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The Uneasy Merging of Narrative and Gameplay
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The Uneasy Merging of Narrative and Gameplay

January 26, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 6 of 6

How Cinema Disrupts Continuity to Enhance Storytelling, and How Continuity Is Essential to Gameplay

Another area where gameplay and narrative find conflict on a regular basis is that of continuity and the precision of expression of action.

The domain of continuity is one fundamental way to look at the differences between narrative and gameplay. In gameplay, the precise continuity of events matters, whereas in narrative, it does not. In fact, in narrative, precise continuity actually gets in the way of effectively expressing the story. Because of this, film editors routinely create impossible sequences of events in order to make the story more compelling.

We're not talking about "impossible" as in unrealistic or fantastic, like dodging bullets, but "impossible" in the sense of continuity and time compression, as we'll see shortly. As viewers we also routinely accept this at face value because over the years and years of exposure to film, we intuitively gain an understanding of the grammar of the camera as a vehicle for storytelling, and how it can jump back and forth in time and space.

Conversely, in gameplay, if continuity is not expressed in an absolutely precise way, it interferes with the player's ability to make decisions and even comprehend what is going on in the first place.

Let's look at the example of a one-on-one fight. In Rocky IV, the climactic battle between Rocky and Drago lasts a grueling 15 rounds. In the course of the battle, first we see Drago totally dominate Rocky, living up to his reputation as an invincible machine.

Gradually Rocky comes back, and the match gets increasingly ugly as the tide swings back and forth again and again until Drago finally relents. There are several elements of interest here, and it's worthwhile to study the entire sequence if you have access to it (try searching on YouTube for "Rocky vs Drago").

First, let's consider the action of the camera. The match starts out with a nearly "live" camera for the first few rounds, where most all of its attention is on Rocky and Drago. For at least the 10 middle rounds, the sequence becomes a montage. Time is compressed, as we see the graphics for each subsequent round fly across the screen not minutes apart, but closer to seconds.

We see the camera cut away to characters in the audience, even some kids watching TV, at just the exact right moment so we can see their reactions. The camera also seems to cut back (even during non-montage moments) to the fight at the exact right instant to see a great punch wind up and hit. We also see dual-camera shots that are separated by both time and space where the boxers are fighting on the right half of the screen, and Rocky or Drago is sitting in the corner between rounds on the left side.

Second, let's consider the action of the boxers. We also do not have a precise sense of their actual physical state or their performance, outside of what the film explicitly tells us for dramatic effect. We don't know exactly how close either fighter really is to toppling, and in fact the story takes advantage of us by making it seem like it must be over now for sure, only to see Rocky come back with inhuman strength again and again.

It doesn't matter how many jabs Rocky took to the face or how bad Drago's cut really was. What does matter is the emotional content of those elements, and that's why they are utilized in film. Consider that many of the camera cuts showing punches traded back and forth could have been swapped for different cuts altogether without changing the feel of the sequence one bit.

All of these techniques make the narrative more compelling, and they all involve slicing and dicing the actual order of events (if they even existed) for sake of storytelling. This is nothing special in terms of cinema, but the key here is at all these techniques are only possible because the "player" has no control over what is happening.

To have the camera cut completely away for several moments, totally blinding your view of an ongoing battle with an opponent is unacceptable in an interactive context (certainly, Rocky and Drago are not surreptitiously resting when the camera isn't on them).

Swapping one series of punches for another works because nobody is keeping track of exactly how hurt each fighter is and how that affects their stamina over the course of the match. The audience doesn't know (or often care) about that atomic level of detail, and thus the filmmaker is allowed to take advantage of it. But in gameplay, the player does care, because each atomic event has a definite consequence according to the rules of the game.

As our gameplay version of the same example, let's consider a typical match in a one-on-one game such as Street Fighter IV. We can't cut away to a crowd in the middle of a match to enhance excitement, because the player has full control over their character.

At best, any such attempt would be disruptive. We can't stylistically "fast forward" through a long match because the player is actually creating the continuity of the match as it happens. And most of all, we do care to keep track of exactly how each hit and miss happens, even the non-dramatic ones, because precise spatial relationships are what determines who gets hit, and each character can only sustain so much damage before going down.

Ironically enough, the very techniques that make cinema compelling end up breaking gameplay, and the very elements that are essential to gameplay are inconsequential in cinema.


The purpose of this piece was neither to cheerlead for ostensible gameplay purists who appear to hate story in their games, nor to root for those who view video games as a wonderful medium for storytelling. If you find yourself in either of these camps, and even if you don't, I hope that I've been able to show that narrative and gameplay are less like peanut butter and chocolate, to be swirled together only if we could find the right temperature and mixer, and more like spoons and knives.

There are some things that both media can do well, but there are also many things that only narrative can accomplish, and still other things that only gameplay can accomplish. Like any specialized tools, the appropriate one should be selected for the job, and selecting the wrong tool can be clumsy at best and catastrophic at worst.

Don't just utilize narrative and gameplay in your products according to typical convention. Equally senseless is the idea to use both simultaneously with the blind hope that the outcome will somehow be better than just having one or the other. Be deliberate in how you select and architect the medium that's best at conveying what you want the player to experience.

From this perspective, the idea of getting a player to cry is not some kind of mystical holy grail; it's done the same way that movies (as well as narrative-heavy games) have been doing it all these years. On the other hand, if you're trying to get the player choked up purely through gameplay, you may have as much difficulty with trying to make a player feel Fiero from watching a movie.

Article Start Previous Page 6 of 6

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