July 9, 2011

Boy, Games Sure are Getting Close to Movies: The 'Bioshock Infinite' Trailer

In the blockbuster game world, recent multimillion-dollar releases like L.A. Noire (which was the first video game to play at the Tribeca Film Festival) and Portal 2 have taken videogame storytelling up a notch. If this demo of the forthcoming game BioShock Infinite is any indication, first-person shooters are packing in the action, set-pieces, ideas, and storytelling of blockbuster films -- but handing controls over to the player. And that's the whole point, right? Take a look at this video, which isn't a pre-rendered trailer, but rather 15 minutes of screen-captured gameplay :

When watching 15 minutes of a game being played -- meaning, you have no controls yourself, and you're not watching some pre-rendered cutscene but actual gameplay -- feels like a movie, you know we're getting closer and closer to "interactive movie" status. And while I don't get a chance to play very many video games (Portal 2 being a notable, and extremely enjoyable, exception), I'm always keeping tabs on the storytelling and mechanics of the art form. There are also a lot of interesting things going on in the indie game world, with arguably more innovation taking place there than in the film world.

Those of you who get more gaming hands-on (or not, for that matter) -- what did you think of this BioShock trailer?

Your Comment

15 Comments

And you haven't seen Battlefield 3.... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zw8SmsovJc

July 9, 2011 at 5:04PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Mario

Ken Levine is a very thoughtful and deliberate director, and it tens to show in the 'Shock games that he and his team have been working on for so many years. I am indeed personally interested in playing Bioshock Infinite on account of the cohesive themes that are so often worked into their titles (e.g. Bioshock = Ayn Rand/objectivism; Infinite = american exceptionalism, etc.). From a "gamer" perspective, I'm a little less enthusiastic on account of it shares so many mechanical elements with typical first-person shooter fare. It's a genre that can be incredibly blah and whose defining characteristics compromise degrees of agency and narrative in some ways. But I don't discount it, you know? It's akin to looking forward to what seems to be a rather exceptional summer blockbuster.

July 9, 2011 at 5:24PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Damon R. Nagy

I second the Battlefield 3 comment....I saw one video of that where several bits were LITERALLY indistinguishable from video. Now, probably if I had been watching on a larger screen at 1080p the difference would have been clearer. And there weren't any people on screen (it was tanks, rolling through a desert-like area) but still....pretty incredible.

As for Bioshock Infinite, I don't want to watch that video because I plan to play the game someday and don't want it spoiled! But I've seen some of their previous videos, which look equally amazing and are very cinematic. If you haven't played the original Bioshock, I highly recommend it....it's one of the most "cinema-like" games experiences you can have, in terms of storytelling, presentation, art direction, etc. Amazing game.

July 9, 2011 at 11:11PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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I think of myself as a rather avid gamer with a good overview over the developments in this medium and I was absolutely blown away by this BioShock: Infinite Demo. Games like Mass Effect and its sequel have not only achieved a phenomenal visual quality with new and coming titles moving more and more towards photorealism, they oftentimes manage to outgun most films in terms of storytelling and immersion. As a filmmaker and game enthusiast I'm quite fond of the idea that the two media sort of merging together. Well-known actors are already starring in video games on a regular basis ( http://youtu.be/QznjOF9e7sY?hd=1 ) and the idea of directing a video game is very intriguing to me and many other film directors, I would imagine.

July 10, 2011 at 3:50AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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I don't doubt that we're moving closer and closer to games being on par with films (or vice versa?) in terms of the kind of immersion you're seeing here, but keep in mind, this video is of a developer who knows exactly where all the scripted events are and where to look to experience them. Not to say the average gamer won't be able to have those "holy crap did that just happen?" moments, but I can almost guarantee you won't lose yourself as fully as you do watching this video. The whole section where he's swinging from skyway to skyway is an example of a player who's an expert with the controls and mechanics of the game and using them to his advantage. Definitely not somebody who's playing through for the first time...

July 10, 2011 at 3:26PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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I've been working in the games' industry for 6 years now, and was fortunate enough to spend a good chunk of time on the afore mentioned LA Noire, and the problem has always been not the stories in games or how they're told, but that people coming from a movie perspective are looking at them and expecting something they aren't and shouldn't try to be. A game shouldn't try to tell a story like a movie; games have their own story telling strengths that movies don't (and their own weaknesses that movies don't). Rather than feeling the need to ape movies, we should be exploiting our medium's own story telling strengths, which few games do. Nobody reads a great novel and complains that it wasn't paced like a movie, right?

