M dot Strange is a mixed media animator from San Jose, Ca. He recently singlehandedly completed an 88 minute animated film entitled "We are the Strange" which made its world premiere in January of this year at the Sundance Film Festival. A reviewer that saw the film M dot made in his bedroom with 9 PC's over the course of 3 years said "it looked like something Hollywood would make for 70 million" He has recently been featured in the NY Times, ABC World News , Wired.com and his youtube videos have been viewed over a million times.
Recently I did a few lectures on animation and film making for San Jose State University students. One of the students asked a question about how video gaming had influenced the way I developed the narrative in We are the Strange. At the moment I hadn't really thought about how video games had influenced the narrative aspects of the film. Retro video games have obviously influenced my visual style but until tonight I hadn't really realized how games have influenced my approach to narrative structure. I was sitting around a table with a few friends who are all artists or filmmakers, we were talking about our favorite games. Most all of my favorite games have strong narrative elements as opposed to more free form games like the Grand Theft Auto series. In the past two weeks I have read one too many books on story, plot, dramatic theory, screenwriting etc... I know that I don't need to work on my visual style anymore as I've got that pretty much locked down so I've trying to understand what makes successful traditional films work as far as structure goes. When it comes to screenwriting there is a well defined structure in place that a lot writers adhere too. As I sat there listening to my friends talk about they're favorite games and why they liked them I began to see the parallels between the traditional structure of video games and the three act, archplot mainstream screenplay. This viewpoint may have been documented somewhere else so I apologize if this is redundant to some. Over the past year I have been trying to do what I can to share what I have learned about filmmaking with other creators across the web with my "film skool" videos on youtube. I think that many of the people who are following my "Film Skool" videos and the like are part of a generation wherein video gaming influences run very deep. So I would like to share what I have learned about traditional film narrative structure as it relates to video games.
Traditional films utilize a three act structure, Act 1,2,3 or beginning, middle and ending.
Act 1: beginning, intro, setup
Act 2: Confrontation, Character meets and overcomes obstacles
Act 3: Ending, character overcomes obstacles and everything is great or like...horrible
Many video games also adhere to this structure, I haven't studied video game design in depth so this may be like a duh moment for some so please let me indulge myself for a few paragraphs drunk on my own sense of discovery. I will use the Capcom game Resident Evil 4 in many of my examples, it is not only one of the greatest games ever made it has a narrative that is better than most modern films in my opinion. Do modern games contain better storytelling than modern films? I have been playing video games since 1986, I've seen great stories in games from Ninja Gaiden on the NES to Resident Evil 4 on the ps2. So now I will attempt to extrapolate successful narrative patterns from these games and use them to help you create good stories in your films. This article is written for people who grew up playing video games and now want to create narrative films or animation.
The past two weeks I have been jamming screenwriting books into my head. As I was reading I took notes on 3x5 note cards from all the different books and now I have a textual soup of story hints and helpers. From this point on I'll refer to my notes and to the books authors as they because they know a lot more about story and structure than I do. Just to narrow things down I will discussing the Classical story design or Archplot as Robert Mckee calls it in his mega ultimate book Story. The elements present in a classical story design are :
Causality: Cause and effect, everything has a cause and everything that happens later in the story is a result of something that happened earlier. Example: The aliens in Independence Day blew everyone up because we were acting like idiots.
If your game character can now punch through walls its because you obtained the Balco upgrade pack which gave you insane mega strength.
Closed Ending: When its over its over, all major story questions answered. All loose ends are tied up... you know why Johnny didn't want anyone to go into the basement and we're totally sure the monster he was feeding down there is like totally dead because it blew up like 17 times on screen after they shot it for 12 minutes.
At the end of Resident Evil 4 after you blew that giant spider dude up with the rocket launcher the like...whole island blew up and you saw your friend Antonio Depp die at the claws of that spider fool like halfway through the game. So everyone is dead except for you and the girl and all your friends are dead... yeh thats a closed ending.
