With titles like Quantum Break and the upcoming Halo series, the convergence of gaming and narrative storytelling has become an intense focal point — but the men behind Indiana Jones and Star Wars think gaming will never be able to provide the same type of rich experience traditional storytelling does.
Speaking Wednesday at a panel at the University of Southern California — joined by Microsoft’s Don Mattrick — George Lucas and Steven Spielberg argued that introducing the concept of interactivity fundamentally changes the experience. "They’re always going to be different," Lucas said when asked if movies and games were going to become more similar. "They’re never going to be the same."
"Storytelling is about two things," he said. "It’s about character and plot." Character is what movies and television offer, he said, but it’s a concept the gaming industry is just now discovering. "Like sports. It’s about Tebow. It’s about, you know, Kobe. They’re starting to realize that if they focus on the characters it makes the game much richer."
"But by its very nature there cannot be a plot in a game. You can’t plot out a football game. You can’t plot out feeding Christians to lions. It’s not a plot."
"By its very nature there cannot be a plot in a game."
It’s a nuanced argument that moves away from the tired conversation about whether games are art or not — one largely started by the late Roger Ebert — and towards the definition of narrative storytelling itself. Games are trying to eke out some sort of middle ground that combines overarching narrative with agency on the part of the player, but for Lucas true storytelling comes in one very specific form.
"You're leading the audience along."
"Telling a story, it’s a very complicated process," he said. "You’re leading the audience along. You are showing them things. Giving them insights. It’s a very complicated construct and very carefully put together. If you just let everybody go in and do whatever they want then it’s not a story anymore. It’s simply a game." The dismissive pushback is slightly awkward, particularly since LucasArts titles like The Secret of Monkey Island were once known for their ability to tell a story that players invested in while still maintaining the playability of an adventure game.
"And so you just have to make the divide between games and stories," the Star Wars director said. "The big deal is that videogames are going to have more character… But you’re not going to have a plot that says, you know… it’s not going to be Shakespeare."
Spielberg has his own past with gaming, including The Dig — a mid-90s LucasArts adventure — as well as LMNO, an Electronic Arts collaboration that failed to materialize. The aim of the latter project was to bring a real emotional experience to gamers, something the filmmaker still has on his mind.
The "great abyss" of empathy
"I think the key divide between interactive media and the narrative media that we do is the difficulty in opening up an empathic pathway between the gamer and the character — as differentiated from the audience and the characters in a movie or a television show," Spielberg said. Describing the divide as a "great abyss", he pointed to the function of game playing itself as part of the problem.
He described an early game in which players rescued babies being thrown from a burning building — likely a reference to Bouncing Babies or some variant thereof. "That idea came from an urge of a gamer to say, ‘Let’s create an empathic experience for a player to save babies.’ Who’s more helpless than a baby thrown into the air, heading for the ground? You gotta catch the baby," he said.
"But as players started to play the game they stopped looking at the baby as a human being and they started looking at the baby as a score… So they were looking at the numbers they were racking up, and the baby became parenthetical to the calculation in scoring more points than your friends and being able to brag about it at school the next day."
"Hardcore gamers basically love to watch the baby hit the floor."
Even games with elaborate cutscenes and interstitials face the problem, he said. "You watch, and you get kind of involved with what the story is, and you hate the bad guy because he murders people in an airport and stuff like that, and then all of a sudden it’s time to take the controller," Spielberg said. "And the second you get the controller something turns off in the heart. And it becomes a sport."
Lucas added that the gaming industry itself has been complicit in the problem as it has catered to hardcore gamers out of economic concerns. "Hardcore gamers basically love to watch the baby hit the floor," Lucas said. "They said ‘I want a game where I can shoot somebody in the head and blow their head off,’ so the gaming industry moved in that direction. So that’s what they’re doing. And you can’t empathize with somebody you’re going to kill, so that whole idea has gone out the window."
Success could come from playing against the trend
Neither man thought the problem was unsolvable. In fact, Lucas thinks the biggest success in gaming over the coming years will be a game playing against the current trends. "I think ultimately the big game of the next five years will be a game where you empathize very strongly with the characters, and it’s aimed at women and girls. Because they like empathetic games," he said. The statement perpetuates a particularly prevalent stereotype, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that there is a vast market out there that is not being served by the current generation of AAA titles and gaming devices. Mattrick himself said as much, predicting that consoles will soon move beyond the current global install base of 300 million thanks largely to new capabilities and features.
For Spielberg, the bottleneck is even simpler: the controller itself. "I think that the artery blocker is the game controller," he said. "Once we can get rid of the controller — a bit like what Don is working on with Kinect — once you get rid of the controller and you’re basically hands-free," he said, it will open up the door to more naturalistic games that will by their very nature become more immersive.
"Once we are hands-free, truly hands-free, and we’re totally immersive — and that’s a whole other technological platform because I believe we need to get away from the proscenium. We’re never going to be totally immersive as long as we’re looking at a square," he said. "Whether it’s a movie screen or a computer screen, we gotta get rid of that. We got to put the player inside the experience, where no matter where you look you’re surrounded by a three-dimensional world. And that’s the future."
It’s hard to disagree with the duo that a game isn’t storytelling in the traditional sense just because it has a linear sequence of events. Once gamers have agency, they’ll change any intended path — and that’s the fun of gaming in the first place. What their arguments beg for is a new definition for the kind of projects we’re seeing today: experiences defined by differing emotional journeys that color how a player interprets a set series of plot elements. Titles like Mass Effect have blazed trails in this regard, and we’ve seen it most recently in Telltale’s The Walking Dead. In the latter game, the first scene and the ending are basically the same. What’s different is the path the player takes between those two points — differing paths that can create varying experiences with radically different emotional implications.
We may be closer than Lucas or Spielberg thinks
The Walking Dead in particular was exceptional at solving the issue of Spielberg's empathic gap, thanks largely to the use of the 9-year-old sidekick character Clementine; when I played the game, I debated my own moral choices because I didn’t want to set the wrong example for her. We’ve seen this kind of mechanism in games before (Deus Ex is just one notable example) but Telltale’s success in particular suggests we’re closer to that empathy threshold than either Lucas or Spielberg thinks. With this year’s E3 announcements full of titles that hope to combine gaming with traditional narrative forms, it’s clear that developers are trying — and over the next few years we may see an explosion of a new type of character-based narrative hybrid, or come to the conclusion once again that this particular goal is still just out of reach.