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Old-School vs. New-School – The Literary vs. the Cinematic

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 9, 2013

Weird thought for the day…

Dungeons & Dragons came into existence before the era of the “Hollywood Blockbuster.” Which generally means pre-Star Wars. Reading the old Dragon magazines (yes, I do that) of that era, and the references mentioned in the 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons manuals, it struck me that the vast majority of the references in that old game were literary. The original game – and the players that made up what counted for the culture surrounding the game – were brought up on the works of Fritz Lieber, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jack Vance,¬† Robert E. Howard, Lloyd Alexander, Edgar Rice Burroughs, C.S. Lewis, T.H. White, and many others.

This does make sense. I’ve seen some of the old fantasy movies of that time, and with a few shining exceptions, they suck. I’m sure there were people inspired by Burt I. Gordon’s The Magic Sword for their fantasies of adventure, perhaps as kids, but I don’t expect there were many.

Now, I’m sure there’s an argument to be made that nothing has changed in the modern era – the majority of fantasy movies still suck, but if it weren’t for their appearance on Netflix category lists, I’d never know they existed. But today, we live in an era where our fantasies are informed by the spectacle of cinema. Our modern vision of knights leap around with lightsabers pulling kendo moves. We’ve had the full palette¬† of visual imagery from stop-motion skeletons to CGI dragons – with muppet goblins, latex demons, hand-animated horrors, and everything in-between.

So while there’s no dearth of fantasy literature these days, I think the modern gamer is probably informed far more by cinematic experiences than literary ones. I don’t know if many people would argue with me on this point. Nor would they argue that the two aren’t fundamentally different. While there have been a few excellent movies based on fantasy novels, they are pretty different beasts, and it’s challenging to bridge that gap.

But the odd thought that comes back to me is how this may have impacted game design. Is part of the hard-to-define “feel” of old-school RPGs (the ones that tended to more consciously imitate dice-and-paper gaming) because they were (indirectly) following the lead of print media – to bring literary-inspired fantasies to life.

Whereas in the mid 1990s, the industry was pushing hard to become the “new Hollywood.” Today’s game designers (and the gamers to whom they cater) are far more likely to have watch the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter movies than to have read the novels they were based on. While I don’t think the Hollywood-Wannabe-ism is quite as strong as it was a decade or so ago in the mainstream videogame industry, the game experience still tends to be modeled after cinema. Just look at all the effort that gets devoted to camera angles, quick-time events, lip-synching, and borrowing vocal talent from Hollywood today.

How much has that influenced the “feel” of computer role-playing games?


Filed Under: Geek Life - Comments: 2 Comments to Read



  • Maklak said,

    This coincides with what you wrote about how story and gameplay get into each other’s way.

    Another factor is that big games need to well, sort of make the players stick to them and a cinematic story with some first person shooting and looting in between works pretty well for that.

    So yeah, games tend to be like movies now. Linear story with red, blue and green ending and not much explained. Linear area progression with some side exploration. Shallow gameplay that works on a console controller. And so on. But I don’t think this is a movies vs books thing. For example Metro 2033 is like a movie, but it is based on a book.

  • Nikola Begedin said,

    I don’t think old-school vs new-school is just literary vs cinematic. I think the bigger element is game first vs story first.

    I’ve seen it while playing through the Walking Dead in the Last few days. I like to write about games I play, but there was nothing to write about without spoiling the story because there’s almost nothing I’m actually doing through the entire course of the “game”.

    With another game I’ve been playing, Might and Magic Book One, I could write several pages based on a single dungeon, and there’s almost no story to be told in that one. However, even if there was a story, the gameplay would still be there and I’d still be able to write about it.

    That’s why I’m changing the terms I use. From now on, there’s no “good game with bad gameplay” for me anymore, just like there would be no “good book with bad bookread”. It’s a bad game with an OK story and that’s it.

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