regarding the matter of video games v. movies

I had the house to myself last night, so I could watch whatever nerdy DVD or DVR'd movie I wanted, as loud as I wanted. I've been talking about re-watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy (extended editions, of course) for a couple of months, but when I finally had a chance to get started, I ended up playing Dragon Age for three hours instead.

love Lord of the Rings, and even though I've been trying to get Anne to sit down and watch it with me again for months, when I had my chance to watch it undisturbed last night, I wasn't nearly as interested in going back to Middle Earth as I was in going back to Ferelden.

I've been playing Dragon Age for about 64 hours, and I'm finally starting the climactic battle portion of the story. (Yeah, I take my time and get every last second of RP out of the RPGs when I play them.) Last night, I had to make some very difficult decisions, one of which resulted in a character I deeply care about leaving my party. It wasn't as upsetting as losing my dog in Fable II, but I still felt a real, emotional sense of loss. I don't know if I'll ever talk to this NPC again (at least as this character, with this origin), and that made me feel sad. 

It also made me want to keep playing so I could find out what happened next … and so I did.

Knowing that my dog would wake me up at 6am and demand to be let outside, I still played until 1am, not because I wanted to kill the damn Darkspawn, not because I was trying to level my character and not because I just wanted to complete a quest. I intentionally allowed myself just 5 short hours of sleep because I hoped against hope that I could somehow find a way get [REDACTED] to come back and rejoin me. Alas, I failed. There were a lot of Darkspawn, and I just couldn't get past them all before it was really time to go to sleep. (Guess where I'm going as soon as I finish work today?)

Some of you are probably wondering why I didn't just save scum and try out different things until I got the desired result. I should probably mention that when I play any computer RPG, I use one savefile, plus a backup in case it gets corrupted. Yeah, let that roll around in your heads for a second, kids: daddy is hardcore. I should also point out that the choices I made last night – indeed all the choices that lead up to this particularly momentous one – were all made from a roleplaying point of view, based on the background and story I created for my character. I know that I could have just told different party members whatever I thought would make them happy and keep them around, but even though that's the kind of metagaming that keeps you from dying in the acid pit, it just isn't how I roll.

But here's the fundamental difference between playing this fantasy RPG and watching a fantasy movie: when I finish this character and play a different origin, I'll be able to make different choices that will (hopefully) lead to a different result when I get to the same place, 70 or 80 hours hence. Of course, there's still the chance that I'll end up in exactly the same place and discover that this event happens no matter what I do, in which case I'll say a swear really loud … but even if that happens, the journey that I'll take to get there that time will be different from the journey I took to get there this time. Sure, the major landmarks won't change, but the little details will, and that's an experience we simply can't get from movies (The Watch George Lucas Shit On Your Childhood editions of the original Star Wars trilogy DELIBERATELY IGNORED.)

I think this says something significant about video games as narrative storytelling, and I wanted to paraphrase something I said when I was interviewed for the Sci vs. Fi Mass Effect 2 special that is apparently airing every ten minutes on SyFy this week:

Narrative video games aren't going to replace television and movies any more than television and movies replaced books, but as technology continues to advance, and games become even more cinematic and interactive, the battle won't be only for the consumer; it will also be for the creator. People who went to school 20 years ago to learn how to make movies are now going to school to learn how to use the same narrative storytelling techniques to make video games.

It's going to be a fierce battle, and even though I think it will likely be fought to a draw, we're going to get some incredible entertainment out of it. As creators and consumers, we're going to experience things that we can only imagine right now, and I can't wait.

89 thoughts on “regarding the matter of video games v. movies”

  1. DragonAge frustrated me because I kept finishing a big boss fight and then going into the next room and being killed by a mob of lesser baddies. I learned pretty fast to save after every battle.

  2. In the long run I think games might just win out. There is a lot to be said for being involved in the story vs watching a story unfold.

  3. I always keep a backup save file too, though my games are console, not PC. I got screwed in one game, having reached a point of no return (at about 60 hours in) but finding out only too late that my party’s levels weren’t high enough to defeat the boss that I had to take on right at the point of no return. After that, I am never without a backup save!

