Film Writing Adapted for Game Narrative: Myth or Error?




game adaptation, narrative, film

How to Cite

Dixon, I. (2017). Film Writing Adapted for Game Narrative: Myth or Error?. M/C Journal, 20(1).
Vol. 20 No. 1 (2017): alternative
Published 2017-03-15

J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is appalled to learn that his lover is a victim of incest in Robert Towne and Roman Polanski’s definitive, yet subversive film Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974). Similarly, Ethan Mars (Pascale Langdale), the hero of the electronic game Heavy Rain (David Cage, 2010), is equally devastated to find his child has been abducted. One a cinema classic of the detective genre, the other a sophisticated electronic game: both ground-breaking, both compelling, but delivered in contrasting media. So, what do Chinatown and Heavy Rain have in common from the writer’s point of view? Can the writer of games learn from the legacy of film storytelling yet find alternative rules for new media? This article attempts to answer these questions making reference to the two works above to illuminate the gap between games writing and traditional screenwriting scholarship.

Western commercial cinema has evolved to place story centrally and Chinatown is an example of a story’s potential as film art and entertainment concurrently. Media convention derives from the lessons of previous relatable art forms such as pictorial art, literature and architecture in the case of film; board games and centuries of physical gaming in the case of games design. Therefore, the invention of new media such as online and electronic gaming relies, in part, on the rules of film. However, game play has reassessed screenwriting and its applicability to this new media rendering many of these rules redundant. 

If Marshall McLuhan’s adage “the medium is the message” is correct, then despite the reliance of one medium on the traditions of its predecessor, gaming is simply not cinema. This article considers writing for games as axiomatically unconventional and calls for radical reinventions of storytelling within the new media.

In order to investigate games writing, I will first revisit some of the rules of cinematic construction as inherited from an original Aristotelian source (Cleary). These rules require: a single focussed protagonist driving the plot; a consistent story form with narrative drive or story engine; the writer to avoid the repeated dramatic beat and; a reassessment of thematic concerns for the new technology. We should also investigate game-centric terminology such as “immersion” and “agency” to see how electronic gaming as an essentially postmodern phenomenon reciprocates, yet contrasts to, its cinematic predecessor (Murray, Hamlet 98/126). Must the maker of games subscribe to the filmmaker’s toolbox when the field is so very different? 

In order to answer this question, I will consider some concepts unique to games technology, firstly, the enduring debate known as ludology versus narratology. Gaming rhetoric since the late 1990s has questioned the efficacy of the traditional film narrative when adapted to game play. 

Players are still divided between the narratologists’ view, which holds that story within games is inevitable and the ludologists’ opinion, which suggests that traditional narrative has no place within the spatially orientated freedom of game play. Originally espousing the benefits of ludology, Janet H Murray argues that the essential formalism of gaming separates it from narrative, which Aarseth describes as representing “'colonialist' intrusions” on game play (46). 

Mimetic aspects inherited from narrative principles should remain incidental rather than forming an overarching hegemony within the game (Murray, "Last Word"). In this way, the ludologists suggest that game development has been undermined by the persistence of the narrative debate and Murray describes game studies as a “multi-dimensional, open-ended puzzle” worth solving on its own terms (indeed, cinema of attractions compelled viewers for thirty years before narrative cinema became dominant in the early twentieth century.

Gaming history has proved this argument overblown and Murray herself questions the validity of this spurious debate within game play. She now includes the disclaimer that, ironically, most ludologists are trained in narratology and thus debate a “phantom of their own creation” (Murray, "Last Word"). This implies a contemporary opposition to ludology’s original meaning and impacts upon screenwriting principles in game making. 

Two further key concepts, which divide the medium of game entirely from the art of cinema are “immersion” and “agency” (Murray, Hamlet 98/126). Murray likens immersion to the physical sensation of being “submerged in water” pointing out that players enjoy the psychologically immersive phenomenon of delving into an undiscovered reality (Murray, Hamlet 98). Although distinct from the passive experience of cinema viewing, this immersion is like the experience of leaving the ordinary world and diving into the special world as Christopher Vogler’s screenwriting theory suggests. 

