How are movies and games influencing each other?
Are movies becoming more like video games or vice versa? Screenwriter TJ Fixman and Blizzard writer Sydney King weigh in.
The question was basically answered before it was even asked.
When I brought together screenwriter TJ Fixman (of Netflix’s upcoming action thriller Carry-On) and senior writer Sydney King (of Blizzard’s Story & Franchise Development group, working on team-based action franchise Overwatch) to discuss the differences and similarities between movies and video games, it turns out that neither of them was completely planted on one side or the other.
Prior to writing Carry-On, Fixman got his start…in the gaming industry. Working most prominently on Insomniac Games’ Ratchet & Clank series and Resistance: Fall of Man, he understood firsthand how narratives grow and develop in both media.
Similarly, before joining Avalanche Software on Hogwarts Legacy and then Blizzard to work on Overwatch, King was a student at the University of Utah…studying screenwriting.
Fixman and King are living examples of how blurry the lines are getting between these mediums. Though as they reveal in conversation, a few dividing lines still remain.
Alright, let’s get right to it: Are movies becoming more like video games, or are video games becoming more like movies?
TJ: Speaking from my own experience. I would say that they’re completely different. Because with games—it’s different from studio to studio, but in general—the story is very tech-driven from the start. They'll come to you like, "Hey, we've got X amount of minutes for animation. We've got these levels. Can you come up with something that weaves it all together?” Whereas with some feature work, we start with a very small group of people—just me and the producers and maybe a studio exec or two—and start hammering out the story first. I've described it as building a raft with twigs and twine and then holding it all together as it sails over a waterfall. Game production is just so fluid and so crazy.
Movies and games exercise different muscles. Thanks to my video game work, I'm not afraid of any notes. You learn to roll with them. Has that been your experience, Sydney?
Sydney: Yeah, 100%. You have to be so flexible in game writing because unlike features, the writing doesn't come first and then the production comes after. It's all happening in tandem. And yeah, you have to be really open to notes and to pivoting and everything like that. I do think that there are some games, like The Last of Us or God of War, that show a trend where games are becoming more cinematic and more movie-like, and I think it's helping to bring in wider audiences and making games more popular and more accessible. But, yeah, writing is certainly different for both.
So there’s rarely a point in video games where you’re staring at a blank page and you can literally write anything?
TJ: I’ve seen other film and TV writers try it. They come in like, "Hey, I wrote this entire video game. Here you go." You sort of have to break the news to them that that's not how it is and game writing is definitely not linear. It's just a lot of considerations that make it difficult to start just from your head.
Sydney: You have plot lines and characters that you worked really hard on and were passionate about, but in the end often you have to pick and choose what the game has time for. So it can be disappointing and discouraging at times, but there is always something else to put your energy into and to focus on and make better when something else falls through.
TJ, is there anything from your game experience that has helped you in feature writing?
TJ: I think my time writing video games probably helped inform or strengthen my world-building muscles a little bit. I think when you write video games, you always have to be thinking about the consistency of the world, right? There are weapons, there's a currency system, there are NPCs, there are different factions, sometimes different planets, different galaxies. And all of them have to be in sync.
Recently I was working on an upcoming film adaptation of the [‘80s TV show] Knight Rider, and so I had to build out that universe. I had to think about what one talking car story might be like, but also how it might lead to an entire world of that kind of technology. So it's helped in that regard, for sure.
Sydney, same question. Has your screenwriting education helped you in games?
Sydney: It’s funny, but one thing that I've developed as I've gotten more into games is that games have taught me to think so much more about the audience. When I was writing my own screenplays, I just focus on the story that I want to tell. But when you're creating something that's interactive and you're trying to keep people playing for hundreds of hours instead of two hours, you really have to think about your audience and what they want and how they want to express themselves. So I think working in games has made me just more in tune with how to adapt my writing to appeal to more people and to let the audience feel more part of the world.
What are some quirks or storytelling tropes you're starting to see pop up in each media?
Sydney: I think there are some experimental things in TV now where people are trying to make things more interactive, like there was Netflix's Bandersnatch where you had the choices. Or the show Kaleidoscope where you could watch the episodes in any order. I think people are interested in how popular games are becoming and trying to figure out what is that special ingredient that makes people love games so much and how can we apply that to TV and movies. It'll be cool to see where it goes.
TJ: Yeah, it’s tough because they're two completely different experiences. I mean, you always want things to feel cinematic, but what is “cinematic”? That definition has changed for me over the years. I feel like back in the day, playing the Nintendo 64, a cinematic was the dessert that you got for finishing your meal—you beat a level, you get this really cool pre-rendered thing. And now, people see rendered cinematics so much that that has shifted towards never taking control away from the player. I don’t know if you’ll ever get total choice in a TV show or a feature.
That being said, I think quality is quality. Back in the day, I think game writers were sort of an afterthought because all you needed to know was that the princess was in another castle. Now people want deeper, more richer worlds with more sophisticated storytelling. So that much has changed, for sure.
Typically, when a writer pens a feature script, the characters they envisioned can change later on once actors are cast, costumes are designed, etc. But for video games, aren’t you usually writing to characters that are already designed and locked in?
Sydney: In my experience, yeah, I've been handed characters that already mostly have all their gameplay designs, their physical look is designed, and so I kind of base my writing off of that and knowing, especially in a game like Overwatch where there's the different hero types—like, you're a tank or you're support, that can really affect the personality of a character, too.
TJ: When I wrote Carry-On, there is a character who I never named, I just called him Traveler. I wrote him to look like a traditional Dad on Christmas Eve. He’s in a traveling coat, a fedora, he's got some Christmas presents, and you're just like, "OK, the bad guy just looks like any guy on a layover in an airport." Then they cast Jason Bateman, and they came up with a look for him that was like puffer coat, baseball hat, he had backpack—completely different look than what I was imagining, but seeing what he did with it actually made the character better.
Sydney, if they came to you tomorrow and said, “We want to make an Overwatch movie,” where do you start?
Sydney: It's so hard with something like Overwatch because there are so many characters and you don't want to leave anybody out. You don't want to disappoint any fans who have their favorite character deemed not important enough to include. There's just so many expectations from fans that have loved these games and spent hundreds of hours with them, and then there's the time issue, where you can't condense all of that into a movie. It's inevitable that some people are going to be let down.
TJ: It can be done though, right?
Sydney: Oh yeah. Having somebody like [Naughty Dog co-president] Neil Druckmann, who has been deeply involved in both The Last of Us game and The Last of Us show and can kind of guide it, I think that's super important. The meeting of the minds with people from both sides trying to make something good. If it was totally my decision, I would make Overwatch a TV show so that we can spend more time on the backstories of all the characters and also the main plot. I think it would make a great show.
What about a video game tie-in for Carry-On?
TJ: [Laughs] It all takes place at an airport between a guy stuck at a metal detector and the guy watching him from the bar, so I don't know if that would make for the most exciting video game ever!