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Story Transplantation - Part 1
by Josh Foreman on 08/09/10 04:16:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


In my last blog I complained about the way cutscenes/cinematics in games erode player Agency, which I take to be the most important aspect of our art form.  I argued that we currently rely on a game/cinema hybrid experience because of technological limitations, but I think there is a strong element of group-think leading the way as well.  And I’m worried that our game/cinema solution is stunting the maturation of our craft for a couple reasons I will get to in a sec. 

But first, I want to confront an ugly truth about our industry that I believe is a primary motive for our reliance on the game/cinema paradigm.  In my 14 years of game development I have discovered that the vast majority of artists, animators, musicians and writers would leave the game industry in a heartbeat if they were offered a job in Hollywood.  So many of us would just rather be in the movie biz, but for lack of connections, talent, experience or some other reason, are stuck in the game industry. 

I’m not sure if there have ever been studies about this secret desire, or how accurate those studies would be; but I’ve worked at several studios on all sorts of projects with all sorts of people in a variety of places and I’ve noticed that this Hollywood envy is pervasive and palpable. 

It’s just way cooler to tell friends, family and strangers that you worked on Batman or Avatar, than to tell them you worked on some space shooter or MMO they’ve never heard of.  The average man-on-the-street would look at you with admiration and envy rather than that consternated “What the hell do you actually do?  Play games all day?” look we all know so well.

I think this Hollywood envy is so pervasive that it hugely influences our thinking when it comes to the way we design and create content.  The problem is that our big influence is a different medium with different goals and expectations associated with it.  So while we call ourselves “games” it is clear that our passions are a mixed bag of gameplay and film. 

This reminds me of the South Park about wrestling.  It’s in season 13, titled W.T.F. if you haven’t seen it.  (  The boys are so inspired by WWE that they start their own “wrestling” association.  But they find that real wrestling is nothing like their inspiration.  The actual mechanics of the sport are lame and boring compared with the melodrama and choreographed fights in the WWE. 

I think entertainment wrestling is a pretty good corollary to the games biz.  In both you have game mechanics with interspersed “story” elements.  Both rely on flashy, unrealistic moves and awful, soap opera drama.  Both use “story” to provide a meta-narrative that is supposed to provide motivation and additional drama and suspense to the mechanics.  And both industries are filled with people who would rather be in the movies.  Another good example of this is “story-driven” pornography. 

Is it a coincidence that the stories, acting and general level of maturity is very similar between porn, WWE and video games?  And as a thought experiment, what if you put a room-full of the best Hollywood writers together and forced them to write the next WWE event or porn movie?  Would those productions be significantly better than what is currently being produced?   The issue with all of these products is that there is a primary reason people consume them.  WWE = fightn’ n’ wrasl’n.  Porn = people having sex.  Games = gameplay. 

So while the “stories” that are interspersed into these things may bring additional enjoyment for many people, they can quickly override the point of the experience with sub-par extraneous material.  The writers can forget that the point of their writing is simply pretense for the main event.  Again, some people may love the extraneous stuff, but that does not mean that it’s good or healthy for the product.  Any time pretence overwhelms the substance you end up with crap.  See the death of glam metal in the early 90’s for a fine example of this.

I hope that I don’t have to prove to anyone that WWE and porn is bad art.  They may be popular.  They may make millions of people very happy and make tons of money.  But I can’t imagine anyone with any amount of taste claiming that they are good art.  I think that a lot of what makes WWE poor art is the same thing that is hurting our industry as it strives to define itself in the world of more established artforms.  But the reason I work in the game industry rather than the WWE is because I think that the art and craft of games has a bright and beautiful future that will emerge over the coming decades. 

I’m entranced by the ephemeral possibilities for creating a new kind of experience that mankind has never known.  So I’m frustrated with the current game/cinema hybrid that is bifurcating our energies and creativity, slowing our march of progress towards the promised land.  I feel like we are lost in the wilderness, circumnavigating the same desert over and over, waiting for our god of technological progress to give us a sign that we can cross the Jordan.

But I don’t think we need to be stuck in this rut.  So rather than complain about it, I’d like to see if we can put our heads together and start finding ways break the game/cinema hybrid paradigm.  Not for the sake of destroying stuff I don’t like.  But for the goal of building something much more compelling.     

First of all, let me try to stave off a few inevitable misunderstandings by putting all my cards on the table here. 