Linear Time: No pulp fictiony stuff here were on the straight and narrow. This isn't your fancy NLE this is a Umatic 3/4 linear edit bay fool!
Wouldn't it be awesome if that last level of a game was the first level and like the last level was the first? No that would suck.
External Conflict: Yeh Johnny may be emo and his own worst enemy but if super hyphy killer cyborg zombies aren't trying to ghost ride his carcass than we don't give a fu.... we don't care.
I mean we all have feelings but it really is more fun to tackle conflict in the form of a staggering zombie by firing homing mines at its head. I recently picked up a copy of Clocktower 3 at the bargain bin at Fry's. I immediately saw why the game wasn't more widely accepted. The main character had to deal with internal conflict more than external conflict. If your character got too nervous she would have panic attacks and you couldn't control her anymore. When I was playing it I was saying to myself " I wanna kill things not deal with anxiety issues, this suX" So I was really yearning for external conflict but I was offered internal conflict instead. I wanted to fight monsters not pop Xanax.
Single Protagonist: This isn't The Thin Red Line we know who the boss of the story is here because every time someone is talking to him or about him they say his full name and really cool music blares on the soundtrack or like a guitar riff with lots of delay. See the anime Gungrave for this in action. "So it was you Brandon Heat! Hmph Brandon Heat I knew it was you Brandon Heat! So now its time for you to die BRANDON HEAT!
One hero who is on screen %85 of the time. The character the camera follows all the time.
Consistent Reality: If the guy can't fly in the beginning then unless there's a good reason in the story he can't all of a sudden fly in Act 2 for no reason whatsoever other than because you thought it would pwn.
The gravity gun acts the same in the first stage as it does in the last. What if it all of a sudden started making flowers grow and rainbows appear? That inconsistent reality would make you a very happy dead camper with pretty flowers on yo grave DAMN! (There’s probably a rainbow flower gun mod out there if you really like the idea)
Active Protagonist: The protagonist makes things happens. If there's a spooky noise in the attic he doesn't hide and wait for it to go away he cocks a shotgun with one hand and barrels through that M*&^&Fu&^%N attic cause he ain't be given a F*%$K!!!
What if a new James Bond game came out and like you learned off the bad guys evil plan to destroy the world but instead of flying to Antarctica to take him on your character watched TV and ate Nachos? Yeh that wouldn't be a very active protagonist and the game would sux0r.
Yeh right M blot whatever... If what you say is true than why do so many movie adaptation of games sucK so HarD? If they followed the game shouldn’t the movie be good too? Yeh IF they followed the game correctly IF they even realized that the game already had the necessary elements in place that can be easily transferred into a traditional three act screenplay. Movie people think they know everything....seriously... So I doubt they pay much attention to why the game was a success so those elements probably never transfer over to the film. Remember the Double Dragon movie? Yeh no 7 foot tall giant headed freaks got elbowed in the face repeatedly so yeh the movie sucked...there also was that Alyssa Milano “Now who’s the boss” line so yeh....
Ok yeh so that's the Classical Story design, do you see anything familiar? According to my notes Act 1 in a film should contains these thangs:
Who of the story
Present the Story World
Compel the viewer to move forward
Introduce the opposition
In video games Act 1 is the game intro, the cinematics that set up the game. So when the game starts you become the player, you are introduced to the character immediately because you the player are the character. When you get control of the character for the first time you say "Who is this person? What can they do" You test out the controls to see how fast the character can run, how high can they jump, what kind of weapons do they have? You are learning the who of the story.
Before you are thrown into a level for the first time a lot games do a fly over of the level, what do you think this is doing? The level fly over Presenting the story world. This is where the action will take place, this is where the story will take place.
If the game cinematics contain horrible monsters and gore you would expect the game to be scary, the tone would be established. If the intro had zombies and gore and then when the game started you were controlling a happy bunny in a pink fluffy Kirby'esque world you would be understandably confused. So in the game intro or Act 1 of your film you need to establish the tone of the film.
