How is a game different from a movie?

First things first: now that the deadline for artwork submissions has “passed”, so to speak, I think it’s time to give a tally of sorts. I have received a total of fifteen scenes, which will definitely be more than enough for what I need, so I won’t accept any more unless you’re really, really burning to join in on the fun, in which case I might make an exception or two. Four of these scenes have already been written, which means that there has been progress, so to speak. I can’t really give much of an estimate as to when this project will be up for public consumption, though, particularly given that I’m now working full-time at Hothead and there’s no telling how much of my creative energy this will eat up in the not-too-distant future. [1]

I will, however, reveal that the title will be Des Rêves Élastiques Avec Mille Insectes Nommés Georges, or DREAMING for short. Yes, I decided to revisit my love for obscenely long titles, last seen in TGTTPOACS, except this time you can, you know, actually pronounce the acronym. Plus, this time, the title’s in French, so you know it’s all artistic and avant-garde and stuff. Titter titter.

All right, now that the administrivia is over and done with, let’s get to the real topic of this post, which is the difference between a story-based video game and a movie. Now, this is something that’s frequently brought up whenever people discuss the role of storytelling in games. I get the impression that to most gamers, the difference is “gameplay”, e.g. dexterity challenges, logic puzzles, and anything else with rules, goals, and clear win/lose states. The argument therefore is — and forgive me in advance if I’m attacking a straw man here — that if you remove all the gameplay, all you’re left with is a “movie”, and usually one that is highly inferior to everything in your prized DVD collection, to boot.

While I won’t argue against the fact that most game storytelling is a smouldering mass of poo, I’m not quite convinced that games lose their inherent value when stripped of their gameplay. Surely, one can argue that they’re no longer “games”, but I think they’re still very much able to be “played”. For one thing, you’ll still be able to freely explore the environment you’re in, and choose the scenes you wish to visit at any given point in time. In a movie, you don’t have this luxury. You go where the camera takes you, and that’s pretty much that. The fact that I could wander around Rubacava, breathing in the sights and sounds at my own pace, taking a walk in a fictional, stylized world I couldn’t experience in real life, [2] was what made Grim Fandango special to me in a way that, say, Casablanca wasn’t able to.

And the exploration doesn’t necessarily have to be spatial, either; you have just as much potential when it comes to character interactions (just to pick one of my favourite topics). You can probe deeply into the ones you resonate with, and completely ignore the ones you don’t. Sometimes, you can also change the way they feel about you, but that’s not always necessary. [3]

So, in essence, what differentiates a “game” from a “movie”, in my mind, is the ability to explore. This isn’t “gameplay” per se, because exploration doesn’t really have any rules or pre-defined goals. This isn’t to say that I don’t like having rules and goals at all; the truth is, for someone who values exploration, I don’t play very many “sandbox”-style games. It’s more that the kinds of rule sets I prefer are those imposed by the presence of a story, which, ironically enough, are what make games more similar to movies rather than different. The goal is to uncover the story and see it to a conclusion of sorts. The difference is that I get to control how I reach that goal, rather than watch someone else do it.

Mind you, I’m not saying there’s no value in the deliberate pacing set by a skilled filmmaker. There’s obviously decades of tried-and-true theory therein, most of which I haven’t actually studied and am therefore probably only aware of subconsciously. However, there’s also the inescapable fact that pacing, among myriad other things, is not a one-size-fits-all affair; I’ve completely lost count of how many movies have put me to sleep or led me to completely lose patience and wonder when the damn thing would end already. Who knows, maybe the point of all this newfangled computational power will be to tailor storytelling experiences to the individual and to resonate personally with people in a way that we weren’t able to previously.

Just sayin’.

  1. The same applies for Stage!, except the problem is compounded by two busy schedules as opposed to just one.
  2. Reasons like these are why I tend to be so much against photorealism in games. If I want photorealism, why don’t I just go outside? And if I want to see explosions and realistic blood splatters — which the neo-hippie pacifist in me would rather not, thankyouverymuch — I can just watch the news, can’t I?
  3. Of course, I’m speaking in terms of ideals here. In practice, games succeed in spatial exploration far more than they do in character modelling. This may or may not have to do with gender biases in the industry. I enjoy both, but I find myself skewing more towards the latter in my own work, owing both to a desire to level the playing field and to a lack of formal visual arts training.
This entry was posted in Blog Posts. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to How is a game different from a movie?

  1. BiggerJ says:

    Maybe you could keep people posted on DREAMING’s progress with a meter showing how many scenes have been completed.

    Since this is one of your more personal projects, will the player character be good ol’ Child of the Warriors? I kind of like her.

  2. Cyrus says:

    When are you planning the release?

  3. Lee Edward McIlmoyle says:

    Wouldn’t it be nice if we could easily implement a dynamic drama generation system, so that folks could simply go to place, interact with things that interest them, and get caught up in whatever intrigues each thread entailed. You wouldn’t have to wait for things to happen to you just to get some adventure n your life. You chould just go out exploring somewhere you haven’t been before and have a new adventure, which perhaps even builds on a deeper story that hasn’t emerged yet.

  4. MusEditions says:

    The very best movies draw me in, but they have to be the very best. I agree wholeheartedly that AGs really must have a great storyline (or 4) to interest me. Puzzles are great, and all, but the best games make them almost like something you’d have to solve in real life to get to your goal. TGTTPOACS was especially good this way, and I loved the conversation-based Pigeons, too. We might actually have such conversations in real life, and how we conduct our conversations can have lasting impact upon our reality.
    I know a lot of gamers get frustrated when environments have many clickable features which don’t advance the game, but rather just enhance the environment, but I love this. I even wandered around MYST island looking at things, and I loved exploring in Mysterious Journey, and in the Youkol village in Syberia II.
    And as for photorealism: go outside and be real, instead! Yeah! I did like the movies in Zork Nemesis, because they were flashbacks which took me to the time when import events happened, but if these things are not done well they can seem disjointed. All in all a fascinating project you’ve got going here. Looking forward to it!