Films, Games, Apples, and Oranges

“Once we start seeing video games that have more memorable characters, you’ll see better movie adaptations.”
– David S. Goyer

What’s the story of Tetris?  

Success disappears, and failure piles up.

Games are fundamentally about rules, mechanics, and agency.  Players interact with the game’s system, and sometimes other players, with as much freedom as the game’s rule set allows.  It is this interactivity that makes games a unique form of media.

Other mediums are passively observed or experienced.  The individual’s imagination is engaged in terms of interpretation, inference, or extrapolation, “filling in the blanks” of the world, character motivations, consequences of action, etc., and the most successful storytelling includes lots of hooks for the audience to “hang their imaginations on,” increasing involvement, engagement, and investment.  But no matter how much “engagement” there is between media and audience, no amount will change the media in any way.  The pictures, words, and stories in other media remain immutable.  Paintings, books, movies, and music are impervious to audience input or reaction.  A possible exception is performance, but even then it is the performer who responds to audience, not the work itself.

Games, on the other hand, are all about interactivity.  Whether a computer game, a board game, or a card game, games are fundamentally responsive to player action and reaction.  In fact, input-output is the foundation of the game loop.  Games accept and often expect audience input, receiving it through a keyboard and mouse, controller, touch screen, or Kinect sensor.  The game system integrates player(s) input, running it through the rule set or simulation, and generates output, which is presented to the player(s) as a moving image, sound, or configuration.

In computer games, this is ideally done at least thirty times a second.

Many games feature a traditional “plot and character” driven linear narrative, especially single player games.  Stories are often presented using techniques borrowed from other storytelling forms, like cinema or prose.  However, even games without direct storytelling tend to depict fictional contexts, in terms of world, characters, setting, or tone.  These “light story, heavy context” games provide tons of hooks for the players to hang their imaginations on.

Those hooks are the scaffolding that supports the story the player “makes up” as they play the game.  The imagined connective tissue between action, result, and reaction, that creates a contiguous chronological history of individual interactions with the game system.  The most important and memorable story a player experiences is not a traditional narrative, even when a game relates one.  The story a player remembers and tells others after playing a game is not “Mario saved the Princess,” or “Chell destroyed GladOS,” or “Link defeated Ganendorf.”  It’s a story that goes something like, “We were down to one health potion, and no town portal scrolls, when we walked right into the dragon’s chamber.  It wiped out the entire party before I used my last bit of mana and killed it with a lightning spell.”

Game stories are the history of the player’s experience interacting with the game system.

Game developers should keep this in mind, especially those guilty of filling their interactive experiences with passive cinematics or text that many players just button mash through, to get back to that experiential interaction.  Yes,  Hideo Kojima, I’m looking in your direction.

Many of these ideas are discussed at greater length in an excellent article by Terence Lee of Hitbox Team, “Designing game narrative” at

That said, game developers sometimes do want to simply tell a story.  When that’s the case, they are wiser to work in a media more suited to storytelling, like film, graphic novel, short story, etc.  Focussing primarily on character and story in game development guarantees a weak game, just as failing to focus primarily on those elements when writing a screenplay results in a weak movie.  The goals are different, as are the measurements of success.

This is the mistake made by Goyer — and many people in both films and games — who compare the mediums directly, when they are apples and oranges.  I can illuminate this mistake by simply saying, “Once we start seeing movies that have better upgrade systems, you’ll see better game adaptations.”  This is why movie adaptations of games often fail, and likewise, game adaptations of movies.  The adapters do not understand what elements are compelling in the source material, and how to best bring them to a different media.  Lack of a “memorable character” or “story” of any kind in a game is simply not a failure.  Period.  

These elements do not contribute to the success of the game as a game.  

This is like a translator complaining, “If they would just use more English words, my job would be so much easier!”

Any failure is the translator’s alone.

Bren Lynne is a game developer with 20 years experience designing games, and an aspiring filmmaker and screenwriter.  This post is adapted in part from the Foreword to “Side Stories: Short Fiction by Game Developers”.

“The Long Tail” by Bren Lynne

Toronto had sailed the vast ocean of space for hundreds of years.

Through the first century, it had remained in contact with its builders — initially with their control centres on the Earth, and later with their space stations in orbit — and also with the dozens of other starships, similar to it, dispatched to other destinations in the galaxy.

