How, Not If

I play games like I once used to read novels. There exists a pile and as I finish each game (taking a number of weeks and occasionally months each) I move immediately onto the next, working my way through the continually replenishing stack.


It seems significant that I would use the word ‘Finish’ in regard to games. As it’s the self-same word I would use for a book, it implies certain things. Chief among these implications are notions of linear Progression, Finality and Inevitability. For many game theorists these three concept terms are somewhat of an anathema.

Games are supposed to be non-linear, open-systems rather than closed ones, they are player-controlled and thus are distinct and apart from cinema and literature. Similarly, by nature of being player-controlled they are, in theory, without inevitability.

But there remains the fact that I ‘Finish’ games all the time and then converse with my gaming friends on topics such as “what did you think of the ending of…” knowing that there is commonality in the ending we all experienced. This tells us important things about games that perhaps position them far closer to cinema and literature than many may suppose.

This tells us important things about games that perhaps position them far closer to cinema and literature than many may suppose.

Despite player ‘choices’ and ‘actions’ the conclusion of a game is none the less pre-ordained. Just as a book or film a game has to be ‘authored’. There may be variations but even when multiple endings are available they are none the less pre-determined and pre-scripted. Are they really any different from alternate endings supplied as DVD extras?

Aside from being predetermined, game endings are also Inevitable. Leaving aside the idea that a player may quit and give up – which is no different to failing to finish a novel or walking out of a movie theatre – the player Will reach the conclusion as defined by the game’s creators. For all the threats of character death and dismemberment, failing and frustration, these only act in a temporal way, serving to dictate how long may take to finish not whether the player will or can finish.


So if games have inevitable, pre-determined endings and that they do not rely on ideas of ‘IF’ for ‘success’ – what do they rely on?

If we look at long-form TV drama (whose dramatic duration, structure and complexity most closely resembles that of a narrative game – far more than the comparative shallowness and of feature film) the consistent is not as much IF a character/player will ‘survive’ or ‘triumph’ (in whatever manner that may be) but rather HOW they do so?

The primary concern for the audience
subsequently is not so much IF Walt will escape
from his various predicaments but How…?

Take the superb American drama series Breaking Bad. An ordinary suburban science teacher is forced through illness (imminent death from advanced lung cancer) economic hardship and family pressure (a pregnant wife and a disabled son) to engage in the illegal activity of cooking crystal meth and entering the illegal drug trade. The character of Walt faces various trials and tribulations as he enters a world he knows nothing of as a classic fish-out-of-water narrative. The primary concern for the audience subsequently is not so much IF Walt will escape from his various predicaments but How…?


There are many reasons for this perspective – particularly in character-drama – not the least of which being that the viewer is invariably aware that the season has numerous episodes still to play out and more whole seasons to follow.

So, despite how desperate the situation is for the character the viewer unavoidably knows that it’s not a question of IF. We watch to see the HOW; experience the solution-finding and circumstance-shifting that will (inevitably) allow the character to continue to progress.

Likewise in a game, the player unavoidably knows that ‘dying’ is simply a case of re-spawning and trying again, it has no consequence for ‘IF’. Indeed there are rarely narrative consequences for ‘dying’ at all and when there is they are largely inconsequential to the end result of ‘finishing’ the game.

This leads us to consider what non-linear in narrative gaming really means? On the surface it simply suggests that there is no pre-defined order of events. But this does not of itself mean that there is No beginning and No end. Non-linear doesn’t mean Non-progressive.


A game by it’s very nature must have a Beginning and an End and so there is linear progression. Even if there are multiple start points and multiple end points there is still unavoidable movement between a Point A and a Point B. Non-linear in gaming simply suggests that the order in which the steps are taken from natural beginning to unavoidable pre-defined end, has controlled flexibility.

And yet even this idea of a small amount of non-linearity is flawed as there is no modern computer game yet created that doesn’t require and insist on imposing certain events at particular points. In almost any major game the non-linear sections are simply the narratively inconsequential ones. The player may go directly to the next pre-determined and completely linear event or faff around with smaller events in whatever order they like before moving on to the progressive, linear ones.

Dare I be so bold as to suggest the idea of Non-linear in gaming is a myth altogether? Even so-called Sandbox games (GTA, Oblivion, etc) have a completely linear, pre-defined spine-structure to them that the player must and does follow (short of giving up). The non-linear illusion is in the busy-work, side-quests and preparation time that may or may not be spent before moving through the pre-defined linear phases.

Dare I be so bold as to suggest
the idea of Non-linear in gaming
is a myth altogether?

So if non-linearity is a myth, game endings are pre-determined and (short of the player giving up) completing the game is inevitable Why do we play..? For the same reason we watch long form TV drama – to experience the How…

What makes us play through to the finish is not so much a desire to see IF the player can be ‘successful’ (a test of skill more in line with sport than cinema) but rather to see and, moreover, experience How that end is arrived at?


