Comparing Video Game Narratives VS Cinema

The Low-down

In video games, the focus on narrative has increased throughout the years. From “A Hat in Time” to the “Yakuza” series, the video game market is saturated with narrative-rich games. Unlike movies, video games have its own unique way of conveying its plot to the user and continue to evolve in that aspect. “Kingdom Come: Deliverance” for example combines gameplay elements and story elements to place the player into the main protagonist’s shoe. Despite its unique interaction with its audience, video games do have plenty of similarities with movies. Cinematography, sound design, and mise-en-scene are elements from movies that can also be found in games. I want to analyze two narrative techniques in video games and movies to see how many similarities there are between the two mediums. Mise-en-scene, cinematography and sound design will receive their own essays. I will be talking about “The Last of Us,” the “Yakuza series,” and a few Edgar Wright films in this post and will be spoiling parts of each. Also, please take my words with a grain of salt. Thanks!

Video Game Narratives: 1970-1980s

During the early years of video games, game developers had a hard time developing games that appeal to the masses. Since movies are extremely, it is only natural to make games and have some sort of narrative with it. In cinema, narrative is defined as the account of a protagonist in pursuit of an objective, enhanced by the use of dramatic tools (Steensland, Mark).

800px-Ms._Pac-Man_&_Donkey_Kong_-_arcade_cabinets
“Donkey Kong” cabinet (Right) along side a “Ms. Pac-Man” cabinet. Photo by JohnnyMrNinja

In video games, it is pretty much the same thing. “Donkey Kong” is an early example of a game with a narrative. Not only does it have a protagonist with a clear objective but it is very simple to understand. You know that Mario has to get to the top and beat Donkey Kong to save the girl. “Donkey Kong’s” narrative might be simple but it can be picked up easily by the person playing it. However, not all games that have a story that can tell them through the game itself. Think of the Atari 2600 days. Most of its games have to rely on external mediums for narrative delivery. The game “Missile Command” for example has its narrative written on its game manual. If you play this game, you would never get its narrative through game play.

“You know we are about to see three blips.” – Conan O’Brien

Screenshot (16)
Conan O’Brien holding the “Missile Command” game manual during his “Clueless Gamer” series.

The limitations of the hardware that the developers had to work with at the time was definitely a factor on why narrative is hard to implement on video games. However, as the technology used to create video games advance, so does the creativity room of their creators.

Dramatic Tools

Part 1: Telegraphing

Do you remember the scene on “Hot Fuzz” where they went and shot up the pub after the epic shootout?

No? Well, if you don’t remember, here is a clip:

That is an example of what is called Telegraphing and it is when a character directly tells the audience what will happen in the future. As you can see from the clip, Danny (played by Nick Frost) asked Angel (played by Simon Pegg) where to head next; Angel says “pub?” and voila, that is where they ended up.
This certainly happens in video games; not only through game mechanics, but in narrative as well. Let’s look at the opening scene of “The Last of Us” as an example:

As Joel, Sarah and Tommy tries to find safety, they come across an abandoned bar and Tommy decides to hold off the infected for Joel and Sarah. This scene is a perfect example of Telegraphing. Joel’s dialogue pinpointed exactly what happened in the next scene. It’s brilliant because Joel could’ve easily give Tommy a quick head nod and it would’ve been okay but the writing team over at Naughty Dog had to go one step further. Not only did Joel blatantly tell the player of Tommy’s rescue, it saved the scene from being contrived like a “Deus Ex Machina” moment.

Part 2: Plant-and-Payoff

Now let’s move on to Plant-and-payoff. This is when the audience sees something early on that will become important later. To others this dramatic principle might be better known as “Chekhov’s gun.” This phrase is based on a narrative writing principle by Russian writer Anton Chekhov which states:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it   absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

In cinema, this principle is used by many directors including one of my favorites: Edgar Wright. To give an example, there is a literal “Chekov’s gun” in Wright’s movie “Shaun of the Dead” hanging in the pub.

Screenshot (24)
The Winchester rifle hanging inside the pub during the start of “Shaun of the Dead.”

And guess what: The gang gets to fire the rifle towards the last part of the movie.

Screenshot (18)
Ed (Nick Frost) holding the Winchester rifle.

Narratives in video games works pretty much the same way in terms of plant-and-payoff. In “Yakuza 0,” there was a perfect instance of the plant-and-payoff principle. If you don’t want this game spoiled, you can skip this part. Again, there will be spoilers.

In the early chapters of Majima’s storyline, Majima was ordered to kill someone by the name of “Makimura Makoto.” He then later finds out that Makoto was a blind woman who was under the protection of a massage therapist/hitman by the name of Lee or “God hand” as he is known by his customers. After finding Makoto, Majima had a change-of-heart and helped her by hiding her and Lee in a warehouse. Majima then later found out that the cause of Makoto’s blindness. According to Lee, it was because of psychological trauma. Makoto then talked about her tragic background and said that the last thing she saw before she became blind was a bat tattoo. This bat tattoo became very important for Majima’s storyline to intertwine with “Yakuza 0’s” other protagonist, Kazuma Kiryu. Not only that once the player knows Makoto’s relations with the man with the bat tattoo, the convoluted story of “Yakuza 0” will unravel in a big way.

Bat Tattoo - Yakuza 0
The bat tattoo mentioned by Makoto

Int the end, these two examples of dramatic tools are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to video game narratives. Plant-and-payoff and Telegraphing are just two of my favorite things to look out for when it comes to analyzing narrative. Also, I have only taken one film class in my entire life so take what I say with a grain of salt. After this essay, I will be working on another topic that also concerns video game narrative and it has a lot to do with meaning.

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