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Will cinema ever match the emotional power and intellectual engagement of gaming?
by Prash Nelson-Smythe on 03/30/10 08:06:00 am   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.

 

I love film and I have great hope for its future as a medium. I feel that for it to truly reach its potential film makers must be willing to take inspiration from other successful media, such as computer games. In this post I will examine the difference between film and games in terms of their emotional and intellectual impact on the user using my personal experiences as a guide.

Being moved to move

Playing games can produce very intense emotions such as joy, anger, fear, frustration, general excitement and a sense of wonder. After finally completing an extremely difficult level after many tries I often punch the air and want to scream "YES!". When my friend and I survived the hospital rooftop standoff in Left 4 Dead after about 30 attempts, we jumped to our feet whooping and gave each other a high five. A few times after a particularly frustrating streak of deaths in Counter-strike I threw my mouse at the wall in anger. The fact that these emotions manifested themselves in such a physical manner shows how intense they were. I could not contain them. They consumed me.

When films create emotions they are less intense. I have never jumped out of my seat to punch the air when the hero of the movie saves the day. None of the other emotions from films create any physical movement in me except for laughter sometimes. This is due to the lack of interactivity in film and therefore a lower level of engagement. There is no bad outcome that is avoidable by the user. There is no "FILM OVER" screen and so watching them can be a very pedestrian affair.

Brain training

When I play most games I am usually thinking "What should I do next?". Strategies are created on the fly for dealing with my current problems and guarding against future problems. Even the most simple of action oriented games usually require the player to come up with some strategy to reach the end of the game or achieve a higher score. Many small browser games will quickly have me weighing up the pros and cons of spending my money on an item right now or saving it for a better value but more expensive item later. Some titles will have me obsessed with learning labrynthian dungeon layouts and solving puzzles, often coming up with solutions at unexpected times like when lying in bed at night. A few will even get me making notes in order to spot connections or solve logic puzzles.

Films on the other hand can usually be taken without much thought. Most involve passively observing events and having your conciousness painfully guided to a story's conclusion. Some will have you trying to work out what will happen next, though you can be betrayed by an outcome that makes no sense. A few will have you working out what just happened but the vast majority will just explain it to you at the end so you needn't expend any mental effort. A film must try to cater to all of its viewers and it since it has no input the film makers cannot be sure that everyone understood the last scene. Therefore they must make it simple.

Where do we go from here? You decide.

As we have seen, the disadvantages of film compared to games usually stem from a lack of interactivity. Therefore, to progress the medium film makers should start to introduce interactive elements to films. The viewer should get to choose which way the story forks, or choose which of two scenes they get to see to fit together the mystery. Perhaps they could mash buttons during a chase scene so that they have an active role in the outcome.

I believe that such innovations will be the future of cinema and allow viewers to engage in films like never before, becoming so excited at the happy ending that they will jump out of their seat and cheer and so upset at the alternate sad ending they will hold their heads and weep.


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Comments


Daniel Balmert
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Your personal bias in this field is swaying your argument too much. You're writing on a game website - games are obviously your thing.



Now, if this had been posted on a movie review website, maybe it would have more weight, but as it stands, movies are VERY emotional and engaging for the people that love them. It drives them to write fan fiction, it inspires their own work, it makes them toil endlessly over what could have happened if something went different.



Have you ever been to a movie premier or private screening? The emotional energy is THICK and pungent. People whoop, clap, scream and laugh - in public, mind you.



Movies also present intellectual stimulus in the form of literature references and common themes. The Matrix, for example, caused a huge resurgence in Plato's Cave, and it became a new "reference point" for that kind of philosophy. Maybe it's not the same "Brain training" as solving a virtual rubic's cube, but it's thought exercise nonetheless.



"Interactive film" is counter intuitive. Film is setup to create a specific experience. It's like saying "Games will never reach the story telling potential of movies. To achieve this, they should remove lots of interactivity." See what I did there? You're suggesting the medium become something it's not. A film is an exercise in letting go of perceived control. I can't tell the girl to run out of the house in that horror film, and the tension and suspense is the same anxiety of missing a jump over and over in your favorite Mario game, but compressed into a few seconds. If I could mash a button to get her out of the house in time to live, then there's no story, no conflict, no tension, and therefore no interest.



