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"The play's the thing..." When gaming's like acting...

What has "The Hustler" movie got to do with gaming? Fast Eddie's speech about loosing himself in a perfect Pool game can parallel a Gamer's gameplay experience, but there are more fundamental similarities between acting and interactive dramatic gameplay.

Pascal Langlois, Blogger

February 1, 2011

6 Min Read

Original poster for the film Hustler


“I just had to show those punks what the game is like when it's great. You know, like anything can be great. Anything can be great. Bricklaying can be great if a guy knows what he's doing and why and can make it come off. When I'm really going, I feel like a jockey must feel with all that speed and power underneath him. He's coming into the stretch, the pressure's on him, and he just feels when to let it go and how much,'cause he's got everything working...timing, touch. It's a real great feeling when you're right and you know you're right. It's like I got oil in my arm. The pool cue's part of me. It's got nerves in it. You feel the roll of those balls. You don't have to look. You just know. You make shots that nobody's ever made, and you play that game the way nobody's ever played.”

Fast Eddie Felson. "The Hustler."(Film)


Ok. What has this got to do with Video Games, except perhaps that it describes playing Pool?

Fair question, and this blog will try to answer...

I was giving a presentation for Directors UK on my experience doing the Mocap and Facial capture for Heavy Rain.  The experience was not without its conflicts and challenges, most of them in areas where game development needs trumped dramatic logic or creative process. I’m not here to write about that, but something else that became apparent, about how the gamer and the actor share more than you would immediately suppose.

In the late '90s I remember seeing Paul Newman do this speech in the 1961 film “The Hustler” for the first time, and it blew me away.  Not only the performance, which for me is a great example of American acting at its best, but more. He was describing a feeling that any artist feels when they’re really in it.  When the artist and his art become indivisible; instinct mixed with unconscious technique. Anyone reading this will be able to identify when they’ve felt it happen in their favourite art-form of choice, maybe even felt it themselves.

There’s a story I heard about Laurence Olivier, often described as the greatest actor of his time. He had given a performance of a lifetime, and coming off the stage to rapturous applause, his fellow cast members congratulated him on a phenomenal performance, to which he answered with frustration “I know... I just wish I could remember what I did!”

Instinct. Unconscious technical brilliance. When all your choices, the manner, the form, are right and you know they’re right. You don’t need to reflect, or even notice what you’re doing except that it feels like you’re playing, almost without weight.

As an actor I get this feeling when I act. Which is a good thing, as its my vocation. The lines come out automatically without thought, feeling like they’re said for the first time, and a perfect mix of reacting to what you’re getting from the other character with what’s right for you, in character, in the world of the play.

Of course it doesn’t have to be an art-form, or even a sport, which the hustler speech acknowledges. I would add “Playing video games can be great...”

As a gamer I can also get this feeling  - although my lack of experience and technique makes this rare - but I see glimmers of how it might be.  I hear how other people have experienced that feeling playing games.  I believe that traditional gameplay sequences share more with the adrenaline of immediate success or failure of some sports, but it is in interactive dramatic sequences where Acting and Gaming become most similar.

Gamers in interactive dramatic scenes have to make instant choices on the manner of their interaction, and choice of what they reveal/hide/provoke from the other character.  They must do this knowing this will effect the course of the scene and maybe even their characters future, maybe change the course of the plot. They might even choose to choose a path of a light bringing hero, or a dark serving tyrant.  They can choose to end up feeling what its like to die for a greater cause, or kill for personal ends... There are time limits

Film doesn’t do this.  Theatre (for the most part) doesn’t do this.  Video Games can, and this simple fact makes it an incredibly potent form of entertainment.

The great thing is, that the gamer doesn’t know the script, and even better, they don’t have to Act.  At its best, a gamer gets the all the benefits of the immersion, together with that sense of perfect play.  At its best.

There is some way to go in perfecting interactive dramatic sequences, and the battle is as much on the cultural front. There is still work to be done proving the added value to developers, and persuading them to source experienced talent to fill the cross-discipline skills that result, rather than relying on an unrealistic ideal of a team of Leonardo Da Vinci’s.  The interface that is in current use can fail to support that instantaneous emotional reaction too (Of course, I do have a solution...)

One thing is becoming apparent - that there is a growing group of gamers that can find rewarding ‘play’ in interactive dramatic scenes and it doesn’t exclude them from enjoying MGS2.  There is an attendant growth in the use of interactive drama, and player directed multiple story-line and plot outcomes.

Compared with COD, games that use interactive drama may be small fry - but it’s the first contender as the newest form of story telling - or story sharing perhaps - to arrive since the birth of film. As such it may end up catching up with the power of traditional game and film genres.

The Hustler was a film adapted from a novel by Walter Tevis and it obeys its medium, with an echo of the language in the book. So here’s a challenge  - make “The Hustler” into a video game, but make the drama of Eddie’s life is part of the gameplay - rather than just the Pool -  with story-lines never imagined in the original book.... (I’m up for playing Eddie Felson, of course!)

My hope is that developers continue to explore how best handle that tricky interactive drama, and don’t leave it in the hands of David Cage to take the Lion’s share of the next bold steps.  I’m looking forward to his next game, but he would be the first to admit he’d like it to be in a growing field...

The challenge is out there, and what this generation makes of it could set the foundations for a brave new future of experiencing stories.

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