Panel: Games and Storytelling
Wednesday, 4:00 to 5:30 p.m., 2010-2-17
Memorial Hall, UNC-CH, CHAT festival
Below are my notes from a panel discussion at the CHAT festival at UNC, mostly by guys with commercial video game credentials.
Intro by Joyce Director w/ IAH and Communication Studies
Victoria Szabo (moderator) (S), assistant research professor of visual studies and new media and program director Information Science + Information Studies Duke University. Where is the story in the game?
Richard Dansky, (D) Central Clancy Writer for Ubisoft and manager of design for Red Storm Entertainment.
14 years game experience, tabletop and computer. Have you ever told a story about playing a game? Did you say I or my character? Theres a player-shaped hole in games. We give you tools and boundaries for telling your own story. Give you the building blocks, but thats a hell of a job. Requires patience and collaboration in ways that other story formats dont. Make the player feel like a hero, not a movie with occasional button presses. What can games do that other media cant.
David Ellis, (E) senior game designer, Vicious Cycle. Designing since 1998
Im often saddled with writing a narrative that already exists, i.e. television show rewrite. Old model of games: choose your own adventure (like Wing Commander). Moving in the direction of what D described is what we all want to do. World of Warcraft is collaboratively written by your team.
TJ Fixman, (F) writer, Insomniac Games (Burbank, Calif.)
Games have matured since all you had was a little bit of context, e.g. Nintendo Kung Fu fighter has a girlfriend and has to fight through all the levels to get to her.
Jon Paquette, (P) writer, Insomniac Games (Burbank, Calif.)
Story = player experience. No way for us to tell a story, we create gameplay mechanics. Work collaboratively to develop mechanics. Experience is about feeling of I did this. Takes 50-100 people over 2 years to make big games. Fan of having writers on staff. They need to be there.
Steven Hockensmith, (H) author (Bay Area, Calif.). Been in the video game industry for 5 minutes = does books!
Response to P - where are writers on the power hierarchy of the game industry? I dont have to collaborate with anybody! Maybe just my editor. And I like that purity and simplicity. Old saying: TV is a writers medium, film is a directors medium. Im the dinosaur representative. Theres a reason theres not that many Choose Your Own Adventure books: its not very exciting. Books will never go away, there will always be a thirst for closed-ending stories where you are NOT in control. What if you saved Juliet? Is WoW really a story? When does it cross over?
F: Coming up with a story is much different with games. Gameplay always comes first. Designers and creative director first say: focus on time travel. 18 levels. Here are the mechanics. Then writer and director go off and hash out story. Back and forth with designers until everyone is satisfied. But then production gets involved and a level gets cut because it doesnt work. Process is iterative. Only constant is once its been animated, it stays. For game writers, story has to work 10 or 20 times over the course of production.
P: Closed vs open ended stories. We use 3 act structure, screenwriting techniques, but we leave space for game play. Room for every kind of story.
E: WoW stories are just as real as a vacation story. The simpler the game, theres less of a story. Donkey Kong isnt much of a story (climbed a building then a monkey took my girlfriend away). Its 8 hours of these peoples lives.
D: Difference between story and literature. Used to be multiple versions of Romeo and Juliet - texts are mutable.
H: Gauge your levels of ambition - where can story go. Trying to pull people along by something in peoples humanity. Comparisons to movie making which aims for an emotional response.
E: Its getting to the point where emotion is bigger in games. 1st person game can be more or less immersive depending on the setting. Most games with stories are more or less linear, but games: player has to work to make the story happen. Players get so drawn in to environment that they start looking for little tidbits in the narrative. You can blaze through a game and just shoot everything up, or you can delve into elements in the environment that flesh out the story and flesh out the backstory, e.g. Bioshock.
P: Some games are good at emotion-making. Havent yet played a game that made me cry (that was intended to make me cry!). We have a ways to go before games get to that emotion-producing capacity. Desire to explore is present. Greed is a motivator. Players care about their characters. Were not good at manipulating the core human emotions in the same way, but we will get there.
F: Theres a shift, people care more about the characters now than in the past. Quality of immersion is increasing, players live through their characters. Less cut scenes and cinematics. Less you have to put down the controller, the better. Bioshock is a good example.
E: Uncharted proves that with a good cut scene, you can still hold the player.
D: Weve been doing emotion in games forever. FLoyd the Robot from 80s text adventure. But always an unfair comparison of the entire industry to the the greatest works in other media. Unfair dichotomy. Writers: the word is the word is the word. Same toolset that Dickens had. Game designers have ever changing palette of tools (consoles, tech). Tendency to overlook amazing things that have already happened. Classic games are not still around to be played like picking up A Tale of Two Cities.
P: Often have to ask How are we going to sell this?, e.g. games often have to have something new, not just better stories. Audience has bought into the desire for new content, getting in the way of making emotionally compelling experiences. Usually have to pick between tech or story.
E: Text adventures were cool because they were all writing. You can only do so much.
F: We dont steer the ship, its collaborative. Stories may not be in sync with tech considerations. Game has to come first and player has to understand whats happening at all times. Then usability tests. Sometimes you have to write in the most boring way to ensure the player gets it.
