Editorial: Video Games and The Great Train Robbery

Those who don’t play video games typically view stories in games as completely irrelevant. I don’t care about them—I’m far more interested in people who do play video games yet feel the same way. These people love games just as much as narrative-driven gamers, but they see a game’s story as ancillary, a secondary structure built to house the gameplay, the good stuff, all the big “attractions.”

At their core, that’s what games are: a series of attractions. Do this, hit that, jump there—wow, look at that explosion! That’s what they were in the beginning, weren’t they? There was no narrative context for Pong. It was two lines and a small square. In 2010, we sometimes forget how thrilling it once was to move that paddle up and down with a joypad, sending those white pixels careening across the screen to vigorously defend a side from the rapidly approaching square. Games were exciting, enticing, breathtaking—and they made no sense whatsoever.


Not too much of this took place in Pong

Cinema, in its infancy, was strikingly similar. When people today think of early cinema, they likely envision Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” full of romances (Gone With The Wind), westerns (Stagecoach), comedies (Mr. Deeds Goes To Town), noirs (Double Indemnity) and so on. All of those genres have a driving narrative force. Yet, if one looks back to pre-Hollywood, turn-of-the-century cinema, the prominence of narrative in film begins to fade. The transition between this earliest of cinema, the “Cinema of Attractions,” to a more classical cinema mirrors a comparable shift that is presently occurring in the medium of video games.

In his article “The Cinema Of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde,” film historian Tom Gunning explains the Cinema of Attractions as “a cinema that bases itself on … its ability to show something.” (382, 2006) Films from this period (origins of cinema to roughly 1908) were often just one or two minutes long, and rarely stretched longer than five minutes. (A quick aside: films back then didn’t have set running times, so they can’t accurately be labeled as certain lengths of time. They were a certain physical length, as in number of feet, and a person in the back cranked the projector, controlling the number of frames displayed each second.) These films intended to present an attraction, “a foregrounding of the act of display,” or a series or attractions. (Gunning, 42, 2004)

It is far easier to spot an attraction than to arrive at an abstract, all-encompassing notion of one. Typical attractions of early one-shot films included “the sudden flash (or equally sudden curtailing) of an erotic spectacle, the burst into motion of a terroristic locomotive, or the rhythm of appearance, transformation, and disappearance [of] magic film[s].” (Gunning, 49, 2004) Almost anything can function as an attraction; in fact, “in the earliest years of exhibition the cinema itself was an attraction” (Gunning, 383, 2006). Viewers went to screenings to see the technology in action, not to see specific films, and they were suitably shocked and awed at the wonders of the Cinématographe, the Biograph, and the Vitoscope (just like gamers today who gape at the technical marvels of game consoles more than the games themselves). Like in Pong and countless other early games, most directors gave little thought to narrative in these earliest of films. They sought only to entertain viewers in brief bursts, without offering greater context. They were spectacles, not stories.

James Williamson’s "The Big Swallow" (1901)—the epitome of the attraction film

The Cinema of Attractions is labeled as such because the vast majority of films in that era were dominated by attractions, but there are exceptions. In 1903, Edwin S. Porter of the Edison Manufacturing Company directed The Great Train Robbery, one of the first films to experiment with narrative continuity.

The 14-shot, roughly ten minute film follows a group of outlaws who conduct a daring heist of a passenger train. In the first shot, two of the robbers enter a railroad telegraph office and subdue the clerk. The film then cuts to a shot outside the station in which four robbers sneakily board a train moments before it leaves the station. Once inside, two of the men engage a guard in a firefight. After dispatching the guard, one of the men sets dynamite on a box beside the corpse, which explodes in a fiery burst of red smoke. (Another aside: in the days of black and white film, color was displayed by hand-painting each individual frame—an excruciatingly time-consuming process that led to gorgeous, somewhat surreal results). The two men then grab the loot inside and leave the train car. 

Edwin S. Porter’s "The Great Train Robbery" (1903)one of the first films to experiment with narrative continuity

The next shot shows two bandits climbing on top of the train (it’s unclear if these are the men from the last shot). While one holds the conductor at gunpoint, the other overpowers a guard and, after a brutal beating, tosses him off the train. Under orders from the robbers, the conductor brings the train to a halt, then separates the front car from the rest of the train. Wielding dual pistols, one robber herds the passengers out of the train, while two other outlaws go down the line and steal the passengers’ valuables. One male passenger who bolts is shot and killed. Loot in hand, the three robbers run to the front train car and take off. When they reach the right spot, four robbers in the car disembark, run down a hillside into the woods, cross a stream, and take off on their hidden horses.