The cinema audience is encouraged to immerse themselves in the new world of Gittes’s Chinatown from the comfort of their familiar one. Similarly, the light-hearted world of the summer home contrasts Heavy Rain’s decent into urban, neo-noir corruption. Contrary to its cinematic cousin, the immediacy and subjectivity of the new media experience is more tangible and controllable, which renders immersion in games more significant and brings us to the next gaming concept, agency.

To describe agency, Murray uses the complex metaphor of participatory dance, with its predetermined structures, “social formulas” and limited opportunities to change the overall “plot” of the dance: “The slender story is designed to unfold in the same way no matter what individual audience members may do to join the fun” (Hamlet 126-27). In electronic gaming, time-honoured gaming traditions from chess and board games serve as worthy predecessors. In this way, sophisticated permutations of outcome based on the player’s choice create agency, which is “the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices” (Murray, Hamlet 126). Bearing this in mind, when narrative enters game play, a world of possibility opens up (Murray, Hamlet).

So where do the old rules of cinema apply within gaming and where is the maker of games able to find alternatives based on their understanding of agency and immersion? McLuhan’s unconventional scholarship leads the way, by pointing out the alternativity of the newer media. I consider that the rules of cinematic construction are also often disregarded by the casual viewer/player, but of utmost importance to the professional screenwriter.

Amongst these rules is the screenwriting convention of having a single protagonist. This is a being fuelled with desire and a clear, visually rendered, actively negotiated goal. This principle persists in cinema according to Aristotle’s precepts (Cleary). The protagonist is a single entity making decisions and taking actions, even if that entity is a collection of individuals acting as one (Dethridge). The exploits of this main character (facing an opposing force of antagonism) determine the path of the story and for that reason a clear, single-minded narrative line is echoed in a single story form (McKee). For example, the baffling depth of meaning in Chinatown still emanates from protagonist J.J. Gittes’s central determination: to solve the crime suggested by the Los Angeles water shortage. The audience’s ability to identify and empathise with Gittes is paramount when he discovers the awful perversion his love interest, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), has been subjected to. However, the world of Chinatown remains intriguing as a string of corruption is revealed though a detective plot fuelled by our hero’s steadfast need to know the truth. In this way, a single protagonist’s desire line creates a solid story form. 

Conversely, in computer games (and despite the insistence of Draconian screenwriting lecturers who insist on replicating cinematic rules) the effect of a multiple protagonist plot still allows for the essential immersion in an imaginative world. In Heavy Rain, for example, the search for clues through the eyes of several related characters including a hapless father, a hangdog, ageing detective and a hyper-athletic single mother still allows for immersion. The player/interactor’s actions still create agency even as they change avatars from scene to scene. The player also negotiates for mastery of their character’s actions in order to investigate their situation, facts and world. However, each time the player switches their character allegiance, they revert to square one of their potential identification with that character. Indeed, in Heavy Rain, the player keenly aware of the chilling effect generated by the father losing his child in a busy shopping mall, but then another avatar steps forward, then another and the player must learn about new and unfamiliar characters on a scene-by-scene basis. 

The accumulative identification with a hero like Chinatown’s Gittes, begins with an admiration for his streetwise charm, then strengthens through his unfolding disillusionment and is cemented with Polanski’s brilliant invention: the death of Evelyn Mulwray replete with its politico-sexual implications (Polanski). However, does this mean cinematic identification is superior to game play’s immersion and agency? McLuhan might argue it is not and that the question is meaningless given that the “message” of games is axiomatically different. Traditional screenwriting scholarship therefore falters in the new medium. 

Further, Heavy Rain’s multi-protagonist miasma conforms to a new breed of structure: the mosaic plot, which according to Murray mirrors the internet’s click and drag mentality. In this sense, a kaleidoscopic world opens in pockets of revelation before the player. This satisfies the interactor in a postmodernist sense: an essential equality of incoming information in random, nonlinear connections. Indeed electronic games of this nature are a triumph of postmodernism and of ludology’s influence on the narratologist’s perspective. Although a story form including clues and detection still drives the narrative, the mosaic realisation of character and situation (which in a film’s plot might seem meandering and nonsensical) is given life by the agency and immersion provided by gaming (Truby).

