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Film vs. Video Games From a Screenwriter’s Perspective

By September 2, 2018September 3rd, 2018No Comments

Video games have emerged as a billion dollar jewel in the entertainment industry’s crown. With the newest dives into Virtual Reality and more advanced graphics, video games don’t seem to be slowing down. In fact, video games triple the profits the film industry is making. This includes both casual and hardcore games, but let’s look at those with narratives. 

How could video games which have varying lengths of time to completion, a variety of difficulties, and involve buying consoles or computers that can take the processing power, compete with cheaper films that the audience member just needs to sit back and relax for a set amount of time? It makes sense to stick with something faster, like TV episodes for a break than to pick up the controller and start playing a game that takes serious willpower to walk away from before completion.

Keeping Them Engaged

In this day and age with shorter attention spans, it’s getting harder to write films that keep the audience’s attention for two whole hours. Yet gamers will put in fifty hours or more to complete games and spend days playing MMOs (Massive Multiplayer Online games), like Overwatch, that only end when you turn off your computer. How do video games keep the gamer’s attention for so long? And how can we apply this to film?

The story of most video games revolves around the gamer’s character. If they stop playing, the story stops. If an audience member stops watching, the movie ends no matter what. They don’t really invest as much into the story because it isn’t up to them. This would be something incredibly difficult to replicate in film. Sure, VR films might be on the horizon, but the only way to get the audience to care enough about a film that they aren’t actually a character in, is to give them a character that they can ally with. This usually falls onto the protagonist. 

Empathy vs. Aspiration

Creating a character that everyone can empathize with is incredibly difficult. Why do people love pretentious and egocentric characters like Tony Stark and Sherlock Holmes? Is it the intelligence and confidence? Is it that most viewers envy their success? They are people that have very little social skills and would be seen as pretentious jerks to most people and yet with Tony Stark’s character development into a father figure and Sherlock Holmes’ partnership with Watson, we see these softer sides we want to believe are there. By making well-rounded characters that can change or have a believable depth to them, it can hook more audiences. 

This isn’t always the case. It doesn’t have to be a character we empathize with that we attach to, but someone that we want to be. This is where movies and video games meet eye to eye. Ever wonder why the superhero franchise hit off so well? We want to see who we want to be. Who doesn’t want superpowers? Video games can give them to you limited to keys, mouse clicks, and buttons. In films, everything looks organic and real. You walk away talking about your favorite character and what your powers would have been.

Character Choice is Everything

Once the audience is attached to a character and is into the film, their choices are now under scrutiny. As I will always say: character choice is everything. If your audience is following the story through the eyes of a character, the moment that character does something unexpected or out of character, you lose the audience. Since, in video games, the players are creating the character as they go and building it off their own imagination, nothing they can do is wrong. However, they only have set actions or dialogue options. If a gamer wants to say or do something else that is out of the game’s programming, they won’t be able to, no matter how badly they believe their character could or should. 

Social Interaction

Lastly, there’s the social aspect to video games. This is probably the biggest reason for their fame and fortune. With films, you can go to the theater and watch a film together. It’s a very casual social thing. In video games, friends can team up and battle bosses and families can compete in sports or collaborate in puzzle games. The possibilities are endless, but the takeaway is that it’s an interactive social experience. You can learn and develop social skills or teamwork or just have a lot of laughs. TV shows can be great social events if a bunch of friends get together and watch each episode air weekly, but films are usually just one time events whenever the next interesting film comes out. For those who only have money for once-a-month outings with good friends instead of buying $60 games and updating their consoles, movies are great.

Story vs. Experience

Films and video games are both impressive immersive experiences. The difference is: video games are all about the player experience and films are about the story. Not all video games are top-of-the-line graphics or have the best story, but they want to present a game to their players that spark their imagination. Minecraft has blocky art and practically no story, but it is one of the most popular video games due to its social aspect and its ability to shape itself to the player’s imagination. Films can interest audiences with special effects and the best in design, but story remains at the heart of film. If the story falters, the audience loses interest. If the gameplay is unrewarding, the gamers lose interest. 

Narrative vs. Competition

Yes, there are great video games with narratives. There is a lot one can learn from narrative video games and I touched a bit of it in an article here. But not all gamers are in it for the story, they’re in it for the experience to be a sword-wielding dwarf or a gun-toting space explorer. They could be in it for competitive reasons in social settings, but the story isn’t as imperative to the backbone of video games as it is to film. The story is fluid in games, letting the player choose and add their own imaginative touches. Films let the audience sit back, relax, and let the well-crafted story play itself out, letting the creation of someone else take center stage.

Beverly Peders is a Screenwriting graduate from Drexel University. She loves all visual writing mediums and has experience in writing plays, comic books, screenplays, TV sitcoms, and video games. World building is her favorite and she obsesses over anthropology and linguistics. In her spare time, you may find her trying to get over her fear of heights at a rock wall or adopting yet another plant because she can’t afford an actual pet.

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