Storytelling in Children of Men

Since Children of Men was released on DVD, I picked it up and got to see it again. It’s a fantastic movie, just as good the second time around… I recommend it, and will try to avoid any spoilers when discussing it below.One thing we’ve talked about around the office is how game-y the script was. I’m not saying it in the sense sense that “boy, a Children of Men game would rock” (I’m not even sure it would), but rather that its method of storytelling was extremely well-suited to games…. It was simple, yet very powerful.

Game developers have struggled over the entire existence of video games to integrate deep stories into their gameplay… To an outside observer, it seems easy to demand that they “just hire a writer to create a story that doesn’t suck”. However, even with the most brilliant writer, it can be extremely difficult to get the player immersed in your fiction. Because of sporadic playing habits and limited attention spans, over the years I’ve seen subtlety whittled away from many scripts out of necessity. Unfortunately, as a result, characters with extreme depth and subtle motivations tend to give way to ham-fisted dialogue and characters that wear their hearts on their sleeves. For example, Japanese games that are renowned for great story is full of characters that puke up their deepest desires at the slightest provocation, and even very good stories like Final Fantasy XII is still delivered with very plain statements of motive.

In the case of Children of Men, a story was delivered where:

1) The viewer didn’t need to track more than the very next objective at any one time.

2) The backstory was explained in snippets over the course of the main story.

3) The characters’ motivations were never more than 1-2 layers deep.

4) The characters’ progression was primarily driven by geographic advancement (e.g. “we must go here”).

5) Very moving story moments were created simply by placing the characters in an interesting place and letting the viewer’s imagination do the rest.

I am actually heartened that the method of storytelling was this simple, yet it had some of the most moving scenes I’d seen in quite a while. If anything, it’s proof that a compelling situation will create drama on its own. Did anyone think the story in that movie was too simple?

5 thoughts on “Storytelling in Children of Men”

  1. God, when I first watched Children of Men I was compelled by the precision of the scenario and the apparent depth of the drama. Reading your post is quite enlightening in that respect – you are true in saying that the mechanism are very simple. However, there are a few quirks that makes it more complex than it seems:

    * characters have a detailed background. Although you don’t apprehend the complete background of each character, you really feel it. And of course, their actions are a direct consequence of their past lives.

    * the relations between the characters are emotionally charged – the death of you know who (try to not spoil anything) is a perfect example of the heavy emotional load.

    Yet, it’s still true that the story is very simple. I think that it’s a characteristic of all good movies (Hitchcock movies were twisted, but with very simple mechanisms too) – and maybe of everything good on earth: let’s call that the beauty of simplicity 😉

  2. I think part of the problem with interactive storytelling is that it is an almost completely new discipline that hasn’t had much time to develop. I think the idea of writing a story that is A) non-linear in nature and B) still has to remain cohesive and meaningful as a player charts a linear path through the writer’s non-linear story is extremely daunting. In some ways, people who are used to writing scripts for the screen or the stage must, to quote the venerable Jedi Master, “Unlearn what [they] have learned.” Writing linearly is one thing. Writing non-linearly, yet making it seem to the player that the story is linear… That’s a whole new can of worms.

    I find it interesting that you mentioned FF12. That game created a very bizarre internal conflict for me. On one hand, I found the gameplay extremely addicting. The addiction was further exacerbated by the fact that I was continually rewarded by finding things and collecting things. So the OCD in me was really sated after I had attained 100%. That said…

    The story in FF12 was so horrid that I felt embarrassed for the sap who wrote it. What’s sad is, the story could have easily been written to fit tightly around the gameplay. Instead, the game itself was divorced completely from the story. It was like playing Xenosaga, but with a real game behind it instead of several interactive scenes (followed by aggravatingly non-interactive cutscenes). Even if the story didn’t follow the gameplay and vice versa… They could have at least given the characters some depth. There was no perceivable change in any of the characters in that game from start to finish. There was no real back-story to any of the characters. They might have had some character traits in terms of how they spoke. But I had no idea what made them tick or why I should care. So I couldn’t relate to any of them.

    The events that drove the story had no meaning to me whatsoever. It was so nonsensical that I simply lost track of who was fighting which for what and how. So how did I end up playing the game so thoroughly without knowing what was going on (or caring)? Instead of playing the game to find out what was next in the story, I ended up playing the game as a big ol’ glorified scavenger hunt. The kind I used to play during Passover when my dad hid a piece of matzo and told my sister and I to find it for a reward ($1.00).

    As for Children of Men, I never got to see it. I’ll have to rent that one. 😉

  3. Just saw it a couple nights ago and I was struck by how gamey it was too – in particular, the long-take action sequences made me feel like I was in a Half-Life or WW2 FPS, because they were these continuous shots where you’re travelling through the environment, looking from one shocking thing to the next. Incredibly compelling! (Although after a while I started to think, “Now you’re just showing off, Mr. Director-Man” – that took me out of it a little.)

  4. This just goes to show that plot does not always directly translate to story. I’m personally really tired of movies and games having plot for the sake of plot, where there are 20 different twists, secrets, and surprises, but in the end you have no reason to care or feel moved by any of the events. Perhaps the best examples are the last two Pirates of the Caribean movies, where all of the characters are constantly double-crossing eachother and changing alliances…technically there is a lot of “plot” there, but no one in their right mind would even attempt to argue that it’s a “deep” story.

    Then you have movies and games which are obsessed with conspiracy theories to the point of hilarity. “a secret government agency was controlling this and that”, “the evil corporation covered it up”, “your friend double crossed you”, “Luke, I am your father”, “you secretly have a clone”, etc. etc. I can’t help but think of the Metal Gear series in this regard, and while in the case of that particular franchise, its popularity says otherwise, but I don’t think these sort of devices are particularly compelling or make your care about the characters.

    But unfortunately, people are inevitably fooled into believing that these sort of cheap plots are “deep”, you know them, the ones that think the Matrix is one of the greatest movies of all time. It’s good to have movies like Children of Men showing that a story doesn’t need complexity for complexity’s sake to be compelling.

  5. Ah, I’ll disagree with you again, GnaM, I absolutely loved the Matrix. But yeah, the thing about Children of Men is that the story is told essentally in first person, but the viewer (and main character) is more or less present for all major developments. It does a great job of the classic adage “show me don’t tell me”.

    In contrast, the Matrix unveils its lengthy backstory through some simple storytelling from the part of Morpheus. It felt good to me because the storytelling evokes a sort of tribal oral history that would have evolved after an apocalypse, but this isn’t really a heavy theme of the movie, so I can’t assume it’s deliberate. 🙂

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