One of the most important points of difference between film and games is the aspect of player participation. If games can offer something like a cinematic experience, it is made more complex by the fact that games are played, engaged with, in a manner that is much more active and formative of the resulting experience than is the case with watching a film. However, opposition between game-playing and film-viewing as a distinction between activity on the one hand (games) and passivity on the other (cinema) is not that simple. Film-viewing is far from a passive experience; it involves a range of cognitive and other processes in the act of interpretation and emotional response.
Games, however, place a central importance on the act of doing that goes beyond the kinetic and emotional responses that might be produced by a film. To use the term "interactive" to describe this dynamic is problematic, however, as Espen Aarseth suggests. Taken literally, the term can be applied so widely that it no longer has the power to distinguish between the interactions that occur between users and texts of all kinds, such as literature or cinema, with which games are often compared. Aarseth proposed instead the term "ergodic" (derived from the Greek ergon and hodos , meaning "work" and "path"), to identify forms in which "nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text" (1997, p. 1), meaning an effort greater than that involved in reading a novel or watching a film.
The player of video games has to respond to events in a manner that affects what happens on screen, something not demanded of readers of books or viewers of films. Success often depends on rapid responses, effective hand-eye coordination and learned moves or skills made through the use of devices such as keyboards or game-pads, or puzzle-solving skills. Games are demanding forms of popular audio-visual entertainment, requiring sustained work that is not usually associated with the experience of popular, mainstream cinema. It is possible for players to "fail" a game, or to give up in frustration, if they do not develop the skills demanded by the particular title, a fate that has no equivalent in mainstream cinema. Games are a participatory medium; the game-world is left undiscovered, character capabilities left locked, and story arcs do not unfold unless the player is actively willing to build the specific skills required to progress through a game.
Another key point of difference that is often highlighted between games and other media is the role of narrative. Narrative, generally, plays a less important role in games than it does in films, despite the widespread claim that narrative has become attenuated in contemporary Hollywood cinema. Narrative remains a central component of even the special-effects driven Hollywood blockbuster. Narrative is also present in many games: narrative progress is sometimes offered as a reward for successful gameplay, or provides a general context within which gameplay is conducted; and in multiplayer games many small narratives delivered in a range of ways provide the mythology that gives added meaning to a virtual world. But, generally, narrative plays a role secondary to engagement in more active gameplay.
Narrative rationales tend to disappear into the background during much of gameplay. Jesper Juul suggests that there is an inherent conflict between interactivity and narrative: "There is a conflict between the now of the interaction and the past or ' prior ' of the narrative.… The relations between reader/story and player/game are completely different—the player inhabits a twilight zone where he/she is both empirical subject outside the game and undertakes a role inside the game" ("Games Telling Stories."). Narrative is preset, built into the fabric of a game, available to be discovered or realized, in whole or in part—or, in some cases, in one version or another, depending on the paths taken by the player. Narrative has happened, or been created, while "playing" is always happening, a particular realization of the potential offered by a game, the precise shape or outcome is indeterminate.
The ideal suggested by the game designer Richard Rouse is to achieve a balance between narrative as predetermined and structured into the game and the variable "player's story" generated in each individual experience of the game. The player's story "is the most important story to be found in the game, since it is the story that the player will be most involved with, and its is the story in which the player's decisions have the most impact" (pp. 216–217). Carefully predetermined narrative structure is necessary, however, to games in which dynamics such as variable pace, tension, foreshadowing, and building towards a climax are important or desirable. The extent to which narrative dimensions are experienced as separate from, or part of, gameplay is also determined by the kinds of storytelling devices used by individual games. The sense that narrative is essentially separate from gameplay is encouraged by the prevalence of what Rouse terms "out-of-game" narrative devices, such as cut scenes, that put gameplay on hold temporarily. Strongly favoured by Rouse is the use of "in-game" devices to provide story: signs, written notes, nonplaying character (NPC) dialogue or behavior, and the design of levels. In Half-Life , a first-person shooter with a narrative more complex than similar games, information important to the trajectory of the plot is provided within the game-space. NPCs speak of what is happening without the game shifting into a cut scene, the player-character remaining free to move around as usual. The effect is a sense of seamlessness close to that which might be expected of mainstream cinema, even though created in a different manner.
Moments of the most heightened and intensively interactive gameplay often entail features such as cause/effect relationships and linear progression (although the latter, in particular, is far from guaranteed: it is quite possible to regress, to lose ground, during activities such as combat or the negotiation of difficult terrain). These are qualities often associated with narrative, as, for example, in David Bordwell's influential formulation of "classical" Hollywood narrative. By themselves, however, they are not sufficient to constitute narrative or story, unless defined at the minimal level. Moment-by-moment developments gain narrative resonance through their position in a wider frame that is largely pre-established. Games often balance player freedom with narrational devices that shape and give structure to the player's experience, including the provision of cues that guide the movement of the player-character or music or sound effects that warn of approaching danger, as is often the case in the Silent Hill horror cycle (beginning in 1999). One of the major dynamics of many games is the oscillation between these different modes of engagement, the rhythm of which often varies from one example to another.