© Written by Rob Ager July 2014




Another inherent departure from reality in movies and games is the concept of a story having a defined beginning and end. Instead of beginning with a lead character’s moment of birth and ending with their moment of death, most movies make their lead character pop into existence as an adult at the beginning of the story and abruptly end after they’ve overcome, or in some instances failed to overcome, a specific obstacle – at which point the movie or game ends and the character suddenly pops back out of existence. It’s another blatant, yet silently accepted, mismatch with reality. And there’s generally a “lived happily ever after” moment to finish the story, a concept that only exists in fiction. Human’s, no matter how well they’ve done for themselves, always face uncertainties about their own future right up until the moment they die.

In the case of TV shows in which the episodes can be watched in any order, there’s generally a pre-defined state of normality that each show both begins with ends with. Certain characters will always survive and be present in the next episode and certain conditions and relationships will always be present. Nevertheless such TV shows can still be immensely popular. The same is also true of most James Bond films. Bond always survives and, with only a few exceptions in the franchise to try and make certain films stand out a little more, he’s left unscathed for the next film. His long-standing superiors virtually always survive as well and remain in their usual job positions instead of being promoted or demoted. And Bond himself never seems to get promoted despite saving the world ten times over. It’s fantastically ridiculous, and audiences love it.

Video games also follow the same premise in that if you die you are respawned with basically the same abilities that you had when you first began the game. But in the old days of more challenging games you could only resurrect yourself after a handful of deaths at the very beginning of the entire game. Would it appeal to gamers if they had just one life, a single chance to try and defeat the game, and if you fail and get killed just once then you are forever locked out of the game? Although this would match our actual lives, such a game probably wouldn’t sell very well and would result in extremely cautious gameplay that would take the fun out of the experience. The power to self-resurrect holds great appeal.

In the same manner, when we watch a movie we have the option of going back and rewatching it as many times as we like, during which we can notice things we missed the first time around. This generally isn’t true in real life. Most specific things we experience are one off affairs that can then only be directly referred to in our flawed memories. To varying degrees we can recreate the conditions of particular experiences so as to have a simulated repeat experience, but there are always differences. We never go through a specific experience more than once without some change occurring.

With video games an interesting development is open-world or sandbox gaming. This means that the player is given free reign to explore and do as they like in the game world, within the technical and aesthetic limitations of the game engine. You can go where you want, interact with what you want.The Elder Scrolls series and Farcry 3 fall into these categories, but the open world structure is, in part, an illusion. The world is filled with assorted quests and missions, each of which is in itself a traditional story structure with a beginning and an end which the player usually can’t deviate from. So in effect the supposed open world structure consists of a series of optional mini-games which the player can choose from and play in whatever order they wish. These quest options are looped branches that take the player temporarily out of the game’s main questline, which in itself is linear like in a movie.

Minecraft is one of the few examples of a game that can be considered to be a genuine sandbox or open world game. There is an optional path to complete the game, so to speak, but the player isn’t told that they have to go that route. Instead they can just stay in the world and play around with exploring, gathering resources and creating structures until they get bored. The downside of this is that if the player isn’t imaginative then the whole thing can feel aimless and uninspiring. Personally I think this is the future of gaming. As the sandbox environments become more sophisticated players will find it easier and easier to keep themselves entertained in those environments by creating their own stories instead of following a path set out for them.

One way in which movies can achieve a sort of sandbox interactive feel is by the film makers encoding multiple conceptual layers to the experience that are not obvious in a single viewing. The traditional screenplay format tends to reduce movies to simple dialogue based experiences, but film makers like Hitchcock, Kubrick and Lynch did a great deal to pioneer the art of the rewatchable movie – a movie that only reveals part of its conceptual depth on first viewing and, by implication, invites the viewer to think about the film afterwards to try and figure out what wasn’t made obvious or invites the viewer to return and watch again to see what else they can notice. It gets even more interesting when such films feature symbolic content that is more in line with the psychology of dreams than reality – the popularity of sci-fi, fantasy and horror films confirms this public appetite for unrealistic movie content.

For me multi-layered narratives are the future of film making and its importance is evident in that the most long-term talked about and remembered films tend to have a strong cryptic / symbolic element or veer away from so-called reality – Citizen Kane, The Shining, Apocalypse Now, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Metropolis, Star Wars, The Matrix, Taxi Driver for example. These movies have a lot more going on than just dialogue driven plot points. The obstacle for film makers is that the commercial backers of films are primarily interested in simplistic traditional narrative structures that do not challenge the audience. They want movies that everyone will want to see quickly during a heavily advertised release (before the intellectual vacancy becomes obvious) rather than slow burners that gradually creep into the collective public conscious, thus generating financial revenue that might initially be low but will be sustained in the longer term. Movies like The Thing, Bladerunner, Big Lebowski, The Terminator and The Master have a psychological allure that draws people back time and time again, even if they weren’t too keen on those films the first time around.

And w ith video games the increasing popularity of the open world format suggests that players are, to an extent, willing to abandon game storylines all together in favour of creating their own storylines.