I watch a lot of TV
There’s a lot of good television running. Currently on my slate is Orphan Black, Person of Interest, Elementary, Game of Thrones, New Girl and Arrow. Previously, I’ve watched seasons of Justified, The West Wing, The Wire, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Scrubs, Generation Kill, Fringe. The list is long and generally varied. If the AVclub covers it, I’ll probably watch it at some point.
Games can learn a lot from the storytelling structure of good television.
Games have long been trying to ape film’s more cinematic style in their visual presentation and their storytelling style. In an industry that’s constantly in some sort of visual arms race, drawing from cinematic visual aesthetic is certainly a great strategy. But films are generally two hours long, with a storytelling structure designed to make the best use of that time. The classical Hollywood style is the oft repeated 3 act structure, usually with the mythic journey grafted on.
Games can stretch from anywhere between 5- 20 hours long. A Hollywood three act structure is going to seem limiting when your Act II lasts several hours and your audience might have stopped paying attention, either because the plot was lost in their meandering, or they can’t get pass certain gameplay sections. That isn’t it doesn’t work, and there are plenty of examples to cite with a strong storytelling in games emanating from the cinematic structure of storytelling.
Yet games have much more in common with Television.
Note: I originally expanded a bit more on the following thoughts on how games can draw from television’s storytelling style, but each point spiralled out into these massive walls of text. I’ll probably want to expand on them in individual posts on subsequent days then.
Hour Long Experiences
Research has shown that players play their games in hourly sessions, be it an hour or two, maybe three. Those sessions are further divided into 15 mins game play loops, where design feedbacks rewards, teases, plot development in an effort to keep players engaged, entertained and feel like their hour was meaningful. Television is similarly build from 15 min ACTs, usually written to its act breaks in order for ads to do their thing. Stories are twisted and turned based on that 15 minute structure, (A 30 min episode has a somewhat different structure, but the concept is the same, it’s writing to the act breaks) so audiences will stay tuned through the commercials.
Story Arcs and World Building
Serialized television have long story arcs spanning multiple episodes. During this time, they’re laying the groundwork for that story, building their worlds with locations, a cast of characters, and a thematic through line that keeps the premise and the story coherent. Games excel at world building, and arguably is the best medium at allowing its audience to best experience a world unlike their own.
Where television builds their worlds slowly, adding pieces to it when necessary to unfold longer stories, games can adopt the same method when parcelling out information about the world to the player.
Seasons == Sequels
Shows want seasons, sometimes 6 seasons and a movie, and there’s nothing more a publisher wants more than a sequel. When television goes into multiple seasons, audiences will remark that it’s a sign of its quality, and there are some seasons that are just better than others. Often, it takes some shows a season or two before it gets to telling that really great story, using the cast, world, and premise it has long since established to get around to it. Justified’s season 2 wouldn’t be possible with season 1.
Game sequels on the other hand, are more often thought of as milking the cash cow, rarely deviating too much from the original. Developers are more likely to design more of the same, but BIGGER in an attempt to placate, or satiate the fans of the series. There is a the possibility where games can develop it sequels as extensions of the original premise, market them as more seasons, more reasons to spend time with characters you like, game play mechanics you think are fun, and still have the leeway to explore, and iterate on what has been build before.
The Player Character and his Cast
We’re going to be spending several hours in the company of the player character. The best of which we can identify with, relate to, and hopefully feel some empathy for. We’d probably also want to like their supporting cast of characters. Snake and Otagon is probably one of the more famous bromances of games, and Nathan Drake wouldn’t be much of a likable character without Sully and Elena. Establishing a likable ensemble of characters enables the game to fill out more of its world with charm and personality, and attaches the player to the story that surrounds these characters. Good television often has strong ensemble cast; the downside of which is less focus is placed upon the central character. I thinks there’s a balance that can be explored, creating an interesting cast of characters around the PC, exploring their stories and their relation to the game alongside the game itself, and develop more than just 1 interesting character per game.
It’s probably too much to say that games should be emulating television entirely in their storytelling and conceptualisation. Yet while TV has since evolved multiple storytellings styles in the past decade, games have somehow moved at a much slower pace. Arguably, games aren’t always the medium in which story takes priority, but since television provides so many good examples of long form storytelling, world building, relatable characters, and hours upon hours of entertainment, there’s possibly a lot games can learn from how its done.
– I’ve tried avoiding the word “Episodic” since that has troubling connotations when we recall what happened with Half Life 2, or virtually what other games promised back in the early 00s. but if Telltale has proven anything, episode gaming can work, and can span stories into a wider set of situations and plot. The Walking Dead is probably the best example of how episodic gaming, with a story structure that owes a lot of televised seasons can work.
– Grantland recently published an exceptional article on how Game of Thrones will change the future of television storytelling. It’s a bit optimistic to be sure, but the success of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Justified in this new era, while network television struggle beyond its few hits is possibly key to the article’s insight. At best, perhaps it’s prescience for future games as well, that we’ll do well to start chasing and consolidating niche markets, as the big mainstream guys dwindle into the few remaining IP.
– Themes are for 8th grade book reports.
– Of course, Television can, and often does work with a much larger ensemble cast, since they can cut away from the main character for quite a long time, and there are plenty more difference between the mediums that a one on one grafting is impossible. Hopefully, I’ll get down to penning my actual thoughts about how it might work.