  1. I’m not calling for a revolution, I’m not claiming that I’m coming up with any new ideas.  I’m just advocating for a movement that is well underway.
  2. I’m not a writer.  I’m an artist/designer.  I do write, but mostly home-brew philosophy/religion and design documents.  So please don’t take any of these ideas as critiques about how writing ought to be done.  (My poor grammar, spelling, and over-extended/mixed metaphors ought to make that clear!)
  3. I love my writer buddies in the biz.  I don’t want them to leave.  (Unless they get an awesome Hollywood gig)
  4.  This is not a crusade to purge the world of a type of entertainment I don’t enjoy.  (I love many game/cinema hybrids.)  It’s an impassioned plea to my fellow developers to rethink how we approach the craft of making games.
  5. I’m not a purist who insists that story and gaming should never mix.  I’m saying that our current implementation is mostly bad.  And we need to be very conscious of what we mean by “story”.

OK, with that out of the way, I’d like to think aloud about ways that we can transplant the goodies we get from cinematic segments into the game world.  And then if I’m lucky, smarter, more capable people can add on to this in the comments below.  There are two questions that immediately spring to mind. 

First: what are cinematics currently bringing to the game experience?  Second –and more fundamental- do we WANT all the things that cinematics bring to the game experience?  Let’s start with the first question.  Here are some of the things that I think cinematics add to a game experience.  (Assuming they are not wince-inducingly bad.) 

  1. Establishing the world
  2. Establishing characters/player
  3. Articulating motives for characters/player
  4. Articulating conflict
  5. Developing the world
  6. Developing characters/player
  7. Explaining gameplay mechanics
  8. Imparting goals

I’m sure I’m missing some vital stuff, so feel free to pitch in here.  Now my contention is that we could conceivably transplant all these goodies out of cinematics, and into the game world.  Many games have experimented with doing this to some extent, and I’d like to highlight Half Life 2 for the purposes of examination.  Half Life 2 did exactly what I’m saying here: they took all the stuff from cinematics and transplanted them into the game world.  Mostly.  But this was not without its problems. 

I’d like to examine this as a test case.  I think the problems stem from fact that the transplant was handled too literally.  That is: they still made cinematics, they simply didn’t force the camera out of the players hands while they played out.  Meaning that a player could conceivably be staring at a wall while two NPCs are having a dramatic and important conversation.  (Or more often than not, rummaging through boxes looking for health and ammo while only half listening to the dialog.) 

What I mean by being overly literal can be explained by translation techniques for books or subtitles on films.  One can translate word-for-word, but the result ends up stilted and awkward at best.  I’m sure we’ve all sat through a foreign film or two that had this problem.  Bablefish provides another example. 

The other side of the spectrum in translation theory is the paraphrase, where the essence is captured by restructuring word order, replacing idioms, and other techniques.  I think what Valve did with HL2 was to literally translate a traditional cinematic, conferring all the local structure and idioms in an attempt to reap the fruit of that list I put up there.   And the result was not ideal. 

The reason is because it gave the player a false Agency.  It sent the mixed messages of “You are really here making all your own decisions.” And “You better play your part correctly or you won’t be able to move on.”  In other words, they addressed my first question, “Can we transplant this stuff into the game world.” Without addressing the next question, “Do we WANT to transplant this stuff?”  Well, I wasn’t there, so I can’t claim to know their process, but based on the end result it appears that way. 

So seeing the demonstrated results of a literal translation/transplantation, let me try to come up with a freer paraphrase.  How can we get the spirit of these elements from our cinematics into our gameplay thereby preserving player Agency?   I’ll start that on part 2.

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dana mcdonald
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Amen to that article. I was thinking about this very thing a couple of weeks ago and was considering starting a Gamasutra blog to talk about almost the exact same thing. I agree that way too many people in the game industry are here because it is harder to get a job in hollywood. I am in the other boat. I would take games over Hollywood any day. I am where I want to be.

On the subject of ways to capitalize on our medium rather than trying to insert movie elements in I think one of the most important things is to change our mindset about who is telling their story. Movies are there to communicate the author/creator's vision. It is all about the story they want to tell their audience. Games are the only medium where we can create something where our audience gets to be the storyteller.

I used this example in another comment a while ago. In Alien Swarm the players are given the option to carry a welder and that welder can be used to weld shut almost any door in the game, and give the players some much needed respite at critical times. The more frequent way we would see this implemented in a game would be the players reaching a specific room and then there would probably be a little cutscene of the door being welded shut and the aliens beating on it. There is a HUGE difference between these two. One of them is a storyteller concerned about getting his perfect story sequence in place, and the other he is handing the reigns over to the player, and giving the players the proper tools to tell their own story.

I wouldn't say that Alien Swarm is perfect at it, but I would encourage everybody to try the game out and consider what the game would have lost if they would have taken that little storytelling element out of the player's hands and used it to tell their specific story instead. (the game is free on steam by the way so it is easy enough to give it a whirl)

data recovery
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Nice Post!! I will wait for part 2.



