Working With Intertextuality in Game Design | Part 2: Film and live performances

In Part 1, we learned that Intertextuality in game design is the shaping of media’s meanings through references or inspirations of other work. We also touched on the wide spectrum of knowledge successful game developers need in order to produce video game gold. Now, VGW University’s examination of Intertextuality continues with a look at film and live performances. 


Film is simultaneously the most seductive and most dangerous medium for comparison in game studies. Film shares visual and visceral impact with games, but fails as a ludological precedent in the audience’s passive involvement in the on-screen action. Controlled film studies can, however, provide a good foundation for the relatively young medium of video games. The genre that perhaps most directly refers to film is the survival horror genre. Indeed, horror cinema manipulates the emotions of the viewer in much the same way that video games do. While this also occurs in action and suspense film genres, horror’s combination of carefully planned shots, dialog, music, lighting and shadows put it leagues ahead of the rest in terms of audience manipulation.

When playing horror games such as Resident Evil and Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, the imprint of film is unmistakable. Resident Evil came out at a time when 3D games (3D with polygons, not with glasses) were in their infancy and polygon budgets were tight. To have a detailed and evocative game, pre-rendered backgrounds were used to create environments and as such, level geometry could only be viewed from pre-determined third person angles. This emphasis on the still shot, however, allowed the developer to make use of dramatic camera angles for these level vignettes. Eternal Darkness on the other hand uses film techniques to create the idea of “insanity” by tilting the game’s camera, haunting ambient sound and “stingers”, quick combinations of intense music and imagery intended to scare the viewer.

eternal darkness alex secret room 300x225 Working With Intertextuality in Game Design | Part 2: Film and live performances

Eternal Darkness uses dramatic shots to accentuate game goals and create a slow and cerebral game feel.

Citizen Kane tells much of its story in the backdrop of scenes. While movies of the time focused on actors and dialog for exposition. Kane’s use of the deep focus shot allowed narrative elements of a scene to be framed and visible to the viewer. Examples of this include young Kane playing outside and framed by a window, the irrelevant confetti in Kane’s office after a futile political rally, the ominous bottle of medication looming over a shot of Kane’s unconscious wife and finally the vacant halls of Xanadu. Films like Citizen Kane demonstrate elements of embedded narrative in their shots and scenery that tell as much story as the characters’ dialog. If more game designers took this to heart, the debate between narrativists and ludologists could feature a lot less mud-slinging. The embedded technical narrative elements of film and cinematic printed works like comic books (think Watchmen) allow the viewer’s eye to explore the scene in the way that video game players can move their avatar freely in the game’s environment.

citizen kane 3 Working With Intertextuality in Game Design | Part 2: Film and live performances

The characters in this scene never mention that Kane's wife may have tried to kill herself by overdose, but the setting provides that information.

The danger analyzing a non-interactive medium, however, is the tendency to add equally non-interactive elements to games. In Horror Video Games, a book of essays on the survival horror genre edited by Bernard Perron, contributing authors comment on the genre’s use of cutscenes to impart narrative information. These scenes tend to take control away from the player in games where it should otherwise be essential for the emotional impact to be felt. As one author points out, since cutscenes are not interactive, there is no fear of dying for the player.

Additionally, games like God of War and Call of Duty condense complex attacks or moves are condensed into quick-time events. Quick-time events, defined here as semi-interactive gameplay sequences where players activate complex animated sequences with short button combinations, are to many a sign of the downfall of gaming interactivity. Our own Daniel Wise and Kristen Maxwell have often stated that games with lots of quick-time events are, “more fun to watch than to play.” These sequences are more optimal than cutscenes in the player’s ability to miss a button prompt and die, but still threaten to destroy immersion by dumbing down the action a little too much.

cruel2b Working With Intertextuality in Game Design | Part 2: Film and live performances

The weapons of the game Cruel 2 B Kind demonstrate a different kind of interactivity with games and the world around us.

Games and film can either reference one another in meaningful or destructive ways, and a good game student will be able to understand when the parallel goes too far. If we are trying to foster in a new generation of unique gameplay experiences, distilling action down to singular button presses or taking the player out of the equation altogether with cutscenes is not how we’ll do it. On the other hand, lessons of cinematography, pacing, embedded narrative, non-linear storytelling and even occasionally spatial awareness can demonstrate how we can become better storytellers with the visual media elements of games. Understanding film can help both game designers and game enthusiast understand the framework of how to create visually captivating experiences.

Live Performances

While some would initially believe that plays, concerts and performance art analysis for game studies would be similar to those for film, that is far from the truth. These media differ from others in their ability to create a relationship with observers. Additionally, stage plays are popular local events, allowing anyone to potentially be a performer in the show itself. Indeed, the performing arts are in many ways interactive, or provide the opportunity for interactivity with audiences. Performers rush into audiences, sit among theater goers and create an immersive environment. Audience members are pulled onto stages, comedians riff on hecklers and musicians like Dave Grohl keep the peace at shows by kicking unruly patrons out.

Performance art, defined as an artistic event performed by a person or persons for non-entertainment purposes, take this relationship even further by often not delineating the performer from the audience. While the definition of this type of art is contested, some consider flash mobs to be a form of performance art, potentially putting observers in the midst of spontaneous urban pillow fights or dances. While containing elements of entertainment, alternate reality games also take developers’ game actions into public crowds. Designer Jane McGonigal often designs alternative reality games for public service purposes such as raising the happiness of urban areas (Cruel 2 B Kind) or improve people’s outlook on death (Tombstone Hold ‘Em.)

Where gamers can learn from these pieces of art is not only in their rich narrative and sociological traditions; performing arts have been utilized since pre-history for literary and religious purposes; but also for their relationships with their audiences. Unlike film, nearly everyone has been in a play at some point of his or her life. Likewise, they have the opportunities to see performances that hinge greatly on the involvement of their audiences. Perhaps performing arts can give us insight into new ways that gamers can interact with our games, especially in the advent of motion controls. Perhaps motion control games can be much less about gimmicky waggle and more about being an active performer.


  1. Another nice read.

    I like the Citizen Kane reference.

  2. I think the performance element is spot on from my experience in tabletop RPGs. Theatricality is what elevates a simple numbers game into a really engaging experience, and the more we all got into our roles the more fun it was– even when playing shallower games like Munchkin or more strategic titles like Pandemic. I think a little experience in performance makes these much more enjoyable, and is a feature I would love to see make it into the multiplayer arena sometime soon. Much like the ‘ractors in Neil Stephenson’s “Diamond Age,” hopefully someday all literature/games/instruction will be some form of interactive role-playing.

Speak Your Mind


Find us on Google+