As the entire planet now knows, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice premiered last Friday with only 29% of the film critics polled by the Rotten Tomatoes website giving the film a favorable review. (To put this into perspective, the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score earned by a Marvel Studios superhero film was Thor: The Dark World at 66%). Ouch!
While many critics praised the film’s action sequences, the main complaint about this clash between the two greatest superhero icons of all time is that there were too many jumbled storylines, none of which was adequately developed. Yet the film went on to earn $166 million in its first weekend at the box office, the seventh highest opening weekend of all time. Now that may be a testament to the film’s marketing campaign, but it did get me wondering about how important the quality of a story is to an audience. More specifically, how important is a story to a game?
Well, let’s take a step back and look at the hierarchy of narrative elements for a game.
First is Theme; that is, the location or time in which a game is set. Now, some games such as Tic-Tac-Toe and Checkers don’t have a theme. These are called abstract games, ones in which the game mechanics and social interaction between players are what is engaging.
Yet by adding a theme, the game mechanics are given a setting that gives players a sense of immersion, a temporary suspension of disbelief that they are another person or in another place. Sometimes all that is needed to provide theme to a game is simply to depict the game objects as characters, such as the Pac-Man character and ghosts in Pac-Man.
Alternatively, a game can be set in a universe that is already well-established in other media — for example, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, or DC Comics — bringing into your game all the associations players have formed from experiencing the universe in other media. A familiar universe, including a historical or contemporary real-life one, can make a game’s mechanics more playable for the user. One doesn’t need to explain to the player that a revolver in a Old West game can fire only six shots or that wearing the One Ring in a Lord of the Rings game will cause the player to disappear.
Second is Premise. Premise establishes a game’s goal within the theme. For example, in Space Invaders; the premise is to protect the planet from alien invaders. Without a dramatic premise, many games would be just too abstract to allow the player to become emotionally invested in their outcome and make the game experience richer for the player.
Finally comes Story. Now, in many games, story is limited to backstory, an elaborate version of the premise. The backstory gives a setting and context for the game’s conflict, and it can create motivation for the character, but its progression is not affected by gameplay.
However, in many games the premise is followed by a series of story-based complications for the player, eventually leading to a climax, the resolution of which satisfies the goal defined in the premise. Such stories can be very simple, or they can be very elaborate with many twists and turns in the plot.
Stories allow players to experience both novelty and predictability through the surprises of the storyline and the familiar structure of stories. Players can role-play in the make-believe universe defined or interpreted by the game designer as well as engage in self-expression by coming up with creative solutions to the complications presented by the story.
While stories aren’t essential to a game, they can satisfy many player’s different needs for engaging in play. However, where there is a story, it should be a well-told one, otherwise the story premise is merely a marketing hook that may draw the players in initially but will not keep them engaged.
Last week game producer Jamison Selby invited me to speak to a group of high school students attending a “summer camp” he was leading at the New York Film Academy’s campus in Los Angeles. This summer camp was for kids interested in game development, a discipline that film schools such as NYFA are increasingly incorporating into their curriculum.
After introducing myself, I asked the six students attending the camp what role in game development they would like to have. To my surprise, half of them wanted to be 3-D animators and the other half wanted to write the stories behind games – none of them expressed an interest in game programming or design.
However, I shouldn’t have been surprised – this was a film school, after all. I had also told the students my own story of having gone to college back in the 1970’s, back when the only videogames most people could play were Pong on their home Odyssey systems and Asteroids in the cards, I wanted to be either an artist, a writer, or filmmaker. However, when I saw the long line of people waiting in line to preregister for classes at the Radio-Television-Film Department, I realized that not all of these people were going to find the jobs they wanted, and I decided to just pursue General Education courses until I found a more practical major to study.
I took class in Introduction to Computing just to fulfill my liberal arts requirements, but as I sat in the computer lab waiting print out my homework assignment on the shared printer, I began to type out a Star Trek game. It suddenly occurred to me that a computer could be a creative medium just as is an easel, typewriter, or movie camera. Mathematics could be used to create graphics, logic diagrams were one way to tell a branching story, and coding was essentially directing the computer. The next day I changed my major from Undecided to Computer Science.
One of my college professors later took note of how I was using the college’s mainframe to print out images of the Starship Enterprise, and he offered me a job as a clerk in an Apple Computer store he owned, the second computer store ever to open up in the Los Angeles area. There I met some of the people who started the some of the first game publishers, and after I graduated, I went to work for one of them. After a couple of years of doing game design and programming, I went on to becoming a producer, and I haven’t written a line of code since. However, my basic knowledge of programming has been an invaluable asset to me throughout the rest of my career because it informs me on how games are put together and why all the roles on a game development team follow the practices that they do.
And so my first bit of advice to the aspiring game developers was to take a programming course, regardless of whether they planned to become artists or writers… or even going into game business development or marketing… because if you’re going to be part of a game development team or company, you are going to have to talk to programmers. If you drive a car, it’s a good idea to know what the carburetor and other parts of the engine do if for no other reason that you have some idea of what your mechanic is talking about. Some passing knowledge of code may not make you a coder, just like changing a sparkplug doesn’t make you a mechanic. But it is helpful when you need to talk to one.
I then singled out the aspiring animators in the group. My main advice was to earn a four-year art degree. I have hired a lot of artists who went at specialized art schools such as Otis Parsons or Art Center, as well as those who studied computer animation at film schools such as NYFA, but what matters most is that you study art at any school. The biggest complaint I get from art directors about artists is while they may have good technical skills, many don’t know the different between good art and bad art. Study the principles of art, color theory, human anatomy, art history – don’t just focus on the tools.
Animators should then build a portfolio of their own. Employers look for passion in their artists. If you just create some art because you “have to” to get a job, you’re not going to get very far. The successful artist is constantly drawing, sketching, animating. Talking about comics, cartoons, animated films, anime, manga, even classical art. Don’t just limit yourself to game art.
Next, I turned my attention to the would-be writers and offered them similar advice: write. You can’t be a writer if you don’t write, it’s just that simple. All people who regard writing as a profession write consistently. Those who only regard it as a hobby usually don’t. (The same advice can apply to any role in game development.
When you are ready for college, earn a four-year writing degree. Once you have your degree in hand and have amassed a portfolio of writing samples, contact a variety of game companies. There are probably very few writing jobs at small game development houses and even those at the larger probably freelance positions, but pursue any opportunity you can – including those at marketing companies. If you want to be a writer, be open to all writing gigs, including technical writing, instruction manuals, box copy advertising copy, websites, game reviews, and strategy guides. However, if you want to write game story or dialogue, your best bet is to get some film and television experience first.
My second bit of advice to the writers was to read, and read a lot. A lot of books by a variety of writers in a number of different genres. How many characters were there? Too many or too few? How long was the novel? How did the author build suspense? Did the author come out of nowhere with a surprise? Or did the author drop hints earlier? If so, how many hints? Where in the novel did he put them? By reading a lot of novels in a variety of genres, and asking questions, it’s possible to learn the mechanics of writing, and which genres and styles you gravitate towards.
My final advice, to everyone in the group, was to play A LOT of games. Not just the games in the genres you like, or the games that your friends play, but all types of games – including board games, card games, and pen & paper roll playing games. Do a Google search for someone’s list of “The 100 Best Games of All Time” and try to find and play as many as you can. I guarantee that when you’re applying for a job, in no matter which role, and you tell the hiring manager that you’ve actually played the 100 best games of all time, you will vastly improve your changes of getting the gig, no matter what the odds.