July 10, 2011 at 6:59PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Well, yes and no -- I agree that games have different strengths and weaknesses. But they employ a number of the same techniques as movies, and to date I've often found that games have lower standards for writing, directing, and acting than do films. Nobody complains that a novel wasn't paced like a movie, sure, except novels and movies share many things in common. For example, neither one should be forgiven for shoddy dialogue simply because of its medium. Good storytelling is good storytelling regardless of whether it's through games, movies, books, or over a coffee with your friend.

July 10, 2011 at 8:38PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

But the value of story "telling" itself changes when going to an interactive medium (where story MAKING is possible, and is the primary strength of the medium over "telling"). There are two methods of story "telling" in games; the less game-like more movie aping way, which is the LA Noire/Bioshock/most modern games method, where you're dictating the story to the player. Sure they're walking into the triggers so there's some interactivity, but the story has all been laid out by someone in an office years before, you hit the next bit of the story at a point pre-determined by the designer.

Now look at the less popular (older games conformed to this paradigm more) more open games which on the surface appear to have little to no story. Often games like Arma2, say, (I use this as an example just because military FPS games are so ubiquitous) give so much freedom that they allow the development of individual unique stories through emergent player behavior. So where in a Modern Warfare game, "man the machine gun and kill the main bad guy - oh now the bad guy got into a helicopter! now our jeep is going to go down a set path while you shoot him" would be a story development, in Arma2 that sequence other than "kill the bad guy" would be completely open. You could do it in 4 hours of gameplay, or in 100. You could do it on foot or in a tank. You could do it solo or with an army behind you. You could do it by sneaking up to him and planting explosives on his chair, or by remotely piloting a UAV from 15km away and hitting him. None of those "stories" of how the player brought the bad guy to his end were pre-fabricated (or even predicted) by the designer, they were created by a player, and that's something movies can't ever do, which makes it a unique story strength of games.

In the case above, the narrative would be considered by most to be loose or non-existant because you aren't being led into this encounter, it isn't being advertised or pre-set up, but I'd say those people are coming from a film perspective where they expect to be told a story, whereas in games the strength is in making a story.

Now, the reason more and more games are moving towards the "telling" system is that as games become a more popular medium, there's a wider and wider mark to hit in terms of the average tone and difficulty expected of the material. Games have to appeal to a wider range of people with differing levels of patience and willingness to engage their brains for their play sessions. These days it's easy to draw people to a theater to see a Transformers movie, right? Not so easy to draw them to see a showing of Lawrence of Arabia or Blade Runner, no matter how much deeper their experiences are. They aren't "immediate" enough for the average movie goer, and the same applies to games unfortunately.

I couldn't agree more on the piss poor standard of writing directing and acting in games though. The reason is, and I can tell you this having worked for a few companies with lower production values in the past, that the writing is often done not by writers but just by designers or others around the office with no skill or experience with writing. Though even when actual writers have been brought in, Spielberg, Clive Barker etc. their games have had no better narrative, so I think there's also an element of real writers mis-understanding how to use the medium effectively.
As for directing and acting, the majority of the times the person who wrote the dialogue isn't in the studio to oversee the VO - the writer may write in isolation, e-mail his script to his publisher, the publisher hires a VO director who's never seen the material before or talked it over with the writer, hasn't spoken to the designers and artists and so he often doesn't know what context the lines will be said in (will the character speaking be lying in a meadow or balancing on top of a crumbling building? Has their mentor just been shot or were they re-united with their family 5 minutes ago?) and he directs as blind as that. How can a voice actor hope to turn in a good performance then? There are some notable exceptions, such as our games and Bioware's, which have this process fairly well worked out.

The games industry has a lot of maturing to do in the story area and it still has to find the paradigms it's comfortable in in a lot of areas. Compare the age of the industry to that of the film industry and you can imagine why - we're still in the era of silent hand-cranked slapstick :)

July 11, 2011 at 5:25AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Graeme,

Thanks for your comment. Again, I agree completely with everything you've said about interactivity and how that fundamentally changes the narrative. I spend a lot of time thinking about this myself...

