Recently, I’ve come across an interesting expression of Hollywood cinema as a form within which works have a set of four simple characteristics:

  1. Concealment of decision making (a.k.a invisibility of the film-making process. 
  2. Subordination of style to story (a.k.a stylistic aspects are utilised to tell story as opposed to being important in their own right) 
  3. Style reinforces reality effect (a.k.a immersion and realism within the film world) 
  4. Reality effect rests on centring and continuity (in both a macro and micro sense: for instance, a cut between two places where a similar action is occurring in the centre of frame creates a sense of simultaneity of events) 

These four characteristics are used in most Hollywood films, across a range of genres, quality and popularity.

So the question is: how do games stack up? Do they utilise these characteristics, and more importantly, do we want them to?

1. Concealment of decision making 

In terms of films, the decision making which needs to be concealed involves any aspect which calls undue attention to the fact that the film is designed, which would therefore create a disconnect between the viewer and the world being viewed.

If we apply this principle to games, the parallel is the opacity of game mechanics. Games whose game mechanics are transparent, and which encourage the exploration of the nature of these mechanics, are displaying the decision making process for all to see (similarly to films, as soon as you think about how the game works in order to master it, a disconnect is created between yourself and the game).

This transparency applies heavily to RTS and RPG games, which wear their rules on their sleeves. It needs to be noted that for many modes of play, a transparency of game mechanics is required to make those mechanics work. Starcraft would never have become the phenomenon that it did, had it not been for the ability of players to understand the base components that drove it, and thus strategise it. But doing so sacrifices much of the connection to the story and emotional content that the player might have.

In this, we see direct competition between the two media that lead to the development of games: film and board games. So the question becomes: when making a piece of interactive fiction, how do we choose between transparent and opaque gameplay?

In some ways, we have to admit that we cannot make gameplay completely opaque. If interaction exists, a player will try to understand the nature and workings of that interaction.

An interesting case here is the RPG – in particular, the JRPG. These games separate a mechanics-heavy combat phase from a story-heavy exploration phase. This allows the player to connect emotionally to the story, but ensures that gameplay still exists (I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it doesn’t suffer, as a lot of JRPG’s have fairly simple gameplay).

2. Subordination of Style to Story 

If you look at films from the Hollywood vein, you almost invariably find that the stylistic aspects throughout the entire film are designed to service the story. This has a similar effect to the invisibility of decision-making: to create immersion in the narrative of the film (as opposed to immersion in its inherent beauty and style).

In terms of games, we first need to decide whether gameplay is a stylistic aspect. It can be argued that while films have two major components: style and story; games have three: style, story and gameplay. This leaves us with two options when discussing a gaming equivalent to the Hollywood idiom: we can either see style as being subservient to both story and gameplay; or we can see gameplay to be an aspect of style, which then should be subordinate to story.

In either case, games are becoming increasingly proficient at utilising non-gameplay style to serve story. So the remaining questions are: do we use non-gameplay style to serve gameplay; do we use gameplay to serve story; and should we do either?

Non-gameplay style is often used to justify gameplay (sword-fighting is found in fantasy games, Portal was set in a lab to justify an experimental portal gun), but I have trouble of thinking of an example where non-gameplay style actively enhances gameplay and our connection to the gameplay in the way that style enhances story in Hollywood films (I am open to suggestions here as I think this would be a fascinating study).

In most games, gameplay isn’t used to serve story, but story is hung around a basic gameplay idea. The exceptions to this are very interesting - my two favourite games at the moment, Portal and Braid, create a synthesis between gameplay and story where both aspects serve the other in a symbiotic way. In terms of designing games, this invites us to think of both aspects and how they can work for or with each other. And while gameplay will probably precede and drive story in most cases until our technology improves, building gameplay around a story would be a fascinating endeavour.

3. Style reinforces reality effect 

This essentially means that style is used to bring you into the reality of the film (especially if the situation is in a unreal world). This even applies in films with unusual styles: in Memento, the fragmented structure is used to help us understand Leonard’s reality; and in A Scanner Darkly, the constantly shifting cartoonish visual style gives us insight into the way that the drug addicts portrayed see the world. 

This is an area where games have borrowed from Hollywood and excelled at, whether it be the way that Bioshock creates the world of Rapture or the intricacies of City 17 portrayed in Half-Life 2. I think that games have an inherent advantage over films in this arena: games afford their designers to create small details in the environment that aren’t completely relevant to story, but which can be seen by some players due to the exploratory nature of games.