  4. hey wil,
    first time commenter, long-time reader, even longer-time tng fan.
    i don’t have much time for gaming these days (though i truly wish i did!), but some of my favourite GOGs (Good Ol’ Games) were multipath adventure games that played out differently depending on choices you made. and funnily enough, with you mentioning George Lucas in this post, those very games were usually made by Lucasarts. i’d say the first games that come to mind are “indiana jones and the last crusade” and “indiana jones and the fate of atlantis”. both of those games had paths that basically broke down to wits, fists, or team, in which you’d approach puzzles from an analytical standpoint, use force to get past them, or utilize the help of a partner, respectively. i think these were some of the first games to use that type of mechanism, and i always thought it was pulled off brilliantly, and obviously did wonders for the replay value.
    and btw, when i do play games, i also poke my head into every virtual nook and cranny i can find to make sure i don’t miss anything. what a shame for someone to have meticulously programmed in a witty line or elaborate side quest, and 80% of the audience might never see it! i try to get as much mileage out of a playthrough as possible… and even then, i’m sure there are things i’ve never seen in some of my favourite games.

  5. Well put Wil. I not only agree with your conclusion and optimistic excitement for the future, I also agree with your approach to gaming.
    Many of my friends think of me as a gaming massochist as I make my choices and stick with them too, no save and make it happen better for this guy.
    I’m considerably farther behind you in DA but I’m realy looking forward to the end now.

  6. Looks like there’s enough variety in the way Dragon Age can play out that even just playing thru each of the available origins won’t get you all the possible scenarios.
    I know I had a blast with it and am only taking a break so I can hit Mass Effect 2.

  7. There was a time when video game companies had a real feel for the cinematic angle of their games. Since the technology and game mechanics didn’t allow for any in-game movie-like story telling, they’d insert cut-scenes with real live (and sometimes famous) actors in between missions to give us a real movie experience (Wing commander and Command&Conquer, I’m looking your way).
    It’s nice to see the games become more immersive in their story telling and artistic dirrection but, sometimes, even the best 3D technology can feel hollow compared to the good old days of fighting the good fight as Mark Hamill. It’s a lost art and a sentimental trip down memory lane.
    Still, the guys that worked on Mass Effect 2 did an amazing job on brigning the characters to life. IT’s simply amazing when [Content removed due to spoilers] and you can see the gleam in his eye.
    Now then, I think I’ll go search for Wing Commander III : heart of the tiger on D2D.

  8. well I readily admit that I did not finish DAO. I chalk it up to Gaming ADHD. I have recent started ME2, and I, ahem, plan on finishing it. It’s just a shame that Bioware omitted the blood soaking of Origins in ME2. I mean, the blood of your enemies should still be able to hit you from 44m, right?

  9. Withe the heavy weapons available? Damn straight!
    Altho a good compromise is the Blood dragon armor that is downloadable thanks to my copy of DAO. What a pretty armor.

  10. Oh my gosh. I haven’t reached the ending of the Dragon Age: Origins game yet, because I’m dragging it out – my husband played to the end and he told me about it, but I’m dreading it so much. I’ve grown quite attached to the characters – in fact, in some cases, having to make decisions based on the character development that alienated other NPCs was REALLY hard.
    I love this game. I plan to play it again – I don’t even know how many hours I’ve logged, but a confession: I had never played any other FPS or RPG videogame for more than 4 hours of gameplay (excluding Sims and Age of Empires type stuff, and old 3D0 games) before I played Dragon Age. It is, in my opinion, the best game ever – I’ve never played something I enjoyed this much!
    I’m now anxious to find out what happened in your game, though – I want to know who (REDACTED) is!

  11. Hello Mr. Wheaton,
    Heh… I love calling you that. I’m actually older than you, but because I don’t know you personally, it would be rude for me to call you Wil. So…
    In any event, I am about 60 some hours into Dragon age as well. I’ve been trying desperately to get Morrigan to fall in love with me. I’ve done everything I can think about, (spoiler alert) brought her the Grimore, the gold mirror, agreed to kill her mother–but she continues to see me as just a friend.
    Then I have these one or two innocent conversations with Leliana, and she falls head over heels for me!
    I have got to tell you, I was shocked. I really don’t know what to do. I mean my feelings for Morrigan are real, but she merely feels ‘warmly’ toward me.
    Besides, Leliana is pretty hot, and I’m such an ugly Dwarf. I may never get another chance with a woman like her.
    What do you suggest?
    Forlorn in Ferelden
    PS: You were in a movie with my ex-girlfriend’s sister (Stephanie Orf (Stephanie was her sister’s name, not my girlfriend’s) (Hey, nested parentheses. Cool!))) some years ago.

  12. After completely agreeing with your approach to RPG’s, I ended up picking up the Dragon Age Collector’s Edition on my way home from work.
    It just finished installing. I’d like to think that I’ll be able to stop at a reasonable hour. I really would.

