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Storytelling in videogames AKA games are NOT movies
by Sergio Rosa on 08/06/12 03:09:00 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.


This blog post was originally posted this weekend on my personal blog, here.

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 =D ).

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Michael Pianta
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The disconnect between the authored narrative and the so-called "ludonarrative" is the main thing that prevents traditional narratives from working in games. It has only recently become apparent to me, but I now believe that the best games will emphasize the ludonarrative, while engaging in minimalistic authored narratives. See Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Braid, and Limbo. See also many classic games from the NES/SNES era, like Super Metroid.

Roger Tober
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I think stories work best in games when they are discovered, rather than told. That way, you can leave things laying around and work on game play. Discovery is more interactive.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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Hmm I must say that although I agree with the overall assesment of the article, I read a lot of problems in the presented axioms.

First of all, many movies to NOT have 5 plot points, you are generalizing from an ideal movie, which is rarely the case anyway. Games such as Uncharted, portal (1 & 2), Journey or Shadow of the colossus have a very movie-like structure, which is not to say that they are bad or good, but they do present a very familiar 4-5 point arc, that fits with the experience.
On the other hand, games such as Metal Gear or Heavy Rain are often more similar to TV series, since they present a more bite sized episodic / mission focus, while mantaining an overarching narrative. Once again, this migth appear a bit heavy handed to many but it also responds to the narrative. I personally feel that seeking this structure must be done carefully as to keep the players interested, and it often falls short, due to problems of pacing and the reliance on the player's play habits. This is obviously dependant on each particular case, but its far from a rule to base videogames or movies, or their relation to each other.

In my views, search for photographic / cinematic perfection is rather pointless anyway. Although it has always been present in art: In classical painting, artists would represent idealized and photorealistic images, with the birth of photography and modern art, the focus shifted from literal representation to emotional representation, since it is virtually impossible to reproduce reality identically.
What happens is that a smilie :) is everyone, the being from Journey can be you, me, my sister, my neighbour, even if we know that noone really looks that way. On the other hand, Ellen Page in Beyond is Ellen Page. There is a different approach from a player to the character itself that is more accurate to reality, but less inclusive. This is not you. And there is a range of abstraction and personalization. David Cage's innovation is superfical, it seeks the impressive technical perfection but shallow stylistic realism of reinassance paintings.
With movements such as the Bauhaus, or expressionism, the role of the observer became more important, the artpiece was actively asking the viewer: what do you see? we can see that the audience is a critical and active part of art rather than a passive observer.

And here is your second questionable Axiom. Movies are not interactive? It seems that you are considering Interactivity as a black or white, but the truth is that interactivity much more than that. As a poem is interactive in the way in which we must interpret the information to make sense to us, a movie is interactive. Hundreds of movies present you an idea, not just a story that you must watch, often modern movies give you pieces that you must piece together and actively modify to make sense in purpose, to dialogue with the audience.
Interactivity as the ability to press a button to change the picture is a superbly superficial look on the concept. Clearly a game is not MORE interactive the more buttons you can press: Skyrim is not more interactive than mario, and microsoft flight simulator is not more interactive than Dear Esther (in fact, I believe I have a completely different interpretation of dear esther than you do). The immediate mechanics are not the importance of the interaction. The interesting aspects of interactivity really refer to the fact that the object exists and changes with the observer, but there is not just a single way to achieve this.

It is a fact that a new discipline often takes cues from its forefathers, Where is carmen sandiego, is basically a choose your own adventure book with more graphics, and old rpgs often almost presented a litreral Game board as a map. Comic books often quote illustrations and graphic styles. And Movies quote diverse photography styles. One of the signs of maturity of a medium, is its ability to quote influences while remaining distinct.
There is nothing wrong with saying a certain secuence of a movie feels like a comic book, or that a painting looks like a photograph, as long as we recognize the quotes, and they are intentionally intelligent conversation with us as an audience. In the same way in which I dont think its bad for us to observe when a game has influences.

Videogames are a different tool, that is the real importance. Some narratives and mechanics seem made for this medium, and in that sense making a formal movie in a game seems like a lost opportunity, since it doesn't take any of the mediums advantages. I think our goal as game creators should be to search for experiences that MUST be told in this way, but it doesn't mean it is the only way to express them.

Toby Grierson
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This article's fine. But be wary of those script writing sites. The five point plot is just one model of many; sometimes you'll see three-point or seven- or thirteen- or a few variations on the hero's journey, etc. etc. or, fuckin, no plot whatsoever works here and there but I won't go into it. And the two plots you mentioned in Inception aren't actually subordinate to each other. The latter is sometimes called the "internal struggle" and if it's not there, the result comes out like those boring straight-to-DVD Stephen Segal movies that he directs himself.

It's an article designed to help lost but hopeful writers put together a competent first work. It's not law.

Evan Combs
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I was going to post something thoughtful, and smart, but I decided it isn't worth it as there is only one thing that actually needs to be said.

Just because you prefer games that don't have cut-scenes, and aren't "cinematic" doesn't mean they are wrong or bad. It is just another way to tell a story though the medium of video games. If you don't like it don't worry there are plenty of games that don't try to be "cinematic". I know, I will be playing both types, because they both can be great video games, and portray a story in an excellent way.

If you don't like it then fine keep being stuck up while the rest of us are happy with both ways of telling a story. All I ask is Gamasutra stop putting these types of blogs in the featured blog section as they add nothing to the site or video games.

Nick Harris
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You are not the first to comment and if you read what other members of Gamasutra have to say about this article you may appreciate why it has been deemed of value to the site. I was happy to read this articulate, insightful, piece. I am not hung up on a writer making a stronger point at the expense of a few blunt generalisations. I fully expect that Mr Rosa has enjoyed a great number of Movie-style games over the years, but surely it is healthy to question trends that only seemed destined to produce an overpriced, stagnant, artform.

John Flush
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Gaming's inability to capture the movie market will continue to limit the exposure of gaming to the masses. I'm not saying every game needs to be a Movie with QTE's but there is a lot of gap that can be covered by appealing to both. I played through Metroid: Other M, I enjoyed it a lot because I didn't think Samus had to be some badass bitch is a suit, my wife also enjoyed it a lot as we watched the theatre mode.

I'm replaying the Thief series mainly due to a great blog post on this site, and also a good Steam Summer camp sale and I could clearly see that as not only an interesting movie, but trilogy. But I'm sure Hollywood would screw it up so luckily it has enough theatrical moments in it to keep the story well explained. It would be awesome to have a mode similar to Other M where I could just watch the movies and important story line elements of it. It would save me a lot of time sneaking around in the dark with my busy schedule.

I also have to give nods to the mention of Braid and Limbo in the first comment post, and add in Half-Life, Bioshock, and other games that continue to blend great story telling elements and gameplay into a great entertainment experience.

Really the only thing holding back great Storytelling and gaming from merging is the lack of desire from those with the power to push it. Remember, everything doesn't need it, but I think there is room for it these days. And it doesn't even have to be choose your own adventure like the Bioware games either seeming those tend to weaken the story telling core by giving you only want you chose in the choices.

Joshua Darlington
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Side Quest = Sub Plot