I have been known to drive a friend to events. This is always worth it as the conversation is second to none on the way there, and he falls asleep mid sentence on the way home. I’ve not seen anyone else manage that. The conversations usually start the same way. He’ll start talking about a film, and within a sentence or two he’ll ask if I’ve seen it, and I’ll say “umm, sorry – no”. He’ll quickly move to a new film and ask if I’ve seen that. I’ll apologise, and say no again. Sometimes he makes a third attempt before giving up on it and engaging on a epic tale about something that requires no knowledge of popular culture on my behalf.
This is fairly typical for me. If it happened before 1990 I either didn’t exist or I was Welsh. Either way I wasn’t paying any attention. If it happened after 1990 I was probably only peripherally aware of it. In one particularly misguided moment I let someone know I hadn’t seen Star Wars. He attempted to remove me from his house. It was 3am, I was 200 miles from home and it took a little while to persuade him i was joking. I was joking, but it had been the last in a long list of films that I’d been telling the truth about. (ed: I’ve never seen Star Wars) I’m still mostly convinced that Twin Peaks is a medical drama. I’m playing a St Trinians game next year. It’s going to be awesome. I need to sit down and watch a whole range of St Trinians stuff. I can’t remember ever seeing it. I can’t work out how to play this game without knowing what it’s about in more detail than I can get from Wikipedia.
So, from this background I ran Alone games without having seen Alien. I’ve played games based on tv programs and films that I’ve never watched. I sometimes have entire conversations with people about games and then have to go home and do some research on YouTube to work out what I’ve been talking about and it does matter. We do reference films in our games. When we’re briefing monsters we use films to tell them what to act like and how to look. I couldn’t tell you what made a zombie a Romero Zombie so when I’m told that that’s what I should act like I actually have no idea what is being asked for. This is important.
Some games are based on one particular genre. Most games are made up of a variety of different things built from various sources to give the players reference and common ground. If you’re lacking that common ground then you end up in a very different place to other people. The language we use to build up the things we want our players to see is based on the things we’ve experienced. It’s a lot harder to describe a unicorn to someone who’s never seen a horse, and if they know what a horse is then you’re a lot less likely to end up with a rhino instead. Films provide us with a common language to describe the scenes we’re trying to create. They also have special features that sometimes tell us how they build their stuff.
Whilst we can be restrained by prior knowledge, it is also useful to know what’s gone before in order to move on from it. We don’t have to take inspiration directly from movies when writing our games (and it’s not always bad when we do) but we can be inspired by films and then move on to do something more individual, appropriate and awesome. You may want to use Xenomorphs straight from the Alien film. You may want to build something that reminds players of those, or you make just like the way they picked people off and were never quite completely visible. These are all good things and if you haven’t seen the film then you can’t take any of those directly from Alien. It’s also a lot harder to describe them to you.
I’d still quite like to know what makes a Romero Zombie a Romero Zombie.