How to steal like an artist
Does Inception feel more like a movie? Or a video game? Depends on who you ask.
In The New Yorker, James Verini writes:
Nolan’s entertainments, the best ones, anyway, are games. I don’t mean that they resemble puzzles or tricks (though they do that, too), I mean that they are most satisfying when understood as games, not as novelistic narratives. They are contests with rules and phases, gambits and defenses, many losers and the occasional victor, usually a Pyrrhus type.
This line from Inception foreshadows Westworld (created by Christopher Nolan's brother Johnathan):
"We create the world of the dream. We bring the subject into that dream, and they fill it with their secrets."
What's going on here? Why are movies and TV shows starting to feel like video games?
In her excellent book Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray describes what happens when a new storytelling medium arrives (like film, or computers).
The first thing that happens is that artists working in the new medium try things with their new toolset and they run a lot of experiments and they make a lot of goofy content.
The other thing that happens, according to Murray, is that artists working in the dominant medium of the day see this new thing in action, they get excited about the possibilities, and they start using some of the new tricks in their own work.
So, for example, look at movies. As we all know, in early days, the filmmakers just set the camera in the tenth row of the theater and filmed the play. Zzz! Boring! At some point, somebody on set must have said, "There must be something else we can do with this camera." So the filmmakers started experimenting with ideas like cuts, and camera angles, and close-ups. (I guess; I wasn't there.)
Novelists went to these early films and probably laughed and snickered sometimes - but other times they must have said, "Wow, THAT is something new." Then they went home and got back to writing their novels. If you go back and read books from that era, you'll see novelists describing, in words, things like cuts, and closeups, and other moviemaking tricks. It's invisible to our 21st-century eyes, but it must have been really startling to readers back then, in the same way it is surprising to some people in today's audience to see Paris fold in on itself.
Filmmakers like the Nolans are presenting something that's new to filmgoers, but not to gamers. We can even name some of the tools they're using. In Inception we see levels, and a game designer (disguised in the story as an architect). Westworld has NPCs. There are other storytelling tools that don't even have a label yet. Can a character's personality evolve through leveling up? If so what do we call that? We don't have names for things like that - yet - but one day we will, if only so that people working on these projects can explain their ideas to each other. "Do that thing where you push the camera in real close! You know, close up!"
Movies have been borrowing videogame story techniques for decades. Look at Groundhog Day. Why does Bill Murray's character come back to life a million times? Who knows! Who cares! It's a tool that we're familiar with - we come back to life in games all the time, after all - and it's a tool we can use to tell a funny story, so let's use it.
Run Lola Run uses the same technique:
We are still learning how to tell stories in this new medium. Even small experiments can pay big dividends. When I worked on Far Cry 2, Patrick developed a very basic narrative-design system that was surprisingly effective, because it hid the story from the player. Here's how it worked.
When the player approaches an NPC, the game triggers a line of dialog. That line is heavy on gameplay information, light on story. For example, imagine approaching an older, heavyset man in a village. It's someone you already know, so he cuts right to the chase and says, "You know Mbutu's hut on the other side of the hill, yes? Listen: I'll give you a hundred dollars to burn it down."
At that point, the player knows what the game designer wants him to do, and he can carry on with the game. But if the player stays, expecting more, a second line plays. This one is an equal amount of gameplay advice and story reveals, something like "If you're smart, you'll take the ledger that's hidden underneath the cot. The man kept a second set of books." So now we have an extra action to take (find the ledger) and we know something new about the world (the village leader is corrupt, and now we have some leverage over him).
If the player continues to stick around - if he wants to really know what's going on - a third line plays. "Tell him I sent you. Tell him it was me, his brother. I want him to know it was ME."
This line has nothing to do with gameplay, and everything to do with character - HIS character. This is an NPC with an inner life. But it's hidden from the impatient player. You never need to discover it - unless you want to. The experience is yours to define.
And isn't that how all relationships are? They only deepen if you stick around and pay attention.
The example I just described above is not high art. It's not even great dialog. It's just a small, simple example of how to use structure to create an interaction that feels real.
A playwright once told me how hard it is to be innovative in her medium because people have been writing plays for thousands of years. "It's all been done," she said. The opposite is true in this medium: so LITTLE has been done. We've barely scratched the surface.
Storytellers like Nolan see the potential and use the tools, to incredible effect - but there are still more discoveries to be made.
This form of storytelling is a lot like a magician's act.
As Arthur C. Clarke once said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
Of course we've all seen interactive storytelling that feels about as magical as this:
But you've gotta start somewhere.
PS - Have you read Steal Like An Artist? It's great. Go get it.
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