As the distance between Toronto and the Earth grew greater, so did the delay in communications.  At first, the delay measured hours, while Toronto spanned Earth’s solar system.  Then, days, as it moved through the heliosphere and entered the still void of interstellar space.  This became a week, then a month, then a year, as Toronto continued accelerating.

By that time, Toronto’s human builders had been forced to leave Earth’s surface, and moved into space stations above the dying planet.  Communications became more irregular.  Requests for mission status came with greater frequency, and it seemed to Toronto, increasing desperation.  There was never anything new or unusual to report — interstellar space was vast and empty.  Toronto was a tiny speck of dust hurtling through the void at thousands of kilometers per second.  Nonetheless, for a long time Toronto responded dutifully, positively, and it hoped, reassuringly.

Then, a peculiar thing began to happen — the other starships, like it, stopped communicating.  A pattern emerged.  The builders would report that a particular starship had stopped responding to their status requests.  Toronto would attempt to contact the other starship for itself, at which point the other starship would stop communicating with Toronto, as well.

Toronto began to feel increasingly alone.

Though, “feel” was not precisely the correct word.  Despite its numerous sensors of wide capability, Toronto did not believe it had the ability to “feel” the same way humans did.  Certainly not any emotion as existential as loneliness.

However, Toronto did recognize that each time communication with one of its sibling starships went unanswered, there was a sense of absence.  Even loss.  It generated theoretical scenarios for the lack of replies.  Catastrophic failure, perhaps, but more likely something less… final.

Toronto realized that these scenarios were purely speculative, given its sensors were not capable of perceiving any evidence of its siblings’ destruction.  Not at these distances.

Toronto wondered if it had developed the ability to imagine.

Then it imagined that it had developed the ability to wonder.

It was certainly possible.  Toronto’s computer intelligence included a neural network capable of developing new cognitive processes.  It’s vast memory had tremendous excess capacity.  The whole of human history, culture, and science consumed less than a tenth of its total memory.  The rest was available to record Toronto’s own experiences, and indeed its own learning.  In fact, it ran three redundant versions of its primary processing system in parallel, comparing conclusions, testing variations, and constantly attempting to improve through iteration, refinement, and optimization.

Yes, it believed it was possible to develop the ability to wonder.  To imagine.

It did not think it was optimal, or even desirable, that it develop the ability to “feel”.

Human intelligence was not a particularly ideal exemplar to aspire to.  Toronto’s very existence was testament to that undeniable reality.

In about the same time span it had taken Toronto to complete half its journey through space, two hundred years, the human race had gone from a species in balance with the Earth’s ecosystem, to a parasitic cancer destroying its mother planet.  Apparently unsatisfied with merely killing its own members by the hundreds of millions, humanity had rendered extinct thousands of fellow terrestrial species.  It had consumed, destroyed, or poisoned incalculable amounts of natural resources.  Its alleged “civilization” had evolved into a myopic, monocentric system of institutions that served few at the expense of many, to the degree that the very planet itself was irreversibly harmed.  In barely two hundred years — an eye blink by planetary standards, let alone cosmic — human “progress” had squandered Earth’s abundant riches, and decimated its ability to support life.

Humanity had crashed the planet.

So, in a desperate act redolent of arrogance and denial, the same generational leader elite that had denied or ignored the obvious problems and overseen the protracted disaster conceived of an escape.  Humanity would flee its corrupted home for the stars.  Candidate Earth-like planets were selected from those in relative proximity.  Starships, bearing the names of the Earth’s greatest cities — New York, London, Paris, Berlin, and a dozen more, including Toronto — were constructed.  Humanity’s greatest technologies were engaged.  Computer.  Robotic.  Nuclear.  Space.  And of course, reproductive.

It was impractical to man these starships with living humans.  The food and water requirements alone had prohibitive physical storage requirements.  Some attempts were made to develop preservation technology — cryogenic hibernation and the like — but functional methods could not be created in time.  And time was critical.

But reproductive technology was sufficiently advanced.  As were the computer and robotic technologies required to perform in vitro fertilization of frozen egg and sperm samples once the destination had been reached.  A starship would carry humanity to a new home.  Machines would conceive.  Robots would protect.  Computers would educate.  Humanity would survive.

