As part of Fantastic Arcade in Austin, Texas over the weekend, a Gamasutra-attended panel of filmmakers including Nacho Vigalondo and the developers behind the upcoming PlayStation 3 online action title Starhawk discussed the differences between storytelling in film and games.
Dylan Jobe, president of Lightbox Interactive, explained how his team's interest in storytelling stemmed from the realization that although its games were multiplayer focused, the team "couldn't just be systems- and mechanics-based."
"With [Starhawk predecessor] Warhawk, the mechanics were crazy fun but the universe was just hollow," he admitted. "A good story and a hero makes the whole thing more compelling, and we brought in talent from the film industry to work on the universe of Starhawk before we even began to think who the characters would be."
"Writing is something video games still need to improve on," he continued. "There's a lot of really bad writing in video games and also in the way that the story is integrated."
Vigalondo, the Spanish director of Timecrimes, Extraterrestrial and the Spanish Academy Award-nominated 7:35 de la Manana agreed.
"I feel frustrated when I play a game like Dead Space that has great mechanics, but a lack of ambition in the story," said the director, who's not working on Starhawk. "If it was a movie, with its plot it would be a B-movie, not a big-budget film."
Jobe agreed, but noted that this was something that games often "got away with."
"You can have plot holes, but camouflage them with the distraction of 'we're throwing more zombies at you!'," he said.
Jobe argued that rather than use that as a crutch, developers should more deeply consider the way their storytelling structure matched their design.
"It's something that we had to work on, as before when we had our traditional storytelling 'three act' structure in place, we also had all of our timing for the 'mechanics payout' in place -- when new vehicles, new structures would appear. So we had to consider our need not to just hit our storytelling goals but also the 'macro structure' of play."
In turn, Vigalondo praised the original Halo for its clever story arc in which locations were re-used without seeming repetitive.
"Halo has a really neat, clear story," he explained. "You almost don't realize that you play each of the stages twice, because if at one point you're escaping a ship, the next time you are there is for another reason, and you don't feel cheated because the script changes the nature of the experience."
Jobe admitted that tough decisions have already had to be made in the development of Starhawk in order to "pair up" the story arc with gameplay as best as the team could.
"We pulled an entire mission out to be part of one of the cinematic story moments," he said. "It actually worked to make the game flow better and more naturally push the player into the next mission; it wasn't that we're trying to make a film or remove the player's control, but it's important to understand how story moments can benefit your game."