I finally got around to watching Inglorious Basterds on the weekend. It’s a freakin stunning film, Tarrantino manages to break out of his phoney b-grade rut and deliver perhaps his most restrained and classical film since Reservoir Dogs. I remember after watching Death Proof I said to a friend that I really wished Tarrantino would drop the shlock action and just write something where a bunch of people talked because dialogue not action is what the man does better than anyone else alive*. For the most part Inglorious Basterds is that and I loved it more than any other film I’ve seen all year.
But this is a blog about videogames so I better get to my point. Inglorious Basterds reminded me of something script writing teachers often say that I think would be invaluable for game designers to think about. Basically, conversation is conflict and dialogue is action.
Now I know there are a lot of people who wrinkle at the merest suggestion that games have something to learn from film. That film is old non-interactive media and if games are to reach their full potential they need to leave behind this juvenile film envy. If you honestly believe that, if that is your opinion then fine cool but you’re not allowed back onto the internet until you watch the entirety of Man with a Movie Camera, don’t just browse or skim, watch all of it because that is what happens to a medium when it stubbornly rejects the techniques of older more established art forms in the name of progress.**
My other point is that if game designers embraced what I’m about to outline it would actually lead to more game-like games not less game-like games. Here’s something that film theorist and academic David Bordwell had to say on his blog about Tarrantino’s use of dialogue.
Now Tarantino’s digressions (three daughters, rats and squirrels, a card game, the correct pronunciation of Italian) don’t read as self-indulgence, but rather as feints in a confidence game. Here Tarantino’s tendency to write endless scenes, something he confesses in his recent Creative Screenwriting interview on the film, is fully harnessed to more classic, albeit unusually extended, scene structure.
Not only is David Bordwell pointing out that the dialogue in Inglorious Basterds is game-like but that game-like dialogue is actually classical Hollywood screen writing technique. And he’s absolutely right the number one rule that any aspiring screen writer learns is that “conflict equals drama”. Every scene needs to include drama other wise its wasting valuable time. But how do you create drama? You have a situation with at least two characters who have conflicting goals, what then grows out of that is a scene where there’s a back and forth as the two characters battle for the upper hand. Keep that in mind as you watch this clip from Kramer Versus Kramer.
In the first two lines we establish what these characters are trying to achieve. From there it becomes a battle, a struggle with each and every line an attempt by one character to gain advantage. There’s a moment where Dustin thinks they’re reached a stalemate (for him a net win) but then Meryl plays her trump card
“Well you can’t deny me access…”
It’s a game changer, you can almost see the critical hit + 10 damage go flying off Dustin. His reaction is to escalate the conflict, jumping over the top of Meryl’s line and even physically intimidate her. I love Meryl’s next line.
“I have anticipated this whole thing”
It’s like the ultimate passive aggressive buff and Dustin knows he’s screwed. He can’t hurt her but she can continue to hurt him. Like anyone who has ever accidentally tangled with a boss fight before they were ready he beats a hasty retreat but not before taking out his frustration on the wine glass. But even that serves as a form of physical intimidation which presumably has some sort of lasting damage/time effect so that in the future when he faces her again she won’t be at full health.
But conversations are never like this in games. Most of the time NPCs serve as exposition dumps cheerily telling me everything I want to know at the drop of a hat. Why don’t NPCs ever try to withhold information, or deceive you? Or better yet have a goal that they’re trying to achieve? I want the conversations in games to not be something you skip to get to the game but actually the game itself.
* For my money the current king of shlock action is Ryuhei Kitamura . Actually his take on Godzilla is probably the best thing in the universe.
** The thing about Man with a Movie Camera is if you really love cinema, like as a unique artform and shit, it’s basically a masterpiece. I honestly don’t love cinema enough to like it but there are people that do.