Tom Jackson: Video games are starting to nail stories better than films

2020 might not have been a great year for some, but it was undoubtedly a great year for the video game industry. Its total revenue has now exceeded both the sports and film industries combined. Making 174.9 billion U.S. dollars worldwide. 25-year-old game designer, Tom Jackson, acknowledges that the pandemic had a part to play in this, however, he also claims it’s due to games telling stronger stories.

“Games have more time to tell a story. They have the advantage”, explained Jackson. Having graduated with a degree in computer game arts in 2018, Jackson freelanced until he secured a role as an associate designer. The developer that employed Jackson is Hangar 13, an American video game developer based in both Brighton, East Sussex and Novato California. However, Tom’s passion for game development started much before he even enrolled at university, he worked on level design, concept art and even dialogue writing, all of his own accord. All of which played into him securing the role at Hangar 13. During his time there, he worked on MAFIA: The Definitive Edition. A remake of the original MAFIA, a game in which players take control of an American cab driver turned gangster in a fictional city based on 1930s Chicago.

As a level designer with experience in writing dialogue, Jackson is a devoted storyteller, passionate about “creating stories or areas for games that are enjoyable and memorable”. For any media to create an enjoyable and memorable narrative Jackson says “you need plenty of time to flesh out the characters”. Time is something that games have on their side. The average film’s length is 90–100 mins, whereas a game’s narrative can last anything between 5–60 hours. Due to there being more time in games, there is more dialogue which accounts for deeper characterisation. A film however needs to balance an ensemble of characters within a shorter time frame. So, many opportunities for deeper characterisation is lost and doesn’t make the final cut in movies, becoming a deleted scene. In reference to this, Jackson compares Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard from the film ‘Apocalypse Now’ to Captain walker from the game ‘Spec Ops: The Line’. Both of which contain narratives that involve captain ranked soldiers that lose control of their troops.

Jackson explains that there are multiple scenes that depict Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard giving orders to his troops, they elect to ignore his orders as they don’t respect him. They end up getting killed before there is time for characterisation which accounts for why this is, the audience is left to assume his shortcomings. “With Sheen’s character they’re more hidden away”, says Jackson. He describes that the difference with Captain Walker from Spec Ops is that they show him starting out as a respected superior. Yet, his subordinates who start out respective of Walker ends up questioning his brutality. “You slowly see him spiral out of control and his flaws are on display for everyone”.

These scenes are filled with dialogue and characterisation between Walker and his troops, they paint a picture as to why there is extreme disapproval towards Walker and his orders. Whereas, in Apocalypse Now there was no time. “The time it would take to do such a thing is not a luxury that film has”, says Jackson. He believes that every bit of dialogue no matter how inconsequential it may seem builds a solid foundation of characterisation, which in turn creates a good narrative. With this in mind, as Jackson designed levels for MAFIA, he opted to suggest the dialogue within his levels of the game. “They would ask if I wanted any specific lines for the level I was working on. The writer would usually incorporate my suggestions, which was great”. Jackson notes that time also allows the opportunity for other attributes to a media’s narrative, such as intertextuality. “I think Game designers definitely benefit from having the time to add more indirect storytelling”, he says.

Jackson acknowledges that one game, in particular, does this exceedingly well. “There’s a fantastic example in the game Fallout: New Vegas. They have factions in the game and you can hear what the history of the faction is through finding notes scattered throughout the game”. He explains that these notes slowly help build a backstory, which in turn makes you understand certain character’s mindsets and intentions. All without having to be told by word of mouth which would take up screentime on a film. Jackson is hopeful that in future projects he may be able to apply such methods in order to contribute towards creating a gripping narrative.