At the 'Once Upon a Time… Storytelling in Games Today' panel at this year's Penny Arcade Expo,
Sam & Max developer Dave Grossman, former LucasArts creator Ron Gilbert and Nate Fox from Sucker Punch (Sly Cooper) talked at length about linearity, choice, death, and tragedy in modern games.
Chatterbox Radio's Alon Waisman moderated the panel, which saw Gilbert start by saying that "a lot of the issues with design in adventure and story games were much more creative issues than design."
"For one thing, he said, "Voice is something I didn’t have doing Monkey Island 1 and 2 that I wish I had. Certainly moving adventure games into 3D, there’s stuff you could do with that, but I don’t think that necessarily makers a better adventure game."
Grossman agreed, saying that with the latest Sam & Max games "We’re doing things in 3D, and that allows us to do more things with the camera and all, but I don’t think it really makes a big difference."
He added, "The Sims I find really interesting as a platform on which story can be laid and from which story emerges on its own. I got addicted to that game for a while and liked to put them in a room and have them bounce off of each other for a while, and that was kind of cool. They’d get into fist fights and things, and at one point two characters stayed and made up, and I felt I learned something about humanity there."
Fox disagreed, saying "The Sims drive me crazy. I go nuts in The Sims or Animal Crossing. I need a goal or something. Simply letting people exist… it’s just not fun for me."
Grossman asked Fox, "What about The Sims with a goal?"
"Maybe," Fox admitted, "I think that’d help out. The charm of The Sims working together is that it feels like a true emotional situation – sometimes it seems as though it’s at odds, and if you watch them burn a meal you feel kind of bad."
Letting Users Create
Waisman asked the panel their thoughts on user created content, to which Gilbert answered, "Yeah, I do that a lot, but I don’t think it’s that important. I mean I hook up with my friends after World of Warcraft and tell stories with my friends after, but I’ve played hundreds of hours of WoW and I have maybe an hour of good stories. It’s kind of like baseball – every once in a while there’s a really interesting drama between a pitcher and a catcher or something, but then there are a hundred other really boring baseball games."
Grossman added, "I think a story game is inherently a collaboration between the designer and the audience… I’m not sure where to go with that, but I think in that respect user created content is really interesting."
What About The Children?
Waisman asked if there were narrative differences in kids games. Gilbert, who left LucasArts to found children's game company Humongous Entertainment and worked on Putt-Putt, Freddi Fish, and Pajama Sam games, said, "I think it was the simplicity of it. Spending a year, year and a half on a game is a lot of work. I think a lot of the allure was just not having to spend so much time."
"As I started doing them design was pretty interesting," he continued, "because they had to be simple, but also had to be very involving from an immediate design standpoint. You had to really boil it down to what was important, and it really helped me as a game designer I think."
Fox added, "Sly Cooper is not for adults! I’d like to think they buy it, but it’s really for kids. I think it’s because kids have more fun than adults."
And Grossman added, "kids haven’t been crushed by the world, so they’re better able to accept what’s in front of them. I think when you’re a kid everything is fascinating, so you’re like WOW, this is great! ...for about half an hour."
Waisman asked Grossman to explain the resurgence of Telltale and the Sam & Max games, to which he replied, "The Sam & Max fans are perverse and obsessed and made protests when the first Sam & Max sequel was canceled. We also try to make it not just for the hardcore gamer but also the grandma of the hardcore gamer."
Making Linear Un-Linear
The audience then chimed in with their own questions with one asking the panel if there were any tricks to making adventure games seem less linear.
Grossman said, "Yeah, it’s true, an adventure game is more narrative driven than something like Oblivion – I guess the way we make it not be a straight tunnel is by not making it a straight tunnel. There are things you have to do, but they’re not organized by causality. You’re like, this is the thing I want to do, and there are some other things I’m going to do to get there, and the order of that is determined by me, so I don’t see the walls of the tunnel while that’s going on."
Another member offered that many recent games that have been lauded for their stories have also had "great thematic elements," such as Bioshock and Final Fantasy X.
Grossman responded, "Well, story isn’t just about dialogue and narrative, right – I mean really you want to learn something about the human experience. I think that if I weren’t doing adventure games I wouldn’t think of myself as a narrator, but rather as the hand of fate. I’m going to kind of let you run around and do what you want and everything. Just to let the player go around and do what they want – they can feel like it’s the good hand of fate or the bad hand of fate, but not that they’re completely being controlled."