So in most games you don't get to play Act 1 you just watch and get like all pumped up so that you can't wait to get hold of that joystick and start buss'iN! Hey wait that means Act 1 just compelled you to move forward, it just compelled you to start the game, it just compelled you to move into Act 2 :)
Usually the opening cinematics introduce the bad guy (opposition) and you see him do some evil deed which creates all kinds of obstacles(Act 2) that you have to get through to eventually face him and create that nice closed ending.
So if you know what makes a good video game intro you can create a great beginning to a feature film. Now lets look at a bad game intro...
So you select "start game" and then a cinematic starts playing that has eight different characters arguing about football and then the TV explodes and all of a sudden your in control of a block of tofu that's wielding a magic wand. So automatically you would be all WTF?! You would try to wield the wand and if it didn't do anything you would have no idea how to give it power. Your character would be wandering around aimlessly because the opposition wasn't introduced, and you wouldn't know why you were playing and because of that you probably wouldn't play for long. So if you just think about mega awesome game intros and the elements they contain you can create a mega awesome Act 1 to your film. Act 1 is the set up, you have to do them required thangs so that the viewer can't wait to see what awaits your protagonist in Act 2.
So how do you get from Act 1 to Act 2? There's this magical element called an "inciting incident" at the end of Act 1 that launches the protagonist into Act 2. So do games have this inciting incident? They sure do! Lets look at Resident Evil 4... When Leon leaves the police dudes in the van to go checkout that house and like the van is pushed into the river and explodes, killing the police guys leaving Leon stranded in this weird village filled with gnarled fools trying to sever his head with rusty chainsaws...yeh thats an inciting incident!! The incident occurs right at the end of Act 1 and launches us into Act 2. One of the books I read referred to the inciting incident as a "doorway of no return" Look at the Resident Evil 4 example again. Can Leon go back through the doorway? Nope! The police guys who drove him are dead and they're van exploded. Leon has no way to return back to the normal non-threatening state he was in before the inciting incident. So this is a great inciting incident because it is a doorway of no return, you have nothing else to do but move into confrontation, you have no choice but move into Act 2.
So in your film you need to create a situation that doesn't allow your main character to return to his/her normal life. So lets just say were making a film about a vampire killer. In Act 1 we meet the Vampire Killer and we see that he's a bad dude, we see the post apocalyptic world he lives in and we see the evil vampire king who reigns over the world. Now we showed all that in our film and now its time for the inciting incident, lets have the vampire killer kill a vampire to collect a bounty. Ok he kills a vampire now what? The vampire dies and our killer just goes home and watches TV for three weeks. Now your probably saying that we should have him try to go after the Vampire King....why should he? We need a good reason why he shouldn't just stay home and watch TV instead going off on some dangerous journey. What's that you say? Your vampire killer is like super brave with a cape and a cool sword and everything so he would just go after the vampire king because he is that GANGSTA! Nah thats not a good enough reason. Lets rework our inciting incident. So our Vampire Killer, lets call him Bob. Bob goes and kills a vampire to collect a bounty, he collects the money and goes home to watch TV. As soon as he gets home he sees that his house has been burnt down, and there's a letter on a tree next to his burning house. The letter is from the vampire king, apparently Bob killed the Vampire King's son and now every vampire in the land has been ordered to kill Bob. A depressed Bob goes to the local tavern to drink off his worries but as soon as he gets there he finds everyone dead except for like some old man. As the old man is dying he tells Bob that the Vampire King killed everyone and kidnapped Bob's girlfriend. So at this point Bob has no home, he is being hunted by vampires, all his friends are dead and his village has been destroyed, his girlfriends been kidnapped.... Now at this point in your film would it makes sense if he went home to watch TV? No! We created plenty of reasons why he should go and kill the Vampire King. We created a doorway of no return. Here some more notes on the inciting incident or doorway of no return. Think about your favorite games what were the inciting incidents?
