Following on from yesterday's discussion of narrative, Heavy Rain and Uncharted, Spector talks about Epic Mickey 2 from Game Masters.
Is adding a voice to Mickey changing the way you approach storytelling this time around?
It’s made it a lot easier, frankly. I was amazed (on the first game) how effectively the voice actors we used were able to communicate emotion and how their characters were feeling about what was going on with just squeaks, grunts and groans. When you give actors real words, they can do better. Go figure. Who knew?
We have some folks at the office who are pretty good writers, and I’ve done some writing in my time, but we knew we needed to get someone who really knew that they were doing this time, so we contracted with Marv Wolfman who’s a really really well-known American comic book writer. He’s written novels, scripts and things like that. He was the editor-in-chief of Marvel comics for many years, and he’s probably best known for Tomb of Dracula, which makes him a very odd choice for a Mickey Mouse game.
The thing that I discovered when I met him many years ago was that he was the first fiction comic-book editor for Disney Adventures magazine, and he wrote most of an eighteen issue run of a Mickey Mouse adventure in the 90s, which was incredible and were the best Mickey Mouse comic book adventures ever written. So when he came on board, it really helped us a lot.
Has the implementation of voices in the cut-scenes altered the way you’ve handled the gameplay in any way?
No, not so much. I mean, we’ve always had to take into account that the choices you make might affect the dialogue that you read in the first game or hear in the new one. So, we do very minimal branching. I’m not a big narrative branching narrative guy – a lot of people think that my games have these crazy branching narratives and it’s really not true.
I tell completely linear stories. What changes is how you get from plot point to plot point. Every player gets to drive the plot the way they want to, but if a player’s going to get the same essential plot, it won’t require a lot of structural change to add voices, it just requires a lot more voice recording.
The localisation people probably hate me, too, because we had to translate it into so many languages. We started with 24 different languages.
Well, I suppose with a property like Mickey you have to cater to a huge audience and don’t really have the luxury of rolling out one market at a time?
Right, and every territory and country has its own actors who play those characters, so when you hear Mickey in films, or cartoons, or in a game (now), it’s Mickey. And when you hear Donald, it’s Donald.
There is just one actor who is allowed to play each part. So, we had to get our script done, translate it into all of those languages, get the actors who do those characters into the studio, and hope they were all actually available – fingers crossed.
It was an amazing logistical nightmare, frankly, and we pulled it off.
What is the appeal, for you, in pushing for emergent gameplay in a title aimed at kids like Epic Mickey 2?
The reason is that for me, just last week I saw a tester discover how to do something in Disney Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two that is completely impossible. The designer who built this particular problem space built in a particular way, and a player figured out how to do something the creator didn’t know was possible.
In Deux Ex and System Shock that happened all the time. For me, when I know I’ve succeeded at making the ultimate game experience is when players how to do things which for other developers are bugs. Do something that the team didn’t know how to do and have it work and not break the game, and it's a success.
The first time I ever saw that happen outside of playing Dungeons and Dragons (where you’ve got human beings sitting around telling a story together and changing the story on the fly based on what everyone is doing) was on Ultima VI...
There was a puzzle where you had to have the telekinesis spell to flip a level which was on the other side of a wall. I watched one of the testers tell Sherry the mouse (who was in his party) go under the columns to the lever and flip it, which was completely unplanned, but we’d simulated the world deeply enough that it worked. It was a total accident.
At that moment, I said ‘I’m going to do that on purpose for the rest of my life!’
So do you think there’s a point somewhere on that storytelling versus gameplay scale which exemplifies the self-directed virtues of gaming while at the same time telling the best story possible? Is there a sweet spot?
Yes, absolutely. There is a sweet spot and I hope every game that I work on and every team that I work with gets closer and closer to finding it (but that’d for you to say, not me).
One of the interesting things about my games is that I’ve always wanted to empower players to tell their own stories using my tools (that boring story to re-tell which is magic to experience), I’ve always felt that my games are intellectually challenging. At least, the way I feel when I play them is intellectually challenged.
They’re kind of Spock-like or Data-like emotion-free zones. They’re very sort of cerebral, and I don’t mean that in any bragging sense – they’re not as emotionally compelling as a Half Life, Uncharted or Heavy Rain. That's because games that control the narrative that much can use narrative techniques that are thousands of years old. And we understand how to tell a cinematic story, I mean we’ve been making movies for 130 years.
With Disney Epic Mickey (the first game), and I’m not saying anybody should like it or that it was a great game – everyone can decide that for themselves - I’ve gotten more and more heartfelt fan mail about that game than I have about anything else.
Since I started working on Underworld and System Shock, I’ve been wondering if there’s some way to marry the emotional content in a narrative-driven type of game and the kind of stuff that I like to do.
With the first Mickey game, I think we got close. People were telling me that (and I’m serious) that the game changed their lives, that they felt like thirty years from now, they were going to be describing this game the way I described the first movie I ever saw.
So I feel like maybe we moved a little bit closer to the sweet spot. But the real answer to your question is that if I knew how to do it better, I’d do it better.
What is it going to take to get narratives closer to that point?
Somewhere out there, there’s someone (maybe some guy like Notch, who no one’s ever heard of), who’s going to do something no one ever imagined and change the world.
I’m counting on that.
I’m counting on someone reading this and saying ‘Oh, that old fart, he’s been making games 30 years, I’m gonna kill him, I’m gonna destroy that guy’ (not literally of course).
That was sort of my thing when I started making games. I looked at the guys who came before me and said ‘Those guys are clueless, I’m gonna show them what this interactivity stuff is all about’ and now I’m the old guy. I’m the guy who someone out there has to show how to do it better, then I’ve gotta go. Drive me out of business and make games that I want to play! I’m all for it.
I suppose that kind of change relies to an extent on the arrogance of youth.
Absolutely. Although, while I am pretty old, I’m pretty arrogant too. So maybe I’ve still got a couple of gems in me yet.
Part 3, where Warren discussed open worlds and his ideal game, will be published tomorrow.
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