Making Linear Storytelling Interactive

Movies and video games coexisted symbiotically for years. A video game would come out well after the film it was based on. The game was often an afterthought, sometimes developed using a movie character, but little else. Now, games are released simultaneously with or even in advance of major motion pictures. George Lucas took this approach with the final “Star Wars” film. The video game was released weeks ahead of the movie.

A colleague recently saw “War of the Worlds.” He didn’t like it. It felt like a video game, he said. It didn’t feature the same tension as the original. I was reminded the first “Star Wars” prequel, “The Phantom Menace,” was perhaps the first time I heard the suggestion a scene in a major Hollywood blockbuster was written specifically to be a video game. There was a lot of discussion at the time around how the pod racing felt forced in the movie. It was just barely believable; it felt out of place.

Sure enough, the racing turned into a game version featuring the same construct. I, and many others, felt Lucas was trying too hard to market the movie. He was forcing it to have legs, to extend into other channels, rather than just writing a good story. The second prequel was more of the same, though a better balance was struck in this last film.

A few years back, I hypothesized that if you take interactive TV to the extreme, where the viewer is somehow empowered to control the storyline, you’d need a completely different skill set to tell a compelling story.

Making storytelling’s linear nature interactive requires a different kind of creativity. It’s at least partially why some offline agencies have trouble with online. So many have built their business around the :30 spot. It’s a very linear (and short) format, whereas online is mostly nonlinear and consumer-empowered.

It won’t be the master storytellers who will be the respected geniuses in this world, I hypothesized then. Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas — they’re all linear storytellers. Video game developers possess the right combination of skills and experience to succeed in this world.

My coworker’s reaction to “War of the Worlds” sent me back to that idea. I don’t know if a corresponding video game is planned. If there is, and Spielberg was involved in game development while making the movie, chances are the game’s needs were factored into the way the film story is told. Maybe Spielberg hasn’t yet figured out how to tell an interactive story. Or maybe we’re not even talking about an interactive story, but rather a linear story that requires flexibility to be adapted to a nonlinear story — such as a video game.

Interactive is hard. You can tell a story. You can make an emotional connection. And you most definitely can brand. But it’s challenging. I’ve been doing it since the early days, and I’m still trying to figure it out. So I’ll forgive Spielberg if he’s having trouble cracking that nut. It ain’t easy, but it can be done. It’s fascinating to watch movies and video games as they continue to converge and show us interactive, multichannel storytelling’s potential.

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