How Videogames Have Revolutionized Storytelling

I’ve talked about how mainstream filmmaking is gradually declining and how the mainstream Hollywood industry in general has fallen apart – but there’s a surprising upside to this decline. A new power has been rising since the 80’s – a power that slowly but surely seeks to claim the throne of the waning kingdom of storytelling from the filmmaking overlords. What is this enigmatic new art medium, you ask?

The videogame industry. Yes, you read that right.

Even if you aren’t well-versed in the arts of the joystick, I’m sure you remember Pac-Man, or the Mario games, or Pong, or Tetris, or any of those games that you’d find in an arcade machine in the 80’s and 90’s. Those games are the equivalent of the first silent films. They’re good, but they lack technical quality.

Videogames have evolved in the exact same way as movies. They started out as simple 2D games controlled by a joystick and a couple of buttons to now looking and playing nearly as good as real life and even being playable in virtual reality.

Because this technology has gradually become so advanced, the potential for storytelling is incredible because it’s no longer hindered by the various limitations of filmmaking, such as having to get the right lighting and angle, or dealing with a difficult stunt, or having to extensively clean up a set after each take, etc.

Focusing on films for a moment, they evolved in a similar way to videogames; they started with no sound, very poor image quality, and cheesy fighting scenes such as death via invisible gunshot wounds – and they now use incredible makeup and practical effects, advanced CGI, superb sound design, and currently shoot up to 8K resolution. All of those technological marvels working in tandem with solid storytelling means that this truly is the age of the movie masterpiece.

But, sadly, a shockingly large number of modern “blockbusters” are just plain bad, and the older films with their “practical effects” (regarded as special effects back in the day) are held much higher in regard.

But here’s the deal, can you even imagine if those early films had the technology that we do today? Fans applaud the classics like Jaws and Star Wars because of how believable the effects were, but the quality of those films are a testament to the skill of the filmmakers, not necessarily the best they could have been.

Technical limitations forced many classic films to cut corners, one example is that Stanley Kubrick decided to change the plot of 2001: A Space Odyssey by replacing Saturn with Jupiter because Jupiter was easier to photograph, and the special effects weren’t advanced enough to develop a convincing rendition of Saturn’s rings.

Thankfully, that’s quite literally a thing of the past now that we have advanced animation technology, much improved practical effects, and the advent of digital filmmaking and movies made almost entirely with CGI and motion capture technology.

I’d love to talk more about the issue of practical/vintage effects vs modern/digital effects, but I’ll save that for another day. Back to the point, the birth of all this new technology has made storytelling capabilities nearly limitless.

But there is still a limitation – the actual filmmaking format, itself.

The average film needs to run between one to three hours, and that requires the potential story to be condensed and structured effectively (which is even more of a challenge for novel adaptations). I’ll give you a quick example of how the filmmaking format hinders storytelling.

Are you familiar with The Lord of The Rings film trilogy? If you don’t live under a rock, you probably said yes.

Now here’s the deal with those films: they were already exceptionally long. The special editions of all three were just under four hours in duration, and Peter Jackson obviously couldn’t add onto that by adapting the entire novels not the film – which is sad because the source material could have potentially provided hours of further content that any fan of the series would have loved to have seen on the big screen (i.e., no plethora of novels, comics, or games required to flesh out the story).

However, let’s get real – the producers wouldn’t want to force audiences to sit in a theater for twelve hours. If they were hell-bent on telling the entire tale, it would require either a TV series or a videogame.

Now we get back to the point about videogames. The key difference between TV shows and videogames is that shows release in episodic format and don’t have a continual narrative – they have breaks and pauses between episodes and seasons that disrupt the flow, whereas videogames are like real life – with the exception of time jumps like “10 Years Later,” they play out in real time, meaning you can play the game a little bit every day or you can play it for three days straight just to finish the story.

Can you think of the greatest advantage videogames have over movies?

It’s simple: besides all the technical stuff I mentioned, videogames can do the one thing that most films can’t – they can take more narrative risks.

How so? Because the main thing a videogame needs to get right is the – you guessed it – gameplay. If a single-player game has the greatest story ever, but the gameplay is atrocious, most people won’t play it, and might just end up watching a video of all the cutscenes so they don’t have to endure suffering through the game just for the story.

This means that as long as the game is fun and has replay value, the plot can be daring, the formula can be unorthodox, and the ending can be as depressing as possible – unlike Hollywood movies, which need to check those boxes that are the antithesis of what I just said.

When it comes to storytelling alone, videogames can certainly rival or even outmatch movies. For example, Red Dead Redemption 2, a story about a gang of outlaws trying to survive the decline of the Wild West at the turn of the 19th century is legitimately one of the best western tales ever told, hands down. As well, GTA,  (Grand Theft Auto), the famous series of crime, violence, and vehicular manslaughter from the same developers as Red Dead has wittier writing and better satire than the majority of films these days.

And the key point with those type of games is that there’s a substantially larger amount of story to offer. A film with an average runtime of around an hour and a half will never provide the same sense of immersion as a story-driven game with a campaign that could potentially take you three days to a month to complete. This is why I’ve always thought of filmmaking as more of an art rather than the most effective method of storytelling.

Until filmmaking gets back on track (if it ever does), I hate to say it, but videogames have essentially taken off from where Hollywood dropped the ball. However, don’t get me wrong. The videogame industry isn’t perfect; there’s always the issue that, frankly, not everyone likes playing games (or can’t even play them), but they have the option to watch people play the game like a movie, and I highly recommend that experience – so, actually playing the game isn’t even a requirement to enjoy the story.

As well, the videogame industry, just like with movies, does have its share of terrible companies with greedy executives that ruin storytelling (and often team up to ruin it more), but they’re losing the war to the angry players a lot faster than Hollywood is losing the war to the angry moviegoers.

There’s a key factor here that we need to realize: if cinema audiences weren’t so contented and uninterested, they could change the entire industry.

To put this in perspective, the outrage and disappointment of moviegoers has only been powerful enough to change the industry a handful of times, prime examples being the ongoing course correction in Disney’s Star Wars, the much-needed overhaul of the CGI of the Sonic movie, and the upcoming Ghostbusters film erasing the 2016 film from existence.

Whereas gamers have successfully bullied and annoyed game developers and producers to the point where they actually change the games, time and time again. For example, EA’s Star Wars: Battlefront II was met with widespread hate on release for being a greedy cash-grab to get players to spend more money, and it got enough hate to the point where they fixed it completely and gave the players what they wanted.

As cinema viewers, we could do the same thing if we cared enough, and, thankfully, I think people are starting to care these days.

I’m sure somebody might scoff at me and say something like “What about that Fortnite game? It’s terrible!”

Sure, but what is Fortnite if not just an interactive version of a fast-paced, repetitive, formulaic, low-quality action film starring Tom Cruise?

There will always be bad/formulaic art in every medium, and it will usually be maintained by the establishment – and we as consumers need to do our part to stand up against this tyranny and demand change, because, after all, fixing the media is a big step to fixing our fragmented culture and ultimately improving our society.

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