So, we watch the character of Walt from Breaking Bad walk into a bad ass drug dealer’s apartment with total subconscious confidence that he will survive and triumph (because there are still 2 episodes yet to go). And in watching we worry, fret and feel dramatically tense not for IF he’ll survive but HOW he is going to turn the tables? The trick to crafting this kind of drama as a screenwriter is to strike a delicate balance.

On one hand the situation must be dire enough that the viewer can’t envision how the character can possibly survive/triumph? Yet on the other, when a solution/escape/victory is achieved, it is in such a way that, despite having not been foreseen, seems wholly plausible. Such dramatic situations are distinctly Aristotelian, the classic Reversal of Fortune, a feeling state for the viewer simultaneously startling yet (should have been) predictable as they slap their foreheads and remark “Bugger me, of course. I should have seen it but I didn’t until it happened!”

The trick to crafting this kind of drama as a screenwriter
is to strike a delicate balance.

Here Breaking Bad provides a perfect example of just this. The character of Walt – an ordinary man pushed to the edge by circumstance – marches into a violent drug dealers den to demand money. Seemingly a suicide mission. How will he triumph and escape? Then, when Walt holds up a handful of what we believe to be drugs, says defiantly “that’s not crystal meth” and throws it the floor creating an almighty explosion, we are immediately reminded of the key element we have forgotten.

Walt on the outside is a frail and sick middle aged man, but his secret power is in his mind and his knowledge of chemistry. The thrill of the scene is not in seeing IF Walt will escape but rather experiencing HOW he turns the tables. The clever craftsmanship of the scene is in the fact that the inverting event is entirely plausible, but not easily predictable.


How this idea connects to gaming, and may be used to understand why too many games become dull and mindless, is to evaluate whether the game is relying on IF rather than HOW? I would suggest that shallow, un-effecting game experiences come when the emphasis for the player is framed on seeing IF the player can survive, IF they can get through? Whereas truly engaging games accept the premise that success is inevitable (because the player can and will re-spawn/re-start at will) and instead frame their drama and tension aesthetics around HOW the player might get through, the solutions, surprises and circumstances that may by open to them to explore? In this mode a real and tangible currency of engagement is shaped by the questions of What strategy will the player use? What unexpected things may happen? What skills will they employ? And, more importantly, What ethical judgement will they exert? What personality will they embrace in their actions?

This principle stands across genres of gaming. Whether it be the platformer puzzler of Braid where the much celebrated Reversal-of-Fortune ending is pre-determined and yet the thrill is in HOW the player manipulates time to get there.

Engagement is generated by detailed exploration, by
questions posed, by circumstance and problem solving exhibited;
not by end results or finishing points.

Whether it be a stock standard First Person Shooter such as Half Life or Fear where killing bad guys is inevitable but the experience is in the HOW of determining the manner by which bad guys will be dispatched – be it sniping from a distance, all guns blazing frontal assault, or surreptitious sneaking around avoiding contact altogether.

Whether it be large-scale RPG’s like Mass Effec and DragonAge where victory ‘saving the realm’ is inevitable but the game experience is forged by how skill-points are assigned to shape the avatar’s persona, how strategies are executed and how relationships are built between characters. Just as with long-form TV drama the experience of engagement is generated by detailed exploration, by questions posed, by circumstance and problem solving exhibited; not by end results or finishing points.


Towards the Light So in the end what’s all this about and why should screenwriters and filmmakers care?

My contention is really very simple. Rather than assuming games are unique, special and outside of traditional understandings, it is far more useful to look for the consistencies and similarities between games and other forms of cinema.

The similarities tell us more about what’s unique and special in gaming than the differences. Understanding the similarities allows us to see the trajectory of games as a branch extending from the known into the unknown, rather than the ignorant stumbling in the dark that goes on when games are viewed in isolation.

We have more than a century of understanding about cinematic storytelling, 2,000 odd years since Aristotle laid foundations of narrative and engagement; this is knowledge which is as much – if not more – about the human condition than it is about the aesthetics of screen media. It would be arrogant to disregard that understanding in an effort to reinforce games as unique and special. And by working from the common stem of understanding dramatic tension we prop open the door to bring that wealth of knowledge held by screenwriters and filmmakers into the gaming fold.

Cinema can really only be defined as the ‘art of the moving image’ and as such Gaming is Cinema; just another means to create and experience narrative through moving pictures. As screen-writers we should be looking to embrace gaming from a foundation of what we already know about how screen-stories work. We may find there is more common ground than we think.

Mike Jones has a diverse background in screen media, writing and academic research. He has nearly fifteen years experience in technical production and has written widely on screen industry trends, penning more than two hundred published essays, articles and reviews along with three books for students of screen media. Currently Mike is Lecturer in Screen Studies at the Australian Film TV and Radio School.

Creative Commons License photo credit: RebeccaPollard (Gamer)
Creative Commons License photo credit: h.koppdelaney (Journey)

1 thought on “How, Not If”

  1. It’s true we partly turn up for the how. But we also partly turn up for the if. Sure, we know intellectually that the hero is going to win. But we willingly suspend that knowledge, just as we suspend our disbelief.


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