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September 23, 2013

Does 'Grand Theft Auto V' mean the end of Hollywood?

There's a good chance you've heard: "Grand Theft Auto V," the latest installment of the storied video game franchise, took in over $1 billion in its first week. That's more than any movie released this year, with the exception of "Iron Man 3" (which happens to be the fifth highest-grossing movie of all time). At this rate, "GTA V" could be a nontrivial contributor to the U.S. gross domestic product. It's a cultural event. Even Apple should be impressed.

It's not a stretch to think that the people who didn't go to the movies this summer might have said, "you know what, I'm skipping a few and using the cash for a different kind of blockbuster."

In that case, the most interesting number to keep in mind may be 100 — the approximate number of hours of gameplay that "GTA V" reportedly offers. For those diligent and conscientious enough to explore all the side quests, excursions and games- within-the-game, it provides weeks of entertainment.

That makes the $60 retail price a bargain: 100 hours of gameplay at $0.60 an hour. Compare that with the price of admission to a movie, even a two-and-a-half hour megaproduction. The other advantage for video games — driving the usage cost down even further — is that buyers get to keep the game.

So, could the multiple box-office disappointments last summer reflect the beginning of a shift that goes well beyond blockbuster fatigue?

There's little reason to think that movies and video games couldn't continue to co-exist. But if audiences are becoming overly familiar with Hollywood's version of the three-act- structure and if games continue to grow as a form of narrative entertainment, it's tantalizing to think that the next few years or decades might bring some more serious attempts at experimentation and cross-pollination.

It's already been tried. Most of the results, however, have been marketing masquerading as "interactive storytelling." Despite efforts in both industries to find some creative alchemy, most attempts, though admirable for the effort, fall short of true invention. Movies made from games, games made from movies, movies and games released simultaneously with added content end up being less than the sum of their parts, more like two conventional forms of entertainment smushed together and repackaged as a new product.

Movies and video games both take place in a larger, common universe of possible narratives. But are they fundamentally incompatible? Could anything interesting ever emerge from recombining the DNA of the two?

That's where a game such as "GTA V" breaks through. It's tempting to think of it as an open-ended movie: it's written and directed by storytellers skilled in the cinematic form and produced by an expert group of visual designers. In that sense it feels like a big movie production. As the scale and complexity of these games increase — and as our ability to simulate and render nuance and emotion and ambiguity increases — these games are starting to verge on something entirely new. Whatever one might feel about the storyline of "Grand Theft Auto V," it is hard to deny that it is pushing the boundary of the form.

Open world games have come a long way in a short time, but as impressive as they are, they're still operated on rails — theme-park rides rather than free-driving cars. "GTA V" points the way to games with a narrated openness in which players wouldn't be presented with options so much as they would have tools to model their experience. Giving players the ability to create their own stories within the connected world of a larger story creates a natural, social evolution within the system. In this sense, "Grand Theft Auto V" and "Minecraft" show us what may be coming when the mediums we have now are reimagined as virtual worlds that can grow and evolve over time.

If anyone is going to invent a new form of entertainment from this model, she's probably 15 years old right now, unbound by the conventions and assumptions of received forms. She's growing up in a world in which a significant number of her interactions with other people are online (for better or worse). She consumes serialized programming in 13-hour blocks and doesn't really distinguish between TV shows, movies or Internet videos. She consumes these stories on her phone, tablet and laptop whenever she wants, a few minutes at a time or maybe three hours at a stretch. She makes calls on her computer and surfs the web on her television. She makes no distinction between screens, small or large.

Maybe she'll be the first auteur of this new kind of entertainment — an environment with infinite horizons. She may imagine a platform where players are both the creator and the narrator, able to write the game as they play through it. Perhaps she'll create the first Great American Possibility Space.

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