Look to the Undiscovered Country Instead.
There is a lot of talk about storytelling in games and movies. Thousands of pages have been written about when the former will surpass the latter. Inkwells have run dry discussing whether one is intrinsically better than the other. I find that entire discussion rather strange.
For me, trying to compare storytelling in games and movies is like comparing apples and oranges. No, that’s not right. Not apples and oranges, for at their root those two are quite similar. They’re both fruits, they both grow on trees and so forth. No, they’re more like apples and carrots. They belong to entirely different families.
I mean, sure, often they have the same goal. They’re both meant to entertain (most of the time), much like we eat apples and carrots because we want to be fed.
What they do to get there, though, is different. This is because movies depend on passivity and acceptance, while games depend on interactivity and agency. This means that from the ground up movies and games build a different relationship between the entertainment and audience.
Different roads to Rome
The game consultant and lecturer Ernest Adams back in 2004 said there were three different forms of immersion. These are:
- Narrative immersion: This where we care about the characters and the story arch as a whole.
- Tactical immersion: This is where you’re immersed in the moment by moment action. This would be something you’d experience on Tetris as well as the football field.
- Strategic immersion: A more intellectual immersion than tactical immersion. Here you use your higher brain-faculties to plan out a longer term strategy.
Now, you can argue about if those are the only forms of immersion there are. You can argue there is also visual immersion, which is provoked by special effects or a painting. That is, however, secondary.
What matters is the idea of different forms of immersion and how movies rely on one (or two), while games have three (or four) ways to do so.
Don’t take this to mean that games are better. As any cook will tell you, having more ingredients doesn’t necessarily make a better dish. The flavors can interact in a symphony of taste, or they could just as easily clash or conflict. One example of this is the much discussed ludo-narrative dissonance, which is where gameplay and story arc pull players in different directions. There are, no doubt, many more.
Instead, what matters is that these differences don’t only create different pathways to walk, but also create the expectation that we walk them. For example, players expect opportunities for tactical or strategic immersion. If a game doesn’t offer that, then they will be frustrated.
They’re not even built the same
It doesn’t end there. Not just the execution but even their creation is completely different. The most common method to create a film is to start with a script. That script might then transform and reform a dozen times until it has turned into a different animal. That does not change, though, that it started with words that outline what people say, where they go and what they do.
The different forms of immersion in games, along with their non-linear nature, make that approach less common. Instead, the developers might start with a gameplay idea and then add in the story later on. At Mega Cat Studios, a game might start out as a cool concept, like a voodoo brawler, or as a handful of character sketches or concept art. Sometimes a nearly finished product is handed to a writer, who then has to somehow weave a story between the elements already there.
Is that always a good thing? Not necessarily. After all, though restriction can promote creativity, there can also be too much of a good thing (try to write a story using only the letter ‘p’ if you’re not convinced). In fact, often there isn’t enough respect for stories in games. Gabrielle Kent, senior lecturer at the computer games department at Teeside University says, “I’ve seen terrible stories churned out by design directors turned writers, who think their experience in games and an interest in writing makes them more qualified than a professional writer.”
Whether it’s good or bad practice isn’t the point. The point is that it’s possible to have successful games, despite having poor stories (or none at all) as there are so many more dimensions. In some ways, this actually makes games similar to movies.
So what does that mean?
Traditional storytellers are cooks who spent most of their careers making desserts (with lots of apples). Now, with the rise of games and their storytelling mechanism, an entirely new section to the kitchen has opened up. This is where appetisers get made (with tons of carrots).
Naturally, if we’re very good at making desserts, then that will – on average – translate into better appetisers as well. There is overlap (carrot cake and salads with apples). That does not mean that they are the same, though.
In fact, we’re actually losing something by spending so much time comparing the two. Games are interesting not because they have things in common with movies but because they are so different. Those differences allow us to explore different stories. They even offer us the opportunity to explore new areas of our collective mindscape.
That’s where we should be focusing our attention. We should stop spilling ink on the similarities. Instead, we should use all that energy to push out the storytelling frontier. Because that’s where the groundbreaking opportunities lie – ready for whoever is willing to venture out and discover them.