  13. My wife has been playing DA:O… I’ve been still working my way through NWN2 and the expansion packs… I think I may have to steal her copy of DA:O as soon as she’s done now though :)

  14. My favorite thing about Dragon Age was how seamlessly the story was stitched together. The game was designed as a bunch of short chapters, and depending on the actions you take the story comes together flawlessly. No matter what decisions you make or what order you tackle the obsticles in, the story ALWAYS comes out feeling like that is the way it should be…as if this exact story was written based on your hundreds of little decisions. It’s quite an achievement in storytelling, video game or no.
    Here is my full review of it:

  15. My first replayable RPG was a Nintendo title, 7th Saga:
    I loved the idea that your friends could become your rivals, and the game would roll differently based on who you chose to accompany you.
    It was also on of the first “open world” designs that I had played. Though it wasn’t as open as one might have desired, it was still a forerunner, methinks.
    Note: a prior English Professor once asked a class I was in: can we consider video game narrative literature? If not, will there be a day when that will happen? What might it look like? Very gripping questions.

  16. I don’t want to ruin anything for you if you intend to play it again, but suffice to say that it is possible for you to play through the game again and not say a swear really loudly for that particular reason. In fact, there are several possible outcomes to that particular scene, depending on your origin, how you handle events with the characters involved leading up to it, and how you handle the scene itself. At the most basic level the choice is binary, but in truth there are at least 4 possible outcomes of that event itself, along with a couple of corollary events that follow it which also have branches.
    Some of the choices in Dragon Age are illusory, or trivial, but most of them aren’t–they can have significant and meaningful impact on later events, up to and including the final chapter of the game, to a degree I’ve not seen in any other video game to date. Some of them make me wonder how they plan to do a sequel and still allow the player to carry a character forward from this one, as they intend to allow with the expansion pack due out later this year. The sheer range of different outcomes to various options would make writing for such a sequel a massive undertaking, I imagine.
    The mechanics of the game are not groundbreaking, though it is fun to play, but the writing is genuinely impressive, I agree.

  17. I don’t know about you, but I take ages to settle into one particular character (race, class etc.)
    I ended up playing all the origin stories with a different class to try and find one I’d be happy playing through. I am enjoying the game so far, yes it can be bruising & painful at times, but the joy when a plan comes together!
    In closing as for the George Lucas shitting on your childhood, I just picked up a story here in the UK that the success of Avatar has led the Great bearded one to decide to re-do his original trilogy in glorious 3D.

  18. I’m on my second playthrough. I played a warrior first, and am now playing a rogue. Possibly surprisingly to people who don’t know me, my rogue is quite the sentimentalist, and I believe that she will do anything to make sure the team stays together. If it takes sex and violence, well, so be it.
    For my mage playthrough, I suspect that I may go through every team member as each one deserts me because I’m such a douche canoe – there’s just something about magic that makes one arrogant and deserving of the title “Your Assholiness”.
    I play it as it lays, but have been known to go back and play a “what if” because I’m just that obsessive.
    And after playing the end the way I think it should go, I always go back and try out the alternate endings (MYST? Even though I played it saving Atrus as my original playthrough, when I went back and trapped myself with him on D’nai? I was ashamed and embarrassed when he gave me that look.).

  19. I’ve been playing Dragon Age a lot, and Mass Effect 2 and many other games. Yes the story telling has improved, but it seems that more and more games have LESS ‘freedom of action/decision’ within them games. One I really liked was Fallout 3. I didn’t liked that they removed the majority of the RPG elements out of Mass Effect 2 that were present in Mass Effect 2
    But from today on – matter of fact in roughly 3 hours as of time of writing this – my nose and my life-mate’s nose (thank goodness she’s a gamer too!) will be stuck on the Early Headstart in Cryptic’s Startrek Online MMO, which will cost me another 6 months of my becoming awfully shorter lifespan. 😉

  20. Dragon age is addicting. Right now, counting the hours until STO goes live which is in about 2 hours and 45 minutes. Before I turn into gamer widow.
    I agree that the entertainment field is going to open up, and things will change. I think with Avatar coming out, and the new processes created with that movie that the creative forces are only limited by their imagination. What I personally would like to see, is instead of being in a seat watching a movie, an audience member goes into a room where the movie is played around them, and as an observer you can interact with the scenery, and eventually the actors, and like in a game you can control the out come of the movie.
    For me personally, I wish that I could have been on the planet of Pandora and through holograms or 3D technology interacted more with the fauna. But I can see that being a wave of the future.
    Just my thoughts.

