Star Wars and Restraint

Today I am working on the final denoument cutscenes in The Real Texas.

Coincidentally I have been watching the amazing fan-made documentaries on the original Star Wars trilogy (Star Wars Begins, Building Empire and Returning to Jedi by Jambe Davdar.)

The Original Triogy, Ebert Was Right

Seeing how the Original Trilogy was put together in more detail has given me a lot more appreciation of film techniques. Last year Ebert said that games are not art, and the gist of his argument is that games cannot manipulate scenes as finely as films can.

Suicide-inducingly boring debate aside, the second part of this seems true to me. Each scene in A New Hope is absolutely filled with detail, carefully scripted. In film, the camera never wanders beyond very tightly proscribed bounds.

The Trash Compactor Scene

Consider the large metal bar in the trash compactor scene. Han picks this up and attempts to use it to brace the walls from closing in. It is very effective to see the bar bending: it shows us how powerful the compator really is, outlines their desperation, and creates a sense of panic as we can relate to it in a physical sense (we can imagine ourselves trying something similar, and understand how hard it might be to properly position it.)

In a game, the requirements for this simple prop are much deeper. If that bar braces the trash compactor, it should brace other things. We will need a physics engine that can somehow handle malleability and ductility. We have the ugly choice of letting the player carry it with them if they choose, and then making sure it can't break gameplay or cause strange glitches in other scenes, or of forcing them to leave it behind.

But it's actually worse than this: even if we implement such a prop, we can't force the player to use it, anyhow!

Picture of the metal bar prop from Star Wars, comparing point form how it would be implemented in a movie vs. a game.

Restraint and Creativity

When I watch these documentaries, it creates in me a burning desire to imitate. This is by now a familiar feeling for me, maybe it is for you too. What I have come to believe is that this particular burning desire is the harbinger of creative suicide.

To create, we need to take ourselves out of this particular kind of inspiration to imitate, no matter how strong it is. In the case of making games, we need to take a deep breath when we watch great movies.

If we attempt for the same kind of tightly-controlled and yet varied effects that film makers have at their disposal, we will find ourselves creating a badly-scripted, weakly-interactive non-movie non-games.


Instead of trying to co-opt this power of tightly-framed scenes, let's examine our own constraints.

First, the player is not an actor. In fact, the player is the only element we explicitly do not direct. This is a difficult constraint to stick to when we are trying to imitate film effects. It's very tempting to have the player character stop and walk to a certain place, or perform a certain action at an opportune time, but we should stop and look for another solution.

Second, in place of varied effects put interesting rules. Rather than constructing elaborate scenes requiring a certain set of actions, build several flexible props and then experiment.

Recently I added a certain weapon to The Real Texas with a long reload. The player always has control over whether they want to reload, but they can't change that it takes a lot of time to get ready for another shot. It's a simple prop that in no way violates these rules, but it creates a lot of dramatic tension. Observing this, I put in another constraint (again, on the prop, not the player) which would highlight this tension (a minor spoiler, so I won't tell.)

Some Wind Waker Critique

I've also been playing through Wind Waker. I enjoy this game very much, but I have some funny criticisms. Basically, I think the game relies on too many different props that ultimately don't have very many uses. Most items can be used as a weapon in addition to one other effect. There is even significant overlap-- for instance the grappling hook ought to make the hookshot a nonentity.

I would have rather played a game with sword, shield, grappling hook, and maybe one other weapon, but which all interacted strongly with all props (e.g., grapple anything). Instead, it feels a bit scripted at times, because I know in many situations that I must use item X (say, the hookshot) because no other item will work.


Damn what a great game. However... why do we need both Grappling Hook and Hookshot?

Finally, It's Easier

Last thought before I wrap this up. It's easier to design games this way, because they are more natural constraints for our medium. It's fundamentally easier to work with just a few props and make them play with each other in interesting ways, than to relentlessly draw lines arond what the player can and cannot do.

When I find it hard to adhere to this, I take a deep breath. It just isn't film.


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