Game Storytelling Should Look to Music, Not Film

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Why do games try to be like movies when they’re arguably more like music in the first place?

It’s no secret that many games aspire to be like movies in their storytelling – grand, elaborate cutscenes, visually stunning tableaus – and indeed, “cinematic” is right up there with “compelling” in terms of generic review praise. But videogames are an inherently interactive medium – you watch a movie, you read a book, but you play a game. As Ollie Barder argues in Issue 229 of The Escapist, games should take cues from another medium that is meant to be played: Music.

At their heart, the way games guide players through their inner workings is a lot like how a musician reads a piece of sheet music. Musical notation is purely causal, as it directs the musician how the piece should be performed. Full of differing instructions like repeats and codas, you very rarely progress straight through a piece of music the way you would a novel or film. Time signatures, keys, rhythms, dynamics – sheet music contains incredibly precise directions on how to perform the piece. Not everyone can read it, either; musical notation must be parsed by a trained musician before a listener can interpret it.

In the same way, a gamer also has to follow very detailed instructions in terms of timing inputs, coordinating button presses and dealing with graded elements of control input intensity. You can’t hand the controller over to anyone, either – complex games require the specific skillset of an experienced gamer in order to be successfully parsed.

To read more about how games could take a few pointers from the sound of music (and that would be the actual sound, not the film), read “Symphony of Play” by Ollie Barder in Issue 229 of The Escapist.

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