Back in traditional screenwriting principles, there is still the need for a consistent and singular story form providing a constant narrative drive (McKee). As mentioned, this arises from the protagonist’s need. For example a revenge plot relies on the hero’s need for vengeance; a revelation plot like Chinatown hinges on detection. However, first time screenwriting students’ tendency to visualise a story based unconsciously on films they have previously seen (as a bricolage of character moments arranged loosely around a collection of received ideas) tends to undermine the potential effectiveness of their story form. This lack of singularity in filmic writing indicates a misunderstanding of story logic.  

This propensity in young screenwriters derives from a belief that if the rendered filmic experience means something to them, it will necessarily mean something to an audience. Not so: an abandoned story drive or replaced central character diminishes the audience’s enjoyment and even destroys suspension of disbelief. Consequently, the story becomes bland and confusing. On investigation, it appears the young screenwriter does not realise that they are playing out an idea in their head, which is essentially a bricolage in the postmodern sense. Although this might lead to some titillating visual displays it fails to engage the audience as the result of their participation in an emotional continuum (Hayward). 

In contradistinction to film, games thrive on such irregularities in story, assuming radically different effects. For example, in cinema, the emotional response of a mass audience is a major draw card: if the filmic story is an accumulation of cause and effect responses, which steadily drive the stakes up until resolution, then it is the emotional “cathexis” as by-product of conflict that the audience resonates with (Freud 75; Chekhov). Does this transfer to games? Do notions such as feeling and empathy actually figure in game play at all? Or is this simply an activity rewarding the interactor with agency in lieu of deeper, emotive experiences?  

This final question could be perceived as anti-gaming sentiment given that games such as Heavy Rain suggest just such an emotional by-product. Indeed, the mechanics of gaming have the ability to push the stakes even higher than their cinematic counterparts, creating more complex emotionality in the player. In this way, the intentional psychological malaise of Heavy Rain solicits even greater emotion from players due to their inherent act of will. 

Where cinema renders the audience emotional by virtue of its passivity, no such claim is possible in the game. For example, where in Chinatown, Gittes tortures his lover by repeatedly slapping her, in Heavy Rain the character must actively perform torture on themself in order to solve the mystery. Further, the potential for engagement is extended given there are fourteen possible endings to Heavy Rain. In this way, although the film viewer’s emotional response is tempered by guessing the singular outcome, the multiple endings of this electronic game prevent such prescience (films can have multiple endings, but game mechanics lend the new media more readily to this function, therefore, game books with dice-rolling options are a stronger precedent then cinema).

Also effective for the construction of cinema is Aristotle’s warning that the repetition of story and expositional information without rising stakes or any qualification of meaning creates a sense of “dramatic stall” for the audience (Aristotle). This is known as a repeated dramatic story beat and it is the stumbling block of many first time screenwriters. The screenplay should be an inventive effort to overcome escalating obstacles and an accumulative cause and effect chain on the part of the protagonist (Truby). The modern screenwriter for film needs to recognise any repeated beat in their early drafting and delete or alter the repetitive material. 

What then are the implications of repeated dramatic beats for the game writer? The game form known as “first person shooter” (FPS) depends on the appearance of an eternally regenerating (indeed re-spawning) enemy. In an apocalyptic zombie shooter game, for example, many hordes of zombies die unequivocally without threatening the interactor’s intrigue. Presumably, the antagonists are not intended to pose intellectual opposition for the gamer. Rather, the putrefying zombies present themselves for the gamer’s pugilistic satisfaction, again and again. For the game, therefore, the repeated beat is a distinct advantage. They may come harder and faster, but they are still zombies to be dispatched and the stakes have not necessarily risen. 

Who cares if this is a succession of repeated beats? It is just good clean fun, right? This is where the ludologists hold sway: to impose principles such as non-repeated beats and rising stakes on the emergence of a world based on pure game play offers no consequence for the FPS game. 

