Sunday, January 10, 2010

Versus Series 2: Games vs. Film

Since we've already established what a game is in the first installment of the Versus Series, we'll begin this one by looking at films first and then comparing the two.

Just like video games, the word "film" is very open-ended and can include a wide variety of things: documentaries, experimental films, etc. For the purposes of this post, we'll concentrate on the most familiar genre of film: the dramatic film. By dramatic film, I'm referring to all fictional, narrative-based films, which would include genres like comedy and horror as well as the ambiguous "drama."

The reason we can lump together such disparate movies as Amistad and Ernest Goes to Camp into one genre is because they share some fundamental similarities. First, all of these films are fictional, which means the events depicted in them never really happened the way they are depicted. Even more importantly, perhaps, is that all of them have a dramatic narrative form. This form is a particular methodology of relating information, designed to showcase the depth of characters and the conflict between them. (A mini-versus: compare a film to a newspaper article. Both are ways of conveying a story, but the film attempts to capture the nuances and contexts of conflict, while the newspaper article only relates a bare-bones list of facts about it.)

On the surface, films seem very different from games. The major difference has to do with passive vs. active entertainment. A film only requires the audience to watch it, while a game requires the audience to play it. As a result, a film is able to showcase action easily that a game would be hard-pressed to mimic--think of the characters' quick-thinking in The Departed or the flawless driving featured in The Fast and the Furious. While those movies rely on the grace and skillfulness of the characters, a game cannot expect all of its players to be experts.

However, that does lead us toward the great deal of similarities that films and games share. Just like games, films also feature a goal, ways to achieve the goal, obstacles, and ways around the obstacles. These components are fundamental to any narrative. Essentially, a story is about a protagonist who has a goal and overcomes obstacles to either achieve it or not achieve it. From this angle, the seemingly powerful medium of narrative film now looks like a small slice of the expressive power of games. The protagonist may be seen as a player and the story seen as one possible outcome of playing the game.

One of the biggest flaws in nearly all gated games comes from the fact that they fail to embrace the power of their medium. Instead, they try to fit interactivity into a non-interactive structure. Characters in gated games have their own goals and go about achieving those goals without player input, occasionally letting the player have a turn pretending they are this protagonist in a series of very structured sequences that rarely afford the player an opportunity to significantly affect the characters or progression of events.

The expressive power of games will be compromised until game-makers recognize that expression cannot come from narrative, but from the rules of the game itself. The exasperation and joy we see up on the silver screen will not be replicated in games until the player is following his own goals, just as the protagonist in the film.

The implications of this are far-reaching and profound, and we will investigate them in more depth as we go.

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