Commentary

Playing Stories

Tuesday I'll be moderating a  panel at OMMA Global titled "Play Me A Story: Can Games Help Content Producers Tell Stories?"  I've been thinking over the topic a bit during this week leading up to the conference.

I'm also not the only one pondering this question. In addition to my panelists, a number of people have been thinking about the nature of storytelling as it pertains to video versus games.  George Miller, the director of the movie "Mad Max," recently suggested games might be a better medium for telling a story than film.  Movie critic Roger Ebert has claimed are not art .  Rather than arguing any particular point, I'm in more of a "questions" mood (that's the role of the moderator, after all).

I guess the initial question is, what's the difference?  Where is the line drawn between film and a video game?  For anyone who played the "Metal Gear Solid" games, some cut scenes bordered on the length of a feature film.  Are animated clips generated from a video game (i.e. machinima), somehow inherently different from an animated feature that was rendered by computers at Pixar?  Is the difference one of interaction, and how that relates to the role of the auteur?  So when DVDs or Blu-Ray offer "multiple angle selection," is that no longer film, but a game?  And what about the pivotal scene in "BioShock," where a player is forced to behave contrary to one's will. When there is no illusion of choice at all, doesn't that make the presence of the "auteur" more powerful? Video game design hinges on controlling the experience while providing interaction.

Which leads to the next question: Where are things going?  Why is a movie length somewhere between an hour and a half to two-and-a-half hours?  Well, if it were less than an hour and a half, it'd hardly be worth $10, and if it were three hours, in addition to starring Kevin Costner, no one would want to sit through it in one go.  But what happens if people stop going to movie theaters?  Why keep the same time constraints?  While the video industry (film/tv/online video) laments an ADHD audience, video games capture that same audience for sittings of two hours at a time, in some cases several times a week.  Does online video need to run for less than five minutes to be watched?  Or maybe it needs to break the frameworks of celluloid to offer some interaction and participation?

What can traditional content learn from video games?  As media converges and frameworks dissolve, this will become an increasingly important issue.  The intense growth of the game industry over the past few years indicates it is doing something right.  If you're at OMMA on Tuesday, I encourage you to stop by for the panel, and certainly say hello afterwards.  And if you can't make it, feel free to ask a question in the comments -- I'll try to include your thoughts for the panel

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3 comments about "Playing Stories".
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  1. Chris Lorenzoni from Velti, March 20, 2009 at 11:42 a.m.

    Wish I could be there for your panel Josh, this is a very interesting topic that could have interesting implications for marketers

  2. Frank Maggio from Maggio Media, LLC, March 20, 2009 at 11:51 a.m.

    Good questions, Josh. Having worked on a MMOGS (massively multiplayer online game show) for nearly two decades, I can say that the big difference between the two genres is the audience experience.

    Movie theater experiences are the equivalent of "micro audience on demand" servings, as opposed to the VOD or DVD delivery of indivual on-demand. Either way, the actual movie experience is nearly identical, providing for a common experience (and the potential of a unifying effect, ala Slumdog).

    Games deliver unique story lines that may be more compelling in the individual nature of the story's unfolding, but talk to any two players who complete a game like Portal or Bioshock and they share overlapping solitary experiences. Not quite the same as an audience. Kind of hard to say. "Did you like the scene where XYZ happened?" or "Did you feel the impact of that certain moment?" with a video game, where entire sections of game play can be skipped or avoided.

    Games, even in live multi-player forums, still have a level of impersonality that fails to harmonize and unify (or even truly create) an audience. I beleive games need to unify and emote more to een begin to mirror the impact of movies.

    That said, there's no reason why movies and games have to meld in the first place. It's like comparing church to surfing...

  3. Andrew Lohmann from The College of New Jersey, March 20, 2009 at 2:35 p.m.

    Very interesting topic, Josh. I am majoring in Interactive Multimedia at TCNJ, and hope to pursue a career in game design (specifically the story-telling and narrative aspect), and I feel I have a good answer for you. In my opinion, a lot of this has to do with how much the player (or viewer) is rewarded throughout his experience. For example, many of my favorite video games offer not only interesting and unique ways for player reward, but offer them in great numbers. This could be anything from the pleasure of racking up a huge score, or finally beating a difficult level/dungeon, to experiencing pivotal plot points (like in your MGS example). This is the reason many narrative-based video games will also incorporate mini-games, so that the level of reward the player feels can be kept consistent with a quick and often easy diversion from the game's main story. A good example of where this is exhibited best is in the classic "Legend of Zelda:Ocarina of Time" which features a huge variety of mini-games.
    Now, to contrast this with movies, the viewer is usually at the height of his enjoyment both at the opening and the closing of the movie, both where the plot and characters are introduced, and where everything culminates and comes together at the end. Successful movies are ones that keep consistent pace, and keep adding to the plot and action all the way through (a good example would be "Batman: The Dark Knight"). As for the lack of attention span (as you said, the ADHD audience) I suppose that could be attributed to the way our pop-culture, especially when combined with new technology, focuses more on instant gratification, as opposed to delayed gratification. To this, I honestly see no cure.
    Well, hope this helps. Have a good time moderating the panel!
    -Andrew Lohmann

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