What Game Designers Can Learn From Cinema

In this article, game designer Sande Chen explores the ways film directors are masters of audience manipulation and what that means for game design.

[This article originally appeared on Game Design Aspect of the Month under the topic of Co-Designing With Players.]

Last month, I had to opportunity to hear game director and writer Sam Barlow talk about the inspiration behind his award-winning game, Her Story, at the BAFTA Master Class in Lincoln Center.  Surprisingly, it began with an analysis of Alfred Hitchcock's famous movie, The BirdsI'm a graduate of USC Cinematic Arts who has studied Hitchcock in cinematography class, so I was all for it; it's just that usually, when speakers talk about film and games, it's about the differences, not the similarities or what we can learn from the great film directors of the past.

Barlow didn't talk about the visual language of films, but more about Hitchcock's deft manipulation of the audience's expectations.  It's similar to what writers would call "hopes and fears."  However, these are not the characters' hopes and fears, but rather, those of the audience.  We know The Birds is a horror film about birds, so we the audience anticipate a bunch of scenes with birds attacking.  In fact, at the beginning, we may not even mind if the main character gets attacked because she comes off as smug and spoiled.

Barlow points out that the birds don't start attacking right away.  There's a build-up of anticipation.  The first attack, depicted in this scene, doesn't happen until some 30 minutes later. 



When there's a switch from mystery to suspense, the audience knows more than the characters and therefore can shout at the characters, "Don't do that!"  They become invested in the story.  What the audience knows or doesn't know is up to the director.

In contrast, traditionally, readers of mysteries marveled at the grand reveal of the killer in a whodunit.  Nowadays, more often than not, in a TV crime show, we may already know who's dead and who killed the victim.  Our viewership has become more sophisticated because we're more interested in the how and the why of the crime.  We are active viewers.

Can this work in interactive fiction?  As Barlow explains, Her Story builds upon viewer expectations about police procedurals. The player has certain expectations as to what might be happening and dives right into the investigation.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose experience spans over 10 years in the game industry.  Her credits include 1999 Independent Games Festival winner Terminus and the 2007 RPG of the Year, The Witcher.  She is the chapter leader of the IGDA Game Design SIG.


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