John McGowan Question: Text being mutable. How much audience testing will there be for texts. Hollywood films are test-marketed. Are games market tested and then changed? Once you move to digital forms of publication, will that happen with books? Genre relationship between games and novels. Emotional connection with games is because theyre difficult. Hard to play basketball game, also just trying to master something. You can bond. Question for H: strikes me that games are hooked onto contemporary narratives, or hooked to medieval quests. Why not 19th century novels, all of which are movies or TV shows?
D: Dickens shootouts werent very detailed!
H: Im a history buff. Movie Gladiator came out. Aha, Hollywood has found a worthy use of CGI. Astounding historical epics. Im the wrong kind of geek. Tyranny of Tolkein and Star Wars.
S: Lots of games have stuff in common with Victorian novels, but we dont think about it that way. Individual mediums its expressed differently.
E: Driven by marketing department. Pressure to make game more like this other game. Comedy hasnt been explored a lot in games. Licensed games are different, they already have a name behind it.
D: The advantage of classical fantasy is that every knows the story already, you dont have to spend resources explaining, the player can jump right in. That cheating is there to support the game as a whole. That produces subject matter sameness but thats what the audience already knows. Historical ideas: where is the gameplay? Too much to explain to the audience.
E: When a studio is allowed to do something new, innovation happens.
Question (Tracy Boyer): Gaming in journalism, retention rates are higher because of better audience retention. How can we use gaming to elevate journalism and education?
P: Get somebody engaged first so that they can learn - what are the game mechanics to do that? Think about what you want your audience to achieve and then build a compulsive loop around that.
D: Different demands on educational games. Any love for Oregon Trail? Not bleeding edge tech, but could focus on attractive game play.
H: Leaves in a huff! (Not really).
Question (from Michael Young, who researches procedural content generation!): Procedural content generation used for creating art assets. What part of game writing is amenable to automation?
P: We set the context for the team, create the universe. Im on Google Images a lot, researching setting for artist. Part of our job not to get in the way of tech.
E: Procedural story creation is really tough. Moving through life, you can literally do anything. Have to have believable content. Massively open world, single player games eventually start to break down, like Grand THeft Auto 4. Eventually I just want to slog through it and get it done. Big hurdle.
D: Leopard Edge? series does this successfully. New critters create new stories. But not stopping to talk to anyone. Dont know where it goes from there.
Question: Failure in games is unique to the medium. How do you use that as storytellers to encourage the gamer to continue. Balance between too hard and easy. Core to games. What devices in storytelling dont work like they would in other media?
P: We do a lot of testing to make sure game is balanced. There are games that are released that havent been tested properly, and players might give up because theyre too hard. Balance is difficult to achieve.
F: Some studios do automatic act tuning, so it doesnt become too frustrating. They want you just challenged enough.
D: The coin-op model: die quickly so you put another quarter in. Getting away from that. Death used to be a way to get more quarters.
Q: What about games that have interactivity like SIMS where people have hacked and ported it. How do you leverage that the player can do anything, how does that affect storytelling?
F: No games where you can do everything. But you can do testing to figure out what player expectations are. You want a loose narrative.
D: We want you to do the things you can, and not want to do the things you cant. Its our job to make you never think completely outside the box.
F: Mods are like the wild west. Then its outside the intended player experience.
P: Thats a genre of games, like Spore. Let me figure out what I can make.
E: SIMS is like giving you a sandbox and a bunch of tools, like an elaborate doll house. Rock band has career mode, but its just all about pretending youre a rock star. More about feeling like a rock star.
Question: What have you always wanted to make, but never had the resources to?
E: Game version of 70s disaster movie to get out of a horrible disaster.
D: Civil war game, 1st person re-loader.
F: Alien invasion where you are the invader. The opposite of what people expect.
P: Lot of things I wish I worked on. Games I want to make: unique and can come back to again and again. Half Life does it well.
Question: Story from scratch vs. shoehorning story into a game without going into the realm of the ridiculous?
E: Limitations of time
F: Back and forth of pitch meetings. Only 40-50 minutes of cinematic in a game. Crazy things happen during production.
S: What could people learn in games?
F: Teach swordfighting. Console can greet you.
Question: Is it impossible to have documentary games, where you dont just play a generic civil war battle, but a specific civil war battle? Where you leave the game with a thorough understanding of the historical events?
D: Simulations have been doing it for years. But if its a game you have to be able to affect the outcome.
P: Looked at modern day battle in Afghanistan. But if we switched to different characters, you would feel like you understood the battle from different points of view.
Question (Libby): mentions games4learning initiative at UNC
S: Last statements? Wheres it going?
P: Exponential growth, but its about the people who participate. Responsibility to provide good entertainment.
F: Lets make it a valid form of art. Moving to an area where it gets the same protection as other media. Average gamer is in the late 30s. But still a perception that its for 10 year olds.
E: Were about to go through some growing pains to understand who it is that plays games. Have to start thinking more broadly about your audience.
D: Everybody plays games, everyone always has. What we provide is new ways and new places to play them. Take it to your cell phone, for instance