Looking at a film synopsis through game writing eyes

On July 4, 2014 by christy

Yesterday I saw news of Guillermo del Toro’s latest film “Book of Life” (he is the producer, and Jorge Gutierrez the director). The film looks amazingly beautiful, and a treat of a story. But something struck me when I read the synopsis, and I’m surprised by the thought. The official synopsis is as follows:

THE BOOK OF LIFE is the journey of Manolo, a young man who is torn between fulfilling the expectations of his family and following his heart. Before choosing which path to follow, he embarks on an incredible adventure that spans three fantastical worlds where he must face his greatest fears. Rich with a fresh take on pop music favorites, THE BOOK OF LIFE encourages us to celebrate the past while looking forward to the future. [IMDb]

What struck me as strange is that I didn’t see the protagonist’s conflict of being torn between family expectations and following his heart as being an evenly weighted dilemma. I can see how that can work in a story I’m watching or reading, and I have written my own stories with such a quandary. I just found this time I looked at the predicament and thought that would never work in a game. Well, that isn’t true. It can, but it doesn’t have the immediate strength of a true dilemma. I mentioned the importance of this notion in an article I wrote on emotion in games:

There shouldn’t be one option that is right or better than the others. The game One Choice by Awkward Silence Games displays this edict well. In One Choice, you’re a scientist who, along with your team, has accidently created a pathogen that is killing all living cells on Earth. The game takes place in the last six days on Earth. You make choices about how to spend these last few days: spend time with your family, work on a cure, or go nuts? I kept being offered these options, and it wasn’t cut and dry for me. I would make a decision, and then I would feel guilty or think that another option was better for me and try again. Either way, whatever I did, someone lost with every decision I made, and I didn’t get any second chances.

One of the things Chris Crawford writes about in his book on interactive storytelling for instance, is how important it is for the choices we offer players to be equally meaningful:  ‘a large set of dramatically significant, closely balanced choices for the player’. If it is obvious which choice the player should make, then they aren’t feeling anything. Family expectations, while certainly a real issue for many, just seems like a weaker option compared to the protagonist wanting to follow his heart. (Of course it won’t be that cut and dry in the film. I presume the story will weave its way to gaining family acceptance through his own path or some other turn where both paths are appeased.)

But how is following your heart on equal footing as meeting your family expectations? There needs to be something else in there to ground the dilemma. Honouring the spirit of his forefathers versus following his heart perhaps? Both need to have a cost, a sacrifice to them, that pulls at his identity or sense of being.

None of these observations mean the film story won’t work. I’m sure it is a wonderful film. Also I want to note too that games don’t have to be a series of interesting choices, and Guillermo is no stranger to videogames or transmedia. Instead, perhaps the issue is with marketing language. While marketers promoting the film (and the logic of industry pitching) are film-centric — working with the conventions of film only — the audience is not. Narrative is not the only primary literacy now. So the language used to describe phenomena needs to evolve accordingly.

Check out this amazing trailer if you haven’t seen it, and let me whatever thoughts you may have…