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Charles Stuard
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I've certainly seen Hollywood envy in my studio, but I don't think its limited to the jobs you listed...

More on topic here, I'd just like to put out there that I'm certainly in the camp of those who "love story" in my games. I went from reading novels as a child to experiencing games with just as compelling stories through a very similar means (text). That said, I do mostly agree with your idea of adding player agency... I'm just not sure removing cinematics are necessary, so much as just adding choice would be enough.

For instance, I'm perfectly happy with deep dialogue trees. I have a lot of fun with those. Not everyone does, sure, but it's something I enjoy. This is a form of player agency, as they get to choose what they say, what questions they ask, or even in ME2's case, what crazy action to perform. It's a much more interactive experience, which I think captures the essence of what you want, albeit it maybe not "perfectly". Cinematics, I think, can take a similar route. I'm not saying crazy button timing sequences or anything like that, but I think adding some more player choice in their role of the cinematic would be helpful.

Lastly, I just wanted to add one thing to your list of "What Cinematics Provide" that you left out... reward. Often, as a player, I find that the cinematics are like milestones of accomplishment, far more satisfying then any achievement (especially if done well). While we can reward the player other ways, say with in game rewards such as guns or whatnot, I think a cinematic has more impact unless the in game reward is suitably game changing... and the more "game changing" rewards you have, the harder it's going to be to keep your end product fun and low scope.

Overall, really nice article! Hoping to see what you come up with moving forward.

Nilson Carroll
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It's sad that these artists want to move to Hollywood and have their names on the big screen. I would never trade my game writing position for one writing movies. Games are a medium that needs all the creative input it can get; if you don't love it, though, what's the point?

Josh Foreman
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@ dana

Thanks for that brilliantly perfect example! This is exactly the sort of thing I'm looking for as I'm writing part two.

@ Charles

Great add. I'll be sure to include "reward" as another fruit of cinematics in part 2. And you are right, that a lot of people really do find them rewarding. It's a good thing to ponder.

@ Nilson

I agree, it is a real shame. But until our art form has the social standing that film does I think it's probably inevitable.

Arinn Dembo
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Leaving aside the issue of whether developers enjoy making and using cut-scenes to convey story--and obviously many do--I can also say after the last four years of direct interaction with the player base that there is an appetite for cinematics on the consumer end of things. A lot of people enjoy watching the cinematics in game--they don't feel robbed of agency, they take it as a signpost in the game that signals a change of direction. And those cinematics are apparently one of the features that makes a game feel "polished" and "well-done" to most contemporary gamers.

I don't have anything bad to say about cinematics as a feature per se--obviously if you can afford them they're great. But I agree that it's wise for designers to consider multiple channels to convey story in their games, especially when the budgets they work with aren't Hollywood-sized. There are always other ways.

Jay Simmons
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On ME2 (or any Bioware game for that matter) The dialogue tree is part of the game play with the cinematic being a result of your choices. The cinematic in that case is the same as an explosion or a coin dropping on your head, it's the result of the performed action and not just a cut scene. I think this is the right direction in creating story as a game play mechanic. The end result is something far more epic than film could ever deliver.

Marie-Andree Forest
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I really like the WWE and porn metaphores, I think it' really helpful. It makes me think of another one. I like to compare games to comic books, which often have a great cover picture (the cinematic), but when you open them, it's inevitably text and "lower quality" drawings, or anyway action driven drawings (gameplay).

The cover and the content are generally designed as 2 different things, the former being more about good looks and very dense amount of work. In other words for games, the cinematic (cover) is intensive: a high density of attention for a small duration compared to the game length. The gameplay (content) on the other end is extensive: make the most out of the least. Find good mechanics, and use them creatively to have a good work flow.

Making gameplay that would feel as unrepetitive, lively, custom made as a cinematic would probably result in a shorter game (think CoD single), like if you would try to make a comic book with every page as detailed as the cover. Yes it would feel like an art book (ART!), but would it be better?

Anyways, I'm really happy you brought the question:“Do we WANT to transplant this stuff?”, or what and how do we want to transplant it. There is all kinds of hybrids right now, but I still feel unsatisfied. It makes me think of the Bioshock(1) trailer, in first person view. I actually tough at the time that the whole game would be/feel like that, but when I played: great deception, it felt generic, unlively, like any oter shooter.

But is it that what makes cinematics great would make gameplay crappy and annoying? I think it's often about cinematics=watch, gameplay=control responsiveness, field of view, etc. (to overly polarize things)