Nevertheless, the problem is exacerbated in “role play games” (RPG) of which Heavy Rain is an example. Admittedly, the gamer derives effective horror as our hero negotiates his way amongst a sea of disassociated shoppers searching for his lost child. The very fact of gamer agency should abnegate the problem, but does not, it merely heightens the sense of existential hopelessness: turning face after face not finding the child he is searching for is a devastating experience exacerbated by active agency (as opposed to the accepting passivity of cinema spectatorship). 

The rising panic in the game and the repetition of the faces of impassive shoppers also supports the player’s ongoing disorientation. The iconic appearance of the gruff clown handing out balloons further heightens the panic the gamer/protagonist experiences here. These are examples of repeated beats, yet effective due to player agency. The shoppers only persist until the gamer masters the situation and is able to locate the missing child. Thus, it is the capacity of the gamer to circumvent such repetition, which actually propels the game forward. If the gamer is adept, they will overcome the situation easily; if they are inexperienced, the repetition will continue. So, why apply traditional narrative constrictions on game play within a narrative game?

Another crucial aspect of story is theme, which in the young writer reflects a postmodernist fetishisation of plot over story. In fact, theme is one of the first concepts to be ignored when a film student puts pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) when designing their game. In this way, the themes students choose to ignore resurface despite their lack of conscious application of them. They write plot, and plot in abundance (imperative for the modern writer (Truby)), which the mosaic structure of games accommodates for seamlessly. However, plot is causative and postmodern interpretations do not necessarily require the work of art to “say” anything beyond the “message” trapped in the clichés of their chosen genre (McLuhan). 

In concentrating on plot, therefore, the young writer says what they are unaware they are saying. At its most innocuous level this creates cliché. At its worst, it erases history and celebrates an attitude of unexamined ignorance toward the written material (Hayward). In extreme cases, student writers of both media support fascism, celebrate female masochism, justify rape (with or without awareness), or create nihilistic and derivative art, which sensationalises violence to a degree not possible within film technology. This is ironic given that postmodernism is defined, in part, by a canny reaction to modernist generation of meaning and cynicism toward the technology of violence. In all this postmodernism, that illusive chestnut known as “originality” (a questionable imperative still haunting the conventional screenplay despite the postmodernist declamation that there is no such thing) should also be considered. 

Although the game writer can learn from the lessons of the screenwriter, the problems of game structure and expression are unique to the new medium and therefore alternative to film. Adhering to traditional understandings of screenwriting in games is counterproductive to the development of the form and demands new assessment. If gaming students are liberated from narratologist impositions of cinematic story structures, will this result in better or more thoughtful games? Further to the ludologists’ original protestation against the ““colonialist” intrusions” of narrative on game play, film writing must recede where appropriate (Aarseth). Then again, if a ludologist approach to game creation renders the student writer free of filmic dogma, why do they impose the same stories repetitively? What gain comes from ignoring the Aristotelian traditions of storytelling–especially as derived from screen culture? 

I suggest that storytelling, to echo McLuhan’s statement, must necessarily change with the new medium: the differences are illuminating. The younger, nonlinear form embodies the player as protagonist and therefore should not need to impose the single protagonist regime from film. Story engine has been replaced by player agency and game mechanics, which also allows for inventive usage of the repeated beat. Indeed, postmodern and ludological concerns embedded within mosaic plots almost entirely replace the need for any consistency of story form while still subverting the expectations of modernism? 

Genre rules are partly reinvented by the form and therefore genre conventions in gaming are still in their infancy. Indeed, the very amorality of nihilistic game designers opens a space for burgeoning post-postmodernist concerns regarding ethics and faith within art. In any case, the game designer may choose the lessons of film writing’s modernist legacy if story is to be effective within the new medium. However, as meaning derives from traditional form, it might be wiser to allow the new medium its own reinvention of writing rules. Given Heavy Rain’s considerable contribution to detective genre in game play by virtue of its applying story within new media, I anticipate further developments that might build on Chinatown’s legacy in the future of gaming, but on the game play’s own terms.


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