Videogames Need to Learn from TV, Not Movies

Every industry has its buzz words. Last year, videogames were all “immersive,” even though that word got applied to so many places that weren’t even close to appropriate. This year, the word seems to be “cinematic.” If games are really taking cues from movies, they’re heading down the wrong path. They should be looking at television, if anything.

I’ve been playing some ‘Red Dead Redemption.’ It’s a fine game once you get into it, but boy does it start slowly. A full 45 minutes went by in the game before I actually did anything interesting. I started by watching a cutscene. Then I rode a horse and listened to people talk to me. Then I watched a cutscene and road another horse.

Okay, to be fair, I got to shoot some rabbits in there too. But compared to the promise of gunning down outlaws, rabbits just don’t cut it. Obviously, I could have skipped a few of the cutscenes, but the horse riding and the dull conversation would still be there.

It’s not that I’m against horse riding. Once I got past that frustrating opener and got control of my character, the first thing I did was grab the reigns of my horse and ride off into the sunset. It’s a very cool feeling. That’s a lot different than a forced slow walk around town looking for rabbits and coyotes.

I’m sure I’m not the only one that feels overwhelmed by investing 40 hours, or even 20, into a game. It was great when I was a kid, but my time is limited and I’ve got to get my gaming in when I can. The thing is, I can put the same amount of time into a good TV show and it doesn’t even phase me.

I’ve been watching ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘Torchwood’ daily, slowly catching up on both shows. Each episode is – you guessed it – 45 minutes long. In the last two weeks, I’ve watched an hour and a half each day. That comes out to a total of 21 hours spent watching the two shows, and it feels like no time at all

In a television show like ‘Doctor Who,’ I’ve got a nice 45-minute chunk of entertainment that’s guaranteed to entertain. There’s going to be exposition, rising action, a climax, falling action and a conclusion. I get the full experience. Tied into that episode is also one larger plot. Most episodes contribute to the overall plot, but some are just there as side notes.

That’s something common to a lot of popular TV shows these days – an episodic format that still has all the qualities of a serial. The first two seasons of ‘Lost’ (and probably the others as well, but I’ve only seen the first two) captured this perfectly. They gave us a satisfying beginning, middle and end in backstories, even if everything happening on the island itself was a mystery.

That’s the thing that game makers need to learn. Movies can have a single plotline spread across a full two hours. If you go much longer than that – I’m looking at you, ‘King Kong‘ – they start to feel old. Most games try stretching a single story across the entirety of the game, and that just plain doesn’t work.

When games are split up like television shows, into 30- or 45- minute increments, they work beautifully. Take ‘BioShock,’ for example. The game takes between 8 to 12 hours to beat, but it’s divided up into smaller sections. You can sit down and knock out a section in an hour while getting a full story from the experience.

‘BioShock’ also started with excitement, which is something many games have trouble with. If I’m not doing something fun, or at least interesting, in the first 10 minutes of the game, it’s not going to capture my interest. Some of the best games I’ve ever played started nice and strong.

‘Final Fantasy VI’ started with characters in Magitek armor, and ‘Final Fantasy VII’ began with a mission to bomb a Mako reactor. Even ‘Link to the Past’ let players infiltrate a castle just minutes after it started.

In the long run of the story, these are all fairly small events. They’re just a small part of the bigger focus that comes after. But they’re small stories introducing the whole game. They’re almost like TV pilots, when you think about it.


  1. besch64

    “The first two seasons of ‘Lost’ (and probably the others as well, but I’ve only seen the first two)”

    Man, you need to get on that.

    Anyway, definitely an interesting article. I haven’t played a real videogame in years, and I’ve been trying to figure out why I grew out of them so suddenly. This might have something to do with it. There’s not enough game in the games anymore. People are so concerned with getting videogames to be appreciated as “art” that they’re sacrificing the thing that makes games great (fun) to try to make them more like movies. Guys, if you have a story that you think is good enough to be presented to a mass audience, write a screenplay or a book. Don’t waste it n a videogame. Instead, give me another Banjo-Kazooie. That’s what I really want to play.

    And when I say I haven’t played a “real” videogame in years, I mean aside from Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and my old N64 classics which are infitely playable.

    • That’s why I could never get into Metal Gear Solid. It felt like there was a half hour of cut scenes for every 5 minutes of playable game content. Not my thing at all. I just want a simple, mindless shooter where you run around blowin’ stuff up.

      • JoeRo

        Here here! MGS is terrible about long cutscenes, and it’s not as if konami is the only company making that mistake. It’s like Dick says with his Bioshock example, if games can tell a story without losing the actual game aspect, then fantastic. Otherwise, don’t do it. There’s nothing more frustrating to me than getting to an interesting point in a game, working my way towards some climactic battle only to be yanked away from the controls for god only knows how long.

        But if we’re talking about games that are fun, pure and simple good old fashioned lemonade sipping fun, then I’d love to hear some recommendations.

        Some all time favorites for me are Portal, the Loco Roco and Katamari series, any incarnation of smash bros., any of the God of War games, and just about every Mario game ever made(excepting maybe mario paint).

  2. Jane Morgan

    Most TV shows tell small-budget stories, and they’re more dialogue-driven than action-driven.

    Video games should feel larger than movies. But be made of, I think, shorter levels. I don’t know why, but a 45 minute level feels too long.

    Maybe most levels should be like a 11-22 minute sequence, made of 3-5 minute “scenes.” Each one beginning with a hook and ending with a reward.

    And let’s keep story-driven games to a length of 8-10 hours. Like a package of three movies. Like the ‘Lord Of The Rings’ where it’s all one epic quest. Easy to complete in three evenings.

    I would rather have Rockstar make a 10 hour GTA every year, than a 40 hour GTA every four years.

    I would rather play 50 short games per year than 12 long games per year.

    I only get to the end of 25% of the games I play. 95% of games I only play for one week.

    Taking the storytelling in video games to the next level would be fantastic, but TV is the last thing I want games to be like.

  3. Terenoth

    Maybe games need to be more like… books? A well-written novel has chapters that are almost self-enclosed, even though there is an over-arching plot. If a game were to be divided into short chapters or levels that function similarly to the above, you could play a couple of chapters, take a break, play a few more, or even just one.

    By the way, I totally agree on the cutscene thing. Some of the best “cutscenes” I’ve seen in games are of the scripted variety that are done in-game, i.e. Half-Life, Bioshock, etc.

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