Notice how all of your examples are ones of "This was SO hard to do, but once I finally got it right, it was a huge relief" but imagine if the hospital rooftop mission were really easy - it wouldn't be memorable. It's the WITHHOLDING of getting what you want that increases your satisfaction of getting it, and films do that infinitely better than games. They give you NO control, but you are trusting that they'll still give you what you want in the end. If they do, it's a great movie and you'll love it. If they don't, you'll grumble and leave the theater feeling like you wasted money.



Personally, I find (most) games to feel a lot more hollow than a great film. I can spend 60 hours with a character, learn everything about him/her, but still not be as enchanted as I am by a 1.5 hour glimpse into the life of a character in a great film. Why is that? The film creates a controlled experience designed SPECIFICALLY to make me attached to the character. I see them in the lighting the director wants, I see them in the situations the writer wants, I see them act the way a choreographer wants.



I think what your article does (and this is not a conscious thing) is you're comparing your best game experiences to lame movie experiences. You need compare apples to apples.



"A film must try to cater to all of its viewers and it since it has no input the film makers cannot be sure that everyone understood the last scene." - Only true of blockbuster type films. Try watching more intimate films (Foreign, Indie, Niche) and you'll find a very targeted audience.



I enjoy the time you took to post your experiences, but I thought I would offer a counter point to your post. I'm an avid game player, but I also love film and have a deep appreciation for both. I realize they offer different experiences.



-Dan

David Hottal
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I agree with Daniel... I think you have it backwards. For games to advance they need to take emotional queues from film.



Games are at a disadvantage when it comes to emotional engagement, because the player is not at the mercy of the designers. A movie goer is watching what the director wants them to watch. A viewer can't spend thirty minutes wandering around aimlessly. A viewer (usually) doesn't turn off a movie (unless it's horrible) and come back to it a week later forgetting where they are and what's going on. Also, films generally aren't a minute of story progression and twenty minutes of action.



Games all have these challenges to overcome. I've written about this on my own blog. I think games can surpass films as far as emotional impact - but it has to be deliberate.



http://www.randomcrates.com/telling-engaging-stories/

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Adam Bishop
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While I realise the article is a tongue-in-cheek reversal of the normal conversation we have about games vs movies, and I appreciate the idea, I don't think the end result is very successful. I think that specifically the section about games making you think more than movies is way off base.



While yes, there are some games that reward careful, clever thinking (Myst or World of Goo, for example), there are far more games that reward memorisation and muscle memory. You don't become successful at most games by learning to think about them, you become successful by learning *not* to think about them.



And while it is definitely possible to watch movies without any thinking involved, I personally find those kinds of movies quite boring. Good movies engage your brain in a variety of ways. I like the film Spartan, for example, because the plot and dialogue are written in such a way that you have to be constantly piecing everything you've learned together in order for it to all make sense. Memento would be another great example of a film like this.



Perhaps more importantly, good films often make me keep thinking *after* I've watched them. When I've finished watching a movie I really enjoy, like Before Sunset, I continue thinking about what the characters have said and what they've done for a long time afterward. Now how many games do that? None, for me.



I'm not arguing that games can't do these things, because they very definitely can. But in terms of mental engagement, I think the film industry is generally far ahead of the game industry.

Kevin Reilly
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L4D was inspired by many cheesy zombie movies (some classics in their own right). Can't we just enjoy the respective mediums for what they are and not gripe about what they are not?

Prash Nelson-Smythe
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Thanks for your comments, all. Honestly, for the most part I agree with all of you!



This post was intended as a parody with some elements of truth. In my original idea the parody nature was more obvious but I was continually tempted to throw in more and more truth. I am genuinely sorry for not making it clearer. However, the comments generated not knowing my actual opinion were very interesting anyway. I intentionally sold films short. You may have noticed I didn't include any examples of films because lots of films I have seen recently are counterexamples to my argument unless I refine it, which I will do now.