There is a single aspect of games which has thus far failed at assisting the creation of a reality, and that is in the reaction to a player’s actions. Whether it be the inability for us to generate conversations for NPCs or the lack of meaningful consequences for our actions (especially in games with a so-called morality mechanic such as Fable or Bioshock), we simply lack the technology to really sell the worlds we create in terms of reactions (note that I haven’t played Mass Effect and intend to soon, but when people talk about it, they speak of ‘x diverging storylines’ or ‘different endings’, which implies something that diverges in a binary sense rather than something that has sold the player on the reality of the reactions). 

The question of whether we want to create truly realistic reactions, or whether we can control reactions to appear realistic while still servicing some greater theme is definitely something which should be explored as technology progresses. It should be noted that the Hollywood paradigm doesn’t demand reality, but the illusion of it.

In the meantime, a game in which the world had an intrinsically linear or binary diverging nature to it (which actually meant something) could prove to explore this idea further. 

4. Reality effect rests on centring and continuity 

This, of the four principles, is the least conceptual, yet is still steadfastly adhered to: you very rarely see a film that messes with continuity, and when they do, it’s usually for a story reason (e.g. time travel), which means that continuity is actually enforced. Centring, on the other hand, is more of a specific editing technique.

In games, we enjoy the same continuity that we see in film. A game with a story will strive for continuity to create the reality effect we see.

Centring is a different matter. I would argue that any game which moves from an interactive mode to a cutscene violates centring, bringing us out of the game and reminding us that it is, in fact, not real. Note that within the cutscenes, centring is generally followed, and within the gameplay, centring is also followed, but the two modes simply do not match in a way that jars the reality of the experience.

I think we’ll see a phasing out of cutscenes as our ability to tell story within the interactive mode increases (see Warcraft 3 versus Starcraft in the way that story is told), and so technology is a driving factor here.


I think that this article really emphasises some of the inherit differences between games and film: we cannot apply film principles to games simply because they are such radically different modes of expression. Yet this does not discount the importance of the film-like components of games, just as we cannot ignore their board game-based roots either. It is when these two aspects of games are reconciled by game designers and serve each other that the most profound ideas can be found.



Tue, 04 May 2010 4:16:07 am

One interesting point that you didn't mention when discussing continuity was save games. Most of the games with significant storylines with flexibilty in player choice are singleplayer (or at least the multiplayer form is not part of the story).

This means decisions players make are not binding and in particular that they can mess up continuity to their own advantage.

Interestingly, this save game mechanic doesn't appear in film or board games. It's a new element, which complicates video games. The need for save games or similar is clear given the typical length of games. However, with episodic content becoming more common perhaps the save game will become unnecessary as the time investment in each episode is smaller. Of course the catch is that making games shorter to remove the need for saving also means there can't be as much story.

One game that I treat differently when it comes to save games is Civilization. The games I have played (at normal speed) typically run for 4 - 10 hours, but I generally don't go back in time, reloading earlier save games. I act this way partly because it's already a long game and I don't want to replay the same events, but also because it's not in the spirit of the game. As a side effect, the decisions I make have a real impact. Are there many other games like this?

So, any thoughts (from anyone!) on this?


Tue, 04 May 2010 4:54:50 pm

This is definitely an issue with games, which often speaks to the impact of consequences. I think it'd be hard to have a game where you have to live with your choices if save/load is prevalent: conversely, a game which explores fate and whether things are destined regardless could use the mechanic specifically if it gets the player to reload and try different choices with the same outcome.

Civilisation is a great example of a game where a freedom exists that can be exploited and used to somewhat lessen the gameplay and its impact, but the player is (usually) convinced not to. This is an exciting challenge for developers: we keep saying that open worlds are the bane of storytelling, but if we understand how players will usually react to a situation and convince them to follow our story when they don't have to, a much more compelling narrative could result.

Back to save/load: the prevalence of this mechanic speaks a lot to the stakes utilised in games (which is almost exclusively life or death), and how these high stakes have lead to a need to be able to reload. The ability to reload has in turn lowered the importance of the stakes, making life or death situations in games incredibly tame. If we want to raise the stakes once more, we are now either forced to find a way to make death more meaningful and permanent (which can lead to games that are simply too hard), or to find other stakes that are not life or death related (which could then change this save/load paradigm).

I think that games like Civilisation partly work on the lack of turning points: if you lose in Civilisation, you'll likely reload to an earlier point, but if you were given a continuous timeline where you could go back to any moment in time, you'd be hard pressed to find a single decision that made you lose (similarly, after making a decision, there is often no immediate or even clear long-term understanding of the exact effects of that decision). Contrast this to an FPS, where a single bad decision leads to death or low health very quickly, leading the player to want (or have) to reload to try a different approach.


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