The film cuts back to the train station, where the clerk still lays bound. A little girl wearing a purple dress enters, unties the clerk, and wakes him with a splash of water. The following shot shows about a dozen revelers, comprised of mostly men as well as a few women, dancing in a small room. As the dancing women’s purple and yellow dresses flow around them, the men fire their pistols—which spew orange smoke—at the feet of a frightened, out of place man to make him dance for their pleasure before he hurriedly departs. Not much later, the clerk enters, and the men rush out in pursuit of the bandits. A confusing horse chase full of colorful gunshots ensues. Then, the pursuers—now inexplicably on foot—come across three of the robbers, who apparently stopped in the woods to examine their take. In a blaze of gunfire, the hunters kill the outlaws, and go over to inspect the loot, perhaps with the intention of taking it for themselves. Finally, in the last shot of the film, a mysterious, tough-looking bandit aims his pistol at the viewer and fires.


This shot is thought to be the inspiration for the famous James Bond gun barrel sequence

Narrative, temporal, and even spatial ambiguity abound throughout the entirety of The Great Train Robbery. Exactly how many bandits participate in the robbery, and what are their motivations? When does the little girl find and untie the clerk, and why is she at the train station alone? Who are the men who chase the bandits, and why are they dancing? Why do they torment the other gentleman during that dance? Who shoots whom during the horse chase? Why do the bandits stop in the middle of the woods? Why does a man shoot the screen in the end?

Precise answers to these questions are trivial; it’s the broad answer that’s key: the film’s attractions, of which there are many, are two-faced. While they’re undoubtedly entertaining, several threaten to derail the narrative—they’re like guilty pleasures Porter cannot help but indulge in. The entire dance scene, for example, makes little sense in the context of the story, but it offers a great opportunity to showcase gorgeous hand-tinted coloration on flowing dresses. The most prominent attraction is the film’s last shot, where the man shoots at the screen. This insert explosively addresses the audience entirely outside of the confines of the established diegesis. Its placement at the end is particularly notable, as if Porter was to say, “Are you not satisfied with the narrative’s conclusion? Well how about THIS?![Note: This shot was sometimes placed at the beginning of the film, but this was uncommon.] It’s shocking and exciting—the film would be poorer without it—but it relegates the narrative to a secondary status. The narrative serves the attractions, not the other way around.


Examples of hand-tinted coloration in The Great Train Robbery

Nonetheless, The Great Train Robbery was the first film of its kind, so picking it apart is less crucial than recognizing its achievements. It was the first film to integrate attractions within a comprehensible narrative with some semblance of success, hinting at a future where attractions could effectively support an intelligible narrative structure. Indeed, as the years passed, there was a shift in filmmaking “from the explosive, staccato energy of the attraction to an outgoing, more systematically controlled narrative force.” (Gunning, 310, 2006) Though narrative films began to dominate popular cinema in place of attraction-oriented films, attractions actually flourished in this altered paradigm. Through the development of crosscutting and other continuity editing techniques, many filmmakers (perhaps unwittingly) found “that the development of systematic narration and continuous action could also deliver a sense of shock, of percussive action that is broken and picked up again continually.” (Gunning, 311, 2006) The once disjointed forces, attraction and narrative, came together to function symbiotically in films.

The same cannot yet be said for most video games. Many still suffer the core problem that plagued The Great Train Robbery: attractions and narrative, more often than not, work against each other. Though no such official period exists is the historiography of video games reporting/analysis, the period from 1958 to more or less the present marks the “Games of Attractions” era. To understand why, one must look back at the (not so distant) origins of video games.

After a decade which brought about the computerization of simple pre-electronic games like chess and tic-tac-toe, American physicist William Higinbothamm in 1958 designed the first-ever electronic game, ping-pong “simulator” Tennis for Two. Offered for play on a circular oscilloscope display in the Brookhaven National Library, the game allowed one player to hit a ball—represented by a tiny green dot of light—at controlled angle over a net, and another player to return it, also at a controlled angle. It was an immediate hit with visitors, who lined up in the hundreds for a chance to get their hands on the game, but at the time Higinbothamm reasoned “that the game was not such a leap from the initial computer he had used.” (Lambert) For him, it was but a blip in the larger computer revolution.


Tennis for Two celebrates its 50th anniversary

With sufficient knowledge of the next half-century, Tennis for Two’s implications become much larger. It presented a singular attraction, but it was, in essence, an infinitely varied attraction. More than that, players were able to determine exactly how the attraction varied. Attractions, already appealing to our base, excitable instincts, became controllable, adaptable, and infinitely replayable. This means that games, if well designed, have the potential to engage and surprise players the first, thousandth, or millionth time they play them. In that regard, movies simply cannot compare. Video games slowly but surely became a new creative medium, one riding on an incredibly powerful tool: the interactive attraction. The gaming press would later coin its own term for video game attractions: “gameplay.”

Along the way, the games business became a million, then billion, then multi-billion dollar industry. Arcades—a natural evolution of the vaudevillian fairground that spawned the Cinema of Attractions—offered a convenient way to monetize basic gameplay concepts. (Though game consoles aimed at the home market did exist in the 1970s, early console games were predominantly arcade ports). Arcades and the games therein were designed for people with limited time and fleeting attention spans, thus the magnetism of the interactive attraction proved more than sufficient—people popped coin after coin after coin into game machines for just-one-more turn in Pac-man, Jump Man, or Frogger. Nobody took up arms because there was no more to the story of Donkey Kong than “An ape stole the princess. Rescue her!” Great gameplay stood strong on its own then, as still does today.