First and foremost, there ARE emotions for which games have surpassed films in creating. However, for some reason they are less often regarded as proper emotions than the ones like sadness. The basic emotion caused by an action film is better in gaming in my opinion and the examples that I gave illustrate that. However, Daniel pointed out that all of my examples were limited to overcoming challenges. I intended to include more diverse examples but I forgot. Here's another emotional area where games surpass films: camaraderie. The social aspect of playing local or online multiplayer games with your friends or strangers with a common purpose in coop or team-based play. Also, the sheer side-splitting hilarity of local multiplayer games of Goldeneye, Halo 3 (trying to run each other over with vehicles) and New Super Mario Bros Wii.



Adam, you said:

"While yes, there are some games that reward careful, clever thinking (Myst or World of Goo, for example), there are far more games that reward memorisation and muscle memory. You don't become successful at most games by learning to think about them, you become successful by learning *not* to think about them."

I think there the vast majority of games require rather a lot of cognitive thought and most of us have gamers are so close to this fact that we don't see it anymore. We do a lot of the mental processing without thinking. In reality these calculations are barriers to entry for most people and it can take a game like Wii Sports becoming huge for us to realise this. I agree that films can provide a lot to think about but a certain type of cognitive intelligence goes untested in the vast majority, which is tested in the vast majority of games. Also, gamers tend to be natural strategists from players of Modern Warfare 2 to Portal to Bejeweled to Farmville. Games that have high levels of interactivity are safe playgrounds for us to experiment with ideas. Some of us manage to continue the attitude of playfulness and experimentation into other aspects of our lives to great benefit.



So those were the points that I exaggerated. The last part is where I was being really silly. Of course I don't think interactivity should necessarily be introduced to films to drive them forward. As Daniel rightly pointed out, this would remove the tension that differentiates film from games and thus dilutes the whole concept. My real point was that this is exactly as futile to introduce cinematic concepts and therefore reduced interactivity to games as a necessary way to "progress" them. While we gain some qualities that make films great, we lose some qualities that make games great. We dilute the essence into something less unique, less differentiated from other media. I'm not saying such games should not exist as there are people who enjoy them and there will probably always be some kind of market for them. Just that there is no such thing as a convergent point between the two media that would make the ultimate art/entertainment experience.



I do think that a considerable proportion of modern games have taken on cinematic qualities. I don't mind them doing that but I don't think they even *realise* what they have sacrificed to make it possible. Arguments about broadening games to a similar emotional/intellectual pallete as films also seem to overlook what would be sacrificed to do this because they come from people that are so close to gaming they find it hard to see what great emotional and intellectual aspects they already possess.

Christopher Braithwaite
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"I think there the vast majority of games require rather a lot of cognitive thought and most of us have gamers are so close to this fact that we don't see it anymore. We do a lot of the mental processing without thinking."



Prash, you are arguing Adam's point. This is what is he is referring to when he mentions memorization and muscle memory.



On the post, I think you actually make a strong case for games imitating movies because by selling movies short you only highlight gaming's shortcomings. Movies draw inspiration from other successful media all the time while games sadly, usually only reference other games. Honestly, I don't understand why so many people fight the comparison. The fact that it is made so frequently only demonstrates the immense power movies have to capture the imagination. To ignore lessons learned from movies (and theater, and books, and music, and comics, and dance, and so on) when designing games just seems silly.

Tim Carter
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"I love film and I have great hope for its future as a medium. I feel that for it to truly reach its potential film makers must be willing to take inspiration from other successful media, such as computer games."



I'm sorry buddy, but film already achieved its place in the halls of cultural achievement years ago. Statements like the above display a huge amount of ignorance.

Andrew Swain
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I've never been connected to characters and stories in games as deeply as Forest Gump, Casino Royale, Star Wars, 12 Angry Men, Lucky Number Sleven, Hot Fuzz, About a Boy, Little Miss Sunshine, Big Lebowski, King Kong, or many, many other film materials.

Closest being is probably the Metal Gear franchise.



I have been more into the action in Crank, Crank 2, Terminator, Matrix than any game I have ever played. Closest being is probably the God of War franchise.





I think the main reason is that in games, death is barely ever final. Even if it is final, it doesn't usually have much of an effect to the player, who is numero uno in the game. Player's will just come back and try again.