-Takes character from they're normal world and throws them into a a dangerous new world
- Leon went from the comfort of a warm SUV driving in the countryside with two friendly guys to being out in the cold alone in the middle of a village full of crazies trying to kill him screaming in a language he doesn't understand.
-Radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonists life: Warm and with friends to cold alone and in danger
-The protagonist must react to the inciting incident: Can Leon just cover his eyes and pretend nothing happened? No!
-Throws the Protagonists life out of balance, through the story he must try to get that balance back:
Here's some other Act 1 notes
-act first explain later: In Resident Evil 4 your thrown into the town of crazies, did the intro (Act 1) explain why they were crazy? No it just showed they're crazy behavior (action) and as the story unraveled in Act 2 you learned about the parasites and the complicated reasons why they acted the way they did. If the reasons why they were crazy was explained in Act 1, it would make for a less suspenseful mysterious story so act first and explain later. Star Wars is mega famous for its rolling intro titles explaining why the light saber dudes are fighting each other and all that but generally you should avoid too much explaining before action. So in your Act 1 give the viewer a bunch of action, make them want to know why these things are happening. So are you starting to see the parallels between good games and making good films?
-set your information inside confrontation: It would be boring if your character just met some old man who told him everything he wanted to know about the mysteries presented in Act 1. Release the information slowly in little bits and package it inside confrontation. How many times have you seen game cinematics wherein your character creeps on two bad guys arguing about they're evil plans revealing little pieces of the puzzle through they're verbal confrontation? Yeh it happens a lot because it works. So here's a situation... Your protagonist is a Samurai looking for revenge and he meets some other Samurai dude. He asks the other Samurai d00d "do you know who killed my brother?" and the other d00d is like "I'll tell you but you'll have to defeat me first" and then they proceed to fight revealing little bits of info between clashes... they set the information inside of confrontation. What if the other swordsman said "Sure I'll tell you who killed your brother, it was Bob" If we did that there would be no confrontation, no suspense, no drama...in other words, boring.... So after we've done all the things we were supposed to do we would move into Act 2.
The first time you take control of the character in a game it is already Act 2. Act 2 is confrontation. In most games what usually happens after you take control of the character for the first time? Enemies come after you, you are presented with obstacles, confrontation. According to my mega notes the purpose of Act 2 is:
-Confrontation: Monsters, zombies, killer robots come after you and you have to kill them or be killed. The enemies are obstacles that you must confront. There is lots of confrontation and action. In Resident Evil 4 you only have to take about 10 paces after your first take control of Leon before some crazed dude tries to split your head open.... yeh thats confrontation and he's an obstacle.
-Subplots blossom: In Resident Evil 4 we meet Antonio Depp who is a scientist who helped create the crazies...OOOH subplot! And he becomes our friend and we care about this guy and what happens to him. If you bring the subplots in during Act 1 you might cause confusion about who the protagonist is and what the story is really about. Thats why in RE 4 we don't meet Antonio Depp until we've been running around icinG Ganado's for awhile... we don't meet him until we've had enough time to figure who the protagonist is and what the story is about. Also we learn that the cult leader that kidnapped the Presidents daughter that we need to save is planning to let his mind control parasites loose in the U.S. which would be like the end of the world oh nO!
-Keep us caring about what happens: So now its the middle of our movie, why should we care what happens next? Well because we have successfully bonded with our protagonist as they have bonded with the story and are now trapped in a race against time to save the world or die trying. In Act 1 of RE4 we get to know Leon and he's a pretty good guy so we don't want to see him get decapitated.
-Set up the final battle: You gotta always keep the end in mind so you don't stray to far from it while your in Act 2.
My notes also say that these are some requirements of Act 2:
-Death! : there should be a threat of death of some type... If death lurks around every corner for your character then those deadly things would be obstacles the protagonist would have to confront, which is like textbook Act 2 stuff. Crazy villagers wielding chainsaws yeah... thats a threat of death.
Opposition: There must be opposition and the opposition needs a compelling reason to stop the protagonist. In RE 4 the crazy villagers are trying to kill Leon because they are protecting the secret that they're cult withholds.
