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Game Design

Spinning a Compelling Cinematic Yarn


As games acquire greater cinematic quality, storytelling is increasingly getting more than passing treatment from developers.

The trouble, of course, is games are interactive. Players get to choose what they want to do next. In film, the director is in control.

The challenge for game designers is to create plot, tension and drama--and still give players control, or at least the illusion of it. In online games where thousands of people participate, the story is much like hypertext, where the interaction between players becomes a never-ending plot. But with single-player games, the designer has to do the heavy lifting.

One of the first games to successfully spin a compelling yarn was "Myst," a game in which players must solve the mystery of a father who has trapped his two treacherous sons in magical "ages." Players assemble pieces of the story by solving various puzzles without any dialogue.

Until recently, "Myst" was the exception rather than the rule in game storytelling, which often offered little more than good guys going after bad guys.

These days, game companies are hiring seasoned storytellers to help create scenes, write dialogue, develop characters and inject nuance and depth into plots.

For the last three years, for example, Electronic Arts Inc. in Redwood City, Calif., has worked with Danny Bilson, the producer of TV shows "The Flash," "Viper" and "The Sentinel," as well as the movies "The Rocketeer," "Trancers" and "Zone Troopers."

Bilson, 45, now an Electronic Arts vice president, discussed his involvement with numerous EA games, including "The Sims," "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," "Medal of Honor" and "James Bond: Agent Under Fire."

Question: What exactly do you do for EA?

Answer: I focus on dialogue, sound, acting, pace, drama. I find it very much like the film business in terms of pacing out beats. For example, working on "Medal of Honor" is similar to laying out action scenes in a movie. For instance, you have these guys on a bridge. What do we want them to do? Do we give them a tank? Do we have a boat come up? Thinking about that's really fun, and it's similar to film writing.

Q: How do you create drama in a game?

A: Drama is all about moments, memorable moments. Everybody at EA is focused on memorable moments now. In "Harry Potter," it's the first time you fly a broomstick. The goal we're all striving for is creating emotion in the player, whether it's anger, fear, sadness or joy.

You start with how the game will capture the imagination. Is it a game I want to play? Is the subject matter sexy? Every game should have a beginning, a middle and an end. The stuff has to be exciting and surprising. We're not talking just about the opening, although the first hour of the game should suck everyone in. Even though not everyone will finish your game, you should still have a great ending, because the legend at the end will drive some people to play.

Q: Game designers seem to be enamored with cut scenes. Some games have cut scenes that last more than half an hour. As a film director who's also a hard-core gamer, what do you think of those short video scenes?

A: I don't like cut scenes. I don't play a game to watch a movie. As a player, I hit the button to move on so I don't have to watch them. How do you make the story compelling? You have moments where the story turns constantly so you don't get bored. In "Final Fantasy X" there are a million cut scenes, but at the least the moments are rolling up on the beach quickly. I define moments as surprises. Let the stuff happen interactively. The goal should be to eliminate all cut scenes. The goal is to have the story erupting around you without interrupting the game play.

Q: What are some common mistakes game developers make?

A: One of the things I find is that I'm always pulling stuff out, not adding stuff. Dealing with game designers who write their own story, I find that they have the same experience as new screenwriters. I'm constantly telling them to economize.

Another thing I work on is acting. There's so much bad acting in the animation. I usually tell people to take half the movement out. It's hammy. It's bad acting. But that's like directing animation.

Q: Any differences between creating a game and directing a movie?

A: In the movie business, the marketing people come in after the fact and ask, "How do we sell this?" They don't have creative influence on the picture itself. In games, they are influencing the development. You're constantly getting feedback. There's just a lot of interaction along the way. It's good as long as they don't have creative control. Feedback is great. Control is scary.


Alex Pham covers the video game industry. She can be reached at

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