Storytelling in Movies and Video Games

I’ve always found it a bit strange when video games are made into movies. The whole essence of games is that you get to control the character. You have a certain amount of freedom to explore the environment and do what you want. Films are in many ways the antithesis of that. You have no control. You are a passive observer. Perhaps the games industry sees it in a way that a movie can be one big advertisement for their game and help them sell more units, in the same way that the He-Man cartoon was an advertisement to sell more Masters of the Universe toys. The fact remains that the games industry is bigger than the movie industry. That’s been known for a while. But which medium is better at telling stories?

Movies are very well controlled. They are linear and the director can carefully construct all the various elements at their disposal (lighting, music, pacing etc) to take you down a path and feel certain emotions. But there is no freedom. You are a passive observer who has to watch the characters in the movie and empathise with them. You are strapped in for the ride.

Games let the viewer have control. You are free to move around and interact with people and objects. You have immediate cause and effect in relation to your actions. You experience the story with yourself as the main character. But this freedom can also let the player stray off the path and get in the way of the experience of the story.

J.J. Abrams and Gabe Newell from Valve recently discussed this at the DICE Summit keynote in Las Vegas. They explained how there are many obvious differences between the two forms of media, but that there are also many similarities. The illusion of freedom in games can often have a complicated hierarchical structure, similar to story arcs in movie screenplays, which will always bring you back to the same ordered key points of drama in order to move the story forward. They both use misdirection to focus your attention on particular elements. They use setup and payoff to make you feel more involved in the storyline and to connect more with the characters. In both there has to be a balance between immersion and storytelling, and they play to their own strengths. But in both there is always a storyline spine throughout. Without a story there is no connection with the audience.

They finished their talk with the news that these behemoths of entertainment would be collaborating on movie and game ventures. Personally I hope they don’t just make a movie of Portal or Half-Life or a game of one of Abrams’ movies. I’m hoping they somehow try to bridge the two mediums in a way that hasn’t been done before. Perhaps some kind of interactive YouTube movie or get Abrams directing elements of a game to a level not seen before.

But for me it’s just great to see the video games industry all grown up and teaching Hollywood a thing or two about how to entertain people. That’s a good story in itself.

View the keynote

Image source - Variety YouTube video

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