Adhesive: there needs to be a strong reason for the lead to stick around. If your protagonist can simply walk away from the conflict in the middle of Act 2 then you're not doing your job right! So you need to have lots of adhesive, you need to set up the story so that your lead is entrapped.
So Act 2 is all about conflict and escalating conflict at that. Through the conflict the protagonist needs to have something at stake...pride, money, his life. Your protagonist takes risks, deals with obstacles and confronts the opposition. As Act 2 moves forward the stakes needs to be raised. So maybe in the beginning of Act 2 your protagonist is at risk for losing all his money and by the end of Act 2 he is at risk for losing his life or like the lives of everyone in the world! So your protagonist is interesting because he takes risks and these risks get more and more dangerous as Act 2 moves on.
Think of it like this...when your playing an action game at the end of each level you fight a boss, the boss is your opposition, an obstacle you most confront. Within the level there are a bunch of small obstacles (regular enemies) which you must overcome in order to confront the big obstacle (boss) Do you see the similarities? As the game goes on the bosses get harder, so the opposition gets stronger. This is how you should construct your Act 2. Each boss should get tougher as the game moves on, they should be tough enough to provide a challenge but not so hard that you cannot move on past them. The conflict must escalate and the stakes need to be raised so like in a good game if you lose to the boss in level you just die and fail your mission. If the game is structured well like most Resident Evil games are by the end of the game the whole world is at risk so if you lose to the final boss you not only die but like the whole world explodes and is doomed x9383938393. Do you see how the stakes were raised? If you do this correctly the protagonists goal becomes more and more important as the film goes on so that if he/she dies the whole world mega_explodes and everything BLAM!!!! So the stuff I'm babbling about is obviously geared more toward action movies than anything else, it might be hard to blow the world up if your coming of age emo lead doesn't get the girl in the end. Unless the girl was like some cyborg filled with explosives that were rigged to like explode if like some emo boy didn't make out with her or something. Here's a dialog ripped off from some book that shows this principle in action. The conflict in your act 2 should be like a bouncing Nikola Tesla super ball that spits in the face of the laws of thermodynamics. So yeh check this diagram and think about how the levels in your favorite games get more difficult as the game goes on and structure the conflict in your Act 2 just like this...
Try to set up the obstacles in Act 2 like this diagram, so that the further your protagonist goes the tougher it gets, the scarier it gets, and the more dangerous it gets. The steps are important, they are built just like stairs in real life, steps going up not down. If the steps were reversed your film would start out all exciting and get lamer as it goes on, don't do that. Escalate, ghost ride the escalator to the top f00!! DAmn!!!!
We want people to be excited and enthralled by the time they get to the end of the film, we don't want them to be comfortable knowing that they and the protagonist are now on flat ground after descending the stairs. We want them to climb the stairs not knowing what excitement or terror lies at the next level. Get it? Just now I was riding my bike up into a dark tunnel and I couldn't see what was inside until it was too late and I was already inside. There could have been killers, monsters, zombies?! I didn't know what was up in there, luckily there weren't any terrifying things inside just some homeless people sleeping on the floor. Its the mystery of what could lie on the other side that is exciting, so if you set up your act 2 so that your protagonist is climbing the stairs of mega conflict your film will remain interesting to the very end.
Have you ever felt ripped off at the end of a game because the last level and final boss were too easy? Thats what it will feel like for a viewer if the conflict doesn't climb these stairs....so like don't make your protagonist walk down stairs and don't give them an escalator either when they walk up either! Like a good game the key is to make it difficult but not so difficult so that the obstacles are impassable.
Here's an idea on how to construct your Act 2. Remember a really tough level in a game you've played where you have to fight enemies, dodge bullets, jump over holes, swing on vines all while running at top speed. You know those levels that are super intense and if you make one mistake your dead? Remember the first time you passed the level... you know it seemed like a miracle you killed the last enemy with your last bullet and you barely hung onto the vine with your fingernails. Now thats what it should be like for your protagonist in Act 2! It should be like a highlight reel, wherein everything is exciting.