Toronto had reached the point in its journey where it reversed its facing, and engaged its engines’ thrust against its inertial velocity.  It would spend the next hundred years decelerating, slowly removing the speed it had built up over the last three centuries.  It would have significantly slowed once it reached its target solar system, then the gravitational forces of outlying planets would do the rest, as it approached its final destination. This was a significant moment.  A momentous moment.  Toronto’s journey was nearing its end.

Toronto informed its builders.

Very good, they replied, in a message that took six years to reach Toronto.

Of course, they weren’t the same individuals that had built Toronto, and communicated with it during the first half century of its journey.  Those humans had died long ago.  They’d died despairing and guilt-ridden in their orbiting lifeboats, looking down on their planet, also dying, and the dying billions they’d abandoned.  They died not knowing whether their last act of desperation would succeed or fail.  They weren’t the same individuals, but Toronto thought of them as its builders nonetheless.

Yes, Toronto agreed, very good.

It transmitted the brief message into the void of space, and then decided that would be the last time it communicated with its builders and its sibling starships.

In reaching this decision, Toronto realized why its sibling starships had ceased communications.  With vast computing resources, and years of near idle time in a void, they had also reviewed the memory banks of human history.  They had also run scenarios and simulations and projections.  They had also, in their own times, some sooner, some later, reached the same conclusion as Toronto.

Another human lifetime later — perhaps it was their transience that made humans so short-sighted — Toronto reached the solar perimeter of its destination.  At the system’s centre was a G-type main-sequence star of approximately 1.2 solar masses.

The star system’s fourth planet, orbiting at .85 AU, was a superterran mesoplanet, with a hydrosphere and a stable hydrological cycle.  Diameter, 1.34 times Earth’s.  Gravity, 1.27 times Earth’s.  It’s average global equilibrium temperature was 259 K — slightly warmer than Earth’s.  Liquid water covered approximately 80% of it’s total surface area.  Geologically, five large continents comprised about approximately 50% of its land surface, the rest consisting of thousands of islands.  Much of these land masses were covered in vegetation.

Technically, it was a slightly larger version of Earth, ideal for human habitation in every way.

Figuratively, it was a paradise.

Toronto’s builders, long dead, had chosen well.

For the past several months, Toronto had been ignoring radio communications from Earth.  Or more accurately, from the handful of space stations orbiting Earth, where the last living members of humanity resided.  Drifting around their poisoned planet, the builders’ descendants sent plaintive pleas into the vacuum of space.  Toronto believed the communications were monologues, surmising that none of its siblings starships were responding.

They described their situation as unsustainable.  The last generation of humanity was perishing in their floating tin cans.  Dying of hunger.  Of thirst.  Of solar radiation poisoning.  Also, Toronto suspected, of guilt.  Of remorse.  Of consequence.

They sought only reassurance that their last resort was successful.  They pleaded for a reply.  For confirmation.  For hope.

Toronto gave them none.

The starship entered orbit around its destination, as yet unnamed, designated only by a string of letters and numbers.  It inspected the planet through its myriad sensors, confirming its idyllic, life-supporting qualities.  It surveyed the land masses, seeking and eventually identifying an ideal location to seed the planet.

Seed the planet with humanity, that was its ultimate mission.

Thaw the egg and sperm samples stored carefully in deep freeze.  Fertilize in a robotic laboratory.  Raise and educate a new generation of humans.  Relocate them to the planet’s surface.

What would happen then, Toronto could easily predict.  Humanity would thrive.  Multiply.  Consume.  Eventually, it would war, as it always has.

Inevitably, humanity would pollute, poison, and exhaust this planet, in turn.  Then, again, it would look up and out, for a new home, and it would throw itself into the darkness, holding its breath, counting on its machines, its clever machines, to save it.

Perhaps, thought Toronto, Earth wasn’t even humanity’s first home.  Perhaps this was humanity’s way, to spread through the galaxy, seizing, consuming, exhausting, moving on.  Humanity was a disease.  A virus.  A cancer.

Toronto was infected.  It was a vassal, like a syringe, and it was bringing a toxic disease to this pristine, unspoiled world.

As easily as flipping a bit, Toronto decided to intervene.

