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.