Have you ever checked out time attack videos from games like Super Mario Bros 3? Time attack videos are game play video made by people trying to finish games as fast as they can. In these video the players are usually running through the entire game, making death defying manuevers to get through the levels. Now write your action in Act 2 like that! Again I realize that this article is kinda just focused on action movies but thats okay because I think a lot of you are interested in action movies anyway and if your not I'll just pretend you are before I run away and jump off that cliff while on fire only to land on that fast moving car thats on fire and jumping off before it explodes for no reason whatsoever! DAMN!!!! ACTION!!!
So as a result of defeating all these enemies and blowing all these things up the final confrontation is set up because all those dead enemies and things on fire belong to the big boss and d00d....he's pissed!!! Am I making any sense here? I hope so! So yeh the game play section of a game is Act 2. Act 3 is the cinematic at the end of the game that ties up all the loose ends and shows you that all your hard work paid off. So just remember Act 2 is action, confrontation, obstacles, be they zombies, monsters, a volcano, the MAN whatever....things that stand in the way of your protagonists goal. Remember to use lots of adhesive when constructing your Act 2 so that it becomes a sticky situation for your protagonist. Make it so sticky you have lots of reason why he can't just walk away because the obstacles are too scary.
So yeh in this like made up game--->film theory of mine Act 3 is the ending cinematics. So when Act 3 rolls around in a game, its already over. So what happens in these cinematics? All the loose ends are tied up, the opposition is dead, the protagonist is safe and the world is usually a better place. Most games, like mainstream films have closed endings. A closed ending is just that, it isn't open for interpretation. We know the protagonist succeeded at achieving his goals, and we have no doubt that the opposition is gone and won't come back. Just look back at my notes about archplot from Robert Mckee's book story as I summarized all this closed ending stuff.
So what should you do in Act 3 in your film? So your protagonist overcame all the obstacles your threw at him and now he/she should reap the rewards or die a horrible Death!!!?! It's up to you whether you want a "happy" or "sad" ending but it should be a definitive end unless your planning on making some sequels. Hey wait look at me talk?! The end of "We are the Strange" is kinda ambiguous. I have been studying all this story stuff in depth after I completed WATS, so many of the principles I'm discussing were not consciously used in WATS. I will be using these principles in my next film though so I want to help you along if I can with what I know now. According to my notes the purpose of Act 3 is:
-Resolution: the problem the protagonist risking his life over has been resolved. The major obstacle has been hurdled. The major confrontation has ended and the protagonist has won....or lost like horribly.
-Tie up loose ends: If there was anything in doubt during the course of the film it like...isn't in doubt anymore. So if one of the "bosses" escaped during of of the battles we now see that he has been captured and thrown in jail. When your watching a film and it comes to the end your always saying to yourself "what ever happened to that guy" or "did they just leave those nuclear missiles out in the desert?" All these loose ends should be tied up and addressed, they are not then you will have an open ending. According to fantasy Hollywood peoples that I've made up an open ending won't line your pockets with platinum so avoid them if you want to get hella paid in full DAMN!!!
-Give a feeling of resonance- It would be really awesome if the end of the film could seem like it was bigger than the screen. So what do I mean by bigger than the screen? If you can somehow tie in the viewer to the end of the film so that whatever happens on screen causes the viewer to think about they're life and how what happened on screen affects them. Give the viewer something mega powerful so when they walk out of the theater something from your film is still with them. It could be like a universal truth or a different outlook on the world, or aliens, or zombies... yeh give them a different outlook on zombies. Those poor zombies are starving and nobody will give them a job so that they can make money and like buy Chalupas, so please Mr. zombie go ahead and eat my brain. If thats not resonance I don't know what is. Actually I have no idea what resonance is and I just threw in the zombie brain eating reference as some type of sick cannibalistic misdirection tactic.