Stupid monkeys, always climbing to high places…

The first forays into interactive narrative drew heavily from literature. Unlike cinema, whose earliest narratives featured attractions heavily, these interactive narratives were devoid of typical reaction-based gameplay. Text adventure games, also called interactive fiction, allow players to assume the role of an adventurer by typing in simple one or two word commands in response to information. Programmer William Crowther coded and distributed the first text adventure program, simply titled Adventure, in 1975. Once the run file was initiated on a computer, it began, “You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully.” If you wanted to enter the building, you’d type, “Go in,” then you’d be greeted with more info: “You are inside a building, a well house for a large spring. There are some keys on the ground here. There is a shiny brass lamp nearby. There is food here. There is a bottle of water here.” The game was similar to “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, but the sheer number of options and paths available, though in reality entirely predetermined, presented the illusion of narrative freedom. For the first time, players felt in control of their own destiny.

Lev Manovich, in his book The Language of New Media, calls this type of structure “branching-type interactivity.” This “closed,” “menu-based interactivity” is not to be confused with “more complex kinds [of interactivity] where both the elements and the structure of the whole object are either modified or generated on the fly in response to user’s interaction with a program.” (59) Though adventure games outgrew their textual roots and began to render graphics as early as 1980, they stuck with the closed interactivity model. In 1993, developer Cyan Worlds released its 3D adventure masterpiece, Myst, on CD-ROM. It offered a three-dimensional world to explore, but players couldn’t travel anywhere they pleased—players had an “active role in determining the order in which the already generated elements [were] accessed.” In other words, Myst marked the transition from textual to visual adventure, but it still didn’t feature active gameplay. (Manovich, 59)


Myst’s pre-rendered 3D visuals were groundbreaking in 1993

The 1990s marked the decline of arcades and the rise of the home console market, which meant games designers sought to make their games more engaging for longer periods of time. To connect game levels and provide a sense of cohesiveness, more and more games featured an overarching narrative. Yet, in most games, the narrative was an afterthought. Games were almost always conceived as a series of gameplay elements first, with a writer coming in toward the end of the development process to provide a loose narrative framework. This is the cinema equivalent of a director and his team shooting five exploding buildings, ten minutes of footage in a forest, and two sex scenes—and only then bringing on a scriptwriter to write his way from point A to B to C. This illogical order makes for poor, non-sensible narratives.

As technologies progressed through the latter half of the 1990s and into the new millennium, game developers drew more and more inspiration from cinema. Camera angles became more cinematic, lighting more dramatic, and narrative more linear. Developers frequently employed “cinematics”—non-interactive, often pre-rendered story segments—to divulge plot details whenever necessary. Entire games “would be structured as an oscillation between interactive fragments requiring user’s input and non-interactive cinematic sequences.” (Manovich, 90) By alternating between passive viewing and active playing, developers polarize narrative and gameplay, which should ideally complement one another. Taking control away from the player to further the narrative removes that sense of freedom those early adventure games bestowed. Even if there’s only one narrative path, players should feel as if they’re forging through it themselves, not watching it unfold from afar—that’s what made those early interactive narratives so special in the first place. Valve’s Half-Life series is an excellent example of well-executed linear narrative—never once do you leave the first-person perspective or lose control of main character Gordon Freeman.

Today, the medium of video games is flourishing; overall diversity and quality are arguably at their all-time highs. Many modern games are purely focused on gameplay—which is no way a bad thing. In a way, these arcade-inspired titles are reminiscent of avant-garde cinema, which, inspired by the Cinema of Attractions, rejected narrative to focus entirely on film form. Meanwhile, though many modern narrative games—linear or otherwise—continue to fall prey to many of the problems outlined above, pioneers in the development community like Jonathan Blow (Braid, 2008) and Team Ico (Ico, 2001; Shadow of the Colossus, 2005) have already succeeded in merging gameplay and narrative into a single ethereal entity. After one plays such a game, it’s easy to see that a bright new chapter in the history of video games is already at hand.

2010 Tokyo Game Show trailer for Team Ico Collection, an HD re-release of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus

[Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of Eric Blattberg.]


Gunning, Tom. “The Cinema of Attraction[s]: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde.” In The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded, ed. Wanda Strauven (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006), pp. 381-388.

Gunning, Tom. “Modernity and Cinema: A Culture of Shocks and Flows.” In Cinema and Modernity, ed. Murray Pomerance. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006), pp. 297-315.

Gunning, Tom. “Now You See It, Now You Don’t: The temporality of the cinema of attractions.” In The Silent Cinema Reader, ed. Lee Grieveson and Peter Krämer (New York: Routledge, 2004), pp. 41-50.

Lambert, Bruce. “Brookhaven Honors a Pioneer Video Game.” In The New York Times. Published Nov. 7, 2008.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. (The MIT Press, 2001).