How interactive storytelling is shaping the future of cinema

The gap between movies and video games is closing. But what will happen when the viewer has control over the script?


Andreas Kirkinis

We’ve all groaned in frustration at a movie while being bombarded by cliché after cliché. We’ve screamed at our heroes for making the kinds of silly mistakes that can only lead to their demise. But what if we could break the fourth wall and take the narrative reins? It could become a reality a lot sooner than you might think.

Interactive storytelling has its roots in graphic adventure games, popularised by titles like Ron Gilbert’s ‘Monkey Island’ series and Tim Schafer’s ‘Grim Fandango’, both of the now-defunct publisher LucasArts. The concept of these original adventure games was deceptively simple. In ‘Monkey Island’ players were put in the shoes of wannabe pirate-cum-goofball, Guybrush Threepwood, as he pursued his dream of becoming a swashbuckler. In ‘Grim Fandango’ you played as professional grim reaper Manuel Calavera, working for the Department of Death, selling travel packages for the Ninth Underworld. The influence of cinema on LucasArts shone through in its attention to writing, humour and character development. What popularised these games was an emphasis on a surrealist aesthetic and a razor-sharp script, a rarity in the gaming world even today.

Sadly, though, wit and humour were not high on gaming audiences’ priorities, and the genre became unsustainable. Studios tried to jazz it up by adding action elements or otherwise “popcorning” the genre, but to no avail. Adventure games were out of fashion and practically disappeared. At least for a while.

In 2006, former LucasArts employees resurrected the genre with Telltale Games, a company that re-introduced the formula through shorter, more cinematic games with less of a focus on puzzle solving. The company licensed hugely popular film and television franchises like Back to the Future, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, allowing gamers to experience cherished worlds in an immersive new way. For the first time, players were being challenged on a moral level, presented with gut-wrenching ethical dilemmas – like choosing which team members would be left at the mercy of a zombie horde, or deciding if “just a scratch” required an immediate, drastic remedy.

Other studios quickly followed suit. Supermassive Games, inspired by popular genre titles like The Shining and The Evil Dead, produced the critically acclaimed ‘Until Dawn’. The company’s managing director, Pete Samuels, reveals that their intention was to keep the players centred on the filmic elements of the story rather than fiddling with controls. “We felt it was important to keep the significant complexity away from the player so that they could focus entirely on the character arcs that they we’re creating, their choices, and their story,” he says.

The game utilises a “butterfly effect” system, allowing players to experience an entirely different narrative depending on the choices they make. Imagine going to see a film where the audience has the power to vote on, say, whether the protagonist should take the steeper, quicker path down the mountain, or play it safe and follow the long way down. Do you stand your ground and fight the serial killer edging towards you, or turn and run?

Interactive storytelling is not without its limitations, and the technology can be a cut-off point for over-ambitious implementations. According to Samuels, the ‘Until Dawn’ team defines these limits by how impactful the players’ choices would feel. “The limitations were driven mainly by the effort required to create the content,” he explains, “and how much branching and narrative variation we felt would deliver on our promise of choices truly and significantly affecting each player’s story.”

Rhianna Pratchett, the writer behind dystopian sci-fi ‘Mirror’s Edge’ and the recently rebooted ‘Tomb Raider’ franchise, says that narrative restrictions often presents obstacles that are similar to those faced by screenwriters. “With tech you have to be aware that some things are much more animation intensive to render, therefore more expensive,” she says. “Often losing characters and plot points is a result of design or budget decisions rather than tech.” Pratchett adds that drastic measures can also be taken: “For example a level might get dropped, or a character might need to die to further the gameplay, or there’s just not time to create them.”

Despite the cinematic elements of video games still being relatively nascent, their popularity is already a force to be reckoned with. “When it comes to the video game industry as a whole, we’re already on a par with cinema in terms of saturation,” Pratchett says. “Our industry revenue already eclipses the box office so I don’t think we’re having any problems there.”

Telltale Games has grown from a team producing games for a niche audience to a company that has sold enough copies of The Walking Dead game to rival the number of viewers who tuned into the latest season – a whopping 28 million compared to the TV series which peaked at under 20 million.

Tiny independent studio Campo Santo recently released ‘Firewatch’, a mystery set in a Wyoming national park in the late 1980s. Despite the lack of any real “action”, the game was praised by video game critics for its evocative storyline, lush aesthetic and authentic, fully-realised characters. In spite of its indie status, it sold over half a million copies.

The extent to which consumers embrace this new technology will determine the impact of interactive storytelling on cinema-going. Virtual reality (VR) headsets are on the verge of becoming available to the wider public, with Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Sony’s Playstation VR and Microsoft’s Hololens vying to redefine how players enjoy cinematic experiences in video games. And Supermassive is already planning a VR follow-up to its slasher thriller with ‘Until Dawn: Rush of Blood’, building on what made the original so successful. “One thing that’s very interesting to us right now is how we combine this type of storytelling with Virtual Reality,” says Samuels, “not to replace the cinematic storytelling in games like ‘Until Dawn’ but as a further addition to the way that we engage people in interesting stories where their choices make a difference.”

Samuels adds that it seems unlikely this type of medium could ever replace cinema: “This doesn’t replace other ways to consume stories, like film, TV and novels, but it certainly adds another interesting way to consume from a very different perspective.”

The desire to be actively involved in an engaging story is a basic human impulse. It takes daydreaming one step further, allowing you to live out your childhood fantasies to be a swashbuckling pirate, pioneering explorer, or wily private investigator. Yet it does so not in a linear, obviously scripted way like traditional games have up to now. No longer do games only have to be war simulators in which your only goal is to make alien heads explode. Pratchett thinks that, despite leaps in progress, and increasingly intricate narratives in games, we’re still far from an organic world. “Something where the world and characters properly and irreversibly change around you based on your actions,” she says, describing her ideal game, “and you can properly feel that you’re making your mark on the world.”

Software developer Stéphane Bura attempted to go past the “smoke-and-mirrors” interaction that current games have with Storybricks, an organic AI that promised to allow players to experience a truly organic world. The crowdfunded company had to close down in 2015, but it offered a clear sign of things to come.

Social media and the ubiquity of the internet has engendered a certain hyper-awareness of our environment. Yet it has also made us apprehensive, craving privacy and detachment so that we don’t lose ourselves in humanity’s digital hive mind. Movies are one of the best ways to switch off and allow passivity to recharge our social batteries. Interactive storytelling, on the other hand, gives us the level of sociability and belonging we have grown so accustomed to in the Information Age.

Interactive storytelling games are the yin to cinema’s yang. They exist for anyone who cannot fathom being alone and uninvolved. By contrast, a trip to the cinema offers a brief respite from the constant bombardment of information that commands our attention. Rather than replacing cinema, interactive storytelling complements it. These mediums can contribute to each other’s evolution, and be better for it.

Published 10 Apr 2016

Tags: Video Game Virtual Reality

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