Opening night
Moving to Japan

Put away your popcorn

Hot-buttered-popcorn Despite their obvious differences, we routinely compare video games to films, and it's easy to understand why. Games continue to rely on the shot-cut-shot language of film, and they've grown amazingly adept at mimicking cinematographic effects like diffusion filters, lens flares, and cinema vérité-style hand-held camera work, despite the obvious absence of an actual camera.

The widespread adoption of HD television has added another layer to the process, enabling console game designers to present their work in a widescreen aspect ratio, just like the movies.

Games look more like movies than ever and, we are told, they also deliver a "cinematic experience." Developer BioWare even has its own Cinematic Design Group responsible for merging interactive gameplay with film-like narrative. Mass Effect's Cinematic Designer Armando Troisi puts it this way:

Cinematic design is a unique position not only in BioWare, but the industry as a whole. We are responsible for supporting the narrative by delivering the emotional content. We generate cutscenes, conversations, level events, and ambient behaviors to tell the story the writers have laid out. It’s kind of like directing a film, except it’s interactive.[1]

And it's here that the game-as-interactive-movie train runs off the tracks. The notion that games can deliver emotional content merely by adding an interactive layer to an otherwise cinematic presentation is misguided. It presumes that we experience games like we experience movies, and it assumes we can enrich that experience by leveraging the interactivity of video games to make movies we can control.

It's a seductive proposition. In the sender-receiver mode of cinema, we can tell rich, complex stories with characters who earn our empathy. It only makes sense to assume that by drawing me closer to that character, my immersion will deepen and my engagement will grow. I love Batman, but what if I could BE Batman in an open-ended interactive Batman movie universe? That, many seem to believe, is the holy grail of narrative game design.

This conception of games is misguided because, in fact, we don't experience games like films at all. Designers may rely on the tricks and tropes of cinema to convey the worlds they create, but when we step into the shoes of that avatar, be it 1st-person, 3rd-person or otherwise, we exit the darkened movie theater paradigm and enter an intricate, performative, exploratory lab of untested ideas and speculation. We enter a playful space that feels and responds much more like a live theater rehearsal than an interactive movie or a triggered series of movie clips.

Comparing video games to other forms of art or media is always tricky business. The parallels are inevitably uneven. But it's worth doing, I think, because it forces us to think about the primary elements of each and consider how they function. I contend that, from the player's perspective, comparing games to movies is an apples an oranges situation. The more apt comparison - oranges to limes, if you will - works like this:

The defining activities of live rehearsal closely resemble the ideal experience of playing a game:

  • playful exploration
  • making discoveries
  • testing ideas and theories
  • performing and also evaluating performance
  • creating a character and also standing outside that character
  • moving forward and backward purposefully to play with and interrogate "text"
  • working synchronously and asynchronously with story/character, putting the pieces together over an extended period of time
  • interpreting or building meaning through personal experience that can be revised or revisited
  • process-oriented reflection based on first-hand, self-tested knowledge
  • having fun, pretending, and imagining in an environment that rewards such behavior with progress

Actors in the theater have long been called "players," and our texts are called plays because no word better describes what we do. Every actor will attest to the fact that performances are tasty icing, but rehearsal is where the cake is made. Good actors are fascinating in rehearsal, and from my own perspective I must say that no moment in performance, however exhilarating, can compare to the golden moment in rehearsal when an actor tries something new that breaks through to discovery. Such occasions resemble similar ones I have experienced playing games...much more so than anything I have seen or felt watching a movie.

As I noted, the parallels aren't perfect. It's hard for me to find a corresponding link between games and the lively nurturing collaboration that occurs among a company of actors in rehearsal. World of Warcraft raids are challenging fun, but they aren't quite the same thing.

The parallels needn't be perfect anyway. I'm not suggesting that playing games and rehearsing plays are the same thing. What I am suggesting is that if we want to understand what makes playing a narrative game engaging and meaningful - if we're looking for the "emotional content" Troisi describes - we're more likely to find our answer in a theater than at the movies.