What Filmmakers Can Learn From Gaming

Film is a very young medium, and it’s evolving extremely fast. With a history of just a little over a hundred years, a breakthrough comes every so often that changes everything. First there was the moving image itself (or the illusion thereof). Then there was the cut, which was about giving meaning to two images one after the other in order to express an idea. Then came the addition of sound and then came colour. In recent years,  3D came adding another technical improvement (and a premium for studios to rake in the dollar bills). Those incremental steps are what has made film the medium that it is today.

The advent of computing in filmmaking in the last quarter of the twentieth century added a new dimension and opened up new horizons for the medium, with companies like George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic and Pixar. The main brains in that branch of the American industry were always crossing over from one to the other. Ed Catmull, who is now President of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation was once hired by George Lucas from the New York Institute of Technology for his computer division, which later spun off into Pixar upon investment from Steve Jobs (another man who revolutionised computing in the same time).

Film, as the mother medium of moving image, heavily influenced gaming, which has since become a narrative form of its own. Steven Spielberg – known to be an avid gamer and tech buff – has invested in virtual reality companies and is planning to create promotional VR content for his next feature, Robopocalypse.

Virtual reality is still experimental but games are not, and its narrative form has developed in a way that filmmakers could be inspired by.

Episodic storytelling

Games are built with an overall goal, and episodic missions help the main character that you’re playing as reach that goal. The closest we filmmakers have to gaming in terms of how the storytelling develops are television series. Ideally, a television series will have an overall arc over the course of a season, and individual arcs in each episode which will advance the overall plot to some degree – and cliffhangers are preferred. Each mission will have to be different in order to get the character closer to their goal and raise the stakes.

This is a structure to remember when you’re developing a series – even more so for a web-series, as the web has such a plethora of content, you need to hook people in and make them beg for more. This works for movies as well, albeit on a smaller scale.

Character

An inescapable aspect of a video game is that the player has to embody a character on a mission. The character’s goal has to be clearly defined, and each individual step has to be clearly explained as well, especially in how it relates to the larger goal.

The episodes allow for development for that character, but a well-written video game as well as a well-written movie or series will have to have a compelling, engaging protagonist.

Action

Video game is all about action. A character has to actually do something in order to achieve a goal and go to the next level. The character has to overcome weaknesses and follow a plan. Luke and the rebellion had to plan the attack on the Death Star, and they emphasised how slim the chances were. Isn’t it a wonder, then, that he managed to achieve that extraordinary goal by finally embracing his true identity and fate, which he refused to in the beginning of his adventure?

That’s what Michael Tierno in his classic book Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters describes as the “action-idea”, which will be the driving force of the narrative. It will make the protagonist active, and will help us root for them not just generally, but will also get us to root for them to do something specific.

This is what will find its way in your logline as well. Example: despite initially refusing to take over as Godfather, Michael Corleone will have to embrace his destiny by taking revenge for his father’s death. “Taking revenge” is the action, and destiny is the theme (or at least one of them).

And so…

Film is bridging into video game terrain now with interactive filmmaking (which is a fascinating experience). Virtual reality is still quite experimental but we’re discovering new ways of displaying narratives that are based on the film grammar, and some VR experiences are game-induced. Those mediums steal from one another as they all are visual storytelling experiences. The key is to give a goal and a character to root for. Which medium you apply it to is up to you.

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