Video games are not movies

You’d think that this is self-evident, but many people (both inside and outside the industry) seem to be labouring under the confused impression that video games are in some way like movies. I’m writing this rambling little essay so that in the future I can point people to this page when they tell me that they have an idea for a game, and then proceed to tell me a cinematic story.

And also so that my friends can point and laugh at me, when I’m the one who makes that mistake.

I’ll confess in advance that this really has a lot more to do with professional games than independant ones, or the type of games that I tend to make here on the VectorStorm site. Sorry about that, but it’s my soapbox, so I can say what I like. ;)

More beneath the fold.

1. Agency

This is probably obvious, but the critical, distinguishing characteristic of a game is that it is interactive. Some games are more interactive than others, of course, but all games take some form of input from players in order to shape the events of the game. This can be as simple as activating a flipper in pinball, as deep as moving a rook in Chess, or as traumatic as opening the door for Floyd (or parting with your weighted companion cube, which is probably the nearest modern equivalent). The degree to which a participant can engage in and affect the world and storyline is what I call the player’s agency within that game.

In a movie, the viewers are passive; they watch what occurs, while taking no part in the story themselves; that is, they have no agency within the world of the movie. But in a game, the player takes an active, usually a central role. Or at least, that’s the theory.

In practice, the player almost never gets to take a central role in any game which has a story component; he may get to directly or indirectly control a character while that character is trying to move from point A to point B. Maybe he’ll have to slide some blocks around, or worry about running out of ammunition. But when that character gets to make a truly important, character-defining choice, that choice is almost always wrested away from him in a cutscene, or by forcing the player to take a particular action mandated by the script before they may continue playing.

The folks at BioWare have been exploring giving players some amount of control over a character’s defining choices for several years now with their “Light Side/Dark Side” branching-path directed dialog systems, which usually devolve into giving the player three options whenever they’re talking to a character within the game; the player may be good and say “That’s awful; please do tell me more about your woes, and I shall give you all of my money,” or they may be sarcastic and say “Gosh, sucks to be you,” or they may be evil and say “Go away or I will kill you.” Of course, the disparity between these options are so extreme as to be laughable, and typically the choices that the player makes have very little actual effect on the broad arc of the storyline. But I’ve yet to see anyone do this better, and it is still an experimental and extremely rare thing to see in video gaming. By and large, the extra cost of branching dialog trees (in terms of writer time, voice talent recording time, disc space, etc) make most companies avoid doing it entirely. And when they do provide this sort of branching, the influence of the player upon the story is still tightly limited to the options the writers have given him; it’s precisely as interactive as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, albeit usually with fewer meaningful choices for the player to make.

So when someone says that they want to make a cinematic game, what that usually means is that there will be non-interactive cinematic cutscenes, with some interactive non-cinematic gameplay designed to pad out the experience. So yes, the character may well be “an edgy cop who’s out to avenge the brutal slaying of his wife and young daughter,” but at the end of the day, it’s really just another FPS with some cutscenes tacked on.

From a hard practical standpoint, until someone finds a really good way to actually make a player able to affect a storyline in a really compelling way, player agency is going to continue to come from the the mechanics of the game, and not from the plotline surrounding the game.

When inventing a game concept, the first question that should be answered is: What does the player do? Not: What is the character’s goal?

2. Production

Movies are shot in a more or less random order, as dictated by actor and location availability. The director will get several different versions of each shot, and will work together with the cinematographer and lighting designer to precisely light each shot, to select exactly the right camera angle to maintain continuity and sight lines, to establish the desired mood, and to otherwise make sure that everything’s just so. At the end of the process, the director and editor splice together bits of the various clips, splash on some audio, maybe shoot some pickups and loop the audio, and they have a movie, which can be played and enjoyed in almost exactly the same way at any theatre in the world.

Video games work differently. You get all the set up time you want (or can afford) during development, but you don’t get to actually shoot any footage at that time. When someone goes to play the game, the game has to work from start to end in one go. No editing, no selecting from multiple takes, no resetting of the scene, and for most types of modern games, no knowing exactly where the camera will be; one player might watch the action from one position, and another from a different position. You can’t frame action to the screen; you have to frame action to the full world space, so that rather than look fantastic from a single, finely crafted viewer position, it must merely look acceptable, but from virtually any camera position. So when you come right down to it, in terms of production and during gameplay itself, video games are not much at all like movies; they’re a lot more like live theater; you only get one shot at it, and no matter what, the show must go on.

What’s more, your player doesn’t have a copy of your script, and so if you want to maintain that illusion of agency, you’d better be sure that when the player realises that he needs to go to location ‘X’, that your set for location ‘X’ is already waiting in the fly gallery, ready to be flown in on a moment’s notice. There’s nothing worse for a player’s feeling of agency than to be forced to interrogate another suspect, when he’s already figured out the solution to the mystery.

3. Brevity

A friend of mine once pointed out that the key question which is asked continually throughout the production of a movie is “Do I need to keep this?” Most movies want to be approximately 90 to 120 minutes long, and directors are continually evaluating scenes, shots, moments, whole characters, etc. to determine what they can get rid of, to produce the strongest movie they can, which is no longer than it absolutely needs to be, while still exploring its desired theme and telling its core story.

On the other hand, in the game industry, we worry about “How can I stretch this out?” Even with the shortening of modern games, most games these days aim for about six to nine hours of gameplay, and often resort to “play the level again to try to find the hidden trinkets” ploys (‘Achievements’ on the XBox 360 are often implemented to be a variant of this), fetch quests, or other forms of enforced backtracking in order to reach this duration. This stretching necessarily dilutes any ‘story’ component to games, for as long as games need to maintain this duration.

4. Conclusion

I’ve worked on a couple of cinematic games (I’m working on one right now, in fact), and I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with them. The important thing is that if you’re designing such a game, you have to keep in mind that the storyline is icing, and probably should best be invented and applied after figuring out the core gameplay itself.

Or to put it in other words.. if all you have is a story, then you don’t yet have a game.