Gilbert added, "I think the other element is to make the narrative so compelling that it’s really the thing people want to do. I call it the illusion of creativity, so that people think they’re making their own choices, but really just those choices are really compelling."
Said Fox, "I’m not a big pusher of story - I think that everything should be in gameplay and design. You can’t waste time (with story), all the background in Bioshock is totally necessary, with the vibe and the sense of grounding. But the story is just boy meets girl. It should all be formed around the concept and the vibe."
Asked about "bringing about moments in games," Grossman said, "If we give you that kind of an earth shattering choice that takes you down two different paths, we’ve basically given you two different games and we only get paid for one."
Said Gilbert, "I did a game called Moop and Dreadly and just at the end you had the chance to make a big choice. But I think if we want to get what you’re talking about, like a true moral choice in the middle, the game itself has to a lot of the work there."
"I think that’s one area where technology will help a lot," he continued, "and you’re talking about Star Trek-like holodek technology. If you have that, you can do more of that kind of thing. Everything we do now has to be done by hand now, which makes it hard to make that sort of life changing branch."
Offered Fox, "Knights Of The Old Republic did a pretty good job of that – it’s non trivial to get the weapons and things by the actions you took, so the outcome was meaningful. No matter what, they didn’t have to double design the game going through, they only had to double design the dialogue. I thought Deus Ex was pretty good though, and was much more successful than Fable."
But Is It Art?
Asked about the games in art debate, Grossman said "I agree that like any other media, games can be art, but most of them aren’t. I’m not sure what we’ve got."
Gilbert added, "I think the only thing interactive could give, which again is really beyond our capabilities, is really allowing us to explore. Finding out about motivations of people and things like that. But I think that with games as art, I think the particular critic you’re talking about is just wrong. It’s not because we have no narrative, I think it’s just about what you pull out of the media, and there’s a lot to get there, so it’s just wrong."
Said Fox, "Shadow of the Colossus was just beautiful. I think that games giving you something you can’t get anywhere else is totally crystallized in the game Civilization. I don’t know if any of you are artists, but you’re totally immersed in the making of things if you play Civ. You’re totally engrossed and lose track of time. Art is totally involving like that."
Tragedy And Death
Asked about death in games, Gilbert said "I think the death of the protagonist is just one of those things where the belief has to be suspended. I think in games people just don’t think about that. You don’t want to kill people to introduce frustration, I think death will just be one of those languages of our medium that people just don’t think about."
Grossman said that "interruption of the narrative is much more important to me than anything else. I don’t like what happens when you have to restore from a saved game. I try to avoid it."
Waisman noted that games were generally always successful for the protagonist and wondered if there was room for tragedy.
Said Gilbert, "It doesn’t always have to happen to the protagonist, it can be about another character you care about. It’d probably be around the character."
Grossman offered that "This happened to us with Bone and the Great Cow Race. It’s spelled out in the book that your character must lose the cow race at the end. How do we make it important to play when you have to lose? We made it that it was important to survive during it, not so much to win."
Another member asked if true narrative was even possible in games, and if designers should even be worried about novel-like narrative, to which Gilbert said "I think they’re really good places to start. I think that if we look back at early interactive narratives we’ll think they’re really primitive, but I think we’re still in the borrowing phases, and eventually we’ll form our own language. It’s going to be a slow process and it’s not going to happen overnight."
Grossman added, "It might be worth stepping back and asking why you want to do narrative in games in the first place – do you want to say something about the human condition? Maybe you need to do something different, other than textual narrative, things more in pacing and context that you need to tell a story."
Let The AI Talk
Finally, a questioner asked if the ultimate storytelling goal would be to "completely throw agency at the player."
Warned Gilbert, "I’d worry a lot about AI developing the plot. I think good story is about the human experience, and computers don’t have any of that. I think what’s interesting about story is putting the human experience into it. I think you need that human feedback loop in there to make it important."
Said Fox, "I would totally love to make that game, where the player can do whatever they want. Like in GTA if you put a lot of cars in front of the escape route, you're really proud of yourself. If a general was giving you a speech and you could just plug him in the face and the game could keep going, if there were some technology that could allow that, holy smokes, that would be amazing. The role then of the writer would be to keep everything grounded and interesting."