Between game and story

Athomas raised a good point the other day about games from Naughty Dog studios, such as “The Last of Us” and the “Uncharted” series. Those games are indeed highly cinematic immersive worlds, with true character arcs and fairly linear narrative structures.

And yet they remain decisively on one side of a vast divide. The two sides of this divide could be labeled “things you watch” and “things you play”. For all its visual beauty and relatively rich characters, a Naughty Dog game still succeeds or fails on what it allows you — the consumer of the experience — to do. You shoot at enemies, solve puzzles, figure out how to get from one place to another.

It is true that along the way you are also having elements of a cinematic and narrative experience, and that is indeed innovative and exciting. Yet ultimately your satisfaction comes from using your skill and your wits to solve problems and surmount obstacles. You are engaged in the act of playing a game.

Contrast this with an immersive theatre piece like “Sleep No More”. Nothing you do in “Sleep No More” can possibly affect the outcome. You are free to roam anywhere within the ongoing theatrical world, but that world will always play out in exactly the same way.

I’ve been to “Sleep No More” twice so far (I plan to go more times) and my experience was quite different each time. Yet the only difference was my point of view. The narrative world itself (a radical interpretation of Macbeth) was exactly the same both times, and each time the experience was quite thrilling.

In a way the sort of Movies 2.0 that I’ve been talking about is a bit like the experience of seeing different performances of the same play. When I recently saw two different performances, one a few weeks after the other, of Julie Taymor’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, I had two quite dissimilar experiences, for several reasons.

For one thing, at each performance I was seated in a very different place (stage-side versus front-center balcony). For another, the actors’ performances resonated very differently with the two different audiences. Also, of course, on my second viewing I could sit back and analyze what Taymor was up to, so I actually had a lot more fun at that performance.

I used to be convinced that there is something “in between” game and linear narrative. Now I’m not so sure. While I acknowledge that such hybrids are technically possible, and I am in awe of the brilliance of creative experiments like Versu, I’m not convinced that I will ever find, in the valley between the two lofty peaks of “Game” and “Story”, a truly compelling experience.

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