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Friday, November 04, 2005

Hollywood writer guns for gaming

Peter Jackson has done it, the Wachowski Brothers did it, and Steven Spielberg is about to do it.

They are just some examples of the big guns in Hollywood who are dipping their toes into the fantastical world of the video game.

Already, gamers are getting used to blockbuster film titles spawning a gaming spin-off, such as King Kong, Spider-Man, The Matrix or the Hulk, giving humble thumb bandits the chance to star in the action at home once the popcorn has run dry.

As games become more photo-realistic, something which is going to improve dramatically when high definition game formats are released for next generation consoles, the line between the two worlds of entertainment blurs.

As pressure too builds on game developers to produce ever-more compelling and "big hitting" game titles, it is no surprise that the skills of Hollywood are starting to be poached.

Big Gun

Screenwriter Randall Jahnson, whose film credits include The Doors and The Mask of Zorro, is the latest to turn his pen to the smaller screen in the upcoming western Activision and Neversoft game title (PS2, Xbox, Xbox 360, GameCube, PC).

To a non-game-playing writer, the experience opened up many more creative avenues for him than he could have imagined. It also presented some interesting challenges he had not had before.

"It is very different. Both mediums are slave to money and technology. When you are writing a screenplay you are writing a very straight ahead narrative. You are moving from the beginning to the middle to the end as economically as possible," he told the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

But the gamer is much more proactive, directing the action and the storyline to a large extent. Video games certainly must have a narrative drive to them, but they have side missions and plots which can take the story and the action in a different direction.

"You just have much more latitude as a writer to invent situations, details, conversations - stuff that would be considered as extraneous in a film."

This creativity unleashed even extends to composing the period "wanted" poster narrative within the game, the kind of detail about which film scriptwriters do not usually have to be concerned.

"I literally wrote thousands of wild lines that would be delivered in the heat of combat. You would have to assign five lines for Colton for his reactions for getting a gut shot, like 'Ow, lucky shot!'.

"When you are writing a traditional script you have to settle on one line, one version. This gives you the chance to include all the lines," said Mr Jahnson.

With that new vein of creativity comes the challenge of keeping hold of the overall narrative in a game. That narrative and storyline is crucial to keeping people hooked on the game as it is to a film.

This point was driven home to Mr Jahnson when Nerversoft developers placed a controller in his hand and pointed to the "x" button which gamers use to fire, but also to skip boring non-gaming bits.

His warning, Mr Jahnson remembers, was stark: "When you are starting to write this script, imagine there is a player sitting there with his finger on that button like a gun slingers with a twitchy finger and you have to write something that will prevent him from pressing that button again and again.

"It's got to be compelling, creative, emotionally involving, and expose character traits as well all in one minute. In a film, you would have four minutes to do that."

Collaboration fun

One of the most significant lessons he will take back to the film world is how collaborative the creative experience was compared to Hollywood.

"It made writing a video game a little nutty. It was like being in pre-production, production, and post production all at the same time."

That simultaneous collaboration meant it was very different to being a writer tucked away with copious coffee, crafting a linear story alone.

"I would like to say to the film world, 'hey, this is how it should be done'," he says.

"The film industry is very director-driven. Directors wield the most power. In the game world, at least with my experience, has been very collaborative and idyllic so I hope other producers, directors and developers take note of that and say that works."

As for the future of games meet film, Mr Jahnson is confident that the cross-pollination of ideas will grow.

Right now there is a stampede of screenwriters clamouring into the game world, he says, because there are not enough movie opportunities to work on.

"I have lots of hope for the game medium and it is only going to get better, faster and richer."

As for igniting his interest in gaming, it has indeed opened up a whole new world of fun for Mr Jahnson. He fully intends to play Gun when it comes out, but it might be a fast showdown.

"I am going to get creamed, big time."
"In Gun it was interesting because you had the art department rushing into some of our story meetings and showing me renditions of what Colton our hero looks like and what the villains look like. I mean, the story isn't even done yet and they are showing me this.



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