Storytelling in games grew out of a need to give players an explanation as to why their character needs to go through so many different levels. Usually they employed the method of a donkey following a carrot on a stick, but that was because of memory and hardware limitations of the times. I am of course referring to console games exclusively here. By the time Super Mario Bros. had hit American stores PC games were already enjoying rich tapestries of stories. But never the less as consoles fought to keep up with PC’s they’re stories have gotten stronger and more and more focus is being placed on character arcs and plots then just the mechanics. In fact, if you study the evolution of storytelling in games with the evolution of storytelling in cinema, you can see a pretty obvious correlation. When films started out they were just short strips with such engaging plots such as “Man Runs” or “Man Jumps Over Things”. But as film technology advanced filmmakers experimented with the idea of using stories to drive their films, and movies that used to be based just around sight gags and visual experiments turned into the Casablancas and Metropolis’. And I know that games have reached that stage. All we need to do is to test it. So, can a game tell a better story then a movie?
In order to find out I needed to establish some ground rules so that this wouldn’t be a case of comparing apples and oranges. A statement I never quite understood. I mean, both grow on trees, both have roughly spherical shapes, and both are highly recommended by nutritionists over a Double Down. The first rule I set out was that both the game and the film in question had to be about the same thing, so we can have familiar characters and plots to compare them with. At first I though of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, but the film is just a weak copy of the game. In fact, I’ve ruled out no movie based on a game or vice versa. Instead they would both have to be based off the same IP, so that way we have a control group to test them against. So eventually I came up with the perfect IP; Transformers. We are going to compare the video game Transformers: War for Cybertron with Transformers: Dark of the Moon, a film people have been saying is better then Revenge of the Fallen, just like how chlamydia is better then AIDS.
In my opinion, and from all the books and classes I’ve taken on storytelling, a good story only really needs two things; good characters and an effective plot. The plot doesn’t even have to be original, it just has to be effective. The characters don’t even need to be decent people, they just need to get the audience to like them and care about their plight. So let’s compare these elements and see which, a movie or a game, is better.
Characters: Oh come on this has to be a tie right, both are about Transformers so both are going to have the same characters, next topic. But you’re wrong there, and probably haven’t seen the films which is a blessing. You see while War for Cybertron understands that a game called Transformers better be about some robots that transform, this seems to have completely slipped Michael Bay’s mind. On three separate occasions. In War for Cybertron the main characters are Optimus Prime and Megatron. In Bark at the Moon the main character is Sam Witwicky. In the game the supporting characters are an assortment of classic characters from the G1 cartoon such as Bumblebee, Wratchet, Ironside, Starscream, Soundwave, and Barricade. In the film the supporting characters are an assortment of racial stereotypes, sexist depictions of women, and recruiters for the US military. Many people complain that in the movies the Transformers are supporting characters in their own film. But that’s being generous. The Transformers are mostly incidental tertiary characters, most of whom have no names and no lines of dialogue. And any Transformer who isn’t Optimus, Megatron, Bumblebee, or Starscream are one dimensional caricatures. There’s a Beevisbot (as in Beevis and Butthead), a Joe Peshibot, a bunch of Scotishbots, and fucking Skids and Mudflap.
And then there’s the main character. In Dark of the Force Sam Witwicky has lost whatever tiny connection to the audience he may have had. In the first movie he was a dweeb who was trying to get a cool car to score with a chick who was way out of his league. But now he is a graduate from an Ivy League university, has another hot supermodel girlfriend, lives in a two story DC apartment, and his 2008 Camero can turn into a giant robot, and all he does is whine and bitch and moan about how he doesn’t have a job, even though he turns down all the one’s he’s offered.
So one point goes to Cybertron for having a cast of characters the audience wants and cares about.
Plot: The plots for the game and film are actually pretty different from one another. While War for Cybertron is about Megatron unleashing a dangerous new form of Energon to win the war, Farce of the Loon is about the Decipticons awakening a hidden army on the moon and launching a massive invasion of Earth. So in order to avoid another pears/strawberries situation I’m going to see how effective they are. Plot is not the same thing as story, and ultimately it doesn’t matter how clever or unoriginal your plot is, but how effectively you pull it off. War for Cybertron is pretty effective for a video game. It moves at a fast pace and allows to player to take on a different assortment of Transformer roles and explore all kinds of different environments. Each chapter has its own unique challenges and objectives, and the boss fights are original and actual do test your skills. Tonally Cybertron is fairly consistent. It doesn’t have that much comic relief outside of a few funny lines, but it doesn’t need to relieve any tension since it’s a pretty good robot brawl all throughout. It isn’t as funny as the film, but it isn’t as dark as the film either.
Actually, that’s a huge problem with the movie. It has too much comic relief. Dark of the Moon is the darkest in the trilogy. Chicago gets wrecked and there’s shots of civilians being mowed down and lingering scenes of charred bodies. But it’s also the goofiest of the three, in a series that’s had Bumblebee urinate on a sleazy government agent and a Decipticon hump Megan Fox’s leg. It seems like Michael Bay feels like if the film doesn’t have a laugh every five minuets the audience is going to get bored, even though all the best scenes were of Optimus Prime being awesome. Seriously, if the whole film just focused on the Transformers fighting and Optimus being awesome, it would be very effective. Instead you have it jumping back and forth between Harold and Kumar and Band of Brothers in terms of tone. A very effective establishing montage about the film’s back story is immediately followed by a huge close up on Rosie Hunting-Whitley’s ass. A dramatic scene in which the Decipticons hold Sam’s girlfriend hostage and force him to betray the Autobots is immediately followed by Sam stumbling around and catfalling because the Decipticons can control him through a watch. An awesome scene where the Marines aerially insert into the city is followed by a black overweight Marine huffing and puffing his way up some stairs. Yes, a black, overweight Marine. Having comic relief is fine, but Michael Bay’s comedy is so stupid and juvenile and there’s so much of it, it ends up ruining the film. Protip: Go into the theater to see this film an hour after it’s started. You’ll thank me.
Another point to War for Cybertron if only because it can maintain a level of consistency.
So there you have it. I firmly believe that all it takes to have a good story is good characters and an effective plot. Not a great story or a story that will stand out as a classic. Let’s face it, we’re dealing with Transformers here. All you have to do is have giant robots fight and make it effective. And in that regard, for something that simple, a video game ended up having a much better story then a film. So if you’re a Transformers fan, it’s well worth your time to get War for Cybertron than to see another Michael Bay abortion. I mean it’s good. It’s really damn good and if all you want is to see giant robots fight, why are you going to the movies? You’re not getting any of that.