GDC: The Future of Story In Game Design
In this conflict-filled panel on the future place of stories within game design and (therefore) the place of writers in development teams, Deborah Todd tried to keep a group of developers, including the ever outspoken Denis Dyack (Silicon Knights) and Matthew Karch (Saber 3D) from turning their verbal sparring on the importance of story into physical.
Karch opened humbly with “I’m not an icon,” motioning to the rest of the panel including Matt Costello (Polar Production and The 7th Guest) and Tim Willits (id Software), “but I’m pleased to be here.”
He quickly, however, began the confict, stating boldly, “I think story should serve the gameplay, and not the other way.”
Dyack quickly countered: “Games are the eighth art form: the glue is interactivity, and that aspect is something that makes our industry unique and there’s a huge misconception at this industry is that gameplay is everything. These people are going to be mistaken.”
“And as this industry matures content and story, as it did in the 30s and 40s with cinema, will become dominant,” he finished forcefully.
Costello agreed: “Games have not developed in the same way but I could not agree more strongly that they have to.”
Willits felt the differences between the industries were to big: “Working with a designer and a team is very different from the way you make a movie. Movies are a consistent process compared to how dynamic game creation is.”
When it came to stories in games, he felt that while the processes would always be different, “the key is starting early.”
Karch agreed: “I agree it’s very important to get a writer involved at the start of the process, we learned that on Timeshift. But in the shooter genre, which I’m in, I don’t think anyone really cares about the story. I don’t think in some genres it’s especially important.”
Dyack couldn’t agree: “In 5 to 10 years I don’t think there’s going to be a shooter genre. It’s going to be more literary: there will be horror, drama … a shooter would just be ‘action’.”
To a chorus of laughs, Willits quipped, “You know, we invented the first person shooter,” but felt that he’d “like to see the genres (FPS, RPG) go away. Having labels for games, I think, is putting too many of us into boxes.”
The conversation developed into an argument about Jerry Bruckheimer, with Dyack dismissive of the concept that games should be brain-dead action flicks, while Karch argued “It’s McDonalds, and people like McDonalds.”
Costello insightfully noted that in a big-budget blockbuster, even in the action genre, “They work out that story beat by beat so there are compelling things happening all the time -- right down to the rhythm of the car crashes. So every two or three minutes you’re feeling the pull that tugs you along. Games can do the same thing. I think some do!”
But Karch returned to his feelings that “people don’t play Halo for the story. We can pretend that we want to elevate the art form to Shakespeare-type classics, but…”
Dyack cut him off to mock: “Matt is asking everyone if they’d like it ‘supersized’.”
Karch wouldn’t let go, however, and took on Half Life 2: “a story driven game where during the lovely interactive cutscenes you can walk around and hump the wall: how realistic is that?”
Dyack spotted what he felt was a flaw in the argument: “you’re confusing the execution of content delivery with story. ‘aliens coming through a portal’ is not earth shattering to me.”
Willits, in what was assumed by some in the audience as a shot at Dyack, said: “Some of these game designers take themselves so seriously: but where are the sales?”
Dyack passed on a message: “Bioshock and Mass Effect say hi. You can have deep stories or you can have bubblegum -“
“I’ll take bubblegum” finished Karch.
Costello was more diplomatic. “I would argue that Doom has a story: there are monsters and they want to kill you. That is extremely compelling”
The argument returned to a discussion of when the writer should begin to be involved, with Todd mentioning a time when she met a developer who told her they were just ready to hire a writer: “we just finished programming yesterday.”
Mary DeMarle, the narrative designer at Eidos Montreal felt that the writer must be “embedded in the production team.”
Costello re-entered the conversation to return to some more comparisons with the film industry, imagining a Hollywood conference where a panel argued who was king of the film making process: the script writers? The set designers? The gaffers?
“It’s all part of what we do. They’re something that should come together and mesh together as one new medium. But here’s the argument that I would make about against having a writer on staff. If you want to get a game based on horror, you want a writer that knows the beats, but you’re not going to get someone like that full time,” and queried why you would want that, if your next game wasn’t horror based?
Dyack asked: “But how many people have great experience in writing horror for video games?”
In conclusion, the panel presented their own final thoughts individually, with Willits, in particular, noting one of the points that they returned throughout the panel: that it was imperative that the “writer be involved in the process as early as possible.”