Moments of Decision: How a Technique Used in Hollywood to Improve Feature Film Scripts is Becoming a Key Part of the Next Wave of Gaming

I teach young producers several tools for working with screenwriters.

One of these tools - which (for lack of a better term) we call the Great Dilemma - dates back at least to Aristotle.

Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) observed that the dramas that grip an audience tend to have a good strong dilemma, which builds to a crisis, forcing decision and action, and ending with a powerful resolution.

Aristotle also wrote that tragedy devolves from hamartia, which is often translated as a character flaw, but hamartia might just as easily be translated as a mistake.

In other words, Aristotle understood that a character’s choice (not fate - but a decision made by the exercise of free will - often between two compelling alternatives) was the engine of great tragedy.

And, the power of choice in drama is not just a Western discovery - or a tool that works only within the conventions of tragedy.

In the Japanese Kabuki tradition, plays which depict a character in conflict, struggling with a duty towards two opposed individuals, plays of divided loyalty like Igagoe Dochu Suguroku - Numazu, are common.

And in 20th century Hollywood, giving a lead character an insoluble problem - involving a difficult choice between two things - has been the bedrock of many great movies - think of Michael Corleone's choice in The Godfather (a mobster's youngest son must choose between a non-criminal family life and loyalty to his crime family) or Judah Rosenthal's moral dilemma in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (a doctor must choose between admitting infidelity that threatens family/career and murder).

A "Great Dilemma" arises when the protagonist has a choice of two solutions to the main problem at the climax of a story - and these two solutions represent two irreconcilable life goals that the character desperately wants - but that apparently cannot both be obtained.

Additionally, in many (most?) scripts, there are numerous obstacles that a protagonist must overcome - starting early on in the script when we typically learn what the character wants and what stands in the way. Encountering obstacles often leads to choices. And in a well-made script these smaller scene-by-scene choices are often reflections of the Great Dilemma that the protagonist must resolve at the climax of the film.

When it comes to working with screenwriters, one of the tools we have as film producers is to ask about the choices that a character has to make.

If you give an actor a choice at a key moment in the film, and the audience understands the dilemma that the character faces at that moment, watching the struggle as the choice is made is often more fun than watching the consequences of that choice - think Brad Pitt as Mills deciding what to do with Kevin Spacey's character, John Doe, at the end of Se7en.

And, as video games and filmmaking have begun a dialogue in the 21st century, this notion of moments of choice, where a character has a difficult decision to make, have started to become a key concept that some game designers have seized upon as a way of involving the player in the game play in ways that come closer to experiencing a great movie or play.

For example, in a November 22nd, 2013 post to, Mike Futter describes how the team behind the soon-to-be-released XBox One exclusive game Quantum Break - under Microsoft's Remedy Studio’s creative director, Sam Lake - are using moments of choice to “blur the lines between gaming and television.”

Quantum Break's protagonist, Jack, is "working to correct a failed science experiment to control the flow of time, which ended up causing it to stutter and freeze."

Using the potential for interactivity that comes with the new tools, the choices that a player makes during game play - as protagonist Jack and Beth (a woman who apparently holds a valuable clue) - can affect a companion television show. Here's how Matt Futter explains it: "Quantum Break will be shipping with the live-action tie-in content on the disc. Players will alternate between playing a segment of the game and watching an episode. “[The junction moment] leads into the next episode of the show. Immediately the first scene of the show is affected by the choice you made. It’s very much alternate content depending on the choice you made. The idea is that it will feel relevant to the plot of the show. You’ll learn important things that you’ll need for the game.”

And, even in the game play itself, the choices that a character makes will affect the way that the game will unfold:

"Players will control the heroes of the tale, Jack and Beth, but during key “junction moments,” we’ll step into the shoes of villain Paul Serene. “He has this time power that gives him the ability to see glimpses of different timelines and different futures,” Lake tells us. “At the end of each act of the game, you actually get to play him during these junction moments. You get to explore and discover these glimpses of different futures, and you get to make the choice. Which of these two futures that are presented will come to pass?”"

As explained by Matt Futter; "One of the big differences between action movies and Quantum Break is that players will control the villain. While most people wouldn’t feel sympathy for Die Hard’s villain, Hans Gruber, there is a risk when putting the player so close to the bad guy."

“We want to make even the bad guy a deep, complex character that you will see different sides of,” Lake says. “You will understand why he’s doing what he’s doing. At the same time, the junction moment is just one gameplay scene, and the glimpses you see can be approached in two different ways. They are fragments. You are learning about certain things, but all options have both positive and negative from the bad guy’s perspective, but also from the heroes’ perspective.”

"These decisions will have impact on the way the narrative plays out, but it isn’t a choose your own adventure tale. “It does affect the tone of what will follow,” Lake explains. “It will unlock alternate content. The consequences of the choice you make will follow for the rest of the game.”"

The orchestrated PR buzz around Quantum Break is building.  I haven't hear of an official release date - but Spike's VGX awards are on December 7, 2013. Maybe we'll get more info then...

Until then, filmmakers and gamers might want to spend a few moments considering how far we've come...  Tools for storytelling that date back to Greek tragedies, and that have become the bedrock of motion picture storytelling, are now being adapted to 21st century video gaming.  This convergence is something everyone working in 21st century motion pictures will soon come to understand and accept... and (even though I greatly admired the man and owe him a personal debt of gratitude for his kindness about my first film) this convergence seems the path most likely to refute Roger Ebert's stubborn assertion that "video games cannot be art."

Thanks for the link go out to (someone else I greatly admire) Geoffrey Long, whose team worked on Quantum Break before Geoffrey (acknowledging that even Microsoft wasn't geek-central enough for him) moved on to USC's Annenberg School.

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