By Jeffrey D. Allers
Going to the movies was always a favorite pastime of my father and I. In a small Iowa town, there wasn’t really much more to do for entertainment, and the films transported us over the hundreds of miles of corn fields to distant places.
When I moved to Berlin, I was relieved to find that a night at the cinema was just as popular in this European metropolis as it was back home. In fact, Berliners seemed to milk their night at the movies for all they could, as they arrived a half-hour early to watch the long lead-in of commercials, and remained in their seats until the very end of the closing credits. Someone from the snack bar would even enter the theater with a refrigerated box between the advertisements and start of the film, in order to make one last appeal for ice cream.
Thankfully, American-style multiplexes had not yet been transplanted in Berlin’s myriad of downtowns. In fact, the scene here was quite the opposite, as it seemed that anyone with a room big enough for 30 fold-down seats had decided to enter the business. It was like watching a film in one’s living room…together with twenty strangers.
There were enough of these small cinemas that I could usually find English-language films in the original version. Even after learning German, however, I was still not a fan of overdubs as I found it annoying when the words and lips did not match. Subtitles were tolerable, however, and even helpful when watching some British films.
Film continues to be one of the most popular forms of entertainment in Berlin and the world over. It is both accessible and immersive, which also probably makes it the most popular artistic medium of our generation. I have never known a time without cinema, and I have easily been exposed to more films than books, paintings and other art forms combined.
It is only since I have become a father that my gaming time has surpassed the amount of time I once spent watching films. After a recent rare moment with my wife and a good DVD at home (as babysitters are difficult to find), I reflected on what makes a good film, and what game design can learn from filmmaking.
First, there is the connection. Although there are many films designed as pure escapism and are commercially successful because of it, most good films establish some kind of connection with their viewers. There are characters and situations to which the viewers can relate, even if they reflect the desires a viewer has, rather than the life he or she now leads. For example, although I am not really a baseball fan, I am drawn into the story of The Natural because of its universal theme of redemption, or the identification I have with the imperfect protagonist who strives to find the priorities in his life “late in the game” despite his earlier mistakes. And a film like Field of Dreams recalls the special bond every son desires with his father, embodied by the simple act of “playing catch.”
A mark of a successful film is one that can form a connection between its themes and characters and the viewer. It draws us in, and we may even forget the mechanics of the experience—that we are, in fact, really watching a two-dimensional projection quite separate from our three-dimensional seating space. Instead, we are part of the story. Interaction with the audience is completely dependent on the connection with the characters and themes, and that is what ultimately makes a film accessible–not its style (although stylistic overkill can certainly get in the way of story and character development).
The game medium, on the other hand, has more limits in regards to immersing the players in the story. The visuals are not real-time projections, but rather scenes and rules on cards and cardboard. The setting may be provided, and can range from escapist to historical, but there is no need to identify with the characters, as the players ARE the characters. Some role-playing may be possible or even necessary, but most games do not promote the development of their characters during the course of the game.
And most modern German-style games have been so abstracted in the interest of balance and accessibility, that they are often accused of having their themes “pasted on” even when the designers swear that the theme came first. But interaction in a game is not as dependent on forming a connection between the players and the game’s themes and characters. Even an abstract game, completely devoid of theme, can be very interactive. It is the interactive nature of games that separates them from most other art forms. In fact, I often compare the editing process in filmmaking—deciding how the story will fit together and which perspectives (camera angles) will be used—with the “editing” that takes place every player turn, as he or she plays new cards or flips tiles that change the flow of the game.
Of course, there are the so-called “experience games” that are also more cinematic in that the mechanisms are often subservient to the themes, even to the point of bloating the rules booklets to twenty pages or more. Players of these games often speak more of the story being played out, and worry less about who actually wins.
The recent slew of games dubbed “multi-player solitaire,” may also be more dependent on the players’ interactions with the themes presented, although I suspect they place more of an emphasis on interactions with the game mechanisms. In this way, playing them is more like racing to solve a puzzle than playing an interactive game.
Are there games which have a cinematic connection to theme, or create it through the encouraged interaction within the closed system of the game’s rules—yet are still as accessible as film? I doubt that boardgames have reached this point yet.
The other aspect of film that I believe can inform game design—especially as an art form—is the message. Most films—including those that are more entertainment than art–have a message. Even the most postmodern of films have messages, whether they incorporate multiple interweaving stories, have open endings, or blur the lines that separate dreams from reality. The immersive nature of film–especially when viewed on the big screen–can sometimes fool us into thinking that there are no explicit messages communicated. Visual cues, however, can sometimes be more powerful communicators than verbal ones.
The ability of film to communicate a message in an accessible way, through the connection it creates between its story and the audience, makes it the most popular art form we have today. If an artist wants to reach the most people possible with a message, he or she will become a filmmaker.
This is where game design has much to learn, if it is to aspire to be an art form as well as an entertaining pastime. Games incorporating messages are usually too obvious, while other games with potential are overshadowed by the mechanics of “winning.” Most are simply an objective framework for a social and competitive experience.
I still wonder, however, if they can be more than that, possibly providing a forum for communicating and debating the messages of the game designer. It is this quality that has elevated film from a popular form of entertainment to an accessible art form, and I would like to see games follow that same path.