If someone fails or dies in a movie, they are gone. Done. It changes the rest of the story, which is numero uno in the movie.



From an action standpoint, I don't think games will ever be precise enough to pull off the maneuvers that movies do, and even so, it depends on the players skill to pull it off.

Carlo Delallana
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I find the replies (from those who missed the point) to this overtly baited satirical article very amusing. Maybe you haven't been watching enough movies that deal with humor or satire. ;)



Its time we celebrate more of our accomplishments rather than examine them under the microscope of film.

Chad Wagner
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I must share one of my greatest video game moments: "The Dig" is a LucasArts point and click adventure of yesteryear (1995). Early in the game, you land with your team of 2 on a planet -- as you click to walk around, they follow you from place to place. At one point, one of the teammates seems to become less and less responsive -- sometimes he barely seems to follow you to the next screen. That disturbed me SO much. I can't describe the sense of discomfort, lack of control, and distrust this engendered in me! It turned out to really pay off in the story as well, and that has really stuck with me. The game makers compare the overall structure to "Treasure of the Sierra Madre," and I compare it to a certain front door in "What Lies Beneath." Anyhow, this was a genius manipulation of my feelings in a non-verbal, control oriented way that I have yet to see rivaled.

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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Prash Nelson-Smythe
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Chris,



"Prash, you are arguing Adam's point. This is what is he is referring to when he mentions memorization and muscle memory."



Actually, I'm talking specifically about cognitive processing. For example, in an RPG you might be thinking about the best order in which to gain skills so as to maximise your in-game achievement and enjoyment. This requires anticipating difficulties, creating strategies to account for the lack of ability you did not pick and working out if some abilities make it easier to train up the other abilities which would make them the efficient choice. Any highly interactive game with a reasonable degree of freedom opens itself up to analysis like this and many require it. And even simpler games have a lot of this if you look carefully for examples. As gamers we tend to process a lot of this just under the surface and take it for granted because we have been doing it for so long. It is not memorisation or muscle memory, although those are often employed in addition.



"Movies draw inspiration from other successful media all the time while games sadly, usually only reference other games. Honestly, I don't understand why so many people fight the comparison. The fact that it is made so frequently only demonstrates the immense power movies have to capture the imagination. To ignore lessons learned from movies (and theater, and books, and music, and comics, and dance, and so on) when designing games just seems silly."



I am not saying that games should not learn from films. I think they should. But applying cinematic techniques in a way that is frequently done necessarily causes reduced interactivity, which makes games lose part of their original appeal. The worst offenders are extended cut-scenes, quick time events and the increased linearity made necessary by these. In the same way, increasing interactivity of films would damage important aspects of it. Also, I'm not saying that developers shouldn't weigh up the pros and cons and sacrifice interactivity where appropriate. I think that many are ditching interactivity without understanding the deep consequences. This is evidenced by them making epic games that don't sell as well as expected and get resold a lot, while scratching their heads as to why gamers are flocking to more arcade oriented games without cinematic production values. I think Modern Warfare 2 is an interesting example because the reviewers harped on about the storytelling qualities of the single-player campaign while the players jumped straight into the action in the online *and local* multiplayer.

Prash Nelson-Smythe
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Tim Carter,



The first and last sentences of my article were intentionally absurd and I thought those along with others would be enough to make my satirical intentions clear. So let me just plainly state that I was writing a parody with no intention of hiding that fact! I don't want to be inflammatory, only though-provoking but sometimes there's a fine line between the two. My additional comments explain my position more clearly. The last two films that I watched are Shutter Island and District 9. They both would have been ruined by interactivity.

Joshua McDonald
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Best blog post I've read in a while. I was chuckling the entire way through.



One of the lines you had in your later comments was really good: "First and foremost, there ARE emotions for which games have surpassed films in creating. However, for some reason they are less often regarded as proper emotions than the ones like sadness."



And then from Carlos:

"Its time we celebrate more of our accomplishments rather than examine them under the microscope of film."



People are way too caught up in determining the value of games based on a direct comparison to movies. Inviting people to gaming parties has done a lot more to help me make friends than inviting them to movies. A movie has never given me 1/10th the mental stimulation that I got from playing through Braid. Playing co-op multiplayer has given me more teamwork skills than any movie could ever hope to achieve. Most of all, I've never had a feeling of accomplishment that resulted from watching a movie.

