Writing Stories with Lightning
“It is like writing history with Lightning” said President Woodrow Wilson, allegedly after seeing the first screening of a movie in the White House.
As exceptional as President Wilson’s ability to conjure awesome metaphors was, his remark carried little hyperbole. By then movies were finally breaking the “movie barrier.” After decades of being little more than silent amusements to be shown in “moving picture shows,” one movie finally cracked the code necessary to deliver narratives.
The movie, the very same screened at Wilson’s abode, was D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. Birth, despite being morally reprehensible now – it portrayed the KKK as heroes in a time where segregation was considered almost too progressive – was the film that invented film language as we know it.
It invented things we now take for granted, like the idea of telling a scene by cutting between wide and medium shots, as well as inserting close-ups and close shots of details. Griffith’s biggest innovation, however, was cross-cutting: the mechanism of a movie following parallel lines of action taking place at different locations. First, you show one group of characters, then another, then the previous group again. I cannot say what is more mind-blowing: the mechanism itself or the idea that some audience somewhere in the past once found this mind-blowing.
What is mind-blowing is that games have yet to discover the genius that is cross-cutting. It’s mind-blowingly weird.
We have captured the language of movies perfectly – and applied them only during cutscenes. How often do we jump between characters and provide the gamer with different points of view? Even Episodic Gaming, an issue we have just talked about, fails to make use of cross cutting even though it is the form that would most benefit from it. Let’s not put the horse before the cart, though. How can we even expect games to master cross-cutting, when they fail to present multiple points of views in general?
The few times they did, however, the result was most encouraging. In Resident Evil 2, the franchise’s best-selling game on a single platform, allowing players to finish the game first from one of the protagonist’s perspective and then complementing it with the other protagonist’s allowed Capcom to expand the game’s length without dragging out the plot. Meanwhile, the sudden change of reference at the very end of Red Dead Redemption puts the entire narrative into a different context. The redemption so long sought by John Marston, instead of allowing his son to become a farmer like he would have wanted, made him become a gunslinger, thus perpetuating the sins that led up to that quest for redemption in the first place.
In fact, there is a strong interrelation between the games that allow us to assume different points of view (and just because I’m nice, I’m even counting the examples whose portrayal of different points of view is not integrated in the same single player mode, like the Separate Ways mode of Resident Evil 4) and being able to tell an engrossing tale. Examples are: Eternal Darkness, Final Fantasy, Resident Evil, Silent Hill 2: Shattered Memories, Deadly Premonition (yes!), Heavy Rain, etc.
And that’s the whole point, no? Video games now want to tell stories and to be recognizable as a respectful medium for story-telling – for that to happen, the “game barrier” must be broken down. That means not only lessening the reliance on the pillars of gameplay – abundance of action being repeated (the Gameplay Loop) by the same fella – but also starting to make use of tools already available to us from that veteran visual story-telling medium known as moving pictures.
Still, even though I can see game directors that are not Hideo Kojima having trouble attempting to incorporate cross-cutting in their works, I cannot grasp why the industry hasn’t adopted the principle of using contrasting points of view for the same event, considering the costs of game development. Wouldn’t it make more sense to spare some money and, instead of building new worlds, revisit them with different characters, living different stories? I mean, the world of Hyrule is not like a set that needs to be maintained by a studio, no? Instead, I see only a handful of developers doing this; Rockstar in particular, with their DLCs. If I were Rockstar, however, I would go even further. I would no longer develop any new cities for GTA, L.A. Noire, or Red Dead Redemption, and instead only fill those spaces with lots of different tales, both big and small, being sold at extravagant or dirt cheap prices respectively. In my almost-perfect world, if there were a Bioshock sequel (it’s almost perfect because, in my perfect world, the original Bioshock would ascend to become a legend and leave no offspring behind), that sequel would present the very same spaces of the first one instead of any new areas, but from a different perspective.
Cross-cutting is an incredibly versatile technique. It is ambiguous for it suggests simultaneity between both actions, which may not be the case. It is meaningful for it can imply metaphors, contrasts, and/or parallels between the two actions being shown. It is rhythmical as the time between cuts can set the pacing of the narrative. It is suspenseful for it builds the expectation for the explanation of a scene the audience doesn’t quite comprehend at that time.
There is so much we are missing, so much money being wasted on derivations of the same story on different worlds rather than the other way around. The barrier is still ahead of us. And we are not there yet.