Sunday, March 26, 2006

On Cinematic Games And Interactive Movies

John August linked to this Wired piece by Jordan Mechner about how videogame narratives are most compelling when the storytelling is integrated into the gameplay rather than cordoned off into lavish cut-scenes. Mechner compares the cut-scene heavy attempts at “cinematic” games with early proscenium-style films:

New mediums have trouble escaping the shadow of their predecessors. At the turn of the last century, the dominant audiovisual medium was the stage play. So in their quest for mass-market success and artistic legitimacy, early filmmakers strove to be theatrical: They shot scenes as if the cast were onstage,with the cameraman stationed in the audience seventh row center. Today, those early movies seem hoary.

… As we gamemakers discover new ways to take storytelling out of cutscenes and bring it into gameplay, we're taking the first steps toward a true videogame storytelling language - just as our filmmaking forebears did the first time they cut to a close-up. One day soon, calling a game "cinematic" will be a backhanded compliment, like calling a movie "stagy."


The key section, though, is Mechner’s breakdown of what makes a video game experience different than a cinematic one:

To appreciate a videogame, you need to play it - an experience that can consume dozens of hours, encompassing moments of joy and anguish so intense that you reminisce about them years later.

In a movie, the story is what the characters do. In a game, the story is what the player does. The actions that count are the player's. Better game storytelling doesn't mean producing higher-quality cinematic cutscenes; it means constructing the game so that the most powerful and exciting moments of the story occur not in the cutscenes but during the gameplay itself. To simply watch a few recorded snippets of game footage as you would a film is to miss the point.


This is important to consider, not just for the future of video games, but for the future of movies as well. Especially when a visionary filmmaker like Steven Spielberg is saying things like this:

…in the future there is going to be a movie theater that allows the audience to be active members in the story-telling process. And I think the audiences who are flocking to video games, which is an interactive experience, are going to want to interact with movies as they play in real time. And there will be room for both. There will be stories that allow the audience to determine the outcome.


So… a game made entirely of cut-scenes? Isn’t that the worst of both worlds? Never mind that it’s been tried before; there are a few problems with this approach to cinematic “interactivity.”

First, the mechanism of “choice” is necessarily very limited. There are only so many threads that can be pre-shot, and any sense of “interactivity" is only the thinnest of illusions. Second, the choice points in the film are likely to be jarring—each time you’re presented with a chance to choose the direction of the story, you’re necessarily being taken out of the story—distancing your emotional investment rather than deepening it. Third, deciding the path of the story with an audience might be exciting on some level, but from a storytelling standpoint it’s more of a chore. At home on DVD it might work, but how does a theaterful of people control a movie all together, if not through a cumbersome voting process? Does the movie support multiplayer?

I would hate to watch a movie this way. When you’re exploring your options in a video game, you can take the time to try out all the different possibilities before finding the one that you want to take. Not to mention, you have unlimited time to explore these options so you don’t feel like you’re missing out on something when you make your choice.

The movie would have to have good outcomes and bad outcomes. Certain choices would lead to "winning" the movie, and certain choices would lead to "losing." If they didn't, the whole aspect of choice would be hollow, and would fail to engage anybody. But if you do have "winning" and "losing" choices, you might end up spending the night at the theater only to go home feeling like shit because you lost and saw a crappy movie. Then what? You have to go and see it again? Why? The audience will probably choose roughly the same thing every time, because certain choices will be more appealing to a plurality--that's why they won the first time.

When you’re reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book, an experience that seems to have much more in common with a clumsy interactive movie, you can at least hold your page. But watching a movie this way would be merely frustrating. All I would be able to think about was what I was missing. In fact, I would feel the same about this Spielberg prophecy:

Some day in the not too distant future you'll be able to go to a movie and the movie will be all around you. The movie will be over your head, it will be a 360 degrees around you, even be a little bit under you, and you will be in your seat with hand controls where you can rotate your seat, lean back, lean forward, have complete control over your seat to be able to keep up with all the imagery that is going to take you on a mind-blowing journey. I see that kind of experience without losing narrative.


Oh, kind of like Circlevision in Tomorrowland? I hope these are unconsidered, offhand comments, because surely cumbersome, failed gimmick cinema is not the future of movies. 360 degree views? Why? So that no matter where you look, you can be assured that you’re missing at least 50% of the experience?

Worse, this kind of shallow interactivity isn’t what makes people invest in the video game experience. Video games aren’t necessarily about choosing the path of the story. Sure, some have branching storylines, but most are pretty linear. Believe it or not, the appeal of video games doesn’t lie in controlling which way you’re facing, either.

As they say in big fancy screenwriting school, a movie must engage an audience’s sense of hope and fear: the hope that, say, a hero will succeed, constantly balanced with the fear that he will not. A video game engages the same sense of hope and fear, but it’s deepened by the fact that a player is personally responsible for a hero’s success, and personally fears the obstacles that stand in the way. When a huge boss character shows up in a video game, you think oh shit, not because you think, “How is he going to beat that thing?” but “How am I going to beat that thing?” Note that for the story to progress, you will eventually have to beat that thing. This isn't about choosing an outcome, it's about personally accomplishing the outcome.

To cite another example: The cases in Phoenix Wright can only come out two ways: You win or you lose. It’s not choosing the result that’s fun, it’s the fact that you're responsible for making it happen. It's the sense of dread when a new complication arises and you realize you're the one who has to figure out how to prove your case all over again.

There is room for this kind of video game narrative alongside the linear, non-interactive narrative of films. Personally, I like the fact that a movie can be over in two hours without making my clumsy self responsible for the outcome. I like that the characters can move on to the next scene without failing at it and repeating it twenty times. It’s a different kind of storytelling, and that’s fine. Video games are fun but you don’t always want your stories in video game form.