I didn't mean that games should try to become movies, simply that if you're building a game that utilizes the same crafts as filmmaking -- writing, directing, acting, cinematography -- games have a long way to go in those areas (but have been improving a lot lately). My reasoning for posting this trailer wasn't to show off any sort of new branching narrative but simply to show that the scripted events, graphics, and NPCs are combining in a much more convincing way than they have in the previous generation of games.

There's a terrific series at IGN right now talking about the past, present, and future of storytelling in games. Check out the multi-part series here:

http://au.pc.ign.com/articles/115/1159020p1.html#.TgQ0AOyaet8.twitter

July 11, 2011 at 11:49AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

We're in furious agreement then, no doubt.
Casey Hudson and Ken Levine's quotes in that article seem to touch on exactly what we were talking about, thanks for the link.

July 11, 2011 at 3:18PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Its an interesting topic whether there is a gradual conversion between film and games or merely some parallels. My first instinct is to scoff a little at the idea of games being anywhere near as emotionally sophisticated as film...but then I guess that depends on what sort of films and games we are talking about. If you look at the re-emergence of 3D in the cinema it could be seen as a means to compete directly with the immersive qualities of games. And considering the types of plots that films released in 3D generally contain there is some considerable similarities between the two.

I have played some really immersive, well crafted and interesting games in the past but feel like there is a bit of a limitation placed on the ability for games, particularly 1st person shooters, to tell stories effectively. By definition you must actively "shoot" (throw, use a tool etc) in order for the story to unfold and as such the narrative is written to necessitate this.
I think it might be best not to draw too many comparisons between the two as the minute you do you are placing constraints on them. The games I like the best are not driven by traditional narratives, something like the game “Spore” for me reflects the best creative and conceptual aspects of video games.
Anyway I'm trying not to ramble because I don't have a definitive point of view, and all I meant to do was post a passage from an interview with Peter Weir I read the other day....

Q. How has the process of film-making changed in the course of your career?

A. The major change is something we can't assess yet: it's the effect of playing video games from a very young age. Games emphasise scenes, rather than stories, and characterisation suffers dramatically. It may mean the traditional structure of a film will become unacceptable to that group of viewers.

The article is here:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2011/may/10/peter-weir-director

July 11, 2011 at 6:07AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Ben

Games storylines are actually getting very good, I always loved the bioshock errieness and story line... along with the amazing visuals.

It is interesting because my girlfriend actually enjoyed just watching me play bioshock 2..even when it took me a few tries to kill an enemy. She was actually involved in the story.

July 14, 2011 at 5:06PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Pat

As a $$$ industry video games long ago surpassed film.
As far as having something to say....nowhere close.

People go to movies to get out of their own head.
First person shooters isn't where it's at.

July 14, 2011 at 5:19PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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sammy

I would love to direct a game. But I also know how important the power is to the audience in letting them take a chance on you and give them a slight interactive...but predominantly, passive experience called...telling a story.
I know that as the tech increases in our digital world, more elements of both games and stories will intercross, which I'm all for. But when I go to watch a movie..at home or the theatre...I've made that choice on a sub and conscious level that I want someone else to...simply tell the story. And then I rule them over on the internet when it's crap city.

July 14, 2011 at 11:39PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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MARK GEORGEFF

I think games as an entertainment medium/art form are still in their early stages, a bit like the international film industry of the 1920ies - a lot of violence and sex (remarkable cleavage on the girl character btw). Part of this has to do with the inherent difficulty of creating an interactive narrative as opposed to a finely crafted and timed linear narrative in film or books.

But another important aspect seems to be something I would call the "empathy gap" that the current level of realism in games suffers. I used to play a lot of computer games in the age of Monkey Island and Fallout 1. These games were very abstract in their graphical representation as opposed to todays games that are of course a lot more "realistic". But there is this effect that many people find it easier to feel empathy with stylized Pixar characters than with e.g. the more "realistic" Final Fantasy (the movie) characters. L.A.Noir was probably the game that attacked this problem most rigorously so far, but I watched a few longer gameplay videos and I think it is still trapped deeply within that empathy gap. It will probably take another 10-20 years until realistic depictions of humans are so flawless that we can connect with them in the same way of the best drama in other art forms.

July 17, 2011 at 6:10AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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