The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

July 2006

by Terry Borst

filed 1 June 06 Copyright ©2006 alt.screenwriters

In 2005, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) announced to the world that big-name screenwriters were now serious players in videogame design. This year, the E3 trade show had a very different message, superficially tied to new technology. But a closer look offered an intriguing glimpse into the convergent entertainment world of a few years hence. And no, we’re not talking about the Playstation 3…

This is not to say that big name screenwriters had suddenly vanished from the videogame world. For example, one of the most popular booths (or “booth landscapes”) was a replication of Tony Montana’s Miami mansion for SCARFACE, Ubisoft’s upcoming videogame. Derived from the Brian DePalma film of two decades back, the interactive SCARFACE was scripted by David McKenna (Blow, American History X).

However, the breaking news at E3 (with people lining up for hours to see for themselves) was the unveiling of a revolutionary controller system for Nintendo’s next-gen game console Wii (pronounced ‘Wee’). Initially, this might not seem like a big deal. A new controller… Does that mean different button symbols than the now ubiquitous X, circle, square, and pyramid?

Not exactly.

Instead, imagine for a second that you (the audience) could directly experience a difficult and dramatic surgical procedure performed by Dr. Douglas Ross (George Clooney’s character on E.R.) or Dr. Gregory House. We don’t mean you merely watch as the doctor wields the scalpel. Nor do you merely select a menu option (“a) Move past artery; b) Snip artery”), or move your thumbs on a controller, or aim your mouse.

Instead, it’s you who grips a clamp-device and a scalpel-like device, and who has to move arms, elbows, wrists and fingers delicately — watching on a console screen while you complete the incision against a ticking clock (as doctors most of the time do in the 21st century).

Wii’s controller provides for the use of a remote-control device containing motion and audio sensors, with the option of a second motion-sensor device for the player to use. This might sound like a small matter for storytellers working in interactive media, but it moves all of us just a little closer to the ultimate storytelling environment: the holodeck. Here’s why.

For years, videogame makers have been experimenting with user input devices that involve more of the body than just the thumbs and a wrist. Less successful attempts have often included the use of virtual-reality headsets, gloves or wands, which — so far — have seemed too clunky and off-putting to players.

Probably the most successful example of more immersive input devices has been the “dance revolution” floor pads that translate dance steps into onscreen input for a videogame that is typically beat- or music-driven. While the storytelling in these environments has been minimal to date, the audience experience is substantially different from the typical videogame player experience (i.e., physically passive — involving extended sitting times with little movement beyond the thumbs ? and only minimally immersive).

One of the most popular videogames of 2005 was Harmonix’s Guitar Hero, which involves the use of a simplified guitar device to play through (and live through) the experience of rising from garage band status to arena rock god. Although the storyline is a simple one, the game nevertheless succeeds in giving its audience a better feeling of what it might be like to be Jimmy Page or The Edge than any film ever has.

And this gives us a taste of what new input devices — and progress towards the holodeck — might mean for storytelling. Immersion into process — how someone does his or her job, and how it feels while doing it — is one of the most satisfying elements of storytelling. But some immersions work better than others. Consequently, if we create a story centered around surfers, scenes often spend more time with its characters in the kitchen than in the ocean. Stories about race car drivers or tennis players invariably fall a little short of the mark too. We don’t really feel what it’s like to impart backspin — or bank an oil-slicked corner when the moment and the action are critical to a storyworld experience.

Wii’s controller system begins to change this: videogame players can truly “act out” with real-life motions, rather than thumb-based simulations. In a sword-and-shield battle, you can actually block blows with a shield-like controller while wielding the remote-control like a sword, stepping through thrusts and parries. You can employ a full driver motion to whack a golf ball down a fairway, and a full putting stroke to finesse that ball into the cup. You can use a full serving overhand to ace a point, and launch a thundering return volley. You can navigate a museum gallery’s infrared motion-detection system by carefully hopscotching the beams, or deactivate a bomb with very precise motions and interventions.

You can save a patient’s life (the President? a parent? the love of your life?) — or end it — with the very real flick of a (not quite real) scalpel.

While the audience for videogames has greatly expanded, much of the potential audience still finds the interface stunted and difficult to master, often requiring more digital dexterity than many can call upon.

Wii’s controller opens the door for novice players who will find the new interface much friendlier and easier to use. Even more importantly, the controller opens the door for entirely new videogame experiences, ones that move beyond the simple thumb-verb set of run, jump, shoot, go left, go right.

As is the case with any next-generation console, it will take several years for videogame developers to fully exploit the new technology available to them — and the Wii controller is, we hope, just the first step in creating a much more immersive interactive environment: something a little closer to the holodeck, and the powerful storytelling experiences that may emerge from it.

Written by tborst

June 1, 2006 at 3:29 am

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