Interactivity, immersion and stories: Roland Denning explores whether games and movies could ever converge and the fundmental differences between the two types of content.
In a piece I wrote for RedShark News last year, I talked about the demise of 3D and how perhaps we never really wanted it anyway. A reader pointed out that whatever is happening in TV and cinema, in the world of games, 3D is on the rise – and anyway, broadcast TV is in decline. After reading a subsequent article about the surge in VR development, it struck me: I'd overlooked a vast chunk of the media industry.
The worlds of games and film are very different and I suspect most users of this site (myself included) are much more at home with the latter than the former. But the games industry is now, as we all know, substantially bigger than the movie industry. Are the two sectors now converging or actually moving away from each other?
Anyone remember CD-ROM?
Let me take you back to the heady days of early 1990s, when Britpop loomed and many thought Apple was about to go out of business. Around this time, there was a lot of excitement about something called multimedia, largely based around CD-ROM (remember them?). The internet then was hardly seen as a contender; web browsers were in their infancy and we were still dependent on dial-up modems (if you tried to connect at peak periods, all you'd get was an engaged tone). There was a notion that computers would converge with television and films and TV programmes would become 'interactive'. In fact, I worked for a production company that thought it could market its back catalogue of TV documentaries by making turning them into interactive CD-ROMs (it goes without saying it couldn't and it didn't).
Of course, CD-ROM as an entertainment form withered away with the spread of broadband and a vibrant games industry developed alongside film and TV. But, although games have spawned movies just as movies have spawned games, the forms and the sort of pleasure derived from them, I would argue, are very different.
In TV and cinema, good old fashioned storytelling is now more dominant that ever. Even in action movies, books, comics and graphic novels dominate as sources. Contrary to the popular notion of increasingly shorter attention spans, perhaps the most significant development in screen drama over the last decade has not really happened in cinema but on TV: the rise of the long form series, the 'box set', from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad to Game of Thrones, where a story can develop over ten or more hours.
Great stories only have one ending
It has been said that a great screenplay is one that keeps you guessing until the end, but when you get to the end, you realise that that was the only ending possible. Over the years, there have been many attempts to make interactive stories where the viewer/player participates in the course of the narrative, but I know none of which have really succeeded in story terms.
Writing a screenplay is hard, writing a great screenplay is very difficult and writing a decent multi-path interactive screenplay is well nigh impossible. I'd go as far as to say the more options open to the player, the weaker the narrative. However detailed, imaginative and engaging a game is, a form that is based on player actions and decisions is not going to give rewards in terms of narrative; it gives a different form of pleasure, the thrill of game rather than the satisfaction of a story, hand/eye/brain coordination and puzzle-solving rather than identification with a character's dilemmas. In a well constructed story, we don't feel we're missing out by not being able to take change its direction any more than we feel cheated at a concert because we haven't written the music.
That's the whole pleasure of engaging in a narrative – it picks you up and takes you on a journey. Some say this is a 'passive' experience, as opposed to the 'active' experience of a game; I disagree. Games can give you an illusion of control, but all the parameters are set by the creators. With a story, there is no pretence that you are in control, but you are free to watch and assess the characters and their predicament. That distance from the characters and action gives you a different sort of active involvement. As I said before, they are very different types of experience.
The immersive environment
Back in the 1990s, at the same time as multimedia was seen as the future (even though we weren't quite sure what it was), there was already much talk of virtual reality. The way VR was discussed – a totally immersive, fully realistic, high-definition environment continually re-created by multi-player interactivity – was far in advance of any available technology at the time. In fact, it exceeds what can be done today in any realistic form. It was an aspirational concept that owed far more to science fiction than it did to science. Now that VR, in a slightly less exotic form, has become a practical reality, it is the games industry that is really exploiting its potential. Is it just a matter of time before great filmmakers and artists adopt it? We shall wait and see, but I have my doubts.
From Cinerama through to IMAX, one trend in in the development of movies has always been to get bigger and more 'realistic' – screens that fill the field of vision or wrap around you or offer extra sensations or dimensions. But however successful special large screen systems have been, they always end up relegated to the special event, more amusement park attraction rather than cinema experience. The original 3-projector Cinerama system did, in fact, end its days touring fairgrounds in a circus tent.
These systems aspired to a screen that would occupy our entire field of vision; it would be as close to looking at the 'real world' as we could get. But do we really want such a screen? It might have application in the world of sports or immersive fairground entertainment, but in terms of cinema or TV, what would we do with it? Our peripheral vision is not actually very good, so all the action we want the viewer to see would have to be placed in the middle of the screen and, the more you think about it, the less sense it makes in terms of the grammar of cinema and storytelling.
To engage with a story, not only do we not want interaction, I'm not sure we want total immersion either. If you have ever seen the work of immersive theatre companies like Punchdrunk, your likely reaction is twofold: firstly, astonishment and wonder at being able to wander through and explore a richly detailed, seemingly endless environment and encounter fascinating characters and events - like in a game, you decide what route you take - and, secondly, by the end of it, you realise you have totally given up trying to follow the narrative.
This is my contention: on the one side, have gaming, on the other side, story-telling. If the two haven't converged, it is not because of technological limitations, but because they work on us in very different ways.
Or maybe I'm wrong; maybe the next few years will reveal great artists who can cross through those two worlds, maybe a great game which contains within it a totally satisfying narrative is out there, but I'm just ignorant of it. If so, please let me know.
Graphic by Shutterstock