I think it’s a mistake to peg some vague notion of interactivity as the secret to video games’ appeal. To try to make movies imitate video games without even understanding games is just plain foolhardy. After all, there’s a reason the Choose Your Own Adventure format never took over the publishing market.

7 comments:

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I think there's something wrong with tyour rss feed. This post didn't apear in my blog lines and your feed has an [!] next to it.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Oh! Now It's working.

Zack said...

Short version: You're mostly right, but you should play Ico.

First, the mechanism of “choice” is necessarily very limited. There are only so many threads that can be pre-shot, and any sense of “interactivity" is only the thinnest of illusions.
Only so many threads that can be pre-shot, yes, but that's why we have computer animation.

Second, the choice points in the film are likely to be jarring—each time you’re presented with a chance to choose the direction of the story, you’re necessarily being taken out of the story—distancing your emotional investment rather than deepening it.
But ... I mean, again, this applies only to recorded media, not things that can be rendered on the fly by computers.

As far as the "choose your own adventure" structures you assume cinematic games or interactive movies will have to have, well, yes, those are jarring and awkward. But they can work, too, because they are jarring. I am thinking mostly in the abstract, here. But Tactics Ogre, for a more concrete example, presents you with a simple textual decision to rebel or not, and after you make that decision your game world changes considerably. Former allies will come to hate you, old roads are now barred to you, and several lengthy cutscenes play. In a case like this, the lack of interactivity that follows a major choice makes that choice meaningful.

Or consider Final Fantasy 3's "solitary island" scenario. Your adoptive grandpa is dying, you run back and forth between the house and the beach trying to find non-poisonous fish to nurse him back to health. It is dificult and the game doesn't explain how to do it, but that's not relevant. Usually the grandpa dies. And then your character throws herself off a cliff. You don't tell her to jump off a cliff. The game uses this non-interactive bit to communicate what the girl is feeling. And, you know, if left to his own devices the average player is not going to throw his avatar off the cliff, unless he is playing Burnout. Here, a jarrng lack of interactivity is itself used to convey something that interactive gameplay cannot; precisely BECAUSE the player is invested in the character, the player is not capable of acting in character. The character needs to show the player.

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Steven Spielberg is, with respect to games, retarded.

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A video game engages the same sense of hope and fear, but it’s deepened by the fact that a player is personally responsible for a hero’s success, and personally fears the obstacles that stand in the way. When a huge boss character shows up in a video game, you think oh shit, not because you think, “How is he going to beat that thing?” but “How am I going to beat that thing?” Note that for the story to progress, you will eventually have to beat that thing. This isn't about choosing an outcome, it's about personally accomplishing the outcome.

Robotron 2084 and Missile Command are both like 25 years old, and both unwinnable. The player's question, in those games, is not "How can I win?" but "How long can I not lose?" You are working with a relatively narrow idea of a videogame, here. I don't really blame you, since game makers have been doing the same thing, mostly.

In those games, the story that progresses is in the player's head, from one failed playthrough to the next. It's acceptance or defiance, the five stages if you really feel like it. It's the player's reaction to the realization that they can never win. Winning is, well, kind of boring. It's like jacking off. After it's over, you wonder why you even cared. The best part of a game is losing, and understanding why.

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I am serious.

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The reason most Choose Your Own Adventure books are boring is because the choices are boring and have nothing to do with the outcomes. Also, because they are fascinated with their own novelty. The reason these books are boring is because they don't try to be interesting. It's not a fundamental structural problem. It's the wrong authors, writing for the wrong audience.

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You should play Ico.

Zack said...

Also, on the subject of multiplayer movies/games:
The Video Game Averaging Project

Kenny said...

I was expecting Zack to have a more complex take on the subject, and I was hoping he would share it. So I'm happy.

My question is this: Supposing you're able to integrate on-the-fly computer animation and a more complex mix of interactivity and narrative as you've described. Could that experience actually be translated to work with a theater full of people all controlling it somehow? And even if it could, at what point would you simply call it a game, not a movie?

Zack said...

Well, there -- mind, from my perspective this is a strange question to ask -- there are a few ways this could work.

One would be to have everyone jointly controlling the same character. But never mind actual drama. That shit doesn't even work for (you will think I am joking untuil you click this link) Pong. In Pong there is a single goal for any player, and it is pretty fucking obvious: move paddle towards ball. Yet add enough faceless players and Zack is left yelling "It's fucking DOWN. How hard is DOWN?"

Granted, some of these people are just being jackasses, and some more just opened Multiplayer Pong in a new window and walked away, and both of these problems would be alleviated (though not eliminated) by having the audience pay to play.

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Even in the best case scenario, no matter what that is, you are going to have to deal with the laser pointer set, which is unfortunately has a lot of overlap with the early adopter set. So hypothetical constraints of the medium aside, early implementation is going to suck. Okay, for the laser pointer guys, it will be awesome.

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Honestly, it's hard for me to see the benefit of a group-controlled movie. The only way to get the audience to agree is to have a story compelling enough that every individual in the audience has more to lose than gain if they laser-point. And at that point, shit, just watch the damn thing.

I don't know. Maybe this is pessimistic, but to get people to agree on things, you need to make them passive, and that's fundamentally at odds with the agency an interactive movie would empower them with. Groups of friends with some existing social structure could enjoy these things, but it could never work in a theater full of strangers unless it's like $100 a head.

But, yeah, if this works it will be for rich people looking for an alternative to live theater. This can't replace cinema. No way.

Zack said...

Shorter version:John Gabriel's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory.