Sunday, 30 June 2013

How The Last Of Us Made Me Question The Strength of Film As A Story Telling Medium

So I just completed The Last of Us and like everyone else loved the shit out of it. It had a few problems here and there; some slight repetition and segments which were drawn out longer than they could sustain my full attention for, but there's nothing to say or review in regards to the merits of The Last of Us that hasn't already been said.

But what The Last of Us really left me with was an actualisation, one which I have always believed possible, that not only can games tell a good story, which has been the case for several decades and I would never dispute, but more importantly that games can tell a story without interfering with what their fundamental point is, which is to be a game. Interactive and fun. A game is not simply boiling a cutscene down with some random button inputs and calling it a day. A game is also not just the even lazier alternative of a lot of cutscenes, which makes the value of my forty pound purchase become questionable since all I seem to have bought is an overpriced CG animated film.

If I saw the feature length CG film of 'Final Fantasy: Spirits Within' for five pounds at the cinema when it came out back in 2001, then why is this series of CG short films eight times the price?

The longest cutscene of all time

So what The Last of Us managed to pull off was a game that told an almost 15 hour story that was both complex, thematic, cinematic, emotionally engaging and yet never allowed any of those story telling mechanics to get in the way of its gameplay, or at least as far as that can be feasibly done. The Last of Us reminded me a lot of how Bastion managed to tell its story, albeit a much simpler story with a lot less emphasis on character relationships. The voice-over narration of Bastion allowed for a story to be told whilst the player got to enjoy the game, only rarely taking control away from the player for more unavoidable periods of having to more forcefully direct the plot, namely making you talk to other characters and such.

I noticed though that whilst I was watching videos of The Last of Us on Youtube or just researching parts and secrets that I might not have noticed, that there was a lot of people who had commented how “this should be a movie” or how it “needs to be a movie”. I'm only guessing from the fact that these comments were usually highly rated that other people agree strongly that this would be a good idea. This has been th
e case with a lot of other stories and releases in other mediums. If something's enjoyed as a book then people prefer it to be a movie and in the case of games this is usually very common for people to want a movie of it afterwards.

But I'm not fully understanding where this comes from. It's almost as if a story or work isn't validated until it's been turned into a film. As if any other medium is just a test run for when it's to be transplanted into film form. I understand why people like things in film form. At their best films can be an intense rush of entertainment, awe inspiring and emotionally hitting pieces of art. They are also short, so you get a great experience in a short space of time. Books and television shows especially can offer similar moments of greatness, but the time investment with them is exponentially longer, ranging from days if you marathon an entire series, to years if you follow it as each subsequent series is released and inevitably drawn out for additional profits if the show becomes popular enough.

But a movie's brevity can also be it's downfall. In many ways films are the worst medium for telling a lot of stories. They're short and so have to be paced well, leaving little time for it to ever slow itself down and take a moment to examine one smaller and particular aspect of itself. In terms of characterisation and thematics, films are also weaker because you have less time to characterise relationships between characters and any themes you set up have to be explored sufficiently and wrapped up along side everything else you're trying to do in this short space of time. Characters in films are the equivalent of only spending an hour or two with someone, which in real life would lead you to not really knowing them at all. The trick of screenplay writing is to demonstrate the fundamentals of your character whilst keeping them interesting and do all that whilst also juggling every other aspect of the story telling and pacing. Whenever it's pulled off it's fantastic, but more often than not it can end with films seeming like abit of a mess or just basic at the end of it all.

Most people's complaints about book to film adaptations, or television show to film adaptations, is that when they leave the theatre, they notice how so many aspects of original work have been left out due to time constraints, with a lot of these aspects being potentially integral to the overall narrative if the film hasn't been reworked particularly well. Up until recently I would have agreed that usually books and television shows make the least sense to adapt into a film because of how much more complex and layered they can be. The problem is that films usually win out in what version people will want to see because they're concise and don't involve a lot of time investment. At the same time I can see why books also lose out in most people's eyes because they're not as visual and so not as outwardly exciting to read.

I also would've thought up until recently that games made the most sense to adapt into films. They're a strange medium because they're not solely centred around story telling but also interaction. Games are usually the equivalent of watching a film and then pausing it every few minutes in order to go and throw a ball against a wall outside for a few hours. Games are films that are wrought with distraction and so their stories and characters usually suffer because of this. As an entertainment platform, games are incredible, but in terms of storytelling more often than not they suck ass. Films should be therefore a perfect place in which to transition their basic plot lines and characters and expand them in the concentrated time frame of a movie.

But from what I've seen of a lot of recent games; namely Bioshock Infinite, Spec Ops and The Last of Us, I see that given that the company has the budget, programming skill and good enough direction, they can find a
way in which to both allow the player to enjoy the gameplay of a game, whilst also telling a story in the background. They do this through visual cues and passive background chat between the characters, only focusing the player's attention on certain things and maybe cutscenes if need be.

In that sense then, games are proving that given the right drivers behind the wheel, they're more equatable to television shows and books than films with distractions in them. If The Last of Us was a film, I don't think it would be as good. It may be a very good film, but it would lose a lot of the story telling techniques which made The Last of Us so moving, interesting and eventually sticks in your mind for days to come afterwards. It has a much longer time frame to develop its characters and involve you in their world. Games are regularly shat on for all the things I've said above, but they have demonstrated, or least to the extent that I've noticed it, that they are a strong medium for complex story telling.

I'm just confused as to why people seem to need a film version of something in order for it to be validated. Whenever a good film comes out, I wonder why people never ask for a book version, television show or game adaptation, because what I've come to question is whether or not that wouldn't be a better alternative. I don't hate films, I love them as much as I ever did, but I am questioning whether or not at least, because of their design, if films aren't becoming the weakest medium for story telling.


  1. What an interesting article, good sir. You have answered your own question in that films are the quick, sensorily appealing mcdonalds burger as opposed to the time consuming gormet meal of books and console games. Each have their place. Which films from books have you found particularly unsatisfying?

    1. Most recently I'd have to say the Great Gatsby. Although I think for the most part they've transferred everything from the book into a film, I think most of the strengths of the novel as well as its themes are brought out through the prose itself and the descriptions of the environment and people. That leaves the film feeling unsatisfying in comparison because it feels skin deep, since the only way to counteract that problem would be someone literally reading out the novel (as the voiceover attempts to do).

      Also I'm not really sure the plot of the great gatsby is interesting enough to carry a two hour film. As a book plot it works because most of the contents of the book isn't really focusing about the plot but focusing on lots of sub themes like hedonism, unrequited love and the american dream. In a film all you really get is just a story about a man who got rich and then was disappointed that a woman didn't love him back, which is fine, but just not enough to carry 2 hours. As well as the fact that Gatsby's identity as Jay Gatz is played off as a twist or reveal to some extent, but it isn't really interesting enough to be a good revelation.

      Anyway sorry I went on abit there, but yeah I don't think that was a good book adaptation for a film, however that could just be because it wasn't a very well handled adaptation. But it does highlight how film's can't juggle that much stuff happening, or else they feel underdeveloped all over. There's alot going on in the great gatsby and I really don't think a film has the length or time to focus on all of it.

    2. Also must ask if you agree? I'm not sure if I know many other book to film adaptations that came out recently aside from GG. Do you have any recommendations or things to slag off?

    3. The DaVinci Code ditto (don't judge me), the book was full of interesting facts that just couldn't be conveyed in a film and even Tom Hanks couldn't save it. Could films get away with an "we insist you read the book first" waver, do you think?

    4. .....haven't read or seen GG but Life of Pi and A Picture of Dorian Gray have convinced me never to go and see the film of a book I have enjoyed. I'm sure I enjoyed The Hobbit cos I never read the book.

    5. Shit yes I completely agree with the da vinci code. I found it entertaining, and although it's badly written, it does keep you reading to the end in one sitting. Yeah the film just wasn't as interesting (I think you may be right about the lack of trivia being a problem in the movie), and also seeing the film play out made you realise actually how retarded everything that's going on is. Whcih amde it hilarious

    6. (to other anonymous) I don't know about never seeing a film based on a book you like. I think it just depends how basic the original book was and also how well the film makers can focus on a specific part of it. The Road for instance was a book I liked, and because it wasn't that complex, just quite a simple story about a father and son quietly making their way through an apocalyptic wasteland, then the film benefited from this because it had time to solely focus on the father and son and let the performances carry the weight of the movie.

      I haven't seen Life of Pi, but have read the book, what did you not like about it specifically? Was it a bad adaptation or just too watered down?

      I also find that if there's a film based on a book, I try to read the book after. That way I don't spend the time in the film picking at what's been removed and not enjoying what they've turned it into. That way I get to just enjoy it for what it is, then I can read it after. The books usually always better though.

    7. Life of Pi: had the feeling I shouldn't care more about the tiger than the boy. Some books are best left alone.
      Is there a new genre of console games coming that set out to engage the player emotionally and will therefore be more addictive?

    8. I imagined Life of Pi would be like a very surreal castaway (with alot of pseudo philosophy), shame it didn't turn out that way. I'll probably end up watching it at some point.

      I don't even think that anything's changed genre wise. Games have pulled this off before, it was just the last of us (with it's realistic faces, good mo cap and voice acting) made me see how well games could tell a story and emote. It's really just a case of people trying harder. There'll always be shitty games and films, but great examples deep in the shit. That's why it always annoys me whenever people talk about a golden age of cinema or literature. There's never any golden age, or point in time when things were better and now it's unsalvagable, things can always be good, it just depends on whether or not people who care can get their stuff made and published.

    9. But I do think the improved tech is integral to having games emote and tell stories within their gameplay better. I'm sure it's hard as hell to get a character to say a thing or perform an action at a particular point in time, and choreograph all of that around the player doing their own thing. And increased performance can only help that. Well that and good programming.

    10. This has been good food for thought and an interesting read. 'Golden age'usually means the era in which the speaker saw their particular favourites. What makes a book a classic? Ok, too boring, but what does?

  2. The strength of film as a story telling media is it is accessible to all no matter their background, iq, ability to read, and grasping some of the story is better than none. I guess.

    1. Good point about the accessibility. I still its weaker on paper, but that explains it's popularity and reputation