hours - many people watch several episodes of a TV series in a row, and with great enjoyment too. The structure's episodic enjoyment is so repeatable that they can be slipped into one after the other with the same level of engagement as one experiences watching them one at a time.”
After that, I expect they’ll write back – commenting on how insightful and likable they find me, and ask if we can have coffee some time. Well, I’ll check my schedule.
For the truly ambitious, there’s another way you can approach this problem of play sessions. Instead of making sure that each play session is fulfilling through an episodic structure, you can make your goal different – designing the game so that players will never, ever want to put down their controllers at all. But where do we look for this type of structure?
Excellent novelists understand that their readers probably aren’t going to read their books all in one sitting. Instead they employ an arsenal of techniques designed to keep the audience reading as long as possible. This is one of the hallmarks of good literature, and you’ll commonly hear people describing a good book by saying “I can’t put it down!” If these authors can keep you turning pages with their structure, keeping you playing a game should be a walk in the park.
How It’s Done
The TV Series: While movies have a long main plot and often a selection of shorter subplots – it is the opposite for the TV series. In a movie, the principle focus is usually on the longest plot line, the shorter subplots weaving throughout to offer variation... While in a TV series it's the episode's storyline that gets the spotlight.
For example, in the recently released Knight and Day the main focus of the movie is on the thrilling battle to retain the “battery” – an energy producing device that makes a nuclear power plant look like a hand-cranked flashlight. If it falls into the wrong hands… Well, bad things are going to happen. It’s not made clear quite what – but it’s probably not going to be pretty.
In addition, a significant romance subplot is woven through the story whenever the movie pauses for breath. This offers the audience some much-needed relief from the mind-blowing action ripping through the rest of the film… But the movie’s focus is always on the longer plotline, the romance only a cloudy afterthought until the film stops and brings it to the forefront.
In a TV series, the opposite is the case. In each episode, the main plot is usually based on one episodic event – while the longer, overarching storylines only get a little play. The overarching plotlines might be part of the grander challenges of the season, but right now the characters have other fish to fry. They’ll get to the larger issues facing them later.
Several examples immediately come to mind. The West Wing is often concerned with the long-term issues of reelection and an ongoing campaign – but each individual episode puts its focus on a storyline that can be resolved within 44 minutes. Perhaps they’re prepping for the State of the Union, or there might even be Indians in the lobby who are refusing to leave until their land is given back to them (yep, that actually happens in one episode).
Full Metal Alchemist follows the series-long plotline of two brothers trying to find the Philosopher’s Stone, but each individual episode finds them stopping to deal with a truly shocking amount of serial killers, mad scientists and assorted monsters.
Burn Notice juggles several major plotlines, depending on the place in the season, but most have something to do with the main character trying to get off the Federal blacklist. In the mean time he spends each episode in Miami taking care of the many, many criminals that happen to cross his path.
The examples are nearly as many as there are series on TV. The only truly prevalent exceptions that come to mind are the many comedies (such as the Simpsons) that tend to eschew longer storylines all together in favor of pure episodic goodness. In truth, this just seems to prove the focus on self-contained storylines even more.
Page Turners: The best place to dig for inspiration here is in the addictive thrill rides of the form (The Girl who played Dragon Age: Origins.) What separates a laid-back novel you finish over the course of a few months from an addictive page-turner you read long into the night? Putting aside obvious issues of writing quality – there’s one structural principle that makes a tremendous difference: The cliffhanger chapter.
When your goal is to make the audience keep reading late into the night – the problem is simple. You have to make them want to turn the page. Now, most of the battle is fought for you already – as many readers think “Well, I’ll just finish reading this chaper.” Therefore, your goal becomes to keep the audience wondering, “And then what?” You have to make them so curious they want to turn that page to the next chapter… And get sucked back in.
A cliffhanger can take many forms in the novel. It can be a literal cliffhanger, throwing the characters into a desperate struggle at the end of a chapter that the audience has to see resolved before they turn out the light… Or it can be something as subtle as a statement. A musty passage about a girl browsing through the school library at night can be made wickedly interesting if the chapter ends like this, as she turns to flick off the light.
As she turned her eyes landed on something, a startled gasp wrenched from her lips.
That’s a cliffhanger all right. Where did the blood come from? Is there a corpse lying there beside it? Is a vicious killer right behind her? Is it dripping down from the ceiling? Has she herself somehow been cut? There’s only one way to find out… And that’s to turn the page.
Cliff hangers need not be as sensational – a girl and boy in bed at the end of a chapter, the boy having snuck into her room while her parents were asleep, giggling under the covers together can quickly turn into just as effective a cliff hanger with another simple statement.
There was a knock on the door…
Who’s knocking? Whoever it is, it can’t be good! How are the boy and girl going to get out of this? It’s a small bed, and there’s no room to hide under it! What will happen if they’re caught? There’s only one way to find out…
Turn the page.
As game designers we can give our players short-term objectives and story lines (quests are a good example) that immediately come with a cliffhanger attached, such as a massive explosion in the distance, or the roar of an approaching monster, or a cinematic flash of your home village being attacked. Suddenly, turning off your console for the evening becomes a lot harder.
Closing the Curtain
Movies may look like games, but their length and continuous nature makes copying their structure ruinous to all but the shortest titles. The video game is usually a much longer journey that requires a completely different structure if we want to keep our players involved to the finish.
Fortunately, we have two approaches, both alike in dignity – one aimed at accounting for the nature of limited play sessions (the TV series) and the other designed to extend those sessions as long as possible (the page-turner). If we wish to reach the pinnacle of our craft – selecting the appropriate inspiration for our structural forms is essential… And movies just don’t cut it. Thus, I feel it’s necessary to bid a respectful “thanks, but no thanks” to Hollywood. I’ll seek my models elsewhere.
…Unless, of course, you happen to be a TV series being produced in Hollywood. If that’s the case, drop me a line. We have much to learn from each other.
-Dan Felder, Co-Founder of WhyGames Consulting