Carlo Delallana
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@Prash "The last two films that I watched are Shutter Island and District 9. They both would have been ruined by interactivity."



Not all interactivity need be facilitated by hands on a controller. Imagine watching a horror flick where you interacted with it using biometrics? ;)

dana mcdonald
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This article is pretty funny. I think most of the people commenting got so hot and bothered by the end that they missed the blatant sarcasm of the last couple of paragraphs. But what is really amusing is that the reverse argument is stated constantly and is taken very seriously. There is certainly merit to improving some types of games by learning things from movies, but the real heart of video games is entirely different. Tetris and Mario brothers have little to learn from cinema. I would like to see more thought put forward on what really makes games great and less on how to blend us with movies.

Prash Nelson-Smythe
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Joshua and Dana, glad you liked it.



Carlo:

Ah, but that is a slippery slope! I would keep rewatching this horror film training myself not to be scared by it in order to unlock the ending made for fearless people, which I would consider a win condition, thus game-ifying the whole thing and caring less about the characters. Then I'd see all horror films as some kind of gory Luigi's Manion: Vitality Sensor Edition! But that's just me :)

Carlo Delallana
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I like my slopes slippery

Simon T
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Games will never come into their own as a medium until developers recognise them as their own medium.



Talk of film or games surpassing the other is blatantly ridiculous.

Tim Carter
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@ Simon: Film provides a very very useful yardstick of relevance. Otherwise, you're making judgements in a vacuum.

Carlo Delallana
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What do we mean by relevance? Is it a measure of cultural impact? If so then interactive games have hit that milestone many many times already.

Simon T
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@Tim



Certainly we can take ideas from film; like we take them from anything.



To suggest that games or film is superior to the other is completely missing the point... is my point.



It's like saying watercolours have surpassed oil paints.

Prash Nelson-Smythe
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@Tim



Here we go with cultural relevance again!



I don't mind comparisons but why do we always compare to the same thing. I read an interesting article on Edge recently explaining that games tend to have more in common with music than film due to their rhythm, flow and repitition.



I personally think video games are much more closely related to... games! Ball games, board games, card games, dice games etc. and there is still much to be learn and apply from these things. People are too quick to classify video games as a medium when really they straddle the lines between sport/game/hobby/activity/medium. The term medium implies passivity which is why we need the prefix "interactive".



I do concede that video games recently seem to be overly reliant on other video games for inspiration recently and they would do better to take inspiration from all aspects of life. Not just film. Especially since films are not interactive.

Steven Walker
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Nice article, made me chuckle! .... now that's the kind of emoptional engagement films need to be working on, huh?....

In seriousness, I think a lot of issues in recent games have been caused by us thinking we need to be like films. This article nicely throws that argument into the light.

Matthew Mouras
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Huh? You have this the wrong way around. :) I've never been as gripped by a game emotionally as I have been by film. Game plots/dialogue is still just too poorly written.



The issue isn't that games think they need to be more like films. It's that they DO need to be more like film in some regards and most attempts at doing so have been poorly executed by developers.



I might play a bioware title for a few hours and convince myself that the writing is good and the plot is interesting, but then I'll watch even a moderately well-made film and say to myself, "Nope... games have a long way to go before they get narrative pacing, direction, and dialogue right."

Steven Walker
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@Matthew



A: I think you are missing some of the tungue in cheek nature of this post!



B: I think we all agree that games generally don't do a good job when they try to be films. I'm sure this could be improved... but what I got from this post is that maybe that misses the point. Too often recently I feel like I am watching snippets of a film, cut with snippets of gamplay. Whether the snippets are from a good film or a poor film might still not be where games should be.

The real great moments in gaming often come from the GAME itself in the same way you might be involved if you scored a goal at football (soccer!). This is the engagement that films DONT have and perhaps the engagement we should be stiving for over better written linear (film style) plots.

Shay Pierce
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This is probably the best blog post on Gamasutra, if only because of the gas-bags who totally missed the joke. Great job.


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