Virginia, video games and montage

I played Virginia lately, which is unusual among games, I think, because of its use of montage. What I’m talking about isn’t exclusively what people call “a montage” in film, (eg: training montage) though there are some scenes like that in Virginia. But also the broader use of editing to connect one shot to another. Montage is a huge deal in film. It’s pervasive. Soviet montage theory posits that it’s the one element that is unique to film, that can’t be imported from another medium, like painting or theatre.

Even in movies that aren’t super-experimental, you’ll see edits that imply a connection between the end of one scene and the beginning of the next. Near the beginning of The Terminator, Kyle Reese searches through a phone book until he finds the name “Sarah Connor” and tears the page out. The next shot is the first appearance of Sarah Connor. It implies this is who he’s looking for without saying it outright. But this sort of thing is rarely used in games.

One classic example (which I think I picked up from a film studies book) is someone traveling by car from one place to another. In some early films, they would have shown a character get into a car and drive away, then cut to their new location where the car enters and they get out. Later, they learned how much of this could be eliminated. Maybe they could get into a car and cut directly to knocking on the door of the location they drove to. Maybe they could declare their intention to go somewhere and cut to them driving. And the audience would figure out the implication.

In Grand Theft Auto, (The last GTA I’ve played was Vice City, so let me know if this doesn’t apply to the newer GTAs) you have a button for getting in and out of cars. Unless it’s a cutscene, it’s always in your control to get in or out of a car. If you have the task of going from A to B and going inside a building, the game will show you every step of that process, however you do it. When you get into the car, it will not presume your intentions about where you’re going and cut directly to your destination the way a movie would. And maybe that makes sense, because what if the game’s presumption was wrong?

In Virginia, you never get in or out of a car. But because it’s a video game, that means you never choose to get in or out of a car. It’s a thing that just happens when you complete the current scene. I think this gets at why montage isn’t used more often in games. So much of its power is in the things you don’t need to show, but every time you do that, that’s something that’s not in the player’s control.

If you chop down a tree in Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the tree turns into a big log, with no branches. A lot of survival games that include the option to turn trees into wood will do just that. Trees change directly into wood at the moment you chop them down. Is this closer to the native version of the edit in games? The intention to turn the tree into a log was a safe presumption, so they abbreviated the action.

Though maybe that’s really about granularity of controls. When you tell a character where to go in an RTS, they do that. In a platformer, you have to tell them which direction to run, how fast, when to jump, down to the millisecond. Maybe choosing what is and isn’t under the player’s control is equivalent to choosing what is and isn’t shown to the viewer.

In some cases in Virginia, that lack of control makes things feel out of your control, like fate is pushing you down a certain path. I think this is in keeping with the intended tone. It’s actually in the slower parts where I found it more of a drawback that I didn’t know for certain what would trigger the end of a scene. I sometimes got into a “pixel hunting” mode where I had to guess which thing the creators wanted me to do.

One game that used montage more sparingly is Night in the Woods. One major difference is that it’s used near the end of the game in locations you’ve become familiar with. So when it skips over parts of what you’ve seen before, you can remain grounded and understand where you are. Where in Virginia, they use montage even in locations you’ve seen for the first time, which can feel disorienting.

I notice I’ve been focused a lot on locations and traveling. Maybe this says something about what things you do in games. GTA bills itself as an “open world” game, and that often means it treats its world as one big continuous location. My example of cutting down trees in Breath of the Wild is an abbreviation of actions other than travel. Travel seems to be the one action in games that is most likely to remain unabbreviated. People complain that “walking simulators” have no interaction but right in the name it says you can walk. Walking is taken as a given.

Which brings to mind the other use of abbreviated travel in Night in the Woods, which I might have overlooked. Much of the game takes place in the central Possum Springs platforming map, but often there are other locations that are accessed through dialogue options. Someone will ask you to come along to such-and-such and if you say yes, poof, there you are. I did almost overlook it, but I guess this abbreviation in games draws attention to itself only when it does take control away from the player. Since this one is explicitly activated through the dialogue choices, you don’t feel the missing time as much.

So maybe a lot of it is a distinction between continuous and discrete controls. 80 Days is a game all about travel, but the travel is controlled entirely through multiple choice, not by pushing a joystick. Your position will move to the next stop on your journey, rather than have the player move through the entire path. Where Virginia has you control your movement in first-person through continuous motion, so when that motion is abbreviated, you feel the missing time and the missing control.

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