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Spector: Games need to borrow from film less

Taking too many lessons from film and other media will only advance games so much, argues Warren Spector, outlining factors that set games apart -- and where film conventions are no longer serving us.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

March 25, 2013

4 Min Read

Games often look to other media for lessons on structure and narrative, but imitation needs to be considered -- we talk often about what we should take from other media, but not often about what we should not, argues Warren Spector. "There are things that are sort of seductive and obvious that I think will hold us back as we become the medium we're cpable of becoming," Spector says. "Imitating other media seems to be a natural, maybe even necessary stage in every medium's development. Building on a foundation provided by other media is pretty normal and natural." Movies themselves were born from attempts to emulate theater. Video games offer more of the "building blocks of storytelling" that any other medium has ever offered. "So how can we not tell stories? I often get confused when people say 'games shouldn't tell stories' -- I find that silly and amusing," Spector says. Yet games are more than "movies with interactivity," of course. "If we're nothing but an amalgam of conventions from other media, we're in a world of trouble," he says. There are yet more strides to be made in game storytelling even beyond games like Heavy Rain in which it's a primary focus. The similarities between games and movies -- moving images on a screen, both with synchronous sound, creating a synchronous illusion of life -- are so apparent they're almost not worth mentioning, in his view. "Culturally speaking, we share a lot with movies; movies were the medium of the 20th century that changed everything. It was the first time that everybody in the world could experience the same... cultural messages." "I think everyone can agree that games have overtaken those media," Spector suggests. We ignore the "significant differences" between film and games at our peril, he continues. The editing techniques that dictate the experience of a film and how audiences are privy to information that the characters aren't, for example, create a structure that doesn't work in games. "We need to jettison some of those," Spector says. "It breaks the illusion; it wrests the experience away from players who want to be directors of their own experience. In most games the action is continuous... we either take control of the camera ourselves, or we leave control of the camera to the player." Players aren't just watching, they're actually engaged in real time with an experience, repeatedly. "In a weird way movies are not linear, and games are linear, in the way they treat time and space." The way games are paced is quite different from films, too. Clearly the runtime of a movie is only a fraction of the potentially-infinite time players can expect to play. Audiences are accustomed to the convention of film, but game developers sometimes have less than a minute to get players engaged. "If you don't get to your verbs quickly, and make them really action-y, or at least make them compelling in some way, your player's going away," he says. Approach to dialogue is also necessarily different, since dialogue is often designed to be reusable. A player may remain in the same area of the game for quite some time: "You have to find a hundred ways to say, 'I thought I heard something,'" he notes, while a screenwriter can convey the necessary experience within a moment. Game moments, too, must be designed to be reusable: The first time doves fly in front of a camera in a film, it looks cool -- but if that happens every time a gun goes off, it becomes silly. It's more valuable to let players make their own "magic moments," rather than recuse that responsibility to visual editing. Games are still beholden to their own tropes, too, burnened by Dungeons and Dragons conventions ("who wants to play a [video game] about rolling dice?") The effusive Spector, who frequently joked at his own expense about the challenges of talking only for twenty minutes, stresses he doesn't want to be "that guy who hates cinematic games." But he believes there's more we can do without using established conventions from other media -- like exploring plausible AI for applications other than combat, or by looking at the call and response in pen-and-paper games between the game master and the players-- and by better understanding why techniques that work in film are often unique to it. "There's a point where we have to start looking at what makes us unique... we can transport players to worlds they can only imagine... We're the only medium in history that responds to what players do. No one's ever been able to do that," he says. "...Except maybe LARPers, and they don't count." "We've made progress, and we can get partway to where we're capable of going by borrowing from other media... but we can only go so far. We need some original ideas," Spector adds. "30 years after the creation of this medium, you have the opportunity to determine what it can become. It's not too late."

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About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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