Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 126 / FEBRUARY 1991 / PAGE 54

Films can make lousy games. (creating computer games) (Gameplay)
by Orson Scott Card

The other day I was talking to game designer Hal Barwood. Barwood has one of those careers that make you say, "Wow, he did that, too?" He was producer and cowriter of the movie Dragon-slayer, for instance - which is, to my mind, the best medieval fantasy movie ever made. He has also directed films and plays.

During our conversation, Barwood made an observation that really hit home with me. "The companies making animated games keep talking as if the games resembled movies," he said. (He's talking about companies like Access, Cinemaware, Lucasfilm, and Sierra.) "But they don't resemble movies all that much."

He granted some resemblances, of course, especially with animated film. The dependence on artists; the trickle rate of production, where you're producing the game or film at the rate of only minutes, or even seconds, or usable footage a day; and the dominant role of the editing process.

Still, though, when it comes to the art of composing a game, inventing it he said, "What it really resembles is theater. Plays"

Why? Because as with a play, you have only a few settings you can work with, and they can usually be viewed from only a single angle and at the same distance. You can't do any meaningful work with closeups (to design and program genuine realistic facial investment in time and disk space). It's so hard to make actions clear that you must either rely on dialogue, like most plays, or show only the simplest, most obvious actions.

In movies it's just the opposite. You control the pace and rhythm of the film by cutting and shifting the action from place to place. The camera never gazes at any one thing for long.

On reflection, though, I realized that Barwood's observation was really saying something deeper than merely taking note of a useful analogy with theater. A lot of animated-game designers put far too much faith in that game-as-movie analogy. (How do you think Cinemaware got its name?) As a result, they keep comparing their games to an art so different that most of the techniques that work for the one will fail with the other.

Computer games can never equal film at the thing film does best: the overwhelming sense of reality. There isn't enough disk space, even if we had LaserDisc-ROM to work with, screens with movie-quality color and resolution, and ocmputers with the processing speed to handle it (even a Cray supercomputer can't do it now for more than seconds at a time). Computer games can't even do what cartoons do, because we can't put in those wondefully expressive voices.

What Barwood had discovered - and what every good game author eventually has to learn - is that computers are a completely different medium, and great computer artworks will only come about when we stop judging compter games by standards developed for other media. A good animated computer game will, by definition, be a second-rate film or play. By the same token, a good film, if it's adapted too faithfully, will invariably make a lousy game.

Take Gone with the Wind. The book does a fine job of evoking the rebuilding of Atlanta after the war. There are many details and general statements the together, build up a good intellectual and emotional feel for the process, for the society in transformation.

Wisely, the filmmakers made only the most cursory attempts to show this - a few shots of buildings under construction - and almost completely avoided the social implications of this process. The simply wasn't time in the film to develop the kind of understanding that could be easily created in the book. The filmmakers concentrated on showing only those parts of the story of Gone with the Wind that would work well on film. The result is a great book and a great movie, but neither one even comes close to conveying that which is best about the other.

There's a lesson to be learned. As long as films tried to be plays, they couldn't be good films. As long as television tried to be movies or plays, we had no idea what good television could be. And when plays try to do what film and television do so much better, they also fail. Computer games will only achieve greatness when the game authors stop thinking their goal is to put movies on the computer screen. The art of computer storytelling has to be invented, not copied.

The analogy goes one step farther, too. The art evolves along with the technology. When sound came to film, when videotape cam to television, when reliable and variable stage lighting came to theatre, when cheap printing allowed stories and poems to be read silently and in private instead of aloud in a group - with each of these advances, the storytellers were able to take giant leaps forward.

You want to do the rebuilding of Atlanta after the war? SimCity does it better than either the book or the movie of Gone in the Wind. The computer "don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies," but what it does well, it does better than any other medium that ever existed. And game authors will do their finest work when they spend their efforts on what computers do well, instead of wasting time trying to make movies on a VGA screen.