Despite the sometimes fraught relationship between games and film, there is still much we can learn about storytelling from our big sister medium, says Dan Graf, founder of Sydney's IGDA chapter.
"We've all seen the failed attempts at building these cross-media productions where big-budget film attempts to make games and games attempt to be films, and it's not really working," he says, speaking at Game Connect Asia Pacific. "There's some sort of disconnect."
Graf's first passion is games, but his day job is in film. He got his current job at Dr. D Studios when he approached legendary Australian filmmaker George Miller (Mad Max, Babe, Happy Feet) and told him "You're a game designer and you don't know it."
"He seemed to like that," says Graf.
The relationship between the two media has struggled, he suggests, because we've been looking at it in the wrong way. Surface attributes tend to be lifted from one and applied to the other, without any understanding of the underlying building blocks of storytelling.
Graf gives us a modified quote from poet Ezra Pound: "(Books/films/games) are machines for producing emotion".
This production of emotion is the function of story, which is a quite a different thing from narrative, the surface aspects of the film or game in question.
"A script is not a story; a film is not a story. The story is what exists between the source material and the audience. It's the interpretation thereof ... so if you feel scared or you feel excited ... then the progressive changes in that emotion and what you're left with when you leave the cinema—or you finish playing the game—is essentially the story."
In order to unlock the elements that make up this deeper level of connection, Graf studied psychologist Carl Jung's work on archetypes—universally recognizable symbols or personality types with which we all have an innate connection (the hero, the villain, the mentor, the mother etc)—as well as the work of Joseph Campbell, who extended the Jungian concept into a far-reaching study of mythological story-telling.
Filmmakers have made great and constant use of archetypal characters and, extending from that, the archetypal relationships between them. George Lucas credits Campbell's book The Hero with a Thousand Faces with being the influence that allowed him to draw out a compelling narrative within the universe he had created for Star Wars.
We are used to these archetypes appearing in games, but they are thrown in without regard for the nature of the medium.
"You're dealing with immutable, linear storytelling in a film, and you're dealing with ... open storytelling in a game, [so] how do you maintain narrative consistency between the two?" How do you maintain narrative, while still allowing the player freedom of choice?
"What we're attempting to do is to build game engines which can handle any number of different situations ... [so] understanding archetypal relationships is the best way begin your game design." Graf makes a comparison with a football match: from interactions that take place within a set of pre-defined rules, a ‘story' emerges, complete with heroes and villains, triumph and tragedy.
So it is with a video game, although the football pitch, athletes and rulebook may be replaced by any other combination of setting, characters and plot. Still, if each of these is archetypal, the audience will be able to relate, and a story will be generated dynamically.
There are games where this is already beginning to happen. CCP's space-based MMO Eve Online
contains complete political and economic systems, built from the ground up by the players, rather than being foisted upon them by the developer. From time to time, game-changing events have taken place, initiated by small groups or even individuals.
"I hear people talk about Eve Online
as this almost magical story-telling property ... the story of EO
is being written by players ... it is an environment in which stories can happen."