At the Game Masters exhibition last week, MCV got the chance to speak to the creator of Deux Ex, System Shock and Epic Mickey.
Gamers tend to cry out for a structured narrative to appear in an emergent form, where their actions inform a plot which is every bit as good as a fully-directed one. Is this a realistic hope?
Certainly it’s something that people want (or at least they think they want). Well... I say that as if it were a truth, but my opinion (after making games for almost 30 years now) is that most people aren’t very good storytellers. That’s the bottom line.
When I was working on tabletop games, doing Dungeons & Dragons and things like that, I listened to a lot of people’s descriptions of their campaigns, and it’s the same pattern every time: we did this and then this happened, then we did that and then that happened, and five minutes into it you’re falling asleep. That's because it’s the most boring non-story in the world – it is just a description of event, event, event, event, event.
What I think writers are good at (and what I hope my teams and I are good at) is saying to the player ‘Ok, you have to do this and here’s why it’s important’ and then ‘You have to do this, and here’s why it’s important’, and how you do it – well I just don’t care because it’s a really personal experience which the players get to love because it’s theirs.
So that thing that bores one person to tears is Moby Dick or Shakespeare to the person telling it, because it’s their unique story. I just want to make sure that we’re the ones who say ‘You have save your brother from terrorists who are holding him captive’ or ‘You have to help Oswald defeat that dragon or else’.
Most people are just never going to be good at that ‘what you’re doing’, ‘why you’re doing it’ and ‘or else’ parts. I’m pretty comfortable telling traditional Aristotelian three-act structure stories, as long as how you get through it belongs entirely to the player.
Where do you think ambient games like Journey fit in the larger question of how to tell stories in games?
Story in games works in a variety of ways.
I’m seeing Tim Schafer this weekend. He’s a really good friend of mine, and I love the guy. In his old adventure games (Grim Fandango at the like), they tell incredibly strong stories, they're Tim’s stories.
Nothing’s going to happen in one of those games that wasn’t pre-planned. And that means that Tim can tell a way better traditional story than I will ever be able to tell in a game. I wish I was as good a writer as him; I wish I was as funny as him; I wish my wife liked me as much as she likes him (she’s stalking the guy – it’s weird). But, that kind of game is not what I want to do.
There’s that ‘I want to tell you my story’ kind of game, which I’d say Uncharted is kinda like - those more cinematic games tend to be great, great stories - because we know how to tell cinematic stories, right?
Then at the opposite extreme, there are things like Will Wright’s games, like The Sims and Spore, or Tetris (oddly enough). The only story there is the one that you make, it’s the re-told story. The player is doing the ‘event, event, event’ thing, but the story is entirely constructed between their ears. There is no big overarching story there.
So those are the opposite ends of the spectrum, and over here [gestures towards the Uncharted end of the scale], on the rollercoaster ride where you never get off the rails, you're in a Half Life game. The guys at Valve know every step you’re taking. They know exactly when you’re going to look at one specific point, and at precisely that moment they’re going to trigger some story element and that’s going to be amazing - they know exactly where you are on the ride at all times.
Then over here [gestures towards the middle of the scale], there’s what (I hope) I do, which is where there are parts of the story that I’m gonna own and you’re going to have no control over them (Your brother is being held by hostages – rescue him or else). How you do it, though, is a little sandbox. Each portion of my story is its own little sandbox.
I’m not doing the re-told story that Will does. I’m not doing the completely controlled story of Tim and the Valve guys and the Uncharteds of the world. I like to be right here in the middle.
That way, everybody can feel like they’re in a great, great story. It’s the story of how they rescued their brother, how they defeated the dragon.
That’s the best way I know how to do it. If anybody comes up with a better way, I’m going to change tomorrow.
The game which springs to mind that tries to push as hard as possible to combine both controlled and player-directed storytelling would be Heavy Rain. What are your thoughts on where it would fit? Is it anywhere on the scale you propose?
Alright, here’s where Warren gets in trouble today.
I finished two games last year. I play a lot of games, but I play like two hours of basically everything that comes out. If I finish a game, there’s something really compelling in it for me.
One of the games I finished last year was Deus Ex: Human Revolution (surprise, surprise), and the other was Heavy Rain.
I loved them both and I screamed at my television as I was playing both, but I hope I’m still making games like Deus Ex: HR. They made some choices I don’t understand and someday I’m going to get up on stage at GDC with those guys and we’re going to do a public post-mortem of HR (I’d kill to do that), but Heavy Rain - I would just never make a game like that.
I think David Cage is a genius. If Tim isn’t the best writer in gaming, David is. I’ve never met the guy – I’d love to sit down and talk to him. But, basically Heavy Rain works because it’s five scripts all jammed together and meshing together and branching together. It’s like it’s the world’s biggest choose-your-own-adventure book, and I can admire the craftsmanship behind that, and the skill it takes. I mean, I’ve actually written choose-your-own-adventure books, and I know how hard writing those is. But I also know that in Heavy Rain, nothing surprising will ever happen. No player will ever see anything, do anything, discover anything that David (with his undeniable genius) didn’t create.
I think that’s a shame. I can’t look at that and say ‘that’s the future of gaming’ because the flow charts I did for One Thing After Another and Thing in the Darkness and other choose-your-own-adventure books that I did 1984 and 1987 are exactly the same structure as Heavy Rain. Exactly.
I loved that game as an experience – it was unbelievable. It made every day mundane things high drama. I mean, holy cow! I’m in awe of the talent of the guy who wrote it and his ability to tell a cinematic story.
But would I ever make a game like that? Absolutely not.
Stay tuned for Part 2, where Spector discusses open world narratives, and Part 3 where he talks about Disney Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two.
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