Movie-Fueled Game Design

Where would you draw the line with developers using movies to influence game design?

I don’t think there’s a line to be drawn so much as there needs to be a methodology.

Creating games is about creating systems, and movies and other stories ostensibly chronicle the interactions of fictional systems, or the interactions of real life systems. So you can look at a movie and say, “whoa, there’s a big focus on kung-fu here, how much of that can I adapt into a game?”

The book “Game Mechanics: Advanced Game Design” by Joris Dormans categorizes games as ones of progression and ones of emergence. Games of progression are about progressing through a sequence of events with challenges along the way. Progression by itself is not a game, and it can be branching or nonlinear, but this by itself doesn’t contribute significantly to depth. Games of Emergence are more about creating scenarios in which many possible things can occur and interact variably. These have a greater potential for depth. What generally happens in designing most games is something inbetween the two. There is a progression structure chosen for the game, then along that progression there are segments that are more open to emergence that are engaged with until completed, at which point the game will progress. A basic example of this is Devil May Cry, where you walk through some rooms and watch some cutscenes until you hit a combat encounter, at which point you play a game based more on emergence, then when all the enemies are dead, you return to the more basic progression structure. In this way, the progression structure governs when you reach combat encounters and where. As a side-note, games can be nested inside of other games. A full game is typically composed of many smaller games with different relationships and connections to each other.

Movies, unlike games, are primarily about progression. They’re about developing a plot, not faffing around fighting. Some movies like Kung Fu movies, have scenes that are clearly less story intensive and are just fights. Die Hard by comparison has very specifically choreographed fights that use the environment in a specific way to advance the overall plot, so a literal adaptation of Die Hard might not work out so well (and the games didn’t try to adapt that at all)

Directly riffing on the progression structure of a movie can be dangerous because movies also contain many interactions that simply can’t be systemized (imagine making a game out of the movie Focus, you can’t really do it). To make a good game, you generally need to abstract the structure of the film to allow for more segments of emergence between the segments of progression.

Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure is another series that, if taken too literally, would adapt poorly to a game. Look at how most of the fights go. One of them is literally about avoiding showing a sign that you’re scared. The PS1 port of the Capcom Jojo game had many of the stand fights filled in with Quick Time Events.

So when it came time to make a Jojo video game, they didn’t make a game that followed the plot at all, they didn’t systemize the lateral thinking puzzle combat typical of most Jojo fights. They made a fighting game. They took the combat stands and figured out how to build sets of repeatable specific moves out of their abilities that would have a depth to them.

Think of the conversion kind of like this. You ever read a fantasy story before with magic in it? You know how magic in fantasy stories can be fanciful and fluid in effect, as in Harry Potter? To make a game, you need to take that concept and make it rigid and specific. Magic in games is very similar to Vancian Magic, named after the writings of Jack Vance in Dying Earth. When Gary Gygax and others made Dungeons and Dragons, they elected to have the magic be much more specific spells that needed to each be specifically prepared like a grenade that was locked and loaded. Where in Harry Potter, there’s a vague notion of how powerful a given wizard is and what types of magic they’re capable of or good at, in a game, a wizard can only do very specifically what is enabled for them (unless you’re playing some freeform RP business where rules for everything can be made up on the fly and outcomes aren’t so important as storytelling).

The real world obeys very… granular… physical laws that allow for a vast number of possible outcomes from simple physical principles operating on a minute level which can be iterated to produce a diverse range of physical effects on a macro level. Video Games don’t get this same luxury, so the rules basically have to be made up arbitrarily for each individual element. This means that a lot of systems that are seen in movies and fiction (like trying to observe the sign of someone’s fear by scaring them) are dependent on a massive number of subtle physical interactions to generate the actual dynamic being played with, ones that you can’t reasonably simulate. Also in building a game, you’re limited in how much you can actually build. You need to essentially make every move, every rule from scratch, so you gotta choose rules that interact with the other ones and which can be reused many times in many scenarios with varying effect, to get the most bang for your buck.

What actions can you pick up from this film that will have the most reuseability and interaction with the other actions and elements you take from it? How can you restructure the scenarios to support emergent play and interesting progression? The key is to see where the film reflects interactions of a system that can be easily abstracted and therefore adapted into the video game (or board game) format. Otherwise you could end up with Heavy Rain or Beyond Two Souls instead of Transformers Devastation. Even Uncharted stretches out the shooting parts, because while those would be ignored in a progression based movie, they’re the centerpoint of an emergence based game, and emergence is the key to depth.

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