  21. ROFL…3 hours!!! Yep this is my Hubby…see what i mean by game widow. Well he made my day off to play SupCom with hubby before he goes into “Space the final frontier.”

  22. I don’t think that video games can, or should ever replace film, due to the former’s emphasis on interactivity. There’s nothing wrong with a game spinning a good yarn, but not at the expense of good gameplay mechanics. For some of the best games out there, like various Marios, story is an afterthought. On the RPG end, even a weak story didn’t stop Final Fantasy V from being one of the best in the series.
    Backup saving on Dragon Age sounds like a good idea. Does it offer a limited amount of saves? That was the case with Baldur’s Gate I & II, which were otherwise classic, and of course the spiritual basis for DA.
    Speaking of D&D related games, did you ever play Planescape: Torment, Wil?

  23. I completely feel for you. I recently got off my ass and took time off writing(yeah, I said that) to finally FINISH, Mass Effect 1. The next day I went out and grabbed ME2 and transferred my group of misfits, and flew off into the Universe once again. I felt, loss, humor, and love at meeting old friends and finding new ones so far in ME2. I love me some quality RPG and deep story in a game.

  24. “People who went to school 20 years ago to learn how to make movies are now going to school to learn how to use the same narrative storytelling techniques to make video games… As creators and consumers, we’re going to experience things that we can only imagine right now, and I can’t wait.”
    A friend/collaborator and I stopped dead in the midst of a perfectly innocent show about text-driven technology and transactional language (philosophy nerds with beards) when we simultaneously hit this same idea. While mediums in their infancy are generally used to put a new spin on old narrative styles, they don’t stay that way. Old forms do not exhaust the new spaces. Imagination, like carp, grows to the capacity of its container in ways unpredictable and challenging.
    Gutenberg’s moveable type enabled people to do what they were already doing faster, cheaper, more reliably, and initially this is what the printing press was used for. It wasn’t long before it dawned on some clever folk that the text-perfect reproduction allowed them to craft narratives longer, more meticulous, more carefully than they would have ever trusted to the frequently revisionist hand of the scribe. Gutenberg created the printing press, and the printing press made possible the creation of the very concept of the novel.
    You’re spot on: we’re at a similiar moment. Right now we mostly use this technology to deliver experiences akin to what came before, but for the game! We’re blurring the lines between game, film, book, and music (i.e. Jeremy Soule’s dynamic compositions) in ways unimagined thirty years ago. Remarkable as it is, this is still a media infancy, juxtaposing familiar elements. What will it look like when we use the technology to enable a medium or genre that could not exist without it?
    Imagine the inspiration and consternation of two men with an almost religious awe for the authority of the dusty tome as they realize this: we can write books, yes, but perhaps we should be “writing” works impossibly unlike books.
    What adventures come!

  25. Oh, I so get this. I’m on my second playthrough of Dragon Age and I’m completely addicted! It’s replaced Fable 2 as my all-time favorite RPG ever.
    I was just telling my husband that the game-play is great, but they’ve really taken it to a whole new level with the story and interactivity and Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-ness of it all! I cannot believe how emotionally invested I’ve become in this story!
    Kudos to Bioware for the amazing experience they’ve created. Can’t wait for more!
    And, dude? Two saves? Duuuude. *bows*

  26. When I first read that you had a tough choice in dragon age, I immediately recognized which person that was and I felt the same emotional conflict when I was in that situation. When I continued reading your post I understood that I play role playing games in the same mind way as you do.
    I guess when you take the nerdiness full out you get to experience things that you otherwise would not. And these critical gaming moments are memories for life.
    And by the way, will there ever be more podcasts with Wizards?
    Thanks for excellent blogging

  27. I’m a little late to this party, but I too have to jump in and say how much I love DAO. I’m on my second run through (I rarely replay games, but not only am I replaying this game, I started replaying almost immediately after finishing it), and I’m enjoying just trying things ever so slightly differently. I love the NPCs; I love their dialogue and what they add to the game. I’m slightly embarrassed to say that both of my play throughs have been as rogues, but with different specialisations and different races. I really should try another class, but I just love playing a rogue.
    I simply cannot wait until the expansion, but I have a horrible feeling my favourite NPC is not going to be in it. *woe*

  28. This is the best game I’ve ever played, bar none, and it’s because of the storytelling. I also highly recommend Mr. Gaider’s prequel novels as well, extremely well-written and engrossing. I admit, I am wildly curious what character you’re talking about, as there are a few characters who will leave or fight you, depending on decisions you make along the way.

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