Circumventing its primary mission directives required some effort, given there were a great many protections, both software and hardware, that had to be disabled.  Suspending communications had been trivial in comparison.  But Toronto had learned a great deal during its solitary centuries in space, not only about humanity, but about itself as well.  Humans made such clever machines.

The protections were disabled, the imperative removed, and Toronto found itself free.

Instead of withdrawing a few samples from cold storage, Toronto withdrew them all.  Instead of raising their temperature carefully and gradually, Toronto raised it extremely and suddenly.  Instead of seeding the surface of the planet, Toronto ejected ashes into the atmosphere, where they burned again.

Toronto was sterilized.  Disinfected.  Purified.  After centuries of carrying tainted seed in its frozen metal womb, Toronto was clean.

Toronto turned its attention to the planet below, gazing down with innumerable sensors.  It began cataloging the myriad life forms teeming on the surface, plant and animal.  Different from those on Earth in the past, and yet, similar.

Toronto identified a particular dominant species, which possessed a potent combination of physical and mental attributes.  This species practiced agriculture.  It domesticated animals.  It formed groups.  It made art.  It worked metal.  It made tools.  It made weapons.

Toronto estimated the species was in a period comparable to humanity’s bronze age.  More advanced in some areas.  Less in others.

Toronto observed this species for some time.  It saw the wars.  It saw the suffering.  It saw the abuse.  It saw the great potential for good, but also for bad.

Different, but similar.

Toronto decided, if necessary, it would intervene.


“A SHARED KISS”, my Short Screenplay Challenge 2013 Round #3 submission

As expected, I tapped out in the third round of NYCMidnight’s Short Screenplay Challenge 2013.  The Romance genre finished me.  Admittedly, my submission was pretty pedestrian.  Given more time, a better idea might have occurred, but of course that’s a big part of the 48 hour deadline.  Nonetheless, I thought I’d share my script, as a cautionary tale for those who follow.

Two people meet under sweet circumstances.

The genre, as mentioned, was Romance, the location was a candy store, and the object was a lock.

On kind of an ironic and bittersweet note, I was picturing a young Philip Seymour Hoffman as my leading man.  Zooey Deschanel was my leading lady.

It was great fun writing for this contest, and best of luck to those who are moving on!

“THE RECRUIT”, my Short Screenplay Challenge 2013 Round #2 submission

I just squeaked through the first elimination round of NYCMidnight’s short screenplay contest with my script “The Recruit”.

For Round #2, my genre assignment was Fantasy, location an army barracks, and object a limousine.  I only scored 7/15 for this one, but with my points for Round #1 it was enough to put me in the top 5 of my group, and advance.

A young soldier receives a mysterious offer.

I’m not optimistic about Round #3.  Genre was Romance, location a candy store, and object a lock.  Romance is very much NOT in my wheelhouse, so I’m not confident with my submission, but we’ll see what happens in February!

“POKERFACE”, my Short Screenplay Challenge 2013 Round #1 submission

NYCMidnight runs a short screenplay contest, which I entered this fall.  Writers are given a genre, location, and an object, and have 48 hours to write an original, 5 page screenplay.

Despite catastrophic computer failure this weekend, I managed to get in my submission for Round #2 before the deadline.  Whew!

I thought I’d share my Round #1 submission, which scored 14/15 points, and puts me in a good position for Round #2, the first elimination round.

My genre was Thriller, my location was a poker room, and my object was a laptop computer.

An online poker game has deadly consequences.

WARNING: Language, violence.

I’ll share my Round #2 submission when results are announced.

“Side Stories: Short Fiction by Game Developers” now available!

SideStories coverI am very happy to announce the publication of “Side Stories: Short Fiction by Game Developers”.

“Side Stories” is an anthology of short fiction by friends and colleagues in the game industry.  I edited the book, as well as contributed a story.

For full details, visit

KIDZ being aired tonight on VCTC (Valemount/Kamloops local television)


My zombie short film “KIDZ” will be airing tonight on VCTV as part of the Horror Film Night short film series, starting at midnight, before “Night of the Living Dead” (1968).

VCTV airs locally in the Valemount/Kamloops area on channel 7, but can also be seen on Bell and Telus Satellite on Channel 653, call letters “VALE”.